It was a land of silver frost and brown-wintered earth, bound by a hard grey sky. And even the whispering sea, the stranger-sea, whose song lulled him to sleep on the one night he had spent at a quiet inn by the coast road, mirrored it.
A land of stars and sea and long silences; and one that remembered still a people who had come and gone, for here and there, he had seen the ancient trees they had planted, the crumbling stone jetties where they launched their long-prowed ships long ago, and the homes they had built. No hearth fires burned there now, and only the terns and gulls rested in the empty house-places from their long journeys over water.
And here, in the Great Hall of the Swan Prince, he could hear it still, the cries of the sea birds circling in the high pale sky. It was a Hall unlike any the Steward’s son had seen before. Smoke-darkened pillars of stone, cunningly fashioned by ancient hands into deep-veined trees soared into boughs that met, looping and twining in leaf and blossom in the high-vaulted ceiling far above. All this was new to him, a man who had lived all his life in a city of stone cradled by mountains, in whose halls marbled columns rose straight and fluted into unembellished domes. It seemed that Dol Amroth was not part of Gondor at all, but of another land, infinitely older, peopled by men and women with fair faces and who spoke a tongue that was at once strange and familiar.
He shivered and bent to warm his hands over the hearth fire.
How odd it was to spend Mettarë with a man he had spoken to no more than twice, with a family he had never seen. But there were stranger ways, perhaps of meeting the woman who would be his wife. Finduilas of Dol Amroth. She had other names, this princess of the sea – Sweet Singer, men called her, Tinúviel, for it was said that in her, the voice of Lúthien was heard again on Middle Earth. He shook his head and smiled a little coldly to himself. It was long since he had learned to distrust the credulity of men.
And what need had he for the charms of women? What need had he of song? In these lightless days, was not war and governance the work of men? Yet Denethor was a faithful son – and he remembered well the deed he had come to do, the gift he had come to make.
Through the tall latticed windows, the faint winter sun shone upon him, a tall, dark man, with a long sword by his side, stern-faced and grey-eyed, standing with uneasiness of a stranger in a strange place. He was no longer young; nor would any call him handsome, for duty and care had long ago stolen away both laughter and beauty. Yet there was wisdom and nobility still in his face, and gentleness unlooked for if one knew where to find it.
He never knew how long she watched him from behind smoke-stained tapestries of ships and swans that hung behind the Prince’s high seat in the Great Hall, nor did he see how her hands trembled a little, then steadied on the Guest Cup she bore.
Soft steps. A chiming of bells in the wind.
Swiftly, he straightened, then checked in surprise. The tapestry lifted and fell. This was no Lord of Dol Amroth, but a young woman, tall and queenly, with the royal gold-work upon her brow. For a long while, he said nothing as she came to him, bearing an ancient cup of yellow amber.
Fair as the spring she was, with the beauty of green corn ripening to gold; and the pale morning light lit the cup she bore till it glowed as though she held the very sun in her hands. And so it was that Denethor, beholding for the first time Finduilas of Dol Amroth, looked at her as though he would never look away again.
“Hail, Lady of Dol Amroth,” he said at last, bowing low.
And as their eyes met, she smiled and said, “Hail my lord Denethor, son of Ecthelion. Peace be with you.”
A low, singer’s voice she had, a voice of earth and honey. Never again would he hear such a voice in all the days of his life, were they as long as all the ages of the earth.
As he took the Guest Cup from her, their fingers met for the space of a single heartbeat before they drew apart. “And upon you, lady of the house.” Laughter came into her eyes and he saw that they were blue and deeply veined – the brilliant hue of a kingfisher’s feather.
He drained the Cup to its dredges – a cool, sweet drink with a flame at the heart of it.
“We did not expect you so early, my lord,” she said, taking the Cup back again into her keeping. “My father and brother are gone hunting in yonder forest for the wild boar that runs in winter, else you should find them here to bid you welcome. Seldom it is that the courtesy of Dol Amroth is found so lacking; nor is it often that our Hall is thus cold and silent, for as you see, my father seems to have taken half the household with him. For that we beg your indulgence.”
He found himself smiling, a little unwillingly. “Nay, my lady. The fault is my own that I am come a day early. My father sends his greetings and regrets that he comes not to share in your festivities. A journey for a man of his years is no easy thing, and so I come in his stead.”
“Aye, we shall miss his company at Mettarë tomorrow,” she said softly. “May the Valar keep him. But come now, my lord, I will not have it said that any guest was left cold and weary in my father’s Hall. Lalaith has built up the fire, and you shall have hot wine and honey-cakes in the house-place.”
“I should like that of all things, lady,” he answered, love and laughter in his eyes.
* * *
She was the fair one in a dark family, a goldfinch among nightingales. There was the stripling, Imrahil who would one day be Prince in his father’s place – tall and fierce and full of laughter; and the grey-bearded Lord of Dol Amroth himself, solemn and blue-eyed as his daughter. There was a sister too, who had married in the summer and gone to a hearth and home of her own; and of the Princess their mother, no one spoke at all. Yet there was no need, for all men saw the empty place set beside the Lord at the high table, as it had been for many years past. Mettarë, as it was here and in the White City, was the feast of the dead.
They stood together, candles in hand, all four of them under the dark winter sky, the cold faint stars far above. And Denethor saw, all along the long strand that men once called Edhellond, a multitude of lights – the people of Dol Amroth in their festival best, each bearing a glim or a candle. Muted voices, a child’s stifled laughter borne on wind, came to him over the sound of the whispering sea. So, these were the ancient ways that men had forgotten in these shadowed days – and for the first time in a long while, hope kindled in his heart.
Finduilas. How lovely she was, robed in a mantle of fine fur, blue winter anemones bound in her hair. “We light our bonfire by the sea, so that the spirits of those who would return from beyond the circles of the world should find their way home again. Here,” she said, “we celebrate Mettarë in the old way, after the fashion of the Eldar. First, the Kindling of the Lights, and then the Giant’s Dance. Thus do we bid farewell to the old year and welcome the new.” And seeing the puzzlement in his face, she paused, her eyes dancing with laughter, “It is strange to you, is it not?”
“Yes,” he smiled. “We set the feast-places for the dead and light our candles, but we do not dance, as you do. Tell me, my lady, why do you call it the Giant’s Dance?”
“Bide still my lord, and you shall see it in a while. It is time to put out the lights.”
All about him, the lights dimmed and went out, and the voices died away into silence, and he heard only sea’s endless song. Glimmering under the starlit waters, were the remains of the old harbour, ancient pillars and statues fashioned by craftsmen who had sailed the straight road to the Uttermost West long ago. And the silvered surf came crashing upon them, day after day, year after year, wearing away into smooth whiteness, the features of a beloved face, the carved relief of a deer in flight.
Silence for the old year.
Seven times the waves swept to shore and back again to the fathomless deeps.
And then, the Prince spoke into the silence, "On this night, I mark your passing, through the sunset beyond the circles of the world till you come again. I mark also the passing of all who have gone before and all who will go after. O Elbereth Gilthoniel, Kindler of Stars, teach me to know that in the time of the greatest darkness there is a greater gift: Light."
Slowly, a tongue of flame grew between his cupped hands, wavering a little in the wind, before it sprang up again to burn steadily from its wick. And with it, the Prince lit the great bonfire. With a roar of crimson sparks and flame it kindled, sweeping up into the night so that the faces of those gathered round were warmed to red and gold.
A great cheer rose in the night, like the crashing of waves on the strand, and light leapt from candle to candle, glim to glim until the shore became a sea of lights. Never have I beheld a thing more beautiful than this, he thought, looking from the flame’s dark heart to the laughing faces around him. Somewhere, a man struck up a merry tune on his viol, and voices, piping up all round, began a song in another tongue whose words were sung long before the sun shone upon Middle Earth. A little distance away, he saw the Prince, his gaze turned inwards, smiling a little sadly; and young Imrahil sweeping a dark-haired girl into the growing chain of dancers around the fire. And their long shadows leapt in the night, a dance of giants. Quite suddenly he wished that the day would never come, and that this night, with its light and dark, sorrow and joy and the strange music that brought hope to his heart need never end.
He started, feeling a hand on his own. It was Finduilas, speaking softly so that none but he should hear her, “O Elbereth Gilthoniel, Kindler of Stars, teach me to know that in the time of the greatest darkness there is a greater gift: Light.”
She held out her light; the wick of his own candle caught and woke unwillingly, to a blue-hearted flame the colour of anemones. They did not speak; an island of stillness they were in a sea of merriment, a single flame glimmering between them. Their eyes met, grey and blue and neither looked away.
The ancient words came to him, as easily as though they were his own, and he spoke them with a gentleness that few had ever heard:
“He sought her ever, wandering far
Where leaves of years were thickly strewn,
By light of moon and ray of star
In frosty heavens shivering.
Her mantle glinted in the moon,
As on a hill-top high and far
She danced, and at her feet was strewn
A mist of silver quivering.
When winter passed, she came again,
And her song released the sudden spring,
Like rising lark, and falling rain,
And melting water bubbling.
He saw the elven-flowers spring
About her feet, and healed again
He long by her to dance and sing
Upon the grass untroubling.”
And quietly, she answered:
Again she fled, but swift he came.
He called her by her elvish name.
And there she halted listening.
One moment stood she, and a spell
His voice laid on her: Beren came,
And doom fell on Tinúviel!
That in his arms lay glistening.
Then, the slivered sea came rushing in, washing over their feet, and they broke apart, laughing merrily as they ran from the waves.
“Do you dance, my lady?” Denethor asked, the smile lingering still on his face.
“Aye,” Finduilas answered, her eyes bright. “We of Dol Amroth dance almost before we learn to walk.”
“Come then, Tinúviel.” And she took the hand he held out to her, as they ran towards the light.
* * *