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Oak and Willow: 11. The Eye of the Beholder
"Maybe inlays of jet in floor and walls, to soften the divide," she said to herself, wondering what to do to improve it, "And moonstone in the antechamber." Like black hair and white mingled on a pillow. Light and dark reaching out to touch. She hissed and turned away. "No. No, maybe not." Fury and nausea and a sense of being trapped came over her again. Why would her mind not obey her and think of other things? "Definitely not. Leave it as it is."
Ai! It was intolerable! How long must she wait until she could put the argument with Celeborn behind her? Why could she not stop thinking about it? Was she not master of her own mind? Controller of her own destiny - yes, even to defying the Powers! Then why...why must she still be harping to this tune?
Nargothrond was an uninspired, unwelcoming, unsatisfactory hole in the ground, and there seemed nothing she could do about it. Fuming, Nerwen turned her feet towards her room with the dreary knowledge that it too would provide no refuge.
Nor did it. The guest room had a velvet couch of sky blue and silver, cushions and drapes she had woven herself, stitched with clouds of river-pearls, a mirror in which she could see her scowl, and an untidy litter of paints in the corner, where she was working on a scene of seagulls crying out at the first dawn. She jammed the torch in its bracket, kindled the lanterns - they seemed deliberately fiddly to light; intent on thwarting her - and went over to the painting. Something simple, to begin with. Something to soothe her. Mixing golds, she tried to paint the line of the coast as Fingolfin's heralds set foot there, stepping into the new day.
It would not go right. The colour was wrong and the shape of the line was foul. Foul! With main effort she stopped herself from hurling the brush across the room, rinsed it, put it down carefully. Then carefully she sat on the edge of the bed, knotted her hands together until the fingers ached and glared at the floor.
What was the matter with her? She had come to Nargothrond to be away from Doriath's intrigue, to do useful, creative, constructive work. To help Finrod. To make a difference. And her mind would not function, her soul would neither sing nor settle, and no matter where she looked she could not see a single thing to praise. All the world had become vile in her sight.
Varda Starkindler! What is the matter with me?
She had lost friends before. Even in Aman she had lost friends to the lure of Feanor's honeyed words. But always she had been able to throw herself into the creation of new things, and the ache would diminish as her interest was caught by the needs of art. Never before had the loss threatened to undo her whole world, so that she could not think for it.
Perhaps because I was unjust? 'Long and bitter experience I have of those who load me with praise, and see in truth only their own heads crowned with the diadem of Finwë's house,' she had said to him. Yet when had he ever flattered or fawned? What compliments he gave were rare and always no more than the truth. Nor did he desire a crown - she had berated him for it often enough.
I am not settled within myself because I have affronted my own honour with this accusation. she thought, and nodded, sighing with relief. Yes, that must be the reason. It felt good to have come to a conclusion - to have made a step towards putting this behind her and recovering.
Rising, she picked up the stoppered jar of wine which lay on the sideboard, and poured herself a drink. The chalice was shaped of two trees, their intertwined trunks forming the stem, their raised branches and spread leaves of mingled silver and gold.
"Ai!" at the sight of it she slammed the cup back on the board and covered her eyes with a spread hand, "All Ea mocks me!" The brief moment when she thought she had solved this puzzle made all worse now as confusion and heartache surged back in a glamhoth of yammering voices. What is happening to me?
Abruptly, she felt the need of council as a ravenous man needs food. Finrod...she could go to him and.... But no. This was not the sort of dilemma a brother should be asked to face. If only she had a sister! She thought of Luthien. But she knew what Luthien would say and did not want to hear it. Aredhel then? No. The white lady of the Noldor would laugh for scorn at the thought that Galadriel had a Dark Elf admirer.
Nerwen! she told herself angrily, hearing the slip in her own thoughts, I am not Galadriel. I am Nerwen.
At the thought a well of darkness opened in her fea and filled her chest with emptiness. She wanted to weep, but could not - she was too cold for that. Tears would freeze on her cheeks, as they had done when she walked to Middle Earth across the ice.
Why does it matter so much? she thought, desperately, It is no more than a name. But she knew she deceived herself. 'Galadriel' was healing and hope, the knowledge that someone, even now, could perceive in her both goodness and glory. Reprieve, redemption, a future.
A gift of love.
"No!" She paced from one end of the room to the other - it was not far enough. It was a trap, just as her thoughts were a trap, just as the whole of Endor was a trap into which she had thrust herself recklessly and which now constrained her. Was there no way to be free?
Taking the torch up again she left the room and wandered alone through building sites and rough hewn caves where stalactites hung like deformed fingers from the ceiling and bats flitted over her, squeaking piteously. At last, when she could not outrun her thoughts, she came to the great stone doors which opened onto the river valley, and looking out she saw a grey boat draw near, and Finrod step from it onto the wharf.
She did not run to him. She merely stood and watched as he spoke to the servants and sent them on before him. But she thought that perhaps he was swifter in his dealings with them because of her presence, and though he waved to her as he spoke to the boatmen, his smile seemed a sickly thing. When finally he slung his travel bag over his shoulder and walked up to her she found it easier to be unconcerned because of his evident worry.
"Are you well, my sister?" he said, taking her arm.
He was the wisest of their family, but she, she was the strongest. She had no intention of letting such a foolishness as this besmirch her reputation. "I am," she said, "We had little idea of the time of your coming, but your chamber is prepared. If you will wash, I will see that the board is set for you."
"Peace." Pulling her arm from his she drew away from him, and though she had been eager for his arrival, now she wished he would leave her alone. Finrod was not...she did not wish to discuss this with any of her brothers.
"As you wish," he said, coolly, and bowing went away to wash.
The meal was silent, and - perhaps because the cooks as yet had no proper kitchen - tasted of ash. She took a forkful of flower salad; rose petals and marigolds like dawn on a plate, and put it down again listlessly. "The carving of the second entranceway goes well," she said with determined cheerfulness, "And the cladding of the main bath is complete. They mean to run water into it later today."
Finrod put his knife down with a clatter. "Are you pretending that nothing has happened?" he said, his expression gone from uncomfortable to disapproving, "Regardless of your personal feelings we must deal with this. He is Prince of Doriath and we are Doriath's allies. For the sake of politics alone we cannot ignore it."
She did not want to speak of it! "You mean to marry me off to keep the peace?" she said quellingly.
"Don't be a fool!"
Brittle silence fell. Finrod studied his food, and Nerwen looked about herself so that she need not look at him. This private dining room was small and away from the apartments of state. The walls were of green agate, curiously swirled with blue. The plates were copper and the cutlery bronze. Behind Finrod's seat a door stood open on the ancient darkness of the deep places of the world. His hair gleamed gold as Laurelin against that shadow, but there was in the room no echo of the paler, gentler light of Telperion. No silver.
Desolation blossomed in her heart. "How is he?" she asked at last.
"Like a man in mortal pain," said Finrod, "With moments of lucidity that lapse into empty eyed staring." He lowered his voice to say gently, "This is no light thing for him, no dalliance. He is genuine in his love for you."
She breathed in sharply and folded her hands about her cup, to be holding on to something. Of course, she had not truly doubted Celeborn's love. If he had said he loved her then he did - he was never less than brutally honest. In fact, she liked that in him - the way that if you asked his opinion you would get it, whether it was pleasant to hear or not. Only shock at finding a valuable and delightful friendship snatched out of her grasp; twisted into something unknown and dangerous, had made her accuse him otherwise.
I was unjust, she thought, I arrived in Doriath wanting companionship, and he gave it to me. What is there to resent in that? The news of his suffering made her feel both guilty and hurt herself. But if he loves me and I cannot return it, where is the blame? It is only an unkindness of fate. And he is strong. He will recover.
That thought gave rise to a stab of sourceless anxiety which she ignored, meaningless and irrational as it was.
If I take back the vile things I said, she thought, with a sensation like the sun rising We will be no worse off than we were before Luthien spoke. I need not lose him... She breathed out; a long sigh of relief, and lowered her head to rest on her linked fists, tension passing from her back, leaving her limp. This time she truly did understand. It was not mere justice she desired, but for things to go back to how they had been. And there was no reason why they could not. We could pretend that neither of us knew. We could be content again.
How complex the heart was and how strange its ways. She laughed, a little shakily, I missed my friend. To think that all this anguish could be caused by something so plain, That was all. There is nothing wrong with me, I just missed my friend.
"I will go back tomorrow and apologize," she raised her head and smiled at Finrod, who frowned, slow to catch her reassurance. Council she had thirsted for, and never thought of the obvious. She did not want to speak to Luthien or Aredhel or Melian. The one whose advice she desired was Celeborn himself. He was her friend, and she trusted his opinion. She would talk to him and between them they would work something out. "And all will be as it once was, both politically and personally. So eat, and do not look so fraught. All will be well."
Nerwen paused at the door, with her hand on its pale oak planks, waiting for the servant who had brought her here to go away. She was tired. Not of body, though she had spent the greater part of the day scrambling between boat and raft and barge, but tired of spirit. All this past week voices had kept her awake in the night, niggling at her, whispering that she had forgotten something, overlooked something, was not seeing something vital. Yet when she tried to quieten and hear them they would fade and she would find herself staring at the wall and the long ugly line of her painted seashore, frustrated and dreary.
She supposed she was merely dreading this meeting. Celeborn was of a quick temper - that burnt up like straw and as soon went out - but what if he also held grudges? What if he did not forgive her?
Worse...Or was it worse? She detested being so confused! What if he saw her contrition as being a sign of hope? She would have to be very clear, very forthright, and leave him in no doubt that while she did not wish to ever be parted from him, she did not...could not...see him as a lover.
Well. She was brave, one of the bravest of a family which had come to Endor to challenge the mightiest of the Valar - Manwë's equal - face to face. She would not be daunted by so stupid a thing as this. Pushing the door open, she went through into candle light and quiet, and balked, brought up short by what she saw.
The study was painted with firelight and the air as golden as birch-sap wine. Celeborn lay asleep on a divan before the fire, a lute dangling from one tuning peg from his outstretched hand, his open eyes full of reflected flames. He must be as weary as I, she thought, surprised by a great swell of affection, And for the same reason. For all Finrod's delicate phrasing she had not been so touched by her brother's words as she was by this proof that she was as necessary to him as he was to her.
Involuntarily she took a step forward, drawn, her mood lightened merely by looking on him. He was elegant even in disorder, long limbs sprawled. His hair, like water in starlight, trailed across cheek and chest, glimmering as he breathed. Tendrils pooled in the hollow of his throat, leading her eye to the fair skin shadowed by the open neck of his tunic.
What am I *doing*?!
She recoiled, her breath laboured as if from running. Her shoulder struck the door and it closed with a click. At the small noise Celeborn was instantly awake, on his feet, unsheathed knife in his hand. She reached for her sword, but her hand had barely closed on the empty air above her hip before he was backing away, wide eyed.
For a long time they stared at one another, and she did not know who was the more appalled.
"Forgive me," he said, with a look of helpless confusion, "I had troubled dreams. I knew not..." He sheathed the knife and turned half away from her, looking at the floor.
"You have fine reactions for an elf of sheltered Doriath," the words were out before she knew what she was going to say. But for the fact that they were in her voice she would not have known who spoke them - the world was reshaping itself under her hands fast as poured metal and she could not control it. She could only wait to see what shape it bore, when it had cooled.
Celeborn's eyes narrowed and his chin went up, insulted. "You speak to me of being sheltered? You who grew to womanhood in Aman where even the roses have not thorns? Is it your purpose to patronize? Are you come to abuse me again in some new way you did not think of last time?"
He turned his back on her and folded his arms, "No, I think I have heard enough from you." The posture only emphasized the long, strong line of his back, cleanly muscled, eloquent of unbearable pain. And she wondered why she had not noticed before how beautiful her friend was; why she had to notice it now.
"I came... to apologize," she managed, "To say..."
He tensed like a bow at full draw, and she found herself wanting to lay a hand on his shoulder, perhaps to give comfort, perhaps only so that she might touch him.
"Ai Elentari!" Shocked at herself a second time, lost in a world gone altogether strange, she turned, flung open the door, and fled.
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