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Another Man's Cage: 32. Chapter Thirty-Two--Tyelkormo
It is the last night that we will sleep in the wild before arriving at Oromë's Halls, and I am so excited that I cannot sleep. We have traveled steadily southward, and the nights have become warmer, and so we sleep in a clearing in the forest, without a tent. I lie on my back and gaze at the stars. There is minimal wind, and it barely teases the sparse tree branches over the clearing. I share a bedroll with Findekáno—as I have grown accustomed to doing this summer—and he lies with his back to me, lost in silent dreams. Findekáno never mutters in his sleep and barely moves, usually lying the whole night in the position in which he settles. It is abnormal, I think, for everyone in my family at times grows restless with dreams. On my other side is Amil, sharing her bed with Atar, and Carnistir curled up tiny beneath the blankets at Atar's side.
Nelyo and Macalaurë do not journey with us this time, a fact that was sprung upon us at breakfast on the morning we left. I heard Atar and Amil arguing in the kitchen while I set the table for breakfast, arguing in loud whispers like they did not want us to overhear, yet could not fully contain their anger. Carnistir hid under the table, wrapped Atar's cloak around his head, and sobbed. Findekáno made a point of staring at the floor, as though his lack of eye contact was enough to convince me that he did not hear my parents arguing in the next room. Amil appeared a moment later, pushing out of the kitchen with her eyes reddened and her expression firm, to straighten our work. Atar brought the breakfast out a moment later. His eyes were bright and clear, but his face was hard like Amil's—or a statue carved from stone.
"Where's Nelyo?" I asked, as we took our seats and Amil handed us bits of lembas for energy on our journey. The two places I had set for my older brothers stood empty, although Atar had poured water in both of their glasses.
"Nelyo and Macalaurë will not be going with us today," Atar said. He was cutting an apple for Carnistir and did not look away from the knife.
At that moment, Nelyo and Macalaurë came into the dining room and took their places behind the empty plates. "I apologize for our tardiness," said Macalaurë, and I looked to Nelyo in alarm, for he is usually the one to ask for forgiveness. His natural grace makes it logical, and his station as the eldest brother demands it. But now it was Macalaurë—the awkward second-born—who made such a pronouncement.
Nelyo took a piece of lembas without a word. His face was very pale and the skin beneath his eyes looked dark and bruised. Macalaurë used to smear soot from the forge around his eyes and chase Carnistir and me to scare us, and he had looked much like Nelyo did then. Nelyo only ate half of the lembas before setting it on Macalaurë's plate without a word. He took nothing else. Amil and Macalaurë both sent wide-eyed looks, as though begging for something, in Nelyo's direction, but he sipped his water and did not look up. Atar was busy trying to get Carnistir to eat a slice of apple, and I don't think he noticed.
After breakfast, Nelyo and Macalaurë were excused, and Findekáno and I were sent to clear the table and wash the dishes. Nelyo and Macalaurë scraped back their chairs and left silently, looking at no one, not even each other, although I sensed that they were in communication nonetheless. Atar followed them and scooped up Carnistir and took him upstairs to dress. Amil stacked her plate with Macalaurë's, then hurried from the room as though she'd just remembered that she had to do something elsewhere and had to hasten to the task or be too late. None bothered to bring their plates into the kitchen.
It was my begetting day, and already I'd set the table for breakfast and now had to clear everyone else's mess, after they lacked the consideration to even take the dishes into the kitchen, as Atar expected all of us to do. Furthermore, my two elder brothers had decided to desert my special begetting-day trip, probably to stay home and gossip and go to picnics with other young people from the city. Angry tears blurred my vision, and I chased them away by banging the plates until I thought they might break. I didn't care. I wanted them to break. Maybe, then, someone would notice me.
Findekáno followed me, gathering the napkins for the laundry, walking silently with his head down. I slammed the plates on the counter beside the sink, returned for the glasses and slammed them down too. Findekáno was preparing a rag to wipe the table, and the bitter urge rose in my gut to kick his shins as I passed so that I might not be the only one who felt pain today.
But I did not, for fear of my father's retribution that would surely result, and instead, pumped the sink full of water, added more detergent than was necessary—causing bubbles to rise in a precarious mound—and pushed the dishes into it. Let one break, I found myself hoping, envisioning a plate shattering beneath the bubbles, where I could not see it as I reached into the water, leaving it to slip across my unwitting fingers in a blaze of pain, filling the basin with blood, making the soap bubbles pink. I wouldn't empty the sink when that happened but would wash all of the dishes, leaving them streaked with red that would dry brown while we were gone, eagerly awaiting the satisfaction of hearing my mother scream with the discovery.
Porcelain—even the heavy plates Atar had commissioned for daily use—should shatter easily inside the marble basin, but none did. None were even chipped so far as I could see.
Findekáno took his place on the stepstool next to me, drying the dishes as I clunked them on the counter. We did not speak and I made it a point not to look at him, although I felt his eyes sliding over me like slippery fingers appraising a token. Behind us, the kitchen door whooshed open. Probably Amil or Atar, I figured, and bit my lip and did not turn, but it was Nelyo—dressed in traveling clothes—who came up beside us and kissed Findekáno on the forehead before turning to me.
"I failed to wish you well on your begetting day, Tyelkormo," he said, and I could hear in his voice that he was trying to sound sincere, although his voice was rough, as though he'd just run a great distance and was winded. "I apologize and hope that the stars smile favorably on you this day and all others." He kissed my lips and hugged me. Standing on the stepstool, as I was, my face was pressed into his chest, and I could hear his heart beating. I expected it to sound light and quick—like one who has just run for many leagues—but it thudded ponderously instead, as if a stone were beating against the inside of his chest. I gripped him around his waist as though letting go would mean sentencing him to some terrible fate.
But he peeled my arms away so that Macalaurë—who had entered behind him—could likewise wish me well and give me a hug and kiss. Macalaurë wore his traveling cloak and smelled dusty, like the unscented soaps we use to keep bugs from bothering us on the road. "We are not journeying with you this day," he said, "so Nelyo and I would like to give you your begetting day gifts now, when the dishes are finished."
Nelyo came to stand beside me, and Macalaurë stood beside Findekáno, and the four of us finished washing and drying in no time, and I felt guilty for the thoughts that had filled my mind earlier, of streaking Atar's plates with blood. Nelyo helped me to empty and dry the sink, then led me to the wooden kitchen table and sat me on the bench between him and Macalaurë—who held Findekáno in his lap—and from beneath the table, drew out two packages wrapped in parchment that he'd hidden there.
Macalaurë's gift was large and bulky—an awkwardly wrapped lump with no discernable shape, bound with a red silk ribbon—and I opened it first. Inside were new riding boots, made from soft, flexible leather with a pattern of leaves tooled at the top. They were beautiful, and I gasped. "Yours now have begun to pinch your toes, have they not?" Macalaurë asked, and I nodded. "Well, then, these should fit perfectly. The finest cobbler in Formenos made them for me." I looked at him with astonishment, for Macalaurë has not Atar's gift for producing tradable commodities, and as though sensing my thoughts, he laughed and said, "Even craftsmen of renown appreciate a bit of music with their supper."
"And naturally, a voice as precious as Macalaurë's is held dear indeed," said Nelyo, handing me a smaller bit of parchment. "This is my begetting day gift to you, beloved brother mine."
Nelyo's parchment was folded into an envelope and sealed with red wax bearing his seal: our father's star, wrapped in the banner of our grandfather the King. Because he is not yet of age, Nelyo does not often use his seal, and I did not want to break it. I hesitated until he nudged me and said, "Go on. It is meant to be broken."
I broke the seal and poked my fingers inside the envelope. I felt the chain first: It was coarse, made of large links. Not our father's work; this I could tell just from the touch on my fingers. I drew it out, and it fell across my palm: a silver chain with a silver pendant that—when I turned it over—was revealed to be leaf-shaped, inlaid with slivers of colored stone in green, red, gold, and brown, each segment a different hue. The leaf's stem curled around the chain and held it in place. I looked up at Nelyo, confused, for Nelyo usually gives practical gifts, like books and quills, never anything so valuable. He smiled at me and took the chain and slipped it over my head. "I fashioned the chain, long ago, as part of my apprenticeship with Atar," he said, guiding it gently around my ears with well-practiced fingers. "It is not graceful, and Atar will make you one more beautiful, but I didn't have the time to ask him for it, and I hardly thought it right to give you a pendant without a chain on which to wear it."
"And the pendant?" I asked. Nelyo settled it around my neck, slipping it inside of my tunic to press against my breastbone. Like sunlight, I could feel it resting there, but it was as weightless as air. "Did Atar make the pendant?"
Nelyo chuckled. "No, little one, Atar outgrew such awkward notions long ago. I made the pendant. It is not beautiful, but I had the stones blessed by Yavanna before we came here. It will allow you to pass through the forest with ease, and as long as you wear it, no plant shall hinder your journey."
Not beautiful? It was not as flawless as Atar's work, but I could sense the many hours that Nelyo had spent making it and was more grateful for that then I would have been for one of Atar's perfect pieces that he made easily in less than a day and traded in the city for grain to feed the horses.
I tried to imagine passing through the forest without tripping over an exposed tree root or being snagged by vines and scratched by thorns and could not. I held the pendant in my hand, and it glistened at me, as though smiling. I smiled back, then tossed my arms around Macalaurë's neck first, then Nelyo's. "I love them both; they're beautiful!" I said, and I might have been talking about my brothers and not the gifts they gave me for the happiness that soared suddenly in my heart.
But still, they stood in the doorway while we departed, with one of Nelyo's heavy cloaks wrapped around both of their shoulders, and despite the happiness I had seen touch Nelyo's eyes only an hour earlier, his face had darkened once more.
The journey has been uneventful. Perhaps because of the pendant around my neck, even the tree branches seem to lift like arms to keep from tangling in my hair, and my pony has yet to slip on a moss-covered rock. Nonetheless, I am eager to leave the trail and join the company of the Vala Oromë, who was so kind to me those weeks ago, when in my unwisdom, I attempted to flee my destiny as my father's son.
And so I lie sleepless in my eagerness, beside my cousin who might have died for the depth of his silence, listening to my parents' breathing mingling with the sounds of the night. I feel the scratch of tiny insect-claws on my forehead and resist the urge to slap it away, sensing benevolence, and instead cup the creature in my hand and place in on my chest, where I can see it. It is a field cricket, small and brown, and he rubs his legs in a nocturnal lullaby almost as beautiful as the songs Macalaurë sings, until my eyes drop closed and I fall into sleep.
We awaken early the next morning and take a cold breakfast of berries and lembas before returning to the trail. My cricket has left me in the night, but the trees are filled with bright-feathered birds whose songs coax me awake. Carnistir is fussy this morning and won't ride with anyone but Atar, who looks invigorated but acts sullenly, barely speaking to anyone. For hours, we plod along the trail in near silence, kept company only by the soft thud of our horses' hooves on the mushy forest floor and Carnistir's whimpering. After a while, even the birdsong and colorful butterflies that cross our path becoming mundane, repetitive, a perpetual motion machine set to replicate the same set of motions over and over again. It is Amil who senses Findekáno's and my boredom first, and she leads us in a few rounds of trail songs. Atar remains silent and, as though attempting to overcome the new noise, Carnistir raises his volume to cover ours, so we do not sing long.
At last, as the morning fades and the golden light of afternoon wraps around us, we reach the edge of a meadow and Atar stops. The meadow is green without a brown spot upon it and studded with flowers of every color, rising into a gentle hill at the center. It is Valinor, and I had forgotten its beauty during our months in Formenos; it is as though, sifting through the mud, a bright jewel has suddenly been revealed. The wind plays its hands over the fronds, rippling them in the wind like the waves of the sea. In the middle of the meadow stand two deer—a stag and a doe—and at sight of us, they dash away and over the hill, out of sight.
"They are Maiar," Atar says suddenly. His voice is clear, not roughened by irritation, as I would have expected, as though he has been silent all morning not from surliness but only because he had nothing to say. "They serve Oromë. They will tell him that we are here."
The world falls still around us suddenly, as if nature is bowing in reverence. A moment later, a huge silver steed crests the hill, running nearly silently across the meadow. On its back is Oromë, his pale brown hair the color of an animal hide whipping the air behind him. The grasses of the meadow part to make way for him. Amil and Findekáno dismount simultaneously as he comes to a stop in front of us, kneeling in the grass in reverence. Atar also dismounts—as do I—but Atar doesn't bow. He shoves Carnistir into my arms—leaving me to remain upright and feeling suddenly disrespectful for it—and approaches Oromë.
Oromë and Atar grasp hands, and it is like watching two wildfires meet in a field: It is hard to tell which will first consume the other. "My lord Oromë," Atar says, bowing his head slightly, low enough to be respectful but defiant nonetheless, given that his wife still kneels behind him with her knees in the dirt.
"Curufinwë Fëanaro Finwion," says Oromë, and his voice sounds—as it always does—like it might boil into laughter or rage in an instant, and a split second could be the determinant of which, "the High Prince of the Noldor. I welcome you and your family to my home."
Over Atar's shoulder, Oromë's eyes alight on me. Carnistir is squirming in my arms—I am still too small to hold him easily—and so I cannot be certain, but my insides hum with a sound like a voice: I am most glad for your presence here, Fëanorion.
Carnistir stops wiggling and looks into my face, like a bystander watching a party in a conversation for a response. I lower my eyes and am struck by the thought that I should be on the ground with my mother and cousin, but I am conscious also of the weight of my father's eyes, as if he waits for my response, and I know that he would not look upon such a display favorably.
So, like Atar, I nod, although I let the secret thought warm me: I am overjoyed also at being here.
Oromë escorts us to his Halls, and at first, I do not see them, thinking that we must have been farther away than I thought. But then we stop, before the arching entrance to a forest, and I realize that these are his Halls; that he has crafted a mansion so like the forest around it that I had at first mistaken it for nothing more than a beautiful stand of trees. Tree trunks twist and bow to form the contours of the rooms, their boughs curtaining the windows so that all light is filtered through green, dusty and smelling of life. The floor is wooden and the fixtures are of stone, with water spilling from fountains like forest streams, graced by flowers of every color and variety, for the wife of Oromë is Vána the Everyoung, and flowers grow wherever she desires.
Two Maiar in cloaks and clothes like hunters take our mounts to a stable deeper in the forest; two more appear for our luggage, whisking it away to rooms hidden deep in Oromë's Halls before Atar can even protest. "You are hungry from your journey," Oromë says, and it is not a question but a statement, and I feel my stomach constrict as though on command, grumbling with sudden famishment.
Even Atar does not protest as Oromë leads through twisting halls that seem to culminate logically in a high-ceilinged dining room with a large, raw oak table at its center. A beautiful woman stands at one end of the table, giving an instruction to a servant, and when she turns to greet us, there is an innocent light on her face that makes her seem younger than Carnistir, despite the fact that her body is that of a grown woman. Her gown is light silk, with flowers twined at the neck and sleeves—and throughout her hair also—and her feet are bare. Her hair is golden like mine, but hers shines with the light of Laurelin. She offers her hand to Atar, and he takes it. "Curufinwë, it has been many years since we last met, yet you are as fair now as ever. I welcome you and your family to our home."
"I thank you, my Lady," Atar says softly. "May I reacquaint you with my family?"
"Your wife, Nerdanel, I shall know until the ending of time." My mother attempts to bow before her, but Vána catches her hands and kisses her cheek. "My dear, there is no need for one such as you to bow to anyone. I have known you through converse in your prayers; meeting you is like meeting an old friend. And your children?"
Amil introduces Vána to each of us in turn. Findekáno bows before her, and she laughs. "Such a proper little child, not that I'd expect anything else from the scion of Nolofinwë." She lifts Carnistir into her arms, and he gazes at her as though enraptured, for once not caterwauling, biting, or drooling, and she fawns over him for many moments, seeming as lost in his big, dark eyes and he is in her bright blue ones. Finally, she hands him back to Amil and comes to me last, and it is only when she is before me that I notice how tall she is. She must crouch to greet me. "And you, little one, are the reason that we have the honor of hosting your family. I remember riding to see you, only two days after you were born. A more beautiful baby might never again be born to the Eldar. Such fire burns in your spirit, Turkafinwë! I can see it in your eyes and hear it in your voice. Your father has blessed you, little one, with powerful gifts."
She kisses my forehead, and my skin beneath her lips feels as I always imagined the earth must feel here in the north, with the first warm rains of spring. I feel enlivened, as though I might run forever without stopping or leap from the cliffs and take wing like the birds. And when her kiss leaves me and she rises to invite us to sit and partake in the many dishes set out by the servants while she greeted us, I feel fragile and bereft, a leaf parched by drought and too easily torn by the wind.
The meal set before us that afternoon is akin to the feasts served at the festivals Grandfather Finwë holds in Tirion. I am deemed the guest of honor and seated to Oromë's right, opposite Atar. There are several game meats—turkey, goose, and wild pork—and an endless rainbow of fruits and vegetables, mostly served raw, crisp and cold from being washed in the frigid water delved from deep beneath the earth, and spilling forth from wicker baskets adorned with flowering vines that trail from the table and to the floor. There are blocks of cheese, many of which I have never tasted before. The bread is hot, as though just taken from the oven, and served with cold pats of butter shaped like leaves that melt upon touching the bread, dripping from my chin. The wine Oromë serves is thick and strong, and when Atar and Amil are distracted by Carnistir, who is caught feeding bits of pork to one of the large hounds that lies beneath Oromë's table, Oromë gives me a wink and pours me a second glass.
When we are filled to bursting, the servants appear again as if by magic, and in a single minute, the table is clear. Dessert is brought out next: fruit ices served in quartz crystal goblets, roughly hewn as though just taken from the earth and chilled so that they bite unwitting fingers like ice. The fruit ices are finer than snow, flavored like raspberries, and drizzled with just enough chocolate syrup to take the bite from the berries. Despite the fact that I can't recall ever having eaten so much—even at grandfather's most extravagant feasts—I am quickly scraping the bottom of the goblet with my spoon and licking away the last of the raspberry and chocolate from my lips.
"I wish that Nelyo and Macalaurë could have been here for this," I declare loudly, when the pleasantries my parents have been exchanging with Oromë and Vána cease long enough for me to speak.
Amil and Atar both laugh. They have finished a bottle of Oromë's wine between them, and I recognize the light flush that inebriation brings to my mother's cheeks.
"Perhaps it is for the best," says Atar, pouring himself and Amil another glass. "If Macalaurë knew that such feasts were the daily custom of the Valar, then I might never hear his songs grace my home again, for surely he would never leave your Halls, Lord Oromë."
I wait for Oromë to inquire after my brothers, to ask why they are absent when the letter Atar sent said that they would be in our company, but he does not. He laughs and raises his glass to my father. "May Curufinwë always enjoy the blessings of his sons' talents, but may he also lend them to us on occasion, so that the Halls of the Valar may be made brighter by the gifts that Ilúvatar's children bring the world."
All of us—even little Carnistir—raise our glasses, in honor of both Atar and the Valar.
The servants clear the table shortly after, and Atar retreats to Oromë's study for counsel while Amil asks if Vána would show us to our rooms, as our journey was long and we desire to refresh ourselves and rest. "Naturally," Vána says, sounding mildly surprised. "I apologize, for I do not often come among your people, and I forget that this is your way. Perhaps I should have done so prior to inviting you to the meal."
"I would not have minded, but I do not think the bellies of my little ones would have been keen on bathing while such a feast waited, untouched," says my mother.
Vána leads us up a staircase that curls around a tree trunk bigger than any I have ever seen before. Silver fronds hang from the branches like curtains and hide chambers and hallways from us. I do not know how high we climb before Vána parts the fronds and leads us down a hallway that might be from our house in Formenos except for the fact that flowering vines have taken the place of what adornment Atar would create along the walls. "You and Curufinwë will stay in the main guest chamber," she says, gesturing to a door at the end of the hallway. "The little ones, I thought would do well in here, but as your elder sons are not in attendance, then perhaps two shall share the chamber I had prepared for them, if one does not mind sleeping alone?"
"Yes," says Amil, "Carnistir cannot sleep with anyone but his father. I will give him Nelyo and Macalaurë's room, so that he may be closer to his father and me, and Tyelkormo and Findekáno shall share this one."
Vána takes her leave of us, and Amil leads us down the hall to the room that she will share with Atar. Carnistir is in her arms, his eyes closed and his head on her shoulder. Findekáno's eyes are drooping heavily, and he is staggering, perhaps only avoiding a fall because Amil holds his hand. "I know that you are sleepy, little ones," she says. "Just let me bathe you and give you fresh clothes, and I will tuck you into your beds for a nap."
I do not want a nap! I want to explore the many-tiered hallways of Oromë's Halls, but Amil will hear no complaints. "I will bathe Carnistir and Findekáno first, as they are most wearied," she tells me. "I want you, Tyelkormo, to wait for me in here."
She leaves me in Atar's and her bedroom. There is a wide window behind their bed, giving a sweeping view of the forest canopy, suggesting that we must have climbed quite high, although the climb was effortless, and I feel as though I could race along the treetops for all of the energy in my limbs. The furniture is crafted of natural wood, and for decoration, there are numerous wooden statues of wild animals in motion, running and springing, so realistic that they might be miniature versions of the actual creature. The bed is king-sized and covered with furs so soft that they feel like air when I run my hands across them. I kick off my boots and roll to the center of the bed to stare at the ceiling, which is higher than our bedrooms at home, with wooden rafters strewn with flowers.
On Atar's side of the bed is a wooden statue of a hawk, his wings outstretched and cupped slightly around his body, as though he is ready to alight. The statue is wooden but rises from a quartz base that makes it look as though it is actually flying. It looks familiar, as though I have seen it before, and when I lift it to check for an artist's signature on the bottom, it is my mother's neat script chiseled into the base: Nerdanel Mahtaniel. I do not remember seeing this statue before and realize that it is probably older than I am, that Amil may have made it before she even married Atar.
"I do not understand why Oromë so loves that piece," says Amil's voice behind me, startling me so that I bobble and almost drop the statue. "It is awkward compared to that of which I am capable."
I set the statue gently onto the table. "I like it," I say and turn. Amil holds Carnistir, wrapped in a fluffy bath towel and sleeping on her shoulder. She lays him gently in the middle of the bed, tucking the towel around him. "Will you watch over him?" she asks me, and I nod solemnly, as though I am agreeing to a promise that will last well beyond this moment, this day.
I must have done as I was told, and I must have been bathed, but both memories are dimmer than dreams when I awaken in a wide bed in unfamiliar chambers, my hair damp, wearing a clean nightshirt. My head lies like a leaden weight on my pillow and my eyes might have been heavy glass orbs for the effort it takes to roll them in the direction of a second bed opposite mine, where I see a lump shrouded in blankets that I assume is Findekáno. The wine, I realize, recalling the thick, drowsy taste of the vintage and Atar's comment to Nelyo at a feast we once attended in Manwë's palace in Taniquetil, to drink sparingly the wines of the Valar, for they exert great potency on unaccustomed Elves. On the table between our beds, Amil's statue stands, as though brought to me through a wish alone. As I fall gently into slumber, I dream that I am the hawk, and I feel the cool winds of Manwë bearing me ever higher, until the trees are a green fuzz beneath me, and Varda's stars are near enough to touch.
I do not know for how long I sleep after, but when I awaken again, Amil is setting Findekáno's circlet atop his head. He is already dressed in deep blue robes trimmed with silver embroidery, and as I sit up, he catches my eye in the mirror, and for a moment, he is not the young, silent Elf with whom I have been forced to associate in the past few months but someone much greater, with courage and wisdom in his eyes that equals what I see in Nelyo's.
But that moment passes quickly, as Amil hears my bedclothes rustle and turns to meet my eyes and give me a smile. "Look who's decided to awaken," she says. "We will be joining Lord Oromë and Lady Vána for the evening meal, Tyelkormo, if you would help me by putting on your good robes."
My good robes are the color of pine trees with gold- and ruby-colored thread twined at the hemlines. Amil has laid them out along with a light silk tunic and breeches to wear underneath. My limbs are still heavy but the weight pressing my eyes is lifting a bit, and by the time I have the robes fastened and am ready to have Amil braid my hair, I am invigorated once more and ready for the evening's festivities.
Normally, Amil puts my hair in single, simple plaits at each side, fastening them at the back of my head to keep my hair from my face, with very little aesthetic enhancement. But tonight, she takes a long time to weave my hair in an elaborate series of braids, tiny enough that a good deal of my hair is left to spill freely over my shoulders, and carefully nestles my circlet atop it. In the mirror, I meet my own eyes and see a different Elf than stares back at me each morning, one that looks like a prince from Tirion. I feel silly, though, as if I am playing dress-up, like I used to do when I was as small as Carnistir, wearing Atar's apron and boots and pretending to be Aulë.
Amil kisses my temple. "You are beautiful, Tyelkormo," she says, and a thought flashes through my mind before I even realize that I am thinking: Of course I am.
We wait in a parlor alongside the hall, a hall that roars with voices. Oromë's people have gathered here tonight, to welcome the High Prince of the Noldor and his family, so we will be formally presented and seated at the head table, with Oromë, Vána, and their most loyal Maiar. In the meantime, we nibble on cheese and sip sparkling wine. Amil looks beautiful—her hair arranged in gentle waves down her back—but nervous, sitting on the edge of a settee with awkward dignity. She is a princess, I know, for she is Atar's wife, but it is hard to think of her that way, even now, when she wears a splendid gown and her silver circlet. Atar is much easier to think of as a prince, even though he acts the least dignified of us now, as he paces around, bouncing Carnistir and singing him silly little songs to keep him from crying.
I lean over onto Amil's leg. "Amil, are we going to eat soon?"
"Very soon, my little one," she says, handing me another piece of cheese in an attempt to keep me quiet. I consider raising further protestation, but Atar gives me a stern look over the top of Carnistir's head, and I make myself be content to eat my bit of cheese in silence.
Besides Atar, only Findekáno looks at ease. He sips at the bit of wine that Amil has given him and reads a book of Nelyo's that he has brought, spread open on his knees. His nonchalance is no surprise, though, as he is accustomed to such a fuss being made on his behalf. I imagine that he must be honored at feasts all the time in Tirion, as the eldest son of my half-uncle, the other High Prince of the Noldor. We would be given such honors too, but Grandfather Finwë says that his eldest is stubborn and prefers to bask in the light of his own creations rather than the admiration of his people, and so we live outside the city and are not often regaled with such luxuries.
A steward appears and glasses are abandoned and hair smoothed and clothing straightened before we follow him down the hall, where the doors open to a fanfare and we are presented as the family of Curufinwë Fëanaro, High Prince of the Noldor.
Other lords and Maiar have been presented before us, and they join the people in rising and applauding our arrival. The hall stretches almost as large as Grandfather Finwë's hall in Tirion, and from wall to wall, all I see are sunny Vanyarin heads, filling the room. We hold no lordship over them, but they rise out of respect for us anyway. Amil hurries us to our seats, her face flushed with distress at having so many eyes pinned on her, but Atar lingers and nods carefully in thanks to the people, who take it as their invitation to sit down. Atar will speak later, but for now, he is the last to be seated as silence descends on the room in anticipation of the introduction of Oromë and Vána. A fanfare explodes against the silence, and Oromë and Vána step through the doors through which we just passed. Oromë wears white robes trimmed in leaves; his crown is a garland of golden branches. On his arm, Vána wears a gown of many layers of trailing silk, with flowers spilling down her back as if they grow in the rich luster of her golden hair.
Like iron fillings rising to a magnet, everyone in the room pushes to their feet. The roar of applause is greater than thunder or the roar of the sea; the light in the people's eyes at the sight of their lord and lady is akin to that which lights Atar's face in the forge. Amil has to nudge me to get to me rise, while Atar hauls Carnistir to his feet. We bow our heads in honor of the Valar as they take their seats amongst us, and I touch my golden hair as I do. In these halls, I might be mistaken for one of their people—and, indeed, my spirit does glow with love for Oromë—but also, there is unease in my chest, as though I do not really belong here and, try as I might to remain, my presence here will be as fleeting as a dream.
Oromë and Vána take their places but do not sit. Oromë motions for the people to sit, and with a great clatter of scraping chairs, they do. Amil tugs my robes and I sit as well. "People of Oromë," says Oromë, in a voice that projects around the hall as though the walls themselves speak with his voice, "your effusive welcome is as always most generous and appreciated. You join me tonight to celebrate my guests, the House of Curufinwë, of the Noldor, who have journeyed here to honor the begetting of the third-born son of Curufinwë, Turkafinwë Tyelkormo."
Many heads swivel in my direction. They are made curious, I see, by this golden-haired Noldo who would choose to celebrate his begetting in the company of the Valar. Unlike the Noldor, their curiosity is short-lived and quickly replaced by warm smiles, eyes crinkling in welcome. No matter what my circumstances, I know that I will be made welcome among them.
Oromë is nearly finished speaking. "I would like to invite High Prince Curufinwë to say a few words, if he will. And perhaps, Curufinwë, we may impose upon you to speak the blessing?"
Beside me, Amil goes rigid as though seized by a sudden pain, and even her well-honed decorum cannot stop her eyes from flying to my father. He does not return her glance, however, and rises carefully from his seat beside Oromë.
It is not often that I hear my father speak publicly. He speaks at major feasts and festivals in Tirion, but he never speaks for long, and it is easy to forget that the man who recites historical texts with Nelyo and sings songs to my baby brother and yells at me for tracking mud across the vestibule does so in the same voice with which he now speaks to the people of Oromë, a voice like wine that flows into even the most reluctant spirits and kindles a warm glow. I watch as Atar speaks and the eyes of the Vanyar drift from their lord and to the face of my father, where they remain, as though entranced. He speaks of gratitude and of his honor at so rich a welcome; his spirit is warmed, he says, by the generosity of the people of the Vanyar, as though they have done much more than stand in his honor. I watch lips flicker open into smiles, across the room, like the stars emerging at night. "I thank all of you for your hospitality: Lord Oromë, Lady Vána, people of the Hunter," he concludes, "and may light smile ever upon you." There is nothing special about his words—they are typical words of gratitude spoken at such occasions—but the people cheer, as though Atar has given them gifts of gold and not plain words spoken in his voice.
"All rise for the giving of thanks to Arda and the Valar," calls Oromë's herald, and the people are once more on their feet.
And the Valar. That explains why Amil looked so alarmed and why, now, her clasped hands tremble. Atar will not kneel before the Valar; he says he owes them no loyalty. The Vanyar speak praises of the Valar each morning and before each meal. They credit the Valar with their very existence, speaking gratitude for every vague inspiration and blessing that touches their lives. To imagine such words in Atar's voice is inconceivable. I wonder now if he will rebel, if he will speak against that which he is being asked to do; I watch for the sparks of insolence in his eyes, but his face remains calm, his expression flat. His hands are loosely clasped in front of his rich red robes; his bright eyes remained lifted to the ceiling, to the expansive sky beyond, even as a golden ripple passes among the people, as heads bow piously and hair spills over shoulders. Beside me, Amil's hands are clenched and her long, red hair brushing the tabletop as she bends her head. Atar's palms press flat atop the table, and his face remains lifted to the sky.
"To Arda, we give thanks for those gifts we are about to enjoy. And may the friendship between the Ainur and the Eldar remain eternally strong, and may both forever enjoy the blessings the other provides."
The people of Oromë remain standing for a long moment after Atar has finished, their bowed heads motionless, and it isn't until Atar silently takes his seat that I detect motion among them: Heads tilt and shift to exchange small glances with neighbors, as though silently questioning my father. I imagine they wonder: Is this a tradition of the Noldor, to so deftly avoid the Valarin influence in our lives? Surely, Grandfather Finwë has spoken many times before them, and his blessings are as lavish as those of his wife, the princess of the Vanyar. It is Oromë who sits first, then Vána, and the rest of the people follow, although the conversation fails to rise as it usually does with the subsequent arrival of the breadbaskets and tureens of soup. My parents—Atar to my right and Amil to my left—however, start speaking right away: Atar and Oromë begin conversing about the mining prospects of a town north of Formenos and Amil attempts to coax a spoonful of soup past Carnistir's tightened lips. Never, though, over the course of the meal, do they acknowledge each other.
Later that night, Findekáno and I play a boardgame in our room, sitting on Findekáno's bed. It is getting late, but neither of my parents has come to help us out of our fancy dress robes and into our nightclothes. Findekáno is half-lying across the bottom of his bed, watching me ponder my next move, and his circlet is crooked on his head and his robes are becoming wrinkled. I'd hate to see how I must look: The tight hairstyle Amil gave me makes my head ache—I am accustomed to having my mass of hair unencumbered and free to fly weightlessly where it will—so I have slowly tugged the plaits free and thrown the clips onto the floor, along with my circlet and all of my jewelry, except the pendant Nelyo gave me. I jump my piece over one of Findekáno's and claim it for my own. He scowls, and I loll onto my back to watch what his next move will be.
We do not speak much as we play, for there are few matters worthy of conversation that exist between us. We strive silently, as though more is at stake on the gameboard than a few carved stone pieces. I free the last plait in my hair as I lie and scatter the clips on the floor between our beds. My restless fingers begin to untwine the braids as Findekáno's fingers skip over the game pieces indecisively. He starts to move one piece, then realizes that that move—which will claim one of my pieces—will allow me to claim three of his, and withdraws his hand and nibbles on his thumbnail. His forehead wrinkles and his teeth click down on his nail, then stop; he stares at the board, frozen, for a long moment, then his hand shoots out and skips one of his pieces over three of mine.
He tries to look nonchalant about taking the lead over me for the first time tonight, but he betrays himself when his eyes flicker to mine to gauge my reaction. I make my features remain stiff. When he first came to stay with us, he would jump the first piece he saw, and I beat him easily every time. He must have learned something during all the hours he spends studying with Nelyo—patience, perhaps. I appraise the board, seeking the most viable possibilities among the pieces, but my stomach gives an impatient flutter that means I am losing and desperate to regain my lead. I swallow hard and try to regain my control, but I only betray myself: With a lift of his eyes, I know that Findekáno has perceived my unease.
"Do you think your parents have forgotten us?" Findekáno asks.
"No, it is Atar's turn to tuck us in tonight. He would not forget."
Secretly, I think that he is probably not here because he and Amil are fighting. They said nothing to each other through the entire meal, and fifteen years as their son has taught me that the words they withhold in anger have a tendency to explode tenfold later. I strain my ears to listen—their suite is next-door to our room, after all—but I hear nothing. It is as though our room floats alone, high above the trees, for all the sounds that I can hear from the rest of the house. It is so quiet that I can hear my own pulse soughing in my ears.
I begin to wonder if Findekáno was right: Maybe Atar did forget us. He sometimes works so intently that he will not answer us when we call him for supper. Perhaps he has descended to that place inside of himself now, where he is unmarried and childless and free to go with his mind, where it wanders.
As though sensing my unease, the bedroom door bangs open, but it is Amil, not Atar, who enters. Carnistir is wriggling and shrieking in her arms, and past his senseless keening, I discern the words: "No, no bath! Had bath already today!" One of his legs breaks free of Amil's grip, and he begins bludgeoning her hip with it.
"Where's Atar?" I ask. "Atar's supposed to tuck us into bed tonight."
"Well, I shall have to suffice," she says, speaking loudly to overcome Carnistir's wailing. "Your father rode out into the forest, and I do not know when he will return."
I feel a stab of hurt inside me for not being invited to ride with him. Everyone is suddenly taking these private journeys, leaving in secret and abandoning me to suffer with mediocrity: first Nelyo and Macalaurë, now Atar.
Amil sets Carnistir onto my bed, where he burrows beneath the blankets, effectively becoming just another lump in my ruffled coverlet. Carnistir is very good at hiding, I do have to admit. He will be a fine hunter one day, if he ever learns to shoot an arrow farther than four feet.
"Look at the two of you," Amil says, but she looks at me when she says it. With a whooshing sigh, she bends to pick up the clips and jewelry that litter the floor. Findekáno's eyes are wide with guilt—even though the rubble on the floor was not his doing—and his fingers are twitching over his hair, smoothing it, straightening his circlet, so when Amil rises again, all that remains of his disarray are the wrinkled robes. I, on the other hand, must look like a heathen.
Amil inspects the bits she has retrieved from the floor and, finding that they are all mine, dumps them into my lap with stern instructions to put them in their proper place. I have never seen Amil this irritated before—except maybe with Atar, but never with us—and I have never seen her limbs jerk like she can't wait for them to be done with her tasks so that she may escape somewhere else. I feel an apprehensive twinge: Maybe she will leave us too? Maybe she will ride away from us, as Atar and Nelyo and Macalaurë have already done? I scamper to my bureau and put away my things without another word; Findekáno is likewise sweeping away the game pieces and folding up the gameboard, so we will never know who won, but that seems unimportant now.
I walk as quietly as I can, back across the room, and sit on my bed, avoiding the lump that is Carnistir, although he squeals when my weight shifts the mattress, as though I have plopped directly atop him. Findekáno is sitting likewise on his bed—we are the portrait of obedient children, although Carnistir spoils the image—and Amil is searching our bureaus for our nightclothes. Oromë's servants put them away, and they did not place them as we have them at home, and she is grumbling about this.
She finds Findekáno's nightshirt in a drawer with his underwear and relaxes a bit. "Why have you all gone so quiet?" she asks, and she sounds like Amil now, her voice gentle and a bit playful. "I grow suspicious when my three babies become too quiet."
"I thought you were angry with us, Amil," I say.
"Not with you," she says. "With your father, perhaps. I apologize if my irritation with him has been conveyed to you unjustly." She finds my nightshirt too and smiles at us. The smile is tight, though, a mechanism much strained and trying not to break, to function as easily as it once did. Behind me, Carnistir wriggles and moans.
Once, when Amil and Atar argued, I went to Atar and asked him why, and he told me that he and Amil are both too obstinate for each other. Full of fear I asked: Did that mean that I was going to lose one of them? That Amil or Atar was going to go away and not live together anymore, and full of tenderness, Atar took me in his arms and assured me that the bond between a husband and wife—especially one sealed with as much love as was his and Amil's—took much more than a little fight to sunder. I asked, then, what did it mean? And Atar told me, his voice light, as though joking, "Nothing more except that it might be a bit longer before you get another baby brother."
After that, whenever Amil and Atar would fight, I would go to Atar and ask, "Does this mean that I have to wait a bit longer for my baby brother?" and he would laugh, and I would feel as though things had returned to a fraction of normality.
I try it with Amil now. "Does this mean that I have to wait a while longer for another baby brother?" I ask, and Amil shoots me a puzzled look, so I explain, "Atar says that when you are mad at him, then it keeps him from being able to give me another brother."
She stares at me for a long moment, during which time Carnistir wriggles more furiously and kicks at my back, as though he wishes to be free of the blankets. But there is a second side to the bed, and he is free to escape from there. Now, I am wondering what Amil will say, and why she has grown so quiet.
She breaks the moment, jerking in the direction of our vanity to retrieve a hairbrush. "I wish your father would not tell you such things," she says, and her voice is strained again, and I wonder why it makes Atar laugh but makes her angry.
Carnistir kicks me hard enough to hurt, in the center of my back, and I yelp and slide off of the bed. At that moment, the smell hits me—like the ammonia that Atar keeps in his laboratory mixed with the heavy-grained salt that we sprinkle on popcorn—and I shout, "Amil, Carnistir wet in my bed!"
I expect Amil to run and pull Carnistir out of the bed, but she turns her back to us, and her hands tear at her hair as though it has angered her. "Why must you be so difficult?" she shouts, to no one in particular, and her voice breaks, and I can hear her ragged breathing. This is how I breathe, after I have hurt myself and lie crying in the safe comfort of Atar's arms.
She whirls and, in a second, has crossed the room. I am bumped out of the way, and Carnistir is drawn—screaming and kicking—from my bed. The bottoms of his good dress robes are soaked, and my sheets are ruined. "Play amongst yourselves," she orders Findekáno and me, and a bucking, gnashing Carnistir is carried into the bathroom under his arms and away from her body, like Macalaurë carries compost to the garden when Atar has prepared a reeking Telerin dish for supper.
I consider my bed, which is spongy and wet, and go to sit beside Findekáno's on his. From the bathroom comes the sound of running water and Carnistir wailing. Now would be the time that Atar would storm into the room and demand to know the reason for the ruckus, and the threat of his anger would calm Carnistir. But Atar is away, riding, and Amil is angry with him and cannot control Carnistir alone.
"We are supposed to play," says Findekáno.
"At what shall we play?" I ask.
"We could resume our game."
And so the gameboard is drawn out again, and we each take cares to arrange our pieces exactly as they were. I watch Findekáno carefully for treachery. His pieces are arranged; he had fourteen left on the board when we were interrupted earlier. Now, I count carefully again and see fifteen.
"You put on an extra piece," I say.
"I did not," he retorts, and I am surprised by both the speed and strength of his reply. It seems to imply guilt and the anticipation of my anger, and it angers me more.
"You did," I say, and I choose a piece and remove it from the board. His cheeks pinken and he puts it back. We fight like this for several minutes, removing pieces and replacing them; soon, he is taking away my pieces with the same speed that I am taking away his, and we are slapping each other's hands, and accusations are pouring from our mouths like water. I sweep a handful of pieces—both his and mine, whatever I can grab first—into my palm and hurl them at his face. They pepper his cheeks, forehead, and eyes, and he pounces across the gameboard and knocks me backward on the bed, his bony knees digging into my belly and his hands throttling me with strength that, until recently, he did not possess.
But I am still bigger and stronger, and I piston my fists into his small shoulders, and he cries out in pain, and we both tumble from the bed and onto the floor. My forehead collides with the thick wooden corner of the nightstand, and black spots flit before my eyes as I crash on top of him. I struck with enough force to move the nightstand, and my mother's statue—the eagle with his wings spread, coming to land on the watery quartz base—teeters and falls onto the floor with a crash.
But I heed it not, for Findekáno and I are scrabbling with each other: My hands tear at his hair, and he scratches my face, helpless beneath my weight, hollering with rage. His dress robes are torn at the throat; his circlet his lying on the floor beside us, and it has been bent, although Atar will be able to repair it. I take a wad of his hair in my fist and it frees itself from his head with surprising ease, and he screams in pain, wildly convulsing in an attempt to free himself from me, scratching at my eyes even, until I feel hands seize the back of my robe and throw me aside. Amil takes Findekáno in her arms. He is sobbing, and he squirms when she touches his scalp, and her fingers come away, pink with blood. Carnistir stands in the bathroom doorway, having crawled out of the tub on his own, and he is naked and dripping wet, making dark spots on the polished hardwood floor, and he is sobbing too, adding his voice to the melee.
I try to go to Amil, to explain what happened, but she cradles Findekáno protectively in her arms and snaps at me, "Be gone, Tyelkormo! Get gone from here!" and so I run from the room and do not stop until my lungs burn for need of breath.
I end in a room I do not recognize. It has a fireplace and a fur rug on the floor, and so I collapse onto the rug and sob into the fur, until my swollen eyes grow heavy, and I sleep.
When I awaken, I am not sure how many hours have passed, for the fire burns with the same intensity and the light through the windows is pale silver. It is always like that here, I know, in Valinor: Fires don't die and light is eternal. I hear Oromë's Maiar singing somewhere, and it is the song of the birds. I sit and listen for a long while, unsure of how much time passes before the singing stops and the silence draws me to my feet, as though it had offered a hand for assistance. I am still wearing my dress robes, and as I walk through the extensive halls of Oromë's home—wandering at random, for I do not know where I am—I imagine that this is how grandfather Finwë must feel, always resplendent in dress befitting a king, in a palace of grandeur enough to marvel his own. I wonder why Atar does not like this life, why he—who has such great love for beauty—cannot understand the appeal of feeling one's feet whisper through soft carpets, of feeling stately, akin to the Valar in appearance. Of hearing one's praises sung. I wonder if, when I am grown, I will have halls like this.
As though guided by a hand along my back, I find my way to my family's apartment, and I slip into my bedroom, but my bed has been stripped of bedclothes, and the mattress will have to be cleaned. Findekáno sleeps silently, curled beneath his coverlet and a fur blanket that Amil must have given him for comfort. Strange, blue-flamed candles cast wavering light onto the walls, and I am reminded of being underwater. There is a rubbish bin standing beside the door and in it are the remnants of my mother's statue, and regret tugs at my heart, for sight of the splintered wood and shattered quartz. Without thought as to why, I gather the pieces and wrap them in the ample cloth of my dress robes.
I depart the room, houseless, for my bed has been abandoned, and I have been given no place to sleep. I go to my parents' room, wondering if Atar has returned, but Amil sits alone by the window, her hands open and futile, lying on her lap, a parchment and quill forgotten on the table beside her. She gazes out the window, over the canopy of the forest, as though waiting for something.
"Amil?" I say, a tiny voice in the wide silence of Oromë's halls.v
Her fingers go to her cheeks and press there for a moment before she turns. She holds her arms out to me, and I clamber onto her lap, forgetting that I carried the remains of her statue in my robes like a sling, and some of the pieces bump to the floor. She does not seem to notice, as she holds me close, breathing in the scent of my hair as though it were as rich to her lungs as oxygen.
"Findekáno confessed to me that he struck you first," she whispers. "I am sorry that I doubted you, Tyelkormo."
My stomach twists with guilt, then bile burns the back of my throat at Findekáno's insolent honesty for, although I overpowered him physically, his courage remains greater than mine.
Amil lets me lie in the big bed that she shares with Atar, although she still wears her dress and lies atop the covers with her shoes on her feet. Stroking my hair, she coaxes me back to sleep, and I awaken as the first golden beams mingle with the silver light of night. Amil sleeps fitfully beside me, her brow furrowed as though in distress, her warm hand still atop my hair. I slip from beneath her hand, careful not to awaken her, and she mumbles and stirs but then relaxes. She must have dressed me for bed because it is nightclothes that whisper against my skin, and my crumpled robes lie across the settee.
In the rubbish bin are the pieces of the statue, as though Amil has forsaken hope of its repair.
I walk silently down the hallway to the room that I am supposed to share with Findekáno. He has barely moved during the night, and except for the golden light stretching through the windows, the room is exactly as I last saw it. Even the blue-flamed candles have not diminished, although—as I watch—as Laurelin's light touches each in turn, they sputter and go out as if by magic.
I pass my bed, which smells faintly of urine, even with the bedclothes stripped, and pause at the bureau, where Amil laid the gameboard and discarded pieces. There are eleven ruby pieces like blooms of blood, but these do not concern me, and I sweep them aside to count the blue pieces—Findekáno's pieces—crafted of milky star sapphires. One by one, they slip from the board and click into my hand. Eleven. Twelve. Thirteen.
I stop counting because there are no more to count. He only had fourteen pieces on the board.
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