As always, a million thank-yous to Sauron Gorthaur for beta'ing!
Also, this update is my last post before a six-week hiatus from FFn.
That You Feel Is Strange
"The water and the wind will wear the wood down, until only water and wind remain."
-Lisa Mantchev, Perchance to Dream
It is some days now. Days since. The fungus between his fingers is growing. It's strange and pale and lumpy like aging cauliflower, and it's creeping down over his knuckles. Some days since I saw it.
"You should clean that, El," I advise, sneering at the boy across the glasses of water on the table. He frowns. (I think it's 'Ros.) "It's disgusting."
His brother leans toward him, murmurs-but I can hear him, "Maglor said it would be this way. We just have to... ignore it and keep watch."
"Hasn't it been getting worse - " The reply is louder until it's interrupted.
"Quiet; the guards should arrive at any moment. It's a relief Maglor and Maedhros were worried to leave us alone with..." He trails off, soon to finish: "Hopefully she'll keep calm until they come."
I'm very calm, always calm; relaxed like an open boot with its laces flopping. "Don't worry. The strings are untied." The twins nod silently, simultaneously, without meeting my eyes.
Then it occurs to me, and I glance frantically around the high-ceilinged living room, searching as my heartrate climbs arrthymatically. The boys' eyes have wandered (looked away uncomfortably), and I pound a fist on the table for their attention. The glasses' contents slosh. "Where are Maitimo and Makalaurë?" The demand startles the boys, I think.
"You know exactly where they are," blusters one of them, annoyed? "I watched them tell you before they left." (Liar.) "Why do you have to be so-" His brother cuts him off with a jostled elbow.
"They've ridden out on a reconnaissance operation of sorts," he says with a patronizing little smile I'd like to peel off his face, "gathering information on the supposed Vala-" His brother elbows him in turn, and he starts the word again: "...valor of...the Edain against Morgoth."
"Oh." I furrow my brain, no, brow. "What were you going to say at first?"
"Valor of the Edain against Morgoth," he recites. "We just... have a joke between us. Don't we?" His brother nods emphatically, and I stare at them, processing.
"Very well, then," I answer at last, moving my gaze down toward his infected hand with the fungal bumps and bubbles. At once I can smell it, pungent and overripe. I daintily pinch my nose but say nothing; I at least have some manners.
We sit like this for some minutes: I holding my nose while the boys look enigmatically at each other and pretend not to smell anything. The one on my left whispers something to the one on my right, and they snicker quietly, I don't care what about. I stare blankly across the table at them until I hear the door behind me squeal open and booted feet click into the room. Two soldiers enter, fully armored but bare-headed.
"Such a shame," remarks a voice, "I like their helmets. The plumes on them arefavorably florid."
"Favorably florid!" cries another delightedly. I grin.
"Opulently orange," puts in another immediately.
"They aren't orange."
"Yes, they are."
"No, they aren't; they're glamorously golden."
I laugh, triumphantly toss in, "Extravagantly emerald!"
"Luxuriously lavender!" Giggling, I applaud our cleverness, then glance at the twins' quiet, emotionless faces. One of the soldiers has moved to stand behind them and across from me, arms folded. The other loiters behind my chair.
"Why haven't you offered them a seat?" enjoins a matronly voice.
"I don't know."
"Oh, sit down!" I exclaim, contorting my lips into a dry smile and gesturing toward the guards and some empty chairs. "How fresh you all smell." They answer me nothing and glare like rocks.
My hands are splayed across the tabletop, twitching as if attached to puppet strings. "What a show," I muse. And a voice echoes me, then echoes itself, then echoes again and again: "What a show, what-a-show, what a show, whatashow, what-"
I force my fingers into my ears and shake my head in spasms. "Quiet," I hiss, "quiet, quiet, quiet!"
One guard is behind me, and his shadow falls across the table under the yellow lamplight. Mesmerizes. I take a finger and gingerly trace the black outline. It's so quiet in here when I'm foc-
And at once it occurs to me. My pulse quickens, and my breath becomes short; I glance around the room, panicking, as a lead weight lands in the pit of my stomach.
"Where-" I stammer, voice scarcely audible over the blood pounding in my ears-"where are Maitimo and Makalaurë?" I lift a clammy hand to my mouth and hold it there, moving my lips to brush them toothlessly against the skin.
"We've only just told you!" The peredhel on the left nearly shouts the lie. My only response is to slowly shake my head, feeling the unspoken doom descending on me like a vulture.
His brother, though, sighs quietly, then dispassionately pronounces: "They've ridden out on a reconnaissance operation of sorts, gathering information on the supposed valor of the Edain against Morgoth."
"Oh." The response is better than it could be. "Thank you." But it comes from a mere child. I lift my eyes to the soldier behind the twins, then twist in my chair to see the face of the guard behind me. "Can you two corroborate this?" I whisper.
"We can," booms the man behind me into my ear. He says nothing more, and his eyes bore into me like a pair of icicles. I feel two cold little puncture wounds in my back and wince.
"Please stop," I mutter. "Please, please, please stop." He doesn't; the punctures ache and burn. Whimpering, I place a hand over their spot on my upper back, straddling the vertebrae between my shoulders. I lay my head on the tabletop inside my other arm.
"Stop him, then! If the man is stabbing you, get up and stop him."
"I can't. He'll kill me," I mumble and grumble into the wood. Hm. "Mumble, grumble, stumble, fumble." The words taste so funny in my mouth. But I hurt too much to laugh, and so I whine again from pain.
"Look, friends: Arda's first canine poet. She whimpers like a welp and spouts rhymes."
"Quiet!" My back hurts terribly. I look up from the tabletop and rest my chin on my forearm, pointing up to indicate addressing the guard behind me. "Is it bleeding yet?" I ask him. No reply.
"Keep on, keep trying."
"Thank you." That to the voice, then I address the guard again: "I asked, is it bleeding?" Nothing. I painfully sit up as straight as I can while still clutching the wounds and turn gradually toward him. "You, you behind me, could you tell me if my back is bleeding where you stabbed me?" He stares straight ahead, jaw and gaze sharp and set. Why will he not answer me? It's maddening.
"Go on, go on. You can scarcely give up now."
"Watch her; watch her, everyone; come!" This they all repeat until it dissolves into a murmuring on the margin of my consciousness. They're all watching me, and I rise to face the silent guard.
"Please - " I tap him on the wrist with my free hand, then lower my voice to a harsh whisper. " - please, is it bleeding from your ice?" I half twist around to show him but stop when he makes no reply. Insufferable man.
"Maddening," adds a voice.
"Crass and boorish."
"Immature." "Chauvinistic." "Barbarian."
"Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, YES!" I screech the word, fury combusting on the inside. "They're right about everything, you discourteous rat!" What a horrible, horrible, horrible- I take my hand off my back and grab him by the shoulders and endeavor to shake him. "TELL ME! Is my back BLEEDING or NOT?"
The room is silent, and the guard is eerily calm. He methodically lifts my hands off of him, as if brushing away an ugly but innocuous spider. He steers me back down toward my chair, then speaks at last.
"My orders," he says in a voice like cotton in your throat, "are not to converse with you. Please do not attempt to engage me. Thank you."
My eyes are open wide; my heart is thudding in its cavity; my breath arrives in gasps; my hands quiver from rage. And I am shocked silent.
"What orders, what orders?"
"To kill her, of course."
"She caught the stabbing too soon for them."
"Y-your back is all right." It's one of the twins. How lovely. "Why don't we all just have something to eat?"
"If they can't stab her, then they're certain to poison her."
"Yes, they are..." I muse, an icy maelström settling in my stomach. I sit up straighter; this means I'm resolute. The boys get up (the feet of their chairs squeak horribly on the floor), then they head for the kitchen, abandoning me to the two soldiers.
"Quick, kill them before they can kill you."
"With what?" I demand.
"Your hands, the butterknife, a shard of glass, their own weapons: think, think, think. And strike first."
"All-" I stammer, "all right, I'll try..." But it's immediately too late: the twins have reentered, each bearing two bowls of something chunky and brown. A little black cloud hangs over each dish; scarlet halos at once rest above all four males, like death misting the air.
"Will you two have something with us?" offers one El' or the other to the guards, indicating one of the dishes. "I can bring another in if you'd care for it."
"No, thank you," says the soldier behind me. "I plan to eat with my daughter after my watch here runs out."
"See, he won't eat the poison."
"I'll take this bowl and his then," blurts the other guard. "It smells too good to refuse."
"Liar!" The word trips out of my mouth before I can stop it. On closer inspection, the food can't possibly be poisoned: it's too horrible.
"You poison a beautiful cake, try to entice your victim; if you want her to consume it, it ought to look appealing, not like- like- something worse."
Oh. "It isn't poison," I assert. (It always feels better to say things out loud.) "It's something worse." Invisible hands suddenly etch eyes and noses and grins into the four red and the four black clouds. I stare at them, unblinking, and they remain. My hands are limp on the table, and I sit like this for a while, still as a corpse.
"Aunt Rániel?" One of the children disrupts the thoughts that just aren't there. "What is it?"
Wordlessly, I point to the hazy red aura around his head, now contorting, twisting itself into knots and new leering faces in the corners of my eyes. He sighs.
"Aren't you going to have some stew?"
"You're disgusting," I answer simply, then shake my head vigorously 'no.'
"Rányë... Aunt Rániel... Maedhros said to eat." He shoves the bowl of vomit at me. I saw him. I saw him in the kitchen, retching into the dish. It smells like venison, and the odour tickles my nostrils and rushes down into my stomach and turns the organ upside down until my insides feel bloated and far too light.
I shake my head, dig my dull fingernails into my temples, feel them make ugly little indentures like smiles in the burgundy scars. "Too-" I stammer, and my tongue lolls like a dead, fat fish washed up on the sand. I feel the grits and taste the briny oil coming out the defunct gills. Something splashes in my ears and doesn't stop.
I work my jaw for several seconds, then open my mouth and grab the fish by its sandpaper tail and pull. The muscles anchoring my tongue to the bottom of my mouth stretch and complain. My tongue.
"Lady!" reprimands the guard behind me, and I can see his shadow move toward me.
My tongue, my tongue. I release the muscle. "Get... the fish out." I slur the reply and place my head in my hands, clawing absently at my scalp. My elbows are on the table when it begins to shake.
Vibrations rush up through the legs of the table from the trembling foundations of the fortress, and I shriek, throwing my arms off the wood and wildly up.
"Elbereth Gilthoniel!" swears one of the guards.
"Earthquake!" shouts the other helpfully. The twins are white-faced, hard-jawed. The glasses of water shiver, then rock, then fall, spilling their contents across the tabletop, then rolling off and down until they shatter on the floor, which is still buzzing under my feet. The water starts soaking into the wood. The ground keeps throbbing, and my teeth chatter. I clench my jaw, grab my head, and press it to my legs.
"The house is falling down on you," observes a placid baritone. I'm too rigid to answer it aloud. The citadel quivers for several minutes longer, before the tremors slowly space themselves out and at last cease altogether. I sit back up slowly, vertebrae popping until I'm vertical again.
"It must be the turmoil in the North," says one of the guards, slightly breathless. What turmoil? "The first time the Valar-" Valar? "-made war on Morgoth, the Quendi felt the tremors even at Cuiviénen. I suppose-" He inhales, and I start. "-they are a sign for his downfall."
"So," poses one of the boys (and I can see his voice stretched out between him and the man like a taut white thread), "defeating him now will require as much destruction as long ago?" What is he talking about?
"At least as much-" begins the other soldier, but I interrupt him.
"They've come? They've come, and I didn't know?" My quivering voice grows shriller. "I knew about the Silmaril, but this I didn't; no one told me. Maitimo, he always tries to shove a rag in my ears... And down my throat... Like the Valar. Back for us. The Jewels. And devour everything." Devour. "I'm so hungry. Like-" And an ugly green hand tears the thought off my tongue. I glance around the room, and my stomach drops while my heart climbs into my throat.
"Where-" I shout, leaping out of the chair and whirling toward the guard behind me. "-where are Maitimo and Makalaurë? Tell me!" I lean toward him and jab a finger at his face. "Now!" They aren't here. They aren't. And the earthquake... The man takes a step backward, and his voice stays level.
"They've embarked on a reconnaissance operation of sorts to Ossiriand, and plan to return in a month," he tells me.
"Obviously they're going to fight the Valar, and didn't see fit to tell you."
"Is Morgoth in Ossiriand?"
"Every green devil."
"And no one tells you anything."
"There's a reason for that."
"A very good one."
"Far from good, any of it!" I argue, striking the table with my fist. "A month sings a working forest, and everyone sets my boots so crooked."
"At any rate, that's the way things are going to be," interposes El-something from near my feet. I revolve to see both boys crouched on the ground, painstakingly plucking the largest pieces of glass off the floor. "Now that you know about the Valar, you might as well know that they were going to Ossiriand in hopes of gathering news from the Laiquendi about the war." He's all but poured a gallon of water in my ears: too much to absorb. I sink nervelessly back into my chair, scavenging for my wits.
"Why?" I manage.
"Why gather news about-"
I cut him short. "Why not tell me?"
"We did tell you," grumbles one of them, "several times - that they were out doing reconnaissance, and they told you, as well, before they left."
"No, you didn't, and neither did they, you little liar," I spit at him. "And the Valar? I suppose you fed me morsels of power there, too?" This time I sneer.
Silence for a moment, and the boys glance at one another, then back and forth at the guards. "'Morsels of power'...?"
"About the Powers;" I answer, exhaling my annoyance, "don't be an idiot."
"Oh, it isn't him we're worried about..." says the other twin quietly, smirking.
I laugh and tease the soldiers: "Well, these guards certainly don't appear all that clever." No one else laughs, and no one else speaks. Elrond and Elros finish collecting the glass without a word (the hand fungus doesn't seem to impede the one of them), then bring in the broom and dustpan to do away with the particles too fine for picking up.
Time passes, and I flip the Valar over and over in my brain, a voice repeating at intervals like a bell: "They've come for you." I pull my legs up into the chair toward my chest and rest my head between my parted knees. I feel nauseated. After a while longer, I hear a door open and shut wildly in the room next door. The sudden noise must be permission to speak.
"I'm going upstairs to my bedroom, thank you," I announce before moving at all. I hear more doors slam open and shut, punctuating the words. I slowly pull my head out from between my knees in time to hear a few hurried inhales and a breathless voice.
"We encountered a few Laiquendian scouts just before the earthquake," says Maitimo, whom I've looked up to see. No greeting, no chatter, just urgency. He rarely says anything that isn't necessary anymore. "They were themselves en route to Ereb, bearing a message from the Valar-" No secrets now, I see. "- that all of Beleriand is to begin moving over Ered Luin." He inhales again. "After the earthquake, we saw why."
Makalaurë stands next to him, having just finished embracing the boys. "Did it inflict much damage here?" His voice is weary but genuinely concerned. He glances over the five of us.
"No, my lord," reports the soldier behind me. "Just a few broken glasses on this side, and I doubt it was much worse in the other wings. My daughter would have come to find me over here if it were."
"We're much relieved to hear that." Makalaurë offers a mild but authentic smile. "We turned the horses around as soon as the tremors stopped."
"And we will depart here by noon tomorrow," Maitimo rushes to conclude, next addressing the soldiers: "The rest of the company who rode with us is disseminating the instructions to prepare to leave to the rest of the people. You both are dismissed. I appreciate your efforts here today."
"Yes, my lord," they answer as one. Then they immediately leave the room.
"Elrond, Elros," Maitimo continues, "I thank the two of you, as well."
"For what?" I frown and squint up at him.
"For keeping you company, Rányë," he answers curtly, then slowly curls his lips into an unpleasant smile. "Come, it's barely sunset, and we have much to put together." I scramble out of my seat to follow him out of the dining room and toward the stairs.
"Ask him, ask him, ask him!" prod several voices at once. "Are the Valar here? How near are they? And the Silmarils? And why? And-"
"Why did you force me deaf about their spinning Silmarils on the shady margin?"
"I need you to do something incredibly important for me, Rányë," he answers me as we pass through the corridor leading toward our bedroom.
"Let me pack the weapons," he says. "I believe both of us will feel better that way."
"Why?" I probe, and we enter the bedroom. The orange rays of sundown pour in through the white curtains, playing on the stone floor and among the contours of the sheets of the unmade bed. We don't have much in here.
"Just that reason," he calmly responds. "The whole world is crumbling under our feet; that's enough trouble on its own."