I am mortal, and if you will cleave to me, Evenstar, then the Twilight you must also renounce.’
And she stood then as still as a white tree, looking into the West, and at last she said: ‘I will cleave to you Dúnadan, and turn from the Twilight.’
The picture on the great east wall of the College Library had a way of catching the evening sunlight that caused it suddenly to look more lifelike than any other portrait the archivist had ever seen, or so he believed whenever he passed it on his way to lock the heavy oak doors that guarded the hall. Not usually given to such fancies, the phenomenon had struck him the first time he had seen it and he had caught himself looking into the sea-grey eyes with wonder. They bore a striking intensity and colour that was rare enough, but there was something more in their gaze that he could not identify and which stayed with him even now, twenty years later, so that he would have given anything to have known the portrait’s subject. But not only had she been dead many years, he sometimes felt relief that he would never have to answer to that stare, for it spoke of a singular beauty and a fierce intellect that he knew to be far above him. So instead he was content to look and dream, and to study the literary legacy left by the last, and, some said, the favourite, daughter of King Elessar, the Renewer. He habitually bade her good evening when he thought no one was looking, before returning to his garret, and had been known to take volumes of her poetry with him, to pore over by candlelight late at night.
That he was a romantic at heart was an ailment that he confessed only to himself, and then only occasionally, for it was his custom to shroud any such failings in academic fervour. In his line of work this was, of course, not difficult. His mother, who had been blessed with more common sense than her son, could have told him that such occupations were often the first refuge of his fellow sufferers, and that the city archives and libraries were full of men and women, all trying to conceal similar incurable complaints.
Nevertheless, the archivist would ensure that he personally supervised any occasion when the picture had to be taken down, for example for cleaning, or when the citadel had to be evacuated at the time of the Fire. He preferred not to dwell on the fact that, when evacuating the building, it was Firiel’s portrait that he had seized first, and not one of the priceless manuscripts or maps.
‘No more than loyalty to Her Royal Highness’s heritage,’ he had quickly justified afterwards.
That particular evening the setting sun was especially fine, like the flare of dreams, he thought, as he passed the hall and did his customary homage to the princess. Her gaze that day was serene as ever, but seemed to hide a hint of amusement.
‘Well may you mock, your majesty,’ he muttered, ‘but I doubt you would want the task I have to prepare for.’ He gave her a slightly rueful smile and hurried to the south wing, where he needed to spend some time before going home that evening. For the next day would see the start of the ten yearly bookbinding, a task of the utmost gravity, and the first that he had personally supervised as chief archivist to the Crown.
It was to consist of overseeing the rebinding and repairing of a quantity of the City Annals, ordered in strict rotation due to the considerable costs involved, and undertaken by only the most skilled and experienced bookbinders, as befitted the most important public documents in Gondor.
The South Reading Room was his favourite part of New College, the illustrious institution founded from a bequest by the Great King and completed in Eldarion’s reign, for it afforded fine views of the Pelennor and the plains beyond the Great River. Even though the carved oak shelves stood from floor to ceiling, it had a light airy feel with those views and furthermore it contained the texts which most commanded his academic attention; the Annals of the later Third Age and the gathered literature of that period. All thirty five fat volumes of the Annals from the year 2475 to 3019 sat majestically in their ornately tooled slipcases, some almost perfect still, principally those of the less eventful periods, of which there appeared to be few, or those less interesting to the historians, of which there were rather more. Others, by contrast, bore covers that would not bear the test of time for much longer, for they related the events leading up to, and including the Ring War, in which Mordor was at last defeated and the Kingship restored, with the accession of Elessar Envinyatar.
There was no need to choose which books required the most work, for all of the selected period were to receive new matching covers and cases of the finest hide available, in a design selected by committee from the chosen bidders, and finally sanctioned by Her Royal Highness in person. But the Archivist needed to note any volumes whose pages were especially loose, or even missing, and to authorise copies of texts that threatened to deteriorate beyond repair.
Gently he began to take from the shelves the most dilapidated tomes, checking for rotten stitching and noting down loose or torn pages in a ledger he had brought for the purpose. As he expected, it was the latest volumes that had received the most wear, in particular the thirty forth and thirty fifth.
The old man was about to close the last edition when he noticed a sheet of paper fall out of the fabric of the intricately tooled case. It appeared to be a letter of some antiquity, hand written on parchment in a fine, flowing script, in Quenya, which surprised him since it was rare to find examples of personal correspondence in that ancient tongue. He held it up, wishing as usual that his sight was not deteriorating, and studied it with care. It was undated and as he read the Elvish letters, his hand began to shake involuntarily, though not this time through the muscle weakness that was beginning to trouble him;
To Tarondor, City Archives
Forgive me if I write nothing plainer, but you will understand when you read the enclosed, regarding my father and mother, and their lives before the War of the Ring. I send these pages to the archive to be a record for those who may one day wish to know more about how the union between my parents came about, perhaps when all my mother’s kin are long since departed from these lands. The record as it stands speaks of the rarity of that union and of the grief, as well as the joy, that was caused on both sides. I wish only to hand down before my own passing what I myself have learned, both from my parents and from one other source, the diary of Halbarad, which as you know is now scarcely legible. That I was permitted access to the diary was known only to my father, and that was on oath of confidence. I charge you with the same oath, that none are made privy to the enclosed who may be hurt by its contents, or who may use them to harm others.
The archivist had little difficulty in reading the script, aged as it was, and his first thought was that he was eavesdropping on a communication not meant for his eyes, until he reminded himself with a start that he after all was the city archivist, albeit not the same man to whom the letter was addressed. He took his eyeglass and studied the letter carefully for a second time. The handwriting was familiar and he had realised at once whose it was. It belonged to Firiel, the daughter of the Library’s great benefactor and the subject of his beloved portrait. He had read her letters and manuscripts on many occasions and knew her to be the most learned and insightful of the children of Elessar. That knowledge made him both confident that the letter was genuine and nervous at the thought of what a member of Gondor’s royal family might wish to remain confidential.
It occurred to him that the letter must have lain, presumably unnoticed, tacked inside the slipcase for at least fifty years. This was in itself not all that remarkable, but the whereabouts of the document with which it appeared to belong was another matter. Every record and every volume in the city archive was meticulously catalogued and ordered chronologically, and none knew its contents better than the chief archivist. That said, nobody, least of all himself, had expected to find this letter, now only come to light because the heavy ornate binding of these most valuable of records was in need of repair for the first time since its manufacture. Then he realised, heart thumping, that if one of his predecessors had intended the letter to remain hidden for, say, a few decades, and then accidentally come to the surface, what better ruse than to conceal it inside the binding itself, which, after the usual reverent thumbings of a few generations of academics, would come apart and reveal its secret voluntarily?
The archivist began to turn over the slipcase in his fingers, examining it carefully. There was no apparent incongruity. Then he instinctively picked up the preceding volume, which happened to cover the very period in question, from T. A. 2970 to 3000. The case was in slightly better condition than its companion, which covered the vital war-years up to the start of the Forth Age. Gently he fingered the fine vellum and was surprised and not a little excited to discover that one side was thicker than the other. He took his pocket-knife and in his haste to test his hypothesis made a short slit along the edge of the case.
Twisting the blade just enough to open the layers of stiffened vellum, he almost cried out in triumph as he saw a number of paper leaves between the layers. An almost childlike delight swept through him as he slit the remainder of the binding and pulled out at least a dozen sheets of the finest paper, each headed with the royal insignia and covered on both sides in Elvish script, betraying Firiel’s small, tidy hand. Some of the lines he recognised immediately, for they came from the Annals themselves, but between them were whole pages in a more informal narrative. Hands trembling he laid the papers on the table and began to read.