Vana requested a story about Caranthir and the sea. This story is exactly that. In it, I assume my Felak!verse notion that Caranthir was the most "psychically" gifted of all of the Feanorians and that his osanwe guided much of his behavior. "Salt" spans his entire life--from the age of three years old until the day of his death--and considers how one misunderstood Elf and his relationship with his mother, the sea, and his own strange emotions might have led to the eventual overthrow of Morgoth.
Sounds strange? Well...yes. This story is a bit experimental, so please do not hesitate to let me know if something does not work for you. I started this story in mid-June and just finished it at the beginning of August. The basic concept and the first few pages came easily, like they'd already been written and just needed to be put onto paper. Then it faltered, and I wasn't sure exactly how I wanted to connect the many dots I'd drawn into a coherent story. July through August was mostly spent thinking about this story and how I wished it to end. In the past few days, I finally came to enough of a decision that the ending wrote itself, much as the beginning had.
But anyone who has lived with a story barely over ten pages for the better part of two months can probably relate the exhausted inability to comprehend anything about said story any longer. So I appreciate any honest assessments that readers are willing to give.
Vana, I hope that you enjoyed your birthday and send my fondest wishes, virtual hugs, and one strange story! :)
When I was small, my mother made a tiny phial of blown glass, and when I cried, she would use the phial to scoop up my tears. She had four of them around her neck on leather cords, four phials of different hues—red, blue, gold, and mine: dark violet—sealed with tiny stoppers. The red one was nearly full in those days; the blue about halfway. The gold phial was mostly empty, as was the dark-violet. But that was to change.
“Now,” she said, pushing the little chunk of cork back into the top of my phial and letting it slip away, between her breasts, “you shall never be sad without me knowing it. And I shall come to you wherever you are and sweep your tears away.” The tips of her fingers were callused and rough upon my cheeks, but when they left my skin, the tears and the deep-sad ache behind my eyes were gone, as though with magic.
“And when the phial is filled,” she added, “then you are a child no more but a man, and the tears you cry shall erode mountains and change the course of rivers with their power, maybe even fill the sea.”
Later, there were five phials, then seven. By then, my phial was nearly filled, perhaps requiring one last tear, but I was stubborn in those days and not wont to cry, and the other three phials came to the same level of mine (even Pityo’s, after he drank his once it was half-full while our mother napped…or maybe it was Telvo’s that he drank) and then were filled, and they would ring softly against each other whenever our mother moved, crying in their tiny bell-like voices from the secret darkness beneath her clothes, as though her skin itself made music. I always imagined that I could hear mine: Lacking a tear, it rang lower and stranger than the others.
Or I imagined that I could hear it sloshing, sobbing, begging me to fill it with one more tear.
Stubborn—like my father, I liked to believe—I refused.
My brothers became men, their phials were filled and their tears no more. If they did cry, their tears had the power to move mountains and shape rivers, but they had no reason to cry, and so the horizons of Valinor remained steady and unchanged. Instead, they discovered bliss and joy. One by one, they married. One by one, they fathered children—my brother-sons and -daughters—the noise of their laughter drowning the ringing of the phials around my mother’s neck. One by one, they earned the renown and acclaim that was their due, as princes. It was my due as well, but I remained unwed and childless, my phial unfilled.
For I was Carnistir the Stoic, Carnistir the Harsh, Carnistir the Dark, and Carnistir the Sullen. People found it hard to look upon my face; my eyes, they said, were like rock. Once, as a child and angered with our father’s ideas of impossibility—for Fëanáro maintained until the moment of his death that nothing undone was impossible—Maitimo had taken a rock into his fist and squeezed it until his knuckles went white like bone. “See! Water cannot be wrung from rocks! There is impossibility in the world!”
It was known by the world that rocks did not laugh, did not bleed, and—perhaps most importantly—did not cry. Doubtlessly, if they even noticed or cared, my brothers did not think it strange that my phial was the only one to go unfilled. My eyes were the color of grit and just as dry and just as comforting to contemplate. I heard Tyelkormo remark once to Curufinwë—on the eve of Curufinwë’s wedding—when our younger brother lamented that he should know love and union of spirit before I did, that no one would ever contemplate love with me, for it would be like dooming oneself to sleep forevermore in a bed full of gravel.
Or: when Macalaurë’s wife had an accident on her horse and their unborn first child was lost to blood, I followed the sound of voices to his chambers, where all of my brothers had gathered to console him, but I was met at the door by Maitimo, his arm spanning the frame as though to bar me. “You are welcome, of course,” in his hasty, polite voice, “but I don’t think that you would understand.” And so I turned away and my brother’s tears fell without me, and if they moved mountains…well, I didn’t bother to look.
When I laughed, I was called ruthless; when I bled, stoic, for I never flinched, slurped the blood from the wound, bound it in cloth, and went on with what I’d been doing. When I cried, I was called nothing, for I did not cry.
In the depth of night when Telperion’s light shimmers like dew upon the night and is wan enough to see the stars, sadness wrenched me, but I did not cry a single tear. While my mother slept in the arms of my father—the phials around her neck tangling, perhaps dropping to lie upon his arms that always held her in their shared dreams—and while my brothers lay beside their wives and dreamt only of joy, I willed myself to weep for my strangeness if not my loneliness, but my eyes may have indeed been made of rock, for water came not of them, and I became a man, begrudging that final tear to my mother’s phial.
I wondered if she stirred in her sleep. I shall come to you, wherever you are, and sweep your tears away. But I had no tears. What reason to come to me then?
When I was young and my phial still mostly empty, my parents took me for the first time to the sea. I’d never seen the sea but in pictures, for it was walled off from us by mountains too high to see over the tops of. In paintings, it was a long stretch of blue that dominated the picture, no matter the figures standing in front of it and what they might be doing. Even in the Hall of History—the big round room in Grandfather’s palace that was lined by paintings of the most extraordinary events to punctuate the long lives of our people—where the Noldor stepped onto the unmoored island that would carry them oversea to Valinor, even as Grandfather’s feet spanned one world and the next, his arm raised and his face graven so that anyone looking at the painting knew the importance of the words that had come from his mouth, that were confined on other pieces of paper now and bound into books, it was not Grandfather or Oromë or the fur-wrapped Noldor that filled the picture, it was the sea.
It had been the sea that had barred them from a life at the feet of the gods and it was the sea that kept us from our history and those people left behind us. It was an obstacle and protector both, and it was too large to fill any painting.
I first saw the sea at the age of three years, at the festival in Alqualondë. Through the Calcirya we drove—Macalaurë was arguing with our father, I remember, and Tyelkormo was drumming his feet impatiently on the bench and being ignored by Nelyo, whose attention he wanted and was being given to a book of lore—and we crested a hill, and there it was. The light spilled only through the narrow passage in the mountains behind us, but yet it winked on the crest of every wave, as though the sea had taken that meager allotment of light, spread it thin, and made it last. One day, I thought, I will prop myself on my elbows and look into the water, wondering if it had been prudent enough to make the light last over the decades of darkness. A shiver touched me then, and I found my mother’s arms around my shoulders and my head pressing her breast, muffling the sounds of Macalaurë arguing and Tyelkormo drumming his feet and Nelyo humming to himself and riffling through pages in his book. Alqualondë was there too, a white city cast orange by the glow of the lamps the outlined its meandering streets, and though it glowed proudly against the cobalt sea behind it—like in Grandfather’s paintings—the city was overwhelmed by the sea.
Almost, I could imagine the sea rising, swelling in the same unremarkable manner as a chest filling with breath, and overtaking the city, chuckling as it filled the streets and snuffed out the lamps.
I held out my arms to either side of me, stretched until my bones popped and hurt, and yet I could not embrace the sea. And when the phial is filled, then you are a child no more but a man, and the tears you cry shall maybe even fill the sea.
At the age of three years, with the sea enormous in my sight, I grew disillusioned then of my mother’s phial. Perhaps that is why I would later begrudge it my tears.
We were given a house on a precipice for the duration of the festival, a house that might have been carved from the rock itself, and a long stone stairway led down to the beach and the sea. We were given leave to play there in the days before the festival, and my skin could barely contain me in my excitement as my mother dressed me in old clothes suitable, she said, “for bathing,” though I knew that this sort of bathing had nothing to do with the ordeal that transpired each evening before being put to bed, where the insides of my ears and the spaces between my toes were exploited by my parents, in search of dirt that I did not believe existed. From the window, I could see the sea as she dressed me: the waves lapping the shore, playful and yet quixotic, becoming wicked in an instant, water grown calm and clear rising as suddenly as a fist from the water, driving back even my tall, strong brother Nelyo, who fell on his backside in the sand and joined Macalaurë and our father in laughter as the water ran back to the sea, tickling the sand with its foam fingers.
So like me, I believed: enamored of joy but becoming perilous without warning, sensing a hurt or a slight before it is delivered in the same way that a deer will scent a predator moving upwind and dash to safety before the branches fracture with a loud report cracking the silence and she is fallen, throat torn. Only no one understands that; no one understands that the tiny fist that tore a tooth, bloodied, from Tyelkormo’s mouth once was in reply to something he’d meant to say. No, they expected the hurt to be delivered before I was permitted a reaction. I wondered why the sea rose and slapped against my father; I wondered what slight he would have to one day make against it that had earned him such vitriol.
On the beach, the sand glinted in the meager light, and I ran for the sea and let it wrap my legs in its grip. My two eldest brothers had found broad planks of wood and were flopped upon them on their bellies, letting the waves carry them back to the shore, borne high above the sand and dropped, left to tumble in tangle of limbs, left upon the beach like bits of laughing detritus. My mother was close behind me; I could hear the ringing of the phials under her dress. They were four notes then, for we were four ages—none of us yet men—still with many tears left to cry.
I could feel her fright for me, only three years old and standing at the edge of the sea surging with such anger that even my strong whip of a father was left to stumble back to the beach in defeat. But a strange thing happened then, and the sea subsided and grew calm. My brothers on their planks merely bobbed in disappointment, and the water swirled around my knees, the foam it had churned making shapes on the top of it that looked a lot like Tengawar. If I was older, perhaps I could read them; perhaps I could learn what fates were spelled upon the surface of the sea.
I crouched and—before my mother could lift a hand to stop me—cupped my hands and lifted the water to my lips to drink, as I had seen my older brothers do when they reached streams in the forest. The sea lifted and cupped my bottom, as strong and sure as my father’s hand, and it whispered to me to taste of it, to taste of history and fate alike.
My tongue poked out and lapped at the water, and my cupped hands jerked apart then, and the water tumbled with a joyful splash back to the sea. It tasted of salt, of tears, of pain and grief and regret. In it, I tasted the fates of thousands to come before me, some as small as me or as great as the Valar. I heard their pleas for help that had gone unheard, swallowed by the hungry sea.
I was weeping then too, and the sea grew capricious and surged, lifting me and casting me upon my back, for perhaps it wanted to lick my tears too, but it had not considered my mother, standing so close behind me that I was caught and lifted back to dry land and safety. Was that a ringing sound, coming from beneath her clothes? It was hard to tell in the chaos of shouting voices, sand being kicked in plumes beneath running feet heading for me, Nelyo and Atar circling in the shallows where I’d been kneeling and searching for the urchin or jellyfish that must have caused me such grievous hurt. They did not hear the laughter of the sea, did not feel the way that it dashed against their legs as though trying to ensnare them.
In the warmth of my mother’s embrace, there was the soft popping sound of a cork loosed from its tight fit inside the neck of a glass bottle, and the phial kissed cold against my cheeks and thirstily swept away my tears. The ocean muttered behind us, for not a single tear had dropped into the sea.
I discovered that I was strange not long after that. Where normal Elves grew in a manner much like a line being drawn between two points, someone with a cruel sense of humor had bumped the hand drawing my line and sent it skidding across the paper in the wrong direction. Physically, I grew as expected, according to the notches that my father made on one of the beams in the barn on each of our begetting days: smaller than Maitimo had been but taller than Macalaurë and holding pace with Tyelkormo. But where other Elves grew into love—love of learning, love of Arda, love of each other—I did not. Even my parents: my love for them diminished when I caught them looking upon me and thinking that I was strange. Wondering where they had failed with me. No amount of torment could ever have coaxed such thoughts into words, I believed, but they thought about it, and their thoughts reached me and pressed against my mind like an insistent hand upon the door, relentlessly seeking entrance, until I wearied and let them in.
I began to begrudge my mother my tears and cried alone instead. This was itself thought to be strange. Then I stopped crying altogether.
It’s like he feels nothing: not pain nor joy.
Fighting the insistent hand, the pressure, until I wearied and my mother’s thoughts came to me.
He is strange.
My brothers believed me to be afraid of the sea. As we grew older, we rode on journeys of our own, and they often culminated at the sea, for the sea was believed to be a place of rest and rejuvenation, where tired bodies could stretch upon the sand and be washed by the tireless waves. Whooping and kicking their legs high, my brothers would plunge one after the other into the water, bodies striving against the waves, looking back at me to laugh at my fear of the sea.
I paced upon the sand and would not go near.
“Look Carnistir,” said Tyelkormo once, “it has lain down for you. It is inviting you in.”
Indeed, the sea grew calm in my presence, the waves flattened and curled like beckoning fingers. Foam rested atop the water, swirled into shapes like Tengwar. I could read it by then, but I never looked. I did not want to know what it said.
Come to me. We are alike, you and I.
In the cold waters of the northern lakes, I did my swimming, cutting the water with a body grown strong as expected. There, I once agreed to race my brother Tyelkormo, for he had grown taller than me, broad in the shoulders and of golden beauty hard to look upon, and proud. His voice rose, tangled with those of our brothers. Poor Carnistir, scared of the sea but swimming for hours in the lake. They laughed at me, but they knew me to be strange by then and did not think much of it. But Tyelkormo wanted a challenge, perhaps sensing defiance in my refusal to answer his taunts. Blue eyes on my grit-colored ones, he asked, and I agreed.
We dove from the cliff and cut the silver surface of the lake like knives, matching each other stroke for stroke, heading for the gravelly beach where my parents were sitting with the newborn twins. I could hear him breathing beside me. I could feel his exhaustion and knew that I would prevail; it throbbed with his pulse, growing heavier with each pull of his arms. My parents were growing closer, Atar having lifted his eyes to watch us. I felt Tyelkormo’s realization that I would best him; already, I was pulling ahead. His exhaustion roared like blood in my ears; his desperation not to lose—to fail to his little brother in front of our brothers and our father—stabbed in me like a knife and twisted.
I clutched my leg as though with a cramp, for I did not want to win so badly. Tyelkormo swam on without me.
I let the dark depths of the lake, frigid below me, take hold of my feet, and I sank beneath the water. Nelyo had tried to reason with me once about my fear of the sea. All of the water was the same, he said, gone up into the clouds and distributed by rain. But this water was not like the sea; even if the logic that drove Nelyo’s thoughts considered it the same, this water was indifferent to joy and grief alike; it would smother me in its depths and never raise a wave to answer the grief of those mourning me on the shore. I let myself sink until the pressure squeezed upon my legs and my lungs burned for air; I let myself sink until Tyelkormo descended upon me in a roar of bubbles to catch me under the arms and hoist me to the surface, to return to the shore not only as the winner of our race but also a hero.
I clenched my toes and did a convincing amount of writhing so that the others would believe that I’d been taken by a cramp rather than chancing to drown for the glory of my brother, whose heart was beating so fast that I could see his chest trembling with it, who felt the pang of tragedy averted: but what tragedy? My death or losing the race?
My mother went to massage the cramp from my leg.
Carnistir the Cold, the Heartless, the Dark, they called me, if they only in thought—later in speech—and believed me without feeling for any but myself.
My skin was icy, my mother’s fingers warm upon it, kneading the calf where no knot was to be found.
As Tyelkormo gasped out his heroic tale, her fingers worked my leg from the ankle to the back of my knee. Tyelkormo was clapped on the back and lauded for his deed; I imagined his smile stretching so wide that his face lit up like Laurelin. Up and down my leg, my mother’s fingers worked, finding nothing but, at last, making a pantomime of it working a deep and painful knot, her face twisted into a grimace suitable for one dispatching of that which had almost killed her son. Her eyes met mine, and I waited for the pressure of her thought pressing into my awareness—He is strange, beyond comprehension—but it never came, and she silently massaged my leg and did not interrupt the tale that Tyelkormo was so gloriously retelling.
When Grandfather was murdered, the sea was denied a taste of his blood and our grief; that was spilled onto the land of Aman, where such things such as the treachery of Morgoth had been deemed impossible by all save my father. He’d shouted as loudly as he could about it, but no one listened. They’d exiled him. They’d exiled him because he’d raised his protest at a portent rather than an actual provocation. I’d felt it too. As he sat in Formenos, his hands lying useless in his lap, grown bitter to hide his fear, I believe that he understood me then, as he never had before.
Or maybe not—for he turned his efforts to building locks and cages for that which he held dear, as though metal could withhold fate. Not the case: as in my grandfather’s paintings of the sea, it loomed larger than even the most important actions by the most powerful of us.
On the long ride back to Tirion, my brothers wept and the earth drank their tears. Did life wither beneath the salt of their tears or did strange new forms arise, hungry for grief, beholding Aman for the first time, as we had so long ago?
The sea had not yet marked this night or our grief but it would: As I stood at my father’s back, holding a torch so that he could speak with King Olwë of the Teleri about the lending of his ships, I knew that it would soon drink its fill of us.
We were borne upon the sea to the Outer Lands, white ships caught between the black sky and the black sea that rose in anger and grief, casting some of the ships onto their sides and spilling the Noldor upon them into the water, screaming, floundering, dying. We watched from the deck of the ship our father had commandeered—Olwë’s own ship, his son slain on the foredeck, his body still living, gasping, gurgling upon blood, kicked unceremoniously into the sea—as the other ships capsized. We waited for our turn. Behind me, Tyelkormo would not stop shivering, and I felt his terrified thoughts, lacking in logic, like small, sharp projectiles launch into my own mind. But the sea bore us in safety to the opposite shore, the way before us as smooth as glass.
It leaped up to lap at my fingers, clutching the railing: Taste of me! My mouth pinched shut against it, to the taste of grief, some of which was now my doing.
We had knelt by the sea and tried to wash the blood from our hands, but the water was red with it by then, and it splashed our faces, and we tasted salt and blood upon our lips.
Taste of me!
When I’d turned my sword in the gut of the first mariner I’d slain, I felt his pain as sharply as though it had been mine. I screamed with it. History would remember the madness of the dark son of Fëanáro that night; they did not know. I felt fear smother me; I felt the pain of spirit tearing from body; I watched his memories come one by one before his eyes, my eyes: his first silvery fish caught from the docks at Alqualondë, his marriage, his daughter held in his arms for the first time, her wedding, her first silvery fish caught on the docks at Alqualondë—
And then he was gone.
I felt the spirit tear from the body and I screamed, head thrown back and mouth open, twisted, contorted. The strength of my screams tore my throat like claws. Then the spirit departed, and it was over.
Mad. Strange. Dark. That night, I was all of those things.
And also: murderer.
At last, I understood why the sea had always risen in wrath against my father and my brothers. The Teleri whom it had always coddled bobbed on the surface, facedown, anguished faces looking down into the water, perhaps staring into the eyes of the sea itself. Hair tangled like kelp, darkened by blood, and pale hands floated upon the water, open and empty, hands that had never known what it was to hold a steel blade but had nonetheless died by one. But as I watched, the sea splashed over their hands, and the floating bodies tipped one by one, drawn into the deeps. And I knew then that they would be cast upon the shore, upon the beaches of Eldamar, washed of blood and faces fallen into peace, framed by pearls upon silken white sands.
For that, the sea had exacted retribution for the deed undone by my brothers and father. Yet not me. For me, it laid down flat and smooth as a ribbon leading our ship into the Outer Lands. My brothers stared at me, as if they knew.
Guilty, I locked myself in my cabin below-deck and sat upon the bunk. Why? Why have I been spared? I deserve perhaps even more than the others to be cast into the sea and drowned.
The ship rocked gently and above-deck I heard shouting as another of our ships floundered. I heard Nelyo and Tyelkormo scrambling for rope to rescue those cast into the sea, but our father stayed them. “No hope,” he said, but his terror was thick and sour that one of them should bring aboard the curse of Ossë that was beleaguering the other ships while ours sailed in a flat calm. And so they drowned: another kinslaying, unmarked by historians.
Why was I spared? By my fortuitousness, others still should perish.
We are alike, you and I, Carnistir. Like you, I am a murderer, and like you, death is not something that can be left in the past, a memory. It becomes me, and when you wash in my waters, you wash in the blood of every one that I have slain.
We are alike, you and I. Misunderstood. Feared.
It was a dream. I awoke with a start when I felt the ship’s belly scrape upon sand. The coarse cotton bedclothes had wrapped themselves around me; they smelled of unfamiliar flesh, of someone who now lay stretched upon the beach, eyes closed to darkness, framed by pearls.
In my mouth was a deep, puckering thirst, a thirst that reminded me of hot popcorn eaten around the campfire by the handful, of Fëanáro shaking the grate over the tossing flames, of Nelyo lavishing it with handfuls of salt, of the twins calling, “More! More! No, more, Nelyo!”
And so my first thought upon landing in Beleriand was not of death and grief and guilt; it was not of courage and freedom, as my father would have liked; it was a memory of a time of joy that had passed unnoticed by us all. I touched my lips and found them dry, tasting of salt.
We moved inland, first to Mithrim, then farther than that, carrying our belongings upon our backs, sleeping in the wild like animals. When Nelyo divided the realms among us, he didn’t ask: He gave to me the land farthest from the sea. “With a lake. A cold lake,” he said, smiling grimly. The servants of Morgoth had not touched his face but for a thread-thin scar across his cheek that he said came on the day that he’d been captured; after that, to mar his face came with the penalty of death. Still, he was no longer beautiful. The light in his eyes: I had seen light glinting like that once, on the day we’d the hill to Alqualondë for the first time, light that was but a reflection of what the sea—what my brother, marred beneath his clothes in ways too hideous to contemplate—would never again celebrate.
“Do you remember that day?” Nelyo asked suddenly. “The day you almost drowned?” Our other brothers had filed from the room, arguing over petty things. Nelyo’s one remaining hand pressed against the map, right above my realm. Thargelion. I tasted the name on my tongue. The lake of which he’d spoken rested in the fork between his thumb and finger. “Or rather, pretended to drown?”
I had trouble meeting his eyes. The light in them—silver light upon water—was painful to look upon. “When did you know?” I asked. “Did Amil tell you?”
“Nay, I have always known, Carnistir. Just as I know that you are not really afraid of the sea. You are like a boy smitten with a girl and not wishing to show it, so you never say her name and hope that no one will notice, when really, she is the only destiny that you have.” He rolled his map then with a left hand grown strong and dexterous and departed the room before I could reply.
I swam in Helevorn even when it was cold, in the middle of the bitter winter, cutting the water with my body like a knife, as I had done so long ago with Tyelkormo at my side. I thought of all of them, of my family. With my body numbed by the water, my mind stretched towards each of them in turn and held commune with their secret dreams, my thoughts pressing theirs like sharing an embrace. I learned that none of them cried anymore. I was no longer the only one among us who was cold and strange.
As my limbs grew heavy with cold and weariness, I stretched my thoughts into the West, but the sea snatched them first and, laughing, denied me the one with whom I desired to speak the most. Come to me. And you shall speak with her.
And I would awaken with a start, floating facedown in the water, the cold beginning to take me, with strength enough to swim to the shore, stretch my cloak over my naked skin, and sleep.
I thought often of my mother. I thought of her alone in our father’s big house, only I did not know what she would do there without a husband and seven sons to occupy her; there would be no bread to bake, no clothes to wash; I could not imagine that, without us, she even possessed the inspiration for her sculptures. Silly and self-important, I know, but I believed it.
In the big empty house, her skin rang like bells, crying from beneath her clothes: seven bells, one ringing lower and stranger than the others, each a flinch of pain radiating across the sea—a pinch felt in a nerve distant upon a fingertip—racing like fire back to its home: her. But she could not come to us to soothe our sadness, as she’d once promised. The sea lay between us.
Word came to my brother Maedhros that one of the Silmarils had been recovered and lay with Dior in Doriath. I stretched my thoughts to each of my brothers that night, as we lay beneath the same roof for the first time in years; I felt each of them reluctant, most of all, Celegorm and Curufin, who would speak the loudest in order to convince us that they were not cowards. I felt their fear of death bitter as poison upon my tongue, and Curufin’s dread of leaving his son—estranged from Curufin but still secretly adored—alone in this treacherous land. I sampled the dreams of the twins, mingled in the middle like the blood they’d once shared, that did not concern themselves with oaths and Silmarils and the dirge-like darkness of Maglor’s sleep. Maedhros dreamt of Thangorodrim, always of Thangorodrim. And revenge.
Beyond them, I stretched to my mother, wondering if she knew the treachery her sons pondered against their own kin. But the sea lay between us and kept her from me.
I imagined the seven phials, one ringing lower than the others. Stranger.
He is strange.
It would never be filled, I realized, and so all of this grief and endless pain I felt: It would not move mountains or shape rivers. It would accomplish nothing.
A moon before we left for Doriath, I woke from a dream of my mother; she pressed her breast with a trembling hand to quiet the phials that rang almost constantly now, loud as bells. Still, they cried out and would not be silenced by anyone less than Eru, much less someone of flesh and earthbound as she.
I no longer visited my brothers in their dreams. I dared not even consider my own.
Before the sun rose, I had saddled my horse and slipped a note beneath Maglor’s door: Maglor because he was the only one who had found sleep that night, however restless, and I hoped that he would not awaken before I’d had my chance to escape.
I rode to the sea.
It took many days, but I was tireless and my horse was loyal and eager beneath me, and when the first strong breeze wrapped my face, I scented salt and almost turned back but for the memory of my mother, with the phials pressed beneath her hand. I tried to send my thoughts to her, but always, I was blocked by the sea.
I came to the beach unseen and turned my horse free. He would come to my whistle when I was ready and had earned his reprieve. The sand gripped my feet, awkward in their boots, and threatened to cast me upon my face, but then, the sand had been shaped by the sea and so was itself treacherous. Winter was coming, and the sky was the color of slate and the sea beneath it just a bit darker, the horizon darkest of all: the west, where we could not go. The waves were rough, and I waited for them to settle, as they had always done in my presence before, but they surged harder as I drew closer, and I saw that they would at last exact their retribution.
I stripped off my clothes and boots and the wind slapped my skin and colored it red and sore. The sand at the water’s edge was so cold that my feet ached at its touch, but I plunged onward, heedless, into the foaming anger of the sea, my body striving against the waves that sought to push me back even as I felt a current deep below the surface wrap my legs with lover’s arms and drag me into the embrace of the sea.
I had enough time to take a final, gasping breath before I was dragged beneath the water.
Grandfather Finwë had been a favorite in our house because whenever he came to visit, he brought a big picture book of stories from the Time before Elves, as he called it, pronounced with such reverence that even my rambunctious brothers and I were awed into silence. But what had existed in the Time before Elves? we asked, and with the self-centered fears of small children, Where had we been? Grandfather Finwë would laugh and draw the littlest of us—the one permitted to sit in his lap while the others formed a half-circle around him on the floor—closer to his chest, making the others lean in as well, as though with a shared breath, taken in anticipation of his answer: Why you were in the thoughts of Eru! A wonderful place of all colors and music more beautiful than any we shall ever hear on Arda. This book is but those of Eru’s designs that have come into being; many more of these books exist, unwritten, in His thoughts.
Because it was the Time before Elves, we understood that it was stories about the Valar, about the creation of Arda. When I was very small—small enough to be the one held in Grandfather’s lap—there was a particular story that Macalaurë would always request. “Tell of ‘The Betrayal of Ossë!’ “ he would cry. Macalaurë always liked a dark edge to his stories and a happy ending, and “The Betrayal of Ossë” had both.
In the days when Arda was being made, Grandfather told us, the Dark One swayed Ossë to his allegiance, promising him dominion over the seas that he loved. Ossë was loved as a dearest friend by Ulmo, the Lord of the Waters, and Ulmo grieved in those days, thinking his friend lost. Ulmo has no spouse to comfort him, and indeed, Ossë had been all that was dear to him, and Ulmo drew to the shore and wept until the sea rose with his tears and tasted grief for the first time.
The ending we knew: The Ossë had been convinced to come back to Ulmo, and he’d been pardoned as one must always pardon a dear friend, and has since served Ulmo in the waters, remaining loyal but nonetheless—at times—perilous. The ending was happy, and when we were away from Grandfather and being honest, a bit boring.
But the sea ever after tasted of tears. Of salt.
And, I would learn only short years later, when it laid its treacherous hands upon me for the first time, that it had also developed a tasted for grief.
It pulled me under, and as the dreams and memories of others are mine to idly peruse like fingers turning the pages of a book, so the memories of the sea become mine, all of the pain and death and partings to which it has borne witness over the ages. I tasted the salt of tears cried into its water and, beneath that, something filthy and metallic: blood.
I could see the waves raging overhead, but the sea wrapped me and cradled me as gently as one might an infant, and I opened my heart and spirit and shared in its grief.
The breath in my lungs was growing scarce, but the cold water had numbed my limbs, and the current jerked me deeper, and I wondered if the sea meant to take me too, to add my blood to that already spilled by thousands before me. I waited for the certain despair at this realization and thought, at last, that I might weep. Pity that the sea divided me from my mother, and the dark violet phial around her neck would remain bereft a single tear.
My eyes were open, but darkness took me, creeping from the edges, and I let forth the last of the air in my lungs to bubble to the surface and be lost.
With the last of my energy, I stretched my thoughts towards Aman, towards her.
She was not living in my father’s house at all. This she had given to my cousin Findarato, the first of us to return from the dead, and his new bride. And soon, their first child as well. The house hungered for joy and laughter and we had once given it in great measures. Since we’d left, the house had starved with only our mother for company; now both would be happy once more.
My mother lived in Alqualondë. She was rebuilding the damage done by her people, her husband, us. I saw her helping the Telerin queen choose a statue for the nursery. She was also with child. Life flourished in Aman, despite all that we had done.
The statues were all my mother’s, all done since we had left. But how?
Life flourished in Aman.
At night, my mother walked the beach beneath the palace, the beach strewn with pearls that had once cradled the heads of the departed mariners, washed gently ashore by the delicate hands of the sea, their wounds washed and bloodless, their faces tranquil. The mariners were gone now but the pearls remained and caught the light of the new moon.
She touched the phials and thought of us, gazing at the sea, striving for a single flicker of contact between us. But the Curse of Mandos—she believed—had locked us away from her. But this night was different; this night, she clutched the phials and stretched her thoughts over the sea, and I answered.
Mother! Mother, I will be home soon!
One of the cords had broken in her hand, and my phial lay across her palm while she stood frozen for a long time, staring at the sea that had finally answered her this night, the tears on her face not of grief but tasting of salt nonetheless, dripping into the eager waves that lapped her feet. Trembling fingers were working the cork free of the phial that had not been opened in years. The water surged as high as her knees, reaching for her hand and the phial that she held in it. She did not have to bend far to give the phial its final tear, taken from the sea.
And when the phial is filled, then the tears you cry shall erode mountains and change the course of rivers with their power, maybe even fill the sea.
With a ragged, choking gasp, I drew a lungful of air and found my vision restored, my feet rooted solidly to the sand and in water to my waist, water as placid as that of the lake that I loved. Foam left from the sea’s earlier rage floated on the surface, forming Tengwar shapes that I no longer needed to read. I knew what they said. I knew all of the sea’s secrets.
A playful wave rose suddenly and slapped by belly. The water trickling back to the sea sounded like laughter.
As I drank hungrily of the air, I realized that my face was damp. Numb fingers rose and touched my cheeks, then slipped into my mouth, curious and no longer afraid.
They tasted of salt.
We attacked as we said that we would, coming upon them at unawares in the dead of winter, our swords as cold and bright as the icicles draping the tree branches. The sea was nowhere near to record the pain and grief nor taste the blood and tears shed that day, but I knew that it knew, and it would remember.
I noticed that Curufin was missing when the fighting entered its third day and it became clear that we were winning—winning but yet to recover that for which we had come: the Silmaril. I had last seen him pursuing two of Dior’s soldiers into a copse of trees but he had never emerged. I followed his footprints in the snow and into the trees, leaving behind my brothers arguing over the places it still might be. Menegroth ran deep, many of its secrets still undelved. But I thought of Curufin—the only of us missing—his coldly rational voice absent from the discussion.
In the trees, my brother’s bootprints were jumbled with the smaller prints of Dior’s soldiers. The snow was pink with blood, and a dark trail led deeper into the forest. There were no bootprints: Whoever had made the trail had been crawling upon hands and knees.
Heart pounding, I followed it, wishing the blood to belong to someone else’s brother, not mine. We had survived so much—so many battles, so much treachery, even the Nirnaeth Arnoediad—and none of us had fallen. Let it not be the death of a kinslayer for which my brother would be remembered.
But the body in the clearing, curled on its side, flesh turned as white as the snow melting in the spill of blood beneath it: It was Curufin.
I fell to my knees beside him and turned him onto his back. I was calling his name—screaming it—but no sound came from my lips; I was reaching for his mind as I had done so many times before, taking solace in his happiness where I had none, but I found it deserted, his last threads of thought being torn by the bitter wind cutting between the trees.
A tiny smile touched his lips. He knew me. I kissed the smile and tried to massage warmth back into the cold, stiff hands. A finger twitched, and it gave me hope. The pulse at his throat was weak and irregular, and I laughed bitterly at my predicament, for with each beat of his heart, more of his blood spilled into the snow. To wish for his heart to beat strong and healthy as it had for the whole of his life, I would hasten his death.
His gray eyes opened a sliver and met mine. Our father’s eyes.
Just hold me, Carnistir, and don’t let me die alone.
The blood leaving his wounds was no longer pushing forth but seeping slowly, carrying him to his fate, but my hand on his throat still found a pulse and the barest warmth of life.
I held him fast to life, my mind bound to his, and I didn’t even hear the crunch of her footsteps in the snow behind me until she gasped, the involuntary cry of a little girl startled and suppressing a scream.
I would not turn my eyes from my brother but I knew who she was: Dior’s daughter, a tiny thing with dark hair and huge gray eyes. Beautiful. Beautiful as her grandmother’s song, as her grandmother. By the woolen cloak on her shoulders and the boots on her feet, I knew that she was escaping. Her mittened hands clasped something tightly, not wanting me to see, as she dashed past and disappeared into the woods. But she had no reason to fear. Beneath my fingers, my brother’s pulse faltered, then throbbed again, and he held on to life and me with him. So long as the blood beat in my brother’s veins, I would stay at his side, whether she carried a Silmaril or not.
My brother would not die alone.
Dusk fell. Curufin’s heart gave a final feeble squeeze. The tears that had dropped onto his cheeks—fallen unnoticed from my eyes—had frozen there. He was gone.
The little girl’s tracks in the snow: already erased by the wind. She—and the Silmaril—were gone too.
I curled beside my brother with my head on his chest. I waited. Behind me in the distance, the sea waited too, grown calm with anticipation, for it was only a matter of time now before the world changed and it found a new home.