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Another Man's Cage: 23. Chapter Twenty-Three--Maitimo
"Nelyo!" In my dreams, it is our wedding night, but Atar insists on coming into our bedroom in the early hours to awaken me to go to the forge with him. I mumble something to dissuade him, but he is persistent, as Atar always is, and he calls my name again. "Nelyo! Nelyafinwë!"
The sound of my father-name throws me from sleep. The room is bathed in silver, and Annawendë's arm is still locked around my neck, and I can feel the whisper of her breath in my hair. The floor is achingly hard beneath my backside, and I shift, just as Atar walks around the bed to stand in front of me.
For a bizarre moment, I think that he is chastising me for falling asleep while seated on the floor in Annawendë's room—as Amil surely would, if she knew—but then I see his face, and I know that something is amiss. He wears the look he only gets when something has disturbed him deeply—when news comes from Tirion of one of uncle Nolofinwë's slights against our house—or when he is grieved. This is the look he got when, upon examining Macalaurë's shoulder, found the bone dislodged from the socket, when he knew that he would have to be the one to wrench it back into place. Behind me, Annawendë shifts and groans, and the warm collar her arm has made around my neck is removed. Lit from behind by the silver windows, Atar is just a shadow with a very perturbed look on his face.
"What is it, Atar?" I stand slowly and whisper so as not to wake Annawendë, whose ordeals have finally buried her beneath sleep. My soft voice and careful motions agitate Atar further, and he shows none of my courtesy, as his voice is just as loud and strident as it was upon his entry. "Have you seen your brothers? Or Findekáno?"
Annawendë groans again and stirs, sitting up carefully. "Fëanáro?" she mumbles into the silver light.
"Have either of you seen your brothers or Findekáno?"
I know the tone Atar takes when he stands on the brink of eruption, and I hear it now: a high, desperate note that surpasses what I would have thought possible for my perfect, collected father. "I've seen no one," I reply, trying to keep my voice calm.
Atar explodes into pacing, one hand tearing at the braids that Amil put in his hair this morning. "You are sure? Absolutely positive?"
"We fell asleep, Atar, not long after you and Amil left." I pause for a moment, watching him pace. "What is the matter?"
"They are gone."
"Yes! Gone! I cannot find any of the little ones. They should have been back hours ago." From fret, he is propelled into action. "Get your traveling gear, Nelyo. We shall begin by searching the town."
"Atar, you know how they are. They are probably hiding in a cabinet somewhere or behind a bookcase—"
"Would your brother take his longbow and arrows if he meant only to hide in a cabinet?"
Fifteen minutes later, Amil has our horses saddled, and we mount in the growing dark. Macalaurë has joined us, and even in the meager light, I can see that his gray eyes are nervous and wide.
We ride to town as though the wind carries our horses, with Atar in the front and Macalaurë and I behind, in a small V. The guards draw swords and raise lanterns at our approach, but upon seeing my father's crest on his horse's martingale, re-sheath them and breathe audible sighs of relief.
It is the older, senior guard who speaks first. "Prince Fëanáro—"
"Have my sons come into the town?"
"Why I saw the eldest—"
"Do you think I ask after the one who stands beside me now? Have my youngest sons come into the town? Or my brother-son?"
"I have not seen them. Why?"
Atar is already remounting. "They are gone."
The younger guard speaks at last. "Fëanáro, wait…."
Atar reins in his horse even as his heels dig into his sides. "What?"
"Search your property, and if you find them not, send up a blue flare. We shall send a messenger to Oromë for aid."
"Oromë?" Macalaurë whispers to me, fear heavy in his voice.
"Pray that the darkness holds," Atar says, wheeling his horse and heading home in a gallop.
The northern lands of Aman fall not under the blessing of the Valar and are subject to the weather and seasons as are the Outer Lands. The beasts of the land, too, are wild and vicious, and each year it seems, a child from the town goes missing. Most years, he is found wandering in the hills beyond the city walls, having run away to spite his parents or having become lost in his travels. But every century or so, it is told, the search goes on for days without relief, and Oromë is called for aid. Most of the time, the child recovered by Oromë and his hounds is not alive.
The horses are winded when we return home, and foam stands out on their necks. Amil comes to the stable and silently takes them from us, then drops the reins as she and Atar fall into an embrace.
"Come, Macalaurë," I say, turning my eyes from them. "Action is wasteful without thought." I tug my brother's arm until he follows. "There are three of them. They must have left tracks. We shall begin in Tyelkormo's room."
"Can you honestly believe that Findekáno or Carnistir organized such an exploit? Any clues we find will begin with Tyelkormo."
It is deep night and weariness tugs my bones as I help Atar set the flare into the grass and strike the flint. The fuse twirls as it shortens, and the flare rockets into the sky with a whistling wheeze. It takes the space of a heartbeat for it to burst against the silvery darkness, sending a blue spray of light into the sky, falling back to the earth in sapphire fronds that should be beautiful but instead make my heart hammer with fear.
The night is silent, as though even the animals and insects sense our terror and grow mute in deference. Atar and I do not speak as we walk back to the house. I glance at him occasionally from the corner of my eye, but his face stays hard and he walks in silence with his arms crossed over his chest.
The apprentices had helped us search but wait now in the house, and they fall silent when the door slams behind us, waiting in the entrance hall like subjects hoping to be called before the king. "Where is my wife?" Atar says brusquely, looking at no one, and Vorondil answers, "She has gone to her chambers."
"Bring her to me, Nelyo."
I dare not even respond but to whirl on the ball of my foot and run up the stairs. Approaching the door to the suite she shares with Atar, I hear her voice, muffled and mingling with Macalaurë's, which is much clearer but edged in unease. I knock twice sharply and Macalaurë calls me to enter.
They sit side-by-side on the sofa, and for the look on my brother's face, I would weep if I had time to spare for tears, for he is thirty-nine no longer but much younger, yet he holds our mother in his arms and her tears drop onto the front of his tunic. "We have sent for aid," I say. "Atar requests your presence downstairs."
"Requests?" her voice is bitter through her tears. "Your father does not know how to request."
"Well, you can tell him—" She takes her hands from her face and looks up. Our mother's fire is dim beside our father's, yet notorious still is her temper, and my brothers and I all find it harder to look in her eyes when she is angry than to look in our father's. I find that my glance has fallen to the thick carpet beneath my muddied boots. "No mind, Nelyo. I would not put you between us. I shall tell him myself."
Macalaurë and I follow her down the stairs, trotting to keep up with her long, angry strides, and exchanging glances between us that betray the feeling of dread that we share. Amil flies from the bottom step and strides across the entrance hall, ignoring the apprentices and us, and shoves our father hard in the chest.
He gasps, and she seizes his tunic in her fist. "You order me before you like I was one of your servants? It is you who cannot hold his tongue; you, Fëanáro, who drove our children into the wilds, so if anyone has a right to fury, it is I."
"Do not twist fair words to soothe my heart, Fëanáro!" Tears stream down her face, but her grip on his tunic is so fierce that her knuckles have blanched and her wrist trembles. "If anything has happened to any of those children, it is you who shall face the ending of Arda alone!" She tears her hand from his tunic, rending the material, and seems then to become aware of Macalaurë, the apprentices, and me for the first time. A cry rises in her throat, and her hands fly to her face, and she pushes past us to pound up the stairs.
Atar stands in the center of the hall, his tunic askance, and stares after her, then in a single moment faster than a flash of light, his hand closes around the neck of a nearby vase—a beautiful many-colored glass piece, the materials of which he made and the design of which belongs to my mother—and he hurls it against the wall by the stairs, where it shatters into a thousand tiny pieces like a broken rainbow.
Before Atar and I had sent up the flare, Macalaurë and I had searched the property. We'd searched Tyelkormo's room first and found it as Atar reported it. His longbow and three practice arrows had been missing, as were his and Findekáno's travel cloaks and boots. "Let me get my cloak," Macalaurë had said, for the night was becoming chill, and a moment later, he'd flown back into Tyelkormo's room: "They took my bow and arrows too!"
Nothing of Carnistir's had been missing. His tiny travel boots sat neatly aligned at the bottom of Atar's armoire. All of his cloaks hung above them. We'd run down the stairs and scanned the lawn. "There!" Macalaurë had cried at last, and we'd followed the broken grass to the big rocks beside the house.
The dirt had been kicked up there, as though a scuffle had occurred, and I'd found three strands of stiff, dark hair caught in a bramble bush nearby. "Carnistir," I'd said, taking them gently from the briers and holding them to my lips, wanting to weep for the fear that I might never hold my squirming baby brother while working the knots from his unruly hair again.
We'd followed their tracks to the road and there lost them, for Tyelkormo is a clever tracker and equally clever at losing pursuit, and I'd known that he had led them awhile along the road to find a place where they could pass into the wilds undetected. If we had followed them further, it would have had to be with hounds.
Now, we gather provisions and saddle our horses, for it may be many days before we have a chance for sleep and sustenance. Atar does not speak, but he yanks the girth on his saddle so tight that his horse snorts and stomps and casts him a dangerous look. In the distance, we hear the baying of hounds and the thunder of hoofbeats, and when Atar is turned, Macalaurë and I dart outside to wait for Oromë.
He is not long coming and arrives on his steed Nahar in a roar of hoofbeats. "Hail, young princes!" he calls to us, and I suddenly feel very small and insignificant, like I had when Atar or Amil used to catch me as a little child, playing in Atar's good festival robes with his circlet slipping around my neck, pretending to address the people in Tirion.
Oromë swings from Nahar and stands before us. The Valar have chosen images like our own, in proportions close to our own, and he is not much taller than me. Like many of the Valar, he is bearded, and his hair is golden-brown, much like Tyelkormo's own, I realize. As though he senses our fear, he reaches out his hands and lays one each on our cheeks. "Fear not, sons of Curufinwë. Your brother is a quick-witted one and has likely not wandered far. I am grateful that you called for me so soon."
"Is it true?" Macalaurë asks in a whisper. "What they say about the children who disappear and never return?"
"You have heard too many legends and stories, Canafinwë. You will see your brothers and cousin again, for there are much tastier things in the wild for beasts to eat than Elf-children. More to fear is that the littlest one travels without boots or cloak. Your father's fire is in Turkafinwë's spirit, but his body aches with chill, as would anyone else's."
"How do you—" I start to ask, but Atar appears beside us then, and Oromë makes a slight bow before him. Out of respect, Atar bows as well, but it is stiff and awkward.
"Prince Curufinwë, son of Finwë. Fair are not the circumstances of our meeting, but I am glad that you have called for me."
"Sons, be gone and secure the provisions," he tells us in a brusque voice, and as we hurry away, we hear him saying, "We followed them to the road, but subtle is my third son in tracking, and we can follow no further without aid."
The night seems very long and cold, and we don't stop until Laurelin's hours, when we find the remnants of their campsite in the dead leaves. One of the hounds puts his nose to a leaf, and Oromë dismounts to study it, placing it against his own nose before recoiling sharply. "It smells of pain," he says. "One of them is hurt."
Also, we have found no traces of food: no spent bones, no berry stains, nothing to indicate that the children have eaten since yesterday's breakfast. Even Atar's face is tired and washed of color; Macalaurë looks slightly nauseated and glances quickly away when I try to meet his eyes. There is rain on the wind, and as Oromë lifts other leaves to his nose for clues about the location and health of my brothers and cousin, the canopy overhead begins to rattle and raindrops trickle and drip onto our uncovered heads.
We raise our hoods, and Oromë springs back onto Nahar, reining him sharply and calling, "Quickly! Before the rain washes away their trail! They cannot be far now."
We plunge from the copse of trees and gallop across a barren plain towards the high cliffs and bluffs in the distance, Oromë leading with Atar and I close behind and Macalaurë and the apprentices straggling at the back. We have been riding for hours now without rest, and I know that they are hungry and weary, but we cannot stop to rest, for the hounds are keen on the children's scent now. I tell myself that it is because it is fresh and not because of the wounds of which Oromë spoke. Again and again, I tell this to myself, and when I look over at Atar, his face is lined and tired, and I know that he tells himself the same. The rain slaps our faces and stings our eyes; thunder roars so loudly that even the baying of the hounds is lost in the cacophony. We ride low on our horses' necks to protect ourselves from the worst of the deluge, but even my thickest cloak is soaked in a matter of seconds.
We stop suddenly, for the hounds are racing in circles, barking madly. Our horses are scrambling to keep their footing, for beneath us, the ground has become a muddy river. The children's scent has been lost.
"Manwë Sulimo!" cries Oromë. "I pray to you to stay your hand upon this storm and show pity for the little ones lost in the rain."
A gust of wind strong enough to knock the breath from my throat wraps around us like a fist. I look over at Atar, who sits astride his horse with his head tipped back and his hood fallen around his shoulders. The rain soaks his hair and makes it the color of the sky beyond the light of Valinor. I see his lips moving, and I squint to detect what words he whispers into the rain.
The words are in Valarin, a harsh tongue like the rasping of metal on metal, and I'd learned their meaning only at my father's bidding; still, translation is awkward for me, and even as I gasp at the meaning of the words on my father's lips, the rain stops. Manwë Sulimo, I add to the prayer.
We dismount into mud that is ankle-deep and grips our feet as though it had determination and spirit of its own. The hounds are baying again, for they have found a trace of a scent, and I feel hope flash inside of me like a flare against the darkness, but as quickly as the trail is found, it is lost again. Atar and Oromë have their heads close in quiet conversation. Macalaurë comes to stand beside me, shivering beneath his wet cloak, and I put my arm around him, although I am no drier than is he. The apprentices are silent and tired behind us, and in that moment, with the world quiet and my brother trembling against my side, I allow myself to contemplate an unhappy ending to our ordeal.
I remember the days all of my brothers had been born, but best I remember Tyelkormo and Carnistir, for I had been older when they came into Arda. In the cold morning, with icy mud clenching my feet, I remember being invited to Amil's chambers to hold them for the first time. Tyelkormo hadn't been crying when Macalaurë and I had arrived to meet our newest brother, and when I'd taken him in my arms, he'd opened his eyes to me, and they'd been as blue as the summer skies in Tirion. Carnistir had come ten years later, a week before his begetting day, with thick hair already on his head and little teeth like fangs in his mouth, as though he couldn't wait to be born to start growing up, and he'd been screaming when Atar had handed him to me, but I'd cuddled him close until he'd stopped crying and fell asleep in my arms. Holding them, I'd felt a bit more complete, as though there had been empty places in my spirit waiting to be filled with love for little brothers, and I'd realized that the love I had for them—for strangers whose blood beat through my veins too—was stronger even than the love for my own life, and with cold certainty, I'd known that I would sacrifice myself for them in any way that was demanded.
But now I am powerless, and my love for them is futile, for nothing that I give now can erase the mud washing over our feet or can recapture their scents lost in the storm. My throat closes until I fear that I might stop breathing, and tears burn my eyes. Macalaurë is looking into my face, and my pain must be clear to him, for he embraces me, and our tears mix and fall into the mud between us.
Macalaurë grows suddenly tense. "Listen," he says, and he pulls from my arms, baring both of our tear-streaked faces. "Do you hear that?"
Macalaurë's sense of hearing is keener than any of ours, even Atar's. He pushes his hair behind his ears as though the few strands that have escaped his braids might impede what he would otherwise clearly hear, and he cocks his head in the direction of a nearby rock formation that I suspect falls away to a valley below. Suddenly, he seizes my arm, and I hear what he hears: a sound that might have begun as a voice but was torn on the rocks and shredded by the wind across the mudflats until it is but a wisp of sound that falls into our ears. A child's voice, perhaps?
"Tyelkormo!" Macalaurë cries, and with my arm still in his grasp, we race for the rock formation, slipping in the mud and nearly falling, struggling to grip the rocks with wet hands and slick boots. The stone tears at my hands and rends the knees of my trousers, but I do not feel it, for in that moment, Carnistir's voice is in my head: "Nelyo! I'm cold, Nelyo!" as clearly as if he stood and spoke beside me.
The rocks fall away to a valley, as I'd suspected. The cliffs on either side of the valley are high and gray, and I see pinpricks of darkness that I identify as caves at the bases of many. The children had hidden there, I realize suddenly, to escape the rain. My eyes scan the valley, and with every rock that is roughly the size of a child, my heart leaps then sinks into despair until I see them, a league away, slogging slowly through the mud.
"Tyelkormo! Tyelkormo!" Macalaurë and I scream to our brother, but the very wind that had brought sound of them to us seizes our voices from our throats and casts them away from the little ones. They have stopped, and I see Tyelkormo pointing towards a gap between two cliffs in the north.
Atar and Oromë spring onto the rocks beside us, drawn by our cries, and Oromë lifts his horn to his lips and lets out a blast of sound the makes the rocks buzz and tickle against our feet. All three children start to turn in our direction, but something else calls their attention behind them, and I hear Atar scream before I see the wolf.
It is a scream that might have come from the depths of Angband, and I turn to see Oromë with his arms around Atar's waist to keep him from tumbling off the cliff, while Atar's feet push against the rocks, driving him to a leap that will not save his sons and would probably kill him too. A yip and a growl whisper on the wind, and I watch, stricken, as a gray she-wolf bigger even than Tyelkormo advances on my littlest brother. The air screams with noise: Macalaurë is sobbing—and only when I swipe my hands across my eyes to clear my vision, do I realize that I am crying and screaming too—and Atar still fights to free himself from Oromë, the most powerful of our people being held by a Vala, one of the few who have the strength to contain him. Yet none of it will save the little ones, and I beg my eyes to close, as the wolf settles back on her haunches and prepares to spring at Carnistir.
She launches herself into the air.
Findekáno leaps in the same moment and knocks Carnistir to the ground, covering his little cousin with his own small body, and snarling, the wolf falls atop both of them and rakes her teeth across Findekáno's back.
Tyelkormo yells something, and we all fall silent.
The wind dies then and, across the distance, his words are clear, but it is no language that I have ever heard. But the wolf stops with a mouthful of Findekáno's cloak, and her ears swivel in the direction of my brother's voice. Atar struggles in Oromë's arms, trying to reach his bow and quiver, but Oromë seizes his arms and hisses, "Shh! Listen!"
Tyelkormo speaks still, and his blue eyes are wide as though even the words pouring from his throat puzzle him, and the wolf takes her paws from Findekáno's back and trots instead toward Tyelkormo.
"I have a clear target! I can hit her!" Atar begs, but Oromë's arms tighten on him, making him struggle harder.
Tyelkormo drops to his knees and lies on his back in the mud.
The wolf closes her jaws around his throat, and his eyes squeeze shut and his words pour out faster, frantically, but she does not bite into his soft, exposed flesh. She releases her grip and sniffs down the length of his body, while his trembling hands lie futile in the mud over his head, palms turned to the sky in surrender.
Findekáno has stood and is fumbling with the ties on the pack that Carnistir was carrying, and as we all watch with shocked amazement, a wolf-puppy runs out and, yipping, sloshes through the mud to his mother. The wolf turns to her puppy then back to Tyelkormo, and he speaks a few more of the strange words to her, and she takes the puppy into her mouth and trots back in the direction of one of the caves.
It takes us several minutes to climb down to the valley, but when our feet touch the ground again, Carnistir is already running in our direction, sobbing so hard that his eyes are closed and he bumps against rocks in his path, before being caught in Atar's arms.
"Atar, Atar," he weeps onto Atar's shoulder. Tyelkormo has picked himself up from the mud and speaks to Findekáno, whose face is as white as parchment and sits trembling in the mire, and we run in their direction, for the unnatural color of Findekáno's skin is that of one who is wounded and succumbing to shock.
I find my arms filled with Tyelkormo and my neck made wet by his tears. Carnistir has been shoved on Macalaurë and is crying again for Atar. Atar and Oromë go to Findekáno and peel the muddied cloak and tunic from him while he stares listlessly into their faces. His skin is as white as porcelain and riddled with cold-bumps, but the only marks on his back from the wolf are bruises and a few stippled abrasions, and Atar embraces Findekáno with relief and lets his face fall into his hair.
The children are hungry, cold, and weary, and we do not trust them to a long journey. Oromë knows of a couple who live nearby in a small cottage, hunting and farming the land, and we ride to them in hopes of finding shelter and provisions for the night.
The farmer-wife answers our knock and looks quite surprised to find a Vala, the high prince of the Noldor, and his four soaked and muddied sons, brother-son, and three apprentices standing at her threshold, but when Oromë explains what has happened, she stands aside without hesitation and immediately sets off to draw a hot bath for the little ones.
I sit on the floor by the fire, and Findekáno and Tyelkormo fall simultaneously into my lap. Apparently, the last few days together have cured them of their aversion to each other, for their shoulders press together and their ankles cross on the floor when they stretch their numb toes out to the fire. I handle Findekáno delicately, but he does not cringe when I touch his back, and I conclude with relief that his injuries must indeed be mild.
Tyelkormo is a different issue. He'd burned his hand in Atar's forge, we'd learned, and it is red and sore and is beginning to smell of rot. When the hand is exposed to the heat from the fire—just for an instant—he whimpers and tucks it delicately behind the opposite arm.
"You were both very brave," I tell them. I have a thousand questions for Tyelkormo, but his eyes are drooping drowsily, and I allow him to fall into peaceful sleep.
The color has returned to Findekáno's skin, and the fire is even bringing a pink flush to his cheeks, and would I not have seen the wolf's teeth scrape across his back, I would believe him to be a healthy child who has simply spent too long in the cold.
The farmer-wife has put a kettle of stew onto the stove and a loaf of bread into the oven, and the aromas of food are teasing my senses. Macalaurë comes to sit beside me, holding his hands out to the fire to warm them. "I am glad this day is over," he says, and although it is far from over—it is just the Mingling of the Lights—I know what he means.
"Me too. My body cries for a bit of supper and a hot bath."
"I'd forsake both," says Macalaurë, "for a set of clean nightclothes and a soft bed." He looks at Findekáno and Tyelkormo, who are now both sleeping in my arms. "Sometimes I wish they loved me like they love you. Most of the time, I would rather they leave me alone to my music, but at times like these, I wouldn't mind having one of them curl up in my lap."
"If it is any consolation," I tell him in a low voice, "you are still my favorite, even though I am too big to curl up in your lap."
He smiles, and I know that my words have warmed his spirit. "Just as long as my children—when I have them—like me best, then that is more than enough for me."
Atar and I bathe the little ones one by one while Macalaurë washes their muddy clothes and hangs them by the fire to dry. The farmer and the hunter have no children of their own left in the house, so they can lend us no dry clothes even small enough for Tyelkormo, so we wrap them each in a quilt and let them nap by the fire until their clothes are dry.
I sit with them and watch them sleep until I feel a hand on my arm and realize that I have fallen asleep myself. The farmer-wife shakes my arm gently. "Dear? I am sorry to bother you, but supper is almost finished, if you would like to tell your father?"
Atar had gone to the stable after helping me with the little ones' baths to curry and feed the horses. Vorondil has offered to ride home after supper to tell Amil that the little ones have been found, and one of the horses must be readied for him. The night is mild for the north, but a cold breeze slices across the open plain and makes me wish I had thought to throw a cloak over my shoulders. In the distance, a wolf howls, and I shiver.
Atar is currying my horse, standing with his back to me, and he doesn't turn when I enter. "Atar?" The hand holding the currycomb is not moving, I realize, and his head is tipped until his forehead almost rests against the horse's back. Apprehension burns me, but I step closer and call him again, thinking he may have slipped into the place he goes sometimes, the place where only Amil's voice can reach him. "Atar? Supper is ready?"
I am close enough to touch him when he speaks softly. "I thought I was watching my babies die."
"Atar?" It is less a word than a breath in the shape of his name. I wonder: Does he speak to himself or does he know that I am here? I wonder that if I should leave. I wish to.
"Grief would have taken me, Nelyo." My heart thumps hard in my chest at the sound of my name. "I feel it still, behind me, like a black shadow, and it knows as well as I that if one tiny moment had changed, it would now be upon me."
"But, Atar, the little ones are fine." My words are weak and sound stupid even before I speak them, but the silence between Atar and I begs to be filled. I do not want him to turn, I realize. Like with Rúmil in the moment before he revealed his mutilation to me, I can find comfort in that which I do not know. I do not want to know what is behind the dark hair like a curtain that hides Atar's face from me. My father does not cry—I have seen him in rage and grief and happiness deeper than that which I ever hope to feel—but I have never seen the fire in his eyes washed by tears, and I do not want to. There was a dream I had once, when I was still very small, where Atar came to me and held me in his arms and wept, and the memory alone of that dream terrifies me, for the world has gone wrong when tears can be wrested from flame.
"I try only to love you, my sons who make me so happy and so proud, but sometimes there are words or actions, and only after I stand aside do I realize that it is I who has spoken them, I who has acted so rashly, as one whose spirit is empty of love." He turns to me now, and his eyes burn like sparks from metal, and he takes my face in his hands, holding me tight enough to hurt. "Do you know how much I love you, Nelyo? Even in the angry moments, do you believe always that I love you?"
"Of course I do," I say numbly, but I remember well the times when I had been younger and sent from his forge as a disappointment, to study alone in my bedroom as punishment for some or another failing, and I would throw the hated books that he had written at the wall until their spines broke and weep until my tears had drenched my pillows. The other children in Tirion always said how lucky I was, to be born the heir of a high prince and the greatest of our people. They told me how they wished that their fathers could instruct them in all subjects, could teach them lore and craft instead of hiring a tutor, but no one ever thought of the injustice placed upon my brothers and me from the moments we were conceived. For Atar is the greatest of our people ever born or ever to be born—such was the doom spoken by the Valar—and as such, we his sons can never hope to surpass him but only languish in his shadow, full of faint hopes and impossible dreams. Even as I study lore and take counsels with him to share my ideas, I know that I all I create would come to him before long, were he to bend his thoughts to it. I am a person of significance by his grace alone.
Such I said to Amil once, when I was angry enough with him to want to throw my lesson books into the fires of his precious forge, and she replied, "But think how sad it is to be your father, for one of the greatest joys in life is to marvel at that which we cannot ourselves achieve. Your father does not know this joy, and no thought or craft of our people will ever stir his spirit into wonder. But think of your power, Nelyo, for you are his son and the only thing of his devising that he shall never fully understand! While others will kneel to worship the works of the Valar—the works of your father—he shall kneel only to you and your brothers, for you are his only cause to marvel in life."
So I raise my arms now and hold him in an embrace, and I feel him start then relax. After a long moment, he takes my face again in his hands and kisses my lips. "Come now, Nelyo," he says, taking my arm. "You are hungry and weary, and I am keeping you from supper."
After supper, the hunter and the farmer help us make beds on the floor with extra cloaks and blankets. They offer their own bed to Atar, but he declines. "What is good enough for my sons and apprentices shall serve me well too."
Macalaurë and I will share a bedroll by the fire. We take turns bathing; I volunteer to go second, foolishly, and cannot linger to enjoy the glorious feeling of hot water on my dirty skin because, with my body warmed and my belly full, I can barely keep my eyes open. The hunter had kindly lent us each a set of his clothes while our wet, muddy ones had been washed and dried, and I start to dress after bathing but abandon the task to stumble to bed instead in my underclothes.
Macalaurë is lying on his half of the bedroll with his head on my pillow. I sigh and roll his head onto his own pillow and lie down, only to have him roll immediately back to my pillow to press his flushed forehead against my cheek and mumble, "It's good to be warm again."
I am too tired to roll him back, so I tolerate his presence, even when he starts snoring lightly. At the back of the big front room, Oromë is tending to Tyelkormo's burned hand while Atar holds him in his lap, and twice the exhaustion couldn't keep me from listening to their conversation. "This hand doesn't look bad," Oromë says gently. "Did you clean it?"
"Findekáno cleaned it for me with rainwater in the cave," Tyelkormo mumbles. If the ministrations hurt, he doesn't show it and sags in Atar's arm like a rag.
I see Oromë and Atar exchange glances. "You and Findekáno were very brave today," Oromë says. "How did you know what to say to the wolf?"
"I don't know."
"You have never been taught to talk to animals before?"
"I always talk to animals, but no one believes that they talk back."
"But no one taught you?"
"No, I always knew how to do it. When I was a baby, the butterflies would come into my room and land on me and tell me how pretty the sky outside was."
Oromë wraps a clean strip of cloth around Tyelkormo's hand and secures it with a clip. "There, little one. All done."
"You said it might hurt. It didn't hurt at all," Tyelkormo mumbles. His eyelids are drooping, and sleep slurs his voice. "I'm glad you didn't kill the wolf today, Atar. She was just as you. All she wanted was her baby back."
Atar carries him to the fireside and lays him beside Findekáno. He kisses them each on the forehead. "Thank you for being so brave, little ones," he says.
Exhaustion beckons sleep to me, but my mind churns. Even after Atar lies down to sleep with Carnistir in his arms, I lie in exhausted wakefulness, turning the day's events over and over again in my mind. Macalaurë's forehead presses still against my cheek, and he breathes noisily through his open mouth; Tyelkormo mumbles in his sleep; and I long for the sleep that has so easily claimed them.
My brother speaks to animals, I think, and the thought strikes me as fantastical, like the stories that Macalaurë invents to get to the little ones to go to sleep, but for the fact that the image of my brother—lying on his back in the mud with his hands turned to futile submission and the wolf's jaws locked around his throat—is burned into the backs of my eyelids, and the strange language he spoke whispers ceaselessly through my tired brain. My brother speaks to animals, I think again, and find that when I allow myself the luxury of quiet mirth, two surprised tears squeeze out and trickle down into my hair at the same time.
Grandfather Finwë had told me once that some of our people in the early days would speak with animals but that most of these people had refused the invitation of the Valar and remained in Middle-earth among the creatures that they loved. I wonder: Had we been born centuries sooner and given a similar choice, how would we align ourselves? I see myself beside my father, among the Noldor, with Carnistir in my arms. I see Macalaurë joining the Teleri. But Tyelkormo—with his vestigial gift—I see on the shore behind us as we depart, bidding sad farewell to brothers he loves but is content never to see again.
"Maitimo?" The voice is tiny and imploring, and I look up to see my little cousin standing over me. "You can't sleep either?"
I open my arms to him, and he wriggles beneath the blankets to lie beside me. "Why can't you sleep, little one?" I ask, although the memory of the wolf's teeth on his back—even just the sight from afar—chills me too.
"Do you ever do things, Maitimo, and only after they're done, wonder why you did them?"
"I think everyone does those kinds of things, Káno."
"But today…." He hesitates, and I see his blue eyes watching me in the darkness, trying to read my face through the layers of shadow. He breathes deeply and begins again. "Today, I did not mean to leap onto my cousin. I saved his life, everyone says, and everyone tells me how brave I am, but I did not mean to do it. I was lying on the ground, and I felt the wolf upon me, and I thought of how stupid I was for wanting to die. But I was still there, and it was like someone else had pushed me onto little Carnistir, like I really had nothing to do with it at all. So I wanted to tell you this, so you know that I'm really not brave at all."
I choose my words carefully, whispering into the darkness. "No one pushed you, Káno. You acted on your own volition."
"No, I didn't!" Findekáno's voice is high and hysterical. "Tyelkormo chose to lie down and speak to the wolf; you chose to try to find us—and those were very brave things—but I don't know what happened to me; I didn't jump onto Carnistir! I wasn't brave! That was someone else."
Beside me, Macalaurë mutters in his sleep and rolls back onto his own pillow. I shush Findekáno, and his voice lowers to a desperate whisper. "Even this I tell you because I am afraid to tell Uncle, for I know he already thinks me craven and I fear disappointing him still more, and I hope that you will tell him for me, and I will never have to know what he said of it."
"Káno, little one," I say, "there are places within all of us that surprise us sometimes." I think of the anger that comes upon me sometimes, of the uncontrollable desire that seizes me when I'm in Annawendë's arms, and wish that my own secrets were so noble and brave. "Sometimes, when we think too hard on things, our mind overwhelms that which is true in our spirit. You have a valiant spirit, little one, for it forsook all thoughts of your own welfare to protect your cousin. That courage might be new and strange to you, but the little boy who saved my brother today was none other than you, and even if you do not now know how you chose to do what you did, it is part of the past now, and it shall forevermore be part of your name."
He hugs me in the darkness, and I feel his mouth smiling against my shoulder. I whisper a song to him and feel his little body relax beside mine.
Gentle was the heart of he,
The son of earth, of sky and sea.
Gentle was his every word,
He wielded neither shield nor sword,
But sang songs in his voice so fair
To his beloved kinsmen dear.
And when sorrow came like the tide,
Revealing places deep inside,
He gave not cries nor made laments
But showed his spirit valiant.
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