1. The Wisdom of Friendship
'Go then, Randir* if you would chase your fancies rather than the game in our woods,' Maedhros said mockingly when I took my leave of him and Maglor.
'How long are you capable of staying in one place before the call of elsewhere turns your head, and your feet start itching with curiosity again?' asked Maglor. 'A season, perhaps even a year, if you try very hard?'
'At least a moon,' I replied cheerfully, 'if I promise to do so beforehand. But I made no promises, and your game remains the same. The offspring of those beasts will taste no worse if it is speared or shot a hundred years hence. And if I leave now, some at least will breathe their last without the hunters blowing the mort**.'
'What a waste,' I heard one of Maedhros's huntsmen mumble, and then I was off, waving goodbye to my companions.
Drawn towards the snow-capped Ered Lindon I reached the old Dwarf-road. Crossing the river Gelion I followed its northernmost tributary, thinking to visit the Naugrim of Nogrod, some of whom I call my friends. But on reaching the foothills I was tempted southward into the land of the Seven Rivers, Ossiriand, where the Green-Elves dwell. And there, below the springs of the river Thalos, I found that which would affect me more than anything since my ears heard the Prophecy of the North.
My eyes saw the firelight before my ears caught the music, and I wondered at both. The singers could hardly be Green-elves, who sing not at all by night and much better by day. Nor were they Dwarves. Orcs, creeping down from Angband, escaping the vigilance of Fëanor's sons? But this singing did not feel foul. So I ventured to draw near, slowly, carefully, yet with a strong sense of anticipation, until I reached the edge of the trees surrounding the fires.
The glade I beheld contained a camp with tents and wains, crudely designed yet placed in an orderly circle. Within it I saw people, simply, even scantily dressed, but pleasant to look on. For a fleeting moment I took them for Avari, for they were built like the People of the Stars, long-limbed and strong, straight-backed for the most, and with a grace of motion lacking in Dwarves. Yet it was not an elvish grace, and their eyes and voices, too, were unlike those of my kindred. Many of the males were bearded, while some of the faces were creased and crumpled like those of ancient Dwarves, and crowned by grey or white hair.
They seemed to be a happy people as they sat around their campfire, laughing, singing, held together by ties of friendship and kinship and apparently unafraid of any dangers that might lurk in the nightly shadows of the trees. But he who hid among those trees tonight was no danger to them, for as I stood watching them, my heart went out to them. Surely these could be none but the Second People foretold to us, the after-born children of Eru Ilúvatar. I felt strangely favoured, being the first of the Eldar of Beleriand ever to set eyes on them. A short-lived, weak race, easily swayed, Melkor called them in Valinor. But he is a black-hearted liar, and these people seemed the more worthy to me for having earned his scorn and contempt.
Long did I observe them, until they lay down to sleep. No watch they set, and among the sounds of their quiet breathing I walked to the embers of their fire. Taking up the harp that one of them had been playing and that I perceived to be the work of an Avari craftsman, I sat down and sang a song of my own.
At first I thought I was having an uncommonly vivid dream, so real were the images. They were filled with light and colour and accompanied by the most melodious voice I had ever heard, singing words in a language I didn't know. Before my mind's eye a story was acted out in which human-like figures, larger than life, created a beauty greater than I can describe, in a land free from stains and shadows.
I felt myself thinking this was the most lucid dream I had ever had when I realised my eyes were open. Just like those of my wife and children, my friends and almost everyone in the entire camp. If this was a dream, we all shared it, and I wondered what caused it.
It wasn't until those marvellous images faded that I saw their source: a man sitting cross-legged beside the fire-pit, cradling my harp in his arms. But no, it couldn't be a man, nor one of the elvenfolk we had met east of the great mountains, for their eyes and hair didn't shine nearly as brightly as his did, and whatever wisdom I'd perceived in their faces was nothing compared to what I saw in his. I'd never found such beauty in any face, except in those made alive by the song he'd just sung. And all the while the night enveloped us and only the stars looked down on us, so it was remarkable we could see anything at all. Yet we did, and I thought this could mean only one thing.
This was one of the Powers of the West, called 'Valar' by the Elves; he had to be. I wasn't the only one to gasp. We all held our breath, elated, awed and fearful at the same time. What did his presence among us mean? Had he come to tell us we would at last be delivered from the dark shadow pursuing us from the moment of our awakening? Had we put it behind us; could he keep it at bay with the light in his face and the power of his song?
It occurred to me that if this was a divine being, he had to be worshipped, and as a leader I had to present a good example. So I scrambled to my knees and made to kneel, stretching out my arms; from the corner of my eyes I saw others do the same.
The effect was remarkable. A startled expression crossed his face. Laying aside the harp he rose, more swiftly than the most agile of our children, and leaping towards me he grabbed my hands and pulled me up to prevent me from bowing low to him. My ears did not understand the words he spoke in his clear, musical voice, but my mind seemed to catch their meaning: Do not do this. I am no more divine than you are.
I was keenly disappointed, and perhaps for that reason inclined to disbelieve him. Maybe he only wanted to put us at ease because he was benevolent and wise, as can be expected of a true Power. But I decided it would be best to humour and obey him, and so I told my people he didn't want to be worshipped. And though he obviously spoke a language different from ours, I addressed him all the same, trusting that in his wisdom he would know what I wanted to say.
'If you are not divine,' I said, 'then who and what are you, my lord? Why are you here?'
He let go of me, but instead of replying he eyed me intently. I had the strangest feeling: that he was about to enter my mind, but that I could prevent him from doing so if I wanted. So that was how it worked. Around me, my people had grown silent and the only thing I heard was the night wind in the trees.
'Who are you? Why are you here?' I repeated, allowing him to progress.
It pleased me much that the Man was perceptive enough to let me read his mind. His language resembled that of the Avari, which was akin to my own, but the tongues of the Elves had been sundered too long for me to reach full understanding at once. Though I knew I would master his speech soon enough, I still needed his thoughts to grasp his words.
That he still half believed me to be a Vala was less to my liking. Why should he wish to create such a distance between us? What did he see when he looked at me: naught but lordliness, where I felt kinship and would offer friendship and guidance both?
'I am of the Eldar,' I conveyed to him. 'An Elf.'
'I have seen Elves. You are different.'
'There are Elves and Elves. I dwelled in the West with the Valar.'
'But you are not one of them?'
'The Valar are pure spirits, and the greatest of Eru's creations. I am made of the matter of Arda and cannot shed my flesh like a raiment any more than you can, my friend... tell me your name.'
This seemed to close some of the distance between us. 'Balan***,' he told me gravely, with the voice of his body. 'And yours, lord?'
'Among the Elves, Finrod. The Dwarves name me Felagund.'
'And why have you come to us, lord Finrod?'
'I had no particular purpose in coming to this place, for I did not know I would find you here.' That should prove to him I could not foresee the future at will. 'But now that I found you, I would like to learn more about you.'
Balan thought for a while. 'Would you also teach us more about the things you showed us in your song? Would you stay with us?'
'How can I ask, if I am not willing to give as well? I will remain with you as long as you need me and I am able to,' I found myself telling him, somewhat to my own surprise. I smiled. 'That is a promise.'
Balan also smiled, baring his teeth.
They went to sleep again, for the night was still young. I sat down, leaning against one of their carts, but I did not rest or dream, having less faith in the safety of these lands than they had. Nothing stirred that night but the wind, but nonetheless I kept watching. And while I did so, I discovered the low mound of freshly dug earth beyond the circle of tents and wains. It was of recent date, and if my eyes did not deceive me it was a grave. I resolved to ask Balan who had died, and of what cause.
When I did so, the next day, he told me it was his wife's father whom they had buried but a day ago; he had died of old age. When I wanted to know the number of the dead man's years Balan replied, sadly, with his voice: 'Seventy and one.'
He must have thought I looked puzzled, for he raised both his hands seven times, adding one finger at the end.
But I was not puzzled. I was troubled - the more so as I felt his mind withdrawing from my probing.
Seventy and one. Dwarves are mortal , too, but they live to be more than three hundred years old. Seventy and one - there are birds that grow older! These were the younger Children of Ilúvatar, who resembled the Eldar more than any creatures in this world. Yet their life-span came closest to that of the mindless beasts I had hunted together with my cousins, not many days ago. The thought stung my heart.
'What is your own age, Balan?' I asked, reluctantly. 'Only answer me if you want to.'
'Fourty years and eight,' he said; this time he raised no hands.
So he had more years behind him than ahead of him. I felt strangely embarrassed, almost dreading his next question. When he asked it, opening his mind to me again, it seemed an act of bravery for one who already knew about the longevity of our race. 'And yours, lord?'
'Three hundred years of the sun and more, and before that nigh on two hundred years of Valinor,' I let him know.**** But that is nothing to our kind.
Balan was visibly taken aback. 'You look so young... But of course,' he added after a silence, 'I should have guessed otherwise.'
Though I am still young according to the measure of the Eldar, I chose to remain silent.
'The Elves in the lands to the east say they do not die,' he went on, 'but our fathers never lived to see if that was true. But you, I can believe. Are you immortal, lord?'
'No,' I said. 'Yet in a way they were right ... if nothing slays us, weapon, nor grief, nor venom, we live as long as the world lasts.'
He pulled himself together and laughed. 'Well, then I don't have to feel greedy for demanding a small measure of your time, undying one.'
I began to admire the man, and I remembered the teachings of the Valar: that this was the race that would shape its own destiny beyond the Music of the Ainur.
And teach us he did, Finrod the Elflord, more than we ever knew there was to learn. He began by conveying his knowledge the way he had done that first night, conjuring up images with his singing and the music of my harp. But he mastered our language soon enough, and after that we often spoke with our tongues. I discovered he was more curious than any Elf I met before and wanted to learn as well as teach. He asked me a lot about ourselves: where and when had we risen, what had we seen, what would we remember, where there more like us where we came from? To my regret I was unable to answer all his questions, for while I was certain we woke up with the rising of the Sun, much of what happened to the fathers of our race has passed out of memory. And I'm afraid he clearly perceived the shadows lying on all our hearts. When I told him of the dangers we had encountered, of our many losses, and of the hardships of mortal life, I could see he pitied us. But he never spoke condescendingly. And he was delighted to hear about the others of our kin and the other tribes who hadn't yet crossed the mountains into Beleriand, as I knew it was called now.
He remained with us for a month, a season, half a year, and longer, apparently without being afraid his own people would miss him or become concerned about his prolonged absence. To their perception he probably hadn't been gone for long. It is hard to fathom what time really means to an Elf, who has so much more of it than we mortals do. And he didn't make it easier for me to find out, because he adapted quickly to the rhythm of our time-governed lives. That is, he adapted by day. For though he did rest at night, being deathless he did not sleep the oblivious sleep that is rightly called the brother of Death. Or if he ever did, I never caught him at it; his eyes were always open.
In the end I finally grew convinced he was not a divine Power, amusing himself with us lesser beings. If anything, he was more earthly than we were, more bound to this world, being fated to remain in it as long as it lasted, as he told us, even past the possible death of his body. His eyes were always delighted to observe the world aruond him, never sated by what they saw, even if they'd seen it a hundred times before. So they could grow wise with the innermost knowledge of things, and that's how I gave Finrod his name among us mortals: Nóm, wisdom.
'Wisdom?' he repeated when I called him by this name for the first time.
Seeing he was taken aback I asked if I he thought I misjudged him.
'Perhaps I ought to tell you a tale of folly,' he said by way of an answer. 'The tale of one who abandoned his beloved, and his fair city, to chase a phantom of revenge, an illusion of freedom, a fading dream of power. The tale of one who willingly took the yoke of a curse on his shoulders and led many of his people into exile and grief, to pass under the shadow of a death that otherwise would have touched neither him nor them. A tale that must be told, for though I have felt the darkness that lies on the heart of men, it is plain that you did not perceive the doom laid on me and my kin.' And he went on to tell me the story of the Elves called Noldor and their feud with the Enemy called Morgoth, and concluded: 'So as you see all we that left ever possessed was knowledge, not sagacity. Now tell me if you would call me wise still.'
'So you lost the light we are seeking,' I said softly. 'While we traveled westward to escape the shadow, you turned your back on the west and went widdershins in pursuit of an elusive light.'
He nodded wordlessly.
I sensed his confession had brought us closer, and at thatmoment I was the one who pitied him, for I clearly perceived his sorrow and guilt.
'I still call you wise,' I said after a silence. 'For I think your wisdom lies in what you are rather than in what you do - and in spite of what you say, my sight is too dim to see the evil in you. There's much more you will need to explain to me, but I'll keep calling you Nóm, and your people I'll call the Nómin, though I have met none of them yet. For you are wiser than we are, my lord, and greater as well, and I'm convinced that some day you will find your way back to the light you lost.'
Had he truly not found the wisdom and greatness hidden within his own soul yet? For I believe that mortals have the potential to attain both, even if there will ever be a dark side to them. As the Eldar account such things, they are but newly awakened; most of their powers lie dormant. And yet, though each mortal has but a short time to grow and learn and it may take more than one age of the world ere their race comes into its own, I trust that we will able to point them the way and guide their first steps.
That is why, at last, I let Balan and his people take me for their lord. He swore fealty to me, assuming the name Bëor, which in his tongue means 'vassal'. I consider myself his friend rather than his liege, but I can only hope that one day, he will return my friendship in full. Such things cannot be forced. Perhaps his children or their children will call me mellon yet. Or perhaps they will find reason to consider me and all my race proud and lordly instead of wise, rejecting us for what we are, not for anything we did. Perhaps they will claim all grief of loss, all pain of death for themselves alone. It could be that in the end they will not want our friendship if they can merely be our equals, instead of being identical with us.
That is hard to tell. I can only remain what I am, and if I am wise, I will remain a friend of Men.
* Sindarin for wanderer (as in Mithrandir). This guy is all over the place. We find him in Doriath, he travels around with Turgon, founds Nargothrond; visits Doriath again, builds a watchtower on Eithel Sirion (with a dungeon underneath...), visits the Dwarves in Nogrod, goes a-hunting with the sons of Fëanor in north-east Beleriand, gets bored and ends up in Ossiriand. And that's by no means the end of it. What's he running from?
** Hunting term for signalling the death of the prey, used in the Athrabeth Finrod ar Andreth
***his original name; the name Bëor, meaning 'vassal', was given to him when he entered into Finrod's service.
****As it is irrelevant to this story, I won't go into the intricacies of Valinorean time-reckoning as compared to that of Middle-earth.
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