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Another Man's Cage: 12. Chapter Twelve--Findekano
In my dreams: Uncle Fëanáro leads me by the hand to his forge. I have never been in a forge before, but I have seen glimpses of his through the doorway and the scary fragments of heat and dark make up the place in my dreams. The dream-forge glows terrifying red all around; it is hot; I am afraid to loosen my arms from my body lest I fall into the flames. Uncle gives me a complicated assignment, speaking like he does to my cousin Maitimo about alloys and tempering and heat of fusion and hands me a chunk of metal that is too heavy for my skinny arms and bites at my hands. I cry out and drop the metal to the ground, where it smashes and lies, flat as a puddle, like a crushed animal. Aunt Nerdanel appears beside him and they shake their heads in unison. Her hair is the color of flame, tangled with Uncle's, which is the color of dark. "It's not going to work. We tried, but he's hopeless," she says. And out the door we walk and into Tirion, where my mother and father have mysteriously disappeared; in place of our house is uncle Fëanáro's, looking out-of-place in the brilliant city, its haphazard wings penetrating the houses of the lords and even grandfather Finwë's palace. "Well, there's nothing more that we can do," Aunt Nerdanel says, and I am left alone in a street full of people who do not recognize me as a prince and turn away when I beg for help.
I restrain a cry and jerk awake.
For the last week, whenever I awaken, my heart leaps with the hope that my eyes will open and find the cream-colored curtains and my back will be pressing into the soft mattress, safe in my own bedroom in Tirion. But always, it is the same: a thin bedroll spread over rocky ground, the olive color of the tent filling my sight, and around me, the family of my half-uncle, who speak with a rapid confidence and laugh with a manic abandon that we do not at home. For the last six nights, we have slept like this in the wild, with the Treelight growing fainter as we move farther into the cold north, and with my nightmares growing in intensity with the darkness.
It is early evening now, and I have fallen into an unexpected nap. We have been camped here since last night and would be nearing Formenos by now, if we had not been waylaid after the accident.
It had been late when it had happened, and we had all been tired, but Uncle Fëanáro insisted that we could reach a broad meadow with soft ground and a nearby spring, so we pushed on through the growing darkness, enticed by the thought of sleeping on softness and bathing in calm waters. Out of the shadows, a rabbit sprang and startled my cousin Tyelkormo's horse. As the horse reared to spring away, my cousin Macalaurë leaned forward on his own mount and seized Tyelkormo's reins, in the process, unseating himself. He tipped forward and hovered for a moment in the air before lolling into a lazy somersault and landing on his shoulder on the rocky ground, tearing his clothes and his flesh on a blade of rock that protruded from the earth.
So that is how we ended up here—still an hour's ride from the soft meadow—in a place that must surely grow rocks, for when I had drifted to sleep a few minutes earlier, the ground beneath me had been smooth and comfortable, yet now a rock jabs me in the small of my back and brings me fully from my nightmare.
Uncle Fëanáro has set lamps around the tent to dispel the darkness, and he sits beneath one now, with cousin Macalaurë, examining his shoulder. Already, it looks better than it had last night, when Maitimo and uncle Fëanáro had set up the tent crooked in their haste and peeled the tunic from Macalaurë, who trembled but did not weep. Aunt Nerdanel hastily took cousin Carnistir into her arms, and in a voice that bubbled with unshed tears, offered to look for firewood. I sat with cousin Tyelkormo in morbid fascination of the purple bruise on my cousin's shoulder, bisected with a deep gash already grown tacky with blood, and watched as my uncle prodded the wound, and Macalaurë let slip a cry before he bit down on his tunic held in a ball in his hands. Maitimo took his brother's head in his hands and held Macalaurë's face against his chest as uncle Fëanáro washed the wound and stitched it and applied a balm to the bruises around it. Macalaurë quivered with silent sobs, and I was fascinated: I'd never seen someone so old and strong cry before. I'd always thought that pain melted away with age, in the same manner as bubbles disappear from champagne the longer it sits exposed to the air.
I've never had to receive such ministrations from a healer, much less my father, for we have people to do for us in Tirion what my uncle's family does routinely without complaint. I had seen the young daughter of one of the lords tended, however, after she fell on the palace stairway and hit her head, and the healer who poked at her bruises and administered balm and a bandage did not then take the little girl in her arms—as uncle Fëanáro had done with Macalaurë when he had finished—and whisper over and over that she was sorry, that she would rather endure torment than ever to hurt the little girl again.
Macalaurë does not cry now, as uncle Fëanáro smears more balm on his shoulder. The bruise has faded; the stitches in his wound remind me of little pointy teeth poking over lips pressed shut. Macalaurë looks tired and sore. Cousin Tyelkormo is curled asleep in his lap, and Macalaurë absentmindedly strokes his golden hair. No one notices me as I stand and quietly duck out of the tent.
The plain on which we are camped is dotted with sparse patches of bristling grass over earth that looks scorched and ashy. If it weren't so cold, I would think that the land had been burned, for it has the tired, gray look of something that has endured such an ordeal, but the nights bring a chill so deep that my fingertips burn with it. Telperion is waxing now, in the distance, casting the land in a faint silver hue, and I draw my heavy cloak tightly around my shoulders and listen for Maitimo.
Actually, it is not my cloak; it is Tyelkormo's. My father must not have realized how cold it is in the north, for he packed nothing more substantial for me than a light traveling cloak more adapted to repelling the midday heat than keeping the body warm in the north at night. But Tyelkormo is much bigger than I am—although he had been born only a year before me—and his borrowed heavy cloak has grown tattered at the bottom from dragging on the ground. I see him stare at it with thinly veiled resentment whenever his parents or Maitimo aren't looking. He despises my presence here. I suspect that they all do, except for Maitimo.
Which is why, with the dregs of my nightmare still lying chill in my brain, I seek Maitimo first.
There is a cooking fire a few paces from the tent. This afternoon, Maitimo and uncle Fëanáro rode off in the direction of the fuzzy line of trees on the horizon, returning home as Laurelin waned with a big turkey draped across the front of Maitimo's saddle. The bird—plucked and seasoned—roasts over the fire now, and the smell of it is warm and enticing in the chilly evening. Maitimo is supposed to be tending it, but as it has been roasting for two hours now, it is not a job requiring great vigilance, only a slight turn on the spit every half-hour or so. The male apprentices mill about at various cooking tasks, and the lack of Annawendë tells me that Maitimo cannot be far.
I walk behind the tent and hear his voice coming from a small copse of tiny, scrubby trees and follow the sound. He sits there, beneath the trees, with Annawendë, both of them cuddled together beneath his cloak, even though I know she has her own heavy cloak that is more than suitable for her own shoulders. He is laughing about something and kissing her between words; her eyes are closed, her lips are smiling, and her hand is twined in his hair. Now Maitimo is an affectionate person; always, he is kissing his brothers and me, but not like this. Not dipping in twice for a kiss on the lips, not letting his lips linger on our skin, certainly not opening his mouth! They have drawn the cloak tightly around them, and I cannot see his hands, but I notice furtive motion beneath the heavy cloth as though tiny animals were burrowing beneath.
I try to stay stealthy, but Maitimo hears me and squints into the darkness. "Káno?"
At the sound of my name in his voice, I run forward, slowing only when I get close to them. I intend to hurl myself into his arms, but Annawendë's presence stops me. "I had a bad dream," I say weakly, twisting my toes against the dusty ground. There is no sighing or fuss, but I sense that I have interrupted them. The gleeful laughter on their lips has died.
"Káno," Maitimo says, and opens his arms, letting the cloak fall away, "come here."
I step into his embrace, and he drags me onto his lap. I don't want to be there, so close to Annawendë, but at least it is warm.
His hair tickles my face. Red hair! I have never seen hair that color on anyone else; some of the families in Tirion have a rusty hue to their hair that is called red, but it is more an orangey color, not nearly so breathtaking as Maitimo's, which is more the color of dark blood. I remember being held by him at my first begetting day feast—my first memory of my eldest cousin—and reaching up to touch his hair, expecting it to feel like metal and being shocked at how soft and warm it was.
"Of what did you dream?" he asks, and I would normally tell him, but Annawendë is gazing at me and I don't want her to know. When the moment comes to speak out loud about a nightmare, it suddenly seems silly, and while I could bear to tell Maitimo alone, I fear that Annawendë will scoff.
"If you tell me," he prods, "then the dream shall turn to smoke in the air and can never bother you again. If you keep it up here, though," he taps my head, "it shall fester and return to you tonight, until you speak it aloud and make it into nothing."
Still I shake my head.
His arms tighten on me and he sighs.
Desperate to speak something that he wants to hear, I say, "Macalaurë is having his shoulder cleaned again by my uncle."
"Oh?" This captures Maitimo's interest. "How does it look?"
"He is not crying," I say.
"Well, no, he would not. The balm is for the muscle beneath; it does not hurt like it hurts to have a fresh wound cleaned and stitched."
I can only imagine the pain that would be caused by such, for I have never had a wound bad enough to require stitching. A few scraped knees and a couple minor scratches are all that I can boast, and my nursemaids matter-of-factly covered them with flesh-colored bandages like they were little shames not to be revealed. My uncle's family is not so delicate, and they ride through the forests in short-sleeved tunics, not minding the stuttering red scratches left on their arms by the brush. Tyelkormo is even missing three teeth in the back of his mouth from falling out of a tree; Aunt Nerdanel does not mind, saying that he should soon be growing his adult teeth anyway. The other evening, Maitimo bathed us in the river and I looked at his body as he washed Carnistir, and his skin was marred in a few places by threadlike scars that might have once been cuts, scars like tiny cracks in a porcelain jar. I touched one before the thought of committing such an act reached my brain—a tiny, puckered line about two inches long on his hip—and he turned to me and smiled. Nothing offends him, I realized—even being touched in such a familiar manner while naked—and he said, "That taught me to be more careful in the forest while hunting. Macalaurë grazed me with an arrow. It could have been much worse." I pressed my hand against his warm skin, feeling the unyielding bone beneath, and felt slightly sickened at the thought of torn flesh and bone.
"He will be sore for many days," Maitimo says now of Macalaurë. "But it was a brave thing he did. Tyelkormo fancies himself mighty but he is still small and could have been badly hurt if his pony had bolted."
"Will we have to stay much longer?" I ask. I hate how tiny my voice sounds after his.
"Likely not. Macalaurë will be able to ride with Atar or me by tomorrow, if we keep his arm bandaged and bound. We are only a two-days ride from Formenos. It makes no sense to linger."
Annawendë has snuggled into his shoulder, and she gives me a tiny smile. Perhaps my presence here has awakened a longing inside her, a longing to sit close with my cousin like this with a small child in his arms—only their child, not me.
Well, perhaps she shall get her wish, for Maitimo is not many years younger than my uncle Arafinwë, and he is already married with a son on the way: my cousin, Atar tells me, someone I will be able to take as a friend and companion for the rest of my life. Funny how I have four cousins already and he never thought to say the same of them. Yet how quickly he sent me to live among them!
Though Maitimo is the only one who has so far tempted my heart into love. Macalaurë is kind and gentle but distracted by his music. His baby brothers are a hassle for him; why should he have any concern for the little cousin shoved into their midst? Carnistir is too small for closeness, and he is very strange. He pointed to me the other day and said that I was blue. Dark blue. I was wearing a cream-colored tunic at the time and tan trousers, so I do not know of what he was speaking.
And Tyelkormo is jealous.
He is enviably beautiful—almost as stunning as Maitimo—with thick golden hair the color of honey and wide gray eyes flecked with blue. He is huge too; I am only a year younger, yet he could best me as easily in a contest of physical strength as a child twice our age. Certainly, he could outrun me, outclimb me; already, he is a skilled horseman and packed with his things is a beautiful longbow made small enough to fit him. I have no doubt that he is able to use it and certainly use it well. Uncle Fëanáro is only too aware of his third son's beauty and dresses him to suit in dark greens the color of leaves of a deep forest and brilliant blues the color of the sky in Laurelin's hours, letting his hair lie against the rich colors like beams of daylight against darkness. I feel like a pale shadow beside him, yet he stares always at me with envy in his eyes, clinging to his parents or Maitimo—Macalaurë even—or hurrying to lift Carnistir away whenever I come near.
He is the cousin whose affections were used to entice me into this trip. "Your cousin Tyelkormo," Atar and Amil would say, "is nearly your age—imagine the fun you shall have! You shall be the best of friends!"
I had been romanced into fantasies about roaming the deep forests with him, hunting game too ambitious even for Tyelkormo, or the pair of us studying in my room late at night, whispering to each other about the awfulness of his father for making us labor so hard. My heart had quivered with longing for such companionship. Tirion is a busy place and many of the lords have children or grandchildren my age, yet I am the only young prince, and that sets me on a pedestal that is too tiresome for them to climb. Amil has made the effort, bringing other children into our home and leaving us with a pile of toys to wile away the hours staring blankly at each other. When their parents come to collect them, they always ask loudly within earshot of Amil and Atar, "Did you enjoy your time?" and the children nod obediently yes, and I feel like a piece in one of the board games that Atar plays with Uncle Arafinwë where the objective is to capture power from your opponent.
It should be no surprise then that I was overjoyed at the news of a baby brother and cousin within one month of each other. At last, I would have companions! But then, I got plopped into the middle of this family I barely knew, expect to befriend cousins who were more strangers than family and who obviously did not wish me here. Except Maitimo.
I snuggle into his chest, suddenly overcome by love for my cousin who was a week ago barely known to me, ignoring Annawendë. In this moment, I am certain that the summer will not be entirely miserable, as long as Maitimo is with me.
Supper comes late that night, for the turkey takes a while to roast, and my stomach is grumbling by the time we finally sit down on rugs around the campfire.
At home, we dress for supper in clean, tidy robes and assemble in the dining room precisely fifteen minutes after the Mingling of the Lights. My uncle Fëanáro does most of the cooking for his family, with the help of Maitimo and Macalaurë, but at home, we have hired cooks to do this for us. Most nights at least one of the lords is dining with us, so my nursemaid always braids my hair and secures my silver prince's circlet onto it. Atar has packed my circlet, I know, easily accessible at the top of my trunk, and I know also that Maitimo saw it while we went through my things to pack for the journey, but when he put everything away, I saw him put it back into the trunk first, at the bottom. If he and his brothers have similar circlets—and they must, for they are the sons of the king's heir, whereas I am just a prince without hope of succession—then they do not wear them and I wonder if they have even brought them to Formenos.
Fëanáro's family dines casually. My aunt and uncle take turns trying to wrangle food past little Carnistir's lips, and tonight it is Uncle Fëanáro's turn, so Carnistir sits pressed close beside him, sharing his cloak. Tyelkormo has moved onto Maitimo's lap and eats half from his own plate and half from his brother's, sending me sharp, darting stares across the fire. I have been seated beside my aunt; Macalaurë is lumped together with the apprentices, who are making sympathetic conversation with him, except Annawendë who—of course—has taken post beside Maitimo. Macalaurë's face looks pale and he is wrapped in two heavy cloaks, eating awkwardly because my uncle has bound his injured arm to his body. Maitimo has told me that this is his worst injury, that Macalaurë lacks the love of being physically rambunctious that Maitimo shares with his two younger brothers. Tyelkormo had been slightly scornful. "That's probably why he fell," Tyelkormo reckoned. "I would have kept my balance."
I saw fury in Maitimo's eyes, but his voice was only edged with anger as he said, "He fell saving you, do not forget, Tyelkormo. Would he have not acted so quickly, it would have been you having stitches, most likely."
That shut Tyelkormo up, for which I was glad.
Oh, how I wish that I could love my cousin like I intended! He seems so small and innocent on Maitimo's lap, nibbling on a bit of turkey wrapped in bread, the firelight making his golden hair glow. But then he looks at me and all love melts from his eyes.
Aunt Nerdanel has fixed my plate for me, piling on bread and bits of dried fruit and corn that I am expected to eat straight from the cob. And turkey, of course: A whole bone swathed in meat, dripping grease into the rest of the food on my plate, seasoned by uncle Fëanáro with a blend of seasonings that remind me of that which is put on the spicy shrimp served in Alqualondë. The outside is hot and crispy but, nearer to the bone, the meat is red and cool. I watch my cousins devour all of it—even the part that is red—though my lips recoil at the touch of cold, dead flesh and hunger dies in my stomach.
I drop the bone onto my plate and begin picking at the corn again. How awkward to eat entirely with your hands, without utensils to make you feel less intimately connected with your food! Macalaurë stares at the abandoned turkey bone, at the red flesh I have left behind, and says, "If you aren't going to finish that, Findekáno…?" and trails away, leaving the question unfinished.
Uncle Fëanáro and Maitimo look at each other and roar with laughter. "I'm glad to see you're feeling better, Macalaurë," says Aunt Nerdanel. I nod, giving her permission to pass the bone to Macalaurë, and he picks and eats the meat that I couldn't bear to finish, one-handed and bit awkward.
Macalaurë speaks around the turkey bone at his lips. "The pain is growing easier to bear. Of course, part of that is certainly the pound of balm that Atar has wasted on my shoulder, every hour since this morning. Still, I may only manage to eat half my weight in food tonight instead of the whole, like I usually do."
They laugh again. I wish I could join in, but my voice gets stuck in my throat, unsure of what's proper behavior in a family that sits on the ground and eats with their hands yet, within a leaf's fall, descends into serious philosophizing on topics of which I have never heard. "A pound of balm and half your weight in supper is well worth your health and comfort, Macalaurë," Uncle Fëanáro tells him. "I am glad that you are returning to wellness. We shall set out again tomorrow. You, Macalaurë, will share my horse with Nelyo, and I will take Carnistir on Nelyo's horse. That way you can rest your arm—sleep even—without fear of falling."
"I shall feel like a small child again," Macalaurë says.
"There is nothing wrong, every now and again, with allowing yourself the luxury of feeling like a small child."
I cannot even imagine that Uncle Fëanáro was ever a small child. I suppose that he must have been born small, but it is hard to imagine him as helpless as little Carnistir or me—even Tyelkormo. It is hard to imagine that he needed help in the bath or dressing himself. It is hard to imagine that he ever woke with nightmares and sought the consolation of my grandfather—his father. Yet when I look at him, I am always startled by how young he looks—younger than my father even, although Uncle Fëanáro was already twenty-eight years old when Atar was born—with eyes that glitter with the eager curiosity of a young child. He and Maitimo might be close-born brothers, not father and son, if one were to go on the assumption of looks alone.
Aunt Nerdanel looks young as well, but sometimes, her eyes become very tired.
We sit around the fire after supper, letting our dirty plates and damp cups sit untended on the ground behind us. I have been with this family for a week, and I know that normally they would call for music, and Macalaurë would bring out his harp or his lute or sometimes just sing with his voice, which sounds like it comes from a place deeper than his narrow, boyish chest, but they do not wish to burden him while he is injured, so Maitimo reads instead from a heavy volume that he carries with his traveling things, called Ardacarmë. Uncle Fëanáro must know it very well, for his eyes close and he moves his lips along with the words.
Tyelkormo brings his knees to his chest in Maitimo's lap, and suddenly he is smaller than I ever imagined he could be. Annawendë sits a bit away from Maitimo now, as though afraid to share the spotlight with his voice. Carnistir is wrapped in uncle Fëanáro's arms, sleeping already, and Macalaurë sits still with the apprentices, their upper arms pressed companionably close, looking less tired than he did before the meal. I notice how the firelight looks in his hair because that must be how it looks in mine.
I can feel the cold night pressing at our backs, but beside the fire, we are bathed in drowsy warmth that makes my toes tingle with heat. Aunt Nerdanel leans over and asks, "Would you like to sit with me?" and I allow her to draw me into her lap, my eyes slipping shut even as she cradles my head onto her shoulder.
When I next awaken, it is morning.
I perceive the Mingling of the Lights, even though it is hard to see through the thick canvas walls of the tent. But I can feel it somewhere deep inside me, like one feels the low notes of music vibrating around the heart even when the music is too far away to hear.
Aunt Nerdanel must have tucked me into my bedroll last night, alongside Tyelkormo, who also must have slept straight through the night or else he never would have tolerated lying next to me. To our right is a pile of furs, and I know that, were I to delve into them, I would find little Carnistir, who Maitimo says prefers to sleep alone and unwatched in his dreams.
I sit up, trying not to disturb the blankets in a way that might awaken Tyelkormo. Macalaurë lies not far behind us, sleeping without his tunic and on his belly with his shoulder exposed to the air, sharing a bedroll with Maitimo to keep himself warm. Annawendë is off to the side, alone, an invited guest trying to be inconspicuous among the family. Aunt Nerdanel and Uncle Fëanáro share a bedroll in the corner, their boots lying in a jumble beside it, their pillows dented, and their blankets rumpled, but they are nowhere inside the tent.
The tent flaps are untied so I can easily slip outside without being heard. Uncle Fëanáro and Maitimo are careful to set up the tent in a way to minimize drafts, and I had forgotten how cold the mornings are in the north, before Laurelin's waxing, and I regret forgetting my borrowed cloak. I dare not go back into the tent, however, and chance waking one of my cousins.
A shroud of mist undulates over the land, alternating between covering and revealing the gray landscape and stubby trees. I sit on the damp ground by the burned out campfire, hugging my arms around myself and rocking back and forth to keep warm. I allow tears to blur the landscape even further than the mist has already done.
I miss Tirion. I miss my family. I miss home.
Even the things I despised, I miss: the cramped, bland study room; the frustrated voices of my tutors; the scratchy robes Amil would have forced upon me for our weekly suppers with my grandmother and grandfather in the palace. I miss my blue-eyed, stern-voiced Atar and pretty Amil with her belly that swells a little more every day, and if I am good, she lets me put a hand on it to feel my baby brother kicking. I miss the big hugs I get from Grandfather Finwë and the little candies that Grandmother Indis sneaks to me and the friendly teasing that I must regularly endure from Uncle Arafinwë.
I had thought that age diminished pain—for babies cry more than children and adults do not cry—and thought that maybe this "journey" was meant to help me learn to live without suffering. If I could endure this—the loss of my parents, the puzzling customs of the Fëanorians, the barely disguised contempt of some of my cousins—then surely I could endure anything. But I must have been wrong about things, for I had watched Macalaurë weep in his brother's arms the other day, his muscles rigid with pain that I thought would have left him by now. And I had wondered how Atar and Amil could possibly have wished for me to be hurt so.
Even Uncle Fëanáro had gathered Macalaurë in his arms and apologized, wished for torment upon his own body before the slightest anguish upon that of his son. I had tried to get Atar to hold me like that, in my last moments with him in Tirion, but he had taken his arms from me and walked away, leaving me with strangers.
At home, I am punished for feeling sorry for myself. When I receive poor marks from my tutors or am asked to abandon play for some unpleasantness, I have learned not to push out my lips into a pout or let any tears be seen glimmering in my eyes, for the punishment is always worse than the antecedent. I have learned to let the tears fall in private, burying them into my silken pillows or letting them drop into the despised scented bathwater when my nursemaid turns her back. "You are through with being a baby, right?" Atar asked me once, three years ago. "Well, only babies cry."
But Macalaurë had cried, and he is hardly a baby but big, nearly grown, and he had wept in the open, pressing into Maitimo's chest, in front of his father, without repercussions.
Uncle Fëanáro is strange, though, different from Atar, so maybe he permits tears. Not like he looks like has ever shed any himself; they probably dried in the heat of his eyes before they could even cloud his vision.
The longer I sit, the more I become aware of the cold, wet air. My hair is sodden with it; my skin is puckered with cold-bumps and gray in the wan morning light. I stand to go back to the tent but my feet carry me past it, to the south and a small grove of trees nearby. In my loneliness, I am grieved by the idea of having to watch my cousins sleep side-by-side in easy, companionable peace while I sit wakeful and alone.
I walk, and as the grass grows thicker nearer the trees, I see that it has been matted into silvery tracks leading into the small forest. I stop and stare at the ground; I had never even heard of tracking before coming to this family a week ago, but as we rode, Maitimo had taught me how to look for tracks in the grass and count the number of feet in an attempt to discern what kind of creature we had followed. Not surprisingly, Tyelkormo is excellent at this exercise, nearly as good as Maitimo. I pause and count the tracks now: four, but they are side by side, overlapped in places as would be made by two people walking very close, and I know that I have found my aunt and uncle.
The small forest arises from a hot spring that bubbles at its center like a large round bathtub; the water is hotter than the air even at Laurelin's zenith. Maitimo had taken me and his two youngest brothers there to bathe on our first night here, and the hot water at first had made my toes recoil, but he had encouraged me to ease myself in gently, promising that I would get used to the heat. I had, and it had been quite pleasant thereafter, and we had splashed and played and even Tyelkormo had forgotten for that hour that he despised me. When we had risen from the water, the cold air stung like a slap against our naked skin, and Maitimo had quickly wrapped each of us into a heavy cloak, and—teeth chattering—led us back to the campfire to dry and dress.
The tracks lead in the direction of the spring, and I follow for reasons that I do not understand, only a vague desire to know these people among whom I have been expected to live, to be loved by them.
I see their clothes before I see my aunt and uncle, for in the chill morning, the steam rises from the spring with greater ferocity than it did when Laurelin's heat still lingered in the air, and even the surface of the water is like a fogged mirror. Their nightclothes lie tangled together just before the series of rocks that lead like stairs into the spring with slippers snuggled into their midst—Aunt Nerdanel's nightgown and Uncle Fëanáro's loose cotton trousers and tunic—and a single, dark red cloak that I recognize as my uncle's hangs on a tree branch that acts as a cloak-hook. The steam thins, and I see them, sitting on a low rock, shoulder deep in the water. Aunt Nerdanel is settled back against Uncle Fëanáro, and he lathers her hair. She is speaking of Macalaurë, of his injury, of her concern that he will not be ready to embark today.
"Nonsense," says Uncle Fëanáro. "His injury is not so grave. You and I have both suffered worse."
"Yes, but this is not you nor me but Macalaurë."
I settle behind a rocky outcropping, where I can see them and hear them but can go unnoticed. Uncle Fëanáro allows a very pointed silence, and Aunt Nerdanel sighs. "You know, Fëanáro, that I am more protective of Macalaurë than our other sons. Nelyo and Tyelkormo and Carnistir are all yours, strong like you, but Macalaurë is most like me, and I fear for him."
"He shall be fine, Nerdanel, for he is like you, and you are also strong. I wish you would not so easily forget that. He shall ride with Nelyo and be given the most considerate care; I shall tightly bind his arm and give him a draught to help with the pain. I wish him to consult a healer in Formenos anyway, for I had to pull his arm back into place after he fell, and I may not have done it right for fear of hurting him."
Aunt Nerdanel leans back against Uncle Fëanáro's shoulder and kisses him under the chin. "It would ruin your reputation in Tirion if it was known that you felt such unease."
Uncle Fëanáro rinses her hair with spring water cupped in his hands. "I do not love many," he says, "but those whom I do claim most of my heart. Our sons I love more than my own life." He turns her face to him and kisses her mouth.
I wonder: Should I be here? Atar and Amil were always clear on certain points, that I should not enter their private rooms without permission or unannounced and that I should never listen to conversations meant only for the ears of those at whom they were directed. I am, in a way, doing both of these things now, yet with the Fëanorians, it is hard to tell which rules still apply, for they are so regularly in violation of our customs that I wonder if this, too, is pardonable. Uncle Fëanáro and Maitimo, after all, discuss matters of court with Tyelkormo and Carnistir in their laps. I think of the careful etiquette instilled in me from a young age, being taught that, as a prince, I am a representative of my people and expected to act as the most venerable of the Noldor, to exert great effort even to do so. The Fëanorians make no such efforts. Their clothes are simple and practical, as plain as those of the farmers outside Tirion. They do not hide their skin beneath long, constraining clothing; they leave their wounds unbandaged and angry-red. My Aunt Nerdanel even wears clothes like those of her husband—a male's clothes!—boots, short tunics, and trousers, that reveal a man's muscles beneath a woman's soft flesh.
And then there are the Valar. I have never heard my uncle or my cousins mention the Valar except distantly, as one might mention an acquaintance or a rarely seen relative. They are certainly not as devoted as my parents and grandparents. My Aunt Nerdanel wears the symbol of Aulë on a pendant around her neck, but she wears it under her clothes and she removes it at night when she lies beside my uncle. This is when I saw it, shining in her hand with the blue-white light of the lamps as she tucked it out of sight in her jewelry box. They certainly do not feast in honor of the Valar or bow at the mention of their names; they have only the odd custom of Eruhantale before the evening meal, a custom in which I only awkwardly participate, feeling that if I showed the sincerity of my kin, then I would lay bare places of my heart not meant to be seen.
I consider disappearing back into the woods and leaving my aunt and uncle to their hot water and their kisses, but I press my cheek harder against the stone instead and allow the steam from the spring to cover me like a shroud. They kiss and kiss; I can see the tacky lather lying unrinsed in Aunt Nerdanel's hair. I wonder if, like my mother and Aunt Eärwen, Aunt Nerdanel is with child, for such cozy affection seems to mark couples who are expecting. "Shall we?" Uncle Fëanáro whispers to her, and she thinks a moment before replying, "We had best not. The boys will be waking soon."
"I can be quick."
She laughs. "I'm sure you can, but Carnistir's nightmares have forced us into enough awkward explanations without having to conjure another." She turns her back to him, and he sighs and finishes rinsing her hair.
"What of Findekáno?" she says, squeezing her eyes shut against the rivulets of soapy water.
My heart drops like a stone in my chest, so loud that I expect them both to turn and see me.
"What of him?"
"Do you think he is adjusting to this? At all?"
"A bit. Nelyo has been very kind to him."
"But Tyelkormo has been rather cruel."
"That is Tyelkormo's way. I'm sure he sees Findekáno as competition, and you know how greedy he is for affections. But he will learn, over time, that his family's love is big enough for both of them, and they will become friends."
"You think so?"
"I do." Uncle Fëanáro reaches over his shoulder to the rock behind them and retrieves a comb. He begins combing Aunt Nerdanel's hair, surprisingly delicate in removing the snarls.
I duck behind the rock, where I cannot see them and am certain that they will not see me. I want to leave now, but the ground before me is littered with twigs, and although I walked silently upon entering the forest, I suddenly loathe taking that chance again, knowing that my aunt and uncle will know that I have heard their words should my foot happen about a fragile branch and give away my intentions. Yesterday's nightmare of being abandoned makes my heart flutter like a songbird desperate to be loosed from its cage.
The conversation turns. "I was a bit surprised to hear that Anairë conceived so soon after Findekáno," I hear my uncle say.
"I must confess to the same, Fëanáro," aunt Nerdanel says with a sigh.
"They sleep not even in the same bedroom!" uncle Fëanáro says with an air of incredulous offense.
"You need not a bed and a bedroom to make love, Fëanáro. I should think that you of all people would know that. Besides, it is Noldorin custom for husbands and wives to sometimes sleep apart. A custom that we do not honor but a custom nonetheless."
"I know that it is Noldorin custom, Nerdanel! I am, after all, a Noldo. But it is a silly one."
"So you think of most customs, my love."
I feel a blush of indignation that makes my heart pound for my parents, who are being nonchalantly discussed miles from home by relatives they rarely even see. Then I feel a surge of surprised realization that I have accidentally happened upon conversations of a similar nature about Uncle Fëanáro and Aunt Nerdanel by my own parents, and the righteous anger subsides a bit. Though, if I could, I would tell them that sometimes I go to my mother's room for comfort at night and she is not there or my father lies with her. Those are the nights where I creep as silently as I can back down the hall to shiver away my fears in my own bed.
"There is a custom, my love, that I think we should honor, that says that when a husband wakes early to carefully wash and detangle his wife's unruly hair in a hot spring, then she should not question his subsequent desire for bonding and should obediently lie back and submit to him."
"Yes, dearest husband, and then we shall have to quiet Carnistir when he walks down the path and finds us and goes to Nelyo crying that Atar is trying to drown Amil in the spring. Or have Tyelkormo telling everyone at every feast for the next ten years about how his parents were spawning in the pond south of Formenos."
They begin to banter in the manner that I have learned is normal for my aunt and uncle. Aunt Nerdanel, for once, seems to be winning. I use the distraction of their overlapping voices to set out away from the pond on my hands and knees, crawling like a baby, being careful of the twigs that litter the ground. I am making muddy patches on the knees of my sleeping trousers and scratching my palms, but I do not care. I have heard of my uncle's notorious temper and have no desire to be the first to experience it on this trip.
When their voices begin to fade and the spring is lost entirely in the mist, I rise and begin running to the edge of the woods, then across the plain—leaving silvery tracks in the grass next to theirs, I realize, but it is too late to choose another less obvious way; I shall have to hope that they do not notice—and toward the camp. I slow to a walk when I am within sight of the tent, and it is a good thing that I do, for I walk not ten paces and Maitimo comes out of the copse of trees with Carnistir in his arms.
Excuses tumble from my brain and settle on the tip of my tongue, reasons why I might be out walking alone in the early morning, but Maitimo does not enquire. "Káno!" he says and stops and waits for me. He is still in his nightclothes and his hair is tousled, but his smile is bright like he has been awake for hours. Carnistir mumbles and blinks in his arms.
As I get closer, his forehead wrinkles with concern, and he says, "What happened? Your trousers are filthy!"
"I fell," I say, and he stoops to lift me with his free arm to his other hip, opposite Carnistir.
"You have to be careful walking in the early light in the north, Káno, for it does not become very light here until Laurelin waxes. Are you injured?"
I shake my head, and he begins walking.
It feels good to be carried. Atar had decided two years ago that I was too old to be carried and that I should walk everywhere beside him, at his right side, the place of the eldest son. He does not realize how hard it is for one so little as me to match his long-legged strides! But Maitimo does not mind carrying me; in fact, he does not even ask, but hoists me to his hip like my weight is nothing to him. Even Tyelkormo gets carried about at times, and he is much bigger and stronger than I am.
Maitimo is talking of the day's journey, of the place we will camp tonight, by a large lake, atop a cliff. "We can swim!" he says. "Have you ever swam, Káno?"
Atar had taken me a few times to the gardens just outside the city, and there is a huge pool there filled with floating flowers and big orange fish that nip your toes. And, of course, there are the fountains of Tirion, and my nursemaids occasionally allow me to splash and play in them. But never have I been in water so deep that I cannot place my feet on the bottom and breathe at the same time. I tell Maitimo this. "No worry," he says. "Atar and I will keep you close."
We walk, and I am amazed at how smoothly Maitimo steps, without jostling me a bit; if not for his hand beneath my bottom and the pressure of his body against mine, I might think I was flying. Opposite me, Carnistir's eyes have opened fully, and he stares at me in that strange manner of his, with the same intensity paid to books. His eyes are a very dark gray, like neither my aunt's nor my uncle's—the black centers are almost lost in them—and his eyelashes are dark and thick and make his eyes seem exceptionally large. I stare back at him, feeling my heart patter, refusing to be intimidated by the stare of a four-year-old, and Maitimo chatters on about how easy it was to teach Tyelkormo to swim—which is no comfort to me, as Tyelkormo can easily do a thousand things that I cannot—but neither Carnistir nor I pay him much mind.
Carnistir reaches out a tiny hand and places it over my nose. His fingers spread until they brush my eyelashes and make my eyes flutter closed. His hand is very warm—almost feverish in its heat—like the hands of my uncle and all of his sons—like their blood always burns closer to their skin than does a normal person's—and it covers the top of my face like a warm mask. The uneasy feeling of being scanned and read like words on a page lingers, but there is a gentle peace in that hand as well.
"Carnistir!" Maitimo chides and jiggles him until he withdraws his hand. "I have told you before not to grab at people's eyes! You're going to hurt your cousin!"
Carnistir looks at Maitimo, and blows a spit bubble that pops and trickles down his chin. "Blue," he says. "He is dark blue, most beautiful, dark blue like velvet."
"Shh," Maitimo hushes him and kisses his forehead. "You and your colors, Carnistir, silly little one. But you love our cousin, don't you? Do you love Káno?"
Carnistir's dark eyes swivel back to mine, and I wish that Maitimo had not put so direct a question to him. I have always felt that Maitimo might love me a little, for he loves everyone, and that is the beauty people find in his face, but I know that I am not loved by the rest of his family, even my aunt and uncle. They tolerate me, but I am an obligation to them, like a debt owed, though no one can remember what they borrowed that brought me to their door.
"Do you love Káno?" Maitimo asks again, and I squirm uncomfortably in his arms, but he only holds me tighter. I can smell his hair, not the scent of lavish soaps that marked him before we left—such scents attract insects and aren't used on journeys—but his natural smell that reminds me of earth and light at the same time.
Carnistir presses his face into Maitimo's neck. His words come out muffled, but he says, "Yes."
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