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Another Man's Cage: 52. Chapter Fifty-Two--Maitimo
Atar goes to ready the carriage, and we wait for Macalaurë.
Without Atar, Rúmil becomes stiff and awkward, although he still sits with Carnistir dozing in his lap. Amil is making an effort--too much, perhaps--to accommodate Rúmil: She jots notes, asking if he would like a glass of wine or some cheese and crackers without realizing that he will have to remove his mask to eat or drink, and he will not do that in her presence.
From the stairs comes the quick patter of footsteps and Macalaurë emerges. Macalaurë always keeps his costume secret until the last moment (although he alleges that this costume was done with Atar's help in planning), and he never dresses as something lovely but always something scary, delved from the darkest legends that he likes to read and retell to frighten our brothers into obedience. Today, he wears all white, a fighter's costume, bound close to his body. Even his boots are white, specially made and acquired for this costume. His hair is covered by a white hood and he has painted every last bit of exposed skin white--except the skin around his eyes, around which he has smeared soot to make his eyes appear dark and sunken and his fingernails, over which he has pasted something dark and chitinous to resemble claws.
Tyelkormo flinches away from him with the primitive fear of early childhood before becoming exceptionally bold to save his pride and declaring "You make a stupid wraith, Macalaurë."
Macalaurë turns abruptly and yells, "Gah!" jumping in Tyelkormo's direction, and Tyelkormo yelps before he can stop himself. I notice that, at his waist, Macalaurë wears a crude weapon made of some kind of dark metal. Atar, likewise, I noticed--before he departed to ready the carriage--wore a longsword of exceptional beauty, that which I know he has spent weeks forging, after dismissing Vorondil for the day, in the private hours of night.
I begin to wonder ...
But that quickly, Atar has returned, and he is introducing Rúmil to Macalaurë, and we are herding the little ones and settling in the carriage. It is a half-hour ride to the copse called Osto-Lomëa where the Festival will be held. The New Year Festival is never celebrated in the civilized indoors but in the depths of the forest, in the shadow of Túna, where the Lights will not reach but the stars are hard and bright in the sky. The Lights are just beginning to mingle when Atar turns the horses through our gate and onto the road.
I always feel a bit silly--pretentious almost--in the half-hour that it takes to ride to Osto-Lomëa. Certainly, our ancestors didn't enjoy this luxury, nor did they have the pleasure of sipping at a flask of wine that ingenious Macalaurë slipped into his boot. With Rúmil in the carriage, conversation becomes awkward, stilted, although Atar is making the effort. I feel silly, like a child caught playing dress-up in his father's clothes. Even Macalaurë looks harmless--quite silly, in fact--in his scary costume and face paint. Tyelkormo has recovered from his shock, apparently, because he is clambering across Macalaurë's lap and nearly having his eye with an antler.
At last, we arrive at Osto-Lomëa, by all appearances, an ordinary forest except for the valets waiting outside. They take the carriage and motion us with sweeping, dignified gestures toward an undignified dirt path where the underbrush has been pushed aside. They greet Atar as "Prince Fëanáro," offering a hand to Amil--as though, caring for four children and achieving renown as one of the most capable sculptors among the Noldor leaves her incapable of stepping from the carriage--and bowing to each of us in turn, "Princes Nelyafinwë, Canafinwë, Turkafinwë, and Morifinwë." They pause at Rúmil, uncertain of his identity, and finally suffice with a polite nod and "my Lord ..."
Inside the forest, it is as dark as it must have been in the Outer Lands, on the Great Journey. I feel a twinge of hesitation--I always do--for I am unaccustomed to such total darkness. I become anxious about the placement of my feet, imagining that I might be misfortunate enough to chance stepping into a hole and turning an ankle or that something dark and cold will slither out of the shadows and grip my foot as relentlessly as a bind of iron. But lamps are draped too among the darkness, in the shape of the constellations, and my eyes--meant to be born into darkness--do not take long to adjust, and then the forest is beautiful. The trees are shadowy and featureless, outlined in bluish starlight; the undergrowth might be piles of darkness glazed with ice. The Valacirca glows before us, shaped from the stones my father devised, and guides us along the path to the clearing. A nightingale warbles, and another answers. From deeper inside the forest, along the path, comes the sound of a shout and a weak strain of music. We move toward the sound, moving carefully in the near-darkness, until the trees in front of us pulse with firelight, and we step into the festival clearing, where large bonfires make pools of reddish light and pitch-black shadows, and there is something savage and sensuous about the few dancers who writhe in the flickering light of the clearing.
At the head of the clearing is the royal table, and Grandfather Finwë and the Lady Indis are seated there already. He is costumed as Manwë; Lady Indis wears no costume but a festival gown of gold lamé that reflects the firelight. Left in charge of Tyelkormo and Carnistir, I cannot hear the words that pass between Atar and Grandfather Finwë as they embrace in introduction, and Atar presents Rúmil. I see Atar's hands flashing in the firelight, and Grandfather Finwë bows before Rúmil, whose hands fly about in flustered protestation, but Grandfather Finwë pays him no mind and kisses the backs of his black-gloved fingers.
Grandfather Finwë, I realize, must have known Rúmil before he became Melkor's thrall, when his voice had the power to make the forest fall silent in reverence, when even the wind waited in the trees to listen, fearful, perhaps, of tearing those sounds from his throat, of warping and distorting them, rendering them silent. Melkor did that, I realize with sickening rage, did what even the capricious wind could not bear to do. I think of Macalaurë and the power of his voice, and I am ill at the thought of Rúmil's torment upon him, so sick, in fact, that I must sit suddenly, fingers trembling and writhing, entwined, against each other, while Amil asks with concern, "Nelyo? Are you unwell?"
"I am fine. Just--" Just what? What excuse can a young and healthy Elf as myself make that will convince her? "Just wishing to sit," I reply lamely, but she leaves me alone and goes to kiss her father-in-law in greeting, and I take deep breaths and remind myself, This is Valinor and Melkor is imprisoned in Mandos.
The clearing quickly fills with costumed people, and Macalaurë and I move among them, searching for people that we know but, most of all, Vingarië and Annawendë, respectively. We find Vorondil, dressed as starlight in a radiant silver-blue costume, entwined around Nimerionë, and he rushes to us, brandishing his hand, on which is a silver ring. "I will be a husband within the year!" he shouts, and I can smell the sweetish scent of wine about him. Nimerionë giggles and ducks her head and tugs at Vorondil's sleeve: "But, love, my majority is still five years away ..."
Vorondil clutches her to him, putting his fingers on her lips and then--boldly--replacing them with his lips. "Hush, love, I am doubtful that I can wait beyond tonight--"
We give them our best wishes and move away to allow them the privacy to move into the shadows at the edge of the clearing, where Vorondil, I know from experience, can attempt to earn his wish--or at least, something comparable in satisfaction. As we depart, he snatches my sleeve and pulls me roughly back--nearly tearing the delicate silk in his haste--and whispers in a breath reeking of inebriation, "I haven't seen her, either."
There is a nugget of growing dismay in my gut, and I nod and move away: At least one of us should be happy tonight.
"He is quite drunk," Macalaurë says, as we walk, "although he probably needed it for the courage to propose. I thank Eru for only being forty years old and having ten years still to find my own courage." Fearing that he has spoken insensitively, he looks at me with his eyes wide inside the dark rings of soot. "Oh, Nelyo, I didn't mean to--"
I silence him with a dismissive wave of my hand. "No mind," I say, although my churning stomach indicates that I mind a lot. "I am going to enjoy myself tonight," I add unconvincingly. He looks at me doubtfully; he will not be easily fooled. I scan the clearing for an unescorted female, seeking to prove the truth of my statement--to myself as well as Macalaurë. Snatching two goblets of wine from a passing waiter, I give Macalaurë a purposeful look and head in her direction.
A combination of wine and dance--both in great measures--leaves my head spinning. The music is loud and fast now--screeching to rise among the voices of almost the whole of the Noldor--and the crowd surges in rhythm, as partners are exchanged and inebriation creates surges of laughter and hilarity and reckless dancing--crowds forming circles around the performers, pockets of madness--and the music surges ever-louder, ever-harder, until it seems that even the trees shake in rhythm and there might not be a world beyond this clearing: no foes, no concerns, no paradise--only this night.
A small maiden dressed in a scarlet, feathered gown has danced in my arms for the last half-hour: I do not know her name, and if she knows mine, she does not call me by it. We do not speak, and our dancing is not confined to the proper steps common to other festivals. Her nose is at the height of my chest; she is a tiny bundle of bones in my arms. The music moves our limbs and the rest of our bodies follow in languid obedience; when a waiter passes with wine, I grab goblets for both of us. I cannot tell if it is lust or inebriation that makes me clutch her to my body, but she slips her fingers up my silk-clad thigh and her teeth close on my nipple through the cloth, and my loins blaze with flame, and I know by the way she presses against my hips that she must feel my excitement--she must!--but when I ask her if she wants to leave the clearing, my words are torn away by a sudden yell from the crowd around us, and she is bumped away from me by a man reeling backward to clear a ring formed around two people who stand back-to-back with swords in their hands.
I grope around for her, but then I notice the identities of the two men in the ring: Atar and Macalaurë.
A visceral fear grows inside of me, at the sight of the firelight like bright blood on the swords, and that quickly, the nameless girl is forgotten and my arousal has withered. I join the crowd that forms around them; Atar has begun to speak, his voice easily dominating the music and the shouts of the clearing. "In the days in the Outer Lands, our people fought many enemies beyond our pampered imaginations." He smiles viciously; the firelight livens the shadows on his face. Is he Atar? I squint in the fickle darkness: If not for the bright gems that are his eyes, I would doubt. The teeth inside his grin are vicious, appearing almost pointed. I shake my head and blink, and when I open my eyes again, his grin is wicked still but otherwise normal. "In the Outer Lands," he goes on to say, "many of our people were taken by blind wraiths who sought them by the heat of their bodies in the darkness. But some triumphed ..."
He turns to Macalaurë, who has remained silent, resting on his black sword, his face as without expression as the lifeless wraith he imitates. From his pocket, Atar draws a strip of black silk.
"My son Macalaurë has an extraordinary gift: the gift of a wraith. For he can fight without his eyes, by sound and feeling alone." He gestures at a young man in the crowd who steps nervously forward, looking around as though for some escape. But Atar has him by the shoulder, is asking him, "Tie this around your eyes and tell me: Can you see a thing?"
The boy does as he's told, shakes his head no, and disappears gratefully into the anonymity of the crowd. With a flourish, Atar ties the silk around Macalaurë's eyes. I watch my brother's eyes lower obediently. In my irrational fear, I think that he neglected his eyelashes, for they are too long and thick and betray his Elvenness. I want to leap into the clearing, shield him with my body. Protect him from harm. But that is silly--isn't it? "Nor can my son. But he will fight me anyway, and he will not falter.
"Now, some of you might think this sword--" Atar draws his longsword from its hilt--"is a prop made for ceremony. No, it is real--as real as that which guarded our people. It will cut, wound, and kill." He brandishes his arm, bare between the bracer on his wrist and the sleeve that reaches his elbow, and he slips the sword across it. With a gasp, the crowd watches dark, syrupy liquid well beneath the blade and trickle down his arm into the grass.
"As you can see," says Atar, laughing at their fear, "it is real."
My mind fumbles to comprehend: the cuts and bruises on Macalaurë's flesh; his secret meetings with Atar--but I wonder, is it real? There is something dark and wet on Atar's arm, but I don't want to believe him mad enough to cut himself with such brutal impassivity. But even as I watch him circle Macalaurë, who still leans on his blade, that dark liquid drips onto the grass. The crowd recoils but does not leave; women cover their eyes but peek through their fingers; parents lift their children into their arms but let them watch. Atar paces and paces--until the tension embraces us all--and paces. Macalaurë stands, unmoving, unflinching. I wonder at the heart that beats beneath his breast: Is that afraid? Atar paces; I cannot see Macalaurë breathing. It is as though he is really no longer human.
Atar circles, growing narrower, then wider again, like a predator teasing its prey--only Macalaurë does not move--and then flies from nothing and into a flurry of movement, and before I can even register that he is in motion, Macalaurë has spun and their blades meet with a bright clang that bites our ears and makes us wince. This sound was supposed to be forgotten; this sound was supposed to be left behind, on distant shores, but here it is, ringing so quickly that it becomes a continuous metallic keening, and we are leaning forward with the hunger of predators, wondering, who will bleed next?
In the madness of the firelight, Atar is a twisting flame, contorting impossibly, but Macalaurë matches him, weaving his body amid Atar's sinuous attacks, but never once touching him. When Atar's sword rises, Macalaurë's is there to meet it. There is a rhythm to their fight, a primitive heartbeat; I feel my pulse stirred by it. My body grows tense; my muscles thrum with the force of Macalaurë's parries, as though it is I who am undertaking such an impossible fight--and yet am not overcome.
Macalaurë, light on his feet, seems to be defeated once, but that quickly, he leaps into the air and over Atar, somersaulting and nearly colliding with the crowd, who surge back from him. He swings his blade, Atar's meets it, and they are begun anew, weaving their feet in an intricate and deadly dance. Macalaurë trips Atar's foot from beneath him, but Atar rolls away from Macalaurë's plunging blade. With graceless necessity, he clutches Macalaurë's foot and topples him to the ground. They are both amid the leaves now, rolling on the ground, swatting each other with their blades. Macalaurë kneels on Atar's chest; Atar knocks him aside. Macalaurë lies prone on his back now, limbs splayed, his sword loose in his fingers, his chest exposed. Mercilessly, Atar steps upon him. Macalaurë wails--a sound like a blade drawn across bone--and Atar raises his sword, in both hands, and plunges it into Macalaurë's chest.
I am too shocked to scream, blinking, heart a roar in my chest, I am so frightened--but it cannot be, for Macalaurë is standing with a wide grin on his face, his makeup smeared now, tearing off the blindfold and taking a bow. He tosses the blindfold to Vingarië, who stands at the head of the crowd and squeals with delight--leaping and clapping her hands--and Atar says, "My son Macalaurë!" and takes Macalaurë's hand, and they bow together.
I blink. For I was certain. Certain that I saw my father kill my brother.
But such a thing is impossible. Atar would sooner plunge a blade into his own chest than bring the slightest harm against one of us.
Turning, blinking, rubbing my eyes, I wander from the circle, but I feel a hand grab me from behind. Atar.
"Your brother is something, is he not?" he asks, falling into step beside me. His voice is high and breathy with exhilaration. "He could not fight to save his life with a sword ... but put a blindfold across his eyes." He pauses, studying my face, and seizes my wrist to stop. "Are you unwell, Nelyo?"
"I--I thought I saw something that was not." I laugh nervously. "Too much wine I suppose." I lift his arm and look at its underside, at the dark, sticky line there, already clotting. "How could you--"
He traces his finger along the wound and puts it to my lips. I twist away, but his finger deftly follows my lips; he insists. He pastes it onto my lips, and I obediently lick it, tasting bittersweet chocolate. Atar laughs; I must have shown my surprise. "In the firelight, you cannot tell it is not blood. And," he leans forward to whisper in my ear, his breath as hot and heady as though inebriated though I smell not a trace of wine on him, "it was all choreographed."
Macalaurë appears beside him, his arm locking Vingarië to his hip. "Nelyo! Did you see--"
"Yes. You were wonderful."
I smile weakly and wander away, to the shadows, perhaps, alone.
I am sitting alone at the royal table, watching the heaving, fire-lit crowd and trying to make sense of the screaming music and trying not to feel hope drain from me with every passing minute that Annawendë does not appear from the crowd and come to wordlessly embrace me. I have denied envisioning this moment, but I have; even as I admitted the imprudence of it, I have imagined her manifesting like a spark from the fire, a quivering apparition spinning through the darkness to arrive at my side with words ready upon her lips: Nelyo, I was wrong to leave. I love you. I choose you.
I feel foolish and ugly, even: a beautiful face but a heart dark and empty and not worth loving. I am holding to the sides of my chair to keep from leaping to my feet and running from the clearing in panic and shame of this realization.
It is then that I notice the girl watching me.
It is hard, at first, to determine that she watches me, per se, for she is masked and costumed, although I cannot tell as what. Her body is angled toward the crowd, but her head tilts in my direction. I meet her eyes and, slowly, she turns away.
Not a minute later, she is at the opposite side of the clearing, her back to the mass of people and her face squarely facing me.
And it must be me, for I sit alone, with only trees behind me.
Annawendë is gone. With a despairing scream inside my head, I force myself to acknowledge this. I force myself to imagine a cozy house in the south of Aman and Annawendë in the arms of her betrothed whom I've never seen--or maybe, he is her husband by now--cuddling in front of a fire. Choosing names for their children perhaps. Her fingers linked with a hand that is not mine, nothing like mine, with stubby fingers and swarthy skin. But a hand she loves. Linking with hers. I feel a pang like a knife twisting in my gut, but I force myself to dwell on it until the pain goes away. And I stand to introduce myself to the girl.
But she is gone.
She is gone into the surging crowd.
With angry determination, I stride from the royal table and down to the crowd. I am pulled into a dance with a group of young people, but I duck free and continue to search for this small, unremarkable girl who'd watched me.
And she is there.
She is in front of me, looking up into my startled face, as I fumble, "I saw you--"
She takes my hand and bows neatly. Her fingers are gloved in silk and her touch as delicate. "You wish to ask me for a dance?" she asks in a clipped, exaggerated Tirion accent. She puts my fingers to her lips and kisses them, for her mask ends at her lips. I look for her eyes beneath her mask, seeing if they swim with drunkenness, but they are very sharp and clear, and they pierce me with the painless surprise of a stiletto.
"I do," I gasp, and I take her into my arms. The music is wild and fast, but we circle slowly. Her face is tilted to mine, staring at me. I wish I knew what she looked like beneath the mask: It is a mask of a face, the image of perfect female beauty, with high, arched brows and finely sculpted cheekbones. I wish I knew what face could do justice to those astute eyes that made me feel as though she could see beneath my clothes, beneath my flesh, as though she knew me more intimately than nearly anyone else.
"Who are you?" I ask as way of conversation, for I am painfully aroused, and I do not wish her to know it, lest she take offense. It is hard to tell the shape of her body for she is bound tightly in her costume, an exaggerated craftsman's garb, feminized and very sensual, with a tunic that plunges at the front to show the cleft of her breasts.
"I am a Maia of Aulë," she says, and I say, "No, what is your name?" and she replies, in the same nonchalant, lilting tone, "I am a Maia of Aulë. That is all that you need to know, on this night." And with a smile, she reaches to touch my lips. "You are so unbelievably beautiful."
We dance to the edge of the crowd, and then we are in the shadows, kissing frantically, moaning into each other's mouths. I feel the briefest pang of guilt for Annawendë--so quickly forgotten!--but decide that it is a matter of survival: hold onto this girl with all of my power or thrash and drown needlessly. So I hold on--and she is kissing my neck, undoing my robes and moving her mouth down the length of my body while I slip my hands inside the neckline of her tunic to cup her breasts in both hands. I try not to think of Annawendë, of her full and lush body, of hips and breasts that seemed made for motherhood. This girl pushes me roughly against a tree, the rough bark scratching at my back through the delicate silk of my costume, and falls to her knees in front of me. My robes are open to the waist now, and she is kissing my navel, my belly, and I try to lift her mask from her face, but she slaps my hands away. "Leave it," she says, putting her hand between my legs and, in an instant, making me forget the mask, as she strokes my length through the silk, and I thrash my head and bite my lip until I taste blood, my arms rigid, hands clutching the tree behind me, as waves of sickening hot pleasure course through my body and threaten to erupt in release.
She removes her hand from me and puts both hands on my hips, and with an effortless tug, she slips my robes from my body and the warm night air caresses my naked skin.
She cups my testicles in her hand, kneading me until it almost hurts, and kisses the humid place where my legs join my body, slipping her tongue along my skin, teasing, until I can feel spasms of pleasure threatening release, and my hips thrust involuntarily. She laughs and looks up at me. "You are beautiful," she says again. She slides her hands up my thighs, to my belly. She clutches my hips and pulls me into her, letting her lips brush the head of my erection, the tongue teasing, and then taking me fully into her mouth, until I can barely stand it.
"Let me touch you," I beg her. "Please, I cannot take this--"
She nibbles my length, speaking, "I do not want you to take it. You have suffered long enough, Maitimo."
She knows me ...
"Just release," she says, and puts her mouth on me again, and there is not much I can do after that to disobey her, to stop the spasms of ecstasy that force my back to arch away from the tree, fingers digging the bark and screaming wordlessly to the dark sky overhead, the stars cut by branches and reeling for the moment before I squeeze my eyes shut, wondering if I can endure this, wondering if it will ever end and hoping--hoping--that it won't.
But it does, and as I go limp, she lets me slide from her mouth, and she rests her head against my belly for a moment, her hair warm against my damp flesh, before pulling my trembling body to the ground beside her, to lay me on the ground and cradle me in her arms.
She kisses my mouth and closes my eyes with surprising tenderness. "Why?" I whisper into the lips that cover mine, burying my hands into her dark hair, and she replies, "Because I realized that I love you," and she removes the mask, and Annawendë holds me and kisses me until the morning comes and I have no more tears to cry.
I awaken in the depths of afternoon, in my bedroom in Grandfather Finwë's palace, with Annawendë in bed beside me, naked flesh pressing naked flesh. Still, though, we remain unwed. She had opened her legs to me, last night, in the forest, and when I'd settled between them, she'd raised no protest--although, beneath my hand on her breast, I could feel her heart pounding--but I'd remained adamant against taking my father's path, and so we'd contented ourselves with the pleasure brought by hands and mouth, and I'd taken her to the palace in the morning and laid her beside me, in my bed, in the place of a wife.
She sleeps--her back to my belly--and my cheek pressing her hair. My bed smells of the rich, earthy scent of our damp skin. She stirs and turns in my arms, and we kiss. "Think of it, Maitimo," she says, entwining her fingers in my hair, "that this is the first of an eternity's worth of mornings that we will awaken together." She deepens the kiss, coaxing my lips to open; our tongues entwine. Despite the satiation of last night, I feel my arousal stirring against her thigh. She feels it too, and she laughs inside my mouth, and it makes a funny vibrating feeling that makes me laugh too. She strokes my cheek. I feel the softness of her skin, the roughness of her blacksmith's calluses, and the hardness of the silver ring that she had allowed me to slip onto her trembling finger last night.
I did not ask about her betrothed; I did not ask how they reached the decision to separate. Perhaps, one day, we will discuss it, but not now. Now, I do not want to think that the light of my happiness casts another's life into shadow. While my tears of joy had nurtured the soil of the forest last night, another had cried tears in a land far away--but they were not borne of happiness.
In Arda Marred, it seems, joy must be balanced by an equal measure of despair.
I cannot bear to let such thoughts dampen my joy. Not today. There will be a time for gravity but not today. Today, it is the New Year, and Laurelin is reaching her zenith outside, spilling gold across my bed, across our tangled bodies. Today, hope has been realized.
Today, I will announce my betrothal to my family and reaffirm my allegiance to my grandfather: It is a day for honoring the past and celebrating the future.
Annawendë sighs in contentment and buries her fingers in my hair. I could lie here forever, I think, and--watching my silver betrothal ring rejoicing in Laurelin's light--I realize: I will.
Today, I am in love.
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