508 FA, Havens of Sirion
Saltwater tasted like tears.
It was the first thing Nimloth noticed about the Havens - the salt spray borne on the wind, wetting her lips with a taste that reminded her of weeping, of burning forests and flashing blades and fire, fire, fire. (For an instant, she could almost see it - see fire licking up the outlines of the towers rising over the hills like Sirion was already burning - but no, she had left that behind, and Doriath's fate would not spread this far. Not while she still had breath in her body.)
"Can you see the towers, milady?" The captain of her guard - what remained of her guard - rode up beside her, her mail jingling faintly. "The Havens are only just over the next hill, according to our scouts. Círdan will surely give us a warm welcome--"
Nimloth cut her off with a curt nod. "Thank you."
She could hear the wind howling around the towers, a faint mournful cry that mingled with the still more distant call of the gulls. Songs were sung of the wailing of seabirds, but her heart aches no more at that sound than it had at any other point over the past weeks.
Perhaps there was only so much pain someone could take before they simply went numb.
(The red banners in the wind. Dior's sword, stained red. His crown at her feet. Protect our people, Nimloth. Protect them in my stead.)
She was not meant to be a queen, and so she hid the crown in her bag, wrapped tight in a blanket her mother had woven for Elwing. Hidden, and still it appeared in her dreams, jewels winking in the light like an accusation.
She was not a coward, and so she led her people, crownless but unbowed, to the very last place that would still take them in.
"Your people will be safe here, your majesty." Círdan's robe swept the cobblestones, dark blue hem gathering pale dust like a scattering of stars. If he caught the minute flinch Nimloth felt run through her at the title, his face gave no sign of it. "There is space in the city for all."
"I thank you for your hospitality," Nimloth said, marveling at how smoothly she managed the courtesy. "If there is aught we can do to repay you, just say the word."
Círdan halted and laid a gentle hand on her arm. "Your majesty--"
"Nimloth, then." A smile twitched at the corners of his mouth. "You need not worry about repaying me. I do no more than any other decent person would do."
And those are rare enough in this land, Nimloth thought, but did not say.
Nimloth looked up, unsurprised to see Elwing standing in the doorway. "Yes?"
The child entered the room, bare feet unsure on the wooden floor. She was skittish, as wary as a wild animal, and Nimloth understood. The thick stone walls of the Havens were stifling, for any born under the arching branches of the forest.
"How long will we be here, ammë?"
"I do not know," Nimloth admitted. Long enough for you to grow up in peace, if we are so fortunate.
Elwing leaned out the window, hands braced on the sill, shoulders flexed like a bird in flight. She squinted up at the sky, and Nimloth realized how narrow their view of the heavens was, bounded by stone instead of trees.
"We will make a home here," she said, and the promise rang hollow even in her own ears.
Several turnings of the year from the winter morning Nimloth rode into the Havens, Círdan opened his arms once more to receive a war-battered people - those of Gondolin, now, led by a woman with golden hair astride a pale horse.
They said that Idril had donned armor and fought on the battlements of the hidden city. They said that when her husband fell beneath the Enemy's swords, she slaughtered a host of orcs without mercy.
(They said that the traitor of Gondolin fell from the walls of the city, that he begged for forgiveness, that the only surviving member of the royal family pushed him from the brink without hesitation.)
Nimloth had done her best to avoid attending council meetings with Círdan and his court, but she made an exception the morning she heard that Idril would be attending. And spent the whole time with her hands clenched out of sight under the table, watching the fire flash in Idril's eyes.
The queen of Gondolin (Gondolin in exile, as Nimloth led the exiled Doriathrim, but something about Idril demanded the unaltered title) said little, that first morning. She watched with a keenness that startled Nimloth.
When their eyes met, Nimloth nearly flinched away.
Idril had once been the flower of Gondolin, perhaps, but now Nimloth saw nothing gentle or fragile about her. The princess was all steel and flashing eyes, every word from her mouth barbed. It seemed to Nimloth that she spent every council meeting silently challenging anyone to speak against her, to give her the satisfaction of tearing into them with a wit that had lain quiet and restless for too long.
Few dared challenge the queen of Gondolin in exile.
And there lay the difference between them.
Nimloth cowered from leadership - had not so much as touched Dior's crown since she had fought her way through the smoke of battle to reclaim it from the side of her dead husband. She stayed quiet during council meetings, clenching her hands together under the table, because the only reason she was there in the first place was to let them pretend they were giving the Doriathrim a representative voice.
Idril led without fear, a thin circlet on her brow, and Nimloth had no doubt that if Turgon's helm had not fallen with him in the final battle, she would have taken on that sigil of royalty as well, the pain of memory be damned.
Battle had left Idril hardened, and had left Nimloth afraid.
The first time Idril spoke to Nimloth was a surprise to both of them. Nimloth was wandering one of the upper levels of Círdan's hall - a pastime she had fallen into, since coming here. When she left the council work to the remaining nobles of Doriath - mostly Galadriel, who had always intimidated Nimloth - there was little left for her to do but wander the Havens, learning the ways of life by the sea.
On this particular morning, Nimloth rounded the corner and ran right into a tall figure carrying an armful of scrolls. In the tangle of robes and papers that followed, Nimloth gasped out an apology, struggling to free herself.
"Oh, Eru," she heard, then: "Nimloth?"
She knows my name, Nimloth realized, pulling away. Her face was warm with embarrassment. "My apologies, your majesty."
Idril rearranged her scrolls, the corners of her lips turning down. "Why do you not come to the council meetings?"
"I--" Nimloth stumbled over her excuses, blinked, and settled on shrugging.
"There is no reason for you not to."
I am not queen of anything. In name, yes, but you are far more of a ruler than I will ever pretend to be.
"Come." Idril tucked the scrolls under her arm and held out a hand for Nimloth to take. Nimloth couldn't think of a single reason not to accept, besides the fact that going to the council meeting would be hours of political scheming that she did not want to sit through.
But that wasn't nearly a good enough reason, and she somehow doubted that Idril would be impressed by that excuse.
So she followed her down the turning staircase, one hand trailing along the rough stone wall, eyes fixed on the swish of Idril's skirts.
She found Idril on the walltop again at the close of day, the sunset over the ocean painting the sky blood red.
"What are you thinking of?" she asked, leaning against the wall beside Idril.
Idril's fingers dug between the wide, flat stones of the wall top, as though seeking to push them apart. "How wide the sea is. How impossible it would be to cross, even were we not the lost ones doomed to shadow. The exiles."
I am not an exile, Nimloth wanted to say, and these lands were my home and my mother's home, until your kin brought eat here. But those were unfair thoughts, and though there were no courtiers here, she did not want to offend the princess.
You are a queen, a voice in the back of her mind reminded her. She pushed it away. Not here, she wasn't. Oh, maybe in the court, she could braid her hair and hold her head high, but here on an empty walltop with the princess of a fallen city - she was only Nimloth, a girl of the woods who married high and kept a crown.
"Why would you wish to cross the sea?" she asked instead. To find the one you loved? The rumors told of the fall of Idril's beloved in the defense of the King, told of the princess' battle fury, the rage-lit light in her eyes and the deadly path her sword carved through the smoke laden air. How she threw the betrayer of Gondolin from the side of the mountain for daring to harm those that she loved.
(Rumors spread by those too afraid to talk to Idril, because the walls she had put up were so complete that they almost seemed natural.)
"Why would I not wish to leave this land?" There was a twist of bitter frustration under Idril's voice, a frisson of anger that might have made anyone else step away. Nimloth had little concern for political propriety, though, and so she pressed on.
"There is still hope."
"If that is the case--" and Idril's voice was sharp with doubt, "--I do not expect to be the one to find it."
Idril had a way with words that Nimloth envied, a casual poetry to the way she spoke even in anger and coldness. Nimloth could only grasp for clumsy words that seemed useless and awkward the instant they left her tongue.
Still, she tried. "Have you ever seen springtime in the forest?"
A pause heavy with confusion, then-- "There were some small woods in the valley, yes, but I rarely visited."
"No, you cannot visit. You have to - you have to live it. Feel the ground thaw and see the buds open and hear the singing of the earth as it greets the sun." She closed her eyes, reaching for the memory, and it came clear as sunlight untainted by smoke. Doriath, as it had been in the time of peace. "And the ground that was frozen is soft with life, and the flowers bloom--"
"And you think that means that this land will be renewed?" Idril shot back, eyes narrowing. Nimloth felt the words die in her mouth.
Of course. She ought not to have even tried.
"I meant nothing by it," she managed, voice barely a whisper.
Silence fell between them, heavy in the salt-tainted air. After a time, Nimloth turned and retreated, leaving Idril staring off at the western horizon.
Idril sought her out after perhaps a month of daily council attendance on Nimloth's part. She never apologized for speaking sharply - Nimloth wondered if she even remembered.
"You ruled with Dior in Doriath, did you not?" she asked, with no preamble. Nimloth blinked, surprised, and shook her head.
"I - disliked the court." And every court, though she did not say it. "My kin - my father's family is of the King's line. King Thingol," she added quickly, belatedly remembering that Idril's father called himself - had called himself High King.
Idril's lip curled. "Blood does not nobility make."
"Neither does marriage," Nimloth replied with a small smile. "We were never a part of the court. I was never - until Dior. But that was mainly luck, and ill fortune that the crown remained with me."
There was a silence that followed that, and when she turned, Idril was regarding her with a strange look in her eyes.
"Did - did I say something wrong?"
Idril shook her head. "Nay, Nimloth, it is only - why in Manwë's name would you think that ill fortune?"
"I am hardly the best suited to be queen," she replied simply. "As you know very well."
"You, not suited? Have you even seen--" She cut off, gesturing sharply with frustration. Her eyes narrowed. "Your following on the council grows apace, and you call yourself unfortunate. What foolishness is that?"
"No one follows me except to pity my inexperience. You hold sway over all the Havens--"
"You simply do not see," Idril interrupted, eyes widening. "You really, truly - I thought you idealistic, but I did not take you to be so naive. Did you think my encouragement to attend council meetings was simply for your title?"
Nay, you made it clear enough that titles mean naught to you. And perhaps that was the secret to Idril's royal air - that she thought nothing of the title without action.
"Whatever your motivation," Nimloth began slowly, "I hope that I have not disappointed."
To her surprise, Idril reached out and took her hand, closing warm fingers around Nimloth's. "You have the makings of a formidable queen."
Nimloth felt a flush climbing in her cheeks and bit her tongue until she could put words together. "Thank you," she finally said, and squeezed Idril's hand. "I am - honored. By your attention, and your kind words."
Idril nodded. Above them, seagulls wheeled through the evening light, wings tinted with the colors of fire. Nimloth closed her eyes, tasting salt on her lips, and focused on the feeling of Idril's hand in hers.