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Oak and Willow: 6. Confessions at the Baths
Behind him one of the dwarves said a single word in his own tongue and the atmosphere of the already sweltering room heated, leaving Celeborn feeling as he had felt when surrounded by Angrod's guards. Fali was long dead, but he seemed to have cut and polished his grudge and passed it on like an heirloom to the rest of his family. It had become uncomfortable for Celeborn to be among the Naugrim at all, and today he did not have time to address such unimportant matters. "Come away from here, please. I swear if you will not let me speak of this I will run mad."
"My Lord!" Daeron tucked his braids behind his ears, leaving smudges of charcoal across his cheeks. He had pushed his sleeves up and was as grimy with soot and grease as any of the dwarves; unsurprising, since he had been interrupted at the bellows. When he saw the look in Celeborn's eyes, his air of preoccupied craftsmanship faded, "Of course. Wait but a moment while I find someone to take over."
He called one of the naugrim, though it seemed to Celeborn that the dwarf came grudgingly. Then, when all was set to his satisfaction, he grabbed his sheaf of plans, rolled them up, and suffered himself to be lead out into the cool of Menegroth's corridors. His fingers left dark imprints on the parchments and only at the sight of them did he balk and look at himself. "Ai! I am filthy. May we speak at the baths?"
"If we must." Celeborn looked again at the soot stained minstrel and managed a laugh, though the tightness in his chest did not ease, "And you must!"
The main bath lay in its cavern like an underground lake. Tendrils of steam floated over its surface or rose to twine around the spears of crystal and stone which grew from the cave's ceiling. If one came alone it could at times be an eerie place, dimly lit, misty and full of the lapping of water. It was not so today. Today it was full of mothers teaching their children to swim, and the noise and the shrieking and the laughter were as loud as an encampment of orcs.
One of the smaller chambers which led off the main pool was unoccupied. The bath in it was sufficient only for six, but it was a pleasant place - plants grew and trailed from alcoves and niches, adding their freshness to the humid air, and one of the aqueducts emptied above the arch which led to the main pool, so that, once within, one could drowse in the heat, curtained by an ever changing fall of hot water.
Ewers and basins were set out, and a servant brought in linen towels even as they were disrobing. He drew water from the pool for them and waited while Celeborn washed his long hair and passed the soap to Daeron, who scrubbed his arms and face. As they were stepping into the deep pool, the servant took away the soiled basins and returned with drinking cups and a pitcher of cold water before withdrawing altogether. He did all in silence, but still his presence was an irritation.
Now that he was permitted to speak Celeborn did not know how to begin, but Daeron's face was grim as if he expected truly bad news, and he could surely manage reassurance. "I find I must apologize to you, my friend. I confess, I have long thought you foolish to circle Luthien as the stars circle the earth but now..." Oh now he understood. He understood it with a knowledge like despair. "Well am I paid for my arrogance! For I have met the woman I love with all my soul, and she likes me not."
Daeron set his head back against the lip of the pool and there passed across his face a look of great pain, swiftly concealed. "I will not jest with you about this," he said, "If you are in my case it is no matter to laugh at." He sat up, making a small wave, "But tell me who she is, and what has happened."
"It is," Celeborn took up a handful of water and gazed at its brilliance, to calm him, "It is Nerwen." The light on the liquid resolved itself into her hair, deep golden and shining like a royal circlet, and he relived, yet again, that moment when it had seemed to him he had seen her fëa; the spirit of a queen, powerful, glorious, splendid, and yet sad, oppressed by the shadow that lay over all the Noldor. Like a fine blade quenched to the point of brittleness. It was hard to fit words to that moment of understanding.
"When I first saw her, defiant and proud in the stronghold of strangers, it was as I felt when the Sun first rose. At first I was blinded, and then all things were coloured by her light, forever changed. Then much in me that had been sleeping awoke and burst into flower, like the new blossom that came in the first springtime."
"I have never heard you speak this way before," said Daeron in quiet gentleness, "Did she say aught to you, or you to her?"
"In truth, I fled," Celeborn's unruly emotions surprised him with joy. She had sought him out, though there was far better company than he at the feast, "We met later, and she sat by me," such a simple thing to build ridiculous hope on, "She looked at me, Daeron... She looked at me with wonder."
He clenched his fists, and the muscles across his back - which had at last been relaxing in the heat - tensed again and ached as he felt once more the bitter barb of his own stupidity. "And then I...I lost my head. I charged in recklessly where I should have lain in ambush, and I was utterly routed and overcome." Remembering her walking away in cold fury, he put his head in his hands in dismay, and whispered, "And she will never want to speak to me again."
There was silence, but for the music of the water and the muffled laughter of children in the further cavern. Celeborn looked up - Daeron's eyes were wide and sorrowful as the sea. He did not seem to know what to say. And why should he? He might understand, but he had no solution to offer.
A quiet scuffle in the passage caught his attention; the sound perhaps of napping servants being unexpectedly awoken. The hanging curtain of green and silver linen was pushed aside and a hand came in bearing a wine-jug and a goblet of gold, dangled unceremoniously by the stem. The rest of Elu Thingol followed it, smiling with the blithe certainty that he was welcome everywhere.
"It's like a rookery at twilight out there," he said, "How they bear the din I know not. And all the other small chambers are occupied by folk who would either flee in awe of me, or regale me for hours about taxes." He poured wine for himself, then filled the cups that had been meant for water and passed them to his nephew and his bard. "So you will have to make room for me." The silence, perhaps, prompted him to pause in the act of unlacing his tunic and look at them properly. He frowned. "You are a cheerful pair. Why the long faces?"
At that moment Celeborn knew his secret was out - Daeron's nerve, never particularly formidable, always failed in the presence of the King. Commanded to speak he could never keep his mouth shut. So it was now. The minstrel shrank into the corner of the bath furthest away from the lamps and sank as though he would submerge altogether. Seeing it, Thingol raised one silver eyebrow questioningly, and even in the heat Daeron paled. "Celeborn's in love with Nerwen," he blurted out, using the words as though he was fending off an attack. "Or at least he thinks he is...though he has barely spoken to her...and I do not see how one moment of revelation is enough to be called love."
Celeborn was stung by this. Daeron may have grown up loving Luthien - knowing her every thought and expression, all the steps of every dance, all the places she would go and the things that would amuse her. There had never been a time before Daeron loved Luthien. But he thought his case was not so different. Nerwen was here now. Galadriel was here now, and there had never been a time when he had not been waiting for her.
Elu's face settled into a look of concern. He stepped into the pool and sat, stretching his arms about the rim, so that it became a throne to him, recast in the aura of his authority. "It takes only one moment, only the meeting of eyes for love to reshape the world," he said, "Like lightning out of a clear sky - unexpected and devastating. This I know from experience." He gave Celeborn a warm but worried smile, "Perhaps this is a family trait, and you inherited it, as you have inherited the colour of my hair."
He drank and put the cup down again with a metallic ring on the stone shelf behind him. "But if that were so, why would you not be with her? Why would you be hiding in here with a face like a month of rain?"
Celeborn bowed his head and watched the surface of the water once more. "The Lady was not equally impressed with me."
"How can that be? How can lightning come upon two standing together and take one but not the other?" The King shook his head. He reached out and touched Celeborn's tensed shoulder with his fingertips, a slight caress to take away the hurt from his words. "But if it is so, is it not a fortunate escape for you? Remember the words of Melian. 'Fate is against them and ill luck follows them.' Even your Nerwen is cursed; you cannot tell me you have not seen it."
Celeborn had not forgotten the Queen's words, and he could not deny that some dire thing lay heavily on Galadriel, filling her eyes with grief and secrets. But even this had become secondary to him. She was high hearted and noble. Whatever it was, if Galadriel had been involved, it could not be as bad as it seemed.
"Do you really wish to join yourself to that?"
Having spent his eloquence on Daeron, Celeborn had nothing more than the brutal words of fact to give to his liege. "Yes." He wiped the steam from his face with both hands, "For I am not cursed, and it may be that my innocence could yet be some shield between her and her doom. If only she were willing to receive it."
"She is frightening," said Daeron unexpectedly from his dark niche, trying to lightening the mood, as he would have slackened the strings of a lute before the tension tore it apart. "A very scary woman. I know not what you see in her."
At that, Celeborn laughed at last. You say this to me? You who love Luthien? But he said nothing, for the delicacy of mentioning Daeron's obsession in front of Luthien's father.
Elu too laughed. "Perhaps what you call terror we call splendour." he said, "It was thus between myself and Melian. They wondered how I could dare raise my eyes to her, but the truth was she filled my vision, where ever I looked." Then he ducked beneath the water and surged out again, causing a great wave to suck and splash against the mossy wall. "Come, you two look poached. Let us go somewhere and drink too much and recall times when life was simpler."
"If it please you, Lord," Daeron dried and dressed with embarrassment, "Now that I know my friend is in your care, there are some harp strings I would like to get back to."
He was a strange creature, Daeron. Content to fill the forest with heartbreaking music from some hiding place where he could not be seen, but always unreasoningly awed and brought to incoherence by the King. He would be happier as a disembodied voice, Celeborn thought, and then shivered, appalled at the idea . No. I meant it not! He had to hope the chill and ill omened thought had been only his own foolishness, and not some moment of insight. In either case a blessing seemed called for May Elbereth protect him!
"Of course," said Thingol. He lifted the curtain for the minstrel and, when Daeron had left, dropped it and sat, the desire to go elsewhere apparently gone from him. Looking up to where Celeborn stood, only now beginning to struggle into a slightly damp tunic, he sighed. "I have today received the fealty of Finrod."
Celeborn stopped, startled. He shook off the dread his fleeting thoughts had conjured, and turned his mind to this unexpected news. Finrod accepted Thingol's overlordship? He was impressed. Perhaps he is not so proud as the others. Perhaps he really has come not to conquer but to serve..
"Nerwen and he have gone with Beleg to view the caves of the Narog," said Thingol thoughtfully. "He hopes to set up a kingdom of his own there, in imitation of Menegroth." He took off one of his bracelets and gazed at it - the gems were brighter for the thin film of water that still clung there. "In truth, I was surprised by this humility in him. And I like him."
He raised his eyes to Celeborn's face, his pewter grey gaze full of care for Doriath and its people. Worries that would have crushed a lesser spirit, and a weight of concern that made his nephew very glad Kingship had passed him by, were reflected there for the younger elf to see. Like all of his subjects, I rest in the care of his hands, Celeborn thought, moved.
"Finrod's people may be inexperienced in warfare, but they are fierce," Elu went on, "And he at least remembers he is of our blood. They will be good allies to have in this dark time. It is my hope that, by my lordship over him, I might protect him from his ill-luck - divert his shadowed path into my starlit one. So I understand well enough your desire to be Nerwen's shield. We are playing with fate, you and I, but we would be less than Celbin to venture nothing for our kin."
There was some hope then, Celeborn thought, pulling his tunic aright. He began to plait his hair into a thick rope, squeezing the water out as he did so. "So you do not object to my pursuing her?"
"I do not."
"Then do you have any advice as to how to go about it? This is not an art I have practised before."
The king laughed, and stood up, stretching. "Nor have I! Were she an encampment of the enemy things would be easier."
With hope revived, Celeborn recovered his courage. He liked this better than talk of fates and dooms and shadow. The future was nebulous and he cared little for it, better to concentrate on the present where at least his problems were solid and had a shape that might be known and acted upon. "I have already tried the frontal assault and been repulsed," he said, "I think I must now set in for a siege."
"You have not the patience for a siege," Elu scoffed from long knowledge.
"I will learn it."
Leaning down, confidingly, combining the roles of King and Father and confident, Elu smiled a sly smile. "You need to suborn her allies, and compromise her lines of support."
"Alas! Your metaphor has now escaped me," Celeborn laughed.
"Finrod," said Thingol, "Will he not have much to tell you that you need to know about your beloved? And will she not look more kindly on a man her brother likes? You should cultivate his friendship."
There was more in this suggestion than simple helpfulness, Celeborn knew. He was not unaware that it suited Thingol's statesmanship to reinforce the allegiance of Earwen's children to Doriath, first with friendship and then later, hopefully, by marriage. But it did not trouble him. He would as lief be the friend of Galadriel's brother as not. And as for an alliance by marriage, he could think of nothing he wanted more.
Looking up at Thingol; tall and bright as a Lord of the Maiar, who took the trouble to persuade when he might order, wonder came over him. Perhaps it was not so surprising after all, that Finrod had accepted Elu's authority. Perhaps it was only an example of how things ought to be. "If he is not like Angrod," Celeborn said, "And if it is possible without doing violence to my own nature, I will befriend him as you suggest. Even in my love I will serve you... I would always have it so."
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