The swan cloak wrapped close around me, clinging softly like a second skin, and I realized for the first time just how cold I had been. Maybe Findorie hadn't been trembling with fear after all! The mantle was made like a coat of swansdown with great feathered wings falling from the shoulders to points brushing the sand, and it seemed to glimmer with its own gentle radiance.
I stroked the long, strong pinions of my right wing, feeling their sleek softness under my fingers, as I cautiously probed the Power woven into the web of the mantle. I touched a Prominence like a tiny star. The Pattern shifted, my head spun and I threw out my arms for balance with a rustle of feathers.
My head cleared and I saw not arms but a great double arc of white wings fanning out on either side. My head craned and turned, my throat stretched long and I missed the weight and pull of my hair. My neck looped so I might look down on myself and saw a white feathered breast and peeping beneath the tips of rosy webs. I jerked my head up again and look around me.
I was surrounded by swans. Great, almost Elf sized, birds glimmering like pale foam in the starlight, bright, gold rimmed eyes glinting as heads wove and darted about staring in astonishment. I couldn't help laughing - and was shocked and dismayed by the loud, unmelodious noise issuing from my throat. The Web of Energies shifted and suddenly I was Davne again, head spinning.
One by one the other swans changed back into my slightly dazed looking fellows. And one became my Princess, her eyes shining like stars. "Our Lord Ulmo has given us a great gift indeed. Not just this new shaping but the promise that our long desire will be fulfilled at last!"
A great gift it was, and a hard one to master. Even walking was troublesome, Elvish mind warring against swan instinct, and flying was worse. As I had discovered spirit would rebel against unaccustomed form causing unexpected - and sometimes dangerous - shifts from swan to Elf.
We all collected numerous bumps and bruises during that first practice, by Telperion's light. After Findorie frightened us all by knocking herself cold falling from a height the Princess decided we should continue over water for safety. By now the dawn mingling of lights had come and gone and colors showed bright and clear in Laurelin's glow. Taking swan form we paddled out to sea and resumed our practice - to the astonishment of Osse's hounds and, I am sure, the considerable amusement of the ocean birds floating in lazy circles high overhead.
We learned that it was necessary to beat our great wings hard to get airborne but once well aloft a lazy stroking motion was sufficient to keep us so. We learned that the air had currents, just like water, and how to angle our wings to ride them, and how to curve those wings into great feathered cups to land softly.
Gaining confidence we dared to fly higher - and immediately learned a great deal about stalling, slipping, spinning and falling. Water is hard when you hit it from great height! And that led in turn to learning how to dive, swim and catch fish in swan form. We gulped down the fish raw, just as swans would, and then, exhausted from our long hours of practice, we tucked heads under wings and went to sleep.
I woke to feather scented darkness, bobbing on the sleek, cool swell of Outer Ocean. For a moment I couldn't think where or what I was but I did not snap back to Elf form, swan shape was no longer strange to me. Taking my head from under my wing I looked around. The stars were shining in a deep blue sky, Telperion was a silver spot on the eastern horizon and my fellow swan-maidens were also waking to look about.
'Come,' my Princess's voice said in my mind. "let us fly!" and without thought we obeyed, forming a spear-point wedge behind her aimed westward. We flew until our wings wearied and the light of the distant Trees faded to a twilight dimness with pale stars showing in the sky above and the sea rippling grey-green below.
Finally we alit with gentle plashes to rest a while and Dorme asked, mind to mind: 'Where are we going, Lady?'
'To the Walls of the World.' Istafinde answered, her thought glowing with an enthusiasm that was difficult to resist - nor did we try to.
'What do you think they will look like?' Eleste wondered.
Our princess laughed. 'If I knew I'd be less eager to see them!' she thought a moment then continued; 'Since the stars shine through the walls they must be transparent - perhaps like thick glass or fine crystal.'
'And high,' said Findorie, 'high enough to contain both Outer Ocean and the Lower Air.'
'I wonder if they will be too high to fly over?' Istafinde mused to our consternation. 'Not that I mean to do so.' she added hastily. 'I only want to look.' Into the great abyss. I shuddered at the thought, and so did the others.
'I doubt any bird could fly as high as that.' said Herinke practically.
'Let us see how high we can go.' said the Princess.
Up, up, up we spiraled until the thin chill of the air warned us we were on the very edge of Aiwenorie.1 From that height we could see the shores of Valinor, low and green, and twin points of light that were the Trees but to the west there was only a deepening blueness of air, blending with that of Outer Ocean.
'We still have far to go.' said my Lady.
We flew on into changeless twilight as Valinor and the Trees fell far behind. But the lower stars seemed larger and brighter so we knew we were making progress. We flew until we grew weary then landed to rest upon the waters of Outer Ocean and refresh ourselves with fish. Three such rest periods there were, then during the fourth we were rudely awakened when the ocean heaved upward then fell aside in foaming breakers to reveal the great helm and head of Ulmo.
We scattered with hoarse swan cries of alarm, wings pounding the air. Unsurprisingly Istafinde was the first to recover herself, circling in to land with a soft plash not far from the Lord of the Deep.
'My Lord you startled us.' she said with on note of reproach.
Ulmo's chuckle was like the booming of waves in a sea grotto; "My apologies, Little One. What do you do so far from shore, Istafinde?"
'We seek the Walls of the World." she answered a little defensively. "Only to look - that is not forbidden is it?"
The whole Ocean shook with Ulmo's laughter. The rest of us stayed aloft, circling. "Not forbidden but impossible, Little One. No matter how far you journey you will never reach the Walls. They are not for the Children to find."
Findorie landed beside her foster-sister. 'But, Lord, if they lie within Arda -' she began as if she would argue with the Vala.
"They bound Arda but are not of it, anymore then Vaiya or the abyss." he explained. "Those of my Order may come to the Walls, even pass beyond them into the Outer Dark, but we are bound to Ea and so cannot penetrate Vaiya to our ancient home of High Heaven. And you Children of the World can neither pass the Walls nor even reach them. Such are the limitations of your nature." 2
'I don't like hearing about my limitations.' Istafinde said grimly.
"Yet you have them, Child, and must accept your nature."
'I know.' she answered. 'But that doesn't mean I must like it!'
"You have been gone longer then you know, Little One." Ulmo coaxed. "The King your grandfather and you father Curufinwe miss you."
There was a distinct pout in my Princess' mind-voice; 'Then I must turn back?'
"It would be wise." said Ulmo.
We turned back, lighting at long last on the glistening strand of our little cove with the light of Laurelin warm and golden on our faces. Istafinde resumed her own form and the rest of us followed suit.
I swayed on my feet, Elven body feeling strange and unbalanced after so long as a swan. Dorme reached out to me and we both nearly fell. We clutched at each other and when we were steady again I looked around.
Several of my fellow maidens were sitting, awkwardly a-sprawl, on the sand, faces dazed. Findorie was huddled into her cloak, stroking it with her hands and watching Istafinde worriedly.
The Princess rubbed her eyes with doubled fists, then ran her hands through her long black fall of hair. "Well -" she began only to break off in a paroxysm of coughing. Nindetal hurried to fetch a shell full of water from the little spring above the headland. Istafinde sipped it and recovered.
"As I was about to say, it seems we have wearied ourselves to no purpose. I was too ambitious - again!" she grimaced. "But truly I hate being told there are things I cannot do and should not know!" It was a feeling that none of us shared and only Findorie, perhaps, understood. We were not such spirits of Fire as our Lady. She sighed. "Never mind. You must all be as hoarse and throat sore as I, and weary with it. Let us rest."
The headland spring ran down to a grassy Tree-lit dell, screened from the ocean by alder and willow, and fell musically into a deep pool clear as glass and floored with bright pebbles. Shedding our swan cloaks we slid gratefully into the cool, fresh water and unbraided our hair to wash the salt and sea smells from it. Ammalien climbed the slight rise to the spring returning with a crystal flask of pale wine. Nindetal produced a great store of cups and beakers wrought of shell, some shallow and gently curved others deep and coiled like the horns of Ulmo. We caught the spring water as it fell over a lip of stone into our pool and quenched our great thirst then refilled our cups with shimmering wine that spread warmth through all our limbs. Our voices were loosened from their long silence and we began to talk and laugh.
"Ah, that tastes good!" Aramaite sighed, after a great draught of wine. "Fish palls - especially cold fish!"
"It is tasty enough to a swan palate." Vanamire reminded her.
"But the mind rebels remembering warmer fare." answered our broideress.
Nindetal's eyes were wide and full of dreams of wings. "Such speed! And a grace of motion such as I have never known before."
"Not on land!" said Findorie, making a face, and we all laughed.
"Those harsh, un-tuneful cries." said Lindele ruefully. "Never did I dream I'd hear my throat producing such horrid sounds!"
"Nor I." I agreed heartily. "Even if I am the worst singer of us all!"
"You are none so bad as all that." Oliante assured me, shook her head; "Strange that so beautiful a bird should have no music."
"Perhaps fair voices and grace of gait would make them too perfect even for Valinor." Dorme suggested.
She meant it as a joke but the Princess looked thoughtful "There may be some truth in that. My Lady Ancala says perfection can only be found in Iluvatar beyond the Circles of the World." then she smiled. "And there are worse flaws then harsh voices and clumsy feet - whatever Lindele and Nindetal might think."
"I certainly hope so!" I said fervently, rousing another laugh.
Findorie offered me a smile. "I have been over-harsh and given you too poor an opinion of yourself, Davne, forgive me.
Istafinde nodded agreement. "When we get home you will finally have the chance to show your own gift and shine among us like an adamant stone set in pearl."
I thought that last unlikely, but smiled in return.
Helianwe pulled herself from the water, droplets glittering on her white body exactly like crystals of adamant on pearl. "I need sleep." she announced. "And Laurelin's warmth."
"I say we all do." Aldariel agreed and looked to our Lady.
"Yes," said Istafinde, "let us sleep here in the green and warmth of grass and tree. Never did I think to hear myself say this but I am weary of the sea!"
"Then for once I am not alone in that feeling!" said Aldariel, lover of woodlands, emphatically.
We all laughed and climbed from the water to curl here and there with our cups upon the sward. I settled myself beside Dorme, spreading my hair out to dry on a pillow of turf, and as I closed my eyes it suddenly occurred to me that I no longer felt like an newcomer and outsider in this company. I belonged - and I was glad of it.
1. Aiwenore 'Bird Realm' name for the lower air where birds fly.
2. The Professor's cosmology is somewhat confusing - probably because it was in a continual state of revision - but as he makes it clear even the Valar are now bound to Ea I have chosen to assume that the 'Outer Dark' in which Morgoth lurks - and is later imprisoned - is not the same as the Void in which the globe of Ea floats but an 'abyss' between the walls of the world and Vaiya, the outermost bounds of Ea.