And that brings us to Chapter Forty-One.
Please be forewarned that Chapter Forty-One was one of those almost entirely eaten by RamBo before he died, taking pieces of stories with him forever. As a result, I had to rewrite most of this chapter, and so it is far newer than most work that I am interested in showing the public. Alas, it is either that or postpone posting AMC for another six months or so, so I decided to swallow my discomfort and forge ahead.
As such, I am very interested in people's opinions of this chapter, and please don't hesitate to point out problems with it. I haven't had time to do my usual twenty-or-so rereadings/editings, so this would be a huge help.
Or just read and enjoy! Either way, thank you. :)
A few minutes later, I open my eyes, and Laurelin is bright in the windows.
I jump up and nearly fall out of the bed. I am alone—Findekano’s sheets are rumpled, but he is absent—and someone thought to remove my boots, lift my feet onto the bed, and arrange an afghan over me. Nonetheless, I was supposed to be home last night, and it is deep in the afternoon: My robes, having been slept in, are in a state of horrid disarray, and I hastily smooth them while stepping into my boots, to little noticeable effect. My hair is matted on one side of my head and a bundle of tangles in the back. I will have to change my clothes and retrieve the rest of my items from my uncle’s house. Shame burns my face at the thought of falling asleep in the bed of my fourteen-year-old cousin, in my good robes, while attending a supper at my grandfather’s palace, and sleeping until afternoon. Am I not supposed to be the most dignified of Finwë’s grandchildren?
Findekano left a comb on the bureau, and I use it to straighten my hair as best as I can. Despite the wrinkles and tangles, the reflection in the mirror looks more like me than it has in days. The shadows beneath my eyes have faded and there is color in my cheeks, no doubt brought on mainly by shame in having fallen asleep in the manner that I did. It occurs to me that I must walk down the street in this state, in my wrinkled robes, and I feel momentary horror, then a new, sharper guilt, for Atar would be angered by my vanity.
Stepping from the room, I pause to listen. Somewhere inside the house, a harp is being played; the music is bright and effortless, like the rare rains that fall during Laurelin’s hours and appears as drops of gold falling from the heavens.
I walk quietly, torn between hoping to encounter my grandfather—and apologize for my behavior last night—and managing to escape undetected. I can then send a message from home, making the same apologies. Even as I think this, my shame deepens, and I decide that I must find him before I leave.
I follow the music to a courtyard where my step-grandmother sits, beside a fountain, playing a song that complements the laughing melody suggested by the water. I try to turn before she sees me, but a careless footfall alerts her to my presence, and her hands fall still on the harp strings and she turns.
“Russandol!” she says, smiling and rising from beside the fountain. I fumble for words and suffice with a lackluster “Lady Indis….”
“You look well this morning,” she says. Had the words come from anyone else, I would think it a clever way to chastise me for last night, but her voice is soft and genuine. I avoid meeting her eyes.
“I apologize, my Lady, for my behavior last night.”
She laughs. “There is no need for apologies! One who is tired should sleep.”
I cannot argue with that. I look up, into her bright blue eyes. She is not dressed as stiffly as usual, and her hair falls in natural waves around her shoulders. She is almost pretty.
“I am sorry too for disturbing your music,” I add. “I should like to find my grandfather and be home, if I may.”
“Finwë is holding council today, but he will be finished in time for supper. Might I beseech you to wait until then?”
“I should not. My family expected me yesterday, and the hour grows late.”
“No mind about that,” she says. “Finwë sent a messenger to your father last night, bearing word that you would be staying the night with him. Your father sent no reply but his consent.”
It is my stomach that decides for me: Having missed breakfast and the midday meal, it constricts suddenly, threatening to let forth an embarrassing grumble if I do not feed it soon. I try to inconspicuously clamp my arms about my waist, hoping to silence it.
“I will need to go to Nolofinwë’s for clean clothes,” I say, hoping that I do not look too odd in my wrinkled robes, hugging my belly.
“Perhaps you should wear something of your grandfather’s?” she asks. “Come, follow me. I will show you to our chamber and allow you to choose something that fits.”
As we walk, she finds a maidservant and asks that a bath be drawn in my chambers. My chambers. They are actually Findekano’s, I think, but surely, he will not mind my use of them.
At the thought of Findekano, my startled mind suddenly realizes that he is missing. “Where is Findekano?” I ask Indis as we walk.
“Ingoldo came for him early this morning. Findekano had his first lesson with the sword today.” She gives me a careful look. The Vanyar, I know, do not understand the Noldorin fixation with weaponry and our history in the Hither Lands. They feel that such things are better forgotten; that memories of dark times will dim the joy we feel here in Valinor. Yet, Indis married a Noldo, despite this. She married a Noldo who has swords from the Hither Lands in his study, who corresponds with his eldest son about martial strategies, survival, and orcs.
We arrive at the chambers she shares with my grandfather. I stand aside, not wishing to enter her private rooms, but she holds open the door for me. She raises an eyebrow in amusement: You are family, are you not? I can almost hear her thinking. I follow her, through the sitting room and into the bedroom, where I try hard not to look at the wide bed with its blue coverlet and piles of pillows. I try not to think of my grandfather lying with her here, when so many tiny details of the room—the ornate embroidery along the edges of the drapes, the small box on the bureau that is meant to hold needles and spools of thread and now, doubtlessly, hold Indis’ jewels—scream of memory of grandmother Miriel. I wonder how he does not close his eyes while Indis caresses him without feeling the touch of hands more callused but also more skilled; how he strokes the silky hair spilled beneath his cheek upon awakening and does not agonize that the hair is golden and not dark when at last he opens his eyes to behold her.
She draws out a set of robes from my grandfather’s armoire and holds them out for me to inspect. Without really seeing them, I nod and take them. My stomach is churning, and I wish to be gone from the room.
I am dismissed to the safety of my cousin’s chambers. As promised, a steaming bath awaits me, scented mildly with salts that remind me of the Telerin havens on the shore. I cast away my wrinkled clothes, and the thought occurs to me that I can linger and soak my body for as long as the water will hold its heat, for once, without being interrupted by Macalaurë wishing to query me about some silly detail needed for his lessons or Tyelkormo demanding attention for a new trick he has learned or Amil wishing me to calm Carnistir and leave her in peace to work. As my body sinks into the silky-warm water, I find myself wondering at my eagerness to leave at all.
I have never considered living inside the city walls. Not really. I have considered its negative aspects, taught to me by my father: the constant scrutiny of the lords, the heat that hovers about the streets even at night, the lack of privacy to go as one wants, in whatever state makes one the happiest. I have never considered the peace of solitude. It is not the way of my people to live outside of our families. I would be thought strange to live alone, but then, I am used to that.
My fiftieth begetting day draws near, only two springs away now. I remember my father’s fiftieth begetting day feast, for I had stood at his heels, already six years old. No one had known—or would have imagined!—that his second son was less than a year from being begotten, another of many impressive accomplishments in so short a life. Impetuous, people had called him, for why spend one’s talents in only a few years when they can be stretched and savored over the length of eternity? I had stood at his heels, his eldest son and heir, in the first of many official ceremonies as such, feeling proud with my copper circlet over my hair and my best robes pressed and worn in a perfect imitation of my father. I think now of my own accomplishments and how people will look upon me as I stand for my own fiftieth begetting day, to receive the blessings of my father and my leave for independence. How will they think of me? As a disappointment, perhaps, in the shadow of one who had done so much by the same landmark in his life.
I remember my father’s fiftieth begetting day. I had been too young to think of it then, of the irony of grandfather Finwë speaking the words that had given my father his leave, had granted him the rights of an adult. For what rights had my father not already received? He had married. He had begotten a son. He had devised a new alphabet and embarked upon the path of gemcraft. Grandfather Finwë’s words to him had been empty, I see now. Atar’s own words to me will not be so.
But what freedom will he really be willing to grant me? If I asked to move inside the walls of Tirion, would he allow it? There will be little he can do to stop me, after granting me my leave, but is that any consolation? Do I wish to seek something against the wishes of my father? Do I wish to bear his grudge forever in what is only a passing fancy to ease the momentary pain of losing the one I had wished to give my love?
Of course, if Annawendë returns to me, this decision will matter naught. We will be married after a betrothal considered appropriate for the heir of a high prince. We will live where we wish—probably outside of the city, so that Annawendë may pursue her trade in peace—and receive my father’s blessings. But I will not—cannot—think of Annawendë’s return. I cannot afford to hope, no matter its comfort to me, for the ache that it soothes now will be compounded if my hopes are destroyed.
I do not leave the bath until the water is tepid and my skin rises into cold-bumps. Shivering, I dress in my grandfather’s robes, selected by his wife, and find that they fit me perfectly.
Grandfather Finwë wears mostly white or light colors, whereas Atar dresses himself—and his sons—in darker shades: in deep blues or greens befitting a midsummer forest; in dark red or black even. I do not often see myself in white—only in work tunics long yellowed from my labors—and examining my reflection in the mirror, am startled to observe the similarities between my appearance and that of my grandfather, if not in features than in carriage. Atar seems to crackle with nervous energy while grandfather is content to wait, as patient as a rock, seeming as changeless and stoic as a statue, worn only by the gentle hands of time.
Is that me? The reflection in the mirror makes me believe that it could be.
I go to the dining room and am directed by a servant to the courtyard. Indis is already there, and I take the seat she offers me, and we wait—without speaking but silently appraising each other with sidelong glances—for my grandfather.
Her thin, pale hands are folded in her lap; her ankles are crossed primly. I resist the urge to align and realign the silverware or turn the plate so that my grandfather’s seal at its center is perfectly even. A servant comes and pours us each glasses of water with bits of ice in it; another comes and offers me both red and white wine. I nod at the white, thinking that—for all his love of wine—even my father does not often have it at the midday meal.
“Russandol.” My name in Indis’ voice plunks rudely into the silent space between us. Always, I wish to cringe to hear her use my epessë, the use of which I allow her only because it was grandfather Finwë who’d asked, pulling me aside in my youth, his breath warm in my ear as he whispered that Indis felt awkward being the only one still calling me Maitimo, and would I allow her to call me Russandol? It was not Indis who was made awkward by it—indeed, “Maitimo” never sounded strange in her voice but rather natural, like the ringing of bells, fittingly beautiful—but grandfather Finwë. Heart pounding and mouth dry, feeling nervous and treacherous, I had not then possessed the courage to refuse, and she has called me Russandol ever since.
Cautiously, I look up from my plate and meet her gaze. She is scrutinizing me, but it is not painful scrutiny like that of Atar or grandfather Finwë: I feel like a page being scanned and read only to learn the knowledge written up it, not with the intention of finding mistakes and painfully erasing that which is declared undesirable. I clear my throat lightly and reply, “Yes, Lady Indis?”
“I have heard of your—” she begins, then suddenly halts and ducks her head, as though embarrassed by those still-unspoken words. Smiling, she begins again: “Should you ever need repose, take this,” and I feel her small hand in mine, pressing something crackly and dry against my palm. I turn open my hand and see a small netted bag filled with dried leaves. “Boil them for five minutes and drink the water,” she tells me, “and sleep will heal you.”
Sleep will heal you. Am I so obviously in need of healing?
I have heard of your—
Of course she has. It has probably spread over the entire city by now, the story of my loss, of the second disappointment of my hopes for marriage. My hand clenches on the bag of leaves, and they crackle as though in admonishment, and Indis does a surprising thing then and folds her hand over my fist.
“Russandol,” she says, “time will wash away your pain if you are willing to let yourself heal.”
It takes me many moments to realize that she has called me Russandol, and yet I had not flinched at the sound of it any more than I would flinch at a trill of birdsong on the breeze. I glance down at her pale, slim hand on my larger, callused one; I feel the intimate warmth of her skin on mine; I think of Atar’s horror at knowing where my freedom has taken me, but the guilt is distant, outside this room even, in a place far away from me.
The door to the courtyard bangs open, and in the next second, I am caught in the tight, bearish hug of my grandfather, giggling like a small child—as I stand taller than he—at the loud kiss that lands inside of my ear. Indis’ hand has been torn from mine, and the bag she had given me is clenched inside of my fist once more. “Russandol!” says grandfather Finwë. “It is indeed an unexpected joy to dine with you today!”
I let my arms rise to return the embrace and wish to be small enough to be lifted into his arms and nuzzle into his shoulder, letting loose tears that I would dare not admit in Atar’s company. I used to do this as a child, weep against him as though my heart was broken, and Atar would say in a hurt, puzzled voice, “Why, Nelyo!” a false laugh in his throat, bright with the guilty hope that he had not been the cause of my capricious outburst.
Always, grandfather Finwë would pass me back to him, and it would be Atar’s hands on my back and Atar’s voice in my ear, soothing my tears, his electric scent contrary to the notion of comfort filling my nose and my lungs—filling me—until even now, the scent of his discarded tunics still warm from his body soothe even an angry heart into submission.
Anger likely inspired by Atar and soothed by him; it is a contradiction—but then, that is Atar.
I release grandfather Finwë first and am eager to take my seat and begin the meal, dissatisfaction momentarily quelled, suddenly aching for home.
On the way back to my chambers, I draw the bag Indis gave me from my pocket and open it. The leaves have mostly crumbled to dust by now. A faint, almost soapy scent rises from the bag—the smell of clean, warm sheets on a chilly night—but I am not comforted much less healed, and before I can think better of it, I overturn the bag into one of the potted plants and spread the contents thinly among the soil.
I have traveled Aman enough with Atar to know the importance of being a good guest: I erase all signs of my existence from the chamber that I have shared with Findekano, removing even the few strands of coppery hair I’d left in his comb. Indis must have had my things brought from Nolofinwë’s because my satchel awaits me, and I am glad that I will not have to face my uncle before leaving. I put on my ordinary tunic and riding breeches and carefully fold the robes borrowed from grandfather Finwë, leaving them on the bed to be taken to the wash, and I wipe my riding boots in the basin so as not to leave even a trace of dust in grandfather’s palace.
The hour is growing late when I go to the stable to saddle my horse and swing astride him, giving a last glance to the palace—grateful for the peace and rest I have found there—eager to return to my home and my family.
Hope has flowered within me, unfolding from the contentment I have found here the way a tiny plant pushes from fertile soil in the spring, and although I long to tear it out by its roots before it becomes large enough to strangle me, I lack the heart. Why? It is such an innocent thing, hope, curling tender and warm inside of me, awakening a delicate fluttering sensation in the space around my heart and sending a weightless energy coursing through my limbs. Visions come upon me and I do not scatter them with dark thoughts or rote recitations: a small house outside the city, four rooms, with stones mortared tightly to forestall any drafts. And there I am, turning my parchment to fit the patch of light from the small window above my desk, my hair unfettered, a strand curling upon the page, at home among the letters. Strong, soft arms slip around me from behind and I am caught in a warm embrace, between hands pressing my chest and the swell of her belly against my back.
There are tears on my cheeks, and I convince myself that the wind has put them there. I even ride harder to heighten the illusion.
In other imaginings, I ride through the gates to my father’s property, and she waits for me there: waits with a pulse of lamplight in the window of her cottage, her forge tunics fluttering on the line, her horse nickering to my stallion from the pasture. And I will run to her, and she will pronounce her foolishness for leaving—and mine, for doubting her return.
Hope: such a tiny, innocent thing, growing more profound as the rains fall harder and the wind carries the barest chill, a memory of the winter that has fallen upon other lands, as time marches onward, hand in hand with hope, dragging it—and me—to the new year and the gratification or death of both of us.
For if the new year arrives amid the leaping flames and screaming music of the New Year Festival and I am alone, then so shall I be for the life of Arda.
I ride to the north, to my father’s house, with time hard on my heels and overtaking me even as I urge my stallion faster, leaning low over his neck, hating suddenly the hope that now will not die within me.
Nighttime lies gauzy and silver across the land when I arrive home, slowing my horse to a walk as we come through the gates. It has begun to rain lightly, and mist rises from the earth and rubs the landscape clean of all distinguishing features. The dark shadows of trees march out of the gloom at me as I ride up the path, and my father’s house sits, dark and misshapen, a sprawl of twisted logic. In the front room, lamps make the windows glow as fuzzy squares of blue light, but the rest of the house is dark, and no sound betrays the potential for life behind that light.
The apprentices’ cottages alongside the house: also dark.
As I ride up to the stable to untack and groom my mount, though, I note that the forge pulses with the faint, primitive glow of firelight. I hasten to the stable and, admittedly, am shoddy in organizing my tack and hasty in wiping and currying my horse before turning him loose into the pasture. I pause and try to count the shadows of horses at the bottom of the hill, but the mist swirls thickly around them, obscuring one horse even as it reveals another, and all are scattered in a pounding of hoofbeats seemingly muffled by the mist as my stallion plunges into their midst, the mist rushing to fill the empty spaces where they once stood.
Sighing, I realize that the gentle rain is slowly drenching me—droplets racing each other from my sodden hair and down my face—and I turn for the humid glow of firelight from the forge.
Hammerfalls suddenly ring clearly through the night, and I half-expect the gloom to be shattered and fall in water-bloated, fuzzy pieces around my feet, but the fog persists—does it deepen even? Wrapping the sharp sounds as with the safety of a blanket? As I trudge to the forge, hands shoved into the pockets of my breeches, seeking the primitive comfort of my father, I match my footsteps to the rhythm of the hammerfalls and, beneath that, the double-time patter of my heart and rattle of the rain, all of it clattering in the rhythm that has become my life—heart, forge, Arda—all pushing time forward in their own noisy way.
I reach the forge and tug the heavy door open. The place is lit by the glow of hot coals and, above that, a primitive lamp with a candle stuck inside of it. A figure bends over the table, hammering more quickly now, and I call softly so as not to startle him, “Atar?”
But the figure that straightens is not my father, it is Vorondil.
“Maitimo!” I hear the hammer tumble from his hand and to the table. We both ponder each other from across the room, and the silence chokes the words from my mouth for many moments before I finally manage to fumble, “I—I thought you were my father.”
“Yes…but no, I am not. Your family is listening to your brother play, but I thought to come and do some work alone.”
“Oh, well, I am sorry to interrupt—”
“No, Maitimo, that is not what I meant.”
Vorondil is tall and narrow, dark hair secured neatly in a braid down his back, and yet he strives to fill my father’s image: Vorondil, whose colors—were he a painting—would neatly fill the lines drawn by his creator, never spilling into the white spaces forbidden him. His forge gloves match, I notice, biting my lip to keep from laughing, because my father’s forge gloves never match unless random chance would have him grab both a glove and its mate from the disordered pile by the door; sometimes, he even puts his gloves on the wrong hands and seems not to notice how his fingers don’t properly fill them, tugging at them and cursing as he works, oblivious in his genius. I went once and removed the misfit glove and slipped a proper one in its place, as though I was the father and he was the absentminded child, and we both laughed and he surprised me with a kiss on the cheek for gratitude. And, logic restored, I was the child again.
Vorondil waits for me to speak, but what is there to say? And I realize how I must look: my wind-torn hair dripping and stuck to my face and neck; my tunic soaked and outlining a frame that has lost some of its shapeliness for skipping too many meals. I lift minutely trembling fingers to push my hair behind my ears and restore some measure of a dignified image, clear my throat, and say, “I will leave you, Vorondil, to your work.”
But as I turn to leave, he says quickly, “It is really no bother, Maitimo. I am finished, actually.”
In the flickering lamplight, I can see the piece on which he was working—the beginnings of an ornate handle for a hairbrush, by the looks of it—hammered only partly into shape. Following my gaze, he quickly adds, “This was not my reason for coming here but merely a distraction to keep me busy while my ‘reason’ cools.” His lips twitch into a smile. Vorondil never smiles for long, as though he hasn’t the effort to spare for prolonged hilarity. But I wait while he bustles about, putting things away (as Atar has a tendency not to do—or to do only partway before becoming distracted by something more exciting), and even wiping the table clean of dust. I note the supplies that he returns to their proper hooks and drawers, and a cold finger of memory tickles me as I realize that Vorondil’s secret task will emerge from a mold in the shape of a ring.
So I am not the only one who harbors secret hopes. But he is sensitive enough to keep his back between me and the ring, slipping it immediately into his pocket, as though understanding that betrothal rings awaken painful thoughts for me. But of course, I realize after a moment—during which Vorondil removes his apron and hangs it neatly on the peg beside my father’s—he was here for both Lossirë and now this.
We walk together, slogging along the muddy path through a rain that falls brisker now, Vorondil with the prescience to have brought a light cloak to keep his hair and clothing mostly dry. Passing closer to the house now, I can hear the sound of Macalaurë’s harp, the notes falling in rhythm with the rain. I should stop in to announce my return at least, I realize, and Atar would no doubt be irritated to know that I am home and possess no intentions of making my greetings, but then I would be coaxed into coming into the sitting room, into the blue halo of lamplight, then urged to sit on the chaise with my mother to hear the end of Macalaurë’s song, and before long, Tyelkormo would be curled in my lap, sleeping, and Vorondil would walk forth in the rain without me. And suddenly, I don’t want that.
The apprentices’ cottages are alongside the house, and I realize that I have never been inside of them, despite the fact that Vorondil has been my father’s apprentice for almost twenty years now. If asked, I wonder what I would call him: Would I name him a friend? Vorondil is only slightly older than me and was likewise proclaimed a prodigy at a young age—hence his appointment here—and the convergence of our studies has caused us to work closely at times over the last two decades. But is he a friend if I know not the interior of the place he calls home and could not name his two younger brothers if pressed, much less recognize them among the throngs of Tirion? I realize that, although I know he is courting a woman because Annawendë told me as much, I do not know her name or how they met; in fact, I cannot imagine him meeting a woman at all. Most of his spare time is devoted to study, and when he manages to accompany Macalaurë and me to a picnic, he is drawn to the tight, conspiring circles of other craftsmen—mostly male—more so than the dance.
He lets me into his cottage, and with a bit of fumbling and the sound of metal scraping metal, a lamp is opened and meager light brings the room into dim focus. There is a desk against one wall and a stove against the other; old blankets strung along a line partition the single room into living and sleeping areas. Against the remaining walls, shelves stretch from floor to ceiling and are filled with books and crafts.
As Vorondil opens the second lamp, the greater light reveals a room surprisingly cluttered—for Vorondil anyway. At his desk is a bowl with a spoon stuck to the bottom and a chipped mug; the cozy rag rug in the middle of the floor sits askance and three pairs of identical boots are tossed alongside it in a tangled heap. Vorondil is blushing and already hastening to the desk to sweep away the dirty dishes. “Ai,” he says, “I am sorry for the mess, but I was not expecting company.” He ducks through the curtain to where presumably the lavatory is off of his sleeping area, a suitable place for abandoning mess in the basin.
On his desk is humble charcoal sketch of a girl encased in an ornate gold frame. She looks very familiar to me, and as I struggle to retrieve her name from the mire of female-sounding syllables suddenly sloshing through my brain, I am struck with an image of a forest clearing lit by lamps strung overhead and Macalaurë playing a bright song and a girl in my arms too shy to say much and I, too distracted to coax her: “Nimerionë,” I whisper, and when Vorondil reemerges from the back of the cottage, empty-handed, I realize that the portrait is in my hands, and I am touching her face, careless of the smudges I might leave. I set it hastily back on the desk.
“I had that made the day after our return, when your father was kind enough to give me a day off to meet Nimerionë in Tirion. An artist in the lowest district did it for a lampstone.” He bustles around the small cottage, putting a teapot onto the stove and gathering various bottles from the shelves around the room. “She is lovely,” I say in a voice that sounds flat even as I try to rouse it to enthusiasm but Vorondil—so often flat himself—casts me one of his flickering smiles and doesn’t appear to notice. “Thank you. I happen to agree. Blessed was I on the day of that last picnic before we left for Formenos, although I did not then know it. I was so miffed over Annawendë—”
He stops and bobbles and nearly drops a bottle of clear liquor. “I am sorry.”
“Do not be.”
“I suppose you knew I fancied her.” He has turned away from me to retrieve two cups from the shelf over the stove, but I can tell he’s blushing by the pink tips of his ears.
“Yes,” I say hesitatingly.
“But she saw only you. And I cannot fault you for that, so do not worry. In fact, I am now grateful, for when I awoke the next morning, it was not with thoughts of Annawendë but Nimerionë.”
And had I not, I would be in your painful predicament.
He does not say this, but we both sense it, unspoken, between us, and he blushes darker, and I quickly change the subject. “Nimerionë…what does she do?”
“She is a silk dyer. Oh, her work is beautiful!” Relieved by the change of subject, he darts back through the curtain and returns a moment later with a tunic done in a delicate pattern of drifting shades of green. I cannot imagine Vorondil—who seems to live in gray and brown tunics of coarse cloth and plain design—wearing something so splendid, and as though sensing my thoughts, he laughs and says, “Not that I imagine ever wearing it. It would look wonderful on someone like you, but me….” He looks at it and shrugs. “She remains convinced, though.” He carefully folds the tunic and places it on his desk amid the books and clutter, returning to the stove and the teapot that is beginning to steam.
“I will help you?” I offer.
“No, please, sit. In the chair! I should have offered.” The only chair in the room is at his desk. I reply, “Nay, you—the host—should have it.”
And so we both end up on the floor, mugs of tea clasped in our hands. I idly blow on mine—knowing that such an insignificant action will do naught to cool it—watching the ripples my breath makes on the surface. The scent of it stings my nose, and I know that he has poured more than tea and cream into it. I sip it—risking the tip of my tongue—and find that it is so good that the blistery feeling on my tongue and lips is easily ignored to delve in for a second sip.
“This is delicious!”
“It is an old recipe common in our town. It warms and soothes, or so is said.”
Neither of us look at the other, but the word is there—soothes—between us. I realize how I must still look: dripping hair and sodden clothes, trembling slightly with the cold, certainly not the beautiful and collected prince of rumor. But Vorondil also recalls to me a device slipped from its track, his usual stoic manner betrayed by the way he hugs his knees with one arm and stares into the mug clasped in the opposite hand as though looking for answers in the Tengwar-swirls of cream upon the surface, his brow actually furrowing in an image of concentration. If I look intent, perhaps he will not speak to me. Then why did he invite me here, if not to speak?
“I would like to see your ring?” I ask, and he flinches, sloshing hot tea on himself. “If you would show it?”
And then grins wryly. So he has learned something from my father. “Is there nothing that you do not see? Even that which would harm you?”
“It will not harm me. And your ‘secret project’ was fairly obvious.” I have experience in these matters, or do you forget?
He sets his cup carefully on the rug and pokes his fingers into the pockets of his trousers, coming out with a ring pinched between them that he drops into my palm, saying, “I can’t help wondering if it is too soon—”
“Do you love her?”
“Then it is not too soon.”
The ring is two bands twined together, the banal symbol of interlocked spirits, but I cannot deny that it is beautifully made. “I shall engrave it,” Vorondil says, “one band with her favorite line of love poetry and the other with mine.” I nod; so he is capable of original thought after all. The thought startles me. Do I begrudge him? Of course I do. I hand the ring back to him.
“It is beautiful. And if she accepts? What of your ring?”
“I shall make it then and let her choose the design.” The ring is slipped back into his pocket, close against his body and away from my jealous eyes, and with it gone, we each lift our eyes to the other like shy maidens contemplating the object of our desire in front of us—belonging to us—for the first time.
We speak long this night, on topics ranging from metallurgy to my father, our words coming faster as our bellies—and brains—fill with the intoxicating tea. Annawendë slips into the conversation with all of the aplomb of a leaf falling upon our heads, and I speak for the first time outside the family of what happened—or perhaps, what didn’t happen—between us and am surprised to feel Vorondil’s hand suddenly clasp my wrist, his fingers bony and slightly cold but the touch so obviously meant to be comforting that I put my hand atop his and feel his growing warmer beneath it.
It is only when our inebriation drags us toward sleep that I reluctantly rise to leave, and he walks me to the door. “Maitimo,” he says, as I fumble the doorknob, “I have heard no word from her.”
Indeed, I know this. I nod and manage to thank him through lips and tongue thickened by drink, and words slip out after this: “I’m sorry. For the loss of your friend.”
I step into the night. The rain has stopped and the land is sodden, the air heavy with the earthy odor of rain-soaked soil, the sweet-pungent scent of wet grass beneath it. Behind me, Vorondil says something, the meaning of which refuses to seep into my brain, instead bumping against it with the futility of a moth against a lamp, barred from the flame.
“She may yet return.”