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‘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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