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Another Man's Cage: 13. Chapter Thirteen--Findekano
We have a quick, cold breakfast and leave early. It is a long way to the cliff top where will we spend the night, and Uncle Fëanáro wants to get there early. "Swimming!" Tyelkormo chortles, and Uncle Fëanáro says, in a surprisingly placid voice, "Yes, little one, we shall swim. But also, your brother will need his rest."
We all look at Macalaurë, who had bitten hard on his teeth to keep from crying out while being helped into his tunic. Despite the hourly applications of balm throughout the day, his muscles had stiffened overnight, and uncle Fëanáro had to tie his arm against his body with a long swatch of cloth torn from an old tunic to keep it from being jostled as we ride. He will share his father's horse with Maitimo because Uncle Fëanáro's horse is the biggest and strongest of all, an enormous, black snorting monster. It takes both Uncle Fëanáro and Maitimo to boost Macalaurë onto the horse's back without hurting him, but Maitimo springs up easily behind him. The horse snorts and stomps, but Maitimo tightens the reins until he knows that he will not get any more liberties with the master's son than he does with the master.
I had known how to ride before coming here, of course; once a week, I had gone to the bottom of the city for a horsemanship lesson with my grandfather Finwë's horsemaster, a small, curt little man who would put me over low hurdles and had made me ride hands-free, with my wrists crossed over my chest, posting and guiding my pony using the strength of my legs alone. Atar and I would sometimes ride through the city sometimes to visit with people, stopping at houses for tea and cake, where Atar could nod sympathetically at their troubles and I could sit—straight and stiff—like the perfect, obedient eldest son that he wants me to be. With only these short trips in the well-kept city streets to practice my horsemanship, I had never realized that the horsemaster's lessons were grounded in logical use, but in the forest I am grateful that I know how to take a low jump over a fallen tree or that I can guide my pony with my legs only while holding branches out of my face. I had beamed proudly to see how impressed Maitimo and Uncle Fëanáro had looked, though the smile had withered a bit when I saw how much easier Tyelkormo's maneuvering was, and no one had thought to feel surprise at his competence.
As we ride, Maitimo quizzes us on sums and letters and natural lore, starting easy and going until only Tyelkormo answers. He lingers long today on the questions that all three of us can answer—even little Carnistir, who has just begun his letters—and before I realize it, we have ridden miles and it is time for our midmorning break. We stop in the clearing of a thick, green forest.
The first days of the journey had been hard on me. Despite my regular lessons in horsemanship, I had never ridden so far for so long, and my backside and my spine had ached so badly that I had been kept awake at night by it. I could have asked Maitimo for liniment to spread on my aching body, but my pride had made me suffer, sore and sleepless, while Tyelkormo lay in easy dreams. But now, I am growing accustomed to the long rides, and I swing from my pony, trying to imitate Tyelkormo's nonchalant ease.
Things are going remarkably well. The morning is growing warm, so we all swap our heavy cloaks for lighter ones, and Uncle Fëanáro passes a flask of water from which we all sip. Aunt Nerdanel distributes bits of lembas biscuit that will keep our energy high throughout the day. Tyelkormo has run off into the forest and comes back with a massive, bristling caterpillar crawling across his palm. "Nelyo! Nelyo! Look!" He hops up and down in front of Maitimo, who shows an appropriate amount of enthusiasm for the prickly critter in his brother's hand. "Turko, that is magnificent," he says.
Carnistir tugs the leg Maitimo's breeches. "Nelyo? Nelyo? Nelyo?"
"Can we keep it?" Tyelkormo asks in a rush. "Can we watch it turn into a butterfly?"
"Nelyo?" Carnistir says.
"Actually, this species is—"
"I have to pee."
Maitimo sighs. "Carnistir, how many times have I asked you to be a little more dignified in your requests—"
"But Nelyo, I do have to pee!"
"You could try saying, 'Nelyo, would you mind taking me to relieve'—" Maitimo begins, reaching down to take Carnistir's hand, but already there is a dark wetness spreading across the front of his trousers, and he starts crying.
"I told you I had to pee!" he shouts, as Maitimo lifts him gingerly from the ground and carries him away to change his trousers.
Aunt Nerdanel appears behind me, carrying the water flask and offers it to me. "You will learn, Findekáno," she says, "to savor any moment of peace in this family because—the sooner you blink—the sooner it will be gone."
I start to smile, but then I remember the things I have heard her say about my parents and the things that I have heard my parents say about her and my uncle, and the effort seems too great. I sip water and watch her. She is making an effort, I can see, to be kind to me, smiling broader at me than she does with her sons, reaching out to smooth my hair with exaggerated gentleness. I push the water flask back into her hand. "Thank you," I say, and she straightens and takes the flask next to Macalaurë, patting my hair as she goes.
Tyelkormo is standing alone, talking loudly and pointedly to the caterpillar that has curled into a ball in his hand. "Nelyo says that you're going to be a moth, but I believe that you will become the most beautiful butterfly in the world!" There is a whimper of hurt in his voice at being so hastily deserted by his beloved older brother. He turns and stalks in my direction.
As he passes, without giving me so much as a glance, I hear myself say, "Tyelkormo?" and my heart leaps in surprise to hear his name in my voice.
He stops and spins to look at me, with haughty surprise in his eyes like one might have if his toilet suddenly called his name in the morning. "What?" he says.
"May I—may I see it?"
"But—" I can see his hand closed in a loose fist over the caterpillar. I can also see the anger in his face, the way his eyebrows scrunch together; I can hear his rapid breathing. Tempt not the Fëanorians into anger, Atar had said once, when I was very small, but I remember it now and would have shrunk away if not for the fact that Uncle Fëanáro had overheard the entire exchange and barks out, "Tyelkormo!" before I can turn away.
Tyelkormo's eyes widen, but he keeps his expression hard. "What?" he says defiantly.
"Show your cousin the caterpillar."
"It's gone, Atar!"
In two strides, Uncle Fëanáro is between us. Suddenly, golden Tyelkormo is not so imposing. My heart is pounding loudly enough that I cannot even hear the wind rustling the trees; I can feel my hands quivering at my sides, and I wish Maitimo would return with Carnistir in his arms and hoist me onto his other hip like he did this morning, carrying me to safety. I am sorry for wanting friendship with my golden cousin. I am sorry for not being deterred by the hurt anger in his face. But Uncle Fëanáro wants me to witness this; I can tell that by the way that he glances at me as he towers over Tyelkormo. He glances at Aunt Nerdanel too, who has paused with the flask in her hand beside Macalaurë, frightened surprise in her eyes.
"Do you think me a fool, Turkafinwë?" Uncle Fëanáro asks. He does not shout, but his voice terrifies me nonetheless. "Do you think I cannot see that you still hold something in your hand?"
The carefully maintained rage in Tyelkormo's face tightens until his lips begin to quiver, then tears are racing down his face. He sobs and hiccups, looks at me and back at his father, then spins and hurls the caterpillar toward a clump of weeds a few years away. I see its greenish body turning in the air before it falls into the leaves with a faint rustle. "Now it is gone!" he shouts, and Uncle Fëanáro seizes him by his arm so abruptly that he screams with terror.
"You have become a whining, unbearable brat, Turkafinwë! To show such disrespect to your cousin and your father, then to treat a living creature like it is but a pawn in your foolish games. You shall ride with me for the rest of the journey. I am ill with watching you show off on your pony like you are a hunter with twice your skill."
Tyelkormo is sobbing, and he seizes a fistful of Uncle Fëanáro's tunic like he wants to yank him into an embrace, like he craves the comfort a father can give him from such misery, but then he pushes roughly away and races into the forest, weeping with sobs so great that he is nearly gagged by them. More cries join his, and I look up to see Maitimo standing a feet yards away with Carnistir in his arms, writhing so hard that it takes both of Maitimo's arms to hold him and keep him from following his brother into the forest.
Uncle Fëanáro stoops in front of me. His eyes take me back to the dream-forge of two days ago, a place filled with steel, white with heat, so hot that no flesh can bear it. That is what I see in my uncle's eyes as he says nothing and roughly embraces me—the first time I can ever remember being held by him—and the feeling that surrounds me is so much like the heat of steel that my heart races, expecting pain that does not come, expecting my body to be raised in blisters wherever he touches me. I am not even aware of the tears on my cheeks until he raises his fingers to brush them away, leaving scorched tracks of dryness on my face. He kisses my forehead and, without a word, stands and strides away. I touch the place of a kiss, wincing as though expecting the tenderness of a burn, but the skin in smooth and unharmed and tingles faintly with the memory of his lips.
I squeeze my eyes shut, but that does not dam the tears that course anew down my face. I am lifted from my feet and into a warm embrace; I breathe in the smell that is becoming familiar, of dust and stone: my Aunt Nerdanel.
"A moment's peace," she whispers to me, her lips twitching into one of the easy smiles that I have only seen her share with her sons and her husband, the smile of a secret shared joke. I settle into an embrace that is both harder and softer than my own mother's: I feel the easy strength in her arms, from years in the forge, but her breasts are larger and cushion me with pillowy softness that comes from bearing four sons in quick succession. I bury my face in her shoulder and let my tears soak the tunic that smells of her scent mixed with my uncle's. When I peek out, I see my cousin Tyelkormo rustling in the edge of the forest, in the clump of weeds, looking for the caterpillar he has thrown away and fears he has killed.
What should have been a five-minute stop is dragged out by all of the drama. Aunt Nerdanel figures it best if everyone sits back, relaxes, and forgets their strife.
Uncle Fëanáro sits cross-legged beneath a tree, eating bits of dried fruit and holding laughing conversation with my aunt's apprentices, who stand before him like votaries before a Vala. I watch as Tyelkormo comes around the tree and settles into his father's lap. As if given a secret signal, the apprentices disperse, and I watch Uncle Fëanáro cuddle his third-born son, rubbing his back in slow, soothing circles and whispering something to him that makes his golden head bob in assent.
I feel a little bit of resentment that forgiveness should come so quickly for Tyelkormo, who has terrorized me since my arrival a week ago. I turn my back to them and wander over to where Macalaurë and Maitimo sit side by side, where Maitimo is again rubbing balm onto Macalaurë's poor shoulder.
"Findekáno? Káno?" The voice comes from behind me and uses the nickname that only Maitimo uses, yet it is not Maitimo. I turn and face Tyelkormo.
"I am sorry for treating you so poorly," he says. I appraise him; appraise his sincerity. He wears a dark green the color of pine; just beneath the short sleeve on his right arm is a ring of grayish bruises, a perverse armlet given to him by his father's notorious temper. Against his vibrant raiment, his hair looks exceptionally bright, and his blue eyes are wide and repentant. I feel a twinge of envy that one who was supposed to be just like me should turn out to be so beautiful. In front of his chest, his hands are clasped in a loose ball, like he is ready to kneel in casual prayer, but he lets them fall apart and towards me. The bristly beast that started all the discontent crawls across his palm.
"I found him. I want you to have him. To keep him," he says.
"But—I would be sad. He would be sad. To take him away from his home."
My voice breaks on the word "home," and something flickers in Tyelkormo's eyes. Could it be empathy? Does the proudest of the Fëanorians know how to place himself behind the eyes of another?
"They have no families, Káno," he says with patience that is almost delicate. "They live alone until they become butterflies, then they fly alone always until they find their mate. You would not deprive him." He moves his cupped hands in my direction, and the sudden motion makes the caterpillar wrap himself into a defensive little ball that makes my insides twist with painful sympathy.
"But he would miss the forest. He would miss the trees," I say. "I would wish that he be left here."
Tyelkormo draws his hands back into his chest, clasping the caterpillar once more. He sighs. "You are right, Káno," he says. He walks to the edge of the forest and nimbly, using only one hand, shimmies into a tree. In his green cloak and tunic, he fades easily into the branches, and when he comes down a minute later, he can use both hands, for they are empty. He runs into the arms of his father but not before turning to give me a smile.
He is most beautiful when he smiles.
We ride again. Tyelkormo upholds his punishment and rides with my uncle, looking sad and uncomfortable, a child too large to be forced to ride with a parent.
I wait until we stop for the midday meal, in the middle of a plain that is washed with Laurelin's brightness but does not steam with heat like the midday light in Valinor. Uncle Fëanáro is heating a hunter's stew that he has made hastily from bits of meat and vegetables left over from previous suppers. Tyelkormo sits a few yards away, wrapped in his cloak and staring at the ground, scratching letters in the dust with a twig. I approach the heat of the campfire—or is it Uncle Fëanáro?—and wait patiently for him to turn.
If he is startled by my presence so near to him, his voice and face betray nothing. "Yes, Findekáno?" he says.
"I would like to pardon my cousin from his punishment."
Tyelkormo looks up from the ground, and his eyes are shocked and very blue.
Uncle Fëanáro speaks slowly and carefully. "It is not your place to pardon him, little one, for I am his father, and as such, it is my right to prescribe chastisement as I see fit."
Many times I have seen my own father at court; my uncles and grandfather, too, I have watched, and I know the gracious manners that one must adopt in order to be persuasive. Hard words deflect from a hardened heart, my Uncle Arafinwë told me once. A hardened heart must first be soaked in the sweetest wine.
I incline my head and lower my eyes. "Such is your place, Uncle, but I simply wish you to know that his forgiveness is mine to give, and I have given it. His pardon, of course, remains your prerogative."
Uncle Fëanáro's eyes widen at my words. So do Tyelkormo's. There is no mistaking, in that moment—despite the differently colored hair and the blue in Tyelkormo's eyes—that they are father and son.
"You would release him then?"
He cautions me. "A release cannot be rescinded, Findekáno. And a forgiven offense is not remembered, and even should one of its like occur again, we shall speak of it not."
Uncle Fëanáro's voice is slightly astonished, as though he cannot believe the words he is saying. "Then Tyelkormo may get his pony. I release him from his punishment."
Tyelkormo gasps and leaps to his feet to run to his pony, which has been leashed to Uncle Fëanáro's saddle, mounts, and begins trotting in a big circle around the meadow.
Uncle Fëanáro smiles sadly after him before looking at me. "He would not thank you in words, my brother-son, but there is gratitude in his heart."
I say, "I know."
The afternoon is spent riding through a tight forest with low-lying branches that keep trying to slap my face. Insects buzz in dizzying little orbits around our heads. The air is thick with summer warmth, and I want to shed my cloak, but to do so would leave my arms susceptible to the biting branches. I tail closely behind Maitimo and Macalaurë, who—because they are bigger than I am—struggle more with the scratching, clawing branches and clear an easy path for me.
"Vairë's needles, these branches chap my backside!" Macalaurë hisses to Maitimo. The only one close enough to overhear is me, and when Maitimo casts an alarmed look back over his shoulder, I look quickly away and pretend not to have heard.
"Perhaps we shall put balm on your backside as well then, little brother," Maitimo says. "I will leave that foul duty to Atar. Although, were Vingarië in our company, perhaps she would like to do it."
"Oh hush, Nelyo! Unlike you, I keep my clothes on when I'm with a maiden."
Another wary look is shot at me; I concentrate on the light coming through the trees and even rumple my forehead to heighten the effect of concentration. "You haven't had opportunity to do otherwise," Maitimo whispers.
"I could have would I had wanted it."
"Sure. Like you didn't want it."
"Perhaps I did, but I have superior morals, Nelyo. 'Walking Annawendë to her cottage'…tucking her into bed with you was probably more like it!"
"Quiet, Macalaurë. I have done no such thing."
"You haven't shown her how to do the sword-swallowing trick?"
"You haven't let her hold your princely scepter?"
"I ought to push you off this horse and leave you!"
Macalaurë is laughing, and I wonder why so much fun in this family seems to be centered on feigning anger and threatening harm to each other. "You haven't shown her your Fëanorian ability to delve for treasure in dark places?"
"Macalaurë! I swear!"
The path widens, and Aunt Nerdanel canters up beside us. "Nelyo, really, must you abuse Macalaurë in his injured state?" she scolds and rides past to join Uncle Fëanáro at the front.
Maitimo's lower jaw flaps in indignation, and once she has passed, Macalaurë laughs and says, "Yes, Nelyo, be kind to me in my injured state."
"I am glad, Macalaurë, that you are well enough to banter me again. Perhaps you are also well enough to be cast into the lake tonight and to sleep alone in your own bedroll?"
"Sorry, Nelyo. I am well enough to banter you but well enough for neither of those other things," Macalaurë says with exaggerated regret.
I imagine myself on the return journey home, teasing my cousins with the same ease as they tease each other, mocking Maitimo's skill with weapons and in the forge, sharing a horse with one of them as I shared Maitimo's on the day that he had brought me from Tirion and unwound my hair with his warm, nimble fingers. Theirs is the kind of family that others watch with envy at festivals, too at ease with each other to be anything but showing off, flaunting comradeship that is unattainable to everyone else.
We stop early that day, well before the Mingling of the Lights, in a verdant meadow dotted with waving fronds of yellow flowers. The air between the brothers quivers with excitement, even Macalaurë, who has grown wearied again by the long, taxing ride. Uncle Fëanáro and Maitimo set up the tent with haste, and Macalaurë urges us little ones—my two little cousins and me—to hasten currying and watering the horses.
Carnistir is sleepy and pouting; now is the time that he usually spends napping, leaning against Uncle Fëanáro, but Tyelkormo nudges him and tells him to hush. "We are going swimming, Carnistir. Don't be stupid."
Carnistir lets out a wail and then is quiet.
Aunt Nerdanel and Annawendë go with Macalaurë (who is forbidden from swimming until his wound heals and his shoulder loosens enough to use competently) down a path to the lake. Maitimo and Uncle Fëanáro strip to a single tunic and don old trousers torn at the cuffs and knees. We are subjected to the same and led barefoot and shivering to the edge of the meadow and into the forest. The male apprentices accompany us, whooping with eagerness, skipping and swinging on the tree branches, tumbling down the faint path to the lake they have been promised. Tyelkormo and Carnistir hold their brother's and father's hand, respectively, walking comfortably through the dead leaves that cover the forest floor, but the little twigs nip at my feet, and I have to struggle to keep from limping when Maitimo and Uncle Fëanáro are looking. We are walking up a slight incline, and the effort tugs at my legs already tired from the long ride.
Beyond a final thick stand of underbrush, I can see Laurelin's light, tiny squares and triangles of brilliance making halos of iridescence around the green leaves. I push the branches out of my face—eager for the light and soft ground—step into a clearing, and recoil when I realize that the world falls away in front of me.
I backpedal until I bump Maitimo and he laughs. "No fear, little one. You will not fall."
Holding his hand, I edge closer to the cliff and peer beyond the nothingness and to the ground below. Holding his other hand, loosely, Tyelkormo also looks with greater confidence, standing so close that his toes curl over the edge of the rock. Beneath us, filling our sights, is an expanse of cobalt water, winking gold in the afternoon light. At one side is a beige strip of beach, made tiny by distance, and I can see my aunt and cousin assembling there with Annawendë. Behind the beach, there is almost as sheer a rise of rock as the one upon which we stand, and I can barely glean tiny steps carved into the stone.
The apprentices waste no time in peeling off their clothes and running, one by one, to leap into the nothingness beyond the cliff's edge, pulling their knees to their chests and falling to the lake below like rocks, their eager cries diminishing as they fall and dying with the cymbal-crash of their bodies hitting the water. I realize suddenly that I will be expected to do the same and terror twists my gut until I can feel my noontime meal of hunter's stew burning in the back of my throat.
"No!" I cry, and press into Maitimo's thigh, hiding the shameful tears on my face from my cousins, gulping in the dusty, sweaty smell of his trousers. My tears soak the worn cloth in a matter of seconds. A thousand bad things I imagine. I imagine falling onto a rock unknown from times before. I imagine a gust of wind sending my small body into the cliffside. I imagine my spirit forgetting to jump with my body, a dissected creature dying as I fall.
He crouches beside me. "Káno, Káno, you will be fine. I will jump first to catch you, and Atar will not let you become hurt. Káno, hush, my little one, all is well. All is well."
He strokes my hair and I sob against his shoulder. "No! No!" I want to plug up the tears, for I can feel the heavy stares of Tyelkormo and Uncle Fëanáro on my back and know that they do not look favorably upon my weakness, but pride cannot save one's body from destruction, and so I cling to Maitimo and he kisses the tears from my cheeks and holds me away.
"I believe that there is valor hidden in your heart, Káno, and I have faith that you will find joy—not fear—would you trust your uncle and me, for we would lay aside our own lives before we would ever allow harm to come to yours."
Never has anyone made such a confession to me. I back away and look at him, hiccupping as stray tears trickle still down my face.
"If he wishes not to jump," says Uncle Fëanáro from behind me, "then I shall take him to the beach with your mother, Nelyo."
Maitimo stands but not before kissing my forehead and whispering in my ear, "I have faith in you, Káno. I will see you in the water."
He walks to the edge and peers below. I want to grab the back of his trousers and draw him back to me—suddenly fear of my own bodily harm is replaced my fear for his—but he turns and comes back, stripping off his tunic and his trousers until he stands naked in the golden light of Laurelin, the breeze rippling his red hair back from his face.
I look away, at the blue sky beyond the nothingness before us, for my parents instructed me never to look upon an adult in nakedness, and Maitimo is nearly an adult, so to be safe, I treat him as such. Apparently the eccentricity of the Fëanorians includes a casual regard for nudity, for they all strip without shame and with no attempts to hide themselves, even my aunt and uncle. My parents do not abhor familiar eyes on their flesh but, nonetheless, they make attempts to avoid it and certainly they would not undress so casually in front of their own students, if they had them.
But their bodies are not so perfect as my cousin's, and when his back turns to me and he walks to the cliff's edge, I allow myself to look at him. His tall form bisects the blue nothingness beyond the cliff, his taut muscles and straight shoulders betraying no apprehension, and my heart pounds as I watch him rise onto his toes and spring away from the rock, falling headfirst toward the water below.
Tyelkormo and Carnistir rush to the edge to watch him fall, but I cringe back towards the forest and count my heartbeats during his fall. One-two-three. Splash. I hear the apprentices whoop and understand that he has landed safely.
Uncle Fëanáro undresses my cousins, who are prancing in their eagerness to fall through that nothingness. Carnistir bites his father a half-dozen times on the neck before he is finally ordered to stop. Tyelkormo springs on the balls of his feet, chirping like a baby bird ready for its first flight from the nest.
"Tyelkormo first," Uncle Fëanáro says and calls down to Maitimo, "Ready?"
A faint cry answers, and Uncle Fëanáro backs away from the edge and cradles Tyelkormo in his arms like a little baby, only face down. He swings him. "One," he says, and Tyelkormo begins to count along with him. Swing. "Two." Swing. "Three." Swing and release—and Tyelkormo flies into the blue nothingness like a knife tossed at a target, keening with joy, his feet turning over his body as he falls beneath the edge of the cliff and out of sight.
Carnistir runs to the edge and crouches there, watching his brother fall. There is a subdued splash—more a ripple—and I hear Tyelkormo yelling and laughing. Carnistir stands and races to be cradled in his father's arms.
Carnistir doesn't count along. He squirms. "I have to pee," he says.
"You can pee in the lake," Uncle Fëanáro tells him and gets ready to swing him a second time.
"Last time I peed in the lake, Nelyo yelled at me!"
"That's because you peed on Nelyo. You have to swim away a bit before you do it." Uncle Fëanáro draws him back, but Carnistir chomps hard on his arm until he cries out, "Ai!"
"Please, Atar! I have to pee now!"
Uncle Fëanáro sets him down. "For love of Eru," he mutters and leads his youngest son into the bushes by the path. They reappear a few moments later, and Uncle Fëanáro cradles him again. "One."
"No, wait! I have to pee!"
"Carnistir! You just went!"
"I have to go again."
"Then I'm afraid."
"Why are you afraid? You did this last year."
"So what could you possibly fear?"
"Nothing. But I do."
Uncle Fëanáro sighs. He kneels and cuddles Carnistir. "Carnistir, I love you. I will protect you, as will your brother. You have nothing to fear."
"Fine. I'm ready then."
"You don't have to pee?" Uncle Fëanáro teases.
"Maybe." A giggle. "No."
Uncle Fëanáro calls down to Maitimo, who faintly answers. He swings his youngest son three times and releases him into space.
Carnistir lets out a high-pitched screech as he falls. His body curls into a ball in the air before disappearing from view. I hear a lot of laughter following the ripple of his landing, and Uncle Fëanáro turns to me.
"I believe that there is valor hidden in your heart, Kano."
Is there, I wonder? I look at Uncle Fëanáro, who does not believe that there is. He believes that I will answer his unasked question with a request to return to lower ground, to sit on the beach beside my aunt, a place that's safe enough even for my injured cousin. I can see in his eyes that he is only making an attempt for the benefit of Maitimo and possibly his wife, forcing his face into rigid patience when his eyes crackle with eagerness to fly off of that cliff too.
Is there valor hidden in my heart?
I hold my arms out to my uncle. He stands and ponders me for a moment, then stoops and tugs my tunic over my head. I try to give myself the dignity of removing my own trousers, but my hands are shaking too hard and find themselves clutching Uncle Fëanáro's shoulders as he pushes my trousers from my waist with surprising gentleness. Then I am lifted into the air and held in his arms with my face next to his to see the world as it looks from the place of one so tall and mighty. His body so close to mine exudes energy that makes me feel as though I am flushed with fever, only it does not drain me but rather makes every bit of my being quiver with anticipation and the belief in possibility. I can feel my heart pounding desperately inside my chest; pressed so near to him, he feels it too and stops just short of the edge, with a sliver of sapphire water just visible to me, and strokes my hair. "Breathe, Findekáno," he says, and I realize that part of my exhilarating lightheadedness comes from holding my breath.
I gasp for air, and he holds me while I relish the cool air filling my lungs as I once savored the rich meals prepared for me in Tirion. There are tears on my face; I am terrified, but I am going to fly off of this cliff and find the valor in my heart.
He lowers my body and cradles me like he did my cousins. His hands are strong and fearless, hot on my shivering flesh. He swings me once, and the lake below comes into view. I close my eyes and bite my lip but the whimper escapes anyway, and I do not see the water the second or third time he swings me, and I open my eyes just as I feel his hands release me.
For a moment, I am sure that I am flying like the great Eagles of Manwë, for my body floats in the air parallel to the ground, and the lake stretches beneath me like a length of spangled blue silk, and I feel that, with my arms outstretched like a bird, I might lie there forever as easily as I might lie in my bed. But then gravity seizes me, and with the force of an agile fist closed upon a fly in midair, I am dragged toward the water, my stomach pressing against my spine and rising into my throat. The wind roars in my ears and stuffs itself so hard into my throat that I cannot breathe—I am drowning in air—and the only reason I know that I am screaming is because I can feel my voice buzzing in my throat.
As the water races towards me, I shut my eyes, dreading the slap of it against my skin, but right as my knees kiss the surface, warm hands close around my chest and break my fall, and I plunk into the water with all of the harmlessness of a cherry dropped into a glass of lemonade. For a second, my face is submerged and water roars in my ears, but as quickly as I drop, Maitimo lifts me up again, coughing and spluttering.
"Careful, little one," he says, patting my back as I spit out a mouthful of water. "Don't survive the fall only to drown!" He holds me close and wipes the water from my eyes, and his voice is proud.
I look around me. Not far away, Vorondil holds a struggling Carnistir. Tyelkormo is paddling in small circles around Maitimo, as confident and easy in his movements as a fish. The other two apprentices are shouting and splashing each other; Vorondil watches them enviously, and Maitimo shifts me to his side so that he can hold out his other arm for Carnistir.
Carnistir wriggles from Vorondil to Maitimo. "Atar?" he says, looking even tinier with his coarse hair slicked to his head.
"He'll be down in a moment. Patience little one."
I wonder how Maitimo can hold us both and still keep his head so easily afloat. I can feel his legs reeling beneath us, but his body barely bobs, and he might have been standing securely on the ground. The water is deep beneath us, icy around my feet like a yawning mouth. "Don't tire yourself," Maitimo calls to Tyelkormo, who has grown bold and paddled away from the group. I am satisfied to notice that, soaked, Tyelkormo's hair is almost dark enough to be mistaken for brown. As my heartbeat slows, I realize that the water around us is freezing, and I start to shiver.
Opposite me, Carnistir's lips quiver; his normally flushed skin is sepulchral. His thick eyelashes are stuck together in dark spikes. He turns into Maitimo's neck and mews, "Atar."
"He'll be here in a moment, little one," Maitimo reassures him, and holds us both tighter to share in his warmth. "See?"
We both crane our necks to look back up at the cliff in time to see uncle Fëanáro launch himself into empty space, hovering for a long moment, a dark silhouette against a bright sky, then turn in midair and fall twisting, headfirst toward the water. He slips beneath the surface with barely a ripple.
Carnistir is kicking and scrabbling to be free of Maitimo's grip, but uncle Fëanáro doesn't surface for nearly a minute. When he does, he comes up beneath Tyelkormo, who is swimming far away from the group now and who shrieks with terrified delight to be lifted suddenly into the warm summer air above the water. "What business do you have way out here, little one?" Uncle Fëanáro scolds lightly and plunks Tyelkormo back into the water and swims with him back to the group.
The afternoon unwinds after that, languid and timeless. The water is cold but I grow accustomed to it, and Maitimo teaches me to swim with his hands lightly beneath my body, keeping me from sinking, until I hear him laughing and realize that I am swimming on my own and he is no longer holding me, floating close enough to catch me should I sink but far enough that he is not tempted into needless assistance.
"You're a natural, Káno!" he exclaims, and I am so excited that my body clenches into a ball like a stone and he has to lurch forward to keep me from falling to the bottom. "Don't do that, now, little one! Remember, keep your body spread thin across the surface."
"Thin across the surface," I repeat and paddle away.
Tyelkormo is floating behind me, glaring at me, but when I meet his eyes, he ducks beneath the water and swims to his father. His affection, I see, is short-lived.
Eventually, the golden light begins to wane and we swim for the shore, where Aunt Nerdanel meets us at the water's edge with heavy cloaks and blankets. Maitimo hastily wraps himself, and I notice that he and Annawendë are making a point not to notice each other. Macalaurë is stretched out on a blanket in the sand, his arm unbound from his body and his eyes heavy with sleep. Maitimo lies down beside him—a blanket wrapped around his waist and a cloak spread over his shoulders—and presses his cold, wet cheek to Macalaurë's.
"Ai! Nelyo!" Macalaurë sits up, knocking a laughing Maitimo aside.
"I just thought you might like to know how the water was."
Maitimo lies back on the blanket beside Macalaurë, letting Laurelin's dying light dry his body. I sit beside him and he loops an arm around me and pulls me close.
Tyelkormo walks by and glares at me, then plops down hard in Macalaurë's lap. "Ai! Ilúvatar in Ea! First cold water on my face, then Tyelkormo sits on my balls—"
"Macalaurë!" Aunt Nerdanel scolds. Annawendë, sitting beside her, giggles, and Macalaurë blushes and ducks his head as though he has forgotten her presence there. "Do not mind his poor manners, Annawendë," my aunt says. "There are some injuries that make even the noblest of men—like my Macalaurë—forget the presence of a lady. We get our revenge when we scream at our husbands during childbirth."
"I hope to one day have my revenge," Annawendë says, and now it is Maitimo's turn to blush and exchange quick little glances with Macalaurë.
Back at the camp, the night is settling over the land and we shiver so hard that it is hard to pull on our clothes. Maitimo starts a roaring campfire and we sit around it, crushed close to each other to share the warmth of our bodies, cuddling two and three under a single cloak.
My stomach is like a hollow pit in the center of my body, and even the raw potatoes that Aunt Nerdanel buries in the embers around the fire look good enough to crunch into cold. Uncle Fëanáro has disappeared in the direction of the lake to retrieve our abandoned clothes, and he returns with not only our tunics and trousers draped over his arm but five silvery fish wrapped in a net.
Aunt Eärwen is Telerin and close friends with my mother, so we often go with her to Alqualondë and eat fish and crabs at the table of Eärwen's father Olwë, the High King of the Teleri. I am surprised to find other Noldor who enjoy such delights, but Maitimo explains to me, as we unpack the plates and cutlery, that his parents have traveled all over Aman and have learned to enjoy many foods typically shunned by the Noldor. The fish, fried over the flames until it is hot and flaky, is the best thing that I have eaten through the entire trip, and I gladly accept seconds when my aunt offers them. "It seems we have found another who can eat his weight in food," Uncle Fëanáro teases.
After supper, Macalaurë proclaims his arm well enough to undertake some light harping. "That is," he says, "if anyone wishes to listen?" We hasten to clear the dishes and settle again around the fire.
With my belly full, exhaustion quickly overtakes me. Tyelkormo and I cuddle up to each of Maitimo's sides, looking at each other across his chest. I wait for more of the jealous glares I'd been given earlier, but Tyelkormo smiles at me as his eyes fall shut, and I am left adrift in confusion about his feelings. Maitimo covers each of us with his cloak, and his body warms mine. I can hear the slow rhythm of his breathing, like the sough of the waves on the sand earlier, and beneath that, his heart beating. I try to remember being held like this by my father when Grandfather Finwë's musicians perform after our weekly suppers in his palace and wait for the familiar stab of homesickness, but all I feel is sleepy contentment and the warmth of Maitimo's chest against my cheek.
My body feels like it is still adrift in the lake, being gently tossed by the waves. Macalaurë's song rises and falls like the water, for it is a hymn to the cool waters of Arda that give us sustenance and joy. I can hear no hesitation in the notes played by the hand on his injured side, and I feel myself being borne to sleep on a rain of notes slowly filling a lake as smooth as glass.
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