Playlist Navigation Bar
Another Man's Cage: 17. Chapter Seventeen--Macalaure
I am not like my brothers; I do not like waking early in the morning. Nelyo would awaken every day at the Mingling of the Lights to go hunting or sit in the library and read if he could. Tyelkormo springs from bed with the first note of birdsong and plays by himself until he makes enough ruckus to awaken the rest of the house too. And little Carnistir starts wailing for breakfast not long after, then sits at the table and won't eat.
But I have a bad habit of being stricken with songs in the middle of the night. "Stricken" is the best word I can find to describe my songwriting process. Like a drop of poison, a song circles in my blood until it lodges in my brain, and then, there is nothing I can do but play as I am instructed and hope to fumble the right notes in the right order to dislodge it. Unfortunately, this is a many-hour process, and when my brothers are rising from their beds and stretching in the mingled light of morning, I am just slipping beneath my sheets and succumbing to the exhaustion that has been beckoning me for hours.
But then come the nights of dreams, and I lie just beneath the surface of sleep and listen to the music in my mind until a note slaps against the inside of my head like a gong ringing against my skull and I emerge from sleep with a gasp and spring in the direction of my harp before I can even rub the sleep from my eyes.
Such is the case this morning, when I spring from bed, getting tangled in the sheets and falling to the floor, bumping my good arm—the one I dislocated leaping after Tyelkormo is nearly healed but still aches after too much exertion—and seize a harp lying in the corner and begin playing, sitting on the cold stone floor, all before the Mingling of the Lights.
It is my brother's voice that shatters the song I have been weaving in the air before me, and awareness leaks into my mind in gentle trickles. The harp in my hand is exceptionally dusty—and also out of tune—and the bed I had stumbled from was too big to be my own. Also, I do not have red sheets. Well, I do—we all have red sheets; it is Atar's favorite color—but I never put them on my bed, finding that I sleep better on blue or cream. Memories of the night before are pouring into my head now: Of going to Nelyo's room with him, of drinking white wine and talking about maidens, of climbing into his bed because the air in Formenos is so cold at night and the hallway between our bedrooms such a wide expanse of icy floor…. Then nothing but darkness, music, and dreams.
"What in Mandos are you doing?"
Nelyo sounds too sleepy to be angry, and I yank my hands from the harpstrings and push aside the music wavering in the air before me to peer at him, sitting up in what I assumed to be my bed upon erupting from dreams, blinking at me with anger in his eyes that is diminished by the rumpled locks of red hair jutting like spikes from his head.
"I—I don't know," I say. The song is lying dormant in my head now—a tree inside a seed—ready to spring forth again with the slightest sprinkle of encouragement. "I had a song…."
Nelyo sighs, flops back down, and turns on his belly to bury his face in his pillow. "Well, could you at least sing a little quieter?"
Sing? I didn't even realize that I had been singing.
"Was I singing?" I ask him.
He groans. "Macalaurë…."
"I'm sorry, Nelyo. You know how these songs come upon me. I didn't even realize that I had been singing." I set his neglected harp back into the corner where I found it and cross the stone floor, wincing at the cold that—moments before—had been inconsequential to my distracted feet. I considered going back to my own room, but the thought of lying between cold sheets still stretched taut from yesterday morning is almost painful, so I slide between Nelyo's red sheets instead. My side of the bed is still warm from my body, so I know that I hadn't been playing long. Still, I shiver and I press against Nelyo who—like Atar—never seems to be cold.
"Macalaurë!" he gasps, and I realize that I have put the cold bottoms of my feet on his bare calves. My feet and his legs jerk away from each other simultaneously, and he tips his face in my direction, looking out from his pillow with one bright, gray eye, and I mumble, "Sorry. What happened to the fire?" I am shivering so hard that my voice shakes.
"It went out," he says, and we both laugh at the obviousness of his answer. He rolls onto his side, facing me, and wraps his arms around me.
He holds me for a minute, until I stop shivering, then takes his arms away and says, "That's enough. Go back to your own side. The first time I wake up with someone sleeping in my arms, it's not going to be you."
I roll back over to my own side. There had been a time when, in Formenos, Nelyo and I had shared a bedroom—before Tyelkormo was even born, during those strange years when Atar had mostly slept in his study—but as a late twenty-fifth begetting day present, Atar and Amil had told Nelyo that he could have his own room, if he wanted it. I'd kept expecting him to decline the offer, to ask for a new pony or a new longbow instead, but he'd said nothing, and that night, we'd slept in separate beds for the first time since I could remember coming to Formenos, and I'd cried until I thought the tears would freeze on my cheeks.
"What happened to the song?" he asks, and his voice is slurring, growing sleepy again.
"It's in my head," I tell him.
"So should I expect you to go exploding out of bed again in another hour, wailing like a wraith?"
"No, it's there until I want it to come out again. Go to sleep," I instruct him and lean over and kiss his cheek.
"Eww…." He rubs his face on the pillow, but he is smiling and flops facedown again and, within ten seconds, is snoring gently.
It is the third day of the week, my least favorite day, because this is the day when—from waking until bedtime—we do nothing but physical pursuits. Swordfighting, archery, horsemanship…alone, I like each activity for a few hours, but strung together one after the other like beads on a leaden lavalier, I quickly grow wearied and wish for the cool peace of my music room. To make matters worse, the morning's song is still stuck in my brain like a corn hull between the teeth, a flickering annoyance that makes itself known with every thought and move.
Atar cooks us a lavish breakfast in preparation for the day's activities—eggs, hot bread, fruit salad, and bacon—and that is the only good thing about the third day of the week. My shallow sleep the night before has left me wearied but famished, and even after Nelyo and Atar have finished eating, I am still going, until there is nothing left in the bowls on the table and I am even willing to polish off the piece of bread that Carnistir rejected after dragging it through his orange juice. I open my mouth to compliment Atar on the meal but he holds up a hand—his wrists already encased in leather bracers—and says, "Don't bother, Macalaurë. Your enthusiasm speaks for itself."
Horsemanship is the first lesson for the day. Atar will instruct the little ones first, in the ring behind the barn, while Nelyo and I lean back on our elbows, sitting on the small hill beside the ring, and watch. Tyelkormo—who fancies himself a great athlete and in fact is not bad for a fourteen-year-old—has been working on a short course of medium jumps, logs and bits of brush that Atar had Nelyo drag into the ring last week. Findekáno and Carnistir work around the edges of the ring: Findekáno is taking low jumps and Carnistir is learning to post at a trot, although he prefers to bounce around haphazardly and does so whenever Atar is not looking. Atar walks like an acrobat along the top rail of the fence and shouts commands. "Findekáno, keep you heels down! Carnistir, you're supposed to be posting your trot! Use your knees, Tyelkormo! Use your knees! For the last time, Findekáno, heels down!" and Nelyo and I laugh quietly at their misfortune of being little and inexperienced and subject to Atar's beginning horsemanship lessons, as we had been only a few years ago.
"Macalaurë, I do not miss that at all," Nelyo says. "Do you think Atar realizes how mean he sounds?"
"Yeah, I think he does. He has to be. Otherwise, you and I never would have learned horsemanship at all."
Nelyo laughs and does not agree or disagree. He, of course, would have learned horsemanship even if Atar had been soft and gentle with us, but I likely would have skipped lessons to sit in my music room instead.
When the hour is past and each of the little ones have been on the verge of tears at least once, then Atar dismisses them from the ring to cool their horses and remove their tack. Nelyo stands and drags me by my good arm to my feet, and with Atar, we commence moving the logs and bits of brush to the sides of the ring.
Last summer, Atar decided that Nelyo and I should learn dressage. Before, he always dismissed such strict riding as a pompous artifact that the nobility had learned from the Valar, but then he saw how sloppy we were becoming on the trail and his outlook changed. I was becoming lackadaisical with my posture and missing easy shots when we were hunting; Nelyo plunged through the brush once without looking, collided with Atar's horse, and they both ended up in the mud. Since then, Nelyo and I do an hour of dressage and an hour of the hard riding in the field that makes our adrenaline surge and tempts us into bad habits. The little ones sit on the fence and watch us; Atar will quiz them when we are finished about what we have done well and what we have done wrong, and—having struggled for years in the forge beside my father—I could imagine no humiliation worse until my four-year-old brother informed me that my elbows stick out when I canter.
Dressage pains me, not only for the humiliation of being shouted at by our father in front of our little brothers and cousin, but because it looks so disgustingly simple but in fact is terrorizing in its difficulty. Atar has us warm up with figure eights and cloverleaves at various gaits and paces, changing leads and attempting to signal our mounts without betraying our intentions to Atar's keen eye, then stands in the center and has us ride in a large circle around him—in direct hundred-and-eighty-degree lines from each other, keeping pace with each other without moving our eyes from the place between our horses' ears where we have been told it is acceptable to look. "Sitting trot," Atar calls and, in the same breath, says, "Macalaurë, you're slumping."
I grit my teeth and force my back straighter, until my palomino's jostling gait feels like it is driving my spine up into my skull. I sneak a look at Nelyo and he looks tall and comfortable—if not a bit bored—and Atar yells, "Stop looking at your brother, Macalaurë! And do stop bouncing."
I don't see how it's possible not to bounce a bit at a sitting trot, but it must be because Nelyo looks like he could fall asleep in his saddle if we have to do one more circle around the ring. He isn't bouncing a bit. He might be drifting on our old swing in the forest behind the house on a warm afternoon.
"Macalaurë! Stop watching your brother!"
I force my eyes to look between my horse's ears until Atar calls, "Well enough. Bring them in," which gives me leave to slump again and slow to a walk, allowing my aching back a well-deserved reprieve.
Atar also holds the great ideal that Nelyo and I should learn to match each other's riding. The concept alone is tortuous. Nelyo is my closest brother and friend but there are many differences between us. I only grew past his shoulder last summer, when I had a growth spurt and he stayed remarkably static; his stallion is almost four hands bigger than my palomino mare and much more spirited. And Nelyo has Atar's graceful athleticism whereas I am awkward like our mother. He enjoys the rigor and discipline of our weekly dressage lessons; I glance at the hourglass Atar sat on one of the fence posts and dejection washes my spirit in gray: Less than half of the hour has passed and the remaining sand trickles so slowly that it is almost as though it intends to ire me. Beneath me, my mare senses my unease and grows shifty and skittish, making me draw the reins in tightly and earning me a reproachful glance from Atar.
Atar instructs us to ride around the ring, side by side—I am mercifully permitted to ride along the inside, where it will be easier to keep up with Nelyo's much larger horse—first at a walk, then at a posting trot. Nelyo posts naturally, an extension of his horse's gait, but I bumble and tend towards fits of nervous laughter. Nelyo and I used to make up dirty songs to absurd, bouncing melodies that I would invent on my harp, and the rhythm of a posting trot always makes such songs come back to me. To make matters worse, I know I must look like I am humping the horse's neck, and that makes me laugh harder. Nelyo is giving me stern sidelong glances and tightening the reins on his mount, but I am biting my lip to keep from laughing and trying to urge my mare faster, with little success. "Lengthen your strides, Macalaurë," Atar yells. "Lengthen your strides!" but he might as well have asked for a cupful of starlight for all of the success that I find.
Nelyo has his stallion reined in so tightly that he is practically prancing in place and even Nelyo's graceful posting is starting to look stilted. I am wishing even for the jarring discomfort of a sitting trot. Atar is still yelling about lengthening my strides, but my mare doesn't want to move any faster and there is little that I—a young Elf only a fraction of her weight—can do to persuade her.
"Bring them in!" Atar yells, and I hear irritation in his voice. "What is the matter with you, Macalaurë?" he asks in a low voice when I stop in front of him. "You need to lengthen your strides to keep up with your brother."
"I tried," I say lamely. "She didn't want to."
"You have to show her who is in charge."
Atar tells me this a lot. Nelyo tells me less but still tells me this too. Even Grandfather Finwë once, when I was first learning to canter and was stuck on an ancient pony that hated anything faster than a walk, told me this. Show her who is in charge. I would like one of them to explain to me exactly how I am supposed to do that because the image of myself sparring against the flying hooves of a rearing horse—even a small one, like my own—does not do much for my confidence as a rider.
Atar must detect this from my expression because he sighs and tells me to dismount and swings into the saddle in my stead. Immediately, my palomino stops all of the pawing and shifting in which she has been indulging, and when Atar sets out in a circle with Nelyo, she keeps pace with Nelyo's larger mount so well that it is as though she is following Atar's verbal instructions to me rather than the unseen tugs and nudges that he must be giving her.
Nelyo and Atar match each other stride for stride around the ring, exchanging pleased grins as they ride, and I feel sorry for Nelyo, always having to be stuck beside a rider as incompetent as me when he clearly enjoys these arduous lessons. Three times around the ring, they circle—in excess of that which was needed to prove their point—looking as do the two halves of a mirror. Of course, Nelyo always was more our father's son whereas I am more our mother's and—despite the fact that the hair spilling down Nelyo's back is red while Atar's is black—their shared natural elegance, quick smiles, and bright eyes leave no doubt that they are related, and even wearing common clothes and dusty boots, a stranger from another land would never question that they are the King's rightful heirs.
Atar reins in my palomino and slips from the saddle with the airy grace of a summer breeze and offers me a leg up. I plunk like a stone in the saddle in comparison, and my mare shifts beneath me and stomps as though she has had a greater weight than mine dumped onto her back.
The three turns around the ring, however, have lifted Atar's spirits, and he only makes us do a few more circles—more successful than my first attempt—before having us do serpentines and languid spirals to finish the lesson.
And more sitting trot. I wonder: Was I mad before when I sought to abandon the posting trot for the sitting trot? Never mind the obscene songs and the strange motions I tend to make against the neck of my horse; at least I didn't feel a bruise forming on my backside; at least I didn't feel as though my spine was being rammed into my aching head. When the hourglass drops its final grain of sand, I am relieved to swing out of the saddle and walk up the hill to the fields where we will practice the rougher, more relaxed riding used in hunting, where we don't have to post or sit a trot but can half-stand in the stirrups and avoid being jostled altogether. Atar's good humor also seems to have made him forget to ask for the bout of critiques from our little brothers that Nelyo and I are usually forced to endure, for which I am glad. Tyelkormo runs up to me and clings to my leg—he has been more affectionate than usual with me since the arrival of Findekáno, as though he is trying to prove that he doesn't need to war with our cousin for the affections of an older brother—and begs can he please, please, please ride my horse up to the field.
I remember being Tyelkormo's age, looking up at Nelyo and thinking I'd never be so big and so skilled (I did, eventually, become both, although not as young as Nelyo did) and looking past him to Atar, unable to fathom being grown up, a husband and a father, although now, in the dreams I don't wholly share even with Nelyo, I am both. I remember when Nelyo had received his first horse for his twenty-fifth begetting day and, after he'd taken her for a few turns around the ring, he'd stopped and asked Atar if I could ride with him, and Atar had lifted me onto the horse's back behind my brother, and I had clutched his waist and hidden my face in his back whenever he went faster than a walk. Tyelkormo is much more confident than I was at his age; he will ride tall and fearless and alone; he would take the reins if I offered them, even though his feet don't even reach the stirrups yet.
I answer him: "I wish you would. Frankly, all of that sitting trot that Atar had us do made my ass hurt."
He laughs as I lift him into the saddle, and behind us, little Carnistir giggles too. Atar appears like an apparition beside us and scoops his youngest son—who shrieks with delighted terror—into his arms. "What's so funny, little one?" he asks, and Carnistir snuggles into his neck and says, "Macalaurë said that the sitting trot made his ass hurt," and I wait for Atar's reaction—he might be angry or he might laugh—and he gives me a look of reproach but his eye twinkles as he does, and I know that it was more for my brothers' benefit than my own.
Archery is scheduled at the hottest part of the day.
Of all of the activities we do on the third day of the week, archery is the least tedious for me. I am not bad at archery, and my mind can roam where it will during the easier exercises. Furthermore, most of the time, there is little running around; we stand in one place—either in the field or in the forest—lined up with our targets and aim and shoot for the red patches that are worth more points. I had gone with Atar to Tirion once and watched my grandfather's archers in their training; the targets at which they'd aimed had been perfectly round with progressively smaller concentric circles, worth more points toward the middle, and Atar had scoffed and said that such targets were hardly a replication of real life. "When do you use archery, Macalaurë?" he'd asked, before I could voice my puzzlement at his scorn, and expecting a trick question, I'd stammered, "F-for hunting?"
"Well, yes. And for what else, in our people's history, did we use archery?"
Nelyo and I, of course, have hours of historical lore every week with our father. Nelyo loves it and, with Atar, has written great deals on the various events that plagued our people before they arrived in Aman, but during such lessons, I usually find it more desirable to watch the pinpoints of dust dancing in the light through the window, weaving in a rhythm that quickly becomes music in my easily distracted mind.
So I'd stammered again: "Um…war?"
It had been a vague answer, yet it had satisfied Atar, and he'd said, "Macalaurë, do not fool yourself that archery was invented as anything but a means to bring death to another being without the danger of hand-to-hand combat. Yet I know of no prey—or foe—that looks as a convenient circle with its heart and head both planted at its direct center."
So came our targets, abortive blobs with red splotches of paint to simulate the vital centers and splotches of blue paint to simulate the places that had organs beneath the hide, placed seemingly at random to simulate the fact that—upon approaching a target in the field—it usually does not turn its left side to you, lift its foreleg, and wait patiently for you to aim for its heart. Atar has invented other activities too that hone our archery skills. From the ground and from trees, we shoot at partially obscured targets, or he tosses a ball into the air and we all shoot at it, earning points if an arrow with our uniquely-coloring fletching is found imbedded upon the ball's landing. My personal favorite of his activities, however, involves him donning light armor and running among the trees while we shoot arrows at him that have had their points dulled and wrapped in paint-soaked strips of cloth. He who leaves the most marks of paint on Atar's armor wins the exercise. It is always Nelyo who wins, although Tyelkormo, last summer, came close enough to my numbers to make me ashamed and a bit nervous.
But now, we begin simply, for Findekáno had never even held a bow before arriving here with us. My father is not a patient man, and so Nelyo teaches Findekáno the rudiments of archery while Atar works with Tyelkormo, Carnistir, and me. Atar has hinted to me about pursuing "independent study" while he works with my little brothers, but I have not yet pleased him enough to earn that luxury. Even little Carnistir has a bow that Atar crafted to fit his small body, and he shoots tiny white-fletched arrows at a target four feet away, shrieking with delight whenever he approximates hitting a colored patch.
Tyelkormo is a very earnest archer. For as gushing and hyperactive as is my little brother during a normal day, nothing makes him fall into the dire depths of concentration like having a longbow placed in his hands. For Tyelkormo's begetting day last summer, Atar commissioned one of Oromë's own apprentices to make a gorgeous white ash longbow for him—never minding that such an extravagant piece of equipment would normally be gifted only to a fully grown and highly skilled hunter—and it is rare when, in the course of a day, I do not see it in Tyelkormo's hands at least once, if not aiming real arrows at targets then pretending to conquer great beasts in the courtyards and gardens that his wild imagination twists into deserts and jungles.
My own bow is a shortbow that belonged to Nelyo when he had been my age and before that belonged to Amil, when she had been young. But it is not a woman's bow; Atar made it for her in the image of his own—it was one of the first gifts he gave her—to take along on the journeys they'd taken together, before their friendship changed into the obsessive love that had borne them to marriage in the same forest they had often hiked and hunted together as children.
Atar puts three green-fletched arrows into Tyelkormo's quiver and instructs him to shoot them in quick succession, landing one in each of the three red patches on his target. Tyelkormo's brow furrows in concentration and his arm snaps back and grabs the first arrow, and before I can even register the first being drawn back, it is imbedded in a red patch and the second is being set and loosed, then the third, and I hear my little brother let out a sigh of repressed breath as he considers his successful completion of the task.
Even Nelyo, who is kneeling beside Findekáno, has stopped talking and crouches with his mouth still open—in the middle of a word—to ogle our little brother. "Excellent, Tyelkormo," Atar says. Disbelief in Atar's voice is the highest compliment in Arda because it is Atar that always says that nothing undone is impossible.
"Macalaurë?" he says, and I hear three arrows rattle into my own quiver.
I try to ponder the target in the same manner as my little brother, imagining my three blue-fletched arrows imbedding themselves into the three red patches on the target, but at that moment, the morning's song that has been wiggling around in my brain plunks into my throat and whirls around, begging to be sung. I swallow hard and toss my arm back over my shoulder, grab the first arrow, and aim along the shaft as Atar taught me to do years ago. It sticks in the center of the first patch. The second flies after it as the harp melody makes itself known to me in the oscillation of the wind in the trees. It also lands on target. The third is in my grasp now, and my blood is drumming in my ears—or is it drums?—and I draw it back and aim with lazy confidence, watch it cut through the air to the third red patch, and watch it land on the line where red becomes white.
"Decent, Macalaurë," Atar says, but it is dutiful praise and praise that wouldn't even have been given had I been Nelyo. Were I Nelyo, I would be made to retrieve the arrows and try again because an arrow lodged a half-inch beneath the heart of a charging boar puts a person a half-inch closer to death. Atar is fond of sayings such as these. Yet he does not often use them with me, and his undeserved compliment hurts worse than would justifiable criticism.
Carnistir is given three white-fledged arrows next—laid at his feet because he does not yet have a quiver—and he aims them one-by-one at the target four feet away. The first lands in white; the second lands in blue; the third erupts from his bow with a muted doink and lands in the grass, just shy of the target. Atar scoops Carnistir into his arms and kisses him all over the face. "You are a formidable foe, Morofinwë Carnistir!" he says, while Carnistir giggles and yanks at his hair.
I'd asked Nelyo once: Had Atar treated me like that? He'd smiled. Of course he had. He'd treated all of us like that when we were little. "If he didn't, Macalaurë," said Nelyo, "what kind of loyalty would you feel for him now?"
I consider this. My loyalty to Atar does not manifest itself overtly, as it does in Nelyo and Tyelkormo, but it is there, a rushing susurration beneath my heartbeat that makes me proud to display the customs that we do not share with the other Noldor, that makes me find the Star of Fëanáro more beautiful than any other family seal in Valinor. The pendant that Atar gave me to wear to the midnight picnic—shaped as the star of our House, with a fire opal shimmering at its center—I have been unable to remove. Even now, it presses between my collarbones, warmed between the noonday light and my skin, and I find myself touching it when I need confidence, like now, when I return to retrieve the spent arrows without being asked, pushing the song from my mind so that I may repeat the exercise in a way that will make my father proud.
After the midday meal, eaten from cloth sacks beneath a tree, is swordfighting.
Archery I like. Horsemanship I can tolerate. Swordfighting I despise.
Swordfighting had once been essential to the survival of our people. Before our arrival in Aman, Oromë had taught our people how to make and wield weapons of war, including the sword. Valarin swords had been ornate creations, with coils of flowers and vines pouring down the blades, more for display than for fighting. It had been my Grandfather Finwë who'd made the first sword of unadorned iron that he and the men who would one day be his lords had taken from the earth around Cuiviénen and pounded into blades with rocks clutched in their fists. The first sword had almost been obscene in its functionality—to wound and kill—but it had been light and sat balanced in the hand, and my grandfather and his lords had taken their ugly swords and had begun to dissect the art of fighting, compartmentalizing it into simple blocks and thrusts that they'd taught to the rest of the people.
With the advent of swords, fewer and fewer of their people had gone missing and more Orcs had their black blood spilled into the rivers. On the Great Journey, swords had been used to cut away obstructions and foes, and it had been with swords at their hips that my grandfather and the lords of the Noldor had first stepped onto the verdant shores of Aman.
The Valar had been horrified by the hideous, simple blades at their sides, dented from use and rusted with the black blood of their foes. There was no longer a need, they'd said, in soft, patronizing voices, to wield such atrocities. Their soft hands had taken the iron blades from the hands of the Noldor, and nails had been driven through key points in the metal, securing them as trophies to the walls of the palace and the lords' homes, mementoes of hardships survived and passed and reminders that such implements were no longer needed. The forging of weapons of war had been prohibited, except by consent of Manwë and then only for ceremonial purposes, and swordfighting had been reduced from a skill of survival to a sport.
All of the well-bred Noldorin boys in Tirion are taught swordfighting. Grandfather Finwë even holds tournaments in the palace square and each year a champion is crowned the Lord of the Blade. But sport has reduced swordfighting to impotence. To forge a sword of steel—or even iron, as were the blades of old—is a crime in our land. We learn and master the sport of swordfighting with only harmless wooden swords. And an art that was once deadly in its mastery has waned to a controlled dance that involves never touching your partner. To even brush one's opponent with a wooden so-called sword is to be disqualified; winning occurs only when a threat would reasonably result in a touch or with the disarmament of one's opponent.
Being the sons of the High Prince of the Noldor, we study the sport of swordfighting. But there is something more in my family, something that we do only in Formenos or in the deepest clearings in the forest around our home in Tirion, where the light is so faint on the graceful steel swords that our father has given us that—but for the resolute cold across our palms—we might be able to convince ourselves that we still fight each other with wood.
I had still been small and Tyelkormo had been but a thought of my father's when Atar had begun returning from Tirion with the old iron swords kept on display in the palace. With each trip, he'd bring a new sword, mounted on a polished oak plaque with brass plate beneath that said things like "Sword of Finwë, King of the Noldor, Used to Slay Orcs at the River Sirion." If Grandfather Finwë had noticed that his swords were missing, he'd given no indication to Atar, and a closet in the forge quickly piled high with them. The Valar had been clever when they'd mounted the swords, for they'd driven nails through the places that would weaken the blade the most. Atar had once swung one of the swords at a small tree in the courtyard and the blade snapped in two where the nail had been driven. He'd held the two halves in his hand and bowed over them with such regret and reverence that I'd thought it like the dream I sometimes had where Atar came to me in the middle of the night, held me in his arms, and wept.
We hadn't seen much of Amil in those days. Atar said that she was weary and that we should not disturb her in her rest. Our house was quiet—without Amil, Atar didn't laugh and rarely spoke—and Atar fed Nelyo and I all of our meals, bathed us nightly, and even baked the bread and washed our clothes, tasks that we'd never seen done by anyone but our mother. But while Nelyo and I studied our books in the library, Atar would go to the forge and we'd hear the sound of ringing iron, and when I looked in the closet in the workshop, another of the swords was whole.
One by one, the iron swords had been returned to Grandfather Finwë's palace, held aloft not by nails but cradled on brackets, the edges honed to deadly acuity. And Atar began experimenting with steel, and the designs he knew so well from repairing his father's swords he improved, making weapons that were lighter and easier to use than anything from the Outer Lands. With these, he would take Nelyo and me deep into the forest, and we fought each other in clearings as our grandfather had once fought with his lords, as though our lives would one day depend on our success. No longer was a mere threat of harm enough: Atar had driven us to our backs on the hard ground; we bruised and bled from where he struck us; more than once, I'd wept and Nelyo held me and begged Atar to be gentler. "There may come a time when gentleness is a luxury," he'd told us. "Do not expect that we should be afforded paradise forever."
Before that, I'd never questioned that the peace of Aman would be ours forever. I'd asked Nelyo once—huddled in his bed to save me from the cold of Formenos, speaking in a whisper on a night where, perhaps, I'd had too much wine—if he thought Atar mad, and he'd whispered back that he too had always doubted the eternity of Aman. "I feel it in my spirit, Macalaurë," he'd said. "I feel it in the same way that I believe I would know that you're my brother, that Atar is my father, even if I was taken from you at birth. My spirit knows what my body tries to explain and cannot comprehend. We live in Arda Marred, where nothing beautiful can last forever."
But swordfighting is not something that is easy on a body with a mind as distractible as mine. Atar has made tough leather armor for Nelyo and me, and we do not use sharpened blades, but at times, the tip of his sword has caught my arm and opened my flesh with sickening ease. Nelyo is expert with a blade; the sword in his hand might as well be an extension of his arm; many times I would have sworn that he would have beaten Atar, but always, he ends on his back with Atar's knee on his chest and sword at his throat.
Tyelkormo, Carnistir, and Findekáno are still learning with wooden practice swords. Atar and Nelyo instruct them while I sit to the side, laying out the leather armor we will don once the little ones have returned to the house to do their afternoon chores. Tyelkormo is excellent—not surprisingly—and fearlessly athletic, bouncing from trees and rolling across the ground to assault Nelyo at new angles. Carnistir—even at the tender age of four—also shows promise and fights like a whirlwind, descending mercilessly on his opponent, bludgeoning Atar's sword aside with relentless tenacity. Findekáno had begun with the rudimentary attacks and defenses, but now, Nelyo is working to "open his style," he says, and I can see that one day he too shall easily beat me.
I lean back in the grass and listen to the bold ringing of wood against wood and try to imagine the steps that connect each sound to the next. I see each of my brothers as they are: Nelyo's tall grace, Tyelkormo's tireless athleticism, Carnistir's flurried mettle. Findekáno I see with his arms close to his body—timid and reserved—now and again drawn into greatness, stretching and blocking in such a way that he might have been Nelyo in his youth. And Atar, of course, duels in such a way that it is hard to detect where one movement becomes another; everything seems to be a component of a single fluid motion, like leaping tongues of flame.
Their clothes whisper against their bodies, accenting the gentle soughing of the wind, and every now and then, someone yells or laughs, until all the sounds merge into a churning rhythm, and I hum a wordless melody that snakes between the beats of sound like rivulets curling between islands in a delta.
Nelyo stands over me. His feet are slightly spread; his skin is colored by a healthy flush but he has not yet exerted himself into a sweat. I realize that the little ones' voices have receded; Atar is standing in the clearing, watching me from the side of his eye with his steel sword tucked under his arm.
All of the music is gone from my mind, gone into dreams where I can find it later and put it into sounds that will quiver in the air and draw lines connecting my thoughts to those of my family. I sigh and sit up; Nelyo laughs and crouches beside me to pick bits of grass from my hair, and in the clearing, I see Atar smile too.
"Sorry," I say, and Nelyo helps me to my feet.
We dress in light leather armor over our clothes: bracers on our wrists; leather vests that we tie up each others' backs; thin, supple fingerless gloves that keep our hands from blistering. Except for bracers to support his wrists, Atar uses no armor: His hands are callused against any damage the hilt of a sword could cause and neither of us have ever overcome his defenses to even come close to his chest. Nelyo and I begin with slow swordplay that gradually increase in complexity—Nelyo's doing, not mine—and Atar gives us instructions as we work. "Don't watch your hand, Macalaurë," he says, which is hard for me to do after he caught me last time across the backs of my fingers with his blade. "Nelyo, move your feet. You're getting lazy," which I don't appreciate because the complexity increases faster than I can handle, and within thirty seconds, Nelyo has slipped past my parries and taps the point of his sword into the armor on the left side of my chest, a move that would have disqualified him in one of Grandfather Finwë's sterile tournaments but wins Atar's acclaim. "A wound to the heart," Atar says. "You're dead, Macalaurë."
Dying doesn't mean a reprieve, it means I have to fight Atar next, and he is not nearly as gentle as Nelyo. I can barely block all of his thrusts, much less return with any of my own, and not a minute passes before he lunges forward, catches the back of my leg with his boot, and flips me facedown on the ground. He kicks me lightly on the backside and pokes his sword into my lower back. "Kidney wound; non-fatal, but you'll be peeing blood for a month." That's Atar's idea of kindness.
I am winded already, and my sore shoulder has begun low, protesting throbs, and I am glad to lean against a tree while Atar explains about offensive tactics. Nelyo has color in his cheeks and he nods eagerly, understanding all this jibber-jabber about slipping beneath defenses and outsmarting one's opponent. Next, Nelyo and I spar with two-handed swords so heavy that my arms ache, then switch our swords to our left hands—which we both hate—and finished fighting with swords in both hands, which isn't as bad because we can use mainly our right hands until Atar catches on and has us toss the right-hand sword away and fight with our left again.
"Very well done, Nelyo, Macalaurë," he says when I have lost again for the fifth time. "We're going to try something new now." From a pocket in his trousers, he withdraws a strip of dark silk. "Part of defending against your opponent is being able to use all of your senses to predict his next action. Nelyo, you'll be first."
Atar ties the cloth around my brother's eyes. "I'm going to spar lightly with you," he explains, "and when you are comfortable, I'll start moving faster. Listen to my body in space. Sense where I am going before I get there. My father will tell you, were you to ask, that one of the greatest Noldorin warriors was captured by the Black Foe and managed to escape, but not before they blinded him. He was the only warrior who ever defeated my father in a sparring exercise, and this he did without ever having seen his face."
True to his word, Atar begins lightly, and my graceful brother is reduced to jerky, waving blocks that find success at random. When Nelyo settles into a rhythm, Atar begins to move faster until Nelyo, always the achiever, thrusts his sword toward Atar's chest. Atar leaps away and brings his sword against the back of Nelyo's neck. "Decapitated. Death. Instantly."
Nelyo takes the silk from his eyes and hands it back to Atar. "You can do better, Nelyo," Atar says. "Macalaurë?"
The silk is still warm from my brother's skin when Atar pulls it across my eyes, leaving me in darkness. "Ready, Macalaurë?" he asks, and although I am not, I nod. "Begin."
At first, I try to have my sword in as many places in as short a time as possible, but then I realize something: I can hear Atar's body moving in the space in front of me; I can hear the air parting and falling back into place to make room for him; I can hear his feet against the ground. His tunic rustles against his arm; the leather of his bracers creak softly. His sword cuts a whispering swatch through the air, and mine leaps up to meet it. We spar harder and faster, and every time his sword dives for my flesh, mine is there to meet it. He jumps behind me; I hear his feet leave the earth; I hear his body swish softly through the air beside me, and I turn before he lands, and we fight now facing the opposite direction but I defend as easily as if I had never been forced to turn at all.
It is with desperate strength alone that he defeats me, shoving my sword aside to find my throat. Cold steel kisses my hot skin, and I gasp.
He draws the silk from my eyes. I see Nelyo behind him, his eyes wide with incredulity. Atar is smiling. "You're dead," he says. "But that, Macalaurë, was the best fight you've ever given me." He drops his sword at my feet, an act of deference I have only seen him give Nelyo on the few occasions where Nelyo has nearly defeated him, and kisses my forehead.
We were in Tirion once during the sword-fighting tournament that Grandfather Finwë holds in the palace square. Uncle Nolofinwë had called Atar to counsel and, since Amil wanted to commission a new pair of workboots, the whole family went and stayed for a few days with Grandfather Finwë in the palace.
Tyelkormo wanted to see the tournament and begged Atar for days to be allowed to go. Carnistir was only a few months old, and Amil was weary with caring for him and so turned to Atar with pleading eyes. "Make your son happy?" So Atar went.
Lord Laiquiwë of the House of the Silver Orchard competed that year and won. For as long as I can remember, there has been cordial animosity between many of the lords and my father, and Laiquiwë was particularly disliked. He had been born ten years before Atar, but Atar had been a precocious child, and their fathers had them study together for much of their childhoods. Like Atar, Laiquiwë studied the lore of nature; his particular love was horticulture, which Atar found boring but at which he still excelled. Grandfather Finwë once offered Atar a post as the chief caretaker of his gardens, and Atar declined but turned to Laiquiwë and offered him the place instead. So Laiquiwë became a lord of his own house and was forever indebted to my father. His favorite activity, whenever we attended suppers at his house, was to comment on the rarity of Nelyo's red hair. "A red-haired son, Fëanáro," he would often say. "Who would have thought that the weak red factors of your wife's hair would utterly overcome the strong black factors in your own?" Atar would always fume upon returning home that night. "What is he implying? That I am somehow not Nelyo's father?" and Amil would shush him and cuddle him until he stopped shouting. "Don't be silly, love," she would say. "Anyone looking into Nelyo's face cannot doubt that you are his father."
After his easy triumph, Laiquiwë stood in the center of the courtyard, victorious, wooden sword in hand, and turned in circles and smiled at the crowd. When his eyes found Atar, his grin widened. "Our own Prince Fëanáro from the lands outside Tirion has decided to join us this day!" he crowed. "Why are you not competing, fair Prince?"
Atar grumbled something dismissive and a little obscene that made half of the people around us chuckle and half of them gasp.
"Perhaps you fear that I'd give you too much of a challenge?"
"Challenge me then, if you find it a laughable thought that the King's champion could defeat an unproven prince!"
He did not stay unproven for long. The fight was intense—the swords moving so fast that they were a blur and the sound of wood meeting wood was a rattle—but over in less than a minute, when Atar knocked the sword from Laiquiwë's hand. Laiquiwë stepped back, conceding defeat, but Atar followed through anyway and swung his sword hard enough into Laiquiwë's throat to leave a bruise. With that move, he also disqualified himself as the champion, and once more, Laiquiwë had his pride handed to him by my father.
We had three days left to stay in Tirion after that, and the lords of the Noldor took to following Atar around and begging him to compete the following year. "Imagine the pride to have one of our own Royal House win!" they said. "Imagine that one unproven bested the champion! We had thought that impossible!"
"Nothing undone is impossible," Atar told them, gathering Tyelkormo in his arms and flitting away to pester the cobbler about Amil's boots so that we could leave early.
Playlist Navigation Bar