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Another Man's Cage: 18. Chapter Eighteen--Macalaure
We return to the house after two hours of swordfighting, sticky beneath our armor. Atar had stopped in the forge to check the progress of his apprentices, so Nelyo and I continue alone. Nelyo peels away his clothes as we walk, until he is wearing only breeches—unlaced—over his underwear. His shoulders and chest are slick with sweat, and auburn tendrils of hair stick to his neck like leeches. I am getting hungry and my shoulder has begun to throb so hard that I can count my heartbeats by it. "Must you always be naked?" I ask Nelyo. "It is no wonder that you are always in trouble."
He stops and squints at the gate in front of the house, ignoring me. "Whose horse is that?"
While I also squint at the horse—a young, antsy bay tied to the gate—he shimmies out of his breeches.
"If we have guests, Nelyo, perhaps they do not wish to be greeted by you in your underwear."
"Ah, Macalaurë, it's not guests. I just recognized the colors on the horse. It's a messenger from Alqualondë."
I sigh. As though Atar didn't assign hours' worth of lessons yesterday—not to mention the ordeals of today—now I shall have lessons for my tutor in Alqualondë to do as well. Even worse, I cannot complain of it but to Nelyo, for if Atar overhears, then he will remind me that I was offered an apprenticeship with him instead, and he would have remained sensitive to the amounts of lore I was being made to study, seeing as how he is the one who makes me study it. That we live in the same house and he could therefore be sensitive to my music lessons from Alqualondë never occurs to him, and I do not press my relative fortune by mentioning it.
Atar and Amil had fought hard when I had been offered the apprenticeship a few years ago. My tutor is the finest musician in Aman, and he'd wanted me to live and study with him fulltime in his home. Atar had wanted me to complete a basic smith's apprenticeship first, claiming that I was too young to go to Alqualondë to live. (That he'd left home to study with Aulë when he was only twelve years old also never seems to occur to him either.) The ensuing battle had been terrible. There had only been three of us then, but we had been kept awake most of the night, as Amil screamed and Atar broke things and they both swore to leave the other and take me with them. I'd cried so hard—blaming myself for the family's shared misery—that I'd regurgitated hot bile that scalded my throat and Nelyo had sent Tyelkormo—the best of the three of us at sneaking around—to the filch the bottle of whiskey that Atar keeps in his office and made me drink of it until I'd fallen asleep.
The next morning, I had been told of their decision: that I was free to take the apprenticeship of my choosing but not to leave my father's home—a conundrum, I saw, a sly way of assuring that Atar would win the battle—but none of us anticipated my tutor suggesting studies by correspondence in its stead, until I'd be given permission to go to Alqualondë and study fulltime.
Nelyo and I go to our rooms to wash up and change our clothes. I tug a comb through my hair and splash most of the sweat from my face and chest and put on a clean tunic. Now, I am really hungry, and my stomach is rumbling ominously, like thunder. Nelyo and I meet again on the stairs—he is clean and vibrant and his hair hangs free and frames his face like an auburn curtain—and from the dining room, we can hear the sound of plates being set and Amil's voice curling up the stairs.
"I wish you would stay and dine with us, for my husband should like to know the news of Alqualondë."
Atar will want to know the news less than she or Nelyo. "It would be an honor, my Lady," I hear the messenger say, and his Telerin accent reminds me of the first birdsong in the morning, "to dine at the table of the high prince of the Noldor."
Nelyo and I enter the dining room. The stone dust across the front of Amil's tunic and the way that her hair is tied in a knot behind her neck make clear that she was interrupted at her work. There is a pile of letters in the middle of the table; I recognize my tutor's seal among several others that I do not know. The messenger has the silvery-dark hair of the Teleri and bright gray eyes. He smiles at us at our entrance.
"May I present to you my sons? Nelyafinwë Maitimo—my eldest—and his brother Canafinwë Macalaurë," Amil says.
"Begging your pardon, my Lady, but Macalaurë needs no introduction. My master speaks of little else in Alqualondë." He stands and catches me in a hug that gives me a start. "Brother in song, it is good to meet you at last!"
Nelyo would return the embrace and probably take the boy's hands and lead him to a sitting room to discuss mutual acquaintances and their shared profession, but I am not Nelyo, and I barely manage, "You are a student of the school too then?"
"Yes. He sent me on this errand to bring you your next month's assignments. He played for us your spring composition on the harp. Magnificent."
I feel myself blushing. Nelyo is giving me sidelong glances, his lips tight with suppressed laughter. I glare at him as Amil leads the messenger and me to the sitting room to discuss music, and he laughs silently, although his face falls straight when she calls to him, "You shall finish preparing supper by yourself then, Nelyo, dear?"
No Noldo has ever been apprenticed to one of the Telerin music schools. When I had gone to the audition, I had been the only dark head in a sea of silver. For a Noldo, I am neither tall nor particularly strong, but I felt massive and cumbersome among the tiny Telerin folk, and my Noldorin accent sounded heavy beneath their lilting song of speech.
When the invitation came to audition, no one in my family thought much of it. Noldorin boys didn't go to Telerin music schools. Everyone pretended to be proud, but really, we all thought it was something set up by my Aunt Eärwen after the schoolmaster heard me sing at her and Uncle Arafinwë's wedding feast. He had praised my voice then and my skill with the harp—which I had been taught at a young age by Atar and had continued to study on my own since—but I figured it to be the dutiful praise expected by royalty and nothing more.
But then the invitation came. I too figured it to be one of Eärwen's devices. She was, after all, an old friend of Atar's and always trying to please him by pleasing us, his sons. But a kernel of hope formed deep inside me, beyond the places that I will acknowledge even to Nelyo, and I dreamt at night of being selected and praised beyond even the innately talented Telerin children who would audition.
Amil and Atar refused to allow me to go to Alqualondë alone, which was well because I likely wouldn't have gone at all but veered from the road and camped in the forest until it didn't look suspicious to return home. I would have pretended not to have passed the audition, and no one would have been surprised. That way, I wouldn't have to be turned away in the end, and I could nurture that little dream-kernel inside of me and imagine that I might, in fact, have made it, had I stayed true to the road. Atar, at first, wanted to go, but I evaded his presence with the excuse of his having to teach his apprentices and Tyelkormo. Stay home, I told him, for you are too busy to bother with Telerin music schools. I didn't want to face his righteous disbelief when my name was not called at the end of the audition.
Amil offered next, but Tyelkormo was still little, and I told her that her place was with him. I didn't want her patronizing sympathy when my name wasn't called at the end of the audition either.
It was Nelyo that I took. It was a four-day ride to Alqualondë, and we laughed for the duration of it, and I was smiling upon arrival at the music school. Nelyo's presence I could bear because, when my name wasn't called at the end of the audition, I knew he'd take me in his arms and say nothing.
Even though I spoke of it not, my brother discerned that dream-kernel within me, and he alone knew the hope I held for this audition. Before I played, he said nothing but kissed my forehead and went to sit in the front row—a giant among the wisps of Teleri—with his eyes closed and hands clasped, in reverence of my music.
When it came time to call the names, I slipped my hand beneath his cloak and found his hand. He squeezed my fingers tight in the secret dark, as the first name was called, "Canafinwë Macalaurë, of the House of Fëanáro."
And I became the first Noldo to attend a Telerin music school.
The night upon our return, my parents fought. The next night, a messenger was sent to Alqualondë, and I became not only the first Noldo to attend a Telerin music school but also the first to do so largely by post.
Nelyo and I will go to Alqualondë for a month in the winter. Nelyo will study and then go to Taniquetil, to the libraries of Manwë, with the hopes of taking his loremaster's examinations in letters and history, as last winter, he'd had his name noted as a master in the lore of metals. At the same time, I will complete my practical lessons in dizzyingly long twelve-hour days in preparation for my first public recital. For now, however, I am busy with the new language of theory and composition, and such is the material that I send monthly to Alqualondë.
Amil has built a roaring fire in the sitting room, and as the messenger speaks of the other students and of the performances done in the city squares, a visceral giddiness makes me long for the ending of summer and then autumn, for the passing of my begetting day and the Winter Feast, so that Nelyo and I may journey to Alqualondë.
When supper is finished, the messenger bids farewell and I excuse myself to my bedroom.
The letter-packet is huge—wrapped in thin, brown parchment—and I sigh. "Canafinwë Macalaurë of the House of Fëanáro, Formenos," it reads, in looping blue script. It is sealed with my tutor's blue and green wax seal.
I sigh again and open the parchment. Inside are stacks of documents: copies of notes from the school's library, compositions to master for practical lessons this winter, and of course, page after page of assignments. I sit on my bed and take out the first assignment, a simple review of theory concepts from the last month, pick up a quill from my bedside table and begin working. Tomorrow, Atar has already promised a full morning of lore for Nelyo and me, and afternoons on the fourth day of the week are reserved for washing, so I figure on finishing as much of my music lessons as I can now. The light outside the window is deepening into silver, and my mind is beginning to come alive.
There is a light tapping on the door.
"Enter," I call, without looking up, figuring that it is Atar bringing my little brothers, fresh from their baths, to kiss me goodnight.
But it is Nelyo. "I won't stay long," he says upon seeing me busy at my work, but I beckon him over and say, "Nonsense. After all the nights I have kept you from your tasks?"
He laughs. "How true." He holds out a thin letter in my direction. "This is yours. It got mixed in with Atar's and Amil's messages."
"By the water of Ulmo, more assignm—" I start to say but stop when I see the handwriting on the envelope, which does not belong to my tutor or anyone I know. The letters are round and careful. "Macalaurë," it reads simply, "House of Fëanáro, Formenos." I turn it over to look at the seal and my heart gives a nervous squeeze. "Oh my," I gasp, and Nelyo laughs.
"I thought you might react as such. You must have done something right in the forest that night to have a maiden write first to you."
In all honesty, Vingarië and my single night in her company at the midnight feast has been something I wish to push from my thoughts. I am too busy in Formenos to have the luxury of lying around, dreaming of a maiden who might or might not still be interested in me at our return in autumn. I have meant to write to her—Atar is sending our first messenger next week to Tirion—but have found other ways to fill my time instead. Writing to her, I know, will give her a place in my mind where she cannot be ignored. I envision myself, watching the horizon day after day, awaiting the silhouette of a messenger against the light from the south. I imagine longing coloring all my songs for the rest of the summer, making my sorrows known to all. I imagine the weeks passing with no response and being left to return home under the assumption that she has found another or that, perhaps, she had succumbed to the foolish abandon caused by wine when she tolerated my kisses.
Nelyo turns to leave, but I seize his sleeve and hold him back. "No. Stay," I beg.
"Why, Macalaurë? Would you not want to be alone to read what she writes you?"
"No. What if she writes and tells me it was all a mistake?"
Nelyo turns and gives me a sad smile. "They don't write you for that, Macalaurë. For that, you would hear naught until autumn." But he clears aside my papers and sits at the bottom of my bed while I read.
I am defying the counsel of my mother and my older girl-cousins in writing to you, but I don't care. They all say that it is proper for you to write me first. I've never been to Formenos, so I'm not sure how long it takes to get there, but I should imagine that you've arrived by now and settled. My brothers tell me that your father keeps you and your brothers very busy, so I thought I should write first and let you know that I understand if you can't find the time to write me back.
I hope your passage went well. I've traveled plenty between Tirion and Alqualondë, but I've never been on a long journey nor have I been to the wildlands beyond Valinor. To think that you have done both, many, many times! I would love to hear upon your return the tales that you must certainly be able to tell after so many journeys to distant places.
I suppose I shouldn't tell you this either, but I think about you a lot since the night in the forest. I want you to know that I didn't regret at all kissing you on the first night we met. I also want you to know that I don't usually do that, but it seemed right with you at the time. I cannot believe that I am writing these things to you, but the messenger is getting ready to leave the music school in an hour, so I cannot tear this up and start again, for I have not the time. My brothers told my parents that I fancied you, and Atar was impressed that I won the affections of a Noldorin prince, but I can honestly say that I was beside you the whole night and it never once occurred to me that you are King Finwë's grandson. I don't mean this offensively but just that you are a very comfortable person to be around. Atar said also that he knows your brother Nelyafinwë from King Finwë's court and that he is very gracious and wise despite his youth. He looks forward to meeting you too.
I am not trying to scare you by making you think that you must meet my father! I should not have written that, but I cannot unwrite the ink on the page, so I shall have to clarify that my family does not mind that I fancy a Noldo, even though they have always thought that I would marry a Teler. I should not have written that either! I am not trying to imply that we are betrothed or should even consider betrothal or even courting for that matter, but just that I fancy you, even though I always assumed I would fall in love with a musician and I assumed that meant a Teler, not a Noldo. But I am fine with falling in love with a Noldo too.
I should stop writing. I should never try to write a letter in just a few minutes because I write silly things that I know I am going to regret the moment I hear the messenger pass the gate. But I shall post this to you anyway, quickly, before I change my mind.
Affectionately yours, Vingarië.
I look up and Nelyo, at the bottom of my bed, is watching me with his face pinched with concern, despite his assurances that bad news does not come by post. Many emotions are churning inside of me, not least of all confusion and longing, but happiness swells beneath all of them and knocks them aside, and my head rolls back and I laugh with abandon. The worry is ironed from Nelyo's face as he, too, joins me in joyful laughter.
My dearest Vingarië,
I just got your letter tonight, and I'm answering it straightaway instead of doing my lessons, although Atar isn't sending a messenger until next week. Firstly, do not regret what you wrote to me! Your words made my heart sing, for I was making myself miserable, trying to forget you, for I could not imagine that you would wish to continue seeing me upon my return in autumn.
I myself am not as happy in Formenos as are my parents and my brothers. I miss my family, especially my Grandfather Finwë and Uncle Arafinwë, and I miss being able to go monthly or so to the music school to perform my compositions for my tutor. At this rate, I will have forgotten all that I have written! Also, I have a new grievance in that I have found affections for you, and you are in Tirion or Alqualondë whereas I am many leagues to the north in Formenos.
I also do not regret the affections we shared at the feast, although it is also unlike me. If I may be as honest as you, I had never even kissed a maiden before I kissed you. I hope that wasn't too obvious. I appreciate that you took the initiative to write to me first. If you do decide to continue our relationship upon my return, I wish that you would remain similarly forthright because I am very nervous when it comes to matters of the heart. My brother Nelyafinwë (we call him Maitimo, by the way, which is his mother-name) whom you called gracious seems to have gotten my share of courage when it comes to love, for he has courted many times and even once asked a maiden to marry him. (They melted their rings.) It would have been safer and better probably for you to fancy him—he is also a lot better looking than me and probably better at kissing too—but I am glad that you chose me instead.
I have a song in my mind right now that I would like to play for my recital this winter, but it has a flute part, and I was wondering: Would you honor me by accompanying me? I know this is really forthright to ask, given that I have just confessed to fancying you, but you are the only competent flutist that I know.
I want you to meet my family too. My father can be intimidating, but he is also very funny and kind when he wants to be and he knows the best jokes of anyone besides my Grandfather Mahtan. My mother is very sweet and generous. As for my brothers, you described Maitimo perfectly, but it will be many years before you meet him, until you are entirely sure that you are in love with me—maybe not even until we're married!—because maidens always look at him and forget all about me. I have two baby brothers, Tyelkormo and Carnistir, and they are both huge pains for the most part but can be cute enough when they want to be. I'm not very good with children. I always figured that I would have no children, but then again, I'm pretty sure my father said the same thing when he was young and you can see that he has four children already and he and my mother want more, as many as Eru will give them, so maybe I'll change too. Or maybe my next baby brother won't be so weird and annoying and will make me take a liking to children. But it doesn't seem likely; it seems more like we get stranger and stranger because Maitimo is just about perfect, I'm pretty normal but a little quirky, Tyelkormo is wholly annoying, and Carnistir is just about unbearable.
What about your brothers? Maitimo knows them and fancies them friends. He says that they're older than you. I'm sure they're probably protective of you too. I would like to meet them and your parents and hope that they find me respectable.
It is getting really late. Maitimo is staying in my room tonight, and he is asleep at the bottom of my bed and snoring, so I should probably wake him up and make him sleep normally; then, he'd probably stop making such a commotion. Also, I have lessons all morning tomorrow and washing to do in the afternoon, and if you have ever had to do the washing for two parents, three brothers, and little cousin—as well as yourself—then you would know how big of a job that can be, especially if your family is as good as getting their clothes dirty, as mine seems to be.
So good night or good day, whatever it is when you read this. I eagerly await your reply, and I will try to send you part of our song with my next letter so that you can practice.
I lie beside Nelyo in the deep silver of night, and I try all of the tricks that he has taught me to fall asleep. I count by multiples of three and four, up and back to three hundred; I try to figure out all of the prime numbers; I time my breathing and try to perfect the five-second inhales and exhales that make Nelyo sleep so soundly. I name as many of the Unbegotten as I can for our history lesson tomorrow, but get to number eighty-eight and can remember no more.
Murmurs of life disrupt the silence every now and then. I hear Amil and Atar come up to bed, tripping up the stairs—Atar is laughing, and Amil is shushing him through her own mirth—but their voices fade when their bedroom door clicks shut. Tyelkormo gets up and goes to the bathroom. Carnistir cries out, and I hear Atar's voice swinging like a pendulum across the length of the room as he paces and sings him back to sleep. The fire is still high and pops every now and then. Nelyo flops onto his back—his brow creased and his lips tight—and mumbles something incomprehensible in his sleep.
I poke myself in the lower belly. Sometimes, unless I have to go urgently, this is the only way I can tell if I have to go to the bathroom. There is a faint pressure beneath my fingers, and the fire has made the room warm enough to get out of bed, so I ease myself from the bed, step into my slippers, and enter the hallway.
The hall is chilly, and even through the fur lining on my slippers, I can feel the achingly cold stones beneath my feet. The cold at first intensifies my need to use the bathroom, but once I am standing there, I can only force out a few drops, not even enough to warrant emptying the toilet, and the cool air is unpleasant on my exposed skin. I pull my sleeping trousers firmly around my waist and tighten the drawstring until it bites against my middle.
I shuffle back to my bedroom and open the door but stop there, leaning against the doorframe. Whatever chimeras have disturbed Nelyo's dreams have passed, and he is lying again on his side, at the far right of my bed, wrapped in blankets to his ears. I contemplate the liquid comfort of satin sheets, warm beneath my blanket, tossing restlessly to the rhythm of the fire. Before I even realize I have made a decision, I am staring at my closed door, shivering slightly, in the chilly hallway.
I descend the steps, careful to be soundless. Amil and Atar had extinguished all of the fires downstairs upon retiring hours ago, and the silvery light through the windows ices the fixtures of the room but lends no warmth. In the sitting room, Atar has discarded a worn wine-red cloak made of wool across the back of a chair, and shivering, I pull it around my shoulders. My music room is at the corner of the house, a small, cozy room that looks back towards the forest through glass doors that open onto a stone patio where a fountain plays. Atar had built for me the fountain after learning that I am inspired by the laughter of water against stone; in the early days of summer, all ice has melted, even in Formenos, and the water bubbles merrily, and fingers of sound work their way into my brain, teasing awake the music sleeping within.
I light the small fireplace with a flint held in trembling hands. The wood is dry and catches fire quickly, but I do not even wait for the small room to heat before tossing away Atar's cloak and taking my harp into numb hands. My fingertips tingle as I apply them to the strings, playing simple scales to warm up my hands. The scales blend into chords; the chords break apart and wander where they will into the melody that has been teasing the dark depths of my brain since this morning. In my mind, I dance to the song of my own devising—with Vingarië snug in my arms, the length of my body against the length of hers—and also we play, the notes of my harp and her flute entwining in the air.
I do not know how long I play, but the silver light outside the glass doors mingles with a faint glow the color of golden mead, the beginnings of morning. Still, the fountain laughs and the fire mutters. The room is hot now, and I am damp with sweat beneath my woolen nightshirt; my eager fingers tremble now not with cold but with excitement, as I hasten to record the notes that I know I can never now forget but nonetheless want to see as black ink against virgin parchment.
I write until my hand is stiff and sore and the notes have poured across the parchment before me—many pages of it—and my head suddenly aches with exhaustion. I fall onto the old sofa at the back of the music room and ball Atar's cloak beneath my head as a pillow. Gravity pulls sleep into my eyes with the weight of a brick of blackened iron.
Hunger awakens me.
My stomach feels like it has grown so empty and shriveled that it has begun to consume itself. Perhaps it knows when my eyes open because it gives a loud, protesting growl like a neglected animal. I had pressed my face into the sofa cushions in my sleep, so I cup my sore, hungry belly and roll over to face the windows.
Golden light floods the floor, and I leap to my feet. It is nearly afternoon, and I was expected in the library for my lessons with Atar three hours ago! The room is in shambles—hastily scrawled parchment covers the floor; my harp leans against a bookshelf; I must have kicked my slippers across the room during the night. With the fire and my woolen nightclothes and Laurelin's warmth, the room shimmers with heat. The untended fire has spilled ash across the hearth, but I have no time to straighten any of it, and without even taking the time to put on my slippers, I douse the fire and run to the library in my nightclothes.
Nelyo and Atar look up when I bang through the door, and Nelyo stops in the middle of reciting the address that Oromë gave the Unbegotten Elves upon their first meeting at Cuiviénen, but it is Atar to whom I look first, reading his bright eyes as I might a piece of puzzling literature written in another language. Is he terribly angry? It is hard to tell, just as it is hard to tell the kind of tree from which a log came once it is consumed in flame. He is unusually meticulous, and upon noting this odd detail, I grow nervous. He black hair is swept neatly out of his eyes and braided; his face is marred by neither dust nor soot; his clothes are pressed and correctly fastened in all the right places; his sleeves are not shoved up above his elbows. His jaw is set and his eyebrow twitches upon my entrance, but he does not speak. Nelyo's gaze has fallen to study a closed book on the tabletop.
"Atar, I'm sorry!" I burst out before he can speak first. "I fell asleep in my music room, and I didn't—"
He holds up a hand that bears no jewelry but a thin, gold marriage ring and my teeth click together with a force that hurts my jaw. "Speak not, Macalaurë," he says. "Sit. You will get done what you will before the midday meal, then you will wash and dress for your chores this afternoon."
His voice is smooth and soft, and I stand for a minute in confusion, wondering if this is some kind of trick, if my due punishment is forthcoming in some awful and creative way that I cannot fathom. "Do you defy me?" he asks after I have stood there for a few long seconds, and I shake my head and take my seat beside Nelyo, feeling ridiculous in my nightclothes and dirtied by the sweat now dried cold on my skin and sour with the smell of fear.
"Nelyo?" Atar says. "Please continue."
Nelyo faultlessly continues Oromë's address at the precise word where he'd left off upon my entrance, and I take up my lesson where I'd stopped last time, reading an account about the sundering of the Teleri from their Noldorin and Vanyarin kin. It is boring, but I force my mind to focus on the dry march of words across the page, fearful of awaking Atar's anger.
Nelyo finishes his recitation, and Atar launches into a series of questions. What did Oromë's speech mean to the Eldar? How did the Noldorin perception differ from that of the Vanyar? What would he hypothesize the Avarin perspective to be? Does he feel that the Valar have kept their promises to the Eldar? Nelyo answers with a brisk confidence that pleases Atar and they drift into a casual conversation that I envy. The only conversations Atar and I have of late revolve around my lessons, what I should be learning and what I am doing wrong. I try to read extra-fast in hopes of impressing him with my diligence, but the words slip through my brain like water through loose fingers, leaving only a damp residue of meaning behind. Nelyo and Atar's conversation drifts onto a project they have been doing together, and Nelyo begins eagerly telling him of a trial substance that he has made that seems to have the hardness of diamond without the brittleness, derived from some experiments Atar had done last year. "I made a piece day-before-last," he says. "Its properties are excellent, but the color leaves room for desire. It is the ugliest white shade, like dirty milk."
"I'd like to see it, anyway, if you don't mind," Atar says, and Nelyo stands to retrieve it from his room.
Atar picks up the history book, turns to a page at random, and begins reading.
I'd stood once at the edge of the sea, here in the north, with the same feeling as I have now. The water had lapped my toes, and it had been like ice; I had been filled with cold fear at the thought of stepping forward into the waves. The cold wouldn't kill me, but it would hurt, I'd known, until I became accustomed to the agony. That is how I feel now, with Atar across from me, trying to decide if I should say anything about my lateness.
I take a deep breath. "Atar, I didn't mean to be late."
It was less spoken than whispered. Atar looks up from the book and places his fingers against my lips. "Hush, Macalaurë."
"You are not angry?" I whisper.
His finger is still against my lips. He smiles. "Feeling defiant today, are we?"
"Atar, I just don't see how you could forgive me for being three hours late, then arriving in my nightclothes and barefoot—"
He pushes back his chair with a rude squawk against the stone floor that makes me cringe. He walks around the table and, taking my hand in both of his, kneels beside my chair. It feels strange to be looking down on him, to see his bright eyes tipped upward to meet mine. I am conscious as always of the way his hands warm mine, flesh that never feels cold until it knows his touch.
"Am I that awful to you, Macalaurë?"
I have seen him pick fights with grandfather Finwë and with Amil, and always, he opens with dangerous rhetorical stabs such as this. Do I disappoint you that much as a son? Is marriage with me so completely unbearable? Once, a few weeks after Carnistir was born, when both he and Amil had been edgy with exhaustion, she had been cold and distant during supper—barely picking at that which he had worked all afternoon to make for us—and he had asked her, "Are you that unhappy living with us, Nerdanel?" and she'd stood up, thrown her napkin at him, and had run from the room. We could hear her crying as she'd pounded down the hall and up the stairs, and my brothers and I had sat is silence, our appetites destroyed, until Atar shouted at us, "I worked all afternoon so that the three of you can sit there like a bunch of ungrateful slobs?" and pushed back his chair so hard that it had fallen over, as he stood to go after Amil.
I wonder: Was this one of those questions now? Would he attack my answer like he had attacked Amil that day, as she'd sought refuge in their bedroom, and they'd screamed at each other for hours, until we'd heard her beg in a voice devoid of all strength, "Please, Fëanáro, leave me…."
"N-no, Atar," I stammer. "But I—"
"Do you think that I was never thirty-nine years old and wearied by all of the lore and lessons I was being made to learn?"
Could I think that? My father who drank of knowledge with the relish of sipping a fine wine? He must see my answer in my eyes—although I dread giving voice to it—because the hard fire in his eyes dims and softens, and his hands tighten on mine. "Being the eldest son of the King is a gift and a curse, Macalaurë. My father always expected that I would follow him to the court, that I would lead our people as he had so proudly done. But my heart lay in other places." His eyes become distant, as though he is looking back at that time, at the tiny image of an unsatisfied youth, a single memory among many more overwhelming in their importance.
"But Grandfather was still proud of you, Atar."
"Of course he was. And do you not think that I am proud of you?"
Breath sucks into my chest with surprise. "But my brothers…Nelyo with his lore and Tyelkormo is excellent at the lessons in sport…even little Carnistir makes you prouder than I do."
"You tell me that the sound of water inspires you, so I build you a fountain. You receive an invitation to an audition and the desire in your eyes takes my breath, so I send you to Alqualondë. I was given a baby son with a voice greater than that of the Valar, so I put a harp in his hands. Do you think I am not proud of you, Macalaurë?" His hand rises to the star at my throat. "The opal you wear was gifted to me by Aulë when I finished my apprenticeship with him and passed my master's examinations. Opals of this brilliance are found only in the Outer Lands; he made none for us in Valinor, and this is the only one of its kind to exist in our land. Likewise, the metal setting, if you'll notice, is not silver. It is brighter and stronger than even the finest silver, for it is mithril, and it too comes only from the Outer Lands. A piece of it Aulë gave me, and with it, I made two things: the pendant which you now wear and your mother's betrothal ring."
"But Atar," I say, "I never saw you wear this."
He smiles weakly. "Treasures can make us into fools, Macalaurë. Rather would I have kept it hidden and safe than chance that it should become lost or broken from being worn. But to you I gifted it without qualm, for your treasures you share freely with all. Never has one asked you for a song and had you decline. Your music puts joy into hearts that have known only sorrow.
"Your baby brother was tormented by nightmares last night, and thrice he awakened and I walked with him, trying to soothe fears more powerful even than the love with which I comfort him. As I walked the third time, and he wept against my shoulder, I heard the faint sound of music. He heard it too, and he stopped crying to listen, and within only three bars, his fear was gone. It was the most beautiful song I'd ever heard.
"You know, Macalaurë, that I doubt all but that which I can see and touch, that which makes itself known to my mind and senses, yet each night, before I fall asleep, I speak aloud the names of my four sons and send them to Eru, for if Eru does care for our people as we are told by the Valar, then these are the names I wish him to remember first when deciding who in this world is most worthy of his unquestioning love."
My eyes sting, and only when Atar raises his fingertips to my cheek do I realize that I am crying.
"Do not cry, Macalaurë, my love. It is I who should be grieved, for if you did not know the love I have for you, then that is my failing alone and none of yours." With his thumbs, he gently closes my eyes and kisses the tears from my lashes, and the burning behind my eyelids and the tight soreness in my throat fade as nightmares upon the first light of morning.
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