1. Chapter one
Written for B2MeM 2014 (non-compilation).
Prompt: Staying warm against the wintry weather.
Summary: Maglor and a strange boy meet during a gelid winter. AU.
Warnings: Mature themes, character death, mentions of violence.
Disclaimer: I own nothing but the story.
Maedhros had liked to joke that Maglor should have opened an inn because he was such a hedonist. Then he died and the universe tilted and spun and crashed and Maglor was left alone. After the first shock wore off there wasn't much to do. He cried, he screamed, he cut off his hair, he bandaged his mottled red-and-white blistered hands with a dirty strip from his tunic and lived as a tramp. Song was his bread and repentance his wine, and like the strongest spirits the latter did nothing but churn his guts and muddle whatever was left of his wits. He wanted to say he was sorry, sorry for living, even if he was in pain and had no one to talk to and his days were so very lonely and soporific he thought he would go mad. Maybe he was mad. But he couldn't tell Maedhros because he was dead and the dead were forbidden to commune with the living. Sometimes when he thought this Maglor raised his hand and made a little clawing motion with his right index finger, as if he wanted to make a tear in the atmosphere and pull out his brothers from the dimension of Námo's Halls like blood-specked babies from a womb.
Years numberless and dry as swiftly drifting autumn leaves passed. His hands healed but remained badly scarred. Some semblance of logic returned to his mind. The Age of the Elves waxed, grew still, then withered and died and did not resurrect. Maglor wandered far across lands till water and filth passed through the soles of his shoes and his feet grew tough as leather. He was a Noldorin minstrel, a regent, a vagrant, and now he was a bard at a minor lord's court where he was given food and clean clothes and a bed and a fine mantle trimmed with silver (which he never wore but kept hung in his cupboard), because Lord Odell loved his music and offered him a contract for ten years.
He called himself Lauro.
"What an odd name," Odell said, knitting his great black brows together in interest. The other man replied quietly, "My mother thought it fitting," and said no more of it.
At first he would sit in a corner in the Great Hall on a stool and play his long, slow laments on his wooden lap-harp with a leaf pattern, his voice deep and husky and so sorrowful it would effortlessly bring stinging tears to the advisors' eyes. Odell was both pleased and disturbed, and told him to change his tune. So Lauro played bright ditties and sang funny satires that pulled the corners of people's lips upwards as if he was a master puppeteer and was controlling them with keen strings, and they crowed with laughter and clapped their hands and maundered his praises, hailing him the best bard in the world. They said they could hear in his music the voice of God, and that he was blessed. He might have even been an angel.
The folk here had a partiality for beautiful things, and his voice was like the most exquisite gold, they said with delight. "And see his fine, patrician features? The scholars say that a good will moulds a good face. Yes, that is the study of physiognomy," they told him when he asked, half-curiously, why they thought him a good man.
His hair was once again thick and curly, and he wore it in a short ponytail scraped back with a strip of leather. He tucked his leaf-shaped ears beneath a blood-red kerchief, which he took off when greeting people, and the lords and ladies of the court tittered at his poor fashion sense. Maglor smiled dryly in response, making sure not to meet their eyes. He tended to keep his gaze lowered beneath his pretty black lashes. The word Lachenn was obsolete but his eyes still glistered as bright as stars. This annoyed him. The light in his eyes should have extinguished when the light in his heart went out. The effect was incongruous, he thought, and pouted sullenly like a child.
All the same, they thought he was just an unusually tall and comely Man, and those who had seen his ears – the lord included – assumed they were naturally strange or surgically altered. "Freak," some of them muttered unobtrusively when he was just within earshot. "Elf," others teased, giggling, touching his face, his shoulders, plucking the sleeves of his shirt, trying to catch a glimpse of those rich dark eyes. Lauro wondered at their ignorance, and was thankful for it, because they were strict about their religion and tolerated no infidels. He was forced to kneel every day on his scarred knees and to pray to a god who was not Ilúvatar or Manwë or Varda and to apologise for being alive. This was fine. He was sorry to live, and yet did not want to die. He should have suffered shame, or regret, but he didn't; not anymore. As a general rule he felt a bitterness seeped as deeply into his bones as silt in a sponge, or nothing at all. There was a festering shadow in his breast that did not grow or diminish yet also did not permit old wounds to heal.
The castle where he resided was a sturdy structure of white stone constructed on a tall, rocky cliff, and was known as one of the most splendid and harmonious architectural achievements in the land. Lauro thought it was monstrous, its painfully precise symmetry reminiscent of soldiers marching side by side, with a singular purpose handed to them by some faceless general. But he liked the blue-green waves which crashed against the cliff with alarming ferocity; to Lauro they appeared to have a childish, savage intent to destroy, to hurt. Their slow swells and heavy punches provided a sharp dichotomy with the still geometric conformity of the castle. He found this amusing. When he stood at the edge of the cliff to look at the sea he was aware of the dizzying height; the water whirled beneath him as if waiting for him to drop. Occasionally he spread his arms as if embracing the chaos, the wind sharp as needles and salty against his chapped lips, threading almost lovingly its icy fingers into his coal-black hair. Lauro knew it wanted him back, wanted his feet to tap against its bone-white shores and his voice to roll over the waves. He felt its eagerness, its impatience, deep in the fibre of his flesh. He was so close to it. Not now, he thought stubbornly.
But he knew it would not listen to him.
He lived there for nine years. The lord grew ever more attached to him, seduced by his supple voice, and allowed him out less as the months passed swiftly by. Eventually Lauro was confined within the walls that surrounded the castle, but he didn't complain. He did not need the panoramic view of the undulating green and brown landscape dotted with townhouses and copses of deciduous trees. He sat at his square window in the small stone tower he had all to himself, which rose like a lone finger separate from the castle and which overlooked the sea, watching the waves throw themselves against the cliffs, coaxing little melodies from his harp. Their bitter tunes had for a long time remained his faithful companions, even if they were not his friends, and he clung to them as a miser clings to his copper.
People had picked up on his isolation, his odd habits of speaking largely in monosyllables and of not participating in dances or story-telling or singing (apart from his work). It was as if he did nothing for joy, and ate and slept only to stretch his life thin and add to the well of sorrow in his eyes. This was peculiar in their realm. Folk were not always cheerful but they felt freely and ate heartily when they could. They told bawdy tales and wept openly and made wreaths of jewel-bright flowers and hummed to themselves. Whether the chalice of pleasure was full or not they pressed it to their lips. Anyone who did not take part in this was an aberration, or worse, a heathen. They began to suspect Lauro might have been something of the sort, and rumours stretched their sinuous fingers through the hallways of the castle that he was a sorcerer in disguise. After all, no one had a voice like that. It was unnatural. He might have been sent by the devil to tempt them into evil. And though some said the sound of his music was unfit for human ears and should have been played only in large houses of God in the presence of priests, others said his lips should have been sewn shut permanently because he was secretly pernicious.
Lord Odell alone protected him. He knew his greatest bard was fey and strange, but Lauro was a good man, an excellent fellow really, and to say he was a magician was folly. So he turned a deaf ear to his gossiping courtiers and his gossiping servants and publicly lavished praises on Lauro, especially after supper when the diamond-bright stars were strewn across the sky and his supple voice was shaded by wistfulness.
That year brought an uncannily cold winter. Snowflakes fell thick and soft and wide as a baby's hand, inches upon inches on the freezing ground till the broad landscape was covered with a white blanket still as death. The surrounding town ground almost entirely to a halt. Mist settled upon the castle and shrouded its lower levels so that the turrets looked like they were floating in pale grey clouds. The trees shed their old leaves and turned black. Food grew scarce and the granaries slowly emptied. The denizens of the castle cursed the cold, cursed the snow, cursed the day they were born, and grudgingly went on with their lives. Lauro could no longer see the the waves from his window because the fog was too thick, and turned all his attention to his music and his poetry.
One evening as he was sitting on a stool in the Great Hall curling his toes in front of a hearth and huddling in a maroon woolen blanket, a servant's brat of around twelve years sauntered up to him, gave an ungainly half-bow, and without preamble plumped down at his feet and cocked his head to one side like an inquisitive bird. His round face was flushed with the cold and bore deep unappealing pock-marks; without them he might have been a handsome child. He wore a stained, threadbare jacket that flapped at his knees, and britches that were several inches too long for him. An old cream scarf was tucked smartly around his neck, incongruous to the rest of his tatty appearance. Lauro looked expressionlessly at him, though there was the slightest glimmer of contempt in his hard gaze. What did he want?
The boy, as if in response, grinned widely, a dimple dipping gaily in one cheek, and said rather too loudly in a staccato rhythm: "God save you, noble bard!" Then, abruptly, he straightened and pointed eagerly to Lauro's harp, an almost greedy look in his pale hazel eyes. "Play! Please!" His voice was heavy, awkward, as if his tongue was twice as thick as it should have been, or as if he was trying to sound like a man when he'd yet to taste adolescence. Lauro raised an eyebrow archly in response. "Please!" the boy pleaded again, getting on his hands and knees like a dog, and he looked so droll and so pathetically hopeful that Lauro shook his head, sighed, and picked up his harp. "I am Lord Odell's bard," he muttered as his fingers deftly flew across the strings and a song slowly bloomed. "I am not supposed to play for your personal gratification."
The boy grinned happily, and with an impressive lack of finesse sat back on his haunches and planted his cheeks in his little brown hands. Lauro played him a quick, bright ditty, somewhat impatiently – he'd made it up on the spot – and then sharply stood up, making his displeasure clear. He did not care for company; his solitude was as much a part of him as his music. As he was about to stride away, he heard the boy clap enthusiastically, the sound painfully sharp in empty Great Hall. "Bravo, bravo, good sir!" he said in his strange, thick voice, and laughed.
The boy was back the next day, with his odd clothes and his odd voice, and asked for another song. Lauro had just finished playing a two hour ballad for Odell, who had been in a crotchety and demanding mood, and was tired. He said so. The boy pursed his lips and creased his brow with a condescending, scholarly air. The effect, with his appearance, once might have made Lauro laugh. Now it irritated him. "What is wrong with you?" he said, deliberately standing tall in order to intimidate the boy. "Go play with the hounds, and leave me be."
The boy stood with his feet planted firmly apart, placed the fingers of his right hand over his heart, and said emphatically, though slowly, "I wanna be a musician, and I think the best way to learn is to watch. Well, after playing." Then, almost as an afterthought: "Oh, my name's Galan. Sorry I didn't tell ya earlier."
Lauro closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. He said dismissively, without bothering to look up, "I am not a tutor. Go learn from one who is willing."
"Teach me to sing and harp."
"Will yer teach me a week from now?"
"Is 'no' all yer can say?"
Lauro almost smiled. "...No." He nearly quipped, "You have a ghastly voice, anyway," but thought the better of it. Instead he pushed a few strands of hair from his eyes and said, "I have neither the time nor the inclination to teach you, but you are welcome to ask for a song whenever you like, as long as I am not tired."
Galan blinked once, slowly, as if digesting his words, before he swallowed and said, "All right." He was utterly crestfallen, Lauro could tell. In order to dispel the strained, pregnant silence that had waxed, Lauro said, "What are your parents' names, and where are they?"
The boy raised his head after a moment, brows raised enquiringly, as if he hadn't been paying attention. "Huh?"
"I said: where are your parents?"
"Oh." A pause. His eyes flicked sharply, once, twice, across Lauro's face. "Don't have any." He toyed with a strand of his curly hair, and blushed. Wrong-footed, Lauro cleared his throat awkwardly. He'd heard this unfortunate story too many times to be truly moved by it, and yet he couldn't help but feel a twinge of sympathy. "I am sorry." What else was there to be said?
Galan did not reply. He was pointedly looking up at a baroque tapestry to the right, depicting their god blessing one of His disciples, who knelt at His feet with an air of reverence and piety. Lauro, after a moment, did the same. Together in the massive empty hall filled with echoes and bleakness they gazed at startlingly bright hues of rose-pink and topaz blue and toxic emerald, and the restless fire in the black hearth flickered and crackled and seemed to grow a little warmer. Then, without warning, Galan trundled away, and Lauro was once again safely enveloped in his bubble of solitude.
The met every evening after that in Lauro's chamber, when the day's work was done and they could afford to not panic or grow anxious over Odell's and the household's demands. Always they took a place by the hearth. Lauro would sit on a stool, his blanket thrown over his shoulders, and pluck the strings of his harp, while Galan squatted at his feet and watched with almost intrusive attendance. The former was strongly reminded of a saucy pigeon. There was little talking: Lauro was by nature withdrawn, and Galan always looked like he was on the verge of saying something but couldn't quite find the right words. He sang not at all despite his ambitions. He had learned his letters from the clerk's son, who he was secretly companions with, and could proudly read books, though he couldn't read music and said he thought the notes looked like freakish black ants.
A faint, unlooked-for element of familiarity crept between them, though they knew virtually nothing about each other. They were not quite friends, not quite strangers, and yet were entirely comfortable around one another: their natures fit like a jigsaw puzzle.
One night it was peculiarly, unforgivingly gelid, and icicles hung like hard crystal stalactites from the arches and turrets of the castle and from the spidery tips of the dead black trees. Lauro was assiduously tuning his harp, his frustrated expression like that of a seamstress trying to poke a stubborn thread through a needle. His fingers were stiff and blotchy with the cold, and half-suppressed tremors convulsed through his body. Galan was chewing morosely on a tough piece of meat he had filched from the kitchen, refusing to meet the other man's eyes. Eventually his face formed a deliberately nonchalant expression and he said, his tone not entirely devoid of bitterness, "I'm deaf, Master Lauro."
Lauro looked up sharply from his lyre and stared and stared, his hands still as rock, his round eyes no paler in the firelight. He could hear the boy's erratic breathing. The fire seemed to emit an odd, arid smell. Explosively, he sneezed, unceremoniously puncturing the tension of the moment, and his blanket slipped from his shoulders. He wiped his nose with the back of his clammy hand. Slowly, with deliberate motions, he tugged his blanket off himself and thrust it towards Galan, who first folded his arms stubbornly, then grudgingly took it and wrapped it around himself and shuddered for the unfamiliar warmth. Soon he was cocooned in it, his knees tucked beneath his chin so that only his wide anxious eyes were visible.
Lauro lowered his gaze and wordlessly began to weave a tune as old as the hills, when the stars had just been birthed and the sun and the moon had not yet been conceived. It was a lullaby from his homeland. His mother had sung it to him. Or perhaps its was Haru Finwë. He couldn't quite remember. For the first time in years a lump formed in his throat and he sucked his lower lip hard. Galan, who had been sitting rigidly on the ground, scooted over and tentatively rested his head against the other man's thigh, possessively clutching the blanket. He pouted and furrowed his brow mutinously, as if to display his reluctance, and Lauro playfully flicked Galan's temple, the corners of his mouth twitching, before he returned to his music.
When Galan was four his mother, a scullery maid, died of an unknown illness, and when he was six his father perished due to saint's fire*. The only siblings he'd had were twin sisters who had been stillborn, and so he was alone. He'd worked as a page for Lord Odell from a young age, setting the tables, bringing ewers to guests during feats, running other sundry jobs. He tried to work hard by day because that was what Good People did, and slept in the Great Hall on the floor by night, along with other servants, or in one of the hallways if there was no space.
He dreamed of becoming a great minstrel; no matter that he was but a servant. In his free time he would perch in one of the wild cherry trees at the borders of the castle gardens, watching the sun daub the sky with purple and gold and think of what people would say about him. Things like, His voice carries a shade of sorrow that breaks the heart, and, Galan of the great voice: his skill is golden indeed. He would smile, snort, and turn his face into his shoulder because such thoughts were embarrassing.
Then he heard Lauro sing after one of the lord's midsummer feasts, while he hung back near a pillar and clutched an ewer of water that was slipping from his wet hands, and he wanted to cry because the minstrel's voice was so beautiful it should have been a sin to fall on human ears and because no-one could be that talented. To be jealous would be to blaspheme. Galan wanted to learn from him. He didn't ask because he felt shy.
A year after his father's death he got a violent case of measles which spared his life but not his ears, and his world of songs and music and dreams was plunged into frosty silence. Unable to adequately use his voice or hear others', he had to learn different ways to communicate. A kindly old woman with tolerably working eyes, also deaf, and a maid in the castle, taught him sign language and lip reading in the early mornings before she too was folded into God's bosom. Galan spent most of his paltry free time on his own. He made up stories, watched people pass by with their motley clothes and their homely faces, and petted the hounds that were more amiable than the humans. The servant-boys in the castle didn't want to play with him anymore, though they offered kind words and sympathetic smiles that made Galan want to pluck the teeth slowly, one-by-one from their gums. The clerk's son alone provided him some company, when both could get away with it.
Some days it was bearable, especially since he befriended Lauro and made pestering him a habit. It was amusing to see changes in the man's usually wooden, expressionless face: a quirk of a fine eyebrow, a flap of the jaw, a slapping of palm against forehead. Galan was also thankful that the bard enunciated his words exquisitely and never spoke too quickly; it made his lip-reading so much easier. He had never before appreciated the need for articulation. Now that he thought of it, most people even with properly working ears had no idea how to speak. It was far, far more difficult to read their lips, and more often than not Galan wanted to kick them hard in frustration because he couldn't understand a word of what they were saying.
Most days it was intolerable. His sense of balance was thrown, though that became better with time. Magnificent blue-black bruises grew common. He would turn corners, misjudge the angle, and end up on his backside. Once he bumped into a cabinet and didn't know that he'd shattered an old terracotta vase until the wrinkled shock-haired chamber servant started gesticulating wildly at him.
It was as though he was a phantom, a little breath of discarnate life who spied on scenes that were not for him to witness. The birds fell dead without their song, the rivers stilled, and the needles of rain were nothing but vaguely uncomfortable prickling sensations on his swarthy cracked skin. When he was younger his mother would tuck him into bed and coo into his ear and make nightmares go away. He missed his mother's stories, her ugly, blistered hands that were always so gentle. He wanted to cry, but he couldn't hear himself, so there was no point in it.
One day, out of sheer frustration, after a sleepless and restless night, he stormed up to a banister of one of the castle's upper balconies and screamed and screamed into the pitiless wind that pushed against him as if it wanted to knock him over or flatten him against the wall. He screamed till his throat was raw and aching and his fingers clutching the frozen railing turned fish-white but he couldn't stop because his ears perceived nothing, and if he couldn't hear himself then perhaps others couldn't either.
Then someone was yanking him back roughly, wrapping strong arms around him from behind and hauling him into the relative warmth of the indoors. Lauro. He had obviously just leapt out of bed, because he was naked beneath his hastily thrown on cream robe, and he'd worn his slippers on the wrong feet. The overall effect was farcical. What is wrong with you? he mouthed, gesticulating angrily, like an old pedlar whose cart of new apples has been knocked over by a bunch of brats. I could hear you from downstairs! So could everyone! Do you want your backside whipped by the chamberlain?
Galan blinked. "You heard me?"
Lauro stared at him, wagging his jaw (was he speaking?). He caught Galan's wrists and turned his palms upwards, and his brow corrugated. They were raw and red and bleeding from having been ripped away from the ice. Lauro stared at them for a long time. "Something wrong?" Galan asked, not without deliberate insolence. Lauro looked up sharply, his mouth pressed in a grim line, eyes ablaze. He let go of his hands, stood aside, and mouthed, Go to the physician. Galan did not move. Now, Galan, the other man said, his face tensing alarmingly.
Galan stood rigidly, eyes dazed, yet oddly aware of Lauro's sharp-featured face, his stiff posture, his pointing finger. The world blurred over. His young body was overworked, underfed and deprived of rest. Weariness and fatigue caught him like in a net. He took a step forward, swayed, and fell into a faint.
Lauro's warm mutilated hands caught him before the ground could split his skull.
The days grew longer. Winter waned and the snow began to melt, and the heavier, sweeter scent of spring filled the air. People stopped worrying about their noses turning blue and falling off, and getting up in the morning seemed a much easier task. Then it was summer, and the winds checked their pace and the birds rose into the air and the sky was daubed in periwinkle-blue.
Lauro noticed with discomfort the way Odell's eyes began follow him jealously, in an almost predatory manner, his fingers twitching as if aching to catch him and put him in a cage. Over the years Lauro had created a reputation for him, and folk flocked from far and wide to hear his songs, and Odell made friends and consortiums with many other great lords and nobles. Odell enjoyed the attention and the benefits a great deal. There was no longer a reason to stay. When Lauro's contract ended in the first breath of autumn he would leave the castle and return his wandering ways, and sing for his supper. He'd lived too long in comfort to keep his guilt in check, and had to go before he displaced his true self. He shoved the thought away because it hurt. Everything hurt. A headache hammered violently behind his eyes no matter what he did. He should never have come here; the place and the people sucked his mind dry.
He went to Galan one free afternoon when the boy was dozing by a fire in the Great Hall. He lay sprawled amongst several other young lads, heaped upon each other like a litter of pups. Lauro stepped over them gingerly and shook Galan's shoulder.
They sat together in Lauro's chamber on the floor, but Lauro did not reach for his harp, and instead glowered sullenly at the cold fireplace while Galan crossed his ankles and scratched at the nape of his unwashed neck, leaving angry welts in his fingers' wake. The room smelled stale and musty; the windows had not been opened in days. Rods of pale sunlight forced themselves through the panes, painting the slate floor and highlighting the bronze in the occupants' dark hair.
At length Galan grew bored, squinted and said moodily, "Why'd yer bring me here if yer aren't gonna harp or even talk?"
Lauro's head jerked up, but instead of speaking his mind, pressed his lips together tightly. Galan immediately felt sorry. He never said it and probably never would, but Lauro was to him a brother, an uncle, a father: everyone Fate had not permitted him to love for more than a droplet of a moment in the stream of his lifetime. Deciding that a distraction was the best course of action, he drew closer to the bard and whispered excitedly: "Y'know, the clerk's boy and me were flippin' through one of the old books from th' libary a for'night ago."
Lauro remained silent, gaze cast to the ground, expression grim.
"An' it had a really good story," continued Galan with an arch of his eyebrows, speaking slowly and putting his hand in front of his mouth. He did this when he had more than a few words to say, to feel the vibrations of his breath. "Written in gorjus script. Save me, I wish my hand was as good as that! All about magic an' 'eathen gods and fallen kingdoms. And elves."
The other's fingers twitched, which Galan noted with satisfaction. "I' was real 'eavy readin' though. My pal did most of the work, readin' it out all proper. Was all real tragic. There was 'is elf called...oh, wha' was 'is name..."
Lauro sighed deeply and shook his head, the way he did when he was irritated. Luckily Galan took no notice, raising his eyes to the ceiling and tapping his chin thoughtfully. "Oh, Feeanawr, I think i' was."
At this Lauro's head snapped up once more, lips pursed, bright eyes intrigued.
"Yeh, and 'e was amazin'," continued the boy, grinning. "He made all these jools and I think 'e must've used magic, but I don' know. I don' approve of magic, but I don' think it's real, so it was all right." He sat back on his haunches. "A lot o' stuff 'appened. I can' really tell ya because it would take really long. Lots of battles an' fights an' stuff. But his sons – well, one o' his sons really got my attenshun!"
By this time Lauro's face was a mixture of shock, grief, and interest, though to Galan it registered only as the last of these.
"He was a great minstrel! His voice was...heard far over land an' sea, if I remember. They way he was described kinda reminded me of you. His name I remember: Maglor." Galan sighed happily and flopped onto his back, holding his ankles and rocking to and fro like a gleeful upturned tortoise. "Lor', what I'd do to meet 'im!" He suddenly sobered and sat up with a mock-glare. "Betcha he'd teach me the harp! He sounded nicer than 'is brothers. I'd like to be like 'im one day."
For a moment Lauro was silent, staring hard at him. Then he said tightly, "You are sorely mistaken, Galan."
"Oh, yer know the story," returned Galan a little sourly. He felt his words had been wasted. "Is there more to it? Why you lookin' all serious at me? It ain't a history. Just a tale, ya know. I don' think F – Feeanawr was bad; just stupid."
Lauro stood up abruptly, facing the window, and said through gritted teeth: "I will leave in autumn. You will not see me again."
There was a long, strained pause. One could have pricked the air with a pin. "...What?" said Galan. Lauro did not repeat himself, but pushed his hands into his pockets. "Why?" There was a threat of a sob in the boy's voice, which he ignored. Galan continued, rising to his feet: "I've only just met yer some months ago. Why didn't yer tell me earlier? Why leave at all? Why?"
Lauro turned slowly to him and said, "You know nothing of the matter."
"An' it looks like I know nothin' o' you, either!" Galan shrieked alarmingly, two spots of colour appearing on his cheeks. "I don' know where ye'v come from, nor who yer family is. I bet I don' even know yer name!"
"Oh?" Lauro kept his face carefully impassive. "How do you know that?"
"It's just...Lauro," said the boy helplessly, wringing his hands. "It's too short. No, incomplete. It don' sound right. Even if it is, I never heard such a weird name; it's like yer come from miles an' miles away, so folk say. And I know," he went on, more resolutely now. "I know that yer afraid t'be 'appy. Yer runnin' away, an' yer shouldn't. Yer ain't helping the world by bein' as miserable as yer are; there's enough o' pain to go around. I don' envy yer at all." He stopped, breathing heavily, red in the face. At length he said, "Yer should be with the people yer love. You'll always be 'appy then."
Lauro was silent. Then he said coldly, "You are more naïve than I ever thought you could be, Galan."
"Don't you say my name!" shrilled the boy, shameful tears stinging his eyes. "Yer nothin' but a traitor an' a damned liar! The devil take yer!"
"Get out of my chamber, then!" the other thundered, with an air of intimidation he had not used in a very long time, and which used to have the stoutest of his soldiers falling to their knees and begging forgiveness for some error they might make in future.
Yet, "I'll do so gladly!" returned Galan boldly before marching out, head held high. He tripped in a crack on the floor and felt a sharp pain in his ankle, but kept his chin steady even as hot salty liquid streaked down his cheeks and dripped to the ground, darkening it.
Lauro stood still for a long moment. Then he picked up a tunic that lay on his bed and with exquisitely controlled movements began to rip it to shreds. Sharr sharr sharr. Painfully loud in the otherwise silent empty room with nameless portraits hanging on grey walls. When it was nothing but ribbons of cloth he flung these into the hearth and stared and stared at nothing.
That night he fell into a fitful sleep. He dreamed of Valinor, as he'd done before, and of the rebellion, as he'd done before, but instead of going along in the swirling chaos he sat down with brittle obstinacy outside the gates of his house under the heat of Laurelin (why was it still there?) as his brothers marched to the city with their father in the fore. Maitimo was the last to leave and instead of following the rest hunkered down to where Makalaurë squatted, and lifted his quivering chin with a finger. His smile was so piously serene that Makalaurë was afraid.
Maitimo lovingly tucked a strand of hair behind his ears and whispered, Hush baby brother it's all a joke. The main difference between the real world and your world of songs is that the songs have to make sense. You will understand one day when you're grown up and the sun goes out.
But I am grown up! Makalaurë shrieked, childishly shaking his older brother by the shoulders till he could hear the other's teeth rattle. I work hard and I am married and I want children and the sun does not exist so shut up!
That is fine, returned Maitimo. He waggled the fingers of his left hand. Bye then.
Lauro woke, delirious, with his skin covered in a sheen of sweat and his heart hammering in his throat like a frantic bird against a cage. It was early morning and the sky was slashed with fire. He shivered in the clammy air. Swinging his legs off the bed he put his head in his hands, groaning. He felt shame stick to him like insistent slime. It made him feel more alive. He would have to apologise to Galan; the poor boy probably had no idea why he had gotten so angry. "But Galan will not talk with me now," he thought as he pulled on his clothes and his summer jacket and a pair of sandals. "And it is early. He will be sleeping."
He was sitting in the narrow musty hallway to the servants' quarters, his back against the stone wall. An arrow-slit painted a line of pale gold along his face, which was still full with baby fat. He appeared to be dreaming or in deep thought. When Lauro drew near he looked up sharply, and then a shadow passed over his brow and he turned his gaze to his knees with a moue.
Lauro knelt down and said, "Galan."
The boy turned his head away.
He put a hand on his shoulder. It was shrugged off. Lauro changed his tactics, sat where he could be seen. Curling his fist he moved it in a steady, circular motion over his chest. I am sorry.
Galan's eyes widened slightly and his mouth pursed. For a moment he did nothing. Then, with a tired, resigned air, avoiding the man's gaze, he made a sign: It's all right.
In response Lauro smiled, lips in the perfect shape of a recurve, and it was like the glorious sun had burst through woolly clouds after a year of slate-grey rain.
They stood up together. The castle was stirring; people were waking up. It was time to get to work.
As Galan turned to leave Lauro caught his hand, turned his palm up. On the boy's wrist he wrote a word with his index finger:
M. a. k. a. l. a. u. r. ë.
Galan gave him a comically puzzled look, brows arched. Lauro fondled the boy's coarse curls and smiled again. "I will stay," he said, "and teach you the harp."
Odell was pleasantly surprised to know that Lauro wished to extend his contract by several years. "Why do you desire this, Lauro?" he asked curiously.
"Your well-managed house and your singular hospitality prompt me to stay and work for you, my lord." He'd never been a good liar. Maybe that was changing.
A fortnight later, when Galan was industriously picking the strings of Lauro's instrument in an attempt to play a short lullaby, he looked up with a contemplative, somewhat resigned expression and said, quite out of the blue: "If the good Lord wan'ed me to play the harp, he'd 'ave let me keep my ears. Maybe this is some punishmen', an' I wasn' meant for this."
Lauro was quiet, gazing intently into the fireplace. He appeared not to have heard. To his right was a small round table on which rested a pot, a cup, and a plate of half-eaten ginger biscuits. Galan had already finished his drink, and his empty mug sat on the ground by his side. Then Lauro stirred as if waking from a dream, said evasively, "I know not. Play that for me again," and took a long sip of his cold tea.
Lauro noticed in the next two years a small but nonetheless disturbing change in the patterns of the sea. It seemed choppier, angrier; more inclined, he felt, to rise up and take him into its silent cobalt bosom. This could have been his imagination, or the paranoia Maedhros had periodically accused him of possessing, but he did not want to take any chances. He'd seen his share of the uncanny. He asked Lord Odell for a short leave, with the excuse that he could play better after wandering the countryside.
"You play just fine now," replied Odell sharply. "Lauro, let me make something clear: people suspect you of being a sorcerer or a heathen. I do not believe it myself – and I will not, unless you give me reason to – but if you were to set foot outside this castle, the people in the town, in all likelihood, will grow violent towards you. You are not well-liked or trusted."
So Lauro sealed his mouth and tried to concentrate on his work and his lessons with Galan, who had grown several inches and whose limbs were now long and clumsy. Their sessions took place before the break of day in Lauro's chamber, when the sky was still faintly dusted with stars and the birds began to chatter. Galan had greatly improved his lip reading, and talked faster and more clearly than before, and Lauro himself had increased his knowledge of sign language to better communicate with him.
Today Galan was particularly talkative; he shook his head and shrugged his shoulders in the manner of a skittish colt, and set forth while Lauro tucked his chin in his hand and gazed pensively out the window at the sea, as he had begun to do more often than usual. Their lesson had been forgotten, and Lauro's harp simply sat, abandoned, on the ground. "Gosh, it was porridge for breakfast yesterday, an' the day before that, an' every week before that for as long as I can remember! I'll bet you there will be plain porridge this mornin', too! It's at times like this I wish I was one of the apprentice cooks – at least they get to filch nice stuff from the kitchens: pastries and turkey and heaven knows wha' else, an'...are you listening to me? Master Lauro!"
Lauro – who had been thinking that the sea was unusually grey and belligerent today – flinched at the loudness of Galan's voice, turned to face him, and said waspishly: "Galan, I do not want to wake up earlier than is needful just to hear you talk my ear off. Now, get your backside off my carpet and tend to your duties."
Galan looked at him indignantly. "But it's early! Everyone's snoring downstairs. I don' wanna head to the Great Hall jus' to watch their ugly faces."
"Either use the door to leave, Galan, or I will make the window your exit."
"Oh, it's such fun watchin' you get worked up like that," returned Galan impishly, as he rose to his feet and dusted the back of his trousers, which now fit him surprisingly well. "But I'll leave you to your thoughts, dark as they may be. I'm taking yer harp; I wanna practice later. See ya 'round." He left, whistling to himself, Lauro's lyre in his hands. He knew that despite the fact that Lauro was possessive about his old instrument, and cleaned it and oiled it and tuned it daily in a mechanical, pedantic manner, he trusted Galan entirely with it. The echoes of his footsteps grew dim and disappeared as he left the tower and trundled across the garden, back to the main building.
Lauro groaned, pulled the bandana from his skull, and firmly massaged his temples. "Great heavens above," he whispered hoarsely. "That boy needs to learn how to shut up." Despite himself he could not help a little fondness from colouring his tone, and he scoffed and shook his head, chiding himself for being so easily manipulated by a wisp of a boy. Oh, I have taken part in this story before, he thought, not without a trace of bitterness.
Elrond. It had been a very, very long while since Lauro had thought of him. He'd been such a young, helpless thing (and eventually a tall youth with wise pellucid eyes, an odd vanity regarding his lustrous hair, and a love for learning that bordered on obsessive), and Lauro, being bereft of children, had wanted something to hold in his arms. It was nothing but a primal, desperate need which transformed into something more permanent and less wild. He wondered if Elrond was happy in Valinor, whether he had reconciled with his parents, and if he had had any more children. He must have talked with Nerdanel at least a few times. Perhaps he was a scholar at the university in Tirion.
But everything had happened too long ago. Gleaming spires of the city, flames rolling across white ships, touches of his once beloved brothers' hands: these memories were so dim they were all but phantoms. His world now was confined to a grey castle, his harp, and a young boy with curious eyes and malfunctioning ears.
Lauro shivered and felt his skin rise into gooseflesh. The air appeared to have grown cold. Why were the waves suddenly quieter? Once again he dragged his tired eyes to the window. His lips parted and his hands went very still. He could dimly make out shrieks and other cries of surprise from outside. His own voice seemed to die in his throat.
The sea had receded several fathoms and was now rushing forward in a great dark wave that seemed almost to be alive in its greediness to swallow the land. But water was not supposed to move like this: he saw that it appeared to be targeting only his tower, rolling forward like a monstrous hand. Lauro suddenly slotted back to his senses and ran for the exit, his heart pounding like a hammer against his chest, driven only by primal instinct which screamed at him to distance himself from danger. He was only dimly aware of the sound of his own feet, which thudded ungracefully down the serpentine staircase, and of the roar of the water outside.
He only just managed to scramble inside the Great Hall, along with several other panicked denizens, before the wave crashed into the tower with tremendous force, shaking its foundations and fracturing its middle, shattering all its windows, then moving on rapidly to flood the gardens and swirl around the castle, tackling trees, knocking over sundry tables and chairs, drowning armies of ants and other unfortunate insects that had built their homes in the grass or in shrubs. The water swallowed the grounds entirely, rolling down the shallow hill and tumbling against the iron gates before stilling. It was as brief and as conspicuous as a shrill whistle piercing an otherwise silent night.
Indoors there was a cacophony of shrieking and jostling and nervous talking. A few people had been injured in the chaos and sat groaning on tables or chairs. Some huddled together in groups, chalk-faced and chattering fearfully to each other. Others sloshed across the floor, which was half-flooded with salty sea-water, shouting for an explanation. They wondered if their god was displeased with them.
Lauro leaned his back against a pillar, chest heaving, momentarily drained of energy because of his earlier shock. He wondered who or what had caused the sea to rise up against him so violently. It could not have been Ulmo. He was not so malignant. Eru? But that was impossible. It was the sea itself that had grown so attached to him that it could not bear to let him go. Lauro could think of no other explanation. He was suddenly very aware that he was still on his feet, that he was breathing heavily. He could hear the slow hah, hah, hah sound of his breath, as though it blew right in his ears.
He cast his head back in weariness, put his hands over his face, and whispered hoarsely, as if he were still worthy of sending a prayer, "Oh, oh, Eru Ilúvatar." He couldn't remember the last time he spoke that name.
As if on cue, someone said shrilly, "The sea went for the bard's tower! I saw it! It was like a hand that wanted to grab it!"
"That is true! He has brought ill luck here!"
All eyes were turned on him. The steward, an elderly man who was standing nearby and who currently looked like a drowned rat, tore his hair and addressed Lauro: "What have you done, you witch?"
Lauro, still in a stupor, wiped a smear of blood from his cheekbone – had he cut it while running out of the tower? – with the back of his hand and said, "I did nothing. It just happened."
They locked him in the dim, filthy dungeons beneath the castle, where he awaited a trial for sorcery. The place stank of rats and excrement and he probably did too. As he sat day after day on the cold stones he ran his hands through his oily limp hair and ignored the sound of his protesting stomach and wished he could see Galan. He wanted to reassure the boy that everything would be fine and ask if he would continue with his harping, even if he was no longer there to teach him. Galan was not naturally inclined to music – a trait which his impairment didn't help – but he made up for it with diligence and an intense curiosity that almost rivaled his own when he was still young. Oh, Galan, he thought ruefully, in a different world, what a musician you would have been.
Lauro lifted his wrist, tugged the heavy chain from the wall, heard the chink chink sound. He could have created a tiny melody out of that.
He didn't see the point of a trial. They accused him. He was guilty. Jurisprudence mattered not.
He put his head in his hands and tried to cry – he really should have been crying – but the tears wouldn't come. Yes, he found himself thinking almost triumphantly, yes, kill me. It was such a relief. His stiff shoulders relaxed. The furrows in his forehead smoothed out. For the first time since his older brother's death he allowed himself to want to be with the rest of his blood in Mandos' Halls. In this rare moment of indulgence Lauro smiled and smiled till his face hurt. He turned his head to one side and sighed happily. Then guilt prodded insistently at his heart for Galan and his grin faded.
Two days later they took him to the gallows for a public execution in the town square. It was noon. A white sun baked the dirt paths and chased people into the shades of awnings or trees. Galan watched, tired and nervous, from the edges of the fidgety crowd as Lauro stepped onto the wooden platform, his arms secured firmly at his back with thick rope. Amid his grief Galan was vaguely aware of the various reactions of the people: some women hid their curious children's eyes, others covered their own faces to peek through their fingers, and there were a few joyous, encouraging hollers and pumping fists. One young, surly fellow sat on a wicker chair and looked intently at the criminal, as if he was a scribe and wanted to commit this scene to memory and write it down later on.
Galan felt as though he was in a dream. Lauro could not die. The trial had been silly – some ordeal or another. One chef's apprentice said Lauro had to walk across fire and not get burned to prove his innocence. Another said he had to hold his breath underwater. It was all utterly, amazingly stupid. Galan didn't really care that he was his teacher, or that no-one would give him music lessons, or that, really, he barely knew anything about the man. He cared only for the tear in his heart that grew wider with each passing moment. Everything, every scrap of love or ambition he had gathered together in the past two years had slipped from his fingers. He tried hard to remember the times he had laughed with Lauro, but his mind wouldn't let him. His knees were weak and trembling.
He looked up. The big burly hangman with ham-like hands was muttering something in Lauro's ear. "Do you have any final words?"
Lauro paused. He looked at the hangman, then swept his gaze across the crowd. His gleaming eyes fell on Galan. "I am sorry," he murmured. Then he smiled gently, raising his chin. He spoke in a clear voice, enunciating each syllable, in a language no longer in the records: "Aurë entuluva."
As a musty-smelling cloth mask was pulled over his head, Lauro listened to the hangman laugh heartily and address the motley murmuring crowd: "Hear the heretic speak in his tongue!"
The advisors argued that everything associated with Lauro must have been cursed. The tower with his clothes and other belongings had already been destroyed by the wave and pulled into the sea; but they burned his copious sheets of music and of poetry neatly inscribed in black ink on parchment, all stocked carefully in the library. They searched and searched but couldn't find his harp.
"Ask the servant Galan," said one of them, a shrewd middle aged fellow who'd observed over the years Lauro and Galan's growing friendship. "He spent an uncanny amount of time with the sorcerer."
"Perhaps they were allied?"
"I think not; but let us to go him."
They found him in the bare and musty servants' quarters, sitting alone on the floor against the wall, possessively hugging Lauro's harp. His hazel eyes were dull, half-lidded, and glazed over with shock and grief; beneath them hung large greyish shadows, such as those on old men; he had not slept since the night before the execution. The man who had first mentioned him squatted down and said curtly, "Give me the instrument, boy."
Galan did not reply, but huddled the harp a fraction closer to his chest.
"It is a thing of evil, which belonged to an evil being. No doubt he killed and lied and thieved before he sullied our halls with his presence. Look at the state of the castle! Several have been badly wounded. Give the harp here before it infects your soul." He spoke too quickly for Galan to understand all of what he said, but he got the gist of it. He chewed his chapped lower lip and instead of considering the consequences of his stubbornness, thought of Lauro. What had he said just before the rope tightened with a jerk and his body had convulsed and twisted so grotesquely before finally growing still? It was not in the common tongue, nor in any other current language. There had been something about the way he spoke that made it seem much older. He wondered where Lauro was now. Maybe he'd met Galan's mother and the two were tittering about how much he liked to talk.
His grip on the harp slackened. He was exhausted. He raised his eyes to the advisors' faces. For some reason all he could think of was the fact that they all had great curling moustaches that hid their upper lips and that were probably very bristly to the touch, and that they reeked of musky perfume. He gave a soft scoff that to them might have sounded like a sob. When the one kneeling before him took the harp from his fingers, he let him, and then looked down at his empty, callused palms and felt that his heart was a bit smaller than it had been three days ago. His lids began to close against his will. What...had Lauro said? With a little sigh he felt slumber take him in its arms and rock him gently.
Something about hope...
The advisors planned to burn the harp, but Lord Odell coldly stopped them, took it, and handed it at random to one of the youngish, minor servants who was ambling across the Great Hall to relay a message to his companion. "Do with it as you will," Odell said, "for I do not believe it is cursed, even if such misfortune struck only because of its owner. But do not let it be seen here."
The servant, bewildered, thanked him, and stood a while in the Great Hall clutching the instrument in his hands. He had never been taught music, though he'd been told he had a decent voice. He decided he would give it away, even if this was ungracious; some other soul might find it more useful than he. In the warm afternoon during a brief break he strode into the town and looked around for someone who might want the harp. He thought he might give it to an owner of a shop that sold musical instruments.
Then, amid the bustle of jostling crowds he caught sight of a little girl in a yellow dress, standing by a dilapidated well and staring at him with curiosity uninhibited by manners or age. He beckoned to her and she came, twirling her hair. "You see this?" he whispered, raising his dark brows. "It is a pretty thing. You can have it." He pressed the lyre into her grimy hands – she stumbled a bit with the weight, but managed to hold it aloft – then went away back to the castle.
The girl was delighted with it. She ran her hands along the smooth oiled wood. She plucked one of the sharp strings. It broke with a loud, almost indignant twang and sliced open her index finger. She yelped and rammed her digit into her mouth, then looked angrily at the instrument. "What a silly thing this is! It can't even play!" she exclaimed, and threw it onto the dirt road. In the next few moments it was crushed under the wheels of a heavy passing caravan, whose owner, at the lurch, cursed loudly and hopped down to kick it out of the way.
Galan - Anglo-Saxon name. It means 'sings' or 'singer'.
Odell - Anglo-Saxon name. It means 'wealthy'.
[Note: I did not and do not have any reliable source for Anglo-Saxon names, and hence had to settle for surfing the Internet. If anyone can tell me if these names are really Anglo-Saxon, I would be much obliged.]
Lachenn - 'flame-eyed': what the Sindar called the exiled Noldor.
Aurë entuluva - 'Day shall come again': Húrin's battle cry during the Nírnaeth.
*Saint's fire - Ergotism. Poisoning from a fungal infection of grain.
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.