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Amarië roused with a start, breathless and shaking in the cool silver light. She could feel his presence, golden and warm, curious and kind, and see about him a glade of dark trees and a fire and a group of creatures – elf-like, in a way, but smaller, darker, hairier. They were looking at him with wonder, his beauty reflected in their eyes as he sang softly to the music of his harp. How could they not be amazed by his shining presence? A tear spilled over and wove a path down towards her lips, but she ignored it and let it fall.
She would have defied her parents and gone with him – if only he had asked. But his fingers had touched her cheek – a lingering caress, as if he was impressing the sensation in his memory, to give him something to hold close to him in the long days ahead, and he had refused to offer her the choice.
But she had given herself to him, nonetheless. She had often wondered if she had been right to bind her fëa to his – in promise of a future that might never come. Whether he had come to resent this tie to a maiden of the Vanyar, come to wish that he had been free to offer his love to one of those who had had the courage to venture forth with the Noldor – or, perhaps, one of those who grew up there in those starlit lands. Thoughts that haunted her on nights like these. She passed her days quietly, dutifully, smiling and singing and behaving just as she ought – but the nights … She could not control where the dream path took her.
She sat up and took a sip from the glass of cool water that she kept beside her bed. No regrets. She must not have regrets. She had not tried to hold him – she had seen in his eyes that this was a challenge he longed to take, an adventure with a serious purpose. He wished to avenge his grandfather’s murder – and who could blame him for that? What had come after – she shuddered – no-one could have foreseen, but it was no fault of his. And, from that moment, every step the Noldor had taken had tumbled them down a chute littered with sharp-edged rocks, dropping ever more steeply, until there had been no possibility of clawing their way back.
Finarfin had come to her, white-faced, despairing, and told her of the Doom. Told her that his children, all of them, had defied the Valar’s warning and continued on a path that could only lead to disaster. Warned her that Finrod could not return to the lands of his birth.
But how could she conceive of a Doom that had no possibility of forgiveness? The Valar were wise – they might warn of disaster and the folly of disobedience, but they were generous and loving. They had taken the quendi from the dangers of the dark lands and brought them to dwell in the glory of the light of the Trees. How could they not forgive those who had taken upon themselves the duty of dealing with Morgoth? Forgive them and welcome them home.
Yet, as time passed, she had found it difficult to suppress the doubt that began to grow within her.
Finrod’s spirit was not wholly bound with hers – not as it would have had they truly been wed – but sometimes, when the business of her day did not get in the way, she felt she could see through his eyes the trials and wonders of this alien world. She thought he knew, believed that he could sense her closeness and had learned to guard himself – but there were times when he had been unable to subdue his pain and she had glimpsed his struggles. He had come close to despair in the bitter cold of the Crossing. Beautiful, golden, laughing Finrod had discovered a resolution in himself that had never before been tested. Found himself to be a leader like Finwë, one with the kindness of Finarfin, one who cared more for those he led than the impersonal heartlessness of exacting revenge.
And his restlessness drove him still – to new acquaintances in new lands, new loyalties, new duties. And occasionally, just occasionally, when his spirit was on fire, he called her from her rest to watch him from afar.
She rose from her bed and dressed swiftly. She needed to see the stars above her, watch Tilion drive his chariot across the night and know that somewhere far from her, somewhere she would never see, Finrod walked under the same skies.
His destiny stalked him. Finrod raised his head from his inspection of his hands. He had survived battle that had consumed his kin, sought to make friends among those born east of the sea, built this refuge to keep his people safe – but his fate was catching up with him.
He examined the man before him. Tall, he was, and proud; bearing on his finger the ring he had given to Barahir after the Dagor Bragollach. He was a fine man, doubtless, a worthy son of his father – but this quest of his was folly.
‘You would take on the might of Morgoth and his servants alone?’ he said incredulously. ‘Where Fingolfin failed you think you will succeed?’
‘A Silmaril,’ Beren told him. ‘The bride-price set by Elu Thingol, who would not see his daughter bestow herself on any lesser creature than one who could free a Silmaril from the Lord of Angband.’
‘He sends you to die,’ Finrod said bluntly. ‘Thingol would not welcome his daughter’s choice of the fairest elf under Elbereth’s stars – he certainly does not intend to let her wed one of the Secondborn.’
Those stars shone from the man’s dark eyes. ‘Then die I shall,’ he said, ‘for living without her would be a worse death.’
Finrod closed his eyes. He had given his word. This man bore the token of it – he had promised, when Barahir had saved him, that he would aid the one who asked it of him. That he knew his death came in the shadows that stirred round Beren was of no import – his honour called him to take up arms in his support.
He stood deliberately, waiting until all eyes were on him. ‘Then I shall go with you, Beren, son of Barahir, and do what I can to bring your quest to fulfilment.’ He turned his head just enough to hold his brother’s eyes. ‘And the care of my people I shall leave in the hands of Orodreth Finarfinion.’ He removed the circlet from his brow and ceremoniously handed it to his darker-haired brother. Orodreth had a stunned look about him, his mouth opening and closing, so that he looked rather like a landed fish. Despite himself, a glimmer of amusement lightened Finrod’s rather bleak mood. ‘Guard them well, my brother.’
The outrage of his court could not weaken his resolution. This was his task. He knew as well as they did that he would not return to Nargothrond to take up his crown again, but to deny this petition would be to abandon the intentions with which he had started this journey in that time long ago when this had seemed as much to do with adventure as Doom.
He stepped away from the dais, leaving the trappings of kingship for another to bear, and looked at the man. ‘What is your plan?’ he asked.
The golden day had disappeared. All she could see was shadow and flame, while cold chains bit into tender flesh and sought to drain the warmth from the blood that pulsed slowly through aching limbs. Yet courage still flared, courage indomitable. He would not give in – he would offer himself to save the one in his care. And searing into her was the echo of pain, pain indescribable, pain that clawed and chewed and ripped, stealing blood and breath and rending… A sound like a dog tearing its prey apart, hot breath on cold skin, the shredding of muscle, the wrenching of bone from bone and the stench of spilled blood and worse…
A phantom touch, a ghostly breeze brushed against her cheek, a sensation of sorrow, of apology – and he was gone.
Amarië fell to her knees, vomiting and weeping hopelessly, unable to control her body, shuddering and jerking as she tried to bring herself back to the ordered gardens of Valmar and the exquisite song of the Vanyar as they praised the wisdom and generosity of the Powers. But she could not, and she felt herself falling, falling …
The world to which she returned seemed grey, its colours muted by the film across her sight. Her parents did not understand – how could they?
She sought out Indis. Indis knew – far more clearly than she could – the anguish of losing the one to whom she had given her heart. Indis knew the reality of enduring in his absence.
Finrod’s grandmother had welcomed her, clasped her as kin by more than love, held on to her as if she had been in truth Finrod’s wife.
And, after a while, her parents came to terms with her absence. Service to the wife of Finwë, to Ingwë’s kin, was acceptable. Not, perhaps, as worthy as dedication to the Powers, but enough to give them the feeling that she was not wasting her talents.
And time passed.
Unlike the dreams.
She had hoped that, as she grew accustomed to his absence, her memory of Finrod would become more remote, something she could take out when the business of the day was over, something she could enjoy with thoughts of wistful might-have-beens.
But her dream path was not tranquil. The Finrod who had danced with her in the meadows of Valmar, who had walked with her, whose golden presence had warmed her heart, was not the one who made her afraid to rest. This Finrod’s spirit was haunted by the trials of the life that followed the slaughter of the Trees, the shock of Alqualondë, the cruelty of the Ice, the horror of battle, the despair of continual loss, but, most of all, plagued by his protracted death.
Indis said nothing. Half the time she seemed barely aware of the world around her, needing to be reminded to eat, to drink, to continue with the necessities of life. Of course, the rest of the time she reverted to the sharp-eyed, gentle lady who had devoted herself to the love of Finwë and her sons. It was Amarië’s need that roused her, that caused her to seek out Irmo’s Gardens. Not for herself – she had no wish to heal – but for her grandson’s beloved.
Yet Estë’s understanding had helped them both. Both Finwë and his grandson were bound to Arda and their need of Námo’s care was only temporary. They would take the time they needed for their wounded fëar to heal and the Vala would return them to the world. To their kin. To those who loved them.
‘Sharing the knowledge of what he suffered,’ Amarië said, ‘is not a bad thing, then? It will help me understand the elf who returns to walk his father’s halls?’
Estë’s serene glance was like balm. ‘What do you think, child?’ she asked.
‘I think…’ It was almost impossible to resist the Valier’s desire to make her work out the solution to her own questions. ‘I think that Finrod would – will – take consolation from the fact that I have been safe and know not the perils of the Hither Lands, but…’ Her voice trailed away as she tried to find a way to explain her thoughts. ‘I doubt whether complete ignorance of his sufferings would be helpful – it would isolate him and make him turn away…’ She stopped again and looked doubtfully at the gleaming figure.
‘If he had not needed you,’ Estë remarked, ‘he would not have permitted you to be with him. He would not have sought you in his last desperate moments.’
‘Sought me?’ Amarië’s voice sharpened. ‘Or just been unable to keep his guard in place to keep me away?’
Estë tilted her head sideways and simply regarded the Vanya.
‘He sought me.’ Amarië recalled with certainty, gazing straight ahead at the bubbling fountain. ‘He bade me farewell.’ A wave of heat flushed her cheeks and hot tears spilled. ‘He will return,’ she said.
‘And he will seek you again,’ the Valier murmured. ‘When he emerges into the light, he will need you to be ready.’
Amarië looked at her, wide-eyed. ‘I will be waiting,’ she said.
Finrod blinked. He felt as if he were floating, a mote of light drifting on the winds of time. He was nowhere and everywhere, nothing and everything, an insignificant speck of life and the whole world. And yet … and yet …
He moved – and watched the hand stretch its fingers, long and pale and responding to his thought. His … his being was confined, brought together and placed in a shell – a body.
He took the time he needed to let the thought spin. The elf he had been … the product of his experience, his suffering – his death. The elf he was now … the elf he could be. He flexed his fingers, like an elf trying on new gloves to see if they fitted him.
The Vala watched him, his dark eyes devoid of obvious expression. Finrod thought he was eager – felt he was still close enough to freedom to sense the emotion behind the screen.
‘Are you ready?’ Námo asked.
‘Ready for what?’ Finrod did not think he had spoken. He did not think he remembered how to speak – but words were unnecessary here. Wherever here was.
‘To resume your interrupted life.’
A momentary qualm made the elf feel … nauseous. He did not think he wished to return to the situation that had seen him …
‘Not then.’ Námo hastened to reassure him. ‘You have moved beyond the trials of Endórë to return to the Blessed Realm.’
Something about that sounded wrong. Finrod gave himself time to consider. ‘But the Doom?’ he asked.
‘You have moved beyond that, too.’ The Vala looked at him dispassionately. ‘The Finrod who emerges from my halls is not the same elf as the one who defied the Powers.’
Finrod turned the thought over in his mind. ‘Is death what it takes, then,’ he asked, ‘to be forgiven?’
‘Not necessarily.’ Námo did not seem to be in any hurry to move. ‘There are as many paths to forgiveness as there are elves seeking it.’ He watched the elf’s fëa shape itself to the hroa that now confined it. ‘But it must be earned – through selflessness and service, through atonement.’
‘My kin will return?’
‘When it is right for them to do so.’ Námo kept his tone non-committal. ‘The process cannot be hastened. Each case is different.’
‘Where do I go from here?’
Námo contemplated his answer. He had assumed that the elf would know. Perhaps Estë had been right to say that returned elves would need a period of adjustment. Perhaps the process was another birth – with the elf needing time to learn how to relate to the world. Elves were not, of course, accustomed to their spirits journeying unclothed. ‘My brother will take you into his care,’ he said. After all, his business was done. He had released the elf from his charge – and what became of him now was no longer the Vala’s problem. ‘Until you are ready to take up your new life.’
Finarfin had deserted his court without a second thought. Eärwen had abandoned her customary tasks. They had ridden as if chased by Morgoth’s dark creatures, scarcely noticing the lands through which they raced.
They arrived, dusty and breathless, in a haven of timeless tranquillity. Estë’s handmaidens had offered them space and quiet and cool, sparkling water. Finarfin gazed at their surroundings blankly. It was not the time, surely, for bathing and taking wine and sitting beside the pebbled pools in silent contemplation. They had not been summoned for this.
His wife’s hand rested on his. ‘Come,’ she said gently. ‘You need to rest.’
‘I need to know,’ he told her, speaking for the first time in days. ‘I need to know what is so serious as to make the Valar require our presence. Is my mother following Miriel’s example? Has she given up all hope?’ His eyes were dark, haunted by more than his current fear.
Eärwen shook her head. ‘It was not a summons to bid Indis farewell,’ she said with surety. ‘You know it was not – you are trying not to let yourself expect too much.’ She wrapped her arms around him, offering him support in the only way she could. Blood staining the wharves of Alqualondë had come between them, their children had deserted them, the shadow of the Valar’s war had scarred them – but they still had each other. Together they could endure what would have broken one alone.
How long they stood there, they knew not. But the calm of the place strengthened them and readied them for whatever they had to face. Finarfin relaxed his hold on his wife and looked into eyes grey as a brooding sea. ‘What else do we have to lose?’ he asked. ‘If not Indis, then none of my kin remain to be taken from us.’
Eärwen’s hand caressed his back. ‘The Doom of the Noldor does not seem confined to those who followed Fëanor east,’ she said bitterly. ‘Those whose loyalty is unquestioned still have to pay.’
Her husband touched a gentle finger to her lips in warning. ‘We must have trust,’ he said. ‘The Valar do not look at time as we do.’
‘They do not,’ a voice agreed.
Her son stiffened, forcing his face to a cheerful smile before he turned to her. Indis looked better, he thought with relief. Not like someone who could no longer endure the endless repetition of empty days. She seemed in tune with the eternal beauty of the gardens – and bright with expectation. ‘Adar?’ he asked.
Her light dimmed the barest amount. ‘He will not return,’ she said simply. ‘He followed Fëanor to Formenos, surrendering his duty to his people for love of his son. He will not leave Námo’s Halls while his firstborn remains – and Fëanor will not leave Námo’s care while Arda endures.’
Finarfin closed his eyes. It hurt. It did not matter that he had always known that Fëanor came first in his father’s eyes, it still hurt to be reminded that Finwë’s second family were somehow less to him than Miriel who had deserted him and Fëanor whose … intransigence had led to the Noldor king’s death. And the death of so many more.
‘But Námo has more in his Halls than Finwë,’ Indis reminded her son. ‘And not all of them wish to remain. There are many who will return to walk beside their kin in the groves of Aman.’
‘Finrod?’ Eärwen breathed. ‘I have been more … aware … of him in recent months.’
Indis glowed. ‘Come with me,’ she demanded.
They yearned to speed across springy turf studded with tiny white stars and golden bells, turf that released a fragrance that brought peace even to hearts in turmoil – but this was not a place where even desperate parents could hasten to a reunion that had could offer them a new start.
‘Breathe deeply,’ Indis advised. ‘Prepare yourselves. You must go calmly into this meeting.’ She hesitated. ‘Finrod is … both more and less than he was – and his fëa is very close to the surface. He needs serenity and acceptance – and no questions.’
‘Does he remember us?’ Finarfin had, after his father’s death, spent many starlit nights pondering the promise of Námo’s care and the elves’ bond to Arda. Would those who were rehoused return as infants, or come forth in the power of adulthood? Would they be emptied of their experience and have to learn to live again? Would they know their kin – would their kin know them? No matter how long he spent on the questions, he had never found the answers and he had finally accepted that not until the Vala considered that the fëar in his care were ready to resume their lives would he discover what he needed to know. Maybe, indeed, the Powers themselves were not aware of what would happen.
‘He knows who he is,’ Indis said. ‘He knows who we are. He is not yet entirely sure how to combine knowledge and emotion.’ She took her son’s hand and extended her other to his wife. ‘Be patient. Estë has told us to respond to the need he shows. To answer questions as he asks them and not to show distress at anything he says or does.’
Eärwen drew a deep breath and forced her emotions behind a mask of control. ‘We can do that,’ she said.
Her hands clasping theirs, Indis began to draw them forward. ‘Then come and welcome your son,’ she said.
He stood tall, his face turned up toward Elbereth’s stars. The cool of the night washed him and soothed his raw spirit. This was hard. Part of him hankered for the unchanging remoteness of Námo’s Halls, where his fëa could just drift in silence. But another part – a larger part – wanted what came with this embodied life. Wanted the contact, wanted to discover things he did not know, wanted to throw himself into an effort to make the world better, wanted to please the anxious-eyed elves who dealt with him so carefully.
Yet something was missing. He turned his thought inward, inspecting the person he seemed to be. He saw himself in his mother’s eyes – her firstborn, loved and treasured. Nurtured. Brought to full growth and freed. His father’s son – challenged. Stretched. Offered the chance to shine. The product of two proud houses – this much he had learnt: this much he had remembered. But there was more.
He turned slowly, palms open to the sky, gleaming in the muted light. He needed to know the bad as well as the good. He was not perfect – he knew that. He was an elf, as fallible as any other. He needed to come to terms with the shadows as well as the sunlight.
And he needed someone who needed him as an adult rather than a child.
‘Amarië,’ he murmured, tasting the name on lips unused to speech. ‘Amarië.’
Golden-fair, eyes soft and trusting, gentle – generous. He could put together images, but his pictures of her were fragmented. Each one no more than a flat reflection. A maiden in soft green, dancing beneath the light of the Trees; her concern when he had gashed his leg leaping from rocks – showing off to impress and failing dismally; the brightness in her face when they walked beneath avenues of lime trees; the feel of her hand in his; the touch of her lips; her brave attempt to conceal her hurt when he bade her farewell…
He must find her. He did not know, but he suspected that she could offer him the missing part of himself, the part his loving carers were so careful to keep away from him. Perhaps, with her, he could begin again.
He was not to know of the whispered conversations that were taking place out of earshot. Not to realise the debates as to his state of mind, his readiness, his need. He only knew that when he lowered his eyes, she stood before him.
Clad in white, barefoot, her hair loose, her eyes fixed on him, she waited for him to acknowledge her.
‘Amarië,’ he breathed. ‘Forgive me?’
‘What is there to forgive?’ she asked.
Hesitantly, he took a step towards her. ‘So much,’ he told her, although he found himself unsure as to what it was. ‘And I am not the elf I was.’
He did not even notice her cross the distance between them. ‘You are Finrod,’ she said fiercely. ‘No matter what has happened to you, no matter what you have suffered, no matter what becomes of you in the time to come. You are Finrod – you are honest and true and courageous and loving. You are the elf I have carried in my heart over long years. You are Finrod – you do not need to be anything else.’
He tested the thought. Did he really not need to try to fulfil the expectations of others? Was he trying to take his parents’ memories of him and fit himself to them? He could not tell. Would it be any different for him to be the Finrod he found in Amarië’s mind?
Thinking was too painful – and none of his questions ever seemed to offer him answers. He was an elf of action – introspection was better left to others. He reached out a tentative hand and was pleased when Amarië did not move away.
Her skin was soft and warm, and his fingers tingled as he brushed the tips over her cheek to tangle them in her hair. She trembled, he noted, but not with fear. She had dreamed of this through so many quiet nights, dreamed of this while pacing moonlit gardens to keep away darker visions.
How had he known that? Finrod paused briefly, but the distraction of her presence was too much to let him take the thought further. The scent of her hair intoxicated him and he shivered at the warmth of her breath on his wrist. She was so near after so long apart. She was forcing herself to be cautious, to hold back as they all did and let him set the pace, but he could feel her shaking, feel her leaning towards him. Finrod smiled and bent his head so that their lips could meet in a gentle kiss that was, at first, so chaste…
‘We have done this before,’ he murmured against her mouth.
‘We have,’ she agreed, her hands lifting to caress his chest gently before sliding round to hold him against her.
‘May we do it again?’ Finrod asked, and did not wait for her reply before beginning a kiss that was rather more intimate. Amarië, he noted, seemed quite happy to participate in the game, even if she was reluctant, at the moment, to initiate it.
‘As often as you like,’ she said recklessly.
He laughed. ‘You might come to regret that promise,’ he said.
‘Never,’ she told him. ‘I have waited long enough.’
Finrod kept his arms round her as he lifted his face to the stars. This felt right. Amarië was a part of his past that he needed – and she, apparently, needed him, too. He already felt more … real. More grounded. His clasp tightened. ‘I will not leave you again,’ he promised.
‘You will do what you must,’ she said. ‘I will not put limits on you.’
‘That seems hardly fair,’ he remarked. She felt so right beside him, he marvelled. As if a gap was filled that had been empty since he first buckled on his sword belt in the darkness that had swallowed the light of the Trees. ‘But I would accept any terms you offer – they would be more than I deserved.’
‘Then it is as well that I have more care for you than you have for yourself,’ she smiled. ‘You were not meant to be caged, Finrod Finarfinion.’
‘Love is not a cage.’ It came as an illumination. He blinked in amazement as a collection of fragmented thoughts blended together.
‘Maybe not.’ She gazed at him soberly, inspecting him as if to convince herself that he really was before her. ‘But it is a responsibility. And I do not know if you are ready for it – not yet.’
‘I rely on you to teach me,’ he said confidentially. ‘To let me know when it is time.’
She looked up, startled. ‘It is not my decision to make.’ She laughed and he lost himself in the sound. ‘When you are ready, everyone will know. You will sweep us all along in your wake, my lord, and have us all doing your will.’
Tentatively, he rested his head against hers, and her closeness warmed him. He closed his eyes and explored the sensations surging through his body. Amarië was right, he supposed. It was too soon. But that did not mean he was going to let her go. Once was enough for that. His new life – he did not know where it would take him or what it would ask of him, but of one thing he was sure. Amarië would walk it at his side. ‘As long as I convince you,’ he said. ‘I will be content.’
Wonder and Disquiet
Far enough from his son not to appear to be hovering, while close enough to keep an eye on him, Finarfin glanced anxiously at his mother. ‘He loses himself,’ he muttered. ‘It is unlike Finrod not to be … doing something.’
‘He is doing something.’ Indis remained tranquil. Dwelling with Estë had given her greater insight into the needs of the elves under the Valië’s care, as well as helping her resign herself to her loss of her husband and the absence of her older son and all but this one of her grandchildren. ‘He is not idle, simply because you cannot see his struggles.’ She smiled at her son. ‘Some things shine for him out of the confusion and give him purpose – you, Eärwen, Amarië – but for the rest...’ Indis shook her head. ‘It will take time.’
‘I have to return to Tirion,’ Finarfin said moodily. ‘You would think that the remnants of the Noldor in Aman could rule themselves quite happily for a season or two, but it would appear that, although they can ignore me quite comfortably while I am among them, my absence makes them feel that they have been abandoned.’
Indis gleamed with amusement, raising her face to bask in the glow of Anar’s golden light as if to share the jest with the Maia guiding it. ‘You would feel unappreciated if they did not miss you,’ she said.
Her son looked at her reproachfully. ‘But I cannot be in two places at once. And surely my place right now is at my son’s side. Some things are more important than politics.’
‘I do not think it will matter to Finrod if you are absent for a time,’ she assured him. ‘He is not yet truly aware of the passage of the days. His awareness seems to consist more of … intense moments of sensation, following by periods of struggling to absorb their meaning.’
Finarfin gave her a lop-sided and rather rueful grin. ‘And, in truth, he needs Amarië more than he needs me.’
‘Perhaps.’ Indis did not attempt to conceal her agreement under a shield of reassurance. ‘I suspect that he feels most comfortable with the child he was – you and Eärwen represent the most stable part of his life and just knowing you are unchanged is probably enough for him. Amarië – well, her part in his life is unfulfilled and he is still learning how she relates to him.’
‘I would not say we were unchanged.’ Finarfin suppressed the flash of bitterness that tended to shadow him when he thought of those dark years … and his struggle to rebuild the confidence of the Noldor in the face of Fëanor’s betrayal. Enduring the pain of his kin’s departure … the years of war … the knowledge that his sons and Eärwen’s were lost to Námo’s Halls and that their beautiful Artanis was exiled beyond the seas to a dangerous world. No, not unchanged.
Yet Estë’s acolytes had warned them all against indulging in strong emotion around his son, insisting that it would scar Finrod’s fëa, still not entirely confined within its protective shell. This was neither the time nor the place to allow these feelings to surface. Perhaps he needed to step away for a while, to come to terms with his own emotions, to ensure that he was able to be the father this newly-returned elf needed.
He looked at his apparently full-grown son, who sat motionless on the turf, unbraided hair of pale gold cloaking his slender figure, and his belly twisted with pain. None of them were unchanged and it was folly to pretend that they were.
‘I will be back as soon as I can,’ he said.
It was harder than he had expected. Nothing was real. Nothing that happened now – and nothing that swam to the surface of his mind as having happened in that former life, the life he had now resumed. Nothing from the time in between. This gentle place of dreams seemed detached from anything as … as vulgar as life. These gardens – he looked round him disparagingly – were too perfect. There was no space for the rampant growth of a strong-willed weed or two – anything so coarse had apologetically removed itself beyond the borders of Irmo’s lands. There seemed to be no understanding that, without contrast, perfection was itself diminished.
And people expected so much of him. Not that they said so – they simply looked at him, eyes filled with hope, when all he wanted was to be left alone, so that he could try to meld together all the different people concealed beneath this unscarred form.
He sighed and ran his fingers over the surface of the short turf, losing himself in the fresh acid green of its scent, so that when he blinked again he found that Arien’s voyage across the sky had progressed towards evening.
It had happened again!
He did not like it – he preferred to be in control. That, at least, he knew. The decisions should be his. Even if his decision was to step away from power to fulfil a more necessary destiny.
Finrod stood, swaying very slightly as his body grew accustomed to the idea of movement, and headed towards the water. He would walk round the lake, he decided. They would not let him leave until they felt he was able to control himself – that he had balanced past and present in his head and prepared himself for the future. And if that was so, then he must work to recover more of himself, to pack ruthlessly away the tendrils of drifting confusion and be himself. It should not, after all, be that difficult.
Gravel edging the water crunched beneath his feet, stone moving against stone to settle into a solid surface – and he was suddenly a child again, small enough that he reached only halfway to his grandfather’s shoulder. He could feel his excitement as Finwë’s long fingers curled around his chubby hand and showed him how to feel the flat pebble in his palm, how to draw back his arm and flick the stone so that it bounced again and again across the still surface of the water. His father had laughed, his face bright with pleasure and, in the distance, among the reeds on the far side of the lake, a duck had quacked indignantly in protest at their game.
‘Finwë,’ he murmured, and his throat ached as he recalled the appearance of messengers from Formenos and the discovery that the evil that permeated the darkened land had stolen his grandfather’s life and robbed Aman of its innocence.
Yet the air was warm and silken over his skin and the rustle of the trees soothed his ears. Golden flowers exuded a comforting fragrance that promised … that promised reconciliation and harmony. He resumed his walk, his long robe catching on the longer grasses and tugging gently so that the fabric pressed against his skin and reminded him that the flesh had its own pleasures.
It was this exposure to sensation, he thought, that was most disconcerting him. He had always been Finrod, even when his spirit drifted in the cool emptiness of Námo’s Halls, but he had forgotten what it was like to feel – to smell, to taste, to have something – someone – touch him.
He felt her rather than saw her. A young oak, green and strong and straight – an oak at the heart of a sheltered forest, weighed down by his parasitic presence. He was like ivy twining round her, using her for support, bearing her down. A wave of shame flushed through him.
She enfolded him in her arms and held him close. ‘You are nothing of the sort,’ she whispered fiercely. ‘You are part of me and I would not let you go. It takes time to recover from any injury – to regain your strength – and what injury could be worse than death? And, at that …’ She stopped, drawing down blinds so that he should not see her thoughts.
Such a death. The words trailed across his mind, light as a cloud drifting across a summer sky and as ephemeral, but he frowned, uncertain. How could she know anything about the manner of his …? Only Beren had survived to know of it – and, of all those east of the sea, Beren would be the least likely to have had any chance to tell his family in Aman of the end he made.
He tangled his fingers in the spring sunshine of her hair – a net to hold him safe from the darkness. ‘What do you know of …?’ He let the query dangle. He wanted to know, but not enough to speak of it. Not here, where Irmo’s gardens rested in the perpetual tranquillity of unchanging beauty. This was not the place for shadows.
She stroked his cheek. ‘Does it matter?’ she asked. ‘I know enough that you do not need to hide it from me.’ She smiled and a tendril of warmth curled itself round him. ‘Release it, my heart.’
‘I took the creature into the dark with me,’ Finrod told her. It seemed important – if only barely – for her to know that his death had not been in vain.
‘And Beren survived,’ she assured him. ‘To wrest one of Fëanor’s jewels from Morgoth’s crown. His granddaughter and Lúthien’s risked the passage west to bring home the Silmaril that now graces Eärendil’s brow as he sails the night sky.’
Finrod blinked. Time was an obsession that belonged to men – whose lives passed so rapidly in those dangerous lands – yet he wondered for the first time how much of it had passed while his fëa healed in Námo’s care and how much had happened of which he was unaware. A sprout of curiosity unfurled, like a green leaf in a bright spring.
Amarië laughed and he bathed in the sound. ‘That is more like the Finrod of memory,’ she said. ‘You have always wanted to know – to see, to understand, to offer friendship and support.’
His grin was mischievous, apologetic, warm - present. ‘I am sorry,’ he apologised. ‘I cannot help it.’
She drew her fingers along his jaw to outline his mouth. ‘I would not have you any other way,’ she said.
The day beyond the silken pavilion gleamed with a dream-like splendour. In fact, when Indis came to think about it, she was sure she could recall the precise day that was being recreated for her …
The Valië smoothed one pearl-white hand over her forearm and lifted it to look between the long fingers. ‘If we decide to wear a physical form,’ she said, ‘it is simple – it is a mere appearance that confines us not at all.’ She paused, gazing contemplatively at the elegantly-wrought table and the steaming cups of fruit tea. ‘I spent some time in converse with Melian,’ she went on. ‘A body is apparently more real to a Maia – they take on the characteristics of the form worn until they shed it, but releasing it does not bring about any end and they can resume a familiar form. It would seem that returning to a body is more complicated for an elf.’
‘We are composed of both hroa and fëa,’ Indis agreed. ‘It is hard to imagine existing as one without the other.’
‘That,’ Estë stated, ‘is not the problem. The fëa continues to exist in Námo’s care. But the promise is there – that elves might return to life in Aman when their fëar are healed.’ She looked over the shimmering surface of the lake. ‘It would seem that it will take more care to bring about than we had thought – and that those who return need more than a swift release into the care of their families.’
She lapsed into silence, but Indis felt herself subjected to a keen interest that did not require the eyes of the Valië to be upon her. ‘You mean…’ she said slowly, then hesitated. Did Estë mean what she thought? She turned doubtful silver-grey eyes on the shining Valië.
‘Many are the fëar within the bounds of Mandos,’ Estë said simply, ‘and many there are that are ready for release – but the Gardens of Lorien cannot hold the newly-restored indefinitely while they ready themselves to resume their lives.’
‘You want the elves to … to establish a system for preparing elves to live here in the Blessed Realm.’ Indis felt rather than saw Estë’s approving smile – and the gentle encouragement to take the thought through to its natural conclusion. ‘And you want me to do it.’
Estë’s esteem bathed her in warmth, but Indis could not quite suppress a flash of despair. Who better, since Finwë would never be among those fëar passing back through the doors of Mandos’s Halls? Who better, since Eärwen ruled at Finarfin’s side in Tirion? Who better, since she had none who depended on her for their happiness?
‘They would listen to you,’ Estë said. ‘You have the ear of those who rule in Valmar, in Tirion – even in Alqualondë. They would provide all that you need.’ She looked at Indis speculatively.
‘And the Valar could not set this in place?’ Indis lifted her chin. ‘Would Ingwë and Olwë not respond more swiftly to Lord Manwë’s request than to mine?’
Estë watched her hands spread, palm up, in a gesture of deprecation. ‘There is no rush,’ she hedged. ‘Better to move slowly and be right.’
‘And elves should provide for themselves…’ Indis looked at the Valië with apparent innocence. ‘We have a better understanding of the trials of hroa and fëa than can the Ainur – we are better able to bring them back into balance.’
Estë’s smile made it seem as if the whole garden had brightened and Arien’s chariot blazed above them. She shook her head. ‘All true,’ she said, ‘yet you are right – there is more than that. It will give you purpose, child. You cannot mourn Finwë’s absence until Arda ends. He will not return – not soon, at any rate – but there are others of your blood who may. Why should you not ensure that their path is smooth and their troubles eased?’ She raised her cup and sipped speculatively at the cooled liquid. ‘Finrod has shown us that the process takes time and care. He is fortunate that he has you and his parents and his beloved. Not all will be so blessed. Would you have them held in my brother’s care until there are those present who will tend them? What of those families brought to ruin in the Hither Lands? Should they never be released to dwell in peace?’
Her stomach tensed and Indis closed her eyes to absorb the intensity of the stab. Not just those who had chosen to leave the safety of the Valar’s haven, but those who had never reached it. Those whose life’s blood had been spilled on distant shores – whose hope was eventual freedom in a world of tranquillity. ‘What must I do?’ she murmured, bowing her head to accept the burden placed upon her.
Finrod linked his fingers with Amarië’s. ‘How long has it been?’ he asked.
She clutched her skirt in her free hand and bunched it up to scramble after him up the steep hillside. ‘How long has what been?’
He stopped and turned towards her, drawing her close, his hand on her back. ‘Do not evade my questions,’ he protested. ‘I need to know.’
Amarië dimpled, her smile still enough to enchant him, but he fought off his wish to drown in the softness of her lips. ‘How long since we left the pavilion?’ she asked. ‘How long since the gates of Mandos closed behind you? How long since your fëa fled to Námo’s care? How long since Anar rose? How long since we last stood on a bed of pine needles overlooking still water? There are so many questions – I cannot answer them all at once!’
‘All,’ he demanded, his clasp on her firm and confident.
She searched his eyes. Do not volunteer information, she had been told. When Findaráto is ready to remember, he will remember. But these, surely, were questions to which he could not retrieve the answer?
His smile melted her. ‘Save the first,’ he conceded. ‘I recall that we began our explorations some three hours since – give or take a handful of moments. I am … bemused – not stupid.’
She stood on tiptoe and kissed him. He was, she was ashamed to confess, even to herself, irresistible when he looked at her like that. And his muscles – remarkably for one who had only recently been restored to the possession of a body – felt toned as he held her more tightly against him.
‘But,’ he murmured, his breath warm against her mouth, ‘I am easily distracted.’
‘Not here,’ she said firmly. ‘It would not be suitable.’
His kiss was decidedly more demanding than she expected and she found herself forgetting to breathe as he tilted his face better to gain access … ‘Enough,’ she gasped.
‘These are gardens of healing,’ he teased. ‘Where better to …?’ He laughed as she pressed a finger to his lips and kissed it gently. ‘Surely Lady Estë would not begrudge us a little pleasure after so very long apart?’
‘She might not,’ Amarië informed him. ‘But I do not intend to be the first to bond precipitately in the Gardens of Lórien! We would probably set back by centuries the cause of those fëar that are ready to return!’
Finrod was suddenly serious. ‘Anything that would lead the Lady to feel that I am not yet ready to leave here, I will not do,’ he said. ‘It is time for me to depart – to take up again a place in the world.’
Amarië cupped his cheek and gazed intently into his gleaming eyes. ‘You are better,’ she admitted, ‘but I do not know if you are yet prepared for the cacophony of the outside. You are not, perhaps, as ready as you think you are.’
‘We will not discover that until I am allowed to try my wings.’ He sounded a little impatient. ‘There are those who would like, it seems, to keep me cosseted away from the world until another age has passed.’ Amarië raised a golden eyebrow at him and he looked a little guilty. ‘Not you,’ he said. ‘I did not mean you.’ He drew a deep breath of the pine-scented air. ‘I need to … to be – doing things. I am not an elf to sit and contemplate indefinitely – I need to see and hear and learn. Be part of the world.’
She allowed her head to rest on his shoulder. She had always had to share him – always would. It was the way he was made. He could not hold back and let others take the chances – he wanted to experience everything he could. At least, she consoled herself, she shared him with the living world, not with a passion for cold jewels – and he was generous to a fault. No Fëanor, he, to close his treasures away and hoard them against all comers. ‘You must speak to Lady Estë,’ she said. ‘If she gives her consent – then we will go home.’
The eyes watching him were grey as the sea, and, like the sea, concealed immeasurable depths.
Finrod remained gracefully on one knee, his robes puddled into a shimmering heap that only permitted one unclad foot to peep out. He would not beg, he decided uncomfortably. He had put his request – and the Valië would take what time she wished to consider it. He breathed as he had been taught, drawing serenity around him like a cloak.
‘You are very young, child,’ Estë observed.
He felt tempted to protest, to say that he had been born while the Two Trees filled the land with glory, he had witnessed their destruction, been caught up in the Noldor’s response and endured much that came of it before his sojourn in Námo’s Halls – but he had the feeling that that was what she expected, and that saying anything of the sort would only prove her point.
‘And the world seems wondrous to you.’
It was true, he thought, feeling as if the air had been sucked out of him. Despite his experience, it was as if he had been given back the sight of a child. Anor was brighter not just because this was the Blessed Realm, but because he saw it afresh. The air he breathed was heady with the intoxication of life not just because these were Lórien’s gardens, but because he was here to smell it.
He raised his face unthinkingly and found his sight caught by the Valië’s face, drowning in the fluid gaze, making no attempt to shield himself from her understanding.
‘The world is wondrous, my lady,’ he said.
‘But are you ready to face its challenges?’ she asked. ‘There are some who will not welcome the return of an Exile to the woods and ways of Aman.’
‘That is, no doubt, true, my lady,’ he agreed. ‘And there are those whose forgiveness I will never earn – but that does not mean that I should not try.’
‘Is not their inability to embrace forgiveness more their problem than yours?’
She left him prodding tentatively at the thought. It yielded beneath his touch, changing shape under his attention. ‘I am not responsible for the charges borne by others’ fëar,’ he said, knowing it to be true, for he had been told this many times. ‘Only for mine. It is important to me to do what I can to right any wrongs I have committed.’
The simplest questions were always the hardest. It had been the same in his youth, when his mother had attempted to extract the reason behind his foolhardy behaviour from her firstborn. He had always been able to explain almost anything – except what had made him want to accept the challenge in the first place.
‘Because it is.’ It was not an answer – the answer was because it was part of him. His people, his duty, his responsibility. He had striven to do all he could to live as his father’s son, scion of a proud house – descendant of more than one proud house – but he had made mistakes. Of course it was his task to do all he could to atone for his errors.
Estë moved to join him in kneeling on the dense grass, the alabaster of her hands on his arms sending little shivers to his core. ‘You would not be here, Finrod Finarfinion of the line of Finwë, if you did not merit a place among your kin.’
‘It is hard to believe, my Lady Estë, that I am any more estimable than others who remain in Lord Námo’s care.’
‘Perhaps not,’ she said easily, ‘but this is your time – and it is not yet theirs.’
He smiled, the open smile of a child in the company of one he trusted to tell him the truth. ‘Is it not right, then, that I should return to the world?’
Her cool fingers cupped his cheek. ‘We do not wish to hurry you,’ she admitted. ‘We wish this to be done in such a way that your recovery is smooth and without any setbacks.’ She inspected him affectionately, so that he almost stopped breathing with the wonder of having the Valië focus on him. ‘You are something of an experiment, child of Finwë’s house. Where you lead, many more will follow.’
Finrod paused, allowing himself the time to explore the thought.
‘To whom will they give their allegiance,’ Estë mused, ‘with their lords abiding still behind the walls of Mandos?’
Finrod blinked. His awareness of the world had not yet led him to the contemplation of political manoeuvring – that was, in truth, something he would happily leave as part of his former life. But implicit in every end was a beginning – and elves sought development as fresh tendrils of spring green sought sunlight. ‘My father is High King of the Noldor,’ he said. ‘I kneel to him. Ingwë rules in Valmar – while Olwë still holds Alqualondë.’ A brief qualm shook him. He supposed that was the case – but what if the fair city on the coast had been abandoned to be a mausoleum to those slain there? What if Olwë, like Finwë, had spilled his blood in defence of what he held? His sight darkened, as if the red fires burned again behind the salt-white walls and the cries of those left bereft rang in his ears.
‘No, child,’ Estë spoke insistently, her hands tightening on his arms. ‘Release the memory. It is past – and no regret will change what happened. Olwë dwells still in Alqualondë – and the harbour is white with the gathering of the Teleri’s ships.’
‘Have they not returned?’ he asked, his low tone not concealing his anguish. ‘What right have I to walk the ways of the Blessed Realm while the dead of Alqualondë remain in Námo’s Halls?’
‘The fëa cannot be rushed.’ Estë sighed. ‘And we are learning as much as you are. The … the logic that the first to pass to my brother’s care should be the first ready to return simply does not …’ She stopped. The incomprehensible difficulties that elven fëar seemed to have in coming to terms with their past was not something she should lay on this ellon’s shoulders. Although it was not simply elves who caused concern. Melian, too, seemed unable to bear the weight of her pain – and she required more careful watch even than the tormented fëar of elves freed by death from Morgoth’s wiles.
Námo had been surprised, she knew, that it was this elf whose spirit had … had coalesced to the edge of awareness so swiftly – but she had not. There was an innocence to Finrod – a purity – that made him an obvious candidate to be the first … and, of course, he had sacrificed himself willingly in the advancement of Eru’s incomprehensible plan for Arda’s future.
She smiled at the elf. ‘Not Tirion, I think,’ she said. ‘Not yet. But perhaps you are ready to move beyond these gardens.’
It felt – odd – to be breeched and belted, soft boots pressing against his bare feet. Part of him wanted to tug at the confining fabric and return to the comfortable weightlessness of the mist-grey robes. It reminded him in some vague way of the elfling he had once been – taken from the comfort of the nursery to become his father’s son, to learn what it was to be an ellon. The warm smiles of approval and the sounds of adult praise – words that concealed maternal anxieties and covered sentimental tears – echoed in his ears as if time was repeating itself.
Finarfin’s hand rested on his arm, comfortingly masculine and reassuring. ‘We will not be away from them for long,’ he said. ‘Amarië will be fine with your mother until you are ready to rejoin her.’
‘Planning the wedding,’ Finrod said seriously.
The silence that greeted his words told him that he had said something unexpected. Something that caused those easing him back into the resumption of his life to feel concerned.
‘It is too soon,’ Amarië informed him.
‘Do you not wish to wed me?’ He could not keep the hurt from his voice.
Amarië stepped instinctively towards him before forcing herself to wait. ‘I have always wished that,’ she said. ‘I always will – but I will not take advantage of you when you have not had time to become fully yourself. We will wed, my love, but not until the time is right.’
Finrod reached out to link his fingers with hers. ‘We are the closest there is to experts in this business, my heart,’ he told her. ‘What feels right to us is all we have to help us judge.’ He smiled at her before transferring his gaze to his mother. ‘I suppose it was too much to hope that I would be able to escape the persecution inherent in organising an event so long delayed,’ he said philosophically. ‘I tried.’
‘Indeed,’ Eärwen flashed him a fleeting smile. ‘You owe us all a splendid wedding, my son – if only to pay for your sister’s dereliction.’
Artanis … A thousand thousand memories slotted into place as if they had merely been waiting to be awoken. ‘You would like her husband,’ Finrod said seriously. ‘He is strong and resilient – like a great forest – and he hides within himself an enduring power. True kin to Olwë he is, yet bound to the land rather than the sea. She will not break him.’
His father glanced at his son before turning his attention to his wife. ‘Nor will he break her,’ he declared. ‘Elmo’s grandson loves and accepts her for the elf she is.’ He grinned wryly. ‘Or I might have felt forced to drag her on the ship against her will.’
Finrod frowned. He had missed much, it would seem – and would spend the next age tripping over gaps in his understanding of what had happened while he was immersed in the cool timelessness of the Halls. ‘But her task is not yet complete,’ he said and the ring of truth sounded, bell-like, in his words. ‘For her to return before the time is right would be to embrace failure and condemn the Hither Lands to darkness as surely as ever Morgoth could want.’
‘She cannot return,’ his mother told him. ‘Not now.’
‘Not yet.’ Finrod was undisturbed by his parents’ grief. Whether because he understood less than they did – or because he comprehended more – he was not entirely sure, but he had no doubt, at the moment, that, when his sister had fulfilled her purpose in those distant lands, she would return home in triumph.
The fingers linked with his tightened and his attention was diverted to the Vanya who held his heart. ‘Are you sure you cannot come with us?’ he asked. He found it difficult to grasp why both his parents had declared firmly that it would not be suitable for Amarië to wander with him in the peaceful lands beyond Lórien’s gardens. His grandmother had laughed, but, when he questioned her, had agreed with Eärwen and told him that his father would make a much better companion.
‘Not this time.’ Amarië smiled at him, squeezing his hand comfortingly. Her voice was gentle and sure and he basked in its warmth. ‘I will be waiting for you when you are ready to return,’ she said. ‘Have no doubt of it.’
A bubble of excitement began to stir in him. It had been a long time – a very long time – since he and Finarfin had spent much time in each other’s company. This was not what he had expected on asking the Lady Estë to release him to his new life – but he could not deny that the thought of having the freedom to wander over new lands was exhilarating – if somewhat alarming. He leaned forward just enough to touch his lips chastely to hers in farewell and promise, before allowing her to draw her hand away so that he could pick up the pack so carefully prepared for him.
She continued to smile as his tall figure passed through the wide expanse over which the soothingly-manicured lawns and flowers of the gardens grew wilder and less neat, watching him pause to exclaim over brambles and pushy saplings. He turned once, the sun catching the gold of his hair, a shining elf, to gaze intently at them as if to impress them on his memory, then disappeared into the trees.
Amarië’s expression remained frozen in place a while longer, breaking suddenly as a sob shook her from head to heels.
‘Oh, do not weep, my dear!’ Eärwen clasped the elleth in her arms. ‘It is not the same – it is not! He will return to us unharmed. I am sure he will. This time – it is different.’
‘He may not be ready …’ Amarië sniffed back her tears, ‘but in case he is …’
‘We will make sure that we can hold a wedding at a moment’s notice,’ Eärwen promised. ‘You have been betrothed more than long enough, my dear, and you both deserve the happiness that is to come.’
Out of the Timeless Halls
He felt better. Why, he knew not – after all, wandering the pathless paths between the smooth trunks of ancient trees was not really much different from sitting in contemplation in the timeless beauty of Lórien. Only – the air smelled of life and change. Of continuity and beginnings. Of matters small and great, bound together in a seamless whole, where the brief-lived flower of a tiny plant was of as much importance as the greatest tree, whose memory stretched back to the time before the light of the Trees had been extinguished.
Finrod raised his face to the dappled light seeking its way through the canopy and slowed to a halt as it warmed him.
His father waited patiently. Finarfin had received enough instructions on caring for his son to bemuse even the most anxious of parents – but he intended to disregard them almost entirely. His firstborn needed time to adjust and a willing ear. And, perhaps, someone who would talk to him in return. Expecting all the work to come from the returned seemed to him – a little unreasonable. He would not offer information, he thought somewhat guiltily, but neither would he refuse it.
This would, it seemed, be a good place to settle for a while. A night – ten – however long this child of his needed. The Noldor’s king looked around him critically. A green bank, a stream, trees to shelter them from the mild weather – what more could they want? Keeping an eye on his motionless son, Finarfin eased his pack to the ground and padded silently to the gurgling water to see if it would provide them with fish for supper.
The cheerful crackle of fire eating at dry wood and the smell of roasting fish roused Finrod from his reverie and he blinked to see that night shadowed the glade. For a moment – just a moment – he tensed, readying himself for the dangers that came from the dark, but then he released his breath and moved to sit next to his father. This was Aman. The greatest threat they might face would be the curiosity of a young bear – he remembered playing with wild creatures in the forests of long ago, before he followed his kin eastwards. There were animals big enough to hurt an elf, but they never did so intentionally and were happy enough to extend a cautious friendship to strangers in their territory.
Finrod accepted the large leaf his father offered him as a plate beneath the succulent small fish and used his long fingers to pick flakes of the hot flesh. ‘It is good,’ he said, sounding almost surprised.
‘Very good,’ Finarfin said contentedly, tilting his fair head back and inspecting his son. ‘No matter how splendid the banquets that are created in the halls of the great, there is nothing to compare with the simple pleasure of eating food you have prepared yourself in the company of those you love.’
The words rang with truth, Finrod realised. People had always been more important to his father than position or power. Perhaps, as a youngest son, he had never thought he would have to bother with either. Finarfin had supported his own father and brothers loyally – not an easy task, since they had, as often as not, been at odds with each other in some way – but he and Eärwen had concentrated on raising their family of adventurous sons and an enterprising daughter.
Only, Finrod mourned, to be deserted by them all.
‘Why did you turn back?’ he asked abruptly. ‘It was not through any fear of what you might face – I know that.’ The faint glow that surrounded the returned elf flared, as if Finrod could not altogether control the strange combination of elements that filled him.
‘Not cowardice?’ Finarfin smiled tightly. ‘How long did it take you to decide that?’
Finrod frowned slightly, seeking the answer from some as yet inaccessible corner of his mind.
‘One who was neither brave enough to reject Fëanor’s call at the outset, nor yet bold enough to see it through – is not that what they said of me? Finwë’s weakest son, one who cowered before the Valar’s threats? One whose resolution broke before it was tested.’ Finarfin contemplated his son. ‘I turned back,’ he said simply, ‘because it was not right to go on. Not because it was the easy path.’ He drew a deep shuddering breath. ‘Do you think it was easy to face your grandfather after what the Noldor did in Alqualondë? To build bridges with your mother, with her brother dead and all her children flown to exile? Do you think it was easy to walk through the streets of Tirion? To tell my mother – your Aunt Anairë – of the Doomsman’s words? To try to rebuild a shattered people?’ He looked down at the remnants of the fish and cast leaf and bones into the fire to be consumed. ‘There were times – many times – when I wished that I had ignored the voice that had spoken within me and gone with my children to a different fate.’
Finrod’s fingers reached tentatively to rest on his father’s wrist. ‘I am glad you did not,’ he said. ‘It is only fair that one member of the family was able to show some sense. And a shame that none of us swallowed our pride to join you.’
His father smiled more easily. ‘And which of you would that have been?’ he asked teasingly. ‘Not your sister, for sure – she would leave no mountains for others to climb. Orodreth, who yearned to show himself your equal? Angrod? Aegnor? Neither of them would have turned aside from a dare – especially if they had been forbidden to continue.’ He sighed. ‘And it seems as if they all had a role to play – and that matters would have turned out differently had they not continued in their defiance.’
The embers of the fire glowed comfortingly and a breath of wood smoke twisted into the air. Finarfin had grown into his choice, it would seem, and come to accept that his children had chosen another fate. Finrod watched him doubtfully. Had his return opened old wounds – reminded his father of those who remained still in Námo’s care? Refreshed his grief for those who would not return?
Finarfin placed his hand on his son’s – not firmly enough to make him feel trapped – and squeezed his fingers warmly. ‘You were always missed,’ he said, ‘and loved. But you had other tasks – and time … passes. To have you back … it is a promise to all those who mourn sons and daughters – husbands and wives – fathers and grandchildren. But … it will not be easy. There are those who feel that you should not be the one to lead the way.’
‘It was not by my choice,’ Finrod said mildly. ‘Námo said I was ready – and that I was here to teach as much as learn.’ He drew a deep breath. The air was cool and green-scented and filled him with life. ‘And if it is hard, so much the better. That is as it should be – I cannot deny my guilt and would not avoid its consequences.’
‘If you had not paid, you would not be here,’ his father said, fierce love in his tone. ‘The Valar do not play favourites – they have a reason for deciding to send you back, but it is not to be punished.’
‘Maybe not.’ Finrod frowned. He did not know what was ahead of him, not for sure, but of one thing he was certain – it was not going to be easy.
‘It will not be easy,’ Indis sighed, echoing, although she did not know it, the thoughts of her grandson. ‘There must be many, many fëar in Námo’s halls ready to return to life among their kin – but how are we to smooth the process? Finrod has had the attention of the great among the Valar, Maiar attendants, both his parents, his grandmother and his betrothed – and he has still found adjusting to life to be … complex. How are we to accommodate the arrival of dozens upon dozens of confused elves? Even Lord Irmo’s gardens will not be great enough to house them all.’
‘One thing that confuses me,’ Amarië said tentatively, ‘is …’ She paused. ‘So many elves died in the Hither Lands – long ago, before the Great Journey … Why do they remain still with Námo, when Finrod is deemed recovered enough to return?’
‘And the dead of Alqualondë,’ Eärwen said, a hint of bitterness in her voice. ‘Why do they not return to their families? There will be many who resent my son’s presence while they wait still for the presence of those slaughtered by the Kinslayers.’
‘Do not ask me such questions!’ Indis threw up her hands. ‘Simply because I have been presented with this …’ She looked round warily, ‘opportunity … does not mean I have any greater understanding than any other of the way the Valar’s minds work!’ The leaves of the bushes round them seemed to tremble with laughter, but the breeze stirring her hair seemed to suggest no other reason for their joy. ‘Perhaps …’ She stopped, staring at a leaf ripped from its parent plant to dance across the grass. ‘Perhaps it is not the dead who are not ready, but the living.’
Eärwen gasped as if at a blow and her eyes blazed like hot quicksilver. ‘How can you say that? Do you not see that the Teleri would find it easier to forgive if only those for whom they long were to emerge from the Halls of Waiting?’
‘But should forgiveness be dependent on reward?’ Indis mused, unintimidated. ‘Should it not be something achieved within oneself – something that brings its own peace? Perhaps the newly returned need the … the serenity of returning to kin who have put their resentments aside. After all – we have seen with Finrod that he did not deal well with strong emotion and needed understanding. Perhaps the newly-housed fëar of the slain need the … absence of enmity in their carers.’
Eärwen cooled as if struck by an icy wind as her mother-in-law’s words rang in her. What if it were true? What if grief and anger and bitter hurt were a barrier to the return of those much loved and long missed?
‘What can we do?’ Amarië asked.
Indis drew a steadying breath and closed her eyes. ‘I will go to Ingwë,’ she said, ‘and ask him to support the establishment of … of a house. Ask for volunteers to come to Lórien to train in the care of those newly returned. With the High King’s approval, it should not be too difficult to make a beginning – and we can build from there.’
‘I will go to my atar,’ Eärwen said. ‘He will listen to me – and be prepared to follow the Lady Estë’s advice. I know a cove – deeply wooded, with a stream running down to the ocean – that would be perfect for our needs.’ She looked briefly at her entwined fingers and deliberately separated them to smooth over the fabric of her blue gown. ‘Amarië – if you would agree to come with me, I could leave you in Tirion to tackle the problem of organising the Noldor.’
‘But why would they listen to me?’ Amarië was uncertain. ‘I have no authority over them.’
‘You have whatever authority I choose to give you,’ Indis declared and her son’s wife nodded her agreement. ‘If we are to do this, we will do it well – and soon. Finrod might walk beside his atar under the trees, but I would not deprive other parents of the same joy any longer than I must. It is time for our lost kin to come home.’
Ithil’s light bathed them, cool and calm, taking the green woods and turning them into a secret world, silhouetted in silver and cloaked round in velvet, where thoughts usually kept buried could be freely spoken and ancient wounds laved.
‘Fëanor took my brother’s promise of loyalty and threw it back in his face,’ Finarfin said bitterly. ‘Yet still Fingolfin followed him.’ He paused and poked the stick he held into the moss at his feet. ‘But how could he do otherwise? Even after the betrayal of Alqualondë, my brother would hold true to his word – and his despair was too great to allow him to turn back. Even though he had never meant to support such a vile act, he had taken part in Fëanor’s madness – he would have felt himself to be beyond forgiveness.’
His son reached tentatively to clasp Finarfin’s hand. He who had been King of the Noldor since before Anar rose drew a deep shuddering breath. ‘I had put this away long since,’ he murmured ruefully, ‘buried it deep and covered it over.’ He glanced at the gleaming purity of his returned son. ‘But apparently, it still festers within me.’
‘We had already turned our backs on Aman when Fëanor took the stolen ships and abandoned us to the ice,’ Finrod said, the recollection as fresh in his mind as if the jagged shards of the Helcaraxë were sawing at him and the bitter fogs freezing his blood. He smiled wryly. ‘And we would not be driven – neither into pleading for the Valar’s forgiveness nor into allowing Fëanor to make us abandon our part in the Noldor’s revenge. Finwë was Fingolfin’s father, too, and he would not be dismissed while Fëanor took it upon himself to avenge his death.’
Finarfin sighed. ‘My brother was always obstinate. To tell him he could not do something was to make him all the more determined.’
‘My uncle was an elf of indomitable courage – and I think he …’ Finrod hesitated, ‘I think he burned to meet Fëanor face to face and confront him with what he had done – but, of course, by the time we reached the further shores, it was too late. Fëanor was already dead. But he could not leave his quest to die with him …’ Fëanor’s nephew pressed his lips together. ‘The oath they swore for him still drove his sons. When we met my cousins again, you could see – you could see it in their eyes. They were already broken, bound and broken, but not by Morgoth.’
‘I would have more sympathy with them,’ Finarfin said rather dryly, ‘if it had not been for the Second Kinslaying – and the Third. They showed a distressing inability to learn from past errors.’
‘How could they?’ Finrod said with heartfelt pity. ‘They had always needed to please their atar – and nothing they had ever done had been good enough. They did what they thought he wanted – what history had shown them he would have done.’
‘They should have taken a leaf from Nerdanel’s book,’ Finarfin observed. ‘If they had followed her, my brother might have learned that he could not bend the whole of elvenkind to do his will.’
Finrod watched Ithil sail lower in the enrobing sky, as he sought his rest. ‘My aunt still lives apart?’ His father’s sigh answered him. ‘She should not blame herself,’ he said.
‘She is bowed beneath the burden of her sons’ crimes.’ Finarfin looked down at his hands. ‘Anairë resents her family’s desertion of her still and finds it hard to endure the separation from husband and children and your grandmother grieves that she will not see Finwë again before the world’s end, but Nerdanel has no heroics of which to be proud, no hope of absolution, no hope of a happy reunion.’
‘There is always hope,’ Finrod said, the silver light catching his eyes and making them shine like stars. ‘Always.’
‘Maybe,’ his father sighed, ‘but it is sometimes hard to find – and harder still to hold.’
It had been, Indis knew, far easier than it might have been. Ingwë had appeared aware that she was coming to ask him for his support – and he had already set in motion the process of selecting the first candidates for the new … order. Gentle-eyed ellyth and serious ellyn had been diverted from their customary paths and shepherded in her direction and she was only left to wonder – however was she to manage this? It was one thing being wife to a king and quite another being expected to build this system of support from nothing. It gave her a quite different level of respect, in truth, for what her brother and husband had achieved in settling their peoples here in Aman. How had they done it with such apparent ease? She sighed. Whatever qualities they had, she clearly lacked – for she had no confidence whatsoever in her ability to establish anything serving the needs of the newly-returned.
‘Small steps,’ Ingwë stated.
She blinked, having failed to notice that he had joined her in the gardens. The roses nodded their agreement, as if even they were better suited to this task than she was.
‘The Valar want you to succeed, Indis,’ the High King continued mildly. ‘This is about far more than you – Lord Námo’s halls are filled with those who need to be eased back into life. They are not about to make this any harder for you than it must be.’ He smiled. ‘And if I can offer you one piece of advice from my years of kingship, it would be – do not seek out problems. Most of them will fade away before they ever need you to do anything, and it will save your energies for the few that need addressing.’ He drew her hand through his arm and patted it warmly before starting to stroll with her through the clouds of fragrance. ‘Delegate – pick those you trust and rely on them to delegate to others.’ He grinned. ‘And, at the same time, be there. It is not wise to give others too much autonomy – they might begin to play their own game. Ask for help – the Valar will be only too willing to advise you.’ He squeezed her fingers. ‘And do not expect to do it all at once. If we have waited this long for our lost kin, we can continue to wait in patience until they are ready.’
‘But…’ she said. And sighed. It was an enormous undertaking – but Ingwë was right. Even the greatest enterprise started with one action.
‘Lady Estë will guide your steps, Lord Irmo will guard your walls and Lord Námo will – er – ease you gently into your responsibilities.’
Indis drew back suspiciously.
‘I hear…’ Ingwë appeared to be addressing the roses, ‘that the trainees arriving in Lórien have encountered their first newly-returned elves.’ He turned gleaming eyes on his sister. ‘And appear to be coping – if confused.’ His smile widened as she blinked. ‘While Amarië has returned in the company of a dozen select Noldor willing to serve, having persuaded scores more to wait until the houses are established and the wisdom codified. Eärwen has gained Olwë’s co-operation – or, more likely, her mother’s – and the Teleri’s first sanctuary is half-ready.’
‘So quickly …’ Indis groaned.
‘We have been awaiting this for a long time.’ Ingwë spoke mildly, but could not conceal the anticipation beneath his calm tone.
Indis returned the clasp on his arm warningly. ‘There can be no guarantees, my dear one,’ she said. ‘Or Finrod would not have been sent to us when he was, while so many others remained behind.’
‘I know,’ Ingwë reassured her. ‘I know – but I can hope, can I not?’ He smiled wryly. ‘I ask no favours, my sister – I would claim no precedence for my son over any of those eager to return. Yet, sooner or later, he will come – and, if what you are to do will speed the process by a single day, then that makes it worthwhile, and I will do anything I can to help you.’
He heard the singing first. A thread of sound on a drifting breeze, pure and clear as a mountain stream laughing its way down its rocky bed towards the blanket of the woods beneath.
It made him pause.
Family was … different. They knew him as he had been – accepted what he had become – but how might others react to him? He had regained enough of himself to know that others might not be so accommodating of him – rebel, exile, warrior, king, werewolf’s quarry, now returned to a new life – and he was still … unshielded. If these strangers rejected him, how would he survive it?
Finarfin waited patiently. If his son was not yet ready, then he was not. Only Finrod could decide whether to open himself to contact with those who had not been instructed carefully in the care of the newly-house fëa. He smiled inwardly. But his understanding of his firstborn had lost much of its acuity if he missed his guess that the evening would see them sitting round the same fire as these strangers.
‘Foresters,’ Finrod said tentatively.
‘There are few who live this far west,’ Finarfin told him easily. ‘The forests are too dense to sustain permanent villages – and the foresters are mainly wanderers across a wide range. They guard all that grows here and harvest what food the trees offer. I find them to be a peaceful people.’
‘Are not all those who dwell in Aman peaceful people?’ A smile brightened Finrod’s face, like a ray breaking through the canopy, encouraging his father to relax his guard further.
‘Some,’ he said solemnly, ‘are a lot more peaceful than others. I find that foresters rarely impose many demands on my store of patience. And that is a quality worth appreciating!’
His son laughed. ‘Will they find us here, do you think?’ he asked.
‘I would be very surprised if they were not already watching us. Even in Aman, your chances of surviving in the wild are greatly enhanced if you know what dangers surround you.’ He grinned. ‘But they are reserved – and courteous. If we wish to remain alone, they will respect our privacy.’
‘I think I would like to meet them.’ Finrod inclined his head to one side, letting the breeze sift through his hair in a comforting caress. ‘It would be … pleasant, to remember that I am only a small part of the whole.’
‘Well, then …’ his father said encouragingly. ‘Let us follow their song – and let them know we are seeking their company. If they are willing to share an evening with us, they will find us soon enough.’
Finrod began to hum, his voice echoing the foresters’ song and adding another dimension, as he led the way between the trees. His father stared at his back, wondering if his son realised just how much he stood out in the dappled shadow, just how much the blend of the experiences through which he had passed permeated his fëa and brightened his hroa. He hoped – he hoped desperately – that the inhabitants of the Blessed Realm were ready to welcome his son back among them, for it would rend the newly-restored elf’s father to see that pure gleam dulled and tattered.
Elves – dark and slight and shy – approached cautiously from the trees, clearly uncertain of the two golden-haired ellyn wandering these remote forests, but drawn, somehow, to the light within Finrod. They watched him, even as they greeted the older elf, bowing in a way that informed him that he was not quite as unknown as he had thought, even here.
‘My lord,’ a soft voice said. ‘We would be honoured if you would eat with us.’
Finarfin stepped back, drawing the elf with him. ‘My son,’ he murmured, scarcely loud enough for him to hear his own words, ‘is …’
Eyes the grey of granite glinting in the sun met his as the elf lifted his face. ‘But newly come among us,’ he said. ‘We know.’
The Noldor’s king blinked, not sure he grasped the ellon’s meaning, and several moments passed before something about the elf standing before him sparked bewildered recognition. ‘You are returned from Mandos,’ he said with certainty. ‘But I thought …’ Why the fuss, he asked himself? Why, for Finrod, the hovering family and the proposed order of careful attendants, if these elves had already dealt among themselves with the arrival of those whose spirits had been … refreshed? ‘I do not understand,’ he admitted.
The elf shrugged. He clearly did not feel it was his place to educate the Noldor’s king.
A Noldo, Finarfin thought, but not an Exile. Nor, if he was not mistaken, one of Finwë’s followers, lost in the Hither Lands before the great journey. One, perhaps, whose inadvertent death had shadowed the tranquil delight of the blessed days before Morgoth’s perversion had darkened the land. He looked speculatively at the gleaming elf. How had his kin dealt with him? And how long had it taken him to regain his understanding of the elf he was? Was the process easier for one whose experience had been … innocent – and whose death had been swift? There was so much, he suspected, that even the Valar did not know.
‘You have been long here among your kin?’ he asked.
He recognised without any difficulty the protective and slightly defensive attitude of the elf who came up behind the youngster and placed a fatherly hand on his shoulder. ‘A good while,’ he said. ‘But not as long as we spent without him, my lord.’
‘Those years pass slowly.’ Finarfin did not realise that his eyes had been drawn irresistibly to his own son, a buttercup among bluebells, effortlessly charming the reserved foresters.
‘And end abruptly.’ The elf paused, squeezing his son’s shoulder and giving a slight shake. The ellon accepted the message and bowed slightly to the king before stepping away from them. ‘I was a coppersmith in Tirion, my lord, when my wife and I knew we must leave and come west, if we hoped ....’ He drew a deep breath. ‘And I would do it again, without a thought – but …’
The resolve behind the words trickled ice into Finarfin’s veins. A score, a hundred – a thousand, even, abandoning their lives to ease long-mourned kin back into the world would make little difference to the elven realms – but everyone grieved for those lost. There existed in this most blessed of realms barely a single family that had not lost fathers, brothers, sons, daughters, mothers, grandparents – some many of them – to Námo’s care. If each return required the complete attention of loving kin and isolation from those living normal lives, then Aman as they knew it would cease to be. ‘We must talk,’ he said. ‘I need to know more. We all, I think, need to know more.’
On Sand of Pearls
The onshore breeze prickled Eärwen’s nose. Scents of …salt winds and distant islands, silver fish and pods of sleek dolphins, bright corals and kelp forests. You could take the Teler from the sea, but that the ocean remained part of the Teler, despite long centuries in the decorous Tirion, surrounded by trees and the tang of forge-fires.
Olwë’s queen looked at her, smiling slightly as she recognised the transfixed expression. The song of the sea was like a lullaby to a child in its mother’s arms – and it provided a relief to Eärwen that she was never prepared to admit she needed.
‘It should do, I think,’ she said briskly. The extensive house was tucked into the terraced hillside, walkways joining separate clusters of buildings, low trees intercepting the wind and shielding the salt-silvered wood. Small gardens of hardy plants grew in the lee of the walls, offering the bright gallantry of thrift and sea lavender as well as neat rows of such vegetables and herbs as would grow here in the face of the ocean. At the head of the quiet valley a stream tumbled headlong over the cliff to pause in a deep pool before continuing more sedately on its way to join the sea.
‘It smells of home,’ her daughter told her. ‘And yet it is … peaceful and undemanding.’
‘Those who have agreed to staff it are also …’ Vórima smiled, ‘peaceful and undemanding. Good at listening – and they have learned to withhold judgment.’
Eärwen considered. ‘Good,’ she said.
‘And now we wait?’
She did not answer. What was there to say? Eärwen had not felt quite this insecure since the dark skies above her had been lit by Varda’s stars and the only sound to break the shattered silence of the empty streets had been cries of despair. Not insecure. Ignorant, she corrected herself fiercely. She would never again be crushed as she had been in the ruin of the Blessed Realm in the aftermath of Fëanor’s madness. She had hardened and warded herself – and fought to resume a serene acceptance of the vicissitudes of fate. An acceptance she had striven to maintain in the face of her sons’ deaths and her husband’s absence in the war against Morgoth – and her daughter’s enduring exile and … her expression lightened … her eldest son’s return.
‘I suppose,’ her mother mused, ‘it is like having children – the first is always the most disconcerting – and has panicked parents attempting to swim unfamiliar currents to learn the skills they need as each problem arises – but each child brings its own peculiarities and needs to be treated differently.’
‘You would be good at caring for the returned,’ Eärwen observed. ‘You always managed to remain calm, no matter with what challenges my brothers confronted you. And you always found solutions – or led them to find their own.’
‘My daughter was more difficult, as I recall,’ Vórima said with some humour. ‘I often found myself obliged to hand her guidance over to her atar – despite the fact that she could twist him round her little finger.’
‘Ammë!’ Eärwen protested, then smiled somewhat wistfully. ‘I must admit that Nerwen was always more likely to oblige her atar – and nothing made her more determined to have her own way than to demand correct maidenly behaviour of her. I found myself advising her against actions in the hope that sheer contrariness would push her into doing the exact opposite – but she was by far too sharp to be taken in more than a couple of times.’ She sighed. And now her strong-willed daughter had stubbornly resisted calls to seek forgiveness and return home – remaining instead in the dangerous lands east of the sea with the husband Finarfin claimed was a good match for her. ‘And I shall never see any grandchildren put my daughter through the more difficult trials of parenthood.’
‘Perhaps Finrod and Amarië …’ Vórima suggested.
‘Perhaps,’ Eärwen agreed after a moment, resolutely cheerful, putting the constant ache aside where it could not be touched. ‘And in the meantime …’ she looked with approval at the quietly expectant complex, ‘we are ready for the next challenge.’
Finrod was not, Finarfin thought, the ellon from whom he had parted on the sharp-edged rocks in a knife-edged wind at the shore of a biting sea. But then … the Noldor king’s lips tightened in sour acknowledgement – neither was he. Would this change in them both prove, in the longer term, harder to overcome than his son’s death and return to life here in the Blessed Realm? Would it be that, once the glory of reunion with his firstborn had faded and the delight had settled into the … ordinariness of everyday living – that they would each find it difficult to endure the person that the other had become?
Perhaps the … the uncertainty of the newly-returned – their need to rebuild their memories of themselves – was intended to smooth their path, to help them fit into a form they had shed, to give families a chance to come to know each other again in the here and now.
Yet he could see, in the ellon before him, the magnetism that had drawn the exiled Noldor to him – like iron to a lodestone – and made him king, just as he could see the honour that had brought him the loyalty of the Secondborn and the gallantry that had led him to take on an opponent beyond even his power.
He had seen repeatedly, as the pair of them had made their way through the forests towards the neat farmlands that made up the patchwork of fields on the fertile river valleys before Tirion, that Finrod made friends as easily as others made … purchases of fruit in the marketplace. His genuine interest in others woke something in them – gave them a pride in themselves, a belief that they had something to offer, a devotion to whatever cause called them. It was, Finarfin thought, probably the very reason that Lord Námo had chosen his firstborn to tread this path. If anyone could reconcile the different factions of the Blessed Realm and encourage them to uncover wounds long-hoarded to let them heal … Not, he smiled wryly, that he was biased in Finrod’s favour. Of course not.
Yet this encounter felt … different. The small group before them exchanged uneasy glances and their expressions were guarded. Standing shoulder to shoulder, they seemed to feel a need to support each other against the arrival of two wanderers, who just happened to be scions of Finwë’s house and therefore impossible to rebuff. They were not armed – but he would not have been surprised to see hayforks in the farmers’ hands. And, for the first time since they had left Irmo’s gardens, he did not feel welcome.
Nevertheless, the wave of sheer rage that advanced on them took them both unawares. The elf who advanced on them from the edge of the trees, clutching his faded blue cloak round him, recognised them both – and he had no intention of surrendering himself to the feeling of harmony that had pervaded the meetings they had experienced so far.
Finrod tensed, his hand automatically seeking the hilt of a weapon he no longer bore.
They had not expected it to be easy, Finarfin reminded himself, turning to face the new arrival. Not everyone would welcome his son’s return – and they would all have to learn to deal with that.
‘How is it that you return to walk beside your father, when my son – who followed his princes loyally into exile – is confined to the shores of the Lonely Isle?’ The elf’s anger oozed from him, swelling around him like a wave.
He watched Finrod’s muscles clench. ‘I do not know,’ his son said. Anxiety threatened to drown him and he was struggling to catch his breath when a confident hand clasped his shoulder and drew him back to land.
‘Why do you not ask Lord Námo?’ Finarfin said coolly. ‘I am sure he would be glad to explain his reasons to you.’
The elf laughed bitterly. ‘I am not important enough to merit his favour,’ he said. ‘It is left for people like us to bear the cost of your glory.’
‘There is no glory in doing what you must do,’ Finrod said. ‘We made our choices and we must live by them. Your son …’ he paused, a puzzled frown drawing together brows of dark gold as he reached for a memory elusively hovering just beyond his reach. ‘Your son accepted the terms of his penance. Why can you not do the same?’
‘Why should your sins be wiped out by death?’ the elf challenged.
‘Perhaps,’ the Noldor king said, his tone biting, ‘you would need to have endured the judgment of the Valar to know that.’
‘As you have not!’ The elf was not prepared to conciliate. He glared at Finarfin defiantly.
The group behind him took an involuntary step backwards. Reluctance to welcome Finarfin’s newly-returned son to their lands was not outright insubordination, but this … Amiable as the king usually was, he knew his authority and wielded it with the confidence that came from centuries of experience.
‘But I have.’ Finrod’s words chilled. ‘I have stood before the Valar – and my actions have been weighed and judged. And I have spent years uncounted in the Halls of Waiting until I was able to bear the pain of them and face restitution. Who are you to say that it is not enough?’ He smiled, but the grief behind his expression was unfathomable. ‘All must make amends – one way or another, and it is not only the guilty who suffer.’
‘My wife’s death is your fault,’ the elf hissed. ‘She could not bear the loss of the son you stole – she never lived to see him return, broken and shamed to a mockery of forgiveness within sight of the home he left.’
‘I do not wish to diminish her suffering,’ Finarfin said bleakly, ‘but she was not the only one called on to endure a division she never thought to see healed.’ He looked at the silent elves observing the debate. ‘I am sure there are few among you who did not see kin depart in my brothers’ train – and few who do not have some among them residing in Lord Námo’s care. Should you not be glad that the doors of his halls begin to open? Happy to learn that there are those whose fëa is healed enough to restore them to our company? I am. I am overjoyed to see my son – and determined to ensure that those who follow him will receive the best of all possible care to smooth their paths among us.’
A wary thaw softened the expressions of one or two of the watchers – but no speech, however convincingly-voiced, could penetrate the bitter shell that warded their chief opponent.
‘Have you visited the Lonely Isle?’ Finrod asked him. ‘Seen your son and asked him to tell you of his experiences?’
The elf’s lips thinned – halfway between sneering and trembling. ‘Why should I grant him my forgiveness,’ he asked, ‘after what he did to his family? When even the Valar offer him and his like only limited grace?’
Finrod extended his hand towards the elf invitingly. ‘Will you come with me?’ he enquired. ‘Learn more – and grow into understanding.’ He paused, turning over half-conscious thoughts and impressions. ‘For,’ he said, ‘I think it is forgiveness that is the key.’
Even the rustling corn-stalks stilled, and the day held its breath. ‘I will come,’ the elf said grudgingly, ‘if only to linger in your sight like a nightmare and make it impossible for you to forget the past.’
Finarfin resisted an exasperated roll of the eyes and kept his face impassive.
‘Believe me,’ Finrod said, soft as summer breeze, ‘my nightmares are far worse than anything you could imagine. You could not begin to match them.’
Amarië remained frozen in place in the shadow of the arching roses as the babbling crowds greeted Finarfin’s return, falling silent briefly as they met the curious gaze of the long-missed Finrod, only to turn to each other in hissed conversation. Most faces were open – and hopeful – but there were others whose eyes were hooded and shuttered at this evidence that Lord Námo was opening a chink in the solidly-closed doors of his halls.
It was, she supposed, only to be expected.
For all those who had thrown themselves enthusiastically into the officially-blessed project to establish … halfway houses, to accommodate the return of elves to life among their kin, there had been others who had pressed their lips together and turned away and yet more who had treated the move with a wary uncertainty. She could not blame them – she had spent enough years feeling resentful of those who had departed the darkened lands that she could see why those who had remained obedient to the Valar would begrudge the Exiles a chance to return to their previous lives. But it was not that simple. It was never that simple – and to draw absolute lines in the dust of the past only went to show that, perhaps, some of the Noldor had stagnated.
After all, why would the Valar choose to return the Host’s dead before those who had been born east of the sea? Why should they satisfy the … the taste for revenge that sharpened the tongues of some of those born to safety in Aman? If Lord Námo were to remain above pleasing the masses and hold to the open-handed justice of the Valar, he was using an entirely different set of considerations to decide who was ready to return to the world.
And her conclusions had nothing at all to do with the fact that Finrod had been chosen. She felt a joy bubbling up within her as her beloved’s closeness reassured her that his slow progress across the face of Aman had, indeed, brought him closer to a complete integration of fëa and hroa.
Maybe it was to her eyes alone – but it was hard to credit that not everyone would be able to see it. His beauty was refined, like gold passed through the furnace to remove any impurities, leaving nothing but the untainted metal.
She felt his eyes on her rather than saw him – and withdrew quietly. Theirs was not a reunion she wanted acted out in the sight of half Tirion’s court. She wanted to savour it – and grinned as a quite unexpected yearning surged through her – in as much privacy as they were allowed. If he were as recovered as she thought, he would know where to find her – and he would not take long to extricate himself from those who wished to gain his attention to seek her out.
She did not have to wait long – and the Finrod who joined her was much closer to the confident prince of treasured memory, one who had grown and matured and seen things that she would never experience.
‘My lord,’ she said, the courtesy title insinuating the claim that neither had – yet – spoken for all to hear.
‘My heart,’ he replied. ‘Endanya …’
He could not have grown – not really. He had returned in the full form of the adult elf he had been in the centuries before the light of the Trees failed. But he had … enlarged to fill the body that had been provided for him. Enlarged and matured and gained in confidence. She could not help but feel that this ellon knew the meaning of the fire that burned between them.
His gaze lingered on her, making the colour rise in her cheeks. It was most unfair that this newly-returned elf could make her feel gauche with a glance. Most unfair … and very encouraging. She smiled, inviting him to advance a little more closely – and, perhaps, explore some of the avenues they had left unwandered while in the tranquil Gardens of Lórien.
His grin recognised her hint, acknowledged it and the eager step he took towards her suggested that he was not averse to taking her up on it, and her breath shortened as his fingers stretched out to touch her face. Such enthusiasm, she felt, merited encouragement and she stepped into his embrace, running her own hands over his arms and sliding them up to tangle in his hair.
‘I have missed you,’ she murmured.
‘You have been busy,’ he remarked. Even in this moment of connection, she noted with wry amusement, Finrod could not subdue his natural political instincts … but that was doubtless not a bad thing. Both because it showed how far he had come since he followed his father from Lórien and because she showed herself to be the partner he needed. After all, the Noldor King’s son would need a wife worthy of him.
‘I have,’ she agreed. ‘We all have. Your mother has only recently returned from Alqualondë – and Lady Indis is still in Valmar.’
He noted her words, but she was pleased, as his mouth sought hers, to see that he had no intention of allowing himself to be distracted just yet. Not, at least, before he had completed some other very important investigations.
Eärwen blinked. The water from the fountain in her private garden splashed against the cleverly-situated metal leaves in a pleasing cacophony as she tried to take in the information. ‘But that is absurd!’ she said. ‘Why all the fuss about training those born here to welcome those who return – why set up a system of houses at all – if elves have been restored to their families before?’
‘It may seem absurd …’ Finarfin drew his wife to sit beside him in a nook over which honeysuckle bloomed and scented the air in pursuit of the attentions of the fat bumblebees that swayed drunkenly through the warm air. ‘But I have come to think that there is more behind the Valar’s – er – advice than smoothing the path of those newly-come from Lord Námo’s halls.’ He linked his fingers with hers and used his thumb to caress her palm. He remained silent for a moment, focusing on the link between them, its fragility and its strength, before looking up to fix her with his smile. ‘Have you ever though, my heart, that we – that is, the living legacy of those ancient days – may be the problem, rather than those who have learned from Lord Námo to … to let go of old grudges?’
She gazed at him. Still dressed simply in his travelling clothes, with his hair braided away from his face, he looked younger and more relaxed than he had since he returned from the Hither Lands. ‘You have learned to forgive,’ she said. ‘You do not even hold your brother’s crimes against him – and you pity his sons for their deeds.’
‘Bitterness and hatred only hurt those who hold them in their heart,’ Finarfin said sadly. ‘Fëanor – his sons – they must pay the cost of their actions in a higher court than any I will ever judge. For me to clutch on to grievance, like a greedy child, will do no-one any good. Ever I have sought reconciliation between the peoples of Aman – I hoped I had found it. Vanya, Teler, Noldo – we rub along together pretty well. Even with the Sindar and the returned Exiles of the Lonely Isle we trade – conduct councils – share learning and spread knowledge. I had thought that … we worked together at more than a superficial level. That we had harmony.’
Eärwen slid closer to her husband, resting her free arm on his back and rubbing her fingers across the skin of his neck. He was still the gentle ellon she had first loved – an idealist, but one whose ideals were more benevolent than those of his more war-like kin. ‘Universal harmony is an impossibility,’ she sighed. ‘It only takes one voice singing out of tune to mar the whole – and there will be far more than one voice sounding out against such an addition to the song.’
‘But we must seek it, Eärwen, if we are to be healed.’ His conviction was softened by the soft mourning tone.
His wife’s touch on the nape of his neck firmed. ‘Tell me what you found as you and our son made your way home,’ she demanded.
He closed his eyes and inhaled the scent of honeysuckle. It was good to be in Tirion, but it only reminded him of just how much he had to do, if he was to use what he had learned to its best effect. ‘There are, it would seem, those who have already emerged from the doors of Lord Námo’s halls,’ he said flatly. ‘In the forests, mainly, but also in quiet valleys and on the banks of distant lakes, where they can be one with the land and where their kin can support them through the process of … of becoming themselves.’ He sighed. ‘It would seem that the kin of those to return feel – called. Drawn to travel towards the gates from which their loved ones emerge and then settle where …’ he grinned wryly, ‘there are no politics to hold back recovery.’
‘Many?’ Eärwen asked. ‘Do they have anything in common?’ She frowned. ‘Were they lost to their family at any particular time? In any particular place? Do they come from every kindred – or are they mainly of one?’
Finarfin tightened his clasp on her hand. ‘They do not want to become objects of interest,’ he said firmly. ‘If we send people to learn about them, they will simply disappear – and, in our desire to make matters better for them, we will drive them from their homes.’
‘If they want to be a … a secret people, why did they show themselves to you?’
‘Finrod,’ Finarfin said simply. ‘Finrod’s presence brought them to us.’
He glanced at his wife, then concentrated on their twined fingers. ‘Those we met,’ he said simply, ‘were not those who heard the Doom of the Noldor. Not those who sailed to fight Morgoth’s hordes, nor those from the Great Journey and before. They were elves who were born and died here in the Blessed Realm. Peaceful people – Noldor who died in a range of accidents, a few Teleri who perished in storms and had lost their taste for the sea, a Vanya who had been crushed when a slab of building stone slipped. All had family who were prepared to give up their customary lives to begin again.’
‘Simple cases.’ Eärwen spoke slowly, then shrugged and Finarfin’s curious glance and elaborated. ‘It seems to me,’ she said, ‘that those who return need kin – or those who stand in the place of kin – and understanding. It may be that, for those whose deaths were … hard, we do not need soft-hearted ellyth to guide them back to themselves, but former warriors and veterans of more difficult times.’
Finarfin nodded. If this were easy, then the Blessed Realm would ring to the delighted cries of those reunited with the lost. ‘Finrod, I think, is a catalyst,’ he said. ‘The Valar have returned him to see what will happen. To make us, perhaps, take responsibility for our own and work towards a reconciliation far more complex than the simple return of those lost.’
‘We have been granted the time to find our own healing – and are now being pushed into completing a process we have evaded.’
‘Perhaps.’ Finarfin looked at her. ‘You may have noticed that we did not return alone.’
‘I noticed half the population of Tirion following you through the gates.’ Eärwen smiled. ‘And, among them, some faces I had not seen before.’
‘There is a lot of work to do.’ The Noldor’s king sounded resigned. ‘And much of it will be … difficult. Trying to negotiate understanding between those who define themselves through long-nursed resentments.’
‘Difficult,’ Eärwen agreed, ‘but essential. If we want the Blessed Realm to be the haven the Valar offered, we must make it a place where all can dwell in peace, no matter what shadows their past. Even,’ she said ruefully, ‘if they were kinslayers.’
His mother’s face was as pale as the breaking surf and the final tidying of his hair her way of saying how much she loved him. Finrod took her hands from his collar and kissed her knuckles before releasing her and stepping back.
This was something he had to do alone.
This was something he could only do alone.
He turned away from the small party that had accompanied him this far. His mother, Amarië, a couple of his father’s advisors – both of whom had married Teleri – a few grooms and servants. None of them bearing weapons. None of them hooded, none cloaked, none coming out of a lowering darkness towards a city hung with lights, its harbour bristling with the masts of the swan ships; a city that dissolved in fire and slaughter and the theft of innocence.
He was simply dressed, his hair unbound – but his clothing, nonetheless, announced him as his father’s son, as one who had been there that night … One who had seen the slaughter and done nothing to help, who had continued with the vengeful Noldor and marched into exile. One who had died on the far side of an unforgiving sea and yet returned while the victims of the Kinslaying remained secluded in Mandos.
The buzz of sound from the sun-bright streets was edged with … anticipation. Curiosity. And colouring that attentive hum, flashes of anger, murmurs of resentment, dark echoes of rejection.
The road surface crunched beneath his boot and white dust stirred to powder the leather. The spicy scent of drying flowers rose in the warm air to remind him of long distant days when he had run wild across these cliffs over endless summers. Finrod paused as another door opened onto vivid memories and gave him back another part of himself, but this task was too important to allow him much time for reflection.
People had spilled out of the gates to watch his approach, but none made any move to stop him. Which was, he supposed, a good thing. He did not know quite what he would do if Telerin warriors decided to bar him from the city. Or, come to that, if some long-bereaved mother rushed up to harangue him for his failure to prevent the greatest crime elves had committed against elves in the Blessed Realm.
It probably helped, he acknowledged to himself, that Olwë was his grandfather – and that his own father had long since earned the forgiveness of the people of Alqualondë.
It was not, most likely, his affiliation with the Noldor that was the cause of the tendrils of resentment that twisted beneath the whispers, but his status as one who had emerged, blinking, to start a second life here, while others remained behind.
From the elves crowding the streets, it would seem that almost the entire population had come to see him – yet, despite the numbers, his path remained clear and none approached him. He stopped briefly in the market square, suddenly uncertain of his direction in this city that had … begun again, but the shifting people opened a way before him, guiding him towards the entrance to the King’s House.
His grandparents waited on the steps, high enough that all those spectators urging him forward would be able to see exactly how they reacted to his presence. Finrod looked up. Olwë seemed very grave, clad formally in silver-embroidered grey, his hair held in place with an elegant circlet of silver and pearls and his hand on the jewel-encrusted hilt of a long sword. Vórima stood beside him, the train of her gown draped round her to trail down across the steps like an arrow, her long ropes of pearls glinting in the light as she breathed. The sea breeze blew their hair and stirred the silks of their clothing, but they remained motionless, like figures carved from alabaster, only eyes the grey of a storm-tossed sea burning with life.
The crowd dropped away as he passed through the open gates and he advanced alone across the courtyard. The noise behind him faded, as if all those present were holding their breath to see what would happen. Finrod’s steps slowed. He should stop at the base of the steps – but, if he did that, scarcely any of those standing watching would see. Better to climb high enough for his obeisance to be noted – but not high enough to let anybody interpret his actions as arrogance. One step before the halfway point, he decided, counting as he climbed to keep himself focused.
He knelt, head bowed.
No sound but the cries of soaring gulls broke the silence.
‘What do you ask of us, Finrod son of Finarfin?’ Olwë asked finally, as some of the watchers began to shift their feet.
‘I do not ask forgiveness,’ Finrod said. ‘What right have I to demand that of you, like a recalcitrant child? All I can do is assure you of my sorrow and ask – what can I do to earn your grace?’
Olwë considered his daughter’s firstborn as Finrod’s words were whispered through the spectators. ‘Nothing,’ he said finally. He raised a hand as his grandson looked up at him. ‘What happened was not your fault,’ he said. ‘There is a difference …’ his voice, although not loud, could be clearly heard by even the most distant observer, ‘between guilt and culpability. You were not – are not – responsible for the deaths of your kin … and if you had been, then in death and the judgment that follows, all debts are paid.’ He extended his hand imperiously and drew Finrod up the remaining steps to join his grandparents, taking him in an embrace as warm and affectionate as any his grandson remembered. ‘You are most welcome among us, child,’ he declared.
Yet, in the roar of approbation that greeted their king’s words, Finrod could not help but hear a sour undertone of dissent.
The running wavelets swirled around his feet, sucking the white sand from under his toes and lapping at his ankles like an enthusiastic puppy.
His mother held up her skirts without even glancing down, aware, as he could never be, of the idiosyncrasies of the tide and familiar with its tricks and games. ‘You see it?’ she asked.
‘It looks as if it has always been there.’
Across the wide beach, beyond the dunes, tamarisk bordered the stream, its dusty pink froth of tiny flowers like a maiden’s blush. Behind the foliage, stumpy birches and white poplar gave way to sturdy oaks as the valley rose to the wide verandahs of the newly-built house.
‘What surprises me,’ Eärwen admitted, ‘is that no sooner was it built than several Teleri emerged from the mists to take their place there. It is as if they were waiting for us to be ready for them.’
‘They probably were,’ Finrod said, curling his toes over the ridges in the sand and waiting for the sea to come back. ‘Everything works together,’ he added absently. ‘Life – death – people – the past and future … everything. Nothing is …’ He drew his toe across the shifting grains and watched it disappear as the water covered it. ‘Nothing is a straight line.’ He turned his clear gaze on his mother. ‘They were not victims of the Kinslaying, were they?’
‘No.’ Eärwen slipped one hand under her son’s elbow. ‘Some were sailors whose boats failed to bring them home. Another fell from the cliffs when little more than a child. Why do you ask?’
Finrod stopped as the water pushed at his calves to head further up the beach. ‘There are tasks we need to complete first, I think. Sometimes we stagnate before we are able to grow and …’ He shrugged. ‘I am not sure we are all ready to deal with the past, whatever we might say.’
‘Very nicely put,’ Eärwen remarked, ‘from one who has had to deal with everything he has ever experienced – and then cope with the process of realigning fëa and hroa.’
‘We are all in this together.’ Finrod grinned and resumed his paddle along the shoreline, his arm linked with his mother’s. ‘It is the only way we will overcome the problems that face us.’
‘Will you go and meet those who have returned?’ she asked. ‘You will, I think, be better able to speak of what faces them than anyone else – and it might do you good. Your atar told me that there was a … a deeper level of understanding between you and those you encountered on your journey – that you seemed easier in each other’s company.’
‘I will,’ he said, ‘but there is enough division without creating more. It is tempting to keep apart from the surfeit of impressions that swamp those who are used to silence and reflection, but that is not what is intended for those returned from Mandos. We are, I think, intended to meld together those who have been too long apart.’
‘A big responsibility.’ Eärwen was not sure she approved.
‘But a great purpose.’ Anar shone in Finrod’s hair and the reflections on the crystal water enhanced the gleam of his pale skin. ‘And it is only fair that we should be asked to put back what we have received.’ He smiled. ‘For we have received so much more than we deserved.’
‘So – what takes you to the Isle, cousin?’ Espalas moved the tiller slightly to catch the wind and his sleek vessel scudded joyfully along the rolling wave.
‘Have you ever had to swim home?’ Finrod shook the spray from his face and clutched the smooth wooden rail as the ship bucked under his feet like a horse rising at a jump.
‘Once or twice,’ the Teler admitted cheerfully, ‘in my foolish youth, but never when I have been carrying passengers. Especially ones as nervous as those cowering below decks. ‘I am not reckless, cousin!’
‘I am not surprised that my mother always warned me not to sail with you and insisted that our friendship should be … land-based.’
‘I always thought it was because the Noldor had weak stomachs,’ Espalas grinned. ‘And my aunt did not want to show up your failings.’
‘Typical Teler self-satisfaction!’
The cousins relaxed, their youthful friendship breaking through the suspicion of years and deeds and different experience to find expression in insults ages old. The water before them changed to a cloudy green as the depths receded and Espalas angled his white ship to pass the shoal, heading towards the expanse of hyacinth blue between the headlands.
‘You never answered my question,’ Espalas remarked.
‘And you never were as silly as you pretended,’ his cousin told him.
‘A younger son of a younger son.’ The Teler shrugged. ‘I never needed brains! If I had shown myself to be clever, Andatar would have dragooned me into the business of keeping the kingdom going – and I would have had to leave the sea behind.’
‘As if you have not long done that – whenever it suits you … and those who wish to use your talents!’
‘As long as it does not take me too far from the water.’
Espalas had perfected the look of straightforward simplicity. Finrod shook his head tolerantly. And his cousin always managed to extract far more information than anyone suspected if they were foolish enough to take him at face value. ‘You have spent much time voyaging to the Lonely Isle?’
His cousin smiled. ‘Enough,’ he agreed.
‘Rather more.’ The Teler appeared to be concentrating on some distant fleck in the water. ‘I like the Edain. They have a joy in life you do not see much in Aman.’
Finrod inclined his head and stared into the distance as if he could see the distant realm he could never visit. ‘They are content?’ he asked wistfully.
His feet as steady on the shifting deck as they would be on solid land, the Teler allowed instinct and experience to guide the ship. ‘Mostly,’ he said. ‘Although …’ he paused as he adjusted the tiller, ‘there are some few who hunger for what is forbidden. Whose voices murmur where they think they cannot be heard and who stir up detritus like a spring tide.’
Amarië closed her mouth with conscious effort in response to the wave of sheer loathing that emanated from the sinewy elf, whose dark eyes burned in a face that had taken on an unnatural pallor.
‘Is it not enough that the Valar themselves have requested this?’ Indis managed to sound calmly curious, deciding with majestic dignity to overlook the discourtesy of the attack.
Clearly, Amarië mused, keeping the thought under tight control, it was not. She dipped into her memory of a time she preferred to keep shut away to try to find the reason for this elf’s excessive rage. She knew him – but had not seen him walking among the Noldor for a very long time. Not, she was fairly sure, since the days when the light of the Trees had blessed the land – and she had been too enraptured by her growing affection for Finrod to pay much heed to the presence of others.
The elf pressed his lips together and swallowed, as if he was attempting to choke back his anger. ‘The Doomsman exiled them – told them they could not return. Why should we be expected to welcome them among us?’
‘Those who have passed through Námo’s hands have paid all debts,’ Amarië murmured. ‘Else they would not have been released from his halls.’
‘The Hither Lands and those who dwell in them have brought us nothing but trouble,’ he spat bitterly. ‘My grandfather died there – and my son answered the Valar’s call only to remain in that graveyard of hopes. I have no wish to see those who disobeyed the Powers return to glory while others linger in the shadows.’
‘Do you think I fail to understand your concerns?’
There were times when Indis – normally the most unassuming and amiable of ellyth – could make an impact little less intimidating than Finwë himself, and this was clearly one of those moments. She seemed … taller, more daunting, her soft golden hair radiant and her calm grey eyes slate-dark. She had fulfilled her role as queen gently, modestly – but never forgetting that, to many, she had little right to stand by Finwë’s side. Some, it would appear, had allowed themselves to forget that she was powerful in her own right.
The elf cringed. Not much, but enough to assure Amarië that he had seen a side of Indis that reminded him of the wisdom of engaging her in calm discussion rather than attempting to challenge her authority – an authority given her by the Powers themselves.
‘I think,’ Indis remarked, ‘that you are insisting on speaking on matters of which you are ignorant. And ignorance, as I am sure you will agree, should be remedied.’
Her challenger shifted his weight very slightly, as if he would like to retreat, could he only think of some way of doing it without losing his dignity.
‘Amarië,’ Indis declared, ‘I feel that you could do with more assistance in establishing Tirion’s refuge for those whom Námo returns to us – we have the site and the building is progressing swiftly, but we need recruits willing to support the returned through their first months.’
The expression of polite interest on Amarië’s face concealed her disquiet. This was going to be hard enough with a band of compassionate people who shared a desire to help the bewildered arrivals. If Indis was planning to lumber her with insensitive, angry, narrow-minded, pathetic excuses for aides like this elf, her task would become impossible.
‘All willing helpers will be most welcome to offer their skills,’ she said.
Indis ignored the inference. ‘I think we have found someone whose assistance should be most useful,’ she announced.
‘No,’ his cousin told him. ‘At least, not entirely.’ He grinned the rakish smile that tended to make the mothers of beautiful daughters decide he was dangerous. ‘Were you confined to the Halls?’ he asked.
Finrod frowned. ‘That is different.’
‘Is it? Did you not … need to heal … need to learn to live again? However you might choose to put it.’ Espalas flipped a hand as if to protest that all this theorising was beyond him. ‘Those who came out of Endorë were not ready for the shores of the Blessed Realm. Even some of those who had left Aman only at the Noldor’s bidding and dwelt in the Hither Lands but briefly could barely endure their return.’ He grinned again, but this time there was a darkness behind it. ‘It had the Valar in a pretty panic, I can tell you. There were clearly not expecting the reaction at all.’ His sea-grey eyes settled on his cousin. ‘They decided then that the Island made a good … staging-post. Close enough to Aman for bruised elves to mend, yet far enough from the shores that the full effect of the Valar’s presence would not overbear those too fragile to endure it.’ He looked out over the water and busied himself briefly with the lines. ‘Some have drifted to the mainland itself. Mainly, I have noted, those whose lives have been largely innocent and whose fëar are consequently less shadowed by Morgoth.’
‘And they are left alone?’ Finrod definitely sounded disapproving – a tone with which his younger cousin was not unfamiliar, although he had last endured its rasp when he and Finrod’s little sister had decided it would be entertaining to fill the older ellon’s boots with tiny crabs.
‘We come and go,’ he remarked neutrally. ‘Not all the Teleri, after all, feel that the exiled Noldor are worthy of our friendship. We tend, on the whole, to spend most time in the company of our eastern cousins – who do not scowl at us as if we are their jailers.’
A wave of red heightened Finrod’s windblown colour. ‘I am sorry,’ he said, as the flush faded, leaving him pale and unexpectedly shaken.
Espalas winced. ‘No,’ he answered, ‘it is I who should apologise. What is done is done – and the penalties of that night are long paid … by those who survived it, as well as by those who died. The blame – if still any remains – should be laid on the shoulders of those responsible, not on those who were merely caught up in the events.’
‘Whom do you blame?’ His cousin’s reply seemed, suddenly, surprisingly important.
‘Morgoth,’ Espalas said unhesitatingly. ‘For all his folly, Fëanor was as much his victim as we were. He was led by the nose into committing acts for which he will never – if he recovers his reason – be able to absolve himself. What he did to his sons not least among them.’
The small vessel rode the waves, requiring – fortunately – only minimal attention from its captain. A wave broke into spray over the bows, drenching both those on deck.
Finrod shook himself and pushed his hair back from his face. ‘How are the Exiles to know they can forgive themselves, if nobody tells them they are forgiven?’ he asked. ‘I am sure that they look on their confinement as punishment rather than as a way of gentling them back into the society they left so precipitately – as a rejection that keeps them within sight of a home to which they will nevermore be able to return.’
His cousin’s glance was almost dismissive. ‘You will see,’ he said. ‘Myself, I prefer passing time with the Edain. They enjoy our company and welcome us as friends – and seem unconcerned that they are forbidden to sail further west to the Lonely Isle and beyond.’
Finrod looked west to the towering white cliffs that seemed little more than a smudge on the horizon and then turned his eyes to the green of the growing island. ‘I do not know about that,’ he said. ‘Men desire to learn and reach forth as smoke needs to rise from a fire. Keeping them in sight of something they cannot have …’ He shook his head. ‘It seems like asking for trouble to me.’
Amarië had thought that the elf would refuse to turn up at the house. He had bowed and withdrawn, as shaken by Indis’s demands as he was angry, but Amarië had believed that Aman was big enough for him to ensure that he was far distant when the newly-built building opened its doors to those who would serve there. When he learned the story, however, Finarfin’s smile had disabused her of any idea that the elf’s presence was optional. For all his apparent gentleness, the king of the Noldor had his limits – and those with any pretence to good sense knew better than to flout his mother’s will.
‘You know how Finrod was when first he …’ she attempted to explain. ‘You know how sensitive he was to the world round him – even the sighing of the breeze through the reeds could transfix him for half a day. Strong emotion …’ she shook her head, gazing at the king helplessly. ‘If love was more than he could endure, how will the returned cope with anger? With hatred? With contempt? It can only damage fëar that are yet barely shielded from the buffeting of life.’
The Noldor’s king had looked thoughtful. ‘But is not healing needed here, too?’ he asked. ‘It may be that offering an opportunity for the blinkered to see is as important as providing a sanctuary for those who return to us.’
‘But, maybe,’ Amarië said, exasperated enough to say what was on her mind, ‘it should not be the same haven!’
Finarfin ran a hand over his golden head. His future daughter suppressed a waft of sympathy – life could never have been simple for Finwë’s youngest son, not with Fëanor as his half-brother and his father struggling to achieve some balance between his firstborn and his second family. She knew his quality – she had watched him struggle to re-establish the kingdom of the Noldor in the face of personal loss and public shame and seen him preside over the slow restoration of respect from the Vanyar and forgiveness from the Teleri. But, she told herself firmly, she could not let him use her task to deal with those who were not her responsibility.
‘Lescë is not a bad elf,’ he told her. ‘He is simply … unaware of what he should expect – and reluctant to accept change.’
‘Thus automatically condemning it.’ She sighed. ‘The very air surrounding him is charged, my lord. Hostility follows him in waves. We cannot afford …’
‘Has he yet met one of those who return to us?’ Finarfin interrupted. ‘Once he sees for himself …’ He turned his eyes on her – they were, he knew, among his best weapons. ‘Give him a chance, my daughter – in the hope that he will return the favour to those who will come back to us.’
Amarië let her breath escape, releasing her tension as she did so. ‘It shall be as you command,’ she conceded, unwilling to argue further. How had she managed to find herself so deeply involved in this thankless task, while Finrod wandered across the face of Aman, drifting like thistledown, vulnerable to every threat? She had thought that, as he healed, they would be together at last, growing ever closer – perhaps approaching the day when they would be joined and she would be able to lend him her strength to complete his healing. But, she mused, that would be too straightforward – and simple happiness, it would appear, was never meant to be the fate of any of Finwë’s descendants. She would have to wait. And she might as well remain busy while she did so.
The houses facing the shore were bright and clean, tiered up the hill, their windows like a thousand eyes watching the elves step away from the water.
‘I feel like an elfling caught picking his nose in public,’ Finrod muttered.
Espalas grinned, stretching and yawning, clearly indifferent to the presence of any audience. ‘You said that without moving your lips.’
‘A useful skill – developed in the face of a hall full of courtiers. I am surprised you have not acquired it.’
‘No-one has ever thought to place a crown on my head, I am pleased to say. I am a simple sailor.’
Finrod snorted as he followed his cousin’s gesture along the narrow, cobbled street. However much he tried to pretend ingenuousness, Espalas was about as simple as his sister’s husband. And just about as harmless. The scent of freshly-baked bread wafted from an open doorway, mingling with – and overcoming – the general waterside odours of seaweed and fish. Finrod’s stomach growled, surprising him. He was only just beginning to adapt to the needs of this body and his reaction to the pleasures of smell and taste still had the tendency to overwhelm him.
As he allowed himself to become distracted, Espalas moved ahead, his confident stride showing only too well that, despite his declaration that he spent little time on the Isle, he knew it rather better than he claimed. Finrod shook his head slightly. He must get past this phase of being sidetracked at the least provocation if he wanted to make any sense of this new world.
A cloud crossed the sun, throwing a shadow across the small square where his cousin waited, leaning against a tree. ‘Am I tiring you?’ Espalas called, drawing the gaze of the ellyn sitting outside the inn and attracting the attention of those bustling from shop to shop. As Finrod stepped out from between the houses, the sun broke though, sending a ray of light to gleam on the elf’s golden hair, illuminating him like a statue.
The clatter of a tray of metal cups shattered the quiet as it hit the cobbles. The cups rolled, spattering the nearest drinkers with a foam of cider that sprayed out round the feet of the irritated server, who muttered apologies he clearly did not mean to the tall ellon who had knocked into him. The smell of fermented apples and thin wine tingled in Finrod’s nose as the fuss of irritated customers shook their dampened robes and dabbed at their boots, their voices harmonising in complaint until the complete indifference of the tall figure made them turn to see what had transfixed him.
Espalas strolled over to his cousin. ‘That has always been your problem, my friend,’ he said loudly. ‘You cannot help drawing attention to yourself. Never happy unless you are at the centre of a circle of admirers.’
The spell broke and the audience turned away – all except the first ellon, whose stare had intensified until it was almost tangible. Finrod returned his gaze, a slight frown creasing his forehead. There was something about the elf … it was as if he was regarding someone very familiar standing back on the far side of a pane of thick greenish glass: someone he should know, but who had become distant, part of another life.
‘My king,’ the ellon faltered, his voice shaking so much that his words were almost unintelligible. ‘My king, my king, my king.’
With a lift of his eyebrow, Espalas inspected the stranger and his lips quirked in amusement. ‘Yes, yes,’ he said. ‘We get the general idea.’
The ellon flung himself forward, ignoring everything but the motionless figure of the returned elf, falling to his knees in front of Finrod, who blinked at him like someone coming out of a deep sleep. ‘I know you,’ he said. He reached forward towards the fall of dark hair, brushing his thumb across the other’s brow in unconscious benediction.
The kneeling elf turned his head into the touch, his lips making contact with his lord’s wrist, ardent in a way that bore no resemblance to his beloved’s kiss. A declaration, true – but of fealty, of trust … of grief long-suppressed? Of joy for the end of an extended division, the healing of a separation in time and space and existence? Or of hope – for the return of a leader, one with the courage to direct another exodus?
‘I am here now,’ Finrod reassured him. ‘And so are you. And, in the time to come, we will all do better than we did.’
‘Vague, cousin,’ Espalas intruded, ‘very vague. And meaningless.’
‘Not if you were there,’ the unknown elf told him. ‘Then you would understand.’
White cherry blossom danced in the soft breeze, full of promise of a feast to come. It had always been her favourite, Indis smiled, reaching out a hand to caress a spray of flowers. Well – cherry and almond. More delicate than apple, more obvious than beech, less blatant than the horse chestnut. She allowed herself to sink into the pure pleasure of the beauty of the day and the peace of the ordered orchard, where no-one walked but herself. She had forgotten – had been happy to forget – the strain of dealing with endless supplicants, all wanting to load her with their anxieties and expecting her to assume their burdens. The long centuries in Irmo’s care had been good for her.
But now, she sighed, it was time to repay the Valar for the gentle understanding they had offered her – and that meant going back into the world.
Something her grandson embraced with enthusiasm, she knew, but could she …? He had joy ahead of him, while her days of happiness were long past. If she were to do this properly, she would need to set aside her longing for times that would not return and build a new life. And do so whole-heartedly. A dedication that proclaimed itself wrapped in mourning and insisted that observers applaud her noble sacrifice was … no dedication at all.
Indis rested her hand on the silvered wood of the ancient gate. Perhaps her experience was valuable in itself – the Blessed Realm was not short of widows and abandoned wives and orphaned children, and, for all the time that had slipped by when she was not looking, it was not only the returned who needed understanding. The path beyond the gate twisted between the trees, heading she knew not where – but it was her choice to leave the safety of the cultured orchard and follow it.
She smiled wryly. The symbolism was obvious – but valid, nonetheless.
Her skin tingled, as if someone unseen was trembling with laughter. Indis rubbed her arms. ‘My lady,’ she said.
The air shimmered as Estë shrugged on the body she presented to those who came to her. She inclined her head and inspected the elleth. ‘It is time,’ she said. ‘It is convenient that you are needed in the outside world – but it would have been time, anyway.’
‘As long as nobody expects me to have the answers.’ Indis opened the gate and passed through to join the Valië. ‘I know no more than anyone else.’
‘Perhaps not.’ Estë’s gown trailed over the bedewed grass without disturbing the glinting drops. ‘But you are open to the questions – and I have always found that elves learn best when they find their own answers.’
The Valar insisted on confining their offers of enlightenment to hints, Indis mused. Irritating as it was, she had to admit it worked – the more thought and effort that went into a project, the more highly appreciated was the outcome.
‘The refuges we have built so far are full,’ she remarked. ‘The Noldor are taking it hardest – it is almost as if they do not want their lost ones to return – while the Teleri and the Vanyar are … bewildered … by those chosen to be among the first.’
Estë’s smile was enigmatic. ‘Perhaps they have not yet given enough thought to the matter,’ she said. ‘Choice does not come into it.’ She continued to stroll gracefully as Indis matched her steps. ‘And the Island?’
The apparently innocuous words did not fool Indis. This, then, was what the Valië wanted to impart. She frowned. ‘I believe that Finrod …’ she started.
‘Ahh. Yes, he would be the best choice.’ Estë did not look at her companion. ‘But he cannot do it alone. It is too great a matter for one ellon – even when that ellon is Finrod Felagund.’
The foreign-sounding name sounded odd in his grandmother’s ears. ‘It has caused considerable resentment that Finarfin’s rebel son has been among the first to return,’ she said.
Estë stopped. ‘No matter,’ she said. ‘Those who dwell in Aman are due a bit of shaking up – they have become smug. It is about time they remembered their faults and sought to deal with them.’
It was always a mistake to forget that the Valar could be ruthless, Indis noted, and that they had motives they would not reveal. ‘And do you have any advice for dealing with those who inhabit the Lonely Isle, my lady?’ she asked. Two could play at innocence – and she was fairly sure that the Valië had more to offer. If she was to do this thing – and there was no doubt now that she was – she would take every bit of help that she could get. They had to get this right.
The Teler shifted in his chair. Councils, he had found, tended to be the same – the endless repetition of the unimportant, voiced pontifically by the incompetent. What mattered, he had always thought, went unspoken, expressed in gestures, soft mutterings behind diplomatically extended fingers, the subtle placing of apparently obscure documents – and was concluded in quiet corners by those confident enough of their worth to sit back and watch the fools babble.
However, he had to admit this council was rather different. He had never before seen so many elves silenced by the simple presence of another. The youngest ellyn were taking it best, he thought. To them, Finrod was a legend walking – but legends and real people had little in common, and these youths seemed to be halfway between awestruck and disinclined to pay much heed to the three-dimensional ellon who had been sat at the head of the table. Those who had come west in the wake of the Valar’s host – now, their reactions were … interesting. Whether because he was, to them, the King of Nargothrond, or because he had, quite clearly, recovered from an horrific death to shine again amongst them, Espalas could not quite decide. Both, probably. And because Finrod’s sheer existence – on this plane, at least – suggested a level of reconciliation between past and present, people of Aman and the Doomed, those of the Hither Lands and the elves of the West, that many had ceased to expect.
Or, perhaps, not reconciliation.
Espalas shifted his gaze to some who looked … oddly smug. He would have to put a message out to some of those who preferred the shadows – although he would be disappointed to find that they did not already know who needed to be kept under observation.
He turned his gaze back to the very oldest members of the council – though it was hard to watch them. The light of the Trees still shone in their eyes, but it was overshadowed by layers of suffering that made the rape of Alqualondë seem no more than a footnote – tragic, disastrous, a stain on the purity of Aman, true – but one calamity, rather than the endless repetition of catastrophe that these Exiles had endured. It was almost enough to make him offer them his support. Almost.
They stared at Finrod with wonder. Wonder and hope and disbelief. The Doomsman had warned them of tears unnumbered, of banishment and anguish and grief – of houseless spirits and confinement in Námo’s Halls, where frail fëar would long for return, but find little pity. Yet here he was – Findarato, Arafinwë’s son. One who had defied the Valar, crossed the Helcaraxë, ruled in Beleriand, died at the side of one of the Edain, come to Mandos and emerged, healed. Whose return was, perhaps, a … statement … a clear indication from Námo, from Manwë that forgiveness could be earned, that the curse was no more – that they could, at last, tread the white sands of Aman.
Would his cousin find himself resuming his crown, Espalas wondered? If he judged the mood of these elves correctly, it would take all Finrod’s strength of will to resist the call to lead his Noldor – to turn the Lonely Isle into a kingdom of those twice homeless. But there was more to the Isle than this council, for all its members thought of themselves as the most important residents – the Sindar would be far less enthusiastic about any attempt to have a Noldo command them, even the half-Teler Noldo that was his cousin. While the few Wood-elves … Espalas hid a grin. Well – they might not accept it, but their preferred method of resistance was absence. Controlling them was like trying to cage mist.
No, Finrod would not accept kingship, he decided. He had moved beyond such matters – his task, as Espalas judged it, was to reach out to all and he could not do that by choosing to become the mouthpiece of any individual faction.
He smiled. If it were not for the fact that Finrod would undoubtedly rope him into this, he would just sit back and enjoy what was to come. And even with his reluctant participation … Well, it was about time that bridges were built and channels cleared of detritus, so that long-stagnant waters could flow clean.
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