In Valinor, in the Ainur were a part of life and were mythologized not as gods but as cousins. In the poetry gardens of Tirion and the airy balconies of Valimar the Amanyar spoke of the making of the world and spoke true, for they had the stories right from the source. They jested about the one and only time Nessa Purple-Eyed fell, made guesses about Aulë’s latest project, and asked Queen Elbereth’s forgiveness as they lit lanterns to drown out her stars.
Few stories were told of Nienna, not because she was not loved but because she was loved too much. Those elves who dwelled in Valinor knew her sorrows and did not pry at them. Her part in the stories of others was glossed over, her name whispered gently, her tale left unspoken and unrecorded. Such was the respect given to her, for all people might need pity some day.
If an exile from over the sea needed to learn, or a new child asked, they were shared only snippets of thought, memories, echoes of what was told perhaps only once long ago.
These were the things that were not said.
In the days when the Music was first being sung, Lady Nienna knew sorrow, for it was the chord she was strung of, the thought she was woven from. Sorrow she sung into the world, among other things, but she did so in kindness and not malice for she heard the themes her father’s son Melkor was including and she realized the world might have need of true grief one day. There was more to her than sadness, however, for she was the sister of Dreams and Fate. She was hope and despair alike, and in those days there was more cause for the former than the latter.
And so she entered the world and she hoped her sorrows would not come to pass.
She was much acquainted with Yavanna in those days, frequent collaborators that they were. While Yavanna first strove to bring life to the barren volcanic soil and boiling chemical-laden water they shaped, Nienna watched her with great interest, mourning for every failed experiment and loving dearly the ones that succeeded. When life first stirred deep in the ocean, under Ulmo and Yavanna’s watchful gaze, Nienna watched as well and adored it. She placed a spark of her power into those tiny cells and saw them spread across the sea floor, perfect and self-sustaining. Her hope grew.
It was not Manwë’s fault when the burning air rose up and killed almost all of those early organisms. It wasn’t Yavanna or Ulmo’s either, though their new experimental light-eaters had been the ones who released the thick poison gas into the atmosphere.
Nienna mourned. Then she dusted herself off and went back to hoping, for their was life still to be grateful for, and many great things to come. Yavanna was in the thick of her work and Nienna labored alongside her, reshaping matter and nudging along the path of nature. Soon the warm, teal oceans thrived with life. On the land, Aulë toiled to make the earth suitable for plants and animals. Bright was the potential of the world
Then Melkor came crashing down.
The air filled with dust, cold winds blew over the seas. Once more, death came to their world.
Once more, Nienna mourned. When she was done crying (a curious habit she had seen when Ilúvatar had shown them the Children that were to be), she picked herself up and went back to work.
So it went, for untold years, as new light sources were tested and discarded, continents formed and were broken by Melkor’s power, mountains shook and shattered. It was the new species Nienna loved most, for in them she saw the potential for the future and the Children to come. While Yavanna did delicate work with plants and Oromë doted over every prey animal she created, Nienna made her own mark on the great lizards of the earth and sea. In their long feathers she wrote her fear of failure, in their sharp teeth she hid all the anger she refused to show. One thing she did not give them was tears. They could not cry even if they wanted to. She cradled their eggs and painted their frills with bright colors and let grief swallow her whole when Melkor drove species after species to extinction.
Mourning was becoming overwhelming. Her nature was inclined towards sorrow and the pushing that melancholy back became more and more difficult every time new tragedy struck. Hope was not a default but a constant effort and she was not endlessly strong.
They tried to comfort her, her colleagues, her friends. In return she comforted them when their projects were thrown into chaos. When Aulë’s rock formations were toppled, she helped pick up the pieces. As Yavanna lost the great spiked reptiles they had collaborated on, with their mace tails and fringed teeth, Nienna sobbed with her, washed the bones with her tears, and buried them in deep muds as a record of what had been. That was her brother’s idea. He said the dead were important to remember.
She could feel the sadness begin to take root in her heart. It was hard to fight it. Manwë’s birds replaced the vicious, clawed flying lizards she had so doted on. Yavanna’s efforts to recreate Eru’s vision of soft, furred animals and insects with iridescent wings began to bear fruit. Her first mammals were darling little things, fond of burrows and hiding among the wide leaves of the plants that spread over every surface.
It was strange to be so wistful even as the world thrived around her. Aulë was perfecting the final version of his Lamps and raising them high in the north and south. Trees as big as Tulkas spread everywhere on the earth, covered in moss at the bottom and crowned with clouds at the top. Almaren was full of the unknowable creations of craftspeople- Maia working from templates they did not fully understand yet and coming up with images of limbs that seemed to awkward to function or towers made for beings with such small frames and limited beings. Her brother Irmo had a garden full of ferns where the most wonderful of her creations wandered, singing their songs into the wind. Even solemn Námo seemed to find some joy, as his wife discovered spiders and the delight of weaving delicate webs.
Ever still they turned to each other, the two eldest of the siblings, and there was worry in their eyes. Námo knew the fate that was coming. Nienna did not but she could feel it in the bones and armor plates she did not have.
Her doom was always made of tears.
Doom came at a party, when her hopes were highest. She loved joyful Nessa, bright-eyed and quick in movements and mind. Tulkas was too loud for her, too young, but treated her like she was not broken, and for that she loved him as well. Their affection for each other was unmarred, as the world ought to have been.
Then as the happy couple retired to their rest Melkor’s wrath came down.
Nienna fought- they all fought- but it was in vain. As she grappled with a dozen spirits of the deep earth she heard the crack of of one of the Lamps splitting. It sounded like Varda making a star in reverse. The earth shook, fire rained down from the sky, animal screams were heard, the sky darkened, the island faltered.
She fell into the sea. As Ulmo, her fellow in loneliness, gathered her and the rest of the casualties up and tried to shelter them from the wreckage coming down, she heard the terrible noise again.
The terrible thing about the sea was that it ate your tears.
The aftermath was terribly familiar- from the dark, dusty sky, to the blanket of fallout over everything for miles, to the scorch marks running down the side of trees. Yavanna worked tirelessly to make sure at least some of her creations, those small enough and flexible enough to make it through the dark winter after the Spring, survived. Nienna held the rest of them as they died.
Almost none of her reptiles, which were large and stupid and made for heat and abundant food sources, made it.
Slowly, the others came to her. Aulë had lost creations before but not something he had placed a part of his soul into. He spent long years at her side, crying for the light he had so loved and could not replace. Irmo’s garden was entirely destroyed in the catastrophe. He nestled against her like they were newly made once more, and he was just an idle train of thought tucked between his siblings. Estë shared her grief that she could not do more to help or assuage more pain- only send a soft sleep against the cold and dark. Ulmo came to her at the shore and showed her the corpses of the huge, long-necked, flippered sea beasts she had helped him formulate.
Such were the burdens they shared with her, for they knew little of grief even after all these years. Nienna tried not to break under the pressure. She was despair and hope in equal measures and she would not be undone, no matter how much suffering she was shown.
When they retreated to Valinor, she claimed a place on the outer edge of the world for herself, and filled it with the skeletons of what she had lost. She left no windows on the side facing in, for the land was now full of what Yavanna saved and what she made anew (flowers, deer, wolves). Nienna could not stand to look upon it. She could not....
Yavanna came to her one day and offered to try to recreate what had been destroyed. Nienna turned her down. She knew there was no replacing the stolen, that grief was not so easily thwarted. Her lizards, with their feathery hides and bony spurs, every new variation something exciting and bizarre, had been loved. Now they were gone.
Her job was to keep moving forward. She sung grief into the world in the beginning, now it was hers to deal with.
There were the Children-yet-to-come to think of, and all the plants and animals that dwelt in Ulmo’s dark seas and the unlit forests far from Valinor. Yavanna took care of them, pushed them forward, sunk energy into the soil so they could survive without light, lulled them into hibernation when they needed to wait for her, repopulated whole swathes of land with her new cuttings and creations. They might need to be wept for, some day. There were the fallen- those spirits who Melkor had stolen and twisted so long ago. Many needed pity. More than that, they needed healing.
So she cried for the Trees to make them pure and bright, she cried over the foundations of her brother’s halls to give Mandos an empathy of its own, she cried into Varda’s star vats to make the world brighter. And still she hoped.
When at last the Firstborn came unto them, the first warning was in their ghosts. Not all who happened to die- by accident or terrible misfortune- on the shores of Cuiviénen chose to heed Námo’s call, for they did not know who they were harkening to. But some did and those souls came to rest in Mandos, the first of many, and the Valar wondered greatly at their coming.
Námo refused to have his charges interrogated, and as such the location of the Quendi was not known for many more years. Eventually, however, Yavanna and Oromë’s increased wanderings about the eastern world paid off, and the elves were found, and there was delight.
To Nienna these proceedings were dull and distant, for in between the arrival of the first dead elves and the discovery of the first alive ones a new issue had arisen.
They called themselves The Lost Ones, when they called themselves anything at all. Many had lost the power of speech, or spoke only in twisted verse. They were misshapen, hurting creatures, but underneath the strange edges of their souls and the patches of raw memory shone the bright spirits of elves.
Her brother called to her often in the first days, to comfort his wards who were grieving, and when the first of the Lost came to him he cried out to Nienna once more. She left her lonely, dark halls and hastened to his side, and when she saw the poor, screaming thing he was bent over she knew in her heart that this was the worst of Melkor’s crimes.
Her eyes filled with tears, and never again did her weeping cease, for she had finally found something to mourn which would occupy her for the rest of her days. No more did she sit in Yavanna’s forests laughing as they made animals and flowers, no more did she fill Lórien with her sighs, no more did Ulmo come to her on the shore to share in solitude.
Nienna, Lady of Winter, retreated to her halls, which were darkened and ever after known as Fui, or Night.
Though she now kept company apart, she still came when she was called for she could not deny any her guidance.
And oh, oh, did they call for her.
The tree that was Yavanna shook as if caught in a gale. All around them the woods were still and unlight. Red sap seeped into Nienna’s silvery cloak as she embraced her friend. It dried quickly, becoming a sticky, thick layer between cloth-shape and body-shape. It pinned Nienna to Yavanna so she couldn’t have moved even if she wanted to.
“I know, I know, my darling, my dearest, my life-bringer, beginning where I am the end. It hurts.”
The leaves rustled Valarin at her, swear words interspersed with arguments.
“It has never hurt like this before! He has never taken this much!”
“They were like my children. I will never make anything so great again.
“Don’t think you know what this feels like! You have never had any project so dear to your heart.”
That stung a part of her still able to feel pain, but Nienna just rested her face against Yavanna’s bark and let her feel the hot tears on her face.
“My great work is to care for others- ultimately all of our greatest achievements must be ones of service, for we were first made and thus burdened. Let me help you, my friend.”
Like a willow bending in the wind, Yavanna relaxed into her arms.
“Did it hurt my husband too?” she asked after a while, “When they broke his Lamps?”
“So much so I thought he might break. But he didn’t. He still has a soul.”
There was a creaking of branches. “Arguable.”
“I just wanted to make the world bright- for everyone.”
Nienna patted her trunk, avoiding the drying globs of amber. “Then let’s return to our fellows and light it up. The Trees are not quite dead yet, are they?”
Findis daughter of Finwë did not look like one seeking her aid.
She did not bother to hide her anger as she let Nienna into her mother’s foyer, nor did she disguise the snap in her grey eyes as she made the appropriate greetings and bows.
Politics were not Nienna’s forte, but wasn’t this supposed to be one of the manageable ones?
“I’ll see if my mother is up,” she said curtly and left, abandoning Nienna in a well appointed courtyard.
Nienna watched her go and then tracked her progress through the walls as she passed through corridors, up stairs, and then travelled back down to the courtyard again.
“She says she can receive you in her chambers, honored lady- I’ll take you there now.”
There was no hesitation or uncertainty in her words; Indis’ daughter was as crisp as a winter morning, as confident in herself as all her siblings.
“You are angry with me,” Nienna observed as she stood. “Why?”
Findis stopped in a column lined corridor. “I hold no quarrel with you, Lady Night. How could I when you barely ever meddle in our affairs, unlike your kin?” The vitriol was as apparent in her crackling, fire-bright spirit as it was on her pale face.
Nienna sighed. “And what is your quarrel with my fellows?”
“What quarrel don’t I have? As my parents begged for permission to wed they were scolded and upbraided. When my father lay bleeding, Mandos with his keen eyes jested at his fate. Now that my brothers and sister march to folly, none on Taniquetil will speak against them. And as my mother lies deep in her grief, people whisper that it is her fault because that Valar just had to write a small law paper on the subject of her marriage!”
When it was clear she was done speaking and had subsided into soft shaking, Nienna pulled down her grey hood to look the Eldar woman in the eye. “I am sorry for my part in your sorrow. My brother’s humor is sharp, it is true, but he cannot reshape fate, only see it. And I am afraid my kin are rather hesitant to act on the subject of yours. Overly quick words have set bad precedent in the past. But is that truly what angers you?”
Grey-eyed Findis looked away from her. “No. I am… perhaps, overwrought. Mother has not been well. Írimë and the boys are nowhere to be found and she is still seeing Father in her waking dreams, as he shivers in Mandos’ halls.”
“They are not that cold,” Nienna sought to reassure her. “He will be fine. Your mother will recover as well, in time.
Findis tucked her chin in and made a noise between a snarl and a growl. “Perhaps I do not want your comfort, Valier!” Abruptly, the mood passed her, or perhaps was torn away by other concerns. “I apologize. That was ill-done.”
“Do not be sorry for this,” Nienna felt out of place here, in this pretty Vanya palace, but a grieving heart made her almost at home. “Anger is a part of the process. You can be angry at me. I will not hold it against you.”
The elf dragged a sleeve across her face sharply. “It’s not you- the whole situation is unacceptable. My stupid brothers and your stupid brother, begging pardon to the Lord of Mandos, of course,” a smile slipped through Nienna’s tears and, awkwardly, Findis mirrored it back. This was an elven thing, how they copied their face shapes to one another. “My father is dead and my mother is hurt and the gods have abandoned me. Fëanáro is being bullheaded and the others aren’t stopping him. Even my darling’s family- who I thought as close as second parents once- intend to follow Ñolofinwë to whatever doom Fëanáro leads them to. She’s torn apart missing them already and all I can do is take care of my mother. It’s what I have to do because no one else is going to.”
“It can be difficult,” Nienna observed, somewhat out of place with family drama of this type, “to be forced into a role you have no choice in. I was always the mourner, I never had a choice.”
Findis looked rueful, body and soul, “I know what that is like. I am the one who has to pick up the messes- though I know just as much anger as my big brother. I am not Arafinwë, I was not made to lag behind, but I choose to do it still.”
Was was I not made to do? Nienna thought absently, as the elf woman watched her, Sorrow, hope, endurance, all are in my purview. Creation is not, but I am not very good at that. Even those that I might call my children were made by another. This Child has made more of her lot than I have.
In Quenya, she said, “Your mother is in good hands then. You will both heal. I do not have my brother’s foresight, but I can see this.”
“And my brothers? My sister?”
Finwë’s other children faced a terrible fate, one Nienna could not quite comprehend, but she tried not to let it show in her tears. “All we can do is hope.”
Grey eyes pierced the shadows of her hood. “It is true. We can hope. Let me take you to my mother. She has need of such spiritual sustenance.”
Nienna went to Indis and gave what comfort she could give. Then she left Valimar quickly. She did not like it under normal circumstances and right now it was full to the brim with anger and anticipation of some horror yet to come.
There were too many of the Teleri for her to comfort one by one. Instead she lay on their beach like a great monster from the deeps and let them come and shelter in her shadow. They lay against her side and cried for the ones they lost, the climbed her body in meditation, they nestled Noldorin gems in the dimples of her hands and told stories of the betrayal they faced.
The cloying dark had passed, and now the stars were visible again. They wrote the world in silver and shadow. The sand of the beach glimmered pale and the waves were dark and unknowable. Blood still stained the wood of the docks, glowing to Nienna’s unearthly gaze in ultraviolets, and the people loathed to go there.
They loathed to go anywhere but home.
Nienna gave them surfeit. She listened. If one asked for a place to hide from a world turned cold, she found them a place in the crook of her neck or the drape of her scarves- someplace no one else could find. If they needed tears, she cried for them. If they pled for mercy, she sent them to Irmo for a deep sleep and a gentle awakening.
Olwë’s family came to her most solemnly, their faces veiled against the cold sea wind. Their number was diminished but in the face of adversity their dignity had somehow grown. No more were they the laughing elves of the sea; now they knew what murder was.
“Gentle Nienna,” Olwë said, “Must you leave so soon?”
“My brother’s halls beckon me,” she said, over the cries of the Teleri, “there are others there who need my comforts- your kin among them.” Even she knew not to mention the Noldorin dead, of which there were so many. She could hear their weeping even now. “I have my own duties to attend to as well, for Night cannot go without a mistress for long. But I will return if you still need me.”
Olwë glanced around the beach, “I think we will, thank you. We are… unused to suffering.”
“May it always be that way for you,” Nienna said, and let gems and elves fall around her as she shrunk back to a size more suited for travelling. “It is a terrible thing to love and lose.”
“But at least we can say we have had that which is worth loving.”
Now her tears, once perfunctory and thin, became a torrent. “Yes,” she managed as her vision blurred, Olwë’s concerned face becoming a silver and brown blob in front of her, “that is so.”
The Teleri still needed her. So many people needed her. The world was full of dying for the first time and Nienna anticipated that there would be a demand for grief counselors.
“Does Ulmo still send the tides semi-regularly?” she asked Olwë.
“He does, though you know he is distractible,” Olwë gave her a half-hearted smile, “He needs some sort of calender- preferably in the sky so he won’t lose track of it.”
“Would that I could make him one. Three low tides then, and I will return to Alqualondë,” Nienna promised, and tried to ignore the hands grasping at her, the desperate tear stricken faces, Olwë’s furrowed brow.
“What will we do without you?” someone asked.
Nienna turned to them, “Cry, for it is good for you,” she advised, “And begin to live again, for that is even better.”
Her brother who dwelt in Mandos now brought her only his most dire cases. He’d gotten better at his “people skills” over the centuries- necessity was the mother of invention- and now most elves in his care gently tolerated it. In solitude they contemplated, in the gentle murk they socialized (he of the eternal memory and the iron will pretended not to notice), in long halls of tapestries they watched the world weave by, and slowly they learned how to be alive again.
Judge he was, not healer, but he gave them time and that was medicine enough.
But some of the elves had borne hurts too great to be meditated upon or gossiped away. They needed great healing. For these souls he turned to Irmo, Estë, and Nienna.
Irmo and Estë took the broken of mind and body. Nienna took the broken of heart.
It is not my family I mourn most for, though I am saddened that I will not see my daughter grow up , Elenwë of Tirion told her once she had worked though the initial stages of lamenting. It is the world I will not get a chance to see. I crossed the ice for my father and mother’s homeland and now I will never see it.
“You died,” Nienna reminded her.
Oh, I always knew that was a danger, her ghost laughed, wry and regretful. What is death when Námo is waiting to welcome us home?
They took their own Doom so lightly.
It was that nihilism, that coldness, that had driven Námo to call for Nienna when Elenwë came to his halls. She was strong, and she was coherent, but she was also willfully fading in ways that were difficult to measure.
I miss my little girl, Elenwë sighed, and those lovely shores under starlight! The great lake of Cuiviénen, the deep woods where Elwë Singollo fell, all those things I will not see!
“I will never see them either.”
This startled Elenwë, who, despite her deep sorrow, was normally composed. Surely you wandered the world in days long past, my lady.
“I did, but the world was different then. It is always different. No one being- Aina or Elda, can see the whole of it. Even Manwë’s sight cannot pierce all veils.”
Still, I would have like to see Beleriand , Elenwë said, still and slow as someone dying of hypothermia.
“You still have a husband and a daughter,’ Nienna said slowly, “Conserve your strength, wait for them. Surely they will have stories to tell you.”
The ice-cold spirit beside her seemed to flicker with a new light. Yes, I suppose they might.
Fair she was! the elf wailed, and if there was one thing a disembodied spirit was good at it was wailing. A bright light on a clear lake, a star in the morning sky! Dark haired like the finest lady of the Noldor, with eyes like the night before the sun and the moon. Fair she was, and wise of heart, and quick of tongue and never shall I see her again.
Grief was something Nienna was well acquainted with, being made almost entirely of it. But she rarely had to face one of the Firstborn facing the prospect of a world in which their loved one was gone. Not dead but gone . Indis she had counselled when Míriel-made-Fíriel first returned to the living of Aman, but even that parting was not complete. Indis knew where her husband was though she could not see him. Feanor she had attempted to comfort when he’d been missing the Lady Nerdanel- but again, he knew perfectly well where his wife was and against all common sense he somehow wasn’t doomed the Unending Night yet (besides, he had just sworn fell oaths at her and tried to pull down a tapestry).
No, this business of falling in love with a human was almost entirely unprecedented. She hoped the trend wouldn’t continue. Aegnor son of Arafinwë seemed to be having a rather terrible time of it.
Still, she knew how to deal with losses unending and seemingly impossible to overcome. She settled herself next to the wavering shade and tilted her head.
“Tell me more of this lady who you loved, and then her memory will continue on forever,” she demanded.
Aegnor was more than happy to comply. It didn’t make him happier, but it did seem to settle him somewhat. Nienna was intimately aware of the fact that some unlucky folk would never find happiness, not in this world. Restfulness was all you could hope to bring them.
Are you going to him again? asked the pale lady, before whom all other spirits shrank. She had been in Nienna’s care once, but only briefly, for Aredhel Ar-Feiniel was strong and prefered to be healed by others of her kind. Elven spirits had clustered around her, whispering of her hurts, sharing stories of similar circumstances, pooling information and sympathy, until she burst out from among them, brave and unafraid once more. Now she wandered the halls, a fair hunter and a comfort to those hurt by what they had thought they loved.
“If he would have me. I do not intend to importune him.” She never went where she was not wanted. As long as the spirits of elves lingered on this earth, they deserved choices.
I should go with you, the misty shade fretted. He needs his mother.
Nienna could hear the worry and trepidation in her thoughts. “You may come if you truly wish. But do not follow if it will only upset you. You deserve healing as well, Ar-Feiniel.”
I did try once, she said, as if defending herself, when he first came here. I wanted to hold him and make him better. But I couldn’t help but be angry for poor little Idril- what he did to her! I wanted to soothe him but I just ended up shouting.
“You are a wronged party in this as well,” Nienna pointed out, “Your child hurt a child you helped raise. You must mourn for the boy you bore and tutored before you can begin to deal with how he has betrayed you- or make him see the error of his ways.”
I know , Aredhel sighed, I just…
She was so terribly stubborn.
Nienna let one hand rest on her ghostly head and clicked her tongue. “Stay then, until your heart hurts less. I will take care of him, don’t worry.”
Aredhel shrank with relief and retreated. Nienna had learned over the past few centuries of helping the dead that sometimes you needed to be sharp with the restless dead. They were still muddled from the confusion of dying and needed help rediscovering how their own minds worked.
Of all her restless,she accounted Maeglin one of the most difficult. He was quarantined, primarily for his own safety, in a corner of the halls that Námo reserved for flight risks, potential riot instigators, and anyone with a knack for using power or song. His was a quiet, dark cell, forged as much of thought as stone. Whenever Nienna came to see him it was featureless as the void before existence, but according to his uncles and grandfather it more often than not appeared as a shaded grotto or an empty workshop.
He did not talk much. He did not have to. Sometimes words were not sufficient- someone for whom spoken language was a new and exciting invention understood that well enough
Nienna sat next to him, in the comforting fog. “May I take your hand, child?”
Maeglin nodded. As much as he liked to be held, constriction made him… panic. Half a hand of contact suited him just fine.
“You’re allowed to weep,” she reminded him, when the stilted noises of emotions being suppressed in a space of raw emotional poignancy became too much. “I’m always weeping. There’s no shame in it.”
Maeglin’s attitude made it clear he doubted this, but he slowly relaxed his stiff mental control and let his spirit slide into discomposure.
Perhaps there were ghostly tears. She wasn’t Námo, it wasn’t her place to judge.
The Avari trickled in more slowly than their Western kin, but over time their number in the Halls of Mandos slowly increased until they had a little community of their own.
It wasn’t that they died less than the Sindar or exiled-Noldor (though anyone could have died less than the exiled-Noldor). But those Avar who fell over the seas did not always choose to follow Námo’s call into his domain. Most preferred a ghostly shape on well known ground to the possibility of rebirth in a foreign land. It was their choice to make.
The few who opted to heed the strange song from the West were largely adventurers, scholars, or explorers- willing to set precedent aside for the sake of an interesting lark. It took a kind of boldness to leave all that you had known for a story of a story of a story. This meant that they did not need Nienna as much as the tormented of Beleriand, the drowned Exiles, the fallen-in-battle.
Still, she came to them and offered what sympathy she could for the sorrows they bore.
Many worried for friends or family who might very well choose not to follow them over the sea- who they might be parted from until the breaking of the world. Others still had died in small skirmishes with humans of the East and still had hurts of the body to recover from. Most of all, they worried that the lives they had left behind them would be lost forever. They would never see the lands they had loved in life, or see the cities they had once lived in rise out of the great forests and deserts. In Valinor, they feared their traditions would be lost, their languages would go unspoken, and the habits of their first lives would be slowly forgotten.
We were a proud people, came the echo from a thousand voices, we are a proud people in another place! Here I am a foreigner at the mercy of a stranger’s god. I do not want to forget who I truly am.
Nienna helped them grieve the lands they had lost, for those she could not return. They told her stories of great jungles full of the greatest of Yavanna’s bounty, of arid plains so high up you could touch the stars, of hidden tundras where none of the Valar had consecrated anything (except, perhaps, Melkor).
There were creatures as great as hillocks, with tusks like boars, long noses that they used to grab food, and flat and floppy ears as big as their faces. There were great cats that lurked in the underbrush, and sea birds of Ossë’s making that were so strangely shaped and vividly colored that they looked like the toys of elven children. And there were cities, they said, full of those elves who had stayed behind; cities that glimmered on the banks of Lake Cuiviénen like gilt edging a lady’s mirror, cities that were strung high up in trees by the strongest of vines. Perhaps rather more secret cities, in recent years, for humans were pressing them further and further into hiding with their avarice, but still places of wonder and great strength.
Listening to their tales of all that had become of the world since last she had seen it Nienna grieved with them, for there was much of Arda that her eyes would never know. To see it in Manwë’s visions, Vairë’s tapestries, and her own limited omniscience was one thing- to hear the stories from those who had lived in the world and loved it was entirely more heartbreaking.
Such beauty was not long for the world. It would not survive on its own in a marred universe and she knew, as she knew many things, that not one of them would again see the Eastern cities of the Avari; not unless the world was given a kinder shape.
Still, there was more to grief than sadness. She wanted to give them something other than doom and gloom.
So she brought them stories of her own, tales of the hidden places in Valinor that even Oromë’s kin had not yet claimed, places where the Avari could make their own homes and keep their own customs. In the deep south there were many regions of astounding loveliness that had long been shunned by the Eldar because of the lingering fear of Ungoliant. There the Avari of the West could be themselves. There no one would second guess them.
It will still be strange, some of the oldest grumbled, to live in a world lit by the sun and moon rather than Varda’s silver stars. It reminded her of her other charges, who loathed light for reasons all their own.
Come to my house of Night, she offered impulsively. It is dark there and it is strange- full of many things from past that I have kept out of sentiment. You would like it there. You just have to promise me you’ll be kind to my other guests.
Nienna had taken to spoken language more quickly than most of the Ainur, simply because exposure to her raw essence tended to make even other greater powers spontaneously burst into tears. Whenever possible, she favored sound over thought. It was more considerate.
But with Irmo and Námo she could be herself, no need to worry about upsetting others. They were not other- they were practically aspects of herself. She could not unsettle them.
Now they twisted through Lórien, unbodied and unspeaking, sending the plants afluttering and the animals scurrying away. It was impossible to be truly insubstantial in Eä, for it was a place of substance, but you could get close enough.
Compared to dour Námo, Irmo was a breath of fresh air but he was not blithe Vána or bold Tulkas. None of the Fëanturi had been made to be merry or bright. Dreams were insubstantial but not without power.
Today his mind was a deep pool of worries, visions, and hazy memories.
You should go to Estë yourself, Nienna teased as they breezed through dense foliage, for you could use some sleep, dreamer.
Ah, but who would attend to the dreams of others? Sleep is not something we are afforded.
She has been sleeping for some years, hasn’t she? Nienna asked, as they drew closer to their destination and the aforementioned Her.
She has had a… difficult time and… Irmo paused, a riot of images, emotions, facts, and temporo-spatial concepts flashing through him. Politely, Nienna did not peek at them. The Lord of Dreams was just as much a secret keeper as their all-seeing brother and much like Námo, Irmo was generally good at staying quiet. If he sometimes got a bit chatty around his sister, Nienna was kind enough to not notice. Well, you’ll see. Oh, we’re here.
Together they settled on the ground, reassuming distinctly elven shapes, even though they were visiting a friend who had lived long before the first of the Firstborn had walked the earth. It was the habit of the thing. Besides, Melian had been among the elves for a very long time.
She had taken up residence in a glade deep in Lórien, the sort of place not even animals trod, where the plants were older than any that now grew in Arda. The air smelled of decaying wood and hidden water. On the ground mushrooms grew in concentric circles, one after another, ringing the moss-covered statue that was Melian.
Stepping between the mushroom rings, Nienna approached her. Melian did not stir.
“Melian,” Irmo said softly, “My sister Nienna is here. I know you did not wish to see her, but it has been too long since you have walked among the flowers. Vána and Estë miss your company.”
She did not respond.
“Melian? I know you do not dream-” he quieted as Nienna sent him a sharp rebuke. A windowed Maia was new territory, and Irmo was not the expert here.
“Go, brother,” Nienna ordered as she knelt in the moss and leaned against Melian’s side. “We have much to discuss.”
Reluctantly, Irmo left them and the damp silence of the forest returned. You could hear the crumble of leaves returning to the earth, if you concentrated.
After a few hours, Nienna took her leave.
Two days later, as the moon rose, she came back. Again and again she returned, and she and Melian talked of many things and sometimes didn’t talk at all. In time, there were flowers again. They were strange, dark flowers, which rarely bloomed, but it was progress for an Ainur first learning of loss.
(When Melian’s great-granddaughter came to Aman, Nienna brought her to her ancestress and all the flowers bloomed in a riot of blue and purple and gold.)
The children were too young for grief, for they did not yet fully understand what death was. They did not know what they had lost and could not comprehend the circumstances surrounding their demises. All they understood was that they were confused and hurting.
In time they would have questions about their parents, their futures, their long years alone in the dark earth far away from the sun. But first they had to be healed of the most basic wounds of the spiritual body, and for that they were sent to Estë. She and her attendants would lull them to sleep with gentle songs, fill their days with better memories, and help them recall what it was to be a person. Irmo would fill their dreams with all that they had lost and all that would be returned to them. Vána and her playful host would stop their wilder sport and roll on the grass like toddlers, entertaining their every whim, for they had youthful hearts, all of them.
And then, when they ready for her and never before, they would come to Nienna and they would come to terms with what had been done to them. The torments of Angband were too much for many an adult, much less a child, and it would not be easy to help them through such revelations, nor kind to try to push self-actualization on them before they were ready. They could be given medicine to dull the pain, as Estë said sometimes when she spoke of soft bodies and their foibles, before the bones had to be rebroken.
Nienna pitied indiscriminately- for pity was the first part of mercy- but at times she could almost be furious with Melkor for what he had done to the most fragile. He had crushed entire mountain ranges beneath his feet, destroyed both Aulë and Yavanna’s greatest works, eradicated species she had put time and effort and love into making, made orcs and left them alone in the world with no thought for their well being after he was gone, and in his great fortress his servants had hurt the youngest of the Children and doomed them to an afterlife as lost houseless spirits, forever wandering the halls of his terrible abode, weak and helpless and afraid.
She wanted to hate him, but the hate never quite came. All she could manage was sorrow, for he had fallen so far and hurt so many on the way down.
Even sorrow came at a heavy price. Now, with the war winding down, she was needed more than ever. Her siblings needed her, the others needed her, the Children needed her, and in her house of Night those she claimed as her own needed her most of all.
Right now there was work to be done on the island in the center of lake Lórellin, which had been made both triage and recovery for the war weary. She could not help the little ones, but there were other casualties who needed to be reminded how to cry for what they had lost, and how to recover in the new world that was being made.
As she turned to go to some of them, she noticed Irmo’s young student Olórin, a dreamer if she had ever met one, was standing in front of her. He had been the one to deliver the squirming, wailing bundle of phantasmal children to Estë and her host, and after they had been pried from his arms he had retreated to Irmo. Irmo, watching in horror, had talked to him for a few moments and then apparently had sent him over to Nienna.
“Does my brother require me?” Nienna asked, and then took in his ragged shape, almost as misty as the lost souls he’d been rescuing from fallen Angband, his shaky composure, and the greyness to his always thoughtful face. “Oh.”
“They were hurting so much!” Olórin keened, a high cry without tears. “I knew it would be bad, but they did not even know who they were and they wanted- they wanted-”
Nienna gathered his foglike form into her arms, shepherding wisps of him that tried to escape with gentle gestures, “I know, I know. A terrible thing was done.”
“There were others too, spirits bound in fell spells and awful contraptions- I passed them on my way out- and ones who were unbound but might as well have been because they refused to leave even the most vile of pits.”
It was important to give elves, who were bound to Eä unto its ending, a choice in all things. This meant that you couldn’t make their souls go anywhere. In some cases it was easy enough to convince them, the little scraps of consciousness Olórin had come in with had probably grabbed onto him out of instinct. But more worldly souls with more of a mind about them would not be so easily tricked into coming home and, well, you couldn’t force them, even if it was a great evil to leave any creature in that place.
Nienna stroked the quarter-tangible Olórin. “Yes. That is a terrible thing. But you brought out those young ones, did you not?”
He shuddered. “I did. I just… I wasn’t able to do more for them. I wish that they were never hurt in the first place. I wish that I could help them more. It hurts , Lady.”
“Settle down,” she advised, “Make a body. I know it just gives the emotions a place to hide, but that is not a bad thing. Sorrow wants to fill you up and make you shake, and only when you let it flow through you can you really begin to move past it.”
Reluctantly, Olórin took on a form more suitable for the task of grief. Even once he had eyes that could weep he remained unmoving and still next to Nienna. It was new to him, she thought. Many of the flightier spirits of Lórien had escaped the previous wars unscathed. Sometimes she forgot that tears only came naturally to the Children and her. Her fellow Ainur had to learn them.
Like this, she thought, and let him feel a little of her old sorrows. There was the aching sympathy for all who had lost what they loved, and the selfish desire to have a happier world returned to her, and the echoed pain of a thousand souls across the years who had seen terrible things come to pass. There was the still sharp heartbreak of their lost Spring, and the Lamps, and the Trees, and the first of the Firstborn who had been lost. There was homesickness and heartsickness and hunger for something more that would not come to pass but was still too beautiful to ever be forgotten. There was longing, for all that was beautiful and had been destroyed, and all that was beautiful that would be forgotten in time.
Later, he came with her on her rounds, clinging close to her side as she tended to every traumatized Maia and confused dead Vanya and broken houseless spirit in Estë’s domain.
“Hold his hand,” she began to whisper to him when it became apparent he would not go away, “He just needs to know someone is here.”
And, “You are born of daydreams, yes? Tell a story to her, remind her what the world is like,”
She did not usually have company on her rounds- unlike most of the Valar no Maia chose to live in her halls or follow closely in her train. A few had stayed with her after Almaren’s fall and then again after Melkor’s chaining, back when the wounds had still been fresh, but then they had healed and moved on, returning only rarely to bring her gifts and stories.
(They said she dwelt alone, which was not entirely true, but for the purposes of her kindred it was close enough.)
Olórin seemed to want to stay by her side, however, and she would not send him away. The help was not unappreciated. She was just one mourner and there were many to be mourned.
When she had done all she could and had to return home, Olórin was still beside her, easily keeping pace with her long strides, a paler early morning grey to her dark slate.
“I go to my own halls in the west now. I am not sure they are a place for one of dreams.”
“They are called Night, aren’t they?” his tone suggested that he’d already made up his mind. “I can think of no better place for dreams to be.”
He had a sharpness under the empathy that made her smile- he had always been clever, even in the days when they had only been greater and lesser thoughts making music of the divine mind. “That might be so. But if you would come with me, you must listen closely. There are some things about my home that you must know...”
In Valinor the Ainur were a part of life, but Nienna was set apart. She did not spend much time in Valimar, or in fair Tirion upon Túna, or any of the cities of the Eldar, not unless there was some death that needed mourning. Even in her brothers’ abodes, she was a mythic figure. The ghosts of Mandos whispered that you could find her when you needed her and shrank back from her passing. In Lórien she could be rarely seen in the hidden gardens where the war wounded and those damaged in the spirit recovered, but she never visited the brighter meadows and sleepy groves where children played and dreamers let the world slip by.
The spirits in Mandos often cried out for her, and she did tend to them, and as far as most of the Amanyar were concerned, this was her primary occupation.
What they did not ask and what was not answered was what filled her time when she was home in her own halls, which lay in the far west and looked out only on the dark sea and the empty sky.
Perhaps some suspected but did not want confirmation. Perhaps it was thought that such matters were her own business and no one else’s.
This was what was never known.
Nienna’s home was called Night for a reason. Inside it was pitch black. Only a few rooms looked out onto the Western sea and few of the residents of her halls ever ventured into them, and even then only did so only in the evening, preferably when it was cloudy.
The rest preferred the darkness, for Morgoth had made them that way.
In time they came to be called orcs, and called themselves orcs, for much of their language in later days was adopted from others. At first, however, they called themselves the Lost, or the Abandoned, or the Cursed. Over the years they had other names- goblins, corpse host, and bogeys, rakhās, urkhu, and gorgûn.
Orcs, being twisted elves, had elven souls, in the end. The choice of Mandos was theirs. And being born frightened and in pain, then often dying in terrible straits, many chose to go over the sea at the first opportunity. Any place, the orcs seemed to reason, had to be better than the battlefield or dark cavern they died in. (It probably didn’t help that Morgoth had put some effort into making them susceptible to following orders given at the right volume and psychic frequency. Námo’s call wasn’t identical to Morgoth’s signature, but it was closer than either would ever admit.)
And so many, if not most, orcish souls were rendered unto Mandos. And from the beginning Mandos judged them and deemed them a pain in the neck and gave them to Nienna, on the grounds that she had been willing to take them.
It had only been a handful at first. She had brought them into her home, found them dark places, and helped them build a life there among her bones and shrouds and scraps. In time they stopped tearing at each other in anguish and started talking, then talking more. Then they had questions.
Some had memories of their past, others didn’t. None wanted to see other elves- for anger and shame had turned into a sort of resentment. Nienna didn’t push it and instead brought them books and tools and let them make their own way. In her cavernous halls they taught themselves crafts and art, made homes, made families. Children were born- for after leaving Mandos they had gotten bodies by default. These ones never knew the pain and the confusion, only the darkness full of fossils and their grey weeping patron.
Only… only, more orcs kept coming, even after Melkor was locked away.
Nienna tended to these ones as well, healed them of their hurts, taught them that there was more to life than lashing out to keep from being lashed out at. More and more the orcs had language, lives, their own culture before their deaths. These were not creatures created in dark laboratories and prisons, but proud warriors of their own making.
They had to learn a whole new way to be, or at least part of one, and it took up much of Nienna’s time. The others helped, of course, for they were eager to make peace with their new neighbors, but it was still a massive undertaking.
Sometimes the magnitude of it struck her all at once. The great evil Melkor had wrought on such innocents, the damage the could never be undone, all the pain that would result because of his spite and jealousy.
Other times she could not help but wish she could go to Mandos, unlock his chains, and lead him to see her children who he had made in anger and she had helped restore in hope. Arda was marred, it was true, but because of him she heard the laughter of children in her halls, and the sound of dancing.
When Melkor escaped and brought the Noldor down upon him, the rate of dead orcs increased ten thousandfold. Fortunately by that point she and her children (she was not afraid to call them that now, for she had done more for them than Melkor ever had) had a system for processing new arrivals and acclimating them to life in a place without constant war and chaos. The orcs born in the east had formed their own groups, more martial than the first arrivals, and were best at helping with the transitions, for they still kept many of the customs of their past- at least those that had not been pushed on them by Melkor’s servants in an effort to control them.
With the help of some of Aulë’s Maia, she expanded her halls deeper into the earth, then expanded them again. Irmo and Estë rerouted a spring from Lórien, full of minerals and plant matter, to flow through the earth and into her home. Oromë and Yavanna, at her behest, made great pools of underground salamanders and nocturnal boars to hunt, and caverns of mushrooms and moss that could live in the dark, and did not ask why. Years later, gentle Melian brought herbs and fruit trees to live in the rooms that faced the sea, that could be tended at night. Ulmo sent pale fish as big as a toddler swimming upstream into her caves. She convinced Mandos to add a small section of his halls solely for the orc dead, to give them at least some time to process their death before coming to her, and asked Vairë to fill it with tapestries depicting the orcs in her host going about their lives, living and creating in her great halls full of bones and old stone and mist.
There were visitors, the dark Avari who could be trusted to keep secrets and knew what it was to feel apart from the Calaquendi, some of the Maia who listened to her and learned her lessons. Always there were new arrivals to coax and comfort and help, orcs who had known nothing but a world that was unkind to them and who could now be shown pity at long last.
It was hard work. Among those who came to her were murderers and brutal war commanders, slaves and cringing lackeys. A terrible thing had been made of them, and they had done terrible things in response. Some wished for rehabilitation, others simply wanted to be left alone with their sins in the dark. A rare few tried to be warlords, but this place and people had quite enough of violence and put a stop to that quickly enough.
Soon she found herself with a realm more sprawling even than Mandos. Whole cities flourished under her watch, with different languages and cultures and desires. Deep underground they dug and made a place for themselves in the dark. If the clever Noldor noticed the piles of dirt from the excavations, they were polite enough not to mention it.
Her children had children, and then grandchildren, for in their first years in her halls they reproduced much more quickly than the Eldar. Then, as if realizing that they were not in danger, their spirits settled down. They would always be full of sharp edges, always on the verge of pain, for Melkor had done much damage to them, but they were making a place for themselves.
She cried for them, but sometimes it was a good sort of crying. They would always need her, at least the new ones would, but at least she could help them.
And so unknownst to the Eldar in their fair cities, the lady Nienna, she of sighs and sorrows and the long winters, found her comfort and mighty working at last.
For she had found something to mourn for which would last the rest of her days, but she had also found a people to love who did not mind some sorrow getting in the way, for most of them recognized after a few years that what had been done to them was worth shedding a few tears over. Discomfort was second nature to them and they adored their strange, sad hostess back.
She grieved for what was done to them, more than she had grieved for any other thing, but they gave her hope.
Among the bones of dinosaurs, the orcs made a home.