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Another Man's Cage: 7. Chapter Seven--Maitimo
Macalaurë is in a lighter mood as we dash out to the stable to ready our horses for the hour-long ride. He keeps touching the necklace as if he is afraid that it has disappeared—or maybe that it was never there. He has his harp slung onto his back for Macalaurë's invitations always come with the expectation that he will provide part of the music. "It is going to be wonderful," he calls to me, as we saddle our horses. "I can feel it."
"So you shall bring Atar his first daughter then?" I tease.
He gives me a stern look. "If I was seven feet tall and had red hair and gray eyes with the light of Telperion in them, then I might. Yet I hold onto hope that one day, I will give Atar a daughter. Probably even little Tyelkormo will wed before me, but one day maybe I will too. For tonight, though, I would be happy just finding a maiden to court for a spell. She need not desire me ever again beyond tonight. One evening would make me happy."
I have had many evenings of such happiness, many long courtships and one near engagement. Macalaurë has never even had a kiss. "You say now that one evening shall suffice, but tomorrow morning, you shall wish for another, then another, until you are wishing for betrothal and marriage and four sons, all before your hundredth begetting day, just like Atar."
He laughs. "I think I shall start with just one night for now. I am only thirty-nine. However admirable Atar's marriage at age forty-two and begetting you at age forty-four may be, I am not nearly so precocious."
We lead our horses from the stable—the sleek gray stallion that was Atar's gift for my fortieth begetting day and Macalaurë's somewhat dumpy palomino mare—and we mount. My gray snorts and prances beneath me; Macalaurë's palomino grabs a few mouthfuls of grass and Macalaurë jerks the reins. "Stop that, you lump," he scolds. Turning to me, an eager gleam in his eye, he says, "Let's ride fast, shall we?"~oOo~
We do ride fast, and we arrive at the edge of the forest sooner than if we had kept a more modest pace. Entering the forest, we slow to a trot, for though there is a path, it is old and overgrown and at times meanders into obscurity.
We know our way well by now, though, for many late night feasts are held here. Deep within the forest, out of earshot of any of the neighboring farms, is a clearing planted with soft grass and flowers of every color. Here we meet, as young Elves have met since our people came to Valinor. I wonder sometimes if Atar and Amil had come here in their youth, then decide that they would have likely found this kind of gathering frivolous: the silly dances with their complicated rules for who could partner whom and at what point partners were exchanged, the petty conversation about political and family relationships, the shy kisses captured a few feet outside the clearing in the brush. No, they would have lain together in the forest, beneath trees and beside rivers, discussing craft and lore and exchanging affections that exceeded what is thought proper for Elves of their age, especially when one of them is a high prince. Had they participated in a dance where partners were exchanged, they would have ignored the rules, as is their wont, and stayed in each other's arms while others spun and shuffled around them, for I have seen the desirous gazes fixed upon Atar by women in Tirion not my mother and have seen his mouth twist when he meets their eyes as though repulsed.
We bear off the path by the rock. By all appearances, it is a big gray bolder brushed with moss, but to the young Elves of Valinor, it has long been a sign of the possibilities of an evening that still lies in the dark uncertainty of the future. Will I meet my future spouse tonight? we wonder. Will the one whom I have been watching be here? Will she dance with me?
This latter thought is the question that comes to my mind as our horses step past the boulder, veering from the rugged path and into the undergrowth of the forest.
There have always been rumors of young Elves who imbibe too much wine at these gatherings and wake up wed the next morning, lying naked in the brush beside a spouse they barely know. There are even tales of children conceived at such events by their previously unwed parents who are still children themselves. Of course, no one ever knows anyone who married in such a manner, and certainly no one knows anyone who was begotten as such. The youngest parents of whom I have heard are my own, and inebriation and dance had nothing to do with their wedding or my conception.
Still, there are always young girls here for the first time who watch the sons of the lords with shifting, wary eyes, as though we come here only to take an unfamiliar, innocent girl to wife, and you know that they have been told tales of a young maiden much like them, always one relative or friend removed beyond what they can themselves confirm, who was in fact corrupted in such a manner at this very place.
We are not far off the path when we hear the first delicate strains of music stirring through the leaves. There is a ripple of laughter, a girl's voice, like windchimes in the morning. We urge our horses faster and into the clearing. The clearing is bordered by some of the oldest trees in the forest, set in a nearly perfect circle, as though Yavanna made this forest with the specific intention of having the young Elves meet and drink and dance here, and their branches arch high over the ground, forming a verdant ceiling through which slivers of Telperion's light crisscross in silver rafters. Among the lower branches, someone long ago draped iron lamps; it had been I who had placed the stones in them that Atar made, stones that glowed brighter than the candle flames we would never again need. In the center of the clearing, someone has already built a bonfire, and the older, confident boys—many of them the sons of my grandfather's lords—have already begun cooking bits of meat and bragging about the hunt that yielded it. A boy with a lute and a dark-haired girl with a harp have begun a spirited song—though only a handful of couples are dancing—and another boy beats weakly on a drum. Macalaurë and I tie our horses to one side of the clearing with the others, and I make a fuss out of untying the wine that Atar has given us while really searching the swirling skirts for Annawendë.
My heart thuds harder when I spot her, and my fingers fumble the knot, and I nearly drop the wine. She stands on the opposite side of the clearing, talking to Vorondil, whom I usually like but suddenly resent for his easy command of her attention, although I am pleased to note that she twines her hair around her finger, as she has a habit of doing when she is bored. "Do you see her?" Macalaurë hisses in my ear, and I jump in alarm, and he laughs, for he knows that I do.
"Hush," I tell him in a low voice, and he rolls his eyes and says, "You are amazingly daft at times, Maitimo, as though she would reject the affections of someone like you."
I push three bottles of wine into his arms. "Take this and stop berating me. I do not see you making any romantic overtures."
"I shall, as soon as everyone tires of hearing me pluck the harp."
"Then you shall be unwed forever," I tease, and he scowls.
"Lucky for you, Nelyo, no one likes hearing about the classifications of Atar's alloys or the inheritance patterns in roses or any number of your other boring pursuits."
We start toward the bonfire, our arms laden with bottles of wine, jostling each other with our elbows until we draw abreast of the lords' sons. Their tight little circle opens briefly to admit Macalaurë and me. Although we rarely see these boys, they are shrewd enough to understand the value of forming friendships with the sons of the High Prince. "We brought wine!" Macalaurë sings, and someone calls, "All hail the Fëanorians!" and the circle closes around us.
Macalaurë is afforded easy escape by the harp on his back, and he joins the trio of musicians across the clearing. I watch him sit beside the dark-haired girl; she sets aside her harp and picks up a flute, and they smile at each other and begin a new song without a word, communicating in the easy wordless way of skilled musicians. The song is something springy that makes couples in the clearing seize each other's hands and begin dancing. I am trapped now with the lords' sons, trying to think of a way to politely duck away to find Annawendë or at least have a dance with another girl, but I am being enticed into swaggering conversations about hunting. "I got a buck the other day that must have been at least thirty points," says Lónango of the House of Iron.
"How many points?" says someone.
"At least thirty. I did not exactly count," brags Lónango.
"One would think," I hear myself say—and my voice is so different from theirs! so languid and meandering, where each of their words ring like stones tossed into a fountain—"That for so impressive a kill, you might exactly count." Laughter runs around the perimeter of the circle like fire, but Lónango does not laugh, only scowls. I feel a blush of shameful triumph. So like my father I sound! Atar becomes critical when he is brought to court, scornful and superior. As his heir, I am taken with him to counsel in Tirion, and I see the acidic glances tossed at his turned back by the lords of the court. He has no patience for their sly politics, the way they sidle up beside him, all smiles and grasping hands, probing him like mosquitoes for yielding flesh and fresh blood. "They feed you honey-coated chocolate," he told me once, "and only once your stomach curdles do you realize that it was in fact shit dipped in honey." Lords stand in circles, says Atar, as do carrion birds.
I slip inside the circle to pour myself some wine and never insert myself again fully into its perimeter, although I am aware that—no longer a vulture—now I am the prey.
"Maitimo," says Haralyo of the House of the Quarry, "we hear that young Findekáno shall accompany your family to Formenos this summer. And that you shall be his primary tutor."
"You hear correctly then," I tell him but say no more, sipping my wine and watching puzzled glances make their way around the circle.
"I knew not that you shared Prince Fëanáro's skill at the forge?"
"I do not, but with him I study the lore of letters and history and science, and in this shall I instruct young Findekáno. With my father he shall study craft, and with Macalaurë, music."
Eyebrows twitch and tight smiles are shot across the circle. Watching the sons of the lords is like learning another language, one that is conducted wordlessly. I have to constrain my laughter at the thought of my father deciphering their careful facial expressions in the same manner as he has deciphered the language of the Valar and surprising all at our next counsel by speaking back to them in their language of silent spasms.
I swallow my laughter and bow neatly. "As much as I enjoy your company, my lords, I shall take my leave, for I must confess that it is the company of maidens that have drawn me here this evening."
"Ah, Maitimo desires to marry and produce a successor, then," Lónango says sweetly, and I sense some convoluted method of revenge being initiated.
I laugh. "I am not so ambitious. My only desire this evening is a goodnight kiss from someone fairer than my brother." Laughter follows me as I slip cleanly through the circle and nod at them. "Farewell, my friends, and may such fortune find you as well."
The air is easier to breathe outside of their circle, and the music trickles into my ears with a lightness that it did not possess earlier. The musicians are playing brighter and brighter songs, encouraging the crowd to dance. The clearing is full of colorful raiment and whispering gowns. Laughter rises to the heavens and tangles in the tree branches.
I see Lossirë, whom I courted once, and before her I knelt in the dirt, a silver ring—forged by Atar after many hours of long, giddy counsel—sandwiched between palms raised as in prayer, begging her to marry me, but she wept and pled love for another, the husband on her arm now, a blond half-Vanya like my uncle Arafinwë. Her gown is looser than is the fashion for the Noldor, and I see why, for her belly swells beneath it, and I turn away.
A maiden catches my hand as I turn and spins me into a dance. "Maitimo!" she cries, and I make myself smile, though the muscles in my face seem to creak with the effort. She too, I courted, and we parted ways when I went to Formenos three summers ago and never rekindled the courtship. She presses closer to me than she should, with a hand on the small of my back, and I am grateful when she whirls me into the arms of her blushing friend, whose steps are awkward and whose hands tickle my arms with her hesitancy. The music stops and Macalaurë calls something, and judging from the nervous way the girls align themselves at the edge of the clearing, I guess that it is gentleman's choice. I turn to look for Annawendë and find her across the clearing still. She too is turning in my direction, but Vorondil asks her for a dance, and I look away before our eyes meet.
Instead, I offer my hand to the shy maiden, and she looks at my hand extended before me, and I see her eyes dart off to her left and right as though checking to make sure that I am not offering myself to another before she shames herself by mustering enthusiasm. At last, she says, "Are you sure?" and I say, "I would ask you properly, but I know not your name."
She steps into my arms. It is a slower song, and I hold her close but not so close that I feel her muscles go rigid and defensive, not so close that our hips touch. "I am Nimerionë," she says at last, and I say, "I am Maitimo."
"Yes, I know," she says quickly, and her cheeks flush a bit. "Everyone knows you."
I wonder as to the meaning of her words: Does she know me as the eldest son of Fëanáro, a prince of our people, or as the tall, red-haired philanderer who has courted half the women in the clearing? I like to think that it is not the latter, for I never intended to be thought of as such (though I know such accusations circle Tirion, especially in the homes bitter towards my father). I hold that I am unlucky in love, for I have been in love a hundred times if once, but my affections always seem to wane or—in the case of Lossirë—those of my intended do. My father and mother courted none but each other and fell into passionate, obsessive love immediately; my grandfather Finwë brought my grandmother Míriel overseas with the intention of being the first to be married before the Valar; even my two uncles married young, finding their heart's other half with envious ease. I alone seem to have a slippery hold on love.
When Lossirë rejected my proposal, I spent many dark days in bed with the drapes shut and my head buried beneath the blankets until Atar forced his way into my room, climbing up the wall and through the window because I'd barred the door with my dresser to keep Macalaurë out. For many hours, he sat beside me, stroking my hair and saying nothing. I was grateful for his silence, for Atar is rarely silent long, and grateful for the touch of his hands—always so warm!—on my skin gone cold. At last, he spoke to me: "I believe that love will be hard won for you, Nelyo, but when you find it, you will have the greatest of us all, for it shall not waver as love usually does, and nothing shall break it." He kissed my forehead then and climbed back through the window and down the side of the house.
I realize that the song is nearly over, and I have said nothing to Nimerionë, although she seems content in the silence. Our hands rest lightly on the other's waist, and she stares at my chest with great fascination, until I realize that she looks at the stone around my throat, and the song ends, and I let my hands fall from her. "Thank you," she says quickly and slips away.
"You're welcome," I whisper after her, watching as she is engulfed by a throng of female friends, prodding her and sending quick little smiles in my direction. I smile back and raise my hand slightly in greeting. There is a spate of nervous giggles as hair is tossed in my direction and the circle closes around her.
Macalaurë starts a fast, bright song, one in which partners are exchanged every few seconds, and I am being passed around from girl to girl, managing to find mirth in the quick shuffle of feet. Macalaurë calls three ladies' choices after that and plays quick numbers, and I am never left unclaimed, and my earlier melancholia dissipates into the night like smoke.
A few times, I see Annawendë near me, being swung in the arms of another, but the music is so fast that her back is turned to me before I can meet her glance. Other times, she stands to the side with Vorondil, sipping wine and nodding at whatever he is saying to her. Whatever it is, it is accompanied by sweeping gestures and a very intense look on his face. I wish she would smile more and then—reconsidering—am glad that she does not. Not at Vorondil anyway.
The crowd has grown thinner, and sometimes I pause from dancing long enough to stare into the forest beside the clearing and imagine I can see the brush rustling and swaying in time to the music.
Macalaurë calls another partner exchange, faster than any he has done before, and I am no sooner reeling, dizzy, in the arms of one maiden before I am being shoved into the arms of another. (Things get so confusing that I spend a few embarrassing bars dancing with Vorondil and find that he is remarkably light on his feet.) I spin from his grasp and find myself bumped by someone's belly and look down into Lossirë's face.
"Maitimo!" she screeches, but her fingers clench my arms hard, begging me not to push her away, and I bump again into her swollen belly, against the child given to her by someone she loved more than me. Luckily, I am in front of the musicians now, and I whirl her around so that I can look over her shoulder and meet Macalaurë's eyes, and he cries, "Change!" before two bars have even been played.
I tear from her grasp and spring to whoever is next, even if it is Vorondil again or one of the lords' sons or a ravenous wolf from the deep forest, I care not, and I embrace the body that falls into my arms to my chest. I hear a gasp, and strong hands seize my waist, and we push back from each other in mutual surprise, and she shouts, "Maitimo!" as I cry, "Annawendë!"
Macalaurë stops the song in mid-swing, and the other musicians play on for a few confused seconds before they slowly putter to a stop too. "Gentleman's choice!" Macalaurë calls, giving me flickering smiles that I dutifully ignore.
"Would you—" I begin, and simultaneously, she says, "Yes," and we hold each other close so that we cannot see the blush that rises into the other's cheeks.~oOo~
For hours, we dance.
We dance to slow songs; we dance to fast songs. When Macalaurë calls for partner changes, we obey, but we always find our way back to each other's arms in time for the next song. Vorondil loiters in the periphery of our vision, trying to capture her attention, politely and silently asking me to relinquish, but we both ignore decorum and pay him no mind, and eventually, he ends up in the arms of the shy maiden whom I had held early in the evening. I see his jaw flapping up and down and see her staring up at his chin; Annawendë leans into me and says, "Likely, he lectures her on the proper method for folding iron," and I laugh.
The musicians take a break for food and drink, and Annawendë and I—suddenly ravenous—sit in the grass at the edge of the clearing with a cloth full of breads and meats and cheeses between us, sharing a goblet of wine. I have filched one of the bottles that I brought from home—a good wine, older than my father—so that I do not have to keep leaping up to refill the goblet. Any residual awkwardness between us has been melted away by wine and dance. We are flirtatious now, nearly intimate in our casual touches.
Annawendë keeps pressing little bits of bread on me. "Why are you doing this?" I tease, taking the bread from her fingers with my teeth. "I am forty-seven years old! I can feed myself by now!"
"Look at you!" Her hand ripples along my ribs. "I could climb these! You are far too skinny to be healthy!"
"Really, I am," I assure her. "I take after my father. He is thin too."
"That is because he barely stops long enough to breathe, and he often forgets to break for the midday meal," she tells me, and such intimate information about my father startles me, coming from someone outside the family. "Look at Macalaurë," she says, and I follow her gaze to where my little brother stands, chomping crudely on a piece of meat and laughing with the dark-haired flutist. I had expected him to plop down on the grass beside us, but he seems preoccupied, although if he keeps chewing with his mouth open like he is, his efforts will earn him nothing. "He stands only to your shoulder, yet I'd bet that you are the same weight."
"That's because Macalaurë takes after my mother," I argue, and she puts a piece of bread into my mouth to silence me.
"Do not speak ill of your mother! It was her body that gave you life!"
I speak around the bread. "But my father begot me, and he was just as skinny then as he is now."
Somehow, in our drunkenness, frail connections are made that make us blush: her rounder figure and my slender one become matched to my mother and father and their extraordinary fertility, and I fear that I had been implying all along that I might like to make her one of the unfortunate maidens of legend who is wed in the weeds beside the clearing, or like my mother, a mother herself before the age of fifty. We fall into silence; she sips from the goblet, hiding her face, and I look after Macalaurë. He is gone, as is the pretty flutist at his side. The boy with the lute has begun playing a delicate tune, but Macalaurë's harp still leans against the tree. I look back to Annawendë, and she is picking at the cheese. I am suddenly desperate for conversation. "Do you like working with my father?" I ask, and she glances up sharply.
"Of course! It is an honor to work with him. Never have I known anyone who can achieve such clarity of language. He makes anything seem so simple, even when I know that it is not. Even when my failures prove that it is not! He makes me think that anything is possible."
"So he says," I mumble in reply, but I am still looking about for Macalaurë. I see him nowhere in the clearing.
"You have nerve, Maitimo, to ask me questions and not listen to the replies!" she scolds, prodding me in the shoulder.
"I cannot find Macalaurë," I reply, still scanning the clearing.
"He is making love in the forest with that pretty flutist of his," she says, and I whirl around in surprise, and she laughs. "I knew that would get your attention!"
"He'd better not be," I grumble. "He has never even been kissed before tonight."
"He had a lot of wine. That may change."
I lie on the ground and look up at her. She smiles lopsidedly at me and feeds me another piece of bread, this time letting her fingers brush my lips. I find myself taking her features apart again: Her eyes are too dark and flat; her hair is too coarse; her chin is too wide; and her nose is too sharp. But when I lie back and look beyond individual features—imperfections, some would say—and consider her in her entirety, I am washed with a desire so strong that it makes my heart pound. I am lying on the edge of the sea, and the water tumbles over my feet, my legs, my hips and belly and chest, and at last, covers my face and drags me under, and it is warm—not like drowning at all—and I know that I have fallen in love.~oOo~
Telperion dims toward morning, and we speak casually, like friends, but I cannot take my eyes from her face. Bravely, she meets my gaze. The clearing is nearly empty; the bonfire doused. Macalaurë's harp still rests, untouched, against the tree, and the lute player stands and prepares to leave.
"I should find my brother," I mutter and rise from the ground. Annawendë's remains lying with her arm extended along the ground over her head and her face nestled against her own shoulder. She mumbles something and turns onto her back, her dark hair spread in the grass behind her like a fan.
I speak to the lute player, and he points to a clump of bushes across the clearing. I know such places along the edge of the clearing well, places where the brush is thick but soft, where one cannot be seen but need not wander far enough to be lost either. I push through the branches and find my little brother where I knew he would be, lying on his side on a bare patch of earth, his eyes closed, kissing the flutist. Their bodies touch only at harmless points: Their knees press together, and their forearms cross, and he cups her shoulder with such tenderness that she might be made of porcelain. He is kissing her quite intently, open-mouthed and hungry, and there is a line of bruises along his throat that he will have to explain to Amil tomorrow morning.
I dart behind a tree before they see me. "Macalaurë!" I hiss, and I hear him spring to his feet and whisper something to the flutist before he stumbles around the tree, his eyes wide and innocent, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.
"What?" he asks.
"It's late. We need to be going soon."
He casts a sorry look over his shoulder, where the flutist waits on the bare patch of ground behind the tree. "May I have a moment to say farewell?"
"Of course. And make sure that she has a safe way home."
"I will, Nelyo."
He darts back around the tree, and I ease back into the clearing, where Annawendë is standing and clearing our empty bottle and goblet.
"I walked here with Vorondil," she says, "but I seem to have irked him, and he has left me." Her eyebrow lifts a little, and she smirks.
"Nonsense. You shall not walk. You shall ride Macalaurë's horse, and he will ride with me."
"Maitimo, that is not necessary. I am strong and able to—"
"I know you are. But it is late, and no one should walk alone in Telperion's waning."
I watch Macalaurë emerge from the forest, holding hands with the flutist. She gives him a chaste kiss on the lips and goes to where her brothers wait for her. Her hair is dark—Noldorin—but I see now that it is touched with silver, and when I see her brothers, I realize who she is: Vingarië, half-Telerin, of the House of the Albatross in Alqualondë. Her father is a cousin to my aunt Eärwen. I am warmed with joy for my little brother, who has done well for himself.
Macalaurë comes to us, his feet weaving and crossing, and I realize that he has had a bit too much wine tonight. He is grinning, inebriated with both love and spirits. When I give him a boost onto my horse, he would have slid over the other side and fallen to the ground if I had not caught a hold on his leg. I give Annawendë a leg up onto his palomino before mounting behind him.
Our people celebrate the Mingling of the Lights and rejoice next in the burning radiance of Laurelin. But maybe because I was born in the depths of Telperion, I love most of all the hours that leave the land glazed with enough silver to take the fear from the night without obscuring the stars. How beautiful the sky in these hours! A black backdrop punctured by tiny pebbles of light and draped with hazy silver gauze. My grandfather awakened beneath those stars; he walked hand in hand beneath them with my grandmother Míriel, seeking the light of Valinor.
It was in Telperion's hours, he said, that he found the gift of Valinor: a night that was never truly dark, that even storm clouds could not cover. A night where his sons—and later, his grandsons—could go without fear, as we go now, Macalaurë leaning back against me and dozing, and Annawendë and I falling into soft conversation. When we come to open fields, we canter, and the wind tears the words from our mouths, and we ride in silence. But we pass through the farms or the stands of trees at a walk or an easy trot, and I watch her as she speaks eagerly of her work and hopes for the summer, and her eyes light so that I am suddenly and regretfully aware that I have lain beside her much of the night and have not yet kissed her.
When we pass through the gates, the house is dark, slumbering. Macalaurë is awake now, the effects of the wine beginning to fade, and he helps Annawendë and me to remove the tack and dry the horses before turning them out to pasture for the night. "I'll be in shortly," I tell Macalaurë, and he drifts into the house without further question.
I walk Annawendë to the apprentices' cottages behind the house. She presses the tips of her fingers against mine as we walk, suddenly shy, and I let my fingers slide between hers and lace our hands together. We reach her cottage. She leans her back against the doorframe and slips her other hand into mine. The space between us is only an inch thick. "I could hold your hands forever," she whispers, smiling. "Thank you for tonight, Maitimo."
"You need not thank me." My voice is but a breath; someone standing just a few feet away would not have been able to hear my words. I wonder if she can hear my heart pounding; it sounds louder in my ears than my own voice.
Her hand goes to my backside and draws me against her, closing the inch between us. She turns her face to me, so close now, her eyes open and waiting, but still I do not kiss her. She presses against my hips, slowly, deliberately, knowing exactly what she does to me, and I gasp, closing my eyes so she can't see the pleasure she gives me.
"You torment me," I whisper. I open my eyes, and her eyes are turned to my face and very bright in the meager light. I keep my gaze on hers; I let my lips brush her mouth, a kiss softer than if a butterfly had brushed across her lips. She whispers my name, "Maitimo," and I shiver, but I will not close my eyes, or in the anonymous darkness, I know, I would lift her up, carry her into her cottage, and lie beside her on her bed and be unable to control my actions. I dot her mouth with little kisses from corner to corner, and when she isn't expecting it, I slip my tongue across her lower lip, her eyes close, and she moans softly. We draw each other into a crushing embrace. We kiss deeply now, at last, our mouths opening to each other. I move against her in a slow, blissful rhythm. Her hands are on my buttocks, now my thighs. She does not push me away but draws me into her. Harder! I move until her legs clasp me, and still, she doesn't stop me. My hands want to grasp her, to tear away her clothes, so I force them to clutch the doorframe instead, digging my fingernails into the wood until splinters assault the soft flesh of my fingertips and pain momentarily quells my desire for her. One of her hands slips inside my tunic, around my waist, and her fingers knead my bare back. I take my lips from hers long enough to gasp, "Annawendë, no!" digging my nails harder into the doorframe, and the touch of her warm hand on my flushed skin makes me jerk against her in a flare of agonizing pleasure. "Annawendë," I plead, "please don't. I won't be able to stop."
She rests her lips against my throat—is she considering what I have said? or is she repulsed by my honesty?—and I can feel my pulse throbbing against them. "I shall bid you good night then?" she says softly, and we kiss again, but the moment is lost, and I do not let my body touch hers, though I ache with longing and the air that zips between us now is like ice. My lips part and her tongue darts into my mouth. She has kissed like this before, I realize—a thrilling thought—maybe more?
She gives me a final quick kiss on the lips. "Good night, Maitimo." The space between us is widening. Why did I push her away? She opens her door; I imagine myself falling into the cottage with her, tangled in her embrace. "Good night, Annawendë," I say and close the door behind her.~oOo~
Walking back to the house, I am suddenly exhausted. I begin unlacing my tunic as I walk up the steps and trudge into my bedroom. Macalaurë is lying on my bed, already in his nightclothes, wrapped in my quilt.
"Macalaurë," I say, "it is late. Nearly morning. Why are you here?"
"I wanted to talk to you, Nelyo."
I sigh and tug my tunic over my head. The silk drifts across my face. My scent mingles with Annawendë's. I hang the tunic carefully in my armoire and grab the first nightclothes I can find. There is still a hot tightness in the front of my trousers, and I have no desire to undress in front of, much less lie, with Macalaurë in this state, so I escape into my bathroom and close the door before he can question me.
I splash my face and chest with water. My skin is burning; it is like I'm being consumed from within. It is not an unfamiliar feeling anymore but it frightens me still, though less than it did in my youth, when I would awaken from the strange dreams that bathed me in sweat, my body pressed into the mattress to seek release from unbearable pleasure. I hear Macalaurë's quick, furtive footsteps moving across my floor and I slam myself into the bathroom door as he opens it, knocking him back into my room. The door slams shut with a bang. "Ai! Nelyo!" he cries. "Are you mad? What are you doing in there?"
"I am getting ready to go to bed. Alone."
"Why the secrecy?" He is right outside the door, probably with his cheek pressing against it. I can hear his voice buzzing through the wood.
"I am nearly grown, Macalaurë. Don't you think I occasionally deserve the right to undress in private, without you or Tyelkormo or Carnistir sitting there watching me?" My voice is irritated, like abraded skin.
"I have seen you naked before, Nelyo," Macalaurë says in a bland, matter-of-fact voice. "More times than I care to recollect."
"Well, you won't tonight, and if you can't figure out why, then you can get out of my bedroom because I have nothing else to discuss with you."
There is a long pause before he says, at last, "Oh," and I hear his footsteps move across my floor again, receding, followed by a creak as he climbs into my bed. I push my face into the water and hold it there until my burning lungs force me to rise again for air. My shoulders and chest pucker into goosebumps. I turn my hearing inwards and listen for my heartbeat: It is plodding, slow, normal. I breathe deeply and listen to the heartbeats rush faster for a moment, racing to drink the air from my lungs, then slowing. I am calm again, the fire of the night's desire extinguished. I shiver, put on my nightclothes, and emerge from the bathroom.
Macalaurë is lying in my bed, beneath the quilt, on the side that he always refers to as "his side." (Once, I had the audacity to climb in on "his side" of the bed and, when he became irked, had to politely remind him that both sides are technically mine.) I wait for some embarrassing comment from him as I climb onto my side, but all he says is "I won't stay long! Promise!" and even kicks the quilt away to show how serious he is.
"You say that now," I say, "but you'll fall asleep in five minutes, and I won't have the heart to wake you up."
"I might," he admits. He looks small and helpless with his pale blue nightclothes against his white skin, lying uncovered in my big bed with his hands defenseless at his sides.
"What are you going to do when I get married and you have to sleep alone every night?"
"Who says I have to sleep alone? We can get a really big bed, and you can lie in the middle, between me and your wife."
"I seriously hope that you are jesting."
"I can close my eyes and stop my ears when you need me to. That doesn't bother me. I learned to sleep through just about anything during those two years when Atar was certain that every night was the night he would beget Carnistir."
He speaks with such wide-eyed innocence that I can't help but laugh.
"I still can't believe that Amil fell for that cheap ploy for two whole years!" he continues.
"Well, maybe there was something to it. He did eventually beget Carnistir."
"Yes, but Manwë in Varda, that really isn't that impressive when you're making two and three attempts every night for two years!"
"I'm not sure that it wasn't just one really long attempt every night."
"One would think he would tire!"
"Once the process begins, I believe it to be a rather self-sustaining effort."
"Incredible," says Macalaurë, my baby brother who is growing up but not fast, who has only had kisses from a maiden this one night, who still has the barefaced, innocent beauty of a child. "You would think that Atar would take that unbounded energy and put it in stones like he does with light."
I cannot hold back my laughter.
"Why are you laughing at me?" Macalaurë asks, plainly and a bit hurt.
"You are suggesting that Atar capture an orgasm in stone? Why? He already captured four in you, me, Tyelkormo, and Carnistir."
"Oh, Nelyo." He blushes, and his hands scramble to pull the blankets over his head, as he always does when I embarrass him, forgetting that he shoved them away with his feet. "I didn't exactly say that."
"Macalaurë, that is why you are the musician and Atar is the craftsman and I am the loremaster."
"So did you see her tonight?" It amazes me how Macalaurë can change subjects in midair, like a horse changing leads as it gallops. "Isn't she beautiful?" He smiles wistfully, rolls onto his back, and sighs. "And you won't believe it, but she wishes to see me again too! I told her that we are going to Formenos for the summer, but I will send a letter to her whenever Atar sends a rider to Tirion. I think she's going to be the girl I marry."
I remember that feeling, the first girl I courted, in a time stretching so far behind me that the memory is small and blurry, as viewed from a distance. Suddenly, my body aches with weariness, stretched thin by the endless years of growth that curse the Elves, who do not consider one to be an adult until he has have seen fifty years and do not esteem him as a capable one until his hundredth. I wonder how many more new beginnings I will have to endure, living eternally in my father's house, caring for his sons instead of my own, riding an hour each way to the clearing to attend tiresome feasts that never bear fruit. Or dare I hope that Annawendë is the last one I will have to love? Dare I chance disappointment? "Love will be hard won for you, Nelyo." I hear Atar's voice, feel his fingers stroking my hair, and despair to imagine that I might be one of the unfortunate few for whom love cannot be found in Aman. Let it not be true! I silently wish, but to whom do I pray? I squeeze my eyes shut and see Annawendë's face.
"She is lovely," I say softly, turning back to Macalaurë, to encourage the hope in his heart that has been long absent in mine, but his eyelashes flutter against his cheekbones and his breath is purring deep in his throat. He has fallen asleep.
I draw the quilt over his body, lacking the heart to awaken him and send him to his own bedroom, as he knew I would when he crawled into my bed and again when he let his eyes fall closed. I watch him as he sleeps, a tiny smile on his lips—maybe he dreams of the loveliness of which he spoke last?—wishing to hold time, unchanged, forever in this moment: the day my little brother first fell in love, a day I never appreciated fully in my own life and to which I shall never return except through him, in this moment, that even now is slipping away.
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