The Image, by Finch

Too late to be called a birthday story, but all the same for Ithilwen

Silmarillion & HoMe (Vol. 10) inspired, but AU

Disclaimer: Tolkien owns these characters.

That Nerdanel repeatedly left her husband is a fanon element; originally, this is Deborah's idea (A Very Fire, Ch. 3)

R-rating is for Nerdanel's dream

'Are you ready?' Nerdanel said to her sons.

The copper-haired twins nodded simultaneously, as usual. They looked younger than their almost fifteen years* as they were standing on either side of the doorway, their too large bags strapped to their slender backs, and putting up brave faces against their own uneasiness and apprehension. After all, they had never been through this before. The younger of the two was not averse to leaving, though. The other was eager to follow his twin. The order of their birth had been reversed by their natures: in their relationship the lastborn came first.

'Then you can join your brother,' she told them. Maitimo, her eldest child, was waiting outside with the horses. He would accompany them as far as her parents' house, but he would not stay with them to add more fuel to her lord husband's predictable fury. It was provocation enough that she was taking his youngest sons and Maitimo could fend for himself, she said to herself.

The two boys bounced away. Nerdanel turned towards Curufinwë, who was sitting on the lowermost step of the great stair leading to the upper floor. The previous time she had left Fëanáro he had been her youngest, so she had taken him along. But today he was twelve years older and beyond her capacity to kneed or mould.

'You will not go?' she asked, though she knew the answer.

'Of course not,' Curufinwë replied, meeting her firm gaze with a smouldering glance of his own. Of all her sons, he was the one who resembled his father most in every conceivable way, and the one who loved her least, the only son who refused to answer to the mother-name she had given him: Atarinkë, little father.

He also happened to be the son she loved most, a circumstance she would have called cruel, had not the fate of all Elves been contained in the Music that the Ainur sang before the One, ere Eä was called into Being. It simply was so, and she could only nurse the injuries of her heart - and give him the chance to add another welt by saying: 'Ambarussa and Umbarto will miss you.'

And indeed, Curufinwë did not hesitate to lash out. 'You know very well father calls him Ambarto! He says Umbarto is ill-omened. You should refrain from using that name.'

At first, Nerdanel had called both twins Ambarussa. When Fëanáro had insisted they should each have a name of their own, she had given one of them the name Umbarto, Fated, but without begin able to say whom. Of course, he found fault with this, so he changed it to Ambarto and decided it belonged to the youngest. The twins themselves preferred Ambarussa and took turns answering to Ambarto when used by their father. As one of them had darker hair than the other, he was seldom deceived, but it was the name of his choosing, and he was satisfied.

'I always use the names of my foresight as seems best to me - Atarinkë,' Nerdanel said to her son after a silence. 'If you fail to see that I am within my right, I am sorry.'

His youthful mouth - how long ago was it he had touched her cheeks with it? - began to work, but his only response was to rise, turn and ascend the stairs without saying goodbye.

She fought back her tears. Why should it occur to a child that his mother might never return to her husband's halls?

Or his bed, Nerdanel thought, suddenly very determined again.

'Now what happened this time?' Istarnië** asked, after she had welcomed her daughter and her grandsons, and Maitimo and his little brothers had left for the garden behind the house and their grandfather Mahtan's smithy beyond.

'Nothing - in particular,' Nerdanel replied; the in particular was necessary to make the nothing true.

'And how long were you planning to stay?'

'Only until the End of Arda. If you do not mind.'

'Even the Valar would call that long.'

Nerdanel could see that her mother did not believe the breach was permanent, and she couldn't blame her. So far, experience had taught Istarnië otherwise. When your daughter has just left her husband for the fourth time, it takes a better explanation than nothing in particular to conclude that she will not also return to him for the fourth time.

'I will try not to impose on your hospitality,' she said quietly. 'The children I bring this time are less difficult to govern than the previous two.'

Istarnië chuckled. 'They have your father's hair, and yours, and Maitimo's. That does not bode too ill. But like Maitimo, they miss your freckles.'

Her freckles... Nerdanel's thoughts strayed. Once, those freckles had make the young maiden Nerdanel plain in her own eyes, and unobtrusive, and given to lonely wandering. Few Elves had freckles, and many seemed to consider them a taint of some sort. But then Fëanáro found her, insisting that he adored every single one of them and that no girl who lacked them was half as fascinating as she was, claiming that it took penetrating eyes like his to perceive their true beauty and that they were his, and his alone. How happy it made her! He succeeded in making her as proud of her freckles as she was of her karmë, her art.

That should have given her pause, but it did not. Nor did the fact that his was the only likeness she could not catch in stone. Her other images used to resemble the original to such a degree that the unsuspecting would address one of her Eldar or Valar, taking the image for the real person. But no one ever confused her image of Fëanáro with the true Spirit of Fire. And she thought less of herself for being unable to perfect him, though she tried again and again.

Later, when his own art evolved to perfection, the doubts came. He knew no measure and took no distance. Everything was an extension of himself: the works of his hands no more or less than the sons his fire would light in the furnace of her womb, as he put it. He confiscated even her freckles. And everything else that was she. He wanted her, took her and possessed her, and oh, she wanted to be possessed, for even the way he stoked her fires was perfect. But afterwards, she always wanted to escape from this excessive love of his, the love that knew no bounds even where it should. This was the fourth time she had fled, and she knew that this time, it would be the last.

A noise startled her, and Nerdanel turned to see her sons and her father enter the room. She had no idea how long she had been reliving the past. Quite a while, she guessed: outside the light of the Trees began to mingle. Her mother, recognising the mood, had left, probably to do something useful like making beds.

Mahtan embraced her without asking the obvious, for which she was grateful. He had removed his copper circlet, and when he saw her look at his hair he pointed at Maitimo. 'Do you not think that it suits him? He has exactly my copper top. Not that he needs to improve his appearance.'

Her father was right on all counts, and her son smiled faintly.

Nerdanel nodded. 'Yes, you must make one for him.'

'I gave him this one,' her father replied. 'I can always make a new one. Perhaps for the boys, too, when their heads have grown a little larger.' He patted them affectionately. But there is something I must ask you concerning their father, he added, changing to mind-speech. They told me he was whetting old swords left over from the Great Journey, and forging new ones. Why is that? Do we have enemies here, like we had in the lands across the Sea?

'I do not know,' she said later, when Maitimo had returned home - to what used to be home for her as well - and the twins were asleep. 'All I can say is that these swords have at last drawn Maitimo to his father's forges of his own accord. Making blades is the only art in which he can even remotely rival him.'

'There must be more behind it,' her father insisted. 'I also heard other rumours of weapons being forged. Your husband is not the only one to put his fires to such use, just the most prominent. The Lord Aulë has counselled me to avoid those that engage in such activities.' He shook his head. 'Let us hope I will not rue the day I accepted Fëanáro as my apprentice.'

'Peace, rusco***,' his wife said. 'You do not want to upset your daughter. Especially not in her condition.'

Nerdanel frowned. She should have known better than to think she could deceive her own mother.

'What!' Mahtan cried incredulously. 'Are you suggesting she has conceived AGAIN?'

'I have,' Nerdanel said, too troubled to point out to her parents that they were speaking as if she was not present. And why should they not? Undoubtedly they thought she was out of her mind to have allowed it to happen. Seven children was unheard of among the Eldar, even though the last two arrived in one delivery. Eight was nothing less than shameful. It betrayed a complete lack of restraint in both parties involved; who could blame Mahtan and Istarnië for being embarrassed that one of the parties was their daughter? Who would blame them for not taking such a shameless daughter seriously? She could see they were upset. But they were deeply worried as well. Every pregnancy sapped her strength a little more, with every birth, a little more life left her body. They feared that she would end up like another Míriel, a second Fíriel lacking the will to go on breathing.

When at last her mother broke the silence it was to say: 'If you are pregnant, Nerdanel, you cannot stay long.'

'The previous times, you were less eager to see me leave,' Nerdanel retorted.

'Istarnië sighed. 'Never before did you come with a child in your womb.'

True enough: the previous times, she had conceived after Fëanáro had talked her into returning home - his way to ensure she would not leave any time soon.

'And,' Mahtan added sternly, 'as you very well know, it is a grievous thing for parents to be separated during the bearing of a child.'

'Your father is right,' her mother hastened to say.

Nerdanel eyed them intently. Neither of them avoided her gaze. She rose, tired and sad though she felt. 'I have no wish to impose on your hospitality. If this truly is what you think, I shall take my sons and seek refuge elsewhere. But under no circumstances will I return to my husband.'

Her father rose as well. He put his hands on her shoulders, pressing her down ever so gently. 'We do not refuse you. All we ask you is to think carefully.'

She knew where she had them, then.

Several more times, her parents told her to return to her husband, until Nerdanel made it clear that she really did not need any more goading. They were much relieved to hear this, and did their best to make their home hers again.

As foreseen, the twins did not take up much of her time, nor did they cause too much trouble. They spent a considerable part of their days in their grandfather's smithy, pretending to be apprenticed to him and indulged by Mahtan's real apprentices. The first day, they made their grandfather's hackles rise by suggesting he should teach them to make spears. But when it turned out they meant hunting spears everyone was happy again, except Nerdanel, who was of the opinion that cutting edges had better not be the first things her children should learn to make. Whereupon her father promised her that their contributions would be mostly limited to handing him the things he asked for. This did not prevent the younger of them from burning his fingers, or the older from cutting himself on a borrowed knife blade. However, those were minor incidents, and having four big brothers to laugh at them (only Makalaurë never did) the twins had learned not to wail too loudly.

One day, they returned from the smithy with a beautiful spearhead that they pretended to have forged almost without Mahtan's help. For Tyelkormo, who loved to hunt in the woods of Oromë. Could they go home to give it to him?

Though Nerdanel had known they would miss their brothers, she also knew that their father would keep them if she let them go. And though she expected him to come and demand them back once he realised his wife had definitely left him, she would not let them go without a fight.

So she sent for Tyelkormo, who came to stay a few days, thanked his little brothers for the present, spent some time learning them to talk to the birds in the garden, and promised to take them hunting 'soon'. He also told them a funny story about Carnistir offering Curufinwë a rough gemstone he'd found, if Curufinwë would eat a bowl of living grubs. Curufinwë had earned his reward by ingesting them to the last critter. The next day, the twins started digging for grubs in the garden - probably not to learn their language.

Before Tyelkormo left he took his mother apart and commanded her haughtily to return home without delay. No, Father had not told him to say this, it was his own thought. What did she think he was, an immature boy? He was old enough to see that Father needed her, and to act accordingly. And how could she leave Curufinwë to his own devices, and did she think Carnistir could do without a mother - what kind of a woman was she, actually?

Good, Nerdanel thought, convinced that his father had indeed instructed him. His tone only steeled her resolve. So she firmly told him to stop shouting and waste no more words on this, and he went home in high dudgeon.

But the word 'needed' bred images in her mind she was unable to dispel, and that night she dreamed she was with Fëanáro. As always after she had left him and returned, they made love, and as always the dream could not be more vivid. She could feel his kisses, his fiery tongue teasing her nipples into ridges, his hands drawing sparks everywhere, burning her, smelting her, melting her, his fingers delving between her thighs, stirring and rubbing, until at last he thrust inside her, stoking her seething, liquefied body into an eddy of passion whirling into depths of agonised bliss.

She did see his face, though, the instant he flared, and was purely Fëanor, with nothing to encumber him.

Slowly, she woke up from her dream, feeling the last ripples ebb away.

Then, she went still. Deep inside her she could sense the first stirrings of her unborn child, very faint, earlier than she had expected, earlier than any of the others had stirred, yet unmistakable. She laid a soothing hand on her belly.

That was the moment when she knew, with utter certainty, that she was carrying a girl.

The next day, Nerdanel went to her father's smithy and asked for metals and tools and a place to work. She had decided to create one last image of her husband. But this time, she would not make a mould, and she also finally abandoned the idea that the image would have to resemble his appearance. One cannot capture the spirit of fire in a shape that does not shift in any way. She would use the light and the flames of the different metals to shape image to matter, to bend her will to her art, instead of the other way around. To her surprise, it took her more time and thought than working from nature. Tiring it was, too, but that could be ascribed to the fact that she was carrying her eight child.

'So, what is this?' Mahtan inquired one day after his apprentices had left.

'What does it look like?' Nerdanel asked.

Her father walked around her new piece of art, halting several times to study the whirling shapes, the straining curves and the twisting coils from various angles. 'It is beautiful,' he said hesitatingly, 'though I admit this is hardly an answer.' He raised his hand to touch the metal but withdrew it again as if he was afraid it would scald him. 'Fire,' he said suddenly, throwing her an astonished glance. 'The spirit of fire.'

Nerdanel smiled.

Her mother was less accommodating. 'Though I will not say this is not well wrought, it is strange. Too strange. Call it Fëanáro all you like, you will not hear me admit it is your husband, my daughter! And I fail to understand why you would wish to conceive yet more images of him.'

'I love him,' Nerdanel said.

'Then why leave him?'

'I cannot live with his love.'

It was plain to read Istarnië's mind: her mother thought she was not in her right mind. But as she did not say it aloud, Nerdanel did not feel bound to defend or explain herself.

Fëanáro manifested himself the day after she declared the work finished. The twins came running to her room. 'Father is coming! Father is coming! We saw him climb the hill. Kurvo is with him, and he is almost here!' And off they were, two galloping colts.

So he had brought young Curufin along? Of course; he knew how to mollify her. His father would have instructed the boy to be sweet, and nice, and ever so slightly aggrieved by his beloved mother's absence, to embrace her and whisper endearments in her ear and beg her to come home, please?

It was a difficult decision. She wanted to see Kurvo, and she wanted to see his father, but she did not want him to see her swollen belly and claim the child. Her mouth contorted. She would not let him add their daughter to his list of possessions. So when Nerdanel left her room it was not to meet him but to flee him, into the garden and the hills beyond, where she had roamed, first as a maid, later as his companion but still his equal, until he bound her with his seed.

She went as far as she could, and sat down under a tree to rest and ponder. The twins he would take, unless they protested and her parents chose to intervene. But she knew they would not protest, unaware of what was at stake.

So be it. Nerdanel closed her eyes, knowing this was the moment to weep, if she must. Only the tears were lodged as deep down as her unborn child; to dislodge them would be too much of a strain. And to birth them would be too painful. Inhaling the ever-fragrant air, she allowed the peace of the woods to settle on her like a veil.

On her return she found her parents in turmoil. 'Fëanáro took the boys!' her mother cried. 'I could not stop him.'

'I know he would,' Nerdanel replied, taking a deep breath. 'You bear no blame.'

Her mother sighed and shook her head.

'I am sorry. He also took your Spirit of Fire,' her father said sadly. 'After you put so much effort into it. But I would have had to use violence to prevent him from touching it.'

At that, she felt the child in her belly move. 'I am glad you did not raise your hands against him to defend the work of mine, father. It is but matter. Did he say anything about it?'

After a slight hesitation, Mahtan answered. 'To my surprise he recognised it at once for what it was. And he laughed condescendingly and told me that he knew perfectly well what to do with it. Therefore, he would take it along, and would I convey his compliments to you for your greatest work of art ever?' He eyed his daughter anxiously. 'I could be mistaken, but I had the impression that he would destroy it.'

Either that, or he had wanted Mahtan to believe he would, hoping to lure her home for the sake of protecting her work. Idle hope, for if he did not plan to destroy it, she did not need to see him. And if he did plan to destroy it - if he were able to consider such a thing - she did not want to see him. She did not want to witness his destruction of himself.

Nerdanel laughed mirthlessly. 'I made it to see if I could. It was meant for him, and it spoke to him, as I told it to do. I wish him joy of it.'

And I am free now to bring forth yet more strange beauty into the world, she thought.

Shortly afterwards, tired though she was, Nerdanel left the house of her parents. She had not spoken about her new child with the twins, but they were sure to tell their father how large her belly had grown - and he was sure to come back for her when he knew her time of delivery came. If she stayed, she would be lost - though it was possible that she was lost regardless. So be it, she thought. Her course was set.

And so, she sought refuge in the gardens of Lórien, where once Míriel's unwithered body had lain. There, assisted by Estë's handmaidens, she brought forth a girl when the silver dusk of Telperion mingled with the golden dawn of Laurelin. The daughter was a tiny image of her father, with raven-dark down on her head, a pale skin, and eyes of bright grey, but instead of burning like a flame her spirit, already strongly felt, glittered like the sparkling waters of Lake Lorellin. Her mother-name was Nenarille, and she was far more beautiful than any work of art.

By the concealing arts of Irmo Fëanor's last child and only daughter remained hidden from her father: he sought for her in vain. And so it was, that Nenarille stayed in Aman when Fëanor led the Noldor astray, and never came under the shadow of Mandos' Curse.

*Six, in human terms.

**The name Tolkien originally gave to Nerdanel. I decided to give it to her mother.

***Fox. Mahtan's epessë.

A/N: Though strictly spoken the above doesn't go against canon, it's highly unlikely a daughter of Fëanor would never have been mentioned anywhere, hence the AU label.