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Another Man's Cage: 25. Chapter Twenty-Five--Carnistir
I am the shadow.
I am the darkness.
I crouch in Atar's cabinet and close my eyes. Becoming invisible is like pulling a black sheet over yourself: First, you are overwhelmed with darkness, but then you realize that you can peer between the threads in the cloth and see nearly as well as before, although no one can see you. Unfortunately, all there is for me to see is the oaken inside of Atar's cabinet, but I lean forward until my hands bump the doors and nudge one open, just a crack, so that I can see them sitting around Atar's worktable, which has been cleared for the occasion.
Amil is offering Oromë a glass of wine. Atar is sitting in his desk chair, which he has slid over to the worktable for the meeting, but he is reclining on its back legs like my brothers are not allowed to do. Amil glows with soft pride. She is joyous, I know, to have a Vala in our home. She prays to them sometimes, when she thinks no one is looking.
But from the shadows, I see her.
Atar has made himself look relaxed but he festers, like flesh wounded and further insulted with infection, and I find it hard to look at him. He is trying to be angry but the anger can't break through the bewilderment swarming around him like a black cloud of bees. As Amil sets a goblet of red wine in front of Oromë—her eyes lowered in piousness—Atar lets the front legs of his chair bang back to the floor. His hands splay upon the tabletop. "You are telling me that I have two sons now who will amount to naught in the forge?"
"Fëanáro!" Amil hisses, but Oromë sets his big hand over hers. Never would I have thought that Amil's hands could be seen as delicate, but beneath Oromë's, her hand might belong to one of the china dolls that she is commissioned to make sometimes for the lords' children in Tirion.
Oromë's voice is low, like the wind winding around the corners of the house at night, and he speaks with slow patience. "I cannot speak for Canafinwë, but young Turkafinwë has been given a gift that lies beyond that which can be bound by walls," he says.
I squeeze my eyes shut and drink of Oromë, but nothing comes to me but light. Such is all I ever see of the Valar: billions of particles streaming endlessly away from them, colorless, as though they are immune to the emotions that tint ours—blue like my cousin, green like Turko. They feel emotions, yes, but it changes the speed and density of the light, not its color. I close my eyes and deepen my concentration.
I should pity him, for he has lost so much, but he is shamelessly impetuous.
The voice of Oromë in my head is like the thunder of rocks, and I have to squeeze my inner eyes shut tighter to keep hold of his voice. With my renewed concentration, Oromë's thoughts turn, and I know that he is becoming aware of me, and I quickly open my eyes to the darkness, feeling his light streaming off of me like water from the oily back of a seabird.
"It is strange to me," Atar is saying, in a gentler voice to please my mother, "that my wife and I are both craftspeople, yet none of our sons show even a glimmer of such gifts."
"Your children's spirits are not as their bodies, built from what is given by you and your wife at their conception," says Oromë. "It is Eru who gives each new child his spirit, and so they will be what Eru makes them. Do not grieve, Curufinwë."
"I do not grieve," Atar replies, "for each of my sons is dear to me in a way that can be claimed by no other. But I never imagined that I would father four children and still be teaching those who belong to others."
Silence falls over the room, but many things churn beneath it, things I am not yet skilled enough to perceive. I sense that Atar and Amil have much that they wish to say, things that may hurt each other, but Oromë acts as a dam in a creek and subdues their words for a time, although with his strong hands removed, the dam may weather, and they may burst forth later. Oromë chooses his words carefully: "Turkafinwë is your son, Curufinwë, and in the end, it is your choice if you allow him to ride with me. I merely wanted you to know that I would have him, if you desired."
Atar sits for many long minutes before he speaks. "I would deny my sons no happiness, nor would I deny the intentions of Eru. If you wish it, then Tyelkormo may ride with you when he pleases."
Turko is standing in the field beside the house, his quiver strapped to his back, shooting arrow after arrow at the lumpy red and blue target that he has leaned against a tree. I let my feet slide through the grass in parody of the wind, until even the keen ears of my hunter-brother cannot hear me. His quiver is filled with arrows, and his arm no sooner releases one and it is cocked back to grab another, each motion identical to the last until it reminds me of one of the devises that Nelyo likes to build from scraps of metal where each part is perfectly balanced and swings endlessly in perpetual, fluid motion.
Atar gave each of us only three arrows with which to practice our archery—he says that we are less likely to be careless about recovering them if we only have three—and Turko has far more than three arrows in his quiver now and many more arrayed in a neat cluster at the center of the target. I am close enough to smell his scent like leaves washed in rainwater, remaining downwind so that he still cannot detect me, and I see the arrow flash from the quiver in a blur of silvery steel and vivid red. They are Atar's arrows that he uses, and all of us—even Nelyo—are forbidden to touch much less use Atar's arrows.
There is a thrush on my brother's shoulder, and when I shift in the grass, it catches my motion in its eye and rises, twittering, to the tree overhead. Turko's hand pauses in mid-draw, and without turning, he speaks. "Carnistir? Why do you come here?"
Without waiting for me to answer, he whistles to the bird
—come back, little bird, come back, for it is only my brother and he means you no harm—
and it flutters back from the tree and alights again on his shoulder. He turns from me and draws back the arrow. Thwack. It imbeds itself in the wooden target amongst a peppering of its red-fletched brothers.
"You are using Atar's arrows," I say.
"I am." He draws another and fires. Thwack.
"He might kill you, Turko!" He snorts. "I would miss you. I think I like you the best of our brothers." He does not answer. I size up his arm—he wears a short-sleeved tunic and his muscles ripple like waves beneath his skin—wait for him to draw back the arrow, and chomp on the back of it.
"Ai!" His hand releases the arrow, and it flies into the tree branches. The bird on his shoulder takes flight in a flurry of tiny wings, quickly becoming a lost speck in the sky over the field. I do not let go and my brother's taste floods my mouth—dust seasoned with the salt of his sweat—until he turns and throws me to the ground, pinning me with his knee on my chest.
"What did Atar say about biting?" he shouts.
The same thing I imagine he'd said about using his arrows, but I do not say that. The cool grass prickles my back through my tunic; Turko's hands are clamped on my shoulders with iron strength, hard enough to hurt, and I whimper.
He pushes my shoulders harder into the ground for an instant, and his anger stings me. My eyes shut, and I feel his hands release me. Shame trickles from him, for he has hurt me unwittingly, as though someone removed from his mind and unaware of the love of brothers that exists between us shoved his hands hard into my shoulders. I rise from the ground, latch my arms around his neck, and kiss his tight, dry lips. "That's better," he says. "Kisses, not biting, right?"
Atar has forbidden me to bite, although I have found that no one protests tiny nips if they are quickly followed by a kiss. I was a bit too enthusiastic, a few weeks ago, in expressing my love for Atar, and when he shifted at the wrong moment right as I nipped his ear, my teeth closed on the cartilage at its tip hard enough to draw blood. It tasted like the metal Amil sometimes uses to make statues. My own blood tastes the same way, although that makes sense, seeing as everyone tells me that I am of Atar's blood. "I can see your blood in him," grandfather Finwë said once, after I'd screamed in protest of being picked up by his wife Indis and ran to Atar instead. Atar didn't seem to like the comment much.
Turko leaves me to retrieve the spent arrows. He hoists himself into the tree with graceful ease, and moment later, the arrow he misfired into its branches clatters to the ground. "They had counsel with Oromë about you!" I shout into the tree. I cannot see him in its thick branches, but I can hear the scratch of his boots against bark.
"You should call him 'Lord Oromë,'" Turko calls down to me. "He is one of the Valar."
"Lord Oromë, then. They were talking about you!"
"It does not matter." Like a stone, he drops from the tree, landing only inches away from me, and when his feet collide with the ground, they hardly make a sound. Louder is the sound of his body falling through the air, as though the air protests at having to part so suddenly to accommodate him. He begins to shove Atar's arrows back into the quiver. It is also Atar's quiver, I realize—in awe of my brother's audacity—beautifully tooled leather with the Star of our House inlaid with tiny rubies and diamonds. "I care not about theses strange gifts I have been given." He waves his hand. "I am going to be Atar's apprentice."
Given his unflinching skill with the bow, I failed to remember the wound on his hand until I notice that a tail of bandage has pulled loose by the tree branches and flutters when he waves his hand. The wound—although hidden from my eyes—is a token, just like the stone my oldest brother wears around his neck or the golden bands on my parents' fingers. I stare at the bandage until Turko tucks away the loose end. His blue eyes on mine are as cold as knives.
He stoops and continues gathering arrows. He is noisy inside, a cacophony of thoughts each asserting itself, trying to be heard over the others. He is angry but not at me. The wound hurts, but it is not a pain of flesh but of spirit. I sense thoughts of Atar, and they shout louder than the others.
He grabs the tip of one of the arrows, and I see him flinch as it opens the flesh on his finger, but his hands flash to fill themselves with spent arrows, ignoring the new injury. He shoves the arrows into my hands. "Here. Put these away," he says, and I place them one-by-one into the quiver. His blood is left on some of the shafts, and it colors my hands. He shoulders the quiver, and once his back is turned, I suck my fingers and taste the red upon them.
It tastes like metal. Like Atar.
The house is cool and quiet, and Turko and I are creeping up the stairs to our rooms when I hear Macalaurë behind us. "There you are!" he says, and Turko scurries away quickly to put away Atar's quiver before Macalaurë sees it, but I trip on the steps and cannot regain my footing fast enough, and I am scooped into Macalaurë's arms and smothered with his frazzled grayness that is like an old, worn blanket.
"I have been looking everywhere for you," he says. "It is nearly supper and look at you! Filthy!"
My two older brothers and my parents could find dirt on a raindrop. Turko and I are never clean enough to suit them. I squirm in his arms—Turko must have escaped his notice—but his grasp tightens around me. He sniffs behind my ear. "Ugh! Filthy!" he reiterates. "You smell like a dirty hound."
I clamp my teeth onto his wrist, less in a gesture of love than to make him loosen his hold on me. "Carnistir! Stop! Or I shall tell Atar," he threatens, carrying me into our parents' suite and taking me to Atar's bathroom. As we pass through the bedroom, I see Atar's quiver leaning against his armoire, precisely where it was this morning. I sense green under the bed and give Turko—who I know is watching—the scariest stare I can muster.
Macalaurë carries me into the bathroom and stands me beside the washbasin, yanks my shoes from my feet, and strips me down to my underwear. He soaks a cloth in the water and rubs it cold on my skin, ridding me of dirt and sweat, and I whimper as my flesh rises into cold-bumps. "What?" he says, not bothering to conceal his impatience.
"Atar is preparing supper and asked me to make you presentable." A snippet of song zips through his thoughts, and he pauses momentarily to contemplate it, and it is tucked away beneath the more pressing matters on his mind, where he will use it later. "I like it less than you do," he tells me, dousing the cloth back into the washbasin and scrubbing at my chest and belly with cool water. Hot tears blur my vision and course down my face.
"Carnistir, please…." He plunks the cloth back into the washbasin and, as he poises it over my arms, notices for the first time the cold-bumps on my skin and collects me in an embrace. I try to wriggle away from him, but he is too big and strong for me, and after a moment, I settle into his arms to be bathed in the warmth of his body. His hair tickles my neck, and I turn my head to nibble on it. Macalaurë's hair is the color of chocolate, and I always expect it to taste that way and am always disappointed to find that it tastes blandly organic, like licking unfinished wooden furniture: It tastes like hair. With exaggerated stealth, he shifts and reaches for Atar's comb sitting on the washbasin, as though he thinks that moving with such extra care will escape my notice, and plunges the comb into the tangle of my hair.
I feel several strands pop free of my scalp, and it hurts! I scream, and he tries to jerk to comb away, but it is embroiled now in my hair, and more strands are pulled from my head. The dull gray that is Macalaurë begins to churn and foam like an angry sea, and when he tries to untangle my hair from the comb, I bite his arm as hard as I can, grinding my teeth into his wrist until I can feel the ridges in the bone through his skin. He yelps and shoves me away, and I scamper into the corner of the bathroom, jumping into Atar's bathtub to get as far from my brother as I can manage.
"You hurt!" I shriek, thrusting an accusing finger in his direction. The comb is still caught in my hair and bumps against my shoulder.
Jaw set, Macalaurë hurls the washrag to the floor and flounces from the room, and I hear him calling for our brother Nelyo, who has been given the day off from chores to study.
Irritating Macalaurë is immensely pleasurable for some reason, like watching a pending storm ruffle a flat, boring summer sky. There is a tingling pressure in my belly, and I realize that I have to pee, so I do it in the bathtub, soaking my underwear, just to hear what Nelyo will say to Macalaurë.
I hear Nelyo's heavy footsteps growing nearer, interspersed with Macalaurë's pattering ones. "The little imp is unbearable," Macalaurë says, and Nelyo shushes him. "He will hear you," Nelyo says, and Macalaurë retorts with "I care not."
"That is precisely why he acts the way he does. Because you 'care not.'"
Nelyo is irritated at Macalaurë, at having been interrupted. Turko and I have been forbidden from trying to get Nelyo to play with us on certain days of the week. Amil says that he is preparing hard and cannot be disturbed. I wonder, sometimes, for what he is preparing that could make him ignore his brothers.
Nelyo comes into the bathroom. He is barefoot and wearing a loose tunic over worn trousers. His hair is secured at the nape of his neck in a sloppy knot, and his lips are dotted with ink. He sees me crouching in the bathtub in my underwear with a comb caught in my hair, and the irritation prickling his color is smoothed by sympathy. "Carnistir," he says, "little one," and, stooping next to the bathtub, reaches to lift me under my arms. The hot, acid smell of urine hits us both then, and he grimaces and turns his face away. Pee is pattering into the bottom of the bathtub from my dripping underwear.
"He is soaked!" Nelyo shouts to Macalaurë, who is hovering in the doorway.
"Soaked? There was no water in the bathtub—"
"He has wet himself, Macalaurë." Nelyo stands abruptly and retrieves one of Atar's red towels, monogrammed in gold with the Star of our House at the corner.
"Well, he hadn't done that when I left to get you a minute ago!"
"Did you think to ask him if he needed to relieve himself first?"
"He's four years old, Nelyo! I didn't still pee in my pants at that age; neither did you, and neither did Tyelkormo!"
Nelyo gives Macalaurë a cold look and turns to peel my soaked underwear from my body and envelope me in the fluffy warmth of Atar's towel. He wraps me too in his arms as he pats me dry. Nelyo has the same gift as does Atar: the ability to make me feel as though I am a pea being folded inside a pod, hidden and protected from the cruelty of the world beyond. I snuggle into his neck and hear myself mew in contentment.
"How do you do that?!" Macalaurë rages, and I hear him storm from the room.
Nelyo kisses the top of my head, and I reciprocate by kissing his neck, adding the tiniest of nips when I know by the rumble of laughter in his throat that he won't notice.
Clean, dried, and dressed in fresh clothes, I am carried on Nelyo's hip to the dining room.
On the way, we meet Annawendë. In Formenos, the apprentices dine with us every night, since they don't have quarters of their own, like they do in Tirion. Her face and hands are pink from being scrubbed clean, and the scent of soap lingers around her in a flowery aura. She has put on a dress for dinner, and I think—as I always do—that Annawendë looks funny in a dress, when I am much more accustomed to seeing her in a tunic, trousers, and a smith's apron, almost as funny as if Atar took to flitting about in gowns.
"Maitimo!" she says, when she sees my brother. She pats my hair as a way of greeting, but her eyes are on Nelyo, and her smile is wide enough to show her teeth at the top and bottom. They lean in to kiss, beginning with a chaste peck on the lips and returning for a second kiss, lingering until I grow impatient, lean over, and bite Annawendë on the shoulder.
It is a most satisfying bite. Her flesh is softer than my brothers' or Atar's, and the silk of her dress slips against my teeth. The smell of flowers overwhelms me.
She pulls back, and Nelyo bobbles me for a second, startled. "What is the matter?" he asks.
"Your brother! He bit me!" she cries, rubbing her shoulder.
I try to smile at Nelyo, to assert my innocence, but I feel the whisper of a silk thread against my teeth and clip my mouth shut before he sees it too. Too late. His fingers worm past my lips, pry open my teeth, and close on the offending strand, producing it with indignant triumph and a stern, "What is this?"
Tyelkormo would point out that it is a string and probably get into trouble for his insolence. I stare at it in silence and feel my lip begin to tremble. Nelyo prickles with irritation, and looking into his bright, angry eyes is nearly as difficult as staring at a white-hot piece of metal in Atar's forge. Tears sting my eyes, and I let a sob erupt from my throat, burying my face in Nelyo's shoulder so that I don't have to see his anger anymore.
My ploy sways Annawendë first. "Oh, Maitimo, do not make him cry. It was not so hard a bite…."
Amil is so interested in my brother's goings-on with Annawendë that my early weeks in Formenos were spent following them about, hiding in draperies and behind statues, trying to determine what Amil found so fascinating about them. Watching Nelyo with Annawendë was almost as boring as watching Nelyo sit alone in the library for hours, reading. Their conversations were dry—usually about metallurgy or chemistry—and never lasted long before they started kissing. And once they started kissing, that was all that they did until something interrupted them. I don't see how something so boring could occupy a person for so long. The only time they became even slightly interesting—and even "slightly" is a stretch, mind you—was on the rare occasions that Atar and Amil were both gone from the house, and Nelyo would take Annawendë to his bedroom, and they wouldn't even bother with the dry conversation before commencing to wrestle around on his bed. Of course, they kissed through the whole ordeal, and I don't think Nelyo had put forth his best effort because Annawendë often bested him, and as big and strong as is my brother, he should have been able to win easily every time.
Annawendë wins this time too, and her pleading eyes make my brother turn to me and offer reluctant forgiveness. "I ought to tell Atar," he says, but his voice is irresolute, and I know that my transgression will remain a secret between the three of us.
Atar is setting supper on the table when we enter. Vorondil and Amil's apprentices are already seated, eagerly eyeing the breadbasket in front of them. Atar comes to greet us, but when he leans in to kiss my forehead, he sniffs hard and looks queerly at Nelyo. "He smells too clean. And didn't I send Macalaurë to ready him so that you could study?"
"Yes, but Carnistir had a little accident, and I came in to help."
The answer pleases Atar, and he kisses me. "Well, these clothes are far too clean to feed him in. He'll have them ruined within five minutes."
Atar takes me into the kitchen, and I am stripped again and dressed—again—in one of Macalaurë's filthy old forge tunics. Amil could never get all of the soot streaks from the front, and there are yellowish sweat stains under the arms. Despite the stains, the tunic is clean and smells of fresh, soapy water, but beneath, the acrid stench of the forge lingers like a monster beneath the pleasant surface of a lake. I hate these garments, and I have taken to gnawing on the collars of them, hoping that if I fray them too badly, then I might be excused from wearing them, but all that it's gotten me so far is a stern chastisement from Atar and a few loose strings that tickle my neck. Nonetheless, as I am carried about on Atar's hip while he finishes the supper preparations, I put the collar into my mouth and grind it between my back teeth as hard as I can, feeling the tired strings wear further.
Nelyo comes into the kitchen to help Atar finish supper. He goes to the oven and removes a roasted pheasant. I am not fond of pheasant; even when Atar cooks it, it tastes like the leather of Turko's dirtiest riding boots. I must have made an unpleasant noise because Atar turns from the reddish sauce that he is stirring on the stove and gives me a stern look.
"You need to eat, little one. I'm starting to feel too much of those ribs." He tickles my belly, and I giggle. He turns back to the sauce, whisking it rapidly, and to Nelyo, he says, "A message came today from Verkaturo."
Nelyo does not look up from the pheasant, but his voice is interested. "Oh?"
"Wolves have been coming down from the north; there has been a serious loss from some of the sheep herds." Atar pours the red sauce from the saucepan into a bowl. "He has asked me to go with him and his sons tonight, to hunt these wolves and hopefully minimize the town's losses. You know they must have wool for the winter. I am aware that you are busy, Nelyo, but he asked if you would come along with us."
"Of course, I will." There is a pause as Nelyo transfers the pheasant onto a serving plate. When he speaks again, his words are careful and deliberate. "Did you ask Macalaurë?"
"You don't think he'd want to go, do you?"
"I cannot say, but I think he might like to be asked."
"I shall ask him then."
Atar and Nelyo carry the last of the supper—and me—into the dining room. Everyone has arrived and the noise rises to the ceiling, where everyone's voice bangs together like bells clanging. Macalaurë must have eventually located Turko because Turko is wearing a clean tunic and his hair has been tugged into a semblance of order. Amil is seated with Findekáno, and they are both powdered with stone dust and smile with the tired contentment of a productive day. Nelyo sets the pheasant at the center of the table, and Atar hands Amil the carving knife and fork. "Please, beloved wife mine, show us your exceptional skill," he says, bowing to her—a bit awkwardly because I am still perched on his hip—and she laughs as she stands to begin cutting neat slices from the bird, while we walk to Atar's seat at the head of the table.
It is Atar's turn to feed me—and while I think I love my father more than anyone else in the entire world—it is the one time I'd rather sit with Amil because she is more forgiving if I do not finish my entire supper. Also, if I arrange my face correctly, she will not attempt to overfeed me. Not Atar: Eruhantalë is no sooner finished and he is piling my plate with vegetables and a thick slice of pheasant. Before I can even murmur a protest, he says, "I do not want to hear a complaint from you until all of that is finished."
"Can he complain if he eats it all?" Turko chirps, earning a frightening look from Atar that makes him fall silent and turn back to his own hearty slice of pheasant. Not that he minds; Turko likes pheasant and makes a grand show of chewing it enthusiastically and a bit noisily.
I sigh and contemplate my plate. There is pheasant and carrots and a big crusty roll and a tureen of cheese soup. I like none of it, and with Turko across from me, I cannot even switch my wine glass with his when his is empty without Atar noticing.
"Eat your soup," Atar tells me, setting down his cutlery so that he can fold my reluctant fingers around my spoon. I poke the surface of the cheese soup, which is beginning to harden into a skin. Cheese soup always reminds me of the water in swamps.
Atar is watching me carefully to make sure I don't use any of my usual tricks. I decided that, if I must eat it, then I might as well not prolong my misery by eating it slowly, so I stab my spoon into the bowl, swirl the soup around (to get rid of the film on top) and shovel four spoonfuls into my mouth in quick succession. By the time the fourth passes my lips, I realize that the soup is still scalding hot and my mouth is burning. I open my mouth, hoping to cool it off some, and hot soup trickles down my chin, but I have taken too much, and the pain quickly becomes unbearable, so I scream and soup sprays from my mouth and across the table, soaking Turko, and liberally splashing Vorondil and Atar on either side of him.
Atar leaps from his chair so fast that it is knocked backward, and all the noise in the room abruptly dies. I feel tears on my face and begin to cry. The inside of my mouth burns, and I can feel the skin peeling away and hanging in little streamers from the roof of my mouth. Turko, blinking through the soup caught in his eyelashes, is the only one who realizes what has happened and shoves a mug of water in my direction. I drink from it, while Atar offers Turko and Vorondil napkins and chides me, "You're supposed to test it first, little one, to make sure it's cool enough."
I make myself cry harder, until Atar removes the soup from my plate and says, "Fine, Carnistir, finish your carrots and your pheasant and you may be excused."
"I—I can't," I sob. "It hurts too much!"
Actually, the water has soothed the burns just fine, and I could eat if it was something I liked, such as pudding or banana bread. But Atar does not know that, and he scrapes my untouched supper onto his own plate with a sigh. "Your mother will give you a bit of lembas in milk after supper," he says, and when he looks away, I allow myself to smile because lembas is one of the better-tasting things my mother makes and, mixed in milk, it is nearly impossible to taste at all.
After supper, Amil takes Turko, Findekáno, and me into the parlor to read us a story while Atar and my two oldest brothers get ready for their hunt. I wait until Amil becomes distracted by one of Turko's incessant questions and slip from the room unnoticed.
I follow my feelings of my brothers until I find them in Macalaurë's bedroom. The door is half-closed, and it is not hard for me to slip into the room and slide under Macalaurë's bed unnoticed. Nelyo is braiding Macalaurë's hair away from his face. Hunting wolves can be dangerous, and they are both dressed to suit. Their long-sleeved tunics are heavy and tucked into leather bracers at their wrists. They each wear leather gloves with the fingers removed to protect their hands and high, heavy boots over their breeches. Two woolen cloaks are draped over Macalaurë's chair, for nights in Formenos are cold, even in the summer.
Macalaurë is jittery, and Nelyo has to keep telling him to hold still. "Maybe I should have pled out of this," Macalaurë says. "He wouldn't have questioned me if I said I had too much work to do. I guess I was just honored that he even thought to ask…."
I saw Macalaurë when Atar asked him to accompany them, and his gray color faded momentarily beneath sparks of excitement like fireworks against the night of Telperion. "I'd love to!" he gushed, and fairly raced up the stairs when Atar sent him away to get dressed.
"I do not see why you find it so incredulous that you should be asked to go along," Nelyo says. "You will be forty in just a few months. You are nearly grown, Macalaurë."
"Yes, but I am neither skilled with the bow nor a strong rider. I hope I do not weaken the group."
"Don't be silly. You shall do no such thing. You are too harsh on yourself, Macalaurë; that is your only problem. If you stopped constantly judging yourself by Atar's example, then you might realize that you are a decent bowman and a decent equestrian. If we all found self-worth only in equaling Atar's achievements, then our society would despair and fall to ruin."
"But how can I not!" Macalaurë says miserably. "I am his son! Are not sons supposed to follow in the footsteps of their fathers?"
"When he goes where we cannot, then there is no way we can follow. We will never surpass him, Macalaurë. Námo prophesied that much, long before we were born. Atar is the greatest of our people, and ever shall he remain, and no might or magic from either of us can change that. We can only strive to meet our own expectations, and delight in the fact that we are named in Atar's house and hence share in the blood of greatness."
Macalaurë sighs and Nelyo ties the end of his braid and pats him on the shoulder. "There. You are finished and ready to claim your title as Canafinwë Macalaurë, Slayer of Wolves in Northernmost Formenos."
"I suppose I shall be happy if I wake up alive in my bed in the morning," said Macalaurë, "and if I don't shoot you again by accident or any of our companions. As long as I don't make a fool of myself."
Nelyo kisses Macalaurë's hair. "You shall not do that, little brother, so do not fear."
I wait for Nelyo and Macalaurë to leave to retrieve their bows and knives from Nelyo's bedroom and dart down the stairs to wait in the foyer. Atar appears first, scowling at his bracer and twisting it around his wrist, and he is nearly upon me before he sees me and stops. "Little one! Aren't you supposed to be reading a story with your mother?"
He picks me up. He smells of dusty wool and pungent leather. I lay my head on his shoulder and say, "I had to pee."
"Good. You do that in the lavatory and not in your pants, right?"
When Atar is content, like he is now, I wish that he would hold me forever. He is a warm fire on a cold night, the kind you stretch towards without fearing the bite of a spark on exposed skin. I put my thumb in my mouth—it sates the temptation to bite—and snuggle against his shoulder until my brothers arrive: Nelyo, loud and confident, and Macalaurë, his voice kept low to hide the way that it trembles just barely. I am kissed farewell by each in turn and then set on the ground, whimpering, cold, and bereft.
"Go to your mother," Atar says, stooping beside me. I lurch and lock my arms around his neck. Being set aside by Atar is worse than stepping from a warm bath and into the cold air. He hugs me and kisses my cheek, but I find my arms abandoned once more at my sides, and I am staring at his knees. "Poor little one," he says, patting my hair. "I will be back."
They leave then, letting in a rush of cold air through the front door, and I stare long at the heavy oaken door after Macalaurë closes it behind them. I want to cry, but no one is around to hear my sobs, so they would be futile. I sigh instead and go to the window to part the curtains and watch for three silhouettes of horses and riders to gallop past on their way to the town. The knock of their hooves on the ground remind me of the wooden chimes in Atar's garden.
"There you are!" Turko is almost as good as I am at walking silently, and so enraptured was I by the horses' hoofbeats that I failed to hear him come up behind me. His arm circles my neck, and I am squeezed in the crook of his elbow until my head feels warm and fuzzy. "Amil has been looking for you," he says, and I wiggle until he lets me go.
"I had to pee," I tell him.
He snorts. "Not a likely story, Carnistir. You wanted to spy, didn't you? You always pee in your pants."
He laughs, and I wait until he turns to kick him as hard as I can in the backside. Granted, that is not very hard, but he turns in anger anyway, and soon, we are chasing each other through the house, pealing laughter through our rage.
Turko is faster than me, but I am smaller, and I dart underneath furniture and wait for him to squeeze after me before slipping out and running into the next room. "You little fool!" he yells when he gets stuck under Atar's desk, and I laugh and duck easily from beneath and race from the room. I hear him struggling to free himself, and I slip behind a curtain and whisper the incantation to keep the lump of my body from being seen.
I am the shadow,
I am the darkness….
The curtain collapses around me, as though I am not there.
I stoop and listen for his footsteps. It does not take long before he is pounding down the hall after me, shouting insults that he learned from our brothers and that would get him into serious trouble if Amil overheard. When his shadow flashes past the drapes, I leap out and tackle his feet, sending him sprawling face-first into the floor and tearing the curtain rod from the wall.
He knocks his nose hard, and when he comes up, blood covers the bottom of his face and drips onto the front of his clean tunic, and he is already bawling. "I hate you!" he screams, striking me with a bloodied fist between the shoulder blades, hard enough to make me start crying too. Soon, we are wrestling on the slippery, hardwood floor, tangled in the curtain, crying and striking at any little bit of tender flesh that the other reveals. Turko is much stronger than me, but he is less ruthless. The actions of my body seem to precede any thoughts I may have, any mercy I may show, and I commit acts that horrify me even as I am doing them. I bite his fingers when he tries to slap my face and yank out hunks of his blond hair in my fists. He pushes me onto my back, looming over me like a predator about to bite the throat of its prey, and I kick him between the legs as hard as I can, fortunately missing any tender flesh and hitting the inside of his thigh instead. It is enough to dissuade him, however, and he falls backward, howling, and I hear Amil shouting our names as she runs down the hall.
Amil tears us apart and forsakes me to cuddle Turko, although I can see why, because blood is smeared all over his face now, and he is curled in the fetal position with his hands cupping himself between the legs, sobbing. (Maybe I did hurt him a little bit? I wince and press my own knees together.) Amil is using her skirt to clear the blood from Turko's face, but he must have hit his nose hard on the floor, because more is trickling and pooling on his upper lip. I kick free of the curtain and stand behind him before stooping to hug him around the neck. "I'm sorry," I say.
"Get gone, you stupid little twit!" he yells, and Amil scolds, "Tyelkormo!"
We are carried/led to the sitting room, where Turko is given a genuine handkerchief to put over his nose and we are seated on opposite sofas while Findekáno sits in the armchair and watches us with smug superiority over one of Atar's books that he is always reading. Amil paces before us and asks us what happened, and with our chests hitching, we both fight to explain and paint the other in the more dismal light, until we reach the conclusion of our story and both stare at the other, full of the shameful realization that what began as play escalated to rage for no reason at all.
"You both have to learn to control those tempers," Amil warns. Turko and I exchange looks; under Amil's scorn, we are made allies once more. Many times we have both heard her say the same thing to our father. "Now, Tyelkormo, I want you to apologize to your brother and give him a kiss goodnight."
"Goodnight? But it is only—"
"Do not argue with me, Tyelkormo!" The anger in Amil's voice makes him choke into silence. "I am tempted to tell your father about this, as it is, and you will both rue the day that I do so, for he will punish you as I will not. Now, do as I say, Tyelkormo."
Turko stands and crosses the room to give me a delicate hug and a kiss on the lips. I smack my kiss extra loud and squeeze my arms around his neck. "I'm sorry, Carnistir," he says, and I echo: "I'm sorry, Turko."
I am left under Findekáno's watch while Amil takes Turko to wash and go to bed. I could easily escape, I think, failing to realize that Findekáno will watch me with a vigilance even Atar rarely musters, forcing me to sit obediently on the couch and stare at the paintings on the walls. Amil is gone no more than ten minutes, and upon her return, she lifts me and carries me to the room that she shares with Atar, where I sleep on a cot they'd set up in the front room. She is hasty in dressing and washing me for bed—she skips the bath, which is surprising and dismaying in that it means she must really be angry with me—and tucks me into bed. She kisses my forehead. "Why can't you be good like your two older brothers, Carnistir?" she asks.
It is a fair question, I think. "Being good," in the sense that Amil expects it, seems unattainable to me. Most of the time, I do not understand how I come to anger people so easily; it seems a natural reaction to my presence. Nelyo and Macalaurë always know how to respond to make people happy. I sigh, and her hands on my face soften, and she kisses my lips and whispers, "Good night, little one. I love you."
I mumble a response, and she leaves. It is still an hour before my bedtime, and I am not sleepy, so I lie on my cot and imagine my father and my brothers in the wild, hunting wolves. Only, in my imaginings, Atar is not mounted and does not use a bow and arrow. In their place, he wields a sword like the one he uses when sparring with my brothers, a long strand of silver, catching Telperion's light and sending it back as brightly as if his blade was aflame with silver fire. He cuts through wolves with the ease of destroying excessive underbrush, twisting and bringing the silver fire upon them, again and again, until they lie at his feet in a pile of red-smeared pelts. His movement is beautiful, like the dance of a bright light on water.
Far off, I imagine that I hear a wolf howl, in mourning for its kin, perhaps, which lie dead at my father's feet.
Dreams come upon me.
I see Macalaurë first, and maturity has set in his features, and he moves with a certainty and grace that escapes him now. On his arm is a beautiful maiden with silver streaks in her ebony hair, and they both wear white, and joyful tears brighten both of their eyes.
Nelyo embraces Macalaurë first. His red hair is braided more beautifully than I have ever seen it before, and he weeps as he holds our brother longer even than Atar. Turko, nearly grown, is behind him, and at first, I think the little black-haired boy must be me, but the boy's features are porcelain-pale like Atar's, and he holds the hand of a stormy-eyed youth with coarse black hair becoming undone from the braids that seek to tame it. That is me, I realize! How I will look when I am older! I wonder who the little boy is. Maybe it is Nelyo and Annawendë's son, although he looks as I picture Atar must have when he was just a little boy, before grandmother Míriel became foreverdead.
When Macalaurë steps into Turko's arms, the picture fades and changes. Turko is hunting in the forest with a big dog, yelling for me to hurry and follow him. "Slow git!" he shouts. His hair flutters behind his head like a golden banner. "You would have us go home, shamed and empty-handed!" Then I am being handed a red-haired baby who wails in my arms. That must be Nelyo's son, I think. He is newborn—damp still—and his eyes are very bright, like Atar's. Then, Amil riding through the gates, heading back to Tirion from Formenos, and Turko is beside me—grown into a man, with broad shoulders and long legs—with his hand over the bottom half of his face to subdue sobs that might belong to a little boy.
Then the images pass too quickly for comprehension, and there is blood and fire and madness, and I hear myself cry out in my sleep, but the dreams hold me tighter and I feel Him there, whispering in my head like an icy wind. I am fighting creatures with shapes like ours—but their features have been twisted grotesquely—and they are dying on my sword.
Carnistir, you have been taught to show mercy to the children of Yavanna, but you would slay my children?
Laughter. I cry out and buck my body against the blankets on my cot, but like chains, they hold me there.
No mind, I shall make more.
Shall I take you to your brother now?
How beautiful, that the eldest son of Fëanáro should become one of my own.
Would you let him die so easily on your sword?
Are you sure you wish to seek him? Knowledge of his torment will make it yours to bear as well. Better you should languish in ignorance, like Macalaurë.
Your brother shall bring me the King of my children. Beautiful, beautiful spawn of Fëanáro.
Then, there is Nelyo.
I scream, but he does not hear me. The room is dark, but in dreams, my eyes need not to struggle to see him. I stand only a few feet from him, but when I reach out, I realize that I cannot move. Never can I move. I can only watch. Witness.
The walls are close about us, cold, black stone dripping with slime. Nelyo is chained to that wall, with his arms held in shackles over his head, holding his arms stretched above him to the point of pain, his tendons standing out like wires on his thin arms. His arms struggle ceaselessly against the metal that binds him, but it is hard, black steel the likes of which I have never seen, and it cannot be broken. He crouches, his head limp against his chest, as though asleep, but I can see his pulse beating at his throat and know that he does not find rest here. He is naked, and his knees are drawn close against his chest, covering his private parts and protecting the soft vulnerability of his belly. The room is cold, and he shivers, but when I see inside his head, I know that it is fear—not cold—that makes his body tremble.
His red hair falls over his face. It is matted with blood, and when he shifts, I see a long, skinny cut on his cheek. It is sticky and healing, but dried blood dirties his face. His silver eyes open, and they are afraid.
Nelyo! I scream; I sob, and he looks towards me.
Carnistir, be gone from here! You cannot help me.
Pray that my death is fast.
At that moment, a hand encased in black steel gauntlets seizes my brother by his throat and drags him to his feet, and I erupt from sleep and into Atar's arms.
He is just returned from his hunt, for it is deep night, and he smells of wind and leather and blood. I try to fall into his light, but the image of Nelyo—naked and scared—haunts me. Atar is speaking to me, words of comfort, but I cannot hear them for the echo of Nelyo's voice: Pray that my death is fast.
Atar's words—tremors in the air around my head, the reality of the world I cannot quite reach—at last come to me like a whisper in a vision. Of what did you dream?
Through my tears, I speak one word, a word whose meaning I do not know but that resounds in my head like a dying heartbeat, with the harsh unloveliness of a hammer being driven into flesh.
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