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Bone-White

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As has been happening more and more lately, I found myself in my wanderings at the edge of the realm of Námo Mandos. I had begun walking this day at sun-up, towards the north, but my feet must have tended westward, and as the evening set in and my exhaustion deepened--for I had not even stopped to eat but had consumed only what I could scrounge from my pack while still walking--I failed to notice where I wandered until I finally collapsed to the ground to sleep upon the bare earth, after I was well past the border of the Realm of the Dead.

The leaves here were gray and hung as though in drought, upon trees that appeared to have put their energy into growing branches that scraggled every which way and roots that knobbed out of the ground wherever I sought to stretch upon it. There was no breeze, yet the leaves twisted slightly, as might a slain animal hung for gutting. If there were stars this night, they would not be seen here. This I knew. The silence was heavy and complete: no cricket chirruped, no songbird warbled his evening song, no frog croaked in the nearby stream that lay still enough for mosquitoes to fester there, yet even these constant citizens of the night failed to hum in my ears.

The halls of Mandos were still far off--a two-day walk at least--but I had strayed quite a ways past the border that was supposed to repulse all living things much in the way that the smell of carrion is inherently sickening. It should repulse all normal living things, that is. This was not my first time here. The Lord of the Dead knew I came and allowed my trespass. He--no one--offered me an explanation for why I came, why I was seemingly compelled to tread the borders of these lands.

I had been heading for the mountains to the north. The remoteness, the silence, the unabating cold were a comfort to me. I liked to test my body upon their slopes, pushing myself to climb well past the point of exhaustion, until I lost my footing or I reached such heights as to bring nausea upon myself and was forced to stop and endure the loneliness, the silence, the unabating cold.

Only, as often as not, my feet carried me here.

Tomorrow, I would try to find my way again, but three consecutive nights of walking from the rising of the sun into the night with only a few hours on the bare ground to sleep made it impossible to find my way tonight. It would not be my first night sleeping in the Realm of the Dead, even in corporeal form (certainly not the first in spiritual form; I'd slept more nights here than in my own bed in Tirion). I knew I would not dream here. Sleep came fast and easy.

I do not believe I slept long before I awoke to music. It is impossible to tell the time of day or night here. No matter the phase of the moon, the realm of Mandos always glows faintly with the cold blue light of something inhuman trying to draw in prey. By day, the light becomes white, the path of the sun indiscernible through the mist, its light so bright and diffuse that no shadows offer shelter and the eyes ache with the scrutiny of light from all sides. Now, it was night: sickly night as warm as soil alive with rot. And I heard--

I listened deeper into the night. I had thought I'd heard music, but silence as ever ruled this realm, pillowed in mist. Then I heard again--a thrum--no, felt it, running down my sternum into my gut. My sharp intake of breath seemed loud enough to part the mist. I felt--surprise? delight? terror? I had known nothing like this since being reborn into my new body. I had hoped and yet not to never feel it again.

Yet here it was, again, again, again: the thrum of a brass instrument slightly off-pitch and flat, not the bright, blaring sound of fanfare and battle joined but something deep and sonorous, like the night-groan of a great beast. Joining it was a clatter of bells and dirge-slow drums that marked a trudging pace through the forest. I knew this music: I had heard it (not felt it) before; once, even, it had been played for me. Námo was freeing a spirit from his halls.

Now, indeed, I heard it: It was drawing near. I lowered myself into a fall of ashen leaves at the base of a tree, not wanting to be seen by the servants of Námo but drawn despite myself to the pantomime of celebration that accompanied the release of a body from Mandos. Heavy-hooved horses drew a wagon covered by a patchwork cloth of many colors, all of them pallid. A dozen servants skipped and capered, waving banners of the same sickly colors, yet their joyous steps never quite cleared the ground and the gray leaves fallen across the road shushed as though in reproach. The music was slightly out of tune and off-beat. Lanterns swayed, empty of fire.

Within the wagon, the new body would feel the warm, damp air as bitter and raw. The nightglow would seem searing; the whisper of the leaves a roar. I knew this. I remembered this. And then I realized--I felt it.

I felt it. I clung lower to the earth and stared intently at the wagon. Who rode within?

I touched my chest with my right hand. The sensation was exquisite, almost pain, yet I was surprised: It felt no different from my left. I would have thought that the long years--

"Nelyo." The leaves were in my fists, not crunching as fallen leaves should but giving way with the pulpy resignation of rot. I bit the inside of my arm hard to keep from crying out. I felt his confusion. He did not know why he was being released. The spirit within his new-shaped body writhed with unease. He was not convinced that he was healed, so many things yet hurt--

The wagon retreated down the road, toward the border. I followed it.

~oOo~

In a clearing near the border, the tents flourished, gray, fungal, bulging, festooned with banners in many colors dimmed by the touch of the realm of Námo. I was close enough, pressed behind a tree, to see that the edges were ragged, the cloth threadbare in places.

There was much fuss over the preparation of food for the new release; I remembered that from my own release from Námo's halls. The spirits that served him did not require food and took pleasure in very different ways from the Ainur back in Valinor, who indulged in feasts for the pleasures of taste and satiation. Such sensations did not register as pleasing to these spirits here. The food they prepared and their manner of serving it could only mimic.

The tent at the center would belong to Nelyo as once it had belonged to me. I watched a trio of servants dance a series of dishes into it and depart, feet dragging in the leaves, to their own tents. The camp lay quiet.

I dared to reach my mind out to him. In our youths, I had perceived him as pale blue. In Beleriand, he returned to us from Thangorodrim made dark crimson by hate and pain. Year by year, that color leached away until he felt to me bone-white with streaks of red, like a freshly extracted bone. Sometimes the red would course anew, and in those times he was formidable in battle or at the council table and even the most impetuous of our brothers dared not cross him. Other times, he was nearly colorless, his life sustained as though by habit. I've wondered, at times, of his color when he threw himself into the fire. I was long-gone to Mandos by that time, of course.

I had not touched another's mind since my return. Among his many rehabilitations, Námo had taught me to control that part of myself, something I had never mastered in my first turn at life. I held it back always now, even from my mother sitting opposite me at supper, her gray eyes intent upon me as she reached for a mind that refused now to reach back. But I reached out to Nelyo now, remembering among my earliest memories falling asleep in his arms with the sense of being awash in blue. I had longed for little from the past. That was another of Námo's rehabilitations--to understand that thread could not rewrap the unspooling spindle of time--but I ached for this now: for the warmth of the Trees, his touch, his love, so long gone from me.

I touched my mind to his. He was blue again now, but it felt painted-on, like when Turko, Curufinwë, and I would put on plays as children and make costumes by splashing paint onto our old white tunics. I suppose it was convincing enough from afar but close in, it looked like old tunics splashed with paint by hasty children, and wearing such garb was stiff and itchy and left one's skin flaked with paint. I imagined digging a fingernail underneath the blue of Nelyo and lifting it away: bone-white beneath.

I pulled back. What was I doing? Whatever frail healing Námo had been able to give him, whatever mockery he was of the man he'd been before Grandfather Finwë's death and the Darkening, why would I lay bare the bone-white he'd been the day at Himring when we'd waited long for him at council and Turko had finally gone to find him and discovered him barefoot and uncloaked in the snow, staring north, the flesh of his feet going black and him without even the presence of mind to shiver?

I should flee. Cross the border back to the land of the living and take solace in the moonlight, all that was left of Telperion. Find my way to the north, guided by the stars. Perhaps neither of us was healed enough for this.

It was remarkably easy to walk into the camp. I kept expecting to be waylaid--surely they must sense me here!--but my passage went unchecked. They had secured the flap of Nelyo's tent with ragged red ribbon unfurling at either end, and I expected some enchantment but it fell loose easily beneath my fingers, and I stepped inside.

My breath caught. A single candle flickered among the dishes. I had forgotten his face from the years when he was rightly called Maitimo, before the torments of Morgoth and centuries of war had made him grim.

"I was wondering if you'd come. I felt you there. Carnistir." He gestured to the full plates of food spread on the floor before him. "I waited for you."

How like Nelyo, to disguise his anguish behind a veneer of courtesy! Without realizing what I did, I strode forth and knelt among the dishes to touch his face and lift it to me. I felt his anticipation of pain even before his eyes clenched shut and I stopped. I had forgotten the pain of skin so new. Even the silken tunic and trousers he wore--finely woven by Vairë's handmaidens and light as cobwebs--I knew from my own experience itched and hurt. I kept my hand a finger's breadth from his face but resisted touching him. His eyes opened again and lifted to mine and destroyed the illusion. Námo was masterful in returning our faces and forms to the fullest beauty of our youths, but our eyes betrayed his artistry for he could not (or if he could, he did not) erase our memories and with us came all that we'd endured. Nelyo in his youth had eyes bright with eagerness to live the life before him. Now the long torment of that life left his eyes dimmed, the way a stone breathtaking and bright, found at the cusp of the sea, will dry to dullness if taken from the shore.

"Do not take it away," he said of my hand. "Please. The warmth of it feels good. It is the first time something has felt good in--" He closed his eyes as he broke off. The illusion was restored: Before me knelt the brother of my youth whom I had loved so deeply. I extended my other hand and cupped his face, near to but not quite touching him. I traced the familiar contours of his face and looked upon him: two hands clasped in his lap, long legs folded beneath him (to forestall the touch of the air on his skin, I knew), hair unbound and tumbling just past his shoulders. A flutter of a pulse at his throat; the warmth of him upon my hands, my brother alive before me, alive--

"Thank you," he said. His eyes opened again. I do not know how long I stood like that and he allowed me. I drew back and he lifted a hand--his left--to touch his own face. This time, he didn't flinch.

"It becomes easier," I said, "less painful. The newness, it's been so long since you felt anything that everything feels …" I struggled for the right word. This was his domain: language and speech and rhetoric that turns hearts and minds. "Raw?"

He nodded. "You've been out long?" His hand cupped his cheek. I saw him tense in anticipation of pain and then relax when it didn't come. The hand began to wander and explore: his ear, his neck, the collarbone beneath his silk tunic.

"A few years."

"He sent word then? Námo? To you, to our family, that I was being released?"

"No."

"Then how--?" and I cringed, for how could I burden him so soon? How? Because my feet insist on carrying me back to the Realm of the Dead, as though I need further proof that I was probably best unborn! Here I am nearest, I suppose, to the shore where no waves lap, where the stars descend into the face of the sea and Ilúvatar holds to him the spirits he has not yet--not ever--chosen to be born--

He was watching me intensely with those ancient eyes. Nelyo did not have my gifts for perception and mindspeak, but he was among the most sensitive of our brothers, and his newness left him further unguarded. "You felt me, I suppose," he said carefully.

"I did," I admitted, grateful for the escape he offered me. "I was in the forest and I felt you and moved toward you, and I saw the procession and followed it and--" There was no delicate way to say intruded into your tent. A smile, a little stiff as though the motion were new, touched Nelyo's lips. "I suppose," he said, "that he could not heal us of our rebelliousness. That is buried at our cores, and to rid of us of it would change us--" He pushed a dish toward me, and I don't know that he even noticed how casually he touched the metal bowl that would have hurt him just minutes before. "Eat some of this. I don't want it, can't stomach the thought of it yet, but wouldn't appear an ingrate. Námo's people have been good to me, or have tried."

I was not hungry but I obeyed him without question as I had many times before. The food had gone cold but I knew enough of the culinary skills of the servants of Námo to know that it had never been hot to begin with.

"I know I felt wrong to you. I felt that, like you were lifting the peace he imposed on me to see what was underneath. He claims that it will absorb in over time, that I must relearn love and trust for his healing to work. I don't know why he even--" His eyes flickered to mine. "But I suppose we were the last, you and I, to be released? Maybe he thought that if we were complete again, seven of us--"

"No," I said around a mouthful of the tasteless food. "You and I--we are the first."

His lips parted quickly and then he regained control of himself. How quickly he was becoming Nelyo again, right before my eyes! "But I--I killed myself, I thought--"

I shook my head.

"What about Taryindë, your daughters?"

"Not yet," I said. "Findaráto has been released," I added with brightness that sounded false and stupid as soon as the words left my lips. I added, to save him asking after Findekáno: "We are the only three, so far. Findaráto was the first."

"He would have been. He died to save a friend, to fulfill a promise. Neither you nor I died that way."

"No, but maybe it's something we can't understand yet. Maybe it's not all to do with dying. We're not supposed to question it, Nelyo." I felt suddenly young again in his presence: the small boy being challenged in his lessons by a brother I'd once overhead being called by one of our grandfather's lords "one of the most brilliant minds of the Noldorin people." I felt the same compulsion to agree with him, to follow him, wherever he may lead me. Had I lived so long, I would have followed him into the fire. This I knew.

"But you know we both will question it," he said. "It is senseless. We deserve these new lives perhaps least of all." He sat in silence, pressing the fingers of his left hand to the metal covering on one of the dishes, then the rug on which he sat, then the flesh at the bottom of his foot: reacquainting himself, I knew, with the touch of things. His right hand lay unused in his lap, balled up as though to protect itself from a bludgeoning. We'd found Findekáno that way. I tucked that memory deep where he could not touch it.

"He was supposed to cure us of our questions, Nelyo," I said, feeling stupid even as I said it, for had I not, mere hours before, been wondering at my constant return to the Realm of the Dead? Trespassing there? Unwishing my own birth? Challenging, therefore, the wisdom of Ilúvatar?

Nelyo chuckled. "He cannot cure us of that, Carnistir."

The right hand in his lap unfurled. The fingers unfolded as gently as the petals of a flower, unfamiliar with the touch of air and expecting pain. Finding none, they flexed, then both hands pressed palms against the rug. His silver eyes lifted to the tent flap through which I'd entered, where a tiny schism of light broke the gray fabric of the tent. Our father used to tell the story that Nelyo's eyes were colored with the light of Telperion that shined upon him at the moment he first opened his eyes. Were this true, I wondered, did that mean that Námo had restored to him a mockery of that light? I relaxed my guardedness again, perceived Nelyo's pale blue. It too was a mockery. The Trees were gone and he was bone-white beneath. Both of these things, I knew.

"Where are you living? With whom?" He did not look away from the entrance of the tent and the tiny bit of light it admitted.

"With our mother," I said. "She has a new home, north of Tirion."

I reached out to him again with my mind. Pale blue, like what? The sky on a winter day, the sea after the sun has dipped below the horizon, all things from a world that had endured the Darkening. I had never thought of him in those terms when we were children, for those terms did not yet exist. Never, I realized, would I experience that blue again as simply Nelyo. Despite myself, I tried to lift away the blue and expose what lay beneath. I consoled myself that the worst of the pain of rebirth was over for him and that I wanted to see him as he was, not the painted mockery of the brother who could never be returned to me. But the color did not lift away so easily this time.

"Take me home," he said, and he stretched out his hand to me.