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Another Man's Cage: 33. Chapter Thirty-Three--Nerdanel
My little ones are happy here, and that should be enough for me, but I am selfish in my heart, as is the tendency of all living beings, and I cannot escape my own vexing self-interests. I look at the light upon Tyelkormo's face as he rides with Oromë and the Maiar or the peace that smoothes my little Carnistir's brow and allows him to sleep without dreams, and I am happy, but then I lie alone and cold in the wide bed in the room we have so generously been given and I begrudge them this joy. Or I wander the halls alone during the day and wonder how I could forsake my youth to give life to my children, yet they so easily turn from me, and I am jealous.
Such selfishness twists inevitably into guilt, and then I envy Fëanáro, who does what he will with no thought to the needs of others--even his own wife--and is without guilt. I haven't seen him in weeks now; the day of our intended departure draws near with no sight and no word of my husband.
Tyelkormo has passed most of his time with Oromë, and Oromë is glad to take him on hunts, and they disappear for hours or days at a time. Tyelkormo wishes to stand one day in his father's image, but I knew him before he was born, when his spirit was raw, before he learned to hide the truth in his heart from my perception, and I know that his hands were not shaped with his father's purpose in mind but, rather, one uniquely his own. I have seen him in Fëanáro's forge, and he emulates confidence with ease--he is, after all, a Fëanarion, and just as he taught his sons the proper way to speak, Fëanáro has taught them the proper way to act, with shoulders squared and chin lifted in insolent confidence--but Tyelkormo cannot mimic joy, and his smiles are painted and phony. The same I saw on Nelyo's face, then Macalaurë's, before they and their father accepted the realization that their destinies would be very different and that it needn't sever the love of father and son.
I wonder how long it will be for Tyelkormo to do the same; longer, I think, for he is more stubborn than his elder brothers and he is also more enamored with his father. But with Fëanáro's absence, he goes to Oromë and--although he barely reaches the hips of the Vala and the Maiar who pursue quarry on big steeds, using bows as tall as my little Tyelkormo--his stance is proud and his voice is loud and a bit brash, so like his father in his youth that I stood out of sight, around a corner, and recalled the same small voice made big by pride, arguing with Aulë about the strongest steel alloys, and touched my cheeks to find them damp.
I knew that Fëanáro would return without warning or fanfare, a fresh breeze that flows through a door swung quickly open, to circulate the stale room beyond, blending easily with the air languishing there as if always present. Such is how he entered my life, after all.
Tyelkormo is away this night, hunting with Oromë, and so I tuck Findekáno into bed, kiss goodnight my little Carnistir, and retire to my room. I do not think I will sleep tonight; sometimes, in the homes of the Valar, I do not require it. My body sizzles with inspiration. But not now; Fëanáro has doused that fire with his behavior at our son's begetting day feast and his hasty departure soon after, and my insomnia stems from dread of having to slip alone into a bed that was made for two. As a child, I never slept in a bed wide enough to accommodate anyone more than myself. (That did not stop Fëanáro from climbing like a spider up the wall of my father's house and lying beside me anyway, for when we lie together, we are close enough to be as one person.) Now, the wide bed is covered with furs and clearly made for lovers, and I feel like an imposter in it alone, akin to a servant who dons her lady's gowns and holds rich feasts on her lord's china while they are away. Fëanáro grew up sleeping in the lonely expanses of his king-sized bed, in a suite made for a prince, in his father's palace, but I always fear such big beds when I am alone, as though I might become disoriented, without Fëanáro to anchor me at the center, and roll onto the floor.
And so I have avoided the bed and have passed recent nights writing letters long neglected, to my mother and my sisters, casual news of Nelyo's studies and Tyelkormo's recent growth spurt and Macalaurë's imminent trip to Alqualondë, until there are no words left to say. I write about the children so that I do not have to write about myself, about the recent spate of fights I have had with Fëanáro, about my growing weariness and discontent, about my fears that I will not be able to conceive more children and that we will grow apart as we once did, during the dark part of our marriage, and that he will take our sons and I will not be able to live without him or them. That I will one day share the fate of Miriel Þerindë. These fears are unfounded but, in the depths of night, while all others sleep, anything seems possible. Fëanáro and I used to stay up all night, before we were married and in the days before Nelyo was conceived, because we believed that our thoughts separated from our inhibitions then, and we were more apt to find inspiration in the unprobed depths of our brains. Fëanáro still does this and has books full of notes that I tried to read once, only to find that they were written in Valarin, and this is an ugly language that I do not care to understand. My thoughts twist now into the realm of the unexplored but they no longer bring inspiration of beauty; they catalyze dwellings on the improbable and cultivate fear.
When the letters were written, I burned them and began anew, for surely, my desperation was revealed in the wieldy length if nothing else, and my next batch were short and chipper and contained only good news. These I likewise destroyed, for my unfailing happiness was a beacon to my misery, and wrote a third set, full of good news punctured by the occasional small tragedy: spoiled milk used by mistake and sickened stomachs and an important dinner with the lords of Tirion missed, entirely fictional stories, the likes of which Fëanáro and I used to tell each other, in whispers, during our forbidden meetings at night, each trying to outdo the other in terms of outrageousness and foulness, trying to coax dangerous laughter from the other, as though begging to be caught together, lying pressed close in my bed, down the hall from my parents' room, perhaps hoping that such a discovery would lead to a sanction of the marriage that we both so desperately wanted but that tradition forbade until Fëanáro came of age.
Finally, I deserted my letter-writing attempts altogether and started instead on lists: lists of what I needed to do when we returned to Tirion, lists of topics I needed to teach my apprentices, lists of guests who would need to be invited to Carnistir's begetting day feast this autumn. I filled many sheets of parchment with lists, until I fell asleep sitting at my desk and did not awaken until I felt Findekáno gently shaking my shoulder, blue eyes wide with apology, telling me that breakfast was being served, and asking: Did I want to attend?
Now, as I let myself into my suite, I am trying to conjure more lists I might write tonight. Lists of what? I have parchments full of them already. Lists of foods Carnistir will actually eat? Lists of songs that I want Macalaurë to play at his begetting day feast? Lists of reasons why I love the most stubborn and difficult Elf ever born, so much that I want to stop breathing at the thought of our marriage ending? A breathy laugh bubbles into my throat and escapes as a wheeze that rises and twists into a scream, chokes into a yelp, caught inside my hand, slapped quickly across my lips, for it is unreasonable to scream at the sight of one's husband in one's own bedroom.
He is sitting on the chair, at the desk where I have been writing unsent letters and crafting meaningless lists, removing his boots. His eyes flit to mine with the noise of my entrance; his fingers do not stop moving over the laces of his boots. "You've returned," I say, trying not to gasp, feeling immediately silly for the obviousness of my answer, like going to the window, throwing back the curtains, pointing outside, and proclaiming, "Light."
"I said I would return, did I not, in a short span of days?" he asks.
"Yes, but you have been gone for fifteen."
His slips his boot from his foot, peels away the soiled sock beneath, flexes his toes. Everything about my husband is graceful, even grubby feet caught in the humid confines of muddy boots for fifteen days. He glances at me again before beginning work on the laces of the second boot. A flicker of a smile--more like a spasm--touches his lips. "In the endless days of our life together, Nerdanel, the fifteen days for which we have been parted will be but a twinge of pain."
The second boot joins its brother on the floor; Fëanáro is standing. He still wears his travel clothes; even his rich brown cloak still cascades from his shoulders. There is a leaf caught in his hair, I see, and it ruins his perfection; it betrays that he has been sleeping on the ground, without shelter, like an animal whose nest has been destroyed in its absence. His eyes are very bright, feral, and again, I think of wild animals, crouching in the brush, their eyes pale lanterns in the flash of light from a lamp. I cross the floor and take the leaf from his hair; it crumbles in my hand. He has been made perfect again.
I try to be angry, but my anger is like a preserve made from an exotic fruit, in short supply, and spread thin over the last fifteen days; I can barely taste it anymore. The fingers that removed the leaf twine in his hair, touch the delicate cup of his ear beneath, trace the lines I have sculpted many times to its tip, to the soft, warm skin beneath. He closes his eyes; he is weary--I can see that now, when his face is no longer overwhelmed by the light in his eyes--the skin beneath his eyes tight and darkened, as though bruised. Perhaps he has slept as poorly as I have. I kiss his mouth; he tastes of cold water, of the mountains; he smells of rocks basking in midday brilliance. The kiss deepens. His tongue is inside my mouth now; he is hungry and none too gentle; he sucks my bottom lip until it hurts. He pushes me back onto the bed. My gown is low in the back, and the furs are soft and cold, silken, like the river water when spring thaws the ice in the north. He pushes my gown open, kisses my breasts--hard--leaving bruises. I feel teeth. They hurt, but in a moment of passion, pain is almost indiscernible from pleasure. I feel a last whimper of anger rise and clench weakly around my stomach. My hands clasp his arms, between his elbows and his shoulders, like the armlets he had worn to the summer festivals in our youth that accented his slender strength and drove me mad with lust for him. I mean to push him away, but my hands ripple up his arms instead, beneath the short sleeves of his tunic, to his shoulders, pulling him towards me.
We lie awake together for a long time after, with the breeze from the open windows behind us cooling the sweat on our bodies. The furs on the bed are soiled--hopefully not ruined--clotted now with our fluids. Tomorrow, it will worry and shame me to think of the servants cleaning our rooms and removing the furs with disapproval in their eyes: Just like the proud Noldor, to casually ruin that which is gifted them. Just like the proud Prince Fëanáro and his seedy wife. But tonight, Fëanáro is primary in my thoughts, and the whole house could be ruined, and I would smile to lie in his arms and twist his hair around my fingers and tell him eagerly of our goings-on over the last fifteen days.
He stops me as I begin to report how improved Findekáno's archery has become under the patient tutelage of one of Oromë's archers. "Enough of the children," he says. "What of you? You have told me nothing of yourself."
"There is not much to tell. I wrote letters and lists," I tell him. "What of you? You smell of distant lands."
He grins. "Perhaps that is an insult? A kinder way of telling me that I should have bathed more carefully before returning to you?"
Actually, he smells fresh, of brisk winds, and the hair at his neck is damp, reminding me of how the little ones feel upon awakening the morning after a bath. I know my husband well enough to know that he doused himself in the last river passed before returning to me. I know that the furious passion between us was not a spontaneous conflagration--he intended it, and he prepared adequately--angry or not, I would have succumbed. He knew that.
"You smell cleaner than Tyelkormo shall upon his return tomorrow. Perhaps you should give him fewer lessons in the forge and greater advisement about the virtues of bathing, even on hunting trips."
"He aspires to smell like the game he hunts, less the chance of detection."
"He shall never court a lady much less marry if his odor is that of a bison."
"Perhaps, when a young lady catches his fancy and becomes his quarry, he shall take to smelling more like her. Like rosewater and spring rains."
We giggle like we used to as adolescents, heady with the nearness of each other.
"What of you? Where did you go to make you absent for fifteen days?" I ask.
"Ezellohar," he says, and I start.
"Inspiration seized me, and I pursued it. I thought I would find it in Ezellohar, at the Mingling of the Lights."
He is perhaps the only Elf who could stand beneath the mingled lights of the Trees and remain uninspired. I am about to say this, half in jest, half in dismay, but he speaks again before I can craft my words. He says, "Not yet."
After nights of voluntary insomnia, sleep falls on me like a black rock. One moment, I am with Fëanáro, feeling his arms close around me to draw me into the tehta-curve of his body, feeling his warm lips moving along the back of my neck, tickling, laughing, then I am waking to a room filled with syrupy golden light.
Fëanáro is lying beside me, atop the covers, and he is dressed already, in a light tunic and trousers, fancier than what he wears at home, where such finery is easily ruined by his work or by the antics of two young sons. He is barefoot, and his hair is combed but not braided. He takes my hand in his. "Good morning, Nerdanel," he says, turning my hand to the ceiling and kissing my palm. The nobility of Tirion kiss the backs of a lady's fingers for greeting, but Fëanáro has always kissed my palm, my fingertips.
He closes his eyes and works his way down my hand, ministering each knuckle with its own kiss, each pad of flesh between. My arm hangs heavily between us; I let him support it; I like the pressure between our hands that it creates. I study his face, unobserved. It is like watching him sleep. Without knowing that he is being observed, all arrogance and pride melts away; he looks as helpless as the little boy I imagine he must have once been, in the days before I knew him, before his father's controversial remarriage introduced his spirit to anger. All traces of exhaustion have been wiped from his face in the night; his long eyelashes form a velvet shadow over perfect, unblemished skin. His lips reach my fingertips, and he slips them inside of his mouth and I shiver. His eyes open. "Cold?"
"No. Quite the opposite," I whisper.
"Did I tell you how much I missed you? In Ezellohar, thoughts of you tormented me in my dreams." His eyes are bright and earnest, and such an intimate revelation makes my skin flush warm. He touches the blush in my cheek with amused delight. "You are still so much the young maiden who captured my love, when the thought of marrying you seemed an impossible dream. So innocent, more like a girl yet to be kissed than the mother of four children."
It is less to do with innocence and more to do with the thought of him lying beneath the mingled light of the Trees and still inspired only with thoughts of me. I once may have felt blasphemous, to be elevated to such importance, that of a goddess, but cannot deny the twinge of flattery. He feels it too. He smiles at the triumph.
It is nearly Laurelin's zenith before I finally rise and dress, and when I emerge from the bathroom, Fëanáro has assembled an impressive spread on the balcony, complete with chilled wine and an arrangement of flowers colored like flames: red, orange, and gold.
I gasp in surprise, as he offers me his hand and asks, "Would you do me the honor of joining me for a meal?"
He has forgotten nothing. My husband who detests the brittle formality of Tirion has set out the full array of utensils; he has five courses waiting on a cart, kept warm over a portable flame; he has folded the heavy linen napkins into the shapes of stars. He pulls out my chair for me and pours a glass of wine from a bottle left open to breathe. There is even a breadbasket, and I am not sure whether he begged one of the Maian servants to bake it for him or took on the task traditionally belonging to a woman. The latter option seems just as viable.
"How did you do this?" I ask, as he arranges himself opposite me. The balcony is shrouded in green and silver boughs; the light that pours between quavers like the light on the crests of waves. It makes patches of gold on his black hair. The birds are singing graceful arpeggios that might have been made for us. Fëanáro's eyes seem lit from within, like the hot blue base of a flame. "I had all of this ready when I came in to wake you," he says. "I had only to assemble it while you dressed. I wished to surprise you."
"What of the children?" It seems unfair to enjoy this splendor while they eat whatever cold meats and breads the Maiar find for them.
"Carnistir was quite heavily under the spell of Vána, last I saw him. She wishes to keep him for the day. And Findekáno is off on a ride with one of Oromë's loremasters, to study trees."
"Yes, apparently there is knowledge that he wishes to collect for Maitimo, about a subject they had been discussing prior to our departure." He smirks. He does not take Nolofinwë's son as seriously as he does his own, but I know that he is pleased, nonetheless, by the progress that Nelyo has made in Findekáno's instruction. "So today, my love, is for you and I to enjoy, as we never have."
Indeed, it is strange: Five children we had--four of our own--only a few weeks ago, sharing our time. Rarely had we been alone without them; even at night, Carnistir often required Fëanáro nearby before consenting to sleep. Now, the three youngest pursue their own recreation and Macalaurë and Nelyo ride on their own. I feel a pang at the thought, for it makes keen the fact that they are both approaching their majorities and will soon marry and leave our home, to return as guests, for whom I feel the need to dust the floors and order special foods. I would like to have them here now, on either side of us, even if it means having to share their father. Of course, even had they accompanied us, they likely would not be here: Nelyo is not one to turn down the chance for scholarship and would be tight on the heels of Oromë's loremaster; Macalaurë would be lying in a grove somewhere, attempting to match his voice to those of the birds, which are more splendid even than we have in Tirion.
Fëanáro sets before us a fruit salad, glazed in honey. The fruit is perfectly ripe and nearly melts in the mouth with never a sting of tartness, practically candy except for the explosion of juices that make the wine obsolete for a spell. Fëanáro and I are quiet; we do not need to speak. We are feeling each other's spirits as one might appraise the face of a new friend for clues to his mood. Fëanáro is light, but there is a thread of dark heaviness too, that which accompanies his deepest thoughts. I have tried to follow such veins but can never find their source. They are like rivers that begin in the depths of the earth, away from the curious eyes of those of us who are doomed to live on the surface. It is only when he brings a wondrous new creation to my attention that I know the reason for his tenebrous meanderings of his thoughts.
He speaks suddenly, over the soup: "What if, Nerdanel, you had a thought but not the ability to effect it?"
"I doubt, Fëanáro, that there is much beyond your abilities."
One side of his mouth twitches into a crooked, wry grin. "If I wished to add to Varda's stars a measure of my own, would you still believe such words?"
Yes, I would. He feels the thought; he looks away and plunks his spoon into his soup.
"Should I abandon the thought?" he asks. "Or do I store it away and allow it to torment me, the proverbial carrot on the stick, leading the dumb, hungry horse?"
"Can you really abandon a thought, Fëanáro?" I ask.
"I suppose that I cannot." He sips his soup.
Our bellies full, Fëanáro and I lie across our bed and nap through the afternoon, a luxury we are not usually afforded, with Nelyo appearing every five minutes, having unlocked some new chemical secret, and Macalaurë howling that his brothers are disturbing his study, and Tyelkormo and Carnistir never more than a step away from trouble, and a forge full of wonders still able to enthrall Fëanáro.
The servants must have been in our room while we dined because there are fresh towels in our bathroom and the soiled clothes I took to the laundry are hanging, clean and pressed, inside our armoires. The furs, I note with a start, remain on the bed, and I wonder if their soil escaped the notice of the keen-eyed servants, and run my hands over them to find that they are unmarred as though Fëanáro's and my careless romp atop them last night never happened.
Fëanáro does not sleep but lies in that hazy place between sleep and wakefulness, and I know that his thoughts dabble still on this ability he does not possess. I attempt to discern what it is but can see only thoughts of light, as often occupy Fëanáro.
While he is so engaged and unable to perceive me, my thoughts skitter about like a mischievous child behind a parent's turned back. I think about our luncheon, an extremely pleasant meal, a more overt attempt at romance than Fëanáro usually makes. I wonder: Is it some complicated, convoluted way of apologizing to me? Neither of us has spoken of what passed before he left--supposedly to pursue a sudden inspiration but oddly correlated with our disagreement--but I have sensed thoughts of it within him and know that he feels the same within me. It is better forgotten; such is our view on our disagreements, which admittedly, are not infrequent. After all, our love is greater than a few differences in opinion, no matter how irking they may be, and we still have four children to raise.
But should I so easily forget his transgression? It is one thing to maintain his odd, insolent--at times blasphemous--beliefs. It is another thing entirely to come before Oromë's followers as the High Prince of the Noldor, a representative of his people, and so blatantly dishonor their customs. It does not set a good example for Tyelkormo and Carnistir, who still believe that their father is greater than the Powers.
I wonder at times how my children's beliefs compare to their father's--to mine. Nelyo, I know, agrees with his father, and I suspect that Macalaurë feels much the same way. I heard him bragging to Nelyo and Vorondil once--unfair to dwell upon, perhaps, given that it was a typical show of male adolescent swagger, as each attempted to best the other's purported triumphs--saying that one day, his voice would surpass that of Melian the Maia, whose voice no Elf has ever heard but is rumored to reverse the curse of death. I felt a twist of betrayal, like a blade in the back, that the son most like me should sound so like his father. It is my own fault, I suppose, for allowing Fëanáro to wield nearly total control over their education, for including none of the lessons I was given at their age, about legends of the Valar, about the Vanyarin traditions that honor them. I should have insisted, but now it is too late, and my anger should be aimed at no one but myself, for I was duped into believing that Fëanáro was somehow delicate, that to make such a demand would invoke tormenting thoughts about his Vanyarin stepmother and the death of Miriel Þerindë.
But he is not delicate; he is clever and shrewd, and he lies now with his head on my shoulder and, having slipped away from his preoccupations for a time, perceives my thoughts as clearly as though they were his own. And he says nothing. I try to gauge his reaction, but all I see is many-colored light.
We set out that afternoon for a river that we know in the forest that has deeply lacerated the earth over the long years of Arda, exposing deposits of rose quartz. I do not know how the inspiration seized me; I was lying beside Fëanáro when the words erupted from my throat, "Have we rose quartz at home?"
"I used the last of it, constructing the collar your sister commissioned for the spring festival."
"And we've none in Formenos?"
"That I used also."
"I desire it suddenly."
And so we dressed in traveling clothes heavy enough to keep the brambles from scarring our arms but light enough to make for comfortable traveling in the humid forest, taking only a coil of rope, a lamp, and a pickaxe, relying on distant memories of trees and game trails to find the river.
We travel hand-in-hand, as we used to do in our youth, when all of Aman was ours to explore, before the arrival of our children modified our priorities. Fëanáro's hand burns in mine; he uses his greater strength to help me scramble up hills and over rock formations. Once, we would have remained side-by-side; I would have equaled him; we would have competed with only a fingertip determining the winner. This is how it will be forevermore, I think, as Fëanáro helps me scramble over a log nearly as tall as I am. He will flourish while I languish.
I stand beside him now, trying to control my breathing so that he does not know how hard a task that scramble was for me. "Are you well?" he asks. He senses it anyway; perhaps he feels a bit of weariness in his bones, like the sympathetic shiver that comes from watching from the window of a warm house as another toils in the cold rain.
"I am well," I assure him, keeping my words bold, and he does not meet my eyes to see if it is the truth, although I prepared to steel my gaze against his. He takes my hand and we walk the incline that the tree has made from the ground to a cliff that would have been difficult for him to scale and impossible for me.
The forest here is thicker than any other I know; the leaves clot overhead, blocking the light, and it is nearly dark. Fëanáro brings out the lamp and a hazy aura of white light encases us. Small animals, made curious by our arrival, skitter for the safety of the darkness. Fëanáro laughs. "It's strange, isn't it, how they feel safe in the darkness while our people have always sought comfort in the light."
The moss beneath our feet silences our footsteps. If not for the light, we might pass unnoticed, but deer crash away from us, into the brush, and angry squirrels skitter into the heights of the trees, chattering their reproach. I envision how it must look from above, with animals darting away from us like opposing magnets. Creatures of the light and the dark have never mixed well.
Sometimes, the trees groan and branches lower, trying to block our path, but Fëanáro raises the lamp to them, and they see us for whom we are. He always whispers his gratitude as we pass, bowing to acknowledge the trees in a way that he will not bow to the Valar.
"Why do they do that?" I whisper. To speak loudly in this forest--where the only sounds are the occasional trill of birdsong and the joyful muttering of streams--seems sacrilegious. "Their ancestors were the trees of the Outer Lands," says Fëanáro, softly, reverently. "Oromë brought them here because he loved them, but they had already learned to block that which is evil from walking among them."
"They think that we are evil?"
"We bear the same shape as the evil that once passed between them. But we carry a lamp, and no creature that is evil bears light."
We reach the river at the Mingling of the Lights. Beneath the deep canopy of the forest, the change in light is barely discernable, but we can detect it in the air, which seems to dance as though with song and tickles our ears like a distant melody.
We sit by the river and drink the water with cupped hands. This is how it was at our people's origin, I think. My father was born in the Outer Lands, during the Great Journey, and he told me often of the Outer Lands. How I used to sit eagerly at his feet and listen! And, when I was older, and Fëanáro would visit our house, he would listen more keenly than I, and my father's tales always inspired in him a wealth of questions that poured from him with shameless eagerness. He wished to know of the tools constructed from rock, of the early weapons and the humble habits: of eating and drinking with one's hands--for metal could not be spared for utensils--of dressing in all one owned, to lessen the burden upon the mules, of the primitive medicine that was based, not in science, but centered on incantations and herbs mixed in precise proportions, although from where such knowledge derived, no one knows, although Fëanáro inquired. Fëanáro's lust for knowledge slowly sapped the romance from this distant life, with his questions about where and how one performed bodily functions. "Was it not a beacon to detection from your foes?" he asked once. "So many Elves voiding themselves in a single place?" Another time, when Atar told us of the glories of sleeping in the open air, beneath the stars--bodies strewn across the meadow--Fëanáro looked quizzical and said, "So, given the number of children born on the Great Journey, is one to then assume that open fornication was not taboo?" and Atar laughed to hide his surprise at such a question from an Elf of Fëanáro's meager years--he probably assumed that we did not even know what "fornication" was, although our nascent love had seen to our education--and when the brightness in Fëanáro's eyes did not dim, answered at last, although reluctantly, for he always lectured us that no curiosity should go punished, even should it burn down his forge--or introduce lascivious topics to his youngest daughter.
Such topics still enthrall Fëanáro, who I know wonders what our life would be like over the sea, without the Valar watching over us and without the stiff traditions that demand so much of his time. I know that he desires to fight the challenges such a life would present, to pit his strength against that of a raging storm or a stubborn mountain, the likes of which we do not have in Aman. He is skilled with a sword but its use never transcends art into practicality. His ability is like dancing: joyful to the body but essentially useless. I detect in my husband the desire to baptize his sword with the black blood of our people's foes, and the thought makes me shiver, as though a cold wind has touched its hand upon a warm spring day.
Fëanáro and I remove our boots and he leads me down the river. Here, it has cut deep into the soft flesh of the earth and no discernable bank remains, only sheer cliffs at either side. The rock is gray in the darkness, but when Fëanáro raises the lamp, pink spangles dance in the plain rock.
We visit each, dwelling long in appraisal. Fëanáro places his hands on each and knows its size, depth, and purity the way he might know the contours and temperament of an old friend. I am not so blessed, and many pieces cause me to gasp in wonder of their brilliance, only to have Fëanáro pronounce them flawed deep within the rock, beyond my sight.
The piece he selects is small, but before I can raise protest, he is gently chipping away at the gray stone that surrounds it with the pickaxe, until the piece is revealed to be much bigger beneath the rock, suitable for my project, although I have not yet spoken to him of my intentions.
Fëanáro and I were young and still under the tutelage of Aulë when he came to me in a state of agitated excitement one day, interrupting the blissful calm of my workshop to drag me by the hand to the forge, where he placed in my hands a small, pale stone, perfectly round and slightly warm.
"It is nice," I said, and I was confused, for he had shaped the earth's stones into marvels that were breathtaking to behold, yet he expected me to praise this rounded bit of unidentifiable rock.
He led me outside then, and it was late, and the stars prickled through Telperion's silver sheen. His face hypnotized me: It was alight with a burning joy I had yet to perceive in him, and his beauty was at its zenith, his eyes bright like silver flames. I still held the strange stone clasped in my hand, and he stood before me and peeled my fingers away from it, so it lay across the flat of my palm, but I was mesmerized by his face, by the fire in his eyes and the dark halo of his hair, stirred by the wind, that acted as a bed of black velvet to a gem of particular brilliance; his face was like a beacon of flame to me, and I could not look away. Then I realized that he was lit from below, with a strange blue light, and I followed his gaze to the stone on my palm, which seemed to have swollen in the seconds we had been standing in the starlight. It took me a moment to realize that the increase in size came not from a change in actual proportions but from the glow: It had taken the meager starlight and reflected it back one-hundredfold, until it was a fuzzy ball of light that filled my hand.
I waited for the searing agony of blue flame, but it never came; the stone remained cool, like a sphere of water in my palm. Fëanáro's kiss, when it happened upon my surprised lips, burned far more intensely, and my hand closed on a stone much smaller than it looked, fully aglow, silver-blue light darting between my fingers as though I held a star there. We kissed long that night, beside Aulë's forge, until I didn't think I could tolerate the touch of his body against mine for a moment longer without exploding into supernova.
If I'd known what greatness my husband would later craft, then the small bluish stone would not have impressed me, but just as a child's first word delights his parents, so the tiny trinket thrilled me. In later years, they would come to be commonplace, gracing the lamps we used in our homes--indeed, the lamp we carry now--for Fëanáro selflessly shared his knowledge of their devising until many could craft their like. Even I learned the skill, although my own stones glowed feebly compared to his, and the exercise in creating them was not a pleasurable one.
For the forty-fifth anniversary of our wedding, Fëanáro slipped onto my finger a ring of adamant brighter than any I'd seen, so bright that it drank the light of his father's hall and threw it forth in greater brilliance, creating a spangle on the ceiling overhead like stars. Our people celebrated with us in a festival of three days, like they might have done had we become betrothed before them in the manner traditional for Noldorin nobility: We stood on a flower-draped dais when he slipped the ring on my finger and our kiss met with applause like a rush of water. I was heavy with child, only a few months shy of bearing Carnistir, and those days were some of the happiest of our marriage: I had brought three healthy sons into the world already and survived the ordeal of bearing the third with strength enough to conceive again, ten short years later. The adamant on my finger expressed the tenacity of our marriage and its beauty; it was only after the festival, lying warm and exhausted in the bed beside Fëanáro, that he revealed to me that it was not adamant at all but a stone of his devising, stronger and more brilliant than anything the earth could yield.
I remembered a poem from the primer I read in my youth: Varda scattered stars of light, and Aulë made the gemstones bright. Suddenly, that was no longer true, for those Fëanáro yielded were more brilliant than anything delved from the dust of the earth, and the Valar spoke their words of praise to him--Aulë, particularly, was ecstatic with joy for the accomplishments of his greatest pupil--but the brothers Irmo and Námo were silent, their gazes heavy upon my husband.
Our people are divided on this issue: What is greater for use in our art, the stones of Aulë, from the earth, or the stones we ourselves create? Fëanáro and I stand on opposite sides when this debate takes hold, arguing most keenly with each other while the others watch, using punchy sarcasm and jokes to distract from the reality of our conflict. I wear the stones my husband forges but I will not make them myself and my work uses only the gifts from the earth. Fëanáro has taken to using Aulë's stones only when commissioned. The brilliant projects he undertakes solely for the joy of creation use only the bright, false gemstones born in his forge.
This he holds in his hands now, a stone of Aulë's devising, but he caresses the last of the dust from it with the same tenderness as he touched our sons when they were infants; he wraps it in a swath of silk that I did not even know that he carried and passes it to me. "Is this adequate?" he asks, and I nod.
He takes many more chunks of quartz from the cliff, as many as he will be able to carry, wrapping each in silk fine enough to grace the shoulders of a king.
He carries the stones back to Oromë's halls for me, held in the crook of his left arm like he once carried our children on journeys while his right hand clasps mine.
It is the depths of Telperion's hours when we emerge from the forest, and I am momentarily disoriented, for it was in the blazes of afternoon that we entered, and without the perpetual light filtering through the canopy, it felt as though time had stopped. Not so: It has gone on without us, and with the silver light to cue my body, I am suddenly weary and very hungry.
Back in Oromë's halls, I let Fëanáro lead me to our bedroom, where I undress and wash, emerging from the bathroom to find that he has set up a table for us with a spread of cold meats, bread, and cheeses, even a decanter of sweet strawberry wine. I am too tired to think of words to adequately express my gratitude, so I suffice to kiss his mouth and embrace him as tightly as my weary arms will allow.
He speaks throughout the meal so that we need not eat in silence and I need not be burdened with the effort of making suitable conversation. He speaks of quartz and the properties of the many varieties and the inspiration that each might provide, and I let his words ripple over me like water, soothing my mind and keeping it from wandering into troublesome thoughts, and every now and again, something he says catches in my brain, and I put it away for later reference.
When the meal is finished, I stand and fumble the dishes, trying to help Fëanáro with the clearing, but he takes my hands and leads me to the bed, where he unties and slips off my dressing gown for me as though I was a small child and lifts me into bed. My arms loop loosely around his neck, and for a moment, I think that he will undress too and we will make love, but he kneels beside the bed, arranging my arms and my hair across the pillow as though he intends me to pose for a painting.
"My beautiful wife," he whispers, and he kisses the palm of my hand, pressing it next to his chest, where I can feel his heart beating through the thin material of his tunic.
"And I always thought you to be a better judge of beauty, husband mine," I tease.
His fingers are on my lips, shushing me. "I am a great judge of beauty, better than those who would declare you unworthy." His mouth replaces the fingers; I feel his heartbeat quicken.
I say no more, but he knows my thoughts: A glance in the mirror is all it takes for me to question his judgment, and I do.
"When I was young, I never thought I'd marry," Fëanáro says. "I could never imagine that anyone but my father could love me unfailingly until the ending of Arda. The history of our people is still in its infancy; the world's end is still a long time away. A long time to spend with someone; a long punishment if you are mistaken in that single moment when that pledge is made. Then a marriage for prosperity or status becomes intolerable. But the sincerity of your love is in your eyes, Nerdanel, and I have never gazed upon something more beautiful, and I have never doubted that, alone of the Eldar, ours might be the only marriage to exist forever in love."
I fall asleep, lying in his arms while he kneels beside me, my hand upon his heart.
I awaken with a start from a nightmare I cannot remember, only that my heart races in fear for my sons. All of my sons. All
four of them, although I cannot fathom why; all I remember was how beautiful they looked, bathed in perfect white light.
I kick free of the bonds that the blankets make upon me and stand. Fëanáro is not in our bed, but I sense that he is not far from me. He has left the stones on the top of the vanity, and I see now that one is missing, its swatch of silk fallen onto the floor. I walk over and pick it up. I let it slip through my fingers and even raise it too my face, sniffing it, as though it will give some clue as to Fëanáro's intentions. I cannot see his mind; I only see myself, as I must have looked to him after falling asleep, my hair an auburn fan across the pillow and my palms upturned and helpless upon the bedclothes.
My dressing gown lies in a pool beside the bed, where Fëanáro let it fall, and I slip it on--conscious that I am not in my home and must put modesty before my desire to feel the warm Valinorian breeze on my bare skin--and step onto the balcony.
The night is veiled in silver. I push aside platinum leaves to lean over the balcony until my hips become a precarious fulcrum, and I am only a tiny shift from falling. I cannot see the ground, only endless silver and russet-twined branches and leaves like flickering mirrors. I imagine that--were I to fall--they would cradle me like a net, suspending me harmlessly above the ground until Fëanáro returned to our suite and found his foolish wife lying in a tangle among the leaves.
I lower my feet back to the safety of the balcony. The wooden planks appear to be rough, raw, but my feet never feel the stab of a splinter, and I might be walking on a carpet silk. Such is the magic of Valinor.
I walk. The balcony meanders as the house does, senselessly and seemingly at random, but always carrying one's feet to the place she most desires. In places, the curtains of leaves part long enough to allow breathtaking views of the canopy; the gentle warbles of early-morning birds tickle my ears, and after a while, I realize that I am following the sound of gentle singing and that the birds add their voices to it as a chorus. The voice rises and plays in the air. As light as a strand of hair caught by the breeze from one's fingers, it twists through the silvery darkness of early morning, playing on the warm breezes that make the trees dance as though in rhythm to the song.
My feet ascend a winding staircase that twists into a turret so high above the trees that it is shrouded in mist, and the world below is blurred as though by a distant memory. Vána stands here, her many-colored raiment rippling in the breeze, and in her arms lies my youngest son, my little Carnistir, whose sleep is made miserable by nightmares, the origins of which I cannot explain.
She hears my footsteps and turns, though she does not stop singing, and I am as mesmerized as my small son in her arms, whose dark eyes are lifted reverently to her face. At last, the song becomes torn on the breeze, a delicate cloth left too long in the wind, and Carnistir's eyes drop closed.
I open my mouth to apologize for my intrusion: How dare I come here uninvited, and in my dressing gown no less? But Vána curtsies slightly and motions her head to indicate that I should stand beside her. "I wish for you to join me, Nerdanel, if you please."
Carnistir murmurs in his sleep, and Vána presses a soft kiss on his forehead. "I did not mean to make a burden for you, my Lady," I say, "but when I returned I was utterly exhausted and succumbed to sleep before I could retrieve him."
She smiles. "You need not apologize, Nerdanel, for he is naught but a pleasure. How I wish Oromë and I could have a child of our own," she says, and her voice is wistful and a bit regretful, "but it is not the way of things. Eru will not grant children to the Ainur, and so my bond with my husband must be only a part of each of us and never shall there be a child, a product of that union that represents it in its fullest. Such is the way of things." She stares into Carnistir's face; her fingers trace the roundness of his cheek; his face is smoothed of all distress, as though he sleeps in a place where there are no dreams. "So you see, the Eldar speak always of our superiority in matters, but there are things in which even a Vala envies an Elf."
I look down at my feet. I wish that Fëanáro could hear those words.
A gentle hand lifts my chin, and I am staring into Vána's deep blue eyes. "Do not distress, my dear," she says. "Do not begrudge your husband his desire for freedom."
"But he is blasphemous," I whisper, and it is the first time I have said such words aloud, and to a Vala no less.
Blasphemous. The word hovers like a stinking green monster in the air, a sour belch of truth that I did not want to escape. But there it is, and Vána's hand on my face does not change except to tenderly slip a tendril of my hair behind my ear.
"Fëanáro is no such thing," she says. "He is the greatest Elf who has or ever will be born on Arda. His sentiments are fierce, but they are the desire of all: to live free."
"But we are free. The Valar place no impositions upon us," I say.
"One man's freedom is another man's cage. Fëanáro's father--indeed, your own grandfather--made the choice to follow my husband because freedom, to them, was the luxury of living free from fear and danger. Your husband has a strong spirit and such things do not stir him to dread. Freedom, to him, is the ability to go where he pleases, when he pleases it, to unleash the full potential of his thought and ability, to make a difference in a place where it matters, where his gifts may change the quality of one's life instead of acting as mere trinkets for casual delight."
"I fear for him," I whisper, another thought that should never have been expressed, but Vána does not loathe me for it. I feel her sympathy like a warm blanket around my shoulders; my son, in her arms, stirs in his sleep, as though such fears plague him too.
"Of course you do. He defies what you know, and that which is unfamiliar can be frightening. Fëanáro wishes nothing more fiercely than to be free of us, of all he fears we will press upon him, but," she laughs, "he is more a Vala than any other Elf born in Valinor. Ainur endless were there before Eru created Arda, yet only fourteen Valar descended to it. Why? Because we wanted to live free, in a world of our choosing, and while we love our father and still delight in his friendship and counsel, we love also to see the fruits of our abilities lighten the lives of others, of your people, the Quendi. But Námo foretold that not all of the Quendi would seek us, and so Fëanáro neither surprises nor grieves us, and we delight in the beauty that he has given our world.
"We do not seek servitude, Nerdanel. We do not ask that your people construct elaborate traditions in our honor or even that you kneel before us. We wish for your friendship, and that is why we have brought you here. Your husband is the servant of none but the friend of many; indeed, Aulë counts him close to his heart, almost as a son."
She smiles and holds Carnistir closer. "Do not grieve, my dear. Were we to resent Fëanáro's sentiments, then we would justify his fears. Your husband will one day soon find his happiness here."
I stand with Vána until the Mingling of the Lights, and she sings a hymn to this blessed event, and as Laurelin waxes, I take Carnistir from her and return to my own suite.
I do not know the way I have walked but my feet carry me through the maze of balconies as though they were as familiar as my own home. The leaves now are gently gilded at their edges; the sky fades to a pale eggshell blue. Carnistir awakens as I walk, only he doesn't chatter or wriggle, as are his ways, but sits peacefully astride my hip, chewing a strand of my hair.
His eyes are drooping again by the time I reach the familiarity of our stretch of balcony, so I carry him into the big room that Nelyo and Macalaurë were supposed to share and tuck him into the vast bed before returning to seek my own respite.
I stop in the doorway to our bedroom, however, startled: Fëanáro has returned. He lies across our bed, fully dressed, even with boots upon his feet, although he is in the depths of slumber, curled on his side, as is the way of our sons when they are young. Something rests in his arms, protected by the curve of his body. I gently lift his arm and ease it away from him; the silk in which he has wrapped it drifts to the floor and I am looking at my likeness, done in rose quartz, so perfect that I might have been shrunken and frozen in pink-stained ice, lying with my hair fanned across the crystal base, my palms upturned and helpless.
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