Since the flight of the Nightingale and the exile of the son of Húrin, who but lately had been named closest to the King in his heart, the quiet of winter lay upon Doriath.
The wind rattled the skeletal branches of oak and rowan as if tussling the hair of sleepers who had have lain too long abed. But they were stiff to its touch. A pale rime lingered at the edges of the streams and secrets inlets of the Esgalduin. Tributaries that — in happier times — had trilled and leapt now reflected the starry nights through nets of black branches. They mourned and sang no more but whispered of falling and tumbling away into dark dreams, clots of leaves carried away on their currents and lost.
Even the deer and the fox — her companions of old even when they least knew it — slipped through bracken and fern with ears perked as if feeling the hunter’s sightline between their shoulders and did not linger.
In her perch, high above the forest floor, she was accustomed to looking out towards the lands Beyond. She had never been past the outliers of the forest herself and, despite the winter, had no desire to leave her wood so familiar and strong (though not endless). Yet the mortal lands beyond the Girdle possessed their own grave beauty. Spring lingered longer there than in the Wood. Flowers of the plain and roses and snowdrops bloomed there in the strong sunlight, unfurling their brightness in the grass. Endillos. Lossë. Nieninquë — she named them one by one to herself (though never aloud — for to utter that tongue in the King’s land against the King’s Law would bring a punishment she dared not think of upon her head).
Coming through the grass, careless of the trampled flowers, came two figures, slipping through the dry grasses like hunted things themselves: one tall and stern and wayworn, the other so slight she might have been made of apple twigs, such were her limbs and cheekbones and her wide, sunken eyes as they adjudged the eaves of Doriath through a thicket of brambled hair. Bright and keen were those eyes. She longed to pluck those eyes free of their darkness and fear and take that slender-boned hand as once she had taken the hand of another, small, mortal boy and taught him the ways of woodcraft and secrecy and the languages of the flowers and wary beasts.
But boys in their youth came with loud, crashing footsteps and sticky hands and impatient questions, demanding answers to their many questions without the patience to wait for them. Then they grew tall and silent and ceased to come or, if they did come, they did with different intent. The questions softer, just as impatient, but differently bent, and the bright keeness of the eyes laid on her had not been for desire of her knowledge alone. She withdrew deeper into the woods after that and did not come when called though Túrin called for a long while. She didn’t go and eventually the calling ceased. Better so, she thought, when silence reigned again in the wood.
Better, she said to herself and the trees who listened, to remain aloof from Men. Better so than to become entangled in their strange fate. But when had she ever been able to evade Fate’s snares — even when she would?
She climbed down from her tree and approached.
Winter came to the lands beyond the Girdle and deepended in the heart of Doriath.
Overnight, a noose of cold snapped to about them. Frost thickened to glass along the creek banks. The trees locked up, bitter and black, murmurless in unwilling sleep. The more sensible animals retreated to their lairs.
By secret paths through meadow and glade and un-nettled thickets, she could walk unseen and unremarked by even the keenest of her folk. Even the marchwardens knew not the paths that she followed for they were her own. Wholly and only hers. So when she stumbled, unexpectedly and, truth be told, a little annoyed on tracks that were not hers (for she left no tracks, being what she was), she could only follow them to their conclusion.
They led her on a long ways, ever deeper into the woods where the branches forged an iron lattice overhead and crowded close. For so slight a thing, the Interloper left prints a blind mole might have followed with ease. Long, raked-back prints of heavy boots: now, laboring…now up on the toes, strides that were not wholly a child’s and yet not quite a woman’s…
The prints halted — and their owner with them — at a convergence of two creeks. One from the northeast, another from the northwest, here they tumbled together in a rush of white spray down a sheet of uneven rocks and so into a pool. Further south, they would join the Esgalduin and pass out from beyond the wood. And after that, who knew? It was a raucous place of echoes and creakings and the noise of water against sharp rocks.
Vapor pooled from the girl’s lips in heaving lungfuls, her cheeks and the tips of her nose red as sumac berries, split and over ripe. Even without the noise about them, none would have heard Nellas’ approach, but some strange sense, some instinct of another, perhaps — and the girl turned her head.
Nellas halted as if arrow-stricken, and she said nothing.
“You have been following me.” The Interloper wiped at her running nose ineffectually with her sleeve. Though her coat was long and wool and finely woven, her hands and head were bare.
Nellas tilted her head to one side, assessing the truthfulness of the words and the meaning in them, weighing each phrase with care, and yet in wonder at the framing of the Elvish tongue on mortal lips. “Yes.”
Nellas considered this. “There was once another of your kindred who walked once in these woods. A Man, he was. I mean, a man, in truth. With dangly bits.”
“That was my brother,” said the Interloper, wiping at her nose again. “And I’ll thank you not to speak of those other things.”
“It is not… It is… unfitting.”
Snow creaked under the Interloper’s boots. “I had heard tales from the men of the fences of a sun-shy sylph living beyond Menegroth. They made no mention of an elf-maid.”
Nellas knew well what the men of the barracks might say of her in the warmth of their lodges and their company from which she was ever excluded. And their words were less kind than ‘chary’ and ‘sylph.’
“There are wild things in these woods.” Maid, the Interloper called her. It had been long since she had been called anything by anyone. The wind spilled across her face and tugged at her grey cloak.
The Interloper shivered a hard shiver; it racked up her spine and down, and she shoved her fingers beneath her arms.
“You are cold.”
“You are strange,” the Interloper shot back.
“I have been told so.” The branches drew together in a trellis overhead, the snow so pale it glowed luminous at their feet. She picked up a handful of it and watched the play of the crystals between her fingers, the sudden spark of them as she cast them upward into the wind and let them drift down, safely anonymous again. All displaced. None were where they were before.
Another creak, a tentative, shuffling step. The Interloper was looking at her with a less attacking face. “It is not a bad thing. Being strange.”
Nellas smiled at such kindness. “What is your name?”
“Niēnor. Daughter of Morwen Edhelwen and Húrin Thalion.” She lifted her chin at this. Something in the pride of such a gesture — that the bloodlines and houses of fragile Men might matter — made Nellas forget the last of her indignation.
“I am Nellas.”
They wandered far together under the crescent of a spring moon, clouds of leaves rustling overhead, the earth tingling with the dusk. For the dimness of the winding path beneath their feet, they walked close beside one another. Every now and again their hands or shoulders would brush in the dark, and each time Nellas felt a little thrill from fingertips to shoulder like the glimmer of lightning beneath a cloud. Nellas’ face was soft in the moonlight, but older, graver, possesssed of a particular restlessness. It was long after the hour when they should have sought the path back to Esgalduin and the Great Gate of Menegroth, but still they lingered under the stars.
“Soon it will grow too dark. And the Girdle can play tricks on the mind — even those learned in its ways can lose theirs.”
“Just a little further,” Niënor walked ahead on the uneven ground, gazing up into the branches. “In my country, I was never permitted beyond the garth. Mother would tell me of wolves and wolf-men…and other things. It was not safe.”
She went quiet for a moment. Rumors, however distant, had come to Doriath of the ill that had befallen the people of Dor-lómin.
“There are no wolves here,” said Nellas. “Not since the great hunt of the King for the beast that came of Angband, and Huan slew the Great Wolf and the Man, Beren, though he was wounded.”
“That must have been a thing to see.”
“It did not end well for Beren.” Nellas cast about for a better subject of conversation. She pointed upward at the scattering of pale lights just visible through the trees. “Look. There is Menelvagor. He is bright tonight. Look for him in the northern sky, and you will never lose your way.”
Brighter still though was Borgil, low across Menelvagor’s belt. Red as a portent. Nellas lowered her arm slowly, her brows drawing close together. When last that star had glowed so bright, like a red eye gazing down from the heavens, its color had been spattered on stones and quays and the timbers of white ships.
Niënor was looking at Nellas’ face, sparing little more than a cursory glance for the firmanent. Her face in the moonlight was at once soft and grave, young still with the youth of Men, but her eyes were old and thoughtful. “I asked Mablung once why you did not come to Menegroth.”
“I do not like places of stone. The roof bears down on you so,” she said. The trees whispered about her, their voices, rising and falling, but the messages they passed among themselves flitted by too swift even for Nellas’ ears to catch. Somewhere in the dusk beyond, a nightbird gave a warning cry and fluttered from its hiding place in a rush of wings.
“Yet you came when my brother had need of you. You spoke for him when none else would,” Niënor insisted. She laid a hand on Nellas’ arm, and it was warm, her grip firm. “You helped him.”
Nellas left off her listening.
Niënor’s eyes were beautifully blue with a depth beyond the depth of sky. So might an enchantress of old have snared her heart’s desire. It compelled her to speak rather more truthfully than she’d intended. “A Man should not be ill-judged for deeds done in a moment of haste, and when the consequences, however grievous, were unintended. He was drawn into a quarrel. He did not ask for it. His kinsmen had been maligned and misused. He did not will Saeros’ death. And it may be, wherever he is, that he is sorry and will seek atonement where he can…”
“I believe he is still alive,” Niënor murmured with the uncertainty of one who hoped.
Nellas said nothing. Too much could befall a Man, alone and friendless in the Wild. She would not offer false assurances — even for the sake of hope and heart’s desire. The wind gusted, drawing in a long, slow, heavy breath. Distant, on the very edge of hearing, a noise. A crackling as of hastening steps. “We should go back.”
But even as she made to draw Niënor back towards the elf-path and Menegroth, a shadow burst from the brake almost directly on top of them. At once, Nellas put herself between the figure and Niënor, a knife of knapped flint in her hand, its roughness honed to a razor edge.
The shadow fell upon its knees, breathing like a beast run to ground, sides heaving. It was Man-like. Arms, legs. Tall and slender though rather dirty with tangled dark hair past his shoulders. Túrin, Nellas thought, or his unquiet fëa. But when the figure looked up, scanty moonlight glimmered on an unfamiliar face and decidedly Eldarin eyes.
“What do you here, stranger? You trespass in these woods. Name yourself and your purpose. Swiftly!” Nellas told him in a voice hard and cold and commanding and so utterly unlike any words she had uttered in these woods that Niënor glanced at her sharply as if a veil had been drawn from her eyes.
The man bent his head. “Once I was of Nargothrond—”
He spoke in the High Tongue of the royal house of Finwë. Long and long had it been since Nellas had heard such from any mouth. Great, black wings beat about her and around her, the wings of doom and fate and shadow overtaking her, running her down at last.
“You should not speak such here,” she answered him in a voice that trembled only a little. “King Thingol has no love for that tongue nor those who speak it in his realm.”
The Elf only shuddered, his wild-eyed stare flitting from shadow to shadow as if he feared a stroke in the dark. His eyes came to rest on Nellas, and something shifted in his face. He cocked his head, squinting as if to discern the face behind the knife and the voice. “I did not expect to find a kinswoman here.”
“I am not your kinswoman.”
An alarum sprang from the north — the horn of the warden sounding its brazen cry. Intruders in the woods! Swift to her ears, the pace of many running feet.
“We must go.”
Calmly, her heart beating hard between her ribs like a bird under a roof, Nellas took Niënor by the hand and led her along the secret winding paths that knew only her feet and the deer, news already winging its way through the trees before them.
They parted at the confluence of rivers above Esgalduin.
Neither spoke a word.
Nargothrond is fallen and all her people in her defense.
The Blacksword lies among them: Túrin of Dor-lómin.
He is dead.
He is alive.
He is the son of Húrin.
He stands, still as stone, in a Dragon’s bedevilment.
He has fled into the woods with outlaws.
The very image of his father is the son of Húrin, defender of Nargothrond, I would swear to it.
Túrin. The little boy she had once taken by the hand and taught the names of flowers and wild things and wilder paths until he grew to love other things. Brother to Niënor. Beyond all hope, if not against all uncertainty, his name was spoken in the wood again.
The sparrows and finches had much to relate on the matter as more intruders — in twos or threes, all ragged and hungry, never many — straggled into the woods and surrendered themselves into the marchwardens’ keeping.
Only once did the trail reverse — and one rode from the direction of Menegroth for the brink of the wood as if all the might of the iron hells alit upon her heels. The hood, blown back by the pace, revealed a dark head, dark as Beren the One-Handed, the same fierce expression yet in woman’s form and features.
The drumming of the horse’s hooves as it passed nigh echoed the triphammer beat of Nellas’ heart as if something vast and cold winged overhead through a lurching, unmade sky. She stood at the fork between two paths and felt the tightening of the snare around her, the slow surety that whatever choices came next would alter the world about them. Perhaps, forever.
“Here I find you,” said a voice in her ear.
Niënor stood nearly at her shoulder, a slip of a thing and silent as a leaf.
Nellas’ stuttering heart brought her words out short and breathy. “Too well did I instruct you in the quiet ways of the wood. I did not hear you.”
“Yet the news you have heard, surely. Even you for all your chary ways could not fail to hear it.”
Niënor’s face was wan and full of waiting, but Nellas said nothing more save “Come with me.”
They left the fork for a slender path that lost itself in the brake, but Nellas continued on, brushing through undergrowth, up a flight of splintery steps without risers. They twined up the trunk of an hoary beech until they were vanished in a cloud of leaves. Above in the thick greenery, the edge of a rough wooden platform could be glimpsed if you craned your neck far enough. Niënor trailed behind until they stepped inside.
The wide, single room — once an outpost, now long abandoned by the wardens for better defense of the rivers — held furnishings enough for one: a three-legged stool and table, her pallet in the corner with its chest at its foot, small treasures and knicknacks that she had made or woven. Niënor was the only bright thing in the dimness as she turned in a circle, taking it in.
“This is your home.”
“My home? I suppose.” It was safe and secluded. The Girdle and the old cunning of the woods baffled all enemies who dared this far north. None could find it that did not know the way thither. “We may talk here.”
Niënor drew her hand away from tracing the pattern of a moss-colored drapery upon the table. “Mother took horse this morning. I fear she has gone to seek Túrin in spite of the Queen’s counsel. I wish to follow, but I need a guide to the wood’s edge.”
“The Girdle will not restrain you,” Nellas said, setting light to a candle, the flare of the match at her fingertips. The room was dim for the thick branches overhead and the youth of the morning.
“But the guard may. If I am to leave, I must do so unseen.”
Nellas draped herself on the stool, smoothing a hand against the grain of the table. The dust was rather appalling. Thick and heavy as cobwebs though she had never noticed until now. “Sometimes, you think you are caged. You do not know that it is your only refuge.”
“I cannot stay here,” Niënor insisted, her slender hands furling into fists. “Whether I would or no, it is no longer my choice. I am bound to go.”
“No oath binds you,” she said it like a question, a sudden fear beating in her chest.
“She is my family. All the family I have ever known. All I have left.” Niënor leaned her elbows on the table, forcing Nellas to meet her eyes. “Do you even have family? All the times we walked together, I never thought to ask you that. You say much on the subject of wood and field and forest-path but nothing of yourself.”
Nellas shrugged. Such family as she once had, she could no longer claim in good conscience. They were lost to her long ago, and long had it been since she let herself think of them. “I am only what I am.”
Niënor straightened, unsatisfied. “And what is that? You are dark of hair and eye. Thingol’s folk are not so. You know the old names and the ancient courtesies. Doriath, fair and wise as it is, does not know those. You hide from others. Ever you dwell at the edge of things…The Elf of Nargothrond named you a kinswoman.” She braced her hands upon the table, rocking, restless. “No more lies. No more half-truths. Not from anyone. But especially not from you.”
No more lies.
Even so had she spoken to her father on the wild shores of Losgar while the white ships burned behind him, heaving in the red fire of their death throes.
“We were wrong, you know,” she said. “We believed the Valar kept us from you so that you, the Children of Men, might have dominion over the world that by rights was ours. But now I see how blind we were. We were not caged and robbed of our rightful inheritance. We were protected, spared from living among — and loving — the mortal children. You are like the magnolia. Bright and all too brief. It was folly. All folly. No, I have no family. I left them behind me long ago, and I have never sought them on these shores. But it is clear to me, at least, that you love yours very much, even those you do not know.”
“Help me save my mother — find my brother. Please.”
“You do not know what you ask. That help you so desire of me might very well lead to your doom.”
“Whatever doom awaits me out there, it can be no worse than here. To sit and wonder and wait in the dark, never knowing.”
Nay, sweet one. Do not decry ignorance so swiftly. Knowledge you will not have, but peace, perhaps. Yet the appeal in those eyes, the steel in the set lips — the look of a woman staring down a long, dark fall — forebade her from speaking such aloud. The daughter of Húrin would not be denied. Just as Túrin had never been denied. Another, wiser than Nellas of Doriath, once of Tirion upon Túna, might have traced the patterns of past deeds and measured them against present wisdom and found both wanting.
Instead, she rose. “This is foolishness.”
“Yet you will help me.” Niënor smiled. “I will be careful. I will bring her back. I will make Mother see reason and then—”
Nellas, daring, laid a finger against those lips ere they spoke words that could not be recalled. She shook her head. “Ancalimar,” she said in her native tongue, shocked at her own rebellion. Small though it was. “There is no returning from some things.”
And because moments of grace must be seized ere they are irrevocably lost, she leaned close and gathered Niënor’s lip against hers.
She stroked Niënor’s cheek once and went to the chest bronzed with age and covered in a film of dust inches thick. But the lock, even ungreased, yielded in her hands. Within, untouched by dust or age, a simple, grey cloak lay with the smell of cedar and salt spray in its folds still. Beneath it was a mail shirt, each ringlet scoured until it glimmered like the scales of a fish. She soothed a hand over the garments as if to quiet the secrets they kept.
None should be ill-judged for deeds done in haste, she thought, when the consequences, however grievous, were unintended. They had not known of the quarrel. They did not ask for it. They merely made their choices and then lived with them as best they could.
She lifted cloak and coat out and laid them out in the deepening light, praying that the choice she made now would do no greater harm.
Two fugitives made their way to the edge of the wood.
From her perch, high above the forest floor, Nellas was accustomed to looking out towards the lands Beyond. She had never been past the outliers of the forest herself, but she shadowed the slender figure, clad in grey and mail, even to the sparsest of Thingols’ sentinels. But there she halted as at the brink of some steep pitch that, if once she set her mind to this course, she might not win her way back.
She stepped from the shadow of the wood into the first of the dawnlight, across that final demarcation between her world and the world of sunlight and bright eyes and flowers. They bloomed about her feet in a riot of color, painful and a little unreal in the close air.
“Endillos. Lossë. Nieninquë,” she whispered their ancient names to herself and to the grey-clad figure, already distant from her, already vanishing.
Bending, she plucked up the last of the snowdrops from the grass and laid the silken petals against her cheek.