7. Through the Streets of Valmar
In the end, Nautalya came along on the journey across the city to deliver the baby. Between Márathul's reasoning and her pleading, Eäzinya had eventually agreed that even the Yaranénor were not monstrous enough to harm a little girl, nor would they harm a baby, and they would surely not harm a little girl carrying a baby. So the baby had been bound to Nautalya's back, and she now walked ahead of Sidaizon down the rutted and dusty road that ran past the Lavazat and toward the Yaranénon side of the city.
She wore a bright orange shawl that Amárië had grudgingly produced, wrapped around her like a primitive dress and tied over one shoulder. On top of that, she had a white cape that would cover the orange until they were far enough from home to reveal their disguises. Sidaizon, likewise, wore his white robe over Tarmanaz's clothes and kept his head bowed. Preoccupied as he had been with creating a sufficient Yaranénon disguise, he had given little thought to how they would escape their own neighbourhood without being noticed or recognised. Everyone here knew who he was. Anyone who stopped to speak to him in the street would surely notice that his Almatar's costume was incomplete, and see the strange state of his hair. Tarmanaz's plait lay tucked beneath his collar, but the shape of it could not be completely hidden. Most of all, he did not want to have to explain where he and Nautalya were going with the baby, and whose baby it was.
Everyone they passed looked like a threat to him. The streets were far emptier than usual, surely owing to worry over the previous day's violence: emptier, but not deserted. Anyone, at any moment, could guess what he was doing and ruin everything. The Valadávan people would surely not agree with this course of action. The longer he could delay telling them, the better. If he could avoid telling anything at all, that would be best. Ideally, the baby would disappear into obscurity and no-one would ever ask after her. The matter would simply fade away.
He sighed. How terrible was it, that he wished a little baby to be swallowed by the vastness of the city, out of his life and beyond his responsibility? How heartless was he, to have those thoughts? "It is for the good of all," he muttered to himself, though the tone of his voice was unconvincing. "To bridge the rift." To bridge the rift, he was about to sacrifice an innocent child to heresy. It was both unavoidable and unconscionable.
Nautalya turned to glance up at him. "Did you say something, Attu?"
"No," he said. "Nothing important. I was only thinking to myself."
She accepted that with a nod, and continued on her way. "It's nice today. No clouds at all."
"It is nice." He put a hand on her shoulder to steer her to the left. "Why don't we go this way? We can walk by the Garden of the Moon and down to the river."
They turned down a narrow side street, which was scarcely more than a walkway between housing blocks. Here there were more people, but all of them too busy at their household tasks to bother paying any attention to an average man and his average daughter. To the left, women hung washing out from their windows; to the right, a boy shouted and tugged at the harness of a stubborn goat. The buildings rose up tall, three or four levels, on either side. A smell of garbage, smoke, and animal dung filtered through the air.
Nautalya regarded it all curiously. "Attu..." she asked. "Are these people very rich? The houses are big."
"No," Sidaizon answered softly. "The buildings are big, but they are not houses for one family. They are divided into rooms. Each family has a few rooms, but they share the building with everyone else. You see the woman at the window there? That is her family's room. But the next window, with the washing already hung out, will belong to another family, and the window above is another family still. The buildings are arranged in a big square, with streets on all sides and a shared courtyard in the middle. Just like our house. Imagine our house with three other houses with other families in them stacked on top."
"So... they are very poor."
"Not very," said Sidaizon, "but I suppose they are poor, yes."
She stopped to look up at him with concern in her eyes. "Are we rich or poor?"
Laughing, Sidaizon squeezed her arm. "We are neither rich nor poor, Aritsincya. We are wealthier than many, but nowhere near the level of many more. We have enough to afford a house with our own front garden, to buy good food, and to keep you in new clothes and shoes, for which you should be grateful."
"I am," she said quickly, though Sidaizon wondered how sincerely she meant it. She had never known anything less than a new dress for every festival and endless hours to devote to play instead of work.
"When I was young," he continued, "Haruni Mari and I were very poor. We lived in a house that was only one room, out of the city and far from everything, and we never had money to buy things that weren't absolutely needed. I only ever had two sets of clothes and one pair of sandals, and all of that would have to last three or four years. And sometimes there was not enough money even for the things we did need, and we'd have to rely on charity. When I was your age, I had to work for Haru Vida making paper, as Tarmanaz does now. But he paid me nothing, because I was only a child and not a true apprentice. He only let me eat a little food from his table and sleep on his floor, so Haruni wouldn't have to worry about me having enough to eat."
"So that's why you wanted to be an Almatar?" Nautalya asked. "So you wouldn't be poor any more?"
He pursed his lips together. "No... I never minded being poor. I knew nothing else. I became an Almatar because... I was not happy as a paper maker with Haru Vida."
She seemed to accept that answer, to Sidaizon's relief, and asked no further questions on the topic. As they continued on from street to street, the tall buildings gave way to more single-level dwellings much like their own. These slowly turned into private, detached houses for wealthier folk, which in turn became great mansions the closer they came to the river. Nautalya slowed to a dawdle as she passed, gazing enviously at the gleaming silver roofs and fruit-filled treetops that poked up above high, white perimeter walls. The delicate sound of splashing fountains from private gardens and courtyards drifted though the air, and, from somewhere within, the soft tones of a harp. "These are the houses of very rich people, then," she said.
"Yes," Sidaizon agreed. "These are the houses of rich people."
She paused before one of the gates to peer through the iron scrollwork. A peacock stared back at her and fanned out its tail, making her grin. "When I am grown up, I want to be very rich."
"And how will you manage that, Nautalya Turillitsë?" Sidaizon asked, taking her hand to pull her along again. "Will you marry a very rich man?"
"No. I don't want to get married. I just want to be rich by myself. With a big house and peacocks and a pond with fish in it."
He laughed. "But how will you afford your house and peacocks and fish with no rich husband to pay for them?"
"I don't know yet," she said. "I might go exploring and find a new kind of jewels that nobody ever found before."
"Exploring and jewels! Such fancy! The King would have you arrested for your ambition." He pinched her arm teasingly, expecting her usual defiance, but instead Nautalya pulled away.
A worried expression had spread across her face. "Why would he arrest me?" she asked.
Sidaizon came to a halt, a sinking feeling starting to bloom in his stomach. She had been serious. "Oh... Nautalya, I was only... I was only teasing you."
"But why would I be arrested? Why would the King care if I want to go exploring?"
Faced with her fearful eyes, he found it impossible to answer truthfully. She was still so young, and certain that anything was possible for her future. The hard realities of life meant nothing to children like her; it would be cruel to force them upon her now. They would come on their own soon enough. At the moment, she only needed to believe that a Vanyarin girl could look forward to anything more from her life than marriage and children, and that no laws barred her dreams.
"Of course the King does not care if you want to go exploring," he said softly, trying to force any shred of sincerity into his voice. "I was only teasing. And I would never let anyone arrest you, for any reason. You are my little girl, and I will keep you safe and happy until the very ending of the world."
She did not reply. Keeping her thoughts to herself, she continued down the road, slowing only occasionally to cast wistful gazes through garden gates.
Beyond the silver-roofed mansions, the Garden of the Moon lay in a wide swath along the river's edge. Sidaizon had come here with Nautalya before, on festival days when the trees were decked with ribbons and lanterns, and brightly lit pavilions selling food and sweets lined the walkways. Now it was completely empty: no children played around the fountain, no families sat amid the flowers, no well dressed men strolled along the riverbank discussing business ventures. Sidaizon and Nautalya sat alone in the shade of a great tree to eat their dinner of bread and cheese. The baby, who had started to wail when Sidaizon untied her from the security of Nautalya's back, calmed again once she had been fed from the earthenware jar of goat's milk Eäzinya had prepared.
They passed through the garden and over the Aldayanta, a wide, tree-lined bridge made of stones and earth that spanned the river. On the other side was the Garden of the Sun, the beginning of a strange border land that marked a transition into one of the city's largest Yaranénon neighbourhoods. As soon as they had crossed, Sidaizon pulled Nautalya behind the shelter of a bank of trees, where they could safely shed their Valadávan clothing to reveal the colourful disguises beneath. He felt strangely light-headed stepping out into the world in such a costume. The earlier doubts returned, accompanied by a vast wave of new ones. How absolutely silly to think he could fool anyone by putting on a false plait and Yaranénon clothes. Nautalya, perhaps, could pass convincingly: children all tended to have the same look about them. He was too tall, his skin was the wrong shade, his eyes too grey, and his face too sharp. The only people who might mistake him for Yaranénon would be Noldorin merchants who had only the slightest understanding of Vanyarin cultures.
As before, he kept his head low and led Nautalya along narrower side streets to avoid the public thoroughfares. They passed more silver-domed mansions, shining with blinding brightness in the sunlight, and smaller but equally impressive houses covered in tangles of flowering vines. Some were made of the same white stone as the Valadávan houses on the opposite side of the river, but others were built of tan, yellow, orange, or even fiery red brick, lining the streets in a patchwork of colour.
"The Yaranénon man who came to visit yesterday- he lives near here," Sidaizon told Nautalya.
She looked eagerly down the streets branching off to the sides. "Which house?"
"I don't know. But his father lives down this road to the left, toward the end. He's married to Haruni Mari's sister. I went to that house a few times when I was young."
"Can we go there? I want to see inside a house like these ones!"
"Not today," said Sidaizon. "But perhaps someday later. When things are calmer, and we no longer need to wear disguises. You would like their house. It's full of colourful carpets, and they have a wonderful rose garden."
"I would like it," she agreed.
Beyond a thick, vine-covered wall with a gate as wide as the road, the houses changed abruptly from large, single dwellings to cramped housing blocks. The sounds of the city, which had been muted and distant on the wealthy side of the wall, came rushing in suddenly from all sides. Goats bleated, mules brayed, and chickens squawked from household enclosures. And though there were few people on the street, shouted conversations echoed from open windows. The sounds of work sounded as a continuous beat below it all: ringing, pounding, chopping, and moving.
The further they went, the worse the conditions turned. Solid buildings became grimy and run-down, and no less crowded. Makeshift shacks began to line the streets. The smell of garbage and waste strengthened, compounded by the stench of foul water that ran in narrow ditches between the shacks. Flies swarmed to piles of refuse and crawled over children who sat listless and dull-eyed in the midday heat, waiting while their mothers stood in line for a turn at the crumbling well. Men with dirty hair and skin shouted abuse at others who dozed in whatever shade they could find.
Nautalya watched it all from around the protective shield of Sidaizon's arm. She kept herself pressed close against his leg as they walked, and he held her firmly by the shoulders with both hands. Neither said a word. Nautalya, speechless, and Sidaizon, uncertain of what he could say to her, remained silent as they passed by rows upon rows of dilapidated shacks and their piteous inhabitants.
He relaxed his grip on Nautalya's shoulders only when they came to a wide ditch, parched and full of shrivelling weeds, and yet another dividing wall. The road ended at that wall, forcing them to walk along the ditch until they came to a gate. "How much further?" Nautalya whispered as they slipped through.
"Not far," said Sidaizon. "They should live close to here. Are you tired?"
"No... but my back hurts. The baby is heavy."
"Do you want me to carry her?"
Nautalya shook her head. "I can do it." She paused before admitting, "For a bit longer, anyway."
"We're close. Come on. Why don't we ask that boy over there if he can help us find the baby's grandparents?"
The gate had opened onto the comfortingly familiar sight of a market street, and Sidaizon used his elbow to gesture to a lazy-looking boy sitting atop a crate in front of a butcher's shop. He looked safe enough, and dull enough, to risk asking without raising suspicion. The boy kept his eyes on his knees as they approached, appearing to be too engaged in spitting on his thumb and rubbing at a bit of dirt-marked skin to notice them. Only when Sidaizon cleared his throat loudly did the boy look up. Then, his mouth hung open witlessly and an expression of surprise crossed his round face, as if he had never imagined the possibility of being spoken to by a stranger.
"I am sorry to disturb you," said Sidaizon, "but I wonder if you can help me? I seek a man named Authimer, who, I've been told, lives in this neighbourhood. Do you know his house?"
The boy made no reply, but continued to stare mutely.
"Authimer," Sidaizon repeated slowly. "Do you know him?"
Squirming, the boy mumbled something that sounded like, "Wait," before sliding off his crate and through the butcher shop's open doorway.
Sidaizon cursed under his breath. Speaking to a boy was one thing; having to face the boy's father, uncle, or elder brother was too much of a risk. "Let's go," he murmured to Nautalya.
"Why?" she asked. "You aren't asking for directions?"
"No. We'll ask someone else."
He led her away, ready to turn the nearest corner and disappear from sight, when someone shouted from behind.
The footsteps of an angry man followed the voice, pounding up behind them on the dirt road. Clenching his teeth, Sidaizon stopped and turned, keeping Nautalya close at his side.
The man from the shop looked exactly like some childish caricature of a butcher. Tall and broad, he wore a blood-spattered apron and held in his right hand a knife the length of his forearm. He approached at a determined step, a glare and a frown on his face, and stopped only when he and Sidaizon stood uncomfortably face to face. The butcher's eyes flickered over Sidaizon's features, as if appraising him.
Sidaizon heard a little gasp from Nautalya as she shifted to hide behind his back. The butcher stood close enough that he could smell cooked meat on the man's breath. He shuddered inwardly, but refused to pull away. He could do nothing that might be taken as a sign of guilt. Instead, he forced a polite smile. "May I help you, sir?"
"All the time," the butcher answered slowly, "my son comes flying into the house, swearing to the east and west that some Valadávan thug has come to murder him." He took two rocking steps back, holding his knife between him and Sidaizon and thumbing the blade. "Looks like today he might be right."
In reply to that, all Sidaizon could do was laugh. The accusation was so absurd that there could be no other answer. "A Valadávan thug!" he said. "No, sir, I think you are mistaken. I am a family man, on a stroll with my two daughters here." He patted Nautalya on the arm, keeping a wide smile as he did. "Nothing to fear from us, you see."
"You harassed my son."
"I asked him for directions," Sidaizon corrected. "I asked your boy if he knew where I could find a man called Authimer. But it seems he cannot help me. So I will be on my way."
The butcher's eyes grew wide and his face hard. "Authimer!" he hissed, stepping forward again to be close enough to whisper. His eyes darted from side to side, as if scanning for any intruders to the conversation. "How does someone like you know Authimer?"
Sidaizon's stomach tightened, though he pushed the growing seed of fear to the back of his mind. "Someone like me? I'm not sure I understand your meaning. Authimer is an old friend of mine."
"Cat's balls," said the butcher. "I know Authimer. He's a good man. Has nothing to do with crooked Valadávan sneaks."
"I'm not-" Sidaizon began, but let the words fall off with a sigh. Arguments were a luxury for another time. He needed to find Authimer more than he needed to keep up his pretence of appearing Yaranénon. "You know him?"
The butcher nodded sharply. "I do. But don't you go asking me where to find him, because I know a fact or two about him. And I know that ever since his daughter ran away, he's the last person who'd want to be friendly with someone like you. Why you want to see him anyhow?"
And so came the choice. Sidaizon's hands ran down the plain fabric of the Yaranénon clothing from waist to thigh, feeling the clumsy lie beneath his touch. Behind him, fearful heat radiated from Nautalya's body as she tried to keep hidden in his shadow. The butcher had only to give her one hard look to notice the baby. But even then, there was nothing to show that the child was Authimer's granddaughter unless he said as much. It would be easy to create a new lie. If he were to claim status as a convert...
He sighed. It would be easier to simply tell the truth. He had always been a champion of truth, and the day's lies had thus far done him no favours. Lowering his head, he beckoned Nautalya forward.
"This is Authimer's grandchild," he said, his voice soft enough for only the butcher to hear as he placed a hand on the baby's swaddling. "She has been surrendered by her father now that her mother is dead. I am taking her to Authimer so that she may be given into the keeping of her grandparents."
Shocked into momentary silence, the butcher leaned over to examine the bundle strapped to Nautalya's back. He lifted the cloth that covered the baby's head, as if checking to be certain that there truly was a baby under all of the wrappings, and made a stifled, groaning sort of noise. "Sámandë!" he swore. "Who are you, to have this child?!"
"I am an acquaintance of the family," Sidaizon answered. This was true enough, and enough truth for the butcher. "And I have been introduced to Authimer. Because of this, I am charged with delivering the baby safely to his care." He held up his hands. "I promise you, sir, I have neither mean-spirited nor criminal intentions. I wish only to carry out this duty and then return home peacefully with my daughter."
"I will believe that when I see it!" said the butcher.
Sidaizon smiled in a way that he hoped looked friendly rather than forced. "Then lead me to Authimer. If you take me to him, you will indeed see for yourself that I mean no harm. I need only deliver the baby. Then I will leave. You may even wait to escort me back to the river, if you so wish. Does that not sound fair?"
The butcher turned away to look up at the sky while he chewed his bottom lip. "Wait here," he said after a moment. He stepped back into his shop to close the shutters and pull in his sign, and when he reappeared, he no longer wore his bloody apron or carried the knife. "Sure I'll regret this," he mumbled to Sidaizon through a sneer.
Aritsincya: dear little daughter
Turillitsë: little princess
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.