The Untrodden Path by Makalaure

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Tree and Flower Awards, House of Finwe, Second Place

This story was kindly nominated for the 2014 Tree and Flower Awards by Linda Hoyland.


Disclaimer: I own nothing you recognise.

Thanks to Ugly Duchess for the beta.

The Untrodden Path

Chapter One

The youth sits on the grass beneath a willow tree.

Despite the humid, scorching day he wears leather boots, caked with mud, up to his calves. He is fine-boned, slender as a switch, his overall appearance almost fragile, yet his hands are callused as if they handle weapons, or instruments, or both. The aged book in his fingers is thick – certainly not a practical size to carry around – and he appears utterly absorbed in it, almost as if he is willing himself to think of nothing else. I cannot see his eyes; they are downcast, fixed on the pages of his volume. His expression is neutral, though he has an uneasy air that betrays his moodiness. I wonder what he is doing in this park in the middle of the city, at the height of the afternoon, when Laurelin is at her least merciful.

Curious, I amble over to him. He looks up, still distracted by whatever he has been reading; his gaze is unfocused. "May I sit here?" I ask, and feel myself blush. I hadn't meant to sound so eager. For a moment he looks almost offended, though he hasn't moved a muscle in his thin face; but he shifts his satchel to make room for me in the dappled shade of the willow.

I escaped the palace for company; austere silence – exacerbated by the absence of my mother, who is visiting her father in Alqualondë with my infant brother – and long, empty halls hung with conspicuous portraits of the royal bloodlines, wear on my nerves at times. Findekáno, too, is out hunting in the forests, so I've no one to speak with back home. Tirion, for me, usually offers a relief with its noisy streets and lively music, but it appears this scruffy, Noldorin youth fled from his home – wherever that may be – to ensconce himself in a bubble of solitude. "Yet," I think, determined to be stubborn, "if he truly wanted me away, he'd have said so."

Plumping down cross-legged on the turf, I slide my own bag off my shoulder and fish into it to take out an apple, which I polish assiduously with a handkerchief, half because I am paranoid about dirt, and half because I am nervous to begin a conversation with this taciturn young man. This close, I can make out silver stitching in his stained, periwinkle tunic, scarcely noticeable in the shade, and it glimmers subtly like Telperion's Light on water. I wonder why he would treat such fine workmanship as dispensable; I myself am quite particular about my clothes, and make sure they are never marked with food or filth, though I suppose this is partially due to the way I was brought up.

"Are you a merchant's son?" I say. His fingers twitch on the pages of his book. He raises his eyes to mine. They are disproportionately large in his face, in the manner of an infant's, and unusually dark, the colour of soot. They shroud my view of his fëa. I am disturbed. I have never seen the like, for the Eldar typically have eyes pale and clear as the morning sky, as easy to read as Tengwar on a page.

He looks too startled to be annoyed, and I stifle a laugh. Curtly, he says, "No, I'm not. I'm sure I do not look it," and returns his attention to his book. His voice is smooth and rich like dark honey, far beyond his age, and it is my turn to be surprised, for he doesn't seem much older than I am. My own voice cracked some years ago, and though it is usually level, at times it seems as if it has a mind of its own, and bursts out in a humiliating screech. When my music teacher found out, she sighed at me as though it was my fault, and booted me out of the choir at the palace. I was sorry, for singing is my delight, but I am glad to be able to spend more time on my harping.

I say, bolder than before, "What's that book about?"

He releases a long-suffering sigh and wordlessly holds it up so I can see the cover. "The Dictums of Rúmil," I read the title aloud, astonished. That text could have stultified the proverbial curious cat. My uncle, Fëanáro, immediately comes to mind. If you talk about scholarship to a dozen people in the palace, you can count on his name cropping up as many times; but chances are you'll hear whispered slights about his arrogance, as well. His brood do not seem much better, from what I've heard, and I've done my best to avoid them. I say, "Why would you read that? Are you studying to be a lore-master?"

He returns in a taut voice, "I already am one."

"You don't look very old. And I thought you might be a bard."

He gives another, shorter sigh, and looks away from me. I don't think he enjoys my company.

Silence lapses between us, and I lean my back against the gnarled bark of the tree. The smell of fresh grass, damp earth, and wildflowers is thick. I can hear the birds chirping, and many insects' lazy hum, characteristic of the hot season. It is routine, a phenomenon that occurs every year at the same time, and I feel the muscles in my shoulders relax with the sense of familiarity.

Growing a little sleepy, I idly pluck a dandelion from the ground, purse my lips, and blow on it; its seeds break off and drift away serenely, as if enjoying the slow pace of summer, and I find myself smiling.

"What did you wish for?" His voice is even, blasé, but even this I gleefully count as curiosity. Yet I am confused. "Am I supposed to wish for something?" I ask. He looks at me at last, appearing equally puzzled.

"I don't usually do this sort of thing; walking about the city on my own," I explain quickly, and he arches a fine eyebrow, the same colour as his unruly, coal-black curls, shorn about his shoulders. "What dull life have you lived?" he says, half-teasingly, and I feel my cheeks grow hot with embarrassment. I enjoy my life as a prince, though I sometimes wish I could mingle with a crowd less severe, for want of a better term. Games of clapping hands and of plucking petals from flowers are not what my family enjoy or approve of.

"Not dull, really," I reply defensively. "I could teach you half a hundred games concerning sea-shells, if you wish." I am aware of how childish I sound, and mentally kick myself for wanting to impress him. Remembering that my apple is still in my hands, I take a vicious bite out of it, and stare straight ahead.

He looks amused. He hasn't smiled, but his eyes dance like shifting light on grass. "Sea-shells," he muses. He places a faded, fallen leaf between the pages of his book and finally closes it. "You do not appear Telerin. Indeed, I would have thought you hailed from Valmar."

I hesitate, not wanting to reveal my full identity. I am unprepared for stilted speech and for thinly-veiled sycophancy, especially from this intriguing fellow, though he seems hardly the sort for either of those things. I've no proof, but somehow I know he'd rather walk barefoot across fire than speak with a glib tongue. Presently I settle for, "Neither, really. I am, in fact, partially Noldorin."

"Surely not," he returns absently, though his gaze has turned wary.

I hum and turn away from him, and deliberately look up at the sky. It is a bright blue, dotted with flimsy clouds that sail happily along the breeze. My stomach grumbles indignantly, and I quickly finish the rest of my apple with relish, scarcely bothering to taste its sweetness, and wipe my hands on the grass when I am done. Having starved myself for the better part of the day thanks to laziness, I am still hungry, and dig into my satchel to take out a packet of little, frosted carrot cakes – my favourite treat. My mouth waters as I eagerly unfold the broad leaves in which they are wrapped.

I hear a rustle, and turn to see that the young man has taken his own food out of his bag: a metal flask, and something bulky wrapped in hide – it turns out to be an ample piece of chicken-and-egg pie. Surprisingly, he offers it to me, his face still carefully impassive. I am grateful for the gesture, but shake my head. "I don't take meat."

He doesn't argue, and begins to eat the pie with his fingers. I am relieved, because too often folk hear of my quirk and are aghast. "He doesn't eat meat? Not even fish? How does he expect to grow?" That I am taller than most people my age doesn't occur to them. In their eyes, I am hardly a man anymore. Not that I care; I merely grow tired of their grousing.

I place the cakes between us, take one, and stuff it into my mouth, heedless of manners. In this park, I am just another citizen, and can act as a fish-monger if I so please. As I finish the last bite I look up. A group of children kick around a leather ball, while two wrestle in the grass, red-faced and grinning, and an erudite-looking woman sits beneath an alder and scribbles fiercely on a chalkboard, her tongue poking out with concentration. Sweat slides down her cheeks, but she doesn't seem to notice. I find myself grinning at the whole sight; I have always found it soothing to be an observer.

The smell of alcohol stings my nostrils, and I realise the youth is holding the flask towards me. I start, for I had thought it contained water or juice. "Is it not too early in the day for wine?"

He withdraws the flask but does not replace the cap. He looks at it thoughtfully. "I suppose so," he says quietly. He takes a swig anyway, and wipes his mouth with the back of his hand.

I suddenly realise how tired he looks. Greyish bags sag beneath his eyes, and his cheeks are paler than they ought to be. He is not just slender, but somewhat unhealthily thin, as if he is overworked and underfed. His lips curve downwards. He is unhappy. I feel an unlooked-for stab of pity for him.

"Is all well with you?"

He flicks his eyes to me, then to his flask.

Shuffling closer to him, I whisper conspiratorially, "Is it a woman?"


"A man?"

He sputters. "No!"

"Trouble with your family?"

"You ask a lot of questions."

"That's because you're so quiet."

He snorts, runs his fingers through his hair. "Quiet," he parrots, and scoffs, as if it couldn't be further from the truth. He stretches and groans, and the bones in his shoulders pop obscenely. Then he sits up straighter and rather obviously attempts to mould his expression into something aloof. I give a wry smile and say, "You know, for a musician – I think you're a musician – you're a terrible performer."

His head snaps to me, and his lips purse. I am taken aback by the shock in his face. "I was only joking," I offer weakly. "What happened?"

He plucks three daisies from the grass, inspects them, and crushes them in his fist before letting them fall. He wipes his nose and confesses in a strained voice, "I am a musician." He drops his gaze, two lines creasing his brow. "I ruined my performance at my father's house a few evenings ago."

My burst of laughter startles him. "That's all?" I say light-heartedly. "It cannot be so bad, then. People understand that mistakes happen." The smile is wiped clean off my face when I see his expression. His eyes are narrowed. He says accusingly, "Are you a musician?"

I stutter. "I...I suppose I am. I have played the harp in my grandfather's house, and have sung in choirs."

"Then, unless you are Elemmírë of the Vanyar – who you are clearly not – you cannot understand." He picks at the fabric of his trousers with a nail. Despite his hard words, I can tell it is not me he is angry with. "My father had invited my grandfather – as well as several high lords and ladies – to a dinner, specifically to show off my supposed skill with the lyre." He grits his teeth, his cheeks flushing, and says in a voice filled with loathing, "I shamed him. I shamed my family. News of my blunder – and gossip that I am not truly an accomplished bard – will be flying across Tirion and Alqualondë in these next few days."

"But why would it, and why would you care even if it did?" I ask, befuddled. "Who are you that high lords, or even commoners, will mind so much? I am sure I would have recognised..." I trail off, suddenly uncertain. We are staring at each other. His lips are pursed, and he regards me with a sceptical expression.

"You," he says shrewdly, "resemble closely Prince Arafinwë, son of Finwë the king." His fingers twitch. "Oh," he says, and gives a dry, monosyllabic laugh, and I find myself growing irritated. "Then you are Findaráto, son of Arafinwë. I was wondering at your manner, and at your garb." He flicks his eyes across my embroidered tunic, as would a painter over a tray of pretty but impractical brushes.

I grit my teeth. I have grown bold in the face of his cockiness, his insolence, and reply, "And you are my half-cousin, Makalaurë, second-born son of Fëanáro." I recognise him now, as an elusive youth I have spotted now and again at festivals and at Grandfather's feasts, often conversing with a tall, russet-haired ellon who must have been his brother. I pause, and say a mite more caustically than I intended, "How like the High Prince to place his son before the eyes of nobility, and flaunt him as he would a carcanet at a masquerade."

Makalaurë – how differently I see him now that I know his name! – blanches, and juts out his chin in a defiant gesture. "How dare you," he hisses. He leans forward, so I can feel his hot breath on my face. "You know nothing of my father, or of me. Take back your words."

"What did your father do when your fingers stumbled over the strings of your harp? Did he cuff your ears, or banish you to your chambers?"

"He did not," Makalaurë returns, though I can tell by the raspberry dusting on his cheekbones that some unpleasant punishment had indeed been meted out. If hearsay be true, Fëanáro would need to give but one lick of his sharp tongue to flay the surface off his son's self-worth.

His following words surprise me. "It is due to my father's encouragement and support that critics say I will soon be among the greatest bards of the Noldor. Do you think I could have pursued my love for music if all my father did was criticise my work and force me to study gem-craft and linguistics? I will gladly suffer a few unkind words from him, for they are nothing compared to all he has given me, all he has done for me." He presses a hand to his forehead. "But I cannot suffer shaming him. It is...ignoble and...and ungrateful of me."

Honestly, I pity this fellow, I think. After a pause, I sigh and shake my head, and say a bit remorsefully, "Do you even know how well our grandfather speaks of you?"

"Probably," he mumbles, still stubborn.

"No, I don't think you do." I raise my eyes to the garden once more, where the children have broken into a race. "I don't think it is possible for him – or anyone in the court of Tirion – to think ill of your talents. Already there is talk of you being a prodigy, but you'd have heard that by now."

He gives a contemptuous snort, and I know I am right.

"People are generally well-meaning," I continue. "And if some take an error of yours as your only defining characteristic, well, more's the pity for them. They are fools."

"And yet it is the fools' gossip that tends to fly," he puts in, though his voice is less rueful than before.

I feel oddly as though I have no control over my tongue, and find myself saying, "In the eyes of the One, and of Manwë and of Varda, you remain a child of love and skill. Does aught else matter?"

He looks at me properly. The heat in his eyes has diminished; in its place is but a soft flame, like that of a taper in a cool, dim chamber. "I know not," he says at length, and wets his upper lip with the tip of his tongue.

My voice somewhat gruff from embarrassment, I say, "I apologise for what I said earlier. It was wrong of me to slight you – and your father. I have met him only once, briefly, at a festival several years back, and we did not exchange words. I was but repeating hearsay."

He says, "I understand," too quickly for me to believe that my uncalled-for jibes have been forgiven. He yawns, stretching like a lazy cat, and jumps to his feet. He dusts the seat of his trousers. "I ought to go," he says, as he picks up his satchel and slings it over his shoulder.

I stand up as well, and realise he is taller than me by half a hand's breadth. Surprisingly, this nettles me a bit; I am used to feeling tall. Shaking my head, I smile wryly at my own childishness and ask, "Where will you go? Have you a horse?"

"No. I will go to the palace. The head groom will let me borrow a steed."

"You do this often, then? Running away from your house?"

His shrug is almost imperceptible. "Sometimes."

"And your family does not mind?"

"Usually not, because I tend to inform them first. But I will be in trouble when I go back."

I suddenly start, and my eyes skim his muddied boots and his sweat-stained tunic. "You haven't a horse...You can't tell me you walked all the way to Tirion?" I knew his father's house was situated south of Túna, about a mile away from the city.

Now there is a smug smile playing at the edges of his wide lips. "I did. I began my journey well before the Mingling Hour."

"Oh, it is a hot day!" I ejaculate with exaggerated earnestness, gesticulating with my arms. "And a good way from the outskirts of the city – and this son of the high prince walks!"

His cheeks grow alarmingly pink, and his silent titters become a roar from the pit of his belly. He hides his face in his hands, as if he is not used to revealing this side of him to strangers (though I can hardly be called a stranger to him now). I hear a second bray of undignified laughter, and realise it is my own. We are doubled up and cackling like children who have just discovered the joys of scatological humour. Perhaps we look strange. Some of the people in the park are staring at us, their stately feathers ruffled. This only makes us laugh harder, till tears gather at the corners of our eyes and the breath is squeezed from our lungs.

At length we compose ourselves, flushed and grinning, and I say, "I am returning to the palace, as well. Stay a while, won't you, and have some tea."

He shuffles his feet. His eyes dart to the bustling main road sprinkled with pedlars and with passers-by, then back to me.

"We have the peppermint sort," I persist, knowing I am winning this game, "and candied fruits. Perhaps you can remain for supper, and we can share a bottle of good wine from the pantry. Secretly, of course; no need to scandalise my father."

He tilts his head rakishly, teasing me with feigned reluctance. "Grandfather will worry, and will pack me off as soon as he claps his eyes on me."

"He won't send you back hungry, little darling of the court that you are."

"Oh," he returns with exaggerated gratitude, raising his brows. He places his hands over his heart in a droll fashion, like a silly, love-struck boy. "Your powers of persuasion are remarkable, cousin. Very well; I shall let you grace me with your hospitality." He pushes his hands into his pockets and half-turns, as though he expects me to follow him. I feel vaguely amused, considering I am the one who was raised in the city, but in the next moment am distracted by a new thought.

"What about your father?" I ask, damning the concern that laces my tone. Makalaurë pauses, and looks at me inquisitively. "What about him?"

"Will he not be upset with you?"

"He can't be more flustered than he probably is now. Come," he says, "let us go meet Grandfather, and try to avoid our sires till Laurelin wanes."

He begins to stride towards the boulevard. A little dizzy from the quivering heat, I trundle ahead and fall in step beside him. He twirls his hair and gazes at the sky, appearing wistful and boyish, as though the world around him does not exist; the line of his mouth is soft. I smile, adjust the strap of my satchel to a more comfortable position on my shoulder, and listen to a starling that squats in a tree and serenades us with its song.



Makalaurë - Maglor
Findaráto - Finrod
Findekáno - Fingon

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