The tumbling hiss of the waterfall was as sweet as a lullaby. Finrod left his shirt and breeches in a rough pile at the water's edge and slipped into the pool, wincing at its icy bite – but the sharp edges of shock soon melted, and the pure water was a cooling balm against his sore, filthy skin. He took a breath and dipped his shoulders beneath the surface, then flipped onto his back and struck out for the centre. He closed his eyes as the water's icy fingers tugged his hair and pressed gently against his skull.
“May I join you?”
He opened one eye and smiled lazily at Edrahil. “Of course.”
His captain stripped off his clothes and waded in. His pale eyes widened as the water crept above his waist. A myriad tiny bumps formed on the marble skin. “Yavanna's tits, it's freezing!”
Finrod couldn't help it; he laughed. “You would not have dared to speak so in Nargothrond.”
“Perhaps not.” The water reached Edrahil's shoulders, and he leaned into its embrace and began to swim. “Ah, well. Cold or not, it is good to be clean.”
“Where are the others?”
“Back behind the trees.” Edrahil's dark hair fanned across the pool's surface like silken black pondweed. “The man – Beren – is singing to them again. About his true love.”
Finrod did not miss the mocking emphasis on the last two words. “Lúthien.”
“Who else?” Edrahil gave Finrod a slanted look. “Have you ever seen her, my lord?”
“There is no need to call me that now, old friend.” An ache rose inside Finrod, a cruel bruise of regret and something else that he dared not examine too closely. Insistent as the refrain from a familiar song, his cousin's face rose in his mind, silver-haired, eyes blazing, the taunting smile a blade in his gut. “I am lord of nothing and leader of no-one.”
“You are the King of Nargothrond,” Edrahil said loyally. “Your throne awaits your return, and your people will forget their folly and welcome you home, after this is done.”
There was no humour in Finrod's smile now. He pulled himself out of the water onto one of the grassy banks at the water's edge. “I have no throne to return to, Edrahil. My cousins will have seen to that.”
“Damn them to the Void-”
“Do not say such things!” Cold fury edged his voice. “You do not know of what you speak.”
Dawn bled into the lilac clouds. Spray drifted across the pool and clung in a mist to the rocks at its edge, and the air smelled of citrus and pine.
“Forgive me.” Edrahil's voice was gentle. “But I cannot understand how they could betray you so utterly – after the kindness we showed them, and the years of friendship between our people...”
“Can you not? I can.” Finrod twisted his golden hair into a loose rope and wrung out the moisture. “I do not hate the deed any less, but Celegorm and Curufin are bound up in something more terrible than even they yet realise. They have only my pity.” He exhaled slowly, feeling his anger ebb away. “And yes, I have seen Lúthien once – in Doriath, long ago. She is very fair.”
Edrahil hauled himself from the water. Drops pattered from his hair onto the grass. “Worthy of a Silmaril?”
“Worthy of torment and death in Bauglir's dungeons? Worthy of waking that cursed Oath from sleep? Worthy of a piece of Fëanor's soul?” Finrod barked a laugh. “Are any of us worth that?”
“Then you believe your cousins' tales.”
Birdsong mingled with the rush of the waterfall. “You did not see them burning in the West, my friend. There is some fell and terrible power trapped inside those jewels, and it is not the light of the Trees.” Finrod uncoiled his hair and eased his fingers through the damp knots. “I do not know what I believe.”
The misted spray fluttered and split in the wind. Finrod felt Edrahil's arms around his waist, and as he leaned into the embrace, the sun broke over the horizon and drenched the plains in scarlet.