Year 815 of the Second Age, Midwinter's Eve
Makanárë glanced out of the window of her smithy, gaze lingering on the holly tree growing by the window, its evergreen boughs laden with sparkling snow, and bright red berries peering out from between the glossy leaves. Outside, the sounds of excited chatter floated through the street. It was afternoon, on the eve of the winter solstice, and evidently all of Ost-in-Edhil was preparing for a great feast in the evening. She had heard enough excited chatter from her colleagues in the Gwaith-i-Mírdain that it was a custom begun here by none other than Lord Celebrimbor himself. She had attended a few of these feasts in years before, urged by the constant prodding of her fellow smiths, but had come to enjoy them less and less once the novelty had passed. Tonight she would remain in her smithy and bury herself in work, she resolved. Anything was better than feigning merriment while the festivities of the season brought back memories more bitter than sweet.
She bowed her head for a brief moment, recalling the winter revels in the fortress of Celegorm and Curufin upon the Pass of Aglon. Elsewhere among the Noldor it had been a custom to celebrate the winter solstice with bonfires and feasting, but in the Pass of Aglon the eve of the solstice was celebrated equally, if not with more vigour. Strange that Curufin's son should try to reinstate here in Eregion a custom of his father's people, she mused. Perhaps he, like many other survivors of the First Age, could simply not escape the shadow of his forefathers. She knew that all too well.
Dragging a steel bar onto her workbench, Makanárë began turning it over, examining the steel before she began shaping it. She glanced over at the second workbench occupying the smithy, freshly dusted and decorated with a few pieces of flowers and leafy vines wrought in filigree. Alyanissë, her new apprentice, had been dismissed from the forge early today, since Makanárë was sure no pretty young elleth would want to miss this evening's feast. It was strange to think she even had an apprentice. After years of Makanárë refusing to take on anyone as a student, this slip of a girl with laughing steel -grey eyes and burnished chestnut hair had managed to win a place in her forge. Makanárë chuckled drily to herself. She must be going soft with the advancing years.
She placed the bar of steel into the fire, pumping the bellows and watching the embers roar to life. Taking a seat on a drab wooden stool that had seen better days, Makanárë gazed into the fire, letting her mind drift back to snowy winter nights long past.
The scent of wood smoke and strong drink filled the hall, while music and laughter rose above the merry chatter among the tables. At one end of the great hall, a fire leapt and crackled in the massive stone fireplace which took up nearly the entire wall. The mantel above it was wreathed in holly and evergreen boughs, and candles twinkled atop it. All along the walls were set long tables laden with food and drink, with laughing Noldor seated at each end, many wearing the eight-pointed star of Fëanor upon their richly embroidered garments. At the other end of the hall upon a dais sat the lords of the fortress, Celegorm and Curufin, with a great shaggy hound reclining at their feet. Bards and musicians played in a nearby alcove, while couples danced and twirled in the center of the hall.
The arched windows running along the walls were frosted over, but a glimpse of icicle-hung eaves and snowy battlements could be seen through the blurred panes. The frigid winter outside could not mar the warmth and merriment indoors. Among the dancers was a young elleth with brown hair streaming over her shoulders, twirling with abandon as her gold-trimmed crimson dress fanned out behind her. A crown of braids encircled her head, and in her hair many sprigs of holly were woven. She laughed and cracked jokes as she danced, all wild abandon and flushed cheeks.
That was me? Makanárë wondered even as she remembered the winter feasts in the lands of her youth with mingled fondness and sorrow.
Her parents sat at one table, resplendent in crimson and black, in velvets and embroidered silks and furs. Her mother especially - Makanárë remembered the circlet she wore as a miniature echo of her helm, the maw of a roaring lion wrought in gold upon her brow. In peace as well as war Kalormë, the Lioness of Himlad, cut an imposing figure, standing nigh half a head above many of the Noldor in the room. Her brother Morináro leaned nonchalantly against a shadowed pillar, a prettily flushed minstrel practically hanging off his arm.
The sights and sounds of revelry disappeared behind a veil of smoke as the scent of heated metal roused Makanárë to the present. The bar of steel she had left in the forge fire was glowing hot, ready to be put to the anvil. Shaking her head as if to disperse the last whispers of memory, she carefully removed the steel with tongs and began working it upon the anvil. Each stroke of her hammer against the steel threw a shower of golden sparks into the gloaming half-darkness of the forge. Somewhere between the beginning of that strange not-a-dream remembrance and now, dusk had fallen.
Makanárë worked away at the steel, beginning to fashion it into a blade, and soon the strokes of her hammer fell into a familiar rhythm. As evening fell and lantern lights began to glimmer outside the windows, the snow-covered holly seemed to glitter, its berries gleaming red as drops of blood. As if in time with the hammer-strokes, Makanárë began singing softly to herself, face set in an unreadable expression.
"The winter winds upon the heights,
The flame that burns through bitter nights,
These sights we wandering exiles know
As well as blood upon the snow.."
The words of an old dirge, forgotten by all save a few who still lingered upon these shores after the First Age, sprang unbidden to her mind. The revelry and peace of Himlad could not last forever, and soon she and her kin had been driven to and fro by war, scattered like withering leaves in the wind. Of all her family once gathered to feast and celebrate upon this day, she was the only one left alive upon the shores of Middle-Earth. Makanárë tasted salt upon her lip as the smoke stung her eyes and she tried not to think of the sounds of laughter and feasting in the streets. What were they but a bitter reminder of all she had once loved and lost?
With some effort, Makanárë opened her eyes and grimaced as a crick in her neck unraveled itself. At some point during the night she had fallen asleep at her workbench, face pillowed on her arms, with a half-finished sword lying beside her. Her face was darkened with soot, and as she stared at her reflection in a bucket of grimy water she saw lighter tracks on her cheeks where the soot had been washed away. She scoffed and moved to find something to wipe away the traces of weakness from her face. A few more days and the period of winter feasting and celebration would be at an end, and she could forget again.
As she sat down before her workbench, a myriad of sore spots on her back, neck, and arms complaining at her, she heard a sound at the door.
"Híril Makanárë - " A young girl, not quite past her majority, pushed the door open a crack.
"Just Makanárë will do, as I have told you before, Alyanissë." Makanárë relaxed fractionally, knowing it was just her apprentice. "I was not expecting you until tomorrow, as today is the solstice."
Alyanissë pushed the door open almost bashfully. Makanárë took in her appearance with amusement, quirking up one brow at her. She was wearing a creased and wrinkled velvet dress, and the intricate braids crowning her head were beginning to unravel. In both hands she held a small basket covered with prettily embroidered cloth.
"No, I am not here to work, but I wanted to bring you something since you were not at the feast, " Alyanissë said, stepping closer and placing the basket in front of Makanárë. A tempting aroma wafted from beneath the cloth cover.
"I see you enjoyed the festivities last night?" Makanárë cracked a smile at the girl. Her apprentice blushed slightly, trying to adjust the collar of her dress which had fallen askew.
"Yes, the feast went on for so long that I fell asleep in the hall, and only just managed to come here, " she admitted. Folding the cloth back from the basket, she revealed six plump spiced rolls, frosted with sugar and garnished with dried berries. They were, somehow, still warm and slightly sticky.
"These are for you," she said, smiling sweetly. "I - I know you do not have many to celebrate the season with, so..."
Makanárë was so surprised by this turn of events she remained staring at the basket in her hands for a long while, feeling an uncomfortable tightness in her throat. When she felt she could speak once more without her pesky emotions betraying her, she looked up, managing a weak grin.
"Thank you, Alyanissë. This is the finest winter solstice I have had in...a while." Makanárë reached for a roll, eyes twinkling at her apprentice, and took a bite. Embarrassingly, she found herself sighing softly at the perfect blend of soft bread and sweet frosting before she could stop herself. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Alyanissë smothering a giggle behind one hand.
Makanárë finished her mouthful of roll, turning to address her apprentice with a look more severe than she intended. "What is so funny, Alyanissë? If you are quite done here, you may come back tomorrow for work."
Alyanissë stared back cheekily, not at all intimidated, and winked at her. "You have frosting on the corner of your mouth, esteemed smithing-master." She giggled and swept out of the door before Makanárë could react.
Bringing a hand to the corner of her mouth, Makanárë wiped off some sticky frosting, looking fondly at the half-open door. Her new apprentice was certainly something, she mused. She made a mental note to ask her who had baked these rolls before picking up another one and devouring it hungrily. Maybe this holiday would not always prove so painful with Alyanissë's company.