Warnings: Heterosexual sex, violence, and mature themes, including discussions of death
Summary: Caranthir falls in love with Haleth of the Edain, and their lives--and fates--become forever entwined. This story examines the AU relationship between Caranthir and Haleth and how it might have ended...or not.
Author's Note: Written for Unsung Heroine's (atanwende's) birthday, with many thanks to her for inspiring me to consider this idea with her fantastic stories!
Cross-posted to dawn_felagund, with apologies to friends of both for the redundancy.
I was alone when she died—a small mercy—for as the years fell away with the same languid grace as leaves drifting from the trees in autumn, being in a capacity where my grief would be made a public spectacle, when she died had become my biggest fear: being in a counsel or on a hunt with my brothers or greeting people in the streets. For I did not know what I would feel. How intensely. I only knew that I would.
But I was alone, walking in the forest beneath autumnal leaves aflame with color—a beautiful death, I’d always thought, even in the north of Valinor where death was supposed to be unknown. I had gone walking on a whim, having bidden farewell to Celegorm and Curufin three days prior and already bored with silence and long-neglected paperwork: lonely, if I was being honest with myself. Why don’t you marry? came the frequent question. Why do you live alone?
That answer was never mine to give.
After she’d died and after I’d grown accustomed to the new emptiness inside of me—a hunger that could not, would not be filled—I began to wonder if the truth was mine now to share. I reveled in the thought of trumpeting a challenge to the foolish ideals of her people: It was all an illusion all along! Her masculine strength, her ideals above the simple love or a man! She’d been mine, my wife! I had loved her, and she had reciprocated!
And yes, the foolish ideals of my people too: A son of Fëanor, one of the proudest of his lot, had lowered his standards to love one of the Atani. Let it be known from Doriath to the hidden kingdom of Turgon; let it be known by all who wished to believe us monsters that even the hearts of the “fell Fëanorions” were susceptible to love.
But at the moment that she died, the moment that I knew, I had none of these thoughts. Something inside of me ceased to exist. I doubled over, expecting pain, expecting a crush of organs falling to fill the void, the swooning terror of freefall—but nothing happened. The hollow space remained, unshrinking, gnawing me as though with hunger. I wondered how long before my heart wizened and collapsed upon itself and grief took me.
In agony, in the forest aflame with beautiful death, I wept that day, for her. For even as I knew this moment had been coming from the moment we’d first met, I had not been prepared for it. I’d expected pain, not emptiness. Pain I’d known; pain could be dulled with drink and sleep as thick, black, and clinging as the mud of fens. But emptiness was different; emptiness infected every last ounce of one’s being until all of which one could think was filling the void…only for me, that void could never be filled.
I wept long that day, gouging my own flesh with my fingernails, making pain to forget the emptiness. What I would have given to have seized Time by his scruffy neck and jerked him backward, to hold him in place and time long ago that should never have ended. But I could not. My scrabbling hands found only empty air. Even my father—a genius heartbroken over the loss of my mother—had not been able to reverse time, and he’d certainly tried. Fool of me to think that I—one of his lesser sons—would be able to accomplish what he could not by strength of will alone!
Then: it was gone.
Not the emptiness but the grief. I felt as I had when word of my parents’ estrangement had come; how I’d wept in my bed, for long hours, until I felt my mother’s cool hands on the flushed skin of my neck, and it seemed that—though the estrangement was still in place, though I still ached for things to return to what they’d once been—it was a loss that I could finally bear.
Head bowing into my hands, I felt a breeze like fingers move my hair aside and a pressure like a kiss at the back of my neck. But surely—
I whirled, my heart hammering with hope, but no one was there.
“Haleth?” I whispered. Overhead, the trees stood still, as though time had in fact frozen. My voice was the only sound in the forest.
But nothing—no one—answered me, and the empty place remained inside of me. I waited for the strangling grip of grief to seize me anew—almost I wanted it to, for it seemed right that I should mourn her, my wife—but it did not return, and wondered: Had that strange touch like a kiss inoculated me against grief? Had it been her?
When my brother Maedhros had been returned from the dungeons of Angband, missing a hand, he was at times maddened by what he described as a relentless itching or a cramp so painful that he would cry out with it, sweat oozing from his pallid face, the skeletal fingers of his remaining hand like a manacle around our wrists, begging for relief.
His healers were baffled; we, his brothers, were tormented and—in private councils of which we would never again speak, ashamed—we wondered if he had gone mad upon Thangorodrim, if it would have been a mercy for him to die of his injuries, in the arms of his beloved Fingon, on the way home.
For the cramping and itching: it was in his missing hand.
Lacking another solution, the healers prescribed that we should dose him with extra medicines to make him sleep whenever one of the strange “attacks” struck. “And what does that mean for me?” asked Maedhros. “That I should be drugged whenever my hand itches? Spend the rest of my life asleep?” He’d refused. “I’ll gladly bear it, thank you.” But when the next attack struck—a cramp as though all five of his fingers were being torn in opposite directions, he said—tears sprang to his eyes and he turned his face to his pillow to scream.
It had been I who’d discovered that pretending to massage or scratch where his right hand would be brought relief.
One by one, I massaged and flexed each of his fingers, naming them in turn until I discovered that he could name them as I rubbed and tugged at them. Holding my breath against the stink of blood from his wound, I leaned to kiss his “palm.” I lightly ran my fingernails up and down the back of his hand. His eyes fluttered shut drowsily: “Caranthir. That feels wonderful.”
I held his “hand” while he slept, and he awoke without pain.
As our healers became more accustomed to treating battlefield injuries, my brother’s strange complaint was found to be quite common among recent amputees; daenaeg, they called it: shadow-pain. At times mild and at times nearly intolerable—I was told—it afflicted the mind where there still lay a shadow of the lost limb. “Pain and loss are both in the mind, not the body,” one healer told me. “Though the body creates them, the mind must acknowledge them in order for them to truly be.”
Awaking with a start in my bed on the first night after her death—the bed that had never known the flesh of my wife, only the torments of my longing and my dreams—I felt the daenaeg within me, as though she’d never gone, a tugging and stretching at the place of our bond like nothing I’d ever known before. Even during our most intense lovemaking, our most intense arguments, I’d never known such disruption, as though my mind refused to believe in the loss of that which I had known for many decades now.
Curling on my side, hoping to relieve the daenaeg, if only for an instant, I cried her name in a hoarse whisper: “Haleth!” As I’d grown accustomed to doing on the nights when I—more often than not—slept alone, I embraced one of my pillows. I pressed my face into it and remembered her scent, the feel of her hair on my cheek. I pretended that it was her.
But the daenaeg would not subside.
And then fingers brushed through my hair. Hush. You’re being silly. As she’d said that day on the riverbank, while she wrapped a wound on my arm, for we’d surprised a band of orcs and we both had been injured in the scuffle. Only I hadn’t wanted to admit how badly my arm was bleeding, not in front of a woman, an Atan at that!
Her fingers in my hair, removing a leaf, but how I’d shivered at so light a touch. And how deftly she’d cut away my tunic with her knife, as though it was nothing for a mortal woman to strip half-naked one of the lords of the Noldor, exposing flesh that hadn’t known the eyes of a woman for many years.
We should have lain together that night, I thought now, curled on my side with the pillow in my arms—the daenaeg gone as though it had never been—only we were both too foolishly stubborn. Instead, she’d bandaged my arm, and neither of us had spoken. Decorously, she’d avoided chastising me for the way the blood spurted faster with the rhythm of my quickened heartbeat whenever her hand pressed my naked skin; decorously, I kept my bloodied fingers clenched in my lap and had avoided touching her in turn, kissing her mouth, as I’d wanted to.
We’d laugh about it later, skin pressing skin, in a tangle of quilts, and she’d kissed the scar on my arm with reverent tenderness. We will long for those years back, Caranthir, to spend them together as we should have been. But for now, let’s be happy, and forget that this must one day end.
When I’d met her the first time, I’d thought her a man. In her leather armor with a crude iron blade at her side—her copper-brown hair twined in a ragged horsetail—and her skin smeared with blood and grime, she had not provided much of a portrait of a woman. Her features were finer than most of the Atani males I’d met, true, and her face was hairless, but she rather reminded me of my brother Macalaurë with small, delicate lips, high cheekbones, and a strong chin.
But when she slipped her hand from her gauntlet to take mine, when my eyes met hers, my heart leapt with surprise as the sight of her pale, delicate hand: She is a woman!
“My Lady,” I’d said, “I should like to meet with your lord, to offer him reward for the valor of his—your-—people.”
And Haleth had laughed coldly. “My father is dead and my brother slain beside him. I am not wed…and so it seems that I am the lord of my people.” Her eyes had glinted with something like surprise, like water long flowing under gray clouds kissed by a beam of sunshine erupted suddenly through and just as quickly occluded. “Yes, my Lord Caranthir, I now lead the Haladin. So you may speak to me.”
She was awkward in her diplomacy, I learned, prone to speaking in halting, nervous phrases, but her eyes flashed with pride if I ever dared to patronize her by similarly lowering my speech to the style of hers. She was slight in frame but strong, I learned, and her skin was almost translucently pale and lightly freckled. I’d laughed and traced them on her cheeks, for I’d never seen such markings upon a human being before. “Like an Appaloosa horse!” I’d exclaimed, without thinking, and she’d snatched my fingers from her face, her hand vice-like and merciless upon mine: “Shall I take that as an intended insult, my lord? To compare my face to that of a horse?” My diplomacy failed then, and I was left with my mouth flapping open and shut, uttering nonsensical syllables, and her stern expression had collapsed into one of mirth and she’d flung my hand back against my chest. “Luckily for you, my lord, I think that Appaloosas—all horses—are beautiful animals.”
I’d offered my land to her people to use for as long as they wished, and she’d bowed to me in gratitude. “Our losses have been terrible, as you know. But my people are not content so long as we remain in anyone’s debt—even one so illustrious as you, my lord—and so we will not stay long, just time enough to recover our strength and our numbers to move west.”
I must have fallen in love with her some time in the ensuing years, but I do not remember it; there was no headlong plunge into infatuation, no whimsical silliness involving flower petals and love poems and heartfelt sighs aimed at the stars. It was rather as it had been, centuries ago in Valinor, waking one morning early to assist my father in the forge and discovering that the face looking back at me in the mirror over the basin—dark gray eyes, swarthy skin, and ruddy cheeks peeking from around a facecloth, undeniably mine—was that of a man, no longer a young boy. As startling the realization—so sudden in the watery light of morning—I recognized it as inevitable, and my heart had been quick to accept it. So was my love for Haleth.
Walking together once, hand in hand, in the lonesome safety of the forest, I asked her: When did you know that you loved me? And she’d said that, at first sight, her heart and loins had both quivered at the sight of me, “But I had thought it mere lust. Your people are beautiful, Caranthir, and I thought that my feelings would subside once I’d grown accustomed to you. I’d hardly expected them to intensify, but they did. Even less did I expect you to reciprocate.”
I’d been surprised at her confession, for it is not the way of our people to admit purely physical lust, even if that describes best what we feel for another, but to remain aloof to our desires and claim “love” born of the spirit, only succumbing to the will of the body after marriage. But when I was being honest with myself, I would have to admit that I desired her. I dreamt of her at night and awoke as I had not since my adolescence, on the verge of release, grinding my fists into the bedclothes in an effort to remain “mature” and “chaste” as expected of an unmarried male of my station but—upon first though of her pale, coppery hair and flint-gray eyes, her face smattered with freckles—unable to resist, pressed facedown into my pillows, gasping her name.
Those dreams returned to me in the days following her death as they had not in years, for I’d assuaged the desires of my body with the belief that she would return to me someday. I’d neglected to consider the vicious aging to which the Atani are prone; I’d not lost faith as the years passed and should have marked the death of hope. Each morning, I’d awakened with the full expectation that when the sunset ignited the western sky, I would see her silhouette upon road, returning to her home, to me.
When another day passed without her return and I slipped into my bed, alone again, still hope did not die.
Shamefully, in the days after her death, my dreams of her were vivid enough to be real: I awakened with my nightclothes torn from my body, my naked flesh flushed and bruised as though by her insistent kisses, my body aching with the memory of her hands upon me. For a painfully hopeful moment—a remnant of a dream carried into waking—I saw her as she’d once been, long ago, before the sun and wind had become to weather her face and made her eyes sparkle like two jewels in the depths: her waist-length hair the only shroud to her nakedness, boldly astride me, holding my frantically thrusting hips to the bed. Caranthir, slowly…make it last.
Then she was gone.
Of my six brothers, I was perhaps the most heartbroken by my parents’ decision to separate. I was a grown man at the time—we all were grown men, even the twins, just come of age—and my agony had been inexplicable. Always was I the loner of my brothers—for even my beloved Celegorm had forsaken me in favor of the much cleverer Curufin—Toloquen, my father called me, “the islander,” and I’d overheard him wondering to my mother if that was why I was taking it so hard. Taking it so hard, as though there was another way to take it. Ironically, the drastic reaction of their children—in particular, mine—had prolonged their unhappy cohabitation, giving us hope that their marriage might be salvaged after all. Hope that died bitterly, of course, on the day our mother finally left, perhaps after the realization that a family could not be broken with dignity and grace—or even an illusion of such—as she’d hoped.
I felt that it was less my solitude that exacerbated my reaction to my parents’ estrangement than what the ending of their marriage portended: that love could end. That it would one day end for me, slipping into irrecoverable darkness. I’d had few courtships and none of them successful, for I tended to be sullen and solitary where my brothers were charismatic and effusive, and had no reason to even believe that I would ever fall in love, much less marry, but I did. I did believe, despite the odds against it, and my parents’ estrangement brought the realization upon me that I would fall to the same fate. One day, I—as my father had been—would be left alone. With my ear pressed to his workshop door, I listened to him weep on the day that my mother left, sobbing like I’d never known possible. Not for him. Not for a purported “spirit of fire” who needed none but himself, certainly not a quiet, homely blacksmith’s daughter, to make him happy.
Before she’d departed, I’d asked questions of my mother, flinging them at her with little mercy, for I’d believed—wrongly, perhaps—her to be the engine behind her separation from my father. “So you can renounce love? After seven children and so many years? Just like that?”
Ever-patient, she’d taken my heated face in her hands, kissed my brow as though I would not take my hands to her face if I believed that it would cause her to stay. “I renounce nothing, for I still love—and always will love—your father. Love is like any energy: It cannot be destroyed, no matter how hard we will it gone. We may displace it or learn to ignore it with time, but never shall it leave us; just as one’s first sight of Light lingers forever and makes us fear and hate the darkness, so shall love make our spirit discontented with loneliness. It is not that I do not love Fëanaro, dear—please understand—but that it is no longer best for either of us to live together. Though love forms the foundation, a marriage requires much more.”
“Then why?” I’d asked. “If you cannot live together, then why did you marry? Why did you not choose another?” Wondering then, whose child would I be? Hers? Or Fëanaro’s? Horrified at the idea of passing either of them on the street as something other than my parent. “You are called Wise, mother, but you do not seem wise in this.”
“The one whom one’s spirit chooses to love,” she’d said, “the choices of spirits, is not based on wisdom. And I could not bear to marry any other than your father, no matter the years of pain we shall all now pay for such short bliss.”
Such short bliss. But she’d known nothing of it, really, had she? For she and my father had had many centuries and seven children together; even in the short years that Haleth and I spent together, we often went weeks without seeing each other. There was a ruse to maintain and two separate peoples to lead. Even when she promised to meet me, in a clearing under the stars, I would often awaken to a blushing dawn, having fallen asleep against a tree, cold and with a cricked, aching neck. Or it was I who could not make our meetings and she who would pass the night alone and waiting.
It took two years before we would admit to the other the depth of the love that we felt; two years of slow convergence marked at intervals by events that nudged us closer to inevitability: a first touch, a first kiss. Marriage. But in the beginning, our love had been innocuous, a simple preference for the other’s company. I would seek out her people when hunting, sending my brothers along without me, and spend days in the rustic village that she’d overseen building. I found excuses for us to hold council together, traveling to her settlement since she refused to leave her people to come to my fortress, and we’d talk through the night, meandering from matters of importance to matters less so, neither wanting to bid farewell. The light of the candles had set the dark centers of her eyes aflame, and only when the last had guttered out and the darkness on the eastern horizon was diluted by the rising sun did we make our excuses, knowing that the first light would bring forth her people and they would not look kindly upon an unwed woman spending the whole of a night in the company of a similarly unwed Noldorin lord.
And our first touch: I’d seen her on the street and come up quietly behind her, laying a hand on her shoulder in the place of calling her name, to feel the way her flesh shivered at the unexpected contact. We’d taken each other’s hands in greeting but never touched otherwise; she was insular, unlike most women I knew, and not prone to punctuating her speech with glancing touches along my arms and hands. I’d waited for rebuke but there’d been a sparkle of pleasure in her eyes, and not long after, she’d consented to embrace me in a private farewell, our hearts hammering in panicked unison against each other.
Haleth. I am in love with you.
How many times I said it over the course of a day! Bent over papers or scouting in the woods, whispering it to myself, imagining her reaction. I planned speeches that went unspoken whereby I pled my love for her and asked her to unite our people through marriage. Chin upon palm, I stared into the fire of my study and imagined her body as a twisting lick of flame beneath mine, limbs entwined, tongues tangling in a heated kiss, the welding of two spirits into one.
Haleth! I love you!
I remembered being young and courting maidens and the extensive devious plotting that would occur before our meeting to determine how exactly I might get her alone and willing to be so for the longest possible time. Certain of my brothers—especially Maedhros and Celegorm—were expert at it, and laughing, they’d refer to “Carnistir’s black cloud” when it came to romance, for my efforts were awkward and rarely successful. More than one maiden flounced from our house in tears. “Don’t touch me!” Celegorm would shout in jest. “For the black cloud shall infect me too!” Laughing with Maedhros about it. “Like fleas on a dog, so misfortune leaps to drink of Carnistir’s natural virtues in sullenness and antagonism!”
With Haleth, similarly, I plotted. I imagined us alone in my council room. There’s only one chair; you shall have to sit upon the table. Coaxing my way between her knees, her arms around my neck. Kisses. Her legs around my waist. Her clothing coming unfastened easily beneath my fingers as women’s garments never did in real life.
The startled face of one of my pages, interrupting us: “My lord…?”
Caranthir’s black cloud. I didn’t even try.
Still, with convergence, eventual intersection is inevitable. We’d been in the forest, pursuing a lone wolf who was stealing her people’s sheep and instilling fear in the small children who were needed to help their parents in the fields. It hadn’t taken long to track the wolf to the lake—not a male, as we’d expected, but a beautiful bitch with a pelt like silver and honey-gold eyes fixed upon mine, my hands aiming the shot suddenly tremulous, the arrow whistling past her and into the trees.
As, behind me, Haleth released her arrow into the beast’s throat.
“You would have missed!” she chided, laughing, then—seeing the expression on my face—asking, in a low voice, “Was it on purpose?”
My pride wounded, I’d snapped, “Of course not!” tearing my blade through the wolf’s stubborn hide, unleashing a torrent of still-warm blood across my hands.
And her hand on my arm, slipping beneath the short sleeves of my jerkin—for it was summer, a day gently simmering with heat—drawing my startled gaze to hers. “It is not wrong, Caranthir. I also love beauty and wished her to live.” Her hand sliding up my arm, to my cheek, to tangle in my hair; our foreheads pressing together—frantic breaths meeting between us—her eyes wide and afraid but her face also flushed with desire.
Our lips so near to kissing, I hissed with regretful laughter: “At last, I’ve the chance and courage to kiss you, and my hands are red with blood!”
“C-courage?” she stammered. The whisper of her words against my lips was nearly as tormenting as a kiss. I pressed my lips to hers, and it was neither graceful nor sensuous, but she responded as though she’d been waiting for nothing less, and when she finally had to pull away to breathe, she whispered, “Wash your hands, Caranthir? For I ache for your touch on my skin,” and I did exactly as I was requested.
We came together in the clearing, on an indecisive summer day where storm clouds piled like ash against a sky so blue it hurt to look too long upon it, when the wind threatened rain and the sun blazed in golden bars from between the broken clouds. Lake Helevorn filled our horizon, cobalt-colored, like the tinted glass that our father used to make in Valinor. I laid her upon the grass, framed by hundreds of tiny, many-colored flowers, but even as she mumbled, blushing, that she was plain and freckled and unworthy of a Noldorin prince, I kissed her lips and silenced her, for I wondered if I had ever seen such beauty. And if I was worthy.
The lengths of our bodies pressing each other, we wrested the clothes from the other’s body until it was skin on skin and we allowed our hands to explore each other with unrestrained delight. Her thighs opened at the barest touch of my hands, and as I settled between her legs, she whispered, “This will be more to you than just a tryst, won’t it, Caranthir? For is that not the way of your people?”
“Yes,” I admitted. “I will be wed to you…if you consent?” and I waited for her to push me away, to cover herself in fear, but her eyes brightened and she nodded. “I would…if you would.”
I spoke the name of the One, and in a tremulous voice, she echoed my words. Hearts hammering in fierce unison, our eyes fixed upon the other and watching the flickering progression of emotions: tenderness and ecstasy and wonder at the fire that erupted between us and melted our spirits into one, gasping mouths finding the other as though for sustenance, crying our pleasure against the other’s skin.
If our people were not meant to unite like this, then how did we achieve union? How did I make you my wife?
I said those words to myself, in joyful whispers late that night as she slept in my arms beneath a velvet sky strewn with stars. My wife! Stirring beside me, she smiled in her sleep and twined her fingers with mine. Unhappiness seemed impossible, a distant future that I could not—would not—contemplate ever reaching.
But night bled into day with a sanguine sunrise, and daylight brought us home, where we kept our marriage from those who would not understand. From all others: her people and mine, my brothers, who meant well, but mocked the “unsightly” Atani women with their sagging cow-udder breasts and hips as wide—they said—as an applecart. Their mottled skins and colorless hair. Through their eyes, Haleth was all of these things. But to mine….
Only one of them came close to perceiving our marriage. At a feast at Maedhros’ northern fortress, Maglor caught my chin and stared into my eyes, and he knew; I saw it. I wrested away from him, protesting surprised pain, but he was not fooled. “There is something different about you, little brother,” he said, and his keen gray eyes—called “benevolent” by those who knew him less well—pierced mine with alarming acuity.
“I-I know not of what you speak,” I managed before excusing myself and hurrying to Maedhros’ gardens—encased in ice at that time of the year, a morbid preservation of what had once been full of life and beauty—letting the cold air take the frightened heat from my face.
I must tell them! We must tell them.
Tell them all.
Haleth surprised me with a cottage built deep in the woods, and here we would meet for days—each gone under a pretense of hunting or scouting the lands—sleeping in each other’s arms upon our narrow bed by the fire. “We must tell them!” I argued, but Haleth shook her head in bitter disagreement.
“My people—they will not tolerate—” waving her hand to encompass it all: our cottage, me, our life, “this.”
“Don’t be foolish,” I said. “You have every right to marry as anyone else,” and she lashed out then, unexpectedly, with the blinding force of a flash fire: “You do not understand, Caranthir! I am a woman! Not a leader! To my people, one cannot be both. I am thought fit to lead only because they see me as sexless, above such desires as these; above wanting a man in my bed at night, a home with him, a child. They need me to be their leader, not your wife!”
My wife. The words: different now, stinging, like a whiplash upon my face streaked with surprised tears. I’d left then, a day early. I was a fool, to forsake our precious, rare time together over my raw, flayed emotions. How I’d long for that time back! But the slavering beast that is time lumbers only forward, and helpless as a cocklebur snagged in his fur, the years whipped past with alarming fury, and I paid the price for my prideful anger.
It would be dishonest of me to deny that I wished for a child to grow of our love, though I never spoke of my hope to Haleth. For she would see my wish as selfish…and it was. Then she could not deny me; then we would have to be a family. Mother, father, and baby: let her people scorn us. Let them go west without her. We would be happy in our cottage in the woods.
Whenever we lay together, I wished for this. And she didn’t stop me; never asked me to pull out of her before climax. But my hopes went unrealized; her belly remained flat and barren, and I was forced to wonder—though our spirits had remained free to choose each other—whether there were larger designs for her than to live as my wife.
Not long after, she came to me with the news that she was moving her people west. “Our strength is recovered, our sons grown to men. We no longer require reliance on your hospitality.” She was Haleth-the-Leader, not Haleth-the-Wife. I smirked at her, determined to play at her game. “Whatever you wish, my lady.”
But she kissed me then, on the lips. “No, Caranthir. Do not make it like this. I am grateful to you and shall be for the whole of my life. Grateful for…many things.”
In the end, I sent her people away with food and treasures enough to trade for goods along the road. In the end, I bade her farewell in front of her people—her wretched, ugly people in their ragged clothes with filthy, ungrateful faces—and it was she who had to turn her back to them, to keep them from seeing the way her lip quivered and her eyes gleamed with tears.
Not me. I gazed over her shoulder, my eyes as hard as dark steel, a practiced stoic. I kissed her knuckles with the courtly revulsion of an Elf expected to place his lips upon the dry, dirty skin of a mortal. “My lady,” I called her, and bade her to fare well upon the road. I looked at her people—her ugly, undeserving people—already restive and muttering at the brief delay required by diplomacy, and unblinking, I gave them my wife.
In the end, she cried—a single tear, slipped down her cheek to fall in the mud—and I did not.
For a long while, I was proud of that.
I expected her to return. Just arrived home from hunting trips with my brothers, I would first leaf through the messages left upon my desk, heart pounding with eager hope, looking for her familiar, scraggly handwriting upon a parchment. Knowing that it would be there.
Knowing that, if it wasn’t, the next day would bring her over the hill in the road and home to me. Or maybe the day after?
I, like most of my people, had stopped counting years. Time for me was less like the lines that are drawn by mortals—punctuated by notable births, deaths, wars, events—and more like a swirling maelstrom, making tedious progress, yes, but mostly churning upon itself, the same occurrences flickering to the surface like lightning. The same feasts, year after year. The same hunts with the same brothers, chasing stags that we swore we’d slain the year prior. Or maybe the year before that? When I thought of Haleth, I thought of her as I was: suspended in time, unchanging, moving in endless circles around herself, disoriented and forgetful: Where am I?
Is this the First Age? Or do the Trees still shine in Valinor?
Or have we moved into the Second?
I might have marked our anniversary, for I remembered the day—four days after midsummer—each year, but I could never remember how long it had been. Five years or fifty? I found myself wondering—three years after she’d left—have they made it to Doriath yet?
Vaguely, the realization came upon me at times that I should seek her. Before it’s too late. Startled by the thought as though slapped. Too late? For what? But why, when the next year was like the last and time folded upon itself as even a broad banner can be gathered and tucked upon itself until it occupies just a sliver of space. So the years of her life passed for me.
And it was too late.
Five years after Maedhros’ return from Thangorodrim, he’d called me into his chambers for a private breakfast and council. He’d needed my help, for Celegorm’s five hundredth begetting day was imminent and we still believed then in celebrating such frivolous things. I’d arrived early, eager and nervous, for Maedhros remained strange after Thangorodrim, never to fully recover in spirit even if did in body. He’d laugh at the wrong moments or fly into fits of senseless anger, lip trembling like a child denied candy. We all walked delicately around him as though fearful of disrupting the air around him but wanting to be near, should he falter, with our arms outstretched to catch him.
He hadn’t been fully dressed, but he’d called me to enter anyway. After the custom of our father, Maedhros refused to keep servants for those minor duties that he claimed it was beneath his pride to have another do for him, so he was alone. Awkward and uncomfortable, I took the seat he offered me, and he began to chatter about his plans for Celegorm and what my role would be in the affair—if I was willing of course—stuffing his foot into a boot and twisting the laces between the fingers of his remaining hand, all five fingers working together to press, pin, twist, and tuck the laces until his boots were neatly secured in a double-knotted bow as he’d always liked to wear them.
He’d stopped speaking, I realized, and was watching me, grinning. “Fascinating, huh?” He’d been missing a tooth in the side of his mouth; the orcs, he said, had wrenched it from his mouth for biting out one of their throats. Grinning as he said it. The missing tooth made him look rabid and silly at the same time.
“I-I suppose I’ve never given thought to how you did that before,” I stammered, embarrassed.
“It’s amazing what you can live without, Caranthir, when you have no other choice.”
So I lived without Haleth.
I waited for the dreams of her, the visions that lingered sometimes upon awakening, to diminish with the agonizing shock of her death. Once the wound upon where my spirit had attached to hers had healed, surely such pathetic delusions would cease and my life would return to normalcy. I waited for the callus to form; I became harsher and colder in an effort to convince myself that it had.
But, waking in a tangle of bedclothes, there she was, in the bed beside me, her touch upon my flesh so real that I cried out in ecstasy before I could stop myself—eyes squeezed shut against the pleasure—and when I opened them again, she was gone.
Time trod on with me lashed helplessly to its back. My land was overrun; the rich, beautiful land where our love was born despoiled by orcs. I fled with to brothers in Ossiriand, a wild land unfamiliar and strange, where I should have forgotten her in absence of reminders of her: of the wind bearing the scent of the lake—flat and bright in the sunlight as a piece of glass warped by years—beside which we’d walked, pausing to lie upon the sand with the waves lapping playfully at our toes, shrieking with the delight at the bite of the icy water. But even in Ossiriand, I saw her, peering around a tree, beckoning her to come to me. Kiss me…. Press her against the rough bark of the tree, her man’s breeches cast aside and her legs tight around my waist. Biting my ear. Caranthir…come to me….
I darted around the tree, seeking her. Nothing. I screamed in my rage at Amrod, with whom I’d been hunting and whom I suspected of the deception, and he’d appeared behind me, gray eyes wide with innocence, for it had not been him teasing me. How I laughed! And he slapped my face and laughed too. We were all a little mad in those days.
Mad…and vengeful. With nothing to lose. Much of our family gone, lost to war, only we remained: seven brothers who were unworthy of a dignified death in battle but must instead die fulfilling our heretic’s oath.
Maybe that’s why we were so eager to march on Doriath?
I thought of death on the way there. I knew that I would not be coming home. I wondered how I’d die. I wondered how Haleth had died. Snug in her bed, as was prized by the Atani, I’d been told, surrounded by friends and kin? Or had it been quick: a fall from a horse, a blow to the head, an arrow shot amiss and bringing death as swiftly as she’d brought it to the wolf on the day we’d married? Dropping from existence to make room for more life?
The sundering had been swift but I knew that the Atani tended to linger, their wills stronger than the bodies they were given, enduring even great pain in order to be able to open their eyes to the sunlight each morning. Not like a candle being snuffed by impertinent fingers but more akin to a guttering fire, embers glowing long after the fire has gone out, still hot at the core. I wondered how it had been for her?
I wondered how it would be for me.
I was not long in finding out: a blade to the throat, a whelp of a Sinda whom I’d not been expected, crouching in the trees in Doriath and dropped upon me like a tick upon an unsuspecting host, the knife butter-soft across my jugular and spilling my life between surprised, grasping fingers that couldn’t seem to put the blood back inside, where it belonged, instead letting it spill into the dirt.
When I opened my eyes next, she was standing over me.
In her man’s breeches, hiked high to her waist and unflattering, full breasts pressed tightly inside her leather jerkin, her hair a windswept mess, she held her hand out to me, as soft and delicate as the hand of any woman I’d met.
But of course, said her eyes, smiling brighter than her smirking lips. Her hand outstretched and mine rising to fill it.
Around us, the battle raged in silence. As I rose to stand beside her, I pondered this: metal falling upon metal without a sound, mouths twisted in silent screams. Yet there were others like us, rising from the bodies fallen to the ground, staring around themselves in puzzlement. But staring at us—a Noldorin lord and a lady of the Atani—unblinking, for in a world that had allowed two kinslayings, who could fail to believe in even the strangest love?
From their bellies, silvery cords stretched as gossamer as cobweb into the west. I watched as they turned their backs to us and tugged the cord, whisked away, and I knew.
There was a similar cord coming from my belly. I put my hand upon it and it was a strong as steel, a gossamer illusion caught in the breeze. Beside me, Haleth watched.
But…how are you here?
We’d spoken of death before, curled beneath piles of quilts in our narrow bed, the crackling fire chasing the cold from the air. With our arms snug about each other, with the firelight painting deceptive reflections upon the glass of our single tiny window, it was easy to forget how close the cold darkness was to us, right outside the fragile, warped glass.
But under an illusion of warmth, light, and eternity, we’d discussed death.
The fates of her people were not known, she said, but it was thought that they went outside the Circles of the World. “This is supposed to be the utmost freedom,” she said, shrugging, the quilt falling away to reveal a pale, freckled shoulder that I just as quickly covered again, “greater even than the immortality granted to your people. It is supposed to be a place beyond weariness and tedium, where all is light as air and free.”
Both of us thinking—neither of us saying—that this path was barred to me as surely as she was unable to walk in Aman.
“I am not a philosopher, Caranthir. I do not know if I believe this—or if I should. Or should not. I know survival, diplomacy. War. I do not pretend to possess energy or concern for the intangible.
“But I do wonder if this supposed fate is inevitable, or do I spirits possess some kind of strength to resist? To remain here, bound to the earth?”
And I interrupted her and asked, “But why would you want that?” and she just as quickly retorted: “Is that not your fate?
“I know that we are capable of things that—lying here together, safe and warm—we think impossible. You are a man close to the natural world, Caranthir, and you know that a trapped animal will chew off its own limb to save its life. Yet that seems absurd, does it not? Just a slower death or a life of misery—however you choose to see it—yet the moment provides the illusion of a necessity so great that the poor animal will do it without a second thought.” She laughed. “Even with your strongest blade, I cannot contemplate it! Much less with my teeth.”
Then, timidly: “Mayhap our spirits show the same strength? And we simply do not know it?”
Now, I wondered at the touch of the cord beneath my hand, but I felt nothing. A quick whisk—flying over forest and sea, the familiar landscapes of Valinor; Tirion’s towers winking on the horizon!—and I would assume my fate. Bound to the earth. A creature of body and spirit doomed to live until the world’s ending.
The compulsion was great; resisting seemed akin to tumbling from a cliff and ordering, mid-fall, that the body should no longer obey gravity and should loft back to the top of the rocks like nothing had ever happened. My father, grandfather—now two of my brothers—they were gone to Mandos. As they should! It was my calling, my place. The Oath still beckoned me, asked me to answer the call and return to life. Return to war against Morgoth. I was afraid to do otherwise. If I answered, I would see my home, my mother again. I would succumb to the eventual fate of the Elves, whatever that may be. I need not be afraid. Who was I to resist?
But she had resisted.
I hoped that Maglor—when he followed my brothers to the Halls of Mandos at long last—would recall what he’d seen in my eyes at that feast long ago. I hoped that he would summon all his powers of speech to explain to my brothers that I had not betrayed them. I hoped that they would not fear for me or let the dread of Darkness cloud their thoughts.
I whipped the cord away. I bound myself to the earth. To her.
The choices of spirits are not based in wisdom.
If they are even choices.
From a stretch of sea south of the Isle of Himring, mariners bring strange reports, for it is said that when the sun breaks the heavy storm clouds overhead and a single beam of sunlight falls upon the water, the water lies as still as a lake of glass and upon the wavering, cobalt water, something walks.
Something. A figure. Not human.
It is madness, they say, brought on by terror of the gnashing maelstroms that tend to form of that area, once called “Helevorn” (it is said); or else delusions caused by drinking from the sea in absence of fresh water, waylaid first by the storms and then the inexplicable calm that always seems to follow.
Laughter follows but never mockery, for enough have reported the same phenomenon that the others fear that to deride their comrades would jinx them to the same fate.
Upon the expansive deck of the great vessel Darkwater, the child-servants, watch through spyglasses stolen from the quarters of the captain who tells them to call him “Father.” The moon is full and bright that night, cutting a bright swath across the water’s black surface, glittering like a road made of diamonds, glinting so sharply that they look as though they might cut one’s feet. The little girl says as much and wrests the glass from her brother. “Then walk upon it, then,” he retorts, “and see what happens.”
Fools, they are—and they know—for the “figure” (as it is politely called) is only seen in the daylight, when the first ray of sun breaks the storm clouds. But daylight is when they are in the scullery or busy with their other duties; now—when they are supposed to be snug in bed and not shivering upon the deck—is their only opportunity.
A bank of clouds cuts in front of the moon, and the sea becomes thick and dark as tar with nary a sparkle upon it.
“This is foolish,” says her brother, rising and kicking at the deck, for he is the oldest and expected to show such contempt for the pursuits of those beneath him.
But the clouds crack then, and a splinter of light pierces the darkness, falling to the water, sending a single, momentarily blinding flash.
Then: the figure.
It comes toward them, walking upon the water, and the other children shriek and run for their bunks, no matter the ire of their captain-“Father” that they will provoke with their disarray. But not the little girl: She presses the spyglass closer to her eye and watches them. Behind her, her courageous brother falters, footsteps mincing upon the deck, eager to run but determined to stay. “It cannot be,” he mutters before giving in to his instinct and pounding without dignity down the deck.
She sees then why it is called simply the “figure.”
Actually, not “it”: They.
For it is two of them—Elf and Woman—diaphanous as mist upon the water, a single entity yet two.
But that cannot be! the others will cry and speak diatribes of sundered fates and spirits.
But the little girl—spyglass pressed to her eye—knows differently: It is.