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Tales from Vairë's Loom  by Fiondil

A Winter’s Tale

Summary: On a snowy night in the ruins of Eregion, Aragorn encounters a stranger with a strange tale. First place in the Teitho contest 'Around the Fireside'.

****

Winter had settled in like a relative showing up at an inconvenient time, intending to stay for a while. Aragorn surveyed the scene around him. Ost-in-Edhil had once been a thriving city of the Noldorin Elves but it had ceased to be anything but a memory long before his own birth. Little of the place remained save for a wall here or there and the ruins of the bridge that had spanned the river, connecting the two parts of the city. Where he stood gazing about, he could just make out the marshlands of the Swanfleet to the west, but the swans no longer lived there and there was an air of silent desolation all around. He shrugged further into his cloak, carefully crossing the frozen river to the north side, deciding it was as good a place to hole up for a time as any. He glanced at the sky with a sigh. The clouds had been thickening all day and now they were dark and heavy with snow.

Hunting for a place to camp, he came upon the ruin of what must have been a large hall of some kind. There was a flagged courtyard, the stone badly cracked and discolored as if by intense heat, and he could see the outline of what might have been rooms on either side of a central nave. He spent a little time carefully checking the hall out for signs of being inhabited, but, while the debris of ages covered much of the flooring, there was no evidence that any animal had used the place for a den, which he found odd. There was one room open to the courtyard that still had two walls that were nearly intact so that the wind was blocked from the north and he decided to make his camp there. He gathered some kindling and soon had a cheery fire going, setting up a makeshift tripod and hanging a small kettle over the fire, filling it with snow. Once it was melted he would throw in some chunks of venison and a few precious tubers he had dug up in the forests further south in Dunland where they were more protected from winter’s onslaught. It wasn’t much and it would be rather tasteless, for he had neither salt nor herbs, but he had had less in his time and at least it promised to be hot. Even protected from the north wind he could feel the cold encroaching and shivered, stamping his feet and blowing on his mittened hands.

While the stew was cooking, he gathered some pine branches and wove a crude mat, placing it across the jagged top of the walls where they joined together, holding it down with several heavy blocks of stone, thus forming a bit of a roof. If the wind did not get too strong it should remain in place, protecting him from the snow that was now beginning to fall.

With that task done, he checked the stew, which was bubbling nicely. It would be a while before it was ready, so he hunkered down before the fire, letting it warm him as he watched the snow falling. The last gleams of light from the setting sun bathed the western horizon with shades of rose and mauve, but the clouds obscured the stars and soon the darkness was complete. He stirred the pot and settled further into his cloak, wishing he still had some pipeweed. A smoke would while away the time until his dinner was ready.

His thoughts drifted with the snow, racing north to where his heart lay, and he allowed himself to daydream about his homecoming.

“A bitter night.”

Aragorn jerked, rising to his feet and drawing his sword in a single fluid motion before he was sufficiently awake, silently cursing himself for not staying alert. Before him, on the other side of his fire, stood a tall figure cloaked and hooded so he could not make out any features.

“Who are you?” he demanded, surprise rather than fear harshening his tone, wondering where the person had come from.

The figure raised its hands in a placating manner. “Peace. I mean you no harm.” Then he pulled down his hood. It was an Elf, his long dark hair proclaiming him to be a Noldo. His dark eyes glittered with an inner light that led Aragorn to suspect that here was one who had perhaps lived in the Blessed Realm long ago.

“I did not mean to startle you,” the Elf said in a placating manner. “May I join you? As I said, it is a bitter night and a fire would be welcome.” He spoke Westron, but not fluently, for he hesitated over a word or two and his accent was strange, not what he was used to hearing among the Elves of Imladris or elsewhere.

Aragorn slowly returned his sword to its sheath then gestured toward the fire. “Make yourself at home,” he said in Westron rather than in Sindarin, deciding not to reveal that he knew the Elvish language.

“Thank you,” the Elf said simply and with the natural grace of his kind, crouched before the fire, holding out his hands to the heat. “The stew smells good,” he said conversationally.

“There’s not much,” Aragorn replied apologetically, thinking that with the Elf sharing his meal, there was going to be even less for him.

“Do not concern yourself,” the Elf said, as if he had read his thoughts. “I am not hungry. Please, eat. I wish only to share your fire, nothing more.”

Now Aragorn felt shamed. “What I have is yours,” he said as sincerely as possible.

“And I assure you that I am not in need of food,” the Elf replied with a smile. “Now, eat. You do not wish for the stew to burn.”

Aragorn removed the kettle from the fire, pulled out a wooden spoon from his pack and began eating the stew. All the while the Elf crouched before the fire, watching him and there was a wistfulness to his expression. Aragorn stopped eating and held out the spoon. “Please have some.”

The Elf looked up at him and his dark eyes glittered with some emotion that Aragorn could not name and he had to force himself not to reach for his sword. Then the Elf’s eyes cleared and he laughed and the feeling of threat passed. “Thank you, but I assure you I am not hungry. Please do not concern yourself with me. I am fine. You are traveling far?”

Aragorn blinked at the sudden change in the conversation, then nodded. “Far enough, especially in this season. I am making my way to Rivendell, to the House of Elrond.”

The Elf raised a delicate eyebrow. “And what does a Mortal have to do with Elrond Half-Elven?”

“I am a Ranger,” Aragorn replied. “I have some news for Lord Elrond concerning the state of affairs in Gondor and Rohan. Lord Elrond is always asking for news of the outside world and we Rangers often bring it to him.”

For a moment or two, silence hung between the two as the Elf seemed to be contemplating his words. Aragorn ate some more of the stew, wishing he had some bread with which to sop it up.

“I see you wear a curious ring,” the Elf said suddenly and Aragorn blinked again. “May I see it? Rings are… were something of interest to me… long ago.” Again there was an expression of wistfulness on his face and a note of regret in his voice which Aragorn could not interpret.

“It is an heirloom of my House,” Aragorn said, holding out his hand, reluctant to take it off and give it to the Elf to examine. In the firelight, the emeralds glittered darkly.

“I have seen this ring before,” the Elf said with a frown, “but it graced the hand of no Mortal. An heirloom of your house, you say?” He gave Aragorn a piercing look and when he spoke again it was in Sindarin. “Who are you?”

“I am Aragorn son of Arathorn, Chieftain of the Dúnedain,” Aragorn replied simply in the same language.

“Then Elrond of Imladris is your kinsman,” the Elf said with a nod.

“A very distant relationship, I assure you,” Aragorn said with a twist of his lips.

The Elf waved a hand in dismissal. “A kinsman nonetheless. So, you are of the line of Beren son of Barahir.” He fell silent, his gaze becoming distant, as if he were looking at something far off in time and space.

“And you?” Aragorn finally said, breaking the silence between them. “You have not introduced yourself.”

The Elf’s gaze became more present and he smiled thinly. “Rude, am I?” he retorted with a merry laugh. “Well, I think I will continue being rude for a while. Shall I tell you a tale and perhaps from it you can guess my identity.”

“And if I cannot guess correctly?” Aragorn said.

The Elf shrugged. “Then you will go to your grave wondering just who entertained you with a tale on a winter’s night in the middle of nowhere.”

Now it was Aragorn’s turn to laugh. “Fair enough,” he said. “Let me finish this stew and build up the fire against the night and then I will be ready to hear your tale.”

The Elf nodded and after another ten or fifteen minutes, the kettle empty of stew and the fire burning brightly, Aragorn settled himself with his back against a wall, his cloak firmly wrapped around him, wishing he could smoke or have a cup of tea, but he had used up the last of the fresh wintergreen leaves a week before and had not found any other herbs along the way. All the while the Elf crouched unmoving before the fire.

“And so, your tale, Sir Elf,” Aragorn said with the ghost of a smile.

However, for several long minutes his guest said nothing, merely staring into the fire. Aragorn forced himself not to fidget. Long exposure to the way of Elves had taught him patience. The Noldo would speak in his own time, though Aragorn hoped he would not fall asleep waiting for him to do so. It had been a long, wearying day of travel and now that he was warm and fed, he could feel himself drifting again. The low voice of the Elf brought him back to wakefulness, realizing he had missed some of his words.

“… many years since.” The Noldo gave him a considering look. “What do you know of these ruins?”

“That once a city of the Noldor thrived here, but that war came upon it and it was destroyed.”

“And do you know why there was a war?”

“Sauron,” Aragorn replied coldly and said no more.

The Elf raised an eyebrow and nodded. “Though we knew him as Annatar, Lord of Gifts.” He snorted in derision. “The only gift that one is capable of giving is death… or worse.” His expression became wistful again and for several minutes only the wind blowing around the edifice made any sound. Finally, he shook his head, as if to clear it of some dark thought and gazed upon the Dúnadan who had not moved.

“I was young as we Elves reckon such things,” the Elf said, “an apprentice jewel-smith. I well remember the day Lord Celebrimbor welcomed the one who named himself Annatar, seeking to teach us what he knew of the crafting of Rings of Power. I felt uneasy in that one’s presence, though I could not say why and did not speak my concerns, for I was but a lowly apprentice, soon to become a journeyman. At any rate, I had little to do with Annatar, for which I thank the Belain, but that did not mean I had nothing to do with him.”

He paused for a moment, as if gathering his thoughts, then spoke, his voice low and unemotional. “Would that I had listened to the urgings of my heart….” He stopped and gave Aragorn another piercing look. “Do you know what happened to Celebrimbor?”

Aragorn nodded. “He was killed by Sauron, his body hung on a pole as the Dark Lord’s standard when that one took to the field against Elrond’s forces.” He shuddered involuntarily at the gruesome image that came to him. He remembered the sense of horror and revulsion he had felt when he had heard the story from one who had been there. The thought of Celebrimbor’s fate still left him feeling sick.

“Ah… I didn’t know that,” the Elf said, sounding pleased for some reason.

Aragorn stared at him in disbelief. How could he not know?! Before he could ask, though, the Elf continued his tale.

“I obtained my journeyman status about a year or two after Annatar arrived and became more involved with those masters who were studying under Celebrimbor and learning the crafting of the Rings. It was a slow process and there were many false starts in the beginning but over a period of several centuries we became more and more proficient in crafting such items.”

“Did you make….” Aragorn started to ask but stopped, unsure how to continue without insulting the storyteller.

“Did I make any of the Rings themselves?” the Elf finished his thought for him. He flashed him a sardonic look. “Yes, actually. I proved myself quite proficient in the making of such rings, more so than the other journeymen and even one or two of the masters, so Celebrimbor allowed me to fashion one of the rings. The very least of them, I admit, but I think I did a fair enough job.” There was a measure of pride in his voice.

“Which one?” Aragorn asked in curiosity.

“Ah… well, it was one fashioned for Men,” he said almost apologetically. “I have no idea what happened to it though. Do you?”

Aragorn stared at the Elf in confusion. How could this one who lived through the events of the last two ages not know what had happened to the ring he had fashioned? “I believe it was given to one of the kings of Men at the time,” he said carefully, “but I am afraid I do not know which one.”

The Elf nodded. “No matter. As I was saying, we spent several centuries fashioning the rings and learning other crafts along the way and most of us welcomed Annatar’s teachings. Yet, my uneasiness grew and when I had finished making the ring assigned to me, I felt a great reluctance to give it up. Indeed, I remember staring at it as the metal cooled thinking I should cast it back into the fire and melt it down and create something else from it, a brooch perhaps or some other trinket. But I did not, and in the end, I handed it over to Annatar and never saw it again.”

He paused, his eyes going dark and there was unfathomable pain behind them. “I never saw anything again after that.”

“I… I don’t understand….” Aragorn started to say, beginning to feel the uncanniness of the whole situation. Something about this Elf was not right.

“Did Annatar ever touch the Elven Rings, do you know?” the Elf suddenly asked.

Aragorn just stared at him. “How can you not know these things?” he finally blurted out.

“Please, did he touch them?” he pleaded, ignoring Aragorn’s question.

“No. Celebrimbor hid them from him. He never touched them.”

The look of relief on the Elf’s face was genuine, he was sure of it, but it only deepened the mystery behind him.

“Who are you?” he demanded, his voice sounding harsh to his ears.

The Elf cocked his head to his left, as if seriously contemplating the question, then he smiled. “I have not yet finished my tale. Would you listen to its ending?”

Aragorn nodded.

“As I said, I was most reluctant to give over my Ring to Annatar and I pleaded with Celebrimbor against handing over any of the rings to him, but that had been the bargain, you see: Annatar would teach us the crafting of Rings of Power and we would give him the Rings to be distributed to those for whom they were meant.”

“I never understood why he needed your people’s help in crafting what he already knew how to do,” Aragorn interrupted, then stammered an apology.

The Elf raised a conciliatory hand. “It is a fair question. Let us just say that he needed our resources and our power. Crafting Rings of Power is not like crafting an ordinary ring, even one such as yours. It took much power to imbue them with their properties and Annatar needed us to supply that power.” He shrugged. “At any rate, Celebrimbor remained unmoved by any of my arguments as to why we should not give up the Rings and ordered me to give mine up.”

“I still do not understand why….”

“Why Celebrimbor didn’t just take my ring and give it to Annatar? For the simple reason that only the maker of the Ring could give it up to another. Mine was the least of the Rings, yet, none could safely touch it unless I gave it to them.”

Aragorn nodded in understanding and after a moment of silence the Elf continued his tale. “I finally agreed to meet Annatar and give him the Ring, loath though I was to do so. There was a feast being held in the hall of the Lord Celeborn and the Lady Galadriel and Celebrimbor and many other masters of the Gwaith-i-Mírdain were there. I should have been, but I had made arrangements to meet Annatar before joining the others. That was my mistake. There was no one else about, you see. Our meeting was quite private.

“And it was then my doom was assured, for as I laid the Ring in his outstretched hand and our flesh touched, I caught a fleeting glimpse of his mind’s purpose and his true intent with regards to all the Rings. I tried to hide my shock and fear, but I think he guessed, for he gave me a sardonic smile even as he thanked me. I nodded and turned to leave, wishing only to find Celebrimbor and tell him what I had learned…. And that is when I died.”

Aragorn stared at him in disbelief and a rising sense of horror. “Died?” he whispered.

The Elf nodded. “He struck me from behind.”

“And… and your… er….”

“Body? It was never found.”

“But why are you… um…”

“Still here?” The Noldo appeared amused by his discomfort. “Ah, that’s because Annatar did not just kill me, he cursed me.”

“How?”

“As he shoved my body into its makeshift grave, he uttered a curse. It was in Quenya, rather than in Sindarin. Do you know the language?”

Aragorn nodded.

“Well, I will not repeat it in that language but in the Westron of Mortals he said: ‘May your spirit be ever bound to this earth for all the Ages of Arda’.” He paused, his expression once again wistful. “I heard the Call of Mandos, but I could not heed it. That Call has grown fainter and fainter with every year that passes, and though I long to leave this place, I cannot.”

“How do you come to know the Common Tongue, though? It was not spoken in your day.”

“Well, while my people have avoided this place, that cannot be said of others. Hunters have come this way, and the occasional bandit, even a few curiosity-seekers. Over time I began picking up the language, though I admit I do not know much of it.”

For a long moment, the two sat in silence, each lost in his own thoughts. Aragorn stared at the figure crouched before him. He seemed so solid and his tale sounded so incredible, yet there had been no sense of falsehood in his voice and Aragorn had learned to discern when others were being less than truthful.

“This curse, are those the exact words which were spoken?” he finally asked.

The Elf nodded distractedly, his gaze distant, but then at the import of Aragorn’s words his gaze sharpened and became more present. “What are you thinking?”

“He said ‘May your spirit be ever bound to this earth’. What if your body were moved elsewhere?”

“Do you think it would work?” the Elf asked, casting him a dubious look.

Aragorn shrugged. “Curses, like blessings, must be carefully spoken. Sauron cursed you to remain ever bound to this earth. What word did he use in Quenya?”

“Cemen.”

“You are sure of that? He said ‘cemen’ and not ‘Ambar’?”

The Noldo nodded, giving him a quizzical look.

“Do you not see?” Aragorn demanded, becoming excited as he tried to explain. “He cursed you to remain bound to the soil in which your body lies, not to the world itself. But what if your body were to lie in some other soil?”

The Elf’s eyes brightened with understanding and he stood suddenly. “Come with me. Bring a torch.”

Without waiting to see if Aragorn would comply with his command, the Noldo stepped away from the fire and made his way down the central nave of the hall. Aragorn hastily rose and fashioned a crude torch before following. They came to a cross corridor and the Elf turned left. “This part of the hall was being extended at the time of my death,” he said as they entered one of the rooms. “Annatar brought my body here. The tiles were just being laid and they were not completely set in. He pulled some of the tiles up and dug a hole. There were plenty of tools around for him to do so. Then he shoved my body into it and covered it, placing the tiles back on top, all the while fouling the Ancient Tongue with his curse.” He gave Aragorn a grim look. “I suppose it amused him to think that my fellow craftsmen would be walking unknowingly over my grave.”

“And no one ever learned of your fate or questioned your disappearance?”

The Elf shrugged. “I cannot say, for there was a long period of time when I knew nothing of what was happening around me. I did not even realize I was dead until I tried to speak to one of my fellows who happened to be passing this room. For a long time, I could not even move from here, doomed to stand forever over my own grave. In time, though, there was a lessening of the bonds and I could move around more freely, but never beyond the courtyard. I witnessed the destruction of the city, helpless to intervene. I saw many of my friends fall, but could never learn of Celebrimbor’s fate, until tonight.”

“Show me the exact location and I will dig up your body and take it with me and rebury it in Imladris.”

“Where I am standing,” the Elf said.

Aragorn nodded, grabbing some loose stones lying about and building a small cairn to mark the spot. “I cannot guarantee this will work….”

“That you are willing to try is enough, and I am grateful. I have tried unsuccessfully to speak with others who have come here over the long years, but you are the first to acknowledge my existence. I cannot believe it a coincidence that one with the blood of Lúthien in his veins came here on this of all nights.”

“What do you mean?” Aragorn asked.

“This night. I died on this night.” And as the sky began graying in the east, Aragorn could see the Elf beginning to fade.

“Wait! You never told me your name,” he cried out.

The Noldo smiled. “Can you not guess? I am Celebrindor son of Celebrimbor.” With that he disappeared and Aragorn never saw him again….

****

“I dug up the grave and discovered that the body was still intact, even after all this time. I lifted it out and carefully wiped away every trace of the earth clinging to it, even going so far as to take it down to the river and after breaking the ice, washing it. Then I built a travois to carry it, carefully wrapped in my blanket. All the while, I expected it to crumble into dust, but it never did.”

Elrond stared pensively at his youngest son as Aragorn finished his tale. They were alone in Elrond’s library. “And do you think in doing as you did the curse was lifted?”

“I don’t honestly know, Adar,” Aragorn admitted. “But….”

“Go on, my son,” Elrond said gently when Aragorn hesitated.

“It was two days later, the ruins far behind me. I had stopped for the night and was sitting beside the fire, thinking of Celebrindor’s tale. His body was packed in snow to help preserve it. As I sat there, I could have sworn I felt someone touch my forehead and then I heard someone thanking me. It lasted only for a second, but I am sure it was Celebrindor and I would like to think that he was finally able to heed Mandos’ Call.”

“As do I,” Elrond said. “At any rate, we will have a proper funeral for him, my son. I agree with Celebrindor: it was no coincidence that you were there on that particular night. Come, let us see to our guest’s final resting place.”

“Did you know him?” Aragorn asked shyly as they exited the library.

“Yes, I did, though not well, but others knew him better. When we have done our duty to him, we will trade tales and songs in his honor. Perhaps you will cast your own tale into verse for all to hear.”

“I would like that, thank you. He deserves to have his story known.” And as they made their way to where the son of Celebrimbor lay in state, Aragorn was already mentally composing the tale of his encounter with a strange Elf on a winter’s night and the story that was told around the fireside.

****

Words are Sindarin unless otherwise noted:

Belain: The Valar.

Gwaith-i-Mírdain: ‘People of the Jewel-smiths’, the name of the fellowship of craftsmen in Eregion led by Celebrimbor.

Cemen: (Quenya): Earth, soil.

Ambar: (Quenya) World, Earth.

Adar: Father.

Note: There is nothing in the Legendarium that says that Celebrimbor had a son, but then again, there is nothing that says he didn’t.





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