Silmfic for the International Day of Femslash: "The Sailing Forth"
One oppressive summer in Tirion, Anairë is sent by her father to Alqualondë. A diligent scholar and obedient daughter, Anairë has never made time for love, but finds her womanhood awakened by the most unlikely of romantic partners: Eärwen, daughter of the Telerin king. As the summer draws to a close, both women must accept that their obligations to their families and people do not allow much space for their love.
This is an adult-rated story on the SWG for reason of sexual content. The story is also up on the SWG and AO3.
The Sailing Forth
"Fingolfin's wife Anairë refused to leave Aman, largely because of her friendship with Eärwen wife of Arafinwë …"
-The Peoples of Middle-earth, The Shibboleth of Fëanor
Summer in Tirion was oppressive, like catching Treelight in a bottle, with all that white stone and relative lack of shade trees. Heat came first from Laurelin, then redounded from the stones around us. Even the water of Tirion's many fountains became tepid from the constant onslaught of heat, as refreshing as a bowl of soup. I kept my feet firmly in my shoes.
The Valar, according to my father, had noted seasonal variation elsewhere in Arda and thought to replicate it here in Aman. Tirion was warm year-round, its coldest nights requiring no more than a light cloak, and why they thought to introduce seasonal variation in the form of sweltering summers rather than the occasional graceful, delicate frost or snow—something I'd seen only in paintings and heard tell of in tales—baffled me. "Frost kills," my father explained, as we struggled through a supper that consisted of limp salads and thinly sliced meat made coolish in the root cellar. "It creeps in and brings death by slow degrees. They wanted nothing to suffer a death of cold in Valinor."
Many, he added, had died of cold in Utumno. He hadn't been born in the Outer Lands, but my grandparents had; his voice was tight and impatient with me when I inquired after what I perceived as flaws in Valinor. The land we left behind, he said, was no place to which we wanted to ever return. The few months of heat in Tirion were a small price to pay for never having to go back there.
I sat in the parlor with all of the windows thrown open and a breeze teasing the curtains in a way that would have been refreshing to look upon were the breeze itself not hot as breath. My muslin dress clung to my skin, and I had pulled it up to my thighs on the expectation that none would see—and too hot to care, really, about the infinitesimal chance that they did—and I tried to read, a book light and frivolous. I was studying Avarin dialects, but concentrating too long on anything intensive only made me feel hotter and kindled a headache like someone was pressing their thumbs to the backs of my eyeballs. Even the novel I read became irritating after only a short while, the heroine senselessly flippant, the humor forced, and the many brisk breezes the author let catch her silver-spun hair cruelly tempting. I let the book drop to the floor after a while and assumed the same stature of a stone in Tirion: listless and utterly still, soaking in the heat.
"I have a gift for you," my father told me that night. It was fruits and cheeses for supper this time, the cheeses having grown warm and sticky even in the short walk from the cellar. I had piled my hair onto the top of my head, held in place with a few pins, patted my neck with water, and the air against my dampened skin was the best sensation I'd known in days.
It was still a month to my begetting day, so I could not imagine what he had to give me, nor could I—in the heat—muster much enthusiasm for it. I lifted my eyebrows in inquiry.
"I know you are miserable at this time of year," he said. "You are too far from our people's travails in the Outer Lands to treat the summer heat as the minor inconvenience that it is. I am dismayed that you have gotten so little work on your paper for the Lambengolmor done as a result. I do not wish for this summer to end an utter loss, so I have made arrangements with one of the lords of the Telerin court that you should stay there until the heat subsides, in Alqualondë. It is cooler by the sea, and you can resume your work. You should begin packing your trunk tonight, for I have arranged a carriage to take you tomorrow afternoon."
It was too hot for hugs and kisses or even loud gratitude, and we were not the sorts for such displays anyway. "I am delighted," I said. "Thank you." Even though my neck had dried and the slight whisper of a breeze that had comforted me subsided, I even managed to finish my supper.
My father had risen in the ranks of the Noldorin lords because of the Teleri. My grandmother on my father's side was one of the Nelyar, the divisions between people in those early days not nearly as tidy as the legends suggested. She always stayed with the people of Tata and Tatië, despite waking with the later group and having the distinctive silvery hair of that people. She sang like a Nelya and, like a Tatya, fashioned jewelry from beads that she made from clay and, once the art was discovered, glass. My father's sole romantic fixation in his youth seemed to be the "exotic" heritage of his mother, and from it, he made serious study and significant discoveries about the Telerin dialect. King Finwë initially relied on him primarily as a translator, but when that work resulted in the construction of the magnificent Alqualondë by the Noldor—an achievement eased, my father liked to remind me, by natural exchanges made possible by translators like him—then King Finwë rewarded him with a title and a big stone mansion on the edge of the royal section of Tirion. His work with the Teleri continued, and because of the seemingly indefatigable friendship between the two peoples and kings, this work came always to King Finwë redolent of a certain celebratory air—my father's reports were never begrudged at court—and my father became a favorite as a result.
I, however, had never been to Alqualondë. As a girl, I stayed with my mother in Tirion. After my mother departed in pursuit of dreams bigger than the city walls could contain, I was busy with my studies and had little interest in leaving my books for a glimpse of the city by the sea.
The Royal Road connected Tirion, Valmar, and Alqualondë and was mostly dull to look upon, with little more than a punctual outcropping every few leagues of inns and taverns, each indistinguishable from the next. The shade of the Calacirya was so refreshing that I nodded off in the carriage and missed most of the famous passage between mountains that scraped the sky. Then the road, curving north, balanced between the mountains and the shore, and periodically, I would catch a glimpse over the scrub-covered dunes of the jewel-green sea beyond. Sometimes, too, a blissfully cool breeze would wind its way through the dunes and cool my sweat-dampened skin.
We began to climb a wearyingly long and mild hill that slowed the horses, and I began to wonder if we'd ever reach Alqualondë. On the maps, it was a thumb-width up the coast from the Calacirya, a mere dash in thought. But then we crested the hill and it was there: Alqualondë, the city of the Teleri. The pale palaces and towers were distinctly Noldorin, but huddled around them were thousands of small buildings built of sea-stone and vividly painted, each slightly different from the next. And the lanterns— I had heard of the lanterns, but I did not anticipate their beauty. Out of sight of the Trees, the Teleri made their own light by filling their city with lanterns, not the pale blue-white Fëanorian lamps that allowed for detailed work and reading deep into Telperion's hours but glass lanterns of every color and myriad shapes, each with a glowing lampstone at its heart. Each window and each door had a lantern. They hung on lines along the streets and wrapped the spires of the taller buildings. The light they made spilled onto the sea, and from a distance, it was hard to tell where the city ended and the water began, the colored light of the lanterns smearing into the silver light of the stars, becoming stars themselves beyond the horizon, a scattering of light made by Ilúvatar and the Eldarin people. I gasped with its beauty.
Tirion was built on the Hill of Túna, and the lower circles of the city were reserved for the commoners and their blacksmith forges and furniture shops; the air stung with smoke and clamored with the sounds of hammers and saws and the voices raised to overcome them. As one climbed higher, the city became more quiet and dignified, as colleges and libraries and respectable merchants replaced the craftsmen in their open-air shops.
In Alqualondë, there was no such structure, and once past the gate, the carriage slowed to a crawl to allow for the narrow streets teeming with vendors selling fish and pearls from wooden carts that wobbled across our path and stopped with no mind to the traffic backing up behind them. The Teleri didn't seem to mind; they leaned on their carts and chatted with each other in their quick, musical dialect. Musicians stood on street corners, and the better ones drew crowds large enough that they filled the street and we had to sit and wait for the songs to change and the people to disperse. Merchants sang their wares to passersby: "Silver and pearls! Harps! Silver rings!" A bright-eyed boy walked easily beside the carriage and tried to convince me to buy one of the hundreds of pearls that ran from his hands like droplets of water into a silver bowl. He offered to have his mother set it in silver before a customer grabbed his arm to buy a pearl, and the crowd contracted around him.
I was staying with one of King Olwë's lords, a man equal in stature to my father and a "great friend," although it was hard to imagine my father having friends. This lord's house was larger than most I had seen in Alqualondë and clearly of Noldorin construction, but the little sea-stone hovels butted right up to it on either side, and lanterns stretched from a high balcony down to each house nearby, spokes of light that stretched over the street and suggested some indulgence of the commoners by the lord. The carriage driver stopped right in the street in front of the house—there was no garden—ignoring the swarm of pushcarts and other vehicles behind us, which teemed sluggishly and nonchalantly around us as the driver helped me down and shouldered my trunk to carry up to the house. A jumble of Telerin voices rose around me; gulls screamed; the air smelled of salt and fish, and for the first time, I realized that I was in a strange place, with a strange family, and utterly alone.
I stopped halfway up the short walk to the lord's house and took a few fumbling steps backward toward the cart. Suddenly the heat of Tirion didn't seem so bad. I wondered what I had been thinking when I'd agreed to this.
But the carriage driver was already knocking on the door, which was swinging open, and eager faces were already filling it: the lord and his wife and daughter, beckoning to me on the path, calling to me in their lovely Telerin voices. I smiled primly and finished the walk with slow steps, like I'd intended to be deliberate and decorous all along.
The heavy Noldorin construction of the house blocked most of the noise from the streets, and I was given a bedroom at the back of the house anyway, overlooking the beach and the sea. Rows of glass doors opened onto a private patio bordered by trellises heavy with thick green vines adorned with magenta flowers. The sand from the beach spilled right onto the patio.
"You like it?" The lord's daughter Eallindalë appeared in the door behind me. She was small, as the Teleri tended to be, and not quite of age, clearly eager to please and with a certain mischievous glint to her eye. But my smile to her was genuine, as was my assurance, "I like it."
An empty bookshelf stood in one corner, and she watched as I unpacked my books and carefully lined them on the shelf. The Teleri, I knew from my father, did not have a culture based in literacy. Their nobility knew how to read and write the Tengwar, and messages flashed back and forth via fast riders on the Royal Road, but their lore and their stories were kept in an oral tradition and transmitted in song. Even their histories and genealogies were learned by young poets and musicians at similar points in their careers as I was. Eallindalë, I knew, though young and unimposing, with her loose silver hair and large gray eyes, probably knew more songs than could be contained in the books that she admired as I stacked them on the shelves. When she'd offered her hands to me in greeting, her fingertips were capped with the distinctive calluses of a musician.
"You are studying all those?" she asked finally.
I nodded. "I am researching the Avarin dialects of the Outer Lands." She swallowed and ducked her head, and I knew she understood not a bit of what that meant. "How people spoke, before they came here."
"Oh. You will be busy then, tonight, or—"
She was on the verge of extending some kind of social invitation. I thought of my father back home—he'd sent me here to advance my studies; he was hoping I might read a paper at the next meeting of the Lambengolmor—and the journey here, the farthest from home I'd ever been. I should refuse the invitation. I thought of the sights of Alqualondë, of the boy with the pearls and the tiny, colorful houses scattered like a child's blocks alongside the streets, and the wobbly carts full of fish. I'd seen more new things in the past few hours than I'd seen in the last few years in Tirion. Books contain worlds, my father liked to say, and so perhaps all of Eä might fit onto my bookshelf here, but the world contains worlds too, I might say in answer, and the jumble of voices outside the house nearly begged to be discovered and made familiar.
"I will have to work sometimes but not tonight. I'd like to see the city, if you'd show me?"
Like one of their colorful glass lanterns, Eallindalë flushed with a warm glow as she smiled. "In the silver hours then," she said, "I have something to show you."
The streets were nearly quiet when we slipped from the house and let the door snick shut behind us. She clasped my hand as we trotted down the street, and I became aware that I was holding my breath. Off the main street was a honeycomb of alleyways that passed between the houses that piled back almost onto the beach. I lost my way quickly in the tangle of turns but Eallindalë led us true and stopped in front of a house with a beautiful glass lantern made of swirls of red and gold glass over the door. She tapped the window and, a few moments later, a young man darted silently into the street.
They kissed and embraced, and I made a quick study of my feet while they did. Hand-in-hand with the boy, Eallindalë beckoned me silently to follow her. As we darted down the street on silent feet, breaths held, the boy swooped to retrieve a bottle from beneath a fish cart parked beside the house and tucked it under his arm.
We reached the beach and began to walk north, until the haze of colored light from the city was far enough behind us that the stars were picked out brighter than I'd ever seen them against a sky black enough to shame the richest velvet. The air coming off the sea was cool—almost cold—but we walked briskly, and just when I was going to ask if the walk was the purpose or if we had an actual destination in mind, a flicker of orangish light suggested itself over the next dune, and Eallindalë and the boy began to run, laughing and stumbling in the sand slipping beneath their feet, scaling the dune with feet and hands both. As we crested the dune, I saw the light came from a fire roaring as tall as a man and circled by probably two dozen young Teleri.
Many of them rose as we slid down the dune, and all called or lifted their hands in greeting. Eallindalë was embraced by a few squealing young girls, and the boy exchanged the quick, clapping handclasps that I had observed among the male commoners. I wasn't left standing alone for long. "This is Anairë, I was telling you about, from Tirion," Eallindalë was saying, and the girls' names followed so quickly after that my mind hadn't even time to prepare to hear them much less learn them. Except for the last.
"… and of course, Eärwen."
I started. Eärwen! I knew that name! The girl came forward, a tiny, beautiful young woman with an even smile and eyes as bright as the stars overhead—yes, she was the Eärwen, the Telerin princess. Quickly, I dropped my chin and curtsied.
"Princess Eärwen, I am honored, I didn't—"
She caught my hands in both of hers and pulled me upright. She was surprisingly strong for one so small. "So Noldorin!" I heard someone say from the circle, answered by a laugh that sounded like the swipe of a finger against a row of chimes. I felt my face growing hot and was glad for the dark. "You do not have to," Eärwen said. "We are all friends here. We leave our titles in Alqualondë. You are most welcome."
"Thank you, my—Eärwen," I managed to stammer.
She led me by the hand to the circle around the bonfire. Bodies quickly shifted to the left and right to make room for us. A glass was put into my hand and a splash of what appeared to be golden wine poured within. The portion was rather meager but, looking around the fire, most of the people appeared to be commoners, and perhaps that was all they could afford. I should have brought a bottle myself, I realized now, and was grateful for their hospitality. Should I be invited again, I would come better prepared. I smiled and lifted my glass to drink.
"Careful," Eärwen whispered. "Sip it."
I did as she said and was glad for it—it was not wine but rum. Had I drank as deeply as I'd intended, I realized, I would have surely sputtered rum all over and humiliated myself again. So Noldorin! Eärwen was prattling already to someone sitting across the fire from us, her warning to me unnoticed by the others. Maybe it was the rum or maybe it was truly gratitude, but I felt something inside me warm at the thought of the Telerin princess.
I sipped my drink again. It was sweet and biting, and the glass was drained before long. Eärwen herself sprang up to refill it, giving me two splashes this time and the same for herself. "Let's drink to friendship!" she said, and everyone scrambled for discarded cups and half-full bottles. She linked our arms. "Drink!" she commanded. Then we turned and linked arms and did the same with the person on the other side.
The rum addled my head most delightfully. I heard myself laughing. Someone picked up a guitar and Eärwen and several others began to sing. "Sing with us!" she called to me. I didn't know the words but I had a fair enough voice, so I made sounds along with the melody.
That song ended and another picked up where it left off. I became aware that the number of Elves around the fire was diminished when the person playing the guitar dropped the instrument unceremoniously in the sand and ran off, laughing, behind the young man who'd grabbed her hand. They disappeared behind the dunes.
Eallindalë and her young man were kissing again, lying in the sand, their mouths opening and closing to each other, their hands stroking the length of the other's body. I watched them, and the lightness in my head became counterbalanced by a sudden heaviness in my lower belly. I became aware that I was staring, rudely and unabashed, not that they knew to mind. I wrenched my gaze from them with whatever small shred of willpower hadn't been sodden in drink and found Eärwen watching me, a laugh on her lips and her eyes bright.
"Do you have a boy back home?" she asked.
"Oh. No," I said. "My father wants me to finish my studies before seeing suitors."
"So you've never made love?"
"Of course not!"
Eallindalë sprang up suddenly from the sand and ran off behind the dunes, her boy close at her heels. I suddenly understood where they were going and the weight in my belly sank lower and burned hotter. I laid back on the sand under the pretense of feeling lightheaded, so that Eärwen wouldn't see.
"Would you like to try it?" she asked.
Her kiss was soft at first, then our mouths opened and our tongues touched. She tasted sweet, of the rum we'd drank and something else that I'd learn was her, Eärwen, like honey and light. Her hand rested on my ribs; I became aware that I was caressing her spine through her dress, marveling at the delicate perfection of her bones. She slid her hand higher and cupped my breast through my dress.
She kissed my throat, my collarbone, down to the neckline of my dress. She stopped there and let her hand fall back to my ribs, then lift away. She smiled and lay on the sand next to me, pressed a sisterly kiss to my cheek. "There. Now you've done it."
I wanted to turn and kiss her again, deeper this time. I wanted to kiss her throat. I wanted her to touch me under my clothes this time. I ached between my legs. I crushed my knees together, to ease the ache. I wanted more, but I didn't dare ask.
I woke late the next morning, too late, and ran to breakfast while indecorously pulling on my shoes. The family was almost finished by the time I arrived. Eallindalë's face and eyes looked how I hoped mine did not: waxen-pale with dark circles under her eyes. I tried to look bright and alert as I apologized for my lateness and slid into my seat.
"It is no worry," said the lord. "It is difficult adjusting without the Light of the Trees." But when I reached for a bread roll, I saw him exchange a smirking glance with his wife.
"Your parents know about last night!" I hissed later to Eallindalë. I was supposed to be reading in the parlor while she practiced her guitar. She sniffed and twisted one of the tuning pegs. "Of course they know."
"What do you mean? I thought it was meant to be secret!" I thought again of Eärwen, and my breakfast churned in my stomach. The Telerin princess! What had I done? I imagined the friendship my father had built with the Teleri—and with King Finwë as a result—shattered by my indiscretion. I was of age and of Noldorin nobility; I would one day be betrothed to a lord suitable to my station. I knew better than to do what I'd done last night.
Yet I’d woken in the early hours of the morning, my frustrated body unable to hold out any longer, pressing my hips into the mattress as a climaxed, Eärwen's name on my lips.
"You don't have a tradition like this in Tirion?" Eallindalë asked. "How do you meet boys?"
"In court, in lectures, at balls …"
She blinked at me. I realized that she was trying not to show her surprise and distaste. "We do things differently here." She was suddenly very involved in tuning her guitar. "Our parents can't send us off to meet in the night, because it is against the laws of the Valar. But they know we do it—they did it too!—and they allow it."
"The boy you were with," I asked, "is he your betrothed?"
"He is a commoner, Anairë," she said. "I'd have to be very certain of my love for him to marry him." She shrugged. "I like him well enough, and he likes me. We make each other happy. He is a good kisser and good with his hands." She smiled a secret smile and strummed a slow chord on the guitar. "I doubt we'll marry. We wouldn't be a good match."
"And going back behind the dunes?"
She smiled that secret smile again. "Someday I'll go back with a boy I will want to marry. He won't regret my experiences with those who came before him, nor will I regret his."
I busied myself in the next few days with my work, letting the paper that my father wanted me to read before the Lambengolmor become central in my thoughts. I finished a book and started making notes. Eallindalë watched me with fascination, sometimes practicing her music but mostly going for picnics with the other lords' daughters. She invited me, and I studiously declined, clamping down on the question that sprang into my mind: Will Eärwen be there? Most likely not, I told myself, and did it matter if she was? We'd both had too much rum, and she'd initiated me into the custom of her people, done me a favor. Nothing was meant by it. I told myself that.
Only my body refused to listen. I would drift into thought about a difficult passage and find myself growing warm and thinking of her. Once, I caught myself cupping my own breast, just as she'd done, while I read.
It wasn't even natural, this attraction. I would marry a lord's son alike to me in station. Women were not meant to lie with women; our biology revealed it to be illogical and the law forbade it. All this means, I told myself over and over again, is that I am ready for marriage. I had directed lusts that were natural for my age toward Eärwen. My father wanted me to finish my studies, claiming that too many young women became caught up in the blissful first years of marriage and then children, setting aside their work and reentering their field after their children were grown at a distinct disadvantage. I thought of my mother when he said that and wanted to ask if this is why she had left home to work outside the city, but he never mentioned my mother, and in that forbidding silence, I sensed he preferred I do the same.
When I return home, I decided, I will tell him that I would like to begin seeing suitors. I will do my best to finish my studies while courting, but it is time. This is proof that it is time.
But none of the handsome lords' sons filled my thoughts unbidden; it was Eärwen.
A few days later, an invitation came to the house during breakfast. It was handed to the lord, then passed down to Eallindalë and me. She yelped with delight and broke the seal. I leaned over just in time to see that it was King Olwë's device before she snapped it in two. My heart began to thump double-time in my chest.
"It's from Eärwen!" she announced. "She is getting together a swimming party tomorrow to see off the ships and wants Anairë and me to come." She turned to me. "You'll need a bathing dress."
There was no question of whether we'd go or not. One tradition held true between the Noldor and Teleri: If one of the royal house summoned you to a social occasion, you went and considered it an honor. Eallindalë's parents, I knew, were delighted; my father would have been too, had he known. My books went unopened that afternoon as I followed Eallindalë out of the house that afternoon and into the busy main avenue. Hand-in-hand, we dodged fish carts and the occasional carriage, and her quick and witty replies kept the more ambitious merchants from delaying us with their pitches.
"Lady Falmaven makes the best bathing dresses," Eallindalë told me.
"Yes, her father was a lord, and she inherited his place when he decided he wanted to go back to sea. She doesn't have the time for her shop that she used to, but her work is still the best."
The shop was a little larger than most of the others on the main avenue, painted a pristine white and draped with blue lanterns. Unlike most merchants, who strewed their wares outdoors, on tables under canopies that pulled out in front of their shops, her wares were indoors and behind a closed door to keep out the dampness and the sand. Only a modest though elegantly painted sign hung over the door. A lantern over the door clanked as we opened it, and the woman sewing at the back of the shop set down her work to embrace Eallindalë and clasp both my hands as Eallindalë introduced us.
"We've been invited to watch the ships go out tomorrow with Princess Eärwen!"
As Lady Falmaven hurried around the shop, pulling out items seemingly at random from piles of cloth, it occurred to me that everyone was excited about our invitation tomorrow, including me, but my excitement was for a different reason. I didn't care for the honor of being seen with the Telerin princess on an important social occasion; I wanted to see Eärwen. I told myself that what happened the other night would never repeat itself, but I had still enjoyed Eärwen's company, her natural warmth and grace. I remembered how carefully she'd drawn attention away from my first blunders at the gathering and felt grateful for that. The flushes of warmth in my face and belly when I thought of her, I knew, would subside with time. I hoped a genuine friendship would grow between us.
Lady Falmaven was holding up brightly colored and intricately embroidered tunics against me, one after the other. "You are fuller in the hip and bust and taller than most Telerin girls, Anairë," she said, "but I am certain I have something that will flatter you. She held up a light blue tunic made of a silken, shimming material with only a delicate braid of embroidering the hems. "This," she said. "This will look beautiful on you. It will accentuate your dark hair and your eyes."
I took it from her and waited.
"See the curtain in the back? You can try it on back there," she told me.
"But—where is the rest of it?"
I have to give credit to Lady Falmaven for not laughing at me; Eallindalë giggled before she realized my confusion and then horror at the size of the tiny dress. "No one will look at you strangely, love," Lady Falmaven told me as she guided me toward the curtain with a warm hand at the center of my back. "Such dresses are customary here, and I assure you that girls who buy theirs from seamstresses younger and more liberal than me will have short hemlines and lower necklines than anything you'll find in my shop."
The tiny bathing dress revealed the tops of my breasts and most of my thighs. It clung at my waist so that even the ripple of my ribs was visible and my nipples— I clutched my breasts when I realized that my nipples were poking through the thin cloth. I stood, huddled around myself, until the curtain behind me whipped open, and I was unsure if I should be more ashamed of being seen in the tiny dress, or ashamed of being seen so obviously ashamed.
Lady Falmaven took my hands and slowly lowered them to my sides. "Anairë!" she breathed. "You look stunning!" She turned me to the full-length mirror behind me. In it, I saw Eallindalë poke her head around the curtain and heard her gasp. "Most Telerin girls will never fill a bathing dress," Lady Falmaven was telling me as she plucked the material here and there so that it lay right on my body, "and by the time motherhood fills out their figures, then they have lost the litheness of their youth. But you—you are perfection."
I tried to see myself as she was seeing me, like I was looking at a stranger and not an awkward Noldorin girl in a too-small bathing costume. In art, we were not abashed by nudity, and I had walked beside my father in many galleries, admiring statues and paintings where the figures wore not a stitch of clothing, had myself traced a breast or buttock done well and praised the lines. "What do you see?" Lady Falmaven breathed into my ear, low so that Eallindalë wouldn't hear. A statue. Beautiful lines. A woman.
Olwë's palace fronted the water like most of the lords' homes, but unlike every other building I'd seen in Alqualondë, it didn't have other, smaller buildings piled up to its very walls. Relatively few plants grew in the salty air and sandy soil so close to the sea, I'd learned, but what did grow, some gardener with exceptional talent had arranged so that even the humble dune grasses and downright ugly nettle bushes had a place where they could look beautiful. Elaborate sand sculptures rose to impossible heights, delicate arches and uplifted arms seemingly defying gravity. A pair of sculptors were pushing a wheelbarrow of wet sand to the site of a new sculpture, and ordinarily, I might have been drawn to watch for a few minutes, my curiosity overwhelming my reticence to where I might even ask a few questions of them, but today, I kept close to Eallindalë's heels and walked quickly up the front path to the palace. For all my brave thoughts yesterday about hoping for friendship with Eärwen—nothing more—my churning stomach betrayed me today. What if the other night wasn't a mistake? I wondered. What if it happens again?
I had spent most of yesterday evening, reading in the parlor while Eallindalë played her guitar, gathering my courage to ask, "Have you ever heard of a woman loving another woman, like in the romantic sense?" I couldn't bring myself to say sexual. Eallindalë's eyebrows knit quickly. "Of course!" She went back to fumbling out a new melody, then stopped and laughed. "So you Noldor aren't so uptight after all!"
"No! It doesn't happen in Tirion." That made her laugh too. "But I'd heard of it happening …" I didn't want to say here. That seemed too suggestive.
A servant at the door directed us upstairs, where he said the girls were changing into their bathing dresses in Eärwen's bedroom. I clutched my handbag, in which the small, shimmery blue dress lay folded into a small square, and climbed the stairs after Eallindalë. She seemed to know where she was going, and barged into a closed door, provoking some shrieks followed by laughing scolds of, "Oh, it's just you! Late as always! We thought you were coming!"
"Making an entrance, as always," she said. "Hurry, Anairë, so I can close the door!"
I squeezed in past her into a room packed with girls in varying states of undress. I saw Eärwen having the back of her gown unlaced, and her face lit up with the smile and hearty wave she gave us. I smiled and waved back, demurely, and ducked into the crowd when I saw the girl behind her was easing her sleeves off of her arms.
I found a place against the wall and, with my back turned to the room, undressed as quickly as I could and slipped the blue bathing dress over my head, then shimmied into the underpants that went with it. I took my time in folding my clothes, keeping my back resolutely turned until I heard Eärwen shout, "Everyone dressed?" I turned to find the room a patchwork of brightly colored bathing dresses—and Lady Falmaven was right that most revealed far more skin than mine—each seemingly lovelier than the next. Mine drew several gasps of delight and inspections that made me blush and conscious again of my body beneath so little covering. Eärwen was herding everyone out of the room. "You all take so long we're going to miss the ships going out!" I tried to blend into the knot of girls who'd been admiring my dress, a difficult proposition given that the tallest of them only came up to my ear. Eärwen's eyes fixed right on me as I approached the door. Did something flash there? I dared not hope. Did she glance at my breasts, my waist in the clingy material? She smiled broadly. Surely she hadn't. I kept my eyes carefully on her face, her smile. She squeezed my hand as I passed. "I am so glad you came, Anairë."
At the hottest point of the summer, when Laurelin's light was most intense, the plankton in the stripe of sea just in front of the Calacirya, where the Treelight spills across the water, quickly grew abundant. They attracted small grazing fish, which then attracted larger fish, right up to the giant game fish that leapt shimmering from the sea and formed the hub upon which the Telerin culture revolved.
Every ship in Alqualondë went out for this time, Eallindalë had told me. It was at its best for only a few days; after that passed, the sailors retreated home and left the fish alone to recover their numbers so that the coast just off of Alqualondë remained fruitful. They sang a song to the fish left behind about meeting them in the next year off of Alqualondë or again the following season at the Calacirya.
Anyone left on land went to watch the ships leave. Shops closed and even the pushcarts full of fish were left parked beside houses. As we approached the beach, the smell of food being cooked over open fires drifted upon the cool sea breeze. The beach was packed with people in bathing outfits, packed shoulder to shoulder, some lying on the sand upon rugs, others out in the water. Eärwen led us south, to where she said she knew of a sandbar. Others cleaved to our party as we went, mostly boys. One approached me, smiling and asking why I went unescorted. The other girls giggled and nudged me as I let myself be absorbed into their center, blushing, and the boy disappeared behind us.
"Because Anairë looks gorgeous!" someone was saying, and another sighed in answer, "I wish I looked Noldorin."
We waded out to the sandbar and stood in water to our knees. The occasional wave would lap as high as our waists, and the others leaped as high as they could then, trying to jump over it, and scolding Ossë for his tricks. Ossë, in their stories, like to lift women's bathing dresses. Eallindalë had drifted off with a group of her friends and Eärwen was down the sandbar from me, so I joined the others in jumping over the waves and told myself that I was relieved to be in a crowd large enough to be alone.
"This must all be new for you, isn't it?" I started a little at the familiar voice, and Eärwen was at my elbow. She'd left her hair free, and the damp, salty air had whipped it into curls that she pushed back constantly from her face. Her bathing dress was a pale purple; I let myself look now, quickly, so that I could admire the embroidery if we ran out of things to say.
"It is," I acknowledged. "A week ago, I hadn't even seen the ocean."
"I've never been to Tirion either," she said, running her hand back through her hair and turning to face into the brisk breeze. A tendril of her hair batted against my arm. "Maybe I'll have to visit you sometime?"
My heart was pounding. "You'd always be welcome."
"Look!" someone cried then. "The ships! The ships are going out!"
Within minutes, the sea just off the coast was full of white sails, ballooned fat with wind and bobbing southward. Each ship was draped with lanterns of different colors and patterns. People leaped and waved to those they knew and many that they did not, and sometimes, the sailors waved back. The ship sailed by King Olwë and his sons came into view, with its layer upon layer of white sails and its two decks and its lanterns so pure in their light that the masts looked as though they were strung with stars. "I hope you made those sails well, Eärwen!" one of the girls called to her, and she said quietly to me, by way of explanation, "Everyone knows I am awful at sewing sails. I sewed one for my father so that he can keep it folded in a chest on-deck for luck. Valar willing he will never actually have to hoist it!" She lifted her arm in greeting, and a tiny King Olwë appeared and waved back. Some of the other girls were chattering about which of the small figures beside him were the princes, and who they had waved back to. Eärwen's hand dropped to her side, then slipped into mine.
Others around us were clasping hands too, I told myself. Some had their arms around each other's waists. We are becoming friends, I insisted to myself. Friends.
From the second deck of King Olwë's ship, a small light zipped skyward like a shooting star zipping back into the firmament and exploded above the ship in a shower of blue sparks. More followed, from the decks of other ships and from places on the beach as well, until it seemed the sky was adorned like Alqualondë, in thousands of tiny colored lights. Eärwen gasped and cheered for each. I watched them in her eyes.
Everyone had dispersed. It was night, and the beach was almost deserted. Down the beach from us, two shadows on a rug twisted into one, but even in just such a short time in Alqualondë, this had ceased to shock me.
Eärwen and I sat on the bare, cool sand. We dug out feet under it and tried to lift the sand upon them without letting it spill to the ground. A nearly empty bottle of wine was stuck into the sand between us.
I felt like I'd told her my whole life story, and she had told me hers. My throat was hoarse from laughing and cheering and talking. We are friends, I told myself, just like I said we'd be.
For she hadn't touched me after we'd stood, hands clasped, on the sandbar. She certainly hadn't kissed me or made any mention of the other night.
I am content with that, I thought. I am happy just to be with her.
A man was making his way down the beach. Something about his stature and the placid set of his face revealed him to be very old. Eärwen nudged me to watch him closer. He was using a sift to comb through the sand of the beach. "Tomorrow," she said, "he will sell what he finds in the city, the things that people lost tonight."
We laughed quietly as he made a circle around the lovers, then sifted a spot of sand past them and extracted a pearl bracelet and slipped it into his pocket.
As he disappeared down the beach, comfortable silence fell between us. I was thinking I might even be able to sleep there on the sand, with the cool breeze caressing my bare legs, when Eärwen spoke.
"The other night," she said, "I shouldn't have presumed to do what I did. It is a special thing, your first kiss. I shouldn't have presumed that simply having it was more important than who it was with. I'm sorry, Anairë." She gazed at the sea as she spoke but turned to look at me then, to await my reply.
We were friends. I could simply forgive her, and we'd go on being friends. Or—
"It was no presumption. You don't need to apologize, I—"
Loved it? Want it again? What, Anairë? What, exactly, do you mean to say to her?
"I would do it again, if I could have that night over."
She watched me a long time. She was searching my face for signs that I was merely speaking out of politeness, to not hurt her feelings. She was the daughter of the Telerin king, and I suddenly realized that she probably knew more about my people than I knew about hers. She knew our excessive decorum and our relative adherence to the laws of the Valar; both of those things suggested that I was lying to her. I reached out and gently touched her arm, just above the elbow.
"I like boys and girls both, Anairë," she said, still reading me. "You do too?"
I swallowed. I spoke carefully. "I never thought much about either, honestly. My father wants me to finish my studies, so I never gave much consideration to what it means to be a woman. But what you did the other night—I know I liked it."
"You would do it again?"
She sat up and lowered the top of her bathing dress. Her breasts were small, the nipples already erect, and her belly concave. Her hair, curled and tangled by the wind off the sea, partly covered her. She laid beside me again and pressed my hand to her breast, sighing with pleasure. I circled her nipple with my thumb, and the sigh turned into a moan.
We kissed deeply, and she caressed me through my dress, then pushed down the neckline low enough that I knew the touch of her naked skin on mine. I pressed my hips into her, like I'd done the other night into the mattress. The ache between my legs was almost more than I could bear. She stood up and quickly pulled her dress over her head and, with a quick push down her hips, her underpants were off too, and she stood naked in the starlight, backlit by the faint lights of the city in the distance. "Look at me, Anairë," she said, and I did: her slender body so different from mine, the slight swell of her breasts and hips, the cleft between her legs …
She helped me out of my underpants. It didn't take long: A few quick strokes of her fingers had me arching off of the sand, pressing my face into her neck, her breasts, and gasping my pleasure in the shape of her name. My fingers fumbled her, desperate and awkward, and she guided me, slowed and lightened my touch, and then she was circling her hips, her head thrown back and her face radiant with joy, crying my name to the stars.
Eärwen and I saw each other every day that summer. My paper for the Lambengolmor took shape in fits and starts between seeing her. She had the splendor of a star and pulled others toward her; she was constantly organizing social outings, and so I often saw her in a group, with Eallindalë. But she always found a way for us to be alone. Sometimes we made love, and we explored each other's bodies and mastered giving the other pleasure. Other times, we lay on the sand or in her bed and talked. We had no secrets from the other. I learned that she'd been with one boy—her first time—and two girls, before me. I told her that I'd stolen a book of sexual positions once from the library and copied some of the pages. "I justified it to myself by saying that I was doing it so that I could please my husband someday," I said, speaking aloud words that I'd barely been able to admit even to myself, "but the drawings—and copying them, shaping the naked bodies with my pen—turned me on."
If others knew of our relationship, they said nothing. Even Eallindalë, who relayed every bit of gossip or suspicion to enter her ears, said nothing. We went behind the dunes together sometimes are the gatherings in the silver hours, but Eärwen told me that girls who weren't with a boy and who were friends would sometimes do that, and their friendship was not changed by it. Everyone knew that we were great friends, so no one thought anything unusual when we did the same.
I had spent all day with Eärwen the day the message from my father came. We'd had a picnic on the beach with the other girls, and after they trickled off and back to their homes that afternoon, she'd sent home the servants for the day—her parents were away, visiting Eressëa—and we lay naked beside the bathing pool in her father's garden. The sight of the other's nakedness always provoked passion in both of us, but after that, we languished and let our feet trail into the warm water. I don't remember what of what we spoke.
The letter from my father was sitting propped upright in the middle of my writing desk when I returned home that night. I broke the seal and read it: King Finwë's secondborn son, Nolofinwë, was coming of age, and the king was having a feast. My father and I had been invited. A carriage would be sent for me in two days, to take me back to Tirion. The summer was nearly over, the letter concluded, and so he expected I would simply wish to remain in Tirion rather than making the journey back to Alqualondë for a mere fortnight longer. I should, therefore, pack my books and belongings.
I was sick at heart when I saw Eärwen the next day. She'd received a letter from her brother, who was fishing out of a small village in the south, and was telling me his news when she realized that I was uncharacteristically quiet. "Something is wrong," she stated.
"My father wrote yesterday. I am going to attend the coming-of-age feast for the king's son."
"You've been invited! How wonderful!" She realized I wasn't celebrating. "Not wonderful? Why? It's the king's son; your father can probably barely keep his feet on the ground."
"I have to leave tomorrow."
She held me a long time, and when I didn't say anything, she spoke at last: "Anairë, we knew this was coming."
I had, I suppose. But I hadn't thought of it. I'd thought only as far ahead as the plans I'd made with Eärwen; I refused to resent my time with her by viewing each day as a falling away of the time we had left together. So I simply hadn't thought about it, as though by not thinking of the end of summer, my father would forget to summon me back to Tirion or the Valar would forget to alter the seasons, and I could remain in Alqualondë with Eärwen forever.
She held my head between her hands and kissed my lips. "We will both be married someday soon. We will have the freedom to travel then, when and where we please, much more than we do now. We'll see each other whenever we can." She smiled against my mouth. "People will always speak of our great friendship."
Try as I might to remain unimpressed, the king's palace in Tirion awed me. I caught myself with my mouth open and closed it. Elaborate crystal chandeliers hung from the high ceiling of the ballroom; Fëanorian lamps dispersed among them threw patterns of light across the walls and floor. Fountains burbled and sparkled as though diamonds flowed amid the water. We were immediately served glasses of a bright, golden liquid; I sipped it, but it was only dry wine. After the relative plainness of Alqualondë, the opulence of the palace in Tirion had me looking everywhere at once, trying to take it all in. A stern look from my father and I realized how ridiculous I must look, and I confined my admiration to only what lay immediately before my eyes.
My father and I had commemorated my homecoming by having a spectacular argument over the gown I'd had made for the party. It was cut low to show the tops of my breasts and fitted at the sides to accentuate my slender waist and full hips, and the jewelry I'd selected only drew attention to this. It was too much, too revealing, he said. "You are not a Teler!" he shouted at last when I refused to have it altered, intuiting where I'd learned to prefer such styles. "Then you should not have sent me for a summer among them," I replied coolly.
I wore the dress. Quite a few of the lords' sons smiled at me, and quite a few of their wives admired it and took down the name of the seamstress. When I looked next at my father, his expression toward me had softened quite a bit.
A fanfare loud enough to rattle the crystals overhead announced the arrival of the royal family. They filed out to take their places at the head table: King Finwë and his golden wife Indis; his eldest son, the whip-thin, sour-faced, and achingly handsome Fëanáro and his plain wife Nerdanel and their two young sons; the youngest prince, Arafinwë, small and golden like his mother; and the guest of honor, Prince Nolofinwë, who sat beside his mother, at his father's left.
I looked at Nolofinwë as a fleet of waiters brought out the first course. He'd grown since the last I'd seen him, several years ago, when he'd been a skinny boy in his older half-brother's shadow. He'd grown broad in the shoulders, like his father, but was taller and carried himself with a lithe grace very different from King Finwë's raw power and strength, impossible to fully subdue, of one who had shouldered his way across the Outer Lands with thousands of people behind him. Nolofinwë was dressed in blue and silver. He looked mildly miserable and was staring at the tablecloth.
He glanced up then and caught me watching him. I looked away quickly, my face burning, and when I sneaked another look, he was still staring at me. It was the gown, I realized, and I began to feel foolish for having worn it. But he caught my eye again and moved his head slightly, first toward his father, then toward mine. We were both, I realized, seated on our fathers' left-hand sides, and both had turned their backs to us, King Finwë to talk to Prince Fëanáro and my father to curry the favor of a lord an iota better regarded than he was who'd been assigned to sit to his right. I found myself smiling in spite of myself.
After the final course was served, it was proper for the young, unmarried Noldor to gather at the edges of the dance floor in little cordial clumps. I ended up with two young women whom I knew in passing. We went through the routine: They praised my gown; I smiled and thanked them and praised theirs. They were metallurgists and began talking about something related to their studies that I didn't understand, but I paid bright attention to it all the same and even heard myself ask a question once when enough familiar words surfaced in their conversation to allow an opportunity for me to show my genuine interest. They disagreed on the answer and stumbled over each other in an amiable argument that quickly veered back into a discussion that I didn't understand.
The music had been slow and appropriate for dinner but changed now into a quick, leaping tune. A young man asked one of my companions to dance, leaving me alone with the other, whom politeness dictated should now ask me about my studies. A minute into my summary of the paper I would soon present before the Lambengolmor—provided, of course, that I finished it in time—I realized by her eyes drifting after her friend on the dance floor that she understood as much about linguistics as I did about metallurgy, so I ended quickly, as we lapsed into an awkward silence.
"The embroidery on your gown is beautiful," I said at last, and that fueled another few minutes of meaningless chatter about the stitches and beadwork and fine hand of the seamstress who had done it all and how we wished to have some talent in making tangible things rather just than our scholarly trade in words. It will be her turn next, I thought, to make small talk, but the simultaneous and slightly bitter thought came upon me that the sorts who gravitated to the hard sciences rarely practiced fully the social graces that made these evenings bearable, and I suspected I'd be standing in silence with her until I could find a graceful way to extricate myself from her company and maybe find another linguist to talk to.
The song changed, and the other girl came back, and the conversation about metallurgy resumed. I began subtly scanning the room for other conversation companions that I could slip away to without making a spectacle of myself crossing the dance floor when someone touched my arm.
I turned, and my heart lurched. Nolofinwë.
"Would you like to dance?" he asked. He was tall and of regal bearing. His face was terrified.
I curtsied. "It would be my honor."
As he took my arm and led me to the dance floor, an awful thought occurred to me, I glanced at the high table: Maybe his parents have forbidden him to dance with me. Maybe that's why he looked afraid. I thought again of the gown and, as I glanced at the king, fluttered my hand at my throat to touch the jewel there and cover my bosom. I am too lowborn for him and dressed beneath my station … But the king and queen were unabashedly watching us and smiling. Prince Fëanáro was as sour-faced as ever and spooning something into the youngest child's mouth, but his wife, Nerdanel, was watching us too, and I saw her give the barest nod to Nolofinwë. He was afraid of me! came the realization.
My heart softened toward the prince with his broad shoulders and boy's heart, the son of a man who crossed a continent in darkness but himself afraid to cross a ballroom to ask a minor lord's daughter for a dance. He didn't say much but my mind flitted back to my first night in Alqualondë, my own awkward fear and Eärwen's gentle care in hiding it for me. I was not Eärwen; social graces had always been a set of rules for me and nothing so natural as her gift for making people feel at ease, feel wanted. But I did my best to smile at what he said and added what I could to forestall the silence between us. When he almost collided with another couple, I pressed his arm gently with my hand, enough that he hesitated for a moment long enough that they whirled harmlessly past. He began to relax, and by the time the song was over, his smile was genuine, and he asked, "I can ask you again later?"
"I would love it if you did."
But he didn't ask again. As encouraging as his parents would be of their now-grown son having his first dance with someone like me, they would not court rumor by allowing it a second time. As the night wore to a close, the constant effort of feigning interest in conversation and appearing to have a good time became too much, and I stepped onto the balcony for air and solitude. Tirion cascaded beneath me, a city of tidy white buildings and the occasional blue Fëanorian lamp. I leaned on the railing and enjoyed a breeze that predicted that autumn would come soon.
I heard the door open and shut behind me, but the person who came out likely did for the same reasons as I did, so I didn't glance back and gave him his privacy. But a pair of arms folded over the railing only a few feet away from me, and I glanced up: Nolofinwë.
"You are the most beautiful woman here tonight," he told me. "Thank you for your kindness to me earlier."
"You are too kind, Prince Nolofinwë," I said.
"Can it be just Nolofinwë?" I saw a flicker of the fear I'd perceived in his face earlier.
"Of course it can."
"I saw your name on the list of speakers for the next meeting of the Lambengolmor." He was leaning toward me now. "You do work on the Avarin languages?"
"Yes, on the development of new vocabulary as compared to how the vocabulary of the Noldor and the Teleri developed, and the cultural factors that might have influenced that." I waited for the inevitable drift of his eyes elsewhere—to the city below, perhaps, or back to the door—but his face lit up.
"I am doing work on Avarin too. Verbs." Then, less eagerly, "I am not as advanced as you."
"You're not as old as me either."
"True. But my father also wants me to read before Lambengolmor. I haven't been officially added to the schedule, but he's supposed to send the message tomorrow." That flicker of fear again.
"They'll probably put our talks together on the schedule," I said, and that seemed to please him.
He asked me about my work, and I about his. In my months in Alqualondë, no one—not even Eärwen—ever asked about this. I realized that I had missed it, and though I still felt raw inside when I thought of her, probably sitting around a bonfire on the beach, passing a bottle of rum and laughing over conversations that would not be remembered come morning, this was the first time since my return that a small part of me was glad to be home. I didn't mark the time that passed. Telperion had sank into the barest silver gleam on the horizon when a servant appeared at the door and said, "There you are!" and Nolofinwë was made to return to his guests to bid those departing farewell. He sighed. "I will send that book," I promised, and the grin I received in reply was not the man or the prince but the boy not yet left behind him and still excited by the thought of a new friendship.
My thoughts returned to Alqualondë as I fell into sleep that night. I realized that I could conjure few specific memories, more a prevailing emotion: a sense of comfort and the joy of a journey embarked upon without fear. I was different, I realized, very different from when I had left Tirion three months ago, and that transformation had come with all the relief of opening my wings against a sky and flying, not falling.
But one specific memory remained to me. The night of the sailing forth, alone now on the beach with Eärwen, naked in her arms and my body growing drowsy in the wake of the pleasure she'd given me. She experienced a moment of regret then too. "We don't make the same rules that your people do, but we do hope that your first time is with someone you love," she said, and her voice was sad.
I realized that she thought she'd stolen something from me. I was again uncertain how to answer her. I knew that this hadn't been her first time; the need to love the person you lay with no longer applied to her. If I told her that I did, in fact, love her, it would have to be with the knowledge that she'd likely never reciprocate, much less confess the same.
Or I could let her think that my custom made it so it didn't matter. I could leave unspoken whether I loved her or not and leave her to assume what she would from my silence.
It was like standing before a cliff, being told to leap, not being assured that I could trust in anything beside my own strength to persevere no matter whether I fell or flew.
I leaped. "I do love you." I flew.
This post was originally posted on Dreamwidth and, using my Felagundish Elf magic, crossposted to LiveJournal. You can comment here or there!