The boys discuss orcish-type things in this chapter, so if you're bothered by gruesome topics, please be forewarned and proceed carefully. Other than that, I think that they more or less behave in this chapter.
Per usual, all comments--good and bad--are welcome and appreciated. Thanks to everyone who has taken the time to give me comments and help with this story. I'm a bit amazed to be in chapter thirty-six already; it seems just yesterday, I was nervously posting chapter one. Yesterday, while working on editing the next week's worth of chapters, I moved from my second disk of material and onto my third. I have some rewriting to do, but so far so good. I'll let you all know if I need to delay posting the next couple weeks' worth of chapters.
To all who have read this (monstrously long) story: Thank you!! And now I'll stop rambling and post the chapter. :)
I awaken to Nelyo’s hand on my shoulder, gently shaking. My head has lolled off his shoulder in the night, and now the crown is pressed to the tree trunk behind me, bits of my hair snared in the bark. I jump when he touches me, and the hairs are yanked from my scalp in a dozen tiny nips of pain. “Ai!” I hiss. “Ulmo’s fish!”
Nelyo laughs. “Ulmo’s fish? That’s a good one!”
The rain has stopped, and beyond the copse in which we took shelter, I can see golden light. It is mid-morning; I am surprised that Nelyo let me sleep so long. Rubbing my head, I say as much to him, standing to shake the dampness from my cloak. The seat of my pants is soaked from the wet ground. I feel as I remember from early childhood, my bottom wet and Atar displeased. I gingerly unstick my breeches from my backside, but they reattach themselves almost immediately with obstinate suction.
“Do you not know?” Nelyo says, in answer to my question. “We rode late last night, to find this shelter. We are only two hours from the sea.”
Wet breeches and missing hairs forgotten, I plunge heedlessly through the underbrush, across spongy moss, and into the field beyond. Soft fronds of grass wave, renewed and made green by the rain, and I run until they reach my waist, turning my face to the east to sniff the wind.
Even the faintest scent of salt and sea enervates my legs, like I might collapse in this field if I do not soon have the roar of waves filling my ears. Laughing, Nelyo has followed me, wading through the tall grass to stand beside me. “Surely you can sense it,” he says, and I nod eagerly. A brisk wind brings the air of the sea to me; last night, buried beneath the musty rain, it was imperceptible.
“There is no cause for haste,” says Nelyo. “I have made you something. But first, you are soaked and in need of dry clothes.”
Even my spare set of clothes was soaked last night, so Nelyo and I find a rock and lay both sets across it to dry, even my socks and underwear. Barefoot, teeth chattering, and wrapped in the blanket, I allow Nelyo to lead me to where a small campfire dances. There is toast, from the remnants of last night’s bread, and potato cakes made from potatoes and onions that Nelyo sneaked into his satchel, planning to surprise me even then, before he had a truce to offer.
We are both too hungry to speak. Laurelin’s light is warm and soon—with light on my skin and hot food in my belly—my shivering subsides enough that I can even enjoy the cold cups of water that Nelyo has set out for us.
“You were having wild dreams last night,” he says. “You were moaning and groaning like you were being put to torment.”
My brothers all tell me that I talk in my sleep. It is one trait that I have without a doubt inherited from Atar, who will uphold his end of a conversation about craft or lore in a tone so clear and direct that—when we travel together—I am often startled from sleep and convinced that a stranger has entered our tent and engaged my father in a conversation about the chemical composition of colored glass or the correct use of prepositions in the Valarin language.
Atar chatters to himself about random facts; he recites lists and formulae or speaks in languages that (maybe) only Nelyo understands. When I am told that I talk in my sleep, I am afraid of what I reveal.
I am careful now, with my words. “I dreamt of you,” I say.
“Oh? I dreamt also of you. Maybe we met in our dreams.”
I think of the gaunt, pale Nelyo who held his bare right hand out to me. It’s empty. In the warm morning light—escalating to the heat of midday—I have to suppress a shiver.
Nelyo goes on. “I dreamt that I had two sons; you had a daughter and a son. We lived in Tirion, next to each other, and we took the children to play in the park. We were both so happy, Macalaurë, that we talked of nothing heavier than musical selections for the Autumn Feast in Tirion. Vingarië and Annawendë were there too.”
Annawendë. It is the first time that her name has been mentioned since we left. It disturbs the morning with the same force as a brick plunked into a serene pool.
Nelyo smiles at me. “It was a good dream.”
“In my dream,” I say, “I had seven children.”
“Seven! You seek to surpass even Atar!”
“The youngest was being presented to grandfather Finwë at the naming ceremony, and I didn’t know that I had so many, so I cursed in my surprise, and you laughed at me, and I got mad at you. We kind of argued. You wanted me to call you Russandol.”
Nelyo laughs and begins gathering our utensils. He douses the fire with what is left of the water and kicks dirt over the embers. His hair is a red sheet over his face.
“I am thinking about it,” he says in an innocuous voice.
Distracted, I miss his meaning. “Of what?” I ask.
“Of having you—everyone—call me Russandol.”
He is looking at me now, appraising my reaction. With the dumb bluntness of a small child, I say, “But your name is Nelyo.”
“No. My name is not Nelyo. My name is Nelyafinwë Maitimo Russandol. ‘Nelyo’ is an…” he pauses, “an aberration.”
I think of how my brother must have been as a very young child, his red hair just beginning to curl around his ears, his face still round and yet to take on the perfect contours for which he is known now, his chubby little limbs awkward, not yet strong. And Atar—younger than Nelyo is now!—eager in that intense way of his: His son had just begun to speak! Surely Atar had collected the necessary data and computed the averages and knew that his son was premature in this milestone, surely of exceptional intelligence, just as he doubtlessly knew that the weight of the baby on his hip was too heavy to suggest anything but an exceptional physique buried beneath the bumbling roundness of youth. I imagined the beautiful words of our language, those words that Atar loves with a force that should not be committed to something that is nothing but a glimmer in the air, in Nelyo’s voice, for the first time, clunky like pebbles rattling around in his mouth. “Nelyafinwë,” too much to say, even now, when he is called that only in the most official of capacities, shortened to “Nelyo” and called that ever after by our father, who despises slang and contracted speech and began to break Carnistir of baby talk at the age of three. In my first memories of Nelyo, he was already big enough to lift me and perpetually of scraped knees that came from exploring too intensely the gardens of our home; always, he had books in his arms that Amil chided weighed more than he did and would strain his back, but I like to imagine that the memory of his first speech belongs to me, as well as to Amil and Atar, and it is one of my favorite thoughts.
I repeat, insisting: “But it is your name, Nelyo.” I realize too late that, ridiculously and perhaps disrespectfully, I have used the name that he wishes to abandon.
“It has no meaning, Macalaurë.” He smiles wryly. “Well, it does, of course. It means ‘third.’ Why would I want to be named after a number?”
“It is part of your father name!”
“I despise my father name. It also means nothing.”
“It is indicative of your inheritance.”
“An inheritance I shall never claim.” Silence. How can I argue with that? But Nelyo goes on. “When am I ever going to be king, Macalaurë? Should grandfather Finwë see a need for abdication, even temporarily, Atar would take his place, and can you see Atar relinquishing the kingship? And who would I be to try to take it after that? It would be like an apprentice seeking to fill the place of the two greatest masters.”
“You would make an excellent king, I think,” I tell him.
“That is like me telling you that you would fit well as a bird. You are not a bird. Despite your fair voice, you shall never be one. And so there is no sense in calling you as though you one day will.”
“Perhaps Atar and grandfather would travel together somewhere, meaning that they both have to abdicate, and you would serve in their stead.”
“No, Nolofinwë would serve, and he would not abdicate, and he would travel nowhere willingly in Atar’s company.”
“Nolofinwë is not the heir.”
“Nolofinwë is a high prince.” I am startled by the abruptness of Nelyo’s words. This is evolving into an argument. “I am not.”
“He is grandfather’s second son! He is not his heir. That is your right.”
“He is the eldest son of the rightful King and Queen of the Noldor. He could make a claim on my place.”
My heart leaps. “Surely not,” I say.
“It is a question that has been asked.”
“By members of the court.” He sees the alarm in my eyes and quickly qualifies: “They do not intend to take Atar’s or my place from us. It is out of curiosity alone that the issue is raised. It is not a question that our system was designed to answer. We operate of the contingency of having only one spouse. Remarriage and children by two spouses were not factors when our system of inheritance was contrived. It was assumed that the High Prince would take the throne only after the abdication of both the King and the Queen. Grandmother Miriel no longer lives to bestow that right upon Atar.” Nelyo’s features relax, as though hoping that mine will follow. “Macalaurë,” he says; he reaches across the space between us and touches my cheek with his warm, slender fingers, “do not look so. Nolofinwë would have to contest Atar’s rights, and do you honestly think that he would do that?”
I think of the sourness that exists between my father and my half-uncle. (Like how it so natural to think of him as a half-uncle while Arafinwë is an uncle or just Arafinwë.) “Do you?” I ask, not wanting to answer first.
“Of course not! Nolofinwë would accept grandfather Finwë’s wishes, and grandfather Finwë has made it very clear that Atar is his heir.”
“But if the court is discussing it—”
“The court discusses many abstract things: What happens to the spirits of Avari that refuse Námo’s call? Do orcs go to Mandos? All kinds of things. There are no concrete answers to those things, but they like to banter about them, for sport almost. Our people were given minds capable of great things, and we like to use them on questions that defy an easy answer. It is like stretching in the morning: It feels good, like you’re more alive than before.”
Slowly, I am reassured. Nelyo’s words and manner placate me in the same manner that I have seen horsemasters calm a frightened steed. A practiced diplomat, I think. A true king.
“Perhaps,” Nelyo adds, his voice gentle now, convincing even me, “even if Atar were to also abdicate, the throne would go to me. It would be a more difficult decision, though, whether to skip Nolofinwë.”
“It would be Atar’s wishes as king, don’t you think?”
“Perhaps. Or maybe Nolofinwë or I would simply stand aside for the other.”
I sense a subtext in Nelyo’s words, worming like a snake beneath the water. He should know better than to try such tricks on me, his closest brother, perhaps the person who knows him best of anyone in Arda. I can read him clearer than Tengwar on a page. “Would you stand aside for Nolofinwë, Nelyo?”
His eyes are bright on mine, glints of light on the water. “I do not know, Macalaurë.” He knows. He knows, but he doesn’t want to say. He adds, in a firm voice that threatens to meander into wistfulness, “I would meet with him for sure. I would like to see peace restored between our houses.”
An impossible dilemma, I think.
Later, as we ride, it occurs to me that we skipped from the original topic of Nelyo’s name, and so I ask, “Do you wish me to call you Russandol then?”
Russandol is an epessë given to him just after birth by our grandfather Mahtan; Nelyo claims to have never known a time when it was not part of his name. The Tirion-family mostly calls him Russandol, except Findekano, who has taken to calling him Nelyo, as we do. He regards me carefully, perhaps wondering why I am so concerned. “I just wish to call you properly,” I explain. “Your own brother should not call you by a name your disfavor.”
“It is not that I disfavor ‘Nelyo,’” he says and stops, as though he does not think it is a subject I will comprehend. He sighs. “Call me as you always have. Call me Nelyo. If I am going to abandon my father name, then I think Atar should be the first to know.”
(I did not know then, of course, that the discussion of Nelyo’s name would not resurface for many years. It slipped—as such trivialities have a way of doing, in the wake of love, engagements, feuds—from my mind. And my tongue, by then, so used to twisting the familiar syllables of my beloved brother’s name, was loath to change its habits, and I called him Nelyo in offhand moments for the rest of our lives. Indeed, on the last day we spent together, in a land far from Aman and in a language not the Quenya of which “Nelyafinwë” was composed, I called him Nelyo. But by then, for many reasons, he no longer noticed.)
The scent of the sea grows so heavy in the air that it nearly has a weight to it; it is like a blanket being wrapped around my head, and when I stick out my tongue, I imagine that I can lick the air and taste salt upon it. Nelyo and I hasten our mounts without realizing it, and they heed us eagerly, perhaps wishing to plunge their tired legs into the soothing washes of the sea.
We have visited the seaside at points along the coast from Alqualondë to the northern parallels shared with Formenos and Osto-Ehtelë. We are Noldor; we have no ties to the sea, no reason to be drawn to it, but we love it nonetheless. There is an atavistic joy in plunging one’s body into water, in imagining that were one to swim straight out, the next time one’s feet happened upon land, it would be on the Hither Lands, where the light of Valinor cannot reach. It is a thought both romantic and scary to imagine an obsidian sky crusted with stars whose light is dampened by nothing more substantial than the campfires and lanterns of the cousins our people left behind. (And, sometimes, brothers, sisters, parents…wives, even.) It is comforting almost to imagine that as surely as I stand waist-deep in water, someone across the powerful belt of ocean stands also, looking back at me. Do we share blood, perhaps? It is possible. Grandfather Finwë is Unbegotten, but grandmother Miriel and Amil’s parents were of later generations and doubtlessly left someone behind. Few are the families that did not.
Even now, approaching adulthood, I have not broken myself of the childhood urge to stand at the edge of the sea on the tips of my toes, my neck craned until it hurts, stretching, staring, wondering if the shadow on the horizon is the Hither Lands, wondering if the whisper of a song I hear beneath the waves is the voice of the one who stands opposite me.
Of course, I know now that it is not. I asked Atar once about the line on the horizon and he gave me an unsatisfactory explanation about tricks of light and the effects of colors upon one another—perceptive anomalies, he called them—but I closed my ears to him, not wanting to have my fantasies shattered by his cold science, and when I hear the song of the sea, I sing back.
The trees are growing sparse and bare, constantly battered as they are by the salty wind, and soon we are picking our way through wetlands, our desires thwarted my a maze of creeks and canals. Towering reeds tickle any exposed flesh; fat green flies torment the horses. Nelyo slaps one off his neck, wincing and leaving a smear of blood that matches in color the tendril of hair stuck to his neck by the humidity. “Elven blood tastes better than horse-blood, don’t you know?” I tease. “Sweeter, some say, like sugar water.”
“Macalaurë, have you been conspiring with orcs?” Nelyo retorts. “Perhaps your scary stories are not your own imaginings after all.” He smirks at me, challenging me in the same manner that young males coming of age will ride at a full gallop towards each other and see who draws to the side first, only this challenge is one of emotional and intellectual fortitude. Can you handle the thought of blood-drinking? He asks this with his eyes, bright and brave. I can.
I can too. Tyelkormo slept with Atar for a month after I told him that if he came into my music room unbidden one more time, I would carry him to the north, to the orcs, who would drink his blood with their supper. (And I was subsequently appointed to both scrubbing the floors of the forge and laundering the newborn Carnistir’s soiled diapers for many months after.) I laugh, trying to sound dark (which is hard with a voice like mine) and say, “Nay, it is not Elven blood that is revered as sweet, dear brother, but Elven flesh, which is said to resemble in tenderness that of a newborn fawn.”
Nelyo plays along and agrees. “Broiled is best, I hear.”
“No, raw. It is the blood that seasons it. Elven blood is salty and yet sweet.” A fly lands on the inside of my wrist; bites. I brush it away and lift the tender, swollen flesh to my lips, licking the trickle of blood. “Mmm. Salty.”
In reality, it tastes of metal and makes me think of Atar, of his forge, of the air bitter with the taste and smell of copper.
Nelyo reins his horse close to mine, leans across the space between us, and brushes his thumb to my lips. “You missed a bit,” he says, putting his thumb in his mouth and sucking it with an intense ferocity reserved for the finest delicacies, his silver eyes fixed upon my face as he does.
My stomach quivers.
“Yes, but better than that,” I say, quickly, loudly, to cover my discomfort, “are fingers, removed from the living and eaten under their witness, seasoned not only with blood but fear.”
“Like lemon,” he says. “Acidic. So I hear.”
Images flicker through my mind; I hear a whisper of words read once in Atar’s study, from his secret notes, and I have to steel my body to keep from shivering. Those words are not things I wish to imagine, and yet I must. Memory cannot be denied, and Elven memory is exceptional, when it wants to be.
I need to reply because Nelyo is smiling, thinking he has won. I pretend to concentrate on navigating a small creek to earn myself more time (in reality, my old nag is more than adept at doing such things for herself) while my mind listens the whispers of words I wish long forgotten.
“Acid,” I say at last, recalling a tale that gave me nightmares and no wonder—for I prize my voice above all else—“is part of the truest delicacy, yes, but it is not fingers taken from the living. That is trivial.” I wave my own fingers at him, acting, much in the same way that I do when we perform our songs together, when I swagger as an adventurer or a woman or a Vala, more comfortable in another’s body than in my own. “Acid goes in the throat, for it destroys the voice and allows the victims to be eaten alive, without the annoyance of their constant screaming.” I roll my eyes; flip my head, as though this is something I believe, when really, I feel a bit sick at the thought.
And when I look back at Nelyo, he is very pale.
I think of the dream: his face, as white as parchment, and his hand, offered to me. It is empty.
“Where did you hear that?” he barks, no longer playing. His hair is very red next to his face, blood on white sheets. Images come to my mind: tears in the heat of Atar’s eyes, his arms around me, weeping; motherless for a year while Nelyo tapped Atar on the arm: Atar, Macalaurë has no clean trousers. Atar? Until we realized that he couldn’t—wouldn’t—hear us.
“Where did you hear that tale?” Nelyo insists, frantic, disrupting my thoughts, which have strayed into another dream, one from long ago.
“I read it, I’m sure, in one of Atar’s books,” I say uneasily.
“It is true, Macalaurë. It is not funny.”
“They are all true, Nelyo. None of them are funny.”
We consider each other for a long moment. Our horses are moving on without us, following the scent of the sea. A bit of color has returned to Nelyo’s face, in his cheeks, an angry flush that chastises me for taking the game too far. But I did not mean to. How was I to know that this tale would affect him so? When we say so many awful things to each other when we’re alone, curses and tales that we would utter in the presence of no other, indulging that visceral thrill of danger that we left behind in the Hither Lands, how was I to know that this time, it was too far?
But Nelyo’s logic prevails over his emotions—a trait that he does not get from our father, for certain—and I see the realization coming into his face: The angry flush drains; his normal color returns. “We should not talk that way, Macalaurë. It dishonors the dead.” There is a tremor in his voice, like he has narrowly escaped some awful fate and is only now pondering it.
“I know, Nelyo,” I say.
“We should keep our game to cursing, I think,” he says.
“Tail of Yavanna,” he says. It is a forced attempt at banishing the awkward air between us, but I play along anyway. “Foul winds of Manwë,” I echo.
We have picked our way through the worst of the wetlands; the land is falling away in front of us, the horizon empty. I can hear the soughing of the sea. In a moment, it will be a sparkling ribbon before us, growing until it fills half of our sky.
Nelyo heels his horse, galloping towards the sound of the sea. “Salt of Ulmo!”
I follow him, laughing. “Vána’s flower!”
“Rock of Aulë!”
And there it is, a thousand gemstones tossed across wavering silk, reaching for the horizon.
We are both laughing with the senselessness of children when our horses’ hooves first plunge into the sand and we gallop soundlessly into the surf. The wind off of the sea whips my hair back from my face, sticking out from the back of my head, stiff and ragged as a bit of driftwood. Sand sprays our legs, Nelyo dismounts while cantering and the weight of his heavy Noldorin riding boots into the insubstantial softness of the sand topples him onto his backside with a whoop of laughter.
I join him, and our horses move on without us, stopping only when the surf sprays their knees. Nelyo is sitting in the sand, unlacing his boots, his clothes already liberally coated with sand. I follow his lead, tossing my boots aside and racing barefoot beside him to meet the sea where it laps the shore.
The wet sand is so cold that my feet ache upon touching it; nothing prepares me for the frigidity of the water, so cold that it nearly burns and makes me yelp with surprised pain and backpedal until I fall, my clothes covered in sand now too. Nelyo laughs at me and stands ankle-deep in the water that can’t be any kinder to his flesh than it is to mine, but Nelyo has always born pain better than I.
I recline on dry sand warmed by Laurelin’s light and watch Nelyo wade out to where our horses stand, waves breaking against their skinny legs and spraying the good tack that would anger Atar if ruined. He doesn’t even roll his breeches off of his legs and he steps high—like a gangly shorebird—until he can stretch and catch my mare by her reins. To his stallion, he whistles, and the horse reluctantly follows.
We remove their tack and our satchels from their backs and turn them free to wander the beach, mouthing at shore grass. Nelyo cautions me to wrap my harp in my dry tunic lest the sea air spoil the wood, and I do as I am advised. We work quickly, for we did not come to the sea to execute domestic chores all afternoon. I make sure to tuck my tunic carefully around my harp and leave it at adequately high ground; when I look up, Nelyo is dashing again for the sea, tearing his tunic over his head and letting the brisk breeze carry it back to the dunes.
I am prepared for the aching cold of the sand and even manage to steel myself against the lap of water against my feet, although I am grateful when the sea washes back and leaves me again to Laurelin’s mercy. I look at the tops of my feet, whiter than the sand beneath them, slender and delicate, not nearly as calloused as Nelyo’s, who spends much more time in boots than I do. I wiggle my toes and they stiffly oblige. They would rather I return them to the warm, dry sand, but Nelyo is in up to his waist now—the waves breaking as high as his bare chest even—and my pride makes me grit my teeth against my discomfort. Rather I would be in Alqualondë, where the seas are as warm as baths.
How anything can live in so cold of water is beyond my comprehension, but the shore is dotted with shells—not delicately iridescent, every hue of the prism, like those in Alqualondë—pale, sturdy shells whose colors rather remind me of paints diluted with much water. I stoop and dig my fingers through the sand—mercilessly cold!—and coquina clams wiggle in their wake, burying themselves back in the sand with their noses. In Alqualondë, these tiny beasts might have chipped their shells from a rainbow; here, they are all blue-gray. Like the Noldor, I think.
Something seizes me around my waist, and before I can holler, I am slung over Nelyo’s shoulder. “Come now, pansy,” he says, and he is marching with me out to sea; the waves are spraying my down-turned face. I have only a moment to relish the warmth on the bottoms of my feet before I realize his intentions and begin to wriggle desperately, begging him to let me go in a voice that is muted by the crush of his shoulder in my midsection. “The water feels good, once you get used to it,” he tells me, and a wave splashes his waist and I taste saltwater on my lips.
“I do not want to get used to it!” I protest, but at that moment, I twist and the stiff band that was his arm around my waist loosens, and gravity draws me headfirst towards the sea. I hear myself screaming in childish hysterics, “No no no no no!” and I am reminded of the time that Tyelkormo committed some indignity against Atar, and Atar ordered him to his room to await his punishment, but Tyelkormo—perhaps mistakenly thinking that if he avoided his room he could avoid also the punishment—latched onto the doorframe like a barnacle and it took Nelyo and Atar both to pry his little fingers away (he held so tightly that his palms were bruised later), and he was carried by Nelyo, screaming like this: “No no no no no!”
I have a fraction of a second to contemplate my hair swirling with the kelp on top of the foaming gray water before the crown of my head introduces my body to the agony of cold, and I am plunged into the water. Water fills my mouth, still open and screaming and burns my nose. It is nearly soundless undersea: The only sounds are the crunching susurrations of the waves battering the shore and, beneath that, my frantic heartbeat roaring in my ears. I plot my body’s slide into the water by pain. Once, sparring with Atar, the movement of a deer in the forest distracted me, and I turned and his sword met the side of my face with a slap that reminds me of the feeling of the water now: a sting of pain followed by a blaze of burning numbness. But Atar’s sword hurt only my cheek and this delivers my whole body into pain. My head thumps on the soft bottom, disturbing a plume of sand. I hear a muted splash as the last of my body—my legs—joins the rest of me in the water, and I am on my knees, pushing for the surface. My face breaks from the cold and into the light, my mouth is opened and gasping, my eyes closed against the sting of salt, and as I breathe in—longing for warm air to fill my lungs that feel flattened and shriveled like forgotten balloons—an unexpected wave slaps my face, and I breathe only water.
For a panicked moment, I am drowning. It hurts. My chest is filled with fire; I choke, but there is no cool, soothing air to replace it and so the agony continues. My body screams for air, that essential that I have taken for granted in every moment of my life until this one; my frantic hands scramble for anything but find only water that passes uselessly through my fists. The sand beneath my feet is gone; all that meets my churning legs is yet more water.
I am suddenly aware of the dichotomy of body and spirit. They are different entities, comes the startled realization, followed by an even more terrible thought: I can die.
If my hands don’t find something soon, my spirit will pull free of my body and leave it behind, an opportunistic passenger deserting a doomed vessel while there’s still time. I realize suddenly the pain that this will cause: It will be the last thing I’d feel, the unbelievable agony of my spirit being torn from my body. Námo does not keep Elves so long in his halls so that they may atone for the deeds of their lives, I realize, or find forgiveness in their hearts for those who still live, but to cure them of the fear of the pain of death. For who would venture again into the world of the living, knowing that such pain is possible?
Then Nelyo is hauling me to my feet, sputtering; he is whacking my back, coaxing the water from my chest; it is pouring from my mouth and nose in hot streams. I swipe at tendrils of snot, trying to both gasp air through my mouth and dispel the burning water in my nose. “Why did you wiggle so hard?” Nelyo accuses in a guilty voice. “I wouldn’t have let you go.” I do not believe him and so punch in the direction of what I think is his stomach, still doubled over and gagging on seawater. My knuckles graze something that feels like flesh, but it does him no harm; he catches my hand and pulls me straighter before a high-leaping wave slaps my face. My hair is a mat over my face, but I like it that way. He cannot see that I am crying. He pushes my hair aside, but I fight his hands, grumbling at him in syllables whose meaning even I do not know, and so he abandons this pursuit to seize me and hold me close, while we both stand shivering.
“I am sorry,” he says. Damn him, he’s determined to get the hair from my face; he is trying again, swiping it aside with annoying, persistent hands. But if he notices my tears, then he says nothing. “Macalaurë, Macalaurë, I’m so sorry.”
I hear a voice and realize it is mine. There are obscenities pouring from my lips that would astound even Atar, and they are all being aimed at Nelyo. He is shaking harder than me even—although he is dry to his shoulders, only the tips of his perfect red hair sodden by seawater—and I wonder how he could be so cold until I realize that he is shaking with laughter.
Then it hits me too: It is like racing with a bladder full to bursting to make it to a lavatory on time—stumbling, bumping into things and people in your haste—and once the need is relieved, you can appreciate how silly you must have looked during that flight that now seems too melodramatic to be anything but contrived. When the waves aren’t surging, the water reaches only to the middle of my thighs. I imagine how stupid I would have looked when Nelyo explained how I drowned in three feet of water.
And so laughter burbles past my lips, and it relieves Nelyo of having to hide his, and we laugh together—uproariously—being buffeted by waves strong enough to make us sway like redwoods in a storm. If my body is still cold, I do not feel it. My heart is pounding with glee, grateful to still be up to such a mundane task as pushing blood through my body, just as a castaway left long without food will appreciate even meager bread. And to have the arms of my brother around me—my laughter mixing with his to make the most beautiful of music—is akin to inviting the same castaway to dine at the King’s feast, where instead of dying of starvation, he might fear dying of gluttonous joy instead.
We play in the water like two young children until the Mingling of the Lights, splashing and wrestling with each other, screaming freely with laughter for, here, no one will hear us.
When at last we stumble onto the sand, it is by the delicate, mingled light of evening. The mingled light of the Trees has the power to placate even the most passionate of tempers, and Nelyo and I lie subdued on the sand for almost the whole of it, uncaring about our wet clothes and hair tacky with seawater.
My clothes were soaked by my unexpected dunk into the sea, and although I removed my tunic soon after, the humid air by the seaside is not conducive to drying, and so Nelyo gives me his clean, dry tunic to wear instead, setting out over the dunes to retrieve the one he let the wind catch before. It is much too large for me—I have to roll it off my wrists to use my hands unhindered—and it smells of Nelyo. I have always thought that Nelyo smells like the light on a spring day.
My stomach twists with hunger, and I am grateful for the provisions—simple though they are—that Nelyo brought from the town. When he returns, scratchy-sandy tunic in hand, I have already collected a pile of driftwood and coaxed a fire from it, and I am sautéing the fresh vegetables he brought from the town in what remains of the butter.
We eat like boorish curs, straight from the pans in which we cooked, passing them between us and sharing also a bottle of wine. When the food is gone and most the bottle drained, Nelyo pauses, the muscles in his face and neck stiff, as though he is trying not to vomit, and I asked worriedly—sure that he’s eaten too much, too fast—“Are you ill?” but he belches, a rolling, stinking eruption from the bottom of his gut, turning to grin at me while I holler and fan the air around my face with frantic futility. “Disgusting, Nelyo!”
“Better than if I saved it for later,” he tells me. He lifts the wine bottle, but it is empty. Unceremoniously popping the cork on the second, he guzzles from it, wipes his lips with the backs of his fingers, and shoves the bottle in my direction. All I want is something that will get me blind-drunk. I hold the bottle for a long moment, pondering it in the firelight. The wine is sweet, deceptive, like fruit punch, so thick that the alcohol is barely detectable until you feel you head lurch as though still born adrift on the waves. I decide to join him in his blindness, and I swig from the bottle still warm from his lips.
“This is why the Eldar came to Valinor, you know, Maca—Maca—,” he stumbles over my name a few times before sufficing to call me, “Cano. It was not to see the light; it is because they couldn’t be held accountable for their manners when the Valar weren’t around.” He laughs. “People made whiskey before wine, to get drunk, to feel good, to forget. They didn’t give a hair for ‘complementing a meal’ or the other muck the Valar tell us about wine. They just wanted to forget how hopeless it was to sit at the end of the day, like this, beneath the big sky, next to the big sea, and wonder, ‘What am I going to do with myself for the rest of eternity? How am I going to equal this?’ When you’re drunk, you don’t care about your insignificance. I don’t care.”
If Nelyo is insignificant, then what am I? His eyes glow like fire in the silver light of evening; he is beautiful. He is also the King’s heir, and even if he never holds the Kingship, then he holds the power to change history, and that is something that I will never possess.
“You are the heir—” I begin, but inhibitions gone, Nelyo interrupts me with a rudeness that would usually shock him.
“I am held thrall to the word. That is all it is, a word. It yokes me to a destiny I’m not sure I want.” He drinks more wine. “Should I bring a child into this world, I don’t know that I want him to bear this burden. Maybe I’ll give him to you to raise, Macalaurë.”
“But if you have no heir, then I’m your heir,” I mumble.
If he hears me, he doesn’t reply. “It is a word, Macalaurë,” he rages. “A bleeding word! Atar studies language; shouldn’t he know its insignificance? Why does he care so much that a word belongs to him? That the label be transfixed so firmly on his proud chest that nothing should dislodge it: ‘Heir. King.’ Why?”
This is rebellious, I realize, in a way that I have never heard Nelyo speak, especially of our father. He will mutter in assent to Atar’s claims that we owe no loyalty to the Valar; he will speak of independence and freedom, but to speak against Atar? But perhaps it is Atar’s own doing: After all, he culled rebellion in us, his sons; should he fancy himself immune to it in his own turn?
“Our grandfather’s power is not in a word, Macalaurë,” he continues, “but in the love people feel for him. Their love is his mandate; they crown him, not the court, not tradition. And Atar is loved too, but it is not enough for him; he is still so bleeding unhappy!”
I think of Amil, of us—his sons—of the beautiful works of his hands. “Is Atar unhappy?” I ask in a child’s tiny voice.
Nelyo looks at me. His lip is trembling like he might cry. “He is making it so that I can never have both. The word and the mandate. He is making me choose!” In his anger, he seizes and handful of sand and flings it to the wind, where it is scattered into futility, peppering my face, clinging in my hair. I close my eyes against it. “He knows that I will choose him, that I would let him hold my face beneath the water if it was what he deemed best for me. I will let him destroy me.”
My mind reeling from the wine, I am not sure—even in the moments after his words have left his lips—if Nelyo has spoken in the future tense.
The alcohol has risen to my head and sloshes there, numbing my brain. Nelyo sits trembling as I fight to find a response. “Nelyo,” I say at last. Even I can hear how slurred my voice is. Do I expect to construct a coherent thought? “Nelyo,” I say again, “didn’t you say that your hopes for the kingship are futile?”
He looks at me, and I can see facts sliding into place in his brain, behind his eyes. Coherence is returning to him, taking over where blind, drunken worries fancy themselves as foresight.
“I am sorry,” he says, in as decorous a voice as he can muster. “I should not speak so.”
He lies down on the sand without even a cloak or a blanket beneath him. (He will be combing the sand from his hair for weeks, I think.) “My heart has been torn,” he tells me, “into many pieces. I do not know what to think any longer.”
Annawendë, I think, of the girl I once a fancied a friend, damn you.
I reach out to stroke his hair, made brittle by sand and seawater. “You are upset, Nelyo,” I say, annoyed with the weakness of my words even as I slur them. “But do even the worst aches not diminish with time?”
He chuckles darkly. “When you’re in great pain, Macalaurë, strange thoughts sometimes come to you. I remember the tales of the Avari who were blessed with exceptional foresight, and they would put hot irons to their flesh to inspire the images for which they were renowned. I have had strange thoughts lately, Macalaurë, although I have not asked for such abuse.”
“They do not portend the future,” I tell him, although I have no way of knowing that.
“Annawendë will return to me, but we will not marry, and we will bring no children into the world together. I have strange feelings. Bad feelings.”
I stroke his hair, his face. “You are drunk. It is the wine speaking, not foresight.”
He says no more, and I take that as a good thing. I sit in silence, stroking his hair, until I fall asleep.
I awaken at the Mingling of the Lights, lying on my side in the cold sand, where I must have toppled in the night. Nelyo must have thrown a blanket over my body and balled up my cloak beneath my head for a pillow because I don’t remember doing it, but he is nowhere in sight, although there is a shadowy basin in the sand beside me, roughly the size and shape of Nelyo’s body.
There is a sour taste in my mouth and dryness like it is lined with cotton batting. I am reminded of the time that I bit into a bone while eating fish in Alqualondë and cracked a molar in half: The feeling in my mouth when the healer spread the numbing poultice inside to cement the tooth back together, coupled with the cotton to soak up the blood, felt a lot like I feel now. But this is worse. My tongue is thick and dry, a slug stranded on the flagstones at Laurelin’s zenith. The thought occurs to me that Nelyo and I never sought fresh water and I had drained most of my waterskin during the humid trek through the wetlands.
I sit up; a mistake, I realize, as soon as I do it, because my brain slams into my head like the clapper inside a bell, and pain buzzes through my whole body. I groan and clutch my head, but the damage has been done, and pulses of agony are radiating through my head. My eyes are scratchy and dry, and they ache. What doesn’t ache? I have been drunk and hungover many times before—Nelyo’s and my frequent forays to midnight picnics have seen to that—but it has never been this bad. Or course, normally, many nights—weeks even—pass between drinking episodes that exceed my allotted glass or two of wine with supper; now, I have drank heavily for the last three nights, to the point of intoxication, with little rest or reprieve for my body, keeping pace with Nelyo, who is bigger and older than me and more accustomed to such binges.
There is a feeling like a painful, tight stone in my lower belly, and this is what awakened me, I realize: the urge to relieve my bladder. I stand as delicately as I can manage without setting off another burst of pain inside my skull and shuffle across the sand to a patch of beach grass sprouting from the sand dunes. I barely have time to fumble open my breeches before a scorching stream of urine begins to patter the sand. The caustic stench rises and burns my nose, and before I have even finished peeing, I am retching too, although there is little left in my stomach to vomit, and it is mostly bile scalding the back of my throat. The sight of it—milky and viscous, with bits of partially-digested food suspended in it—makes me retch harder, and hot tears spring from my eyes and my head feels as though it is being sawed in half.
Returning to our “campsite”—if the messy collection of blankets and cloaks and charred remains of a fire can be called that—I fumble for my waterskin and rinse my mouth with the remaining mouthful of fresh water in it, determined to banish the taste of vomit or risk becoming sick again. I wish for Nelyo, Amil, Atar—anybody older and wiser who knows how to blend a concoction for ridding oneself of hangovers, who can administer a cup of warm, soothing tea to quell my nausea, who will hold my aching head in his or her lap and stroke my hair and flatter me into thinking that I am somehow not to blame for my misery.
At least it is the Mingling of the Lights and I do not have to fear having my aching brain skewered by midday light for some hours now. It is also low tide, and the soughing of the waves is gentle and soothing in its persistent rhythm, reminiscent of being small enough to be cradled in Amil’s arms—and the vestigial comfort of her heartbeat—being rocked to sleep at night while Nelyo did his recitations for Atar.
I lie down with the blanket between my body and the cold, damp sand, trying to calm my churning stomach while balancing my head to keep it from being assaulted by the worst of the pain still rolling inside. My eyes scan the horizon—the roiling, green-gray sea—and come up a funny sight: Nelyo, wearing only his underwear and standing thigh-deep in the water, wielding a spear made from a stick with an arrowhead lashed to the end.
I laugh and regret it because it is followed by a bile-flavored burp that threatens to turn into another fit of retching. Nelyo plunges his spear into the water and lifts it with a fish wriggling at the end. He must be better at catching fish than he thought because there is a line with four of them draped over his shoulder. My stomach is empty and sore, but the thought of eating disgusts me, especially eating fish. Most Noldor do not even eat fish; living inland, as we do, the opportunity rarely presents itself. But Atar, of course, is friends with many of the Teleri, including those of the Telerin court—being as he remains instrumental in building their Havens—and we were raised knowing how to ignore the stink of seafood long enough to find pleasure in its taste.
Nelyo is not alone in his pursuit: Screeching shorebirds dip low over the water, rising with silvery fish squirming in their beaks, their raucous shrieks grating against my eardrums that feel like they’re flayed and raw. I wrap my head in my cloak and pray for an end to my agony.
I must have fallen asleep because when I am next aware, Nelyo is crouching beside a low fire, frying fish in a pan. He has put on his sandy breeches but is still shirtless, his hair in a long, damp twist down his back. I feel my own in a similar tangle and loathe to the think of the pain that will come when I finally decide to comb and wash it. I sit up, careful of my head, but my hangover, though still present, has diminished, and the ache that follows my reluctant movement never fully blossoms into agony.
“Macalaurë.” Nelyo smiles at me. “You look rough.”
I can only imagine, with my hair in a tangle down my back and my eyes gritty, how I must look. “I feel like I’m dying,” I mutter to him, and he passes me a mug of a murky brown liquid.
“Drink this,” he instructs.
One sniff of it burns my nose and nausea threatens to erupt again. Gagging and shaking my head as gently as I can without feeling as though my brain is going to leak out of my ears, I shove it back in his direction. “I can’t,” I sputter.
“It smells terrible—and tastes worse—but it will help you, I swear,” he says, and he sets aside his pans and utensils to put an arm around my shoulder, hold my nose, and tip my head back. “Close your eyes,” he instructs, “and swallow as fast as you can. Try not to taste it.”
He pours the drink down my throat, and I try to do as I’m told, but taste of it fills my mouth, and I fight to free myself of him, but he is much stronger than me and won’t let go. When he is finished, he tosses the mug into the sand and clamps a hand over my mouth as though he knows that vomit will rise—trying to push back the awful taste of the drink—and when I moan in protest, he says, “Swallow it. Swallow it, Macalaurë.”
I do as I am told—it is either that or drown on my own bile, and at last, he releases me. My head is pounding, my throat burns, my ears feel as though Atar has taken his engraving tools to them, and now, a burning pool of some unknown concoction boils in my stomach, but as I open my mouth to complain to Nelyo, I feel all of that rise and dissipate into the air, like sweat rising off of my body.
I must have looked incredulous because Nelyo laughs. “How do you think I managed to get into that cold water first thing in the morning?” he asks, picking up his pan of fish—which is quickly beginning to smell delicious—and holding it again over the small fire.
“What was it?” I ask, and Nelyo says, “It is best that you don’t know. It is a remedy that Atar taught me the first time I came home sick from drink—after letting me linger in agony for a few hours to teach me a lesson, that is. But even Atar is not without pity.”
Hangover gone, I am suddenly ravenous and can barely wait for Nelyo to scrape my pieces of fish onto my plate before beginning to eat. He has also brought fresh water and made bitter coffee that startles me fully into wakefulness. We sit beside each other in companionable silence and eat, picking each last flake of fish from the bones. “Let’s never go home, Nelyo,” I say suddenly, startling even myself with my words.
Nelyo laughs, too quickly, nervously. “You would tire of me soon enough and wish for Amil, Atar, Vingarië and—I dare say—even our little brothers.”
“Perhaps the former. I doubt the latter,” I reply.
But my words seem to have reopened the conversation to the topics of the night before. “I am sorry for my words last night,” Nelyo says. I look at the fish bones, although I can feel Nelyo’s gaze on my face. Skilled as he is in diplomacy, he knows that one always admits wrongdoing with his eyes on the other’s face. I am not so brave. “I said things that I should not have. You were right: It was the wine speaking.”
I can recall little of his actual words—buried as they were in a haze of drink—but I remember his fervor, the sand flung at the air in childish insolence. “Nelyo, I—”
“I have been hurt, Macalaurë,” he interrupts, not seeming to hear me, “that much is true. And I lashed out unfairly because of that hurt, much like a wounded animal put in a corner will bite even benevolent hands. I should not have said those things about Atar. He has great suffering to justify the things he has said to me in private, and it was not right of me to use those things against him.” He hesitates, then goes on. “And the things he said, he did not mean. Not really. He is hurt too, Macalaurë, but neither of us desire to wish harm against those who have hurt us. He cannot curse his mother just as I cannot curse Annawendë, for we love them too much.”
My mind spins at his words. What things that Atar has said? I think back to all of the times they lock themselves into Atar’s laboratory under the guise of doing hazardous experiments to which our light-footed little brothers need not be subjected; their earnest conversations in the gardens. Here, I thought Atar hid his heart from everyone, except maybe Amil, but now I must wonder what confessions he has made in the presence of my brother.
He is making me choose.
I will let him destroy me.
For twelve days and twelve nights, we dwell by the sea. We remain until we can think on those things that cause us fear and pain and worry no longer. I remain until I can think back on Nelyo’s face on that first night and forget the desperation that carved it into that of a stranger.
On the morning of the thirteenth day, I awaken from the cold, shivering, huddled beneath my blanket and my cloak, curled into the tehta-shape of Nelyo’s body, but still unable to find warmth. It is early morning—earlier than I should have awakened, given the late night Nelyo and I had, singing duets around the fire—but the temperature has dropped precipitously in the night. Nelyo’s arms are tight around me but it does no good. I look at his face and he is awake: “Your teeth were chattering so loudly that you woke me up,” he says.
Without needing to say so, we both know that today is the day that we will return home.
“There is winter on the wind,” Nelyo says later, as we sit close to our rekindled fire and sip hot porridge. “The first frost will be coming to the inland soon.”
We always stay in Formenos until the first frost, returning to Tirion before the cold sets an ache in our bones. I think of our Tirion home and eager joy seizes me: to be able to sleep with the windows opened once more! to be able to pack my heavy cloaks at the back of my armoire! to see Vingarië again! With this thought, there is a nervous flutter in the pit of my belly, as though a tiny bird has been loosed there. I am suddenly filled too with a sudden loneliness for grandfathers Finwë and Mahtan and grandmother Istarnië. Even my half-uncles and aunts receive a moment of longing, though I would never say so to Atar.
Nelyo and I stand at the water’s edge and bid farewell to the sea. I even kneel and put my hands into the water, as one might take an old friend’s hand upon departure. I stare out over the water, at the line on the horizon. I imagine it to be the Hither Lands and shiver with gratitude to be on this side of the ocean, where places like Tirion exist for escape. There, all is cold and forbidding.
I stand and wipe my wet, salty hands on my breeches. “Farewell,” I whisper.
The sea surges and clutches my ankles in its frigid grip.
Grieve not, Macalaurë. We shall not be long parted.
I gasp and leap back to the safety of the sand.