The sky is an upturned dish of vivid blue. A deep, intense blue, it is somehow stronger and more vibrant than any northern sky. The sunlight is blazing white, so intense I can touch it, feel it trickle like liquid through my fingers, swim in it. The heat encompasses me, beating down from above, bright, penetrating. It turns the ground beneath into an oven, that same heat pulsing up from below in waves. The air hangs dusty, filling my nostrils with the sharp, earthy, metal smell of the quarry, overlain with the exotic smell of the scrub land beyond, with its straggly bushes of wild herbs. The horizon is a landscape of browns, yellows, greys, whites. The occasional splash of dark green cypress tree, so unlike the verdant greens in my valley. Nearer, the world is a chaotic one of massive, tumbled down blocks, covered in rich orange ochre earth, with flashes beneath of the white stone that has brought me here.
I stand amid the noise and clamour. Men wield immense hammers, drive iron spikes between the blocks to prise them from the cliff face. They work in gangs with ropes to tow immense masses from the cutting face. They roll them over logs to where the wains are to be loaded, beneath an immense tripod fashioned of cedar trunks, where the stone can be lifted with ropes and block-and-tackle.
I look at the men, mentally drawing their outlines with charcoal and chalk. These are not men to be trifled with – as strong and hard as the stone they work, their corded muscles standing out on their arms, ridged beneath the brown skin of their bellies, corded as twisted ropes from neck to shoulder. Their faces are lean and harsh in outline, scarred, bearing the marks of long years of toil. There is something about the stances, the way their legs brace as they push, the coiled energy in their bodies: all this cries out to me to be captured on parchment. They wear loose cotton trousers, and have cloths wound round their heads to protect against the white liquid sunlight, that tangible heat that beats down. No-one comes to work here voluntarily. Some are convicts, serving out hard labour. Others are refugees who have fled lands filled with warfare. This is the only way they can earn their bread, and it is a hard, stony way indeed.
“Grandfather...” The boy tugs at my tunic, his blond hair gleaming gold like the light of Laurelin. He is wide eyed and anxious. Perhaps I was wrong to bring him here, among these hard men, to this hard climate. But he needs to learn the trade that will one day be his. I run a hand through the golden light, for one fanciful moment not sure where the feel of liquid sun ends and the touch of his hair begins. His hair,a throwback to some woman of my own grandfather's generation, only too happy to show her gratitude to some wild horseman from the north. But now, some five generations later, my grandson is just another lad from the valleys high in the foothills of the White Mountains, and no-one thinks twice of his heritage. I let my hand rest on his head, trying to reassure him.
The only heritage that matters is his heritage as a carver, son of a line of master carvers and masons. This is why he is here, why we came across the sea, listening to the gulls keening and the rigging creaking, the flap of the sails, the sparkling light on sparkling dark water. Brought here by stone.
There are so many stones that I could call to mind – the dark sea on our journey, like liquid lapis lazuli, with deep shadows of azurite and sparkling green flecks of malachite. My grandson's hair, glinting like the crystals of iron pyrite. Fool's gold, they call it, but beautiful nonetheless. But none of these is the stone we have come for. We seek the white marble of this lonely, barren island of Tolfalas. Pure white, unblemished. No veins of darker colour run rippling within this stone. Leave that to carvers who adorn buildings, as inlay. I seek the purity that lets me fashion the human form from stone. Supple to work, sheering beneath my chisel, revealing the hidden form within my mind's eye, the form already nascent within the rock itself.
I call to mind my sketches. And as is the manner of old age, suddenly my mind flits to another time and place, transporting me far from this hot, dusty cauldron of noise to the silence of a stone city far away across the seas. I shut my eyes for a moment and I am back to Rath Dinen, walking that long street of stone. I am within the dark hall, its high vaulted ceiling soaring on slender pillars above my head. In different circumstances I might admire the way the blocks of white limestone have been dressed by the master builders of earlier centuries, keyed together in a perfection of the mason's art. But today the only thing I can see is the catafalque. He lies, his profile unmistakable, the high, noble brow, the aquiline nose, the line of his jaw, so determined in life. He is both like and unlike his living self. The bone structure is untouched by death's fingers. But all flesh, even the flesh of a king, sinks and sags when deprived of the life blood that maintains it. No matter the artistry of the embalmer, the face is never as it was in life. Nonetheless, with charcoal and chalk, I make my sketches. Later, I shall supplement them with sketches taken in the last few years while he was still alive.
“Master?” A rough voice draws me back to the present. The foreman bows before me. He is of the same hardy stock as his men, though dressed to show a slightly higher rank, wearing a loose linen tunic over his body, a turban of scarlet cotton wrapped round his head to keep off the heat of the sun. He leads me over to the wains. There on the ground are great blocks of stone.
Beside me, my grandson looks at the newly cut surfaces. Where the stains of the dusty soil cling to it, it has a brown, grainy texture.
“Like honey left in the sun,” the boy says. He is right – that crystalline grain the stone has. The true test, however, is not how it looks, but how it feels.
Some there are who say stone is cold, dead, barren. They are wrong. As I run my fingers over the grain of this stone, brushing off the ochre earths that dull its luminous sheen, I feel its life, new born from the earth itself, pulsing beneath my fingers. The first block seems promising, but then my questing fingers hit a line of weakness, a possible fracture. The second, the grain seems somehow too coarse. The third is promising but does not set fire to my imagination.
But the fourth – ah, the fourth. It is as if I am filled with the shimmering flames that sailors tell of, flickering round the rigging in thunderstorms. The stone sings to my fingers. I feel not just its surface, but the whole mass of the block, the hidden form within. Here, here, within this block, lies the figure of a king waiting to be released from within. I can feel how the lines of his body will emerge, sense the strong outlines of his face.
And once more the scene shifts and I am transported back to the lonely catafalque.
I sit upon my wooden stool, immersed in my task, but still aware of the other silent figure, kneeling on the flags below the dais. She is motionless, as motionless as if I had carved her from marble. Her veil hangs in stiff folds, and a part of my mind can feel the movements my hands would make to carve the cloth, to turn cold stone into soft, flowing fabric. Her eyes are closed, and again I can feel the stone beneath my fingers as I fashion the likeness of her eyelids, smooth the lines of her cheekbones. As I glance at her, I take in the fine lines around her eyes. Her beauty is undimmed, but the death of her husband has begun its inexorable progress, marking her with the signs of her chosen mortality.
Later, as I sit on the wain, my arm round my grandson to hold him steady as we jolt back down the rutted lane to the port, I muse on the picture of the grieving queen. One day perhaps, one of my descendants will carve the likeness of this second Luthien. As I gaze into the shimmering heat around us, my eyes light on a lone cypress tree, tall, elegant, a beacon of green life in this near desert. And I realise that though for me stone lives, nonetheless it is entwined with our mortality. We build our tombs from stone because we are born of the earth and return to it. But this elf woman, this elf-woman, she was not born of earth. She was born to life eternal and chose mortality. It is not meet that anyone should carve her image in stone. She was born of the green vibrant life of trees.
I have a vision, as clear to me as my fleeting memories of the past, but now piercing the future. No one will sit by her catafalque, sketching her death mask, preparing to wrap her memories in stone. Instead, she will walk a last time amid soaring tree trunks, taller even than the columns within that lonely stone vault. She will lay herself down not on a stone dais, but on the living green grass beneath the leaves, and there she will breathe her last, praying to the mercy of Mandos that her choice to share in her husband's mortality will be rewarded by one last chance to walk with him in the lands of the hereafter.