2. Black Tidings
The dark had settled thickly by the time Sidaizon arrived home. Only a sliver of the moon shone that night, giving little light to the streets of Valmar, but still he could see well enough the familiar walls surrounding his house, silhouetted by the neighbourhood's lamps and cooking fires. Pale smoke and a sweet, spicy smell rose from the shared courtyards.
"You're late, Attu," said a voice from atop the garden wall.
He looked up with a grin. "And you're far too big to be sitting on the walls. How did you get up there?"
"Climbed the fig tree."
"That's hardly ladylike."
"You said I don't have to act like a lady for another two years!"
"You're right," Sidaizon said, smile growing. "I did say that. Now you'd better come down. If I'm late for supper, you must be too." He held up his arms, and the thin, shadowy figure of Nautalya slid over the edge of the wall and into his embrace. "Och. You're also far too big for me to carry... What have you been eating, stones?"
Nautalya only laughed in reply and wrapped her arms around his neck, pressing her face against his shoulder. She pulled back almost immediately. "Your hair smells like... bad smoke."
"I had to burn some things at the Lavazat."
"Just some old things," he said. There was no need to elaborate. He shifted Nautalya's weight to his other arm, giving her a gentle squeeze as he did, and carried her up the path to the house. "Now tell me what we're having for supper."
Nautalya said nothing. She fidgeted, and let her hair fall across her face.
"Márathul hasn't cooked anything yet."
Her eyes were wide with uncertainty when she looked up at him, and she hesitated on her words. "Tarmanaz isn't home yet so Márathul can't go out to cook because... Amma won't let him leave the house. Somebody's here to see you and Márathul has to wait on him."
"Who is here to see me?"
"I don't know who he is. A Yaranénon man."
Sidaizon abruptly stopped in his steps. He lowered Nautalya to the ground, but kept a protective hand on her shoulder. "Did he say why he's come?"
"No," Nautalya whispered. Her voice wavered, and her eyes seemed to grow even wider. "He only said he needed to see you. He said he's your cousin."
It took only three strides for Sidaizon, pulling Nautalya behind him, to reach the front door and throw it open. "Sinya?" he called.
No answer came. He stepped inside, but gestured to Nautalya to stay by the door. "Máro?"
Márathul's head appeared from around the corner, followed by one hand. "Attu," he said quietly, clearly trying not to be overheard. "There's someone-"
"I know," said Sidaizon. "Nautalya told me. What does he want?"
"He wouldn't say."
"Where is your mother?"
"With Haruni. In her bedroom. They won't come out."
Sidaizon nodded. "Good. Then go with your sister out back. Start supper. Alya, you help him. I will deal with this."
Obediently, Márathul took Nautalya's hand and led her back outside. Sidaizon shut the door behind them. He could hear no sound from the next room: no clearing of a throat, no clink of a cup on the floor. Some ghost of a man lingered in there. He took a breath, willed his arms to relax at his sides, and stepped out from the corridor.
The Yaranénon man was standing with arms crossed over his chest as he stared at the simple pattern of tiles on the back wall. Unlike those that had come earlier to the Lavazat, this man was clearly wealthy: he wore a robe of orange and red, made of a fine fabric, and heavy decorations of gold hung all over his body. Gold clips covered his plaits, gold bands circled his wrists and ankles, and gold earrings hung down to his shoulders. He lifted his hand to lazily brush a strand of hair from his eye; gold and gems gleamed as rings on his fingers.
"So it is you," Sidaizon said. His voice echoed in the silence of the room, and the man snapped his head to look toward the sound of it. "I half feared some impostor had taken your identity to come here and kill me." He bowed in a jerky, perfunctory way. "Culurossë."
Culurossë returned an equally meaningless bow. "Sivairon."
"Oh, now. If you impose on me to come into my house in the dark of night and frighten my family, I think the least you can do is learn to say my name properly."
A slow and mocking smile broke across Culurossë's face. "Ah. Yes. Forgive me; I forgot. You are still pretending you're not Noldorin."
Fury sparked, and then subsided. After all the day's exhaustion, Sidaizon could not even dedicate himself to proper anger. Instead he sat down on the floor opposite Culurossë and poured himself a cup of tea from the pot that somebody- Márathul, certainly- had left. "Culurossë, if you came to bait me, I'm afraid I will be poor sport. I haven't the energy for it. But if you want to talk, you can sit down with me and have some tea. We can talk as reasonable folk."
It seemed at first that Culurossë would refuse. He stalled, shifting his weight from one foot to the other and crossing and uncrossing his arms. He rubbed his toe on the tiled floor, examining for dirt through mean eyes. Finally, he sat, but stiffly.
"Tea?" Sidaizon asked, gesturing to the pot.
"You know I can't have anything here."
"I know you would rather not. But I think it is polite to have some tea, don't you?"
"No, I cannot, by-"
"How many times have I eaten at your mother's house? Cousin?" He stressed the word, stretching out the sound of it.
Culurossë leaned back with a frown, as if he could somehow dodge Sidaizon's barb of speech.
"Have some tea. Or leave now. There are your choices: either we sit and drink and talk pleasantly, or you go. What will it be?"
"Tea, thank you," Culurossë spat.
Sidaizon took a sip. "I've not poisoned it." He watched and waited over a treacherously long pause, as Culurossë poured a cup and passed it from one hand to the other in an extravagant show of blowing on the tea to cool it. Culurossë would not look up to meet his gaze. Which was just as well: he had not seen his cousin in years. He stared, scrutinising, and tried to reconcile old memories with what he now saw.
Despite a difference in age of less than a year, he and Culurossë had never been close. They had not even met until Sidaizon was thirteen years old. On the few occasions after that, Sidaizon had always remembered Culurossë as being taller and more muscular. Now, he seemed average or even small. His face still bore the fresh roundness of youth; he had never grown into the sharper features of adulthood. He had darker skin in a coppery red tone, darker hair, and darker eyes: that Yaranénon blue-black like the father of the dead woman. It felt strange for Sidaizon to look at him, foreign as he was. The two of them were nothing alike.
Culurossë finally lifted his cup. "Ech... too bitter."
"I apologise," said Sidaizon. "Had I honey to spare, I would give it to you. Alas, I do not. So we suffer through bitter tea. Now do tell me, why are you here?"
"Can you not guess?" Culurossë asked. He took another sip from his teacup, grimaced, and set it down as far away from his body as he could reach.
"That dead woman again."
"I am beginning to think she will haunt me until the ending of the world..." Closing his eyes, Sidaizon downed the rest of his tea all at once. Its soothing heat only compounded his weariness. "It must be a trial from Manwë." He shook himself, trying to rouse some energy, and looked back to his guest.
Culurossë had tilted his head to the side while he gave a falsely sympathetic leer. "Yes, it must be, for you. A trial. But I can advise you how to rid yourself of it. If you simply give the body back to her family-"
"The burial is already done, Culurossë."
The simpering expression on Culurossë's face fell as fast as a stone. "What? How is that possible?"
"I used a shovel, dug a grave, and put the body into it. It was hardly an extraordinary task, and highly possible, once I set my mind to it. And would you believe: you are not even the first person today to come to me with a warning about something that has already happened."
"But how could you do that, when the whole city rages with controversy?!"
"I had to," Sidaizon replied. His voice remained flat. "The body was four days dead. I had to do something, and burial was the best solution. Now listen," he added, and held up his hand to stop the response forming in Culurossë's open mouth. "Think about this. Yes, that poor woman was a convert. But she chose her path. She chose Valadáva. Therefore, she chose burial. I think her wishes should be placed above those of her parents, yes?"
"She was born-" Culurossë began, but again Sidaizon interrupted.
"Your mother was born Valadávan. Should she ever die, Manwë forbid, am I to assume it is my right to demand a burial for her body? Or would you not rightly build a pyre?"
"I... no, of course... that's..." Stammering, Culurossë opened and closed his mouth stupidly.
"It's ridiculous; I know. Nearly as ridiculous as a whole city becoming upset over the body of one woman, and you coming to tell me what to do about it."
"Now that is not ridiculous," said Culurossë. He regained his composure to sit straighter and harden his eyes. "I don't know if you realise it. Safe behind the walls of your temple. Even across the river, there are threats and brawls, and it grows worse daily. It's more than simply one woman, Sidaizon. No-one cares any longer about the origin. They only want to fight. They use any excuse. Any perceived slight. Anything to bring out the old rivalries"
"They will settle down and the trouble will pass. It always does." Sidaizon poured himself another cup of tea and offered the pot to Culurossë, who pretended not to notice the gesture. He sighed. "Besides, I believe the parents of the dead woman will be able to convince their supporters that all is resolved. We came to a compromise, and ended on peaceful terms."
Culurossë snorted. "A compromise over the death of their daughter?"
"Yes. Even though I am sure you never would consider it, a solution can usually be found that is agreeable to both sides. The body was buried, true, but afterward I invited them into the Lavazat courtyard, and we burned her death gown on the grave. The mother then took those ashes. They thanked me, and left with no further incident. So you see why I believe things have taken a turn for the better. The woman's family is appeased, and with them no longer behind it, the issue will fade."
He paused, smiling at Culurossë to extend a thread of peace. At best, he expected a quick nod in return, or any sign that his cousin grudgingly understood. More likely, he expected a blank stare or argumentative rolling of the eyes. Instead, a hateful scowl filled Culurossë's face.
"You did what?" he hissed.
"I..." Sidaizon began, but the words stuck on his tongue and turned to air. Culurossë stared back at him with an ugly frown. "I let them in," he began again, "and they made a pyre, with the dress to represent the body-"
"And you thought they would be happy about that?"
"Why should they not be? They said nothing that made me think otherwise..."
Culurossë rose quickly to his feet, though he remained bent over to point a sharp finger in Sidaizon's face. "This is why we hate you," he said. "You talk so innocently of peace and understanding while at the same time pushing our traditions aside as if we were stupid children. What would you say, if we handed you back charred bones to bury? Would you accept that compromise or see it as the insult it is? How can half measures ever be good enough when they take the place of ancient rituals? I would rather see nothing at all than a false fire in mockery of what should have been. And you of course see nothing wrong."
In the face of his cousin's fury, Sidaizon could only stare. A rolling sickness began to build in his stomach. "Culurossë... I am sorry. You know I meant no disrespect."
"No. You never mean any disrespect. None of you ever do, from your high towers on Taniquetil as you control the land on your whims. But you cannot respect something you do not understand. And you do not understand this."
"If they would have told me," Sidaizon started, but his voice faded into a sigh. Culurossë turned and left, as quickly as he could walk, and was gone before any plea to stay could be spoken. He left the door hanging open behind him, too hurried to even slam it shut in his haste to be gone.
On the floor, Sidaizon squeezed his hands into fists and dropped his head against them. The skin on his knuckles was cold; it soothed his burning brow like rainwater. He opened his palms out flat and pressed them against his face. Feeble dismissals flashed through his mind. Culurossë is an ignorant mule. He has always been. There is no need to seriously consider anything he says; it is all either lies or exaggeration. He fabricates stories to fool himself into thinking he is wise and he argues for argument's sake. When we were children, he would fight over who had better friends, and nothing has changed in almost four long counts. Culurossë is only trying to make trouble.
For a long time, he only sat, until a voice interrupted from behind.
Noiselessly, Márathul had returned through the kitchen door. Sidaizon stretched and stood to face him. "Supper is ready?"
"Nearly," said Márathul. "Not much bread left, but we made a big soup with the rest of the soaked beans and those carrots. Is..." He paused, eyes darting across the room. "Is that man gone?"
Sidaizon nodded. "Yes. And he was my cousin, as he claimed. Culurossë. I should have introduced you. But... I'm sure there will be another opportunity." Then he clapped his hands together, trying to force some measure of lightness into the room, and spoke too cheerily: "Now! You set out a cloth and have Alya bring the bowls, and I will tell Amma and Haruni that supper is ready. Has Tarmanaz come home yet?"
"No. Not yet."
"We will have to eat without him, then."
Márathul gave a half nod as he glanced about the room again, as if he expected to find some Yaranénon thug still lurking in the corner, and Sidaizon went to close the door that still hung crookedly open in the wake of Culurossë's departure. For the first time since he could remember, he pulled the latch shut and put in the bolt. It was a useless gesture, he knew. There was little sense in locking a door when so many windows stood uncovered, and even if the windows were barred, a single wooden dowel would do little against anyone set on entering the house. He pulled it halfway out before reconsidering and leaving it in place. Useless or not, Eäzinya would appreciate its presence.
He needed to find his wife. Nautalya had said that she and his mother had closed themselves in his mother's bedroom, and this looked to be the truth; the bedroom door was shut when he approached.
"Sinya?" As he called, he gave the door a soft tap.
She opened it almost immediately. The room beyond was dim save for the light of two candles, but even by that faint glow Sidaizon could see that her skin had taken a greyish tone and her eyes were wide with uncertainty. "Oh!" she whispered.
His arms instinctually found their way around her back, pulling her close, and he could feel the tension of the evening slowly begin to ebb from her body as she dropped her head onto his shoulder. Her hair smelled faintly of cinnamon. Of all that had happened that day, of every reckless thing he had done and every poor choice he had made, he most regretted not having come home sooner. He should have been home.
"He's gone?" Eäzinya asked. "That Yaranénon man?"
"Yes. And there was no cause to worry."
"I did worry. When Máro answered the door and told me who was there, I came straight in here and prayed for you to come home soon and make him go. But then I prayed that you would not come home, in case he meant to harm you, and that he would lose patience and leave..."
"He did not harm me, nor did he mean to," Sidaizon assured her. "He is all air and no substance." Kissing Eäzinya's hair, he looked over the top of her head to address his mother, seated in the corner. "You could have come out to see him. He was who he claimed to be. Your nephew: Aldamizdë's son, Culurossë.""
Though Amárië sat with a cloak draped across her lap and a bowl of pearls in her hands, Sidaizon knew she had not been working. Her posture was too stiff; she always relaxed and slouched over her beadwork. "If he was polite he'd bring a token from his mother," she said. "She should know to send him with one. Besides I am not dressed to have visitors. I don't want to see that boy looking like this."
Sidaizon looked from his mother to his wife and back again: at their matching expressions of concern and fear. "Oh you two..." he said softly. "You let Nautalya out alone in the dark while you sit in here, afraid of your own shadows. Afraid of one stranger, when more and worse have come to you, Amma, to have their clothes beaded." Smirking a little, he gestured to the pearl bowl in Amárië's hands. She looked back at him blankly, appearing not to notice.
Eäzinya tilted her face to her feet. "Shadows are the least of my worries tonight. You didn't hear?"
"A man was killed," said Amárië.
The floor seemed to shift beneath his feet as Sidaizon gasped. Such a strange thought that was. The very idea of it made him light-headed. The two of them must have been mistaken; no-one could be killed in Valmar. People suffered misfortunes, but were never deliberately killed. It was an absurd thing to say. He nearly laughed, until Eäzinya continued what Amárië had started.
"Close to here. By the early market. Some Yaranénon band was parading through the street, shouting curses and making noise, throwing rocks through open windows, and a man from one of the houses stood out in the road to stop them. He held a long shovel and would not let them pass. He told them to leave, quit frightening his children... and they started throwing rocks at him. One the size of a fist hit him in the head."
"Who told you this?" Sidaizon asked. "Are you certain it is no false rumour?"
Amárië gave her head sad shake. "No. I think it's true. Two children, older boys, came running down the street shouting what had happened. We doubted them at first, but then a woman I know came to our courtyard to tell us all the same thing. She said her son lives in the same block as the man who was killed."
"So then everyone was afraid," Eäzinya added, "and we all came inside. All evening before you came home there was nobody on the streets."
"Nautalya," Sidaizon said quickly. "She was outside when I arrived home. Why did you not call her in?" His voice rang unintentionally harsh and snappish, and he winced as Eäzinya took a startled step back.
"I didn't want to frighten her," she answered. Already, she had taken on a defensive tone. "She didn't hear the cries of murder, and I had no wish to tell her of it. So I let her play in the garden with the order to come inside right away if she saw any strangers. She was the one who told us that man, your cousin, was coming. Then she went back outside to wait for you while Márathul attended him. I'd rather have her outside and wary but happy than inside and frightened."
"You're right. You're right. I'm sorry, I shouldn't have spoken like that. You did the right thing. I'm glad she didn't hear that news."
He pushed his hair back from his face, limp as it was and damp with sweat, and leaned into the doorframe. If he closed his eyes, he could try to make sense of the thoughts that jangled through his mind and quarrelled for attention. There were suddenly so many: the dead woman's family, the Oraistar's visit, Culurossë's warnings, another death, Nautalya in danger. They spun like a wheel. Over and over, each one rose to the surface with guilt and fear before disappearing again, silenced by the others. His head had started to throb with their rhythm: too many worries. Minding them all was exhausting.
He forced his eyes open to see Eäzinya staring back at him.
"Are you alright?"
"Yes," he murmured. "Only tired. It's been a long day... But Márathul made soup for supper. It should be ready now. You should go eat."
Amárië set aside her pearls and folded away the unfinished garment in her lap. She paused only briefly on her way out of the room, no more than a hitch in her step, to rest a hand on Sidaizon's arm and flash him a look of unspoken hopefulness. Things will be better tomorrow, Hilu, he could almost hear her say. He had time to just brush her fingers in thanks before she was gone.
Eäzinya followed after, but turned as she passed through the doorway. "Are you coming?"
"No... I think I will go to bed."
"Are you sure?"
He nodded weakly; his head felt so heavy. All those thoughts had such weight. If he could only sleep, he could try to tame them. "I'm not hungry. But I am exhausted. I want to sleep like a stone and forget all that's happened today."
Gently, she reached back to squeeze his hand. "Do you want me to bring you a cup of milk? It might help you sleep."
A fleeting wish surged above the chaos of worry: for her to stay standing there beside him, hand in hand, until the troubles of the world dissolved into dust. He returned the squeeze with too much strength. "Thank you. Yes. But eat your supper first. I shall be up a while yet with washing and evening prayers."
She mimed a kiss, and let her hand drop. Sidaizon watched her disappear behind the curtain that separated the bedroom corridor from the rest of the house, and then extinguished the bedroom candles before moving to the bathing room. It was at the corridor's far end, in the corner of the house: a small room, completely tiled, with a water pump along one wall and a floor that sloped into a drain to the outside. Narrow windows along the top of the corner walls allowed just enough light from the moon and courtyard fires to see.
Sidaizon stripped off his clothes and hung them on a peg on the door. He knelt at the pump with his head beneath its spout, working the lever up and down until the pipe's deep gurgle and sputter became a flow of cold water. It ran over his head and neck, soaking his hair and washing away the oily smoke that Nautalya had smelled, before splashing into a bucket at the pump's base. Once the bucket was full, he used the collected water to wash his hands and arms, his feet and legs, and finally his chest and back. He was shivering by the time he was done, with his entire body wet and chilled to the blood. Standing, he shook off all the water he could and wrung out his hair. Then he dressed again quickly in only the outer mantle of his Almatar's robe.
The bedroom was dark with its shuttered windows, but he knew without sight where to step: where to find the magnolia sticks to clean his teeth, where to find the jug of drinking water, and where to stand so that he was facing toward Taniquetil. He raised his arms above his head and, exhaling, slowly let them fall again. "Oh Manwë, Lord of Arda," he whispered. "What should I do?"
There were too many things to pray for that night. Each murmured wish rose grudgingly from his chest, and fell back down again like a stone to the earth. He asked for forgiveness after lying to the Oraistar, for understanding in the eyes of the Yaranénon family, for protection from harm for his own family, and for some assurance that he had acted justly and followed the right path. Every word of it seemed selfish as soon as it was spoken; everything he had prayed for was to ease his own burden and clear his conscience. As an afterthought, selfish in its own right, he added a plea for peace in the city. That he had thought to ask for this last, and hurriedly, made it sound all the worse.
No sign came from Manwë: no wind in the trees, rustling leaves or scratching of branches across the roof; no birdcalls. He had not expected it.
Wearily, he folded away his clothes before lowering himself into bed. His body ached from the afternoon's work of digging the grave. His mind was exhausted from the assault of so many worries, and racing with the impossible search for solutions. He had never felt so tired and so awake at the same time. He turned onto his right side and his left, trying to find a comfortable position, and lay on his front and back. Nothing was right. The night was full of tiny flaws: an unusual hardness to the bed mat, and noises that carried too loudly to hover, gnat-like, above his ear. Out in the courtyard, insects sang, goats bleated, and mothers called for their children. The darkness magnified every sound.
Attu and Amma: father and mother