Written for Tolkien Femslash Week Bingo, for the prompt: Crack Pairings: Goldberry/Aredhel (N19).
Warning for spiders and animal death.
Aredhel stumbles out of the dark vale, free at last from the shadow of the mountains. It is an inexpressible relief to see clean grass and clear sky again. Her wounds sting and burn, and her mouth is dry with thirst.
She is on foot; her horse is lost to Nan Dungortheb. A spider with a body as long as her arm dropped on her from above, knocking her out of the saddle, while others swarmed out of the underbrush, clinging to the horse’s legs and winding them with silk. Aredhel killed the spiders in the end, every one, but her mare was pulled down before Aredhel could reach her. She convulsed and died under Aredhel’s hands as Aredhel tried to save her. The mare was a descendant of the swift herds of Oromė, of the lineage carried to Middle-earth on the stolen Teleri ships, and later given to Fingolfin by Maedhros in compensation for his House’s deeds. Aredhel’s mouth twists. Better for the mare if her ancestors had stayed in Valinor, or Aredhel had left her safe in Gondolin.
She pushes loose strands of hair out of her face with a hand that trembles with weakness and concentrates grimly on walking forward, putting one foot in front of the other. It is like the Ice, she tells herself. She will not stop, because she cannot stop. She will not fall.
But the spider poison burns in her veins, and she is dizzy with it. It takes far too long for her to realize that the sound she hears is running water. Aredhel licks dry lips, her head pounding. Water--she needs it badly. She goes as best she can toward the source of the sound.
She can see the river at last, clear and freely flowing. She moves toward it eagerly. But her legs are shaking and she stumbles, falling heavily to the ground. Her fingers dig in the earth, trying to pull herself forward, but she cannot move. It is not fair--she will not die here, within sight of the water that could save her. Aredhel almost weeps with frustration. Her face is pressed to the ground while the world spins around her and darkness flickers at the edge of her vision.
She does not know how long she lies there before a cool hand touches her face, bringing her back to herself. It almost seems as if the sound of flowing water has moved closer, that it is right beside her as if she lay at the foot of a fountain in Gondolin. And then her head is raised and someone holds fresh water to her lips, sweet and refreshing. Aredhel drinks greedily. She cannot see whose arms hold her, but she knows she is safe; there is something at the edge of her perception like a clear song, bright and joyous. Her eyes drift closed, and darkness takes away her senses.
When she wakes, she is lying on the river bank, soft grass beneath her. Her wounds have been tended; they sting a little, but her skin no longer burns with the spiders’ poison, and her head is clear.
She sits up and is surprised to find that she can. There is a laugh like rippling water; Aredhel turns instantly and finds herself facing a yellow-haired maiden in a gown the color of new leaves. Water runs from her hair in a continuous stream, flowing over her dress and limbs to her bare feet and soaking the grass where she sits; the spot around her is already visibly more verdant than the other grass on the riverbank.
When Aredhel looks into the maiden’s bright eyes, they gleam with sparks of that light which she once knew in Valinor before the Darkening. But more than that, Aredhel can hear, not with her ears but within her spirit, an echo of the Song that brought the World into being, and she knows she is facing one of the Ainur in visible form.
“Who are you?” she asks.
The maiden smiles, her eyes alight. “I am a daughter of the river,” she says. “I cleaned your wounds, and washed all the poison from them.”
“You have my thanks, river-daughter. I am Aredhel.” It is on her lips to add “of Gondolin” or “daughter of the King of the Noldor,” but somehow formalities seem out of place here on the riverbank. And has she not fled Gondolin and the rank that confined her? She asks instead, “What are you called?”
The maiden laughs, shaking her head; the motion casts droplets of water onto the grass, where they shine like dew. “Your people give one name to the river when it is a streamlet at the mountain’s roots, and another when it grows mighty and rushes to the Sea. But the river is the same. I am a river-daughter; the River-woman is my mother. I have no name, nor need one!”
There is something appealing in it, Aredhel thinks; to be free as the wind, as the trees, unbound even by a name.
The river-daughter shifts position, tucking one leg behind the other; it seems she is rarely still. “I brought you food,” she says eagerly. Aredhel looks where she indicates; there is a morsel of honey-comb and berries gathered on a green leaf.
Aredhel dips a finger in the dripping honey and brings it to her lips. She was not conscious of being hungry, but suddenly she finds she is ravenous. She does not look up again until she has eaten all there is and licked the last drops of honey from the leaf. “Do you eat?” she asks then. Perhaps she should have left some; she is well familiar with rationing food from her time on the Ice.
The river-daughter smiles, as if sharing a secret. “I drink,” she says, “when the sweet rain falls. But I do not need food as you do. Are you still tired?”
Aredhel finds that she is weary once more, though this time it is her body’s desire for healing and not the struggle with the poison. “Yes,” she says. “I need a place to sleep--not so open.”
The river-daughter leaps gracefully to her feet and offers her hand; after a moment, Aredhel takes it. She leads Aredhel to the base of a great tree, where there is a gap between the roots. The river-daughter lays her hands on the roots and shoves, as if pushing aside an unruly hound. To Aredhel’s surprise, the gnarled roots shift apart, widening the gap until there is space for her to lie down. She gathers bracken and dried leaves for bedding, while the river-daughter watches her curiously. At last she is satisfied, and settles herself in the hollow.
The river-daughter makes to lie down beside her, and Aredhel makes a gesture of protest. The river-daughter still has streams of water running down her arms and legs to her fingertips and bare toes, like a statue in a fountain. “The Eldar do not sleep well in running water.”
The river-daughter frowns in concentration. The stream of water slows, then ceases. “Like this?”
Aredhel puts out a hand to touch her arm, and finds her sleeve only slightly damp. “Yes,” she says, “that will do. Only do not start dripping again while I sleep!”
The river-daughter laughs and promises she will not. She slips into the hollow of the roots beside Aredhel, though Aredhel did not think there was room for another person, and somehow wiggles herself in until she is comfortable, her head resting against Aredhel’s shoulder. Aredhel drifts off to sleep with the river-daughter’s warmth pressed against her side.
When Aredhel next awakes, the sun is high in the sky. She sits up and stretches, working out the kinks in her spine from her rough bed.
The river-daughter slides out again and balances on a tree-root. “Are you leaving?” she asks. “Where will you go?”
Aredhel stands and looks around her while she considers. The Mountains of Dread rise black and jagged to the north. She has no desire to enter their shadow again so soon, nor to return to Gondolin. She is not far from the Pass of Aglon, which is held by her cousins. If she wished, the soldiers stationed there would send a message into Himlad, and her cousins would come to meet her. And yet--
The river-daughter leans closer to her, and Aredhel sees again the untamed brightness in her eyes. “Do not go yet,” she urges. “The river flows far, through many lands and woods before it reaches the Sea. Stay with me, and wander for a little!”
Aredhel feels laughter bubble up in her chest, a sheer joy in her freedom that she never felt within Gondolin’s walls. The world is wide, and there are many things to see. Her cousins can wait a while longer.
The river-daughter stretches out her hand, and Aredhel takes it.