Title: The Longest Night
Summary: In the depths of a bitter winter, Finrod Felagund receives an invitation from Bëor to attend a strange midwinter festival in honor of the longest night of the year.
Category: The Books of J.R.R. Tolkien à The Silmarillion
Characters: Elf: Finrod Felagund, Edain: Bëor, Edain: Beren, As A Group: Edain
Genres: Friendship, General, Short Story
Times: 1-First Age
Warnings: 6. adult themes
Year 440 of the Sun
The invitation came not as expected, upon thick smooth paper with gilt edges, but in the shape of a small shaggy boy upon a pony. He reached the verge of the forest and stopped there. He looked around himself. Behind him, bare branches clutched a white sky and, before him, brown earth stretched, and the only life that remained was bowed and bitten by an early snow, clinging close to the earth. He did not discern the muttering of the Narog beneath the sweep of wind over the plain; it was this sound that called the Elves home but he was mortal and his hearing was not so acute.
He is lost.
A sentry, her body stretched long upon the ground, her warmth stirring the seeds as might the Spring, felt these words borne into her thoughts by the wind. So the others had seen him too. Her breath stopped in her chest as though she was tensed to receive a pain. The feeling on the wind now was of arms sustaining a drawn bow, practiced to the point of no longer feeling the ache of it. The boy tapped his heels into the pony's side, but the animal had taken no more than two steps before he reined it in again. Though mortal, though so insensate that the roaring river a league hence moved him not, the boy felt his peril too, and his eyes roamed the barren plain before him, seeking the source of the change in the air.
The sentry found herself standing before the copse of trees where she had hidden. Behind her, the frost began to creep forth to again overtake the place where she had lain.
She called out and the boy dismounted as she hastened toward him, her feet crunching over the frozen earth. Around her, others were seeping from the landscape: from trees and rocks and shrubs where they'd lain hidden, watching. Arrows slipped, unloosed, from bowstrings. She stopped before him and, stiffly, he dipped his knee to the ground before straightening and looking into her eyes to announce in awkward, earnest Sindarin, "I come bearing a message for the King."
Finrod Felagund was working at his desk when the messenger arrived. A page had just retired from the room after setting another thick log on the fire; Finrod's blood had not yet forgotten the heat of Valinor, and he was perpetually cold during winters in this land. He flexed his fingers, blew on them, kept writing. With no son or daughter to remember his life, he devoted himself instead to his journals. He was nearing the back of this one, at which point it would be place on the shelf with the others and he would commission one of Nargothrond's master bookbinders for one new.
There was a tap on the doorframe. "In, in," he muttered, hastening the pen across the page lest his thought flee from the intrusion of another. It was his custom to let his door stand open to his people and he disdained such formality ("But you are king!" "King! So I named myself!") but his Sindarin servant--left by his sister on her last trip to Nargothrond--had not yet unlearned Thingol's custom. The young man hurried into the room and Finrod saw his shoulders clench as he tried to keep himself from bowing. "My King, a messenger has come. From the plain beyond the Narog. One of the Edain."
With that, any thought that needed expression was lost in Finrod's mind. "A messenger! Of the Edain?" He rubbed his cramping hand and peered around the young man to discern the unexpected guest in the passage beyond but discovered only shadows. "Well, where is he?"
"They--umm, we thought it best to leave him at the front passage until--"
The page had to jog to keep up with Finrod. "My King, if we had known that you wished--"
"No mind, no mind," Finrod called over his shoulder. "He is doubtlessly wearied, and it is best--and most respectful--for me to come to him." He paused at an intersection. Candles held in small glass globes dipped back and forth across the street overhead. Without the touch of wind, their flames stood as still as stones. The page huffed up beside him, and Finrod placed a hand on his shoulder. "You did the right thing," he said.
The whirl of activity in the guard's dining hall indicated where their guest had seated himself, but the sudden glissando of laughter he heard from one of the bakers surprised even Finrod, who had grown gratefully accustomed to the ease of laughter beyond Nargothrond's gates. And then she bustled away with an empty soup bowl in her hand, leaving a loaf of still-warm bread on the table, and Finrod started: The hands sawing halfway through a thick piece of bread then losing patience and tearing the rest belonged to a boy. The kitchen staff, clearly appreciative of the enthusiasm with which he attacked whatever they put in front of him, swarmed to his service.
So busy was he with the kitchen staff and the foods they set before him that the boy did not notice Finrod's approach until he was standing in front of him, bowing slightly and trying, with little success, to quell the smile that danced on his lips. "My young lord, you are most welcome at Nargothrond."
The boy, his mouth full of bread, chocked his knee on a table leg while trying to rise quickly from the bench. "No, no, please, I wish you to stay seated and finish your meal." Finrod took the bench opposite him and tried not to notice the boy struggling to swallow the whole mouthful of bread, tried not to laugh at the satisfaction on his face when he did. Finrod knew well the look of a boy trying hard to make his parents proud.
The boy's hands lay flat on the table--the food ignored for the moment--and his bright eyes met Finrod's. "My King, I come bearing greetings from Bëor of the Edain and an--" Here he fumbled. His face twisted as he fought to remember the unfamiliar Sindarin word for what he wished to say and a small sigh rush past his lips. "An--an … invitation! I come bearing an invitation from my grandfather and from me that you celebrate our midwinter festival with us." With difficulty, he regained his composure.
It had been too long since Finrod had seen Bëor, his friend of old. Last had been--Finrod winced with the effort of remembrance. Why, to him, it seemed it had been just yesteryear, yet Bëor had been in the prime of life and his son Barahir a long-limbed and plainspoken whelp whose inquisitiveness and wonder of field and forest had startled more than one of his father's quarry for its fervor. And that meant--the slow ache of time settled on Finrod, and he lifted his hand to rub between his eyes--that meant that this boy was Barahir's son?
"My lord?" said the boy around a mouthful of bread.
Finrod pinched his lips into a smile. "And you, lad? What is your name?"
How quickly the time passes here, when counted in winters. Bëor--why, he should have been only just settling into his home with a new wife and here his grandson sat, his grandson grown enough to ride a pony as far as Nargothrond!
The boy's face paled then flushed red. Finrod recalled a time long past in Valinor, his father seated at the front of the room wearing three cloaks (to make his shoulders bigger) and grasping a twig-stripped branch for a scepter, trying to tame his face into sobriety so that his two young sons could practice their greetings to High King Ingwë. No doubt--though this boy's people had not even arisen upon the world at that time--the boy had rehearsed the same, if Finrod knew Bëor, in preparing to greet Nargothrond's king. And perhaps the boy sensed that same connection to that king, across an ocean and many ages of the world, because he gulped down his bread and broke into a grin wide enough to reveal two missing teeth at the side of his mouth. "I am Beren, my lord. Son of Barahir."
The weather was not agreeable. The snow was as high as the horse's knees in places and, though no new snow fell, the wind was high and playful and swatted snow from the trees in stinging showers. Finrod shivered inside of his fur cloak and tried not to show it. He'd already drawn looks of wonder (and, he feared, a touch of disappointment) from the boy when his nose and eyes persistently refused to stop running. "I didn't know," Beren said with the careless innocence of a child, "that Elves' bodies leaked the same as ours!" When Finrod's handkerchief was soaked to uselessness, the boy proffered his own. He was clearly better hardened to the weather than Finrod though only--eight years of age? Was that all of it? Finrod felt the reeling sensation that had become familiar to life in Beleriand, same as staring long across a plain of many leagues and then having to refocus, dizzily, upon the butterfly alighted on one's nose: that was the sensation he felt in coming to terms with "life" here in all its haste and brevity.
They camped that night in a clearing in the forest, and the boy stood beyond the fire's light and watched the moon rise through the trees. "Three days now, till the Yule," he said upon his return, plopping at Finrod's side. "Just three days."
"The Yule?" asked Finrod.
"Yes, the festival. That is what we call it. The longest, darkest night of the year--we celebrate!"
Finrod lay in unease in his tent that night, kept wakeful not by the cold or even the slithering wind that found its ways through the tiniest of gaps in the canvas but by the thoughts of this Yule. Of course, if he'd thought of it, he would have realized that the longest night of the year approached Like many of his people, he'd been seized by a fervent--though brief--passion for the astronomy of this new world: the stars that had hidden from their sight in the perpetual light of Valinor, the variance of light and the changing patterns of the Sun and Moon, and the effects these had on the seasons. But he lived underground in a world manufactured to be steady and changeless like the realm he'd left behind, and the ever-shortening days--even the changing seasons--need have little impact on him in Nargothrond. Perhaps he'd noted the shortest day--the longest night--but with no more than the cursory interest that he gave to news that fish were running the Narog or the first fireflies had emerged from the grass.
But he could not quite reconcile the longest night of the year with a festival. It seemed more an occasion to stay in one's home, close to one's family, and pray for the night to hasten into day. The Edain had brought with them many rumors, many whispers of what they'd left behind at their birthplace over the mountains, and Finrod had done what he could to dispel them. He knew Bëor, after all, and trusted him and knew his spirit unmarred by the dark hand said to rest ever on the shoulders of the newcomers. But it was such as this--this celebration of the darkness, of the cold and winter--that kindled the worst of the slanderous tales, and Finrod feared for his friends.
At last, he withdrew one of the Noldorin lamps that he kept with himself and, beneath his blankets to keep warm, commenced to writing in his journal until his hand grew limp and tired and he forgot the dark long enough to sleep in peace.
Since the last he had been to visit Bëor, the Edain had done much to improve their settlement. Small square houses built of timber and wood huddled around a clearing like company at a fire and--despite their simplicity--just as welcoming. The Edain who took his horse said naught to Finrod, though they dropped their eyes in deference. The village was silent; the only sign of life the lazy curls of smoke that rose from the center of each house.
Even Beren was quiet. The boy who'd chattered endless questions at Finrod--desperate, he said, to practice his Sindarin--was struggling not to show his exhaustion. The ride had been long and difficult, and Finrod wondered, not for the first time, why his old friend had decided to summon him for this of all festivals at this wicked time of year.
Beren led Finrod to one of the square houses closest to the center of the clearing. Each of the houses, Finrod noted, had evergreen boughs draped around the doorway, and this house was no exception. As Finrod passed beneath the leather curtain that Beren held aside for him, his hand darted out from his cloak and gently graced the long green needles, the tenacious life of this dark and cold realm.
The house was small inside and dominated by a roaring fire at its center. Finrod was a king now but awkwardness clung to him nonetheless in the way that damp air can't be dispelled by a title and best intention, and he was overly conscious of his height in the small room, of the ragged, unfamiliar faces that turned to him, eyebrows lifting, of the way that Beren gazed up at him imploringly though he recognized not a face in the room--and he began to wonder what hoax, what mistake this journey had become.
And old white-bearded man rose from the far side of the fire then with a shout and began picking his way amid the other men with the brittle care that the Edain assumed in late age. His skin stretched like ill-formed clothing over knobby bones. His beard was white as the snow outside and hung to mid-chest; his hair was a tangle withheld by a strip of leather, his face lined in the way that time will wizen the freshest and brightest of fruits. There was something familiar in his face. He tottered and one of the men caught his hand, though inconspicuously, to restore his balance. "Finrod Felagund!" the white-haired man cried, and with the voice, the features obscured by age burst forth in Finrod's memory and he sunk to his knees to bring the old man's trembling hand (or was it Finrod's? trembling?) to his forehead, letting tears blur the aged face till it might have been young again, crying hoarsely as he kissed the blue-veined knuckles, "Bëor, Bëor, Bëor--"
They left for the festival on the eve of the longest night as the Sun sank into the red-welled horizon. Finrod arranged a scarlet cloak upon his shoulders in front of a crude looking glass and adjusted the wreath of evergreens and berries that Beren had so carefully braided for him that afternoon. He laughed, and a warp in the glass skewed the side of his mouth into absurdity; he looked more like he belonged among his sister's people, not one of the Noldor with their artificial, crafted beauty, the fruits of Nature forgone for what they wrought of their hands of the elements of the earth.
Bëor walked at the head of the procession that would wind its way down to the riverbank where the festival was held. Finrod walked with him, in the place of honor at his right side, and the people mumbled as he passed: He is the king, the Elven king, who fell in tears before our lord. None of these people understood how one of the majesty of the Eldar could weep and kiss the hands of an old man (even if the noblest of them); none understood the painful weight of Finrod's heart to see the one to whom, just yesterday, he'd bidden farewell while yet in the flushes of youth, now withered like the leaves and grass with the passing of the chill hand of autumn; the fear that Bëor, before their next meeting, would be akin to the birds one found upon autumn's passing into winter with sere claws clutching, empty, at the bone-white sky.
None knew the sorrow of enduring love in this finite place. They passed silently down the path to the river to celebrate a night of darkness and Finrod quietly wept while Bëor's hand crept beneath Finrod's scarlet cloak to clutch his arm for balance, puffs of breath coming harder and faster in the cold winter's air.
When all of the people had fallen into the procession behind them, Bëor rasped to him in a whisper, "Something weighs upon your heart this night, my friend. You cannot conceal it from me, though we are of different ages and different races, our veins course alike with the blood of the noble; our spirits are akin with love of the One." He coughed faintly. The shadows had deepened to where, even to Finrod's eyes meant to see by only starlight, he was but a shape etched in frail silver light.
Finrod walked long in silence. Behind them came the soft sounds of conversation, of occasional laughter; in their levity, they did not sound like people off to a festival in the dark. Finrod's heart thudded heavily. At last he spoke.
"I do not understand this--this festival of the dark. I do not understand why you--people who arose with the Sun as we arose beneath the stars--should forgo the light you love to worship in shadow. It troubles me, Bëor. It troubles me that you have been swayed to take the wrong roads under a hand of--" His tongue refused to shape that word still strange to hear in Sindarin, even after kinslaying and war, death. He settled after a moment for, "The hand of impermanence."
Bëor wheezed a long laugh. "Oh, Finrod, Finrod. You are closest to us of your kind, yet you've still so much to learn. Keep your eyes and heart open. Tonight, you will see."
They arrived at the riverbank. On the opposite shore, the people from another village were already assembling: shadows with hoods pulled low over their faces. A child leaped and danced and was settled, silenced, by his mother. On an unseen horizon, Arien dropped away to begin her journey beneath the world to rise again tomorrow in the east, and the meager darts of her light upon the water abruptly ceased, leaving only a low gleam of starlight upon inky black waters. Tilion was delayed by his hopes of seeing her in the underworld passages and had not yet risen. Bëor led Finrod almost to the brink of the water and the people arrayed themselves behind him, their conversation and laughter having ceased. Finrod became aware of the impenetrable silence of winter. Even when a babe let out an untimely gurgle of laughter, it skipped across the surface of that silence, as much an illusion of life, of levity as the reflected light on the icy river. The silence that followed it was complete.
But something burst into his senses then, a sound so rich that, for a moment, it was not just sound but light and warmth as penetrating as what Finrod had last felt beneath the Trees at their mingling, and he realized that Bëor had begun to sing. Other voices rose and joined him and, from among the throngs of people on both sides of the river, each head of household kindled and came forth with a torch and touched it to piles of wood lining the river. Children were lifted to light lanterns strung amid the bare-branched trees and, as Finrod watched, the entire length of the river within his sight, in both directions, suddenly flared into light. Faces sprang from shadow, laughing, throwing back hoods and warming their hands, now tossing apples to one another across the golden river. For a moment, there was summer on those shores: light and laughter and feasts of plenty.
Finrod became conscious that Bëor was no longer at his side. Barahir had led his father to a seat back from the water. He sang no longer but sagged down to the log reserved for him, his breath overtaken by hoarse coughing. Finrod rushed to his side, but Bëor held him off. "No, no. Look. Listen. See. I have called you here for a reason."
Back from the water, Finrod could see showers of sparks thrown heavenward by the bonfire. His keen sight traced one as it meandered, swirling, doubling back on itself as though in joyful dance, then lost it against the star-filled sky, almost as though it had joined the stars there. He chose another and another to follow until he could no longer distinguish: Earth, sky--they were one.
"These are our people, Finrod," he heard Bëor say faintly behind him. "Your people would say that we are afflicted: born into death in a world of shadows. We would say that when we are given darkness we bestow it with light by whatever means we may, no matter how simple."
From the spangled river to the swirling sparks to the heavens brimming with stars, everywhere Finrod looked, he saw light. He remembered a time long past, at his grandfather's knee, hearing the legends of the eldest days, of Varda watching Aulë hammer ingots of silver and seeing the sparks drift against the empty darkness, dabbing her fingers in silver to press against the sky, and giving starlight to the world. "Without dark, there would be no stars," Finrod had piped up, the paradox of that, even then, clenching his heart, as though prescient of this moment at Bëor's side, watching his people banish the darkness from the longest night.
Year 450 of the Sun
Finrod Felagund was working at his desk when the page arrived, the boy his sister had left him--how long ago now?--who was now a man impatient to return to his wife and newborn infant. At least he didn't insist on knocking any longer but burst into the room in a harried flurry. "You are still here?" Finrod cheerily chastised. "Get gone! I gave you your leave an hour ago!"
"You did, my lord, but a messenger came from the Edain, and I thought you should have this before I retired. But I will take my leave now. The messenger is partaking of mushroom soup in the guards' dining hall should you wish to speak with him." Gently, the boy--the man--pressed a roll of parchment upon Finrod's desk. It bore Barahir's rough seal and caught in the twine that bound it was a single sprig of evergreen.
This story was written for Rhyselle for the Yule Challenge for Many Paths to Tread. Her request was, "I'd like a story set in the First Age after Finrod has met the Edain for the first time. I'd like to see how the Edain teach the Elves why and how they celebrate Yule/Solstice. :) It can be told either as a flashback or memory, or as if it's happening in the present. It must have Finrod at least mentioned in it, although how he fits in will be up to the author. Would also like a mention of someone's white beard, a child, and the color red, and stars."
I think I got them all! :)
The dates that I used in developing the characters' ages in this story come from The Grey Annals in the eleventh volume of the History of Middle-earth series, The War of the Jewels. This was Tolkien's final (as far as we know) attempt to develop a timeline for the early first age. Important dates used in this story are (in Years of the Sun):
370: Bëor born
402: Barahir born
432: Beren born
450: Bëor dies
455: The Fell Year--The Battle of Sudden Flame and Finrod Felagund swears an oath of service to Barahir and his descendents
The legend of Varda becoming inspired to create the stars after Aulë struck an ingot of silver that sent silver sparks into the sky comes from The Book of Lost Tales 1, The Coming of the Elves and the Making of Kôr.