I gathered in my hand the trail of the dress and pinned it with a brooch on Artanis' hip. The pale yellow cloth, shot with silver threads, seemed to lengthen her hair in a glowing cascade upon her chest. She examined the way the gown fell with critical eyes, before nodding and turning to fix the last strand of my hair. As she pressed home the sapphire comb an impatient knocking on the door made me turn.
"You had better be."
Nervous steps drummed away in the corridor. Artanis sighed.
"Aikanár can be such a nuisance. But I suppose the guests are arriving. How do you feel?"
"How should I?"
She glanced at me with disbelieving eyes.
"He will come, you know, if he said so."
"What now? Trusting the word of a Fëanárion?"
Artanis rolled her eyes. In a sweep of her skirts, she was out of the door. I followed her.
The house of my cousins was a lace of pearly marble, a triumph of pale white where friezes and mosaics recalled the Sea hence Eärwen, Artanis' mother, came. Ample stairs, like a waterfall slowly unfolding in their opal blue shades, led down to the main portal and the gardens. The light was tinted with silver from the approach of the mingling of the lights, and the leaves on the trees shone deep green, their margins almost black. The first guests were pouring in from the open gates, whose elegant wings were wrought in a white metal whose name I did not know.
Findaráto came towards us, offering me his arm.
"Come, Silmë. I am quite impatient of showing off my beautiful Vanyarin cousin."
"You are too kind. But perhaps I should remain with Artanis "
"Nonsense. I'll call you when I need you."
Artanis threw me a meaningful glance before she went off. Meekly I followed Findaráto, and for a time that weighed on me like a heavy veil I was introduced to their Noldorin friends, answered question on their Vanyarin acquaintances, and barricaded myself behind a wooden smile as I determinedly kept my eyes from straying to the open gate. Why, I was no longer a child of thirty. I could wait composedly for him to come.
But for all my dignity I could not suppress the readiness with which I turned to Artanis' light touch on my shoulder. Her eyebrows suspended in an expression halfway between perplexity and disdain, she beckoned me follow her in silence. I excused myself quickly, my fingers nervously settling my gown.
A child of thirty, indeed.
And then, framed by the opalescent metalwork of the gate, he was there.
I did not at first notice the way his green tunic fell on his tall body, nor how his loose hair, kept back only by a copper circlet, gleamed scarlet in the fading light. All I could see was his smile, and everything else was but a background to its radiance. I bowed my head in greeting, and turned my eyes on my cousin Findekáno.
"Glad to see you again, Fino. It's been a long time."
"Quite so. A happy occasion to meet."
In this exchange of trivialities, Artanis' voice reached me as from a long way off.
" no need to thank me, Nelyafinwë. My pleasure."
"Still, I would like to see your father. Accepting me in his house is no small thing."
What was there in his voice that shook me so deeply, that spoke to chords that had always been silent in me? A sudden courage seizing me, I turned to them, smiling.
"I have seen Arafinwë by the portal, Artanis. I could bring Nelyafinwë myself, if you wish to remain to greet the last guests."
Her mocking little smile was almost admiring.
"Thank you, Silmë. By the way, Findekáno, I've been dying to hear all the details on Turukáno's engagement, and as he is not here, you'll have to answer my questions. And no protests, really "
Forcing her arm into his, she steered him away firmly. Findekáno threw us one imploring glance, but Artanis kept talking as she led him away. I laughed; and Maitimo's laughter joined mine. Its sound was as pure, as compelling as I remembered it.
"My lady Silmë," he bowed to me, a hand to his heart, "The hours before this moment have been too long."
"My lord Maitimo," I bowed myself, "Your courtesy is so grand one could almost take it as a joke."
"But one should not."
His eyes held mine for a moment, defying me to answer. I did not, but did not lower my eyes. Readily he offered me his arm, and I accepted it. We crossed the garden, many greeting the son of Fëanáro, surprise on their face telling clearly how they did not expect seeing him there.
Arafinwë was indeed where I had seen him last, and when he caught sight of his nephew he came towards him, a welcoming smile on his lips.
"Nelyafinwë. Having you here at last is a great pleasure."
"Thank you, uncle."
"Whatever the differences between your father and me, I would like you to know that my house is always open to those of my blood."
"And such an invitation I will try to honour."
Of all the descendants of Finwë, Arafinwë was the one that resembled my aunt Indis the most. The contented light on his face was hers, as hers was the gesture of the arms with which he seemed to embrace the garden, the reception, the whole evening.
"I shall leave you in the capable hands of Silmë then. Spend a pleasant night, and I will consider myself honoured enough."
For some time we wandered through the guests, joining in conversation here and there, but never remaining for more than a few moments. I let him lead me, his steps slowed down to match mine, the hem of my gown gliding on the grass. Until he suggested we take some wine, and as he handed me a cup from the table of the refreshments he smiled.
"I am afraid I am in no mood for idle conversation this evening, my lady."
"I would never have said so, my lord. You can act quite graciously then, in order to hide it."
"I had good incentive."
He finished his own cup in one sip, and put it down.
"But now that the formalities have been dutifully done, and none that was here tonight shall be able to say that the son of Fëanáro accepted his uncle's invitation just to sulk in a corner, I suggest we find some authentic pleasure in this evening. Would you show me the gardens, Silmë? They are the wonder of Tirion, they say, but before today I never had occasion of visiting them."
I could not hide the smile that crept to my lips, nor the joy that seeped into my voice as I answered: "I have been here only the last few days, and certainly I do not know these gardens as well as my cousins do; but for what it is in my power, I will do my best."
Leaving behind the hum of brilliant conversation, the bright stains of the elegant robes of the guests, we made our way out of the lawn and into the bushes that fenced off the most private part of the gardens. Here Eärwen nourished the flowers she had brought from Alqualondë her home, and here were the fruit trees that were the pride of Arafinwë himself. Forgetting the reception, forgetting everything but the soft song of the birds as the silver of Telperion conquered the gold of Laurelin, we wandered on the stony paths, and wrought ones of our own imagination through the plants, the colours and scents our only guide as we sought out their hidden beauty in the casket of their leaves.
At last we came to the pond where small fish, their scaled bodies iridescent with red and green, swam idly between the water lilies. The flowers lay open to our eyes, unveiling the golden treasure of their pollen, releasing in the air their thick, intoxicating scent. I sat on a stone bench by the shore, but he remained standing, leaning against the tall elm that shaded that spot. I raised my eyes to meet his and smiled.
"Why, my lord Maitimo, aren't you quite tall enough not to stand when others sit? Already you tower over me when we walk together; but if you will have me talk to you like this, my neck shall certainly feel the strain."
His smile was nothing more than a vague light on his face.
"It would seem unkind of me, I will concede you that, my lady. But it is beautiful to me to look upon this garden, and embrace it in its entirety, and then, lowering my eyes, to see you, in the same way as to one who stood upon a mountain, and looked upon the peaks surrounding him, and felt their beauty; but then, looking down, took in his sight the lake cradled in the palm of the valley at his feet, and the light making its water glitter in a thousand sparks, and had his pleasure doubled."
I made no reply to this, but looked into his eyes for a trace of mocking, for the merry lightheartedness with which sometimes the youths of Valmar joked paying the maidens they knew exaggerated compliments. But his green irises were serious, and he looked at me as if waiting for my answer. I brought my eyes to the pond, and remain silent, my heart beating slowly, but painfully, as if it did not know whether to believe or not its hope.
At last he spoke again, his voice full of regret.
"I wish things stood not as they are now, and this place had been my asylum for many years now. But one cannot change the past, nor, sometimes, one should wish to do it."
"Is then the wedge between Fëanáro and Arafinwë so deep, so difficult to heal? For in Valmar Indis would not speak ill of her step-son, blaming all that has passed on his pain for his mother. And when I mention such facts here, my cousins will shut themselves in pride and silence, and will not say a word."
"To answer you one would have to look into the heart of my father, and be able to discern what is true from what is but the shadow of his mighty thought. No one has been able to do so, not since my mother left."
A distant sadness fell on him, a screen to hide his flame.
"Forgive me if I caused you pain. My question was indiscreet."
"No. What you ask has been the wonder of Tirion for many years now. But none that look into the spirit of my father remain unburnt; not even his sons."
"And yet you are of his blood, and, one should think, begot of his fire."
He met my eyes again, and this time I was challenging him.
"I know well what Artanis says, that in her cousins is kindled the same scorching heat of the uncle she detests. And yet too often I look on Fëanáro, that still fathered me, as one would look on a wonder one can only suffer or take joy from, and never ask oneself about, nor ever come to fully understand."
"Admiring and wistful seem to me your words, and I cannot deny that Artanis' thought closely resembles them. But when I saw you I saw no fell fire, but a light that was warm and gleaming, yet kind. A light to make things clearer, and not to burn them."
My daring filled me, a feeling of warmth in my cheeks as I looked at him, now without reserve.
"Your spirit blazes," he answered, his voice slow, "And its silver flame is a gentle one to see by."
There was no world for me in that moment outside his voice, his eyes; and when the sound of other words than his came, the enchantment of the evening was shattered with the footfalls of those who approached.
" I will tell you again, Findekáno , that I'm perfectly able of performing the dance by myself."
"And I will repeat to you for the thousandth time, Artanis, that I have seen one too many of your solos to appreciate them like the first time. Besides, Silmë expected to dance. She would resent it if you took the scene."
"I am quite sure that if she isn't there already, it means that she has no wish to dance. Now come with me! They're waiting for us."
"No! Isn't there somebody by the pond?"
"Findekáno Nolofinwion! You're so "
And with that, my cousins broke through the bushes and into the clearing.
"I am afraid the world has found us, Silmë."
"Maitimo? I was wondering where you had gotten to."
"It was completely my fault, Fino, if I spirited away what I hear should have been the dancer of the evening. I confide it is not too late."
"No. Well, glad we found you."
Maitimo helped me to my feet, and we started back. Artanis took my arm and willfully had us fall behind on the others, shooting me an inquisitive look. I limited myself to a small smile, postponing every account to later, calmer times. But at the same time I felt like I never wished to talk about what had had come to pass, as if I wanted to keep it secret, a jewel hidden between my hands.
"Here come my daughter and my cousin! Eärwen, my dear, take the harp. As I had promised you, my guests, now we shall have a dance."
Clapping the guests made a circle for us at the centre of the lawn, and Artanis and I took our positions in it as Eärwen prepared the harp. The spectators were nothing but a blur as I bent my bust, extending my arms and waiting for the music to begin. But then I caught sight of him, the light of his face purer and more brilliant to my eyes then the light of the Trees.
For him alone I would dance. And as the notes unfurled around me like a ribbon, a brilliant trail to follow, as my feet found the rhythm familiar to them, in my spirit his light shone like a gentle fire.