The boy who treaded the nonexistent paths paid no heed to leaf-rustle or bird-chirp, his dark head bowed in thought. The mouth which once seemed to frown indefinitely had softened with nurture and knowledge, for as the years of his childhood passed in the Kingdom of Doriath Túrin's mood had lightened. His youthful limbs were lanky yet they proved to hold more grace than what appeared, for no blunder or thrash disturbed the woven threads of serenity about the forest.
A short distance behind him, a slim figure drifted among the trees. Nut-coloured tresses and earthy garments blended her to the surrounding wood, but the salient eyes of an elf-maiden sharpened the slight face, spots of tree-strained sunlight sliding awry as she tilted her head. She followed Túrin without sound or falter, her feet not advancing slowly in the caution of duty as once before-- but stepping lightly over the ground, drawn ever forward by love.
I saw her behind me. I suppose, in the back of my mind somewhere, I knew that she was there-- I know she is always with me when I walk the forest, for so she has told me. But never before have I seen her until she reveals herself to me. Often she used to startle me from tree-branch or log-perch, impish and playful at times, solemn and intense at others. Often when I was young I would seek to find her instead, imitating the stealthy motions of the march-wardens-- when all the while she crept behind me in amusement.
As time passed I grew tired of the game and sought her no more, some days content to allow her to appear when she would but more often calling upon her at my will. This gave me control, in part, over my periods of teaching-- for though they were and still are of interest to me, language and elven-lore are not all that I come to the wood to think upon. Still more time passed, and our meetings grew more irregular as the things I wished to learn grew farther and farther from what she taught. Until, at last, I called on her no more.
I know she is always there-- but at times I forget why.
I saw her. Just for a moment-- nay, a fraction of a moment-- but it is enough. Never before have I known such a curious rush inside me, triumph mingled with a keen sense of sadness. Sadness that I am taught, and have no more need for the teacher.
"Nellas," I call again, so the name will not be so strange on my tongue, standing to face the trees which moments ago were at my back. Though I know it is vain, my eyes crawl across every trunk, every bush, seeking a sign of her. It is, of course, from behind one of the trees I have already passed over that she steps out, and forward a pace, and another, and now she stands in front of me, her face grave and arms meeting in front of her with hands clasped around each other. She does not speak.
She looks the same, the same as when she first led a child called Túrin to a "secret" clearing in the middle of the forest, where the child came later and wept in grief for his mother. The same as when she scolded the child for using his newly acquired archery skills to pierce a songbird. She looks the same, she is the same, but I am not-- does nothing change Elves?
Her voice is soft, her eyes lowering from mine. "It has been long since you last called me, Túrin."
Long? How can it have been long for an Elf, with all eternity to live? "I am sorry," the words fly from my mouth without thought. "I am sorry, Nellas. I would speak with you now." I do not tell her it is goodbye that I would say.
But her dark eyes lift and search my face, her lips parting in a wordless cry, and I know that my intent is not hidden from her. Her hands untwine and reach for me-- ethereal and white they catch my own hands, and she clasps them between her palms. My chin falls down and I stare at our hands, surprised to find the slender length of my fingers surpasses hers.
"There is one more thing," she whispers, she too gazing at our hands. "There is one more thing I would teach you before we part."
I nod, hesitantly, and step back from her, suddenly loathe to be released from her hands. But swiftly she lets me go and with nimble stride passes me, taking the lead in a direction I know well. I lengthen my gait, catching up to her, then hasten my speed to walk past her. Without pause she breaks into a run, and now it is a race. Across the mossy forest floor I bound, fighting the urge to look for her, fixing my gaze only on the invisible path laid out in front of me. I duck a low-hanging branch and my hair swings into my eyes-- I push it back impatiently, my brow damp with perspiration, and find Nellas springing ahead of me, her long hair sailing behind her.
She laughs then, suddenly, a wild laugh of gladness unbridled. My mouth spreads into a smile as the blood pounds in my temples, my feet vaulting over a log. We are almost to the clearing-- I strain to run faster-- it will be a close race, for she is ever at my heels or ahead of me, still laughing, tresses snarling over her shoulders. It is within sight now, and clenching my jaw I lunge in a last exertion.
But at the entry to the clearing, Nellas holds back. I hurdle past her, tumbling onto the ground, panting and looking at her in accusation.
She is breathing evenly when she sits on the ground across from me, folding her legs underneath her. I roll onto my knees, forcing my breaths to slow, lifting my chin as though I am proud to have defeated her. My pulse rages on and I feel hot until she lays a cool hand against my cheek, and it feels as though a soft wind washes over me. I nod, close my mouth, and her hand falls.
"Now," Nellas says, and the wood noises seem to fall silent around us. "I will teach you of love."
The cool wind has chilled the sweat on my brow to ice. "Love," I repeat. She leans forward, for the beginning of the lesson is when I speak, speak of what I already know-- or more often, what I think I know. "Love is a feeling," I say slowly. "It is a desire. It is when you desire to do all that is in your power to care for someone." I turn from her as though in distraction. "It is when you put their safety above your own, when you would send them away from you even though you do not wish to, only because you must. Love is being able to say goodbye."
Nellas' eyes glisten. "Yes," is all she says.
I wait a moment, and when she does not speak further, I ask, "What will you teach me?"
"There are different natures to love. You have spoken of one-- I will teach you of another."
"Oh," I say, and my voice rings hollow. "That kind of love."
She looks to be in such pain that I wish only to tell her that I will never leave her, that we will always walk these woods together, that she need not ever fear or long for me. "There is another desire which can give birth to love, and that is the desire for beauty," she says, her eyes distant from mine. "A particular beauty that will remind us of that true beauty which exists in the world, the world of concepts and ideas. The love we feel for beauty on this earth may never be truly satisfied, but in loving a certain image, an individual beauty, we can transcend to the contemplation of beauty in itself."
Nellas stops, her lips compressing as she swallows, and I wonder that she continues with difficulty. "This is not, then, to love a particular individual, but the element they possess of true beauty. It is a selfish love, desiring only the object of beauty, and not to share their values and precepts. It is a desire to serve ourselves, and not the other."
I stare at the ground, watching an ant pick its way across a leaf, and only now do I realize that our hands are again clasped. I wet my lips, my head bending toward the ground so that my hair hangs as a dark curtain on either sides of my eyes. I feel I should say something, but I do not know what, so I wait for her instead.
A bird is singing somewhere far above us. I wonder if Nellas remembers that I killed one. I wonder if she knows that I regret it.
I can stand the silence no longer. "Is there not another kind of love you will teach me of?" I ask. "A perfect love, combining the first nature and the second?"
"No," she answers sadly, and looking up I am shocked to find her cheeks are wet. "For I can only teach you what I know, Túrin."
And that is why I must leave you, Nellas, for there is more that I would know than the teachings of simple wood-elf, an elf who hides from crowd and building, who is more at home with children than her people. There is yet much that I must know, Nellas, and you cannot teach it to me, and that is why I must leave.
But looking at her face-- her eyes so great and dark that watched me ever to keep me from harm, her lips that would soften and curl when she spoke my name, her cheeks that would shine dewy with tears for my griefs-- looking at her, I cannot speak the words aloud.
Her grip on my hand tightens and she raises it to her face, pressing her mouth to my knuckles. Tears wet my hand, stinging, biting the skin-- but she lays her cheek against my palm, and its softness is soothing.
Is she, too, unable to say the word?
"Goodbye, Túrin," she whispers.
My hand falls limp to the dirt, and opening my eyes I find the clearing is empty but for me. I trace the trails of her tears across my hand, willing them to remain-- but too soon they are dried, and I am left as before.
Or perhaps not.
For at the last, even unwitting, Nellas taught me that love which she thought she could not.
"But Nellas of Doriath never saw him again, and his shadow passed from her." ------- Unfinished Tales, The Tale of the Children of Húrin.