Songs for Gilrain - A Tolkien-realm Fairy Tale
|Summary:||A fisherman who wants to play music at the court of a King gets his wish.|
|Timeline:||After the War of the Ring|
|Author's notes:||This story is based on two fairy tales, one Russian and the other Japanese, about the fate of fishermen at the hands of the Sea King.|
Long ago in the river city called Linhir, a harbor town in southern Gondor at the fords of the river Gilrain, which flowed to the sea from the Misty Mountains, there lived a young fisherman named Asad. He worked hard at his craft and always caught enough fish to support his widowed mother and little sister.
His father was slain during the Great War with Mordor after he had bravely followed after the Ranger Aragorn, along with many other men from Linhir. They were terrified by the large ghost army, but they boarded the ships and traveled up the river Anduin and into battle.
Asad, with his mother and then baby sister, were all invited to the White City as honored guests to witness the royal coronation. They were taken aside and introduced to the new King of Gondor, and his half-elven Queen Arwen, an event that the fisherman would never forget, although he was only a very young boy.
After he had formally expressed his sorrow to Asad's mother for the loss of her husband, Aragorn spoke directly to him. "Hear me, you should be very proud of your father, lad." In the new King's hands was a familiar item, his father's beloved lute. It had been battered in its travels but when Asad reached out and strummed the strings, its sound was still true.
"Your father fought bravely that day on the Pelennor," said the kind monarch, "But more important than that, your father played for me as we sailed up the Anduin in the ships of the corsairs. Indeed, his music not only cheered me and my living companions, but it also calmed the walking dead among us, which was a great help. He told me that if he did not survive the war, his greatest hope was for his son to enjoy making others feel moved by the beauty of music."
And so, happily, Asad had learned to play the lute, but he only played merry tunes in memory of how his father had cheered the King and his men, or peaceful ones like those he imagined would have soothed an army of ghosts. He composed his own songs and soon began to attract attention from his neighbors and other townsfolk, who would ask him to play for them.
By the time he was a young man, at the end of each busy work week of fishing, a rich merchant or noble would send a messenger to Asad's door, calling him to come play at a feast. No matter how tired he felt, he would grab his father's old lute and rush to the banquet hall. There he would pluck the strings of the instrument till all the guests were dancing.
"Eat your fill!" the host would tell him later, pointing him to the table, and passing him a few small coins besides. And from such leftovers from the grand meals that he was given, Asad would save a large portion to share later with his family. Before going home he would seek out and treat his fishermen friends to drinks at the local pub with some of the money he had been paid. The rest would be put away for the winter season, when fishing was not as profitable.
Often his friends would ask him, "How can you work so hard and survive on so little? With your voice and lute, you should be playing for the new King of Gondor in his White City."
"It's not so bad here, for me, life is not so hard," Asad would reply. "And anyway, how many men can go to a different feast at the end of each week of hard labor, play the music they love, and watch it set a whole room dancing?"
Asad was proud of the city he lived in, Linhir. The people here thought of their location overall as the most favorable, with the richest farmland, the most beautiful river, and the most free from the effects of the terrible wars in Middle earth.
He would walk through the busy Market Square, lined with merchants in their stalls and teeming with traders from many lands who traveled here by sea or river or over land upon the South Road. He never crossed the square without hearing tongues of far-off places, from Ithilien and Rohan, or the strange Southron accents of the freed Haradhrim slaves. People felt able to travel safely to all parts of Gondor, now that there was a King again, and Linhir benefited from the increased traffic.
Eventually, the river emptied out into the sea. On the opposite shore was the marshy fiefdom called Lebennin, lying between the river Gilrain in the west and the delta Ethir Anduin, where the largest ships traveled, on the east.
Through the massive fortified piers that stood guard in the delta of the Anduin, although he could not see that far, Asad knew that enormous sailing ships with their cargos of lumber, grain, hides, pottery, spices, and precious metals from all over the world were sailing upriver to the new kingdom of Aragorn's.
For years, the ongoing repair and reconstruction to the inland cities of Minas Tirith and Osgiliath, after the damage they had endured during the long sieges and great battles against Mordor, had crowded the sea with cargo ships. After the corsairs had been routed by the Ghost Army, the port city had quickly recovered, was in full operation within days, and the traumatized population were too busy and prosperous ever afterward to even remember that terrible time.
Yet sometimes, as he grew into a man, Asad felt lonely, despite his merry songs and the love of his city and its surroundings. The maidens who danced gaily to his music at the feasts would often smile at him, but their fathers were noblemen, or were rich, and he was poor, and not one of them would think of being his. His mother and sister never complained about their humble lives, but he felt guiltier and guiltier as the years went by that he could not afford to do better for them.
After a particularly well-received performance at a feast, when the tables had cleared and the last happily humming guest departed, Asad shyly approached the host, a jolly man, and a local fish merchant, and asked for a letter of endorsement.
"I intend to seek employment at the court of King Aragorn, as a musician."
"To be sure, you play a happy lute," the agreeable merchant said, with a nod and a wink. "There is never a sour temper in the crowd when you take the stage, Asad, and that is a fact." He paused for a moment and his broad grin melted into a more sober, although no less warm, smile. "But lad, you have to play more than merry dance tunes to play in King Aragorn's court. The best elf and dwarf musicians in the world have flocked there over the years just for the honor of being heard by his majesty and the queen."
"That is so," agreed Asad, for he had thought of that and had an answer. "The music that the elves and dwarves play is always about days long past. My music is about today and tomorrow, surely I would at least be a novelty in Minas Tirith."
"Aye, lad, you have a point. I would only give one more word of advice to you. Your music is filled with spirit, now you need to give it heart."
Asad took this advice seriously, and was in an immediate state of confusion. How could he sing from his heart when he had never known the love of a woman? And how would he ever know the love of a good woman if he did not first earn enough money to be worthy?
That same evening, feeling very lonely, Asad avoided his friends and walked sadly beyond the city walls and down along the river Gilrain. He came to his favorite spot on the bank, where the narrow waters slowed and spread out into a wide pool. There was a legend about an Elven maid of yesteryear who tarried here too long, to admire the reflection of the stars upon the water, and missed the ship that was to carry her away.
After finding a suitable place to sit, Asad placed his lute on his lap. Gentle waves brushed the shore, and moonlight shimmered on the water. How could he ever think of leaving? How could he stay?
"My lovely river Gilrain," he said with a sigh. "Rich man, poor man -- it's all the same to you. If only you were a woman! I'd marry you and live with you here beside the city I love."
Asad plucked a peaceful tune to ease his troubled soul and then a merry song seemed to take a hold of his fingers, as if they had no will of their own and must obey. The tinkling notes of his lute floated over the Gilrain.
All at once the river grew rough, and strong waves began to slap the bank. "Heaven help me!" cried Asad as a large shape rose from the water. Before him stood a tall glowing figure, a man with a pearl-encrusted crown atop a flowing mane of silver hair and wearing robes of rich silks and satins. Surely this was a King, but from what kingdom he came from was impossible to tell.
"Musician," said the monarch, "To this river I have come often for many long years to search for one that is lost. My dreams are often troubled by the echo of her voice, but I can not find her. Your sweet music has reached my lonely spirit, and it has pleased me greatly."
"Thank you, Your Majesty," stammered Asad in wonder and awe. Despite the fact that the Kingly creature had risen up right out of the water, he was not dripping wet and silvery strands of his hair floated in the breeze. It almost seemed that the tall noble figure was transparent in the moonlight and Asad was sure that he could see the waving reeds on the opposite shore through the robed body
"Soon I will return to my own palace," said the King, and he gestured out toward the sea. "I wish you to play there at a feast, in my court. You must come as soon as you are able."
"Gladly," said Asad, all of his fear from the startling appearance of the extraordinary monarch were instantly calmed by the unexpected invitation. "But where is it? And how do I get there?"
"Why, on my island, of course! I'm sure you'll find your way. But meanwhile, you need not wait for your reward."
Something large jumped from the river and flopped at Asad's feet. A fish with brilliant scales! As Asad watched in amazement, it stiffened and turned to solid mithril that shone in the moonlight as if lit from within.
"Your Majesty, you are too generous!"
"Say no more about it!" said the King. "Your merry music is worth far more than treasure. If this cruel world was fair, you'd have your fill of riches!" And with a splash, he sank in the river and was gone. If Asad did not have the mithril fish in his hands, he would have been tempted to believe the strange visitation was a dream.
He ran home, excited and thrilled at the prospect of playing music in the court of a real King. So much for the advice he had received from the merchant about putting more heart into his songs, this proved he was an able entertainment for royal audiences after all. His father would have been pleased to know it.
The next morning, Asad arrived at the Market Square just as the stalls were opening. He quickly sold the mithril fish to an astonished merchant for a sack full of silver and gold coins. Next, he went to the stall where he knew the finest lutes were sold, hanging from hooks or set up to lean against each other, and was in a quandary at the overwhelming number on display.
The lutes for sale were all so much newer than his father's old battered instrument that any of them he purchased would at least look nicer, but how was he to choose the sweetest sounding one when he did not have time to try them all? And if he was going to play for a King, he wanted only the very best lute in his hands.
The lute-seller, a gnarled old man with a perpetual grin, seemed to sense Asad's problem, and possibly heard the clink of coins in the mysterious sack. In either case, he generously offered his services as an expert in deciding which instrument to buy.
"I have to play a command performance for a King!" Asad said anxiously as he grew even dizzier at the wide assortment of lutes before him. "I can afford to pay any price but I am in a hurry and do not have time to test them all."
"Ah," said the lute-seller. "Then I have the instrument for you. Long have I waited for just the right buyer and I think that you might be he. Not many can afford such a marvelous piece." As he spoke, the grinning man drew a long box from beneath his booth, opened the lid, and revealed a lute the likes of which Asad had never seen before.
After asking permission, Asad cautiously lifted the lute from its box and admired its shape. The fat, wide body appeared to have been carved from a single piece of ebony wood and the polished satiny finish glowed in the morning sunlight. The soundboard was clad in mother of pearl, shimmering and luminous, its neck was gracefully bent and shaped exactly like a swan's, and when Asad lightly plucked at the strings, their tone was strangely fascinating and pure.
"This was made by the dwarves who traveled into Hollin from Moria long ago, for the son of a wealthy man, but, sadly, it was never delivered." The lute-seller would say no more about the origins of the instrument, or how he came to possess it, except that the strings were reportedly made of real elf hair.
With his new lute slung over his shoulder, Asad purchased some nicer clothes, had his proud mother stash the remaining coins safely away, and said farewell to her and his sister. Then hurrying to the piers, he hired a sturdy sailboat, much safer out in the sea than his own small fishing craft, and set off to play for the mysterious King.
Down the Gilrain the ship sailed and then out into the sea where flocks of gulls wheeled and screeched over his head. As the boat sped above the deep water, Asad peered anxiously over the rail in all directions.
"In all this wide water," he murmured, "how can I ever find this island?"
Just then, the ship shuddered to a halt. The wind still filled the sails, yet the ship stood still, as if a giant hand had grasped it. The gulls disappeared. For hours, and hours, until the sun sank overhead, the ship remained fixed in place, and nothing Asad could do to the sails, or with the rudder, would make it budge an inch in any direction.
At first, Asad cursed out loud at himself in real fear for his life. Had he been led out to this awful watery death by his imagination or by a demonic vision? Eventually, he calmed down and began to play to himself on his new lute while night fell. As never before, the sound of the music brought him a sense of hope and courage. He forgot all of his fears and worries, and began to play even louder.
Suddenly, the boat began to move again but he could do nothing to steer it, which was just as well because there were no stars above to guide him. He thought maybe it was the music that was propelling the boat forward, but perhaps that was a dream, for Asad's head began to droop and his eyes were getting heavy. He curled into a ball around the wonderful lute and slept.
"Wake up, land dweller." A tiny voice spoke near to Asad's ear, but when he opened his eyes he saw nothing beside him except for a tiny pink crab, which was waving its larger claw back and forth as if in greeting. He awoke lying on the wide white beach of a strange shore during a brightly lit day, although he could not see the sun. The smooth sand beneath him was soft, fragrant, and glittering. His boat was nowhere in sight, but his new lute lay on top of his chest.
For a moment, a foolish notion crossed Asad's mind that the tiny creature beside him, with its funny wagging claw, was the speaker who had awoken him, but he laughed at himself for thinking it.
"Crabs do not talk," he said aloud to his little hard-shelled companion, and then he gasped in surprise and sat up straight when the crab answered him.
"Maybe in your lands, the animals are mute, but you are no longer dwelling in your lands," it said. "And you are in danger for as long as you are a visitor here. You are not fully wise to the laws of this enchanted place."
"Laws?" Asad had shaken his head as hard as he could, and wiped at his eyes several times, but the crab still sat there, waving his claw, and speaking. "I am always obedient to the laws."
"The laws of this place are not like the laws of the land dwellers," it said. "You had better put me in your pocket and I will guide you." After saying this, the crab scuttled sideways until it was near to Asad's knee and waved its larger claw again. "You may call me Gamp."
"I do not have a pocket," Asad explained, while patting his new shirt.
"Then I will cling to the inside of your collar with my claws," answered Gamp, and without further discussion, the tiny crab climbed up to Asad's chest and slipped under the fabric at his neck, which tickled. "As long as you wiggle like that," said the crab, as it searched beneath the garment to find a suitable hiding spot, "I will not be able to hold still."
Both musician and crab had found a comfortable arrangement when a shadow fell over them. Asad glanced up and was startled to see two tall beings standing suddenly on either side of him. The sky behind them was bright but not exactly blue and the air around them seemed to glow.
"They are elves sent to escort you to the King's palace," whispered Gamp. "Greet them politely. Stand up first!"
Elves? Asad had never been this close to elves before and their fair faces and noble bearing impressed him greatly. They directed him to remove his shoes and follow them. At the prompting of his unseen guide, he meekly obeyed.
Most of the Fair Folk had left Middle-earth after the Dark Lord's defeat and rarely did any ever travel through Linhir. Their ships sailed from farther north, at their own harbor in the Grey Havens, or so he had been taught.
This island-dwelling King who had invited him must be an Elfking, or some such, Asad decided, and he was filled with a feeling of apprehensive wonder at his surroundings. He was in a true Elven realm, of such places he had only heard tales, and therefore it should not be surprising that everything about him had such an uncanny feel and flavor.
Asad felt disoriented as he walked behind the elves, as if the sand beneath his feet was alive, moving, and trying to dislodge him, and he felt compelled to dig his toes into it in order to keep from somehow flying off. He followed close behind his escort and could not see around or over them. There seemed to be no end to the white beach. The eerie sensation grew stronger when he looked down and noticed that his silent escorts left no footprints behind them.
When the elves parted in front of him, and he could finally see where they were leading him, he was astonished to see hundreds of maidens, dressed in every shade of blue, who stood in lines on either side of enormous gate made of bright red coral, which was standing open to reveal a sparkling white stone palace.
The maidens' water colored eyes were kind, their smiles were warm and inviting, almost bewitchingly so.
"Who are they?" Asad whispered to his hidden guide.
"They are the lesser river maidens of Middle-earth; each of them represents a minor river or stream in your land that flows into the sea, which surrounds this hidden place."
Asad shyly passed by the maidens who beckoned him to enter through the coral gate. As he reached the huge palace doors, they swung open to reveal a giant hall. The elegant room was filled with guests and royal attendants, the river maidens followed behind him. From somewhere unseen, harp music softly filled the air, and everyone seemed quite sedate, although not somber.
Standing among the guests were dozens of even more beautiful maidens dressed in shimmering gowns that seemed fashioned from liquid silver. Gamp explained that these were the greater river's maids. On a shell throne at the end of the hall sat the King.
"You're just in time!" called the monarch. "Musician, come and sit by me—and let the dance begin!"
After sitting at the foot of the massive throne, Asad lifted the lute from his lap and plucked a merry tune. At first, the crowd just listened politely, although a few were swaying slightly or tapping a foot. The King frowned and gestured toward the crowd to move onto the polished dance floor in front of him.
Soon all the elves danced and cavorted in graceful, weaving patterns across the hall. The river maidens, both greater and lesser, leaped up and spun, their skirts made waving circles around them. Inspired, Asad's nervousness fled, and he remembered the song he had played the night the King had risen from the river, which he played at that moment.
"I like that tune!" declared the King. With a shout of joy, he jumped to the center of the hall and joined the dance. His arms waved, his robe swirled, his hair streamed, his feet stamped. He threw his head back and laughed.
Everyone in the great hall seemed to draw in their breaths at the same time, while startled looks flashed over their collective faces, and then they all burst into laughter and clapped as if it was a great treat to see their monarch in such a jolly mood. The King laughed at himself even harder than they did.
"Faster!" cried the mirthful monarch. "Play faster!"
Asad played faster and the King's dance grew wilder. All the others had stopped dancing and watched in awe. Ever more madly did he move, whirling faster, leaping higher, stamping harder and laughing.
From inside of his collar, Gamp whispered urgently, "Musician, end your tune! It seems to you the King merely dances in his hall. But all around us, the sea is tossing ships like toys, and giant waves are breaking on the shore!"
Alarmed, Asad pulled a string until it snapped. "Your Majesty, my lute is broken."
"A shame," said the King, winding to a stop. "I could have danced for days. But a fine fellow you are, Asad. I think I'll marry you to one of the river maidens and keep you here forever."
"Be careful how you answer!" Gamp warned.
"Your Majesty," said Asad carefully, "upon this island in the sea, your word is law. But this is not my home. I yearn to be a musician in the court of Minas Tirith and take care of my mother and sister."
"Say no more about it!" roared the King. "Prepare to choose your bride. River maidens, come forth!"
The beautiful maidens slowly passed in parade before Asad. Each was lovelier than the one before. But the poor fisherman's heart was heavy, and he barely looked at them.
"What's wrong, musician?" the King said merrily. "Too hard to choose? Then I'll wed you to the one who fancies you. Behold your wife, Gilrain!"
The most graceful maiden stepped forward. Her eyes were sparkling, and a soft smile graced her lips. "Dearest Asad, at last we can be together. For years I have thrilled to the music you've played on the shore."
"Gilrain!" said Asad in wonder. "You're as lovely as your namesake river! Have all of my dreams come true at last?"
From his collar, Gamp said softly, "You are a good man, Asad, so I will tell you the truth. If you but once kiss or embrace her, you can never return to your city again."
That night, Asad lay beside his bride on a bed of seaweed. She's so lovely, thought Asad, so charming—all I ever hoped for. How can I not hold her?
But time after time, the crab's words came back to him—never return to your city again— and his arms lay frozen at his sides when he would recall his mother and sister, and his friends, and the grief they would feel if they thought he was dead. He realized he could never leave Linhir and be happy, even to play in the court of the White City, and he wished that he had never had such a desire.
"Dearest Asad," said Gilrain, "why do you not embrace me?"
"It is the custom of my people," Asad stammered. "We never kiss or embrace on the first night."
"Then I fear you never will," she said sadly, and turned away. Her shoulders shook with her sobs. He wanted more than anything he had ever wanted in his life to touch her, to tell her that he was sorry, but he remembered Gamp's words, and resisted.
Finally, Asad slipped from the bed and fetched his lute. While playing his favorite peaceful song, Gilrain stopped weeping and that made him feel better. Finally, he leaned his head back against the wall beside his wedding bed and slept.
When Asad awoke the next morning, he felt sunlight on his face. He opened his eyes and saw beside him not the maiden Gilrain, but the river. And behind him was the stone wall that encircled his mother's hut.
"My home," said Asad, and he wept—perhaps for joy at his return, perhaps for sadness at his loss, perhaps for both. He knew that he would never play the enchanted lute again and he tossed it into the river.
The years that followed were good to Asad. With the money that remained to him, he bought a large fishing boat and a crew to fill it. And so he became a merchant, and in time, the richest man in Linhir. What's more, his sister married a fine man and raised a family. Many a feast Asad would hold in order that he could play his father's old battered lute and watch his nieces and nephews dance, but he never again performed for hire.
Yet sometimes still on a quiet evening he would walk out of the city alone, sit on the bank, and send his tinkling music over the water. And sometimes too a lovely head would rise from the river to listen—or perhaps it was only moonlight on the Gilrain.
Posted: April 18, 2006
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"Long live Thranduil, great Elf-king of Greenwood!"