In the personal studio of Mahtan the Master-Smith, there stood three wooden desks a small distance from each other, covered with tools and remains of stone and clay. One of them was for the master artisan himself, another was for his daughter, and the third for his prize student. Working at one of those desks, if one lifted one's eyes from one's work, one could sometimes not help but make momentary eye contact with whomever was working at another.
And so, because the Master-Smith's daughter and his prize student were both quite interested in their respective arts, they could often be found giving each other nervous glances over this or another chunk of stone. Slipping moments, usually not more than a second before they commanded themselves to look away, but in the tapestry of eyes meeting eyes, something was threatening to take shape.
Bright golden light poured into the room. Nerdanel squinted against it, rubbing her eyes. She was not yet used to the magnifying glass she was working with (a crude device, really, as the Noldor have not yet mastered the complexity of optics), and her head hurt. With a quiet sigh, she leaned closer to the half-finished sculpture, working on the smallest detail with agonizing care.
Not that far away, and hardly far enough, Feanor carefully placed a chisel on a block of pure white quartz and landed a soft blow, working away small chips. He was very intent on his work and could never be disturbed when it went well.
Nerdanel finished the scraping and scathing it took to tame the rock to her will. She raised her head from it with a sigh, reaching a hand to her aching neck and moaning quietly, feeling her muscles stiff and sore. Maybe there was a reason why maidens were not taught stonework. Almost unconsciously, she found herself looking over to Feanor. Why, he should have no trouble at all with those outrageously thick muscles on him…
Just as she was about to turn back, he too was done, and straightened with a grunt, stretching long arms. She did not manage to look away before he looked right back at her.
Gazes meeting, fleeting moments…
"Why do you avoid me?" She heard herself ask.
She could see that it caught him by utter surprise, the very fact that she spoke. "What?" he asked, frowning.
"You have been avoiding me ever since we were introduced, almost three years now. Why?"
He hesitated for long moments. She could read a strange sort of reluctance in his eyes, as if he was struggling with a dread secret. Tingling heat began to rise in her face and she sought to look away, embarrassed and confused.
But Feanor folded his hands behind his back, and answered her to her face, in plain words. "I have an idea of you in my head that is perfect, and I don't want it destroyed."
It shocked Nerdanel to the core, the last answer she expected. She reflected she might have been offended if the words came from any other Elf, regardless of meaning. But she had seen him that night in the storm; now how could she blame him?
So she told him in plain words. "And I, of you."
They stood staring at each other awkwardly for a while, measuring each other with their uncertain and unfathomable gazes, each waiting for the other to break the silence, but neither of them did. Then they both blushed and looked away, turning back to their works.
Years passed before either of them gathered the courage to try again.
The storm tempted Feanor all evening, a fickle, broody lover, impatient with its lightning and thunder locked on the other side of the walls of his chambers. He smiled, glancing upwards once from the parchment to the window – patience, soon.
But patience had never been his strong suit. The essay was left halfway through – his father would not be pleased – ink spilled on the table, Fingolfin brushed off all too crudely when he dared ask where his brother was off to in such a hurry. Once he was past the doorway, he was already running, and then the rain came down.
He loosened his hair – damn Indis and her braids! – and cast off his tunic and shoes in one corner, ran through the city bare of foot and chest, breathing. Rain soaked his flowing locks, weighting them down, rain slipped over his skin, a cool, sensual touch that had him gasping, good rain to quiet the flame.
He left the city behind him, the city he loved, the city that imprisoned. He stood on the hilltop, that hilltop of always, and willed the world gone.
Tomorrow he would have peace.
And now he moved to the intoxicating rhythm of the storm and his own pulse, without planning, without stopping to breathe. Between rain and thunder, wind and lightning, fire and ice, he no longer knew what he was doing, how he was moving, where, how long.
It did not matter.
May have been days, may have been minutes, and when he stopped he fell to the ground at once, on his hands and knees in the mud and panting. He coughed weakly, tilted back his head to let cool storm water down his parched throat, labored to stand. Worn, cold, shivering with adrenaline, he could barely think, just feel, and feel the wind, and feel the free air, and feel his living body.
He staggered, started walking. Home. Not home. Not yet. Stares, disbelief, shouts. Not yet, not now. Felt hot, cooling under the rain. There was a cave in the hillside, he glanced into it with dim eyes. Blessed darkness, and – candlelight – and –
She stared up to him from where she was sitting, a book in her lap, and upon her shivering body only a thin summer dress. From the way she looked, it was painfully obvious that she had not even noticed the storm.
Her hand froze on its way to turn the page.
His gaze wandered, slowly, from the book up her arm, to her face, to her wild eyes, trying to understand the scene or register her expression. He thought he was alone.
There was such a storm outside…
They exchanged no words; there were none. She moved a little, making room for him to walk past her, and looked after him as he stumbled into the far side of the cave, there to collapse into a dreamless sleep almost at once. There was such a storm outside, while she was inside with her book, thought she was alone.
It didn't matter.
Come morning, he woke to find her gone, and not find her again for many months.
Spring in Tirion brought with it beautiful days. The blue sky was absolutely cloudless, awash with the light of fair Laurelin, radiant and warm. The dew had not yet dried upon the many flowers opening to greet the morning in the Square of the Mindon. There gray stones cast playful shadows and wind was whispering in between the trees, and the water in the fountain at the center of the great marble surface sparkled and splashed merrily. There gem-laden statues shone and flags unfurled with the kindly breeze of morning, there voices were rising in song from the many windows around. There, Nerdanel twined blue flowers into her hair and stroked the marble, humming a quiet tune, and the golden light played on her face and in her hair, gently, like the hands of a lover.
It really was a lovely day, peaceful, harmonious, radiant.
Then he came storming down the street as a great black cloud, lighting in his eyes and thunder in his steps and the clash of wind and rain in the large fists that rose to strike the walls. Tall and hugely built and with his dark hair flowing past his waist, his presence tore asunder every pretense of peace the sweet morning may have tried to maintain. He kicked at the stones, trampled the flowers, struck at the shining surface of the water, and angrily sweeping at his tear-streaked face, settled near a wall, hiding from the sky.
Nerdanel was taken aback, but she could hardly say she was surprised.
She moved her eyes reluctantly from the light shining of West and sought out his gray gaze under the mess that was his hair, but did not find out.
Sighing soundlessly, she turned back to the light and the flowers and sat in silence as Feanor began sobbing loudly, crying as the little boy he had not been for twenty years bow. It was a long time before he relaxed; by the time his breath settled, she realized smust have sat aimlessly for almost an hour.
She did not havebe told why he sought the shadows; every Elf in Tirion knew of the lovely, golden-haired newborn son of the Noldoran.
"Curse her…" she heard him mutter. "Curse them both, forever…!"
Nerdanel sang, softly, to herself and the wind.
Behind her, Feanor slowly raised his head, gray eyes wide open in astonishment and sad longing. She had a good voice, as did all the Eldar, if not unique or particularly skilled. She sang very quietly and her song seemed to mingle freely with the sunlight and the sounds of the early morning. Ever so slowly, he rose and walked towards her as her song drifted on. The light could not quite penetrate his long hair and left his face to shadow, but she lifted her head, and her own face basked in the golden radiance. For a precious moment, they were frozen both, clashing and attracting opposites like two sides of a coin, live silver and gold and a day.
Nerdanel gave a sharp yelp and jumped up at the sudden touch on her arm. Feanor's hands were large and crushing, and he held her as he would a fleeing prey.
She spun to look him in the face, startled and hurt. There was no anger in his gaze as much as there was need. For a dread second she did not know what to think he wanted, but his eyes were those of a child in pain. He spoke to her in a voice that broke, words that made no sense.
"Would you teach me how to do it? How to be so calm and controlled, how to fit in with the world so well? Would you please teach me?"
She stuttered: "I – I can't…"
"Please!" His grip on her arm became more and more painful, but so did the look in his eyes. "I beg of you, before I… please…!"
He choked, and his hand trembled. At that moment, all she wanted was to say yes, that she would give to him that which cannot be given, if only he would stop holding her, looking at her, frying. Her resentment at the world, her quiet boredom, was focusing, sharpening, turning into rage.
"I can't," she said softly. "It is not something one can teach."
The expression that suddenly spread on his face could be akin to shock or horror. His fingers twitched on her arm, as if undecided whether to let go or not. She began to move backward slightly.
Then his grip hardened again, and he pulled her up to her feet and flung her away from him with incredible strength. "Then be gone from my sight, and damn you!"
Even as he spun in a violent motion, setting on a march down the street he came from, she froze. Never had any spoken to her in such a fashion; it felt like being slapped, bringing a burning to her cheeks and eyes. She stared after him in terrible pain for a moment, and then cried out:
"Damn me? Do I weep like a child rather than stand and face my trouble?"
She turned then, and tried hopelessly to stop the tears with her sleeve. She did not see him stop in his track, nor look over his shoulder, stunned, nor the spark of understanding in his eyes, though she may have been comforted by the latter.
He locked them in the gallery.
A small room it was that Mahtan set aside to display his students' works; art galleries could be found virtually in every street in Tirion. Most works were sent elsewhere to be shown properly to the ever-eager crowd, few remained, placed in that room adjoining the workshop. A city of caskets and boxes of glass, gold, silver and stone shining from every corner. And silence, and peace, as if to tell the onlooker – you are but a visitor here, in creation's home.
Nerdanel went there often, to look for leftover inspiration. She knew the place like the back of her hand, on all its wonders, had practically grown up there, left by the ever-busy craftsman and aloof poet she had for a father and mother to play amid the artworks. There were all her young dreams remembered – first shapes in stone, first girlish fantasies. They became firmly connected in her mind. The gallery was hers, just as her own private room. But whereas her room was a mess of books and half-shaped clay, echoing her mind at most times, the gallery was order, and order imposed. She felt safe there.
But Feanor has burst in uncalled and unexpected, just like that, as absent-minded and blunt as always, locked the door behind them and thrust the key into her faltering hands. She did not get the chance to look at him.
"Here," he said hurriedly, turning his back before he finished and walking away. "Don't let me out."
"Don't let me get out," having to repeat the request obviously irked him. He crossed his hands behind his back and began pacing the room, casting a nervous glance her way. "Not until I truly beg for it, understand?"
She was supposed to understand? Tucking the key in one pocket, Nerdanel retreated behind the nearest statue, placing her hands on the smooth white surface. It was her home.
She glimpsed Feanor from around the corner, framed by whiteness, statue and distant wall, sealed glass around him. He paced restlessly, in silence, so much that looking felt almost like an intrusion. Surely an explanation was in order, but she could not demand one. He was in her home, and suddenly it became his.
The artworks seemed to bask in his presence.
He had a way with them, a tender way that amazed her, as she stood there watching, slowly encircling the statue to keep him in her sight as he moved. An instant bond formed between his hands and the metal and marble, even with the bare glass boxes clean of any ornament. And between him and her as she watched was a quiet bond also. They played a dancing game about the gallery with the changing of the light and the ticking of moments, of gazes evading and dragging footsteps, of questions left unanswered, unasked.
Don't let me out… not until I truly beg.
It made a long and ever-changing maze out of Nerdanel's gallery-home, riddled with the statues, the pillars, the caskets for hiding places and dead ends. She busied herself about it, looking – the glass and polished silver, very fair, caught his image in a cruel mirror, and he was everywhere even as his touch melded silently with all those rescued shapes. She wondered what they sought in him, all those rescued shapes, yearning for him, as if to get s step closer to perfection.
Perfection, she thought.
Their gazes met for the first time.
She saw, from across the length of a painted wall, how he frowned, a subtle flame kindled in his gray eyes. It was plain, all that he was thinking. Who is this woman?
And who was she, playing with him in the art gallery like this?
"Did you ever – not know, what to do?" He asked her, raising his hands up to look at them – it was not sudden, it was fate.
An explanation may have been in order, but she did not need one.
"Often," she answered, with brutal plainness, giving no weight to the words. There was a sort of joy in knowing he, also, needed the gallery at times. Silence, art, leftover inspiration, that he came here, now, for her own reasons, that he echoed her shortcomings in his way. She stopped; He was exactly opposite of her. He stroked a stone carving as tall as himself. Her cheek brushed against a vase of purest crystal. "Inspiration is such a fleeting thing."
"An adequate comparison, Feanaro."
A smile tugged at the edges of his lips, hearing her speak his name so. "You do not understand me at all, do you?"
Her eyes widened, blood rushed to her face. You cannot hurt me with these words, I do understand. No word of it crossed her lips. He had naught with understanding.
Stuck, was he… they…
She turned from the vase, and sought the sparkling metal instead.
Fragile time within the gallery. Before she knew it, the lights had changed.
First hints of silver gave an eerie glow to the white of the walls. Feanor lost his composure five times before that moment, each time walking to the door, trying the handle, cursing when he found it locked. He glanced to her often in his circling way about the marble maze. The key: but she had it now.
"Open the door, Nerdanel," he said once, commanding.
Hot embers burned furiously within her chest at the trap she found herself in. Anything she would do, open or leave be, wobe obeying him.
The marble, the paintings, the glass.
"Open, I said!"
They were it , at the game that never ended, two sides of a coin or a day. He paced around, a storm cloud dark and bursting with frustration. She walked about, studying the artworks in the silence of a summer afternoon. The door was locked.
First flickers of silver; perhaps it was the way they played on the glass. Feanor's gaze snapped sharply to one side – Nerdanel paused to look – his gray eyes lit up in a crack of lightning. A moment he stood, staring and transfixed, she could hear him mutter, see his hands clench, loosen, feel the rescued shapes tremble with his excitement.
The storm broke before her eyes.
Such a fleeting thing…
"Nerdanel…" he whispered, his voice shaking. "Please open the door…"
He could not be refused. She took the key out instantly, readily, stepped to the door, and stopped.
Stopped in her track, frozen, he turned.
How his eyes were shining.
"The workshop," he said. "Now, please."
What was he seeing? What did she miss?
The key, small and cold in her hands. She took another step, saw him move eagerly forward, barely stopping himself also when she stopped. A shiver ran down his spine and through his body, she could hear his breath quicken, snatching at the air.
"No," she said.
Perhaps she expected surprise, but there was none. The horror dawned on him quick, instant, terrible. She did understand. His breath caught in his throat, a choked sob.
"I'll lose it, you know I'll lose it, let me out to the workshop, please, Nerdanel, it hurts…"
Hurts… oh yes, she understood. Understood through yearning, through hoping, for that very maddening pain that had his knees buckling and his hands clutching till they bled. The marble and the glass echoed with his racing pulse, each heartbeat the desperate banging of the newborn idea.
"Please…" he whispered again, from where he had fallen, looking up to her amid his tears, but she only held the key.
She stood, stood watching. He had retreated into a corner, far from the light and the artworks, hugged his legs to his chest and rocked back and forth, whimpering. His hands shook worst, aching to race with his mind, that fleeting inspiration demanding to burst forth. Somewhere inside she hated herself for this torture, but she could not open the door. She had to see, as she had to ask him long before, had to see what it was, how it felt. This suffering, this sweet agony, this pain that births creation; she envied Feanor, she envied him to point of hatred.
She took a step towards him, away from the door.
And she was never ready for how he leapt suddenly, madness flowing from his eyes, with a cry, wrenching one of the statues from its place – one of his, no less – swinging it at her. She slipped and fell backwards, crying out, in her shock, and that saved her life. Somehow she managed to grab his arms as he bore down, fear gave her strength and pain made him weak. The shining glass, an inch from her head, she screamed at him the strangest words –
"Stop! Stop, you will destroy it!"
"It's mine to destroy!" He snarled.
"It's your work!"
Oh yes, she understood.
His grip on the statue nearly faltered, but he thrust it into her hands ere it could fall and shatter. He said nothing more – no apologies, no explanation, no regrets – but fell to the floor, heavily, and lay flat, his head in his hands.
The silver light shone through the window, giving blue shadows to all things. It could have been a beautiful image, maybe a beautiful scene, Nerdanel thought, looking at the Spirit of Fire at her feet. And perhaps that alone was what made her, at last, open the door.
"Do you think I am mad, Nerdanel?"
The silver again gave way to gold; the light played upon the roofs of Tirion in angles and reflections, making shapes in the sky. The Trees well complimented the city of white stone. Nerdanel sat with her head on her knees and her hands in her hair, without looking up. Maybe her eyes were closed.
Feanor came outside an hour after she finally set him free from the gallery, stumbled outside, sweaty and exhausted, his hands burned. He stood behind her, slumped against a wall regaining his breath, and she brought her hands deeper and head lower, closed within herself and silent.
The light changed, and then he asked that question at last.
There was no use leaving it unanswered – the silence was no comfort this time.
But it hung in the light-filled air and did not dissipate or let go, this question, this very good question, as Nerdanel wondered what had gone on inside the workshop, these moments she did not dare observe. What had he created, that burned him so as she watched, burned through him, stone, glass, maybe metal doing their will, rescued shapes calling. Had he really nearly shattered the statue upon her head – had he really shed tears of sweet agony?
"Yes," she murmured faintly, feeling the sea behind her eyes. "Yes, I think you are mad. And I do not know what else to think…!"
In her voice, equal measures of terror and jealousy. She found she was suddenly shivering, shivering with the thought of what almost happened, of what happened.
A quick breath, and Feanor kneeled besides her, his hands staying in the air an inch from her hair, her skin. His face was twisted with mixing emotion – grief, anxiety, yes, even regret.
"This was never intended," he said in a low voice, swallowed hard. "You weren't meant to see…"
She sniffed, angry at her tears, looked up, amazed that she was able to wrest such emotion from him. Where had her Storm Dancer gone?
"I wanted to see," she breathed, moving the hair from her face. Their eyes met, willingly. "I do not regret seeing."
"Even with the pain, Nerdanel?"
"For the pain, Feanaro."
His name, again. He nodded.
His hand, frozen in midair, moved to her again. She raised trembling fingers in an answer. The touch was simple – tears and sweat, both hands tender and unsure, untried, a first touch. Jealousy, of pain, of peace, turned to understanding, silent understanding, frozen for a long time between silver and gold.
To Be Continued…
Notes on this chapter:
First and foremost, thanks galore to Ithilwen and Nemis for insightful beta-work!
Our heroes, when this chapter ends, would be around fifty years old, just at their majority by Elven standards.
See? No bad Quenya this time. I considered using the characters' Quenya names in the narrative, but decided against it. Somehow, this story being as it is, it felt more genuine that it should be in the spirit of the Quenta than historically accurate. They'll be calling each other by their Quenya names, however, for some reason which might have something to do with rhythm of line.
The next chapter, you are warned beforehand, will have not only a considerable jump in time, but also a different style (which I have tried to incorporate in this one, and failed miserably, the main reason this chapter was so long in the making). While I'm not sure it'll help the story be more coherent, it will at least mean it would be updated much more regularly.
The title is a reference to "Changeling: the Dreaming". If anyone feels like messing themselves up, there's a quote from Clive Barker hidden somewhere also. This is also a great chapter for playing "Spot the Leitmotif" J .