Aldarion said, “I have to go.” Just like that. He said, “You knew it was like this. State matters. My father and you have sided but you don’t understand. Númenor needs to expand. I need space. Gil-galad needs my eyes and our arms. The ships need to be tested out in the rougher seas. The new men need their sea baptism.”
When I said, “But I need you. Ancalimë needs you. She is so little, still,” he looked down on me. Around his eyes fine lines drew a map of annoyance. I, his Tar-Elestirnë just yesterday, was an annoyance.
He doesn’t remember that he said he would be here, he would be with me while my youth lasted, while our daughter grew. While other children were made and loved. I meant to tell him. But silence chokes me until the final day. Ancalimë cries and holds fast to his clothes and begs him not to leave and he tears her little hands away, gently but unrelentingly, his eyes already on the horizon, his mouth hard, and those lines around his eyes, there, the same feeling again, undisguised. Ancalimë, the most precious thing, blood of our blood, so sweet, so smart, so pretty, is an annoyance.
We are anchors, both of us weighing him down when he wants to sail. But lord, the good seaman should know that no ship can leave without an anchor, lest it drifts forever. You, lord, will drift and you will wreck and you will regret. This I promise, upon my word.
He thinks the tears that well in my eyes are sorrow for him. They might be, but they are, above all, of hatred. For the first time, hatred. It crushes my chest, there with the love and the hope and the eight years of happiness that are now less than sawdust.
No more oiolairë, never more.
No more children.
No more love.
Erendis woke early. The room was dark and cold, and from the sounds outside, only Todaphel was up, milking the cow. She burrowed down, trying to fall back asleep, knowing it would be fruitless. For four long years sleep had come only though exhaustion, and left far too soon for satiation. Her mind was clear now, but the body had somehow clung to the insalubrious habit. Another thing to resent Aldarion for, when she could remember to remember him at all.
Erendis reached out her hand to the cold right side of the bed, recoiling it immediately. She didn’t miss him, not anymore. The first two years had been dark. She would let days float by, wrapped in useless daydreaming. In those, she would welcome Aldarion, who had returned home early, repentant, and the love would push away her anger and all the wrongs and the sea lust. Or, he would come home, full of himself, to take his place in her life and her bed as if nothing had passed, and she would push him away, prideful and righteous and perilous as the sea he so loved, and he would despair for her. Or that news came that his ship had wrecked and she would be glad. Or sad.
But then… two years had passed and Aldarion had not returned. Upon the mark, Erendis rode to the summit of the tallest hill. She sat there, while the horse nibbled the grass, looking at the waves of emerald green dotted with white puffs of sheep. She could see that Ancalimë was missing a father and half a mother, for she was losing herself in those hollow thoughts, with empty eyes, deaf ears, fits of impatience, long rides that lead nowhere, and tries upon tries to be better, to be there, to cut through the grey waves of fog and be delivered.
She had sat there, so far inland and yet never far enough from the sea. A memory from that fateful journey aboard Eämbar many years ago swallowed her. Blue-green water, silver-grey light and the smell, the salt-sting on her tongue, the gull cries, the constant motion, the promise of yonder. She had tried to love it, for the love of Aldarion. She could even see the fierce beauty of it all. But she could not endure living half a live, made of scraps, of second-hand love and of broken promises.
On that day, Erendis had promised to tie herself to the present and let go of idle thoughts. But for weeks to come, she would run to the veranda whenever hooves thundered on the road, waiting for news, waiting for the sign that she was wrong.
And then she wouldn’t run. She let go, slowly and unwittingly. She would find herself smiling at something Ancalimë did, no clouds over their heads. And she would, at times, fall asleep realizing that she had spent a whole day without thinking of Aldarion. And she couldn’t believe that a mere four years were enough to erase such a love as she had felt. But it had not been four years of absence, but much, much longer, for in truth, even when Aldarion held her in his arms, there was the sea-longing between the two of them.
She had been foolish, but now she was fine, almost healed, almost whole. Before the day began in earnest, she pushed the covers back, found her shawl and walked, barefoot on the gelid boards to the window, where no birds remained. She opened the boards in time to watch the last of the sunrise over the hills while Todaphel quietly slipped in and out of her room, leaving a steaming mug of mint tea. Then she sat on her desk and wrote, for writing helped, breathing helped, tea helped her stay anchored.
I Woke: —
Night, lingering, poured upon the world
Of drowsy hill and wood and lake
And the breeze accompanied with hushed fingers
On the birches.
Gently the dawn held out to me
A golden handful of bird’s-notes.
The words flowed, and peace settled once more in her heart, a thin veneer she dared not test too hard with further thoughts of Aldarion and the past. She tossed the slip of paper inside the box, with the others. Then she washed herself and dressed.
Before she reached the ground floor, the girl came announcing the rider. A messenger from Tar-Meneldur. The man rose from the kitchen bench, bowed deeply and handed her the letter.
“His Majesty says no reply is expected. Still, if the Lady wishes I will wait.”
Erendis opened the letter and quickly cruised her eyes through the lines in the king’s neat hand. She shook her head and the man left with another deep bow.
“Lady?” Zamîn asked.
Then she and Todaphel hurried to Erendis’s side, but she held on to the wall instead of them. She shook her head and returned to her room to re-read the note.
We trust that you and Ancalimë are well. Today, I will not dwell on our common sorrows. I write to inform that I shall be sending you presently a lady of the court to help Ancalimë with the Adûnaic. Her Sindarin is flawless but not enough for she is the first-born daughter of the heir of the king and she must know the languages of the land.
I think you will become very fond of Azruarî. She is sweet but her mind is sharp. Her birth is high enough that she was presented at court, but she has an interesting ascendance... Her Sindarin is not strong, which is good, as it will ease you all of the temptation of speaking little Adûnaic. More I shall not say of her, for now.
Dear daughter, I understand your position and I support you with all my heart… but do come to Armenelos some time. We miss you and Ancalimë.
Your loving law-father,
Erendis crumpled the letter in her hands. Why would Ancalimë need Adûnaic? The child would not marry with a stable hand, for Êru’s sake. And what kind of a lady was this, who had no Sindarin? Meneldur had shown her much kindness in the past but he could not let her be, alone and tranquil in Emerië. He meant well, as did her mother, who relentlessly invited herself over, making excuses harder and harder to find. She just wanted an island of peace, an island within the island.
The girl was dark. Erendis almost stepped back in surprise upon seeing her arriving, two days later, dressed head to toe as a high Numenórean lady, riding like one, but with deep olive skin, hair dark as her own, long and wavy to the brink of a curl, and almond-shaped eyes, black as a well.
She had never seen anyone with skin that colour, not even the peasants after Ivanneth or her husband’s Venturers, after their travels, for they became a pinkish brown hat spoke of many sunburns, not that smooth, perfect caramel tone. Erendis realized she was staring. She composed herself and stepped forward as the girl scrambled down the horse and bowed before her.
“Lady Erendis,” she said lowering her eyes. The two men who came with her also bowed.
“Welcome to Emerië,” Erendis forced herself to say.
The girl lowered her eyes and thanked her with a whisper.
“You may come inside, now,” Erendis said, turning without waiting. The girl followed and the men handed her things to Todaphel, before taking their leave.
Erendis paced her room, letting deep, exasperated sighs one upon the other. This was wrong. Was she to take a stranger into her home and let her spend inordinate amounts of time with her child, teaching her a language that she despised? And who was this person, this ‘sea queen’, who couldn’t speak the high language or properly ride a horse? Her daughter was to be in the hands of a foreigner? Tar-Meneldur knew better than anyone else her reasons for hating the sea and everything that lay beyond it, so what was his intention?
Erendis exhaled so deeply her body slumped forward. She looked at the writing table, but an angry letter would solve nothing. Tar-Meneldur had unceremoniously, dropped this stranger at her door and there was no going back.
Days passed. Erendis avoided the girl with mighty zest but suddenly the house had become small. The evening meals could not be avoided at all. Ancalimë had enthusiastically taken her under her wing, and from what Erendis could hear through the doors or in the corridors, she was being quite successful in teaching the girl Sindarin.
Her house, her haven, had become a market place, echoing Azruarî this, Azruarî that. Erendis wanted to stay angry at the girl, but if Ancalimë loved her, it was hard to keep a grudge. And truth be told, the girl seemed smart and polite. And so very young, so much younger than Erendis had been, when she had first gone to Armenelos with her father. Azruarî could not be older than twenty, twenty-two.
After a few weeks, watching from her window, Erendis almost felt sorry for Azruarî. On the afternoons, she and Ancalimë would go work or play on the garden, beneath her window. Ancalimë would relentlessly ignore Azruarî’s attempts to get her to name things in Adûnaic, but so charmingly and so sweetly, that the poor girl had no choice but to comply, and instead provide her with answers, in Sindarin, about the court and the outside world. Ancalimë would then tell her everything about Emerië and her few friends, and their quiet lives and the books that her mother made her read, and Îbal and his mother and their goat cheese. Azruarî would sprinkle a few questions, in Adûnaic, which Ancalimë promptly replied in Sindarin.
Erendis couldn’t help but smile. Her daughter showed her father’s vein for stubbornness, but she was learning all the same. It was good that Azruarî did not try to impose her will, for she would surely lose that battle and, perhaps, her daughter’s esteem. Erendis admired Azruarî’s persistence, though – she was no weak character. More, she was keen to learn Sindarin too. Her vocabulary improved at each day, and the words sounded rounder in her mouth, but Erendis liked it, that softness that so well went with its owner.
She stepped away from the sunbeams falling through the lace curtains, and sat at her desk.
I look for words in the dark,
silently describing to myself
the particular conditions of the weather
on the morning I saw you most recently—
the wind, its patterned disarray—
my mind elsewhere, distracted
She waited for the next words to come, enjoying the warmer air and the first scents of spring.
“Lady,” Zamîn called from the corridor, no effort wasted on knocking or soft-speaking.
“Come in,” Erendis said, mildly annoyed. Zamîn had a particular knack for seeking her out when she was in the middle of her words.
“Lady, the southern girl has her birthday tomorrow. She told the Todaphel and the other girls so. Êru knows those girls talk more than they clean, ooh, girls these days, they only think of boys and dresses, but at least our Todaphel only thinks of dresses, because Êru knows that boys-”
“Zamîn,” Erendis interrupted.
“Yes, Lady, I was saying, it’s her birthday tomorrow. Twenty-three, can you imagine that? Should I bake a cake?”
Erendis glanced outside. Azruarî was laughing as Ancalimë braided her hair.
“Yes, a cake. And an improved dinner,” she added, feeling quite magnanimous. Before Zamîn could start another tirade about empty-headed girls, she turned to her work.
“Very well, Lady,” said the old cook as she left.
Erendis read the poem under her breath until she was caught by the last line.
my mind elsewhere, distracted
Yes, the Sea Queen had quite tamed them all, even old Zamîn, not an easy feat. Even herself. This was not the first poem that had left her pen insidiously talking of Azruarî. It was time Erendis took a hold on her house.
Zamîn spent the day scolding and hurrying the other women of the house. Their hushed voices and the soft patter of their feet on the naked boards bullied Erendis’s nerves. In the morning she made an effort to direct Ancalimë in her mathematics, but ended up quitting and sending her daughter out to play. Ancalimë was much fonder of numbers than she had ever been and the student was starting to outwit the teacher, at age eight. Today was not a good day to be reminded of her short-comings in mental calculation. They were a little behind in their plans for geography learning, and so Erendis sent Ancalimë to her room to explore an atlas Tar-Meneldur had sent her for her sixth birthday, as a quite transparent hint of his expectations of Ancalimë’s education. Erendis still felt a rush of irritation when she thought of this and the other ventures into what was her domain – Ancalimë’s upbringing. Of course she was aware her daughter was the daughter of the Heir of the King, and she did not plan to fail in her education. This was why, despite her irritation at the ‘gift’ of the Adûnaic teacher, she had accepted her.
That evening, the three of them dined as usual, with Ancalimë fidgeting in her chair. When they finished, Todaphel brought in the cake and Zamîn and all the maids gathered in the dining room with them, eager to indulge in the sweet and in the Hyarnustar Muscat Erendis saved for special occasions. Azruarî grinned madly and her eyes misted as Ancalimë hugged her waist and wished her a happy birthday. Erendis had no heart to keep the girl after the party for a conversation, as she had planned. As she watched the maids, Ancalimë, Azruarî and even Zamîn in their merriment, she realized she was tired of the sombreness that had remained in the house. She liked how they laughed and sang and she was too tired, inside, to be a part of it, but just watching nourished her.
Later, she went to tuck Ancalimë in. The child was restless and over-excited and it took Erendis some amount of self-restraint not to scold her and spoil the day.
“Mommy,” said Ancalimë, when they finally settled down for her bedtime story.
“Yes, my love?”
“I loved the party. Thank you!” Ancalimë wrapped her thin arms around Erendis’s waist. “I know you don’t like Azruarî, but she is nice.”
Erendis kissed her daughter’s hair. “I don’t dislike Azruarî, honey. I am just…”
“Just what?” Ancalimë asked, as the pause stretched.
Erendis shook her head. “Nothing. She seems to be a nice girl. I am glad you like your teacher.”
“I don’t speak the language,” Ancalimë said, stiffing her neck in pride.
“You should practice a little, child.”
“I thought you didn’t want me to…” Ancalimë said with a touch of irritation, under her puzzlement.
“I was angry. I don’t like the language for a series of reasons, but you must learn it, at least a little bit.”
“What reasons, Mommy?”
Erendis inhaled deeply. “Can I read you your bedtime story now? It is awfully late…”
“But you didn’t answer my question,” Ancalimë protested. Erendis smiled at herself, missing the days when deflection was still a valid response.
“I wrote you a new story, though,” Erendis said.
“Thank you, Mommy!”
Erendis laughed. Ancalimë was still a child, and would still be for a few more years. She started reading.
“Once upon a time, there was a little princess, who lived far, far away, in a country of green pastures and white sheep.”
“Mommy, that’s me,” Ancalimë laughed. “I told you I am too big for those stories now.”
“But who said it’s about you,” Erendis countered, tickling Ancalimë. She put away the piece of paper and continued.
“This princess was from a far kingdom, but a fire drake had taken her from her crib, and she had never known another land but the land of the green, rolling hills.”
Ancalimë snuggled down. Erendis ran her fingers through her hair and continued.
“Her mother, the queen, was a powerful witch, and she had never given up hope of finding her daughter.”
Ancalimë yawned. “Did she have a father, Mommy?”
“Her father had died in the sea. Her mother had never forgiven him for going away.”
Another yawn. “Why did he go away?”
“He loved adventures. And he was searching for the dragon, but the queen thought it was a mistake. And it was, because the dragon stole the princess, as revenge.”
Ancalimë closed her eyes and lay her head on the pillow, pretending to be asleep. Erendis smiled and continued with the story.
“The princess had long black hair, a mane of curls that shone under the sunlight like pure silver. She was beautiful but her skin was dark, and so she knew she was not of this land, where everyone was pale.”
“Azruarî,” Ancalimë muttered.
Erendis nodded. It was true. The same way the girl wormed her way into her poems, she had slipped into her bedtime stories. She went on for a few more moments, too tired and uninspired to go beyond tired, old plot devices. Ancalimë always loved her stories, though, regardless how worn they became.
When she finally left her daughter’s room, a shadow sprung up in the corridor.
“My lady,” Azruarî said, a single candle illuminating her face and bosom. “I waited for you. I wanted to thank you for this evening.”
“You are welcome. It was nothing.”
“It was the kindest thing someone has done for me in a long time,” Azruarî replied.
Erendis noticed how her pitch black eyes suddenly shone. No, not tears, for Êru’s sake.
“Well, it is late. We should all retire to our rooms,” she said.
Azruarî bowed her head and retreated down the corridor, leaving Erendis feeling as if she had done something wrong.
The greatest joy of life in Emerië was that nothing ever happened. So when Zena, who seemed to live in the stables, came running into the house shouting for help, Erendis knew something was wrong.
“Ancalimë!” She ran with all the other women, outside and into the stables. Ancalimë was standing against a wall, pale as a sheet. Azruarî lay on the straw, her face covered in blood.
“Mommy! I didn’t mean to!” Ancalimë said, running to Erendis and hiding her face in her dress.
Zamîn and Todaphel knelt by Azruarî and immediately started tending to her. The other women stood watching with consternation, only moving when Zamîn barked an order.
After a little while, Zamîn said, “Zena, can you carry her by yourself into the house? She mustn’t move too much.”
Zena nodded and lifted Azruarî as easily as a feather, carefully nesting her head against her leather vest. Todaphel lead the way, opening the doors and then the bed, in Azruarî’s bedroom, where Zena carefully placed her.
“Will she heal?” Erendis asked Zamîn.
“She took quite a blow to the forehead. We have to wait.”
Erendis left the room with Ancalimë. “What happened exactly?” she asked in the corridor.
“I was trying to convince Azruarî to ride. I don’t know why she’s so afraid.”
Zena, who had been towering behind them, cleared her throat.
“Zena seems to think there was something else,” Erendis pressed.
Ancalimë looked down. “Promise you won’t be mad?”
“I promise. I don’t promise there won’t be a punishment, though.”
“Zena said that Azruarî shouldn’t ride Zuska because she was in heat but she’s our sweetest horse and I didn’t think she was that hot and I took her for Azruarî to ride.”
“Did Azruarî know you were going against Zena’s instructions?”
“But how did Zuska kick Azruarî in the head?”
Ancalimë burst into tears. “Azruarî kept saying she was a terrible rider and that she didn’t want to and that you wouldn’t approve,” she said between sobs. “I didn’t realise she was scared. I… I may have shouted. Zuska got scared and Azruarî was behind her.”
Erendis breathed deeply. “Your actions had very grave consequences, young lady. Go to your room and think. I will hand you your punishment when Azruarî wakes. And pray that she wakes.”
Erendis returned to the room and sat by Zamîn. She cast a worried glance at her old friend.
“No use in worrying, Lady. What will be, will be.”
In the days following the incident, Erendis barely left Azruarî’s room. Azruarî was her responsibility while she remained in her house. Zamîn made a point of letting her know that there were maids for that, but the sight of Azruarî pale and bruised weighed on her chest.
On the first day, near dusk, Azruarî woke for a few moments. Her gaze was unfocused and Erendis could not make what she tried to say. Zamîn tried to force her to eat, but she quickly fell back into unconsciousness. Zamîn and Erendis changed her from the dusty dress, bathed her with a rag and put her in a clean nightgown. It pained Erendis how limp her limbs were, she who walked so gracefully. She dearly hoped the girl would recover, not just because of what her father-in-law might say, but because Ancalimë loved her. And it would be a great burden for her child to bear, a death of a friend, related to her actions. Yes, that was the reason for that stone on her breast that hardly let her breathe.
The slept, Zamîn and her, all twisted in their straight-backed chairs. During the night, Azruarî spoke. Erendis woke with a start but was not able to understand at first. Then she realized the girl was speaking a mixture of Adûnaic with another language. She understood ‘water’ and gave her a few sips, holding her head. The she lowered her head into the pillow. Her fingers rested on the cheek, soft and tan as a peach. Poor thing. Maybe she had a mother who needed to be warned. Erendis made a note to herself of sending Zena to the crossroads for a messenger if nothing happened within two days.
In the morning Azruarî woke up and asked for the chamber pot, with a look of affliction and slurred words. Erendis was too late for her. Azruarî cried in shame and blacked out again. Zamîn called Todaphel and between the three of them they changed the bed and Azruarî. The morning sun entered the window, turning the black mass of her hair into rivers of silver and blue. The girl was beautiful in a way that knotted Erendis’s throat. It would be such a shame if one so beautiful never lived to enjoy the pleasures of the conjugal bed. Erendis looked way, to Zamîn, who was watching her pensively. She felt embarrassed, for no reason that she could think of.
“She has woken twice now. Should we be hopeful?”
“I think so. We have to wait, Lady. Head injuries can be deceiving. You should go and rest.”
Erendis felt a surge of irritation. “I shall stay.”
Azruarî woke later and Erendis fed her broth while Zamîn fussed around her, moving hands and feet, and asking many questions. Azruarî seemed slightly disoriented, but answered most. The she slept again and Zamîn took the chance to change the dressing of her wound.
Near dusk she became restless, speaking again in the foreign tongue and clutching her hands. Erendis placed her hand on the side of Azruarî’s cheek, then ran her fingers through her hair, singing softly a lullaby from the Westlands. When Azruarî quieted down, Erendis rose and kissed her forehead, out of an impulse. She went to her room for an instant, to bathe, dress and eat, but she seemed to be clumsy, every task taking more time than it ought to.
She stopped at Ancalimë’s room, kissed her, told her news of Azruarî and headed for Azruarî’s room, her steps too brisk on the boards. She was afraid Azruarî would have woken and be up, and that she was no longer needed, which was silly because that was precisely the point. As she opened the door, Erendis contained a sigh of relief. Azruarî was still in bed, eyes half-open.
By the fourth day, the gash in Azruarî’s forehead was closed but the dark circles under her eyes remained the same. Around noon, she woke and tried to sit up, quickly giving up with dizziness. After slumbering for a little while she woke and sat up, startling Erendis.
“Lady,” Azruarî called softly.
Erendis blinked, seeing Azruarî through a haze of sleep and candlelight.
“Lady, I think I am fine now. Is it night?”
“It is.” Erendis contained a yawn. “I’ll send for some broth for you.”
“Water, please. But you should go to sleep.”
Erendis shook her head and left to call for a maid.
“Can you stand up?” Erendis asked, when she returned.
Azruarî bit her lip. “Right now? I think so. My head feels so much cleared and the nausea is gone.”
“We can wait for tomorrow.”
“Actually, I may need to…”
It took Erendis a moment to realize Azruarî meant she needed to relieve herself.
“I am afraid I cannot allow you privacy,” she said. “You may fall and hurt yourself further.”
Azruarî nodded, and slowly removed herself from bed. “By now you may have seen all of me, in the most undignified way,” she said.
Erendis understood she was trying to joke. She held her arm and helped her to the pot.
“I am very thankful, Lady,” Azruarî said as she returned to bed. “I don’t remember much but you have been so kind.”
Erendis felt a surge of an unexplainable embarrassment. “You have nothing to thank me for. My child will apologize for this. I have her confined to her room with double history lessons every day as punishment.”
Azruarî chuckled, wincing a moment later. “She didn’t mean any harm, Lady, and I should have known better than to stand behind a horse, even if I am no rider. The first time I ever sat on a horse was to come here.”
Todaphel came in with a bowl of steaming broth and a glass of water. When Azruarî was done, she took the crockery away.
“Well, you should go to sleep now,” Erendis said.
“I don’t think I can, right now. But, please, don’t be held up by me, Lady. You look exhausted.”
“I don’t think I can sleep now either,” Erendis replied. “And Zamîn might let me know of her mind if I left you unattended.”
Azruarî chuckled again, followed by a new wince. “That should be avoided at all costs.”
Erendis smiled. She liked Azruarî’s sense of humour.
“You spoke in a foreign language when you were unconscious,” she said.
“Ah…” Azruarî looked at her own hands. “My mother’s language.”
“There must be a story in there…”
“But it’s rude of me to be prying,” Erendis hastily added.
“Not at all, Lady. I am just not used to being asked. At home, in Orrostar, and later in Armenelos, nobody asked. Everyone seemed to know. Or to think they did.”
“Then tell me,” Erendis asked, leaning back in her chair.
“I shall have to speak of the ones you wish to forget, Lady.”
Erendis assented with a nod.
“My mother was born in what you call the Far Harad. She was daughter to a prince, the second in the line of succession. One day came visitors, men of fair skin and gray eyes. One of them fell in love with her. These men meant nothing to the king and so he denied the man his granddaughter’s hand. In the last night of their stay, he stole into the palace and took my mother, with the help of two friends. His captain knew nothing about it and the truth was only found when they were far in the high seas.”
“An abduction or an elopement?” Erendis asked, pensively. “Did your mother love this man?”
“I would rather not say… he is my father.”
“So they married.”
“They did. The matter was kept quiet, to avoid raising more voices against the Guild, and he set a house for her in Orrostar, close to his family. They never liked us and rarely sought us out. I knew more about my mother’s country than about Númenor, save for what the maids told me. My father was always away, in Armenelos or Rómenna.”
“How did you come to court?”
“Five years ago, my mother died of a fever, just as my father was preparing for another expedition with the Guild. Lord Ald- my father’s captain had punished him for his actions with a ban from sailing that had finally been lifted. He left me to my youngest aunt’s care. She kept me with the maids, working in the kitchen, until one day my oldest aunt came to visit. Tarinya Almarian is a kind woman, as you know for yourself. She took me to court when she realized that I was not being treated as one of the family. She is trying to find me a husband, but with my ancestry and the skin and a father that has incurred the displeasure of his king and of his captain…”
“I see. And then they shipped you off to me.”
“The Tarinya is kind indeed. And any man who would have you should be considered lucky. You are beautiful, kind and of noble blood on both sides.”
“Thank you, Lady.” Azruarî’s half-smile left no doubt she was unconvinced.
“You must rest now, even if you don’t feel like it. You had us scared.”
Erendis left the room and went to Todaphel’s room to ask her to keep watch on Azruarî. She had heard enough for the night.
Despite her exhaustion, Erendis tossed and turned until she finally fell asleep near dawn. She woke late, tired, and with a blistering headache. Her bleeding should be close, judging by the general feeling of unease and tenderness in her body. Ancalimë was calling, outside her door, and Zamîn was hushing her, telling her that Erendis needed sleep. She was tempted to ignore them, but the child had been contrite and dreadfully worried with Azruarî and she deserved to know that her teacher was on the path to healing.
“Come in,” she called.
The door slammed open and Ancalimë burst into the room.
“Mommy, Mommy, she is up, Azruarî is up!”
Erendis smiled. “Have you apologized to her?”
Ancalimë nodded affirmatively.
“And have you learned a lesson?”
“I have, Mommy.”
“Not to bully people into things…?”
“Yes. Try to remember it.”
Ancalimë deposited a peck on Erendis’s cheek but despite her contrite look, Erendis was fairly sure the lesson had not sunk in. Her sigh, as her daughter left the room, was almost a chuckle. Hers was a wilful child.
Zamîn delivered her a tray with tea, eggs and bread.
“Lady, you are pale. Rest this morning and I will hold the house.”
“Thank you,” Erendis said, thinking, not for the first time, that at least in this, her mother’s meddling had proven sound and welcome, as it had been her who had sent Zamîn to Emerië after the Elven-birds had reached her in the Westlands.
The she sat by the window, thinking. So Azruarî and her mother were, like herself, victims of the Guild of Venturers. She faintly remembered hearing something about the queen’s brother but she had never met him. Tar-Meneldur had been guileful in sending her the girl. Undoubtedly, Ancalimë needed at least rudiments of Adûnaic, which she wouldn’t learn from her or her household. But it was a two-way deal. Almarian and Meneldur had sent her Azruarî for the girl’s benefit as well. She had learned Sindarin and a stay with the wife of the Heir of the King would grant her a certain amount of prestige that might just offset the suitors’ resistance.
As she pondered this, Erendis did not miss courtly intrigue in any measure. Tar-Meneldur was no fool and knew that the truth would come up sooner or later. In fact, as soon as Erendis had seen the girl, one of the possibilities that had come to her mind for the exotic look had been that, albeit at a lower rank. Meneldur had trusted that Azruarî’s natural charm and good character would win Erendis over before she could rebel about the second intentions. Erendis was too tired of being angry. And she had to admit that Azruarî’s presence had lent some liveliness to the house.
Reluctantly, she sat at her desk, for lack of better thing to do. She was tired, and the words never soared when her head was foggy. She pressed her temples and closed her eyes, flashes of lightning crossing the dark red of the lids. Migraine. She pulled the curtains closed and burrowed in bed. Later she would ask Zamîn to bring her water.
Despite the nascent pain, she managed to return to sleep. When she woke, with a start, tiny slivers of orange light seeping through the curtains edges told her it was sundown. A rustle made her open her eyes, as a cool hand touched her forehead. Azruarî, she realized.
“What…?” She started. The pain was gone, surprisingly soon, but she was left feeling hollow.
“You took care of me, now I take care of you.”
Erendis giggled. “It sounds like one of those dreadful stories I make up for Ancalimë. Has she eaten?”
Azruarî smiled. “She has. The house is still standing.”
Erendis returned her smile. “I am hungry.”
“Zamîn has made a pumpkin soup she says is your favourite.”
Azruarî laughed, then restrained herself to a chuckle. “I will fetch it for you.”
Erendis ate, and Ancalimë came in for a goodnight kiss.
“Can I tell you your story tonight?” Azruarî asked.
Ancalimë eagerly said yes and both were off.
Erendis went to her desk, feeling an absolute need to touch paper, smell ink.
“It was the kindest thing someone has done for me in a long time,” the girl had said. And yet, her cool hand on her forehead had been the kindest thing for Erendis.
Out of her hand, the poem poured.
I couldn’t breathe for the kindness.
I couldn’t say how deep that went
I had been backing up, awkward
I had been blind to my own beauty.
Her chest clenched as she read her own words and a sob escaped her throat. She brusquely wiped her eyes. The girl had said she had been kind. But no one had let her be kind in a long while. No one had been there to receive it. She made a ball out of the paper only to stretch it out again. Then she took a clean sheet and wrote what she really wanted to write, the words she had been censoring for a while.
You came in out of the night
And there were flowers in your hands,
Now you will come out of a confusion of people,
Out of a turmoil of speech about you.
I would that the cool waves might flow over my mind,
And that the world should dry as a dead leaf,
Or as a dandelion seed-pod and be swept away,
So that I might find you again,
Then she went to bed and sobbed into her pillow until she was tired and then asleep.
Writing helped, breathing helped, tea helped when the problem was not under the same roof. Once Erendis had admitted to herself that all the stolen glances at Azruarî’s beautiful form were more than curiosity and admiration of natural beauty, that all her cares and thoughts had been given out of feelings other than guilt and compassion, she tried to avoid Azruarî. She had had enough grief for a lifetime with love before, and it had been requited. Or not, in retrospective. So she rode. She left early and returned after dusk, on the first day. She did the same on the second, feeling guilty for making herself scarce for Ancalimë. On the third, her bleeding started. She hated riding at those times. It was too messy, even if it helped with the pain.
After the much-neglected lessons with Ancalimë, she took refuge in her room, trying not to think of full lips, full bosom, tiny waist, heavy hips. She had seen Azruarî in the nude, during her illness and things filled her mind that she had prefer to forget. The dark, tiny nipples, so different from her own. The sex, the thick black curls inviting exploration. The line of tiny hairs, almost invisible, that lead from the bellybutton to the sex. The mole on the left thigh and the other one just below the crease of the right breast. The scent of her skin, hyacinths. The ring of her voice, the softness of her laughter.
my mouth in the dew of your thighs
Erendis made a special effort to stay away from paper.
Love between women was not something she ignored completely. Her maids all had their own history and some were very particular. Zena had sought refuge there after an attempted forced marriage to ‘fix’ her. Zamîn was said, in very hushed voices, to have loved a high lady in her youth. She wondered about Todaphel, but the girl seemed to be equally uninterested in men and women.
It had just never occurred that she might feel the same. She had spent her youth obsessing about a man that was too high and too distant for her. She had had eyes for no one else. Maybe that was telling enough, had she paid more attention. But now… now she was married, to a ghost, quite true. And she was old and bitter. And she had a child. And Azruarî most likely would not respond in the same way.
The bleeding stopped and Erendis started feeling like herself again. Dratted thing, always made her moody and prone to strange thoughts and unwarranted tears. Still, she dressed in trousers and headed out for a morning ride. As much as she loved writing, a good ride was also a fine way to start the day. She ran into Azruarî in the corridor. The gash in the forehead was nearly gone, safe for a red line that would eventually become a waning moon scar. For a moment, she thought the girl was looking at her. She left without a word.
Azruarî followed in her step until Erendis was forced to stop and turn, by the back door.
“Yes?” Azruarî looked startled and Erendis immediately regretted her dryness.
“Lady, have I offended you?”
“No, Azruarî. I have been unwell, that is all.”
“You don’t look me in the eye… I thought we were becoming friends…”
Erendis forced herself to look in the black eyes. Azruarî reached her hand and touched Erendis’s. She pulled her hand and nested it against her heart.
“Lady, I have found a home in your house, even knowing I was not here because of your wishes.”
Erendis realized they were standing too close. And it had not been her. She shook her head. “You are welcome here. You make my daughter happy,” she said, as coldly as she could.
They stood gazing into each other’s eyes, a turmoil building inside Erendis’s chest until she felt her throat close and her face redden. Azruarî would not let her hand go, but rather, pulled closer even. Her heart beat like a trapped bird, under Erendis’s hand, and her lips were parted, almost inviting. Erendis had not noticed, until then, how much taller she was than Azruarî, almost a head. Their lips were almost touching when Todaphel and Zamîn came in from the vegetable garden, carrying the first carrots and talking about dinner.
They hastily parted and Erendis left for her ride. Her whole body ached, heat pooling below as it hadn’t in a very long time. Her lips all but tingled. She returned home covered in sweat, earning Zena’s evil eye for the state of exhaustion of poor Zuska.
Dinner was tense. Even Ancalimë noticed, but Erendis pretended to be oblivious to her comment. Much later, Erendis tried to sleep but the air in her room seemed to burn. She went out. The moon hung low and bright. She regretted not bringing her shawl, over her nightgown. The air was still cool, at night. Quiet steps made their way to her.
“I couldn’t sleep.”
Erendis turned, finding Azruarî’s eyes locked on hers. They fell towards one another, kissing, hands cupping cheeks, then waists, breasts, the cold of the night substituted by warm, scented, touches. Erendis broke the kiss and lead Azruarî inside, by the hand, until they reached her room. She closed the door and waited for Azruarî to repent and leave, but instead she pinned Erendis against the door and kissed her deeper, all tenderness erased by hunger.
“I have loved you since the very first day I saw you,” Azruarî whispered as she backed to the bed, pulling Erendis with her.
Erendis hesitated for a second but then climbed to the bed and lay beside Azruarî. Their hands touched, their lips locked again, and then the nightgowns were no more. Erendis marvelled at the desire she felt for what was so close and yet so other. Azruarî was a marvel, all curves and softness, moist and warm and eager for her every touch, giving as good as she got. They loved in a frenzy, only to repeat it again, slower, and again, slower even, until it was dawn and Azruarî left for her own room, lightness in her steps.
Erendis wanted to sleep a little before the day begun, but she couldn’t. She sat and wrote.
Out of my flesh that hungers
and my mouth that knows
comes the shape I am seeking
The curve of your waiting body
fits my waiting hand
your breasts warm as sunlight
your lips quick as young birds
between your thighs the sweet
sharp taste of limes
Thus I hold you
frank in my heart’s eye
in my skin’s knowing
as my fingers conceive your flesh
I feel your stomach
moving against mine
Before the moon wanes again
we shall come together.
And I would be the moon
spoken over your beckoning flesh
breaking against reservations
my hands at your high tide
over and under inside you
and the passing of hungers
the moon speaks
judging your roundness
That poem could never see the light of day. What if she died and Ancalimë or anyone one else would read it? But she could not tear it and burn it. It was a piece of her soul. She put it in the box, with the others.
Erendis decided not to think too hard about the day her husband would return. She was nobody’s wife, their marriage nothing but a contract made void by Aldarion’s actions. She decided not to worry either about the day that news would come from Armenelos, summoning Azruarî for an arranged marriage. But she worried, in the still of the night, after love. Then, in the next day, she wrote, she laughed, she played with Ancalimë, and she loved Azruarî. And time passed, until the inevitable moment arrived.
Aldarion arrived by dusk. No warning, just that horn blowing as if he had a right to claim anything in that house.
‘You come late, my lord,’ she said. ‘I had long ceased to expect you. I fear that there is no such welcome prepared for you as I had made when you were due.’
‘Mariners are not hard to please,’ he said.
‘That is well,’ she said; and she turned back into the house and left him.
She heard Zamîn chase the men away and she heard Aldarion setting foot on her stairs, on her house, entering her life again as if he had been away for not more than one day. As if he had kept his promise to her. As if he had not missed the better part of Ancalimë’s childhood. It was as if all the bitter disappointment and loneliness of the first years were revived. She took refuge in her room, locking the door, and read some of the poems at the bottom of the box.
Then, as she heard the maids clearing the table for Aldarion, she went to see him.
“You will be weary, my lord, after such haste. A guest-room is made ready for you, when you will. My women will wait on you. If you are cold, call for fire.”
She had not known she would be so cold. When she had first seen him approaching the house, the anger was still tinged with love. She saw him golden and handsome as few and she was reminded of other days. But now… this man had come in to her house and he had not asked for forgiveness for breaking his word and failing Ancalimë and her, his family. He had not brought a gift or a kind word, or a smile. Just expectations, unreasonable.
As she went to her room again, a tiny voice inside insisted that there might have been more room for Aldarion in her heart and in her bed had not Azruarî been there. She couldn't sleep. That man ruined her peace, time and time again, ruined everything he touched. One day, of this Erendis was certain, he would even ruin Ancalimë for her.
When dawn came, Erendis came forward. She had not lain in bed that night, and she stood before him on the threshold.
“You leave more promptly than you came, my lord,” she said. “I hope that (being a mariner) you have not found this house of women irksome already, to go thus before your business is done. Indeed, what business brought you hither? May I learn it before you leave?”
“I was told in Armenelos that my wife was here, and had removed my daughter hither,” he answered. “As to the wife I am mistaken, it seems, but have I not a daughter?”
“You had one some years ago,” she said.
“But my daughter has not yet risen.”
“Then let her rise, while I go for my horse,” said Aldarion.
Erendis knew, the moment Ancalimë set eyes on her father that she was lost to her, despite the child’s coldness. Her heart broke, again. She regretted none of her sarcasm, but she knew her words were nothing to Aldarion, not arrows, not stones, not even feathers.
She tried, but the house had changed. Ancalimë was sullen, Azruarî was sulking, Zamîn was irked and the maids were avoiding them all. Aldarion had ruined everything. Tired from the sleepless night, she went to her room. It felt cold and empty and a glance at her desk told her no words would be coming. She went to Azruarî’s room and curled on her bed.
Much later, Azruarî came in to call her for lunch. She was still sulking.
“Lady, lunch is served,” she said, standing at the door.
“Are we back to ‘Lady’?” Erendis asked.
Azruarî bit her lip.
“You were in quite a state. Misty eyes, wringing hands… I am not quite sure why you are not in your husband’s arms this very moment.”
Erendis hid her face in the pillow. “Jealousy?”
“Disappointment,” Azruarî corrected.
Erendis looked at her and reached out her hand. Reluctantly, Azruarî moved from the door and sad on the edge of the bed.
“He was my husband. I loved him for many years.”
“You still do.”
“I can never not love him, not when my child is the very image of him to every last gesture.”
“I sent him away, did I not?”
“You did. But I suspect that you regret it.”
“I don’t. But don’t ask me to feel nothing.”
Azruarî kissed her hair and rose.
“The soup will be cold.”
Erendis followed her. In the dining room, Ancalimë was seated already and greeted her with a big smile.
“We have our first cherries!” she said, pointing at a bowl in the side table.
Erendis smiled. “Judging from the state of your dress I think I know who picked them.” She walked to her daughter and kissed her forehead.
Zamîn seemed to be in a mood because the soup had to be warmed and sent poor Todaphel to the kitchen. The girl hummed a little tune, just as she left the door.
“Todaphel singing?” Erendis asked, raising her eyebrow.
“Relief,” said Zamîn dryly. “The girls were holding their hearts in their hands thinking they would be removed to Armenelos or dismissed.”
Erendis paused for a moment. “Tell them there will always be a home here for a woman in need of peace and shelter.”
Zamîn’s eyes crinkled. “Yes, Lady.”
Erendis sat and sighed in relief. Nothing would be the same, but it was not ruined. She still had a home, she still had her daughter and she still had Azruarî.
I wake up in your bed. I know I have been dreaming.
You've kissed my hair
to wake me. I dreamed you were a poem,
I say, a poem I wanted to show someone...
and I laugh and fall dreaming again
of the desire to show you to everyone I love,
to move openly together
in the pull of gravity, which is not simple,
which carried the feathered grass a long way down
the upbreathing air.