A matter of perspective by stormwreath
Fandom: The Silmarillion (Tolkien/Middle-earth)
Characters: Nerdanel and three OFCs; plus Fëanor might turn up later on.
Wordcount: 10,839 in three chapters.
Summary: What happens when her best friend drags a young Elven sculptress to a party she's really not sure she wants to attend...
A matter of perspective
Nerdanel considered the half-finished block of marble with speculative eyes. It wasn't coming right yet, and she wasn't sure why. The picture had been clear in her mind before she started, and her hands had guided the chisel with the precision and accuracy she took for granted; but the statue was still wrong, in some way she couldn't place.
She was making an image of one of the Mánir, the air spirits who served Lord Manwë. The sylph was springing up into the sky, unfolding his gleaming white feathery wings behind him - or he would. At the moment he seemed to be half-buried in rock, the raw stone that Nerdanel's tools had not yet begun to shape reaching up to his waist and blending seamlessly into his half-formed wings. The effect was oddly disturbing, yet compelling.
Some Elven sculptors were slow and painstaking, considering each careful stroke of the chisel with deliberation. Telperion and Laurelin might flower and wane and blossom again two or three times before the next sliver of stone hit the ground. That wasn't how Nerdanel worked.
Oh, she'd think about her next project for long enough: years, sometimes, as she searched for inspiration and studied her proposed subject from every possible light and angle. The way she'd capture their likeness in stone was planned out in her imagination long before she ever set metal blade to rock. But once she was ready - once she'd selected the stone, prepared her tools, studied her model one last time - she turned into a whirlwind of energy.
People who knew her only as the quiet, somewhat diffident Elf-maiden who rarely spoke in company were often shocked when they visited her studio, heard the ringing hammer blows, saw the dust and chips of stone flying from the point of her chisel as the sculpture took form beneath her hands. When she worked, a fire of passion and energy woke within her that few had ever suspected lay dormant there. There was no clumsiness of haste: every blow she struck was precise and measured with perfect accuracy; but sometimes it seemed that she did not even pause for breath between each stroke of the hammer.
But not this time. This time, the fire wouldn't come. The air spirit was still enmeshed in the rock, and Nerdanel's hand slowed, then stopped, then hung passive by her side. It wasn't that she'd made any mistakes, she thought. She was just no longer sure this was the statue she wanted to be making. Or maybe the statue itself wanted to become something different?
At that moment she heard noise behind her; clattering footsteps, someone laughing, and someone else muttering what sounded like a complaint. Nerdanel sighed, then schooled her features into her trademark patient expression. A minute or two later three young Elf-women burst into the room, their ornate dresses a riot of rich colour and subtle scents and (very expensive) rustling silk and lace. Nerdanel smiled politely.
"There you are! I told you she'd be here!"
"I don't know why we had to trail out all the way here. We're going to be late."
"Late for what?" asked Nerdanel.
The blond-haired woman in the blue dress, whose name was Arawendë, rolled her eyes. "I told you she'd have forgotten, Lissiel. We should just leave her to her..." she waved her hand vaguely in the direction of the unfinished sculpture, "Whatever that peculiar thing is meant to be."
Nerdanel's eyes narrowed and she took a deep breath - but before she could say anything Lissiel, the dark-haired Elf in green who'd spoken first, smiled at her apologetically.
"Don't mind her. Look, it's okay if you're busy, but you did say you'd come with us. To the party, remember? The Prince's birthday party?"
"Oh! Yes, of course. Sorry, I'd lost track of time" She gave an answering smile of thanks. Lissiel was one of the few people she counted as a real friend... although her choice of companions was one thing Nerdanel definitely faulted her for. "What hour is it?"
The third Elf, who'd not spoken yet - Vilyië was her name - was standing at the window looking out. Without bothering to turn around she said, "Laurelin's fourth is ending soon. We have two hours to get there." Her tone implied strongly that only a fool would not have known this already, and that it was a matter of supreme indifference to her whether Nerdanel came or not.
From the way Arawendë was tapping her foot, it wasn't a matter of indifference to her. She quite clearly would prefer to leave Nerdanel behind.
Nerdanel very carefully put down the chisel with its long steel blade - sharp and heavy enough to cleave stone - onto her worktop. She laid the hammer next to it. Then she smiled brightly at the three of them and said, "Just give me a moment, and I'll come with you."
As she stepped through the connecting door she distinctly heard Arawendë groaning under her breath. This almost inspired Nerdanel to deliberately spin out how long she would spend before returning - maybe even go for a bath, put up her hair, spend half an hour picking out a dress; make them wait. But no. That wouldn't be fair to Lissiel - and also, it was a pretty sure thing that Arawendë and Vilyië wouldn't bother waiting, which would rather spoil the revenge.
Instead she pulled off her leather apron, shook the stone-dust off her clothes, and looked at herself in the mirror. Nobody would ever call her pretty, and she didn't have the time to waste in artfully applying make-up to try and improve on nature. She wasn't even sure there was any point to bothering, although Lissiel kept on urging her to try it and Nerdanel didn't like to tell her friend 'no'. But for now, the best she could do was quickly wash her face from the silver ewer that stood on the table under the mirror, and then drag a comb through her hair. Done.
As she stepped back into the studio, Arawendë clicked her tongue in disdain and Vilyië muttered quietly - but not too quietly for Elven hearing, "That's what she's wearing?" Even Lissiel's smile was a trifle forced, but genuine nevertheless.
"Ready? Come on then, it's a long walk."
"I'm ready." The three others trooped out of the room, and Nerdanel followed. As she turned to close the door she looked back at the half-finished statue. The air spirit was trapped in the rock, struggling to break free, its wings weighted down by stone. Nerdanel gave it an ironic wave of sympathy and fellow-feeling, then followed her companions down the stairs.
It was a warm late afternoon in Tirion as Laurelin's golden light slowly faded towards dusk. The four Elf-women strolled slowly through the crystal-paved streets - it was indeed a long walk, and none of Nerdanel's companions wanted to risk spoiling their finery by any hint of exertion before they arrived at the palace. To Nerdanel - who often went hiking alone through the foothills of the Pelóri or into the depths of Lord Oromë's forests when she was waiting for her next inspiration to strike - the pace seemed unreasonably slow. Still, she resisted the temptation to stride out ahead and leave the others behind.
That was very noble of her, she thought - though the truth was, she was also unwilling to give Arawendë and Vilyië the opportunity to talk about her. She'd already seen them whispering and giggling to each other when they thought she wasn't looking, and overheard a few scraps of conversation - "looks like a bricklayer" and "those weird statues" and "too plain to get a real man, so she makes her own". Nerdanel had heard such words before. Where once they might have driven her to tears or to rage, now they bounced off her skin like chips of stone falling on her workshop floor.
Walking beside her, Lissiel looked apologetic. She could hear them too, but she didn't say anything.
That part could still make Nerdanel angry sometimes, that Lissiel wouldn't come to her defence or stand up to them. Lissiel wanted to be friends with everybody, which was no doubt a noble aspiration - but did mean she often ended up sitting on the fence and refusing to take sides in arguments. That was very frustrating when you were the one arguing. But even here, begrudgingly, Nerdanel understood her friend's position.
Arawendë was important. Her mother was a personal handmaiden to Queen Indis herself, and Arawendë was a frequent visitor to the King's House. That's how she'd secured the invitations to this party - the most prestigious social event of the year, perhaps even of the age. It wasn't often that a king's son celebrated his coming-of-age. Lissiel's own parents were not nearly so high-ranking, but as Arawendë's friend she could bask in reflected glory.
And somehow, Lissiel had persuaded Arawendë to give the spare ticket to Nerdanel, to make up the foursome. Nerdanel wasn't sure she actually wanted it, but Lissiel had been so happy, so expectant, that Nerdanel hadn't had the heart to refuse. It wasn't that she didn't feel excitement stirring in her own chest when she thought of visiting the palace for the first time - King Finwë was reputed to have a remarkable art collection, and Nerdanel would love to spend a happy hour or six browsing through it. But it was unlikely to be that sort of evening. It was a party: that meant dancing and music and feasting and wine, and conversation. Lots of polite, fashionable conversation, of the type that her three companions - yes, regrettably, even Lissiel - found fascinating, but which after ten minutes would have Nerdanel staring out of the window and longing to escape.
Of course, as far as her three companions were concerned, that wasn't the main attraction of the evening. Baulked of their chance to dissect Nerdanel's many flaws by her presence within earshot, Arawendë and Vilyië had turned their attention instead to a subject even closer to their hearts: boys. Or to be more specific, their chances of finding a husband at this gathering of Tirion's social elite. Maybe even - Arawendë's pale Vanyarin complexion flushed pink as her voice rose half an octave - maybe even the Prince himself might notice them. He was reputed to be very handsome and dashing, and bold and strong-willed, and artistic and creative too, and of course now he'd come of age he was in urgent need of a wife.
"I've heard he's something of a scholar," said Vilyië, interrupting Arawendë's gushing monologue. Her tone sounded slightly dubious, as if this were a foible to be excused in an otherwise-worthy potential husband. To Nerdanel, it was frankly the only thing she'd ever heard said to Prince Fëanor's credit. He otherwise sounded frightful, a perfect paragon of all the masculine virtues that would make him an ideal spouse to someone like Arawendë - and serve them both right!
She couldn't quite keep a malicious grin off her features at the thought, and Lissiel saw it and quirked an eyebrow. Nerdanel said nothing, merely inclined her head imperceptibly in the direction of the other two women and mouthed the word 'Later'. Lissiel grinned back in response. Like her other two companions, she often found Nerdanel rather, well, strange; even incomprehensible at times. But she'd got to know her well enough to learn that under that diffident exterior was a keenly observant intelligence and a wicked sense of humour. A few barbed comments could sometimes reduce Lissiel to tears of helpless laughter.
It was just a pity such moments were so few; Nerdanel kept to herself too much. This party was a good idea, thought Lissiel. Those statues are all very well, and I know she likes making them, but it will do her good to act like a normal girl for an evening. Out loud she said, "I'm not aiming my sights at the Prince, not that high; but there'll be plenty of, well, interesting people at the party. Interesting male people, of the single variety, if you know what I mean." She winked at Nerdanel.
Nerdanel gave her a smile, then without thinking blurted out, "You should aim at the Prince, Lissiel. It's why you were invited."
"What?" What?" What?" Three voices rang out as one, as the other two ceased their own conversation to challenge what Nerdanel just said. She felt like kicking herself.
"I, er, didn't mean it like that. I..."
"Lissiel isn't invited for Prince Fëanor. (No offence, sweetie.) She's here because I invited her as my guest! And the only reason you're even here is because Lissiel insisted. I can't imagine why she asked you, or why you came."
Vilyië interrupted in scornful tones, "It's not like the Prince will even notice *her*, dressed in those peasant overalls with dirt in her hair."
Nerdanel flushed darkly. Her personal style of clothing was an entirely sensible choice that she wasn't ashamed of. It was eminently practical for working in the forge, or hiking through the mountains, or lugging big chunks of stone around her workshop... It was perhaps not, a nagging voice whispered in her mind, the best choice for attending a royal ball at the palace in honour of the King's eldest son. She pushed the thought back down angrily.
"My hair isn't dirty. That's its natural colour." It was a feeble response; she knew it even as she said it: but if she told these two what she really wanted them to hear, there'd be nothing left of them but scorchmarks on the opposite wall. Keep your temper in check. That's what her father had taught her, ever since she was old enough to help him in the forge. Anger makes you careless. When you're dealing with fire and molten steel, a moment's carelessness will kill.
Nerdanel forced her hands to unclench from fists, and made her tone as light as she could. "I only meant that this party is for Prince Fëanor to meet his people, and yes, maybe meet someone he'll choose to marry. It could be any of the ladies at court. I didn't mean anyone in particular, just all of us collectively."
"Hmph. I'm not sure 'all of us' includes you." Despite the words, Arawendë seemed mollified; her cruelty was reflexive rather than focussed. She sniffed, then turned back to Vilyië and resumed her conversation. Nerdanel no longer interested her; the dismissal was plain.
"Wait! Slow down!"
Nerdanel turned in surprise as she heard Lissiel's voice, then blushed a little. Somehow since the conversation ended, without meaning to, she'd outpaced the whole group. The expression "stalking off" sprang to mind, except that they were still all heading to the same destination. But Lissiel was trotting after her, holding up her long skirts in both hands regardless of appearances, trying to catch her up. Touched, Nerdanel waited, then matched her pace to her friend's.
"Are you sure you want to come and talk to me? Won't they... lump you in with me now?"
"They're not bad people, Ner'. Not normally anyway. It's just that Arawendë, well... she's really got her heart set on this. It's making her, well, prickly."
"'Set on this'. You mean the party? Or do you mean marrying Prince Fëanor?"
Lissiel gave a mirthless laugh. "The second. She really thinks she's going to bowl him over. Fairytale stuff."
"Has she even met him?"
"So she says. I have my doubts, unless it was 'met him' in the sense of him kissing her hand in a receiving line next to 50 other women. They do that sort of thing at the Palace all the time, I gather."
"So why does Arawendë think she stands more of a chance than those other 50 women? Or all the rest of you, er, us?"
"Because she's a Vanya. Queen Indis married the King, and she thinks that sets a precedent for the men of the House of Finwë to marry ladies of the Vanyar."
"Mm-hmm." said Nerdanel meaningfully. She wasn't privy to all the secrets of the royal household - well, she wasn't privy to any of them, to be truthful. But even out in the city rumours circulated that Prince Fëanor didn't exactly see eye-to-eye with his father's new wife.
Lissiel rolled her eyes and grinned. Clearly she'd heard the same rumours, and could guess what the Prince's reaction would be to the suggestion that he emulate his father by deliberately seeking a wife from the First Kindred of the Eldar. Nerdanel took the opportunity - the other two were safely far behind, out of earshot - to tell Lissiel her previous idea that if Fëanor did turn out to be the sort of man who'd want to marry Arawendë, the only fitting punishment was, well, to be married to Arawendë.
Lissiel's peal of laughter was loud enough that Arawendë and Vilyië looked up in annoyance to see what was so funny; but they were too far behind to hear, so were forced to go back to their own conversation. Nerdanel put them firmly out of her mind. She had the invitation stored safely in a pocket - her clothes actually had pockets, lots of them, which was one reason she preferred them to the decorative yet impractical gowns her companions were wearing - so she could get into the palace without waiting for Arawendë to present her credentials.
"What did you really mean, back then?" asked Lissiel, breaking into her train of thoughts. "About me and the Prince, I meant. Were you really just generalising, or do you actually Know something?"
"Well, a bit of both, really. I don't know, but there are some things I can work out. And I honestly do think it isn't just random that you've been invited."
"Well come on then! Don't keep me in suspense. I didn't realise you were an expert on Palace politics."
"I'm not. But you remember what you told me about how Arawendë got her hands on four invitations to the party?"
"Of course. Her mother gave them to her, told her to share them out among her girl friends."
"Which included you by name, didn't it?"
"Well, yes, I suppose so. I've met Arawendë's mother a few times, she knows me. I'm sure it was just random, like 'Give them to your friends, you know, like Lissiel'".
"Mm-hmm. And where did Arawendë's mother get the invitations?"
"Well, she's a lady-in-waiting. She attends on the Queen personally. I suppose that Her Majesty..."
"Yes? She got them from the Queen."
"I suppose she must have. So?"
"So you don't think it's odd that Queen Indis would quietly, via a servant, arrange to give out invitations to her stepson's party to four random young women she's never met?"
"Um. When you put it like that, it does seem odd. I mean, Arawendë is sort-of nobility, if you squint, and Viliyië's mother was something important over in Alqualondë; but me? My parents are architects. And you're a blacksmith's daughter! Like you said, we're random women." She grinned at the notion, but Nerdanel shook her head.
"No, we're not random. We've got one thing in common."
Lissiel cocked an eyebrow.
"We're all single, and roughly Prince Fëanor's age. I do believe that Queen Indis is doing some discreet match-making — and she's willing to cast her net wider than I'd ever have given her credit for."
Lissiel quirked a smile. "Just because they're both Vanyar doesn't mean the Queen has to be like Arawendë..."
On to chapter two ->