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Another Man's Cage: 30. Chapter Thirty--Maitimo
I have learned that if I leave my hand closed on the rings long enough, then I cease to feel them. The metal presses cold against the warmth of my skin but warms to the temperature of my body until they feel as innocuous across my palm as the folds of my own flesh. I close my eyes and imagine them gone for real. I imagine the love that stings my spirit gone as well, for something joyful is useless in actuality if it wounds in equal measure. But I can no more take the love from my heart than I can make the rings disappear from my hand, although I squeeze both until my whole body seems to ache with the effort.
Lying across my bed, I open my hand and look at them. Such simple artifacts. Two silver rings, one slightly smaller than the other and able to fit inside of it. They are marred by minor imperfections that I have memorized in the last five days, so intently have I studied them, but such is to be expected, given that I have not my father's gifts in the forge and only a passing proficiency. I shift my hand, and the rings shift, pealing lightly against each other. My heart thuds heavily, painfully at the thought of destroying them. I wish that I had never made them.
My bedroom door opens, and I make myself sit up slightly in my bed, propping my back against the pillows that I have piled along the headboard, closing my hand on the rings, but it is only Macalaurë. He smiles to see me awake and carries a tray into my room, setting it on my dresser so that he may lock the door behind him. It is late, and he is dressed in the loose clothes that he wears for sleeping—gray, of course, I note wryly—his hair unfettered and still slightly damp from his bath. He carries the tray to my bedside, and although I will myself not to look, I feel my neck crane slightly to discern its contents: a pot of tea and a plate laden with the sweet biscuits that Amil makes that I love.
"You barely ate any supper tonight," Macalaurë says. "If we are leaving tomorrow, then you will need your strength." He pours a cup of tea. There is only one cup, I notice.
"You do not intend to join me?"
He smiles and draws a second cup from the pocket of his loosely fitting trousers. "I would not do so uninvited," he says, pouring a cup also for himself and adding a lump of sugar, how he likes it. Into mine, he drops a slice of lemon and holds out the cup to me. I cannot take it, though, not with the rings squeezed inside my right fist.
He sighs and—setting the cup on the bedside table—unfolds the fingers of my right hand as one might an obstinate child who refuses to relinquish a toy. "Why do you do this to yourself, Nelyo?" he asks, letting the rings rattle onto the bedside table and clasping my fingers around my teacup instead. "Why do you insist on dwelling on it? She has not forsaken you."
"Not yet. She will, though." I look at the rings on the table, overlapping slightly, beautiful in the silver light of night. "They will have to be melted," I say, ignoring the love that I have for these objects, these objects of my own devising, into which I poured so much hope.
"No, Nelyo," Macalaurë protests.
"She will not come back, Macalaurë." I make my voice remain calm.
My head is heavy, as though filled with mercury, sliding around through my sinuses in the place of air. How I will survive the trip tomorrow, I do not know. Probably in the same way that I have survived the last five days, caring for the children when I wish that I could be curled up in the warm, black solitude of my bed. But with Atar having one of his spells and Amil distressed by it, it was I who cooked the children's meals, who tutored them daily in the library, who gave them their baths at night. At times, forcing my face to smile in recognition of one of their minor accomplishments seemed akin to lifting an anvil, but I did it. Last night, after Tyelkormo and Carnistir had tucked themselves into bed with Atar, and Macalaurë had gone to play his songs into the night, Findekano came to me with one of Atar's illustrated lore books in his hands, asking for a story. He curled against my side and fell asleep there as I read, and eventually, I let the book fall to the floor and held his body close like a small child holds a doll, weeping silently into the spill of dark, silky hair on my pillow, feeling more alone and unloved than I have ever felt in my life.
The pressure is building again now, inside my head, and much to my embarrassment, two tears trickle down my cheeks and drop into my tea. I hope that Macalaurë has not seen them, but the two rebellious drops have encouraged their brethren still waiting behind my eyes to do the same, and soon my face is soaked and my hands shake so hard that I scald myself.
"Nelyo!" Macalaurë takes my cup from me, and in the next instant, my face is pressed to his chest, and his arms are wrapped around my head. "Nelyo, Nelyo. Oh, Nelyo." He speaks nothing more than my name—he does not try to offer words of comfort, as Amil would do, nor does he try to stay my tears, as would Atar—but strokes my hair as I sob into his chest with a voice too rough and hoarse to be my own.
My head feels lighter when I am finished, as though the last five days of phony contentment had actual weight, but I am ashamed of how my face must look, streaked by tears and eyes red and swollen, so I leave my head against Macalaurë's chest. He is bony and it is rather uncomfortable, but I can hear his heart beating, and that comforts me. "I'm sorry," I say, and my voice is nasal and muffled by the quantities of snot clogging up my nose. Macalaurë rummages through his pocket and pulls out a scrap of cloth that once might have been a handkerchief. "Blow," he instructs, and I blow my nose while he holds the handkerchief for me, as though I am a small child. When my nose is clear, he tucks the cloth back into his pocket, and his arms circle me again, as though there is nothing strange about holding his nearly adult brother in his lap like a child, especially the brother that everyone names as being strong and regal enough to serve as a worthy heir to our perfect father.
I am not skilled in craft. The many years of training that I had with my father was directed to one singular purpose, the fruits of which lie overlapping on my bedside table.
I went to the forge with my father for the first time when I was twelve years old, the youngest of my brothers to do so, but Atar was eager to mold his heir like he would sculpt a piece of stone in his likeness. And I—still stinging from the shock of a new baby brother who could now walk and talk and demand my share of our parents' attention as well as his own—was eager to be molded. I felt pride at dressing like Atar. I took to wearing red shirts—although they did not flatter my hair and complexion—and had to be coaxed out of my apron and forge boots every night for supper. I refused to let Amil braid my hair so that I may later tie it back from my face with a scrap of cloth, as Atar did. I followed closely on his heels, so close that his scent was in my nose all day and I would dream of him at night, compartmentalizing the things he told me as one might sort socks, by design and color, so that they can be retrieved on a whim later. I took pleasure in retrieving the nuggets of information that Atar gave me. This metal is malleable; this alloy is brittle. This tends to take a reddish tinge under the flame, while this remains pure and silver. I was not afraid of the fires of the forge, as was Macalaurë, although I did not relish the heat either, as did Atar. I was content to stand and work for long periods of time, but by the day's end, fresh air was bliss and my body cried for water.
In short, I did not have the inclination for my father's work.
This was a slow realization for both of us. My progress was slow at first. Although I understood the scientific concepts and I had the dexterity for our work—as well as the love of learning—I could not amalgamate these virtues into progress. Atar would grow frustrated and chide my failings, and I would grow frustrated and retort, and I took to spending more time in the library as punishment for my insolence, denying the relief I felt to have a pen in my hand in the place of a hammer. I took Atar's work in metallurgy and geology—fair work, although scant in places, for Atar does not have the patience for long plunges into academia—and added frivolous expansions because I knew that it would irritate him. I argued against his theory that atoms were the smallest component of elements—proposing that something smaller existed within them and something smaller within that too—without any real reasoning besides a desire to force him to hear my voice above the hammers of his forge.
But he was not irritated. My hours in the forge were reduced—in part because Macalaurë was old enough to take my place as the inheritor of our father's skills—and he would assign me harder and harder questions to research, and I relished every time I could walk into his study with an answer.
My days in the forge—limited though they were—became more consumed with articulating scientific nuances with Atar than with actually making things. More often than not, he would give his commissioned assignments to his apprentices and assistants and we would lock the door to his laboratory and become so engrossed in the details of science that Amil would have to knock on the windows to get us to come and eat the supper that she had prepared in Atar's absence.
Once, in the company of Grandfather Mahtan, I lamented about what a disappointment I must be as the son of two renowned craftsmen, as unskilled as I was. Hands like two mud bricks, I said. Grandfather must have said something to Atar because he pulled me aside at supper that night, his hot hand like a manacle around my arm, almost hurting, and hissed, "What is this madness? That I should be ashamed of you?"
When I whispered what I had said to Grandfather, Atar's hand tightened on my arm, and his voice became as hard as the steel that he mastered, and he said, "That we have begotten a loremaster and a scholar is an embarrassment to neither your mother's nor my heritage."
It was only a few months later that a black time came upon my family. Macalaurë and I were whisked away by Grandfather Finwë's driver that day, and were taken to Tirion and placed under the care of Indis, and although we both waited for the inevitable conflagration, Atar did not protest. In fact, we heard naught from Atar, Amil, or Grandfather Finwë, although Indis assured us that they were well when we asked. We stayed for a week, living like the princes that we are in title with our step-grandmother and then-unmarried uncles, and without lessons and chores to clutter our days, I could lose myself in the royal library, learning facts to impress Atar when we returned home.
But the home to which we returned was not that which we had left. Amil stayed in bed all day and the father who cared for us was not Atar. Yes, he had Atar's face and hands but he also had a habit of drifting so deeply into his own thoughts that Macalaurë and I could not rouse him, although he stared at us with open eyes. Other times, he laughed and smiled in much the same way as Atar, but his voice was different, as though being heard through a thick, wooden door. Macalaurë would not sleep alone, and I dreamed strangely that year, prone to visions where Atar would come to our bedroom in the middle of the night and lift us up to hold us in his lap and weep into our hair and whisper angrily in an ugly language that sounded a lot like the Valarin that he would teach me in later years. During the day, he would sit with Amil, and Macalaurë and I would go to the library: Macalaurë would play songs on the big harp that Atar had been given as a wedding present while I devoured volume after volume of Atar's books, filling my head with information until I thought it might explode. During that year, we were not required to work in the forge, and Atar's apprentices were given leave. Sometimes, as he was cooking our suppers—senseless meals that might consist of only vegetables or four different dishes involving turkey—I would stand close beside him as I had in the forge years prior, breathing his scent—more metallic now, the odor of stress and pain and unwashed flesh—and reciting the words that I had learned from books.
"Very good," he said, after each recitation, staring into the pots as though waiting for his destiny to surface amid the boiling rice and beans we'd eaten for four days in a row now. "Very good."
This was also the time when Atar began forging swords, first repairing those that had belonged to our grandfather in the Outer Lands, then devising his own. He worked at all hours, as though no longer aware of time, no longer making jewelry for our mother or things that he could use in trade but only swords, and soon a forest of slender, deadly blades filled his closets.
Things slowly changed. I came out of the library one day and found Amil in the parlor, asleep on the sofa while Atar knelt beside her. Their eyes were closed, but his lips moved over her face, reverently, as though tasting an exotic dish, and I ducked away, knowing that I was not supposed to see this.
After that, lessons resumed and became more orderly. No longer did we follow Atar to the forge when his whims demanded it or go riding or hunting or spend the afternoon in the library. Now everything was scheduled; even rest was an allotted luxury. The apprentices returned, and Macalaurë and I were given regular lessons in science, language, history, craft, music, riding, oration—not a moment passed unfilled, as though Amil and Atar could no longer bear the idle silence and relied on our busy chatter and recitations to keep it at bay.
No longer did I pass my forge time in the laboratory. No, Atar carefully scheduled our laboratory time too and marked its passing with an hourglass so that he would never again forget supper and leave its preparation to Amil. He spoke now of passing my basic, proficient, and master's exams and gave deliberate assignments. I was not skilled in the forge, but I could make farming tools during my days there or hammer out a basic shape in metal that he would finish. To this day, I spend a half-day beside him in the forge, and although my proficiency has grown with time—now I make axe blades and basic hunting knives—I do so only at his bidding, simple assignments that allow him to spend time on his more complicated commissions and inspirations.
But last week, I stepped into the forge on my own accord for the first time since I was a small child, a parody of Atar, with my dirty red tunic and my copper-colored hair tied back in a strip of cloth.
I went in the middle of the night, when my presence would not have to be explained to Atar or any of the apprentices—especially Annawendë. I have been working in the forge long enough to be able to locate basic materials: the ring molds, crucibles, the bars of silver that Atar acquires in trade with the Teleri. I measured my ring size using the tool that Atar keeps in his desk drawer, but I had to guess Annawendë's. No mind—I had held her hands, memorizing the contours of her body, enough times to be relatively certain. If I was off slightly, then I would have Atar resize it for her. If Atar had made the rings for me, then he would have made them so that they would adjust themselves to our fingers, but I do not possess such skill.
Casting the rings was not difficult, although they were not perfect, and I blistered my fingertips in my eagerness to hold them. Many hours more I spent engraving our names inside the bands, although this I did in the safety of my bedroom, with the door locked.
It is not the first time that I have asked for a maiden's hand in marriage. When I asked Laurewë, it was Atar who made our rings, and they were beautiful: two interwoven bands made to represent our interwoven spirits, engraved with our names and the date I proposed to her. Atar and I poured over his sketches for hours, pondering the perfect design, seeking the ideal style of calligraphy for the engraving, as giddy with happiness as two maidens blushed by first love. There was no way to hide my failure then, no way to avoid telling Atar that she had declined my troth. It was well known that I had been considering engagement to Laurewë for some time, and when our affair ended, my sadness and shame was a spectacle for all of Tirion.
Perhaps, by forging Annawendë's and my rings in secret, I was dooming our betrothal to fail from lack of trust in her faithfulness, inspired by the agony Laurewë had caused me. Perhaps, if I had commissioned Atar, as I had the first time, and my joy had been shared, then things would have turned out differently.
But it was not a secret. Macalaurë knew.
Amil used to tell Macalaurë and me—when we would complain about those things beyond anyone's control—that it serves no good purpose to look back on our regrets and try to twist spurious events into a different outcome. "The result would be no different," she would say, "and even if it was, we cannot regain even a single moment that has passed. It is best to save our laments for that which we might change."
I wonder: Is this one of those times?
It was the night of the meteor shower. Midsummer's night.
When I was still very small and Macalaurë was barely walking, Atar bundled us into cloaks and warm shirts and took us to watch the meteor shower that Varda sends across the firmament each year in honor of midsummer's night. In Tirion, nearer to Ezellohar, Telperion is too bright, and the meteors are nearly impossible to see. That does not stop young lovers from sprawling in the grass outside the city, watching the sky, under the superstition that to see a meteor on that night means that the one who lies beside you will one day be your spouse. (The number of meteors you see after is supposed to be the number of children you will have, but I doubt enough eyes are turned to the sky after spotting the first meteor to maintain accurate count of this.) Away from the overwhelming brightness of the trees, however, the meteor shower is a spectacle to behold, as though Varda livened the stars and coaxed them into a dance across the heavens. Cocky with assured love, I was certain that we would see meteors that night, confident in not needing to rely upon a superstition to tell me who would be my wife and further certain that our passion for each other would gift us with children beyond count.
Annawendë was eager. I took this as a promising sign. She is not from Tirion but she must have known of the superstitions; she must have known that I intended to propose to her that night. Indeed, she did seem to laugh more readily when I came to her room to collect her, to take her to the stable, where I'd already readied our horses, prompting her to swat me on the arm and scoff at my "chivalrous insult to her ability to tack her own horse."
On the back of my horse, I had tied a bottle of one of Atar's better wines and a roll of blankets, for even in the summer, Formenos is cold at night. I saw her eying the blankets as I tightened her mare's girth, her lip tucked seductively between her teeth and her eyes eager and bright. With my parents, three younger brothers, and three other apprentices as constant installations in the house, we had not found much time for intimacy since arriving in Formenos. Indeed, we even adhered to a strict albeit unspoken rule that our hands should never drift below the waist of the other's body—fearful always that chatty Tyelkormo or jealous Vorondil or sneaky Carnistir will barge in at an inopportune moment—although my newfound chastity did nothing to quell my desire for her. At times, I would have to lock my fingers into the sheets of my bed to keep from undressing her, and once, the unexpected pleasure of a kiss delivered to the tip of my ear as her hips pressed mine brought me to embarrassing and unfulfilling climax inside of my trousers.
We talked of trivial things as we rode, of happenings in the town and in the family, of Macalaurë's girlfriend-by-correspondence and of a maiden in Tirion to whom Vorondil had taken a liking at the last midnight feast. "Perhaps he'll return there," Annawendë conjectured, and I raised protest, crying, "Vorondil is a friend!"
"A rather tedious friend. Better her ears filled with his constant chatter than ours," Annawendë said, and we both laughed so hard that we nearly fell from our horses.
As we neared the hilltop where we would watch the meteor shower, Annawendë said, "Your brother implied that there is superstition attached to the meteors in Tirion?"
So she had not known. "Yes, young couples become betrothed on this night. The fall stars are said to tell their fates."
She looked down at the withers of her horse as she spoke. "It is a shame, then, that you are only forty-seven—too young for betrothal for a prince of the Noldor—and shall not be able to partake in the tradition in its entirety."
I said nothing.
"But your father married young, did he not?"
"My father and mother wed at forty-two. When my father was of marriageable age, I was already six years old," I told her, as though this pardoned my own desire to marry quickly and soon. In actuality, I suppose it does the opposite. My grandparents are all eager to have for me the wedding that they could not have for their own impetuous children, who took to heart the proclamation of the Valar that Eru alone need witness the union of willing spirits.
"In my land," said Annawendë, "the night of meteors is the night when the most unplanned weddings occur." She smiled at me brazenly, as though in challenge. Your tradition says that we shall become betrothed. Mine says that we shall marry.
My body grew flushed at the thought.
We reached the hilltop as the first meteor zipped across the sky. I spread one blanket on the ground, reserving the others to cover us once we lay down, and poured two hearty glasses of wine. We lay upon our backs on the ground with some space between us, although the heat of our bodies mingled beneath the blankets, tempting us to lean into the other's touch as the meteors set the silvery sky ablaze with light.
"Maitimo," she whispered, leaning into me, her head on my shoulder and her hand at last touching me, pressing the center of my chest. My eyes closed to the meteors overhead as her lips brushed my throat and her hand slipped down my belly, nearing the waistband of my trousers that were suddenly unbearably tight in the groin.
I turned to her, and in that instant, the meteors were forgotten and all of Eä might have centered on two young lovers, beneath a blanket on a hilltop. My lips devoured hers, our tongues filling the other's mouth, our teeth nipping at the tender flesh of lips, evoking only bare glances of pain. Our hips thrust into each other in a frantic rhythm, our bodies driven mad by the layers of clothing between us, her leg tossed around my waist and drawing me into her. My hands were restless and could not be sated by the feel of her body through clothing, and they tore open her tunic and pushed the cloth away from her full, muscular breasts, my thumbs pressing nipples hard and proud in the cold night air and slipping down to a flat, firm belly and the laces of her riding breeches, stubborn beneath my trembling fingers.
A thought seemed to occur to me then, as I undid the tie and slipped my fingers beneath the laces to loosen them. I stopped kissing her, pulling away a bit abruptly. "May I?" I asked, for we had not yet touched each other so intimately. My words were breathy and frantic.
She laughed and, taking my face in her hands, kissed my lips. "Maitimo, you are so polite. You do honor to your people. Please, do what you will."
What you will…
What I would do is undress us both and lie atop her beneath the warm blankets, with the meteors zipping overhead, and make her my wife in the tradition of the unplanned marriages of her land. But I am of Tirion, and although I desire to wed almost more than I can stand, I am a prince of my people, and my body is stayed by the fear of retribution that would come to my father's house if another of us came home from the north with a bride on his arm.
I knelt beside her and turned my attention back to the laces, loosening them until I could slip her breeches and her underpants from her hips with a single push. Although I have undressed in front of her before, it was the first time that I had seen her naked, and I had to force myself not to stare and make her uncomfortable. My eyes quickly took in her strong, slim thighs, the bit of dark hair between her legs that hid from me the secret places of her body. A blush was already heating her face and chest, despite the cold air. I lay back down at her side, and she whispered so softly that I could barely discern her words, "I am hardly suitable for a prince, Maitimo."
My body did not know that. My desire was throbbing hard enough for me to count my heartbeats by it. I have lain beside the daughters of lords and nobles, yet never had I felt so compelled, as though the lust of my body was driven by something deeper within me. Even with Laurewë, my desire was not so strong. I took Annawendë into my arms, maddened by the feel of her bare flesh, and whispered back: "No, Annawendë. You are beautiful. I love you."
I had yet to make such an outright declaration of love to her, and she was surprised, her gray eyes wide and frightened in the dark. "Maitimo, I—"
I kissed her before she could finish, our mouths meeting again and again, never tiring. I turned her onto her back and parted her thighs, seeking that secret fold of flesh inside of her that—when at last I brushed it with my finger—made her gasp and buck against my hand, clenching my shoulders and crying, "Maitimo!" I slid my finger back and slipped it inside of her, expecting resistant, tight flesh and finding none.
I kissed her to hide my surprise, slipping a second finger inside of her, waiting for her body to grow tense or for her to murmur with discomfort, but she did not. She is already torn, I realized and—while my mind conjured one hundred innocent reasons why this might be—one thought overwhelmed them all: She has been touched before.
But, of course, so had I.
Her hand had slipped down to the laces on my trousers, to stroke my erection slowly and gently through my clothes. As her ecstasy heightened, her kisses became wanton, bruising the flesh of my throat, biting my ear hard enough to hurt. "Maitimo, take your clothes off," she gasped.
I drew away from her kisses. "My, aren't you demanding! Here, I politely ask you, and you can't even say 'please'—"
"Maitimo, please take your clothes off. I will pay you to take your clothes off."
"How will you pay me?"
She pressed into me, hard enough that I could feel the flurry of her heartbeat. "With any pleasure that you desire," she whispered.
I stood up. The meteors had subsided, and her body was bathed in the light of Telperion, her dark hair crisp and silvery. She was no longer shy of my glance—her arms stretched over her head and her thighs slightly parted—her breath coming quickly and her body damp with perspiration. I smiled down at her as I tugged my tunic over my head, sending my hair in a red cloud of disarray, and began to unlace my own trousers. She must not have expected me to be shy because she stared unabashed at my groin after I had slipped my trousers from my hips. "You are perfect," she murmured. "Your father conceived you in the likeness of a god, Maitimo." She smiled, as though sharing a secret joke with herself.
"What is it?" I was taught never to be ashamed of my nakedness, but her blatant, unabashed scrutiny of my body was making my heart race with nervous excitement. "Why do you smile so?"
She patted the ground beside her, and I lay down but did not allow our bodies to touch. "It is nothing," she said, reaching to draw me close.
I resisted, although my body hated me for it. "I shall put on my clothes again if you do not tell me."
Her cheeks were pink in the light of evening. "I have befriended some of the girls in town," she confessed, flushing deeper. "They asked me once if you were as beautiful without your clothes as with them. I did not know then, but now I shall have an answer for them."
The thought of having a group of maidens discussing the intimate details of my body made my insides feel rubbery, as though filled with gelatin. Such conversations are typical of males, but maidens?
As though reading my thoughts, Annawendë said, "Women are not without desires, Maitimo. It is not only males who desire to see their partner naked before they marry, or wish to hear her name in his voice while he's in the throes of ecstasy."
"I have disrobed before you, Annawendë, before today."
"I was always careful not to look, not because I didn't wish to know what you looked like beneath your clothes—nothing could be further from the truth, Maitimo—but because your father was always intensely curious about whether I would look and your mother always seemed intensely adamant that I should not, and I did not want my first memory of your nakedness to survive in conjunction with your parents' scrutiny."
I imagined myself in her place and had to laugh at the perfect logic of her discomfort beneath Atar's over-bright curiosity and Amil's acidic stare.
"Maitimo," she said, suddenly serious, "you did not let me say it before, that I also love you." Her fingers tucked my hair—still messy from being drawn through my tunic in haste—behind my ears, and her mouth found mine. Our bodies pressed together, only inches away from bonding ourselves to each other forever, both of us aching with desire yet terrified at the same time. I turned her onto her back and lay atop her.
"Are you going to wed me?" she asked in a frightened whisper. I could feel her heart pattering against my chest, as surely as she could feel mine. My body, where it touched hers, quivered with both fear and anticipation.
Was I going to wed her?
I thought of returning home, having taken her to bride. Atar would not mind—he would be happy, even, for he desires us to marry and give him many grandchildren—but Amil would be devastated. As would Macalaurë, who did not want me to come out here tonight and made me promise that he would stand beside me at my wedding. And then there was the return to Tirion. Grandfather Finwë would be angry, I knew. He had been angry at Atar for marrying Amil so young and without his consent, an anger that he hid well out of love and consideration for me, the product of their illicit union. It was only out of love for their daughter, I heard one of the lords of Tirion say once, that Grandfather Mahtan and Grandmother Istarnië accepted Atar as a son-in-law at all, so upset were they that he whisked away their youngest daughter and wed her in a clearing in the forest, without witness and without their leave. I imagined facing all of them, having done the same thing. Grandfather Finwë would not conceal his anger this time, without a great-grandchild whose tender feelings might be hurt by the implication that his parents never should have married, that he should never have been born. And then there were Annawendë's parents, whom I did not even know. I imagined riding south to them, being introduced as her husband and their prince in the same breath. And the wedding that would happen in Tirion: hastily assembled—as was Atar's—and full of hurt feelings by all involved that I chose to marry before even informing anyone of my engagement.
Annawendë waited for my answer, her eyes keen on mine. "I cannot," I breathed at last, and felt her sag in my arms with relief.
I wonder: Would Amil have been relieved if Atar had forgone their hasty wedding to return and be married according to the standards of our people, before Manwë and Varda—as is fit for a high prince—with all of the necessary consents and arrangements made in advance? And I would have been conceived many years later, in a soft bed in the palace—not on the hard ground inside a tent at the mining camp, with my parents holding their breaths for fear of being overheard—and bestowed with the same honors as were my brothers at their births, the eldest son of the High Prince of the Noldor. How would things have changed if this had happened?
I would not be lying with Annawendë beneath the stars, for one.
"We are too young," I whispered to her. "I want to wait. I want to meet your family first, and for you to meet all of mine—"
She touches my lips. "Hush, Maitimo. I do not wish to wed either. I wish for the touch of your body, for our passions to be sated. I wish to sleep tonight in peace for once, without waking from dreams of you, always unfulfilled."
"You dream of me?"
"Do not ask silly questions," she whispered, silencing my protests with a kiss, her warm hand moving along the inside of my thigh to at last take me in hand. Our mouths collided again and again in violent kisses, moaning our pleasure against the other's lips as we touched each other with excruciatingly slow strokes, becoming so impassioned that we kicked away the blankets and lay naked and sweating in the cold night air, locked in each other's embrace, our flesh and wills only inches away from complete union.
I would have lain like this all night, bringing her to orgasm a thousand times and never tiring of the sound of my name in her voice, breathless, her body arching and her face pressing into my chest, her lips over my heart. But her hands were equally expert in wringing pleasure from my body, and when I tried to knock her hand away, gasping, "Annawendë, I'm going to come," she only bore down harder, and whispered, "That's the point, Maitimo."
And ecstasy tore my body, radiating across me like an earthquake from its epicenter, making my fingers and toes burn as though every nerve had been sleeping and she had brought them back to life, the feeling of stepping into a warm room after being numbed by a cold wind. We clutched each other, basking in this moment of mutual pleasure, my fluids spilling across her belly. It sounded as though even the wind sighed her name, but then I realized that it was I who spoke it, that she had exhausted me, and I lay in her arms, suddenly helpless and cold.
She drew the blankets around us and we kissed slowly, languidly, with a contentment for once not marred by the desires of our bodies.
Her head on my chest, I stared at the sky. It was perfectly clear that night, curtains of clouds drawn back to make room for the meteors, a few of which still straggled across the sky. "This was a beautiful night, Annawendë," I said, and my mind flitted to my proposal and how we would always remember the night we became betrothed like this: the spectacular pleasure we gave each other, the sky alive with lights, the future before us as boundless as the sky.
"It was." I felt the delicate touch of her lips on my chest, a kiss softer than butterfly wings. "You were a great lover," she said suddenly, so eagerly that I burst into laughter.
"As were you," I said. "Whoever taught you to—"
In that instant, her body withdrew from mine, and she was wrapping the blanket around her nakedness. "What do you mean by that? Whoever taught me?"
I felt as though I was in freefall, the feeling of one who has stepped from what he thought was a small height and discovered himself still falling many moments after he should have been safely on the ground. She was torn, I thought to myself, frantically, and she knew how to touch me. Had I been wrong?
For many long moments, we pondered each other, the space between us filling with cold air, as she drew the blanket tighter around herself, hiding her nakedness and revealing mine at the same time, to my shame. I covered myself with my hands, defenseless beneath the intensity of her stare. "You have not—" I began and stopped, fearful of the angry agony that blossomed on her face, of finishing my sentence "had a lover before." Instead, I repeated, as a question, the innocuous "You have not?"
Her face flushed. The blanket was bunched up to her neck. "And if I have? What of it?"
"Annawendë, I do not—"
"It is not as though you have not had a lover before." She laughed, a cruel, monosyllabic bark. "Lover? More like lovers. I am not deaf to the tales of you, Maitimo. I have heard what you were doing with that lord's daughter, and if I can overcome my aversion to kissing lips that have done that to someone else's body—"
"—touching you when only Eru knows how many other girls have touched you like that, who you've cuddled with afterwards and called good lovers, who you've kissed and told that you loved them, who entertained the foolish thought of marrying you, as though anyone is ever good enough for a Fëanarion—"
"—who did immoral things to you because they thought they'd be your wife someday and no one would have to know, but all you wanted was five seconds of cheap pleasure—"
"I never said I faulted you!"
I sounded so much like my father in that instant that we both stopped and stared at each other. The color drained from her face, the look of a girl who has suddenly and unexpectedly been humiliated in front of a large group by the cruel revelation of a dirty secret.
"You are right, Annawendë!" I shouted, with only slightly less intensity. "I have had lovers! I have done things that make my mother ashamed of me, that would make some girls not want to marry me. I answer to the drives of my body before I answer to the morals of our people. But I've never misled anyone, and I've never seduced a girl with promises of marriage just for the pleasure she might give me. And I didn't lie when I said that I love you. I do love you."
Her face was transforming, the anger wrinkling into doubt, into hope maybe. She looked away, as though meeting my eyes for a single second more would take her to a point from which she could not return, where she would give her whole heart to me. "I am not a suitable bride for the eldest son of the high prince," she said, in a strange hollow voice that did not sound like Annawendë.
"My station was granted to me at birth. My love for you is a choice that I have made in life."
She turned her head away, her dark hair hiding her eyes, as though she did not believe me.
"I love you, Annawendë. I want to prove that to you."
I reached for my discarded trousers and rummaged through the pockets until I felt them: the rings, cold against my hand, cold like the night air. This was not how I had envisioned proposing to her. I had not envisioned kneeling naked before her while she sat wrapped in a blanket and her lower lip still trembled with indignation. I had not envisioned making a proposal in a voice made awkward with unspoken apologies, with hands that trembled with as much residual anger as they did nervousness. "Annawendë, I love you." I opened my hand to her, with the rings lying on my palm. Her head was turned; she did not see. I took her chin in my hand and turned her face to mine. "Marry me? Please?"
The answer I expected did not come. My heartbeat thundered in my ears as her face crumbled. She stared at the rings in my hand. She leaped to her feet and ran to the edge of the hilltop, staring towards Formenos with her back to me, the blanket wrapped tightly around her trembling shoulders.
Please, not again!
"Annawendë, I love you. I want you to be my wife." Silence. "Marry me."
"Maitimo." Her hand had gone to her face, and her voice was muffled. "I—" She stopped.
"You what? Are you telling me no?"
"No, I am not. But I cannot tell you yes either."
At last, she turned to me. Her face was silvery with tears. The night air bit my face and I realized that I was crying too.
"Why not?" I begged. "I love you, and you love me, do you not?"
"Then why not?"
"You are a prince, Maitimo—"
"Do not speak such rubbish to me!" I shouted. "You know that matters naught!"
She looked away when I shouted, guilty, caught in a lie. "We should get dressed, Maitimo. We need to talk."
We dressed in silence, with our backs to each other, intimacy shattered. I shoved the rings back into my trousers' pocket, deep, wishing that I could forget their existence. But I could not. Nor could I stop the tears that flowed from my eyes, even as I sat on the ground beside her and she took my cold hands in hers, rubbing them to make them warm again. "Maitimo, there is something that I did not tell you," she said. I watched her face, but she would not meet my eyes, as though my tears were too painful for her to witness. She does love me, I realized. Then why won't she marry me?
"I should have told you at the beginning, but I did not come here expecting to fall in love with you." She smiled at my hands, caressing my fingers. "I remember the day I came to interview with your father. I remember that Macalaurë answered the door and he took me to the library to wait. You were giving lessons to Tyelkormo that day. You smiled at me when I came in. I didn't think I'd ever seen anyone so beautiful. I'd spent the prior night in Tirion, and I'd been told that the eldest son of Fëanaro is exceedingly handsome. They told me that you were tall, that you had red hair. I'd never seen red hair on one of our people before. I thought I'd find it too strange to be attractive, but instead, I found that I could never find anything else half as beautiful. Even your father—people told me that he is the most beautiful of our people; my mother warned me not to develop 'ideas' about him, for he is wed already and very happy, with many children—he could not compare to you. Yes, he is fair. To deconstruct each of his features, he exceeds you in perfection. But you inspire me as he could not, as no one has before, for there is something in you that even Fëanaro—great as he may be—has not, a special beauty, something pure and graceful, that I imagined belonged only to the Ainur.
"Even after I saw you, I did not expect to fall in love with you. I would enjoy looking upon you, to be sure, but to fall in love—such is something that requires more than great beauty. When I received word that Fëanaro had chosen me as an apprentice, I had no doubt that I could resist your charms. I had resisted such before. My land also has people of great and exotic beauty, the likes of which are not found in Tirion, from early marriages between the Noldor and those who would later be the Avari. So I rode to Tirion full of confidence, and there I stayed for the week before my apprenticeship, staying in the inn and speaking with the people of the city, who found a maiden apprentice of the illustrious Fëanaro quite intriguing. To many women I also spoke, and they spoke of you. It is from them that I heard rumors of your behavior with the maidens of the city, particularly with the daughter of Laiquiwë. They told me that you would seduce me and that I would end up in your bed before the summer had passed. I decided that this would not be an entirely bad thing.
"I fully intended to make sport of you, Maitimo, if you would have me.
"I did not then think that I would fall in love with you."
She fell silent, stroking my hands. My skin had warmed with her touch. It could not resist her.
"But why can you not marry me?" I whispered hoarsely.
"My best friend at home, I have known him since I was born. We were born only three days apart, and so we were natural companions. We were each the firstborn child of our mothers, and they shared their woes with each other while they were pregnant, so perhaps we became friends while still in the womb. For as long as I have known the meaning of marriage, I have assumed that I would marry him. It is understood between us. Such is the way of our people: We often become betrothed in childhood. I know this happens in Tirion too, but it is far more common in our lands, in the south.
"When we were forty years old, he proposed formally to me. He is not inclined to the forge—he makes musical instruments—and so I made our betrothal rings. I made them of silver and emerald, for emerald is his favorite stone and he has always loved to adorn me in it. Your mother praised my ring when I first arrived. I told her that I made it myself, and while this is the truth, I said it in deceit, hoping that she would not know it was an betrothal ring. Fëanaro praised it also, as did Macalaurë, and I realized that it drew too much attention, so I stopped wearing it. I told myself that it was for reasons of safety, for I work harder here than I ever have at home, and again, this was the truth, but it was also deceit. I did not want you to know that I was betrothed.
"You might wonder why I desired you when I am betrothed to another. The love between my betrothed and I is deep, but it has never been impassioned. I know his body as well as I know my own, and although he brings me pleasure, I have never desired him intensely, as I do you. I want to bear his children, but I do not delude myself that—after the second or third is born—I will likely desire to lie with him no longer, and ours will be a bond of spirits only. But, at times, I am pained that my youth should pass without knowing the passion that some find. And so I took to you.
"But I fell in love with you, Maitimo."
I looked at our hands, entwined between us. "But you also love another."
She nodded. "My love for you cannot take the love for him from my heart. And while I know that the early days of our marriage would be blissful, I cannot quell the fear that our love would wither when we stopped desiring each other so intensely sexually."
"But that could happen to anyone. That could happen with your betrothed now." How hard it was to speak those words! Her betrothed! My Annawendë loved another.
"It could, yes. It happens all the time that couples grow apart. But I have known him and loved him for my entire life. I have known you for three months and loved you for one. I do not know how much I can trust that."
"Does he know of me?"
"No! It would devastate him to know that I desired another, even if my desire were naught but lust. He has no qualms about my lack of passion for him. He says that if I can muster enough to marry and to beget our children, then that is enough. He does not think that we need much more than that. I know you will give me more than that, Maitimo. Why do you think that I do not refuse you? I believe that you will do all you can to make me happy, to be a good husband. I desire to do the same for you. But my love for my betrothed is ingrained in my heart, like the love one has for oneself. It would require a great trauma to be dislodged, and like any trauma, I might not rise from it unscathed. Asking me to forsake him is like asking me to forsake a part of myself in favor of something that might be better—or that my heart might reject. I do not know what to do."
We sat in silence for many minutes. Finally, I collected her in an embrace and—with tears again soaking my cheeks—told her, "I want more than anything for you to be happy in life, Annawendë. Ride home. Seek your betrothed and learn where your heart lies. If it lies with me, then come back to me, and we will marry, and I will do all that I can to make you happy. If it lies with him, then you need never see me again."
With that, I broke, and I sobbed into her shoulder while she stroked my hair. "I feel as though I am standing on the threshold of perfect bliss, yet I am tempted to turn away," she whispered, "for love of that which is familiar. Am I mad, Maitimo? I must be mad to forsake the only man who has ever offered me his heart and my freedom in the same breath."
Yet forsake me she did. She mounted her horse and rode back to Formenos, and I sat long on the hilltop, while the remnants of the meteors zipped overhead, until Laurelin lightened the horizon. Then I rode home and slept restlessly in my bed until Tyelkormo came to rouse me only an hour later. When I awakened that morning, she had gone into town for the week. When I awaken tomorrow, she will be gone.
The next five days were hard. I stole my tears when alone, in the privacy of cupboards or in my cold bed at night. On the fourth day of my father's "absence," I saw that our stores had grown low, yet I could not bear to ride to the town, as he would have done, for fear that I would encounter Annawendë in the streets and be unable to keep my hand open to her, closing my fist instead upon her freedom as one might around a songbird to keep it from flying away.
I forced myself to bear my misery. Like keeping one's feet in a fire, it was, for there was still time to ride into town and find her boarding house and fall to my knees in front of her and beg her to marry me. My pain was of my own infliction, not hers, for I could have used the gift of words given me by my father; I could have persuaded her to stay. I could have used my station and my birthright to lure her with promises of luxury and ease and any possession that she desired. Or I could have used words like javelins to wound her with accusations, for she had led me falsely, pleading a romantic interest where her only desire lay in pleasing the desires of her body. I could have quailed her with thoughts of a sullied reputation and caused her to fear the scorn of her betrothed and her family upon her return home. I could have brought upon her the wrath of a prince of the Noldor. But I let her go. For even if she married me, every time she looked to the south, doubt would have seized my heart, and our love would be poisoned by unease until the ending of Arda, by the fear that we had forsaken what was right and true for the sake of a moment's whim and a love that was not meant to be.
Over the course of the five days, I hid my pain from everyone. Macalaurë knew of my loss but I did not weep in front of him—until tonight, anyway—and kept a cheerful smile upon my face as I dutifully took my father's place in the house. I cooked the meals and helped Macalaurë divide the chores so that our mother could have peace. The children were dressed, fed, tutored, and bathed daily. Our mother was too distant—worried over Atar's strange behavior—to notice that anything was amiss. And Findekano and Tyelkormo are still too little and absorbed in their child's world of study and play to suspect that the occasional turn of my mouth might be caused by anything other than Atar's sudden absence. Only Carnistir treated me differently: His tears ceased whenever I drew near as though he knew that they'd be too much for me to bear; he clung to my neck and graced me with kisses—and none of the little nips he likes to sneak when he thinks I won't notice—and more than once I was tempted to clutch him and sob into the warm darkness of his hair.
But I did not.
But Atar—upon awakening—knew almost instantly. I looked into his eyes, as bright as pools of water, and saw myself reflected there, rippled as though viewed through a great heat, agony twisting my spirit as pain might twist my body. My words were of duty and I ran from him as quickly as I could manage and he did not pursue. How grateful I was that he did not pursue.
Until the night, in the library, when I don't remember speaking to him, but yet he knew, and he held me and asked nothing of what I intended to do. For I did not—do not—know.
There is naught to do but wait.
I sleep restlessly, my head lying on Macalaurë's chest as he leans against my headboard and holds me close. My eyes burn with the heavy heat of tears not long gone and my head is weighty, but Macalaurë's hands on me are soft and his heartbeat steady like a metronome, and if I don't find the depths of sleep, at least I find repose from dreams.
There is a knock on the door and it coaxes me from sleep. Macalaurë rises from the bed, laying me gently aside, and goes to answer it. I hear Atar's voice and watch Macalaurë's shoulders dip in deference to our father's command, and I am alone in my bedroom with Atar.
He shuts the door behind him but does not lock it. His long absence has not dulled his senses—perhaps the opposite—and I see him taking in the fact that I still wear my clothes, the abandoned tea tray and our empty mugs, and beside that, the rings. I am ashamed of them and wish to sweep them beneath the bed where he might not scrutinize my folly. As though he knows this, his bright eyes skip across them and away again, like stones across silver water. He sits on the bed beside me, so lightly that the mattress barely bends with his weight.
He touches my hair. Atar's hands are always warm. Yes, they become cold on the surface—as will anyone's—if the climate is such, in the snow or the ice, for example. But beneath, he burns, so hotly that it is easy to think that one might not be able to bear it, but for the fact that he must survive in his own skin, so surely I can bear his touch. In fact, I lean into it; I crave it, like the comfort of a fire on a cold night.
"Nelyo." He says naught but my name for the moment. I close my eyes and he strokes my cheek with the backs of his fingers. "I am not here to force you to live what you wish to forget. I only wish to know if you will be traveling with us tomorrow. You do not have to go. If you would rather remain—alone or with your brother—then I believe you old enough to do so. I will not demand that you follow me."
I smile, for I have not even begun preparing for the trip. In fact, I had forgotten it until his mention of it in this very instant.
"I would like to see the ocean," I whisper, after a long moment. "I would like to feel the peace in the knowledge that I am small and insignificant again."
Atar kisses my forehead. "It is done then, beloved son. Tomorrow, I shall depart for Oromë's Halls, and you shall leave for the sea. May you find the peace you seek."
They leave the next morning at the Mingling of the Lights, and Macalaurë and I watch them depart from the doorway, staring down the broad stone stairs and across the lawn to where Atar swings into his saddle and heels his horse into a trot without glancing back. We share a heavy cloak draped over our shoulders and sip from mugs of spiced tea that Atar gave us for breakfast this morning.
The rest of the family follows Atar: Tyelkormo sharing a pony with Carnistir, Findekano, and Amil in the rear. She smiles back at us over her shoulder, but worry makes her lips stiffen, and she looks quickly away.
It is a long ride to the sea, longer than we have ever undertaken alone, but at this moment, the sea compels me. It calls me, its clarion voice impossible to ignore or resist, and all that fills my head is the thought of cold sand beneath my bare feet, walking towards the water and not stopping, the waves licking higher and higher on my legs, then my waist, then my chest, then my head is filled with the empty roar of water, entwining my red hair with the green kelp, the salt stinging my eyes until my sight goes black.
I cannot picture my return to the surface.
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