I'm going to rate the chapter for general audiences, although there are some mild mentions of sexuality.
Comments and criticisms are always welcome.
Thank you for reading!
(Oh, and Friday's posting: Feanaro's PoV. Eru help us all....)
With an unexpected afternoon free, I wander to my music room after helping Amil with the dishes. I have been busy working on my compositions for my basic exams in winter, and the room is messy with discarded sheet music and twisted, broken harp strings. I step over the mess and shut the door behind me, lodging an extra chair that I have nabbed from the library beneath the doorknob to keep my little brothers out (they like to burst into the room when my head is full of song and scatter my inspiration like feathers in a puff of wind), and flop onto the old sofa against the wall. My harp is sitting on the floor beside it, and I pick it up and absentmindedly play a few scales and soft chord progressions, but my inspiration sleeps for a time, and I set it aside as quickly as I had picked it up.
I decide to work on a music lesson for Findekano instead. Normally, I have him play basic songs for me on his harp and finish the lesson with a few bits of information about music theory and a ten-minute lesson on the lute as a reward. Having a student was fun in theory, until I discovered that students require time for lesson planning and assessments—not to mention several hours of actual instruction—and that such time was taken from no one else but me. A student also doesn’t necessarily learn everything as easily in life as he does in my mind, and my grand plans for presenting Findekano to his parents upon our return in the fall by having him accompany me on a difficult composition we would devise together were shattered when I discovered that Findekano’s love for the harp abides only when there is nothing better to do with his time. And, having become nearly as bad of a bookworm as Nelyo, there always seems to be something he’d rather do with his time.
Given this, my interest waned quickly, accelerated by the fact that inspiration has come so easily in recent weeks, distracting me from my role as a teacher and casting me into the role of composer. For Findekano’s last lesson, my disinterest was so bad that the poor child followed me to the music room after the midday meal and stood and listened to me play for an hour before I realized that he wasn’t drawn by an interest in me or my music but because he had a lesson, and I had forgotten about it.
With that in mind, I hunker down and attempt to produce the best lesson I have given him since we arrived here two months ago. I sketch out some passages of music for him to practice that highlight the techniques he finds most challenging and draw on the important theory concepts I have been trying to teach. Next, I formulate a syllabus for our remaining two months of lessons, covering all the theory concepts he should know before we return to Tirion. I conclude by riffling through a stack of old books that Atar brought home for me years ago, books that were compiled by the Teleri and include almost every song I know for the lute. I pick out a few that I know Findekano prefers with the goal in mind that he should learn them proficiently over the next few months. Some of them I like myself on the harp; perhaps, our concert for his parents will include one of these, I think, lifting my quill to copy the music onto a clean parchment for him.
It is deep afternoon before I finish, and I flop back onto the sofa, more exhausted than if I had spent the whole day composing. It is hard to put yourself into another’s mind, and that is what I have found I must do to be a teacher. I know now why Atar finds apprentices so wearying; why he resisted Findekano coming along with us.
My thoughts drift to Atar. How I wish I could write a song for him! His begetting day is not long after mine, and I can imagine the surprised pride in his eyes if I were to perform a composition bearing his name for his one hundred-and-second year, but fire can no more easily be contained in song than it can in the palm of one’s hand.
Perhaps a poem then?
I sit up suddenly, and a sick realization twists my gut. Poetry! I had forgotten! Tonight is the night where Atar and I read poetry together, and I forgot about this time that I have come to treasure to do my brother a favor. “No, no, no,” I hear myself whispering under my breath, trying to imagine a way to fit a half-day’s work into a few hours of the evening. Atar will be angry to learn that I have so easily forgotten the time he sets aside to spend with me; he will be equally angry if I choose to instead forsake Findekano’s lessons.
“You’re so dumb, Macalaurë!” I rage, tearing at my hair. How could I forget? I had always been wary and slightly fearful of my father, but our poetry nights have made him into the friend that he so easily became to my brothers but never to me. I imagine his careful, cruel words: “Well, if it means so little to you,” words that would hide the hurt he felt in suspecting that it did, in fact, mean so little to me.
But it doesn’t.
How can I explain that to him, to Atar, who often hears ulterior motives between a person’s sincerest words? Who is so easily hurt and so hastily covers his pain with anger?
I stand, knees quivering, for the sooner that I inform him of my mistake, the lesser his anger. At least, I hope. Dread makes my heart pound as I unstop and open the door and begin my slow trek down the hall to the outside and his forge. My feet drag, but I make myself step quicker, for prolonging my terror only sickens me further.
Atar scolds me constantly for being absentminded and careless. My inattention has caused me to ruin things as minor as a dish for supper to—one terrifying time—a gold ceremonial sword on which Atar had been working nonstop for four weeks. I have injured myself in the kitchen, in the forge, and in the forest. Once, while hunting with Nelyo, I became distracted and shot at the first movement I saw in the brush, not realizing that I had taken aim at my own brother. (Luckily, my aim was as sloppy as my attention, and the arrow did not lodge in his flesh but grazed him. It cut him deeply though—so deeply that when Nelyo removed his breeches so that Atar could examine the wound, the bone was showing—and he bled alarmingly for an hour before Atar had to take him to a healer in Tirion for stitches. Had my aim been true, he might have died. He bears the scar to this day.) I’m sure Atar also believes that the fall I took from my horse on the way to Formenos two months ago was caused by my heedlessness. Only the severity of my injury, I believe, kept him from punishing me as he normally would.
And now, for the first time in my life, I have found a way for Atar and I to meet and understand each other, even if just for an hour each week, and the same carelessness that he has decried in me in the past is what may jeopardize my only chance to be friends with my father.
I find myself standing outside the door to his forge. My heart pounds so hard that my head throbs with the beat of my pulse in my temples. I have to bite my lip to keep it from quivering, to keep from giving in to the childish urge to illicit pity through tears. Instead, I piston my arms out in front of me and push open the heavy door to the forge.
Dry heat blasts my face, and the smell of hot metal sickens me and reminds me of blood. I hated the time I used to spend here, working at Atar’s side in an attempt to achieve something that was beyond the abilities I was given. The heat frightened me and the noise hurt my ears. I would watch as Atar completed tasks with enviable ease and precision, but when I tried to do the same, my fingers felt as though they’d been glued together. It is an effort just to walk into the building, even now, when I know that I will not have to spend the whole day here, weary and afraid.
Atar is working at an anvil in the middle of the room, demonstrating to Annawendë and Vorondil how to fold a piece of metal for what appears to be a hunting knife. The heat roars in my ears, warning me that Elves like me are not safe in places built for spirits of fire, but Atar’s voice cuts above the din. How confidently he speaks, as though the earth itself is his to command into the shape of his choosing! Annawendë and Vorondil are rapt in their attention, and none notice my approach, as Atar folds the metal again and again, with blinding precision, making a blade that will be as supple as silk and as deadly as the black iron of fallen stars. His clothes are dingy with soot; his face is streaked with dirt; his hair is tied up from his neck with a scrap of red linen, and the ends spray in a black half-halo around one side of his head, like a partially plucked porcupine. His appearance is as filthy and graceless as one of the Moriquendi who chose not to heed the call of the Valar, but his hands are more skilled than those of a god, and his spirit burns with the fire of Eru himself.
And I must speak to him.
I wait for him to finish the folding and call, in a voice that I try to steady but that quivers anyway, “Atar?”
He turns in surprise, his eyes wary, as though he expects an apparition, because I have not brought myself voluntarily to his forge in years.
“Macalaurë?” Now, his bright eyes narrow. He is concerned and suspicious, and the dueling emotions are struggling for dominance in his brain. His voice is stern. “What brings you here?”
“I need—” My voice is high, that of a little boy, so I swallow and start again. “I need to talk to you. When you get a minute?”
The knife is shoved in Annawendë’s direction, and she plunges it into a bucket of cold water. Atar removes his smith’s apron and walks towards me, shouting instructions over his shoulder to his apprentices as he goes. I follow him from the forge and into the cool afternoon air outside.
Breathing would be easier out here but for the searing tightness in my throat that threatens to spill forth as shameful tears like those used by a baby to bring his parents to him for comfort after a nightmare. “Is this talk something that can be done standing, or shall we sit in the grass?” Atar asks, and when I dare to look into his face, I see confusion and worry in his eyes. When I do not answer immediately, he takes my sweaty hand in his warm, dry one and leads me to a small hillside nearby, where I sit beside him.
This is best, I think, because I can speak here without having to look him in the eye and without having to worry about appearing rude. “What is it, Macalaurë?” he asks, using his thumb to brush an eyelash from my cheek. His thumb must have left a streak of dirt worse than the original castaway eyelash because he licks it and scrubs harder at the spot.
“I have—I have made a mistake,” I stammer.
“You have not become inebriated and accidentally wed one of the maidens from the town, have you?” he asks, and I shake my head. “Have you killed one of your brothers?” I shake my head again. “Then it cannot be so bad, no?”
The comparison works, and it gives me the courage to speak. “We were supposed to read together tonight,” I say quickly, staring at the grass, “but I forgot and promised Nelyo to switch Findekano’s lesson times for today.” The brown of my shoes blend with the green grass, and I realize that the tears I have been withholding with such success are ready to spill down my face. I bite my lip hard in shame, but that only makes it worse, and soon, tears cut burning lines from my eyes to my chin. “I am supposed to teach Findekano tonight,” I manage at last, and sobs make my voice hitch, “at the same time as I am supposed to be reading with you.”
In the next instant, I am lost in the dark cloth that is Atar’s tunic, breathing the acrid smell of the forge and—beneath that—the electrical smell that is Atar. I bury my face in his neck, and he holds me close and rubs my back while I soak his soft, warm skin with my tears. “Do not cry, little one,” he says, and I feel as though I am four years old again and attempting my first pony ride alone, my boldness spilling me into the dirt, to be gathered into Atar’s arms and comforted like he has comforted me since the day I was born.
My tears subside and he speaks without releasing his embrace. “Did you believe I would be angry, little one? Was that the fear in your eyes when you came to me?”
I nod, not trusting my voice to not erupt again into tears.
He squeezes me harder. “It was kindness, my son, that made you forget your commitment to me and make a pledge to your brother. You shall rescind neither. If you’d like, you may come to my office when your lesson with your cousin is finished. We shall read together then.”
I at last trust myself to look at him, so I draw away. He wears a slight smile and tucks an escaped tendril of hair behind my ear. “You still want to?” I say in disbelief.
“Of course. I love my time with you, Macalaurë. An age of my life on this earth I would give for such an hour with any of my sons. How quickly my life would be wasted, some would say, but I would argue that the alternative is not worth living.”
“I—” I am not sure what to say. The beauty of our language is mine to shape to describe Laurelin’s light on the water, to describe the laughter of the fountain on the patio outside my music room, but it cannot capture the joy that fills my heart with his words. “I love my time with you too,” I manage at last, lamely, but even such simple words make him smile.
“I will see you then, when you finish your lesson. Do not rush. I will wait for you. Come to my rooms; we will read in my study so that I may be nearby if your brother awakens in the night.”
I nod and he rises to return to the forge. The last of Laurelin’s light dries the silly tears on my face, and I smile until I think my jaw might break.
Even after all of the drama surrounding this evening, I still manage to be late for Findekano’s music lesson.
Since Atar made supper, then Nelyo and I are expected to clean up. Nelyo is eager to leave with Annawendë to watch the meteor shower (which is still what he is insisting they are going to do), so we finish clearing the table and washing the dishes with surprising haste, making me a few minutes early for my lesson. But then, Nelyo grabs my hand and drags me upstairs to his bedroom to help him pick out clothes for the night.
He has a half-dozen outfits already assembled across his bed, and he begins to drivel about the various virtues of each, holding them against himself so that I can imagine what they will look like on him. (As though I haven’t seen him in all of these clothes at least a hundred times before.) “This tunic brings out my eyes,” he says, “but this one accentuates the blond in my hair. Which do you think is more important? My eyes or the blond in my hair?”
“I didn’t even know you had blond in your hair,” I grumble, and he rolls his eyes.
“You did. Don’t lie.”
“I don’t even know why you should care so much, if you’re only going to watch a meteor shower. She’s going to be looking at the sky, not you, and anyways, it’s going to be dark.”
He tosses the two tunics back onto the bed and fumes at me. “If it is that much of an inconvenience to you that you should help your brother—”
I can never resist Nelyo’s pleas (hence the fact that I am now late for a music lesson that should have occurred this afternoon), so I sigh and resolve to be more helpful. I walk over to his bed and study his assembled outfits, wrinkling my forehead to make him believe that I am strongly pondering my choices. “What about your good black riding breeches?” I ask him. “Those always make the girls in Tirion walk into lampposts.”
He rolls his eyes at me. “Yeah, but did you ever see the laces on them?” He strides over to his armoire and produces them easily, making me smile with the realization that he too had been thinking of wearing them. “They’re far too difficult to remove!”
I laugh. “I thought you were going to watch the meteor shower.”
His cheeks flush. “I am. But if I’m already going to be on my back….” He trails off and strides back over to the bed.
“Well, if that’s your intent, then you ought to wear robes with no underwear.”
“The embroidery makes my bottom itch,” he muses, studying the array of clothes, “and robes are difficult to ride in.”
“Varda’s stars! You’ve actually worn robes with no underwear?”
“Lossirë and I once—” he begins but stops abruptly, as one halts upon putting weight on an injured limb. Lossirë had been the girl who’d rejected his proposal of marriage. He grabs a green tunic with silver embroidery at the collar and a pair of tan trousers. (The lacings on the trousers are very simple, I notice.) “I’m wearing this. If it’s not satisfactory, then I’ll just take it off.” He laughs a monosyllabic “Ha!” and, as though illustrating his point, yanks his tunic over his head.
It is one of the loose, practical tunics that Atar had made for us, with pockets for keeping quills or small tokens at either side. When Nelyo yanks it over his head, something—two things, actually—fly out of the pocket and clatter to the ground. One of the items, he snatches easily from the floor beneath his feet, but the other has plans of its own and rolls lazily across the floor and falls at my feet.
I stoop to retrieve it. It is a silver ring, made small, to fit a woman’s hand. I have seen a similar ring in Atar’s jewelry box: the engagement ring that he gave our mother. She has an identical—albeit larger—ring in her own jewelry box. The ring in my hand now has an inscription inside the band, but before I have a chance to read it, Nelyo tears it from my hand.
“Where did you get that?” I ask. “Is it Amil’s?”
“Of course it’s not Amil’s! Why would I steal our parents’ engagement rings?” he snaps. He shoves the rings into his trouser pocket and busies himself with dressing, but his face is nearly as red as his hair and suddenly—the date to watch the meteor shower, his extra care in choosing clothes, the rings in his pocket—make sense to me.
“You can’t ask her to marry you! You’ve only been courting for two months!”
Nelyo is beside me in an instant, his hand clapped over my mouth. “Manwë’s britches, Macalaurë, hush! The entire house need not know! I didn’t even want you to know.”
His last words stun me into silence, and he removes his hand. “When were you planning on telling us?” I ask, after a moment, trying to keep the hurt from my voice.
He speaks in a frantic whisper. “When I thought you would understand. I know what everyone’s going to say: I’m too young. I haven’t known her long enough. I should wait. I should, I know—and if you were trying to do the same thing, I would tell you to do the same—but I’m in love, Macalaurë! Do you know what it feels like to be in love?”
I suppose that I do, albeit in a lesser sense. Marriage to Vingarië is something that I imagine in my future, but the thought of proposing to her tonight, of carrying our engagement rings in my pocket, makes my stomach clench with cold fear. I choose my words carefully. “I think I’m in love too, Nelyo, so I don’t understand why you can’t wait.”
“I just can’t, Macalaurë. This is my time. Atar says that everyone reaches a point in their life where they have no choice but to wed—that their mind and their body command them to do little else—and that is where I am now. The other day, when Amil and Atar went to Formenos for new clothes for Carnistir, Annawendë and I were in my bed—”
“Oh, Nelyo,” I say with some disgust, “that’s not love, it’s lust.”
“No, listen, Macalaurë! We were in my bed, but we were both fully dressed and we weren’t even touching each other—just kissing—but I desired her so badly that it hurt, Macalaurë. My body and spirit actually ached to bond with her, and it was just like denying yourself food or water or something you need to survive to resist her. She kissed my ear and I exploded in my clothes like some stupid virgin—”
I shake my head vigorously. “I don’t need to know that,” I say.
“No matter what I do, I think of her! I look at our brothers and picture what our children will look like. She has dark hair like Atar and I have red hair like Amil; I’m built like Atar and she’s built like Amil, so we could end up with children that look a lot like our brothers and us. Sometimes, when I cuddle Carnistir, I close my eyes and imagine he’s mine. And when I open my eyes and it’s just my baby brother in my arms—not my son—then I want to cry. I look at Annawendë and picture what she’s going to look like when she’s pregnant; I have father names picked out for four sons and four daughters…I can’t help it anymore, Macalaurë! I’m going to be forty-eight in the spring. Atar and Amil were married and had a child by the time they were my age. I don’t see why I can’t be betrothed, at least.”
He is frantic, pacing and wringing his hands. I touch him on the shoulder and he turns. His eyes are bright like light on a blade. “May I see the rings?” I ask gently.
He reaches into his pocket and presses them into my hand. “Will you not tell? Until we’re ready? I will offer you three more favors if you will not tell.”
“Keep your favors. I promise not to tell.”
The rings are silver—slender and well made—and bear inscriptions inside each band. “Nelyafinwë and Annawendë,” they read, and the engraving is done in rigid, formal letters, my brother’s hand. “You made these yourself,” I say.
“Is it that obvious?” He takes them and holds them to the light, studying them for unevenness or imperfections.
“No, but the handwriting on the engravings is yours.”
He smiles. “Well, I could have asked Atar. They’d be more beautiful then, and he’s the only person who I’m sure wouldn’t care that I want to get engaged to Annawendë after a two-month courtship, but I thought it would mean more if I made them myself. So I snuck out to the forge last night and cast them, and I engraved them this morning while I was supposed to be studying. Maybe, when we make our formal announcement, he can make more beautiful rings for us then.”
He goes to his dressing table and begins to comb his hair. His hands tremble, and I realize that he must be nervous too. Perhaps he is afraid that his proposal will be rejected again. Perhaps he is afraid that Atar will not be so supportive of his hasty betrothal. I walk over to stand behind him and make him sit with gentle pressure on his shoulders and, taking the comb from his fingers, begin to plait the sides of his hair away from his face, revealing his beautiful, enviable features. His red hair is silken and warm, like dipping one’s finger quickly into a candle flame. “May I make one request of you, Nelyo?” I ask him.
“I owe you three favors, so yes, you may.”
“Would you at least let us know before you marry? I’ve always wanted more than anything to stand beside you at your wedding.”
He smiles at me in the mirror. “Of course, little brother. And I shall stand beside you at yours, one day not long after.”
Thoughts whirl through my head like thousands of tiny birds, as I descend the stairs and head for the music room. I am nearly fifteen minutes late by now, but I know that Findekano will be patiently waiting. He would sit and wait all night, would I forget and leave him there, unlike Tyelkormo, who would wait perhaps a minute for me before running out the back door to do what he pleased in the forest.
As I near the music room, the gentle sound of harp music being played by insecure hands winds down the hall. The melody shifts and changes, as though the player is unsure of what sounds best. I am about to plunge into the music room—apologies ripe on my lips—when the music twists one last time, and the simple beauty of the melody seizes my heart and makes me press against the wall beside the door, a gasp stuck in my throat and my eyes squeezed shut, listening.
Findekano raises his voice in song, and the words on his lips are tenuous but beautiful. If he were to sing with all of his spirit, the music would be unbearable, I think. I do not recognize the lyrics and wonder if they are also of his devising. I let the music paint a picture in my mind: a forest, with the wind high in the trees, green leaves afire with light, and inexplicable love racing through my veins with every beat, inspiring me to courage I never dreamed I had.
When the notes at last falter and die, I am reluctant to open my eyes, reluctant to allow reality to seize my heart again. Findekano’s timid voice whispers through my head like a dream: This gift is not mine to keep. I know not from where it came.
I open my eyes and step into the music room.
It was Findekano’s fingers on the strings of my harp, and when he sees me, he jerks his hands away as though he fears I will be angry. “No, little one,” I plead. “It was beautiful.”
“Maitimo wrote the words,” he mumbles to the floor. “He sang it to me when Tyelkormo and I tried to run away.”
“But the music? You wrote the music?”
“I played it, yes, but no one wrote it. It is the song I hear when I think of Maitimo. You mean that you have never heard it too?”
“I have heard it,” I whisper in awe, for it is the song I hear whenever I think of my brother.
“It was the song I heard when I saved Carnistir,” he tells me, and lessons forgotten, I collapse to the floor beside him to hear him play the song over and over again, marking the hours of growing night.
Later, I am running down the hall towards my parents’ suite, thinking that I can do nothing right this day. Nothing! After being late to the music lesson by fifteen minutes, I did not a bit of teaching but worked on my cousin’s song until his eyes were heavy with sleep and I had no choice but to carry him to bed. Then, I realized, I was too late for the meeting with my father, after he so generously offered to meet with me tonight (to correct an earlier error). Telperion has waxed, and the sky is glazed with silver. Through the windows, as I run, I see the bright spark of a meteor slice across the sky, and I wonder if Nelyo has proposed to Annawendë yet.
I stop short of the door to my parents’ suite and curse myself further. So distracted I have been this evening that I haven’t even paused to write a poem! I stand outside the door, waiting for my heartbeat to slow, writing the worst poem I have ever allowed to enter my thoughts. Little Carnistir could compose better, I think. When my breathing has returned to normal and there is an awkward pastiche of words in my head that might be called a poem, I carefully push open the door to the suite.
My parents’ sitting room is one of the few windowless rooms in the house and the only light in the room flickers forth from the fireplace. The cot where my youngest brother sleeps is abandoned against the wall, the bedclothes tangled and spilling onto the floor, and after my eyes adjust to the near-darkness, I see that Atar sits in a rocker on the opposite side of the room, holding Carnistir wrapped in a brightly colored afghan knit by grandmother Miriel. At first, I believe him to be asleep, but as I ease back to leave as quietly as I came, his eyes open and fix upon me, as though the darkness is no obstacle for one lit, as is he, from within.
He motions for me to come into the room, so I roll softly on my bare feet while he stands carefully—so as to not disturb little Carnistir sleeping soundly in his arms—and settles my baby brother onto the cot, tucking the covers carefully around him. Carnistir whimpers in his sleep, bereft of the warmth of Atar’s body, but Atar quickly slips a fuzzy stuffed puppy into his arms before he can awaken and protest. Soothed, Carnistir turns onto his side, away from the fire, and resumes breathing deeply.
Atar indicates for me to follow him through a door to the left of the sitting room and into his study. “I’m glad you could come, Macalaurë,” he says, as though he hasn’t noticed that it is the middle of the night. I expect him to sit behind his desk and leave me in the small guest chair that he keeps in front of it—the same chair I have to sit in when I am called to his office for punishment—but he goes instead to the two armchairs in the corner, where we sit at angles to each other, like old friends.
“I’m sorry it’s so late,” I begin, but Atar interrupts me.
“Nonsense,” he says, stifling a yawn. “I never get more than a few hours of sleep lately anyway, with your brother waking up three and four times a night.”
“Well, maybe you should try to get a few hours now, before he wakes up again. You look tired.”
“I don’t need much sleep, Macalaurë. I look tired because I am, but it has nothing to do with lack of sleep and everything to do with the fact that there are not enough hours in the day to do what I will.” He yawns again, covering his face with his hand. “Excuse me. Although, if you are tired, Macalaurë, by all means, go to your bed. We can meet another time.”
Not surprisingly, I am not the least bit sleepy. I am most alive at night, when my mind is free to wander where it will. It might be mid-afternoon for all the energy that I have. “I’m great, Atar,” I chirp, and he laughs.
“Would you like a cup of tea, Macalaurë?” he asks.
I hesitate. I would love a cup of tea—my long evening has left my throat parched—but it feels strange to have Atar offering me such hospitality. Normally, it is I who is called to make tea for Atar and whatever important persons he is hosting in his study. I am not an important person, just his second-born son, and I feel wrong making such demands of him.
I realize that my mouth is flapping open and closed in indecision. Atar smiles and stands. “I’ll be right back,” he says, and I jump to my feet and say, “No! Let me!”
“I will not. I have invited you to my study, so I do not expect you to serve me.” It all sounds so logical in Atar’s clear, quick voice, and I guiltily settle back into my chair.
Atar returns a few minutes later with two cups. He offers me one and hops back into his chair, folding his long legs beneath him and slumping with the casual languor of a young boy. He has made my tea just how I like it, slightly weak with a touch of mint. It occurs to me then how incredible a feat Atar and Amil perform every day, just in remembering the precise preferences and quirks of their four sons. Remembering the extensive catalog of Carnistir’s food aversions is a task in itself! I sip my tea, but it scalds my lips, so I sit it aside for a time. Atar drinks his as though the temperature is no hotter than tepid bathwater.
“So have you written anything this week?” he asks.
I think of the hastily composed poem, written outside his door, and nod. There are three ticks of silence, while he waits for me to begin—during which isolated lines from the horrid poem haunt me and make my cheeks flush with embarrassment—until he says, “Well?”
“Um,” I say and stop.
“Are you going to read it?”
“Well, I didn’t really write it.” His eyebrows pop up. “I mean, I composed it, but it’s not written down.” I clear my throat. “It’s not very good.”
“I’m sure it’s fine. You’re quite talented, Macalaurë.”
“Well, I sort of wrote it standing outside your bedroom door.”
“Like five minutes ago.” His eyebrows arch higher. “I didn’t have anything else to bring.”
“You didn’t have to bring anything. I didn’t bring anything.”
“But I made you rearrange your schedule—”
“Not really. I’m usually in my rooms by this time anyway. You just happen to be joining me tonight.”
“Well, I felt bad canceling after all the uproar I caused.”
“You didn’t even need to cancel. Even if you haven’t written anything, we can just sit and talk.”
Without something constructive to center my conversation, though—like poetry—I don’t know how to talk to my father. Luckily, Atar speaks first: “How are your lessons with Findekano?”
“He’s doing well. He wrote a song tonight.”
“Did he? That’s excellent. What of your own apprenticeship? Is it going well?”
“Are you learning a lot?”
“Nelyo has mentioned to me that he would like to continue tutoring Findekano after we return to Tirion, if Nolofinwë will allow it. Naturally, I will leave it to your discretion as to whether you wish to make the same offer. I realize that you are very busy with your apprenticeship and will not have you pressured into something you can’t handle.”
Atar is rebelling against his half-brother Nolofinwë, answering an argument that has not yet been spoken—and likely will not. Nolofinwë is not much older than Nelyo and me and should well remember the overwhelming chaos of apprenticeships and exams. He would make no demands on us that we could not meet.
The animosity between Atar and Nolofinwë remains enigmatic to me. Nolofinwë has been nothing less than kind to me, although his manners are a bit stiffer and cooler than Atar’s. I am not sure how to reply: Should I act also as though a slight has occurred when I know that it has not? This would please Atar, but it would be an untruth. Or should I ignore Atar’s silly indignation? With this, I chance angering him. Finally, I speak, diverting slightly from the original topic and hoping that he does not notice. “Nelyo also has exams in the winter,” I say, hoping Atar will forget about Nolofinwë and take up a discussion of Nelyo instead, of whom I know he is very proud.
“Yes, he does. But he says that five days for study will be adequate, and he shall spend the other two in Tirion.”
“Two! He leaves himself no day of rest! He will be exhausted.”
“Such was my concern as well, Macalaurë,” Atar says, weariness tugging at his voice. “But he insists….”
“You can forbid him. You are his father, and he is still underage.”
“You would have me forbid something that your brother desires? Your beloved Nelyo?” Atar asks, an acidic edge livening his voice and his eyes brightening with the same curiosity as those of a child looking upon his first glimpse of blood.
“He’s just worked so hard over the last few years. I hate to see it end because—” I cannot finish. Because of Findekano, I'd thought to say, but such an accusation is unfair. Findekano makes no demands on my brother. He is a small child, while Nelyo is nearly an adult, and should know by now what is best for him.
“He has worked hard, Macalaurë, and it also worries me that he should not complete his exams, after so many hours of toil. But Nelyo will be forty-eight in the spring, and if I expect him to act as an adult in all other things, then I can no longer forbid him from doing what he pleases. And, inexplicable as it may be, your brother and Findekano have taken a strong liking to each other. I know not why. I did not expect it, but as it has come to pass, then there is nothing further that I can do.”
I do not know how to respond, for I am still uncertain as to what limits surround me in these conversations with my father. Indeed, in recent weeks, I have had more conversations with him then I have over the previous thirty-nine years of my life, so much that it feels almost like those old memories of my father belong to another person, in another life. It is hard to imagine a time when my interactions with him were limited to chastisement and punishment, when all I did seemed to bring him only displeasure. It is hard to remember the resentment I felt to emerge from the library on my day off, after studying the lore he insisted that I know—lore than ran out of my mind like water through a sieve—for some assessment or another that he was giving solely to prove my lack of worth, and see him and Nelyo sitting together in the garden, their heads close, often laughing or bent over a book. Nelyo can speak freely to my father. On several tense occasions, I have even overheard Nelyo tell Atar that he was wrong about something, and the arguments that ensued on these occasions were terrible to witness and a testimonial to the fact that Nelyo has inherited a measure of our father’s fiery spirit, even though he often does not show it. But my own liberty with Atar is still unproven, so I hesitate before I ask the question buzzing in my mind.
“Does it bother you that Findekano and Nelyo have become such friends?”
I wait, tensely, for the explosion that might come, but Atar sips his tea and stares at the floor for a long moment before answering. “I would loathe to deny any of my sons the love of a friend, and Findekano’s devotion to your brother is extraordinary. Indeed, he loves Nelyo as though Nelyo were his own brother. This love, the love of a friend, is in many ways greater, for it is not a union of blood but of choice. Perhaps their friendship shall falter a bit when Nolofinwë’s new son is born, but if it does not, then I hope that they grow to be great friends later in life. They do seem to have much in common.”
The last part he says with some difficulty, and I know that recognizing the similarities between Nolofinwë’s eldest son and his own is akin to conceding that he and Nolofinwë are not as different from each other as they wish to believe.
“I never wished for Findekano to be a pariah in our house,” Atar says, “but I never expected him to befriend Nelyo with such ease. I assumed, naturally, that he and Tyelkormo would become playmates—they are only a year apart in age, after all—but that seems not to have taken shape. I thought perhaps you, Macalaurë, would befriend him, for you are both of kind and gentle spirits, but that also has not come to pass. Yet I sense in Findekano the same fire that I know burns your brother: It is my father’s blood, that which makes him a great king, that which drove him to lead his people across Middle-earth to paradise. I certainly never sensed it in Nolofinwë,” he says, wearing a tiny smile to show that he speaks lightly, partly in jest, “but it burns in his son. Perhaps it is a mark of our house, and Arafinwë’s eldest shall be similarly blessed.”
“Perhaps Arafinwë’s eldest shall like me as Findekano likes Nelyo.”
“Perhaps he shall,” Atar agrees, “or perhaps you shall find your devotion to one of your unborn brothers. It remains to be seen.”
“Shall I have more brothers?”
“Of course. Many children I will bring into this world. Indeed, for all the love your mother has for her sons, it may come to pass that she grows weary of being a mother before I weary of being a father.” He grows quiet, his face lowered and turned from me, largely hidden by his unencumbered hair.
“But what of sisters? How do you know that you shall give me no sisters?”
Atar’s head snaps up and the look in his eyes is as though I have unknowingly set my fingers upon a wound in his flesh. I feel him flinch, although his body never recoils physically, and the pain in his eyes is consumed in a flash of fire like the lightning that destroys the darkness.
“I will beget no daughters,” he says in a low voice, and he winces slightly, eyebrows tightening and voice straining. “This I feel in my heart.”
I do not ask anymore of him. Something has fallen between us, a barrier of silence, and I dare not penetrate it. I dare not douse the flames in his eyes to expose the pain beneath.
“I am weary, Macalaurë,” he says, rising from his chair. And suddenly, he is. He is papery and gray, an exhausted tinder left to the play of the wind. “I thank you for sitting with me and wish I could remain, but my place now is with your mother. Goodnight, my love.”
His kiss upon my forehead is dry and hot against my skin.