“Year still after year flows
down the Seven Rivers;
cloud passes, sunlight glows,
reed and willow quivers
at morn and eve, but never more
westward ships have waded
in mortal waters as before,
and their song has faded.”
Singing, Silmarien knocked upon Ceveniel’s door. “Ceveniel! Nana sent something for you!” There was no answer. Silmarien blinked. “Ceveniel!” she called again. “Ceveniel! Are you there?” Still nothing. Worried that the old woman might have taken ill, Silmarien pushed the door open.
Ceveniel was sitting by the empty fireplace, her shawl wrapped around her shoulders to ward off the cold of the winter’s morning. As Silmarien entered, Ceveniel looked up and greeted her with a light-hearted smile that Silmarien was surprised at, coming from an old woman more than four score years of age. “There you are, lass,” she said. “Do help light a fire, please. These old joints of mine won’t work properly.”
Obediently, Silmarien dragged some wood from the woodpile in the corner of the room, and kindled a fire. Soon, flames were crackling merrily in the fireplace, and the room was much warmer. Ceveniel leaned back in her chair with a contented sigh. “Ah, that’s better.” Silmarien sat by the old woman’s chair, and Ceveniel laid her wrinkled old hand upon her head.
They sat for a while in silence, until at last Silmarien said, “You promised to tell me a story, Ceveniel.”
“Ah, yes.” Ceveniel smiled down at the little girl looking at her with hopeful eyes. “What do you want to hear today, Silmarien?”
“Elves,” Silmarien said decisively. “Tell me a story about Elves.”
“Elves, hm? Let’s see… Do you know what the song that you were singing was called?”
Silmarien considered for a while, and answered, “The Last Ship, I think.”
“That’s my clever girl. Now, can you remember who it told about?”
This was easier. “Fíriel,” answered Silmarien without any hesitation.
Ceveniel smiled, closing her eyes as if in rememberance of some long-past time. “That’s right. Now, I’ll tell you a story about when I was young– ten and five years old, in fact. Now, listen well, young one…”
The sky to the east was broadening with the first red light of day, and Ceveniel looked out of the window of toward the brook. The city of Dol Amroth was silent.
Better hurry, she thought to herself. Annael will be coming over soon with the laundry, and Mother will want something to eat. Picking up a bucket, she made her way towards the brook.
A few birds trilled as she went by, breaking the silence. Ceveniel took deep breaths of the cold air, and relished the feel of the dewy grass beneath her bare feet. Almost she could fancy that she was some princess of old, with sparkling diamonds upon the hem of her dress and a crown about her head. She laughed at those fancies, as she laughed at herself for thinking them. Yet there were still times when she would dream of magic and wonders, and she still believed that they existed.
Seized by a sudden lightness of heart, she laughed and spun around, causing the bucket to clunk against a tree. Startled, sparrows dashed into the air, and a vivid blue blur that was a kingfisher darted into the reedy brook. Ceveniel leaned against the tree, entranced by the bright beauty of the moment.
Suddenly, there came to her ears a sound as thin and clear as a thread of crystal, and as musical as the voice of a lark. Gazing northward, she soon saw the faint outline of a ship, blurred by the mists of morning. Then a strong wind arose, blowing against Ceveniel’s face and wafting away the mists, and she drew a breath in wonder.
The ship was made of white wood, wrought in the delicate and graceful likeness of a swan, proud and upright. But it was the people on the ship that entranced her, as they wrung their harps and sang in their strong, clear voices, accompanied by the quavering melody of flutes and the tinkling of silver bells.
They were clad in silver-grey, and plied their slender paddles with ease as the wind that lifted their hair wafted their ship forward. One there stood by the prow, and his golden hair, encircled with a golden band wrought in the shape of flowers, was kindled into flame by the morning sun. It was almost as if he himself was a light, for his white garments gleamed, and from his face shone a radiance that awed her; and she knew that they were Elves.
Another stood beside him, and his hair was bright silver almost as some aged man, but in his face youth lingered, mingled with the strength of years. Upon his head he wore a circlet of silver leaves, and in his hand he held a harp, his fingers dancing upon its strings. As the ship came nearer, she could hear the words of the song the Elves were singing.
“Green is the land, the leaves are long,
and the birds are singing.
Many a day with dawn of gold
this earth will lighten,
many a flower will yet unfold,
ere the cornfields whiten.”
The ship was a bare score of paces away from her, and curiousity won over awe. Ceveniel called to them, “Where do you go, fair boatmen? Do you go to the great forests, or the northern isles?”
The Elves ceased their singing, and looked at her, and she could see the same curiosity in their eyes. “Neither,” answered the gold-haired Elf. “We go upon the last road, leaving the Grey Havens. We will dare the seas of shadow, to sail back to Elvenhome, where the White Tree grows, and the stars shine upon the foam that flows on the Last Shore. In the Mindon Eldaliéva the clear bells are ringing, while all things fade here. We hear the call of the West.”
The Elves had stopped rowing, and the ship glided slowly now, driven by the wind alone. “Do you hear the call also, Earth-maiden?” asked the silver-haired Elf with the harp. “Our ship may bear one more. Come with us, for your days are rushing by. Come, Earth-maiden, Elven-fair. Heed our last call. Sail with us into the west!”
Ceveniel could not believe what she was being offered, a passage to the magical realms of glory. It was what she had always desired, what she had dreamed of. Already the Elf’s words had conjured bright visions before her eyes. All she had to do was to climb into the ship. She stepped forward, her eyes never leaving the elf’s. As she waded into the cold water, her feet sank into the mud of the riverbank, and she glanced down.
It was as if she woke from a dream. Looking back, she saw the sun tinge the white walls of Dol Amroth with faint gold. Somewhere, a cock crowed, and she could hear the bustle of the city as it woke for another day. Some undefinable emotion stirred in her, as she looked upon the city that she had seen every day of her life, and around her, to the green plains of Lebennin that she called home.
The Elven-ship was gliding past, rustling in the rushes as it went by. The Elves were silent. Ceveniel thought of the day-to-day chores, of the little joys and sorrows, of busily working a day by the river and coming home to a warm and homely house at night, and of the feeling of home that she knew could never be found in an Elven palace, however grand. She would rather be Ceveniel, as she had always been, not some alms-guest, however honoured, of an Elven-king; she knew that she would rather stay among her people, though her kin were less fair and noble than the Elves.
Resolutely, she turned to the golden-haired Elf. “I cannot come,” she called. “I was born Earth’s Daughter!” In that moment, her choice was sealed, and the renounciation of glory. The golden-haired elf nodded sadly and turned away, and the Elves took up their paddles once more, and Ceveniel watched the Elven-ship as it glided away from her. An Elf with wild grey hair, adorned only by a simple silver band, sat at the rearmost, plying the tiller. He smiled at her as they sailed by, and glanced at her with his piercing gaze, speaking quiet words that remained etched still in her memory.
“You chose well… Fíriel.”
Silmarien listened with wide eyes, and gazed up at Ceveniel in awe. “You!” she breathed. “You were Fíriel! The one the harpers sing of!”
Ceveniel smiled again, stroking her snow-white braid. “Aye, girl, I was,” she said. “And I never regretted the choice I made. I have had a long life, and a fruitful one. But that morning will still remain etched in my memory until the day I die. The glory, Silmarien, and the beauty…” her voice trailed off.
They sat in silence for a while, until Silmarien asked, “Will I see them someday, Ceveniel?”
“Well, I don’t know, Silmarien. They say the Elves have all left. But maybe one day you will see one. And you will know…”
“Know what, Ceveniel?”
But the old woman had already dozed off, her wrinkled face peaceful in the winter sunlight streaming through the window, with her lips still curved in a remembering smile.
This story was inspired by the wonderful poem The Last Ship, found in The Adventures of Tom Bombadil. I believe the full text can be found on the Internet.
Ceveniel means “earth-daughter”. It was the name I gave to the character Fíriel, because I thought it unlikely that Fíriel would have been born with that name. After all, it is highly symbolic (meaning “mortal maiden” or “she who died”, and I thought it more probable that the Elves might have just called her that. Earth-daughter, on the other hand, justifies the use of “I was born Earth’s Daughter!” by Fíriel. I doubt that she could have thought of something so poetic on short notice.
The three Elves with crowns are respectively Glorfindel, Celeborn, and Círdan. I originally thought of giving Celeborn the last line, but having a Quenya name come from one of the Sindar would be incongruous, considering that Thingol banned Quenya from Doriath, where Celeborn lived in the First Age. So then I thought about Glorfindel. But he was needed to describe Eldamar– who else had seen it? So that left Círdan. It it not too improbable that he might use Quenya on occasion.
Silmarien is entirely my creation, being the litle girl who keeps pestering Fíriel/Ceveniel for stories of Elves.
All verse is by Tolkien. I cold never write something like that. That’s all, I think.