I own nothing.
They were sending out the call, Nolofinwë and his sons, Findaráto and his brothers, to make a march upon the Enemy's fortress itself, to smote upon its mighty gates and let the Enemy know that the Noldor were not broken, that the Noldor were here and would remain here.
But not all of the Noldor could make the march. There were the wounded from their last battle upon reaching the green lands of Endóre. There were those too weak from an interminably long period of hunger and cold and privation to make such a march. There were those who could not fight. They would have to stay behind and make a camp.
And then, there were those left behind to protect them, and hold leadership of the remnant.
Nolofinwë was going. His two surviving sons were going. Findaráto and his brothers were going. Lalwen was going, because she had insisted and no one would have dared try to stop her, not even her brother. But there were three of the house of Finwë who had been left behind.
They were watching the Host leave, the two of them, while Itarillë hung back a-ways, making scratches in the dust with a stick. Artanis watched them as they kicked up dust in the distance; if she strained her eyes, she could still spy a certain number of fair-haired heads at the head of the multitude.
"I was surprised, when you did not press to join the Host."
Artanis looked to Irissë, standing beside her, who had spoken with a badly-disguised note of curiosity. The indignation that she herself had been forced to stay behind was still all-too-evident in her voice, her posture, the way she folded her arms across her chest and the way she set her jaw so any movement of her mouth looked like a frown.
Irissë had wanted to join the Host as they marched upon the Enemy's place of strength. It was she and Findekáno who had borne back Arakáno's body after the Orcs fled, she who had dug his grave alongside her father and older brothers, and had not wept. There was fresh blood drying still on her ragged clothes, dirt beneath her fingernails, dirt ingrained into her clothes and smudged on her face, and to all that, she seemed indifferent. They were all filthy, but what Artanis noticed about Irissë was her sheer indifference to it all. She expressed irritation over catching lice as nearly all of them had done, but that was the most she made comment on.
If there was a reason behind it, a reason behind Irissë's outward indifference to the state of filth the entire Host inhabited that didn't have to do with apathy and practicality, it might have been to present a strong face to her father and brothers. It might have been to keep them from thinking that she was less capable, less hardy, less daring, less able of mind and body and spirit. That was something Artanis would have understood.
However, no matter her capabilities, Irissë had been made to stay behind, barred from joining the march.
"But why?" Irissë's voice carried clearly through a thin wall of hastily-erected tent canvas, mixing fury and indignation and something close kin to anguish. Artanis heard her cousin's voice crack on 'why', and she winced, but kept her silence. She had no desire to inject herself into this argument; it was too much akin to one she might have had with her own father, in such a situation.
"We have already been through, Irissë," Nolofinwë said to her sternly. Artanis did not think she had ever heard her uncle take so stern a tone with his daughter. "There are many in the Host who can not make the march, and at least some of the ruling house must be left behind." His voice softened as he went on. "You will lead the remnant while we are away; Artanis, too, if she chooses to remain behind. If we do not return by the appointed time, you are to take the portion of the Host we left behind and lead them to safety, away from the Enemy's place of strength. Can you be content with that?"
Artanis thought, in that moment, that Nolofinwë had managed to rather severely misinterpret just what it was his daughter wanted.
There was a long pause; Artanis could not imagine the way Nolofinwë and Irissë looked at one another in this moment, nor could she imagine the thoughts going through their minds. "Yes, Father," Irissë reluctantly conceded.
And Artanis had chosen to stay behind of her own will.
She wondered, briefly, if Irissë resented that Artanis had been given the option to start with.
"The wounded need protecting," Artanis replied evenly, tucking a stray lock of hair back behind her ear, marveling that Irissë could wear her bushy hair loose and not be bothered by it.
Irissë snorted at that response, and Artanis wondered if she had realized that this wasn't the actual reason that she had chosen to stay behind instead of marching on the Enemy's stronghold. "I suppose they do." At that, she turned to face Artanis, shelving bitterness as best she could until only a very serious expression was left. "You said you would deal with the wounded, did you not?"
Artanis nodded. "Yes, I have some skill with surgery; I can help the healers."
"Alright, then. I doubt we'll be here for very long—Father will likely want to settle somewhere more easily defensible—but I'll have the able-bodied set up camp, and send out some hunting parties."
Artanis directed her cousin's attention towards the nearby copse. "And there must be some edible plants in this land, some that we were familiar with in Aman."
There came a spark in Irissë's dull eyes as she looked towards the copse. "Agreed. I'll have some of the woodsmen look into it." Her mouth twisted in a discontented expression. "I wish I could just do it myself," she muttered.
Artanis forced a smile onto her face—never a pretty sight, but hopefully it would get the point across. Keep your composure, cousin. You'll need it. "The price of leadership is delegation, Irissë; you can't do everything yourself. The camp really does need watching, cousin," she added in a lower voice. "Someone had to stay behind."
Irissë smiled a forced smile of her own, twisted and strained and accompanied by far too bright eyes. "And that someone had to be me, did it?" She shook her head; the light of the new orb in the sky caught on her unkempt hair. "It's foolish, what they're doing." Her gaze strayed out towards the Host, traversing the hills, kicking up dust, seeming more like a long line of ants than Eldar. "When you're hunting boar and the boar gores you, you don't keep on it, do you?" Artanis wasn't even sure that Irissë was addressing the question to her. "You treat your wounds and fall back until you can recover."
"And yet you still wished to accompany them," Artanis pointed out quietly, narrowing her eyes.
For a moment, Irissë's face faltered. Her eyelids fluttered and she swallowed hard. But then, she regained her composure, at least enough that she no longer looked like a crumbling marble statue. She looked Artanis right in the eyes, something cold and hard and brittle and very much the look of a hunter lurking in those silvery-blue depths, and asked, too-calmly, too-evenly, "Did I not also lose a brother this day, Artanis?"
Artanis had nothing to say to that.
After a few more moments, she started to head towards the already-erected tents where the wounded were being kept. But before Artanis could set about to her task, Irissë put a hand on her shoulder and stopped.
The expression Irissë wore was not unfriendly by any means, but neither was it cheerful—not that any expression worn by that gaunt, haggard face could really be taken for cheerful. Irissë looked at her very hard, and said bluntly, "If you decided to stay here out of some sense of solidarity, I tell you that there was no sense it."
Artanis merely shook her off and headed towards the makeshift surgery.
It seemed that Irissë had divined that there was some motive for Artanis staying here beyond the non-answer that she had given. She didn't seem to understand what that motive was, though.
When Irissë got down to the business of setting up the camp, she told Itarillë to either stay with her or to go with Artanis. However, the girl seemed more content on alternating between the two of them, coming and going, and when the tent flap opened for roughly the twelfth time and a blinding shaft of light poured in, Artanis was not surprised.
"Fetch me a few bandages, Itarillë," she called to the girl without looking up, inspecting a wound on a young nís's arm. This wound wasn't too bad—it wasn't deep and would probably heal up nicely in a few days, didn't even seem to need stitches. That was probably a good thing. All they had for bandages were strips of cloth torn from the clothing of the dead, washed as best as could be managed (Which was to say, not very well).
Itarillë handed her a fistful of cloth bandages and sat down beside her. "Here we go, Lerinë," Artanis murmured to the nís she was attending to, winding the bandages around the wound on her arm. It was important, her grandmother had always told her, to maintain a calm, confident demeanor when tending to the wounded. Oddly enough, it was not so difficult, now that she was dealing with the wounded, to maintain a calm demeanor as she thought it would be. "How does that feel?" Artanis asked the nís.
Lerinë shook her arm about, frowning, and then nodded. "Better. Thank you, your Highness."
Artanis nodded. She would never be a healer, most likely, but she did at least know how to deal with lacerations and the like. Lerinë was the last of the ones the actual healers would let her touch, meaning that she was free for the day unless Irissë called for her. She turned to Itarillë. "Well, did you tire of trailing around your aunt like a lost puppy, Itarillë?"
Itarillë's brow drew up. "I'm not a puppy, Cousin," she said uncertainly, and Artanis remembered too late that Itarillë was perhaps a bit too young to have such a strong grasp of similes—or perhaps she simply did not like being used in one. "Aunt Irissë told me to leave her be for a while."
It was difficult to know if that meant something bad or not. Artanis blinked, and looked over at her young cousin, who was staring up at her expectantly. They'd not had the light of the new orb for long, but Artanis had decided already that Itarillë looked better beneath it than she did in the gloom of a tent—skinny and long-limbed as she was, she looked like a child better-suited to the outdoors. "Well, Itarillë?" she asked with raised eyebrows.
Itarillë stared down at her bare feet. "…Is there going to be another battle?" she asked in a small voice.
I should have expected a question like that. The reality of the situation, though, was that Artanis had not. She walked over to the linen chest and began to fold the excess bandages away. "Eventually, yes." Itarillë may have been young, but it would have been cruel to make the situation seem less dire than it was; there was, in the back of Artanis's mind, the knowledge that Irissë would not have honeyed the truth for her niece either.
"Oh." Itarillë's milky blue eyes darted to and fro about the tent, drinking in the sight of the wounded and yet barely going pale at all—she had already seen enough that this was no surprise to her, Artanis supposed bitterly. "…When…" Itarillë shifted her weight, digging her fingertips into her skirt. "…When there is another battle, will you fight again?"
And there was another question that Artanis supposed she should have expected. All the same, it was the last question she had expected.
"Perhaps," Artanis replied shortly, and swept out of the tent.
She had chosen to remain behind with the wounded and the weak. Artanis had chosen this path, and, though she'd not let it show on her face, she'd been relieved when none of her brothers tried to pressure her into joining them. It rankled that they apparently felt that her place was among the wounded and the weak and the defenseless, as though she was one or all of these things, but she was relieved that they hadn't suggested it.
When she held her sword, she felt the blood of Eldar on her hands though she had long since washed her hands free of that blood. Every time she held her sword, it seemed to grow heavier in her hands. (Never be clean, never be clean no matter what you do, never, never, never…) She could kill. She could kill with the efficiency and precision of any nér trained to fight during the Unrest. She could kill. Artanis knew this all too well. She had learned it on stones slick with blood, the screams of Eldar rising in her ears. (Kinslayer even if she killed her father's kin to save her mother's.)
She could kill.
She did not wish to seek it out.
Oh, true enough, if there was no other choice, Artanis would kill readily enough. She would kill the Enemy's foul creatures, twisted perversions of Eldar, if she was set upon by them. If it meant saving her life or the lives of those she loved, there was no question of what she would do. But Artanis did not think that she had the heart or the stomach for seeking battle out, looking for a fight. What would that solve?
Irissë did seem to have the stomach and the heart for it. She is a hunter, I suppose. She has no trouble with slaughtering creatures that were not attempting to kill her first. But Artanis was better-equipped for it than was Irissë. They both knew how to use swords, but Artanis had been able to train openly, her training having been approved of by her father. Irissë had been forbidden by her father to learn how to wield a sword, and from what Artanis understood, she had been forced to skulk around with their half-cousins in order to learn anything. It seemed unlikely that Nolofinwë or either of his surviving sons would consent to teaching her anything more than; Irissë would be in a bad way if it came to open war, and she was forced to fight.
The most reasonable thing to do, it seemed, was to tell Irissë that. It was unlikely that she would take it as Artanis had intended, but that was unavoidable. And beyond it… Beyond it, Artanis was not sure what to do. Offer to teach Irissë what she knew of the sword? Dissuade her from fighting? They had only just begun associating closely with one another on the mountains after passing out of the worst of the Grinding Ice. Artanis did not know Irissë well enough to know what exactly she would respond best to.
Just as Rána did, this new orb was beginning to set over the horizon. The shadows were growing long again, the light bleeding gold and scarlet and deep blue. Artanis wandered aimlessly about the now-settled camp, looking for that familiar head of unkempt, bushy black hair.
She spotted someone huddled near a tent, away from the throngs of people already beginning to cook what little food they had for the evening meal.
There was Irissë, sitting close to a tent. Her knees were drawn up to her chest. Her face was buried in her hands. She had folded in on herself like a statue broken in half. Artanis stopped, silent, staring at her, watching her trembling shoulders, listening to her soft, muffled sobs.
"Did I not also lose a brother this day?"
And now, denied the right to grieve openly for (rightful) fear of being judged weak. Denied the right to weep. Denied the right to seek comfort from kin. Denied even the petty vengeance that might have eased the emptiness in her chest, because of the duty that bound her here, to this place. Sobbing pitifully alone, away from everyone else; the only evidence later would be bloodshot eyes and hollow cheeks that were no longer smudged with dirt.
Artanis turned on her heel and returned to the heart of the camp. It wasn't a sensation she liked, but one she was growing accustomed to: she did not know what to say to this.
Nís—woman (plural: nissi)
Nér—man (plural: neri)
Rána—the Exilic name for the Moon, signifying 'The Wanderer' (Quenya)