By the Light of Roses
With a Boot upon My Chest
Carnistir’s begetting day was in the beginning of autumn and Fëanáro returned with a startling ferocity one day: no longer a listless man staring into the light of Ezellohar at breakfast, he’d arrived at the meal and slammed his fist into the table, startling us all to attentive silence, and said, “Carnistir’s begetting day is a fortnight away and I want to hold a feast.”
We were all assigned tasks, even me. Even Carnistir, the guest of honor. I was given the task of polishing the silver with Macalaurë and Pityo, who were so assigned because their cooking was--in the words of Fëanáro--atrocious. Huddled at the end of the long dining room table, we squinted at tarnish and polished for hours, for Fëanáro’s silver had fallen into misuse.
“This is ridiculous,” Pityo declared loudly. “Since when does he celebrate our begetting days?”
“Likely,” replied Macalaurë in a delicately humored tone, “he intends to send an invitation to Amil and make her feel guilty when she does not come.” He laughed and Pityo sniffed humorlessly.
(I would learn, in that fortnight spent in the company of the brothers, that Nerdanel was discussed … but always out of earshot of Fëanáro. Her presence was insidious, nurturing, like an underground creek accounting for a bloom of lush vegetation in an otherwise arid place.)
“Or,” said Macalaurë, “maybe she will come.”
“And ruin all his months of planning?” He glanced at me then as though I was a foe in their midst. Cleverly, he reversed subjects. “Still, when was the last feast we had? He had one for Telvo last year--”
And from behind us, Telvo spoke. He’d been charged with unpacking the good porcelain still packed in straw in crates and had entered the room unheard with one. “He had a feast for Ambarussa,” Telvo said, “but Pityo did not come because he was not speaking to Atar.”
“He had it for you and you know it!” Pityo snapped, but Telvo had evaporated through the door as though he never was. Pityo threw down the knife he was polishing. “He frustrates me!” he growled.
Mildly, Macalaurë asked, “Telvo or Atar?” and Pityo glanced up at him with wide, surprised eyes and said, “Why, both of them, actually.”
There was a theory among the brothers that Fëanáro’s youngest son was his favorite. Certainly, he was the most often caught by his father and held by the hand or around the waist while Fëanáro spoke. The other brothers pulled quickly away. Telvo pushed his face into his father’s shoulder and allowed the fawning … and ignored the look of anger that passed on some of his brothers’ faces, particularly his twin. He was the most often excused from labor, and his midday disappearances--and occasional absences from breakfast as though midnight disappearances were also in order--were never questioned.
Indeed, Telvo gave an impression of being much younger than he actually was. Though identical in face and physique to Pityo, there was no mistaking one twin for the other. Telvo had the sporadic impishness of a young child; his freckles and his tiny, curved nose lent to the impression. On Pityo, his flashing eyes overtook his face.
Fëanáro, it seemed, was eager to indulge his youngest son’s whim.
We sat in the parlor, discussing menus. Maitimo--mature, competent Maitimo--had been put in charge of the menu, and he’d arrived at the meeting with his ideas written neatly upon parchments to be passed around. Telvo curled in the circle of his father’s arm with his head on Fëanáro’s chest. He was barefoot and wearing a tunic that was laced crookedly and of an absurd violet color. He said nothing, but whenever I’d glance at him, he was already watching me, only he didn’t have the decency to even pretend otherwise. He smiled, as though he knew something about me that even I did not.
Which, of course, he did not.
Tyelkormo--who, despite his sharp tongue and quick temper, possessed a certain endearing naïveté--asked his father, “Who is to be invited?” for Fëanáro, naturally, had been left in charge of invitations. And Fëanáro ticked off on his fingers the names of lords and persons of importance in Formenos, and of course his father--their grandfather--would be notified (if the messenger could find him amid the mountain towns he was visiting) and several local craftspeople who’d been long friends of the family. And a messenger had been sent to Tirion.
Fëanáro paused to take a drink of wine from the goblet at his feet. The brothers exchanged worried glances while he was distracted, except Telvo, who nuzzled his father’s chest and linked his fingers into his own.
“And if she does not come?” asked Tyelkormo, who’d been unable to fully banish the wide-eyed worry upon his face when his father’s attention had returned.
“Then I shall have to intensify my efforts, shall I not?” asked Fëanáro. Telvo, nearly curled into his lap by then, winked at me and grinned.
The brothers were forbidden from leaving the house on long excursions until the feast was over. Messengers clattered up the path all day, delivering responses that Fëanáro had taken to filing in a small basket on his desk. (This I knew because I’d been called to recite for him again in the evenings, and he riffled through the replies while barking questions at me and nodding vaguely at the answers.) The messengers wore the colors and heraldry of various area families--important and not--but none of them red and gold, none of them the colors of Nerdanel, wife of Fëanáro.
Once the silver was polished, I had been released to return to my studies, which I feared might cause some resentment. But … nothing. I mentioned it to Maitimo as he knelt upon the dining room floor and scrubbed it clean. “Well, you’re not his son, are you?” he asked in an uncharacteristically impatient voice, and I hadn’t asked again.
Telvo was also excused. Or--if not formally excused--often disappeared.
With all of the sons in the house, the silence was momentarily banished, although I imagined that I could see it hanging heavy and dark in the corners, around the eaves, rustling the cobwebs into inexplicable motion, huddling in tiny dark balls to escape the commotion. The air of the house almost swaggered with the voices of Fëanáro’s sons; it took on a musky scent of masculinity so thick that I could taste it, bitter upon my tongue. Cleaning efforts in one room or another often drove the displaced sons elsewhere, sometimes to the library: Tyelkormo seated backward upon a chair, Pityo sprawled across the tabletop, Curufinwë restively fingering the lines of books, and Macalaurë sitting with knees folded between the table and chair, drumming intricate patterns with his fingers upon the tabletop. Somehow, I was among them; they'd clustered around me like whizzing particles around a nucleus. I dared not complain.
Pityo had been telling a tale of his betrothed in Formenos. He’d been reprimanded by Fëanáro, allegedly, for staying out until the small hours of morning; his brothers, naturally, wanted to know why. “And she has her legs wrapped around my waist and I’m going at her--” He thrashed upon the tabletop, convulsive, fingers raking the polished wood. “Ai, I’m going at her so fucking hard, and her fingers are in my hair--” his fingers raked through his hair--“and she’s biting my neck--” Grinning, he looked up to make sure that he had his brothers’ rapt attention. Tyelkormo’s mouth was hanging open a little bit; Macalaurë and Curufinwë--being married and doubtlessly so used to having a woman’s legs around their waists and being bitten upon the neck that it had become utterly dull--were feigning nonchalance betrayed by the glittering, eager eyes. Pityo pulled down the collar of his tunic and bared his throat and the bruise upon it as proof of his honesty; so close, I could see his pulse fluttering, quickened, as though aroused once more. I could feel the heat pouring off of his flesh and leaned away from it as one might lean away from an open oven and the foolish fear of tumbling in. “She’s biting my neck and screaming my name--”
“Probably the only time a woman’s ever screamed ‘Pityo!’ in bed,” said Macalaurë with a wicked gleam in his eye and Pityo laughed.
“Perhaps. But she’s screaming against my skin and then I hear it--” An expectant pause. Tyelkormo’s eyes widened; Macalaurë smirked; Curufinwë folded his arms across his chest. “I hear it: the door. Her father is home early from the forge but I’m thinking, Valar, I’m about to give this girl an orgasm like none she’s ever had before--sweet Eru in Eä, I’m about to have an orgasm like none I’ve ever had before--and I can hear her father rattling around in the cabinets downstairs and she’s moaning into my mouth now and doesn’t hear a thing, and I wonder: should I stop her? Should I tell her?”
Lying on his back upon the table, hair snaking in scarlet waves across the tabletop, he grinned at his brothers. Macalaurë snorted. Tyelkormo leaned forward and said, “Well, did you?”
Pityo laughed and rolled onto his belly. “No. She came then, and I thought, oh Valar, she’s going to scream, but her eyes just rolled back into her head and it was like it was too good to scream--I actually thought that she was going to faint for a minute--and that was all that it took for me … and it was all over. I had time enough to hide under her bed, and though I had to stay there for half the night before sneaking home to endure Atar’s wrath, Eru, was it worth it!”
Curufinwë laughed derisively. “I can remember when Terentaulë responded with such … abandon. Back before I had to share her tits with Tyelperinquar.”
I prickled at the mention of Terentaulë: I love her! (Although I had to increasingly remind myself of my obsession.) I didn’t want to picture her legs wrapped around Curufinwë in the way that Pityo had described with his betrothed, and I relished in my squeamishness at the thought. Proof! I thought.
Telvo came in then with the brusque gait of one with a purpose, disappearing amid the bookshelves. Tyelkormo nudged Curufinwë and suppressed a smile. “What about you, Telvo?” he called. “Do your lovers respond with ‘abandon,’ as Curufinwë calls it?”
Telvo emerged from behind a shelf of books with a single volume clutched in his hand, probably having been sent to retrieve it for his father. “Oh yes. I’ve been called a magnificent lover.”
“I’m sure you have, Telvo,” said Pityo, and there was a cold edge to his voice belying his cruelty. “But your hand on your own cock doesn’t count.”
“No, I would agree, it does not,” Telvo retorted amiably, “although I am practiced with that too, to my lovers’ delight.”
“So tell us of your ‘lovers,’ then, if they are not freckled little gits with red hair.”
“Ah, Ambarussa, all that I can tell you of my ‘lovers’ is that I like them big. And hard.” And he smirked and turned on his heel then and was out of the room in an instant.
Pityo’s face, meanwhile, had flushed scarlet, and he’d lifted himself to a sitting position. Tyelkormo and Curufinwë had grown uncomfortable; Macalaurë picked at his cuticles as though he’d never heard a word of the exchange. “He shames us,” said Pityo through clenched teeth, but Macalaurë hushed him with a flitting glance in my direction. “He is our brother. We love him, regardless.”
“Of course,” said Pityo in a strangled voice, but when he turned his flinty-cold eyes on me, it certainly wasn’t love that I saw there.
That same night, I was called to recite for Fëanáro.
Even though the days remained deceptively warm, nightfall brought cold as painful and sudden as a whiplash upon naked skin. Fëanáro’s sons had taken to lighting fires in all of the fireplaces and we all piled extra blankets on the beds. My fingers and toes became numb. All I wanted to do was to sleep.
But Fëanáro had called me.
Recently, his topics for recitation had become strange, abstract, nothing that could be bound by what I had learned of books. “Persuasion,” he’d said last time, “tell me of persuasion. Of convincing someone that she wishes something that she in fact does not.” His eyes had been as wild as the center of a flame; he’d leaned forward on elbows as though hoping to learn of me, not the other way around, as it was supposed to be.
In the noisy bustle of a house preparing for a feast, in my persistent insistence of my obsession with Terentaulë, thoughts of Fëanáro fled my mind. My waking mind. At night, I dreamt of him. At night, I lay upon my back on the floor of his study and recited, and as my words became faster and more inane, he placed his foot upon my chest and pressed me to the floor. He could kill me! But his eyes were not those of a killer, and when I gasped, it was not with fear.
And I awoke.
I would not think of such dreams while reciting before him, sitting opposite each other on straight-backed chairs. I thought of his sons, of Terentaulë. I thought of my studies and my father far away in Tirion. I let Fëanáro fade into the background.
Strange, I thought, because Fëanáro had once been an escape from those very things in which I now took solace: my father, Tirion, duty. Interest in women … or lack thereof.
That night, he was agitated, pacing the floor and raking his hands through his unbound hair. The feast was three days away; the basket on his desk was overflowing with acceptance letters from everyone from small-town craftsmen to illustrious lords, but I glanced out of the window whenever I heard a messenger on the path, and I had yet to see Nerdanel’s colors. And I fervently denied the pinch of joy I felt whenever the rider who appeared was sent by someone else than the wife of Fëanáro.
For why would I wish such sadness upon my lord? He who had never been less than generous to me?
I wondered if he could tell it from my face. As I did not like to think of Terentaulë as another man’s wife, I thought, mayhap I did not like to think of Fëanáro as so cleanly bound by the terms “a woman’s husband.” As though he--in his great beauty, in the fire in his eyes--could be possessed by a single person, as though that person could sweep fire into her hand and hold it there. Impossible.
It is sensible, then, that they were estranged: any attempt to contain Fëanáro within bounds, and he would immediately spill outside of them. Such is the nature of fire.
But he was a woman’s husband. He had sketches of each of his seven sons as babies, small children, and he had not produced these children alone. Between them were square patches of wall that were darker, as though other drawings had once shielded the wall from the bleaching effects of light. I knew that pictures of Nerdanel had once hung there. I did not look at those guilty places.
Fëanáro offered me a chair, but he would not sit. He spoke of the feast, of his purported “joy” in having his sons in the house again. “Their voices, their very presences--it is like lifting my face from cold water and breathing again.” He made animated gestures as he spoke. He spoke to me of letters that he’d received from Tirion. “Arafinwë still writes,” he said with an incredulous, delighted laugh, “long, prattling letters.” He offered one to me, but I dared not read the private correspondence of princes, and so I took it and held it in my lap, face burning.
After listening to him speak for an hour, there was a lull as he sipped from a glass of wine, and I said, delicately, “Did you want me to recite on anything in particular, my lord?”
Fëanáro’s head snapped up to look at me. His brow rumpled. “Is that requisite? Mayhap I only wanted to talk with you?”
Abashed by my apparent misinterpretation of his intent, I ducked my head and muttered, “Ah, well …”
“You have been here a half-year, Eressetor,” he said. He stopped in front of me, lifted my chin in his hand. His gray eyes were as bright as light darting upon silver steel. “And yet I know almost nothing about you.”
His hand upon my flesh: it burned. I wondered how Nerdanel had borne it, had borne penetration, from the same.
My heart hammered at the thought. Fëanáro could see the vein quivering at my throat; his eyes were fixed upon it. He smiled.
“I wonder,” he said, taking his hand from my face and resuming his pacing, “how one from a family never loyal to me--far from it, actually--had come to seek me. I wonder: What does he want so badly to choose, essentially, exile? With his father’s foe?”
He turned again to face me. I cowed under his gaze, shrunk from him--although he was across the room--as guilty and scared as a disciplined child. “I wish to learn of you, my lord. I wish to become a competent loremaster and who better to teach me--”
“There are far better than me to teach you.” He ticked off several on his fingers: “Rúmil, Elemmírë, even your father’s own beloved Nolofinwë will occasionally give his time to students of lore, certainly with greater frequency than I do. Surely you know that I have not given my attention to lore for years? That my aim has been creation?” He swept a paperweight from his desk: a pale stone filled with wan light, tossed it, the slap of stone against his palm proof of tangibility. “The tangible … or rather, that which makes the intangible something to be captured in hand.” His voice had grown loud; I trembled with the force of it. But as abruptly as a flame doused in water, he became gentle again. “Mayhap the better question, then, is why I accepted you to my tutelage? I have not taken students since my exile, Eressetor, even in craft; surely your father made that more than plain to you in effort to keep you from me.” He laughed, as though there was no mystery for him in the ways of fathers, particularly in their subtle cruelty to their sons, designed to shape--they tell themselves--rather than hurt. “So, perhaps, you should be asking why? And what I want from you?”
Blinking up at him, I gave it my thought, for in my naïveté, I had thought, Why, he respects my work! He knows that my name will compliment his! Is that not the reason why masters take students?
In my naïveté, I’d forgotten the seven sons, at least two of whom were counted as masters of lore already (with the potential, Fëanáro often alluded with a wry, whimsical smile, that the others should follow their brothers’ motivations); I had neglected to consider that a person with a reputation like Fëanáro’s did not need the glory of students to magnify what he had himself achieved. For there was nothing that I could do, that I could discover, that he could not achieve himself, given the proper incentive. As it was, I was a burden, a toll on his time--and perhaps, I should have realized this sooner, given his nonchalance with regards to my instruction--and “another mouth to feed,” as my father had once wearily remarked of the daughter that my mother wished to have and he did not.
So: Why was I here?
“Maybe … maybe, I should leave?” Those weren’t tears in my eyes, but yes, Fëanáro’s face had become blurry and my eyes stung at the reproach I’d suffered. A firm hand pressed a shoulder already starting to rise back to the chair, and I thought of the dream: of lying on my back, with his boot on my chest, my heart leaping to meet it. No! Do not think of that! Not here! “I do nothing without a purpose, Eressetor,” he said. “I have brought you here for a reason. You will learn of me … and I will learn of you.
“Your parents,” he said in a whisper, bated and hopeful, “they are separated, no? Estranged?”
There is no greater pain than burning, my mother had once said, snatching my hand away from a hot stove. You will learn this, child, whether by my words or your error. I lifted my chin to meet the eyes of Fëanáro, as blistering upon my own as the white-hot center of a flame. It was his natural state to burn, it was often said. And so, I reckoned, he should feel no pain.
But his eyes--they said differently.