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Our Father's Tongue

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The new lamps, Curufinwë realizes, have been installed for his benefit. Telchar maneuvers with perfect confidence around work-tables and racks of equipment, lit only by the bright red glow of the forge, and Gamil-zirak cannot see at all.

“You didn’t have to.” He gestures at the wall sconces. “I could easily have managed without them.”

Telchar is staring at him, blankly.

“The lamps – gimâl, gim –“ He throws up his hands. “You have no idea what I’m talking about, do you?”

He can see the other smith repeating the words to himself, as he attempts to parse the sentence. Finally, he responds. “Your Khuzdul does leave something to be desired. At least, in terms of pronunciation”

Curufinwë raises an eyebrow. “You don’t say.” He privately suspects the Dwarven language, and the correct mode of speech therein, relies on an entirely different configuration of the throat than that of the Quendi. Most of them speak Thindarin with the same guttural accent. 

Telchar speaks that language as if it hurts him. As if it scrapes the inside of his throat raw, ungainly consonant clusters sharp and heavy on his tongue. He spits out each word, quickly, each one carrying the poisonous weight of history. Curufinwë takes a certain vicious pleasure in the ugliness of it. Bitter, stunted. 

 

***

“I told you not to call me that.” Maitimo sighs, any signs of real anger carefully controlled. He looks tired.

“Very well then, Nelyafinwë. But I don’t expect this decision will improve relations with our uncle.”

“You know what I meant.”

Maitimo glances pointedly at a book of maps lying on a table near the door. When Curufinwë makes no move to rise, he stretches his back, and pulls himself unsteadily from his chair. “If you refuse to act in a responsible manner, Curufin, we’re done here.”

His cane beats a reproachful tattoo on the granite floor. Tap, tap, you abandoned me. Tap, tap, I was left to die. Tap, tap, we’re kinslayers, in the off-chance you’ve forgotten. Exiles. We can’t afford to antagonize Doriath. In public, I’ll call you Curufin, and watch your nails dig into your palms until you bleed.

But you will answer to it. 

***

The slate and chalk are easy enough to find. The Khazad do not use paper, except in matters relating to foreign trade, and their children learn to write with such. He spends most of that night and the following morning tracing out tengwar in the unfamiliar implements, re-mastering the graceful forms.

The next day, he corners Telchar in the forge.

“What is it, Elf?” He sets down his hammer with a heavy thud. “I’m busy.”

Curufin smiles. It’s so rare as to be disconcerting, and Telchar steps back a pace. “Of course you’re busy. I’m teaching you Quenya.”

***

Thindarin is almost beautiful in Macalaurë’s voice. In the moment, Curufinwë thinks he hates him for it. He looks up from the page in front of him, where he has begun to transcribe the song, and its Quenya translation, in neat, precise script.

“A new composition?”

Macalaurë laughs. “No, no – it’s one of Tintaril’s. The melody, at least. The words are older. It’s a story her people tell, about a fish swimming in dark, clear lake – which is the sky – carrying a pearl under its tongue. And that’s the world. Or possibly it’s the next world, where spirits go after death, and our world is the shore – or there are two fish – or or there are ten thousand, all with silver scales, the stars in the sky – or none at all. I’ve heard many versions.” He falls heavily on the carpet. “None of which I’m doing any justice.”

Curufinwë puts down the pen. “I already told you. It was beautiful.”

More theatrical sighing. “I’m the one singing it. How could it not be?” He plucks listlessly at a patch of frayed threads. “Yes, it’s lovely. But it’s not mine yet. It’s not that the scales are different, that’s never been a problem. It’s that this should sound rich and deep and ancient, the way it is when Tintaril sings, and all I’ll ever be able to make it is pretty.”

He shrugs. “Then let Tintaril sing. It’s her language, not yours. And the northern dialects at least have some redeeming aesthetic features.”

“I should know, I hear them every day. Lannë.” Macalaurë lets the cloth of his tunic run through his fingers. “Ambal.” He traces the shape of the stone floor. “In a few hours, it will be anarórë. It’s not the songs, so much. I still have those. I miss the shape of our ordinary words.”

***

“There, like that – think of the -a in gabil or narag, not nâd or nâla.”

Telchar is proving a surprisingly eager pupil. They have their lessons in the evenings, after finishing their business in the forge and seeing Gamil-zirak back to their chambers. They trade their words like coins, small bright secrets, hoarded close to the heart.  Khuzdul has a grave beauty to it, he has found. Every sound seems to belong here, in these caves, echoing the deep stone, silver-veined, the crystal chambers and the dark, still water.

“Is it a sacred language?”

“Hmmm?”

The question startles him. “Quenya?”

Telchar nods. “Yes.”

Curufinwë looks up from the slate. “We have no holy book. Our prayers, when we remember them, are between ourselves and whichever deities we see fit to worship.  It is not a holy tongue, in the manner of Khuzdul.  Why do you ask?”

“Something about the way you speak it.” Telchar rests three fingers against his throat, an iglishmek gesture whose meaning he cannot quite recall. “You sound – no other way to say it. You sound like us.

“I speak as my father did.”

“Was he a priest, then, your father?”

It’s a surprising question, even more so when Curufinwë realizes he does not have an immediate response. He turns the chalk over and over in his fingers, coating his hands in white dust. “To say he was a sort of priest would not be entirely inaccurate. It depends, I suppose, on how you define the term. Quenya is a changing thing, Telchar, a thing we made – we in the general sense. And it is not an uncommon belief among certain traditionalists that the mastery of certain arts constitutes a type of priesthood. It is the work of our minds and our tongues, as surely as Gabilgathol is the work of your hands.”

Telchar waits for a while before speaking. Curufinwë takes advantage of the pause to collect himself. He dusts off his hands, pushes back an invisible strand of hair. Breathes.

“And you say it’s not your religion.”

“Religion is an inadequate term.” His gaze is cold, distant. Telchar feels very young, before it, and suddenly ill at ease. “It will not be taken from us, this thing which we have wrought.”