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Oak and Willow: 8. And Other Matters of Guilt
Only his eyes told of concern as he looked up, seeing her white face. What happened? Is there aught I can do?
Bitter memories, she replied, and set down her kill beside him, still skewered on the spear tip, Let me be a moment. Hands on hips, she raised her chin and looked sternly at the shadowy woods. Breathed in, then let the past go. That was Nerwen. Not Galadriel. The pungent smell of wild garlic provided her an excuse to walk away, and she gathered herbs until her hands and heart steadied. When she returned it was to find the brown trout split and smoking gently on the hot stone, basted with butter, sprinkled with sorrel which grew beneath the willows. Luthien took the garlic from her with a smile of thanks, to chop it, and it went in the rainbow trout with more butter, and breadcrumbs, and a splash of mead.
"I will never remember all those names!" Luthien was laughing in reply to something Finrod had said. "So Finwë had Feanor, Fingolfin and Finarfin, and then Feanor had...far too many sons, Fingolfin had Turgon, Fingon and Aredhel, and your father had you two and three more brothers besides?"
Celeborn returned from the edge of the wood with four lengths of birch bark, smooth and grey as cloud, which would serve as platters for the meal. He sat down on the grass with his back to a tree and began to whittle forks out of peeled sticks.
"That's, what, fifteen royal cousins!" Luthien shook her head. "What would you do with so many princes?"
"It doesn't seem so many to me," said Finrod, "Though we were a rowdy tribe of children together, and it may have seemed more to the adults. To us it was simply a case of having many ready-made friends."
This was a better thought, and Nerwen wondered if Finrod had chosen it deliberately. Sitting on a sun-warmed boulder she took the loaf and began to slice and butter it. "Aye," she said, remembering a lost paradise, which had seemed at the time just to be normal life, "In and out of each other's houses and the workshops and studios of our elders. Always someone to talk to, or fight with; knowing that if you woke in the night your champions and your playmates would still be there."
Behind Nerwen a lark sang out, and a blackbird answered it in a duel of sweet notes. The shifting wind brought her the savory scents of smoke and cooking fish, and the green open smell of woodlands. The susurration of leaves above her and the lilting chuckle of the stream against its banks were huge and gentle at once. Contentment returned to her, and humour. All of a sudden she wondered what this little picnic would seem like to Caranthir, or the twins, who preferred not to dine off silverware if they could get gold. "She's eating with sticks! Barefoot, off plates of bark! Our coz has turned as savage as the natives.
At the thought she turned to look at Celeborn, with whom she had wrangled over the word. He was uncharacteristically quiet, his head bent over his carving, his back a tensed line, his face obscured.
"To me it seems strange there are so few princes among the Sindar," said Finrod, tying his hair in a knot behind him so it would not catch the flames as he lifted the food off the fire. "From three brothers in Aman come fifteen children, but from two brothers in Ennor, only the two of you. How can that be? Does Aman increase the birthrate? Or Middle Earth decrease it?"
"It would seem in keeping," Nerwen said, caught by the observation, "Since the Two Trees increased our strength in all other spheres for their light also to improve our power of generation."
Luthien too had now grown still, her smile with a splintered glass edge. "You are not comparing like with like," she said, very carefully, "For my mother is not an elf, and it is wonder enough that I exist at all, without demanding siblings."
"I think it has little to do with Treelight," said Celeborn without raising his head. He shaved a long curl of wood from the branch he was carving, and looked at it rather than at them. "Only that in Aman you were safe. My grandparents had Galadhon on the march, when they were under Araw's protection, but when Araw went ahead my grandmother was slain by wargs. So there was one child of that union only. My parents had two sons and were expecting a daughter when my mother was killed, and Elmo...taken by orcs. Then Galadhon could bear life here no longer and went West, and Galathil, my brother, went with him to the Havens and did not come back."
He laughed, without humour, and looked up at last, vestiges of ancient hurt in his gaze. "So that is why I, distant though my kinship is with Elu, am 'Prince of Doriath'. Out of all his brothers and his brother's kin, I am the only one left."
There was a silence. Finrod gazed helplessly at Nerwen across the fire. I did not mean to cause pain. I did not think. We feel so much is due to us, because of Finwe's murder... Yet we are not the only ones to suffer.
Nerwen reached across and clasped Celeborn's wrist. "When?" she said, "When did this happen?"
He gazed at the hand on his sleeve and then up into her face with a rueful look. "I was not yet twenty, and understood nothing but that my family had all gone, and left me behind. Folk said to me 'Your father sails the white ships in the Haven of the Swans now, and when your mother is reborn they will dwell there together, happy and free from harm.' It did not seem a great comfort, when I wanted them here."
"Lamps of the Valar!" said Finrod, uncomfortably. "So much death! And you a child!"
"It is not an uncommon tale," Celeborn smiled, shrugging off their concern. "There is scarce an elf in Doriath who has not lost a loved one, and the case is all the more common outside the Fence. Besides, my fate is not so pitiable. If I lost Galadhon I gained Elu, and Luthien is a better dancer - and prettier - than Galathil."
Nerwen laughed, and ate, and heard with great relief as Finrod moved the conversation on to forms of dance, comparing the traditions of their two peoples in a discourse that swiftly grew too technical for her. Like children, secure in their safety, she had thought of the Doriathrim, but no elf of Aman had ever lost a parent, save Feanor alone, and him it had driven slowly mad. Doriath was not, after all, a little piece of Valinor on Earth, but a fortress against a world whose hostility she still had difficulty comprehending. The Sindar had borne such blows as the Noldor had inflicted on themselves - worse blows - without becoming fell, or doomed or dangerous. In the midst of death they remained light of heart; worked, played, rejoiced, and by their mere existence defeated Morgoth's plans daily.
It was a sobering thought, humbling her Calaquendi pride, but perhaps, before she could claim the right to protect them, she should set herself to learn from them how to live in such a marred, deadly world.
The cooked fish was full of flavour, the bread light and the mead sweet. Under their influence the grimness of topic swiftly passed. Nerwen eased once again into unaccustomed pleasure, flicking the bones into the water and dabbling her buttery fingers to cool and clean them.
From dance, Luthien's discourse passed to music. She pressed Celeborn to sing with her the duets and love songs of Beleriand. It was natural then for Finrod and Nerwen to reply with the music of Tirion, the hymns of Indis' people and the shanties Earwen had sung defiantly in the stone city of her husband. There was much to praise in both traditions. Privately though, Nerwen felt that while she and her brother could not compare as singers to the fair-voiced Lindar, she preferred the complex depth of Valinorean melody to the simplicity and occasional folly of the alternative.
Thus the day passed in wonder, and night came down, while their small fire painted every face with gold, and the stars were strewn like dew over the meadow of the heavens. Then Nerwen went to the edge of the wood, where Celeborn sat. Looking up with him into the sky she breathed in the wonder of Varda's ancient creation and felt both released and apprehensive, on the cusp of something untried and wonderful, though she did not know what it could be. Certainly the stars were more awesome because of the darkness that surrounded them, just as the diamonds were made more beautiful by the contrast of Luthien's midnight hair.
"I have not had a day so free from concern or grief for many years," she said, half to him, half to herself. "I had forgotten who I was, in my zeal to be achieving things."
"That will not do," he said, smiling. The branch he had been carving was now a fish with whorled fins and a comical expression. He put it down and looked at her. "I thought to take you and Finrod hunting, but since you are so loathe to kill perhaps I will take him alone."
"And leave me in my chambers, bored?" She was affronted by this piece of tact, and furious at herself for giving rise to it. Was she really so dispensable to their amusements, that they would go without her? It smarted, worse than many other things which should hurt more.
"And show you the river instead. Do you sail?"
"My grandfather is Olwë of the Teleri," she said, all insult forgotten in eagerness to prove herself once more, "And I have spent many a day on the waves in the Bay of Eldamar. Gladly would I relearn such skills as I have lost from lack of use, and pleased I will be to see more of the fair country of Doriath, which I am rapidly growing to love."
She had not seen such a smile from him before - it lit him like the scattered stars. She had endured the empty words of many great Lords among the three kindreds of Valinor, and not once felt so flattered as she did by that smile. Her reeling emotions touched on joy once more.
"Tell me of Eldamar," he said, suddenly, "And Alqualondë. I should be glad to know what life Galadhon lives now. That he is happy."
It was all she could do not to flinch. Joy became misery with a rapidness that seemed unnatural to her; a keenness that must - she had no other explanation - be some result of Melian's overarching power. Curse Feanor, she thought, And his bloodyhanded sons. And whatever misguided loyalty which keeps me silent. But she sat by his side and forced herself to say, lightly, "I had rather you told me more of this land. Did you say you had dwelt in Ossiriand in your youth? What is that country like?"
The pleasantry bid fair to choke her. Guilt closed dark wings over her like a hawk mantling over its prey. Chances are, she thought, bitterly Your father met his death on the end of a Noldor blade.
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