There Was A Ship
'A carvèn staff each Istar bore
From Laurelin in Valinor'
Círdan smiled fondly as his wife entered the room; the ages had been long since first they met, and the daisies she wore now, woven into her dark hair, were fashioned of pearl and topaz, and gleamed by the light of silver lanterns. But still he remembered her startled face, for she had thought him a part of the waterfall he stood by, his silver hair and robe blending with the shining falls. He had turned to see her there, fresh daisies in her hair, her eyes wide, her whole body poised for flight, until, as one, they had smiled.
She moved to his side and sat, stroking the hair back from his still-smiling face.
'Lanthir, dear one, we must speak.'
'What would you have, dear Eirien ?'
She sighed, and laid her hand upon his cheek, and frowned.
'It is not clear... We... ' she paused, then took in a deep breath 'The Noldor are concerned.'
'The Noldor ?' He was astonished. Lindon was proud to be a land of Elves, neither Sindar nor Noldor, but Elves, together. He had not heard the word Noldor for centuries. He raised his chin and scratched the underside of his beard. He was almost vain when it came to his beard, it seemed a fitting badge of office to him at times, though at other times he merely laughed at his folly and accused his reflection of fading wits. But the evident sign of his great age drew respect even from the most fractious courtier, and put the Edain at their ease when their ships were in harbour.
Eirien stroked the silvery strands, but kept her eyes fixed on his.
'Something is stirring, we can feel it; the darkness is drawing back, the shadows are lifting, change is in the air.'
The shadows, he thought, the darkness. The change had been slow, the crops were sparse, there were blights, and sickly creatures of the wild limped into clearings full of Elves to die in pain. The wine seemed soured, the water flat, the very air dulled by a dust that covered all, as though the very bones of the earth were aflame in some distant land, spreading the ash of their ruin across the face of Arda. But the Noldor, children of Light, spoke of another darkness, that they alone perceived, the darkness of the Shadow, that all had thought banished. But as their fear rose the old certainties were being questioned.
'What do you wish, my dear ? Shall I increase the watch ? Raise the alarm ? Take flight ?'
She bit her lip and stared off into the distance, her brow furrowed in thought.
'I shall stand watch myself, this very night.' she finally said. He gaped at her in astonishment, she had never been interested in such matters, but devoted to music, and the cultural life of Lindon. She had never stood watch, as far as he knew, in all her life. He rose to his feet and held out his hand. She stood and placed her hand in his, looking calmly and seriously at him. He blinked, and then squared his shoulders.
'We shall watch together, my beloved, it will be my honour and privilege.'
The night had been strange; the Noldor were restless, lights burned in many windows, reflections on the waters of the narrow bay sparkled and twinkled in long wavering lines, while the swift West wind swept small clouds past the glitter of the stars. As the first birds began to awaken, Círdan stood on the high terrace facing the sea, still holding the hand of his wife. The gulls showed forth as the grey light grew, floating in a flock that rose and fell as the waves swept by them. The first colours began to emerge from the twilight, the deep blue of sky and sea, and the deep green of the land in shadow. Suddenly moved by the same restlessness that had driven his wife forth from her bright rooms to this dark vigil, he gripped her hand tightly, and turned to kiss her. A strange hopefulness seemed to rise within him, he gazed lovingly into her dark eyes 'All will be well Eirien, I am certain of it !'
She smiled at him with glowing eyes 'You feel it also ! Oh Lathrin, if only...' she stopped, and put her hand up to her mouth 'Forgive me, in my excitement I forgot myself...' But he kissed her again 'I know, my dear, if only I had seen the Trees... But I have you beside me, my beloved, and I know that you will warn me, should danger threaten.'
They watched the brightening in silence. The scattered grey clouds grew whiter until the Sun sent long fingers to lay the petals of roses on their pale cheeks. The gulls began to rise, their familiar calls echoing from the cliffs, their wingtips catching the first gleams of light. She turned to him with a joyful smile 'It is too long since we watched the dawn together, my dearest, I feel the shadow withdraw from our love.'
He smiled, and kissed her again 'Our love is stronger than Silmarils, dear Eirien, no darkness can diminish it.'
The stillness of night was scarcely disturbed, but around the Haven, people were gathering in silence. Círdan rubbed his brow with his forefinger, he had seen nothing like this before, save when the War of Wrath had brought the Valar themselves to shore, to confront the Enemy. But the Enemy was gone, the Valar had returned to Valinor in triumph, and here he kept his lonely vigil, watching over his harbour and his beloved ships with only his wife left beside him, for all those he had known in youth had perished, or gone before him to Valinor. The sadness of the deserted choked him for a moment, the stab of pain amidst his joy seemed to sharpen the knife to a bitter point, and the endless centuries weighed on him like mountains. But even as she turned to him, feeling his distress, a cry came down from the watcher in the highest turret.
'A sail ! A sail in the West ! A sail !'
The ship from the West drew swiftly towards them, riding the strengthening breeze. Círdan felt his hair lifted and floating out behind him as the clear fresh wind blew the doubts from his mind. The score of anchored ships swayed as the ripples of the pounding waves reached into the sheltered corners of the havens, the creak of timbers and the rattle of the rigging the only sounds disturbing the stillness of the expectant Elves crowded around the harbour walls. Hope began to rise in his heart; the thought that his long patient watch might be ending, that he might finally see Valinor for himself, filled him like painfully sweet music. He thought of his dreams, of endless grasping for an elusive light, which floated tantalisingly before his outstretched hands, twisting through dark forests or over vast wastelands, while he pursued in vain, until he awoke with pounding heart, to reach for the comfort of Eirien beside him.
The ship was lost to sight as it neared the Gulf of Lhûn, and Círdan gladly accepted a goblet of crisp pale wine from the vinyards of Dol Amroth. He smiled at his wife, who smiled back, but held her glass unheeded in her hand. Her grey eyes shone with expectation, her hope seemed to lay a cold hand on his heart. He could bear his own disappointment, but the thought of seeing her smile turn to sadness made him clench his jaw, and remember that without her beside him, Valinor had nothing to draw him there. He looked around him at the familiar valley walls; the Halls and Houses, terraces and colonnades, climbing the steep faces of the cliffs, while vine and ivy, tree and fern, seemed to spill over from the clifftop, in a slow cascade to the edge of the restless sea. He laughed softly, and smiled at her questioning eyes.
'I have been a fool, Eirien, and I cannot plead youth to defend my folly. I have wasted my years pining for Valinor, consumed by my hopeless longing for that which has perished, for the Light of the Trees; but here, in Mithlond, with you, the happiness I thought withheld from me was here, in my home. Can you forgive me, my love ?'
She kissed him softly 'Your only folly is to think me troubled by your regret, for look around you, my dear, at your people, who share our longing; those who grieve for that which has perished, and those who grieve for that which eluded them. None here doubt your wisdom, but value above all your understanding, and they, and I, are comforted to have you watch with us, sharing our yearning hope.'
A soft exclamation, a delighted breath, came from the watching crowd, Círdan turned and there between the narrow cliffs the ship of Valinor caught the level rays of the rising sun. The white sail glowed in the golden light, the white gulls gliding round the mast shone, and their calls began to fill the haven. The swan prow was still in shadow, and behind it a tall fair Elf looked around at the cliffs and the crowded harbour. Círdan felt his heart leap, no other Elf had such hair, or such presence, yet it could not be... He smiled at himself, as folly piled on folly, but the sleek ship cut through the water towards the breathless crowd. Círdan held himself back from running like an excited child down the steps, and gripped the hand of his wife, who tightened her hold. The honour guard straightened as one, the crowd echoing their alertness, Círdan thought of hounds scenting the quarry and smiled again. The elegant craft glided on, slowing its pace until it came gently to rest alongside the West Pier.
The harbourmaster herself laid the plank carefully onto the polished side of the ship, and stood back. Círdan held his breath as the tall Elf stepped ashore and turned to face the crowd. The rising sun fell full on the golden flower emblazoned on the gleaming white robes he wore, and shone in his golden hair. There could be no doubt. A voice in the crowd cried aloud in astonished delight
'Glorfindel !' and the crowd began a great cheer that echoed from cliff to cliff and brought stinging tears of joy to the eyes of Círdan. Eirien turned to him with round shining eyes and said breathlessly 'Oh Lanthir !'
But Glorfindel, after a brief dazzling smile, merely stood watching steadily as the cheering subsided. There was silence. Círdan scarcely noticed the three other figures still in the shelter of the awning on deck. All the attention of every Elf or Edain in the crowd was riveted on the still Glorfindel. Círdan felt the understanding begin to grow within him, as it did among the wisest in the crowd. Glorfindel did not need to speak, he was his own message. The single ship, the solitary Elf; in his very stillness Glorfindel showed them the truth. No fleet of Valar would follow, no host of Vanyar, no long-lost Noldor armies would come to their aid. The exiles and the lingerers must build their ships alone, and set forth themselves, with the darkness of the shadow growing all around.
Beside him, Eirien sighed, and in the crowd, Noldor began to turn away, and there was a restless murmur as the slow of wit sought insight from the swift. But many, especially among the younger Sindar and a few bold Edain, surged forward undaunted, and picked up the laughing Glorfindel and carried him on their shoulders to the steps where Círdan waited. As the crowd turned to watch, Círdan saw the figures on deck stir, two of them stooping over to raise a burden while the third, also clad in white, moved to land. They seemed to be Elves, but as bearded with age as Círdan. The burden was a cask or chest, a fathom in length though small enough to be held in the arms. But Glorfindel had stepped lightly down and turned his eyes up to meet those of Círdan, who beckoned him to climb the stairs.
Círdan, who had scarcely met Glorfindel, knew of his legend as the slayer of the Balrog at the retreat from Gondolin, and of his death there. To see him, as fresh as the wind from the sea, climb the stairs at Mithlond as though he had never been away, shocked Círdan profoundly. This was the first, and perhaps last, Elf to return from death, and all the songs and tales and counsels of the wise had done nothing to dispel the disbelief that Círdan had kept buried in his heart, secret even from his beloved Eirien. The thought of rebirth as a truth, a certainty, filled him with a joy that shone in his eyes as he smiled with welcome. Glorfindel put a hand to his chest and bowed, and Círdan nodded.
'Are you indeed that Glorfindel who perished in the wreck of Gondolin ?'
'Stars shine upon our meeting Círdan ! Yes, I am Glorfindel. I am charged with the defence of the Road to the West. I am the rearguard for the Eldar who linger yet on these far shores. I am sent by Manwë himself, but I must tell you now that I bear no message. There is no word from the Valar. Those who would leave for Valinor will be welcomed, those who elect to remain will fade. I shall keep watch as you build your ships, and I shall not depart until you yourself set sail on the last ship.'
There was a silence, between them as they watched each others eyes, and spreading swiftly through the thinning crowd. Círdan found his heart in turmoil; the truth of rebirth filled him with joy, but the thought of the long years ahead, waiting for the lingerers to drift to the shore to build their ships, filled him with aching sadness. He tried to remember the happiness he had felt as he looked around at the haven he called home, but the weight of the years ahead seemed far heavier than all the ages gone before.
But he had been lord of his people for many centuries; the formal words of welcome came easily to him, and Glorfindel turned back to the crowd with a smile and was swept away into the Hall to be feasted.
But Círdan stood with Eirien beside him and watched the older white-clad figure cross the now almost empty pier and mount the stairs. Behind him the two others, one in grey and one in brown, bearing the long chest, laid it carefully down at the foot of the stairs where they waited. The white-clad traveller was tall and stately, dark-haired and noble-browed, his calm blue eyes filled with wisdom smiled gravely at Círdan.
'I am called Curumo, my companions are Olórin' he gestured at the grey-clad traveller 'and Aiwendil. We were sent by the Valar, though we would speak further with you in council.' He turned his head, Olórin had climbed the stairs, and bowed to Círdan, then looked keenly into his eyes. Círdan found himself almost flailing as one falling, as the depth of memory and compassion in the grey-blue eyes of Olórin seemed to see through to his secret heart. There was pity in the eyes of the stranger, but Círdan too was old, and he held the gaze, trying to see past the mind and into the heart of Olórin.
With a shock he realized that he had succeeded; the heart of Olórin was filled with fear, for he knew the source of the shadow which darkened the hearts of the Noldor and lay like refuse on the land. The deeper shock filled Círdan himself with fear, that no prospect of rebirth could ease. The shadow had returned, the Shadow, gathering itself into the focus of dread power needed to perform its own dark rebirth, and these three travellers had come to thwart it. The truth was clear to Círdan in a moment of visceral, stunning horror. He felt the icy breath of the Void coil around his throat, the ground beneath him dissolved into nothing and he felt himself begin to fall into the blackness of the abyss.
But Olórin watched him patiently, and Círdan steeled himself, and understood the silence of his guests. The truth of the Shadow could not yet be revealed, he must hold his fear in his heart, as once he had held doubt. None could know what they faced, lest dread derange their wits, and cause the hastening of the approaching doom. Doubt and fear had ever been the weapons of the Enemy, and though he had been cast from the World, the spirit of his lieutenant endured. The Shadow was reforming. The travellers had come to face the last threat, for the darkness had returned to herald the rising of Gorthaur the cruel, whom the Noldor named Sauron.
About the Author
hennethgalad writes Tolkien fanfic on AO3 and The Silmarillion Writers Guild.
Dancing with wildness
Moving with kindness, writing
Troubled thinker I.