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Katabasis
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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1
Katabasis

Disclaimer: The characters belong to Tolkien.

This is the Part III of my Míriel series... for what it might be worth. “Katabasis” means “Descent” in Greek, and especially “descent to hell”, as myths about descents to hell were always labelled with that name.


~~~

Katabasis

The first step made her wrap her cloak around her shoulders, as if the light silky fabric could shield her from a chill that was not in the air. The second took her away from the shining radiance of the Trees, and then a cold terror seized her chest under crossed, trembling arms.
Darkness embraced her. It was not the darkness of the land of her birth, but a slick, suffocating, trapping darkness with no starlight to guide her way or wring pale reflections from her small moving feet. Indis could not see what was in front of her, or even what she had left behind.
Maybe there was nothing behind her anymore.
Panic seized her heart at this unbidden thought, causing her to shiver and turn bewildered looks around her. The sudden movement made her foot slip, and for a moment she feared she would fall, until she became aware that there was nothing under her but the same darkness. There was nowhere she could fall, and this, she realised, was the greatest plunge of all.
She would have fallen to her knees, if it hadn´t been because her fear of sinking even deeper kept her shaken legs rigid. Still, even without making a move, even without looking around her, she felt an abyss engulfing her at a vertiginous speed, and there was nothing she could hold to, not even hands to hold anything with.
She had no hands. She had no feet. She was lost, and all that remained of her was a shaking fëa, trapped by the Shadow.
In a desperate attempt to bring herself back, Indis sang a song of longing for the gold and silver light of Laurelin and Telperion, and the radiance in the eyes of Manwë and Varda. Her voice was choked and hoarse, and upon hearing the hollow notes with her own ears, she went silent in dismay at the darkness which had swallowed her joy, her body, her voice, everything that she had been once.
Indis huddled up under her cloak, and wept. She was lost to the Shadow. She would never see the Treelight again, or Taniquetil, or Finwë...
Finwë. The name was like a sudden beacon, fighting the numbing terror that threatened to tie her limbs forever into that place. Little by little, something gentle began to prod through her fearful thoughts, and she realised that she was holding something.
She had hands.
Still shaking, she became conscious of her body, closed upon itself like that of a terrified little child. Her grip on her legs softened, and, as she began to test, one by one, the shaking limbs that she had thought lost, she remembered her mission.

* * * * *

It had been Míriel herself who had summoned her. To see her once, face to face, was a condition without which she would never agree to Indis and Finwë´s marriage, she had said. The faces of those who had heard this had blanched, but she had agreed to go, feeling brave with the love that shone in Finwë´s eyes whenever he gazed upon her.
It was the first time that one counted among the living had been allowed to enter the Halls. The perils were numerous and terrible, or so Námo Mandos had told her while she prepared herself to fulfill her task. She could forget who she was, believe herself to be dead, and roam the dark place forever.
Maybe this is what she wants, a small, insidious voice had whispered in her ear back then. Now, indeed, as she felt the truth of the fear which had shown in all those faces, even the sparks of inquietude dancing in the brilliant eyes of the Valar themselves, lost and alone, the thought came back to her mind with a destructive vengeance.
Would the proud Broideress wish her lost before she married Finwë? She was assaulted by remembrances of her son´s eyes, so much like his mother´s, staring at her in hatred.
He would want her lost. The intruder. She had no right.
Indis shivered. The darkness had become less pronounced now, or maybe her eyes had grown used to it like they had grown used to the radiance of the lands of the Valar once. Behind her, she thought she could hear a whisper, and she turned back to find its source.
Nobody was there.
Do not pay heed to the voices of the Disembodied, Lord Námo had said. Indis forced herself to continue.
As she had been aimlessly moving her feet for a while, a sound of despaired wailing reached her ears. Feeling herself brim with pity, with an irrational urge to comfort the owner of such a grieved voice, she turned back, and even walked some steps in the direction of the sound.
“Where are you going?”
She froze. Someone was barring her way, a scowling man dressed as a hunter.
“Answer!” he urged her, and she tried to form words with her lips but couldn´t. The man shook his head in outraged disdain, and something in the nature of his move made the shocking realisation dawn in her mind. He was a fëa without a hröa.
Do not pay heed to the voices of the Disembodied.
“You should not be here!” he yelled behind her retreating steps. She ran for a long time, until the fear of losing her way and roaming the dark place forever made her stop in her tracks.
“Indis!”
Surprised, she turned back. She hadn´t heard anyone approach this time.
A woman, whose face was painfully familiar behind the horrible scars which marred it, was bending her head in grief. Indis stared at her, horrified. Who could have done this to her?
“Alas! I prayed I would never have to see you here. You belong under the sweet light of the stars, shaking your golden hair to the sound of music and laughter. You were so beautiful... Who is looking after us?”
Indis fled her, too, only to find a little girl jumping happily in front of her.
“Indis! I knew you would come! I was so alone, waiting for you! Let´s play together again!”
This time, her frantic run did not stop until her knees gave way in exhaustion and she fell to the engulfing darkness. Her breath convulsed with sobs, which tore at her chest as she choked with her tears of horror, grief and pity.
That girl had been her childhood friend, in the remote region where people lost their way and never returned. She had left with her parents, in search for a better place to live beyond the High Mountains, and the song they had sung in their last night together kept hammering its notes into her mind with a merciless insistence.
The dead hunter had been right. She shouldn´t be here. The Valar had given their consent, but not their approval. She had only followed her pride, her unholy desire for something that wasn´t meant to be, and this would be her punishment until the end of Arda.
Still, even at the same time that those thoughts made her way into her feverish mind, she felt herself rebelling against the very idea. Where did this come from? There was no unholy desire in her heart. She had loved Finwë since the first time she had laid eyes on him, since she was a girl feigning to fall asleep on his lap to have him hold her for a longer time. She had loved him always, even when he betrayed her adolescent feelings and left her behind for the elusive flame in the Broideress´s eyes. Enough to wait forever, enough to grieve at the pain in his eyes when his family was shattered, and vow to make him happy again.
Enough to walk the Houses of the Dead for his sake.
It was just as she had this thought, that she suddenly realised that two piercing black eyes were watching her crumpled form in disdain.

* * * * *

She was small of stature yet regal, as she had ever been in life. A cloak, set in perfect silver embroideries fell down her back and into the darkness of the floor –could it be an illusion conjured by the dead, Indis thought dazedly, or had she been the first to make threads out of mist?-, and unbraided tresses shrouded a thin oval face where eyes whose light had been quenched forever gaped openly like deep pits of blackness.
It was those eyes, Indis realised with a start, the only thing that gave her away as a disembodied spirit. Asides from them, she looked every inch like the proud queen of the Noldor, the same that she had admired, avoided, and, sometimes, in her darkest and most secret hours, resented.
“Fair Indis.” she heard her greeting, in a soft and eerily gentle voice that did not reach their frozen coldness. Wondering if she was being mocked, Indis heaped an armful of her courage and forced herself to stand up.
“Míriel the Broideress.”
“I remember the first time that we met.” the Queen´s fëa continued after a brief pause, as if absently reminiscing. “You ran to me with wobbly legs, and refused to let me go, holding to my knee until I gave you a bright cloth, a dress or a painted toy.”
Indis nodded tenuously. The early feeling that she was being mocked evolved into yet another unpleasant sensation; that the other woman was using subtly chosen words in order to grow in height again, over a pair of eyes widened in childish awe. She tried to break free from the net of remembrances and images that was being woven over her.
Míriel´s spirit was ancient, much older than Finwë. Nobody knew how many times she had woken to see the light of the stars before the Eldar arrived to the Blessed Realm, but Indis had heard a rumour which made her one of the Unbegotten of legends. After the Valar had assured them that no Quendi had awoken at Cuiviénen without a spouse at his side, the rumour had lost its credibility, yet she knew that many of the Noldor still kept clinging to it out of a stubborn feeling that the mystery that their Queen was could not be explained otherwise. Be it with the son she bore, who grew up –they said- burning with the flame of the One; with her death, the sole one to take place in the Immortal Lands and still, somehow, deep and irrevocable like no other, or even with her very birth under the stars, the existence of the woman in front of her seemed to have always challenged the fathomless wisdom of the Powers of Arda.
This thought made Indis uneasy.
“Now, you are a woman, lady of the Vanyar. There´s radiant gold in your hair and in your song.” Míriel went on, before her voice changed abruptly and became cutting like the steel of swords. “Do you think you can replace me?”
Indis reeled back, as if she had been struck. Pallor crept over her features, and she was forced to blink at the vertiginous speed at which the reflection of Míriel´s hröa –it was nothing else, she made herself remember, nothing else than this- was changing in front of her eyes. The thin traits of her face twisted slightly into a proud expression, her lips curved in an enigmatic smile, and her eyes became bright again with the powerful flame which had lived in her before she died.
All of a sudden, Indis felt a scorching burn of dismay for not being able to stare back at her with the same light. She felt ashamed for not having the skill to embroider figures that seemed to come to life as they were made, for not being older than what anyone could remember, for not having dark hair flowing down her shoulders, and for not being Míriel the Broideress, the only rightful wife of Finwë and queen of the Noldor.
The intruder. Those had been her son´s words.
“I....” she whispered in a defensive, trembling voice, refusing to meet her eyes. Not even her own ears could hear the words stammered by her mouth, as all the speeches she had carefully rehearsed fled from her mind in an unexpected turn. “I... would try.” Ashamed, she realised how pitiful it had sounded, and grabbed a fold of her cloak in a twisted grip as she made a new attempt. “I will try!”
Míriel smiled.
“Those words imply that you do not know the answer yourself.” she concluded in relentless logic. “That you, the one who is claiming a right to take my place before the Valar, Finwë and myself, do not even know whether the outcome will be worth the price we have paid, or whether failure will doom you and the man we both love to everlasting unhappiness.”
Stung, Indis lowered her head. Vivid images tried to invade her brain, but not with the fierce, unexpected onslaught of true foresight, and neither with the warm and gentle touch of the Valar´s minds whenever they showed their wisdom to the most beloved among the People of the Stars. It was an insidious, numbing fog which clouded her mind, forcing her to watch herself waste away in grief, alone among strangers who watched their new usurping Queen with suspicion, unable to find a love that matched hers in her husband´s eyes, forever tied to the past, and followed everywhere by the scornful glance of Míriel´s son until she wished she could, too, come to dwell in Mandos´s Halls to escape the living blasphemy that she had become. Out of an instinct which had developed through long years of love and trust, she called to Manwë and Varda for help, but her lips froze as she remembered that no one would hear her in the Houses of the Dead.
Still, maybe there was one unnamed Power who could answer her plea, because, slowly yet surely, Indis felt the sway of those visions start to weaken under Míriel´s slight smile. Then, she began to see other things as well. There was a woman whose cheeks were flushed with happiness, and she realised that the woman was herself. In front of her, she saw Finwë holding a small child with dark hair, whose features were a perfect mirror of his own as there wasn´t another in Arda. The child babbled a word at him, the little mouth contorted by the effort, and his eyes twinkled in joy and pride.
The golden-haired Vanya inhaled a sharp gasp of breath.
“I will not fail.” she said, able to withstand the dark glance again. There would be joys and sorrows in her path, she answered her own concerns, but wasn´t such a thing true for every being in Arda? She remembered something that Ingwë had said once about their friends who had stayed in their old homes, and how, for them, to tread the same paths and sing to the same stars which had watched over their birth was worth renouncing to the light of the Trees, the love of the Valar and the fair land of Aman.
If she could give Finwë a child, she thought, she would be willing to renounce to almost everything.
Míriel´s fëa retreated a step into the shadows, her threat lessened by the new clarity in Indis´s feelings. There was something different in her face now, a tense expression that looked almost... frightened?
“I have a son.” she said in a low voice. The Vanya stared at her, shocked at the sudden vulnerability in her tone.
“Yes.” she nodded, tentatively. “I know.”
But then, before she could say anything else, the tide of Míriel´s strong emotions changed again. Her inquietude gave way to fierce determination, and a spark of determination glittered in her eyes as she set them on Indis.
“Do you know how I died?”
Confused at the question, Indis needed several seconds to process it and find the link tying it to their conversation. She swallowed deeply.
“I... was told that you... became weary of life after childbirth took your strength away from you.” Spoken this way, it almost seemed blasphemous, she thought. It was the curt official version; if she had detailed the myths and legends surrounding the tragedy of the Noldorin Queen, she would have been speaking for a long while.
At times, she had felt curious about how would Finwë himself have told the tale if asked, but in the end she had always shied from bringing up such a subject in his presence.
Míriel shook her head impatiently.
“That´s not what happened.” An unvoiced question died in the Vanya´s lips as she wrung her bodiless hands, as if even as a disembodied spirit she longed for the feel of her skilled fingers. “No, that´s not true. I gave him my Spirit of Fire. I passed my brightness unto him and became nothing but a shadow, bereaved of my flame, unable to live. I gave him my fëa, Indis.”
Her first impulse was to protest, to tell her that this wasn´t possible. Then, she remembered loose tatters of some of the legends she had heard, the uncommon gravity in the countenance of the Powers as they told Finwë that no, that his wife would never return to life.
She saw Fëanáro, staring at her with the same burning black eyes that had once stolen Finwë´s heart away from her, and commanded the Vanyar´s vague inquietude and the Noldor´s deep admiration.
“Míriel...” she whispered.
“Quiet!” the Broideress hissed. “If I consent to the breaking of our eternal bond between husband and wife, which no Elda has broken before... if I condemn myself to a life of burial in the Halls of the Dead, and then you, Indis” Her smile became sinister now even while she pronounced her name, “you or your children ever usurp Fëanáro´s place before Finwë or the Noldor... I swear that we will rise with a great fire, and burn you and your family to ashes!”
Indis retreated, letting go of a great gasp. Míriel´s words scorched her with an almost physical wave of hatred, and she shook in fear, in horror of the woman who stood in front of her with a terrible smile in her face. She had never heard such a thing from the mouth of an Elda; indeed, until today she would never have thought it could even be possible. It was a promise of destruction, a threat of murder such as those that, it was whispered, the fell creatures called Orcs had growled in the ears of the Elves before they slaughtered them in the darkness.
Suddenly, she imagined Míriel´s smile in Fëanáro´s face, as he pressed a blade against her chest to kill her in the name of an ancient curse. She saw her eyes flare in his as he threatened her children.
She saw Finwë stand aside.
“Swear it! Swear that you will never take our place!”
You are not an Elf, you monster! she thought, but then, in the midst of her repugnance and terror, something prevented her from uttering the words aloud. It was a gentle prodding in her mind at first, and then it became stronger, as if a familiar voice was whispering something in her ear.
Little by little, Indis brought herself to look at Míriel´s face again, at her features twisted by a fey emotion and her tight lips curved in a threatening grimace. As her eyes trailed upon them now, however, touched by a different perception, she suddenly became able to see what was beneath. She saw the anguish, the consuming grief of a woman who would be severed from her family forever, while another would take her place in the heart of her husband. She saw a mother who was leaving his son alone, bereaved of protection in a house that would be filled with the offspring of another woman.
And then, she finally remembered the name of the Power who could hear the pleas of the children of Ilúvatar even in the Houses of the Dead.
“I swear it, Míriel. “she said, filled with compassion. “I swear it to you.”
Míriel nodded, covering her astonishment –her defeat?- with gratitude. As she realised that this was also a form of humiliation, she fell silent, and her features became unreadable.
For an eternity of time, unmeasurable by the count of the Eldar who worked, sang, loved and laughed under the light of the Trees outside, no other word was spoken. When at last the silence was broken, it was Míriel who did it, and it was to voice a strange request.
“Sing to me, Indis.”
The Vanya covered her surprise in a blink, and complied without asking any questions. Unlike that time when she had tried to sing to drive her fear of darkness, her song rose now, bright and melodious above the shadows of Mandos. It was a song of unconditional love for her new home that awaited her with mistrust, for the man who had been bound to another, for the children they would have and for the son of Míriel, who hated her.
As she was reaching the middle of her clear melody, her eye caught the silvery gleam of tears in Míriel´s cheeks. Pain flew towards her in torrents, the pain of someone who would never be a part of this love and of those attempts to rebuild the family that was now lost to her.
Indis´s voice wavered, and she lowered her eyes, unable to continue. A spectral touch shook her with its frozen grip.
“Sing, Indis! It will be the last song I will hear until the end of Arda!”
So Indis sang, smothering her sobs of grief and pity, that once unlocked could not stop. As the last note still floated over the thick shadows of the joyless land, her shaking knees gave way.
Míriel´s face became unreadable again, every trace of her tears carefully erased from the mist of her face.
“Now” she muttered, even as the lines of her features dimmed and receded from the Vanya´s sight. “go and sing to him.”

(the end)

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