When she could forbear herself no longer, Artanis turned and faced him squarely across the room. He tried not to hide his scrutiny-- which astonished her-- but closed the book he held and placed it on the table, crossing arms behind him, his eyes fixed firmly on hers.
Silence screamed within them for long moments, both unwilling to be the first to neither draw nor to retreat. Her hesitation to engage him irked her more than she dared admit to herself. She had stood her ground against many more an impressive man in her lifetime and Celeborn was certainly not one of them.
His eyebrows knit just so slightly as he watched her, daring her to make the next move. When she finally let out her breath, he had the gall to smile. She raised her eyebrows.
"Many smiles have been thrown my way in all my years," she forced herself to say with as much nonchalance as she could summon, "but yours is, certainly, the most irritating one."
He laughed. Actually laughed at her!
"What do you want?" he asked, leaning his back against the wall and crossing arms over his chest. His manner was easy enough, but she noticed tension in the way his arms wrapped around himself, muscles taut. He was tall, as tall as she, which made him look leaner than he was, but she had seen what his strength could do, knew that he had not come by those muscles idly. She had often wondered what dark things he might have seen that he refused to tell her when she asked.
No, he was certainly nobody with whom to trifle. If she forced herself to be fair, he was rather... compelling. He was handsome, but that was hardly the problem. Many Elves were handsome, in one way or another, though that blend of scholar and warrior was something she had not hitherto encountered, but it was more than that. There was force-- strange force-- emanating from him. It unsettled her; she had not been prepared for it, certainly not from someone who had not even seen the light of the Trees. She could always feel his presence, even from miles away, like a steady, glowing beacon; not the blazing fire she was used to, but something much more enduring. And as he stood his quiet defiance to her, studying her like few had ever dared to do, Artanis, daughter of Finarfin, knew that she was wading through very dangerous waters.
"I cannot go anywhere in this city but that I turn and find you trailing close behind," she finally said, finding herself unexpectedly out of breath. "Has King Thingol set you up to follow me?"
His expression did not change, if that subtle narrowing of eyes, that slight curl to the upper lip, that tilt of his head could not be called change. But it could! The difference was striking. When before he had seemed merely expectant, he seemed now thoroughly engaged. Why was he saying nothing?
"Did you not hear me?" she asked, then bit her lip for her impatience.
"I did," he said slowly, and smiled-- Not a joyous smile, though it held a thrill of something she had never experienced before. "Only I am astounded at your lack of diplomacy. It could only be a valinorean princess who would entertain such conceit and call it reason."
It was her turn to laugh. "My straightforwardness bothers you. Are you used to softer women?"
"No, not softer. I would argue that you are the soft, cozened one."
"True. I forget how much you and your kin have suffered since the awakening."
His eyebrows knit at her sarcasm. It was a low blow, she knew, but she could not help herself.
"You had to bring that up, did you?" he asked as he leaned forward.
"It was not I, but you, who did," she said. "You seem to always have a way of bringing the fact into everyday conversation. I have done nothing but be nice and endure everyone's looks and whispers while holding my peace."
That seemed to surprise him. "You can hardly blame them. For time uncounted we have dwelt here undisturbed while your people spent their time... however it was you said you spent your time... Yet you expect us to throw our cloaks at your feet and let you lord over us because you have condescended to come with the wisdom to do it?"
That upset her balance and she found herself leaning on the back of a chair for support. "How can you deny it? Our dwelling under the light of the Trees had a way of investing us with power that your people do not have. It is as much a fact of life as that Arien shall rise tomorrow. You may ask Melian and she will confirm it."
"But since I am nothing more than a twilight Elf, I cannot see it, right?"
"Is that what really bothers you, Celeborn, or the fact that I may come and go as I wish while you must subject yourself to the King's will for you?"
"Do you really go at will?" he asked, advancing slowly to her spot. "It seems to me like the shadow of Feanor still rules you."
That made her gasp. "How dare you?" she asked, or knew she asked, but even she could not hear herself. "Fingolfin rules the Noldor."
"Yet you find yourself here, under King Thingol's protection."
"King Thingol welcomed me into his realm as his kinswoman. I thought you had heard that."
By now he was very close to her, and she was sure that her pounding heart would give her away. Did he know? Yet, in his glance she could not read the hatred that she knew would drip from him once he learned of the kinslaying and her part in it. No, what she saw was not that, she thought with sharp relief; only a deep, unyielding frustration.
"What are you doing here, Artanis?" he asked, slowly, almost gently, and she let his voice caress her mind. "How come you to find yourself here while your brothers and the sons of Feanor have all divided the land to themselves as if it were a piece of cloth? You could have had a piece, you know."
"You don't mince words, do you?" she asked when she finally could.
"Neither do you," he said with some urgency, "which is why I have to wonder... what haunts you? Has anyone... has anyone hurt you?"
That made her swallow hard and, with that, recover strength enough to take one step back. They were hovering painfully close to topics she could not bring herself to unburden on him and allowing herself to lose her bearings did no one any favors. She had to put distance between them.
"Why were you following me?"
He blinked at that.
"I have seen the way you look at me," she said, hoping for boldness. "Sometimes I think it's going to set me on fire. What is this game you are playing?"
"I don't play any games, granddaughter of Finwe. Other men may enjoy that kind of sport."
"Not you," she said with conviction. "I want you to stop."
He reached for her waist and held her like no man had held her before, his eyes searching hers so keenly that she felt utterly bare before him.
"You hide things from me," he said in a †low, slow voice, as his grip tightened. "I know I have no claim on you, Artanis, but Thingol is your kinsman and while under his roof you owe your allegiance to him. Will you keep hiding that which torments you so, which could aid Thingol in protecting his people at least a while longer?"
"Did Thingol sent you to ask me this?"
"He thinks it hopeless."
"Then why did you come?"
"I think it necessary," he said in a raspy whisper.
"I cannot, Celeborn..." she said, forcing herself to return his gaze. "Things happened which I am not--"
"Not at liberty to disclose, I know, you've said it before, but won't you let me help?"
She felt herself smile. "What could you possibly do?"
His face hardened at once, along with his grip. "A twilight Elf could not understand."
She shook her head.
"Twilight indeed!" he cried, full of feeling. "We were fine before you all came and we'll be fine after you leave."
"Who says I'm leaving?"
"I knew some day you'd leave the moment you set foot on Thingol's hall. You say you come from the light, yet carry such deep darkness with you. A twilight Elf would not have toyed so closely with darkness. You, greedy Noldor, think yourselves so strong and wise, yet here you are, taking lands not your own, treating fellow elves close to slaves in the name of enlightenment. Do you think that fair, Nerwen?"
"I have never tried to lord over you, Celeborn."
"It's in everything you do, in the way you look and talk to me. Even in the way you smile at me, I see your astonishment for finding something of worth here. The twilight has made me strong, but there are many others who suffer at your kinsmen's whims. They have no right. You have no right. Do you think us that simple the we could not figure out the truth? If Valinor were so very good, would any of you have left willingly?"
She wanted to pound on him, to scream: "If I felt the Middle-earth were so very bad, I never would have toiled to get here!" But, at this point, Artanis felt so weak that, were it not for his hold on her, she was certain she would have fallen on her knees. How could she, a princess of the house of Finwe, be reduced in such a way? He had never spoken thus to her. He had hinted before, had probed, but had never confronted her in this fashion and she could not allow him to do it again.
"Is that why you followed me?" she asked, returning to the original topic, hoping to put more personal matters behind. "Were you waiting for your chance to berate and insult me?"
He shook his head, mere inches from hers.
"I should have restrained myself," he said, briefly looking away. She was grateful for the respite, even pleased for his regret. "Something dark has happened, something evil, something that makes you shudder when you think about it."
"What is it to you? My past has nothing to do with you."
"It does now that you have let it taint our present. You keep secrets, Artanis, and I am going to find them out one by †one."
"I dare you to do it."
"Do not dare me," he whispered to the crook of her neck. "You'll lose."
"I never lose when I want to win."
"I doubt it not," she heard him say, but the throbbing of his heart beneath her palm belied the harshness of his tone.
"Do not follow me again, Celeborn of Doriath." Or you'll sink us both.
"Look me in the eyes," he said, urgent, "Look me in the eyes and tell me not to follow you."
But his eyes were darker than she had ever seen them, almost blue, and reminded her of the water off of the quays in her grandfather's home in Alqualonde, and they were full of the same fierceness, the same kindness, the same determination she had always admired in him. And they were pleading with her.†
"All right," he finally said in a slow drawl, before she had even had time to consider the question. The next moment he had left her with a bow and she was finally at liberty to collapse onto the ground, unsure of what had just happened between them, what decision she had allowed him to make. He had gone as calmly as he had come earlier; there was not a hint of gloating at his having overpowered her, no taking advantage of her weakness, no manipulation-- only his unabated and unabashed honesty. Elf of the Twilight! She was hard-pressed to think of a Noldo who would not have probed until she was undone, greedy for more.
Tears began to fall unchecked. Vaguely, she registered that she had not cried since Alqualonde, not even through the Helcaraxe. She had to make herself strong to withstand her own doom, and she could never be if she was dragging him into it. Her darkness would sully him, and in hurting him she would destroy the last joy that she had left.
Her mind finally made up, she left at dawn the next morning. Like everything else she dared to love, Doriath was also lost to her. In the wake of her departure, she realized that Mandos had not cursed her-- she had cursed herself.