2. Chapter 2
Nierninwa's crew were waiting for her in the portico of the Tower: three dozen sea-hardened mariners, armed with harpoons and lightning spears. A few even carried the air-guns that the Sindar used in the hunt.
The Lady raised an eyebrow.
"They are only two," she observed mildly. "And unarmed."
There were grim chuckles from several of the crew, and Nierninwa grinned.
"How do we go, Elwing? By wing or foot, sail or horse or cart? Two feet or four feet or six? "
That she had decided already. It had been some time since she had paid attention to the cultivated lands, and she might as well do something useful along the way. Nierninwa had known her for a long time; fourteen horses were waiting at the foot of the bridge that bound the Tower to the shore. The rest of the guard accepted their dismissal cheerfully and wandered off to their other pursuits.
They rode along the beach at first, and then southwest through the tree-shaded, branching lanes of the city, passing at a quick trot among gardens and houses and workshops. Passers-by waved or called greetings as always, but Elwing could feel the unease in the city. Word of the Kinslayers' coming had spread swiftly among the people going about their errands, or breakfasting in their gardens. The Lady and her guard rode largely in silence, until the road turned south, leaving the city, and became a green ride through the cornlands and orchards that helped to feed the city.
Then they let the horses run, making good speed along the main inland road to the forest. It was a fair day. The sun shone bright and warm, tempered by cool wind and scudding clouds, so that they rode by swift turns in both sun and shade. The grassy, daisy-starred road passed among open woodland interspersed with orchard groves, vegetable gardens and the green and golden stands of perennial grain. Far away on the right-hand horizon rose the high, silent line of the Pelóri, snow-capped even at the height of summer.
Some of the guards began to sing in time to the chiming of their harness-bells, a cheerful ditty about the creatures of the deep and their strange reluctance to be caught and eaten. Elwing glanced at the Captain and said quietly,
"So, friend, when do you leave us?"
He smiled at her.
"Soon, Elwing. It has been our delight to dwell in your House and do you service, but Núrána's re-fit is nearly done, and Lord Ulmo's realm calls us. I have had word from Falathin; Alpessë will be back in port within a season."
"So soon?" Elwing said, startled. "She has not been long away. Hardly more than a Great Year."
One of the guards behind laughed and said, " Alpessë came too close to a sea-lizards' mating fight(1). They turned on her and, well, she is a fine ship, but the Earthqueen's elder creation are none of them gentle. Falathin is weary of science for now and is coming home to ward the Tower and let her crew recover their nerve."
There was the general laughter at the unfortunate captain's expense, interrupted by a long, singing call high above them. Elwing looked up, and lifted a hand in acknowledgment of the great sky-ship; it rode the winds without effort, its shadow rippling swiftly before it over the fields. The guards waved and whistled. A tall woman with golden hair had the helm; as Elwing watched, the wide steering-wings curved to bring her craft into its smooth descent towards the mooring tower further inland. Its trailing pennants were of two colours: Vanyar-white, and a complex gold and brown design that she recognised as the device of the Onnangolmor, the Loremasters of Creatures. Then she saw the name drawn on the sky-ship's hull in flowing, golden letters, and flinched: Arwen.
Kind Nierninwa said only,
"You will not be bringing the Kinslayers back to the Tower tonight, then."
"No." She was almost relieved.
It was the custom of Hanstovanén that the crews of visiting ships, whether of sea or air, were feasted by the Lady on their first night in port. The Sons of Fëanor could stay where they were for another night. She would not change her habits for them. She tapped her heels to her mare's flank, and felt her lengthen her stride in response. Nierninwa and the guard followed suit, until they were running among trees and fields and thickets as swiftly as the cloud-shadows across the fields.
It was not long after that they reached the green wall of the forest's edge. The road bridged a small stream that ran under the eaves of the trees, and then plunged into the shadows of the wood. The riders slowed to a walk to greet the half-a-dozen foresters lounging at ease under the trees on the other side. They came to their feet to hail the Lady, and whistled their horses up from where they grazed under the river sallows. As the augmented company cantered along the green ride through the wood, their leader, a woman named Gilfaril, made her report to the Lady and the Captain.
"They are camped at Iantathren, on the other side of Sirith Edrain. We have kept close watch upon them, but they have done nothing but fish, and bathe in the pools, and watch the creatures of wood and water. They are unarmed and have not hunted."
She and her people carried bows and long air-guns with the ease of those well-accustomed to their use. Now she looked at Elwing uncertainly.
"Elwing, do you truly think that they still mean us ill?"
She was young, born in Aman long after the War to survivors of Sirion. The Kinslayers were only a grim legend to her, as to all the younger generations of the Eldar. The Lady smiled at her reassuringly.
"No, friend, I do not. But that does not mean that they must needs mean us well. We will go warily, and give back what they offer us."
Gilfaril nodded, acknowledging, and fell back among her people.
"Well said," Nierninwa said quietly.
Elwing sighed. "My friend, do you doubt me still?"
"I would doubt anyone, when it comes to the Jewel."
The trees rose around them, their trunks straight and clean, their branches interlacing under the Sun. They rode through stands of white and golden birch, and red oak, and sharp-scented spruce and fir. After a while Gilfaril came up beside the Lady again, telling her of the affairs of the wood: damage from the lightning of Ossë's storms, a stray cave lion from the foothills slain by the hunt, the introduction of new plants and beasts, the breeding of forest trees for greater strength and use and beauty.
Far above their heads the tree-tops roared in the wind like surf on the shore, but on the forest floor it was dim and cool among the great brakes of holly and fern and berry. A hundred kinds of bird twittered and squeaked and sang in the thickets and the tree-tops. Insects hummed in boggy patches thick with moss and cranberry vines, and small creatures rustled about their business under the leaf-mould, unconcerned by passing Eldar.
This was not the tangled wildwood where the Laiquendi wandered, over-mountain in Valinor where no power but Yavanna's lay upon the land. This was a forest of the Sindar, tended and cared for, as much a garden as the pleasaunces of Tirion or the flower-meads of Valmar. Elwing savoured its busy peace, drawing strength from the strength of her domain. In Hanstovanén and its lands, the people of Forest and Shore lived side by side in the joy of their ancient kinship; no longer the hunted fugitives of Sirion-mouth, but a people strong and singular and acknowledged among the clans of the Amanyar. Since the Teleri had ceased to build their ships of wood, there were no longer even quarrels about the felling of trees. The home-port of the Silmaril was blessed, even in the Blessed Realm.
They halted at noon to eat a light nuncheon of bread and fruit, and to water the horses at a spring that flowed from a rocky outcrop in the woods. Elwing splashed her face and dabbled her hands in the water where it sprang from the stone. Its cold, bright touch both calmed and refreshed her. Nierninwa and Gilfaril, and others of the company did the same, readying themselves for the challenge to come.
As they approached the southern limit of Hanstovanén's lands, the mood of the company grew more sombre. The guards fell silent and checked their weapons. The foresters made sure that their air-guns were loose in the saddle-holsters. The horses ran more swiftly, feeling their riders' unease. The forest ended abruptly at the top of a long, grassy bank that sloped down to a meandering water: Sirith Edrain, the Borderstream. Three trimmed logs rested on stone footings, forming the simple bridge for which the place was named; but on the far side ran only a narrow path, almost invisible among the undergrowth. The road proper turned east at the bridge and along the near side of the stream, following it to the sea and the main coast road. On the other bank the willows grew thickly, their leaves silver in the sunlight, trailing in the slow, golden-brown water. Two figures stood in the shadows, as still as trees themselves.
Elwing walked her horse down the slope to the stream's edge, a little way from the foot of the bridge. The others followed at her back.
"Come forward," she said. "Strangers."
They came out onto the logs, two tall men side by side, moving as lightly and quietly as any forester. Elwing noted it, and then remembered that these two had been known as hunters in their time. Stalkers, clearly, rather than chasers like their brother, the traitor Celegorm. They stopped at the mid-point of the bridge, and both bowed.
"Lady," one said, "I am called Amrod in your tongue, and this is my brother, called Amras, of the Sons of Fëanor. May we have speech with you?"
Elwing looked at them, considering. She had never seen them close before, either living or dead. In the nightmare confusion of Sirion's fall she had faced terrible Maglor, and lived only because others had died defending her. His younger brothers had only been distant figures among the bloody-handed throng. She had received the news of their fall, but by then Sirion was taken, her sons lost, and it only remained to deny the murderers the fruit of their evil, and take the Jewel with her into death and the Sea.
Their likeness to each other was startling. Her own sons had been twins, but no more like to each other in looks than in temper. This pair were of one face and form, the carven beauty of the Noldor eerily repeated. They were alike in dress also, clad both in the simple garments of grey that the Reborn received upon waking. It was only by the minor difference in the colour of their hair that she could tell them apart. The one who called himself Amrod was as dark as any Sinda, but his brother's hair was that strange shade of red-streaked brown that only showed itself among the Noldor.
She said, "Come forward and speak."
They came across the remaining distance and down off the stone footing onto the grass before her. At Nierninwa's unobtrusive signal, her people moved up to form a loose half-circle about the two men.
Amrod said, "Lady, our House has made its peace with the Teleri. We would not trespass upon your lands, or upon your presence without your leave. But we do indeed ask your leave to remain here for a time, for we have great need to speak to the Lord Mariner when next he returns from his voyaging."
Elwing knew what his answer would be, even as she asked.
"Lady, for to call upon him to give us the Silmaril that we have sworn to recover from all who hold it."
Gilfaril and the foresters had their guns unholstered and aimed, even as he spoke. The half-circle of riders closed in, harpoons and spears poised to kill. Neither brother moved or spoke.
Nierninwa checked his horse at her command, though his spearpoint did not waver from its aim at Amrod's throat. Had she still been mortal, her anger would have had her heart hammering in her breast; haste might have tempted her into swift and unwise words. Instead, she said, "We have expected your coming for some time now, since the news came of the return of Fëanor's sons into life, and your eldest brother's coming to Alqualondë. You have dallied long upon the way."
Amrod looked up and his pale, shining gaze caught hers. He and his brother were Calaquendi still; neither death nor the darkness of their crimes had quenched the Tree-light in their eyes. When he answered his voice held a poet's cadence, the power of his line shown forth in spoken melody.
"We were delayed by wonder, Lady. The land is far changed from what it was when last we walked here. What was stone is rich earth, what was dust is trees and green grass and the fruits of summer, what was barren ice is water singing."
His words caught her suddenly, as if they shared a singer's waking dream, seeing the dim forms of men and women, shadows moving slowly through stony darkness, guided only by meagre lamplight in the shadows and the cold. Their banners showed in the dim and fitful light - the blue and silver of Fingolfin's people, the many-coloured rays of Fëanor's badge, the golden flower of wise Finarfin. The Exiles, the Host of the Noldor before the changing of the world; at the beginning of everything, both the glory and the pain.
"I am told, " Nierninwa said, in the prosaic manner of a teacher conveying some tidbit of necessary but not particularly interesting information, "That when the Sun first rose, Her light fell on this land that had lain always in the mountains' shadow, and by Her power and the will of the Lady Yavanna, life came to what had been wasteland."
His voice, deliberately flat, untuned the Kinslayer's melody, and woke Elwing from the dream like the chilly slap of a wave across her face. She blinked, and looked at silent Amras. Like his brother's, his face showed neither fear nor threat, nor any hope at all. He stood statue-still, waiting upon her word. Free from the spell of Amrod's voice, something in the Kinslayers' demeanour laid a cold touch upon her heart. Though the two men stood there in plain daylight, as plainly flesh and blood once more, she had an odd sense that she spoke to ghosts, caught between death and the renewal of life.
She said, "And if my lord refuses you the Silmaril, as he must? What then, Kinslayers?"
Amrod lifted his right hand and then let it fall again to his side. It was a deliberate gesture, a movement of the dance, precise and graceful. She knew a few of its meanings; Idril of Gondolin had taught her son the arts of their people before she abandoned him for the West. Surrender was one meaning; costly victory was another; I have no comfort for you was a third. None of them was anything welcome.
"Then the Oath will take its course, Lady."
The guards stirred but did not move, obedient to her earlier order. Nierninwa's horse made two smooth paces forward, bringing his speartip just that little bit closer, into killing range. A lightning spear did not need to touch flesh.
"No," Elwing said, cold and level. "Let him explain himself."
To Amrod, she said, "Do you threaten me?"
Amrod looked along the spear and into Nierninwa's eyes. Amras looked at Elwing.
Amrod said, "No, Lady. If Eärendil Idril's son refuses us the Jewel, we will do no harm to him, or you, or yours. We will depart your land in peace and we will not return. This we swear in our father's name, and in the name of the Jewels that he made."
The wind whispered gently among the willows, and the rippling voice of the water was very quiet. The scent of grass and pine-trees and horses and Eldar was strong about her. The Sun's heat stroked her skin. Her mare stamped nervously and swished her tail. Finches flickered through the bilberry bushes up the slope, in the forest's shade; she heard the little rattle of their wings among the twigs. All the strength of her small, un-Marred realm, ready to her hand.
No. Not un-Marred, not while the Eldar lived there.
"My lord is from home," Elwing said slowly. "But if he wills, when he returns, he may grant you audience. Until I summon you to my Tower or dismiss you, you will remain here, in the charge of Mistress Gilfaril and her people. Do no harm and none will come to you. You are not among friends and my eye is upon you."
Amras bowed to her, acknowledging her words. Amrod said, with Nierninwa's spear still at his throat,
"We thank you, Lady, and we will keep your peace."
"See that you do, Kinslayer," Nierninwa said. "You have made your peace with Olwë and Falmariel (2), but you have not yet made your peace with us."
Gilfaril and her foresters stayed at Iantathren. Elwing and her guards took the path along the Sirith Edrain down to the sea, and rode back to the Tower by the coastal road. It was still bright when they came in sight of the city, but the Sun had begun Her slow setting. It was low tide, and the waves were quiet. Across the sun-golden water the Tower glowed, miracle of the Sea-Elves' Art. It had not been built of quarried stone, but grown slowly like a shell, layer upon layer rising from the rich, cold seas of the North. From the sea-battered reef it sprang upwards in great spiralling terraces, fantastically winged and buttressed. Its walls were brilliant white in the noontide, rose-golden at Sunset and Sunrise, and at night they shone softly, giving back the light of Moon and stars.
The riders slowed their horses to a trot as they approached more trafficked ways. The road was busy with farmers returning to the City for the evening market, the day's harvest of seed and fruit and vegetables loaded on their hexapedal carts. Silk-growers tended their molluscan charges along the shore. Ships rode at anchor along the quays of the harbour - sleek fish-hunters and swift kite-wings and the great swan-ships and the little speedy skiffs that plied the shore. High against the bright sky, men and women rode the wind on the wings that Elwing herself had devised long ago, back to the City or out to the scattered villages along the coast.
Elwing sighed. Another duty waited for her.
"So, Nierninwa, is there word of who my guests are and the hour of their coming?"
Nierninwa's face lost the abstracted look of those speaking mind to mind. He said, "They will come when the Sun passes the horizon. They are the company of Arwen, a vessel of the Aulendili and the Hellevantari(3). They are explorers, led by the Lady Lalazel of the Vanyar. They come from Tirion, and go...onwards."
He smiled for the first time in many hours.
"Narthel and Nendis assure you that the preparations for dinner are well in hand."