"Take me to the waterfall," Lalaith whispered, her dry throat catching on the words.
"You are not strong enough," Morwen answered, pressing the back of her hand to the warm, sweat-damp brow. "You still have a fever."
"I know," Lalaith said. She opened her eyes wide and looked up at her mother. "But the waterfall calls to me, Mother, it calls, and I must answer."
Húrin entered the room then, and Morwen turned to him, distress in her face. "She is delirious. She wants to go to the waterfall." She wrung her hands, looking helpless in a way that Húrin had never seen her before. "How fares Túrin?"
"He sleeps," Húrin answered. "He will live, I think. The worst is past."
"Urwen does not fare so well," Morwen said, as Lalaith tried again to whisper her request to be taken to the waterfall.
"If she wants to go to the waterfall, I will carry her," Húrin said.
"The plague mists might still be in the air." Morwen frowned. "But then, she is already sick. What more can the foul plague do than what it has already done?"
Húrin bent down and whispered quiet reassurance in Lalaith's ear, then picked her up, blankets and all. "Come with us, Morwen," he said. "It cannot do you harm to escape the house for a few moments."
"Very well," Morwen said, thinning her lips, but following. They emerged from the dark house into a day thick with late summer mists, but unlike that day some weeks before, there was no scent of foul contagion in the air.
Húrin carried Lalaith across the garden and down a short pathway to the bridge beside the waterfall. Just this side of the bridge there was a long wooden bench, where Túrin and Lalaith were wont to play in happier days. Húrin sat down with Lalaith, and Morwen joined him.
Lalaith breathed out a long contented sigh. "Thank you," she whispered. For some slow minutes, she took long deep breaths, as though she were diving into deep water and coming up for air every time.
The waterfall laughed endlessly nearby, mists swirling. Húrin watched the pattern of them, and thought for a moment he saw a face peering out of the falls, caught in the white spray.
Lalaith took another breath. "Let me sit up," she said, and Húrin carefully arranged her so that she sat on his lap, looking out toward the falls. She breathed easier now but every few minutes was shaken by a fit of bone-rattling coughing. She was hot to the touch, and damp with sweat and mist.
"Look!" she said. "The lady who lives in the waterfall is coming to me."
Morwen and Húrin both turned where she pointed, to see the face and form of a young woman appearing from out of the mist, seeming to float across the water to the grass. She bowed before Lalaith, taking her hand.
"Child of the waterfall," she said, and her voice was like the laughter of the fall itself, "you will die, if you stay here. But come with me, and I will save you."
Morwen immediately wrapped her hand around Lalaith's wrist, forcing the maiden to drop Lalaith's hand. "You would not take her from us!" she cried out.
"She will die," the maiden of the waterfall said, her voice implacable, certain.
"I do not want to die, mother," Lalaith said. "Let me go with her."
Húrin stirred softly. "Will she be cared for, loved, and happy? Can she ever return to her family?"
The maiden of the waterfall looked at him closely. "I will love her and care for her as if I were her own mother," she promised solemnly. "I cannot promise, though, that she will ever return. And yet by her life you shall save both your daughters."
"We have but one," Morwen said.
"That will not always be so," the maiden replied.
"If you take her, you will take laughter itself from our house," Morwen said.
"So too will death. You cannot avoid grief, and laughter will leave your house, one way or the other," the maiden replied.
"Then you may take her," Morwen answered. "But, oh, she is my treasure, so be kind." She bent her head down to touch her lips to Lalaith's warm hand, and Húrin kissed her hot brow. Lalaith turned and gave them each kisses from feverish lips, whispering soft goodbyes.
The maiden of the waterfall gathered her up into her arms, and Lalaith sighed, relaxing against her, and falling into a sleep. And then both faded into the mist, as Morwen and Húrin clasped each other close and cried.
Thirty years later
Niënor ran through the woods in horror, everything that she was only desperate to get away from the dragon, from the knowledge of her past, from the truth of her relationship with Túrin. She came to the edge of the ravine. Far below flowed the Teiglin river, and she halted, staring down into the water.
"Oh happy to be dead!" she whispered once more into the rush of falling waters below, and let herself fall. A great darkness came upon her, and the wild rush of water was all about her. Just before she lost consciousness entirely, she felt strong arms come around her and bear her away.
She came back to herself to the sound of low humming and the crackle of a nearby fire. She was warm, wrapped in blankets, and the hair on her head was dry. Long beams of a roof were above her, and below her she rested on soft furs. For long slow moments she did not dare to open her eyes more than a peek, but at last the humming ceased and footsteps came nearer.
The woman's face that she saw was both familiar and not at the same time. Dimly she recalled an artist's depiction of her father, dressed in all his regalia as Lord of Dor-lómin. His face had been kindly, cheerful, with a broad smile. Her father's cousin Aerin had looked like that too, golden hair and a face that fell naturally into smiles, though as the years went by the smiles had faded along with the golden hair.
"Do I know you?" Niënor said.
The woman took her hand, holding it gently between her own sun-browned ones. "We have never met, Niënor, but I am your sister, Lalaith," she said softly. "Stay still."
"I am dead then," Niënor said. "Because all I have ever been told of my sister is that she is dead."
"Neither of us are dead, in fact," Lalaith said. "My foster-mother, the Lady of the Waterfall, saved me, and I saved you, with her help."
"Why?" Niënor asked. "I wanted to die. I was trying to die."
"You have done nothing to deserve death." Lalaith's voice was gentle but firm.
"I bear my own brother's child within me even now," Niënor said, trying to keep her voice from rising to a sobbing cry. "Our brother, if you are who you say you are."
"What matters that?" Lalaith asked.
Niënor gasped, shaking her head. "It is not done. It is incest. Do you not know human morality?"
Lalaith tilted her head and looked at Niënor carefully. "Not this kind of morality," she said. "To my mind, if you have indeed done something wrong, you would compound that by taking your own life. But I cannot fathom what wrong you have done. My foster-mother taught me that love is not wrong, so long as all involved are willing and of age."
Niënor shook her head, her thoughts reeling. "There is something I heard about birth defects when the parents are too closely related," she said. "My child may be monstrous."
"It may also not be," Lalaith said. "Would you kill both yourself and your child for that fear?"
Niënor, defeated, shook her head again. "No. I...." She took a deep breath. "I thank you for saving us."
Lalaith smiled, and bent to press a kiss to her forehead. "That's more like it, sister."
Days went by as Niënor recovered. The spring passed on into bright summer, and she began to move about Lalaith's small dwelling place, taking on little tasks here and there. She spent some of every day outside, lying on a wool blanket in the green grass, her hands over her belly, waiting for a sign of life.
Often Lalaith joined her, sitting or lying beside her as they talked for hours together about every topic under the sun. Lalaith knew many things that Niënor had never thought about, but was completely unaware of all the rules of human society. As Niënor explained them, Lalaith often found them nonsensical or simply confusing, and often contradictory.
On the day of Midsummer, Niënor sat on her blanket next to Lalaith, both of them sewing small garments. Niënor, just as she laid her needle down to turn the garment right side out, felt a small movement within her and gasped.
"The child lives," she breathed, and Lalaith smiled.
"Of course it lives," she said, and reached out to embrace Niënor as she dissolved into sobs. Lalaith's arms around her felt so safe and warm, and for a long while she cried, and sometimes laughed, helpless and finally hopeful.
When she came back to herself, Niënor immediately tried to move away, apologising for her sudden emotions, but Lalaith would not have it, still holding her close and whispering soft endearments.
"Sweet sister," she said, "my darling, my heart, let your tears fall."
Niënor nestled closer, melting into the warmth of Lalaith's embrace, pressed against her breasts, in the curve of her belly and hips. As though her tears had unleashed her emotions entirely, a sharp stab of desire pierced her, and her whole body tingled as wave after wave of arousal poured over her.
Lalaith was entirely beautiful, and she wanted her, and oh, there must really be something wrong with her that she should desire both her brother and her sister. But she could not bring herself to move away, and lay trembling with need and pleasure in Lalaith's arms, her tears drying on her face.
As summer waned and the days grew shorter and cooler, Niënor grew bigger and was more easily exhausted. In the first days of winter, she was brought to bed and laboured long to give birth to a son. In her travail, she thought she saw not only Lalaith beside her but the dim and cool face of another person, white and soft like she was formed of mist. But when she came to herself as the pain receded and her son cried out for the first time, the other person vanished.
Lalaith placed her son into her arms. "What shall you name him?"
Niënor gazed into his face for a long time. The wisps of hair on his head were dark, and his eyes were Túrin's eyes, large and grey. "He shall be Círamdir," she said at last, "for the day I knew he lived, my hope was renewed."
"It is a good name," Lalaith said, sitting down on the bed to peer into his small face as well. She put one finger into his little hand, and he clutched it, hanging on tight.
Winter set in. The days were short, and often they did not see the sun at all. Lalaith went out to check her traps every now and again. Sometimes fish appeared by the door of the house, preserved in the snow, and Niënor was too grateful and too caught up in Círamdir to wonder much about it. When Círamdir was sleeping, she often curled up against Lalaith in the pile of furs and drowsed, warm and content, as her sister mended nets or clothing, and sometimes stroked her hair, sending shivers down her spine. Her desire was not forgotten, and every now and then, roared into life again, quelled only by a twinge of pain or a cry from the baby.
Spring was slowly creeping over the land, bright and hopeful, but wet and muddy. Niënor often took Círamdir out for short walks. They dwelt in a deep valley, hidden away, with a broad river running through it. Niënor had never seen anyone other than Lalaith and the strange spirit that sometimes drifted up from the river, who Lalaith addressed only as "Lady."
One day, she returned from her walk and settled Círamdir in his wicker basket that they used in lieu of a cradle. Lalaith was sitting on the bed, mending her nets.
Once Círamdir was down for his nap, Niënor dropped down beside Lalaith on the bed.
"Something has occurred to me," she said. "You say you are my sister, and your looks bear it out, but why did we not grow up together? Why was I told you were dead?"
Lalaith ceased her mending and turned to face Niënor. "Our parents gave me to the Lady because there was no hope for my life otherwise. And indeed, my life was despaired of for a long time. She built this place for me, and nursed me for over a year, bringing me sweet herbs from far away, feeding me river-fish, nuts, and fruit, until I recovered and grew strong again. Even now I must take a daily tincture of herbs that she provides, or I will grow weak. And I must not leave this valley, for here I am protected, and the air is safe for me. Outside of it I will surely die."
She took a deep breath before continuing on. "The Lady brought you to me. She gathered you up even as you fell, and carried you by her own swift ways here. We are deep in the mountains of Mithrim, near the head of the River Teiglin, and also near Nen Lalaith, the Lady's waterfall, with whom I share a name. She told me that she saved us both at Ulmo's request, for he is the Vala whom she serves, and though I might never again leave this valley, you will, and so will Círamdir."
Niënor smiled sadly. "Now I understand." Laying her head down on Lalaith's shoulder, she whispered softly, "But I do not wish to ever leave you."
Lalaith turned, wrapping an arm about her waist, and kissed her. Heat flashed through Niënor and she scrambled closer, deepening the kiss, sinking her fingers into Lalaith's golden hair, exactly like her own.
For a long while they learned the feel of each other, kissing and kissing until Niënor thought she could come from just that alone. At last Lalaith lay back on the bed, letting Niënor strip them both of their garments and come naked into her arms.
"Do you wish this?" Lalaith whispered. "Do you not find it to be wrong anymore?"
Niënor shook her head, overcome. Her memories of what it felt like to be with Túrin were as nothing compared with the reality of the woman in her arms. "I want to be with you," she said. "I choose you, knowing who you are. This is no curse. You are the Laughter that changes Mourning into Joy."
"Then your name should not be Niënor nor yet Níniel but Glassel, my heart," Lalaith said, reaching up to press kisses to Niënor's throat.
Niënor smiled. "I like that. Laughter and Joy are natural companions, after all." She met Lalaith's lips with her own, and they pressed close together, overwhelmed by love.
Niënor and Lalaith raised Círamdir together as partners and lovers. As far as he was concerned, they were his parents.
In the year 522 of the First Age, Lalaith died, for the contagion of Morgoth could no longer be kept out of the valley by the power of the Maia of Nen Lalaith. Niënor traveled with Círamdir, now fully grown, down the course of the Teiglin to the Havens of Sirion.
They spent a few years there, but Círamdir wished to find a place with more Men, and so they traveled over the mountains to Eriador, ultimately founding the city that would later become Annúminas, by the shores of Lake Evendim. As the War of Wrath raged through Beleriand, more and more refugees, both Men and Elves, came to settle in their city, and by the time Niënor (now known as Glassel) died, in the year 555 aged 82, it was one of the most beautiful settlements of Men in Eriador.
Círamdir had seven children; four of them ended up going to Númenor, and three stayed behind in Middle-earth.