Written for Rare Pair Fest 2017. The title is from the song "Hunter" by Heather Dale.
It was a warm day in summer; the sky was a deep blue, with clouds that were fluffy and white like fleece. The women of Brethil who gathered at the widow Ardeth's house agreed that it would be better to take their work outside. They carried their wooden chairs and stools out onto the grass, arranged in a loose circle, and sat with distaff and spindle to spin their thread. Níniel was among them; she wished to make herself useful in exchange for their kindness toward her, and she found that her fingers were deft at such tasks.
It was very pleasant; a cool breeze blew by from time to time, making the green leaves overhead rustle gently, and they could hear the cheerful calls of birds in the distance. Once each women had taken up her distaff wound around with wool, and the spindles were turning busily as the thread twisted between their fingers, Ardeth said, "Tell me, what songs or stories shall we have today while we work? And who will begin?"
"I will ask a story of you," Níniel said. "Yesterday, Brandir spoke to me of a certain herb which grows near the Lady Haleth's grave-mound. I asked him who she was, and he said he would tell me. But he had time only to say that she was a great leader of the Haladin, who are named the People of Haleth after her, and that she led your people here to Brethil. Then a woman came to ask him about her child's cough, and he told me no more. Now I ask you to tell me of her."
"What?" exclaimed Gwaeren, Ardeth's niece. "You don't know of the Lady Haleth? How can that be?"
"Perhaps I knew once," Níniel said, "but I have forgotten! Tell me, then: who was she, and what did she do?"
Theladis the wife of Dorlas said eagerly, "Tell her about how Haleth defended the stockade by the two rivers."
"The spiders—" Gwaeren began.
Ardeth glanced at Níniel. "No," she said, "I think we will not have that story today. Nor the giant spiders, though I know how you love them, Tavril—"
Tavril made a face, and the others laughed. "I hate spiders!" she said. "Let us have anything else."
"I will tell another story," Ardeth said. "This is the Tale of Haleth and the River Spirit." Some of the women gave a satisfied sigh; they all settled in to listen while their hands plied their thread, and Ardeth began.
"This happened in the time when we were a wandering people, roaming here and there in the lands far to the East over the mountains. Haleth was still a young woman, but she was counted one of the most skilled hunters among her people. Armed only with her bow and arrows, she went where she liked, sometimes with her twin brother Haldar—who was very like her—and sometimes by herself.
"Not long after they had made camp in a new place, another hunter came back and said he had been down to the river, in a fair valley where willows grew, and a strange thing had happened: the river seemed shallow enough to wade, but as soon as he came near, the water rose so high and rushed so wildly that he was afraid to cross. And the next day another thing happened: the first man's brother thought he would see for himself what the river was doing. The river was very high, but there were flat rocks in it, and he thought he could cross by jumping from rock to rock. So he began crossing, but he felt a hand grab his ankle, which made him lose his balance and fall in. No harm came to him, but he had to walk home soaking wet. And another man complained that an unseen creature had reached out of the river and had stolen his hat!
"When this was told, Haldar leaned toward Haleth and whispered, 'I am sure you would not fall in the river so easily! I challenge you to go to the river tomorrow and see why all these strange things are happening.' And Haleth said she would.
"Early in the morning when the mists were rising among the marshes, Haleth went down into the valley of willow trees. There she saw the river, winding slow and shallow among the rushes. But as soon as she came near, the river rose up, and its waters rushed and foamed wildly.
"Haleth said to the river, 'O river, why do you rise like this, and why are you rushing so wildly?'
"To Haleth's surprise, a beautiful maiden rose up from the river waters. Her golden hair was dripping with water and she wore a green gown shot through with silver; a crown of flowers was on her head and another wreath of flowers twined about her waist. She said to Haleth, 'I do this because it is my will. I am the daughter of the river, and no one crosses these waters without my leave.'
"And Haleth said, 'Daughter of the river, will you let me cross?'
"The river's daughter smiled at her and said, 'I will let you cross if you will kiss me once.'
"The river spirit was beautiful and wild, and Haleth was not at all reluctant. She set down her bow and arrows on the bank and kissed her.
"'Now you may cross,' said the river spirit, and Haleth crossed over the river — which now flowed gently and only came up to her knees — and went hunting on the far side of it. When she came back again, there was no sign of the river spirit, but Haleth was able to cross without hindrance, and so she made her way home.
"'Did you go to the river?' her brother asked.
"'I went to the river, and I was able to cross,' Haleth told him. But in spite of all his questions, she would tell him nothing more.
"Haldar was not satisfied, and he said, 'Then go again tomorrow.'
"The next day Haleth went again to the river valley full of willows. And the river-daughter, crowned with flowers, rose up from the waters. Haleth said, 'Daughter of the river, will you let me cross?'
"The river's daughter smiled at her, with a mischievous look, and said, 'I will let you cross if you will kiss me twice.'
"Haleth was no more reluctant than she had been the first time. She kissed the river-daughter twice and crossed over the river.
"That evening her brother asked what had happened, and Haleth said only, 'I went to the river, and I was able to cross.'
"Her brother could tell she was keeping something back, and so he said, 'Then go again tomorrow!'
"The next day, Haleth went down to the river. The river-daughter rose from the waters, and she was wearing the hunter's fur hat. Haleth burst out laughing. Then she said, 'Daughter of the river, will you let me cross?'
"The river's daughter said, 'I will let you cross if you will kiss me three times.'
"Haleth looked at the river spirit, and she said, 'There is no need to count; I will give you as many kisses as you like.' She took off her clothing and waded into the water.
"It was summer then, as it is now; the sun was warm and the water was pleasantly cool on her skin. The river rose up around her, holding her. She felt a gentle tug on her head, and the water slid through her hair like a thousand teasing fingers, undoing her braids until her hair floated in the water like willow-branches. Haleth could feel the great wild strength of the river as its current flowed past her; she knew it could overwhelm her in a moment, but she was not afraid, and she knew the river-daughter would not harm her.
"The river-daughter let her silver robe flow away like foam, and she came to Haleth, who reached out to embrace her. She was like water in Haleth's arms, but also like a living woman, and this time they did not count their kisses. Afterwards Haleth lay on the bank and let the sun dry her hair.
"When Haleth returned home, she did not wait for her brother to ask, but she said, 'I met the daughter of the river, and she let me cross.'
"'What was she like?' Haldar asked, but it was hard for Haleth to find the right words to speak of the river spirit: mischievous and laughing and strong in power, more ancient than Sun and Moon yet young as a dawn of spring.
"Then Haldar said, 'It seems she likes you and will let you cross, but will she let all of our people cross also? We will need to go over that river when we journey westward.'
"Haleth said, 'I will go again tomorrow and ask.'
"And when she asked, the river-daughter said to her: 'You and all of your people may cross, since you ask me! But if you had not asked my leave, not one of you would have been able to cross this river.'
"During all the time that they dwelt by that river, Haleth returned often to visit the river spirit, and it is said that they had great joy of each other. At last the time came when Haleth's people wished to wander onward, and Haleth went once more to the river to bid her farewell. When they parted, the river spirit gave her a water lily from her river, white with a golden heart. Haleth kept it always with her, and it never faded."
Ardeth ended her tale, and another woman said, "I have heard this story many times, but I haven't heard the part with the water lily before."
A kinswoman of Brandir was seated beside Ardeth; her name was Halwen. She said, "I have heard it, and I heard this also: When Haleth led her people through Nan Dungortheb, they were attacked by the poisonous spiders that dwell there. Some of them were bitten and became ill. But Haleth let them breathe in the scent of the flower, and they were healed."
Lalvennil, one of Gwaeren's friends, said, "My grandmother told me that when Haleth heard the song of the River Sirion and saw the forest of Brethil across the river, she knew she had found the right place for herself and her people, that she would make her home in this land and never wish to leave it. And then, once they had crossed over, she took the water lily that she had carried with her for so long and gave it as a gift to the river."
"And the river carried it into Doriath," Gwaeren said eagerly, "and Queen Melian took it up and kept it, because Haleth's river spirit was her friend a long time ago before the Sun or Moon rose."
"I haven't heard that," Halwen said doubtfully. "I don't think it's part of the story."
"Yes, it is," Gwaeren insisted.
"Stories are told in many ways," Ardeth said peaceably. "And when they happened long ago, we cannot be sure which is true. Tavril, it is your turn next."
After a moment, Tavril said, "Your tale of the river spirit reminds me of a song my mother taught me, about the daughter of the river and an Elf-maid who loved her. My mother comes from the people of Hador, and this is one of their songs: The Song of the River-daughter and the Elf-maid. It takes place on the Elves' Great Journey, when they were travelling westward." Tavril paused in her spinning and sang:
In ancient time the earth was dark,
still featureless the firmament;
no Sun or Moon sailed in heaven,
no gleaming star glinted on high.
No beat of wings or birds singing,
no flower bloomed on barren stem.
Vast and brooding, the voiceless woods
lay in darkness, in dreaming silence.
Then Elbereth on Oiolossë
lifted her hands, light enfolding;
in shining wonder her work she wrought,
kindled the flame of countless stars.
The Elves awoke by waters flowing,
where streams trickled from stony heights;
silent forests first resounded
with speech and song through sunless glades.
From those waters they wandered far,
called to the Light that lay westward.
Last the Lindar reluctant came,
loving better the light of stars.
A merry-hearted maiden with them
walked light-footed by leaf and grass.
She gladly saw and sought to name
many fair things in Middle-earth.
From her people her path led her;
more than the speech of many folk
the wild places pleased her heart,
where she wandered in the wood's stillness.
Yet older things than Elves dwelt there;
Morgoth's malice mars what is fair.
A black rider, wraith of darkness
hunted hungry in the hills' shadow.
She darted away with desperate speed;
Morgoth's creature came in pursuit.
Wearied, she fled to water's edge;
through the river she ran, splashing.
The river's daughter rose from her bed:
'Come no farther, fiend of darkness!
I am master; without my leave
nothing may cross the cold waters.
'By stream and hill, by stone and tree,
I banish you, I bar the way.'
Daunted, the wraith dared not face her;
it slunk away in sullen wrath.
The Elf-maid looked, lost in wonder.
The river's daughter drew her closer:
'No fiend are you, or fell creature!
Stay and sing with my stream's music.'
Silver droplets like diamonds hung
glistening bright in golden hair;
the water's surface wavered round her
standing among the mirrored stars.
In dawnless night beneath the trees
they lingered there, laughing joyful
with touch of lips and limbs entwined;
no evil thing threatened their peace.
Time unmeasured by months or years
there they tarried; then the Elf-maid
through twilight mist and trees' shadow
to Doriath came where kin awaited.
Still when silver stars are casting
bright reflections in flowing stream,
the Elf-maid sees them and remembers
the one she loved in lightless years.
And when her heart wishes to go,
by secret paths she passes lightly
with wandering feet as once of old
and seeks the stream whose song she knows.
The river-daughter in robe of silver
welcomes her there in the willow's shadow;
under the moon, their merry voices
rise together to greet the stars.
Next was Theladis the wife of Dorlas, and she said: "You all know that Lady Haleth had women who fought for her and defended her. If the tales are true, one of them loved her and was loved in return. This is the Song of Haleth's Guardswoman." And she sang:
Not for us the delicate wreaths of flowers,
fine embroidered garments and golden bracelets—
leather sword-hilts stained with the sweat of battle
are our adornments.
Once our mothers followed the sunlight westward;
so I follow Haleth through doubt and danger:
she, my light in darkness; I need no other
while she is near me.
Haleth's eyes as fierce as a striking falcon's,
Haleth's hands sword-calloused and strong in gripping,
Haleth's lips on mine are more dear than jewels
of Elven princes.
Next in the circle was Níniel. Ardeth knew that Níniel could not remember the songs and stories of her childhood and didn't wish her to be distressed. She said, "Níniel, you need not sing or tell a story for us if you don't wish to."
Níniel smiled and said, "I will not be the only one silent! For all of you have taught me words, and I will not be ungrateful. When I awoke here, I knew only darkness, and all the days of my life before that seemed like a dream I could not remember. But now it seems to me that in my dreams there was a laughing river of silver, that sang with a fair voice." She looked down at the grass and up at the sunlight, gathering her words, and then she sang:
Out of darkness and dreams I woke,
knowing no past or paths before me.
Grief forgetting, but glad in hope,
to new day's light I lift my eyes.
I have forgotten my old sorrows, and I will hope not to find new ones."
"That is well said, Níniel," Halwen said. "May no sorrow come to us!"
Next was Gwaeren. She rested her spindle in her lap and said to them, "My aunt has told you the tale of Haleth and the river-maiden. But there is a song also." And she sang:
Long the way and perilous that she travelled,
where her strength of heart and her courage led her;
in dark lands she carried those sunlit moments
of light and laughter.
Long ago, our folk left those lands behind us;
none can say whose feet wander by that river,
or who hears the song of the River-daughter
in golden summer.
Though the moments trickle away like water,
let us hold to love and the joy it gives us;
in a thousand years, let the wives and maidens
sing of us also.
And so they continued with songs and tales until all their thread was spun.
Two of these poems (the long poem about Goldberry and Nellas, and Nienor's song) are in Norse-style alliterative verse; the other two poems are Sapphic verse.
Nienor's memory of a laughing river: Nen Lalaith, the stream that ran by Húrin and Morwen's house in Dór-lomin.