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Many Happy Returns; or, One Flew Over the Halls of Mandos

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When, in the four hundred and sixty fifth year after the rising of the Moon and the Sun, Amarië of the Vanyar felt her beloved die a violent death, she cursed the power that had allowed her to sense such misfortune even across the distance, the impassable seas, and the mists of the Doom of the Noldor.

A little later, once she had realised the full implications of his death, she calmed down considerably.

Her friends and family were relieved by this recovery, although a little concerned, for she became secretive, and developed a fondness for solitary walks in the foothills of Taniquetil. Then, one day, she strolled up to the Halls of Mandos and lay down by the entrance motionless, as if in a deep slumber--and their concern turned to grief, for they thought that she was trying to follow Míriel's example: to leave her body behind, and seek her beloved in the Halls.

They were half right.

 

Amarië was not the only woman gracing the forecourt of Mandos with her supine beauty: attempting to make Míriel's choice--either there, or in Lórien’s gardens--was quite the fashion at the time, what with so many husbands and lovers lost to the Doom. Those among the stylish maidens of Valinor who had no absent love to lose began to feel rather left out. In the end, they resorted to tending to the sleepers, and, in moments of tedium, to using them as models when designing new hairstyles. Amarië, with her golden locks, quickly became a favourite.

One day, they were weaving violets into her hair, hoping to obtain a pleasing contrast, when they heard a distant sound like the beating of many wings. A quick scan of the sky revealed that a cloud of small birds had appeared in the east. Intrigued by this sight, the maidens abandoned their task and rose to study the cloud more closely.

"Nightingales!" exclaimed the youngest maiden, the one with the sharpest eyes and, usually, the most original artistic ideas. "And look! They are carrying someone!"

She spoke the truth, as the other maidens discovered when they squinted: the birds were nightingales, and each one held in its beak a taut thread attached to a throne-like chair which hung below the cloud, and held a solitary majestic figure. The cloud came closer and closer, and lower and lower, until at last the chair touched the ground, right before the entrance.

The birds released their strings and flopped onto the grass, covering the area with a feathery, gasping carpet.

"Thank you, my friends," said the figure, now revealed as a very tall dark-haired woman. A few of the maidens sighed with envy, for she seemed both stern and sensual, and they knew that this is a very difficult combination to maintain even under ordinary circumstances. Maintaining it while exploiting small birds showed real mastery.

The woman, meanwhile, ignored them and their sighs, and strode directly into the Halls.

After a brief, tense exchange of whispers, the maidens followed her at a slight distance, picking their way carefully through the resting birds. They stopped just before the doorway, not daring to go inside when there was no need. They could hear the woman's words clearly enough.

"I am here," she told the officious-looking Maia standing behind a table in the entry hall, "to greet my husband the moment he is re-embodied."

The Maia unrolled a piece of parchment and glanced down at it. "And your husband is…?"

"Dead."

The Maia's eyes twitched in a way that suggested that he had only just managed to prevent them from rolling. "My lady, all those who dwell in these Halls are dead."

"True." The woman thought for a moment. "Well, then, he is silver-haired and grey-eyed. And tall--the tallest of all the Children--and proportioned accordingly everywhere else."

The maidens exchanged glances at that, and giggled a little. The Maia, however, seemed unperturbed. "I do not see such a man on my list. When did he die?"

"A few days ago. Three, I believe: or maybe two, taking the time difference into account. I flew with the sun."

"Ah." The Maia's eyes twitched again. "My lady, I regret to inform you that, by the decree of Lord Námo, the spirits of the dead must be given adequate time to heal. As a result, the average spirit is expected to spend an Age in these halls--and that is an average, not a guarantee. I suggest that you retire, perhaps to one of our fine rooming houses, and return when--"

"Do not give me that nonsense, as if I were one of the Children. I remember how, when this place opened, Lord Námo used to boast of the efficiency of his system… But I suppose he never expected Melkor to get so carried away. All those deaths--they must mean mountains of paperwork. An Age-long backlog, is it?"

The Maia would not meet her gaze.

"Never mind." The woman leaned against his table and lowered her voice. "Look, what if I promised to take care of my husband's 'healing' myself? I left his people all alone back there, and you know how the Children get when they are unsupervised."

"I certainly do. However… I am sorry to say that there is nothing I can do in this matter."

"I quite understand," said the woman, still in the same low, sympathetic tones. "But perhaps you could summon someone who can? If you like, tell them I was making an unpleasant scene. That way, I will not actually have to do so."

After a moment's thought, the guardian Maia went into the Halls and returned with another official. The conversation began again--and again, as more people showed up, until it seemed that most of Námo's attendants must be involved. Eventually, the now-rested nightingales rose off the ground and began to circle the area in an exploratory manner. This distracted the maidens, who realised that they were getting bored, and decided to return to their task.

But Amarië was gone, leaving behind only a depression in the grass and a few crushed violet petals.

 

The linen delivery basket may have been a bit cramped, but at least it was less damp than the grass, and pleasantly empty of silly girls fussing with her hair. In all, Amarië was very pleased by the change in her circumstances, especially since she had been starting to think her chance would never come. Her renewed optimism lasted through the hours that passed while all the handmaids and handmen of Námo were busy attending to Melian's demands, and it proved entirely justified, for when the basket was finally lifted, the journey passed quickly and with a minimum of jostling.

Amarië waited until her carriers' voices died away, counted to a hundred and forty four, and climbed out of her hiding place.

She found herself in an enormous hall with a dark marble floor, and a ceiling to match. The walls probably matched as well, but at the moment it was impossible to tell, as every bit of wall-surface had been covered with colourful tapestries depicting what looked like Historical Deeds: at least, the prevailing themes seemed to be swords, crowns, foul beasts, and similar nonsense. This had to be the re-embodiment chamber! Amarië found the tapestries rather practical—surely there was no better way for the returning spirits to spend the tedious minutes of body-regrowing time than catching up on the world of the living—but she herself was far more interested in the door that graced the end of the room. It was made of a reddish wood, and carved on it in a variety of scripts and languages were the simple words,

THE HOUSES OF THE DEAD

She faced this door, reached into her sleeve, and pulled out her directions. The Maia who had composed them had promised that they would lead her straight to her love, but she had some doubts. Could one truly trust a Maia who was willing to exchange deep secrets for a large bag of dried vision-mushrooms? She had planned on using a safeguard—a large spool of her finest thread, which, if fastened to this door, would mark her path through the labyrinth—but, unfortunately, the youngest and most irritating of the silly maidens had discovered the spool, and quickly confiscated it, claiming that it was too, too Mirielesque and therefore boringly cliché and old-fashioned.

Amarië would just have to trust in what she had: some distinctly dodgy directions, a key, and, she hoped, common sense.

Well, the sensible course of action was clear. She stepped through the door, and walked down a corridor with soothing lavender-coloured walls until she reached the first junction, where the corridor split into two: a pleasant sky blue path on the right, and a rather less pleasant dark red path on the left. She looked up at the archways marking the paths' beginnings, which were carved just as the door had been, and read the tengwar.

'Cursed,' it said on the left, and 'Uncursed,' on the right.

"Cursed, unfortunately," she said to herself.

The directions confirmed her guess, so she set off down the red corridor until the next pair of archways. The one on the left was decorated with a pattern of tiny daggers, and the corridor beyond it was the rusty colour of dried blood. She hardly needed to read the word 'Kinslayers”, and was relieved when the instructions led her to the right, into the blueish, non-daggery corridor of 'Non-kinslayers'. Not that her Findaráto could ever have done such a thing, of course. He could barely bring himself to wound people with sharp words.

Next came a three-way split: 'Death by Creature of Morgoth,' 'Death by Ice,' and 'Death by Other Causes.' Left again--this time saddened, rather than relieved--and down a pale red corridor towards the choice of "Wed" or "Unwed," and so to the right, then down "Blond" instead of "Dark" or "Neither." There, the puzzles became more personal, but still easy enough for a lover to solve: so, Amarië chose "Leader" over "Follower", "Open-Minded" over "Closed-Minded", and "Gregarious" over "Solitary". And then, just as she was starting to suspect the mushroom-bought instructions were unnecessary, they finally proved their worth. She had not known that her Findaráto had died by "Accident In The Course Of Heroic Self-Sacrifice," nor that he was "Unusually Fond of Turnips."

It was the Turnip hallway, earth-toned and lumpy, that brought her to a second door, this one comparatively plain. Its smooth green surface was marred only by a keyhole and a small carving resembling a stylised flower. Amarië took out the shiny key and slid it into the lock. It turned easily. Had that drug-addled Maia really got it right? She pushed on the door and opened the eyes of her soul.

The room beyond was small and dank, and empty but for an indistinct golden-haired shade. Amarië felt her breathing hitch as it always did at emotional moments. She could think of nothing to say… but then, she could trust that her beloved would not have that problem, for he was never lost for words.

The shade turned around.

"Greetings!" he said. "Have you brought my stick?"

This was all wrong! The words were strange enough, but the voice was stranger yet, and she could now see that the shade, though tall and shiny and generally impressive, was not Findaráto. "Who are you?" she almost asked, realizing just in time that this might be rude. She decided to begin with a more mundane query.

"Greetings, fair spirit. What stick?"

The shade dimmed a little. "The incorporeal one I keep asking for so I can do some martial-- I mean, some physical exercises? I know you Maiar do not allow swords here, even in spirit, but surely a stick-- But, wait… You are no Maia!"

"No," said Amarië vaguely, a bit confused by the mention of physical exercises by one who had no physical form. "I am an Elf."

"Like me--only, of course, alive. But what are you doing here? Is this," the spirit brightened again, "is this some new stage of my healing? Preparation for being released, perhaps?"

He appeared so delighted by the prospect--unsurprisingly so, for even in his current state he seemed more alive, somehow, than many non-dead people--that Amarië felt honestly sorry when she said, "No. I am merely… well, lost, really. I thought this room belonged to my betrothed."

"So you are a visitor! You know, I did not realise conjugal visits were allow-- No, forgive my stupidity. This is a rescue, is it not?"

Amarië could not detect any disapproval in the spirit's voice or appearance, but she decided to be careful nevertheless. "Yes," she said carefully. "But, you see, oh spirit, I have been parted from my beloved for so very long, and we barely had a chance to say goodbye. So, please, do not raise the alarm--"

"Raise the alarm? My lady, you certainly need not fear that. No, I understand your feelings completely. And I am determined to help you." He blazed even brighter, his outline almost solid. "What sympathetic soul could do less?"

This was awkward. Amarië had meant to rescue only one person, the better to avoid Námo's notice. "I am most grateful," she said. "However, I do not want to cause a fuss. I am almost certain I know where I went wrong: it had to be the turnips, at the-- But you do not need to hear that. I will just be on my way."

"It is no trouble, I assure you." The spirit was already moving towards the door. "Turnips, you say? What about them? I miss vegetables," he added in a wistful undertone. "Among other things."

After that comment, Amarië no longer had the heart to deny him. "This way, then." She led the way back the rocky hallway. "Incidentally, I am Amarië."

"I am Glorfindel. I know the name sounds a bit trite, especially around you, my golden lady Amarië, but my mother was delighted to finally have a child with her family's colouring." His voice had dipped into wistfulness again, but brightened as he added, "It has been a long time since I had to explain that--a long time since I met anyone new. Not that you are a true stranger to me, my lady: Lord Finrod spoke about you often, and at length."

"Finrod? You mean Findaráto?"

"Yes, of course. We all took Sindarin names, because-- Well, it was complicated. Political."

He spoke the final word without much enthusiasm. Well, that was another difference between him and Findaráto that the Halls might have used in their system of classification.

"At any rate," said the spirit Glorfindel as they reached the first junction, "Lord Findaráto had only the greatest praise for you, my lady, so I am glad-- Ah, I see your turnips!" He stopped to stare at the writing on the wall. "Are we organised on the basis of such petty traits, then? I was expecting something more... momentous."

Though time was pressing, Amarië decided she might as well take a moment to consider whether this uncharted corridor really was the right option. So, she explained about the Maia's instructions, and described her path, dwelling particularly on the two final, uncertain choices.

Glorfindel looked pleased. "In The Course Of Heroic Self-Sacrifice, you say?" he asked.

"Yes, it is most impressive." Amarië would have patted his shoulder, if it were physically possible. "But, you see, the main reason I emphasised it is that I am not sure it fits."

"I believe so, based on what I heard about Lord Findaráto... But then it also fits almost everyone I-- Could you hold up that list for me, please? Oh," he said when Amarië complied. "Excuse me--I had hoped… I have many friends here, but reaching them would require much backtracking. And we must not get distracted from your quest.”

“Indeed.” But he looked half-distracted already, so Amarië stepped into the Non-Turnip corridor without further ado. This one was made of pale blue-ish stone which echoed her brisk steps; the door at the end was slightly darker, and very elaborately carved.

Amarië reached into her sleeve... and paused.

“This must be right, my lady,” said Glorfindel. "I recognise Lord Finrod's harp emblem.”

"That is good news," said Amarië. "But I have just realised that the Maia gave me only one key--yours.” She held it up.

"I see." Confusion clouded the spirit, but only briefly. "Well, I have an idea--this key looks very simple. The locks here must be simple, too.”

"You think I should check whether the key opens more than one door?" Amarië did so. She even jiggled the key a bit, in case its workmanship was poor, but to no avail. Simple or not, it just did not fit.

"Good try!" said Glorfindel. "But that was not what I meant. Back in Gondolin, a friend-- Well, someone I knew, at any rate,” he corrected himself with a frown, “someone who understood gates and their mechanisms, once showed me a way to open simple locks with improvised tools. He said hairpins would do, in a pinch.” He looked at her expectantly.

"Hairpins?" Amarië patted her head, and quickly found a small one beside a clump of wilting flowers, then another, larger one behind her ear. Oh, bless those superficial maidens! She would have to thank them later. For now, she knelt beside the keyhole, and held a hairpin up to her eyes. "But how does it work?"

"You must use it to move the little bits of metal inside the hole. I would try it, but…" Glorfindel raised his translucent hands. "Anyway, I was never very good at it. Too impatient."

Well, Amarië had always thought of herself as a patient person. She knelt by the keyhole, and began to poke around inside it with her new tools, at Glorfindel’s instruction. The process turned out to be relatively simple for one used to fine embroidery and clock-making, and almost as absorbing: her anxiety faded as the new skill drew her interest. When the lock opened with a final satisfying click, she stood up, smoothed her dress, and opened the door quite calmly.

Her serenity did not last long: this time, there was no doubt.

She barely saw the cell’s dull walls. Instead, she saw, and felt, the light of the trees, and smelled the small flowers that had once dotted Ezellohar. In the centre of the sensual memory, wreathed in it, and highlighted by it, stood her Findaráto, a little different--more guarded, perhaps--but unmistakably himself.

“Amarië!” he said, and surged towards her.

She threw open her arms, and stepped forward--and stumbled, for, of course, there could be no embrace, only a rush of air like a summer wind. The shock, and disappointment, disoriented her for a moment. Collecting herself, she turned around, to survey him again.

Yes, there he was still, the unfamiliar reserve gone now, revealing shadows of pain and loss--but these were minor details compared to his open-hearted joy.

“My love,” he said. “I can hardly believe that I see you again... and that you have not changed. Well, perhaps I do see more wisdom in you, and more bright beauty, but then I expected it would be so: I have imagined you and your life every day of our separation, and thus I saw you grow and change. I wrote you, you know, long letters, so numerous that they filled many rooms, in my carved city--in my own domain--oh, you should have seen it, and all the lands around it! Everywhere, so much to discover! The flora, the rock formations, the minerals... and the peoples, with their odd customs and pleasures and philosophies, and their compelling music. If only you had been there beside me... There were these small birds--”

“Oh, Findaráto, I do so long to hear it all,” said Amarië, “when we have more time. But for now, we must hurry, if I am to lead you out of this place.”

“And I shall follow you gladly,” said Findaráto. “For, of course, I have always enjoyed the view of-- Ah! I did not see your companion, there... We have met before, I believe? You are Glorfindel. Of Gondolin; one of Turgon’s trusted captains.”

“That is right, Lord Finrod, I am Glorfindel. Though of Mandos, at this moment.”

“Yes, these Halls do teach us much about the ephemeral nature of--”

“Glorfindel,” said Amarië, “is helping me with my rescue. Now, if you both come along, neither of you will be ‘of Mandos’ much longer.”

“This is a rescue?” Findaráto assumed the thoughtful expression she remembered so well. “Then I am not being lawfully released?”

“Not quite.” Amarië took a few encouraging steps away from the door. “There has been some delay--with the paperwork, I am told--and so I decided to accelerate the process. I hope that does not trouble you?”

“No, why would it?” asked Findaráto. “Indeed, I am charmed by your daring. I merely wished for a complete understanding of my situation.”

This was a great relief--as was the fact that he had finally begun to glide towards Amarië. She smiled at him, and began walking away in earnest. When she glanced over her shoulder, in a flirtatious gesture she had missed making during his absence, she noted that the spirits were both following. Soon, she could hear them, as well.

“So, Captain Glorfindel,” said Findaráto. “I cannot help noticing that you are walking.”

“Well, yes.”

“I meant that you are making actual walking motions. You do not need to, you know.”

“I know. I am simply trying to keep the process fresh in my mind.”

Amarië glanced back again: being alive, and thus obviously used to seeing people walk, she had taken Glorfindel’s motions for granted. Now she noticed that, while his gait was very nearly natural, his ghostly limbs did not quite touch the ground.

Beside him, Findaráto continued to glide, looking rather princely and dignified.

“But why?” he was saying, “Do you believe that a mind with a fresh memory of walking will adjust to a new body faster?”

“Possibly. Mostly, I just like to be doing something. Anything, as long as it is not extremely foolish.”

“So, a slightly foolish activity would be acceptable?”

“If it made one feel better, surely that would cancel out the foolishness?”

“Perhaps,” said Findaráto politely. “At any rate, you could well be onto something. The spirit-body connection is such a deep and fascinating one; though walking is hardly a complicated skill, it will be interesting to see whether your first steps are surer than mine. Which reminds me... Amarië, my love,” he said, his voice softening in a most satisfying way, “how are we going to get our bodies back?”

“The Maia I consulted told me that you would regain them in the re-embodiment chamber. Which,” she added, noticing that they were at the exit of the Blond path, “we will be reaching quite soon.”

“And do you know what type of bodies we will receive?”

“What... type? What do you mean?”

“Well,” said Findaráto, “will we be re-embodied as newborns, or children? Or... surely we would not be given the bodies we had at the moment of our death?”

“That would be counter-productive, certainly,” said Glorfindel, “for those who died of their wounds. Or with their hair in a ragged mess.”

They both spoke lightly, but Amarië sensed genuine concern--or perhaps even a deeper, grimmer emotion. She would have to ask Findaráto for details, at an appropriate moment. Even if hearing them might pain her, surely they were part of the vast collection of experiences he wished to share.

“From what I have seen,” she said for now, “those who return look much as they ever did, at their best. I would guess that this is how they see themselves--and that it is similar to how your spirits appear to me, even now.”

Both spirits seemed to ponder this, so that, for a while, they moved in silence. Well, in near-silence: now that the topic of walking had been raised, Amarië could hear her own footsteps, and even their faint echoes--but, of course, no equivalent sound from her companions.

“So...” Findaráto’s fair voice joined the sound of footsteps. “If it is a question of self-perception, then what if we decided to see ourselves differently? Could we, perhaps, reshape ourselves? This bears investigation.”

Amarië frowned. An investigation sounded time-consuming.

“For my part,” said Glorfindel, “If I truly am to look as I looked at my best, then I would not want to change anything. Unless... Well, I might want to carry a well-earned scar or two. Nothing gruesome, just some proof of heroism, inner virtue reflected on the body. Some people appreciate that.”

“Yes, some people do like the heroic look,” Findaráto said doubtfully. “What do you think, Amarië?”

“I think,” said Amarië, “that I am very happy to see you as you have envisioned yourself all this time, while you were alone. It is your truest form, after all."

“Well said, my love,” said Findaráto. “And yet... I might want to change certain... dimensions. For example, I have always felt a trifle uncomfortable with the way Turukáno towers over me."

"I know exactly what you mean," said Glorfindel. "About Lord Turukáno’s height, that is. And I must admit that the additional reach would be helpful in battle.”

“We have not had many battles in Valinor lately,” said Amarië, who was starting to suspect that Glorfindel, with his enduring interest in the martial arts, was in for a culture shock. “But reach would certainly be handy when picking fruit from trees, or dusting a bookshelf, or hanging up a new painting. On the other hand...” She glanced over her shoulder again, and smiled at Findaráto. “I have always found your cousin’s height rather off-putting, and his wife did complain about the, well, practical problems it caused.”

“I can see why she would,” said Glorfindel. “Lord Turukáno used to bang his head on things all the time, at his father’s house. Some people even joked that it was why he moved away to build tall cities of his own.”

“I think Amarië was referring to... Never mind,” said Findaráto. “Upon reflection, I must agree that there are distinct benefits to being of average height.”

Well, that was certainly a relief. And here was another: they had finally reached the entrance to the Houses of the Dead. Or, under the current circumstances, their exit. Amarië approached the oversized door, suppressing the thought that Turukáno would have appreciated the headroom its height afforded.

Placing her ear against its cool surface yielded no suspicious sounds, and cracking it open revealed that the chamber looked just as it had before: vast and empty, though colourful. Even the basket of robes stood in the same place against a wall, under the same gory tapestry.

When she opened the door fully, the spirits rushed through it at once.

“These images!” Findaráto floated into the centre of the room and turned in place, his eyes scanning the hangings. “They must contain the whole history of Arda! Would that we had days to spend here...”

“So, where is yours, Lord Findaráto?” Glorfindel was doing his ghostly stroll along the wall to the left, his head tilted back to examine it.

“My what?”

“Your heroic death! Here, I have found mine.” He had paused before a barren mountain landscape emblazoned with a vivid tangle of red-gold embroidery. “And it does look wonderfully dramatic. I imagine the bards must have-- But, oh...” He glanced over to his left, to the image of a city wreathed in flame. His glow dimmed and flickered.

Findaráto joined him. “I know what you mean. I, too have found scenes that... Well, I am finding it hard to approach them neutrally, as a scholar should. Which leads me to suppose,” he said, more evenly, “that they have a different function. Perhaps they are meant as a warning against self-obsessive dwelling on the past... Or as reminder of the dangers of the corporeal world...”

The world he would soon be rejoining! As she watched Findaráto speak, and Glorfindel listen to his musings, Amarië detected subtle changes in both their appearance. Their light became less diffuse and increasingly pinkish-gold in hue, and their forms were growing more distinct by the moment. They must have noticed the process themselves, for they stopped speaking as their glow intensified, until Amarië had to glance away from its brightness. When she glanced back, there they both were, in the physical world: naked and a bit unsteady, but looking real and new and flawless.

Well, almost flawless.

“Ha!” Glorfindel was staring at his upper arm, which bore the silvery marks of an ancient injury. “I did it! Look, my old spider scar!”

He looked around, beaming, and Amarië felt glad of the excuse to focus on him. While the reunion with Findaráto’s spirit had felt wonderful, if incomplete, this reunion with his body felt... even more wonderful, but, also, disturbing. Even the quick glimpse of his familiar nude form she had caught before turning towards Glorfindel had filled her with an uncharacteristic shyness.

“There are robes, in that basket,” she said, still to Glorfindel, who moved in the indicated direction at once. His first step came out as an odd lurch, and the second was little better; but then he laughed, rearranged himself somehow, and stumbled off with increasing confidence.

Amarië watched him, idly noting that, while he was certainly well-built, there was nothing disturbing about his nudity. She was still trying to determine why--was it because his muscled physique seemed so utilitarian, rather than elegant?--when Findaráto cried out.

“Apologies,” he said when Amarië turned to see that he was down on one knee, and rubbing the other. “It would seem that a physical form does take some getting used to.”

This was no time to dwell on odd feelings. Amarië joined Findaráto and offered him her hand, then her shoulder. His grip was warm and firm, as was the arm he placed around her back; when she placed hers around his waist, his fine hair brushed against it. She tried to ignore these sensations as, step by step, she supported him on his way to the clothes-basket.

They found Glorfindel sorting through the basket’s contents, still wearing nothing but a frown.

“What is the matter?” asked Amarië. “Does nothing fit you?”

“No, no, these might.” Glorfindel indicated an untidy pile he had draped over the basket’s side. “But I was hoping to find something... more flattering, as is appropriate for this joyous, festive occasion. Sleeveless, perhaps.” He glanced down at his scar.

“Oh, I do see what you mean.” Findaráto had stepped away from Amarië, and now lifted up the topmost of the draped robes, a voluminous item that dispelled all of her concerns about size. “Are they all this plain and shapeless? Is there no tailoring, no embroidery at all?”

“Well, I did see... wait a moment...” Glorfindel rummaged around, eventually pulling out a yellowish item. “Right, there was this thing. But the shade is unfortunate, with our hair.”

“I know! I have never cared for such bland pastels. But perhaps something in classic white?” He reached into the basket, burying both arms in frothy fabric.

Amarië sighed, remembering the “vain” turn-off she had, quite consciously, chosen, and left them to it. Someone needed to scout the exit corridor, anyway. According to her map, there should be a room with a balcony a short distance away, just past a corner. Perhaps they could drop from it--using the rejected robes to make a rope, as needed--and make a run for the woods.

Well, hobble towards the woods, anyway.

She had almost reached the corner when she heard voices. As they did not seem to be moving closer, she crept forward to investigate.

“--so heavy. It must be all that metallic thread.”

“What I want to know is why we even bother to weave Dwarf-scenes? It is not as if they ever pass through these Halls.”

“Lady Vairë says it--”

“Her ladyship does not have to carry her bulky works halfway across the building.”

A quick, careful look around the corner revealed two exhausted Maiar, seated on a carelessly-dropped roll of tapestry. They were clearly on break now, but if they had been carrying it somewhere… well, there was only one reasonable destination. Oh, but she should have foreseen this danger, even if her informant had inexplicably left it out of his instructions: upon reflection, it was clear that the educational collection of hangings would require frequent updates to remain current.

Amarië hurried back to the Chamber, as quietly as she could.

She was glad to find that Findaráto, at least, was dressed. But Glorfindel, who had remained nude, was regarding him critically.

“I am not sure. I think the neckline on the previous one might--”

“I think it suits you very well, my love,” said Amarië, “but we have a problem. Two Maiar are on their way here to hang a new tapestry.”

Both men stared at her for an instant, then did a quick scan of the room.

“The basket!” said Findaráto. “With one of us in it, and two behind it, we could--”

“Hide for a while, yes,” said Amarië, “if they do not examine it too closely. But what if their task requires them to work on this wall?"

“Well, how about this?” Glorfindel’s voice was muffled; he had lifted the edge of a long hanging depicting a rather unpleasant-looking tower, and squeezed in behind it.

“Sorry,” said Amarië to the unsightly lump that marked his location. “That is quite conspicuous, really. No, I think we must hide back in the Halls.”

“But once in the Halls,” said Findaráto, with a frown, “we may be trapped for a long time.”

“True...” Glorfindel re-emerged, his hair a bit dusty. “Actually, what we need is to get them into the Halls, while we escape. They are two Maiar, you said? Embodied ones?"

“Yes,” said Amarië. “They seemed-- But wait, what do you intend, exactly?”

Glorfindel looked a little abashed. “Well... I can make someone lose consciousness by grabbing their neck, just so. Not that I think this is a good idea,” he added quickly.

“No,” said Findaráto. “But perhaps if I simply spoke to them--”

“Perhaps...” He was, of course, very persuasive, but still, remembering the fussy bureaucrat at the entrance, Amarië could not help feeling skeptical. “Although they--”

“I have it!” Glorfindel smiled with infectious delight. “You two can use the basket, while I lure these Maiar deep into the Halls!”

“Thank you,” said Findaráto, “but we cannot possibly accept--”

“How do you plan to lure them?” asked Amarië.

“By running around in this manner.” Glorfindel grabbed a handful of robes in each hand and held them aloft, like banners. Given his continuing heroic nudity, the overall effect was rather striking.

“I still--” But Findaráto’s phrase was interrupted by the creak of an opening door, so Amarië grabbed his hand and pulled him in behind the basket, where they crouched down together, concealed from most of the room.

Of course, in this pose, they could see nothing. Instead, they heard a thud--perhaps the sound of a heavy tapestry falling from surprised hands--followed by an officious-sounding, “OI. WHO ON ARDA ARE YOU AND WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?”

“Escaping, obviously.”

There followed a brief scuffle, ended by the sound of running feet: one pair at first, then several.

“Ondolindë!” cried out Glorfindel’s clear voice. “Aure entuluva! Ecthe--”

The final sound was the clang of the big door slamming shut.

In the ensuing silence, Amarië and Findaráto looked at each other.

“I doubt Glorfindel will come to any harm,” she told him. “Even if they catch him, I do not see how they can do anything but release him. He has a body now, and he is so obviously ready to return.”

Findaráto considered this, then nodded. And smiled. “As am I.”

Amarië stood up, and silently offered him her hand.

 

 

Outside, the crowd of maidens had reassembled, for the scene was exciting again.

The little birds had clearly recovered, and were now performing wing-stretches in the centre of the lawn. However, they abandoned their exercises and parted like an honour guard to let their mistress return to her throne, a tall, silver-haired man leaning on her shoulder. The maidens watched, touched deeply by the romance of the moment, as the pair climbed on board and rose, beneath their cloud of birds, high into the clear sky.

In their fascination, they failed to notice the two fair-haired figures, one confident, one moving a little awkwardly, exit through an insignificant window some distance away. Nor did they see these figures walk off into the woods together, arm in arm.

The woman on the throne might have: as she gained altitude, her eyes did linger briefly on the edge of the forest. However, she made no comment to her companion. She merely smiled, with the majestic, inscrutable grace she brought to all her expressions.