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Another Man's Cage: 22. Chapter Twenty-Two--Maitimo
Atar and I are banned from the room while Nimelië examines the burn on Annawendë's leg, and the sudden inactivity is enough to drive me mad. For the last few hours, my worries have been kept at bay through the power of distraction, by first retrieving the supplies Amil shouted at me, then riding hard to Formenos to retrieve Nimelië—when it became clear that Annawendë's injuries were beyond Atar and Amil's skill—then the ride home with Nimelië on the back of my horse, shouting questions in my ear about Annawendë's condition—all of those things kept the nagging voices in my head at the level of a tolerable buzz. But now, with the heavy door shut firmly between us, dulling the sound of Nimelië's voice to incomprehensible rumbles, I am left alone with my thoughts, and I pace the hallway, twisting my hands against each other, listening for any sound or clue beyond the closed door.
"Maitimo," says Atar. "Nelyo. Please, sit down."
His face is creased with worry, but he sits on the floor across from the door, his hands hanging clenched between his bent knees.
"I cannot, Atar," I mutter, running my hands through my hair, tangled from the hard ride to and from Formenos. "I feel that I will go mad if I try to sit still."
"You will not go mad," he tells me. "But you are wearing a trench into my floor, and after I just had your brother polish it too." He is trying to make me laugh, and I force my lips to twitch into a smile to please him, but he is not fooled. "Nelyo." He pats the floor beside him. "Sit."
It is less a request than a command, so I make my legs lower my body to sit beside him. His arm circles my shoulders—and even though my heart is beating heavily in my chest and my muscles hum with tension—there is some vestigial sense of relief in the touch of a parent that I crave, and I am relieved to lean against him.
"Now Nelyo," he says, and he is tucking my hair behind my ears and working at the worst knots with quick, capable fingers, "you have two craftsmen for parents: surely you realize that no one can work in the forge without occasionally getting burned? It is a part of the profession."
"Yes, but she might be badly injured or scarred—"
"No. I have seen far worse." I am surprised by the gentleness of his hands; Tyelkormo always complains that Atar yanks his head when he detangles his hair. "I have had far worse. Our people heal quickly. Look at your brother: dislocating his shoulder and, scarcely a week later, riding about as though nothing even happened. And, believe me, Nimelië dispenses more tonics to erase scars here in Formenos than Varda has stars in the sky."
I look at Atar's hands, as alabaster and unscarred as fresh marble. Many times have his hands held mine; many times in my childhood did I hug his bare legs; many times, on journeys, have we bathed beside one another in the river, and never have I seen a scar on my father's body. I have seen his competent, slender hands slip while working; I have seen him mark his body with hot steel or the blade of a knife, but the marks linger for no longer than a few days before fading like snow with the winds of spring, as though the fire within him is no match for any fire that can be conjured in the world outside.
"I should hate to see the two of you when you are married," Atar teases, "when Annawendë goes into labor with your first child."
"Atar, you are ambitious. I haven't even asked for her hand in marriage, yet you already have us begetting your grandchildren!"
"Ambitious, some might say. Your mother might say that I am impatient. I think both might be a little true." His arm tightens around my shoulder, and I am relieved to press against him, as though fear is like water, and osmosis might pass it from me to him, who is much abler at managing such dark emotions.
It is not that I fear for the life of the woman I have just begun to love, nothing so drastic. The burn is on her leg, and although it is bad, it is not deep enough to threaten the major arteries. Even the pain I know she must feel is not at the root of my anxiety—for although it frustrates me to know that there is naught I can do to subdue her agony—she is tough and had forced a smile when I'd entered her chamber; her hands in mine had been firm and warm; there hadn't even been glimmers of tears in her eyes.
It's the scars.
In the animal world, our people have long been wise to the fact that offspring are occasionally born with deformities that set them apart from the rest of their kin. Once, while hunting with my grandfather, on one of the rare days when he had been able to remove himself from Tirion, he'd slain a deer not old enough or large enough to be considered proper game, and when I'd raised immediate protest, had led me to the corpse and showed me that the poor creature had three eyes: two normal eyes in the usual place at the sides of the head and a third, perverse orb—not fully formed—slightly off-center in its forehead. Its foreleg, too, was twisted and crippled, the bones warped like flimsy wood left in the rain. "It is a greater mercy that it died by the accuracy of my arrow," Grandfather Finwë had told me, "then by slow starvation when its poor leg finally broke." We had not taken the meat—as though the beast had been somehow poisoned by its deformity—but had set fire to the corpse while grandfather knelt in a prayer of apology to Yavanna.
Our people are blessed to arrive always in the world as we were intended, with all of our parts functional and in the right places. There are those of us gifted with greater or lesser beauty, but ugliness is never born among the Quendi, and grace comes easily even to the least fair among us.
When Macalaurë had been very young and I had first become stricken with an insatiable hunger for knowledge, we had figured out how to pick the lock to Atar's secret letters and books, those that Amil bade him to hide lest we find them and be afraid. Most numerous of the letters came from people who—like my grandfathers—had made the Great Journey to Valinor, and not a few among them discussed Orcs. Orcs were fictional beings, I'd thought, for that is what Atar called my brother and me when we frustrated him with sloppy or careless behavior. "What be you? An Orc?" he would ask when we left our room a mess or ate our food too fast or let gas escape in the presence of company. The word alone chilled my spirit: hard syllables never meant to be spoken by a voice as beautiful as our father's, like the dull sound of a hammer falling upon flesh. I imagined great, snorting pig-like beings that had abandoned all of the grace of our people for lascivious self-fulfillment.
But upon coaxing open the lock with one of Amil's hairpins, I sat on the floor of Atar's study, dimmed by the drapes we had drawn, with my heart hammering in my chest as I read accounts of people—friends, family even, of the writers—who had gone into the wilds and never come back. And the few times, later on the journey, that those people had been met again in the north, bearing unspeakable scars and mutilations, having been subjected to pain so intense that even their spirits were made twisted and hideous. Drawings too, there were, done by the journeyers and improved by my father, of grotesque beings that resembled Elves only in the rudimentary sense of having arms, legs, and versions of faces: teeth torn out and replaced my fangs made from shards of bone, skin burned until it healed black, bones broken until the body had no choice but to heal in a diminished state, twisted like the tehtar we placed above our letters. There were words too that I had never heard before, but whose sound alone made me nauseous: maiming, rape, torture. With trembling hands, we replaced the letter and the ledgers, and I made Macalaurë swear to tell no one of our trespass.
It was I who'd betrayed, when night after night, I awoke, screaming into my pillow, imagining dark hands closing upon me and dragging me to the secret places underground where Elves were made into Orcs. With the draperies drawn and our room dark, shadows became menaces that would draw blades and flame across my flesh; the tangled, sweat-soaked bedclothes became shackles to hold me to my fate. Macalaurë watched me from his bed across the room, his wide eyes like lamps in the silver darkness, until the screams stopped and he would run to me. Hand-in-cold-hand we went, night after night, to sleep in bed between our parents, until Atar became suspicious and sat us both in his lap—we were still so small that we could each occupy a leg, and looking up into his face was like staring into the face of a god—and asked us of what we dreamt that frightened us so. "I will not be angry," he told us, and it was I who betrayed the pact I'd made with my brother, as I wept and told him of our intrusion into his locked cabinet and our subsequent reading of Orcs.
True to his word, he was not angry, but Amil gave him a look of disgust and his face melted into apology like I had never before. Our fears he dismissed as a part of a past long lost for our people and said little more but tucked us both against him—strange, considering that Macalaurë usually slept with Amil while I slept with Atar—and Amil gave him a final sharp look before rolling to face away from us.
My father devotes his life to adding beauty to an already bountiful world, so his research on Orcs had puzzled me, for Orcs represent a perversion of beauty and goodness into evil. Amil, too, seemed confused by this bizarre fascination, although she'd said nothing. It wasn't until I was much older—only a few years younger than I am now and long permitted to read the materials in that locked cabinet—that I had gathered the courage to ask him why he collected such nauseating information.
"Your grandmother had a sister. Did I ever tell you that?" His gray eyes had been distant, looking over a faraway and long lost world.
"Grandmother Istarnië?" I'd asked, but he shook his head.
"Grandmother Míriel." My heart leapt, for Atar does not often speak of his dead mother. "She had a sister; both, of course, were born in the Outer Lands near the end of the Great Journey. She wasn't very old when she and her sister strayed too far from the group. She was saved, but her sister was taken."
My heart was beating, I could feel that, but it felt as though my blood was drained and cold water pushed through my veins. "What happened to her?" I asked in a voice that sounded like it might belong to someone else. The stories, the diagrams—I saw the many paintings and sculptures that Atar had made of his mother and tried to imagine knives and flame being taken to that flawless flesh and felt ill.
"No one knows that, Maitimo. No one but the servants of Melkor." That name he spit like a wad of phlegm. "So you have blood in Angband. I suppose you never reckoned that."
I never did. But Angband was an ocean away; Orcs were an ocean away. The stain of Melkor's evil, I thought, never touched Valinor, so I pushed such thoughts and fears into the same realm as I shoved the tales of wraiths and fell spirits that Macalaurë so liked to tell by the fire on a cold night. I detached the drawings and letters in my father's secret trove from the emotions I had felt upon first reading them. I even added my own thoughts to several of his writings. History was reduced to words on a page; the people who had endured such fear and torment were made into clusters of letters. There was no need to fear that which existed now only in ink. About the great battles of the Valar I read, yet I feared neither bow nor sword—and so it seemed rather ridiculous to fear orcs. Flame sketched upon a page does not burn and knives forged by pen alone have not the power to sever flesh.
As my interest in history and the lore of letters deepened, I begged my father to take me to meet Rúmil, he who created the first form of writing that Atar later improved as the Tengwar we use today. Atar went to visit him at least once annually, usually while we were in Formenos, for Rúmil lived a half-day's ride west of Formenos. "You were born with the blood of the he who improved such scripts, little one," he used to tease me when I was small and begged to go along. "Isn't that enough?"
Rúmil had been born beside Cuiviénen, one of the first children begotten of the Unbegotten, and my brain was filled with questions for him. It wasn't until I was older—after Atar told me the story of Míriel's lost sister—that he at last consented to have me along. "But I must first send message to Rúmil," he said, "and earn his approval."
Approve he did, and Atar and I set out before the Mingling of the Lights, riding hard west so that we might arrive before Laurelin waxed fully. Rúmil's cottage was a tiny, square building made of stone, leagues apart from any other people. He did not come out to greet us or take our horses, and Atar and I pastured them ourselves, while I watched Atar for clues as to whether he found this strange. As we left the pasture for the house, he seized my arm. "I should tell you that Rúmil is…not like us," and I'd grinned—knowing well the eccentricities of genius—and eagerly tugged his hand, "Come, Atar, you've made me wait long enough."
And so he followed my lead, and we went to the door, and he did not knock but pulled a string beside the door. Through a slit in the door, a note slid out. "Does he know?" it read, and Atar glanced at me—and I felt a tiny shiver of dread—then wrote beneath it, "No, but he is strong," and the door opened.
The walls were papered with parchments upon which were written the great speeches of the Valar and songs of old, some done in Rúmil's Sarati—fading, browned, and cracking at the edges—and the newer written in the Fëanorian Tengwar. The cottage was a single room, and it was lit only by the glow of flickering flames for all of the windows had been papered over by manuscripts, some of them curving in designs so intricate that it was hard to believe that the pictures—of Tirion, of Taniquetil, all of Valinor—were constructed of thousands of tiny letters. In the corner was an ascetic and uncomfortable-looking single bed; at the center of the room stood a wide worktable upon which a half-finished parchment rested and a handful of ragged quills. Rúmil stood behind the door, and as he closed it behind us, I saw that his unbraided hair was left to fall and hide his face, and ever he watched the floor. Into my hand, he slipped a note. "Welcome, Maitimo," it read. "Son of Fëanáro." His fingers pressing mine were cool, and when he stooped to kiss my hand, there was something odd about the feeling of his lips against my skin that made the hair on my arms stand on end.
Atar shoved another note into Rúmil's hand. "He is strong. Raise your face to us and see how beautiful is my son." Rúmil made a noise in his throat that sounded like an animal whimpering and brushed the hair away from his face.
"Your words did not do him justice," said the note that Rúmil passed to my father while I stared, my graceful manners forgotten as my heartbeat filled my ears with a dreadful roar. "It shall never be fair to call anything beautiful ever after, for when one as your son bears such a name, never again shall that claim be matched."
To me, he passed another note: "I can neither hear nor speak, but I welcome your questions, Maitimo, and if your curiosity is half that of your father, then we shall have many hours of pleasant discourse."
He wore heavy, dark clothes that covered all of his skin from throat to ankle, and leather boots covered his feet. The sleeves of his tunic reached nearly to his knuckles, and I could see why, for scars crossed his face and what I could see of his hands. But it was his mouth and the sides of his head that awakened in me the conflicting urges to both stare and turn away. His lips were soft and did not pucker outward but caved inward in the same way that cloth will bow loosely between two tent posts. Atar passed him a note that made him laugh—a sound like rocks rattling against each other—and when his mouth opened, I saw that he had neither teeth nor tongue. His hair hung flatly against the sides of his head—too flat, I observed—and when he turned to put on a pot of tea, I realized it was because his ears had been removed and the flesh beneath them gouged out, and stomach acid burned the back of my throat. He had a large stature, almost as tall as my father and broader in the shoulders, and the hands that lifted the iron teapot were strong and competent, but I knew I was looking upon the early stages of an Orc.
He and Atar wrote back and forth to each other all day—long into Telperion's hours—but I found little to say, my curiosity quashed. He offered us supper, but I found that I could not eat, for the realization that the horrors of Angband had been brought to Valinor.
We left too late to make it but halfway home before night fell completely. Normally, we would have ridden onward, but out of mercy to me, Atar suggested that we stop and sleep beneath the stars. It was a warm night for the north, and we built a fire only to heat up the stew that Atar had brought, although I only sipped mine and could barely swallow. Even the aroma of the wine he'd brought—one of my favorite vintages—smelled too sweet, like rotting flesh, and at last, I offered it to him, feeling shamed that it should be wasted: "I cannot taste this tonight."
I turned away to lie on my bedroll, away from the fire and away from Atar and the temptation that he presented, bidding me to ask what had happened to deform Rúmil so brutally. I heard the grass rustle as Atar followed me, and he held my head in his lap like he used to when I was little, and silent tears poured down my cheeks. "Maitimo," he said, holding my hands in his that are ever warm. "Maitimo, my love, I'm sorry. I should not have brought you."
"Atar—" My voice cracked and I couldn't finish, couldn't bear to satisfy the sick curiosity inside of me, feeling suddenly that this "research" with which I had been helping him satisfied the same primitive need as the scary stories that Macalaurë liked to invent and the bloody war games that Tyelkormo and Carnistir played—only this was sicker, for this was real. We sat in silence for a long time—hours passed, perhaps—and he stroked my hair while the fire died and his supper got cold. At last, I whispered, "Is it wrong?"
"Is it wrong to remember those we lost? No, I don't think so. We should never hide from reality, Nelyo, even when that reality is cruel."
"Rúmil was one of the first of our people born in Middle-earth," Atar began, twining my hair in his fingers as though about to plait it. His voice was soft, almost reverent, like it tended to be when he talked about his mother. "His parents were of the Unbegotten, and their joy of their young son was unbounded. He thrived in his youth and quickly became powerful, but his love was for song and music, for our people had just discovered how to craft simple instruments to accompany the singing they had always loved. Like your brother, he was a poet and a bard, and many of the old songs are of his devising. He was young when he fell in love, and not much older than you when he wed a maiden early-born like him of Unbegotten parents.
"You know how Melkor ensnared our people, and Rúmil he got in a like fashion. He was one of the strongest of the people by Cuiviénen, so he did not heed the warnings not to walk or hunt alone. He was captured by the Shadow less than a league from the lake, so close that he could hear his young wife singing by the waters.
"He was taken to Angband and put among others of our people, Elves like him, like us, in various stages of torment. These people's bodies had been marred, but their spirits and minds were not yet destroyed, and they took strength from Rúmil's voice. He sang out from his prison, and the servants of Melkor whipped him. Still, he sang out, and they broke his bones. Still, he did not stop singing, and the torments they placed upon his flesh exceed that which I wish to put into words, but amid his tears and screams, he sang still, and the other prisoners hearkened, and hope flowered in the darkest and least likely of places, and the work of Melkor was stalled for a time.
"Melkor grew to hate the voice of Rúmil, for hope sprang in its wake, and Melkor sought to end his song. He had his servants cut from Rúmil his ears and deafen him, but his song was in his spirit—a place deeper than his ears reached—and he sang still. Melkor next had cut from him his tongue, but although words are in the tongue, the voice is not, and his song—though now wordless—continued. It was his final act that robbed Rúmil of his voice, for Melkor poured acid into his throat, and though his spirit sang evermore, never again would it reach the ears of his brethren, and hope died in the dungeons beneath Angband.
"When the Valar laid siege to Angband during the War of Wrath, Rúmil was one of the few Elves who survived the attack. So mauled was he that at first they thought him an Orc, and Tulkas raised his hand to smite him, but the song in his spirit kindled the hearts of the Valar and they knew him unchanged in spirit. He was led from Angband and given a special place at the feet of the Valar, but when our people arrived in Aman, they were not always kind to him, and sight of his face filled them with fear and recalled to them the life they had left behind. He was grieved that he should cause distress to so many. It was of his own volition that he exiled himself to a place where no one else cared to live, away from eyes that might be offended by the damage that had been done to him, and in this solitary existence, he first conceived the Sarati, by which even the voiceless could speak."
I did not sleep that night but lay with my head in his lap while he twined my hair, until Laurelin gilded the horizon and we rode the remaining short distance home.
Rúmil has haunted my thoughts ever since. No longer could I stomach my study of Orcs, and if Atar continues it to this day, I do not know. But the atrocity of Rúmil flees my mind now and is overtaken by a single thought, voiced by Atar that night: "Our people were not always kind to him."
And Annawendë, her beautiful body marred: I wonder if I will be tempted to forsake her.
As though he reads my thoughts, Atar leans over and whispers in my ear, as he had that night beneath the stars, years ago: "Fear not, little one. Fear not."
The minutes pass like syrup oozing from a spoon, but finally, the door opens and Nimelië steps into the hallway. She laughs as Atar and I turn our faces to her in twin images of eager nervousness. "To see you from afar, I would believe that I looked upon the mightiest of the Noldor," she says. "But all I see now are two children afraid of the monsters in the dark."
Atar stands and drags me to my feet before I can make a similar effort and stands, clutching my hand tightly at his side in both of his. "How is she?"
"Annawendë will be fine." She looks at me. "And you will be relieved to know, Maitimo, that your intended should heal with nary a mark."
Relief is like the touch of a cool towel upon fevered skin, and I feel as though two inches of my height are lost as my body sags back to its normal stance. "May we see her?" I manage, and Nimelië smiles. "Of course."
Amil sits at her bedside and quickly draws the sheet over Annawendë's bare legs when she sees me enter. Annawendë sees Atar first, and her eyes brighten. "Fëanáro!" she says, and then she sees me. "Maitimo!" she chortles in a voice bright and flattered.
Atar appraises her, seeking signs of pain or malcontent, but her face remains smiling and she shifts towards us. "How fare you, Annawendë?" he asks, taking her hand in his.
"Please don't tell me that you have waited all this while for me. I am well! Surely, Fëanáro, you have similar injuries in your many years of experience?"
"Yes, but my own pain is easier to bear than that of my wife, my sons, or my apprentices," he says.
"And Maitimo, who is looking out for those brothers of yours if you are standing vigil over my bedroom door? They are probably running the countryside wild by now."
Nimelië comes back to the bedside with several vials of salve. "Who shall see that this is regularly applied to Annawendë's leg?" she asks. Amil glances at me and quickly volunteers, and Nimelië takes her aside to give her instructions. Amil watches me over Nimelië's shoulder as she speaks, and Atar gives me a secretive smile when she dares to glance away for a moment.
"I imagine that you shall wish to speak alone for a while," Atar says, and as Amil comes back with the vials in her hand, Atar seizes her arm and pulls her in the direction of the door before she can protest. "Supper will be in two hours, if you feel well enough to eat, Annawendë," he says, speaking loudly to overpower the words that I can see want to spill from Amil's open mouth, dragging her from the room before she has the chance.
Soon, we are alone, and I sit on the edge of her bed and hold her hand that still carries the warmth of my father's. "I was worried," I say. "I heard you scream all the way in the library—"
She shushes me with fingers on my lips. "How is Tyelkormo?"
I am puzzled. "Tyelkormo? Well, fine, I'd imagine."
"He's the one that caused my injury, did you know that?" By my silence, she can tell that I did not. "You father had harsh words with him, and he ran from the forge before any of us realized what had even happened. I know it was your father's fear for me that spoke so rashly and cruelly, but Tyelkormo mightn't have known that."
"I'm sure he's fine, probably in the fields, chasing Carnistir and plotting against poor Findekáno, even as we speak. You have to learn not to treat him so delicately. Tyelkormo has probably the thickest skin of all of us."
"He is still little, Maitimo—not even fifteen."
Now it is my turn to hush her with a finger on her lips. They are plump beneath my finger and moist, and I want to kiss her but feel it would be unfair to take advantage of her while she is injured and unable to escape her bed. As though she knows my thoughts, she kisses my fingertip, and the nerves from my fingertip to my shoulder tingle at even this slightest of touches.
"Does it hurt?" I ask, to distract both of us from the electricity now humming between us. She shakes her head no. "May I see it then?"
"How dare you ask a proper maiden such as me to bare my leg for you!" she teases.
"I assure you that the sight of your burned leg will not tempt me into compromising our shared virtue."
She slides the sheet down from her waist. Beneath, she wears only a tunic that comes to mid-thigh. From mid-calf to just below the hemline of her tunic, Nimelië has wrapped her leg in bandages. The other leg is bare and unharmed, strong and beautiful lying against the dark sheets, and I quickly look away before I can wonder what—if anything—she wears beneath the tunic.
"You didn't say it would be bandaged," I mutter.
"I assumed you knew."
"Why would you offer to show me your injury if there was naught to see but bandages?"
"Perhaps I just wanted to show you my leg." Her arm reaches up and cups the back of my neck. "Why don't you lie down beside me, Maitimo? We do not often get two hours of uninterrupted freedom."
"Why the hesitancy? There is no fear that we should be tempted into bonding, for I couldn't take you atop me now even if I wished, nor could I sit astride you." She smiles as she says this, as though she knows that her words make my heart race, and suddenly I am aware that my trousers are too tight in the groin. I can fathom only two options for how to proceed: I can kiss her or I can run from the room. I contemplate her slightly parted lips and imagine them warming mine. And I consider the cold stone hallway outside.
Outside her windows, the Lights are mingling, and I kiss her. My lips meet hers harder than I intended, and she draws away. "Be gentle, Maitimo," she chides. "That is no way to kiss a lady."
"I'm sorry, but with you baring your legs and all this talk of bonding—" She silences me with a kiss, tender this time. My hand cups her knee, then slides up her thigh until I am edging her tunic higher up her uninjured leg. She is kissing me deeply, our tongues twining and her teeth nipping at my bottom lip until it almost hurts. I swing my feet up from the floor to lie beside her in the bed.
"Ai!" Too late, I realize that I have bumped her bandaged leg in my thoughtless haste.
"Eru, I'm sorry, Annawendë!" She sucks hard on her lips, trying to conceal her pain from me, but it is futile. I slip from the bed—my desire wilted—and kneel on the floor, clutching her hand. "I am deeply sorry, my love."
Her eyes spring open, and the pain melts from her face. In the next instant, her arms are clamped around my head, hugging it tightly. "Ann—wha—?"
"You've never called me that before," she says into my hair.
"Called you what?"
" 'My love.' "
My face is pressed into her mattress, so when I laugh, it sounds muffled, more like a moan than laughter. She releases my head and sits back to contemplate me. "You are odd, Annawendë," I tell her. "Never before have I called a maiden 'love' and had her—"
In a blink, her hand is slapped over my mouth, choking my words inside of me. "Do not say it, Maitimo. Let's pretend that I am the first maiden you have ever called your love, and I shall pretend that you are the first to say it to me."
I settle onto the floor with her arm still about my neck, and she buries her face into my hair. The light through the window is glorious and pale, bringing the world into perfect focus. "I love you," I whisper to her, raising my hand to caress her arm, and I feel her smile into my hair, and we both drift into sleep.
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