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'Season of Hope'
Season of Hope
THE night of the winter solstice in the year 514 of the Exile was one of high seas, howling winds, and snow. This had not deterred Idril and Tuor, who had gone ahead and opened their home in celebration of Yule not only to fellow survivors from Gondolin but also to guests from the Dorian and Falathrim communities of Sirion, most of whom had a tendency to keep mainly to themselves.
The big room downstairs that Tuor laughingly called their Hall had been decorated in the spirit of the occasion. Holly wreaths adorned the walls, and there was an entire tree rather than the accepted Yule log, hung with strings of sparkling crystals, little flower motifs, and apples painted silver and gold to represent sun and moon, The wine was the best they could find, and with the aid of borrowed plate, glassware and kitchen help, Idril produced a meal fit for kings.
Gil-galad was seldom still for long, so after dinner he slipped quietly away from the confusion of voices and harp music to stretch his legs and enjoy a breath of clean, winter air. He walked a short way down the road leading to the harbour, but the warmth created by fire, food and more than one cup of wine soon faded, and the biting wind sent him back to the comparative shelter of the porch where he stood watching his warship pitching and tossing at anchor. He could see there was no chance either he or Círdan would be returning to Balar that night.
He was reaching for the door handle, ready to go back inside, when a faint sound from a corner of the porch stopped him in his tracks. Sirion was as safe as any place in Middle earth besides Balar, but he had been a warrior long enough to take no chances. Every sense alert, he turned carefully to peer into the gloom. After a moment his eye was drawn to a patch of darkness deeper than its surrounds but too small to suggest a threat. He took a few steps towards it and was rewarded with a tiny, frightened gasp. Instinct coupled with a quick mental inventory of the guests fitted a name to the sound and the shape.
"Hello, little Queen, why are you out here in the cold?" He kept his voice casual, calm. Dealing with children often seemed to him rather like managing nervous horses, calling for a similar steadying approach.
A hint of movement answered him, nothing more. Gil-galad took a few more steps forward and then hunkered down. He could see better from here, enough to make out the kneeling form of the frail, fey child who was all that remained as testimony to Lúthien’s great love. "It's wet and cold out here, little Queen," he said. "Why not come back inside where it's warm. Has someone upset you?"
There was a slight motion that might indicate a shake of the head. The wind took that moment to gust a flurry of snowflakes onto the porch, and Gil-galad slanted a glance at the night; it was likely to get worse before it was better. "It's starting to snow again," he told the child conversationally. "I don't recall - did you have snow in Doriath?"
She shook her head again, her long, dark hair sliding forward, and he was reminded of another child, this one on Balar, a survivor of Gondolin. So many motherless children in the world. Too many. "No snow? Well, it's good to look at and to play in when the sun's out and the wind has dropped, but there is no joy in it at night. What’s wrong, are you not enjoying Idril’s Yule?"
"Yule is bad," she said unexpectedly. Her voice fitted her, wispy-light, almost lost on the wind.
Gil-galad sat down on damp stone and drew a knee up, clasping it with his hands. "Elwing, how can Yule be bad?" he asked, mystified.
She jerked at the sound of her name. "I am Queen," she said with brittle sharpness. "You may not call me that. Rûeth says."
Rûeth, a distant kinswoman to Nimloth, had charge of her since the flight from Menegroth. Gil raised an eyebrow. "Well now, I think I can call you by your name," he told her gently. "I am a king in my own right, and that makes us equals." Even if Turgon's brief reign as an absentee overlord had left the Noldor with little more than token allegiance to the new High King.
"Now tell me, little Queen - why is Yule bad in your eyes, when the rest of us celebrate it as a time of hope? The days will grow longer once tonight has passed and soon the summer will return, and in the same way the Enemy’s darkness will eventually give way to the light.” A thought struck him. “This may be new to you, of course, Yule means different things to different people. What we are trying to do here in Sirion is bring all the customs together, make our own festival of remembrance and hope."
While he talked, he stretched his hand out very carefully and began to stroke her hair, keeping his touch light. Just like gentling a horse, yes. He liked horses and spent a fair amount of time with his own, a unexpectedly plain-looking brown stallion named Geb. The child stiffened at the first touch or two, but stayed still. In the dark he could see the glitter of great eyes looking past him into the night like a trapped bird.
"Bad," she whispered after a long pause filled with whistling wind and the associated flapping and banging of a town of temporary structures made from whatever materials came to hand. “The Dark comes and there’s blood. One Handed Maedhros of the Red Hair walks abroad at Yule with his long, bloody sword…”
Gil-galad’s hand continued automatically smoothing her hair while he stared aghast. “Who told you such a thing?” he asked sharply. She flinched and he realised he had raised his voice. Softening it again he went on, “That is a terrible, frightening thing for someone to tell a young maid.”
“He comes, yes he does. He came for Nana. Her hair was all red like his when he was done, red with blood. Her blood came out, blood should stay inside.”
Something knocking at the door of memory finally made its name known. Of course, he thought. The second Kinslaying took place in Menegroth at Yule, eight years ago to the night. A rush of questions presented themselves, and he dealt with the most pressing first. “Elwing, did you see your mother with her hair red with blood, or were you told about it after?” She had been little more than a babe…
“Faelas put her hand on my mouth, said to be quiet. Then he went away and Nana stopped making noises. And then Rûeth took me to the outside and there were horses.”
Gil-galad closed his eyes briefly. He had not known about this, but then the survivors of the slaughter at Doriath liked to keep to themselves; they had learned in a night to distrust all Noldor. From the start Elwing had struck him as a strange, silent child, with eyes too old for her years. Now he understood why. “Who was it called him One Handed Maedhros to you, little Queen? And who spoke of him walking abroad at Yule like some kind of unquiet spirit?”
The wind blew and the winter sea crashed and sighed, filling the night. She was quiet a long while, though she still tolerated his hand on her hair. Eventually she said, “Rûeth knows. Rûeth said I must not wander far from the house again or he will come back. He will come for me…” Her voice trailed off into wordless fear.
Grim-faced he watched whipping tree branches and picked the words he would use when he raised this with Círdan. Or perhaps Celeborn would prove the better choice, being Elu Thingol’s great nephew and her blood kin. Gil-galad was too young and times were too dark for thoughts of marriage and babies, but he knew enough about raising children to be aware you did not tell them horror stories about a creature of nightmare lying in wait in what should be a safe haven.
He forced his anger down firmly in case she should sense it and think it directed at her and said gently, “Come and sit here with me, little Queen. I want to tell you something, a tale to match against Rûeth’s.”
She surprised him by shuffling forward and into his lap, and as he moved to accommodate her he absently noted her frail build, all bones and angles. She was dressed in green and blue, an underskirt and a long tunic embellished with cleverly wrought gold embroidery, but both were ill fitting as though borrowed. The fabric was nowhere near adequate to the weather and she was shivering. She sat very straight on his lap, a little stiff as though unaccustomed to a degree of closeness normal to most children.
“That’s warmer, isn’t it?” he asked, not expecting an answer. “Now. Maedhros is many things, the most polite description being misguided, but he is not some kind of supernatural being who can come and go at will and frighten naughty children. He is elven, as you and I are, the grandson of a great king, and has opposed the Enemy for many, many sun years. What happened in Doriath was a terrible wrong, what happened to your mother was unforgiveable, but he swore an oath to take back the Silmarils, and that is…”
He was interrupted by a harsh intake of breath and a small, cold hand pressed to his lips. “We do not talk about It, we do not name It,” she breathed, looking up at him with something akin to terror on her face. As she spoke, a sideways gust of wind whipped more snow onto the covered porch and she flinched.
Gil-galad removed her hand carefully, raising it to brush his lips to its back, “I am a king, remember? I am allowed to talk about secret things like Silmarils. Now – is there some other reason we should stay out here and not go back inside? Because the wind is growing wilder and there is very little shelter out here on the porch.”
“Even the birds are gone,” she said, which he took to be an agreement.
Decision taken, he rose to his feet, still holding her. She was very light, fine-boned as a bird, her face a pale heart shape in the shadow of her hair. “The birds are the wise ones,” he said. “They take shelter before the weather turns ugly. Now come, there’s fire and family inside and it’s time we joined them. There’s no need for you to celebrate Yule if you’d rather not, but perhaps you might like to share in the Noldor part of the ritual?”
She made no attempt to get down, and he could feel her listening. Her people made much of her being the Queen of a lost realm, the last of fabled Lúthien’s line, but he thought there was a danger they forgot the small child beyond the legend. Part mortal and growing swift as mortal children do, she was too thin, too reserved, a child who had seen her mother butchered. He tried to recall her age – ten sun years? Eleven? Without thinking he held her closer, protectively.
“What do the Noldor do?” she asked, just above a whisper. She was looking at him now, not past him, and there was a hint of genuine curiosity this time.
Gil-galad leaned against one of the posts holding up the porch roof with his back to the wind, sheltering her. “My father’s people use this as a time to honour our dead and remember that all elves are one kindred.” So that the horror of Alqualondë should not happen again, although that had not saved Doriath. “Remember all the talking before dinner? We gave thanks to the Valar – the ones you call the Shining Ones – for the blessings of food, shelter and family, and then we lit candles for those close to us who have gone on ahead to the Halls of Silence.”
“I have no family,” she said in a small voice. “Only Rûeth.”
Gil-galad’s jaw twitched but he bit back the words. Tell a royal child there is no one else she can depend upon, keep telling her from a very young age, and reap the rewards once she had grown. It could easily have happened to him, had Círdan been less honourable. “Of course you have family here,” he told her very firmly. “Círdan was kin to Thingol, as was Celeborn, which makes them your cousins. And Galadriel is married to Celeborn, so she is your cousin too. And that makes Idril and me both --- some kind of relative. And that brings in Tuor and Eärendil…”
“I like Eärendil,” she said, brightening. “He likes birds. And boats. He doesn’t like fighting either.”
Eärendil had been seven, old enough for the death throes of Gondolin to be branded on his heart. “Yes, I know. So, do you like the Noldor concept of Yule?”
She thought about it. “I could light a candle for Nana?” she asked finally.
“Yes, you could. For your Adar, too.”
Elwing nodded almost dismissively and Gil-galad wondered how well she recalled her father. Perhaps less even than he did his. “And Lu and Le?”
He blinked and then realised these must be her baby names for her brothers. He assumed the boys were long dead, though he thought it harsh she had been told this. “For your brothers? Yes, you could. It’s about remembering those we love – living or dead.”
“A red one?”
Elf or not, Gil-galad could no longer feel his feet. “If there is a red candle, you may light it,” he agreed. “We can go in now?”
She nodded and settled closer to him, not stiffly as before. “Yes, please. It was too loud and bright and I wanted the dark, but snow is cold.”
Heat and sound hit them as he opened the door. He shut it quickly to keep out the cold and gave his eyes a moment to adapt to the light. There had been very little mixing among the guests and like still sat with like, although the group centred round Tuor was almost a study in diversity. He, Celeborn and Círdan were engaged in a good natured argument, while Eärendil, bright haired and thoughtful, was watching four or five other youngsters waving practice swords and shouting the war cry favoured by Círdan’s raiders.
No one noticed them to begin with, except Idril who was overseeing the clearing of the long table down one side of the hall. She gave him a puzzled look before getting on with her task. Then conversation slowly hushed amongst the Dorian guests, and Rûeth, a stern-faced, imposing woman, left her seat and came hurrying over, her expression outraged. She made as though to take the child from him, words tumbling in their haste to escape. “I had thought her in some corner, it’s always her way, she is shy of strangers. I told the Prince she should stay at home…”
Gil-galad felt Elwing start to tremble and instinct told him it was likely she would have a horror for raised voices or confrontation. He was about to silence the torrent of words when Galadriel’s low voice cut the air like a whip.
She was over near the hearth fire, straight-backed and confident, royal Noldor, Finwe’s granddaughter, and there was no mistaking the authority in her voice. She emphasised her words with a simple gesture towards an unoccupied chair. Rûeth swung round and drew breath to speak, but after one look she faltered, then left her charge in the Noldor king’s care and returned to her seat as bidden.
Gil-galad exchanged glances with his aunt, his great-aunt really, his grandfather’s sister, then put Elwing down and held out his hand to her. She took it obediently. “Over there, see?” he said, pointing to the table beside the tree with its star in honour of Varda, Star Kindler, and its row of bright-burning candles. “Let’s see if there’s a red one. Idril put out a good selection.”
There was no red candle, but they discussed it and agreed orange was close enough. Gil-galad put it in place for her, then pointed to a yellow candle nearby. “This one here? This is for my sister. She left us years ago. And I lit the blue one for my brothers-in-arms who have fallen in battle. It’s all about family, you see? And now your family will have their names spoken here, too.”
“What do I do?”
He took the thin taper used for lighting and put it into her hand, his own over hers. “Light this from the central candle there, which burns for all Elvenkind, and then light yours and say your family’s names.”
“And they will know?” Great eyes fastened on his face. They were grey, he thought, but the pupils were so wide they looked almost black.
Gil-galad looked down at her gravely and nodded. “Yes, little Queen. My word on it. Wherever they are, they will know.”