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1
Wine

Chapter 1

Wine

You cannot see the roots of a tree, however tall. You cannot guess the design of the tapestry from its threads. You cannot know what the years shall bring, and what black seed is sown among the good ones. All that you can do is wait; living day by day until the centuries have accumulated behind you, and looking back you see a path that you have dug without knowing it. A path you never chose; for all of your choices seem to belong to somebody else.

At the end of the road, as you gather your things and prepare to leave, all that you can ask for is not having tasted the bitterness of regret. In this I am lucky; for even as I look at the black tale that my life has spun, even as I feel in myself the bite of guilt and unholy love, I recognize every step I have taken as my own. For one of those whose destiny was sung before the beginning of the world, for one of those who did not possess the gift of Men for shaping their own fate, it must be a rare blessing.

Not all was darkness in my life, and for a long time I knew joy to repay every pain I have felt. But now that midnight comes unexpectedly, now that night falls as a new day was rising, now I feel that the years were too short, that there are still many things that I could do, many places that I would see, and know. In the end, I am weak. Too weak even to admit that the only thing that I would not yield to fate now that the time has come to pay my debt is the very reason that brought me on this road.

If I still had the right to beg, if I hadn't renounced it when I took upon myself this doom, I would ask for another day, another hour, another moment of joy with the one that I love. But it is late now. Far too late.

He slams shut the door of the room where he has spent the last few hours in discussion, the room where his fate, and mine, have been decided. I do not need him to tell me what decision he and his brother have taken; I know it in his brisk step as he approaches my chamber. I know not whether I shall write in this journal again, for in the air that I breathe there is a taste of fell things, and the foreboding I thought Artanis alone possessed hangs heavy upon me.

I finish this hasty note to my memories, a trace left I no longer know why, I no longer know to whom; and the fire is awoken inside me, and the passion to which I owe my joys and my sorrows in equal measure makes me rise. He shall be here, and whatever fate may come, I shall accept it, for it is offered to me on the tip of his fingers. Far more bitter poison I have swallowed in the name of this love; but in the beginning, there was only light.

Artanis took another, thoughtful sip of the ruby wine in her crystal vessel, and smiled.

"Your father was too generous in his gifts. This wine is exquisite."

"And your mother was too generous in preparing our basket. I wonder how much it took to prepare such delicate things."

I brushed off the last crumbs of the pale, creamy cake from my lips, and put the empty plates back in the wicker basket. My cousin closed her eyes leaning back, enjoying the warmth of the air. Laurelin's light played in the long waves of her hair, making it shine with both silver and gold. My first day in Tirion after long years of absence was passing gently, the hours uncoiling languidly under the trees of one of the gardens encased in the hillside, like emeralds among the white stonework of the houses.

Many of the Noldor were out strolling at this time, and the garden hummed softly with their voices, their conversation. The clothes were brighter and more deeply coloured than was the fashion in Valmar, and beautiful jewelry, the work of the craft of the Noldorin smiths, shone golden and silvery in the light. Artanis' next question came in an almost sleepy tone.

"Have you decided what you shall wear tomorrow, at the reception?"

"White, I thought. Unless Aredhel wished to do the same."

"You may well expect it. She takes pleasure in remind us all she inherited the raven Finwion hair."

I smiled between half-closed eyelids.

"As if you had need to envy anybody's hair, Artanis."

A pleased chuckle in her throat, then her fingers stretched out to play with one of my curls.

"Here in Tirion your Telerin silver will be much admired, Silmė. We shall find you a Noldorin lover yet."

I smiled.

"Father could appreciate that. He despairs to ever see grandchildren. Although if you never found anybody to your liking, Artanis, I very much doubt I shall see somebody myself."

Pointedly, she ignored the remark, closing her eyes once more, enjoying the light. Sighing contentedly in the peaceful afternoon, I let my eyes wander over the jewel brightness of the leaves, over the dappled reflection of a small, singing brook. The radiant flare of red in the light caught my attention, and I touched my cousin's shoulder, calling her.

"Artanis. Who is that one?"

"I did tell you, you just had to look. Why, I have scarcely finished saying that…"

And then her voice died, and I felt her stiffening beside me. When I turned to look at her, she was very quiet, but her blue eyes sparkled with fury.

"Let it be," she said between clenched teeth, "Just let it be."

"Artanis?"

I could not understand. I looked once more to the stranger, who walked leisurely by the brook with a companion. He was tall, exceedingly so, and he had uncommon auburn hair. As I was looking, he laughed, and his laughter was easy and bright. But my cousin remained silent for a long moment, all her playfulness, all her serenity gone. At last the words came out, and they were thick with distaste.

"That is my cousin, Nelyafinwė." There was a pause, before, reluctantly, she added: "The son of Fėanįro my uncle."

"Artanis. Surely you don't still begrudge the son of Finwė his simple request."

"You call it simple. You were not there."

"Artanis…"

She shook her head. The Noldor often possess flaming spirits, but among them hottest of all burnt Fėanįro, son of the king, and Artanis his niece. And yet between them there was little love, or better still, no love at all; and they had not spoken to each other since she had refused him the gift of one hair, which he asked.

"He wished to make beauty eternal out of your light. It was a mighty thought."

"Light should not be possessed, not in any form. I see darkness in my uncle, a darkness that has no equal among the Elves."

"Still, you shall not say that the faults of the father should fall upon the sons?"

"What is it to you? Certainly, Nelyafinwė is pleasing to the eye. But there is something of the obscure flame of the father that has passed to him, like all the others of his kin. I do not like the Fėanįrions."

"Cousin…"

Artanis could be immovable when she wished to, but I would not allow her dislike to have the best of me, not now. Again and again my eye strayed to the stranger, and into my heart my resolution was tied into a knot of steel.

"You promised you would make my stay here pleasant. And now you would deny me this little thing? If indeed your cousin partakes of the fell fire of his father, I will be judge of it myself. Or don't you trust me at all?"

For a moment she was silent, looking at me intently, as if she wished to penetrate my thought. Artanis had a gift for seeing into the hearts of others; but now she shook her head.

"So unclear…"

I thought she would try again to persuade me to let go of my curiosity, but unexpectedly, without another word, she turned and called: "Nelyafinwė! Carnistir!"

Her voice rang clear and pure over the lawn, and the two companions turned, surprise upon their face when they saw who had called. Artanis beckoned them closer. They exchanged a few, hasty words (I saw the one called Carnistir shaking his head vehemently, his face sullen) but eventually they came our way. Nelyafinwė was smiling. The other followed him grimly.

"You owe me, Silmė," whispered Artanis, but it was a moment before a smile dawned upon her lips. When she wished to, she could be charming. "What a pleasant morning to meet, cousin. Please, join us."

"How could one refuse your invitation, Nerwen? I thank you."

With a grace unexpected in such a great body, he sat down beside me, as Carnistir grudgingly took place by Artanis. A new warmth flooded my heart as he smiled to me, and calling myself silly I smiled back.

"A very bright morning," my cousin's voice was crystal now, as if she were partaking of a pleasure long anticipated, "It is indeed fortunate that we should meet, now that a long-expected friend has come to visit. This is Silmė Lirillė of Valmar, my guest and my friend. These, Silmė, are Nelyafinwė and Carnistir, my father's nephews."

We exchanged the bows of the head and formulaic greetings. But at the mention of Valmar, Carnistir's already dark demeanour became grimmer.

"I suppose, my lady Silmė, that you are one of the kin of Indis of the Vanyar."

His brother looked at him reproachingly, but Carnistir did not heed him. His black eyes were fixed upon me. Never would Fėanįro and his blood forget that my aunt had taken the place of Mģriel his mother, who had left this world out of weariness. But I would not yield to such a challenge, and my voice was cold when I replied: "Indeed, my father Olorimo is her brother. The friendship of my Noldorin relatives has long been my joy, although I have seldom visited Tirion."

Carnistir scoffed, tossing back his head like a skittish horse. Artanis' eyes upon him were icy, but it was his brother's voice that broke the tense thickness of the moment. "You must forgive my brother, my lady Silmė. He meant no offence."

I doubted as much, but when I met them the pale green eyes of Nelyafinwė were sincere. And before I could reply, Artanis spoke again.

"Who in Valinor has not felt the bite of the burning temper of Carnistir the Hasty Riser? Drink wine, cousin, and forget these grudges. Too much time has made them stale."

It would have been hard to believe if they had told me it had happened, but indeed Artanis poured him wine, and engaged him in conversation. Her beauty, the power of her spirit would not be disobeyed. And this was a gift she was offering me, and one I should not waste. Fetching another vessel from the basket, I offered refreshment to the elder brother. He accepted the cap, and watched me pour the blood-red liquid with attentive eyes.

"I am sorry that our encounter should begin under such ill auspices, my lady."

I put back the flask before I met his eyes. "It is not your fault, my lord."

"I thank you for your comprehension."

I inclined my head slightly, watching him. Upon us had fallen a quiet that was not awkwardness, but rather a pause as we studied each other, and none resolved to speak. It was him who broke the silence, a smile playing at the corner of his lips.

"Courtesy would now advise that I ask you how you find our city, lady."

"Yes, that would be the proper thing to do. Or would not my lord Nelyafinwė have better questions to ask?"

His smile now flourished fully.

"Maitimo. Very few use my father-name. Perhaps my father alone."

"Maitimo." The well-shaped one. I savoured the name, and watched its owner. Undoubtedly, it became him. "Yes, it is a fitter name, and a more graceful one. And what would Maitimo ask, not being burdened with Nelyafinwė's conventional courtesy?"

"He would ask if Silmė shares her cousin's distaste for her relatives, and if this chance meeting is as ill-pleasing to her, as to the other."

Surprised, I turned. Oblivious to us, Artanis kept talking with Carnistir, other wine in her cup. Her beautiful features betrayed nothing of what had passed before; but evidently Maitimo knew her well.

"My lord is not easily deceived. But as he knows me not at all, I shall ask him to take my word that there is only pleasure for me in our conversation."

"And your word I shall gladly accept, my lady."

He briefly raised his cup to me, and took a sip. Just then, Carnistir rose.

"Thank you for the wine and the company, Artanis, but Russandol and I should go. Mother is expecting us."

"I would never keep Nerdanel waiting. Thank you for joining us."

Perhaps I had dreamt of the shadow of regret in Maitimo's eyes as he gave me back the drinking vessel, and rose.

"It seems, my lady Silmė, that however pleasing our encounter should be short."

"It is indeed a pity. I hope that we shall meet again during my stay."

I had not meant to meet Artanis' eyes, but she was watching me, and I could not say what she saw in mine. For a moment she closed her eyes, and doubt crossed her face before she turned to her cousins and proposed: "You could come to the reception at my house, tomorrow at the mingling of the lights. My father would be glad."

Carnistir could or would not hide what he thought of her invitation, before he curtly replied: "I already have an engagement."

Artanis nodded, as if she expected as much; she let her eyes rest on Maitimo.

"What of you, Nelyafinwė? Findekįno shall be there. You could come together."

He smiled. "Once again, who could refuse you? I thank you. It seems, my lady Silmė, that our parting shall be briefer than we thought."

Artanis did not speak as they walked away, nor did she comment when Maitimo turned, casting us one last glance, his expression unreadable. I did not break the silence. I still held the cup he had used in my hands. When my cousin's words eventually came, they were plain, neutral.

"I shall not ask what you think. It is far too soon."

"And yet, Nerwen, you relented."

She looked at me, her eyes hard, and nodded. "I am not so prideful as to refuse what you clearly desire so much." She set about to gathering the remnants of our breakfast on the grass, and her unspoken words were as clear as if she had pronounced them aloud.

I only hope you shall not come to regret it.

Fleeting clouds cast long shadows on the pale grass. I brought the chalice to my lips, and drank.

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