The room Elemmírë stood in was enveloped in a heavy darkness, the air cool and tasting of freshly carved stone. She could see nothing, not even the outline of her hand when she raised it to her face.
A mote of light, and then a flowering. The growing illumination painted the white dome of the ceiling with gold, highlighting the curves of stone, turning them soft despite their solidity. The sourceless light crept up the edges of the ceiling until the tendrils of gold met in the center. For the space of a breath, the room was bathed in a warm light—then silver followed up the cavernous ceiling, tempering the brightness until the glow of the mingling color bathed the room.
Slowly, the gold gave way. In the new silver, the stone arches turned to sharp-edged hardness, gleaming like steel. Like water running over stone, the light trickled back down, towards the edges of the dome.
Eventually, the lights above faded completely, and the dimmed lanterns that had kept the lower half of the chamber dark came back to full brightness. Revealed in the center were two skeletal tree limbs, branches twisted and black as charcoal. Against the expanse of white marble that made up the building, they stood stark and mournful, standing upright in a pit filled with smooth white stones.
“Remarkable,” Elemmírë said without turning away from the branches cut from the corpses of the Trees. Even these, small as they were compared to the sky-reaching monuments they came from, reached well over Elemmírë’s head. “Is it complete?”
From behind her came the soft sound of footsteps. Findis drew close to her side. “The light display is. Nerdanel says the building should be ready for public viewing within the week, but I wanted to show you in private.”
“Oh?” Elemmírë leaned her head against Findis’ shoulder—Findis was significantly taller, a fact that sometimes irked Elemmírë, but more often delighted her. “And why is that?”
Findis wrapped an arm around her shoulders, said, “This place is all the more worthwhile with you here to see it.”
Elemmírë laughed. “And I thought I was the poet here.”
“I’m sure you’ll have plenty to say about this when you get a chance to write it down.” Findis bent to kiss the top of Elemmírë’s head.
She was right—already, the gold and silver glow had set alight an ache in her throat that begged to be translated into words. This had been Nerdanel’s idea first, and Nerdanel who had seen it to completion. A physical memory, she had called it. A memorial to the Two Trees, to the light that had been lost. The mechanic behind it was unfamiliar to Elemmírë, and even her untrained eye could tell that the light wasn’t exactly the same as that of the Trees, but it still stirred something in her chest to see the mingled gold and silver, the contrast with the dead, blackened wood.
She was supposed to write something for the opening of this exhibition; that had been the stated purpose of this visit, to gather inspiration. But the memories that rose in this place were not of silver trysts in Tirion or gold-tinged fountains. Rather, they were of the loss, the falling dark, the grief. Any words she could offer now would be all hurt and splintered hope.
“I do not think I can write something beautiful about this,” she murmured.
Beside her, Findis let out a long breath. “I’m not sure it’s meant to be beautiful,” she said after a long pause. “It is a memory, after all.”
The day after seeing the memorial, she woke first and lay still for a long moment, aware of Findis’ warmth and soft snores from beside her. Dawn light crept across the ceiling, blushing shades of pink and orange that still seemed new and strange to her after all this time. Elemmírë treasured the mornings when neither she nor Findis had obligations, when they could simply lie in bed together and let peace fill their lungs.
Quiet moments like this were rare. Findis worked closely with her mother to order the comings and goings of those left in Valinor, soothing the petty disputes that arose and making the wide-reaching decisions that would affect land and crops and homes. By comparison, Elemmírë was far less busy, but she wrote, and tended their garden, and occasionally taught classes (poetry and music composition, for the most part) for the few children who remained.
Eventually, she felt Findis stir, rolling over to face her. Her dark eyes opened. Elemmírë had written a fair amount of poetry about those eyes: clouds after the storm, charcoal feathered across paper, pearl-wet shells dark against the sand.
Findis’ smile was lazy with sleep. “How long have you been awake?”
“Not long.” She leaned forward to kiss Findis, both of them warm in the dawn-light.
“We should get up,” Findis murmured against her mouth, but made no move to rise.
“Why? There is nothing demanding our attention at such an early hour.”
“How goes your writing?”
Elemmírë raised an eyebrow. “If you are chiding me for not being diligent enough—”
Findis laughed. “Nay, I was only asking. You seemed… quiet, last night. Lost in thought. I do not know if it was the good kind or the bad kind of thoughtful.” She paused, pulling back slightly to look Elemmírë in the eyes. “Which was it?”
Elemmírë considered this. “Neither,” she said at last. “A confused sort of thoughtful, I suppose.” When Findis nodded, prompting her to continue, Elemmírë exhaled. This early in the morning, thinking felt unwieldy, like trying to stack smooth stones. “You understand, I suppose, that writing songs for events tends to be more… impersonal. I do not have to dip deeply into the well of my heart to bring forth enough to satisfy.”
“But something about this is different.”
She nodded. “Findis, we all lived through the death of the light. We were there, in the chaos and grief and terror. We had to stitch up our wounds as best we could to continue on, and I fear tearing open those stitches anew. In others and in myself.”
Findis looked concerned. “Do not push beyond your limits, Elemmírë. If you feel you cannot write this, I’m sure Nerdanel would understand.”
“Nay, I will write this,” Elemmírë replied firmly. “I will figure out a way.”
“If you are certain.” Findis kissed her lightly. “Now, this is all very philosophical for such an early hour, and I know you Vanyar like that sort of thing before breakfast, but I prefer to meditate on a full stomach.” She sat up, swinging her legs over the side of the bed, and held out her hand. Her bronzed skin seemed to glow in the newborn sunlight as she moved.
Elemmírë took her offered hand.
She had met Findis when they were both children: Indis had sent her eldest daughter to one of the Vanyarin schools that her cousin had founded, and Elemmírë had attended it as well. It was housed in a circular building with a wide, airy courtyard in the center, with classes held throughout the day, so there was hardly a hour where one could not go into the garden and hear strains of music or song.
Elemmírë had seen the other girl in passing—hard not to, when Findis was one of the few with Noldo-dark hair—but had considered her well-behaved, so it was a surprise when, after being reprimanded for reading in class again, she entered the disciplinary to find Findis sitting at the table, fingers laced together and brows drawn inwards.
Findis looked up as Elemmírë entered and smoothed her face into neutrality. Elemmírë had been to Tirion before, had seen King Finwë, and in that moment Findis looked centuries older and remarkably like her father.
“Hello,” Elemmírë said, approaching the table. The strict painting teacher who ran the disciplinary was nowhere to be seen; it was just her and this girl. “I’m Elemmírë.”
In the absence of an indication that she should stay standing, Elemmírë pulled a chair out from the table, wincing at the screech of wood against the stone floor, and sat. There was a moment of uncomfortable silence.
“What brings you here?” Elemmírë asked at last. Privately, she wondered what deed the daughter of the High King of the Noldor could have possibly done to warrant punishment.
“To this school? My mother wants me to be accomplished in music and art,” Findis said primly.
“No, I mean—here.” She gestured at the otherwise empty room.
“I let a bird loose in a classroom.” Findis’ voice was detached and perfectly calm, so it took a moment for her words to sink in.
“You—” Elemmírë couldn’t help the laugh that bubbled up in her throat. “What kind of bird?”
“A pigeon. I left a trail of breadcrumbs right up to the teacher’s desk.” Her composure was fracturing, revealing the mischievous laughter in her eyes. “The look on his face—” She did laugh, then, stifling it behind her hand.
Elemmírë could easily imagine the chaos that must have followed. She decided she wanted very much to be this girl’s friend. “Why would you set pigeons on innocent teachers?”
“I was terribly bored.”
Footsteps from the hall, approaching. Elemmírë leaned in close to say in a low voice, “My aunt keeps a dovecote. Those birds are menaces. I can get one for you.”
Findis’ gleeful smile warmed her all the way through. She stuck her hand out, whispered, “Deal?”
Elemmírë clasped her hand and nodded.
She returned to the house well into the night hours. Hungry and irritated, she trudged up the garden path with lyrics whirling in her head. The song she was preparing for Nerdanel’s unveiling ceremony was coming along in fitful bursts, but there were lines that refused to flow and meld with the rest. Mouthing lyrics—light revealed, no, light unsheathed into glory might work better—she turned the corner. To her surprise, the windows were still lit with the gentle golden glow of candlelight.
When she opened the door, she heard Findis singing from the kitchen. Findis was shy about her voice—she had a decent one, though sometimes a hard time finding the right key. She almost never sang in front of Elemmírë.
Elemmírë closed the door behind her as softly as she could and stood with her back pressed against the doorframe, listening. Findis’ voice, warm even when speaking, now sounded like emberlight fluctuating through coals.
The melody changed, and Elemmírë blinked with surprise as she recognized one of her own compositions. A love song, one of her earlier works that was faintly embarrassing to look back on, but hearing it in Findis’ voice lent it an intimate quality.
The earth stirs under you in
the silver light. A simple
sweetness on my tongue,
your wings brushing the
roof of my mouth, feathers
falling like rain around me.
A girl’s thighs rounder than
the swan-water’s pearls, her
taste as bright as honey,
smooth as gold.
As the last notes faded, Findis emerged from the kitchen, a plate of steaming vegetables in her hands. She startled when she saw Elemmírë. “How long have you been there?” she asked, tone faintly accusing.
“Long enough. You sounded so lovely, I could not help but pause awhile.”
“I don’t sound lovely,” Findis said firmly. “No need to jest.”
Elemmírë moved to take the platter from her hands and set it down on the table. “No jesting here. I’ve told you, you don’t need to be shy about singing in front of me.”
Findis looked away, a faint flush coloring her cheeks. “I fear I do no justice to your poetry. Tis foolish, I know—”
“Foolish indeed,” Elemmírë said softly, catching Findis’ hands in hers. “Foolish, when the words fit in your mouth like they were written to be caught on your tongue.” Her eyes drifted to Findis’ lips as she spoke, a different sort of hunger rising in her. They were inches apart, and she could feel Findis’ heartbeat thrumming through her fingers.
Findis laughed breathily, tugging her hands free. “Silver-tongued Elemmírë, flattering as always.”
“I speak only the truth to you, love.” She bent her head to press a light kiss to where Findis’ shoulder joined with her throat. Findis shivered.
“Your dinner will grow cold,” she said, voice a shade higher than normal.
“I hate to let such good cooking go to waste,” Elemmírë murmured, kissing her again before pulling back, knowing exactly how Findis would respond. Indeed, the daughter of the High Queen of the Noldor let out a frustrated noise and tangled her hands in Elemmírë’s hair, dragging her close for a heated kiss. Elemmírë let Findis pull her into the next room, fingers tugging at the sash of her dress.
By the time they finished and recovered their clothes from where they had been strewn across the room, the food had most certainly gone cold. Elemmírë did not mind; nor, it seemed, did Findis.
At night, she sat at her writing desk, the paper in front of her lit by a bar of moonlight streaming in through a gap in the curtains that revealed line after line, written and crossed out and rewritten. She felt more unsure than she had in a long while, the words seething under the surface of her thoughts but not coming together the way she wished.
What was there to say about death in a deathless land?
A ghost of a thought struck her, and she let it carry her to her feet, across the room. In the pale silver light, everything felt dreamlike, suspended.
On the dresser was a small wooden box inlaid with pearls. She lifted the lid revealing a tangle of jewelry. Moving aside the strand of glass beads, she found it—a folded sheet of paper tucked into the seam of the box. With gentle fingers, she unfolded it, bringing it back to the desk to lay it flat against the wood. The moonlight revealed her own handwriting: the first love poem she had written to Findis.
Their courtship had been a tender, uncertain thing. She remembered spending hours lying in her mother’s garden under Telperion’s light, thoughts occupied entirely by the way Findis had looked at her that day, the way Findis’ hair had been braided, Findis this, Findis that, Findis. She was not sure when she started thinking of her childhood friend as more than a friend—perhaps that yearning had always been beneath the surface, like river-rocks under the current. She vividly remembered writing this poem, however, and leaving it tucked under Findis’ door.
Meet me in the garden for a song
sweet as the new-green leaves. The
flowers are a sea carrying our secret
names: the silver breezes, dew-wet
and loving, touch your skin as I
long to. I want the gentle unwinding
of your voice against me. In the same
way that water flows, the shape of
absence fills what it is placed in.
Tonight, it fills my heart. Meet me
in the garden. Here amid the lilac
we can learn our bodies anew.
She read it once, twice, then set it down. An idea curled like an unfolding fern in her mind, revealing itself to her leaf by leaf, word by word.
She picked up her pen and began to write.
On the day of the opening, a sizable crowd gathered under the arched marble ceiling, mostly citizens of Tirion, but not entirely—Elemmírë was not the only Vanya, and she even spotted a few faces she knew from spending time in Alqualondë.
Elemmírë stood before the branches to give an introduction, hands folded. Behind her, she could feel Findis nearly vibrating with nervous energy. It had taken hours of convincing, but eventually Elemmírë had cajoled Findis into singing for the ceremony. It will be far more meaningful coming from the daughter of Finwë, she had argued. Findis had agreed.
The lights flickered, Nerdanel’s cue to her. She stepped forward, and the noise of the crowd died down.
“Welcome,” she said. “I stand before you within a living memory. All of us, save the youngest children, recall what light once shone from these branches. And all of us remember how that light died.
I do not have much of substance to say, as I prefer to let the music speak for itself. However, one thing: this is a monument to the light of ages past, yes, but it is just as much a monument to what we have rebuilt together. So this song is the Aldudénië, a lament for what was lost, a telling of the tale we know well—but it is also about the love that kept us together, and how we rebuilt in defiance of the darkness.”
She joined the crowd as Findis took her place before the branches.
Darkness swept over the room, and Elemmírë felt the crowd around her shift in their sudden blindness, uneasy and uncomfortable. A pause, during which the dark lingered like something physical, and then Findis’ voice filled the space, low and warm.
She sang of the dying of the Two Trees, of the draining of the light by forces from beyond Valinor. Her voice, saturated with grief, hung in the dark air, and though Elemmírë had written the words herself, something about the tremble in Findis’ voice made tears burn her eyes. The song told of the emptying of the city as the Noldor fled, told of the days of fear under skies lit only by the stars, and those at a great and terrible distance.
A shift in melody; a strain of determination weaving through the mourning. The silver light began to flow up the sides of the dome until it seemed the sky of old Valinor had returned to shine down on them. The crowd around Elemmírë inhaled as though one as the room filled with the glow. A mingling, and then the birth of gold; the song spoke of how the people of the city had come together, labored to rebuild, how the work of their hands had been illuminated by the eventual rise of the moon and sun.
The light spilled down the sides of the dome, retreating once again, but now the darkness felt different, the knowledge that it was only temporary making it almost welcome.
Findis finished singing, and as the lights came up, revealing the black branches, the last notes hung in the air—no longer a lament, but a flowering of hope.