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Oak and Willow: 12. An Agreement Made
Nerwen sat beside the strafes with a plane in her hand, but did not try to pretend, even to herself, that she was working on the boat.
They had found Bothir* too cramped to sail together comfortably, and as she had learned some of the craft of boatbuilding from Olwë's people, and he from Cirdan's, they had begun to build another, larger vessel. A pleasant pastime, a harmless hobby, soothing after the mental ache of Melian's lessons, the heartache of dancing around Elu's political speculations.
A good excuse to go somewhere private and be alone together.
Why had she not seen it then? Though she had, as she had told him, many admirers in Aman, and though it was pleasant to stroll across the lawns of Tirion surrounded by adoring men, she had rarely found any of them interesting enough to work beside, and of those few never twice. Why had she not questioned her eagerness to teach Celeborn Quenya, and the sword, or to walk in the forest beside him, and have him teach her the lore of the woods? She should have noticed, surely, that those days which she spent in Nargothrond she spent thinking of him. Or that the delight of Menegroth largely faded when he was gone from it. Why had this come as such a shock?
Because falling in love was never part of my plan.
She had come to conquer and rule, to take vengeance on Morgoth and to spite Feanor. For all of those purposes she needed to be free; the ruler of her own fate. Thus she had brushed aside thoughts of love as a pleasantry which could come later, once she had wrought her will upon the world. And I knew not that love was so mighty. I believed I could bend it to my hand and make it wait for me.
Putting down the plane, she laid a hand on one of the timbers, feeling the gentle curve and the memory of song that echoed in it, urging it to be buoyant and light. At the touch, her unruly heart spoke again, lamenting that he had not followed her flight from the Thousand Caves. He had watched her leave, in evident distress, and for all his protestations, he had not cared enough to come to her when she was in need. "And thus love makes me weak," she said, half to the boat, half to herself, "For I was not in need before I met him. Now all my plans lie in ruins at my feet, and it is all his fault."
Light shifted, and a hand parted the curtain of vines. At once, sharp citrus sunlight lanced into the room, making the shadowed water glitter like fountain-spray. As he held open the honeysuckle, Celeborn was silhouetted by the blaze of golden river. Then he ducked through and she could see his face - strained, worried; weary. Evidently she was not the only one suffering.
"I did not know if you would follow," she said, and found it hard not to still feel that hurt, "Or whether I wanted you to."
"Nor did I know," he said quietly, "Until I found my feet on the path. But since I am here, may I not come in?"
"It is your own boathouse. You may come and go as you please."
So many things to say, and yet she could think of none. He let the vines fall, and scent filled the sudden darkness. As he came in, she found herself conscious of his every movement. A brief caress to the prow of Bothir, like a horseman's instinctive gentling of his steed; the scrape of a stool as he brought it away from the wall to sit upon; the glimmer of his eyes and belt in the twilight; the soft slide over his shoulder of the long fall of water-bright hair. His presence seemed to flow into every shadow, until she felt lit by him like moonlight.
He put his head in his hands, and they sat together, lapped in the cool, while the voice of water murmured gently about them. Some fear went out of her then, seeing him thus. Love seemed less like a trap, less like the invasion of her personality she had feared. For see, she was as aware of him as of light upon her skin, but still she was herself. Still she was free.
Silence pressed on her, and a grief for which she had no name welled in her slowly. Was it even now too late? What she had said to him...was it impossible to take back? Why did he sit there and say nothing? Was he too insulted even to gaze upon her? Had they come so far apart they could not even talk, here in this place they had once filled with arguments and laughter?
At length the pain became unbearable. They looked up together. "I..." she said, and he said "Galadriel..."
At the name, tears sprang to her eyes and her throat closed. Seeing it he rose, abrupt, furious with himself. "No," he paced away, hands clenched, "Forgive me. Not Galadriel. How I let my mouth run away with me!" He turned back, pale and wretched, but Silmaril-intense, "Nerwen, I beg you, do not let this make you unhappy. I love you, what of it? You are not obliged to return that love. I will never speak of it again. I will be your friend only, as Daeron is Luthien's. If he can endure it, so can I. Only..."
Her tears spilled. She wondered at herself, who had not been able to grieve thus since the Ice. Why did she cry now, now, when she did not feel sad, but only awash with fallen certainties, overmastered where she thought herself invincible.
He threw himself on his knees in front of her, close enough to touch, but not touching, unless with the naked despair of his gaze. "Only, please, Lady, do not weep. I would not, on my life, cause you pain. Tell me what I can do. Tell me what you wish me to do to ease you, and it will be done. But please..." he brought a hand up as if to wipe away the tears from her cheek, let it fall without touching. The lack of contact was a small wound. "Please do not weep."
She shook her head, not sure what she was denying, and wept into her hands; long dammed tears for all the griefs she had set aside on her journey, all the sorrow she had hoarded secretly since Darkness fell on Aman and she had been forced unwilling into a world where even the Valar could fail. A monster had sucked the light from the land of the blessed, and her family had run mad, and the cousins she had so admired had become murderers, leaving her behind to die. All of it she had born in pride, alone, afraid to admit to weakness even in front of her brothers, lest the rumour of it spread.
Warily, Celeborn put his hand on her arm. When it was not slapped aside he leaned forward and pulled her into an awkward hug - her elbow trapped between them, as she slumped to lean her head on his shoulder and cry inelegantly into the warm indigo velvet.
Not alone any longer, she wept, and was held, and felt ...comforted.
"Clearly neither of us have done this before." After what seemed an age Nerwen pushed away from the hesitant embrace, offering the comment with a watery smile. Her neck felt cricked and her eyes swollen. What her father would say to her woebegone look she could imagine well enough. He would not be pleased with Celeborn, she thought, for reducing her to this. Yet though her ribs ached where her arm had pressed against them, and her poise lay shredded, still some part of her heart - some large part - seemed lighter than it had been for centuries.
"I have hugged Nimloth," said Celeborn and offered her his sleeve to wipe her eyes on, "But she is a lot smaller." A corner of his mouth turned up, but his eyes were too concerned for the expression to be called a smile, "If she is not comfortable she wriggles until she is."
Picturing him with his niece, storytelling perhaps, or just soaking up each other's presence, made Nerwen think once more of Finarfin, of whom she had been careful not to think during these years of exile. "My father used to hold me..." she began, and grief surprised her with its infinite reserves as she remembered that she would never see him again. "My Ada..." She pushed the stool away, turned and was engulfed in solace as Celeborn pulled her close once more. "He did not come with us. He turned back and left us, knowing it was forever. I think, I think perhaps he loved me not. Not at all."
This childish fear she had not told even to Finrod, and she was aghast at herself to thus expose her most painful secrets to this near stranger, but Celeborn only said "That cannot be so," as though it truly were unthinkable. "He turned back for your mother, perhaps, so that she would lose all she loved at once, but it must have riven his heart in two. I know it would mine." Looking up she met his puzzled, sympathetic gaze and could almost sense the effort it cost him to stop himself from stroking her hair - a lover's gesture that even now he did not know he was entitled to make. The unmade caress made her want to weep again.
"You must think me so weak," she said, and drew in a strengthening breath, fighting for control.
"I saw your sorrow when I looked on you first," he said, "And how bravely you bore it." He sighed too, and loosened the hug in which he had cradled her, as reluctantly as if he believed this to be their last touch. "I vowed I would lighten it, if I could," he said, looking away, "Yet I have done naught but make it worse."
Even now, she thought, with some surprise, she had not yet taken back the words of hatred she had flung at him for daring to love her. No wonder he was wary. Like one of Aulë's students sidling up to a crucible full of strange ores, he had no way of knowing whether he would be greeted with treasure, or an explosion. If only she knew what path she should take from here. If only she knew what to say!
For a time she merely rested against him, thinking. Slowly, as sorrow fled, she began to hear the song of his body against hers; his breathing, the press of his warmth, the firm embrace of velvet and silk and strong arms. Her heart fluttered and blood suffused her face, making her burn.
She pushed him away and stood up hurriedly. "That is not true."
"I disgust you. You have said so. My love has made you flee here into the darkness to weep. I did not wish..."
"Ai!" Striding to the door, Nerwen swept back the trailing flowers and the lowering sun smote her dazzled eyes. Walking to the bank, she knelt among the purple iris, scooped up water and washed the tears from her face. Even the cold river's touch would not rid her of the soaring tingle which had driven her away from him at last, but she was not entirely sorry for that. "You have too long a memory. And I...I spoke foolishly."
"I do not..." Coming to her side, Celeborn sat a decorous arms length from her and left unsaid the rest of his thought.
Swallows were wheeling over the stream, and, in the trees, crows began to welcome the night with comfortable squabbling. The sun was huge but cool before them, and the forest of Region encircled them with a green scent. She thought of stones and waterfalls they had visited together; the long views and the quiet places, and it occurred to her that other suitors had brought her jewels, but only he had thought to bring her the world.
"What do you mean?" he said finally, plucking the long stemmed poppies and watching his hands as he weaved them idly together.
"I..." she slipped her shoes off and laved her bare feet in the water, studying the slide of liquid in the sunset. Both of them, it seemed, were too embarrassed to look at one other. "I was afraid, and fear made my words bitter beyond all reason."
"Fear? How could Nerwen fear aught? I would have said it were impossible."
"Yet fear I did." Risking a glance, she saw him sitting tailor fashion, pleasingly incongruous in his fine court clothes with his hands full of flowering weeds. His brow was creased and his eyes shadowed at the thought that somehow he had frightened her. She hurried to explain, that he might not be even more angry at himself. "I was afraid to lose my friend, Celeborn, whose society has meant much to me," she said, "And I was afraid that if you loved me, you would try to ...to own me. Love would give you power over me. You would seek to control me, and I would lose who I am for your sake. Of that I was...afraid."
Nerdanel came to mind. Bold, adventurous Nerdanel, the great explorer. Feanor had taken and tamed her. Now, tied by love to a man she could not reason with, drained of her vitality by bearing sons, she had at the last been abandoned entirely, her life sucked dry by the one she loved.
"You think I am the kind of man who would try to hold you captive?" said Celeborn sadly, "Have I seemed so to you? When have I ever...?" He shook his head. "Why would I clip the wings of a hawk whose flight made my heart sing?"
"You would not, I know." Water was chill and swift about her calves, pulling slightly on her as it rushed past. Managing to laugh slightly, she let it sweep away her foolishness into a drowned past. "It was only a fear."
By chance both looked up at once. He saw her watching him and frowned, even as she was stabbed by the resolute lack of hope in his gaze. "Does it come down to this then," he said, "That I am but 'Moriquende', and my 'darkness' repels you?"
It was in her heart to deny it, if only to soothe his hurt, but she could not. She would not lie. Morgoth had long poisoned the lands of Middle Earth, and his power spread through every mote of it, insidious, marring. Of that poisoned earth was Celeborn grown, and he bore its subtle influence in every fibre of his body. Even now, if she thought of it, she found her newborn desire for him distasteful, almost perverse. And if she found it so, how much worse would it appear to her brothers? To her father...if he ever heard of it? Or to the cousins who had slaughtered even Amanyar Teleri in the belief that as Noldor they were greater, and entitled to take what they would. Caranthir - who had spoken so vilely of Thingol - what would he say? She could hardly imagine in what depths of contempt he would hold Celeborn, or the scorn he would pour on her for making such a choice.
"Still you are a dark elf," she said, "And I know not what it would do to the unity of the Noldor if I were to pledge myself to you. My brothers...I dread what they would say if they knew I loved you. I do not know myself what I think of it."
There was a space in which he heard what she had said, and then he turned, sharply, scattering the forgotten flowers while his head came up like that of a stallion wild to gallop. "'If they knew I loved you'? ...You love me?"
The way he thawed out of despair into ferocious eagerness was like seeing winter give way to spring. At one word from her, Nerwen thought, he had bloomed like a white tree in sunlight, and it would take only her honest answer to make him blossom. It was a pleasing thought, and for a fleeting moment she wished she could cry in happiness, so that he might have an excuse to hold her again.
"I love you," she said, and felt overwhelming relief. It was good to have it said.
Joy lit Celeborn's face brighter than the sun. He leapt to his feet and stood gazing at the sunset for a moment. Then he took her elbow and drew her up beside him. "Look!"
Sliding silently half below the world, in the West Anar was wreathed in boiling gold and rose and amethyst. The sky's luminous glory rose through snow and lemon into an arch of pale, pure blue, shading in the East to indigo and the silver glint of early stars. At the sight, Nerwen laughed, and her giddy emotions touched an exaltation she had only felt before looking in the face of Varda. This joy was less high, perhaps less holy, but sweeter. Infinitely sweeter. Behold, she thought, looking at the sunset, Night wedded to day, and darkness to light. Neither destroys nor changes the other. Only they create, where they touch, a splendour greater than that either had apart.
"If we may be a sunrise together," said Celeborn fiercely, "Then all else is tactics. Not 'what will my brothers think' but 'how will we persuade them?'" He strode away, came back. She noticed that his restlessness measured an area the width of a campaign tent, and was amused. Had he learned to pace thus in the Battle of Amon Ereb, working out his strategies of warfare before Elu? Would he marshal their romance like a general marshalling his troops?
He looked at her with a clear and merciless look, "Not 'will it not lower my status among my people if I am seen with this man,' but 'how will I retain my allies, and which ones can I afford to lose?'" And she felt accused and absolved in the same breath. A turn brought him back to stand just within arms reach, and this time his dark gaze was full of uncertainty. Nerwen wondered - if the sons of Feanor were nothing more to him than allies he could afford to lose, then what could he possibly fear?
"And not 'how can I bear him touching me?' but 'will I let him try to persuade me?'"
Oh, it was uncomfortable to be wooed by a man who saw so clearly into her heart. She had wanted to keep secret the small frisson of distaste that still accompanied any fantasy of them together. "Celeborn," she said, "I do not mean to... I am sorry."
Evening shadow spread from the trees and slid across his face. As the light faded he became one with the twilight; all glimmers of mithril-silver in the darkness of a warm summer night. "I would not have you other than you are," he said softly, "And there are moments when I find you uncanny. But if we love one another then this will fade with time. And we have time in abundance. Let us only be acknowledged lovers and I will not speak of marriage to you for many years. Not until you are ready."
"I care not how long it takes," he said, and held out his hand to her to take, to make the pledge, "Though it is not what I hoped, I swear it is infinitely better than I thought."
How straightforward he was, and how wholehearted, and generous, to take love with so many caveats and not once complain. Nerwen smiled and felt humbled among her gladness. If only she could be as honest in return.
At that thought memory leapt upon her like a hunting wolf and she was savaged by its teeth. How could she have forgotten the fate she bore, who she was? Bliss soured in her throat. With misery she saw the way Celeborn's smile transmuted into pain as she hesitated. This curse on her he did not see, and could not. "Will you not take my hand and begin it?" he said, puzzled, his mouth thinning with hurt.
'Everything you begin will end in ruin,' Nerwen thought, and the Doom of Mandos crushed her heart for the first time as she saw to the depths the punishment that had been laid on her. Elentari... I did not know I loved him, and thus I dragged him unknowing beneath the anger of the Valar, and my curse will lie on him the moment he accepts my love.
The outstretched hand had become an accusation; a future of love she desired but should not grasp. Eru forgive me for thinking him unworthy of me when it is I who am tainted.
"Lady?" he said, and touched her sleeve. Nerwen turned her face away, feeling the now familiar burn of tears. How could the Valar be so cruel? She had done nothing to deserve this! Nor had he. I must tell him. she thought, It is as Luthien said - I cannot keep such a secret from him. He must learn that I am cursed.
"Celeborn," she said, and wrung her hands, turning half away "I would not have you pledge yourself to me not knowing that I am... I am..."
If she needed proof of her love for him it came in this - the devouring terror that if he knew all he would walk away. He was wise, and it would be wise to turn his back on a woman as tainted as she. But she was not now certain if she could survive such a rejection.
"Nerwen?" he asked again. He was pale as the moon and seemed to have caught something of her terror, and she could not bear to give him this one blow after so many. Later. There would be time later to explain.
"I will be your lover," she said solemnly, "But do not ask me to begin it. You must start this between us, and you must pursue it. It must be your doing and not mine. I swear. I swear I will explain later. Only do not make me speak now."
At that he frowned, and she was afraid he had somehow divined her thought and would turn away. But he merely struggled with his curiosity, and won. And at last he gathered up her hands into his. She breathed in, shut her eyes, feeling the touch of skin to skin with a strange shock. His hands were large, the fingertips calloused from bowstring and lute, stronger than hers, but gentle. It was a grasp from which she could have withdrawn at any moment, and so she did not. Nerwen let herself rest within his strength, and, as they stood together, stars springing to light above them, gradually her unquiet soul at last stilled into peace.
Opening her eyes she looked on him then; intent, utterly beautiful, and hers, and she sighed. She should be full of doubts, frightened by her secrets, but at this moment they, along with the rest of her, could do naught but float on contentment. Perhaps love never had been part of her plans, but it had come, and now she would set her will against any who tried to destroy it, be it the Valar themselves. The plans would have to be changed.
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