Wherein Istafinde and her maidens fulfill their task and are freed to seek the western shore.
Our procession wound its way through the thick black boles of hemlock and yew. Dark vapors drifted around us obscuring the forms that moved in the shadows beneath the trees and the occasional gleam of eyes. I was scared, and I’m sure the other girls were too though it was impossible to tell beneath the dark mourning veils we all wore. I knew there was nothing here that would do us harm; this was the domain of a Vala and the eyes watching were those of his attendant spirits, and yet the darkness and dank chill filled my soul with fear and horror.
Even Lord Moritarno - a warrior who had fought the evil creatures of dark Middle Earth and now bore King Finwe’s golden banner before us - was pale, . Talagant followed, playing a sad lament upon his harp; then Istafinde in her somber grey robes. Findorie and I walked side by side right behind our Princess, she carrying the chest holding Queen Miriel’s robes and jewels; and I another containing the King’s thank gift for the Holy Vaire. The other girls came two by two behind us bearing the torches which gave our only light. And last of all came two serving-men, playing sadly upon viols.
Finally we came to a clearing amidst the trees. The sky overhead was grey and sprinkled with pale stars for the light of the Trees barely touched these far northern lands. Lawns of green-gray grass stretched before us, starred with white asphodel, water gurgled in black fountains and willow and cypress trailed their leafy tresses in dark pools rimmed with pale stones. Brooding hooded figures clipped from dark yew bushes lined a long avenue leading to a door of black and green marble set into a mountainside and carved with palely glowing signs whose meaning I could not read.
We advanced down the avenue towards the doors, our steps slow and reluctant. If they were to open I knew I would not -could not - go in, nor likely stand fast in the face of whatever came forth. But they did not open. Instead we turned left just before reaching them, passing under an arch of clipped yew into a vast, roofless hall.
The dim starlight reflected off the glittering angles of jet columns and the floor gleamed like black glass. Shadowy figures, hooded and veiled in deepest grey or black, stood between the pillars on either side and at the far end the Lady of the Dark Halls and her Lord waited to receive us.
my eyes clung desperately to Vaire, the one spot of brightness and color in all this terrible, darksome place. Her figured robes were richly hued, her face and her hair, pale as starlight, shone with a gentle, welcome radiance. I scarcely dared to glance at the Dark Lord by her side, robed and mantled in soft black that drank up what light there was without giving back a gleam. He seemed clothed in living night even as Ancala and her servant Maia had worn garments of fire. But his face was white, and cold and still as stone set with eyes like depthless pits of shadow and he wore a dead grey crown on his night dark hair.
Trembling from head to toe I somehow managed to follow my Lady down that long roofless hall to sink gratefully to my knees with the others before the two Valar. Moritarno and Talagant knelt on either side of her but it was Istafinde who spoke: “Hail Vaire, bright weaver, lady of the endless halls. Hail Namo Mandos, keeper of souls, judge and doomsayer.”
“Hail, Miriel daughter of Curufinwe heir of Finwe Noldoran.” Vaire answered in a voice like the gentle music of the fountains but warmer. “I would say welcome but even the doorstep of the Halls of the Dead are no place for the Living.”
“Why have you come?” Mandos demanded, flat and cold, in tones like the deep tolling of a bronze bell.
Istafinde rose to her feet and behind her we did the same, though my knees shook so I could scarcely stand. “You know the strange fate of my grandmother and namesake, Miriel Serinde.” my Princess said. “At long last her empty house has fallen to dust. Since her soul dwells now in your halls my father and grandsire have decided to give into the Blessed Vaire’s keeping the robes and jewels my grandmother wore on her last day.”
She half turned and beckoned to Findorie who moved forward to kneel and place the casket she bore at Vaire’s feet. I tightened my grip on my own burden, it would be my turn next and I must not trip or fall.
“You understand Queen Miriel will not be able to wear them and might not even wish to see them.” Vaire was saying to my Lady.
“Yes, Holy One, but my father and grandsire cannot bear to look on them for bitter memories and so they send them to you, along with a gift to thank you for your care of my grandmother’s soul.” this time she beckoned to me.
Keeping my eyes fixed firmly on the blue toe of Vaire’s slipper peeping from beneath the hem of her colored gown I managed to walk forward and sink gracefully to my knees, opening the lid of my casket to display what was inside. the Valie exclaimed aloud and bent to lift the gift up so all could see. It was a great carcenet, large enough for one of the Valar to wear, a lacy thing of glittering strands of adamant, emerald and sapphire with pendant jewels carved with figures and scenes from the Great Journey. It sparkled and shone with its own light in this dark place, a glorious example of the Prince’s incomparable skill in jewel craft.
“No thanks or gifts are necessary, I have but done my duty by the Lady Miriel,” Vaire told my Princess, “yet I thank you, Istafinde, and Curufinwe for this lovely thing.”
Mandos rose, like a dark cloud. “You have done what you came to do.” he said in his deep, cold voice. “Now go. And say to Finwe and Curufinwe that Miriel has the silence and peace she desires.”
I practically jumped to my feet and backed away almost into my Lady’s arms. Gently she shoved me into my proper place behind her and made a deep courtesy to the Lady and her Lord. We backed several steps away, bowed again, and only then were able to turn and walk down the long stretch of glossy black pavment towards the arched entrance. I wanted to run, and I think the others did too - even Istafinde - but we didn’t, though we walked very fast, far faster than we had when we entered.
Vaire’s garden and the darkling wood beyond it seemed far less awful after Mandos’ presence but we were glad to finally back get back to our camp in the pale light beyond the forest’s eaves. Safe inside our tent we removed our veils. The others were as pale as I felt - even Istafinde - but she scraped up a valiant smile.
“Well that’s over and done with. Now for the Outer Ocean and setting stars!” and we smiled back with relief and anticipation.
Exhausted by fear and strain we settled down to rest, even sleep a little. Snuggled safe in my velvet quilt I tried to forget the Dark Halls and their Dark Lord in imaginings of the western sea.
When we arose a few hours later the light was stronger and had a golden tinge from Laurelin though the northern hills cut off even a distant sight of the Trees. We put on short, floating dresses of mingled blue and green, like sea water, with sea grey cloaks edged in white, like flicks of foam, to go over them. Istafinde was clad like the rest of us but with a diadem of stars upon her brow while we braided gems like winking stars in our long hair.
The men started back for Tirion with tents, baggage and horses. But we girls turned our steps south and west towards the strands of the Outer Ocean. Light hearts made for swift feet and we ran more often then we walked through the subtle, hidden beauty of the wild lands. Stopping occasionally to bathe our dusty feet in some convenient pool or to gather the tiny bright flowers blooming among the gorse and heather.
The journey north had been pleasant enough but this was much better. The small burrowing animals and timid birds who made their home in the wilds came out to greet us, now that there were no great, heavy hoofed horses nor chatter and clatter of menservants to frighten them. Nor did we girls feel we had to watch our manners and our dignity every minute as we had under Lord Moritarno and Master Talagant’s eyes.
We followed a winding stream down from the hills to the western shore. It unrolled before us like a ribbon of silver, dividing in the distance to run in many shining rivulets through grey sand flats to the foam edged strand, past a cluster of low, wide halls built of of rough, unfinished grey stone.
“There dwells Nienna of the Tears.” Istafinde told me.
“Are we going there?” I asked uneasily and she laughed.
“No! I have no wish to weep and wail. The Grey Lady is kind but always so sorrowful, and I have no grief in need of consolation. My grandmother died long years before I was born. I never knew or missed her. It is my father and grandfather that I pity, not Grandmother who chose the fate she wanted in their despite.”
There was a hard note in her voice, and I could not blame her for it. Whatever Queen Miriel’s griefs she had left her husband to mourn her, and forced her son to grow up without a mother. “But surely it will comfort the King and the Prince to know the Queen is content where she is.” I ventured.
Istafinde sighed. “No doubt it will. It was kind of Lord Mandos to send them news of her.”
I looked at her, jolted by an unexpected understanding. The Dark Lord had indeed been kind to give word of Miriel to her kin. And suddenly I knew it had been kindness, not impatience, that made him send us away so abruptly once our errand was done. Lord Mandos, I realized in wonder, cared for us - the Children - as much as any of his peers in his own stern way. And suddenly I felt guilty for fearing him.
“He doesn’t mind does he - the Lord Mandos I mean - mind that we fear him.” I asked impulsively. “He isn’t - hurt?“ I felt silly the moment I uttered the words. How should a Vala be hurt by the Children? But Istafinde looked approvingly at me, as if I’d said something clever or wise.
“I don’t think so.” she answered. “He knows it is natural and right for the living to fear the dead and their keeper. Even the Doorstep of Mandos seems terrible to our eyes because we do not belong there but to the houseless who do belong it may be a fair and restful place, like Lorien.” Istafinde frowned a little. “I think it must be so or my grandmother would not have chosen to remain in the Halls when all - even Mandos himself - urged her to return to life.”
“Istafinde!” It was Findorie, now far ahead with the other girls strung out behind her, calling back to us. “Davne! Why do you linger?”
The Princess laughed. “Why indeed?” she caught my hand. “Come, you must see our bay and seaside bower!” and we ran, hand in hand, to catch up with the others.