Losgar, 1497 Valian Years of the Trees
It's beautiful. I almost smile as I sink in the cool dark-blue silk lit by orange flames that waver and reflect around me as the pain dims. It should last forever, this feeling of weightlessness and purification, but the beauty becomes menacing, fills me with terror when I gasp and salty water burns my lungs. No, no, NO!
I wake. I am gasping, sitting on the bed. Everything hurts and I let the air out of my lungs in defeat. I am still alive. The elf called Círdan is veiling for me again. I would suppose he is some kind of lord, as all seem to defer to him, but he does not behave as one. He sits on the bed by my side and touches the good side of my face. His whispers vaguely remind me of home, of wind murmuring through the trees. I linger on the verge of comprehension but the form of his words elude me, if not their meaning, their calm trickling through me until my panting subsides. He presses a cup of the draught they have been using to keep me asleep to my lips and I drink it eagerly, despite the bitter sting on the back of my tongue. My heart quits its race as Círdan helps me down to lie on my good side, his soothing words and fluid gestures helping me slip again into the dream world. Oh Irmo, Irmo, let me stay forever in your realm.
Another morning comes. I learned to prefer the nights with their dreams of home, with their terrors, with the terrible knowledge warped and dimmed by the sedatives. I wonder if I talk during the nightmares...no, I mustn't. And they wouldn't understand me either. But fear's cold fingers brush through me at the thought. No one must ever know what lies in the past. No one would shelter a slayer of kin. No one would ever want to sully themselves with me.
Círdan is not in the room -- I do not need to open my eyes to know this. A rustle of skirts and a sweet hum tell me that Aerwen is here. Bright light fills every corner or the room and I squint through watery eyes to see her with the breakfast tray. I take the milk and leave the bread. I cannot eat; the guilt and fear have made a permanent knot in my throat, but I manage to force down the milk. She starts speaking, slowly and loudly as if I were a child. Some words are almost clear to me. She insists that I eat more, that much is clear, but I will not. I turn my back to her, giving her access to my left side. She sighs in exasperation and starts taking off the bandages and cleaning what mess lies under them. I endure the pain in silence while I try to take my mind away from this room, but my only recurring thoughts are of the evil that took us across the sundering sea.
Escaping the pain of the burns, I see myself, the last and the least of my brothers, little Telyo, standing in the square by their side, vowing an oath that promises riches of wonder, amazing freedom, the vanquishing of our enemies, and glory, infinite glory. And then I see us not so proud, stealing, killing to steal. Our steel against the wood of their oars. Father calling us to the fight, sword raised high, Nelyo right behind him, fast as lightning, Kano's face twisted in repulsion as Caranthir's sword splashes blood up to his face. And my twin shouting at me, calling me a coward, asking me if I am perchance a traitor.
I wince. Aerwen says something, an apology, I imagine, but the pain that comes from her ministrations is nothing compared to the images that come next. I follow Ambarussa. We are fighting back to back as Nelyo taught us, and slowly our scattered groups converge at the pier. The ground is slippery from blood, but we are holding on, when we hear Findekano's horn. Our Teleri cousins are pushed toward our swords, trapped between us and Findekano's host and we are stuck between the water and the ships. I hear father shouting, 'The day is ours!' and turn my head to see him standing proud on a deck, his bloodied blade held high.
Aerwen's is tending to my face, where it hurts the worst, but the darkness that took over my heart dims the pain.
I see myself following Pityo to the nearest ship. There are five others with us and we begin searching the ship for hidden Teleri. I stopped thinking after the first blow of my sword and I run, frantic, onto the ship with my brother and the others, searching every possible hiding place. I'm the first to go below the deck. It's dark and my eyes hurt from the smoke and the sudden light change. I hear movement before I see it and, swifter than the wind, I turn and slash. Blood makes noise as it hits the hold walls and she falls to her knees, sickening red spreading fast in her light blue gown. I drop my sword and hold her, but life has left her. I sob, then I shake her like a rag doll. Stupid girl, stupid girl. Couldn't you have remained in hiding? Couldn't you have fled before we ever reached the boat? Ambarussa finds me holding her. "Come," he says, stern and dark. I look up dazed and he reaches out his hand. Stare at it, red stained, the enormity of what we have done sinking into me.
Aerwen wipes the tears I hadn't felt slipping from my eyes. She says something that almost sounds like, 'There, there, it's done.' She puts away the bandages and ointments and as she leaves the room she turns back to give me that look of pity I've grown so accustomed to, the look given to the last child who earned no favour from either mother or father. Umbarto, Telyo, Forgotten, Clumsy, Why-can't-you-be-like-your-brother. Me.
She hasn't had the opportunity to be disappointed in me yet, nor has Círdan or all the others. I can only imagine how my face looks after the fire. My hair, too light for father's liking, is all gone. I must have looked like a torch as I threw myself out of the ship. I can imagine it, as I can imagine father shrugging upon hearing the news that I am not to be found anywhere, that someone saw me heading for the ships earlier in the night, that it might be possible he ordered me burnt alive. Nelyo asking about me, brow wrinkled in concern born more from duty than affection. Káno turning his face as he always does when things displease him. Ambarto pressing his lips thin, who knows if in disgust for his cowardly, irresolute brother, or remembering when the cruelty of that day in Alqualondë had not yet separated us.
I bury the good side of my face in the pillow to suffocate a sob I cannot contain. I lost everything, the little I had.
By noon Círdan comes back to the room with the other one, Galdor, I think, the one who regards me with narrowed eyes. Everyday since they brought me here they have tried to communicate with me. I pretend I understand less than I actually do but soon I will have to say something.
Círdan sits by the bed, his patient manner bringing the illusion of warmth. He looks so kind that I decide to answer his attempts.
"I am Umbarto," I say, pointing to my chest. Mother been right all along; this who I am, the fated one.
Círdan smiles and runs his hand kindly upon my hair. "Welcome to my home," he says and I understand every word.
A few months later
The first time Círdan took me to see his ships was a disaster. I started feeling wobbly and sick upon stepping onto the pier. I heard the faint sound of ripping flesh as I abruptly bent to retch and my healing wounds opened anew. I ran up the hill all the way back to Círdan's halls, feeling the blood soaking the bandages and my shirt, and I took refuge in my room. Sooner or later I would have to explain things to Círdan, and after such aberrant behaviour, I knew the dreaded questions would come soon. Fear washed through me upon the thought, so intense that I retched again. I could feel myself trembling, cold sweat, sticky skin, my heart running wild with my thoughts. I saw in my mind's eye Círdan's kind smile fading as I told him my story, turning into a grim line set in stone while he waited for the end of my explanations. Then he would rise from his chair, sparing Galdor an apologetic smile which acknowledged the rightness of his suspicions, and he would pronounce his sentence: "We give no shelter to kin slayers." I could not bear the thought of it.
I remained for a long time in my room, waiting for the inevitable questioning, but when Círdan came, he looked at the mess of my back and ordered me back to bed as if I were a stubborn child. Aerwen came, washed and redressed my fresh wounds, chiding me affectionately all along. Realising that no one had ever doted on me so tenderly as Círdan and Aerwen, I started sobbing, uncontrollable dry tears choking me. Círdan sat on the bed and slowly caressed the thin hair that bloomed on my skull. He was silent. Did he realize my reaction had cause in my injuries? I felt that more time had been granted to me.
After that day, we returned to our routine. My understanding of their tongue kept improving as did my skin. I would keep scars, well deserved ones, and I only rued that the damage had been so light for all the pain. They never mentioned the circumstances of my rescuing, but it was easy to understand how that might have come to be: Círdan was no fool and kept a close eye on shores far away from his home to the north and the south.
Círdan asked me a few times about my kin and offered to deliver me to them, but I would not answer his questions any more than I would ever return to my family. I could not imagine what fell deeds awaited me, if I were to keep my oath. Father had always said I lacked resolve. Perhaps that was the case, but I would rather face Eru's wrath than spill blood again.
I had started to hope that my origin would simply be forgotten. Every day I felt more like I belonged in Círdan's home. I liked these elves; I liked their living, the day lengthened by a nice after-lunch nap, never rushing for anything; I liked their food, borne from the sea, fresh, glorious in its simplicity, and so very different from the heavy dishes of game from home. I liked their easy laughter and the music of their flutes by sundown, saying goodbye to the memory of a day well spent. I liked their simple joy in life, so alien to what I had ever known. I could imagine my father sneering at their plain utensils, at the slow pace of their lives. He would call them lazy and inept, no doubt, but each day that I spent in their company brought me renewed regret that I had never been curious and generous enough to have taken the time to leave the comforts of my home. And regret too, of our perceived superiority over my cousins from the Teleri and the Vanyar.
The tranquil pleasures of life with Círdan's people brought me a measure of peace, albeit a superficial one. I dared dream that I could become one of them and live there, forgotten by all, but I knew that one day the questions would catch up with me, and by Manwë, did I dread that day. I was hale again; I was treated kindly by most of those around me, and yet I felt restless. The long empty days brought me to foul moods, to a feeling of uselessness I was well acquainted with.
After the incident in the harbour, Círdan seldom mentioned ships or the sea in my presence, hard a feat as it might have been to accomplish, but we often walked together in the inner-most streets of the town, away from the torturing water. At first I merely enjoyed the pleasure of his company, often comparing him with my father and finding myself wishing he had been more like Círdan, kind and affectionate. But as my restlessness grew, I started looking for clues in Círdan's comments about the people we met and places we visited, so often laden with concern and a calm pride. I looked at the traders and craftsmen searching for something that I might do to make myself useful and to keep my mind occupied. I only had ever been taught three things: to forge, to hunt, and to fight and none of those now constituted a remotely attractive occupation.
I had thought that my enquiries had been subtle enough, when one day as we returned home from our morning walk, Círdan spoke his mind to me.
"You want to help, young Umbarto, but you are a guest in this house and we would violate the sacred laws of hospitality by asking or expecting that you pay your stay with work."
I flushed. "I did not mean-"
"I know," he cut in kindly. "I know that you mean well."
We walked in silence for a long time. We reached the house, but Círdan made a gesture for me to follow him and we continued to the hilltop, where I had seldom been. The view was breathtaking, as was the climb. Sometimes I still felt weak as a pup. We sat on the grass, so free in our plain clothes, so unworried about staining rich silks as we would have been were I home. Still the beauty of the fierce sky, blue tinged by the silver of the stars fading to the smooth darker surface of the sea did not appease my heart: the day for speaking had come, and I feared and hoped against hope.
Círdan broke his gaze of the horizon to face me.
"You have my compassion for your suffering, and my esteem for the kind nature you have showed during your stay with us."
I nodded in thanks, but after almost a year of familiar treatment, being reminded that I was only a guest cut me deep.
Círdan continued, softly. "You have begged me not to send you back to your people, gave me nothing but a name, and I have accepted and in these uncertain times asked my people to trust a stranger."
Fear welled in the pit of my stomach, spread like darkness, but I let Círdan's speech go unhindered.
"I feel that you have grown to love our lands and our people, and I am convinced that you seek a place of your own amongst us."
Feeling like a child caught in a feeble attempt of deceit, I lowered my eyes. Círdan placed his hand on my knee and rubbed affectionately, kindling the tinder of hope, only to have a deep, tired sigh almost extinguish it.
"This is difficult..." He paused, searching for something in my eyes. "We would have you, but we would have you with the truth."
I withdrew from him, startled. "What do you mean?" I stuttered in a feeble attempt at deceit.
Círdan waited in silence, sombre and unsmiling. I tried to rise from the ground but my knees gave way. He placed his hand on mine, encouraging me, but not giving me any aid in the difficult task: to quit my scared boy's lies and half-truths and embrace with courage truth as the small and fair price for my freedom. Círdan surely had no idea; none of them could possibly know the circumstances that had brought me and my kin to these shores. He simply did not know what he asked, and I did not know where to start or if I should start at all. Was it better to withhold the truth and overstay my welcome, or to let it go and in the end be asked to leave after losing their esteem?
"Have you ever killed?" I started.
Círdan's lips formed a line as he assented.
"Kin? An elf?" I asked, the words jumping from my lips before I measured them. Mayhap this way would be best.
Círdan's expression grew grimmer but he stayed silent, willing to hear the rest of my admission. I could have waxed poetically about beauty and power and family loyalty, but I found that those meant so little to me now. I was blunt and succinct.
"I am the youngest son of Curufinwë, the High King of my people. My father is the master of great skill and for long he worked in many good things to improve the living of our people, when my grandfather was alive and ruled. His greatest work was motive for pride and cheer among our people, but it was also our downfall." I paused, praying with all my might to be excused of this dreaded task, but Círdan waited intently, leaving me no choice but to continue.
"He made gems which captured the light of the Trees, and the Enemy coveted them, killing my grandfather to steal them and then fleeing to these shores. My father, my brothers and I swore an oath before the Valar and our people, holding Eru himself as witness, that we would do anything to recover the gems."
Círdan pressed two fingers to the middle of his forehead, for the first time avoiding my eyes. A sad expression marred his gracious features, and I feared, by Ulmo, did I fear. But my story had gained momentum and had to leave my chest.
"The ships you saw burned, works of art themselves, were not borne from the craft of my father's mind and hands." I gulped. "They were bought at the price of the blood of their makers. Stolen, to be precise."
I waited, my gaze fixed upon Círdan while he stared at the empty horizon. The stars moved in the sky, the breeze became harsher and he did not move, nor did he ask for more. I waited, and waited, amazed that I had been able to say it all, that I had not fallen to remorse before the gruesome end. Círdan would probably think me a cold-blooded killer, but my eyes were dry, and I felt hollow, as if all the filth that was inside had been emptied, leaving nothing behind.
A siren sounded from afar, announcing the coming of fog. It could have announced the coming of Morgoth Bauglir that I would not had moved, not until Círdan held his silence.
"You swore an oath," he said at last. The peace that had followed my confession was shattered. I was being invited to leave and fulfil it, but Círdan continued, "You could not fulfil it by staying here. Why would you want to?"
"I should have died in that fire." I felt my eyelids prickling. 'Not now,' I begged to myself, 'no tears now.' I looked away, swallowing the pain. "I would rather die than kill again," I said. I thought that it would come calm and clean, like the rest, but the dam broke as the images of nightmares I had struggled to ignore flooded me. Círdan would certainly despise me: kin slayer, oath breaker and a coward who hid behind tears. It did not matter now and I sobbed with abandon, for me, lost forever by hasty words and one fell deed, I sobbed for the girl on the ship, for the nameless Teleri who only tried to protect what was theirs, for my brothers who would go on until not Eru himself could find heart to forgive, and for the love I had lost, no hope now of ever regaining Círdan's affection.
When I felt his arm around my shoulder I sobbed harder, all shame gone, only pain. Cooing to me like a child, he said things, said that he suspected as much from the loose words I uttered during my nightmares, that my crime was grievous indeed but that was hope, for my suffering and repenting could be my redemption, that I should never lose faith. I shook, tried to deny him through my gasps, but the tears kept running. The shame of my family indeed I was, but all that was nothing, nothing now. I begged for Mandos to take me, and Círdan held me tighter, quieting me, rocking me in his arms. I fumbled for the knife in my boot, but in my heart I wanted forgiveness, not death and Círdan caught my hand before I could do any damage. I tried to escape his arms, reminding him of my unworthiness, but he held me until exhaustion drained my tears.
"One cannot turn away from those in need of help," he said, lips brushing my hair before continuing, "There is a place here for you, but no one must ever know... We are too few and too frail against the Enemy to risk fighting amongst ourselves."
His generosity was overwhelming and finally I accepted his embrace, burying my face on his shoulder and inhaling the permanent scent of sea about him. His hand ran through my hair for a long time. I could feel his lips on my hair, as if kissing me, and I wanted it so to be true, that someone could still feel anything but loathing and contempt for me.
As if reading my thoughts, he said, "You are a child. You made a terrible mistake, under the influence of many, but I believe your heart is still pure." He placed his hands on my shoulders and pushed me softly from him, looking into my eyes. A tiny smile played in the corners of his mouth.
"We need to find you a new name, something less ominous, agreed?"
My lips quivered between tears and laughter, but the brightening of his smile tipped the scale for hope toward the first true joy in so long. Our laughter quickly subsided, more the fruit of tension and spent energy than true humour. His hands were still on my shoulders, we sat so close, his eyes were kind and deep, avowing him such beauty... I did what stupid youngsters do, rushed for a kiss that nothing had suggested I deserved, threatening the ruin of all that had been so freely given.
It was a quick peck, my first kiss, something that sent a terrible jolt coursing through me, oddly not so different from the terror of my first kill. I pulled back and lowered my eyes, certain that Círdan would not forgive me as easily now, but he pulled my chin up with his fingers, and smiled.
"A new day begins."
Finis July 2006
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A New Day Begins by Talullah
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Written for the 8th Library of Moria board challenge - Rare Pairings.
Sindarin OFC name Aerwen (sea-maiden) from Meduseld, used in lack of a nice Telerin name. :P
A big thank you to Half-Elf Lost for betaing this fic. *hugs* For Jaiden S, my dear Kettle, for being there unconditionally and not letting me give up.
Chapter end notes: First posted on the LoM on August 2nd 2006