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Songs of Sun and Shadow

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“I have a request to make of you,” Melian said. She and Finrod were walking in one of Menegroth’s underground gardens. Shafts of sunlight streamed downward from shafts cunningly carved in the roof, giving enough light for plants and flowers to grow. Yet as Finrod saw the flowers and leaves turn toward Melian as they passed, he wondered if they might grow here even without sunlight, by the power which Menegroth’s queen bore within her from the West.

“What is it? I will do anything I can.”

“I do not now speak of matters of war or allegiance,” Melian said, guessing the direction of his thought. “Nor do I speak to you as the king of Nargothrond, but as to one who has certain abilities which may be of use to one of my students.”

“What do you mean?” Finrod asked curiously.

“In Doriath, I have been teaching defensive enchantments to those who will learn and have the ability for it -- and the wisdom. It adds to my strength if I am not maintaining the protection of the Girdle alone. A young Elf here has shown a talent for songs of power. There are few with such abilities within Doriath, yet he has reached the stage where I believe it would be helpful for him to test his skills against others.”

“And you wish me to do this?”

“I ask you to sing with him.”

Finrod understood now what Melian was asking. He considered for a moment. To nurture such abilities could only be a good thing. Testing songs of power against each other could be perilous if either were unskilled or malevolent, but he trusted Melian not to endanger them. He nodded. “Yes, I will do it.”

“Are you at leisure now?”

“Yes, certainly. It is an hour before I am to meet my sister. And I am eager to meet your student,” he added cheerfully. “What is his name?”

“Thranduil son of Oropher, a kinsman of the king. He is young, but he shows promise.” Melian gave a fluting call, and the nightingales which had been flitting among the trees overhead flew down to alight on her shoulders and hands. She warbled softly to the birds, and one of them flew from the garden. No matter how many times he saw it, Finrod marveled at seeing her speak to the birds in their own language.

One of the nightingales flew back upward to perch on a pillar of the hall, not seeming to know it was stone and not living wood. Finrod watched as the bird twisted its head and drew its wing-feathers through its beak, diligently straightening them. “I wonder if songbirds could be kept in Nargothrond,” he said thoughtfully. “It is one of the things I miss. Can they remain healthy in an underground city, without the power of Valinor?”

“If there is enough light and greenery, they will be content,” Melian answered. “You have lamps already which mimic the sun, do you not, which you use for growing crops? If they are given food and water, and places to rest, many kinds of birds will not know the difference. We can speak more of this later.”

“I would be grateful for your counsel.” Nargothrond must be built strong and deep; he knew that from the time he first dreamed of his city by the waters of Sirion. But he would do ill by his people, he thought, if it were only a fortress. It was surely not beyond their skill to make it a place of light and beauty as well.

Melian slowly walked through the garden, touching a white flower here or a leaf there. They seemed to strengthen as he watched. A faint light shone about Melian and lingered in her long dark hair. It did not seem courteous to watch her, so Finrod turned his attention to the pillars of the hall, admiring their workmanship. Living leaves and leaves of stone could scarcely be distinguished if not for their color, so skillfully had the sculptor carved.

“Thranduil, welcome,” Melian said.

Finrod turned to see a golden-haired young Elf barely past his majority. His features bore a resemblance to Thingol’s, though he lacked something of Thingol’s height and carried himself less proudly. Finrod recalled seeing him in the king’s banqueting hall, though they had not spoken.

Thranduil bowed courteously to Finrod. “I give you greetings, lord.”

“Well met, Thranduil son of Oropher. If you are the king’s kinsman, then you are mine as well.” Thranduil met this statement with some reserve. Perhaps he was one of those who held the Noldor in suspicion? If so, Finrod would strive to lessen his doubts. He turned to Melian. “Will you explain more clearly what you wish us to do?”

“I wish Thranduil to test his powers. Thranduil, you may use whatever songs or images you wish. You will try to overcome Finrod, and he will resist you. Do not fear; you will not hurt him. But I will remain here, in case anything goes unexpectedly awry.”

Thranduil nodded. He seemed a little nervous but determined.

“Begin,” Melian said in her melodious voice.

Thranduil looked into the distance for a moment, gathering his power, then drew in a deep breath and began his song. It was a sleepy tune, of a shaded grove where Melian’s nightingales made their nests, calling to each other in the stillness of dusk.

Finrod bent his head to listen, curious what would come next. As Thranduil sang, the song deepened and Finrod could feel the power underlying the melody. He saw a forest where the trees grew closely together, entwining to form a dense shade; and in the shadow of their leaves flowed a dark river whose waters brought sleep and oblivion.

The power of the song twined around Finrod, drawing him in, and he found sleep drifting over him. He smiled, pleased at the youth’s ability, and began a song of his own in answer. Finrod’s song told of a gleaming white tower by the sea, strong and high; about it blew bracing winds that carried the scent of salt and scattered the mists of sleep.

Thranduil hesitated only a brief moment before beginning again. Their voices joined together, Finrod’s rich tenor matching Thranduil’s lighter baritone. Back and forth the song swayed. Images formed, blurred and changed, reformed again.

The black waters of the river rippled, luring travellers into their depths –

A shower of ice-needles stinging his face, a bone-chilling cold restoring alertness –

The cold itself became soothing, lulling him into a deadly sleep –

The warmth of Nargothrond’s forges, alive with clamor and ringing hammers –

A thicket of tangled thorn that swallows all sound, rising to trap and imprison –

A blast of silver trumpets, the glory of the sun’s first rising in a blaze of golden fire; then, with growing wonder and hope, the first sight of flowers after uncounted days of the bitter and barren Ice.

Thranduil’s voice faltered and was silent. Finrod brought his song gently to a close, ending in a barely audible whisper so that one could not tell the end of the sound from the beginning of the silence that followed it.

Melian was the one to break the silence at last. “Thank you, kinsman,” she said. “I believe that will be very useful.” Thranduil, somewhat abashed, murmured his own thanks.

“That was well done,” Finrod assured him. “The river, especially, was very vivid. Is it a real place?”

Thranduil shook his head. “I was thinking of what I have been told of Nan Elmoth,” he said, “and my own memories of the Esgalduin at night when nightingales are singing. The thorn thicket,” he added more grimly, “is from when I once passed through Nan Dungortheb with my father.”

“That is not a place to adventure lightly,” Melian said. “A dark and ancient power dwells there; it does not serve the Enemy but is no less deadly.”

Thranduil stiffened. “My father did not take us there on his whim,” he said. “He had good reason for it.”

“I do not blame your father, Thranduil. I say only that I would not match myself against the darkness of Nan Dungortheb, save in great need.”

Finrod wondered what purpose had taken Thranduil’s father there. Some errand to kin in Mithrim, perhaps? Or an over-eager pursuit of Orcs or spiders? Oropher was one of Thingol’s marchwardens, and according to his reputation, he was a bold warrior but not always cautious. “If I may ask about the river,” he interposed. “Is it possible to create such an enchantment?”

“It is possible,” Melian said, “to weave such an enchantment on a river so that all who drink from it or even touch it forget their purpose, and their memories are scattered. Yet I would not set an enchantment in Menegroth that could ensnare friend as well as foe. I would not use it save in desperate circumstances, when darkness was drawing close all around.”

“Do you anticipate such circumstances, lady?”

“I cannot see all of what is to come. But the Girdle holds, and will hold – until one comes here whose fate is stronger than my power.”

Finrod looked thoughtful. “If we cannot change the fates of those who are dear to us,” he said, “at least we can hold off that day as long as possible. The defense in the North is strong.”

“And yet it will not hold forever,” Melian said softly. “The might and malice of the Enemy are very great.”

“So my heart tells me also,” Finrod admitted. “I will not easily forget the gates of Angband and the towers of Thangorodrim. But if we build strong places and refuges, if we make bonds of alliance while we can, then the Enemy will not find us unprepared. And our work is not in vain if the peoples of Beleriand are granted a time of peace and safety behind the leaguer, whatever may come after. If it lasts even for a little while, some light may be born which would otherwise be extinguished.”

“To cherish what light may be born here,” Melian said, “is among my chief purposes in Middle-earth.”

“The halls of Menegroth are bright indeed,” Finrod said courteously, “where Thingol and Melian reign. Your pardon, Thranduil; our speech has wandered somewhat. I hope you will not let your heart be troubled by it. Is there anything else you would ask me?”

Thranduil hesitated a moment, but curiosity won out. “The tower I saw in your song, lord --is that a real place?”

“Yes, indeed,” Finrod said eagerly. “That is Barad Nimras, the Whitehorn Tower near the haven of Eglarest. My people built it with the aid and counsel of Círdan, the Lord of the Falas. It stands to keep watch against the Enemy by sea.”

“I have never seen the Sea,” Thranduil said thoughtfully.

“Would you like to?” Finrod asked. “If you wish to travel, it is better to do so now in a time of peace. You are welcome to come with me when I return to Nargothrond. And then I will bring you to Eglarest or Brithombar the next time I visit to speak with Círdan. His people are your kin, and they would gladly teach you of ship-building or fishing or whatever you wished to learn.”

Thranduil looked away. “I am not certain the King would give his leave for me to visit a city of the Noldor,” he said carefully, “even those he acknowledges as kin. And I have much yet to learn in Doriath.”

“I will not press you,” Finrod said. “As you know, my own sister dwells here for the sake of Melian’s teaching. For myself, I have learned much from Noldor and Sindar alike, as well as Dwarves and Men. I find that speaking with those who are skilled in other crafts often sparks ideas in my own mind.”

“Perhaps I will see those places one day,” Thranduil said politely.

Melian had a distant look in her shining eyes. “Do not seek out the Sea, Thranduil,” she said. “If the sea-longing stirs in your heart, it will not be easily laid to rest.”