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Another Man's Cage: 34. Chapter Thirty-Four--Macalaure
It is Nelyo who sets the pace on our journey to the sea, and he rides hard, so hard that it is impossible to hear anything but the wind roaring past my ears. I am not naïve to his reasoning: It is not Nelyo's way to ride like this; he prefers to savor the landscape and the fellowship of his companions the way some would a fine wine. He does differently now because it allows him to avoid conversation. Or even avoid his own thoughts.
I fear that my palomino mare will not be able to keep up with Nelyo's mount, a stallion culled from the best of Grandfather Finwë's herd and presented to Nelyo as a gift for his fortieth begetting day. I expect snorting, head tossing—resistance—but she surprises me by lowering her head and keeping easy pace with Nelyo's stallion, as though she seeks to prove herself, knowing that my own fortieth begetting day—and her possible replacement—draws near.
Nelyo rides through the time when we would normally pause for a midday meal, but I don't dare stop him, although my stomach grumbles at me for it. We ride too quickly to even allow me a handful of the dried fruit I carry in the satchel at my side. Finally, just after the Mingling of the Lights, he reins in his horse near a copse of trees that will give us shelter for the night, with a brook running through that will give us water for a much-needed drink and washing-up.
We have made in one day the progress that I expected to make in two. Had we headed in a more southerly direction, we would have surpassed our family and would be nearing Oromë's Halls by now. As it is, we are still another two-day's ride from the sea, although if Nelyo insists upon the same ceaseless flight tomorrow, I might fall asleep at night with the soughing of the ocean in my ears.
I have packed a loaf of bread, a block of cheese, and four dark red apples, enough for a midday meal for both of us, after I saw Nelyo put nothing in his satchel but spices. I expected that—after eating—we would ride slowly and gather some berries and shoot suitable game for our supper, but Nelyo's pace thwarted that idea. Resolutely—and more than a little crankily—I unpack the apples, bread, and cheese, portions that looked ample when my stomach only nipped me with hunger but now look meager.
"What are you doing?" Nelyo asks, the first words he's said to me since we left this morning. "Save that. Game might be scarce at the seashore and neither of us are accustomed to fishing."
"What are we supposed to eat then, Nelyo?" I ask, as he removes his bow from where he strapped it to his saddle.
"I will find something. Unsaddle our horses, get a fire going, and look around for some fruit." He straps his quiver onto his back and jogs away, into the silvery dusk.
I do as instructed: I remove the tack from our horses, dry them with a soft cloth, and tether them where they have access to expanses of lush, green grass. Nelyo's horse will return loyally on his whistle, if allowed to roam free, but my mare has a habit of wandering off until the mid-afternoon, so I am sure to tie her tightly. I gather some tinder and start a fire; I have no trouble hitting the flints together hard enough to make sparks, as my irritation with my brother is burgeoning in proportion to my hunger. Soon, there is a roaring fire going, and I traipse into the copse of trees and gather some blackberries, grabbing at them hard enough that the thorns tear at my hands. When I return from the creek, having washed the insects from them in the rush of cold water, I am muttering. I undo our bedrolls beside the fire: I am tempted to spread Nelyo's over the rockiest patch of ground but do not because that would put him right next to the soft patch of grass that I have chosen for myself. I settle for putting him opposite the fire from me, on a spot littered with sticks.
"What am I, his Valar-forsaken wife?" I mumble to myself. "Expected to have his horse cleaned and his bed prepared by the time he gets back? His minion?" I mutter some obscenities to myself that are bad enough to get me into trouble even with Atar—they are derived from no Elvish language that I have heard but come from the Outer Lands, dark, guttural syllables, ugly enough to suit my mood—but it feels good to say them out loud; they crack the air like thunder. I walk over to the berries, stomping my feet extra hard across Nelyo's bedroll and leaving plugs of mud from my boots across it. He'll know that I did it, and there will be wounded looks and sour words later, but now, I don't care. "Am I some fruit-basket woman, gathering berries so that my hands don't get bloody? If he had children, he'd probably want them fed and bathed and the babies diapered by the time he got back. He'd probably be surprised that I didn't have a tit they could suck."
From behind me comes the rustle of furtive laughter, and I turn to see Nelyo standing there, with two good-sized hares and a cloth full of sweet potatoes in his hands. I yelp with surprise, and his snickers become a roar, and he has to set aside the hares and hunker to the ground with his hand over his face, his shoulders shaking with mirth.
"Varda's stars, you are funny when you're angry!" he manages at last.
I walk over to him, exceptionally angry at him now that he has starved me for the better part of the day, left me behind like some incompetent child, then had the nerve to laugh about it. I kick dust on him and shout, "Manwë's britches, you are a pain in my ass!"
This—even the dust, which I regret as soon as I see it settle in a brown film on his riding breeches—makes him laugh harder, until he tips backward hard, onto his backside, and tears squeeze out of his eyes. I glower at him and take the sweet potatoes, which I bury at the edge of the fire to bake slowly. They won't be ready until we're finished the rest of the meal, probably, but the thought of their sweet, tender flesh drowned in butter from the salted lump that I tucked into my satchel yesterday makes my mouth fill with saliva.
When I am finished, I turn to see that Nelyo has overcome his hilarity and is cleaning the hares. I am glad that he does this instead of me: I hate skinning and cleaning freshly killed meat, still warm with the life that I took only minutes before. I turn my back and rummage through my saddlebags for the two tin cups that I have brought, which I will fill with water from the brook. "I am sorry, Macalaurë," Nelyo says, from behind me. "I assumed that you would resent me more if I sent you to shoot my supper. That's why I asked you to stay. I didn't mean any implications by it."
I realize the truth of his words: I would have resented anything that he asked me to do. My resentment isn't that I am expected to help at our camp at night; it is the ceaseless galloping, the silence between us this day. It is the fear that he only brought me along to appease Amil, who thinks that he is still too young to journey alone. "I forgive you," I say, "and I apologize also, for my words and for kicking dust upon you."
"What of the mud tracked across my bedroll?" he asks, and I feel my face flush. How long was he behind me, I wonder?
"That too," I mumble.
He laughs. "Do not fret, Macalaurë; I was only joking. Did you know that the tips of your ears turn pink when you're embarrassed?"
I do know this—Atar teased me enough about it when I used to grow ashamed of my work in his forge—but I cup my hands over my ears and deny it anyway. "They do not," I say, reaching for the tin cups and realizing that my ear is left uncovered, and finally realizing that I must choose between escaping for a few moments or covering my ears and settling to cover my ears with the cups, stomping loudly through the brush to drown out the sound of Nelyo's laughter behind me.
When I return, Nelyo has put the hares to roast over the fire, sprinkled liberally with the spices from his satchel, and is mashing some of the blackberries together with spices to make a glaze that he slathers onto the meat. I grimace at the thought of eating rabbit coated in blackberry, all the while knowing that Nelyo shares Atar's intuition for such things and that it will be delicious.
I set the cups of water on the ground, and Nelyo gulps his. "You're refilling it!" I chide, but he wipes his mouth with his hand and grins. "I am not drinking any more water this night," he says, and opens a flap on his saddle to reveal a bottle of wine, safely swathed in his heavy cloak.
"Shouldn't we save it for the sea?" I ask, dumping my water onto the ground so that he may fill both of our cups.
"I have set our course so that we will go through a town tomorrow. We will get more there," he says.
"How can you be sure that they have good vintages?"
He scoffs. "I can't. And I don't care. All I want is something that will get me blind-drunk." He raises his cup to me. "Cheers!"
I raise mine to tap his and sip the wine. It is Atar's wine, so naturally, it is an excellent vintage, grown in the vineyards of Taniquetil. But Nelyo is right in that it is hard to get drunk from it; it is more apt to lighten the feel of one's head on one's shoulders while conveniently inspiring suitably intellectual conversation. It is no wonder that the Noldor—especially my father—love such wines. Myself, I suddenly have a taste for the cheap, thick brews of the north, a single glass of which will knock you onto your backside as quickly as would a glass of whiskey.
But this wine will do for tonight, when we still have half of our journey ahead of us and cannot afford to awaken tomorrow morning, feeling as though our heads are being squeezed in one of Atar's vices. Nonetheless, neither Nelyo nor I hesitate in pouring a cup of wine into our empty stomachs before our supper is ready, and my mood is soon lightened as a result. Nelyo laughs when I ask if we should use utensils and drops my rabbit directly onto a tin plate, which he shoves into my hands. "Who are we to impress?" he asks. "Each other? Macalaurë, you ceased impressing me the first time you messed yourself while sitting in my lap."
I am too busy picking at the meat, ravenous, to do much more than give him a quick glower. The meat is leathery and tastes gamy, but the glaze covers it, and soon I am sucking on the bones and tossing them to the ground. The meat is raw near the bones, but I am hungry enough that I don't care, and I chase the distasteful bits with large swallows of wine. Nelyo is similarly engrossed, and the only sounds are the crackle of the fire, of frogs singing by the brook, and our teeth tearing at tough rabbit-meat. I lick the last bits of glaze from my fingers, even nibbling at my nails to get the traces from beneath, and look over to see my graceful, proper brother doing the same, grinning at me while he lifts his plate to lick it like a dog, tossing it aside with a rattle and giving a loud belch.
Despite my earlier irritation, I can't help but to laugh.
The sweet potatoes are finished, nearly exploding in the hot ashes at the edge of the fire, and we both burn out fingers in our haste to devour them next, using our hunting knives to cut them open and scooping out the soft insides with our fingers, popping them quickly into our mouth to ease the burn, which slides instead across our tongues, down our throats, and into our stomachs.
We toss aside our plates and cups and Nelyo slides his bedroll next to mine. We drink the dregs of wine, straight from the bottle, as Amil tells us disreputable people do. It is fun being disreputable, I think: eating with one's hands, drinking straight from the bottle, and using our tunics as napkins. We lie side by side on our bedrolls, passing the last of the wine and the berries between us, hungry for neither but simply enjoying the sweet explosion each brings to our tongues.
I lounge on my side, with my head resting on my arm stretched over my head. The fire is still robust and warms my feet. Nelyo lies on his back with his knees steepled and his legs splayed and the bottle resting on his chest. I let him have it; he needs it more than I do.
"We should bathe," I say. With my arm raised along the ground, I can smell my odor: sweat, dust, smoke from the fire. Nelyo has opened the neckline of his tunic, and I can see sweat glistening on his chest. He must smell worse than me, like all those other things and blood too.
"No, we shouldn't," he says languidly. "The creek will be cold. I'd rather smell your stench than leave this fire."
After a moment's thought, I agree, although I am startled by his refusal. Nelyo cannot tolerate dirt on his skin. He says it makes him itch like a thousand spiders are crawling upon him.
He jabs the wine bottle in my direction, and I take another swig. My whole body feels lighter now—not just my head—as though I would float up to the stars if I took off the pesky clothes weighting me down. Maybe Nelyo doesn't itch because the spiders are drunk too and have floated away to live in the stars.
I look at Nelyo and giggle, without knowing why. His head rolls in my direction; his eyebrows are raised, inquiring. He reaches for the bottle, and after a few jabs, I manage to get it into his hand. "You look like you're about to give birth," I tell him, and he looks down at his body—his knees raised, his legs spread—and after a moment laughs with me. "I suppose I do," he says. He rolls onto his side, facing me, and lets the bottle fall between us. It tips, but my hands don't quite respond when I order them to catch it. After a moment, I realize that it is empty anyway. "Thank Eru we are males and don't have to do that," he mutters.
I think about it: All the times that I wished to be the daughter that Amil and Atar wanted so badly, I never considered that aspect of things, of being taken by a male and bearing his children. I grimace, and Nelyo laughs.
"Just imagine having Carnistir inside of you for a year. It's a wonder he didn't chew his way out," he says.
"Amil didn't seem to mind." My eyes are growing heavy; sleep is not far off, although I haven't even removed my boots yet.
"Yes, but now she sleeps all of the time." Nelyo is twirling his hair; his eyes are alert, although slightly unfocused. He is bigger than me; it makes sense that the wine should affect him less. "Do you imagine that you'll have a lot of children, Macalaurë?"
My eyes slip closed. I dream of Vingarië pregnant, although she has told no one else but me, but when I try to imagine further, it is like imagining walking until I stand on the horizon and squatting down to see what is underneath of Arda. "No," I mumble, and sleep rolls atop me, a stone dropped from a great height.
My sleep is tormented this night by wine-induced dreams, the illogical, ceaseless variety. I dream that Vingarië and I are married and it is our wedding night, and I am trying to bond to her in a bare, drafty room in grandfather Finwë's palace. Nelyo keeps interrupting us, though, asking me to clean his boots for him, and finally I get angry and throw his boots at him, striking him in the head and leaving clods of mud caught in his hair. "If I can't marry than neither can you!" he screams, and every time I reach the verge of bonding with my new wife, there is another knock on the door and Nelyo on the threshold, boots in hand.
I awaken far too early, at the Mingling of the Lights, before remembering that I had gone to sleep early too. I awaken because I am cold: The fire has died to embers in the night, and Nelyo's bedroll is deserted, the covers tousled like the nest of a restless beast. I slept the night on my outstretched arm, and now my neck is sore and my hand is cold and tingling. I touch it, and it is limp and cold, but momentarily, sensation returns in the way of burning pins, as though my own blood scorches my flesh from within.
My mouth is dry and tastes as if it has been washed with sawdust. I look regretfully at the overturned tin cups, realizing that I haven't had water since leaving home yesterday morning. My head pounds with dryness, and even the gentle, mingled light of the Trees needles my eyes. I dread Laurelin's hours and hope that Nelyo will let me spend them in cold darkness under a rock.
I walk to the creek, stretching sore limbs as I go, longing for the panacea of cold water on my parched throat. Nelyo kneels by the stream, cleaning a grouse. My footsteps are none too graceful and he looks up and gives me a wan smile. "Good morning," he says, and I grunt a reply. He jerks his head to his left. "Drink upstream from me or all you'll taste is blood."
The grouse has a neat hole in its breast. Its red-brown feathers are matted with blood. Nelyo is pulling them from its skin with swift nonchalance, and they swirl downstream like tiny Telerin ships. I plunge my face into the water to overcome sudden nausea. The water is good, and I let my nose and eyelashes dip into the creek until a splash of water from my right makes me sit upright, a bolt of pain shooting through my sore neck.
Nelyo is grinning at me, half-plucked grouse clutched in hand. His face is white, like parchment; underneath his eyes, the skin is grayish, the beginnings of a bruise. Next to his pale skin, his hair is nauseatingly red. I glower at him. "Leave me be, Nelyo, I have a headache." I dip my face back into the cool relief of the stream.
"You had too much wine last night," he tells me. "You were snoring like a monster."
Suddenly, many things fall together in my head, as though I'd dropped a jigsaw puzzle and all of the pieces happened to fall into place: the rumpled bedroll, his blanched face, his knowledge of my mid-night behavior. He didn't sleep last night. I ponder this while the cold water tickles my nose.
He stands. "Don't drink too much of that cold water or you'll vomit," he warns, ruffling my hair affectionately, before I hear his footsteps crunching back to our camp.
When I return, he has poked the fire back to life and is roasting the grouse over it. At the thought of eating the greasy meat, my stomach turns a slow somersault. As though reading my thoughts, Nelyo quickly says, "I'm cooking it for later, for tomorrow. I figure we'll take our midday and evening meals at the inn."
"Why did you shoot it now?" I ask, although I know why: He was restless. But he says, "Opportunity presented itself. I took it."
We cut slices from the loaf of bread for our breakfast. Nelyo eats his slathered in butter and garnished with the remnants of last night's berries, but I can barely chew it dry. I choke down one slice and, at his insistence, begin another. "You'll need your energy," he tells me. "We still have far to go."
We douse the fire and pack up the camp. I catch Nelyo yawning several times, but he makes his face break into a grin in an attempt to deceive me, as though spending the duration of my life with him hasn't taught me better. Laurelin is beginning to blossom into fullness as we saddle our horses. I thought that the harsher light would hurt me, but with my belly full again and my thirst quenched, the light soothes my skin, which didn't seem to realize that it was chilly until now. Still, I hope that Nelyo won't ride as fast as yesterday. I don't know if my skull can tolerate having my backbone rammed into it for the better part of the day.
Luckily, Nelyo's weariness makes him slacken the pace, and we ride for most of the morning at a light jog, counting the number of different creatures we see on the way. As midday approaches, I sing and manage to coax Nelyo into a half-hearted accompaniment. Nelyo operates under the delusion that he is a terrible singer when really his voice is rich and full, like chocolate. As we ride, I notice the wilderness being tamed and compacted: Civilization approaches. Soon, the weeds bend away from our path and the wildlife becomes scarce. Above the forest to our right, a tendril of smoke curls and oscillates into nothingness. Soon, the trees are planted in rows—orchards—and the fields are plowed and contain only a single type of plant. The lumps of stone, born at random from the earth, disappear and are replaced by the rare, squarish house. The trail becomes a path; a path becomes a road, and a sign chiseled into the flat face of a rock greets us: Osto-Ehtelë, ½ league. It is decorated with curlicues at the borders and presents the final sign of civilization: art.
I have never been to this town but I have heard its name mentioned. A few years back, a swarm of insects attacked the apple trees in Formenos, and Atar and the lords rode to neighboring towns to take what each was willing to spare. They came back with multitudes, more than the people could eat, and the lords told us the next summer that even the horses had apples that winter. Nelyo and Atar ride here sometimes too—Atar often receives commissions and attends councils—on their private journeys that I pretend never to want to attend because it lessens the sting when I am not asked. Atar pronounces their metalworking superb and Nelyo pronounces their maidens passable, earning sharp looks from Amil. Not far beyond the sign, I can hear the sounds of civilization, of hammers ringing and voices calling to one another. We round the top of a hill, and the town is spread below us: squat, gray houses and shops set along four narrow streets enclosing a square with an impressive fountain at its center. Like a mirage, it shimmers—a many-colored scintillation—and my puzzled eyes are forced to skip away.
At the edge of town is a stable. Nelyo slows and dismounts, so I follow. I am not sure how one behaves in a town. My experiences are limited to Tirion and Formenos, and both are cities where I am recognized and treated as royalty. Here, in my dusty cloak, with my oily hair tied back in a strip of cloth, I am an ordinary traveler. I take care to tuck my tunic around the star pendant at my throat, lest my father's symbol give away my identity.
A groom emerges from the stable, his face split into a wide grin. "Russandol!" he calls, and I start, for I have never heard anyone but family call my brother by that name. They clap each other in quick embraces; the groom is nearly a head shorter than my brother but the trail of three children that follow him from the stable reveal that he is older, probably older than our father. Nelyo stoops and greets each child in turn, by name, presenting each with one of our father's crystals. They hold them in the darkness of cupped hands and dance when blue-white light pokes between their fingers.
"Roquenwë, I present to you my brother, Macalaurë," Nelyo says. He is standing beside me again.
I take his callused hand in mine, in greeting. My own hands are soft in comparison, except at my fingertips, where the abuse of the harp strings has toughened my skin. "Laurelin shines upon this hour," I say, and the groom grins and says, "Indeed it does. I see you—like Russandol—have your father's manners."
Nelyo laughs, but I am puzzled. I give Nelyo imploring looks as we follow Roquenwë into the stable, but he is busy telling the news of Formenos and Tirion. It is a good thing, I always think, that Nelyo is the one that everyone asks for news because, if they asked me, I doubt I could discern the important things from that about which no one cares. I would remember the births, betrothals, and marriages—both of my aunts are expecting in the next few months, and the eldest daughter of lord Merkurya of Formenos is finally considering betrothal to her suitor of forty years (although she might waver again once she learns that Annawendë has left)—but I doubt that I could accurately report the minutia of our lives. I didn't even know, for example, that Formenos and some of the towns along the road to Tirion are currently debating whether they should send engineers to improve and upkeep the southern road. I knew about but wouldn't see the importance of reporting the excellent wheat harvest that the Formenos farmers have had this summer. But Nelyo prattles on endlessly about such things and Roquenwë occasionally adds stories of the town, which I know Nelyo will relay to our eager father upon our return home. As for me, the name of Osto-Ehtelë's midwife and her newborn daughter are no sooner in my ears then they have been squeezed from my brain.
Nelyo and I leave the horses behind and walk the rest of the way into the town. There are no gates or guards; no way of telling when one actually enters the township proper. One moment, the ground beneath our feet is hard-packed dirt with the occasional brave weed poking from it; the next, crushed gravel rattles beneath our feet and Nelyo is greeting the people that we pass, many of whom stop him with a touch to his arm and regale him with a tale or another. Some scrawl hasty messages to our father, which Nelyo folds neatly and tucks into his satchel.
"What did Roquenwë mean when he said that we have our father's manners?" I ask Nelyo as we walk. Nelyo looks at me quizzically. "Why, Macalaurë, it is obvious, I should think, that you are I have the bearing of Tirion royalty, as does Atar."
I have never thought of Atar as having a royal bearing before. To me, Atar acts ordinarily—slovenly even—with his clothes always dirty from the forge and his hair a mess and his blunt, merciless manner. At Grandfather Finwë's festivals, he acts properly enough, I suppose, but I have always figured that this was done for no reason other than pleasing our grandfather, who attaches great importance to grace and manners. Atar also has natural grace—as does Nelyo—but he seems to work harder at hiding it than he does expending the minute effort it would take to flaunt it. I convey as much to Nelyo, who nods knowingly. "You are rarely along when he meets the people of the north. They admire him for a reason, Macalaurë."
I have been along occasionally when we walk among the people of Tirion, and there, Atar is distant, cold almost. Nelyo smiles when I say this, and says, "That is because he knows the loyalty of the people of the city is more with our uncle than with us. It is simple resentment; that's all."
I can't believe that Atar would be prone to such a childish emotion. "He is human, Macalaurë," Nelyo adds, as though reading my thoughts. I have to wonder sometimes.
"Atar says that we go to Formenos because summers in Tirion are too hot for efficient work in the forge," Nelyo tells me. "Haven't you ever wondered, Macalaurë, why our father—of all people—would complain of the heat? He relishes it. That is not the reason. He loves the north; he is important here."
"But he is important in Tirion too," I argue. "He is the High Prince."
"Yes, and that is why he is important in Tirion. Here, he is important because his skill and his work are valued. The people care little for his title. Grandfather Finwë and our uncle Nolofinwë generally come here every few years. Our grandfather, of course, is always remembered, but Uncle Nolofinwë was angry that people would not remember him here. He eventually stopped coming, and Grandfather brings Atar now.
"These are our people, Macalaurë," Nelyo adds, "not those who live in Tirion."
I suppose that I have thought little about my station and the power it confers. Atar is adamant that none of us should be given "illusions" about our inherent importance. "Your grandfather's station is no excuse for your ignorance," he frequently told me when I was young, and I would cry bitter tears in secret over these words, for my ignorance came not from an assumption about my higher place in the world but because my spirit was not meant to contain such knowledge. I was built with a different, contrary purpose in mind. Tyelkormo once, at a festival, made a rude demand of one of Grandfather's servants, and Atar's retribution was swift and loud, and Tyelkormo spent the rest of the meal in an apron, refilling water glasses.
Our people. I wonder what that means. I have never tried to discern the meaning of one's people at home; I wonder which of my demands they would meet. I wonder how far they would follow me, if I asked. I came here, wondering what it would feel like to be treated as a common traveler. Now, I uncover my father's star at my throat and let the opal wink in the light, wondering the opposite: What does it mean to be treated as a prince?
Nelyo notes my gesture and says, "Don't get any grand ideas, Macalaurë. This is a humble land. They will not pave your way with roses, as they would in Tirion; they will not bow and call you 'my lord,' but neither will they speak ill of you in their houses and stare hard at your back when you walk away."
We reach the fountain at the center of the town. I am hungry and wish for a rest, but I can see why Nelyo brought me here: Our people are compelled towards such splendor; it exceeds all other needs. I see now why Atar is so keenly respected here. The fountain is constructed of red iron; it rises in the shape of a tree trunk and silver fronds of water cascade from each branch. But at the tip of each is a sliver of colored glass, lit from within, that stains the water in a rainbow of colors: I have known my father long enough to know his work and this might be one of the most splendid examples of it. This was what I spied from afar, what dazzled my eyes from the hilltop.
Metalworking and gemcraft are not my fortes, as they are Atar's, but I have had enough lessons in craft to know the difficulty of such a construction and to appreciate the splendor. Many townspeople gather in the square, as though nearness to the fountain's beauty will heighten the happiness in their lives. A small child plays on the fountain's edge, sailing a boat constructed of oiled parchment while his mother watches. A young couple with silver rings upon their fingers walk hand-in-hand. A bard playing a lute serenades them as they pass. I stand in awe.
"Atar made it?" I say at last.
"No, it has been here longer than he's been alive. But he made the stones and encased each in glass of a slightly different hue that gives it its color. He did it as a gift to the town."
Nelyo shrugs. "He studied here, I think, for a while, in his youth."
I am beginning to think that there are few places where my father—who's been on Arda less than a century—hasn't studied. I imagine him lying along the edge of the fountain in his languid manner, intent upon some book or another, with our mother at his side. Nelyo and I would have been distant thoughts then, maybe even laughable. I wonder what they would have said if told that their two eldest sons would stand in this square, only a half-century later, and gaze in wonder upon Atar's work.
It is a suitable gift from a Noldo. In a rare, cynical mood, Nelyo once said that a gift from a Noldo is either very large or very small: a ring with a pinprick of a diamond or a ten-story tower. There is even a Noldorin ballad to this effect, sung so often by lovestruck couples that the lines in it have become rather trite clichés: "I'll build a fountain for you, my love / A sturdy tower, reaching above." Infatuation is dismissed in this way: "He loves her enough to build a tower for her," meaning, "He loves her in the same way as his mother, his sister, his dog, and his favorite childhood pony." Nelyo said that such clichés became true only if you added "in my pants" to the end of each. And so we sing, when we are alone and in surly moods: "I'll build a fountain for you in my pants / A sturdy tower reaching above in my pants." Carnistir once hid under my bed and heard us singing this and took to singing it himself; luckily, Nelyo managed to bribe him with biscuits—one of the few foods that he will eat—before Amil heard it.
But this fountain is a tribute to love: I imagine that if I proposed to Vingarië here, then neither of us would tire of recounting the tale until the ending of Arda.
Nelyo touches my arm, interrupting my thoughts. "Come now, Macalaurë," he says. "Now that you have seen the fountain, then we can have a meal. I am starving."
The inn is just past the fountain, a three-story gray stone building with a simple wooden sign out front, emblazoned in beautiful script, stating simply, "Inn."
Nelyo pauses before we go in. "Mind you if we stay the night, Macalaurë? There are some with whom I wish to speak." He mentions some of the conversations he's had with people on the road; the words and names sound vaguely familiar but the details are foreign. I nod anyway. After the abuse I gave my body yesterday, I would like a good meal and a hot bath.
It is midday, and the inn is crowded. Several of the patrons I recognize as travelers, like us, with dusty cloaks tossed over their shoulders and parcels stacked beneath their chairs. Others are townspeople, in for a glass of wine and a conversation, or craftsmen who haven't the time to prepare a midday meal for themselves. Some still wear their smith's aprons. I can see why Atar is so comfortable here.
Nelyo approaches the front counter where a pretty, dark-haired girl is polishing wine glasses with a soft cloth. When her eyes alight on Nelyo, however, the glass and the cloth are set aside, forgotten.
"Greetings, my lady," he says, taking her hand softly in his. "My brother and I are traveling to the sea and greatly desire hot meals and soft beds until we leave tomorrow."
Her brow furrows, as though she must tell him distressing news, the death of a favorite pet perhaps. "We have only one room left," she says. I half-expect her eyes to brim with tears.
But Nelyo smiles, and her distress melts. "That is fine. I will share with my brother," he says. He reaches into his satchel, to find a commodity to trade for their services, but her quick fingers touch his arm, and even such a subtle touch is enough to stop him and make his eyes return to her face. "No," she says. "My father says that the House of Fëanaro is always welcomed as one of our own. We ask nothing from you."
Nelyo mumbles his gratitude. Something has disturbed him; he is like an acrobat balanced on a wire high above the ground and losing his balance. I watch his composure teeter and right itself, but knowledge of the near-fall has tensed his shoulders, and he remains precarious. I wonder: Was it the generosity of the innkeeper or the way the daughter touched his arm?
Nelyo finds a table in the corner, away from the loquacity of the townspeople and the other travelers. He doesn't say much even to me; he watches the innkeeper's daughter, and she graces him with the occasional glance back, accompanied always with a smile.
If we were in one of the inns of Tirion or Formenos, in the days before Nelyo decided that he wanted to marry Annawendë, I would know how this was going to progress: Nelyo would wait for the inn to empty, justifying his usurpation of the girl's attention; they would drink wine together, and Nelyo would be perfectly charming and accommodating, refusing her service in favor of doing all for her; quiet plans would be made, and her cheeks would glow with hope, and I would brace myself for the storm to come, because all of Nelyo's courtships end in the same place, with broken hearts and tarnished reputations.
The innkeeper himself brings our meals. "Russandol, what an unexpected pleasure!" he says, and I find myself again alarmed by the name. He is Russandol only to the Tirion family; to everyone else, he is Nelyo or Maitimo. I am introduced to the innkeeper, and he takes my hand with surprising strength. Does no one here have weak hands, I wonder? "The revered minstrel!" he exclaims. "Of whom Fëanaro speaks so proudly! It is good to meet you at last, Macalaurë."
This startles me also: Atar speaks of me when he goes abroad, and proudly nonetheless?
Nelyo gestures to an empty chair and invites the innkeeper to join us. He gives a wary glance around the dining room, like a parent who does not trust a child not to misbehave while his back is turned. "They are all eating," says Nelyo. "There is nothing that they will need that Halwará cannot handle. Sit."
And so he grabs an extra bottle of wine and an extra glass and sits with us. The meals he has given us are excellent: venison sliced thinly and served over bread, covered in gravy; sweet, buttered corn; and wild rice tossed with such a variety of spices that I cannot identify them all. He and Nelyo talk of mutual acquaintances, both in the town and in Formenos. He asks the purpose of our journey. "We are traveling to the sea," says Nelyo, and the innkeeper appears puzzled by this. "But for what purpose?"
He is Noldo, and so everything is done with a purpose in mind. Trips are not taken without reasoning: to see some mine or acquire some material unique to a single area; to appraise a tower or a building constructed by an illustrious architect, perhaps; to meet someone who can impart knowledge that can be found nowhere else. The Teleri would understand, for they desire the sea apart from any single purpose; the Vanyar would understand also, for they are known to journey days just to see the way the water looks at the Mingling of the Lights. But to a Noldo, something that cannot be held in one's hand or put towards the construction of some physical entity does not constitute a purpose.
"I am studying the patterns of the waves," Nelyo says, and my head jerks in his direction, for it is a lie, yet Nelyo tells it easily, without a glimmer of guilt in his silver eyes. "My father and I are studying waves, how they pertain to sound and light, and I hope that the more tangible waves of the sea will shed some insight into this."
Of course, what would he say if he told the truth? That he's been slighted by a woman and wishes to escape her memory in the places where they've shared kisses, conversations? That he wishes to be away from the demands of our father, the persistence of our little brothers, and the reproach of our mother? That even one so beautiful and composed fears being broken by a poorly timed remembrance or an unintentionally callous word?
The conversation shifts to a discussion of our family; I recognize it as Nelyo's doing, subtle even to me and imperceptible to someone who knows him less. The innkeeper refills our glasses and inquires after our mother. "She is well," says Nelyo. "She has taken two apprentices and has resumed nearly her full workload again."
The innkeeper grins. "I was infatuated with her when she used to come here with your father, but even a smitten boy could see that her heart was taken."
"Indeed," Nelyo replies. "If I should be so blessed in love as my parents, nearly any other curse would be bearable."
"You are not then? You are courting no one?"
This is a very personal question, and I am surprised, but Nelyo doesn't appear to notice. Of course, he is working through his fourth glass of wine even as the question is asked. I wonder if he will mention Annawendë. "I have no one," he says. I watch his eyes, but they remain as flat as if he were answering a question about the type of stone Atar used to construct a house. "I remain unattached."
"As does my daughter. Fifty-two years old and nary a suitor."
"That is a shock. Your daughter is very beautiful."
"Beautiful, yes, but also particular. Oh, they have expressed interest—the boys of the town—but she will not hear of it. Perhaps she would settle for the eldest son of the high prince?" he teases.
"Perhaps," Nelyo says, grinning, and drinking more wine.
I feel chills prickle my arms, as though Nelyo—despite his inebriety—had orchestrated that very question.
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