The night brought a heavy silence to Valmar that seemed to wreathe the lesser peaks of the Pelóri like the net of a mourning veil.
For two days, Ilmarë had dutifully tended the hearth of Varda Elentári in her mistress's absence, clothed in deep blue and mourning the cavernous vacuity that swallowed the sounds of her bare feet on the white stone as she went about her daily chores. By the third day, she was forced to acknowledge, tucked away in the corner of her lady's receiving room with a needle in one hand and the rough beginnings of a cloak draped across her lap, that her insistence on honoring as many of her usual rituals as could be contrived with no one else in the hall was simply a desperate pantomime.
So on the evening of the fourth day, she took her skirt in hand and mounted the steps of the very highest landing atop Ilmarin, and waited for the wind to usher an eagle near.
"What news?" she asked, when Thorondor finally dropped himself from a high thermal and curled his great talons around the banister.
"The conclave is stalled," he replied, grimly canting his head to peer down at her comparatively miniscule figure folded on the parquet and clutching her mantle against the cold gales of wind threatening to snatch it from her. There was a strangeness to his features, whose like Ilmarë had perceived only few times before in others: a deep sunkenness of the eyes, a soft dust of white over the tips of his feathers like the hoarfrost of an early spring morning, a nearly tangible weariness that lived in the depths of his chest. On Melkor, it had been an outward manifestation of his unholy will, a painful and hideous perversion of features beyond their natural composition that marred each new incarnation in greater measures. On the eagle, it was venerable, even for the long jagged rips of skin long scarred over on his legs and breast. The eagles could die, as the Children died, but certainly not of age, and she knew, looking up at him, that no matter the outcome this battle would be his last. Manwë would honor his emeritus well. "It is Súlimo's will that I am to muster aid whether the Quendi will follow or not, though it seems to me that the Valier will not be easily contented with the gesture."
She smiled tightly. "Think you then that Súlimo will send a contingent?"
"Námo, at least, is stone that they must not, and so too is Lórien; neither will readily subject themselves to such a dangerous gambit. But Ingwë is not easily deterred, and he has been happy for the opportunity to play upon the favor of those members who have the greatest understanding of the tireless creativity of evil. A Vala's memory is too long—they will remember the murder of the trees, but they sooner mourn the destruction of a creation sooner than the death that followed. Ingwë's desperation is all he has to recommend his cause to the Valar, who by no fault of their own cannot comprehend his fear of powerlessness: he knows what war is for a soul bound within a body of flesh, and his blood runs cold for the thought of distant grandchildren put to the teeth of Morgoth's wolves alone."
Imperceptibly, she shuddered.
The sun was perched upon the distant line of the horizon, and backlit into a fiery golden brilliance by the brilliant evening, Thorondor looked immensely tired, his furled wings unfolding with an aching lethargy.
"I am hopeful," he confided, beating them both once to propel himself upwards, where he hovered above the landing, his sharp, critical gaze drawn back towards the eastern sky. "Not the least of Ingwë's allies is thy mistress and for that I think Súlimo will be like-minded, in the end."
It was as much license to hope as she was going to receive, though as she watched Thorondor wheel towards his eyerie with nary a look back she noted with a touch of selfish despair that he had given her little cause to believe her mistress would return soon. Resigned to having to return to the lonely tedium awaiting her, she tucked her arms around her and began the slow climb towards home, her eyes fixed on the profusion of clouds gathered above the far lowlands like pigeon down.
The cold vaulted ceilings and the almost claustrophobic hallways were somehow more insupportable to Ilmarë now than they had been that morning, and for all her efforts, she quickly found that she couldn't procure a single task engrossing enough to keep her attention for very long. If she attempted to compromise by taking her embroidery hoop to a balcony, the field of stars winking coyly down at her with a blithe lack of concern for their mistress and loving custodian accomplished nothing but to make her more aware of the unease full in bloom in her breast.
Somewhere far below, the night air carried a faint, lilting chorus up to her, but it seemed her lot to be beyond consolation, and that suited her fine.
It was nearly midnight of the eighth day when Ilmarë felt called to pause from her place reading a collection of Vanyarin eclogues in her own antechamber, her fear evolved to a persistent, gnawing boredom that could not be coaxed away with any of her usual contingency plans—somehow she wasn't sure if this was worse. All the same, a confused spring of relief and dread welled heavily within her, the light in the innumerable lamps set along the walls and the fire lapping at the kindling in the grate shivering as though a wind had nearly snuffed them before they surged again and prompted her to rise, wending out to the wide, open courtyard built into a shelf that jutted out over the hall in a wide lip, the stairs built into it meant for those of Ingwë's people who had occasion to conference privately with Eönwë.
It was Varda, brilliant in the gentle darkness, bare-armed as she coalesced from a familiar ether into flesh again. Ilmarë paused, expecting Manwë to follow and finding, when he failed to materialize after his wife, that Varda had come alone.
"Ilmarë," she greeted, the fall of her hair luminous against the incline of her clavicle. There was a worrying dimness to her, as of a candle too near to the end of its wick, but Ilmarë hastened to close the distance anyway, rushing down the steps without seeming to as though her pure, radiant buoyancy could lift her from the ground.
"My Lord Súlimo—"
"—Is aiding the Children with their preparations." Varda's voice resonated with an exhausted timbre. "I would rather not speak of this tonight. The victory was hard-won."
Ilmarë said nothing more, content to be an orbital presence as they moved into the hall and Varda shed her cloak and proceeded to her rooms.
So bound by flesh, Ilmarë had contrived to observe the Quendi when she could, read their books, listened to their songs, took every piece of interaction as education for which she might learn to improve on her ability to serve her mistress, who was not weaker for her choice to remain clothed in a body, but maybe more inclined to be exasperated by it; their earthly forms responded in kind and nights like these Varda would simply tend her fields until the well within her had refilled itself, though her lingering sorrows were less quickly coaxed out.
If Manwë had similar habits, Ilmarë was ignorant of them; she herself rarely had any personal dealings with him beyond when they converged for matters that called for the attendance of all the members of their household, which were few enough. For Ilmarë, it was no great loss—she knew him as she knew her mistress and the familiarity would have been adequate even if she had not been perfectly happy with the insularity of her duties. The two of them were different facets of the same gem, rivers born of the same great source, symbiotic and inseparably intertwined. The Children had developed a custom to emulate this union; Ilmarë wasn't sure if their marital arrangements were really a faithful analog to the relationships formed between the Valar, but it was a romantic enough notion, and Manwë and Varda themselves seemed to enjoy it.
That didn't preclude Varda from feeling the forced separation keenly enough that she didn't protest when Ilmarë drew her a bath and ushered her in, the sense of unrightness in her being slowly working itself straight again as she slipped back into her former role. For her part, Varda seemed unwilling to expend any energy in demurring, sinking into her tub and releasing herself to the fragments of comfort offered by the corporeal world: hot water on skin, gentle starlight filtering through a window, the luxury of being in confidence with someone with whom no pretense was expected.
"Eönwë will herald them," she said at last, when the only sounds to be heard were the faint, unintrusive sounds of Ilmarë reaching for a tray of toiletries, seated behind Varda and reverent in the task of plaiting her hair. "It will not comfort the Children of Arda, I think, to have their battles fought for them with our distant hands, and they will not take this as amends for imagined hurts which are ancient by their reckoning."
"The alternative is slaughter." Ilmarë frowned, ever eager to invest herself in the machinations of the outside world, but less so to enable the gnawing cares that harried her mistress. Insistent silence was not helpful, and she couldn't bring herself to let Varda begin to second-guess what logic had driven her to throw her support to Ingwë in the face of what must have been daunting dissent.
"Perhaps." Varda exhaled deeply, exhausted by the short exchange, and turned on her tile seat, taking Ilmarë's face in one appraising hand. "How long was I?"
There was a sudden, unexpected pressure in Ilmarë's throat.
"Too long," she admitted, her voice tenuous in the oppressive silence of the room. Something like mirth touched the corner of Varda's mouth, and she drew her handmaid to her, gently touching her lips to Ilmarë's forehead, then her jaw, then the hollow of her throat. Something in her manner was entirely like Thorondor's, she noted, sliding easily into the water and allowing Varda to wind her arms around her, an age working fine marks into the familiar topography of her face before they dissolved to nothing again and Varda was as she ever had been, remote, terrifying. The burdens of Arda were too great for Ilmarë to shoulder, even for the Star-Kindler, but in this, she could gladly offer what aid Varda would accept from her, and she hitched her leg over the rise of Varda's hip when bid, utterly lost to the sensation.
"I will endeavor to be less so in the future," she replied, straight-faced, but easy, the hum of power in her drowning out the beat of Ilmarë's own heart in her ears. In a moment, she had pulled one wet sleeve down off her shoulder, and bent her head to roll a nipple between her teeth. Petty pleasure, in the grand scheme of things, but freely given, and mutually comforting, as if she could taste the days of unease seeping from Ilmarë's borrowed skin. "For you."
The war would come, Ilmarë thought with her last half-moment of coherence, and who could say what would follow?