By the Light of Roses
A House amid the Shadows
I waited for the carriage in the silver light of morning, before the Mingling of the Lights, even, when a chilly mist still shrouded the city and made glittering halos around the lamps. Tirion slept but I--a student of lore--was accustomed to waking at such inhumane hours, and I waited in front of my father’s house with my belongings in meager bundles at my feet and the letter in my pocket: just a slip of paper but with such profound weight that my fingers constantly touched it as though fearing that by its weight it had torn through the material of my robes and would be lost.
I heard the carriage--hoofbeats and creaking wheels--before the horse manifested in slow degrees from the mist and the carriage after it, an undignified thing of graying wood and a canvas covering to keep the occasional rainshower from dampening the cargo. A small, spry Elf perched on the bench, and the carriage had barely slowed before he was leaping to the ground and sweeping up my belongings and tossing them into the back, even the parcel with the books, which was heavy, his skinny arms bunching with muscle.
“Up with you now.” He leaped back onto his high seat and offered a hand and pulled me up beside him. The carriage itself was filled with packages and parcels that would be delivered all across Aman. I suppose that was my fate too: I was a parcel to be carted and delivered for a fee, most likely, and left on the stoop of a house in Formenos to be claimed and disappear behind doors, out of awareness of the rest of the world forever.
With a clicking of the tongue and reins flicked across the horse’s neck, we were on our way again, passing through the lower circles of the city, past neat bungalows and smithies just coming to life, then through the gates and onto the plain, where the horse began tossing his head and begging for more rein, which--an impish grin upon his face and glinting eyes slanting toward me--the driver gladly gave, even cracking his whip and shouting, splitting the silent morning air, with loud joy that made me wince and watch the earth disappearing faster and faster beneath the carriage wheels.
“You did not look back.”
Laurelin had exploded into splendor and gone was the peace of early morning. We had been driving for some hours, fallen into an easy, rhythmic pace, passing the plain and into the forest, along the light-dappled road and past the iron gate now closed and chained: the House of Fëanáro, at the far borders of which the Valar had drawn the boundaries of Tirion, giving them excuse to drive the insolent prince from his home.
Stopping a few hours earlier, I had been permitted to retrieve one of my books, and I read it as we rode, grateful for the distraction to stave off conversation … until the driver’s voice had suddenly split my thoughts and sent the Vanyarin words I studied spilling from my mind and scattering along the road behind us. You did not look back. What was that supposed to mean?
I was tempted, of course, to ignore him: Most people believed that I did not hear; those who knew me better knew better. I heard, I simply did not reply. I grieved my mother with my “impertinence,” as she called it. My father I angered with the same. In my mind, words arrayed themselves perfectly; I spoke with composure and grace and was never at a humiliating--as they say--“loss for words.” But those words were easily forgotten when confronted with actual conversation. It seemed that other Elves replied as they wished, not as I necessarily imagined they would, and this was distressing. I feared that what I imagined would be acquiescence would turn into an argument, and I would not be prepared. And so sudden questions like those asked by the driver, I usually ignored under a pretense of being so absorbed in my work that I had not heard.
Only I’d flinched, betrayed my cover, and the driver’s small, dark eyes were intent upon me, awaiting an answer. “L-look back?” I said, a nervous smile pinching and twisting my lips. “At what?”
“At Tirion, of course. It is a beautiful place, if you have not noticed.” He grinned at me to show that he was teasing but it did not stop my heart from succumbing into a flurry of nervous patters in my chest. “Most people, upon leaving Tirion, twist around in their seats to watch it receding behind them. They wear a look like this.” While driving, holding the reins in one hand, he imitated them turning and craning their necks to view the city growing small behind them; his face fell into a sorrowful parody of woe--brows furrowed, mouth down-turned--and I choked on the surprising laughter that rose in my throat. Turning back to the road, the driver joined me in laughter and flicked the reins to make the horse go faster.
“I … I am happy to be going where I am going,” I answered when our laughter subsided. I touched the letter in my pocket, feeling parchment growing oily and smudged from too much handling, as though I could read the words upon it with my fingers. I nearly could; certainly, I remembered exactly what they said. With eyes closed and a flutter of disbelief in my stomach, I thought that the distance between Fëanáro and me was growing smaller with each passing moment--and the distance between Tirion and me was growing greater. Things were as they should be.
The driver’s shrewd eyes, I saw upon opening my own, were intent upon me, and I realized that a corner of the letter had been tugged from my pocket. Hastily, I shoved it deep inside and forced both of my hands to clutch my book. “But you are going to the House of Fëanáro,” said the driver, “and our prince has no daughters.”
He thought that I was going for love. Of course: the early-morning departure; the barely-suppressed glee; the letter in the pocket, constantly touched for comfort. A flush heated my face. “Oh … no,” I said. “No, I was accepted as an apprentice to Prince Fëanáro in the study of letters and lore.”
“Indeed.” The driver’s face had turned back to the road, and his sudden inattention and silence told me that he had much to say but he was too polite to say it.
I had heard stories, of course, about the House of Fëanáro, particularly his estate in Formenos. Many of the tales came from my own father, who has ever been loyal to Prince Nolofinwë and slightly scornful of Fëanáro. Not me, though. Beneath my robes, beneath my tunic--clothing of the colors chosen by my father, blue and silver--upon my skin with red ink, I would etch Stars of Fëanáro onto my skin until it looked as though my very blood had shoved to the surface and shown itself in loyalty to the dark-haired, fire-eyed prince. I had been but a small child, barely to my father’s knee, when I “met” him for the first time, when my mother had taken me into the lowest circle of Tirion one day, to the market, to buy vegetables. The place was cluttered and noisy and filled with many identical pairs of legs--women in practical dresses and practical boots dusty with use--and I’d turned to watch a farmer navigating a wheelbarrow of pomegranates through the throng of people, and when I’d turned back, I’d lost my mother.
There were many women who looked like my mother, with dark hair and tidy clothes, but none that were my mother, with her smell of dust and ink stains upon her fingers. I huddled in the dust and waited, certain that she would find me and that my worry was unnecessary, but each passing second had the weight of hours, and my heart beat faster and faster as though time was also passing faster and faster, and I imagined my mother climbing the streets home without me, her feet receding and leaving empty stairs behind; I imagined Telperion taking dominion and the streets growing dark, and I tried to remember my way home and could not. Panic burst in my chest and gut the way that a flock of birds will rise suddenly, inexplicably in clouds so thick that the light is momentarily blocked and all that is heard is beating wings; my fat little-boy’s legs pinioned me from the ground and in a panicked flight, screaming for my mother, rushing around a forest of identical legs and identical boots, toward an empty, leg-free space ahead of me, where I could circle (I hoped) and find my mother. I pushed between two women and into midday light as blinding as a mirror flashed in my eyes, squinting, tears hot against my cheeks and falling harder in the assault from the light, pushing into the emptiness with hands groping before me for the feel of familiar flesh. I did not see the horse drawing the heavy cart; I did not realize that it was upon me until I heard the rumble of wheels and smelled the hot stink of horseflesh, but it was too late by then; I would be crushed, killed, and forever separated from my mother.
But for the arms that seized me: strong, faceless arms whipping me from the road just in time, just as the horse’s cool shadow passed over me like death portended, and I was pressed to a body so warm and so full of life that I was reminded of the way the water at the surface of a fountain will become hot and excited in the direct daylight until it feels like a bath in such water can heal a person of anything: and my rescuer went from being just arms to being a figure, a person, though still faceless.
His arms around me--one cradling my back and the other supporting my bottom--were expert. My face was pressed to his throat, breathing his electric scent and looking at skin as rich as cream that fluttered with his pulse that I wanted to put my baby fingers over except that I feared it would scorch me. And at his throat, he wore a pendant: an eight-pointed star with a stone at the center of exceptional brilliance, cut into numberless facets that each seemed to reflect a slice of Laurelin’s light, each of a slightly differently hue. I had a feeling of moving, of being carried by swift, confident legs, and a breath whispered comfort into my hair, but all I saw was the pendant and the beautiful stone, shifted now and pulsing over the vein in his throat as though they--the stone and the man--shared in the same blood and the same life.
My hand wrested free of the crush between my body and his, and I was going to touch the stone and feel the movement of his blood--touch his life--but I was plunged into my mother’s cool arms then, and she was sobbing into my hair, and when I wriggled free enough from her vice-like grip of me and turned to watch the figure departing, I saw only a red cloak and satin-black hair slipping through the crowd with the ease of a ship upon water. I never saw his face.
And when I touched my cheeks, I discovered that my panicked tears had dried there, as though they’d never been.
Of course, I eventually learned the identity of my rescuer, sooner rather than later, for the ordeal made an entertaining story for my mother to tell at feasts: how her own son Eressetor had been saved by--of all people!--Prince Fëanáro. There was an air of incredulity and, yes, honor in the telling of that story, as though I’d been chosen somehow to live by Fëanáro rather than merely scooped out of the street in an action that the most depraved among us would surely even stop to do. And there was a touch of humor, too, in my mother’s telling. Of all people! And laughter. My mother was an intense woman, usually cheerful, an illustrator of books of lore and very gifted--so it was said--but mercurial, with emotions as bright and varied as the rainbow of inkpots that I had learned from a young age to never touch. I somehow felt I was a disappointment to her: that she, a bird of exotic, dazzling plumage, should be given a son like me, the plucked and helpless fledgling sitting in a useless heap in the nest. My father too--an architect of some renown (though lesser-known than my mother, I would come to learn)--was gregarious though slightly temperamental and known to indulge in the occasional diatribe against particularly disfavored lords. Prince Fëanáro, of course, was one such lord, and my father's brow was wont to furrow at my mother’s telling of the tale. As a couple, their voices filled the room: my father’s, commanding, and my mother’s a gentle counterpoint, a perfect compliment, running like the laughter of water beneath solid soil.
When I grew older, I read of Prince Fëanáro in the lorebooks of the library. By then, he’d made the Silmarils, and he was often the topic of discussion at tables all around Tirion. Even my father, begrudgingly, admitted a fondness for Fëanáro’s blessed gemstones. The pendant which he’d been wearing on the day of my rescue, I learned, was also of some fame, regarded as the most beautiful of his works prior to the Silmarils: Kuldamírë, it was called, designed to capture and enhance the light of Laurelin. Its only flaw was that in the hours of Telperion, it lay as ordinary as a chunk of adamant at his throat and--in the words of one craftsman--“was eclipsed by the beauty of its wearer.”
In the distance, at festivals, I would see him, although I learned not to jump to get a better view. Better to jump for Prince Nolofinwë than to risk angering my father.
It was best to find Fëanáro, I learned, in the depths of library, amid the dusty tomes collected by the Valar and generally disregarded by the Elves. Fëanáro alone, it seemed, thought the authoring of books to be a worthy pursuit, as though he expected to one day be unable to pass along his accumulated lore. So great was my joy upon finding one of his works amid the stacks one day that my legs felt as though they gone watery and lost all substance, and I nearly fainted from happiness. With great effort, I held myself up; I slipped the book beneath my tunic because I could not risk signing the ledger and knowing that my father would know what--and whom--I read.
In the street with the book still cool against my nervous, flushed skin, I ran home, ignorant of how guilty I looked, filled only with a longing to read and absorb Fëanáro’s words, to turn each phrase over and over in my mind and pretend that he was speaking directly to me. Really…wasn’t he? I wondered how he’d imagined his “audience” while writing; I saw myself sitting in the front row, upon the floor, with my prissy braids and overeager eyes, legs folded into a pretzel and leaning my elbows on my knees. His voice was a thick and heady as the syrup poured over cakes at my mother’s most extravagant feasts, clinging with the same tenacity to inside of my mind until I thought of him constantly and took to whispering my favorites of his passages to myself when alone.
This was the year that I became “hungry for books”--or that is how my mother called it. My father called it the year that I “finally found my purpose” … with the greater emphasis falling on “finally,” a wry smile twisting features a lot--too much--like mine. I began calling myself a “student of lore” that year; such a title let me read the works of Fëanáro without suspicion, so long as they were buried between the works of Rúmil and Aulë and Elemmírë. To avoid suspicion.
Something nudged my shoulder … no, someone. With a groan, I roused and found that we were no longer moving; we were stopped in a place I did not recognize, a place where the light was strange as though filtered through a veil of cloth. I realized that I could not see as far or as well, yet there was a peace to it also, a gentleness to the light that made me wonder if my head had ached for the duration of my life in Valinor.
“We are here,” said the driver, as though I did not already know that: here, in Formenos.
To the right of us was a gate and--beyond that--a path leading over a hill. I saw something twisting, rising from the earth: that was the House of Fëanáro, of which I had heard much. My father’s contemporaries spoke of it with scornful awe: designed by Fëanáro himself and rising as does a rock from the land around it, humble in appearance and prideful in adamancy, standing straight against the sky and casting shadows where only light should lay. But before I could wonder at this, my eyes drifted to the gate, a structure as delicate-looking and ethereal as a spiderweb, made of gold--it appeared--yet dull in the strange light, shining with a meek luster. Yet I was not deceived; I knew that it was strong. At the center of the gate was a Star of Fëanáro, and my heart and gut clenched at the same time and I blinked hard as though dispelling a dream. But the shape on the gate did not change, and my heart gave into joy and pattered briskly in my chest.
The driver had scurried around to help me to the ground, but I climbed down on my own accord, ignorant of the pain in my body from being jarred along on such a long journey, and I walked to the gate. Up close, my eyes began to take apart its design, and I saw that in the very curves that gave it delicate beauty, there lay strength and fortification; one bar could not be bent or broken without also bending or breaking another two bars in turn…and so it went. It was indestructible--or so I believed--a model of perfection. And up close, I saw that I had been mistaken: It was not made of gold after all but copper. The sharp stink of the metal reminded me of loose teeth and bitten tongues; my nose wrinkled. I wondered why Fëanáro had chosen such an unsightly metal--unsightly and weak--prone to tarnish for the construction of his otherwise-perfect gate.
The driver came up beside me--hands laden with my baggage--and pushed through the gate with some impertinence. It swung open easily, silently. I opened my mouth to protest, but he turned and grinned back at me. “You did not expect to be greeted, I hope?”
In fact, I had. It is custom to greet guests at the gate; it is custom also to respect the gate and not enter it without invitation. Stubbornly, I lingered on the other side of it, though it now stood partially open and the driver was lurching up the path under the burden of my trunk and parcels. He turned again. “Do not delude yourself, boy,” he said, his voice hard beneath the humored veneer. “Guest or not, he will not meet you. You will be standing there until I return a year from now, and you do not want that. This is not Tirion. The rains are cold and hard here.”
With a feeling of pushing against a strong current, I stepped through the gate and pressed forward up the path, head low, until I drew abreast of the driver. “There now, boy, perhaps you’ll survive here after all. You do not learn rules here so much as forget them, and you might as well start by forgetting the notion of ‘custom.’” He laughed a brittle laugh and we continued, side by side, over the crest of the hill, where the House of Fëanáro lay in a hollow.
Many times over the years had I painted the House of Fëanáro in my imagination but I did not expect the house huddled in the hollow, beneath the shadows of the mountain, every window ablaze with lamplight. It was hard, even, for me to reconcile the edifice before me with my notion of “house” for it looked like no house I had ever seen, rising from the pool of shadows to twist into dark spires against the sky with a star at the peak of each. Conflicting thoughts pervaded my mind: It is ugly--no, it is beautiful. I could not decide; I would never decide.
Like a thing of nature, its form, its beauty were derived from function, the way a leaf is shaped to cup the rain and turn from the worst heat of day, a jewel fragile against the light but made that way on purpose. Formenos was made strong: just another rock amid the hills. Its halls and rooms spawned from each other with the senselessness of a vine overtaking an arbor, yet I would never find myself lost within them for--as an arbor gives structure to the meandering vine--there was an underlying sense to Fëanáro’s home as well. What I expected around a corner was always there; where I expected a hall to lead did just as expected. In learning them, I would follow their evolution in the mind of their creator, an intimacy I’d never before dared to presume; each correct conclusion underscored my hope, the whisper in my mind: Fate. You are fated to stand beside him.
Thrilling, when the pieces fall where they are supposed to. Where you want them to.
Down the path we walked and into the hollow, into the shadow of the house. In the meager light of the north, the shadows are delicate, insidious, and it is harder to recognize when plunging into one. For some time, I stood in the shadow of the House of Fëanáro without realizing it, waiting while the driver raised his fist and knocked upon the door, waiting for the sharp sound to cease echoing and turn into a hurried patter of quick footfalls, and the door gave way before us.
I drew my body straighter; I tried to look dignified, deserving of such an appointment as the apprentice of Prince Fëanáro (the words alone still filled me with glee and dread); I felt my hands at fists at my sides, my heart beating faster. I suppose that my anticipation showed in my wide, nervous eyes, but there was nothing to be done about that. I tried not to tremble.
But I was disappointed, for the one who answered the door wasn’t Prince Fëanáro at all but one of his sons, a youthful-faced Elf with ratty red hair, barefoot, with his tunic coming untied at his chest. “Oh,” he said, looking at me, looking at my baggage at the driver’s feet. “That is today, isn’t it? Well, you should come in, I suppose.” And he held open the door for us, scratching at a spot on his neck that looked like it hadn’t been washed in a while. “You can leave those over there,” he said to the driver. “We’ll have them taken to his room. Sometime.” He waved his hand dismissively. “Do you want some water?” I wasn’t sure if he’d spoken to me or to the driver--or maybe both of us--but the driver laughed and declined: “No, I have other deliveries to make.”
“Oh, sure. Of course. Well, in a few months then?”
And he was gone without farewell, departed through the door without escort from the young red-haired Elf who was digging at his neck again and looking at my luggage with pursed lips and furrowed brow, a mixture of irritation and deliberation. But that quickly, his attention was torn away; he was pondering me and I saw that his eyes were as clear and gray as two pools of water. “You are Eressetor?”
“I am Ambarussa.”
We appraised each other; he stared unabashed and so I did too: his skin as pale as cream though visibly dirty; his face like that of a porcelain doll with a smallish nose and a mouth that was somehow prim; a smattering of freckles across the bridge of his nose; his hair the color of rust and quite tangled. I let my gaze slide down his neck to the triangle of naked chest bared beneath his tunic and abruptly looked away. He was not so shy, and he let his eyes slide over the length of my body, smiling when he was finished as though I’d passed some sort of inspection. “Well,” he said, “since you’re here, I might as well show you to your room.” Raking his hair back from his face, he pondered my baggage again with a sigh. “Naturally, my brothers would have absconded. But we should be able to haul this up the stairs in a single trip--the two of us--don’t you think--rather than wait? You look like you might be strong.”
I was tiny with a narrow, almost sunken chest and prominent ribs; my arms were like sticks, and there was no way that I could be mistaken for “strong.” But I said nothing and took the parcels that he handed me--filled with clothes, mostly--while he took the trunk with my books piled atop it. I followed him to the stairs. He seemed content in silence but I--nervous--wanted conversation. “Your brothers?” I said. I hated how my voice squeaked like nails being ripped from metal. “Don’t you have a twin?”
“Yes. A twin and five brothers in addition. None of whom, apparently, heard the knock at the door.”
“But your twin … he is not close by?”
Ambarussa snorted. “You believe the rumors, then? That we are inseparable? Ambarussa lost interest in me when he discovered an interest in girls.” Perhaps believing his words too harsh, he quickly added in a gentler tone: “He has a betrothed in the city, and he has gone to see her tonight. Mayhap he will return before morning … or not.” He turned and winked at me and started up the stairs, leaping two at a time. He carried my trunks and books with enviable ease while I trudged behind him, trying not to miss a step and embarrass myself further. He waited at the top.
We started down the hall, side by side. The House of Fëanáro was a simple place, not crusted in ornamentation like the House of Nolofinwë or (I had heard) the King’s palace: the floors were plain and unadorned beneath our feet, scratched planks that might have once been buffed to a high shine but were long-neglected and bore the wear of many pairs of boots; the walls held few tapestries and paintings; illumination came from Fëanorian lamps in sconces on the walls, casting a blue pallor over the hallway, making me feel as though I was underwater. I nearly expected the air to ripple in resistance around me, yet the opposite seemed to happen, and I breathed easier here, as I never had in Tirion.
Or at least, had not in a long while.
I expected the paintings and meager ornamentation to be of unsurpassed quality but most were quite ordinary, aside from several marble statues of Elves and animals littering a windowsill in overwhelming quantities, as though their collector couldn’t get enough of them. I found myself slowing, wanting to look at each in turn. They might have danced in the palm of my hand, they were so realistic. I found myself flinching from a bobcat leaping at my face, suspended in stone. Ambarussa paused, waited. “My mother’s,” he said. “She never came back for them.” Color rose in his cheeks and he hustled down the hall. “Come. It’s not much farther now.”
The other artifacts, though, were elementary, really; things that I might even have done. A painting of a seascape with the ships suspended clumsily atop the water; a lumpy ceramic vase with a glass daisy inside. Ambarussa saw me looking at it and paused, saying with awkward pride, “I made that. Well … I made the vase. Ambarussa made the flower. Atar wouldn’t let us drop them from the top turret.” He laughed hoarsely. “As they should be.”
“Oh … no …” I said weakly. They were clumsy, yes, but if they were of a child’s hand …
“Now, if you are this ‘scholar of renown’ as Atar says you are then you’d better not disappoint him with such rubbish. He will expect you to be a far keener critic than that.” He gave me such a look that I nearly believed that he would have been happier to hear me insult his childhood masterpiece. “Come,” he said, jerking his head in the direction of my chamber. “My arms can’t hold these forever.”
But they might. His arms were ropey, hard with muscle, beneath the short sleeves of his tunic. I was trying not to stare.
But when he looked away and I allowed myself the luxury--russet hair clinging to white satin skin--my eyes returned to his face a moment later to find him watching me intensely. And he winked, as though we shared in a conspiracy.