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1: An Unexpected Meeting
He encountered her in the gardens at that quiet time in the early morning when he came to watch the sunrise turn the wisps of cloud to molten gold. He stopped, irritated by the presence of one whom he did not know, and determined to speak sharply to those whose task it was to guard his privacy.
But, as she turned her mist-grey eyes to meet his, he knew that no soldier of his guard would have been able to keep her out and he drew a sharp breath.
‘How can I help you, lady?’ he enquired.
‘It has changed,’ she told him, her voice like the song of a flute on the wind. ‘Only the sea is still the same in its restless crawling across the surface of the world.’
The Prince of Dol Amroth joined her at the angle of the great wall, where to look one way was to see the path of the dawn’s light that headed westwards across the wide ocean, yet to turn slightly was to see the eyries of ancient stone houses dropping down to the harbour and the solid bulk of the castle that dominated the city.
‘Why are you here?’ he asked more softly.
Her eyes, focused on his face, unsteadied him in their intensity, but he met her gaze unflinchingly.
‘I accompanied the Lady of the Wood to the city of stone,’ she said. ‘I came to see the Evenstar embrace her fate in the realms of Men.’ She looked away from the prince to gaze out at the sun-gilded satin of the water. ‘I twice saw the face of my long-dead love among those there – both as he was when I first met him, and later.’ She glanced back at Prince Imrahil, her eyes studying him and analysing each feature. ‘I envy Arwen Undomiel,’ she said. ‘I was not given the choice – and I have lived without him now for a thousand years. I watched my children grow old and knew that they would die, while I remained unchanged.’ She sighed, a long, slow, languorous breath. ‘It is a mistake to become involved in the lives of mortals,’ she said, the grief in her voice honed by endless mourning. ‘You burn like a flame and draw us with the intensity of your lives, but then you leave us aching over endless centuries for the absence of those who will never be more than a memory.’
‘Would you change it if you could?’ he challenged her.
The gold had faded slowly from the sky, returning to the city the prosaic colours of the day before she answered.
‘No,’ she said. ‘Though I would have had the Evenstar’s choice – to follow him beyond the circles of the world.’
‘Can elves not die of grief for all their immortality?’ he puzzled.
‘They can,’ she told him wearily, ‘but their fate is not that of men – there would still be no reunion in my death, not until the ending of the world, and perhaps not even then. I would rather live and remember, than die and forget him.’
A gentle breeze stirred the leaves and she turned again to study the planes and angles of Imrahil’s face before she reached out, caressing his cheek with a touch as gentle as a mother’s blessing. ‘You are like Imrazor,’ she said, ‘but you also resemble our son.’
‘I look decades too old to be your son,’ he said wryly. ‘You look more as though you should be my daughter.’
‘How many generations have passed since Galador established himself here?’ she enquired. ‘More than a dozen?’
‘More than twenty, lady,’ her descendant informed her.
Her head dropped to conceal the tears that started to her eyes. Her blood, yet not her kind: sons and grandsons, daughters and their children, dark grey-eyed boys and graceful raven-haired girls, growing old and passing from the world while she still mourned for those no more than names in crumbling books. The tragedy that was the other side of the desperate love of a man and an elf-maid.
‘Do you blame me for returning to the Golden Wood?’ she asked.
‘Lady – what is yesterday to you is no more than legend here,’ he said, spreading his hands. 'I have no need to blame you for anything. And I think I understand. One death would have diminished you – how could you endure the constant partings from those whom you loved? You needed to distance yourself from the fate of men.’ He looked at her: pale and slender, her fall of dark hair like raw silk, a simple gown of soft green clinging to her delicate frame, her eyes shadowed. He could see Lothiriel in her elegance and in the bend of her head: Amrothos was there in her swift glance and the curve of her smile: Elphir’s eyes were the same colour and pierced through to the heart of those who met them: Erchirion’s intensity echoed hers. It seemed incredible that her influence on his house should be so clearly apparent after so many years, but it was undeniable.
‘You are as much a founder of our House as Imrazor the Numenorean,’ her distant descendant told her softly. ‘It is because of you both that we have become what we are. I am honoured that you have chosen to come here at this time. Your visit will be recorded in the annals of his House.’ He hesitated. ‘Will you stay long enough to meet those who come after me?’
‘I would like to see them,’ she acknowledged, ‘but I do not know.’ She turned back to the dance of the salt waves. ‘I will be sailing soon,’ she said absently. ‘My lady will not long be able to endure the changes that blow across the world – and I will accompany her on her final journey.’
‘The world will be a sadder place without the elves,’ Imrahil murmured, ‘and it grieves me to be among the generation of men who will preside over their departure.’
‘There will be elves on Arda for many years yet,’ she remarked, glancing at him. ‘Those there are who will never depart willingly – but I am not among them.’
‘They say that the lands of the Elvenhome bring healing to all those who abide there,’ the prince mentioned. ‘Will they not heal your sorrow?’
She smiled wryly. ‘They cannot reunite me with those whom I wish to see,’ she shrugged. ‘I will continue to mourn until the world ends.’
‘He must have been a very great man,’ Imrahil said gently, ‘to earn devotion such as yours. Remember the good times, my lady. Savour the love and do not wallow in its ending.’
‘Easy for you to say,’ she told him. ‘In a century or so you will be reunited with the one whose image you hold in your heart.’
‘Waiting is waiting, my lady’ he stated bluntly. ‘A hundred years to me is more than an age would be to you.’
He turned slightly as he became aware of a movement behind him. Amrothos emerged into the bright morning, stretching cat-like and yawning, his eyes fixed on the white swans gathered on the smooth water of the harbour.
‘My son,’ Imrahil spoke. ‘We have a guest.’
Amrothos looked towards them and bowed, a faint flush of colour staining his cheeks. ‘My apologies, Father. I thought you had Lothiriel with you.’ He looked at the elf standing beside the prince and smiled.
Imrahil’s eyes narrowed. He felt sure now of the reason Mithrellas had decided after ten centuries to break her self-imposed isolation from her son’s descendants. ‘My youngest son,’ he informed her. ‘Amrothos.’
‘Do not concern yourself,’ she told him, understanding only too well his anxiety. ‘I will not harm him – I only wished to see if he was indeed as like to my love as I thought when I caught a glimpse of him.’
‘You do not intend harm,’ he corrected. ‘How are you to know the effect you will have on him? Might he not be dazzled by you without any wish of yours?’
The young prince approached them. ‘Do I know you, my lady?’ he asked. ‘There is something about you that is very familiar.’
‘Perhaps,’ she said with a slight smile. ‘I am your - foremost great grandmother.’
Imrahil laughed silently. ‘Well, that should stop him from falling in love with you,’ he murmured.
‘His heart is already given,’ Mithrellas told him with an enigmatic smile that caused him to frown thoughtfully.
‘Mithrellas and Imrazor,’ Amrothos exclaimed, his eyes sparking fire. ‘So it was true.’
‘True, indeed,’ she agreed. ‘I have come to bid farewell.’ She looked at Imrahil’s son thoughtfully. ‘It surprises me,’ she remarked, ‘that so much of Imrazor – of me – should remain to be seen. I would have thought that the distance imposed on Men by time would have blurred the likeness.’
‘Perhaps,’ the Prince agreed, ‘if we were other than the Lords of Gondor.’ He smiled wryly. ‘It may not seem comprehensible to those who live forever,’ he added, ‘but we are proud to trace our descent from the blood of Westernesse. The noble families marry most often among their kind – and there are few who are not distantly connected with those whom they wed. Your blood and Imrazor’s,’ he told her, ‘can be traced in every noble house to a greater or lesser degree – and, at times, it shows.’
‘Will you tell us of yourself and the Numenorean?’ Amrothos requested eagerly. ‘And of Galador and the early days of our House? Who better to tell the story than one who was there as it happened?’
She smiled, and for a moment the stars shone through the rain clouds in her eyes. ‘If it would interest you,’ she said, ‘I would be glad to burnish faded memory before I depart. It would ease my heart to know that I am not the only one to hold their remembrance dear.’
Imrahil withdrew slightly, looking back to the doorway where, doubtless, a servant was waiting. Finding one, he spoke quietly, sending for refreshments to be brought and asking that his sons and daughter join him in the garden. There were tasks allocated to the day, but they could be postponed. He and his children could spend the time more profitably with one whom they never could have expected to meet.
He turned back to see his son and Mithrellas standing, framed by the delicate branches of tamarisk, with the clear blue of the sky behind them, and he caught his breath. They were an image of beauty from his earliest memories, one painted delicately by hands long dead in the frontispiece of an ancient history of his house: elf maid and man standing together. He had always known it as no more than a story, but here the myth was, given unexpected life before him in the warm brightness of a summer morning in this remarkable world where legend became reality.
2: Leaving Lorien
Lothiriel handed a goblet of the light fresh wine to the elf before her. She had thought that she had become somewhat accustomed to the presence of elves during the celebrations that had accompanied the bridal of King Elessar and his half-elven queen, but, awe-inspiring though the reality of their existence had been, not even meeting Lady Galadriel compared to sitting here, in the garden where she had played since her earliest childhood, in the company of Mithrellas, who was her own grandmother some two dozen times removed.
Mithrellas accepted the glass, but she did not taste the wine. Instead she gazed at Imrahil’s daughter with quiet wonder. ‘You are very like Gilmith,’ she observed. ‘I could not believe how swiftly they grew, my beloved children, but Imrazor only laughed and said I wished to coddle them. He never really understood how time passes for an elf.’
A lazy breeze stirred the foliage, bringing with it the fragrance of roses mingling with the fresh salt scent of the sea. The elf turned her eyes back to the wide blue expanse of the bay. ‘I always loved to watch the swans on the water,’ she said. ‘They brought to mind the stories I had heard of the swan ships of Alqualonde – and made me think that, perhaps, to sail into the West would not be so bad.’
‘I thought all elves longed for the Elvenhome,’ Elphir said in surprise.
‘It is home for the Lady Galadriel,’ Mithrellas replied simply, ‘but not for most of the elves who dwell within the woods and forests of Middle Earth. We are Silvan Elves – and our home is here. Some are called – like Thranduil’s son – but most are not. I would not have chosen to leave the trees, had not Nimrodel decided that she must depart.’
‘I will not remain!’ Nimrodel’s voice was sharp. ‘Not with the Dark reviving in the mountains, driving the Dwarves into flight – and orcs spreading from Dol Guldur like wasps. The Elves fought last time – and look what happened!’
Amroth ran his hands though his gleaming hair of sun-kissed gold. ‘I cannot just walk away, Nimrodel,’ he said patiently. ‘I am the Lord of Lorien – it is my duty to guard the wood and those who live in it.’
‘Is that what your love is worth?’ she snapped. ‘You would endanger us all!’
Mithrellas watched the repeat of Nimrodel’s argument with detachment. It had been played out endlessly between the ruler of the wood and his beloved over years, increasing only in its ferocity since the dangers had become more apparent. It was fairly obvious to her that Amroth was less than happy as Nimrodel edged closer to victory, and, in truth, Mithrellas agreed with him. Nimrodel was not concerned with the welfare of Lorien. She just did not want to share Amroth – and, whether she realised it or not, she saw the increasing danger as a way of taking her beloved away from the duty he had inherited.
‘I will take my attendants,’ Nimrodel declared, ‘and anyone else who wishes to come with me, and we will make our way to Belfalas. You can join us if you choose, or we will sail without you.’
Mithrellas sighed softly. This was not the first time that Nimrodel had issued an ultimatum. Usually Amroth managed to coax her into behaving more reasonably before the process of arranging the emigration moved from talk to action, but there had been occasions when her party had been halfway out of the wood before he had won Nimrodel over and persuaded her to give him more time. And there had been one memorable ride when only Nimrodel herself and her attendants had turned back, leaving the remainder of the travellers to continue to the sea. Since that time, Nimrodel had been careful only to take with her a few people whose devotion to the beautiful elleth exceeded their passion for the idea of taking ship.
If only, Mithrellas thought, Nimrodel would just marry Amroth. Perhaps if they were truly joined, she would be rather more considerate of his needs – and she might find it less easy to manipulate him in the way she did. It was a shame, she reflected dispassionately: they were clearly besotted with each other, yet they – Nimrodel especially – treated love as some kind of display, rather like birds that had to show off the splendour of their tail feathers for their intended mates. She amused herself for a moment considering what Nimrodel would do, should Amroth fail to follow and plead with her to reconsider. There was a possibility, she decided, that Nimrodel would slip back quietly – and be rather easier to live with for a while – but a greater likelihood that she would carry them all the way to Valinor before she decided that she wanted to be back in Amroth’s arms, by which time it would be too late and she would spend uncounted centuries weeping and wailing and railing against fate.
At least Nimrodel no longer tried to push Amroth into leaving within earshot of Lady Galadriel – although, Mithrellas reflected, that was not necessarily a good thing, as a simple lift of the powerful lady’s eyebrow had generally been able to keep him resolute and her more reasonable. Galadriel and Celeborn intimidated the Silvan elleth, that was the truth of it – and their presence might even be one of the reasons that she was so determined to take Amroth to the Blessed Realm – far enough away to be certain that she could have him to herself.
Mithrellas jumped as Nimrodel clasped her hand. ‘There is no talking to some people!’ she said, with a flounce of her dark hair and a pretty pout. ‘Come on,’ she told her friend. ‘Let us leave Amroth to busy himself with important things.’
‘They are important things, Nimrodel,’ Mithrellas said mildly as she followed her down the long flight of airy steps to ground level. ‘Lord Amroth is right – he has a duty to the wood. He cannot pack a bag and leave as if he were just anyone.’
Nimrodel turned, easy tears like diamonds sparkling in her eyes. ‘Are you turning against me as well? I thought you were my friend!’
‘I am your friend,’ Mithrellas sighed. ‘If I were not your friend, I would not have packed my bags a dozen times to follow you to the sea, only to find myself still among the mallorns of Lorien. But that does not mean that I cannot see both sides of the argument.’
Nimrodel smiled enchantingly, so that Mithrellas found her exasperation fading. ‘Not a dozen times, my friend, surely,’ she said winningly. ‘I am not so unreasonable. And it is for the best,’ she added. ‘I am right – it is time for us to leave the darkness and evil of Arda behind. I will win Amroth over in the end,’ she warned with complete conviction.
Mithrellas left her friend in her rooms looking through her gowns to decide with her other attendants which of them she would wear that night, and took herself off to a quiet glade where violets bloomed and the air was scented with their sweet fragrance. She sank down in the dappled light beneath the arched boughs of a welcoming birch and allowed the peace of the forest to sink into her. She wondered, when on her own among the trees, what it was that made her agree to follow Nimrodel on a journey she had no desire to take. It was not the fear of the rising danger, nor yet the craving for the sea that came to some elves. She was not making a decision of her own free will – merely responding to the demands of Nimrodel herself. Mithrellas sighed. Amroth’s beloved had the power to draw a veil of enchantment across the eyes of those who spoke to her. It was extremely annoying.
‘Do you think we will go this time?’ Randir’s melodious voice asked, as he sat too close to her.
‘I do not know.’ Mithrellas sat up, shifting slightly to increase the distance between them. Randir was nice enough, she supposed, but she found his admiring glances made her uncomfortable and he did not seem willing to take a hint. ‘Nimrodel is determined, but she will not leave unless she is certain that Lord Amroth will follow – and he does not feel that he can abandon his duty. Nothing has changed.’
Randir laughed. ‘As long as Nimrodel continues to dither, Amroth will stay,’ he said. ‘She needs to show him she means to go, whether he will or no.’
Mithrellas narrowed her eyes. ‘You are on her side in this?’ she asked.
‘I am,’ he declared proudly. ‘We have nothing to keep us here – it is time for the Elves to leave this marred land to the Aftercomers. Enough immortal lives have been lost to this cause.’
‘That is not what Lord Celeborn says,’ Mithrellas remarked.
‘He is not thinking of what will be good for us,’ Randir sniffed disdainfully. ‘His Noldor wife has twisted his mind – he prefers holding power in Arda to giving it up to live in the bliss of Valinor.’
Mithrellas glanced at him cynically. Randir had spent too much time listening to Nimrodel’s unconsidered rhetoric, it was plain. ‘I must go,’ she said, rising to her feet. ‘I have tasks to carry out,’ she added vaguely.
It soon became apparent, Mithrellas observed, to one who knew Nimrodel as she did that something was different this time. Before, Nimrodel had protested her desire to leave, but she could be distracted by the light on the river or the song of the trees. It had been, her friend thought, more an exercise intended to show that, unimportant elleth though she was, she had power over her beloved. Even when her temperamental displays of decisiveness had made her set out for the sea, it had not taken more than a show of concern from Amroth to bring her back. But something had changed. The evil stirred up in the mountains of the Dwarves seemed to have affected her deeply as its influence spread, flowing through the waters and drifting in the air – the game was a game no longer.
She watched as Amroth danced with Nimrodel, her silver gown catching the moonlight and her hair floating in the night breeze. There was a magic about her that made her irresistible and the Lord of Lorien was plainly enraptured. As she drifted like a snowflake across the glade, he followed her with an intense concentration that obliterated the presence of all others. Their world, Mithrellas thought, contained no other, and a feeling of deep unease began to stir within her.
‘Lorien cannot be left leaderless,’ she heard a soft voice say, scarcely louder than a breath. ‘He will allow his obsession for her to influence his thinking.’ The pain sounded disconcerting in the normally controlled and tranquil tones of Lady Galadriel. ‘He will forget his duty and abandon the haven.’
‘It is not yet certain,’ Lord Celeborn spoke equally quietly, but his pitch was comforting. ‘Do not borrow trouble. Amroth knows his responsibilities.’ He hesitated. ‘Perhaps we should leave – go to Imladris. It will make it harder for him to walk away, if there is no-one here to take charge.’
Mithrellas turned her head slightly to see a bleak grief in Lady Galadriel’s face.
‘It will make no difference,’ she said. ‘He is lost.’
‘You have seen it?’
Lady Galadriel turned to rest her head against her husband’s shoulder and his arms came round to hold her.
The Silvan elleth slipped away into the cover of the trees. Lost? She asked herself. Lost in what way? To them? To Nimrodel? To the Wood? Or lost in the way that only Namo himself could mend? Mithrellas breathed in the scent of wood and green leaves and allowed the song of the forest to calm her. She was simply an elleth of the woods: politics were beyond her. She would follow Nimrodel, she knew, simply because she loved her, but she was afraid that, here, love would not be enough.
Nimrodel paced. Well, her friend reflected, in anyone else it would be pacing. In Nimrodel it looked more like the elegant movements of a dance. ‘He will not agree,’ she snapped. ‘I had him this close to making the right decision,’ she said, holding her fingers out with no perceptible gap between them, ‘and then she came.’ She walked round the room again, before picking up an elegant goblet and hurling it at the corner of the floor to shatter into a thousand pieces. ‘She does her best to make sure that we are never alone and she whispers into his ear all the time so that he will not listen to me. I have had enough, Mithrellas. We are going – and this time nothing will make me come back. If he wants me, he will have to follow.’
‘It will take time to prepare, Nimrodel,’ her friend told her. ‘If we are really intending to go all the way to Edhellond, we will need to make sure that we have equipment and supplies. We cannot be ready to leave in a few minutes.’
‘Last time it took no more than an hour,’ Nimrodel hissed.
‘Last time you did not intend to ride for more than a day,’ Mithrellas returned calmly. ‘You wanted Lord Amroth to come and beg you to return – when he did, you rode back with him, leaving us to gather up what little we had taken and follow you. The sea is a long way away, Nimrodel, and there will be dangers to face along the way. We will want to follow the safest path and we will not want to run out of supplies.’
‘Get Randir,’ Nimrodel ordered her. ‘He can have the rest of today – but we are leaving at dawn tomorrow, whether you think we are ready or not. Amroth has ridden off with Lord Celeborn to inspect the northern borders and I intend to be gone before he returns. And then,’ she declared, ‘it will be up to him.’
The wood mourned them as their horses stepped between the trees and their long ride began. She could feel it in the rustle of the leaves, in the movement of the branches. She could hear it in their song. It was in the air as it caressed their cheeks, in the earth beneath their feet. The waters sang of parting. It was oppressive and Mithrellas found it difficult to breathe as the forest bade them farewell. It was disconcerting, as if the forest were better able to sense their intentions than they were themselves. This time their departure evidently did not appear to be a part of the turbulent courtship of Nimrodel and Amroth. This time it was real. She looked at the trees, trees she had known since she was an elfling scarce able to walk, trees she would never see again, and opened herself to their melody. Tears streamed unrestrained down her face and she raised her voice to join them in their lament.
They were leaving Lorien.
Lothiriel rested her hand on Mithrellas’s arm and stroked it gently. It seemed in some ways impertinent to dispense the same kind of comfort she had administered to her sister-in-law when, during the last days of the war, she had wept for Elphir, but it would appear that numbering age in centuries did not protect an elf from grief.
‘You returned,’ she said softly.
Mithrellas gazed at her with her mournful grey eyes. ‘I returned alone, years later – bound by love to a man who would die, with no knowledge of what had become of Nimrodel, aware that, in his longing to find her, Lord Amroth had drowned in this very bay where the white swans swim. I was not the same elleth who had followed Nimrodel from the Golden Wood.’
Lothiriel blushed and Mithrellas ran her long fingers through the girl’s dark hair; her touch making the Princess of Dol Amroth shiver. She smiled slightly on noticing the effect.
‘But it was a relief to be back among the trees,’ she admitted, ‘– and they knew me still. I have dwelt there since and they have consoled me. I would have stayed beneath their shade until the world ended, but I will sail with Lady Galadriel as I would have gone with Nimrodel. I have no reason to remain.’
‘What went wrong?’ Amrothos asked her seriously. ‘The journey to Belfalas had been undertaken by many Elves before. How was it that Nimrodel’s party failed to reach safety?’
Mithrellas continued to tease her fingers through Lothiriel’s hair, while she considered her reply. ‘Silvan Elves are not like the High Elves of Valinor,’ she said finally, ‘nor yet the Grey Elves. We are – lighter of heart, less moved by authority, disinclined to involve ourselves in events outside our homes.’ She paused again. ‘We were foolish,’ she sighed.
3: The Journey
Imrahil frowned as he looked at his daughter where she sat on an old stone bench set to gain the greatest amount of shelter it could from the wall behind it. Even on the coldest, most windswept days of winter his wife had come here to sit and watch the sea. Seeing Lothiriel now, beside the slight elf she resembled, made him realise again how much his daughter had missed in not knowing her mother.
‘Did you not have family to travel with you to the sea?’ he asked abruptly. ‘What of your parents?’
Mithrellas returned his look. ‘My father died on the plains of Dagorlad,’ she said simply. ‘He followed Lord Amdir to battle and did not return. Nimrodel’s father, too, was lost. Her mother chose to sail rather than remain in the Wood. My mother stopped eating when she sensed that my father was no more – she faded quickly as elves often do.’
‘Just a minute,’ Erchirion frowned. ‘If your father died in the Second Age, does that not mean that . . ?’
Mithrellas laughed briefly, a sound like the chiming of small bells. ‘I was indeed somewhat older than Imrazor,’ she said gravely. ‘Just as the Evenstar is rather older than Elessar. Age matters little among elves.’
Erchirion digested her words. ‘How old is Queen Undomiel?’ he asked curiously.
‘Ask her,’ Mithrellas smiled. ‘I do not know her age to within a century or two – and I would not tell you if I did.’
Elphir moved restlessly. ‘How were you foolish?’ he asked. ‘Your party left the Wood with little time to prepare, but that should not have put you in danger – there should have been enough experienced elves to see you had all you needed.’
Mithrellas smiled wryly. ‘That would certainly have been the case, had we had enough sense to employ their aid – but we were accustomed to riding off headlong on Nimrodel’s adventures, and they were accustomed to allowing it. I doubt there were any who suspected that this time Nimrodel meant to carry through her threats. We were woefully under-prepared.’
It was fortunate, Mithrellas reflected, that it was early summer and that elves did not feel the cold. It seemed to have done little but rain since they had left the wood and she did not think that there was a single dry garment left among them, but at least there were plenty of rabbits to provide them with food. Nimrodel was, unsurprisingly, in a very bad temper. She did not appreciate sleeping in the dripping boughs of wet trees, wearing mud-stained clothes and riding across endlessly dreary rain-swept plains. Still less did she appreciate the fact that Amroth had not yet arrived to assure her of his everlasting devotion. She had been slowing the pace of the journey steadily: leaving later in the mornings, stopping for the night by mid-afternoon and riding at an ever easier pace, but still there was no sign of a party following them from the north.
‘Lady Nimrodel, we must ride together,’ Randir repeated wearily. ‘There are not enough of us to guard you if you insist on riding away from the group. There are not enough warriors anyway.’
‘But, Randir,’ Nimrodel said winningly, ‘we will be able to stay dry if we ride in the shelter of the forest. It will be much better.’
‘That is Fangorn, lady,’ he sighed. ‘It is not safe to linger under its canopy – the trees there are wild and do not welcome elves.’
She pouted. ‘I am sure that cannot be true, Randir. All trees enjoy the presence of elves.’
‘Not these ones,’ he said firmly. ‘We will not enter the forest.’
‘We need to ride more swiftly, too,’ Mithrellas said flatly. ‘We are not carrying enough food to linger as we are, even if we stop every day to hunt. And more, this countryside is too open and we are too visible. We need to travel discreetly if we are to arrive safely.’
‘But,’ Nimrodel looked back towards their home.
‘If he is going to come, he will come,’ her friend said. ‘We have fewer than half a dozen warriors to guard us, Nimrodel. We are not safe. We either must ride faster or return to the wood.’
Nimrodel drew a sharp breath. ‘It is our destiny to sail,’ she said with the captivating earnestness of which she was capable. ‘Elves are creatures of light – we should not be forced to live in the darkness of Arda any longer.’
For a moment, as Nimrodel’s compelling silver eyes met hers, Mithrellas was convinced that their flight was not only justifiable, but also meritorious.
During one grey early dawn before sunrise, Mithrellas roused to the sound of arrivals and her hand went to the hilt of her belt knife before she recognised the sound of elven voices and relaxed into momentary limpness. With luck, she thought, Amroth would have brought warriors with him. On the other hand, the way things were going, it was quite likely that he had rushed in pursuit of Nimrodel so quickly that he had forgotten even to bring his own sword and bow.
Full morning found them waiting in golden sunlight as Amroth and Nimrodel talked to each other at the edge of the trees. Breakfast had been prepared and eaten; their camp had been cleared away so that a casual observer would not even have known that they had been there. The horses had been rubbed down and readied, yet they remained waiting patiently for instructions.
Mithrellas watched Nimrodel with a somewhat jaded eye. The elleth, who had been displaying the less attractive side of her personality as she waited to see whether her lover would give in to her demands, was now being at her most enchanting. Amroth bent and kissed her hands and she rewarded him with a smile brilliant enough to put the sun to shame. She tugged him up and threw herself in his arms, tangling her fingers in his golden hair and kissing him with an enthusiasm that made Mithrellas raise her eyebrows.
‘Betrothed, would you say?’ Randir enquired wryly.
‘I would say so,’ Mithrellas replied. ‘Which means that we are still heading towards Edhellond. She will not wed him until he has done precisely what she wants.’
‘For a friend, you seem to be very cynical about our lady,’ Randir commented.
‘I love Nimrodel dearly,’ Mithrellas told him, ‘but that does not stop me thinking that she gets her own way far too frequently – and that she will make Amroth miserable if he does not learn to refuse her.’
Nimrodel drew Amroth towards her attendants, a look of blushing modesty on her fair face. ‘We have come to an agreement at last,’ she said. ‘And I have consented to be wedded to my lord.’
The look in Amroth’s eyes, Mithrellas decided, was somewhat less simple to read. Much as he loved Nimrodel, he clearly felt ill at ease about whatever he had done to enable himself to arrive at this point. ‘I have passed the lordship of Lorien to others,’ he confessed to the small group. ‘I cannot remain there when my heart is elsewhere. Celeborn and his lady will guide Lorien through these desperate times and I will escort you to the land of peace and safety that is to be found in the far West.’ He dropped his head briefly before seeking Nimrodel’s beauty as a moth is drawn to a flame. ‘I have come alone to join you,’ he said simply. ‘I could not ask warriors of the Golden Wood to leave their posts to follow me into exile.’
Mithrellas was aware of a clutch of pain deep in her heart. How could Nimrodel demand so much of the one she loved, she wondered? Did she not see what she was doing to him? She sighed, looking at her friend. No, of course she did not. To Nimrodel, personal satisfaction would always be more important that abstract virtues such as duty and reason. It was highly unlikely that she would ever realise how much she had asked of Amroth, or how much he had paid for her love.
‘Come,’ the former Lord of Lorien said authoritatively. ‘Let us ride. We must seek such safety as we can find in Gondor as quickly as possible. We do not want the forces of the Dark to find us while we are on the road.’
They rode long and they rode hard. Days blurred into one as they rose in the first light of dawn and moved constantly southwards. Nimrodel’s attendants slept the sleep of the exhausted, barely able to eat the simple meals of waybread and water, occasionally supplemented with any meat that could be hunted without slackening the pace. Mithrellas wondered how Amroth, Randir and the other few guards were managing to endure as they spent each night watching carefully over the ellyth in their care, only to be ready each morning to shepherd the small group further on its way.
Few signs of danger had been apparent. The open land around them showed little evidence of being populated and, Mithrellas thought, had few places where orcs could hide from the fierce sun. Cautious as they were being here, the real worries would surface when they had to pass through the White Mountains to descend into Gondor. Mountains were, after all, the breeding ground of the evil that had sent its tendrils of darkness out into the peaceful groves of the Wood. Nevertheless, the party was uneasy. The land was too open, the sky too wide, the sun too hot – elves were not meant to live in the open, crawling beneath the heavens, Mithrellas decided. A little time away from the trees could be endured – it was even pleasant – but weeks of riding hard without connection to the song of the forest, without the presence of trees you knew, trees you had known from the nut, trees that recognised you, were intolerable.
She looked east, on occasion, across the spreading grasslands and wondered what it had been like for her adar, far across the Great River, beyond the Emyn Muil on the plains before Mordor. How had the Silvan elves of the forests – those of Lasgalen and Lorien – endured so long without the comfort afforded them by the trees of home? She felt her own contact with the land stretched thin. How would it have been to face the hordes of Mordor in a place where the very soil itself was poisoned?
The land began to rise; gently at first, giving clearer views over the endless green of summer grasses, but soon it began to change and the terrain became rougher. They had to slow the horses and start to pick their way up trails that only sharp elven eyes would have identified.
‘Can we not remain here awhile?’ Nimrodel asked winningly. ‘It would do the horses good to rest before we cross the mountains. We have been pushing them hard.’
Amroth’s face softened as he looked at her, lightening the shadows in his eyes, but he shook his head. ‘There are too many places for dangers to hide in the hills,’ he told her. ‘When we come down into Gondor we will be able to rest – and the final part of the journey to the sea will be easier.’
The mist had come down unexpectedly as they descended the western slopes, bringing with it a clinging cold and a feeling of doom that made Mithrellas shiver. This was not the soft silver haze that made the woods shimmer, nor yet the white smoky carpet that rose from the autumn glades. It had surrounded them with the aggression of an attack, twisting itself around the legs of the horse, blinding the elves’ vision, muffling them.
‘Slow,’ Amroth said sharply, ‘but do not stop.’ He dismounted, even his light step dislodging a fall of stones that rolled mockingly across the hillside, hitting bare rock as they tumbled.
‘We have seen no signs of orcs – or bandits, my lord,’ Randir said anxiously. ‘It would be better to stop. The horses cannot see where they are putting their hooves – it is too dangerous.’
‘We are nearly through the pass.’ Amroth listened more than he looked, moving his head carefully to pick up any sound in the enveloping grey. ‘If I were seeking an opportunity to attack, I would try to be in place when the fog lifts and strike while we were unprepared. It would take little to pin us up against the mountain and pick us off one by one. If we keep moving it will make that harder.’
‘It will also make it much more likely that someone will have an accident,’ Randir protested. ‘And that will hold us back more than delaying for the fog to pass.’
The fingers of mist left a trail on her skin that made Mithrellas’s flesh crawl. She had never thought of weather as being actively malevolent, but there was something in the air that felt ill-intentioned. She stiffened as her sharp hearing picked out the sound of metal striking rock. It could be nothing – but it did not feel that way. Someone – something was waiting for them. Small shifts in the shadows suggested that there were more than one – considerably more.
‘Remain mounted,’ Amroth said softly, jumping softly astride his horse. ‘When the attack comes, we will clear a path and you are to ride through as fast as you can. They can see we are a small party, but I do not think they realise that we are elves. They do not know what they will be tackling. Do not stop – we will catch you up.’
‘But, Amroth,’ Nimrodel protested. ‘You cannot stay. Randir can lead the guards while you come with us.’
Mithrellas grimaced to herself. On this, she did not think that Amroth would give way. There were few enough with the skill to fight and Amroth would be needed if there was to be any chance of escape.
‘I want you to ride to safety, Nimrodel,’ he said. ‘I will join you as soon as possible.’
The assault came just as the mist thinned. The attackers were men, bearded and short, and they were clearly experienced at picking off mist-muddled travellers as they came through the pass, but they had not expected the sheer power in the slender bodies of the elves.
Amroth thrust forward sharply, so that a gleaming arrowhead of power sliced through the raiders. ‘Now,’ he called insistently as the men’s shaggy ponies gave way before his small force.
Mithrellas took her short knife in her hand as she and Gwingil took up protective positions on either side of Nimrodel and they urged their horses into a hoof churning gallop. As they swept through, Mithrellas found herself slashing automatically at a figure as he tried to stop her and then following Nimrodel as she streaked across the valley only to pause on the wooded slope on the far side.
‘Amroth said to keep riding,’ she insisted, as Nimrodel turned her mount.
‘We will wait,’ Nimrodel cried.
Mithrellas did not know that she was weeping until the cold wind began to dry her cheeks. She knew that elves were great warriors, but they were outnumbered – they were so badly outnumbered by the wild and dangerous-looking creatures who had chosen to attack them. What chance did they have, their half-dozen brave fighters, against thirty or more? It seemed so unfair: to flee the dangers of the spreading Dark only to fall, far from home, against a foe that wanted only to rob them when they were within reach of an promise of eternal safety.
The trees stirred anxiously. Although they were strangers to each other, Mithrellas could understand them well enough to tell that men with blood on their weapons were approaching.
‘Separate,’ Nimrodel ordered in panic. ‘They cannot follow us all. Get beyond their hearing and take refuge in the trees. They will pursue the horses.’
Even as she obeyed, Mithrellas was filled with doubt. Although the trees would hide them, would they really be any better off trapped among the people who were seeking them? Would it not be better to stay together?
She could hear them behind her. She could hear them, yet she could ride no faster without endangering herself and her mount. The ground was less treacherous than that of the pass, but she knew it not, and her ignorance was their advantage. Her breath was shortening as the danger approached and she urged her horse to still greater effort.
The path gave way suddenly and her horse scrambled desperately in a losing battle to regain his footing, hurling her from his back. She struck rock as she fell, losing consciousness and tumbling, limp as a rag doll to final stillness on the slope, her grey cloak settling over her motionless form like a shroud.
Amrothos drew a deep breath. ‘History says that Nimrodel was lost in the White Mountains,’ he said. ‘That Amroth could not find her and rode on to Belfalas. It doesn’t mention their companions.’
Mithrellas shrugged. ‘History is selective,’ she informed him. ‘It remembers that which makes a good story – and it is told by those who survive.’
‘Did you find out what happened to those who left the Wood with you?’ Imrahil enquired.
‘Most of them,’ she said, her voice soft and mournful. ‘Randir was killed, there in the mountains, and three others of the guards died before they fought their way to safety. Amroth arrived at Edhellond with two guards, still hoping to find Nimrodel and her attendants waiting for him – but there were none to greet him. In later years Imrazor helped me seek in the mountains to see if traces could be found of any others and we learned the fates of most. Gwingil died on the day we escaped the trap – she had been sliced open by a blade as we rode for freedom. One elleth was captured – she was sold to traders and taken south, but finally escaped from slavery – and two others eventually found their way to the coast. Of Nimrodel herself, there was no sign.’
‘How could that be so?’ Erchirion wondered. ‘She does not – forgive me – sound as if she was the kind of person to hide successfully for very long.’
‘So would I have thought,’ Mithrellas shrugged. ‘Yet still none know what became of her.’ She looked at her fingers as she laced them in her lap. ‘I believe she must have died there in the mountains,’ she said. ‘Amroth would not accept it, and surrendered his own life when the autumn storms blew out to sea the grey ship that was to carry us west. He refused to leave without her – and threw himself into the waves so that he could return to wait for her, but he never made it to shore. They are together in the care of Namo,’ she sighed with resignation, ‘and in time they will be reborn for their love to live again in the bliss of Valinor.’
And in the long silence that followed, the breaking of the waves on the shore provided a soothing song of comfort that seemed designed to ease the minds of those who listened in the garden above.
The servants removed evidence of the picnic from the lawn and disappeared through the open doors into the castle, leaving baskets of fruit and cool pitchers of juice and crisp wine. Mithrellas had ignored them, disregarding their constant surreptitious attention, but she sighed with relief as the last one departed.
‘My apologies,’ Imrahil said simply. ‘I doubt that many who live here have ever seen an elf.’
‘You must have been the subject of much interest as you travelled here,’ Amrothos remarked, fixing his eyes on her. ‘And much of it could have been more threatening than simple curiosity.’
‘Elves do not generally have much difficulty in avoiding attention,’ Mithrellas told him. ‘I simply walked into these gardens last night, despite the presence of guards. I could have remained – unnoticeable, had I so desired.’
Lothiriel frowned. ‘Then how did the raiders know that you were vulnerable?’ she asked. ‘Couldn’t you just have slipped past them?’
‘Horses, little sister,’ Erchirion grinned. ‘Horses can’t hide.’
‘Except in the middle of a herd of horses,’ Elphir added, watching Lothiriel blush, before adding with mock-innocence. ‘Perhaps in Rohan it might be possible.’
‘Legend has it that Imrazor found you lost in the wooded hills in the high reaches of the Ringló,’ Amrothos interrupted. ‘How did you manage to save yourself from the disaster in the White Mountains and travel so far to the south east?’
‘Luck,’ Mithrellas said with a sudden devastating smile that made the Prince think of his long-dead wife. ‘Luck and caution.’
The sun was setting as she recovered her senses, and, fortunately, she remained unmoving under the strange veil created by her cloak as the memory of the day returned. She wanted to weep as she remembered the sound of sword on sword and the bite of sword on flesh. She replayed in her memory Amroth’s commands and Nimrodel’s words and felt the fear tighten her throat as the raiders on their rough ponies chased the ellyth through the woods, as she felt her horse lose his footing and she fell.
But, she thought, as the final red glow faded, she seemed to be alive. More, she still seemed to be free. And, if she wanted that state of affairs to continue, the dark hours would be to her advantage, for, if she remembered correctly, Men could scarcely see their own hands in the shadows of the night.
Mithrellas turned her mind to consider the state of her body and was surprised to find that her injuries did not seem to extend beyond bruising. She raised a hand that hardly seemed to belong to her and eased the cloak away from her face just far enough to enable her to inspect her surroundings.
She was alone.
She closed her eyes and listened to the song of the land nearby, slowly tuning out the sounds of the small mammals, birds and insects to focus on larger life forms. Neither she nor the nearby trees could hear anything. Mithrellas frowned. Surely the raiders would have looked for her – they had chased her hard enough. Why would they let her go without making an effort to find her?
She drew her knees under her cautiously and pulled herself up to a crouch. Her head swam and her stomach rebelled, but she forced herself to remain alert. There was no movement from the hillside behind her. She needed somewhere to hide, she thought. At least until the world stopped swimming. A tree, perhaps – or a hollow beneath some bushes. And a drink of water would be welcome, too, although it would be too much to expect that she would find anything to eat. A waybread tree, she thought, and had to suppress a rather hysterical urge to giggle.
She could smell death, she realised soberingly as she eased herself upright. Her horse had clearly not survived the fall. She lurched towards him somewhat unsteadily. Something might remain of her packs, she told herself, and at this point, anything would be useful. As she approached cautiously, she frowned with a dawning feeling that something seemed wrong. The horse was the wrong shape, she thought in confusion.
The animal had been butchered, she realised with revulsion. Choice cuts had been removed from him, even as she lay a few yards away, and the remainder of the carcase had been left – either for scavengers, or for a second visit. She grabbed at a blanket that had rolled down the slope and put a hand over her mouth. There was nothing she could do, she told herself, except get away quickly, before anyone came back.
She had travelled as far as she could before the moon rose and then taken refuge at the heart of a patch of spiky gorse that had agreed to shelter one of the race of Star-folk. Once hidden, she had allowed herself to grieve silently for the loss of her people and in fear for herself, before drifting, despite herself, into troubled dreams.
Voices had woken her twice before she came to herself, but both times she had slipped back into a healing sleep, so that, when she opened her eyes, her headache had passed and her bruises were no more than a distant stiffness. She frowned – had the voices been elves? She did not think so, but she could not be entirely sure – and it would be foolish to thrust herself in the way of the raiders. She would follow the route Amroth had described that led down from the mountains and take the road towards the river. Once she had found that, she could follow it to the coast. It would take far longer than with a mounted party and she would have to make sure that she travelled among trees that would give her shelter, but she could keep out of sight that way. There would be water and it was summer – the woods would provide her with enough food to sustain her. And if she travelled mostly at night she would be able to avoid most of the other occupants of these lands.
She had become accustomed to it after a time. At first the loneliness had eaten into her, but as the days passed, she had found that she had become too wary to take up companionship if it were offered. She had missed the Morthond – she learned later that the pass had brought her down further south – but she had discovered the road heading down towards the more populated areas of Gondor and after several days of indecision she had chosen to follow it from a distance, keeping it within sight, but remaining hidden.
Mithrellas was no warrior, but she was a Wood Elf and she knew how to live in and of the forest – as long as there were trees she would be able to live. She had no knife, but there were sticks to dig for roots and vines she could use to make snares. She found sharp-edged stones that would serve as elementary blades and made smokeless fires in hidden places to cook what she found.
The worst thing, she had found in exasperation, was the lack of clothing. She had never felt the need to have dozens of gowns, as had Nimrodel, but she grew to long for freshly laundered garments, crisply pressed and smelling of soap rather than wood-smoke. She did her best, but resting naked, rolled in her blanket, her head pillowed on her grey cloak, in the high branches of a friendly tree, while her clothes hung dripping in the patchy sunlight, made her feel vulnerable in a way that dirt did not.
Many times she longed to return home, but the pass through the mountains became an insuperable obstacle, peopled in her mind with fierce hairy creatures and the ghosts of dead elves and she knew that the endless miles across the open plains would be impassable to her, horseless and lacking in provisions as she was. She needed the woods to protect her and the road to lead her to safety.
She had nearly stopped when the road passed across the fords of the Ciril just below Calembal, shying back like a nervous pony from the presence and the smell of Men. It had taken several days for her to summon enough courage to approach the water, finally slipping through in the dead hours of the night, when clouds made the darkness complete, and she had then lain hidden among the tended trees of a leafy orchard until her pulse had stopped racing and she had felt bold enough to continue on her way.
Voices had roused her from restless dreams and she had peeked cautiously between the leaves to see children playing in the shade of the old apple trees. She had been interested to see that the young of Men were fairer than their parents, although sturdy and ungainly compared to elflings. Their games seemed similar to those she had played herself when young, and the meaningless jabber in their high innocent tones brought tears to her eyes. As the afternoon cooled to evening, a female old enough to be their mother had come to call them in and they had gone off hand in hand, leaving Mithrellas aching with loneliness.
When would she find others of her kind in this strange world populated by Men, none of whom spoke her language? Would she ever find the sea or would she still be wandering when the snows of winter blanketed the forests and food became impossible to find? She buried thoughts of Nimrodel, of Amroth and the others who had left the Golden Wood with her – survival did not leave her time to mourn, not yet.
She left as it grew dark, keeping to the edge of the road now that the land was more populated and farms spread along the valley. The land was happy, she felt, despite the meddling with the natural forest: it was cared for well and the plants thrived. The men here took what they needed, but they also returned gifts to the land and they were not greedy.
Summer was passing, here in the highlands, and the birds were singing of the sea, of following the rushing water down to the plains where the warm weather lingered in the sheltered valleys. She knew that soon, once she had crossed the river Amroth had called the Coldflood, she would leave the safety provided by the line of the road and head towards the ocean.
The river was cold, too, and it whispered of snow-capped mountains and flows of blue ice that yielded to the sun and sent sparkling streams of meltwater down to enliven the sluggish waters of the lowland rivers. She loved it at sight, for it had a life about it that spoke to her of home and she willingly allowed it to lead her down into the forests of living green that gifted it with fresh streams of pure water.
She relaxed, taking what the forest offered, bathing in streams of freezing clearness, eating little but berries, and nuts and feeling, for the first time since she had left Lorien, happy and secure in her solitude. She forgot that winter was coming, forgot that she had no way of defending herself, forgot that she wished to reach the coast, forgot that she was alone.
Their arrival was unexpected, but, had she been listening to the trees, they could never have taken her by surprise, for they were as noisy as Men always are and the forest had been murmuring its warnings. But she was combing her long dark hair and looking in the small pool cupped in the rocks. They had stepped into her hidden place, blinking and confused – not certain of the true existence of what they were seeing – and she had frozen.
‘For there he was, the light of stars in his eyes.’
Amrothos looked at her with an air of puzzlement. ‘You had hidden from so many – what made him different?’
Mithrellas raised her eyes to watch a great white bird drifting across the sky, its wings reflecting the sun so that it appeared to be made of light. ‘He was of Númenor, for one thing,’ she said simply. ‘In his ancestry, no matter how distant, flowed the blood of Earendil and Elwing, of Elu Thingol and Melian, Finwë and Indis – I could see it in that first moment. These were not the men of the mountains. And I was hungry for company.’
‘You can tell those who have elven blood?’ Erchirion said doubtfully.
‘Legolas knew – he remarked on it as soon as I met him,’ Imrahil said.
‘Elves are not easy to see, if they wish to remain unnoticed,’ Mithrellas continued, ‘but to those with a trace of elven blood, they are more real. There are many,’ she said with apparent irrelevance, ‘among those who watched from the lower circles as Undomiel married Elessar, to whom the Elves are already a fading memory. The splendour of the occasion will live with them – but Lady Galadriel, Lord Celeborn, Lord Elrond – they will become hazy, like a tale told in the winter firelight. In the end, they will not be sure of what they saw.’
‘How does that work when confronting elves in battle?’ Elphir asked doubtfully.
Mithrellas smiled wryly. ‘It is difficult to doubt the reality of an elven blade singing through the air,’ she said. ‘It has an immediacy about it that removes all shadows. Yet elves use their ability to seem – elsewhere – to help them fight numbers that far exceed their own. It works better against Men, I am told’ she added. ‘The creatures of the Dark are better equipped to disregard illusion – they are simple killers.’
‘You met Imrazor,’ Lothiriel prompted, her eyes gleaming and a faint flush across her cheekbones, her air of suppressed excitement making her father look at her with an unexpected qualm. He was not ready to part with his daughter yet, no matter who it was that made her heart sing.
Mithrellas stroked her cheek, her fingers lifting the girl’s chin so that their eyes met. The elf smiled softly. ‘You know it, when he is the right one for you,’ she nodded and she turned her head to study Imrahil thoughtfully. ‘And it does not matter, then, that there will be pain, because, for however short a time, the rewards are greater.’
‘What did he say?’ Lothiriel asked, her eyes intent on the elf beside her.
Mithrellas smiled. ‘He said, ‘Lady, it is not safe to be in these woods alone. Will you allow us to return you to your kin?’ He was very courteous – he bowed before he addressed me, despite all my dirt, and he looked me in the eyes and spoke so earnestly.’ She paused. ‘Of course, our conversation was rather hindered by the fact that I did not understand a word he spoke.’
Elphir laughed. ‘That would put a damper on the meeting,’ he agreed.
‘How is it that you recall his words, then?’ Amrothos frowned.
‘I am an elf,’ Mithrellas shrugged. ‘My memory remains undimmed by time.’ She sighed. ‘I did not know what he said then, but later the meeting meant much to me and I have lived it in my dreams. Do men not recall the words spoken when they first meet their beloved?’
‘They do,’ Elphir confirmed with a reminiscent smile.
‘I could not say.’ Imrahil raised his hands defensively as his other children looked at him. ‘I knew your mother from my earliest years. If you insisted on knowing what she said at our first meeting I would have to say it was probably no more significant than a wail. My father always told me that on making her acquaintance I immediately stole her cake and in return she slapped me.’
‘Mother was not one to allow anyone to take liberties,’ Erchirion laughed.
‘I was not anyone,’ Imrahil replied with some hauteur, while his eyes twinkled, ‘I was the son of her Prince. All cake belonged to me by right.’
Mithrellas watched them with fascination. Imrahil was as comfortable with himself and his role in life as Imrazor had grown to be – men whose devotion to their duty had not taken anything from their love of their family and friends, men who had treated the possibility of death in battle as something that had to be borne as part of protecting life and to whom responsibility for those in their care was as automatic as breathing. And the qualities shone from his children’s eyes: bred in them through the generations, trained in them from their earliest years. She smiled. It was no wonder that something deep within her had responded to the gleam in Imrazor’s eyes and the open honesty of his heart.
Lothiriel shifted impatiently, anxious to hear more of the story.
‘As he looked at me,’ Mithrellas continued, ‘he gradually seemed to notice that I was not quite what he would have expected. His next words were in Sindarin – his accent was strange to me, but I could make out what he was saying.’
‘What is an elf-maiden doing sitting beside a pool in the glens of Belfalas?’ he asked.
‘Combing her hair,’ Mithrellas told him, holding up the teasel head she was using to keep her long locks under control.
He smiled. ‘That I had observed,’ he said. ‘But you are far from home, my lady, whether that home be Edhellond or the Elven Havens to the north, and you seem to be alone. Would you accept our care?’
Tears stung Mithrellas’s eyes as his words opened wounds and allowed her to touch worries she had suppressed since that dreadful day when she had roused to find herself alone. ‘Tell me, my lord,’ she asked, ‘know you of any elves who have in recent months made their way to shelter from an ambush in the mountains? We were attacked by a large group of raiders and were separated as we rode to freedom – and I have seen no sign of any since.’
He approached slowly, as if afraid that he would frighten her, before dropping to one knee so that he looked up into her eyes. ‘I fear not, my lady,’ he said regretfully. ‘But it is likely that I would not. My father is charged with the care of Belfalas and he considers me too young to be a part of his councils. And if the attack took place in the White Mountains, it is more likely that any of your companions would have been found in Lamedon or made their way down to Anfalas than that they should be found here.’ He smiled at her and his face lit up. ‘You have come a long way, my lady,’ he remarked. ‘Allow us to ease the remainder of your journey.’
‘I thank you for your courtesy, my lord,’ Mithrellas said formally. ‘I have been travelling long and I would be grateful for your help.’
‘Then let us abort our hunt,’ he told his friend cheerfully, ‘and take this lady to my mother.’
He lifted her onto his horse as if she weighed next to nothing and mounted behind her. She tensed, unused to close contact with any and finding the presence of this son of Men alien, but as they rode she relaxed enough to find comfort in the feel of arms supporting her and his scent, of good soap and fresh clothing, was pleasant.
He had been, he told her later, very nervous. She had felt barely there – as light as thistledown, as frail as a bubble. He had been afraid to support her lest he frighten her and when she had rested her head on his shoulder in a strange open-eyed daze, he had worried that she had survived the hardship of her escape only to die in his arms within short hours of safety.
‘Elves sleep with their eyes open,’ his friend told him.
Imrazor looked sideways. ‘How do you know?’ he asked.
His guard smiled. ‘I rode with your father before he decided you needed a more strong-minded watcher,’ he said. ‘We encountered elves in Eriador. They are good fighters,’ he observed. ‘And much stronger than they look.’
‘If she has survived a journey from the mountains to here – unaccompanied, on foot and with no provisions, she is certainly stronger than she looks,’ Imrazor agreed.
Mithrellas blinked and turned a suspicious gaze on them.
‘I am afraid that Grendil has no Sindarin,’ Imrazor explained.
‘We cannot all be sons of Númenor,’ Grendil prodded him amiably, picking out the key words. ‘You need some commoners to order around.’
Their destination proved to be an elegant castle set on an island in a small lake: clearly defensive, it had an outer wall built to keep out unwelcome visitors and a wooden causeway leading to its one entrance, but, as they rode past the guards and into the courtyard, Mithrellas could see that the high-towered structures within were airy and spacious, with room for gardens and orchards among them.
Her breathing shortened and she looked round in panic as the gates were closed behind them.
‘Don’t worry,’ Imrazor said softly. ‘You are quite safe now.’
Mithrellas remained tense. The man clearly had no idea of the bond between elves and the forest. Even the idea of being confined behind stone walls was terrifying to one who had lived unfettered among the trees for an age, but the hum of content from the greenery inside the curtain wall gradually relaxed her, until, in her openness to their song, she became aware of the number of Men nearby. She started to shake and withdrew from them in such a way that, even though Imrazor held her, he could no longer be certain that she was real.
‘She’s not used to people,’ Grendil said quietly. ‘Take her to your mother’s gardens and I will go and see if she will meet you both there.’
In the privacy of the green oasis, with the occupants of the castle at a greater distance, Mithrellas calmed down and when Adrahil escorted his wife into the peaceful corner where she sat, she was able to meet them without obvious distress.
Imrazor rose and bowed formally to his parents, leading her to copy his action and Adrahil smiled as he returned her greeting.
‘My lady,’ he said in fluent Sindarin. ‘It is an honour to see one of your race in my house. You are most welcome to remain here until you are recovered from your journey and we will do all we can to reunite you with your friends.’
Mithrellas looked into his eyes and he met her gaze with a serenity that showed he was familiar with the ways of elves. ‘We were heading to the sea, my lord,’ she said. ‘I do not know whether any reached safety.’
Adrahil hesitated. ‘I have heard,’ he said carefully, ‘that Lord Amroth came safely to the Haven and is waiting on board the last Elven ship in the hope that Lady Nimrodel may be found. He has said that he will not sail without her. Those on board have waited through many weeks for word, but none has come.’
Mithrellas lowered her head and wept, her hope that her companions had all reached safety now destroyed. Adrahil glanced at his wife and she came forward to rest a slender hand on the elleth’s arm, making the soft sounds of comfort that are common to all peoples. She drew the elf maiden down onto a bench set under the late roses and stroked her hair consolingly.
‘She may yet be safe,’ she said. ‘Lord Amroth has not lost hope – and you are here beyond all expectation. Rest here awhile until you have regained your strength and Imrazor will accompany you on your way before the winter storms set in.’
Before all the leaves had turned, Mithrellas was ready to ride to Edhellond to join the last remnants of her people. But, one night, shortly before the party was due to depart, a great storm, one of the fiercest ever known in the history of Gondor, roared down from the frozen north and slashed across the land, tearing ancient trees from the land and damaging all it touched. It snarled its fury across the Bay of Belfalas, ripping ships from their moorings and hurling them out across the raging sea.
Among those driven into the riotous waters was the ship bearing Amroth of Lorien. When he woke to the knowledge that every moment was taking him further from discovering the fate of his beloved, he leapt into the tempestuous waves to swim for the land, but, even as those in the towers above the water watched, his golden head was lost to sight.
When Imrazor brought Mithrellas to the empty haven, they sought out those who told her of the light Elven-ship riding high in the water as it sailed west before the wild wind, the last elves of Edhellond clutching the rails and looking back as the valiant but doomed Amroth sought to rejoin his beloved Nimrodel.
She abandoned hope then. She sat in the cold stillness and watched the water. Her home lost, her companions gone, she was alone in this country of Men. Imrazor offered to take her back to Lorien, but she could not bear to return carrying with her a tale of such tragedy, yet neither could she move on to sail to the Undying Lands. She was an exile, a last echo, drifting on the wind.
He gave her time, but, as the last leaves fell, he took her and led her back to his parents’ home. His hand was gentle and his voice soft and she followed him without protest, trusting that he would do her no harm. She mourned her losses, but allowed her rescuers to coax her into eating and, as time passed, so did the likelihood of her fading and casting her spirit into the hands of Namo. The winter of her despair seemed long, but spring came, and as the leaves budded on the trees and the first celandines showed their gleaming faces, Mithrellas had lifted her head and begun to look forward.
She found with surprise that she had grown accustomed to living within walls of stone and she no longer found the presence of Men intolerable. Her ears had grown used to their gruff tongue and as she learned to speak with them she learned that their lives were not all brutish fighting and thoughtless ignorance. The dances of their spirits were as complex as the lives of elves and each was different. In time they no longer all looked the same to her and she heard their stories – and she learned that they were frail. For all their solidity and heaviness, their grasp on life could be shattered by something as insignificant as a dip in icy water or a week without food. She grew to fear for them.
In between the duties he owed his father, Imrazor had done his best to aid her in search of information about the elves lost to her, seeking in the high valleys of the White Mountains and putting word out to merchants and traders who frequented the area where they might have been found. Mithrellas had accompanied him at times, once Imrazor’s parents had learned that an elven maid was not one who would thrive in the confinement expected of the ladies of Gondor. They had persuaded her to accept attendants of her own, who followed her as she asked the trees of elves wandering in their forests, and they rode with her in pursuit of fairytales.
As Mithrellas grew to accept that Nimrodel would not be found, she sang of her love and Amroth’s and of the sorrow that came to them in their quest for each other. Her lament brought tears to the faces of those who heard it, as they saw in their mind’s eye the tall golden elf and his dark haired love, who had sacrificed themselves in their undying passion.
Elves seeking to take ship at Edhellond carried the song back to the north as they returned with news of the deserted haven; bearing the knowledge of Amroth’s fate and the loss of Nimrodel and her attendants back to Golden Wood.
Soon, elves no longer came south across the mountains, but, despite her isolation from her kind, Mithrellas lingered in Belfalas as the years passed.
Imrazor grew older. From being considered too young – and light-minded – to be worthy of a place among his father’s councillors, he became a valued captain and a respected advisor, serving the King in his wars on Gondor’s borders, returning infrequently to his home. Mithrellas long looked on him as no more than a friend, one whose presence added a feeling of comfort to her life, but she worried, at times, that she was growing too close this mortal. Nevertheless, she ignored the occasional opportunities to travel to the Grey Havens or to pass north across the mountains and return to the woods of her birth. A strange feeling on inevitability kept her waiting in the halls of Men.
One cold winter’s day, he arrived unexpectedly, swirling the crisp outdoors into the small sitting room overlooking the frozen garden. His icy fingers took Mithrellas’s hands and raised them to his lips, before he raised his dark head and gazed at her with his storm-grey eyes glinting silver.
‘It is refreshing to see you again, my lady,’ he said. ‘You, at least, never change.’
‘That,’ she said dryly, ‘is only to be expected.’ She hesitated. ‘Grendil?’ she asked.
‘He has been a part of my life as long as I can remember,’ Imrazor sighed. ‘But he is failing.’ He turned to the window, looking down at the white-blanketed bushes. ‘He is unlikely to be with us still when the snow melts.’ He gazed in silence as a number of small birds squabbled over the food spread on the frozen surface of the snow. ‘Do you never close your windows?’ he asked idly. ‘Or have a fire lit in here?’
‘Only if your mother chooses to come and sit with me,’ Mithrellas told him, ‘and that is not often – I think she finds the steps too much.’
Imrazor looked at her and smiled. ‘That is not surprising,’ he said. ‘How many are there?’
‘I have not counted,’ she replied with dignity. ‘It is immaterial. I like being up here away from the crowded halls. I can watch the stars and think.’
His eyes darkened. ‘What do you think of, my beautiful lady, up here on your own?’
‘Have you been speaking to Grendil?’ she asked suspiciously.
‘I have,’ he admitted.
‘And was his advice to you the same as it was to me?’
‘That would depend,’ he said, ‘on what he said to you.’
On sudden impulse, Mithrellas stepped forward, holding his gaze steadily, and, after a brief pause to allow him to retreat should he so desire, kissed him full on the mouth.
He stiffened and drew back, looking at her seriously. ‘Are you sure?’ he said. ‘Men and Elves do not have a happy history when it comes to love.’
‘I would rather,’ she said, ‘have a few short years with you, than live without you throughout the ages.’
He touched her cheek gently. ‘You will do that anyway, my lady,’ he said. ‘I can expect no more than another seventy years or so – and that is only if I survive a lifetime of battles. And I will become old and ill, while you remain as you are now. It is not fair to bind you to me.’
Mithrellas shook her head. ‘It is too late for me,’ she told him. ‘I am bound, whether I will or no. My heart abandoned me years since, when you came across a wandering elleth and offered her your aid. Everything you have done since has only served to make me love you more.’
‘I do not know what my parents will say,’ Imrazor warned her.
‘They are resigned to it.’ She smiled at his expression. ‘Your father had a dream – a rather persistent dream – that has convinced him that this outcome is inevitable.’
‘Did no-one think to inform me of the situation?’ Imrazor raised his eyebrows and looked down his nose at her, the effect somewhat spoiled by his decision to draw her into a tentative embrace.
‘And what would you have said, my lord, if your father had commanded you to take me to wife?’
‘I would have been remarkably obedient,’ he said promptly. ‘He would have been impressed by my filial respect.’ He hesitated. ‘It must have been a very forceful dream,’ he added. ‘I remember that when you first came he was very insistent that I should keep my distance and warned me of the enchantment in elven eyes.’
‘I believe it was the kind of dream that cannot be gainsaid,’ she told him. ‘The kind of dream that comes with the tag of prophecy attached. Apparently, Gondor and the future of your House demand that you should wed me.’
‘Well,’ he said, a slow smile spreading across his face, ‘in that case, we had better oblige – I would not want to be the cause of disrupting the machinations of fate.’
‘I am not,’ she remarked rather breathlessly, as he ran wondering fingers through her mass of hair and she caressed his face, ‘entirely sure that it would be possible.’
‘Good,’ he murmured, his lips reaching for hers. ‘I gave you your opportunity to change your mind, my lady. It is too late now, Mithrellas. You are mine.’
‘Fate,’ Imrahil said thoughtfully. ‘I am never entirely sure whether I believe in fate, or whether it simply provides an excuse to do something that would otherwise be considered unwise.’
‘Prophecy has its place,’ Mithrellas shrugged. ‘Lady Galadriel has her mirror – it shows much: that was, that is, that could be. I have had – true visions. They are rarely an absolute, but I am certain that there are times when the Powers guide our actions. I believe that I was meant to meet Imrazor, that our love was inevitable and that our children have played a part in building your country.’
‘That is true,’ Imrahil agreed.
‘We had many happy years together,’ Mithrellas told him. ‘The legend forgets that – it is less romantic to tell of contentment than to speak of tragedy and loss.’
‘Although,’ Elphir remarked, ‘when you are sitting with an army waiting to be summoned to battle, stories are often of little things. Tragedy sits better in front of a warm fire, with a mug of ale in your hand and your wife by your side.’
‘Deny the myth,’ Lothiriel said intently. ‘Tell us of your love.’
6: A Life Shared
The sun shortened the shadows, seeking out those resting in the garden, causing them to move from the roses to the shade of the trees.
Mithrellas put her hands on the ridged grey-brown bark and closed her eyes as she listened to its song. ‘Your gardeners are skilled,’ she commented. ‘It is not easy for trees to thrive in the salt wind of the land’s margins. These are not as well-grown as they would be in a less harsh environment, but they are healthy and happy here.’
‘I believe that it is important to select the right types of plant,’ Imrahil remarked as he spread a blanket beneath the spreading branches of the walnut.
‘It is,’ she agreed, ‘and some plants will thrive when transplanted and grow happily far from their native soils, while others fade.’
The Prince looked at her cynically. ‘You speak of matters other than gardening, I feel, my lady,’ he remarked.
‘It is,’ she said, meeting his eyes, ‘a matter of making the right choice,’
Imrahil turned to look at his daughter as she and Amrothos carried trays of fruit and drinks to the warm dappled shade. ‘But it is only in retrospect,’ he said softly, ‘that the rightness of our decisions becomes apparent. My sister’s choice seemed wise – but was less than happy. How shall I know whether Lothiriel’s is likely to bring her joy?’
‘You cannot,’ Mithrellas said simply. ‘And no life consists of perpetual contentment. You can only love and hope and be there if things go wrong.’
‘But you think her choice is inevitable?’
‘It is made,’ Mithrellas shrugged. ‘It may comfort you to know that she has chosen the man rather than the position he offers.’
Imrahil smiled wryly. ‘I would expect that in her mother’s daughter,’ he said. ‘You have no idea how much difficulty I had in persuading her to marry me.’
Mithrellas laughed. ‘I know that I would have found my marriage easier,’ she admitted, ‘had I not wed the rank as well as the man.’
‘You cannot spend the periods between Imrazor’s visits secluded in your tower,’ her husband’s mother said with exasperation.
Mithrellas regarded her silently.
‘I will not live for ever,’ she continued, somewhat mollified by the lack of response. ‘You will be the Lady of Belfalas – you need to know how to run your household. Even if you choose to do so by delegating the authority, you will need to know who you can trust.’
She was looking older, Mithrellas thought. Her hair was streaked with frost and there were lines around her eyes that the elf did not recall. Adrahil, too, had aged in similar ways. On consideration, Mithrellas thought that perhaps some twenty winters had passed here in Belfalas since she first passed through the studded wooden gates. A blink of time in the life of an elf, but long enough among men to bring children to adulthood and carry the aged to their tombs. The elf felt a shiver of anticipation chill her. Thus would her fate present itself: in the greying of his hair and the marks of age on his body as he grew and changed in a way she never would.
‘And you have been wed long enough,’ her mother-in-law continued, giving voice to her greatest worry. ‘What if there are no little ones to come? Can Elves and Men bear children between them?’
‘They can,’ Mithrellas said. ‘I have known half-elven children.’ She hesitated. ‘There never seemed to me to be any hurry – the child-bearing years of Elves extend over many centuries.’
Lady Heledh pursed her lips. ‘Then you are fortunate,’ she said. ‘But it is no so among Men – and people are beginning to wonder if your union with my son will be blessed.’ She held out her hands to the small fire Mithrellas had burning in the grate. ‘It is so cold in here,’ she observed. ‘I do not know how you endure it.’ She waited, watching the flames curl round the pine cones. ‘I have spoken to Imrazor,’ she admitted, ‘and he told me to leave you alone – he said that you would have children when you were ready and that the estates would run satisfactorily without you concerning yourself with their direction.’ She cast a quick look at the impassive elleth. ‘I am sure that is so – but I want my son to have the best,’ she said apologetically, ‘and that means he needs his wife at his side, supporting him, bearing his children, guiding Belfalas when his duties take him to the King’s side.’
Mithrellas thought of Nimrodel and her childish demands for attention and adoration, demands that had led to Amroth’s abandonment of his people at a time of desperate need and, ultimately, to both their deaths. Although she missed Imrazor when he was with the armies of Gondor, she respected his devotion to his obligations – and it was time that she took up hers. Lady Galadriel, she thought absently, would have been unlikely to have been as patient as her mother-in-law had been with her reluctance to assume her responsibilities. ‘You are right,’ she sighed. ‘Although I am sure that many of the duties you undertake are not dissimilar to those involved in organising the Golden Wood, I was never more than a minor part of that, under the instruction of others. I will do what I can.’
‘A child,’ her mother-in-law said firmly.
‘A child,’ Mithrellas agreed. ‘Although that duty will have to wait for Imrazor’s presence before it can be set in motion.’
‘And in the meantime,’ Heledh said with determination, ‘you will give some attention to the running of the household.’
The concerns of the Lady of Belfalas turned out to be much the same as the duties of a Lady of Lorien – the provision of food to last her people through the cold months, the creation of simples to treat injuries, the spinning of yarn and the weaving of cloth, the establishment of safe shelter, the settling of disputes, the education of the young, the care of the infirm. And then, beside these tasks, there were the rules of behaviour and the etiquette involved in the dance of social position. Mithrellas found this part of Lady Heledh’s training the most irritating. The rank of birth existed among elves, she could not deny it, but it did not take up much of their attention – and whether you were a king’s son or a forester’s daughter, the wearing of centuries ensured that you were valued for your own merit rather than the position acquired by your ancestors.
Fortunately, Mithrellas soon realised, many of the people she was supposed to govern were made as uncomfortable by her as she was by them, and she rapidly learned that they preferred to obey her from a distance, while her aides attended to the business of passing on her requests.
Her mother-in-law was, fortunately, amused to discover that projects she had found it difficult to initiate in an atmosphere of conservative resistance to change suddenly became possible when the objectors were fixed by Mithrellas’s cool grey stare and, despite her daughter-in-law’s reluctance, she began to draw her in as a last line of attack when all else failed.
Imrazor lay collapsed with laughter on the lush grass of the hidden glade. ‘The stare of death!’ he chuckled. ‘One look from the dagger eyes of Mithrellas, the witch of the woods, and their protests crumble to dust.’
‘It is not funny,’ his wife said with dignity as she sat back on her heels. ‘It is one thing to have them respect me – it is quite another to have them afraid of me.’
‘I should take you into battle,’ her husband chortled, infectiously enough to make her fight to suppress her grin. ‘You would clearly be worth a battalion of trained archers. You could put your hands on your hips and look down your nose at the enemy and they would be reduced to instant meekness and beg your pardon for their impertinence.’
Mithrellas narrowed her eyes and frowned at him. ‘It is nothing to laugh about,’ she told him, using her long fingers to prod him in the ribs.
He grasped her round her waist and pulled her down beside him on the soft turf, lifting himself to one elbow to gaze at her. ‘It is no use,’ he told her airily. ‘I am immune to your wiles, my wife. Your eyes have no power over me.’
‘No?’ she asked, running her fingers through his dishevelled mane of dark hair, intent on the face looking down at her.
He caught his breath and lowered his head to touch his lips to hers. ‘Well,’ he conceded, ‘they do not make me fear you.’ Their kiss deepened and it was some moments before he was able to continue. ‘They put quite different ideas in my head.’
Mithrellas smiled. ‘Let us explore them, my love,’ she murmured. ‘I would be interested to see if your ideas and mine are similar in nature.’
The child had been conceived there, in the fresh enthusiasm of spring, as the song woke from its winter slowness to ring in the trees and sing in the waters, resonating in the earth beneath them and echoing from the stars. Mithrellas had felt his song start, there in her womb, and tears had stung her eyes at its thread-like purity. Her child, the son of Elf and Man, whose fate would be shared with his father, but whose influence would be felt across the years.
‘What is it?’ Imrazor’s sword-hardened finger had touched the silver tear gently. ‘Have I hurt you?’ He sounded concerned, and Mithrellas was again amazed at the sensitivity concealed beneath the warrior’s shell.
‘Your parents will be pleased,’ she told him, stilling his hand and kissing his fingers. ‘I hope that you will be as happy to have a son.’
He looked at her in confusion.
‘Elves know,’ she said, ‘from the moment of conception. They hear the new voice join the song – and count life as starting from that moment. Today is your son’s begetting day, Imrazor, son of Adrahil.’
A slow smile spread across his face and he rested his hand low on her belly in wonder. ‘A son?’ he asked. ‘By this time next year I will be a father?’
‘You are a father now,’ she said literally. ‘But a year from today you will be able to hold your son in your arms.’
He gathered her into his arms and held her as delicately as he would hold a flower, allowing the excitement to tingle through him before her words registered. ‘A year?’ he said with confusion. ‘I did not think that pregnancy lasted so long. I am sure that in men it takes a shorter time.’
‘Really?’ she asked, thinking of those she had seen swell with child and give birth. ‘You are right – I wonder if that will make a difference.’
Imrazor looked at her anxiously. ‘Did you not say that Lord Elrond at Imladris is half-elven and a noted healer? I will send a ship north to Mithlond in search of his wisdom.’
‘There is no rush,’ she told him comfortably, drawing him back down to the grassy bank. ‘Let us remain here a while.’
Mithrellas had been surprised – and more than a little irritated – by the fascination with which the population of Belfalas greeted the progress of her pregnancy. Every move she made was greeted with clucking: she was told to rest, or be active, eat carefully, or take what she chose – and every piece of advice seemed to contradict at least one other. Heledh had laughed and told her to make the most of the attention, for it would not outlast the arrival of Belfalas’s heir. The only thing her husband’s mother had insisted on was that the differences in elven gestation should be spread openly among the women of the court, so that no whispers would arise about the paternity of the child she carried.
Imrazor’s messengers had been welcomed to the Grey Havens of the north, and escorted to the hidden valley of Imladris in their quest for information and had returned with copies of as much information as the Lord of Imladris could provide. They had also brought long letters from the Lady Celebrían, daughter of Galadriel and Celeborn and wife to Lord Elrond, detailing her experience of bearing children with mortal blood and containing an offer of an elven healer to aid Mithrellas with the birth.
‘Lady Celebrían seems to be saying that you are likely to carry the child for a shorter time than you would expect,’ Lady Heledh said thoughtfully on reading the letters, ‘and that the child will be bigger than you would have expected of an elven infant born early, yet not as large as a full-blooded man-child born at term.’
Mithrellas smoothed a slightly nervous hand over her swelling abdomen. ‘He is growing more quickly than I would have thought,’ she said, sending soothing thoughts to the restless child within her.
‘Would you like to have an elven healer present?’ Adrahil asked. ‘I am not sure that our midwives will be very impressed, but healers of your race are undoubtedly more skilled than our own.’
Mithrellas looked at her husband, who returned her gaze blandly. ‘I suspect,’ she said, ‘that Imrazor sent messengers directly back from Dol Amroth to accept the offer.’
‘I would not have wanted aid to arrive too late to be of use,’ he replied. ‘The presence of elves will do no harm.’
Heledh pulled a face. ‘You do not wish the people of Belfalas to gain the impression that your son is more Elf than Man,’ she said bluntly. ‘It would not be wise to fill your house with elves.’
‘One healer,’ Imrazor protested, ‘or even a handful, will hardly take over my household.’
‘Healers who specialise in childbirth are, as with the midwives of Gondor, generally female,’ Mithrellas added. ‘I have observed that Men do not take females of any kind very seriously – they are unlikely to worry about an elleth who is also a healer.’
‘True enough,’ Adrahil observed. ‘I have, in any case, something of more importance to discuss with you both.’
‘There is nothing,’ Heledh objected, ‘more important than our grandson!’
The Lord of Belfalas took her hand. ‘Now Minas Ithil is lost and the fighting in the field has diminished, I want to establish a stronger presence at the coast. The Elves no longer hold Edhellond; the Corsairs are sailing out of Umbar and I am of the opinion that Belfalas will need to hold Dol Amroth firmly against incursion. We have long visited the city – but I now intend that it should be a centre of our power.’
His son looked at him and nodded slowly. ‘Are you intending to leave the position we hold here controlling the river and the road?’
Adrahil waved his hand. ‘You mistake my meaning,’ he said. ‘I will continue to hold here, as I have always done. I want you, my son, and Mithrellas to build a second stronghold on the sea.’ He smiled at his wife’s look of protest. ‘It will not mean you leaving this year or next,’ he said in a mollifying tone, ‘but over the next ten years or so, you will move your household to be based there. You will continue to spend months here – as we will visit you.’
‘It makes a lot of sense,’ Imrazor allowed. ‘Belfalas is vulnerable from the sea – but the sea could also be a source of revenue much greater than the road. A show of strength in the city could benefit the whole region.’
Adrahil smiled and raised his glass. ‘To your son,’ he said, ‘the future Lord of Dol Amroth.’
‘Did Lord Elrond send an elven midwife?’ Lothiriel asked.
‘He did,’ Mithrellas nodded. ‘The same one who, in fact, aided at the birth of Arwen Undomiel – and at that of her twin brothers. She was very reassuring.’
Lothiriel looked at her rather uneasily.
Mithrellas smiled. ‘A skilled midwife is a very important addition to any large household,’ she remarked casually. ‘And it is well to ensure her presence well in advance of any need. I think Curánwen’s years in Belfalas were probably of benefit to many young women for generations after she returned to the hidden valley.’
‘What was Galador like as a baby?’ Imrahil asked with interest. ‘Did the elven side of his heritage show clearly, or did he appear to be a son of Men?’
‘Is your interest in my son? Or are you more concerned about the son the Evenstar will bear your king?’ Mithrellas asked dryly.
Imrahil inclined his head in acknowledgement. ‘I agree with Lady Heledh,’ he said. ‘Elessar’s son will be a ruler of Men. It is important for him to him to be a son of Gondor.’
‘Galador was clearly his father’s son,’ Mithrellas told him. ‘His ears were round and he seemed to me to be more – boisterous – than an elven infant. He grew swiftly and learned quickly, although he was more sensitive to the natural world than other boys. But, I was told, he took longer to mature than others of his age. Imrazor’s mother said that all the sons of Númenor took longer to reach adulthood than others, but that Galador was slower still to grow to his full height. It did not matter, because he was stronger than most of his friends and possessed something of an elven agility.’
‘Was Adrahil right?’ Elphir asked. ‘Was it a wise move to bring the rulers of Belfalas to Dol Amroth?’
Mithrellas shrugged. ‘I am not the one to ask about such matters,’ she said. ‘And Imrazor is not here to tell you what he thought. He spent some years building up the defences of the city and beginning the construction of a home before we left his father’s castle permanently and brought the children to the sea. Until then, we spent part of the year here, but returned to the quiet of the wooded valleys for the winter. The people of Dol Amroth seemed to welcome us – I think they felt more secure with Imrazor and his soldiers in residence here. The town certainly became bigger and wealthier – the ships in the harbour came to outnumber the swans.’
‘It seems to me that it was the right thing to do,’ Amrothos said, his liquid eyes moving from the elf to look out over the water. ‘Experience has shown that Dol Amroth is the key to holding Belfalas. The river, the road, the passes through the hills – they are important, but they can be, they have been, held by small forces responding according to their standing orders.’
‘Especially,’ Erchirion said seriously, ‘since the Rohirrim arrived to take control of the land to the north of the mountains. I think we should be quite glad of the Horse Lords, do you not agree, little sister?’
7: Years of Harmony
The breeze stirred the leaves gently as they rested beneath the trees.
‘What was he like, Adrahil of Belfalas?’ Imrahil asked suddenly. ‘There is little written of him.’
Mithrellas gazed at the pattern on the grass made by the sun’s rays gleaming through the canopy. ‘He was not young – for a Man – when I met him,’ she said. ‘He had been injured in his last battle and leaned heavily on a stick – but although he no longer led his troops to war, he always said that if war came to him, he would make it rue the day.’ She smiled. ‘He was a brave man, an intelligent man – he led Belfalas well at a dangerous time and kept its people safe and prosperous. He was, I was told, a good military leader – he was a commander under King Ondoher and later fought against Angmar – but he was also a kindly man and much beloved of his family and people. He was a doting grandfather.’
Elphir laughed. ‘He would not be the only one,’ he commented.
‘It is delightful to be a grandfather,’ Imrahil said easily. ‘You are entitled to over-indulge the little ones and then hand them back to their parents to be disciplined. It is your revenge on your children for all the sleepless nights they gave you.’
‘I probably,’ Mithrellas admitted, ‘do not know the kind of things about them – Adrahil, Imrazor and Galador – that you would like to be told. I never saw them in battle or in conference with the kings and their stewards. I did not know Eärnil or Eärnur. I never met Mardil. The Lords of Gondor tend to expect their wives and daughters to remain at home in temporary authority while they indulge in war and politics.’ She smiled. ‘My stories are more – intimate. I can tell you that Imrazor disliked early morning conversation and could be very bad-tempered if beaten at chess. And that Galador could come up with some very enterprising ways of avoiding having to eat his greens – and he complained incessantly about the tedium of having to endure the attentions of tutors long after his friends had committed themselves to training as warriors.’
‘Like you, Amrothos,’ Erchirion teased. ‘Maybe you are just a throwback rather than a changeling.’
Lothiriel and Amrothos exchanged the long-suffering looks of younger siblings. ‘You are not funny, Erchirion,’ Amrothos sighed.
‘The library is filled with scrolls that tell of the kind of history that is written down,’ Imrahil observed. ‘We know of councils and wars – it is the detail that is fascinating to learn. This is a unique opportunity this side of the Sundering Seas, Lady Mithrellas – there can be few Men who are granted the opportunity to meet their own ancestors. It is the detail that I would wish to hear.’
‘Tell us of Imrazor,’ Lothiriel pleaded. ‘What was he like? How was it, living back then in Dol Amroth?’
Mithrellas looked out over the water.
The sea shifted in the sunlight, mocking her – this elf trapped east of the sea in the company of Men, doomed to live brief lives and die as she watched them. The forest had soothed her with its eternal song, but there were few trees here and they were themselves tormented by the salt winds. Mithrellas found that she did not much like Dol Amroth. It was nothing but a collection of stone buildings hanging over the sea, dependent on the fishing boats and the trading ships that moved goods north and south. It stank – of fish, of people, of dirt and it made her want to return to the wooded hills by the Ringló.
Imrazor knew she was not happy here, but he did not begin to realise how much she disliked the harsh brilliance of sun on water and the open shadeless cliffs. She learned to endure it, but the coast was no home for a Wood Elf. He built his castle here high above the town and put in gardens before he built the keep, transplanting trees that would tolerate the winter storms and the salt spray, putting in deep-rooted vines and fragrant shrubs. She knew why he did it, and loved him for it, but it was not really enough. It could never be enough.
She looked forward to the winters, when they moved back to Adrahil’s home among the wooded valleys south of Ethring where the sea released its hold and she could be herself.
Imrazor worked hard in his desire to establish Dol Amroth as the secure hub of commercial activity on Gondor’s coast, in preference to destinations further south. The harbour was undoubtedly better, he told Mithrellas as he speared slices of venison on his knife to eat hungrily after a morning of discussion, but there were other factors to consider.
‘Pelargir is a good staging post for Minas Tirith,’ he said earnestly, ‘and of course that is the biggest single market in Gondor – but its disadvantage is that the larger ships have difficulty making their way through the delta of the Anduin. Tolfalas would make a good base for both the ocean-going ships and the smaller river boats, but it lacks a true natural harbour. Linhir, I think, is too far upriver and not suited to the growth needed.’
Mithrellas nodded soberly, admiring the gleam in his eyes and the way he pushed back the windswept waves of dark hair. It would never occur to Imrazor, she thought with quiet amusement, to come to the table without washing his hands, but, equally, like his son, he would never think to brush his hair.
Without looking, she leaned over to Galador and uncovered the vegetables he had been attempting to hide. ‘Eat them,’ she commanded. ‘They are good for you.’
Her small son pulled a face, but the diversion had made his father turn his attention to his offspring and Galador sat up straight and began to consume small amounts of his least favourite foods without open objection.
Imrazor looked at the slight figure and raised an eyebrow. His son returned the gaze, grey eyes meeting grey. ‘If you behave yourself, you can ride with me this afternoon when I go to see the progress that is being made with the lighthouse,’ his father offered. ‘Provided your nana agrees.’
‘Perhaps Nana would like to come,’ Galador said with enthusiasm. ‘We could have a picnic and not come back until after it is dark and the stars are out. Nana likes the stars.’
‘Perhaps,’ Imrazor said, his face bright with anticipation, ‘we could find a spot where we could sleep under the stars and not come back until tomorrow.’
‘Perhaps,’ his son continued, ‘we could run away to the woods and not come back at all.’
‘Now that,’ Mithrellas told them both, forestalling any remark of Imrazor’s, ‘would be sad. Why would we not want to come back home – to our normal lives? Where would be the fun in escaping our duties if they were not there for us to resume?’ She looked at her husband and smiled. ‘If you have both finished eating, we could get ready,’ she suggested, ‘for our special trip.’
They had found it that afternoon, the secret sanctuary of green that had made the open cliffs tolerable. They had ridden inland from the fresh cut stone of the tower of light at an easy pace suited to the barrel-bellied pony on which Galador had been mounted.
‘He will soon be big enough for a mount that is a little more elegant,’ Imrazor said quietly as their son pushed his obstinate pony to a canter.
‘He is in greater need of sure-footed than elegant,’ Mithrellas told him. ‘Galador has an irrepressible need to be in the middle of whatever trouble is happening around him. It will do him no harm to wait a little longer for a faster horse.’
‘He is older than you appear to think,’ Imrazor told her. ‘Do not try to keep him a baby, my love.’
‘He is not yet ten,’ she insisted. ‘Even in the life-span of Men, he is still a child.’
Imrazor turned his warm gaze on her. ‘Has my mother been speaking to you?’ he asked with apparent irrelevance.
‘She has told me that it is more than time that Galador had a brother or sister,’ Mithrellas admitted.
‘What do you think of that?’
‘It seems too soon,’ Mithrellas told him frankly. ‘Elflings rarely have siblings born before they are adult. It is easier for parents to attend to the needs and education of a single child. Lady Heledh says that it is not the same among Men – and I have seen that some families have many children with few years between them – but you are yourself an only child, as am I.’
‘I would like another child,’ Imrazor said thoughtfully. ‘My parents would like us to have another son or two, I think, but I would like to have a daughter – one like her mother.’
Mithrellas smiled at him. ‘If it would please you, my lord, I will give the project some attention. It might be as well, anyway,’ she considered, ‘to undertake the matter before Curánwen decides to return to the north and she has been hinting recently that she has taught the healers all they are prepared to learn.’
Their son, meanwhile, had encouraged his sturdy pony to investigate a steep path to the side of the wide area of rabbit-nibbled turf. ‘Father!’ he shouted urgently. ‘Come and see what I have found!’
Imrazor met Mithrellas’s eyes. ‘A dead sheep?’ he suggested. ‘Or perhaps he has come across a bird’s nest.’
‘I cannot see him,’ she replied looking round. ‘He has somehow managed to disappear in this enormous expanse of nothing in particular.’
‘I know you prefer living where there are woods,’ Imrazor said apologetically, ‘but Father was right to see that Dol Amroth will secure the future of Belfalas. If you wish, you can stay at Ethring while I am here.’
‘I would rather be with you,’ she said absently, listening carefully for the presence of their son. ‘Galador,’ she called. ‘Where are you?’
He had led them down a path to a small wooded valley, nestled between steep slopes on either side of a clear stream that headed towards the cliffs to pour out in a constant spray of water into the waters of the bay.
‘It is beautiful,’ Mithrellas said, kicking off her shoes and climbing swiftly into the branches of the welcoming oaks, leaving her husband to deal with the horses. Galador scampered after her like a squirrel, jumping easily and confidently from branch to branch, while his father watched nervously.
‘It amazes me,’ he said, ‘that you can resist any attempt of mine to take my son sailing or provide him with a swift pony and yet remain completely unconcerned while he sways on branches too thin to hold him at the top of ridiculously tall trees.’
‘The trees will look after him,’ she replied leaping softly to land beside him. ‘They know he is my son and will not let him fall.’ She took his hand and strolled with him towards the stream, pausing to touch the strong trunks as she passed. They settled beside the water, spreading the blanket out on the grass and opening the basket of food they had brought with them. ‘I suppose I am not being fair,’ she admitted. ‘I am happy to have him doing things I expect elflings to do, but I resist what you want.’
Imrazor bit his lower lip. He did not wish to spoil the afternoon, but the opportunity offered itself to say something his wife would have to accept before next she saw Adrahil. ‘He is big enough now to begin his warrior training with the other boys,’ he said carefully. ‘I know you feel he is too young – but you will always think that, Mithrellas. If he is to be their lord, he must have the skills to lead them in battle – and the younger you start, the easier it is to learn.’
‘He is the size ellyn are when they begin their training,’ his wife allowed. ‘They are older in years, of course, but he would seem to be ready.’ She looked regretfully at the small figure scrambling in the branches. ‘Perhaps it would be a good time to provide your parents with another grandchild. The diversion will help me cope as he grows away from me.’
Gilmith had been born the following summer. She had been a cheerful gurgling baby, easy to amuse and captivating those around her with her delightful giggle. Her dark hair had framed a face with the pale delicacy of her mother’s, but, like her brother, she was clearly her father’s child. Galador had looked her over coolly, this mite come to take attention away from him, and then decided to adore her, a feeling she more than reciprocated.
Imrazor’s mother had lived long enough to see her turn from a chubby baby into a quicksilver child with a talent for being where she was least expected.
‘I would have liked to have more children,’ Lady Heledh told Mithrellas in almost their last conversation. ‘More sons for Adrahil, but a daughter or two for me. But times were difficult when I was in my child-bearing years. Adrahil was with the armies of Gondor, fighting the Wainriders and then, later, he was involved in the war against Angmar. There seemed little reason to bring children into a world that could be destroyed at any moment. Then, when Adrahil finally returned, he was injured and it took him a long time to recover.’ She watched her granddaughter attempting to put stitches in her first sampler. ‘Treasure her,’ she said wearily. ‘Choose her husband well.’
Mithrellas put her hands on her mother-in-law’s temples and massaged gently, a soothing coolness helping Lady Heledh relax.
‘I am pleased that Imrazor married you,’ she said sleepily. ‘I was not sure at first, but you have been good for him. Care for him, my dear. And do not let my death distress you – I am more than ready to depart.’
In the following years, Adrahil had spent an increasing amount of his time with his son’s family, allowing Imrazor to take on the majority of the responsibility for ruling Belfalas. The elderly prince had taken his ease in the gardens overlooking the sea, talking to his granddaughter, and whiled away hours watching his grandson in the training yards as he developed the skills of a warrior. His interest in the day-to-day monotony of directing his advisors had diminished and he appended his signature as his son recommended, without any of the intense discussions of previous years.
‘I am Prince of Belfalas in name only now,’ he said mildly as he eased himself down to the sheltered seat where Mithrellas sat stitching. ‘It no longer seems important – I think my life is winding down. I shall be glad to move on beyond this world.’
She gazed at him with stricken eyes. ‘I do not want you to leave us,’ she said.
His gnarled hand patted her youthfully smooth fingers. ‘It comes to all Men in time,’ he said. ‘You will need to prepare yourself for it.’ He looked at the blue waters of the bay and watched the gulls wheeling. ‘I am of the opinion,’ he said carefully, ‘that you should not remain here until the end of Imrazor’s days. I think that the grief caused by watching him die might lead to your own end.’ He smiled at her quickly, his faded grey eyes shrewd despite his age. ‘It should be possible,’ he said in a neutral voice, ‘to send to the Grey Havens in the north and ask that a ship be made available here, so that you can sail when the time seems right.’
‘No!’ she said sharply, then repeated more softly, ‘No. I will not be sent away.’
He patted her hand again. ‘It will not be for many years yet, my dear. But you should have in mind what you will do. I have told Imrazor what I think – and he does not agree with me either.’ He smiled again. ‘He thinks you should return to the Golden Wood when age catches up with him.’
‘I will make my own choice,’ she said, her voice strained.
‘That is your right,’ he agreed.
They sat beside each other, looking straight ahead, their thoughts as bleak as the expression in their eyes. ‘You cannot remain here,’ Adrahil said finally, so soft that only elven hearing would have caught his words. ‘Your children are of the race of Men – and the time will come when they need you to leave them behind to live their own lives.’ He turned slowly to look at her face, as young as it had been the first time he saw her. ‘I am saying this, Mithrellas, not because I dislike you – I do not – but because I do not believe that my son or grandson will ever be prepared to speak these words.’
Mithrellas lowered her head to inspect the fingers in her lap. ‘I understand,’ she said, counting in her head the years left to her. ‘I understand.’
They sat, then, in silence, watching the sun sink over the sea, setting by inches, slowly at first but then dropping below the horizon with a surprising speed as the minutes of the day ran out, until the golden glow was gone and the first star pricked the steel blue sky.
Five pairs of sombre grey eyes gazed at the elf as she stared at the dancing blue satin of the sea.
Imrahil cleared his throat. ‘For what it is worth,’ he said. ‘He was right. It sounds cruel, but you could not have remained as you are in the house of your children’s children. Your descendants are spread across Gondor – but, had you stayed, I suspect that would not have been so.’
His daughter turned a reproachful look on him.
Mithrellas stroked the girl’s hand. ‘It is true, Lothiriel,’ she said. ‘I had to leave. Not then – my children were still young and my husband in the prime of his life. Adrahil was right to prepare me. There would come a time, when Galador was grown and Gilmith wed, when Imrazor reached old age – a time when I would have to choose.’
8: Growing Apart
‘Adrahil lived another turn of the seasons,’ Mithrellas said distantly. ‘His end – frightened me. He had been so strong, so commanding, so powerful.’ She smiled ruefully. ‘So like his son. Yet in those last few months he became like an infant again: needing comfort and the care of a mother. He fought to live: unlike the Lady Heledh, Adrahil was unwilling to accept death. I looked at Imrazor and imagined how I would cope if I saw him struggling for every breath or weeping because the sun shone in his eyes – and I did not know if I could endure it.’
‘It is hard,’ Imrahil agreed. ‘My wife’s mother lived beyond her time and it was terrible to watch. But I do not believe that Imrazor failed in his old age?’
Mithrellas shrugged. ‘Histories would not tell of that, would they?’ she remarked. ‘Years pass so quickly,’ she said regretfully. ‘In the Golden Wood, the turn of the seasons is barely marked – there is a tranquillity that disregards time. It is that, I think, that I seek in following the Lady across the sea.’ She looked at Imrahil’s children with a sorrow that touched him, knowing as he did the echo of loss he felt as they had turned from children to adults with such speed. ‘I tried,’ she continued, ‘after Adrahil’s death, to savour every minute – to lay down memories that would sustain me in centuries to come. Pictures of Gilmith dancing barefoot in the autumn mists with drops like diamonds in her hair. Galador’s serious face as he competed at archery – and his delight when he won. Imrazor – always Imrazor. Sober in council, bold in the hunt, armour gleaming at the head of his troops, laughing with his children, loving, demanding, a presence such that he left an emptiness behind him. He said I watched him too much – that I did not sleep, only to spend the night hours looking at him, but I knew our time was short. How could I not want to have him while I could?’
‘I do not know,’ Imrahil reflected, ‘whether it is better to know your time is limited, and learn to live with its ending, or to have disaster strike you in the middle of your happiness.’ He smiled sadly at Lothiriel. ‘My wife died unexpectedly at our daughter’s birth,’ he said, ‘and, for a while, I did not know how I would cope. My older sister took hold – and finally insisted, as only sisters can, that I lay my grief aside and think more of my children and my duty than of myself.’
‘Sisters are demanding creatures,’ Amrothos nodded, ‘even when they are younger than you. And they will never take no for an answer.’
Mithrellas laughed. ‘I think Galador would have agreed with you,’ she said.
‘Tell her, Naneth,’ Galador insisted. ‘She is old enough to make some pretence of being a lady.’
Gilmith’s eyes sparked sharp needles. ‘Just because you admire girls who flutter their eyelashes at you and tell you that you are wonderful does not mean I have to be like them!’ she snapped. ‘I do not intend to spend my life trapped inside the walls of some boring castle, while my husband is off doing exciting things.’
‘You will be lucky if you ever persuade some poor fool to marry you,’ Galador retaliated. ‘He would have to be deaf to put up with your spiteful tongue.’
‘What,’ asked Mithrellas, ‘has made you two fight this time?’
‘I found her in the valley,’ Galador told his mother indignantly, ‘on her own, unchaperoned, barefoot, in a dress little more modest than a shift and scrambling round in the trees like a squirrel!’
‘And which of those things annoys you the most?’ Mithrellas enquired with interest.
Galador stopped and drew a breath. ‘Gilmith needs to fit in with the rules, Naneth,’ he said insistently. Everybody knows you are an elf and that things are different for you – but Gilmith is a Lady of Belfalas. She owes it to our House to behave properly.’
‘She is a child still,’ Mithrellas pointed out.
Gilmith drew a deep breath to object to the description, but realised in time that her age might, for once, be an advantage.
Her mother’s eyes twinkled. ‘I do not think that she needs to comply with Doriel’s standards of ladylike behaviour yet.’
Galador flushed. ‘It is not just Doriel,’ he said rebelliously. ‘Other people agree that Gilmith is too wild.’
As Gilmith opened her mouth to demand that he let her know who was criticising her, her mother took her hand. ‘We will discuss the matter,’ she said firmly, ‘and you will support your sister when others speak of her. Your friends will take their attitude from you.’
‘Doriel only likes him because Father is Prince of Belfalas,’ Gilmith muttered as her brother left. ‘She does not like elves – she says they are creepy. Her mother would not let Curánwen treat her and said it was a good thing when she left. I hope Father refuses to let Galador marry Doriel.’
‘Your brother is only twenty five,’ Mithrellas said. ‘That is too young for him to marry.’ She looked at her daughter seriously. ‘He does have a point, Gilmith. You are permitted far more freedom than is granted to most girls of your age and rank, because your father knows how hard I find it to endure confinement in stone walls – but, if you abuse what he offers, he will take it away.’
Gilmith dropped her head to hide her scowl.
‘I think you will have to resign yourself, as I have, to the presence of attendants,’ her mother said with some sympathy, ‘whom you will not attempt to escape.’ She watched her daughter with amusement. ‘And possibly suitable clothing in public. I will concede on the valley and the trees.’
‘You have responsibilities as your father’s daughter,’ Mithrellas continued, Nimrodel’s beautiful face in her mind. ‘You need to fulfil them – playtime is a reward, not a right. I will not have you turn into a Doriel – the sort of maiden who expects the world to worship at her feet and give in to her every wish.’
For some time Mithrellas had paid more attention to the expressions on the faces of the lords and ladies of Belfalas rather than their words. She had always been glad of the distance they had kept from her, but it was a different thing to consider that they might hold themselves aloof from her children, whose Númenorean blood was, in their minds, polluted by their association with the Elves.
Imrazor, when she had told him her worries, had laughed and told her that they were fools, who would dance to his tune, but she had been concerned enough to persuade Gilmith to adopt a more conventional appearance, at least in public, and to cultivate a few friends among the maidens who could serve as her companions as she learned the skills that would suit her to the life she would live.
Galador had, Mithrellas had been pleased to learn, rapidly lost interest in the vapidly pretty Doriel, and his desire to grow closer to other young ladies of Dol Amroth had been discouraged by his obligation to spend many long months serving his King in the field. He became an experienced soldier, growing slowly into his father’s role as captain of Belfalas’s troops, so that, in time, Imrazor had been able to spend most of his time at home directing the affairs of his princedom.
Her son had, however, returned from one of his extended trips to the heart of King Eärnil’s power somewhat distracted and Mithrellas had caught him looking at her doubtfully, as if he was not altogether willing to broach some subject which he thought might distress her.
She had finally pinned him down in the family garden overlooking the sea as he leaned on the wide wall gazing down at the bobbing shapes of the swans on the bright water.
‘Who is she?’ she asked simply.
Galador turned and smiled, his eyes gleaming with silver lights. ‘I am that obvious?’ he asked.
‘To me you are,’ she answered. ‘I do not know if your father has noticed.’ She hesitated. ‘Will he approve of her?’
‘He will,’ Galador said with conviction. ‘She is kin to Grandmother’s brother’s wife. She is beautiful and kind and intelligent.’
Mithrellas nodded slowly. ‘You must talk to your father,’ she said, ‘before you ask her to wed you. You have your duty to think of as well as your love.’
She had wept when her son married his Iúliel, even though his face had been bright with anticipation. It had reminded her too clearly of her own bridal, and how Imrazor had changed since that day. Then, too, she had felt it as a loosening of her ties to this city by the sea – the day of which Adrahil had warned her grew ever closer. Galador needed her no longer. Gilmith was grown and soon she would seek her own home. Mithrellas looked at Imrazor, her eyes tracing the signs of age affecting him as he approached his century.
He had embraced her after the bridegroom’s kin had escorted Galador to join his wife and they had returned to their own rooms. ‘When I say you have not changed from the day we met,’ he whispered in her ear, ‘you know that I speak the truth.’ He caressed her flowing dark hair and held her close. ‘You, I know,’ he jested, ‘cannot say the same, for I would not expect you to lie to me.’
‘What I love in you is the same as it always was,’ she told him, feeling the bones beneath his stiffly embroidered tunic. ‘You do not eat enough,’ she said, kissing him gently.
He deepened the kiss with an enthusiasm that had not changed at all. ‘I am afraid, my love,’ he said regretfully, ‘that I am just growing old.’ He took her face between his hands and raised her chin so that their eyes met. ‘There will come a time, I know,’ he told her seriously, ‘when you will no longer be able to stay – I am aware of it, I expect it, but I hope it is not yet, for I do not wish to have to live without you and I am selfish enough to ask you to remain with me as long as you can.’
She ran her fingers through his waves of frost-streaked dark hair. ‘I do not want to leave,’ she said simply, ‘but I know that I cannot remain. I am accepted because of you, my love. But my time will come, even if it is not death that will take me. Few men now are familiar with elves and there are ever more who are made uncomfortable by me – they will hold me against my children and grandchildren. If I am gone they will forget the reality and only remember a story.’
Imrazor swept her into his arms and carried her to the bed. ‘You are a feather floating on the wind,’ he said, ‘but I will hold you while I can.’
‘Our love is the wind on which I ride,’ she said simply. ‘And it bears me still.’
Mithrellas had known within a few short years that Imrazor and his son were contemplating a suitable marriage for Gilmith. Neither wished to push her into an arrangement that would make her unhappy – but the marriage of a daughter was too important a matter to her House to leave her choice entirely unguided. Eärnil’s unfortunate death provided an opportunity to take Gilmith to Minas Tirith for the coronation of his son, and many discussions on alliances of different kinds took place there in the quiet moments between the formalities associated with accession to power.
He was packaged up and returned with the party from Belfalas, the young lordling whom all had agreed was most suitable – and only the look of happiness in Gilmith’s eyes had been able to persuade Mithrellas to stifle her objections. She came to like Rochirion and even concluded that he would make her daughter happy – but he would take her away and that was a pain she could not be expected to like.
After Gilmith had departed in a flurry of excitement and good wishes, the only happening that had brightened Mithrellas’s mood had been the arrival of her granddaughter: a joy that had stood out against the dark worries that haunted Gondor.
Mithrellas held the child, her fingers curled around her grandmother’s thumb, and marvelled at her tiny perfection. ‘It is hard to believe that you were this small so short a time ago,’ she told Galador.
He smiled with all the pride of a new father. ‘It seems long enough ago to me,’ he said. ‘What do you think, Father?’
‘I think you have a fine daughter,’ Imrazor said softly. ‘She has her grandmother’s eyes.’
‘She is a promise,’ Mithrellas sighed, dropping a gentle kiss on her soft dark hair. ‘A promise for the future. Life will go on: Gondor will endure.’
Imrazor and his son exchanged glances over her head. The situation, with the Nazgul haunting Minas Morgul – a tower no longer dedicated to the moon, but to dark sorcery – was becoming desperate, and the threat to the last great realm of men deepened with every season. Eärnur was a brave king, and a worthy son to his father, but how long he could hold against the present danger, none knew.
Mithrellas felt their doubt. ‘Gondor will endure,’ she repeated. ‘Changed, it is true, but it will be here – and a long line of Princes of Belfalas and Lords of Dol Amroth will rule here. I have little foresight, I am pleased to say, but I have seen it in true dreams.’
Galador smiled the sort of smile that humours a beloved mother. ‘I am glad of it,’ he said.
Her husband, more aware of her talents, slipped his arm round her waist and leaned into her shoulder; attempting to reassure her, for he knew that neither of them would be present to see that future. He had no expectation of it – and no desire, either, for he was content with his mortality, resenting only the division it would bring, but he knew that she would spend eternity in want of reunions that could never happen.
The baby opened her mouth, seeking the only comfort of interest to the new-born and issued a squawk of command. ‘She needs her mother,’ Mithrellas decided with a final brush of her fingers across the soft cheek, before surrendering the child to her son.
They spent more time in Adrahil’s castle after the child was born. Imrazor began to surrender some of his responsibilities to his son, as his father had done, leaving Galador to be the Lord of Dol Amroth. The quiet forests south of Ethring suited their mood better. When Eärnur had ridden with his small band of knights to meet his death against the Nazgul and the last King of Gondor had been lost, Mithrellas had only been able to feel grateful that neither her son nor Gilmith’s husband had been among them, but the gloom of ill-fate hung over Belfalas nonetheless. This loss, depriving Gondor of its ruler, boded badly for the rule of Men. Only the resilience and obstinacy of the Stewards held the country together in the absence of an heir to the throne, as they accepted the duty to rule in the king’s stead.
‘My time draws close,’ Mithrellas said sombrely to Imrazor as they rested in the hidden glade where they had so frequently taken their pleasure in their early days. ‘I feel it in the air,’ she sighed. ‘I sense it in the water. A long change is coming.’ She looked at the man whose love had held her in these alien lands throughout his count of years. When had he become old, she wondered? When she looked in his eyes, he was unchanged. The eager boy, the lover, the soldier, the father, the statesman – they were all there, trapped now in a body that walked where it had run, that rested where it had yearned to act.
He looked at her with acceptance. A parting that had filled him with dread a few short years before had become inevitable. ‘Do not leave without warning,’ he requested. ‘I would not be left to grieve, not knowing that you are safe.’
She drew close to him and put her head on his shoulder, wrapping her strong arms round his waist. ‘We will make our farewells,’ she promised. She hesitated. ‘I do not believe that we will summon our children for them,’ she said. ‘It should be as if I have died. They can mourn me better then.’
They had wept together, holding each other as if to push back time. ‘I will not sail,’ she said finally, her voice low with despair. ‘I will not seek the sanctuary of the Blessed Realm while the Dark threatens. I do not know if there will ever be any role for me, or if I am played out, but I will stay. I will return to the Golden Wood.’
‘Apart or together,’ Imrazor murmured, tears stinging his eyes, ‘you are in my heart.’
‘You will never be forgotten,’ she said. ‘You will live always in memory.’
Mithrellas looked dry-eyed at the restless sea.
‘I see why you envy Queen Undomiel the choice of Luthien,’ Imrahil said finally. ‘Imrazor lived some score of years after you left him – but then he found peace. You, I think, have never moved beyond your parting.’
‘I wondered,’ Erchirion said thoughtfully, ‘why you had stayed. You had nearly sailed before, when Nimrodel sought the sea. The legends say that you took ship – you disappeared overnight, but that you headed to the Undying Lands. Is that why you are willing to go now? The Dark Lord is defeated and the Elves are all sailing west?’
Mithrellas shrugged. ‘There are those who will remain,’ she said. ‘Lord Celeborn will not go yet. The Elrondionnath will stay while their sister lives. And there are many Wood Elves who do not hear the call of the sea and may never choose to go.’
‘It seems to me,’ Lothiriel said with a deep sigh, ‘that the romance of love between an Elf and a Man is not what it seems to be in the lays sung by minstrels.’
‘Romance is illusion,’ the beautiful elf said practically, ‘whether between Elf and Man or in any other combination. One must live with the reality. Nimrodel showed me that it is necessary to look beyond self-gratification. Love is in giving of yourself in hope and trust, open-handedly, and the ending of my love for Imrazor was implicit in its beginning. I remained of my kindred – one of the Firstborn. No message came from the Valar to offer Imrazor passage to the West and I believe he would not have accepted the chance had it come. The time had come to pay for our years of happiness.’
9: Breaking Point
‘Was it long before you left?’ Lothiriel asked with tears in her eyes.
‘Longer than I thought it would be,’ Mithrellas said. ‘It was hard – hard to go and harder still to stay. A messenger came to us from Galador, bringing letters from him and Gilmith. Iúliel was to present our son with another child and Gilmith wrote to say that she was bringing her husband and children to visit Belfalas. It became impossible for me to depart without welcoming the child to the world, or seeing my daughter for a last time.’ She smiled sadly. ‘We watched each other, Imrazor and I – knowing that each occasion could be the last. The last sight of my children, the last word from my grandchildren, our last day as a family. We wanted to savour it – but the taste was bitter.’
‘The young are eager for change,’ Imrahil mused softly, ‘but we grow more resistant to it as we age – we are more aware of the speed with which time passes and we know that once spent, moments will not return.’
‘And yet,’ Mithrellas smiled sadly, ‘we have to let our children fly, even as we know there will be times when they will fall.’
Lothiriel averted her eyes from her father and looked out over the shifting blues of the sea, clenching her hands in her lap, until a friendly nudge from Amrothos made her relax and smile at him.
Imrahil sighed. ‘I should be thankful that the war has spared them all to go their own ways – many have been less fortunate.’ He glanced at the elf in the shadows of the tree. ‘My sister’s son is left alone to face a changed world – he lost both father and his most beloved brother to the last struggles.’
‘Not alone, I think,’ Mithrellas remarked. ‘The young Steward is greatly valued by Elessar, who sees his worth – and the strong spirit of the Horse Lord’s sister will not let him mourn unduly.’ She paused and listened to the breeze in the leaves. ‘It was neither Galador nor Gilmith who worried me,’ she added. ‘They had their lives to lead. I knew they would miss me – and be angry with me for leaving – but they would recover. But I was afraid for Imrazor. I had seen how Heledh’s departure had affected Adrahil – how could I let my husband endure such misery if I could prevent it by remaining a few more short years?’
‘She is a lovely child,’ Mithrellas said, holding the second daughter of Galador and Iúliel in her arms as the infant slept.
Galador looked at the baby, his expression slightly less ecstatic than it had been at the arrival of his firstborn.
‘The son will come,’ Imrazor said, putting a hand on his shoulder consolingly. ‘Do not hold her gender against her, Lord of Dol Amroth, for daughters should be very precious to their fathers.’
‘I would treasure her more,’ Galador admitted, ‘had her arrival come after that of a brother. We have been married some years now and only have these two – Gilmith already has two sons and a daughter.’
Mithrellas lifted her eyes from the sleeping baby with some impatience. Men were so concerned with having sons, she thought, that they sometimes appeared not to notice the vital part that females played in the process of producing heirs. ‘Your son will arrive when he is ready,’ she told Galador plainly. ‘And holding back your love from this little one will not make him come any more quickly.’
Her son threw her the wicked smile that had always melted her wrath. ‘I would not dare,’ he said, ‘even if I could. Her mother and sister are already her willing slaves – they would be most annoyed if I did not join them in their devotion.’
His mother was a little mollified. ‘He will be a lover of the sea,’ she told him, ‘this son of yours, caring little for the deep woods and the high places, but he will be a fine lord for his people in his time.’
Galador looked at his mother with the touch of doubt that always struck him when he was reminded of her difference. ‘I will heed your words,’ he said respectfully, ‘and remember them.’
‘You show some signs of wisdom then, my son,’ his father judged.
On the day before her return to her husband’s lands, Gilmith had come to her outside, where the whispers of the green world were almost drowned out by the song of the waves. Her arrival would have been unnoticeable to any save an elf, for she moved with her mother’s silent grace and the grass showed little evidence of her passing. She linked her arm with her mother’s and rested her hand on the long fingers where they lay on the sun-warmed stone and they stood in companionable silence looking towards the West.
‘It will not be long now,’ Gilmith sighed at last as the sun’s fires sent out tendrils across the sky. ‘Galador may not be willing to see it, but I can.’ She smiled wryly at her mother. ‘We will not meet again, will we? Either in this world or beyond its circles.’
Mithrellas turned her hand to clasp her daughter’s cool palm. ‘The lives of Men are filled with welcomes and farewells,’ she said. ‘It is better that it should be a clean break.’
‘Indeed it is.’ Gilmith’s eyes gleamed silver in the evening light. ‘It will be better for Father, too,’ she added softly. ‘It must be an impossible decision to make,’ she said, ‘but he is taking the idea of your parting very hard. It is making him feel his years – he is looking far older than he did when last he came to Minas Tirith. He does not want you to go, but he is finding it difficult to endure the uncertainty.’
Turning her head, Mithrellas focused on her daughter’s face, absorbing every last nuance, from her flowing hair to her pale skin, the depths of her eyes and the curve of her lips. She raised her hand and smoothed back the dark tresses, caressing the delicate ear before running her fingertips along her jaw to cup Gilmith’s face.
‘Thank you for bringing your children here so that I might see them,’ she said.
Gilmith smiled. ‘Rochirion needed a considerable amount of convincing,’ she admitted. ‘It took most of my wiles to get him to permit them to come, but something told me that it was important enough to persist.’
As the light of the day faded, Mithrellas took her daughter in her arms and held her close. ‘My blessings on you and yours, my child,’ she said, her voice husky with pain. ‘I wish you happiness and long life – and the love of those who surround you.’
Gilmith returned the hug with ferocity. ‘May you find peace, Naneth,’ she said, ‘until we are reunited beyond the end of days.’
Her daughter’s vision had been clear, Mithrellas had realised, and she had been right. The indecision was tormenting both her and Imrazor – and it would be best if she left soon, so that they could both begin to learn to live with the results. She spoke to her husband, as she had promised, and suggested that it would be best if she disappeared while they were in Dol Amroth, so that he might have the comfort of their son’s family to help him deal with his grief.
Imrazor refused to countenance her solitary departure. ‘I cannot let you go like this,’ he said helplessly. ‘I need to know that you have reached safety. You cannot leave me to spend the rest of my years wondering – as you have always wondered about Nimrodel.’
Mithrellas drew a sharp breath and sat down suddenly. Of course her unresolved disappearance would be as much of a torment to him as her uncertainty. Yet she needed to leave quietly and wanted to be unobserved. ‘What then?’ she asked, spreading her hands in a gesture of acceptance.
Her husband turned to the window, looking out over the ships in the harbour. ‘There is a ship waiting,’ he said. ‘It has been ready for some years now.’ Imrazor looked at her, his eyes dark. ‘It will take you north, to the Grey Havens. Once you are there, there will be elves who can escort you safely wherever you wish to go.’
With the light behind him, Mithrellas thought she could almost disregard the toll of the years. She stepped up to him and slipped her arms around his waist. ‘It shall be as you wish,’ she said softly, resting her head gently on his shoulder.
‘Send me word,’ he pleaded. ‘I do not expect you to write – but let me know you have arrived.’
As darkness fell, he escorted her to the small ship with the few possessions she would take with her and watched, stone-faced, as her grey-cloaked figure slipped on board. The ship left with the tide and she watched him, standing upright on the quayside, gazing in the direction of the vessel long after his eyes would have lost any sight of it.
She remembered little of the voyage north. All she was aware of was an aching emptiness, where once she had felt love. She stood at the prow of the ship with the wind in her hair and stared forwards at the restless waves as the spray dampened her face and mimicked tears. She had known it would come to this. She had known that their few years together would be paid for with long centuries of sorrow, but these first days were hard, so hard. It took all the strength she could summon not to command the sailors to return to Dol Amroth, the city by the sea that had first felt her prison but had become her home.
The weather deteriorated as they sailed and the captain implored her to take shelter in the cabin. He did not want, he told her, to have to return to the Prince and tell him that she had been swept overboard.
She ignored him. An elf who could run among the treetops was not going to be unsteadied by the rocking of the solid oak deck and the wildness of the water echoed her mood and brought her some relief. It gave her the illusion, she thought, that she could still feel and that there was something beyond the numb calm that filled her.
It was not until the ship turned eastwards and headed into the sheltered estuary that led towards the Havens that she began to weep, but by the time the highly relieved sailors handed her into the care of the Shipwright, she was able to do little else.
Cirdan had clearly felt less than comfortable in her company and he had rapidly passed her on to the care of his household, who had held her and provided tubs of warm water to wash the salt from her hair and body.
‘Did those fool Men not give you any food at all?’ Cirdan’s housekeeper asked impatiently. ‘You would not now be feeling so bad if they had.’
Mithrellas fought to control her sobs. ‘They tried,’ she said. ‘Give them their due: they tried. But I would not . . .’
‘I know,’ Ninglor said with understanding, wrapping consoling arms around her. ‘It feels like a betrayal to eat and drink when you are grieving.’ She patted Mithrellas soothingly as if she were an elfling waking from dark dreams. ‘I have some broth that will help.’
‘Nothing will help.’ Mithrellas began to weep again. ‘I shall never see him again – not here, not in the West, not until the end of days. He will pass beyond the circles of the world and I shall not be with him. My children are forever lost to me and I am alone now and throughout all the ages that will be. I have no hope left to me.’
The fair-haired elleth sat back. ‘Then what will you do?’ she said dryly. ‘Will you choose to go to Namo straight away? Or spend some while weeping and wailing until those around you run low on sympathy? Or will you, perhaps, show some of the strength of character that your husband’s letter told Lord Cirdan should see you through the darkest days?’ She gazed at Mithrellas with sympathy. ‘Take some of this,’ she commanded, offering a cup of steaming liquid. ‘Sip it slowly – it is hot and you have been allowed to go without food for far too long.’
‘I am sorry,’ Mithrellas said shakily as the hot liquid began to warm her. ‘I did not mean to – what was it? Weep and wail?’
‘I have been in a similar situation,’ the other said, taking the empty cup and refilling it. ‘It is cooling down,’ she said, ‘but it will still do you good.’
‘I am not an elfling,’ Mithrellas snapped.
‘My husband and son were both lost in the days following the darkening of Moria,’ Ninglor said evenly, ‘I came to the Havens to sail – but, once here, I chose for some reason not to go. I may expect to see them again, in however many ages it takes for Namo to decide to release them, but, at the moment, that feels like little consolation. I think Lord Cirdan decided that I would be the best person to help you as my loss is still fresh.’
Mithrellas stared at the steam rising from the cup. ‘He does not feel I need a few days to wallow in my grief?’
‘I do not believe,’ Ninglor remarked carefully, ‘that Lord Cirdan is a great believer in self-indulgence.’
After a few moments, Mithrellas sniffed. ‘I suppose he has a point,’ she said.
Before the ship of Dol Amroth headed back to its home port, Mithrellas summoned the captain to visit her, giving into his care a beautifully wrought circlet of mithril and sapphires, instructing him that it was to be given into no hands other than Imrazor’s own. She made a point of employing the stare that her mother-in-law had taught her to use to impose her will on others, informing him, with a shameless lack of truth, that she would know if her gift did not arrive safely. The unfortunate captain bowed himself out of her presence as quickly as he could, swearing on the lives of his entire acquaintance that he would carry out her request as swiftly as the waters and winds would bear him home.
It was mid-winter before Mithrellas realised that she had forgotten how differently time passed among elves. The tranquillity of their slow dance through the seasons calmed her. She grieved – she would always grieve – but the months spent waiting for a party heading towards Imladris had begun to distance her from her life in the Southlands. Even the sea, she decided, was different here: it did not consist of a myriad of hues of blue, but instead varied from the grey of storm-clouds to the clear green of forest pools. The image of Imrazor remained fresh, but the years that had weighed him down were shed and in her mind she saw him as the vibrant and enthusiastic young man who had chased across the mountains and valleys with her in search of lost elves, or as the passionate new husband who had held her in his arms with such tenderness.
The passage to Imladris was swift, once the snows had melted and the roads dried out. Most parties, she was told, headed in the opposite direction, seeking passage to the Undying Lands, and usually it was only messengers mounted on fast horses who rode east. She shrugged. She was sorry to part from some of the friends she had made, but she had made up her mind: she was going home. It mattered not if it took her decades to reach the Golden Wood – time was no longer a consideration.
The first person she recognised in Imladris was Curánwen, whose few years in Belfalas had provided Mithrellas with the only elven company she had experienced since the loss of Nimrodel, and she had found it both painful and a release to spend time in the company of one who had known and appreciated Imrazor. The healer’s awareness of the peculiarities of the Second-born was great enough, too, that she showed no surprise at the effect of the passage of so few years on both Belfalas’s Prince and on the children she had welcomed to the world.
‘It is likely,’ Curánwen said thoughtfully, ‘that your children will live longer than is customary, even among the descendents of Númenor, and that quality may well be passed on to their own children. Did you find that, as young ones, they were less vulnerable to the illnesses that are common among Men?’
‘Galador and Gilmith were rarely unwell,’ Mithrellas admitted. ‘I did not think of it – I do not expect the young to be ill – but Imrazor’s mother found it remarkable. There was a time of pestilence when Gilmith was small – it carried off many in Dol Amroth, particularly among the very young, but, even though her nursemaid succumbed, my daughter showed no signs of the disease.’ She paused, allowing her mind to drift to the days of her children’s youth. ‘They were less susceptible to cold as well, and neither did they seem to be worn by the steamy heat that could bathe the coast in summer. They needed less sleep than full-blooded Men children and, although they were slower to grow, they were stronger than those who were greater in size.’
The healer nodded slowly. ‘Lord Elrond’s children have far less of the blood of Men, but I noticed similar things as they grew.’ She smiled suddenly. ‘The effects were reversed, of course. I think the only one that continues to irritate Lords Elladan and Elrohir since they have become fully grown is that they are more sensitive to cold weather than pure-blooded elves – but they have trained themselves to endure it without complaint.’
Mithrellas had been wary, at first, of Celebrían, the Lady of Imladris. For all the kind letters that had arrived with Curánwen, Mithrellas could not forget that Celebrían was daughter to Galadriel and Celeborn, who had been left to direct the fate of the Golden Wood on Amroth’s abdication of his duty to follow Nimrodel and her maidens south to Edhellond on their way to the West. It seemed unlikely that the daughter of Lothlorien’s Lord and Lady would be willing to welcome one who had abandoned the forest only now to seek its shelter as she left her family behind her.
‘You are alone?’ Mithrellas looked up from her seat in the orchard, where fine petals of the palest pink drifted towards the daisy-studded grass to see Imladris’s Lady standing before her, her silver-fair hair glinting in the sunlight.
Celebrían sank gracefully to join the Silvan Elf on the soft carpet of green. ‘I will be leaving for the Golden Wood in some weeks to visit my parents,’ she remarked. ‘I hope that you will join my party.’ She smiled. ‘Elrond is concerned that the journey is less safe than in past days,’ she said, ‘and he will insist on a large party accompanied by guards – especially as Arwen wishes to travel with us this time. The Wood has changed but little, I find,’ she added delicately, ‘and it is always a pleasure to find myself among the mallorns.’
‘I did not mean to trouble anyone,’ Mithrellas apologised. ‘I would have slipped away and travelled northwards alone, but my lord was anxious about my safety and I found that I could not leave him to worry in ignorance of my well-being.’
‘I think your path has been in his mind for a good many years,’ Celebrían mused. ‘Curánwen returned with letters from him requesting our help when your time came to depart. It is no easy thing to be the mortal spouse of an elf – it requires a generous heart. You have been fortunate.’ She took Mithrellas’s hand between hers. ‘There is still need of you in Arda,’ she said seriously. ‘My naneth knew that you would return to Lorien one day and she will welcome you there.’
Lothlorien had indeed proved to be the refuge that Mithrellas needed. The song of the trees soothed her and their long memories scarcely noticed the eighty odd years of her absence. At first it had seemed strange, as though a lifetime of experience had been excised from her, leaving her reaching for memories that none shared, but soon she settled back into the life she had known since the beginning of the Third Age and the years of devoted love and shared joys would have seemed an illusion but for the emptiness in her being where Imrazor and her children should have been.
She sent word: not a letter, even as Imrazor had asked. They both knew that her departure was a death of sorts and should be treated as such. She had sent him a song – of hidden glades and cool dark pools, of ancient trees stretching up to the sun and timeless love. Lady Galadriel had looked at her with those eyes of star-studded blue that saw more than surface meanings, as Mithrellas had asked that the melody be carried south of the mountains by some of the wandering elves who continued to roam the hidden paths of Arda, before inclining her head and agreeing.
Some of the wanderers had returned within a few turns of the seasons and had sought out Mithrellas to tell her that they had met the Prince of Belfalas in the elf-blessed woods near his home and gifted him with the song of his wife’s creation. He had wept, they said, but seemed at peace and he had sent to tell her that his love was unabated. She bowed her head in thanks for their message and walked soberly away to secrete herself among the trees where Nimrodel’s stream ran among the tall trees.
Celebrían had brought the letter herself on one of her visits to her parents. She had found Mithrellas beneath the stars as she rested on her own close to the tree in which she had chosen to make her home. It was disconcerting, the Lady of Imladris thought, how the Silvan Elf seemed to be less – there – than she had been a score of years or so before. Mithrellas, Celebrían decided, looked as if she might break if too much pressure were put upon her and that, she sighed, made this a very bad moment to present her with the documents that were in her hand.
‘He is dead, is he not?’ The dark hair framed a face that was as pale as the moon, but Mithrellas’s voice was steady. ‘I felt it some months ago. ‘The corner of my heart where his presence warmed me was suddenly empty and it was as if the wind had brought the hardest of the winter frosts.’
‘A messenger came from Cirdan,’ Celebrían said gently, ‘bearing letters from Gondor. Your daughter wishes you to have these.’
‘What has Gilmith sent?’ Mithrellas asked, looking dispassionately up at the eternal stars.
‘It is not for me to know,’ Celebrían told her. ‘They are here for you when you are ready.’ She sat then beside the bereft elleth and waited with her as the stars turned in the sky and the grey light of the day’s beginning hid them from sight. Birds woke and sang their greeting to the dawn and the strong slow song of the trees woke from its night’s rest, yet still they rested motionless and silent, until, as the warm golden glow of sunlight sliced into the forest, Mithrellas began to weep.
Without thinking, Lothiriel turned and put her arms round her ancestress, hugging her tight. ‘Oh, I am so sorry,’ she said, moving back almost immediately as she realised what she had done. ‘We were advised in Minas Tirith to avoid touching the elves who had come to the bridal. I hope I have not offended you.’
Mithrellas returned her hug and kissed Lothiriel’s brow. ‘Being hugged by one of your family is not the same as being grabbed by many curious mortals,’ she said, running her fingers through the girl’s long dark hair. ‘It was difficult at the wedding of Arwen Undomiel,’ she explained, ‘there were so many Men and we were the cynosure of their eyes. It was most uncomfortable.’ She shuddered. ‘The smells, the walls, the absence of green, the curiosity of the city dwellers – it was none of it pleasant. I was glad to leave.’
‘The mithril circlet with sapphires,’ Imrahil mentioned.
Mithrellas smiled. ‘You were wearing it when Elessar wed the Evenstar,’ she confirmed.
‘Gimli told me it was Dwarven workmanship,’ Imrahil said thoughtfully, ‘but the design was Elvish. He gave me some long explanation to do with the cut of the stones and the style of decoration.’
‘It is quite likely,’ Mithrellas confirmed. ‘I obtained it in Mithlond from one who said that it came from Moria before the Dwarves were driven out, but it had been made many years before that. It seemed a fitting gift.’
‘Why,’ asked Amrothos, ‘do the histories of our House infer that you left like a thief in the night? Imrazor provided for your safe journey; messengers brought information back to him; Gilmith sent letters to you. How is it that none of this is recorded?’
The elf sighed. ‘Galador did not forgive my departure,’ she said sadly. ‘He would not understand. After Imrazor’s death, Gilmith told me that he refused to have my name mentioned. And within the passage of so few years, there were none left to remember.’
10: The Long Years
The sun sent a path of molten gold to light the way from the west to the Bay of Belfalas. Wisps of cloud in vivid pink streaked the pure blue of the azure sky and the waves rocked gently. Several swans flew over, their wings singing through the air as they worked their way down to join their fellows on the water.
‘What had Gilmith sent to you?’ Erchirion asked curiously. ‘It sounds as if it was more than a letter to let you know of Imrazor’s last years.’
‘Erchirion!’ Lothiriel hissed disapprovingly.
‘If you do not wish to say,’ her brother continued charmingly, ‘of course you do not have to tell us.’ He turned to stare down his nose at his sister, who sniffed disdainfully.
‘If I was not happy to talk about it,’ Mithrellas said mildly, ‘I would not have mentioned it. I have had many years to learn to live with these memories.’ She accepted the goblet of wine Amrothos offered her and took a mouthful. ‘Imrazor sent a journal,’ she sighed, ‘a very long journal. He had clearly spent much time composing it.’ She inspected the dark red of the wine in silence for several minutes before continuing. ‘He had started it the night I left and added many pages over the years when he had been unable to resist. He had passed it to Gilmith when she came to bid him farewell, fearing that Galador would have burnt his words, and left it to her to decide what to do with it. She read it and decided that I should see it.’ Mithrellas looked up, the light of stars in her eyes. ‘It was an avowal of love so deep, so beautiful, that, even as it made me cry, it healed a sorrow that I had not realised I felt. Never, not for one moment, did he doubt that our love was worth it, whatever the cost. No pain, no loneliness, no wait was too much to pay – and he was sure that, one day, we would be reunited.’
‘Oh,’ Lothiriel looked at her, eyes gleaming with tears.
‘It helped,’ Mithrellas allowed. ‘I had not thought it possible, but it did.’ She smiled briefly. ‘But it drew a line. That part of my life was over. Imrazor was gone; my children had moved beyond me and I was alone.’ She sighed. ‘And so began the long years.’
Time passed differently in Lothlorien. It hit Mithrellas every now and then, when the gentle rhythm of nature’s song bore in echoes from outside – of bitter winters or summers of drought, of welcome late springs or long autumns of brilliant colour. Few among the elves appeared to notice. The Wood was a world enclosed, protected from the harsh winds that stung the lands of Men beyond its shelter.
Celeborn, as the Lord of Lorien, , seemed more alert to the shift of time and the affairs of Men, Dwarves and Elves outside the bounds of the Wood, but Galadriel – even as the Lady involved herself in the affairs of Arda, she seemed determined to keep the mallorn groves encased in a bubble of changelessness. She had seen Mithrellas watching her and understood – the Silvan Elf had stepped outside the limits of her immortality and, to her, there were things of more importance than this peaceful haven. Galadriel had slowly drawn the former Lady of Belfalas into the circle that was more aide than attendant: one who possessed the ability to organise and had an awareness of urgency was of value among a people who could spend a month in contemplation of the beauty of a flower or in singing the praises of a spring bubbling from the rocks.
The years of the Watchful Peace passed quietly. Little word came from the south. Occasional reports from Gondor bore information about the Princes of Dol Amroth, but their names no longer meant anything to the elleth who had dwelt in the high stone castle by the blue ocean. Those whose faces still lived in her mind were long dead and the elven blood in the line of princes had grown thin.
Darkness began again its inexorable rise in the lands beyond the marches of the defended wood. Dol Guldur turned again to evil and the creatures of the Shadow bred in the Misty Mountains. The Nazgul spread their evil on the borders of Gondor and broke Osgiliath’s stone bridge and threatened the White City. Worse, far worse in the minds of the elves of Lorien: Celebrían, on her way to visit the Golden Wood, was attacked by orcs and wounded so that she could no longer suffer life east of the Sundering Seas. Celeborn and Galadriel endured her departure, but their eyes, to one who knew, showed their pain. Arwen came more often to Lorien and stayed longer under the towering mallorns, but her brothers, when they visited, showed faces that were cool and withdrawn in their attempt to hide the grief in their hearts.
Her loss seemed to signal a dreadful change. Dragons again afflicted those in the far north and orcs continued to spread. The new kingdom of the Rohirrim was attacked and overrun, while the Corsairs raided the Men of Gondor. The pace of change seemed to be speeding up and the long slow centuries became naught but memory. Each attack was pushed back but left behind it a smear of darkness that seemed to stretch ever further into the lands of those fighting the shadow.
‘The Age of Elves is winding to its close,’ Galadriel said sorrowfully in the months following the end of the White Council’s meeting. ‘We will fight while we can, but the signs are not good. Sauron’s strength grows with every passing year and there are few to fight him. Thranduil struggles without support against the might of Dol Guldur, Men weaken in the South – and Curunír says ‘hold still’. I feel that a time of tumult is coming. There will be born soon some whose lives will be of such significance that the effects will change the world we know.’
‘The White Tree stands dead in the Citadel,’ Celeborn told her softly, ‘and there will be none to replace it in these days. Gondor takes it as an omen of ill-fortune.’ He looked at Mithrellas who sat silent at her stitchery. ‘But the descendants of Imrazor rule still in Belfalas and the blood of elves strengthens the Lords of Gondor. Evil will be fought as long as there is any strength left in them.’
The bitter cold of the Fell Winter affected even the soft climate of the Golden Wood and the flooding that followed caused devastation west of the Misty Mountains. Every step, it seemed to Mithrellas, as she sought news of the world beyond the trees, was backwards. Every push of the enemy led to retrenchment. Every success seemed to rest simply in confounding some small scheme. It was not until the White Council forced Sauron from Dol Guldur and the evil worm Smaug was killed, that hope, for a short time, seemed to burn again deep within her.
Then he had come to Lorien, a young man, grey-eyed and dark haired, and his presence in itself had been strange, for the sons of Men came rarely under the canopy of the Golden Wood. Mithrellas had felt her heart contract at the sight of him. It was not that he was like Imrazor, except in the most general terms, but he was a man among elves. When she had heard him speak she had been shaken and doubted herself for a moment, because he spoke as an elf of Imladris, soft and strong, with the authority of the sons of Elrond in his voice.
Arwen Undomiel herself had welcomed him and, as she watched, Mithrellas had realised why his appearance had moved her so, for she saw in his eyes the look of a man who loved an elf-maiden, beyond hope, beyond reason, beyond expectation.
And in the face of the Evenstar, she had seen that love reciprocated.
Mithrellas found Lady Galadriel standing in the heart of a small glade where the sun brightened the silver-gilt of her hair. She looked at the Lady, wondering whether wisdom would be in holding her tongue rather than speaking of what she had seen.
Galadriel smiled wryly. ‘Is it right for me to permit my granddaughter to pledge herself to this man?’ she asked. ‘I have known since her earliest days that her path would not be an easy one and that she would be forced to make an unpalatable choice. Should I try to keep her from this? I have lived long and tried to manipulate more people than I can remember – but in this I am certain that a wrong step could bring the whole of Arda down around us. Is it such a bad thing for her to give herself to this man of the Dunedain?’
Mithrellas drew a deep breath. ‘Love is love,’ she said. ‘You could separate them and send the Evenstar back to her adar, but, if they are meant to be together, that will only make them more determined.’
‘If we keep her out of his way for a century or so, he will cease to be a problem,’ Galadriel pointed out.
‘No!’ Mithrellas felt as if she had been punched. ‘These last centuries have been hard, for my husband has not been with me – will never be with me again – but had I not wed him, my life would have been empty. It is better to have had those few years than to have spent empty ages without having known him.’
Galadriel looked at her quizzically. ‘I sometimes wonder,’ she remarked, ‘if the purpose behind the love of Amroth and Nimrodel was simply to ensure that you reached Belfalas to meet Imrazor so that you and he might wed.’ She sighed and closed her eyes to listen to the song of the trees. ‘If Arwen elects to marry Aragorn,’ she said, ‘she will be choosing to live a mortal life and she will be lost to her family until the end of days.’ She paused. ‘It is entirely possible that neither my daughter nor Lord Elrond will ever forgive me.’ She looked down. ‘But it is also entirely possible that it is for love of Arwen that this man will steel himself to take up the fate for which he has been born.’
‘I think –,’ Mithrellas hesitated. ‘I think that you should stand back and let your granddaughter make her own decision. If it is meant to be – then it will. And if it is not, then the danger will pass without your intervention.’
‘You counsel me not to interfere?’ Galadriel mused. ‘It goes against the grain to let matters take their own course.’
Mithrellas inclined her head in cautious acknowledgement.
‘It would not be so bad,’ Galadriel sighed again, ‘if she did not have to make the choice of Elrond’s House. Without that, she could marry Aragorn and bear his children – then in days to come take ship into the West and join her family.’
‘Not so bad for whom?’ The words were jerked out of the Silvan Elf. ‘You would rob her of her chance to follow her husband beyond the circles of the world? Take from her any chance of seeing her children again? So that she might be a daughter and a granddaughter and a sister for all eternity?’ The reproachful look she threw at the gleaming Eldar was full of pain. ‘How would you endure that?’ she asked. ‘Would you find returning to your parents a fair exchange for a future with your lord? With your daughter? Your grandchildren? You would take that from her?’
After several moments of stunned silence, Galadriel said tentatively, ‘You would have chosen a mortal death?’
Mithrellas turned away. ‘I would,’ she said with a simplicity that was more convincing than any dramatic vows. ‘But it was not mine to choose,’ she murmured, her voice so quiet that even elven ears strained to hear it.
Celeborn intensified the training of the warriors of Lothlorien and increased the guard on the marches of the wood as the shadow of Mordor lengthened and the creatures of the Shadow proliferated in the dark places. Lord Elrond sent for his daughter and Arwen returned to Imladris under the care of many warriors, as the mountains and the lands to the east became increasingly dangerous. And yet, Mithrellas thought, for all the busyness of preparation, there was a feeling of waiting. The air became oppressive, as if too many eyes were staring, waiting for a sign.
The change, when it came, came suddenly. Even as the forces of the Dark Lord were attacking the kingdoms of Men and Elves, the Nazgul rode forth and their corruption could be sensed upon the land. The watchers focused, aiming their spite in one direction.
‘It is come,’ Galadriel said with assurance.
‘We are as ready as we can be,’ her husband concluded. ‘We will fight,’ he warned her, ‘that which can be fought – and we will not weaken.’
She looked at him, and Mithrellas could have sworn that she saw uncertainty in the face of the indomitable lady. ‘I hope you are right, my lord,’ she said.
The serenity of the mallorn groves, cultivated over a millennium and more, had not appeared to change, but, beneath the surface, Mithrellas had sensed an insecurity that may have found its origin in the Lady’s doubt. War was coming – and with it, something worse than war. Yet it was interesting, she thought, the strength of will the inhabitants of the Golden Wood were displaying to this great danger in comparison to the near panic that had overtaken them when the Dwarves had fled the unleashing of Durin’s Bane in Moria. It came down to leadership, she decided. Lord Celeborn was wise, skilled and resolute – and those qualities imparted a steadfastness to the elves who followed him. And, on top of that, they had the example of the Lady, who prepared for disaster, ensured that all were ready and then stood firm in the face of danger. She was aware of a wave of sympathy for Amroth and Nimrodel, who had both been so unequal to the task that confronted them, even as she thanked the Valar for the presence of two who, if anyone could, would see their people through this time without counting the cost to themselves.
As the dark of the year turned, and the days began to think of lengthening, a bizarre party crossed the borders of the wood – one comprised of men, an elf, halflings and, most odd of all, a dwarf. They had been welcomed – in the end – despite the danger they brought with them.
Mithrellas had watched them from a distance. The decisions of the Lord and Lady were theirs to make, and she had no wish to embroil herself in the goings-on that surrounded the unlikely fellowship, but she found herself enthralled despite herself.
They were so different, she thought, but their eyes shared the look of those who had seen horrors – and knew they were less than the horrors to come. The man who had won the Evenstar’s heart was among them – older now and grimmer, but strong, maybe even strong enough to win his desire. The elf, Mithrellas could see, was of the House of Oropher, young for an elf, but loyal to his odd party, showing unexpected friendship to the dwarf. The halflings intrigued her: so small they were, yet they seemed resilient, bouncing back from their grief over the loss of Mithrandir, even the one shadowed with pain; obsessed with food and burning with curiosity. But it was the last member of the party who caught her eye.
She came upon him moodily throwing small stones into a shady pool. He looked somewhat dishevelled, she thought, like someone who had been untended for rather too long, used, perhaps, to having someone there to attend to basic matters like ripped hems and stain removal. Yet his clothes had been made with care, from the best fabrics, and embroidered with skill. He looked up, his grey eyes dark, and rose with automatic courtesy.
‘Lady,’ he said, with an inclination of his head. His voice was deep and his accent that of the Southlands.
‘You are of Gondor?’ she asked, speaking carefully a language that she had not used in almost ten centuries.
He frowned. Her pronunciation was strange and the words strangely old-fashioned, but the rhythm of the sea was in her lilt. ‘I am Boromir, son of Denethor, Steward of Gondor,’ he told her. ‘And you, my lady? I feel there is something I should know about you.’ His eyes narrowed as he took in the fall of dark hair braided away from her face and her delicately pointed ears. ‘I did not expect our language to be spoken among the Elves of the Golden Wood.’
‘It is not, in general,’ she shrugged. ‘I learned it many years ago, when I dwelt among your people for a time.’ She considered him carefully. ‘You are kin to the Lords of Dol Amroth?’ she asked.
‘You have the appearance of my mother,’ he said in shock, as her words brought to mind the mother he had lost thirty years before. ‘She was a daughter of the Swan Prince.’ He stared, his formal manners forgotten. ‘You are Mithrellas?’ he said incredulously. ‘It is impossible – a children’s story! My brother would delight in the tale and pretend that it was true, but it cannot be!’
‘You can believe in the existence of Lord Elrond – of Lord Glorfindel who has returned from the Halls of Mandos – and not believe that I exist, too?’ she enquired with amusement. ‘Imrazor always found it impossible to credit that my father fought and died in the Last Alliance. I am an elf, descendant of my descendants. I lived before this age began and I will live to see it end.’
Mithrellas approached the shaken man and took his chin in her hand, looking intently into his face. ‘You are drained,’ she said. ‘And unsure.’ She pushed back his hair and sighed. ‘Do what you know is right – not what is expedient,’ she told him. ‘And while you are here, rest and let the song soothe you.’
Lady Galadriel met her in the high platforms among the mallorns and lifted an interested eyebrow.
‘He is blinkered,’ Mithrellas said. ‘He is too concerned about the state of his city for him to see beyond it, but he is a good man.’
‘He could step either way,’ the Lady said. ‘Success or failure rests with him, I think, although not, perchance, in the way that he would hope.’
The Evenstar’s lover had sought her out. At close range other words of description came to her. Weary was one, steadfast another – determined, a leader, but more than a figurehead; a king, perhaps, in truth.
‘You unsettled him,’ he said. ‘He is a great believer in what he can see, what he can fight – you made him look at a world beyond that, where legends become true.’ He hesitated, unsure whether to reveal matters of which he spoke but little, then continued. ‘I knew his mother,’ he said. ‘And her family. She was like you to look at – dark-haired and grey-eyed as are most of those descended from Númenor, but pale-skinned and slight with a gleam of silver in her eyes. At the time, she brought Arwen to my mind – but now I see you in her.’ He looked at her. ‘Your inheritance is strong still among the children of Dol Amroth – not in all, like a steady stream: it pools in some and runs thread-like in others.’ He returned her gaze with an ease that spoke of years withstanding the stares of elves. ‘Mithrandir told me that it runs stronger in Boromir’s brother than he has seen.’ He smiled and suddenly, she found, he looked younger. ‘He seemed to feel that this could be of great benefit in the struggle to come.’
‘You do not seem to find my identity difficult to accept,’ she said softly.
He laughed. ‘I grew up in the household of Lord Elrond, my lady, whose adar pilots Vingilot through the night sky,’ he replied in his fluid Sindarin, ‘with brothers nigh on three thousand years older than me; I was trained in warfare by an elf lord from the First Age returned to Arda from Namo’s Halls; my heart is given to an elf-maid whose grandparents were born before the sun. I have no difficulty in accepting that you it was who wed a Lord of Belfalas and became the mother of a line of Princes.’
As Mithrellas listened to his words she became aware of a stirring of curiosity. Adrahil had told her that her continued presence would be damaging both to her and her descendants – but surely, after all these years, it might be possible once again to visit the city by the ocean and see what had become of the land she had known. Perhaps, she mused, if Arda survived the dangers of the next few seasons, she might be able to do that.
The strangely-assorted party departed with what aid the Lord and Lady could give them, and with their departure a different mood could be sensed. Galadriel, Mithrellas thought, gleamed with a purer light and there was an acceptance in her face of whatever might befall. Celeborn, too, seemed relieved, even as he redoubled his efforts to be sure that his warriors were ready.
And the shadows continued to gather beyond the Golden Wood like storm crows in search of carrion.
Elphir cleared his throat. ‘And yet the Elves came not to the aid of Men on the battlefields of Gondor,’ he said tentatively, ‘save only for the sons of Elrond.’
‘The Elves spent their immortal lives elsewhere,’ Mithrellas told him. ‘They fought against the might of Dol Guldur and prevailed at last, pulling down that evil dwelling. The Men of Dale, the Dwarves of Erebor – all fought in their own lands.’ She looked sternly at the Prince’s oldest son. ‘Do not denigrate what they achieved because they were not present for your campaign. It may well be that your battles could not have been won had theirs not taken place. Help came to Gondor in sufficient quantity at need – from Rohan, from the Oathbreakers – the King returned and the White Tree flowers again.’
‘You met Boromir,’ Lothiriel marvelled, ignoring this. ‘Did you speak to Faramir and tell him of the words you spoke? Let him know what Mithrandir said of him?’
Mithrellas shook her head. ‘It was little enough,’ she said. ‘I doubt it would be of any comfort to him.’ She smiled. ‘And if Mithrandir wished to speak of anything else, then he was there himself to do it.’
‘My cousin would be ecstatic if he could meet you,’ Amrothos said with enthusiasm. ‘Elessar was right – you are the embodiment of legend.’
She leaned forward and took his hand in a strong grasp. ‘No legend, I,’ she said emphatically. ‘I am a being just as you are. I live, I bleed, I love, I mourn. Elves are not Men, but we are all the children of Eru. I am as real as the grass under our feet or the tree over our heads.’
‘We have seen few Elves in Gondor in the last centuries,’ Imrahil said mildly. ‘Small wonder that your kind seem mythical to us. The Rohirrim long since learned to be wary of their welcome in the Golden Wood and the dark shades of Mirkwood spelled danger to uninvited guests. Imladris and Mithlond far to the north have seemed but ancient tales. When Boromir headed through the Gap of Rohan to seek the hidden haven of Rivendell, it was a last desperate attempt to find aid – none expected help to come. Some said,’ he added, ‘that the quest was nothing but an attempt on the part of the Steward to preserve his son from the final campaign.’
‘I had not heard that,’ Amrothos observed.
His father smiled at him. ‘No,’ he acknowledged. ‘It is likely that you would not have done. The Captain-General was too popular a figure among his soldiers for them to doubt him and the members of the Council were too cautious to want your Uncle to learn of their cynicism.’
‘They showed some wisdom, then,’ Erchirion grinned. ‘He would not have been pleased.’
‘But Boromir was right to go, for help came,’ Lothiriel said in wonder, ‘in the most unlikely guise – and we were saved.’
Stars began to stud the sky as the steel of twilight surrendered to the navy velvet of night. Food had been eaten, there in the cool evening, and the Prince’s family continued to sit around Mithrellas, whose pale skin now gleamed faintly in the light of the bright constellations.
‘Will you stay longer?’ Imrahil asked reluctantly, for fear that the question would drive her to depart.
She shook her head slightly, but smiled regretfully. ‘I think not,’ she said. ‘I do not wish to become attached to you.’ Her hand stretched out to smooth Lothiriel’s hair. ‘I will be journeying north to Lothlorien to join the Lady and bid my farewells to the Wood before we leave for the Grey Havens.’
‘Will you be travelling alone?’ Elphir objected. ‘It seems unwise.’
‘I am not alone,’ Mithrellas told him. ‘Lady Galadriel knew that I needed to make my farewells to Dol Amroth and visit the offspring of my husband’s family. She provided me with a party large enough to keep me safe.’ She smiled. ‘You have not seen them, but they are waiting to escort me back to the Golden Wood.’
Imrahil raised his eyebrows. ‘I hope they will grant us the opportunity to see them before you depart,’ he said. ‘I will feel happier to see you leave if I am assured of the presence of an armed guard to see you safely across the mountains.’
‘There are too many renegade orcs and desperate men hiding still in the remote hills and valleys,’ Erchirion agreed.
‘Elves are not easy prey,’ Mithrellas reminded him.
‘Nimrodel?’ Amrothos asked pointedly.
‘Perhaps,’ she allowed, looking at him fondly. ‘I will request that my escort show themselves to you, so that you know I will be in no danger.’
‘What will you do,’ Lothiriel asked suddenly, ‘in the Blessed Realm, far from the life you know in these lands?
Mithrellas tilted her head and her eyes, deep wells of experience in her youthful face, settled on the girl. ‘Much remains the same wherever you may be,’ she said. ‘Households must be run – meals cooked, food preserved, clothes provided and laundered. Harmony between those carrying out the tasks must be maintained. I will miss the mallorns – I have known them long and they know me, but there will be other trees to learn to love. There will be people whose absence will sadden me. Lord Celeborn remains with his grandsons for now, and the Evenstar will never come – but there will be others whom I love and whose presence will be a consolation.’
‘Having doubts?’ Erchirion took his sister’s hand.
‘No,’ she said. ‘It will just be hard to leave you all.’
Imrahil smiled sadly. ‘The distance between us will be measured only in leagues, my dear one,’ he said. ‘That can be covered easily enough.’
Lothiriel drew a deep breath. ‘Why have the elves chosen to leave now?’ she asked. ‘Just as victory has been gained?’
The elves returning to the heart of the Wood after this third attack were the more severely injured, Mithrellas realised, but not the worst hurt. Those still able to fight carried on, disregarding wounds that would normally have seen them in the care of healers. Those whose injuries were so bad that they prevented them being brought to the care provided in the long shelters were unlikely to survive, even with the aid of the healers in the field, and there were not enough elves to bring back the corpses. Tears stung her eyes at the thought of the bodies of those whom she had known for centuries, lying untended, gazing blankly at the trees they had died to defend.
There were not enough warriors; that was the trouble.
Long years of gradual erosion had seen elves drifting to the Havens, seeking a life free from Shadow in the Blessed Realm. Some had seen no reason to suffer longer in a world that was turning itself over to the Aftercomers. Others had heard, whispering in the rustle of leaves, the song of the sea. A few had wanted to bring elflings into a new safe world, where their innocence would not be corrupted. For whatever reason, however, the numbers left for these final battles were too small to confront the vast waves of orcs driven forth by the Dark Lord’s Wraiths and no matter what courage they showed, they were fighting only to delay defeat.
Lord Celeborn had been grim-faced when she had last seen him, but resolute, with a calm she had envied, and the glance and clasp of farewell that he had given his Lady had suggested that he thought this might be a final farewell indeed.
‘Hold while you can,’ he had said, so quietly that only her closeness to them had allowed her to hear his words, ‘but do not let him take you. If it comes to that, use your knife.’
‘I doubt he would give me time,’ she replied, touching her fingers to his face. ‘I will do what I can.’
Mithrellas had seen little of the Lady since, as busy as she had been assisting the healers, but what she had seen had suggested that Lady Galadriel was fighting a battle every bit as fierce as that faced by the warriors of the Wood.
The turn came suddenly.
The darkness had lifted and there had been an unexpected freshness in the air. There had been a moment of stillness, as if everything had changed and the world was uncertain, before time started to move again. The Lady had fallen, exhausted by whatever struggles she had undertaken, and lay shaking. Others had straightened up and looked stronger as though there now seemed some reason to continue the struggle.
Mithrellas had rushed with others to the support of Galadriel, burning feathers beneath her nose to bring her round and fussing about her pallor. The Lady had sent most of them off firmly as soon as she had opened her eyes, and her determination had reassured them, but Mithrellas had seen the weariness behind her public face and stayed close.
‘How did you endure it?’ Galadriel asked with a sigh. ‘Knowing that a change was coming that you could not resist, could not alter, could not avoid? That there would be a sundering about which you could do nothing?’
‘You endure because you must,’ Mithrellas told her with a tiny smile. ‘You are given no choice.’
The Lady of Lothlorien rested her head on her hand for a brief moment before standing with sudden determination. ‘Come,’ she said. ‘The Shadow is in retreat. We must take the advantage offered us.’
Casualties had, at least, declined. With the forces of the Shadow in disarray, the orcs had little guidance and their ferocity was no match for the organised patrols of elves, so that few more immortal lives were lost. Within two weeks, Dol Guldur had been razed to the ground and Lord Celeborn and King Thranduil had met to rejoice in its destruction.
The process of healing had begun swiftly, and the coming of spring had rapidly begun to conceal the damage of war under a cover of fresh green. Eryn Lasgalen, newly named, thrived in the removal of the Dark, and every day brought new delights to elves who had mourned Mirkwood’s suffering. The first primrose, the first violet, the first leaves opening on the darkened trunk of a twisted tree: all were cause for celebration.
Lothlorien, on the other hand, felt – different. Its exclusive tranquillity had fractured and the sound of the world beyond seemed to creep in through the cracks. Celeborn was strong and forceful, the vitality of his power clearly apparent, and he was yet to return to the appearance of the wise and considered lord of more peaceful days, but Galadriel seemed pale and sorrowful, distracted from the business of returning the Wood to its normal calm.
The party from Imladris had arrived unexpectedly, as far as Mithrellas was concerned. Lord Elrond and his daughter had been escorted into Lady Galadriel’s presence early one bright morning. The Lady had not seemed surprised, nor had she taken long to arrange for the group to escort her and Lord Celeborn to Minas Tirith, which suggested that her plans had been long made.
‘You are taking too much baggage,’ Celeborn told her impatiently.
Arwen and Galadriel had thrown him identical looks of protest. ‘It is for my wedding, Daeradar,’ Arwen said. ‘We have at least twice as many horses with us. They kept going while we diverted into Lothlorien to ride with you.’
‘It is up to us to show the men of Gondor how impressive the elves can be, when they want to be,’ Galadriel smiled. ‘You, also, will be dressed in your best, my love. This is an occasion such as will not come again.’
Mithrellas had been disconcerted when Galadriel had insisted that she joined the delegation, but protesting that she did not have the right clothes was ineffective and the former Lady of Belfalas found herself, a millennium on, retracing her steps across the plains of what was now Rohan on her way to Gondor.
She could not help but be struck by the contrast. Guards were still needed and the way was not safe, but, instead of being a small group of elves flying the advance of the Shadow, they were a large, proud party containing some of the greatest Elf Lords of Arda, riding to embrace a fate that would see their Evenstar accepting death among men and the rest of them diminishing and passing into the West in the wake of the Dark Lord’s defeat. The plains across which they rode were no longer empty grasslands, but the home of the Horse Lords of the north, busily working to rebuild their strongholds and repair the damage done in their fight against the traitor Curunír.
Their journey remained uneventful. Not even the fleeing bands of orcs and men from Sauron’s armies dared to attack so large and well-defended a group, and, almost before Mithrellas realised it, they had arrived on the green expanse that was the site of the Battle of Pelennor Fields.
Many of the elves, bold warriors though they were, shrank back from the crowds of men who lined the streets to watch the elves ride up through the circles of the city, but Mithrellas found a little of their eager curiosity quite appealing, even though the smell of the overcrowded streets was not. At least the Evenstar did not need to fear their hostility. The events of the last few months, when a miraculous series of events had brought about the return of their King and the downfall of the Dark Tower and turned inevitable defeat into wholly unexpected victory, had opened their minds to new experiences and different peoples.
The glory in the faces of Arwen Undomiel and Aragorn Elessar Telcontar when they claimed each other had almost, Mithrellas thought, concealed the pain of loss that had been clear, to those who knew, in the shielded eyes of Lord Elrond. He had felt her watching him, and later sought her out as she stood under the starlight.
‘Is is better?’ he asked bleakly. ‘I have endured half a millennium without my wife, but I have known that we would be reunited in time. I have lived without my brother for more than an age, knowing that only the end of days would bring us back together. Is it better for Arwen to die and follow Estel on his journey?’
Mithrellas turned slowly to look at him. ‘For her? Yes,’ she said without hesitation, ‘it is better. For you?’ She smiled sadly. ‘I have lost my children to death. For you, it is a grief you will live with always. But you know that she will be happy. To Estel, she is a star who has come to earth for him.’
‘If I could only stay for her,’ he whispered, his voice no more than a thread of sound.
‘But you cannot,’ she said simply.
‘No.’ Elrond looked down at his hands briefly. ‘Victory has come at a price. We have little time left to enjoy our success. Within a few turns of the sun, we will meet again at the Havens to undertake a final journey.’
‘Make the most of every moment,’ Mithrellas told him as the moon lit up the Anduin into a silver ribbon across the night dark plain. ‘Do not let your love end in bitterness – you need no regrets to fester over the long years to come.’
She had seen them there, at the bridal of King Elessar and his Elven Queen. Faces in the crowds that reminded her with a keen pain she had not expected of those whom she had loved. She had seen the young Steward, the silver gleam in his eyes as he allowed himself to drown in the bright blue gaze of the White Lady of Rohan, but, although she had recognised in him his kinship to Boromir, he had not moved her heart as had those whose father reigned in Dol Amroth.
She had stopped still as Amrothos led his sister out to dance, for before her was the embodiment of her children: Galador, his father’s son in looks, young and lithe, laughing, his black hair resting on his shoulders and his grey eyes bright with enthusiasm, and Gilmith, slight and graceful, her keen intelligence shining in her fair face. In Prince Imrahil, she decided, she could see both Imrazor and his son as he would have become in the years after she left. He was clearly a wise lord and much beloved and, if rumour were true, a gallant soldier and a loyal friend. His older sons resembled him – the taller of the two, she thought, had a look of Adrahil about him, the look of one who had seen more war than he wanted, but who would hold for as long as it was needful. In the other, she decided, examining him with the critical sight of long experience, she could see a love of the sea, and some of its restlessness. But, it was back to the youngest pair that her eyes were drawn. It was for this that she had loved, borne children who would leave her, endured loss and centuries of loneliness. Her blood flowed in them, strengthened the Lords of Gondor, had lent itself to the growth of their House – her House, hers and Imrazor’s.
She had not spoken. Adrahil had said that she must leave them to grow without interference and she had agreed at the end. She was an elf and they were men – and she would be leaving soon with her kind, bequeathing Arda to the Secondborn. It would be better to keep herself aloof. She had not spoken, but she had watched them. She had seen the young King of the Rohirrim and the Princess of Dol Amroth; she had watched the softness in Amrothos’s eyes as he courted a mist-eyed maiden; she had observed Imrahil in Council and at court, with his children and his nephew, with the King, but she had remained unnoticed, even as the court escorted the body of Théoden King to burial in Rohan.
The Lady Galadriel had noticed her preoccupation and had understood its reason. ‘Speak to them,’ she urged, as the host gathered before Edoras. ‘There is no reason why you should not.’
Mithrellas shrugged. ‘And there is little reason why I should. I would mean nothing to them – it is better if I keep my distance.’
The Lady had not gainsaid her, but her expression had indicated her doubt.
The betrothal of Faramir, Prince of Ithilien and Eowyn, sister to the King of Rohan had been marked with formal ceremony before the train had moved on its way homewards, escorted as far as possible by the hosts of Rohan and Gondor, for no-one wished the different groups to separate, knowing that many of the farewells made here would last until the end of days.
Once returned to the shelter of the Golden Wood, Mithrellas was more aware of the passage of time than she had been since she had returned to live beneath its boughs. Lothlorien, which had been preserved in its ageless perfection, had begun to let in the cold winds of the outer world and the leaves shivered in their chill. Mithrellas felt, too, that her heart again ached for the loss of those to whose absence she had believed she had accustomed herself. She found herself stopping as the Lady’s attendants decided what would go with them to the Havens and what would stay, staring blankly into the distance as she recalled items she had not seen for ten times the life of a man, conversations she had had a thousand years before, places she had been – and wondering, wondering constantly about the lives of the descendants she had seen while travelling in the south.
‘You must go,’ Galadriel commanded her in the end. ‘You cannot sail with these feelings – unresolved. You may, I suppose, choose not to embark yet – it matters little, for there will be ships at the Havens for many years to come, and I know my Lord would welcome your remaining here, but you will not be able to settle west of the sea unless you return to Dol Amroth.’
Mithrellas sighed. ‘I wish you had not insisted that I travel with you to the White City,’ she said. ‘I had made my accommodation with the past, but those weeks have unsettled all that I had come to believe.’
‘I will send a party of warriors with you,’ Galadriel told her. ‘The ways are safer than they were, but you cannot travel alone.’
‘It is unnecessary,’ Mithrellas protested. ‘I do not wish to disrupt the work being done here.’
‘To be honest,’ Galadriel smiled, ‘if you remove a dozen or so warriors, it will be a help. They are not suited to more mundane tasks and it will enable them to feel useful.’
‘If they cannot feel useful here at this time,’ Mithrellas said dryly, ‘then how do you expect them to be kept busy in the bliss of Valinor?’
Haldir had looked down his nose at the instructions he received to return to the lands of men to escort Mithrellas to the lands of her descendants, but he had not objected, and the warriors had indeed enjoyed an opportunity to ride swiftly across the open plains of the Rohirrim, so that it seemed to take little time to reach the city stretching down from the cliffs to hang over the blue of the Bay of Belfalas.
‘Has it helped?’ Elphir asked soberly, looking at the pale figure, shadowy in the silver moonlight.
‘I think it has,’ she replied. ‘I know now in my heart, as I knew in my mind, that my family is all I could have hoped for it to be – and that you have grown beyond me. I will hold you dear to me throughout the ages, and your faces will remind me why I had to leave Imrazor to live his last years alone. Adrahil was right – my children were men and had to live as men. They could not be half-elven – and, for that, I had to leave and be forgotten.’
‘Never forgotten,’ Imrahil said gently, taking her hand and looking in her eyes. ‘You are now, as you have always been, a prized part of our family history.’
She smiled. ‘And history is so much better if it remains that,’ she said. ‘I would be grateful if you would allow me to remain here with my memories tonight. I would like to sit and watch the moon on the water here, where Galador and Gilmith – and most of all, Imrazor – are so close to me. I will be gone come morning.’ She clasped the Prince’s hand. ‘You will begin to doubt that I was ever here,’ she said, ‘but do not doubt the tale of my love for Imrazor.’
‘What have you done with your guards?’ Erchirion reminded her. ‘Are they nearby?’
‘They spent the day in the valley, where the trees follow the water to the sea,’ she answered. ‘It is peaceful and green, and, even though the trees are young, the land remembers elves. It is a good place.’ She looked up. ‘But they are here now, some of them, to see that I return safely.’
A slight shift in the air on the edge of sight made Lothiriel gasp as she realised that a fair-haired elf stood in the shade of the big walnut tree.
‘This is Haldir,’ Mithrellas said. ‘He has long been a warden of the marches of Lothlorien. He will guard me well.’
Imrahil turned to meet the blade sharp eyes of the tall elf before inclining his head in greeting. ‘I have a gift, my lady,’ he said, ‘that I would like you to take with you on your journey into the West.’ He lifted a cloth-wrapped package that had been left when the servants had removed the debris of their meal. ‘It is not, I am afraid, the original,’ he apologised. ‘That is too delicate for travel. It is a copy of the journal kept by Galador of Dol Amroth. My father showed it to me once, many years ago.’ He placed it on her lap and her fingers touched it tentatively. ‘I think you might find that his words ease your heart,’ he said.
‘I have nothing to give you in return,’ she said sadly.
‘You have given us a great gift,’ Amrothos told her, the mysterious moonlight catching his eyes. ‘You have come to us out of the distant past to make a legend come to life.’
‘We will leave you now,’ Imrahil remarked, ‘and let you enjoy the peace of the garden.’ He lifted an eyebrow at the protesting expressions his children threw his way. ‘I am honoured,’ he said, with a formal bow, ‘that you granted us this chance to meet you.’
Mithrellas gathered each of them in her arms and pressed a kiss of blessing on each brow. ‘May you have the happiness you deserve,’ she wished them.
Despite their reluctance to leave, Imrahil shepherded his adult children through the open door into a room that felt dull and stuffy compared to the cool freshness of the night-scented garden. He turned back once to see her silhouetted against the sky, a slight figure to bear the weight of so many memories, but, when he blinked away the tears that thought brought to his mind and looked again, he could see no indication of anyone standing among the shadows of the shrubs and nothing but the distant song echoing in his head suggested the continued presence of Mithrellas, Lady of Belfalas, in the dusky garden of her old home.
‘May the Valar bring you peace,’ he hoped in the depths of his heart, ‘and may your eventual reunions be as sweet as you deserve.’ And he turned away from the window into the past and led the hopes of his House back into the bright promise of the new world of men.
12: Epilogue – Last Words
Lothiriel rushed to greet them as quickly as her swollen belly would allow, clutching one, then another, as if unsure who to hug first.
‘Elphir was sorry not to come,’ her father told her, ‘but someone had to stay in Dol Amroth – and he offered. He is about to become a father again and felt it would be tactless to rush to his sister’s side, when his wife is in a similar condition.’
Eomer laughed. ‘He shows some wisdom,’ the blue-eyed king said. ‘Lothiriel was less than happy with me when I went off to Ithilien. It took a great deal of grovelling to get her to forgive me.’
‘I did not mind your going,’ Lothiriel announced with her nose in the air. ‘What I objected to was the length of time you stayed. You missed your child’s first movements.’
He snaked an arm round her to pat the baby’s current home. ‘It is not my fault that Eowyn’s child refused to arrive according to instruction. She proved to be as recalcitrant as her mother.’
His wife smiled at him forgivingly. ‘I am only sorry that the little one is too young to travel. I know you would like to have your sister with you at this time.’ She sighed. ‘I, too, would not mind the presence of one who has been through this experience successfully twice now.’
‘You are not yet wed, then,’ Eomer remarked to Amrothos, ‘despite our example of domestic bliss.’
‘Not yet,’ the youngest Lord of Dol Amroth said amiably. ‘The betrothal is now official, but we wish to wait until my little sister is able to come to the wedding.’
Erchirion grinned. ‘This is all very well,’ he complained, ‘but where is the famed hospitality of the Rohirrim? We have been in your house for a full hour now and as yet we have been offered no ale! We could die of thirst here!’
‘The hospitality of the Rohirrim seems to have disappeared into the same place as the famed courtesy of the Lords of Gondor,’ Eomer retaliated. ‘Come – let us settle you into your rooms before we begin to celebrate the expected arrival of the heir of Rohan.’
Imrahil and Lothiriel had left them to their carousing once they began to spill almost as much ale as they were drinking.
‘They will have the heads they deserve in the morning,’ she observed.
‘You disapprove?’ her father asked.
Lothiriel shrugged. ‘You cannot live in Rohan for long without becoming resigned to over-indulgence in ale,’ she said. ‘Fortunately, most Rohirrim seem to have a fairly good idea of how much they can drink and yet still be ready to ride at dawn. I do not believe that Erchirion and Amrothos have discovered that yet.’
Imrahil laughed. ‘If they wish to survive the next month,’ he remarked, ‘they had better prove themselves to be swift learners.’ He sobered and looked seriously at his daughter. ‘You are happy?’ he asked.
Her face brightened still further. ‘Happier than I would have believed possible,’ she confirmed. ‘Rohan is very unlike Dol Amroth, but I would not now choose to be anywhere else.’ She rested her hands on her belly. ‘This is all I need to make my happiness complete,’ she said softly.
‘I have brought something,’ her father told her, ‘that I think will be of interest to you.’ He indicated the chest on the table before the window and Lothiriel noticed that the decoration adorning the lid was not, as she had expected, the White Tree, but, rather, a tree of gold, created using slivers of blond wood in many shades, making a tree that shimmered with apparent movement in the afternoon light.
‘Mithrellas?’ she asked. ‘I think of her often. Did she leave these shores at the last, in the company of Lady Galadriel?’
‘This arrived,’ he said, running his hands over the lid, ‘with the brothers of the Queen. They came some months after the ship sailed bearing their father and grandmother and the Ringbearer away from these lands, to tell the Evenstar of their departure. Among the final tokens they bore with them was this casket.’
‘What does it contain?’
‘Last words,’ the Prince of Dol Amroth murmured. ‘Last words. Mithrellas wrote to thank us for giving her the chance to read Galador’s journal. She was glad, she said, to find that he had understood in later years – after Iúliel’s death – why she had left, and, with that understanding, he had let go of his anger and remembered his mother with love. She thought that, in return, we might like to know of the last words Imrazor had for her. She copied out the documents brought to her by Lady Celebrían and had them bound, then included the letters from her daughter and sent them to us. She said that it seemed fitting that a record of his words should remain this side of the sea, so that the truth of the myth should be here for all to see.’
‘May I read them?’
Imrahil smiled. ‘I brought the casket with me for no other purpose, my daughter,’ he said.
Lothiriel opened the lid, to see, sitting on top of the remaining contents a letter with her name on it. She looked swiftly at her father and took it out, considering it before turning to look at the seal. ‘There is something in here,’ she commented.
‘But you will not discover what it is without opening it,’ Imrahil pointed out.
Reluctantly, Lothiriel slid her finger beneath the seal and eased it from the paper opening a letter that had been folded carefully to form a secure receptacle. She tilted it, and into her hand slipped something of tangled mithril and pearl. ‘It is beautiful,’ she gasped, straightening out the chain and allowing it to dangle from her fingers. ‘Why would Mithrellas send this to me?’
‘Perhaps, if you were to read what she has written –,’ her father suggested.
Sudden tears welled in Lothiriel’s eyes as she read the few words. ‘She says that this was a gift to her from Lady Heledh on the birth of her son,’ she said, ‘and it seems fitting to her that this heirloom should be presented to me on the birth of mine.’
Beyond the window the red glow of the sun warmed the endless expanse of rustling grass as it shifted in the gusting breeze, rippling like a golden sea up to the lofty hill where Edoras sat above the plain, while high in the blue of the late afternoon sky an eagle soared in lazy circles on thermals that carried him ever higher until he was no more than a speck beyond the easy sight of men.
Imrahil took his daughter in his arms and held her, accommodating himself to her unusual bulk.
‘I hope she has found peace,’ Lothiriel whispered from the comfort of her father’s arms as he rested his cheek against her head. ‘Far from her home, there in the Undying Lands, where no man may find refuge and she will live loveless until the end of time.’
‘She will be well,’ he said. ‘Obedience to necessity brings with it some recompense.’ The Lord of Dol Amroth sighed as he stroked the lustrous dark hair and looked out over the plains of the Horse Lords. ‘We have lived to see wondrous times, my child, and Mithrellas’s arrival in our halls was by no means the least remarkable of them.’ He clasped her, warm and alive in his arms, this daughter who had left him, but was still here in the same world, bound to the same end, and thanked the Valar that the choice of Mithrellas and Imrazor had not come to him. ‘Come now, Queen of Rohan,’ he said softly. ‘Do not mourn what cannot be changed. Look forward instead to the bright new world that will greet the promise you carry within you. Remember the past and embrace what will come.’
Lothiriel hugged him fiercely. ‘She will not be forgotten,’ she told him.
Looking into the West, where the red ball of the sun was dropping behind the mountains, he inclined his head in a respectful acknowledgement of the distant realms of Valinor. ‘When our time is spent,’ he said with a gentle certainty, ‘fond memory is really all that any of us, of whatever kindred, can hope to receive as a gift from the future. And it is theirs, for their tale lives on.’
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