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Another Man's Cage: 31. Chapter Thirty-One--Arafinwe
On the fifth day of the week, Nolofinwë and I always meet in the afternoon, before the Mingling of the Lights, for a game. It is supposed to be a treat to celebrate the coming of our days of rest—and perhaps for Nolofinwë it is—but I do it only out of duty to my brother.
We used to play, sitting beside the fountain in the palace square, where the wind occasionally misted us with water, dispelling some of the heat of the afternoon, and I could be entertained during Nolofinwë's long deliberations by birdsong and the brightly clad maidens walking by, but Nolofinwë pled distraction, claiming that the chatter of the servants going about their duties and the clopping hooves of the lords' horses disrupted his concentration. We play now in his study. I never win, and Nolofinwë used to instruct me after our games, pointing out the flaws in my strategies, until he came to the realization that I do not particularly care to win. I try hard enough to give him a decent game but make no great effort to surpass him. If winning means so much to him—while it means naught to me—then he is free to have it.
Now, walking up the front path to Nolofinwë's door, I am slightly awed—as I always am—by the grandeur of his home. So like a Noldo, I find myself thinking, until I realize—with a start—that I have an equal share of Noldor in my own blood. Even after sixty-one years of life, this fact still surprises me. Still, the stone mansion in front of me, the tall marble statues overlooking the path, the leaping fountains—such things belong to the Noldor, yet they have always made me feel small. When Eärwen and I married and she consented to move with me to Tirion, I understood her discomfort in the shadows of the towers and mansions of the Noldor and shaped our own home very differently, of a light stone, with natural curves as though sprung from the earth, and with many windows, to allow the winds of Manwë to always bless us and carry our laughter through the halls, to the other's ears.
Now, I pause before the door and ring Nolofinwë's bell, and a maidservant opens the door with a nod so slight it is barely visible. She is new to his household, employed only recently after his last maidservant married and moved to a farm outside the city. She is young with light brown hair and a quiet reverence that my brother prefers in his servants. I imagine that she does not inquire after his day as she pours his wine for supper, nor does she wait eagerly on the stairs for him when word of Findekáno is rumored to have come from the north. She no doubt bustles to her work with her lips set in neither smile nor frown, her feet as silent as she.
She bows when she sees me, although it is less a bow than a slight tipping at the waist, reverent without drawing attention to that fact. "Prince Arafinwë," she says. "My lord awaits you in his chambers."
I bow back at her, then take her hand and kiss the backs of her fingers. Her skin is soft, but I can feel the rough beginnings of calluses at the joints of her fingers. "My lady, you are looking exceptionally lovely today."
She blushes. She is quite pretty with a touch of color in her face. "I thank you for your kind words, my lord. If you would follow me?"
"I would. Across the sea if you'd like." I am flirting with her; the girl must have a smile somewhere in her repertoire of facial expressions. She blushes darker. "I have never seen the ocean," she says quickly. She starts in the direction of my brother's office, but I refuse to move, and after two steps, she is forced to halt and linger as well.
"It is a lovely, great shining thing, just the color of your eyes."
"You jest with me, my lord."
"I do. I jest with all beautiful maidens."
"But you are married, my lord."
"Marriage cannot stop me from appraising beauty when I find it—"
"Arafinwë!" The voice startles me. Nolofinwë stands in the doorway with his mouth twisted into a disapproving frown. I grin at him, and the expression loosens without entirely disappearing. "I had thought you were exceptionally tardy this night." He turns to the maidservant. "You are excused, Isilmaryë," he says brusquely. She bows and scurries silently from the room, although she gives me a tiny smile as way of salutation.
Success. I do not allow my lips the boastful luxury of grinning but rather trap it inside myself and relish it.
Nolofinwë walks briskly to his office, and I have to trot to keep up. He and our half-brother Fëanaro both exceed me greatly in height, and when they walk, they tend to forget that not all can match their hearty strides. I have none of our father's imposing grandeur but, instead, am petite like our mother. I wish he would not hurry so; there is no good reason for racing through one's own halls as though the hounds of Oromë are on one's heels.
We enter his office. The drapes are opened to let in the light, but Nolofinwë's office always strikes me as a dark place nonetheless. The drapes and the upholstery are of heavy blue velvet; the furniture is of sturdy, dark wood. He burns incense—a habit he learned from our mother—and the spicy aroma of it makes me sneeze, earning a reproachful look from my brother. The gameboard is set up already, on a small table at the center of the room, the pieces set meticulously in place. He nods at a heavy chair set on one side of the gameboard, and I dutifully take my seat while he goes to a cabinet, produces a glass, and pours himself a serving from a bottle of wine taken from the bucket that has been set there.
"You should watch your words, Arafinwë," he cautions. "Married as you, with your firstborn imminent, you should not be speaking so to maidens."
"It was only done in play, Nolofinwë," I say. "I only wished to see her smile. I am happily wed, obviously no threat."
"Affections may flower in forbidden soil, Arafinwë," he says gravely. He is fond of sayings such as this, and I have to bite my tongue to keep from laughing. Indeed they do! I want to say. If they did not, then neither you nor I would have been born! But I carry the argument no further, and he says, "May I pour you a glass of wine?"
"I would prefer rum." Eärwen's people have honed my taste for it.
"Arafinwë! It is not even the Mingling of the Lights!"
"Wine, then," I say, trying not to sigh.
It is a white wine, nearly as clear as water but deceptively heavy and slightly bitter. Nolofinwë is fond of vintages such as these, where I will take a glass of sweet mead anytime. He sits opposite me and runs his fingers over the game pieces, contemplating me as he might a plot of soil to be turned for a garden. He and Fëanaro share this: the ability to make me feel as though I have been disrobed and am being scrutinized by a healer for dissection, as though they are envisioning my heart in their hands. Perhaps it is a trait of the Noldor. Half-Noldo though I am, I am not often inclined towards the thoughts and motivations of my craftier kinsmen.
I escape into my glass, taking a greater swallow of wine than I should have, perhaps, judging by the way the room begins to list as I lower my glass. Nolofinwë's eyes are still on me, but the ponderous stare has given way to something lighter, affectionate almost, and the left side of his mouth rises into a smile. I set my glass down heavily and say, "Good brew, Nolofinwë," because I know it will make him laugh, and it does.
"A better vintage than that Telerin slop I hear you have taken to drinking," he says. "That rubbish couldn't inebriate an ant."
"Yes, but Eärwen has taken to avoiding heavy drinks since she has come with child, on advice of the midwife," I explain. "That Telerin slop is all that she will drink. I am sure that Anairë is the same."
"Yes," Nolofinwë admits, "she is. I have taken to having two bottles with supper: hers and mine."
"Not me. I like to think that what is bad for Eärwen and our child is bad for me and our child also."
"That is nonsense, Arafinwë. You do not carry him."
"Yes, but at times, I sense him as though I do, especially when Eärwen and I are near. And in those times, I do not wish to be inebriated." I take another drink of wine and hiccup.
"And now?" Nolofinwë asks, eyebrows raised.
"Now I do not sense him," I say, and we both laugh.
Nolofinwë takes another swallow of wine. "I wish that I sensed my son. I wouldn't even know that he was a son but for Anairë, who is certain of it. She tells me little else, however, claiming that I will have to be surprised when he is born."
"Was she like this with Findekáno?"
"No. She was so eager with Findekáno that I knew every time he kicked, every iota of thought that she shared with him. She is far more reserved with this one." He drains his glass. I am impressed; mine is only a quarter gone, although his impetuousness might explain the sudden looseness of his tongue. "Do you think Curufinwë senses his children?"
My mind jellied slightly by the wine, I respond before thinking, "I am sure that he does."
Nolofinwë looks at me darkly.
I speak quickly, seeking to remedy my stupid thoughtlessness. "I just mean that he and Nerdanel share a greater bond than any couple I have ever known," I say. "As much as I love Eärwen, I do not doubt that the bond between Fëanaro and Nerdanel is stronger. He told me once, in a weak moment, that he speaks with her in his mind as though he would with words."
"But we both also speak so with our wives. I believe that everyone does," Nolofinwë argues.
"Yes, but it is difficult to keep even his private thoughts from her the way I can hide things from Eärwen or you from Anairë."
"I do not hide from Anairë," he mutters, spinning the stem of his glass between his fingers.
"But you do not share all either. Can you imagine being responsible for the thoughts of two people? How often have you thought something hurtful—against your father-in-law, perhaps, in a moment of weakness—or thought that a maiden on the street was fair and been glad that your wife knew not such thoughts? I am grateful that I do not have to know what darkness taints the beauty of my wife's mind; I prefer to believe that she is purer than I, although I know such thoughts belong to all. Such is our fate in Arda Marred."
Nolofinwë thinks for a long moment, then pours himself another glass of wine. The chatter of the liquid inside his glass is the only sound in the room, and we both stare at the tumult of wine splashing inside the glass as though it holds some secret that neither of us knows. He tops off my glass without me needing to ask.
I should never have answered a question about our half-brother Fëanaro. Nolofinwë dwells upon him entirely too much, I think. Fëanaro is cruel at times and enigmatic at others, but I have prayed for the strength to understand and forgive him, and the Valar have granted it. And—sensing my passivity as might a wild animal—Fëanaro has slowly grown civil to me, almost a friend, but for the fact that—could he reverse time—he would not have our father marry my mother and would thus erase my existence. We speak kindly to each other, though, and his letters have not the stiffness of those he sends to Nolofinwë. He allows me to embrace him, upon meeting, and I do not feel his spirit recoil as I once did or as it does upon sight alone of Nolofinwë. There is no better way, I think, to reveal one's cruelty to him than to stand, wounded and bleeding and exacting no retribution, while he gnashes his teeth into your flesh and you offer the fatal tenderness of your throat, until your fearless timidity inspires his mercy. Such is how I won Fëanaro.
Not Nolofinwë. He and Nolofinwë cannot remain alone together without getting into a fight, a fact that grieves our father and frustrates their wives, although I understand that it is their very likeness to each other that causes them to despise the other so.
Nolofinwë has slipped into a dismal silence, and I seek to escape from it through our game. I make my voice light, a dragonfly skipping across the water. "Shall we play?" I say, opening my palms to the gameboard, and he shakes his head slowly, as though awaking from sleep. He smiles stiffly. "Of course."
Tomorrow, Eärwen's parents will arrive from Alqualondë and stay with us until the end of summer. Then, her father will return to Alqualondë, to reign over his people, while her mother will remain until our son is born in the winter. Eärwen is excited about their arrival but King Olwë always makes me a bit nervous, as though I must prove why the eldest child of the King was a worthy mate for a third-born, half-blooded prince who lacks in political aspirations.
On the fifth day of the week, we traditionally take a late supper with my parents and Nolofinwë's family in the palace. When I return home after the game, Eärwen is already bathing for supper, the servants have gone home for the night, and the house is quiet. Perhaps because of the conversation with my brother—after which he remained mostly silent, moving his game pieces with great concentration—or perhaps because of my father-in-law's imminent arrival, I am restless and edgy, and I wish that Eärwen were not indisposed. I could interrupt her bath, I suppose, but she likes this time to commune with our son, and to steal this time would be selfish. Instead, I open all of the windows in our bedroom, kneel on the floor, and pray.
I speak with my mind to the wind, where the words will be carried to Manwë far off on Taniquetil. Give me the strength…
For what? I am always praying for strength, yet I seem to need it the least in our family. It is my father who is the king; it is my brothers who aspire to serve as his successor. I would not want even a lordship much less to rule the Noldor in their entirety, a people who remain enigmatic to me and whom I do not resemble in thought or appearance.
Give me the strength for peace.
The words flow from my mind with the inevitability of gravity, and as water tumbles from high rocks, so does my prayer slip into the wind. My body becomes loose with resignation, with relief, for my troubles have been passed to someone more able to shoulder them. Strength be with you, Arafinwë, the wind whispers to me, for to hold peace takes greater strength than rebellion.
I smile and hear the bedroom door open behind me. I remain kneeling until Eärwen's arms slip around my neck, and her rounded belly presses into my back. I feel the light that is the spirit of our unborn son burning gently between us, where our bodies touch, the union of our marriage. Peace stills my heart, and all worries about my brothers' endless conflict and my father-in-law's arrival tomorrow scatter to the wind like leaves.
Eärwen kisses my neck. She smells of the light Telerin soap that she uses. "How was your game?" she asks.
"Meaningless," I say, "but for the time spent in the company of my brother."
I turn to hold her in my arms and stroke her belly, feeling the light of our son rising beneath my hand, as though he desires to know me as much as I desire to know him. We conceived him not long after wedding—by the standards of our people—although I must confess to enjoying the unsuccessful attempts and making them more often than might be expected. "I am thankful that you are like the Noldor in at least one regard," Eärwen whispered to me once, after we wiled away the better part of an evening making love. The Vanyar are notably chaste, even in marriage; the Noldor certainly are not so. Even I was surprised by my enthusiasm for the physical aspects of our marriage. I sense that Eärwen and I will take long in tiring of each other and that we will be blessed with many children in the interim.
We sit like this for a long time, with her head tucked beneath my chin, our arms tight around each other, and my hand on her belly, where I can feel the baby moving. Soon, I will hold you in my arms, my son. Soon, my life will be numbered, not by my own years, but by yours. Soon, I will spend every moment of every day, watching the Trees, waiting for the hour when I may run home to you, lift you from your cradle, and deliver to you the first of infinite kisses. Soon, the purpose of my life will be revealed in you.
We sit together so long that the hour grows late and we have to run down the street, hand-in-hand, while Eärwen holds her belly and we gasp with laughter, to keep from being late to my parents' for supper. Laurelin has faded, and the streets are frosted with silver, and luckily, the hour is such that our hasty passage goes unnoticed by passersby. We pause on the steps to the court to straighten each other's hair and smooth each other's clothing, and I am reminded of the months prior to our marriage, when I would ride to Alqualondë and climb the trellis outside of Eärwen's bedroom in the evening, and when the summons would come for her to go to her father the next morning, I would have to repair her to look as though she'd been doing nothing more scandalous than reading a book of poetry in her chambers.
As though eager to prove our innocence, we walk with exaggerated care across the court, hands clasped loosely between us, which is not a dignified way for a lord to walk but too natural for a husband to deny. At this hour, all of the lords have left—it is my father's decree that all the lords take the fifth night to dine with their families and leave the city's concerns for the next morning—but the palace guard stand and watch us pass with the same gentle smiles that one bestows upon newly opened flowers. As though on command, a porter appears to lead us to my mother's parlor, where he informs us that the rest of the family is waiting for supper to be finished. Unlike my brother, Atar prefers his servants to be friendly, and this one fairly bubbles with inquiries after Eärwen's health and the goings-on of the councils that I have attended this week, and as we are both apt to bubble back, our voices announce our arrival long before we enter the parlor, and so Amil is already standing to greet us when the porter leaves us at the threshold.
"Arafinwë," she says, and she takes both of my hands in hers and kisses me feather-soft on the lips. How keenly I remember such kisses from childhood, when so light a touch has the power to dispel the weightiest of nightmares! "You look well," she says, and I can't help but to catch her in an embrace, which makes her laugh and hold me tightly in return.
She goes to Eärwen next. "You glow," she says, after kissing my wife on the cheek. "Motherhood favors you, Eärwen."
Nolofinwë and Anairë have arrived already, and they rise from the sofa to give us their greetings. Nolofinwë is always early to affairs, and when Amil remarks on Eärwen's glowing complexion, he catches my eye in such a way that I know he suspects that the real reason for Eärwen's flushed cheeks is not her imminence. I ignore him to kiss my sister-in-law and remark how being with child has made her similarly fair before turning to my brother. Nolofinwë would settle for us to grasp hands and return to our chairs, but I force a hug upon him, squeezing around his neck and kissing him loudly on the cheek, which irritates him and amuses Anairë, to my delight.
With the pleasantries over, Amil shows us to another sofa, where we sit side-by-side opposite Nolofinwë and Anairë. "Where is Atar?" I ask, and Amil smiles tiredly and says, "He wished to prepare the meal for us tonight."
Atar suffers from guilt, at times, from the belief that he serves his people better than his family. When we were young, he used to send away our tutors on occasion and attempt to teach us himself, despite the constant interruptions from lords and messengers bearing tidings or requiring his advice on some matter or another. He used to make vague plans to take us hunting or camping outside the city, and we quickly learned not to expect such treats, for a conflict always arose at the last minute that required his attention, and we were sent away with one of his lords instead. Every few months, he comes to the realization that men all over Tirion are cooking meals for their families while he is distracted by matters of court, and he sends away the lords, gives the cooks a night off, and attempts to put together his own supper.
Atar is skilled at many things: He is good with a pen and competent in the forge; similarly, given the ambition and time, he is a decent cook, although—while always in possession of the former—the latter often escapes him. The last time Atar prepared supper, the meat was undercooked because he put it in the oven too late and the soup tasted slightly charred from being left on the stove for too long without being stirred, but his face was so bright with eagerness for our approval that no one had the heart to do anything but smile and swallow it as quickly as possible to avoid tasting it, while mustering our sincerest voices to express our gratitude and delight.
The women begin their inevitable conversation about pregnancy and childbearing—the latter of which inspires me with particular terror—and sensing my unease, Nolofinwë gestures for me to follow him to the cabinet at the back of the parlor where Atar keeps his liquor. Pouring a whiskey for himself and a glass of mead for me, he gives me a look that is both stern and conspiratorial, and says, "You ought to be ashamed, Arafinwë. It takes some audacity to arrive late to your father's supper because you have been fornicating with your pregnant wife."
"Fornicating?" I say a bit too loudly. Eärwen looks back at me, but if Amil and Anairë heard my outburst, then they have the good graces to ignore it. Nolofinwë's eyes widen in horror, and he shushes me. Lowering my voice, I whisper, "We were doing no such thing!"
"Then how else to you account for arriving late, damp beneath your robes?"
"We were sitting together and lost track of the hour. We had to run down the street to make it as promptly as we did."
Nolofinwë's look at the thought of his younger brother—a prince of both the Noldor and the Vanyar—tearing down the street with his pregnant wife in tow, no doubt passing in front of every influential lord's home on his way, makes me wonder if he mightn't have preferred me to be fornicating. At least that is accomplished in the privacy of my home and need not be made into a shameful display that would reflect poorly on him. He takes a large swallow of his whiskey. "Arafinwë, if I did not know better, I would think that you had been raised in the home of the heathens outside Tirion."
By that, I know that he means our half-brother. Indeed, Fëanaro is not similarly obsessed by the formal graces that so consume Nolofinwë. I see him more often than not in the streets in a plain tunic and trousers, lacking the adornments for which he is famed, looking more like a farmer than our father's heir. His sons, for the most part, are more akin to peasants than princes: Macalaurë is awkward, Tyelkormo is obnoxious, and Carnistir is mystifyingly mean. Only Russandol approximates the grace that Nolofinwë expects from royalty, and although Nolofinwë can find nothing about our eldest brother-son about which to disapprove, I sense that he does not like Russandol, nonetheless, probably because he has inherited the innate grace of our half-brother that makes no one doubt he is a prince, despite his windblown hair and dusty boots.
Luckily, before Nolofinwë can inflict further chastisement upon me, Atar appears in the doorway to announce that supper is ready. We—his sons and daughters-in-law—are each greeted with embraces and kisses, and we follow him to the dining room, where salads and breadbaskets have already been set out on the table.
Nolofinwë and I each make offers to help, but we are silenced and pushed into chairs by our father, who is beaming with excitement at being able to serve us supper, so much that when he pops the cork on a wine bottle, it ricochets frighteningly around the room for a moment with the fury of a bumblebee trapped in a jar, until colliding with a glass vase that Fëanaro made and knocking it onto the floor, where it fortunately lands on a thick carpet and doesn't break. Atar laughs, running to right it, before returning to the table to pour hearty portions into our glasses—waving away our wives' refusal and pouring them each a touch in the bottom of their glasses—claiming that a sip of good wine never does anything but good for one's constitution. "It's a supreme vintage," he tells us. "Fëanaro sent it to me from the north with strongest recommendations."
At this, Nolofinwë, who'd taken a hearty swig, wrinkles his nose and sets his glass down hard on the table. I sip it and flavor explodes in my mouth. It has a complicated taste, like a raspberry eaten before its prime, both sweet and tangy. Deciding that I like it, I sip it again, ignoring Nolofinwë's reproachful glance, and delve into the first course.
The salads are bitter greens scattered with soft cheese and sweet raspberries, so ripe that they nearly pop in the mouth, with soft buttered breadsticks wrapped, still hot, in linen. I do not let my hopes get too high, however, for it is difficult to ruin a salad, although Atar has been known to become distracted when selecting lettuces from the storeroom, choosing those that would perhaps be best fed to the rabbits belonging to Lord Laiquiwë's two small children. When we are all scraping the last bites from our plates, Atar pops up, disappears into the kitchen—after again waving away Nolofinwë's and my offers of assistance—and returns with a tray loaded with tureens of soup that he proclaims is "spring vegetable."
"But it is not spring," Nolofinwë says.
"Do not be obstinate, Nolofinwë," Atar says lightly, as he clears our salad plates. "It is always spring in Valinor."
As far as I can tell, "spring vegetable" soup starts with a basic stock and ends with Atar dumping in as many different vegetables as he can find in the storeroom. With Atar absent and unable to have his feelings hurt by our reluctance, no one but Amil has tried it. I spoon through it, counting the number of different vegetables I can identify, and reach twelve before noticing that Nolofinwë is giving me a stern look to stop. The door to the kitchen opens, and we all hastily stuff the first bite in our mouths so that we may praise Atar as he takes his seat at the head of the table.
The soup actually is not bad—a bit bland, perhaps—but the ingredients are fresh and properly cooked. I suspect that he might have gotten the recipe from Fëanaro, judging by the number of spices that he added; almost as many, I suspect, as he added vegetables, although the amount of each is inadequate to create much of an effect. (Fëanaro is nearly as creative with spices as he is with metal and gemstones and delights in complicated and bizarre combinations. Even when Atar uses Fëanaro's precise recipe, however, the finished product rarely approximates the original.) Before any conversation has a chance to thrive, Atar is on his feet again to bring out the main course: a potato-cheese casserole, honeyed carrots, artichokes, saffron rice, and a huge roasted goose.
Eärwen is unaccustomed and not too fond of game meats, so I carefully arrange for her to get the smallest piece so that she neither has to eat what she does not like and so that Atar's feelings are not hurt. I am impressed by the array of foods he has prepared—he must have taken leave of the lords early today—and am pleased to note that it is all rather well cooked. The goose is oily, but this is the nature of such meats, and the carrots are a bit crisp but not to the point where they are unpalatable. With the main course on the table, we can at last settle into conversation.
"Your parents will be arriving tomorrow, Eärwen?" Atar asks.
"Yes. They will travel through the night and hopefully reach Tirion by midmorning," she says. "My father is bringing his fastest driver."
Everyone is pleased by this announcement. Amil and Anairë wish to see Eärwen's mother, who knows of dress styles far more innovative than anything that can be found in Tirion. Nolofinwë desires to speak with King Olwë, for the allegiance between the Noldor and the Teleri has always been strong, and he wishes to negotiate to have the Noldor continue building in Alqualondë in exchange for Telerin pearls. And Atar, of course, has held King Olwë in confidence as his closest friend since Cuiviénen.
Naturally, I am also pleased. As Eärwen's pregnancy has progressed, she has become more nervous about the childbirth, and I know it will comfort her to have her mother present. She holds confidence in Anairë, but Anairë is a typical Noldorin lady, prim and vague in her assurances. Nerdanel would be frank enough to put Eärwen at ease, but she is a many-days' ride away in Formenos, and her letters do not come frequently enough. But along with my pleasure at my parents-in-law's imminent arrival comes a faint misgiving, for—although my father-in-law has never expressed anything but the sincerest warmth to me—I wonder sometimes at the fairness that the least promising of my father's sons should marry the most noble of his daughters.
We stay late at my parents,' conversing long into the night, and I expect that when we return home, Eärwen will be ready to retire, for we must rise early in order to be prepared for the arrival of my parents-in-law tomorrow. But, instead, she is in a playful mood and is kissing me before I have even fully closed the front door. By the time we reach the bottom of the steps, she has undone my robes and is tugging at the tunic underneath. I start to lead her up the stairs, but she resists. "No, Arafinwë, I want to be taken somewhere that is not our bedroom.
And so we visit each room of the downstairs, leaving a trail of clothing to mark our passage, stopping occasionally to collapse on a couch and ending on the soft carpet in the dayroom, with the warm evening breeze billowing the gossamer curtains over our heads. The night insects fiddle their simple melody, and Eärwen and I lay in silence in each other's arms, facing each other, the tips of our noses touching and our breaths mingling. I stroke her silver hair, as weightless as the wind but warmer. When I first saw her, I expected her hair to be cold, like metal, the only silver to which I was accustomed. But upon plunging into its depths, I learned that it was warm—like Eärwen—like the sea at Alqualondë at night, warmer than the air on my bare skin, making it tempting to drown.
As I appraise her with my touch and sight, she closes her eyes and listens to me, listens to my breathing as she once listened to the lap of the waves on the shore outside her home. After we married, she confessed that she had nearly turned down my quest for courtship because she thought I'd be too stern. She and Fëanaro had grown up together, she said, and she always marveled at the discipline of his silence: the way he could walk without being heard, the way she could never hear his breathing when they sat close, as though every moment of his existence was a triumph of his will over nature. I have since noticed the same about my brother, about my father even, who—for all his cheer and easy laughter—nonetheless possesses a great control, as though his spirit is tied tighter to his body than is mine. "Fëanaro and I used to make plenty of noise together, when we were little," Eärwen told me. "We used to run and scream at the sea, to make the birds rise from where they floated offshore, and we used to dance over the wooden planks on the piers to hear the hollow drumming of our feet, but yet I could never hear him. I could never hear him like I can hear you."
"Such is the way of the Noldor," I told her. Everything to them is disciplined. Building, forging, and even art is disciplined. They seek learning through books, tutors, and apprenticeships, trusting not the simple wisdom of years. Councils are never consigned to the haphazard gathering of friends but planned and held in rooms built just for that purpose. They celebrate on festival days and work on all others. Perhaps sensing my thoughts, Eärwen whispers, "I am glad you chose me."
"I had little choice," I reply, letting her hair spill across my hands. "My heart claimed you before my mind had time for anything so mundane as a choice." She smiles without opening her eyes, presses her mouth to mine. "I believe that we were chosen for each other," I whisper against her lips.
My faith—that of my mother, of the Vanyar—is not shared as strongly by her people, but she never argues with me. It is as though she knows that the way our spirits sing together is greater than any harmony we could contrive from our own cunning.
We lay in silence once more. A nightingale calls his mate outside our window. Our hearts beat and—between us—our son's heartbeat completes the perfect rhythm of husband, wife, and child. At last, Eärwen speaks: "You did not ask, Arafinwë, my reasons for tonight, for asking you to lie with me here instead of in our bedroom."
"I do not require a reason for everything," I tell her, "least of all for lying with my wife."
She smiles at this. "But this is a special night for us, for it is that last night that we shall spend in the house alone together for many years to come, until all of our children have grown and married, perhaps." She draws me close and presses her face into my neck, until the lengths our bodies are touching, and it is as though we are one person in body and spirit. "It is a happy night, but I wish it to be long in ending."
We awaken on the floor of the dayroom at the Mingling of the Lights the next morning, with warm breezes caressing our skins, Eärwen's head on my chest and my hands tangled in her hair. The servants will be arriving soon, to ready the rooms for Eärwen's parents and begin preparing the late breakfast that we will share with them, and although this will hardly be the first time that they would have found us lying together in an unexpected place, in an uncompromising manner, we have much to do this morning and little time to dally in our last moments alone together.
On my way to the bedroom to bathe and dress, I pick up the trail of clothing that we left on our way to the dayroom, pausing each time to savor the memory of the kiss or the touch that marked that point the night prior. Today, we have stepped into a new room in the endless corridor that will be our lives together—much the same as we did on our first day of marriage and as we soon shall on the first day of our son's life—and while the feeling in my heart is one of happiness, there is a little sadness too, as though the next time we have the luxury of such freedom, it will be darkened by sad times. As though the room we have left will never permit us to re-enter. When I greet my parents-in-law and welcome them into my home, it will be as if the door has been nailed shut.
I entertain the briefest thought of taking Eärwen and fleeing the city altogether—of leaving the house and its string of rooms and corridors, some dark, through which we will walk—abandoning this place in our future for the wide-open lands of Aman, where sadness need never separate us from those we love.
But such thoughts are folly, and as quickly as they darken my mind, they flee to the sky like the crows that scavenge upon growing things left to rot, and I gather the last of our clothing in a ball and go to meet my wife in our bedroom.
My day quickly becomes too busy for such dark thoughts. Eärwen and I shut ourselves into our bedroom just as we hear the first servants rustling busily in the guest suite across the hall. She allows me to bathe first—knowing that I will want to ponder my choice in raiment longer than will she—and I change robes three times before she emerges from the bathroom and calls, "Stop! You are wearing just what you have on right now!"
I had just removed the third robe and stand in my tunic and underpants. I cock an eyebrow at her playfully. "Really?"
"Well, you may put on the robe that you just took off," she says.
"I'm not sure if the color suits me."
"Arafinwë, do you honestly think that anyone will care how you look?"
She has a point there. Her parents have not seen her since we rode to Alqualondë last spring, to surprise them with the news that we were expecting a child. Only my parents, my brother, and Anairë knew at that point, and Eärwen's belly still remained deceptively flat. I don the third robe—it is pale blue—and fasten it without further argument, while she chooses a dress from her wardrobe with remarkably less rigmarole.
Upon moving to Tirion, Eärwen took to wearing dresses more typical of the Noldor: heavy cloth; tight at the waist and sleeves to prevent excess cloth from interfering with one's work; solid, bold colors; laces and clasps that did not require great thought or effort to fasten in the morning. Now, however, she chooses a Telerin dress, sheer and so light that it must feel like wearing nothing at all. It is a straight sheath that she binds to her curves with a complicated system of cords and laces, leaving the sleeves free to stream from her forearms. The cords at her waist she tightens only to the bump of her belly, leaving her skirt to fall from there and swirl about her legs. The dress is cut low in the font and bares the tops of her breasts, made fuller by her pregnancy, and I feel desire whispering through my body, instructing me to lay her across our bed and undo all of the complicated ties she has just tightened, cast aside my robes again, and claim her beautiful body for my own.
I remember being in Alqualondë once for a festival honoring Ossë. It was a rare instance, where all three sons of Finwë stood together in relative peace: Nolofinwë and Fëanaro on either side of me, tall and resplendent in their festival clothes, the jewels at their throats and their wrists winking in Laurelin's splendor, the circlets on their heads denoting them high princes of the Noldor, brothers, no matter what their inclinations. And then I, in the middle, much smaller than they but noticeable for my golden hair and fine features and tendency to laugh quickly to fill the silences, a slip of gold foil lying prone between them in hopes of stopping the hammer from smiting the anvil.
We stood together, the three of us, without our wives or father for once, while the Telerin maidens danced in the square in gowns with all the substance of mist on the water, clinging to their bodies as they danced. "To think you wed one, Arafinwë," Nolofinwë mused. "They are certainly more liberated than the Noldor."
"Of course they are," said Fëanaro with bland smugness, as though it was a well-known fact and not one of his conjectures formulated after hours of intolerably lonely study that would be unbearable to Nolofinwë or me. "Their customs are derived in part from those of the Avari, who flaunt their fertility as part of their survival."
"Survival?" Nolofinwë scoffed. "Sport, perhaps."
"The Avari have not our carefree life, Nolofinwë," Fëanaro answered back. "They have more pressing concerns than procuring beautiful jewelry or perfecting urban architecture. The Avari know death far more keenly than do we, and so beget their children young and in great numbers to protect their bloodline. The women—and the men—display their bodies in hopes of showing their strength, their ability to produce children, for the survival of all."
In Nolofinwë, I could sense the jealous hurt that always accompanies such patronization from Fëanaro. How does he know the customs of the Avari, he who is an Elda? How does he speak with such certainty about something he's never even seen?
I sensed the hammer falling upon the anvil and so I spoke, something inane and meaningless enough to have been forgotten in the interim, something about being blessed to be able to enjoy both the practicalities and sport that such a woman offered. Whatever it was, it made them both laugh and forget the other long enough to become distracted by a new topic, one less inflammatory, until their wives appeared, giddy with Telerin wine, to drag them into the square to dance.
When Eärwen and I married, she defied the approval of my people and wore a Telerin gown, and I remember dancing with her in my arms—with little thought besides the ease with which I could feel each curve of her body through the flimsy cloth—and realizing that I was not alone in my discomfort in the rigid, intentional kingdom of the Noldor.
Eärwen's voice interrupts my thoughts: "Do I look well?" she asks, and I sense that she is nervous, wishing to appear happy and healthy to her parents and leaving them with no doubts about her decision to marry a prince of the Noldor.
She turns slowly, and I appraise her. The pale cloth of her gown streams away from her body as she turns. Her silver hair lifts from her back, fans slightly. She wears it free except at the sides, where she has plaited and bound it with silver clips in the shape of scallop shells. She might be a Maia of the sea, a servant of Ulmo, risen to bless me.
"You are beautiful," I tell her, and she lets her momentum carry her into my arms, where I kiss the perfect softness of her skin. She twines one of my braids around her finger—ignoring my protests that she will ruin my hard work—and asks me, "How do you think our son will look? Will he look more like me or you, do you think?"
"I do not know, Eärwen. I do not know that ours is a pairing that has ever been attempted since the Eldar came to Valinor."
"My mother tells me that the Vanyar and the Teleri sometimes paired in the Hither Lands, and that the children were usually blond with gray eyes. But the blood of your father seems to be exceptionally strong: All of Nerdanel's sons look most like their father, and Findekáno more resembles Nolofinwë than Anairë. So perhaps our son will also be the likeness of his father."
Hand in hand, we at last exit our chambers. The hour grows late, and Eärwen's parents will arrive shortly. The house rattles with the sound of the servants making busied, last-moment preparations. Many of them greet us as we pass; we reply warmly in return.
"Yes," I say, as we walk, "but I do not much resemble my father, so perhaps our son shall be more equitable in expressing our endowments." She laughs uproariously, making me hesitate with a share of confusion. "What is so funny?" I ask, at last, when her mirth shows no sign of ceasing.
"You sounded like your brother just then."
"Whichever you prefer, Arafinwë. It is not enough to say that our child shall look like both of us, he must be 'equitable in expressing our endowments?' You are more a Noldo than you think."
Realizing how silly I must have sounded, I grin.
We reach the vestibule. As though sensing that the hour of Eärwen's parents' arrival draws near, the servants have retreated into near silence. Eärwen fills the silence with her singing, taking me into her arms so that we may dance lightly across the pale mosaic that marks the entryway into our home. I can feel her excitement fluttering inside of me like a butterfly trapped in cupped hands, eager to taste what the future has to offer. When the guards posted at the upper gates cry, "All hail King Olwë!" and the sound of brisk hoofbeats ring on the cobblestones of our street, she squeals with delight and does not leave my arms in that moment, pausing to squeeze me close and share in her moment of happiness.
"They are here!"
I open my arms and release her to run down the path to meet the chariot drawing to a halt in front of our home. I feel a smile touch my lips as I turn to follow her in a more dignified manner—one that befits a prince of the Noldor—letting the door to this room of our life slip closed behind me, knowing that I can never go back.
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