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Oak and Willow: 9. A Mistimed Blow
"Do not take out your ill temper on me, my lord Prince," she said scathingly, "You lost. Had it been my pleasure, you would be dead."
Celeborn tossed the shield on the ground and kicked it, though not so harshly as to do it harm. "If I bore my own weapons, you would be dead," he said. "That lock would have broken the blade of your sword, an' I used an axe." He took off his helmet and combed his fingers through his hair - brighter than the polished steel. "And I am accustomed to wielding a weapon in the off hand, not a shield - that would have been a killing blow, had I my knife."
Nerwen put her own shield down more reverently on the turf, where it all but disappeared into long grass and waving buttercups. Where they had fought a swathe lay trampled, but it began to spring up again even as she watched. The practice ground was deserted. Apart from them the only living things were meadowlarks singing in the twilight. The sun was going down - a great wrack and glory of madder and gold in the west, and the heavens seemed all around them here, bathing their mail and their weapons in glory.
"You fall instinctively into your own style," she said, "Whenever you are pressed. And while it's a good style with the axe, it will not help you learn the sword."
"I begin to wonder why I want to."
By the side of the meadow there lay a fallen tree, left to provide homes for mushrooms and hedgehogs, which also served as a bench. Celeborn sat there, and after a pause, looking out at the curtain of fire between herself and the West, she came and sat by him. It was peaceful. Mist had begun to arise beneath the trees, and spill in long runnels of cool translucence out among the cornflowers. Dimly, in the East, stars began to shine, and the moon was a crescent of white in a pale blue sky.
"The sword is the weapon of Kings," Nerwen said, reflectively, "Symbol of power and authority. The axe ...just makes you look like an overgrown dwarf."
Celeborn laughed and stretched out his long legs, linking his hands behind his head. "I little care what I look like, and I am no King. Besides, the axe is the traditional weapon of my people - why should I be other than they?"
Over the last few months, Nerwen thought, they had done much together - he keeping her company while Finrod became more and more absorbed in the planning of Nargothrond - and this was one of the things she found most frustrating about him. "But surely you will be a king one day? Your birth entitles you, and you have strength and wit enough. What is lacking?"
"Only the desire. Elu is my king, and I am content."
His contentment was all too obvious, and she found she both admired and begrudged it, depending on her mood. It was very alien to her - she had inherited in full the drive and restlessness of the Noldor, who understood neither the settled security of the Vanyar nor the drifting happiness of the Teleri. "Yet I should like to be a Queen," she said with tart asperity.
His eyes widened, as though he had seen something astonishing in this reply, and then he looked away with a slow, delighted smile.
"Is it so amusing to you, that I might rule my own country?" she said, nettled "What makes you grin so?"
"My own thoughts."
"Share them with me then."
"I will not," he unstoppered his water flask to take a drink, passed it to her, "I deem the time not ripe."
Taking a mouthful of watered wine, she felt herself filled up with annoyance. How could he be so blunt at some questions and so provokingly silent at others? "I have learned many things from Melian these past months," she said, threateningly. She would not be made the butt of some private joke. "I could ferret out these thoughts of yours did you will it or no."
"Yes, you could." he looked back, his voice gone hard with warning, "And the cost would be our friendship. I will not have you meddle in my mind like Morgoth in the thoughts of his orcs."
The moon had waxed and waned a half dozen times and more since they had met, and in that time Nerwen had begun to see that beneath the rough surface of the Prince of Doriath there lay a complex and intriguing man, surprising wise, surprisingly kind. But it could not be denied that his turn of phrase was unfortunate in the extreme. "I would not by any means emulate the Enemy," she said, managing to be light hearted about the slight. It was she, after all, who had offered the first offence. "Keep your secrets - I doubt they could insult me worse than this comparison."
He laughed and stood, stretching. "Well, I'm to work - I hold court today. You?"
"To Melian, she and Luthien are teaching me to spin the web of those grey cloaks you Sindar wear. It is quite an art!"
"Indeed. Shall I see you here tomorrow?"
"Before that, even," Nerwen gathered up her shield. Her feigned amusement transformed into anticipation. She could not resist a parting dart. "For I'm sure you will not miss Daeron's recital this dawn-tide, and I would hope to hear your insights into the work. If they are not too delicate to share."
Celeborn sang to himself on the way to the bath, his court robes over his arm and his heart light. 'Should you not like to learn the use of a sword? I will teach you, if you would.' She had said, little over a month ago, in the rain, as they stood beneath the same oak and looked out at Finrod, blade-dancing in the downpour. Finrod had seemed a flame unquenched, leaping, radiant in the grey, and Celeborn had thought of little but the beauty of it, in taking up the offer. Well...that, and the excuse to spend more time with the lady. He did not know then, he believed that she did not know, even now, it was the root of a seedling which might grow up into hope.
'I will teach you the sword.'... 'The sword is the weapon of kings.'... 'Do you not want to be a king?'.... 'I want to be a Queen.'
She was mighty, fair, incisive, and endearingly vain. He enjoyed her company and believed she liked his. But this was the first indication that - however vague the stirrings - she was beginning to wonder if their futures might run together.
He bathed with no awareness of the water. Folk greeted him and he noticed the greetings a little to late to return them, distracted as he was. Dressing absently he checked twice to be sure he was neat, and still did not know.
If no one interfered, in the next five or ten years he could take this little seed and nurse it into a great tree beneath which they could both shelter. Only time was needed, and that he had in abundance.
It was going to be hard to maintain a pretence of Magisterial sternness, when he so felt like grinning for joy.
The workroom of Melian was full of lamplight, blended of gold and silver in a heartbreaking echo of the Trees. The walls were covered with tapestries and storied hangings of many colours; depictions of the Valar, of the garden of Lorien. A cunning mirror brought a square of the night sky down into the cave, so they could look out as if from a window at Menelvagor, bestriding the sky. To the left hung a scene of Oromë, discovering the elves by the waters of Cuivienen. To the right - all pearl and mithril on a sea of palest blue - a depiction of Swan Ships off the coast near Tol Eressea. This last, Nerwen thought, must be taken from dream, or vision, for Melian could never have seen the ships in waking life. And now she never would. They had been burnt - Feanor destroying the master-work of others in chasing his own masterpiece, betraying his kin who had followed him to their own ruin, leaving his brothers to walk to Ennor, across the grinding ice, or to perish in the attempt.
She did not look at that picture as she sorted yarn and warped the great loom.
"I want more gold for this," said Luthien, and rose to pause in the doorway, "I will run down to the workshops and see if the naugrim have any." She leaned over, plucking a mist grey thread from Nerwen's tangle, "This one should be in the sixth shed, not the fourth. Is there aught I can get for you?"
"Thank you no."
On Luthien's departure, there was silence for a while, though Melian's gaze beat upon Nerwen's bent head like the heat of the sun. Then the Queen of Doriath said, "Nerwen, have you received welcome here?"
"I have, Lady," she smiled, "As though I came home from a great journey."
"Yet you repay us with silence."
Nerwen looked at her hands and wished fervently that she was outside at swordplay once more. True, Elwë and Melian, Luthien and...and all their people, did not deserve this of her. Feanor did not deserve her protection. But she would not be like him, she would not backstab her own kindred. Not now, when Maedhros' torment and Fingon's heroism had drawn the Noldor back into one folk. "Though it grieves me to do you discourtesy," she said, "The secrets I have are not my own to share."
Melian withdrew the weight of her glance and stitched the white wing of a bird in flight. Into the silence her voice fell both serene and commanding, like the voices of the ocean. "The Noldor speak never of the Valar, nor have they brought any message - not even from Olwë or his people, who went away. And if we speak to them of returning they say 'we may not' and then lie. For what cause were the high people of your folk driven forth as exiles from Aman? And what evil lies on the sons of Feanor that they are so haughty and so fell?"
"We were not driven forth." Nerwen raised her chin, her pride flaring, "We came of our own will. For vengeance for Finwë, and for the Silmarils." Then she told Melian of the glorious jewels and their theft. But still she said nothing of the Kinslaying, or the Doom of Mandos, or the Oath before Iluvatar which had already chained the sons of Feanor in such madness.
"You have not told me all." Melian said, her face as still as a mountainside. Beneath her fingers there spread the flutter of Telperion's leaves, many shades of dark green and silver. Her presence was golden and heavy, like the light which broods on earth before a storm. "But from what you have told me, I guess much. A shadow you would cast over your journey here, but it is a shadow thrown to cover evil. Deeds have been done which Thingol should know, for his guidance."
In her childhood in Aman, Nerwen had not conceived that light could have a pressure, that holiness and innocence could cause pain, but it was so. She felt torn apart under the Maia's gaze. I have found folk I want to belong with, and I do not wish to deceive them. But I do not want them to know, either. I could not bear it if ...they... were to look on me with abhorrance.
She despised her pain. Yet I am Nerwen, daughter of Finarfin of the royal house of Finwë, and no umanyar is going to make me feel like this. "Perhaps," she said, simply, "But he will not hear of them from me."
***p>Luthien returned with her hands full of overflowing light and poured on the table gold thread as fine as gossamer and gems pierced for stitching. Then Melian rose. Her hair fell about her like a cloak; shadow enfolding splendour. "I must speak with Elu," she said, and departed. When she had gone, it felt as though summer had passed to autumn.
Nerwen came to stir the gems with her finger, to watch the ripples of colour they made as they worked upon the lamplight. She did not like the dwarvish step-cut in which they had been shaped, which made the colour seem richer, but reduced their sparkle. Now, however, was not the time to say so.
"Bad?" said Luthien.
Nerwen looked up. "Bad enough." She tried to smile. Her mouth had forgotten how.
"Aye. We have all seen this darkness in you," Luthien said lightly, "And wondered at it. And at last Mother said she would come out and ask you. Did you tell her?"
"No," Nerwen said, "But I wonder at you. You have welcomed us and feasted us, learned and taught and played with us, and we thought...we thought you saw nothing until now. Why would you be so kind if you knew we were marred?"
Luthien unwound some gold thread and held it up as if testing the colour against Nerwen's hair. She shrugged and gave a comely grimace of resignation. "You are family. Is that not enough? I just wish you would tell us, so we could have the argument and the reconciliation, and get it over with. You will have to speak, at least, before you and Celeborn get married. It cannot be the sort of secret you keep from your husband."
"My what?" This was so unexpected that Nerwen recoiled from it as from a literal blow, taking a step back, raising her hands defensively. Her mind likewise reeled and for a time she was speechless, though aware enough to be insulted by the clear sincerity in Luthien's eyes. "I think you have misunderstood. If we have been close it has been as friends. I do not regard him in such a light, and he, I am certain, does not see me so."
The past half year wavered as an image caught on water. 'Galadriel' she thought. Even the best of friends might consider the gift of a name too personal to hazard, but it was customary for lovers. She had slapped him back for it, and he had seemed to take the correction, but suppose he had merely feigned a change of heart, deceived her since, regarding his intent?
"He does though," said Luthien warily, "Love you, I mean. He said so." She sat down, turning a great sapphire over and over in her fingers, watching it, crestfallen. "I am sorry. I thought you knew."
"He said so?" if she had been incensed before that anger was now white hot. She clenched her fists and tried not to loom over the Sinda, but she could not keep the contempt from her voice. "And has he been saying this to all of Menegroth and I the last to hear?"
"You are unjust!" Now Luthien stood, her grey eyes glinting like spearpoints, to match Nerwen stare for stare. "He told Father, who had the right to know - in case he wished to veto such an alliance - and Father told me. And I would not have said a word had I known your mind. Though I do not understand why you are so up in arms - you are together all the time, you light up when you see him, you even laugh, sometimes. And if rumour flies round Doriath that you will soon be wed it is not I but your own behaviour that has made it seem so."
"I..." Nerwen felt huge with intolerable emotion. "I must think on this." Surely this was how Maedhros had felt in Thangorodrim - in agony he was helpless to relieve whether he writhed and cried out, or lay still. She had been betrayed by her closest friend, and now she was being blamed for it? "I must..."
She turned and swept through the door, unsure if she wanted to do murder or to weep.
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