Fëanor and Nerdanel
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Another Man's Cage: 44. Chapter Forty-Four--Macalaure
On an ordinary morning, a month before the New Year Festival, Nelyo and I depart for Alqualondë from Tirion. It is late autumn and as bland a day as any in Valinor: The morning is warm and the breeze just brisk enough to stave off perspiration; a menagerie of birds call, unseen, from the trees; Telperion has just faded, and I am tired, and Nelyo is grumpy. The golden light reflecting from the white brick streets of the royal quarter sears my eyes.
It is an ordinary day in Valinor.
It was our intention originally to ride together to Alqualondë, departing from our father’s home on our horses, but Grandfather Finwë would not hear of it. “I will not see my eldest grandsons on their way to honor our family by taking the beggar’s road,” he said, “staying in questionable inns and probably coming home with fleas.” And Nelyo laughed and said that he doubted we’d get fleas but that we would gladly take Grandfather Finwë’s offer to have us ride with his daily messenger to Alqualondë, who travels in the relative comfort of a coach pulled by our grandfather’s fastest horses. And our accommodations were changed also from the music school--where they said that Nelyo could room with me, provided that he had no qualms with sleeping on the floor--to staying with King Olwë in the Telerin palace.
Atar looked uneasy at Grandfather’s offer. “More than forty years, I have kept my sons’ feet firmly on the ground, and now you spoil them?” he asked, not entirely joking, but Grandfather Finwë gave him a look that silenced any further arguments and plans were arranged.
I was surprised: How unlike Nelyo to give up the chance for a journey! For adventure! And secretly, I’d looked forward to it--despite my griping about saddle soreness and campfire food--for those three days in the company of my brother, riding fast beneath a sky so vast that even agony--even madness--became inconsequential.
But Nelyo looked away from me; he went to his room to study, to hide inside books of monotonous lore that he doesn’t really read so much as stare upon. But I am not supposed to notice that.
And so we departed our father’s house yesterday--Atar lifting the little ones to kiss us farewell and Amil holding us each a bit overlong in an embrace--and last night stayed in our usual rooms in Grandfather Finwë’s palace, to rise at the Mingling of the Lights to find that our trunks had been loaded into the messenger’s carriage, and he waited only for us.
By carriage--without the excuse to linger long over meals and wine beside the campfire at night, to sleep late in the mornings, until the light is so bright that we can see the blood beating inside of our eyelids--we will make the journey in a day. The road unfurls before us, the horses’ hoofbeats becoming a sound as routine as my heartbeat, practically unheard. We do not speak much. Even Nelyo, who often rises early to meet Atar in the forge or to ride to Tirion for lessons with our cousin, is bleary-eyed and taciturn. His normally robust red hair is limp and tied back loosely from his face. His robes are rumpled. We each put on our circlets--to be presentable for King Olwë--and Nelyo’s is crooked. I will fix it for him when we enter the city limits, but for now, I am too tired to care.
I expect that we will stop for a midday meal, but we do not. Nelyo opens a cloth sack that is filled with food enough for the two of us--thick-sliced breads, rich cheeses, fruits so ripe to be as bright as gemstones--and we drink water from the waterskin that he has also packed, water that has grown warm by now. It tastes slightly stale and I grimace; Nelyo does not seem to notice and drinks long after me, staring out the window at the tree trunks flashing past, the hand on his knee unsteady and trembling with the movement of the carriage.
I eat because there is little else to do, until my stomach is so full that it almost hurts. Laurelin is at her zenith, and the Treelight scalds my eyes. Nelyo draws a shade over the window, leaving a crack at the bottom to admit a bar of light to spill onto his book, which he presses open with stiff fingers to keep it from shaking with the movement of the carriage. Nelyo can do that--read while moving, while walking even--but I cannot. Focusing on the words, my eyes feel like quivering jellies in my head, and nausea ripples through my sated stomach, until I must close my eyes and swallow hard to keep my meal from spilling itself onto the floor in a single heave.
The road between Tirion and Alqualondë is dull, and with the day warm and windless and the shades drawn, my head is tipping toward sleep before long, coming to rest on Nelyo’s shoulder. In the incoherent place between sleep and dreams, I feel his arm circle me, holding me close. I am glad for it. He smells of starched, clean robes, but beneath that, he is inerasably Nelyo: daylight and green leaves shivering in the wind.
Dreams come to me. In lucidity, I will not think of Alqualondë. I will not think of the many meanings that Alqualondë holds for me; I will not dually dread failure and success, of returning home to tell my father that the Teleri were mistaken in believing that I measured them in musical gifts … of returning home to tell my father that I am nearer to them than him and will be leaving his home for Alqualondë.
I will not think of Vingarië and the image I have built of her--and she, of me--and my certainty that I shall discover that elusive thing that Nelyo used to call, sighing, true love. I shall not wonder if that love is a construction much like my songs: a single thrilling note--a pounding heart and shiver of ecstasy--that fades in the moment after impact until it is no longer detectable, naught but a dubious memory.
But in dreams, my heart indulges itself in hopes and fears, and even as I feel Vingarië’s arms close about me, chaos erupts behind us: my father, screaming at my mother, rending the peace of the house, refusing me my dream. He is my son! My son! Mine!
I awaken with a start to Nelyo’s shoulder bone jabbing me in the tip of my ear. The light is low now, fading into evening; I have slept long, in a fitful delirium of dreams. One side of my face is sticky with drool. I swipe it away and look guiltily, blushing, at the mark I have left on the shoulder of Nelyo’s otherwise impeccable robes.
With no one to watch him read, he has allowed the book to fall shut on his hand, to be opened quickly with a flick of his wrist, to restore the illusion of diligence. His arm around me has fallen against my back, but I am still pressed close to him, and when I awaken, he says, “Macalaurë, your heart is pounding frightfully.”
I press my hand to my chest, as though I do not believe him and must feel it for myself. Or maybe I seek to calm it, the soothing hand upon the beast. Clearing my throat, busy fingers smoothing my hair, and tug away from him. “Where are we?” I ask.
He pulls open the shade, and I gasp: We are cresting the hill, just passing through the Calcirya, and in front of us is the sea, like a swatch of spangled silk draped across the horizon, and Alqualondë before it, with its low pink-pale buildings and senselessly meandering streets, still small in the distance. It is evening time--the Lights are beginning to mingle--and even as we watch, the lanterns in the streets begin flickering to life like fireflies sparkling against the night. On a brisk breeze comes the scent of the sea, and as I close my eyes and settle against my brother, I imagine that I can even hear the bittersweet shrieks of the seabirds circling the harbor but never forgetting the horizon--where velvet sky meets dark sea--where the stars pierce the blackness.
My heart squeezes excitedly, nervously, for a number of reasons. I will at last meet my tutor and prove my mettle--or my worthlessness. My brother will recite his exams in history and letters, and I am not unwise to the fact that he has barely studied since returning to Tirion when each of his spare moments should have been devoted to his books. And I will see Vingarië for the first time since our picnic in the forest, since each of our opportunities to meet since my return at the beginning of autumn has been ruined. I was first punished for my foolish fight with Vorondil in the kitchen--and for my disobedience to Nelyo--and the one time that Vingarië returned to Tirion for her mother’s begetting day, I had to go with Atar to the healer, to hold my shrieking, squirming baby brother while the healer extracted bits of glass from the bottoms of his feet. (The fool went walking barefoot in the forge and left a trail of bloody footprints all throughout the gardens and house. Nelyo, of course--the usual assistant in such matters and a much greater comfort to our little brothers than me--had to “study,” and so word was sent to Vingarië’s house that, once again, I would be detained.)
As we draw closer to the city, Nelyo wipes my face with his handkerchief, smiling feebly at my childishness, at still needing his ministrations, and I straighten his circlet and tuck the loose strands of hair behind his ears, where at least they do not make him look as unkempt. We have passed beneath the gates of pearl and are in the city now, and people are standing aside to watch us pass, clearly fascinated by our bright Noldorin carriage, the horses’ hoofbeats sundering the quiet Telerin air. It is evening time, but the light is different here, warmer, and the streets shimmer with lamplight. The houses are close to the streets, their doors propped open to admit guests and let escape the sounds of laughter and music played lightly upon a harp. The wind that meanders between the buildings, along the snaking, cobblestone streets, is sharper than in Tirion, and when a chilly breeze from the sea slaps my face, I gasp and taste salt upon my tongue.
Alqualondë is a capricious city, prone to the moods of the sea and the winds that push dark clouds over the water, searing the land with lightning and washing the streets with rain. Life is less measured here, and the Teleri raise their arms to the sky and sing to Ossë and Uinen, standing upon frail wooden docks being battered by the waves, confident in Ossë’s mercy, that they will not be swept away.
The carriage draws to a stop in front of the palace, and I see that King Olwë is waiting for us. He steps forward and takes Nelyo’s hands and kisses his cheek, then turns to me and does the same. “Grandsons of my dearest friend Finwë, who is akin to a brother to me, I welcome you to my home and hope that you shall think of it as the same while you are here and ever after.”
Nelyo says something appropriately gracious, for which I am grateful because--despite my gift with song--words do not come easily to me.
King Olwë is slight compared to my brother--and only a bit taller than me--and his unfettered, silvery hair flutters lightly away from his face, borne on the brisk sea breeze. His robes are lighter and simpler than those that we wear, the color of the ocean behind him, and for jewelry, he wears only a delicate silver chain and a pearlescent pendant in the shape of a bird. In his presence, I feel clunky and overwrought. Nelyo speaks fluently in the Telerin dialect and his accent is flawless, but his effortless speech nonetheless sounds heavier than King Olwë’s, and even if his red hair did not betray his heritage, there would be no doubt that he is a foreigner, a Noldo.
Through a maze of hallways that seem to open always to the sea, King Olwë leads us to our room. “I will give you separate housings, if you desire,” he says, “but I assumed that you would wish to stay together, to ease your loneliness.” I look at Nelyo’s face for the answer--for he is the one who will need peace to study, away from me, perhaps--and his eyes are bright as though with tears.
“I will remain with my brother,” he says, “unless he prefers otherwise,” and I detect gratitude in his voice, even if King Olwë’s demeanor betrays nothing.
Quickly, I nod my head in assent, and we are led into a garden filled with fountains and up a long flight of shallow stairs. There is an external walkway canopied by gauzy, white cloth, and a double doorway at its end made of a light wood that is carved with the images of ships and the Ainur who control the sea. I touch the bold, perfectly shaped bicep on the figure of Ulmo, and King Olwë laughs. “Familiar, is it? It should be--the work is your mother’s.”
Of course. The Teleri were content in simple huts on the sand for centuries after their arrival in Aman. It was Grandfather Finwë who insisted that they have a city, “to match the splendor of their ships,” he’d said. He gave his finest engineers freely to Olwë-- his brother in spirit, he was fond of saying, even if not in Eru’s thought--the finest of whom was our own father, who was but a child yet already precocious and trusted with the design and detail of some of Alqualondë's most beautiful buildings. I’d studied the designs of the Telerin palace in architecture lessons long ago--and long forgotten. And where Atar went, so did Amil: hence this door.
I marvel at it, at the skill beyond anything I could ever hope to possess. I marvel also that there is so much of us--of the Noldor--in this city, and yet so little of the Teleri in ours, in our white spires pushing insolently into the realm of the sky, in our neatly ordered streets, precise paintings, and carefully constructed anthems. Most Noldor will not even taste Telerin foods, and the great weeds and beasts of the sea earn their disgust and derision.
Yet King Olwë welcomes us, holding open the door and letting us walk before him, a servant to a lord.
At sight of our room, breath is stolen from my lungs, and I step inside, enthralled. The room is wide and opens to the sea, and I gasp, and Nelyo and King Olwë both glance at me and smile. Gauzy curtains, mostly drawn aside, are the only barrier between our room and the seemingly endless expanse of ocean. Beyond the drapes are a balcony and a set of stairs that lead to the King’s beach. Scattered across the winking blue water are the white ships of the Teleri, those for which they are renowned, glittering lamps lit at their bows, the calls of the mariners faint upon my keen ears.
“I hope it is not too open for you. I know how you Noldor love everything neatly sequestered behind walls,” says King Olwë, teasing, his hands folded at his waist and his eyes crinkling with pleasure at my delight.
“No,” I say. “It is perfect.”
As I walk to the balcony to stare at the sea stretching to the dark horizon, Nelyo says, “Many times we joke that Macalaurë was born wrongly and belongs among the Teleri. Atar believes that our spirits loved each other before birth, and so he chose to forsake his rightful place with your people so that we may be brothers in blood as well as spirit and, thus, forever united.”
This is truth: It is said that in the melody of water, one can hear in the delicate undertones the Music of the Ainur. “Each of us was granted a note in that song,” Atar used to tell me, in the peaceful times of early youth--before his expectations began to exceed what is in my nature to achieve--when I would curl in his lap and ask to hear Rúmil’s legends. Atar must have had many notes, I always thought, a whole song unto himself. And when Nelyo sang, I was the first to answer.
Watching the white ships cut dark lines across the surface of the sea, I wonder if Nelyo might be persuaded to stay forever.
I do not realize the King Olwë has approached behind me--so silent are his footfalls or so deep my distraction; perhaps both--until his voice in my ear says, “On a clear day, you may discern the shores of the Outer Lands,” and when I turn in surprise, he winks to show that he is teasing. “Only in song,” he adds before bidding us not to hesitate to ask for whatever we need and leaving us to settle.
Without asking, Nelyo chooses the bed farthest from the balcony and the sea and begins unpacking his trunks, smoothing his robes carefully and hanging them in the armoire. I leave my trunks untended and lean against one of the posts marking the end of our bedroom and the beginning of the balcony, letting the drapes swirl around me, and I watch spangles of light on the water that are so brilliant that Atar might have scattered a handful of his gemstones across the surface of the sea.
I must have slept, for I awaken in my bed, tucked neatly beneath the blankets, but I have no memory of lying down. There is seamlessness to my memories of staring out at the sea and then falling into dreams of the same, fingers twitching restlessly upon the pillows, trying to capture the melody that shimmers just beneath the surface of the sea. Even now--with thought alone of it--my fingers begin to move, and I wonder what song will come forth once I place them upon my harp.
Nelyo is awake already and quietly unpacking the trunks I neglected last night. A tray of breakfast--of sweet rolls and fresh fruit of a kind we rarely get at home--waits on the table by the window.
“Macalaurë,” says Nelyo, “you are still alive!”
The water is now afire with innumerable points of gold; it is drawing near to the afternoon. I am supposed to meet Vingarië within the next few hours.
“I slept,” I say, and after I say it, I realize that is sounds silly, but it feels as though I have never slept before last night, not in the way of awaking refreshed, with exhaustion scoured from my body and mind with the same relentless vigor as soap washes a body of filth. Nelyo, though, seems to understand. He folds the last of my trousers and comes to my bedside, where I sit gazing at the sea. He wraps his arms around me and presses my head to his chest. “I know,” he says, and we remain like this--he is standing and I am sitting--until the surging sea and his heartbeat become indiscernible from each other in my mind.
At last, he releases me--with a crooked grin meant to be playful--hastens me into my clothes and presses into my hand a knobby fruit that I have never seen before that--upon tasting--is quite sweet. He is busy all of the sudden, snapping with energy and hustling me from the room, pleading the need to study in quiet when, really, I know that he is aware of my plans to meet Vingarië and wishes not to be the cause of further disruption.
I leave the palace by the beach, climbing up to the streets of the city. At this time of day, the streets are crowded with fishermen and vendors proudly displaying their wares. I am offered a basket of oysters and two pearl necklaces before I am even out of sight of the palace. A trio of musicians plays harps alongside a fountain, and I pause only briefly to listen, unable to be entranced fully by the music when I know that Vingarië waits.
Her father is lord of the House of the Albatross, and I am pointed in the direction of his house by a pretty woman who sits and mends a sail while her two young sons offer me fish and take turns ogling the sapphire ring on my finger, tugging my fingers in their eagerness. “It is bright,” says one, and the other follows with “Like an eye.”
“Do not bother the young man,” their mother says, swatting lightly at them. They glance at her and resume inspecting my ring as though she had said nothing. She smiles an apology at me, and I twist the ring off of my finger and place it in the hand of the older of the boys.
“I have no need for fish,” I insist, but now she will not let me go without giving me the three largest, wrapped in paper, while the wide-eyed little boys turn my ring in the light, cupping their hands around it and watching the blue spangles dance across their palms.
“You did not have to--” the woman begins, and I quickly interrupt and say, “Many I have like it. It is worth less than these fish.”
It is only a short walk from there, down a slight hill, toward the beach. I arrive in a courtyard between the houses of the lords, and immediately, I see Vingarië, sitting on the edge of a fountain, looking towards the sea, pretending to read a book that is held loosely in her hands.
For many moments I stand and watch her. The last I saw her, my head was whirling with inebriation, and I assumed that my heart seemed to thrill at the thought of her because of intoxication. But then her letters and constant thought of her … my heart thrills again, and I have naught in my belly this time except the sweet-but-ugly fruit and a few swallows of pineapple juice. The last half-year has led up to this instant; every second was just another trudging step on my way to her.
The breeze catches her dark hair and plays with it. When the light lies properly upon it, I can see the silver streaks of her father’s people, although it is predominantly black and braided away from her face like a Noldo. One of the straps of her gown is slipping from her shoulder, and suddenly I wish for nothing more than to put my hand upon the creamy skin beneath it and slip it back into place, but not before gracing her with a kiss.
As though she can feel the weight of my eyes upon her, she turns, and our gazes meet. For a long time, we merely ponder each other, as though ascertaining that the other is a being of bone and blood and not the ephemeral substance of dreams. Then a grin lights upon her face, and she is on her feet, her book deserted, tumbling to the ground, and we are racing, laughing and colliding into each other’s arms, careless as to who observes our joy.
So long I have waited for this moment that I expect my arms to slip through her and to open my eyes to nothing, and I want to weep with gratitude to feel her body filling my embrace.
“Macalaurë,” she says. “Oh, Macalaurë, I have--” but I kiss her before I can consider the wisdom of so bold a move, and a small cry escapes her lips that quickly relax and return the kiss.
My mouth moves over her face, her eyes, her hair; her hands press my back through my robes, warming flesh that might never have been touched or loved before. Certainly, this is the first time that it has chosen it, love that is not dictated by blood and loyalty but by my own volition. Although, even as the thought occurs to me, I realize that I had as little say in my feelings for Vingarië as I do in my love for my father, my mother, or my brothers. Something larger than me has placed us together and determined that I shall love her. And I shall.
“Macalaurë, I have missed you,” she says into my chest, and then, realizing that one of my arms is wedged between us, takes a step backward and ponders the paper-wrapped package in my arms. Her nose wrinkles. “Fish?” she says.
My cheeks burn. “I gave a sapphire ring to two small boys, and their mother would not let me escape without taking some fish,” and she laughs. “A Noldo without his rings?” she says, taking my naked hand in hers and kissing my fingers.
Heat erupts in the place of the kiss and races down my arm with the fury of fire catching dry wood. But despite the heat, I shiver, and the hairs on my arms stand on end. It is not an unpleasant sensation.
She takes my arm and leads me toward one of the smaller houses that faces the sea. “Have you eaten yet?” she asked. “We can have them for midday meal, on the beach, if you’d like?” and I realize that, although I had that bit of fruit an hour ago, it was not enough, and I am ravenous.
“That would be wonderful,” I tell her.
“But first, you must meet my brothers. They have decided that they must approve of you.” She rolls her eyes and presses into my arm, to whisper in my ear: “Although, you should know, I care not what they say. My choice is made.”
She adds, as we walk, “My father is away, shark-fishing off the southern coast.”
“Yes. Shark is excellent. You have never had it?”
“I probably have. My father probably didn’t tell me it was shark because he didn’t think I’d eat it.” We do not enter the house but climb a walkway that leads past it, to the beach behind. I swallow hard, speaking before I have time to consider whether I have the courage for the words that follow. “When your father returns, with your permission, I would like to ask for his blessing upon our courtship.”
I can hear her brothers’ voices on the beach, but she stops me before they come into view. “Macalaurë, my father is a Teler, and their traditions are far more relaxed than those of the Noldor. He does not expect such a thing from you.”
“Yes, well, I am a Noldo,” I say, hoping my voice doesn’t sound as high and scared to her as it does inside my head, “and you are half-Noldorin, and I would prefer to observe my traditions on this matter. It seems discourteous to use your father’s lineage as an excuse to escape my obligations.”
“Very well, then,” she says. “I give my permission.” I am glad that she hugs me and presses her face into my chest so that she cannot see the wide, grateful grin that stretches my face nearly to the point of pain.
Hand in hand, we walk to the beach, where she instructs me to discard my boots or chance having them fill with sand that is impossible to remove entirely, she says. “One hundred years from now, you will still be getting blisters,” she says, “from the same bit of sand.” Embarrassed by my pale feet callused and misshapen from many years in boots, I argue weakly but end up sitting on the sand, doing as she says and hoping that yesterday’s travel (and the lack of a bath, I suddenly realize, embarrassed) doesn’t have them smelling too putrid. There is a long pier behind the house with several boats tethered along its length. The tide is low and the waves are gentle; Laurelin is fading, and the water almost green, frosted at the peaks of the waves by light. Her brothers stand at the edge of the pier, armed with bows for some reason, and shouting with excitement. They are tall and dark-haired and Noldorin by all appearances except that they wear the light, casual clothes of the Teleri. They too are barefoot, and as they run up and down the pier, the hollow slaps of their feet and the mingled joy of their voices make a great ruckus.
The elder of the two is past his majority by a few years, and on his right hand, he wears a silver betrothal ring. The younger is Nelyo’s age and already as tall as his brother--lanky, with a quick, mischievous grin--and as we approach, he shouts to his brother and waves him over, and they stare into the sea with arrows nocked and ready, releasing simultaneously into the water.
The older gives a triumphant cry, and I see that they have tied ropes around the fletching of their arrows, and he has speared a fish and is drawing it, flopping weakly, onto the dock.
“Ho! That is the third today! We shall eat as kings for the week!”
“How unjust, that I should spot it and you should steal it like some mangy alley cat--”
“That is your fault, Brother, for being impetuous and taking poor aim.”
They spot us at the same moment and fall silent, dropping their bows to their sides and appraising me in an identical manner, letting their eyes slide from my bare (white, deformed) feet to the silver circlet on my hair, which is being torn from its braids by the brisk breeze off of the ocean. They look next to my hand clasped in Vingarië’s, and their eyebrows lift. Their eyes are like Vingarië’s: very bright gray, like the Noldor, but touched at the edges by the sad blue color of the Teleri.
The older composes himself and steps forward, hand extended. “You must be Macalaurë Fëanárion. Well met,” he says. “I am Turonén.”
My heart is pounding, and I am afraid that the palms of my hands are damp but it is too late to wipe them dry on my trousers. I take a deep breath and try to imagine myself with Nelyo’s grace, to make myself aware of how every muscle moves in my body. I smile in what I hope is a warm and not overeager manner and grasp his hand in what I hope is a firm and not painful grip. I am not sure of the strength of these half-Teleri who look like Noldor, whether they wield hammers as they wield bows and thus have strong arms. I bow slightly, which is not like me, but I have seen Nelyo do it when meeting the fathers and brothers of the girls he courts, and people are always impressed by his manners. “Well met also,” I echo, and when I look up, he is smiling, and so it seems that my technique has worked. I send a silent word of gratitude on the wind and wish it received by my brother.
I look at Vingarië, and she is smiling also, broadly, as though with relief.
The younger brother grasps my hand quickly. “I am Tindanén” He looks at Turonén. “Do we not have a tradition of tossing Vingarië’s boy-friends into the water?”
Vingarië shrieks with indignation and slaps him in the chest. “Stop it! I do not have boy-friends!”
Tindanén appraises me. “It seems that you do.”
“Yes, but none before him! And if you touch him, I shall cast you into the sea!”
“I would not test her, Tindanén,” says Turonén. “You have heard of the woman scorned.”
“Ah, well …” says Tindanén.
“In actuality, Macalaurë,” says Turonén, “we are glad that Vingarië has taken her first courtship with a good, solid man of the Noldor.”
“Yes,” adds Tindanén, “none of these Telerin lads with their hot blood and notions of bonding and such before marriage to ‘see if it works.’” He snorts.
“Now, now,” says Turonén, “my wedding is this spring, and I want full assurances that the bond will take before standing and making a fool of myself before all of our families.” Both brothers laugh.
“But you, Vingarië,” says Tindanén, jabbing his sister in the shoulder, “are permitted no such liberties.”
“Yes, we want neither of you hiding your eyes at the wedding, thinking no one will notice, and we want no premature but overlarge sister-sons arriving before your first anniversary--”
“Yes, like some brothers we know,” interrupts Tindanén, pointing surreptitiously at Turonén.
“I was an appropriate size for a child born three weeks prematurely!”
It feels as though all of the blood has drained from my body and is pounding in my hot cheeks. I cannot bear to look at Vingarië, but she is shifting from foot to foot, suddenly very silent, and I imagine that she feels the same. Tindanén reaches out and pinches her cheek, and she slaps his arm. “Ah, no mind, Vingarië and Macalaurë. We only jest! You cannot be more than forty,” he says to me, “and my wee, delicate sister is but thirty-seven.”
I force myself to say, “I am forty in four weeks.”
“Yes, because we know your brother Maitimo, and he is my age,” says Tindanén. “We have warned our sister about the prolificacy of King Finwë’s descendents, but she claims it matters not to her.”
Vingarië hisses, “Hush, you!”
Turonén sees the shame in our faces and takes pity. “Ah, Tindanén,” he says, “leave them be. They are still too young to fully comprehend the pleasures of the flesh, and I do not think that we should hasten that knowledge. Macalaurë, Vingarië,” he adds, “forgive us?”
I hope that in the meager late-afternoon light, he cannot see by the flush in my cheeks that this summer--using thoughts of his sister as the catalyst--I had begun to grasp such pleasures.
Vingarië grumbles something, and I say softly, “I forgive you.”
“Three fish we have caught this day,” says Turonén, “using the improved and far more exciting method of fishing that we developed--the merger of our Telerin and Noldorin skills, if you would--and we will gladly share them with you, so that we may become better acquainted with Macalaurë.”
“Macalaurë also brought fish,” Vingarië mumbles, raising her eyes to her brothers in reluctant forgiveness.
“Then a true feast we shall have! Come, Tindanén, the chill of evening will soon be upon us. Let us start a fire on the beach before our dear Vingarië learns more innovative ways of finding warmth!”
In the faint, mingled light, there is a hollow thud and a shriek and laughter, and the brothers are racing up the beach, their long legs allowing them to easily outrun their little sister, who nonetheless gives brave pursuit.
We eat until our stomachs are stretched and sore, gorging ourselves on the fish and fruit and the sweet wines that are preferred by the Teleri. For many hours we stretch upon the sand, making music with naught but our voices, accompanied by the roaring waves and the jealous wind that seeks to tear our words from us. After the Mingling of the Lights, when the fire flickers and threatens to die, Turonén nudges his brother, who feigns a wide yawn and stretches and says, “I hope you will excuse us, Vingarië, as it seems that tomorrow will be an early morning for us if we hope to catch more fish to replace what your boy-friend ate.”
Vague insults and threats are exchanged in play, and Turonén drags Tindanén towards the house, both laughing in joy borne of living beside the sea and having free access to great quantities of heady wine, nearer in taste to candy than to any spirit we have at home, while Vingarië shakes her fist at their retreating forms and swears at them in Telerin.
At last alone, Vingarië and I lie on the sand, next to the guttering fire. The ocean roars at our backs and from the streets above comes the occasional call or arpeggio of laughter. The lamps of the city create a rose-colored haze over the city. “I am sorry for the behavior of my brothers,” Vingarië says.
“No mind,” I assure her. “I found them pleasant company.”
“They tend to fictionalize things or at least exaggerate. I mean, we never discussed your father’s prolificacy. Not really. Well, of course, everyone knows of it. That’s not to say that my brothers and I gossip! But we certainly didn’t make suppositions about you.” Her words are coming in a rush; even in the meager silver light of evening, I can see a blush rising into her cheeks. “That’s not to say that I don’t want children. Your children. Any children. Mostly yours. I mean, they would all be yours, naturally, if we were to marry. That’s the way of things. Of course, that’s not to say that you have to marry me--” With a sound that might be laughter or a sob--or maybe a mixture of both--she buries her face into her hands. “Oh, Macalaurë!” she says, and it comes out muffled because of her hands over her face. “I don’t know why I say such things! I am so very sorry! It seems I am always apologizing to you for my stupid--”
I remove her hands as gently as I can and hold them in mine. They are trembling, I notice, and the firelight is very bright in the streaks of tears on her cheeks. “Hush, Vingarië. Do not apologize for what you say. The thought of marrying you gives me great joy.”
“Does it?” I nod and erase the tearstains from her face with my fingertips. She closes her eyes.
“It does. I have--” I pause, for the lump of words in my throat, ready to spill into the air--where they cannot be revoked once they have been turned into the little buzzes of sound that will burrow into Vingarië’s ear and, from there, into her memory, “I have always been afraid of marriage.”
Her eyes widen. “I, also, Macalaurë. I thought I was alone in that,” she says in a whisper. “It is not that I fear sharing my life with someone. At times, I would weep for the loneliness of what I perceived to be my fate. But the thought of bonding, of bearing children--I have always thought that I would never be a mother, Macalaurë.”
My heart is pounding, to hear my secret thoughts in another’s voice, one whom I am convinced that I love, lying beside me, with the firelight playing in her blue-gray eyes. “I have doubted that I would be a father,” I whisper.
“I am still afraid,” she says. “It is like putting on a blindfold and leaping into space: You do not know if you will safely land, and by the time you realize that you have fallen too far to survive, you cannot take it back, and it becomes your fate until the ending of the world. When I was little, I dreamt sometimes that I shared the fate of Miriel Þerin--” Her eyes widen, and she falls abruptly silent. Her fingers press her lips, as though wishing to stuff the words she had just spoken back into her mouth, like a rude dribble of food allowed to escape in noble company that one hides behind a napkin and hopes no one has noticed. “I have done it again. I have spoken heartlessly. I am sorry. I forgot--”
“I did not know my grandmother. I share not my father’s grief.”
“You do not miss having a grandmother?” she asks.
“How can one miss what he does not know? And I have my mother’s mother, and she has always been good to my brothers and me.” I hesitate. “I am not one to challenge fate, Vingarië. What is is, and all the rage and tears I could spare cannot change that. Better to devote that energy to the present, to love and happiness, I think, than regret and grief.”
She smiles weakly and clasps my hands between us. “It is easier to take that leap when you trust the person who leaps beside you. At least you know you will not be alone in eternity.”
“No,” I say, “you will never be alone.”
Lying on the soft sand, beside the dying fire, I embrace her and feel the joy of having my heart unfettered at last, free to love her, Vingarië of the Teleri.
When I return to King Olwë’s palace, it is late, and I creep abashedly through the courtyard and up the steps, half expecting him to appear from the shadows and question my whereabouts. But no one manifests; even the servants, it seems, are sleeping, and the palace is quiet. I had no intentions of remaining out so late tonight--indeed, I have my first lesson early in the morning with my tutor--but a moment in Vingarië’s arms turns out to have the weight of hours to the rest of the world. I cannot help but to scorn them for that, wondering if envy is what caused time to hasten against us. I have thirty days here, and one now is gone, erased, and still, time plunges onward, dragging me along with it.
I let myself into the bedroom that I share with my brother. A lamp burns beside his bed, and Nelyo lies, fully clothed, atop the bedclothes with a half-dozen opened books scattered around him. His face is pressed into his outstretched arm, and his audible breathing betrays the depth of his slumber.
I walk silently to his bed and gather his books, marking his places and stacking them on his night table. I untie and remove his boots as delicately as I can; short of awakening him, it is impossible to tuck him into bed, and so I remove a blue throw from the armchair in the corner and drape it over him. He stirs and turns onto his back, clutching the afghan to him. His face is very pale, but it has been for weeks now; I should be used to it, and yet, I am not. With his eyes closed and unable to note my study of his face and lead him to protest, I realize how thin his cheeks have become, how dark are the bruises beneath his eyes. He turns his cheek into the spill of satiny, unfettered hair across his pillow: Against his white skin, it looks to be the color of freshly shed blood.
I lean over and kiss his forehead. A tiny smile touches lips that haven’t smiled--truly smiled--in weeks, and he sighs. “Thank you,” he mumbles. “I love you.”
“I love you too,” I whisper, before extinguishing the lamp, going to my side of the room, and undressing for bed, watching the pale shape of my brother, sleeping across the room, as Laurelin gilds the horizon and I drift into guiltily joyful dreams.
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