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Another Man's Cage: 29. Chapter Twenty-Nine--Feanaro
She lures me from the bed with the promise of food. It has been five days since I have eaten. Also, I do not remember when I last relieved myself, and my bladder feels hard like an apple, so I sprint to the lavatory before I explode and wet myself like a small child. Nerdanel laughs at my back as I run and mumble curses to myself.
"Ah, Manwë in Varda," I say, as the apple shrivels and disappears. It is a curse that I overheard Nelyo whisper to Macalaurë once. I glance quickly behind me to make sure Nerdanel has not heard, but she remains in the bedroom, so I shake myself dry and tuck the proper parts back into their proper places and turn to join her.
She has removed her nightgown and stands naked before her armoire—her back turned to me—contemplating the day's clothes. I feel a stirring, as though my body is trying to reassert all of its sensations. "Fëanaro, really," she says, without turning, riffling through tunics and dresses. I want to come up behind her and fit myself to the curve of her buttocks. "We've been married for sixty years now. Surely you needn't gape every time I disrobe?"
She would not pose naked for my sketches until after we were married and only then allowed it if I promised never to show anyone the drawings. Getting her to consent to a nude statue is a yearlong endeavor, and then it is only accomplished if I send the children to my father's whenever I need her to sit for me and if I swear to make miniature clothes to put on the statue before putting it on display, even in our own bedroom, insisting that, as long as I continue to take people into our bedroom when giving them a tour of the house, her naked likeness will appear nowhere within it. "You should not be ashamed of your body," I tell her, and she insists that she is not. "But my body is not art, and I do not want to have to look at people looking at it," she tells me.
I try to convince her that such regulation is unjust when I am not likewise so prudish. I remind her that her final project for her apprenticeship with Aulë was a nude statue of me, and that we were both underage and not yet married, making it all the more scandalous to sculpt a nude statue of the King's heir for appraisal by one of the Valar. "You have the most beautiful body of any of our people," she always tells me. "You were born to be living art."
I used to argue that, as my wife, she was too biased to honestly make the "most beautiful" argument, just to watch her blush as she admitted, "It is not just me. It is a general consensus, Fëanaro."
"According to whom?"
"Almost every unwed woman in Tirion. And some of the married ones, as well. And," she would blush so hard that her face became indiscriminate from her hair, "the men, as well. Well, those who will admit it."
I come up behind her now—careful to touch her with nothing but my hands, lest we end up staying in bed until the evening—and move my hands along her buttocks as though I am sculpting them. When I make statues of the perfect Elven form, they look nothing like her. I am always delighted by the innovation of her shape. I want to fit her strange curves into stone. "I want to do a statue of you," I whisper into her ear.
She is blunt: "Absolutely not, Fëanaro."
"I have not even told you want kind of statue I envision."
"I know what kind of statue you envision, and the answer is no."
"Well, what will we do with the children, for one?"
"We need not do anything with them."
"I argue that we do. I will no more allow you to make nude statues of me while they're around then I will make love with you in front of them."
"Nerdanel, it is hardly the same thing!"
"It is. Your art is very sensual. And we always end up—" She breaks off, her cheeks pinking, trying not to smile. "Not now," she finishes weakly. "Maybe when we return to Tirion. Although I do not understand why you want another naked statue of me cluttering our bedroom."
"When we return to Tirion? So that we shall be interrupted by ten messengers, my father, and my half-brother calling?"
"Your half-brother rarely calls, and if the children are with your father, then he would neither call nor send messengers."
She patiently deconstructs my illogic. I know the senselessness of the things that I say yet I say them still, for my life is full of senselessness and so it is not so odd that my speech should at times be the same. Others—my half-brother, the lords of the court, even my father, at times—grow irate with me in these moments. Delusions, they call them. "People will call you mad," my father said once, when I proclaimed that Indis was attempting to lure Nelyo from my house with her praise of his perfect speech and diplomacy. "Why can you not accept praise for your son for what it is? Praise for your son? Praise for you, for begetting and raising so perfect an heir?" Yet things have come to pass in my life that should be no more than the flimsy stuff of delusion, yet they are not. Who would believe that an immortal Elf could perish in the Blessed Realm and still discount my other notions? If my feelings on Indis and Nolofinwë are delusions, then let my mother's inexplicable expiration also be no more than the fleeting horror of a dream.
Nerdanel understands these things. It is why she only touches my face with a gentle hand and why she responds to my anger with kindness when my own father once bruised my face and bore me to the ground for the senseless, acidic fire of my temper.
She selects a loose, gray dress from the multitudes that she keeps her and slips it over her head. I watch it cover her body with regret. She looks at me for appraisal. "It is not an improvement," I tell her.
"You should not say such things to a woman, Fëanaro. You should tell us that we look beautiful in our dresses. Now help me do the laces up the back, will you?"
I do not understand the fashion of women, at times. Laces up the back seem impractical, for one's husband must delay in order to secure them and unmarried women must procure the help of a servant or kinswoman. Yet this is the fashion of women of late, first in Taniquetil, then Tirion, and—at my last trip to Alqualondë—I saw that the silliness had spread there as well. I have told Nerdanel my feelings on such things, but she remains unconvinced. I try to breach the subject with her now by saying, "You know, Nerdanel, that laces or fasteners on the front accomplish the same purpose," but she will not be baited, and admonishes, "Just tie the laces, Fëanaro," holding her river of copper-colored hair from her neck so that I may secure them at the top. I catch her around the waist when I am finished and kiss the cream that is the back of her neck, delighting to watch it flush pink at my touch, as she releases her hair and it cascades and covers my face.
"Are the children home?" I ask her.
"Yes," she says pointedly, "they are. Nelyo is making the midday meal. Perhaps he has made enough for two extras."
"You did not intend to dine with them?"
She makes a point to avoid my gaze as she stoops to retrieve a pair of slippers from the bottom of her armoire. "I have not found much of an appetite lately." I say nothing, but she responds as if I do, defensively. "I was worried for you, Fëanaro."
"It is who I am, Nerdanel. I do not find rest as you do."
"I know that. But it is the only time when I cannot feel your mind. It is as though—" She stops and embraces me, burying her face in my chest. "Escort your wife to the dining room?"
Her mind finishes what her tongue will not: It is as though you are dead.
We walk to the dining room together, with Nerdanel's arm strung loosely through mine, our shoulders bumping. We walked this way in the days before we were married, always connected, as though asserting our possession of the other for the world to see. No one believed that our happiness would last, that we would marry: the High Prince and the plain daughter of Mahtan.
It is a beautiful day, with Laurelin's light soaking the land and the sky free of clouds. The windows in the halls have been opened, and summer air floods the corridors. Someone had the ingenious thought to prop open the dining room door with a large chunk of amethyst crystal, and the crosscurrents of air sweep between the dining room and the hall, carrying the sounds of my sons' voices into the corridor.
I pause in the doorway and do not announce my presence, so that I may observe them in their natural states, as one might watch wild animals and marvel at their beauty. So I marvel now. Macalaurë is seated at the table, instructing Tyelkormo and Carnistir how to fold pale blue linen napkins into the shapes of birds. He takes one in his hand and makes it fly and land atop Carnistir's head, who freezes except for eyes that twitch upward nervously. Tyelkormo—on Macalaurë's other side—kneels on his chair and leans on his forearms across the table, laughing, as Macalaurë hops the bird across Carnistir's head and down his shoulder, twittering in the perfect imitation of a wren.
"Careful! It might make a mess on you!" Tyelkormo says, and Carnistir squeals and sweeps the bird away, and it becomes a pale blue linen napkin once more, billowing towards the floor.
I marvel at times at how my sons are such perfect random conglomerates of Nerdanel and me. It is as though I sculpted four versions of myself in clay, then added and took away pieces to modify the end result, using Nerdanel as inspiration: an extra curve to Carnistir's cheek, less a straight line to Tyelkormo's nose, a softer mouth for Macalaurë.
It is Nelyo who holds an interest in the science of life. I flirted briefly with the field shortly before marrying Nerdanel, going to Irmo after my lessons with Aulë, to watch as he dissected the expired bodies of animals and birds to reveal the organs inside. With magnifying crystals, he showed me the components within the components: each cell a tiny body itself, with its own minute organs. I wondered: Do cells prize their lives, as do whole organisms? Do they quiver at the thought of being torn asunder by fingernails seeking to quell an itch? Irmo would laugh at my inquiries but never answered, saying instead that everything around us was a representation of infinity, like two mirrors set to face each other. "There is always something else inside of that which you think is the final, smallest component," he would say, "and always something larger than the vessel which holds them all." He pricked my fingertip with a pin and demystified blood, which I so keenly associated with pain, by showing me the cells that circle endlessly through my veins, bringing life from the depths of my body to the surface. "Do you think they know that they're outside now?" I asked, watching through the crystals as the pinkish pillows drifted about naively on the glass slide he'd prepared. "Maybe they're like us, like Elves. They're happy inside of me like we're happy in Valinor, and so they never really think much of what lies beyond. Maybe when you rinse this slide in the stream, they will go to the sea and start a new life there, one that they never would have envisioned, had they remained and died inside of me.
"Or maybe, they're afraid," I added.
Irmo told me that my thoughts were not those that belonged to Elves, especially of my few years. "You have your mother's way of thinking," he told me, making my heart squeeze painfully, for I could work beside him only as long as I allowed myself to forget that he was the Vala that tended my mother through her weariness, who helped usher her into death.
I did not return much after that. Studying the science of life mostly involved deconstructing beings whose life had drained, and my hands and mind itched to be productive, to create, not ruin. Nelyo, however, plunged into such study with enthusiasm for he—like his mother—prefers to understand rather than change things, and his curiosity is not content as is mine, with stone and metal as its primary companions. Nelyo ruthlessly pursued the understanding of heredity, sketching long, detailed maps to show how traits passed from his ancestors and into him and his brothers. He mated canaries and roses in an attempt to coax nature into perfection. I sought perfection by bending steel and molding stone to my will.
I watch my sons and wonder from where some of their features and habits come, if Nelyo and Irmo are correct and everything derives from something else. Macalaurë's voice, for example, cannot be found amongst either Nerdanel's or my ancestors. Indeed, none of Elvenkind seems to ever have been so blessed. Before my sons were born, I would lie awake at night while Nerdanel slept, my hand on her belly, feeling them moving about inside of her. I tried to imagine how they would look but could only see their brothers when they were born. I could not fathom dark hair on Carnistir but imagined him golden and full of energy, like Tyelkormo. That Macalaurë would be tiny and not a robust giant like Nelyo seemed inconceivable until the first moment I held him in my arms, when it seemed to make perfect sense that my second-born son should be small in body yet so huge in voice that he was made bigger than some of the Valar.
I watch them in silence and Nerdanel stands at my shoulder, rubbing my lower back and resting her head on my arm. Nelyo comes in from the kitchen, his arms laden with serving bowls and Findekáno nearly stepping on his heels. "I see you've gotten much done, Maca—" He sees me and freezes. "Atar."
Three heads swivel at once in my direction, and before I can stoop to catch him, Tyelkormo is slamming into my legs and trying to climb me like a tree. I lift him into my arms, and his arms lock around my neck. His golden hair tickles my face like warm threads of silk. He is speaking to me, but his words make no more sense than the babbling of a creek, being as his face pressed into my neck muffles half of them. I hear mention of trees and Nelyo and squirrels and arrows and discern that he has been hunting and brought home his first game for our table, although I shall have to ask Nelyo for clarification as to what kind of game. I only hope that it is not the squirrels.
There is a small tug on my trousers' leg, and I look down to see Carnistir at my feet, his bottom lip pushed out in a pout and his dark eyes brimming. Balancing a chattering Tyelkormo on my hip, I lean to scoop Carnistir into my arms, and he pushes his face into my shoulder and starts sobbing.
Nelyo comes up beside me and takes Tyelkormo, who scrabbles at my clothing and whines in protest. Nelyo kisses my cheek, and when I turn, the tips of our noses bump. I do not have to look down to meet his eyes anymore; one day soon, I will have to look up. "We missed you, Atar," says Nelyo, juggling a wriggly Tyelkormo expertly, and I try to meet his glance, but he is busy smoothing Tyelkormo's hair and looking into his face.
My arms are now freed to embrace my youngest, who weeps as though his heart has been torn in two. Nerdanel ushers me to my seat at the table, and it is easier to cuddle Carnistir once sitting. "This will not do, little one," I tell him, lifting his reddened, tear-streaked face from where it presses into my tunic. "Whatever is the matter?"
"I thought you were gone!" he wails.
"Don't be silly. Did you not sleep beside me last night?" He nods. "Did you feel my body go cold? Did you hear my heart stop beating?" He shakes his head, spraying his coarse, black hair around his face in a cloud. "Then you knew I still lived, and as long as I live, I shall not leave you."
Everyone is busy again. Nerdanel is helping Nelyo to carry in the remaining dishes—Tyelkormo, who is still attempting to scramble in my direction, hampers his arm—and Findekáno is still on his heels. Only Macalaurë remains at the table, folding the napkins with quick, nimble fingers that always seemed to become shaky and scared during his apprenticeship with me. He smiles at me as I stroke a subdued Carnistir's hair. "Atar. How fare you?"
"I fare much better today than I did when I took your leave, five nights ago," I reply.
Macalaurë is the only one who understands. He has never gone for five days, but at times, I have awakened him in the morning and found him lying among piles of sheet music, his harp close to his hands, unable to be roused. People are quick to proclaim him as the son who is the least like me, for they are fooled by his gentle temperament and quiet manners, but beneath that, where his spirit burns, he is the most like me, for he is the only one of my children who understands what it is to be consumed by something as I am consumed by my art and he is consumed by his music.
Nelyo has prepared a meal large enough for all of us to partake to satiation. The children are busy with their tales of the last five days, allowing Nerdanel and I to eat uninterrupted. Tyelkormo's quarry, I learn, wasn't a squirrel but a turkey that he shot in the forest yesterday. Nelyo intended to cook it tonight in honor of the eve of his begetting day. Last night, Macalaurë and Findekáno played their new song for the others. Carnistir—who is frequently disciplined for talking with food in his mouth—spits out a mouthful of green beans, proclaims the song pretty, and then asks if he will be required to finish the partially chewed green beans. Tyelkormo, it is said, copied two scrolls perfectly during lessons the other day, and Carnistir can now write all of his numbers up to one hundred.
I wait for a lull in conversation to make my announcement. It is long coming, for they are eager to regale me with the news of the lives over the last five days, and I am glad to listen. "Children," I say at last, when enough mouths are busy drinking and chewing to allow me a word. "Your mother has made it known to me that she cancelled our annual trip in honor of Tyelkormo's begetting, due to my unforeseen invalidity. If you interest remains, then I would like to reinstate this trip."
Tyelkormo leaps from his chair with a shriek of delight, upsetting Macalaurë's water glass, and runs to embrace me.
I look at the grins on Macalaurë's and Carnistir's faces and kiss Tyelkormo's hair. Again, I try to meet Nelyo's eye, but he is pushed his green beans around on his plate and pointedly avoiding my gaze. "Then we shall depart tomorrow."
After the midday meal, I give the children afternoon leave and retreat to my office. I am restless and eager to go to the forge, but my five days' absence and our pending journey means that much must be done. I throw back the drapes and let Laurelin's splendor pour into the darkened room and leave open the door to allow for cross-ventilation with the windows in the hall. My three ledgers lie on my desk. In each, I keep track of an aspect of our household: the inventory of provisions, the lessons that I teach the children and apprentices, the crafts that I have finished and traded. Each is marked with a red slip of satin, and I open to the last entry to discover that Nelyo has kept the ledgers while I was gone, recording each detail, each provision used, in his clean, meticulous handwriting.
There is a knock on the door, and I look up to see Nelyo standing there, an uncertain smile on his face. "I came to tell you that I kept the ledgers while you were away. I hope you do not mind."
"I do not mind. Thank you, Nelyo." I circle my desk and kiss his cheek in gratitude, but he ducks away, his cheeks flushing. His face, I see, is very pale. "Nelyo?" I ask, and he looks away.
"I did not go into town yesterday, as you would have," he says in a tight voice, "so we do not have many eggs or much cream left."
"No mind. It was serendipity, for if we are leaving tomorrow—"
"I just could not—" he interrupts, breaking off suddenly as though he has said something that he should not. I place my hands alongside his face, and his cheeks burn. He will not meet my eyes. Nelyo is the only one of my children who looks at me when I discipline him. His silver eyes never leave mine, no matter how loud my voice or how harsh my words. He never cries—as do his brothers—as though he knows that his tears will feed my anger. His eyes stay fixed on mine, until my anger cools in their silvery depths like water. But he will not look at me now.
"Nelyo," I demand, "what is it?"
He ducks free from my hands. "Nothing. But I am sorry," he says, a look flickering in my direction, bowing slightly as though pledging fealty to a lord, before turning and retreating down the hall.
I consider pursuing him, then remember the many times that I fled my father's office in tears when I was a child and he followed, and I would resentfully hurl objects behind me as I ran, as though I could deter him from catching me in his arms and witnessing my shameful agony; the only thing I accomplished was breaking many fine and beautiful things. Always he caught me. If only I'd known how hard it is for a father to keep from pursuing his child in pain, then perhaps I would have been more empathetic and I would not have screamed, kicked, and bitten when at last his arms closed around me.
I grip the doorjamb as though physically restraining myself from following Nelyo and watch him stride down the hall, away from me. His back is straight, his shoulders thrown back in a parody of his normal proud, upright stance, but I see some agony lurking beneath it, for Nelyo's elegance is natural, never rigid, as it is now. I step into the hall, wishing for the days when Nelyo was small enough to cuddle in my lap and naïve enough to have his tears soothed with kisses, and make myself turn away from him and dash up the back stairway to the bedrooms on the second floor.
Nerdanel is coming out of the room that Tyelkormo shares with Findekano, several children's dress robes draped over her forearm. Before I can ask her about Nelyo, she sighs and says, "Fëanaro, I sent word already to Oromë that we would not be coming."
"No mind," I reply distractedly. "I shall ask for the fastest rider in Formenos. Oromë will know by the morrow."
She sighs. "I wish that you would postpone this for a week—"
"Tyelkormo's begetting day is tomorrow."
"Yes, but I have nothing ready, nothing packed. I haven't even pressed our dress robes." She holds aloft a green robe finished with gold trim that belongs to Tyelkormo to illustrate her point.
"We do not need dress robes."
"Fëanaro, we are going to a home of the Valar. You would have us looking like paupers?"
"I care not how we look," I say, growing frustrated.
"Not care? Fëanaro—" She trades her next words for an exasperated sigh and pushes past me and into our suite, knocking my shoulder hard enough to throw me momentarily from balance. I follow her through the sitting room and into our bedroom, where she is laying the children's robes across the bed and angrily appraising them while massaging her forehead.
"Nerdanel, what is the matter with Nelyo?" I ask her back.
She whirls and speaks in plodding, simple words as though instructing a child. "Nothing is the matter with Nelyo, Fëanaro."
"Whatever you have heard or witnessed or sensed—or whatever it is that gives you such ideas—would you trust me for once and forget it? It is nothing more than one of your imaginings."
"Do not act stupid, Fëanaro, for we both know that you are not." We stare at each other for a long moment. I feel a million words seething inside of me, but I know that if I open my mouth, they will explode as rage, and we will not stop until we have both hurt the other. I cover my mouth with my hand as though that will help to hold them in and turn away. Please, I beg myself, wishing time to revert two hours, when I lay in bed with my wife in my arms and nothing but love for her in my heart. "Nothing is wrong with Nelyo," she says in a voice that is only slightly more sympathetic, speaking to my back. "Trust me."
I cannot even trust my voice enough to tell her of his strange behavior without fearing that the words might explode instead against her, verbal shrapnel that hurts worse than if I took my hands to her face.
She makes concessions first. She always does. "Fëanaro, I'm sorry. Really, there's nothing wrong with Nelyo. And I'm sorry that I snapped at you. It's just…you're so impatient. You don't give thought to what other people must endure in order to serve your whims." I do not respond. I do not even turn to look at her. I hear her sigh, this time with weariness, as one sighs at a querulous child. "No mind, Fëanaro. The work will get done, and we shall have a great time, as we always do."
I am impatient. I wish that I were not, but like my gray eyes and my black hair, it is part of who I am, and I can no sooner discard it then I can my height or my gender. But unlike these features, my impatience is more akin to Macalaurë's voice: It cannot be traced. Even in Nelyo's most complicated inheritance maps, my impatience is an inexplicable fluke. My mother and my father were both exceedingly patient. Neither felt haunted as I do, as though life will end before I accomplish everything that lies in my future. For many years after my mother's death, I would find unfinished bits of embroidery tucked away around the house, and I would imagine her leaving them to go to my father or tend to me, knowing that they would remain to be finished centuries later, if she chose, not knowing that the infant who took her time and attention had also stolen her life. My impatience is the reason that I wed Nerdanel when we were still children, why Nelyo was conceived only two years later. Why, where most young couples would forestall the physical pleasures of marriage until they were older and ready for children, I could not. Nelyo was born beside a river and not in my father's palace because I was impatient and refused to leave the mines of the north until I was satisfied my curiosity for what lay beneath the earth, until Nerdanel was so swollen with child that we could not make it safely home to Tirion. My wife is only a few years past her hundredth yet wearied already because of my impatience, because my youngest son is no sooner weaned and walking and I am wishing for another, as I wish to conceive my fifth son even now, every time I lie with her.
I feel these thoughts skitter into the air between us, and Nerdanel comes up behind me and circles my waist with her arms. Her face presses between my shoulder blades. "Fëanaro," she says, and I wait—holding my breath—for her to utter wise words—but all she says is "I love you."
The House of Oromë is a three-day ride southwest of Formenos. Nerdanel and I used to make it in one, but we traveled swiftly and lightly—with only one extra set of clothes and provisions to last only between towns—and did not have five children to mind. There is much to be done and—in an effort to appease Nerdanel, who seems to be doing most of it—I resist the urge to go to the forge and instead help her press the children's dress robes.
"You do not have to do this, Fëanaro," she keeps saying, although I feel also her relief that I do.
Like the foundations of the earth shifting before an earthquake, so can I feel a gentle sliding, grinding now beneath the face of our marriage. No one else would see it, but I can feel it as animals sense an earthquake, and the world becomes still and silent, like Nerdanel and I, the only sounds the whisper of our matched breaths and the slip of the irons against cloth. We are listening for the misalignment, waiting for the ground to move beneath us, fooling ourselves that warning can forestall destiny.
I want to stop it, but it has already been set in motion, and it is only a matter of time before the shifts beneath the surface translate into something far more destructive.
Nerdanel sighs as she presses Carnistir's robes. She insists that the best seamstresses in Tirion make our sons' dress clothes, the clothes in which they are presented to the Valar. It was at my insistence that we would take none of the robes on display in the shops for Carnistir but would have something custom-made to suit him—nothing sewn in the whimsical pastels in which most parents wrap their young children—but in dark colors that flatter his hair and complexion. Carnistir's dress robes are red and black, and people usually hesitate when they first see him, as though unsure of how to approach a child who is not clad as one would a dress doll, but I find him frighteningly beautiful, like a thunderstorm.
Misalignment: I can feel our bond, but I can no longer hear her thoughts. Our very presence in each other's lives seems to grind and no longer fit. Like panicked animals, our breaths catch, our muscles tense. We wish to flee. But where?
Nerdanel speaks first. Her voice surprises me; without her thoughts in my head, I forget that she is a being independent of me, that we are capable of speech without first sharing the thought with the other. "I believe that Carnistir shall soon outgrow these," she muses, and the lightness of her tone betrays the seriousness of her intent. "Perhaps we should get him new robes when we return home?"
"I will speak to a seamstress about having a similar design made," I say, not looking up from where I am diligently reattaching a fastener onto the sensible blue and gray robes that Nerdanel picked for Macalaurë, praying to the flames within me not to erupt. Please please please….
"I was thinking, Fëanaro…." She stops and intensifies her efforts. She concentrates on the robes and does not look at me. "I was thinking of having the same design done in a different color."
"You would have him dressed as a daffodil, then? Or a bed of tulips?"
"No, I was considering white, maybe?"
"You want to dress a small child in white? Do you wish to exhaust all of my means on dress clothes for Carnistir? Because the way he eats, he will need a new set after every meal."
"Well, not black and red this time, Fëanaro."
"Why not? Do black and red not suit him?"
"They do. It's not that." She sighs, and I can feel her searching for words. "It's sacrilegious."
I laugh. I cannot help it. Since I met Nerdanel, the root of most of our arguments comes down to this, the Valar: her reverence for them and my indifference. Our first fight occurred when I refused to join her family for morning prayers. "The Valar are our hosts!" she yelled at me. "We owe them our gratitude!" To which I replied that hosts who required prayers for good favor did not seek guests but prisoners.
"Stop laughing," Nerdanel demands. "I am serious."
"As am I. You would sooner our youngest son be ugly than dress in colors that might offend the Valar? Fine! We shall take no dress clothes at all, as was my original intent! They are too cumbersome on the road. And Carnistir's white tunics and tan trousers shall surely please Oromë."
She keeps her voice low, so that the children will not hear, but her tone seethes with resentment. "If you have any idea how disrespectful you sound, more like a heathen than a high prince—"
"I see no reason to put on silly frippery for the Valar."
"You have no problem dressing for your father's festivals!" she snips.
"My father, Nerdanel," I point out coolly, "is the king. My respect for him at our worst moments exceeds that which I have ever felt for the Valar."
There is stunned silence before she speaks. "The Valar have brought us here! They have given us the luxuries we enjoy!"
"Perhaps, they should not have done those things. Eru awakened the first Elves at Cuiviénen, in the Outer Lands. If Eru intended us to live in Valinor, they would have awakened here."
"If not for them, our children would know nothing but darkness and go to sleep each night, fearing capture by Orcs. They provide for us, Fëanaro. I am grateful for that."
"The Valar provide for us? Did the Valar build our home? Do the Valar feed our children? Procure their clothes? See to their education? No, they do not, Nerdanel. We do these things. We provide for ourselves."
"We shall not save ourselves from the Dark Lord."
At this I pause. Our eyes meet over the yards of silk and satin, the silly adornments. I grin. I would laugh but for the ice in my heart at the thought of his name. "Melkor dwells in the Outer Lands no longer, Nerdanel. He dwells in Mandos. In Valinor."
She bites her lip and looks down at Carnistir's robes, pressing them with a ferocity I know she would like to wield against me. "You would have forsaken the Great Journey then? You would have remained in the Outer Lands?"
"I believe I would have. I would be Avarin, and I would make their civilization the greatest on Arda. My talents are not constrained to Valinor."
Tears are dropping onto the cloth in front of her, but she erases them with the hot iron as they fall.
I wish I could feel her thoughts, but her spirit has wisely retracted from mine, from my fire. I look away from the bits of steam I imagine I can see rising from the luxurious red and black satin robes.
The voice comes from the doorway behind me. I hear Nerdanel sniffle and duck her head to hide her tears. She will not cry in front of the children.
I set the iron aside and turn. Macalaurë stands in the doorway, tense, sensing the blackness between his mother and me, his nervous eyes wide, his strong voice uncharacteristically timid.
"Annawendë is here. She wishes to speak with you. I told her to wait in the parlor."
"I will be there in a moment, Macalaurë," I say, and he flees before my sentence is entirely finished. I watch him go with regret.
When did my family begin to fear and despise me?
"We do not fear and despise you," Nerdanel whispers. She has raised her eyes to look at me. They are shot through with blood; she must have been crying harder than I realized. "We love you too much."
I reach across the table and touch her damp cheek. Its curve fills my palm perfectly. In our youth, how we used to search for such petty perfections as evidence that we'd each been created with the other in mind! Now that seems silly, for what is the value of a perfect bodily fit if her spirit cannot bear to abide with mine? She turns her face and kisses my palm.
"Go to Annawendë. I will be here when you return."
I trust this, and I go.
Annawendë waits in the parlor, like Macalaurë told me, as though she is a guest—not a resident—in our home. Yet, for the last few days, she has not been a resident of my home but of the town, where she and the other apprentices are currently assisting the lords in readying for the winter. She does not sit on the furniture—rich brocade, gifted us by Verkaturo when Nerdanel and I decided to build our second home here—but paces the length of the room, avoiding the silk carpet at the center. From afar, she might be mistaken for a man: Her hair is scraggly and tied back roughly, she is clad in the plain tunic and trousers of a metalsmith, and her bearing is neither soft nor graceful. But all of these things are betrayed by her soft curves, curves that never fail to remind me of Nerdanel in our youth, exceedingly impractical and beautiful on one such as her.
I have arrived soundlessly, so she does not note my presence until she turns in her pacing and sees me. "Fëanaro," she says, and she shows not alarm but resignation, as if she knew I would be there. She smiles in the soft, crooked way that is Annawendë. "Thank you for coming."
I do not demand the quaking reverence from my apprentices that some masters do. In fact, when interviewing for this last appointment, I was put off by those who were quick to kneel and call me "my lord." Annawendë was neither. She is rough in the way of Elves from the far south of Aman, those who know how to work the hard heat of the land and little else, whose bodies are accustomed to soaring mountains and scarce rains. I was more surprised by Nelyo's desire for her. Nelyo tends to prefer the manicured, polished daughters of my father's lords, and Annawendë is none of these things. Yet I rejoice, for no one else would I want more to call a daughter-in-law and mother my heir.
"Of course I came, Annawendë. Did you not send for me?"
"I did, but Macalaurë told me that you are leaving tomorrow and are very busy. I will not take much of you time."
"Take what you will. Not much remains to be done. Won't you sit?" I gesture to the sofa, but she shakes her head.
"I am dirty from work today. I do not want to ruin your upholstery."
"We will walk then?"
"I would like that."
We walk outside, both naturally gravitating towards the forge. I like Annawendë too because she does not insist on touching me as we walk, as do the daughters of the lords. She does not need to hold my arm or kiss my cheek or touch my hand. Such affections I reserve for my wife alone. Annawendë and I walk as two men, with three feet of air between us and our arms crossed and kept neatly to ourselves.
Annawendë does not waste time by having me coax words out of her. "I have come to ask for your leave to return to my home, Fëanaro."
I could not have been more surprised if she confessed to have been my stepmother in disguise all along, trying to win my favor by learning the arts of the forge. It is a moment before I can catch the words whirring around in my busy mind that form my response. Even then, the response is sadly inadequate for one usually revered as a great orator. "For…ever?"
"I am not sure how long it will be. I like to think not forever, but possibly, yes."
"May I ask why?"
"Naturally, you may. You are my master. That I should even entertain the idea…."
We reach the forge and stop walking. I lean against the wall, and she stands opposite me, with her arms crossed under her breasts and her face turned gravely to the ground.
"I am in love with your son, Fëanaro."
"I know this, and I rejoice in it. I would love nothing more than to have you as a daughter-in-law."
"Maitimo asked me to marry him. Actually," she says, with blunt, defiant honesty, meeting my eyes for the first time since we arrived at the forge, "we nearly did marry."
I feel my eyebrows pop up as though on their own accord. The whirling thoughts grow more frantic, and I open and close my mouth a few times but can make no reply.
"You are surprised by this? Your son is not innocent. You know this."
"I do." I want to lighten the mood and say that the entire city of Tirion knows it, but I do not. I press my hands together and wait for her to go on.
"I have not been entirely honest to Maitimo. Nor to you, I suppose, although I defend myself in saying that my deceit has been more an error of omission rather than an intentional lie. But I cannot accept his betrothal until I remedy this predicament. And, to do this, I will need to return home."
"I grant my leave, Annawendë, but I wish to know why you fear you may not be back."
She smiles gently, crookedly. "I know not what my heart may find at home. I did not come here expecting to fall in love."
"And you will alert us when you know if you will return?"
She shakes her head. "It shall not be a conscious decision, Fëanaro. Surely, you of all people understand this. I will know that I have chosen your son only when my feet carry me on the road to him. Otherwise, I would choose him now. If I am not back in Tirion by the ending of winter, then my heart shall remain in my homeland, and Maitimo shall have to wed another."
But Nelyo wants no other! I want to cry, but it is not my place to intercede, so I nod. "When will you depart?"
"I will be gone by your return from the House of Oromë."
I force myself to smile and say, "Go with my blessings, then, Annawendë."
"Thank you, Fëanaro. Thank you also for not asking more questions. My heart is sick with the answers. I have given Maitimo leave to tell you, if he desires. And if you do not want me back, then you need only send word."
"Do not look for my messenger," I tell her, "for he will not come."
There was a time when I was making a shield for Manwë, for the Festival of the Trees. I was young—not even at my majority—and not long returned to Tirion, and so the honor was prestigious. For days, weeks, I worked, never satisfied with the results, doing bits of it over and over until even I began not to see the difference. It was Nerdanel who stayed my hand: "It is perfect. Let it go."
Now, I stand in the doorway, having crept there unheard by Nelyo, who stares at a book of which he has not turned a page in the ten minutes that I have been standing here. He might be one of his mother's statues, he sits so motionlessly.
It used to be that Nelyo would run to me for every little thing: Every injury or slight, real or imagined, he would tumble into my arms, weeping against my shoulder. But now, when his hurt is such that I cannot perceive it, he does not come, and I am afraid to approach.
Let it go.
But he is not a shield made of silver and gold. He is my child. It is not so easy.
And so even as my feet go to turn and carry me back to Nerdanel, to the work that is still undone, I step into the library.
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