Irissë wakes in the Halls of Mandos, alone in the dark, with horror new and fresh inside her. She is fëa, no hröa to sicken, but though she should be her purest self she cannot rid herself of the sensation of wrongness that chokes her. She is not Aredhel. She remembers everything that Aredhel has done, has said, but she cannot be Aredhel, because she is Irissë, and she rejects those memories. She is no longer wearing Aredhel's skin, because there is none of it here in the Halls, so why does Aredhel linger?
A light comes into the room, eventually, and Irissë finds herself naked in a simply furnished room, with undergarments and a thin dress lying over the frame of the bed she is lying in. The clothing might have belonged to some living woman Irissë never was, but she dresses in them quickly; they may not be clothes she would have chosen herself, but they might hide her from her own eyes. When she is covered, she falls to her knees and weeps. She knows not why, or how: only that her knees do not get sore, and her throat does not close, and the tears keep falling.
It feels foolish, to cry like this when Aredhel never did. Aredhel had stayed, even in the later years as Ëol's glamour wore thin, though he forbade her from all her kin save for Lómion. She had only fled at his behest.
"Lómion lives," a voice whispers, one that is not Irissë's own. The voice is rough, like sand scraping against stone, and wet. Irissë startles and turns, tears still dripping from her eyes. Everyone else knows Lómion as Maeglin, the name his father eventually deigned to give him, and thus she knows the stranger to be far more than a fellow spirit of the dead. "Take comfort in that. You saved him."
"If I had saved him earlier," Irissë whispers. If I had saved myself, she does not say, because she is not Aredhel, bound tight by invisible chains she once believed were made of love. "It could have ended differently if I had saved him earlier."
Nienna— for it is Nienna under the grey hood, with streaks of eerily lit liquid lining each side of her dark, half-formed face— does not respond. Instead, she reaches out for Irissë, and Irissë holds herself still. Aredhel wouldn't have flinched back, not even from Ëol's touch. Irissë would have flinched back from Ëol, from another living being, but Nienna is of the Valar. Her fingers feel like feathers of warmth, insubstantial and light. There is no skin to sicken Irissë further. "You are heavily wounded, Aredhel."
Irissë does recoil, then. "That is not my name," she says.
Fluid drips from Nienna's face. "It is the name you chose, Ar-Feiniel, Irissë, daughter of Anairë and Fingolfin. It is a beautiful name, and it grieves me that you can no longer hear it."
Irissë holds firm. "I would have you call me Irissë." It is the name that brings to mind her mother's face, the warmth of being held before she had any memories of how terrible touch could be.
Nienna inclines her head, and some of the luminous tears fall upon Irissë instead of the floor. It doesn't feel like anything at, not like Nienna's feather-fingers, and Irissë finds herself disappointed. Tears that could heal the last of the Two Trees have no effect upon the dead.
"Ëol is here," Nienna says, and when a fresh burst of horror overtakes Irissë, Nienna raises a hand. "Do not fear. My brother is not so unkind to his subjects. The Halls of Mandos are large and ever-growing, and a soul may easily wander for years without encountering all her fellow dead. Trust in his wisdom; he will not permit you and Ëol to meet before you are ready."
"And if I am never ready?"
"Then you shall never see him here." Nienna does not sit on the bed, but her hooded cloak moves to float above it. It feels almost as though Irissë could bury her face in the Vala's lap like the small child she so desperately wants to be again. But there is no lap, and Irissë has been an elf grown for many hundreds of years.
"He is Aredhel's husband," Irissë says, at last, helplessly, for she cannot allow herself to believe Nienna's words. Marriage of the elves is a marriage of the fëa, and though Aredhel's love was taken by sorcery, Aredhel must remain bound to her husband even into death. And that is why Irissë cannot be Aredhel, for the pure fëa she has become does not want to love him and fears the possibility that she might.
"You were once Oromë's child," Nienna says. "But I think now you are mine." She reaches out with her feather fingers, and Irissë breathes into the touch. "There have been many others, as you, damaged by sorcery and cruelty masquerading as love, though they are mostly Men and will one day pass beyond my brother's Halls. When you are able, you should meet them, that you may better know the suffering of your own spirit."
Irissë waits for the strength to come to her once more, to bring up fears she finds herself aware of in a number far greater than Aredhel ever had. Aredhel was not happy with her life, but she was content, for a time. Irissë, who is no longer anyone she knows, wishes she had skin to claw off.
Time does not pass the same for the dead. Perhaps it is days she spends with Nienna, as Nienna's tears fall and do not puddle. Perhaps it is years. Perhaps it is only hours. Nienna leaves eventually, when Irissë's tears have stopped, and she comes again later, though Irissë does not cry. The absence and Irissë's solitude have given her strength, and she says immediately, "I do not wish to be married to Ëol any longer."
"You are not," Nienna says, her voice full of calm surety. "Here in these Halls your souls have been cleansed of magic, and with time and distance your fëa will untangle. The process has already started, and that is what brings you to my care."
Irissë lowers her head and begins to cry again, then, though whether it is Nienna's presence that brings the tears forth she does not know. She feels Nienna's touch around her shoulders and upper arms, as though she is being held, and she does not feel threatened. She weeps for Aredhel inside her, who will lose the only husband she may ever know. She weeps for Lómion, alone and so young, though alive. But mostly she weeps for everything that is Irissë, all the joy she took from riding and jumping and hunting and tipping her face back to let the sun spill over her skin. Irissë cannot ever be the same as she once was.
"Time," Nienna murmurs, as though she can hear what Irissë mourns for. "You have plenty of time. Weep, my child, and you will be the stronger for it. And when you have healed, you will belong to Oromë and the hunt. When you are given flesh once more, your soul will be so strong that no living being could crush it. Together, we shall rebuild you once more."
And Irissë believes her.
Nienna comes back many times, and after each visit Irissë finds herself a little less heavy, a little more comfortable, like the wrongness in her is being slowly drawn out through her tears. She takes strength from Nienna's words and begins to wander the halls freely, without fear of Ëol. She finds her father there, and she is able to smile and embrace him with the form that is as she remembers her body being but is not true hröa.
Nienna does not always come to her alone. Sometimes she comes to the Halls and stands in the center, weeping, sometimes singing, and all who come to see her share in the healing. And sometimes Nienna comes to a smaller group, consisting mostly of Men, who look at Irissë with understanding. They are not all female Men, either; some are male, and a few refuse to answer to either. Irissë can find those Men sometimes without Nienna's help. She will lose them when they heal enough to travel beyond the Halls, but Irissë has always known passing joys and changing truths as she travels here and there. A brief friendship is no less a friendship.
Irissë still does not look at the colorful tapestries that line the walls for fear of seeing Aredhel's story woven in, and she still does not use that name, but she does ask Vairë for stronger clothing. Vairë takes no offense at Irissë's fear of the past, and Irissë finds riding clothes in her room, or a reasonable facsimile of them made for one who does not have a body. She finds that wearing them gives her even more of herself back.
Here in the Halls, Nienna explains, there is no body for Aredhel's experiences to linger in, and her fëa continues to untangle from Ëol's. There are moments, many moments, when Irissë does not hate Ëol for what he has done, and those are the moments that scare her the most. "I do not wish to love him again," she cries to Nienna, because she fears her father will not understand. "I cannot!"
"You will not, my child," says Nienna, and when they cry together, Irissë fears nothing.
The Halls of Mandos offer little excitement for the person Irissë was, is, will become. She would have stayed in the cage of Gondolin for Lómion's sake, for his freedom, but the treeless depths of the Halls begin to weary her.
"It is because you heal," Nienna explains in her raspy voice. "I have felt it all along, the way your grief changes from horror at what was done to you to the pain of one who longs for a freedom she cannot have." She cannot smile, or laugh, but Irissë thinks that perhaps after all this time she can sense what might be Nienna's happiness. "No two people heal the same way, but you have always known yourself well. This grief, I think, is more familiar to you."
"I do not feel like Irissë anymore," she says, nameless for a moment, "but the name Aredhel still belongs to Ëol's wife and what he took from me." She has another name, and she speaks it in her mind before she says it aloud. "I will be Ar-Feiniel once more." Ar-Feiniel is a good name; when she thinks of it, she pictures herself riding through the dappled sunlight of the forest, surrounded by the welcoming noise of the forest. There is none of Aredhel's starlight and shadow.
Nienna bows her head. "Ar-Feiniel is not my child, though Irissë was." Nienna's feather-fingers brush against Ar-Feiniel once before they withdraw. "Instead, I will go to your brother; he is just come into the care of my own brother, and he is much grieved for all the death he has seen and the doubts he has for one he holds dear."
Ar-Feiniel finds herself reaching out towards Nienna, grabbing for a being who is insubstantial even to fëa. "Wait!" she cries. "Though I am your child no longer, I would not be parted from you forever. It would grieve my heart enough to call you back, that I would see you again."
Nienna has not left, and she shimmers uncertainly, her tears vanishing into the floor. "You are whole and healed, Ar-Feiniel," she says. "You have become stronger than the strongest metal. You will bend, but you will not break. When your body is remade, you will be Oromë's fiercest hunter, for you know the pain of love being forced where there is none, and you know the desperation of a mother protecting her beloved child. You know the sorrow of being parted from your family, and the sorrow of being caged against your will. You know countless griefs, and they have not broken you. You need me no longer."
"No, I do not." Ar-Feiniel's voice is strong; she doubts herself no more, and that is her own work. Nienna has been a guide, but her tears do not heal. "But though you are of the Valar and I am only an elf, I would call you friend."
"You need not call me friend," Nienna says. "I do only what is my part in the song."
"But to me, you have been a friend." Ar-Feiniel hesitates. "I would not wish that you become as an elf would be. I only ask to be able to meet with you on occasion, even though my heart may not be heavy."
Nienna tips her head back, and Ar-Feiniel can see what might be a smile denting the lines of tears that never cease. "A friend, then. I would be glad to have one." She leans forward, vanishing, and Ar-Feiniel feels something wet against the back of her hand. She looks to it immediately, but she sees nothing.
Time does not pass the same for the dead, but Ar-Feiniel knows well how short a time it has been when Lómion joins her in the Halls. She is Oromë's child, now, eagerly awaiting the day when she can be reborn to forests and all the delights the world can offer, but when Lómion comes to her she knows why Námo has not yet set her free.
"Oh, my child," she murmurs, gathering Lómion in her arms. She knows not what pain has twisted her child's soul even after Ëol's death, but she can see it in every line of his remembered form. "Come with me; there is someone you must meet."