"Well, my Lord," Daeron unplaited the end of one of his sable braids and plaited it again, nervously, "What think you?"
Celeborn brushed his fingers over the white marble table and brought them away faintly gritty with dust. The strange, angular carvings, which stood out black against the pale expanse, seemed to hold some meaning not only for his friend, but for the naugrim, Fali, who stood beside him. "I think a bird has run across the snow," he said at last, well aware that his ignorance was pleasing them both.
"It says 'King Thingol owns me, Fali shaped me, Daeron of Doriath made me speak.'" Daeron put both of his long hands down on the table, tracing the shapes of the symbols while his untethered braid unwound, making him look charmingly dishevelled, as if he'd been dancing.
"Now you cozen me!" Celeborn laughed, delighted by the mystery, "How can scratches on stone speak?"
"Each of these signs," Fali bent over and traced further runes in the dust, "Stands for a sound." His beard - the vibrant brown of autumn bracken - swept a space clean, and the golden bands which decorated his intricately twisted moustache clicked musically against the stone. "See this one is 'teh', and this is 'ng'."
"Little pebbles of sound," Daeron interrupted eagerly, his quietness loosing in the ardour of his craft, "Like the pebbles of the mosaic in the Hall of Two Trees. Each one is simple, but pattern them together and you have a scene. These are - if you like - the mosaic tiles of speech."
"Captured words..." Celeborn followed the carvings with his fingertips, feeling the bends and angles as his mind turned over the thought. "This is your idea?"
Daeron nodded, shy, immensely proud, waiting for approval.
"It is astonishing!" He looked up just in time to catch Daeron's incredulous smile - a flash of joy bright and brief as a salmon leaping in a stream - before the minstrel, released by praise, leapt into explanation.
"You esteem it overmuch, Lord. I call it the Cirth. It is but a toy I made for the Naugrim - you see the letters are designed to be easily carved on stone. Fali here and his brother...?"
"Modi," said the dwarf.
"Were arguing about the name of one of their legendary heroes. And no-one was left alive who knew him, because they only live for a few hundred years... So it seemed to me that if there was some way to...to crystallize memory, then the Naugrim could carve their names into stone, and thereby preserve them unchanged." Daeron's flow of words faltered. He looked up with fading pleasure. "But as the Quendi live forever, and our recall is flawless, I know not what use it would have for us, but as a curious game."
Celeborn looked down at Daeron's face - a purely Sindar heritage written in the fine bones and the almost breakable delicacy - and wondered if there was any way he could convince him of his genius. If Luthien would but praise him he would open like a white flower, and be radiant for her. But she will not. And he will not accept it from me. The braid unlooped once more, and, with main effort, he stopped himself from tugging it. The gesture had been an habitual sign of affection between them when they were playing together as children, but was no longer appropriate between adults. "You misprize yourself, my friend. It comes to my mind that the minstrels of the Green-folk and the wanderers in Ossiriland never stop begging you to visit and teach them your songs. I know it grieves you that you cannot."
Daeron looked down at his hands, knotted in the fabric of his plain green robe, "You know why I can't go."
Because you had rather torture yourself by singing for Luthien. "I know. And, though I understand it not at all, for our friendship's sake I will say nothing more about it. But see, here you have a device with which to go to them, even while you stay."
Relieved to be free of the subject of his obsession, Daeron giggled, "I can hardly send them great blocks of stone, my lord!"
"No, but you could use birch bark, and paint these symbols thereon with a brush."
"I could." Winglike and fine-drawn, the minstrel's black eyebrows swooped into a frown of thought, "Or linen, mayhap...and I would need to devise some way of representing the melody..."
"And I could use it in Court. If we had some record of what was said, we would not have to bring three witnesses to forswear every liar, or remind debtors of what they had 'forgotten' they had agreed to. Witnesses can be suborned. This cannot."
"I see a demand for jewellery, also." Fali broke in, "How much more satisfactory if your Lord can look on a gift you give him and see your name. Or a wife wear her husband's name clasped around her wrist."
Celeborn laughed, thinking he understood why Daeron had picked this particular naugrim to work with. "You are a romantic, Master Dwarf!" Fali's head, when standing, came barely to the Prince's waist, so it was difficult to look him in the eyes. He had to step back to do so. "In fact, you have given me an idea. These things..." Crouching, he reached out to touch one of the dwarf's beard-clips, only to have Fali rear back from him in agitation and plain fury. At the look in the dwarf's eyes, Celeborn was at first insulted, and then confused.
"Forgive me, Fali. I meant no offence. What have I done?"
"No-one touches a dwarf's beard except..."
Now the poor creature was further humiliated by having to explain why he had given insult to a Prince of Doriath, without revealing in his explanation any secrets about his kind.
Understanding dawned, uncomfortably. "Oh...I see. Do you think of it...as we feel about our hair?" The length and thickness of an elf's hair was a sign of beauty, vitality, strength, and they were reluctant to allow any but parents and lovers to touch it. In the name of Elbereth! Celeborn was embarrassed himself, talking about such things with the Stunted One. Who would have thought they had any such refinement? "I had no idea your customs were similar to our own in this. Please accept my apologies."
Fali nodded, though he still looked sullen. Celeborn took a firm hold of his temper, refusing to exacerbate his lapse in tact with pettiness over the grudging reply. "I meant only to examine the clip," he explained, "I thought to order a pair, with a line from Daeron's poetry inscribed between them, perhaps in jewels. What do you think - silver and sapphire, or gold and emerald?"
The prospect of a sale lightened the dwarf's face far more successfully than the apology. "Gold is always a more acceptable present than silver."
"It depends on the Lady," said Daeron, wide eyed, "Whether she is dark or fair." He gave a sly, teasing smile, releasing the tension as expertly as he might pluck a lute. "Who is she, Celeborn? You have kept very quiet about this. If I am the first to hear, then I have news to shake the foundations of Menegroth, and I want to proclaim it."
The thought that his marital status was in any way important to Menegroth made him want to laugh, but he could not quite resist teasing his friend. "Well," he said, unable to keep the mirth out of his voice, though he tried, "She has dark hair, and is as fair as a lily in starlight. She lives by the sea and we see each other too rarely, for I am her favourite thing in all Ennor. Oh, apart from honey cakes and certain types of snail."
Daeron laughed, disappointed but amused. He smirked at Fali. "He means his niece, Nimloth."
"I do indeed. Gold it is then, for silver is as common as dew in the streets of the Falas. I only wish we could send your Cirth into the West, Daeron, for folk to marvel at it there as I marvel. For today you have changed the world."
"I do not deserve..."
"For me to go out into the woods and risk my life hunting boar, so you can have bristles for all the brushes you'll need? I dare say you don't, but I will do it anyway, if you promise me one of the first collections of your captured songs."
"I need to work on the notation of music first..." An idea smote Daeron almost as visibly as lightning. He sank onto a stool by the table and began drawing in the dust. Recognizing the signs of inspiration, and fearing to disturb them, Celeborn left silently. As he turned to go through the door, he thought he saw the naugrim's face settle back into resentment, and sighed to himself. They are quick tempered, and slow to forgive. But, since he had apologized, and made a bargain to enrich the creature, there didn't seem anything further he could do. He set the small unpleasantness aside, and went out to find his huntsmen.