Like a Moth to a Flame by Oshun

The main square, around the corner from our inn, hosted a performance by a company of professional traveling puppeteers at one end while a succession of middling to excellent musical groups occupied an elevated, well-lit stage at the other. Wandering vendors hawked apples on a stick covered in caramel coating, roasted corn on the cob, and tiny bite-sized griddle cakes, sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon or dipped into syrup made of maple sugar. Findaráto and I, no longer particularly hungry, shared one of the caramel apples—turning the eating of it into a form of restrained love-making, lots of eye contact and accidental touches of hands or tongues. Relaxed by the ale and refreshed by the food, and looking forward to our room in the inn with its lovely bed, our flirtation had intensified and surpassed where it had left off the night before. I have never had the courage to ask Findaráto if he were even half as nervous as I was. This set of circumstances was unprecedented for me. So much so, that I had never even considered anything like this before—making love in an inn, unobserved, among strangers, in a remote village, and doing so with my devastatingly attractive and universally sought after half-cousin Findaráto.

The side streets would have been fully shadowed by then, lit only by the silvery illumination of faraway Telperion, were it not for the multi-colored paper lanterns strung throughout. We inspected in a desultory manner some of the stalls that remained open, vowing to spend the morning at the fair before continuing our journey.

We rounded a corner onto a narrow lane, barely more than a back alleyway, lined with booths vending both exotic and more familiar-smelling herbs. Its temporary kiosks as well as its permanent shops appeared to deal in objects and produce related to various practices of healing or witchcraft. There were examples of the usual medicinal herbs, fresh, dried, or in tinctures or syrups. In addition to those, we saw less common hanging bunches of leaves and flowers, jars filled with odd mixtures of pebbles, bone fragments, nuts, and what appeared to be dried insects! There were, of course, many varieties of the usual colorful hedge-witch charms from tiny pastel-colored silken pillows smelling of lavender, to crude bundles made up of sticks, dried flowers, strings of beads, and bound with colored ribbons or yarn. Sellers hawked dubious love charms and what I knew to be highly effective ginger-flavored cough drops at the same stands.

Findaráto with his infernal curiosity was dying to explore this unsavory back alley. I was less smitten with the idea. My father often rejected such practitioners as having little to nothing to do with either science or true magic, but I finally decided to relax my censorious judgment that evening. My hypersensitivity to the musky miasma of the paranormal warned me of the presence of arcane powers and techniques, and the residue of invasive questing in the air sent prickles down my spine. The warring signals made it impossible for me, even with my talent, to isolate and untangle all the disparate forms of psychic interference. Nor could I distinguish if the elements I sensed were in themselves largely harmless or dangerous, or had been or were intended to be wielded in a good, bad, or neutral manner.

Although I longed to get out of the airless alleyway, yearned for fresh air, and wished I had my own light source, I soldiered on wanting to be viewed as a good sport. The purplish black shadows and nearly overlapping eaves in places added to my discomfort.

“This street is creepy,” I whined finally.

Suddenly, Findaráto pointed ahead and all but shouted, “Oh, look! I know that shop. The one with the shingle, ‘Fortunes Told. ’ We came here once last year and she read our cards. We could go and have yours read.”

A few houses farther down the lane a large oil lantern of blackened metal and muddy glass produced a surprisingly strong yellowish-orange light. It illuminated the dingy sign, perhaps once red but long hence faded to a sooty pink. The warm glow amidst the murky shadows convinced me to walk toward the shop with him without further objections.

Clad in a flowing garment of homespun brown, her head was wrapped in a striped turban of various reds, blues, greens and yellows. Around her worn countenance, dark curling hair peeked from under her head covering. Her face was etched with smile and frown lines, yet intelligence and the beauty of her lost youth shone through those superficial markings made by time and hardship. She leaned against the doorframe with her arms folded across her chest, wearing a tired but satisfied look. Doubtless, it had been a busy and profitable day for her with the village so swollen with visitors.

I had seen, although rarely, people with that same aged visage before—usually those who had suffered greatly across the sea, but had survived the trek over the mountains and, finally, the journey to Aman. There was no question in my mind that she was Noldorin, something about the proud lift of her chin which left one with the impression of stubborn individualism so characteristic of our people. She spotted us but continued to stand motionless in the doorway of her shop, as though she awaited the two of us in particular.

“Well, well,” she said to Findaráto as we drew closer, “the golden prince returns. Where are your high-spirited brothers, my lord? And who might be this strapping, handsome lad?” She gave Findaráto a wicked wink, but smiled more gently at me. “Come in, boys. Let’s withdraw from this commotion. Then you can explain why you brought your friend to me.”

Findaráto looked at me and shrugged, nodding his head toward the shop. Interested, I followed them into her parlor.

“It’s only the two of us this time. We’re traveling from Alqualondë to Tirion, mistress,” he said. She raised her eyebrows at me in an unspoken query.

I bobbed a short, uncomfortable bow to her, not from any disdain for her station or her chosen occupation, but my usual introversion. “Carnistir Morifinwë Feanárion, my lady,” I stammered, cursing my damnable shyness.

She smirked, apparently at my use of the honorific. “You are welcome here, son of Fëanáro. Although, I should warn you that your father has little patience with the vagaries of my ancient profession.” I did not doubt that. It was difficult to restrain a smile at the thought of his tirades against superstitions and folk magic for which he could find no scientific verification. “Please, sit down,” she said, pointing to two chairs facing a small table. “I just brewed a pot of tea. I was considering closing for the evening, but I would be willing to read your cards first, if you wish.”

“Thank you. Tea would be lovely,” Findaráto said; he had more than enough social grace to smooth the way for both of us.

“My cards?” I asked, intrigued.

The woman went around the room lighting several candles which smelled of high quality bee’s wax, illuminating a small but comfortable room. At one end there was a spotless kitchen, with an unlit wood stove and a cabinet painted in red enamel, well-stocked with stoneware bowls, plates, and cups glazed in the standard rustic brown familiar to me from traveling throughout rural Valinor. In one corner an attractive woven spread of a red and black geometric design covered a neatly made single bed. It never gets cold in that area; the white-washed stucco room held no fireplace; hence the small wood-burning cook-stove. On a shelf near the bed she stored a small collection of bound books and a couple or three scrolls in the older style, along with several pots of ink and some sheets of parchment or vellum—I could not tell which from where I stood. The only other decorative elements were bright yellow curtains hanging on the only two windows on the street side of the building.

It looked as unlike as one could imagine from the character of the kiosks in the lower levels of Tirion and the one witch’s hut I had visited in Formenos with Maitimo and Findekáno—Finno’s curiosity nearly equaled that of Findaráto. Such places usually reeked of herbs foul and fair, and were rife with the thick smoke and heavy odor of smoldering patchouli incense. They were more often than not crowded and disorderly, reminiscent of the market stalls we had seen earlier in the street. The only scent I could distinguish in her small, clean room was the fresh aroma of the newly brewed peppermint tea.

“She is willing to tell your fortune by reading the traditional divinatory cards.” Findaráto’s voice indicated his enthusiastic approval. “She can tell you things about your past, present, or future. We did it before and it was fascinating. Some of the points were quite accurate and others surprising.” He laughed at the memory. “Angaráto thought his reading was too dismal and refused to listen when she tried to explain further.”

We had taken our seats at the tiny table in what appeared to be the supplicants’ position. The chair on the other side was a throne-like affair woven of sea-grass with a tall-rounded back.

The lady placed the cups of tea in front of us. “Drink a little and try to relax. It matters not to me if you wish to decline a reading. I will not try to influence your decision. However, I must admit that I am intrigued. There is something about you that interests me. But you need not do it to satisfy an old lady’s curiosity either.”

She assumed her throne and looked at me with compelling storm-grey eyes of a pearly opalescence reminiscent of moonstones. Sitting so close to her, she did not look as old as she had at first glance. Although the lines on her face were notable still, she radiated the aura of an attractive woman, vibrant and sensual, less elderly than experienced.

I took a deep breath and said, “I want to do it. Will you read mine, please?” I was aware of Findaráto’s approval and keen interest in the whole proceeding. He had wanted me to say ‘yes,’ and I wanted to please him, but still felt more than a little reticent and somewhat foolish as well. She stuck a taper into the flame of the candle on the table and produced a small cone of incense from a drawer on her side of table. Placing it on a small saucer she ignited it. I must have wrinkled my nose as the thin furl of smoke ascended and dispersed into the air.

“You’re a sensitive one,” she said. “Tis only Sandalwood. No one objects to a light sandalwood scent. Concentrate upon it. It will help you focus.” It could have been worse, but I was nonetheless disappointed.

Then I felt someone reach toward me seeking, warm yet tentative—familiar. “You do not have to do this for me.” For the briefest moment I thought it might be the lady, but then recognized Findaráto with absolute clarity. He had not tried to touch me in that way since I had so abruptly rebuffed him the previous evening.

I gladly accepted his offer of intimate communication, thinking of it as he and I joined together against an alien world. “I will do it partly for you, but mostly for myself.”

“It’s best,” the lady said, “if you do not link mind-to-mind while I try to do your reading. It makes my part more difficult. Would you like to ask your kinsman to wait outside?” she asked me.

“He can stay. We won’t do it again!” I was eager now to start and get the reading over with, but did not want to be left alone with her outlandish magics, and half-afraid she would turn us both away. I was not entirely incurious.

“We promise!” Findaráto said, sounding like an errant schoolboy seeking to reassure a tutor.

She nodded, reaching into the drawer again and removing a deck of large cards. She shuffled them a few times in a haphazard manner and handed them to me.

“Hold them for a moment and then shuffle them, as little or as much as you desire. Your touch is necessary to obtain a good reading. When you are satisfied, return them to me.”

I felt silly again as I touched the cards, questing into them but feeling nothing, before shuffling them expertly, a skill mastered in countless long evenings of playing Storm-the-Castle with my brothers. For some reason, Findaráto found my showy cards tricks near unbearably funny, but managed to restrain himself. The lady even ventured a reluctant smile.

“Are you ready now?” she asked, a strange look stealing over her face, half-annoyed and yet somehow still amused. “I think that is more than sufficient. But it is entirely up to you.” Embarrassed, I fumbled the cards, hastily scrambled them together again, and handed them to her.

“There is no need to be nervous,” she said with renewed solemnity. She seemed to gather into herself, emitting a sense of omens and auguries falling into place, which sent a shiver down my spine.

“Can. . . can I ask one last question, please?” I stuttered.

“You may ask as many as you like. This is your reading. I am but an instrument now.”

“I don’t need the past,” I said, thinking of a whole series of childish secrets and shameful highly personal moments that I preferred not hear repeated aloud. My cheeks burned red at the contemplation of revelation of such puerile secrets. “And I’d rather not see the future.” In the nightmares of my childhood, I’d received enough glimpses of a terrifying future—filled with blood and warfare, loss, guilt, and inconceivable heartbreak—that I had only recently learned to interrupt when they threatened to break my rest. If any of those were true portents, I did not want to know, nor was I interested in questionable predictions of luck with women or prowess in hunting. And I already had far more affluence and notoriety than someone like me would ever desire or need.

“Fine, then,” she responded with regret. “That will be a rather irregular and curtailed reading indeed. But, I can see you are feeling self-protective, so I will do the best I can. Perhaps another time, if you pass through this place again.” She handed me the stack. “Draw three cards, from anywhere in the deck and place them face down upon the table.”

I took one card from the bottom, one from the top, and another from roughly the middle of the deck. I placed them on the table as she directed and raised my eyes to meet hers. She was trying not to smile.

“There is no reason to be anxious. No matter what the cards may tell one, the truth of them is never carved in stone. Never despair. Do not forget that in life, whatever mistakes one makes, one is always the master of one’s fate. It is never too late to change one’s path or seek to undo harm already done. Do not believe those who tell you otherwise.”

She flipped the first one over. “Ah, the King of Swords.”

“He looks serious,” I said.

“Not necessarily,” she insisted. “This is a particularly powerful card in the present position. Perhaps you are developing a crush on someone whom you have always admired but felt more distant from in the past. You are impressed by his use of language and drawn by his magnetism. The attraction may be intellectual but is physical as well. He or she offers you choices which appear to unsettle past certainties and lead you in a different direction. You do not need to follow him—the choice is yours entirely. But to ignore the challenges he offers could result in future regrets. This is a positive card in your case, if you chose to accept its possibilities.”

“Hmm,” I said, trying for thoughtful or weighty, but hitting only inflexible and pretentious. Standard fortune-telling fare, I thought.

“Do you have any questions? Or anything at all you want to say?”

I just sat there like a rock and stared at her. She pursed her lips together to control a smile or, Valar forbid, a laugh. “All right. Fine then. Next card,” she said. She flipped the next one over, with a loud slap on the table, revealing a foppish-looking lad, leaning forward with one hand on his hip and the other holding a golden cup, which incongruously contained a fish! I wondered if she really expected me to take this seriously.

“Well, well, well,” she said, not sounding as kindly as she had before. Perhaps she sussed out my cynicism and was responding to that. “Aha! None other, dear prince, than the Page of Cups. Young men in love often draw this card. You are in love and do not even realize the depth of your attraction to this person. You might even try to deny it.”

I opened my mouth and tried to speak and only managed a sound between a croak and squeak before I started coughing and knocked over a tea cup. I jumped up with the intention of halting the flow of tepid tea before it swamped the cards. I might not believe in divinatory card-reading but I did have respect for art and, pictures—poncy page boys or not—were well-executed and painted. Luckily for me, given my ineffectiveness, the tea flowed away from her cards and into my lap. Findaráto suppressed a choking sound of mirth, uprighted the cup, and produced a kerchief, too small to be of much use. I snatched it from him before he could begin sopping it in my lap.

“Did you want to say something? Do you have a question, your lordship?” she asked.

“Er, ah, no!” I stammered. Findaráto placed a warm hand on my thigh under the table, whether in sympathy for my obvious discomfort or an apology for wanting to laugh I did not know. Beggars can’t be choosers. I was grateful of the support. I covered his warm hand with my own and gripped it. He squeezed back and held on.

“Well then. May I continue?” She did not wait for a response. “Page cards also indicate a lack of experience, purity, or, as I observed before, denial. Usually a mixture of all three. The golden cup signifies your emotions and the little fish staring at you is love. The longer you reject the prospect, the more frustrated you will become. Immaturity, inexperience, and so-called innocence are overrated. Deny love and you will surely stunt your development. You are a passionate person, young man.” She lowered her eyebrows and quite literally scowled at me. Findaráto pressed my hand again.

“I did not dispute anything. I am listening,” I asserted, glowering back at her. I had mastered my scowling technique in early childhood; it might have been considered among my family and closest friends as my most characteristic expression.

“I apologize if I have underestimated you.” She shook her head in disbelief, far from repentant. I perceived her manner as perhaps half-annoyed and half-deflated. “Next card then.” She turned the last card over, without the flourish of the first time or the irritated snap of the second.

“Judgment,” she pronounced, with a sigh.

“No surprises there. It also reflects your internal conflict. Confirms what I believed before and then some. It tells me that you know you are at a crossroad. All this card represents is that the decision you are about to make is, in fact, a significant one.” She looked at me as though I had lied to her. Actually, I had hardly said a word. I simply had confirmed nothing. Probably used to encouraging reactions, she must have taken my reticence as recalcitrance. It may have been a little. She had made me uncomfortable and confused me. Meanwhile, her cooling toward me raised my hackles. I told myself these kinds of pretenses at foresight or insight were nothing more than superstition, clever words and experience at reading people. I could imagine others listening to her readings and oohing and aahing at her perception or perhaps some, like Findaráto and his brothers, laughing and teasing one another about her predictions.

I thanked her profusely in inverse proportion to my lack of enthusiasm. I tried to offer her too much coin and she haughtily refused the excess. Findaráto remained quiet.

Finally, as we took our leave of her, she called out. “Wait, son of Fëanáro, I have one last thought for you. Your father is right that one should not trust the Shining Ones.” I wondered how she knew that. I guessed it was no secret, although he certainly did not proselytize his views—not at that point in time anyway. “But to believe that we can explain everything with science is to deny many powerful forces in this world.”

I could not meet her halfway on that point. More likely there were things in the world we perceive as magic or superstition that science has yet to explain. I muttered a second series of thanks and farewells and stumbled out the door.

In the street, I gasped huge swallows of fresh air. The soothsayer’s incense had much earlier become cloying for me. I felt I could barely breathe. Most of the stalls had vanished or been shuttered for the night, the lanterns and torches extinguished. We could still hear sounds of celebration but at a distance, probably in the main plaza. The narrowness of the crooked lane with the second stories nearly touching meant we walked in near total darkness. Findaráto grasped my arm and held it to his chest. As he grounded me, our footsteps slowed. Something had shifted between us.

Feeling far less self-conscious, I said, “Thanks for staying with me. That promised to be weird. But it was not as bad as I had feared . . . well, not so much feared as expected. . . ” I would have continued to grope for words for a good while longer if he hadn’t interrupted me.

“I knew you were nervous, but I was afraid that you wouldn’t want me there. I’m glad I guessed right and stayed.” I looked up into his face, unabashedly enjoying the view. His warm blue eyes caught the light of a single candle flickering behind a flimsy curtain and held onto mine.

“I’m glad you were with me. I think I made her angry.”

“No. I think you frustrated her,” he insisted. Not much difference, I thought. I was accustomed to causing people frustration and well aware that it usually made them angry. I remember thinking that Findaráto was one of the most patient people I had yet encountered. Fortunate for me, I thought.

“In there, when we connected mind-to-mind . . .” I started.

“Oh, I am sorry. I didn’t mean to push. I forgot and, when I reached out, you felt wide open.”

“Don’t be sorry. I should not be so stiff-necked. Now that I know you better, I’ve changed my mind. I think I’m ready to communicate with you that way. Just don’t go poking around behind walls or into dark corners where monsters might be hiding.” Then I remembered some of the things the fortune-telling lady had told me and my emotional reaction to those and quickly shoved them into a little closet and slammed the door shut and latched it. It was nothing like the big rooms filled with horrors, but more than large enough for any embarrassing little secrets. I released a sigh of relief, just as I felt a tickle in my mind. He had a light, quick touch; mindspeak came easily to him. I had evaded him by only a second or two.

Findaráto laughed, the corners of his mouth turning up in one of those disarming grins of his. “That was smooth. How did you do that?”

“Hid a few things? It’s not that I don’t trust you . . . I don’t know exactly how. It comes naturally. It’s not a strong barrier. You could easily break through it if you wanted,” I explained with an excess of seriousness. He was smiling at me again. I wanted badly to kiss him. Instead, I shrugged. “I doubt it would be worth the cost to try to stop you. But I trust that you won’t try.”

“I’ll not pry.” His voice was husky and seductive. “A promise is a promise. So what did you think of what she told you?”

“I think she is good at reading people and we both know my face is an open book. Still not sure about the cards or the details she proclaims as fact.” I could feel the blood rising to my cheeks again and turned away from him. I kept almost succeeding in beating down my defensive introversion and before turning bashful again. It felt like a dangerous game, but I was desperate and not going to give up without some serious effort to overcome my habitual reserve.

“You’re blushing!” he said. “I can tell from the back of your neck!”

“This is not a contest,” I answered with a haughty sniff, which elicited a fond laugh.

“No, but you are a challenge, Carnistir, although wrapped in a stunning package, which, in itself, doesn’t make the struggle worth it, but does add to the stakes.”

“What are you prattling about?”

“Part of your magnetism, dark eyes, is that you are unaware of how splendid you are. You are that and so much more—hot-blooded, determined to master yourself, and dying to get laid. It’s not simply the Fëanorian charisma you share with your father and brothers, strong as that may be, but one distinctly your own.”

“Now I’m self-conscious again. I think I know how a mouse feels when a cat has cornered it and decided to play. Don’t tease me if you don’t mean to do anything about this . . . this mutual attraction or whatever one should call it!”

“I need to know. Surely you must realize that if you understood that much, you should have at least told me you were in love with someone. Who is she? Does everyone know but me?” He sounded almost bereft, or as hurt and confused as I was feeling at that moment.

“What?” I asked. “I’m not in love with anyone else. I did not understand half of what she was yammering about and I disagreed with the other half.” That was not entirely a lie. I simply needed time to think. She had given me too much unexpected information too quickly. Findaráto and I had spoken too little about this curious and compelling desire for one another to be able to easily analyze that. There was no one else I might have fallen in love with or felt drawn to in that way.

I looked into his eyes and raised my hand to touch his cheek. “Did you honestly believe that I might have a secret lover somewhere?” I asked him incredulous. “In Tirion? Or in Formenos perhaps? Does that fit with anything you know about me?”

“What was I to think? Your reaction was instant and strong, when she mentioned the idea. Your face turned as red as an overripe tomato.”

My laugh was harsh. “Since when is that remarkable for me?”

He smiled at me his eyes softening. I love your face. I love how you look when you blush. I love how your emotions are so close to the surface. It was the most he had ever said to me through mindspeak and I loved his interior voice, so warm, so intimate that it made me harden instantly. I resisted the impulse to adjust the seam of my trousers that pressed against my prick. “The room at the inn . . .” he said aloud, hesitant but determined. “The wonderful bed . . . You seemed so pleased. I thought we had an understanding.”

“I believe we did . . . do have.” I opened my heart and mind to him, flooding him with affection, desire, and my desperate hope. Don’t pull away from me now. I want you so. Kiss me.

My halting demand won me Findaráto’s most dazzling smile, and he has an arsenal of those to choose from, along with a soul-searing manner of holding eye contact. With the greatest of enthusiasm, he responded.

Alone on a shabby back street, in a shoddy little village, within earshot of the voices of other merrymakers he pushed me up against a stucco wall. The relentless primitive drumming and the ragged notes of a single lonely flute reminded me of tales of the heathenism and unbridled sexuality practiced across the great sea that the Valar warned us against. The setting felt perfect for my defiant heart. Although I had furtively glanced up and down the darkened alleyway to make sure we were alone, I loved that he didn’t even bother. He kissed me—my first kiss. I am sure Findaráto, although younger than me, with his allure, his beauty, and his self-assurance, had received dozens by then. But I am still quite sure, despite all that has happened between us since then, he had never wanted a kiss so much, or taken greater pains to secure one.

Our minds touched and we maintained the connection though we did not try to form language. We each could feel what the other was feeling which more than doubly magnified the intensity of the kiss. He took the initiative and held on to it with a firm but gentle rein. He at last sensed all the hunger I had held at bay over the last two days and did not trust me not to rush. He wanted us to enjoy and remember every moment of that first kiss.

Starting slowly before he began to lick my mouth open, he demonstrated that he knew how to kiss. After a while of enjoying the play of tongues with deeper and deeper open-mouthed kisses, I found myself floating free, lost in him, gaining confidence in my own technique. One could not have had a better teacher. I was not conscious of any filters at all, hypnotized by the physical and the waves of his increasing pleasure and fondness I felt reaching out to me through our mind touch. I entertained the thought that what I really, really wanted was to fuck him senseless, face to face, clutching his cock, while kissing his beautiful mouth until he came all over my hand and his belly.

“Oh, please stop,” he said, pushing me away with a breathless chuckle. “If you continue to conjure up images like that, you will make me spend in my pants like a callow youth indulging in his first serious kiss.”

I was still so inebriated from the taste of him, the touch of his lips to mine, the wet heat of his mouth and his clever use of his tongue that, even as bashful and awkward as I was in those days, I could not be bothered to be mortified by his gentle scolding. Reluctantly I released him. “Wow. Thank you. That was my first kiss. What a way to begin! Serious or not I could not say, but it felt epic.”

He brushed my hair away from my face and held my burning cheeks in his soft, long-fingered hands. “Carnistir,” he whispered. “Beautiful, beautiful dark eyes, I never could have guessed. Suddenly, you seem very sure of yourself.”

“Sure of what I want from you,” I answered.

“That’s our inn at the next corner. Shall we try that excellent bed?”
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