Imin, Tata and Enel awoke before their spouses, and the first thing that they saw was the stars. And the next thing they saw was their destined spouses lying asleep on the green sward beside them. And being impatient they could not wait but woke up their spouses. Thus, the Eldar say, the first thing each elf-woman saw was her spouse, and her love for him was her first love; and her love and reverence for the wonders of Arda came later.
-Rúmil of Tirion, Cuivienyarna
Our next awakening brings rain, for which all are glad, for it has been long since the last rainfall, and the leaves were beginning to curl at the edges and the rocks beginning to show the crowns of their heads in the creeks. Three other Elf-women sit with me beneath a broad-leafed tree that keeps us mostly dry. I have taught them to weave reeds into mats and baskets, and our three pairs of hands are constantly bumping and tangling amid the pile of reeds shared between us, and all are laughing, even me, and the rain sounds petulant as it rattles the leaves overhead because we are not soaked and unhappy but mirthful despite.
Finwë and some of the other Elf-men are in the center of the camp with sticks they'd sharpened with rocks, and they are digging a hole in the earth. Every now and again, one will extract a rock, his arm muddied to the elbow and hold it to the sky so that the rain can wash it clean: the rock, not the arm. Their arms are streaked with red-brown earth but the rocks are clean, and the Elf-men huddle together with their heads all tipped forward, and the rock changes hands many times and is rubbed by many thumbs before being set into a pile with others like itself. An Elf-woman called Curuní comes up the path from the lake and shoulders her way among them. Her hair is not dark like ours but more the hue of mud, and it lies tangled and unruly and usually in her face. One of the Elf-women beside me hisses at the sight of her. Curuní wakened early and goes more with the Elf-men, though she is without bits, and she can sharpen words in the same way that some of the Elf-men sharpen pieces of wood so that they wound if one is not careful.
The pile of reeds at my side is gone, so I turn from the Elf-men for a moment and plunge my hand into the large pile to come up with another handful. My hand finds slim fingers, and I tug them and hear laughter from the Elf-woman with the strong, sharp nose who is called Laikelassë. Our fingers tangle all over each other, crawling up the other's arm, tickling and eliciting shivers, though it is not cold. She leans forward over the reeds and catches me around the neck with her arm. Our foreheads bump, and I smell her breath in my face for a brief moment.
Then there is a squabble among the Elf-men, and Curuní is cast out, both arms muddied to the elbows and a rock in her fist that she drops into one pile, only to have it tossed into a second pile by an Elf-man with a stern face. Angry words romp, unfamiliar syllables that I have not yet learned; for the most part, these words are the province of the Elf-men, though Curuní does not seem deterred by that. The stern-faced man kicks at her hand when she seeks to remove her rock from the pile in which he's place it, and there is shoving. Finwë is between them with a distressed look on his face, his head swiveling from one to the other in a way that is almost comical. His hands catch each of their hands in his, and quieter words are spoken, and the stern-faced man relaxes, but Curuní yanks free and comes over beneath our tree and crouches beside us.
"Curuní." Her name burbles from each of our lips in greeting, and she touches her knee to the earth four times in acknowledgement but says nothing else. Laikelassë offers her a handful of reeds and is waved away. Laikelassë wears a look of relief at that; it is safe to ignore her, then, having been refused, without fear of appearing unkind.
Curuní is an Elf-woman, like us, but lately different than us, and Nolowen--who was among the first awakened of the Tatyar and knows many things--says that she trusts Curuní little for these differences. "It is like she came from the clay on the opposite stream-bank from us, yet apart from the Elf-men too," Nolowen told me once as we gathered reeds and watched Curuní diving in the lake to retrieve rocks from the bottom. "She is too concerned with rocks."
Curuní has no bits, so she is not male, but lately there is a strip of hair between her legs that is unsightly and bristles like a tuft of weeds and is lately grown so thick that one can no longer see her cleft. This is disconcerting to some, I know. "Maybe she has grown bits beneath all that," Laikelassë said once, uneasily.
"That is nonsense," Nolowen retorted. "Elf-men and Elf-women come from clay lying on opposite stream-banks; so said Tata. One cannot change that; it was the choice of the one who created us just like we choose the shapes of our baskets, and they cannot change that; only we can, and none want to devote the time to unweaving efforts when there are other things that need be done."
"Maybe she came from within the stream," offered another. "From the rocks. She likes rocks a lot."
"Finwë likes rocks too," I offered quietly. "As do most of the Elf-men of the Tatyar save Rúmil."
Curuní's breasts, too, have gotten heavy, the nipples large and dark, sagging now to where they touch the tops of her ribs. She cups them sometimes in her broad, strong hands when the Tatyar assemble for conclave, and her companion Oronwë sits near to her with his arm resting on her back and his chin nestled at her shoulder. He doesn't seem to mind that she might well have come from the same part of the stream-bank as the rest of us, and he will shove the other Elf-men to let her join their circles to dig for rocks. Of all the Elf-men, I think I like Oronwë and Rúmil the best.
Once, I was gathering roots beneath a thornbush, lying flat against the earth, when Tata was speaking to Curuní, and she said, "They ache and hurt sometimes. My body has gone strange," and she sounded defensive at that but a little frightened too, like Curuní so rarely does. And Tata reached out and cupped one and massaged it like we know takes pain away, and his fingers drifted over her nipple, and she slapped his hand away and said, "That doesn't help," and stalked back to the camp, and I thought that she was strange indeed.
The rain is coming harder now, and the Elf-men are digging faster in the soft earth and casting aside the stones they find without bothering to sort them, completely mud-slathered now and crowing in their delight. Curuní keeps her back resolutely turned to them, her face scrunched into a scowl. Overhead, the sky splits then and light comes like blood to a cut and makes all the world bright enough to hurt our eyes, and the sky shouts with the pain of it, and all the Elf-men scream and drop their rocks and run to huddle under the broad-leafed tree with us. Curuní smiles and returns to the abandoned rock hole and resumes digging.
"She is mad, that one," says the stern-faced man after checking that Oronwë her companion is not among us. He will not suffer any among the Elf-men to speak ill of her. But the Elf-man is right: We have seen the sky split and take down trees; The Nelya called Olwë saw it touch the lake once and spread light like a net of reeds upon the water, and it was frightful, he said, and it seemed to him like it hurt the water. So Finwë told me. We rejoice in the rain and hide from the storms. In the sudden overbright light they make, the shadows seem thicker with its passing, and all feel an inexplicable fear curdling in our bellies.
Finwë comes to sit beside me. I concentrate on my reeds and knotting them tightly together and keeping my braids even, but I can feel him near. He smells of mud and rainwater, metallic like the rocks that he brings from the earth and takes to his sleeping mat at times, to turn in his hand and ponder as he drifts to sleep. "How do you do that?" he says at last, when I won't look up at him. "I would like to learn."
"It is the province of Elf-women," I tell him, but he will not be so easily dismissed.
"I do not mind that. I would like to learn and keep my hands busy in the storm."
I sigh. "Then you will have to watch me, and I will try to work slowly enough for you to learn." With a few twists of my fingers, I have started a new piece for him, and I hand it to him before resuming work on mine. He watches and then slowly begins trying to match my movements. At times, I hear him exhale in frustration, but he will not ask me to slow down or repeat a step. Soon, he has completed the first rough braid and is brandishing it for praise, and I smile weakly, and someone calls, "The stars are breaking through!" and the storm is done, and Finwë is standing. "Keep it for me," he says, "for I will work more on it next that it storms," and he is gone back to the mud hole, which Curuní has delved quite deep by now, and she is gathering as many rocks as her arms can hold and taking them back to the sleeping place that she shares with her companion.
That night, at the time of tale-telling, I leave to meet Elenwë, and, halfway along the path, I realize that the sky has gone strange in the direction of the Shadow Stream. The stars are gone, and the sky is bathed in a pale orange light. I stop and ponder it, and, within the time I might have unfolded my hand twelve times, I hear the faint cries of the Minyar and their rapid footsteps upon the path, coming toward me and away from the light.
"Fire!" someone is crying. "Fire! Fire!"
I smell it then: the smell of burning, and I hear the chatter of the trees perishing in flame, and I am swept up with the crowd of fleeing Minyar, some holding their sleeping mats and the baskets of provisions they managed to grab before escaping, and others empty-handed and turning to look back, faces sore with lament, to the direction of their camp.
"Elenwë!" I cry as we run. "Elenwë!" and then I feel a familiar hand clutching mine, and she pulls me faster toward the camp of the Tatyar and away from the fire. Already, others of the Tatyar have come down the path at the sound of commotion, and Finwë is at the head of them, his eyes bright in the dark at the possibility of discovery. I whip past him, hand in hand with Elenwë, and that is the last that I see him for a long spell.
We do not know much about fire except that it comes rarely and usually from the sky and always from the direction of the Shadow Stream where none like to go alone. What sorcery makes it is beyond our nascent powers, but we learned early that it hurt when one of the Tatyar called Kalastaldë tried to take its light into his hands. He wears scars now on his face and arms and keeps close against the trees, where the shadows are thickest, and turns his head from any who seek to speak with him, muttering his answers into emptiness, and he sleeps apart from the rest of the camp. We know also that the trees and plants that it touches perish until they rise again as sprouts and start anew; Finwë once found the remains of a bird in a place that had been filled with fire, and he brought the bones to our camp and several of the Tatyar wanted to see them, but Tata sent him back to return them whence they had come. "Do you think the bird will come anew as a fledgling, like the trees?" he asked Tata at the tale-telling that night, but Tata did not know. I think of the long days of Kalastaldë's agony and the twisted flesh that won't heal and think that it is a painful way to begin anew.
The camp of the Tatyar is seething with activity, of Minyar telling fearful tales now becoming bold of what they saw of the fire and the Tatyar listening, gape-mouthed, and eyes gleaming so that I know that many of them aim to learn the sorcery behind fire, no matter Kalastaldë's twisted flesh for attempting the same. Across the lake, we hear the faint cries of the Nelyar. Elenwë's hand jerks in mine; she is not telling tales or interested in hearing any but wants to go to the Nelyar, to bring message that all are safe and to see their griefs lessened, but none hear her. Ingwë is giving his attention to many places at once, and when Elenwë raises her concern for the third time, he at last turns fully to her and says, "It is not safe. You know that some have seen shadows."
"I will take Þerindë," she says. "Please," but Ingwë is turned now to listen to Imin and Tata, standing at the center of the camp with hands raised, indicating that they wish to speak.
I circle Elenwë with my arms and bury my nose in her hair. "I will go with you. We will leave in secret," I tell her, but she shakes her head.
"No, Ingwë will know. He will come after us, and nothing will be gained and much lost."
So we stand and listen to the tales and, when those who hadn't time to take their baskets complain of hunger, we give them provisions from our stores, and we let them lie with us on our sleeping mats so that they do not have only cold earth for a bed. Ingwë has brought the sleeping mat that he shares with Elenwë as well as their basket, and as the excitement over the fire diminishes, they lie near to the sleeping mat that I share with Finwë, though Finwë is still gone. I look at Elenwë in the dark, lying so near: her eyes sparks of light beneath heavy lashes; her golden hair spread thin across her shoulders to keep her warm. Snaked across her belly is Ingwë's pale arm, holding her to him.
I do not sleep--for without a companion it is cold and strange, to sleep alone--but I drift at the edge of it. Even the stink of the fire never comes nearer and, soon, all save me are sleeping and occasionally mumbling in what we call the river-tongue, that language of water that we must have known when we were still clay in the stream but have since forgotten except in our dreams.
I think on that time and wonder who paused by this stream-fed lake to take clay in her hands and make us. I have shaped objects from clay, as it is a province of the Tatyar, but my strength lies rather with forming objects from reed and fiber, and nothing that we have shaped from clay has ever become livened as we have. My mind turns again to the fire and the way that it leaps and twists as though on its own volition, and I wonder if there is a connection there between us and the fire, and if we put fire in the heart of a vessel of clay, if it might come to life as we did.
Yet flesh feels not like clay. I have touched many of our people--Elenwë and Finwë especially--and unless Finwë has been busy in a muddy hole with his sharpened stick, then flesh is smooth, more like the leaves on the trees than the gritty feel of the clay vessels that we use to carry water from the lake. Yet this is what Tata tells, and he has been among the six longest-awakened and so most wise in the ways of things. But I feel unease in the pit of my belly to think of it.
At our first awakening, too, he tells, the Elf-men saw the stars and the Elf-women saw the Elf-men, and each adored what he or she first saw. And, he says, we Elf-women were cried awake by our companions to look too upon the stars, but that is not how I remember it.
Nay, Finwë was busy already with discovery, and my first sight, too, was the stars: the stars upon water and upon fair hair tumbled down the back of one of the first-awakened as she sat at the brink of the lake and gazed at the light upon it: Elenwë.
Each adored what he or she first saw.
Footsteps and voices jerk me awake. I have fallen into dreams and into the unbidden thoughts that they bring. There is commotion in our camp: voices crying out, some in wonder and some in fear, and I hear Finwë's among them, and a dry snapping sound like twigs being broken in one's hand. Ingwë is unwrapping himself from Elenwë, his bits distended slightly in the way of males when they are first-awakened, and he is blinking slowly and I can tell already trying to make sense of things. Elenwë murmurs something, but he is gone already to investigate what is happening.
Hand-in-hand, she and I go to the story circle at the center of the camp. Finwë stands there with two other males of the Tatyar, and there is a branch in his hand as long as his leg, and at the end, a little nest of fire twists and burns.
I hear myself cry out, same as Elenwë, but he is holding his opposite hand in a way meant to stay and soothe the many of us who are alarmed. Already, some of the Tatyar are approaching him; I see Curuní with her heavy breasts and narrowed eyes, prowling at Finwë's back, already trying to argue. Ingwë is standing in front of Finwë, but he is tense and clearly afraid, so near to the fire that Finwë, for the moment, contains, and there is a clump of the Minyar huddled behind him in a V like the way that fowl sometimes float behind their leader. "We must take it to the lake, Finwë," Ingwë says. "You have seen Kalastaldë; you know that it shall turn upon your hand and wound you. It is mad--"
"You are mad!" Curuní hisses at him. In her arms, she has gathered from the piles of leaves that fall beneath the trees, and she puts them at the center of the story circle. "Mad to abandon the chance to learn, to control that which we do not understand. Put the fire in the leaves, Finwë."
"No! It must be taken to the lake lest it burn the camp and us--"
"Finwë! Let the fire eat the leaves. It will eat the leaves but not the dirt around!"
"We shall not fear what we know, Finwë, put the fire in the--"
"--leaves, Finwë, do it, we must know, must learn!"
And Finwë in the midst, tall and silent with the fire writhing at the end of the branch that he holds, his eyes flickering with its light as though there is fire within him, as well.
He drops the burning stick into the leaves.
A cry goes up among the assembled Tatyar and Minyar as the fire bites the leaves, as Curuní said that it would, and it begins to consume them. We reel backward, only Finwë and Curuní remaining inside the story circle. Ingwë is livid as I have never seen him, his words sharp and cracking like a branch broken beneath a heavy foot.
The fire reaches the bounds of the leaves. And, there, it stops. In the circle made by the leaves, it snaps and thrashes; the wind changes and the smoke stings my eyes and Elenwë sneezes. But the fire does not take hold of the dirt and burn beyond the bounds that Curuní has set.
Both Curuní and Finwë are grinning.
Behind us, I hear a cry.
Since he was burned, Kalastaldë sleeps apart from the rest of the camp with only his companion, a wan Elf-woman with close-set eyes and dark hair barely past her shoulders who will not leave his side, and it has taken him this long to walk down to the camp to see the commotion. She is with him too, at his shoulder and behind him slightly, but it is he upon whom we look, as always we do, with small glances as though he might hurt our eyes, like the light that comes from the broken sky. From his chin to his cheek on one side, the flesh is like wormed wood, and most of his lips are gone, his teeth bared and gnashing around the cries in his throat. I look away again as quickly. All have looked, I know, at our reflections in the lake and imagined the hurt that would change them as Kalastaldë has been changed. He is screaming now, at sight and smell of the flames. He is trying to run, but his companion is holding fiercely to his arm with both of hers, but his free hand comes around and knocks her head so that she falls to the ground, and he is gone into the pathless wood.
Elenwë breaks from my arms then to run to the side of Kalastaldë's fallen companion, but she is already on her feet, keening at the loss of him and following his trail in the broken brush, screaming wordless, as he, like beasts.
Elenwë follows as far as the bound to the forest and then, swiftly, returns to my side, where I wrap her in my arms as she trembles and stares alternatingly between the fire and the shadowed forest whence Kalastaldë and his companion have run.