“But I don’t want to go to Alqualondë!”
Looking back on it, the Fountain Incident (as the household servants called it) had not been an example of my finest decision-making. But young fëar are restless and prone to surges of unrestrained foolishness—or at least, that was that argument I had prepared to give my parents when they demanded “What were you thinking, Artanis?” in disappointed tones.
Except when I arrived in Arafinwë’s study, the two of them merely looked but did not comment at my unruly hair and dirty fingernails. They stood behind my father’s imposing ebony desk and pronounced my doom: banishment. There was no chance for me to explain my behavior and no sad little speeches about how they expected better of me. Just firm directives and somber faces.
I realized, too late, that when I had crossed the threshold of the study I was not with my parents; I had been granted an audience with a great statesman and his wife and was treated accordingly. I was a problem to be solved, and there was nothing Arafinwë Ingoldo of the House of Finwë was better at than solving problems. (Ask anyone.)
My arguments soundly defeated before I even had a chance to open my mouth, I had naught to do but cross my arms and whine. (Forgotten were my repeated pronouncements that I was a woman grown.) “Nothing ever happens in Alqualondë,” I said, “and nobody interesting ever goes there.”
“You will be there, Nerwen,” said my mother, “and surely you consider yourself to be of some interest...at least to yourself.” Her lips twitched, and her amusement at my expense rankled.
I sighed and crossed my arms. I knew, of course, that I was being overdramatic, but knowing so only made me pout more. I attempted to cry, and managed to squeeze a few drops from my unrepentant eyes. I had seen my cousin Írissë get out of many a scrape through artful tears. But it seemed that Arafinwë was made of sterner stuff than his older brother, for my father remained unmoved by my apparent distress.
“It’s only temporary,” he said. “I'm sure we shall send for you by the end of summer.”
“Just until the rumors die down,” added Eärwen.
I had come into this conversation ready for an argument, and that was something to argue over. I stepped closer to my parents, bristling like a drenched cat. “What rumors, Mother? The rumors that Lady Artanis, granddaughter of the king, brawls in public? That she was seen naked in the Great Square? Or …” I paused for emphasis, “do you mean the rumors that Lady Artanis fucks other girls?”
My words had their desired effect. Eärwen blanched, and even my father's composure faltered. He patted his spouse’s shoulder before addressing me in the calm yet serious manner that had once terrified me, but now made me strangely furious.
“Artanis,” said Arafinwë gently (oh so gently), “we love you, very much. We would love you no less even if you were to—as you so eloquently put it—fuck other women in the Great Square every day and brawl naked afterwards. Our love for you does not change; it never could.”
I was still angry with them (I was!), but why did I feel like crying? My father reached across his desk to take my hand. I jerked away. He continued:
“Yet as much as we do love you, that does not alter the fact that you’ve made something of a...reputation for yourself here in Tirion. If you continue with this pattern of behavior, who is to say what the consequence might be? I know that you were hoping to apprentice with Ilsaner the Loremaster once your formal studies finish. What if he rejects you because he doesn’t wish to take on a pupil that might cast doubt upon his own good name?”
“You are a very bright young woman,” said my mother. “We would not wish for you to jeopardize a promising future on account of a few youthful mistakes.”
I hung my head, knowing that my parents were correct and resentful because they were. Just the day before, I’d visited the Silversmiths’ Guild with my brothers. All the craftspeople there had been unflaggingly polite, as always, but I had felt their eyes at my back and a reticence when I was spoken to. As if I were a snake who might strike at any moment; a liability.
Little had I thought that getting drunk once or twice with some of the kitchen servants would have the potential to prove so disastrous. I remembered my planned argument about youthful, impetuous fëar and though perhaps it had more merit than I’d originally thought.
So: to Alqualondë for the summer. Nothing more needed to be said, and I knew better than to argue with my father when his brow was so deeply furrowed. Doubtless my parents had already arranged everything so I could depart the city immediately after this audience. I turned to leave Arafinwë’s study, whispered goodbye.
As I was crossing beneath the lintel, a soft hand at my shoulder stopped me.
“Nerwen, wait,” said my mother. “Nerwen, I’ve had a bag packed for you, with all of the new dresses I ordered after your last growth spurt.”
(Of course she had.) I tried to smile at her, but it felt more like a grimace. “Thank you,” I said politely. “I am sure to be the best-dressed girl at Olwë’s court.”
I tried again to walk away, but her hand clung to me. “I also packed some of your brothers’ old leggings and shirts,” she murmured, eyes darting to the study’s interior, where my father stared vacantly at a bookshelf. “I mended them myself, and they don’t look too bad.”
I recognized her gesture for what it was, and no Power in Aman could have kept my tears back then. I flung myself at her chest. She folded me into a tight embrace that smelled of clean linen and spring lilies. I had long ago grown taller and sturdier than Eärwen, but in that moment I felt like a small child once more. “Thank you, Mama,” I said, and then: “I'm sorry.”
She squeezed me one last time, sniffled, then pulled away. Her delicate hands straightened my clothes, but I could see her face was pale. “Now then, now then,” she tsked. “All this fuss over a few months’ vacation by the sea. How silly we both are. Run along, Nerwen. I’m sure the horses have been saddled and waiting this half-hour at least.”
I left, but as I strode into the marble courtyard and mounted my horse, the anger I wore like a cloak faded somewhat. For the first time in a year, I felt ashamed of myself.
The road from Tirion to the coast was wide and paved with gleaming white stones. I had traveled on it many times, for the relationship between Eärwen and her father King Olwë was a strong one. The day of my banishment (for so I insisted upon calling it) was fair and balmy, and my father’s heralds set a quick pace.
Summer was the name the Eldalië gave to the time when the majority of Yavanna's creation was in full bloom, and as we passed out of the city gates, a green, fragrant countryside opened before us. The air was sweet with birdsong. In the distance I could see picnickers lolling in shady groves and children swimming in burbling streams. If I had been in the mood to reminisce, I might have recalled riding out with my mother and brothers to attend the summer revelries that the Falmari held up and down the coast. Those had always been my favorite times.
But I was not interested in memories that day. Shame was giving way to indignation. As we rode away from the hill of Túna and toward the Pelóri, I felt sure I was not being treated fairly. Some of my cousins (especially Fëanáro's younger sons) behaved very oddly in public, and they had never been sent away from Tirion, as far as I remembered.
It was because I was female, of course. Wasn’t that always what it came down to? I ground my teeth. My horse startled, and I realized I’d grown hard and tense. With effort, I relaxed and tried to think on other things.
The mountains drew closer, and the flowers that grew on their slopes were small and spiky. I hardly noticed. I had lived all my life beneath the Light of the Trees, and I knew no other beauty. My grandparents and those of their generation appreciated such things more, for they remembered the starlit darkness by the shores of Cuiviénen. Strange, how one grows accustomed to even the most Powerful beauty.
The day waxed on. I did not mind the ride or the vigorous pace. The journey lent me an opportunity to master my emotions and devise a course of action for the coming months. My father was fond of saying that any endeavor was sure to prove less effective if not backed by a sound plan. Arafinwë was rarely wrong (much to my continued annoyance). My parents had been clear that my very future could be compromised if I didn't mend my ways and become the epitome of a well-mannered Noldorin lady. I decided to spend the summer doing just that. By the time I returned to Tirion, not even Eärwen would know me.
My grandfather Olwë’s court was certainly not as grand as that of King Ingwë or even of Finwë, my other grandfather. Many in my father’s family looked down on the "rustic" Telerin way of life. It had been some time since I had last seen him, but I remembered Olwë as a silvery man with a gentle voice more given to song than to lecturing. His home was large but not imposing.
The pearl palaces and shell-paved streets of Alqualondë would be an excellent backdrop for my rehabilitation. As we rode between the steep rocky ledges of the Calacirya, I outlined three steps:
First, I would dress appropriately. Thanks to my mother, I would arrive at Olwë’s palace fully outfitted with all the skirts and kirtles and bodices and slippers and Valar-knew-what-else a proper young lady could need. I would make a point of actually wearing them, rather than giving them to less-fortunate serving girls or potter’s daughters.
Second, I would be subdued: mild but not meek; soft but not shrinking. Like Eärwen, or even my grandmother Indis. At some point while we were growing up, my cousin Írissë had learned the skill of quiet strength and deceptive docility, but I had somehow been absent the day that lesson was taught. (Even though she was often more disobedient than I, Írissë rarely drew attention to herself.) It was time to fill that gap in my knowledge.
Third, I would never, under any circumstance whatsoever, lose my temper. Not even should the Great Enemy himself appear before me would I raise my voice or lose my head. I would stay in control.
I repeated these three maxims over and over again until they seared themselves into my conscience. Then, at last, the sea rolled into view and all thought fled. The Bay of Eldamar glittered before us. Tol Eressëa rose out of the bay, a glowing green hill surrounded by waves. All around, the sea was like a mirror stretching out of sight and knowledge. We turned north toward the Swan Haven and kept the coast on our right. Sharp breezes blew off the water, and my hair tangled before my eyes. A knot that always resided somewhere below my breastbone began to unwork itself, and I inhaled the salty scent of the gray-green beaches.
The sea was part of me, in a way that the Noldorin side of my family could never understand. In Tirion I forgot, but when I ventured east I knew that one-half of my fëa resided in the churning waves. I could only be my whole self when I was close enough to Ulmo's realm to truly feel the briny mist on my cheeks. A summer with my Falmari kinfolk might bring its own joys, I thought.
My father’s heralds and I soon passed through the outer walls of Olwë’s city. Alqualondë gleamed like a pearlescent conch in the Treelight. Unlike Tirion, which had been designed by the greatest mathematicians and architects of the Eladlië, Alqualondë was a quaint hodge-podge of crooked streets, open markets, and marble villas. There were no defined districts or sectors; the Falmari arranged their lives as they saw fit. My uncles Fëanáro and Arácano might have despaired over the apparent lack of order, but I found it charming. It was the Lindarin blood in me, as Eärwen would have said proudly.
King Olwë’s palace rose shining from the center of the Haven, near the piers where the famed swan-ships were at anchor. An important-looking woman received me in the courtyard, and I was ushered into my grandfather’s formal audience chamber, which was full of green marble pillars carved to look like a forest of sea-kelp. I kept my eyes on the floor as I shuffled closer to the dais against the far wall. I paid my respects and winced—it was ridiculous to curtsey while wearing boy's trousers.
“Greetings, Olwë,” I said to my toes. “May the stars of Airë Tári shine upon the hour of our meeting.” My too-deep voice echoed in the large room.
“You may dispense with all the formalities, Artanis,” said a soft voice from somewhere to my right.
I blinked, and followed the trail of sound. I had failed to notice that the king’s throne sat empty. Olwë and his queen were sitting on a balcony beyond a wide door, with some half-dozen children playing around them. (I assumed these were some of my many cousins.) One little boy was braiding the king’s hair while the queen hummed and knitted what appeared to be...a sweater.
“Come here, child, come here,” lilted Olwë. I approached and saw that his blue eyes held a merry twinkle. “You are looking tall and strong—does my daughter feed you well?”
“Y-yes, my lord,” I stammered. I watched, mesmerized, as Olwë fed one of the children a sweetbread, and then offered his spouse the same treatment. The queen—Ilcamë—smiled fondly into his face, then returned to her knitting.
“Now,” said my grandfather. “I don't suppose you have an interest in braiding my hair?”
I studied the king's head. The little boy had made a terrible mess of Olwë's silver tresses; his hair resembled the nets of an overly industrious spider.
“Um, no...my lord,” I said. “I've never been good at dressing hair.”
Olwë nodded, as if he expected my answer. “Pity,” he said. “Eärwen would always do it for me after breakfast, but now she's off in Tirion attending to your father's hair, and I am left to the meager talents of this little miscreant.” He grabbed the boy around the waist and pulled him into his lap, tickling his chubby belly until they both dissolved into chortles of mirth.
The queen tutted at their antics, but her mouth was gentle. “I hope your ride up the coast was pleasant, Artanis?”
“Yes, my lady, it was. This is a beautiful day.”
“Indeed it is,” she said. “I believe this will become the most radiant summer we've had since the Falmari arrived in Aman—and that is saying something. I’ve directed the servants to put you in a room that overlooks the tide-pools. Does that sound pleasant?”
“Oh yes,” I said, overtaken by enthusiasm. “That would be splendid!”
“Make sure to put her near enough to the others, Ilcamë,” interjected my grandfather. “They’ll all want to cavort and frolic about in a herd, I'm sure.”
I looked between my grandparents, nonplussed. “The...others?”
Olwë waved his hand. “I mean the other children who are here in Alqualondë this summer—there are quite a lot of you, actually. Some of your cousins might be your own age, or a bit younger; all six of Lord Máro's offspring will be arriving within a fortnight...or are they here already? I can’t keep count.” The king shrugged, then returned his attention to my young cousins. In less than a minute, they were singing a Telerin ditty about clamshell boats and kingdoms beneath the sea. Then they all got up and danced down a flight of stairs that led off the balcony to the sea.
My audience with the king was at an end. I looked at Queen Ilcamë. Her pale eyes were the color of a cloud touched by Telperion's Light. “I am sure you'll have a wonderful time with us, Artanis,” she said. “It will be like having dear Eärwen back in Alqualondë.”
I knew enough of my mother's temperament to know I had very little in common with her, but I didn’t want to say as much to Ilcamë.
The queen continued: “It is true that most of the children staying here are rather younger than you, but there are two boys near your own age. I am certain they would be happy to entertain you—ah, here they are!”
Ilcamë’s eyes focused on something behind me. I glanced back to the throne room’s entrance.
Two tall, reedy figures stepped lightly toward us; they were dressed in the shapeless robes favored by most Falmari. The first boy had a long nose and full lips, and his bare arms were well-muscled. His silver braids hung to his waist in neat loops. He looked like any young nobleman I might meet in one of the fashionable salons in Tirion.
The second boy was...odd. At first glance, he seemed typical enough—solemn gray eyes, wide cheekbones, large hands. But there was something about him (perhaps in his posture?) that made him seem fey and alien. His hair was cropped close to his skull, which should have made him ugly. Yet he was beautiful. Not in the way my cousin Maitimo was beautiful; beautiful in the ethereal, golden style of Vanyarin women like Queen Indis. I stared at this boy openly, unmoored by this strange harmony of masculine and feminine in one person. He met my stare with one of his own.
I pulled my attention away only when I heard my grandmother speaking.
“Here is my granddaughter come from Tirion to keep you both company,” said Ilcamë to the newcomers. “She is of an age with you, and I am sure you will amuse each other well.”
The taller Falmaro took me in with sharp eyes and frowned. It was clear I was left wanting in his estimation. “Not another one,” he muttered.
I looked at him in confusion. Another one what?
“Now, Costamo, let us be welcoming and of good spirits this day.” The queen’s voice remained soft, but there was no mistaking the command in her words. (She had learned the lesson of quiet strength.)
The boy—Costamo—did not change his demeanor. “I will be of good spirits, but the day is almost over,” he said. “See, now the Mingling is come.”
Indeed, the Treelight had changed its hue and quality since I had first come into King Olwë’s throne room. Soon it would be time for the evening meal, and after for sleeping. It was time to make my escape.
“I shall retire,” I announced. “Perhaps I will eat in my chambers, for my escort drove a hard pace on the road to the Haven.” (I was not tired at all.)
“Excellent,” said the queen. “These two can help you find your quarters—the staff should have unpacked your luggage by now.”
I had planned on escaping from Costamo’s moody belligerence, but I smiled at Ilcamë all the same, remembering my plan to rehabilitate myself. “Thank you, my lady,” I said.
She laughed, a sound like silver water rushing across the sand. “You may call me grandmother, my dear. Everyone else does.”
We exchanged a warm glance, but then Costamo’s breath brushed my neck. He loomed over me with an annoyed expression. “Let’s go, then,” he said. Without waiting to see if I followed, he made his way back through the green-pillared room.
The fey-looking boy remained silent at my side. He gestured forward, as if to push me out the door. I lengthened my stride to catch up with Costamo in the corridor. He led our trio up a flight of stairs and to the residential wing of the palace. Chatter and giggles echoed from behind closed doors. I remembered that the king had mentioned several young visitors.
“Is there a festival in Alqualondë that has brought so many to Olwë's house this season?” I asked Costamo, guessing correctly that the fey-looking boy would not speak.
“No,” said the Falmaro. “The palace is always like this, full of the ugliest, silliest children to be found this side of the Pelóri. They flock here like a cloud of gnats.”
“Oh.” I did feel like an ugly, silly girl who'd been sent away from my parents in the same way one would put the chipped teacup in the back of the cupboard. Perhaps my parents were not the only ones with a “vacation by the sea” approach to misbehaving offspring.
“Are you here for the summer as well, then?” I asked. My question came out a breathless pant. My legs were long—I was taller now than most women and even some men—but Costamo’s were longer, and he was clearly eager to deliver me to my chambers and be rid of my questions. I couldn’t wait to see the last of him, either. Surely Alqualondë was large enough that we could spend a summer free of each other’s company?
Costamo stopped walking. Too late, I saw a flash of anger in his eyes. “No,” he snapped. “I live here all the time, always, forever. Do you need me to write that down for you, or could you stretch your small mind to retain that bit of information?”
I said nothing; my silence seemed only to enrage him further. I could feel the fey-looking boy shifting at my side.
“Of course, you have nothing to say to me, do you?” Costamo pointed a long finger toward my face. “You people are all the same—useless, arrogant lickspittles. It’s a wonder you can walk, your pillocks are so long. Tell me, my lady, does your cock ever trip you, or did they cut it off in order to pass you off as a girl?”
Costamo’s aggression rocked me back on my heels and sparked my ever-smoldering temper into a full blaze. I did what anyone in my position would have done: I swung my arm back and delivered an open-handed strike against the leering Falmaro's cheek. The crack echoed like a thunderstrike. A red mark rose beneath his pale skin.
Through the ringing in my ears, I heard the fey-looking Telerin boy groan dramatically.
So much for my three-step plan.