Nightingales and Starlight
Disclaimer: I am not J.R.R. Tolkien and I do not own Middle-earth. I certainly do not own the Lay of Leithian, on which this draws quite heavily in places. All feedback is very much appreciated!
I wish I could think of another way to describe grey.
Grey is the stone of Menegroth, yet Menegroth stone is surely not grey. For the stone of Menegroth holds no light, fair though it be, and the grey that lingers before me still is as clear as the light of a starlit evening. Grey is the shade beneath the trees and grey are the pools that ripple in dark woods and grey is the iron that cuts the bough, and none of these are grey at all. For shadows mean danger and dark water is bitter and blades are perilous omens indeed, but the starlit grey of the evening sky is softer than nightingale feathers when she smiles.
And Menegroth has fallen now and far behind me be those pools, dark beneath the shadowed trees. The grey to be seen in the depths of the sea is false as well. It has no smile and does not dance in Doriath's serenaded woods. Her feet are fleet and light as the night and the Moon was snared in her rose-crowned hair, as was the treasury of the sky. I saw the wings of Wilwarin alight on her brow: brighter than diamonds, fairer than pearls. She could have taken Menelmacar's belt for a girdle and yet blazed brighter still.
Starlight and nightingales. I always come back to starlight and nightingales!
Tinfang Gelion, they used to say, could enchant the Moon with a harp and kindle stars in summer nights. So sweet was his singing that the nightingales flocked to his chorus and Melian our Maia Queen would smile. This is true. It is also true that when I played, she wept. My music is for the breaking of hearts and our wise-eyed Queen who taught the nightingales their song called me the finest minstrel in Beleriand. And yet I have no words for Melian's daughter without nightingales or starlight. A! Lúthien, dear Lúthien, fairest of all Ilúvatar's Children, where art thou gone?
So I cry beneath dark boughs. A! Lúthien!
Cried, rather. The Moon peering unwarily through the trees had trapped himself in inky depths and I was singing him comfort from some grim bank when I heard voices answering me in the far-off distance. It was long since I had last heard Elves, or any voice at all apart from Iarwain's laughter on the breeze. Since Iarwain's merriment grated on my nerves, I tended to withdraw to my cave and wail on my flute when I heard him wandering by. Once I had been new to those woods and glad of his kindnesses, and I remained grateful, but he would always insist on sharing his ditties with me ('to cheer me up', as he used to say) and I could never admit my opinion of his warblings when he asked so hopefully. Honesty would have been cruel and praise unforgivable. In some matters, even a minstrel is obliged to tell the truth.
But these voices were Elven. I recognised them. For a moment, time fell away and I expected to see them coming lightly through the darkness in furs and animal skins, a pair of bright-eyed hunters from the distant mountains. So had I seen them first, wandering in Eglador beneath the trees of Region.
That was very long ago indeed. Amazed and silent now, I listened to their voices drifting closer, although the hunters themselves I did not see until they were almost upon me. They were teasing me, I think. It would have been like them. Daeron, dark Daeron with your diadem of ferns, why do you no longer sing? Wherever has your music gone, nightingale-voiced Daeron? When at last they took shape from the shadows, I was absurdly startled to see them garbed like Green-elves in tunics and long cloaks, rather than the leather and furs of their youth. About me the long years began to gather again, like ravens circling the battlefield.
Then I saw their hats, which were conical and made of loosely woven straw. Ribbons trailed down through their dark hair, colourless in the moonlight. The incongruity struck me suddenly and I fell back in disarray, collapsing into laughter.
Some things never change. The winter snows will always fall; the wayward Moon will always wander; and that pair of hunters once from Ered Luin will always be able to startle me into lightheartedness. That is as true now as it was when I played in Eglador for Melian and Thingol, and it was true too when they came upon me on the shores of that bitter lake beneath the sullen trees.
"Well, there's a welcome for you," said the man lightly, glancing at the woman with a curl of a smile. "Do you think it was something we said?"
"We haven't said anything yet," she pointed out. "Maybe he's mad."
"Oh, he always was that."
She chuckled. "Maybe he's madder."
They turned expectant eyes on me, smiling. I clasped my arms around myself and struggled to strangle my laughter. "Your hats –"
"What about them?" asked the woman, raising her eyebrows, while the man removed that disreputable bundle of straw from his head and spun it quizzically around his fingers, putting on a mock-serious face as he played with the trailing ribbons. "It's been too long since you talked with civilised folk, Daeron, if you fall into paroxysms over a couple of hats."
Absurdity of absurdities. I shook my head helplessly. "What are you wearing?"
They glanced at each other and grinned. "We picked them up in a village of Men a week or so ago," said the man cheerfully, replacing his hat on his head. A ribbon fell askew down the side of his face, twisting in the dark breeze. "Farmers, you know. Or maybe you don't. They're very fine, don't you think?"
"Of course he does," said the woman. "Who wouldn't?"
I choked. "Almost anyone!"
The man shook his head sadly. "Such jealousy does not become you, Daeron. Come now, it's been half an Age since we saw you last and you want to talk about hats?"
"I – no, of course –"
"I don't mind talking about hats," said the woman encouragingly. "If that's what Daeron wants..."
"Of course it's not!" I protested. "You're teasing me."
She laughed. "Well, a little. It's late to be singing to the Moon, you know. Shall we go somewhere cosy and talk about how the world's changed since we last met?"
I had nowhere cosy to take them, so I led them to the cave deep in the woods where my few belongings were hidden and where I retreated on occasion to sleep or to avoid Iarwain's nonsensical merriment. The opening was a crack in the hillside, defended by a curtain of overhanging briars to which white flowers now clung like spectral butterflies, fluttering in the night. As I led them there, I was trying to remember what this couple were called. As clearly as I could recall that first meeting in Eglador, I could still see them curled up like cats at Melian's feet for a hundred years, drinking in the wisdom of our Maia Queen. I knew too that there had been a thousand times when they had come wandering home to Thingol's court from far-flung travels and I had snatched them away at once, demanding all the details they could possibly tell me of their adventures in the wider world. As hunters they had come to Thingol's court and as hunters they left it, chasing stories and places and people and experiences and interesting things above all else. So I had always told them, laughing, and drained the cup of their wanderings to the very dregs. All this I remembered clearly, and yet I could not remember their names.
They seemed singularly unimpressed by my cave. I could not blame them. "A fire, perhaps?" suggested the man, glancing over the dank and mossy rock with a hint of a frown. "Have you eaten, Daeron?"
I did not remember. Such details scarcely interest me even now. "No doubt."
"Well, eat with us, then, and be sure."
The woman had already slid back out through the briar-hung crack into the night. I presumed she was going in search of firewood; certainly she would have found none in my cave. Light and warmth held as little interest for me as food in those days. In the winter, I had been accustomed to finding firewood piled neatly outside my cave from time to time, but it was high summer then and the last of the wood was long gone. A basket lying hidden in the long grass was regularly refilled with food in all seasons, though, and I still had a little of the dried meat that had been left on the last occasion. It occurred to me that it would be courteous to offer it up for their consumption.
Courtesy. It was very long since I had been obliged to consider that.
"How kind," said the man politely. "I think we should be able to spare your pantry, though. We caught a couple of quails this morning and there's an excellent mushroom patch not far away. Maybe you know about it?"
The tone of his voice made it clear that he thought this was unlikely. He was quite correct on that count. I shrugged. There were mushrooms in the basket sometimes, along with berries and fresh fruit. "I daresay. Ah – your wife –"
"It's Melinna's turn to cook. Shall we join her and watch?"
Melinna. I did remember that. And now I remembered his name as well. "That would be rather... discourteous... wouldn't it?"
"Don't trouble yourself," said Erestor. His eyes were laughing at me. "We aren't at Menegroth now and I did catch the birds, after all. She won't mind."
So it proved. I had not eaten so richly for as long as I could remember and was surprised by how delicious I found the roasted flesh of fowls and those lace-white mushrooms that flourished under the sullen trees. They had a dock-leaf envelope full of wild strawberries as well, handfuls of tiny red seed-clusters that startled me with their sweetness. I began to remember the feasts of Thingol's court, when the long tables groaned with food and the ladies in their bright gowns danced with elegant lords to the playing of harps and drums and pipes. At other times, Melian's maidens would spread fine cloths beneath the trees of Neldoreth and Region, and there we would dine upon carpets of grass while the Queen's nightingales sang in the boughs above. As I lay beside an unaccustomed fire and stared up at the stars, I could almost remember the skirling delight of my pipes as I played for light-footed Lúthien among the hemlock umbels on the banks of the Esgalduin. Almost, I smiled.
It was then that they told me of the destruction of Doriath.
They spoke dispassionately enough that I did not at first realise what they were saying. It took a little while for the information to sink in. I think they had expected me to cry out in horror, or perhaps to tear my threadbare garments and weep. In truth, I was stunned. Through all my mourning for Lúthien's immortal fairness, it had never occurred to me that Melian's Girdle might cease to safeguard Thingol's realm. How could the Naugrim turn to murder and Elves slaughter Elves for the sake of a starry trinket touched by Lúthien's hands?
By the time I had gathered enough thoughts to speak, Erestor was talking of the scattered refugees and their flight to the mouths of the River Sirion beside the sea. He had described most of the sorry tale, I think; at least, when I recall the bare facts as they were conveyed to me that evening, it is Erestor's light voice that I hear speaking through the dark. His lady sat for the most part in silence, which was not how I remembered her, and that ridiculous hat sat low on her brow. Her expression could not be made out at all.
Doriath had fallen. There was nothing more to be said.
Erestor had paused momentarily and was frowning into the fire. I could still taste the strawberries in my mouth. I asked quietly, "What was it like to be there?"
He glanced sideways at me. "Why do you ask?"
I hunched my shoulders. "I want to know."
"Well then, since you wish to know, it was the worst thing I've ever seen."
He spoke flatly. I was taken aback. I could not recall Erestor being so stern before.
"But surely you can tell me –"
Melinna lifted her head with a swiftness that cut me short. The hat had fallen away and her eyes were very dark. "No."
I stared at her. Always before, they had been happy to tell me where they had been and what they had heard and the doings of strangers in faraway lands. I had always relied on their sharp eyes and their sharper ears for an understanding of the ways of the world beyond Doriath's girdled borders. And now that Doriath had fallen utterly in a storm of fire, they would not tell me of my homeland's final days.
It was bewildering. "Why not?"
"Some things, Daeron," she said, "are not meant to be put into words."
"I don't understand."
"Then I will tell you." Her tone was very crisp. "They came in the winter, when we did not expect them, because one does not expect to be set upon by one's allies in the snow. Erestor, you will not say 'In the spring, perhaps!' Of course we knew they would come. Of course Galadriel knew her kinsmen well enough to know they would come. Dior could not believe such a thing – not even of Fëanor's sons, who burned Olwë's ships at Losgar! Of the Naugrim, certainly, but not of Elves. And so Dior perished. And he did not die like a hero in one of your songs, Daeron. He was butchered like a pig while trying to get Nimloth and the children to safety. We will not speak of Nimloth's death! If the Noldor had forgotten Galadriel's face, their daughter would never have come out of that furnace alive. Her brothers were taken and left to starve in the woods. And none of this is fit material for one of your songs. There was blood and fire throughout Menegroth and death and the dead choked the Esgalduin and it should never be sung except as a curse on the sons of Fëanor and the Naugrim who came for plunder before them!"
The suddenness of her anger was scalding. I seemed to be hearing a stranger speak.
"I shall make no songs," I said helplessly. "Melinna –"
She gave an odd little choke of a sound, something like a bitter laugh. "If you'd been there yourself, Daeron, we'd have found you under a table trying to think of the perfect simile for blood! No. Doriath fell. Menegroth was ruined beyond repair. Dior and his family died, all apart from little Elwing. That is all."
Erestor stirred. His expression was sombre as he looked at his wife. "Indeed, enough," he said gently. "We should speak of other matters. That was two and a half centuries ago and the world has changed."
I saw them exchange a glance. "Come now," said Erestor, "surely you felt the quakes from here?"
"There was a certain amount of noise," added Melinna, somewhat distantly. She resettled her conical straw hat on her head and fussed for a moment over tying the ribbons into a jaunty bow under her chin. "And you must have seen lights in the sky..."
Perhaps I had done. I did not remember. I shrugged and let my hunters tell me about the War of Wrath and the sinking of Beleriand and the raising of a land for the Dúnedain ruled by a mortal descendant of Thingol and Melian. My thoughts lay with the ruins of Doriath, far beneath the murky waves. It did not surprise me to hear that the sons of Fëanor had slaughtered the survivors among the mouths of the Sirion. Presently, I think, I slept.
Dawn awoke me beside the ashes of the evening's fire. Someone had covered me with a cloak, which was momentarily bewildering, since I rarely troubled with such comforts on my own account. A little mist lingered here and there in the darker corners of the woods and through the knitted branches overhead could be seen glimpses of a clear blue sky. Lúthien had worn such a mantle once, broidered with lilies of gold. The jewels spattered across that lapis lazuli silk had sparkled like stars.
I was still half-asleep then, enmeshed in bittersweet dreams of Doriath. As the dawn deepened into a breezy morning, I sat hunched in the grass under the capacious grey shroud of someone else's cloak and wondered whether the clever fingers of our Maia's daughter might not have drawn down a silken thread from the heavens for her mantle. Shut up in that house in Hírilorn, the triple-trunked queen of the beeches in Neldoreth, she had woven her own hair into a robe drenched in sleep and twilight. I remembered that robe very well, since I had been piping beneath the nightingale's cage on the night when she had flown free. Surely it would not have been so very much harder to spin the blue sky into thread?
I put this hypothesis to Melinna, when she came lightly back through the woods alone. She gave me a rather peculiar look.
"No, Daeron," she replied, quite kindly. "I don't think that's very likely."
"Definitely. Not even the Queen would do such a thing. Now, I came back to tell you that we've found a very pleasant spot for fishing in that lake of yours. Would you care to join us?"
We found Erestor sprawled out on a sunny bank, his straw hat covering his face. A slender rod was propped up beside him and a line trailed in the deep water. At our approach, he stirred only to flick his fingers at us in lazy greeting. Melinna shook her head, smiling, and dropped down in the grass beside him. A breath of air stirred the lake's surface, causing sunlight to shimmer in a hundred thousand shards of prismatic colour. It was as dazzling as the jewels on Lúthien's mantle. For a moment, I could not move, staring across the sunlit lake.
Then the line twitched and Erestor sat up with a suddenness that made me jump. The enchantment of the jewelled lake was broken. I sat down on the borrowed cloak and watched him struggle with the fish twisting and jerking at the other end, silver sides gleaming in the sunlight. In the end, it broke free and flipped back into the water, which made Melinna laugh and Erestor grimace ruefully. "Next time..."
"I do hope so," said Melinna. "I'm partial to fish."
"I hadn't forgotten." He flicked the line back to the bank, reaching for a fresh piece of bait. "You could make a fishing rod of your own, you know."
"I could do that. Or I could watch you failing to catch fish with yours."
"So you could," he said and smiled at her. "Maybe you could persuade Daeron to sing for us instead. It's been a while since we had that pleasure."
I found them both looking expectantly at me and blinked in bemusement. It was hard to know how to respond. The morning was too sunny, somehow, to sing of nightingales and starlight, yet I had spent so long wandering in the shadows of the woods and on the lake's moonlit shore that I had no words for the bright day. At last I shrugged and recalled some stanzas on Lúthien's lissom limbs that seemed as appropriate as anything I could have sung just then. This took me into a memory-maze of playing for Lúthien's dancing through the twilit years and down into the brilliant ages of the Sun.
There had been other songs as well in those times, of course. I remembered contending once in minstrelsy with Tinfang Gelion, when he had sung of the delving of Menegroth beneath the stars and I had sung of the tempering of steel and the smithing of spears that had come about after the wolves of Morgoth first came howling down from the North. Then he had mocked me by praising my Runes, which pleased no one but the Naugrim, to which I replied sternly with the coming of Ungoliant. And when he sought to defeat Ungoliant by extolling the power of our deathless Queen, I overthrew him in turn with Denethor's death, recalling that time when Bauglir's hordes came ravening out of Angband and the light-armed Elves of the Land of the Seven Rivers fell before iron-shod Orcs at Amon Ereb. This final blow was well-aimed, since many in our audience had come from Ossiriand with the son of Lenwë and many more had fought in that battle under Thingol's command. Tears could be seen on the face of the King himself and the judges of our contest flew up like smoke from the pyres, settling all around me in an ash-grey cloud as I ceased to sing.
On the bank beside that sunlit lake, I sang again that lament for Denethor, remembering how Tinfang had conceded defeat and smiled as he wept for the fallen Elves of Ossiriand and their fair King. Amid applause, Melian had arisen from her throne, her eyes alight with Aman's glory. Her maidens had brought forth prizes: a harp for the winner and a flute for his rival, both adorned with silver nightingales. I think it amused the Queen to bestow the prizes in this way, since it was well-known that I preferred to play the flute or pipes, whereas Tinfang's favourite instrument had always been the harp. After the contest came a feast and after the feast came a dance, and for that dance Tinfang Gelion and I had taken up our new instruments and cast aside seriousness in pursuit of rhythm and joyful sound.
I opened my eyes again to the bright day. Erestor had caught two fish and was watching his line intently, while Melinna lay curled up at his side, gazing over the lake. Her face had a faraway look and she did not glance around.
"Very nice," said Erestor, rather shortly. "Didn't you sing that for a contest once?"
"It was the first real battle we ever saw." His voice was light and dry. "You weren't there, I believe. Did we tell you about it?"
I could not remember. "There are many people who might have done."
"So there were." He glanced down at his wife, whose expression had not changed. "What were you singing when we met you? Haven't you spent all these years composing a lay for Lúthien?"
"Well –" I said, caught by surprise.
It was true in a way, I suppose. It would not be hard to weave all my fragments of song and scattered words together into one long lay. That had never been my intention, though. The nightingale had flown her beechwood cage and I had plunged through the shadows of Melian's Girdle, afraid and despairing, to seek her in the perilous world. And I had never found her, or even some slight impress whereon her dancing feet might have trodden the turf. On strange and long-forgotten paths, I had passed over the mountains to reach those grim woods beside the bitter lake, and there had I remained. Iarwain Ben-adar, encountered one night as he bounded merrily along the shore, had known all too much of the nightingale's fate. Ever since then, I had voiced only such rough laments as came to me unbidden from the dark, abandoning the careful artistry of happier times.
Still, it would not be hard to craft a lay from those laments. Not hard at all.
"Sing to us of Lúthien," said Melinna softly, still staring over the water. "As a kindness, Daeron."
As a kindness to my hunters, then, I closed my eyes against the day's brightness and sang of Doriath's starlit nightingale. Sweet Lúthien, fairest of the fair, the daughter of our deathless queen, who in the day and still by night would dance on the undying green. Fair Lúthien, braver than the brave, who magic wove into her hair and thereby flew from Hírilorn, that token of her father's care. Brave Lúthien, wiser than the wise, who meeting Noldor on the way was nearly snared in Nargothrond, that Curufin his respects might pay. Wise Lúthien, wilier than their wiles, who flitted onwards to that tower wherein was Gorthû, werewolf lord –
Someone coughed. "Gorthaur. And Celegorm proposed to marry her, I believe."
Annoyed, I opened my eyes. Dusk was gathering all around and the Moon shone white above the lake. My audience was sprawled out at my feet in the shadowed grass. "Gorthû scans better. Though I mostly use Thû, actually. And Curufin works slightly better than Celegorm. There wasn't much difference between them anyway."
"You never met them," said Erestor mildly. His dark head was bare now and his battered hat sat beside him on a pile of fish. The rod lay nearby, abandoned. "Though I must admit, there wasn't much difference between the pair when we last – ah – spoke."
"I've heard enough about them from you," I pointed out. "Was I actually wrong?"
"Apart from having Curufin for Celegorm –"
I saw Melinna reach up to tweak his hair. "Leave that be. It's petty enough."
"One thing did occur to me," she added critically. She was looking at me directly now and her expression was painfully familiar from those long-gone days in Doriath, when she or Erestor had occasionally heard their own words quoted back at them in song and had chosen to disagree with my interpretation of their experiences. I sighed and steeled myself as she went on, "At some point, you're going to have to mention Beren Camlost."
Beren. That shaggy, stumbling mongrel of a mortal jewel-thief. In my laments for Lúthien.
No. I thought not.
My feelings must have been written in my face. "It's true," said Melinna, not very patiently. "Erestor, tell him I'm right."
Erestor appeared to be concentrating intensely on tying knots in grass-stems. He did not lift his head. "It would... make sense. More sense, that is. A lay for Lúthien that doesn't mention Beren would be rather... nonsensical."
"It would be perfectly sensible!" I retorted. "Why would anyone sing about that thieving mortal? All he brought her was death!"
"Nonetheless," he said. "She loved him. And otherwise nothing makes any sense."
I almost told them that my laments did not need to make sense. That I was singing for Lúthien and for myself, who had lost her, and that I was not and had never intended to be shaping my laments into a lay that made sense. Certainly not if I then had to sing about that uncouth, ignorant, hairy Man!
No. Let some other singer sing for Barahir's son. I would not.
"You know, Daeron," Erestor went on, speaking distantly through the dark, "he was... not a bad person. For a Man, in fact, remarkable. Anyone would have loved Lúthien. Everyone did love Lúthien. It was hardly Beren's fault that she loved him back."
And that I will never understand.
I saw that Erestor was frowning a little, still knotting grass-stems around his long fingers seriously enough to be working mithril. "It was not the doom that anyone wanted for her. The Queen wept. So did we all. But it was the doom she chose. Beren was the doom she chose. Even the King accepted that in the end. And Beren was – not a bad doom, in himself. We fought with him at Sarn Athrad..."
And so forgave him Lúthien's loss. Well, I would not be so forgiving.
Glancing up, he caught sight of my face. His dark eyes narrowed. "What would you like me to say?" he asked pointedly. "It's the truth. Lúthien chose him. I don't understand it either, but she did. That's all."
"Quite," said Melinna. "It was her choice and she chose it. That's all."
Her coolness was marked, which shocked me. I think she saw this. She gave me a hard-edged smile. "I loved Lúthien as much as anyone, Daeron, but I rather liked Beren Camlost. He deserves to be remembered."
"Then you can remember him!" I snapped. "I'm not going to!"
I could feel myself becoming agitated, which was as annoying as anything that had been said. There had been little cause for anger in those sullen woods. Perhaps I had felt only grief since my flight from Doriath. This reawakening of other emotions was not pleasant and I despised the sharpness that anger brought into my voice.
"Very well," she said in her cool, exasperating way. "Perhaps I shall."
Erestor was frowning again, shaking a last few stems of grass from his hands and sitting straighter on that dark bank. He seemed uneasy. "Melinna –"
"She took one of my knives, you know." Her tone was strangely conversational. "When she went to rescue Beren from Tol-in-Gaurhoth. Do you remember, we went there afterwards and saw Felagund's grave?"
I saw Erestor's eyes widen. "I remember. Which knife?"
"The bone-handled one. Did I not tell you?"
"No. I didn't realise you'd lost it."
She shrugged. "I don't think she ever used it. I took it back from Celegorm's body."
There was something unnerving about the way she spoke. The twist of her mouth was unfamiliar and it occurred to me that she had grown hard since I had known her in Doriath. I think my temper was already subsiding then.
"I'd told her where to find it, of course," she added in that same oddly level tone. "Anyone who takes up with someone like Beren is bound to need a weapon sooner or later. Still, I was glad she never used it. She'd only have hurt herself."
It was a moment before I realised quite what Melinna had said. Erestor's head snapped up. "You told her –"
Her smile was almost mocking. "Long before she ever went. Should I have let her run off to Tol-in-Gaurhoth unarmed?"
"You should have obeyed the King!"
"As Daeron did?" She did not wait for a response. "I don't blame him for that, or you for wanting to do the same. It didn't help, though, did it? She didn't come to us when Daeron failed her. She didn't need us any more than she needed him. She took my knife and she didn't need that either. She chose her doom. It was hers to choose. None of us had any part in it. And that's all."
And that was all.
I had no words. Beneath the starry night, I had no words.
When Daeron failed her.
"Melinna –" I heard Erestor say. "That's not –"
"I don't care what it's not, it's true." She was on her feet now and her voice came harshly from above. "You never really understood her, either of you. Daeron still doesn't! If he did, he'd sing for Beren too and not be asking whether Lúthien could spin the sky into silk!"
"Whether she – wait, I don't –"
"Let Daeron sing it for you!"
That was her last word. Without a sound, she disappeared into the woods. Erestor was moving before my mind had caught up with my eyes. I think perhaps he said something about staying there, or to take care while he was gone, but I doubt it would have been intelligible even had I been capable of understanding. I was not. Abandoned beside that dark lake, I stared at the Moon and saw only the light in Lúthien's face.
Daeron, dear Daeron, will you do something for me?
An unnecessary question. Of course, dearest Lúthien. What do you wish me to do?
Before the raising of the Moon, I had played for Lúthien. Before the Sun had arisen in glory, she had danced to my pipes along the Esgalduin. Before the rise of Angband and the return of the Noldor, her beauty had shone among the beeches of Neldoreth and the elms of Region. I had been young when she was born into twilit Eglador. Elbereth's stars had laughed in her eyes and Melian's nightingales came flocking at the sound of her voice. My finest songs had been written for the sake of her smile.
Her starlit eyes had not been laughing then. My mother tells me that Beren is held in Gorthaur's dungeons. My dear, I must go to him. Will you come with me? And if not, will you keep my secret until I am gone?
That was not unnecessary, it was impossible.
Lúthien our nightingale could not fly past Melian's Girdle into the dangerous beyond. The thought was absurd. No one in their right mind would have countenanced it. I could not have gone with her to Tol-in-Gaurhoth and hoped to keep her from harm's way. And that was only if I had cared for the fate of that wretched mortal, which I did not. I would have been quite content for Gorthaur to rend Barahir's son limb from ugly limb.
I could not say that. There was very little I could have said.
When Daeron failed her.
The Moon lay white as bone beneath dark water. I sang him no comfort that night.
It was shortly after dawn when Erestor and Melinna returned. In the East, the sky was lightening. They emerged from beneath the shadowy trees and came silently to resume their places on the bank. Erestor took up his straw hat and fishing rod without a word. For a time, only the sounds of the wakening woods could be heard.
My voice was rough when I spoke. "She did forgive me. Before she left."
"That's all right," said Erestor easily. "We know that."
"I had to do it. I thought it was right."
I saw them glance at each other. "Of course you did," said Melinna soothingly, playing with the ribbons that dangled from her conical hat. She seemed her old self again that morning, so much so that the evening's harshness might only have happened in my imagination. Her smile was not unkind. "Don't trouble yourself, Daeron. Lúthien understood."
"But I was wrong. And she went anyway."
Erestor cast his line smoothly into the lake. "Everyone gets things wrong. You learn to live with it."
He spoke as lightly as ever. I was not comforted.
Lúthien, dear Lúthien, where art thou gone? So I called upon the breeze and heard her calling back to me. Gone to dance by the Esgalduin, come sing for me! Through the hemlock umbels wild, the dancing crowns that line the bank, flits Lúthien. About her feet are glow-worms bright; about her hair go moths in flight; about her face are all entranced. A! Lúthien, dear Lúthien, where art thou gone? Gone to sing upon the green, come play for me! Through the chestnut's candle-flowers, the blooms that burn beneath the elm, flits Lúthien. In boughs above, the owls fall still; in holes, voles creep beneath the hill; in shadow sings the nightingale. A! Lúthien, dear Lúthien, where art thou gone? Gone where my beloved lies, to Tol-in-Gaurhoth in the North. O Daeron, dearest, comes thou with me?
I should have gone. For all the danger, for all that her lover's peril hardly grieved my heart, I should have gone. I might have fallen on the way. I might have been trapped in Nargothrond or murdered at Tol-in-Gaurhoth or ashen Angband. I would not then have spent long ages lamenting her loss beside dark waters in dismal woods.
"Do you have your flute?" I heard Melinna asking Erestor. "Maybe we should sing something different today."
He chuckled. "Will you be fishing, then?"
"I think you caught enough yesterday."
"Perhaps," he said cheerfully and brought out a slim wooden flute carved with spiral patterns that gave a sweet, breathy tone when he put it to his lips. His playing was as light and merry as I remembered from those times when we had laughed together in Doriath. The tune was vaguely familiar too, some rustic dance from the mountains that my hunters had played in long-gone days to amuse the lords and ladies of Eglador. They had brought several such melodies from Ered Luin and gathered countless more from across all Arda over the long years that followed. For that alone, I would have cultivated their acquaintance. As Erestor played, my darkness began to lighten, almost despite myself.
The flute surprised me, though. After Lúthien's flight, I had cast away my fine silver flute and my pipes in despair, taking only one instrument on my own journey, and that as a treasure entrusted to me by Melian's hands. It had not been long after my arrival in those woods when the basket had appeared outside my cave, however, and only a little longer yet when just such a carven flute had been left there amid white water-lilies. In my cave, I had it still.
Presently, I mentioned this. I think I saw them share a smile.
"I'll get it for you, shall I?" said Melinna, rising. "One moment."
With a flute in my hands, it was hard not to play. For a time, I followed Erestor's lead into lighthearted tunes that made Melinna laugh as she sang the nonsense-words that fitted those silly, babbling ditties. The woods themselves seemed brighter then. When at last I came back to myself and began to remember the darker tones of my grieving, Melinna's singing picked up the laments I had made for Lúthien and Erestor's flute softened, twining subtly through my mournful melody. So I lost the day in a musical labyrinth and came at last to sunset and the gentle dusk.
As Erestor gutted fish and Melinna built up the fire before my cave, I lay sprawled in the grass on that borrowed cloak, still idly fluting my heartache away. The ice of the night's despair had thawed somewhat, leaving behind a melancholic haze that could be eased by music and companionable talk. I think that down through the long, lonely years, I had forgotten how comforting mere company could be. Even then, my thoughts were beginning to turn back to the suggestion of a lay for Lúthien.
I could not unravel time and go with Lúthien to Tol-in-Gaurhoth. But I could still memorialise her quest in words and music. And my hunters were right. To do that, I would have to remember Beren.
"Melinna," I said reluctantly, laying down my flute. "What was Beren like?"
She was feeding a twig to the fire then. I saw her go still. Beside her, Erestor lifted his dark head. His gaze was thoughtful. "Why do you ask?"
Unwilling, I shrugged and turned away. "For Lúthien's sake."
They probed no further, for which I was grateful. Nor did they mock my change of heart. Instead they spoke of Beren, Barahir's son, who had once come stumbling, all unknowing, through the shadows of Melian's Girdle and stolen Doriath's nightingale away.
I would never have loved Beren. Perhaps I should not have hated him so.
At any rate, the scraps I gleaned from my hunters that evening made me think that perhaps it would not be so hard to remember Beren Camlost in a lay for Lúthien. She would have wished it thus. Perhaps I could follow her journey after all and purge my grief and guilt in song.
I do not know how long it took to shape my rough laments into a suitable memorial for Lúthien. The days fell away like handfuls of sand, lost to the breeze. Meanwhile, my hunters told tales of Beren Camlost and listened to my singing or prowled through the woods and along the lakeshore as it pleased them. When it occurred to me to contemplate such matters, I was glad of their presence. I had learned to live without hot food and firelight at night, but that did not mean that such luxuries were not pleasant. Their company was more valuable still. I gathered many precious details of Lúthien's quest that Iarwain had disregarded and I gained too an audience on which to test my unfinished work. By the time that Lúthien's lay seemed close to completion, an autumnal chill was creeping among the trees and there was bronze above in the fluttering leaves.
"Daeron, it's done," said Melinna at last. "I can't think what more you could add."
Her eyes smiled in the firelight. Dissatisfied, I shook my head. "I need more words for Lúthien. I need to speak of her without falling back on nightingales or starlight. But I cannot think how."
"Well, if you say s– Erestor, will you hush?"
I think that long and solemn lays had always been more to Melinna's taste than that of her lighthearted husband. Certainly she had been a more constant audience for me during those forgotten weeks, while Erestor roamed far and wide in search of game (he said) along the shore. He had been restless throughout the afternoon, playing brief phrases of song on his flute and humming to himself in idle moments, and he was still toying with his flute now.
He smiled at her. "Must I?"
"Yes," she replied, a shade crossly. "This is serious!"
He laughed a little under his breath and hefted the flute provocatively. I recognised the mischievous lilt in his voice. "I was told a serious tale not long ago. 'Once upon a time, in a very fine town on a very high hill, there lived an Elf with the most beautiful yellow hair and it shone like gold in the sunlight –'"
For a moment, Melinna seemed on the edge of laughter. Almost at once, she was stern again, shaking her head at him. "Enough of that! Tell your tales on your own time. Daeron needs another way to describe Lúthien."
Erestor trilled a few notes on his flute and smiled at me. "Why?"
I blinked. "Surely – isn't it obvious?"
"Not at all," he said lightly. "Binds the whole thing together nicely, if you ask me – and you did ask me, so there you go. Besides, I think of starlight and nightingales when I remember Lúthien. Don't you?"
I did, of course, and still do. I saw Melinna nodding, apparently convinced. Momentarily, I hesitated.
"What you do need is a harp," added Erestor and trilled again, laughing. "I could never play well enough to accompany you on this poor whistle, much as I love it. Pity we can't pull one out of the air, really."
That was so obviously true that I needed no time to consider it. "I can."
He let the flute fall and stared at me. "Can you?"
I shrugged. "I brought one with me. It's in the cave."
"You did –? Shall I –?"
"Surely. Towards the back, I think, wrapped in oilskins and wool."
I had placed it there with my few treasures long ago and there it had remained, untouched. The wooden flute served me better in my wanderings than such a large and fragile instrument ever could. In a moment, Erestor had brought it out still in its wrappings and set it carefully on the grass, fumbling with the knotted string. He began to reverently uncover the harp's slender frame. As the wool fell away, I saw that the silver nightingales still gleamed.
"Elbereth, a! Elbereth Gilthoniel!" came whispering from Erestor's mouth. He seemed entranced. When he brushed a fingertip over the strings, I could hear that the harp was very nearly in tune, which did surprise me. Possibly the Queen had laid some magic on it before it left her hands. Melinna was staring at the harp as well, her mouth set into something close to pain, as Erestor went on almost dreamily, "We did wonder where this went. I hardly dared to hope..."
All this I found bewildering, as I had scarcely remembered the harp's existence since I had first hidden it away in the cave. My reply was a little defensive. "I thought I should. It was the Queen's gift, after all, though I would have preferred the flute. Lúthien said her mother wanted to teach me to win more gracefully, but I think she was joking. But I brought it with me anyway."
"I'm glad you did!" he said fervently. "I'm so glad you did!"
"Well... good. I should tune it, though."
Tuned, the tone was sweet, as Melian's gifts were wont to be. I stretched my fingers thoughtfully across the octaves, needing to recall the shape of its music after so many years spent trilling on a wooden flute. Firelight glimmered on the silver wings and talons of the nightingales that climbed round the shimmering strings. In Tinfang Gelion's hands, it would have sung as bewitchingly as Melian herself. My unpracticed piper's hands were rougher, but still the harp sang richly through the whispering dusk.
"A! Elbereth!" I heard Erestor say again, almost on a sob. "It was all so beautiful..."
Melinna's voice was quiet. "So it was."
I did not understand why the nightingale harp grieved them and it seemed the wrong time to ask. Instead, I began to pick out the notes of my lamenting, slowly at first. When harping came naturally to my fingers again, I added my own voice to the harp's tongue. The richness of the harp and the delight of a song so close to completion carried me away into that familiar labyrinthine otherworld, so that for a long time I was only aware of my own music. Strange shapes flickered in the fire and overhead the wind sighed through creaking boughs, but my head was full of Lúthien's quest for a Silmaril and for Beren, her beloved.
I had reached Nargothrond with Beren when I began to hear someone chanting nonsense-words along with my melody, not far off among the night-dark trees. As the cheerful singer came bounding closer, I faltered, recognising Iarwain's deep, merry tones. Through his nonsense of merry dol dillo! was threaded a second voice that I had never heard before, the clear young voice of a woman who sang of babbling brooks and fair pools rippling in sunlit woods.
Out came Iarwain, bounding into the circle of the firelight. His garish garb was muted by night and the blue tip of the feather poking out of his hatband quivered madly as he stood there chuckling. Before anyone could speak, the second singer came lightly from the shadows. She was as tall and fair and slender as Iarwain was not, a lady gowned in green and girdled with gold lilies, whose yellow hair tumbled over her shoulders like falling water. On her white arm she carried a basket, and her smile made me think of summer afternoons playing for Lúthien beside the Esgalduin.
Erestor rose from the grass and bowed to her, doffing his straw hat so courteously that it might have been a jewelled helm. "Fair lady Goldberry, this is an unlooked-for honour! We had not thought to see you here this night."
The lady's laughter fell around us like spring showers. "Dear Erestor, your tongue is sweeter at every meeting!" she said and came swiftly forwards to press his hand. She turned her smile on Melinna, who had also risen. "Let our meetings be many and merry! Melinna, fair friend, you are missed. When will you wander back to my hearth?"
"Soon," said Melinna, smiling as they embraced. "Do you come to hear Daeron?"
"Yes indeed! It was told on the breeze that the Elf who laments in the sorrowful woods had finished his song. And so we come to hear him sing." She set her basket down in the shadowy grass, adding merrily, "See, Master Elf, I bring a supper for you: bread and yellow cheese and sweet cakes with cream. I have honeycomb here also and berries gathered from my own garden. Will you sing now for Goldberry the River-daughter?"
Her eyes were laughing through the dark. I stammered out a few words, still surprised.
"Eh, young Master Daeron will be a-singing soon," chuckled Iarwain and hopped across to plump himself down by the fire, stretching out his thick legs and contemplating the mud on those great yellow boots with apparent satisfaction. His bright eyes in his ruddy face twinkled at me. "You'll be a-singing now for my pretty lady, won't you, Daeron?"
Put like that, I supposed that I would.
I forget the rest of that night, which was lost to song and the nightingale harp and also to the lady Goldberry's basket of food. Immortal love and speaking hounds and starry jewels and treachery. Enemies terrible to Elves and Men. Elven sacrifice on a Man's behalf. Lúthien's cloak of hair and magic. Madness divine of Carcharoth and songs to move a Vala's heart. And jealousy, my own, worked into song. It was the first time I had sung through Lúthien's lay from the very beginning to its utmost end and we were all still sitting around the dying fire when the pale dawn came. From the basket then came a breakfast of bread and cheese, all spread out on a fine green cloth, and Iarwain produced handfuls of lace-white mushrooms from his capacious pockets. We ate in silence. I was still thrilling from the long night's singing and could scarcely swallow a morsel.
"Good Daeron," said Iarwain's lady at last, sitting forwards with her hair flowing round her white arms like sunlight through a dappled stream. "Let the stars turn a thousand times and all who knew your lady pass into the West, and still your song shall be sung in her honour! And I shall sing it too when I see starlight. Tell me its name!"
I lifted my hands helplessly. "I did not think to give it one."
"Then it shall find its own," said Goldberry, arising. Her smile was swifter than falling rain. "So shall Lúthien of Doriath be remembered. Fair friends, I thank you! So sweet and sad a song I have not heard and I think that I shall never hear such a song again."
"Will you not stay?" asked Melinna, rather hopefully, I thought.
"Alas! I may not. Good Daeron, I think we shall not meet again. May your paths be straight and your footsteps straighter! Farewell!"
She took up her empty basket and went lithely under the trees without a backwards glance. Bewildered, I glanced around. Erestor and Melinna seemed unsurprised by the lady's departure and Iarwain Ben-adar was still stretched out with his hands knotted over his round belly, apparently half-asleep, humming snatches of my unnamed song for Lúthien.
"You'll be wanting a pony," he said suddenly and leapt up at once, as though he had been wide awake all along. He seized his battered hat from the grass and crammed it over his thick brown hair. "That harp won't be carrying itself, eh? I'll find you a pony and back I'll come!"
With a leap and a bound, he hopped off into the woods. I stared after him in utter confusion. It seemed to me inexplicable to the point of madness that I might be thought in need of a pony to carry the nightingale harp. Wherever did Iarwain think I wished to carry it? Why would I want to carry it anywhere at all?
"Well now," said Erestor quietly, across the ashes of the fire. "What happens next, Daeron?"
"Your song is done. Lúthien is remembered. What next?"
I had no answer. My lay was finished. I had never thought beyond that last line, that final chord. If anything, I had perhaps assumed that I might spend an eternity composing Lúthien's lay. Even then, it did not seem as perfect or as full as I had first hoped. Perhaps I should spend another age polishing my song for Lúthien beside those dark waters.
Melinna was looking thoughtfully at me. "People need to hear it," she said. "There's no point in a song that's never sung."
I plucked a harp-string. "The lady Goldberry will sing it."
"Only Iarwain will hear her."
"You can sing it."
"So we can," she said, with a glance for Erestor. "But not as you do."
I was beginning to see where this conversation was going. "Does that matter?"
"Yes," said Erestor. "Daeron, it's time to come back into the world. You could settle in Lindon or with Círdan at Mithlond, or you could go to Andor, or even sail the Straight Way to Aman. Maybe the Queen still walks there. I'd like to think she does, anyway. In any case, you've spent enough time here and so have we. Where would you like to go?"
For years, I had wandered those woods and lonely shores. I had sung to the Moon and lamented Lúthien by starlight and cast myself down on the grass to sleep. I had survived on such scraps of food as I found in the bushes or as had been left in the basket by my cave. Perhaps I would have stayed there indefinitely and continued bewailing my loss to the uncaring heavens if they had not come wandering past. And now I was full of a song that cried out to be sung and the thought of wandering alone through dark woods was strikingly unappealing. I realised suddenly that I wanted to go home.
Doriath lay beneath the waves. There was nowhere to go.
"Where is Tinfang these days?" I asked instead, thinking that I might seek my old rival's advice on Lúthien's lay. Perhaps he still had the silver flute that the Queen had bestowed upon him. He might be willing to exchange it for the nightingale harp. That would suit both of us. "Tinfang Gelion?"
"Dead," said Melinna flatly. "The Naugrim killed him when they sacked Menegroth."
That was a shock. I hesitated. "Ivaeron?"
"Likewise. He was killed when the Noldor came."
My home was gone and my friends had fallen. Lúthien and her beloved Beren had long ago passed out of the world. Thingol and Melian's enchanted kingdom lay in ruins beneath the sea. My hunters might be content to travel through this diminished world, but the prospect held little attraction for me. I had only ever wished to travel abroad in song.
"Come with us anyway," said Erestor, as though my thoughts had been spoken aloud. His tone was as light as ever, although there was an unusual hint of kindness in his dark eyes. "We'll find you somewhere, even if it's a berth on the next ship to Tol Eressëa. And you can sing Lúthien's lay to everyone we meet along the way."
And so I too have passed out of the world, not quite as Lúthien and her mother did, but out of Middle-earth for all of that. Just as I forget how many years I spent in grief among those dark trees, I cannot now recall how long I wandered with my hunters through Eriador. We passed through wilderness and civilised lands, over moorland and mountains, amid Men and Elves. In Lindon, I sang to Elves I had once known in Doriath, and Círdan wept in Mithlond for our lost world. When he begged me to stay and sing for him, as Melian had her nightingales, I shook my head and asked for a ship instead. I had already known that no home remained for me in Middle-earth.
The ships of Círdan are white and fair. I have seen roses fairer. Still, the mariners are merry and the air is sweet. My wooden flute sounds louder and clearer here than it ever did beneath the trees. When dusk comes, I sit upon the deck and sing for them, so that the starlit beauty of Lúthien Tinúviel may be remembered even over the waves.
Nightingales and starlight. So do I recall her still: the sweetness of her song and the brilliance of her smile. And in her eyes was not the lightless grey of stone or shadow or iron or sea, for she shone brighter than any star-bright Silmaril. Lúthien, a! Lúthien! Fairest of the fair, our nightingale who danced among the umbels wild in Doriath's hallowed halls. May your memory outlast a thousand turnings of the stars!
And all that aside, I still wish I could think of another way to describe her eyes.