I'm still alive! And to get back into the habit of posting after a six-week absence, here's a short story I've had sitting on my disk for a while,almost-finished.
It's a sequel to Rite of Passage , in the same continuity as Tying the Knot and A Matter of Perspective. It features Lissiel, the chief handmaiden of Her Royal Highness, Crown Princess Nerdanel. The exact moment the story begins is just after Lissiel has finished having a major agument with the palace cook, the day before Nerdanel's marriage to Fëanor; but the bulk of the story is a flashback to Lissiel's training with the Valar. (As detailed in 'Rite of Passage').
Characters: Lissiel (OFC), Ilmarë, Varda
Author's notes will be added in a comment
Beneath the fabric of her blouse she felt the hard projection of the pendant she wore there, around her neck and under her clothing. It was so light she often forgot she was wearing it; and as her fingers traced the curious, irregular shape she felt again its odd mixture of familiarity and strangeness. She remembered when she first saw it — since that was one memory she could never forget.
Lissiel had always been in awe of llmarë. True, llmarë was "only" a Maia, not a Vala; much in the same way that the Mindon Eldaliéva was "only" a tower when set next to the mountains of the Pelóri. She still possessed a grace, power and majesty that made Lissiel feel clumsy and childish by comparison.
But Ilmarë had been friendly enough when she first came to see Lady Nienna's new "star pupil". Those were the words she used to Lissiel's face — in perfectly-spoken Quenya, of course. The Ainur had all adopted the language as if they'd been speaking it since eternity began, instead of first encountering it just a few years ago. Then she'd grinned, and added, "I certainly admire the Eldar's choice of vocabulary."
Lissiel must have looked baffled — she felt that she usually did, back in those days — and Ilmarë had clarified. "Using the term 'star' as a compliment. As Queen Varda's handmaiden, I definitely approve — on my mistress's behalf, of course."
Then to Lissiel's embarrasment, Ilmarë had added, "I heard you were in training to be a handmaiden yourself, so I thought I'd come and see if you needed any help or advice." As if there could possibly be any comparison between herself and one of the Holy Ones! She'd flushed and stammered and been lost for words, and after an endless moment of mortification she'd sensed a conversation going on just beyond her perception; Nienna and Ilmarë exchanging communication mind-to-mind. Lady Nienna had nodded, and Ilmarë had smiled and said, "Well, I'll leave you in your mentor's capable hands for now", and vanished; and Lissiel had just known that Nienna was about to have Words with her...
Six years she'd spent as Nienna's pupil. She'd met Ilmarë several more times since then; Lissiel's growing self-confidence meant that they were, happily, far less embarrassing than the first time. Then at last, Lady Nienna told her it was time to leave, and take up her duties with her own people.
"But there's so much more I still need to learn from you, my lady", Lissiel had protested.
"Of course. But the fact that you're aware of that shows you've already learned the most important lessons." Nienna's smile, as always, was gentle but unyielding. "However, you have obligations to fulfil. Don't you?"
Lissiel knew she was right. There'd been more words, of leave-taking and farewell, and then she'd made her way back alone to the small apartment in the Noldorin embassy in Valmar where she'd been living for the past six years. The servants had already packed most of her things and put them on a cart back to Tirion; she'd told them she wanted to finish the job herself.
So she felt a momentary flash of annoyance when, in the middle of folding her spare underwear to pack it into the case, there was a knock on the door — but irritation faded to surprise when she opened it to find Ilmarë standing there.
"I've come to say goodbye — and welcome. No longer our star pupil; now you're my colleague".
Lissiel had smiled and shaken her head ruefully, and said, "Thank you". She was no longer flustered into speechlessness by such comments, even if she was no less aware of the vast social gulf between herself, an ordinary elf, and Ilmarë, the chief attendant to Varda Elentári, Queen of the Heavens.
Ilmarë had given an approving nod, then extended her hand. "Here. A present from Arda's oldest handmaiden to its youngest." She grinned as she said it, not looking the least bit venerable.
Lissiel couldn't help asking, even as she reached out her hand to take the unexpected gift, "I thought — forgive me. I thought all Ainur were the same age? How can you be oldest?"
Ilmarë had giggled, and said, "There's more to age than chronology; you should know that by now. So what do you think of it?"
Lissiel was about to reply — then gasped and lost her thought in sheer wonder. A ripple of light seemed to flow out of Ilmarë's hand into her cupped palm, and lay there as gently and radiantly as one of Telperion's blossoms.
It wasn't shining with its own light; she only realised that after a long moment of staring. It caught and reflected all the surrounding light in an irridescent shimmer. It seemed weightless, but it looked almost like metal, or perhaps crystal. As she looked closer, Lissiel could see that it was irregular in shape. It seemed folded in on itself, twisted, like a broken part of a larger whole. There was a rough edge, and some of it seemed fused or melted. Her initial wonder changed to puzzlement.
"What is it?"
"An appropriate gift for our star pupil." Ilmarë seemed greatly amused by something. "Here, let me."
She reached out, and Lissiel saw that the odd fragment of whatever-it-was was fastened to a slender chain, as delicate as a ray of light. Ilmarë undid the clasp, then stepped behind her and fastened it around her neck. When she returned, she clapped her hands in pleasure.
"It suits you. I knew it would".
"But what is it?"
"What do you think? It's a star."
"But it's not star-shaped; it's—. Wait." Lissiel remembered who she was talking to. "An actual star? As in, one of the stars of heaven?"
"Well, a bit of one. Don't worry, Queen Varda won't mind me giving it to you."
"But, but... aren't the stars huge things? And don't they shine really hotly? And, and, aren't they all supposed to be up in heaven? How...?"
"I can see I'm going to have to explain some things." Given her look of anticipation Ilmarë seemed, to Lissiel's eye, to be rather looking forward to the opportunity. "So, when My Lady and the rest of us — no, wait. Telling you is boring. I've got a much better idea!"
"Um, okay." Lissiel wasn't sure she liked the grin that Ilmarë was now sporting.
"Come outside. Come on. Leave your packing — I'll help you finish it afterwards if you like. There's something I want to show you!"
Somewhat dubiously, Lissiel followed the Maia out through the corridors of the embassy into the wide square that lay beyond its entrance portico. Ilmarë drew her out into its centre and pointed upwards.
"What do you see?"
"Uh, the sky? A few clouds."
"Right. You can't see the stars from here. That's why Lord Aulë made the Calacirya for you Quendi, right?"
"Yes, so I've heard. I wasn't born then." Lissiel thought she should be polite. "I've seen the stars, though. We went to Alqualondë once, on a school trip. They were, um, very pretty."
"You don't sound too impressed," observed Ilmarë.
"No, they were beautiful, honestly! I, I can see why our ancestors fell in love with them..." Lissiel trailed off, embarrased. She felt she ought to show more enthusiasm, given who she was talking to. But Ilmarë didn't seem to be troubled.
"I understand. You can't really see them properly from there anyway. The Pelóri block out half the sky, and Arda's atmosphere dims the view too. Put your arms around me."
"Uh, what?" Lissiel wasn't anticipating such a non-sequitur. She also wasn't expecting Ilmarë to step forward and wrap her own arms tightly around her in a close embrace. She squeaked. Ilmarë chuckled.
"Don't worry. I'm not Melian, elves are safe from me. And anyway you're not my type. I just need you to hold on tight."
"Um, why? I— eek!"
Suddenly the air around them was no longer empty. A vast, shimmering pair of translucent wings sprang from the Maia's back, fluttering around the two of them, seeming to stretch almost from one side of the square to the other, touching the opposite walls. Lissiel barely had time to think, "I have a bad feeling about this" when Ilmarë seemed to gather herself in; then she leapt up and brought her wings down hard with a snap.
The ground fell away beneath them. Lissiel shrieked. Ilmarë giggled.
"I did warn you to hold on."
She was beating her wings hard and fast, gaining height rapidly. Lissiel looked down at the city of Valmar from an angle she'd never seen before, never dreamed of seeing. She whimpered and buried her head in Ilmarë's neck, clinging on for dear life.
"Don't worry. I won't drop you."
"But, but... how are you even doing this?"
"What, flying? Didn't you know we could fly?"
"I didn't even know Maiar had wings!"
Ilmarë chuckled. "Most of us don't. Learning how to create and use them is a knack, a lot of my colleagues are earthbound. But all Queen Varda's handmaidens can fly; the Queen taught us herself. We wouldn't be much good to her if we couldn't, would we?"
"I suppose". Lissiel mastered herself enough to peek out, and then down. Her arms tightened convulsively around Ilmarë as she did, but she managed to keep looking.
Valmar was now a wide, white jewel resting in a bed of green and gold fields. She could see the Trees standing on their mound, next to a small dark circle that she realised must be the Máhanaxar. The Pelóri were clearly visible, even the small white spark of Tirion shining from their shadows as it reflected the Tree-light. It was like a map spread out below her. She could even see a long, dark line on the edge of her vision to the west that she realised must be the Encircling Ocean.
"I suppose so. But just you wait."
Ilmarë was still driving upwards. Now they were level with the peak of Taniquetil itself, and Ilmarë gave a casual but still respectful salute in its direction as they went past it. Then they were beyond it, higher than any of the Children of Eru had ever gone, and still not stopping.
It was getting colder. Lissiel clung even more tightly to the warmth of Ilmarë's body, panting in the chill air. The Maia made a concerned noise, then paused her upward flight and hovered, wings stretched wide.
"Here, let me sort you out. I'm not as good at Subcreation as Her Majesty, but I'm sure I can manage this..." She took a deep breath, then exhaled. Lissiel felt a warmth surround her, and suddenly realised she could breathe properly herself. She hadn't quite realised how difficult that simple, taken-for-granted task had become until suddenly it was easy again.
"What did you do?"
"Created a bubble of air around us. I know you need it to breathe, but I wasn't sure how high we'd be able to get before you needed it. Obviously I don't have to breathe myself, since I'm not an Incarnate."
"Uh... exactly how high are you taking us?"
"A little further. Actually, could you close your eyes? For the surprise."
Lissiel decided to trust Ilmarë. Given that they must be several leagues above the surface of the world, she didn't really have much choice.
More upwards flying. The sound of Ilmarë's wings seemed to be getting quieter now; the air was not whistling around them so loudly. Then they stopped. Lissiel felt a lurch in her stomach and a sensation of falling, even though Ilmarë's arms were still tight around her. She trembled.
"Okay, you can open your eyes now."
...Lissiel had thought she'd seen the stars before. She had seen nothing. They weren't remote and distant now. They didn't twinkle. They were all around her, hard and cold and lovely, brighter than the brightest diamond. Hosts of them, myriads; far more than she'd seen in the night sky of Alqualondë. Far more, she suspected, than any of the Eldalië had ever seen. She felt both humbled and exalted.
"Lost for words again?"
"Umph. I- Urgl."
"That's a yes, then."
"How can you stand it? The beauty?"
"Pretty, aren't they? My mistress does good work. Well, we helped her, of course."
Lissiel was still trembling. Her breath came fast, even though she wasn't exactly sure what she was breathing. The sky around her wasn't blue; it was black. Far below her she could see a haze that presumably was the earth. It seemed very small and very far away.
Ilmarë said gently. "You don't have to hold on so tightly now. You can't fall — well, you can't fall downwards. You're kind of falling sideways— no. It's too complicated to explain. Just enjoy the view."
Lissiel drank it in for a long while. Then Ilmarë spoke again.
"Do you know how many stars there are?"
"I could tell you, of course, but the number would be meaningless to you. I don't think Quenya even has words for numbers that big; you'd have to invent new ones. But you do know how they got there?"
Lissiel did: all the Eldar knew that. She quoted the first lines of the poem they'd all been taught as children: "O stars that in the darkest year, With shining hand by her were sown'."
Ilmarë nodded. "I know that one. All about silver blossoms in windy fields? It doesn't say anything about the long, hot, sweaty years spent in the forges making them all, with furnaces and crucibles and hammers."
"You forged the stars in furnaces? Really?" Then Lissiel couldn't help adding, "Also, 'sweaty'? I didn't know that Ainur sweated."
"It was a metaphor. And yes, we did craft them like that, though I suppose you could say that our role in making the stars was also a metaphor. Depends on how metaphysical you want to get. The same way that the stars are simultaneously shaped and worked crystals of solid light a couple of yards wide, and balls of uncontrolled nuclear fusion millions of miles across, according to how you look at them."
"Um, okay? Lissiel didn't understand. Ilmarë patted her hand.
"Never mind. Let's just say it was hard work and took a long time. Lord Aulë lent Her Majesty his forge, and we spent about 450 years in total crafting the stars. The Queen made the first ones herself, then showed us how to do it. We'd bring them to Queen Varda when they were finished, and she'd put a little droplet of the Sacred Light into each one. Except the faulty ones; sometimes she'd order us to take them back and melt them down and re-make them, if they weren't up to standard."
Lissiel put a hand on the pendant she was wearing. "And this is part of one?"
"See over there, next to the Butterfly?" The small star up and to the right of the northern arm?"
Lissiel followed her finger. She knew the constellation of Wilwarin readily enough; she wasn't sure she'd ever noticed the faint star Ilmarë was pointing to.
"You're wearing a piece of it."
"But - but how?"
"Well, once the stars were made we had to put them in place. Her Majesty supervised that in person, but we handmaidens helped her, carrying the stars around and so forth. And, well, sometimes there were accidents."
Lissiel looked shocked. Ilmarë nodded. "We're not perfect, any of us. If we never made mistakes Arda would be a very different place. Of course, when you make a mistake you make amends and fix the problem. The badly damaged stars were taken back down to the forge, and melted down for scrap."
"But not this one?"
"No. One of our handmaidens, mentioning no names because it wouldn't be fair to her, didn't secure a star properly as it was being swung into place. It slipped free and collided with another star. I'm told the escape of energy as they crashed together could be seen halfway across the galaxy."
"Um, never mind. It could be seen from all over, is what I meant; the poor girl was mortified with embarrasment, but Queen Varda was very kind. One of the stars was a write-off and had to be scrapped, but the other was repairable. We just had to use cutting torches to trim off the damaged section, and of course it was dimmer than before so Her Majesty had to find a different place to put it. We kept the fragments as souvenirs."
Lissiel toyed with the piece of solid light around her neck.
"So this is really a piece of a star?" She suddenly grinned. "A broken, cast-off piece of a star. Is this is your idea of a gift?"
Ilmarë laughed. "You have to admit, it's fairly unique."
"That's an oxymoron. Either it's unique or it isn't."
Ilmarë was shaking with laughter. "You've come a long way, Lissiel. You wouldn't have dared tease me like this six years ago! So now, please explain to me why this is a suitable gift."
Lissiel took a deep breath, all thoughts of levity banished. Her training with the Valar had been full of such sudden questions and demands; at least now her brain didn't freeze up and paralyse her every time. Instead, now her mind raced.
"Well, it's very pretty, but that's probably not the only reason. Though I'm sure it was a factor. Aesthetics are important."
Ilmarë nodded. "In fact, I specifically chose that particular fragment for you because its silvery-grey colour matches your eyes."
"Really?" Lissiel was surprised, though she knew she shouldn't be. The Ainur could be painstaking in their attention to the smallest details. But she knew that wouldn't be the only answer.
"It's broken - is that to remind us we're all fallible? That everyone makes mistakes? And that they're not the end of the world, we can rectify them and keep on going."
"Good. But why a fragment of a broken star, in particular?"
"Um. To illustrate the point that even the most magnificent and lofty - literally - things can break? To emphasise the lesson of universal fallibility?"
"Nearly. Not exactly the lesson I had in mind, though. I wanted the gift to be a reassurance to you, not just a warning."
"A reassurance - oh! you mean, it's a lesson that even the Ainur can screw things up? So I shouldn't worry if a humble Incarnate like me makes the odd mistake or two?"
Ilmarë laughed. "Exactly. We may have different levels of innate power, but we're all of equal worth in the eyes of The One; and only He is perfect. Just a word of advice: don't flaunt that thing too much. Some of my esteemed colleagues can be, ah, rather more touchy about their dignity than myself."
Lissiel chuckled. "Point taken." She didn't ask which of the Ainur Ilmarë was thinking of: polite discretion was, after all, one of a handmaiden's duties.
She tucked the pendant inside her blouse, then thought.
"Is it also symbolic that it was once part of a larger whole? A reminder that none of us are truly isolated, even if the hazards of life sometimes pull us apart?"
Ilmarë made an impressed noise. "That's a good one. And, yes, now you say it, it's true."
"It wasn't true before I said it?"
"Truth is eternal."
Lissiel snorted with laughter. "Mm-hmm."
"Come on, then. Let's go back down, if you've finished looking."
"Yes, I think so." Lissiel took one last panoramic look; she knew the memory would live inside her forever. "So how long will it take us to get down?"
She really didn't like the evil chuckle Ilmarë made then.
"What?" Ilmarë was beating her wings hard, which confused Lissiel; wouldn't that make them go higher? But she was beating them sideways, as if she were trying to slow down, even though they seemed to be hanging motionless in space. Lissiel didn't understand, but she had a bad feeling.
Ilmarë suddenly tucked in her wings and folded them flush against her back. They plummeted.
Lissiel's scream was matched by a scream from Ilmarë; but the Maia wasn't terrified, she was gleeful. They plunged earthwards, faster and faster, the distant grey landscape expanding to fill their view, resolving into the blue of ocean, the green and brown of land, the white speckles of clouds. Closer. Faster. Closer.
Lissiel wanted to close her eyes in terror, but they were fixed on their rapidly approaching destination. It wasn't cold anymore; it was getting warmer, hotter, hotter...
With a sudden snap of air Ilmarë unfurled her wings again, and Lissiel would have lost her grip and fallen if the Maia's arms hadn't been rock-hard around her torso. Their descent was only broken for a moment and they were falling again; but slightly more slowly, and Lissiel could see the half-closed wings shimmering in the air close around them, braking their descent.
"Sorry. Forgot the air friction would be bad for you." Lissiel didn't understand the apology, but she nodded and clung tightly as the ground approached them at what still seemed to be a highly unreasonable speed.
Lissiel had no idea she could be more horrified by anything Ilmarë might do than she hadn't already been; but as they got close enough that she could start to make out the individual streets and buildings of Valmar, the Maia suddenly spread her wings at a different angle and beat them hard, and they were spinning...
And their vertical descent was changed to a swoop, a vertiginous parabola; the ground came up to slam them to oblivion and missed; they'd missed the ground; they were skimming along barely a yard above it, curving up again; Lissiel was sure she saw startled faces turned to watch them; but they were still moving, faster than ever, speeding like a comet above the roofs of Valmar towards the green mound at its western gates, the momentum of a hundred-mile fall translated into horizontal motion; and Ilmarë was screeching like a gleeful banshee as she directed her flight towards the Two Trees themselves, banking sharply as she and Lissiel slipped right through the gap between Telperion and Laurelin without touching either of them; then soaring up, up into the sky again, looping over so the world was above them for a moment...
Then coming down slowly to rest again in the middle of the main square of Valmar, thronged with people. They touched the ground gently, like a drifting feather. Ilmarë's wings shimmered, but didn't furl; they faded out of existence completely. She let go of Lissiel.
Lissiel took one step, tottered, and fell to the earth, her legs unable to bear her weight. She was dimly aware that several hundred people — Ainur and Vanyar alike — were staring at them.
She bent forward and kissed the ground. Blessed, solid ground.
"Are you okay?" Ilmarë sounded belatedly concerned.
"She's in a state of shock. As, I might add, are all the rest of us."
The voice was feminine, dignified, and reproving; but not, Lissiel thought, entirely uncharitable.
"I'm sorry if I caused any alarm, my lady."
Lissiel looked around. The woman who was speaking was very tall, dark-haired, and dressed in white. She was attended by a dozen maidens in midnight blue. She was clearly very important. Ilmarë addressed her as 'my lady'...
Lissiel tried to struggle to her feet, failed, and contented herself with sitting up straight and bowing her head in respect. Varda Elentári, Queen of the Heavens, nodded back in acknowledgement.
"I trust my errant handmaiden hasn't caused you too much distress?"
Lissiel felt a sudden surge of loyalty to Ilmarë. One handmaiden to another.
"She's been very gracious to me, your Majesty."
"Hmph. The noise she was making as she fell out of the sky didn't sound all that gracious."
Behind Queen Varda, some of her attendants seemed to be stifling giggles. Lissiel was almost sure that a corner of the Queen's own mouth quirked upwards slightly.
Ilmarë looked contrite. "I didn't mean to embarrass you."
"It was my fault!" blurted out Lissiel suddenly. Varda cocked an eyebrow. "Um, I mean, when we, um, started to go downwards I, er, started screaming, and Lady Ilmarë thought she'd keep me company so I didn't feel bad..." She trailed off lamely.
Queen Varda gave her a measured look. "I see." Lissiel blushed. "Well then, Ilmarë, since you've made up your mind to keep this young elf company, I suggest you assist her in packing and then see that she gets safely back to her home in Tirion, and settled in there. And since that will take you away from your duties to myself for a while, I'll expect you to catch up with them once you return to Ilmarin. Good day to you." She nodded to Lissiel. "A pleasure to make your acquaintance, Astarrë Lissiel."
Lissiel bowed, and the High Queen of Arda swept away, trailed by her cloud of attendants. The crowd around them started to disperse, the show over.
Ilmarë flopped down onto the paving stones next to Lissiel and sighed dramatically.
"I'm sorry I got you in trouble. Will you be okay?"
"What? It's not your fault. And yes, I'll be fine. My lady will have some pointed words for me about maintaining the dignity of the Ainur in public, and I'll have a few extra chores to do. But she won't be too harsh on me. She can't be, anyway."
"Can't? But she's the Queen. Why can't she?"
Ilmarë chuckled. "I did tell you Queen Varda taught all her handmaidens how to fly, didn't I? We learned from her."
"Yes, but - wait. No. Surely she didn't? She hasn't?"
"Yup. The day we finished the stars, put the last one in place. We were relieved and happy and triumphant, my lady most of all. We were hovering up there, surrounded by the stars, the same place I took you. Then her Majesty said, 'Let's go!', and down we went."
Lissiel was holding her sides, laughing. "I can't imagine that. She's so dignified!"
"She wasn't dignified then! And it was her idea to buzz the Two Trees; the rest of us didn't dare. I might get into real trouble for that part, actually. She even skimmed in through the gates of Mandos, around and out again; I don't think Lord Námo was at all impressed. Hey, if you laugh too hard you'll hurt yourself."
"I c-can't help it."
"Come on." Ilmarë stood, and extended a hand to help Lissiel to her feet. "And thanks for what you said. Us handmaidens have to stick together, eh?"
Lissiel was still chuckling to herself as they walked off to finish her packing.