Have you ever had a week when you worked non-stop and yet got nothing done? That was my last week. I had two goals in mind: 1) send my beta to Doyonil and 2) work on Another Man's Cage. Having just finished my beta for Doyonil and having gotten exactly a half-page written on AMC and *nothing* posted, I must issue apologies to all.
Before I give you Chapter Six (which is from Maitimo's perspective--a change!), then I would like to remind everyone that there is a bit of AUness in this story.
If you did not know that before, I apologize :( Anyway, my point in saying it now--whether as a first issuance or a reminder--is because I thoroughly expect to be skewered for my take on Formenos and would like my readers to know that I am aware that Formenos is in Valinor. Also, I have worn chainmail to work today, and so attempts at skewering me on this point are not likely to work ;)
That said, I am exceptionally grateful for all the pickiness and praise I have been given on this story. I am taking all comments to heart, and if you do not see your suggestions reflected immediately, it is only because I have chosen to finish writing the story and then begin editing. If you have left me a comment or sent me an email about it, trust that I am more grateful than words can express!
We leave for Formenos in three days.
Three days? Already? It is perplexing: It seems like we are preparing to leave for Formenos last year, like this year went by too fast to really have happened.
But, of course, time moves differently here in Valinor. There are no seasons; it is hot year-round; the winds are mild; snow is nonexistent. Every day here is the same: Telperion wanes and Laurelin brings the heat to the morning; she waxes at midday, and as Telperion brightens into evening, we get an hour of light rain, enough to keep the trees green and the gardens fruitful, as though anything is ever in want in Valinor. But you wake up in the morning and are never entirely sure: Did yesterday even exist? Or is yesterday, in fact, today, for every morning is the same, swept clean of identifying features, and you wonder if time is row after row of identical days or just the same day repeated into infinity.
In Formenos, it is different: The leaves change color as summer diminishes; the nights are cold; the days are warm but mild—in the summer anyway—but some are warmer than others and you can never predict when you might need a light cloak to keep the chill off your arms. (The winters, I hear, are so cold that your bones hurt. I would not know. I have never been to Formenos in the winter.) Every day is erratic and unpredictable. Sometimes, Laurelin blazes against a cloudless sky. On other days, violent storms tear the landscape. Sometimes, rain does not come for weeks. But time seems real there, marked by events like droughts and downpours, more real than it does in Valinor anyway, where time is beautifully and sickeningly bland.
The days before we leave are full of frantic activity. Even Ada does not go to his forge except to toss out the accumulated clutter (and Ada is quite good at accumulating clutter) and to scrub every inch until it shines like it was never used. The house is cleaned and sealed. Those horses that we will not take with us are given to the families whose properties border ours for keeping until we return, and the stables are cleaned and aired. Trunks are packed; supplies are gathered; tents and heavy blankets that we will need on the journey are tossed down from the attic and tied to the carts.
Macalaurë and I work in the garden. Our garden is an acre behind the house, surrounded by a low fence and filled with row after row of plants, many-shaped and -colored leaves swaying in the breeze. We have a big family—in addition to Ada and Nana’s apprentices and assistants—and normally, all of the vegetables we grow are used. Today, Macalaurë and I will pick all that is ripe: most will be taken with us on the journey; the rest will go with the horses to those who share our property borders, for Ada despises that we should be given anything that is wasted. While we are gone, the assistants who stay behind will use the forge, under the conditions that they tend the garden every day and see that the vegetables are given to families who can use them.
People will one day call Ada selfish. Selfish and proud. The last he was, always, but never was he truly selfish. Just very confused for a long while.
Macalaurë is full of complaints today. He hates to work outside in the hottest hours, and he wears a white cotton cloak over his head and shoulders to protect his skin. He inherited Ada’s fair complexion but not his tolerance to heat, and Laurelin at her fullest makes his skin red and sore. Also, his hair is dark—the color of bitter chocolate—and heavy like satin. Would I place my hand against his hair in such light, it would burn like dark glass freshly forged. He is hard to look upon, though, in his white cloak in such bright light, like a specter or white-hot steel.
“This is atrocious, Nelyo,” he grumbles. We have made it past the tomatoes and are into the peppers now, red and green and yellow, the fruits of a fractured rainbow. Macalaurë likes to use big words when he is angry, as though they make less obvious the sheer childish satisfaction of pointless complaining. “Why do we have to do this, year after year, when Tyelkormo is more than capable? Manwë’s britches, Carnistir is more than capable of this brainless nonsense.”
If Macalaurë sizzles in the midday heat, I cringe to think of poor dark little Carnistir, with his porcelain skin so quick to flush and his midnight hair that he got from our father.
The real reason Macalaurë complains is not that the task is actually difficult for him or in some way insulting but because tonight we go to a feast in the forest, an hour-long ride from home, and he wants the afternoon to riffle through his clothes and soak in his bathtub and braid his hair in hopes of finally procuring a maiden to court.
“Macalaurë, you know what Ada said. We are excused for the rest of the day if we do this. And do you forget that it should be your turn to cook supper and my turn to clean up? Which would make us an hour late, at least?”
He sighs. He knows I am right; he is thirty-nine years old, edging out of childhood, but every now and then, he is tempted to turn back and bask in its liberties. Like being senselessly contradictory. “Yes, but now I shall have to go smelling like dirt!”
“You sound like Tyelkormo,” I tell him. Our third brother, Tyelkormo, always has things pressed to his nose, while Carnistir is always putting things in his mouth. “And you shall not smell like dirt, for you shall bathe when we are done.”
“Dirt and rotten vegetables,” he mutters, even though we have yet to encounter a vegetable that is rotten. Ada gets up early every day to care for the garden, and his diligence is obvious: The dirt is soft and dark, neatly turned; there is not a weed or yellowed leaf to be seen. Just like Ada. Meticulous. Perfect.
“Will you braid my hair?” he asks me suddenly, his foul mood suddenly blown away, storm clouds on a summer’s breeze. “In that way that always makes you look good?”
“Just because I look good as such,” I tell him, “does not mean that you shall. I have red hair and yours is brown.”
He rolls his eyes. “It will look better if you do it then if I attempt to do it. My fingers fumble at meticulous tasks.”
“Just pretend you’re playing your harp,” I tell him, “it’s all you’ll get to play tonight anyway,” and he straightens and drops his basket to lunge across the rows of peppers at me. Macalaurë is smaller than I was at his age—much smaller than I am now—both short and slight of frame, and his body colliding with mine is inconsequential. But I stumble backwards anyway, to give him satisfaction, and make the appropriate grunts of surprise. “Ilúvatar in Ea, if you are not Varda’s tweezers!” he yells at me.
“Well, you are Mandos’ muffin tin!” I shout back, and he punches me in the arm, remarkably hard for someone so small. “Ai!”
“To Irmo with you,” he grumbles, shaking his hand, and I realize that my bicep has hurt his fist as much as his fist has hurt my bicep and laugh. He tries to look stormy, but his lips are twitching, and when I reach over and pinch him underneath the ribs, he shrieks with laughter.
“Shh!” I tell him, and we both watch the house where, sure enough, Nana’s head pokes from her workshop windows. “Boys? Are you well?”
“We are fine, Nana,” I shout to her in my most sincere voice, “just picking peppers,” even holding one aloft to prove my point. Satisfied, she ducks back inside the window. Macalaurë and I both collapse into silent laughter.
Cursing has long been a private game of ours. When we were little, we used to help Ada keep the forge clean, sweeping and polishing while he worked, and sometimes he would burn himself on a piece of hot metal or a spark would jump onto his skin, and he would jump and curse in his loud, authoritative voice. “Ilúvatar in Ea! Varda’s stars!” or, if it was really bad, “To the Void with you!” Macalaurë and I took to whispering these curses to each other when no one else was around. In our babyish voices, whispered in the other’s ear, they sounded funny. Even funnier were the ones we made up ourselves: Nienna’s beard, salt of Ulmo, Manwë in Varda. These we would hiss at each other when no one else was around, not our little brothers and certainly not Nana. (Macalaurë served a weeklong sentence in the scullery when he was little for swearing by Nienna’s tears after he dropped a piece of stone on his foot.) Only one time were we caught at our game, when we were both older and working in the forge with Ada, and we thought he’d left to get some fresh water from the house, and we started: Macalaurë, with fruit of Yavanna; me, with Aulë’s hammer; Macalaurë back with tickled Tulkas; and back to me with Nahar’s manure, which made Macalaurë laugh so hard that he couldn’t counter, and we turned to reach for clean rags to polish the gemstones we were setting, and saw Ada standing behind us.
I don’t know what I looked like then, but I know that every drop of color drained from Macalaurë’s already fair skin, and Ada walked past us, grabbed the bottle that he’d left behind, and said, “I forgot this,” and walked back out the door. I must have looked at least as petrified as poor Macalaurë; after all, I am the eldest and always expected to know better. “Do you think he’s angry?” Macalaurë whispered in a trembling voice. I didn’t trust my voice, and so I only shrugged. My thighs felt like the muscle and bone had been taken out and replaced with water. I knew Nana’s punishments well, and Ada’s were always worse.
Ada came back a minute later and offered the bottle to us first before drinking of it himself; I was so nervous that the water only sat in my mouth; I couldn’t swallow it and might have eventually drowned on it, if Ada hadn’t said, “Those swears were pretty good, Macalaurë and Nelyo, but I know the two of you can do better.” He pushed the bottle back into my hands and went back to hammering on a carving knife that he was making for our mother.
Still, the game remains a private one, one that we would continue until our last day on Arda together.
We bend again to the peppers. Laurelin’s zenith has passed, and the day is settling into afternoon. Soon, Telperion will fill with a pale, silver light that will swell until it overtakes the day, and evening will come. I feel a nervous quiver of excitement and try to swallow it before it erupts into impatience like Macalaurë’s. The peppers are waxy in my hands; the smell of earth engulfs me. Macalaurë is humming a tune under his breath, something light that one might dance to. Something that he will probably play tonight.
I try to decipher my emotions, to cut them apart and understand them. Will she be there tonight? a persistent little voice wonders. She said she would. But Formenos is only three days away, and Ada has kept his apprentices as busy as his sons. Next thought: What is your fascination with her? and when I reply that she is pretty, my mind automatically takes apart her features one by one until I see that she is ordinary, really, if not a little coarse, but when I see her composite, my heart beats faster and abashed warmth spreads through my face and my groin at the same time.
I think it is only the wind through the trees until I feel Macalaurë’s breath in my ear and realize that it is him, and that I have been standing, half-stooped over, with an onion in each hand, smiling at the ground. I turn and punch him in the stomach—not hard, because I really don’t want to hurt him—but he feigns having the wind knocked from him, doubles over, and groans, “Tulkas’ armpit…” which makes me roar with laughter.
“That was a good one!”
“You don’t know your own strength, Nelyo,” he moans, and I realize that I may have hurt him a little bit. Unintentionally, of course. I grab his arm and drag him upright. “Stop griping, you overgrown baby. Tyelkormo takes punches better than you,” and he surprises me with a quick, grinding jab to the ribs before darting off to take shelter in the row of green beans. I think about pursuing him, but the thought of Annawendë makes me hasten to my task, for the faster that I finish here, the faster I can begin preparing for tonight.
At last, we reach the end of the rows and look back at the baskets scattered behind us. “Finally,” Macalaurë says, lowering the hood on his cloak now that Laurelin has faded, and wiping the sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand. The Trees will mingle within the next hour; we must hasten or else go—as Macalaurë suggested—smelling like dirt.
We carry the baskets to the back of the house, where Nana and Ada will choose what will be taken on our journey. Tomorrow, those who share our borders will come and each take a horse and what they think their family can eat of the vegetables. The rest will go to Tirion, where there is always plenty of use for fresh vegetables grown outside the city walls.
Macalaurë and I run up the stairs. Macalaurë is undressing as he runs, pulling his tunic over his head and unlacing his trousers. “Keep your clothes on, for love of Varda!” I tell him, and he says, “Ah, but Nelyo, that bathwater is calling my name. I feel like a pig.”
He turns into his bedroom. “You are what you feel!” I shout after him and catch a sweaty tunic to the face in retribution.
I know how he feels, though. Nana has drawn a hot bath for each of us each, as she’d promised she would. I strip off my clothes and kick my boots under my bed. I pull off my jewelry—just a necklace and a ring—and drop them into my jewelry box. My skin is slick with sweat and grime, and it itches. I remember how grandfather Finwë told us it was for the two hundred year journey across Middle-earth, when they would sometimes travel for weeks before they could bathe, and then it was only in cold river water, and I wonder how they slept at night for the tight, itchiness of dirty skin. I have been on journeys, of course—to Formenos every summer and all across Aman with Ada—but the rivers in Valinor are generally warm, and I know that my soft bed and a hot bath await my arrival home.
I scratch even as I walk into my bathroom; I scratch as I add the salts and oils that will take the scent of the earth from me; I scratch as I dip in a toe to see if it’s too hot. It’s hot still, but I itch so badly that I jump in anyway and sink to my neck beneath the water.
The hot water prickles my skin like a thousand tiny needles. It is painful, I realize, when I think about it, but I feel something within me cry out and welcome the heat. That part of me, I know, comes from Ada. When he plunges into the depths of frantic concentration, a place where my brothers and I cannot reach him, even as we stand in the doorway and tentatively call him to supper, he will lift red hot metal with his bare hands, never flinching. I turned his hands over once, studied the palms, and they were just as smooth as mine, unscarred, competent, and beautiful.
The water cools to comfortable temperature, and I realize that it is quiet. Quiet is so rare in our house that it becomes louder than shouting. I breathe deeply and let my head slip beneath the water, squeezing my eyes shut so that they are not stung by the salts I have poured liberally into the water. Under the water, I can hear the dull roar of blood in my veins and the faint ripple of my body moving beneath the water and nothing else. And I am alone. Being alone tugs at me after only a short while, for it is rarer even than quiet, but for now, it is bliss. Even in sleep, I am rarely alone. Macalaurë spends more nights in my bed than he does in his own, coming over to talk and laugh, swearing to me that he won’t stay, but when I turn to look at him, he has dropped into dreams and I have not the heart to wake him. Tyelkormo comes to me at least twice a week with nightmares or sleeplessness, and never can I resist his big blue eyes. Carnistir hates sleeping with anyone else, but sometimes, I will wake up and he will be curled at the bottom of my bed, at my feet, like a dog. If I am gentle, I can lift him without waking him and lay him beside me, where he will sleep the night, but he always awakens, crying. “You make funny colors in my dreams!” he accuses, though how he figures my causal role in his acknowledged strange dreams is beyond me.
They are my younger brothers; I am a constant in their life, the same as Ada and Nana. They have known me since the day they were born, when I was the third to hold them, still wet and crying, in my arms. I cannot go a day without tussling with Macalaurë and being climbed all over by Tyelkormo and having my clothes clutched and my hair chewed by Carnistir. It is part of the daily rhythm of Valinor. It is part of the daily rhythm of life.
My chest burns, and I realize that I have been submerged for several minutes. I erupt through the surface of the water, gasping, my lungs cooled and relieved by the air that rushes to fill them. I wipe the water from my eyes and open them. Carnistir is leaning on the side of the bathtub, staring at me.
“I thought you were dead,” he says.
So much for being alone.
“No, of course I’m not dead,” I tell him. “I am an Elf, and Elves live as long as Arda. You know that.”
“Some have died,” he says in a matter-of-fact voice that is amusing and chilling at the same time. “I would have looked for you in Tirion, though, at the Spring Festival next year. And I would pray to Námo every day for your return.”
“Well.…” I’m not quite sure what to say, so I smile and suffice with “Thanks.”
“Your hair is dark. You look like Ada,” he tells me next. I have to remind myself at times that he is only four years old and prone to the bizarre behavior of young children.
I push my wet hair out of my face. I suppose that he is partially right; my hair darkens when wet, although it is still far from being as black as our father’s. “Things change color when they are wet,” I explain to him, “and my hair is wet. See?” I wrap his soft little hand around a lock of my hair.
He puts it in his mouth. “You haven’t changed colors,” he says, his words lisped because of the hair in his mouth. “Your hair still tastes like you, Nelyo. Can I get in with you?”
“No, little one. The water is getting cold, and I have to get out. Will you hand me that towel over there?”
He toddles over and grabs the towel I’ve indicated, leaving my hair in his mouth until it will reach no farther and slips out on its own accord. He hands the towel to me obediently; at least he doesn’t dunk it in the water like he did last time—the only towel left, too—leaving me no choice but to run across the hall, dripping, naked, and quite embarrassed, to borrow a towel from Macalaurë.
I quickly dry myself, and Carnistir sits on the floor and watches me with his wide dark eyes, biting his fingers at the knuckle. A little runner of drool is forming off of his chin. I wrap the towel around my waist and stoop to lift him, wiping his face with my thumb. He falls immediately against me and sinks his teeth into the bone in my shoulder.
I draw a sharp breath, trying not to cry out; he doesn’t realize how painfully sharp his little teeth are. “Carnistir,” I say, and I juggle him to free an arm and dislodge his teeth from my shoulder, “why can’t you give normal kisses?” As if to demonstrate, I kiss his nose and his lips in quick succession. He doesn’t respond and buries his face in my neck, and I wince, waiting, but the nip I expect never comes.
I sigh and carry him out to my bedroom. Light fills the room; it is the Mingling of the Lights, and I feel my breath catch in my chest, as it still does every day at this time. In later years, in Middle-earth, I will try to explain to the Moriquendi about the Mingling of the Lights; I will try to do it justice in words but cannot. It is the purest light imaginable, colorless because every color of light possible is poured into it in equal measure and sings in perfect harmony with its neighbors. It takes all tinges from the world; it reveals everything as it truly is, in perfection. All is made more beautiful in such light.
But the moment passes and something slams against my legs. Tyelkormo. So much for being alone, I think again.
“Nelyo!” He wraps his arms around my thighs and pushes his face into my belly. He is huge for a child of his age; I always figured that he would grow taller than Ada and I, never expecting the growth spurt that would hit me in another two years, making me the tallest of my people, my bones growing so fast that they would ache at night. “You smell funny,” he says, his voice slightly muffled.
I dislodge his arms from me and set Carnistir down beside him. They stare up at me with the wide-eyed love of little children, fair and dark, foils of each other. “By ‘funny’ I hope you don’t mean ‘bad,’” I say.
“No. You smell better than usual. But not like Nelyo. Just funny.”
I put on a serious face. “Tyelkormo. Carnistir,” I say gravely, and they stare up at me. Carnistir has shoved his knuckles back into his mouth; Tyelkormo twirls a honey-colored strand of hair. “Macalaurë and I have a very important place to go tonight, and I have to get ready, and I don’t have a lot of time left. Can I expect you to behave?” They nod. “Good. Now, why don’t you do sit on my bed and wait for Ada to call you to supper?”
“Aren’t you having supper with us, Nelyo?” asks Tyelkormo in a small voice.
“Not tonight, little one. Macalaurë and I have an hour-long ride, so if we stay for supper, then we will not be on time.”
“Won’t you be hungry, Nelyo?” Carnistir asks me.
"We’ll eat something when we get there. Do not worry, my loves, Macalaurë and I will be fine.” I steer them to my bed and lift Carnistir; Tyelkormo scrambles up without my help.
I go to my closet, but before I can even open the door, Macalaurë bursts into the room. “You said you’d braid my hair, Nelyo!” He is dressed already—no real surprise, since he hasn’t been wrangling with little brothers—in a gray tunic and black trousers. (Macalaurë wears entirely too much gray, but I would never tell him that.) “Does this color make me look washed out?” he asks.
I feel my patience slipping. My patience is like a vast, white snow-covered slope. It is colorless, serene; it muffles all sound. But every now and then, I feel the slope starting to slip away. Little rivulets of snow tickle my brain. I stand perfectly still, hoping to forestall the avalanche that has begun in slow trickles, but this is not always possible. Sometimes, my patience lets go, and that smooth, white expanse tumbles and roars and knocks away those hands that—naively—are raised in defenseless innocence, hoping to be spared.
This, I get from Ada.
Now, a tinge of sarcasm laces my voice. I can hear it, and I hate it, but it weasels itself in there and is nearly impossible to ferret out. I am grabbing at the trickles of snow with futile fists. “Not at all. You look just like the handsome prince that you are.”
My sarcasm might have escaped his notice, slipped past as genuine sincerity, but for the word “prince.” It is easy to forget our status as Noldorin elite: Princes do not get on their knees to scrub the floor of their father’s forge; they do not cook and sweep away the garbage that others drop; they do not wipe the snot from their baby brothers’ faces. We do all of these things, yet there is a velvet box on my dressing table, and in it lays a copper circlet made for my fortieth begetting day by my grandfather Mahtan. On the circlet is the star of the House of Fëanaro, high prince of the Noldor, the heir to the kingship, were grandfather Finwë to abdicate. Sometimes I’ll put it on when I am alone in my bedroom and look at my reflection: the simple clothes, often darkened by soot or dust; the dirt underneath my fingernails; my hair tied behind my head in a bedraggled knot; and the symbol of my legacy atop it. It shines with a pride I do not myself possess, for how can one be proud of that which passes mostly unacknowledged? My father’s heir, a prince of the Noldor.
The smile on Macalaurë’s face has crumbled a bit, and his acidic reply is “Perhaps I shall wear my circlet then, and you shall wear yours, and we shall woo maidens as do the lords in Tirion, with promises of power and political influence. And they shall not care if we are ugly and our thoughts are vapid. Now will you braid my hair or not?”
“Would you allow me at least to first put on my underwear, please?” I say with exasperation. From my bed, I hear Carnistir whimper, gifted—or cursed, perhaps—with extraordinary perceptiveness to the moods of others. Macalaurë sits heavily at my dressing table, playing with my jewelry while I choose my clothes with exaggerated care, pondering every shade of cloth and every stitch of embroidery before I at last select the black tunic and tan trousers that I’d had in mind since early afternoon. Macalaurë has put every one of my rings on his right hand and studies them in the light. Most of them are too big for his slender fingers.
“Would you mind if I wore one of these?” he asks in a gentle tone that tells me that our spat is already forgiven. The snow is still; the avalanche will sleep, for a time. We speak with each other through the mirror—a strange, disembodied manner—as though I am outside my body and watching myself tug a tunic over my head as I watch him hold my rings in the light. “I favor your jewelry much more than mine.”
“Take what you’d like,” I tell him. The ring of which he speaks—rubies and onyx set around a silver band—I had hoped to wear myself, but now I feel bad for my earlier slip of patience.
“What about this?” He holds aloft a silver chain with a white stone that catches the light and returns it in exponential brilliance.
My hand goes automatically to my throat. I had forgotten that I’d removed my jewelry prior to bathing; suddenly, I feel naked in a way that even clothes could not cover. I answer him carefully. “If you desire it, then you shall wear it.” I mean it.
The chain slithers through his fingers and falls back to the jewelry box. “No. Nelyo.” His voice is very soft. “I was teasing. I could never wear it.”
I was born beside a river. My mother lay not in the softness of a birthing bed when she pushed me into the world but on the hard ground, in a tent, tended not by healers and midwives, as she was when my brothers were born, but by my father, who was younger than I am now and terrified. It was the middle of the night, and Laurelin slept, but Telperion bathed the land in silver light, and through an opening in the tent flaps, the first light I saw was Telperion on the water, and this was the light that was put into my eyes.
On my first begetting day, Ada rose in the middle of the night and left my mother and me asleep to gallop to that river with nothing but two stones in his pocket. Even without a wife heavy with child this time, crossing the river was difficult and dangerous. It was springtime, and the water surged and devoured the banks of the river in great chunks of red earth, but he crossed and knelt at the very place where I was born, waiting until Telperion swelled to silvery brilliance, as she had when my eyes opened for the first time, before removing the stones from his pocket to capture forever the same light that touched my eyes with silver.
One stone was my first begetting day gift. The other, Ada wears around his neck with the same loyalty as he wears his gold wedding band. His Nelyo-stone, he calls it. It will go with him, he says, to the end of Arda. Normally, mine hangs at my sternum, out of sight, under my clothes, on a shabby silver chain darkened by a patina of grime, but tonight, I will wear it at my throat on a shorter silver chain of perfect brilliance. As I dress, Macalaurë finds the shorter chain without my asking and—removing the stone from the longer, grimy one, which he pools gently in my jewelry box—he slips the stone onto it. I fix the laces on my tunic last, and when I finish, he rises and clasps the chain around my neck without a word.
“Thank you,” I say, and he says, “You’re dressed. Now braid my hair.”
His hair is like satin, not as silky as Tyelkormo’s and mine, but heavy and slippery. Whenever he tries to braid it on his own, it inevitably slides askance by midday. Nana is always complaining that she wishes he would wear his hair off of his face, to show of his fine, fair features, but he has learned not to bother, so his high cheekbones go unappreciated. (When Macalaurë was born, I was often scornful and jealous of the extra attention he received and said that I thought he looked like a girl. He has since grown out of that fragile, feminine look, but I still don’t dare tell him these first thoughts of mine lest he take after me with his small but bruising fists.) To keep his hair in place, I must tug it extra-tight. “Ai!” he shouts once, and would have pulled away and ruined all that I had accomplished if I didn’t seize his head in time. “You’re pulling it so tight that you’re making my eyes go funny!”
“They are not. You look fine. It has to be tight or the braids will fall out. Now, hold still and stop whining.”
He sighs. “Why can’t I have hair like Carnistir?” Our littlest brother has the coarsest hair of the four of us, and it is always embroiling itself in bristling snarls that hurt to comb out.
"Ask Ada,” I answer, tugging his hair and making him wince.
“Because he begot you. Ask him why he gave you his hair instead of Nana’s, like Carnistir.”
“Ada’s will stay braided, at least,” Macalaurë grumbles. “I don’t know where this aberration on my head came from.” I give his hair enough sharp yank to tighten the braid. “Ai!”
“Sorry,” I say, without really meaning it, and Macalaurë glares at me in the mirror. “I’m almost done.” I use a silver clip to secure his braids behind his head. “There. Now don’t you look handsome? Maybe you’ll finally find a maiden to court.”
“Oh, were you planning on staying home then?” he asks me in a light tone. I feel a stab of hurt, but before it blooms into a full-blown ache, Macalaurë springs to his feet and hugs me. “Thank you! I love you!” he says in my ear and kisses my chin. I laugh, but it sounds false even to my ears.
I did not ask to be born tall and with Ada’s fair face and red hair like fire. I did not ask to command the attention of maidens; I do not ask them to look past my brother and at me instead; I do not ask that their interest in him wane when he sets down his harp and stops singing. But all of these things happen, and I wish that he knew that I resent it as much as he does.
He is trying on my different necklaces, one by one, and one by one, discarding them. Ada makes our jewelry. He makes mine to accentuate my red hair and gray eyes; Macalaurë’s is always more demure, to flatter his finer features. Still, he insists on wearing mine.
Tyelkormo appears beside me, and he hugs my thighs and leans against my hip. “May I go with you?” he asks in a tiny voice that does not sound like him.
I stroke his hair. “Little one, you are too young still.”
He looks up at me with pleading blue eyes. “May I go with you when I am older, then?”
Before I can tell him that, of course, when he is older, he is welcome to come along, Macalaurë opens his mouth and says, “That will be another twenty years at least, Tyelkormo, and by then, Nelyo shall be wed and you shall be an uncle.” As soon as I realize where his thoughts are going, I start nudging him in the back, but he finishes speaking before looking up at me and saying, with a wide and blameless stare, “What?”
Tyelkormo starts weeping, and I have to stoop and lift him, at which point he presses into my neck and really starts wailing. Macalaurë tosses the necklace he has been trying back into my jewelry box. “I don’t know what I say sometimes,” he says.
“Macalaurë, do us all a favor,” I say. I am slipping, slipping, I feel the patience slipping away in a tumultuous roar. “Do wait a while yet before you go making anyone an uncle.” I see his face in my mirror, and his brows tighten in a quick, barely perceptible wince, and now his feelings have been hurt too. And Carnistir is lying on my bed, whimpering in that way that tells you that he is just warming up to the full-blown tantrum to come.
Macalaurë doesn’t mean to do it, but he is painfully oblivious about our little brothers. He does not know that Tyelkormo is needy, that you should never mention leaving—and especially not marrying and begetting children—when he can hear. And Carnistir takes every tremble in emotion as a personal affront. I have learned to never show my impatience around him, to handle him delicately and with light hands—the coarsest of our brothers—like he’s made of glass. But Macalaurë does not know such things.
Carnistir erupts into cries, and now I have to sit on my bed with a brother on each leg, my black tunic to which I’d given so much thought becoming tacky with tears and snot, my hair still uncombed and my feet still bare. And Macalaurë is still sitting at my dressing table, but his shoulders are rigid in a way that I know he would run out of the room if he thought he could do it decorously.
There is a loud knock on my door. “Yes?” I call, my voice tight, and Carnistir turns up the volume yet again.
Ada enters. “Should not you two have left by now?”
“Yes,” I say, “but—” I look at Tyelkormo and Carnistir, each burrowing into a shoulder.
“Give them here,” he says, and he takes them from me. Carnistir stops crying almost immediately. Tyelkormo latches his arms around Ada’s neck and sobs, though his wails lack their earlier intensity. Carnistir appraises him and pops one of Ada’s bedraggled braids into his mouth.
I glance down at my tunic. On for less than a half-hour and already filthy.
Ada looks at me, then at Macalaurë, who is still putting on my necklaces, tearing them off, and throwing them back into the jewelry box. “Nelyo, Macalaurë, come with me.” He is out the door before we can even stand up.
We trot along behind him and into his and Nana’s bedroom. I give Macalaurë a puzzled look, but he is concentrating very hard on not looking at me. Ada sets Tyelkormo and Carnistir on the bed, where they immediately begin tearing back the sheets and burrowing beneath them. (Tyelkormo has stopped crying and suffices to shoot Macalaurë blameful stares every now and then.) I remember when I was their age and nightmares would come to me sometimes, and my cries would awaken Ada, who would bring me to sleep with him and Nana in their bed. Their bed seemed the size of a cool, silk lake when I was small—their room was all of Arda!—and nightmares were impossible when Ada would lie me between his arm and his body with my head on his shoulder like a pillow and draw the blankets up to my chin. Tyelkormo and Carnistir romp now, diving beneath the sheets, as Macalaurë and I once did, their tears forgotten and drying on their cheeks.
Macalaurë and I follow Ada to his armoire. “Give me your tunic,” he says to me, and I pull it over my head and hand it to him, trying to keep my face expressionless, trying not to look confused. He tosses it into the hamper with his dirty laundry—sooty, smoke-smelling clothes—that Nana and Macalaurë will wash tomorrow to be ready for Formenos. He rummages through his own tunics in his armoire; I see several black ones just like the one he discarded slip past his fingers, until at last he stops and pulls one from its hanger.
“Here.” He thrusts it at me. “This should fit you.”
I take the tunic and hold it up. It is black, made of a fine, silky material that feels like water in my fingers. There is a bit of embroidery along the neckline, gold thread mixed in places with just a touch of red to give it the color of flame, done in stitches so fine that it looks as though the seamstress imbedded the cloth with actual fire. Behind me, Macalaurë stifles a gasp, and I feel his hand on my elbow. Only one Elf was capable of embroidery so beautiful. “Ada, no,” I say and try to hand the tunic back to him, but his hands hang at his sides, and his bright eyes turn on me, and he says, “Why not?”
“Grandmother Miriel made this for you.”
“Actually, she did not. She made it for my father, and he gave it to me, and I, in turn, am giving it to you, Nelyafinwë.”
The use of my full father-name name startles me. I am so often called just Nelyo that I forget that it stands for something, it means something more than just a childish nickname I gave myself. I realize that the cloth I hold in my hands is more than just a tunic, it is part of the legacy that Ada is passing onto me, along with my name, my title, the copper circlet in the velvet box in my bedroom. I have his face—his nose, his lips, his way of crinkling his eyebrows when he concentrates—and his long, strong limbs, and his blood runs through my body, even as I sleep, and it will run through my body until the end of Arda. I will have a son one day, I realize—the thought explodes in my brain like it has always been there—and I will look upon his face and see Ada’s nose and lips, and I will watch him at counsel, and he will ponder something, and his eyebrows will crinkle with concentration. But, this I will not pass onto him, I realize. This tunic will be mine always, though it will not last until the ending of Arda.
“Put it on,” Ada tells me, in a voice that is too gentle to be commanding. I am grateful to tug the tunic over my head and hide my surprise at the uncharacteristically soft tone of his voice. Maybe the same thoughts came to him that came to me.
It fits me perfectly, but it would, for Ada and I are nearly the same size now. Next year, I will look him in the eye; the year after that, he will chastise me for some minor failing in the forge and I will realize that I look down on him and think it strange that it still feels like I am looking up. The silk is a cool draft against my skin, like wearing nothing. The hair that falls over my shoulders is the same color as the embroidery: red touched with gold, the color of flames. Ada tightens the laces for me, as though I am a small child again, takes my face in his hands and kisses my cheek. “She made it for you, Maitimo,” he says in my ear, and I believe it.
His hands leave me, and the air that takes their place is cold. He shoves the armoire door shut and goes to his jewelry box. “Come, Macalaurë,” he calls over his shoulder, and Macalaurë scuttles after him. I follow more lazily, stroking the embroidery at the neckline of my tunic. Ada is the only person I know who keeps pliers and a small hammer in his jewelry box. Indeed, the table around it is scattered with partially disassembled jewelry, like he was dressing for an occasion and realized that the chain at his throat was somehow inferior, tore it off, and started to take it apart. I can hear our mother’s voice prodding him: “Fëanaro, come on, we are late; we don’t have time for that,” and see him drop the mutilated necklace and pliers and dash from the room after her. Or maybe he saw something more inferior and dropped the original to twist that one apart instead. Ada is restless and easily distracted; many of these will gather dust until Nana sweeps them away; the others will be given to my baby brothers as part of lessons with instructions on how to finish them.
Ada has piles of jewelry, much of which I have never seen him wear, but his hands go right to the piece that he has in mind for Macalaurë: a slender, silver chain with a simple pendant, the star of the House of Fëanaro, also silver, with a fire opal at its center. It is a beautiful piece, and when he puts it around Macalaurë’s neck, I realize that it is inspired as well, for enlivens him (despite the bland gray tunic that I wish he’d throw into Ada’s rag bucket) without overwhelming his soft features.
“Thank you,” he says. Macalaurë has a way of sounding surprised whenever someone does something unexpectedly nice for him, as though he isn’t the beautiful second son of a high prince who gets a thousand kind words and a hundred kisses a day.
Ada sweeps Tyelkormo and Carnistir up from the bed, where they have successfully managed to push half of the covers onto the floor. He stands back, with our baby brothers in his arms, and appraises us. “You look well,” he says at last. “Eru has given me no daughters, but you two shall. Now go, or you shall be late.”
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