By the Light of Roses
To Speak of It
I didn’t expect to sleep that night with my stomach twisted in nervous knots as it was, but I did. In fact, as soon as Ambarussa had left me with instructions about when to rise for breakfast, I seemed to barely possess the strength to undress and drop myself onto my bed. I didn’t bother rummaging through my baggage for nightclothes so I slept in my underpants, atop the covers that I was too lazy to turn down.
I awoke an indeterminate time later with a sour-sticky feeling in my mouth, shivering in the unfamiliar cold of early dawn, to a loud rapping at the door answered by running footsteps and laughter. The house--so silent the night before--was alive after all, it seemed. Or it gave the impression of being so, although it rather reminded me of the gardens that Noldor sometimes built with water flowing over rocks in an imitation of the rivers and streams beside which our ancestors had awakened. In reality, the water went nowhere but cycled endless, a clever mimicry of that which had been left behind but not forgotten.
I always believed, though, that it must sound different: as if it must be apparent that the water wasn’t free at all, that it wouldn’t sing with joy as it had in the Outer Lands.
So was the house: like a portrait of a man painted over with the likeness of a woman but the original shape of the paints remains, and a person with enough determination can pick away the shell and reveal what lies beneath. So that laughter was painted over the silence; even as it existed, it was running off the shining nothingness as though it had never been, and silence remained.
I dressed hurriedly in robes that I have always liked to believe dignified: dignified, perhaps, because they were just a bit too heavy for the pressing heat of Valinor, of a material a bit too scratchy to be comfortable, and just a bit too tight at the throat. Dignity was found in the ability to withstand pain and irritation without complaint, indeed, with an air of liking to suffer. I never shifted in my robes; never scratched--although they left my skin peppered with red welts--never tugged at the collar or pushed at the sleeves. I was dignified.
As such, I went down to the dining room where Ambarussa had told me that Prince Fëanáro and his sons and his sons’ wives met for breakfast together each day, if only for a minute. Those were his exact words--“if only for a minute”--his face cracking into a grin like I would laugh too if only I knew about what to be amused. I hadn’t the faintest notion of where to find the dining room, but I let my suspicions guide me. Reading his books had revealed that I shared many of the same thought processes as Fëanáro; I tried to follow them now, imagining myself the architect and asking how I would do it. I came to a fork in the hallway: but of course Fëanáro would have his dining room to the south, where the meager Light of the Trees could adorn his table.
So I stepped right and found myself--a mere half-minute later--walking into the purposeful chaos of the dining room. The table was not as splendid as I had expected--a rough-hewn thing with benches instead of individual chairs--but as I had predicted, there was a tall window at the southerly end of the room, letting the pale gold light of morning gild the room.
It seemed that nearly everyone was there: I counted six males and two females and one baby. But no Fëanáro--and one of the sons, it seemed, was missing.
Ambarussa sat at the bench with his back to me. Feeling suddenly self-conscious--for they wore the casual tunics and breeches of craftsmen and hunters, and half of them were barefoot or wearing just socks (some with holes in the toes)--and a bit silly in my dignified robes, I walked into the room and carefully stepped over the bench to sit down beside Ambarussa, the only one of them I knew. I had to hitch my robes up around my knees to accomplish the task, baring skinny white legs smattered with a few black, wiry hairs. The son seated across from me--Macalaurë, I supposed, judging by the silvery-haired woman at his arm, the “half-Telerin” wife that was often discussed at tables around Tirion--watched me with some interest and a small smile on his lips. “Hello,” I said to Ambarussa beside me, and he turned and stared at me with astounded silence.
And I knew that I had the wrong twin.
He had identical pale skin with identical freckles and identical rust-red hair … but his eyes were darker, the color of flint, and his face was hard as he let his gaze slide from my face to my robes and back to my face again. “Hello,” he replied in a cold, measured tone, and with that single word, the room seemed to fall silent. In his eyes, I heard, Answer for yourself.
“I--I am Eressetor, your father’s new student.”
At the end of the table, at Prince Fëanáro’s right hand, sat Maitimo with his eyes keen upon me. I knew him from seeing him at festivals--splendid, beautiful, even at a distance--and knew him renowned for his dignity, one of King Finwë’s most trusted advisors before the exile. But his hair was unkempt and faint bruises stained the tender skin beneath his eyes. He twisted his mouth into an ugly smile. I looked away. “Welcome to our table”--and a long pause before saying my name, as though--that quickly--he’d forgotten--“Eressetor."
I nodded and managed to thank him, glancing around the table at the other brothers watching me. I knew golden Tyelkormo as much for his hair as for his bright eyes appraising me--his palms planted flat on the table as though ready to launch him to his feet for a fight--and waiting for reason to challenge me. Beside him was the dark brother--Carnistir, I assumed--whose antipathy was as flat and unremarkable as a stretch of stone, unrelenting, barely eroded even by the long wear of years. And Curufinwë, so like the father after whom he was named, who was watching me with guarded interest. At his arm was a woman with weary eyes and a face that might never have smiled, nursing a baby at her breast, right at the table!
But when my eyes happened upon her, some sense of propriety must have returned, for she arranged the baby’s blanket to better cover herself and would not meet my eyes. Not that I left my gaze long upon her, for Curufinwë wore a short-sleeved tunic and there was no hiding the strength of his arms used to wielding a sledge in his father’s workshop, and I imagined how quickly my face might replace the slip of metal shaped to his will if I stared too long at his wife.
And Macalaurë, of course, across from me, the only one who was smiling with any sincerity, although his smile was cynical, as though expecting entertainment even as he suspected that he would be forced to parody his delight. Vingarië, at his arm, was a woman of some beauty, although eroded, the way that statues will diminish if let too long faring against the wind.
Two things happened then: through the dining room door breezed Prince Fëanáro as another door--until then, unnoticed by me--swung open with such force that it struck the wall with a bang, giving the momentary, disorienting impression that Fëanáro’s presence had been announced by a sharp sound, much as lightning is accompanied by thunder when the storm is directly overhead.
Through the other door came Ambarussa--the one I had met last night--with his hair fastened against his neck and his face wearied and annoyed, carrying a tray of laden with dishes that he sat with some force on the table. “Well, Telvo, aren’t you going to set them out?” asked Tyelkormo with a laugh--echoed by Carnistir beside him--and earning a stormy glance from Ambarussa.
“Now, now,” said Fëanáro, coming to his seat at the head of the table. He was dressed in his forging clothes, and they looked none too clean. His tunic might have once been white but was since yellowed by sweat and grime, tied crookedly with a frayed piece of what appeared to be yarn (purple, nonetheless, though blackened slightly by soot) and leaving a triangle of his chest bare. His hair was tied back with a tattered rag; it was raked straight back from his face and in clumpy ridges as though hastily combed with just his fingers. Even as he helped Ambarussa--“Telvo,” I would learn he was called by his brothers--distribute the dishes on the tray, I saw that his nails were blackened, his hands unwashed since possibly the day before.
But my heart jerked in my chest at the sight of him, as though momentarily unmoored from the flesh that constrained it, becoming the emotional organ of proverbial wisdom, and I thought, You can fool no one! For he was beautiful, beautiful in a way that could be clad in rags and smeared with filth and still make me draw a sharp breath as my mind--ever called “overactive” by even my illustrious parents--emptied of words like a sink of water, for how to describe him? All of the metaphors--of tall, strong trees; of the surging sea; of the proud, steadfast mountains--were insufficient, seeming suddenly trite, although I’d used such metaphors in my own writing, translated them from the classic poems penned in long-lost languages derived in a distant land. The beauty of the stars, giving light to the night, stretching from the past and into the future on a continuum that recognized not even the bounds of time: It was not enough. The mingled Light of the Trees, even, which gives pause to distraction and discontent as though--for that single hour--they fail to exist, it cannot compare. For when my eyes happened upon him, I forgot that I had ever been unhappy.
Dishes came to me, to be passed to the wife of Curufinwë to my right, but my hands lay impotent and useless upon the tabletop, my wide eyes upon him. And he saw me then, those bright eyes turned to me and knew me as they had known me long ago and deemed me worthy of pause, of rescuing. “Ah, Eressetor,” he said and--with a wry smile--“I presume. I am pleased to see that you have made it to us.”
As though my presence was worthy of comment but my absence--had I forsaken my agreement to serve him for five years or even died on the road--would have gone unnoticed. Still, I did not care; I heard my name in his voice, I heard him say that he was pleased to see me … pleased! Ambarussa--with a roll of his eyes, I imagine--reached across me to nudge the pile of dishes to Curufinwë’s wife on its way around the table.
But that quickly, it was over: my initiation into the family, the acknowledgement by Fëanáro, who had ceased being my prince so much as my father, not in terms of blood and bone but as my reason for existence, the fierce pounding of my blood that was loyalty, something I’d known only in the sense of irony, muttering, “Yes, father. My life unhesitatingly for you.” And the six brothers pondered me anew, with careful scrutiny. Except for Telvo: having gone back into the kitchen, he returned with a tray laden with food--slices of ham, bowls of fruit, eggs, hunks of cheese--and when he glanced at me, noting perhaps the intense silence of his brothers, a smile flickered upon his lips and, as he had the night prior, he winked.
Fëanáro had taken his seat, and as the bowls of food were passed down the table, he caught Telvo with an arm around his waist and pulled him close, father’s head against the chest of his son, ear over his heart, as though wanting to hear how the rhythm of the life he’d created matched that of his own. “Telvo, this looks wonderful,” he said, and Telvo clutched his father’s head in his arms, laughter bubbled upon his lips.
“It only took me hours.”
“Well, you shall have the day off then?”
Beside me, the other twin shifted.
“That shall suffice, I believe,” said Telvo, and Fëanáro pinched his belly, and Telvo yelped with laughter, swatting his father’s hand away and dashing back to the kitchen--hair tossed in a scarlet spray as he went--as fleeting as an apparition, the existence of which one doubts as soon as it has disappeared.
Beside me, Ambarussa leaped suddenly to his feet, upsetting a glass of water that had to be corralled by many napkins and the combined efforts of Tyelkormo and Carnistir. But Ambarussa seemed not to notice. I saw Fëanáro’s face turn to his next-to-youngest son; I saw a mixture of hurt and anger there, for the briefest moment, before his eyebrows lifted and he asked in a voice so icy that it burned, “And where are you going?”
“You said we had to stay together for ‘one minute.’ It’s been that long.”
With the force of glass breaking upon stone, so Ambarussa’s composure shattered then, and he pounded from the room and--bare moments later--the front door slammed loudly enough that the window that faced south and admitted the tender light of morning rattled in reproach.
I grew gradually accustomed to the way of things in Formenos in the weeks that followed, and I taught myself not to flinch--something so involuntary as moving from a source of pain--at the beauty of Fëanáro. I taught myself to speak to him with dignity and to answer his questions and to sit--shoulder pressing shoulder--beside him in the library when he explained to me my assignments. As a teacher, he was distracted, drifting from a topic to stare out the window with an expression of profound concentration upon his face, only to return to it minutes later as though he’d never forsaken it. Other days, he did not appear for lessons at all, but I would hear the bright sounds of hammerfalls in the forge, and I taught myself. More often than not, I taught myself, reading the books that he’d assigned and writing treatises on a variety of topics. My back, my hand, my eyes--my very mind--ached at the end of the day from my labors, but I felt the lust of a man called to the drink: a single sip only opened a thirst so deep that it could never be filled, and Maitimo would have to come into the library and nudge me: “Eressetor, it is an indecent hour and I am extinguishing the lamps.”
Still, sometimes, the hammerfalls came from the forge long into the night.
At times, Fëanáro would summon me to recite for him what I’d learned, naming for me a topic and telling me to “speak of it,” so casually, with nonchalant wave of his fingers as though this was a matter of course for a scholar such as myself to busy himself with blathering as might a politician.
I wanted to argue that I was here to learn of books--to write them, even--not to speak wantonly and argue as might a small child. But, self-conscious and awkward at first, I did his bidding with a tongue thick as though with inebriation, moving only with great effort, each word wrung from my thoughts. He would sit, busy at task--writing upon a parchment or feeding his grandson from a bottle or tinkering with a broken necklace--and I would become convinced that he was not listening. From the depths of my mind, frail connections between ideas were made and became significant in the effort to find something to say to fill the silence; I heard my words tumbling into the space between us with a sense of incredulity that I--Eressetor, who had wished himself stricken dumb as a child so to never have to humiliate himself again with the efforts of speech--was rambling at such eloquent length; but of course, it was like I was talking to myself only, and I fell into the careless comfort as though with my private thoughts, letting my mind dance from one idea to another that I might have entertained only in the secret fantasies to which I was prone in the uninhibited night: things of which I was told never to speak, never to think, even, for that was just as wicked. But there they were, as dazzling upon the silence as the oases reported deep in the deserts of Avathar, and I could not then recall them, not that Fëanáro gave any indication that he would wish it so.
So, truly, he must not have been listening.
Until, from the depths of distraction, a question would suddenly fall from his lips and interrupt my words like a cracking whip loudly splitting the air, and alarmed, I would realize that he’d been listening all along.
Or he’d challenge me, and meekly, my words would trickle to a standstill, momentum lost, while he pondered me with eyebrows raised in expectation. But I’d been frightened into submission, stammering apologies for my foolish, insolent talk.
He’d dismiss me then with a wave of his hand, returning to his task with a focused single-mindedness, as though I’d never been, and I would walk from his study, face burning and a sudden, keen awareness of the existence of my body in space, of the awkwardness of my long limbs and bowing spine. Reflecting upon my shame, later, in the safety of my chambers, I would recall less of what I’d said and more of the faltering apology at the end of it, a feeling like a roaring cataract being reduced suddenly to a mere trickle … then nothing.
And one word came to mind, abashedly, slithering into my thoughts: impotent.
But still, Fëanáro called me forth to “speak,” as he said, with similar disastrous results each time. It was a stifling summer day, the air laden with moisture and miserably heavy, that he interrupted my distracted reading in the library to have me follow him to his study. Tyelperinquar, his grandson, sat astride his hip, and he talked to the baby but would not acknowledge me, though I trailed him so closely that at times I trod upon his heels. Still, he said nothing. Tyelperinquar folded his hand around a lock of Fëanáro’s hair and yanked; given my misery in my heavy robes in the heat (which he never noticed) and at being interrupted at my work, I thought that I might like to do the same.
Tyelperinquar was released to play upon the floor and Fëanáro pulled two chairs around to face each other, like sparring opponents. I felt that there should be a desk between us, or maybe that I should stand like a pupil before a teacher, but he always had us sit in equally uncomfortable chairs, although his body slouched, his legs sprawled and his fingers rising to restlessly twine through his hair, as though it was not in his nature to feel uncomfortable anywhere.
“You have been reading Valaquenta, no?” he said.
“Then I wish for you to speak on the Valar.” He lunged from the chair to stop Tyelperinquar from chewing a wooden ornament he’d found under the desk, lifting the squalling child and looking upon me with eyebrows raised at my stunned silence: “Well?”
Obediently, I began, although my voice faltered as I spoke, listing the fourteen Valar first: the multiple names of each and their etymologies and evolution and the domains over which each Vala presided. I spoke overlong on the many names of Varda and the theories on the significance of her special reverence by the Eldar, but Fëanáro remained unimpressed and bounced Tyelperinquar on his knee without sparing me a glance, clapping the child’s hands together until I realized that my voice had developed an annoying, dull cadence, and blushing, I stammered while Tyelperinquar laughed.
Varda having been exhausted, I moved next to Oromë and spoke of his doings in the Outer Lands and his discovery of the Elves at Cuiviénen, an event far enough removed in history, I hoped, to be a safe topic of conversation. The week prior, I had memorized the three speeches of Ingwë made to Oromë on behalf of the Quendi, and I began to recite the first in a tone as ponderous and blandly undulating as the heat-laden air.
Fëanáro looked up sharply then. “Did I ask for Ingwë’s words?”
Faltering: “Nay, but you asked for discourse on the Valar and the three speeches of Ingwë--”
“Are the three speeches of Ingwë,” he interrupted, “and I would have asked Ingwë if I wanted to hear them.”
In the silence that fell between us, Tyelperinquar whimpered and squirmed in Fëanáro’s arms, and I saw that Fëanáro had him clenched tightly in both arms and appeared ignorant to the child’s discomfort. “Tyelperinquar--” I began.
“I will mind Tyelperinquar,” he snapped, and the child screamed. “I want you to tell me your thoughts and theories on the Valar. Not to recite books and speeches--for I could read that myself if I had time to waste on such frivolity--but your own thoughts. Surely you do possess your own thoughts, Eressetor?” And he looked at me then, to watch my countenance clench at the shock and hurt of such an unexpected wounding; he watched and his eyes were very bright, as though my pain had kindled the fire within him, made him hungry to burn.
“Of course I do,” I said, and it was I who looked away then. It is rude for an apprentice to look away from his teacher, but I doubt Fëanáro even noticed. Not that he cared much for etiquette and custom anyway.
“Then let’s hear them.”
My voice shook as I spoke of Oromë and the accounts of the Three Kings of the Eldar about Valinor and the persuasion of the Eldar to follow them across the sea. I knew what I had been taught but I knew also what Fëanáro believed, for I had read transcripts of his speeches on the subject. Such were the speeches that helped to pave the way to his arrival here, in Formenos, in exile. Such were the speeches where, once, his own wife Nerdanel had risen up and in a voice that quavered as with unshed tears--they said--renounced his words and him with them, and they had been estranged.
Tyelperinquar slipped from Fëanáro’s arms and ran, wailing, from the room.
But Fëanáro did not pursue him. His bright eyes, his intense stare, for once was mine alone, and I lifted my voice to speak of the Outer Lands and what we had left behind, but I left out the bits about the wisdom we’d learned from the Valar, and the arts, and the skills. I left out the bit about how I had always counted myself as a patron of Manwë before I’d discovered the words of Fëanáro, how I still treasured the old texts waxing about divinity and righteousness and wisdom, and Fëanáro slammed his fist into his own knee.
“If I wished to hear my own words spun into new and inferior constructions than I would have imbibed a bottle of wine and held conversation with myself!”
And it happened then: a breaking of my composure as unexpected and effortless as a careless foot snapping a twig in two. I would discover later that my fingernails had cut into my own palms and left crescents filled with my own blood; I would discover that I’d worried the cloth of my robes into disarray and that they would have to be pressed with a hot iron to rid them of it. But then, I knew only my voice--high and wavering but shouting nonetheless--rising to overtake his: “And what would you have me say? About those who chose to exile you? You would have me sing their praises ere the stars? And chance your wrath?”
“I would have you say, Eressetor, what you think, without concern for the consequences.”
And so I did: I told him that I had always counted the Valar as a blessing to the Noldor for the knowledge and wisdom they imparted to us, how--without them--we would still be lightless savages mastering the flame, how the land to which he gave his praises was the dominion of Yavanna, and so when he praised it, he praised her. How the precious things that he had wrought, even, would be naught without the teachings of Aulë and Manwë. And he laughed and said, “Then you think that those things would not have been ours to discover? You think that we are naught without our predecessors? Mayhap you believe that what you have learned of books would not have been your own to discover, given the proper motivation.”
“I believe no such thing,” I told him, “but I credit those scholars whose work has formed the foundation for mine, without whom I would still be languishing in relative innocence.”
“And for all the ages of Arda through which we shall live, you believe that haste precludes the pride and meaning that one feels for discovering something for himself?”
Back and forth we went, like this, our words ringing against each other with the bright sound of swords meeting in battle, and I believed that I hated him then--hated him--for his cunning, acerbic rhetoric that left me fumbling for retort, my heart pounding and sweat soaking my robes while he leaned forward, elbows upon knees, and tore into the debate with the rabid glee of a beast devouring its prey.
I would like to say that I had won, but I was left fumbling--my face burning with shame--and tears blurring my vision, and a thick silence fell between us. Fëanáro grinned then, at his triumph. “I knew you had it,” he said. “I knew that there was passion in you.”