By the Light of Roses
In the Darkness of the Trees
Two days before the begetting day feast, I awoke to a general clamor about the house. Not the fabricated noise to which Fëanáro’s sons were prone--footsteps too loud upon the stairs, brash voices raised unnecessarily--but a genuine commotion.
I emerged just as Telvo was raising his fist to knock. “Eressetor!” he exclaimed with unbridled delight. “Grandfather Finwë has returned!” and he scampered away down the hall without waiting for my reply.
In recent weeks, I had become slovenly in my appearance, forsaking my good robes that required careful laundering and pressing for softer, casual robes or tunics and breeches. At the announcement of Finwë’s arrival, though, I recoiled back into my chamber with pounding dread in my heart. I selected my best robes--black with silver trim--and quickly fastened my unbound hair into plaits. I scrubbed the ink stains from my fingers as best as I could, for I had also become negligent of this. I am meeting the King! came my feverish thought whenever my preparations felt foolish, followed by the afterthought: Well, not the King any longer …
The noise from the dining room welled up until and spilled forth into the hallway, as though it could no longer be bound by the walls. It wasn’t the normal cacophony of mingled voices, though, but a single powerful one being served and answered by others, struggling to be recognized against its might. With great trepidation, I stepped into the room, fearing that I would be noticed--and dreading that I would not. How does one address a displaced king? I wondered. Our rules of etiquette had never envisioned--and so never addressed--such a possibility.
Finwë sat at the head of the table, in Fëanáro’s usual place: His raiment was simple and suited for travel yet so well-made that it conferred elegance in its simplicity alone. I saw much of Finwë in Fëanáro’s face, for Finwë had the same exquisite beauty that might have been crafted--forged from fire and honed with much loving attention--rather than born in the rather happenstance manner of normal Elves.
His eyes, though, were different from his son’s: as bright blue as the base of a flame. Fëanáro’s eyes were winks of light upon the silvery sea.
Quietly, I slid into my accustomed place at the end of the table beside Telvo’s place, who was the only of Fëanáro’s sons missing. Finwë’s voice filled the room not by virtue of volume so much as power: as though it was meant to command even the quiet, forgotten corners of space. Even Fëanáro--who was never quiet or motionless for long--was content to lean his hand upon his cheek and gaze into his father’s face, his lips curled into a vague smile.
Finwë was telling a tale of hilarity, judging from the laughter that met many of his words, of the ordeal which Fëanáro’s poor messenger had to endure in order to finally track him down in a small town high in the mountains. “The air was so thin at such heights that the poor lad nearly fainted upon my feet!” said Finwë, but it was admiration rather than mockery in his voice. He raised a glass of wine, and I noticed for the first time the flush-faced messenger was sitting across the table from me: “To the true heroes of our kingdom, who keep a dotty old Elf like me from humiliating himself by forgetting his beloved grandson’s begetting day!”
Telvo shoved through the kitchen door then with two unopened bottles of wine that he plunked down at his grandfather’s elbow, moving to stand behind Fëanáro with one arm draped over his father’s shoulder and pressing his chest.
Fëanáro linked his fingers with Telvo’s and--turning over his hand--pressed a kiss to the palm. Telvo looked at me and winked.
“Oh!” cried Fëanáro suddenly, dropping Telvo’s hand and freeing him to scurry back into the kitchen. “I did not even see him come in, but Atar, this is the apprentice whom I had written you about: Eressetor. His father, you might remember, designed the lesser structures in your botanical gardens. And Eressetor, my father Finwë.”
I tried to rise, but my foot got caught in the bench and I nearly fell over. Pityo was watching me with an eyebrow cocked and laughter trapped behind his lips; Maitimo was politely giving his full attention to cutting a sausage into tiny pieces. Terentaulë’s cheeks were flushed with sympathy for me, and I realized that I had failed to even notice her presence, upon arrival--she whom I loved! I blamed that on the overpowering presence of Finwë.
Finwë waved my efforts aside. “No, lad, please sit. You owe me no honor. Here, I am but the father of your master … and certainly not at all responsible for his extraordinary skill or intellect!”
His dismissal was just as well because my foot slipped then and I plunked back down to the bench, landing hard enough to rattle some of the place settings, feeling silly and conspicuous in my good robes when the others--up to and including Finwë himself--dressed casually, almost sloppily, in preparation for another day of hard work. But that quickly, the noise in the room had risen to cover my blunder; questions were being tossed at Finwë by his grandsons faster than he could answer them. I lifted my face--still hot with shame--to hopefully find the sympathetic glance of Terentaulë again, but my eyes met Fëanáro’s instead, and he held my gaze for a long while, his face devoid of expression, until I finally looked away.
The calm before the storm,” Maitimo said of that day, “the day before the day before the feast.” Cooks were arriving from Formenos to begin preparations, and Fëanáro had given all of his sons a day off from labor to keep them “out from underfoot”--his precise words--as though that was any danger with such loud, strapping men as averse to housework as they were.
Terentaulë and Vingarië went into Formenos to have Terentaulë’s gown altered. The last she’d worn it, I’d overheard, she’d been just married to Curufinwë and much thinner, not yet a mother. The sons went riding in the forest to relieve their tension--or so Maitimo said when he’d graciously invited me along, his silvery eyes too wide and hopeful to be fully genuine.
I’d declined and remained in the relative peace of the library. The cooks laughed and joked outside as they plucked vegetables from Fëanáro’s kitchen garden and rinsed them beneath the water pump, but the glass of the library windows strained all but their most raucous interjections and preserved the silence. Soon, even they were gone, busy in the kitchen preparing for the feast now only two days away, and well out of earshot.
I settled in the windowseat with a mathematics book I’d been puzzling over that Fëanáro had instructed me to learn. It was a study of his own devising and much talked about in engineering circles in Tirion--I had heard my father discussing it with his colleagues with a tone of awed contempt just before leaving--but mathematics has never been one of my strongest subjects, and I found the theories falling from my brain faster than I could put them in there.
I was grateful for the distraction of a flash of color passing by the window: Telvo. Apparently--unsurprisingly--he hadn’t gone riding with his brothers. More often than not, lately, he was left behind, uninvited so far as I could tell, though I couldn’t tell if his brothers meant to exclude him or were so used to him declining their invitations that it ceased being worth the breath it took to ask him along. He was barefoot, his hair unfettered, wearing a pair of stained breeches and a green tunic much too large for him that I suspected belonged to his father or one of his brothers. There was a strong autumn breeze, and his reddish-brown hair whipped in the wind. He wandered among his father’s vegetables before stopping to poke at an anthill with a stick. His hair hung in tangled clumps past his shoulders; I found myself wondering when it had last been washed. I found myself wondering at its scent--the scent of him--beneath the odor of soaps that normally hid such intimacies from one close enough to indulge in them.
Quickly, I banished that thought from mind with the alarmed force of smashing a pesky and dangerous insect.
I turned back to my book and the safety of dry numbers and equations that ended the same each time. No peevish differences to worry over; none turning out “wrong” that could not be erased and corrected. How I wished, sometimes, that it could be so easy with me: so much wrong that was doomed to remain so. For no matter the efforts I’d made at correcting it, I remained flawed, an aberration.
Outside, another flash of movement distracted me as Telvo quickly straightened, dropping the stick to his side, followed by a voice, “Oh, hallo.” Curiosity roused, I succumbed again and let the page fall shut on my finger.
Another figure came into the garden: a broad-shouldered man with dark hair whom I’d never seen before. He stood with his back to the window where I could not see his face, but his raiment was humbled, tattered in places, that of a farmer. The leather of his boots was broken and muddied. He was speaking intensely to Telvo, and Telvo’s gaze was locked upon his face with the kind of reverent attention I’d only ever seen him give his father. He was nodding fiercely, smiling, twining a clump of hair around his finger. Most of the dark-haired Elf’s words were lost, but I heard him say, “Harvest is in,” and, “Afternoon in the forest?” Telvo nodded again and barked with laughter. “I have the afternoon off,” he said, “just let me get my boots.”
He jogged out of sight around the corner of the house, and a moment later, I heard the frenzied slap of his bare feet on the stairs and the ceiling creaking overhead as he paced around his room. Outside, the dark-haired Elf had turned, and I was stunned by the youthfulness in his face: a broad face unlined by concern, flushed cheekbones and golden-brown eyes of a startling splendor. His mouth was set in a frown; his jaw boxy, but he was not necessarily ugly. Like so many things in my life lately, he defied such convenient definition; in fact--I realized with a squeeze of my heart--though he would not be called to pose for a statue and he earn not a glance in the streets of Tirion, he was beautiful. His fingers were delving through Fëanáro’s pepper plants, divesting them carefully of dead leaves, his face creased with concentration as he plunged his hands into the foliage and pushed it aside as though in search of something. With a smile as startling upon his face as a room transformed by Laurelin’s light after being kept in the dark, behind drapes, his wide, dirt-darkened hands emerged, thumb and forefinger pinching the stem of an unlikely, late-blooming white flower that would have succumbed to the first frost, probably within the week, if it had not succumbed to him first.
Telvo reappeared then with boots upon his feet, feet that barely touched the ground. I heard him laugh as the flower was tucked behind his ear. “Shall we--” the dark-haired Elf began, but Telvo was already skipping in the direction of the forest, turning and jogging backward to watch the other Elf lumbering after him, dancing just out of reach, teasing laughter as bright as bells in the still, silent air.
They disappeared into the trees.
The house was utterly silent. I could hear my heartbeat roaring in my ears, too rapid to be explained by the mathematics book now fallen shut in my lap, my trembling hands resting atop it.
It was hard to lace my boots with fingers that quivered so. I told myself that I was only going out for fresh air, that I would walk in the opposite direction of the one that Telvo and his companion had taken. I ignored the heavy heat in my groin at the thought of the other Elf’s thick fingers putting the tiny flower behind the delicate, perfect ear of Fëanáro’s youngest son.
(So like Fëanáro’s ears, often revealed to me when he bent over my work, pushing his hair back with some annoyance behind his ears to keep it from falling onto the paper. I would like to sculpt them in clay only so that my fingers could memorize their contours without falling prone to the stinging slap I knew would come if I ever dared to reach out and let my fingers brush the pale whorl when seated alone in his office, so close to smell the electric scent of his skin and see his pulse beating with the steady rhythm of a metronome at his throat.)
I found myself following the silvery tracks in the tall grass. Two sets: one heavy-footed, the blades of grass bent and broken beneath a farmer’s heavy boots; the other light and spry as though he who left such tracks could dance upon air if he wished but preferred to have his traces woven around and crisscrossing those of his more earthbound companion. I told myself that I would pause just within the forest; I would follow no farther. I only wanted air, to free myself from the stuffy confines of the library.
Recent rains--common in autumn here, Fëanáro had said--made their tracks easy to follow amid the sparse and dying vegetation. The sky was low and gray that day and the birds long-departed to warmer climes, to make noisy the already heavy, restless airs of Tirion. I walked with careful stealth, though I did not know why. I did not seek Telvo and his friend, certainly. They were likely long gone by now, too far ahead of me to catch.
I had no reason to believe, after all, that they could find reason to stop in their brisk-paced nature walk. For what reason? I would not think of answers to that question.
Because I was aberrant did not mean that others--that Telvo--were the same.
My heartbeat so loud that I felt sure it would have announced my arrival, I came upon them in a clearing.
There was a clear pool bound by rocks, into which flowed a steady stream of bright silver water, skipping down the rocks and splashing with mirth into the basin. One of the rocks was flat and warmed by a beam of Laurelin’s light cutting through the dusty air of the forest, having been admitted through a hole in the canopy of trees. In this beam, as though in the spotlight, Telvo lay naked upon his back on the rock; his clothes were strewn across the forest floor in a trail leading to the rock, as though they’d been removed in haste. Nearest to me was his green tunic, inside out and caught upon a bramble bush.
The dark-haired farmer was slowly undressing too, but my eyes were upon the beautiful son of Fëanáro, his coppery hair spilling off of the rock, his pale skin radiant in Laurelin’s light. Long-fingered, graceful hands slipped from his chest to his belly--hollow, with ribs showing in a delicate ladder of shadows--to caress long, shapely thighs that spread open as the farmer stepped free of his trousers, stumbling rather gracelessly in his haste and nearly falling, and came to kneel between Telvo’s knees.
Telvo clasped the farmer with his legs and lifted his hips. I could not see his face, but I could imagine his provocative beauty, teeth biting his full lower lip, cheeks flushed with delight and anticipation. The front of my breeches had become painfully tight, but I didn’t dare to relieve my lust. My fingernails dug the bark of the tree behind which I hid until I feared that they were bleeding … but I dared not look away from Telvo in the clearing.
The farmer hunkered gracelessly over Telvo’s lithe form and thrust forward in a single, shuddering movement, and Telvo let forth a cry as helpless as one of pain before seizing one of the farmer’s hands and pressing it to his lips. The farmer was moving in jerking, irregular spasms, and Telvo’s back arched away from the rock, offering his chest and belly to the farmer’s hungry lips suddenly seeking to devour as much of his pale skin as could be reached. Telvo laughed in delight and ecstasy, his head lolling from side to side, his beautiful hands plunged into the farmer’s dark hair, his feet linked and locked behind the farmer’s back. The farmer was kissing his face, knocking away the white flower still tucked behind Telvo’s ear in his haste; Telvo rolled his head upon the rock, turned in my direction, but his hair spilled over his face, and he saw nothing.
Until the farmer swept it away with knowing fingers, exposing Telvo’s delicate ear for kissing, and Telvo saw me.
Of that, I was certain, for his eyes locked mine, and he grinned.
As though he was not naked and entwined with another naked man, he grinned and pulled the farmer harder into him, letting forth a moaning gasp that got louder and more wanton as he dug his fingernails into the farmer’s thick upper arms and succumbed to shuddering release.
Even then, his eyes--bright as silver sparks--never left mine, even as he pulled the farmer’s mouth to his for a deep kiss.
I plunged into the forest, heedless of the noise I made; behind me, the farmer rose with a jerk--What was that?--lurching in my direction, wrenching free of Telvo’s legs and Telvo’s delicate, beseeching fingers upon his naked thigh--Nothing, my love, do not forsake me… please?--leaving Telvo’s hand caressing only air, his foot crushing the white flower in his panicked haste.
Breathless and soaked with sweat--arousal withered as though it had never been--I arrived back at the house and pounded up the stairs to my chambers, uncaring who heard me. I writhed out of my damp, dirty clothes and put on something fresh. There were leaves in my hair; I brushed them free and swept the evidence of my guilt beneath the armoire with my foot. I waited for the sound of Telvo’s footsteps behind me, for a knock upon the door … but nothing.
I returned to the library and my mathematics text, left on the windowseat, although I could not concentrate: My blood was pounding so hard that I could count my heartbeat by the darkly flickering pulse behind my eyelids. Trembling fingers turned the pages--tore one--in a frenzied pantomime of reading; the thin paper stuck to my sweaty fingers, and I hated to imagine the state of my face: a guilty, livid red.
Soon, though, it became clear that neither Telvo nor his lover had pursued me.
I even allowed the indulgent hope: Maybe he hadn’t seen me after all?
My heartbeat slowed, and I stared at the book in a better parody of concentration, though I saw not equations but the slender, beautiful body of Fëanáro’s youngest son splayed upon the rock; my brain filled not with numbing calculations but Telvo’s abandoned cries, and I remembered the fire in his eyes and he gave in to the exquisite pleasure that the ungainly farmer had so easily given him.
Or maybe--I had? For he had been looking upon me when he’d climaxed.
I rubbed my knuckles into my eyes, trying to banish such dangerous images and foolish thoughts. For I was aberrant, and even if Fëanáro’s son gave in to such temptation, I would not. I thought of my father’s horror, discovering me watching the other boys bathe when I’d been but thirty-five years old. And when I’d had my trouble …
Of that, I would not think, only to know that it had started in much the same way as had this afternoon’s encounter.
For I had become practiced in looking at men only with an ascetic’s eye: viewing slender hips and long, muscular legs with the calculated sobriety of a sculpture who looks upon the naked bodies of beautiful people for hours each day and remains unmoved. I’d learned to walk past swordmasters’ practices without staring at the damp-skinned, shirtless warriors; learned not to wonder what lay beneath the neat raiment of the beautiful nobility glimpsed at a distance at festivals.
Insidious as a winter breeze, those words came upon me and I shivered even as I burned, for thoughts of the son awakened thoughts of the father and his dark clothes close-fitted to his blacksmith’s physique, his mischievously beautiful face, his eyes that burned mine like fire …
Weakness overcame me, and I succumbed to it. I imagined Telvo walking towards me, only he became Fëanáro somewhere between footsteps--reddish hair turned raven black--and he undid his tunic as he walked, revealing a swatch of pale chest, and let the sleeves slip free of his arms, baring his flesh to my scrutiny: rippled, muscular belly and strong, slender shoulders, fingers already untwining the ties to his breeches, revealing a thin line of dark hairs, the shadowed hollows beneath his hipbones and smooth, white skin that would be petal-soft to kiss …
I wept into my book for shame, hot tears dropping upon Fëanáro’s neatly inked letters, smudging them irretrievably and leaving the mark of my guilt upon history.