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Another Man's Cage: 47. Chapter Forty-Seven--Macalaure
When I return to King Olwë’s palace that night, having rudely missed his supper without making my excuses--and feeling ashamed for it, hoping I will not have to face him--I climb the stairs soundlessly to the room I share with Nelyo. But he is not there.
There is a parchment on my pillow, folded into thirds and sealed with Nelyo’s seal, the one he rarely uses, preferring to continue using our father’s until he reaches his majority. My name is written in his elegant hand across the front, and I break the seal carefully and reluctantly.
I have gone to Taniquetil to recite for my examinations. I am very sorry for the sudden nature of my departure, but I just realized this morning that I needed to go now or chance that I shall never find the will or desire to do so again. Although the examinations have ceased to matter to me as they once did, I understand that--for reasons greater than my personal preferences in the matter--I must nonetheless attempt and excel at them, and so I have gone, before my sudden apathy leads me to make decisions that I will later regret.
I have sent word to Atar, explaining that he need not ride to Taniquetil next week to hear me recite, and so you do not need to make excuses or explanations on my behalf. I will gladly bear the retribution for my hasty and rude decision--as I recognize that it is impolite to have left as I did, knowing that my family had hoped to be in attendance, in support of me--and you need not become involved. Should he ask, you are welcome to tell him that you knew nothing of it, for that is not far from the truth, as I did not tell you before leaving of my intention. Indeed, until this morning, I did not know myself that I would not be sleeping in my accustomed bed tonight.
I have also spoken with and given my apologies to King Olwë and thanked him most sincerely for his kindness and apologized for my lackluster appreciation of it, for I recognize that my behavior in recent weeks has been beneath what should be expected of our grandfather’s heir, and I hope to remedy these errors upon my return.
To you, also, I owe my apologies, for I have not been nearly supportive enough, lost as have been my thoughts in my own daily tragedies. Trust that you are more than a brother but my dearest friend, and there is no one on Arda whom I love more and wish not to see hurt. If I have done so, trust that it was inadvertent and that I shall make any amends that you deem necessary upon my return, and more.
I love you, Macalaurë, and you are in my thoughts always, and I hope that I may live fondly also in yours, during my absence, as your brother and most beloved friend,
I reread the letter twice, appraising my feelings. Nelyo, it seems, expects that I should be angry. I test this expectation: Am I angry? Should I be? Indeed, Atar and I had planned to accompany him to Taniquetil; we would sit behind him as he recited the results of years of study and scholarship to Manwë, answering his questions on the subjects. I had not thought about whether I desired the trip or not. Certainly, it would take me away from my studies in Alqualondë--and Vingarië--for a week but Nelyo was correct in that he is both my brother and my most beloved friend, and that it might have been a sacrifice had never entered my mind until now.
Nelyo’s heart has never been a secret to me, just as mine has never been a secret to him. But in recent months, since Annawendë’s departure, he has smiled at me when I know he has wished to cry; his face has been like one sculpted, based on expectations of how he should look, but I have recognized him as a stranger, and I have, at times, wished to seize his shoulders and shake him until he wept, telling him that I do not love him for his unfailing dignity or cheerfulness but because he has never thought first of himself while another is suffering, and that is a greater accomplishment than I can ever hope to achieve. When I am hurt, my thoughts are on my pain; my eyes see no one else’s, but Nelyo would bear unspeakable torment, I believe, to save those he loves from the same.
To love him, given that, seems an inferior repayment, like giving a bland, featureless stone as gratitude for a pound of gold.
And so, when I think of how I feel about Nelyo’s sudden desertion, I decide that I have no choice but to forgive him. My heart can bear to do nothing else.
For how can I betray him now? After all that he has done for me, selflessly, that the one time he chooses to act in his own interest, I would begrudge him it, believing that he should ignore his broken heart when he treats every tremor in the balance of my well-being as a travesty worthy of his immediate and ceaseless attention, until it is resolved.
I fold the letter and slip it beneath my pillow, wishing to believe the childish superstition that to put a letter from a person beneath my pillow will give me fond dreams of him and, likewise, give him fond dreams of me.
I have no way of knowing Nelyo’s dreams that night, but I know that I dream of him. We are sitting on balcony, overlooking Tirion. We hold goblets in our hands and drink a fine, full-bodied wine and talk and laugh. Upon awaking, I cannot remember a bit of our conversation, but I know that we were both happy, and beyond that, the details seem unimportant.
I am nearing the end of my lessons here in Alqualondë, the point where my tutor will decide if he will take me as a student again next year or choose another in my place. Given this, I am abashed by the little attention I have given to my music, distracted as I have been by my budding love for Vingarië and now my concern for Nelyo.
Vingarië laughs at my concerns, when I tell her. “Of course he will take you back! You are not even forty yet, and never has this city seen one with greater talents than you!”
Unconvinced, I say, “It is possible, Vingarië, that you possess a sizeable bias on that matter.”
“Yes,” she agrees, “but it is also possible that my father is close friends with your tutor, and I overheard them discussing you in the parlor beneath my bedroom. There is a very convenient air shaft …”
Still, I do not believe her.
I intensify my practices, with Nelyo gone. Without having to worry about keeping him awake at night, I stay awake until the arrival of morning, practicing. Many nights, I get no sleep at all, and my eyes are heavy and my fingers sore upon reporting to my lessons in the morning, blisters forming upon the fingertips that I had always proudly believed to be suitably callused. But I ignore my pain and play on, and feel a twinge of relief whenever my instructor nods his approval.
The week passes in a blur. It is the eve of my begetting day, and I do not sleep at all, working tirelessly--or so I wish to believe--on a new song assigned to me today, a song that seems to require the fingers of a contortionist, or better yet, a dozen fingers instead of the ordinary ten with which I was born.
As the Lights begin to mingle, I hear the gentle strum of a harp answering my melody, from outside the room, on the beach below. I pause and rub my eyes, wondering if maybe I should have slept after all (I had two hours of sleep the night before and only an hour the night before that), if maybe I am hallucinating from my weariness, but when I resume playing, determined to finish the song, someone beneath my balcony answers on another harp, playing chords that compliment perfectly my music.
I stop playing and go to the balcony, lean over, and see a silver-haired maiden staring back up at me with a wide but slightly abashed grin on her face.
“Vingarië?” I hiss.
“Happy begetting day, Macalaurë. I had hoped to awaken you with a love song, but it seems you were already playing one.”
I swing my legs over the railing and shimmy down a column. Three feet above the ground, my hand slips, and I topple into the sand beside her. “Ohh …” I say, rubbing my backside, and she laughs, offering me a hand and hauling me to my feet.
I kiss her. “Don’t you know that it is the man who is supposed to arrive beneath his true love’s balcony and serenade her?” I ask.
“But my begetting day is in the spring, and you will be home with your father then,” she says, as though that makes her actions perfectly logical. Logical, no, but acceptable, and I feel a thrilling flutter to think that I have found wonderful love so unexpectedly.
It makes me realize, though, the depth of what must be Nelyo’s pain.
“I brought wine,” Vingarië says, removing a bottle from her satchel, “if you are not bothered by the thought of drinking so early in the morning.”
Taking the bottle from her and using the edge of my nightshirt to work the cork free, I say, “I am not bothered at all.”
She produces two goblets, and we move closer to the sea, where we lie on the chilly sand with the warm sea lapping at our toes, drinking sweet, heady wine and gazing at the stars, which are beginning to become sharper in their brilliance, hidden now only by the wispy veil of the mingled Lights.
“So were you born on your begetting day? Or merely begotten?”
“No. I was born two weeks late. My mother was at a very important feast, being held in my grandfather’s palace, when she went into labor, and so I am the only of my brothers born within the walls of Tirion.”
“I was born precisely on my begetting day,” Vingarië says, “in Alqualondë. Perhaps this is why I adore the city so. Not that I do not also love Tirion,” she adds quickly, “for I do. But my heart calls me ever toward the sea.”
“We shall have homes in both places, if that is what you desire.”
“I would love that, Macalaurë.”
“I also feel the calling of the sea,” I confess, “although I do not know why. I am purely Noldorin.”
“Perhaps your heart has always known that it would belong to one of the Teleri,” she says softly.
With a smile, I agree, “Yes, perhaps it has.”
The sea surges with a roar and rushes over our legs, soaking the bottom of her gown and the legs of my trousers. We both shriek and slide backwards but not quickly enough, and the sea retreats in foaming rivulets, making a trickling sound like the giggles of an impish child. We answer with our own laughter and pull the soaked cloth from our skin, where it unsticks reluctantly with a sucking sound. “Perhaps the sea is also claiming us,” she says.
We sit until Laurelin gilds the western horizon with gold, and then I must take my leave, for I have to dress and ready myself for my lessons in two hours. “It is just as well,” she says, “for if my father or one of my brothers decides to go to my room to invite me to an early breakfast, they will be worried by my absence.”
I walk with Vingarië to the front of the palace, and we pause--our hands at the other’s waist--and press our foreheads together. “Happy begetting day, my love,” she whispers. “I was not yet born that day but my spirit sang with such joy.” Her last words tickle my lips, for I have brought our mouths together in a kiss that I would like never to end. But I am a Noldo and practical, and I end it--kissing the backs of her fingers on each of her hands--consoling myself that we have until the ending of Arda to share in such kisses.
I walk to lessons, feeling as though my feet are buoyed by a cushion of air.
From there, the day steadily worsens.
Lessons are hard, and my tired brain decides halfway through that it is not worth the abuse that my instructor is giving it, and disappointed and angry, he sends me away five minutes early to practice.
And so I do, until, on my way to theory lecture, I put my burning fingers into my mouth and taste the metallic warmth of my own blood.
Vingarië tells me after lecture that her mother has arrived unexpectedly from Tirion, and she must take supper with her family, and so I will be alone on the evening of my begetting day. She hasn’t even time for a moment by the fountain. “My mother is arriving at any moment,” she says, and her eyes are bright with joy as she says it, and I feel a regretful pang of jealousy at the realization that I am not the only one in her life whom she cherishes.
Utterly ridiculous, I tell myself, to feel that way, but I hasten to King Olwë’s palace in a stormy silence. I love my parents and my brothers as well as Vingarië, and were my mother absent from my life, I would also forsake my time with Vingarië to see her, but my heart hurts nonetheless, that I shall have to dine alone or with near-strangers, on the night of my fortieth begetting day.
I run up the steps to our room, my harp tucked beneath my arm, keeping my feet light upon the stairs out of the selfish hope that I will encounter no one I know. No King Olwë, none of his kind servants. I want the solitude of my room, to stew in my sour emotions in peace.
I throw open my bedroom door, whip inside, and stop, for Nelyo has leaped from his bed and to his feet.
“Nelyo?” I exclaim, and my harp tumbles to the floor with a protesting jangle of strings already abused by my clumsy fingers.
“Happy begetting day, Macalaurë,” he says, and then we throw ourselves in the other’s direction and furiously embrace, both of us speaking at once to declare how much he has missed the other, our apologies tangling in midair as we assert how poor of brothers and friends we have been and of our desire to make amends however possible, and when we are both breathless and out of words, we back up to arm’s length and appraise the other.
Nelyo looks healthy, like one who has just had a brisk ride. There is color in his cheeks, and his hair is windblown. He wears his traveling clothes: breeches, boots, a comfortable tunic. He smells of fresh winds, and I realize that he arrived only moments before me.
“So?” I ask him. “Did you pass?” and his face breaks into a grin, as he says, “Yes.”
With a shout of delight, he is in my arms again, and I am asking strings of questions, about the difficulty of Manwë’s questions and whether he has written Atar yet and how many days he had to recite, and his answers tumble over my questions in places, so eager are we both: The questions were hard, but he was prepared; he recited for three days each in letters and history; yes, he wrote Atar as soon as he knew, and there will be a ceremony in the spring, when his name will be added to the list. “I thought of writing to you also,” he says, “but decided it better to tack my horse instead and ride as fast as I could to Alqualondë, so that I might give you my best wishes on your begetting day.”
“I am glad that you did,” I say, and he says, “Perhaps King Olwë will understand if we take our leave of him tonight? I should like nothing more than to relax in my bed with a bottle of wine--or two--to share with my brother.”
King Olwë once had a brother, and so it is not a question of understanding, when I go to him with our excuses: He sends two bottles of his finest wine to our room.
The next morning is my day off from lessons, and I awaken to Nelyo lounging beside me on my bed and studying my fingertips. Laurelin is already bright in the sky; Nelyo, of course, being both dignified and responsible, is fully dressed.
“How nice it is to have no studies; what happened to your fingers?” he asks in such a rush that it takes me a moment to understand what he asks.
“Oh. Yes. I have been practicing hard.” He touches my fingertip, and a sharp pain assaults me, and I cry out and jerk my hand from his.
“Too hard, you mean,” he says, with gentle accusation in his eyes. Gently, he takes my hand again, touching only my palm, and looks again at my fingertips. “There was blood here. We will soak these today, in a salve that Atar taught me for the blisters I used to get from the sword, and you will not suffer this way any longer, now that I am back to see that you do not.”
With a laugh, I say, “Nelyo, I am forty years old now. Soon I will no longer require your protection.”
He snorts and rises. “You will always have my protection, Macalaurë, whether you need it or not. Likely, it will become inane as we age, but it is my right as an elder brother to dispense it in cloying doses for only the tiniest matters.”
Secretly, though, I am relieved. My fingers are stiff, and the tips sting when I stretch them and pull at the wounded skin. I do not know how I will play, and I will have a recital in only a few days time. Nelyo is rummaging in his trunk and pulling out a leather satchel which is filled with many small vials, each labeled in his meticulous hand.
I swing my legs out of bed and pad across the floor to stand beside him, speaking to the scarlet tumble of hair down his back. “Surely you did not bring the supplies for science experiments--”
“Hush, Macalaurë,” he says. “Musicians are not the only ones who find that inspiration seizes them at odd hours and places and will not let them rest until it is sated. I figured it better to pack a small quantity of each of the items involved in discussions I had been having with Atar than to lose a day or more attempting to acquire them in Alqualondë, if that is even possible.” Beside the satchel, he lays another, a healer’s kit, with bandages, salves, a few dried plants, and a bottle of draught.
“You brought a healer’s kit? No wonder your trunk felt as though it was made of a solid block of marble!”
He turns and cocks an eyebrow at me. “I was traveling with you, Macalaurë.”
I give a cry of indignation and push at his back, regretting it immediately because my finger hangs up on a fold of his robes and pains as though stabbed with a bee’s venomous stinger. “Ai!” I shout and stick my fingers in my mouth, thus proving his point that I attract disaster as a candle flame attracts pesky insects.
He extracts them. “Do not do that. Spit is the salve of beasts; we are more sophisticated than that. You will make it worse.” He pushes me back to sit on his bed with the flat of his hand on my chest, and with a note of surprise in his voice, says, “You have grown quite large, Macalaurë, did you know?”
“I have not,” I retort.
“You have. It used to be that I could do this--” he flicks me with his forefinger in the center of my chest--“and you would go tumbling back four feet. But you are grown tall and sturdy at that.”
“No,” I say, standing and measuring myself next to him, “because at the start of the summer, I came to your chin, and still I come to your chin.”
He laughs. “But Macalaurë! Atar measured my height before we left, and I grew three inches over the summer!” He pushes me back onto the bed and busies himself with pouring substances into a bowl and mixing them together. “I am taller than Atar now, did you know?”
It is impossible not to know: Whenever I see them together, my mind is startled by the image. No one should be taller than Atar. Atar is destined to look forever over the tops of everyone else’s heads, where he can see things beyond the reaches of our inferior gazes. I feel, when looking upon Nelyo beside Atar, that Nelyo should step down from the rock or chair or whatever it is that gives him such height--for surely it must be a sham--and cease being so disconcerting. I remember being very small and scrambling onto rock formations with Nelyo to see what it would be like to be as tall as Atar. Nelyo would always chortle, “I can see so far!” but I was always afraid of falling.
I remember being small, no more than a few years old, and playing with Nelyo in the courtyard and tripping while running across the flagstones, scraping both knees raw and abrading the palms of my hands, and Atar had heard my cries from his study and had come out to see what was wrong. “Little one,” he’d said, dabbing at my bloodied knees with his handkerchief, “do not cry, for you grow a bit taller everyday, and the closer you are to the ground, the harder you fall.”
I wonder if that is true.
Nelyo is crushing small, dried purple flowers with a mortar and pestle. “Why not give me plain salve?” I ask. “You needn’t go to all of this trouble.”
“Plain salve will quickly heal your wounds, but it will replace them with ordinary skin, and what you need are calluses. The point, Macalaurë,” he lectures, “of injuries is that they teach your body lessons so that they needn’t happen again. Your fingers will be raw again in a few days time if I apply ordinary salve. With this, you may never bleed there again.”
Perhaps that is what Atar meant when he said that those closest to the ground fall the hardest: It is less a matter of the laws of nature than learning. Indeed, it is Atar who taught Nelyo the lore for which he is now thrice revered, and it would not surprise me if this opinion is more Atar’s than my brother’s alone.
So influenced are we by Atar that--at times--it is hard to see where his thoughts end and ours begin. Nelyo probably thinks himself clever for leaving me with no retort, but isn’t it Atar who is the clever one? I allow myself to wonder how we would be different if we’d been born into a different family. Overcoming my squeamishness--my next thought is like putting one’s fingers into a wound, an uncomfortable and painful thought--I wonder how I would be different, had I been born a son of Nolofinwë. I try to imagine looking at Atar with thoughts filtered by Nolofinwë’s perceptions. As Nelyo sets the bowl on my lap and takes my hands gently in his, setting them into the concoction, I close my eyes and picture Atar as I saw him last, at our departure, with his tunic laced crookedly and untied--the string pulled free of some of the holes by Carnistir, who perched in his arms, doubtlessly with the hopeful thought of chewing on it--and his hair tied back in a strip of purple cloth that once formed part of one of our mother’s gowns that had been ruined when Tyelkormo spilled wine on it. He’d wiped the soot from his face with a cloth that must have also been dirty, with the effect that it merely smeared the soot around in swirls of clean and dirty skin. He smelled of hot metal and sweat, a smell to which I have grown accustomed in my forty years as his son that it does not smell bad to me, but when I sniff it through Nolofinwë’s nose, it is repugnant and unclean. When he took my face in his hands to kiss me farewell, there was grime beneath his fingernails, and though he managed to bring his thoughts into the present long enough to wish us safe passage, when Amil came to us to do likewise, I happened to glance at Atar, and his eyes were fixed on the ground, sightless, and he twirled a tendril of hair between his dirty fingers. Carnistir was happily chewing on the cloth with which he’d tied his hair, and Atar remained entirely oblivious.
To me, Atar’s perpetual distraction and unawareness of the simplest of customs is merely a byproduct of his productivity, for one’s thoughts can only be occupied by only so many things at once, and when one is gifted as is Atar, having one’s hair neatly braided or perceiving with perfect clarity the actions--and the meanings of those actions--of every person to pass within one’s sights seems frivolous. But, through Nolofinwë’s eyes, I see Atar as slapdash and negligent and our behavior, as his sons--the duality of Nelyo’s manners and lechery, my aloof shyness, Tyelkormo’s insatiable pride, and Carnistir’s senseless rages--as weeds that choke the pretty, perfect flowers amongst which we live, and which has been nurtured by the very same behaviors in our father.
“Deep are your thoughts,” teases Nelyo, and my eyes flick open, and I realize that I have been sitting for minutes now, with my eyes closed and my fingers soaking, without speaking a word, even to thank Nelyo, for I can feeling the abused skin at my fingertips growing warm, as though livened by vigorous repair of the broken tissues.
My father’s son …
I smile. “I am sorry. I have not even thanked you, and I can feel the flesh knitting itself. It is a wonderful feeling.”
“I know,” says Nelyo. “Let them soak for an hour, and then we will have breakfast. And we will soak them again tonight, and you will be in perfect repair for your lessons tomorrow and your recital a week from now.”
Worry drops like a stone into my stomach. “Do you think I will be ready?”
Nelyo gives me a look of disbelief, snorts, and says nothing.
The week prior to leaving for Alqualondë, Atar called me into his study and asked if he wanted him to drive with the rest of our immediate family to Alqualondë for my recital. “Your mother would love to hear you play,” he said, but there was a shadow of reservation in his normally bright eyes, and I sensed that he, too, would have liked to come.
In the weeks leading up to our departure, Atar and I prepared together for the Feast of the New Year, and my love and trust for him flourished. True, we also fought bitterly in those days, at times, in the forest with our illegal steel swords at our sides, my hands trembling with rage and pain, but the anger was fleeting--a falling star against an otherwise perfect sky--and I was very tempted to tell him yes, for no honor could be greater than to have my illustrious father ride all the way to Alqualondë solely on my behalf.
But, in the end, I told him no because I know that Atar expects me to be the best musician in Aman, and if I fail under his witness, then I fear that our relationship will disintegrate to the times before, when we had both regarded my placement in the family as his second son as a sort of mistake. “Perhaps Eru has a sense of humor,” Atar had teased me once, after I’d failed bitterly at some task he’d asked me to do, and he’d meant it in jest but I’d known it also to be true, and I’d cried for hours in my room that night because so many others were happy and loved in their families, but I would have to exist until the world’s ending as a joke.
And so only Nelyo will attend my recital.
The night before, I stay as late as I can at Vingarië’s, for she will be accompanying me on the flute for my original composition, and we rehearse over and over again, until her eyes are dropping from weariness, and out of mercy, I proclaim it perfect and bid her goodnight.
To my ears, though, it is far from perfect.
When I arrive at the palace, Nelyo and King Olwë are sitting in the courtyard, drinking wine and discussing politics and influential lords whom they both know. I stand awkwardly in the doorway for a moment before they notice me--they are laughing over a preposterous suggestion made by one of Nolofinwë’s lords--hugging my harp to my chest and shifting from foot to foot. Nelyo has the ability, like one of those small color-changing lizards, to look perfectly at ease, no matter where he is placed. His hair is loose and unbraided, falling in waves around his shoulders; he holds his wine goblet lightly and casually, gesturing with it as he talks, and laughing in short bursts at what King Olwë says, familiar enough to even interrupt him once to add something that makes Olwë roar with laughter and say, “Now you have made me forget what I was saying, Maitimo.”
“You were saying--” Nelyo begins, but he spots me then and grins. “Macalaurë! Do not linger in doorways like a beggar! Come in and have a drink with us.”
I step forward and mumble something about my recital the next day and needing to sleep, and it must have sounded convincing because Nelyo leans back in his chair and sighs, “Yes, I suppose that shall be my fate as well, for I wish to enjoy each of the beautiful notes coaxed forth by my brother’s able fingers.” He rises. “But I thank you for the wine and company, Olwë,” he says, and King Olwë returns the gratitude and wishes me luck, to which I nod and give my thanks.
Olwë? That my brother, in a matter of days, should be so familiar with the Telerin king mystifies me. The thought occurs to me that Nelyo’s truest talents are being wasted in the hours that he spends with his books, but quickly, I swat that thought away because my brother’s brilliance in matters of lore is not something that he should cast away so easily, simply because he has a knack for talking to people of importance. He catches my arm, and we walk together to our room. Also, he is good with soothing me--already, the nervous patter of my heart has calmed--but that does not mean that he should spend his life in my service either. In fact, I laugh at the thought.
“Why are you laughing?” he asks, but it doesn’t sound so much like laughter anymore and I worry that I will be in tears before long.
We stop in the hallway, and he presses me against the wall with my face in his hands. “Macalaurë. You remember what I told you? On your first day here?”
Tears slip down my cheeks and pool against his fingers. “Yes,” I whisper. “Breathe.”
He embraces me. “It is that simple, my love. Breathe. Live. Think no further than the moment that you’re in and there’s no place for dread. You will be fine.”
But I weep, and I cannot believe him.
It is a tradition among the Teleri that the year at the conservatory ends with each student performing in a recital. We perform in each of our ensembles, and we perform alone, presenting the composition on which we have been working for the past year. The first-years’ recital is on the first day and is a matter of importance to no one but the students and their families. The concert hall is left notoriously empty and the applause scant; the people of the city wait for the advanced students, whose names are renowned, and the first-years are left in relative peace, to make nervous mistakes without the scrutiny of the entire city.
For which I am very, very glad.
I arrive at the conservatory the next afternoon with Nelyo at my side, relatively calm: I awakened late to find a full breakfast waiting for me and a hot bath, where I read a book of legends that Nelyo had been given by Manwë and drank juice and thought not a bit about music. When I left the tub--the water having grown tepid, raising my skin into cold bumps--I found my clothing laid out on my bed and Nelyo waiting to braid my hair and talk to me of frivolous gossip that made me laugh and made it difficult also to hold my head still. But he did not scold me, even when a nearly-finished braid slipped from his fingers and unraveled itself before he could catch it. Without a sigh or a break in speech, he lifted the escaped tendril and began again.
Together, we walk to the concert hall. Nelyo will leave me at the door and find a seat close to the front, giving me an hour to tune my harp and warm up my fingers and voice. He chatters still in a voice that might be false but is bright enough to fool me, at least, of the Vanyar and their strange, awkward customs and several embarrassing blunders he’d made, and somewhere between laughing and groaning with dismay--imagining myself in his place--I realize that we have joined quite a crowd, and they all appear to be streaming toward the concert hall.
“Nelyo!” I hiss, seizing his wrist. “What are all these people?”
He does not fool me now, with his wide-eyed naïveté, and when we arrive at the door to the backstage area--pressed shoulder to shoulder in a thick throng now--I jerk him backstage with me.
He pleads with me: “You know how quickly news travels, and few haven’t heard of the renowned new student at the conservatory--”
“I doubt it, Nelyo. More likely, they want to gawk at the foolish Noldo thinking--like an idiot--that he had the mettle to stand among them.” Several other students are looking at us, although we have kept our voices low: the gargantuan, awkward Noldor in their midst, with hair and costume so bright and obvious, flagrant. The room blurs and I swipe hastily at my eyes. I will not cry again. I will not be so weak.
“That is not it, Macalaurë. I wish that you would believe me.” I say nothing and will not look into his face. “Why won’t you accept what you are?”
“And what is that, Nelyo? A spectacle?”
There is a long silence that is filled with the nervous, muttering voices of the other students arriving and greeting each other and departing to the practice rooms they have been assigned. I am afraid of these expectations. I am afraid that I shall never achieve them.
In an emboldened, firm voice, Nelyo answers me: “Yes.
“Yes, Macalaurë,” he says, “they come in part because you are a Noldo and part because you are a son of Fëanáro. But why do you assume that this is malicious? Why do you assume that we are the only people who can be innocently curious, who can search for beauty in humble places? Word of your excellence was not spread out of sycophancy or malignance; it spread because people would pass your chambers while your were playing, and they would be held enthralled for hours. Our people--the Eldar, not the Teleri or the Noldor or the Vanyar--love beauty, and they come in hopes of finding that. That is why they are here, Macalaurë.”
My father--indeed Nelyo--would feel such pride in my place. It is no wonder that Nelyo does not understand how I feel only dread. What have I done? In wanting to please my father, to prove that I am his and not some aberration, a joke, I have convinced myself that I wanted this. But do I? I am not my father; I am not a cause for celebration, and I fear that the people of the Teleri have been misled.
I force myself to squeeze Nelyo’s hand. “You should get a seat before they are all gone. Thank you.”
As I turn away, we both know that I do not mean it.
I go to the practice room that I have been assigned, that I will share with Vingarië, since she is accompanying me on my original composition. I trudge inside, and she is already there, her voice as light and fluttery as butterflies as she tells me that her whole family is here--even those from Tirion--and they think it simply wonderful that she will be playing a song written for her and--
She stops and says, “Macalaurë?” and in the next instant, I am folded in her arms with her head on my chest. My trembling hands caress her back, stroke her hair.
“It is not as thought I haven’t played for others before,” I whisper, “but I am afraid.”
“Then do not play for them,” she answers. She kisses my lips. “Play for me.”
They begin applauding as soon as my name is announced, and it is like standing on the edge of the sea, eyes closed, hearing the roar of the surf and wincing, not knowing when or where it will strike, only that it will be cold.
Play for me. Play not for the Noldor or my father or the honor of his House; not even for Nelyo or my own pride. Play for Vingarië. I walk onto the stage.
There is a lot of muttering, and I force myself not to hear malevolence in it, for I know that they are talking of me--but not necessarily of my failure. Nelyo is not hard to find, but I force myself not to look at him. I regret our words, my insincerity, before he departed, but I cannot think on that now.
When I raise my hands to my harp, the muttering abruptly stops, choked off in mid-sentence. I lift my eyes to Vingarië in surprise, but she is only waiting for my cue, her flute lifted to her lips. I incline my head and give it.
How does one play a song for the one he loves? I’d thought it an impossible task to capture Vingarië in a song, and my first attempts had been crumpled on the floor, for no single note or combination thereof can express everything about her. Eventually, I realized that my ambitions exceeded the medium in which I worked, exceeded any medium: no words, no song, no object that can be held in one’s hands can express Vingarië. Instead, I’d chosen a less ambitious topic: the night of our first meeting. The song begins bravely and full of hope and swagger, and I smile, recalling Nelyo and the sons of the lords, engaging in their games of subtlety and rhetoric and the music escapes then, becoming light and relieved, free. But something is rising, some awareness coming to me, an innocent trill of a flute amid the stolid, practical melody of my harp, and there is Vingarië.
Now our melodies twine together, hesitant at first and at odds with each other, adjusting to accommodate and achieve harmony once more that becomes more natural as the song progresses until there is a single melody and it is hard to tell where the flute ends and the harp begins. There is a new hope now, and notes the color of Telperion’s light fill the hall, and I look at Vingarië and so full is my feeling that I believe the even the Elves over the sea--in their wild forests beneath the starlight--lift their faces and smile in wonder.
Her eyes meet mine and we do not look away: We play with the shy hope of new love, of the thrill of a first kiss, of the innocence of youth. We move as one and the melody opens and becomes as wide as the sky, as infinite as the space between the stars, and that is our future, the possibilities that lay before us, moving as one through space and time. The song fills the room and struggles against it, struggles to rise to the place of its origin, in a time far away and in a place outside of logic and possibility--beyond Eä--where this moment was first conceived in a Music greater than ours.
And there it ends: winding back down the Arda, to Aman, to Alqualondë, and this place, this stage, and us. There it ends, with us, our gazes locked and our hands stretching for each other, the audience answering our song not with applause but silence and the expectant hope of one thirsty and holding the bottle inverted over one’s mouth, hoping for just a single drop more.
Nelyo, Vingarië, and I take leave of all others that night and buy food from street vendors and eat on the beach, getting our hair and clothes full of sand and uncaring. I have dreaded allowing Vingarië to meet Nelyo for it seems that maidens look at him and quickly forget me, but their greeting was quick and pleasant before they both turned their attentions back to me.
Of course, in the song we’d just played, there is no room for infidelity and pain.
We pass a bottle of wine between us, and it is not long before the combined dread and triumph of the day and the wine and the lulling roar of the sea make my head heavy, and I fall back against the sand, meaning only to listen to Nelyo and Vingarië’s conversation with my eyes closed--for they are discussing her brothers and Turonén’s upcoming wedding and I need not be involved--and their voices become a pleasant, nondescript buzz punctuated by the occasional bright peal of laughter, and then they must have stopped talking because I hear nothing at all.
Until a giggle like a glissando awakens me: Vingarië. I try to lift myself from the sand, but my whole body is heavy--as though Tyelkormo and Carnistir both are sitting on my chest, as they are wont to do--and I struggle for a moment, my eyes too heavy to open, before I hear the whisper of sand sliding against sand and realize that they have buried me to my neck.
They both roar with laughter then, and with a might heave, I tear myself free of the sand and chase Nelyo down the beach, to the edge of the surf, our footprints overlapping in a wavering pattern that--for many hours after--the sea does not touch.
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