The seabirds were mocking her, her hands and feet bled, and the eggs had all broken.
Perched on a rock by the dark edge of the water, Írissë pulled her knees up to her chest and stared out at the water where, faintly and out almost as far as her sight reached in the near-lightlessness, the swanships rocked at anchor. It was Elenwë who found her still in the same spot, much later, coming heralded by one of her few remaining self-made lanterns swinging from her hand. Her craft, beautiful as it was, had been viewed as the height of indulgence while the Trees still shone and many had gone to the towns in the north and south of Aman where the light had been dim. Now they were in short supply: before the host set out on the northward march, Elenwë had opened her shop in the upper city of Tirion to all who sought something to light their way.
She must have been lost in her ruminations, for next she knew, Elenwë had caught her ankle in her slender fingers, and with a vice-like grip forced first one boot, then the other, back onto Írissë's feet. She'd taken them off for better purchase in the icy cliffs, and after her fall neglected to put them back on, already numbed from the icy water and barely feeling the cold.
Next, she found herself tugged along gently but firmly, and only because it was Elenwë she allowed herself to be humbled like that. She began to protest only when the the first of the fires glowed into sight through the thick mist that blanketed the stretch of shoreline where the host had encamped: Her heavy cloak and her white dress were smeared with the dark slime of algae growing between the rocks, and there were more unseemly stains, too, from the cliff-edge that Írissë had sought to climb, the nesting place of uncounted seabirds of all kinds. And not least, the most visible reminder of her failure, the yellow of the yolks seeping through the cracked shells after her half-fall, half slip back down into the surf.
Feeling her pull away - Írissë found that when she tried to speak her teeth were chattering - Elenwë turned and lifted the lantern to give her a withering look. "You are dirty, and more than that, you are soaked. I will not suffer you freezing out of shame; you need a fire and a hot draught to warm you, quickly. Come, at the very least you must move."
It was the tone Elenwë often used with Itarillë in her recalcitrant moments, and Írissë felt herself bristling at such treatment, kicking a clump of snow as she walked, and watching the thin layer of ice on her boot splinter into spiderweb cracks.
"Elenwë," she said at last, freeing her hand and willing her muscles to still their quivering, although she did so only with effort, and the strain she thought was plain in her voice, betraying her almost-lie, "there is time enough to reach our tents, we do not need to trouble whoever has the ill-luck to be left this far outside the main group. I will not freeze in the meantime."
"They lost Annacarmë on the ships, and they had help on hand the moment they pulled her from the sea, nor was she the first to die," Elenwë pointed out, now with a thread of steel in her sweet voice. "I will not lose you. Why did going alone seem like a wise thing to you?"
"I heard from Tyelko the last time he came ashore - but they believe she drowned, she did not freeze. And we have been going hungry for too long now," Írissë answered. "It was Artanis, I think, who told me of the dares of the Teleri when they still lived on Tol Eressëa, and I found it worth the attempt, rather than starving or asking anyone else to risk themselves. The hunts have not gone well, there are barely any horses left, but the birds are nesting - it is always dark this far north, this is their summer season, and the loss of our light hardly affected them."
"You and your heroics," Elenwë answered with a cluck of her tongue, and affection, although unwilling, crept back into her voice. "I wish it were possible for me to remain upset with you, but in truth…"
"... in truth you are relieved I am alive." Despite her joking tone, the words were bitter on Írissë's tongue. It had not been long since there had been no such concerns over life and death, since life had never even been in question at all.
"Írë - of course. Yes." Elenwë slipped her hand into Írissë's, her fingers curling over the rough skin of her palms, even though her expression remained forbidding. "You tore your hands. That will need seeing to as well."
Írissë made a noncommittal noise. "The rocks had sharp edges. You worry far too much; I wonder how my brother and Itarillë bear it."
"Remember who is speaking," Elenwë answered with a bitter laugh. "The one who could not sit still for worry that we would starve."
"That is hardly unfounded," Írissë replied. "And even less so if we consider the road ahead until the sea is narrow enough to cross, we have few provisions - and we will be waiting until it is our turn to be ferried to the other shore."
"We should not need to wait," Elenwë muttered. She had never liked the rivalry that had arisen between Nolofinwë and Fëanáro, least of all for the strain that it put on her own family, but Írissë knew that she had stopped looking kindly on Fëanáro and his sons the moment they began spilling blood at Alqualondë. She had never objected to leaving itself, indeed chafing at some of the strictures that had been placed upon the Blessed Realm, although she held the Valar in love and reverence still.
"I could speak to Tyelko and Curvo," she suggested. "Itarillë, you and me, at the very least, might plead a space on the ships."
Elenwë, to Írissë's surprise, shook her head. "I am not talking selfishly, Írissë," she said. "I meant for the entire host. Treason and fear of treason, do you recall? And if I myself fall under it, so be it - I do not trust Fëanáro, not since they turned upon Alqualondë, and we are his friends much less than the Teleri were."
Írissë sighed. "I am their friend. If I were to condemn all those who fought in Alqualondë, then I would need to condemn my eldest brother and Artanis as well, and so many others here - and I cannot, any more than I could condemn you for choosing as you did to marry Turukáno and loving me still."
Elenwë pushed ahead, her head low and the blue tassel of her lantern nearly dragging through the snow. She said no other word while they moved between the fires that the resting host had built. Írissë tried to skirt the haloes of light they cast, grateful that the groups that crouched there preferred solitude and huddled with their backs to the outside, and for the mist that obscured at least part of her predicament until she had the chance to change out of her soiled dress. But when they reached the midway point of the host that those closest to her father occupied - the lords and nobles of the court gathering around Nolofinwë while her grandfather had followed Fëanáro to Formenos and his death - the fires drew closer together, creating a dome of light and warmth in the mist. Her cousin Muinalaurë sat by one of the fires with Itarillë on her lap, and they played a singing game together. The smell of roast spices hung warm and heavy there - clover, aniseed, ginger, cinnamon - and Írissë found herself stopping for a moment to marvel and breathe in the scent until Elenwë wordlessly came back for her and pulled her along the last part to the tent Írissë shared with her aunt.
Lalwendë was not there, only the beds and the cooking implements set up by the brazier, and Írissë breathed a word of gratitude. Her aunt was little less adventurous than herself, and had even been the source of her own name when their similarities in temperament had become obvious, but headstrong as they both were, it would lead to inevitable clashes, and she had had enough reproach from Elenwë for the time being.
That, and Írissë walked into a wall of warmth and smoke that made her eyes water.
The small brazier that served to warm the tent was hot, and she was grateful for the shock of heat even though the interior of the tent stank pungently - in the absence of firewood in the treeless ice waste, they had taken to burning whatever possible to generate warmth - not merely paper, like the business accounts Elenwë had packed in a fit of indecision of what to take or leave behind, but washed-up seaweed, the bones of the animals they had hunted or slain, and even the dung of the few horses that still remained to them, most having perished of hunger or in the cold.
Elenwë drew a small satchel from her belt and cast a palmful of the contents onto the smouldering brazier. Almost instantly the scent of the spices Írissë had already noticed by the fires outside also filled the tent and masked the less pleasant smells, warming and comfortable, for a moment almost homely, with Elenwë coming through the smoke toward her, her golden hair aglow.
"Where did you find the spices?" Írissë said, astonished. "Can we afford to waste them?"
"I would not call it waste. While you were gone, Estelindë and Ravennë came into camp to bear a message from Fëanáro to your father and brothers, and they brought a crate of spices for us to use, from one of the merchant ships. Infusions and scenting the fires are the best uses we can put them to, unless they deign to share some of their provisions next. But that he sent his healer and Carnistir's wife instead of coming himself speaks volumes."
"So much bitterness. I am amazed that you still have the energy for it," Írissë said softly. It was not meant as a reproach - Elenwë had as much reason for bitterness and regret as much of the host, leaving her family behind and her mother Elemmallë weeping in the gloom as they set out following a vague, uncertain hope, and that her past sweetness had dimmed into a shadow of its former self in the strain they were under this far north was no surprise.
"There is not much else to put it to," Elenwë replied, a quizzical look on her face as she regarded Írissë - a beat, a moment, a heartbeat too long to not betray her reminiscence, although what shared memory she clung to Írissë could not tell - and then said, "Arms up. You are still wearing sodden, dirty clothes. Let me help you undress."
Írissë lifted her arms and with Elenwë's help slipped from the fabric that stuck to her skin, kicking the miserly heaps of clothing out of the way. In short notice, while she rolled herself into her bedding for warmth, Elenwë had fetched a bowl of clean snow from the outside that she set up over the brazier to melt.
She watched Elenwë busy her hands with more of the spices, measuring a little of them into a cup and waiting for the water to warm. Írissë, now surrounded by warmth, only truly recognized then how deeply the icy water had sucked away her body heat. "You ought to come and warm me. I am only beginning to feel the cold now," she said, not anticipating the pained look Elenwë gave her.
"That is past, and you know it. I am married and a mother, and I am not keen on lying to Lalwendë, if she returns and finds us together."
"I did not mean that you should seduce me," Írissë replied. "Or I you. That became the past when you chose to marry my brother."
"Do you not think that our resistance will fail us? It has before," Elenwë muttered, staring at the snow that had melted into watery clumps, and stirring a spoon through the bowl to break them up further.
"It is not fair. We met and loved each other first; it ought not be a shame that we should have to hide."
"And yet it is. It may be that the laws will change across the sea, but the fact remains that I love Turukáno as well and as differently as I love you. At the point it seemed my only choice." She continued stirring, until the water began to steam, and she poured some into the cup of spices that she handed to Írissë. "This is warm, too."
Írissë did not find it in her to reply at once, burrowing more deeply into the blankets before she admitted, "I know." She was not speaking of the cup she held clenched between her hands. "But the heart wants what it wants, and mine will never be content going without you. There was a poem once - your aunt may have written it, I do not remember, how luminous any dark place may be. And you, and with the stars in your name, I could never think of anyone more deserving of those lines. Here more than ever."
Elenwë looked up, her eyes wide and bright, a golden curl falling into her face. "It was not Elemmírë who wrote those words - I do not know who did, but the hurt will not stop if you speak as though you meant to win me over again." She found a cloth, dipped it into the water, and wrung it out, watching the droplets fall.
"Írë - come here. Let me help you wash."
"If you trust us to do this without failing," Írissë replied, but nonetheless she shed the blankets, and, the spices forgotten, knelt beside Elenwë, naked as she was, and holding still when the cloth brushed over one of the many bruises she had incurred in her fall.
"Say when I am hurting you," Elenwë murmured, bent close, and her breath on Írissë's skin almost drove her to desperation, to kiss Elenwë or at least touch her skin to skin.
She resisted, although her knuckles turned white with the force of clenching her hands and keeping them in place.
"This is no easier," Írissë said at last, when Elenwë was almost finished, cleaning dirt and blood from a cut along Írissë's thigh. Both held their breaths, then, remembering when they had needed no pretense for touches that had been even more intimate.
Elenwë took her hand away, dropping the cloth back into the bowl. "And as it is the only way we still can have, neither of us would want it any other way - or would you rather live without me?"
"No," Írissë said. "If I must be in the dark, then I want at least the stars with me."