Author's Note: Winner of the Ghosts challenge at Parma Eruseen; based on the question of how the wives and children of the Rangers of the North deal with the mortal danger their men face in their guarding of Middle-earth. Reviews are always loved!
Disclaimer: The characters of Haldan and Firiel and the tale of Belegund and Eirien are mine; everything else is Tolkien's.
The Night's Eye
From his stool near the fire Haldan watched, heedless of the peg he was to be mending, as his mother coaxed the window-candle's wick to light. Firiel stood for a moment, silent and still as the night, watching the flickering flame slowly strengthen, then turned to meet her son's gaze.
"You're meant to be working, not dreaming," she scolded, crossing to her own seat on a mat before the fire. Abashed, the child took up the knife again, but held it still in his hand, gazing at the candle in the window.
"Is the night's eye candle for Father?" His eyes were wide and guileless; innocent still.
Firiel smoothed her skirt, neatening the somber folds of cloth, wishing that Halbarad was here, wishing that girls were here, wishing that she and her son were not so completely alone tonight. "You know that it is, Haldan."
He was quiet for a moment as he carved away at the piece of wood. Then: "Mother?"
The woman breathed out slowly, a soft and steady sigh of patience tested. "No more questions now. It's late enough for work to be done; to bed with you. Go on."
The child obeyed quietly, laying the peg and knife carefully aside for the next night. He climbed onto his pallet in the corner, pulling the rough blankets over him to ward off the cold. Settled into bed, Haldan watched solemnly as his mother seated herself before the fire with her spindle and a handful of carded wool.
For a while all was still but for the soft whirr of the spindle and Firiel's capable hands winding the spun thread. Haldan lay quiet and watched for a time.
Firiel's hands caught and stilled the spindle, but she did not look at the child.
"Why do you light the window-candle, Mother?"
She breathed in again. "It is custom, Haldan."
His mother sat back on her heels for a moment; then with a smooth movement she rose, laying aside her tools. She came to sit at the side of his pallet. Gently her hands moved over the covers, tucking them snug around his body.
"I asked my mother the same question when I was your age," she said. "She lit the candle for my father the same as I do now for yours. And I asked her why."
"Did she tell you?"
Firiel looked down at her son gravely. "She said, 'It is custom, Firiel.'"
He frowned in disappointment. "But why, Mother?"
"You have the same curiosity I did," she told him. "And I pestered and teased my mother until she told me the tale. I will tell you, and then you must sleep."
Haldan nodded, pulling his blankets up to his chin. Laying a hand to rest on her son's smooth hair, Firiel began her story.
"Long, long ago, before my mother's mother was born, and even before her mother was born, there was a woman named Eirien. She was wed to Belegund, a brave captain of warriors, and the love between them was great.
"Shortly after their marriage, Belegund was called away to the south to fulfil his duties. The night before he was to leave, Eirien lit a candle in the window, saying to her husband, 'This is the light that will guide you back to me even in the darkest night. When you return, look for the window-candle; its light will not be quenched until you are safe at home again.'
"He left the next morning. True to her word, Eirien lit the candle every night that she waited for her man to return to her. And one night he did return, and he followed the light shining in her window back home.
"Ever after that, Eirien always lit the candle in her window when Belegund left her. Every time it brought him safely back to her. But one time he did not return.
"She did not know that Belegund had fallen to an enemy blade mere weeks after leaving her. How could she, with no one left to come home bearing the sad tidings? Still she waited, and lit the candle every night, long after the other women had despaired. Until the day of her death, long afterwards when she was old and grey and tired, she lit the window-candle to show Belegund the way home."
Firiel gazed at the flickering flame in the window, her eyes distant. "When we light our own window-candle, we honor this brave woman's faith as well as lighting the way home for our men. This is why we call our special candle the night's eye: after Eirien, whose name is that of the day's eye flower."
She blinked after a long moment and looked down at her son, who was slipping into the beginnings of sleep. The woman tucked a loose lock of hair behind Haldan's ear, whispering to him the rhyme she remembered learning from her own mother so long ago:
"Light a candle, candle light,
One for each of those who roam;
Let it shine throughout the night
To guide them safely, swiftly home."
Rising slowly from the sleeping child's bedside, she whispered a goodnight in his ear.
Haldan's dreams that night were full of shadows and flickering flame, and sad-eyed women and children. He woke suddenly, to some sudden noise of the night. The only light in the room came from the candle still shining bravely in the window.
He closed his eyes, only for a moment, and opened them again to see an armored figure standing beside the window, watching the flame dance.
Haldan breathed in, slowly, unafraid and ready to believe. "Father?" he said. His voice sounded small and horribly lonely in the utter stillness of the night.
The man turned, and Haldan caught a glimpse of black hair and bright grey eyes, and the quiet smile his father reserved for him alone. He sat up, wondering. "Father?"
Halbarad bowed his head, unshed tears glittering in his eyes. "Son." His voice trembled, hoarse and rough from weeks on the road. "My son."
The boy shook his head, clearing his eyes. When his father did not disappear, he sprang from his bed, meaning to wake his mother.
The man shook his head. "Nay, Haldan, do not disturb her rest."
"But Father, she must know that you are back!" Haldan stared at his father, bewildered.
"No, child. I am not here to stay."
"You are leaving us again? Why?"
With a sad smile, Halbarad reached out a hand to smooth his son's hair. "I cannot stay, Haldan. I am called elsewhere now, and I will not return."
"Nay, listen." Halbarad's voice grew urgent as the wind began to pick up. "Be brave and grow strong, my son. Care for your mother as I would." The sounds of his voice began to fade. "I am going, Haldan. Be strong for me."
Haldan could not move at all, watching his father's form walk away from him, growing more insubstantial with each step. The air moved by his passing quenched the night's eye candle's flame; then Halbarad was gone, a line of smoke curled upward from the wick and plumed in the air the only thing that marked his passing.
And the next thing Haldan knew, his mother's voice was sounding and light was shining through the window.
And when the messengers arrived at their door weeks later, he knew already what news it was that they carried: tidings of the brave death of Halbarad, fighting to the last for his kinsman, the man who now was King in faraway Gondor. He knew, and was brave for his father and strong for his mother. And the night's eye came down from the windowsill, and nothing was ever the same.
On the Names:
Firiel is a name meaning "mortal woman", and was used at least twice by Tolkien, though not in the LoTR proper. Haldan was the name of a lord of the Men of Brethil in the First Age and nephew to the famous Haleth; it likely means "tall man". Belegund was the name of the father of Rian, mother of Tuor; the name has the connotation "strength". Eirien is the Sindarin word for "daisy", and literally is the "day's eye". And of course Halbarad was the Ranger kinsman of Aragorn who rode through the Paths of the Dead with him and was killed at the Battle of the Pelennor. This story therefore takes place at the very end of the Third Age or the beginning of the Fourth, and I hope I have not got any details too terribly wrong.