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Oak and Willow: 7. Killing Fish
She wound the plaits about her head like a coronet, and looked with some curiosity at her own face, reflected in her mirror of polished silver. Maiden crowned with a radiant garland, she thought, and tucked the ends in firmly. Well, it was apt. Even in the candlelight the braids shone deep gold, touched with some memory of the pale glimmer of Telperion. "Hmn!" she said, and undid the elaborate arrangement with swift irritation. Queenly she might look, thus, but she was as yet no queen, and it felt presumptuous to seem so. Why do they never see aught of me but the hair?
Feanor too had praised the hue of her long tresses, his eyes following her with something of the strange obsessiveness which he kept for his art. His desire had been to take, to possess, even as he had hoarded the light of the Trees; 'I ask but a strand, you will not miss it.' She had refused; no part of her was a thing to be owned. She did not belong in another's possession. She was herself.
But perhaps the most obvious interpretation was not the intended one. It had been a long time, after all, since Feanor had given anything away, even a name. Perhaps she did the prince of Doriath an injustice by the comparison.
Maiden crowned with radiance, she tried a variant meaning. If not her hair, what had he meant?
The silver of her mirror became liquid as she recalled the fountain playing, and he simultaneously mocking her and praising her 'glorious strength'. Could the galad of which he spoke actually be the fire of her spirit, the flame she tended in her secret heart. Was it possible that this dark elf saw and valued her for what she truly was, within?
Or was she reading too much into this, and he meant merely 'Lady of Light', in a bare and literal description of her Calaquendi status?
At this last idea, tired of her chasing thoughts, she laughed, smoothed out the braids and stood. Sindarin was so full of exotic aspirates - though it made for a pleasant accent - that he might well have called her 'Galadhriel - tree woman,' and she misheard. Who would have thought that a man whose lámatyávë she had called savage could come up with so intriguing a name?
She laid her hand on the handle of the door and paused, seeing her sword. It stood, sheathed and peace-tied, between herself and the outside world. From Alqualondë onwards it had been her constant companion, for there in Olwe's city she had fought against her own kin; fought against theft and murder and madness in defence of her mother's faithful people. Ever since then she had needed it by her side, not knowing who in the Noldor host might wish her ill, might consider her a traitor, might even have just cause for vengeance against her. In defending the innocent she had exiled herself not only from Valinor, but also from her father's folk.
The Helcaraxe had paid for much, and many grudges had been smoothed over since, but none knew better than she what pride and resentment simmered beneath, and even in Fingolfin's house she now felt at threat.
Not since the sack of the Swan Haven had she been without it. Not until her audience with Elwë, and it had been a great effort to set it aside then. Picking the sword up, she lifted the belt about her waist, and paused again.
Here in Doriath she was not among Noldor. It would look foolish, it would look suspicious to be armed within the protection of Melian. Here too, no one had a just complaint against her. She had defended Elwë's kin. She had placed herself on their side, so surely with them she would be safe?
Setting down the sword, she turned her back on it. Walking out of her chamber, she closed the door behind her, and it felt as though she left the spilled blood behind with the weapon. Nerwen could be left behind, with the sword, with her guilt, and here in Doriath she could be something new.
How had Celeborn known that her fëa cried out to be washed of it's stain, to be made afresh? How had he known - before she did - that she needed a new name?
She could be Galadriel, new and clean. No darkness lay on the name of Galadriel; born beside a fountain in Doriath.
Smiling, lightened, she seized the arm of a servant who was hurrying past. If a beginning was called for, where better to make it than in her brother's new city? "Do you know where Lord Finrod might be?"
"But a little while ago he was in the workshops of the stonemasons." said the lad, his eyes sparkling as she turned her smile on him, "I can show you the way if you will."
"I know it," she said to his evident disappointment, "But thank you."
There was nothing in the cave of the masons but dust, a scattering of hammers; large bulks of white stone half carved, some smooth as new lain snow, some from which it seemed carved beasts struggled to emerge. A horse stood drinking from a river of sensuous curves, his mane all pointed with moisture, but his back legs little more than scratches disappearing into the marble. Scrolls were rolled and stacked in wooden shelves so heavy with dust they seemed calcified. She took a few down and spread them, weighting them with chisels and set squares; a map of the hot springs with suggested routes for aqueducts. A plan for ventilation shafts to bring fresh air down through the press of earth to all the main rooms. A sketch of decorative detail - lily of the valley, its petals weighted by rain.
The art of these elves was different from that of Valinor. Less... fraught with immanence; more frivolous, more fresh. And their architecture spoke of camouflage, of hiding rather than mastery; yielding to the contours of the ground rather than reshaping them to a powerful will. Subtle, she thought, but a little weak to her taste.
"I guessed I would find you here." The voice was clear and sweet as new white wine. Turning, Nerwen beheld Luthien poised in the doorway with a spear in her hand. The King's daughter was barefoot, bare armed, in a loose dress of the silver-grey for which the Sindar had been named. Her hair - a long plait that flicked to and fro behind her - was sprinkled with diamonds, but she was otherwise unornamented. Artless and wild as a child of the Avari, she looked to Nerwen, and beautiful as the moon. "Are you looking for your brother?"
"I was. I imagined he would be hard at work, planning his new kingdom."
Luthien laughed, "Aye, busy as a troop of ants he was, and all alone. Today is a day of rest for the dwarves, and our own masons observe the same feast days out of respect. Yet Finrod would sit and make notes and worry himself over details he could better solve tomorrow when he will have someone to ask. And so Celeborn came upon him, frustrated and crosseyed with poring over faint plans, and took him fishing to clear his head." She picked up a bag that had lain by her feet and slung it across her shoulder. "Then I bethought me that I would join them, and that perhaps you would enjoy the company too."
Oddly, the idea delighted Nerwen. When was the last time she had had leisure to do something so simple? These joys she had thought left behind in the peace of Aman, and her life from now on all politics and warfare. "Thank you," she said, "I would like that."
The sun was up, but still pale in a sky filmed with mist as Luthien led her through beech woods and thickets of sombre yew. The turf underfoot was speckled with white flowers. As they walked, the sun's beams filtered through the tree-trunks in long slices of lemon yellow light. Finding that she had drawn ahead Nerwen stopped to see Luthien caught, ensnared by the beauty of a spidersweb beaded with mist, all gold and faint blush pink against the deep spiked green of the yew trees in the dawn's radiance.
"Sable and argent," said the Princess of the Sindar, "And indigo and grey - these I am accustomed to. But now there are so many fresh hues that I am dazzled wherever I look. Who would have known the trees were so green, and every leaf a different colour?"
"If only you could have seen the world in the light of Telperion and Laurelin," Nerwen replied, unsettled. Luthien's wonder at maimed, impure Anar made her feel a little guilty, like a man whose cloak is rigid with jewels walking past the ragged. "Can you imagine sunlight and moonlight mixing, the proportion of each changing through the day, so that every moment and every sight is a dance between gold and silver; equal but different. I used to lie abed and watch the shades slide across the white wall until I felt I was floating on a sea of pearl. I am afraid the Sun does not compare."
Luthien tore herself away from the cobweb and began to walk away once more through the long wet grass, her skirts and her bare white feet glimmering "I do not think I would like that," she said, brushing aside a branch of ash, "I would miss the stars. I would miss the darkness itself," her smile was fleeting as a firefly, "Like a velvet cloak, it can be; soft and welcoming. Intimate."
Nerwen thought of Ungoliant, the spider-demon, who slew the trees and sucked Aman dry, until all that was left of millennia of brilliance was the gleam at the heart of the Silmarils. After the terror of Ungoliant's shadow, it was hard not to feel that Luthien's enjoyment of the night was an indication of moral frailty. Hard to trust there was not true darkness in the heart of the Dark Elves.
"The Night was not created evil," said Luthien quietly, sensing the turn of her thoughts, "So Daeron says, who knows all the lore of the ancient times. Iluvatar Himself chose to create us in the darkness, beneath the stars, and if we love what He gave us, is that not to our credit? We are as we were created to be. So Celeborn says, who thinks more than he talks, and better. And you..."
So they had both almost come out and said cruel words. Nerwen felt better for it. She was not permitted all the honesty she would have preferred - having secrets which were not her own pressing on her - but something approaching the truth had almost been said. "We are what?" she asked.
"I don't..." Luthien hesitated, "Forgive me. Those who come back from Valinor seem - like my father, like myself - to be a strange hybrid of elf and Maia. It should make me feel greater kinship towards you, but instead I feel you are strange, unstable. Like a maid with one foot on the hythe and one in the boat."
"I have little choice but to step in the ship and learn to sail," Nerwen was at first surprised at the Sinda's insight, and then taken aback at her own surprise. Is not Luthien half Maia? Of course she is wise. "I am an elf of Middle Earth too, now," she said, "And the blood of Earwen runs in my veins. I can learn to love the forests with every bit of passion I once reserved for metal and gems."
"Thank you." Luthien offered her hand and Nerwen clasped it, "If what I said seems cruel it is only that the Noldor seem to think us all so lowly and worthy of contempt. The Green Folk tell us such tales of the terrible sons of Feanor and their arrogance. Even this fair land fails to delight them, and we wonder why they returned if they are so determined to dislike everything."
"And what is your conclusion?"
Luthien turned, tugging her to come. The beeches had given way to birch and willow and there was an endless flutter of small leaves, delicate against the sky. Nerwen heard the lilt and lap of a swift but shallow water. A splash, then cursing, and the easy, companionable laughter of men.
"There are those who say you were sent by the Valar to our aid," Luthien said, brushing aside the peridot curtain of a willow's hanging hair. "But mother would have received word from the Powers if that was so, and she has not."
Coming out from behind the curtain of leaves Nerwen saw a bright broad valley; a slope of poppy-scattered turf descending to a shingle and stone beach. The stream glinted where the sun struck it, but beneath was as brown and clear as fortified wine; all the pebbles richly coloured as agate in its peat stained depths. Finrod stood with Celeborn, knee deep in the water, his undertunic and half the length of his sun-shot hair soaked and dripping like a small rain into the flood. He was hoisting a spear out of the mud of the river bed, shaking his head and laughing.
Luthien paused on the bank, looking across at the two neri with a speculative gaze. "But Celeborn says that perhaps the Noldor realized they'd made a mistake in going in the first place. He says that you needed more room to quarrel in than was available in Aman." Luthien's grey gaze wandered back to Nerwen's face - testing for a reaction. A smile lurked about the corners of her perfect mouth, painting her beauty with mischief.
Nerwen held back laughter. She had come to Menegroth from Fingolfin's stronghold of Hithlum, where many songs were sung of the coming of the Noldor - how the moriquendi and the rude Sindar were overwhelmed with admiration and awe; how they trembled in their hidden fastnesses at the might and majesty of the people of Finwë. Would that the bards who spread this tale could hear the true thoughts of Elwë's folk, she thought. It would do them good.
Nevertheless, she drew down her brows and frowned at the Grey-elf Prince where he stood, slender, silver, poised in the rush of the stream. Finrod had already waved and was wading towards them, but Celeborn had not moved. "Does he indeed,'' she asked with hauteur.
He struck with the same unhurried sweep as a heron, and drew the spear up with a brown trout curling about its barbs, only then did he turn and favour Luthien with a complacent grin, and Nerwen with a look of uncertainty.
"I'm sure he didn't mean you," Luthien said, amused.
"I daresay he would have, had he known me then." she said, watching him - very Teleri he looked, in the water, his movements fluid as the stream, "We did not go from our first meeting on the best of terms."
Luthien laughed, "My kinsman has a way with first impressions." Then she handed the spear to Nerwen and went to Finrod's side. "Lord Finrod! You are soaked. Look - over there is a little bay where we might make a fire to dry you out. I have my tinderbox here, would you oblige me by fetching some wood?" She drew him away, leaving Nerwen and Celeborn facing one another in shared, uncomfortable silence.
A cloud passed over the sun and its shadow passed fleet across the trees, scudding like a living thing across the river, cold on her shoulders, then passing, leaving the warmth of the sunlight newly welcome. They watched it go together, and though she had many clever things planned to say she found that none of them exactly fit the moment. She had been envisaging a meeting in Menegroth, both of them in their finery, surrounded by courtiers who would admire the wisdom and the art of her reply. Not here, with him barefoot at the stream's edge, dirt on his hands and leaves in his unbound hair; like a child caught at truant from his tutor.
At length when she did not speak he sighed, and his dark gaze came to settle on her. "Lady," he said quietly, "Rightly you said to me, when we last met, that my words were presumptuous and unmannerly. I beg you, forget them, and let us begin anew. For if my speech was insulting my intention was not, and I would gladly be counted your friend, if you will have me."
Nerwen was taken aback. This was unforseen. She had indeed done him an injustice to compare him with Feanor, who had never in his life apologized for anything. Ridiculous though the comparison was, she was reminded of her father, turning back from rebellion, bearing the ridicule and contempt of his family by admitting that he was wrong. At the time she had thought it cowardly of him. Now she was coming to see it as a strange sort of strength. A flexible, resilient strength, like that of the best steel.
Impressed though she was, she felt oddly bereft. Some part of her had been looking forward to the argument - to matching him and forcing him to acknowledge her victory. Now that contest had been set aside; parried by this unexpected move. "Do you then demand back the word you hurled at me with such vigour?" she said, and felt a pang of regret. Galadriel. It was a beautiful name.
He laughed. "It was rather launched as an arrow, was it not? But no. It was a gift. Yours to use or discard as pleases you. I have no more part in it." He ducked his head and put down his catch on the grassy bank. Then he looked at her sideways with an expression of faint daring. "Your brother says that in Valinor you use a rod with a hook, and have not spear-fished before, which explains his clumsiness. Do you think you can do better than he?"
"Of long experience, I know I can." Nerwen boasted, and her mood soared, leaving her neither determined nor fell, not triumphant, nor grim, but only happy, as she had not felt since unrest came upon her people in Aman. So rare a feeling it was indeed that at first she could not remember its name.
Kilting her skirts, she slipped off her shoes and strode into the water. It was clean and cold. The small stones underfoot were rounded, slippery, making each step a matter of care. As she drew near to Celeborn the water deepened and grew dark. Its surface smoothed, but its current strengthened. Sunlight was stained topaz by the time it reached the stream bed, lighting a forest of swaying weed with a storm-like gold.
"Hold the spear like this, and raise it thus," said the Sinda, demonstrating. She mirrored him, determined to better all of his expectations.
"And then we wait."
Tiny crayfish scuttled among the stones and weed, their eyes on stalks, their backs painted in intricate designs. Freshwater crabs sidled out of the shade to grasp at empty light. The flood nudged at her knees, deliciously cool, and the scent of mallow and balm lay over the water. Warmth caressed the back of her neck from the last fruit of Laurelin, and the unfamiliar happiness grew until it filled her lungs like a song.
"There are no fish," she said.
"Because we were moving," Celeborn replied, "Which is why we prepare for the strike now, and then settle into stillness. You are to be - for them - a tree. Rooted, drowsy, drinking and thinking slow thoughts. Then they will come close to you, suspecting no harm."
"Is it not cruel, deceiving them thus?" she said, looking at him from the corner of her eye. She could see only his shoulder and hand, a sweep of bright hair and just the edge of a sweet, private smile.
"Finrod says you bait your hook with food, and they, receiving your gift, are drawn out to death with steel through their lips. Is that not equally cruel?"
"Aiya!" she laughed, "We are monsters, then, both of us."
"Still now. See - he comes."
This was also a trout, but of every colour - faint rose and citrine stripes glimmered on his sleek sides as he came nosing into the dark water, looking for cover. The fans of his tail worked with lazy grace and his eyes were cold yellow moons. Drifting, a weightless dragon of the deep, he passed under her shade, and for a moment she quailed, thinking of other times her hand had dealt death, pitying him.
But if I will not kill, I may not eat, She plunged the spear down with all her strength - it dived like a kingfisher. Impact jolted through her back and the tug and shudder of a life passing broke open memories of the slaughter of Alqualondë. Blood in the water. There was blood in the water. She recoiled, sick, assaulted by the past.
"Lady?" Celeborn was beside her. She looked at him and saw the faces of Teleri mariners; surprised by doom - confused, but not yet afraid, because they had not learned to conceive that elf might slay elf. "What is it? What is wrong?"
Aman's holiness had been spoiled that day. But Doriath...Doriath retained its innocence. Here, in the power of Melian, the elves were free of fear and guilt, as they had been in Valinor, before her family tainted it. She covered her eyes, and felt the pressure of his fingertips on her wrist - a little, inquiring touch, shy and concerned. They were like children, these dark elves, secure in their safety, untouched by Morgoth. A desire burned in her to keep them so, to protect them. By her ruin she could stand in places they dared not go. She would be their champion.
"What can I do?"
Shaking her head, she brought herself once more to composure. "Stay, it is nothing. Only I...I do not like to kill."
Such a hypocrite I am, she thought, as he took her arm gently, to steady her and help her to the bank, Such a hypocrite.
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