Sweat trickled down her brow and smudged the copper braids at her temples. She had been at the chessboard for hours – the streets outside had lost some of their golden sheen and were coming to a silver glow now. She liked it. Alqualondë came to life under the light of Telperion, not, unlike Tirion, under Laurelin. Now the pearl and silver of the harbour city took on a life truly its own. The Teleri were cunning craftsmen, a little crazy, and it showed in their architecture. One might walk along a side street and come across an ornament that seemed manifestly out of place, until a trick of the lights made it cast a unique and lifelike shadow on the building opposite. Not a single construction on any one street resembled the other. Even the King’s House in the main square was a rambling, charming construction, wreathed together by many styles. The irregularity was captivating, and beautiful to the eyes of all elves. It was, as Nerdanel always thought, a city in which it was possible to talk a mixture of languages, as indeed the Teleri did.
She took a minute to twist her hair out of the way and resumed playing. Her partner Eärnó was an old friend – his father was an amateur silversmith who had studied under Mahtan, and always sold him silver at half-price. Nerdanel, on an extended journey along the sea, had made Alqualondë her last stop to meet with their family and buy material for her own designs. She had begun working with her father scant years ago, but already there were people who knew her work and came regularly to her to commission this or that piece. She even had two students, of which fact she was a little proud.
“Tired?” Eärnó asked her with a grin.
She smiled back a touch smugly. “Before you? Never.”
He laughed and moved his pawn with dizzy speed. The bell rang outside.
“Tch,” he clicked his tongue, and then hopped up in alarm. “No, no, that must be Father. And I forgot the accounts.”
She laughed. “Then go get them and get to working, goldfish. I shall try and distract him.”
“Thank you, thank you, lovely Nerdanel,” he said fervently, and swept away to the shelves of reckoning books.
She ducked through the curtained doorway that separated the stores from the backroom. Standing in the light before her was a very young elf. Nerdanel went forward and smiled politely at him. “Welcome, may I help you?”
The elf was a Noldo, dark of hair, slightly shorter than she was. He stared at her out of intensely bright eyes and said nothing.
Mildly disconcerted, she tried again. “Good day, sir, were you looking for something in particular?”
“Yes,” he said. His voice was oddly deep and melodic. “I did not know it, but I was. And it seems I have found it.”
Nerdanel said nothing for a moment, uncertain of his meaning. Then she smiled, and in reply, he smiled too. His appearance changed when he did, the shadows lurking in his face fleeing as his eyes lit up. A tiny dimple, that rarest of birthmarks among elves, dipped happily in his left cheek.
“You have a dimple,” she noted. He frowned immediately.
“Yes,” he said. “It cannot be helped. Will you marry me?”
Nerdanel felt her jaw slacken. Elves had pursued her company before, but she had not been asked for her hand; at least, never with such alacrity. She blinked once or twice, found her voice and said, “No.”
The other elf seemed very surprised. “No,” he repeated.
Nerdanel regained her composure in some measure. “No. Now were you looking to buy silver, sir?”
“Pearls,” said the other elf in a daze. “I came to look for pearls in the Havens by the Sea. But the milk and fire of pearl is your skin – copper and bronze and gold your hair - nothing less than adamant for your eyes. And your voice – if I could make one thing that looked like the sound of your voice! That would be true art.”
Nerdanel thought the elf was mad, and misquoting some poet or the other. She told him both these things.
“Mad?” he said. “Aye, this is divine madness. Now I know what Father meant when he spoke of love that even the Valar may only dream of. Beauteous fire! Are you a Noldo?”
“Yes,” Nerdanel said shortly, part of her wary of continuing this conversation, and part eager to prolong it. “Mahtan the smith is my father.”
“Is he any good?” the other elf asked curiously.
“He is the best smith in Valinor,” Nerdanel said coldly.
“Lord Aulë is the best smith in Valinor,” her suitor corrected her. “And I will be equal to Him one day. The artist in me sees you as a jewel that houses a flame at its heart, a fair shade made fairer by the spirit within, even sadly concealed as you are by your shabby dress.”
Nerdanel felt unspeakably enraged. “It is not the place of a slip of a boy to remark upon a lady’s appearance,” she told him acidly.
“And the Noldo in me appreciates your sense of dignity even though you sell metal in a dim Teleri shop, your composed intelligence, your directness of speech. I will be fifty in five more years. If you like, we could wait until then.”
“We are not waiting for anything, sir,” she told him. “If you have no business with Master Telemno, I must ask you to leave.”
“I will read any poetry you wish me to,” he said. “And I will ask your father the smith if I may have your hand, if you wish that as well. I am building a house just outside Tirion, but we could live wherever you prefer – even right here, amongst the fisherfolk and the minstrels. I do not care. Even the Far Shores will be akin to starlit heaven where you are.”
“You do not even know my name,” she pointed out.
“I could give you a new name,” he said. His eyes shone. “I could give you a hundred new names, and each would be more beautiful than the last, and all would suit you.”
“Sir,” she said firmly, “your advances are gratifying, but I regret I must ask you to leave now.”
He looked at her. “Do you refuse me?”
“Yes,” she said.
He looked at her for a minute longer. The fire in him seemed to flare for a moment. Deliberately he ran up against the wall of the shop and kicked it savagely. A shelf overhead cracked and spilt unpolished pearl and mother-of-pearl over the shop floor. Nerdanel gasped.
“Are you well?” she asked anxiously.
“No,” he said, regaining his balance. “No, I am not well. I do not think I will ever be well again. But I had to do that or die.”
Nerdanel bit her lip in real consternation. Eärnó came out of the back room and stood looking from Nerdanel to the elf, to the fallen pearls. “Someone will have to pay for this,” he said mildly.
“I do not have coin,” said the elf calmly. “I apologise, I must leave now, or I might have mended it for you. Please repair it and send the charge to Curufinwë Finwion at the court of Aulë.”
Eärnó laughed, a little nervously. “Finwë of the Noldor?”
He nodded. “Curufinwë Fëanáro,” he said quietly, and left.
The sound of the sea roared into the ensuing silence in the dim room. Nerdanel stood rooted to her spot in distress.
“What just happened?” her friend asked her.
“He asked me to marry him,” she said, “and I refused.”
“Marry! Do you know him?”
“We met for the first time just now.”
Nerdanel looked at the floor. She remembered the elf kicking the wall, and she remembered his mad poetry, and the way he looked when he asked if she was refusing him, and that he was the son of her lord and king. She did not know whether to laugh or cry.
“Shall we clear this up before someone comes in again?” she asked Eärnó. “I do not want anyone to know.”
As she knelt to pick up the scattered pearls, glowing with gentle abandon in the dust, she was irritated but unsurprised to find that Curufinwë’s face lingered in every one of them.
A/N: Feanor's proposal of marriage was based partly on "Emily's Quest" by L M Montgomery; foolishly I failed to add this footnote at first posting. Thanks, Meril! And thank you Louis deBernieres for stylistic inspiration.
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