Wherein Istafinde and her maidens visit the fiery halls of Ancala of the Flame.
Three Maiar were waiting to receive us at the foot of the stair leading to the first terrace. They wore the seeming of a man and two women, all three tall beyond the measure of Elves with long fiery red hair mingling with flowing garments of scarlet and orange and gold that rustled softly and shifted in hue as if the Maiar were garbed in living flame. It was hard to look at their faces, which seemed to waver slightly, like a furnace at full heat, and their eyes burned too bright for Elven eyes to bear.
The man wore a mantle of hot, bright white over his firery draperies, and held a spear of blue-white flame in his right hand. This must be Makarion, herald and champion of Ancala. “Back again so soon, Little One?” he asked our Princess, “and with companions too.”
“Just a passing visit,” she answered, “we are on our way to the Halls of Mandos on an errand for the King.”
One of the Maiar women shuddered. “Poor Istafinde! You will find a warmer welcome here,” her attention shifted to the maidens clumped behind the Princess and her voice took on a teasing note; “perhaps a trifle over warm for some.”
“I think I speak for us all, Sari, when I say we much prefer your hospitality to Mandos’.” Findorie replied, and the others nodded emphatic agreement.
It was only the Princess and her maidens who followed the three Maiar up to the hall. Moritarno and Talagant had stopped in Valimar to visit their own patrons, and the serving men were happy to remain with the horses on the green plain. We climbed past terraces wrought of colored stone and planted with trees and flowers that glittered like gold because they were made of many hued gold; red and rose and green and white as well as all shades of yellow. And these strange gardens were both lit and heated by fountains and cascades and pools and channels of Laurelin’s fiery light.
It was very warm, a stray fold of my veil clung to my damp cheek and my gown hung hot and heavy on my body. At last we arrived at the porch before Culullin’s great hall. Massive pillars of red-gold, etched with coiling flames, upheld the golden roof. The great center doors and flanking side doors stood open and flames leaped high in the tall bronze braziers set between them.
The Lady Ancala was there to meet us, attended by three of her handmaidens. She was even taller than they, half again the Princess’s height, with hair the red-gold of flames in Laurelin's full light flowing over the near blinding whiteness of her gown. Her bare arms were adorned with rings of massy gold glittering with stones of adamant and topaz, sapphire and ruby.
It was impossible to look directly at her for long, so bright was she. My already dazzled eyes stung and watered and I quickly glanced aside, but not before I saw my Lady run to her as a child runs to a favorite aunt.
“Your eyes will become accustomed in time.” Ammalien whispered to me. “But don’t look too steadily at any of them, especially Ancala.
We followed the Valier and my Princess into the hall and I gasped then choked on the searing air. The interior of Culullin was like one Prince Feanaro’s forges. Through the wavering heat I saw a double row of massive red-golden columns upholding a yellow golden ceiling ablaze with jewels. Elf-high flames burned in the fire bed running nearly the length of the floor, and in the braziers set between doors and window casements in the side aisles. My head swam with the heat and I clutched at Ammalien’s arm, though she seemed little more stable than I.
“You and your girls must get out of those heavy clothes before you smother.” Ancala told Istafinde. “Fortunately we have not yet drained the tank in your room. By the time you come back I will have had some of these flames doused.”
A blessed coolness blew through the door as the Princess opened it and we stumbled eagerly after her into a vaulted chamber of pale golden stone, or perhaps it was white stone tinted gold by the light for it stood open to a terrace overlooking Ancala’s gardens. The cool air came from a knee high stone tank in the center of the room.
Istafinde pulled the long veil from her hair then shed gown and kirtle and left them in a disordered heap as she headed for the tank, and we were quick to follow. But when I saw it held not water but the silvery liquid light of Telperion I hesitated. The other girls did not. Sitting or kneeling on the low, wide rim of the tank they scooped the radiant stuff up in their hands and splashed it over face and breast. Across the tank Istafinde dipped her long black hair in it then flung it back, streaming with silvery beadlets of light, to smile at me.
“Go ahead, Davne, that’s what it‘s here for.”
It seemed faintly blasphemous, but timidly I obeyed, laving face and upper body like the others. The light was cold and wet but didn’t feel at all like water. It had a slightly viscous quality, like fine oil, and it tingled on the skin.
Dorme handed me a golden dipper. I looked at it blankly and she laughed. “To drink with, silly!” She scooped up a cupful, took a sip then handed it to me. “Go ahead.”
I took a small, cautious sip, and then a much larger one eagerly emptying the dipper. It was like sweet icy wine and spread a welcome coolness through me from head to toe.
Herinke tapped my shoulder. “My turn.” I gave the dipper to her and looked around to see what I should do next.
Aldariel and Quessetal were on their knees pulling lengths of diaphanous flame orange silk from a pair of long stone chests. These proved to be loose gowns which we put on, wet as we were. Istafinde smiled at my dubious expression.
“Never fear, we’ll dry quickly enough upstairs.” she smoothed back her dripping hair with both hands and looked around. “Ready? Then let‘s go.”
The fire bed in the hall had been banked down to glowing coals, most of the braziers put out and the adamantine casements thrown open to admit warm breezes from the garden. It was still very hot but bearable, fortified as we were within and without by cooling draughts of Telperion‘s dews, and clad in nothing more than a drift of gauze and sandals to protect our feet from the scorching floors.
There were long tables on either side of the fire bed, and a third, shorter one on the dais at the head of the hall. These were spread with scarlet cloths, worked with gold, and laid with heavy golden plate glittering with jewels. Bright fire spirits with hair and robes of flame were already seated at the tables, apparently waiting for their guests.
Istafinde’s place was at the high table exactly opposite Ancala, and flanked by her maidens, six to a side. Findorie was seated on her right and I had been given the place on her left, probably because I was new. Ancala’s handmaidens, including the two who had come to greet us, sat on her left hand, and Makarion on her right, across from me, with several other male Maiar seated below him. After one quick look I kept my eyes on my plate, which was made of many colors of gold, intermingled in a strange, wavering pattern, and set with jewels of adamant, ruby, sapphire and beryl.
Then other Maiar brought platters loaded with coimas to put on the tables and filled our goblets, which were Maiar not Elf sized, with a pale golden liquor.
“That’s limpe, the drink of the Ainur,” Vanamire whispered on my left. “brewed from the mingled light of the Trees.”
“You have a new maid of honor.” Ancala said to my Lady, catching my attention and killing whatever appetite the heat had left me.
“Yes, this is Davne.” Istafinde answered her, then said to me; “Have you heard the story of how I came to be in Ancala’s service?”
I shook my head. “No, my Lady.” in fact the identity of her patroness had surprised me a great deal. I had never heard of Ancala taking any of the Children into her house.
“As you know it is the custom the Royal House, like many others, to send their children to foster in the Courts of Aule.” my Princess began: “And so Findorie and I became in due time handmaidens of Yavanna. But Nerwen was also among her court and being young and foolish we allowed our enmity to pass all bounds and soon had had all the handmaidens and apprentices divided into two warring camps, turning poor Kementari’s house into a battlefield -”
“It was all Nerwen’s fault.” Findorie grumbled.
“Not all.” said the Princess, and continued: “In the end matters became so bad that Yavanna turned to Varda for advice, and Elentari brought the trouble before the Valar upon their thrones in Mahaxanar.”
“Sitting in solemn council over a schoolgirl quarrel.” Ancala snorted, surprising me into looking at her. She seemed both amused and disgusted.
“The Valar have taken a special interest in our family ever since the difficulty with my grandmother.” the Princess explained. “Of course all Nerwen and I really needed was a firm hand - which my Lady here decided to provide.”
“Somebody had to, and it was clear my noble peers hadn’t the least idea what to do about a pair of malicious little girls.” Ancala said crisply.
“But you certainly did.” Istafinde said ruefully. “Nerwen and I were far to frightened to make any trouble here, and kept too busy at our separate tasks to quarrel. At first the heat was almost unbearable - for my Lady showed us none of the consideration she now shows to her guests! But every few days she sent us to Lisinen‘s house in the lily lake to recover.” Istafinde smiled at her patroness. “Only after a time I stopped needing to go so often, or wanting to. And finally Nerwen was allowed to stay with Lisinen for good.”
“She had found her true teacher.” said Ancala. “And the two of you are better apart.”
“But you wouldn’t take me, Lady Ancala!” said Findorie, clearly an old grievance.
“Your gifts would have been wasted here.” Ancala answered. “Aule was the teacher you needed - not I.”
“You weren’t a troublemaker,” Istafinde laughed. “I doubt Yavanna and Aule would have been so ready to part with you! And it‘s not as if we never saw each other at all.”
“That’s true.” said Findorie.
After that Istafinde began to talk of high matters concerning the policies of Kings and Valar that I didn’t even try to follow, devoting my attention instead to plate and cup. The coimas was unlike that baked by my mother and aunts, being both crisper and stronger in flavor. The liquor was delicious, though it savored more of mulled spiced wine than the icy sweetness of Telperion’s undiluted dews - but no doubt Laurelin’s rain, unmixed would have been far to hot for Elven palates. It was also very strong and I found myself growing sleepy.
But the sound of Melkor’s name roused me. “I saw him at his teaching when we rode through Valimar.” the Princess was telling Ancala.
The Bright Lady frowned. “You must do everything you can to keep your people from his influence, Istafinde.”
“I know. My father has forbidden all his household and following from having anything to do with Melkor, but I fear not all obey him - including some of his own sons. And my grandfather insists on receiving your elder brother whatever Father or I say. If the Valar have seen fit to give Melkor back his place among them, he tells us, why should the Elves shun his company?”
“The Valar are not always right,” Ancala said grimly, “And even if we were that is no reason for the Children to refuse to use their own judgment.”
“So I have said.” said Istafinde. “But my Lady is it just to fault my grandfather and my people for thinking like children when they have all their lives been coddled like children?”
“Another example of our fallibility,” said Ancala. “The Children are not ours to shelter and spoil. You belong to Eru and were sent into Arda to do his work. We should never have brought you here.”
“That is one mistake at least that my father means to mend.” said the Princess. “Davne has joined my maidens to teach us all the language of the Eastern Elves, or at least what was their language at the time the last ships sailed.”
Ancala’s fire bright eyes turned to me and I hastily looked away. “Good. Feanaro must be seen to prepare himself for the return, to prove to my peers he is in earnest.”
“He is in earnest.” said Istafinde. “As are we all. We want to go home.”
Home. The word struck oddly upon my ear and my limpe addled mind. Valinor was home, not darksome, monster haunted Middle Earth - wasn’t it?”
“Give my greetings to my brother Ulmo, and say to him it is time he visited Valimar again.” Ancala was saying to my Lady when I took notice of the conversation again.
“I will.” Istafinde promised, and rose to her feet. “But now we must go to our rest.”
My feet wavered under me and Vanamire was forced to support me on the walk back to our cool, stone walled chamber. “I’m sorry.” I said to her.
She just smiled. “It’s the limpe. You’ve never had it before have you?”
I shook my head.
“I thought not. We drink it often, whenever we guest with one of the Valar. You’ll become accustomed to it too in time.”
The chamber had only two couches of stone, softened with silks in all hues of red. The Princess took one, and Findorie the other. The rest of us used more silks to make ourselves nests on the long chests, the wide tank rim, or the stone seats that lined the terrace beneath a canopy of golden cloth.
I curled up in one of the seats and fell instantly asleep, for the first time in my life.