By the Light of Roses
By the Light of Roses
He announced it to us that night at supper, standing at the head of the table with all faces inclined to him.
He looked at none of us as he spoke but rather over our heads, like a king addressing a crowd. Even I--his beloved--called such bare hours before, he would not meet my eyes.
"Manwë has deemed that I shall return to Tirion, to come among our people for the Spring Festival and make my recompense." His voice was bold, as carefully constructed to be noble and unwavering as were the towers and spires that marked the Tirion skyline. We were not his family but his subjects, expected to accept his will without question.
I felt his sons shifting restively, a motion as subtle as the sound of a turning page. Curufinwë snorted. "Surely you won’t! Surely you won’t kneel before those who hold the keys to our cages!"
"Kneel? No. But I will go. I will go in the manner of one grieved, without festival raiment, to show our people the nature of the Valarin generosity. That they drive me from the gates of my own home, from the city where my father is king, and into the cold north; they leave my family the choice to suffer here or stand divided, and when their whim suits, they invite me back, not out of any concern for our well-being or our joy but because they hunger for the light of the Silmarils and desire to rekindle friendship as the exile draws to a close, to make a parody of diplomacy, so that they may always say--when the rebellion comes (and it will)--that they made worthy attempts with us, to treat us with kindness and dignity, that they have given us every choice to live free in this realm. How is there exile in freedom? A man who is free cannot be likewise banished, and it is captors--not friends--who seek to bar a man from happiness and home. But you know this, my daughters and sons, and our family has stood strong despite their attempts to do otherwise. We will become stronger still, in the weeks to come."
We sat in silence and pondered this. I saw that he had at last let his gaze fall upon one of us: me.
Quickly, I looked away.
Then, I reconsidered: He did not know that I knew. He believed me to be as naïve as his sons, and who was I to destroy the illusion? Let him remain unaware of the power that he had created in me.
With the last bit of strength in my wounded heart, I lifted my chin to meet his eyes. And I smiled.
I was finishing my treatise that night on the evolution of the thorn into the s sound when he came for me. He’d been busy with his own work, preparing now for the journey to Tirion. The Spring Hunt had been abandoned, although I’d heard his sons’ unruly voices as they squeezed like a slow-moving clog of chaos down the narrow hallway to the family parlor; their voices, to my ears now grown accustomed--or maybe tired--of hearing them now sounded less like seven individuals and more like a single voice with all its range of intonations, as though they were a single being, from Telvo to Curufinwë. From that singular voice, I’d discerned that the Spring Hunt would still be held, even in Fëanáro’s absence.
But that which had, until this morning, meant so much to him: forgotten.
He sat on the corner of the table and watched me work. I said nothing to him, but this was not unusual: We each were scholars and knew the way of the trade, knew how easily inspiration could be stemmed, diverted, and never found again. He watched my quill scratch across the parchment, my handwriting sloppy, a dishonor to his beautiful alphabet, as the words poured forth: this, my final treatise in my year as his apprentice. "You will become my assistant," he’d said, and there had been excitement in his voice. The merging of our ideas, I understood, would take the place of the merging of our spirits.
Which was impossible, of course, because he was already married.
"You will become my assistant, and when the apprentices arrive, you will oversee their academic work, and I will oversee their practical work."
"Apprentices?" I’d asked. I’d supposed that this was how normal couples felt, circling the empty rooms of the house that would be theirs or planning the conception and naming of their firstborn child. "The word is plural now?"
"Yes. There shall be two, I have decided." His eyes had sparked like the capricious fire licking at the sky, seeking to infect--and consume--more than what it had been given. I understood that his joy for learning and knowledge was such that it couldn’t be contained within just him or even within him and me. He needed to pass it on to others, until all of Aman was covered with those taught to think like he did.
Now, that seemed sinister.
I’d chosen this topic--the thorn, that which certain scholars teasingly claimed to be the cause of the breach between the Houses of Fëanáro and Nolofinwë, not knowing the truth behind their claims--with particular care, for it would be the treatise that I would write with the most passion, perhaps putting into better, more rational words than even Fëanáro had. Perhaps I would sway the Noldor to his side in this matter, and the rest would follow.
That had been my hope, unspoken, but he’d known, and he’d approved my topic with a pleased smile teasing his lips.
Now, my quill faltered and stopped in mid-sentence.
His hand slipped along my cheek and tucked my unfettered hair behind my ear, lingering there, the thumb tracing the delicate whorl, the sensitive tip, as though memorizing it for one of his sculptures. "I remember when you first came to me," he said, "and you would not appear outside your chambers without your hair braided so severely that I feared it might pull from your scalp. And your raiment! Those robes, even in the heat of summer, with the embroidery so itchy … I thought, ‘Here is a man who likes to torture himself.’ " He lifted my chin and searched my eyes. Maybe he was looking for truth in that? "But I discovered that you like pleasure too, though you were long in succumbing to me. And now, I wonder, what happened to the robes and the braids that must have taken you an hour each morning?"
They had. But I had discovered an enthusiasm for something greater than appearance and decorum, the diligent manners of the elite. I glanced at the stack of papers beneath my hands pressed flat against them.
"I still have them," I said. "The robes, that is. The braids also can return at any time."
He leaned close to my face, his breath a whisper upon trembling lips. "I never want to see them again." He kissed me with lips parted, tongue sliding against my stubborn mouth. But I could not resist him. From the night we began as lovers--by the glow of the roses--I had not been able to resist him.
He led me to his bedroom though his sons were still in noisy council in the family parlor, led me past closed doors and empty rooms, and had my clothes off before we’d even reached his bedroom. Yet neither of us took the other, and it was a strange kind of pleasure--flesh pressing flesh and our lips plying gentle kisses--deliberate, without the sudden violence of orgasm. As water will come to a slow boil atop a fire, so pleasure infused us, until it could not be contained by body alone, and the room--all of Arda, maybe--seemed to center on two bodies lying side by side, as equals, with arms and legs tangled and indiscernible as to which belonged to whom. We were pressed so close that our breaths matched--I inhaled for his exhale--and we were opposites, yes, but also with inevitable synchronicity: Laurelin and Telperion, each separate and different but unable to escape the other, our fates likewise entwined.
The silver light in the skylight overhead faded until there was only darkness punctured by a thousand scattered stars. I lay with my back in the curve of Fëanáro’s body, his breath moving my hair and warming my flesh as though his nourishment, his life was mine as well.
"Eressetor," he said, "I love you."
His palm was pressing my belly over my navel. I lifted his hand in mine, fingers twined, and kissed his palm that tasted of salt, the skin as soft and resolute as suede; the hand from which greatness had been derived: two loves, seven sons, and countless treasures. Why was I given the power to see through his love, to know that I had taken the second place in his heart, yet I was not given the will to resist, to wrench away? Why did I take comfort in his heartbeat at my back and his hand content to lie in mine?
Why did my voice whisper, with the inevitability of an echo, my voice subordinate and dependent upon his: "I love you too?"
For I did.
Finwë returned three days before the heralding of spring, and Fëanáro left the next morning upon his fastest horse, riding for Tirion.
Upon his back, he carried nothing but his clothes, those of the plainest craftsman: a white tunic over fawn-colored breeches and sturdy boots to his knees, his hair tied back in an unflattering horsetail. "I will drink of rivers and eat of the land," he’d said to his father’s concerns, and when Finwë asked, "But how, son, shall you wash your teeth? Comb your hair?" he only laughed.
The sons scorned seeing him off--"Pity the day that I give my time to some frivolity devised by the Valar!"--but yet they all appeared and stood for once in silence, in a reverent half-ring. Finwë and I stood aside.
Fëanáro laughed at our formality, "I shall be returned to you in five days! Do not act as though I am exiled yet again!" yet he bade each of us farewell in turn. Tyelperinquar kissed his grandfather’s cheek, and his daughters-in-law embraced him. To each son, he said something that none of the others heard, and he made a show of clapping Finwë into hearty embrace, then held him long, unspeaking, eyes opened and unblinking, while Finwë whispered in his ear.
He came to me last and took my hand in his. "Eressetor," he said and nothing else, for what remained to be said could not--not here--and had already been said the night before anyway. I nodded. "Fëanáro."
Swinging onto his horse, he heeled him through the gate and was gone.
The next evening, I made my excuses to retire early to bed. I’d been sitting with the sons, all of us silent but attentive, as though we expected to hear something rising from beyond the horizon. I dared glance up from my book once and sneaked a look around the room: We resembled a warren of rabbits with ears pointed at the sky, awaiting a sign of trouble. Giggles burbled to my lips, and I covered them with a cough, to which only Maitimo had the manners to reply, "Blessings."
"Thank you," I replied, and made my excuses not long after.
I was halfway up the stairs, pondering another sleepless night in my lonely bed, when I heard footsteps behind me and Maitimo called, "Eressetor?" I turned. "We are still going on the Spring Hunt, leaving at the zenith of Telperion and … we would like you to come."
" ‘We,’ Maitimo? Or ‘you’ feel that it is polite and decorous to ask me, the apprentice of your father?" I said, surprising myself with my own insolence, sounding more like Fëanáro than I’d intended.
Maitimo, though, was unfazed, but then, he would have to be, growing up and surviving in the House of Fëanáro. " ‘We,’ " he said, "feel that since our father wished you to come, then you should. It will do none of us any good to sit about the house for another night and day, wondering how things are faring and when he will return to us." The word when was deliberately pronounced. I’d heard him and Macalaurë arguing earlier that day; Macalaurë seemed to believe that if Fëanáro reunited with his wife, then he would not return to Formenos, even driven out upon the blades of the Valar. "It does you no good either," he added, and his glance skipped from mine then, and I knew that he knew.
Heart hammering in my chest, I said nothing.
"We all love him," said Maitimo, "each in our own way, and we shall ride in his honor."
"Then I shall come," I said.
With Maitimo, we went to the private study of Finwë, and Maitimo knocked once upon the door. "Enter," came the stern voice, followed by a softer, gentler, "please."
Finwë was hunched over his desk, working avidly over some papers that--when I peered closer--seemed to have no purpose aside from distraction. Maitimo was careful not to look. He made the same speech to Finwë as he’d made to me about riding in honor of Fëanáro. Finwë turned to listen to him with the amused smile of a grandfather hearing his grandson’s first recitation of his numerals, leaning his head upon his fingertips, but Finwë did not likewise concede.
"Nelyo," he said, using Maitimo’s ancient childhood epessë with such ease that I knew it was deliberate, "what your father failed to understand about my willingness to participate in this--what you, perhaps, will understand, being of more pliable mind than is he--is that the life we left behind in the Outer Lands is not something of mystery and romance for me; it is not even myth or history or tradition. It was something that I did not live so much as survive, and I understand--as your father does not--that the events surrounding the Spring Hunt that have earned the euphemistic title of ‘traditions’ were not celebrations. They were essential, then, to our survival; they were brutal and they were cruel. It was a blood-soaked day that we all longed to forget upon our arrival here, for we were no better than the beasts that we hunted on that day … or the beasts that hunted us. What you father does not understand is that I do not want to go back, to that time or that place, and that I brought my people here and wed my wife in the Light of Valinor because I wanted my son never to know it either.
"And now, I do what I must to ensure that our people remain here, where we need not usurp festivals for bloodshed ever again.
"I will not stop you, Maitimo, for each celebrates this day in the way that he pleases, in the way that has the most meaning for him. And perhaps, had I not lived the reality of it centuries ago, then I too would find significance in resurrecting that which is best left buried. But I will not join you, and I hope that you will explain my reasons to your brothers as you see best fit so that they understand that this is not a divisive choice on my part but rather one that I must make."
Maitimo bowed neatly and said not another word, and we went on the hunt without Finwë, leaving him alone in his study, sitting in the faint glow of stone lamps with his hands pressed upon the desk before him, staring into the night in the direction of Tirion.
In the shadows of the forest, we did not realize immediately that the Lights had gone out. It was the Mingling--the softest light of the day--and the light that reached us in Formenos under the best of conditions was thin and diluted by distance. In the depths of the forest, crashing headlong through the trees after a stag dancing just out of reach, we rode by the light of the stars overhead--as had our ancestors--and with our thoughts turned to the spillage of blood, several minutes had passed before we noticed the darkness as though it--as Finwë had portended--had also invaded our hearts.
Tyelkormo had just cut the throat of the struggling quarry--sawing through sinew and hide to spill its blood across his hands in an act of what we called "mercy"--when Telvo chanced to look up, a queer look upon his face, and I followed his gaze to the stars, shards of light whetted by the darkness, as sharp now as needles upon the bed of night.
It happened not long after: a roiling blackness, pestilent, and even the stars went dark, and I thought that the end of Arda had come--that which is portended in the myths--without ever having felt the ache of endless life in my bones, and I wondered, Where would Fëanáro’s spirit go? To me? Or to his wife?
But the darkness was not the ending of Arda: It was grief and madness, sickness and despair, borne upon the wind like a cloud of locusts; it stuffed itself down our throats until we could not scream or call for each other; it buzzed in our ears like one thousand flies feeding on rot. I screamed and screamed but no sound came out. I thrashed in the darkness and collided with trees, tripped over a root, groping the comfort of warm flesh, at last finding it, only to discover that I had not found one of the sons of Fëanáro but the slain deer, still warm with tenacious life, and I had stuck my hands in his blood.
I screamed and screamed but no sound came out. My voice would not rise above a whisper for days after.
Mercy we’d been delivering, although we hadn’t truly believed it at the time: delivering the creature beneath my sticky hands from life before he was consumed by Darkness, as we were now consumed.
The humid mouth of Darkness, closing upon us.
I envied the stag, for the swiftness of his death.
I screamed until all of the air was wrung from my lungs and I fainted, my mind curled upon its own private darkness before I even felt the slap of my face falling into the pool of blood.
Light triumphs over darkness. It is one of the rules of Eä.
That was Fëanáro’s voice, the day in his study that he’d closed all of the drapes--even tacking them at the sides to prevent the entrance of light--and had opened and shut a lamp upon the darkness. Yet even from around the seams, light crept forth; even when his hand clutched and covered it, the light went through his fingers, as though his blood and bone were of no consequence.
The blackness that had come upon us dissipated like smoke on the wind, and we walked home, our mounts having fled. We searched a while for them, calling and whistling, and came to a ravine and found Macalaurë’s gray mare at the bottom, her neck twisted and broken beneath her and a froth of agony upon her lips. He’d vomited into the leaves, and we’d all looked away, lest we did the same.
We hadn’t searched after that.
It took us the better part of the day to walk back to Formenos, and after a while, we realized that the light wasn’t coming back.
We walked in circles for a while; without the light to guide us to the south, we knew not in which direction we moved. At last, I made out the patterns of the stars above us, as I’d seen them so many times through the skylight above Fëanáro’s bed. "This way," I said, pointing at the bright blue star at the apex of a perfect equilateral triangle, my voice hoarse, torn by screaming. But in the absence of light, all birdsong had ceased; even the rivers had fallen mute, and my voice was heard. That those perfect moments of my life, spent in his arms and gazing upon the stars, should come to such dark fruition, I knew then that I would never again know such joy. "This way is south."
No one questioned me. In the darkness, our fear made us equals.
After a while, we came upon other Elves, also walking south. They had fled Formenos, when the darkness had come, running blindly across the plain and toward the forest. Many were injured--having tripped or collided with things, dragging injured limbs--and all were wide-eyed and silent. Sometimes, I would see one blinking, as though waiting for the shroud upon his eyes to be lifted, or maybe waiting to wake from a dream. Macalaurë and Telvo circled among them, calling for their spouses; Curufinwë whirled every woman with pale brown hair toward him, even those who could not possibly be mistaken for Terentaulë. I dared not think of my own lover and what might be his fate.
We arrived at the estate. The copper gate had been twisted open, wrenched aside.
We all spent a long time standing on the path, looking at that.
It was Telvo who whimpered, "Grandfather?" and propelled us all forward, Maitimo in the lead with his arm around the shoulders of his youngest brother. The front door to the house had been shattered into splinters, but we moved with the impetus of fear now and did not bother to stop and ponder it. The house echoed with footfalls, upon stairs that doubled upon themselves and senseless, twisting hallways, a house filled with voices. Grandfather! Grandfather! Grandfather! All along the hallways were strange, bright patches upon the walls where treasures and paintings had hung; that which could not be taken had been smashed into thousands of irreparable pieces.
My own voice, barely a croak, shouting in a whisper: Finwë!
I found myself at Maitimo’s side, barreling down the hallway that led to the study where we’d left him. There were two doors at the end: one leading to his study, the other to the garden and the strange, luminescent roses. Maitimo plunged into the study, shouting his grandfather’s name, but I did not follow. I stood with my hand upon the knob to the other door.
Beneath my hand, it slipped open, and I saw that it--like so many other things in the house--had been broken. Like a dead limb, it flopped open.
Amid the softly glowing roses lay the broken body of Finwë, the reek of blood and death mixing with the plushy-sweet smell of wine, of sap spilled from broken stems and falling like tears, upon the fleshy red faces of the roses, dripping onto the face, body--and wounds--of the King.
By the light of roses--the only light in the endless dark--the fate of the Noldor changed.
I reached for the door before Maitimo could see, but it was too late: He was at my back, his voice rising in a wail, fingers tearing at his own hair and his face a mask of agony, his screams punctuating the endless, swirling, hopeless and hope-filled calls of Grandfather? still circulating in the endless catacomb-hallways of the house behind us.
None of us could bear to be inside of the ruined house, and so we assembled in a small buzzing mass on the wide walkway leading to the broken front door. The sons cloistered themselves from all others--wives, children, me--in the burnt, broken grass beside the path: Ambarussa, embracing; Maitimo consoling Tyelkormo as he himself wept; Carnistir railing senselessly while Curufinwë listened--making mud with his tears--and Macalaurë stroked his hair.
Terentaulë and Vingarië had come up from Formenos. I stood to the side with them; they were whispering furtively. "We must return to Tirion! To Fëanáro!" Vingarië was saying, but Terentaulë swiped the tears from her eyes and said, "I--I shall not."
"You shall not?" Vingarië’s voice: incredulous.
"No, for--for my husband--I shall not remain with him. This is the end of their--of our--family." She began sobbing, hiding her face in Tyelperinquar’s flaxen hair.
I felt it too: It was only the beginning of madness. I felt it radiating from the small cluster of Fëanáro’s sons like heat from a crucible of molten metal, that which is solid and whole reduced to feeble liquid, able to be remade into shapes both mad and dangerous.
In my mind, a thousand connections were coming together, as I knew that they would in Fëanáro’s, and the net that they made would ensnare us all.
Unless we remained here, pledging allegiance to no one.
Terentaulë was crying. "I will take Tyelperinquar, I have a cousin in the north, I shall raise him in peace and he shall never know the hurt of war--" Her voice was rising but the sons of Fëanáro--not even her husband--heard her to pay her any mind.
The beginning of madness.
In the midst of it all, I wondered: What would become of me?
I wept for the lost King and the darkness upon the world, but also for Fëanáro, for surely he was lost to me now as well, and I would never know love again for the whole of my endless life.
Selfishly, I wept most for this.
From the darkness at the end of the path, a shape emerged; the shape had broad shoulders and a wide, beautiful face with amber-colored eyes. There was dirt on his hands, for he’d been sowing new life within the earth even as his husband had been taking it within the forest: Nandolin. He carried an old tin lamp, the kind that held a candle quivering within it. All of the lamps of the house had been smashed and their stones taken, and we blinked in surprise at the light.
No one paid him any mind, least of all the sons of Fëanáro. Telvo’s face was buried in his twin’s shoulder; his back heaved with gulping sobs and grief that had no voice. And Nandolin, incredibly, did not heed the sons of Fëanáro either but came to us: Terentaulë, Vingarië, and me.
"We must take the road with greatest haste to Tirion," he said. "My father will lend us horses, and if we do not sleep, we shall make it by--" he hesitated, for none of us knew the time of day, not without the Trees. "We shall make it by tomorrow."
None of us answered him. Vingarië was gently rocking Terentaulë in her arms. I looked at the ground.
"Do you see them?" Nandolin asked, pointing to the sons of Fëanáro. He spoke awkwardly, always as though there was a chunk of granite beneath his tongue. "Do you see their unquestioning solidarity? Why is it that we--the ones they love--stand aside? Is it because they can smell our doubt upon us like blood?"
"We cannot--" Terentaulë began, her voice like a cracking whip, but Nandolin interrupted her. "We can. And will. How dare we call ourselves family if we forsake them now? Our family?" His voice was driving like a fist, and we all winced.
Our doubt: it reeked upon us like blood.
"We will make our excuses in the years to come, that it was for the best, that we lacked the strength for what is to come … or maybe we will put the fault on them, on fights that we had and pain that they gave us. But really, it is simple: We are family, and we must go with them."
He turned then and strode into the insular cluster of Fëanáro’s sons. He went to Telvo and stroked his back while Pityo held his twin in his arms.
Vingarië’s arm slipped from Terentaulë’s shoulders.
She nodded at me as she passed. "Eressetor. If I do not--" Smiling to cover her fear. "Best wishes." And she went to slip her hand into Macalaurë’s, the hand that was not consoling Carnistir.
And from the path then came a surprising sight: the pretty, impatient face of Pityo’s betrothed eased into focus from the shadows. She paused and looked upon us--Terentaulë and me--before moving to stand solidly at Pityo’s side. In a reflection of Nandolin, her hand lifted to rest upon his shoulder, and she looked at us no more.
Curufinwë stood alone in the circle of brothers and Terentaulë also. She bounced Tyelperinquar and wept without end--but her feet slowly carried her to him, and he alone of the brothers caught his wife into his embrace, and the wept together, with Tyelperinquar held between them.
They began to move toward the path, and I watched them go. Nandolin was speaking again of horses in a voice awkward but strong, leading with the battered tin lamp held high in his hand as a beacon, and Maitimo was nodding through his tears. Amid the chaos, frail order was beginning to take hold.
I waited for Nandolin to turn back, to beckon me one last time to follow. I watched his lamp dancing down the path, growing smaller as he moved from me and left me in the darkness.
We are their family …
But it was Telvo, his gray eyes bright in the darkness, red-rimmed and swollen with tears, his hand caught in his brother’s on one side and his husband’s on the other, who turned and looked back at me. Eressetor?
Jogging to catch up with them, together, we began the walk to Tirion with the lamp held high, the tiny twist of fire striving bravely against the darkness.