I cannot explain the presence of bears in the dream. It is a dream of a scene that happened long ago, in a small forest of close-growing trees. There, Elros and I are beating our way through the underbrush with nothing but long sticks to aid us. He meant to lift two long swords from the armoury to help us on our quest, but the guards are wise to his antics and too vigilant to let a pair of gangly youths waste their good blades on hacking up saplings. We make do with the sticks. We are fifteen years old and kings of Arda.
Elros is determined to find treasure in the forest. The old stories of Doriath and Nargothrond have made him obsessed with gold and jewels, and he is certain there are plenty to be had. Last night he claims to have seen four men sneak off into this very wood, and he has convinced himself that they came to hide treasure. I cannot bring myself to tell him what I know: that the forest is used by Sindarin natives as a place where lovers can meet in secret, or where they can drink themselves stupid on some horrible stuff called nó-ná, which is made of fermented evergreen needles and smells like goat piss.
The day is hot and the forest makes everything feel stifling and sticky. Leaves smell like they are cooking in the sun, exuding an overripe, green scent, halfway between prime health and rot as they droop from their twigs. We breathe something more substantial than air: something heavy with humidity and saturated by sunlight. Clothes are unbearable. We have stripped down to our breeches, rolled up to mid-thigh, and even that seems too much.
Every now and then Elros pauses to wipe the sweat from his face and push it back into his stringy hair. His naked chest and back are glistening, and I know I look the same. 'Remember, we're looking for a place somebody's dug up,' he tells me for the fourth time at least. 'The treasure will be buried. But they might've covered the hole with leaves and branches to disguise it. Look out for piles of dead brush.' So far we have covered almost a fifth of the little forest and discovered nothing.
By this time we are close to the centre, where the trees occasionally give way to mossy glens full of mushrooms and fallen logs. Elros is still not ready to give up. He trudges ahead, slashing at vetch and nettles with his stick and prodding the ground for signs of disturbed earth, until we stumble into another one of those glens and I scrape the side of my foot against a freshly split stump because Elros has stopped too suddenly and I have to make a quick step to the side. I almost curse at him until I see why he has stopped. We are not alone in the glen.
I see the girl first; her bright yellow-orange dress stands out against the carpet of moss like a flame. She is lying on her back with her silvery hair fanning out from her head, her hands folded serenely across her belly; her eyes are closed. I notice the man stretched out beside her as an afterthought. Clad in brown and green, he blends into the forest scenery as much as she jumps out. The hood of his cloak is pulled down to his brow, but even with his hair covered I can tell by his face that he is a Vanya. The Vanyar are everywhere these days. It's been two years since the start of the war, and already they've built harbours for their great ships and settlements around those harbours. They used to come to buy our food and supplies, but now the sides are reversed and they sell their wares to us. Sometimes I wonder if they came to make war on Morgoth at all, or just to settle these eastern lands and prevent the Noldor from exterminating themselves.
The Sindarin girl might be sleeping, but the Vanya stares up at the forest canopy, and I can see by the movement of his eyes that he is tracking something: a bird or butterfly or falling leaf. He does not look in our direction. Elros has made enough noise to warn even a deaf beetle of our presence, but the Vanya pays us no attention. Only when Elros coughs loudly does he turn his head. And then he fixes us with a gaze so blank I can see the outline of my body reflected in his pupils. It must be the nó-ná, or worse. I've heard of the recreational side to Sindarin herb lore.
Elros walks forward until he is standing directly over the Vanya, who makes no movement other than to follow Elros' progress with his eyes. They stare at each other, Elros looking straight down and the Vanya straight up, until even I am uncomfortable with the bizarre moment they share. It passes in slow anxiety. Finally, Elros breaks the spell and says, 'You give me some gold and I don't tell anyone you're here.'
The Vanya's expression does not change as he reaches into his cloak and pulls out a modest purse. He hands it over to Elros as easily as if he were handing over worthless rags, and Elros is as surprised as I am that this feeble exploit actually worked. Whatever this man and the Sindarin girl consumed must have been a quality product. Elros nods his thanks, and backs away quickly. Why risk having the Vanya come to his senses and demand his money back? We leave that glen and, as soon as we think we are out of sight, run like the world is on fire. We are far away by the time I think I hear a western voice shouting namárië into the tangle of trees between us. Of course Elros hears nothing; he is too preoccupied by the weight of gold in his hand.
The dream to this point shows things how they actually happened. But once we leave the Vanya and begin our sprint through the forest, the bears appear. I can see them weaving through the trees, and I know we are surrounded. The little wood is full of pale, tawny bears. We run until the forest abruptly ends at the seaside, where Maedhros is waiting in a boat with neither oars nor sails, and he berates us for being so late for supper with his parents. They await us below deck, in a room full of white stairs. There are bears in the white stair boat room, but nobody seems to notice or care. Fëanor has prepared a special dish for us to eat. It is made of bird tongues.
o o o o o
I wake up groggily at the sound of a bell clanging somewhere overhead. My room is as stuffy as the forest, and smells of pine sap and smoke. I fell asleep with the grease lamp burning again, and am still in my clothes. Because this cabin (I use the word 'cabin' loosely; what I have is more accurately a closet with a bed in it) has no window, it is impossible to tell what time it is. All I can tell, from the creak of the walls and the sway of the floor, is that we are still at sea. We have been at sea for more days than I care to count.
The bell clangs again, which I try my best to ignore, but the shout that follows is enough to snap me immediately awake: land ahead. Those are the words I have been waiting to hear ever since we left Mithlond. I am up on deck in moments, peering out over the rolling water with an intense eagerness. There in the distance before us, exactly as promised, the flattened and misty-grey triangle of an island rises above the waves. My utter lack of experience in sailing gives me no clue as to how far it is, or how long it will take before we arrive. I have to turn to the mariner at my side.
'Waters are good, for now,' he tells me. 'I say we should be in Rómenna early tomorrow morning.'
My surprise must be evident. I had guessed a few hours at most.
'Sailing is slow business, master Elrond,' the mariner laughs. 'Have you never travelled by sea?'
'Not as such,' I say, which is true enough. I have lived at sea, in that gap of time between the destruction of Beleriand at the end of the war and Gil-galad's decision to land in Harlond, and travelled by sea when I was too young to remember very well. I have never before made a conscious decision to journey by sea from one location to another for a specific purpose.
'You look it,' says the mariner, and he gives me a hearty clap on the back. I wish I could strike that stupid smile from his face. He looks worse than I do, with his tangled hair and sunburnt skin. My clothes may be rumpled by accidental sleep, but at least they are not stained with salt. But of course I am too passive to do anything more than smile weakly at his jest, and glare when his back is turned.
The only food we have on board is lembas, of which I take a piece before returning to my cabin. The mariners say that at first it makes an excellent meal: it has a good taste and texture, and on a first bite you would swear you could eat it forever. But as the days pass by, living on a diet of lembas and nothing but lembas, it quickly loses its appeal. And then you begin to gag at the sight of it. Supposedly if you suffer through the gagging phase you come out the other side and the stuff becomes bearable again, but I have not yet made it that far. In fact, I am beginning to think I would rather eat nothing at all than choke down one more mouthful of vile lembas. Perhaps true Elves have a greater tolerance for it. Perhaps my mortal blood leads me to boredom more quickly and demands greater diversity. But all I can think now, as I stare down at the lembas in my hand, is how much I would rather have a charred piece of fatty meat cooked on a stick over a fire.
We have not even reached our destination, and already I am dreading the food on the voyage home. I leave the lembas be and, after a quick tidy of my few personal items that have become strewn about the cabin, decide to simply go back to sleep. The easiest way to while away a pointless day has always been to sleep through it. This time, though, I remember to doff my clothing and extinguish the lamp, so that when I awake some hours later, it is in total darkness. And there passes a long, panicked moment before I can remember where I am. I could have sworn I was back in Lindon, in Celebrimbor's room, and he had locked me in.
This has been happening to me far too frequently of late. Sleep plays with the mind in funny ways.
o o o o o
Rómenna is the first entirely Mannish city I have ever visited, and I must admit that I am disappointed. It looks like Mithlond. I have spent a good part of the voyage wondering what strange wonders of Númenórean architecture I will behold, but now that I am here, I can find no words to describe the style other than 'copied from Elvish'. There is even a watchtower on the little island in middle of the bay. How Noldorin.
According to Elros' letter, Rómenna is the smaller of Númenor's two ports. The other, Andúnië, lies on the western side and is the island's chief city, owing to the vast amount of commerce they conduct with the Elves of Tol Eressëa. But Elros lives in neither of these places, preferring to make his home inland. The Royal City, Armenelos, is a short overland journey in from Rómenna. This is where I am headed. Without so much as a chance to walk about and give my legs the relief of feeling solid ground beneath them, my ship's captain has herded me over to the edge of the docks, where a hired carriage is already waiting. He hands me off with a stern warning to the driver and my chaperone that I am to be delivered safely to Elros Tar-Minyatur in Armenelos. The driver gives me a quizzical, appraising glance. Am I some manner of halfwit that I can't manage a simple drive without getting myself lost, injured, or killed? A valuable political hostage? No, I am merely the herald of an overprotective king back in Lindon, who, despite my objections that I am well old enough and more than responsible enough to take care of myself, demanded a promise from the ship's crew that I would be under their best protection until my safe return.
So we are off on our way out of Rómenna before I even have time to have a proper look. My chaperone is, as luck would have it, the sunburnt and salt-stained crewman from yesterday. I have conveniently forgotten his name. He is in a mood for moaning about how awkward he always feels on land, and what will he do between now and when his ship sails back to Mithlond in eight days? I do my best to ignore him as I watch the city roll by out the carriage window. We are passing down a street of cooked food stalls, and the mingling aromas of crispy fried fish, spiced sausage and bubbling stew make my stomach twist and growl. I almost regret not eating that lembas.
'Can we stop?' I ask the footman. I have to lean my head and one shoulder out the window to do so, and his answer to my request is a confused stare. 'I would like some food,' I explain. 'Any place on this street will do. If we could stop up here-'
I am rudely interrupted by being pulled back inside the carriage. The mariner has his thick, callused hands on my arm. 'We ate just hours ago,' he says to me. 'We had lembas on the ship.'
'I was busy packing at the time,' I lie. 'I must have missed it.'
He looks out the window on his side, eyes narrowed to a suspicious squint. 'Be that the case, you still don't want to stop here.'
'Not if you wish to keep your valuables. This is a poor area, master Elrond. They'll just as soon rob you as feed you.'
'I will take my chances-' I begin, but my chaperone has decided to take his promise to Gil-galad far too seriously.
'It's a long drive to Armenelos,' he says with a grave sort of finality. 'We have no time to stop now.'
Annoyed, I settle back down into my seat and resume the standard travelling pastime of staring at the scenery. The cooked food vendors have given way to rows of houses with little gardens out front. 'How far is it?'
'Roughly fifty miles from the edge of Rómenna.'
'Fifty!' The word is like a slap. I search his face for any hint that he might be teasing, but he has closed his eyes and leaned into the corner of the carriage as if to settle down for a nap. A faint frown bends the corners of his mouth. He appears to be entirely serious. 'Fifty miles! But that will take us...'
'Two days,' he answers. 'There's a caravan village halfway where we can stop for the night, and we should reach Armenelos early tomorrow evening.'
Now I truly do regret not eating that lembas.
Slowly, the houses trickle away to be replaced by cottages and farmland, which in turn fade into nothing at all as the terrain becomes hillier. Rómenna is behind us, with nothing but open land ahead. Our road winds through a wide valley banked on either side by lush greenness. Every now and then I can spot a hare in the grass, or a herd of deer in the distance. The most common sight, though is other travellers. This is a busy road, and we meet many swift riders passing us from behind and plodding ox-carts coming toward us on their way to Rómenna. When we pause for dinner in the early afternoon, we are joined by two single riders and a family of five with their wagon at our makeshift camp site.
We are having, as my luck would have it, lembas for dinner. My chaperone pulls two small pieces out of his pack and gives me one. I need all my willpower to take it from him while surrounded by our companions eating such delicacies as bread and cheese and dried fruit. Our driver even has a piece of tough salt pork. He answers my half-hearted request for a trade with the sort of laugh that tells me he thinks I am joking. Dejected, I sit near the wagon family and try to work up the desire to eat my paltry dinner. Their youngest, a little girl, stares at me in wonder over the safe barrier of her mother's shoulder. Her bread and cheese sit untouched on the grass near her bare feet.
Is it wrong to trade with a child who knows no better? I think not. As far as each of us believes, we both have the better end of the bargain. I hold out my lembas to her and ask, 'Do you like Elf food?'
She appears to understand not a single word of what I say, and it suddenly occurs to me that I have no idea what the spoken language of the common people of Númenor is. Our driver and footman speak Sindarin well enough, but do not know if this holds true for many others. It will be gestures or nothing. Smiling, I reach out as far as I can toward her with the lembas on the flat of my hand. She looks to her mother, who nods in assent, before creeping forward like a timid bird to take it. One bite, though, and her true personality shines through. As if the lembas has dislodged a stopper from her mouth, a stream of excited chatter explodes forth: spiky syllables and throaty consonants directed at her family and no doubt praising the wonders of Elf food. The language of Númenor sounds like kak-za-gath.
It takes a few moments and a subtle hint from her mother before she remembers to thank me. She curtseys nicely and says, in halting and oddly accented Quenya that she must have learned for special occasions, 'Elyë hantan, o heru Elda.' Then, just as I have been hoping, she picks up her bread and cheese and places them in my outstretched hands. This whole exchange earns me a roll of the eyes from my seafaring companion.
The bread is hard, skirting stale, and the cheese has turned glassy at the edges and sweaty in the middle. Everything is covered in fine lint from being wrapped in linen in a basket. It is nevertheless the best meal I have had since leaving Mithlond. I thank the little girl (hantanyel, hinya) with full sincerity and eat so fast I almost choke. Thus ends a fine rumour of Elven grace, at least for everyone watching.
We are back on the road as soon as the horses have been fed and watered, which makes for a very short break. Only a quarter of our journey has passed and already my rear end is complaining mightily of having to sit again. I am tempted to get out and jog alongside the carriage, but I know the mariner would refuse to allow this. I have to make do with sitting in my hard seat and imagining I am somewhere wide-open and comfortable. A garden pavilion full of pillows. Airy corridors with filmy cloth for walls and grass as the floor. If ever I am wealthy and powerful enough to warrant my own palace, I will build it with these kinds of impractical frivolities in mind.
o o o o o
The sun has already dipped below the hills before us by the time we reach the caravan town; the sky is streaked with fantastic reds and oranges, gilding the few clouds hovering at the peak of Meneltarma in the distance. Our accommodations are nothing so awe-inspiring. The driver has procured a room for me and my chaperone in an unremarkable boarding house just off the highway, where we quickly become two of twelve guests crowding around the supper table. Like the bread and cheese given me by the little girl at dinner time, the fare is practical and plain: thin cabbage soup, heavy bread, and boiled mutton with carrots. And, like the bread and cheese, it earns no grumblings from me, despite all being grey, overcooked, and flavourless. It is not lembas, and that is fine enough.
The room, I am told by the housekeeper, is their second best. If this be the case then I would hate to see the worst, because we are shown up to a room on the second floor that appears to be a whole two feet wider than my cabin on the ship. 'You see,' the housekeeper says proudly in her funny Sindarin, 'it has a window!'
There is indeed a window: small and grimy, glazed with cheap isinglass. It appears to have been washed as often as the floor, which is to say, never. On one side of the window is a single narrow bed, fitting exactly into the tiny room with no space left over at its head and foot. On the other side is a table with an earthenware washbowl and ewer. The two boy attendants, likely the housekeeper's sons (they have her wide-set eyes and angular nose), are just able to shove my chest of clothing into the space beneath the table.
The mariner immediately takes to the bed, not even bothering to remove his salty clothes. I sit hesitantly beside him. The straw mattress crunches beneath my weight, and up wafts a smell of dust, mould and, vaguely, old urine. I cannot bring myself to contemplate how many travellers, soaked with ale from the hall downstairs, were too lazy and sleepy to bother looking for the privies. The bed is also likely infested with lice.
'Get up,' I say to the mariner.
He snorts and rolls over to scowl at me. 'What?'
'Help me with something.'
It is a trick I learned during the years of the war, when Elros and I moved around from camp to camp and went for days without washing: silk thread is fine and usually too tightly woven for lice to come through. We would stitch pieces of old silk clothes together to make sheets that could be used whenever we had to sleep in an unfamiliar bed. The mariner and I have no time for sheet-making now, but my travelling chest is full of formal silk items large enough to overlap and cover the mattress for one night. We force the chest open on its sticky hinges. Everything inside is slightly damp and smells of mildew from being shut up in a wooden box at sea for so long. Still, I prefer damp and mildew to must and urine. We use some of my fine robes for sheets, and others for blankets. Everything will have to be boiled and pressed upon arrival in Armenelos or, more likely, replaced. The thought of buying an entirely new wardrobe in Númenórean fashion, of which I know nothing, bothers me less than the prospect of ruining my hair with foul oil to rid me of a lice infestation.
o o o o o
When Elros was eleven years old, he contracted a bad case of lice from some Mannish children. Our cook sat him down naked at the breakfast table and covered his head in grease. Not the clean kitchen oil used for cooking, but thick, brown paste used to keep metal from rusting and wood and leather from rotting. It stank like tar. The cook took to Elros with a fine comb and tortured him for an hour while he screamed and wailed that the grease stung his eyes and the comb ripped his hair. Then he had the grease washed out with salt water and vinegar.
Three days later, the mother of those lousy children took all of them, Elros included, into her garden and shaved their hair completely off.
Elros shouted at the cook that he would have rather had his head shorn in the first place, as Men do, rather than suffer through the combing. After that treatment, no matter how many vinegar washes he endured, his hair had remained sticky and limp with a lingering tar smell. But our Elven family was shocked at the sight of his bald head. It is a terrible thing, among the Elves, to cut one's hair. It is an act reserved for harsh punishment, or mourning.
When done to a child, it signifies that the one or both of child's parents have just been killed. And back then, people were still praying for Eärendil to succeed in his mission to Valinor. Elros' shaven head was a dark omen for the Noldor.
o o o o o
The bump and lurch of the carriage pulling to a stop is what wakes me. My first thought is one of annoyance: the sun is still hot and bright in the cloudless sky, meaning it is too early for us to be in Armenelos, so why have we stopped? We are meant to arrive at the court of Tar-Minyatur in time for supper.
But then the mariner stirs beside me, stretching his limbs and cracking his lazy joints. 'We're here,' he announces.
'We're early,' says the footman, who has leapt down from his bench to open my door. 'Made good time on the road.'
I have to squint as I step from the carriage, using my hand to shield my eyes against the sun. It is lowering, but still above the hills to my left. 'Where are we?'
I am relieved that the footman does not answer 'Armenelos' in reply to what I belatedly realise might be a stupid question. 'Palace of the King,' he tells me. 'We are through the gate, and you need only take the stairs up.'
The Palace of the King. So we have arrived at Elros' home, and I have slept through the drive past every other thing worth seeing in Armenelos. From where I stand, I can see only the upper storeys and roofs of a few tall houses that loom over the stone wall surrounding the property.
'He will show you inside,' says the footman as he gestures to a young man in what I take to be the uniform of a servant. I bow in thanks, intending to dismiss him so he and the driver can be rid of me, but he remains standing there with an expectant look on his face.
'Must I... yet pay you?' I guess.
'Oh no,' he answers politely. 'Your ship's captain paid your way in Rómenna.'
I hear a tapping from the inside of the carriage, where my former chaperone still sits in wait of being taken to an Armenelos inn. 'Elrond...' he calls through the window. I lean in as far as I can to hear him whisper.
'He expects a few small coins. A little thanks for services rendered.'
'He only opened my door,' I say. 'I could have done that myself.'
'I know, but it's the custom here. Give him something so he and our driver can have a few mugs tonight.'
I am beginning to worry about Númenor already, if it is custom to reward minimal service with the promise of drunkenness. But still I scratch through the contents of my purse for a thin silver coin. The footman takes it with a curious look, as if guessing at its worth.
'I'm afraid I have no local money-' I begin, but he interrupts with a grin and a bow.
'No worries, sir. I know a moneychanger in the city who takes all Elvish coin. Peace of Ulmo be with you.'
He is off then, with a quick hantalë. I am left alone with the servant and a younger attendant boy who looks nowhere near strong enough to manage my unwieldy chest of clothing. He makes a valiant effort, though, and has already managed to drag it across the courtyard to the base of a sprawling staircase.
I am unable to make out much of Elros' home as I follow the servant across the courtyard and up the stairs. With the sun shining directly into my eyes above the roofline, all I can see is the dark silhouette of a grand building atop a treed hill. Or, rather, a series of grand buildings built around a series of hills. What appeared to be one from the base of the stairs splits off into several the closer I come. At the top of the stairs, safely in the shadows, I can see that the building before me is at the centre of a cluster. It is tall and pillared, with a sloping roof, and from either side spring covered walkways leading off to smaller structures of the same fashion. I have to pause a moment just to stare.
Unlike the copied-from-Elvish architecture of Rómenna, this is what I would call True Elvish. It is like nothing I have ever seen before, and yet, it feels so perfectly familiar. The pillars of stylised trees. The delicate, asymmetrical arches. The forested hill with hidden roofs poking up from the leafy canopy. Waxy vines sprawling out over tiled terraces. Birds perched on the walls of the bridge-like corridors that lead from place to place, potted flowers hanging from secret balconies, the sound of a waterfall splashing. The servant has to take me by the arm and lead me inside. Had he not, I could have stood there for hours. This is my carriage fantasy come to life.
Inside is no less wondrous than out, with mosaic walls, tall ceilings, and airy windows high above our heads. I could have stayed here, too, simply staring at the marvel of it all, but the servant has no intention of letting me do so. He sends the attendant boy and my chest of clothes off with a few smart words of instruction in the local dialect I cannot understand, and then shows me outside again through a side door onto one of those excellent bridge-corridors. It winds down from the central hilltop building, following the curve of a ravine, and eventually leads to a separate little bathing house situated beside a pond.
Here I am stripped naked with little more than a welcoming nod. Two bathing attendants take me to a tub full of warm water and proceed to scrub me all over until my skin tingles with a pleasant kind of rawness. The water, I am ashamed to say, turns grey and filthy within minutes. I have not had a proper bath since leaving Mithlond, and the evidence before my eyes shows quite plainly that my daily wiping-down with tepid water and a hand towel on the ship did nothing more than move the dirt around. I do not think I have ever been this dirty in my life: not even when I was a child.
After the tub I am taken to a table and made to lie down on my front. A burly man stands there, rubbing his hands together as if smoothing them with lotion, and for one blissful moment I believe he is about to massage my stiff back. But then the scrubbing begins again. This time, I am scrubbed not with water and a soft cloth, but with coarse sand. The man uses what feels like his full strength to grind the sand into my skin, and immediately I am convinced that he will rub off the entire top layer. Another moment and I am sure I am bleeding. The skin on my back feels hot and wet, and stings under each run of his hands. When he pauses, I can see from the corner of my eye as he shakes little droplets of mud from his fingers. The mud is every bit as grey and filthy as the bath water. So there is still more dirt lingering in my skin, and this is the only way to remove it.
There are others in the bath house being washed and brushed and scrubbed clean. On another table near me lies a man with long, golden hair and a rather flat face: a Vanyarin Elf, certainly. He is lying on his front, as I am, with his arms crossed under his chin as he stares straight ahead. But while I am biting my cheeks to keep from moaning in pain, the expression on his face is one of serene boredom. The large attendant at his side could just as easily be rubbing him with sweet oil as scouring him with sand, to judge by this Vanya's look. I wonder if the Númenórean style of bathing is something to which one must work up a tolerance. I fold my arms under my head, as the Vanya has done, close my eyes, and try to imagine that the ordeal is over. The burly man has moved down to my legs, and the horrific sensation of him sand-scratching the backs of my knees is almost more than I can bear.
o o o o o
When I was a child, I used to believe that I had the power to leap ahead through time. If I focused on one moment in the future and imagined it strongly enough, I would be able to open my eyes and find myself there. On some nights I would lie awake long after Elros had fallen asleep and imagine what the next day would bring, or the next summer, or the next year, or several years from then. I never thought of anything too grand. My mental pictures were always of something very normal and attainable.
I thought ahead to the next morning. I saw myself, through my own eyes, sitting at the table for breakfast and eating bread and jam with Elros. Or I thought ahead several days, and found myself running down a grassy hill in the sunshine. I thought of what I would be like at age twenty-two, or thirty-eight, or sixty. Sometimes I sat at a desk shuffling through books and records, or sometimes I stood in a hall full of important people. But what differentiated these from normal fantasies was how real they felt. The longer and harder I thought, the clearer the scene would become. It would grow more and more realistic while my childish body in my bed felt ghostlier and farther away, until I was certain that, at any moment, I would wake up and find myself in the future.
I always came to a point where I was too frightened to continue. On the brink of the leap through time, my fear outweighed my curiosity and I came flying back to the present. It started as a twist of a warning in my stomach and then grew to an eruption of panic through my chest. Whenever I came close, panic brought me back. I therefore never realised my full potential as a time traveller.
o o o o o
This time I try to leap ahead. I only need to skip over an hour at the most. Even a few minutes would help. With my eyes closed, I put all my energy into imagining the end of this sand treatment. It becomes clearer and clearer in my mind, this picture of me on the table not being scoured raw, and when I come to the edge of time where I used to panic, I force myself to push forward. For a second, I think it works. The scrubbing has stopped. I feel a hand on my shoulder, and open my eyes to see the attendant's round face inches from my own.
'Are we finished?' I ask hoarsely.
He grunts in thickly accented Sindarin, 'Not yet. Turn over.'
I look to my other side and see that the Vanya has turned onto his back, and has placed a small cloth over his lower regions to protect his decency. The scrubbing is only half over. Truly, I could weep. I turn over gingerly, though I quickly discover that the smoothness of the table feels wonderful against my stinging back and legs, and arrange the pitifully small decency cloth. The attendant resumes his work of making mud from the dirt in my skin. I wish he would have started on the front. It feels twice as tender and painful as the back, and I should have liked to get this over with first.
When the torment is finally done, and my skin is as pink as a rose and stinging all over, I am taken to the final stage of the bath house. If it were another method of cleaning I think I would have hit someone, but the attendants lead me to a steamy room full of benches. It is a grooming station, they tell me, where I can be combed and perfumed and massaged with oil before my clothes are presented. The Vanya is already there, sprawled across a bench. I guess that he is a merchant, grown wealthy on trade between Aman and Númenor, and I am relieved to see that he is a chubby man.
I have always been conscious of my body. It is not ideally Elven, and this is a source of constant concern for me. I know I worry over it far more than I should, being of a shape that might be kindly referred to as 'nicely filled out', and I know it is stupid to do so. But knowledge and practice are two vastly different things. Not a day goes by that I do not compare myself to others. Today, the Vanya's little roll of belly fat offers me much reassurance. I automatically like him, despite his vacant expression and the fact that we have not spoken at all.
In the grooming room, I am wearing a rectangular piece of cloth that wraps around my middle and hangs to my knees. The Vanya, however, is completely naked. His casual nudity makes me worry that I am covered when I should not be, and that the bath attendants neglected to mention that I should remove my covering. But then I see he is undergoing some sort of procedure. An attendant comes to kneel beside the bench, and spreads a sticky-looking substance in a line up the Vanya's leg, which he then covers with a strip of cloth. At first I assume this is a new massage technique, until the attendant jerks the cloth strip away with a ripping sound so horrible it makes me wince. I half expect the Vanya's skin to have come off. But there he lies, looking bored and utterly uninterested, as if nothing has happened at all. The attendant repeats his actions, spreading and covering and ripping his way up the Vanya's leg.
My curiosity is too great to suppress. 'I'm sorry to interrupt,' I say, 'but what is that you're doing?'
The Vanya glances over to me. 'This is removal of the hair,' he says in dubious Sindarin.
'Removal of the hair?'
'It pulls out from the bottom, then there is very long time for growing again.'
I cannot help but watch in fascination. This removal of the hair occurs all the way up both legs and continues into his groin, which makes me grit my teeth just to see. 'Does it not hurt terribly?' I ask.
'Oh no,' he answers with a smile. 'Not so bad. All the time, I do this.'
He stares at me as if I have just asked him why he needs to eat. 'Because it is necessary for being clean,' he explains. 'When I have bath, it is also must remove of the hair. You Thindar do this also or no?'
His assumption that I am Sindarin rather than Númenórean pleases me so much I nearly forget to answer. Perhaps, even naked, I do not look as unelvish as I think. 'Oh... oh, no, we don't. I've never heard of such a thing.'
'It is you must try,' he says, nodding emphatically. 'Very good for being clean. Also very good for love. This, ladies like. Make your vië look bigger.'
I am unable to refuse such a convincing proposal. 'Very well,' I say. 'I will try.'
While the attendant moves on to his arms, the Vanya schools me in various ways one can remove hair. Apart from pulling it out with paste and cloth, hair can also be shaved, plucked, and dissolved. Plucking is achieved with thread or small metal hair pluckers, but is too labour-intensive to use on a large scale. The Vanya tells me this method would be ideal for my eyebrows, which he considers to be rather overgrown and unruly. I spend the next minute trying to arrange my hair so that it hides my forehead and falls in my eyes. Shaving is the most popular way to rid oneself of unwanted body hair in Númenor, being both quick and inexpensive. But it is also the least effective, must be redone most frequently, and leaves a rough stubble on the skin. Then dissolving is usually left only to the wealthy. It is highly effective and painless, but time-consuming, and the cream used to dissolve the hair is concocted of numerous rare and costly ingredients. I agree to try all four methods in the name of experimentation.
First is paste and cloth. When the attendant has removed every last hair below the Vanya's neck (and some from his eyebrows), he turns his attention to me and spreads a layer of paste down the little trail of hair from my navel to my groin. It is uncomfortably warm. A sudden feeling of regret overwhelms me, and I know at once that I have just agreed to do something monumentally stupid. The attendant covers the hot paste with a cloth, presses it firmly against my skin, and rips it away before I even have a chance to brace myself.
The words I yell right then should never be repeated in polite company, or any company at all for that matter.
I can tell the attendant is trying not to laugh at me, and the Vanya is hovering somewhere between amused and disappointed. 'You told me it didn't hurt much!' I shout at him.
'Well, perhaps it is hurt at first,' he replies.
Hurts at first is a serious understatement. There is now a bald stripe between my navel and my vië, which, I am sad to say, does not look any bigger at all. The skin is even brighter pink than the worst of the sand-scoured areas, and stings like nothing I have ever felt. Little pricks of blood have formed where hairs used to be. 'No more of that,' I say quickly when the attendant motions with his paste-wand for me to lie back down. 'I am not interested. Let's try something else.'
The Vanya instructs him to do something about the unacceptable state of my eyebrows, so the attendant has me sit on a bench under the window with my face fully lit by a sunbeam. He has a funny-looking little metal device in one hand, which he tells me is able to pluck out individual hairs one by one. The first to go are the hairs between my eyebrows. According to the Vanya, one's eyebrows should be widely-spaced enough that the inner edges are in line above the widest part of the nose. Mine do not conform to this rule. In fact, given a mirror in the bright light, I can see that they have more or less grown together. The attendant has a considerable amount of work to do. He plucks until my eyes water from the constant pinching sensation, and in the end I give him permission to simply use the paste and cloth again to get it all over with at once. It is a small comfort that eyebrow hair is marginally less painful to rip out than groin hair. Still, I let a few choice swear words fly.
When it is over, I study myself in the mirror for a good long while. I cannot decide whether or not I like the result. I look shockingly strange and unlike myself for having changed something so minor, but at the same time, I think it might be an improvement. I will have to wait a few days to grow accustomed to the new look before deciding whether or not it suits me. Even if it does, I am currently not convinced that it is worth the effort and pain involved.
The next hair-removal method to try is shaving. Shaving, the Vanya says, is ideal when one needs to quickly rid oneself of hair over a large area. It is painless unless the razor slips and nicks the skin, which happens rarely. Or so he assures me. I would like to believe him, but given his previous assurance with the paste, I am finding it difficult to trust anything he says. I reluctantly agree to let one lower leg be shaved. The attendant lathers my skin with a thick froth of soap, and gets to work sliding an evilly sharp blade down my skin.
This time, the Vanya is right. Shaving does not hurt any more than running the edge of a paper along my leg, and the attendant performs his task with an expert grace. I am in full agreement when he tells me it will look foolish to have the hair removed on only half of one leg. He lathers and shaves the other one and a half, then rinses away the soap remnants so I can admire his work while he rubs oil into my hairless skin. As with the eyebrows, I cannot accurately say whether or not I look ridiculous. I certainly look different. It feels different as well. Without that sprinkling of protective hair, I can feel every tiny draft and movement of air that flows through the room. It is an odd, but not unpleasant, sensation.
Given the torture of the paste and cloth, I am reluctant to allow the attendant anywhere near my groin again, but he and the Vanya do put up a convincing argument: I cannot go about with only a stripe of hair missing. The rest of it must come off somehow, and dissolving it is the ideal solution. They are right, of course. Within moments I find myself lying on the bench with my legs spread in a most undignified position, while the attendant spreads a cold cream that smells of lemons and dirt around my vië. I honestly do not know how I get myself into these situations At least it is only uncomfortable, and not unbearable.
'How long does this take?' I ask.
The Vanya shakes his head. 'Not long. You lie there. Wait still.'
So I wait, and try to ignore the cream that is sliding and dripping down my intimate areas. After a minute it tingles. Then it itches. Then it begins to get very warm, while tingling and itching. The smell has changed to something like burnt fur. Then, when I think I can stand it no longer, the attendant bids me stand and wash it off with water and a soft sponge. I am unsure of how anything could have happened in those past few minutes, but the result is enough to make my mouth drop open in wonder. As I wipe away the cream with the sponge, the hair comes too, leaving nothing behind.
'There!' the Vanya says happily. 'You see? Very good. Vië look bigger now.'
I am still too amazed by the fantastic hair-dissolving cream to bother worrying about him contemplating the size of my vië. Although I must say that it does look bigger. And very naked. I have not seen myself without hair down there since I was a youth.
'Your wife like very much.'
'Oh, I am not married,' I tell him.
He smirks at me in reply. 'Ahhh, I see. Well perhaps now this help you find wife!'
'Perhaps.' Turning to the attendant, I ask, 'How much do I owe you?'
'Nothing, nothing,' the Vanya tells me. 'This, I pay. I pay for you.'
'No, that's not-' I try to say, but the Vanya has already collected his purse from a nearby shelf and is starting to count out coins.
'You needn't have done that,' I tell him once the attendant has been paid.
'Yes. Now we are friends, it is that I must pay.'
I have never understood Vanyar. I do not suppose I ever will. 'Very well,' I sigh. 'If you insist. Thank you. That is very kind.'
'And now,' he says with a not-entirely-genuine smile, 'now we are good friends, you will come see me.'
'See you? As in, visit your home?'
'Yes. You visit.'
'Where do you live?' I ask.
He points to his left, hand aimed toward somewhere up the ravine. 'Over there. Not far. You ask for me, someone will show.'
I am more than a little surprised to hear he lives within the greater royal household. But considering it more, I must admit that I should not be, as Elros' sprawling palace consists of so many buildings over so large an area. Surely, many servants, lords, scholars, and tradesmen to the crown must reside here. I must have been mistaken in my original assessment of this Vanya as a simple travelling merchant.
'Very well,' I tell him. 'I will come to see you soon.'
Shaking my hand, he grins even wider and gives me a funny little bow. 'Good. Good. I give you the very fair price.'
This is where I begin to kick myself again, for blindly stumbling into another awkward bind. I have no clue what I have just promised to do or buy, but from the Vanya's sneaky manner of entrapment, I suspect it will be something embarrassing, unpleasant, painful, or all three. Quite possibly also expensive. I cough. 'Oh. Well. I... Thank you, again. That is very nice of you. Hmm. Ah. What... What exactly is it that you do?'
'I am cleaner of the teeth,' he says importantly.
A cleaner of the teeth. That sounds dangerous, and equally as embarrassing, unpleasant, painful, and expensive as removal of the hair. I can answer nothing more than, 'Oh.'
'Very important, the cleaning of the teeth. Teeth broke, they grow again. Even teeth pulled, they grow again. But teeth dirty and rotten inside and fall out? Never grow again. So it is you must keep them clean, for no rotting and falling.'
I run my tongue nervously over the inside of my lower teeth. I clean them myself every night before sleeping, but have never paid anyone to do it for me. Nor have I ever heard of such a thing. Is this something important I have missed? Does a professional cleaner do something I cannot? Some years ago, I cracked a back tooth on a surprise bone while eating supper and had to have it pulled by a man with a set of dental tools and no sense of when a gentler touch might be a good idea. I have ever since had a very justifiable fear of any hands but mine coming near my mouth.
'Ah,' I say. 'That does sound important. Mm. Then I should.... ah... try to come see you. Of course I'm very busy... very busy... while I'm here...'
'You come the day after tomorrow,' he tells me. 'Then, I have free whole evening.'
Weakly, I nod. 'I'll be there.' If only the idiot had not paid my way. It is days like this when I wish I did not have such a well developed sense of honour.
o o o o o
Shortly after the Vanya departs, the boy who took my travelling chest returns to the bath house with one of my court robes draped over his arm. His expression is one of dismay. I can understand none of the conversation taking place between him and the bathing master, but from their tones and looks of disgust it is not difficult to guess that my dirty, wrinkled, damp, mildewy clothing is not to their satisfaction. The robe the boy has brought, I can see from where I sit, is one the mariner and I used as a bottom sheet. I know it has a large dirt smudge down the back from the boarding house's mattress and is creased probably beyond repair. The bathing master sends the boy away again with a dismissive flick of the hand before coming to speak with me.
'I will have fresh clothing brought for you,' he says in the smooth voice of those who make too much of their small scraps of authority. His Sindarin is accented with the dark, throaty sound I've quickly come to associate with Númenor, but still very good. I have no trouble understanding him. 'Your pieces, I am afraid, have been damaged in travel.'
'You have an appropriate replacement?' I ask.
And so he does. I am hoping for some novelty of local style, but the clothing brought for me turns out to be contemporary Lindon fashion. I suspect it is something that has been accidentally left behind by another Elven bather, likely on a political mission to Armenelos. But considering the alternative- my sturdy and quite soiled travelling breeches and coat- I have little to complain about. The found outfit even comes with a pair of soft shoes that are slightly too big but will do for now.
Finally, once I am bathed and dressed and feeling cleaner than I ever have in my life, I am ready to be presented to the King. I must admit that my stomach churns a little at the idea. I have not seen Elros in a hundred and sixty years. I have given up trying to guess at how he will have changed.
o o o o o
The last time I saw him, we did not even look like family, let alone twins. He was on the beach at sunrise, staring out across the inlet at the docked Elven ships that would take him and his people to their new home, and he was wearing the simple clothes of a labourer. Regardless, he still looked like a king.
'Elrond, come down here,' he called to me, but I was too trapped by my prissy Elvishness to step off the grass at the beach's edge and risk the sand ruining my precious silk shoes. With one hand I held my scarf more securely over my hair, which was sufficiently Elvish for me at the time: long and glossy black. With the other, I beckoned him to come to me. He came with an exaggerated roll of the eyes.
'You always dress like this now?' he asked. It had been nearly five years since our last meeting, and in that time I had thrown myself into being as Noldorin as possible. My outfit was of a style copied from Gil-galad.
'Yes,' I answered. 'You?'
He no longer looked like my brother when I saw him up close. The sun had tanned his skin a deep brown and faded his choppy, shoulder-length hair to a similar shade. His eyes looked unnaturally pale in his dark face.
We had grown so far apart since the end of the war: he to his side, and I to mine. We had nothing in common any more, and the extent of our conversation before we lapsed into stiff silence was a quick and meaningless exchange about our clothing. Awkwardly, we shifted, nodded, looked at each other, looked at the ground, and tried to remember any of the friendship we had shared in the past. But a chasm as deep as the divide between Elf and Man separated us.
As we stood there at the edge of the beach, trying to find a way to share what we needed to say, an impatient bearded man huffed his way over to us. He said to Elros, 'I am sorry, my King, but we must make ready to sail while the wind is with us. Your friend the Elf can come to the docks to see us off.'
Elros nodded and did not correct the man as they began to walk away. And I found I could not follow them. I was no longer recognisable as my brother's twin. I was merely the Elf, something separate and unfamiliar. No longer part of his family, no longer part of his life. He looked back once, surprised to see that I did not walk with him, and I cannot say what look was on my face when his eyes met mine. His was one of sadness and regret. Still, he did not stop.
o o o o o
The first words out of the chambermaid's mouth as she announces me at Elros' door make me cringe. 'An Elf is here to see you, my King.'
An Elf. I have lived with a hundred and sixty years of guilt and crossed the sea to find my brother, and still I am nothing more than an Elf in the eyes of his people. One unremarkable, nameless Elf in a long chain of visiting Elves.
The sounds of a grumbling complaint filter through the gap in the door, and the scraping of chair legs against tiles, and then the young woman bows to bid me enter: the King will receive his guest. I step into a room with wide-open windows stretching from floor to ceiling. There at the centre, seated at a large desk, is Elros. He has pushed his impressive chair out to face me, but his mood looks foul.
Irritation quickly turns to astonishment once he recognises who I am, and then joy. 'Elrond!' he shouts. He is up and across the room in the space of a breath, catching me in an embrace so tight I almost lose my balance and fall on top of him. 'By the Stars, it really is you! And early! I wasn't expecting you until mid-summer!'
'I found space on a good merchant ship leaving Mithlond. They had a very small but private cabin for hire, and the opportunity was too good. Other ships offered nothing more than berth space. And sixteen days in that tiny cabin was bad enough; I can't imagine sixteen days in shared bunks.' I pause. 'At least I believe it was sixteen days. I lost track of time somewhat on the voyage. My cabin had no windows.'
He stares at me a moment, and then laughs so hard I think he might cry. 'No windows!' he gasps. 'Oh Elrond, you really are so very Elvish...'
His humour irks me. 'I like being able to see outside,' I begin to explain, but he interrupts.
'Do you like this?' he asks, still laughing, as he gestures to the open wall.
'Elves always like it. They are fanatic about always being able to see outside.'
I refrain from reminding Elf Expert Elros of the cave-palaces of Thingol and Finrod, who lived quite happily underground. I have not come all this way to have an argument over whether or not Elves are more obsessive about window placement than Men.
'But then,' he continues, 'they always build their homes completely at odds with their own preferences: high walls, small rooms, and few windows.'
This, I cannot argue, because it is sadly true. Despite an inherent Elvish preference for open air, we inexplicably tend toward building towers and fortresses rather than sprawling, airy palaces as one would expect. We are too wrapped up in secrecy and safety. Those towers and fortresses always have small rooms with small windows, wherein an Elf can snugly sit and peer out at the world, happy to be part of it in a separate and noncommittal way, safe from outside change. The mental picture this conjures makes me laugh along with Elros. My mind sticks on an image of a jealously secretive, bug-eyed Elf, spying out a tower window just big enough to see through, pleased to be watching the world without participating in it.
'Now you see what I mean,' he says. 'And you know why it is, is because they never think of anything new. Gil-galad is building his city in the same style as Turgon built Gondolin and Fingolfin built Eithel Sirion, which is the same style as Tirion. Not identical, but close: heavy stone buildings, big walls, high defences. Even Menegroth was an underground version of the same. Why? Because that is how the Ainur taught the Elves to build. And they are too tied to the past to think of changing. Now my people copy the look because they think it is the height of architectural perfection.'
'I noticed,' I say. 'Rómenna has a rather... ah... Noldorin look.'
'Armenelos and Andúnië are even worse. Everything is copied from a drawing of some Elvish building somewhere else. Did you notice the tower?'
'In the bay near Rómenna?'
He shakes his head. 'No. Well, yes. That one, too. But I meant the tower outside at the gates. The beginnings of it. It's not built yet.'
'No. Sorry. I was asleep when we drove up.'
'Every great Elven city has a tower. Therefore, Armenelos needs a tower. So the people say. I have been pressured into building one. The Tower of Elros. Have you ever heard of anything more ridiculous?'
'I don't know,' I laugh. 'The Large Gaping Sewage Pit of Elros might be worse.'
'Then you'll have to thank the Elves, on my behalf, for not commonly having those. Otherwise the people would demand one. But now you see my mission.'
'I want to start something new, Elrond,' he tells me. 'Not that there is anything wrong with Elvish architecture, but why slavishly copy it when we can make our own rules? So I thought to myself, "I will build a house unlike anything that has ever existed." I thought of what the Elves do, what Gil-galad is doing right now, and did the opposite. There are no towers or turrets here. Every building is one floor only. I thought of fantastic things, things everyone said were impractical and outrageous, and built them. And now everyone comes from everywhere just to see what I have made. The Vanyar have even started a preposterous rumour that my home was a gift to me from the Maiar. That is how impressed they are. Now the Elves will copy me!' He says this last part very smugly.
I have the strangest feeling that he is trying too hard to prove his worth. He is going out of his way to show how unelvish he is: how proud he is of his decision to be counted among Men. I cannot help but worry that my presence here brings with it much more than merely a chance for two brothers to meet again.
'I am sure they will,' I say, eager to change the subject. 'Do you have many Elven visitors? I saw a Vanya in the bath house.'
'More than I can count,' he says with a nod. 'There is a constant flow of ships from both directions into the ports, and most of the merchants eventually end up here in Armenelos. They all want to see my famous house.'
He will not let it drop. I will have to try something else entirely. 'I am sure they want to see you, Tar-Minyatur. At least that's why I am here. Where is your family?'
'In the country,' he answers, and I can sense an immediate shift in his mood. He no longer has to strive to seem better than the Elves. His family is his family, and his pride in them is genuine. 'We have a place we usually go for the summer, south-west of here. In fact, we can leave tomorrow. I'm eager for you to meet them. I've only been waiting around here for you to arrive, and now that you are-'
'Elros,' I interrupt him. He looks back at me with raised eyebrows.
'Elros, I have just spent sixteen days on a ship, in a cabin large enough to fit myself, my chest of clothes, and absolutely nothing else. Thereafter followed two days on a hard seat in a carriage, interrupted only by a night in the worst boarding house I have ever seen. All I want right now is to stay here.'
He sighs. 'Of course. That was thoughtless of me. You should rest here a while. We'll leave the day after tomorrow.'
I would have laughed if I hadn't known he was serious. 'I would like to stay here six days at least,' I insist. 'I saw none of Rómenna, so I would like a good look at Armenelos. All my clothes have been ruined. I need to find a tailor and order new things. I want to eat fresh food and forget the taste of lembas, and I want to walk until my legs remember what they are used for.'
'I suppose...' he slowly agrees. 'If that's what you wish...'
'It is. And,' I add, appealing to his vanity, 'my Elvish side requires a good look at this house of yours.'
'You're right,' he says after a pause. 'I did build this house to show the Elves what they're doing wrong, after all. It's only fitting that you should be forced to take a detailed tour. Now?'
'No. Tomorrow. Now, I only want some food.'
o o o o o
All through supper (which is excellent: soup, bread, and large platters of meat), I am secretly staring at Elros whenever he is not looking back at me, trying to get a sense of how he has changed. I am somewhat comforted to see that he looks less different now than he did on the beach all those years ago. His hair is longer, cut off bluntly but elegantly some inches below his shoulders. It is still faded brown, but not as light as it once was, and his skin is still freckled and tanned, but not as dark as it had been. I can see the beginnings of grey at his temples and fine creases around his eyes and mouth. It is a small torment to notice how he has aged.
He must have been secretly staring as me as well, because when we are walking to his bedroom later he says, 'You still look exactly the same.'
To which I reply, 'Elf, remember?'
'I know,' he laughs. 'But still... Exactly the same. Nothing at all has changed. It's unnerving. I keep expecting you to have aged like I have, but you look young enough to be one of my sons.'
An uncomfortable silence follows, in which neither of us knows what to say. No matter where our conversations start, they always lapse back to the same thing: our separate fates. The topic is a magnet.
We come to his bedroom and he shows me inside, insisting that I share his bed. He will not show me such poor hospitality as to relegate me to some second-rate guest room, and I admit I like the idea. I've not had the honour of listening to him snore in far too long. His room is in a private building up the hill and to the right, and it has the same open windows and high, arched ceilings as the rest of his home. The air inside smells of dogs. It is not an unpleasant smell: just warm and sour with a tang of sweetness, like milk and wool.
'Puppies,' Elros explains. 'Born eleven days ago.' He points to the corner of the room, where a shaggy grey and black dog rests in a box with five nursing pups.
'You keep them in your bedroom?' I ask.
It is not my place to question the King of Númenor for breeding dogs in his personal quarters. Elros has always been overly fond of dogs, so really, this should be expected. Now that I consider it and remember his eccentricities from our youth, I am more surprised that he only has one litter in here.
He changes into his nightclothes and loans me a spare set once I explain the sad end of my own clothing. Then we climb into bed and it is as if we are children once again. He is lying in the same old position he used to take when he had it in mind to stay up talking until Maglor repeatedly shushed us and eventually threatened to put us in separate rooms: on his side, facing toward me, with his arm folded under his pillow. I am on the right, and he is on the left. I am always on the right.
'Tell me about Lindon,' he says. 'I have only ever seen maps and drawings.'
I dare not. I know talk of Lindon will only lead us back to the same magnet of a topic. Instead I turn us back to the past, recalling old adventures and laughing over the trouble we caused. We filled in each other's memories with tales of the Terrible Twins. I had forgotten what a bad child he was: how many things he stole and lies he told, and how often he was punished.
'I swear,' he says, 'I was strapped so often my arse has been permanently altered.'
I am laughing too hard to voice either agreement or scepticism toward this claim. All I can manage is a cheeky comment about what his wife thinks.
He assures me she has naught to complain about, and then asks the question I always dread: 'So when will you be married?'
As hard as I try, I cannot laugh it off. The hilarity dies in my throat. 'Oh...' I say. 'I haven't really thought...'
'How many pretty Elvish maidens lined up?'
'None,' I say quickly. 'I am far too busy-'
He snorts in mockery of my poor lie, but before he can say anything, I change the subject again.
'You know, I had a dream about you on the ship. The first I'd had in... I don't know how many years it's been.'
'Do you recall that day we found the Vanya in the forest? With the Sindarin girl in the yellow dress. He gave you a bag of coins.'
'No,' says Elros. And then, 'Wait, yes. Now I remember. We were looking for treasure.'
'That's right. I had a dream of that day. I don't know why. I hadn't thought about it in so long. But the end of the dream, it turned strange. Bears and Maedhros and Fëanor inviting us for dinner...'
I can tell that Elros is trying not to laugh. 'Bears?'
'It makes no more sense to me. But pale bears were chasing us.'
He smiles, sighs, and shakes his head. 'You've always had more interesting dreams than I. I miss you telling me about them in the morning.'
I do not tell him that more than silly dreams have been disturbing my sleep.
o o o o o
It happens again as it did on the ship; this is the fourteenth time since I started keeping count. I wake in darkness and have no sense of where I am. The windows are in strange places, and moonlight creates shadows I cannot recognise. It seems to me, for one terrifying, drawn-out moment, that I am somewhere both outside and inside. There is a wall at my head and trees at my feet. Somehow, I am convinced I am in Valinor. I am in the garden of Lórien, in a bed, locked outside of where I need to be, teetering on the threshold of panic. The body sleeping beside me is a mystery. His face is hidden in darkness. My hand shakes as I reach out to feel his hair, certain this will tell me his identity, but his head snaps up to look at me the instant I touch him.
'Elrond?' he whispers.
I must guess. 'Ereinion?'
He stares at me. I can see his eyes glittering in the moonlight. 'Elrond, what's wrong?'
I do not know if I can trust him, but I have no choice. 'Where am I?'
Again, he stares at me, and I know he is holding his breath. 'Attendant!' he shouts into the darkness.
o o o o o
I come to my senses once the lamps are brought in. As soon as there is light, I know I am with Elros in his bedroom in Armenelos. The knowledge comes flooding back with such a feeling of relief.
'Call a surgeon!' Elros shouts to his lamp-bearing attendants, and then says to me, 'What happened? Elbereth! You're white as death and look like you're about to faint!' Then to the servants again: 'Bring my brother some hot tea!'
It takes a long time for the surgeon to come, and even longer for the tea. By then, Elros has put me in a chair by a window for some fresh air, and placed a dog in my lap.
'Petting a dog is soothing,' he insists. The dog, which is mottled brown and not one of the new puppies, has appeared out of nowhere. I wonder how many Elros has. They must come and go as they please. This dog licks my chin as I scratch its shoulders, and I agree it is a soothing experience. My speeding heart begins to calm.
When the surgeon comes, I explain as best I can what happened. I awoke suddenly, and did not know where I was. This is not a rare occurrence, and is not limited strictly to travelling. It happens just as often in my own bed. I wake and everything is unfamiliar. I think I am in prison, or in exile, or my life is in peril, or I am being watched by hidden faces. The surgeon gives me a quick inspection, looking at my eyes and asking questions to make certain I have not lost my mind, and declares nothing wrong with me. I have had a brief episode of panic and confusion, and all I can do now is calm myself and go back to sleep. 'The hot tea will do you good,' he tells me.
'But why does this happen?' I ask.
He only shakes his head. 'That, I do not know. But I would guess it is an outlet for worries or stress accumulated throughout the day. Have you experienced difficult times lately?'
Of course I have. I look down at the dog in my lap to avoid all the eyes in the room. For three years, ever since Elros sent me that first letter asking me to come, my mind has not been at peace.
'Perhaps all the travel has been too much for me,' I lie.
'That could very well be,' says the surgeon, and he sounds relieved at having solved the mystery.
o o o o o
I sleep far later than I intend. Comfortable beds have a way of ensnaring me like that, and I am drained by what happened in the night. By the time I wake, Elros is nowhere to be seen, but a fresh set of clothing has been put out for me. This was always an advantage of having a twin: as children we could trade clothes and be guaranteed a perfect fit. The advantage still holds true. Elros' clothes fit me well.
He is not difficult to find, because his private house is small and all corridors lead to the same place: a large room that is halfway between a salon and a garden pavilion. It is centrally located, as a salon should be, and has the same peaked roof as the rest of the house, but there is only one wall. On the three other sides, the roof is held up by pillars only. The pillars have filmy curtains between them to keep out the sun and wind, but most of these are tied back to take full advantage of the beautiful morning. The tiled floor is scattered here and there with fallen leaves, and a fat lizard has chosen a sunny basking spot between two chairs. The divide between inside and out has been erased.
Elros sits at a small table cornered by curtains, picking at an assorted breakfast plate and reading what looks like his morning letters. Another lizard sits near his tea cup, though it scurries away when I take a seat.
'I want to build one,' I say.
Through a mouthful of bread, Elros makes a muffled sound that I know is meant to be, 'What?'
'A house like this. Inside and outside flowing together, open walls... I want to build one.' I have not even been here a day and already I am convinced this is how I want to live. Remaining in Gil-galad's pristine stone towers until the end of days is not an option.
'Why not?' I ask, though common sense immediately answers my question. The climate of Lindon, while moderated by the sea, is still cold and wet enough for a good half of the year to make a house without solid walls utterly pointless. 'Right. Not Lindon. But Belfalas, perhaps... Do you suppose I could convince the High King of the Noldor to move his entire court to a more temperate, southerly location?'
Elros needs not even say anything to explain his snort of laughter. We both know Gil-galad is as interested in change as Fëanor was in abandoning his Silmarilli to Morgoth.
'One day,' I sigh. 'One day...'
'Perhaps I shouldn't give you the tour,' says Elros. 'If ignorance is bliss, you'll be happier not knowing what you have to leave.'
'No. I want to see it all. I want to be able to look back on these days and torture myself with memories and longing for what I can't have.'
'You and I are more alike than we admit,' he tells me with a smirk. 'Always wanting to fully understand and experience that which is denied us.'
I cannot bring myself to dwell on what he means by that. 'Very true,' I say, though I know I sound dismissive. 'But first, before I do anything else, I need to visit a tailor in the city. Do you know any that carry a stock of ready-made clothing that can be easily adjusted to fit?'
He shakes his head. 'No. But I'm sure somebody in this household does. I'll find someone to escort you.'
This he does, and very quickly. A single request is made to a single servant and, before we are even finished our breakfast, a footman appears at the door to announce that a carriage is ready and at my disposal. I feel only a little guilty over leaving Elros to his pile of dull correspondence and politicking. He can no more stumble about the city with me than I can sign documents and review proposed legal reform with him. But he promises to organise a good supper for when I return, and so I leave him to his kingly duties in favour of gawking at the sights Armenelos has to offer and spending too much money on things I do not really need.
The servants stare at me as I pass through the walkways and building clusters on my way down to the courtyard. By now the knowledge that I am the King's brother has sped through the household, and I can tell that most of the eyes are searching my face for family resemblance. I hope they find it more easily than I, who still cannot reconcile the man I see now with the twin I had during the war. They must, because I hear no snide whispers about the fact that I slept in the King's bed and am currently wearing his clothes. Had they not believed we are brothers, I am sure there would be a fantastic scandal by now.
Upon leaving the royal house, my driver takes me first to a moneychanger, where I can trade my coins of Lindon for the local sort. There are five coins: the thin copper urussier, small silver pertelperier, larger silver telperier, small gold maldarier, and larger gold altarier minyaturwa. They are commonly called uri, pepi, tepi, mari, and almi, and I have no clue how much each of them is worth compared to the currency of Lindon. My footman, who is called Rauthurai and who I am very grateful has accompanied me into the moneychanging shop, assures me I received a fair trade. It seems fair to me. I gave over one bag of coins and received a larger one in return. On the way back to the carriage I tell Rauthurai that the names of the coins sound like names of Dwarves, but he, having never met a Dwarf, has no idea what I am talking about.
Our next stop is a nearby tailor. True to my wishes, this man and his nephew sell ready-made clothing in styles that require little alteration to fit. I should have guessed that Númenórean fashion would be similar to Elvish, given how fond they are of copying so many other aspects of Elvish life, but it is different enough to be somewhat of a novelty at least. The climate of Númenor lends itself to light, loose garments to fend off the heat. Breeches are long and baggy, shirts are the same, and formal robes tend to fall no longer than the knee. Hats or other head coverings are necessary in the midday sun. From the look Rauthurai gives me, I am handing over an extraordinary amount of money, but he does not step in to bargain or say I am being cheated. I purchase five shirts and three pairs of breeches, all of which are ready to wear, two knee-length over robes that I will collect tomorrow morning once the alterations have been made, and two sets of more Elven-looking formal clothes that should be ready tomorrow as well. The tailor adds in a head cloth for free.
Rauthurai explains the workings of head cloths once we are out of the shop. They are folded in half, from corner to corner to make a triangle, and then tied around the head so they cover the forehead and upper ears. A little point of a tail will fall down the back of the neck. While most clothing tends to be of solid, conservative colours, the headscarves can be as bright and gaudily patterned as anyone can imagine. Mine is turquoise edged with yellow yarn, and according to the tailor's nephew, it is very flattering with my hair. I tie it on and Rauthurai immediately corrects me.
'No, no. It goes over the ears. Like this.' He reties it with my ears tucked against my head.
'Not very comfortable,' I say.
But the ear covering is the most important part of the fashion. With one's ears covered, it supposedly becomes impossible to tell Men from Elves. At least for the empty-headed young Men who care about these things. No sober Elf would ever mistake a young Númenórean for one of his fellows, no matter how covered the ears are, partially due to the fact that no Elves ever wear the silly-looking cloth. Still, those young Númenóreans think they are very clever. Some go so far as to put little triangles of wood under their scarves to give the illusion of very hard, very angular ear points. I am convinced Rauthurai is lying to me about this until we see a group of those exact empty-heads wander by. Every one of them has long hair, a gaudy head cloth, and wooden ear points. They shout random words in bad Quenya as they pass.
I ask Rauthurai why he wears the cylindrical cap of an old man instead of the fashionable cloth favoured by those closer to his age.
He replies, 'Because I don't give a rat's turd about the shape of my ears. And because I'm not an idiot.'
I take my cloth off. I will give it away as a present when I get home.
After the tailor, my shopping requirement is fulfilled and I am free to spend the rest of the day simply looking at things. The driver takes me on a tour of the most popular sights in Armenelos, from the road leading up to Meneltarma to the street of goldsmiths to a large statue of a fish, carved from solid rock. I see common people about at their work, high-born lords standing in discussion, and children playing a dangerous game that involves throwing a hard, apple-sized ball at each others' behinds. There are slender horses, hairy black pigs, long-horned sheep, exotic birds with exquisite tail plumes, and other animals I have never seen: something that looks like a spotted mule with the eyes of a goat, and an enormous cat with fur so long it drags on the ground. The cat is on display for the delight of a gathering crowd, and looks quite tame. A small boy is scratching its ears.
The buildings are, as I saw in Rómenna, of an Elvish style. Nothing so interesting as Elros' house exists anywhere else, though I do become rather fond of an inn boasting the best veal stew in Númenor. This is for reasons entirely separate from architecture, though. The driver stops us there for a bowl of stew and a mug of ale, and I must agree with them that, even though I have never before eaten veal stew, it is the tastiest I have ever encountered. The ale is likewise appealing. We allow ourselves to get rather tipsy, and I am parted from my friends pepi and tepi. We see no more of the head cloth youths, which is both a relief and a disappointment. After four mugs of ale followed by some other stuff strong enough to make my eyes water, I am convinced I can give them a sound mocking in any one of several Elvish languages.
How we find our way home is a complete mystery. I remember nothing of the drive, nothing of supper with Elros, and have no recollection of going to sleep. What I do remember is waking up sometime in the night and rolling out of bed to be spectacularly sick in a pot of sand normally used to collect other bodily leavings.
o o o o o
The next morning's tour of the house is a disaster in my state. Mostly I stumble along after Elros, trying not to let the throbbing in my head distract from beauty around me, but to no avail. I am as sick as a dog. Sicker than a dog, in fact. The dogs look perfectly well, and they yip excitedly as we walk.
We tour the residences, the reception halls, the offices, and the library. Then we see the armoury and the treasury, which, Elros informs me, are the only areas in the entire place with rooms that have four solid walls. We see the grand dining room for banquets and the smaller dining room for less ostentatious functions. The thought of food makes me queasy. I am nearly sick over the edge of one of the walkways, but manage not to embarrass myself by quickly tilting my head back and holding my breath.
Elros, Valar smile upon him, does not utter one unkind word about my obvious disability. Instead, over dinner (where he enjoys a vegetable pastry and I force down a small, dry bun), he suggests that perhaps life in Armenelos is not quite to my liking. 'I think,' he says, 'we should retreat to the summer house tomorrow after all.'
I hiccough, and the taste of bile rises and burns in my throat. 'I think that sounds like a fine idea,' I whisper.
'Should I summon someone to help with your packing?'
'Yes, please.' Easy as it would be to pack my own things, I am wary of any activity that involves bending over or otherwise giving my head opportunity to be lower than my stomach. I cannot trust my continence.
'I'll call for Rauthurai. You two were such good friends yesterday.'
Of course my brother, the goon, smirks at that. Poor Rauthurai. However wretched I feel, I am sure he suffers the same. Hazy memories of a drinking contest have started to float back to me.
'Anyhow, you're free to nap for the rest of the afternoon, or sit outdoors. Look through the library. There should be some books you'd enjoy. I must step out for an appointment right away, but will be back before supper.'
'Appointment?' I ask. I would have thought the King's appointments should come to him.
'To have my teeth cleaned. I go a few times a year.'
It takes me a moment to realise what he has just said. And then, I groan. 'The Vanya...' I had forgotten about him.
'Sorry?' Elros asks, looking confused.
'The Vanya,' I repeat, loud enough for him to hear. 'Are you going to see the Vanyarin tooth cleaner?'
He blinks at me. 'How did you know?'
'I met him in the baths. We discussed various... ah...' I look down at my groin, which still stings at the memory of that horrible paste and cloth. As of this morning when I last checked, the pinkness had still not subsided. 'He taught me some important aspects of Vanyarin culture. And invited me to call round and have my teeth cleaned. I'd completely forgotten.'
I had also completely forgotten that, in situations such as this, it is always better to keep one's mouth shut. As soon as I admit to knowing the Vanya, Elros insists I come along to the appointment. 'We can both have our teeth cleaned today,' he tells me. Never mind that I am half dead from an excess of drink and feel as if my head has been replaced by a particularly unintelligent rock. He is unconcerned by my state, and tells me that all I need do is sit in a chair and keep my mouth open. 'Even a monkey could do it.'
I am unable to convince him that he might be better off with a monkey today.
o o o o o
The Vanya, whose name is Eruzanar, lives past the bath house and up a very steep hill. His home is built in the same spacious, open-air style as Elros', but has the added feature of a spiral staircase winding around a living tree up to a second floor. We are greeted by two young Númenórean apprentices: the taller one with a neatly trimmed auburn beard and a very likeable face, and the shorter one clean-shaven with dark hair down to his waist and a head scarf of bilious pink, which obscures the tops of his ears. As they lead us to Eruzanar's salon, the bearded one introduces himself as Nîluthan and the other, humorously enough, as Anveldo. I can only assume that he named himself. If not, his parents were very optimistic.
Once seated, Elros and I are served tea and dainty biscuits by a woman dressed head to toe in what I can only describe as an unflattering white sack with a circular opening through which her face can peek. She says nothing and looks at neither of us, but bows when Nîluthan introduces her. She is Eruzanar's wife, Vilissermë. From the front she appears to be very fat, but from a side view it looks more as if she is very pregnant, and I am far from impolite enough to ask which it is.
Eruzanar appears after a short wait, trotting in from a side door as he wipes his hands on a towel. 'Welcome, welcome, my King,' he says, bowing to Elros. Then he turns to me with a pleased look. 'And you are also come! Very good!'
'I could not refuse your generous offer,' I reply. My smile feels both awkward and forced.
He looks from me to Elros, and from Elros to me, and suddenly his expression changes from one of servitude to one of genuine shock. I suppose Elros and I must look similar when sitting side by side. Or at least we look similar enough for Eruzanar's mind to make the connexion. 'Oh, by Manwë!' he says to Elros. 'He is the brother of whom you speak to me, yes?'
'This is my brother, Elrond,' Elros tells him. 'He has come all the way from Lindon. I hope it is not an inconvenience to see us both today?'
'No no no no no!' he cries. 'No trouble, no trouble, no trouble!' Then he flaps his hands at Nîluthan and Anveldo in a gesture that must mean, I am too flustered, so you must do all the work. They take this as a cue to lead Elros and me to a pair of oddly shaped chairs in the adjoining room. I make an effort to stay near Nîluthan. If the apprentices, rather than the Vanya, will be cleaning our teeth, I would prefer to have mine done by somebody who appears to have common sense. Anveldo seems torn between fawning over the Elf or the King, but, to my relief, ultimately decides that the King is the better choice. He takes his position beside Elros' chair, and Nîluthan attends to me.
No sooner have I seated myself than I am tipped backwards at an alarming angle. The chair has hinges, it would seem. Hinges do not agree with my stomach's current state. I immediately clench my teeth together and try to tighten my throat against any vomit that may decide to make a bid for freedom. My chest burns, which makes tears spring to my eyes.
Nîluthan, bless his kindness, mistakes my nausea for nervousness. 'You have no need to worry,' he says in a gentle, soothing voice. 'I will strive to clean your teeth with as little discomfort as possible. But if, at any time, you feel pain, simply tell me and I will not continue.'
'Thank you,' I whisper. I take a large gulp of air, hold it a moment, and then release slowly. The nausea subsides to a manageable level. I try my best to look relaxed, and Nîluthan smiles at me.
On a small table beside my chair, he arranges a selection of bizarre silver instruments that look astonishingly like miniature farming tools. There is a tiny pick, a square shovel, and a hoe. He takes up the pick first, and bids me open my mouth as wide as I can manage. I do so, albeit with some trepidation. The tiny pick looks sharp.
And so the cleaning of the teeth begins. Nîluthan uses the pick to scrape around my teeth the gum-line and where each tooth meets the next. I cannot say that it is a pleasant sensation, but neither is it painful or in any way unbearable. It is, more than anything else, awkward, and the sound it makes sends spidery shivers down my spine. He uses the shovel to hold my cheek out for easier access to the backmost teeth. After only a moment, my jaw begins to ache from keeping my mouth open so wide for so long.
I cannot speak much in my position, but Nîluthan seems content to keep up a pleasant, if one-sided, conversation as he works. In comparison to Eruzanar's quaint, Vanyarin-flavoured speech, Nîluthan's Sindarin is letter-perfect. I ask him about it when he pauses to clean the pick.
'It is the language of my childhood,' he tells me. 'Actually, I was born in Lindon. My family had previously lived in Rómenna, but my father took an ambassadorial position in Mithlond the year before I was born. We stayed there until I was seventeen, when my father's health declined. The cold and damp did not agree with his lungs. So we returned to the warmer climate of Anadûnai. Only my eldest brother stayed behind to fill my father's office. You have likely seen him in Gil-galad's court. He goes by the Elvish name Gaerondal now.'
The name sounds familiar to me. If I have not seen him, I know I have at least heard of him. I cannot recall a face. But I will certainly seek this Gaerondal to satisfy my curiosity as soon as I return home. I wonder if he looks like Nîluthan, with a short beard and hair cut to his chin, or if he follows the trying-to-be-Elvish style.
When Nîluthan finally tells me I can close my mouth, it hurts to do so. Then he tells me he has only finished the first procedure. There are five procedures in all. Procedure two comprises further scraping of each tooth, this time with the hoe. Now that the pick has cleaned the edges, the hoe is able to do its job on the flatter areas. I ask Nîluthan how he came to be part of the tooth-cleaning business, and he tells me as he works.
'When we left Lindon, instead of returning to Rómenna, we found a house in Armenelos instead. My father wanted to be closer to the King's court. Because of his rank and my equal fluency in both Thindren and Adûnaic, he was able to find me a diplomatic position working with Elvish emissaries. I spent two years as an ambassadorial assistant in Armenelos, and in that time I studied Quenya. As soon as I had learned enough to be useful, I moved to Andúnië to work with the Elves of Valinor coming into that port. That's where I met Eruzanar. He was looking for apprentices who spoke both Elvish and Mannish tongues at exactly the time I was having second thoughts about my future in diplomacy. So I joined him. We practised in Andúnië for a little over a year before Eruzanar was appointed to the King's staff. And now here we are.'
'Do you like this work?' I ask as best I can without moving my jaw.
'Yes,' he says. 'I originally started in the diplomatic circles because my father expected it of me, and I never considered that I could do anything else. But it's a world of secrets and spies and false friends. I'm sure you know that, if the court at Mithlond is anything like it is here.'
I nod. Secrets and spies and false friends sounds very familiar.
'Here, though, things are much more honest. There needs be no pretences. I enjoy talking to the people I meet, and helping them.' He smirks. 'And the pay is better. And, in the service of the King, I can still reap the benefits of court life without having to be part of it. Now. I need you to curl your lips back away from your teeth as far as possible, like a growling animal. This third procedure is a little different.'
Procedure three involves a heavy, waxed thread that wiggles its way between my teeth. I glance over at Elros as Nîluthan works with the thread. He is already sitting up in his chair and spitting into a silver pot. I suppose his teeth must take less time to clean, if he has them done often. Having never had mine done before, I hope they are not too horrific. But then Elros leans back in his chair once again, and Anveldo hovers above him. He must still have another procedure.
Seeing Anveldo brings a question to mind. I feel safe asking, as Nîluthan does not seem like the sort of person who would mind such a thing. When he reaches for a new thread, I take my chance. 'Many men here wear their hair long, in the Elvish style, and shave their beards. Why do you not?'
As I expected, he is not the least bit offended. Instead, he smiles and asks, 'How old do you think I am?'
I have no idea. I never spent enough time with Men to grow familiar with their aging patterns in adulthood. Children, I can guess, but not adults. I have no frame of reference. 'I cannot even guess,' I admit.
'On a timeline, then. At what point would you say I am, in my life?'
'Old enough to be married and have a few children?'
He laughs. 'No. Not yet. I could be married and have a child, true, if I started young, but most men are older than I when that happens. I am twenty-six.'
My guess at an age would have been completely off. I would have said forty.
'In fact, I am three years younger than he.' He jerks his head in the direction of Anveldo.
Again, this is something I would not have guessed. By no means does Anveldo appear to be the older of the two. He looks significantly younger, and less trustworthy.
'It's a trick I learned back in my diplomatic days. Because I was so much younger than nearly everyone else, being only seventeen when I took my first position, very few people respected my opinions or even listened to them. Most of what I said was ignored, and I was trusted to do very little apart from the simplest of document translations. So I cut off my long hair and let my beard grow out. Suddenly, having changed my style to that of a much older man, people began to assume I was older than I was, and therefore more worthy of their respect. And I found that it works here, as well. Visitors find my "mature" appearance comforting.'
I can say by virtue of first-hand knowledge that this is true. Even without having experienced Rauthurai's prejudice against Elf-lovers in head scarves, I believe I would have been more inclined to trust Nîluthan over Anveldo. He looks like a fatherly figure with his beard and conservative clothing. He is the archetypal noble and wise Númenórean: honest, honorable, exotic in his difference; while Anveldo and his like seem to me to be the human equivalent to those cheap copies of Gil-galad's jewellery the less reputable goldsmiths sell at Mithlond's dockside morning market. Scratch away a thin layer of low-quality gold, and the piece is copper underneath.
Perhaps true Elves do not mind this nonsensical game of dress-up so much. Perhaps some of them even interpret it as a compliment that so many young Númenóreans pretend to be Eldar. But in my eyes, it is almost an insult. I am too jealous of my hard-won Elf status to want to share it with these Men. They have no idea what I had to sacrifice to gain it. Had I chosen differently all those years ago, I could be one of them. Would I dress that way if I had chosen mortality? Probably. I always liked Elvish clothing as a child. Elvish clothing, Elvish language, Elvish culture, Elvish Elves: I loved all of it as far back as I can remember. And I turned my back on the only family I had left to be part of that world.
Maybe I only scorn them because I see too much of myself in their posing. A delusional pretender in Elvish garb, vehemently denying his own heritage in favour of something brighter and prettier. The thought makes me uncomfortable.
Once my thread procedure is finished, Nîluthan covers his finger with a tube of heavy fabric, and smears the fabric with some sort of gritty paste. He then sticks his finger into my mouth and proceeds to rub the grit over my teeth. It reminds me unpleasantly of sand-scouring in the bathhouse. If sand-scouring had an equivalent for the teeth, this would be it. The grit tastes of cloves. Once finished, I am given a quick rinse with water, which I spit into a pot, then the final procedure begins. A second paste, this one free of grit, is applied to my teeth via Nîluthan's finger. He lets it sit for several minutes as he gathers up and washes his tools, then I rinse again and spit into the pot. My teeth are now clean to Vanyarin standards. They feel smooth and polished as I run my tongue over them.
'You and the King are identical twins?' Nîluthan asks me as he helps me up from the chair.
'Yes,' I answer. 'We may not look it so much any more, but there was a time when few could tell us apart.'
'Even if you no longer match perfectly in the face, I can see it in the teeth. I have cleaned his several times, and yours have the same abnormality.'
My movements hitch. 'Abnor...' Are our Halfelven teeth somehow defective?
'Not to cause you alarm!' Nîluthan laughs. 'It is nothing important, and likely nothing that anyone but a tooth specialist would ever notice. But you both are missing the final two teeth on the lower jaw. The wisdom teeth.'
I cannot help but clench my jaw and feel with my tongue to see if he is telling the truth. It would seem that he is. My tongue can feel naught but bare gum below the farthest-back tooth on the top. 'Oh,' I say. 'Is this... problematic?'
He shakes his head. 'Not at all. In fact, it's a blessing for you. The wisdom teeth come in last of all, once all your other teeth are in place, and frequently grow crooked, or crowd adjacent teeth. If they do not grow properly, they must be removed, and removal is painful. You are lucky for their absence.'
'Does this happen in Elves as well as Men?' I ask. 'The crookedness, that is.'
'It is far less common in Elves, as far as I understand, but not unknown. Your top right wisdom tooth, for example, has grown in crooked, though not to the point that it should be removed. The left is fine, but if you feel for the right, you will notice that it points out to your cheek.'
Again, I feel with my tongue. Again, he is telling the truth. I have been stunningly ignorant of my own mouth for all these years. 'Oh. Ah. Does Elros have the same?'
'No, His Highness has excellent teeth. Some of the finest I have ever seen.'
Elros grins at me, showing his perfect teeth. He asks how my procedures went.
'Fine,' I say. 'My teeth do feel very clean.'
'Wonderful!' exclaims the Vanya Eruzanar, who must have reappeared out of thin air. Either that or I simply did not notice his entry. 'You see, it is most very important, having cleaned teeth. This procedures must be done at minimum one time every year I think, or three or four times for achieving best result.'
'I will try my best,' I promise him. Already, I am thinking of where in Lindon I could possibly find a Vanyarin-trained dentist. I do enjoy the feeling of having teeth so smooth, and my entire mouth feels purified by the cold fire of the clove paste. I would gladly submit to a hinged chair and tiny farm implements once or twice a year for this result.
Elros pays for both of us, despite my protest that I have a large purse of Númenórean coin that will become useless the moment I set foot on my ship back to Lindon. It would appear that he enjoys flaunting his kingly wealth. I do not see which coins he gives Eruzanar, but much bowing and flattery ensue.
o o o o o
'Is your constitution improving?' Elros asks as we take the longer, scenic route back home.
It is. My ale-induced incapacitation has subsided to the point that I can walk and speak at the same time without difficulty. The tooth-cleaning distracted me from my illness, and now that I am able to concentrate on it again, I find it nearly gone.
'Will you be able to ride tomorrow, or should I organise you a carriage?'
'I can ride,' I assure him. Which is to say, I am of sound enough body to make an attempt, though I am comparatively unskilled in practice. Still, I will give no-one the satisfaction of seeing me sit in a carriage like a useless lump while all the other men ride. I have a measure of Elvish pride to uphold, after all. I cannot let my entire chosen people appear weak in the eyes of the Númenóreans. What would Gil-galad say?
I know exactly what he would say. He says it frequently. Elves must always lead by example, and ever appear unfaltering in our wisdom. We must act as mentors to the Secondborn, possessing strength, courage, and intelligence in all things, continuously earning their reverence. Therefore, it is culturally unthinkable for me to be seen as weaker than Elros in any way. I shall ride.
Unfortunately, this leadership nonsense is far easier for Gil-galad than me, owing to the fact that he is good at everything and I am not. And he has been riding since he was three years old. Apparently, at that age his father took him galloping bareback down the banks of the Sirion, something I would have discounted as a tall tale had not several eyewitnesses confirmed the story. Fingon was either a rider of exceptional talent or insane. Likely both. It brings a warm feeling to my core, though, to think of the two of them: father and son, flying across the lost lands of the north, shrieks of exhilaration drowned out by the howl of the wind and the horse's pounding footfalls. The tiny body of the future king precariously clinging to his father's waist as the horse ran faster and faster. I hope he was tied on somehow.
'Is something wrong?' Elros asks. His words snap me out of the possible past and into the actual present.
'I asked if something is wrong. You've been standing there staring at nothing at all for several minutes.'
'Oh,' I say. 'No. No, nothing is wrong. Just thinking.'
'Whether or not, when Gil-galad was very small, he would have been tied to Fingon for safety when they went riding.'
Now it is Elros' turn to stare. Though instead of staring at nothing, he stares at me. And instead of several minutes, his gaze only lasts a handful of seconds. He makes a rough sound in the back of his throat. 'Elves.'
'What about Elves?'
He slowly shakes his head. 'Elrond, one day you will have to think out loud for me. I am very interested to listen through your chain of thoughts from one to the next, and discover how it possible for you to segue from whether or not you need a carriage to your king's childhood safety.' Then he laughs, and continues down the path whistling a tune I do not recognise.
I follow him without speaking. Also without thinking, lest he find anything else about me humorous. I concentrate on our surroundings. On the right side, the uphill side, we are bordered with a line of trees bearing shiny, dark green leaves as big as my face. Blue-flowering vines have grown like clothing up their trunks. Further back, toward the top of the hill, I can see several more exotic trees that look like enormous, dark pink dandelions with woody stems, sticking up far above everything else. These are easily the strangest trees I have ever seen. I would like to have a closer look, but since they are all a good quarter-mile uphill through dense foliage and probable insects, I will have to settle for admiring from afar.
On the downhill side, the path drops off steeply. If I stand close to the edge and look down, the afternoon's fading sunlight turns the shiny leaves of the trees below a dark golden colour. Light reflects off the backs of long-tailed birds as they soar across the valley, just skimming the treetops. They call to each other with lonely voices. Every once in a while, a cloud of smaller birds erupts out of the shimmering, green-gold canopy like a twittering geyser. None of the pink dandelion trees grows down there. They must be a hilltop variety only.
'What are you thinking of now?' Elros casually asks as we descend a wooden stairway.
'I am admiring your trees and wondering if anything similar grows on the mainland.'
'Oh.' He sounds disappointed.
The stairway leads into a covered walkway that houses numerous tiny, scurrying lizards and one bright-coloured spider that would be the size of a large mouse, if mice had eight legs and each crooked, segmented leg were the length of a man's handspan. Elros ducks beneath its web as if it is nothing out of the ordinary. I approach, pause, assess the spider, step back, step forward, and pause again. 'Elros...' I groan.
He turns around. 'What? Oh! It's only a dragon spider.'
'Dragon spider. Very common around here. They live in the trees. Eat large insects and small birds.'
They eat small birds. That is enough for me. 'I think I'll... go back. The other... uh...'
'Don't be ridiculous. It's only a spider. Here. I'll move it for you.'
This is all I have time to shout. Elros' arms are already outstretched, ready to handle the dragon spider. He taps its hindmost leg with one finger on the right hand, causing it to lurch in the opposite direction, directly into his left, so he can extract it from its web like some kind of obscene prize. I feel suddenly very ill again. This time, I cannot control myself. I lean over the walkway's railing and vomit onto the leafy ground. I can feel the dragon spider's wretched heaviness and prickling feet on the bare skin of my hand as truly as if I had touched the thing myself. I tuck both hands inside my sleeves for safety and press them close to my body.
'Elrond, it's only a spider!' Elros laughs from behind me. 'I'll put it over the edge of the walkway, out of sight, then you-'
His words are cut short by a sudden outburst of hollering. I look up just in time to see the spider drop to the floorboards, having been dislodged from Elros' flailing hand. It squirms, rights itself, and takes off running in my direction. I leap up to sit on the railing as it passes. Elros screams at me to step on it, and I would do so, if only its body weren't the size of a mouse and I weren't wearing thin, Elvish slippers. And if I weren't completely paralysed with fear.
'It bit me!' Elros shouts. He has his right hand clamped down tightly over his left thumb. 'The orc-mother bit me!'
o o o o o
The King being bitten by a spider is a national emergency, primarily because nobody knows whether or not dragon spiders are poisonous. They usually keep to themselves, I am told once Elros and I rush back to the palace proper. They rarely come down from the trees. No-one has ever been so foolish as to try to touch a live one, for the obvious reason that they are terrifying.
By some luck, it does not appear to be a serious wound. The bite has created a red blister on the side of Elros' thumb, but it is not greatly swollen, as I might have expected of a bite from a spider that size. The surrounding muscles have stiffened only slightly. It looks more like a wasp sting than anything. Elros sits in his presence room with his hand in a bowl of warm, herb-infused water to numb any lingering pain, and refuses to tell the surgeons exactly what happened. All he will say is that he tried to handle a dragon spider. Over and over, they ask him what in the name of Ulmo he was thinking. Over and over, he mumbles that it was 'just a spider'.
The surgeon who attended to me the other night takes me out into the corridor, out of earshot, and asks for the truth. I tell him that we were on our way home when we encountered the spider in the walkway, and Elros attempted to remove it for my benefit. The surgeon's face turns pale as I give my account. In his opinion, Elros has done something incredibly stupid, not to mention dangerous. Despite what my brother led me to believe with his nonchalant bravado, people do not usually touch large spiders and insects here. They know very well how dangerous those creatures can be. The palace employs a dedicated pest-catcher, whose duty it is to deal with dragon spiders and other disturbing things that occasionally make their way indoors. He should have been summoned. Elros was out of his mind trying to pluck that spider from its web.
It occurs to me, with a glow of smug affection, that Elros was trying to impress me. He was trying to prove his mettle by doing something that I could not. We Númenóreans are not frightened by a simple spider, he wanted to say. Not like you Elves. I have somehow become a threat to his previously unquestioned superiority. I like this turn of events.
He was always the leader, when we were children. If someone asked the both of us a question, he would answer as 'we'. He would tell me what to do. When I was in a passive mood I would comply, and when I was in a contrary mood he would bully me until gave in for the sake of peace. I cannot think of a single instance of him ever doing anything to impress me back then. I was never someone he needed to impress. Now, though, our situations have changed, and I can see that he has been trying since I arrived: with his life, with his house, with his power, with his money, and with his absurd willingness to handle spiders. He must be as worried of his status as I am of mine.
o o o o o
I only ask my question once we are alone, back in his bedroom. 'Do you ever wonder if you made the right choice?'
He does not look at me, but from the tension in his mouth, I know he knows what I mean. It takes him a very long time to answer, 'Occasionally.'
'So do I,' I say.
He is sitting on a divan with a dog at his side, scratching its ears with one hand while his other, spider-bitten, still soaks in a bowl of herb water. In the silence of the room, the dog's panting and the and hum of insects outside seem louder than they should. I shift on the bed, and the frame creaks beneath my weight. Elros groans as he leans back, closing his eyes. One of us should say something. We have been enveloped by one of those awkward moments, in which I know I need to break the silence, but my mind remains stubbornly empty.
'Um,' I begin.
'By Manwë's blood, Elrond, sometimes it drives me mad!'
Elros has suddenly flung himself forward in his seat again, startling the dog. He claps his hands onto his knees. 'Sometimes I could swear the people only accept me as their king because I am descended from Elves! Other times I have to wonder where their heads are. They know I chose to be one of them. They know I turned my back on the life of their wonderful, perfect, beloved, untouchable Elves to be with them, and, on some level, I think this makes them very proud. So why, by the names of all the Valar, do they insist on flaunting my loss in my face? Do they think it pleases me to see their ridiculous Elvish towers? Do they think I enjoy being surrounded by constant reminders of what I can never have? I came to Númenor to be away from all of that! Away from the history of Gondolin and Tirion! And what do they do? They bring an imitation Tirion to me!'
He leaps up and begins pacing in front of the divan. The dog, excited by all the shouting, paces with him. 'I thought it would be easier,' he says, twining his fingers and cracking his knuckles. 'After I made the decision. I thought I would be able to go among the Edain and be one of them. As if the Elvish part of my life would conveniently disappear. But it wasn't... it's not so simple. Instead of me changing into one of them, I think they tried to change to be like me. They wanted to be more Elvish. Not that I'm so arrogant to think my presence singlehandedly ruined the culture of my people, but it helped. Because of who I am, the Elves are too eager to "help" us. There are hardly any permanent residents of the island who are Elves, but their presence is so strong they might as well make up half the population. And do you know what the language of the common people is?'
'Adu...' I try. I remember Nîluthan mentioning it at one point, but I cannot remember the exact word.
'Adûnaic,' says Elros. 'It's called Adûnaic. Did you know, my name in Adûnaic is Indilzar? But no-one ever calls me that. I am always Elros or Elerossë or Tar-Minyatur. Always Elvish names. Because the court only ever uses Elvish languages. I speak Adûnaic perfectly well, but they all insist on precious Edhellen out of misguided courtesy to me.'
Sighing, he sits down again and regards me with tired eyes. 'They will never truly accept me as one of their kind. I can exhaust myself trying to be rid of the lingering Elvish ties, but it will never happen. It's so frustrating that sometimes I wish I had chosen differently and embraced the Elvishness that everyone insists is in my nature.'
'It would be no easier for you as an Elf,' I murmur. 'You would exhaust yourself equally trying to shed your Mannish inheritance. Either way you choose, it is impossible. I face the same.'
'You're right,' he admits. 'We should have gone, just the two of us, to live far away from Elves and Men and all this nonsense. Start a Halfelven colony.'
'With which brides?' I laugh.
'Oh, I don't know. Anyone. We'd need some followers from both sides at first, but then they could all intermarry and everyone would be equal...'
'Would the Valar allow that?'
He raises an eyebrow. 'Would they stop us?'
A difficult question to answer. Would they stop us? The immediately obvious answer would of course be, 'No,' but if I take a moment to consider this, I wonder. At the end of the War, Eönwë gave Elros and me a choice. The choice was between Elves and Men. There was no third option: no possibility to stay on neither side. One way or the other, we had to choose. Elves and men must always remain separate. And then, after I made my decision, the pressure to leave Middle-earth for Valinor was overwhelming. Elves, Eönwë said, belonged in the Blessed Realm. We were all meant to return with him. Of course, many wished to do so, and went without complaint. But those of us who chose to stay, even after days of wheedling lectures from Manwë's esteemed herald, were left with the distinct impression that we were acting like naughty children to refuse the counsel of our betters.
It seems to me that the Valar would interfere if we tried anything so bold as a Halfelven colony. Such a thing would hardly fit within their acceptable worldview.
'Elros,' I ask at the sudden appearance of an idea, 'do you ever wonder if the Valar granted you this island as a way to keep their favoured Edain from mingling too much with the Elves of Lindon? After their post-war plan to have all the Elves go to Valinor failed?'
He looks at me as if he cannot believe I have just voiced such a moronic opinion, and says, 'No.'
o o o o o
There is no road leading from Armenelos to Elros' country home. There is only a grassy trail for riding, which means all of our belongings must be packed up on the backs of horses. This is no hardship for me, having only the clothing I purchased earlier and the finished robes Rauthurai fetched from the tailor, but Elros has been living as a king too long. He has completely lost his wartime ability to travel lightly. It is with much amusement that I watch the man who used to chide me for carrying two cloaks consult with his attendants, trying to find away to fit three bulging packs onto one horse. In the end he admits defeat. And orders two more horses added to the caravan.
The distance between Armenelos and the riverside house is equal to roughly half the distance between Armenelos and Rómenna, meaning we have a full day of riding ahead of us. We depart in late morning, and it will be nightfall before we arrive. Sometimes we walk our horses, sometimes trot, and sometimes Elros and I canter ahead to break up the monotony and then dismount to lounge in the trailside grass and wait for the others. He is wearing gloves, but the spider bite does not seem to have any effect on his hand. It has, though, affected our relationship. Now that he has seen my panic attack and inebriation, and I have seen his failed bravery, the air has grown far easier between us. We have slipped back in time a little, almost back to where we were during the war. I wipe a smudge of dirt from his chin, and he grabs my arm when he wants to show me something. We are brothers again.
I follow behind him down the path as easily as I ever did as a child following him out to play. The rest of the caravan follows me. In mid-afternoon we make an unannounced stop at a quaint little farm, which is enough to throw the poor farmer into fits of panic as he and his family fall over themselves trying to throw together a dinner suitable for the King. Elros leaves them a handsome payment of almi and two young dogs for their trouble.
It makes me wince to return to the saddle after that; I am dismally out of practice on horseback, and my legs, ankles, knees, rear end, midsection, back, shoulders, neck, arms, elbows, wrists, hands, and most other body parts ache. Even my eyes sting from squinting in the bright sun, and I know my exposed skin is beginning to burn. I have abandoned worries of looking stupid and put on my head cloth.
My horse, a sturdy red mare with a low tolerance for nonsense, does not take kindly to my awkward squirming. I have long since abandoned hope of finding a comfortable position, but I am sure that a marginally less painful position can be achieved. I have switched from one buttock to the other, leaned forward, and leaned back. All parts able to be sat upon are exhausted and equally sore. The horse is fed up with my movements, and keeps abruptly stopping and then leaping ahead in what I take to be an attempt to make me tumble off backwards. The more she fights against my horrid technique, the more desperately I cling to the reins and tense my cramping knees. I turn into a worse rider, which agitates her further.
'For mercy's sake, Elrond!'
Elros has ridden up close beside me, just in time to see me hunched over and holding on to the front of my saddle.
'Are you about to be sick again?'
'No,' I say. 'But I think I am about to either fall off or be thrown off. I need a rest.'
'Would you like to walk a while? I can give your horse to one of the grooms to lead.'
Gil-galad's leadership rhetoric can fly to the wind. I am done with riding. I rein the mare to a stop, which takes a while, as she is in a mood for trotting and not about to take orders from someone as inept as I. Naturally, she becomes docile and agreeable the moment I turn her over to an experienced groom. Thereafter I walk, and Elros walks with me. My knees and thighs hurt like a horror, making each step a wretched experience. And I should have had the sense to wear my own shoes. I chose fashion over practicality this morning, opting for the nicer found shoes of the bath house instead of my own, and their imperfect fit becomes more apparent moment by moment. But nothing will make me sit on that horse again.
We end up walking the rest of the way to the country house, which takes over five hours. It is midnight when we arrive. Elros does his best to be quiet and not make a disturbance, but he either has no concept of silence or else wildly misjudges the amount of noise made by an arriving entourage of thirteen horses, two grooms, two footmen, five porters, two personal attendants, one dog trainer, one apprentice dog trainer, nine dogs, one errand boy, one minstrel, one king, and one visiting Elf. I would have liked to report that the visiting Elf did not contribute to the noise, but thanks to a run-in with a low and unexpected boxwood hedge, this is not the case. We all together raise such a din that the entire household leaves their beds to investigate the commotion at the stable door.
'Elrond!' Elros calls across the chaos of packs, porters, and barking dogs. 'Elrond, come over here! Let me introduce you!'
I try my best to avoid treading on feet and tails as I make my way to the door, where Elros stands with two women and two men. The two men look very much alike, and also very much like Elros, with long, dark hair. They can only be his sons: Vardamir, his eldest, and Atanalcar, his youngest, he informs me. The lady standing between Vardamir and Atanalcar radiates a queenly bearing along with her elegant beauty, which makes me certain she must be Elros' wife, while the shorter, rounder woman at Atanalcar's side might be a governess. But Elros introduces the taller as Seralassë, Vardamir's wife, before wrapping his arm around the shoulders of the shorter and bidding me bow to his beloved Queen, Isillindë.
Isillindë is the sort of person I like immediately. She is not classically beautiful like Seralassë, but has a friendly, pretty look, and an excellent blend of fun and sensuality gleams in her dark eyes. I should have known Elros would pick the bawdy wench over the proper princess. I dip my head to bow to her, but she laughs loudly and links her arm through mine. 'Oh, none of that. He's just having a joke on you. Ignore the old fool.'
Elros smirks and looks away, and I smile at her.
'Thank you, my Lady,' I say.
'No "lady" nonsense. Call me Isillë. Now come inside-' she tugs on my arm as she says this- 'and I'll have the cook bring up some refreshments.'
She is not the kind of woman to stand for false and demure protests of no-thank-you-I-am-fine or oh-no-I-could-not-possibly, though I put on my best manners and make a try for it. I am brought inside, shown to the sitting room, and served wine and spice cake whether I want it or not. I do want it. Isillë sits at my side on the divan, leaning on my shoulder as if we have known each other forever. Or else she is trying to flirt with me.
'I know you must be tired,' she says, 'but I can't let you go to bed until you tell me about Lindon. I was only a baby when the ships brought my family here, but since I was born in Mithlond I would like to hear about it.'
What can I tell her about Mithlond? 'The city looks much like Rómenna and Armenelos,' I say. 'Your builders here have used the same style: lots of stone, tall buildings, towers, roads all paved in brick. But the climate is very different. It's a rare day when the heat comes anywhere close to that of Númenor. We are quite far north, and the sea keeps the air cool in the summer but warm enough the winter. We don't experience the same extreme temperatures found further inland. Most days have at least some cloud, and it rains frequently. Between late autumn and spring, you can almost be guaranteed that it will rain every day. Or snow. We can have snow in winter, though it rarely stays long before being washed away by more rain.'
'I have never seen snow,' Isillë sighs. 'Not up close, I mean. The peak of Meneltarma has a snowy cap in winter, but I've only seen it from down here, looking up. Once, I'd like to see snow. Step in it and pick it up and roll around in it. Just once, before I die.'
Those words, before I die, send a jolt through me. I have already opened my mouth to utter the standard assurances of indefinite life before I remember where I am and who she is. When Elves speak of death and say such things as before I die, it is always in a black situation. I used to hear it during the war. Gil-galad would sink into one of his moods, moaning over the fates of his forefathers, and say to me, 'Elrond, if I die tomorrow, I don't want you to be king. It is too much of a burden. Pass the crown to someone you hate, and go live your life in peace.' And then Erestor and I would fall over each other, rushing to be the first to assure him he would never be killed and everything would be fine and we would all live happily to the end of days. That is what Elves do. We counteract the negativity of morbid thoughts with flattery and unreasonably optimistic promises. Even in the worst of predicaments.
Isillë's casual view of death throws me off balance. I have no idea what to say to her. Is it rude to agree that she will one day die? Would it be stupid and Elvish to pretend this will never happen?
'Why don't you go this winter?' I finally ask, hoping she does not think I am suggesting she will die very soon.
To my relief, she grins brightly, as if the subject of her own unavoidable mortality is nothing unusual. Which I suppose, for her, it is not. 'I think I will,' she says. 'I always want to, but then I never do... Yes, I think I will.'
She dominates the conversation as we sip our wine. I have the distinct impression she adores being the centre of attention. From snow she slides right into telling me how she and Elros met, some hundred and thirty years ago. Her father had presented her much-better-behaved older sister as a potential bride for the King, but Elros had been immediately taken with the vivacious, if less refined, Isillindë. They were married within the year, and little Vardamir came so quickly thereafter that everyone said he must have been a wedding night baby. Though suspiciously premature. A slight blush creeps into Vardamir's cheeks as Isillë tells the story.
'But my sister would have made a terrible queen' she finishes. 'So very shy, and shook with nerves when she had to meet anyone new. She was far happier to marry a scholar and live quietly. Ah, I miss my family...'
'Do they not live in Armenelos?' I ask.
Isillë goes quiet, in that awkward way that tells me I have just misspoken. I try not to cringe while inwardly slapping myself.
'They are dead,' she says after a moment.
'I am sorry,' is all I can say in reply.
'No, don't be; you had no way of knowing.' She places her hand on mine, as if to say she understands my Elvish ignorance of mortal lives. 'I am one hundred and sixty three years old,' she tells me. 'I never thought I would live this long. Seventy, eighty... my mother died at seventy-seven, my father at seventy-nine. I thought I would be the same. But when I married Elerossë, I think the Valar gave us some small gift. One hundred and sixty three and I am not yet an old crone. We were given more than my short lifespan to spend together.'
Now, as I look from up close, I can see her age in her eyes. And she looks older than Elros. There are more faint lines on her face, and there is more grey in her hair. The Valar may have given them a small gift, but it is indeed small. I already know that Elros will long outlive her.
She rescues me from having to say anything by leaping into another round of family history. Their daughter, Tindómiel, was born a year and a half after Vardamir. She now lives in Andúnië with her second husband; the first died some time ago. After Tindómiel came their son Manwendil, a little over two years later. He recently married an unsuitable woman, a widowed commoner with two ill-bred sons, and is on shaky terms with the family. Finally, Atanalcar was born thirty-three years after Manwendil, long after all hope of a fourth child had been abandoned. He is and always will be the beloved baby, despite now being nearly one hundred years old.
Across the room, Elros yawns. 'I was only tired before,' he says, 'but the wine has made me sleepy. Will you show me to bed, wife?'
Isillë gives a cheeky smile and drapes her arm over her shoulder. 'You?' she asks. 'Why should I settle for you when I have your handsome younger brother?'
'He's not younger,' snorts Elros. 'We're twins!'
'I am younger,' I tell her. 'By twenty minutes at least. Don't listen to him; he's envious of my youth.'
'Then we are destined for each other, Elerondo,' she says. 'You are the younger brother, I am the younger sister... I must have married the wrong one.'
Elros feigns a hurt look. 'Oh, so what if he is younger? You don't want that whelp, Isillë. He flails all night and hoards the pillows.'
Shocked, she pulls back from me. 'Is this true?'
'Alas it is,' I am forced to admit. 'I am a terrible sleeper. I usually wake up sideways with half the blankets on the floor, and I've even fallen out of bed on a few occasions. Once I almost broke my arm.'
Isillë throws her arms up in disgust on her way to join Elros. 'Well!' she huffs. 'If that be the case, I'd rather stay with my boring old ass of a husband! At least he sleeps like a stone!'
Elros laughs as he pulls her into a smothering embrace.
o o o o o
That night, I sleep well. The riding and walking have exhausted me to the point that I am asleep within minutes, and I do not wake until the sun is a good distance above the horizon. I am too embarrassed to show my face at the breakfast table so late in the morning, which leads to me dressing and sitting on my bedroom balcony, pretending I've been admiring the view for hours in case anyone wonders where I am and comes to find me. No-one does.
When I finally do emerge, it is nearly midday, and the house is all but deserted. One serving woman is in the kitchen rolling pastry, and the dog trainers are out behind the house with their charges. The woman in the kitchen informs me Vardamir and Seralassë have gone to a small town a mile away to look at a local silversmith's wares, and Atanalcar is in the stable with his horses. Elros and Isillë, as far as she knows, are still in bed. She divulges this last bit of information with a cheeky smirk.
Thus, I am left to fend for myself, more or less. I discover a small library and spend the afternoon reading a book of ancient histories and legends passed down from the House of Bëor, only interrupted by the sporadic presence of a steward coming in to offer me food and drink. I do not see Elros until the sun has started to set. Then, he shuffles into the library with a sheepish expression on his face, wearing a short dressing robe and looking as if he has neither had a wash nor brushed his hair all day.
'Sorry,' he mutters. 'But... hm. You occupying yourself?'
'Yes. After all the riding and walking yesterday, I'm glad to just sit here and read.'
'Good. Good.' Clearing his throat, he looks everywhere but at me. He has posed in such a way as to assert the normalcy of the King of Númenor staying in bed until supper time before appearing in the library in his dressing robe. It makes for an odd picture. 'Anyhow, we should be eating soon.'
'Will you be wearing that to supper?'
He grins foolishly, looking down at his middle. 'Ah, no. I think I should find something more kingly, shouldn't I?'
'Perhaps a little more,' I agree.
He comes to supper wearing his dressing robe, loose trousers, and a crown. It is exactly the sort of thing he would have done long ago, at eight years old, when Maglor gave the order to make himself presentable. Both Isillë and I treat him with the utmost respect, bowing to His Highness and filling his ears with flattery. He makes kingly proclamations and writes a very short new law on the tablecloth, using his finger dipped in soup as a pen. The law declares the soup to be the most useful in the land.
o o o o o
The days at the summer house pass far too quickly. We sleep late in the morning, linger over our meals, and sit up talking well into the night. Most of my time is spent with Elros and Isillë, telling stories and making each other laugh. Isillë is viciously fond of tales about Elves making fools of themselves. She laughs until she cries when I tell her how Gil-galad and Erestor are forever trying to outdo the other with pranks. Such as the time Erestor had all of Gil-galad's clothing altered and made too small. To retaliate, Gil-galad dropped a crude, graphic and indecent drawing on the floor next to Erestor at the breakfast table. It was found by one of Lindon's stuffy loremasters, who has ever since had the wrong impression regarding Erestor's intimate tastes, resulting in some awkward moments. I do not tell her what the two of them planned together and did to me.
Vardamir, unlike his mother, does not appreciate my stupid anecdotes. He does not openly dislike them, but he seems to find nothing amusing about the childish antics of otherwise quite respectable Elves. I would not be surprised if he found nothing in the world amusing. He is a very earnest, very serious man. He is pleasant and courteous, but deeply boring. If I engage him in a chat about the weather, he will respond with a discourse on the opposing nature of life philosophies among Men and Elves, using many large words and pristine grammar. He is writing a book on the subject, he tells me, and promises to send a copy to Lindon when it is complete.
I spend even less time with Seralassë, whom I never see except for occasionally in Vardamir's presence. She is, unfortunately, a perfect wife for him: refined, gentle, ladylike, and utterly without personality. I do not try any humorous stories on her. I receive blank enough looks when I ask her what her dreams are for the future. But Vardamir and Seralassë have fortunately been blessed with a son who is as three-ish as a three-year-old can be, meaning his favourite activities include running, screaming, jumping, shrieking, screaming, running, falling, crashing, yelling, running, and screaming. Any given day will see little Amandil escaping from his mother's dull clutches to sprint across the field at full speed toward a chasm full of brambles or a muddy bog. Seralassë can think to do nothing more than watch in horror with her hands over her mouth as Amandil repeatedly does his best to kill himself, leaving Isillë to take up the chase while hollering at the top of her voice for him to stop running before he breaks his neck. If the boy lives to see twelve, it will be through no skill of his parents'.
Finally, there is Atanalcar. His shyness first leads me to believe he is about as exciting as Vardamir. Every time I greet him, he ducks his head and mumbles like a bashful youth. But our conversations improve as we are better acquainted. His hobby is making saddles, he frequently travels to Andúnië, Rómenna, and Eldalondë to buy exotic materials from the Elves, and he is not yet married. I know he is in trouble in this regard when he asks me for advice on how to attract women.
'Atanalcar,' I say, 'asking me for marriage advice makes as much sense as asking a rock how to fly.'
'You've never considered marrying?' he asks.
'I considered it many times. And the prospect of having to find a bride desperate enough to agree to marry me was so terrifying it gave me nightmares for a year.'
'I don't see why not, uncle. You're an intelligent, handsome man.'
I sigh. 'Here, perhaps. It's a little different back in Lindon among the Elves. I'm sure you've seen enough of them to know that I'm no great prize by their standards.'
From the look in his eyes, I know he understands what I mean.
'In some ways, I'd be better off staying here,' I continue. 'The climate is more agreeable than the rainy cold of the north, I can leech off your father and live for free, my wenching prospects are vastly improved as my relative level of attractiveness increases...'
'You should stay,' says Atanalcar. 'I'm serious. Consider it. Atto and Ammë would love you to stay.'
Looking away, I shake my head. 'It's not so simple. I have duties back in Lindon. But also... It's difficult to describe, but I feel I don't truly belong here. Somehow, this island feels wrong for me. It's a place for me to visit. But I can't live here. And not only because of my Elvish ignorance toward your way of life.'
Atanalcar makes a confused face. 'Ignorance?' he says. 'What's ignorance?'
His expression is so earnest that for a moment my mind spins as I try to think of a way to explain the word without embarrassing him. But then the mask cracks, I see the spark of mischief in his eye, and we both collapse back in our chairs laughing.
o o o o o
Young Atanalcar is in love. He will not admit it to me directly, but guessing the truth is easy enough when the liar turns pink and averts his eyes. Elros and Isillë are convinced that his day-long absences are caused by nothing more than his obsessive interest in horses. I believe otherwise. Every morning, he hurries to the stable to saddle his horse, and every morning, he rides south past the line of trees that marks the boundary of Elros' property. One morning, I follow him.
I am on foot, so it is a lucky thing he rides as nothing faster than a trot as we cross the field of high, heavy grass. Also lucky is the fact that he does not turn around and notice me. He passes through the tree boundary, and I after him, and then he turns slightly to the south-east. Eventually, we come to a fence. Atanalcar dismounts, opens a gate, and rides on.
Following someone across a field for curiosity's sake is harmless enough. Tresspassing, though, does not sit well on my conscience. I should be invited along if I want to pass that fence at all. 'Atanalcar!' I call to him.
He stops his horse and turns in his saddle, looking shocked. 'Uncle! What are you...'
'Forgive me,' I say, coming closer. 'I saw you from across the field and thought we might keep each other company. Lovely day for a walk, isn't it?'
'Y-yes,' he stammers. 'But I'm on my way to meet... to meet a... a friend.'
'Is that so? What's her name?'
His face flushes a becoming pink colour. 'It's not a... I'm not...'
'You can tell me,' I assure him. 'I shan't laugh at you. There's no shame in riding out to meet a girl who's caught your eye.'
'Mldë,' he mumbles.
'Marialdë,' he repeats, more clearly.
'Will you introduce me?' I ask. The look that crosses his face at this request sits somewhere between pained and horrified. 'I promise, I will tell no-one.'
He agrees to an introduction, though the idea is not to his liking. I follow him through the gate, across another field, and to a second fence. Here, he dismounts again, and leans against the wooden slats. His eyes scan the waving grasses beyond. When he finds what he seeks, his mouth cracks into a silly smile. Marialdë, on horseback, flies with her hair loose and streaming like a banner at the far end of the field. She is wearing breeches under a very short, likely symbolic skirt, and sits astride, like a man.
'So this is your sweetheart,' I say.
'Not my sweetheart,' Atanalcar replies gruffly. 'Just a friend.'
'But you wish she were more?'
He squirms. 'Maybe...'
This girl, Marialdë, rides with an Elven grace. She must have spent her entire childhood in the saddle. Even from a distance, I can see that her hold on the reins is very light, and the horse responds to every movement of her body with expert ease.
'Her father breeds fine horses,' says Atanalcar, confirming my guess. 'This is all his land.'
Marialdë's great loop around the field brings her closer to us, and Atanalcar whistles to her. At first she gives no indication of having heard. I am about to tell Atanalcar to whistle again, more forcefully, when I notice that the horse is turning slowly back toward us in a wide circle. Facing us, Marialdë slows to a trot.
'Atanalcar?' she calls.
'Aye,' he returns. He hops the fence to take her reins and help her down from the saddle, a courtesy that she accepts, though I am sure she does not need it. 'I'm with my uncle, Elrond, today,' he continues. 'I hope you don't mind.'
'No, of course not,' she says. 'I would like to meet some of your family.'
With her hand on his arm, they approach the fence, until Marialdë stands directly in front of me, less than an arm-span away. She looks up at my face. Her wide, dark eyes do not move. 'You are an Elf?' she asks after a moment.
'Halfelven,' I answer, 'as is Atanalcar's father.'
'You seem more Elvish.'
'As my brother chose to be counted among Men, so I chose the fate of Elves. I live in Lindon with the Noldorin High King Gil-galad. I'm only here visiting for the summer.'
'I hope you enjoy your stay,' she says, and then, 'Do your ride?'
'Atanalcar, you must bring your Elvish uncle riding with us one day. We can give him lessons.'
'Yes, we should,' Atanalcar quickly agrees.
We go to the stable, where Atanalcar checks the fit of a saddle on a horse that Marialdë thinks has gained too much weight. He repairs a buckle on another saddle, and helps her clean and oil a third. All the while, as she chatters about the horses, he stares at her with unchecked adoration. He reaches tools down for her, opens doors for her, and shovels horse shit for her. Anyone could see that he's completely besotted. I understand, though, why Marialdë may not.
'She's blind, isn't she?' I ask Atanalcar on our way home.
'Not blind,' he answers, speaking sharply and defensively. 'Just... hard of sight. She can see shapes and colours in bright light. She could tell you were an Elf, couldn't she? She could see your clothes and hair, even if your face was a blur.'
'I didn't mean that as an insult. I should have said that it's hard to tell whether or not she can see. I kept worrying that she would bump against a wall or trip while you two were working, but she walks as if she knows exactly where everything is.'
'She does,' says Atanalcar. 'She knows every inch of each of the stables. Even if she can't see in that dim light.'
We are both walking. Atanalcar leads his horse, despite my insistence that I do not mind in the least if he rides. He huffs with every other step, clearly wanting to say something but not finding the right words. He rubs his hand over his forehead, huffs, kicks at a clump of dirt that we pass, huffs, and tips his head back to look up at the sky with a groan. 'What should I do?' he finally asks.
'She thinks we are friends. That's all. She thinks I go to see her every day because I am interested in her horses. Worse, she accused me once of only spending time with her out of pity, and only helping her because of her sight. And that's not true at all. I just... What can I do?'
'Have you tried telling her how you feel?' I suggest.
He gives me the same look Elros gave that night after the spider bite: the look that tells me I am insane for even thinking such a thing. 'No,' he says, in a tone that means, 'Of course not!'
'So you want her to guess how you feel based on a series of vague hints, with the intended outcome being you never have to be in the position to admit anything and she must be the one to first say whether or not she is in love with you?'
'Uh...' he says.
'Don't worry,' I assure him. 'That's my preferred operational method as well. Ineffective, but it has the least potential for personal embarrassment.'
'So what should I do?'
I have exactly two tricks in my repertoire. 'Well, I think you need to move away from the comfortable elements of horses and stables. Try to see her in a different situation, so she has an opportunity to think of you as someone with interests in more than just horses. Ask her to go for a walk with you. Talk about anything but saddles and riding.'
'I could do that,' he mumbles. He has gone a little pale, but his mouth is set in a determined line as he nods to himself.
'You could invite her for supper. She said earlier she would like to meet your family.'
This prospect is more frightening to him; his eyes widen as he stammers, 'Ah, maybe... maybe... not yet...'
'Or you could give her a little gift,' I continue, saving him from his embarrassment. 'Nothing too fancy or rich. A little token of esteem only, perhaps a simple bracelet or hair comb. Something to let her know you think of her.'
'Yes!' he says, suddenly animated. 'That's what I should do! A gift! Of course! I should have thought of that. If I hurry into town right now, the markets will still be open!' He is up on his horse in the blink of an eye, and about to gallop away before he catches himself. 'Oh. Uncle. I'm sorry, I shouldn't... uh... Do you mind if I...?'
I laugh at his innocent eagerness. 'No. Go ahead. I will see you at supper.'
'Thank you!' he calls as he leaps away. 'I will see you then! Don't tell Atto and Ammë where I've gone!'
o o o o o
He must find his courage somewhere; four days later, Marialdë appears at the house in time for dinner. She keeps her hand on Atanalcar's elbow at all times. Here, in a strange setting, she moves with far less confidence, shuffling her feet to feel the floor before taking a step. Atanalcar carefully guides her to the table and helps her to sit. He tells her what the place setting looks like: where she can find her silverware, her water glass, the salt dish. He adds cream to her tea and butter to her bread. He introduces her to the family and explains where each person is sitting, so that she might correctly identify the voices she hears by their direction. Even so, I can see the slightest nervous tremble in her hands as she cuts her food and raises each bite to her lips. I cannot even imagine how terrifying it must be to be judged in front of people you are unable to see, and one of them the King himself.
And I see that she is wearing a new necklace. A pendant of faceted crystal hangs from a thin cord; it is triangular and nearly as long as her little finger. I shake my head at Atanalcar's taste in jewellery, wondering why he would think to buy her such a gaudy piece, until we move outside after dinner for a stroll around the lawns. Then Atanalcar unfastens the cord. Marialdë stands looking toward the sun, and he dangles the necklace in front of her face. Light passes through the crystal to touch her eyes in flashes of bright rainbows. She smiles with childlike delight at what she can see, turning her head from side to side to view brilliant red, green, and purple all at once.
'How long has he been mooning over her?' Elros murmurs to me as we watch their game of colours.
'If what he told me is the truth, every summer for six years.'
'Six years!' Elros hisses. 'Six years, and he hasn't told me?'
'He's not told her, either,' I say. 'Though I hope that will soon change.'
Atanalcar refastens the necklace. As soon as he has done so, Marialdë rewards him with a kiss on the cheek.
It is a happy little scene that blindsides me with a wave of regret. I have witnessed the tentative opening to this love story, but will not be here to watch it unfold. At the end of summer, I will return to Lindon, to my people. Atanalcar and Marialdë will remain here for the rest of their days. They might grow old together with children and grandchildren to carry on their legacy, or they might drift apart by this time next year, and find themselves in the arms of others. Atanalcar could tell me in letters, but how do words on paper compare to sharing the experience for oneself?
I regret coming here. My reasoning is perfectly selfish, but it is the truth. I have grown to love too many things that I can never have, and the pain of soon losing them already makes me feel sick in the pit of my stomach. I should have stayed in Lindon, where I belong, and never tried to know any of this. What good has it done me? A summer of enjoyment at the price of a lifetime of mourning?
Elros, mistaking my sudden melancholy for worry over Atanalcar's romantic hopelessness, squeezes my shoulder. 'Don't worry. He looks like he's on the right path.'
o o o o o
I do not belong in Númenor. The fact becomes more painfully obvious every day, despite the joy I find in my brother and his family: every time I say something to make Isillë bite her lip, every time Atanalcar does not understand my joke, every time Amandil grows restless and cannot sit through a nursery tale, every time someone like Marialdë calls me an Elf. They are my family, too, but they are separate, kept apart from me by some invisible curtain. Every time I step close to them, some strange force pulls me away and makes me even more aware of how different I am. Or how different I have become. I am not Elros' brother who happens to be an Elf. I am an Elf who happens to be Elros' brother. The small differences separate us the most. I love him, and yet somehow inside I know it is impossible for us to be true family. We live in different spheres. The two can intersect, but never harmonise.
Somehow, since that day at the end of the war, I have always known that Elros and I will be parted forever. On that day, I was called before Eönwë and asked to make my choice. Elf or Man. Which was I? A choice had to be made. I could be one or the other. Never both.
Elros, Eönwë told me, had already made his choice. I had not seen him in years. He had gone long ago to fight with the great warriors of Men, and I had been left at Gil-galad's side.
'Do you wish to know which path your brother chose?' Eönwë asked me, and I shook my head. I felt sick inside. Of course I knew what he chose; that answer was obvious. But still, if Eönwë did not say it aloud, there was that one slight sliver of hope that Elros had changed his mind and had not abandoned me.
Eönwë asked for my choice as I stood before him, shaking and numb, fighting with myself not to weep. He asked again.
'Elves,' I managed to whisper through clenched teeth. 'I wish to be counted among... counted among... I wish... to be counted... among...' I choked on a sob. The word would not come out a second time.
He looked at me with such pity. 'And that is truly what you wish?'
'Yes.' I spit it out before I could change my mind.
A long and horrible moment of silence passed, and for an instant I was certain Eönwë would forbid my choice. He would force me to follow my brother. But when he finally spoke, his words were, 'So your choice is made. Elrond son of Eärendil, henceforth will you be counted among the kindred of the Elves.'
I tried to whisper thank-you, but found I could not.
'Do you wish now to know the choice of your brother?'
'No,' I said. 'I don't want to know. I never want to know.'
If no-one told me, I could lie to myself that he would never die.
o o o o o
Elros, Isillindë, and Atanalcar come to Rómenna to see me off at the docks. It is a difficult trip, full of silences and uncertainties. The carefree mood of the country house is gone. What does one say in a situation such as this? I am returning to Lindon, they to Armenelos. They will live out their short, mortal lives and die. I will continue on as long as my destiny sees fit. Long after they have gone and forgotten me, I will still be here, cursed with the memory and eternal regret of the Elves. From now until the end of time, I will remember the family I can never see again.
'But you will return,' Elros says as we stand on the dock where my ship waits. 'Sometime, you must return. I want to see you again before I-'
'Don't,' I say.
He says it anyway. 'Before I die.'
We hold our gazes together for a moment while I try to think of how to say what I need to tell him.
'I can't come back.'
'Why not?' he asks. 'You are welcome any time.'
I wonder if it is hard for him as it is for me: if he is covering his pain with airy optimism that I can simply board a ship again and everything will be fine.
He leans in close to put both hands on my shoulders, whispering to me, 'I want you to be here. When I know I am... when it is my time, I will write you. I want you to be here.'
I shake my head. The lump in my throat makes it hard to breath. 'I can't. I can't come here and watch you...' The last word is too terrible.
'I will write you.'
'No. I don't want to know. I can't know. Elros, please, you won't tell me. You will write no letter. You will not send for me. I cannot be here. If you love me as your brother, you will tell me nothing, and let me live without that knowledge. Please.'
I know I hurt him. But at the same time, I believe he understands. He embraces me, and I hold onto him with all my strength.
'Very well,' he says. 'Have a safe voyage.'
These, the last words he ever says to me, I will remember forever.
o o o o o
In the year four hundred forty-two of the Second Age, I receive a message that has been borne to Mithlond on a ship returning from Rómenna. The message is short, containing only the following words:
Vardamir Nólimon is now King of Númenor.
It is written in the hand of Elros, spidery with age, and dated twenty-one days earlier. I read it only once. That is all I need to know.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.