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Oak and Willow: 15. A Change of Scene
The outlet of the river, which doubtless had once been a swift, noisy stream, had also been deepened, smoothed into regularity and edged with marble - a canal as straight and silver as a sword, lying harnessed and placid under a myriad of small, shallow draughted craft. Boats and punts, rafts and barges jostled for mooring spaces within the fortress walls, bringing goods from Mithrim and Dorthonion. Some had even made the lengthy journey up from Sirion's mouth in the Bay of Balar. And they were Cirdan's folk, who handled much of the river-trade, since it had to pass through Brethil in Doriath, where the Noldor were not permitted to come.
Nerwen sat on a bale of thatching reed, brought this morning from the fen of Serech, and pulled her cloak closer about herself, holding the hood tight against the questing fingers of the mountain breeze. She had no mind to be recognized, to have the fortress a chatter with idle talk; 'does she so hate her own people she must slum it with the watermen at the docks?' 'How coarse she has grown - did you mark how her shoes pinched her in the dance last night. I'll wager she's been barefoot these last hundred years. And her gowns! All of them are grey. She went forth a princess and has come back a very woodpigeon - drab and wild.'
Oh, the talk would go on whether she was recognized or not, but it was the better not to have to acknowledge it. Not to hear the maidens of Fingolfin's house giggling over her wardrobe, or the more serious murmuring which went through the lords and captains. 'Why has she come back? She fled to Elwe as soon as she could. Everyone knows her heart is with the Teleri, so why is she here?'
Shifting slightly on the cold reed she leaned back and there came into view the soaring white tower of Barad Sirion - the stronghold of Fingolfin in the land of Hithlum. Mist curled about its base, for this was a land of cloud and pearl, but today the drifting fogs were thin, and the upper portion of the tower stood above them, lit by strong sunlight, dazzlingly white against a clear blue sky. In delicate filigree baskets on its sides - their supporting chains too flimsy to make them a danger in warfare - flowers grew and trailed in colourful vines down its shining stone. Songbirds had been encouraged to nest there, and their music filled the courtyards to the curtain wall. Even the canal, though marble lined, did not run silent. It lilted with a soft and pleasant voice, which - Nerwen had discovered on her second day - was caused by baffles carefully carved and positioned in the channel.
Why am I here?
The question stroked her heart with cold, as though the breeze had found a way inside garments and flesh to chill her soul. She narrowed the question down, keeping her mind occupied so that it might not stray back into endless descending spirals of despair.
Why am I here in Hithlum? Because she had sacrificed her position among the Noldor, her loyalty to her father, even the very cleanness of her hands, for a people who would not accept the sacrifice; who would not take her in. She had fought on the Teleri side, but the Teleri did not want her - stained as she was - as one of their own. What else could she do then, but try to anneal herself once more with Noldor steel, try to persuade them that the alloy of her blood made her stronger, more flexible than they. She would try to convince them that they wanted her back, and herself that she wanted to come back. At least until she had time to make other plans.
Ere long, she told herself in grim defiance, she would put together a following of her own. There were enough folk, convinced, as she was, that Mandos' words were true and their battles here were vain. They lacked only a leader, and that she could be. She would take them somewhere else. Away. East, where the umanyar would not be too proud to accept her as Queen. She would carve out by her own hand the kingdom she came to Ennor to rule, and rule it alone. Away from doom and politics and whispering. Away from Noldor and Sindar both.
But if that is my plan, why am I idling here? In hiding?
This question, though less important, caught at her heart more nearly. For she sat here often, watching the loading and unloading of the small boats, pondering over the differences between this and the landing stages outside Menegroth, where the Esgalduin flowed deep and wide between banks of turf and trees. Tree-roots, and the nests of waterbirds were the artifice which gave Esgalduin its voice. Rougher and less lyrical was its music. But day by day it changed, and each moment there was a new note. She found she missed the variety, the surprise.
She was, she supposed, merely avoiding the noise and enthusiasm of Celegorm and Curufin, who were also staying for a while with their uncle. Neither had improved since she saw them last. The recklessness which had been theirs from the start was now combined with something sly; ungovernable. Even in Valinor, Nerwen had been an outspoken opponent of Feanor, their father, and they continued that enmity with spiteful words and hard looks. Their presence was a grief she would willingly spare herself. And besides, it was more pleasant to be out of doors, in the fresh air, watching the bustle on the banks, than to sit indoors and fend off for one more time Fingolfin's questions about Elu's military strength or intentions.
'You say he knows about Alqualonde? And this has nothing to do with the visit of the sons of Finarfin to Doriath?'
'Rumours reached him from Cirdan while we were there, uncle. And they were, Valar help us, worse than the truth. It was necessary to tell him all to placate him, even a little'.
'Will he seek reparation, do you think? Will he arm himself and come against us in vengeance? Shall we have dragons on the right hand and dark elves on the left?'
And she would sigh and repeat again 'No, my lord. He has forgiven it, as I said.' Then she would doubt it herself, remembering that Elu had not included the sons of Feanor in his forgiveness, who sat still at her uncle's table. Would he move against them in force? Would he allow one kinslaying to be the justification of another? Thus her doubt would undo her reassurances, and ere long the questions would circle round again; repetitive and wearying as a guilty conscience.
'So a king may say, in closed council. It is hardly a public proclamation. Suppose he said it only to lull you, and later, after the attack, he will claim you misunderstood. Who could gainsay it?'
A stir among the warehousemen drew her dimmed gaze, distracted her from brooding. A raft laden with preserved foodstuffs all the way from the Sea sat in a birth closest to the fortress walls, where those who manned it could see furthest out over the surrounding lands. One of the raft-elves pointed, another dashed for the harbourmaster, as dock workers straightened to see what was so worth exclaiming over. The harbourmaster ran up the steps to the top of the curtain wall, stood watching for some moments, then sped down, seizing the first elf he came across to send as a messenger to the keep, then disappearing into his cottage to emerge robed, knotting his sash and straightening his hair as doubtless he did when the king and his officials came to inspect.
Curious, Nerwen got up and joined the folk lining the waterfront, craning for a glimpse of this marvel - whatever it was. Standing behind a fisherman's daughter, she peered over the girl's head, her own hood far forward, shading her eyes. She saw at first only the long canal, lying straight as a metal rule. Both the mountains to the West and the grasslands to the East were shrouded in fog, and the water barely gleamed - smooth and dusk-grey. The sky was as wan as the marble, and all that sailed on the stream was a single skiff, gray as ash wood, with a sail as white as a seagull's wing. Disappointment mingled with her gloom. Another little boat. What of it? There were craft like this coming and going all day long. How did that explain the stir, the tension and excitement of the crowd?
And then the wind gusted, and the pennants on the skiff's mast fluttered once more into sight. The uppermost a winged moon on a field black as the night sky. Below it a silver tree on a background green as holly.
The elf who sailed the small boat was hooded against the cold mist, shrouded in a cloak whose colour changed to match every slide of shadow. When he rose, to take the sail in slightly, she recognized the height, and the gentle, competent way he moved. Sitting once more at the tiller he took down his hood, and the spill of hair like moonlit mithril about his shoulders confirmed the tale of the banners. It was he. Her heart rose into her throat and choked her, and she had to turn away and find her seat once more, sink down there and clasp both of her hands over her mouth. There was an anguish within her, and it felt as if her very fea struggled to escape her body; whether to fly to him, or from him, she did not know. She held it in, behind her hands, and did not dare move. It would shatter her ribs. It would break free, and she would never be herself again. Celeborn
He had looked at her, in Doriath, as though she was repulsive. As though she stank of spilled blood. And she had been certain that would be the last sight she would ever have of him. The journey to Eithel Sirion she had passed in anger - how dare he look at her so - and a grief she would not allow herself to feel. But since then she believed she had achieved some kind of bleak acceptance. Ruin she had been promised. Why be surprised if it had come so soon? One day, she thought - when she had recovered enough - she could have come to be thankful that he at least was spared her accursed presence in his life. He would take less harm from it, ending now, than if he had been allowed to hope longer.
She had steeled herself to accept a life alone, for he had done exactly as she thought he would and turned his back on her. Forever.
But if so, why was he here?
Briefly - in a panic of self-consciousness - she half rose, preparing to return to the fortress. It would not do if he was to spot her here and think she had been sitting at the waterfront all this time, waiting for him. But she was not sure if she could move without being seen. The broad steps up to the fortress were unusually crowded. Among various servants strolling - with excessive nonchalance - towards the harbour, she recognized the cellarer, Rilmiriel and the stablemaster, Thalmo, walking together. Both were sharp of mind and eye. They would know her by her tallness and gait, and wonder why she fled at Celeborn's approach.
Thwarted, she sank back into the shadows, and thought how odd it was that the servants made so much of this arrival and her own people so little. If asked, she would have expected a few curious Noldor to come. The messenger must, by now, have passed on the news that a prince of the Sindar was here, and this was the first time the reclusive Doriathrin nobility had ever deigned to have personal contact with anyone outside. She might have expected spectators on that account alone. But those who came were the Sindar who sewed the clothes of the Noldor, groomed their horses, farmed their fields and organized their kitchens, setting food on their tables.
When Celeborn stepped ashore - looking a little travelworn and grim - it was into a crowd of his own people.
"My lord," the harbourmaster bowed to him, "You fly the banner of Thingol, and a second, prince's device. Are you...?"
"I am the King's nephew. Celeborn Galadhonion."
There was a murmuring among the crowd, and they drew away a little, like a tide-pool receding. Rilmiriel and Thalmo were left like small islands, singled out by some deepfelt communal agreement as spokesmen.
"My lord," Rilmiriel began - she was dark haired and grey eyed as almost all in the crowd were - but there was no mistaking any of them for Amanyar. Their faces were too shadowed; their gazes deep, but not bright. "Before you go up to the Fortress will you not speak with us? We are concerned."
Celeborn paused, thoughtful, then leaned out to lift onto the shore a sack and a bag from the bottom of his boat. Piling them one on top of the other he sat down. "Tell me," he said, and at the words there went through the gathering a breath of deep, heartfelt relief.
Now Nerwen felt more than individual concern; she was fascinated. It seemed to her that Celeborn was holding court, here on the Noldor-tamed banks of the Sirion, in the heart of King Fingolfin's realm, and neither he, nor Fingolfin's subjects, appeared to find it incongruous or out of place.
Rilmiriel and Thalmo looked at one another, anxiously, and it was Thalmo who began. "We have heard rumours that Thingol commands us not to speak Quenya, or even to hear it. Is that so?"
"Then it is true," Rilmiriel gathered up the corners of her apron and twisted them, as another woman might wring her hands, "About the kinslaying? We thought... We hoped it was but the Enemy's lies."
"No," Nerwen watched Celeborn's face carefully as he replied. There did not seem to be any lessening of his grief - in less than a month how could there be? But like the stream it was now channelled - quieter, but deeper. "What you have been told is true. These very Golodhrim slew our kin in Alqualonde. Feanor deliberately, and Fingolfin by mistake, thinking we attacked them. Only Finarfin's children stood aside. The Lady Nerwen, indeed, fought for us, at her own great peril."
Was there approval in that terse summary? The thought of it made her feel as one frost bitten, coming too soon into the heat - a brief, delicious warmth, and then pain as the thaw began to spread.
"And Elu asks no more of us than this?" the harbourmaster wondered aloud, "Not to rebel? We could leave, even - let them sweep their own floors and make their own beds."
"Not willingly," Rilmiriel said, now deeply worried, "This land is my land, and I would not gladly leave it." She shook her head; "I like it here. I like them. It is hard to see that Lord Fingon, who rode so valiantly against the dragon, protecting us, should be punished by desertion."
"But we would," Thalmo rubbed his hands - which smelled of horse - against his horse-smelling trousers. "Maybe not willingly, but we would. A lot of us, anyway. If the King commanded it."
Celeborn smiled at that, as regal as a man could be, who was clothed in homespun and sitting on a pile of sacks. "He does not ask it of you. Though I am sure the offer will make him glad. No, the ban is all. Beyond questions of judgement it will be good, I think, if the Golodhrim learn to use our tongue as their own. It will prevent at least the daily humiliation of being given orders in a foreign language."
"But the sons of Feanor?" the harbourmaster persisted, and Nerwen wondered if she should warn her uncle that he employed an elf so eager for vengeance, "We are to do nothing more against them?"
"The King's thoughts, concerning the Feanorim," Celeborn looked up at the harbourmaster with a dark, speculative gaze, "Are thus: The sons of Feanor have placed themselves in the positions of greatest danger, and Morgoth's wrath falls upon them most harshly. Perhaps, Elu has said, perhaps they seek to atone for what they did. If so, it should not be hampered by any deed of ours."
There was a stir about the doors of the tower, and a banner-bearer came out, carrying Fingolfin's many-pointed star of fire. The Castellan of Barad Sirion strode forth and began to walk swiftly towards the docks. Seeing him, some of the crowd drew off, or began at least to pretend to work once more.
"And your own thoughts, Lord?" asked Rilmiriel, who seemed a little happier, though she still frowned.
"For my part I will say only that loyalty is an admirable thing, even where it is undeserved." Seeing the movement, the flaming bright banner above the heads of the crowd, Celeborn stood and slung his bag over his shoulder. At once the court... the conference, whatever it could be called, was over. Nerwen watched as her uncle's trusted servants obeyed the unspoken dismissal - the command of a stranger - and left. They bowed in reverence to Bronwë the Castellan as they passed him, and there seemed no falseness in it, but she felt for the first time that she understood Celeborn's words to her brothers in Doriath. 'The children of the royal line of Doriath are acknowledged as the rightful rulers of all Ennor.'
It was a quiet power, unobtrusive. Less like the clear and visible authority of a king, and more ...organic, like the scarce to be traced lines of influence within a large, contented family. And Nerwen, to whom the threads and interweaving of power were an absorbing interest, discovered something new to be intrigued about in her lover. How naturally he handled power, and how restrained was his use of it; subtle, almost invisible. What havoc he could have achieved if he had chosen to inflame, rather than to soothe! How much Noldor glory was built upon the menial labour of their Sindar subjects - who were in their hearts good children of Thingol? No wonder he had said even their own realms existed by Sindar forbearance.
She was so absorbed by this new insight that even pain receded. Bronwë bowed and welcomed Celeborn, and took him away to be bathed and housed and rested, so that he could appear before Finarfin looking a little less like a wandering fisherman. It amused Nerwen to watch them go, Bronwe in fine damasked silk, sky blue, with the golden chain of his office about his neck - studded all over with gems, even the keys which hung from his belt gilded and set with diamonds. And Celeborn in white linen and grey wool; with no diadem but his hair - the unmistakable shining silver crown of the line of Elwë. You could take everything from him, she thought, seeing it. A pang of mingled regret and admiration struggled through the guard she held over her feelings. One more thing she might have lost, or might regain, if she dared hope it. Yet, naked, he would still be recognizable as a prince.
When the great door had closed behind him she scrambled up and made her own way back to her chamber. Changing her gown and re-dressing her hair in confused, impatient swiftness, she gave no thought to her maids - curious about this change in her. Let the gossip fly - she cared not. When Celeborn was introduced to Fingolfin, she had to be there. Regardless of personal feelings, the clash of unsuspected, clannish Sindar influence with the Noldor king's more blatant strength should prove instructive to watch. And she would not have either of them think she was absent because she dared not look them in the face.
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