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Oak and Willow  by Marnie

Nerwen caught herself rubbing her arms again as if to warm them. The halls of Menegroth were high and vaulted and full of lamplight - so like a forest at twilight that birds nested in the stone trees and filled the air with song. But she could not forget that if the lamps went out darkness would fall, utter and absolute, as it had been when Ungoliant destroyed the Trees. Nor could she feel secure in this stronghold full of elves whose musical voices proclaimed them kin to the Teleri her family had slain. Distress and guilt made her feel chill, as though she had not yet shed the deathly cold of the Grinding Ice. She struggled again not to clasp herself and shiver.

She would not show weakness in front of these Dark Elves.

Smoothing down her beech green dress, she adjusted the hang of her golden girdle and wished once again that she had at least a knife to hand, or better still her sword. No wonder women were meek, with these confining skirts to hamper them and only their empty hands to defend themselves.

"Are you ready?" Finrod asked, coming into the room with a mantle of white fur on his arm. He put it about her shoulders gently. " I thought you might be cold."

"I do not need mothering!" she snapped, seeing in his face a disquiet very like her own. Curse Fanor for this, she thought, bitterly, But for his rape of the Teleri ships, but for his murder of the Teleri who tried to contest their theft, this would be joyful; a family reunion. It is his fault. It is all his fault. And then she laughed, for of course Feanor was cursed, and so was she. She too had killed her own kind, though it had been in defence of her mother's innocent people. And the doom of Mandos lay as heavily on her as it had on Feanor. Heavier, it seemed, now that bravado had faded and she had begun to taste the draught she had seized for herself. The sons of Feanor do not seem to regret. But I do.

"No one would dare to mother you," Finrod replied, only half in jest, "I would do the same for any of my brothers and you know it. Now please, Nerwen, be obliging with these Sindar. We do not need any more enemies."

He took her elbow and she shook him off, not liking the restraint on her sword arm. Sighing, he put a hand instead in the middle of her back and nudged her out of the door of their chambers and into the corridors of the palace, where a servant waited to take them to the king.

The audience chamber of King Elw Singollo was huge, many pillared, arched over with carven trees and vines picked out in gems and gold. Water poured in a moss-grown fountain from the centre of the floor and ran in rills of silver beside each wall, so no part of the room was free from the music of it. Folk turned to look as Nerwen and her brother entered - Sindar in grey, Nandor in brown and Laiquendi in unwashed tatters of rags that had possibly once been green.

They are a dull folk, she thought to Finrod as she passed through them, and felt yet more out of place. Though the Noldor were also mostly dark of hair, they did at least make up for that lack of colour in their garb. These folk seemed as they were called - Dark elves. With little pleasure in the hues and beauties of light, they were clad plainly, a monotony of many shaded drab, here and there relieved with white or black, and they put no effort into dressing their hair - tying it back simply, unadorned to the point of aggression.

Did we expect them to be otherwise? Finrod's question reminded her that she should not expect too much. These elves had not had the advantage the Noldor had received; they had had no Valar to tutor them, to form their understanding of the world and equip their hands to works of craft. It was surprising enough that they were not all dwelling in trees like the rustic folk of Ossiriand.

She smothered a slight feeling of disappointment, braced herself, and came out before the King's dais. Looking up she beheld Elw for the first time. Throned and crowned he sat in splendour. Grey cloaked, but in a robe of white, emeralds glinted at his wrists and lay about his neck on a chain of gold. Where she had looked to find strangeness she saw instead a heartbreaking resemblance. He looked like her grandfather, Olw, and yet more like her mother, though Earwen's fragility was here recast in strength. A family reunion indeed, she thought, moved by his comforting and familiar power. He met her eyes and for the first time she felt warm enough. She smiled.

Beside the king sat his wife, Melian, beautiful and benevolent as the sunny earth and just as strong. An awesome power, cloaked in the form of an Elven-Queen.

In a canopied chair on Elw's right hand there sat a maiden whose beauty humbled Nerwen's pride in Aman. Not even in the courts of Manwe, king of the Valar, had there walked a lady so fair. Yet her radiance was that of Arda Marred - all darkness and shadow about glimpses of light. Her face was moon-bright, and her eyes grey as the sky, and her hair was a fall of night that lifted and swayed as she moved. White gems glittered there like strewn stars.

On Melian's left hand there stood behind the thrones a tall prince clad in grey. The silver of his belt was less bright than his hair, and his face was also very fair. Not exactly delicate, Nerwen thought, pleased with his looks, but elegant and fine-drawn as a sword. They made a handsome family.

I did not know Elw had a son, she thought to her brother.

He does not, Finrod replied, That would be the nephew, Celeborn. The one Angrod warned us about.

Oh, Nerwen smiled again and felt the press of doom ease a little over her, The one who was so disrespectful and harsh to our poor younger brother?

Finrod had stepped forward to give his gracious speech of homecoming and alliance. She waited until he was in the middle of the sentence he had so much trouble with and then said I think I'll seek him out. He sounds interesting.

Finrod's discomforted stumble after his words was one of the the few things she had felt able to laugh at since leaving home.

After enduring more empty politenesses than she had the stomach for she found the prince in a small garden; sitting on the edge of a fountain, with his feet in the flowerbeds and his head bent over some small thing held tight in his hands.

"I take it amiss that you fled sooner than look on me," Nerwen said, wondering why he had not yet glanced up. He did so at her question and smiled ruefully.

"I looked well enough," he said, "It was speech I found myself unprepared for."

She waited for the compliment that must surely follow such a gallantry, but it did not come. He turned back to whatever it was he was working on, leaving her unsure whether she had been praised or insulted. "What is it you do?" she asked, coming forward to look. Her dress swept against the white and yellow flowers and the sweet lemon scent of feverfew rose among the spray of the fountain.

"I remembered that I had a final answer to one of Angrod's pronouncements," he said, his wary smile brightening, "And I hoped to give it to you to take to him. But it needed finishing." He brushed small flakes of stone from his knee. They fell flashing in the lamplight like the water.

"Angrod had much to say about you," Nerwen was intrigued. She swept the damp from the fountain's side and sat next to him, realizing with a faint surprise that he was as tall as she. It was odd but pleasant not to have to look down at a companion. "He said your lmatyv was quite savage." He had also warned both Nerwen and Finrod that the Sinda had a way of unearthing subjects they would rather not speak of, and had advised them to avoid him. But Nerwen had taken the caution as a challenge, and relished the opportunity to test herself against it.

"That seems to be a favourite word of his," said Celeborn coldly, "It is largely because he called the Green-folk savage that I felt it necessary to make him this reply."

"Oh, come," she was unimpressed - he would be defending the beauty of dwarves next, "The Laiquendi may be fellow elves, but it's clear they have no art or knowledge greater than that of the birds whose nests they share. 'Savage' is a fair enough description."

"Then this will be an answer also to you," he said, "For I learned the craft of making these when I guested with them." He handed her a knife made of nothing but stone and wood and vine. It should indeed have been rude and worthy of contempt, but it was not. The hilt was carved with exquisite skill in the likeness of a hound stretched out before the fire. The lashings that held the blade in place were a bright spring green and intricately knotted, bemusing the eye with patterns. And the blade itself was a long shard of flint so pure that the light flowed through it, giving it the changeable translucence of the sea; a more subtle and beautiful colour than steel, but just as deadly.

No amount of talking could have said better what this creation made plain - that even the most backwards of the elves of Middle Earth were not without craft of their own. It was no Silmaril, but it was still a work of great beauty; the creation of a mind that could not with justice be considered beneath her own.

"This is a sharp rebuke," she said, turning it about to examine it closer, pleasantly aware that he was watching her do so, "I am wounded."

"I had hoped it would be more pointed than speech."

She found herself smiling again, taken back to a more innocent world by this foolish game of words. "Do your arguments always have such an edge?"

"Only when I am trying to be cutting."

For the second time in a single day Nerwen laughed. Rarely had she been so at ease since leaving Valinor. There must be, she thought, more to this kingdom of Doriath than she had yet perceived, and though guilt was still a nagging presence in the deep places of her heart she sighed, and some of the ever present tension left her. Looking out she saw the small garden anew, as a clearing in a forest of stone. If she let the fine carvings and the white lamps fool her eye she could almost feel a free breeze wend its way through the herbs, stirring the aniseed fragrance of the lacelike fennel and the scent of lavender into the cool air. It felt like evening, though she guessed it always did, here, under the earth.

She waited for her companion to say something difficult and spoil the mood, but he was silent once more, though she felt his gaze stray to her occasionally; a small sensation of wonderment that was not at all unwelcome. She supposed she was indeed quite unlike anything he had ever seen before. But so also was he to her.

The note of the fountain changed, and she looked up to find him with a hand in the water, watching the fall of the moon-bright liquid through his fingers. Everything about him was twilight, from his starlight-coloured hair to the soft grey and silver of his raiment. Looking at him she thought again of the knife - light passing through subtle shadows like the ocean, and the drabness of the Sindar suddenly resolved itself into something else in her mind.

The fitted cuff of his undertunic was a pale blue-grey silk, stitched with silver embroidery, and the overtunic was of charcoal velvet, woven in a diamond pattern that shimmered slightly each time he moved. This dullness is not a lack of art, she realized, Not because they are backwards and have no delight in colour, but because... In the dimness of night the colours the Noldor valued so highly would be stripped away, but these Sindar clothes of many shades and textures would become a delight of half-seen richness; a tease and suggestion of beauty, like a half heard melody that enchants because it cannot be grasped. Because their taste has been formed in millennia of darkness.

It made them both more like the Noldor and more unlike. Like, because they were not the ignorant rustics so many of the Calaquendi had supposed. Unlike because, if they had their own lore, their own arts, how strange they must have grown after so many thousand years apart.

"You have succeeded," she said, and handed the knife back to him, "I am cut indeed, cut to the quick. And the understanding is barbed. It will not easily come out."

"It was not intended to injure," he said, more gently than he had spoken before. He caught her gaze as if to assure himself she spoke in jest. He had strange eyes. They were holly green, so that with the pale hair his colouring could not have more exactly matched the Silver Tree of Valinor. But the strangeness was not in hue. They were dark, without the flame of Aman; windows to a soul that must also be dark, unknown and unknowable as all the shadowed fastnesses of Ennor in the days of awakening, before the Valar came. Dark eyes for a dark elf. Yet she thought that there might yet be a glimmer in them, like the gleam of the ancient stars of Elbereth above the mere of Cuivienen.

Am I staring?

The thought came to her like a splash of cold water from the fountain. She dropped her gaze, and if she had felt cold before now she felt too hot - discomforted and exposed. "Angrod was right in this," she said with brittle anger, "You have little respect. Few men would hand an unsheathed knife to a lady."

He drew away from her, shook out the piece of leather he had used to protect his tunic from the shards of flint and rolled it up with the round, smooth stone and piece of antler folded within it. "Forgive me," he said, his voice a little unsteady, "If I am ignorant of some Noldor fashion of treating women as though they know not one end of a blade from the other. Melian has been as a mother to me and Luthien a sister. I am not used to thinking women powerless or unwise."

Nerwen frowned, and in her astonishment forgot that she was angry. This was a reversal! How had she ended up on the wrong end of this debate? It should be she smiting and laying to waste his preconceptions, as she had always had to do with her brothers. He should be treating her as a delicate blossom to be wooed, and she setting his notions aright with the superiority of her mind. It was both dizzying and a sweet liberation to find the battle won before she had even begun to fight.

It was also a little frightening. She had never before been measured against such high expectations. For a moment she did not know what to say. '"You confuse me,"' did not seem an adequate answer.

"Am I not called 'Nerwen'?" she said, "You need not use these arguments with me."

"Nerwen?" he laughed, a light, scornful sound, "Is this not a symptom of the same pattern of thought? This claim that somehow your glorious strength makes you more masculine? Is that not an insult in itself? For I see nothing manly about you, Galadriel."

And he was, after all, just as savage as Angrod had claimed. Affronted, she rose with all the stately grace she had perfected when facing Fanor. "Do not presume to name me," she said, "You do not know me. You do not know anything about me."

She was half way to her room before she realized that he might think she was running away, but by that time it would have been a humiliation to return. A few steps later she thought of what she should have said and cursed. No matter. She patted down her skirts furiously and raised her head, eyes flashing. If today she had underestimated her opponent and thus been beaten, tomorrow he would not fare so well. She had already several things she wanted to say to him. Tomorrow he would see why no one had ever dared rename her before.

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