Written for Iavalir in the 2014 Rare Women Fanfic Exchange. Many thanks to avanti_90 for beta-reading.
At the beginning of Time – so say the Elves – the Holy Ones came to the Earth to shape it and form it. There were many spirits, greater and lesser; and among them was one who served Ulmo, the Lord of Waters. She held in her heart the memory of the voices of the Ainur joined together in the Great Music, one answering another; and she remembered also how in the Music she had heard waters leaping and tumbling with a music of their own. She desired above all else to find this part of the vision again. As Ossë loved the coasts and Uinen the salt streams, so the fresh running waters were her delight.
As she journeyed in dark lands where no Elf or Man yet walked, she lifted her voice and sang. And the running streams, the great rivers, and the shallow brooks heard her. Awake! she called to them, awake and sing! At her voice they awoke, and they gave their own music back to her as she had wished. Her spirit passed through their waters and tended them, and all the rivers of Beleriand called her Mother.
For the most part, the rivers were content to sing, to reflect the world around them, and to seek the great sea in a slow winding course. But in a shadowy glade green with moss and great ferns – though there were no flowers yet – a young streamlet more curious than the others splashed out of her bed and tried to follow her.
“What do you seek, young one?” she asked. And she perceived the streamlet’s wish: to travel with her and sing with her, to see new places and hear other voices.
“Do not follow me, my child,” she said gently. “Let your waters nourish this land. Have no fear, I will return to sing with you.” The young stream leaned lovingly against her hand before returning to her place among the stones. The river-mother passed onward, but when she looked back, she saw the streamlet still watching her.
The streamlet’s heart was awakened by the song, though she had no words as yet. Gradually her mind grew clear until she was aware of herself, and she looked about, seeking to know what kind of things surrounded her. No bird stirred yet upon branch, but quiet woodland creatures ran hither and thither in the dark, and the first fishes stirred in dark pools. She watched them one and all, and she sang to them a quiet bubbling song, but they did not answer. The River-mother visited her sometimes, and then she was glad; and their voices joined together under the stars. From time to time she heard far off a distant call upon a great horn. The call was not for her, but it stirred her strangely.
Once a spirit passed by who was not the river-mother, though she too sang as she went. A light as of starlight shone from her, and the dark trees turned their branches toward her. Small soft-bodied creatures flew around her and sang in sweet voices. When she saw the river-child watching her, she stopped and looked at her kindly. “I am called Melian,” she said. “Do you have a name, daughter of the river?”
“No,” said the river-child. “I do not have a name. I do not need one. I sing with the river-mother, and she knows me.”
“Perhaps someday you will wish to have a name,” she said, looking at the river-child from eyes like dark pools wherein stars glimmered.
“What are those creatures that are with you?” the river-child asked curiously.
“They are called birds,” said Melian. “They are children of the thought of Yavanna.”
“I like them,” said the river-child. “They are the only things I have seen that sing, besides you and Mother.”
Melian smiled. “There are others who sing now,” she said. “They have awoken. I go to tend them.”
One of the nightingales alighted on the river-bank to drink. The river-child watched the small feathered throat tilted back to swallow. Curious, she flicked droplets of water at the bird. She laughed to see the bird spread her wings and hop about, bathing in the scattered water-drops as if in a small rainstorm. “Will some of your birds stay with me?” the river-child asked hopefully. “It is lonely to sing all by myself when Mother is not here.”
“I think they will not leave me,” said Melian, “but in time to come there will be other voices in this wilderness besides yours.” She knelt beside the stream and gathered the starlight to her; it rippled in her hands like water. “I will give you a gift, river-daughter, to console you in your time of waiting.” Melian sang, her voice dark and sweet, and her birds joined their voices to hers. As she sang, the light spilled from her hands and became gleaming white flowers with a golden center which floated upon the water.
The river-child held them carefully, rocking them gently back and forth upon the stream, and then rooted their stems in the river mud so they would not float away and be lost.
“They are called water-lilies,” said Melian. “Do you like them, child?”
“They are the most beautiful things I have ever seen,” said the river-daughter. “But why does everything have to have a name?”
Melian smiled but did not answer. “Perhaps we will meet again, river-child,” she said. “And then you may teach me the new songs you have learned.” And she was gone into the shadow of the leaves, with her nightingales singing about her.
The river-daughter learned what Melian meant when the first of them came through the forest: strange tall beings that were not animals or spirits. They held spears in their hands and sang softly as they went, and their hair glimmered golden in the starlight. She peeped out of her stream at them but did not dare to speak with them, until a young one came alone to the bank and knelt to drink from cupped hands. If I am a river-child, she thought, then this must be an earth-child. Perhaps she will speak with me. She splashed the earth-child’s face lightly with water to draw her attention, and she let herself be seen.
The earth-child’s eyes widened in surprise. “Who are you?”
“I am a river-daughter,” she said. “What are you? And why do all of you pass onward so quickly and not stay?”
The earth-child shook her head, so that her long braids bobbed like willow-twigs in the water. “We cannot stay,” she said. “We are the Speakers. We are going to the West, where there are trees made of light. Ingwë has told us. And all the Powers live there in a great shining city.”
The river-child could not imagine it. “Trees made of light? What do they look like?” All the trees she knew were dark, lit faintly by starlight.
“I don’t know,” the earth-child confessed. “But Ingwë says they are very beautiful.”
“I do not know the West,” the river-child said, “but the River-mother comes from there, so it must be a good place. Do you know the River-mother?” she asked eagerly.
The earth-child shook her head again. “I know the Huntsman. He came on his white horse and spoke to us. He is bringing us away to the Light.”
There were hoof-beats drumming through the ground. The river-child echoed the sound, drumming on the stream’s surface. Everything else seemed to have grown quiet. The earth-child’s head whipped around. “It’s not the Huntsman,” she said in a small voice. “He said he would sound his horn when he comes to us.” She tried to jump to her feet, but she stumbled and fell down again on the bank.
The river-child watched the earth-child’s reflection trembling in the stream like a leaf shaken by the wind. “What is it?” she asked.
The earth-child looked around desperately. “I need to hide—” The river-child suddenly surged over the bank, grabbed her dangling golden braids, and pulled her into the water. The earth-child gave a small squeak when she felt the stream’s coldness against her skin. The river-child tried to pull her deeper.
“Stop,” the earth-child whispered, her eyes very wide. “I can’t go under the water! I need to breathe—“
The river-child took her by the hand then and tugged her among a clump of water-lilies, spreading the blooms over the earth-child’s head. She burbled a song, whisper-quiet, of things that were very small and very still, trying to remember how starlight had become flowers and the sleepy song of Melian’s nightingales.
They crouched together among the white flowers, while something dark and very cold passed by. The river-child’s voice almost died into nothing, but she forced herself to keep on. The earth-child gripped her hand very tightly. At last the hoof-beats died away again, and the small noises of animals and birds began to return.
The earth-child scrambled out of the stream. She sat gasping for breath on the bank, while small rivulets of water ran from her hair to pool in the moss.
“Stay here with me,” the river-child suggested after a time. “You can live with me in the water, with the fish and the frogs, and share my water-lilies. We will sing together, and I will hide you again if the darkness comes back.”
“No,” said the earth-child. “I must go, or my family will look for me. But thank you for hiding me!” She leapt to her feet and ran away, darting through the forest swiftly as a deer.
The river-child watched her go. “I still have the fish and the frogs,” she said aloud. “And the water-lilies. They were made from starlight, and they are as fine as any trees in the West.”
Melian came once more to walk by her stream, the nightingales flying about her. Her eyes still shone with starlight, but the light of her spirit was veiled and when she walked, her feet pressed down the grass by the riverbank. She let her birds drink and bathe themselves, but this time she knelt and drank also.
“You have a body,” said the river-child, tugging at strands of Melian’s dark hair and making them float upon the stream among the water-lilies.
“Do you like having one?” the river-child asked dubiously.
“It is my choice, river-daughter, and I will not regret it.”
“I have learned some new songs, for you and your birds.”
“Then sing them to me,” Melian said gently, “and I will teach them to my own daughter.”
As time went on, the First-born journeyed back and forth across the land, and the Second-born also. The streamlet saw them only in glimpses, and she did not understand what they sought.
“Tell me, mother,” the streamlet asked, “who are the ones that ride so quickly over my banks with different colors on their banners?
“Do not concern yourself with them,” the River-mother said quickly. “Give them of your waters, as you would any bird or beast, but do not take part in their battles or their sorrow.”
“Sometimes when they seek my water, they are weary and bleeding. And then I wonder if I might help them.” She did not think she could hide them under the water, as she had done for the earth-child long ago.
“If you help them, even you, my child, might come to an end before your time. I do not wish that. This war is too great for you. Do not show yourself to them or speak with them.”
And so the river-daughter did as she asked. She did not speak to Elves or Men who passed her banks, but only to the creatures of wood and water. She coaxed small birds to live in the rushes by her stream and tended her water-lilies. When beings of the Shadow passed by, she hid beneath the waters until they were gone.
But one day the River-mother came to them in haste and fear. “Come away with me,” she sang, her voice sharp with urgency. “Come with me, or you will be drowned!”
“How can we be drowned?” the rivers asked, not understanding. “We are water.”
“”You will be drowned and lost in the Great Sea,” she pleaded. “Come with me while there is still time!”
“We love this land,” answered the seven rivers of Ossiriand: those the Elves named Ascar and Thalos, Legolin and Brilthor, Duilwen and Adurant and Gelion. “We love this land where we awoke and we will not leave it, no matter what becomes of us.”
“I will not go,” said Sirion the great, who flowed from his cold source in the Mountains of Shadow through many lands until he mingled with salt at the Bay of Balar. “I heard the voice of Lord Ulmo before Sun or Moon rose. I have resisted the works of the Marrer; I stood against the Shadow for an Age of the World. The Lord of Waters has not told me to depart. I will stay until this battle is over, for good or ill.”
But the nameless streamlet climbed out of her bed and pressed against the River-mother’s side. “I would like to see other lands,” she said, “and hear other songs. And I do not wish to be parted from you. I will go with you.”
A few others came, but only a few. The River-mother took them in her arms and fled eastward, while the ground shook behind them. At last she stopped, on the far side of a mountain range, saying “Surely this is far enough.” She hid her face against her knees, and the rivers and streamlets who had followed her curled very small in her arms and trembled, while all the land shook with the far-away battle. At last there came a rending, a tearing, a breaking; heaven and earth vibrated around them like a great drum. And there was silence.
In that silence, the River-mother cried aloud. “They are gone, my children!” And she wept and would not be comforted.
They did not know how much time had passed before a deep rolling voice was heard through the sound of the streams, a wordless summoning. The River-child knew it was not for her; but she was afraid the River-mother would go from them and not return, and she clung to her tightly.
“I will not go back,” the River-mother said to the Voice. “You have destroyed the rivers I loved and made them into nothing. Let the Powers mend what they have broken! I will no longer be your servant.”
Again the call came, more sternly. “I will not go,” she said again. “I do not care for your battles, which harm as much as they save. I will not return into the West and abandon these children who are still left to me.”
A third time the call came, and this time it was softer and full of sorrow. “I will not,” she cried. “I will not return.” And a change came over her. It seemed she was diminished in power and majesty, but the river-child loved her no less.
They roamed through the new land, the River-mother and her children. From time to time the River-mother found a place which she thought was suitable, and she set one of her river-children to flow there. One by one they left her, their waters seeking the Sea; but she promised to return and care for them.
Last of all, the youngest river-daughter remained by her side, while the River-mother sought carefully. “Here,” she said finally, drawing a curving line among the grass and under trees. “Your new home is here.”
And the river-daughter followed her hand, splashing and twining into her new bed. “This is a good land,” she sang. “I will dwell here and dance in the sunlight, I will laugh among the rushes.”
“That is well,” said the River-mother. “And I will dwell here with you.”
And so she did, walking through the land that would one day be the Shire and tending its streams. Gradually, the world changed around them: pathless lands became settled, and waters which once ran wild and free were encumbered by mill-wheels and dams and bridges; but she loved them no less. In winter, when the rivers froze to ice and their voice sang faintly beneath the surface, she curled up in a hollow deep under the water and slept there beneath the dangling willow-roots. In a later time, the hobbit-folk made songs of her and called her the River-woman, not knowing what she had been. She tolerated their presence and was content; and she blessed their fields and wells with what power still remained to her, when the River-daughter asked it of her.
The River-daughter grew from a stream into a river, though a small one. She carried hobbits in their boats and fish with silver scales, merry otters and grumbling ducks. To her delight, she found seeds of water-lilies, which she still loved best, and coaxed them to grow from the mud and bloom upon the surface.
Generations of hobbits lived and grew, prospered and dwindled beside her river. She watched and listened, as she always had, but this was a new thing: to be twined through their lives, to observe them one by one in their daily doings. As she came to know and love them, she began to see the use of the names that they scattered in bewildering profusion: Baggins and Boffin, Hornblower and Brockhouse and Brandybuck. There was a kind of music in names, a slender thread that connected each to the others and made many into a whole, like rivers seeking the sea.
From time to time she would slip out of her waters and sit, dripping wet, on the banks among the rushes to watch the birds dart from bush to bush or speak with the badger-families of their delvings and dens. The hobbit-children laughed and clapped their hands when they saw her. She smiled at them, but if any of them came too close, she would dive back into her river, swimming far down to the friendly darkness beneath the willow.
She slowly became aware that there was another presence in the land, but it was not like the grasping Shadow that had troubled her long ago. This spirit was a kindly one, she could tell, and abhorred the thought of bending another to his will as much as he abhorred being bound. She caught glimpses of him from time to time, stumping over paths and through the rushes in his great boots.
One day she saw him lying asleep on the riverbank, the end of his long brown beard drifting in the water like the willow-branches. She crept closer, seized by a mischievous impulse. Perhaps she could tug his beard and pull him in – that would show him for falling asleep on her very banks and for snoring so loudly! But he opened his eyes as she approached.
“Hey, young Goldberry!” he sang, “where might you be creeping, thinking to play tricks on Tom when he is a-sleeping?”
She stopped, drawing back warily. But he seemed to mean no harm, and his eyes were merry. “Why do you call me that?” she asked curiously.
“Tom knows the names of things, bird and beast and hobbit! Brighter than a berry, gold like sunlight on the water, fair lady Goldberry, River-woman’s daughter.”
“If you fall asleep by my river,” she said, “someday I will catch you and pull you in.”
“None will ever catch Tom, for Tom he is the Master!” And he laughed, his eyes very bright in his ruddy face. “But if you wish to speak with Tom, there is no need for catching. Wood and stone, marsh and field know when he is passing, and Goldberry may come to my house upon the hilltop.”
“Rivers do not go into houses,” she told him.
“But Tom’s house is not like others. It is made with leaves and starlight and the sound of rain. Fairer would that house be if Goldberry were in it! Now farewell, fair Goldberry, River-woman’s daughter! A hobbit farmer and his wife have lit the fire for me, with food and ale and company - - I should not keep them waiting.” And he was off. She heard him singing as he trod away over the hill, “Tom Bom, jolly Tom, Tom Bombadillo!”
Goldberry, she thought, testing the name and letting it trickle through her mind like water into moss. Perhaps it was not such a bad thing to have a name after all.