6. Rituals of the Body
I am writing in one of those pockets of quiet that come sometimes, when the house is still and our well-intentioned guests are not here. Glad I am when the ladies are gone, though it is not charitable that I should feel this way: they mean well enough, to be sure, and yet their gentle intrusions do press upon one so. I know that Mother is always more tired after their visits.
We have made up a room below so that she need not face the ordeal of the stairs, but even so it is hard for her. It would not be so hard if she would keep to her chamber and receive visitors in there, but Mother is too much of a lady. When I suggested it she only smiled a little and patted the back of my hand in that way that says so eloquently, 'Whatever shall become of you, dear Nevhithien.' I am sure I do not know. Perhaps when I am my own person I shall simply never receive visitors at all. One has to make so many considerations and I never have been one for attending to details.
What a sight the two of us must make as we hobble to and from her room. Add Veisiliel to the picture and we are a pitiful trio indeed. I made a jest of it this morning: "We do make a pretty picture, do we not, Mother with her bandaged sides and I with my bad hip, and you with your poor arm in a sling!" I laughed when I said it and hoped for at least a smile from Veisiliel, but she only looked at me and I felt sorry for saying what I had, though I do still find it funny. The image in my mind, I mean. I suppose it does not seem so to others.
I would ask Leni if she were here. Leni has always been a much better judge of what is appropriate than I. It is funny how I have always looked to her in this regard: surely as her older sister it should have been I to give such instruction rather than the other way around. And yet she has always known the right thing to say, the right way to behave, as if these came to her as easily as breathing. If I am honest, truly honest, and serious, as I am told so often that I never am, I have always envied her because of it.
There now. I have committed it to paper and I do not feel guilty at all. It is not so very wrong to feel envy if one is able to admit it.
Now all I feel is sad and more than a trifle self-pitying. I have felt so out of my depth these past few days. Leni would know what to do to make Veisiliel speak again. She would know to anticipate Mother's needs and to be at her side even before Mother needed assistance, while I am ever awkward and unsure and wholly inadequate as a nurse. In a thousand ways I feel myself bereft, and pray that Father finds her soon, for Mother's sake as well as Leni's. Mother suffers from both their absences. It would not be so hard for her if she had Father to comfort her and to persuade her that all shall be well, but I think he is bound and determined that he will not come home before he has found Leni. I fear to think how it will be with us if he does not…and yet he will, surely.
They had traveled many miles from the forest that was their home. For some in their party, he knew, it was the furthest they had traveled in their lives. Sometimes he detected an eager undercurrent in the voices of these younger Elves. This was an adventure for them.
He remembered his own sense of adventure at that age, knew the extra energy it imparted. He told himself that a sense of adventure did not have to be a bad thing. For Fírhador, however, the business at hand was no adventure. There was too much at stake.
Long they had been at a cold scent. They had traveled at a spidered crawl, combing out across the terrain in an effort to rediscover the trail they lost when they found the dead Elf. It was brutally slow progress. Sometimes they would hit on a lucky trace of the two Orcs, losing it and finding it again as the terrain changed and the earth became stony or soft, but there was never anything to indicate that a girl was with them.
No body was recovered either, and Fírhador continued to hope. Please Valar, she is my child. Please, it is not so strange that we should find no signs of her with them. She is too small and slight to leave a trace.
There came a point when the irregular trail they followed met with the tracks of a large party of Orcs. The heavy imprints of broad boot soles were readily identifiable. Only the Glamhoth left such marks as these. An hour later Túchir called a halt at a place where a fire had burned recently, fed by living trees cut down alive and fed green to smoldering flames. It was a fire such as few Elves will build, save in the direst of circumstances. Fírhador could smell a rank smell even beneath that of the smoke. He wished, irrationally, for more smoke to cover the ordure of the Orcs, but it was midday and their stop was to be brief. Even so, it seemed long to him.
He did not sit with the others but stood at the edge of the clearing, waiting. He no longer understood concepts of hunger or thirst, but protesting the delay would do his cause no good. Quite the opposite—he knew that Túchir watched for any sign of weakness. The other Elf would not hesitate to send him away and so he answered each command with grim alacrity. Somehow, though, it was harder to make eating a part of his obedience. The thought that his daughter might be so close made it impossible to eat.
The night before he had lain with open eyes in the manner of his folk, but his eyes were open with wakefulness. All the night long he had stared into the trees. He stared now with, if anything, greater intensity. He had a direction now, due West, and his gaze did not falter, even when he heard another approach him from behind.
"Good Elf, will you not break bread this day?"
His response was courteous but concise: "I thank you; I have no appetite." He had had none these past two days of searching, and the last thing he had eaten was a bite of lembas the evening before.
"Good Elf, with respect." The voice was quietly insistent. "We are told in training that to deny our bodies sustenance is to deny our ears their keenness, our eyes their better clarity."
They were the words with which one might admonish a child. He turned, no longer inclined to be civil, but recognized the Elf who so addressed him and was quiet for a moment. When he spoke his voice was mild. "Am I a mortal man, to be so in thrall to my body?"
Culas took a step forward, and his gray eyes were unblinking. "No more than I, and I would belie myself if I said I had more appetite than you. Yet will you break bread with me? For wisdom and for strength, and to appease the one who watches us both."
That last might have sounded like an invocation of the One, but Fírhador knew better. His eyes flickered briefly over the other Elf's shoulder. It had not occurred to him that Culas might be under the same pressure from Túchir, and yet he recognized at once the truth of what the scout said. And more than that: he knew the deeper reason Culas sought him out, for all that the other Elf did not speak it. With a nod, he broke off half of the wafer Culas offered him and placed it on his tongue. Both chewed and swallowed in a silence that Fírhador was first to break, asking Culas how it went with him.
Culas did not respond at first. When he did, his words were tightly controlled. "There is this about the rituals of the body. They are living reminders. I remember those times that he broke bread with me; when we shared food and drink, or guarded one another in our sleeping. I breathe and know he does not breathe the same air I am breathing."
"His is a sweeter air, in the Undying Lands."
"Lands to which he was untimely sent." Culas looked away, jaw tightening. There was a shadow in his eyes, as if they looked on something other than what was truly before them.
Fírhador knew what it was that Culas looked on in his mind's eye. He too had seen what had been done to the body of the Elf's fallen comrade when they came on it two days before. Whether it had been done before or after Alhael's death could not be known, but all knew the cruelty and barbarism of Orcs.
Fírhador had had no time to grieve a young Elf he had never known in life. For him, anguish and outrage were subsumed in a greater dread. The creatures that had done this lived, and they had his daughter. That took precedence over all else. For Culas, of course, the blow had been more direct, more personal. The dead Elf had been his friend.
"Tell me of him," said Fírhador quietly. When Culas did not immediately respond he reached for his hand, and Culas allowed him to take it.
The impressions Fírhador received were brief and few, but revealing. A dark-haired Elf laughing; a fleet form running in the sun. The mutilated body Fírhador had seen bore no resemblance to the energetic young ellon that Fírhador saw in Culas' thoughts, yet he knew this must be Alhael. Light practice blades flashing in a training bout; a correcting hand on Culas' wrist as Alhael showed him a different stance. Alhael in the crook of a high bough, look out over a green sea of swaying tree tops. Alhael, very near this time, saying words that Fírhador saw rather than heard. Another Elf, a beautiful elleth, stood arm in arm with him, smiling. As this last image registered in Fírhador's mind, Culas took his hand away.
"He was more than a friend," said Fírhador.
"He would have been my brother."
"My sister. He loved her very dearly, and she him." The shadow in Culas' eyes deepened. "Alhael called me his right hand. My sister he called the other half of his heart. She wears his ring. The wrong these Yrch have done knows no bounds. In taking his life they have hurt the lives of others and caused a lasting grief."
"And a lasting anger," said Fírhador, watching him. "You would have vengeance."
"I will have vengeance." Culas' eyes, as he turned them again to Fírhador, were dark indeed. "I will not rest until I have their blood."
What could he tell this young Elf who suffered so, who had seen the butchery made of his best friend: companion of his days, guardian of his nights? What could he say to fill the morass of such a bottomless hate? Were circumstances other than as they were, Fírhador knew he would only have endorsed Culas' vow, even supported it with a vow of his own. And yet Fírhador knew that, when he found the Orcs who had his daughter, he would be willing to check all anger and all hatred, sacrifice all thought of vengeance if he could only see her free from harm and safely in his arms. "Rituals," he said carefully, "may put us in mind of the living as well as the dead. I have a child who lives. So long as she is alive, my first thoughts cannot be of vengeance." He looked into Culas' face searchingly.
The scout was silent for a moment. When he spoke his words were similarly careful. "I have not forgotten your daughter, Fírhador. To forget her would be to forget why my friend died. He was seeking to protect her, and to see her rescued from the ones who stole her from you." There was no trace of blame in what he said. The words were factual, the tone earnest. "I would not wish for my friend to have died in vain…and I would willingly make the sacrifice he made if I thought it would secure an innocent life."
They understood one another, then. From the direction of the others Fírhador heard Túchir calling for the party to rise. It was time for them to be moving again, yet despite his earlier chafing beneath the delay he did not immediately break his gaze with Culas, putting his hand on the scout's shoulder instead. "I thank you for your words. And I do not think our goals irreconcilable."
"Our quarry is the same." Culas clasped his shoulder in turn and gripped it tightly. "Let us share in the hunt."
"Are you sure that you want nothing?" asked Nevhithien as she helped her mother settle back against the high pillow.
"No, dear heart."
"It is only that they brought food again…"
Her mother smiled tiredly. "I am really not very hungry, Nevhithien. Perhaps later. It is only that I am tired now."
Himeth would tire out anyone, Nevhithien thought to herself but did not say aloud. In happier times it would have elicited a laugh from her mother, and Nevhithien wanted so badly to hear her mother's laughter again, even if it came accompanied by reproof for speaking disrespectfully of her elders. But there was such a tired look in Thalawen's face, her eyes hollowed out with fatigue and with pain. There seemed no place for flippancy in this room, where the curtains were kept drawn even in the middle of the day, and where her mother tried to smile with such eyes. Nevhithien drew the lace coverlet gently over Thalawen's bandaged ribs and bent to kiss her cheek. Her hurt hip throbbed as she straightened. "I will bring a tray in to you later," she said firmly. "It cannot be good for you to eat nothing. It will be here beside your bed when you wake up."
Thalawen sighed but did not try to argue. "Very well. Do go, Nevhithien, and tell them I am sorry."
"There is nothing to be sorry for. You are tired. They understand." She could hear a murmur of ellith voices from the front of the house: as she pulled the door closed quietly behind her, she could hear the sound of the front door shutting as well. It would seem she was too late to convey any apologies from her mother, even had there been anything to apologize for. She headed for the living room, where she had left Veisiliel alone with their company. Taking a deep breath, Nevhithien forced a smile on her face and poked her head around the frame of the door with exaggerated caution. "Are they gone yet?"
Veisiliel looked at her briefly from the window seat before she went back to looking out the window.
Nevhithien sighed at her little sister's lack of response but joined her and watched the little group of Elves as they walked away from the house. Goodwives of neighboring homes, they made repeated visits bearing words of comfort, or what they considered comfort. Their earnest prayers and sympathetic murmurs, however well intended, made Nevhithien uncomfortable. "It is no wonder Father does not come home," she said dryly. "I think he stays away as much to avoid our many well-wishers as to hunt Orcs. Well! Let us see what they have left us."
Veisiliel uncurled herself from the windowsill and followed Nevhithien into the kitchen. There she stood fingering her sling while her older sister lifted lids and opened jars, examining their contents. "There are spiced meat pasties, and warm broth, and sweet nuts. We shall eat well today," said Nevhithien cheerily. "Here now! What would you like?"
They held their repast in the kitchen, where they had eaten for the past two days. Eating alone in the dining room would be too strange and awkward, but the back garden and front porch, both ideal in this warm weather, were out of the question. Nevhithien had only mentioned eating outside once and the alarm in Veisiliel's face was such that she had not done so again. They ate quietly, with occasional punctuation from Nevhithien, commenting on the food or their many visitors or on some funny observation she had made. She could never know if it was funny to Veisiliel, who responded to everything with the same silence: the most Nevhithien ever got out of her was a quiescent shrug.
She kept at it anyway. It was too queer to have silence in a room containing Veisiliel. She had always been such a voluble child, wanting petting and attention. Leni had been affectionate and outgoing at that age as well, but Leni had also been happy on her own, capable of entertaining herself. Veisiliel, on the other hand, seemed always to want someone to play with, and in the absence of a playmate she had a special knack for getting into mischief. There were times when Nevhithien, bothered at her reading or her writing, had been frustrated on this account, but Leni had always taken it in stride. She had never seemed to mind spending time with their littlest sister, and she had been so clever at managing her, effortlessly devising little games to amuse her or little tasks to keep her productive.
Thinking about that and watching Veisiliel pick unhappily at her food, Nevhithien had an idea. "It does not look as if you are very hungry. I am going to put a tray together for Mother, but I am not at all certain what she would like. Perhaps you could help." Veisiliel looked up at this, a rare spark of interest in her eyes. "Come," said Nevhithien in a casual way, "let us see what she might like."
Together they compiled an assortment of food decidedly unsuitable to any adult palate, still less that of an invalid who had been bedridden for the past two days. Veisiliel selected all of the treats that she most liked herself, most of them sweet and sticky. Nevhithien knew it didn't really matter, that most of the tray would go uneaten anyway. It was little enough that Mother had eaten lately. But Veisiliel obviously felt happy and important to be of use: she even started humming a little at one point, arranging a white linen napkin at the side of the tray. Suddenly she stopped, squeezing her eyes shut tightly and balling her hands into fists.
"That was very pretty, Veisiliel," said Nevhithien quietly. "Would you like to carry the tray?"
The younger girl's hands relaxed at her sides. Wordlessly she nodded.
Nevhithien kept an eye on her as she carried the tray. There was a lot on it and she was worried that Veisiliel would find it unwieldy, but she carried it in such a grave composed manner, with careful steps and steady arms, that Nevhithien had to repress a smile. When they entered their mother's room Veisiliel set the tray down on the bedside table with almost no sound at all, not looking at the bed or the person laying there. Thalawen was obviously very much asleep. Only after Veisiliel had straightened did she stand for a time looking at her mother's face, which had settled into the serenity of sleep.
Nevhithien stood by the door, loath to call her away. She has barely seen Mother at all, the older girl realized. Thalawen left her chamber only when receiving company, and when she was in her chamber she did little but sleep. Nevhithien would go in by her to bring her food and to be sure that she was comfortable, but those times when she tried talking to her mother were always gently rebuffed.
A healer had come on both days to assist Nevhithien with her mother's bandages and to assess her condition. "She was badly hurt by the one who attacked her," he said to Nevhithien afterward in another part of the house. "It was a bad experience, and she is in great pain. It would be better if your father was here for her, but with him away her mood is very low. Talk to her, but pay attention to how she fares, and let her sleep when she needs it. The drink I have prepared will help with the pain, but sleep is the best remedy of all."
It is not Father's fault, thought Nevhithien unhappily, but she knew the healer wasn't making accusations. He was simply stating facts.
It was hard for Nevhithien and she knew that it must be harder still for her sister. The only times Veisiliel saw their mother were when the once indomitable Thalawen sat propped out in the living room like a porcelain doll, being polite to company, or when Veisiliel was brought into Thalawen's room at night for an evening kiss. Then her mother would stroke her hair with an almost unbearable tenderness. The damage to her body made holding her daughter too difficult.
Now, as Nevhithien watched again, Veisiliel rose on tiptoe, reaching with her unhurt arm to gently pat the loose dark tresses of their mother's hair.
Slender shadows gather in the trees, voices interweaving in low quick exchange. "Not five hours from us."
"And their numbers?"
"Twelve? Thirteen? A large party."
"Thirteen? So many?"
"The band that attacked the convoy. Their party was large."
"We are enough. They do not know we come." One of the younger Elves, boastfully. They are seven. Seven Elves, his tone says, can easily overmatch thirteen Orcs.
"Was a child among them?"
"None was seen."
"A care nonetheless."
"More than a care."
"If we move now, we can be there by daybreak."
"We move now."
His breath is steady, and he isn't sweating. His skin is cool and dry. Yet in his chest his heart is pounding; he can hear it pounding in his ears. A hand on his shoulder. He knows Culas' touch in the dark. "It is soon, then."
A bare few hours. He nods, a terse jerk of the chin. There is a fire in his veins, like a burning liquor coursing through his blood. He wills it to die there. Let the fire chill. He will need all of his wits about him.
Then they are running, swift shadows flying through the trees, and their feet never fully touch the ground. He is as fleet as any of them, and his heart cries out to her in advance of his body. Though he knows she cannot hear the thoughts of his mind, he sends them to her with grim intensity.
Little bird. My Eleluleniel. Little bird, I am coming…
Nevhithien woke from another ill dream, which she tried not to remember. Laying there, the chill of perspiration on her brow, she willed herself to stop shaking. The trembling passed, but her unease lingered. She drew a ragged breath, staring up at the ceiling. Then she turned her head, looking at the bed across from hers. It was still empty. Nevhithien closed her eyes, feeling the tears prick behind her lids. Sister.
Her eyes flew open again and she pushed herself up on one elbow, looking beyond Eleluleniel's bed to Veisiliel's bed beside the door. It too was empty. Immediately she slid her lower body over the side of the bed and rose clumsily to her feet. When she stood it sent a jolt of pain through her hurt hip but nonetheless she shuffled to the foot of the empty bed and stared as if staring would change things. Sighing, she pulled the uppermost coverlet off the bed and bundled it under her arm. "Oh Veisiliel," she said under her breath.
It was out in the dark corridor, at the top of the stairs, that she paused. Standing there she became suddenly, preternaturally aware of the silence of the sleeping house. She heard her heart begin to beat faster in her chest. No. She would not be afraid in her own home, in the place where she had been born. Nevhithien set her jaw and descended the stairs in a crabbed and sideways manner, positing most of her weight on the rail. Her hip protested all the while.
When Veisiliel had wandered before, it had taken Nevhithien long to find her. Now she went straight to their father's study and looked within. The pallid gleam of a small face fear-flashed in the direction of the opening door, confirming her suspicions. This time she knew better than to say anything but only went to Veisiliel, who pressed huddled at the corner of the tall dark secretary. She could not kneel but she bent a little to arrange the blanket over her little sister's trembling shoulders, and waited until they had stilled. "Come you," she whispered then, "I was frightened to find you gone." She waited a moment before continuing, "Will you not keep me company tonight?"
Veisiliel said no more than she had before. She only uttered a child's soft sigh and suffered Nevhithien to take her hand and lead her, once more, up to their room. There Nevhithien did not let her hand go but walked her firmly past her own bed, and then their lost sister's, to Nevhithien's own. She drew back the covers to let Veisiliel crawl in before climbing awkwardly after. As Nevhithien drew the covers over them Veisiliel turned and pressed her small body up against her.
"Ahh!" the older girl cried out, and then laughed a little in spite of herself. "Your skin is cold, little sister! You must stop these late-night wanderings."
Veisiliel pressed her face against Nevhithien's side and began to a cry in a queer gasping way. Nevhithien stiffened. She put her arms awkwardly around her little sister, held her until the paroxysm of grief had passed and Veisiliel finally lay sleeping. But Nevhithien lay through the dark hours with Veisiliel half on her, uncomfortable and unable to sleep, as the morning sky outside began to lighten.