Our Longest Darkness
Lord of the Rings
"You won't be leaving us before the feast, my young lord?"
Boromir, son of Denethor II, heir of the Steward of Gondor, likes to think that his reflexes are well-honed and his hearing acute, but he starts badly, dropping his fur cloak clumsily across his saddlebags and whirling around.
A handsome elderly Gondorian woman stands under the lintel of his guest room door, her hair the bright silver of sharp metal, and the tang of the sea in her eyes. For half a moment he thinks it is his own grandmother there in the doorway, come to scold him for missing supper at Father's table.
But though she is plainly a woman of Gondor, she is in fact the mother of the King of Rohan, and she is looking at him keenly.
"My lady Morwen," he manages to remember his manners. "I-- I had thought to return to Minas Tirith. For the Longest Night."
Even before she responds, he realizes how untenable his position is. The dowager might almost be smiling. "The men of Rohan mark the turning of the year at midwinter, just as in Gondor. You must join us at our table, and meet the King's son, newly appointed Second Marshal of the Mark. He is riding back from his long watch to welcome you." He cannot fathom the look in her eyes, that sheen of steel to match her name.
Of course, he thinks, too late, this is why Father sent him here, after all. The matter of trade and tariff is not near so important as maintaining the ties between their countries, the fealty of Cirion and Éorl.
In that case, Father may have just said so! And he may well have sent Faramir instead, with his better head for diplomacy and relations. At fourteen, he already was more than his elder brother's match in matters of rhetoric and state. Doubtless he would even know some Rohirric poetry and impress the horsemen all, with a turn at their own harp.
Boromir sets his shoulders. He is not much interested in courtly politics, but he knows well enough that to refuse such an invitation would be the worst sort of insult. Even if he would rather face a hundred armed foes rather than spend a night at another king's holiday banquet. Nothing for it but to make the best of things. "I thank thee, Lady," he says formally (and now he thinks she's definitely laughing at him, though her face has barely changed).
"It would be an honor for such a fine guest to wear the holly crown at our table, my Lord Boromir." She spares a glance for his untidy saddlebags, his unlaced boots. "Well it is, that you have several days to prepare."
He swears he sees her wink as she takes her leave.
Boromir thought the Golden Hall of Meduseld was a rather dingy place. Few colors, fewer windows, little dignity and dim even at midday. Discussing treatises with Théoden King was made more than dull, surrounded by heavy tapestries and artless heavy flagstone architecture.
Until the feast, that is.
Making his way into that same Hall, now, this festival night, his head is reeling. Everything is golden.
Fragrant greenery swings from the doorways and the mantels and the eaves. Torches and tallow candles dance with light, the Yule log crackles in the holy hearth, and the great Hall of Meduseld seems made of pure and beaten gold.
So this is the Longest Night in Rohan, he thinks. It shines as brightly as a Midsummer's Day in Gondor.
A bonny lass with her straw-colored hair in a fancy twist hands him a goblet of mead from her tray, and she must have had a cup or two of her own, as she blows him a kiss as she walks by.
Perhaps he has underestimated Edoras, after all.
He realizes he has not eaten since midday when the first pull of mead goes directly to his head. It is not like Gondorian ale, nor even fortified wine, it is golden with the tastes of honey and hay and hearth. Boromir tries to school his expression. Wouldn't Faramir laugh to see him so, a man of eighteen undone by a single cup?
Mostly he keeps his head, formally introduced to the rest of the royal family not at the trade negotiations-- Morwen Steelsheen, King's mother, who seems to know what he thinks before he says it; Théodwyn, King's sister, with a tiny somber-eyed girl-child on her knee; Éomund, King's brother-by-law, with a ready smile and a sharp wit. There is another child, nephew to the king, but apparently he is weaving holly wreaths with the rest of the boys.
Just remembering his promise to wear such a crown, he starts to speak, but the Lady Morwen is already at his elbow. He cannot tell if she is solemn or merry, adorning him with the honored diadem of the King of Frost, and now he has no idea what to say.
He's spared the trouble, by the sudden thunderous pounding at the door, and the great cheer that goes up -- the son of the King has returned.
Théoden King raises a horn to toast his son's arrival, but Boromir cannot make out the prince's face, fickle torchlight shadows flickering over the crowd. Beyond the arriving party, Boromir can see snow on the vast fields, their horses' breath coming in great plumes in the bitter air. Outside, bare trees push their bone-pale branches against the unforgiving winter sky--
But then the great doors are closed, the horses led to well-earned warm stables, and musicians strike up the fiddle and the harp (Faramir would adore this, he thinks), the fife and the hideskin drum.
Snowlight fades before warm firelight, and the prince of Rohan is standing before him-- much like his hall, made of light, blond hair and pale eyes, winter flush on his cheeks-- and looking much as Boromir himself had felt, flat-footed and not expecting an invitation to this grand feast. For a moment they stand opposite one another, as if in a dance that has not yet begun.
Belatedly, Boromir wonders if he looks a fool, green crown askew, too much mead in his eyes. Uncomfortable with this sort of ceremonial nonsense at the best of times, Boromir is unprepared for the swift smile that moves across the newcomer's face, like sunrise soft and clear along a mountain ridge, bright as mead in a king's golden cup.
"Prince of Gondor, you honor our house." His voice is only formal for a instant; at the next he stands at Boromir's shoulder as though they were brothers raised and battle-trained together. "I am Théodred, but I'm sure you knew that already. I know I could use a drink, and I do hope you'll join me, til írs ok friðar-- sorry, that's traditional-- you would say, 'for a good year and peace'."
He doesn't know the words of Rohan, but at least he's had a Longest Night feast for seventeen years of his own, and knows the proper response that Father would have him say.
"In all the year, this will be our longest darkness. We shall keep our light shining, knowing that the year will turn." He lifts his goblet high, and thinks he has never felt so welcome, even at his family's own table.
At midnight Elfhelm decides it best to tell ghost stories, there in the depth of the Longest Night, and the young men of the Prince's muster are eager to show their mettle by listening, shoulder to shoulder, attentive.
"Twelve score years ago, the Long Winter stalked the land-- the bitter cold without and the hunger sharp within. The Winter brought wolves, and worse-- Wulf himself, Wulf son of Freca, Wulf the Dunlending with a kingship in his sights and the blood of Helm's elder son, Hama, on his grasping hands.
"The Usurper slew Hama at the very gates of Meduseld, even as the Winter itself stole Helm and Haleth on the Eve of Yuletide. Hammerhand himself was never found, as the Winter lingered longer than any before. But even after Wulf and wolves had gone, the usurper slain by Helm's sister-son Fréaláf, they did find Haleth King's son on the outskirts of the Hornburg-- frozen through."
The only two who do not shudder are Boromir and Théodred, the former scowling and the latter thoughtful.
"That is no way for a prince to die," says Boromir. "No blade or bloodshed, no honor?"
Théodred tilts his head, and startles them all with his smile. "You would be ashamed to die in an attempt to protect your family and your home?"
To Boromir's humbled silence, he adds lightly, "I'm sure both deaths are plenty painful enough."
Boromir stammers, "That is not what I meant, you know--"
"What I want to know," Théodred says, as though Boromir were silent, "is what happens to Hréodwyn. They forget that Helm had a daughter, who no more wished to marry Wulf than her father wished it for her. What ever became of her?"
"...I've seen her." Elfhelm's voice is quiet, but there is no question of his sincerity. His eyes are as sapphire flecked with flame, and he will not meet his prince's gaze. "On the Longest Night, grieving her brothers and her father lost."
The ghosts of many lifetimes haunt his face, as Théodred watches his family -- his young cousin swinging a wooden sword in earnest play, attempting to keep it from his little sister, her hair in golden plaits and her tiny hands eager.
"I like to think," Boromir finds himself saying, though before tonight he did not know any of these stories, these revered and still-grieved ancestors, "that her cousin Fréaláf secured her place in the Golden Hall after slaying her captor."
Théodred shakes himself, resting a hand on Boromir's shoulder in silent thanks. Beyond them, by the fireside, Théodred's father and grandmother are handing goblets across the fire in ancient blessing, emptying one for the King and his fathers, one for the land and its harvest, and one for those fallen.
It is time then for the Yuletide porridge, warm and hearty in earthen bowls, to be passed from hand to hand, to every man, woman, child, no one greater or lesser than a King. Three bowls are left on the doorstep, still hot, as per tradition: one each for Helm, Hama, and Haleth.
Théodred adds his own bowl to the offering, his eyes as bright as a falling star, as sharp as a spearpoint. "For Hréodwyn," he says.
Boromir does not think twice to share his own bowl, then, heedless of custom or expectation. Perhaps his brother or his father would be surprised, as, unhesitating, the Prince of Gondor and Prince of Rohan sit side by side before the ancient hearth on the Longest Night.
"Shall I show you how we dance in Edoras?"
"It cannot be any more difficult than dancing in Minas Tirith, surely."
Théodred's grin is challenge and promise, both. And when has Boromir ever turned down a challenge?
It is not anything like a dance in Gondor, as it turns out, and Boromir is hard pressed to keep pace. A dance in his father's house would be measured, precise, partners moving in and out of one another's careful orbits like dazzling stars. Here in the Golden Hall the dance is faster, altogether closer, and if he and his dancing partners are stars, they are smoldering as their orbits come precariously close. But, keep pace he does.
Another lass tosses him a teasing smile over her shoulder as she springs out of his reach, fine as an untamed filly. It makes Boromir laugh. Surely feasts in his father's house had never felt this way, or he should have sought them out, rather than avoiding them.
He finds himself back to back again with Théodred, who is nearly winded as he is.
"And how do you like the hospitality of my father's house, Gondorian?" The sound of that voice is more warming than the promises of fire at the end of a long and snowy journey, and Boromir's breath catches in his throat, his heart beating to the cadence of a galloping éeored.
"I find I like it very much indeed, horse-rider."
The musicians play on, there at the turning of the year, the fiddle and the tabour and the harp, cold and sweet and perfect. The longest night spills into morning, and the snow rolls over the peaks of the Ered Nimrais as it ever has, as it ever will.