The ice cracks under Elenwë’s feet. Her lungs burn as she dies, and her ears ring with the sound of her daughter’s terrified screams.
She can’t remember what is supposed to happen next.
“I should have paid more attention at Great Uncle Ingwë’s philosophy parties," she thinks. The freezing water closes over her head.
She gets out of Mandos early on a technicality; and, she suspects, because Námo and Vairë are so overwhelmed by all the new arrivals to their Hall that they aren’t keeping very good track of who is who.
Elenwë takes advantage of the confusion, and lies through her nonexistent teeth.
“I only went with the Noldor because I could not bear to leave my husband and my daughter,” she pleads, when Vairë finally interviews her. “I know how terrible you Valar think divorce is, especially when children are involved. I had no choice."
Vairë’s eyes narrow—Elenwë has no physical form, but the Valar make all the rules, and present themselves however they like—and for a terrible moment, Elenwë fears she has overplayed her cards. But then Vairë smiles conspiratorially.
“Not only that, but you aren’t even really a Noldo,” she agrees. “Why should the Doom of the Noldor apply to a Vanya?”
And just like that, Elenwë is free. She wakes up in a garden smelling of honeysuckle. Her golden hair is longer than it was when she died, and there are no frostbite scars on her toes.
Her new skin peels bitterly in the sun, so she spends most of her days indoors, either hiding in her lonely, empty rooms or attending small academic gatherings at Great Uncle Ingwë's palace. She is no intellectual; in her previous life, she always preferred hunting and hawking to the study of lore. The gatherings bore her, but they are better than being alone.
She is sitting in the back of a dim lecture hall, her body stiff and itchy with the sort of finery she used to love wearing. Loremaster Elemmírë stands on the dais at the front, her fingers poised over the strings of her tall pedal harp, as she nimbly demonstrates the principals of attunement, absolute pitch, and harmony: the underpinnings not just of music, but of creation itself.
Elenwë is already fidgeting. She cranes her neck just a little to look out the nearest narrow window; but all she can see is a bit of blank, sunny sky. She can hear pigeons cooing just out of sight.
She was never a great lover of music, but when she was young she faked an interest well enough to learn the basics of harmonic improvisation—just enough to get by at parties, and no more. She certainly never learned enough to follow the twisting technicalities of Elemmíre's lecture; now, the woman has abandoned the harp entirely and is pointing at her own curved hand.
"Ut, re, mi," she says, and the people in the front of the room bob their heads knowledgeably, tracing patterns into their palms as Elemmíre demonstrates.
On the other side of the wall, the pigeons coo louder. Elenwë suppresses a sigh. She is just about to throw politeness to the wind and sneak out when someone slips into the seat next to her.
To her dismay, it is someone she knows very well indeed.
Death has made some of Elenwë’s memories fuzzy. But even if the Valar had seen fit to punish her soul in Mandos for a thousand ages, she could never have forgotten the face of the woman beside her.
Amarië's hair is in glorious, golden disarray; and her eyes are the brilliant green of fresh moss. She is wearing the simple black robes of a scholar.
In the moment they recognize one another, a sheaf of crinkled lecture notes slips from Amarië’s ink-stained hand and strikes the tiled floor with a scattered hiss. Elenwë reaches out to help pick up the papers; but when their hands collide, she flinches back.
She returns to her chair, hands fluttering uselessly. Amarië abandons the papers and sits up, too.
Her eyes are comically wide.
“You look so much…younger,” Amarië breathes.
She starts to reach for Elenwë’s trembling hands, but thinks better of it. Nervously, Elenwë glances up to the front of the room. Loremaster Elemmírë sees her looking and frowns slightly, but the other lecture-goers seem too focused on their newly-invented solfege mnemonics to have noticed anything amiss.
Amarië follows her gaze and says quietly, "I didn't think you'd come to something like this. I know you..."
She falters, then squares her slim shoulders. "I know there must be a reason you never looked me up after you came...home. But if you want to talk, we could get out of here?"
Her voice pitches up at the end of the sentence; as if she really thinks Elenwë might say no. Elenwë almost flinches again at the kindness in her eyes. But she nods sharply.
"Yes," she says. "Let's get out."
They go to one of the parks near the palace. Landscaped long before Elenwë was born, the gardens were cut into the side of the mountain, then shored up and protected with carefully carved stone walls and railings. When they were children, she and Amarië spent hours playing with the telescope near the cliff-side, gazing up at the stars when the Trees were dim and dreaming up detailed gossip about the movements of the Eagles who nested on the opposite ridge.
The telescope is still there. Amarië must be remembering similar bygone days; for she glances at it sadly and says, "The Eagles are gone."
"Gone?" says Elenwë, with a pang of sudden grief. "Did Morgoth kill them?"
The Noldor had left so quickly, after all; there was no telling what further unknown damage he had done to their world in the dark.
"No—at least not yet, that I know of. They left to go live in Middle-earth."
Elenwë stares at her friend.
"Did Mandos curse them, too?"
Amarië looks at her strangely.
"Of course not,” she says. “He sent them to watch over you."
The Sun burns too bright, as ever. The light makes Elenwë blink back tears. They sit on one of the stone benches, mercifully shaded by a tall young plane tree.
Elenwë does not know what to say; but she is not surprised when Amarië fills the silence. From the first day they met, Elenwë has never known Amarië to be speechless for long.
"Did you see Elemmírë's lecture a few weeks ago, about ancient theories of the soul?"
Of course her old friend would turn to philosophy for small talk.
"Probably. But I usually only understand one word for every dozen. I wasn't paying attention."
"I didn't go," says Amarië. "But I've heard her talk about it before. In Endórë, before our people ever met Oromë or came to learn about the true nature of the world, they came up with all kinds of fantastic theories. They were even clever enough to realize music must be involved, although they got the details wrong."
She pauses, politely—an old habit formed from centuries of friendship, a chance for Elenwë to change the conversation before it gets too pointlessly erudite. But Elenwë says nothing, so Amarië plunges gamely on.
"They weren't sure if the soul was immortal, or if we simply died when our bodies died. And for a long time, people thought the body was like a lute, or a harp; and a person's soul was nothing but the attunement of the strings."
"Break the instrument, and the soul is destroyed," says Elenwë.
She wonders what that would have felt like.
"Exactly," says Amarië. "And the body had to be constantly maintained—eating, sleeping—for the soul to stay healthy. And if you committed bad deeds it was because your soul was out of tune with the rest of the world."
"Like Morgoth," says Elenwë, softly.
"Not just Morgoth," says Amarië.
She stumbles a little over the name. People here probably never started calling him that, Elenwë realizes.
"You must have heard what happened at Alqualondë."
"Yes,” says Amarië. “And I heard what Fëanor and his sons did to you, after.”
There is anger in her voice, though she seems to be trying to hide it. She hesitates.
"Did you really walk all the way to Middle-earth?"
"I tried," said Elenwë, and her voice breaks.
Suddenly all her words come bubbling up. She tells Amarië everything.
They meet often after that.
Elenwë is still shy of seeing too many of her other old friends. She certainly cannot bear the thought of going to Tirion, where her lost daughter was born; but she finds it soothing to ramble about the slopes of Taniquetil with Amarië, visiting places they have both known since childhood.
Amarië gives her a paste to protect her skin from the Sun’s rays; and eventually, starts dragging Elenwë wherever she goes, peppering her with advice about how to navigate the world again.
When they visit a seamstress’ shop, Elenwë is delighted to find the shoe, finally, on the other foot.
“You have a lot of nerve,” Elenwë says, with a laugh. “Telling me I need to update myself to the newest fashions, when you have worn the same drab robes since we were practically children!”
Elenwë doesn’t quite mean “drab.” She likes how Amarië looks, threadbare hems and all, and even admires the way her friend seems to truly not care what others think of her appearance. But it feels good to tease—and Amarië takes the ribbing with good grace.
“I just happen to know that you care about such things,” Amarië replies loftily, sifting through swatches of brightly colored silks.
“What about this one?” she adds, holding up a lilac square. “It almost matches your eyes.”
Elenwë takes the fabric from her. It’s a good choice; Amarië clearly has an eye for these things, even if she doesn’t always apply it to her own sartorial choices.
Elenwë smiles slyly.
“I’ll get something in this color,” she says, in her most amiable tone. “But only if you ask Mistress Nelmië to lower the neckline on your new black gown.”
Amarië’s face freezes, and for a moment Elenwë expects her to say no.
But then her friend’s expression clears into a smile.
“Done,” she says.
Not a soul has come out of Mandos since Elenwë was released.
She doesn't know if this is because no more of the exiles have died in unambiguous accidents, as she did—or if Námo and Vairë's policies have simply become stricter. Either way, she doubts that she will ever see her husband again. Turgon was a much more reluctant exile than she was; but as a direct grandson of poor murdered Finwë, she doubts even Vairë will be willing to bend the rules for him as they were bent for her.
"But that's completely unfair!" Amarië exclaims, when Elenwë finally tells her the story of her own quick exit from the Halls.
Elenwë frowns, and Amarië rushes to amend her words.
"Of course I am glad of it, if it means you came back to me. But if Námo, the final Judge within the confines of Arda, is running around delegating, and making exceptions, then what are we supposed to think about that!"
"Are you starting to wish you had rebelled, too?" asks Elenwë, wryly.
She means to lighten the mood, but Amarië's face grows even more solemn.
"I am starting to see why so many of you felt there was no choice. I have honored the Valar all my life, but so much changed so quickly..."
They are sitting very close. Amarië's hair is rich with sunlight, and Elenwë wonders what it would be like to bury her hands in her friend's hair, to draw her close—
“Everyone expected me to leave with you, because of Finrod,” continues Amarië; and at that name, Elenwë clenches her hands in her lap.
“They thought that because we were engaged, I would follow him wherever he went. Despite the fact that we argued constantly, even when we thought we were happiest!”
Amarië glances at her sidelong.
“I don’t regret giving him up,” she says, firmly. “And I can’t quite regret staying—not now that the person I love most has been restored to me.”
“The person you love most?” asks Elenwë, with a rush of stupid hope.
Suddenly the gap between them is closing, and Amarië’s lips are on hers. Amarië’s hand is on the back of her neck. As Amarië’s body presses closer to hers, Elenwë kisses back, fiercely.
Amarië is wearing one of the new gowns. When they break apart, Elenwë takes the opportunity to brush her lips against the exposed skin at her throat.
She realizes belatedly, but with no surprise at all, that Amarië is—despite everything—still talking.
"Did you hear what I just said?" asks Amarië. Her voice is hoarse.
Blushing, Elenwë pulls back and shakes her head.
"I told you that my soul must have been out of tune when I let you leave without me," says Amarië. “I’ve been waiting to use that line for ages.”
Her perfect mouth turns up at the corner.
"And—I wanted to know how you would feel about starting a very small rebellion of our own."
Elenwë reaches for her again.