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Another Man's Cage: 35. Chapter Thirty-Five--Macalaure
We are given a second-floor room that overlooks the street. Pressing my cheek to the glass, I can see a single sparkling tendril of the fountain, and so I am content.
There is a single bed but it is big enough for both of us—we have slept in far worse conditions before—and a marble tub in the corner to use for bathing. True to the Noldor, the finest piece of furniture in the room is the writing desk, complete with a ready stock of quills and parchment, as well as a stack of three books on architecture, left to occupy the traveler stricken with insomnia, perhaps dull enough to cure it.
Nelyo throws back the drapes and lets the afternoon light flood the room. "I feel like I am crawling with insects," he says. "Shall we wager for the bath?"
He puts a stone in his fist, shuffles it around behind his back, and asks me to select a hand. He turns it open, palm empty. "Sorry!" he sings, and already, he is tearing off his tunic and filling the tub with water.
That is fine; I am dirty but I do not feel as though insects are crawling on me. I lie atop the quilt on our bed and thumb through one of the architecture books. It is as bland a subject as I remember when I studied it with Atar. The book is old and others have added their words, in the margins or on slips of parchment stuck between the pages, updating the material. One hand is intimately familiar; the letters swirl with the ease of storm clouds on a high wind. "Further study has elucidated this equation to be," it reads, followed by a string of variables that I suppose I once understood, when it behooved me to pass the assessments that Atar would give me. It makes me feel strange, though, to think that Atar once lay across this very bed—perhaps while Nelyo complained of itching and drew himself a bath in the corner—reading this very book and adding his words to it, as though time has folded upon itself and given me his identity.
He would have been irritated, though, not perplexed by the inaccuracy. I can hear him complaining to Nelyo, who has just cast aside his dirty socks and breeches and splashed his feet into the tub, that there is no excuse for such a mistake. "Had they been meticulous in their experiments, they would have discovered the truth," he would have said, "but they were lackadaisical." To Atar, "lackadaisical" is a word with the disgustingness of phlegm, while "meticulous" is a virtue that he himself is known to display.
I set aside the book and retrieve Nelyo's hairbrush and, drawing the desk chair behind the tub, comb the snarls from his hair. Nelyo's hair darkens when it is wet until it is almost the color of my own; it is slippery like oil through my fingers. He sighs and leans into my touch. I am the opposite and do not care for others touching my hair. Nelyo I will allow to braid it before important functions (my hair is like silk and I cannot, for all my efforts, convince it to remain in place) and Amil or Atar fix it before the festivals in Tirion, but in Nelyo's place, I would swat at my hands and take the brush and comb it myself. I suppose it comes down to differences in our sensitivities: Nelyo is aware of his body where I am aware of my voice. I am not soothed by touches—by physical pleasure—the way that Nelyo is. I am soothed by sound, by the words of another, by reassurances. Nelyo would prefer that someone hold him and say nothing. At home, at night, I am sometimes overcome with loneliness in our big house: Atar and Amil are busy with their work and the little ones care not for me the way they do Nelyo. On those nights, I sleep in Nelyo's bed with him because it is big enough that we may lie without touching but, should I awaken in the night, I can hear his breathing and know that I am not alone.
(Nelyo's bed belonged to Atar, when Atar was young and lived in the palace with our grandfather. It was specially made, of a splendor fit for a high prince. Lying side by side, all three of my brothers and I can fit in it without touching. My own bed is not so splendid, and the few times that I asked Nelyo to sleep in it with me, I would awaken with his arm tossed around me—once his leg too—as though he had mistaken me for one of his girl-friends with whom he would sometimes spend the night under the pretense of some pursuit in Tirion. Such pursuits conveniently occured whenever his girl-friend's parents were traveling. I was always made to go along to deceive Amil, who believes that Nelyo is too virtuous to expose his little brother to such lasciviousness. Nelyo gave the servants handfuls of our father's gemstones to take the night off and not tell their lord.)
Nelyo moves suddenly, righting himself, disturbing the hairbrush, which had long ago stopped finding snarls and has been simply slipping through his hair with the ease of a paddle through water. "I could have you do that all afternoon," Nelyo says, standing and reaching for a towel to blot dry his body, "but I would fall asleep, and I have errands that I wish to make."
We have each brought a spare set of clothes, and Nelyo puts his on now. He squeezes the water from his hair and braids the sides, fastening the braids away from his face; he affixes a gold emblem of our House around his neck. In the splendor of Tirion, he would be trite, but here, he is radiant; he is fit to stand beside the fountain in the square, both products of our father.
With Nelyo gone, I bathe quickly and less meticulously (lackadaisically, perhaps?) than he did, but I do not find the pleasure in a warm tub of water that Nelyo does. At home, I will often sniff myself before deciding whether to bathe, and if I smell clean, then I will for combing my hair and washing my face, neck, underarms, and between my legs. I would rather take the time it takes to bathe to write a few bars of a song or sit at my window and listen to the birds sing. Now, however, it is clear that I am not clean; upon raising my arms, my odor is offensive even to me. If not certain that the innkeeper is used to the stink of travel, I would be ashamed for taking a meal with him in such a state.
I wonder where Nelyo has gone. He knows that I dislike "visiting;" I despise reciting the same news and listening to the same stories as told by the other townspeople, chewed slightly differently by each. I am not interested in the names of their children or the success of their trades, and I don't like pretending to be. Nelyo, on the other hand, believes each person he meets to be a genuine friend and treats them as such. This is why people love his company so much, for only a few kind words with him and he makes them believe that they have been elevated to the status of a confidant of the eldest son of Fëanáro.
But, in reality, we confide in none but each other, for the things that occur in our house defy what seems to occur in the regular world. Would I tell of the way my parents fight? Of Carnistir's bizarreness? Of Atar's defiant words to us about the Valar? How would I form such words so that they would slip as I intended into the ear of a listener, without horrifying him? I cannot; only one of my own—Nelyo—can accept such insights.
Instead, after dressing in my spare set of clothes and quickly washing those that Nelyo and I have discarded, laying them in front of the open window to dry, I take my harp, which I never fail to carry on my back when we travel, and head for the town square, for the fountain, where I will be happy to spend the afternoon composing a song adequate to describe its splendor.
I return after the Mingling of the Lights, having spent the afternoon with the town's bard, crafting songs about people that I had never met before that moment. With my contribution of a first impression and his insight into the true character of each, we wove songs that soon had an impressive throng gathered around us, laughing and applauding our verses. I spring lightly up the steps the second floor of the inn, expecting that Nelyo will still be visiting, but he has returned and is lying across the bed, reading one of the architecture books and adding his own notes in the margins.
"Look who has returned! I thought I might have to dine without you." He stands and fingers the garland of flowers placed around my neck by a little girl from the town. "Who gave you this?"
"A girl," I say simply.
Nelyo acts shocked. "What would Vingarië say, little brother, to know that you are accepting gifts from other girls?"
"She was no older than Tyelkormo," I say with some irritation. "It will be many years before she will entertain the thought of marriage or before even the finest gift she gave could capture my love."
Nelyo tugs the chain. "It is well constructed." He smirks and rolls his eyes, saying, "Noldor," as though he himself is not one.
The prince of them, I think, somewhat scathingly, before remembering with a start that I am too.
We go to the dining room, which is quickly filling with travelers and townspeople hungry for supper. A group of craftsmen wave at Nelyo, and he goes to join them. Wine is poured and sloshes over hands as hasty toasts are made. Hands are licked clean: Better to stray into impropriety than to let a good vintage go to waste. A chair is pulled out for me: I am one of them, apparently—even though I can think of nothing to say to these people—by virtue of my father's blood in my veins.
"Your brother is quiet," remarks a blacksmith. The supper plates have been brought, although the noise around the table hasn't subsided. When speaking and eating interfere with one another, apparently, speaking wins.
Nelyo laughs, "Were you to hear him sing, you would not think that!"
And that is how I come to be hastened in finishing my supper so that I may be ushered to a makeshift stage in the corner, given my harp, and told to sing. Not that I mind (although I pretend to): The only place in the world where I am truly comfortable is a stage. Anywhere else, my limbs feel too long, my head feels too big, as though I will not even make it through a doorway without wriggling. My voice—beautiful in song—is not deep enough to be commanding, as my father-name implies, although Vingarië once confessed in a letter that the first time I spoke to her, she shivered at the sound of my voice. I shivered at the thought of that. But onstage, I feel as though my body settles into normal proportions. I am no longer awkward, gangly, at risk of making a fool of myself. I will command the audience in song as I cannot in life. I will live up to the expectations of my father-name.
The craftsmen, the farmers, the weary-worn travelers have all fallen silent. Even cutlery is laid aside. I clear my throat—I wish I'd been given the chance to warm up!—and place my fingertips on my harpstrings. If they wish to hear more, I will take their requests later, but for now, I will begin as I always do, with the Song of Celebration, which was written by Rúmil when the Eldar received the invitation to Valinor, shortly before beginning the Great Journey.
I close my eyes and begin plucking the harp. I hear falling rain and singing water, trickling in gentle glissandos from leaves edged only in silver starlight. Then I hear the stars themselves, high above; they ring in clear notes like bells, the sound I imagine they made when Varda placed them in the firmament. There is a whisper of wind, the sough of a distant sea, calling me to light, and I open my mouth and let the words spiral to the low ceiling of this meager small-town inn in the north of Aman; I sing as though I were in the Halls of Manwë with the expanse of the heavens to fill with my voice. There are words, yes, but they are subverted by the song, by the spirit of joy in the hearts of the Eldar as they set out for the haven of Valinor. The song is what is important.
It ends with the abruptness of a cool breeze dying on a hot day, and I open my eyes. I can always tell those who lived during the Great Journey, for they are the ones with the tears in their eyes. They must have heard Rúmil sing the song for the first time after it was composed, before it became fodder and was twisted by proud whelps like me. Those who didn't walk the Journey are merely awed—my brother is among their number, although he must have heard me sing this song a thousand times—and I sense envy in the faces of some, as though they wish to know why this is called the Blessed Realm with the same keenness as those who walked the long roads of the Outer Lands.
There is no applause, but I do not expect it. There rarely is. There is silence and tears, and that is enough.
I play another song, then another, and soon, the audience is calling out requests; the mood shifts as the wine pours faster; there are others on the stage with me, belting out farcical tunes meant to mock and tease. I play along on my harp, light, leaping melodies, and I add my voice when I know the words. Some of the songs requested are my own, and my heart sings with pride then, and I understand why Atar is called proud when really he only burns with love for his work and the joy it brings to others' lives.
The night winds on, timeless. The inn is packed; every chair is filled and people stand along the walls. Others poke their heads in from the street, drawn by the music, and all end up staying. Tables are pushed back and some dance. I recognize the young couple from the square this morning, and the innkeeper and his wife turn a quick-stepped reel that makes the audience pound their feet in glee. The wives of some of the stragglers appear to see what is keeping their husbands, and they are coaxed into dancing and end up staying, their anger eased. My voice fails before their attention does, my throat becoming hoarse and sore, and as though sensing the imminent demise of my voice, the innkeeper calls for an end to the night—"The rooster will call early tomorrow!" he reminds the reluctant craftsmen and farmers—and the people slowly trickle out into the night.
The innkeeper serves me a drink that he says will ease my throat: hot tea and lemon, I know—for that is what Atar gives me after a particularly vigorous night of singing in Grandfather's court—but there is something else in there that burns deeper, in my belly.
The innkeeper sets three bottles of wine before me. "Your brother said that he wished to trade me for them. You have more than earned them this night, my lad."
It is then that I realize that Nelyo is gone. No one is left in the dining room but the innkeeper and me. I was so distracted by the audience that I didn't even notice the disappearance of my own brother. A faint hurt stabs at my heart swollen with pride, threatens to deflate it. He has heard you sing thousands of times, I tell myself but still cannot deny that his appreciation matters more than that of an entire roomful of people.
I mumble my gratitude to the innkeeper and hear myself make an excuse of exhaustion and head for the steps and for bed.
Perhaps he had other meetings to attend? I am perplexed, for it is Nelyo who usually sits at the very front of the crowd when I sing, who initiates the dancing once the quick, fun songs begin. It is Nelyo who calls out requests for my best songs should the audience's interest begin to wane. But not tonight.
But you didn't need him tonight, a little voice whispers, and I have to force regret to remain in my thoughts.
I reach our room at the end of the hall and turn the knob, sleepy and yawning, eager to slip underneath the quilt on our bed, expecting my brother to be there already, asleep perhaps. I console myself about his absence with the reminder that he did not sleep last night; surely I cannot fault him for wanting a good night's rest!
So this is what I come to expect. Certainly not what I encounter instead.
I notice first the flicker of candlelight on the trail of my brother's clothes leading to the bed: his boots, his socks, his tunic, his breeches. My eyes should have stopped there; I should have known and left, but my mind is weary and slow and my eyes are drawn forward in the same way that one's gaze is drawn to a scar upon an otherwise beautiful face. There is an empty wine bottle on the writing desk beside the bed; two wine glasses with only dregs remaining. My brother is on the bed but he is not alone: He has the innkeeper's daughter on her back, her hand nearest me tangled in his hair, her dress torn open at the top. Nelyo, naked, is poised over her, kissing and nuzzling her breasts; I cannot see her other hand but judging the way my brother is breathing—hard, each breath punctured by a cry, as though he'd been terribly wounded—and the way his hips are jerking in a tireless rhythm, I can guess what it is doing.
I would like to turn away, unnoticed, and escape, but Halwará sees me first, and she screams. Nelyo looks up, and I am stammering apologies in no language I can understand, fumbling for the doorknob with shaking hands, while Nelyo tries to cover Halwará's breasts with his hands. "I am—I am—" I manage, as comprehensible as I will be, but my hand finds purchase then, and I slam the door behind me.
I don't realize that I have run until I crash into the wall at the end of the hallway. I have to catch myself to keep from flying down the stairs: I can hear the innkeeper down there, whistling as he cleans the tables for the night—songs that I was singing only moments before, it seems—and I do not wish to imagine conjuring an explanation for my state or my reluctance to return to my room. I can imagine his insistence on accompanying me … I slide down the wall and crouch at the top of the stairs with my head in my hands, shaking hard. It is only when I take a breath and suck water into my nose that I realize that I am crying.
Why? My thoughts are a jumble; I can barely untangle them from one another.
He left …
More important than …
In my bed!
My knees grow stiff from kneeling for so long but I dare not move, even to slip into a more comfortable position. After my noisy crash down the hall, I am lucky that no one heard, that the innkeeper hasn't come up the stairs and none of the other guests have poked their heads out their doors. Or, perhaps, it is an unspoken code in places like this that one keeps one's head in one's room, no matter what the ruckus.
Trapped like an animal cornered by a predator, I wait for the inevitable moment when Halwará will emerge from my room. I imagine and rehearse my reaction—will I greet her as though nothing has happened? mirror her shame? ignore her?—until, gratefully, I hear the sound of the innkeeper entering his own quarters at the back of the inn, and I fly down the stairs and into the silvery night.
I do not know how long I wander the streets of the town, the music in my head killed by the thought that my brother—whom I love more than anyone on Arda—might be a bad person. Might I be too, then? We share the same blood. The burning drink that the innkeeper gave me churns in my belly; I want to vomit for my disappointment but cannot bring myself to defile these carefully wrought streets. The fountain? Blasphemy.
Eventually, ashamed and exhausted, I return to the inn because I have nowhere else to go.
This time, I rap gently on the door first, but there is no answer. I wonder: Will he have the audacity to keep her there the night? But when I open the door, Nelyo is alone on the bed, dressed in his spare set of clothes, sleeping deeply and snoring lightly. My half of the bed waits for me, and I contemplate it, and I see Nelyo and Halwará sprawled down the middle and cannot bring myself to lie upon the sheets that I imagine to be soiled.
I grab my pillow instead, turning the pillowcase inside out first, and make a place for myself on the floor, beside the writing desk, falling into darkness even as my thoughts burn with the certainty that I will not be able to sleep on such a hard bed.
I awaken with the floor creaking in my ear; Nelyo is walking about our room, fully dressed down to his boots even. He is folding the clothes that I washed yesterday and putting them into our satchels. I want to lie here forever, with my eyes closed, until he goes away, but the floor is digging into my shoulder, and when I shift, I bump the desk chair and its creaks loudly across the floor.
Nelyo turns and catches my eyes on him, and so I am forced to sit up quickly, rumple-headed and sore, while he wishes me a good morning and says something about having our breakfast brought to our room. I can see that last night will not be mentioned between us. At least not now.
Although, by having our breakfast delivered, he is acknowledging it. He is admitting that Halwará does not want to see me and that I don't want to see her. Or maybe he doesn't want to see us together.
I comb my hair and braid it, knowing that it will slip loose in only a few hours, just to have something to do with my hands. My stiff shoulder—abused for two nights now—makes me sit crookedly to accomplish the task. Nelyo chatters about our course for the day, about how he hopes to arrive at the sea by tomorrow. "I have been told to avoid the forest," he says. In the mirror, I can see him behind me; he is flitting about the room, as though he too wishes to keep his hands busy. "Atar always liked it, but I suppose that is fitting: Atar loves a challenge."
There is a brisk knock at the door, and Nelyo dashes to answer it. I hear him greet someone, then the innkeeper's voice, speaking about the wine he selected for me last night. I hear Nelyo's genuine gratitude. No wonder he is loved so keenly, I think, if he can talk to Halwará's father after …
"Myself, I seek the easiest road." The door has clicked shut, and Nelyo is setting two covered trays on the writing desk. "This 'rest' hasn't been restful, to say the least. But diplomacy never is. The easier it looks, the more exhausting it is."
I think bitterly that he wasn't suffering for lack of sleep when I returned last night.
Nelyo offers me the desk and the chair while he sits on the bed with his plate balanced on his knees. I wait for the inevitable segue, posed innocently, as delicate as a breeze: "You could have slept in the bed last night," he might say. Or, "Would you like a balm for the stiffness in your shoulder?" (for surely he has noticed my awkward posture and deduced the cause). But he does not; perhaps even Nelyo lacks the grace for such a feat. He talks instead of the wine that the innkeeper is giving us. "Your talents have secured for us three excellent vintages," he says.
"I thought you didn't want quality," I retort, "only to get 'blind drunk.' "
I challenge him on this in lieu of breaching the subject we both avoid. It is passive-aggressive and immature, like Tyelkormo's tendency to stick out his tongue at Atar's turned back when Atar displeases him.
"No wine in this town lacks that," Nelyo says with a smile, ignoring the insolent edge to my voice the way Amil will pretend that sarcasm is genuine, to avoid a fight. "You can get drunk from the water here. But if I can have something with a better taste than water, then I will take it."
My heart is softening to him again, the way a hard piece of fruit left in sugar water will become tender and swollen, acquiescent. I poke at my eggs, which I have half-eaten and not yet tasted. I offer peace to him with soft words the way I might stretch out my hand with an appeasement on my palm: "This breakfast is excellent," I say. It is a lie, just like that upturned palm: I wish you no harm.
"Yes, Atar and I make a habit to stop here for a reason. The food, wine, and company are all superb." The company. He swallows quickly and changes the subject. "I will pick up the wine if you will go and see that our horses are ready."
I am content with this, even to carry both of our satchels and walk alone while he orchestrates the inevitable encounter with the innkeeper's daughter, the encounter that he wishes me to avoid.
Too late, while waiting for the groom—in less than a day, I have forgotten his name—to saddle our horses, I realize that I never thanked the innkeeper. I imagine that heads will shake after we leave. "The second son of Fëanáro is not nearly so diplomatic as his brother."
Well, it is only the truth, I suppose. It is not that I desire to be thought of as rude, but realizations of the correct actions to take occur to me long past their effectiveness. Nelyo would never forget to bid farewell to a host, especially one so generous as the innkeeper. With a stature and beauty like Nelyo's, he is not easily forgotten but nor is he apt to be remembered with affection—even the best are prone to envy—but his grace and sincerity ensure his fond remembrance. Me, I am remembered like Atar is: for my talent, for the blaze of light I brought to a moment and for my tendency to disappear afterward and leave darkness behind.
I kick the dust in the stableyard with the toes of my boots, watching the polished leather (did Nelyo clean them? I didn't) become tarnished again. I hear the crunch of gravel behind me; I plot Nelyo's progress on the road by the sound of his boots upon the ground.
He arrives at the same time as the groom, leading our horses, cleaned and curried and readied for the journey. "I heard you last night in the inn," the groom says to me, "and I must give you my praise before you depart."
I nod and quietly thank him. With stage gone and my harp on my back, it is hard to believe that it was I who sang so beautifully last night.
As the groom offers me a leg up, Nelyo adds to his praise. "My brother's voice is fair indeed," he says. "In my family, we've no doubt that had Macalaurë sung in the Music of the Ainur, Arda would be a much fairer place."
In my family …
Yes, he is right: Those are Atar's words, said to Grandfather Finwë at my begetting day feast last year. Amil and Arafinwë had tried to hide their unease, but Uncle Nolofinwë's displeasure was plain. To compare one's son to the Ainur is an act of blasphemy and pride beyond even Atar's normal defiant stabs at Nolofinwë's loyalty to the Valar. But here, in the north of the land, where the work of the Valar is less obvious, the groom smiles and agrees. "Indeed. Perhaps his voice should bring us rain, for it has been two weeks, and my wife's cotton thirsts for it."
"May Manwë hear your plea," says Nelyo, swinging unassisted onto his horse—but he is so much taller than me—and bidding the groom a final farewell before heeling his stallion into a light gallop away from the town.
It rains that night in torrents, accompanied by thunder. Ponderous clouds roil overhead, their swollen bellies lit from below with silver light. We are crossing the long plains, and it is many hours before we find a stand of trees thick enough to give us even imperfect shelter. It is too wet to start a fire and cook, and I am grateful that Nelyo thought to prepare the grouse prior to our arrival at the town. He also acquired a fresh loaf of bread and more cheese, so we will have that which I brought from home and store that from the town to eat by the sea tomorrow.
The canopy provides us with a good deal of cover, but every now and then, a thick drop of rain trickles through the maze of leaves and branches overhead and plunks on my head, stabbing like a cold needle. The comfortable warmth that is summer in the north is gone, devoured by the storm and made into bristling lightning that the clouds hurl at the ground. Even with my cloak around my shoulders (it is a light cloak; who expects to need anything more in the late days of summer?) I shiver, and my stiff, cold hands might be blocks of ice. I wish aloud for a tent.
"Alas, we do not have one," says Nelyo, who travels more than I do and is accustomed to weather like this. "I would have brought one, but then we would have to have a pack horse and our travel would be hampered."
The air is soggy with rain and makes the bread mushy and the cheese slippery. Both are hard to choke past my throat, but I do so to please my belly, which is sore with hunger. Nelyo tears bits from the grouse and gives them to me. I suspect that he gives me some of his share as well, but I say nothing and gratefully lick the juices from my trembling fingers.
We have not spoken much this day. I sense a disagreement waiting to erupt, an infection waiting to burst forth from mottled skin. At times, today, when the silence became too heavy, he asked me to sing, but he never joined in, only rode beside me and listened with a distant expression on his face. He behaves towards me like a child awaiting punishment from a parent but also like a child who feels that punishment to be unjust, and his polite subservience has an edge to it.
I fear our conversations twisting in that direction: How could you? Who are you? You are not the brother I love so dearly. And what would he say? Why should I not? Whose "morals" do you emulate so blindly? Whose son are you?
So I say nothing, and he takes my silence as a sign of my continuing displeasure, I suppose, and he hands me a drumstick torn from the grouse, and I eat it while the occasional raindrop needles my head and I shiver, wet and miserable.
Our meal finished, we sit with our backs pressed against a tree. Nelyo has unrolled a damp blanket and wraps it around both our shoulders; he is careful to tuck the bottom edges around my feet. "To keep your toes warm," he tells me. How long has he been doing this? Since I was born, I imagine, taking care of me and putting his feet inside my own toes, feeling them to be cold, and covering them. Acting as a third, unacknowledged parent to me, to all of us. I feel guilt gnaw where the hunger has left.
"You may move closer," he says. Normally, he would put his arm around my shoulders and force me to sit against him, sharing his warmth, but he is reluctant to be so brave now. It is I who must reach out to him, scooting across the wet, leafy ground to lean against him, if I wish for such warmth. I regard him carefully. I think of his body, which I know so well. There is no shame between us: We undress; we even bathe and relieve ourselves in front of the other; we share a bed when need dictates it, for comfort and warmth. We are not like our kinsmen in Tirion, with their robes dragging the floor and fastened tightly to their throats, baring skin only to show jewelry. What is the shame in the look, the touch of a brother? Is it not more shameful to acknowledge that unnatural thoughts could shatter our innocence?
But the last person to press close to my brother was the innkeeper's daughter, and I cannot dispel her presence between us. I have shifted away from him at the thought, and it would have been imperceptible if not for the blanket stretched between us. Now, he feels it; he feels the blanket tighten on his shoulder as I draw away. The look on his face is one of pain but also curiosity. Will he acknowledge it now?
I cannot fight Nelyo. Physically, of course, he would easily overpower me—kill me even, if such a thing was possible between kinsmen—but that is not what I fear. Emotionally, he is stronger. I weep when I argue, although I do not know why. Perhaps I am afraid, afraid of being surpassed too easily, of having my lesser intelligence revealed. I would sooner be displayed naked above the palace in Tirion than have my inferiority proclaimed in such a brash manner: The lesser son of Fëanáro. Nelyo has no such fear; only one person can surpass him and that is Atar, and even if Nelyo's wit cannot defeat Atar, still it wounds him, frenzies him like a desperate animal. The rare fights between Atar and Nelyo are next in awfulness only to Atar's fights with our mother. And I know that this fight I could not win. Nelyo and Atar would both label my prudish shame of physical love a fault. I expressed disgust once to Atar and he said, "From where do you think you came?" Yes, I know this, but I cannot let him hold me, kiss me, with this thought in my mind. I am well aware of the pleasure my own body can give me, but it is awkward and squeamish to imagine the same capability in another, equivalent to the disgust I'd feel if asked to lick the blood from another's wound even as I am sure that I would lick it from my own.
My imagination does not easily overtake me. I knew what Nelyo did in the lords' houses when we would stay the night in Tirion. I knew that the bedroom he was given was not used; his bedclothes were as smooth in the morning as they had been upon our arrival; his nightclothes stayed folded in his satchel. I knew these things, but I kept the picture of their reason from my head. I found Nelyo once in the stable with one of Grandfather Finwë's messengers, but I erased the memory, made myself forget. Even when Nelyo was caught with Lord Laiquiwë's daughter and the explicit details of their transgression broadcast to my parents in our house—my hands clamped over Tyelkormo's ears and Nelyo huddled in a corner, face buried and shoulders shaking with what might have been tears or mirth; I'm still not sure which—I kept the image from my head. But in the way that many small stones can combine and force an avalanche, I can keep it away no longer.
I look over at Nelyo now. His gaze is intense upon mine; words wait on the thresholds of both our lips, needing only the barest provocation to spring forth. Me: I do not want to touch you. Him: You do not touch me because of your perversions, not mine.
If we fought, I would weep. I would try to hide the tears in the rain, but Nelyo would know. This trip, which I so eagerly anticipated, flattered at being included in this personal quest of my brother's, would be ruined.
I put my hands on the damp ground and ease myself towards him with the same motion as one lowers himself past the groin into icy water. I do not know what I expect—another body to squirt out from between us?—but it is the side that presses mine is the same which I have known all my life; the same ribs, the same shoulder shaped as though meant to support my head. His arm circles my shoulders and he holds me—for his comfort, not mine, but I let him—and slowly, my shivering subsides.
I slip deep into sleep, past the rattle of the rain and the bite of the cold air, to the place where dreams are senseless and strange. I dream that Atar and Varda are stirring a vast cauldron together, discussing the recipes for stars. I want to string them together with song, but Atar insists that the constellations must remain only in one's imagination.
I dream of a baby being handed to me, and Grandfather Finwë says, "Seven is the number of fortune." I have seven children!? Ilúvatar in Ea! The baby screeches and Grandfather Finwë looks at me with alarm, and I hear a gasp behind me of a thousand voices and realize that I am standing and have just cursed before the whole of the Noldor. Nelyo is to my right and wearing a red color that does not match very well with his hair and is laughing at my foolery. I shout at him, "Quiet, Nelyo! Leave me be!" and he says, "For the thousandth time, Macalaurë, I wish you would call me Russandol. Like everyone else."
Then there is the uncomfortable dream set in a palace bedroom starker than even Atar is willing to accept—but I am certain nonetheless that it is the palace—and Vingarië is undoing the laces on my trousers. "Bond me," she says. "Bond me, Macalaurë," when there is a knock on the door, and I fling it open and shout, "Clean your own forsaken boots, Nelyo!" but he is not holding his boots; he is offering me his right hand as though he wishes me to take it. "It is empty, Macalaurë," he says, in a voice sick with shock. "It is nothing. Not there."
On his left hand, there is a ring on every finger—beautiful jewels that only Atar could have made—but his right hand is devoid of jewelry, the wedding finger bare of even a silver ring. I am suddenly sorry for him, weeping with my sorrow. I take his face in my hands: He is pale, sepulchral and beautiful, his cheekbones so prominent that they cast shadows on his face, and I weep and weep until I think I might never stop.
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