5. Choosing Fates
As calmly as he could, Sidaizon turned his back on Eäzinya and Amárië's anxious faces and walked to the front of the house. There stood Márathul, with his back pressed flat up against the wood of the door and looking like he wished he could become part of it. Just outside stood a man: a plain sort of man, who could have been any of the neighbours, with a plain face and plain clothes. He held in his arms a large bundle of blankets. Sidaizon sighed, welcoming the flush of relief and silently berating himself for being so stupid as to believe one of the King's soldiers might actually have come to his home. "Alla, sir," he said.
The man bowed his head. "Alla, Indor Almatar."
Sidaizon looked to Márathul, who stared back with bulging eyes and offered nothing in the way of an introduction. "What is the trouble?"
"Almatar, this is for you," said the man. He held out the blankets, motioning for Sidaizon to take them.
"What is it?"
"It is for you," he repeated. Again, he held out the blankets, stepping forward until the bundle was pressed against Sidaizon's chest, and Sidaizon had no choice but to take it from him. He backed away as soon as the burden was out of his hands. "Alla, Almatar. Alla. Alla..."
And then, he turned and ran.
Sidaizon shifted the weight from one arm to the other. It was heavier than it appeared, and he could feel that the blankets were merely wrapping to conceal something else inside. "Do you know what this is?" he asked Márathul. "Did he tell you?"
Mutely, Márathul nodded.
"What did he say?"
Márathul opened his mouth, but closed it again without a sound.
"Now you're worrying me that I shouldn't look," Sidaizon said. "It might be some animal head or innards in here sent as a threat."
"No," Márathul quickly replied. "Not that. Nothing like that. It's..." He paused, and cringed. "He said it's a baby."
It took a moment for Sidaizon to fully grasp what Márathul had said. "A... a baby?" Quickly, he pulled back the blanket's folds until he could see the side of a small head and the edge of a tiny ear. His stomach leapt at the sight, twisting in both panic and amazement. "Oh, Manwë. It is a baby."
"What are you going to do?"
"I don't know," said Sidaizon. "Take it inside for now, I suppose. That's all we can do at the moment."
He went back into the house, beckoning with his shoulder for Márathul to follow. Eäzinya and Amárië would know what to do with the child; they had to. On top of all else that had happened, he had no wits left to manage a baby. They could help him find a home for it. He carried it into the main room, holding the blanket bundle a little away from his body as if the simple action could somehow distance him from the situation, and presented it to his mother.
"Amma. You always said you wanted another of these."
"Another of... what is this?" Frowning, Amárië took the bundle onto her lap.
"What did you get?" asked Eäzinya. "Who was at the door?"
Sidaizon shook his head. "I don't know who he was. I didn't recognise him, and he left before I could ask any questions."
"And what's that in the-" she began, but her words were cut short by a cry of surprise from both Amárië and Nautalya.
"A baby!" Nautalya shrieked. "Amma, Amma, it's a baby! Look!"
"A... a baby?" With a gasp, Eäzinya looked from the bundle of blankets to Sidaizon and back again, disbelief flashing across her features.
"A girl!" proclaimed Amárië. She pulled back the blankets from around the child's head, presenting her to the room. "Look how tiny she is... how sweet! I always wanted a little girl."
Again, Eäzinya looked at Sidaizon. "But I don't understand... Whose is she? And why is she here?"
"I don't know. The man at the door handed me the blankets, wrapped in a bundle, and ran before I had a chance even to see what it was he had given me. But he had spoken to Márathul." He met Márathul's gaze from across the room, which appeared to be no less terrified now that they were indoors. "Did he tell you the parents of this child?"
Márathul pressed his lips tightly together, but nodded.
A strange sound, almost like choking, coiled up from Eäzinya's throat. Her cheeks had flushed, either with anger or dread or some measure of both, and she hoarsely spat her words. "Márathul. Is this your baby?"
If possible, Márathul looked even more horrified than before. "What? No! Of course not! No, and no!" His face took on a sickly grey cast. "Why would you even think that?"
"Your brother's?" Eäzinya snapped.
"Then why are you so frightened?" asked Sidaizon. "This is an unexpected situation, but a baby is a baby, and nothing new."
Márathul slouched down and took a step back, away from the baby resting on his grandmother's lap. He wiped the heel of his hand across his forehead. "She's cursed," he muttered.
"What?" said Eäzinya.
"I said, she's cursed. She has a death curse on her. That's the baby that caused the death of the woman you buried yesterday, Attu. Her family doesn't want her because she's cursed."
"Cursed?" Lifting the baby from the nest of blankets, Amárië held her up to examine. The baby gave a squawk, threatening to cry. "I can't believe that. How could such a little darling be cursed?"
"I don't know," said Márathul. "That's just what the man told me."
"What else did he say?" Sidaizon asked. "What happened?"
Márathul sighed, rubbed his forehead again, and began the story, though he spoke to the floor. "I was almost home from giving Auzëar your message when a group of men, maybe five or six, started calling out to me. They said, 'There he is, ask him, that's the Almatar's son.' And so I stopped to see what they wanted. They said that the one man, the one with the baby, was looking for your house. Since I was your son, I could show him the way. He had something to give to you. I asked what. At first he was reluctant to say, but as we walked, he told me he was the brother by marriage to the husband of that woman who died. The woman's husband couldn't care for the baby himself, so he gave it to his sister, this man's wife, because she had her own baby and could feed both of them. But as soon as the sister took the baby, she began getting headaches and feeling tired and unwell all the time. After four days she knew the baby must be cursed, and the death curse that had killed the mother was starting to take hold on her. So the husband took the baby back to its father. But the father couldn't take it back, he knew nothing about caring for babies... so he told the man to bring the baby to you. You would be able to find it a new home."
"What nonsense," snorted Amárië. "As if headaches and tiredness couldn't be caused by the burden of caring for two babies!"
Eäzinya, though, had paled. She had always been superstitious, and the mere mention of a curse was enough to bring death and misery to the front of her mind. Sidaizon knew what she thought as she stared at him with round eyes.
"You know there is no proof that this child is cursed," he quickly told her before she could speak. "You remember how tired you were caring for Hwailenda, how she cried all the time, and that was with Amma to help you."
"But the death..." Eäzinya countered. "The mother's death..."
"That was a sad and unfortunate event," said Sidaizon. "It happens sometimes. Mothers risk their lives bringing children into the world, Eldar and animals alike; it is the price of life. The Valar only know why some are called to death and others live on, and to label Their work a curse at the hands of a baby is foolish indeed. If it pleases Eru for a woman to die, then die she will. But Instead of trembling about curses we should be thankful He saw fit to let the child live."
Eäzinya lowered her head in deference. "I understand," she murmured. Though Sidaizon could see her gesture was in word only; her fearful expression did not change.
"And did this child's uncle say anything else?" he asked Márathul. "Am I meant to keep her, or find her any good home, or did the father give specific instructions?"
"Keep her," said Amárië, and Nautalya echoed, "Yes, keep her! Please, Attu, can we?"
Squirming uncomfortably, Márathul looked at the baby. He held the same opinion on curses as his mother. "Well... he didn't say not to keep her," he slowly began. "He told me her father wanted her sent to any good home, but that you should first ask her mother's family."
Sidaizon inhaled sharply. "Her mother's family?"
"That's what he said."
"Her mother's Yaranénon family?"
"I... I suppose so..." said Márathul.
"Then the man is mad. Impossible." There was no other word for the situation but impossible. A Valadávan child could not be raised in a heretic household. No person of faith, least of all an Almatar, could facilitate such an outrage.
On the other hand, it was the father's request, and his word ruled the fate of his child.
Amárië was first to break the painful silence. "Then it is settled," she said. "We shall keep her."
"Keep her?" Sidaizon choked.
"Of course, keep her. You just said it was impossible for her to go to her mother's kin. In that case, your duty is to find her a good family. And I can think of no family better than this one."
"There is nothing to 'but' about, Hilu. This little girl needs a home, and we have here more than enough to share with her. The goats give lots of milk. We have Nautalya's old clothes in a chest. And she can sleep in my bed, with Nautalya and me."
"I don't mind, Attu," breathed Nautalya. "I'll share everything with the baby, I won't even be sad!"
"There, you see?"
Sidaizon's shoulders fell. "But Amma..."
If there were proper words to say, or a correct argument to make, they had been lost somewhere between Sidaizon's head and his tongue. Amárië had fixed her determined look upon him. It had been perfected over the years, and rarely failed to win her arguments. He sighed, and prepared to mumble something hollow for show before conceding defeat.
The timely return of Tarmanaz, though, prevented him from having to either agree with or refuse Amárië just then. With his arms crossed sullenly over his chest and his head so low that his neck all but disappeared, Tarmanaz slid back through the door like a shadow. The rough remains of his hair veiled his face, but his mood was easy enough to decipher nonetheless. A prickling energy radiated from him, strong enough to catch the attention of all with its volatile grasp as he stood with his feet defiantly apart and leaned back against the wall.
"What?" he demanded after a heavy moment. "What are you all staring at?"
"Your hair," said Márathul. "What did you do to your hair?"
He jerked his elbow in Sidaizon's direction. "Ask him. He did it."
"Your brother is ready to move on to a new stage in his life, Márathul," Sidaizon said. "I will be submitting his name to the academy of the Holy Path tomorrow."
Márathul blinked. "He? Tarmanaz?"
"Yes. Tarmanaz, your brother. He can be surprisingly devout when faced with the proper motivation."
At this, Tarmanaz made a huffing sound, but said nothing. Sidaizon continued. "Of course this means changes for you, too. I think it's past time you took an apprenticeship. Now with Tarmanaz elsewhere, you can take his place learning how to make paper with-"
"What about the baby?" Amárië interrupted. "Don't you change the subject when we haven't settled the matter of the baby yet."
"Baby?" said Tarmanaz. He peered out from behind his shorn hair, eyes finding their way to Amárië's lap.
"An abandoned child," Eäzinya told him. "She has a curse that caused the death of her mother."
Sidaizon clenched his teeth, but let the remark pass. "The baby was delivered to my care and I have been charged with either finding her a new home or sending her to her Yaranénon grandparents. One of the great joys of being an Almatar is having to untangle other people's messes and make decisions for the good of all. So, Almatar-in-training Tarmanaz, let us assume that this burden has fallen upon you. What is your wise decision? Do you send the child to the heretic household of her convert mother's family? Do you keep her yourself? Do you find another family, far removed from everything? What do you do with an unwanted baby?"
"Well..." said Tarmanaz. He looked at the baby in Amárië's lap, and frowned. "Unwanted babies... Aren't you supposed to drown them?"
Amárië gasped, gathering the baby close to her bosom, while Eäzinya's hand flew through the air with such speed that the fabric of her sleeve cracked like a whip. She struck Tarmanaz soundly on the ear.
"You idiot!" shouted Márathul. "Only the most horrible kinds of people drown deformed lambs and kids, never babies! How stupid are you?!"
"It was a stupid question!" Tarmanaz shouted back. He had his arm up to block any further attacks from his mother. "How should I know what to do with babies?"
"If you cannot think of a reasonable answer with sense and compassion..." Sidaizon began, but his voice was lost amid the hail of insults hurled between Tarmanaz and Márathul, Eäzinya's shrill admonishments, and the screams of a startled baby floating above it all as a fitting accompaniment to the din. "I should have gone to the Lavazat," he muttered as he sat down on the floor and dropped his head, already starting to ache anew, into his hands. It was quiet there, at the least, if he hid behind the heavy doors and shut himself away to think and pray. However wretched the previous day had been at the time, digging graves and accepting threats of death from a Yaranénon mob seemed now almost peaceful and preferable. At least he could leave them behind when he went home for the evening. Here he was home, and had no place to go.
"Now look!" he heard Márathul shout over the noise of his brother. "You've made Attu despair!"
"Why should I care? It's his fault in the first place!"
"His fault that you're too thick to even answer a question without saying the wrong thing? Attu, you can't send Tarmanaz to the academy! He's far too stupid!" Márathul had crossed the room and now sat himself down directly in front of Sidaizon, keeping his back straight and trying to look older and wiser than he was. His gaze demanded agreement.
"That is the purpose of going to school, Márathul," Sidaizon said wearily while Tarmanaz and Eäzinya continued their hollering under the baby's unshakeable descant. "To rid oneself of ignorance."
"But he can't even read properly!"
"Neither could I, when I went. Not a word. Tarmanaz is at least better than that."
"But he doesn't even want to go!" Márathul insisted. "If he wanted to, he'd be bragging about it! He's too stupid, he won't learn anything, and he shouldn't go!"
"It's not fair! He gets to do everything!"
The words rang from floor to ceiling, filling the ugly pause Eäzinya and Tarmanaz had taken to glare at each other. For that moment, the only sounds were the baby's cries and Amárië's shushing whispers. Márathul had his hands clenched in his lap and he breathed heavily, through his mouth. He looked away when Sidaizon met his eyes for too long.
In all his years, Márathul had rarely expressed any sort of opinion. He was too much like Eäzinya. He did as he was instructed and repeated back whatever Sidaizon had told him when asked for his thoughts. Growing up under his brother's shadow, his favoured method of earning praise and attention had been willing obedience in direct opposition to Tarmanaz's rebellion. The more Tarmanaz lashed out, the more Márathul complied. But it seemed now to Sidaizon as if all of that had been a façade employed for his advancement. Márathul's mask had slipped in that meeting of the eyes, and beneath his perfect veneer lay fire and ambition.
"Márathul," Sidaizon repeated in whisper. "What does he get to do that you do not? What have I ever denied you?"
"You told me when I was forty that my life could begin when Tarmanaz finished his apprenticeship," said Márathul. His voice, weighted with bitterness, sounded dark and harsh. "That was twenty-three years ago, Attu, and he still hasn't proven himself competent enough to earn a tradesman's crest. Now he's abandoning that to go to the academy? What am I supposed to do for the next sixty years while he's up there? Stay here like I have been, acting half my age while running errands for you and cooking your supper?"
Weakly, Sidaizon shook his head. "Of... course not. I won't hold you back here if you want to leave. I'm sorry... I didn't know. I never thought-"
"Well you should have."
Sidaizon could not reply. He had never seen this side of Márathul, so chained down with stifled hope, and it shocked him.
"What did you think I would do after Tarmanaz left?"
"I... suppose I would send you to Haru Vidirwë," he answered. "To take Tarmanaz's place."
"No," Márathul said flatly. "I won't go there. I hate that place, and the smell of wet paper makes me sick. I can't do that work."
"Then what would you do, Márathul? What do you want for yourself?" He tried to catch his son's eye again, for any clue or suggestion it might give, but Márathul kept his gaze on his hands and said nothing. "Tell me," Sidaizon urged.
Márathul tensed. He took a breath, and held it before speaking almost too quietly to be heard, slurring his words together in speed. "If idiot Tarmanaz is good enough to go to the academy then I should be, too."
"Go to the-" Sidaizon began, but now that Márathul had started speaking of the desire he had kept hidden all those years, he seemed unable to stop.
"When has Tarmanaz ever shown any aptitude for scholarship or discipline? Has he ever wanted anything more than the plain life of a tradesman? Why would you even bother to trust him with such an opportunity when I am the one who goes with you to the Lavazat and the bath house, and I am the one who has read all your books, and I am the one who follows the King's laws that he sees fit to step around! Why should he be the one to go up the mountain while I stay here? It's not fair!"
"Then you can go instead of me," said Tarmanaz, "if you're so magnificent."
"No," Sidaizon said, frowning at Tarmanaz. "You are going. Your brother isn't the one out catting around at night, getting himself into troublesome situations."
Márathul made a noise of disgust, halfway between a grunt and a cough. "So he is irresponsible, and we're both punished."
"You are not being punished, Márathul. To be honest, I am very much proud of you and honoured that you wish to do this. But you're too young."
"Too young? How am I too young? You need only be thirty-six!"
"That is true," Sidaizon admitted. "But the usual age of admission is eighty. And once you are eighty, or nearly, I will more than happily help you with... with your..." He let his voice trail off into a sigh. Márathul had leaned back onto his hands and was staring at the ceiling, clearly not listening. "Márathul?"
Márathul gave a little huff of breath before speaking. "How old were you when you went?"
"How old were you?"
Sidaizon clenched his teeth. "I don't see how that-"
"I asked how old you were," Márathul said coldly. "Forty-three, was it?"
"Mine was a very different situation."
"But you were still forty-three. I am sixty-three, a full twenty years older, so why won't you let me try?"
"Try?" asked Sidaizon. "What about succeed? You're only given one chance at this, Márathul. If the difficulty forces you to leave, they will never let you back."
"Then let me prove I can do it," said Márathul. "Give me a test. Let me show you."
"A... a test?"
Nodding, Márathul sat up straighter. "What will it take to change your mind? Tell me, and I will do it."
Nothing less than witnessing Márathul's success would convince Sidaizon that his younger son could weather the hardships of life on the mountain. Márathul had the ambition, but no true sense of the sacrifices he would be forced to make. His eyes held all the passion and desire of the world, but those hot emotions could be easily cooled by the drudging routine of academy life. What he needed was stony stubbornness, a trait he had never possessed.
Sidaizon's shoulders fell. "As you wish. Almatar-in-training Márathul. Tell me, what would you do with this abandoned child? How should we decide her fate?"
Smugly, Márathul raised his chin. He could look so much like Tarmanaz at times: the resemblance was troubling. "An easy question to answer," he said. "I would send her to the Yaranénon grandparents."
"No!" Amárië snapped at once, while Eäzinya gasped, ready to speak.
Sidaizon raised his hand to hold back the both of them. "I would say that is a curious choice," he told Márathul. "Explain your reason."
"Many reasons," said Márathul. "First, because how do you suppose the grandparents would react if they heard the baby had been given to a family of strangers? And they would hear. Everything linked to that woman's death spreads as heated news all over the city. If that happened, there would be more riots and more violence. The Yaranénor would take it as a slap in the face if you chose any unrelated Lávar to raise the baby when she has living family who would want her. But, second, if you did send her to the grandparents, they would see the gesture as the greatest of peace offerings and a show of faith. I am sure that the entire feud would be solved. Third, while it is true she would be raised in a Yaranénon house, she would still know that she has a Lávan father, and she was born Lávan. There is a high chance she will come back to us once she is old enough to make her own choices about her life. Finally, it is the easiest choice to make, and the least amount of work, and no-one can really fault you for sending a child to live with her own blood kin, even if they are Yaranénon."
With a snort and a shake of his head, Tarmanaz leaned back against the wall. "And you thought my answer was stupid. You can't give the baby to heretics. Everyone knows that. The Oraistari won't allow it, Almatar-in-failing Márathul."
"That may be true," Márathul answered back, "but if you paid attention to anything at all, you'd know that it goes against both Valadávan and Yaranénon law to have a girl adopted by anyone more remote than the siblings of her parents. The grandparents could use that as a challenge before a judge."
"Now you're making things up."
"No," Sidaizon said quietly, "he's right. It's an old law, and one that rarely comes into consideration, but it's true nonetheless. She cannot be given to the care of anyone but an uncle, aunt or grandparent unless she is first promise-married. So if we organise an adoption, we must also organise a wedding. And that could be an impossible task."
"I should hope so," said Amárië. "That sounds like Yaranénon nonsense. Only they would want to arrange a marriage with an infant. Ridiculous. No-one would do it."
"Then you agree she should be taken to her grandparents?" Sidaizon asked.
Amárië scowled and held the baby closer. "Absolutely not. I still think she should stay here."
"And whom would she marry?" Smiling, Sidaizon raised his eyebrows at Tarmanaz. "You?"
"What?" Tarmanaz coughed, choking on his breath. "No! I'm not marrying anyone right now, least of all a baby!"
"Are you sure? I think it would be an ideal match. You go to study for sixty years, and when you return, you have a lovely new wife all grown up and waiting for you. Think of all the money you'd save, not having to scratch up enough to pay a brideprice." He turned to Márathul. "What about you?"
But Márathul only paled again, shrinking back and closing his arms across his chest.
"What if you told everyone you are her uncle?" Amárië asked. "Then we could keep her without any marriage."
"I'm not her uncle," said Sidaizon.
"But if you said-"
"Even if I announced myself as her uncle, her Yaranénon family would see it as the convenient lie it is, and the trouble would only escalate. No," he sighed, "Marathúl is right. She needs to go to her grandparents. It's the only option, much as it pains me to say so."
He looked to Amárië with a smile, offering an apology for what he was about to do. She stared angrily back. "No!" she said. "You can't do that."
"Amma, I have to. We have no choice."
"No!" Amárië repeated. She cupped a protective hand around the back of the baby's head. "You can't give me this baby and then take her away!"
"I didn't give her to you. I only-"
"You did!" Amárië's voice had grown suddenly shrill. It wavered as she spoke, hovering on the threat of tears. "You said, 'Here, you always wanted another one,' and gave her to me! You gave her to me, and now you want to take her away! Why should I let you?"
A heavy feeling began to roil in Sidaizon's stomach as he watched his mother cling to that baby. She had never spoken of a desire for more children in anything but light-hearted, joking tones, and had never complained of her fate in anything but the same. To come literally face to face with her hidden wish now...
"I'm sorry, Amma," he said softly. "I thought you knew I was only teasing, and understood we would have to find her a different home. I didn't mean to cause you grief."
"But you did," said Amárië. The promised tears had started to gather in the corners of her eyes, and a small sound, not quite a sob but more than a sigh, escaped from her throat as she cradled the baby against her shoulder. "I don't see why I can't be her mother. I would be a good mother."
"I know. I know you would be. But you heard the reasons why not."
"Political reasons!" she shot back. "Reasons of law! Heartless, cold reasons! This is a baby, Hilu, not a crate of tea or a bag of spice! How can you decide the course of her life the way you would solve an argument over common goods? Her life! She should be given to the care of somebody who loves her, somebody who wants her! Not somebody who owns her by rules written in an old, dry book! I won't let you do that!"
With a shaky sob, she pressed her face into the baby's swaddling blanket. How sad she looked, small and alone, sitting there in all her desperation and sorrow. It struck Sidaizon like a knife. He pushed his hair back from his forehead, feeling skin damp and cold beneath his touch. "Amma..."
Eäzinya touched his arm. "Shh. Let me?"
Nodding, he took a step back to let her be the one to approach his mother. Eäzinya crossed the floor smoothly, gliding like a bird, and settled down beside Amárië with a comforting arm around her shoulders. The words murmured were too quiet to hear. At first Amárië turned away, refusing to listen, but after a moment Eäzinya had coaxed her to her feet. The two left the room for a discussion alone.
Indor: master of the house