21. Chapter 20
"Númenor is far lovelier than I imagined. It is most difficult to believe all this was built by Mortals."
Ilmarë shook her head slowly as her gaze wandered over the town below. Armenelos was indeed beautiful, particularly now, with the sunset reaching out from the West to warm the white stone buildings and walls. The eryrie atop the palace tower provided an impressive view of Númenor's royal city. Ilmarë moved closer to the edge of the rounded chamber. She rested her hand against one of the carved stone pillars supporting the domed roof as she watched the people moving in the streets below.
"Númenor was raised from the sea by the hand of Eru and He is the source of its beauty. But, yes, these Mortals have enhanced that beauty, in their own way. More so has it been enhanced by the gifts of Valinor," Sorontur replied.
Ilmarë glanced at the eagle on the opposite side of the stone pillar. With a rustle of feathers, he unfolded his wings and stretched them out, each tip almost touching the column on either side of him.
"I am well pleased with my decision to visit here," Ilmarë said, and Sorontur paused his rearranging of his wings to give a loud snort as his head jerked to the side.
"You came only because I would not allow you to refuse me as you refused Melian the many times she has asked," Sorontur said, fixing his golden eyes on Ilmarë.
But she pointedly ignored him and kept her eyes on the city below. "Melian made one visit here alone after the island was raised and has journeyed three more times since Thingol's return. That can hardly be considered 'many'."
Sorontur's silent inspection of her at last coaxed a sigh from Ilmarë. "You are right, Sorontur; even those few times were far too many," Ilmarë said, remembering how happy Melian had been to see her arrive at Armenelos with Sorontur. There had been joy in Melian's eyes when she introduced Ilmarë to Elros Tar-Minyatur, the king of Númenor and the descendant of Thingol and Melian's beloved Lúthien.
Elros was wise and good - Ilmarë could see it in his eyes and sense it in his heart –though Ilmarë sensed something more than just the nobility of a ruler. An undercurrent of strength ran through him. A sense of power, but a sense of peace as well. Ilmarë had nodded in respect to Elros, thinking that surely some of Luthien's renowned strength and power had survived through the Ages to flow in the blood of this one. He was among the Young Ones, the Children, yes…but something of the Ancient Ones lived in him as well.
Ilmarë's shame at her selfishness now returned. She shook her head and said, "I must admit I only agreed to come with you because Melian was so upset by my refusal this time. She would not tell me why, but this visit seemed to be of great importance to her. After she and Thingol left the shame of it gnawed at me, that I would refuse my friend so simple a request."
The eagle looked at her curiously. "Thingol was not upset with you for refusing?"
"I am certain he was. Thingol is frequently upset with me for one thing or another," Ilmarë said and frowned. "I will not allow him to make decisions on my behalf and he finds that very displeasing. He treats me as though I were one of those young Elven offspring. Me…" she said with disbelief and an indignant glance at Sorontur, "…one of the Maiar. It is ludicrous for any being to believe that one of our Order would require the guidance of an Elf. His behavior is highly annoying…" Her indignant expression softened into a grudging smile "…and yet oddly comforting."
Amusement sparked in Sorontur's golden eyes as he said, "There are many who believe Thingol's wisdom and power to be the equal of those in our Order, Ilmarë, and I would be among them. Nevertheless, Thingol does seem condescending at times, but he means well. He does not intend to be high-handed, it is merely his nature. He ruled without equal in Middle-earth for many years and he is accustomed to saying 'do this', and it is done. Yet all good rulers have only their subjects' best interest at heart and Thingol was a good ruler…though he was not infallible."
Sorontur turned away from Ilmarë to look down upon the slowly darkening city. "There are none of us so powerful that we cannot be humbled by our own poor choices." He fixed his gaze on her once more and said, "There is no shame in making a mistake, Ilmarë; there is only shame in not learning from it."
The smile disappeared from Ilmarë's face and she held back a sigh. She did not wish to hear more words of wisdom, regardless of how well intentioned they were. Always they counseled her on what she must do…Eönwë, Varda, Thingol, Melian, Sorontur, even Estë and Irmo…all but the one being she had fully expected unwanted counsel from. Manwë offered no rebuke for her folly, no demands for Ilmarë to cast away memories still dear to her, and because of that she was now more at ease in his presence than any other. It seemed as though the chasm between them had at last been filled. She could not comprehend why the others could not leave her to her own decisions, as Manwë did.
"I am here, am I not, Sorontur?" Ilmarë said, staring up at the stars now emerging from the darkened sky, though even that peaceful view did nothing to quell the irritation rising within her. "I rectified my mistake in refusing Melian. As for my other mistakes, I will not discuss them. They are of no concern to anyone other than myself and Ruš…" Ilmarë took a deep breath. Not even in her anger would she speak his name. "…and he who abandoned me. You are as condescending to me as Thingol and Eönwë. I have made my own decisions and I live with the consequences. Now I will speak of it no further."
Sorontur did not return her harsh sentiments but his silence was accusation enough. Ilmarë regretted her angry words. She knew it was not Sorontur or Thingol who deserved her anger. The one who truly deserved it was far beyond her reach now and even should she ever see him again, he would feel no guilt for her pain. Sauron dealt pain and suffering to all. Deceiving her must have been a trifling thing, simply a means to an end. The one Ilmarë had loved would never cause her such pain, but Rušurayan lived only in her memories. He was Sauron now. The others must give her time to learn to accept that he was gone. Though she would never admit it to the others, Ilmarë herself now questioned whether or not that day would ever come. A soft rustling of feathers drew her attention.
"Very well," Sorontur said, unfolding his wings and moving to the edge of the chamber. "We will speak of it no further." He perched between the two columns, his feet gripping the stone edge and balancing above the sheer drop from the tower to the courtyard below. "Will you join me on my evening flight?"
"No, I will remain here. The King's guests will be leaving soon and I will return to the palace and join Melian. Until then I will sit alone and enjoy the peace of the stars and the newborn night."
Sorontur shook his head in disapproval and said, "You wander in your own twilight, Ilmarë. Memories are no substitute for a life full lived."
With a powerful flap he rose from the tower, making a wide circle in the sky before turning west and disappearing into the night.
Ilmarë frowned as she watched him depart. "Manwë's eagles have grown pompous if they imagine those of their own Order will cherish their words of wisdom as do the Children of Eru. Would that I had taken a form capable of flight perhaps I could make a habit of flinging parting barbs and then taking to the air."
Though Sorontur was not close enough to hear her words, he was not so far away that Ilmarë could not send her thoughts for him to hear. Her concentration wavered; someone was climbing the flight of stone stairs to the tower. She waited patiently as the footsteps drew closer, knowing full well who was behind her before she heard the voice.
"Am I disturbing you?"
Ilmarë turned and nodded her head respectfully. "No, you are not, Tar-Minyatur. I am honored by your presence."
He gave a slight bow as he returned the nod. "As am I by yours. Please, I have told you before, you may call me Elros. You need only refer to me as Tar-Minyatur in formal, public situations, and as you do not attend those, there is no reason to use my title."
"I must apologize again for my absence," Ilmarë said, looking at Elros as he came to stand next to her. "I would have been pleased to attend and Melian and Thingol were sorely upset that they could not join you either. Not being able to become acquainted with your sibling was a great sorrow to them both. But it is not allowed. We of Valinor are not allowed to have contact with those of Middle-earth. The Valar fear the potential for interference and so have forbidden it."
"I understand, Ilmarë. Melian explained this to me long ago, upon our first meeting in the early days of Númenor, when the travelers from Middle-earth were far more numerous than they are now. Those visits are now extremely rare. But this was a special occasion." Elros watched a coach enter the courtyard below and stop before the wide marble steps of the palace. "I had expected my guests to leave a week ago, well before Melian and Thingol's arrival. Yet I was not disappointed when they decided to extend their stay. As I said, this was an occasion of great importance to me."
Far below in the courtyard, the large doors of the palace opened and two Elves emerged. Upon closer inspection Ilmarë realized only one was an Elf and the other was something else. A small crowd of people followed them and among them Ilmarë recognized Elros's sons and their families. The group remained at the top of the stairs as the two slowly continued down the marble steps to the waiting coach. One of the departing guests had silver hair that gleamed even in the twilight, and the shine of it caught Ilmarë's attention.
"That one, with the silver hair…he is kin to Thingol?" Ilmarë asked, remembering Thingol speaking with pride of the silver hair seen only in those of his family.
"Yes. That is Círdan, son of Thingol's brother and Lord of the Grey Havens," Elros replied. "It was his ship that brought my brother to Númenor."
"I have heard tell of Círdan's unsurpassed skills as a shipwright - on more than one occasion." Ilmarë added and smiled. "His father and cousin are quite proud of him, and he is well thought of among the Ainur." She focused on the second figure and asked, "Forgive me, but would you tell me again your brother's name?"
"Elrond. They call him Elrond Peredhel, the Half-elven. He is the counselor to the High King of the Noldor in Middle-earth."
Ilmarë studied the long dark hair, the grey eyes, and the distinctive physical features of the Half-elven. "Remarkable. I can discern no difference between the two of you…" She paused and frowned.
Elros turned to her and asked, "What is it?"
Ilmarë watched the two figures continue down the stairs. "I was mistaken. There is no discernible physical difference, yet the two of you are not the same. There is power in him, but it is not focused. Not as it is in you. It is as though there were something unfulfilled in him."
Elros nodded and looked back down at the two figures climbing into the coach, then his gaze turned toward the city.
"Does this city look familiar to you? Its design was based on that of another city, one that was destroyed many years ago."
Ilmarë studied the city now shrouded by the gathering dusk. Something about it had seemed familiar to her upon first flying over it with Sorontur, but she had not given it any thought since. The city rose up from the ground like a mountain, each level circled by a wall of white stone and each wall entered through a gate. Each gate was of differing make: the first of carved wood studded with iron nails, the second a slab of solid gray stone, graven bronze was the third, the fourth of iron, traced with shapes of many trees. The fifth was carved of marble as white as the city itself, and ornamented with a silver moon, the White Tree and flowers made of pearls. The Tree of the Sun graced the sixth gate, a gate of gold, and the seventh gate was polished steel, gleaming in the sun like molten starlight. The levels between each gate were wide and filled with many houses and trees, but the uppermost level was by far the widest and contained the grandest homes. Just inside the Gate of Steel sat a stately fountain and in its spreading circle of silver water was reflected the tall white tower rising from the center of the palace, on which Ilmarë and Elros now stood.
"Gondolin," Ilmarë said absently as she looked down at the city, "the Hidden City of the Elves in Middle-earth. It is as Tuor described Gondolin. You created this city in its image."
"Tuor told you of it?"
Ilmarë heard the wistful tone in Elros's voice and smiled at him. For a moment she had forgotten she was speaking to Tuor's grandson.
"Yes, many years ago, after he first arrived in Valinor. He was the only Mortal I had ever seen until I came here to Númenor. He spoke of Gondolin as one speaks of something dear to them that has been lost forever."
"Yes, it was his home for many years. That is why I built Armenelos in the image of Gondolin. In honor of Tuor and Turgon, my ancestors."
Elros sighed as he watched the coach driving away from the palace. "My brother and I are like Gondolin and Armenelos…alike to the eye, but the spirit that fills us and guides us is very different. Gondolin was an Elven city, built by the Elves and filled with their energy, their lives. Armenelos is a Mortal city, we Mortals built it and each of us will add to it what we can before our time here ends. What time we Mortals have is limited, therefore we are driven by the need to do what we can in the life allowed to us. Elves see this as impulsive, even reckless or foolhardy, for they may take centuries to make a decision and centuries more to act on it, and still have untold ages ahead of them. They perceive time differently than Mortals do, and in turn, we tend to view them as indecisive or sluggish. They cannot understand why we do not enjoy time more fully and we do not understand why they waste time so needlessly. Do you understand what I am trying to say?"
Ilmarë turned and looked at him. "Yes. You and your brother are physically the same, but within each of you is a different spirit. Was the difference always apparent?"
"To me it was. I believe it was to Elrond as well, though he would never acknowledge it. He believes I abandoned him by choosing death. He does not understand that even if my body did not die, my spirit would. I would be no happier with an Elven fate than he would be with a Mortal fate. No matter how I explain it to him, still he does not understand my decision."
Elros sighed again and said, "But that is also part of his Elven nature. Pain and unhappiness are not things he handles well. Elves have difficulty letting go of their pain and the past and moving on to the future. They prefer to live in a past they cannot change in place of a future yet to be chosen. Mortals must learn to accept pain and unhappiness and move on, for if we did not it would waste the whole of our lives. I hope that, given enough time, Elrond will let go of his pain and find joy in life. I had hoped I would live to see it during my lifetime, but it was not meant to be."
"It is still possible, Elros. Do not give up hope."
Elros continued to watch the departing coach as it disappeared into the night. "No, Ilmarë, it is not. The path of my life has nearly reached its end. Tonight was the last time I shall see my brother until the prophecies are fulfilled and Arda is remade."
Ilmarë could not find the proper words with which to respond. Now she understood why this trip to Númenor had been so important to Melian. Ilmarë had never known a Mortal before who had not been granted the life of the Eldar. To know that the being standing before her would soon be gone from this world to an unknown place gave her pause. She knew well the limitless space and time that existed beyond the confines of Arda, but the dwelling place of Mortal souls was unknown even to the Ainur.
"Are you not frightened?" she asked.
"No, I am not," Elros said, turning his eyes away from the carriage on the road to look up at the night sky. "There was a time when it frightened me. When I was young and the end still so far away, when I still had so much in my life yet to do. But now I am ready. My wife has gone on years before me and without her there is an emptiness that cannot be filled. I have watched my children grow into adulthood and bear families of their own. I have watched Númenor become a beautiful land and a kingdom I may pass on to my children and my people. I have lived a long and happy life and now I am weary. It is my time."
Ilmarë had not noticed before the touches of white in Elros's dark hair or the lines of age creasing the skin around his mouth and eyes, but now she saw them clearly. Just as she sensed the tired yet peaceful state of mind emanating from him. In that moment she envied him, envied his freedom to be shed of this world and journey to a place of rest. The time stretching out before her now seemed unbearably long.
"Do you wish to know what I spoke of with my brother in these last days with him?"
Ilmarë would have said no, that she did not wish to intrude on his privacy, but Elros did not wait for an answer.
"I told him that a life, no matter how long or short, was wasted on regret and unhappiness. That the heart is like a vessel – if it is closed when empty it will always remain so. Only by opening it again will it ever be filled." Elros met her eyes and one corner of his mouth raised in a half-grin. "Do you not agree, Ilmarë?"
Ilmarë saw the challenge in his eyes and knew those words had been meant for her as well. She wanted to become indignant, as she usually did when others offered their opinions on her choices, but she found it difficult to muster any irritation. She could not say exactly why: perhaps it was the way they were spoken, or the kind concern in his voice, or possibly that there was no lecture or accusation to accompany his plainly spoken words. Whatever the reason, Ilmarë found it hard to dismiss Elros's philosophy.
"I do agree," she said and gave a small shake of her head. "I believe I have sorely underestimated the wisdom of your kind."
"I am not so wise, Ilmarë," Elros said and the smile left him as he looked again at the departing carriage, now small and distant. "If I were then I would have found a way to ease my brother's pain."
Again, Ilmarë had no response. She knew she had no words of comfort that would take the pain from Elros's eyes when he thought of his brother's unhappiness. Ilmarë would have been irritated at his brother's obstinacy were it not for the fact that she had brought the same unhappiness to those who loved her. There had been enough pain, she decided as she looked out over the city of Armenelos. She would not allow her mistakes to bring any more sorrow to those who cared for her. Once again, she thought of Elros and his choice, and of what a heavy burden that decision must have been for both he and his brother.
"Do you ever regret your choice? Regret that you did not choose the life of the Eldar?"
"I will not lie and say I have not, for I have doubted that decision at times. But I was drawn to this path and knew that however painful, it was the one that I must walk. There are those who may make their own fate, Ilmarë, but some of us are given a fate that is beyond our power to change."
A wind blew in from the sea, a cold wind that pierced Ilmarë's skin and chilled her, making her cross her arms over her chest in an effort to warm herself. She looked to Elros but he was gone. She was alone, with only the embrace of the cold wind wrapping around her…
Ilmarë sat up in bed and looked around. The doors to her bedroom balcony stood wide open and a stout woman stood in the doorway, her full cheeks ruddy from the frigid air blowing into the room.
"Haleth, what are you doing?"
Haleth reached for the doors and pulled them shut, smiling at Ilmarë. "Watching the snow, Miss Ilmarë. Probably be the last we'll see this season. Just yesterday morning I noticed some crocus pokin' their green fingers up through the snow. Spring's a-comin'. It'll only be a few weeks now, sure as the mornin'."
"Then I shall be leaving soon," Ilmarë said, hugging the blankets tightly around her as she sat up in bed.
Haleth went to the wardrobe and pulled a dress of its hanger. "You mean your trip to the south? Oh and I bet you're excited about that." She came to the bed and laid the dress out across the foot of it, clucking when she saw Ilmarë's distant stare. "I say, child, it's only a short visit and you'll get to see some pretty country along the way. You've a look on your face like it's the end of the world. Come on now and get dressed. Your breakfast is waitin'."
Ilmarë was still saddened by the dream of Elros, now long since dead. She was saddened for Elrond and the thought of his having carried his pain alone for so many years. Her first thought was to go and find him and tell him of the dream but Elrond had been strangely distant the past few weeks and almost seemed to be avoiding her. She would not have told him regardless, because then she would have to tell him about the other dreams she had in the past months, and the tale of her ill-fated love for Sauron would come to light. No, that would not be acceptable. Only Ereinion knew of her dreams and that was through no choice of Ilmarë's.
As Ilmarë watched the Mortal woman hurry off toward the door a sudden thought struck her.
"Haleth," Ilmarë called, hurriedly getting out of bed and sticking her feet in her house slippers as she grabbed her dressing robe from the bedside chair, "how old are you?"
Haleth gave a little laugh as she glanced over her shoulder at Ilmarë. "That's not a fit question to be asking a woman. I'll just say that I'm old enough. Older than you, by any means."
Haleth's assumption that she was so much older than Ilmarë was usually amusing but Ilmarë was more concerned with other things. "You are not close to reaching the end of the usual Mortal lifetime, are you?" she asked, coming to stand behind Haleth as she reached the door.
"Goodness but you do ask some odd questions, Miss Ilmarë." Haleth stopped with her hand on the doorknob. "I'm gettin' on in years but I've still got a good many left ahead of me, if that's what you're meanin'. Why are you on about such things?"
Ilmarë shook her head. "Just a dream, Haleth, one that did not leave me even after I had awakened."
Haleth patted Ilmarë's arm. "I see now – one of those that sticks in your head and gives you a bad feeling. Best thing for those is to go about your business as usual. That chases away what's left of a bad dream."
"Haleth," Ilmarë said as Haleth opened the door. "I…thank you. For all that you have done for me. You have done me a great many kindnesses and I shall always be thankful to you."
Haleth made a dismissive noise and waved her hand, but she smiled, showing that the gratitude pleased her. "Go on with you. You'd best get dressed now and hurry downstairs."
Ilmarë let out a sigh as the door closed behind Haleth. She could only hope that she would return to Valinor before old age claimed the Mortal friends she had made. That was something she did not care to see and she more clearly understood Melian's desire to leave Middle-earth and not return. Though death seemed to be a release to those who were ready, it appeared to be a very unpleasant experience for those left behind.
Walking to the balcony doors, Ilmarë opened them and stepped outside. Though she despised the cold, she found the snow to be beautiful, like a glittering white blanket spread across the lands, hiding the unattractiveness of the dead landscape and making the world seem untouched. She pulled her dressing robe tighter around her and looked down from the balcony at the already snow-covered lands. Even the sad skeletons of the leafless trees seemed graceful wearing their snowy mantles. Ilmarë sighed and the mist of her breath hung in the air like a thin cloud for a moment then quickly disappeared. She thought of Taniquetil and its snow covered peaks and the longing for home filled her again.
As she turned to go back into the house she stepped into a deep patch of snow, the icy cold snow spilling over the top of her foot and into her slipper. She let out a yelp and stepped back too quickly and her other foot landed upon a spot of snow that had frozen to a smooth surface. In the blink of an eye she was on her back, staring up at the gray sky and the white flakes drifting down toward her while she winced at the pain starting in her thigh and making its way up her back. She closed her eyes and let out a low, frustrated growl, irritated at herself and this ungainly body.
She heard the door to her bedroom open and a voice call her name. When she opened her eyes Ereinion stood over her.
"Are you hurt?" he asked.
She sighed and shook her head, hearing the snow crunch beneath her as she did. When he saw she was not injured, Ereinion did his best not to smile, but his best was a very poor effort indeed.
"Did you fall again?"
Ilmarë glared at him and started to push herself up from the floor of the balcony. "No, I preferred the view from down here. Of course I fell."
"Let me help you up," Ereinion said, taking her arm and pulling her to her feet. He held onto her arm as he helped her inside and closed the door. His smile continued to grow wider as he brushed the snow from her hair and back.
"Do you find my ungainliness so amusing, Ereinion?" Ilmarë asked as she rubbed her cold, sore backside.
"No, it is not that. Seeing you lying there reminded me of something my mother used to tell my sister when she was very young and mooning over some Elf she imagined herself to be in love with. 'Foolish girls end up on their backs', my mother would tell her, although I do not believe she was speaking of taking a spill on the ice."
He laughed and Ilmarë forgot her irritation and smiled. "I was not aware you had a sister. Does she live in Lindon?"
Ereinion's face grew serious and he looked away and cleared his throat. "No. She has passed to the Halls of Mandos. Orcs killed her after Nargothrond was destroyed. The men of the forests found her body and buried her, and the hill there bore her name until Beleriand was sunk into the sea."
"Ereinion, forgive me. I did not know." Ilmarë touched his arm.
He shook his head and said, "No, no. You do not have to apologize. The thought of her suffering does bother me, but I have no doubt she was re-embodied after she reached Mandos. I will see her again one day, when I go to Valinor."
Ilmarë nodded and distractedly ran her hand along her backside and thigh again.
"Are you certain you are not hurt, Ilmarë?"
"No, I am fine. Just a little sore."
"You should have Elrond take a look at that."
Ilmarë sighed. "I do not think that is a good idea. He has not been too keen on my company these past few weeks. Have you not noticed his penchant for finding reasons why he must travel to Harlindon and stay with Círdan?" Ereinion's avoidant gaze told her that he had noticed. "He is probably leaving again today, is he not?"
Ereinion reluctantly looked at her and nodded. "Yes… but he has not left yet," he quickly added. "I left him just a moment ago in the library. If you hurry you can still catch him."
Ilmarë shook her head and Ereinion said, "You should go to him and just ask him what is the matter. I am certain there is a good reason for his avoidance of you. He would not intentionally cause you hurt. You know that."
"Yes, I do. Very well, I will ask him. Thank you, Ereinion."
"I will see you downstairs," he said and started to turn away.
"Wait, Ereinion," Ilmarë said, putting her hand on his arm to stop him, "did you have a reason for coming to find me?"
"I know you had another dream last night. I wanted to make certain you were all right."
"I am, but thank you for being concerned."
Impulsively, Ilmarë reached up and placed a kiss on Ereinion's cheek. She had kissed his cheek before but this time she allowed her mouth to linger for a moment, thinking how much she enjoyed breathing in his scent and feeling his skin beneath her lips. She caught herself and moved back with an awkward smile and a burning heat rose in her face when she saw Ereinion's flustered expression.
"You are welcome, Ilmarë" he said, not meeting her gaze. "You should hurry before Elrond leaves."
He hurried out of the room and when the door was closed, Ilmarë pulled of the wet dressing robe and flung it to the floor, cursing herself under her breath as she did.
What is wrong with me? I have embarrassed Ereinion with my impropriety. I am overstepping the bounds of our friendship and I cannot allow that.
She knew Ereinion had kept up his visits to Anarríma, for there were times when he would journey to Harlindon and stay away overnight, though not as often as Elrond did. But keeping her impulses in check had been a challenge during the past month. At times she would feel the needs of her body rise within her, like wild things scrambling to escape, and it was all she could do to contain them. Maintaining control was growing more and more difficult, and the voice she had begun to hear within her thoughts had not helped.
At first, Ilmarë thought it was her imagination and had asked Adanel if she ever heard anything of the sort in her own head, to which Adanel had replied yes. Her conscious spoke to her at times, the voice of reason that helped make decisions or remind one when they were doing wrong. Ilmarë just assumed that her Mortal form had come equipped with this conscious as well, but it was a source of unrest for her. Although Adanel had said that having a conscious could be a tremendous burden at times. Ilmarë felt certain that must be true.
But now was not the time for pondering. She grabbed her dress from the bed and hurried into the washroom to ready herself. Elrond would give the reason for his avoidance of her, Ilmarë decided, even if she had to force it from him.