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The Vault of the Dead
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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5
The Length that the Dead Have to Go

To see more of the Avari’s feelings towards the Sun see “The End of Starlight”, a drabble in my “Flickers on the Water” collection.

Ramandur has been inspired by the medieval French town Rocamadour. And yes, the name is genuinely Tolkien; it used to be a version for Thorondor, the Great Eagle. The other strange-sounding names are from the “Lost Tales” or the Ardalambion website, respectively.


~~~

Part 05 – The Length that the Dead Have to Go

Climbing the steep stairway that led to the heart of the Dark Elves’ city was not unfamiliar for Faramir; nor was it a particularly tiring task. He had grown up in Minas Tirith, after all, where getting from one place to another always included a great deal of climbing, unless one chose to use the tunnels. In fact, these surroundings – a city carved out of the living white stone of the Mountains – seemed almost absurdly familiar to him. As if it were a much smaller version of Minas Tirith, only populated by Elves. In theory at least, as they had so far failed to see another one since entering it.

Legolas, on the other hand, looked rather uncomfortable, like a trapped bird. He had already disliked to be enclosed in too much stone while in Minas Tirith, and now he seemed to have difficulties to breathe.

“We are almost there,” said Râmalê encouragingly. “Look, we have already passed Barathî’s Tower from where our sages watch the stars. And here, on the right side, is the War Room, where we keep track on the struggles of Middle-earth; and beyond that is the House of Songs, the dwelling place of Ómar.”

“You followed the events of the War?” asked Legolas, grateful for the distraction.

“We followed the events of all wars in Middle-earth,” she replied. “We might not want to get involved, but we prefer to know what is happening.”

“But why have you kept apart from the rest of us in all these Ages?” asked Legolas a little indignantly. “You have watched our struggles from afar and yet the thought to come to our aid never occurred to you?”

“Those were not our wars,” she answered simply. “What possible interest could we have in some cursed jewels, made by a maddened smith in the West, that had already caused the deaths of many of our own kind? We have no obligations towards those who had chosen to leave the land of their birth behind, unprotected, to the mercy of Mbelekôro, as long as they had their warm and cozy lives in Valinor?”

“The Noldor were not the only ones to suffer from the evil of Melkor and Sauron,” pointed out Legolas. “Our people have gone through terrible trials as well.”

Râmalê nodded. “I know that, Laikwâlassê, and I grieve with you over your losses. But the sad truth is, our numbers have always been low. Only a few hundred of us have made it to this place… and we had to keep our numbers low, so that the settlements could keep feeding and housing us.”

“Nonetheless,” said Legolas a little grimly, “I believe I will have the one or other thing to say to your lord.”

“We have no lords,” she replied with a shrug. “You certainly can speak to Morwêndî if you wish – she has been our chieftain for uncounted yéni – but important decisions are always made by the full Gathering. We have chosen to stay out of the wars of Middle-earth… we all together. Every single one of us.”

To that Legolas had no answer. Nor had Râmalê anything else to add. They kept climbing the stairs in a stony silence.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
It was almost sunset when Morwêndî, the chieftain of the Dark Elves of Ramandur, stepped through the arched doorway of the House of Hunters – the largest building of the inner city that served both as the gathering place and weapons depot of the hunters and as the sanctum of Arâmê, the Lord of Forests – and descended one of the many narrow stairways to the parvis of the Stone Flower. ‘Twas a small, rectangular courtyard, paved with white stone and surrounded by a hundred and fifty foot high sheer cliffs, into which seven sacred places were cut… the very heart not only of Ramandur but also of the existence of the Mori-kwendî in the whole.

Morwêndî looked up at the cliff above the House of Corn, Kémi’ sanctum. It looked resplendent in the fading red light of the setting sun. The sky appeared to be both the roof and the horizon. Soon, the Sun-ship would sink behind the rock walls and the stars of Barathî would fill the parvis with their pure silver light. Soon, the Children of the Stars would leave their houses to gather in the parvis and sing their hymns to the stars, as they had done at the times of the beginning – ere the gods would flood the world with harsh sunlight.

She shook her head with a rueful smile. She knew that those in the West were no gods, just the servants and stewards of the One, but old habits were hard to break. And besides, ‘twas easier to blame them for many things that had gone wrong with Middle-earth when she thought of them as gods. Unlike their fellow Elves in the outside world, the Mori-kwendî found it well within their abilities (and within their rights) to call the gods – the Valar, she corrected herself – on their faulty stewardship. They had a few living in their midst, after all; and as they had no wish to go to the Halls in case of their death, they had no reason to fear judgement ‘til the end of Arda. What after that might come was no concern of theirs either. It would be… different, in any case.

The future will take care of itself, thought Morwêndî with a mental shrug and turned to the archway that led to the upper end of the Great Stairway. Right now, she had an unusual task to perform: she had to welcome outsiders to the Stone Flower, for the first time since Ramandur had been built. And even though two of them were kin in an extended sense and the third one was a lesser god in disguise, she could not shake off the feeling that with this gesture an era would end for the Mori-kwendî.

She was not happy about it. She feared the unknown perils that such a profound change might bring to their lives; that their safety would be over, once the shroud covering their existence was ripped away. But there was naught that she could do about it. Both dead and live kin had spoken, and the Gathering chose to grant their request. She was only the voice of the Dark Elves, not their ruler.

She squared her shoulders, smoothed down the fabric of her black velvet gown and schooled her features into an expression of polite remoteness. She would welcome the outsiders, for that was the wish of the Gathering. No-one had demanded from her to be happy about it.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The Great Stairway might have had “only” two hundred and forty-three steps – neither of them bothered to count – but those were high and steep ones. Thus, not surprisingly, even Faramir was out of breath when they finally reached the archway crowning its upper end. But even if he were not, his breath would have caught from the sight that unfolded before his eyes.

Through the archway, they had stepped into a small courtyard, of which several winding little stairways led to graceful buildings of various sizes, all of them only half-carved out of the sheer rock walls, all interconnected with other short stairways and narrow little cliff paths. The whole thing had the shape of a flower with different-sized petals, and Faramir now understood where the place had got its name from.

The elegantly curved lines of widows and archways and the graceful little towers seemed almost like natural extensions of the rock. ‘Twas a unique architecture the likes of which Faramir had never seen before, not even in the oldest books of his father. The buildings reflected the great skills of the Elven masons, but at the same time they almost seemed to have grown naturally. Some of the stairs led under the buildings, where most likely large underground caverns were hidden.

In the middle of the courtyard a slender woman was waiting for them. She wore a simple gown of black velvet, adorned with small, sparkling white jewels on the seam and on its high collar and narrow wrist partie. Her heavy sheaf of raven-black hair was braided in a similar fashion as that of Râmalê’s, although some of the braids were twisted differently. She was eerily beautiful and looked young, but her jewel-like black eyes mirrored a wisdom more ancient than even Elrond’s. Faramir caught himself guessing just how old she might possibly be.

“Welcome to the Stone Flower of Ramandur,” she said; her voice, too, was Elven-fair, but with a hard edge in it. “I am Morwêndî, First Huntress of the Dark Elves.”

“So you are the Lady who rules this city and your tribe?” asked Faramir, greatly impressed by her proud and queenly manners. Had he heard Legolas’ earlier conversation with Râmalê, he might have refrained from that question; but the two Elves had talked in a voice too low for mortal ears to hear.

“Nay,” replied Morwêndî, with the ghost of a smile upon her pale face; mortal Men’s obsession with kings and queens and rulers and other nobility had always amused her. As if there had been any true differences, when it came to the secrets of each heart. “I only speak for my people. That is why the task to welcome to you has fallen to me, even though I was one of those who strongly opposed the request to allow you entrance to our city.”

Faramir felt rather taken aback by her bluntness. “Why did you not prevent us from coming, then?” he asked a little indignantly.

“’Twas not within my rights,” she answered simply. “The Dead seldom ask us for aught, but if they do, the Great Gathering grants their request; for if dead or alive, they are still kin… and we owe them much.”

“The Dead?” repeated Faramir, more than a little bewildered.

She touched his arm lightly – and, despite his expectations, her hand was warm – turning him to the northwest, where one of the smaller buildings half-emerged from the white rock wall. ‘Twas a well-protected area, facing South, under the overhang of the cliff. Below it, the arched entrance of a natural cave could be seen, carved artfully into the living stone, with an ancient coat-of-arms left and right of it.

Higher up, at the same level as Barathî’s Tower in the South, rose a strange, cone-shaped tower on top of the small building, with no other access but the narrow slits under its helmet. A pale light was shining from behind those slits; for some reason, Faramir felt a cold shiver run down along his spine.

“Behold the Vault of the Dead,” announced Morwêndî, “the sanctum of Fui, who is also known as Vê among our people.”

Faramir and Legolas shot Gandalf identical blank looks, mutely demanding an explanation.

“Those are ancient names for Nienna, sister of Mandos, the Lady of pity and mourning,” said the Maia, remembering his peaceful time of learning in that great Lady’s house.

Legolas nodded. “Right. I remember now. In ancient times, ere the Faithful were sundered from the rest of the Elvenfolk, she was feared and respected as a death-goddess by them. Ere we learned what the Valar truly were,”

“She is still greatly respected here,” said Morwêndî.

“What is this place… this Vault truly?” asked Faramir. “Just the mere sight of it gives me cold shivers.”

“’Tis often so with mortal Men if they brush death,” she answered, “more so with those who are as perceptive as you. The Vault, though, is simply a gathering place for the unhoused spirits of our slain kin. We do not leave the lands of our birth, not even in death. We have no wish to go to the Halls and share them with those who have abandoned us.”

“And thus your Dead stay with you, here?” asked Faramir, steadfastly refusing to let the absurdity of his own question get to him. Morwêndî, though, seemed to find the question a natural one – perhaps it was natural for the Dark Elves to share place with the Dead, who could tell?

“They do indeed,” she said, “and we benefit from their presence greatly. They keep our city safe by frightening unwanted visitors away. They help us watch the Mountains around us for any possible perils. And they give us good counsel if we ask for it.”

“You… you talk to your Dead?” stuttered Faramir, more than a little shocked.

“Why should we not?” she replied with a shrug. “They are dead, not foolish. They have seen a lot; things no living thing would be able to see. They know more than we can hope for ourselves. Why not use that knowledge to our protection?”

Faramir shook his head in utter bewilderment. “But… but how would one talk with the Dead?”

“’Tis quite possible,” said Legolas. “Aragorn, too, has spoken to the Dead Men of Dunharrow. They even followed him to the battle, as you know.”

“That was a little different,” said Faramir. “The Dead Men were oath-bound to follow Isildur’s Heir. They had no other choice if they ever wanted to rest.”

“Well, our Dead did have the choice,” said Morwêndî, “and they have chosen to stay with us, out of their own free will. But that is something they will explain to you themselves, I deem.”

“Explain to me?” repeated Faramir in disbelief.

She nodded. “Certainly. You are the one whose presence had been requested in the first place.”

“Requested by whom?” asked Faramir, but she shook her head.

“’Tis not mine to tell,” she replied in typical Dark Elf fashion. “Go on, you are expected. And so are you, elfling,” she added, turning to Legolas. “Go with the Man; Neiniel, the caretaker of the Vault will show you your respective ways. I, on the other hand, shall take Olórin to his own kin.”

~TBC~

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