I stood upon the edge of the world, and I felt nothing. I was numb, I was ice. All sensation had left me—even the bitter wind no longer troubled me. My existence had collapsed into a vague tableau filled with shades of gray. The sky above me was gray; the ice beneath me was gray. The frosty plumes of my breath were gray; the near-translucent skin of my hands was gray. I stood upon the edge of the dull, colorless world, and I was empty.
When had this lack of feeling come upon me? I knew not. The emptiness had been subtle in its attack, creeping over me slowly, stealing bits and pieces of my substance and bleeding me of emotion.
My days were spent in a dream-like state, and every step I took toward the eastern shore widened the chasm where my spirit had once dwelt. The cords that bound together spirit and flesh were fraying, and I could not find in myself the strength to care, much less attempt to mend the damage. By the time we reached Endórë—if we ever did—I expected to be no more than a husk of who I had once been, my soul lost and irretrievable somewhere on the ice.
I did not realize it at the time, but I had already begun to fade, like the queen of old. Yet there would be no peaceful slumber in the gardens of Irmo for me. My descent would be marked by icy agony and silent tears. Perhaps, in some forgotten corner of my mind, I understood this, but I did not let it trouble me, not as I stood empty and dying upon the gray edge of the world.
My skeletal form barely cast a shadow on the ice, and I watched the wavering shape with morbid fascination. I had always wondered what it felt like to die—if it hurt, if it came as a relief. But I was dying now, and it was neither a pain nor a relief. There was no feeling at all, no sensation. I was dying and I felt nothing.
A short distance from where I stood, my father and brothers sat huddled around a feeble fire. Despair was etched on their pale, drawn faces, and the aura of hopeless resolve clung to them. I turned my back to them; oh, how blissful it was to be spared the pain of feeling!
I considered, for a brief time, going to join them, but I put the thought aside. I was in no humor for my father's false cheer or Findekáno's poorly concealed anger. Their company was wearying, and I was tired already.
I sighed and walked a few steps further. There were no stars in the muted sky, and their curious absence only served to feed my disconnection from our present crisis.
Dimly, like a whispered warning, my ears recognized the crunch of snow beneath boot-soles. I stiffened, sure it was one of my brothers come to reprimand me for venturing so far from our makeshift camp. I could not bear chastisement—not here and not now. I knew that one one word of reproof would shatter me entirely.
"I thought I might find you here, Írissë."
The voice was deep, but feminine, and belonged neither to Turukáno nor Findekáno (and thankfully not to my father), and though I was relieved, this intrusion on my miserable solidarity was still unwelcome. I relaxed my posture, but I did not let down my guard. Had I been stronger, I might have thought to muster my anger.
For though I knew not why my cousin had followed me, I could guess that she wasn't interested in cheerful reminiscences of our shared childhood—in part because that was not her way, and in part because our shared childhood had not been altogether cheerful.
"Turukáno says that you have taken to brooding."
I crossed my arms. "What do you want, Artanis?" My voice was dull and apathetic. Even had I risen to her bait (as she no doubt wanted), I knew that I could not wound her with mere words the way she wounded me. My cousin was as remote as Varda's stars; hard as marble and just as cold. She had always been thus, even as a child.
Indeed, as I turned to face her now, I wondered if the ice had affected Artanis at all. Her hair and skin were still radiant and shining, and her eyes were neither lifeless nor haunted. There was no emptiness inside her, and my eyes stung as I looked upon her face. The broadness of her shoulders and strength in her limbs were unaltered; she remained as hale as she ever was, while the rest of us faded into the snow.
"You look well," I told her. I thought that perhaps I had managed to inflect my customary resentment into the statement, but I could not be certain.
From the corner of my eye, I could see the graceful tilt of her neck. She was amused. "Do you find me so offensive, Írissë? Come cousin, surely at the end of the earth you can find it in you to set aside childish petulance." Her laugh, when it came, was like the pealing of a bell. I winced in spite of myself.
How long had it been since any of us had laughed?
I wanted to scowl at her smirking face, but had not the energy as I battled an overwhelming sense of déjà vu. Artanis had always laughed at me. Even in the earliest days of our childhood, my cousin had ever been able to find a joke at my expense. I had never liked to be mocked. Not by my parents, not by my brothers—certainly not by Artanis, she who had always surpassed me. More beautiful, more intelligent, more favored.
My earliest recollection was standing beside Eärwen's bed in the birthing chamber as she held her newborn daughter; the infant had pulled on my dark braids and laughed. Even then, she had found me amusing. And my childhood and early adulthood teemed with similar memories. Artanis’s muffled laughed as she talked with my brothers about my failure in our lessons; Artanis’s jubilant as she rode away with Fëanáro's sons, even though they had promised to take me with them; Artanis’s mocking laughter when she found me hiding after being kissed by one of my father's squires. Always Artanis, always laughing.
But none of that mattered now; it was past—so I tried to tell myself. (Even as I looked into the jaws of death, it was difficult to fully set aside girlhood antagonism.) All that mattered was that I wished to be alone, to examine this newfound emptiness inside me, and that Artanis was interrupting. I opened my mouth to tell her to leave, yet: "Do you miss them?" I found myself saying.
Artanis looked at me, her thick eyebrows furrowed.
"Our mothers," I said, suddenly feeling quite foolish.
She sighed, and I felt her reach for me before she seemed to think better of it. "Is that what's bothering you?"
Of course it wasn't, but I nodded all the same. I was unwilling to share with my cousin the disquieting realization that there was a hole where my heart should have been. She would flaunt her superiority and my weakness, hold it over my back like a whip, striking me without mercy or remorse. Such was Artanis's way; I knew it well.
Her bright eyes studied me. "I would imagine that they do miss us. Perhaps when they sit and sew in the gardens, they talk about you and me instead of silk and diamonds. Perhaps they entertain themselves with the idea that we have found friendship at last—a bond brought about by our mutual suffering."
That almost wrung a smile out of me, but not quite. One of the few things Artanis and I had been able to find alliance in had been our firm refusal to be friends, much to our mothers' dismay. The way my mother and Eärwen had seen it, if the two of them could be fast friends, why could not their only daughters? By the time Artanis and I came of age, they had ceased their attempts to bring us together, but they still clung to the hope that we might be reconciled—a vain hope, Artanis and I often assured them.
The mention of our girlhood antics only served to bring the hollowness inside me into sharper relief (as was no doubt Artanis’s intent). I bit my lip until I tasted blood.
I could feel Artanis’s piercing eyes on me, reading me. At length she spoke, "You are afraid."
That went without saying; only a fool would feel no fear in a position such as ours. "Aren't you?"
"Fear is the forerunner of failure."
Startled for a moment out of my dreamy apathy, I swung toward her, sure it was merely her pride talking. Artanis was no fool. But there was no falsity in her countenance. Strength and power clung to her like a second skin, and she wore them carelessly. And her eyes—oh, her eyes!—stormy and deep: an ocean without sunlight. She was completely without fear—even here, even now. Even as we made our way across this murderous ice, Artanis was unafraid.
I found myself drowning, lost to the sea of inferiority, trapped beneath the ice.
"Are you all right, Írissë?"
I shook my head, unable to speak for the water that filled my lungs.
Artanis frowned at my lack of response but said nothing else. I watched the play of emotion across her carved-marble face, but I could not discern her thoughts. Her cloudy gray eyes looked across the gray expanse of ice, scanning the feeble fires and despondent travellers. I followed her gaze and saw nothing but the failure my cousin spoke of.
I trembled, once more examining the emptiness inside. Artanis’s words had woken in me an awareness, had given me a name for this all-consuming chasm: fear. It tasted of lost hopes and death. But it sang to me; fear sang to me oh so sweetly, and I could not resist.
A touch on my shoulder brought me back. Artanis’s voice, gently saying my name, brought me back. I marveled at her tenderness even as I sank into the comfort of her touch. I opened my eyes and saw only her—the Light in her face. The Light I was sure had long since abandoned me.
"Do not think of it," she said.
I nodded obediently, yet it was a command easier issued than obeyed. Bile rose in my throat and I quelled the urge to vomit.
Artanis’s arm slid around my shoulders, and though I barely contained my surprise, I was too far gone to raise a protest. I settled into the warmth of my cousin's embrace without demur and was shocked by how right it seemed.
Hot breath tickled the shell of my ear. "Do not give in to fear, Írissë. The journey has been long, but it must come to an end. Will you succumb to death only to find that you could have lived?"
"Artanis, this journey has no end," I whispered. "I was born on this ice, I live out my days on this ice, and I will die on this ice. We are prisoners here, and there is no key to our cell."
"Don't say that."
"Why did I ever leave Tirion?" I wept. "I could have spent the rest of my life sewing in the garden and talking of silk and diamonds with my mother—with your mother. Oh, fool that I am!"
Her fingers dug into my shoulder, no longer caressing. "We did not set out from Tirion only to look back and wish that we had not. The cold, dead winter of folly and mindless devotion has ended, Írissë. The West and all that it represents is behind us now, so do not look back." My cousin's voice was hard and ruthless, and it was as if she was not truly there; rather, I was listening to some foul stranger clad in Artanis’s body. "I see that I have erred," she continued, "but Írissë, you will not find me asking for pardon, not while I have any other option still available. The journey to arrive at this moment has been long and perilous, and I do not want it to have been in vain."
Even had I tried, I could not have stopped the flow of my tears now. The barriers I had erected around my dangerous emotions were cracking. And while I panicked at my sudden loss of control, a small part of me recognized the rightness of my weeping.
My cousin seemed startled by the sound of my sobs, as if she had forgotten my presence entirely. She broke off with an impatient sound, and her face cleared. She was Artanis again, and she pressed a soft kiss to my temple.
"Írissë, you speak of imprisonment, and you speak aright. Yet it is not this ice that is the jailor; it is you yourself."
I looked at her, feeling like a drowned mariner.
"You pass your days in a constant state of fear—fear of the future, fear of the past. Fear of the power you've begun to see in yourself," Artanis said. "Yet all this is beyond your control, and it helps you not to dwell on it. You've built walls of fear around your head, but you grow restless within them. Tear them down, Írissë, and do not fault this ice for your own wrongdoing."
Her hands were gentle again where they touched me, and I leaned against her. Tears fell unchecked down my cold cheeks. "I am so empty, Artanis," I whispered.
"Then fill the hollow places. Push fear out."
"Yes, you can," she hissed. "You must." She kissed me again, wiped away my tears. "Do it for me if you can't do it for yourself."
She pulled away, and my skin stung where her hands had been. I was a newborn babe, grasping at life with ineffectual fists. I watched her go and said nothing, though I longed to call her back. But I knew how my display of weakness must have disgusted her, and I refrained. It was probably the first time in my life that I thought of Artanis as anyone other than my opponent and rival.
I breathed in the icy air and winced. Where the emptiness had been, there was now an exquisite ache. I was not sure if I preferred this sensation to not feeling at all.
"She's right, you know."
I whirled and saw Findekáno. I knew not how long he had been standing there, but from his expression I surmised that he had heard most—if not all—of my conversation with our cousin. His angular jaw was set; the brittle mask he had worn for some time was firmly in place. But his dark eyes flashed, and I knew he was barely containing his anger. It seemed to me that he had been angry quite often of late.
"Don't let fear consume you, little sister," he said. "Find something else to take its place. And cling to it."
I met his stare. In truth, my brother seemed to be the least affected by the ice—aside from Artanis, that is. "What do you cling to, Findekáno?"
His smile was terrifying. "Rage, vengeance, hatred. They keep me warm." He spoke of Maitimo, I knew, and I shivered at the intensity of his emotion. The full details of what had transpired between the two of them were unknown by all save Findekáno and Maitimo, but I knew enough.
My brother's face softened. "I don't want to lose you, Írissë. Do not give in."
And he left me, just as Artanis had, leaving me alone with the blossoming ache. I had never felt more powerless, no matter what my cousin said. But I felt, and it was enough.
A beautiful, agonizing pain welled up inside me, and at that moment I could have laughed louder and longer even than Artanis.
I stood upon the edge of the gray world, and I felt cold.