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This Taste of Shadow

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Here, for your reading pleasure we have . . .


01. The One, The Almighty, aka The Table of Contents

02. “things, once seen” || Indis & Finarfin & Galadriel - Finarfin learns the Sight from Indis. Years, later, Celebrían sails, and Galadriel entreats her father for her daughter's warm welcome in Aman.

03. “a stone upon stones” || Fingon & Maedhros - Maedhros teaches Fingon the sword in Aman. Years later, Fingon helps him recover his skills with one hand.

04. “lost as in a whisper” || Aredhel & Fingon - On the Ice, something is different about her brother. Something is missing.

05. “the song enchantments sing” || Elu Thingol/Melian - Snapshots of a legendary romance.

06. “the gap between bones” || Elrond & Elros - In Númenor, with Elros' ever growing family, the twins make light of the impending doom of Elros' mortality.

07. “to hold the sun” || Finarfin & Fëanor & Fingolfin - Finarfin is too young to understand why Fëanor does not view him as a brother. Fingolfin explains, in part.

08. “in sickness, in health” || Beren/Lúthien - Lúthien experiences a downside of mortality.

09. “by any other name” || Celeborn/Galadriel - Snapshots of their early days, in Doriath.

10. "from the tender earth" || Haleth/Caranthir - Their first meeting.

11. "measured by many branches" || Glorfindel - The many winters of his life, from the First Age to the Fourth.

12. "so there will be no forgetting" || Bilbo & Glorfindel & Thorin - Swords and their stories.

13. "so sweetly pressed" || Turgon & Idril - Idril considers Tuor's suit, and Turgon gives his blessing.
 
14. "we bit as the fire bites" || Maglor & Maedhros - Snapshots of their Oath and it's repercussions.

15. "as stars are startled by the dawn" || Eärendil/Elwing - He makes the ghosts quiet.

16. "the work of two hands" || Fingon & Maedhros - A second start, in the Fourth Age.

17. "had we but world enough, and time" || Galadriel/Celeborn & Celebrían || Eärendil/Elwing & Elrond - Sunderings and reunions.

18. "when you fall, you fall in flames" || Sauron & Melkor & Thuringwethil - His fall and many names.

19. "for ashes, from ashes" || Finwë/Indis - A tenative first step. || Findis - The difference between a half-brother and a full-brother. || Nerdanel/Fëanor - A beginning, in more ways than one.

20. "who touches the pupil of my eye" || Aulë/Yavanna & Saruman - After Sauron's betrayal. || Námo/Vairë - The first death in the world. || Elu Thingol/Melian -  The concept of family is explained to one who has always been a spirit. || Námo & Lúthien - Her song and Death's decision. || Aulë & Nerdanel - A shared grief.  

21. "I have filled this void with things unreal" || Celegorm/Lúthien (Celegorm/Aredhel, Lúthien/Beren) - In Nargothrond, Lúthien tries to understand her captor, and Celegorm faces his past.

22. "in distant dark places" || Aredhel/Eöl - She was not wholly unwilling.

23. "we choose our flesh over bones" || Turgon & Fingon & Maedhros - Turgon, still grieving from his wife's death, looks on Maedhros' rescue with less than kind eyes.

24. "bellowing in the bones" || Thorin & Frerin & Dís - During a youthful escapade in Erebor, the siblings encounter the First of the Seven Rings.

25. "shadows you wish to own" || Aredhel/Eöl - She was not used to sharing a bed.

26. "made for whispers" || Celeborn/Galadriel - Celeborn learns about the First Kinslaying, and Galadriel exorcises a ghost from her past.

27. "from step to step" || Maedhros & Elros - Elros has a case of hero worship.

28. "not swallowed in the sea" || Finarfin & Olwë - After the First Kinslaying.

29. "come home with a smooth, round stone" || Maedhros - In the Fourth Age, he returns to Alqualondë.

30. "given to the winter" || Lúthien & Celegorm - In Nargothrond, Lúthien reflects on her captor, and thinks of what could have been.

31. "my head is bloodied, but unbowed" || Caranthir/Haleth - He tells her of the First Kinslaying. || Caranthir & Celegorm & Maedhros - While planning the Nírnaeth Arnoediad, tempers flare, and Celegorm swears vengeance against Doriath. || Caranthir & Celegorm - The Second Kinslaying, and all that entails.

32. "once and future" || Maedhros & Elrond - The boy sees things Maedhros would rather him not. || Elrond & Elros - They realize their parents are never coming back for them. || Maglor & Maedhros - As the twins grow, their guardians realize that there is only so much they can teach them in their care.

33. "so beats the heart" || Anairë/Fingolfin - Their reunion after his rembodiment.

34. "should we teach eyes to blink, bones to disappear" || Caranthir/Haleth - After searching Thargelion for her straggling kin, they stop at Lake Helevorn, where prejudices are faced and realizations are made.

35. "rendering death and forever with each breathing" || Beren/Lúthien, Elwing/Eärendil, Idril/Tuor - The soul resides in the heart, not within its cage of aging flesh.

36. "through to the heart" || Celegorm & Aredhel - In Aman, their friendship is made and tested.

37. "songs from twilight" || Ensemble Doriathrim - Thirty drabbles from Doriath, from rise to fall.

38. "moving swiftly, ever on" || Arathorn/Gilraen - There is but one inevitable end to their time together.

39. "growing hope next to bones" I || Elladan & Aragorn - When Thorin Oakenshield and his Company visit the valley, young Aragorn has an adventure of his own.

40. "growing hope next to bones" II || Elladan & Aragorn - While the White Council marches against Dol Guldur, Aragorn's adventure continues. 

41. "strangers in a strange land" || Thorin & Gilraen - During their stopover in Rivendell, Thorin finds a kindred spirit in the most unexpected of places.

42. "thrown before fists" || Finarfin & Fingolfin - A young Finarfin deals with both his heritage and bullies. Fingolfin helps.

43. "sunrise, sunset" || Beren/Lúthien - They will not cheat death a second time.

44. "let the water wash our souls clean" || Isildur - Before the destruction of Nimloth, he steals a fruit from her branches. || Sauron - Before the burning of the White Tree, he reflects on faith and the master he still serves. || Tar-Míriel/Ar-Pharazôn - Even as Zimraphel, she fights in the only way she can. || Elendil - His thoughts on faith and hope as he watches his son through his recovery. 
 
45. "my spirit born" || Melian & Lúthien - She learns to be a mother.

46. "between sky and sea" || Elwing/Eärendil - After the Third Kinslaying, she realizes what she has left behind.

47. "where no water flows" || Maglor & Maedhros & Elrond & Elros - The days following the Third Kinslaying.

48. "on earth as it is in heaven" || Maglor & Eärendil - During Gil-estel's first flight, Maglor has a peculiar prayer to make. || Eärendil & Elrond & Elros - His sons did not leave the keeping of the Fëanorians willingly. || Elros & Eönwë - During the journey to Númenor, Elros finds peace from an unexpected source. || Elrond & Arwen - He did not realize the flaw in his thoughts until confronted with the simple insights of a child. 

49. "third of her name" || Celeborn & Arwen - She names her daughter Aranes.

50. "the eye of the beholder" || Thranduil/Canonical Wife - Dragon-fire takes its pound of flesh.

51. "as little might be thought" || Maedhros & Fingon & Elrond - In the Fourth Age, a rehoused Maedhros finds the courage to visit his former ward. Fingon gives him a push out the door.

52. "with thoughts of flight" || Caranthir/Haleth - A case of denial.

53. "into the bittersweet and strange" || Caranthir/Haleth - Their relationship comes to a boiling point.

54. "what we choose for fear" || Finrod & Lúthien - During his sister's wedding feast, Finrod unwittingly shapes the future when speaking to Lúthien of mortality and love.

55. "how many hours I spent, reading his skin" || Amarië/Finrod - At long last, she understands the nature of love.

56. "nothing false and possible is love" || Emeldir/Barahir - There was a pool in Dorthonion, rumored to show the reflection of your true love. || Beren - Years later, as a youth, he looks in that same pool. || Andreth & Beren - Conversations about impossibilities and love, in which the future is shaped unseen.

57. "as the fire grows" || Thranduil/Canonical Wife & Celeborn - Before the War of the Last Alliance.

58. "grown but for weeds" || Legolas & Tauriel - While the Wise gather to discuss the shadow growing upon the Greenwood, young Legolas makes a discovery of his own.

59. "drawn from ruin" || Annael & Rían/Huor - After the Fifth Battle, life begins anew for Annael.

60. "how this, and love too, will ruin us" || Caranthir/Haleth - Her answer to his proposal.

61. "how the sea counts the years" || Celebrían & Melian - In Valinor, Celebrían learns of her daughter's choice.

62. "put them together" || Beren/Lúthien - He is the first one to realize she is with child.

63. "waves, upon arriving" || Celegorm & Dior & Caranthir - In the years following his failed courtship with Lúthien, Celegorm cannot stay away from Tol Galen. Once, Caranthir follows.

64. "to have and to hold" || Caranthir/Haleth - Their first year together.

65. remember, with fellowship and song || Bilbo & Thorin's Company - When he returns to the Shire, he plants his acorn.

66. "beneath such drooping boughs" || Legolas & Ensemble - The shadow over the Greenwood was darkening, as Legolas learns firsthand during a coming of age trial, far from his father's halls.

67. "a veil before stars" | | || Melian/Elu Thingol & Ensemble (with a special appearance by Sauron) - She adjusts to the role of wife, queen, and mother.

68. "a veil before stars" II || Melian/Elu Thingol & Ensemble (with a special appearance by Gandalf) - Events move onwards towards the building of Doriath.

69. "sleep I cannot find, nor light" || Maedhros & Idril - Whilst recovering from Thangorodrim, Maedhros finds a helping hand.

70. "but for pale persistence" || Maedhros & Elrond - The first time the child calls him father, Maedhros makes a hard decision about the fate of Eärendil's sons.

71. "where stirs a quiet pain" || Celeborn/Galadriel - When winter comes to Doriath, Galadriel redefines her opinion of the season, with some help from Celeborn.

72. "but for we who remain" || Celeborn/Galadriel & Elwing & Eärendil - Their first winter in Sirion is given to the past as much as it is to the future.

73. "to throw truth from mirrors" || Thranduil & Legolas - He explains the origin of his scars.

74. "just so long, and long enough" || Celebrían/Elrond - With fostering Arahael Aranarth's son, they set a tradition for all of the Chieftains of the Dúnedain to follow.

75. "our share of night to bear" || Thranduil/Canonical Wife & Thráin I - While his own realm darkens even further, Thranduil visits the newly founded kingdom of Erebor for the first, where the Shadow is at work in another way. 

76. "and came my way no more" || Curufin & Celegorm & Celebrimbor - After Nargothrond's destruction, Curufin seeks word of his son's survival.

77. "love will see us through our dark, dark days" || Maglor/Canonical Wife & Ensemble Fëanorians - He brings his wife-to-be home to meet his family.

78. "stars hide your fires" || Indis/Finwë/Míriel - Her pregnancy with Fëanor was not as it should be. || Nerdanel/Fëanor & Finwë - For her complicated pregnancy with the Ambarussa, and her strained relationship with her husband, her good-father offers advice and support.

79. "until the frost steals the bloom away" || Caranthir/Haleth - In which Caranthir is most certainly not jealous.

80. "lay me down to sleep" || Fëanor & Fingolfin - It is not their father the child seeks out at night, but him. || Fingolfin & Aredhel - There is a monster in her closet that only her father can slay.

81. "shall chase us round and round" || Turgon/Elenwë & Ensemble Fingolfinians - A beginning, in Aman.

82. "who refuse to breathe in water" || Tuor/Idril & Ensemble Gondolindrim - She has not swam since falling through the ice of the Helcaraxë, and yet, with Tuor . . .

83. "I have no weapons of ocean or wood" || Rían & Emeldir, Finduilas/Túrin, Tar-Míriel/Amandil, Fíriel/Arvedui, Dís & Thorin - Snippets of a woman's strength.  

84. "I will not take from you, and you will not owe" || Glorfindel & Ensemble - His two lifetimes spent in service to the House of Turgon.

85. "these were your loves, your victims" || Maglor/Canonical Wife & Ensemble Fëanorians - They settle into exile in Formenos.

86. "something without a name" || Indis/Finwë/Míriel & Ensemble - The early days of Finwë's family.

87. "with those who favour fire" || Ensemble Finwions - The House of Finwë during the Years of the Trees, in drabble form.

88. "whose home is timelessness" || Elrond/Celebrían & Ensemble - Drabbles from Rivendell.

89. "where time comes in waves" || Ensemble Gondolindrim - Drabbles from Gondolin.

90. "to fall from depth to depth of air" || Eärendil/Elwing, Celeborn/Galadriel, Idril/Tuor & Ensemble - Drabbles from Sirion. 

91. "we have drank each other thirsty" || Caranthir/Haleth - Some days, it is easy to forget her mortality. On other days, however, such as when her visiting Lake Helevorn coincides with many Princes of the Noldor being present . . .

92. "tale as old as time" || Éowyn & Ensemble - Éowyn, and a history of tales.

93. "chance may crown me" || Maedhros & Fingon - Before Fingon's coronation.

94. "through your time" || Caranthir/Haleth - In which she may, or may have not, inadvertently poisoned him.

95. "the agony and the ecstasy" || Curufin/Canonical Wife - There was an attraction between them, of a sort.

96. "blooming you shall always be" || Galadriel/Celeborn, Celebrimbor & Elwing, Thranduil & Galadriel - The survivors of Doriath, and the spring. 

Chapter Text

Wall

The Sea was an impassible distance between them. It was a wall he could not climb; with waves standing as brick and the tides as mortar. And it stretched so far . . .

Though Tirion was locked by land, surrounded by golden stretches of fields and embraced by copses of green leafed trees, Arafinwë imagined that he could hear the waves as they brushed upon Eastern shores of Endórë beyond. He imagined that he could see the infant sun as it set over the straight blue horizon of Middle-earth; he imagined that he could hear the gulls in his ears; that he could feel the pulse of the tide, ever calling him home, in his heart.

She has arrived, the knowledge reverberated in his mind, settling deep within marrow and bone. With the knowledge, his pulse quickened; he could not quell its frantic beat.

"Artanis," Arafinwë whispered his daughter's name to the wind, as if she could hear him from such a distance and knew comfort from his voice. He closed his eyes, imagining each of his sons in their turn before looking up again. His children had survived the crossing, and they now walked a shadowed land, rife with hardships and dangers untold. They walked where he could not see . . . see naught but glimpses, as intangible and substantial as mist. He looked with his second set of eyes, and could see Artanis' eyes trained unmovingly ahead, looking at the wood just past the seashore. He looked, and saw Ingoldo's smile. He glimpsed Angaráto as he splashed Aikanáro in the surf.

His hands fisted as he tried to seize the visions, as he tried to make them last. But those stolen glances were not enough; not ever.

Time passed, much time before the atmosphere in both Tirion and Alqualondë allowed the new King of the Noldor to journey north to Oiolossë. But journey eventually he did, seeking out Ingwë's house and walking the familiar halls to the compound of rooms his mother and sister shared.

Centuries had passed since he was a small boy running with mischief in mind and trailing giggles behind him, and yet Arafinwë still felt small beneath the arch of Indis' stare when she rose to greet him. He bowed low and kissed the back of his mother's hand, even though she wore her crown not, and had been far from Finwë's side even before his death at the Dark One's hands. The young sun was setting beyond them, painting the former queen's face with a warm, golden light. Once was, there had been a time when he looked on her and saw only a beauty too great for words; an empyreal sort of loveliness, nearly too ethereal to touch. Now, he could see only weariness on Indis' face. Her flesh seemed to be parchment about her bones, as a paper lampshade, letting the light shine through her rather than upon her. There were times, since her husband's death, when she did not look quite real before his eyes. Aman had darkened around her, and she had not yet found her light again.

"They arrived," he whispered his news, taking her hand in his own once they both were seated. Indis looked, not at him, but out through the open windows behind him. The room had been designed with a wide and open plan – once intending to face the summit of the mountain and the light of the Trees with a reverence that only the Vanyar could truly understand. Now, it simply let in the light of the setting sun.

"I cannot tell what horrors the Ice took from them," he admitted, and with those words, his voice ached in his throat. " . . . but they arrived. They walk upon the shores of the Hither Lands, now, for better or for worse."

Over the top of his hand, his mother's fingers played. Absently, she traced nonsense patterns out over bones and skin. "And yet, you ask me a question, my son," she said at long last. Her head was tilted delicately to the side; her pale eyes knew the answer he sought, even when they did not glance his way.

"I . . ." he swallowed. Setting about him, the new light was too warm. It was too bright. He blinked, and saw Shadow across the Sea. "I saw . . . I could see bits and pieces when I Looked, but only just . . . Once, you offered to teach me your gift, and yet I scorned it . . . for what need was there of the Sight in these hallowed lands, in these lands of peace and light? And yet . . . now the light has been destroyed and created anew. Now . . ."

"Now, those you love travel past where you can see," Indis finished gravely. Her eyes still searched beyond the view of her balcony, as if she could see into Mandos' dark halls and beyond.

He did not fight the twisting he felt in his lungs at her words. He had no need to. "Yes," he breathed simply. And he waited for her answer.

A heartbeat passed. Then another. When Indis squeezed his hands, the color of her eyes was darker. For the first time since his father's death - since his departure north to share in his firstborn son's exile, even - she looked real before him. She looked tangible enough to touch.

"I shall teach you, my son," she inclined her head in answer. Her grip about his hands was strong, and he returned the pressure as if she were a lifeline in turbulent waters. "And then, together, we shall see what we shall see."



.

.

Bridge

The waves lapped gently against the rocks of the coastline below.

Alone, Galadriel knelt in the long grass that grew atop the cliffs overlooking the harbor of the Grey Haven. This close to the Sea, the song within her soul sounded with a feverish beat, pulling her towards what she could feel in the distance, ever calling her home. Though she yearned, she could not yet give into its siren's call . . . she could not, not with the Shadow that was still growing behind her, stretching unquietly from the East. No one accompanied her as she a moment to work through her grief alone. All in her family hurt that day, with the grief of sundering pulling upon their spirits as a whole, but in that moment, she preferred her solitude. She needed . . .

She took in a deep breath, centering herself. Against their bond, she felt Celeborn's gentle touch as it turned in concern, but she waved him away after from her mind after assuring him that she was well. As well as she could be, at least. A matching pain bit at his own soul, and she filled their bond with warmth . . . with peace as best she could. After so many centuries together, she could not quite tell where one's strength began and ended from aiding the other, and she had no wish to truly know. Instead, she was merely grateful that he was there for her to lean upon, just as she was content in also being the roots that supported his branches through the latest storm they endured.

When she looked below, that thought in mind, she could see her husband's silver head amongst the Falathri workers milling on the docks. Celeborn was keeping their grandsons busy, she knew, not giving them a moment in which to think about their grief. Elladan and Elrohir were nothing but strife and discord in their bones with their mother's passing into the west, and even across the distance their hate and anger tugged on her spirit with a rabid fervency. They wore their guilt as a cloak of fury, even though all had assured them that they were not to blame – even Celebrían herself had whispered such words of absolution when she had the lucidity to do so, but still their hearts knew pain, and Galadriel feared . . .

When she swallowed, she did so around a stone. She looked away from her grandsons, seeking out the empty dock where Celebrían's ship had been berthed not even an hour ago. On the edge of the dock, Arwen stood unmoving in her father's shadow. As close to Elrond as the twins had been with their mother, she had scarce left his side since the grey ship had disappeared over the horizon. Galadriel reached out with her senses, intent on buoying the younger elf's spirit, but Arwen looked up first. Though her eyes were heavy with grief, she reached out with a comfort of her own before she could be given comfort in her turn, and Galadriel felt her heart twist as she accepted the gift her granddaughter gave. The young one was a bulwark in her family's storm, and for her, Galadriel was more grateful than words could properly say. At Arwen's side, Elrond had not even blinked at the interchanging of power; he noticed not of Arwen's hand about his own, nor did he acknowledge Galadriel's searching presence at his mind. Instead, he was unblinking as he stared at the horizon beyond. Galadriel felt, and knew that he was clinging to his bond with his wife, unwilling to let her go until the Straight Road tore her forcibly from him, and he could feel her no more.

She looked, and felt a fresh stab of pain for how her goodson appeared to be years older than any Elf had a right to be – recalling then how he had poured nearly the entirety of his fëa into Celebrían's soul in his desperation to heal her. He had been pulled away by force, with Glorfindel and Mithrandir ending the connection only before he gave everything in his desperation to heal his mate. Even for all of his efforts – for all of her own efforts, and Mithrandir's too – they had only been able to heal her daughter's body. Her mind . . . Celebrían's fëa was fractured and torn, and nothing but the Uttermost West and the grace of Estë and Irmo in Lórien would heal what was so grievously broken.

Her daughter sailed West, and now Galadriel mourned the loss of what was once a part of her body, born of her soul, so much so that she . . .

. . . she took in a deep breath before letting it out again. Above her, the twilit sky was darkening, with Varda's stars winking into view to bathe the land in their light as they had since times long gone by. There, unseen upon the horizon, Galadriel looked, and thought to see a light even greater than they. She could see . . .

As she had not in centuries, she opened her mind to the part of her fëa that was still bound to her parents – to Arafinwë and Eärwen, each reigning over bright Tirion in hallowed Aman beyond. Though the Sea laid between them – pale in comparison to her own stubborn pride and blatant refusal to take the pardon the Valar offered, for she had committed no crime to warrant such a gracious forgiveness - she looked with another set of eyes. She looked with the eyes of her Sight, and saw . . .

. . . Arafinwë's surprised gaze . . . grey-blue eyes, just like her own, blinking and widening . . . a breath held . . . her father placing down both quill and parchment so that he could grasp the connection she sought and flame it higher . . .

Artanis? She felt, more than heard, his voice whisper across her mind. Though she would admit it not, the merest touch of their minds turned all of her great strength to dust before the wind. Brokenly, she leaned into his mental presence like a sapling finding its roots in a storm. She did not fully comprehend the true weight of her own grief until opening herself up to her father's soul, and now . . .

She felt warmth and love consume her as Arafinwë filled her with a peace of spirit – and all of her fears about her parent's anger . . . their anger and their disappointment . . . faded when she felt love instead . . . when she felt a concern so strong that it rippled across her soul, even across so great the distance between them.

Child? he whispered again, as if fearful of her answer, What is it? What is this burden that swallows you? She could feel him search against her mind, a lifetime of dark deeds and even darker hours having taught him to expect the worst, until she opened her thoughts to let him see . . .

"Atar," Galadriel whispered her reply to the wind. Her voice was a choked, hoarse sound from her mouth. "What I treasure most in this world comes to you, and I cannot yet follow where she goes. I would ask . . . nay, I would beg of you to . . ."

Cherish her, she let her spirit ask what her mouth could not say. Give her a home while she is sundered from all that she has loved and held dear . . . Give her love, in my stead, until . . .

. . . until I too can return home, she finally admitted the desire of her heart in her mind, and she felt her father turn as such a light in her mind . . . such a warmth against the darkness.

When she opened her eyes, the connection broken, she looked westward again. This time, she did not have to strain her eyes to see: Aman was as a light on the horizon, a harkening promise against a serene backdrop of sky and sea. She looked, and she could feel the light as it grew even warmer still.

Not yet, she thought as she turned from the song of the sea. But someday, she knew . . . someday soon.

Chapter Text

Architect

As with every building, there was a first stone laid. One, and then the next.

"You know the sword," Findekáno said one afternoon, his voice clear in the silence that had previously defined his corner of Tirion's royal library. It was not a question, but rather an observation spoken as fact. His cousin was a quiet child as a whole, Maitimo had long observed, with his wide eyes taking in everything around him in silence before speaking with soft certainty. What had at first been an oddity when compared to his family of live flames was now a comfort to Maitimo, and he enjoyed seeing Findekáno gain his confidence with each passing season. Bemused, he looked up from his work to frankly stare at the younger boy, a red brow raised in a question of his own.

"There is no need to learn such a skill in blissful Aman," he replied neutrally, already well knowing what Findekáno's father would have to say on the matter. In that dynamic, Maitimo would meddle not. 

At his answer, Findekáno played absently with the quill in his hands. His letters were already neat and precise across the parchment, and sooner than he would like, Maitimo knew that he would have nothing more he could teach him.

"Yet, your father teaches you, regardless?" Findekáno pressed.

"Some are not as content with the stillness of these lands as others," Maitimo replied evenly. Even though not expressly forbidden, many looked on the art of steel with critical eyes. But his answer was only half where the other ever trusted hearing the whole from him; he found that he did not care for the not-truth on his lips. "Yes," he answered frankly. "My father has taught me the sword."

"My atar," Findekáno was wont to speak even more softly when his words were about his family. Maitimo looked, and wondered how the fire of Finwë could be as smoke in the eyes of the child before him. "My atar says that such skills are needless, here away from the lands of our Awakening. He says that they are an insult to the peace that the Valar provide."

"And what do you think?" Maitimo asked carefully. Findekáno pressed the tip of his quill to his mouth as he considered his reply.

"I think that my father keeps one of grandfather's swords above his desk; one from the Great Journey, stained with the blood of Dark Vala's creatures in the earliest of days. I think that he keeps it there to remember. I know, too, that he practices when he thinks that none can see. And, I . . ."

Maitimo waited, expectant. He knew what the child would ask next, and, for some reason he could not quite define within his heart, the request made him uneasy. Three brothers already - and his parents already intent on another - and he had so far helped them all wrap small hands around sword hilts. And yet . . . There was something different about this, he felt with a wisp of knowing; a path split here before him, and to walk it . . .

"Will you teach me?" Findekáno finally asked. His words were frank and abrupt, the hesitation gone from his voice once his decision was made. He stared, looking him squarely in the eye as he put his longing out, stark and whole, between them. Maitimo looked, and imagined that he could see, there . . .

 . . . Finwë's fire, he thought. He found himself nodding his assent even before he made the conscious decision to do so, the road now chosen before him. "Yes, Káno," his reply was softer than he first intended it to be. "I will teach you."


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Findekáno bruised. It was the way of the sword - of life, in truth - and yet Maitimo watched the child pull himself up from the dust each and every time he was knocked down, no matter how much his body ached and his arms trembled. Maitimo watched him with pride filling the marrow of his bones; with affection defining the soft places about his heart.

Later, when the battle-fever had worn down to nothing, and each pain was felt ten-fold from their infliction, he sought the boy out to make sure that none of his wounds had settled too deeply.

"You will heal," he gave his diagnosis as the boy picked at the new calluses he was developing on the palms of his hands. "For now, each mark merely shows where a lesson was learned. A stone here," he touched a scrape on Findekáno's cheek, "and a stone here," next he touched a bruise on his arm, purple and angry, "and you shall have a tower built before you in no time at all."

"For now," Findekáno muttered, biting his tongue, "it just hurts."

Maitimo could not help himself. He smiled. "Aye, for now it hurts." He pressed playfully at the bruise, and the child made a face before swatting his hand away. "But that too will see a wall of its own built."



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He felt as a strong tower torn from its cornerstone in those first few months after being proclaimed strong enough to move from his bed. He was a ruin of a fortress, with once strong stones turned to dust and its mortar to ash on the wind. The foundation was still there – his body remembered how to move, how to fight, of course . . . but it was now missing a crucial piece. He was no longer whole.

Maedhros had to remember to fight with his left hand rather than his right; he could not block and give a blow at once now, it was one and then the other. He could not use two hands to lend weight to his thrusts, his strength had to come from his arm and shoulder now, and the difference in technique was almost too much to bear. His body was a shell of his former strength - the loss of his hand aside. He had gone too long without food and water and movement during his imprisonment, and that was the kindest of his injuries. White lines criss-crossed his skin, telling tales of Morgoth's torments – each one more and more creative than the last when he refused to give the Dark One the reaction he sought - leaving his body as a map of pain and ruin. There were times when he did not care to bring it into the light of day; there were times when the daylight burned, away from the shadows of the north; sometimes, even worse than that, he blinked and imagined that he was back there, and he could not -

 . . . sometimes, he could only think that it would have been easier if Fingon had put his sword through his heart, rather than through the skin and bone of his wrist. Sometimes, he thought . . .

But Maedhros had no time to think then, because Fingon was attacking, stepping to the left but striking from the right - and like a fool he fell for it. Instead of cutting with the blade, Fingon slapped his shoulder with the flat of his sword. He did not pull his strength, and Maedhros stumbled before taking a knee on the ground, his balance lost.

"Even Idril could have blocked that – and that is an insult to the lady," Fingon raised a dark brow in disapproval. He circled his cousin's spot on the ground, casting shadows as he turned. "Turvo's daughter is a terribly fast little thing, and she delights in reminding all of it."

"I taught you that feint, years ago," Maedhros muttered darkly. "My body remembers, but it is slow to answer as I bid." His breath worked too quickly to give air to his lungs. His blood pounded, not from the fight, but from fatigue. Maedhros felt his top lip draw back from his teeth, disgusted as he was with himself.

Finwë's fire was he, and all that flame had served was to keep him amongst the living - and only that just barely. He had survived, and yet, what right did he even have to that? What right did he have to endure when so many others had . . .

. . . but no. He squeezed his eyes closed; he forced his heart to calm. The troublesome organ still raced in his chest, however, and its frenetic pace was wearying.

A shadow fell before his eyes as Fingon came to a stop in front of him. The sunlight glittered off the lake behind them; Maedhros could see the light as bright splashes of colour behind the dark of his eyes. For a moment, Fingon blocked the sun, and Maedhros opened his eyes to see that the other had knelt in front of him. There was concern in his eyes – his pale grey eyes, the same as his own – and Maedhros looked away. As his eyes moved down, he caught glimpse of the gold braided into his hair. Fingon had not worn it as such when he had rescued him from Thangorodrim, that much Maedhros remembered. But, now . . .

He swallowed, and his throat ached. He did not deserve such a token, he thought distantly. Such a mark of affection. How could he, when . . .

"A stone here," Fingon whispered, and then Maedhros felt his cousin's callused fingertips as they traced the hollow line of his cheek, much too thin as it was. "And then a stone here," Fingon's sword hand trailed a gentle caress around the ruined stump of his right arm. It was the first time anyone beyond a healer had touched him so – even Maedhros ignored that new part of his body with a childish determination, as if by pretending that it did not exist, he could make it so. The newly grown nerve endings trembled, unused to the sensation of touch as they were. "And soon," Fingon let his hand fall away, "a tower shall be built."

A moment passed, one and then two. Maedhros swallowed, looking from the light on the lake and the gold twinkling teasingly in the black braids before him. He let his gaze rest anywhere but on Fingon's eyes.

"Valiant, they call you," Maedhros finally said. His words were soft, given beneath his breath. "Better had you taken the title of Wise instead."

"There are others better suited to the spouting of inspired phrases," Fingon gave drolly. Maedhros could hear the smile in his voice as he rose gracefully to his feet. "Better am I with repeating things once heard."

Slowly, Maedhros followed Fingon's lead. He picked up his sword once more, the muscles in his arm weak as he made a fist of his fingers about the hilt. But they were strengthening, even he could feel that much. The abused muscles and tired bones ached . . . but it was an ache that healed. It was an ache that promised growth, if he let it.

"Now then, Russandol," Fingon saluted him, a playful ease to his movements as his steel caught the sun. "About that tower . . ."

Chapter Text

Different

She had not known that it was possible to be this cold.

Before the Helcaraxë, Irissë knew of snow, but only ever on the glittering white slopes of Taniquetil. She remembered playing at her great-uncle Ingwë's house as a child, lying on the snow-covered ground and creating winged creatures with her arms and legs before rising to pelt her brothers with balls of the cold white powder. She remembered how Turukáno's face would turn in mock annoyance as he brushed his clothes dry; how Findekáno would scowl in mock outrage before returning her attacks with those of his own - pelting her retreating back with snowballs before dropping her into the snowbank on the side of the path, she screaming out her laughter all the while their elders watched them with smiles on their faces.

Now, Irissë could not remember how she had ever been delighted by the cold. Now she only knew the tightness of her stomach, groaning in hunger and in thirst. Her skin stung from where it was stretched across her bones, made thin and brittle where it was exposed to the cold around her. She could not feel her fingers or her toes, but she was fortunate that she had not yet developed the bite of frost that had already taken so much from so many. She was bone-weary, nearly paralyzed by the cold; she was in pain for the want of her stomach; but she did not fall in her path as others walked over her still form, leaving her to freeze in their wake. Her blood still beat through her veins, and though its pulse was slow it was enough to let her know that she was alive. She was alive. Alive as . . .

She swallowed, looking ahead to where Turukáno's gait was slow and stunned at the head of their host. At his side, even cheerful Itarillë was quiet, her small and pale face drawn with her grief. Strangely, though she was only a child, the Ice affected her the least in a physical sense – so much so that their followers had taken to calling her Silver-foot for the ease of her passing over the frozen wasteland around them. And yet, her niece had scarce spoken two words together since her mother's death. Her bright blue eyes were haunted and numb – much too young for the tender count of her years. Irissë could feel the gaping wound in her spirit like the throbbing of a wound, and her own fëa contracted in an echoing pang ever time she looked upon her brother-daughter.

Turukáno had not wanted to come, Irissë remembered, feeling guilt rise up in her throat for her own role in persuading him. He had been pressured by all, and his wife and daughter had refused to be left behind when he made the decision to follow his father's family into the unknown. Such courage was a rarity - even her own mother had forsaken the journey at her father's side, and Anairë was far from the only one to let go both husband and child to the Hither Lands of Middle-earth. But Turukáno had pushed aside his misgivings, and now Elenwë was gone - taken by the restless ocean rolling beneath the endless Ice all around them. Now, Turukáno walked as one numb, and Írissë could not quite imagine the light ever returning to her brother's eyes as it had been before.

Irissë fisted her fingers, and found that her anger kept her stride from faltering. Her fury kept her face warm, and her hurt kept feeling to the tips of her fingers.

Tyelkormo, she hissed within the confines of her mind, the mantra filling her instead of bread. When I cross this desolate place, so help me . . .

Yet, this time her thoughts were interrupted when a soft step crunched on the snow next to her. She glanced to the side, having energy for little else, and then only blinking her greeting to Findekáno. For a moment, she let her gaze linger, taking in the tight set of her eldest brother's mouth . . . the stone line of his jaw, before turning her gaze back to the endlessly white path ahead. She trained her eyes on an unseen place on the horizon, and imagined that she could see the far shore they grappled to reach.

She counted out five heartbeats, and then ten, before glancing at her brother again. Something was wrong . . . something was different, but she could not put her finger on precisely what the difference was. He had been quiet since Elenwë's death, but there was now a dark cast to his eyes as he stared unblinking at the never-ending stretch of the Ice ahead. He muttered beneath his breath at times, as if rehersing what he would say if he ever . . . if her ever . . . but she closed her eyes, unable to complete her thought. She knew that look in his eyes, she thought, for it was the same look she held in her own . . . for they were the only ones amongst both Nolofinwë and Arafinwë's children to love . . .

Again the thought rest, incomplete within her mind.

After thirty heartbeats, she realized what was missing from him. The difference was so stark that she stopped, letting the crowd of bodies shoulder past her, all going on by without hardly a glance. Some muttered under their breath as they walked. Some moaned. Far in the back of their group, one or two voices tried to rise in song in defiance to the chill in the air. They never made it further than a verse before faltering.

Findekáno stopped with her, a brow raised in question. She opened her mouth once, then twice before shutting it. She could hear the cold click of her teeth as they snapped together.

"What is it, Irissë?" Findekáno asked. Even his strong voice was a whisper on the air. His breath frosted between them.

Irissë hugged her arms closer to her body. Her eyes fixed upon the black braids that peeked out from the fur-lined hood of his cloak. Their color was blank and dull. Snowflakes frosted the plaits with a layer of ice, but beneath . . .

"Your gold is gone," she said frankly. Even those few words took all of her effort to speak. It was a great task - flexing her throat and passing the breath of her lungs out as sound. She pressed her fingers together, seeking the heat of her own body to warm her.

"My hands are numb," Findekáno's explanation was simple and frank, but the delay before his answer was too long – even when attributed to the cold. She watched, and saw the way he flinched - for he was never one to hide his true emotions from those he loved. "I could not manage the plaiting," he felt the need to elaborate, "and so I did not bother."

Her brother had been a youth nearly grown at the time of her birth. As long as Irissë could remember, Findekáno had been close in friendship with Maitimo, son of Fëanáro – too close, some would say – but her brother's friendship with their half-cousin was something she had always known and accepted for what it was. It was something she could imagine no differently. She had been young, very young, at the time, but she still remembered coming across the two in the gardens behind her grandfather's home in Tirion. She remembered staring, entranced by the red, red colour of Maitimo's hair, like Laurelin when her light fell at night to set the horizon aflame. She remembered wondering how the colour could grow from the head of any Elf, even as Maitimo flicked one of her brother's braids, fingering the golden thread that Findekáno had entwined there earlier.

"I had only spoken in jest," Maitimo said, but she could hear the smile in his voice when he spoke.

Her brother had shrugged, pleased with the reaction he had garnered, and at the memory she tried to remember the last time Findekáno had looked so at peace . . . so at ease. When had last he looked so . . . content in his own skin? Irissë tried to remember, but could only remember the Ice.

Now the braids were barren and black before her, and she felt . . . empty at the loss. Tyelkormo, she thought again, but this time his name was as a sigh. This time it was edged in grief. Why? she wondered, but even her thoughts were as whispers.

She needed to understand, she reflected numbly. She needed to know . . .

She would cross this Ice if it was the last thing she did, she swore to herself. She would cross the Ice and then stare the other straight in the eye and demand her answer of him. She would take it from his flesh, if need be, but until then . . .

"When we stop tonight I will help you, if you would like," Irissë offered. She meant for the words to come out strong, but they were only tired. Tired, and hollow.

"Do not worry yourself," Findekáno tried to smile, but the motion was forced. Mouths could not make such shapes on the Helcaraxë, she knew. "I have no need of such frivolities here."

"When we reach the other side, then?" she asked, taking her hands from their warm cocoon inside of her cloak to hold his – for warmth, she told herself. For neither of them truly needed the comfort. To ache would be to give them a victory, and she could not . . . she would not . . .

"Perhaps then, sister," Findekáno whispered, but the words were forced to her ears. "Perhaps."

Chapter Text

Baby

She was a daughter of time's beginning, and he but a sapling to the great oak tree of her days. And yet he listened like no other, letting her enchantments snare in his bones, in his very heart, the long years of the world passing them by until a whispered command said: you must let him go.

Melian released her king, but found that she could not release herself . . . and so, when she gave him back his spirit, she gave up her own for a body of flesh and bone - vowing never to be parted from him until time's end.

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Child

Her daughter's birth took every last bit of strength from her, leaving her weary - for while the Valar had allowed such a union, they had blessed it not, and such a birth was unprecedented. Within her fortress of flesh, her spirit ached, even as her heart sang for Lúthien's arrival.

"She is not a son," Melian said, grieved for knowing that she would not be able to bear a heir to her husband's throne.

"But she is perfect," Thingol breathed, near reverent as he held his daughter for the first - their child of heaven and earth. "I could of hoped for nothing more."

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Teenager

Lúthien grew to a beauty unmatched - even though one would not recognize her for the mud in her hair, the scratches on her face, lost as she had been by Doriath's border. She was returned safe and sound, full of questions and curiosity for the world beyond, but the whole encounter threw Thingol's heart into a fright - leaving Melian to sooth his fears.

"What are you going to do when the time comes to let her go - lock her in a tower?" Melian asked, trying to jest.

"If I have to," he answered, but his smile failed to reach his eyes.

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Adult

Her years passed; her spirit grew into her body.

Her father's winds called to her from the West, and her mother's stars glittered at night, ever harkening her home. Melian sung, but no longer could she become that song with her body of flesh so surrounding her. Instead, she spent her days teaching her daughter the secrets of the Maiar. She whispered, and Lúthien learned, and Thingol watched them both with a sad smile touching upon his mouth – the look of one who had long kept the unkeepable.

"Do you ever miss it?" he whispered that night. "Being more?"

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Elderly

Elu's mind was closed to her. He feared her answer, she realized. For a moment, neither breathed.

She hesitated, remembering the peace of Lórien's gardens and the unsurpassed glory of Ilúvatar's music. But then she thought of the touch of flesh on flesh – the sweet thrill of her hand in his and the warmth of her daughter's embrace. She thought of loving, and being loved . . .

. . . how could the glory of Valinor ever compare?

Until the end of time – all of my days, she whispered against his mind. I promised, remember?

Aloud, she answered, "What could be more than this?"

Chapter Text

Alike

The markets of Armenelos bustled in the mid-day sun. Though they were some leagues away from the coast, the land-locked city seemed to smell of salt and sea-wind, as all of Númenor did. Alongside the scent of brine, the aroma of spices and roasting chestnuts rose from the stalls they passed, entreating the senses as much as the bright colors and exotic wears of the vendors vied to do. The shops held everything from metal-craft and wooden toys; seeds from the exotic Isle of Tol Eressëa; and the farmers' yield from their season in the fields. The King's City was all graceful white buildings and spiraling mosaics of colored glass, with the architecture designed to capture the brilliance of the sunlight and the never ending stretch of seashore surrounding the Island-kingdom. It was beautiful in its infancy, and stood to grow all the more so as the years passed on.

Númenor truly was a gift to its people, with the sons of Men made mighty as they stood together as a nation, great and strong, for the first time in their history. It was . . . pride he felt for his brother's accomplishments. All of Elrond's misgivings for his twin's choices were selfish in nature, and as such, he tried not to think of them often. Instead, he pushed aside his darker thoughts and let his brother show to him the changes that had been made since his last visit. Elros was all too happy to shirk aside his crown for the day in order to walk the city streets in simple garb, and the sight was common enough that many bowed and greeted their sire as he walked by with the practice of long ease. Elros had always been quick to smile, always ready to share both his humor and his warmth, and his people responded with love and admiration.

While they traveled at a sedate pace, Elros' youngest two children ran through the streets with quick and eager steps, ducking into shops and dancing between the lumbering carts while trailing laughter in their wake. Vardamir, the third and eldest, trailed some steps behind them all, with his nose pressed in the pages of a book as he walked. Nearly sixteen summers old, and a miniature replica of his father with his straight black hair and pale grey eyes, Vardamir was set apart in look from the crowd of Men around him, all the while moving with an easy grace reminiscent of his father's once-people. The two younger boys, Manwendil and Atanalcar, took after their mother in look with their curling brown hair and sea-blue eyes. Each child was endearingly quick and joyfully bright . . . and painfully mortal with their marching steps and eager eyes.

"See, it is as I told you in my letters," Elros clapped him on the shoulder when his stare once again turned to Vardamir. "He is like you to the point of being uncanny, is he not?"

"I was not always that . . . preoccupied," Elrond protested as Vardamir nearly walked into a stall selling melons before he realized the obstacle in his path. Yet his protest was half-hearted, at best.

Elros snorted. "If I had a coin for every time I kept you from walking into a wall while you were 'not preoccupied', the coffers of Númenor would be thrice what they are now."

Elrond raised a brow, but did not bother countering the other when he spoke the truth. He had brought an entire chest of books and scrolls from Gil-galad's library in Lindon, and Vardamir's eyes had turned alight at the gift - as if he had been given a chest of precious stones instead. The youth had wasted no time before turning through the collection with near reverent fingers, looking through first one book and then another, unable to decide which one to read through first.

While Elrond only needed to bring the written word to earn the affection of his eldest nephew, the younger boys had not even allowed him to fully disembark before asking him for stories. Tell us again, what you saw when the Blessed Mariner felled the Black Dragon from his ship in the sky . . . . Tell us again, how Gil-galad the High-king spoke to Ulmo himself when your ship was caught in the Ossë-storm off of the Bay of Balar . . . Tell us again, how Maedhros the One-handed slew two legions of Morgoth's Orcs to recover you and Ada from their clutches when Amon Ereb was taken . . . Again, again, again! they asked with laughing young voices, even as Elros furrowed his brow and protested that he had told them the same stories time and again, yet they had never once clamored for repeats.

The little ones now laughed as they fell into step with their older brother again. Each one tugged on one of Vardamir's sleeves to get his attention, all the while rapidly waving their small hands as they told their sibling about what exciting ware had caught their eyes. Patiently, Vardamir looked away from his book to pay attention to his brothers' words, but his eyes turned back as soon as the children found something else in the market to amuse them.

"We are praying for a daughter next," Elros said as he watched his sons. "Azrë has told me in no uncertain terms that this will be the last child we have, and as dearly as I love my sons . . . A daughter, with black hair and her mother's blue eyes . . . can you imagine anything better than that? Perhaps I am too pointed in my prayers, but the Valar can be gracious at times, and I intend to be as specific as possible so that nothing is left to chance."

Slowly, Elrond nodded, all the while trying not to give away just how surreal the whole interaction was to him. He was still shy of his second century – little more than a child grown in the eyes of the Elves, and here his brother was, the same age as he, and a King of Men and a husband of many years, poised to welcome his fourth child into the world, at that. Four, such a thing was almost unheard of amongst Elvenkind . . . his kind, Elrond had to remind himself, for Elros was of Men now, and time was moving much too fast by his mortal allotment of years. Time raced by, while he . . .

Tell us again, how Maedhros the One-handed saved you and our great-great-grandfather from two whole legions of Morgoth's Orcs! Elrond had a flash of premonition, and for a moment, it hurt to breathe. A plunge from a cliffside and a Straight Road into the West? A fiery chasm, a lonely stretch of seashore, and an Oath unbreakable? A choice made to embrace mortal-doom? It made no difference either way - all things faded and all connections proved to be for naught for the end, this he well knew. Rather, he told himself that he was fortunate to learn these lessons young . . . and yet, even for each lesson learned, he still did not quite know how to harden his heart. For he loved Vardamir dearly - loved him even though someday he too would lie down in the ever-sleep of Men . . . someday all too soon. With certainty, Elrond knew that he would love each and every one of his brother's descendants as they lived and died, over and over and over again . . . no matter the distance of years and the sea itself between them.

He swallowed, and could taste the bite of brine on the air.

"You look as if you have seen a ghost," Elros remarked when the silence between them stretched. They paused in the shade of a grocer's stall, with Vardamir coming to stand a few steps away as he flipped to the next page in his book.

Elrond looked over at his twin, trying to assure the other that all was well . . . but he found that he could only see the streak of grey at Elros' temples . . . the laugh-lines that crinkled from the corners of his eyes. The changes were subtle, but they were there for any eye to see. They were as thieves, saying: this is how he is mortal. This is how he shall age. This is how he will die - die much too soon while you live on. On and on and on . . .

"Ah, these," Elros realized where his gaze had fallen. He pushed up at his wrinkles in an exaggerated show of self-consciousness, his mouth quirking up in a rueful grin to lament, "I know, they are rather unbecoming when compared to the ever-young faces you are used to. And yet, we still do not look so very different. Oh, someday you shall come to visit, and they will mistake you for my son rather than confusing you with me - but, if we are very clever, perhaps we can fool them, even still . . ."

Elrond knew that tone of voice - he knew that it promised mischief with its ever syllable . . . but he was still caught unprepared when Elros reached into an open sack of flour and took out a handful. Unceremoniously, he darted over to smear the white powder in his hair, turning the black color there as 'grey' as his own would someday be.

"There," Elros said, smiling in triumph as he patted his hands together to clean them of the flour. "We look alike, once again."

Elrond blinked, first in shock, and then in amusement as he tried to brush away as much of the flour as he could. He only succeeded in spreading the flour to the shoulders of his tunic. "Indeed, the resemblance is now uncanny," Elrond responded in a level tone, even as he espied what he needed further in the grocer's stall. Elros followed his gaze, and held up his hands in protest.

"Ah, I am sorry -" Elros tried to dodge, but he was not quick enough as Elrond picked up a jar of squid ink and dumped it over his twin's head without blinking.

"There," Elrond said smartly. "Now we look alike."

Elros scowled mightily, even as he brushed his wet bangs back from his face. "Ai, that was unkind. At least you do not smell like fish now," he complained. "Squid ink, really?"

"Does the great sea-faring king protest a kindred spirit from the deep?" Elrond affected bewilderment at the idea. "I rather thought you liked the scent of fish, brother."

Elros' glower only darkened, and he stepped forward dangerously – his eyes looking for what else he could use in the shop, before a voice from behind stopped him.

"Ai! You little Orc!" came Vardamir's surprised exclamation. "Adar! Manwendil poured cocoa powder on my book!"

Elros looked over, eyes wide in surprise, even as Manwendil sheepishly put the empty jar of cocoa powder down. "He has hair like ours now," the younger boy said sheepishly as Atanalcar laughed gleefully beside him. The youngest boy's hair was white with flour too – and it clouded on the air around him as he hunched over with his giggles. Vardamir was not as amused as he tried to wipe off the books pages – his siblings were not tall enough to pour the powder on his head, and throwing the cocoa up had just splattered his face and the book in his hands with the brown dust.

Elros' face made an odd contortion as he tried to keep from smiling, and failed. He could not keep his face stern as he choked on his laughter. Next, he tried to hide his look behind his hand. He made a face when he realized that his hands too were covered in the squid ink, and doing so brought the smell right to his nose. Of course, that only had him laughing harder. Elrond tried to school his face into impassiveness, but doubted that he was successful – the flour in his hair certainly bellied any effort he made at imperviousness, anyhow.

"Ai," Elros scolded halfheartedly. "Next time, do not as I do, young ones – it shall only land you in mischief otherwise. Your mother will have cross words with us all when we return home now."

"Because you are in-cor-i-gable?" little Atanalcar chirped, the flour on his hair clouding on the air as he bounced on the balls of his feet.

"Incorrigible," Vardamir repeated slowly for his brother, but a smile quirked at the corner of his mouth as he worked out the bigger word for the young one.

"Yes! Incorrigible," Atanalcar exclaimed. "Thank-you."

Elros scowled, even as he turned to the bemused shop-keeper to pay for the mess they had made, and more. "Aye, incorrigible – it sounds like something she would say." But his feigned annoyance only lasted until he reached down to pick up Atanalcar, and they all turned from the shop.

"You smell like fish, Ada," the little boy crinkled his nose, and at that, Elrond could not help himself. He laughed. He laughed and laughed and laughed - laughed as he had not in much too long a time, at that. Little sharing his humor, Elros only glared mightily at him all the while.

"Yes, yes; I hope you are amused," Elros muttered. "I shall bear your derision with dignity."

Elrond fell into step next to his twin as they turned back towards the palace. He clapped a hand on his shoulder. "I shall miss these moments, brother," he said, with all seriousness in his voice. The words were a truth, rather than a grief, and Elros' smiled sadly upon hearing them.

"Then we must endeavor to have as many such moments as possible in the time we have, no?" Elros replied, smiling even underneath the weight of his mortal-doom.

"I do believe," Elrond agreed, willing to believe the words in his heart even as he spoke them from his mouth, "that there is wisdom in that."

Chapter Text

Loyalty

Visits from Fëanáro to Tirion were few, but Arafinwë awaited each one eagerly. This time, he carefully watched the way their father embraced his eldest son when he arrived; observing the way Fëanáro stiffly suffered through the affection before melting into Finwë's embrace as if he had no bones, his eyes glittering like a fire without kindle. The knuckles of his hands were white as they curved into their father's robes, if, but for a moment, reminding Arafinwë of the way he himself would cling to his father after a black dream in the night.

Sometimes, it was as though his brother was a flame, unable to be caught by hands lest one was burnt in return, he thought, and the likeness saddened him. Later, Arafinwë summoned his courage and carefully copied his Atar move for move, imagining that he tried to catch a ray of light in his hands as he wrapped his small arms around his brother's legs as best he could. His heart was full as he thought that maybe this time -

- but Fëanáro only reached down to gently pry his fingers away. To Arafinwë, the look in his eyes was no suffocating flame then, but rather a shadow, tired and cold.

Arafinwë looked at his brother's retreating back, unsure how to define the queasy sort of hurt he felt inside . . . like a wound left open to reveal bone beneath.

"Silly Arafinwë," Nolofinwë came up from behind him, having watched the whole exchange. "You know that Fëanáro lets none but Atar touch him."

"But he's our brother," Arafinwë protested, confused.

"He is Atar's son," Nolofinwë corrected, "And that is the only tie to this family he will let touch his heart."

"But why?" Arafinwë asked in bewilderment, unable to understand.

Nolofinwë's mouth made a sad line. "Loyalty," he answered, but when pressed he would say no more.

Chapter Text

Catch

It came upon her slowly, like a whisper of the wind before the rains came.

The cold season arrived for the first time since their coming to dwell in Tol Galen. There, Lúthien sang as she passed through the woods, but no longer did her voice have the power to turn the snows to melt, to turn the sleeping winter-trees towards a blossoming of spring flowers. Her voice was clear and lovely, and somewhere above her a bird trilled in reply to her song . . . but that was all. She trailed her fingertips over the trunks of the trees as she passed, and imagined that she could feel their great branches turn towards her . . . but no longer did they dance. No longer did they bow.

She now had to wear boots and gloves in deference to the cold of the season, even as mild as it was. The first time she had felt the chill to the air, she had blinked, trying to decipher what the sensation she felt was. She had only ever been cold in the halls of dark Angband before. She had known the chill of spirit that came from the breath of Mandos, but this . . .

This was what it was to be mortal, she realized; this was natural in her new body. And so, she adapted. Her dresses became thicker in reply to the new demands of her body. She wore fur lined cloaks and heavy wool instead of the light Elvish weaves had in Doriath. Her skin still prickled with gooseflesh when she walked outdoors, however; her breath frosted on the air as it turned towards winter.

Then, she awoke one morning to find that her eyes were warm. Her skin felt flushed and her nose ran – all terribly inconvenient symptoms that bloomed into a full blown sickness by the end of the day, with her stomach angry at her every breath and her body burning as with fire.

This was . . .

"A cold," Beren explained simply, dabbing at her brow with a cool cloth. "They come often at the start of the winter season, but you should be well within a day or two."

How terribly . . .

"It's a curse of Men," Beren said softly. "One of the new disadvantages of the body you wear."

Lúthien made a tired noise in the back of her throat, trying to hide just how horrible she felt from her husband. Beren still came to guilt over the smallest of things when it came to her sharing his human fate, and she had no wish to cause him pain now - not when she had naught of the strength to talk him out of his doubts and fears. The sheets stuck to her sweating skin as she moved; her throat felt like tree bark as it scrapped against branches.

"It is not . . . too trying," she managed to croak her words out. Her voice sounded much as her throat felt. She narrowed her eyes at the sound, vexed.

"Oh?" Beren raised a brow. "Then Mandos was kind to you," he teased, a gentle humor peaking his voice. "For it is terribly inconvenient for the rest of us."

She snorted, wishing that she had the energy to swat at his arm. Instead, her fingers tightened in the sheets.

"I daresay that this part of our tale will not make it into the songs," Beren remarked as he stirred a combination of herbs into a kettle of boiling water. She watched him with interest as he did so – for, for every malady Mankind had to face, they seemingly had a dozen solutions and more. It was something that fascinated her – the perseverance of Men, the resolve . . .

She tried to hold on to that same resolve in her own bones. She tried to make it her own.

"There are no lovely words for a minstrel to describe this," Lúthien agreed. "I know not what their lyric would be."

"Oh, I don't know," Beren said easily, trying to distract her from just how terrible she felt. "You can rhyme 'snot' with 'mortal lot', and 'heal' with 'unflinching zeal'."

"Please," her laughter came as a raw sound from her throat. "Even the trees have ears – do not give them ideas."

"No? I shall have to think of something better then," Beren teased. With only one hand, his motions were careful as he stirred honey into her cup, and then handed her the mug of tea. She took it with gratitude, taking note of the herbs he used within, and resolving to ask him about it later. She wished to be prepared next time.

A moment passed between them. He dipped the cloth in cool water again and dabbed it at her forehead, his dark blue eyes soft with feeling – even with her nose red and her hair a tangled mess about her head. She saw a familiar curtain fall there, and before it could descend, she said, "I have been ill before." There was something like pride in her voice with the statement.

"Oh?" Beren raised a brow.

"Indeed I have," she coughed into her hand. "Daeron and I were young, very young, but thought ourselves to be quite grown up – so grown up that we stole a bottle of wine at the feast that welcomed Anor to the sky . . . Thranduil and Celeborn found us, and Thranduil took it upon himself to teach us a lesson about spirits that were stronger than us."

Beren lifted a hand before his mouth to hide his smile, easily seeing where her story was going, but waiting for her to tell it.

"He out drank us until we were insensible," Lúthien revealed, making a face at the memory. "Celeborn helped me back to my rooms later, and Mother came up with a potion that night so that Father would not know the trouble I got myself into . . . but it was a good lesson. I never abused the vine again."

Beren had a glass of what the Elves called wine once while in Menegroth, at the feast that celebrated their wedding, before realizing that his idea of wine and the Doriathrim's idea of wine varied greatly. Even half of that one glass had left him unsteady on his feet, his vision blurry, Lúthien remembered. She wondered if that would be much the same for her, now.

"This is not terribly different," Lúthien said, a note of stubbornness lining her voice. "Not at all."

"Again," Beren stroked a soothing hand through her hair. "Mandos was kind to you."

Her attempt at laughter turned into a chest-wracking cough, once again. Frustrating, she coughed into her hand, waiting for her body's traitorous reaction to be done. She was exhausted after her fit, and leaned back against her nest of pillow s with a sigh.

"You should try to sleep now," Beren counseled as he took the empty mug from her. "Sleep helps the sickness pass faster."

Whatever he put in the tea made her drowsy, she thought. Her eyes felt heavy; her limbs like stone. What a surprise that had been in those first days, discovering just how much sleep a mortal body needed, especially when they already had too few years to spend time in unwakefulness . . .

She made a noise in the back of her throat that was agreement, and felt herself drifting off before she felt the bed sag underneath an added weight. Familiar arms wrapped around her, and she blinked, groggy, before she turned to her husband in protest. "You should not stay," she said gently. "If you were to catch this -"

" - and leave you to your first sickness alone?" Beren shook his head. "There is no choice, dear one. Not for me."

She swallowed, but did not have the strength to protest further. Instead she settled into his hold, her head finding it's familiar place against his chest as she burrowed closer, arms and legs tangling with the ease of long intimacy. Her heart slowed in her chest. It was a warmth she felt then, a warmth that settled bone deep, fighting away the uncomfortable heat of her sickness. She had to admit, she did feel remarkably better being so entwined with him.

She would make him leave later, Lúthien thought drowsily. Yet, for now . . .

She awoke that morning feeling much revived. Her limbs felt movable. Her nose was dry and her throat was tender, but no longer was it rubbed raw. She sat up and felt at her skin, finding it warm to the touch, but the bite of her fever gone. She stood – too quickly it seemed, for she felt lightheaded a moment later, yet that was a small symptom when compared to how she had felt the night before.

Well, she thought, trying to look on her body's rebellion with eyes of good humor. That was . . .

She looked down to see Beren still asleep, but not comfortably so, it took her a moment to realize. His breath was heavy and congested in his chest - a now familiarly telling sound to her ears. She bit at her lip, and reached down to touch his brow, finding it warm to her touch – too warm.

"Foolish man," she said, but there was fondness in her voice, even so.

Lúthien turned to the kettle, putting the water on to boil, even as she called to mind the herbs that Beren had used the day before. It was a process – long and slow, but she was learning. Slowly, she was starting to make a home in her new form . . . in her new life.

Humanity was as a sickness, she thought, and it was catching.

Chapter Text

Sky

Artanis first met the Queen Melian in a glade filled with twilight. The Maia was as the Ainur of Valinor, and yet . . . there was something different about Melian. There was an earthiness about her, bellying the celestial might of her spirit - all of which was tied to the King at her side, he with his steel colored hair and his gaze so much like Olwë's that it hurt as she remembered the Swan Havens and their red, red quays.

Transfixed, Artanis wondered, but could not understand how such a might as the sky could ever have lowered itself to love the earth.

.

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Sun

Celeborn had seen the sun rise for the first time, outshining even the stars. Now, the maiden they called Artanis brought with her a second sunrise – crowned as she was with such a golden light, her eyes like the sky which the sun so brightened. She wore the day as Melian wore the twilight, and for the first Celeborn understood Doriath's founding tale – of magic and love and lust and time standing still as whole centuries passed the Maia and her stolen King by, caught as he now was in that same spell.

Galadriel, he named her, and to him, Galadriel she remained.

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Moon

"You, dear sister, are quite smitten."

"Speak not when it makes you sound foolish, Finrod."

"You have been ignoring Thingol's kinsman since the feast began," he ignored her. "Instead, poor Sírnoth thinks that you grant him quite the honor tonight with your attention."

Sírnoth's hair was not silver, Artanis thought, but did not say.

"Fëanor himself would have given all his treasures for three strands of your hair," Finrod continued brightly. "Over every mooning suitor in hallowed Aman, the granddaughter of Finwë instead finds her match in a Moriquendi - a son of the trees?"

"My match?" Artanis repeated dumbly, and Finrod only smiled.

.

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Stars

They walked the forests on the moonless nights that Celeborn so adored. And yet, even drunk on the stars and their unveiled splendor, she refused to tell him how she could not tell where the silver light ended and he began. She refused to tell him that when the starlight shone through the trees, dappling his skin just so, she found it hard to breathe.

Artanis, what do you fear?

She thought of Indis then. Of Nerdanel after Fëanor's heresy. And even of Finrod's own Amarië - all strong woman made weak by love.

I fear nothing, she swore, and kept her silence.

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Lightning

"In the end, it comes down to trust," Melian said from her scyring bowl. Afterwards, she carried on as if nothing was amiss, while Artanis blinked - seeing, for the first, her mentor trapped by her raiment of flesh and bone, but not diminished . . .

. . . instead, she was the stronger for it.

Later, Thingol called her by name, and she was Artanis no more.

"Galadriel," she corrected. Next to her, Finrod nearly choked on his wine. "Galadriel, I have been named by your prince," she continued, feeling the rightness of the name strike her like storm-light. "And I would keep it as my own."

Chapter Text

Bury

The first time Caranthir met Haleth, daughter of Haldad, her people were a small and wounded thing, struggling to stand around her. And yet, even for the smoke billowing from the ruins of her village . . . for the corpses littering the ground, some not yet cold with death . . . even with the mire of the battle clinging to her body like warpaint, he had thought that nothing could touch her.

He had known of her people for some time now - squatters dwelling in the southern woods of his lands, whose presence he had all but ignored, even as others of his kind marveled over the arrival of Mankind to the world. The Secondborn were little more than insects to his eyes - not out of any arrogant sense of supremacy on his part, but for the simple allotments of nature, for the years of Men were few, and the struggles they faced within those numbered days were many. Their bodies bruised and broke as even the children of his kind did not, and they took sick easily, oftentimes falling into their ever-sleep from the failings of their flesh even before giving their up their lives to the unmovable hands of time. They lived, they died, and they did so within the blinking of an eye; over and over again.

Caranthir had long failed to understand his cousin Finrod's fascination with their ilk, and for his part, he paid them no heed. Let them roam his lands – for they were few in number, and were always moving, restless in spirit as they rushed onwards toward their end. They would not last long before passing through, he had first thought.

Yet, he was not the only one to take notice of the Late-comers upon his lands, the Dark Lord too looked and saw a pocket of humanity trying to live and carve out homes for themselves in what peace and prosperity the could. Of course, such a thing was not to be borne in Morgoth's mind, and he send a legion of his creatures through the Leaguer in the North to see to the village's destruction. It was not for the Atani that Caranthir took up arms, he first told himself when he ordered him men into the fray. There were simply Orcs on his lands, and he would not stand their presence marring what he had claimed as his own. And so, he and his men picked up their arms and put to the sword the warring party of Morgoth's filth. The Orc-band had cornered the Atani on a triangle of land where the rivers Gelion and Ascar met, with their backs to the water and their supplies – of both men and food - running perilously thin. The Orcs they did not kill with the sword, they pushed towards the river, where the icy currents and white waves took them to a watery grave, just the same.

The battle was done almost before it begun, with the wide eyes behind the cobbled together barricade huge with disbelief and gap-jawed wonder. They had not expected aid of any kind, he thought, especially from the likes of him. Slowly, the people – mostly farmers and woodsman, with mismatched weapons and makeshift armor for battle – trickled out. They moved slowly, as if disbelieving that it was now safe to do so. They muttered as they looked about – mostly in a language he could not understand, but a few used halting lines of the Grey-tongue. Ah, they were familiar with Finrod's people, then. Or, at least, they learned the language from kin who were.

Caranthir reigned his horse towards the few men left who wore somewhat adequate armor and held forged steel – the tattered remnants of the Haladin's defenses, he suspected. While he did not expect the leader of the Haladin to fall at his feet and do him obeisance, he did expect some sort of thanks for the efforts of his men, and he expected it now.

 . . . what he did not expect was for a soldier in the middle of the ragtag group to step forward. The man looked at him through a visored helm before crispy declaring in accented Sindarin, "You, my lord, are late."

Caranthir felt a ripple of shock pass through his warriors, and he let a sharp grin carve his face at the mortal's audacity. He knew his own face well enough - knew the way he could hold his anger in his eyes as stars, with the fire of Fëanor rising high for all to see. And so, he let that ember breathe. He called it to flame.

He ignored the accusation, and dismounted slowly from his horse, pausing then to flick Orc-blood from his blade as if it was not worthy of his moving a hand to wipe it away. The steel caught on the midday sun, for a moment flashing bright.

"Your leader, child?" he said, not even bothering to look at the insolent mortal before him. "I will speak to him, and no other."

"Then you speak to her," came the same voice, clipped and sharp.

Her, his mind had but a moment to process before gloved – and decidedly feminine hands – rose to lift the war helm from her head. When she did so, a long braid of wheat-brown hair tumbled loose, while clear grey-blue eyes stared at him frankly from beneath long black lashes. It was the face of a woman, he realized after a heartbeat, though her features were plain for a daughter of the Atani – ugly, even, in the eyes of the Eldar. Though she wore boiled leather and a vest of chain-mail, he looked and could see where he had missed a woman's form before. Child, he had called her, but she already bore a crinkling of lines about the corners of her eyes. She had but a few decades before her hair would streak with silver and her frank gaze dulled from the hands of time. Yet, for now . . .

He looked her over once, and did not blink.

"Haldad my father, and Haldar my brother are both dead," she announced. She did not flinch as she said so, even though their blood must have been fresh upon the ground before him. Caranthir glanced, but the corpses all looked the same to him. "As I have no husband, Haleth Haldad's daughter leads this people now, and it is to her you may speak."

"Then it is from you I will accept your people's thanks," he said slowly, his head tilted up arrogantly. As he spoke, he let the tip of his sword rest in the ground. The wet soil turned as he slowly twisted the hilt.

The woman - Haleth - only snorted in reply, raising a brow as if in disbelief. "I?" she questioned, her voice turning low with a dark mirth. "I, thank you? For what? For passing through with the sword when it so happened to be convenient to you? Since the first of the winter melt we have fought these creatures. And yet, you came to these woods to hunt, not to give aid to me and mine. I thank you, Master-elf, for the lives you have saved, but I do not thank you for your condescension, nor the way you look down your nose at me now."

A moment passed. Caranthir moved his mouth, but found himself slow to form his words. "The lady thinks me both ungracious and craven of heart?" he could not help the touch of humor that leached into his words – like a cat, amused by the squeakings of a mouse. "Not many are brave enough to speak to me so."

Not many indeed, he reflected wryly. Even his brothers were slow to cross him in anger, he having inherited the worst of both of his parents' tempers, and naught of Nerdanel's ability to call both herself and others to peace.

"Not craven," Haleth corrected him. Her wide mouth pressed into a thin line as she said so. "Nay, indeed, for I saw you with a sword in your charge; I would not accuse without truth. Yet I still call you arrogant, my lord, and I am weary from the weeks of battle. I have too few silvered words within me to phrase my thoughts better."

"No," Caranthir mused aloud. "I think that you said exactly what you meant to say, exactly as you wished to say it."

He stalked forward, slow and easy with his stride, flaunting how very far from human he was as he walked. Haleth watched him warily, her eyes flickering from the grip of his sword hand to the knife-line of his mouth, but she did not back away. She did not yield him ground. "Yet there is a truth to your words," he admitted, albeit grudgingly. "In your eyes, I have done wrong by your people, and I would see that set to rights. Please, my lady, tell me how I may do so."

He stopped not even a pace from her, a small smile tugging on the corner of his mouth as he imagined how they must have appeared to those onlooking. She was tiny when compared to him, with the top of her head scarcely reaching the base of his throat. She was broad of shoulder and wide of hips while he was lithe even within his armor. She moved like the river behind them, all rushing and strong as she defiantly folded her arms over her chest, while he was like the swaying of the tall trees in the wind. His armor was a deep blue, nearly black, touched by silver at the points, and the elegant eight pointed star of Fëanor was emblazoned upon his breastplate. He wore the silver circlet of a prince at his head. As the son of the most beautiful of the Noldor, he knew that his countenance was striking – from the pale perfection of his features to the black fall of his hair. His eyes, even when shadowed by his Oath, still held the light of the Trees and Valinor remembered . . . and this mortal woman, with her tanned skin and weathered complexion, with her boiled leather and thick, mud stained boots stood before him and refused to back away.

When Haleth finally answered him, her words were slow, as if an idea occurred to her even as she spoke it. Distantly, her eyes reminded him of the way sparks would jump from a stone when struck. "If you truly wish to offer us aid, then I would bid you and yours to help us bury our dead. We lost nearly all of our strong men in the sortie, and I will ask neither old woman nor young child to pick up a shovel for their fathers and sons."

Her words were a challenge, he saw. She did not expect him to accept, to lower himself to the indignity of grave-digger. She stood with her feet lined with her shoulders in a soldier's stance, her arms still crossed. She expected him to back down.

And so, he thrust his sword into the ground between him. With an exaggerated slowness, he moved to unbuckle the first plate of his armor, and then the second.

"Tell me where I am to dig," he answered simply. He did not have to look behind him to know that his men stiffened in surprise, with each one warily eyeing the other before they too went to undo their ties. "We will do our part to see your loved ones laid to rest."

Haleth tilted her head, nonetheless wary. She watched him as one would a serpent, and for a moment he thought that she would send them away.

"This way, then," she said. When she turned, she did not look behind to see if he followed, but follow he did.



.

.

Caranthir dug gravesites for the better part of the day, and now the evening hour was nearly upon them.

While he worked, he watched the small conclave of Atani as they went about putting themselves together again. Haleth was right - most of their men had fallen in the raids. A chosen pocket of fighting men still remained standing, and there were even a few strong shouldered woman who wore armor over their chests and swords at their hips. Besides those few, their group was composed of the elderly and the young, and their numbers too were far from untouched by Morgoth's scurge. Caranthir had dug too many resting places for children that day, and his skin was uncomfortable over his bones for the senseless loss, even after the long years of war and bloodshed he had seen.

Yet, more and more often than not, he found his eyes drawn back to Haleth.

Seven days . . . for seven days she had been without father or twin brother, he had since learned. Only seven days ago she had the burden of leadership quite unexpectedly thrust upon her, but he would have not have been able to tell so from merely watching her. Haleth held her head high as she walked through the camp, as if she was separate from the grief around her. She touched children fondly as she passed, ruffling hair and stitching dolls when asked. She took counsel with the elders who had survived, not once pretending that she had every answer when she herself was relatively few of years. She directed the efforts to scavenge what they could from the settlement, looking over tallies and overseeing rations as they were made. She visited the healer's tent and comforted both those wounded and those who grieved for ones who would not live through the night. She even checked in with their cook to see how the mass preparations for the evening meal was coming – a veritable feast of rabbit stew and flat bread when compared to the rations they had been living on while under siege.

Already Caranthir was calculating what he had on him that could be spared for the struggling group. He and his men had already felled game aplenty, and the meat would go far in feeding the people around him. His men were skilled hunters, and they would easily recover what they would give away on the way back to Lake Helevorn. His offer had been met with a crisp nod and a muttered word of gratitude before Haleth turned away from him, leaving him with an uncomfortable twisting in his gut – an unexpected . . . curious sensation, as he watched her walk away and wished that he could do more.

He . . . he remembered his own father's death, even though it had been centuries ago, now. He remembered how Fëanor's fire had blazed even hotter than the Lord of Balrogs before he collapsed in on himself, leaving nothing but ash in his wake. There had been nothing left of Fëanor to bury . . . nothing left of his physical body to mourn . . . but Caranthir had felt the snapping of his father's fëa deep in his soul, ripped from him like a wound, and he . . .

 . . . he had not been able to breathe in the aftermath of that battle. He had not been able to weep as he looked down at his bloodstained hands and wondered what it was all for. Everything, from the first Teleri life taken to the last ship burned at Losgar . . . it had been for nothing. When, only days later, Maedhros too was taken from them . . .

Caranthir had not been able to move from the grief in his bones, from the pain in his heart. How could she be so calm now, he wondered? How could she lead her people with her head held high and her mind cold and rational as she tended to what had to be done? Was this some hidden strength of Men? he wondered. What uncanny ability did these with so few of years have to live and live on brightly - to persevere and thrive beneath the yoke of such great adversity? What was he not understanding?

The only thing he knew was that his eyes turned to Haleth time and time again as the day wore on. Once, even, he had caught her staring in return, her eyes unblinking as she took in the sight of him knee-deep in a grave (the same height now, they looking eye to eye). He did not flatter himself this time – his skin was marred with dirt, and his hair stuck to the back of his neck in graceless tangles. He had shucked aside his armor and tunic so that he worked only in his linen undershirt and doeskin leggings, but it was not the play of his body she watched. No . . . it was the grave he dug . . . the grave he filled.

When she blinked and turned away, it was with an odd stinging in his heart that he wished for her eyes to turn back to him again.



.

.

By the time the sun was setting, they only had a dozen graves left to dig and fill.

Beyond them, the clearing stank where Haleth's men had dragged the Orc corpses to be burned. The black stain of smoke from their pyre was as a bruise against the twilit sky. The smoke stung his eyes until Caranthir turned from both the funeral pyres and the freshly turned graves around him. He needed a moment away from the earth they filled, he decided. He left directions to his men, and headed to the river waiting just beyond them, intent on cleaning his hands and drinking from the depths there. His soul was troubled, and he needed a moment to gather himself.

Caranthir walked some ways away, not wanting any to see how the day's events had affected him. He felt as a green youth all over again, making his first kill in the woods of Aman as Celegorm laughed at him for how he blanched at the sight of the deer's blood. But that death had been natural, at the very least – with they taking what the Valar had granted them as gifts of the earth. This . . . this was senseless. This was needless, and he thought again of Alqualondë and its quays stained red until -

- he realized that he was not alone.

He was not the only one looking for privacy by the riverside, it would seem - for a retreat from the grief-struck eyes beyond in order to give into a grief of his own. Haleth herself was kneeling on the bank when he came to where the trees parted, her back hunched and her face held in her hands as the river babbled on soothingly before her.

She had washed from the battle, was the first thing he saw. Her hair was undone from her braid, and fell in half-damp curls around her shoulders, hanging nearly to her waist. She had set aside her armor, but still wore a leather jerkin and dark brown leggings in the style of a man. Her boots were strong and sturdy on her legs, leaving tracks on the muddy shore to where she knelt, with the ground still wet with both with blood and snow-melt.

She splashed water on her face, and it took him but a moment to realize that she had been crying. She was not as unaffected as he would have first thought; she was not untouchable. He could not see her face, but he could see the stiff set of her shoulders, the bent line of her back . . . She grieved and knew pain, but somehow she was only the stronger for it. Her grief did not make her appear weak before his eyes.

He stood at the line of trees, unsure for a moment. In the end, he decided against leaving, and purposefully stepped on a twig as he came closer, letting her know of his presence. She looked up as he came near, wiping the back of her hand over her eyes before turning to face him.

"How many are left?" she asked instead of greeting him. Her voice was a whisper, made hoarse from her weeping. Already her eyes had dried. When she looked at him, he could not tell that she had cried at all.

"A dozen or so," he answered. His hands were fists as he knelt by the river; slowly, he uncurled his fingers in the water. The current took the grave-soil from his palms, as if it had never been.

"My . . ." she tried to make her throat work. It afforded her no sound. "My brother?  . . . my father?"

"They are next," he said, and while his voice was not gentle, he knew that the challenge there had gone. He could not remember why it had been there in the first place.

"Good," she nodded sharply before turning to rise once more. She paused for a moment, but she was steady on her feet when she looked at him. "I wish to dig them myself."

A part of him wanted to protest out of habit, as much as anything else. It was not traditional, it was not usual for a woman to do such a thing, but he was not sure how to find the words to say so. If Fëanor had left them anything to bury, Caranthir thought . . . if he had . . .

"I understand," he said simply, and while it was all he said, she looked at him with a raised brow. Her eyes were darker in the twilight, the same color as the river before them, and there was something there that considered him before she nodded sharply, her decision made.

When they returned to the now sprawling graveyard, he handed her a shovel, and none questioned her place amongst the working men as she drew that first bite from the earth. A moment later, and then a second shovelful was taken. Then a third.

He watched her before taking his place to dig next to her. After a moment of nothing to hear but for the slide of steel against the soil, he found a lament rising to his lips – a song of mourning, singing the mortal souls to wherever it was the sons of Men partook of their rest beyond the circles of the earth. He entreated Námo, he sang to Eru himself for his undeserved mercy and kindness. His men took up his song as the sun set overhead, its last rays bathing the faces of those they buried before the soil of their graves covered them like the night. After a long while, their lament turned without words – a hum of grief without syllable or rhyme. It was a song he had sung one too many times, he thought. He knew its verses all too well.

Haleth did not know the words he sang. She could not even begin to understand the High Tongue to try and sing along. But she did add her voice when the song became at last wordless, and her voice was soon joined by many others. While not beautiful, her voice was strong, and when she placed the last shovelful of dirt over her father's grave, her throat was hoarse. Her eyes were red, even as no tears fell.

Eventually, the song ebbed from his lips, and yet many others in the camp carried it on - with new voices picking up the refrain where others tired and tapered off until they were strong enough to join again. It was a song that went on, unbroken, long into the night.

Chapter Text

Ice

He had not know that it was possible to feel so cold.

The Helcaraxë was bitterly frigid, even before his ill advised trip through the frozen waters underneath the ice shelf they walked upon. Now, the cold was an all but unbearable agony as his teeth chattered and his skin paled to an alarming shade of blue. The healers worried for whether or not he would keep his fingers and toes, and though the worst of that imminent danger was past, he still had trouble bending his limbs properly, he still could not feel his fingertips beyond the pins and needles sensation of pain. His hair had frozen in a solid clump of dull gold after he clawed his way from the water, and had to be cut away lest the cold about his neck do him more harm than his vanity was worth. Glorfindel was trying not to think about that, however. Not yet, anyway.

And yet, he knew that he would do it again if he had the ability to choose – a hundred times over, if he had to. For, one moment Elenwë and Itarillë had been walking next to him, and then they were falling, falling, and he had reached until his hand had caught the child's in a desperate hold, and he had swam desperately for the surface. He had given all of his innermost warmth to succor the shivering thing in his hold once they broke the surface of the water - even to the point of doing a serious harm to himself, and now . . .

Now, he was dry and relatively warm, and yet he still could not fight the chill from his bones, the cold from his spirit. He was heart-sick and soul-sore for the loss of his friend, and . . .

“You are not smiling,” Itarillë said sleepily from beside him, rousing him from his thoughts. Turukáno had been inconsolable since their failing to save Elenwë, blindsided by the double most pain of feeling his wife's death deep within his spirit, and now he was with his father and sister. Glorfindel had taken the girl for the night, so that she would not have to see and feel her father's grief. Beyond that, he had not wanted to let her out of his sight for some inexplicable fear, deep inside . . .

“You are always smiling,” Itarillë continued on a whisper. Though her face was red and her eyes were raw from her tears, she reached out a single, tiny fingertip to touch the corner of his mouth, as if by doing so she could return his smile to its place. The only child amongst their host, the Ice had touched her the least physically before, but now . . . her spirit . . .

“I shall try to smile for you, little one,” Glorfindel muttered, holding her closer. The Ice had taken away physical boundaries from every soul in their host. All in their camp had become long used to sharing the heat of their bodies, both for the warmth of flesh and the comfort of spirits. Now, Itarillë burrowed closer to him, and he ran a soothing hand through her hair as the winds moaned a sad song beyond their tent. On the other side of Itarillë, Ecthelion had been quiet throughout the whole encounter, but he rubbed absently at the child's back as he eased her into a healing sleep, where she would rest without dreams.

“She will heal,” Ecthelion muttered as her breathing deepened and evened out. “The soul of this one is strong.”

“She should not have to be so strong of spirit,” Glorfindel found his words thick in his throat. “Not when so young.”

Ecthelion did not respond to that, but his silvery eyes turned shadowed in reply. A heartbeat passed. “You do always have a smile,” Ecthelion said simply. “It warms others more than you know.”

“There is no warmth here,” Glorfindel said after a moment. He was too weary for words spoken closely together. “At least, not where I can find.”

“Even so,” Ecthelion rolled his shoulders.

Glorfindel did not respond, and yet, when Itarillë shifted, restless in her sleep, the other man started to hum softly in the back of his throat - a hymn to Laurelin, now long gone from the sky, whispering of light and warmth. Voices could not rise in song on the Helcaraxë for long, but Ecthelion nonetheless found his warmth, and gave what verses he could.

Glorfindel simply closed his eyes, and listened.



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.

Ski

It was, in his mind, a perfectly acceptable idea.

His friend, however, was quick to disagree. And yet, seeing as how Ecthelion differed with him on a great many things, Glorfindel had not yet decided whether he would heed his words, or cast them aside.

As he pondered his quandary in his mind, he curiously placed his shield on the ground, kneeling before the hardened steel and squinting down the mountainside, wondering . . .

“You are going to get yourself killed,” Ecthelion pointed out dryly.

“Nonsense,” Glorfindel waved a hand. “You and I are fated to find our ends in grand and laudable ways. This -”

“ - trying to appease your boredom with guard-duty by acting with the mind of a simpleton?” Ecthelion supplied helpfully. “You merely had to say so; I have paperwork aplenty if you wished to keep busy.”

Glorfindel made a face. “As tantalizing as your offer is, I must decline. And, yet . . .”

Ecthelion sighed, the motion only just disturbing the pale stone cast of his features. He was entirely too silver on the mountainside, Glorfindel thought; his helm and armor glittering in the sunlight, catching on the tip of the spear he held . . .

Ah!

“My friend,” he praised warmly. “You have given me quite the idea.”

He toed the shield aside, and stood upon it, rather than knelt. He then stuck his own spear into the ground, steadying himself . . .

Ecthelion was hardly impressed. “Eru help Mandos find patience when he gathers your soul,” he said, ever encouraging. “Although I do believe that you would be the one spirit to successfully annoy Lord Námo into casting you back early. You would cause too much of a splash in the Halls, I fear.”

Glorfindel snorted out a laugh. It was hard not to, with the cold mountain air and the fresh fallen snow; the untouched slope just taunting him . . .

He gathered himself, ready to push off, when -

“ - here,” Ecthelion said, resigned to his course. Glorfindel looked, and saw that his friend offered him his own spear. “So that you may balance yourself with both hands.”

Glorfindel could not help but smile, knowing how much that would irk the other. “My friend,” he let his smile grow as he took the spear. “You do care.”

“Do not let any know,” Ecthelion replied wryly. “And do try to avoid the pointed ends should you come upon a fall. Manwë only knows what the songs would say then.”

But his words were already lost to the wind as the mountain roared in his ears.



.

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Sled

“And what is this I see?”

This, is not what it looks like.”

“If by this,” Glorfindel said easily, walking forward to toe at the thin metal disk that his friend was arranging on the ground, “you mean: 'a sure way to find oneself in to Mandos' Halls', then I think that this is exactly what it looks like.”

Ecthelion scowled. “This, is a sled,” he pointed out primly, “And it has been designed by Maeglin himself for just such a venture. One shall be sitting, not standing. And certainly not standing with weapons in hand to steer with.”

Glorfindel waited for one moment, and then two. He smiled, knowing. “And the child asked you to do so, did he not?”

Ecthelion's fair face flushed, and Glorfindel smiled widely, knowing that he had caught his friend. In their impossibly still city, new unions were rare and children even rarer still. Eärendil was a blessing to their people; with his laughter brightening the mountains and heartening the souls of all who watched him grow. His curiosity and wide eyes for the newness of the world stirred the fondness of their immortal race, who, at times, slipped into age long habits and routines without even realizing they did so. The family he served, and quite thought of as his own, had blossomed with the addition of the boy; Idril fairly glowed in the role of both wife and mother, and Turgon their Lord had not been as happy with a grandchild to spoil as he had since the last his wife drew breath.

His stern friend had taken to the child more than most, and the little prince was equally fascinated in kind - following the old warrior's footsteps down to the way he walked, all the while begging for songs and stories and carved wooden toys.

Glorfindel breathed in deep, and found that the cold stretched his lungs in a pleasant way. It had been too long since he last felt so content in his own skin, he reflected. He felt rooted in that moment, bound as he was to the land beneath his feet as he had never felt in Aman across the Sea. He exhaled, and found that Ecthelion was watching him, a thoughtful look on his face. He wondered if his friend could feel it too.

“As our resident sledding expert,” Ecthelion said in a grave tone, “I would welcome any advice you would have to offer.”

“My friend,” Glorfindel clapped the other on the back. “You only had to ask.”



.

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Avalanche

He had always known that his life would end this way.

It was not to him to fade away with the end of the world and the great ages of time. He would not fall to so simple an end from an enemy on the battlefield - a stray arrow or a lucky twist of an Orc-blade. No . . . he would die greatly, and he would die in flames.

The mountains were cold this time of year. The snow drifts were up to the thighs of most as they scrambled to flee from the ruin of the city behind them. The black smoke of burning Gondolin reached the heavens like the shadow of night, and soot fell on the mountain passes like snow, as foul and elementally wrong as Morgoth's horde of filth behind them.

And, before them . . .

“You do not have to do this,” he heard Idril plead. The grip of her hand was white-knuckled on the plates of his armor. Had he not worn it, her touch would have left bruises. “Please.”

Such a fear was carved onto her face, a face so much like dear Elenwë's, he thought. Tears clung to her eyes, for her father's death . . . Maeglin's betrayal . . . for Ecthelion, dead in the Square of the King as he faced the Lord of Balrogs himself, they each taking the other life for life . . .

Yet, at Idril, Glorfindel only smiled. He took the few seconds he had left to wipe a tear away as he had those long centuries ago, passing a hand through her hair as he tucked it behind her ear in one fond gesture of farewell.

“Dear Itarillë,” he said. “Always, this has been the ending I have wished for myself. I do this without grief in my heart; I know not a single regret.”

He let his smile hold. He could feel his fëa as it rose to his skin, no longer content as it was to be constrained by the cage of his flesh. In that moment, he knew that light poured from him as some living, breathing thing all its own. He could see his innermost light reflected in the eyes of those he would die protecting; he could feel it blaze like an inferno, greater than even the demon of flame who awaited him beyond – bellowing out his challenge to the mountain itself.

Idril held his hand to her face for a moment, then two, and then he turned from her.

“Run, Itarillë,” he said as he approached his end. “Run, and do not look back.”

He felt his fëa as it rose higher, as it filled the air around him like a flame. His smile was one of challenge as he faced the creature awaiting him. He thought of Turgon as he twisted his sword in his hands; the King he loved, whom he would soon meet in the Halls of Mandos. He thought next of dear Idril and the boy-child Tuor held in his arms. Tuor was a strong man, and he would lead his people well, Glorfindel knew. His Lord's family would live through them - live, and he . . .

The Balrog struck his whip of flame. His demon wings struck against the ground like thunder, blocking out the sunlight above. His foul mouth was an evil line of amusement, as if his audacity in challenging him was something to laugh over. But it did not matter. For, in that moment, Glorfindel was great enough to match him. In that moment, Glorfindel was not of flesh and bone, but rather light . . .

Together, he knew, they would bring down the mountainside.



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Frost

A year had passed since his release from the Halls, and yet, Glorfindel still felt a coldness of spirit that was simply not right in this land of peace and plenty. Aman was just as he remembered it being . . . but he . . . he had changed. He had changed, while the home he had once left far behind stayed ever the same.

“Am I the only one who feels this way?” Glorfindel asked his friend, just having struggled to put his thoughts into words.

Ecthelion had been released from Mandos near the same time as he, and he had spent his time since then building a small cottage off of the road between Tirion and Alqualondë, where he could be close to both of his peoples. Now, he was teaching roses to bloom up trellises on the side of his small house, patiently trimming and coaxing as he went.

For he had forever to do so.

Glorfindel sat, and let the garden soil trail through his fingers as he picked it up and let it fall again.

“I do not know,” Ecthelion answered simply. “I suppose there are some who feel as you do, and yet . . . this burns in you like a live flame. I could feel it like embers about your soul, even before you spoke of it to me.”

“And you . . .” Glorfindel asked, reaching for something he could not name. “Do you feel . . .” He could not finish his thought. His tongue could not form the words.

“I?” Ecthelion asked. “If I had a choice . . .” he sighed, a long and weary sound that had no place in hallowed Aman. “I fought against the Shadow; I died doing so. Now the years have moved on, and our fight belongs to others now. If I were given the choice . . . I believe that I would stay here, with my gardens.”

Glorfindel sighed though his nose, wiping his hands clean as he did so. He tapped his fingers restlessly on his knee, thinking . . .

He had met Eärendil the day before last – and what a shock that had been, to see Idril's child as a man grown. He had a pretty Sindarin bride now – Elwing the White, the last Queen of the Sindar and granddaughter of Lúthien Fairest-born, of all people – and two full grown sons of his own back in Middle-earth. He wore the Silmaril of Lúthien about his brow now, warming every room he entered with a holy light, and yet . . .

And yet, Eärendil seemed to suffer from the same restlessness of spirit that he did, Glorfindel thought, his heart clenching oddly. Eärendil mourned, and Glorfindel . . .

“I would give anything to go back, even though I know that it is selfish to think such things . . .”

“ . . . the world needed me, and so I answered the call of my people. If I had not done what I had, the Dark Lord himself would still reign in the uttermost north, and yet . . . I would be lying if I said that it was merely duty which shaped my deeds . . . for the sea called to me, and I could not . . . I was not strong enough to . . .”

“ . . . I chose my duty over my family . . . Should such bonds have been more sacred than mere duty? I do not know half of the time, and it is an argument that runs my mind in circles at night . . .

“ . . . I left them there, and Elwing did too . . . left them to the Fëanorians and their cruel mercies . . .”

“ . . . and yet, my sons were loved in their care. My sons called Kinslayers 'father', and I only 'Gil-estel' – an untouchable star in the night sky . . . And yet . . . the Sons of Fëanor have always taken family most seriously, perhaps I should not have been as surprised as I was . . .”

“ . . . surprised, and grateful . . .”

“ . . . my youngest son chose the fate of Men, and passed on in mortal-death less than five years ago . . . I never had a chance to know my son, and now, I never will . . .”

“ . . . and the other . . .”

“ . . . I sail over Lindon every night, looking down . . . and yet I cannot touch, I cannot offer comfort . . . there is so much I cannot do . . .”

“ . . . the world calls me 'hope', but I . . . I would give anything to go back, even if but for a moment . . .”

“ . . . I would give anything.”

Anything.

“My answer pains you,” Ecthelion said gently, breaking him from his thoughts.

“Never that,” Glorfindel said, rising to his feet. He then felt anchored in his skin, with a war he had long been waging in his mind now coming to an end. He knew what he wanted. Now, he had only to figure out how to make his wishes a reality. He had to . . .

“I wish you well on your journey,” Ecthelion said, seeing where he consciously made the choice his spirit had long since decided. “Truly, you are a light to this marred world.”

For a moment, Glorfindel found it hard to breathe. He could feel the thin layer of ice about his spirit melting, as spring breaking from the winter, and yet . . .

“I wish not to . . .” he started, not sure how to phrase his words.

“Leave me behind?” Ecthelion raised a dark brow. “It is true, you shall send your soul to Mandos again on some foolhardy stunt without me to advise sense and caution. Even so, I am sure you will be just fine.”

Glorfindel snorted. “Admit it, I have always kept your life from dull monotony.”

“It is true,” Ecthelion did not bother denying it. “Yet . . . I have forever to wait for your return. I shall enjoy the quiet while you are gone.”

Glorfindel felt his heart rise, full in his chest. He turned to embrace the other man, not ashamed at the tears when they came. “My friend,” he said truly. “I will miss you.”

“And I you,” Ecthelion gave a gentle smile. “And yet, for now I will stay . . . and wait for the roses to bloom.”



.

.

Melt

So far, the unforeseen difficulties with his return to Middle-earth came not from any outside impetus, but rather, from the descendant of his Lord himself.

Oh, Elrond was polite enough, but that was precisely the problem. Elrond was polite to all, but truly friendly to none. He was respected by all, but close to no one in particular. He was a noted scholar, a decorated warrior, a brilliant tactician - a healer without compare . . . but Glorfindel still knew nothing about the particulars of his character. His likes, his dislikes, his innermost thoughts? All remained a mystery. Glorfindel was truly perplexed – stumped, even, and he did not like feeling so.

Not even five years since the death of Elros, Eärendil had said, and Glorfindel could see where the fractures of that loss still broke through the young soul before him.

A healer to all but himself, Glorfindel thought grimly. Though he wished not to admit it, even to himself, Elwing and Eärendil had damaged their sons more than they could have known with their leaving in such a way . . . And then, afterward, Maglor and Maedhros' abandonment of the twins to Gil-galad's care – even when done in the children's best interest - stung more than Glorfindel thought that Elrond even consciously knew. Galadriel had tried to tell him, in part, when he had first arrived in Lindon – Círdan and Gil-galad too – but Glorfindel had not truly understood their half-words until he truly threw himself into trying to get to know the last Peredhil.

But, he was determined. That determination had gotten him far before, and he intended for it to carry him far again.

The first snow of the season had come to Lindon. Overnight, the snow had blanketing everything from the city to the harbor to the sand dunes which stretched to the sea shore beyond. The ice reached even to the waves, freezing the rolling waters close to the shore while the warmth and movement of the ocean further out refused to be touched. It was, Glorfindel thought, one of the more picturesque scenes he had seen in his long life so far.

And now . . .

“I have been told that it is unhealthy, my fascination with the snow,” he stretched his best smile onto his face, and kept it there. “Once, a friend tried to explain that my love of the winter is a coping mechanism for my days spent on the Ice, but I say that it is a simple appreciation of nature.”

Next to him, Elrond raised a brow – showing a polite interest, as always. “Unhealthy?” he tilted his head. “I do not believe I would call it so, in either instance.”

Glorfindel shrugged. “You shall just have to form your own opinions by the end of the day.”

Wariness now joined the polite interest. Glorfindel shook away the odd feeling he had that he was fighting a battle of blows, rather than friendly exchange of words. He had an irrational moment where he wished that Idril was there with him. She always knew what to say with troubled souls, and she would know . . .

But no.

“Yes,” he answered the unspoken. “I do not wish to spend my first snowfall back in Middle-earth alone, and thus, you shall be required to cater to the eccentric whims of a guest and accompany me.”

Cornered, Elrond had no choice but to follow him, and now, here they were, standing at the top of the snow covered dunes, with sleds in hand. Out of all the things that Maeglin had given to Gondolin, Glorfindel was glad to see that his design had survived through the centuries – elsewise, they would have had to use the lids from the barrels on the docks – or their shields, though that hadn't gone so very well the first time he had tried . . .

His thoughts were distracting him. He set them aside, nearly giddy as he positioned his sled on the slope, ready to -

“I must confess that I do not quite see the point.”

Glorfindel fought the urge to sigh. “The point,” he said gently, “is to have fun. You do so for the simple enjoyment of doing so. One cannot simply find ones pleasure in books, after all.”

Elrond's look dipped, just slightly, “I do not - ” he started to protest, but Glorfindel interrupted.

“ - do you have one silly lay about singing trolls, or a fanciful tale of adventure in those dusty old tomes you pour through?” Glorfindel waited. “No. I thought as much. A scholar's activities – a healer's gift - both do much to give one a sense of self. They strengthen the spirit, but they will do nothing to a mind already burdened down and weary. Do you see the difference?”

“I think, I see what you try to say,” Elrond said slowly. He looked down at the sled on the snow, and then the hill itself. His gaze was still dubious.

Glorfindel counted to ten. “I did this with your father, years ago,” Glorfindel tried to take another route. “He was very young then, but it was something he remembered, even in Aman. I am . . . it pains me that I was not there to do so with you.”

A moment passed. He knew that he had caught the other off guard when Elrond opened his mouth and then closed it, as if unsure of what to say. “Sometimes,” he said slowly. “Life does not go the way we would wish for it to.”

And Glorfindel had had it. With a speed born of centuries upon more battlefields than he could count, he reached out, and pushed the other over. Elrond landed on the sled with a surprised look on his face that Glorfindel would remember for years to come, and then he kicked the sled down the hill. The Peredhel's reflexes kicked in, and he righted himself as the sled picked up speed, and with a shout of his own, Glorfindel followed him down the dune. The sea and the horizon beyond blurred together as he sent up a shower of snow in his path, laughing madly for the sheer joy of doing so.

By the time he landed, Elrond was already on his feet and righting himself. Though he tried to give off the air of one much put upon, a smile clung to the corner of his mouth. Glorfindel gave his own smile widely in reply.

“There!” he exclaimed. “You do know how to smile. You know, you look like Turgon when you do so,” Glorfindel added after a moment. He shivered at the uncanny resemblance, feeling as if he looked upon a ghost.

“Turgon,” Elrond said the name softly, thoughtfully. It hurt, Glorfindel thought, the way he said the names of family as if they were merely figures from a tale. Characters from the histories he studied. “My great-grandfather,” Elrond said again, as if trying to make the name something real to him. “Turgon.”

He looked back up the hill. Slowly, he relaxed his hands from where they had made fists at his side. Elrond met his gaze, and then held it. “Could you . . .” he asked slowly. “Could you tell me more?”

Gone in his voice was the bland politeness of court. Glorfindel listened, and thought he could hear Elrond there, for the first.

He reached down, and picked up his sled, oddly touched. He felt triumph fill his lungs.

“It would be my honor,” Glorfindel answered warmly. “Tell me, what would you want to know first?”

.

.

Snowball

The further and further north they went in the mountains, the colder it became. But with Sauron's unholy forces pushing in on them from the south, and the combined host of Elrond's army from Lindon and the remnants of Celeborn's men from Eregion just barely limping along . . . they needed a place where they could regroup for the winter. A place where they could regain their strength and plan their reply to the Dark Maia in full.

So far, they had been following the cries of the Eagles overhead, listening for their caws and trusting that the voice of Manwë was guiding them. In the shadows of the crags, Glorfindel could feel a familiar light cling to his skin, brightening the dreary winter-land around them.

At his side, he was joined by a scout named Erestor. As a son of Fëanorian supporters – even Fëanorians who had not participated in the Kinslayings, Erestor had found life in Lindon to be stiffling and had joined the exodus to Eregion those long years ago. A scholar and a minstrel over a craftsman, he had carefully chronicled the days of the Gwaith-i-Mírdain, and had been the messenger sent to Lindon when news of Annatar's true nature was revealed.

Erestor knew these mountains much better than Glorfindel did, and so, Elrond had sent the two of them on ahead to find a place in the mountains to hide. They looked for a place of rest, and peace . . .

And, until that place was found, Glorfindel was enjoying getting to know his companion in full. With his dark hair and pale skin – and prickly character to boot, he reminded him almost painfully of Ecthelion. The resemblance alone was enough to earn his almost immediate affection, but Erestor, on the other hand . . .

Well, Glorfindel reasoned, he was used to fighting long battles with closely introverted individuals. This would be no different.

Right now, he was whistling as they picked through the mountain path, every note causing his companion to turn more and more tense with annoyance.

“Every Orc in the mountain will hear us with you causing such a ruckus,” Erestor said in a dry tone.

“Nonsense,” Glorfindel replied, gesturing up at the Eagles circling overhead. “No dark thing will dare go near them. We are quite safe beneath the shadow of Manwë.”

“You would say so,” Erestor said wryly, but without much venom. Glorfindel imagined it was because he had stopped whistling in order to speak. “Did an Eagle not carry you back after your duel with the Balrog?” he asked, his voice turning with curiosity.

Glorfindel rolled his shoulders. “So I am told, I was not quite . . . there myself at the time,” his smile was more of a grimace, and Erestor had the decency to flush, realizing what memories his words must have brought back. Glorfindel waved a hand, not wishing for the nearly-friendly conversation between them to turn south again. “It is my one wish for this life – to fly with one of the Eagles, while still alive and able to remember doing so.”

Erestor raised a brow, but there was not quite the same amount of annoyance there as there would have been before.

“Come now,” Glorfindel said to the look. “Do you not have any impossible dreams?”

“Right now,” Erestor said, “My dearest dream is to be somewhere warm, and safe.”

How very . . . uninspired.

Glorfindel raised a brow as Erestor went by him on the path, feeling his bones itch with the urge for movement. Feeling his mouth turn, Glorfindel reached down to gather a ball of snow in his hands, suddenly inspired. Packing the snow together, he then threw, and felt satisfaction burst within him when the snow shattered across the other's back in an explosion of white.

Erestor stiffened, turning behind him with a look of red anger upon his face. “Was that you?” he asked - rather stupidly, Glorfindel thought. For there was no one else on the path.

Glorfindel tried hard not to blink. “It was the Eagles,” he said as convincingly as he could, and just like that, the ire broke from Erestor. His face contorted oddly, as if he were trying not to smile. Glorfindel waited for it, but -

Overhead, an Eagle called. There was an urgency to the tone, and they knew . . .

“There,” Glorfindel said. “There is a parting in the rock.”

They ran forward, careful of the ice over the steep cliffs. The Eagles were lower now, flying in urgent circles as their golden brown wings reflected the sunlight. They called, and there -

A valley of falling water came into view, perfectly hidden in the mountains. Waterfalls played and rivers sung, each paying homage to the beauty of the mountains and the great sky above, and -

Glorfindel felt his heart catch at the beauty in the valley. There was magic here, flowing from water and stone and branch. For a moment, he could not breathe.

“Some place warm and safe,” he clapped Erestor on the back. “I do believe that you have found your wish, my friend.”

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Snowman

Near the front gate of the valley, a small child waited.

All in the household would pass the balconies that would let them glance in on the little girl and her steady vigil, smiling fondly in amusement as they looked down. Many stopped to make sure that Arwen was comfortable, bringing blankets and refreshing her mug of hot tea to ward against the chill in the air. Celebrían had tried to talk her daughter into waiting inside, but Arwen would hear nothing of it – and finally, after drawing a promise that inside she would go once the sun started to set, Arwen settled back in. Her young eyes were set solemnly on the gap in the pass – where her brothers would appear at any moment, returning home for the winter from where they had ridden out with the Dúnedain earlier in the summer.

Glorfindel watched the child with a fondness in his heart that he had not felt since Idril was that age, running about underfoot and trailing giggles in her wake. The girl moved with a grace beyond her years, and already her eyes were old and wise. But Arwen was still a child, with a child's needs, and so he came down with one of his thickest cloaks, and placed it over her small shoulders before she could protest.

“It is okay to be cold,” he said easily, his breath frosting on the air between them. “I get cold quite easily myself,” he leaned in close to say so, as if he were telling a secret of great importance.

Arwen's grey eyes widened, just slightly about the edges. “But I thought that you loved the snow?” she said, puzzling through the two seemingly contradictory pieces of information in her mind.

“Indeed, I do love the snow,” Glorfindel said. “It does not mean that I am immune to the cold.”

“Ah,” Arwen said simply, her head tilted as she processed what she had learned – a motion that was so very Elrond that Glorfindel had to tuck his smile aside.

He sat down next to her on the bench – which had been cleared of snow, even though the white powder fairly clung to everything else. Her eyes had turned faithfully back to the pass, ever waiting. Her small shoulders were tense, her happy mouth unsmiling.

“I worry about them as well,” Glorfindel said softly. “I do not like it when they go past where I can see - and this is the first time that they have ridden from the valley when not underneath my protection.”

Arwen blinked, and looked over at him. “They ride with the sons of Men now,” she said, setting her jaw. Her eyes flashed for a moment – a child's alignment of her missing her brothers given to the only thing she could think to assign blame.

“Indeed, the Dúnedain are valiant and worthy men all. Your brothers will learn much from their ways,” Glorfindel chided gently. “And the Dúnedain are very distant kin of yours, as well. You would do well to remember that.”

Arwen took a moment, considering his words, before she nodded her head. Her look was still grim on her face as she stared at the pass.

Glorfindel waited a moment, and then two. “I miss them too, little one.”

Arwen sucked in a breath. Her lower lip wobbled, as if she wished to cry, but was trying not to. “I miss them dearly,” she said, reaching over to pat his hand as if she were the one offering him comfort, and he felt warmth grow in his heart for the child, touched as he was. “It is better missing them together,” she finally decided.

“They will not be long,” Glorfindel soothed. “The snows came early this year, and that can make traveling in the mountains tricky. They were merely delayed.”

“Yes . . . delayed,” Arwen said, her voice shaped like relief, and Glorfindel grinned.

Looking around the open square of stone – where visitors were normally received, he felt a thought come upon him at the untouched planes of white snow, thinking . . .

When he got up, he started to form a snowball in his hand, and then he rolled the ball on the ground, making it bigger. Arwen looked at him curiously as he did so, her head tilted to the side again.

“Glorfindel, what are you doing?” she asked.

“I am building a snowman,” Glorfindel said. “And you are going to help. We can set them up as sentinels, and they can help us keep watch. How does that sound?”

Arwen looked torn between keeping her eyes on the pass, and joining in on the admittedly more exciting prospect of snowman building.

“I suppose I could help you,” she said carefully. “For a little while, at least.”

“A very little while,” Glorfindel promised, passing his half formed ball of snow to Arwen to finish, while he started on the 'midsection' of the snowman. When their construction took them well into the afternoon – they both grinning and covered in snow – Arwen did not even notice her brothers' returning until they picked her up and spun her about, and her laughter again filled the valley.

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Snowfall

It was snowing the day the Fellowship left Imladris.

Glorfindel watched them depart with a weight on his heart, a disquiet in his bones. The land was filled with shadow again, stretched darker and deeper than it had even in the days of Morgoth and his unholy evil. And now, they were sending those dearest and brightest of their kinds to fight that shadow . . .

He made fists of his hands at his side, restless in his own skin. The urge to do more, to be more, clawed at his bones. And yet, he had to remind himself that the days of his kind were coming to an end. This fight belonged to Men in its heaviest of ways. And so, it was Men who would bring the Dark One to his knees. Men . . . and the gentle souled halfling who carried Sauron's greatest weapon about his neck.

Would that he could carry this burden for Frodo, he thought – would that any of them could. And yet, it was Frodo's to carry, and he was left here waiting.

Waiting . . . and watching the life he had come to hold dear unravel around him. Most of the valley prepared to leave. His people would turn towards the Havens and travel West, even if Sauron was defeated. Most would follow their Lord from the valley – for if the Ring was destroyed, the lesser Rings would die as well, and Elrond's fëa was fractured and torn from using Vilya for so many years. He and the Golden Lady both would need the West for healing, for repairing their souls, and they would leave these lands far behind.

And yet, many would stay. Many would stay with their Lord's daughter, stay until the Evenstar passed from the circles of the world, and darkness truly fell upon the lands.

Glorfindel . . . he would stay. He would see Arwen's choice through to the end before returning to the lands of his birth. He had promised her father in all but words that he would do so, and now . . .

Now, Erestor was carefully cataloging the contents of the library, deciding what would go with Arwen to Gondor, and what would cross the sea to Aman. He had a long scroll out in the gardens – he needing the fresh and natural air, even though the snow fell upon the parchment and muddled his words.

“There is so much to do,” Erestor muttered. “No matter how the days to come play out, there is much to plan, much to arrange.” His fingers were white knuckled about the scroll. He too glanced where the company had departed.

In his heart . . . in his heart, Glorfindel knew that Frodo would succeed. He knew that Aragorn would reclaim his birthright, that he and Arwen would wed . . . he knew this the same as he had known that the Witch-king would not fall by the hands of any man, all of those years ago. He was no seer, he had not the touch of the Sight, but he had the light of the Valar in his soul, and he knew.

Erestor's thoughts followed much the same, he thought, for he was looking over the gardens with a tired, old look in his eyes. He fiddled with the quill in his hand before setting both aside, suddenly weary.

“Do you ever . . .” he started carefully. “Do you ever regret your choice?” he asked simply. “You could have had a life of your own in Aman, a family even. Now, to return to where darkness so clearly falls . . . over and over again. Do you ever wish you had chosen differently?”

Glorfindel looked, and honestly considered his answer before he gave it. In Aman, he could have married, he could have had children of his own, and yet, he looked . . . He looked, and saw the balcony where Celebrían had asked him for Elrond's hand all of those centuries ago – skewering tradition as she addressed the only 'family' Elrond had this side of the ocean. He looked, and saw the room where he had paced nervously throughout the births of all three children, worry in his throat, even though they were not born of his blood. He looked, and saw where he had taught Elladan and Elrohir the bow, where he had sat in these same gardens and helped Arwen learn the High-tongue, as it was spoken in far Aman . . . He saw, and he remembered . . .

If he had brought even a fraction of light to this darkened world . . . if he had made the light just that much brighter for Turgon's line . . .

Then yes . . .

. . . yes.

“I regret nothing,” he said simply. “And my family is here. All of my family,” he said, looking at Erestor – dear Erestor, who had grown closer to him than any brother of flesh and bone. Erestor, who would go across the ocean with Elrond, and too would be one more soul whom Glorfindel would have to miss and wait for.

But, not for much longer, he thought.

When he got to his feet, and turned from the other, he was surprised when he felt a cold ball of snow hit him right between the shoulderblades. He turned behind him, a smile blooming on his face for the other's audacity - for not once in all of their centuries together had Erestor done so. Now, a small smile cracked the corners of his grim facade. His dark eyes were heavy with feeling.

“There is that smile,” Erestor said. “Take care, my friend, to see that it never falls from its place – for it brings light to more than you know.”

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Tradition

Rare was it when snow fell in Minas Tirith, for Gondor was far to the south, and warm nearly the whole year through. And so, it was when journeying north with Arwen's ever growing family to visit her brothers in Imladris, that her children saw snow for the first time in the foothills of the Misty Mountains.

Eldarion was all giggles and unrestrained smiles while he went stomping through the snow as fast as his feet could carry him. He was tall for his ten summers, tripping over his own coltish legs more often than not, but he had determination enough to carry him on, and even falling in the snow brought nothing but more laughter from him.

Younger Amdiriel was slower to follow her brother, instead standing very close to her mother's side and just looking at the snow, as if by doing so, she could force the strange white powder to fade from the strength of her gaze. She was a miniature replica of her mother, with her straight black hair and solemn grey eyes – even the stubborn set to her shoulders was Arwen, and it warmed Glorfindel's heart to see. Arwen herself was glowing with the presence of her family and the cold of the wild both. She would be a mother again soon, he knew, though the new life of her daughter was just flickering in her womb. She had been newly pregnant when they left the White City, and instead of delaying their trip, she had instead decided to bear her next daughter in the home of her childhood, and then return home to Gondor when the babe was strong enough to travel.

Amdiriel took after her mother's people, and was empathetic to the point of the uncanny. She leaned against her mother's side, the tiny point of her ear nearly pressed to her mother's stomach in her wish to constantly be near to the little soul developing within. Eldarion understood the concept of another sister only in the broadest of terms, he being – as Amdiriel put it so eloquently – more Troll-brained than anything else. But he understood that something special was happening, and that his family was to grow again, and for that the boy was all smiles and joy.

Where the hills became steep enough for sledding, Aragorn was the one to take the lead in instructing his children on the unparalleled joy of the winter's activities. Both fatherhood and kingship had settled well on Aragorn's shoulders – as everything he had once clawed for in life now his to enjoy in peace and prosperity. Glorfindel was proud of the man Estel had become – so far from the eager little boy they had once called Hope, running barefoot through the halls of Elrond. His family had done much to take the grim lines from his face, and while still solemn, there was a smile on Aragorn's face more often than not – especially when in the company of his family and none other.

“Now,” Aragorn was explaining in a solemn voice – even Amdiriel braving the snow to listen reverently at her father's side. “This is a most honored and sacred of traditions amongst your mother's people. Since the noon-time of the First Age, when the Elves of Gondolin looked for sport in the cold mountain ways, they have known this art, and perfected it throughout the centuries. You must pay the utmost attention, children, and when the day comes, pass this on, so it may never be forgotten.”

Eldarion was nodding gravely, taking in everything his father said as Aragorn pushed him down the hill, and then the little boy was laughing as the wind caught in his hair and the snow burst up in waves of white to cover him. His shrieks of delight startled the birds from the trees, but they too called as if in laughter, catching on the mirth of the family below.

Little Amdiriel did not look at all like the sledding was something she wished to do, but rather than return to Arwen's side, she turned to him, and said most seriously. “Lord Glorfindel, if you would not mind accompanying me, I do believe I should be less afraid if we were to go together.”

He scooped the little girl up, and walked to the sled, slowing his step when her fingers were white about the fur lining of his cloak.

“Little one,” he said warmly, “It would be my honor.”

While Amdiriel's cries turned from fear to laughter on their way down the hill, she was still weak at the knees when they walked back up the slope. Laughing, she fell down in the snow and daintily proclaimed, “A most glorious of traditions it is, but if you would not mind, I would rather build a snowman instead.”

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Holiday

Somehow, when he was not looking, time had passed him by.

He felt old in his bones, stretched and worn thin – as if his skin was parchment, covering up the ever-heat of his soul. He was one of the last ones of his kind left on these shores. The Elves of the West had long since returned home, and the children of the forest faded more and more to spirits and legends. Someday, they would be nothing but stories to the sons of Men. Stories and songs.

And he . . .

It was time for him to return home.

Aragorn had laid down his life in death with the last days of autumn. His had been a long life, duly blessed, but it was still a mortal's life, with a mortal's allotment of time, and now he breathed no more. Arwen's grief was great at her husband's passing, but it was as Elrond had foretold all those days ago. Her spirit was still of many years, elven down to her bones, and her grief and pain would have to forcibly push the last breath from her body. There would be no ease of passing for her, no comfort until she found the veils of mortal death, and until then . . . He would follow her, and when her last breath left, he would return West from whence he came, and bow before his Lord, declaring his duty long served and done.

Celeborn and the twins already followed her, and Glorfindel could linger no more. He had to go, he had to follow . . . he had promised her father. He swore an oath to Turgon long ago . . .

“So it is true. You too are leaving us.”

Glorfindel looked to the doors of his rooms, to see Tinúviel standing right within. The daughter of Amdiriel's daughter, she appeared older than her sixteen years would seem; older and wiser both. But her grief was great for the loss of her family, and her eyes were red and raw.

So many generations, Glorfindel thought . . . how quickly the sons of Men moved through time, and while he considered himself blessed to have known and loved so many of Aragorn's line, he was also tired . . . so very tired. He did not know how he would be able to watch Amdiriel die. And then her children . . . and her children's children. He was strong enough for many things, but not for that.

And so, he would not stay until then. He would keep to his memory how they were now, until, someday . . .

“Child, you know why I must go,” he said gently.

She shook her head, her black hair a halo about her face. “No, I do not,” she said simply. “Aragorn lies in death, but his son does not. Eldarion needs you . . . mother needs you . . . I need you. You cannot yet go.”

“Eldarion is a strong man, and he will be a strong king,” Glorfindel said gently. “He needs nothing from me. And I will miss you as much as you shall me. Believe me when I say that I will keep your memory with me throughout all of my days.”

“And that is just the point,” Tinúviel said. “You go where we cannot follow. You go West where we can never go . . . Where we will never see you again.” Her voice broke at the end, a dry sound of grief.

He placed down the pack he had been putting together, and opened his arms to her. She answered wordlessly, burrowing into his embrace and resting her head against his chest. Her tears warmed the fabric of his tunic. He felt the light of his fëa waver at her pain, and he wondered it he could hold on a little bit longer against the sea-longing deep within him. He wondered . . . but no.

“It is said,” Glorfindel whispered gently, “That not even the Wise know where the sons of Men go after death. That only Eru himself knows, and Mandos too. And yet, there are whispers, that beyond the circles of time . . . at the breaking of the world, when it is forged anew, that those of all kindreds will meet again. That there will be a reunion, greater than any other. A gift from the One to his children who have lived so long beneath shadow and darkness.”

“That is nothing but silly whispers,” Tinúviel said in a small voice. “A child's tale, told to make those with fewer years more at ease with their allotment of time.”

“And yet,” Glorfindel countered gently. “I do not think so. I have died once before; I now live again. Anything is possible, and I . . . I have forever to wait. Forever to wait and remember you - remember all of you.”

“All of us?” she whispered brokenly.

“All of you,” he said, closing his own eyes against his grief. “No matter how long it takes, I will remember you and keep that memory dear.”

“And you . . . you truly believe that?” she asked. Her voice was a small, hopeful thing. “You truly believe that there is a hope . . . beyond time . . . beyond this world's end?”

He drew away just enough to tilt her chin up. He looked, and let her see the light of Aman in his eyes – a memory of the Trees themselves in their days of glory. He knew he carried the light of his spirit on his skin – a final offering of his tired and battered soul to the grieving mortal girl before him. “Yes, child, I do. With all of my heart.”

He watched her as she swallowed; as she grasped upon his strength and made it her own. “Then,” she said, and her voice was stronger when she spoke. “I shall treat this as a holiday. You go away for a short time, but we shall see you again.”

“Sooner than you would think,” he forced a smile to his face – one last time, for this daughter of his Lord's blood. “Sooner than a blinking.”

“Until then,” Tinúviel turned into his embrace, and he returned it. He memorized the shape of her form, the texture of her hair.

“Indeed, dear one,” Glorfindel agreed, and his voice was as a promise. “Until then.”

. . . until then.

Chapter Text

Tale

Magic, Gandalf had said when they entered the valley, but Bilbo Baggins was quite certain that the Grey Wizard was mistaken. For this had to be more than even that. Magic was fireworks in the night skies and smoke rings taking the shapes of ships with their elegant sails. Magic was bright lights and midsummers eves' and the crossings in the paths. This that he felt around him? This was peace, settling in him soul deep. This was stories made flesh, all the laughter of water and the power music held when it sung of histories true and told, and he . . .

Bilbo was, in a word, quite smitten as he roamed the halls on silent feet while his companions caused a ruckus elsewhere. He touched elegant carvings of vine and stone as he passed, he thumbed throught the pages of ancient tomes even older than he – some were older than the Shire even. And at the realization he had stared, entranced.

Now, he had stopped before a wall, a wall covered in a great mural of a creature, tall and dark, who wore a golden ring on his finger. The small band was a flame in a dark place, blazing with power even when caught in an artist's thrall. Bilbo gazed curiously at the monster with the ring, his own fingers whispering as with a ghost of sensation, even though he himself wore no such adornment.

Curious, he thought, and that too he attributed to the magic of the land.

Next to the mural, there was a pedestal, upon which there was a great sword; laying in two massive pieces, its strong blade rent in a jagged line down the middle. Bilbo paused, wondering how mighty the blow must have been to break such a blade – for he could feel an enchantment in the sword before him, an enchantment of hewn earth and the bite of the forge – a sensation he at times felt amongst his companions, though the aura was often fleeting, as a whisper.

He reached out to touch it, when -

“Be careful, Master-hobbit,” came a warm voice from the entrance to the room. The voice was a musical voice, one which Bilbo felt in his bones rather than heard in his ears. “Long has Narsil laid broken, but her edges are still sharp to the touch.”

“Narsil,” Bilbo rolled the name on the back of his tongue, as he would a particularly fine wine. It was, he thought, a fitting name. Sun and moon, he knew from his growing grasp on the Elven tongue. Now that he looked for it, he could see the light of both - dully glowing, even when the sword was broken and at rest.

“Narsil, wielded last by Elendil, one of the last sons of the starlit-lands and first King of the Dúnedain,” the voice continued, coming closer. “In the First Age, it was forged by the great Dwarf-smith Telchar, at the bidding of Azaghâl his king. The sword was to be a gift for Maedhros Fëanorian, for he saved the life of Azaghâl when he was waylaid by Orcs on the great Dwarf-road. Maedhros in turn, gave the sword to his brother, and Maglor Fëanorian later gifted the sword in parting to his ward, Elros Tar-Minyatur, the first King of Númenor, and a great leader of Men. The sword has protected that line ever since, and now waits to be forged again – when the hands waiting to hold it are ready to do so.”

The names tickled at the back of Bilbo's mind, tugging on stories his mother had told in days long past. He looked up to see who his companion was, and saw a tall elf – no surprise there, Bilbo thought, for they were all quite tall about him. Instead of the dark hair most in the valley had, this elf seemingly wore the sunlight atop his head. Bilbo thought first of the Wood-elves with the shade, but no . . . there was something different about him. Something that was more.

The elf's eyes were eerily bright, Bilbo thought. As if he had looked on the sun when standing very near to it, and took a bit of that brilliance with him when he turned away.

“It's a great story,” Bilbo said, his fingers still resting above Narsil's blade. Carefully, he did not touch it. A part of him knew that the blade was not his to hold, and the sword welcomed him not. “It seems as if every sword we run into has a great tale behind it.” Bilbo let his right hand tap his at the hilt of his own 'sword', ever curious as he was by the elegant little blade.

“Ah,” the elf said slowly. “The swords of Gondolin.”

“Yes,” Bilbo inclined his head. “Glamdring? Your lord named the one. And . . . Orist? Ocrast was the other?”

“Orcrist,” the stranger rolled the name from his tongue with the ease of long familiarity. A small smile tugged at his face, sad in shape, and Bilbo wondered at it. “The sword's name was Orcrist.”

“Ah, yes,” Bilbo bounced on the balls of his feet. “Orcrist - that's the one.”

The elf shook his head, bemusement touching his face. “How odd, that they should now appear in a troll horde, of all places. Ah, but to see his face when I tell him so . . .” his voice was absent as he said so, as if he spoke to a ghost in the room. Bilbo knew that the other was far from him in that moment, before he blinked, turning back to Bilbo again. “It is against odds,” he said carefully, “but I would ask of a dagger which went with the set. A short blade,” he held his hands apart to demonstrate, “who was made as a companion to the swords in their forging.”

Bilbo's fingers tapped against the hilt of his sword – which an elf very much would call a dagger, he thought. A long knife . . .

Slowly, carefully, he drew the blade free, and watched as the elf's eyes followed it. There was a flickering in the brightness of his eyes. Bilbo looked, and thought that – for that moment, the elf did not breathe.

“Then it's not a letter opener?” Bilbo said with a half smile as he passed it to the elf's reverent hands.

“Indeed not,” the elf answered, bemused.

“Then, does it . . .” Bilbo asked, hoping . . .

“No,” the elf shook his head. “It has naught of a name, merely memories. When they named Ecthelion's ridiculous blade for slaying a thousand necks, I had wagered that I could slay more with this dagger alone than he could with his curved sword during the Nírnaeth Arnoediad. I came close, even though he would never admit it. But at the end of that battle, there was no jesting between comrades, nor rejoicing in feast and song. Merely tears.”

Bilbo blinked, trying to understand the tenses the elf spoke with. He spoke as if . . .

“Then you knew who owned - ” he did he math. He adjusted his words. “Forgive me, you owned this blade . . . sometimes it is easy to forget, the agelessness of the Elves.”

“Agelessness,” the elf turned the word over thoughtfully. He smiled a smile Bilbo could not quite put his finger on. “Yes, you could call it as such.”

The elf went to give the blade back, but Bilbo held up a hand. “No,” he said. “It was yours, was it not? I would not -”

“It has not been mine for many centuries,” the elf said easily. “And swords choose their wielders. This blade will do much in your hands, Master Baggins, and I would not take that away. Even though,” he allowed a small smile to touch his mouth, “I do imagine that Ecthelion would have scowled to see his sword in your leader's hands . . . And yet, it is fitting. There is a certain stubbornness about them both, a certain strength of spirit that the sword would answer to.”

“Strength of spirit,” Bilbo repeated wryly – as if such words could so easily surmise Thorin and his determination. Thorin and his hunger. “And yet . . .” he swallowed. He looked to the west, where he knew the Shire rested in its green cradle of hills and bubbling blue streams. “Sometimes, I do not feel as if I am meant to do such things. Sometimes, I wonder whether or not I am even meant to be here, or if I had a moment of Took-ishness that I shall forever regret . . .”

The elf too looked west, and the bright light in his gaze seemed to glow then. In a queer way, Bilbo thought that the ancient and ethereal being before him understood his small worries. His unease and fear.

“The Valar choose their vessels wisely,” was all he said. “You give yourself too little credit for your path.”

Bilbo bit his lip. He took the dagger – his sword – and tried to fight away just how foreign the blade felt in his hands.

The elf noticed, Bilbo thought. He set his jaw thoughtfully as he leaned forward, as if preparing to impart a secret. “You seem to have an ear for stories,” the elf said. “If you would, I would tell you a tale now, of a youth who made a very big decision – in the days when there was no light, for the Trees' had been felled and the Sun and Moon had not yet arisen in the sky. A tale of an elf, who wished to serve his kinsman and lord . . .”

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Telling

During their first night away from Rivendell, the terrain leveled out enough for them to camp on a small landing in the mountains. Their location was better than some they had spent the night in before, the clearing being both easy enough to defend, and spacious enough so that they did not need to worry for rolling the wrong way in the night to a long and final drop.

With an ease that would have one time shocked him, Bilbo unpacked his place for the night, and then moved to help prepare the evening meal. Used to dining at full tables with food aplenty for the past two weeks, they were not quite ready to part from the fullness of their bellies, and so, Bilbo was elected to make his stew that night – cooking the hares that the youngest two dwarves caught with the ease of long familiarity. If there was anything a Hobbit was adept at, it was preparing supper, he thought. His neighbors would have been scandalized by how thin and . . . rugged, he had become over the trip thus far, he having gone so long without second breakfast . . . afternoon tea . . . dinner and supper . . .

His stomach rumbled, and that too Bilbo ignored. The wild was no such place for indulgences, and he had learned to do well without a great many things.

With their quest again underway, the company of Thorin was a merry gathering that night. The dwarves sung, Bofur leading them more often than not with his rowdy tunes and creative lyrics - most of which he improvised on the spot before encouraging others to do the same. After Bofur's songs quieted down, Balin took over, telling tales from Erebor in the mountain's days of glory. That night, he told a story of the royal family – mischief that Thorin had got into with his siblings Frerin and Dís, when they had journeyed beyond the mountain halls and stumbled upon children from Dale, and the ensuing chaos that day had then caused. Bilbo smiled mightily at the stories, amused to see their infallible leader as something young and curious and very . . . well, not Thorin. Afterward, Thorin scowled and asked the elderly dwarf why he delighted in shaming him, but there was fondness in his eyes when he did so.

When Balin's tale was over, and they were scraping the last of their supper from their bowls, Bofur turned to him and asked for his stories. Early on in their quest, his talent with lays and tales had gone noticed, and ever since then they had asked him for tales around the campfire. Bilbo answered readily enough, speaking the same stories his mother had once told him, or giving more fanciable anecdotes from the Shire. Though shenanigans with crops and fields did not interest the dwarves so much, Belladonna Took's tales kept them much interested indeed, and yet, tonight . . .

Each night, while his companions had gone their own ways and kept to their own company, Bilbo had sat in the Hall of Fire in Rivendell, listening to the songs and stories told there. The Elves, with their years and forever before them were careful to forget nothing, to remember all through songs and lyric, and Bilbo had listened to their stories, enraptured. There was one particular song – a song that all would pause to listen to when Lindir would pick up his harp, a solemn respect for the characters within that had touched Bilbo, a story of . . .

He was no minstrel. He had no talent with voice or song, but Bilbo could tell stories. And so he whispered the Lay of Lúthien in a solemn voice fit for the epic deeds of old. He told of Beren the mortal-man, who won the heart of the fairest maiden ever born, and the trials and tribulations of their love. He looked, but instead of seeing the same feeling of enraptured sadness the story had first given him, he saw indifferent faces all. Some even turned down in distaste. Óin pointedly took out his ear piece, and smirked when others snickered at his actions.

It was when he was repeating the words Lúthien sang to Death himself that Bofur got up and took over for him – making light of Lúthien's plight, turning the beautiful words into something of jest and parody. The other dwarves laughed and joined in with the refrain, catching up on the rhythm and turning the tale into a mummer's farce. A joke.

When Bofur's lyrics took a turn towards the insinuating, Bilbo stood, insulted for the memory of those the song was supposed to represent.

“For shame!” he exclaimed, jabbing a finger towards the ground and stomping his foot with his pique. “You should all be ashamed of yourselves.”

“Oh, sit down Master-baggins,” Bofur was still laughing. He threw the last bit of his bread roll at him – affection, Bilbo knew from his time spent with the Dwarves, and yet he was not appeased. “It was all a bit of fun.”

“And a great fun it was,” Glóin added, still chortling at the last of the lyrics. “It was the best part of the tale yet.”

Bilbo gazed at them, floored. “So, that is the way of it. The Elves remember your ancient tongues when you yourselves have all but forgotten them, and you go to them to read your map. You accept their hospitality - eat their food, steal their trinkets,” he rounded on a dwarf who was about to protest. “Oh yes, don't think I didn't notice your souvenirs. You wield their weapons as your own, but you cannot acknowledge that there is even the smallest bit of beauty in Lúthien's tale?”

He waited a moment. No one answered.

“That,” he said slowly. “Is unfortunate.” He fisted his hands at his sides then, so that no one could tell the way they shook. He felt that queasy feeling in his stomach that said that he would soon feel faint, but he pushed it aside. He was going to be brave. He let the Took in him speak, and the Baggins in him lay aside.

When Thorin rose to his feet, his clear blue eyes were dark. Bilbo thought about shadow beneath the mountain and the stone womb of the world when seeing the would be Dwarf-king as such, and he squared his jaw at the untouchable strength of the earth itself. “You speak,” Thorin said lowly – dangerously, Bilbo knew, “Of that which you do not know.”

“Don't I?” Bilbo replied. “You were wronged once before, that I know.” He saw eyes of stone around him. “Balin told me the tale, and that I do not try to speak against, or cast aside. I understand your anger; I acknowledge your cause for it. I am simply trying to say that this world would be a better place – a happier place - if you did not assign the blame for a few on the whole. It is a failing, too, that those who wronged you place at your own door, is it not?”

For oh, he knew how Lúthien's kin found their end – her father, the Elven-king of Doriath dead by dwarvish hands for the Silmaril set within its necklace of starlit stones, along with so many others before Beren the One-handed found the dwarves of Nogrod and took from them a payment of blood in kind.

Silence met him. Thorin turned, his jaw a hooked line on his face. “I have lost my taste for tales this eve,” and he turned away from him.

“What if,” he called after him, even though the Baggins within him was telling him to sit down. To sit down, and be silent. “What if I told you that I had a story about the sword at your side? The elf who wielded it – he was a bit like you, you know. He died facing a creature of flame so that his people would live. He sacrificed himself for something that he believed in . . . and when I heard it, I thought that that sounded an awful lot like something you would do. If it ever came between the dragon and the lives of your kin . . . I think I know what decision you would make. Swords choose their owners, you know, and that sword chose you for a reason.”

For a moment, Thorin stopped. Bilbo thought that he had reached him, that he had touched something, and yet -

Thorin kept his back turned, and took his place at the farthest edge of the clearing. Near to the edge of the mountainside.

And Bilbo sighed through his mouth, frustrated. He ran a hand through his hair, while the Baggins in him asked if he could simply sit down now. Please.

Kíli, who had been strangely silent throughout the whole of Bofur's impromptu song and the tense exchange of words that had followed, looked at Bilbo. Slowly . . . he nodded. “I would hear the tale of Uncle's sword, if you would tell it,” he said. His voice was at first shaped like a question, but it became stronger at the end. A certainty.

Fíli looked at his brother, and then at Bilbo. Very carefully, he did not look in his uncle's direction. “I would too.”

A moment passed, and then: “You had me from the beginning, laddie. Carry on,” Balin said gently, and Bilbo saw an understanding in his old eyes . . . a sadness as he glanced at the untouchable set of Thorin's shoulders. The finality in his turned back.

“It went,” Bilbo gathered his courage, letting his voice rise so that it would carry. So that all would hear. “Something like this . . .”

Chapter Text


Hidden

Years ago, he had been shown a vision from Ulmo, of high white walls and a valley unseen from the outside world. While his motives in building Gondolin were at first imposed by the wisdom of the Valar, his reasons had been more personal than even that. For he had not even reached the shores of Endórë before the land took much from him, before the land took all but for the child his daughter had been, wide eyed and stone jawed as they at last stood upon the land they had struggled for so long to reach.

And yet, white walls and encircling mountains had not been enough to protect his daughter from every pain, Turgon now saw. For, no matter how well hidden, love had found her, and now . . .

“He has asked for my hand,” Idril said softly, gently. They stood upon the uppermost balcony in the King's tower. The wind from the mountains was still warm with the last days of summer, but there was a chill underneath, promising the winter to come. “He wants to marry me, Atar, and I . . .”

This, Turgon knew. Tuor had come to him not even days earlier to ask the wish of his heart, and Turgon had been silent for a long, long time before replying. He had denied nothing to Tuor thus far, and who was he to start with his daughter's hand? If she loves you, if she deems that love strong enough to endure all that would befall you, then yes . . . not even this would I hold from Huor's son, the greatest gift I have within me to give.

His daughter.

His Itarillë . . .

Now Idril was silent and pensive before him. Her clear eyes looked beyond the mountains as the wind played with the long tresses of her hair, and yet, that was the only movement about her. She was impossibly still before him – immortal to the marrow of her bones, and Tuor . . .

Tuor would die, he knew. Tuor would join in the ever-sleep of his forefathers, and Idril would live. Live on and on as his body returned to the earth and his spirit to the One who had begotten him.

“What do you See?” he asked gently, for Idril had the gift of the uncanny about her. She was able to spy out the Song of the world even before it unfolded, and he had learned through tragedy to trust the wisdom of her visions.

Aredhel, do not go, for you shall not return as you are now, Idril had once pleaded. What can touch me on this earth, child? Aredhel had asked, her sharp eyes those of a hunting creature. And yet, the woman who returned to them so many years later had not been Aredhel the White but rather a tired and pale woman jumping at shadows. We should not cross the Ice, for Amil does not like to swim, Idril had been little more than a child with few words to shape her fears then, only clinging to her father's robes with white hands as they took those first steps and he felt her heart jump in her chest with a fear like none other. Do not worry, little one, for I am scared as well, Turgon had then soothed, for he had not understood.

And Idril had first seen Tuor Ulmo's-voice, and whispered, Atar, he shall be the death of me.

“I see starlight, of all things,” she answered after a pause, “I see a sea of heaven and a ship that navigates the stars. I see a great white bird on the ocean waves . . . and time . . . so much of it. I see Tuor with his white brow creased by age and his eyes heavy with mortality, and yet when he kisses the back of my hand I still feel my heart soar with love for him. I do not . . . I wish . . .”

For impossible things, Turgon understood. He remembered clawing at the Ice, and pleading . . .

His own heart was troubled in his chest. He could not stop its restless turn. Finally, Idril turned her eyes to him. She had come near to a decision, he knew. She knew her heart, she only needed that last push to accept its beat. To live with its pulse.

“If . . .” she started slowly, carefully. “If your time with mother was all that you were allotted . . . If you did not have the hope of someday seeing her again, if your time to love was all you would know for all of your days . . . Would it have been worth it? Would the pain you knew after make the joy before all but meaningless?”

For Idril would be no Lúthien with her enchanted choice. She would watch Tuor grow old and die, and live out the vast Ages of the world alone, her soul still tied to his past where the Mortal-men went with their deaths. Her choice would be final, and yet, until the day of Tuor's end, his daughter would know joy. She would know love, soul deep and true.

He thought of Elenwë then. He remembered the light in her eyes when they said their vows beneath the light of the Trees'. He remembered their joy as he watched her stomach quicken with life, as he felt his mind fill with the warmth of his wife and the first stirrings of his daughter's soul. He remembered Elenwë's hand in his own when there was no light to see by; no Tree nor sun nor moon. She had been strong then, so impossibly strong. We will go with you, she had vowed, determination flaring in her eyes like a memory of the light itself. He remembered being both awed at her courage and humbled at her resolve. He remembered feeling so very full with his love for her, so much so that there were times when he wondered how he did not burst from feeling so.

And then . . . he remembered the Ice swallowing both his wife and child in one fell swoop. He remembered Elenwë's desperation to push their daughter into Glorfindel's hold, caring not of her own peril so long as Idril lived, so long as Idril breathed. He remembered the cold waters swallowing him as he followed, as he reached and reached and reached until Fingon finally pulled him back kicking and biting at his hold. It is useless, brother, Fingon had tried desperately to calm him. Brother, I am so sorry. So very sorry - little one, come away from there. Your fingers are bleeding – brother! He remembered tearing his fingers on the Ice as if he could dig through to the cold grave of water below. He remembered feeling Elenwë's last breath in his mind, and the cord that bound them snapping. At even the memory, a familiar ache settled in his chest, unhealed even these long centuries passed.

He honestly considered his daughter's question, turning it over in his mind before giving her his answer. If his short time with Elenwë had been all that he was allowed throughout the Ages . . . if their bare century of marriage had been all that he was to ever know, even until the sundering of the world . . .

Would it have been worth it?

The answer was one he did not have to search for.

He turned to Idril, and reached out to tenderly cup her face in his hands. His heart ached with the decision he knew she would make. Through all of these years, he had wanted to keep her hidden from the pains of the world, but the greatest of pains were born from the greatest of loves. He would not shield her from one to deny her the other. He would let her live, and live in full. Through all that entailed.

“If I only had that one lifetime with your mother, it would have been worth it. No matter how fleeting our joy, I never would have traded it in when the pain came. The sorrow did not compare to the great love I knew before.”

There were tears building in her eyes, he saw. Both grief for the memory of her mother, and grief for the pain she would someday know. But there was joy beneath the sorrow, Turgon saw. Joy and wonder and an eager anticipation for the life they would live until that time – and live they would in full.

“I give you my blessing, and wish you every happiness,” he brushed his thumb over the curve of her cheek when a tear fell, and then there was no need for tears, for Idril was laughing - a bright and joyous sound that tugged at his heart. She threw her arms about his shoulders, and he embraced her, feeling his bond with her sing with her joy – with her wonder and amazement for the new love she could feel flourishing within her.

“I thank-you, Atar,” Idril whispered into his chest. Her tears whetted the front of his tunic, but he knew them to be shaped in joy. “I love you.”

“And I you, Itarillë. So very dearly.” He kissed the crown of her head before releasing her. She gave him one last smile, beautiful in its brilliance before she turned from him, no doubt to tell her beloved of her decision. Turgon watched her leave with a weight on his chest, an ache in his lungs - joy and pride and sorrow all at war within the depths of his spirit.

After her steps faded away, he turned back to the open air, looking past the mountains to the ocean and the West even further beyond. The wind picked up around him as he did so, teasing the long ends of his night-dark hair and the ornate folds of his robes. He turned into the caress, feeling . . . there . . .

Our daughter has a strong heart. She has your spirit, your capacity to love in dark places, he whispered to that empty place in his soul where once his wife been, imagining that somewhere, deep within Mandos' halls, she could hear him. That she could hear him and know.

The wind picked up again, and somehow, he knew that she had heard. Elenwë understood, and as he had done so many times before, he picked up on her strength and made it his own. He felt his spirit fill with her light, full as it had not been in so very long. And then the touch of her warmth was gone, fading away as a memory.

He inclined his head as the strange wind returned to the mountains, uttering a silent prayer to Námo in thanks for his gift, as extraordinary as it was. And then, he turned away. He had a wedding to aid in planning now, and there was much to be done.

Chapter Text

Seek

His voice had been crafted for music and song, but today he knew sounds of sorrow; of rage and despair - his vow rising in seven fold harmony with his brothers', all drunk on their father's rage.

"Neither law, nor love, nor league of swords . . ." they swore to seek, to hunt . . . To stop at nothing until the Silmarils were returned to their maker's hands.

" . . . Shall defend from Fëanáro, and Fëanáro's kin . . ."

Maglor could feel the notes of their vow wrap about their spirits, invoking eternal darkness as payment for failure. Their Oath, a terrible discord of voices, and then -

" . . . be Manwë and Varda our witnesses."

- silence.

.

.

Sneak

Though Maedhros was recovering, he bore the scars of his imprisonment even still. His skin was ashen, his body gaunt, and his hand . . .

"Brother," Maglor revealed himself, stepping from the shadows, "Let me."

"Káno," Maedhros greeted, anger trying to spark in his voice, but failing. "I suspected you were sneaking about."

And Maglor wished for anger, for fire, over the nothingness he heard instead. "Only to save you from your dreadful pride." His hands – two of them, both – were steady as they plaited Maedhros' hair for the night, a task now impossible for the other.

"Pride?" Maedhros snorted. "I feel it not."

.

.

Steal

The ringing of steel rose from the courtyard below. Determinedly, Maglor told himself that it was not his place to interfere, that Maedhros shared his weakness with Fingon and no other. But today there were shouts, not of war but of anger – hurt feelings and short tempers (crowns and blood), sparking and taking flame -

Fingon departed, and Maglor took his place. It was the first time he had held a weapon since . . .

. . . the thought was irrelevant.

"Morgoth stole your hand, not your soul," Maglor finally hissed, tossing Maedhros back his sword. "Now stand up and deny him that victory, if you dare."

.

.

Share

He had shared his family with Mandos before. He had mourned his father's death as a son, a child. Yet, his brothers belonged to his shield by blood and love, a bond greater than any vow of tongue. They were his to preserve alive . . . and he had failed.

Doriath burned - a useless slaughter, for the Silmaril still evaded their grasp. His fingers were slick with blood – slipping against the strings of his harp.

Celegorm, he plucked the first note . . .

. . . Caranthir, he strummed a second.

Curufin, and the chord was then three fold . . .

I shall see you again, Maglor mourned . . . but not yet.

.

.

Sell

The sons of Elwing slept, finally pushed into slumber by his song. Maglor himself kept guard, his lullaby waning only when Maedhros entered his tent, his gaze darkening over the children. Maglor tensed, holding the twins tighter - for their lives would come as forfeit only through the last breath of his own.

"You cannot buy their forgiveness," Maedhros snapped at his defiance. "Someday, they will hate you."

"I ask naught of forgiveness," Maglor returned fiercely, "for it is a coin greater than I can pay."

Forgiveness was impossible, but here the deaths would end . . . That was an oath he swore to freely and refused to break.

Chapter Text

Eärendil's rooms smelled of salt and the sea.

There was never a night when the windows were covered. Instead, the long white drapes billowed, dancing with the breeze that came in from the ocean. The sea had a heartbeat, Eärendil was fond of saying, and Elwing believed him. She could feel the tide as it breathed, as it echoed in her chest, matching the pulse of the jewel she wore beneath her nightgown beat for beat. In that moment, it's rhythm was too quick, crashing and retreating like the waves over the breaking rocks beyond. It was a cadence that only lulled when she slipped into the blue sheets beside him, already warm from the late hour of the night. At this point, his bed was more familiar than her own, and her own rooms no longer afforded her any comfort.

Elwing had never liked sleeping alone. While her family was still alive, she rarely had to. Eärendil never had siblings; he never had his bed invaded by wide eyes struck open by nightmares, not like she. At first it had struck him as odd, this arrangement between them, but she was used to the unconventional in her life, and he accepted her presence with minimal fussing after the third time she had sought him out as such. For the fact remained that once she had fallen asleep with him after talking late into the night, and now, she felt ill at ease in her own bed. In her own skin. She could not sleep otherwise.

She held her breath as she made herself comfortable, doing her best not to disturb him, but it was no use.

“Your toes are cold,” Eärendil muttered. “And sandy.”

Elwing carefully maneuvered her feet away from him. The movement disturbed the weight on the bed, and Eärendil sighed into his pillow, half awake.

“I thought that you liked the sand,” she returned on a whisper, giving her half challenge into the dark. Eärendil raised his head, allowing her a glimpse of a raised blonde brow and a clouded blue gaze.

“Sand or no sand,” he said, his voice deep from sleep, “one of these nights, your lord and lady will find you missing, and Celeborn shall then use me for target practice with the bow upon the morn.” His words complained, but he was not as disgruntled as he pretended. His mouth was fighting not to make a smile. It never was a very long battle, she knew.

Elwing rolled her shoulders. Her right elbow knocked against his own. “Galadriel knows where I go every night, and what the lady knows, the lord also does.”

At that, Eärendil opened his eyes fully. He spoke a curse of Men into his pillow, learned from Tuor when Idril pretended not to hear. Elwing raised a brow, letting him taste fear for but a moment before adding, “But she has said nothing. I think . . . I think she understands. Besides, it is a moonless night tonight, and neither were home to know I stirred.”

Each older than the sun and moon, Celeborn had been born in a time when there was only star-light to see by, and each night of the new moon, the couple would depart and walk the star-lit seashore in remembrance. She remembered accompanying her mother Nimloth on one such journey, listening as she was told tales of her people's beginning, of a time when the land was untouched by light and true darkness both. Now, there was the sun and moon, but also the Dark One in the northern-most black; and Elwing had neither her mother's songs nor her father's stories, just a holy jewel tucked in close to her chest.

She held her breath, and could feel the Silmaril pulse in time with the pause of her lungs. The jewel shimmered, warm against her skin. Sometimes, the gem seemed to have a heartbeat of its own. It burned as if aware of the world around it, and Elwing would touch the jewel only through the silk of her scarves lest it burn her skin. The Silmaril murmured at times, a low and rich voice speaking in the High Tongue . . . ever seeking . . . ever yearning . . .

Elwing closed her eyes, and wished that the voice would go away and let her be. She did not . . . she could not . . .

“What was it tonight?” Eärendil finally asked. She had shared her dreams with him during the earliest days of their friendship, when they had been children wide eyed in the sand as the Havens of Sirion were built around them; a balm on the wound of destroyed Gondolin and Doriath both. She had felt drawn to the boy with the sea in his eyes, he who had seen his home burn as she had seen hers burn. Even now she could feel the memories waiting behind her closed eyes turn to blotches of light and dark, harmless in shape. When he was near, they let her be enough for her to finally find peace in sleep.

She breathed in deep, and tasted salt in her mouth.

You make the ghosts quiet, she had told him. And it was true. The Silmaril quieted when he was near, letting her think, letting her remember in peace rather than in pain. She sighed and burrowed in deeper to his pillows.

“The same,” she gave her answer. “The same as always.”

Blood on the snow. The great trees of the forest underlit with flame. The Silmaril hidden away and yearning. The Silmaril hidden away and pleading; pleading even as Doriath burned, and her kin with it. She remembered Nimloth's silver brow turning as she pushed her daughter down the secret passes. She remembered Dior as he drew Aranrúth from its scabbard, for not only did Doriath pay in blood that day, with three of Fëanor's sons claimed by Mandos for their Oath.

“The nightmares will fade over time,” Eärendil's voice was gentle in reply. Even though he knew loss the same as she, already he remembered with fondness over pain. She did not know how he managed it, and a part of her was jealous for his easy way with his grief. His easy acceptance for the events that had shaped his life.

Her hands made fists in the sheets. She swallowed, and found that her throat was as a stone.

“I remember too,” Eärendil sat up, propping his head up on his hand and leaning his weight on his elbow. He had a growth spurt that spring, and was now taller than her. His face was turning sharp in places, chiseled bones now peeking through a child's flesh. “I remember that Ecthelion would make me whistles, and Glorfindel would play very poorly on them – both to raise Ecthelion's ire as much it was to make me laugh. I remember Eglamoth with his brightly colored armor and his way with stories. I . . . I remember my grandfather. He was very strong, very wise, and his eyes were like stars - like the eyes of your Lady. For he too knew the light of Aman, and we could see the memory of the Trees' reflected in his gaze.”

Too did Eärendil remember the demon of flame on the Cristhorn. He remembered Glorfindel blazing on brighter than even the Balrog himself, but he did not speak of that. He did not speak of Maeglin as he fell, of Tuor as he helped Idril find her feet on the snow covered passes in the steep mountain ways.

“I remember the first time I saw the sea,” Eärendil said in a voice that dipped into awe, a voice that took on a note of reverence. “And while I mourned Gondolin, I knew a kindling within me for the waves that bordered my new home. I knew I had found a place where I could belong.

“And then, when the Doriathrim joined us . . . I remember seeing you at your Lord's side, and wondering if you were quite real. You shone with such a light then . . . I thought you were the light, like the sun when it glittered off of the waves . . . I remember staring, thinking that you had to be one of the Ainur from my mother's stories for the way that you glowed.

“ . . . but you were just a child. There were no other children in Gondolin when I was born, and my mother had to explain to me that you were a little girl, a youth the same as me. I remembered being overjoyed at the possibility of knowing a new friend where I had lost so many.”

Elwing closed her eyes at his words, feeling them burn behind her closed lids. A light he had seen that day . . . not her own, but the jewel she had worn outside of her cloak. Sometimes, she did not quite know where she ended and the Silmaril begun. She did not know which was flesh and which was the hard facets of the jewel's casing. She did not know which was the light of her fëa, and which was the radiance of the jewel . . . incandescent . . . haunting . . .

Damning.

“It was not I which gave off that light,” she found the words passing from her lips before she could think to draw them back. She squeezed her eyes shut before slowly opening them, one at a time. At the curious look on Eärendil's face, she sat up. She took a deep breath, running a hand through the strands of her hair that had escaped the long plait of her braid.

“What do you mean?” Eärendil asked. His voice was patient, content as he was to wait for her to say what she needed to say. Sometimes, she found speech difficult, as if she moved at a different pace from those around her. She listened for a different voice; she answered with a different set of sounds.

She exhaled. She felt her lungs tighten with the loss of her held breath.

“It was this,” Elwing said, reaching beneath her braid to undo the clasp of the chain she wore the Silmaril on. She tugged, and pulled the jewel up from underneath her sleeping shift. Even hidden on her body, she kept the gem wrapped with linen to dampen the brilliance of its rays. As Eärendil watched, she unwrapped the jewel, holding it as she would a babe of flesh - something tender to protect, something precious to behold . . .

It was the first time she had shown another the jewel since Doriath. Even to show Eärendil, who was her dearest friend and truest companion, she felt something inside of her balk. She felt that something turn as a she-wolf, baring her fangs to any who would approach her den. The Silmaril was hers, that something hissed; hers to behold and hers to protect, so much so that the eyes of any other were like a black mark upon a white canvas.

But she told the voice to hush, and slowly pulled the folds of linen away. She felt wearied after the inner struggle, but oddly triumphant. For her will had dominated, and not the will of the jewel in her hands.

She did not let herself think of what would happen on the day when she would prove to be weaker than the voice in her mind. She did not let herself think of that – not when Eärendil's eyes were widening, and the dark room was filling with light . . . such a light . . . bright enough to block out even the stars from beyond. The light was more beautiful than anything the sun and moon could offer, a memory of the Trees' themselves, forever waxing and waning in differing amounts silver and gold, never allowing for true darkness to exist beneath the brilliance of their rays.

“The Silmaril,” Eärendil breathed, looking down at the treasure in her hands. “The bride-price of Lúthien; Morgoth's delight and Doriath's bane. The child of Fëanor's soul and great price of his terrible Oath.”

“It came to my father's care after Beren and Lúthien fell in death,” Elwing said. She felt something heavy gather in her throat as she told him so. “It was all he had left of her, and even though my mother pleaded and all in the court advised, Dior would not give it up when the Fëanorians came to claim what was their own. It was this you saw that day on the shore. This . . . and not I.”

Eärendil reached out a hand as if to touch the gem, before thinking better of it. He slowly pulled his fingers back, looking at her as if seeing her for the first time. The Silmaril's light painted his face in shades of incandescent light, painfully beautiful to behold. She looked, and felt an odd fluttering in her heart for how he appeared to her in that moment. She had the oddest urge to lean over and trace the line of his jaw with her fingers. She looked, and wanted to taste the pulse that flickered beneath the skin of his neck.

She blinked at those new thoughts, uncomfortable for their shape in her mind. At her thinking so, the Silmaril seemed to shimmer in her hold. The voice within whispered, laughing . . .

The Silmaril spoke as she imagined Fëanor must have sounded, all of those years ago. The Spirit of Fire, with his voice like a dancing flame, as warm and painfully beautiful as the belly of a star. It promised and cursed both, and yet Elwing could not look away when it shined with its holy light.

“I do not know,” Eärendil said slowly, his voice thoughtful in reply to her words. “It is true, the Silmaril is a rather pretty trinket.”

The gem pulsed in her hands, as if offended.

“But here, I see . . .” gently, he moved her hand so that it covered the jewel, dimming its glow. With his other hand he tilted her chin up so that he could look in her eyes - her silver-grey eyes, Lúthien's gift to her blood, shining with the glory of the twilight. “I see true beauty, true light. It was you I saw that day on the beach. The gem in your hands only enhanced what was already there.”

He folded the linen wrappings so that he could pick the Silmaril up and put it on the bedside stand, forgotten for the night. She felt her heart leap in her chest for the jewel being so far from her – for it had not parted from her hold since the night Nimloth had pressed it into her hands and told her to run. She wanted to protest, to take it back, but Eärendil was already lying down and motioning for her to do the same.

She did so stiffly, looking over his shoulder to the Silmaril beyond. She wanted . . .

“Sleep, Elwing,” Eärendil bid. “It will still be there in the morning. For now, it shall have no further claim on you, or your dreams. Not tonight.”

Elwing did as he said, her every moment stiff and unwilling. After a moment, she forced her heart to calm, admitting that she felt lighter with the jewel away from her chest. She felt buoyant, as if she were floating in calm waters. As if she had wings . . .

She burrowed in closer to Eärendil as her pulse slowed, as her breathing evened. Beautiful, he had called her. Her own light, he had seen . . . She thought of how the new lines of his face flickered underneath the Silmaril's light. Great the beauty of the gem had been, and yet, there was a beauty already there . . . Drowsy, in that place between sleep and awake, Elwing thought that she understood what Eärendil had tried to say. And, for that moment, she knew peace.

That night she slept, and she slept without dreams.

Chapter Text

Rebuild

The building was slow, but it was steady.

It was a small house they made between them - more of a cottage than anything else, really. Situated just to the north of Tirion, they were far enough away from the hustle and bustle of their people to not be apart of the din, but close enough so that they were not strangers, either. After being summoned by the Valar and taking a reborn Maedhros from Lórien, Fingon had stayed with the other in order to help him build his life again. There were few other demands on his time now, for there were too many heads made for crowns now as it was, and for once, he was free to do as he wished. In guilt and shame Maedhros shied away from most company as it was - seeking out only Nerdanel, or Elrond and his wife, whenever he wished to see anyone else. Once was, it was not so with his friend, and Fingon knew that he was where he could do the most good – both for Maedhros and for his people.

Námo has allowed this start for you, does that not imply forgiveness of the highest sort? he would argue whenever Maedhros fell into his blacker moods. You call yourself children of the stars, Death had said, but you are born of the earth, tied as you are to the length of Arda and her days. As Arda is marred, so is each of you, and mercy is given where mercy is deserved. Someday, at the breaking and reforging of the world, I shall need his spirit strong. I shall need him forged anew, and that is a forging that cannot be done within my Halls.

Fingon never had much skill with crafts, but he knew his cousin and dearest friend well. As such, this was a task he underwent with the greatest solemnity.

Oddly enough, the hardest thing in his second life for Maedhros to relearn was how to use both of his hands again. More often than not, his right hand hung limply at his side, all but ignored as he completed the majority of his tasks with his left hand. Sometimes, there was no avoiding using both hands – now, he could lace his own boots and braid his own hair – and then and only then would he remember to use them both. The first time Maedhros had peeled an orange without aid, he had proudly showed the skinned fruit to Fingon, and they had both laughed as they had not since they were both young men, and Arda was still in its spring.

At the memory, Fingon could still taste the tart juice of the citrus in his mouth. It was one of the sweetest things he had ever eaten.

His thoughts had taken his attention from his task, he realized as he blinked at the mirror. His braids were crooked from his inattention, and scowling, he raked his fingers through the locks so that he could begin again.

“I wonder,” came a voice from the door to his rooms. Always did Maedhros speak as if asking a question now, unsure as he was of his worthiness to speak. It was a tone Fingon looked forward to someday destroying completely from the other's mouth, “What would they say about Fingon the Valiant if they knew that he did not have the patience for something as simple as braiding his hair every morning? There was always a reason that you had no skill for crafts, Káno – you could never sit still long enough to develop them as such.”

“Valiant,” Fingon said wisely, huffing as he tossed his hair over his shoulder, “does not have to mean patient, as well. They are two completely different things.”

“And yet,” Maedhros returned, “valiance suggests a strength of character that would imply that such patience was a given, would you not agree?”

“Obviously,” Fingon scowled, annoyed, “you have proof enough to the contrary before you.”

At that, Maedhros snorted out a laugh, It was such an unexpected sound that Fingon turned towards it, feeling as sunlight breaking from a storm.

“Here,” Maedhros approached him, placing a hand on his shoulder as if to ask for permission. Again, the touch was hesitant. Again, it asked where Fingon would have the other know that he was always welcome to take. “Allow me?”

Fingon waved a hand. “Do what you would,” he said. “I was just going to wear it loose, and claim that my years in Endórë had the Moriquendi rubbing off on me.”

“There is always that,” Maedhros said, but he started to work the golden thread into Fingon's hair anyway. Even with one hand working easily and the other slowly, Maedhros still braided the plaits faster than Fingon would have done alone. Six younger brothers and too many cousins to mention meant that he was accomplished with his task, and his body remembered the habit of old before it remembered its loss.

He tied the plaits off, and then playfully tugged on the end of the last braid to let him know he was done. Fingon felt his warmth depart as he stepped away, and he reached up to touch his hair, happy with the result.

“Respectable once again,” Fingon commented as he stood. He looked at the other man, and let a smile touch his mouth with how uncomplicated his joy was in that moment. “Are you ready for another day of watching me wreck havoc on your plans, Russandol?”

The building was slow, and even slower still for Fingon's complete lack of finesse with the tangible arts. And yet, Maedhros did not seem to mind. If anything, his constant fumbling amused him, and Fingon felt as if he were building something more – something stronger than stone walls and a roof against the rain.

“With an offer like that?” Maedhros inclined his head, a red brow wryly raised. “How could I even begin to refuse?”

 

Chapter Text

Meet

If, years ago, someone would have told her that her entire world would come to revolve around one man, and the babe he held in his arms, she would have thought them to be quite mad. For she had set upon these lands with her desires clear in mind; lands. freedom. independence. In the script of her future, Galadriel had not inked in a place for the idea of a husband. The idea of a daughter.

But love had found her when she had sought it not, and she had given in to its call. If her desires had since turned to a desire to serve, to be a pillar beneath shadow, other considerations had still not come into her mind. Even after centuries of marriage, she had not thought overly much about children of her own. After all, she had been there in those early days when Celeborn took over Nimloth's guardianship upon his brother's death. She had raised Nimloth's daughter Elwing from a coltish girl-child to a woman overflowing with white light after the destruction of Doriath. She had even taken Elrond as her pupil until the day she left for Eregion those scarce years before - watching his sharp mind blossom and grow underneath the direction of her tutelage. In those young souls she had felt the needs of the mother in her to be quite met. It had been Celeborn who wanted a child of their own, and he had wanted so for many years. For centuries he had kept his silence out of her wish to wait for Morgoth's defeat, and after, she finally agreed - honoring the long years of their union, he knew as well as she, rather than bowing to any true desire of her own.

And now . . . now she wondered how she could have been so sure of her own heart, so sure of her own wants and needs. How could she not have known that she was empty, when she now was so full?

She was still weary from the hardships of labor, for that too she had foolishly thought a hardship for other woman, and not for her . . . that was, until the pangs started. Her eyes were bleary and her body ached, but her heart turned in her chest when she awakened to find Celeborn holding their daughter in the rocker by her bedside, quieting the babe so that she could sleep. There was something beautiful about them, Galadriel thought – both were so very silver and blue, like starlight on the water, and she knew a peace unlike any other at seeing them together. Her husband . . . her daughter. She looked upon them both, and thought only that there had never been such a beauty graced to her eyes before – her eyes, which had beheld the Silmarils in their spring, who had known the glory of the Two Trees themselves, who had seen the Sun and Moon rise for the first . . . All paled. None could compare.

Somewhere in the Halls, she was sure that Fëanáro was laughing for the maternal shape of her thoughts. She knew that her father would have looked softly upon her revelation, something knowing in his eyes as she understood something he had long since tried to tell her. Finrod would have grinned that cheeky grin that always provoked her, and told her that he was glad to see her so content. Where was the fierce Artanis with her goals and her visions and her hunger? This he would ask and tease, and she . . .she would have no answer, knowing only that she was Galadriel the mother and Galadriel the wife, and she could imagine no greater roll for her than that. It was the only part she wished to play now, the only crown she wished to wear.

Realizing that she was awake, Celeborn carefully moved to join her on the bed, sitting next to her atop the blankets so that she could see the tiny bundle in his arms. There was such a look in his eyes then, peace and contentment and joy – so much so that she was grateful for him recognizing the desires of his heart before she completely knew her own.

But then . . . often had it been so between them.

“Wise I once named you,” she said when she realized that her husband's smile was edged in triumph – he having heard her every thought as they poured into their bond. “Perhaps I was not completely wrong when saying so.”

“I have my moments, at the very least,” Celeborn's eyes twinkled as he passed the baby to her, and Galadriel had no clever reply then - for she was holding her daughter for the first time since the weary embrace she had taken after her labor, and her mind had room for little else.

When Celeborn drew away, she felt a stirring of irrational fear – she would harm her child, she thought. She would not hold her correctly, and then her daughter would cry. She was not made for this, at all, Galadriel feared . . . and yet, the baby settled in to the crook of her arms as if they were made to fit together as such. Instinctively, Celebrían turned in her arms, seeking the heat of her body, the comfort of her embrace, and Galadriel held her closer still, full with the love she felt then.

Nearly reverent, she touched the silver fuzz atop her daughter's head. She traced the pointed tip of a tiny ear, memorizing every shape, every soft place and gentle hollow on her daughter's body, wanting to remember her like this always. She hummed as she did so, finding old words gathering on the back of her tongue, drawn from a memory nearly as old as she . . . of Eärwen's cradle songs from the sea and Arafinwë's lullabies in the High-tongue. Each memory was filled with warmth and security both, even these long years passed.

Galadriel hummed, feeling the tie on her soul that bound her to her daughter's fëa as she did so. Already the pathway was familiar, and she walked it. She felt where Celebrían unconsciously committed the songs to memory. Someday, when she looked for the words to hum to her own child, they would come to her as instinctively as breathing. Galadriel lingered at her bond with her daughter, filling it with as much love and warmth as she could manage until the baby in her arms was all but aglow with the light consuming her fëa.

As she did so, she could feel Celeborn as he joined his consciousness to hers, adding a love and warmth of his own. For that moment, their small family was but one spirit, no ending and no beginning between them. Galadriel felt herself glow as the center of a star as their light mingled and burned on.

When she blinked, her own person once again, she still felt impossibly attuned to her husband and daughter both, no longer existing for just herself then, but for them.

Her daughter slept after that, her little body tired after their touching of souls. But her sleep was peaceful, full of golden dreams. Galadriel still rocked her, her lullaby fading to whispers on her lips.

When she looked up, Celeborn was gazing at her as if realizing his love for her all over again. She felt peace fill her as he wrapped an arm about her shoulders, pulling her close to lean against his chest. She rested in the circle of his arms, needing the continued touch of bodies after such a mingling of souls.

“That song,” he said into the silence that stretched between them. “Was it from Aman?”

“Yes,” she answered on a soft voice. “I did not realize that I remembered it until the words came to me.” When she spoke, her voice was hushed with memory. “I was the youngest of all of my siblings, and younger still amongst many more cousins. I never held children close and reveled in their growing years. Rather, I was always the one struggling to catch up, it seemed.”

And now, they were all gone. All of them but for Maglor, lost somewhere by the sea. . . . Celebrimbor, tinkering in the night beyond . . . Gil-galad on his throne, and Elrond faithful by his side. All of her once spiraling family had returned to Aman through death or the grace of the Valar – or had simply never left at all. They were gone, and she alone remained upon a darkened land for reasons of love and pride. It was not often that she second thought her decision to remain in Endórë, but in that moment, she did wish . . .

She wished that her father could have held his granddaughter when Celebrían was still small enough to be held. She wished that her mother could have been there to advise her though the days of her pregnancy. She had grasped for Eärwen's hand during her labor as she once would have found her parent's bed after her nightmares, but Eärwen was a sea away, and Galadriel could only grit her teeth and bear through her pain. She wished that Finrod was there to make his silly faces, eager to move her daughter to giggles. She wished to hear Aegnor and Angrod beyond her bedside, each bickering over who would show Celebrían the bow, and who would hold her first upon her pony. Then Orodreth would have dryly cut in and pointed out that that honor would most likely belong to the girl's father. Celeborn would have been gracious, she imagined, and say that while he wished to show Celebrían the bow, they could teach her how to throw their weighed Noldorin daggers, and that would start the debate all over again . . .

Galadriel wished for a hundred moments she would never have, even as she thought of the thousands of moments that were still to come in their life together. Someday . . . someday she would meet her family again, and they would love her daughter as if they had known her since her birth. Such was the way of kindred, no matter their sundering. This Galadriel knew, and this Galadriel forced herself to remember, the hazy hope of someday a balm against the loss in her thoughts.

She looked to the side, and wondered if Celeborn was thinking the same of his family. He had lost as much as she, for few from Doriath as it was still walked the woods of Middle-earth now. And yet . . .

We will have to be family enough for each other, then, she felt Celeborn's thoughts as they caressed her mind. He laced his fingers through hers, even when she still held their daughter tight. We shall hold on to this family, and watch as it grows.

She settled back against him, and felt as Celebrían burrowed in closer, following her as she did so. Celeborn the Wise, she infused her thoughts with her fondness, their bond with her love. Constantly do you prove it so to me.

As I was named, he returned wryly, so may I continue to be.

She raised a brow, but could not hold on to even a playful ire. Instead, she found a smile touching her mouth. She was silent in reply to his words, content as she was then to hold her family, and keep them as close as she could.



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Greet

The quays of Alqualondë were filled to the brimming with those awaiting the return of the grey ship from Middle-earth. Eärendil stood in a sea of eager faces, lost amongst the anxious and the joyous both as he kept a weary eye on the horizon, where a familiar stain of silver sails had just moments ago appeared against the twilit sky.

For Galadriel's return, her family was waiting with baited breath. Arafinwë was fussing with the hem of his robes as if he were still a child unused to ceremonial garb, and not a king wearing a crown that had been his for thousands of years. Eärwen swatted playfully at her husband's hands, but she too was keen for the return of her daughter, hungry as her eyes were upon the horizon. At their side stood each of their four sons, long returned from Mandos to life anew, and their demeanors all waxed and waned from the anxious to the delighted.

Further back waited Turgon and Elenwë his wife – both also long arisen from the Halls, standing by Idril and the immortal Tuor, who waited to greet the last remaining of their family from Endórë. They stood to observe, for the most part, knowing as they knew that they had centuries to come to know the family that had been sundered from them across the sea.

To Arafinwë's left was Melian herself, the once Queen of Doriath having taken on a body bursting with celestial light for the occasion, she a calm presence in the sea of curious whispers and eager eyes. She stood, awaiting both the White Maia to whom she was dear, and the woman who had once been her most cherished student – a daughter of her heart as Lúthien had been of her flesh. And then, she awaited to greet the great-grandson of her mortal daughter . . . At her side, Elu Thingol himself stood, and he sought only one on the ship – looking for his daughter's eyes in a long awaited face.

There would be many greetings, he knew, many indeed . . . and at that thought, Eärendil could not keep his hands from shaking. He tugged on the long ends of his braids, making sure that the intricate plaits were still in place. He made sure that the white of his robes was without wrinkles, that the circlet upon his head was not crooked. He felt as a green sailor approaching the sea for the first time, desperately praying for a journey free of storms. He had not felt this nauseous since he was first learning how to quell the sea-sickness within him, and now . . .

“Breathe, dear heart,” came the amused voice from beside him. “You shall be no good to any if you were to fall faint from lack of air.”

“You can be so calm - you had six years with them,” Eärendil could not help but complain, his words an anxious outlet for his restless energy. “I did not even have that . . . only stolen visits whenever we would put back to port to resupply. What . . . seven times, was that? Eight?”

“Five,” Elwing supplied for him, and there was a shadow in her eyes when she said so. She did not look at the sea with eager anticipation, but rather with trepidation. For Eärendil had been far from home out of necessity, for the good of all peoples, where she, by choice had . . .

He let the thought rest in his mind, turning it aside with the ease of too many sleepless nights alone amongst the stars. There would be many years to seek and earn forgiveness, Eärendil thought. They had paid a steep price for their decisions - and looked to pay even more still if their son understandably decided that he wished to have little to do with them. And yet, he could not help but hope . . .

Eärendil stilled his thoughts, and forced himself to breathe.

When he was starting to think the better of even coming – for surely this was a meeting best done in private, away from the eyes of others – Círdan's grey ship was already being pulled into dock by the Telerin mariners.

When he saw figures upon the boat, Eärendil had to force himself to stay back in the crowd. After so many years sailing above Ennor at night, he knew his son's face as well as his own. Elwing, however, did not have his stolen glimpses, and her look was greedy – as greedy as it once would have been upon the facets of her Silmaril. Her eyes followed Elrond as he made his way down the gangplank and then on to the dock at Galadriel's side. He moved slowly, Eärendil thought, worry rising in his throat at the observation. Much too slowly, and even across a distance he could feel the lines of blue that bisected his fëa – shattered lines from the Ring he had worn for so long, and at great price.

Yet, their view of their son was soon distorted by a streak of silver and white – Celebrían, who one moment had been waiting patient and poised by her grandparents' side, and then was all but throwing herself into her husband's arms, laughing like a child as Elrond picked her up and spun her about, grinning like a youth as he did so.

Elwing's hand turned crushing in his own. He looked, and saw tears burn at her eyes, even though she fought to keep them from their fall.

Eärendil watched as Olórin came with the two Hobbits next, one young and one old, but both with burdened eyes that lightened with their first steps upon the undying soil. They both smiled at the sight of the normally composed and grave Elf-lord acting as a love struck youth, and their smiles only grew when they saw how Galadriel was tugged this way and that as her family embraced her with tears and held her close with words of missing and regret for the manner of their parting. Always, the Golden Lady had been a pillar, and now, to see the mighty woman all but weeping as she turned to a child before those even more ancient than she was moving.

After the near tangible joy of the reunion lost its desperate edge, the crowd parted and bowed for the arrival of Manwë and Varda themselves as they took on bodies of flesh in order to welcome Olórin back into their fold. The Hobbits were all wide eyes and reverent awe for the majesty of the Valar, for the revealed glory of Gandalf their friend - who was transformed into a spirit of white light before their eyes. The wrinkled and weathered mask of Gandalf fell away to reveal a creature of holy flame and unsurpassed beauty – Olórin the Maia he was again, bowing before his lord and lady and receiving the warm thanks that were his due and humble delight.

All of this, Eärendil watched with held breath and burning eyes, waiting as he was for, when . . .

He did not know if his son was looking for him in the crowd, but he liked to think so as Elrond and Celebrían turned towards where he stood with Elwing. The crowd dutifully parted, as if understanding as the couple approached them, walking arm and arm as if even a moment apart was a moment too much. Eärendil watched them together, and felt his heart turn tight for how much he had missed. As they approached, Celebrían caught his eye for a moment, and her smile turned soft – encouraging, Eärendil knew from the centuries he had of knowing his son's bride.

Elrond looked unsure as he came to a stop an arm's reach away, as if internally debating whether or not he should bow or incline his head or offer his hand. How did one greet the son he had scarcely known, Eärendil wondered? Over six thousand years . . . how did one cross the bridge of so much lost time?

“Ad – no, Eärendil . . .” Elrond greeted, the words stiff and halting from his mouth. “I . . . it is a pleasure to meet you.”

Elrond finally decided on offering his hand, and Eärendil looked down, feeling a stabbing at his chest for the formality of the gesture before shaking the feeling away. Celebrían looked between the both of them, sadness touching her gaze before her brow steeled in determination. She stepped back, catching Eärendil's eye as she did so . . . and he . . . he did not think.

He embraced his son for the first time since holding him as a small child. He felt as Elrond went ramrod straight in his arms, his every bone stiff and unyielding. At first Eärendil feared he had made a terrible mistake. He wanted to draw away, to step back in shame, but he was unsure of precisely how to do so.

And then, he did not have to – for his son's fisted hands relaxed, rising instead to awkwardly hug him back. He felt as the body in his hold lost its cast of stone. Hesitantly, Elrond returned his embrace, and Eärendil closed his eyes, feeling each and every missing year as they settled in bone deep . . . Then he exhaled, forcing himself to think only of the years that laid ahead of them . . . the long years he would have to now make this right.

“Adar,” he heard Elrond whisper, and at the one word, something inside of him rose as if flying.

“My son,” he returned on a voice choked with feeling, and there they began.

Chapter Text

Stir

Melkor flickered as a wraith through Aulë's halls, casting his presence like a net, calling those of like soul forward as he flew through the belly of the blacksmith's forge. To those unworthy who perceived the weight of his might, they passed his precense off as nothing more than a terrible thought in the unwaking hours, a fell chill in the dead of night.

The work of Aulë was done for the day. The great forges had all but emptied, with only two of his brother's Maiar remaining to work through the night. Curunír first he recognized, a willowy and silvery white spirit whom Aulë spoke of well enough, but did not draw his interest long enough to linger.

Yet, at the second Melkor paused, his curiosity drawn. Strong hammer-falls danced against a white hot fold of metal upon the anvil, the rhythm seemingly resounding in Melkor's chest without a body to hold such a pulse. He gazed on, drawn by the Maia working before the forge. Where Curunír was white and silver, snow after a storm, this one was a flame, with braided hair the color of molten copper and catl's eyes, colored gold and wreathed by fire – a stare to rival the Flame Imperishable he had long sought in the time before time. Mairon, Aulë had named this one – the admirable, first in lore of the Earth-smith's house, and jewel of the blacksmith Vala's collection of spirit followers . . .

Entranced, Melkor drew nearer, joining the shadows to listen, and he heard . . .


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Taint

“The host of the Valar fight a loosing battle with Melkor. Or, at least, a battle that will be long and filled with discord,” the first was saying. “Many are those of fire who have joined his cause. Some from Oromë's fold too have joined, and even more still of our own ranks . . .” His voice was shaped in consideration, testing the waters. Melkor could taste his curiosity, like salt upon the skin.

“You speak treason, Curunír,” came Mairon's voice in return, scolding. “Everything he touches turns to ash. In the way of power he is the greatest of our Father's children. And yet, he lacks the order necessary for true control; complete conquest. It would be a folly for you to consider such a defection.”

“I have no wish to join the Fallen,” Curunír sniffed. “I merely know how to espy a formidable foe, Mairon.”

The golden one snorted, unconvinced. Melkor felt the hands of his will shape like talons then, hearing the undertone in the Maia's voice. He, who had sung the original counter-song, could hear that same discord in the blacksmith's voice now. Mairon may have spoken one way, but his thoughts were not quite as barbed as his words. His spirit betrayed him, ever searching and building, thinking in numbers and fixed figures and sums.

Ravenous, Melkor's spirit spread like a shadow - consuming.

“Yes . . . a formidable foe indeed,” Mairon whispered dubiously in return before turning back to his work, unaware of the shadow that had joined his own, ever there to stay.


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Form

One of the original spirits of fire, a Maia of Melkor from before the Music of Eä, Thuringwethil was one of the few of her brethren free from a Balrog's form. And yet, even being akin to her Master in body and mind, she had first thought nothing of the golden Maia Melkor had dragged in his wake when returning from the dwelling place of the Valar, where he had taken to haunting often as of late.

Mairon, she recognized the spirit even before he took a body once more. She recalled his song from the Music, how his clear voice had supported that of his master Aulë's, trying to chain the melody of Melkor's discord with order and strength; the iron wrought bonds of chains and the smoldering heat of the forge - a mere candle when compared to the flame of Melkor's might.

She had scoffed at her Master's newest pet until the first time Melkor had bidden him to sing - to create as Melkor himself could no longer wholly create. The Maia had paused - considering, planning, where Melkor himself would have pushed blindly ahead.

She had waited patiently, ready to judge and find the other wanting. And yet, from that first song, dragon scales and the great wings of a wyrm started to take shape from golden light. Power blazed from Mairon's spirit, reflected in the hungry cast of her Master's eyes, and Thuringwethil started to understand, just barely, why Melkor had coveted this one enough to steal him so boldly from underneath Aulë's nose.

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Rise

Thuringwethil's freedom of form and ease of movement often took her away from Utumno as a spy and messenger both, sent forth by Melkor's voice in her mind and greeted by silence when she returned to her tower, her duty done.

But Mairon was there that eve, concealed by the shadows but for his eyes of flame, unable to be veiled by the night. She let her eyes fall over him (ignoring the urge to touch, to come closer – flames drawn to flames as they were, tongues of fire burning all the brighter for the consuming of each other), instead turning to the long fall of fabric he held in his hands - shimmering indigo and violet at turns in the twilight, black like the spaces between stars.

“Heat rises,” he said in explanation as she donned the cloak. If she did not know any better, she would have thought his fair face to be blushing. “You shall fly whilst wearing this.”

Her lips drew back from her teeth, her smile revealing the pointed tip of fangs. The fabric fell from her shoulders like a shadow, blocking the starlight beyond and casting wings from her arms, as if she were a bat, a fell creature of the night sky.

“This is an unparalleled treasure, Annatar,” she praised sincerely.

“Annatar?” he raised a brow, his eyes questioning.

Her smile only grew as she backed to the edge of her tower. “Annatar . . . lord of gifts,” she translated -

- and fell into the night sky, only to fly.


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Suit

Where originally the Song of Eru had been order, neatly lined notes and carefully constructed chords, the land the Song birthed was now chaos, war and waste and division. Through fire, Mairon had seen a way to restore order to Arda marred – as he would melt down a metal not fit for forging, purifying it until it was worthy of craft.

When he first sold his soul to meet this final end, he did not foresee the depths this goal would sink him to . . . and yet, even now, he was unsure of what he would change if ever he had a chance to choose again.

“They call you Sauron now,” Melkor remarked pleasantly, standing from his iron throne in order to hover before his prostrate servant. He crooked a single finger beneath Mairon's chin, forcing the Maia to meet his master's gaze. “Sauron, the abhorred . . . Gorthaur, the cruel. Should I too address you so?”

He was unable to bow his head in the Vala's hold, Melkor's eyes holding him as firmly as his ungentle grip. “Whatever name suits my lord's will the best,” he answered dutifully, “so may I be called.”

Melkor's laughter was rich and full; all in his court shuddered to hear it.

“My admirable one, how you do please me,” Melkor praised, releasing him.

Mairon – Sauron – let out a breath, and swore that this too was done for unity, for order . . . And not for the rich flare of pride he felt, deep within him; an ember coaxed to flame by Melkor and Melkor alone.

Chapter Text

Anew

Often, King Ingwë of the Vanyar would send his sister to be his eyes and ears in Tirion, granting the grace of the fair ones to the court of the Noldor, each offering wisdom and taking council in return as their peoples learned and grew together. Once, before they had walked the shores of hallowed Aman, Indis had been close in friendship with both the King of the Noldor and his Queen. Once, the three of them were only apart when they had to be, and now . . .

Now, it was all so very different, Indis thought. For the white of Míriel's flame had fled bright Tirion, and even the undying fields of golden Valinor seemed to be that much dimmer in her wake. Dimmer still was Finwë himself; wilted as a strong tree from a storm.

Upon seeing him as such, Indis felt her spirit ache for how much he had changed since she saw him last. Once his broad shoulders and easy strength had held his people together through the Great Journey. Now he looked like a worn and weary creature to her eyes. He looked faint around the edges. Wraith like, almost - not all as a firstborn of a race in the spring of their existence.

It was not to have been like this in Aman, she thought. Shouldn't they have left all such black feeling behind in Endórë? Were these lands not hallowed lands? Lands of peace and plenty?

If Aman had not brought her the peace she had hoped it would, she already knew the shape of her spirit's discontent. Since she could first remember, something had always been missing from her heart, and yet, she had thought that her years had taught her how to rise above the wishes and desires of her spirit. All too often, she had heard the story as it was told . . . of first looks and glances that knew. Her kind, for all of their uncountable years and forever found their bonds of souls within moments more often than not, and she . . . she knew from the first upon meeting Finwë Noldóran that she would love none other for as long as she would live.

And yet, it was an empty attachment her fëa made, for he was bound to the woman who was a silver flame at his side. Just as she had awakened at Cuiviénen and knew that Ingwë was her brother, Finwë had awakened and known that Míriel had been made for him as his mate, and he had never questioned her place in his heart. After a time, Indis had grown to care for Míriel as dearly as she cared for Finwë, filling in the loss of a mate with the gain of a sister all but blood. She had thought to have triumphed over the needs of her spirit, finding friendship and the great affection of comrades. She had thought it possible to sustain herself solely on this.

But now . . . now Míriel was gone, and a piece of Finwë was gone with her. Míriel was gone, and Indis . . . Indis was much the same, longing for things she could not have.

The hour was late. In the sky above, only Telperion graced the land with her silver light. While there was never true darkness in Aman, there were hours of slumber when the land took its rest. All slept but for the King within his gilded halls, wandering the gardens as if his answers to his sleepless nights could be found within slumbering bloom and bubbling fountain.

When Indis first saw him on the garden path, she had thought to turn away. And yet, there was something in her heart that instead drew her closer to him. She did not want to be alone that night, and neither did she want to leave him to his solitude, and so, the solution was simple.

When he gestured, she sat down next to him on the lip of one of the more ornate fountains. The singing waters were a cold shade of silver in the Treelight, leaping and playing in gay refrain. The night hummed with its own music as it stretched.

“You are burdened, my friend,” Indis said to Finwë's silence. In her words, there was an invitation for him to unburden his soul if he so wished. “Why are you still awake this eve?”

A long moment passed, so long that she did not think he would answer her. And then . . . “It is too quiet in the night,” he said on a voice no more than a whisper. “It is a quiet that does not burden me in the light of day, when I have much to distract me. At yet . . . at night my rooms are too empty, and when I do find sleep, Fëanáro wakes me more often than not. He cannot feel me when I take my rest, and with a child's fear, he is terrified to think that I too will fade away in the night . . . He should not have to fear so. Not here . . . not in Aman as it was promised to us, and as a result I do not sleep most nights.”

They were sitting very close, but still they did not touch. There was a careful space between each of their bodies, as if to come any closer would be to break some forbidden rule, to cross a line that only existed in each of their minds. Once was, Finwë had been easy with his affections. Hand in hand they would walk, arm in arm, even; with Míriel on one side and she on the other. A hand would touch her cheek fondly, and Míriel's laughter would greet her like a caress. Now, Finwë was careful not to touch her, and Míriel would never laugh again, and Indis . . .

When she reached out to carefully take his hand in her own, he seemed as startled as she by the boldness of her actions. He looked down, as if captivated by the way her small fingers fit into his much larger hold. The pad of his thumb was callused from the long years of their flight from Endórë, but she knew no sweeter caress than when he traced the fine bones on the back of her hand, finding a pattern previously lost to her. Her heart leapt in her throat, in fear as much as fulfillment . . . and yet, the touch did not startle the night. It did not break the peace of the silver light bearing down on them.

For a moment, she did not breathe.

“And you?” Finwë asked. He stared down at her hand, swallowed within his own. “What keeps you awake this eve?”

Indis found her throat thick when she swallowed. At first, she thought to keep her truths to herself, but found that she could not . . . not with Finwë and his eyes like the starlight on the water and his hand warm and tangible upon her own.

“It is quiet in the night,” she answered his words back to him. “My rooms are too empty, and when I do find sleep . . . dreams awaken me more often than not. They are cruel things, teasing me with that which I cannot have.”

For their people loved once and only once. Finwë's soul was still bound to his wife, even in death, even beyond the circles of the world . . . But Míriel had chosen death. She had chosen to abandon her husband . . . her fëa sucked dry by the inferno of her son, so much so that her hröa had no choice but to fade as well. And Indis . . .

. . . Indis longed and Indis loved. Were they three some great flaw of their kind? she wondered. She, the grieving husband, and the wife who abandoned them all? Were they some mistake of creation to feel so . . . to yearn so? For it did not feel wrong; the contentment in her heart, the completion in her soul when he was near . . . it did not feel unnatural. It did not feel like sacrilege, like a dark and evil thing.

Indis reflected, but found that she had no answers . . . not that night. Instead she held Finwë's hand in her own and leaned her head to rest against his shoulder, both taking in the comfort of the other and offering comfort in return. Together, they waited for Laurelin to greet the world with her light, and rose once more with the dawn.

.

.

Birth

At first, Findis had looked on the idea of another sibling with no small amount of trepidation.

After all, she already had one brother, and one was quite enough to her mind. Half-sibling, Fëanáro would say with his lip curled up in a way that she had since learned was distaste. Distaste, like the way one would crinkle one's nose for mud upon their shoe. It did not trouble Findis much, not any more, at least. She could crinkle her nose just as well as he could, and she would not let her father's son look down on her without turning her chin up haughtily in reply.

Noldorin stubbornness, her mother had called it. Vanyarin sensibilities, her father had returned, and there was not sadness upon his brow so much as a shadow when he spoke.

Always, Findis would try to make each of her embraces that much tighter whenever Fëanáro turned away from their small family. As best she could, she tried to assure her parents that she was okay, that his coolness did not sting. And it was true . . . a part of her could feel the angry flame of her brother's spirit, and knew sorrow for it. She did not understand the looks her family received from others when they thought her father was not looking. She did not understood the whispers and the hushed rumblings of Míriel that the Noldor would offer like a reverent hymn . . . She did not understand, and she did not wish to - for this was her family, hers, and even if they were different, their home was still filled with laughter and love and light. It was still a home. Her home.

. . . what could be unnatural about that?

Findis understood in the simple way of children, and while she was strong enough to stand beneath the weight of Fëanáro's disregard, she did not . . . she did not think that she would be strong enough to do so with two brothers.

As a result, she watched her mother's stomach grow round with an ever growing unease. She dutifully came when her mother called her close to feel the baby kick within her stomach. She even pressed her ear to her mother's belly once when she was sleeping, following the ever growing tug on her spirit that she would later describe as the first stirrings of hope.

Her brother, Findis tried to reason the words out in her mind. Her brother; not half, but whole . . . Her brother, born not of a shadow of a woman and the warm heat of her father, but of her parents. Her parents both.

And yet, even for all of her careful reasoning, Findis could not possibly understand what a brother truly meant until the day after his birth.

The day before, the house had been filled with the sound of her mother's screams. The pain of birth was natural, Findis' nanny had assured her - the pain was life as it was born, and not something to be feared. While Findis had listened with a solemn understanding and a fervent desire to be brave, she was still scared for the tension in the air, for the fear in her father's eyes. For everyone knew how the trauma of birth had killed his first wife; Fëanáro's fire sucking up every last bit of Míriel's soul and leaving it dry, or so the whispers said.

Findis knew the naked flame in her half-brother's eyes, and she believed the whispers of the maids. She had even told Fëanáro once, after he had been especially cruel. She had not understood how she had been the one sent to bed and scolded when Fëanáro had stormed out from the palace in a rage. Even as her mother dealt with her crossly, she had felt satisfaction bloom deep within her for being able to hurt him as he hurt her – for she had seen the way he had flinched, as if recoiling from a blow, when she threw the words at him. No matter how quickly he had tried to hide it, she had seen his pain, and she knew. Afterward, she had not understood why she was the one punished for the truth. After all, she was ready to be Fëanáro's sister as Indis was ready to be his friend – if not his mother. She did not understand why he would not accept his family as it was offered to him.

And now she was terrified that her new brother would steal her mother's soul as well. Would Indis fade and leave her as Míriel had left her son? Would her brother's fire be as terrible as Fëanáro's as a result?

Findis had asked her nanny the questions weighing on her mind, but the woman had no useful answer – just wide eyes that turned sad as she whispered about the Valar and their ways. Useless, Findis had thought before deciding to take matters into her own hands. Very carefully she knelt by her window, facing the direction of the mountain of the Valar. She shaped her prayers in her mind, pleading for Námo to hear her, pleading for Death to let both her mother and her brother be . . .

. . . and then the screams had turned so very loud. Fervently, she had asked the Lord of Souls to take her fëa if need be, but not her family, anything but them . . . She had fallen asleep with her prayers on her lips, exhausted and heartsick, and only years later would she understand that dreamless sleep as Námo's kindness in answer to her pleas.

The next morning, Findis was called to her parent's rooms. While she carefully looked at her mother for any sign of fading – and thankfully finding none - Indis asked her to sit, and then showed to her a bundle of white blankets and pruned red flesh. Dutifully, Findis had copied her mother's hold when her brother was given to her, carefully supporting his head and cradling his little body with her arms. She swallowing back the fear that said that she was holding him all wrong. She would hurt him, and the fear she felt for that thought was so sudden and strong that it nearly took her breath away.

“Do not fear, little one. Infants are stronger than they look, and you will not hurt him,” Indis whispered, her voice lullaby-soft, and Findis had believed her.

And so, Findis summoned her bravery, and held her little brother all by herself. She cradled his small body, surprised that something so tiny could already give off such a warmth. He was all purple skin and folds of wrinkled red flesh – not particularly pretty, Findis thought, not at all like her dolls. But there was something about his grey eyes when they flickered . . . something about the way his small hand batted at the air as if searching.

Findis offered her finger to his questing grip, and there was such a strength in his tiny hand when the baby squeezed. His eyes found hers, and she thought that he had to have known who she was. She felt the first stirring of that bond between souls, flaring into existence with the touch of skin on skin, and all of a sudden, she could not understand how she ever had cause to fear. How could she have feared such a joy? Such a rightness settling into her spirit?

“What is his name?” Findis asked, her voice soft with her awe.

“Nolofinwë,” Indis answered gently. Great wisdom, Findis translated, and she nodded, accepting her mother's insight for what it was.

“Nolofinwë,” she whispered. “My name is Findis . . . and I am your sister.”

Sister. Not half, but whole. Already her heart ached with the idea. She held her brother for as long as she could that first time, refusing to give him up until her arms turned weary from the strain and the baby started to turn restless in his need for food.

She did not leave her parent's rooms, even after giving her brother up. Instead she crawled into her father's lap as her mother took Nolofinwë to nurse, and Findis curled into the warmth her father gave off like a furnace as Finwë held her close and whispered how much he loved both she and her brother against the crown of her head.

Her family, she thought drowsily, content in that moment as she was. Her family . . .and no matter what anyone else would say, that they would always be.



.

.

First

They ducked into the stables when the storm hit.

There were never true storms in Aman, not like those that tore apart the land in her father's stories of Endórë across the sea. Overhead, the sky took on a cast of silver-grey, dimming the last rays of Laurelin's light as raindrops fell fat and steady on the world below. The land was full with life and growth in that moment, filling Nerdanel with the song of the heavens down to her very bones.

At her side, Fëanáro did not appreciate the rain as she did. Moodily, he pushed his wet hair back from his eyes as he looked darkly on the sky above. The black of his ruined braids was the glossy shade of a raven's wing when wet, the molten silver of his eyes nearly black with his annoyance. She saw the hooked line of his mouth – normally a mark of victory when it was from her doing – and felt her own mouth turn upwards in reply. Her skin prickled as with static, like the sky before storm-light struck.

“Do you not care for the rain?” she asked, a note of teasing sinking into her words – soothing the flame of his temper as one would put a shade about a lamp.

He raised a brow, scowling in a way that reminded her of meeting him for the first on the road. He had been covered in mud, the wet earth obscuring the emblem of his house on his cloak and dimming the circlet at his brow. His horse had been limping from a tossed shoe, and as moody as his rider as they saw her coming on the lane. Imperiously, he had imposed upon her for her aid, commanding her arrogantly and blithely assuming her ready compliance with his orders. She had left him with a few choice words of her own, and galloped away in a righteous pique, kicking more mud on him as she rode off. When he showed at her father's forge as Mahtan's newest apprentice later that day, revealed as Finwë's son in all of his glory . . . well, she had not apologized, but time had done much to turn the words between them from scathing to teasing, at the very least. If anything, her hot words had him circling back time and time again, leaving her dizzy with their dance.

“Not particularly,” Fëanáro grumbled in reply to her teasing. He reminded her of a barn cat for the way he was trying to wring out the end of his braids; his claws out and all but hissing.

She let her own hair lie where it was, not caring that long strands escaped her braids to hang wetly in her face. The rain was cool against her skin; its taste was sweet against her tongue. “The great Curufinwë Fëanáro, threatened by a bit of sky-water?” she teased, slanting her voice mockingly across his full name. “Wait until Tirion hears of this.”

“I am not threatened by the rain,” Fëanáro protested. “Just . . . vexed. There is no order in the storm.”

Nothing for him to control, she heard the unspoken in the words. His face crinkled with the thought, reminding her of her baby sister when she refused to eat her mashed peas. The comparison made her smile, but she did not tell him so. She did not, for he was looking at her oddly then . . . his eyes lighting in a way that made the static on her skin seemingly pool in her stomach.

She bit her lip, suddenly wary in his presence as he leaned forward to brush the wet strands of her hair from her face. His fingers were callused against her skin, but the play of softness and roughness only turned at something deep inside of her. Gently, he tucked the copper curls behind the point of her ear, brushing the tip with his thumb as he did so. His eyes flickered down, as if mapping out lines between her freckles before his gaze settled on her mouth. And then -

It was her first kiss, Nerdanel thought a bit breathlessly. She kept her eyes open so that she would not miss a moment of it; her mouth tingling pleasantly as she pressed her lips more firmly against his. Her first kiss . . . but she would not tell him so. She felt the static in her stomach turn to lightning then, suddenly full as she was, as full as the earth with the rain beyond.

Briefly, she entertained the idea of slapping him . . . this arrogant princeling of a man, who thought he could have anything and everything he wanted, playing with the homely smith's daughter as a cat would play with a ball of string . . . and yet . . . Something inside of her twisted, hoping, that maybe . . .

She pulled back, feeling something within her blooming like a new flower upon a vine, seeing the bright flame of his eyes brighter than she had seen it yet. He looked oddly uncertain then, oddly vulnerable, and it was the fear she saw there that touched her more than anything else. His skin was warm to the touch, too warm . . . and then she made her first kiss her second, and stayed so with him until the rain ebbed beyond.


.

.


Begin

“Yes, just like that – only, be sure that you support his head.”

“Thank-you,” Nerdanel said as her goodsister arranged baby boy more securely in her arms. “I was very young when my sisters were this small, and I must confess that I have forgotten much.”

“It is like learning to speak,” Findis said, her mouth quirking up as she said so. “It is impossible for your mouth to forget words once they are learned, and a baby too is as such. See, you are already a natural.”

Nerdanel smiled down at the baby, cradling his little body close with the ease of instinct. The child was all softness and warmth in her embrace, as if she held a swaddled ember within the sea of embroidered blue rather than a babe of flesh and bone.

Findis released her brother to her hold, but looked ill at ease to step away completely. While the King and Queen of the Noldor were busy accepting the blessing and well wishes of the court at the feast that welcomed their youngest son to the world, Findis had taken her brother's care upon herself rather than leaving him to the keeping of a nanny. She clasped her hands together as Nerdanel held him, as if to give her fingers something to occupy themselves with.

At first, Nerdanel had approached the child out of obligation, and she was but one in a long line of well wishers. The place at her side was empty, even though she had not come alone. Fëanáro had disappeared shortly upon arriving, leaving the festivities behind in order to sequester himself in one of the empty rooms in the palace - no doubt to brood in silence until it was socially acceptable for them to take their leave. She would not have the court speak of her husband's slight, and so she made sure that her bland smile was securely in place as irritation flooded through her veins. Irritation and frustration both.

She . . . she had done all that she could to help calm the raging within her husband's soul, and she would be able to do no more until they were alone and away from the blinding light of Tirion once more. Until then, she would not be rude to their hosts for the evening, and she would certainly not turn away the chance to hold her newest kinsman. She did not carry Fëanáro's disdain for Finwë's second family – and, in truth, Fëanáro did not either. He feared his sibling's place in their father's heart, he feared them for the replacements he thought them to be . . . but she had seen the memories themselves in his mind. He had smiled the first time he had held Findis in his arms, before thinking about how much like Indis she looked, and then his walls were in place once more. He watched Nolofinwë as he grew from afar, quietly marveling over the quick rise of his mind and the clever cast of his words – all to himself, and never aloud, of course. When Lalwendë was born, he had spend an entire week in the forge, crafting an intricate mobile of warm copper and softly glowing gems that would hang above her crib – a crib he would never visit.

And now, with this last child . . . Arafinwë he was named, and where Nolofinwë looked alike to Finwë and Fëanáro both to the point that it was uncanny, this boy was already all happiness and wide grey-blue eyes, the gold of his mother's Vanyarin hair a fuzzy halo about his head.

“Already he is such a smiling boy,” Nerdanel said, her heart completely stolen.

“He is,” Findis agreed warmly. “Nolofinwë was so solemn – he looked as if he was taking everything in and learning, even in his earliest days. Arafinwë sees joy in this world.”

“He will be a light upon your family,” Nerdanel found herself whispering, and though she had no gift with portents and futures, she heard the prophesy there nonetheless.

“A light that is so desperately needed within a family of flames,” Findis commented wryly. “He will be a buffer in many a storm, already that I can see.” Findis' words tapered off as she spoke, a pale blonde brow raised as she took in the sight of Nerdanel and the baby in her arms. “You look well with him, if it is not impertinent of me to say so. You and my half-brother have seen over a decade of marriage already, is a child in your future?”

The question caught her like a blow, unaware. Nerdanel blinked, her customary reply of not just yet every time her mother asked, and the future holds what it holds to everyone else suddenly changing to, “Fëanáro does not wish for children.” The words were dropped onto the air like rain upon the ground, fat and splattering.

She had not realized how much the words hurt to say until she spoke them . . . spoke them when the baby boy in her arms was such a warm weight, his smiling mouth snaring at something deep inside of her and pulling.

“Oh . . . I am sorry,” Findis said, her cheeks flushing as she realized what she had unwittingly stepped into. “I . . . I only meant to say that Fëanáro did not allow himself to enjoy his father's family as it grew. I had thought that, with a family of his own . . .” her voice faded, speaking not to Nerdanel in that moment before her eyes cleared. “And yet, it is rude of me to speak where I have no such say. In whatever shape your family continues on as, I wish you both every possible happiness.”

“You are family,” Nerdanel said, and found that she meant every word. Meant them even where Fëanáro pretended that he did not. “And, as such, I welcome your counsel. I thank-you, Findis, for your insight.”

Findis nodded, still uncomfortable, and yet Nerdanel had no wish for her to feel so. It was . . . an old argument between her husband and she. An endless circle of words and their weight.

The Valar be damned, Nerdanel, but why can't you understand that it was my birth that killed her! he had once smashed the bust she had been sculpting in rage at her inability to let the subject go. I killed her! I drained her of her very soul - drained her to the point that she yearned for death and found it. Do you not understand how that would destroy me if I were to do the same to you? Can you not understand that I would not be able to bear it?

At the memory, she felt her heart twist, each pain her husband felt shared and experienced a hundred fold by her. Her spirit ached at the memory, and as if her distress had summoned him, she looked up when a hush came upon the crowd. A hush that meant . . .

“Fëanáro,” Nerdanel greeted as he approached, more warmth leeching into her voice than she would normally allow in such a public place. The crowd parted for him like water around a stone, whispers behind hands filling the air as Finwë caught his son's gaze at the head of the room and tried to hold it.

I am not . . . If you too were to fade away . . . Already my mind hangs upon a precipice, and there are times when I fear the flames that burn within me . . . I know, if you were ever to leave me, in any way . . . I am not strong enough to bear such a thing.

And then, softer . . .

It is why I cannot understand why he needed another after her. You consume me, and the idea of sharing my soul, my body and mind, with any other . . . What about me was so lacking that he felt the urge to seek another wife? To bear another child? What about me was not enough? Or, did I simply remind him of her to the point where he could not bear to look at me? Indis is everything Míriel was not, and perhaps he needed that . . . needed something more . . .

His own deepest thoughts and fears were those the court so callously whispered now, striking her husband as much as they struck the King on his throne. But Fëanáro ignored the whispers, tilting his head up as if in challenge as they grew. Just the same, he ignored his father's stare – the flickering there, as if looking for approval, for forgiveness - as he took his place by his wife and the little prince she held in her arms.

Nerdanel watched his gaze as it flickered, as it swallowed, taking on a note of the possessive and the consuming. It was a look she had known since he had first expressed his desire to court her, and she had turned him down, thinking him to be insincere in his wishes.

Now it was a look that sent heat up and down her spine. It was a look that sent a yearning to the deep parts of her bones. She understood then that a child was a desire of his heart as much as it was of hers, and she wished . . .

“Your brother,” she tilted little Arafinwë in her arms, and for the first, Fëanáro did not correct her. He did not say half as he rested one hand upon her shoulder, and lifted another to touch the soft down of the babe's cheek.

Arafinwë, delighted by the new face before him, reached out and latched onto Fëanáro's finger. He gurgled happily as he tried to stuff the captured digit into his mouth, and rather than draw his hand away, Fëanáro smiled. There was something soft about the look, something tender. Nerdanel felt her stomach twist as if before a great fall, knowing that if she pressed the issue again, her husband would give . . . her husband would break.

And in that moment, she yearned so very dearly.

I will be no Míriel, she thought fiercely. I will not blaze on and out from the heat of you.You will find that I am no such empty flame, to be so easily blown out..

The words were a lie, she would someday come to know, but not in the way she thought them then.

For then, her bond with her husband meant that Fëanáro caught on to the tail end of her thoughts, hearing them as words spoken into his own mind. She felt his soul shimmer, full as it was with love for her, and she knew . . .

When she passed Arafinwë back to Findis' arms, the baby's face actually turned down for the loss of Fëanáro to his eyes. At the same time, she felt her husband's puzzlement when he realized that he too had no wish to give the boy back to his sister. He wanted as she wanted then, and Nerdanel felt hope blaze in her mind as she took his hand in her own.

Seven children, she pushed her challenge across her thoughts to him. I want seven children.

Seven children? Came his reply, playful over the undercurrent of unease he felt, the undercurrent of fear.

Seven . . . six sons, if you wish, but I would like at least one daughter, she confirmed, raising a brow in reply. That is . . . unless you feel yourself unequal to the challenge.

Never that, came the low promise in reply, a heat in his thoughts, ever waiting as embers to take up as flames. And yet, you suggest that we do little else for the next foreseeable century or two . . .

Uncaring of the court and their eyes, Fëanáro turned, and captured her mouth in a short, breathless kiss. When he drew away, he did so only so that he could share her breath. A hand rested on her cheek as he looked on her in humble awe, and once again, the flicker of vulnerability there . . . the flicker of fear, stole her heart anew.

“I promise to live,” she said aloud, giving her vow, swearing her oath. “You will not be rid of me so easily, Curufinwë Fëanáro.”

He did not answer her, but he did rest his brow against her own, and a part of her once again marveled that she could be something strong for the impossible flame of his spirit before her. She could be as cool water and winding river, soothing the great inferno of his soul.

A child, she thought, something giddy rising within her for the thought. Then, a child they would have.

Chapter Text


See

Earlier, the halls of Aulë had been chaos – accusations and flames and laughter filling the air as secrets were overturned and loyalties were revealed. Curunír alone had had to fight to conceal the satisfaction he had felt at Mairon's betrayal – confident that with Aulë's admirable one now gone to the fallen, all would see him loyal and powerful at his Master's side, as he always had been . . . That night, after his fellow Maiar departed, he returned to the forges, wishing to see the head place of the workshop – his place, now that the other was no more.

His thoughts faltered when he turned the corner to see Aulë himself sitting still and unblinking before Mairon's place. The Vala's great shoulders were hunched and his strong face was etched with grief as he rested a hand upon the anvil, as if he were a tangible father of flesh and bone mourning the loss of a child. Curunír had never questioned his worth in his Master's eyes before. Maiar were tools – the same as a steady chisel or a strong hammer, and he had never . . .

But Aulë lingered, tears unfalling from a body that had not the ability to weep - and Curunír stood, transfixed. He watched until the Lady Yavanna herself entered the forge, a place she normally loathed, to comfort her husband. Her touch (that had made the great forests reach for the heavens, that had coaxed the first harvest from the land) was soft on the stone of her husband's brow. The nest of antlers atop her head bowed with her grief, shared as it was from her husband's soul. Not a word was said where none were needed - until, finally, Curunír stepped back into the shadows, his victory hollow in the shadow that Mairon left behind.

.

.

Hear

At first, Námo had not understood his purpose in his Father's plan. What need was there for a guardian of souls in a young world, a deathless world? But then Melkor had sewn his discord, and Eru himself had breathed his will, and Námo understood.

Though the years had hardened him, had turned his judgments absolute and his pity to iron, he could still hear those first souls who passed through his halls when he closed his eyes. The first deaths in Arda had been of the Firstborn – both of the Elves whom Melkor had deformed so grotesquely, and those they had slain at their master's command. Those days had been dark, with Manwë numb at the enormity of his brother's betrayal, and the battles over the skies of Middle-earth fierce as the Valar sought to chain their wayward kinsman before he could do more harm to the world he had poured his very essence into.

The first soul to grace his halls had been a mother who had refused to give birth to an Orc-child. Her flesh was mutilated by the black fire that Melkor had used to change the song of her soul, the song of her child's soul, but her eyes were bright and defiant as she stood before the Lord of the Dead, unwilling to seek penance for her crime.

Námo closed her eyes and gave her spirit the rest she deserved, there to stay until the day he could give both of them life again. Afterward, he had hunched over as dry retches wracked his form, spirit though it was. Vairë alone had seen him weep that time, and that time only. Bitterly, he had asked Eru if this had been his will in creating the world, if this was truly the grand crescendo of his song . . . only to hear silence in reply.

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Touch

Eglador was alive with songs of rejoicing for the return of their King. Still unused to her physical body, Melian walked carefully, arm in arm with Thingol's as she curiously took in the beat of her heart, the dance of her lungs underneath the fragile parchment of her skin. Beneath her hand, she could feel her husband in a tangible sense, warm and solid and alive in a way foreign to the Ainur.

All around them was the sound of laughter, joy and revelry and light for a people who lived in the darkness of Arda marred. At that too, Melian knew awe.

As they walked, a little girl cut before their path. The smiling creature curtseyed, giving her new Queen a flower before darting off again, trailing giggles in her wake. Curiously, Melian watched her go, the flower cradled in her hand as if it were a bloom of Yavanna.

“What is she?” Melian asked her husband, entranced. “She is so small . . .”

“She is a child,” Thingol answered, bemused by how new the world was to her. “Were you ever one?” he asked curiously.

“We . . . my siblings and I were created, fully formed from the thoughts of the Valar – much as the Unbegotten awakened at Cuiviénen,” Melian answered him. “I have those I could call my parents, in your way of things. But we . . . I, never watched families grow. We brought life into being, but this . . .”

She felt tears pricking at her eyes as she suddenly understood just why her years in Lórien's gardens had been filled with discontentment, an ache of spirit she had not then understood. She understood why even her centuries of enchantment with Elu had not been enough, always yearning for more as she had . . .

. . . for this was life before her, full to the touch and hers for the taking.

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Sense

Lúthien, daughter of Melian, came proud before his throne.

Instead of her soul finding peace at her passing, she instead begged to see he who was sundered from her – Beren, fighting his own fight on the shores of mortal death. She cried of her pains, her hardships, her love; pleading until her song became at last wordless - a cry of spirit so great that Námo had never heard its like before, and doubted he would ever hear again.

And it was not just Mandos whom Lúthien pleaded her case before. Námo opened his mind to all of his kindred - to Varda and Manwë, who cared deeply about Melian's blood; and Nienna, who wept for the unprecedented nature of their love. Ulmo whispered of the sorrows of Middle-earth, the plight of those toiling in Arda marred . . . Even lower than Melian does Lúthien set her sights. It is unnatural, Tulkas grunted, but there was a softness to the hard line of his spirit. He was not as unaffected as he professed.

“Valinor can heal the wounds of your soul, child,” Námo said gently. “You shall forget Beren, son of Barahir, and know peace. You shall be content.”

“But why would I ever want to forget Beren?” Lúthien wept. “For I would live one life with him, over all of the ages of the world alone, and count myself as blessed.”

And an idea rose in the mind of Death. An idea, and a price . . .

Please,” she breathed.

A whisper rose from Manwë, reflecting the mind of Eru – approving the decision he made. And Námo turned his will on the spark of the One that made up Lúthien's soul.

Since the dawn of time, the will of Eru had taken much from so many. But, this once, Death would give something back in return.

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Smell

She remembered what she had felt when her husband died, how she had felt the part of her mind that was his burn as he had burned. Now, all she could smell was blood and smoke and flame as three tiny lights were extinguished inside of her. . . her sons . . . taken by their Oath.

Nerdanel shrieked in frustrated rage, and with a violent gesture, she swept the project she had been working on to the ground. Satisfaction filled her as the marble shattered, broken pieces scattering everywhere.

When she opened her her eyes, Aulë himself was standing before her, pity in the great cast of his eyes. “My child,” he breathed, his voice like the rumble of the forge, “How my heart grieves for you.”

“How can you . . .” Nerdanel forced the words out past her lips. She was still hunched over, unable to stand. But her eyes were dry - for she would not let herself cry, she would not. “ . . . how can you possibly understand how I feel?”

“Do you think that we do not feel as you feel?” the Vala chided gently. “I may not know the pain of losing a mate, but I do know the pain of losing a child . . .”

He had loved Fëanáro as she had loved her sons, Nerdanel remembered brokenly. And how Fëanáro had squandered that love, more fey in the end than the husband she had loved so dearly . . . She squeezed her eyes shut, but could hold back her tears no more – and when the Vala knelt to embrace her, she clung to him, letting the smell of earth and hewn stone chase away the scent of blood . . . the scent of flames . . .

For a moment, her grief was shared, and when he released her, she felt that she could breathe with it.

Chapter Text

Cage 

Celegorm remembered that once, centuries ago, Caranthir had caught a brightly colored blue bird for him. Since you are always singing with them, the little boy had put the poor creature in a cage, gifting it to his elder brother in an effort to bond. Celegorm remembered blinking in surprise as he heard the bird's lament, and instead of praising Caranthir – who was waiting for his gratitude with the pride and joy of a child – he had fumbled with the door of the cage, nearly desperate as he struggled to free the bird from its bonds. He had felt the creature's sorrow, he had felt the creature's pain. His own heart had thundered like the bird's tiny heart, his arms had felt cramped as the bird's wings felt cramped, and he could not . . . he would not keep the bird from the sky.

Caranthir had cried when he let the bird fly free, and a part of him had shook so badly that he could not comfort the child. Instead he had snapped at his brother, nearly scathing as he told Caranthir that he should have had the sense not to cage something that so obviously belonged free. Only later, when Nerdanel was sitting with her (then) youngest son and explaining to him that some animals were not made to be kept did Celegorm feel remorse in his heart for his harsh words. He had taken Caranthir into the wood after, and showed to him the way the bird was singing now. It would not have sang so in its cage, he had explained, and finally Caranthir had smiled and understood.

The bird had sang so brilliantly then, its blue wings catching the dappled sunlight through the trees and brightening the green underbrush with its song.

It was a memory that came to haunt him more than he would care to admit during the time Lúthien Thingoliel was in his keeping. More than he would like to, indeed.

She was kept in comfort, that he saw to himself – as if he were a magpie laying sparkling trinkets at the feet of the one he tried to lure as his nest-mate. Her rooms were warm and filled with light; appointed with the softest weaves and decorated in the richest colors. Vases of bright flowers lightening the space with their color and scent, elegant in their design and placement. He tried to tempt her with delicacies – that night, her supper was a plate of roasted quail and seasonal vegetables in a rich brown sauce. Next to her plate there was a goblet of red wine, the finest vintage from their cellars, and yet the glass sat untouched. For all of his offerings, Lúthien instead sat as close as she could to the faux window, where the ornate patterns on the frame and the warm light beneath gave the impression of their being above ground. The scroll-work cast shadows upon the pale snow of her skin. He looked, and tried not to think how the shadows looked like bars.
 
“Have you come to let me go?” she asked with her bird-song voice when he entered.

He let his breath out slowly at the question. He forced his fingers to unfurl, one at a time, from the shape of fists. “Have you decided to marry me?” he returned, and the raised brow he received in reply was withering.

They understood each other then. 

She turned back to the window after a moment, leaving him free to look at her. Unobserved, he took in the perfection of her pale skin and the impossible blackness of her hair, her grey eyes so bright that they seemed touched by silver twilight. If he but closed his eyes and pretended, he could imagine . . .

But no. With her coloring, she could pass for the line of Finwë even, but she was not, and he had to remember . . .

In a moment of frustration, he ran a hand through the white gold of his hair, musing the careful braids he had set before coming. It had not mattered how carefully they were set, he thought, trying not to scowl as he turned from her. 

“I have sent a letter to your father, informing him of my intentions,” he said into the silence that fell between them. He watched as she flinched, and felt a perverse sort of joy that she felt the words for the blow they were.

“If it is a union you seek, then I can tell you that you only move to deepen the divide,” Lúthien said. Her words were soft, but an edge of strength rested beneath the rich sweetness of her voice. It was no woodsman's daughter he tried to bind himself to, that voice reminded him, but rather, the daughter of an Unbegotten King and his celestial Queen, a maiden of both heaven and earth.

There were times when he looked at the captive princess, and saw blue feathers catching the midday sun. They were not his to touch, and yet . . .

“It does not matter,” he shrugged his shoulders. “Your father's love for you is greater than his hatred of my name. With you as my bride, he will have no choice but to treat with us. He would disown you not, not even for this.”

“No,” Lúthien agreed. “No he would not, and yet, he would not pledge his armies to the aid of your Oath, even with I as your bride. It is an empty hope you chase, Fëanorian, and it will cause you nothing but grief in the end.”

She pressed his name at him as if it was a blow of its own, and yet, he did not flinch. It took more than that to wound him, she would come to find.
 
“Perhaps,” he dismissed her words. “In the beginning I do not doubt it. Yet, I have eternity to wait for him to accept our union, and I am patient. In time, he will see, and he will accept our marriage.”

Lúthien was not convinced. “Then you do not know my father,” she retorted, shaking her head as if in pity. At such a condescension from her - this lady of the Dark Elves, he felt his blood heat. 

Celegorm came to stand by her shoulder, close enough to see where her breath misted the window pane. She looked at him warily, but did not draw away; she would concede no ground to him.

“Have you not of pity, Kinslayer?” she asked next. At that title, he felt only a piercing of feeling before brushing the sensation away with the ease of long practice. “Even you must have known of love, and to stand here and take what you want when I am so very clearly not your soul's match is something that I cannot understand . . . something that I cannot comprehend. Are you so broken amongst your kind that you would rather settle for whatever connection you could wrought with me instead of waiting for she who would complete you?”

Ah, finally that was an arrow that struck its mark better than her petty calling of names. He looked down, as if surprised that he did not bleed as if from a wound on his chest. And yet, instead of touching him as if she would have wished, the words lit something within him. Something dark and angry, something quite nearly mad.

She who would complete me,” he repeated her words back to her, his voice low . . . dangerous. “Broken amongst my kind . . . I would say the same of you, say how surprised I am that a daughter of the Moriquendi could love so when I have seen nothing but the opposite from your kind - in my experience, that is.”

His words gave her pause. She was bright, this one, and not just a pretty trinket – another one of the many reasons that she would make for a fine Queen on his arm. At her mortal's side . . . what would she grant to her people but for a bedtime story, a fae tale of romance to brighten the hearts of star struck maidens?

“What happened to her?” Lúthien asked, her voice soft. Where before she had all but refused to look at him, she turned to search his face now. He watched as the iron wrought line of her jaw softened, turned as if by the heat of a forge at her curiosity.

He would not tell her, he first thought. Her ears were not worthy of the tale, and yet . . .“Taken,” he found the words escaping, spilling from his lips as if he could not control their shaping. “Taken, and then dead before her time.”

Lúthien was silent at his reply. She waited for more, he thought. Her beauty was greater than even the great Starkindler in that moment, reminding him of the way his people in Tirion would leave offerings at the feet of her statue and hope for the blessings of Varda in return. He felt that way now, praying for her compassion . . . for the understanding of one who was higher than them all.

He loved and hated this ethereal being before him, he knew in that moment. He hated her kind and simple love for her kind and simple mortal, and yet he still felt a grotesque drawing to her in spirit. He felt the need to bow before her and tell her everything, everything from his grief to his losses to the shameful truth of the madness waiting behind his eyes, the same as a shadow waited behind a closed door. His Oath lingered - beckoning, whispering, and there were days when he could not move from the weight of it on his soul, from the blood-lust it settled upon his tongue.

I hated my father, my father who was father to none but his craft in the end, he wanted to say. I was shamefully glad when he died, and yet I still cried - cried as he would not have for me. I still swore his Oath, hoping that maybe, he would look on me in love for doing so . . . And then, he wanted to tell her, I was once happy, if you could believe that. I knew Aman in its spring, roaming the forests of Oromë in careless glee and sleeping upon the soft green grass beneath the light of the Trees. In those days I loved she with her voice like the hunt and her eyes like the cool shadow in the wood. I loved and loved easily, and never thought twice about the burdens the next day would bring.

“She never loved me, not in full,” he found his words coming faster with each syllable spoken, tumbling over each other like a stream falling over stones in a fast cascade. “Always at arms length she would keep me, allowing me to kiss her and touch her, but never binding herself fully in soul to me. It had been a lovely game before the loss of the light, before the rise of my Oath. If she had truly loved me . . . she would not have forsaken me at Losgar. Her sword was stained with blood the same as mine, but she looked on me in horror when she realized what had truly happened at Alqualondë . . . I had thought that crossing the Ice would give her time to realize her error in thinking, but she only looked on me with such scorn in Hithlum, and refused even my hand in kinship . . . I, I did not see her again for many years. She sought me out centuries later – to apologize or allow me to apologize, I will never know, for I ignored her, keeping to the woods so that I would not have to see her again . . . and she, she looked for me. She looked for me, and instead found him.”

Lúthien's eyes turned wary, as if she guessed where his story went. As if she knew.

“She was found by a Dark Elf, one of your kind named Eöl - a lesser lord leasing the forest of Nan Elmoth from your father,” he could not speak Thingol's name, even in rage. It was all his fault, a part of him could not help but think. If he had only checked the rabid animal on his lands, then Aredhel would still be alive. Alive, and possibly . . .

But no.

“Eöl enchanted her; he took her to wife with his spells, and bound her to his spirit by force. She lived for years with that monster as her mate before finding the courage to escape with her son. And then did I meet them again, giving them horses and supplies so that she could return to her kin in Gondolin. She would not look me in the eye, sparing me from seeing her bond with her husband therein. But she said that she forgave me. She said that she wished . . .”

But he could not finish the thought, not even to her. The words were Aredhel's, and the listening was his. He should have been yours, was all that she said in regret when his eyes found her son. Lómion, so pale and dark by turns, with eyes that cut like knives. She would say no more, and then she was reining her horse away and he was left only with a wound of spirit even greater than the wound of his Oath, the weight of his sins.

“And I wished,” Celegorm muttered, taken by his memories, “I wished so very dearly . . . but then she left, and I let her go; let her go back to her kin while her husband followed. Eöl tried to kill his son with a poisoned spear rather than swear allegiance to Turgon, and he instead struck Aredhel - who jumped forward like a she-bear to protect her ill-begotten offspring. She died at the hands of a Doriathrim, and I . . . I am still here. Here when I should have done more . . . so much more than I did.”

Something about her eyes had turned light with his words. A small smile touched her mouth, as if she was soothed by the proof that his cold Fëanorian heart could love. She was soothed, and not warned - thinking him soft to the touch, rather than a hunting hound who had been kicked one too many times and was all but snapping his teeth against the chains that held him.

She turned towards him, putting her back to the window for the first as she took his hands within her own. Her hands were small, he thought, her palms smooth and soft, so unlike Aredhel with each earned callus and scar. Still, her grip was strong. 

“Then you understand,” Lúthien breathed, her eyes brightening with such a hope, so much so that he then hated her for it; hated her with something that was white and and hot and consuming within him. “You understand,” she took to pleading. “Beren . . . he is out there fighting for my hand, dying for the sake of loving me, and I . . . I see such visions when I close my eyes. Blood will be spilled in rivers for the name of our quest. It is no other's burden to bear, but bear it they shall . . . It is not fair to any, and only I can stop the spilling of blood, but only if you let me go.”

“It matters not,” Celegorm finally said, letting his words sink in cruel and unkind. “Your lover marches to his death, and I have helped send him there. Your father set the price of your hand with that which is not his to give, and for his audacity, Beren will die. Beren will die, and you will have only me left in the end.”

Her brow crinkled. She did not understand, he saw. She did not see.

Lúthien looked then, looked into his eyes, and drew back at what she saw there. “But you loved her,” she whispered, unable to understand. “Your soul recognizes her as your other half, and it shows in your eyes . . . How could you take me to wife, when your very spirit would reject the union in memory of her?”

He looked, and when she blinked, he could see a shadow of the mortal man there. She had not given herself bodily to Beren, or else he would not have been able to bear looking too deeply into her eyes for more than a moment. Even still, she was bound to him. A shadow of a link between souls grew, and he knew such a black feeling then – knowing that her Moriquendi eyes could know love and fight when Aredhel was dead by the hands of her kind, and he . . .

It did not matter what their souls wanted, he thought. It did not matter, and he would make her see, see that -

Before he knew it, he was tilting her chin up and claiming her mouth in a fierce, savage kiss. His fingers turned bruising on her skin, his lips were unforgiving against her own as he took what he wanted, as if desperate to prove to her that they were stronger than the choices of their spirits, stronger than the wants of their souls. Did she not know that this was a truth he had been learning for centuries? And this sheltered child of twilight would learn as he had learned, and learn the lesson well.

He held a hand to the back of her head when she struggled to draw away. He was stronger than her, and she was surprised, beating her small hands against his chest and trying to shove him away. He used her gasp of protest to thrust his tongue inside of her mouth, searching for something even he could not name. Looking, desperately, to find - 

- she bit his mouth then, clamping down on his lower lip until blood filled their kiss, sharp and metallic in taste. Startled, he shoved her away in both surprise and pain, and from the violence of his actions she lost her step and stumbled. She fell to the floor in a rumple of blue and gold skirts, blinking up at him from a halo of too black hair.

He wiped his mouth, and drew his hand back red. If a bird she was, then one with talons, he thought, but did not say. And yet, it did not matter. She had nowhere to go, and he had forever to wait. She would have no choice, as Aredhel had no choice, and did she not see – you never got what you wanted in this Valar forsaken land. Everyone in Endórë was cursed as he was cursed, even she with her nightingale voice and her starlit eyes. And now, they were stuck with each other.

He went to the table, and picked up her forgotten glass of wine. He drained it in one swallow, letting the dark flavor mix with his blood and wash it away. The taste stung against his torn lip, but he ignored it as he poured himself another glass from the waiting decanter.

He sat at the table, his long legs stretched out and his brow shadowed as he watched her slowly rise to her feet again. She watched him carefully the whole time, as if waiting for him to make another move towards her. She touched her mouth, as if by doing so she could wipe the memory of him away, and for some reason, the motion angered him more than anything else. 

No more, Tyelko, Irissë would laugh, kissing his mouth one last time, breathless as she turned from him, and then he was chasing her again, always confident of his catching her. Someday, he had thought so naively then. So stupidly . . .

And he was tired of waiting.

“You may not want me now, but soon he will be dead, and you will have nothing left. Morgoth reigns in the uttermost north with my father's life's work worn so grossly upon his brow, and his defeat will come only through the efforts of all in these lands. Perhaps a union between our peoples will be all you can make of your life, and for that you will settle for me – even if it takes an age for you to accept my suit. But my Oath has taught me patience, if nothing else. It makes no difference how or why your mind is changed, but it will be changed. It is not what either of us want, but it shall have to be enough.”

Instead of the fierce, defiant look he was used to seeing on her face, her brow soothed at his words. Something like pity touched her eyes as she walked to him with small, hesitant steps.

“Dear Tyelkormo,” she whispered in his forbidden tongue, “so unlucky in life, and so heartbroken in love; stained by loss and Oath. You smite love with your pain, but know that I do not hold you to ill for it. I will not be long here,” she said, her voice ringing softly – horribly in his ears. His skin crawled in warning, trembling from the whisper of her power, the might of her mother Maia running strong and unchecked in her veins. “But know, after I am gone, that life is more than pieces on a board casting shadows. I pray that you find peace, and your soul rest from all that burdens it. I forgive you, though you think that you have done nothing worth seeking forgiveness for.”

Then she kissed his forehead as a queen would offer a token to a favored warrior, as a mother would comfort her child. Her mouth felt like a brand against his always too-warm skin, and for a moment he could not swallow for the way his eyes burned, for the way his heart ached in his chest. She drew back, touched his cheek, his chin, before letting her fingers fall to touch the star of Fëanor upon his doublet once, and then she touched him no more.

Instead she turned back to the window, humming beneath her breath as she looked away from him, her eyes already lost to where her mortal love fought for his life to the north. And Celegorm sat there and listened to his nightingale in her gilded cage.

 

Chapter Text


Stay

Later, she will only remember that it had felt like a dream; with the shadows in the forest stretching on and on, pressing in against her with the intimacy of a lover. Distantly, she remembered the tales that surrounded this wood, this deep place where no sunlight reached in memory of the Maia and her stolen King; darkness hiding the secrets of Nan Elmoth and holding them tight. Lust and love and obsession at first sight, it was a fey tale of Doriath's beginning, and yet all too often the elements of unwillingness were taken from it. Thingol did not resist Melian's ensorcelments, the stories would later say, for Thingol too loved the celestial maiden at first sight, Thingol too lost his heart and never sought to seek it back. And yet, Melian had not stopped to ask him otherwise, Melian had not paused to make sure of the heart in her thrall.

Now, Aredhel walked in that same fog, lost somewhere between half awake and half asleep. She tried to keep her thoughts alive and sharp, letting them guide her step and keep her eyes aware. Turvo, how you would laugh at me to know how lost I have become, she would speak with the shadows as she walked. Tyelko, what a tale I shall have to tell you when at last I return. And how we shall laugh . . . Glorfindel, Ecthelion, Egalmoth, I do hope that you are not too terribly cross with me for escaping your watch. I hope you escaped yourselves at that, and escaped my brother's wrath as well, for you deserved it not . . . What a laugh we shall all have when again we meet!

But it wasn't her half-cousin with his lion's mane of white hair, or even her brother's kind eyes and worried mouth who found her – instead it was a man who at first was the shadows themselves, until he was then not. Her memory of their first meeting was fuzzy around the edges, as if she tried to view it through a wall of water. She remembered only long gloved fingers, and a face so pale that it could not have ever seen the sun, and she had felt . . . something jolt through her when his eyes had found hers without blinking.

It was a curse of Nan Elmoth, she would later think, a memory of the witch-queen and her unbegotten-king staining the ground and making it run with enchantments. For something had settled beneath her skin at that first meeting. Something had crawling alongside her bones and burrowed within the deep places of her flesh, entwining itself so irrevocably with her spirit that she could not shake the sensation away. She had not wanted to shake it away when he had bent his head to kiss her, and something had awakened in her. Something secret . . . something dark and deep. Something wild.

And now she was blinking back the darkness, forcing her eyes to adjust to the dim light as she set about her task. It was during the day now - past noontime, her senses told her, for there was no sun for her to tell the time by. The lanterns of Eöl's halls were lit with a strange inner fire, casting an eerie non-light over every surface. She looked pallid beneath the half light, Aredhel thought, like something not completely real.

Not completely real . . . and yet, the link now bonding her soul to the other was real enough. The ache between her legs and the bruises at her hips and the stinging at her mouth where her lip had been torn, all of that was real as well. She knew that there would be matching marks on his back from her nails, biting in deep from where she had taken his blood in turn. She, she was . . .

She swallowed, unable to complete the thought.

She was married in the eyes of her kind, she forced herself to acknowledge that truth, even to herself. She was bound to this Dark Elf as his mate . . . the idea of it settled numbly in the pit of her stomach. At the back of her mind, her bond with her new husband rumbled like black waters in the wood. It undulated against its cradle of stone, curious as it found its new places and settled in deep. And she . . .

For a moment, she could not breathe.

Aredhel sat in her shift, as far away from the bed with its soiled sheets as she could. Her fingers shook as she worked to repair the tear in the seam of her dress. Distantly she remembered fingers becoming impatient – hers or his, she could not remember - and rendering the fabric in two. Her stitches were not even, her hands were sloppy with the needle and thread. Distantly she thought that this was where Itarillë would take her work from her with a sigh and complete the stitching. So impatient, her niece would tease, and at the memory, Aredhel slipped with the needle. She felt its tip prick her skin.

With a hiss, she put her finger between her lips and sucked the blood away. The bite of pain was more irritating than anything else, but like a tugging on a leash, it had turned his attention to her. She felt her husband move against her mind, even as she heard him by the door, and -

Perhaps it was silly of her to cover the tops of her breasts, the exposed length of her legs, when he had already seen it all, but she still stood and held the dress before her like a shield. Instinctively, she set her stance in defense, as if expecting an attack. There was a flickering in his knife-cut eyes when she did so, but she could not tell if it was amusement or irritation until she felt his emotions against her mind – a curious mixture of both, then.

At his amusement, something lit inside of her - a black and desperate rage that had her holding her dress in one fisted hand as she stalked forward and -

- the skin around his eye would blacken quite nicely, she thought triumphantly. It would darken to match the rest of him.

Eöl's head had snapped back from the surprise of her fist connecting with his face, but he kept his feet against her blow – something that would have impressed Aredhel had she not been so angry. Gingerly, he reached up to touch at the already bruising flesh, pressing at his orbital bone to look for fractures beneath the skin.

“Perhaps,” when he spoke, his voice was like smoke, dry and dark, “I deserved that.”

Again she felt it, that mixture of irritation and amusement - irritation for her unexpected flare of violence, and amusement for the wildfire spark of her rage. Shut up, she tried to push away the part of her mind that was now his, but she could not, no matter how she tried.

She let her dress crumble to the ground, forgotten as she pressed the heels of her hands to her temples. The throbbing there only grew worse the more she fought against it, and she hated how the pressure seemed to abate when he stepped closer to her. His step was hesitant, as if he approached a wounded animal in the wood. When he reached out a hand to touch her, something inside of her skipped a beat, wanting -

“What have you done to me?” she asked him, her words a fierce hiss of breath.

“Nothing that you did not want,” Eöl raised a brow wryly in reply. Though she was not looking at him, she knew he was looking at the bed, their marriage bed, and at the reminder, her anger fanned forth again.

“I was not me then,” she countered, stammering her words out. She opened her eyes, her every syllable growing more pronounced and heated as she spoke them. “It was as if I was in a fog . . . Did you poison me? Drug me? Did you put something in my food, in my drink . . . is it in the Valar forsaken air around us. Tell me, what did you do to me?”

This time she was the one stalking forward, and he the one backing away. Though the collar of his tunic rose to cover his neck, she could still see a purple mark on the underside of his jaw. He was shaking as she came closer, his long white hands clenching in fists at his sides.

“I could ask the same of you,” he responded in a low voice, a dangerous voice. “I found you – a bloodstained and cursed Golodh - lost in the wood, and instead of leaving you to your fate and returning back to my peaceful world, I was drawn to you time and time again. I could not pass you from my thoughts. I could not sleep, I could not eat, and not even the mansions of the Naugrim provided me relief in distraction. There was something . . . something about you that I could not ignore. I felt as if I was going mad, and foolishly I had thought that it was a madness felt the same by you.”

He looked as bewildered as she felt, she realized, some of her ire beginning to cool with that realization. Where the night before he had been hot and liquid beneath her hands, he now stood as straight and unyielding as if he had steel coating his bones. He was unmovable and dangerous before her, and she . . .

“This damned forest,” she barked out a laugh, pressing her fingers into her temples again. “You know, we once sat before the fire and laughed when Findaráto told us the story of this place. We laughed to think that so great and mighty a king as Elwë could be snared in the shadows here, even by the might of a Maia. We all said that if we were the ones to be so enchanted, that we would have broken free, that we would have fought. And now, here I am . . .” She ran a hand though her hair. It was still wild and tangled from the night before, her braids mused beyond the point of saving. She watched, and felt his eyes follow her hand as it moved.

She stilled her fingers, lost in the black mesh of her hair, and watched where his eyes paused as well.
 
She turned her head, curious then. She could feel his thoughts, and the more she looked, the more she could see . . . he was terrified to speak with her, she realized. He did not often have the presence of those who were his equal; only his wispy Avari servants, so wan and fey that she had at first thought them ghosts her mind conjured when he had first showed to her his home. He was not often amongst his peers at Thingol's court – where he was a curious oddity, even amongst his kindred. The Naugrim were course in manner, and cruder yet in speech, and now, here he was speaking to a Lady of the Noldor, and wishing that he instead spoke with a crossing of blows or a pressing of bodies - anything was better than the words he now struggled with, the spell of the forest that he did not have the speech for. For a moment she felt a flicker of affinity with him, a moment like the light as it glinted off the steel of a blade.

“Then you understand me,” Eöl said, his dry voice softening as he felt her presence search at his mind. He moved to hold his hands together as if he needed to give his fingers a task, any task, in which to keep them busy. She looked down at his hands for a moment, distracted.

“I do understand,” she replied, and found that she meant it. “And yet, by that same grace you should understand me when I say that this was a mistake. I do not belong here, and I have no wish to be bound to you - just as certainly as you must wish to be free of me.”

At that, something in his eyes flickered. Perhaps he had been a victim of the forest for longer than she, too long, she thought - this creature who never stepped into the light of the sun, who cared but little to even begin and understood the wonder of the Trees. She . . . she could not imagine living her days beneath these sunless eaves. Did he realize why she could not stay here? Why she would not?

Her heart twisted in her chest, pained at the thought of what she had left behind her. And yet, it was not just the thought of what she left behind, but what she would give up if she left now that caused her breath to catch. In a moment of honesty, she knew she would grieve either decision, and at the thought . . .

She remembered grey eyes with their speckling of green. She remembered white gold hair and promises, stolen kisses but never anything more. And oh, how easily she had given in to another when, for centuries, she had -

“There is another?” Eöl asked, stepping forward. His voice was equal parts uncertainty and hesitancy, but jealousy touched the underside of his syllables as he gently traced the side of her face with the very tips of his fingers. For a moment she hated how her skin awakened at the simplest of touches. “I did not feel -”

“ - my heart is mine own,” she responded fiercely, batting his hand away. She forced her thoughts of Tyelkormo into a chamber of steel within her mind, shutting them away and sealing them so deep that not even her husband could see the thoughts for how well they were hid. “I do not take kindly to the idea of being possessed by any.”

“And yet . . .” he let his words tapper off. Instead of speaking, he reached out to touch the tip of her chin, tilting her face up so that he could look into her eyes. In his gaze, their newly wrought bond burned.

“I do not even know you,” she whispered, something small and childlike touching her voice as she said so. She felt as the little girl who would cry into her father's chest when her brothers would go off and leave her behind, and now . . . “I do not know you,” she tried to explain. “I do not love you . . .”

“Yet,” he said softly. For the first his words picked up a measure of confidence, a measure of certainty. “You do not love me yet."

Aredhel felt a flare of panic for the longevity his words implied, the finality . . . He was not going to fight this, she realized. He was content in the forest's thrall, and wanted not to move out from beneath its shadows. He wanted . . .

“Let me go,” she said, a note of desperation leeching into her voice. “You do not wish for I as a bride - any other will be more suitable.” 

I cannot stay here, she thought. With no sun, no moon, only this endless shadow. What will my family think of my fate? Will they think me dead? Will Turukáno hate himself for not trying harder to prevent me from going? Will Tyelkormo turn his mouth and clench his fists in grief, thinking of lost chances? Please, she thought then, her lungs an ache in her chest as they expanded, do not give one more reason to make my father weep.

No, she knew then. She could not stay here. She would not -

“I am leaving,” she said, a calm certainty forming her words. She reached down to pick up her torn dress, already calculating how she would leave this house, how she would find her way out of the forest beyond. “I am leaving, and you will show me the way.”

“No,” Eöl said, the one soft word cutting into her plans like an arrow through mist. “No, I shall not.”

Fine then, Aredhel thought. She could take care of herself. She always had, and this would be no different.

Perhaps he saw her determination, for he grabbed her wrists before she could move to escape him. As if their bodies knew something their mind did not, his grasp moved from restraining to pleading in the space of a moment. His thumb was callused where it traced runes over the skin on the back of her hand, but there was a question in the touch – a plea, plain for her eyes to see.

“Stay with me,” he asked her, the words falling from his mouth like hammer falls. “Allow me to learn your heart, and then you may make your decision again when the time is right. Allow me . . .” he faltered, as if unused to speaking so many words together. “Allow me to . . .”

But he could not finish his thought. There was something tight in the set of his hands then, something desperate. And Aredhel felt . . .

“Please,” was all he said, and she knew he would say no more. If she left then, he would let her go. But neither would he show her the way, and always, she knew with a whisper of fact, the shadows of Nan Elmoth would lead her back to him.

And so, for now . . .

She turned her wrist. She settled her palm against his own and entwined her fingers with his. His skin was so very pale, she could not help but think, even when compared to her own. “Yes,” she said, and felt as if she was speaking with a voice other than her own, “I will stay with you.”


Chapter Text


Blank

“So it is true . . . you are going after him.”

There was nothing in Turukáno's voice when he spoke; no inflection or emotion of tone. His words were a blank stretch of sound, but it was a tone Findekáno had learned well not to trust, knowing as he knew that it contained deeper wells of feeling within – as a strong tree with deep roots, stretching far beneath the ground.

His own answer was simple in reply. “Yes,” he said as he tied the last cord on his pack. Within he had packed food and water and medical supplies, blankets and bandages and anything else useful he could think of. He was not sure of what he would find in the halls of Angband black, but he was prepared for anything.

A long moment passed between them, rife with tension. “I do not understand,” Turukáno finally said. When Findekáno looked, his brother was standing in the doorway, his folded arms and great height nearly filling it.

Findekáno released a breath, as if preparing for a battle.

“You know why I must go,” he said softly. “I cannot leave him there. I will not leave him to Morgoth's torments – and yet, I cannot ask anyone else to risk themselves on such a venture. And so, alone I go. You must understand.”

“No,” Turukáno responded frankly, his voice still carefully blank, still carefully level. “No, I do not understand. The Sons of Fëanáro have made their stand, and their stand is not alongside us. Your people need you now, your family needs you. They do not need for you to go and martyr yourself on some fool's errand – which is surely what you do now.”

Calmly, Findekáno put his pack aside. He reached down to pick up his scabbard, buckling the leather strap over his shoulder and underneath his opposite arm. He did not look at his brother.

“Our people are in good hands,” he said, as gently as he could. “Our family is strong, as well. I do not plan on dying, Turvo. I plan on living - I plan on returning.”

“You plan to return with him,” this time, Turukáno's voice was sharp. There was an edge to his words, lined as they were with teeth.

“Yes.” His answer was punctuated by the smooth sound of his sword sliding into its sheath.

Turukáno's gaze flashed with the steel as it was covered. His mouth turned down on his face. “Then you are more a fool than I thought. Morgoth does not lightly give up what is his, and you will not make it out with your life. You go to your death – or worse than that, and you do not seem to care.”

“I cannot not try,” Findekáno said, a note of the desperate touching upon his voice then. He picked up his cloak, but found that his fingers had trouble with the strings. He could not keep them from shaking. He is alive, his heart seemed to pulse with a frantic beat. Alive with that monster as lord over him, and every second I tarry is one more second that I leave him as such. He felt sick with the thought. He had not slept since returning from their cousin's camp, although he knew he would need all of his strength for the venture to come.

“There are some,” Turukáno said, each syllable bitten from his tongue, “who would say that Fëanáro's house has received their due accord from Morgoth's hands. They would say that there is justice in it, even. Fëanáro dead so soon after setting foot upon these lands, and his eldest kept for torment at the Dark One's hands? It is fitting, they say.”

At that, Findekáno's hands made fists. He could not keep the dark look from his eyes, hidden beneath his down-turned lashes. “Fëanáro was mad and fey in the end, and, as such, he is to be pitied – for his mind and his strength was once great,” Findekáno rebuked stiffly. “And Maitimo . . . you heard what Makalaurë said. He did not burn the boats with the others. He stood aside. It was not his actions that left us to the Helcaraxë. It was theirs.”

He clung to that single piece of information as if the knowledge was all that kept him afloat in white waters. He needed to remember that, needed that to the marrow of his bones. And yet, across from him, Turukáno was not convinced. His mouth made an unkind line as he stepped forward, stalking further into the room. His normally kind and gentle brother was as an animal clawed in that moment, restless and hunting.

He did not burn the boats,” Turukáno mocked, spitting the words out like a curse. “Do you know how foolish that sounds, brother? No, your precious Russandol did not burn the boats, but he did hold a sword. He slaughtered Olwë's kin without quarter, all because they refused to aid Fëanáro in his mad rush for Endórë. Fëanáro did not give the people of Alqualondë time – he did not take the time to reason, the time to convince them. If he had but waited, Arafinwë could have spoken with Olwë his goodfather on our behalf. Our own father could have added his words to Olwë's ears. And if the Teleri could not have been convinced, it would only have taken a scant few years to build a fleet of our own, if we had to.

“But Fëanáro had no such consideration, instead he acted with a sword, and took what he wanted. He was no better than Morgoth himself with his actions – and Maitimo too aided his father's madness, and took the life of another. Many others. And it was not just men at Alqualondë – or do you choose to forget that, brother? There were woman, there were children, and your dear friend holds the blood of them all on his hands. Where was his courage to stand up to Fëanáro when they needed his words? Where was it then?”

Each word struck him as it was intended. He felt them as bruises against his skin, left from the strongest of blows. Even still, he had to fight the black urge to turn on his brother – to shake him until the words stopped from his mouth and he spoke no more. Did he think that he did not know? Did he think that he so easily forgot? Did he not remember that they too had waded into the blood and flashing swords, unsure of who had attacked who, and . . .

The sons of Fëanáro were not the only ones branded Kinslayers that day, he thought numbly. Turukáno may not have fought, but he . . . though he had not fought to kill, fought he still had until he realized the reason for the conflict, and then it was too late . . . much too late.

“We all acted in ways we wished were different in those last days,” Findekáno said, remembering hurt words on the bloody sands and age old arguments that came at last to blows. Go, I will not stop you, he had said, his lip bleeding, and the knuckles on his right hand sore. Go, I will not stand in your way.

And now . . .

Thirty years, Findekáno thought with a pang so tangible that it was as a blade between his rib bones. Thirty years. “For thirty years,” he said aloud, “Maitimo has been in that Valar-forsaken place. I can . . . I can feel him now. I can feel the pain he endures, the guilt. He does not let himself die – even though he could have time and time again. He clings to life, not for his own sake, but for penance. For what right does he have to let go when so many others have fallen? He is not worthy of death, he feels, and so, he endures. He lives. But no more. Hate and petty wounds have torn this family apart, and I'll stand for it no more. This is a first step in a right direction, and it is a step I shall take.”

Turukáno looked to the side, as if struck. He swallowed, the long line of his throat working as he tried to control the tempest of emotions inside of him. Findekáno could feel his pain and his anger lick at his own skin, and his mind reeled from too many discordant touches against his fëa. No matter what, someone he loved would be hurt in the end, but he could not . . .

“They killed Elenwë,” Turukáno said softly, so softly that Findekáno could hardly hear him until he said in a stronger voice, “They killed Elenwë, and you would just run after one of them as if she could be so easily forgotten . . .”

“The Ice killed Elenwë,” Findekáno said as gently as he could. “Please, brother, for all of our sakes, do not confuse the two in your mind.” He reached out to touch him, to offer comfort, but Turukáno jerked violently away. His storm-grey eyes looked on him as if he was a stranger in that moment, lost in his own grief as he was.

“No,” the word was the fall of a blade through the air. “No. Go then, if you must. Go, die for him. I will not mourn you when you fall.”

Findekáno made his mouth a thin line, hearing the note of finality in his brother's voice. He swallowed, wanting to offer words of love as a balm, words of kinship. I love Fëanor's son with an ancient friendship, he wanted to say. But you are my brother, Turvo. Flesh of my flesh, blood of my blood, and what hurts you is as a wound to me. In the end, he said nothing where nothing would be heard. Instead, he shouldered his pack, and turned towards the door.

Turukáno stepped aside. He did not stop him, and neither did he turn to follow him. Findekáno did not wait for him to do either.

And yet, he only made it a step down the corridor before finding Irissë blocking his path. He made a fist of hand over the hilt of his sword, as if prepared for another battle of words. But her eyes were carefully guarded. She who was free with her every feeling now gave nothing away to his searching gaze. She held two sheathed daggers in her hands, their fine leather gleaming soft and subtle in the torchlight.

“Here,” she said simply, thrusting the weapons towards him. “They have a better edge than yours.” At his raised brow, she raised one of her own in reply, daring him to comment on the gift. “They are weighted too heavily for me to have a precise aim with them,” she explained in defense, “and I was going to give them to you anyway.”

Findekáno swallowed. He did not realize what a stone had gathered in his mouth until he tried to speak around it. His eyes burned as he took what she offered. “I thank you, sister.”

Irissë rolled her shoulders, shrugging aside his gratitude. “Be careful you don't loose a finger with those,” her eyes were as weights when she spoke. “They are sharp enough to cut through bone.”

“I will remember,” he said. He attempted to keep his voice level – blank of feeling - but his words came out as a sound of grief in the end. He sounded, he reflected, a bit mad. A bit desperate.

“Good,” Irissë nodded her head before moving to walk past him. She did not say goodbye, she did not wish him well; she did not tell him that she loved him when, most likely, she would never see him again.

“Irissë,” Findekáno stopped her, holding a hand about her wrist. “Please . . .” for a moment, he could not find his voice. “Please . . . look after him for me? I do him a great harm in going, and yet, I cannot . . .”

Irissë's eyes were still unmoved, but something about the stern line of her mouth softened when he said so. She reached up to cover his hand with her own. “I will look after him,” she promised. “As I always do.”

“Good,” Findekáno swallowed, and then turned away. He did not look back behind him – instead, his eyes were turned towards the north, where he could feel the other as he endured.

Please, he found himself praying, though he knew not whom would listen to such a prayer. Just hold on, a little while longer.

I am coming for you.

.


Empty

He had known of his brother's return since the previous evening.

For the most part, Turukáno had stayed away. There was no way to get close to their Fëanorian guest in a moment of privacy, at any rate. Maitimo's room was a steady influx of healers and attendants, each struggling to repair the extensive damage done by Morgoth's hands. Findekáno himself kept a steady vigil at their cousin's bedside, seemingly carved from stone but for the way he would blink and blearily look on the ruin of Maitimo's body before him, as if the corpse-like figure on the bed was a stranger who hid their true cousin's face. Their father had stepped in to try to get Findekáno to take a rest of his own, but all Nolofinwë had accomplished was to move Findekáno to bathe and change before returning to the other's side to partake in food and rest there.

Turukáno had not come nearer than a glimpse, staying on the other side of the temporary compound and stalking the farthest halls with all of the coiled rage of a creature of claw and fang. Irissë had found him once, and asked him if he was well when it was clear that he was not. Her eyes challenged him, forcing him to speak his pains aloud, but he could not confide even in her. His words had risen in his throat, lost before passing from his mouth, and Irissë had left only after touching his cheek and assuring him that she would be there for him when he was ready to let her listen. If anything, her kindness had only put him further on edge, hating that he had caused she – who had lost as much as he with Arakáno dead not even days upon the shore, and Elenwë dear to her own heart, besides – any further grief to bear.

His temper had only cooled when Itarillë had strayed from Glorfindel's side in order to find him, his daughter's acute empathy meaning that no words were needed as he knelt and she wrapped her small arms about his neck as best she could. But seeing Itarillë blink her blue eyes – her mother's eyes – only brought back the pain of loss, the empty maw in his spirit, gorged by grief and impossible to fill. He could feel the impotent swirl of his anger, pooling in his bones and making his hands fist against the pressure as it built.

And now . . .

Now Maitimo's rooms were empty. The room within was dark with night, illuminated only by a single candle on the bedside stand. Findekáno had fallen asleep on the hard chair to Maitimo's right, his elbow propped up on the arm of the chair and his head lulling forward to slip from his hand. In his exhaustion, he did not notice the awkward bend of his neck, though he would pay for it when he awakened. His brother's braids were crooked, having been done with a too fast hand. His face was very pale; white as it had not been since they had left the Grinding Ice behind them, and his skin had once again darkened healthily upon the rise of the sun. His breathing was not content as it passed from his lungs, coming rasping and quick, lost to dreams as his mind was.

Turukáno looked, but felt pity slow to rise in his chest. Angband had left its mark on more than one, and yet he could not find it within himself to be moved.

And yet, Findekáno did not long hold his attention when he turned to the room's other occupant.

Distantly, he remembered being old enough to understand the concept of his family beyond his father and his mother, beyond his brother. He remembered that he had learned Maitimo's name first; the elf with fire atop his head and fire in his eyes, drawing his child's gaze in awe. Finwë's pride of a grandson, Fëanáro's firstborn and greatest of his might - Maitimo, who always had a gentle word and a kind hand; Maitimo, whom Turukáno had copied down to the way he walked, before he grew old enough to discover his own step. His own voice.

Once, he had loved the other simply because Findekáno had loved him so dearly. It had been so easy then. But then, Valinor had darkened, and the ties binding kith and kin had darkened with it. And now . . .

He looked, but saw not of the Prince of Fire the other had once been. The strong features of his face were weathered and worn; his full lips were thin and chapped, and his eyes sat as bruises on his face, gross smears of purple and brown, standing out against the pallid shade of his too-pale skin. Where once his eyes had been painfully bright to behold, they were now smoke-grey, like the color above a flame once its fire gave out. His hair was a brittle, dry fuzz where the healer had to cut the red waves away, the short tresses so matted with blood and grime that there had been no hope for saving it. Short . . . meaning that somewhere during his imprisonment, the length of his hair had been chopped away for amusement and sport - perhaps more than once, even. A part of him felt ill at the thought.

Maitimo, the well formed one, Nerdanel had named her son. Once, he had the body of an athlete, tall and lithe and strong. Now his skin hung limply over a skeletal frame. He had no muscle-mass left, and his bones poked through in odd places. Some were shaped at odd angles, telling where they had once been broken and left to improperly heal. The healers had to re-break many of them, Turukáno remembered Irissë saying, in order to let them properly set. The fingers of his remaining hand were all bound in careful little splints, and Turukáno felt his own hand make a fist at the ghost of sensation that crawled over his knuckles.

He did not let himself see the long white scars, criss-crossing every inch of visible skin. Morgoth was clever, and Morgoth was patient - and Maitimo would not easily break. Turukáno could only imagine the lengths the Dark One would to in order to gain the reaction he sought. Morgoth had hated and admired Fëanáro with a dark obsession, and so, with Fëanáro dead, and Morgoth only able to take out his frustration and fascination on his eldest son . . .

Turukáno inhaled, and let his breath out slow. It was no less than a Kinslayer deserved, he let himself think darkly. For every life taken at Alqualondë . . . for every life lost upon the Helcaraxë . . . It was fitting, down to every last mark, and this he had to believe.

It took him a moment to realize that Maitimo was not as unaware as he first thought. For the better, Turukáno thought. He wanted him to know, he wanted him to feel . . .

“Have you come to kill me?” his cousin's voice was a dry sound upon the air, like kindle crackling in a winter's hearth, unable to take flame. Once, Maitimo's skills had lain not in craft or forge, but rather with the spoken word. He could play the strings of the court as his brother strung his harp, and few were those who could debate with him but for his father himself.

Turukáno swallowed. His own throat felt thick when he did so. “Perhaps,” he answered, stalking further into the room. The single candle cast shadows from him like wings.

Too weak to sit up, Maitimo's eyes followed him as he walked. His gaze picked out the dagger he held in hand - a simple, elegantly curved blade, the steel so thin that it held the candle's light and held it as if it was the source of the flame. The hilt was an ornate cast of pearl, depicting Laurelin and her light. The warm surface seemingly glowed with the memory of the Tree-light upon the mountain of the Valar. The blade had belonged to Elenwë, crafted by Fëanor himself for their wedding, just over a century ago.

“I recognize that blade . . . I remember when my father crafted it. The pearl was tricky, it vexed him, and yet nothing else would be worthy of Elenwë; Elenwë - who was cream and evening light in his eyes. He had sworn and vowed to use a different medium a half a dozen time, but in the end . . . he did always enjoy a challenge,” Maitimo's voice was soft, lost with memory. “Findekáno told me . . . he told me about Elenwë. I am sorry for your loss . . . truly I am.”

“Empty words,” Turukáno said coldly, his voice dark from his mouth. He watched as Maitimo's eyes narrowed upon it, testing his syllables for the threat they held. “Your sympathies are meaningless, and hollow to the ear.”

Maitimo blinked, settling back against his pillows as if shrugging. “Take them as you will,” Maitimo said, his voice carefully still. As a child, Turukáno would have heard the voice for the warning it was, embers ever needing only a spark in order to take flame. “It matters not to me.”

Turukáno was silent as he took a seat on the edge of Maitimo's bed. He was close enough to Findekáno that if his brother stirred, his hand would have touched his arm before he would have realized his presence. But Findekáno did not move. His eyes clenched, but they did not open. He muttered in his sleep, taken by his dreams.

Maitimo's gaze too flickered to Findekáno, but not for aid, Turukáno saw. Rather, there was something soft in the look, something tender and small – like an erring child looking for a parent's continued affection, and more than anything, that gaze angered Turukáno. He could feel an answering fire lick at his own bones, devouring in shape.

He leaned down, and traced the line of shadow and light on the other man's neck with the flat of Elenwë's blade. The knife barely touched his skin, the thin steel seemingly delicate to the touch.This close, he could see scar tissue about Maitimo's ears, where Morgoth had cut the fey tips away and then re-attatched them - no doubt letting them heal only so he could do so again. Turukáno felt his stomach crawl with the thought.

Maitimo did not shy away from the blade at his throat. His one remaining hand was easy against the sheets, the broken fingers still and unmoving. Just barely, he leaned into the edge of the knife. Turukáno watched with a morbid fascination as the blood rushed to the surface of his skin, preparing to heal any harm he would think to inflict.

“I asked your brother to kill me on the cliffs,” Maitimo whispered. His eyes flickered down, following the knife as it made its path. “I waited for steel to pierce my heart, but instead he took my hand . . . It was a cruel mercy, even when done in kindness . . . And so, I would ask that you do not hesitant. I release you from guilt or wrongdoing in taking my life, and ask instead that the Valar reward you for your kindness.”

This was wrong, Turukáno could not help but think. This was all wrong. The angry hole in the pit of his stomach was still turning – it was growing, as if he held nightmare-creature in his gut. If he fed it, if he sated it, he thought that the pain would go away. He wanted for the scar on his soul to scab and heal over. He needed to . . . needed to move on. He needed to for his daughter's sake, for his own sake . . .

He could not continue on like this; angry and burning. He could not . . .

While he was lost to his inner turmoil, Maitimo watched him with calm and peaceful eyes. Abstractly, Turukáno envied him. He envied his acceptance, the ease of his release.

Maedhros, the Sindarin healers had taken to calling him, rather than translating his name from Quenya as they had done for the rest of the Exiles. Iron-forged . . . he who was skilled with iron. Turukáno looked, and could not understand how the other was still strong before him. How was he not instead the slag at the bottom of the forge, useless and ruined?

And yet . . . long had the healers of Endórë dealt with those recovering from Morgoth's torments. Perhaps they saw something that he did not. Perhaps . . . perhaps it was enough that the other lived; that he breathed . . . that he endured.

“Please, Turvo,” Maitimo's voice was gentle and coaxing, trying to lull him from his hesitation . . . free him from his guilt. “You would do the world a favor . . . you would rid it of a stain. Do this in your wife's memory, even – rid Finwë's line of the unspeakable horror of a Kinslayer. Call it justice, if you need to, for justice it is.”

And yet . . . a Kinslayer he would also be if he took his cousin's life. A Kinslayer, no better than the wreck of an elf before him. Could he . . . could he really bring himself to spill the blood of Finwë and let it run out? He wanted to, he wanted to so very dearly . . . at least, he thought he did. Elenwë's loss was still like a burning in his bones, and he needed . . . He blinked, and found his eyes red and burning. When he closed his eyes, he could see red staining the salty froth of the ocean waves. He knew how crimson looked against the deadly purity of untouched snow. Would that he never have to see a spilled drop of scarlet again, then and only then would he be content.

At the thought, he tightened his hand about the hilt of the knife. And yet, he could not preform that simple flick of the wrist that was needed. If he wanted to, all that he had to do was push down with the flat of the blade, and crush the other's throat. Maitimo was weak, it would be so easy to press down and watch his breath stammer out and then never resume.

So easy . . . nearly no effort at all, and he could take the life of a Kinslayer.

Kinslayer . . . a voice in his mind mourned. This is not you, Turvo. Not even in your darkest moments is this something you can do, and the voice sounded so much like Elenwë that he let the kiss of the blade fall away. He could not . . . no, he would not.

He sucked in a breath. He had not realize how long he had gone without breathing until his lungs ached from the return of air. He let the breath fill him, and felt peace once more return.

“You will not?” he could not tell if Maitimo was surprised or disappointed. Relieved or indifferent.

“She would not have wished it,” was all that Turukáno said in reply. His voice was a low, raw sound as he spoke. Even he could hear the grief that hid behind the syllables. “And so, you will live. Kinslayer, you shall live as, and be remembered as such for all of your days. You will live, and your thrice cursed Oath will take all that you touch. I need not lift a finger for your ruin, already you bring it upon yourself.”

A moment passed, filled only with the flickering of the candle's flame and Findekáno's quiet breathing.

“It is strange,” Maitimo's voice was blank for the sparing of his life, empty even. “For that is exactly what Morgoth said to me . . . After I lost my value as a hostage, and he at long last lost his taste for my torment, Morgoth still did not kill me. He said that it would have been a waste, that someday I would walk free of Angband, and he wanted to see events as they played. It was a game to him, to watch Fëanáro's fire as it burned on and out. He . . . he laughed, knowing that my end would eventually be greater than any cruel torture he could think of.

“Perhaps it was selfish of me, but I . . . I had hoped that you had come to do what Findekáno could not. I had thought that you doing so would have begun to even the scales, that with blood spilled in payment, our crimes would be that much closer to forgiven. I had hoped, that while our Oath slept, there could be peace amongst our peoples.”

Turukáno rolled his shoulders. He would spare the life of Fëanáro's son . . . but that did not mean that he would forget, that he would know sympathy for the consequences of his actions. “You will have to find another way to make amends,” he said without feeling in his voice. “You will have to find a way to make this right - to prove to Findekáno that his sacrifice was not in vain.” At the thought, his hand fisted about the hilt of the knife, not completely forgotten. “I ask only this of you,” he said next, his voice dropping dangerously, “Do not betray my brother's trust, even if it was foolishly given. He deserves better than that, and I will not stand aside if he is hurt again.”

“And if I do not?” Maitimo asked slowly, carefully. For the first his eyes looked wary. Slowly, Turukáno thought he could see the shadow of an old spark, an old flame, struggling to find the air and burn again.

“If not? Then I will kill you,” Turukáno answered easily. “Endanger his heart – harm one more soul with your thrice bedamned Oath, and I promise you that I will finish what Morgoth started. I will not stop at a hand, Nelyafinwë Maitimo – and to that you have my oath and solemn vow, am I understood?”

He felt satisfaction fill him when Maitimo nodded once, slowly. More fitting was this, he thought. He felt a weight leave his shoulders once he returned the dagger to itsplace at his side. The emptiness that had had first swallowed his soul after Elenwë's death was still as a chasm in his spirit, but now he could feel as it started to fill. As it started to heal.

Had he taken the life of the other, that hole would have only grown, he knew. The emptiness would have settled itself deeper. It would have been a gap in his spirit that he never would have been able to fill. But, now . . .

He stood, turning away from Maitimo in order to face his brother. While Findekáno's loyalty still stung, he understood it in the smallest of ways. He would waste no more energy on that anger, not when his family had been so long divided by petty divisions and perceived insults. In that, at least, his brother was right, and Turukáno would no longer hold his fingers in the raw wound of that rift. He would let that too heal . . . if it was even possible for it to ever heal.

His motions mechanical, Turukáno took one of the extra blankets from the foot of the bed, and covered his brother with it. Findekáno stirred in his sleep, but he still did not awaken. Gently, he pressed his hand to his brother's brow, and pushed upon the surface of his consciousness, deepening his sleep to a true rest, a sleep without remembered terrors.

He left his brother to his dreams, and Maitimo to his thoughts, and did not look back.

Chapter Text

Full

At first, it had felt terribly like an adventure; this quest of theirs.

The great halls of Erebor seemed to hold the sounds of their footsteps as they kept to the shadows in their careful sprint for their grandfather's rooms. The green marble corridors echoed, and they each shushed the other as they tried to hold in their laughter as silence. Well . . . as Frerin tried to hold in his laughter, that was. Thorin was better at keeping his silences when the situation called for it, and Dís had a well practiced raised brow and disaproving scowl that was at odds with her tender years. The youngest of their brood she was, but perhaps she was older than her brother in mind – a fact that she never ceased to remind him of.

“The original works of Telchar, saved before Beleriand was lost,” Frerin was whispering – his whisper, unfortunately, only rang louder than his actual words. “The pearl Nimphelos, greatest treasure of the Broadbeams in Gabilgathol that was . . .”

“I hear that he has blades of Eöllion make,” Dís said, forgetting her unease with their quest long enough to add her own wistfulness to her brother's. “I would give anything to replicate that black steel – and I will someday, just you mark me.”

Frerin crinkled his nose. “You want to see a few pieces of elvish make when the great wonders of our people lay in Thrór's private vault?”

Dís raised a withering brow. “He was dwarf taught, Frerin – and it matters not for the skill of his wares. And, may I remind you too that Nimphelos was a gift from the Elven-king of Doriath, or did you fall asleep for that part of our histories, brother?”

Frerin ran a hand through his mass of wild black hair, annoyed. “I remember the parts of our histories that are relevant to us.” He turned to his first, looking pleadingly at Thorin. “Please, brother, second me on this?”

“I do think that the lady has the right of you. There is nothing I can say to give you aid,” Thorin said, trying not to smile as his siblings went back and forth. For all of her youth, Dís already held herself as a lady of Durin, as strong as the mountain itself and as sparkling as polished mithril. For all of his words to the contrary, Frerin loved her as he loved no other thing, and they delighted in tossing their words to and fro.

“Some help you are,” Frerin swatted his shoulder, but there was fondness too in that gesture. He scowled at his sister. “Don't you have something else you could be doing? Seeing to your embroidery, or playing with Ríli in the smithies . . .”

On cue, Dís' cheeks flushed. She refused to give him the reaction he saught, though, instead tossing her head haughtily as she said, “Ríli is a talented enough goldsmith, I suppose, but not talented enough for a princess of Durin's line.”

“I do not know,” Thorin mused with an exaggerated thoughtfulness. “Balin speaks highly of Rili's progress, and Dís is never one for her embroidery so much as she is made for heat and craft. There may be a match there yet.”

Frerin scowled, realizing that his jest had backfired on him. “A match not fit for my sister,” he grumbled before pushing on. “Now, are we doing this, or not?”

“And that is the real reason you cannot be rid of me,” Dís pointed out wryly. “If you two insist on being troll-brained, then you need someone to come with you to add a modicum of intelligence to your venture.”

“Indeed, the lady wounds me!” Frerin pressed a hand to his chest in a mummery of mortal injury. “No, sister dear, you are here for your Mahal given gift with locks.”

For they had come to the great doors that led to their grandfather's personal rooms. Thorin looked up at the golden relief depicting the first awakening of Durin in the earliest days. The artists rendering was intimidating and grand, and Thorin felt small standing before it, as if his ancestors of old looked down on him from Durin's golden eyes and knew.

And yet . . . they were no burglars, he thought. They just wished to explore without watchful eyes telling them that they could not touch this or that. There was nothing untoward in what they did, nothing at all.

Dís made quick work of the outer lock, and then they were in. Thrór's chambers were empty, though voices could be heard laughing from the corridor that led to the king's private council chambers – where their grandfather and their father would be in session until the latter part of the afternoon. They had time aplenty if they were quiet enough, and careful. The next lock was trickier – they pushing aside a tapestry where a hidden door was worked into the wall. They had just learned the word of power that would open the door the day before, and then, with Dís' quick work on the more complex keyhole, they were in.

“Ha!” she said in triumph as she pushed, and the door gave way to her.

While the main treasure of Erebor laid deep in the mountain halls, this was Thrór's personal stash and pick of their greatest wears. Priceless artifacts lined the chamber from high to low, everything from gold to diamond to mithril filling great chests to the brimming. Something elemental inside of him alighted at the sight of the precious things. He could all but taste the bite of metal on the back of his tongue. He could feel the goods of the earth beneath his fingertips, even when he had yet to touch.

Far from the urge to don and wear – as Frerin was now doing as he held Azaghâl's crown on his brow, the ornate band slipping down over his brow to rest against the bridge of his nose – he instead felt the urge to create, to make something even grander than the many things that were within this room. He could already imagine the hammer in his hand and the forge fire hot at his back, and he wanted, then -

“Aha!” Dís cried. “I found it.”

With sure fingers, she found an elegant black sword, and pulled it from its sheath with the ease of a daughter of the Longbeards. Thorin looked, and saw that the steel was indeed black, veined as if it was marble instead, crisscrossed by lines of silver and the darkest of greys. It was a strange, wonderful thing, that steel, and Thorin understood his sister's fascination almost immediately.

“A genius,” Dís breathed. “And someday, I will be the first to unlock his secret.”

“I have no doubt,” Frerin said with a grin. “And upon that day, we will wear your wares with pride. And yet, until then, you are adorned far too simply, sister dear.”

He dropped to one knee, offering her a small chest of rings. “I could not decide which one suited you best, and so, I chose them all.”

Dís rolled her eyes, but picked a ring nonetheless. “An excellent choice,” Frerin gave with exaggerated gusto. “Exactly as I would have picked for you.” And, with that, he cast the chest aside, sending the contents within flying.

Thorin hissed out a breath. “You fool,” he said crossly. “Not a thing can be moved from its place. Now help me pick these up.”

“Yes, you are right. I am sorry,” Frerin flushed, dropping to his knees in order to help him pick up the rings he had spilled. Dís bent down to help as well, stopping curiously only when she picked up a ring box – the only one so protected within the chest. She tinkered with the lock on the box before coaxing it open to reveal a twisted band of mithril within, inlaid with a large dark blue stone.

She paused, looking down at the ring oddly. Both Thorin and Frerin looked over, inexplicably feeling as the band was exposed to the air. There was a presence in the band, Thorin understood, a flickering deep and unmovable.

“I have seen this ring before,” Dís muttered. “Grandfather wears it often . . . I wonder why he is not now.”

Curiously, she handed the ring over to Thorin, who had not realized that he had wished to hold it until she offered it to him. There was something about the rather simple band that ensnared him – something that called to him.

“Yes, I have seen it before as well,” he said, though his voice was now far away to his own ears. He knew that his siblings were still speaking, but he could not hear what they said. Not then, not when . . .

The urge to put the ring on his finger was nearly overpowering. It was an overwhelming thought within his mind, one he did not even pause to second guess, and then the metal was sliding across his skin, and - 

. . . he wondered how could he have thought himself to see before, when truly, he had been so blind.

There was a power in this ring, a power deep and delving, as strong as the mountain itself. With the ring, Thorin saw with eyes that were not his own; he could see the mountain in its entirety, see its hidden treasures and darkest places, now made as clear as day. Always had he felt the mountain in his bones - her stone eaves had sheltered his birth, had succored his soul, and he knew her as a mother and a guardian both. But this . . . she was now more than a feeling in his mind, a peace in his soul, he was now one with the mountain, and there was nothing that he could not see.

He could see each strain of untapped ore, each precious stone hidden in the rock. He could see down and down and down, down to where the stone turned as molten as fire, and the underground rivers turned instead to steam, blistering and boiling. The earth had a heartbeat, and his own pulse slowed to match. He could taste the rock in his mouth; he could feel the stone as his flesh, and a yearning, an insatiable need seemed to light itself in his stomach as he saw the world around him in shades of silver and gold.

Distantly, he heard his brother calling to him. He could feel Dís' warm hand as it wrapped about his own. They were worried, Thorin thought - but how could they be, when there was such wonder underneath their feet?

He knelt then, feeling his breath coming too quick and strained in his chest. He needed to touch the marble stone beneath him. He needed the cool slide of precious metal against his skin, and he -

“Thorin?” he heard his name spoken, breaking through the golden fog.

“The ring,” he tried to speak. “Don't you see . . .”

How could they not see?

And he delved deeper with that second sight. He looked and searched until he came upon something long sleeping. Something that was the heartbeat of the earth, something that was the strains of ore and the precious gem.

“Little Longbeard, what do you seek?” came a voice, as terrible as night and as beautiful as the molten earth far below them. It took Thorin a moment to realize that the voice came from the ring, the voice was a part of the ring. “Little Longbeard, what do you see?”

For a moment, the haze of gold was overwhelming, and yet -

He just barely recognized the ring being forced from him, and the breaking of the connection was like sundering an artery. For a moment, he could not . . .

The gold faded then, and left only blackness behind. 



.

.

He awakened with a pounding in his head, as if his skull was a fold of metal being beaten into shape upon the anvil. He could not decide if that was worse than the rolling in his stomach, as bad as that one time he and Frerin had gotten into their father's stores of ale, and learned their lesson well. And yet, his twisting stomach and pounding head were nothing as to the feeling of loss he felt in his bones. A feeling that wished . . .

When he blinked, he was noticed. He felt a commotion in the room, footsteps coming closer and a broad, weathered hand as it was lain against his brow. “Aye, laddie, try to wake up if you can,” a warm, familiar voice greeted him. “You gave us quite the scare.”

He blinked, and slowly Balin's face came into focus. His vision was no longer edged in gold, and yet, he could not tell if it was relief he felt at the realization, or disappointment.

He felt a hand on his shoulder, and looked up to see that Thráin was standing at his bedside in his court finery. His face was very much like Thorin's own, even if his nose was the slightest bit longer. His was a grave and chiseled countenance, framed by a mass of curling black hair, shot through with two long locks of white at the temples. His normally unmovable features were twisted in worry, and yet, Thorin had not realized just how much he had needed his father's comfort until it was given.

He tried to sit up straighter beneath the hand on his shoulder, but was firmly pushed back down.

“No,” Thráin said. “You rest. You have been out cold for the better part of the day. It is nearly the morrow.”

That long? Thorin tried to remember, but his thoughts were covered in fog. He remembered only the ring and then blackness . . . but he looked past Balin to see Frerin and Dís both waiting at his side, anxious expressions on both of their faces. Dís' eyes were red from her tears.

“What was that?” Thorin asked. His voice was a dry, hoarse sound. He did not recognize it at the first.

“That,” a voice came from behind his father – his grandfather and King – and Thorin did sit up straighter when he realized that Thrór's eyes were upon him, “Was the First of the Seven. A gift, from Celebrimbor Fëanorian of Eregion to Durin, the third of his name, King of Moria, in the noontime of the Second Age.”

“An artifact,” Thráin said carefully as he took a seat on the edge of his son's bed. “A heirloom of great power.”

Thrór's nose twitched, the white whiskers of his beard moving as he did so. He turned narrowed eyes to his son. “A great power,” he stressed primly. “That Ring is the reason for the wealth of Erebor; the wealth of each of the seven hordes, at that. It would not have been left in such easy reach, had others not been afraid of its power, and advised against its constant wearing.”

Thorin looked, and saw the look that passed between father and son. He felt foreboding fill his heart, for he knew those names . . . Celebrimbor the Elven-smith, the Rings of Power . . .

“Yes, those Rings,” Thráin said gently. “They are one and the same.”

He thought of night-tales of wraiths in the dark; of their screams and tattered black cloaks hiding where they had traded away both their flesh and their souls. At the thought, he felt a wild bite of fear that he quickly pushed away, not wanting to seem craven before his sire and grandside. But he . . .

“And yet,” Thrór said proudly, “Only lesser races were enslaved to the call of the Rings. We of Mahal were stronger than the Dark One first believed, and we have resisted his call. Instead we use his would-be weapons to our own advantage, throwing his shadow back on him a hundred fold as our stores fill with more and more gold with each passing season.”

And yet, he could not help but think . . .

“There was a voice,” Thorin whispered. “A voice that whispered . . . I did not like the sound of it.” He felt small for admitting so, and yet, he could not . . . That voice had been evil in its entirety, and he did not like the thought of such a voice seeing the mountain he so loved, of such a voice looking upon the rock that had nurtured him. It seemed wrong; it did not feel right.

“You are wise,” Thráin said, and the hand upon his shoulder tightened. “Not all have viewed that presence as such.”

Thrór did huff at that, Thorin saw. He tensed, for his grandfather's moods had become more and more mercurial of late, and he feared . . . He felt as Dís and Frerin shuffled on the other side of his bed, both as uncomfortable as he.

But Thrór did nothing more than look archly upon them all, and then turn away. Thráin watched his father leave with suddenly tired eyes, Thorin thought, and he felt guilt fill him. It was supposed to be a fun, harmless excursion that day, and now . . .

“I just did not like the feel of it,” Thorin tried to explain, wanting to fix what was before him, but unsure just precisely how.

“It will be many years until the Ring comes to you,” Thráin said, the hand on his shoulder leaving then. In a child's moment, Thorin wished for it back. “It shall be mine first before that, and far from your concern.”

A lance of unease bit through him, and he reached out to touch his father's sleeve. But he stopped before touching him, drawing his hand back away and forcing his features to composure. “I . . .” he reined his words of concern away, saying simply, “I do not think you would need the Ring to rule. You would do well enough on your own council.”

Thráin laughed warmly at that. “I thank you for your faith, my son,” he said. “But the Ring comes with the crown, and both are burdens to bear – do not worry for me, for bear both I shall, just as you somedy will - and I know that you will do your line proud.”

His father spoke with such a certainty, but in Thorin's mind, a memory of that black voice smiled. The voice laughed, and he shivered.

“And speaking of pride,” Thráin said, turning to all of his children. “My pride as a father took a blow today when the page came in to say what mischief my own brood were up to. There are,” he said, looking at Dís specifically, “locks upon doors for a reason, for some things are not meant to be opened.” And that was said to Frerin, who looked suitably abashed as he glanced down at his feet, the skin above his sparsely growing beard flushing.

Muffled apologies greeted his words, and Thráin sighed. “To make sure you remember this in the future, I do believe that there is a forge-hearth due to be scrubbed, would you not say, Balin?”

“I can think of one in particular,” the older dwarf pretended to consider it, rubbing his chin through the graying pelt of his beard, “that would benefit three strong hands.”

“But -” Frerin got no further before Thráin held up a hand.

“Do not make me think of two,” Thráin said. “Or there are bellows to be worked, if you think that scrubbing the hearths is not enough?”

“Yes, father,” was all that greeted him, and Thráin inclined his head, pleased.

“Then let that be a lesson to you – all of you,” he turned a severe look on them all as he rose to his feet, but his eyes softened when he bent down to lay a gentle hand at his son's brow, wiping away the wild strands of his hair. “But rest for the eve, the hearths will wait until the morn.”

He took his leave, no doubt going off after his father, and Thorin watched him leave until the doors closed behind him.

He settled back into his pillows with a sigh, his head still pounding mightily behind his closed eyes.

“And it is time to rest for all of you,” Balin said gently. “It has been quite the day.”

Frerin turned to leave, but Dís lingered, looking at their elder with hesitant eyes. “Would it be alright if we were to stay? We promise not to disturb him much.”

Frerin too turned questioning eyes upon him, and Balin sighed. “As long as he isn't disturbed much, I do not see why not. But leave him to his rest, else I will see that your father remembers those bellows upon the morrow, do I make myself clear?”

He had, he was rapidly assured and as Balin turned to leave, Thorin felt as both of his siblings joined him on the bed. They had not passed a night like this since they were very young, scaring each other with stories of dragons in the dark. And yet, he was strangely thankful for their presence in that moment. He . . . he did not wish to be alone. He did not yet want to close his eyes, knowing the visions that would wait for him there.

Silence passed between them, long and lingering. Finally, Dís gathered her courage to ask, “What did you see in that other world, Thorin? We called for you, but you could not hear us. You could not hear us, but you looked past us in such a wonder . . .”

She had folded her small hand into his own, and he squeezed her fingers in assurance, not completely sure of who he was offering comfort as he did so.

“What did you see?” she asked again, her voice small.

“Everything,” Thorin whispered into the shadow; remembering being full with the mountain and the deep places underneath the earth. Full and insatiable and greedy he had felt, and now . . .

“ . . . I saw everything,” he muttered again, and then closed his eyes.
 

Chapter Text

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She is not certain that she belongs here.

Sometimes, she thought that the forest knew this; that it pressed her down against the earth like a boot upon an insect, grinding her into the wet moss and mud until there was nothing white left about her. She felt as if gravity was tugging on the soles of her boots, pulling her down, down, down, until she too was of the soil and the deep roots. Worse than this feeling, which she knows is her own mind, her own dread, is when the forest instead tried to embrace her, holding her close in arms that smothered.

She dwells in shadow, but she is not one of them, Aredhel tells herself; even when, as the days go by, she forgets the feeling of sunlight upon her skin, of Treelight in her eyes. It is a memory further and further past her reach every time she tried to grasp for it.

She dreamed often in this place; twisting dreams of twisted things. Instead of her familiar culprits (cages and wings; virgin snow stained so very red), these dreams are new, odd things (branches moving and holding and smothering, falling from such great heights). She did not like to sleep most nights for them, and yet, staying awake presented a new quandary of its own.

. . . she, she was not quite sure of how to share a bed. She never had before – Argon always knew to seek out his parents or his brothers when he had a black dream, and she had never trusted a man close enough to share her most intimate space when she was at her most vulnerable in sleep. The closest she had come was falling asleep with Tylekormo in the green grasses of Valinor, both drowsy on the light and the fresh air of the hunt. She remembered huddling close for warmth and life on the Helcaraxë, but both memories seemed far away from her now. She did not let herself remember them often, lest he too see their shadow within her mind. Some things were still her own, only her own, and she would not share them.

Now, she moved carefully, biting her lip as she tried to arrange her arms more comfortably beneath her pillow. There was a crick in her neck from her refusing to settle it in an easier position, but she did not wish to turn over and alert him of her restlessness. She carefully stayed to the edge of the bed, her back to him and her every bone stiff and unyielding. She held her breath until she was sure that her heart would cut its way from her chest for the tight stretch of her skin.

Slowly, she exhaled, sure that if she could just move her arm like so, then she would be marginally more comfortable. If she could . . .

“You have not stopped moving,” came her husband's drowsy voice from the other side of the bed. He rested on his side as well, facing away from her – out of his own wishes, or giving in to her more childish ones, she was not quite sure.

Aredhel set her mouth in a line, unwilling to apologize for disturbing him, but unsure of what else to say. Instead, she opted for silence.

She heard a breath as Eöl sighed, the sound low and rumbling from his chest. At her mind she felt his frustration and amusement both, a normal state of feeling for him where she was concerned.

“Do try to relax,” he said. The bed dipped beneath his weight as he turned towards her. “You act as if the night will swallow you whole if you but close your eyes.”

Would it not? she wanted to ask, but did not. Her heart was too fast then, skipping in her chest with a feverish beat.

Still, she was silent.

“Are you scared of the dark?” he asked next, a line of challenge in his voice, and at that she blinked. She turned to look over her shoulder at him, her glance withering. And yet . . .

“I am simply unused to sharing a bed,” she whispered. “I cannot get comfortable.”

A moment passed. She felt a flicker of thought, a breath of hesitation, but then she felt a callused hand as it touched her shoulder, gently turning her towards him. He drew her close, wrapping his arms around her, and at first she felt her blood spark with an ever more familiar fire before Eöl shushed her, tracing a hand down her arm in a motion that was more tenderness than urgency.

“As tempting as you are, wife, I do have to be gone early in the morn,” his voice was soft, spoken into her ear now. “I just wish for you to be comfortable.”

And . . . she was, Aredhel thought. She tucked her head against his chest, and folded her arms so that she rested her hands against the warm skin of his abdomen, finding the now familiar shape of the muscles there. His arms settled around her shoulders, holding her to him as their legs entwined, and she felt as if she were a piece of a whole settling into place. For everything else that felt wrong here . . . for every shadow waiting as with teeth, she never felt wrong when he held her as such. A part of her hated that, and yet . . .

“I am not used to having a bedmate, either,” Eöl whispered against her hair, using the truth as a balm. “Perhaps we can learn together?”

She still did not answer, but she did exhale in reply, her body loosing some of its stiffness as she felt sleep tug at her consciousness. The forest still loomed beyond her senses, but no longer did it seem to be a maw, opened wide. The darkness waited – watching, she thought - but it did not matter.

For that moment, she closed her eyes, and belonged. 

Chapter Text

 Far

There were times when the knowledge of just how far away from home she was caught her by surprise; like the rains in the summer, when they fell from a cloudless sky.

It was different here in Endórë. In Aman, one only carried a sword or bow only when wishing to hunt or cross one's companion in friendly competition. In Endórë, they were required to go armed wherever they went, ever keeping alert for the dangers that the Dark Lord set upon the land like maggots upon a festering corpse.

Galadriel had known, in theory, of the shadow that laid upon the hither lands, but to know it firsthand now . . . The shadow was so much more than her grandfather's tales; more than the stories her brothers would tell to scare her as a child. She now knew Endórë as a land of loss and hardship, a land of strife and harsh stones. She had not understood this when she so naively set out to find her own way, her own realm to rule. And yet, now . . .

In Aman, the only elf to know a sundering within his family had been Fëanor himself, and that one death had sparked a dark, prolixing spiral into madness. Here, there was not a family left untouched by death. Even her companion that day had lost much – both of his parents had been killed in the same attack, over a century before she had arrived in Middle-earth. His grandmother had been taken by Morgoth and returned as Orc-kind, and his grandfather Elmo had ended her life before fading away to join her sundered spirit in huanting the land. Elmo had been of the Unbegotten, a brother of Elu Thingol himself, and to know that not even the strongest of their kind was untouched by tragedy . . . 

“You can still see them take shape in the mists,” Celeborn concluded his tale as they picked their way through the hunting paths. “He waits for her, resisting Námo's call to haunt the places they once knew together and loved. For it is unknown to us what happens to the fëar of Orcs when they depart - for they were once Elves, were they not? They have merely been twisted; tortured and betrayed. Námo may have mercy in Eru's name, and yet, we are not to know until the breaking of the world.”

Galadriel watched as his pale blue eyes darkened, as his jaw set in a tense line. The Valar had forgotten about these lands, she knew the thought that whispered through his mind. They left Middle-earth to Melkor as his playground, and could not be moved from their high places in the West to aid those left behind . . . or, so it seemed.

Once was, she would have thought to ignore the call of Námo sacrilegious. Blasphemy. A thing of evil, even. Now . . .

Now she was not so sure. And yet, Endórë had done that to many a thing she had once thought to know as fact.

Constantly defeating what she had once known with new understanding was Celeborn himself. When Angrod had first met their kinsmen in Doriath, he had called them uncultured and uncouth, these Dark Elves who'd never known the light of the Trees, who had never learned at the feet of the Valar. They dressed in shades of grey, having only known color with the rising of the sun itself. Their only adornments were of leaves and branches and their hair of silver, with their knowing little of craft and even less of lore.

How haughty Angrod's first opinion had been . . . She still felt her cheeks flush when she remembered the arrogant way she had first greeted this people, thinking herself above even their fair Lúthien and their Queen who was also something divine, something greater than them all.

And yet now she stood, humbled and renamed, learning the forest at Celeborn's side – learning of the beauty hidden beneath the shadow of Middle-earth. She felt at ease in her own skin beneath the forest's shade. Here, she felt as if she learned her true self anew, far from her quarreling kin and memories of blood on the waves.

But she would not . . . she could not think of such. Not now. Those were Artanis' memories, and she was Artanis no longer.

Her thoughts distracted her, and she stumbled with her next step, cutting herself on the rock as she caught her balance.

Ai,” she hissed in annoyance when she saw a thin line of red bloom on her palm. It stung more at her pride than her flesh, and yet it would throw her aim with the bow if they were successful on their hunt. She walked over to where a wide stream cut through the underbrush of the forest, intent on flushing the cut out until the blood clotted and started to heal.

She held her palm beneath the bubbling waters, still icy from the winter melt, and she felt her heart turn sick in her chest as memories came back unbidden. Like a flash of stormlight upon the land, she remembered Alqualondë and its sea of pearl touched by ribbons of red . . . she remembered washing her hands in the bubbling surf and feeling the salt of the sea burn at her scraped skin . . . she remembered the silver of her blade in the water as she threw it to pierce the waves, and now -

“Here,” Celeborn knelt down beside her. He was as quiet as a stag with his approach, and she did not know he was beside her until he reached into the water to heal her hand for her. She watched in disturbed fascination as the small cloud of copper above her palm touched the pale white of his skin as well. It stained him with her stain, and she -

She breathed in through her nose, jerking her hand away from him. “Do not touch me,” she exhaled in fear, like a wounded animal, lashing out. Almost immediately she regretted her words, for how could she explain her sudden unease? It was not he, but rather she who was tainted in that moment. It was her curse; her doom and bloodstained hands . . . and yet, it was a curse he still knew nothing about. It was a doom which he was ignorant to.

Her spilling the blood of her father's kin, even in the defense of her mother's . . . she did not have the words in her heart to tell him. She did not think that she could stand the scorn that would settle on his brow in reply. The disgust.

She made a fist of her hand, ignoring the way her fingers pulled on the skin of her wound. The pain of it grounded her. It called her back to herself.

“My apologies, my lady. I will not touch you again,” Celeborn said stonily. His face was carefully blank of feeling, as it had not been since their earliest days together, when it seemed that they were constantly offending the other in their learning their opposite ways and views. She had come to enjoy their dance since then; she enjoyed crossing blows with the unyielding steel of his mind, but now . . .

She did not have the words to put him at ease, and so she let the silence between them lay like a wound. In the mists of the trees, she thought she heard the spirit of Elmo calling mournfully on the air, looking for something he would never find. There was a touch of the wistful to his voice, a yearning greater than even the insistent call of the Valar, summoning his lost soul home . . .

For a moment, Galadriel listened, and knew exactly how he felt.



.

.

Beyond

It came as a shock; a sudden startle disturbing the quiet stillness of a forest pool.

Even knowing that it was coming – seeing the limb before it broke, knowing that the branch was weak, needing only the right storm to set it free – did not soften the blow of its doing so. And now she stood with her head held haughty and high; her hair garlanded by white flowers instead of precious stones, her gown grey and elegant in its simplicity instead of gaudy and adorned, listening as words were flung at she and her brothers both.

Kinslayers and cowards, refusing to aid their mother's people. Traitors and liars, seeking out his hospitality when they knew well of the black deeds that had spurned on the flight of the Exiles.

Finrod spoke calmly in reply to Thingol's every blow, a note of frustration biting into his voice like a stain of minerals and rust upon a fresh stream. Angrod was not so calm as his first, indignation and anger simmering beneath his harshly spoken words as he gave them in reply to the Elven-king upon his throne. At his side, Aegnor took up his sibling's righteous fire as his own, they finishing the other's words more often than not. Orodreth only was silent, listening as carefully as she did, finding her eye after every particularly cruel accusation. But she squared her jaw in reply to his concern. She did not need her brother to shield her. Not from this. Especially from this.

She looked, but saw not a kind eye in the court. Even Lúthien's gentle brow was creased with hurt and betrayal. Melian was impassive at her husband's side, her ageless eyes finding hers throughout the hostile arguments. I had asked you, my child, the Maia Queen said in sorrow against her mind, but Galadriel ignored her mothering touch. Why did you not merely say so, Nerwen Eärweniel?

Galadriel looked to the right of Thingol's throne, but Celeborn was very careful to keep his eyes on his king and none other. She looked, and saw the tight line of his jaw, the stiff set of his shoulders. All were familiar marks of his anger, and under any other circumstance they were those she would seek to fan on and ignite with the easy teasing of their camaraderie. And yet, now . . .

“Be gone from me,” Thingol finally said when their words turned in angry circles, each side only wounding the other all the more for speaking so. “Not forever, for you are still kindred of mine and you shall again be welcome in these halls. Yet, for now, my heart is heavy in my chest, and I cannot look upon you for my anger.”

She was the last to turn, trying to seek out Celeborn's gaze before she left, but he would not look at her. He did not seek her out until hours later, when she was gathering her things, preparing to depart with her brothers until Thingol's wrath cooled.

“Why did you not tell me?” was the first thing he asked. The silence stretched between them, she not even bothering to deign such a question with an answer. She did not look up from her task, moving about her rooms with terse, mechanical motions as she gathered what she would need to take with her.

“Would you have not said so until we were married, and I saw the memories unbidden in your mind?” Celeborn continued, unfazed by her silence. “Would you have deemed it then time to so graciously allow me the truth of your flight from Aman?”

“I refused to speak because I could not speak,” Galadriel said, her words low and dangerous. “And I am tired of seeking out forgiveness when I have done nothing deserving of requiring such forgiveness. I am tired of being asked to choose between my father's kin and my mother's kin, and I shall do so no more.”

She looked and saw where he winced, as if she had struck him physically with her words. “I thought that you trusted me,” Celeborn said, his words plain. For the first, she heard the hurt that lingered beneath his anger, beneath his righteous pride. “Is there anything else that I ought to know?” his voice turned scathing then, covering the wound of his hurt. “Is there anything else that would make me question that the woman before me is she whom I thought myself to know and love? Or is Finwë's line too damaged for even that, for truths and their telling?”

It was her turn to flinch, the blow of his words finding their place between her ribs and sinking in deep. “There is no further truth to share, nothing else to tell.” She felt her words becoming clipped, her voice closed off. She would not let any speak down to her. Not even him. “You now know all.”

Still he did not believe her, she saw . . . still he did not trust. He stood with his arms crossed and his blue eyes as pale flames with his judgment. She felt anger fill her, thinking only it shall not be so. She would hang her head before no other, not even him.

When her words failed her, she opened her mind to him, instead letting him see what had happened at the Swan Havens. Yes, she held a sword, she pressed the memory against him until it smothered his mind's eye. While Fingolfin's children jumped to aid the sons of Fëanor, not understanding what happened until it was too late, she had seen, and she had known. And so, she had stood before Eärwen's kin with a sword. Fëanor's sons wore mail and armor, the forged steel in their hands and the flames of their Oath a terrible force to face. The people of Alqualondë were of the sea - fishermen and shipbuilders with hooked knives and fishing spears, peaceful folk with sea shells woven into their hair and sea salt staining their clothes. The massacre to follow was inevitable.

But Galadriel knew her craft well, and she had struck the Fëanorian supporters without mercy, while her own brothers stood numbly to the side, unsure of which side to aid. It was as if they all had been drunk on strong wine that terrible day. It had been like drowning, unable to tell up from down, until finally she had felt her stomach rebel at the battle's end, and she had tasted bile in the back of her mouth as the ships burned.

She let him see how easily elven skin rent, how easily elven blood spilled. He would not know, she thought, no matter how many Orcs had fallen to his blade throughout the centuries. She let him see next, how the Valar looked down on the events of that day and judged. She let him hear how Námo's voice rang, as terrible as any unlight when he proclaimed their doom. She let him see how her pride had trembled in rage, for the Valar had called the Elves to Aman as friends, and she'd be damned before she considered herself cursed for turning back to the land of her people's birth. A rebel they called her for returning to the land across the sea? A heretic and ungrateful blasphemer against their power and might? It was not to be borne. Even now she trembled with remembered rage at the thought.

She next let him see the horrors of the Ice. She let him feel the days of ever-cold, let him see the countless losses the Helcaraxë clawed from the flesh and souls of her people.

She let him see, and then she opened her eyes to see in return . . .

. . . pity . . . pity and disgust.

There was disgust in his eyes for her memories. Disgust, as if she were no better than Fëanor's sons for her deeds. Even though she would later understand that such feeling was not for her, but rather for the foes she had faced, the judgment she endured, she was too angry to realize that then. Then, she only knew that her father's kin was again united; the sons of Fëanor breaking bread with the sons of Fingolfin in friendship and fealty. They looked on her as a traitor against Finwë himself and against the Noldor as a whole. And now the Sindar saw her the same as the cursed people who spilled the blood of Thingol's kin across the sea.

She was trapped, she realized with a sinking feeling in her stomach. She alone had stood tall in those days, and yet she would receive thanks from neither side. She was . . .

Cursed.

Cursed, the Valar had said. Cursed, with every deed of their hands falling to naught but ash. She had not believed it to be so, not even with the Helcaraxë singing of their doom with every step. But now, the look in Celeborn's eyes was enough to convince her of the truth of Námo's every syllable. She understood the full extent of her doom.

“I will obey your King's wishes, and join my brother in Nargothrond,” she said stiffly into the stillness that followed the exchange of memories. Celeborn had yet to say a word. “If I am not needed in the building there, I will rejoin my father's kin in Hithlum. If ever you can look beyond my bloodstained hands, you may then seek me out there,” her voice fairly dripped with her derision. And yet, better did she show spite instead of letting him see how very wounded she was in that moment . . . how utterly destroyed. “Seek me out, if you will, for I will never turn you away.”



.

.

Heal

He knew that the halls of Hithlum were abuzz with chatter at his presence.

He could hear it go back and forth, like a stream over the bedrock below, the current pulling the waters this way and that. Thingol's kinsman. He would be 'royalty' amongst the Dark Elves, the newcomers said with upturned lips and raised brows. My prince, many of the Sindar who lived beneath the shadow of the Noldor bowed before him and raised their eyes in respect, recognizing Thingol's likeness in the silver of his hair and the shape of his jaw.

Far from home, are we not, Dark Elf? I did not know there were any of Thingol's kin brave enough to cross the Girdle. Came a voice as rich as molten gold from an elf with eyes like fire and hair as black as night. Later, he would know the other as Fëanor's fifth son, and he know gratitude that he did not then know the relation, else would he have caused violence while waiting upon a host's graciousness. The elf spoke in high, rolling Quenya; a version of his tongue used only for court ritual and epic poetry - as if assuming that he would not understand the words spoken against him. You do not wear furs and skins like the rest of your kind? I see no stone blade at your belt. That is well, at the very least - you understand your place. You put on airs for your betters. It is as it should be,

Your kind . . . airs? Celeborn thought, a boiling in his veins. Nandor and Sindar and Silvan and Avari - there were distinctions between each, and the grey of his robes should have been telling to any who knew where to look. The other spoke in ignorance and petty superiority, this elf who had spilled the blood of kin and claimed dominion over lands which were already tended and owned. But Celeborn was a son of princes, and kinsman of a King whom even a Maia had thought worthy of binding her life and spirit to. He would not be cowed by the other.

It did not matter that he had never seen the light of the Trees', he thought. He had no need to, not when he had instead seen . . .

Curufin, who was fire and flame, was soon drawn away by another – a tall elf with an air of burden and weariness about him, who would have been handsome beyond compare if it was not for the pale and clipped shape of his features . . . the silver scars and the missing hand. Celeborn looked, and knew this one without naming, but instead of the anger he expected to feel, he instead felt only stillness as the Kinslayer's eyes met his and he bowed his head in a gesture of acknowledgment, if not respect. Celeborn knew his own look; he knew he was silver and sleek like the edge of a blade. How many of Olwë's kinsman would have been equal in his likeness, he wondered? How many with his face did these seven put to a blade?

But the eldest, touched by red, looked as if a shadow overcame him, and the bow of his head turned deeper. Celeborn did not return the gesture, and finally, Maedhros drew his brother away.

He was not immediately able to go to Galadriel, as he would have wished to. Instead he adhered to the etiquette of the court, and first bore an audience with Fingolfin and his sons, delivering his words of continued friendship and goodwill from Elu Thingol, speaking again of the King's ban on Quenya as the only retribution he would take upon those who had spilled the blood of his brother's people. There was a shadow on Fingolfin's brow, and Celeborn could tell where he balked beneath being administered to by one of the Moriquendi, but the proud King of the Noldor inclined his head at the end. He vowed to make it so.

It would be a long road to peace and healing between their two peoples, Celeborn thought. A long road indeed, and yet . . .

His thoughts were diverted when they emptied from the council chamber and he saw that she waited just beyond.

Galadriel stood tall and proud, ignoring the looks of her cousins as they passed, instead waiting for him. Mindful of the others about, and unsure if she had yet told her family of her Sindarin lover – unsure if he could even claim to be so still – he stood a respectful distance from her. He bowed in the way of her people, and pressed a dry kiss to the back of her offered hand. Once, he would have thought of the blood her hands had seen, now he merely felt the way they trembled. He found his grip tightening against his will, offering her strength. She, who was ever so unmovable . . .

He felt eyes upon them like insects itching up and down his spine. Regretfully, he let her hand fall away.

Carefully, he took in the differences since last he saw her, pausing on the elaborate pile of ornate braids and jeweled pins that held back the radiance of her hair, the heavy embroidery of her dress and the rich shade of blue it was - a shade brighter than would be found on a peacock's tail, a color not found naturally in their shadowed lands.

It did not look right on her, Celeborn thought. He had grown used to her hair flowing unchecked and unbound; her gowns only simple folds of grey and silver and white. She needed no more adornment than that, and yet . . .

“Come, if you would,” she said, tilting her head. Her eyes flickered in the barest of annoyance to those who still watched them as they slipped from the ornate halls into the gardens beyond. Celeborn did not realize just how claustrophobic he had felt until he felt the fresh air on his face. He breathed, feeling his lungs fill with the twilight and spice of the herbs that grew right beyond the doors. There were no trees here, not on the mist-lands by the great lake, and he irrationally wished for the comforting shade of interlocking boughs overhead.

The gardens were too . . . exact, he thought as they walked the winding paths to a secluded place, made so by an arbor of carefully trimmed rose bushes. There was none of the wild about the ornate beds, and yet, it was better than the showy keep they had left - with Fingolfin's seat of power being more gaudy than a dwarf's horde to his eyes.

When he looked, Galadriel was standing very still, as if she was one of the statues of stone, standing as silent specters amidst the garden. She smoothed her hands over her dress at his appraisal. He watched her take in a breath.

“Artanis,” he said, wanting to say – needing to say so many things. “I judged you rashly when last we spoke. I looked on you in anger, and I spoke in the haste of rage. I have come to apologize for the harshness of my words, and say, that if you were ever to share . . . if you ever wanted another to help you bear your burdens, I would be glad to be that shoulder for you.”

Still she was as stone before him, and yet . . .

After a long moment, terse and waiting, she took his hands in his own. Her fingers trembled, and a part of him was humbled to realize that he could reduce this strong, amazing woman to a sapling in the wind. Humbled, and awed.

“Galadriel,” she whispered, meeting his eyes at long last. As always, he could see light reflected and held deep in her gaze. This time he thought he could see tears, burning and hot before she blinked them away. “Galadriel you have named me, and Galadriel I have been named.”

“I did not think,” he said carefully, “that you would wish to be called as such. Not here. Not . . .”

Not after all that had been said between them.

“Artanis . . .” she said slowly, “ . . . Artanis as she was died a long time ago; slain by the blades of kin and buried by the horrors of the Ice. I did not know that she was laid to rest until I found Galadriel beneath the shelter of the trees. I . . .” her voice faltered, suddenly uncertain.

Yet, he understood. Artanis was the name of a child, headstrong and stubborn, who fought the impossible fights and tilted her chin to the doom of the gods. Galadriel was a woman, stronger after tragedy, and graceful in the wisdom those bloodstained days had gained.

And . . . perhaps, the smallest part of Galadriel was also his . . . just as he was becoming hers in the whole of his soul, down to the roots of his bones.

When he opened his arms to her, she allowed his embrace after only a second of hesitation. The first time he had held her as such, he had felt as if he were trying to hold the newly dawned sun itself, but now . . . Now he felt as if he held his equal, his match. And, if she would let him . . .

“When you are ready,” he said slowly, softly. “I would hear all that you would wish to say.”

He felt as she drew in a deep, shuddering breath. He felt her pain as his own; but it was a pain of healing, of bones being set and skin being stitched together again.

“It is a long tale,” she said as she drew away from him, just enough to sit at the fountain's edge, he following at her side. “And yet, it is one that should be told. It started, as this . . .”


Chapter Text

Steady

If anything could be said about Eärendil's son, it was that he was surprisingly resilient for a child.

Elros had taken up the peculiar habit of following him whenever he went. He sat with him while he did his missives; tending to the needs of his men on paper and writing to the small conclave of their supporters left at Amon Ereb. The boy held a quill the same way as he did, fitting his left hand awkwardly around the grip and looking to catch his eye all the while. Maedhros did not comment, did not even look his way when the child could see him, and yet, Elros was undeterred. 

(If he remembered Fingon at that same age; all bright eyes and quiet, solemn concentration as he tried to shape his letters just so, then that was a memory he put away like an offering of a penitent at a shrine. He had not let himself think about his cousin in many years. He did not, could not, think about his friend, long gone, and so, he did not.)

The boy was there everytime he turned. Elros watched at the edge of the practice yards, mimicking his honed move with the sword with a stick of his own - his motions one-handed more often than not to more perfectly mirror him. Elros was there with the horses, feeding and tending a small bay colt he had claimed for himself – the same coloring as Maedhros' own mount – and all to eager to help with anything and everything as Maedhros went about the albeit tricky process of tacking his spirited stallion with one hand. Elros copied the way he walked, following just a step behind and carefully bending his every limb to capture a grace that would not be his until many years had passed. He tried to mimic the way he talked even, 'but Maedhros says it like this,' a common phrase to hear whenever Maglor instructed the twins in the High-tongue. Often Maglor would sigh through his nose and wryly comment, 'Then he is saying it wrong too,' before moving on with a twinkle in his eye that made Maedhros ire catch whenever he was on the receiving end of it.

When Elros appeared for the morning meal one day with his hair braided the exact same way Maedhros wore his, Maglor could not contain himself. He coughed into his bowl, and had to cover his amusement behind his hand lest he hurt the young one's feelings. Elros did not notice anyway, he being too busy returning his brother's raised brow, muttering, “I just like them this way,” in a defensive tone to Elrond's pointed questions.

Elros then looked to Maedhros with those same star-lit eyes, and Maedhros held his gaze but a moment before looking away. He stood and took his leave, ignoring the hurt child he left behind. If the Perelda was wise, he would pick another to idolize. Not him, not . . .

. . . anyone else would be better for Elros to strive to be. Anyone.

“After six brothers and too many cousins to name, you do not have room in your heart for one more child?” Maglor asked later, and there was not a rebuke in his voice so much as a sadness, tired and worn.

“And yet, look where they are now,” was Maedhros' only reply, and Maglor merely sighed, sounding old with many years as he touched his shoulder and then turned away.

It was now raining, with the stormwater pounding against the roof of the crumbling keep they sought shelter in for the night. It had only been two years since he had taken the twins from the massacre at Sirion, and they still moved about the coast, waiting for word of Eärendil's return. They never stayed in one place for long, knowing that Gil-galad and Celeborn still had scouts following them, all patiently waiting for a moment they could steal the children away without risking their coming to harm. But Ereinion was a young king, and his men were stretched thin as it was with Morgoth freely walking the lands. He would not - could not - wage a full rescue when he could not muster the forces, and yet, it paid to be cautious for unexpected opportunities - opportunities Maedhros was determined not to provide.

The stone hall around them used to belong to some minor chieftain of the Atani, and it had been abandoned centuries ago. It was not marked on any Elven map, seeing as how quickly the Sons of Men came and went from place to place, and they had counted themselves as fortunate to find shelter when the sky turned threatening overhead. The waves pounded on the tall cliffs beyond, sounding in place of thunder from above. They were all camped in the great hall of the keep, most sleeping softly in defiance of the raging storm beyond.

Maglor rode ahead days ago, and had yet to return, leaving Maedhros and an elf named Arheston in charge of the children. The captain had presided over Maedhros' archers, of which there were now few left, and as a widower and a father with none of his children left alive, and he had gladly taken to helping Maglor with the twin's care. More subtly, he was also there to aid Maedhros with the tasks Maglor previously would – for not everything could be done with one hand – and he was grateful for the help of the other man.

That night, when Arheston was finishing off the first plait in his hair, Elros had watched quietly before sincerely offering to help, and Maedhros had to fight a sigh. He had encouraged the child not, and still, Eärendil's son was as steady as a current in a river, never giving, and he was starting to feel as the stone the waters parted around.

“When will Makalaurë be back?” Elros asked then, and Maedhros had blinked, for no one called his brother that but for he, and only in private councils, at that. Something had cut through him then, a memory of another time and place, when he had been Russandol to many young ones, each confident of the smiles and undivided attention that would be theirs if they all but came near to him.

He looks like Fingon at that age, he thought next. Though the world would say Lúthien with their glossy black hair and strange, pale grey eyes; he could see Turgon in the shapes of their jaws and the crest of their brows. Turgon and Fingon had been similar in appearance, alike to the point where they had nearly seemed as the twins before him. The only differing trait between them had been Turgon's greater height – something which Fingon had been teased mightily about, and now . . .

Maedhros swallowed, taken by memory; memories he had not thought of in much too long, and like a crack in a dam he could feel old thoughts and feelings returning unbidden.

Maglor,” he had stressed his brother's Sindarin name, a name Elros' own forefather had condemned them to use, “will be back when he his tasks are complete. His comings and goings are of no concern to you.” His voice had been sharp, and for once Elros flinched, unsure as he drew back.

Arheston looked at him oddly as he tied off the last braid, but Maedhros ignored the other man, waving him away as he settled down by his place at the fire. Sleep was slow in coming for him that night, but come it did with strange and twisting dreams - taking him from the holy heights of Taniquetil to the black smoke of Thangorodrim. Fingon stood there on the obsidion cliffs, holding three star-lit stones in his hands. He held them above a darkened void, asking him to choose between his family and the gems, his eyes resigned and pained.

Which do you love more? Fingon asked in a voice that was terrible and sad, but Maedhros had not been able to hear him, for he was then lunging for the gems, and falling once he held them, falling, and -

He awakened with a hiss of indrawn breath. His heart was thundering in his chest, and he could not get it to slow. He blinked, but saw only the darkened hall, the fires having long dwindled down to embers. Out of reflex, he looked to the side, and made sure that the twins were resting peacefully by the opposite side of the fire. Elrond was as far from him as was possible, as was his wont, and sleeping deeply. But Elros . . .

Maedhros closed his eyes, but it was no use. The boy had seen him.

A moment passed, and then another. He kept his eyes closed, but was not surprised when a small hand touched his shoulder, questioning.

He fought the urge to sigh. “It is unwise to awaken one who sleeps with a dagger, child,” he rumbled, his voice dark with dreams and sleep.

“But you are already awake,” Elros pointed out, and at that, Maedhros did sigh.

He closed his eyes again, but heard as Elros scooted near, coming as close to him as he dared.

“Did you have a nightmare?” the child asked.

Maedhros was silent.

“I heard you,” Elros whispered. “You called out names I did not recognize. Were they . . . were they your parents?”

He flinched. Where he had tried to forget Fingon, Fëanor was always waiting for him behind every thought, as terrible and consuming in death as he had been in life. Maedhros remembered him with his mouth turned in scorn, calling him no son of his as he had tried to stay his hand at Losgar. Fëanor had been father to none but his craft in the end, and Maedhros . . . why he still clawed for the one way to earn his father's approval, he did not know. But his Oath would allow him to do nothing else.

“I do not like thinking about my parents, either,” Elros revealed on a whisper, seeing his wince and hesitantly interpreting it. “I do not remember my father, except that his hair was like the sun and he smelled of salt. My mother . . . she was not real at times, and I think that I imagined her more often than not. She too had a light, but it was not like Adar's . . . She did not take care of nightmares, so we always took care of each other.”

Still, Maedhros was silent.

A moment passed, and then Elros continued, “Elrond has nightmares, though not like you or I. He sees things when he sleeps; things that often come to be. He saw you before you came, the elf with fire in his hair and fire in his eyes who would burn our home. I . . . I normally sit with him until he falls back asleep. It helps, he says. The bad dreams do not come if they know someone is watching. I . . . I could do that for you?”

Maedhros turned over, putting his back to the child as he did so. He still did not answer him, and yet Elros was unperturbed.

“It's okay,” Elros whispered softly, accepting an apology that would never come. “I will sit here with you.”

He felt small hands pull his woolen blanket back up over his shoulders, awkwardly tucking him in, and at the small kindness, he felt something burn in his throat. He tried to swallow it away, but still a stone remained. He could not rid himself of it.

He closed his eyes, and in the child's shadow, he slept without remembered dreams.

Chapter Text

Forgive

The road from Tirion to Alqualondë was dark, so very dark. Shadow sat unmovable on the land, untouched by light for many days now. Even Varda's stars shone as if through a haze, illuminating little of the path below. The light had died in Aman as it was, and now there was only the traveler and the road, making his way by the thin light of the lamp he had to see by. But light crafted by hands did little to pierce the gloom around him, not for long. How could it, when the Trees' themselves were no more?

Only weeks ago, when Arafinwë had made this same exact same journey, he had not noticed the bends in the path, the difficulties his horse had in finding his way. He had thought only home and Eärwen, his stomach rolling as he rehearsed how he would tell his wife of the carnage he had left behind. He had rode ahead of the few of his host who had repented of their flight, only knowing that he had to be home, that he had to be the one to tell his wife of the loss of her people – of the curse of his people. And yet, he had been unable to find the words as he collapsed in Eärwen's arms, just steps away from the gate. He had been too heart-sick and soul-sore to speak, but it did not matter, for Eärwen had held him, and known, seeing his thoughts as her own through the link that bound their souls. She had inhaled with a shuddering breath, only asking him aloud if their children followed behind him, her voice small but strong as she shaped the wishes of her heart with her mouth.

And yet, even for that, he had no kind words with which to offer her comfort.

His strong bride, he had though in the wake of his admission, Eärwen only nodding when he told her of their children joining Nolofinwë's host to cross the Helcaraxë to Endórë. His strong bride, who had tried to hold together a city and a people who had never truly accepted her at Anairë's side before he turned back. His brilliant wife, whose people had known nothing but a blade from the hands of his kin, and still she did not turn him aside. Like a tide to a shore, he found himself drawn back to her, and as the winds above gave the waves their shape, he found his strength rekindled and birthed anew from her own strength in those days that followed.

He . . . he was the third son of an immortal King, the son least like Finwë, at that. The least Noldo son, often was it said, but Arafinwë had always cared little for words – something that had always made him a calm ripple amongst the ripping currents of his family. Peacekeeper, his father had often called him in a tired voice, but there was a gratitude there, as well - for Fëanáro could never truly hold anger against him, and Nolofinwë never wanted to. When arranging the details for his coronation, Findis had only raised a pale brow before wryly pointing out that all of the reasons he thought the crown ill suited to his brow were precisely the reasons his people needed him now.

And yet . . . his father was supposed to live forever. If the unlikely happened and Finwë gave his crown to his son, it would be to Fëanáro's brow, and then his seven sons after that. The unthinkable would have to happen for Arafinwë to take up the mantle of leadership. And yet . . .

. . . the unthinkable had happened. The unthinkable had taken Finwë's last breath and prompted his brothers to give his murderer chase to Endórë, while he stayed behind and tried to hold together the land that laid ravaged in their wake. The thought was a burden that made him turn new eyes to the path, determined for its passing.

Now, youngest son though he was, the crown was his, and to him it belonged to pull a fractured people back together again. Few were the Noldor who stayed in Aman, and his people were now those older and those younger, for the most part. Those old enough to remember the Great Journey cared but little to seek out such toils again in Middle-earth, and those young enough to not yet know the wanderlust and stagnant stillness of many years could not find the want to leave. Many of their women stayed behind, caring little to loose husbands and worry about the safety of their children in a land where all could be lost in the flickering of a heartbeat. This, Arafinwë knew all to well from his own household. Amarië walked their halls at Eärwen's side, as if waiting, but he knew as well as she that her wait would be a long one – and she was not the only one with a loved one far from her side for greed and the promise of more and new across the sea. Eldalótë was Noldor and proud, and she would not weep for her husband's flight so much as she merely squared her jaw and carried on as if Angaráto was still there as ever. Without the light, Anairë still donned her heavy robes of court and arranged her hair in elaborate piles of braids, the styles lopsided for her lack of seeing, and carried on as ever in the affairs of their people. Although he knew that his brother and goodsister did not have the marriage of flames that Fëanáro and his bride had, or even the easy love he had with his wife, that did not mean that they loved each other any less for the coolness of their affections. Anairë was hard and practical, and without her good sense, he knew that his people would be that much worse for the wear.

His people . . . those who stayed learned the hardships of living without the light. The months since the Trees last shone meant that all had strained eyes and aches of the head that grew only worse with each passing day, they having ever to strain their eyes to see. Injuries were more and more common as they all adjusted to the not-light, and a strange sickness accompanied the dark – a sickness of yellowing skin and increasingly black moods, they not realizing how their bodies fed off of the light as much as their souls did.

And yet, more importantly, was the lack of food they were starting to face. They already survived on rations, but their last harvest would only get them so far, and without the light of the Trees to let them glean the fields anew . . . Their hunting was thin, as well, with the creatures of the forest falling from the lack of sustenance from the earth. While the Valar said only soon and patience to the dawn of a new light in the world, Arafinwë could only have so much patience while his people suffered around him. And so . . .

He rode to Alqualondë.

It was a ride he already took for personal reasons – for Olwë was both King of the Teleri in Alqualondë and father to his wife, at that. Olwë's people had suffered gravely from the hands of his kin, and reparations would have to be made. Trepidation rose in him for the conversation to come, and he felt ill for it. Never before had the road to Alqualondë given him grief, it had always been quite the opposite, actually. Alqualondë always meant peace and warmth to his soul. In Alqualondë he had been allowed to grow far from the shadow of his father's court when Finwë had sent him away. In Alqualondë he had found both the love of his life, and a love for life . . . he found his calling in the sea and all she had to offer. He found his peace in the white sands and the surf with its pearl foam and blue, blue waves. He had found himself, and only moved back to Tirion at his father's insistence when Melkor's lies grew and his family moved to tear itself asunder from the inside out with each passing day.

Always . . . always did the people of Alqualondë sing. The Lindar could scarce be silenced, and their song could be heard for leagues down the coast and far down the road that approached their city from the south. Now their voices rose in lament, their song tugging at something deep inside of him and turning. He looked, and yet, the haven of his youth was now in turmoil. The graceful, shell colored city laid in ruin from flames. The quays were in pieces and the great harbors where the shipmasters crafted their wares were as scars against the silver shores. Broken ships, ones that had not survived Fëanáro's wrath, and the sea storms to follow, laid in the water, half sunken as the Teleri fought to scavenge what they could, and rebuild once more.

If he blinked, he could remember the red of blood and the sounds of screaming – both the pain of the dying and the war cries of those living. He could remember the flashing of steel, and hear the curses shouted by both sides. He could remember his daughter wading into the thick of the battle to defend her mother's people, and his sons as they stood, stunned and unmovable for the carnage before them.

He remembered, and now he rode through the city streets to find hard eyes meeting him wherever he turned. Never once before had he been ashamed of Finwë's blood in his veins, of his father's colors about his shoulders and his father's crown upon his brow, but now . . .

He did not bow his head; but he knew shame, deep inside, for the ruin about him.

Olwë's court was in full session when he was admitted by the herald. Silence instantly cut through the corral hall when his name was called, many unkind eyes falling upon him and staring as he walked forward. Noblemen and lords, whose sons he had known and cherished looked on him with stone brows and unmovable eyes. He looked, and saw many lords who now were those sons, they taking up the mantles of their fathers as those who had fallen were replaced by those who still stood. And there were so many missing, he saw as he looked for eyes he would never again find. He looked, and saw a loss that would never be filled. Olwë himself lost two sons in the Kinslaying, brothers whom Eärwen had wept for as she would not weep for the loss of her children. And it was through fault of his house, fault of his blood. Friend, Finwë had known Olwë as, and their friendship one of ancient days, but now . . .

He swallowed, and fell to his knee before Olwë's throne. He had always known Olwë as a father, even more so than his own sire . . . Olwë, who always had a smile and laughter like the roar of the waves for him . . . Olwë with his seashells braided into his hair and his robes of silver and blue like the scales of the fish in the reef. Olwë, who had not of a smile or a kind eye for the son of Finwë now . . .

“You are brave coming here, Finwion,” came the crack of a voice, cutting through the silence that followed in the wake of his arrival. It was all Arafinwë could do not to wince upon hearing so. Upon his head, his father's crown was heavy.

“I come,” he had to try twice to find his voice, far as it was from him. He had not felt this small as when he had fell before Manwë's throne to beg forgiveness for his people's sins. He had not felt such a weight beneath Varda's stare as he did beneath the unkind eyes of Olwë whom he loved, and Olwë whom he respected. He swallowed, and started again, “I come before you, your grace, humble and penitent -”

A ripple went through the court. A snort fell from Olwë's mouth, “Forgive us,” he interjected, “for believing little of the humility of the Noldor.”

He smarted at the unfairness of the accusation. Carefully, he swallowed back his words, instead saying, “You have a right for anger -”

“ - you and yours came before us in friendship,” Olwë was not willing to hear him speak. Instead, his words rushed from him, building on his tongue as they had been for many days. “You asked for our counsel in sailing the sundering sea to Endórë beyond. We counseled you to wait, to make your decision when you bore not of grief in your hearts and rage in your bones for Melkor's deeds. When you would see not of reason, or patience, we told you you could not take our seacraft, for they were built of our hands and hearts – something your brother should have understood more fully than any other. And yet, the same crimes Fëanáro would lay at Melkor's door, he instead committed himself – taking what he wanted, and slaying any who stood in his way.”

Olwë sighed, raising his hand to rub at his temples. When he spoke, his voice had lost it's edge. He sounded weary then, weighed down by many days. “I am old amongst our kind, Arafinwë. I know of a sword and what it means to hold that sword with war in mind. But my people are a people born of Aman, not of the land beyond the sea. They knew not of violence, they knew nothing of the sword – especially from those they knew as kindred and friends. I have never seen the like of it, and pray that I never need see so again.”

“Fëanáro was the one who dismissed your counsel, and took steel in hand. And for that, he bears his own curse,” Arafinwë felt a line enter his voice, unwilling as he was to be charged for his brother's crimes.

“And yet,” Olwë raised a silver brow, “Nolofinwë's children too held swords, charging in blindly before realizing what quarrel was at hand. Your Artanis, even -”

“ - held a sword for her mother's kin,” Arafinwë's voice was sharp for the first, interrupting his goodfather. “For that she too is cursed, and for that too she must find peace within herself. And yet, I will not see her name brought to slight here, not from your mouth.” He inhaled, gathering his peace. He softened his voice. “But those who wronged you are gone now, and they bear their own burden across the sea, wearing the doom of Námo heavy about their shoulders. Those who are left would beg that you remember your friendship, and your mercy . . . the same as we would ask that you let us help your people rebuild. For we are craftsman, and we helped you raised Alqualondë in the early days. We would again, if you would but let us.”

A moment passed. “What are you asking of us, Finwion?” Olwë tilted his head, curious for the first.

“My people exist on borrowed time,” Arafinwë said. He was still on one knee before Olwë's throne. He had not been given permission to stand and face his fellow king as an equal. “What we have to sustain ourselves will not last us another season without the light to grow our fields anew. But your people live off of the bounty of the sea, and it will take much longer for her stores to run dry. In exchange for our builders and craftsman, we would ask for permission to fish in your waters -”

He was met by a ripple of amusement from the court. Olwë's snort was sharp in reply to his words. “Always are the Noldor quick to take,” Olwë said, his voice filled with scorn. “Finwë would be ashamed for the actions of his sons, on this day and many others.”

“Would Finwë be shamed to resort to any means to provide for the people who are left? The people who did you no wrong? Your daughter is amongst those who live on less and lesser still. The women who were dear to your grandsons have stayed behind, and they too will starve – and they are your kin in blood, not only in heart. Those who have stayed in Aman have harmed your people not, and in petty retribution and spite you would treat them as Fëanáro treated you?” He noticed with satisfaction as his words hit like a lance, sharp from his tongue. This time, he felt a righteous pride fill him for the ill looks that were turned his way.

Ignoring the eyes who widened, he fell to both of his knees, rather than just one. He looked up, and knew that his crown caught on the dim lanterns in the hall – lit by the phosphorescents of the sea, the Teleri at home with the half-light, they always being furthest from the light of the Trees, even in their halcyon days.

“My name is Arafinwë Ingalaurë,” he spoke out strongly, letting his voice ring in every corner of Olwë's hall. “I am the third son of Finwë Noldóran, the First King of the Second Clan. I am brother in half to Fëanáro Curufinwë, brother in full to Nolofinwë Arakáno. If it is a weregild you seek, if retribution is needed to ensure that my people are cared for, then I ask that you take it from my soul rather than theirs. I am the only one with Fëanáro's shared blood this side of the sea, and I will pay for his crimes in blood if need be. If this is the price needed to cool the wrath of Alqualondë, then it is a price I shall pay – and pay gladly.”

He leaned forward, bending at the waist to press his forehead to the cool stone of the floor before Olwë's throne. He bowed, his hands forming a triangle before his inclined head. He waited, his life in the Telerin King's hands as Olwë rose, coming to him with a slow, careful step. He waited to hear the sound of steel being unsheathed, truly uncertain as he was of his fate in that moment. And yet, he felt curiously buoyant as he waited to feel a blade at the skin of his neck. He felt weightless, as if he treated water on a calm day; peace filled every corner of his being as he thought that perhaps this was why he turned back from his people's flight. Perhaps it was because his blood was needed to mend this feud, perhaps his blood was merely waiting to fill this hole. Peacekeeper, his father had so often called him. Pacifist, Fëanáro scorned when his words turned hot. Weakling of a prince, wasting the might of Finwë's blood, Melkor had once scathed, disgusted when he could not find yet another pawn to use in his game, his claws unable for find a place to pierce where no ambition laid.

I do not understand the stillness of your heart, Artanis had whispered in frustration when he had said his goodbyes at the mouth of the Helcaraxë. He had held her close and prayed that Endórë would grant a peace to her soul, a wisdom to her insights, one he could not explain to her with words alone.

He prayed now, one last time, for both those who moved on and those who were left behind, when -

Olwë's shadow fell upon him, but not with a sword.

His goodfather knelt before him in a graceless gesture, and then he felt strong arms gathering him close, as if he was a small child homesick in a foreign court once more. Olwë inhaled, and his breath was shuddering in his chest. Arafinwë could feel his grief as it pulled at his own spirit, seeing with his Sight as Olwë mourned for the loss of his sons and the loss of his people. But he felt a love underneath it all, affection for the man he had become, and pride for his own role in shaping such a being before him, even, and -

“Already have I laid two sons to rest,” Olwë said, his voice loud enough for all to hear. He did not bother to hide the grief in his voice; he saw no need to. “I would not be able to bear seeing the blood of another one spilled.”

Olwë's arms tightened around him, and Arafinwë returned the embrace as best as he could, relief filling his heart. He could smell sea salt on the sweet ocean air as he inhaled. The shells in Olwë's hair twinkled as he rose to his feet, and offered him a hand.

Arafinwë reached out, and let the other help him to stand.

“Me and mine will offer you what help we may,” Olwë said, his voice filling the hall around him. His eyes were very bright then, his presence filling the court as he remembered his own father doing, Olwë too one of the great leaders who had lead their people to Aman in the eldest days. “And, in return, we look forward to what aid you may offer in our rebuilding. In each, may our people recover the love they once bore for each other.”

The reaction from Olwë's court was wary, but slowly, the noblemen around him nodded. They took to their knees, acknowledging their lord's decision before turning to make it so. Arafinwë released a breath he had not realized he had been holding, feeling the hostility in the room turn, but just slightly.

It would be a long road to forgiveness between their peoples, he knew, but it was a road that was now being walked, and walked for the better.

Chapter Text

Forget

It was not until moments like this that Maedhros realized that he had never properly appreciated the home he had left behind.

In days bygone, he'd once explored the whole of Aman - from the northern woods to the far shores of the Outer Sea. He had traveled the black forests framing Mandos' untouchable Halls, and ventured as far south as the shadowed lands of Avanthar. Yet, for all his journeys, he'd not once understood the simple peace that came from sitting on the white sands of their own eastern shores. He'd never truly slowed down to enjoy the glory of the Swan Havens.

As it was in the time of the Trees, Alqualondë was still a land of half-light; the sun was always either rising or setting on the horizon, without ever completely climbing to its high pinnacle in the sky. The gentle rays painted the sea in shades of pink and gold, and orange and red further out over the water, nearer to the horizon. The play of light caught his gaze; he could feel the sway of the gentle waves as they danced with the pull of the moon.

He'd been there for some time, simply sitting at the end of that one lone dock. He was at a quandary in his journey - both unable to continue his journey north, but not quite willing to turn back on the road. Not yet.

Are you going to move from there? Fingon's voice teased from the back of his mind. Further on, in the city proper, his friend had long since felt his approach, and was waiting for him to find the courage to complete his road. It may yet be a long wait for the other - Maedhros hadn't decided, and yet, Fingon had long Ed a steady patience where he was concerned.

Maedhros inhaled deeply, and let his breath out slow, still watching where the sunlight danced over the waves. The salt teased at his nose.

Every few years, Arafinwë would take time away from Tirion in order to visit his wife's people in Alqualondë. This time, Nolofinwë asked leave to accompany his brother, and Fingon was quick to invite himself along. When Maedhros asked him why, Fingon solemnly explained that he had not yet formally sought out Olwë's apology for his actions of so long ago – with four ages of the sun having already passed since that first slaying of kin on kin. After the silence had grown between them, Fingon had carefully asked if he too would go to offer his own apologies. Maedhros had been quick to turn him down. Olwë would not be as . . . eager to accept the grief and regrets of a Oath-sworn Kinslayer as he would be to assure Fingon the Valiant of his place within his heart, and Maedhros did not care to revisit such old wounds, long scabbed over and forgotten.

Forgotten . . . Fingon had raised a brow at that, but had not pushed him further. Instead, he'd smiled that smile that meant that he expected him to reach his own conclusions without any further input on his part.

Fingon leaving him for Alqualondë was the first time he had truly been alone since his re-embodiment. A childish part of Maedhros wanted to point out that Fingon's doing so was no doubt against Námo's conditions for his release from the Halls, but the solemn Vala was currently silent within his mind - and Maedhros knew the Dread Lord to be quick to offer his counsel uninvited whenever he saw fit before. Perhaps, he reflected darkly, this was merely a source of amusement for the Judge, and he would hear no more from him until he was given cause to speak.

Maedhros did not much care to remain behind, alone, and he most certainly did not wish to appear as if he was sulking. And yet . . . there were few places in Aman where he could expect a friendly welcome. Tirion he could not yet bring himself to visit, and he knew little reason - or desire - to journey to Valmar. He'd ventured to the Holy Mountain but rarely, even when he'd known an unblackened name. He briefly considered journeying to visit Nerdanel in the north, where she'd rejoined Mahtan's kin in the days before they swore their Oath. And yet . . . he had no wish to open up old wounds for his mother, nor did he know how to fill the awkward silences with words when there was nothing that could yet be said.

He had tried staying with Elrond's folk for a day or so; truly he had. Their settlement was to the south-west of Alqualondë, close enough to both Tirion and the Teleri shores, where the riverways in the Pelóri mountains fell in great waterfalls - much like the home they'd left across the Sea. The peaceful city was filled with many of the Noldor and Sindar from Endórë in the later days, and their numbers grew with each passing season. While Maedhros ever found a waiting welcome there, Elrond too was set to leave with his wife and sons for the ever growing family gathering at Alqualondë - the same as Fingon was - and Maedhros was to be left behind again.

Elrond had tried much as Fingon had to reason with him - bidding that he ride forth in the light of a new day and seek forgiveness where he truly knew repentance. Yet, though Maedhross had just as difficult a time with giving his paltry arguments to his former ward as he did to his cousin, his mind was made. Somewhere along the line, Elrond had grown from both the wary child he'd helped raise, and the much too young soldier he'd known at the end of the War of Wrath; now, he had difficulty with crossing his words with him and coming out the better.

 . . . to think that he'd once been known for his way with words in his grandfather's court, if Turgon's great-grandson could outwit him so - Turgon, whose strength was not in the shape of his words, but the shape of his beliefs. Silver-tongued indeed, Maedhros thought ruefully. He held grey stone in his mouth since being returned to a physical existence, worthless and clumsy in shape.

Maedhros wanted to tell Turgon this - even if he only admitted his longing to himself. But that was yet another apology to seek and gain in return . . . in time.

He knows much of forgiving impossible things, for he loves you, does he not? Celebrían had whispered into his ear when he gathered his cloak to leave. Listen to him and take heart, dear one, she had said before kissing his cheek, and her soft words had burned as ardently as all of Elrond's carefully thought arguments.

Now . . . now, Maedhros had made it as far as the southern reaches of Alqualondë's waters. He sat at the edge of that one forgotten dock, unable to go any further and yet unwilling to turn back.

The waters were calm today; the waves a steady ebb and flow as they came and retreated over and over again. Overhead a gull called, crying out to the sky. He wondered if any of the winged folk were of Elwing's ilk, and felt another twist in his stomach for yet another apology he'd someday have to make.

Is this your true torment? he asked, seeking out where Námo was always ready and waiting at the edge of his consciousness. Did you return me to life again, only to be swallowed by these regrets?

Do you truly live again, child? came the Fëanturi's reply. As always, Maedhros had to steel himself against the whisper, for Námo had a voice that was more a black wind and the sound of heartbeats than any shape of sound a throat could form.

I breathe, Maedhros shrugged to accompany the thought. Is that not enough?

Your pulse knew more of life in my Halls than it does now in the fresh air and sunlight, Námo's voice dipped in disapproval. The sound of heartbeats quickened; Maedhros heard the cadence of war drums and marching feet. Tread lightly with the gift I gave, lest I be tempted to take it back, Fëanorian. Never have you been idle, in life nor in death; and the chance to put to rights the wrongs that kept your soul from healing you will now let consume you? This is not Nelyafinwë Maitimo as I have come to know him.

Know you so well the make of me? Maedhros retorted, well aware that his reply was a childish reply. He was unable to think of anything else to say.

From every line of bone to each ray of your spirit's light do I intimately know you, the Vala rose to his challenge. Do not push me, child, for never have I twice needed to grant a spirit life. You shall not leave my keeping a second time.

He had no reply for the Vala, yet Námo expected none. The shadow left his mind, signaling the end of their conversation, and Maedhros sighed as he leaned back against the dock. He laid down in weariness, closing his eyes against the sunlight. He let the song of the waves lull him, until -

 - something wet dripped down onto his face.

He blinked, and reached up to wipe the droplet of seawater away. But another fell . . . and another.

Annoyed, he opened his eyes and looked up to see large, sea-green eyes looking curiously down at him. The dripping culprit was a child, a little girl with silver braids turned the color of rainclouds from the water that soaked her hair. She must have just come from the ocean, he understood, sitting up to see where her wet footprints went back to the ladder by the front post of the dock. He raised a brow, and found the look returned as the child put a hand on her hip, where her underclothes were wet from the surf.

“This is my dock, and you are trespassing,” the child said, her voice a quick spin of Telerin vowels. It took him a moment to understand her speech, with the years having turned the language past what he remembered from his own youth. “Who are you, vagrant?”

“I,” he answered, trying not to reveal his amusement for the child's show of pique, “am simply a traveler, who knew not that this dock belonged to any. Please, forgive me for my trespassing.”

She looked at him from narrowed eyes, gauging his sincerity. But his Noldorin clothes and flame colored hair were as telling as anything else he could have spoken. Her look softened, and she declared: “All here know this dock belongs to Nemmírië - but your ignorance can be forgiven, as you are not of our kind.”

“The lady is gracious,” Maedhros said, allowing himself a half smile at the girl's haughtiness - reminded as he was of Artanis in her youth. “I saw not of any boat, else I would not have even begun to assume.”

Nemmírië blinked, her cheeks flushing. “I have not of my own craft,” she admitted. “I am too young, my father says, to sail on my own. So, for now, I use the dock for this.” She turned and reached into the water to pull up a net she had tied to the ladder, showing him where she had a dozen or so oysters caught.

“I am searching for pearls,” she explained. “I find only one or so each summer, and even then nothing like what the pearl-divers find in the deeper waters - but I shall someday make a crown from them, and stand at the helm of my own ship with the catch of my hands about my brow.”

“It is a worthy goal,” Maedhros said, moved by the simple aspirations of youth. He distantly remembered his father trading gems of his own make for pearls from Alqualondë, and he felt a pang that was not only bitterness as he remembered happier times.

She rolled her shoulders, looking at him out of the corner of her eyes as she did so. “If you wish,” she said, her voice thoughtful, “You may help me. Unless you were planning to sleep in the sun all day?”

He looked at the water, and then back at her. Maedhros hesitated. Whichever Telerin mariner who owned this dock would not care for their daughter spending time with a Kinslayer - that he knew very well.

“I have not swam in many years,” he demurred, trying to evade her request.

It was the wrong thing to say. “Years?” came the squeaked reply. The girl's eyes went wide with surprise. “You have gone years without swimming? I cannot imagine such a thing . . . How many years has it been?”

He shrugged. “Not in this lifetime, and long in the last.” Not since teaching Elros to swim in the calm waters where the river Brithon poured into the sea, he remembered, and knew another pang for thinking so. 

In this lifetime,” she repeated, slowly unraveling the riddle in her mind before understanding lit in her eyes. “You are one of the Twice-born, newly returned from Mandos' keeping?” she both asked and answered her own question at once. “Well then, you must certainly swim with me. I would be honored for your aid.”

Even so, he opened his mouth to protest. She saw his intention, and cut him off by adding, “And beside, a pearl from your efforts is the price I demand for use of my dock.”

“You drive a hard bargain,” Maedhros said, looking at her from stern eyes. It was a gaze he had not needed to use since Eärendil's sons were very young and prone to mischief. Nemmírië was not much impressed, he reflected - and yet, neither had the twins been much affected, this he remembered ruefully.

“For a very little while,” he finally gave. “Then I must be on my way.”

“A very little while is all I ask,” she said, getting to her feet again. She emptied her net on the dock, and then turned to him. “The oysters are in the seabed,” she pointed at the still waters. “All you must do is dive for them, shift the sand, and take what you find. Simple?”

“Very,” Maedhros answered. He unclasped his cloak, and reached down to unlace his boots. As always, it took him a moment to remember how to do so with both hands. More often than not, his right hand remained useless at his side, and he completed his tasks with his left hand until two hands were absolutely called for. It was a habit he could not yet shake.

All the while, Nemmírië watched him. She tilted her head curiously. “Are you left handed?” she asked.

“Not quite,” he answered, not sure how to answer her without giving an explanation he did not care to give.

“I am left handed,” she said, holding up the now empty net with her left hand. She wiggled her fingers. “My tutors try to accustom me to using my right hand, but my Atar tells them that I may use whichever hand that Eru intended for me to use.”

The corner of his mouth raised, just slightly. “You have a wise father.”

“Many say so,” she shrugged. “But he did not have time to find pearls with me today, so the Valar sent me you. I do not yet think it was a fair trade.”

“The lady judges me already?” Maedhros returned her teasing. “That is unfair.”

She snorted, tossing her head. The seashells in her braids twinkled in the sunlight. “Prove me your worth, Caracawë, and I shall take back my words.” She grinned impishly at him, and then jumped into the water with a breathless yipe! The water swallowed her, and he watched her shadow move beneath the waves.

Caracawë, he blinked at the name the young one gave him. Red-top in the Telerin tongue . . . Russandol, as he had not been called in many years.

Against his will, his mouth turned up fully, and he smiled. He too then dove, and let the ocean enfold him.

With only one hand, he had not much cared for swimming in his previous body. In Endórë there had been little opportunity for simple leisures, at that, not with the constant burden of war and its fighting . . . not with their Oath and its ever reaching hands. But now he was not forsworn, and he had only his years open and many before him until the end came and the Valar again made their use of him – with he still waiting to pay his dues in a way that had yet to be demanded of him.

Yet, the ocean was now rolling over him with an easy, restless current, and he let the waters carry him as he dove down through the crystal depths, towards where Nemmírië was already searching the sandy bottom for oysters. He lost himself in the task, letting the dance of the water and the play of the sunlight on the waves above him take his thoughts and his cares.

When they had more oysters than the net could hold, he helped Nemmírië take the net in hand, and they kicked for the surface again. He gestured, letting the girl climb up onto the dock first while he climbed out with the net after her. In his first life, this would have been a task impossible to him – or rather, far much trickier – but now it was a thoughtless motion as he took his seat next to the girl on the edge of the dock.

She took out a small knife, and started opening the oysters with easy, skilled hands. The sandy brown shells were as a fold of metal in his father's hands to the child as she searched for hidden treasures within.

Maedhros retrieved his own knife, and started copying her motions. He blinked when she scooped the meat from the oysters empty of pearls, eating them right then and there while humming happily to do so. He looked down at the pearl-less oyster in his hands, dubious. He had not had raw seafood in many years, not since the last time he was a favorable guest in Olwë's court. Distantly, he remembered Eärwen smiling as he put too much of one green sauce on the raw fish – to disguise the taste, he then refused to admit – and choked on the spice. Arafinwë was only one year his senior in age, and his aunt and uncle had been more of his peers than his elders – leaving Eärwen no qualms as she laughed in delight at the face he made before passing him water. He had learned to enjoy the fruits of the sea since then, but not since . . .

 . . . it had simply been a long time, he reflected, and cut that trail of thought off there.

Nemmírië watched him, and nodded when he copied her, pleased. “Do you know how pearls are formed?” she asked as she sliced into the next oyster. The iridescent shell within gleamed, catching on the light.

He did. A part of him remembered Fëanor speaking at length about the process, giving long names for the substance the oyster secreted and coated its growing treasure in. And yet, “Tell me,” he said.

“Oysters have no fingers,” she started to explain, her voice bright and easy as she said so. “So, when something gets stuck inside of the shell – like a piece of rock or fish bone – that piece of something itches, and it irritates the oyster. So, the oyster secretes this . . . this stuff, and that stuff hardens around the rock or fish bone in hundreds of tiny layers until a pearl is formed. It turns something irritating into something beautiful, something smooth and easy to the touch.”

Fëanor had not quite explained it that way, Maedhros thought in amusement, and yet, he found that he much preferred her way with words. He placed his empty shell aside, and then opened the next oyster to a small round shape in the fleshly membrane. He cut the membrane away, and saw -

“A pearl!” Nemmírië exclaimed, leaning over to the see the treasure he had in hand. She peered at the small pearl he uncovered, even as Maedhros critiqued it's worth. It was a lopsided, oval shape, irregular and imperfect, and yet beautiful for its dancing color. It would carry no value past a pretty trinket, and yet Nemmírië grinned, loving it as if he held a perfect pearl the size of a grape in his hand.

“That it is,” he agreed, freeing the gem fully for her. He handed her the pearl, but she shook her head. Instead, she closed his fingers over the trinket, and pushing it back to him.

“Your payment for my trespassing,” he reminded her, curious as to why she refused. “Do you not want it?”

But she shook her head. “No,” she said. “You found it; I want you to have it.”

“What of your crown, child?” he asked, raising a copper red brow.

She returned his look. “As if this poor, dented thing would be worthy of such a place,” she sniffed with an exaggerated haughtiness. “And yet . . . something irritating in the beginning . . . something beautiful in the end . . . Yes, it is right for you to have it.”

It took him a moment to follow her child's logic. And then: “Are you calling me irritating?” he could not help but ask.

“When you were lounging on my dock, yes,” she shrugged. “But now you are my friend, so the gift is appropriate.”

He snorted, amused at her reasoning. “Well then, Nemmírië, I accept your most gracious gift.”

“And you, Caracawë,” she smiled at him, “I thank you for yours.”

They went through the rest of the oysters without finding anything else, but she did not seem to mind as she gathered the empty shells together – with not a part of the sea's gifts wasted by the Teleri.

She then stood and tilted her head to the side when a voice further up the beach called for her. Maedhros looked, and saw where a tall figure was approaching, walking with quick, purposeful strides over the sand. Maedhros felt a whisper of warning, and, trusting that warning after thousands of years of such instincts, he went to put back on his boots and cloak as Nemmírië gathered her things.

He placed the pearl safely aside, making sure that it rested deep within an inner pocket. He whistled, looking to where he had left his bay stallion grazing on the sparse grass growing further up on the dunes. The horse nickered, flicking his tail in irritation at the interruption, and Maedhros sighed.

“My father comes,” Nemmírië said when she saw his intention to leave. She was wringing the sea water from her braids with practiced hands. “You must stay and meet him now. We are not to be long here, for there is a large gathering of my family to the north in my grandfather's halls. We will be away by first light tomorrow.”

Maedhros blinked, and the note of warning became a furious tattoo as it beat against his chest. “Your grandfather?” he asked slowly, making sense of a larger picture in his mind.

“King Olwë of the Teleri,” she inclined her head. “My father is Airendil Olwion – he is Twice-born, like yourself.”

Airendil was the youngest of Olwë's four children, Maedhros remembered as if through a haze. Airendil had been a brave lad with stubborn hands that had not known ease over the hooked knife he had pointed at Fëanor's chest. The prince had refused to relinquish the king's ship to Fëanor, and he had stood proud and unyielding until -

 . . . his father had not even blinked before running him through, Maedhros dully remembered. They had not been able to get rid of Airendil's body until they were well to sea and past the storms the ocean had called in lament for their deeds. Fëanor had been agitated and restless then, demanding that he see to the dead elf, and in a moment of rage and black, horrible self-loathing, Maedhros had snapped at his father, challenging Fëanor to see to the corpse he had felled. What kind of craftsman was he, if he could not see his fine work through to the end? Only when Fëanor had threatened to send him too over the side with Airendil had he turned away, leaving the unsavory task to his brothers.

Now . . . now Airendil must have been released from Mandos' Halls to life anew. And recently, it would seem, if he had a daughter this young. Maedhros tried to remember, and distantly recalled Airendil having a sweetheart. How did she fare through the Kinslaying? Did she too fall to a sword on that dark day? Did she fade from her grief, as many couples did when one was torn from the other? Or, did she live and wait for him all of those years? Did -

“Atar!” Nemmírië called, waving as Airendil came closer. “You must meet the friend I have made. This is Caracawë – a traveler, and he helped me hunt for pearls.”

Maedhros stood frozen in place, unable to retreat as he wished to as Airendil came closer. Airendil had always looked staggeringly like Olwë, with his lithe build and his silver hair. His eyes were the same molting of grey and blue that Olwë bore – that Thingol bore, Maedhros remembered with another pang. Where he had not been able to tell Nemmírië apart from a common child (though the ease of command and simple haughtiness now made sense), he instantly knew Airendil for a prince for the silver circlet upon his head and the richness of his clothes, even when made for traveling. Traveling, which meant -

“You were to be back hours ago,” Airendil said, ignoring his daughter's introductions for the moment. Maedhros looked, and did not have to wonder if Airendil recognized him. There were times when being one of so few with red hair amongst his kind was not the easiest of burdens to bear, he thought; the reflection grim within his mind. “Your mother waits for you.”

“Oh . . . I am sorry,” Nemmírië said, looking curiously at her father. Her brow knit in an obvious question.

Just barely, Airendil's look softened. “She is not cross,” he amended his words. “Merely waiting. Do not keep her.”

“I shall not,” Nemmírië assured him, smiling once again. Airendil leaned down to kiss his daughter's brow before sending her on her way. Nemmírië ran half way up the dune before looking back. She then waved, her smile a wide expression upon her face “I am pleased to have met you, Caracawë!” she exclaimed, and then was on her way.

All the while, Airendil was watching him, rather than his daughter. Something not dark . . . but weary, flickered in his eyes at the endearment. “Russandol you are again,” he noted, the timbre of his voice without infliction. “Strange are the ways of fate.”

“It was by chance,” Maedhros assured him, inclining his head demurely. “I truly was only passing through, and I did not know that the dock was spoken for. I am sorry for tarrying where I clearly do not belong.”

Airendil swallowed. Maedhros watched as his jaw tightened . . . as his hands made fists. Then: “You passed this way to avoid familiar faces, I take it?"

“That is putting it simply,” Maedhros answered, not hiding from what was clear to see.

“Four ages beneath the sun have passed," Airendil remarked. For a moment, Maedhros could not tell if Airendil spoke so to him, or to himself.

“And yet, four ages beneath the sun is time not long enough,” Maedhros replied, bleakly rolling his shoulders.

“Námo thought it so, did he not?” Airendil returned.

It was Maedhros' turn to raise a brow, unsure of where the Telerin prince was heading. “And yet . . . many have thought the Valar to be mistaken before. I doubt that this will be the last time their judgment is questioned.”

Airendil let out a breath, which could have been a sigh of amusement under any other set of circumstances but their own. Maedhros waited.

“Still,” Airendil spread his hands. “You found yourself returning to the sea.”

Maedhros took in a breath. He hesitated. “I was trying to convince myself to complete my journey to your father's halls when your daughter found me. I . . . I had not yet made my mind to continue on, or turn around." With his left hand, he found the pearl in his pocket; he could not let the smooth shape be. “I . . . I am sorry for how I wronged both you and your kin after the Darkening. I know more regret than words could say, or years could atone for. But, for what it's worth, I do wish to give my apologies, and make my peace with your people if I may.”

For a long moment, Airendil was silent. He looked to the horizon, and then back again, a muscle in his cheek moving with his thoughts. “You are not the only one who was slow to walk from Mandos' Halls,” Airendil finally murmured, his words thoughtful. “I would not have been allowed to return to this life anew if I was not able to let go of my anger and forgive. Forgive . . . and forget. And I have, long before I heard an apology from you.”

Something inside of Maedhros shifted at the words. He could feel a rise of feeling shudder in his chest. His knees felt weak in that moment. The fingers he held about the pearl trembled, unable as he was to still them. He swallowed, but found that he could not give sound to his voice.

Airendil saw . . . and he understood. “Try using the main road into the city next time, Fëanorian,” he welcomed him. “It seems as if you have forgotten of my father's hospitality, and yet, I know he would be glad to remind you, if you would but give him the chance to do so.”

“I . . . I would be glad to accept anything the Teleri would see fit to give,” Maedhros said, and knew the truth of the words as he spoke. They were an absolution, a stretch of healing in his bones. In the back of his mind, he thought that he could hear Námo laugh; the amusement of the Lord of Souls as a whisper amongst his thoughts.

“Now,” Airendil waved a hand. “My daughter has made a friend, and a lone journey is never as appealing to the soul as travelling in a group, amongst friends. You are welcome to trek to Olwë's halls with me and mine – it is a short journey, but a day's ride nonetheless, and you may spend it in good company if you would wish.”

And . . . he did wish, he realized then. He truly did.

“It would be my honor to accept the graciousness of your hospitality,” Maedhros inclined his head. He held out his hand – his right hand, and after a moment, Airendil accepted it. His grip was strong in return.

They turned their back on the ocean and the horizon, and the sound of waves carried him back up the dune. This time, the sound of the sea reminded him not of blood, but hope, and it was that hope he let lead him on. This time, he did not look back.

Chapter Text

Fall

The river Narog gently bubbled as it wound to match the forest path. It's song was a bright, airy refrain against the solemn grey sky above; sweetly whistling as the day rushed onwards towards the night.

For weeks, Lúthien had known nothing but the stone walls of her chambers in the hewn halls beneath the surface if the ground. Darkness and lamplight had been her only companions, and now, to breathe in the fresh air and taste the last days of autumn . . . she could not help the contentment that shown from her eyes then; the nearly there smile that played upon the corner of her mouth.

Her smile drew her companion's eyes more often than not, she knew, though she proudly tilted her head and refused not to let his attention affect her. She did not have to pretend around Celegorm Fëanorian; she did not have be grace and wisdom incarnate in a reflection of her celestial mother and her royal father and for this she knew a queer sort of satisfaction. She did not have to be demure or lovely or tranquil - she could speak her words freely and frankly, and expect his own response as a mirror in reply. He would not shape his words any differently if she was a maiden who welcomed his courtship, she thought, rather than a captive dependent on his mercy. She had no reason to win the affection of this Kinslayer from across the Sea, and so, she did not try. There was a certain amount of freedom in their ebb and flow, but that was something she did not let herself think on longer than need be. For she was not free in all ways.

(Have you come to let me go? every day, this she would first ask upon seeing him, skipping any polite words of greeting or gracious etiquette. Have you decided to marry me? he would reply just the same. Their words were honest between them, at the very least.

I care not that you love me, he would say, and Love you I never shall, she would agree. And there, they understood each other.)

He was an unfortunate companion, but his company was the price of her walking free from the underground halls. There was something harsh about Celegorm, turning him into hard angles and unmovable lines at her side. They walked arm and arm in a gross pantomime of a lover's stroll, and yet, he was like stone beneath her touch, destroying the illusion of familiarity. She rested the fingers of her opposite hand against the back of his own to complete the link, and it was as if she held a brand to his skin for the way he tensed. He rested his unoccupied hand on the hilt of his sword - as if she needed such a warning; such a promise. She knew her place in their dynamic; she knew that she would make it but for steps if she tried to run. And so, she decided on patience; she knew to search for her moment and wait.

Yet, Celegorm ever saw a threat in her - in more ways than one - and so, she was the only one who enjoyed the last breath of warmth upon the autumn air. If he knew solace beneath the eaves of the forest, he did not find it there with her.

When she first met Celegorm, he had been all liquid ease and a grace that reminded her of a wolf in the wood. His white teeth had been quick to flash in a grin, while his eyes had burned with a memory of the light from across the sea.“Sun-shy,” he had teased, easy with good humor before plots and grievances had stretched ill between them. She had blinked against the open light of noontide then, it was true - unused as she was to the unfiltered sunlight, far as she was from the soft twilight of Doriath. “Such a strange doe Huan has brought us, and yet, she is the fairest thing I have yet to snare on my hunts." He had bowed low at the waist, and kissed the back of her hand – causing her to flush at the attentions of an impossibly beautiful man. Naïvely, stupidly, she had hoped that he and his brother would be able to help her. She had hoped, and now . . .

Now he was awkward and looming before her, with the ease he displayed in the wild swallowed by the role of warden and suitor both. They ran out of things to say to each other past the routine and the expected after only moments upon the path. She did not search her mind for further conversation, and he did not draw out her as such. She had grown used to the silence since coming to Nargothrond, with she speaking to none but to Huan, and to Beren when she dreamed. She did not dream much as of late, and when she did she was awakened by the song of wolves, singing out from some dark corner of the world.

Lúthien looked to the north, and felt as a certainty that Beren was grappling with desperate fingers for survival, past where she could see. Those who walked tall with him would walk no more from where they were held by a dark being who bowed before an even crueler master. Finrod, she thought with a pang, whom had been dear to her for many years now. Galadriel's brother had touched her mind once to let her know that Beren was safe; that he was still determined as ever to reach Angband, and yet, she had not been able to feel the mind of her kinsman for many days. He was holding himself back from her, shielding her, and she felt a black sense of foreboding at the thought, with her mother's power whispering to her until she could all but see the eerily yellow eyes of the wolves holding them in bondage, she could feel their hot breath and their wet teeth as -

She shivered, though the cold was not yet unbearable. Winter would be upon them within days. Already snowflakes flurried softly on the air, harkening the weather to come. It would be a cold season, she thought; bitter . . . and cruel.

Celegorm noticed her shiver, and stepped closer to her, mistaking her reason for doing so. The motion was thoughtless - second nature to him rather than another step in a courting dance. Ever did the Exiles from Aman give off warmth like a flame from a hearth, and the strange sons of Fëanor burned hotter than any of the Noldor she had yet to meet - even more so than bright Galadriel with her golden light . . . that was, if it was possible for one to compare the burning of a star to the light it gave.

“Are you cold?” Celegorm asked, and for everything between them - rejection and alliances and losses all molting together to darken like a bruise - she knew that he would give her his cloak if she but showed she needed it. A prince born of a prince he would ever be, no matter what else he was now.

So. “No,” she answered, pressing her elbows in against her sides to deny his chivalry. He did not say a word more after that, and neither did she.

Her breath frosted on the air when she sighed. Above them, the sun was setting early, turning the grey clouds aflame in streaks of red and orange. The color of flames caught in the white gold of her companion's hair; it glimmered on his father's crest, proudly etched in silver across the gleaming black metal of his breastplate. He ever wore full armor and ringed mail around her, as if she were a creature scaled and fanged instead of captive and bound. A threat, he considered her to be, and yet . . .

(Moriquendi, he would throw at her like a blow when their words came to crossing – with she once again insisting that her father would offer not one warrior to fight against Morgoth in the name of his Oath, even with she as his bride. Did he not know that he only moved to further deepen the divide? For great was her father's pride when insulted, and Thingol would not cool his wroth in the face of such a slight. 

Pride he has indeed, Celegorm had agreed on her assessment of her father's character - all but snarling at the idea that Thingol had set her bride-price as that which was not his to give. And yet, he would always refute her arguments by saying that Thingol's love for her was greater than even she knew - as if baffled that he would need to say anything more than that. While the Fëanorians were many things, their bonds of innermost family were absolute, and in that manner alone Celegorm's mind was simple. He could not comprehend how Thingol's rage would not only hold, but intensify against him if she decided to accept his suit. It was unthinkable to him that Thingol would hate what his daughter had accepted as her own. He could not understand it.

Even when their words grew heated, he was unable to use her father's name when speaking, she further noticed. Once, and only once, he had spoken of a woman in white, stolen by the shadows of Nan Elmoth and murdered by the hands of one of her father's lords, unchecked by Thingol his king – which explained his hatred of her folk, she thought, but only in part. Taken years ago and later cruelly slain - her choice ripped from her as her mate bound her spirit to his with enchantments and force . . . did he seek vengeance for this Aredhel's plight by forcing such a similar union upon her? She had glimpsed his thoughts once, seeing both regret and old wounds long unhealed as thick scars upon his spirit - with he hating that he had not been able to heal the rift between them before she died at her husband's hands. He had been a coward, shying away from her at Himlad when she sought him out to heal their once ancient friendship, and it had been that which had prompted Aredhel to search the shadowed wood for sport. He had been a coward, offering her horses and supplies after she escaped with her son, unaware that her husband followed in pursuit to Gondolin. Had he aided her further . . . had he asked her to stay . . . had he never turned away from her to begin with . . . his fault, it was all his fault, something small and childlike mourned within him. She doubted that he even realized this about himself, so deep had that whisper been hidden within his mind - tucked in close against his spirit as a seed of deep regret and grief rather than a consciously formed thought.

It mattered not what their spirits chose, he would say whenever she tried to explain that her soul ached for Beren in a way that it never would for him. Duty and vows came before all else, and she would come to accept hers in time – for what could she give the world at Beren's side but for a fae tale of love and devotion? To the contrary, as his wife they could form a union that would pave the way to end Morgoth's reign in the North, uniting the Noldor and the hidden Sindar of Doriath, and that greater aim had to be worth more than the happiness of her heart.)

And yet, her heart loved . . . she did not know what could possibly be greater than that. She did not know how he could resign himself to an eternal marriage without such a love at its core. Was his soul so barren that he could imagine no other fate for himself but for that? Was his spirit so very cold, to resign himself to such a hopeless eternity?

The path began to double back to Nargothrond, Lúthien saw. She had not much longer before she would be returned to her lonely room and her silent waiting for a gap in her captor's guard. Though she wished it not, she felt her heart clench inside of her chest, and she turned towards the north, wishing . . .

Where the river turned, there was a rippling pool of calm water, and on the bank of the still shore, there was a pocket of white summer flowers, still blooming in the face of the cold settling upon the land. They seemed to turn as she passed, opening their tired petals as if she were the sun itself. She looked, though she meant not to, and Celegorm saw as she did.

His next step was a heartbeat slower. He tilted his head, and she suspected, for a quiet moment, that he meant to pick one for her.

(Beren would have, she thought next, trying to think with fondness rather than grief. He would have picked the flowers of white and gold that bloomed where she stepped, bending down on one knee to present his token and accept her gratitude in return in grand and exaggerated words until he drew first a smile from her, and then laughter as he would pull her down for a kiss. The world had smelled like spring and flowers and fresh green grass then, but now the winter was approaching, and she did not have the warmth in her heart to accept what the man before her would try to give.)

But she did not have to fear for  long. The moment passed and they walked onwards, giving the tired little blooms a wide bearth with a stride that was quicker than before. Lúthien picked up her pace, and he followed, matching her without conscious thought. His gloved hand flexed about his sword hilt, as if imagining . . .

(Meeting in a different time. Had the sons of Fëanor simply been descendants of her father's dear friend, come from across the Sea out of curiosity and desire for new lands to explore . . . with no spilled blood between them, would her father have introduced Finwë's grandson with a twinkle of fondness in his eyes? Rather than slurring out Dark Elf in scorn, they would have called her father Elwë in respect and awe, with he being a character now come to life from Finwë's oldest tales. Celegorm the Fair, Thingol would have smiled over how he, out of all his brethren, had Míriel's nearly white hair, reminiscing about old friends long gone as he waved the two young ones on. Perhaps Fëanor's son would have brought her flowers then . . . perhaps, she would have accepted.)

But that thought was as the warmth in the air, falling to the cold of the season and the frost that waited to come with the night. She did not try to summon it again.

“The winter will not let them live much longer,” Celegorm said, more to himself than to her. He looked once over his shoulder, glancing to the flowers as they winked out of view with a turn in the path. “They will fall to the frost before long.”

“Indeed,” she softly agreed. Some queer emotion pressed oddly against her chest, almost like regret. But she did not look back.

Had she looked behind, she would have seen that the flowers bloomed strong and new, as if springtime were upon them, rather than the waiting maw of the cold. Had she stayed, she would have found that they lived until the spring, unwilling to yield to the winter's might.

(And yet, by then, she was already long gone.)

Chapter Text

Aid

They followed the river Gelion north, looking for the Haladin who had taken to the wood and wild places to escape the hand of Morgoth as it fell. Haldad had been thorough in banding his folk together, but there were still those who had preferred to take their chances on their own, living and surviving in scattered pockets away from the whole of their kind. Now, with the Shadow pushed back and the promise of a new beginning fresh upon them, it was time to gather together what remained of their people for the move to Estolad.

For the most part, they were silent companions. Haleth would trust this task to none other, and yet, her people were still few and unprotected. She would not take her portion of fighting men with her for her own safety - not when those she left behind needed their shields more than she. And yet, Caranthir would not hear of her riding out alone. He instead offered his services as her guide and companion (seeing as how her pride had smarted fiercely when he dared to offer his company primarily for her safekeeping), and refused to take no for an answer. Haleth had stormed from the tent when he had dared to push the issue, leaving both he and his men baffled in her wake. Though nearly two months had passed since he first aided her people, he still found himself confounded by the mortal woman on a regular basis. He seemed to constantly be causing offense when he intended none, and nearly every issue - no matter how trifle - was met by a stubbornness and pride that set his teeth on edge - and he was of the House of Fëanor, at that, and well used to dealing with fierce temperaments in all of their shapes and sizes.

Yet, in their time together, he also saw what Haleth had to go through to keep the leadership of her people in her hands - for the Haladin had no lord or king, and they only followed Haldad her father out of respect and trust. She had to hold that same respect and trust in order to carry on in her father's position as chieftain, and for that only he understood why she had to respond so fiercely to even the smallest of slights that challenged that authority . . . and yet, the root of her needing to fight so fervently still baffled him. Woman though she may of been, Haleth nonetheless had the courage and fortitude of any man, and it was laughable to him to learn just how much the Atani judged by one's gender. He would dare these simple sons of men to call Artanis any less for her sex; to call Melian any less powerful; Itarillë any less wise. Nerdanel had been his father's equal in all things - she had been the cool force of a tide to sooth the fervant flame of her husband's spirit, slowing the downward spiral of his madness while still she could. He could not imagine calling her any less capable for Eru having fated her to be born a woman rather than a man.

While he understood Haleth's fierce need to stand on her own two feet, he still did not understand her cause for offense at he offering his aid. These were lands that he himself was ill at ease to travel alone. He would have offered his sword in protection to a man of his own people, let alone a woman born of Men - for while they were equal in many ways, the simple allotments of nature made him stronger than her, and centuries of battle made him equal to a dozen of her fighting men when swords were required. It made sense, simply put - and it was only the logic of his joining her that eventually cooled her pride enough to allow for his company.

Well . . . his logic only cooled her pride in part, that was. Haleth still had not spoken a word to him during the first two days of their journey - instead acting as if she traveled alone and he just so happened to share the path with her. Whenever he tried to rein his mount over to ride besides her, Haleth spurred her horse on faster, communicating her distaste with his presence louder than if she had shouted. Eventually, Caranthir gave up and followed behind her in amusement, as content to follow as she was determined to lead. Unseen by her, he let himself smile, reminded as he was of the Ambarussa when they had protested Nerdanel's attempts to feed them mashed carrots as young children. He did dared not tell her of his observations, and instead kept to the silence she had set – which only seemed to frustrate her more than any return of his words would have done. In some ways, his silence was rote. He had always been an island in the swift current of his family, comfortable building walls with his own company while the house of Fëanor was always chaos and confusion around him. He was immortal, he was patient, and so, he could wait her out.

And so, wait her out he did.

An arched brow and a comment on the weather was awarded to him on their fifth day for his patience. It was the first time she had acknowledged his presence in any way since leaving her people behind. On the sixth day, they found a family living in a hunter's cottage, hiding away from the scourge of black creatures that had fallen upon the land. Haleth called them forth in Haldad's memory, and sent the family south to join the slowly growing host of the Haladin gathering there. Her mood broke that eve – with hope and the tantalizing idea of a life past the siege she'd survived settling into her bones and drawing the smallest of smiles from her mouth.

Though the Haladin had denied a place on his lands – wishing not to dwell in the shadow of the mountains that had treated them so cruelly, and even more ill at ease to call an Elf either protector or lord - he still knew a flickering of joy for her happiness. These Men were a hard people, born of hard lives, and he had a grudging respect growing within him for their triumphing over the struggles of their few days.

When they set up camp that night, she sat on the other side of the fire from him instead of immediately turning her back on him and pretending to sleep. The days before, he had always prepared enough for two to eat, and she had ignored him every time in favor of eating from her own dried rations. This time she offered him a portion of her meal, and did not turn away from him as she picked at the last few bites of her supper. She stared at him over the tongues of the flame, her gaze open and frank to observe him. Each time he turned away from her, he would look back to find her still watching – weighing, a part of him could not help but feel – and when he raised a brow in question, she was slow to reply.

Any other woman would have flushed and looked away, embarrassed to have been caught - but she only narrowed her eyes further, refusing to be shamed.
 
He had very nearly decided to ask her if he had something on his face when, finally, she tilted her head as if coming to a decision. “When my people came over the mountains, we came searching for a light in the west, eager as we were to be far away from the shadow of the Dark Lord, fallen over our birthplace in the east.”

At first, Caranthir did not understand where she was heading with her saying so. In his time knowing her, Haleth had never before wasted her breath on words that were not necessary for the speaking, and so, there was a question hidden in her words. He leaned in closer to the fire, as if by doing so he could help further his comprehension.

“We have since learned that the path across the Sea is closed to us of mortal years, and yet, those of my kind who passed this way first have said that they have seen the light of the West in the eyes of the Elven-kind. I have seen this light in the eyes of the one we call Nóm - who taught the first house of my people your tongue and your ways of lore. I was little more than a child, and my meeting him was short, and yet, the memory of that light was enough for me to take to my final rest. He is family of yours, is he not?”

Nóm, Caranthir thought, recognizing the name the Atani had bestowed upon Finrod. He felt his jaw set with an age old grievance with Arafinwë's children, and yet, he inclined his head. “We are half-cousins,” he answered carefully. “Finrod is the eldest son of my father's youngest half-brother.”

Slowly, Haleth nodded, her eyes focusing on him as if she were solving a riddle. If she noticed the thin timbre of his voice at admitting the relation, she did not comment on it. “I only ask, because . . . your eyes are not the same. At least, not in whole. I still see the light of the West, and yet, it is shadowed - as if someone has placed a cloud over the sun. I understand if you would call my observations forthright, and wish to let them rest - I simply found myself needing to say so, for it has been a thought my mind comes back to often.”

Caranthir looked down at the campfire, as if by doing so he could hide his eyes from her. The difference was slight, he knew – subtle. Haleth would have to be looking closely to notice it at all. He flexed his sword-hand, feeling strangely anxious for a blade in that moment – for movement rather than words. He was unsure of how to answer such an observation without telling a tale going back many years – a tale which he preferred not to think on himself whenever he could help it.

He exhaled slowly, and looked up only when he realized that she was still staring at him, her gaze open, without blinking. He felt a twisting in his gut, admitting then that he had been glad to keep company with one who did not know his name and the whole of his past deeds. She did not know, and the slate between them was still unmarred – well, relatively speaking, of course, for their first meeting had not been the best of first impressions, so to say, but since then . . .

He respected her, he knew. A part of him grudgingly even liked her, and to see her eyes darken and look away when he told her . . .

. . . she would not hold his gaze so easily then.

Nonetheless, he gathered himself, and pushed on anyway. He never believed in lies, not even when they painted himself in a less than flattering light. It was a trait that had earned him the reputation of being harsh at times, never mind that his frank manner heaped trials on his own shoulders as well as it cut through others to match. It was a double edged sword, his tongue, and now . . .

“This Dark Lord,” he said slowly, answering her in the only way he knew how. “Do you remember Morgoth's visage?”

“My father was not yet born when my people crossed the mountains,” Haleth answered, once again reminding him of the quick exhale of breath that was a mortal's lifespan. “I was a child when my grandfather told me what his eyes had seen firsthand. Shadow the Dark Lord was; wroth and ruin given form. Terrible to look on, but beautiful for it – something more of the earth itself rather than flesh and bone. The only thing cutting through his darkness were the stars – the three stars he wore upon his brow.”

“Stars . . . they would seem such, wouldn't they?” Caranthir mused softly. He felt a tightening in his bones, with his Oath stirring as it swam through his blood with a now familiar toxicity. “They are not stars, not quite, but rather three gems – which we call the Silmarils. They were created by Fëanor, my father, and the Dark Lord spilled the blood of my grandfather in order to steal them and retreat across the Sea to Middle-earth. This happened during the days before the Sun and Moon. My kind were of the West, and forbidden by the Valar to give pursuit - yet that did not stop us. My father swore, and my brothers and I along with him, an Oath to return the Silmarils back to their maker's hands - no matter what fell deed we would have to commit in order to fulfill our vow. We swore by the Everlasting Darkness, taking our Oath to the feet of Eru himself – and thus, he is the only one who can free us from our vow. Yet, Eru's eyes have long been far from this world since it's firmation, and so, our swearing will not be released by any accord but out own.
 
“In defying the Valar, we became Kinslayers, spilling the blood of the shipbuilders at the Swan Havens and stealing their craft to sail to Middle-earth. Many . . . many died, and yet, it was as if we were not ourselves then. We were but vessels for our Oath, and even the idea of doing otherwise . . . it was like fire over our bones, a burning in our hearts. It was as a physical pain to do anything other than fulfill our vow, and then . . . when the deed was done, and the horror of what we did was before us . . .” He swallowed, gathering himself.

“My eyes are shadowed, reminding me of my Oath and the Darkness that awaits our souls for failure. My father was slain by Morgoth's filth shortly upon reaching this land, and now his Oath is left to his sons to fulfill. For now, our Oath sleeps for so long as the Silmarils are worn upon Morgoth's crown. Our vow will be complete when Morgoth is destroyed, and I am . . . I am grateful that the path we must walk is a path that runs parallel with the aid of all . . . with the good of all . . . When those paths again stray from each other . . . it is this fear, more than anything else that darkens my eyes. No matter how I try, it is a dimming that I cannot will away.”

It felt odd to speak such . . . to give a voice to his fears, his innermost thoughts. Fëanor's fourth son he was; as sharp as a blade, and as dark as shadow, others would say. If Maedhros had inherited Fëanor's strength in both mind and hand . . . Maglor his power with words . . . Curufin his penchant for cruelty and the inferno of his artist's mind . . . Celegorm his temper and his way with the wild and open places . . . the Ambarussa his strange understanding of the makeup and marrow of their world, then Caranthir bore Fëanor's sharp lines – the jagged pieces that cut into his own skin as well as others; insecurities and doubts hiding deep beneath bone and the wicked lines of temperament he used to hide those parts of himself away. Normally, he would do his best to keep those points covered, and yet, he felt an edge dull as he gave his words to her - dull as a stone being smoothed down by the current of a swift river above. He wanted to tell her all that weighed upon his mind, he understood then; he wanted to share this part of himself with her . . . and that realization was a curious truth to his thoughts indeed.

“I fear that a day will come when our Oath no longer coincides with the good of these lands,” he found the words spilling out, where earlier he would have done anything to keep them silent. “I fear . . .”

Blood on the water. Ships burning on the horizon. Sea salt and pine ash and the metallic taste of blood all mingling together and overpowering to my senses . . . Yes, he feared this more than anything else - more than the Everlasting Darkness, even, with its black arms waiting to embrace him every time he closed is eyes; confident and sure as it was of his fall, confident and expectant as it was of his failure.

A long moment passed, and the only sound between them was the cheerful crackling of the fire in its place. Somewhere past them, an owl sang in the wood, welcoming the moon to the sky as it took its hunt, and still he waited as the sound echoed and faded away.

He finally found the courage to look up, half expecting to see Haleth turned away and unable to meet his gaze. He looked, and yet, she still stared at him without blinking. The flames caught in the grey-blue of her eyes, granting them an almost unearthly light as they found his own.

“Some would say that right and wrong are black and white,” Haleth said after a moment. Strangely, her mortal perspective – her child's wisdom – drew him short of breath as he waited for her verdict. A prince of the Eldar he was, and yet, he was anxious for her words – he was nervous with expectation for her judgment. A small part of him felt as if he were a boy before his father's gaze again, waiting, hoping – please do not find me wanting. “And yet . . . ” she shaped her words carefully, giving each one weight and shape before she spoke them, “all too often life is the grey between the white and the black. If such a creation was left of my father's hands – a creation stolen by a foul being, at the cost of the blood of my kin, at that . . . there would then be no force in this world that would be able to stop me from seizing it back. Yes . . . I can understand your oath in the smallest of ways.”

She exhaled, the motion too faint to be a sigh. She seemed older to him in that moment, weary in a way he could not understand. He waited for her to find her speech again.

“And yet . . . I would also have you remember that life is made of choices. You made a choice to swear this vow, and now you can choose how you go about fulfilling it. You can recover your father's Silmarils while still keeping your honor and your pride intact. You are stronger than such mindless slaughter, that much I know true of you.”

He looked, and saw as she smiled. It was the smallest of things, but it was something he did not know that he searched for until he found it. His mouth opened and closed as he swallowed his words away. Relief was then an odd, weightless feeling about his shoulders; it was the same breathless, boneless feeling that came at the end of a battle when he still stood where others had fallen; it was the same feeling that came when he felt at the bonds upon his soul, feeling each part of his thinly stretched family still alive and surviving in this land of shadow and swords. He made a fist of his hands, but found that he could not hide his relief away.

“Do not look at me like that,” Haleth said after a moment, her cheeks flushing. “I offer you no absolution - I am simply not one to judge what I cannot understand. This world is violent and dark – and what your kind would call kinslaying is all too common amongst my own people, especially east of the mountains. Men have never hesitated from turning upon each other when murder would more easily grant to them either vengeance or gain. All I know now, and will continue to know, is that you have helped my people without hope of reward or expectation of repayment in return. In those deeds there has been honor and nobleness . . . kindness, even. Whatever your past deeds are, it is what you do now that I choose to see . . . what I will always continue to see.”

He was silent in the wake of her words. Caranthir could not think of what to say in reply – and that, more than anything else, seemed to amuse her. There was satisfaction in the thin line her mouth made, ghosting over her smile.

“Now get some sleep, Elf,” she said, effectively closing their conversation as she leaned back against her own bedroll. She laid on her back, folding her arms beneath her head so that she could stare up at the stars. “The ride is long tomorrow, and I will not wish to stop when you tire.”

“As my lady commands,” Caranthir gave after a heartbeat, amused. He glanced at her, trying to unravel an mystery yet beyond his reach as he looked to where the firelight fought with the dark of the night across her skin. Haleth did not close her eyes, and yet, she seemed as content with the silence as he.

After a moment, he too laid back, and let his eyes find the stars.


.

Kinship

It was the first time the seven had been together as one in centuries.

Caranthir had been restless since reaching Himring, and in that restlessness he had reached the council chamber first. He took the seat furthest from the entrance, leaning back so that he could watch the room as a whole. He did not have long to wait before his brothers filed into the room – first Maedhros with his eyes like sunlight glinting off steel, all but burning for the events they had gathered to discuss. Maglor was only steps behind their first, ever in Maedhros' shadow for the closeness of their years.  Maglor took his seat while Maedhros remained standing, humming absently and tapping out a rhythm against the maps that covered the table before him. His eyes were soft with a gentleness that all too many confused with the weakness of blind kindness, and yet, the smile he gave upon seeing him was warm in shape. He was as a hearth fire in a family full of stars, and always had Caranthir been grateful for his affection and guidance.
 
The twins entered next with silent steps. As ever, their motions were synchronized between them as they pulled their chairs out and took their seats at exactly the same time; their movements eerily fluid with their seamless execution. Caranthir looked, and saw where the Ambarussa blinked as one, where they tilted their heads in the same way and folded their hands to match, each one in perfect unison with the other. Even since fleeing Thargelion to join the twins at Amon Ereb, Caranthir still found himself struggling to tell Amrod from Amras - and he had known them since their infancy. His confusion amused his brothers, at least, for which he was grateful. The twins kept to themselves, for the most part - taking counsel and companionship with none but the other whenever they could, and Caranthir was normally able to stumble his way through a conversation until one - or both - would take pity on him and tell him which was whom.
 
Amrod - or was it Amras? - met his gaze then and raised a brow, as if guessing his thoughts. Caranthir held the odd brightness of his eyes, trying to remember if it was Amras who had that freckle so close to the right side of his nose, or was it -

 - but his musings were cut short by the last of his brothers arriving. Celegorm and Curufin came in together, as was their wont. Though Caranthir was born fourth, and Curufin fifth, Celegorm found more in common with their younger brother than with he. All those years ago, Caranthir had been pushed aside as a playmate for their younger sibling, and their bonds had continued to strengthen and grow as such as the centuries passed. As ever, Celegorm wore a hunting look upon his face, and Curufin bore a sharpness about his features that thrived on the promise of violence in the maps and charts of troops before him. The years had turned Curufin's eyes to blades, and the hollow lines of his face were pointed with hardness and foul temper. Curufin had always been mercurial in emotion, but now he seemed to cling to that one high rather than waver between those feelings hot and cold, much as their sire had. He reminded Caranthir all too much of Fëanor in his last days - even in his face and bearing, he was a nearly exact copy of their father - and it was not a remembrance Caranthir cared much to reflect on when he could avoid it. He kept his expression carefully blank when Curufin glanced his way, as if guessing the thoughts that turned upon the surface of his mind. His smile, when he gave it, was brittle.

Celegorm was alone, Caranthir realized after a heartbeat. He was so used to seeing Huan in his brother's shadow that it took him a moment to realize what was missing. The wolfhound had been Celegorm's dearest companion since Caranthir himself was a yoith, and to see Huan absent (dead for aiding another, Eru that thought hurt) when he was as much a part of their family as any of they . . .

Caranthir looked, and saw where his brother's eyes were more grey than green, darkened as if by a veil of smoke. His white gold braids were hastily plaited, and the healthily tanned shade of his skin was pale . . . pallid and drawn. His eyes sat as bruises on his face, sunken and shadowed. He did not look . . . right to Caranthir's eyes, all but rippling within his own skin as he sat down at the table and forced himself to stillness.

“Clearly, we are here to plan our assault,” Celegorm was the first one to speak once their greetings and polite well wishes were concluded. All eyes turned to him, but no one immediately spoke in reply. “The Witch's ring of enchantment around Doriath presents a challenge, and yet -”

“ - we are here to plan our attack, but not in the way you think,” Maedhros interrupted from where he was still standing at the head of the table. Where Celegorm spoke as an arrow striking its target, Maedhros' voice was a quiet strength, like a wind sounding through the mountain ways. Ever since Thangorodrim, Maedhros had been thinner and harsher than Caranthir remembered from Aman. Gone was the gentle confidant and proud tutor of many, and in his place was a quiet simmer of a flame and an almost calculating, predatory caution. Even though many years had passed, Caranthir could still see the telling silver of his scars in the torchlight, with each whispering a tale of wounds survived rather than torments suffered. From his youngest days, Caranthir had known nothing but a solemn awe and a deep respect for his oldest brother, and he felt a wrongness in that awe being challenged now, even by one of their own brethren.

 . . . for he looked, and saw that Celegorm was seething in reply to Maedhros' words. Caranthir sat up straighter, feeling as the air turned charged, like the sky before lightning struck .

“What . . . do you mean?” Celegorm enunciated his words carefully. Each syllable was lined with teeth.

“I mean as I said,” Maedhros did not blink in the face of Celegorm's temper. “Lúthien has given to these lands a gift greater than she may ever know – she has given these people hope. She has shown to all that Morgoth is not as invincible as he would have us believe. He has shown weakness, and we will move now, strike now, while that weakness is at its most vulnerable point.”

“An all out attack on Morgoth?” Curufin surmised, his tone dubious. He raised a sharply arched brow to ask, “Why would we do so, when to take the Silmaril from Lúthien's hands, we need only go through two mortal lives? They are weak right now, they are defenseless -

“ - I have written to Thingol, expressing our claim to the jewel and requesting that he relinquish his right,” Maedhros interrupted, his voice thin. “And for my doing so, Thingol has replied to me - calling me despicable and ungracious for even daring to mention our claim. He accuses me of having no honor or fellow feeling in the face of what his daughter had to go through in order to win the Silmaril. And, as a result, Thingol will give not of men to aid our cause. By striking at Morgoth, not only shall we fight for the good of these lands, but we shall also reclaim two of the Silmarils rather than one. Perhaps, when our day is won and our forces are proven victorious, we can again ask Thingol to see reason, and present our case to a softened heart.”

“So that is it, then? You would simply bow before this Moriquendi king, rather than fight for what is rightfully ours?” Curufin scorned.

“A son of Fëanor would beg for Thingol's favor like a dog beneath the table, looking for scraps?” Celegorm carried on his brother's words. “A son of Fëanor would kneel, when instead, he should answer in force, and show this Dark Elf who truly holds the power in these lands - ”

“ - my bowing, my begging, is what you have pushed me to do,” Maedhros snapped in reply, his voice a low, dangerous sound from his mouth. Caranthir could feel his presence rise to fill the air around them - a smothering heat of spirit that reminded him of the flames waiting just beneath the crust of the earth, terrible and vast in it's intensity. “You have dealt dishonorably with Lúthien Thingoliel with your actions at Nargothrond, and for that we all must pay the price for your arrogance and stupidity.”

“Arrogance . . . stupidity, you would call it? At least I actively sought for a way to force Thingol's cooperation with our Oath,” Celegorm returned, his every word trembling with a barely suppressed rage. The small chamber seemed even smaller then, with Fëanor's flame filling the enclosed space and consuming those within it. “With Doriath behind us, I would not question your decision to take the fight to Morgoth's door. At least I acted as a prince, and sought to fix to me my equal with Lúthien as my bride. Instead you would bow before Thingol, just as you bowed to Nolofinwë, casting aside our father's crown as if it were rubbish you could not wait to be rid of . . . ”

“Tell me, brother,” Curufin turned to Maedhros, his words silky with an oiled cruelty. In anger, his voice was a match for Fëanor's rage, filling the conversation with his ghost. “Does Fingon look on this plan of yours with pride? He must look on you with adoration for the gracious and generous ways of your heart. Who do you serve - your kindred in both Oath and blood, or him?”

Maedhros' face fixed darkly. At his side, Maglor stood and reached out to place a gentle hand on his arm. Caranthir could feel his cool presence rise alongside the miasma of wrath and flame, and knew that Maglor tried to cool the tempers in the room as Nerdanel so often had before him. Even so, his eyes too were hard with disapproval as he stared down his younger brothers.

Silent until then, Caranthir leaned forward and turned his own words in defense of Maedhros. He said, “You speak of honor, Celegorm, and yet, Atar would have known shame for the way his sons dealt with Lúthien. Force and trickery . . . guile and blows? Do you not have charms enough to woo your maid with honey, instead of having to resort to such vinegar? To have to take Beren from the world by force when your own courtship proved to be for naught . . . even Fëanor would have acknowledged you as no sons of his for your actions.”

Celegorm surged to his feet, and the room turned hot around him. His eyes were as embers, bright within the dark shade of his face. His hand came to rest upon the blade at his belt, the threat in his every tense muscle clearer than any spoken word.

Curufin stood as well, nearly liquid in his motions. He placed a hand on his brother's arm, holding him back as he said, “Yes, Moryo, we all know of your taste for Engwar maids. It is a shame that Beren was not of like persuasion, else you could have done us quite the favor indeed.”

Maiden, not maids,"  Caranthir returned, seeing no reason to hide his feeling so. He rose slowly, placing no hurry in his movements as he unstrapped his dagger from his side and placed it on the table before him. He looked Celegorm in the eye, not blinking at the wildfire he saw raging within. “I loved one of the Atani, it is true, and for the blinking of an eye I was blessed to have her love in return. You, however, have only regret and black deeds to your heart, and for that I pity you. And it is that pity that would have me say that you look for your fight in the wrong place. Doriath is not your enemy; Morgoth is, and there is wisdom in Maitimo's words.”

“Wisdom?” Celegorm barked out a hoarse sound - what once had been a laugh. He unsheathed his dagger, a threat gleaming in the naked steel. “In what manner? Maitimo has nothing but a soft heart; he is craven to the black truth of what must be done. He is taken in all too easily by Findekáno's romanticized notions of valiance and chivalry. He is not worthy of our father's name, or capable to lead us in -”

Faster than Caranthir could follow, Maedhros surged forward. He shoved Celegorm back until the broad line of his shoulders hit the wall with a bone rattling thud. Celegorm struggled against his hold, but he was not able to keep the other from pinning his arms to his side and forcing him to stillness. Flipping the blade from his brother's hand, Maedhros turned Celegorm's own dagger on him, pressing it down in warning against his neck when he continued to struggle against him.

Curufin turned to aid his brother, but Maglor held him back, he too having stepped forward faster than Caranthir would have thought him capable of moving. Maglor looked on Curufin in warning, preventing him from moving forward. Curufin glared darkly, but remained still.

Maedhros was the only one of their brothers who matched Celegorm in height. Celegorm was broader, more heavily muscled, but even he could not move underneath the lean iron of Maedhros' grasp. Maedhros' face was a pale mask of fey anger in that moment, all sharp teeth flashing beneath thin lips as his eyes burned with a fire that was all Fëanor rekindled and Angband survived. He pressed the blade down as Celegorm continued to fight his hold, turning the edge until it took a thin line of red as its token.

“Question my right to lead again, Tyelkormo, and I will send you to join Atar in Mandos' halls -  do not think me incapable of that.” Celegorm spluttered, but Maedhros was unyielding. The blade bit deeper into his skin. “I gave my crown to our uncle for the sake of peace, and peace only. Without that peace we would not be able to even begin contemplating an assault against Morgoth now. You are a fool indeed if you think it weakness on my part to cast the kingship aside, rather than cold rationale and strategy for the longer road to come. And yet, you have never been able to see the bigger picture, else your doings at Nargothrond would have gone much differently indeed, would they have not? Perhaps, it would be better for all if you kept solely to your hunts, and left the playing of this game to those better equipped to win it. ”

Celegorm's eyes narrowed, all defiance and spitting sparks as he glared. A burning red light seemed to cling to Maedhros then, with his fëa swimming close to the surface of his skin, summoned first by the force of his anger. Only then did Celegorm seem to still, realizing the precarious position he had landed himself in. “Challenge me again, and I will not hesitate to grant to you the kinslaying that you are all too eager to stain your hands with,” Maedhros growled the threat into Celegorm's ear, satisfied with his silence in reply. “Consider that my oath and solemn vow, brother.”

Maedhros pressed the flat of the blade down once more, only drawing away when the other at last struggled for breath. He shoved Celegorm away, letting him breathe, and the hunter stumbled only a step before catching himself. He coughed, trying to regain his breath as he rubbed at the raw skin of his neck.

“Fine then,” Celegorm spat his words, glaring at his brother with mulish eyes. “We will do it your way. We will play your game, we will fight when Fingon says fight, but know that when our banner falls for victory or defeat, I will march on Doriath with a sword if the Silmaril is not released to our hands. And you will then follow me, brother, for your Oath and Fëanor's blood within you will allow you to do nothing else. Remember the words that you too spoke? 'Neither law, nor love,'” he hissed that one word out, the single syllable an awful sound from his mouth, “'nor league of swords will keep the Silmarils from Fëanáro and Fëanáro's kin.' This you too vowed, and this you too are sworn to uphold.”

“You need not remind me of my oaths,” Maedhros said, and for the first, his words sounded weary, “for they haunt me . . . more than you would know or think.”

“On that day then,” Celegorm vowed, showing his teeth. “On that day . . . Doriath shall fall.”

“And yet, until that day,” the hardness once again returned to Maedhros' voice, “you will heed me on this: not a hand will be raised to Lúthien or her kin in violence until either her father sees reason, or she finds her fate in mortal death - upon which we will address this matter again. Do I make myself clear, Tyelkormo?”

A moment passed. For a heartbeat, Caranthir thought that Celegorm would challenge Maedhros again. And yet . . . “Perfectly,” at long last, the one word rumbled from Celegorm's chest. He gave a shallow, mocking bow to his first before straightening. The green was completely gone from his eyes, Caranthir saw. He did not think the colour would ever return again.

“Excellent,” Maedhros drew the single word out in a hiss. He took his seat after a long moment, only breaking Celegorm's gaze to turn to the maps that had been laid out earlier. “If that is now settled, this is what Findekáno and I have planned, and decided . . .”

 

 

.

.


Falter

Of course, they could only resist for so long before their Oath turned them towards Doriath.

Their assault on the Morgoth failed, and the battle's end showed so many of their number claimed by death that they were beyond counting or grief. With their leaguer broken, Morgoth now walked freely through the lands and their own people were hunted and scattered, lost to the wild and desolate places as they did anything and everything to distract themselves from the vow they had so long ago sworn.

It was as those first days with their Oath all over again, Caranthir thought. The tugging on their bones had not been this strong since they had struggled to find their way from Aman. Their Oath was as a whip's lash upon a thrall, striking their souls and driving them ever forward. The Darkness all but laughed at them with every day they spent in defiance of fulfilling their vow. It became as an obsession in their hearts, filling them more than blood and tender tissue, more than any bright light of the soul. It was a burning that licked at their hearts and filled their spirits, until, at long last . . .

After many days, grey with her years and satisfied with her life, Lúthien laid down in the ever-sleep of Men, and her Silmaril fell to the keeping of her son. This time, when Celegorm spoke his angry words, and Curufin gave his own arguments in support, Maedhros had no choice but to agree. The righteous fire he had fueled himself on since recovering from Angband had bled out in the wake of the Nírnaeth Arnoediad. His veins were now dry of feeling, and his heart was even more barren still. The bright lines and fight of spirit in their first's eyes had faded to ash and ember. The scarred flesh he had built up over his jagged lines was drawn away again with Fingon's death, and Maedhros had no care to hide his bones away. He was curt and cutting, his eyes pale with apathy as they prepared their host to march on Doriath - an easy siege now with Melian departed to Valinor and the Doriathrim weakened by the attack of the Naugrim just those few decades prior. Dior was a young king, a foolish king, and his meager attempts at protecting his people would amount to naught.

Arrogant child, Caranthir could not help but think in weary disappointment. For trying to keep true to the haughty power of Thingol's crown and the sweeping epic of Beren and Lúthien's trials and tragedies, Dior would give up the Silmaril not, and his people would suffer for it.

Caranthir thought of the blood that would soon be his to spill, and felt his stomach turn with a hunger that was more than a thirst of flesh. It was a hunger that had taken him once before, and yet, sating that beast then had soothed him not, nor had it drawn their Oath to a fulfillment.

. . . and this time? Would this time be different? How could this time be any different, even if they were successful in their quest? He wondered, but could not be sure.

Caranthir was not able to sleep the night before, remembering only Alqualondë and the slaughter there. He thought of the massacre on the quays; he remembered the red on the waves and the screams. They had tried truly to aid this land whilst fulfilling their Oath, disguising their need for vengeance and petty ownership with righteousness, and the Valar had doomed their actions for their core. For every lie they had told themselves, they had a dozen truths revealed, and now, he did not much care for the reflection the mirror returned.

She would be ashamed of you, he could not help but think as he strapped his armor on. For every hard and unyielding line she herself had born, Haleth would have been ashamed of the choices he made today.

. . . the care and opinion of one mortal woman, centuries dead now, weighed upon him more than he had ever cared for his father's opinion, even. It was almost enough to turn the suffocating shroud of his Oath from his shoulders. It was enough to make him question, at the very least, where he had so blindly followed before.

While marching to Doriath, Maglor sought him out at the head of their host, touching his shoulder in an empty encouragement. Where Maedhros was all blank, deadened eyes, and Celegorm and Curufin were all but sparking to the touch for the fight to come, Maglor was quiet and withdrawn. His eyes held the same disillusionment that Caranthir bore, and yet he would not turn away from the words that bound them with such a fell force. He wondered if Maglor thought of his wife, back beyond the sea. He wondered if his brother remembered Nyarissë in Aman, and knew shame for the dishonor he brought to her – with his name and deeds now made her own through their spirit's bond.

And yet . . . such thoughts did not matter for long. They fell upon the twilit wood in the cold of a Yuletide storm, stealing through the trees with their weeping veils of white and then forcing their way into the stone halls of Menegroth to take what was theirs by force.

Caranthir looked on the melee as it started with sickened eyes. Up was down and down was up as swords flashed and the blood of kindred was spilled once again. He did not know which was worse: the rolling of loathing and self-hatred in his stomach or the burning in his bones ever urging him forward. His Oath pushed him, all but pulling at his stride and forcing his sword-arm to action. He felt his vow rise within him – neither law, nor love, nor league of swords – and yet, he could not . . .

 . . . he could not draw his sword.

At his side, his siblings waded into the wave of Sindarin soldiers. He looked, but saw where Celegorm had little care for the ranks trying to stop him. He moved with deadly assurance and hardly constrained rage through the halls, his destination already clear in mind – a destination which Caranthir understood with a sudden coldness of clarity that broke upon him like a wave upon the shore.

The children, he understood then. Dior's children. Lúthien's grandchildren . . . young ones with Beren's strong brow and Lúthien's twilit eyes . . . their's was a heritage that Celegorm considered to be a theft even greater than the Silmarils. Children . . . grandchildren . . . a heritage of heirs and familial bonds that Celegorm considered unfairly denied to him. He . . .

 . . . his brother was not in his right mind, Caranthir finally admitted the truth, even if only to himself. Celegorm had not been himself for much too long, and now . . . He saw the rush of madness in his brother's eyes as he followed him through the halls. He saw the same cruel light that had taken Fëanor burn him, he saw it consume, and he -

No, he thought when he heard the children scream – discovered and torn from their hiding place. There was a fey gleam in Celegorm's eyes, with murder and violence sparking from his skin as his men laughed along with him, and then -

Caranthir did not think, he only reacted. He rushed at his brother, knocking the stronger elf away from the young ones with a ferocity that surprised even himself. He had a brief moment of seeing the twins' human shaped eyes turn wide with fear in their elvish faces, and that combination struck him like a lance, greater than the Oath screaming through his veins, demanding that he fulfill his vow of tongue, that he finish it.

For the first, a son of Fëanor turned his back on the Oath of his father. He accepted the Darkness as payment in return, he held his arms open to the Void and thought only: let it come. He was willing to pay for the consequences of his words and actions. And he was willing to pay that price alone.

He had only a moment in which Celegorm was surprised, stunned by the attack from his own blood, and Caranthir had only that heartbeat in which to unsheathe his dagger and sink it in deep between the lacings of the other's armor, holding it in and twisting, ignoring the bonds of kith and kin between them in order to do what had to be done. Beyond him, the children ran, and he hoped that they would find a safe place amidst the confusion and the violence. He hoped, and yet . . .

He looked, and saw shock warring with the pain in his brother's eyes. But nothing escaped Celegorm's mouth but for a gurgling of blood . . . a broken exhale of air. It was one of the last he had left within him, now.

Caranthir caught Celegorm as he slumped forward, still holding the dagger in tight. Even so, he soothed the other, brushing his hair from his face and leaning in to hold him as close as he could. He rocked him as if he were a small child, comforting him as pain bloomed in his eyes: agony and acceptance and rage mingling all at once . . . and a childish fear and denial beneath it all, twisting inside of Caranthir's heart with an overwhelming pain to match.

“I could not let you damn yourself this way,” he whispered into the other's ear. “Please forgive me, Tyelko, but I could not . . .”

Celegorm blinked. Caranthir felt his hands make fists in his sleeves - whether to push him away, or to cling to him for support, he did not know.

“Shh, brother,” he whispered. “Everything will be over soon.”

You have a choice, he could still hear her voice whisper in his ear. Soft and strong, she remained a cherished memory, even after these long years past. You chose to swear your Oath, and you alone can choose how to fulfill it with honor and pride. He remembered her words, and he wondered, hoping that when he gave his last breath . . . would he, perhaps . . .
 
He held his brother, uncaring as the hall filled with Sindarin soldiers. Dior himself rushed into his sons' rooms, his eyes wild with a parent's fear and the bloodlust that came with the heat of battle. Caranthir did not rise to the violence in the Elven-king's gaze. His sword remained untouched at his side, his bow at rest upon his back. He simply patted down his brother's hair, and held him closer. He felt a moment of regret for those he would leave behind – knowing that Maedhros would see his sheathed weapons, and know . . . Maglor would have one more verse to add to his song in lament, he thought. For the first, Caranthir could give him something noble to include, at least - something that was more than death and pain, something that was honorable, something that was penance.

Celegorm's fingers clutched at his arms. The grey of his eyes was glazed, far away. Caranthir wondered if the Darkness truly waited for them, or something else. Perhaps, Eru would see, and Námo would look down on them and know pity . . .

“Moryo?” finally, Celegorm forced the two syllables out. His teeth were wet and red when he spoke, his voice a pained exhale of sound. The name was one that Caranthir had not heard in much too long, Moryo, so dark and strange, his brothers would laugh and tease – in Aman, there had been humor to the name. It had been an endearment. But in Endórë where all was stained with shadow and blood . . .

“Moryo . . . it is dark now . . . I cannot see you.”


 . . . perhaps, it was more fitting an appellation than first they had known.

“Close your eyes, brother,” Caranthir whispered into the other's hair. “It will all be over soon, and I . . . I will follow you.”

He exhaled, closing his eyes as he caught sight of Dior with his sword raised high . . . and accepted the end.

Chapter Text

Past

There was nothing quite like a child's curiosity when it came to unravelling things he would rather not reveal.

“So . . ." Elros tried once again, testing his thinly wrought control, "was it bitten off, like Beren's?”

“No.”

“Was it crushed?”

“No.”

“I know, it was a sword accident!” Elros chirped brightly. “That is why Naneth said we could not yet have swords, and -”

“ - no,” Maedhros' patience gave. “It was not a sword accident. And it is considered rude to ask when one has not offered to tell you the story to begin with, child.”

Elros was silent for a heartbeat. And then: “ . . . was it frostbite?”

“Maglor!” Maedhros finally snapped, turning to his brother. “Please, take the children away before I show Eärendil's son what truly happened to my hand.”

Elros, far from being cowed by his anger, giggled. Maedhros bristled, disturbed by his inability to intimidate the Perelda.

Maglor raised a brow (at him, Maedhros realized indignantly), while Elrond shook his head at his brother's antics. Elros flushed sheepishly at his twin's look, and yet, "Are you not curious?” he still defended.

For a moment, Elrond did not answer. His eyes were pale, far away, as they flickered from his brother to Maedhros, (and it was not concern Maedhros felt at the look, it was not).

“His hand was cut off,” Elrond finally revealed, his voice echoing oddly. “ . . . one dear to him did so . . . desperate to preserve his soul alive, no matter the cost to his body.”

Startled, Maglor glanced at him, looking for his reaction. Maedhros blinked, blindsided by memories. He remembered the smoke of Thangorodrim and the heavy gusts of wind from the Eagle's wings . . . he remembered begging to find an end to his torments at a loved one's hands, and instead feeling a blinding pain at his wrist and then nothing . . . He remembered little of the journey to Hithlum besides Fingon's desperate voice begging him to stay with him, and the feel of the sky as it turned clear and sweet around him.

And now . . .

“Now it burns,” Elrond concluded softly, his eyes resting on the hand he had left. Maedhros made a fist, eerily reminded of Artanis in her girlhood, when her Sight would take her in uncontrollable fits before she learned mastery over her visions.

“It does not burn,” Maedhros whispered. His voice was uncertain in his mouth.

Sadly, Elrond smiled. “Not yet,” he shook his head. “Not yet.”

 

.

.

Present

Elros blinked at a jolt of awareness from his twin. Startled, he instantly snapped awake from a deep sleep, and yet, when he searched for a threat, he only saw Elrond staring pensively up at the stars.

“What is it?” Elros rose to join the other by the window, plopping down gracelessly where Elrond sat with a unyielding tension in his bones. The restless spin of his brother's spirit pulled at his own, like the moon tugging on the tide. Something had happened, he knew, and he swallowed, wary of what his twin would reveal to him.

“Our parents. . .” Elrond finally answered, the words falling from his mouth in awkward syllables. “ . . . they made the journey West. They stand before the Valar now. Adar speaks to Manwë himself on behalf of Ennor as a whole.”

The words settled between his ribs like a knife, taking their wound. “How do you know?” Elros whispered, pained. All of their hopes of when their parents would return suddenly seemed like silly, childish things.

Elrond looked away from him. His throat worked, as if he had to try more than once to form his words. “I just . . . know,” he answered lamely. A dream it was then, Elros diagnosed distantly, his thoughts far away.

“Then . . . they are not coming back for us . . . are they?” Elros asked, the words fumbling from his tongue. He hated how small he sounded in that moment, with his eyes burning and his throat tight.

“I do not know,” Elrond whispered, but Elros heard his hesitation. Ever playing the healer, are you? he chided through their bond. You cannot protect me from what pains you as well.

A moment passed, and Elrond's answer ghosted across his mind, unable as he was to form the words aloud. They are not coming back for us.

Elros set his jaw as tears threatened. Stubbornly he told himself that he did not care if Eärendil and Elwing ever returned. He did not. They did not need their parents - not any more; not when they had each other.

Responding to his distress, he felt the touch of Elrond's fëa against his own – his soul just as pained as his. In reply, he reached over to take his brother's hand, needing the tangibility of touch even more than the comfort of spirits. All I need is you, Elros breathed, his heart sore within his chest.

A heartbeat, and then Elrond squeezed his hand in return. And I you.

 

 

.

.


Future

“He speaks nonsense, that is all,” Maedhros paced angrily before his brother, as restless as an animal caged and fanged in that moment. “Sinking islands at the rage of the Valar? A mountain of fire belching beneath a demon's throne? It is the stuff of dreams, Káno, surely you must see that?”

“I think it is more than mere dreams,” Maglor insisted. “It is prophetic, as plain as the day is bright. And if it is indeed the Sight that he bears, we . . . we cannot teach him here. You know this.”

He watched as his words struck as blows, and yet, “So you would have us hand them over, just like that?” Maedhros scorned in return. “I know! We can march up to Gil-galad and say: 'Here are your cousins back. Now, if you would be so gracious as to give us a headstart before you stain your hands with a fourth kinslaying -'

“ - be not a fool,” Maglor retorted, interrupting. “Do you think that I have not thought of that? Here, I can teach them lore and the High-tongue, and you can teach them the sword. But . . . I know too few songs of the healer's art, and we know nothing of ship's craft -”

“- except for how to burn them,” Maedhros scathed.

Maglor's look was withering. “Elros is touched by Ulmo himself, as Eärendil and Tuor both were before him. And the Sight - ”

“ - Artanis has managed well enough with her visions,” Maedhros insisted stubbornly.

“With Indis' help in her girlhood, and then Melian herself as a teacher later on,” Maglor snapped in reply. “You've seen . . . you've seen what these visions can do to the untrained. And when there is the blood of Men to also consider . . .”

Finally, Maedhros was drawn short, true concern flickering across his eyes as he thought of the few seers known amongst Mankind – their minds torn apart by the things not meant for them to see. For a moment, Maglor held his breath, hoping that he had finally broken through to his brother. His brother, who would not even have blinked before doing the right thing by a child just mere centuries ago . . .

“I cannot,” Maedhros finally said, his voice tugging weary on his ears. He rubbed at his brow with his one hand, his Oath once more fighting with his sense of goodness for ownership of his soul. “They are our key should Eärendil return, and I cannot . . .”

Maglor sighed, disappointment dimming his eyes. “Brother . . . how many more need fall before a few unthinking words of tongue are to be satisfied?”

When Maedhros spoke, his voice was cutting – and final. “As many as need be,” he swore, and another chain wound about an Oath unbreakable.

Chapter Text

Heart

The gardens of Lórien were all the hues of a never ending dusk and the teasing dance of silver mists. Weeping willows swayed upon the shores of Lake Lorellin; the dark blue waters exuded peace and calm as they sloshed gently against the confines of their cradle. Beyond the willow trees grew tall, silver-blue evergreens and elegant cedar trees, each drowsily exuding their rich fragrance as they danced to the far off sound of singing voices within Irmo's halls. Anairë breathed, and inhaled the delicate scent of the silver night-flowers and the more spicy note of the red poppies that glowed in the ever lingering mist. Just above her, she could hear the haunting song of the nightingales as they filled the half-light with their melody. The waves whispered against the shore, hypnotic and murmuring as they played in time with the pulse of her heartbeat. She could feel her soul throb in this place of spirits and new life.

For all of its beauty and healing, Lórien was a realm that Anairë did not often visit. She had seen the realm of Irmo once before as a child, so long ago. She had still been small behind her mother's skirts then, timid and hiding, even as she was encouraged to dip her hand in the lake by one of the silvery Maiar who walked the gardens like specters in the mist. She had returned as a woman grown to experience that same peace again after the Darkening of Valinor – leaving Tirion only after her good-brother was secure upon the throne and her people were once again building for the future with zeal and hope in their hearts. Anairë had not found what she had been looking for then. Peace had been beyond her reach, searching as she was for a way to fill the emptiness of her home and heart with the enchanted garden's healing songs. While many said that the gardens gave them a weightlessness of spirit and a heartfelt sense of peace . . . she had not found such a balm for her soul then. How could she, when she was alone . . . alone and . . .

Anairë breathed in deep, and let the breath out slow.

Now she was summoned to Lórien by Irmo himself. She stood where the grove of willow trees made a natural curtain to Irmo's halls. Within the Vala's keeping, there was an old soul just returned to life anew; his lungs given breath and a his heart a beat once more. Before, she had hidden the part of her fëa that was his in a far off corner of her spirit, unable to bear the gaping chasm it had became after his fall. And yet, that small ember was now fanned into being once more, growing to again take root and flower, deep within her soul. What had once been empty was now filling with a familiar light, spilling over the edges of her spirit to warm what had been cold for far too long.

Filled . . . full . . . for centuries, such a thing had been nothing more than a hazy theory, a half formed idea in the deep places of her mind. It had been something so painfully lovely that she had feared shattering the thought if she all but whispered it too loudly. Slowly, the lands of Aman would fill with the Twice-born, and she had resigned herself to patiently waiting for her turn to welcome her family to life anew. Waiting . . . waiting she had been for so long, ever resigned and dutiful . . . waiting for what felt like an eternity, ageless though she was.

Arafinwë and Eärwen had both been called forth by Námo to witness the rebirth of their son – for Findaráto had been the first of the Twice-born welcomed back to Valinor, and the Lord of Souls would have those who gave him life first there to witness his gift of life anew. Anairë was glad that she had not been called to Mandos' grey halls to see her husband's soul called forth and crafted into being once more before her eyes. It wasn't so much the process of rebirth that unsettled her, but to see those black curtains, and know that somewhere beyond, each of her children laid still in death . . . children she had brought into the world; children she had held, and raised, and loved . . . Anairë had exhausted her share of strength over the centuries, and she would not have been strong enough to stand so close, but still so far away, even to see the one she loved as her other half brought to life again.

She had known jealousy, at first, as shameful as it was for the blessing given to her friend. She tried to swallow it away for Eärwen's sake - for she was happy for her good-sister, truly she was. And yet, she had lost a son . . . a daughter . . . a husband . . . long before Findaráto had drawn his last breath. While Arafinwë and Eärwen deserved every blessing allotted to them, she had still looked on, and she had known envy. Envy . . . and yearning.

She understood why, of course. She understood Námo's decision in a logical way - for Findaráto gave his life for another, for a mortal man and his hopeless love. There was beauty in that sacrifice, she knew, and such beauty deserved to be rewarded. Ever was Anairë patient, and she could wait. Ever was she dutiful, whether it be to her father, her husband, or the Valar themselves. She would question them not, and hold her silent yearning in close to her heart. She would be faithful, and give her hope a fresh breath with each passing day.
 
Now, at long last, her hope was realized and real before her. She stood upon the shores of the lake, her posture straight and her shoulders squared to match the ground beneath her. Her robes were pristine; pressed to fall about her without a wrinkle, and cut to fit her just so. The pale blue color emphasized her ivory white skin and night black hair, while the front of the dress was elegantly embroidered with the wine red and blue-violet colors her husband had favored in life. The pile of braids atop her head was perfectly pinned in place, with each coil and artful plait oiled until they gleamed; not a hair dared to move from its place. Her face was a serene mask, elegant and grave in countenance as befit a high lady -  a princess -  of the Noldor. She would let herself be seen as nothing else, especially within the dwelling of a Vala and his wife. She would not let anything take that dignity from her, not even . . .

Her pulse raced beneath her skin, betraying the calm she was so desperately trying to hold on to and grasp as her own. She could feel her pulse throb against her wrists; she could feel as her heart thundered within her chest, as if looking for an escape. She tried to breathe in deep, but she could not get her heartbeat to slow, no matter how she tried.

Frustrated, Anairë clasped her hands together. The long fabric draped down from her sleeves to hide the way they trembled, and, for that, she was grateful.

She inhaled, but no matter how deep a breath she took, her breath still came quick and eager from her lungs. She was as giddy as a child with her excitement, as eager as she was for an old grief to scar and heal over. A part of her was surprised by the fervency of her emotions, while another part of her knew better – had always known better. While many in Tirion and beyond called her marriage to her husband a marriage of convenience, a match made for political ties and bonds, she knew as well as he that such was not so, and for so long, that had been all that had mattered.

The rumors were true, in the smallest of ways. She and Nolofinwë were not the nearly tangible flame that had followed Fëanáro and Nerdanel – for everything that Fëanáro touched burned, and his love was no exception. The restless tongues and immortal eyes of her kind would find no tale to whisper for their public dealings with each other, for ill or for well, and that was the way she preferred it. Their marriage was not even the warm and gentle grace that followed Arafinwë and Eärwen like sunlight on the water. They were something softly spun together – cold, Fëanáro had thrown at his brother more than once – and yet, she could imagine no better compliment to her soul than he.

“A strong match,” her father had praised, his hand cool upon her cheek, when he learned that she had accepted the prince's proposal. Anairë had only nodded in reply then, agreeing. For, really, that was how they had started, and most assumed that to be the whole of their relationship.

She had allowed Nolofinwë's courtship, not out of a great and soul binding attraction formed at first sight – as so many of their kind did -  but rather, because it was what her father wanted. Her father had been Finwë's closest adviser and dearest friend since the days of the Awakening, and it was the wish of both to bind their children together in marriage if their hearts were so inclined. Anairë was nothing if not a dutiful daughter, and she had followed her father's wishes. In those days, she had simply been grateful that her father had turned from Finwë's heir as a possibility for her hand to his secondborn son instead, wisely foreseeing where she would have been smothered beneath Fëanáro's flame.

She had not protested the choice of her father – for it had not been hard to love Nolofinwë, but rather, natural and easy. He was Fëanáro's beauty and wisdom without his ferocity and his untamable edges. He was polite and courteous, even if he kept so much of himself hidden deep beneath the surface. Like she did, Anairë had thought at the time. He matched her spirit in shape, she was pleasently surprised to discover over time. They fit, was the easiest way for her to explain their soul's bond. Even though Fëanáro had often scathed at his brother in scorn for his cool marriage and unpassionate bride, she knew the shape of her relationship with her husband, and knew that their easy affection suited both of them. Fëanáro did not know, and she had never deemed him worthy of explaining otherwise.

Now, child, Irmo had a soft, lulling voice that was all starlight on the water and a warm wind through the swaying trees. The Valar were spirit creatures, created of Ilúvatar's thoughts, and yet they found their voices in order to speak to the children of Arda with words to match their own. He whispered into her mind, soft and gentle, He comes to you.

Move slowly, Námo spoke alongside his brother, sounding like heartbeats and rumbling drums to her inner ear. Souls who died violent deaths tend to carry those memories with them into their waking days. He has recovered strength enough, but the rest of his awakening will have to happen away from my Halls. The spirit is only so much itself as it belongs to others, and his has always found its home in you.

Anairë nodded, bowing her head in respect to the Fëanturi as they spoke. Their words touched something deep inside of her, humbling her with both their notice and the proof of her husband's affection for her. In reply, she wrung hherhands together, wrinkling the heavy material of her sleeves. She bit her lip – a habit that her mother had forced away from her as a young woman, now returned in force as she gave into the urge she had to pace in small circles on the shore. Another ungenteel habit, she knew, and yet . . .


She took in a deep breath, telling herself that she needed to be composed. She would be graceful; she would be dignified and calm. She was Anairë, born of Araton and Lissië, a princess of the Noldor, the wife and then mother to the King in Exile, and good-sister to the High-king in Aman, and she would act with the dignity inherent to her name and title.

And yet, all of her carefully thought out speeches and perfectly poised greetings fell from her like rain over the canopy of a tree as her husband appeared though a parting in the willows. She blinked, taking in the once familiar sight of him – the tall and strong frame, the long black hair and the eyes that were more silver than grey. Her own eyes were thirsty then, parched and famished as they lingered on each part of his face in turn - from the almost confused furrow of his brow to the chiseled line of his jaw and the full shape of his mouth. He was dressed in the simple grey robes that all in Lórien wore; no circlet adorned his brow, and he was anointed by no finery . . . and yet, he looked more beautiful to her then than he had on the day when they had wed, a millennia ago. He looked at her, and recognition sparked deep within his eyes - lightening them from within, until -

 - she tried to say his name, but her words were stuck in her throat. She could not give her voice a sound. All of her careful preparations were for naught - for her husband was now whole and real before her, blinking as if the light was too bright, and stepping towards her as if just remembering how to walk. Anairë could not help it - she sucked in a strangled noise, a sob of joy and grief, and it took her a moment to realize that the sound had come from her. The strange sound came again – and yes, it was her, she realized, mortification coloring her cheeks red.

A lady did not run – her gown was not made for such movement, at that. And yet, it took only one step, then two, and three before she was able to throw her arms about her husband's shoulders for the first time in centuries. Walking would have doubled that time, she reasoned, and she would not have been able to bear those extra seconds away from him.

It took him a moment to return her embrace, but return it he did. His arms wrapped around her, almost hesitantly, before tightening with a near painfully desperation. His hands traced the shape of her spine, the dip of her waist, beneath the formal robes she wore. Even through so many layers his touch burned, and she felt happiness and relief and desire flood through her veins as they had not in nearly an age of the world.

He was warm, so very warm, she thought. Always did the sons of Finwë give off heat like a star, and yet, she had not realized just how much so until he was gone. In the days after his leaving, she had filled skins with hot water to warm the sheets next to her, placing them within the pillows that still bore his scent in a childish need to keep him close to her. And yet, it had not been enough. The emptiness of her spirit once she had felt him go beyond where she could follow him was even worse, a chill of heart and soul that she could never completely warm away – until now.

If she worried about his coolness upon seeing her - for it had been she who had refused to follow him, and he had been driven forth by duty, unable to stay in Aman when their people would only have Fëanáro and his madness to turn to upon crossing the Sea – those worries disappeared like the rain as it was claimed by the greedy earth. She could not remember why she had felt such a worry to begin with as she buried her head against his chest, feeling his lungs rise and fall with his every breath. Breath . . . life . . . her husband was alive.

She was crying, Anairë realized then - ugly, hiccupping sounds that she was ashamed to release from her mouth. She tried to remember, but could not recall ever letting go of her grief in such a way. The death of the Trees brought only anger to her heart and a solemn sorrow to her brow. Her husband's leaving drew nothing more than a stern face and a pressed line from her mouth as she took her sorrow and held it close to her heart. With each child claimed by Námo in death, she had gathered together her grief and pressed it in alongside her bones until it became the very thing keeping her upright. Even when she felt Nolofinwë's death, she had held her pain and anger deep inside, unwilling as she was to let it fell her like a tree in a storm. Her grief, her missing . . . it was always with her, but she never allowed it to consume her. She was stronger than that, she had been determined to prove. She would not weep over what she could not change; instead she stood strong and saw to what had to be done. And yet . . .

Perhaps . . . perhaps she had simply not thought about what she had lost until now. In that moment, she seemed to relive his death anew. She remembered feeling the part of her soul that was his leap in fear and determination. She had been able to see though his eyes – see the mountain of malice and black might that was Melkor as he swung his war-hammer, and brought his mailed boot down . . . Quickly, she pushed that thought away, feeling where Nolofinwë flinched at the memory. She remembered Námo's words, and found them to be true in that moment. Her spirit was open and raw before her husband as it had not been since their bond was new and they were each just learning to navigate the halls of each others minds. Their bond. For too long had that piece of her fëa been empty and wanting, and now . . .

Her face was red and swollen, and her eyes burned as if set aflame. No doubt she was a sight to look on, she thought. This was not the poised and lovely wife she wanted him to return to, and yet, she could not seem to keep the sounds of her grief in. Her grief . . .

. . . and her joy. She laughed with a bubbling, giddy relief, and soon enough, she could not tell which of her tears were from what emotion.

His hands rose to tangle in her hair as he followed her thoughts with his own, sinking into her braids and cradling the back of her head as he moved his thumbs in soothing circles where her jaw met the bottom of her ears. Strange, she thought then, that it was he offering her comfort, when -

He had died, the knowledge hit her like a blow, fully setting in for the first. He had died, and she . . .

“You foolish, foolish man,” Anairë cried into his shoulder when she at last found her words. “What were you thinking, charging forth like that? Where was your sense, where was your control?”

For it was never that he felt less than Fëanáro, so much as he knew how to hide the flame of his spirit away. He knew how to keep it hidden and deep, letting it shine through as a bright wisdom and guiding light. Fëanáro both brought pride and shame to Finwë's name in equal measures, and always, her husband had endeavored to spare his father grief at his expense. How could he do any differently, with Fëanáro as such a brother? He had been calm, he had been poised, the perfect prince and the perfect son while inside of him a fire to match burned.

It had been something that she had empathized with when first they had courted. It was something that she had eventually loved him for. And, when his anger and his grief at last ran over, and he challenged Melkor to a one on one match, facing the mightiest of the Valar in an unprecedented duel . . . it had been the suppression of centuries at last failing him, the fire of his spirit breaking free and consuming him in its wake.

“I could no longer stand aside and watch,” Nolofinwë answered against the top of her hair. His voice gained strength with every syllable, as if remembering how to give shape to words once more. His voice, low and deep and sending shivers up and down her spine as she heard him speak for the first time in centuries. “The Sudden Flame . . . to see our siege broken . . . two of Arafinwë's sons fell in the fires from Angband, and Findaráto would not have escaped with his life if he was not aided by Barahir the mortal man. Over a hundred thousand of our people fell . . . along with nearly ten thousand of the sons of Men . . . and they fell underneath my watch . . . my command. So many centuries of work, of toiling, were swept away in a blink of an eye . . . it was not to be borne. I saw no end to our fight, and in that moment . . . I felt strong enough to take on Melkor alone, or, at the very least, give something to inspire our broken people once again. I was not of the flesh during that battle, but of light, it seemed, and . . .”

He sighed against her hair; his hold on her tightened. He clung to her, both remembering and trying to forget all at once. “It was a moment of madness,” he admitted wryly. “One that seems to run in the family – or so I am told.”

She gave an unpleasant snort, intending first for laughter, yet failing. “And yet,” she let herself return ruefully. “The songs say that you took seven wounds from the Vala, as fallen in might as he was. There is something to be said for that.”

“They were seven wounds that made the whole of the battle worth it,” Nolofinwë sighed. “And yet, they are seven wounds I would not like to think on for some time again.”

He and her both, she thought. She could hold him no tighter than she already did, and so she traced the tips of her fingers over the thin material of his robe, drawing her touch up the path of his spine to the base of his neck. His hair was unbraided and unadorned, falling in a heavy curtain of spilled ink over his shoulders. The strands were as cool and smooth as silk, at odds with the heat of his skin. She let out a contented sigh at the contrast of textures, relearned once more after so many years apart.

“Our children?” she asked next. She had to try twice to force the two words out, suddenly speaking as if around a stone. He would have seen them within the Halls, she thought. He would have seen the light of their souls, and known . . . “Do they . . .?” She could not finish her sentence, but it did not matter. He understood.

“They will come to Námo when they are ready to return to life anew,” he answered her. He had to work to find his speech, much as she did. “Arakáno has learned much amongst the Maiar of Námo, and he has found a purpose in the Halls that he long searched for in life. Irissë will not leave until her son may also rise to life anew – and her son's soul is slow in healing, bitter with many wounds. Lómion many not ever forgive himself – or find forgiveness for his sins in the time that Arda has, and yet, she is determined to wait for him. Turukáno will not be long behind me – he found his wife again in death, and together they will return to life in order to welcome Itarillë and her mortal husband to these shores – yes,” he rumbled in amusement at her surprise. “That is a tale long in telling, and one that I will share with you later.”

Anairë shook her head, her curiosity piqued. Tales of her granddaughter's odd choices in love had reached Aman from Ulmo's mouth, and yet, there was so much she did not know. She hesitated for a moment before asking, “And . . . Findekáno? How fares he?” Her eldest son, she allowed his memory to surface in her mind with pain and fondness both. Her eldest son, who was ever such a light and strength in life . . . she swallowed, trying to align the child she had held and helped walk for the first time with the man who had been so eager to see the world away from their golden and safe shores . . . She could not fathom him without breath and life; she could not imagine him as an incorporeal soul, waiting to walk again. 

Nolofinwë hesitated. His answer pained him, she understood before he even spoke. She braced herself, preparing for the worst. “Findekáno . . . he waits, as he ever does. He will continue to wait until he is joined by him. And then . . . only the future will tell what Námo intends.”

For him, she thought, her brow darkening. As a young woman she had known pity for Fëanáro and the source of his rage, and yet, that pity had hardened into an indignant ire and fierce urge to protect her husband from Fëanáro's mad jealousies and petty resentment. It was a jealousy and resentment that her husband shared, for he was as much Finwë's son as Fëanáro was, and the time and effort that Finwë put into soothing the son of his first wife often put his second family to the wayside. Though Nolofinwë pretended not to be affected, she knew his mind and thoughts as well as her own, and the same insecurities and fears that plagued Fëanáro were shared by his brother. They cut him to the bone just the same; only their handling of that pain was different.

And now, for Fëanáro's eldest to take what was dearest to her . . . When her son was still a child, she had encouraged the friendship between Maitimo and Findekáno, even over her husband's reservations. Maitimo had been more Nerdanel's son than Fëanáro's then, holding wisdom and a sage tongue over the fervor of his father's fire. She had such hopes then . . . hopes that had since come to naught. Even beyond death, Fëanáro was still taking from her family, and in that moment, she hated him for it.

Once, she had thought their friendship to be the bridge that would sooth the bonds between their fathers - for her husband's sake and peace of soul more than anything else . . . for he did love his brother, loved him dearly and desperately despite all else, and his resentment was as much wounded pride as it was true dislike. Míriel had left her son, had chosen death, but Nolofinwë was ready and eager to love the blood of his blood - and even now he still did not understand why that love was forsaken and cast aside. She sighed, feeling only a black disappointment and bitter resignation rise within her for her son's choice. Ever were their fates bound, even now, and there was little she could do.

“Each soul in Námo's keeping needs to find their peace . . . their peace and their reason to return to life anew,” Nolofinwë said, following her thoughts as they spun together with the ease of long intimacy. “Findekáno will find his reason, and we will have eternity to wait for him to do so.”

Eternity . . . she was patient . . . she was dutiful, she reminded herself, and this was just one more hurdle to leap before having her family whole and together again. For this too, she could wait, and find the strength to endure. “And you?” she asked, hating the way her jaw still trembled with her words. “What reason did you have to return?”

“I had that which I should never have left behind to begin with,” he answered, and she felt warmth rise between them, filling their bond with an old, easy love. She grounded herself against the feeling; she let it fill her until she felt almost buoyant with it, her cage of flesh the only thing keeping her spirit from soaring.

They said no more than that – they did not need to, not with their spirits whole and holding each other once more. The memory of Melkor and the continuing toils of Endórë were in the background now, and though his body still tensed with remembered pains, the memories no longer consumed him. Instead he focused on the texture of her hair, the shape of her body. The top of her head fit just underneath his chin, as if they were made to hold each other so. He was warm, so very warm, in her arms once more, filling her with a peace and contentment to match the haunting song of the nightingales and the silver mist dancing all around them.

She turned her head so that her cheek rested against his chest, indulging in the urge she had to feel the rise and fall of his lungs. She could feel his heartbeat; slow and steady beneath her cheek, alive and beating once more. Alive . . . and for the first time since his leaving, she felt as if she herself lived once more.

Anairë exhaled a shaky breath, and listened to her husband breathe.

Chapter Text

Student

It was just approaching the evening hour. Anor had tipped from her high cradle in the sky, casting her rich light over the black glass of Lake Helevorn below as she steered towards the night. The sunlight danced as it was reflected, creating dazzling patters of gold upon the lazy waves. On the eastern shore of the lake, Caranthir sat with his guest where great brown-grey formations of rock rose from the water to form its shore and the beginnings of the Blue Mountains. Even with their slightly elevated altitude, the summer day had been hot and humid, and both he and his human companion were enjoying their brief respite from the heat. There was a gentle breeze coming off of the lake, teasing the grass and playing with their hair; singing a sweet song as it echoed through the cliffs just beyond.

They had just concluded a month's time of searching the lands of Thargelion for the rest of Haleth's people. During their travels, they had found many of her folk in the woods and wild places, and each of the straggling Haladin were welcomed to join the ever growing host of their people in the south. Their search had followed the river Gelion to its source at the lake, and the settlement of his people that was built there, coincidentally. Upon reaching the great falls where the river was birthed, Caranthir had invited her to travel just a bit further north, to stay and find her rest before embarking on her journey home. She had accepted the offer of his hospitality, and since then, three days had passed – three days in which he was able to learn about Haleth the woman rather than Haleth the Chieftess, and he was delighting in the knowing those days of peace had afforded him.

During their travels, to pass the long hours on horseback and all too restless nights when neither of them could sleep, Haleth taught to him the language of her people. It was a simple and rather primitive tongue, but one with a strong foundation. In the centuries to come, as it adopted more Elven patterns and phrases - and Mankind themselves evolved and grew, it would be a strong language indeed. And yet, for now, it was easy to learn - very easy when compared to how Haleth struggled with his own native Quenya. The High-tongue was laden and long, a language that even the Sindarin struggled to master before speaking it fluently. And yet, all of their languages had but a single origin with the One, and Haleth's determination was ten times more than her clumsy tongue. She was learning – slowly, but faster than first he would have thought.
 
Alongside a mentor's pride for her progress, he also knew a secret sort of thrill for teaching her his forbidden language; one that he tried to hide away more often than not, but with little success. And yet, he telling her of Thingol's ban on the language of his childhood was the very thing that had first prompted Haleth's curiosity in learning. Which language do you dream in?  she had asked when he said that they communicated well enough in Sindarin, surprising him with her moment of romantic thinking – at odds with the logical and pragmatic woman he had known her to be. And now, here they were.

Atani,” she rolled the word off of her tongue, leaning forward on the rock as if she were advancing on a foe. “Atani, which means 'second people' . . . and Fírimar, which means 'mortal' - ”

“ - The first 'i' is as the 'ea' in fear, not the 'i' as in fire,” Caranthir corrected. “Fí -ri-mar,” he stressed the syllables for her. Haleth nodded, storing what he said away with determined eyes.

“I am clumsy with your tongue, but I am learning,” she said - more to herself than to him. While she grimaced, it was a strong look, stubbornly set on her face.
 
“And you are learning quickly, at that,” he agreed.

Haleth gave a snort of laughter. “Do you mock me?” she asked.

“Indeed, I would not dare,” he raised his hands in mock surrender. “You are learning as fast as it is possible for you to learn – and that is faster than first I would have thought. It is a credit to you, my lady.”

She did not quite know how to respond to that, Caranthir noticed, pleased. Better was Haleth with strong words, or even those cross and cutting. She did not know what to do with softness, and even the simplest of compliments often had her looking away from him, her cheeks flushing pink. It was a reaction he enjoyed provoking, if he was honest with himself - it amused him nearly much as stroking the embers of her temper did, a task of which he was proving to be equally adept.

“Now,” he waved his hand, allowing her a retreat. “Again.”

Atani, which means 'second people',” she dropped the word from her tongue as she would give a blow, “and -ri-mar, which means 'mortal'.” Her eyes flashed triumphantly when he inclined his head in approval at her pronunciation. “Those are your names for Men.”

“The two most primarily used, at least,” he gave in a rueful voice. “I am sure that you have noticed that it is an elvish tendency to give many names to things – and yet, it passes the years for us.”

“I was not going to say so if you were not,” she said, amused by his observation. “Engwar is a term I hear often, as well. What does that name translate to?”

He blinked, taken aback by the unexpected question. He felt as his face settled into a dark look, even as he asked, “Where have you heard that?”
 
Haleth easily spied the change in his mood. She gave pause then, reevaluating her words. “Here and there,” she answered carefully. “I have met many of your folk since coming here, and I could not tell you which or whom.”

His jaw set at her answer. He looked out to the lake, swallowing back the heat that had risen within him, snapping up to rise with his breath. His fëa itched just beneath the surface of his skin, and he had to take a moment to compose himself in reply - unsure as to why he was suddenly so incensed on her behalf. It was a term even he had used before aiding the Haladin, and he did not . . .

“What does it mean?” Haleth asked, more slowly than before. Her voice was soft, as if she spoke around a bear within his winter-sleep, waiting for but an ill placed sound to awaken.   
 
Caranthir swallowed away the flame of his father's temper, and exhaled slowly. “Engwar means 'sickly ones',” he answered in a calm voice. “It is used as a slur.”

He watched her reaction, expecting to see offense bloom on her features; but she only snorted in amusement. “Forgive me, Lord-elf, but your kind must spend more time with the Engwar in order to learn how to better phrase their insults.” Bemusement colored her voice as she shook her head. “We have worse terms for our fellow men in our own tongue, at that.”

“And yet, you are a guest here,” he returned, not sharing her easy humor. “An insult to you is an insult to me. You are a leader of your people, worthy of the same respect my people would give to a Noldor lord. I will not see you slighted underneath my roof.”

She shrugged. “I have thick skin – I have to, out of necessity. Long ago I learned to bear through worse names than sickly.” She set her mouth in a thin line, looking away from him. He watched, and wondered what memory took her as her eyes focused once more. She gathered herself. “I am not slighted in the least," she assured him, "and you throwing a fit on my behalf will do nothing more than enforce the image of a child, dependent on the help of others, that your people already hold of me.”

Caranthir still squared his jaw, but he saw the wisdom in her words. He laid his anger aside – for the moment, at least.

Haleth looked back to him, and the blue of her eyes was alight as with deep thought. Her eyes narrowed in consideration, looking at him as if weighing him on a scale.

Caranthir,” she said his name slowly, slurring out the syllables with a careful tongue. Her voice was warmer, deeper, than most of the elven women he knew, and he blinked for a moment, taken aback by the way the timbre seemed to settle deep within him, next to his bones. “Yours is a Sindarin name, is it not?”

. . . ah.

He swallowed, wary of answering her when he knew the question she would next ask. “Yes, it is,” he answered though, unable to say anything else.

“And yet, Sindarin is not your mother-tongue,” she reasoned out loud. “And so, I have to ask – what was your name before? What were you called in the land of your birth?”

Her eyes were almost eager, he thought. There was true curiosity there, and yet, he hesitated. There was a story to share with every name, and as much as he had told her as of late, he did not think . . .

Thankfully, he was saved from having to answer by a shadow coming over their place on the shore – cast by a page, just arrived from the path that led back to the fortress. Caranthir raised a brow at the young elf, who bowed in apology for his interruption before saying, “My lord, the delegation from Ered Luin has arrived earlier than expected.”

“Rathsvith?” Caranthir asked, surprised. “They were not to be here until after the new moon.” He glanced at the sky, even though the sun still hid Ithil's light.

“The Naugrim said that they were met with clear roads, which hurried their travels along,” the page explained. “Rathsvith apologizes for any inconvenience he has caused you, and says that he waits upon your graciousness as a host.”

Caranthir snorted. “So the dwarf says.” He sighed, running a hand though his hair. There were a hundred and one ways to insult a Dwarf, and playing a poor host – no matter how unexpected – was highest upon that list. He did not need one more thing going wrong with these talks – not after the strained note their last time meeting had ended on,

He was, he thought in annoyance, being tested. Rathsvith was becoming wily in his elder years, Caranthir thought. Wily indeed.

“Tell him I come forthwith,” Caranthir gave the only answer he could. The page bowed in reply, and turned back the way he had came.

Caranthir glanced to Haleth, and saw where she had watched the exchange with curious eyes.

“Part of my settlement here is not just for my place in the leaguer,” Caranthir explained as he got to his feet. He climbed down the rocks to the path below with ease, but when he turned to give Haleth a hand, she had already taken another path down, needing not of his help. He raised a brow as she passed him by. “Here I protect the dwarf-roads from Ered Luin. This far North, Morgoth's creatures try to be clever by sneaking into Beleriand through the mountain ways, and the Naugrim's trade suffers for it. So, both Belegost and Nogrod look to us for supplies, food, and protection, while we gain both gold and gifts of arms enough to fund and build our defenses and armies all across the north – along with the promise of men to fight if ever this stalemate shall escalate into outright war. Dwarves are highly territorial, and fearsome to behold when protecting their own - Maedhros is counting upon their support when the time comes.”

Haleth nodded as he spoke, listening carefully to his every word. She had a mind made for the moving of pieces on a board, and her insights grew wise and wiser still the longer she learned to bear her mantle of leadership. Upon first arriving at the fortress, she had been wide eyed and amazed to see the maps that graced the walls and tables of his council-rooms - shocked, even, to see the scope and breadth of the land her people her people had stumbled into. He had promised to have her copies made in the future, and already his scribes were hard at work reproducing them. For a mind of so few years, she was all too eager to learn all she could in the time she had, and there was something . . . refreshing about the insatiable minds of Men . . . something refreshing indeed.

Naugrim, I heard you say?” Haleth puzzled out the Sindarin term. “Stunted ones?”

“Yes,” he answered. “Dwarves, as you would call them.”

Her brow furrowed as they turned to head back down the path. To the east of the lake were the first peaks of the Blue Mountains, the tallest of which was Renir - where they had built their fortress into the mountainside. “Naugrim,” she shaped the name. “ . . . do the Dwarves mind you calling them stunted?”

“They have never told me otherwise,” he answered, unsure of where she was going with her words. “And it is the truth, at that.”

She raised a brow, coming to a halt on the path so as to treat him with a piercing glance. “And yet, Engwar is an insult to your ears?”

He stopped and looked back at her, curious as to how he had unwittingly sparked her ire. “I do not understand what you are trying to say,” he admitted frankly.

Engwar is as true a name as Naugrim,” she reasoned, holding first one, and then two hands out and level with each other - as if she held each name in her palms, and was weighing them. “I am as prone to sickness and death as a Dwarf is small in stature – and both are through design of the One himself. How is one name an insult while the other is not?”

He blinked at her words, caught. He . . . he had never thought about it like that before. He felt his face flush at her words, snared as he was.

“I do not mean to give counsel,” she amended upon seeing his look. She started down the path again, waiting until he came to walk at her side to pick up her pace. “I simply wanted to give you something to think on.”

Caranthir was silent for a moment, his thoughts swimming as they continued on towards the fortress. It was just different, he wanted to protest. The Naugrim were coarse; ill-tempered and ill-mannered, unlovely to the eye and unfortunately necessary for the Noldor's hold on the mountains. Mankind was . . .

Did not he too think the sons of Men weak and sickly before aiding Haleth and her people? Plain of face and wanting for strength in arms, multiplying like insects and dying much the same - taken all too easily by too many toils to name. Had not his opinions of mortal-kind been both arrogant and far from the truth?

Still . . . this was different, he wanted to protest. It was not the same, and yet . . .

Gonnhirrim, they are also called,” he said at long last, forcing the little used title from his tongue as one would expunge an unpleasant taste. “Or, the Dwarves call themselves Khazad in their own tongue.”

“Masters of stone,” Haleth translated the Sindarin with a pleased nod of her head. “Yes, I find that much more agreeable.”

“And they are, at that,” he had to give, his every word grudging from his tongue. “I almost wish that my father had survived the Battle under Stars to meet their kind - he would have been fascinated by their ways. For all of the unlovliness of their appearance and the crudeness of their manners, they are truly Aulë's children, and blessed in their craft and works of hand.”

A moment passed as she appraised his words. “Do not speak as if it pains you so,” she said wryly, amusement sparking in her eyes – as if he was a young boy, earning her fondness for the childish shape of his thoughts.

He set his jaw, suddenly frustrated. “We have a mutually benefiting relationship, and we leave it at that. The Dwarves have as little love for my kind as I do for theirs, and we do not hide behind false pretenses.”

Her brow rose higher on her face, but she did not comment on his annoyance. Instead, a small, soft smile touched her mouth – a young woman's smile, sparkling and full of joy, so much so that he nearly missed a stride upon seeing it.

“I am excited to meet their kind,” she said in a small voice, as if hesitant to make the admittance. She seemed younger to him then, nearly child-like in her excitement. “My grandfather knew the aid of a scouting party of Dwarves when my people crossed the mountains, and he had such tales . . . They were of great help to my people,” Haleth explained as they walked through the gates, into the courtyard beyond, where dozens of Elves passed to and fro on a dozen different tasks. “We were struggling to find our way, and would have wandered lost in the peaks if not for their guidance. They showed to us our path, and raised our spirits with silly, heartfelt songs. My grandfather spoke at length about their ease of laughter, their love for food and drink and craft.”
 
Caranthir was still silent, setting his jaw as she spoke. Though her words were meant to soften his face, they only seemed to harden something within him - a curiously green sensation, growing all the more so as she spoke of another aiding her kindred with softness in her eyes and fondness in her words.

“Better did the Dwarves help us than your folk in Ossiriand,” she pointed out. “The Green-elves wanted nothing to do with my people, watching us only to ensure that we crossed not into their lands. It was not until we met those from Balan's house that we learned that the Elves were to be our allies – once we passed from the river-lands, that was. It was not until I encountered your aid that I believed their words to be true, however - for I was never given reason to believe otherwise.”

He was silent, unable to say anything when her words were true. He set his mouth, unable to do anything else.

“I am sorry if my words trouble you,” Haleth said, speaking almost carefully – an odd occurrence, he thought, he having long become used to her speech both sharp and cutting.

“Never fear speaking frankly to me,” he waved her concerns away, forcing his own ire to soften. “You have never cared about my pride before, good lady. Why start now?”

“I have never cared about your pride, it is true,” she said. She bit her lip, looking down before looking up again, meeting his eyes almost anxiously. “And yet . . .” she faltered, unsure of how to shape her thoughts. She sighed, running a hand to smooth back the loose strands that had fallen from her braid. A shadow fell over her face as they turned indoors, hiding her away from the sun. “I do not care about your pride, but you . . . you are an ally and a . . . the word friend sounds wrong, but it is true. I would not speak ill of you or yours if I could help it.”

That quickly, the wound inflicted by her words healed over. He smiled again, assuaged.

“I understand,” he said, freeing her from her discomfort. They had come to an intersection in the halls, her rooms laying down one path and his down the other. She stopped, looking up at him as if to make sure he spoke the truth, before nodding - satisfied. “And you will be able to form your own opinions soon enough. I will meet you here when you are ready, and we will go down together.”

Haleth gave her assent to his words, and after giving him a half smile in reply, she turned down the hall. She did not look back at him, and he in turn watched her until he could no more.

Though he would have wished not to, he thought about what she said the whole of the time he readied himself to greet his guests. After so many days on the road, it was odd to deck himself in ornate dress once more – donning robes in a rich brocade of midnight blue and black, and placing a heavy cloak of silver and black about his shoulders. The cloak was fastened by a large clasp, shaped like the star of Fëanor, settling large and eye-catching on his chest. The crest was Curufin's work; dazzling for its elegant simplicity, as most of his brother's wares were. He braided his hair more elaborately than the sensible styles he had been favoring the last few months, and set his silver circlet about his brow with a careful hand. When he glanced at himself in the looking glass, a stranger seemed to look back at him - one glowing with the light of Fëanorian gems, all gifts from his father before Fëanor had ever thought to make his Silmarils. In those early days, Fëanor had delighted in crafting for his family and the elves of Aman rather than for selfish gain. Fëanor had been eager to create wares that matched each of his children in unique settings, always trying to outdo himself with one piece after another.

Caranthir sighed with old memories and turned away, caring little for the rings he wore but for the impact they would have on the Dwarves he sought to entertain. He had given many of his father's treasures away already, all for the awe of the Dwarf-smiths as they sought to unravel Fëanor's secrets. It was an awe he shared but for little, for each seemingly magical jewel from his father's hand was worth the same to him as a smooth stone from the bottom of the riverbed. The Silmarils too would be, were it not for his vow of tongue - but that was something he refused to think about then.
 
His thoughts were settling in a dark place, he knew. At the realization, he struggled to pick himself up. Normally, when such thoughts plagued him, he would sit alone with a skin of wine and brood until the sun rose with a new day - but he had not of that luxury that night. Instead, he forced him thoughts to turn to lighter things - elsewise his thin mood would do but little to cover over his temper when he needed to present himself as a calm and gracious host. Mentally gathering himself, he prepared for the hours to come, and stepped into the corridor beyond.
 
An hour after he parted from Haleth, he was ready to join her again. He only waited for a minute or so before she appeared – impressive, he thought, remembering both Curufin and Maglor complaining over how long it took their wives to ready themselves for any sort of formal occasion. Nerdanel had carried no such silly habits about her, he remembered. She was normally as rushed as her husband when she threw down whatever project she had been working on for too long to gather her family into some semblance of presentablity before stumbling out into the public eye. For a moment, he had to do a double-take, certain that the woman he had left earlier was not the same who walked towards him now.

He had never seen Haleth in anything other than rough spun tunics and practical leggings. Better did he know how armor set upon her shoulders rather than the trappings of noble-woman. Helevorn had only a small number of elven women living there – for the land was hard and the days were long, at that – but the women who had taken Haleth under their wing found her a dress in a delicate, gauzy weave in a shade of dark forest green and the palest of greys. The dress brought out the undertones of green in her blue eyes, bright next to the tanned skin of her face. Instead of tightly braided and pulled back from her face, her hair was bushed out and fell in long curls over her shoulders. The wheat colored tresses waved like a field before the harvest, content and ripe in the breeze. He blinked for a moment, taken aback.

“Do I look presentable?” she asked uncertainly, catching his stare. She bit her lip, her hands fidgeting with the fine fabric of her draping sleeves as they never would have with a sword. At the unfamiliar hesitance from her, he felt something inside of him give a twisting that he could not name. “I would not have dressed so, but the lady – Lanwen, I believe her name was – tutted at me, and would not let me join you until she had her way with me.”

“You look as you always do,” he said, though his attempt at levity was a lie in the truest sense of the word. “And I daresay the Dwarves will not notice one way or the other.”

If her sleeves would have allowed her to do so without tangling, he believed that she would have struck him. As it was, the sweeping neckline of her gown (which he had not been staring at) revealed where her blush swept down from her face - in annoyance, rather than discomfort, he was pleased to see - and her breathing quickened with her ire. From experience, he took a step away from her, amused all the more so for the quick spark of her temper.

She rolled her eyes, but he saw where his words had worked to put her at ease. “You do not look terrible yourself,” she said, her eyes falling over his formal robes - for she too had only ever seen him dressed for the road, or clad in armor. The pink on her cheeks deepened as she said so – more flustered in acknowledging his appearance than she was with him commenting on her own.

He felt something warm fill him at her frank appraisal, and hesitated to call the emotion pride. He was aware of his own beauty, but it was . . . different, being thought so by her. “Dwarves tend to take insult when you are not dressed to your best to receive them,” he said dryly, trying to lighten the suddenly heavy air around him. “And a Dwarf taken to insult tends to keep account of the injury - you can believe me that.”

“Never be it that you would give a true reason for injury,” Haleth drawled.

“Indeed not,” he gave with a smirk, holding his arm out to her. “Never that.”

She snorted in amusement, but nonetheless wound her arm through his own, allowing him to lead her down the corridor. Her fingers were cool on his arm, and at her touch, his black mood from earlier seemed to calm. It brightened at the edges, like the night giving way to the dawn.

Curious and curiouser still, he thought, but had no further time to think on his rather mercurial state of mind as they came to the main halls of the fortress, where his people were already gathering, ready to greet their dwarven guests.

He could feel Haleth's gaze between his shoulder-blades as he turned away from her, coming forward to greet the two Dwarf-lords who walked towards him, their retinue staying a polite pace behind as their leaders gave their greetings.

“Welcome Rathsvith, welcome Nýr,” Caranthir gave a shallow bow, which was returned by each Dwarf in turn. “I must apologize for making you wait - I had not thought your arrival to be until the next moon, and we were unprepared.”

“The road was kind to us,” the first Dwarf said – Rathsvith, who had a mane of thick, dark brown hair, shot through with long locks of silver-grey. His beard was braided all the way down the front of his chest, the plaits studded by green emeralds and yellow sapphires. He was tall for a dwarf, his head nearly reaching Caranthir's elbow, and yet, whatever bearing he may have lost in height, he more than made up for with the sharpness of his gaze and the wicked cut of his tongue – that Caranthir knew from experience.

“Our quick travel was testament to the efforts of your own in clearing the mountain ways, Fëanorian,” the second Dwarf added. “Surely such a journey was an omen for good for our talks to come.” This dwarf was Nýr, who, as a son of Nogrod, had a thick, fiery orange beard, studded with copper and dark red garnets until he looked to be part of a flame himself. His head was shaven, and the back of his skull was adorned by a cap of copper links, stringing together great fire opals and gems of orange quartz. The crest of his skull was marked by runes tattooed onto his skin, each proclaiming his place amongst Nogrod's noble-dwarrows. As the mark of a Firebeard, his eyes were a pale shade of amber brown, nearly gold in colour, and at Caranthir's side, Haleth stepped forward in curiosity at seeing so. He could tell where she fought not to stare, not in rudeness, but in simple wonderment - what was so taken for granted by so many now a new and novel sight to her mortal years.

“There is no insult in being slow to welcome an unannounced guest,” Rathsvith said, sounding thoughtful as he spoke. Caranthir looked, and saw where he was studying Haleth with the same interest that she watched them with. “The true insult would be in not introducing us to the guest you already host. A daughter of Men, do I espy, or do my eyes too give way with my age? ”

“Your eyes do you credit, Lord-dwarf,” Caranthir took a step back, allowing the Dwarf-lords to better look at the human woman. “My lady Haleth, may I present to you Rathsvith, son of Regin, of the Broadbeams of Belegost. With him is Nýr, son of Nýrath, of the Firebeards of Nogrod. My lords, this is the Lady Haleth, daughter of Haldad, Chieftess of the Haladin.”

“My opinion of you has risen, Lord-elf, if such a maiden agrees to keep company with you,” Rathsvith stepped forward to boldly greet Haleth with a kiss to the back of her hand, smiling up at her from underneath his beard. “Greetings, my lady. It is an honor to meet the Chieftess of the Haladin.”

“The honor is mine, lord Gonnhirrim,” Haleth dipped in a careful courtesy, so practiced that only Caranthir could see the awkwardness in the motion for her.

“Gonnhirrim?” Rathsvith gave with a laugh, delighted at the term. “Indeed, it is a woman with a silver tongue that the elf has found! You honor me, good lady, with your regard.”

“Be careful,” Caranthir warned, speaking in a stage voice to Haleth – which only amused Rathsvith all the more. “This one could charm a dragon from its horde.”

“I shall remember that,” Haleth said, a smile tugging upwards at her mouth.

“And happy should the dragon be, to bow before a son of Belegost!” Rathsvith gave with a warm rumble of laughter.

“And yet, dragon fire and other threats from the pits of the north are why we meet now,” Caranthir inclined his head, his voice dipping gravely with the true reason for their alliance. “My council was caught unaware, and yet, they could be ready to receive you within the hour if you wish to begin our talks. If you would rather prefer to rest from the road, it would be my honor to receive you in the great hall for supper, and then our talks could start upon the morrow.”

“Only an elf would suggest business before one is properly fed and settled,” Rathsvith waved a hand. “Your advisers may breathe easy – we will not make them scramble together on such a short notice. Tomorrow will be sufficient enough for tomorrow's dues.”

Caranthir inclined his head, and fought to relax his jaw, doing his best not to let his irritation show. Each generation of ambassadors from Ered Luin seemed to grow more and more bold with their words - and it was not always the best of things to mix with his temper. He bit his tongue, and gave another low bow, hiding the dark flashing in his eyes.

“If you would care to follow me, then,” he gestured to the corridor leading to the great hall, where the house staff had been quickly preparing to receive their guests – there was no greater force to eat one out of house and home than a delegation of Dwarves, after all, and they were prepared.

He was about to offer his arm to Haleth when the Broadbeam beat him to it. Flashing a charming smile, Rathsvith stepped to her side, and said, “And would the lady bless me with the honor of her company?”

Haleth looked to him, raising a brow in amusement at the gentleman's gesture from the dwarf. She gave a half bow this time, rather than curtseying – the movement natural to her - and accepted Rathsvith's invitation. “The honor would me mine, Lord-dwarf.”

“Indeed, Mahal has already smiled upon these talks, then!” Rathsvith said in delight. He was not tall enough to walk arm in arm with her; instead, he lifted his arm and Haleth rested her hand on the bracer that covered his forearm. It was awkward, but she seemed only to be all the more amused for the dwarf's ease and charisma as he met their difference head-on.

Caranthir fell into step behind them as they all turned to follow the steward to the great hall, and kept his thoughts to himself.

Dinner was a lavish affair. Ever loud in both their tempers and their praises, the Dwarves complimented each round of the feast as it came. If Aulë was their Maker, then his bride was their provider, and they toasted Yavanna loudly and gratefully with the start of each course, raising their goblets in a sloppy cheer, each dwarf clicking glasses with the other before starting in again. Haleth, long used to rations and simple fare, had been done after the first course, and she watched the vivacious chatter and indulgence around her with barely restrained amusement and fascination both.

While Rathsvith was sat at his right, Nýr was sat at his left, and Haleth next to him. The Firebeard turned every charm on the human woman, and even though Haleth was normally quite solemn and grave, he made her laugh more than once – a full, bright laughter that Caranthir looked over upon hearing. He . . . he had never heard her laugh, he could only think - not like that, at least. Not breathless and easy, like the girl she never had a chance to be.

When the last course at last passed, and even the Dwarves declared that they could eat no more, Nýr rose to his feet and formally asked Haleth to dance with him. The minstrels, who had been playing softly throughout the meal, saw their intention, and picked up a lively reel in reply – inviting any and all to come and pick up their feet. All finished some time ago, Caranthir's people were quick to stand and join in as the dancing begun. The Dwarves, having no women amongst their party, stood and paired off with each other – caring not for the gender of their partner so much for the joy of dancing, used as they were to the uneven stack of the sexes between them.

Haleth was not graceful, not in the traditional sense of the word. There was no delicate sway to her movements, but rather, a strength and surity of motion that he had witnessed her use with a sword and bow both. She picked up her skirts and spun, and the torchlight turned her hair to a shade of warm amber as it flew around her in an unrestrained wave. She had to crouch awkwardly to allow Nýr to lead her through the dance, but she did so with a smile and not a care as to the rather silly picture they presented. She looked happy, Caranthir could not help but think – and she was transformed for it.

Nýr stared up at Haleth the whole time, laughing with his deep, booming voice as he boasted aloud of having the most enchanting maiden in the room as his partner. Haleth flushed at the words, and that flush more than anything had Caranthir brooding in his seat. He refused the welcoming eyes of the few elven women there – as he always did, for the headache that came from an unwed prince of the Noldor choosing a partner to dance with was not worth the dance itself – content to keep to his place and watch. He let his eyes follow the flash of gold and copper in her hair . . . the play of the firelight on her skin . . . the way her dress spun about her body as Nýr led her through the reel, and found that he was . . .

. . . he was jealous.

He was . . . jealous, he realized with a shock.   
 
Jealous.

So unfamiliar was the emotion that he had to take a moment to stop and examine it. He turned the feeling over to deign its shape and form, as novel as it was to him – snaring at his skin and stiffening his every bone as he watched her and the Dwarf with eyes that were increasingly dark and darker still.

He was . . . jealous of the Dwarf in his place. Nýr was smiling with her, dancing with her, and Caranthir had an uncomfortable moment where he realized that he wanted her to smile like that for him. He wanted to hold her hand and lead her though the reel, spinning and breathless and trusting him to show her the unfamiliar steps until a slower song began and he could -

“You, Master-elf, are quite smitten.”

Caranthir blinked, startled from his thoughts by the voice speaking from next to him. Rathsvith had not stood to join the revelries, instead sitting with a goblet of wine in his hand and observing with a jovial smile. Caranthir looked, and found himself noticing the thick strands of grey in his beard, the etched wrinkles about his brow, and realized then that Rathsvith danced less and less with each visit. He frowned as he tried to recall how long Rathsvith had been the spokesman of his people, but he found his memory hazy – for constantly moving was the line of death and birth before him, so much so that he had ceased to pay it much attention over the centuries.

And Rathsvith had the years of a dwarf, at that . . . which were almost double the years of mankind. Double, which meant . . .
 
Caranthir squared his jaw, and pushed those thoughts away, liking them but little.

“I know naught of what you speak, Rathsvith, ” Caranthir said before taking a swallow of his own wine, welcoming the bite that came with the dark vintage.

“Of course you do not,” Rathsvith waved a hand. There was something pointed about his gaze then – sharp, even - and Caranthir looked on him in warning, silently demanding that he keep his place.

Of course, he was ignored. “I do not see why you ignore what is before your eyes,” Rathsvith shrugged. “It is a strong match. A good match.”

“You are forward, Dwarf,” Caranthir let his voice harden, looking at his guest pointedly as he did so. The problem with Dwarves as one's neighbors was also a blessing – they were honest and straight-forward in all things, even when it pertained to things one would rather keep in silence. “You speak when it is not your place to say.”

“Do I?” Rathsvith returned, tilting his head as if he could not understand why his words were wrongly placed. “Ah yes, I forgot – the silly games that are played by those with too many years! I should have known better.”

Caranthir's eyes narrowed, the annoyance that had been flickering underneath his mask of host and ally for the night rising like a flame in his gaze. It mixed with the jealousy that had been turning in his stomach as his jaw fixed in distaste.

And yet, Rathsvith held up a hand, preventing him from speaking. “A moment, before you let your tongue get away from you, and I will then reconsider my generous words. It is not the way of your kind to speak of the obvious, and yet, I am feeling gracious tonight - so I will give you my wisdom, free of coin, even!”

“Free of coin?” Caranthir repeated, stunned by the audacity of the Dwarf before him.

“Indeed,” Rathsvith inclined his head. “We do not often speak of the ways of our kind beyond our own halls, but it seems as if you are in want of counsel, so I will speak. You see, for every woman Mahal sees fit to bless us with, there are three men to match. Our woman-folk are honored for this reason – revered, even – for they are the givers of life, and yet, they are few and far between. As they are few in number, even the lowest born dwarrowdam will have her pick of suitors – suitors who will bend over backwards to prove themselves worthy of being both husband and father when the time comes.”

Rathsvith paused, making sure that he held his attention as he spoke. “I am not married simply because I did not try hard enough with the woman I had thought myself to love. Only time, and her choosing another, more worthy suitor, showed to me both the error of my ways and the depths of my affections. It is a hard lesson to learn, a bitter potion to swallow – and this I can say with experience on my side, as a warning to others. ”

“As touching as that is,” Caranthir said carefully, “I see not the relevance in you passing this tale on to me.”

“Do you not?” Rathsvith returned. “I am saying, Lord-elf, that your lady will not come to you. You must go to her, and prove yourself worthy of your suit.”

Caranthir snorted at the thought of Haleth accepting a courtship – any courtship. The idea of her being wooed with gifts and flowered words . . . it was something that he could not wrap his mind around, no matter how hard he tried.

“She needs no one,” he replied, his voice softer than he would have wished it to be – the wrong answer, he knew a moment after giving it. For rather than dismissing the Dwarf and his unwanted counsel, he had accepted it through failing to demand Rathsvith's silence on the subject – the only way the dwarf would have honored his wish not to speak of the matter.

“Does she not?” Rathsvith questioned. “She is a strong one, it is true.”

“And stronger still for the lack of a man at her side,” Caranthir said dryly. “You do not know her, but let me state the fact of that, at the very least.”

The train of conversation had caused an unsettled feeling to drop in the pit of his stomach. It was silly to even think about this – for his interest in the human woman was as an ally and tentative friend, that was all. It would not have been fair to her for him to look at her in any other way. It would have been dishonorable, even – for the last thing he wanted her to think was that he aided her out of any sort of deeper interest on his part. Even that was impossible, he thought next - for his people did not indulge in frivolous dalliances as some Men were known to do, and she was in no way equipped to handle the forever he would demand of a life's partner. She would be unable to return it, constrained by both her mortality and her place in leading her people, at that.

Forever, he thought, and the single word seemed to be as a lance through the deep places of his being. It was a silly thought, he gave as he brushed it aside. He had known Haleth for a mere handful of days. She was but a child to him – a determined child who simply needed his help to find her own feet underneath her. And then she would be gone – gone due to the hands of time and her own strength, and he would still be there . . . there as he always was.

A child, and yet . . .

He found his eyes slipping to her from across the dancing couples. She was still smiling – laughing at something Nýr said, and the warm light from the torches caught in her eyes, making them shine. Though she was plain in comparison to the fair elvish faces around her, he found something almost . . . pretty about her then, something novel about the freckles on her skin and the mortal glow burning in her eyes, brightening them more than the torchlight ever could.

Something uncomfortable slipped through him, unwanted and unlooked for. In frustration, he pushed those feelings aside.

“Perhaps she needs no one, it is true,” Rathsvith gave, following the path his eyes had taken with something considering in his gaze. His words were almost gentle - as gentle as a dwarf could be, at least. “And yet, is it the same as you need no one?” He let his question settle before saying, “Simply think on my words, Fëanorian. I will let them lay, and say no more on the matter. Besides,” Rathsvith reached over the clap him on the back, “she is not quite to my taste, anyway. There is not nearly enough hair about her chin, and she is much too thin at her waist. And that unnatural height! Whatever was the One thinking with that?!” He laughed, full and jovial with his saying so, and as hard as Caranthir tried to hold onto his ire, he could not quite find it within him.

Instead, he sat there and brooded about the dwarf's words, as much as he would have liked to pretend that they meant nothing to him.

The feasting lasted long into the night – as it often did with dwarvish company. After dancing, Haleth played both dice and cards with his guests, and somewhere along the line a drinking game was started. He escorted her back to her guest's rooms early in the morning, she stumbling and still smiling – but proud of the fact that the Dwarves she faced were faring little better than she.
 
Haleth let him offer her an arm to lean on, unsteady as she was on her feet. Her weight was slight against him, and it was easy to hold her up.

He left her, and saw her but little the next day when he had the meetings with the Dwarves to see to. The day after, he found her where she was readying to return to her people. Haleth had been gone for too long already, and was growing restless the longer she stayed still in once place. She had rested and regained her strength, and now it was time for her to return home.

The height of the summer was already upon them, and soon it would be time for the fall and the harvest season. She would have her people moved before the weather turned cold; settled and building before the snows hit with the full brunt of winter's might. There was sense in her plan, and yet he felt an odd pang in her chest as he watched her prepare her horse for the journey. He had spent nearly every day for the past four months either traveling alongside her, or in her company and counsel and he would . . . he would miss her.

His talks with the Dwarves would prevent him from accompanying her personally, but she did allow him to appoint a pair of his men to act as a guide for her. This time, she did not try to argue with him, and he was grateful for the small blessing in that.

Already, he was calculating when he could get away again to visit her. The Dwarves would keep him busy until the end of the summer, upon which the autumn would be upon him with the harvest and preparing their stores for the winter. The winter itself would make the mountains treacherous to pass, but after . . .

Perhaps, in the spring, he thought. He could visit Estolad with goods and supplies for the newly founded settlement - in the interest of friendship and continuing the positive relations between all who were toiling underneath Morgoth's yoke. Estolad was not so deep into the Ambrussa's lands that he could not do so underneath the guise of visiting kin; or hunting, even, and . . .

He was placing too much thought into this, a part of him warned as he stepped into the stables. Much too much thought, and yet . . .

Haleth was humming as she worked, soothing her chestnut gelding with easy, nonsense sounds that dipped into the tongue of Men when she used any at all. He spent a moment in silence, content with just watching her from outside the stall. She once again wore a cream colored tunic and dark brown leggings, and her hair was pulled back from her face in a single, thick braid. She wore neither vest or jerkin, there were no bracers about her forearms - only a simple leather belt to hold her tunic against her waist in deference to the heat that was building upon the air. The summer heat pressed stray strands of her braid against her neck and temples with the humidity, but her eyes were bright with the warmth of the stables. As bright as . . .

A flash of silver caught his eye as she ran a comb through the gelding's tail. She wore a ring upon her hand, he saw - a band made by three knotted strands of silver, with an elegantly set blue stone within the face. He blinked when he realized what he was seeing – an instant respect for the craftsmanship of the ring thrumming inside of him, long left over from his father's lessons of old.

“Be careful to keep that trinket hidden on your journey,” Caranthir said into the silence. “You wear a prince's ransom upon your finger.”

Haleth looked up at his voice, not having noticed his arrival until then. While she did not smile in greeting, something about her face softened upon seeing him. “This?” she asked, flexing her hand to better display the ring. “It is rather pretty, I will grant you that.”

“It is more than that,” Caranthir came into the stall to stand next to her, reaching into the bucket to pick out a curry comb. He started to work on grooming the horse's coat with the ease of many years, watching as the gelding's ears flickered back in greeting. While he did not have Celegorm's gift with the beasts of the earth, he could feel the warmth of the animal's soul - content and happy as he was tended to. “The band you wear is made of ever-silver. Mithril, we call it, one of the most precious metals the Dwarves have in their possession to give. It is an ore mined by their kin in the mountains far to the east, and very hard to come by - you must have made quite the impression to earn such a token of their regard.”

Haleth looked down at the band again, blinking as she reevaluated the gift. Her mouth pursed in thought, suddenly wary of the richness of the gift as she moved to take the ring off.

“No,” he said, reaching out to close her hand over the ring, stilling her. “Such a gift is made to be worn – and you would give insult to your gifter if you did not do so. Dwarves appreciate the process of craft itself over the richness of the wares they create, and their gifts are meant to be worn.” He released her hand, and turned towards the horse again. Her fingers were very cool, he thought, even in the warmth of the stables around them.

“It should merely be hidden on the road, then?” Haleth remarked wryly, twisting the band on her finger almost thoughtfully.

“Indeed,” Caranthir gave with a smile. “Wear it openly amongst your people. Who knows - perhaps, one day, it will be an heirloom of your house, and your descendants will tell the tale of how Haleth Haldad's daughter charmed even the Dwarf-lords into surrendering their treasures.”

“They are a good folk,” Haleth said, looking down to hide the flush of her cheeks, “Coarse but sturdy . . . honest, with their own sort of wisdom . . . I enjoyed meeting them very much.”

“You did me quite the favor,” Caranthir admitted ruefully. “The Gonnhirrim are never too eager to meet with me, nor I with they, and this is the lightest spirits have been between our kinds in decades. The talks will go well for both sides, I foresee, and I have you to thank for that . . . To think that I once had such arrogance to think that I only had wisdoms to impart to you - and nothing to learn in return.”

Her smile was pleased, even as she ducked down to hide it. She shrugged her shoulders, trading her comb for a hoof-pick next. She paid the horse more attention than him, making a soothing sound in the back of her throat as she ran her hands down the animal's hind leg, coaxing the gelding into lifting his hoof for her. “I treat all equally whenever I can,” she said simply, even as she concentrated on her work. “Sometimes it creates a friend . . . and other times, not so much.”

“A human farmer . . . an Elf-lord . . . a Dwarf-smith? Yes, I have noticed your inability to rise to the hubris of others,” Caranthir admitted wryly.

“What you must have thought of me during these months,” Haleth shook her head, a note of abashment coloring the end of her words. “I have treated you downright poorly at times.”

He shrugged. “No less than I deserved . . .” he muttered, thoughtful as he ran the brush in absent circles over the horse's back. He felt a tightening in his chest – for she had been as a breath of fresh air over those last few months. She spoke freely and frankly with him, caring not of his name and even less of his words when they turned harsh. Instead, she merely matched him in kind.

Caranthir paused in his motions, moving only when she waved him aside so that she could move on to the next hoof. In the silence that stretched between them, she started to hum again. Her voice was rough, not lovely, and yet . . . it was not unpleasant.

“Carnistir,” he surprised himself, dropping the name onto the air between them. “My name . . . it is Carnistir.”

Haleth looked up from her task, letting the gelding straighten his leg again. She blinked, taken aback. "Carnistir?" she repeated. Surprise brightened her voice, drawing it quick from her mouth, and yet, a part of him knew contentment in hearing his true name spoken - a name that had not been spoken by another mouth than his brothers' in centuries.
 
“That was my mother-name, at least," he went on the explain. "It is not so grand a name - given as it was for my unfortunately red complexion, of all things. My mother had red hair and the skin to match. I inherited her complexion and my father's black hair – and the contrast is stark, I am told, when I am moved to any sort of feeling; temper, especially, which I inherited in spades from each.”

Haleth snorted, amused. “I had noticed, a time or two, but I was not going to say anything,” she teased, looking at him in consideration as she did so. “A mother-name, you say? You are given two names, then?”

“In Aman, yes, it was tradition to be named by both parents,” he confirmed. “Sometimes a third name is earned as one grows – normally, it is one gifted by others. And yet, a mother's name is normally given with insight for her child's future, and used first and foremost.”

“Your mother saw your future for temper tantrums, then?” Haleth asked playfully, her eyes sparkling. “Your naming traditions are not particularly kind, in your case.”

More than she knew, he thought. And yet, he resigned himself to pushing forward.

“I believe that she sought to sooth the name my father gave me with a name of levity. There was a kindness in her doing so, believe it or not.” Caranthir was silent for a moment, discomfort prickling at his skin. He set his jaw, having reached the part of the conversation he had wished to avoid from the beginning. He was not as fortunate as his brothers in the names Nerdanel gave - Maitimo, named for his beautiful form; Makalaurë for his golden voice; Tyelkormo for his speed and agility – in both body and temper; Atarinkë, Curufin was named for his uncanny resemblance to their father in both face and talents. While he was not as unfortunate as the twins in their naming, at least, he . . .

“What did your father name you?” Haleth asked, her voice tentative as she did so.

“Morifinwë,” he said after a moment. “Each of us have Finwë worked into our father-name – it is an almost obnoxious trend in the names of Finwë's house, and the reason that none of my brothers but for Curufin prefer their father-names. And yet, he bears our father's own name - as he was the heir of Fëanor's heart, if not in birth. It is a mark of pride for him, even if many thought it to be disrespectful to my oldest brother – and yet, that is half of the appeal for Curufin.”

He was silent for a moment, setting his jaw as his memories took him. He could still clearly picture the look on Maedhros' face when Fëanor gave his fifth son his own father-name – an honor which should have gone to his firstborn. Maedhros had gone white before carefully schooling his expression to stillness, giving none of his thoughts away. It was common knowledge to all that Maedhros was not the son of the forge Fëanor had wished for, and when Aulë himself had placed his hand to Nerdanel's pregnant stomach and declared that this one was the child that Fëanor had long waited for . . .

Curufin's birth had left their mother exhausted in spirit, and many whispered that Fëanor's fifth son was so much like his father because Nerdanel had nothing left to give to a child's soul. The healers had cautioned against another child, and, as a result, the twins had almost killed her to bear. Such a thing was an unthinkable trial for any elven woman – and the trauma of bringing her youngest sons into the world left Nerdanel never quite the same. He could still remember that awful day if he but closed his eyes . . . he remembered the screams, and the furious efforts of the midwifes as they struggled to bring the twins into the world. He remembered his father praying – Fëanor, who saw the Valar's right to rule as laughable, praying as if it was his own soul he sought to deliver. Even then, the only name Fëanor would beseech was Námo – muttering underneath his breath and begging the Lord of Souls to spare his wife, to show mercy where he had already taken her – for this again would be his fault . . . always his fault.

After Nerdanel's recovery, she had refused to give the twins separate names, calling them both Ambarussa for the shared soul between them . . . Fëanor had refused to acknowledge his wife's insights, and stubbornly named the twins separately – even as they blinked at him as one, refusing to cry or gurgle out nonsense words as babies would, instead just staring . . . Ever did they stare, silent and acknowledging none but the other in the world - and still was it so for Amrod and Amras.
 
The memories turned at his stomach then. At that point in time, Maedhros practically lived at the court, and Maglor stayed all but permanently at the musician's schools in Alqualondë, courting his Lindar maid with stars in his eyes and a lovestruck song to his mouth. Celegorm had been apprenticing underneath Oromë as he learned the wild and its ways from the huntsman of the Valar himself. Curufin, both in jealousy over no longer being the youngest son and missing his favorite in Celegorm, refused to lift a finger to help him with the twins. Nerdanel was distant and lifeless for so long after the birth of the Ambarussa, and Fëanor ignored both his wife and his youngest sons, as if by doing so he could ignore that such chasms in his family existed. And so, he had . . .

He breathed in deep, and let his breath out slow.

Haleth was patient, easily espying the play of memory behind his eyes. He had told her enough of his family – more than he ever had any other - and he felt his jaw tremble as he felt the urge to spill even more to her . . . This, the shadows on the bright spirits of his family; the parts even they themselves did not speak of, as if giving their innermost doubts and fears words aloud would make them real . . . His family had never been quite right; even before the Darkening, even before their Oath. Yet, they were still his family, and he loved them dearly . . . loved them all to death and Valar defying deeds, and even the Everlasting Darkness beyond. He . . .
 
“Morifinwë?” Haleth broke gently into his musings, seeing as his face darkened. She stood next to him, and while she did not touch him, she soothed down the horse's fur with a soft brush where his was still, as if ready to provide him comfort for that which even she did not understand. “The Finwë is explained to me, and yet . . .”

“Moryo,” Caranthir dropped the name from his tongue, blurting it out as if by doing so he could rid its meaning as well. “It means dark . . . black . . . Those onlooking said that Fëanor named me after staring long and hard into my eyes . . . he did not blink, taken as he was by some vision of my future. He named me on a whisper before he came back to himself - but then, he could not pull the name away once given. Later, he would laugh and tell me that he did so for my hair, and yet, that is not so special a trait amongst my family . . . I could not help but wonder . . . what did he see? What insight did he glean about my soul to name me so . . . I have never received an explanation, and yet, I never pushed for one. I never wanted to know.”

Haleth was silent for a long moment. Where, at first, the more fey ways of the elves had been an endless source of curiosity for her – and even dubious disbelief – now she accepted what he said without a word. Her eyes narrowed, and flashed with anger, even, before the emotion was tucked away. He did not see pity there, for which he was grateful . . . but there was something soft in her expression. Her hand on the horse stilled in its caress, stopping very near to his.

“Carnistir,” she said after a moment . . . a long moment. “It suits you.”

“My red face suits me?” he returned, raising a brow as he moved the curry comb again. She knocked her brush into his, scowling playfully. But even as she did so, there was something soft in her eyes – she understood what it had cost him to say those words aloud. She understood, and she accepted yet another edge of his.

“Perfectly so,” she tilted her head as if in challenge. “I would not have you any other way.”

He inhaled, and let the breath out slowly.

“Carnistir,” she mused again, saying the name more to herself than to him. She nodded her head, as if making a decision before stepping away from him to finish grooming the horse. Once again, she started humming as she went about her task, carrying on as if nothing had been said – as if all was right and peaceful in the world. She hummed and tutted at the horse, and he simply stared after her, trying to define the curious sort of warmth that filled him in the wake of her acceptance.

After a moment, he stopped trying to define the restless spin of his thoughts. He simply closed his eyes, and listened to her work.

Chapter Text

 
Soul

There were times when her memory of her grandparents was hazy. She remembered best their love and light; such a light that it made their green isle of ever-summer grow as if it were a stolen piece of Valinor beyond, agleam with deathless splendor. And yet, those who lived there were mortal, caught in the thrall of time and held servant to its indomitable will. Each summer gave way to fall, and death would not be thwarted twice when it was natural to those of mortal days, when it was the Gift to his children the One claimed it to be.

Some would call Lúthien untouchable for her beauty; ethereal for her story and great her deeds of old. And yet, to Elwing, there was nothing more tangible than her grandmother and her love . . . There was nothing more solid than her grandfather and the rushing force of his life and living, like a tide beholden to the moon.

“What is this?” she remembered being a child in Beren's arms. She remembered touching the lines carved into his brow; the bird's feet seemingly stamped into the flesh at the corners of his eyes. White peppered his dark hair like snow.

“I am a Man, dear heart,” her grandfather's voice was deep; matching both the warmth in his eyes and the strange, prickly stubble blanketing his chin. “I am not of Elf-kind.”

Her finger moved to curiously trace the curved shape of his ear, and knew his mortality in name only . . . Man . . . mortal . . . both were terms she heard often, and yet . . .

“It means that I shall leave you someday,” Beren's voice was heavy. With a child's mind, she then assumed that time had done that also. “And yet, never shall I truly be gone, if you but remember me.”

What a silly thing to say, Elwing had thought as she pressed a kiss to her grandfather's cheek. His coarse skin tickled her mouth, and she had giggled, his strange words forgotten . . . for a time.

Later, Lúthien held her close, and answered her questions with a solemn weight to her eyes, matching the tired look of her husband. Did time touch her too? Elwing had wondered then. All of the stories said so, and yet, she could not tell . . .

“The soul is not in the flesh,” Lúthien whispered, tracing a finger down to rest over her heart, “but rather, in the heart. Remember that, child, and never shall you then know death.”

 

 

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.

The sea was a salty, clean scent on the air as the waves splashed up against the rocky shore. Upon the tall rocks, Eärendil sat, his brow creased in thought and his blonde hair dancing in the swift breeze from the ocean. Though Elwing did not care for the open expanse of the sea, she climbed up to sit next to her intended; seeing the weight of his thoughts within his eyes, feeling as they tugged against her spirit with their shape and spin.

She did not ask him what was wrong. She merely waited, until -

“Today, I met my father at the ship-yards,” Eärendil said. The sea-wind dried his eyes, but could not hide the tremble from his voice, “I went into his office, and he . . . he did not know my name for a moment. He did not remember me.”

She felt a weight sit upon her chest with his words, feeling his pain as her own. Tuor was mortal, and grew older still with each passing day. When first she had met the Ulmodil, he had been all golden hair and tanned skin, with clear blue-green eyes colored like tide pools and a heart to match an ocean storm . . . Now his hair was the colour of sand; his beard was peppered with white; and his eyes . . . they were milky, glazed, as if looking far away. There were times when she would see Idril when she thought she was alone; how she held her face in her hands and choked back silent sobs – for she took her love from stolen time, and soon . . .

“He did not know me,” Eärendil said again, as if by repeating the words, he could make sense of them. “I was as a stranger to him.”

Elwing swallowed as she imagined Eärendil turning old and grey; knowing her not in their old age, knowing their children not, and . . . It was a thought she could not fathom; she could not complete.

Their's was a choice, and she so dearly wished . . .

And yet, until then, she rested her head against his shoulder, and sighed. “The soul is in the heart . . . not the flesh,” she said, remembering Beren and his length of days . . . remembering Lúthien in the eve of mortality's might. “ . . . the same as your memory of him shall be.”

He did not say anything – for what could he say? Instead, he let her hold him, and listened to the waves as they roared.

 

 


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There were times when she looked at her husband, and he would blink before recognizing her. He would hesitate before his heart told his eyes her name, and he would then hold his arms open to welcome her close.

This eve was better than most evenings. Tuor greeted her without hesitating, and she sighed in contentment as she curled against her husband's side. Tuor's hands played absently in the long fall of her hair, his eyes lost where the sun died a glorious death of flames upon the horizon beyond.

“I am not as young as I used to be,” he whispered; to her or the ocean, she could not tell.

Her hand was resting on his chest. She poked the skin over his heart. “You are young here,” she said, forcing a levity to her voice that she did not feel.

“Idril,” Tour sighed.

“I married your heart, not your body,” Idril's mouth set, as if she were fighting a battle.

Tuor caught her hand, stilling her. “You do me a wound, wife,” he teased, and yet his voice was strained. He wished to talk about this, she knew. And yet . . .

“You are not so very old,” she whispered, her voice small.

“Old enough,” he said. He had to work to find his voice. “And I . . . I do not want to linger here and waste away . . . I did not know my son's name today, and I cannot imagine turning as a ghost in my own home . . . with every ageless eye mourning me even as I breathe.”

Her eyes closed against a pain. He looked west, seemingly taking strength from the sea-wind. “I . . . my heart pulls me with the tides,” he murmured. “They tease me with such promises . . .” he sighed. “Tell me again of Valinor again, dear one? I wish to hear . . . and hope.”

She rested her hand flat against his heart as she shared her childhood's memories, watching as her husband grasped to them like one drowning. She knew of the wish of his heart, and as much as she wished to stay . . .

Her husband's soul was still alive and strong, for the flesh surrounding it was but a shell. She would not give up her love until his last breath tore him from her, and not a moment before. This she vowed -

“Perhaps we should sail, one last time.”

- and let the sea take as a promise.

Chapter Text

Target

The first time Irissë was old enough to remember meeting Turkafinwë Tyelkormo, she slapped him.

He had deserved it, Irissë had thought darkly as a print of her hand bloomed on the tanned skin of his face. She had defeated him fairly – beating him in a foot race from the mouth of Indis' gardens to where a small, elegant bridge stretched over one of the ornate ponds in the back of her grandfather's palace. It was he who could not bear his loss with dignity; scrunching his face in a way that made his eyes squinty, and muttering out insults underneath his breath for her victory.

Irissë had slapped him for him calling her a cheater. She had pushed him in the pond for saying that, as a girl, her defeat should have been assured. Of course, he had sprang up from the green water to wrestle her from the bridge, and she got strands of water lilies tangled in her hair when she tried to dunk his head underneath the water. They were returned to their parents soaking wet and dripping pond-water onto the ornate tiled floor after Findekáno and Maitimo were sent to fetch them. Her brother had pulled leaves from her hair, trying to scold her with his words even as his eyes smiled in betrayal to his voice. Even still, he told her well done once their mother's back was turned. At his side, even Maitimo had looked satisfied for her manner of extracting vengeance on Tyelkormo once he wrought the story from his stuttering brother - the much younger elf looking rather pitiful indeed for Nerdanel's scolding.

Later, Anairë got her into the bath while sighing over the green stains that ruined her once white dress. Why do you insist on this color, daughter, if you inflict on me many pains to keep it clean? She was not as gentle as Findekáno had been when she combed the snarls from her hair, scolding her as to how a princess of the Noldor was to act in the house of their King. How a granddaughter should play in her grandfather's house with one of her cousins, her father had returned to his wife when he thought that she could not hear - even as her mother sighed in that way that said that she was exasperated, amused and cross all at once. Irissë knew that sigh well.

The next day, she explored the park beyond the palace once again. Her child's mind called the small stream a raging river, while her imagination turned the ornamental trees into the great and tangling forests of Middle-earth beyond the sea. She walked with a wooden stick in hand, pretending that she was a warrior-maiden protecting her people during the Great Journey. In her mind, she was one of the great heroines from the dawn of her people; renowned for her deeds of might and valor against the fell creatures of the Dark Lord.

It was then that she became aware of the sound of voices through the bushes. Curious, she came in closer - hearing the dull sound of wood striking wood, followed by the sound of a child's shout. Intrigued, she pushed closer to see . . .

Tyelkormo, her jaw set when she recognized his mane of white gold hair. He was crossing wooden swords with his youngest brother – whom Irissë did not know very well. She only knew Curufinwë as the baby of Finwë's house (finally taking the shared title from she and Artanis, who were born only a season apart), easily recognized by his long black hair and the strange fire burning in his eyes - the same as all of her half-uncle's sons had. Curious, she followed the crossing of sword on sword, her eyes following with something she refused to call greed.

Her father had said that such skills were worthless in deathless Aman as it was, calling them an insult to the ones who protected and sheltered them; who had called them to the West as friends in the eldest days. And yet, she could not help but turn towards the mock fight beyond, curious . . .

Irissë did not think that she made a sound, but she must have, for a moment later Tyelkormo's eyes were narrowing, and then he peered past the bushes to find -

“What are you doing here?” he asked crossly, the hand not holding his sword propped up on his hip. Behind him, Curufinwë peered curiously around his brother's arm, intrigued.

“I could ask the same of you,” Irissë challenged, coming out from the shade of the bushes to stand with her own hands propped on her hips.

“No one else is supposed to know,” Curufinwë ignored her in favor of tugging on his brother's sleeve - biting his lip and glancing beyond. “That's why Atar said that we were not supposed to practice here -”

“Silence, Curo,” Tyelkormo snapped at his brother, pushing him back a step. Curufinwë's mouth set in a thin, dangerous, line, and he took a step forward -

Irissë darted between the two, not wanting their meeting to deteriorate into blows. “It is not his fault,” she said, tossing her head imperiously. “I already knew.”

She did not, but -

“Oh yeah?” Tyelkormo challenged. “How?”

“My brother told me,” she said, hoping that that would be enough to dissuade him from questioning her further. It was true enough, Findekáno and Maitimo were always together – and if there was someone in her family who would know the secrets of Fëanáro's house . . .

“Turukáno?” Curufinwë blinked dubiously. “But I do not think he would -”

“Not Turvo, obviously,” Tyelkormo all but growled. “Findekáno.” He spat her brother's name on the ground as if it were a curse.

Tilting her head up, Irissë stood with her feet squared with her shoulders. She made a thin line of her mouth, and said, “It does not matter how I know,” in the haughtiest voice she could muster. “What matters is that I do know. Now, what are you going to do about it?”

Irissë glanced down at the wooden sword in his hand, letting her eyes rest in a meaningful pause. And -

Tyelkormo barked out a laugh, reminding her of a baying hound with the way his teeth flashed. “You . . . want to learn the sword?”

“As the price of my silence,” she confirmed, holding her nose up. He was staring at her as one would look at a bee in the honey pot. He stepped closer, as if thinking that his greater height and age would let him tower over her and cow her into submissiveness.

She stood up straighter underneath the heat of his regard, holding his gaze stubbornly with a glower of her own.

“Now, your answer?” she pressed him.

“Teach you?” Tyelkormo scoffed. “You are but a nís.”

“You have eyes that see. I congratulate you,” Irissë drawled sarcastically. “And yet, this nís pushed you into the pond yesterday – after beating you fair and square in a foot-race. What say you to that?”

Curufinwë gave a snort of laughter, and Tyelkormo turned his glare on his brother – who returned the look with one of his own.

“Are you afraid to show me?” she gave her challenge next. Curufinwë darted his gaze rapidly between them, drinking in their words as if to more accurately retell teach one to the rest of their brethren when first he could. “Are you afraid to be beaten by me again?”

Tyelkormo glanced from his brother to her, his face flushing at her accusation. “I am a son of Curufinwë Fëanáro,” he returned haughtily. “I fear nothing.”

“Well then,” she held up her wooden stick as if it were a true weapon. “What have you to fear from a nís holding a wooden sword? Please, cousin . . .” she dropped the line of steel from her voice to ask him truly, “Would you show me?”

Tyelkormo snorted – but there was something else in his glance now, as if he was trying not to smile. This close, she could see where there was more green than grey in his eyes – a curious combination, she thought. The dappled patterns the sunlight made through the trees danced over him when he walked over to where he and his brother had left their packs resting by a treetrunk. He picked up another wooden sword from the canvas flap, and then turned and tossed the sword to her. While she fumbled with catching it, she did not let it fall.

“If we are going to do this, we are going to do so properly, at least,” he sniffed. Irissë smiled, reevaluating her opinion of her cousin – ever so slightly, at least.

“Now,” she said, holding her sword in what she thought was a reasonably descent stance. “Where do we start?”



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.

As the years passed and their relationship grew, she found a friend where first she had thought such a thing hopeless. The daughters of the Noldor looked at the earth on her hands and the green smears on her gowns with odd gazes, as if she were a being apart from them. Better than embroidery and dancing did she enjoy riding and the wide open spaces beyond Tirion's marble walls. She enjoyed her fine gowns and twining elegant braids in her hair; but better did she prefer the sun warming and browning her skin, the smell of oiled leather to that of the gently perfumed ways of the court. Better for my daughter's happiness would she have been born to the Laiquendi of Lenwë's house, her father would tease her whenever her thoughts turned morose on the matter. And yet, then I would be deprived of her light, and so, I selfishly thank the Valar for the gift of her.

Such words could not help but lift her spirits. It did not matter, she thought whenever her mind wished to draw her down – Tyelkormo liked her just the way she was, and that was all that concerned her. Oh, he was still insufferable and arrogant, but she knew him to be more than that. While he was not soft underneath his rather harsh exterior, per say, he bore his own sort of gentleness. He could speak to the birds and feel the hearts and thoughts of animals the way she could hear words spoken aloud. She had once seen him nurse a tiny fawn to adulthood after he struck a doe he should not have during the hunt. That fawn was now a great white stag in the woods beyond Tirion, with a massive crown of antlers that was both graceful and humbling to look upon at once. When she thought of her cousin, she did not think of the harsh words and the fire in his eyes, but rather, his gentle fingers coaxing the tiny fawn in his lap to drink from a bottle. She thought of him singing on the path and the birds answering him - better was his soul known to the wild than it was to those of his own kind.

He enjoyed the challenge she presented, he said whenever she dared him to admit that he enjoyed her company. She forced him to run faster, ride harder, and aim truer than any of his own brothers. He was grateful to have some competition in Aman, at least, even if that competition was a girl. He was used to her swatting at him for such words, and now she rather thought that he did so on purpose, trying as he was to exact such a reaction from her.

Now, it was the spring of her fortieth year, and she was finally old enough to enter the Games for the first. It was whispered that the Vala Oromë was to attend the festivities that year, searching for a new apprentice to join his fold. When she had repeated the rumors to Tyelkormo, breathless and bubbling with excitement for her news, his look had turned serious in reply. She knew the wish of his heart, and she was happy for her friend – truly she was. Oromë would find no better pupil – and while Tyelkormo said that he would be honored for the Vala to look his way, she secretly thought that the blessing would be Oromë's, in turn.

For herself, she was merely happy to put to use the skills she had been learning. She made a good showing in the knife toss, and came in second to Artanis in the long race – which, to anyone who knew Artanis, was not anything to be ashamed of. Afterward, she and Turukáno took a respite from competing to watch Maitimo and Findekáno face off in the staff games – where they fought with long poles while balancing on a log in the water – which was always amusing to watch in every sense of the word. For their great friendship, they were both impossibly competitive, and it was always a toss up to see who would come out triumphant. This time, Findekáno was able to knock his cousin in the water first – and yet, as soon as he surfaced, Maitimo reached up to pull the other into the water by his ankle, and there was laughter from the throats of all gathered as Findekáno spluttered to clear the water from his lungs.

In the afternoon, she placed well in the stationary archery contests, and did even better in the equestrian sports – taking another second place in the jumping. Yet, it was the finale of both competitions that she was truly eager for. To test both the skill of the rider and the aim of the archer at once, there had been a cross country course prepared through the wood, with thirteen moving targets that were set at random in the trees. The course was to be rode in pairs, with each rider both striving to beat the other to the finish, and hitting the tagets as accurately as possible. Irissë had practiced long and hard for this event in particular, and it was her main focus at the Games.

To sweeten her incentive to win, both her father and the Vala Oromë were watching that game in particular. She was eager to prove herself to her father – to prove that his letting her go so often in the wild was a wise decision on his part. She wanted to make him proud – and it helped that her half-uncle was standing by her father's side, his every look imperious and haughty. She knew that it was an unspoken competition between Fëanáro and Nolofinwë to see whose children would perform the best at every Game, and at that point in the day, her father held a narrow lead on his half-brother. The Trees were waxing above them, Teleperion's silver light slowly overpowering Laurelin's gold with the onset of night – which meant that there were few sports left for the day. And so, the honor of her family was now in her hands.

Irissë beat each rider she was paired with until it came down at last to her and Tyelkormo in the final race - which would decide first and second place. Beforehand, she wished her friend well, and teasingly offered him one of her ribbons as a lady's token – to which he smiled a smile full of teeth and told her that he made his own luck. He handed her her quiver then, an image of chivalry that had her rolling her eyes as she mounted her horse, and then they were being called to the start.

She inhaled a shaky breath as she saw her whole family gathered and watching on the sidelines. Even her grandfather looked on her with pride in his eyes, even though that look could just as easily have been for Tyelkormo. She saw a figure cloaked in hunter's green at the back of the crowd, and while she did not know for certain, she could feel the leashed power lingering about the man - and she knew then that the Huntsman's eyes were upon she and Tyelkormo both.

Irissë felt a tremor of anticipation trickle up and down her spine, and then -

The horn was blown, and they were off.

She hunched low over her horse's withers, guiding with her seat and her hands as they raced to the first target. She balanced with the strength in her legs while she drew the first arrow from her quiver and aimed for the target as it swung down from the trees – hitting the center of the circles with a satisfying whoosh and thud of sound. A perfect hit. Tylekormo was a heartbeat behind her, his arrow embedding in the ring just below her own.

Close, but not close enough, she thought in satisfaction.

The ground dipped and the terrain turned rugged, and she had to focus on the jumps and trials of the path as she aimed her next arrow. She carefully anticipated the way the target was moving in the trees – pulled along by elves in the branches, mimicking a true target with their actions.

Another clean hit . . . another, and then another.

By the time the path doubled back on itself, she and Tyelkormo had each taken six of the thirteen targets apiece. They were riding neck and neck, meaning that no extra points would be gained for the quickest ride. It would all came down to whoever cleanly hit the last target.

Taking in a deep, settling breath, she took the last arrow from her quiver. The world seemed to fall away from her; the cheering from those onlooking was nothing but white noise in her ears, she could feel her heartbeat thunder in her chest. She counted out each breath, timing her shot in between the rise and the fall of her horse's strides. She and her dappled grey mare were moving together perfectly, seemingly one being as she took her aim, and -

A perfect shot, she felt it in her bones as she let the arrow go a second before Tyelkormo did, and then -

The arrow went wildly astray, spinning though a tumbling arc before embedding itself in the ground beneath the target. She missed completely, even as Tyelkormo's arrow struck the dead center of the target, embedding itself so fiercely that the shaft splintered on contact.

She came back to herself. The cheers were deafening. Her heartbeat skipped in her chest.

She . . .

She had missed.

. . . how? She did not understand where she had gone wrong.

Moving numbly, she dismounted from her horse, feeling as if she moved separate from herself as she was clapped on the back by her brothers and praised for the skill she displayed in her ride – a great showing, even if she did not take the victory from their half-cousin. She felt as Findekáno picked her up and spun her about in the air, and yet . . . She pushed away from him once he set her down, trying not to flinch as she saw the way her uncle smiled at her father with his victory. She could not look at her father - her father, who had not a care for Fëanáro and his words, but was instead walking towards her, concern etched into every line of his face.

He knew her better than any other, she thought, blinking against her suddenly burning eyes. He would know how utterly disappointed she was.

Her aim was perfect, she thought next – numbly, defiantly. There was no way that she could have missed the target entirely. She had felt the rightness of the shot as she released it . . .

Without consciously registering her movements, she walked back onto the field to pick up the arrow that had failed her. She examined it – from the head she had sharpened and attached herself, to the wood she had carefully measured and cut, and the fletch she had strung with silken thread . . .

Irissë ran a careful finger over the feathers, to see . . .

They had been cut.

Cut.

She felt fury erupt as something molten to cover her bones. Her hands made fists over the sabotaged arrow, remembering only Tyelkormo smiling, and Tyelkormo handing her her quiver before the start of the race. I make my own luck, he had said. And . . .

He wouldn't, she felt her fury fade, giving way to the even sharper cut of hurt. He was her friend, and he would not hurt her like that. He wouldn't.

But Oromë was watching; watching the same as Fëanáro was watching . . . Could he have been moved to such extremes to assure that he failed neither? Could he . . . would he do that to her? She knew what she wanted to believe in answer, and yet . . .

Irissë felt a hand on her shoulder, and looked up to see Tyelkormo's dancing green eyes smiling down at her. “Better luck next time, my friend,” he had the audacity to tease her, tugging on one of her braids with a traitor's affection. “Perhaps you will defeat me next year, no?”

She leveled him with an incredulous look – the fury in her eyes made all the more potent for the gushing hurt she felt - like a tide of blood accompanying the withdrawal of a knife. She felt her eyes burn then, and rather than let him see just how much he had wounded her, she threw the arrow down at his feet without saying a word. She turned on her heel and left, uncaring about the eyes who would see her doing so and interpret it as a fit of bad sportsmanship. Let them think what they wanted - she did not care. She simply had to leave before . . .

She barely made it to an empty stall in the stables before she buried her face in her hands and let herself cry. She cried with ugly, hiccuping sounds, frustrated and hurt. He was her friend, she could not reason beyond that simple truth. He was her friend, and friends did not treat each other so. They did not use each other so callously for their own gain.

Only moments passed before she heard another enter the stables. At first she thought it was Tyelkormo, and she felt her top lip draw away from her teeth in a fey expression of anger at the thought of his presence. Even worse would it be for him to see her crying than he having cheated her in the first place. But it was not Tyelkormo who came up behind her, but an even more familiar set of arms that surrounded her – her father pulling her to his chest and enfolding her in his embrace.

“My daughter,” she could feel Nolofinwë's voice rumble from his chest more than she could hear it. He soothed a hand over her braids – the braids that she had so carefully set with blue and silver ribbons, eager as she was to do her family proud – and shushed her as if she were still a small child. At the warmth of his comfort, she felt her tears come upon her more violently still.

Somehow . . . he knew, she understood then. He must have seen her with the arrow, and glimpsed her thoughts as they formed - so strongly as she must have been projecting to anyone with an ear to hear.

“I hate him,” she hiccuped on an ugly voice, making fists in the rich brocade covering his chest. “I hate him so much . . .” The pain in her chest stabbed all the worse for her words – for truly, she did not. And yet, her love for the other just made it all the worse. She wished that she hated him, she truly did . . . it would make things so much easier. “I hate him . . .” she gave on a whisper, and willed the words to be true.

“I know,” Nolofinwë sighed against the top of her head – understanding her turbulence of feelings as few others could. “I know.”

Her father held her until her tears quieted, and then he and her mother walked her home. They slipped away from the crowd where no eyes could see, each walking with their arms about her - lightening her spirit with the warmth of their own as they had not since she was a very small child. She washed the dirt and grime from her body upon returning home, and after, she let her mother brush and braid her hair for her. Anairë did not say much as she worked. She merely hummed underneath her breath as she tended to her daughter, and at the gentle mothering, Irissë felt a calmness descend over her, replacing the numbness that had followed her tears earlier. I do not care, she told herself more than once. I do not need him for a friend, anyway. I am better off without him.

It was a lie, but for the moment, it was easier to face than the truth.

She went to bed after, heart-sore and utterly exhausted, but she could not find sleep, no matter how she beseeched Irmo for dreams. Instead she stared at the ceiling, awake and lost to her thoughts. She knew not how long she laid there before she heard an odd tapping at her window. A moment passed, and then she heard it again. Annoyed, she turned over in bed, but the sound persisted.

Again . . . 

. . . and again.

She sat up, her eyes narrowing once she realized that someone was throwing pebbles at her window. By Eru, but who . . .

There was only one she could think of who would have the gall to do so. She set her mouth in a thin, cross line, and laid back down, determinedly turning her back on the window.

Some time after she thought that the pebble-thrower had given up, she heard as her window was pried open from the outside. There was a shuffling of sound, and then she heard her intruder breathe out a curse underneath his breath.

And then, louder she could hear, “The way Maitimo speaks, I saw that going much easier in my mind.”

At hearing his voice, she burrowed deeper underneath her blankets. She did not want to hear anything he had to say. Her back was still to him, but she could see where his shadow became smaller as he came closer to her bed.

A moment passed. She heard him draw in a deep breath, and then, “Irissë . . . I came to say that I am sorry.”

Still, she was silent. She ground her teeth together to bite back her words.

“My father was watching,” Tyelkormo tried to awkwardly explain next. He was never fluid with his words, let alone with speaking about his own heart and feelings. She watched his shadow as it paced. “I . . . I fail so often when he is around, and I . . . I could not fail again. I am not the son of the forge he wanted, but I wanted to prove that I could excel where my talents laid . . . I thought . . . I thought to make him proud. And you . . . you are good. My equal, even, and I could not . . . ” he gave that last truth as if he spoke around a blade.

Still, Irissë was silent. Had she truly lost the competition, her father would still know pride in her abilities, she thought then. She was certain of her father's love; certain of his joy in who she was growing to be. She could not imagine . . .

In skill, Fëanáro was the greatest of their kind who would ever walk the ground of Arda marred – that, even the Valar had whispered as truth. To grow under, and live up to his demanding a similar perfection in his sons . . . a perfection impossible to achieve . . . She wanted to tell Tyelkormo that his father was not perfect. Skilled, yes; but he lacked in matters of the heart and tender feeling – or, if he did not, then he lacked in his showing of such emotion. His fëa was chasmed by many lines - no matter the violence of flame that erupted, dazzling, from those fractures.

“It did not matter anyway,” Tyelkormo continued when he realized that she would not reply. “My father knew, and he was . . . disgusted that a son of his would need to cheat to prove himself superior in any way.” She could hear his voice as it trembled over the word.

And yet, she sat up - her anger suddenly erupting fresh within her. “You are apologizing because you were caught ?” she asked, incredulous as she whirled upon him.

“No – that's not it at all,” Tyelkormo swiftly backpedaled. She looked, and saw that his eyes were very wide, showing more silver than green. His nearly white hair burned about his head.

“No,” he said again, more calmly this time. “I am here because I hurt you, and . . . that in turn hurt me more than I thought it would . . . my father gave a formal apology to your father for my actions, and that too hurt. Better would it have been for him to acknowledge you the victor truly than admitting that his son was a liar and a cheat . . . It shamed me. Nolofinwë said that I moved you to tears . . . you are Irissë, and you do not cry . . . It was not losing that wounded you so, but rather the knowledge that I had done you wrong . . . and that shamed me even more than my father's disappointment. It was as a physical pain in my chest, and I . . .”

He sighed, running a hand through the mused strands of his hair in frustration at his inability to articulate his thoughts. The flicker of shame she felt at him knowing her moment of weakness passed quicker than she would have first thought. Under any other circumstances, it would be almost natural for him to see her in tears – he was her best friend, and she hid nothing from him, not even that which was not strength.

“Oromë too knew that I cheated,” he said next, sounding truly miserable then. “He was the one to tell my father, and to see the look on his face then . . . I wanted so badly to prove myself worthy of the Vala's attention, and instead I shamed myself.”

She fought the urge to wince at his saying so. To see proud Fëanáro humbled before the Valar he refused to acknowledge as lords over their people . . . to know that such a being saw him at his worst . . . She almost wished that he had beaten her truly, just to spare him the pain of rejection and humiliation he felt now.

 . . . almost.

“And then it occurred to me that you are the only one I have never feared failing in front of. You are the only one who has ever accepted me – all of me – and I . . . I betrayed the trust you had in me. I am not asking you to forgive me; I am simply telling you how sorry I am . . . and that I hope that you will still continue to be my friend, and let me make amends to you.”

Irissë felt her heart soften, even where she willed it not to. She wanted to be angry, and yet . . .

Tyelkormo saw the moment where her eyes softened. “If you wish, you may push me in the pond tomorrow.” He grinned, his teeth flashing white in the shadow.

She was still silent, weighing him with her eyes, and then . . .

“To start with,” she finally said, tilting her chin up haughtily. “But don't think that you will get off so easily, Tyelko.”

His smile only grew. “Does that mean that I am forgiven?”

She raised a dark brow, but refused to answer him. Instead, she turned her back on him, and laid down once more – effectively dismissing him. And yet, she could imagine his smile as it turned.

A moment passed, and then she heard her window open once more. A second later, she heard the small sound of it closing.

Irissë allowed herself a single smile as she settled into her pillow once more. When she closed her eyes, she found the path of dreams open and easy before her once more.   

Chapter Text

Haunt

The starlit woods of Nan Elmoth sang a haunting tune. They called to Elwë; beckoning, promising . . .

“You wandered off again,” came Olwë's voice from down the path. "We've been looking for you."

Elwë held up a hand, silencing him. “Do you hear that?”

Olwë listened for a heartbeat. “ . . . birdsong?”

Nightingales,” Elwë corrected, staring above. “They follow us.”

Olwë smiled good-naturedly. “Really, brother, you are too fey for your own good,” he teased, and yet, Elwë hesitated; sure that somewhere in the trees, a whispered voice called to him. For a moment, he yearned . . .

Aye, fey indeed, he thought wryly, before turning away.



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Presence

The histories will say that she stole, but truly, it was she who was stolen first.

This world was a world of slumber and twilight, and yet, he was there; calling to her, resonating in the heart of her spirit as an extension of the Song itself. And this silver Elven-king could feel her in return, impossibly aware of her presence as she was aware of his. They called to each other as the stars did to the night sky, until . . .

It was not a theft to take what was already given, she at last decided, and he had given her much indeed.



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Leave

They had waited for as long as they could, and now, they could wait no longer.

“The sea calls to me,” Olwë admitted. “The tide sings with my soul, and yet . . .”

And yet, to leave their brother behind? Elmo could feel Elwë's spirit in the forest; nearly touchable, even when beyond their reach. Then . . . there was the rightness he knew in these forests, as if he were a tree with deep roots. He understood the way the sea called to Olwë, for the forests sang the same song to him.

He exhaled, and made his decision. “Then you understand why I must stay.”



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Leaf


Menegroth was a maze of silver stone, resembling a forest of bark and leaf; wrought by careful hands and eager hearts.

“Not as impressive as watching Yavanna sow the forests, perhaps,” Thingol teased his wife. “Yet, there is a majesty to be found here.”

“It will keep our people safe,” Melian agreed, feeling spells sparkle at her fingertips, imaging how she would further shield their land. She held a hand to her still flat stomach – their reason for all, and thought: soon. “And you, husband-dear, know that I find beauty in all of Ennor. Our kingdom shall be no exception.”



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Bind

“Ada, dance with me!”

Always, their Princess' wish was Thingol's delight. Lúthien's laughter was as musical as any song, and Elmo turned towards it, the sound one of the few things able to stir him from his apathy. It had been a century since his wife's disappearance, before the Girdle, and still . . .

“He is besotted,” Oropher smiled in an attempt to draw his father's smile in return. “Is he not?”

Elmo only nodded, and Oropher caught his brother's eye, Galadhon just as lost as he was. Beyond them, Lúthien danced, and white flowers bloomed were her feet touched the ground.



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Bound

“You, my friend, are quite smitten.”

“And you have already been at the wine.”

“That,” Thranduil raised his goblet, “Is quite beside the point.”

Celeborn turned from where he (had not) been staring at a maiden with golden hair. Thranduil's expression was carefully neutral - for the starlight had been swallowed by the Sun and Moon, lightening the Exiles' footsteps. All would be bound in the wars they brought with them, Oropher was vocal against aiding the newcomers, and Thranduil agreed.

And yet . . .

“Here,” Thranduil passed Celeborn his wine when Artanis' gaze flickered over him. “You shall need this more than I.”



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Confidant

While Melian's arts came naturally to Lúthien, Galadriel surpassed her in determination for their learning. Already, Lúthien absently trailed her fingers in the enchanted basin as Galadriel practiced, her eyes far away.

“You faced many trials to wed my kinsman, did you not?” Lúthien asked.

“A few,” Galadriel answered, raising a brow.

“Was it . . .” Lúthien hesitated. “ . . . was it worth it?”

She fixed the Sindarin princess with a probing look, but Lúthien would say no more. Feeling as if she shaped a future, Galadriel answered, “Yes,” as the mirror came to life before her. “Love is always worth its trials.”



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Sweetheart

Lúthien smiled often as of late. Once, he had thought to know her every expression - from her genteel smile of the court to the shape of her teasing; the arch of her humor and delight.

The fairest-born has a sweetheart, Menegroth whispered, and Daeron felt his heart soar with hope. He wrote for long hours into the night, shaping this particular smile into song. Yet, when he followed her to share his composition, her new smile blazed like the stars themselves for him - a Man with mortal days and mortal-dim eyes . . . Devastated, Daeron turned, knowing what he had to do.



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Lover

In the end, it was more than his vow to Barahir that moved Finrod to action - it was Beren's story, his love and his fighting for it. Once, Finrod had advised caution over feeling, and watched his brother mourn his choice for the rest of his days . . . once, Finrod had tuned his back on his own love, even, and now . . .

The songs will call me smitten, he thought without humor, knowing that he would never return to Nargothrond again . . . and yet, such was the way of songs. He was the knight, not the hero, and this tale was not his ending.



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Sister

Galadriel felt Finrod's death across the distance. It stuck her like an arrow through the heart; stealing her own breath, even as Finrod breathed his last.

Findaráto, she wept his name in the language of her childhood as she tried to make sense of the sundering within her fëa. Her husband's hands supported her, but she could only see the solemn truth in Melian's expression . . . the guilt haunting Thingol's eyes.

Is it worth it to love? Lúthien had asked. For Galadriel's answer, she had offered up what was dearest to her, and bore through the pains of her own love in silence.



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Wife

In his effort to keep Lúthien as daughter only, rather than wife, he unwittingly drove her into the heart of Angband and then on to Mandos himself. Now, Lúthien was Beren's bride; dying with every breath she took, her husband's mortality made her own.

For a moment, Thingol could not breathe with the pain rising in his lungs at the thought. He exhaled, trying instead to focus on the love in Lúthien's eyes, lightened from her soul within . . .

“I do not deserve her love, nor her sacrifice,” Beren said gently, his gaze bold. “I know my blessing in having both.”



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Mother

Thingol was silent, watching from afar as Melian tenderly touched her daughter's face. “Lúthien would not be the first to live diminished . . . to alter her entire being out of love for one less,” he finally said.

Beren's brow dipped, wondering for insult, before catching the way Melian looked sadly over at her husband. The Maia made Queen was flesh and feeling in that moment, her grief and joy for her daughter plain to see.

“Cherish her,” Thingol inclined his head, passing Beren to attend to his wife. “Perhaps, in time, that alone can atone for the grievances my fear has wrought.”



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Mark

A year had passed since their return to life, and yet, instead of rejoicing for the love she knew, Lúthien instead remembered the great price paid for her joy. She remembered Finrod's bravery, and called to mind each of his fallen men . . . She prayed for Daeron her friend, hoping that he found happiness beyond her . . . She prayed for the third son of Fëanor, asking peace for his inferno of a soul . . . She prayed for her own parents, hoping that they knew how dearly she still loved and missed them both

She rose with the dawn, her memorial left for another year.



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Choice

When their son was born, the tips of Dior's ears were pointed. Curiously, Beren touched one delicate tip, wondering . . .

“He shall one day have a choice,” Lúthien answered, “between immortality and the fate of Men.”

Beren felt his throat tighten. The hands holding his child felt as those of a thief. “Lúthien -”

She pressed a finger to his lips. “Know, beloved, that the pain you bear is yours alone. My choice is my joy in life - you and our son.”

Beren was silent, and Lúthien kissed him, hoping that time and love would someday convince him where words could not.



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Result

Ever did Lúthien's birth remain a cherished memory. Thingol remembered how large her eyes were; how small her body. He remembered the strength in her tiny fingers; the shape of her toothless smile.

Dior was smaller than his mother, but stronger somehow – the blood of Men, Melian remarked wryly, even when his grandson was Lúthien's look in entirety.

“Eluchíl,” he offered Dior a second name, meeting his daughter's eyes as if asking a question. For if ever his days reached their number, then Dior would have his throne and kingdom in entirety . . . as surely as the child already had his heart.



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Approve

Nimloth would find no better husband than Dior Eluchíl, heir of Doriath. And yet . . .

“Do you not approve?” Galadriel asked - for with Galathil's death, Nimloth's hand was his to give.

“I do not . . . disapprove,” Celeborn answered. “And yet . . .” he faltered as he sorted through his feelings. “When we have a child of our own, I would be grateful for a son. Better to leave this grief to another father when the time comes.”

“I shall do my best, husband,” Galadriel kissed the corner of his mouth to hide her smile – and Celeborn sighed, realizing that fate had already been wound against him.



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Agree

Nimloth bore her first child on a moonless night, with only the stars above as witnesses. “Elwing,” she named the babe when Galadriel placed her daughter in her arms - looking for her aunt's approval. “Is it silly, to give a child of the trees a name of the sea?”

Galadriel's smile was wry in answer. “A mother's foresight is greater than any Sight I possess,” she gave. Yet, when she touched the child's brow, she could see ocean waves rising like the wings of a bird, with the light of such a star shining above . . .

Yes, Nimloth had chosen wisely indeed.



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Curse

News of the Dwarves' treachery reached Lúthien like a knife to the chest.

A sick tempest of grief filled her as she felt Melian's spirit retreat to Valinor, lost without the anchor of Thingol's soul. Her hands made fists, her eyes became blows; for no mortal blood could then hide the celestial in her veins, the divine.

She trembled from the urge to cry out with her grief and rage. Was this a mortal weakness, she wondered? Or that of a daughter?

"I cursed them to bury a child," she cried into Beren's chest. "Never did I think to mourn them instead."



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Greed

Menegroth echoed with lamentations. Bows sang as they were gathered, while swords were a sharp melody as they slid into sheaths. For this was the price of greed, Thranduil thought. This was the price of pride - and it was red.

“You are riding out?” Thranduil asked. Oropher had stood behind the throne when Thingol fell. He still bore his uncle's blood on his hands - he would not wash it away, not until it was joined by the blood of the Naugrim.

“Nogrod's sons will not go unpunished,” was Oropher's only answer . . .

. . . and Thranduil made his decision. “I will go with you.”



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Destiny

The first time Elwing saw a Silmaril, her father and grandfather had just returned from battle.

“It is done,” Beren announced, grimly placing the Nauglamír before his wife. Lúthien stared before pushing it away, her mouth an ugly line of loathing.

“Doriath now needs a king,” Lúthien whispered. While she was unable to look at the Silmaril, Elwing could see nothing else.

Dior knelt to kiss his mother's hand, the light of the Silmaril dancing over them like the light from a dream. When they left for Menegroth the next day, it was a memory she carried with her like a treasure.



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Recall

While there were many things Elwing loved about her new home, she loved the dancing most of all. She would twirl through the halls of stone trees, pretending that she was Lúthien Tinúviel herself, while all looked on in fondness for the memory of old captured in the girl's steps.

“Dance with me, ada!” she called the King away from his council – for Dior was ever ready to indulge her, spinning his daughter in graceless circles as Menegroth again filled with laughter.

“Just like her grandmother,” Oropher muttered, lost in his memories, and Celeborn nodded at his uncle, unable to disagree.



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Twine

“C'born pretty!”

The delighted cry greeted her as Galadriel entered to the sight of her husband sitting dutifully before Elwing's careful hands, where the child had taken great care in plaiting his silver hair with ribbons of every color.

Celeborn raised a brow, daring her.

“Pretty indeed, young one,” Galadriel praised gravely.

Celeborn's smile was dangerous. “Aye, Elwing – and your aunt would like nothing better than to have braids to match, wouldn't she?”

Elwing's wide eyes turned hopeful. “Could I?” she breathed in awe.

Galadriel's glare was withering as she sat before the child – unable to refuse. “I would like nothing better.”



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Grave

The forests whispered with grief when Lúthien laid down with her husband in the ever-sleep of Men.

Daeron tilted his head, his vigil broken by the lament of the leaves and the ache of the deep roots. A matching pain filled him as he turned the soil for the couple's grave; as he gently wrapped the Silmaril for Dior's care.

When the earth reclaimed its own, Beren and Lúthien side by side forever to stay, Daeron bowed his head and lifted his voice in song, joining the requiem of stars and branches until he had not a song left to sing.



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Place

The Silmaril was a holy light when worn about her husband's throat. And yet, her breath would catch with something other than awe when she noticed the long hours he would spend staring at the looking glass, touching the jewel as one entranced.

“It is dimmer than when my mother wore it,” Dior muttered, putting the gem away for the night.

“Where do you go when the Silmaril takes you?” Nimloth asked on a whisper, but Dior only smiled – amused by her concern.

“I was right here,” he answered. “I never left.”

And yet, Nimloth could not bring herself to believe.



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Hut

The woods outside of Menegroth seemed to go on forever without sight of her brothers. When Elwing at last found them, she swept down to gather them in her arms – even as they protested that they were much too old for such affections.

“Don't scare me like that,” she scolded breathlessly. “Ada would have sent me to live with the Edain in their huts if I came home without you.”

“But you found us,” Elurín pointed out, wiping her kiss from his cheek.

“We were not lost then,” Eluréd reasoned.

“Aye,” Elwing ruffled his hair, “and I always will find you.”



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Room

Nimloth stood before her sons' rooms, the letter from Maedhros Fëanorian held tight within the fist of her hand. The words crumpled together, but their meaning remained.

“We knew this day would come,” Celeborn stood vigilant by her side. “It was only a matter of time.”

The Sons of Fëanor could ignore their Oath as Dior could ignore his mother's legacy, and yet . . .

“We will make him see reason,” Celeborn stated, but his voice was empty. Hollow.

He does not know my husband as I, Nimloth thought. Letting the letter fall, she leaned against the doorframe, and listened to her children breathe.



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Tent

Elwing could not sleep that first night after Doriath's destruction, stunned and heart-sore for her loss. In her hands, the Silmaril burned, setting the walls of the tent aflame.

“I was supposed to protect them,” she whispered, remembering the cries of her brothers as the Fëanorians bore them away. “Adar had the whole kingdom to safeguard, but they were mine to protect . . .”

“Child, not a life lost today was through fault of your own,” Celeborn whispered, his eyes mirrors of her grief. When her tears fell, he held her, the Silmaril between them bright enough to challenge even the stars beyond.



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Loss

“Artanis -”

“ - Galadriel, Russandol dear, or have you forgotten?”

Maedhros did not flinch. Instead, he bared his teeth, unrecognizable to her upon Dior's throne. Once, the thought ached, she had called him family.

When they were interrupted by one of his captains, carrying a list of the dead, she listened. Three of Maedhros' brothers had fallen . . . along with Dior and Nimloth . . . and the twins . . .

Sharply, she looked up. “The children?” she hissed. “They posed no threat to your Oath, only Tyelkormo's pride -”

“Watch how you speak of the dead,” Maedhros snapped, but his words were weary – overwhelmed.



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Give

But she had no pity. “Lúthien's Silmaril is now far from here,” Galadriel pushed on. “Doriath is yours now – what remains, at least. Will you allow those without swords to depart? Or will you finish your fine work?”

A heartbeat passed. “Leave, with you and yours,” Maedhros waved sharply. “And yet, know that I will show no quarter next time, Galadriel.”

For there would be a next time.

“So be it,” her voice was a whip-crack.

Galadriel did not stay long enough to see him turn, quick to pierce the forest and search for that which should have never been lost.



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Shelter

The ground was cold with snowfall, but it had grown warm with the song of the elf who led them. Walking close enough to his brother so that he could share the heat of their rescuer's cloak, Eluréd stared openly, nearly certain that he knew the voice that sang. He could feel the song in his heart, matching it beat for beat . . .

Elurín asked in a small voice, "Why did you help us?"

The song faltered, and the ground turned cold again. "You have her eyes," the minstrel whispered, nearly too soft for them to hear. "And I never could ignore her pain."



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Refugee

Elwing quickly grew to love the seashores of Sirion. Often would she walk the sands with Eärendil at her side; he a refugee just as she, making Arvernien his home.

“My mother says that the sea-winds carry the voices of those parted from us,” Eärendil confided when her gaze turned west, “So that we may hear them always.”

Standing where the sand met the surf, Elwing tilted her head. She thought she could hear it then . . . her mother's soft lullabies . . . her father's resonating baritone . . . the giggles of her baby brothers, now gone.

Her throat thick, she whispered, “That . . . I believe.”

Chapter Text

Truth

Autumn had touched the land, burning the leaves of the trees with rust and cooling the heat of the summer with a warning of the winter to come. The fields were gleaned, replenishing their storehouses for the cold season to come. Their dresses turned layered as the winter grew ever nearer, while gloves and scarves were stitched and knitted by careful, mothering hands. The world turned as though touched by fire, burning out to rest as ash until the spring arrived once more. Lost in those last moments of warmth, Gilraen inhaled the season's dying breath and felt her own heart fill.

The riverbed was at the lowest point of the year, even where the rushing Loudwater was joined by the Hoarwell, rushing down from the north. Soon, the calmer straights of the river would freeze with the winter - and then flow with the return of the snow-melt and fresh mountain water in the spring. For now, she stood on the bank, throwing pebbles against the top of the current. Some stones, she could skip. More often than not, they sunk.

Arathorn watched her with something soft coloring his eyes. She had asked him to join her when she first broke from their walk to do so, but his hands were restless that day. He was not made for fine tasks, not then, and so, she hummed and skipped her stones, waiting for her husband to share the burdens of his mind with her. His concerns were many as of late, and she had learned well the wisdom in patience. Her silence would reveal more than any searching query, even when she fairly bristled with a concern to match every unspoken thought that darkened Arathorn's brow. Even sheltered in the angle of the rivers, the weights on the mind of the Chieftain of the Dúnedain were many - with fell folk pushing down from the mountains, sent from their Enemy in the east as they sought Isildur's heir as they always did. Always had it been so, from the first Chieftain to the last, and she knew that the Enemy would not stay his efforts simply because she wished to live with her husband in peace during the time they had to them. She knew the life she had chosen when she had accepted Arathorn's hand, and she was grateful for the years that would belong to them before . . .

She squared her mouth, and threw her last pebble. It sank like a weight beneath the bubbling water, even as she made a face - annoyed that the stone would give in to the pull of the river.

“The current is not made for stones this day,” Arathorn remarked wryly, speaking for the first.

“The river knows its time is short,” Gilraen agreed, pushing a stray strand of hair back behind her ear. The tips of her ears and nose felt pleasantly cold from the fresh air. “The land sings its last song, and the river is old and wise in its ways.”

She walked back to him, swaying to an imaginary melody as she did so. The trees danced on the wind, their great boughs swaying while the leaves swept across the ground like ladies in their fine gowns. The land moved to its own rhythm, and she inclined her ear to listen.

Her husband had a strong stride and sharp eyes. Neither were quite made for dancing, but she still pulled him to spin with her. They had no music but for the cadence of the river and her own humming breath. He humored her through one twirl, and yet, on the second turn he stopped her. His eyes were searching, and so, she stilled. He wished to say something, and she waited for him to speak.

In the end, Arathorn did not share his thoughts with words. Instead, he reached into the pack at his side to hand her a leather holster, carefully tooled to depict a design of a tree with stretching branches. She raised a brow at the gift before pulling the weapon from its sheath, revealing a small dagger with an elegant curve. The blade was swept through with graceful lines – made for beauty as much as it was made with violence in mind. Gilraen frowned at the gift, not understanding his thinking behind it - not entirely.

“This is of elvish make,” she said, waiting for the tale to come from him.

“Yes,” Arathorn confirmed. “Noldorin steel, from Celebrimbor's workshops in Eregion that was. The youngest son of Elrond has his tells when bluffing at cards, and this was the result. However,” he added ruefully, “do make sure you have the right twin before attempting to try as such. I have lost many a favoured bauble to the elder one's machinations.”

“I shall keep that in mind,” Gilraen said wryly in reply. She traced a finger over the flat of the blade, careful to stay away from the edge. “And yet . . .” she was troubled, though she could not say why. She swallowed, trying to find her words.

“Do you know how to use such a thing?” he asked.

“I know that the sharp end goes through flesh,” she said, raising a brow at her own lack of skill. “I can hold a sword, as you know, but I am no shield-maiden.” She always had her father, and her brother while still he stood to hold a sword in his family's defense. When the day turned dark, she could bare her teeth and stand for those she cared about, and yet . . .

“I knew as much,” Arathorn said, his eyes fond with memory. “And yet, a sword will not aid you if you are come upon unaware - not without years dedicated to its learning. This, however, is small. It can fit at your waist, underneath your cloak. You can be quick and clever with this, which is more suiting, I think, than a full sized weapon.”

“You see the use for much steel in the future?” she tried to tease with her words, but they came out shaped with a whisper of fear. She swallowed back the feeling of soon and borrowed time that colored her every day, trying to grasp and cherish each moment as they came.

“Wanting to find a use for steel and acknowledging its inevitability are two different things entirely,” Arathorn said. His mouth turned down in that way that said that he was agitated, fairly crawling within his skin - though not through cause of her. “I do not want you unprotected when that time comes.”

Slowly, Gilraen sheathed the knife again. His eyes followed the blade as it disappeared, flickering to match the overcast sky above. He had lovely eyes, she thought, a stormy shade of grey that decreed him Elros' heir as much as the ring of Barahir did at his finger. They darkened now, grave and lost with black thought.

“You are ill at ease, husband,” she said softly, trying to consider how to best phrase her words. “You have been, ever since I told you . . .” She swallowed, holding one hand to the small curve that now defined her stomach. She kept the hand that held the sheathed blade away, not wanting to hold steel so close to the child growing in her womb. “Such news is a cause for joy, not the fear you now feel.”

“I do know joy for our son,” Arathorn said, moving to cover her hand with his own. Already Ivorwen had touched her daughter's stomach and whispered of the boy child she carried. Arathorn trusted her mother's insight in this, the same as he had trusted her visions about his own future, and now . . . “Yet, you know as well as I that our joy rests on borrowed days. Someday – someday soon – I shall be there for neither you, or our child, and I wish . . .”

For so many things, she knew then. For so many impossible things.

“Someday you shall leave me, it is true,” she agreed. “But all couples face the inevitability of such a parting. Ill is it indeed for the thought of such a sundering to rob you of your joy for the now.”

“And yet, I will not leave you old and grey with many days,” Arathorn countered, his voice quickening with his frustration and coiled energy both. “I shall leave you soon - before our son walks for the first, or maybe even before he speaks his first word. I will not see him grow . . . I will not see him marry . . . I will not see him have sons of his own . . . I will not give to him the heirlooms of his house and explain to him the rich heritage of his people – a heritage that he will raise above this small band of forest-folk, hidden in the wild. I will not see the glory of our people once again restored through his mettle and courage. And, even worse . . . I will not grow old with you. I married a young wife, and I will leave her both a young widow and an even younger mother to a fatherless boy.”

“Our son will never want for guidance, and never will he be left to wonder if he had his father's love,” Gilraen said, setting her mouth in a thin line as she said so. Did he think that she did not know this? Did he think that this thought did not accompany her both as she awakened and laid her head down to rest at night? Did he think that she could so easily forget? “And yet, our time together has no number of days. Why must you see each day as our last?”

“And why must you be so naïve to think that each day is not?” Arathorn returned. While his voice was not harsh, it carried a desperate edge that struck her as if with a blow. She flinched against the weight of his words.

“I knew the truth of our parting when I accepted your hand,” she spoke with a strong voice – needing him to see how much she believed her words. Did he not see how dear they were to her? How they defined her? Her life itself was he and their son, and she would not see him spend the few days they had together mired down with the darkness of his thoughts. “I knew the truth of your fate when my father stood before me and outlined my future in frank, merciless words – widow, fatherless child, I left alone to age and carry on while he who is my other half turned cold in the ground . . . My mother showed to me her visions, holding my hand as her dreams became as a nightmare before my eyes . . . I knew this, and yet, still I married you. These days are dark, and shall grow even darker still, and yet, if I deny happiness – if I deny love, then I have let the shadow not only defeat us on the battlefield, but in my heart. And my heart is one place the Enemy cannot touch. It is one thing he cannot conquer, nor shall he ever.”

Her eyes burned as she spoke. Her words tangled on her tongue, graceless as she tried not to let her voice tremble with the strength of her emotions. And yet, truth lingered her every syllable as something tangible, something living. Did he not see that she would take even half of the time she had already spent with him as their all, and consider herself as blessed for knowing such a love?

Gilraen still held the knife in her hand. Her fingers tightened over the hilt as if she could hold him from his fate with the strength of her love alone.

Something softened in her husband's eyes with her speech. The dark grey lightened, as the sun rising behind a blanket of clouds. Arathorn cupped her face in his callused hands, and rested his brow against her own, weary then as she had yet to see him. As always, the knowledge that she, a simple woodsman's daughter, could support this great man, in even the smallest of ways . . . it humbled her. She let out a shaky breath, but her next inhale of air was calm. Her heart thundered in her chest, but she could breath against its rapid beat.

“And this is my truth,” Arathorn whispered gently. “Not only do you carry our hope . . . Do you not know that you are my hope; my joy, my reason for existing, even? I selfishly took you, even when knowing of the future I bound you to. Death is easy, but living . . . living is another thing entirely. I want to die knowing that my family is safe in every possible way, and if a small bit of steel can mean even the slightest bit of a difference . . .”

In the smallest of ways, through his teachings, he could continue to protect her, she understood then. In this way, even if only this way, he would never leave her. When she kissed him, unable to respond to such an admission with any form of words, her mouth was as desperate as his was hard - as if she could breathe him in and keep him with her through the force of her love alone. The onset of winter lost its appeal to her as she clung to him, and wished . . .

It was a long moment before she drew away from him. Her mouth was bruised and her cheeks were flushed, and yet she still shared his breath. Gilraen drew the blade from its sheath again, even as tiny snowflakes started to dot the air. She understood now. And she was ready.

“Show me what you will, then,” she said, meeting his eyes. Her gaze was steady, resolute. “I want to learn.”

Slowly, Arathorn stepped back from her. His hand came down to cover her own. “You start,” he said carefully, arranging her fingers about the hilt with a gentle hand, “Like this.”

Chapter Text

Hope

There were times when Elladan imagined that he could feel the weight of his every year.

Each millennium seemed to line his lungs, coloring each breath he took. Each century was carved into his bones. Each decade was written upon his skin, and the years themselves . . . While many of the Edhil were aware of the stillness of their days, there were few who toiled underneath its weight as those who also bore the blood of mortal Men in their veins. He imagined that could feel time as a near tangible entity . . . moving slowly, ever on.

Sometimes, it seemed that only a year ago he had sat in Arador's house and watched as Arathorn took his first steps. It seemed that only months ago that he and Elrohir had toasted Arathorn at his wedding, and wished he and his bride every happiness in the time they had to them. Was it not but weeks since he had touched Gilraen's pregnant stomach and declared that Arathorn would be blessed with a strong and wise son? Merely days ago had Aragorn been a wide eyed babe, staring curiously up from his swaddling clothes as his mother drew him beneath the shelter of Imladris for the first. Gilraen had been little more than a child herself, and already she was dressed in widow's robes and pale with disbelief for the loss of her husband.

Days, it but felt, and yet . . .

The child who ran past them on the mountain path was growing, and growing much too quickly at that. Already ten summers had passed, and the child Aragorn - whom they called Estel - was already tall and strong for his age. With his black hair curling wild and unruly about his face, and his grey eyes gravely shaped, but laughing, Estel was the picture of a healthy and happy child. And yet, he seemed to rush on all too quickly for the mantle of a man . . . and the hardships his later years and birthright would bring.

The summer was at its pinnacle. In Imladris now left behind, the midsummer’s revelries would be at their height, even if they would be observed away from home this year. When Mithrandir had come upon the Last Homely House, a curious company of dwarves and one hobbit in tow, it had been deemed necessary to take the last heir of Isildur into the wild for his safekeeping. Though Thorin and his folk were no threat to the son of Arathorn, it would only take one misplaced whisper by a dwarf happy to share a tale for Aragorn's location to be revealed and then spread where it ought not be. The line of Elendil's sons tended to meet early and bloody ends through the machinations of the Enemy, who hated the last of the Faithful as he hated none other in Middle-earth - and they would take no chances.

Coinciding with Gandalf's return to the valley was the White Council gathering to discuss the presence of the Dark Maia, long returned to Dol Guldur and ever growing in power as he searched for that which had been lost to him . . . Yes, it was wise indeed to take Aragorn away until Rivendell was their own once more. There were those on the council, even, whom they did not trust with Aragorn's true identity and location . . . and trusted little more still as the years passed.

It had been his grandmother's bidding to hide Aragorn, and all had been quick to heed the counsel of Galadriel, steeped in foresight as it was. Aragorn himself had been all excitement and breathless delight at the idea of leaving the valley with his 'brothers' – for the time they spent in Imladris and not out amongst the Dúnedain was all but precious to him, and jealously coveted. The child had only sobered in order to solemnly ask his mother's permission to depart – which a quiet Gilraen had been quick to grant. Midsummer’s Eve marked the anniversary of her wedding, and what was a time of rejoicing for others was a time of mourning for the widowed Chieftess.

After seeking his mother's permission, Aragorn had apologized to Lindir, and eagerly asked if the song the minstrel had been teaching him to preform at the festivities could be sung at the next solstice – to which the singer had fondly agreed. More than hope, Aragorn was a breath of fresh air and life to all who lived in the valley, and there were fond faces aplenty who watched their leaving – even as their sentinels set out underneath his father's command to seek where Gandalf and his company had been waylaid by Orcs at the Hidden Pass . . .

The days were growing more and more strange as they hurried on towards shadow, Elladan could not help but think. Orcs and other creatures of the Enemy daring to come so close to the valley? The Greenwood sickening with spider-webs, and rotted by the shadow stretching across its roots and soil? Then there was Dol Guldur itself, growing in darkness as the sky would give way to the onset of the night . . . Events were rushing on towards their inevitable conclusion with a finality that was violent in its intensity and shocking in its audacity. And yet, even with the days darkening about them, there was still laughter . . . there was still light . . . hope, found in the eyes of a child and his simple, unsullied joy for the world around him.

Aragorn knew no cause for sorrow, not as sheltered as he was. He only knew that there was a reason that his mother would look to the west, her eyes lost to memory. He knew that his name was not his own; rather, it was more, and someday a great destiny was to be his. But, until the day when he was Aragorn once more, he was simply Estel. And Estel was a child, with a child's simple joys and wonders for the world and its living.

Throughout the first few days of their journey, it became apparent that the blood of his Ranger father ran strong in his veins. Estel had a knack for picking out tracks on the forest floor. He could identify the songs of the birds, and name the plants and growing things as they passed. He was light on his feet for a human child, almost fey in his step, and the forest seemed to part in order to allow him to pass.

Elrohir tweaked the curved shell of his ear and called him Laiquendi in approval when he found a hart's hoof-print in the ground. Estel's face flushed with the praise, and he held his head high at the compliment, walking through the wood as if he truly w as one of the Green-elves of old - one with the forest and its ways.

When they finally tracked the hart to its place, they found a magnificent animal with a wrack of antlers that was wider than the span of his arms. Instead of the warm, brown-red fur they normally found on the deer in the valley, this one had a coat of the palest brown, almost silver-white in shade. His eyes were old and wise as he dipped his crown to them, as regal as any king upon his throne. They did not reach for the bows upon their back – they had no need to. They had dried rations aplenty for their journey, and the Last Homely House was stocked to abundance in every way.

And yet, even if they were in need . . . there was an old soul in the animal before them. Yavanna's own eyes seemingly stared out from the face of the proud creature before he stepped back into the forest shade, and was gone.

Estel was able to speak of little else as they moved on, traveling to where the trees gave way to a series of rocky clearings. At the clearing's edge, great cliffs pierced the land, and water spilled from their crests to stream on to the rivers below. There were caves aplenty in the rock, all stocked with food and supplies and weapons and anything else one could think of. The cliff-side was marked with targets, as were many of the smaller rock formations – this being one of the outposts where Glorfindel took the young elves of his guard to teach them the sword and the bow; the wild and its ways.

Both he and his brother had learned to aim true in this very clearing, so many centuries ago, Elladan remembered with fondness. Now, it was Estel's turn.

The human child had been gifted with a bow of the Galadhrim when Galadriel and Celeborn had first arrived in the valley for the meeting of the White Council. Celeborn had knelt and solemnly explained the great heritage of the bow, and the legacy that came with such an owning. Though not his grandson in blood, Estel was his grandson in heart, and the same fondness Elladan remembered from his grandfather in days past was now bestowed upon Estel. Estel had bowed carefully to Celeborn, and then he did the same to Galadriel. Her eyes had twinkled as the boy's bow deepened, and she must have felt something that they did not - for a moment later Galadriel knelt and opened her arms, and Estel eagerly accepted her embrace, thanking her sincerely for the gift all the while.

Celeborn had been the one to introduce the basics of archery to Estel, just as he had for he and his siblings. As a prince of Doriath, Celeborn had been taught by Beleg Strongbow himself, and few were the elves of Middle-earth who could match him. Whenever the matter was brought up during his visits, Thranduil of the Green-wood said that he could, but they had never actually seen  the Sindar-king do so – and so, Elladan held on to his familial pride, and considered his grandfather the best archer of his acquaintance.

Glorfindel had circled the clearing as Celeborn went about Estel's first lesson, casually offering suggestions. He did so more to tickle Celeborn's ear than to aid Estel – to which Celeborn had icily informed him that when they needed help teaching Balrog slaying, and dying, then he could offer his counsel to his heart's content. Glorfindel's laughter had been merry in reply, but he lingered even so - the uncanny light from his eyes giving the child strength even when he realized it not.

Taking strength from more than Glorfindel's Valar given brilliance, Estel searched out Elrond's eye with every step of his learning. He looked for approval in his foster-father's eyes, and found it easily. Since their mother's departure, the only time when Elrond was truly content was when there was a child to foster in the valley. While he came to love each of the Chieftains of the Dúnedain as they grew in his household, there was something different about Aragorn. Aragorn had no family to return to upon reaching his majority; he had no kindred awaiting the end of his childhood with eager eyes and baited breath. Aragorn was as a true son of the valley, and even with the . . . difficulties that came with loving one of such short days, loved he still was, and loved dearly by all.

And now . . .

“Not bad,” Elladan praised as Estel's last arrow struck the outer ring of the target. Few arrows were a central hit, but all but one arrow struck the target itself – which was more important in the beginning than one luckily shot arrow hitting the center while the rest went astray.

“I would almost go as far to say you are a natural,” Elrohir mused as he gathered the arrows, walking them back so that Estel could try again.

“You are almost as good as Arwen was when she first started,” Elladan picked up the end of his brother's sentence, continuing his thought. “Only, do not tell the lady I said so - for her pride in her abilities is already great enough as it is. She is even better than Elrohir, I would say.”

“She may think she is better,” Elrohir protested, miffed. “They are two different things entirely.”

“Is she better than you, Elladan?” Estel asked innocently as he refilled his quiver.

He made a face. “I prefer the sword to the bow, and thus, it is hard to compare the two.”

“Which means,” Elrohir said dryly, “That she is ten times better.”

Arwen,” Estel carefully shaped the name, as if testing its weight. He looked up with curious grey eyes as he said so – Lúthien's bright eyes, which had failed to leave the king's line since Elros himself. “She is the Lady of Imladris, is she not?” he asked, his head tilted thoughtfully.

Elladan blinked, taken aback by hearing his mother's title from so young a mouth. “Yes,” he answered carefully, speaking with a suddenly dry throat – for the sunlight and the child before him were reason enough to keep his thoughts from straying to darker places. “I do suppose that she could be called so, though we never have. We simply call her sister.”

“And, in that, we must confess that we have a secondary reason for furthering your skills,” Elrohir said, turning Estel's attention back to him. More empathetic than Elladan, he easily felt his twin's dip in feeling. Elladan stood up straighter as his twin touched his spirit with his own, imparting of his own peace and strength. As always, he felt centered in the wake of his brother's light – the two of them stronger with the other than apart.

“You see,” Elladan picked up his twin's words again, circling Estel as he took aim – adjusting his arm and tilting his chin up so that it was level with the ground. “Our sister is uncommonly fair -”

“ - Lúthien reborn, some would say - ” Elrohir added, fixing the child's fingers on the bow.

“ - the evening star to Lúthien's morning star; lightening the night sky as the other heralded the dawn,” Elladan gave with mock exaggeration, as if he were a bard singing in the Hall of Fire.

“Thus so, we have an unfortunately difficult time in keeping her would-be suitors in their place.”

“After all, we are only two -”

“ - and her admirers are many,” Elrohir lamented.

“Thus, we seek to recruit you,” Elladan explained, “to aid us in keeping the wolves at bay once she returns from Lothlórien.”

“ . . . at least,” Elrohir amended, “Until Arwen stops torturing them, and picks one herself.”

“Yes,” Elladan made a face, “She would not appreciate our 'interference' then, even when done for the best.”

Elrohir gave a rueful snort, shaped in memory. “What say you, Estel Elrondion? Will you help us on this most solemn of tasks? May we count on you?”

The child's grey eyes were set gravely up on his face. He nodded regally, already possessing a shadow of his glory to come as he said, “I so accept this task, and vow to take on your fight as my own.”

“Good man,” Elladan praised, clapping his back to say that he was set, and then -

Estel let the arrow go, and found the center of the target.



.

.


They continued practicing until the boy's arms tired him. Afterward, they took a path down from the caves to where a thin waterfall fell into a rippling pool of clear water. The lake was a bright, jeweled shade of blue, warm in its shallow places and refreshingly cool in the deep waters by the cascade. The small lake was a favorite of many in the valley, and already well known to Aragorn. The child wasted little time in pulling off his outer garments and putting his pack aside so that he could dive into the pool from the rocks overlooking the water. He gave a small whoop of excitement – which was followed by a splash and a higher pitched cry when he surfaced, exclaiming at the cool temperature of the water.

Elladan and Elrohir were quick to follow with the same routine – which included surfacing to gasp at the shock of the cold water. It only took a few moments to acclimate to the temperature change, and acclimate quickly – for Aragorn did not give them a moment before he was attacking them with splashes. Such a provocation, of course, led to an all out war between them for the better part of the next hour. When Elrohir later tried to leave the water and doze like a cat in the sun, he and Estel filled their water skins with the cold water from the deep end of the pool and poured them out on the unsuspecting elf – which started the whole thing all over again.

By the time they were building a fire and preparing their supper for that night, Estel was pleasantly exhausted. He held his hands before the warmth of the flames, quiet in the wake of spending his energy. In the setting light, a figure of a massive bird took shape in the red sky, its great wings set aflame by the flickering of the dying sun above. One bird came, and then another, singing their song to the mountains below. Their caws echoed against the stone, dancing up and down their spines with the power of their cries.

“The Eagles of Manwë,” Elrohir, whose eyesight was sharper than his own, espied. “We should view them as a sign of good fortune.”

Estel looked up with wide eyes as the Eagles circled, searching for their supper on the land below. “They have their nests near to here,” Elladan explained to Estel's wide eyes – for this was the first that the child had seen Manwë's great messengers in the sky. “They roost all over the Misty Mountains, but Gwaihir's kindred nest very close to here. We are blessed with this sighting.”

The Eagles figured in many of the tales Estel heard while learning his histories, Elladan knew. Even after so many years of living underneath their shadows, he still knew wonder and respect for the Wind-lords. And yet, he once again found himself looking at something long familiar anew through the child's eyes. Estel's awe was refreshing, and he could not help but share it.

“Did you know,” Elrohir started his tale while Estel stared unblinkingly at the Eagles above, “that the Eagles led us to settle in the valley, back in the Second Age?”

Estel shook his head. The fire cast flickering shapes in his eyes as he stared up at the sky. The Eagle's calls echoed through the stone of the cliffs. He could feel them sing in the chamber of his chest; his ribs echoing the sound and his heart absorbing it. They had been noticed, he knew, and the Eagles flashed their great wings to show off for the child below.

“You know the war of Sauron and the Elves of Eriador,” Elrohir said. “You have been studying your histories with Lindir, I know. Where did last you leave off?”

“Annatar, who was Sauron in fair form, was trying to find the location of the Rings from the Elf-smith Celebrimbor,” Estel recited the words dutifully. “Celeborn roused the forces of Eregion to confront Sauron's army, but they were few, and only escaped alive for Elrond and his army of the High-king's men from Lindon.”

“And after?” Elrohir prompted, nodding at the correct recitation.

“Their forces were overrun,” Estel shaped each word carefully. His brow furrowed, darkening at admitting that two of his life's heroes could be moved to retreat – even if that retreat was from Sauron's black host out of Mordor. Those battles had been the first time that Sauron had wielded the One Ring in combat, and to devastating effect.

“They retreated,” Estel continued, “and yet, Sauron was distracted from giving pursuit by a combination of Elves from Lothlórien and Dwarves from Moria, attacking the rear of his army. They fled north into the mountains, and then . . .” Estel's story tapered off. He looked up, unsure.

“That is where the Eagles come in,” Elrohir took over for the child. “No longer were they just an army seeking a place to regroup and regather themselves. Now the refugees from Eregion were being protected underneath Gil-galad's banner – families, women and children, were there too. Many of the wood-elves had been roused from their places, and Men living in the foothills and the plains had been scourged from their homes. We had a great host to seek shelter from the oncoming winter – and Mankind in particular would not survive the cold without suitable relief from the elements. When Glorfindel and Erestor were scouting in the peaks for a suitable place to hide from Sauron, the Eagles circled above, and Glorfindel – knowing the light of the Valar better than any other – knew to follow them. They followed, and were led to a hidden place in the mountains - a valley of falling water, able to be found only by those who knew where to look. While Imladris was first founded as a temporary settlement and outpost in wartime, it ended up being a permanent establishment for Gil-galad's power in the east of his realm. After Gil-galad's death, and with so few of our kind remaining in this land, Rivendell is now a last haven for any who seek to use it as such – and it will remain so until our folk fade completely from these shores.”

Estel listened carefully to every word Elrohir said, his face solemn as he continued to stare up above. The Eagles called one last time before circling lower and lower still, their prey spotted for the night. When the sun set completely, they began their hunt, winking out of sight even as their last cries echoed in the mountains.

Even when the last Eagle left, Estel still searched the sky, hoping to catch a last glimpse. Elladan watched him, bemused for his fascination.

“It is a mark of passage for young elves in the valley to climb the peaks to the Eagle's nests,” Elladan said next, enjoying the look of eager anticipation that lit the child's face. “If you ask kindly, they will let you into their perch, and even gift you with a feather. We both did so when we were about your age.”

At last, Estel tore his eyes from the heavens to look at them with wide eyes. “Am I old enough now?” he asked.

Elrohir gave a thoughtful look. Tilting his head, he narrowed his brow in exaggerated consideration before reaching out to hold his hand an inch or so above Estel's head. “When you are about this tall, I think,” he said. “Soon you shall be ready, but not yet.”

Estel sat up straighter, as if trying to appear taller before their eyes. “Now?” he questioned, and Elrohir laughed.

“You will be ready soon enough, child – and much too soon for our tastes, at that,” Elrohir said, sadness touching the corner of his mouth with his words. Already the child grew quickly . . . so quickly. Elladan remembered both Arathorn and Arador his father as young men, eager for their years to come. He remembered Argonui before them both, taken by the Fell Winter, and Arathorn the first, taken by the Wolves . . . He remembered Arassuil once laughing as a child through Elrond's halls . . . he laughed as Arahad had laughed, as Aravorn had laughed, as Aragost had laughed . . . over and over again as the heirs of Elros lived and died before their eyes.

Before a blinking, Aragorn would be old and grey with years - and that was if he was allowed to live his life without the Enemy finding him first . . .

And yet, now was not the time to think such things, for Aragorn was still Estel now, and would be for many years. Elladan breathed in deep, and let his breath out slow.

“It takes too long, this waiting,” Estel complained, laying down with a sigh against his bedroll. He stared up the cliffs, to where the nests of the Eagles rested, proud in the starlight.

“So it always seems to the young,” Elrohir said, reaching out to fondly ruffle the child's hair.

Elladan was silent as Elrohir glanced at him, trying to keep his own thoughts at bay lest Estel sense them. Empathetic as any elf was the mortal-child, and he did not want to give the boy dark thoughts to think.

“Sleep,” Elrohir soothed when Estel's eyes narrowed with a familiar stubbornness – a line knotting his brow that went back to Finwë himself, Elladan imagined. “Today was long, and tomorrow will be much the same. Your coveted growing will be done much while you slumber.”

A long moment passed – during which Elladan half expected the child to sit up and argue the merits of climbing to the nests that very night. Elrohir simply smiled benignly, bearing through the challenge, and at long last, Estel nodded. He turned over, and closed his eyes. Though he at first looked mulish at the thought of sleep, it did not take him long to succumb to it – the last two weeks having done much to test the child's strength and endurance both.

Elrohir was silent until Aragorn's breath deepened and his brow smoothed. He ran a fond hand through the child's hair and hummed gently beneath his breath to encourage fair dreams. Elladan watched them as the fire flickered, its light waning as they let it dim for the night.

“He looks more and more like Arathorn with each passing day,” Elrohir muttered. He touched the boy's brow one last time, discreetly deepening his sleep. Elladan sat to the side and watched - Elrohir having inherited their father's skills with healing, while he was more of a blunt force with his own talents.

“It is good that he does,” Elladan said after a moment. He meant his words, even as they came with a pang of their own. “I do not wish to forget him.”

In that way, Elendil was immortal, Elladan thought - for they would remember each son of his line, one after another, deep into the later days. They could do nothing else.

Elrohir was silent for a long moment, during which Elladan did not meet his eyes. He did not need his twin to coddle him, not now, and his energies were better spent on augmenting the child's strength as they went through the wild.

“I will take first watch,” Elrohir finally said, allowing him to keep to himself. The link that ever bound their spirits dimmed for a moment.

He stood to walk the perimeter of their camp, and Elladan let him go. Even though they were still safe within the valley's wards, dark things moved in the night, and the Enemy's forces grew ever the more daring as the years went on. They would not take even the smallest of risks with Elendil's last heir, and so, Elladan closed his eyes to get what sleep he could before he would awaken and allow his brother to rest.

It did not take him long to lose himself to dreams, and yet, he was not sleeping for long before he was pulled awake by a jolt of awareness from his twin.

Instantly, he was alert, his eyes searching the shadows in the dim light left by the embers from the fire. He found Elrohir kneeling by Aragorn's bedroll – his empty bedroll, he saw, unease instantly filling him.

Elrohir glanced to him, his eyes narrowed. “I heard a noise further off,” he explained. “I left to investigate, and upon returning he was gone.”

Elladan stood, warning biting at his bones as he searched their camp. “He could simply be attending to nature,” he gave the possible explanation, even without believing it.

“He took his pack with him,” Elrohir pointed out.

He left, he was not taken then, Elladan tried to puzzle through the riddle before remembering the odd glow in Aragorn's eyes before he went to sleep . . . his troubled gaze . . . his eyes on the Eagles . . .

“You do not think . . .” he started, even as Elrohir set his mouth.

“Yes, I do think,” Elrohir answered grimly.

Elladan circled the camp, but the child's clever attempts at trying to hide his tracks were for not.

“This way,” he pointed out the small boot-prints leading to the cliffs beyond. He felt a sinking weight in his stomach as he thought about the dangers to be found in climbing the steep paths in the dark. And Estel was still a child, with a child's strength, no matter his skills for his age.

“Why would he go off like this?” Elrohir muttered as they tracked him in the dark, speaking more to himself than to him. “It does not make any sense – and it is quite unlike him, at that.”

Elladan thought of the restlessness in his own bones, his unease with his days. He thought of Aragorn growing so fast, as a green sapling shooting upwards to vainly try to pierce a canopy of oak trees. In the vaguest ways, he thought that he could understand.

And yet . . .

“I do not know,” he answered, and then concentrated on following the child's path through the wood in silence. He did not know, and the why did not yet matter. All that mattered was that Aragorn was attempting the foolish and the dangerous while past where he could shield the child and keep him safe. He had promised Arathorn that he would protect his son where he could not, he had promised his own father, and . . .

“I shall return to you, Peredhel,” He could still hear his mother's teasing voice if he all but closed his eyes. He remembered Celebrían touching the furrowed line between his father's brow as if she could sooth it away with her touch. “You act as if the road should swallow me whole.”

We shall keep her safe, Adar – you have my word,he remembered vowing, meaning his every word and feeling so very tall underneath the faith their father had in them both, and then -

No . . . it was best not to think of that now.

Elrohir looked over at him, having felt the memory and sharing it as his own. This time Elladan let his twin calm him through their spirit's bond. He needed to keep a cool mind and a calm head right now, not -

They came to the edge of the green, where the ground dropped off to the side of a cliff wall, plunging down to where the river roared on strong and swift below. The stream and lake they had swam in earlier turned into a strong waterfall here, rushing on to join the river below. The tumbling water coated the rock with a thin layer of slippery moss and mist, making the steep cliff all the more perilous. There were stubborn and hardy evergreens growing from the rock wall below – great and strong trees where there could possibly be nests, though it was hard to tell in the dark. The crescent moon above was not nearly enough light to see by when attempting to scale such an uneven terrain. He felt his heart drop when he saw where a rope had been tied around a small tree on the edge of the shelf, and draped over the side of the cliff. The tree did not look sturdy enough at all for his taste, and even the cliff-edge itself felt unstable underneath his feet – made weak from so many years of holding up the cascade as it fell. This was not the place to embark on a climb, he thought grimly. It was not the place at all.

He gave a mannish curse underneath his breath as he ran forward to kneel at the lip of the cliff. “Estel!” he called over the edge, peering down into the shadow to see where a small figure clung to the cliff-side. “Estel, can you hear me?”

“Elladan?” Estel's voice was small from below. “Elladan, is that you?”

Relief bit through his heart, even as the fear rose again. “Estel,” he called again, noticing that the rope was lax – the child's weight did not rest upon it. “Are you stuck?” he asked, dreading the answer even as he searched for it.

“The rope was not long enough to reach the trees,” Estel answered after a moment – fear and the desire to not admit his error both giving his voice pause. “I thought that I had footholds enough to let go, and yet . . .”

He could infer the rest, Elladan thought grimly.

Elrohir was already inspecting the rock. “It will not hold us both,” he already planned the best way to help the child. “It would not be worth the risk.”

“I am the better climber, at any rate,” Elladan waved his hand. “Go back to the caves, and get more rope. I will help Estel down to the trees, and then you can help pull us up.” It was the best he could think of on such short notice. Where Glorfindel camped with his guard, there were supplies for climbing aplenty – and ropes and gear enough to tackle worse places in the mountains than this.

Elrohir did not hesitate to agree with him. He only touched his shoulder in acknowledgment, and then turned to sprint back towards the caves. Their bond was open and full between their minds, letting them share strength and encouragement aplenty – and letting Elrohir know of his progress, at that.

Elladan took a deep breath, and looked over the edge again. “I am coming down,” he called to Aragorn, “And together we will then make it to the trees. Just hold on.”

“Okay,” Estel's reply was muffled against the rock, and the tremor in the voice steeled his resolve more than anything else.

Careful of the loose rock, he lowered himself over the edge, and sought out handholds and footholds in the dark. He was stronger than the human child by far, and he had spent centuries in the mountains. He was able to find his way down relatively quickly as a result. He could feel the tired and old stones speak underneath his hands. The cliff was weary of its weight, he thought, hearing as a voice sounded deep within the rock. The cascade cried out as it swam towards the river, the falling water making the cliff wet and hard to grasp. He felt unease fill him as he peered down to the trees below, wondering if they would even be able to make it that far – where the branches would allow Estel to rest his arms until Elrohir came for them.

But he could not think about that yet. He pushed the thought aside as he came to the edge of the rope. The small human was clinging to the rock a few feet beneath the rope's end with bloodless fingertips, his face pressed against the stone and his arms quivering with the effort to hold himself in place against the vertical surface.

“I can't feel my fingers,” Estel admitted in a small voice when Elladan came to perch on the cliff next to him. That voice, more than anything else, caused worry to pierce his gut – he having ever known strength and eagerness from Aragorn, no matter the situation. He found a good hold with his left arm, and with his right he held a hand out for the boy.

“Here,” he gestured. “Grab on to me.”

Estel eyed him dubiously, but Elladan gestured again. “I can carry us both,” he assured the child. “You just have to trust me.”

He did not have to say more than that. Nodding solemnly, his eyes steeling in the half-light from the moon, Estel gave up his desperate hold on the rock to reach out for him. Elladan helped him swing over, feeling as the child's arms wrapped around his neck, and his face burrowed in relief against his hair. He swallowed, not wanting to tell Estel that the worst was still before them.

The rock was awakening underneath them. He pressed his forehead against the cliff, asking for it to hold itself together just a little while longer. The rock trembled and the cascade sang, but neither could promise what they could not do.

Taking in a deep breath, he found another foothold, and lowered himself down the cliff-face. Their travel was slow, painstakingly so with the dark and the wet stone, but he moved as quickly as he could without endangering them both. He felt Elrohir's progress in his mind – his twin had reached the caves, but had not started back yet.

They were nearly upon the trees. Elladan looked, and saw where there was one large nest resting high in the branches, for the tree was old and set into the deep of the rock. Even if the face of the cliff fell, the tree would still stand tall with the new shape the waterfall made. He breathed out, seeing where a second tree grew out rather than up – holding its branches out over the river, still some ways below. The river was too far away for them to jump as a last case scenario, and after the shelf that the trees grew from, the cliff was much too steep for him to be comfortable climbing on his own - Elladan did not think that he could climb it with the child clinging to his back.

He breathed in again, and told himself to focus simply on getting to the trees – he could think further then.

By the time they made it to the branches, the cliff was all but screaming from its effort to hold itself together. Elrohir was running as fast as he could, the forest helping him form his path as he sped back to them. Any more weight, and the rock would give completely, he thought as he helped Estel grasp the branch and pull himself into a sitting position. He let the child rest on the strong limbs as he looked above to where the shelf was weakening. Even Elrohir stepping forward to pass them the rope could be too much. Even if he tried to pull up Estel alone . . .

His brow furrowed, not liking the options that were left to him in the least.

Estel pressed his forehead against the tree, squeezing his eyes closed and refusing to look down at the river below. “Now, we wait?” he asked.

“I'm afraid that it is not that simple,” he said grimly. “The cliff will not be able to hold us going back up.”

Estel blinked at him. “But I thought . . . Elrohir was getting more rope?”

He shook his head. “The cliff warns even now that it holds itself together for us only.”

Estel swallowed, glancing down at the churning river far below. “Then . . .”

“ . . . we must be very careful with what we are about to do,” Elladan acknowledged, trying to calm the child with his voice, even as he felt his own worry rise in his mind. Very careful, and very lucky, he thought, but did not say. Very lucky indeed . . .

“What do you need me to do?” Estel asked, biting his lip and meeting his eye bravely. Though Elladan was tense and no small amounts of cross at the child for embarking on such a venture alone in the dark, he did feel pride fill him for the way he looked on their predicament, ready to do whatever was needed to be done.

Over the lip of the cliff, he felt Elrohir approach. His twin had already felt his intentions at his mind, and while he did not like his decision . . . he understood. They had no other choice.

“The rock will fall,” he explained calmly to Estel. “The rockslide will not let us climb either up nor down, and so -”

He pointed to the tree that was growing out over the river – the white waters of the Bruinen churning some distance beneath them.

Elrohir got as close to the edge of the cliff as he dared, and he felt him touch his mind when he threw the rope down. Elladan spied up, and saw the silvery thread glint in the moonlight. He held a hand out, and caught the rope, gathering the long length into a coil as he made his way through the branches. He picked a path first, looking back to see that Estel followed him, careful as he moved from the first tree to the second. Climbing slowly, they were able to move out along the tree trunk – where Elladan tied the rope, and let it fall to dangle over the river. The end of the rope would put them at a safe enough height to jump into the river from – though it would still be an uncomfortable fall. The swift currents and the sharp, rocky shore carved out from the swirling eddies was not where he wanted to swim, and yet, their odds were better with them swimming on their own accord, rather than their dealing with the rock-slide pushing them forcibly into the river.

He felt the cliff give a warning, and he knew that they had no time to waste. He did not want to be near to here when the cliff slid into the water – which would make their navigating the river very perilous indeed. Impossibly so.

“I am going to climb down first,” he said, trying to sooth the fear in the child's eyes with his words. He wished that he had Elrohir's talents as he tried to touch the boy's mind with his determination and trust in his skills both. “That way, if you slip, I will be able to catch you. Take your time, and focus on the climb – just one movement at a time, okay?”

Estel nodded after a moment, biting his lip as he pushed his fear away. Once again, Elladan felt pride fill him for the brave front that the boy was putting on. “Alright,” he ruffled his hair once before going down on the rope, swinging himself from the branch and hanging perilously over the white waters below.

“Slowly and surely,” he called up as Estel swung down to join him. “This is not a race.”

The boy closed his eyes for a moment before he told his tired arms to start climbing. Elladan glanced above to see that Elrohir was already taking the trails down to the riverbank below – ready to help them both from the water when they would need it. “Look at your hands, not at the water,” he called when Estel glanced down – so far down.

“It is okay,” he assured the child above him. “It is not natural to dangle in the air like this. Fear, however, is natural. Being afraid does not mean that you are any less than you should be.”

He saw Estel nod, and then his climbing took on a new determination. Fear was natural, and would ever be with you. It was what you did with the fear that mattered, and Estel was handling his admirably.

Then he looked up, hearing as the cliff groaned aloud. They did not have much longer – a few minutes, perhaps. He looked down, seeing that they were still at a dangerous height to jump from. But soon, it would not matter.

They continued with their painstakingly slow progress, and this time when the cliff groaned, Estel could hear it too.

“Elladan?” he called, his voice taking on a tremor.

“Now we need to go faster, Estel,” he hated to rush the child, but they had no choice. “As fast as you can.”

They scurried down the rope, and yet, it was not fast enough. Small stones were breaking loose, coming down to strike the water below. They had run out of time. As the cliff groaned – apologizing as it took its last breath, Elladan reached up to grab the child, tucking him in close to his body as he let them both fall. He made sure he struck the water first - for his elven bones were stronger than Estel's mortal frame, and though the shock hurt his back and shoulder as they crashed through the surface, he did not feel any permanent damage as they sunk. He forced his body into motion, kicking mightily for the surface and carrying Estel with him as he did so.

He gulped in a breath when they broke the surface, trying to adjust to the icy chill of the mountain water – the river here having poured down from the melting snow high on the summit. He had another worry hit him when it came to how long Estel would fare in the cold water, but he had no time to think about that now – not when the boulders were growing bigger and bigger, and -

He took in a breath, and swam as fast as he could, carrying Estel along with him. The human had exhausted himself in the climb, and after a their long two weeks in the wild, his tired muscles were finally protesting their rough treatment. Estel was nearly boneless as he tried to swim with the current, rather than let it pull him under, and so Elladan tucked him in against his side and stubbornly pushed on.

The boulders were showering freely now, and though he knew they would clear the water before the more dangerous rocks fell, these ones presented their own perils too. It would only take one, and -

As soon as he thought so, a stone the size of his fist tumbled down to strike the side of Estel's head. He felt fear bloom inside of him when the blow immediately knocked the child unconscious. The river lapped at the wound, carrying the blood away, but there was still blood and a worrying knot forming as the child became a dead weight in his hold, leaving him alone to fight with the river's wrath.

Unconscious he was, but Estel still breathed. It was not a fatal blow, and yet, if he did not move quickly enough -

Elladan pushed the thought away, and swam with every ounce of might within him.

They cleared the bottom of the cliff before the majority of the rockslide fell, and the waves from the fall actually helped to push them with the current for a moment. Elladan looked ahead to where Elrohir headed for a group of logs that had jammed against the bank of the river. They were lodged against the stone shore, while still reaching far enough out into the current, and Elladan swam harder at seeing their chance to exit the white waters.

The swift flow of the river meant that there was no slow and easy landing against the log. The wood was slippery, and he felt splinters embed themselves in his flesh as he wrenched his arm trying to get a hold on the felled tree. His shoulder was already sore from the fall, and now it twisted in an unnatural way as he stubbornly clung to the log, even when the river tried to move him onwards again. He ignored the pain in his shoulder and wrist as he held on tighter, refusing to allow the current to sweep them back out again.

Elrohir was making their way towards them. Now, if he could just get Estel up on the log . . .

And yet, unconscious, there was no way for Estel to help him. He could not lift the child with one hand, and if he let go . . .

There was no choice in his mind. Not for this. Ignoring Elrohir's calls to wait – hearing his own thoughts as clearly as he did his own – he swung Estel up onto the log, feeling as his injured arm protested the motion. Ligaments strained, and his wrist burned, and yet – it was enough. He got Estel up safely, even as the river drew him out again.

He gulped and spat out the cold water; harder as it was now to swim with his injured arm. With every moment fighting the current, he knew that he was making the damage worse, and yet his alternatives were grim and growing grimmer still as the current picked up speed. Small dips in the riverbed made rolling waterfalls, each making the current turn inside out - pushing him down before he forced himself up again. He was too far in the center of the river, he thought – he could not even begin to try to grab for the shore like this. And yet, every time he tried to swim for the side of the river, the current and inopportunely placed debris would push him back.

His mind swam, trying to remember the shape the river took here. While the larger waterfalls leading down into Imladris were still some distance away, there were some midsized falls where the Bruinen was joined by more tributaries from the mountains that were dangerous indeed. While not completely lethal in height, with both his injured arm and the climb and his time in the river draining his strength with each passing moment . . .

He had to get out before that, he thought grimly. He had no other choice.

Elrohir was still at the forefront of his mind. He could feel his twin's strength fortify his own, numbing his arm and relieving his tiring limbs as Elrohir took his burdens upon himself. He was chattering suggestions at him – there was a small footbridge coming up, and if Elrohir could reach him – no, he immediately shot the idea down. Elrohir could not move with an unconscious child, and he -

Another dip in the river pushed him under, and when he surfaced, coughing to clear his lungs of water, he felt a shadow block out the moonlight overhead. He looked up in time to see a molting of golden brown feathers and the warm yellow of a great beak - and then two strong claw dipped into the waves to pull him from the river by each arm. His injured arm cried out in protest against the strong grasp, but it was a small price to pay for being freed from the river that would have soon been his tomb. He looked up, both awed and amazed for the unexpected aid as he felt Elrohir immediately move to block his pain from his mind before unconsciousness took him as a result.

The giant wings of the Eagle made quick work of taking him back up the river to where Elrohir was still attending to Aragorn, his every move anxious and filled with restless energy. He looked up at the sound of an Eagle's cry, his eyes widening almost comically as he rushed forward to help him when he stumbled from the landing – no matter how gently the Eagle tried to make it.

Elrohir helped him lean forward against the grass when his limbs replied sluggishly to his commands – unsure as he was of whether or not he wanted to push his forehead against the ground and gather his breath. or embrace his brother as he tried to cough up the rest of the water in his lungs. His throat burned from the water he had forcibly swallowed, and he wheezed unflatteringly as his body righted itself again. He felt Elrohir's hand at his back, aiding his efforts until he was well enough to breathe on his own once more.

A shadow covered the clearing on the riverbank as the Eagle took a step closer to where Estel was still asleep, curious as to the small creature he had risked his life for.

“This is not an egg-snatcher,” the Eagle said, stepping back as if startled. His voice rumbled in their bones, speaking into their hearts more so than their ears. The Wind-lord's voice was as warm as summer and as strong as the winds that would sweep between the mountain ways. “Rather, this is a Man . . . and a king amongst Men, at that. My kind used to roost in the star-kingdom that was. We knew his line well in the elder days, before black smoke rose from the land and we were forced to seek clear skies once more.”

“He is Elros' heir,” Elrohir confirmed what the Eagle read from Aragorn's heart. “He is the last of Númenor's goodness and might.”

The Eagle ruffled his feathers, pleased. “And the Half-elf did not yet take him to visit our nests? He has with every other of his fostered hatchlings, but not yet with this one . . . Tell the child that he is welcome in my roost the next time he wishes - there is no need for him to steal in as a thief.”

Next time. Estel would live and heal then. Elladan felt relief fill his heart at the Eagle's insight – shared as it was by Manwë his lord, who saw all through his messenger’s eyes.

The Eagle read his mind, as well. He bowed his massive head, his voice rumbling from his chest as he said, “Your father knows of your plight, and sends aid. The child will keep 'til the morn.”

“I thank-you, Lord-eagle,” Elladan inclined his head in respect, even as he pulled himself over to Aragorn, needing to see for himself that the boy was well. “I am in your debt.”

“There is no debt,” Elladan felt the Eagle's eyes on him . . . and felt that something that was more to the Eagle's spirit and sight settle on the air like a light. It was no mere creature of the earth that addressed him then, he knew, feeling that old, humble awe fill him once again. “You serve as we all serve, and together we take the yoke to fight back shadow from this land. I am honored to take your burdens as my own when I could. Return to me when the child heals, and the honor will be repaid in full.”

“It shall be done,” Elrohir answered for him, seeing where he wearied. The Eagle nodded his head, seeing his need for rest as well as he turned to take to the sky again. His massive wings woke the long grass, and moved the trees with a stiff wind as he rose towards the heavens again. Elladan felt his wet hair and sodden clothes lift to flap in the stiff wind until the Eagle was at last far enough above them, his one last cry dominating the night sky as he winked from view again.

Elladan exhaled, even as he traced a wet hand over the gash at Aragorn's head. It was large and wicked looking, but it was mostly superficial, he finally decided. The bump was more worrying to him – as it could be a sign of bleeding underneath the boy's skull. Elladan could not ascertain the extent of his injuries, frustrated then as he had not been before that he did not share his brother's empathy with the healing arts. Where he could not consciously know what he aided, he rested his brow against the child's and imparted as much of his own warmth and well-being as he could, hoping that it would do anything to help.

“You foolish, foolish child,” he whispered in relief and anxious anger both, feeling boneless in the wake of the boy's ill fated adventure. His eyes burned as he thought of how close he had come to once again . . .

“But you did not,” Elrohir whispered as he drew him away from Aragorn – just enough to end the connection between their spirits. “And you have little to give, brother. You will lame yourself further if you do not keep the energy to heal yourself.”

“I am fine,” Elladan tried to say, but his voice was a dry, raw sound – made so from the rough water and his exhaustion both.

“Yes . . . fine,” Elrohir drawled, believing him not. “Rest now – riders already set out from the valley. Thorin's company departed this day, and Mithrandir stayed long enough to call the Eagles for us when Adar felt our distress. We will be joined by the morning hour.”

“I will be able to ride then,” Elladan said, closing his eyes as he settled down on the grass next to Aragorn. Elrohir rolled his eyes as he settled in on Estel's opposite side, forming a warm cocoon about the boy.

“You are just as foolish as the child,” Elrohir scolded, but there was relief too in his eyes and voice. Where Elladan could have lost one brother, Elrohir could have lost both, and . . .

He winced at the thought, and exhaled shakily.

“I would have followed you,” Elrohir said after a moment, his thoughts and presence both warm at his mind. As twins, their bond was closer than that of siblings, even, and there were times when he could not tell where he ended and the other began. “I will always follow you,” Elrohir added after a moment, his voice low and weighty with his vow – touching on the issue that had stood between them for centuries now. For where his twin would make his choice one way, he would rather . . .

And yet, he did not have the energy to think about that now. He was exhausted and weary – in more ways than one, for old wounds and old griefs had swam to the surface of his mind with Aragorn's plight, and he now had the energy for little else. Turning so that his bad arm was free of his body, he rested so that Aragorn's head was tucked in underneath his chin, assuring himself that he would be close on hand if he were needed during the night. The boy was all elbows and knees and growing bones between them, and, thankful for their luck, Elladan placed a hand on the child's chest so that he could both feel the certainty of his breathing, and impart what warmth and healing he could.

He closed his eyes then, and did not open them until the dawn.



.

.

He remembered little about the journey home the next day. Horses and aid had indeed arrived the next morning – Glorfindel and Celeborn both riding out with the guards to help them back home. While Elladan was too proud to ride with another for support – and he most certainly refused to be pulled on a liter back home when the whole of the Wise were still gathered and watching in Imladris – he walked the path of waking dreams while he sat upright in the saddle, having allowed himself to be strapped to his horse like a sack of potatoes.

Estel had awakened with the dawn, and, unlike Elladan, he had no choice when Glorfindel pulled the child up to ride back with him. The golden warrior's impossibly bright spirit would do as much to heal the child as Elrond's considerable skills, and Estel too slept most of the way back to the valley, his protests falling away as exhaustion took him.

He remembered even less of his father looking him over upon returning home, recalling only a hazy shimmer of his diagnosis. He had torn the inner cuff of his shoulder after he continued swimming with his arm dislocated, and while it was now back in place, it would not be the same for some time while the internal muscles and ligaments repaired themselves. He had fractured his wrist and fingers in several places, and had again made each break worse with his continued use of the damaged appendage – and yet, that would heal relatively quickly between Elrond's energies and his own elven healing. It was not casted, merely splinted and wrapped – though he knew from experience that a cast awaited him if he could not keep his hand still. In the queer way of the body and healing, he was more irritated by the wounds left by the splinters in his skin. His nails had been removed in full from his first and middle finger from debris jamming underneath and splintering them - and that, more than anything else, was driving him to distraction.

Mostly, he slept upon returning to the valley – which was against his choice, at that. Seemingly everyone who passed him imparted a bit of their strength, and subtly encouraged his rest. First his father had, and then Glorfindel. He had dimly felt each of his grandparents touch his brow to lend him their strength, and Elrohir stayed by his bedside the rest of the day – insuring with a near mothering vigilance that he kept his rest for as long as his body needed it.

It was some time in the evening hour when a rumbling in his stomach – and a lack of anyone else 'ensuring' that he rested – awakened him fully. He could tell the hour by the purple shadows and golden light spilling in from where the sun was setting in the sky beyond, the dying light filling the healing chambers and color ing the gauzy white drapes as they danced in the evening air. He breathed in deep, and already felt cleansed and refreshed – even where his arm bothered him considerably more than it had that night by the river, where both adrenaline and worry had kept him from noticing the abuse he had heaped upon his body.

Elladan did not sit up, not yet, but he did turn to where he heard voices just beyond him. There was a nearly sheer white drape separating his bed from Aragorn's – which he knew by his being able to hear the boy speaking in soft, subdued tones. He saw a larger shadow move, and heard his father question the child as he attended to his patient.

“It does not hurt,” Estel assured as Elrond gently probed the area of broken skin at his brow. “Not any more.”

“And yet, there is wisdom in thoroughness,” Elrond said as he continued with his examination. He saw with more than physical eyes, Elladan knew from long experience, and there were few secrets of the body that could be kept from his knowing.

Estel was silent for a moment. Elladan could see his face through a parting in the curtains, and saw where he winced – his pain discovered. “I am trying to learn to be wise,” Estel said in a small voice.

“You have many years before you in which to deepen those wisdoms,” Elrond counseled subtly. “You may wish to consider your latest experience as a stride down that path.”

Estel flushed, hearing the Elf-lord's words for what they were. He tried to look down in shame, but could not do so with Elrond seeing to the wound on his brow. Silence fell between them for a long moment. Somewhere in the valley, a voice started to sing for the return of the stars to the night sky – no doubt, one of their Sindarin visitors from Lothlórien, remembering the world before the sun and moon. For a long moment, there was only the song on the air between them as more voices took up the melody.

When Elrond finished his examination, he carefully sat by the child's side, looking him in the eye all the while. “Why did you climb down to the nest, Estel?” he asked in a grave voice.

Though he could only see the back of his father's head, Elladan could imagine the weight of his stare from hundreds of such instances himself. Although Estel looked as if he dearly wished to look away, he held Elrond's gaze. “I . . .” he tried to form his answer. He faltered, and had to start again. “I wanted to do something amazing,” Estel attempted to explain, his every word growing more and more unsure as he spoke.

“Deeds of renown will come in time,” Elrond said softly, wryly in reply. “Most often, when you least expect or wish for them to.”

“No,” Estel shook his head. “It is not like that at all.” He bit his lip. His large grey eyes were filling with tears. “I . . . I wanted to do something amazing so that you will remember me. You . . . everyone here is my family. You are my family, and yet, you will live forever . . . you will mean everything to me while I will be nothing more than the blinking of an eye to you . . . a raindrop in the ocean of your years. I wanted to do something for you to remember me . . . so that you will never forget me.
 
“It . . . it sounds so silly now,” Estel whispered. His face was red in the wake of his confession, upset as he was in the wake of his pouring his heart out. His eyes were running, and Elladan felt a similar burning behind his own gaze. Elrond too blinked as he pulled the child to him, closing his eyes long and slow as he enfolded Estel in his arms.

“Dear child,” Elrond at last said, his voice thick with feeling. “You are foolish indeed to think that you are not loved as you love. You could live all of your days in peace and simplicity, and even still, not a soul here would be able to forget you. You mistake forever for forgetting, when, to the contrary, it merely means that we have longer to remember you . . . and hold that memory dear.”

Estel's small shoulders were shaking as he clung to the other. “I . . . I could have gotten us both killed,” he finally stammered out, the realization horrifying to him. “I -”

“ - certainly created a memory,” Elrond cut him off. Estel had tortured himself enough with the idea of what if – there was no need for him to do the same. “And it will not be the first time, or the last, I foresee, that one of my children move me to such fear. Yet, do you not see? Elladan would have done anything to keep you safe, even at great cost to himself. Such a thing is not done out of obligation for our having you in our keeping, so much it is that you are dear to us. Do you not see that, child?”

“Yes,” Estel drew away, nodding solemnly as he thought about what Elrond said. “Yes . . . I do.”

“Good,” Elrond said, giving him a moment in which to compose himself. “Now, dry your tears. Your mother has been beside herself with worry, and she wishes to see you. Put on a strong face for her.”

Estel nodded quickly at that, wiping at his eyes and breathing in deep. For one so young, he instinctively knew of Gilraen's sadness, and often moved to spare her even the smallest of griefs. Elrond smiled in approval when Estel looked to him to make sure of his appearance.

“You may go now,” Elrond said. “I want to keep an eye on that cut, but you may sleep in your own bed tonight.”

He waved him away, and Estel bounded to his feet with a child's energy.

“But slowly!” Elrond called after him when he tried to run. Estel slowed to a walk, obedient, but still hurried off to meet his mother's arms with a quick step, his pains already forgotten.

Elrond watched him leave, and after, Elladan did not bother closing his eyes to feign disinterest when his father turned to him - aware that he had been known for his eavesdropping the whole of the time.

“You too are awake,” Elrond said as he came over to him, pushing the curtain aside.

“I had little choice before,” he answered – to which Elrond looked decidedly unrepentant. A pain like a war-hammer crashed against his temple, and Elladan held his good hand to his head. “Although,” he admitted, “I do believe that I would rather sleep through the Balrog seeking to escape my skull.”

“You would be much improved if you had not given so much of yourself to the child,” Elrond chided. “While your heart was in the right place, Aragorn was already healing. You needed not do so to such extremes.”

“I could not . . .” he tried to speak, but found the words lost in his throat. How could he say that he saw only his mother bruised and broken when he saw Estel clinging to the cliff-side? Though the situations were world's apart, the fact remained that they were both underneath his protection, and if he had done anything . . .  everything more than he had . . . then, perhaps, his mother would still be with them. He could not . . . he would not have been able to bear bringing home another broken soul.

“It seems that I have two foolish sons,” Elrond heard the shape of his thoughts when he could not speak his words aloud. As he had done with Estel, he sat next to him on the bed and placed a warm hand on his shoulder. “Do you not see that the only pain you give to me is the pain you heap upon yourself? And you have burdened yourself with many pains since that day in the mountains.”

He needed to let it go, were the unspoken words. And yet . . . such a hatred still burned in his heart. His spirit was rushed and fast and angry, and he could not get it to slow. Where most of the Wise fought for the good of all Middle-earth, he knew that he fought with vengeance in his heart and hatred in his bones. It was not good or just or noble of him, and yet . . .

He inhaled, and tried to swallow his black feelings away. He had tried letting the feeling go, basking in its every shape and it rose up through every pore . . . he had tried hiding it away completely, forcing it down deep inside, and yet, neither extreme had healed him of his anger and pain. It was a part of him now, and he could not will it away.

Elrond sighed, and Elladan felt a familiar warmth fill him as his father tried to help him fight his demons. It was a temporary fix, but Elladan took the healing for what it was, hoping that someday the effects would linger and become permanent.

In the wake of his father touching his soul, his arm felt much improved, at least. All of his dozens of aches and pains felt soothed, and he could think with a clarity of mind. He felt good enough to take on Dol Guldur alone, even, and -

“Gandalf left this afternoon,” Elrond answered his next question before he asked it. “He wished to rejoin Thorin and his company in the mountains, for he foresaw a shadow falling there.” Elrond was silent for a moment, his brow creased with thought.

And yet, if Gandalf left . . .

“Does that mean you were successful?” he could not help the eagerness in his voice. “Was the Council able to convince the White Wizard to march?”

“We will take our fight to Dol Guldur,” Elrond confirmed. “Saruman at long last gives his blessing to do so.”

At last, he could not help but think. For centuries, the shadow had been growing over the forests and stretching over the land as the Enemy grew in might, but now . . .

“And our forces?” Elladan pressed. “What has been decided?”

“There will be no help from Mithlond but for those few underneath Galdor's command who met for the Council. Círdan would empty the Havens if need be, but his forces would long be seen in coming, and give our aim away, ” Elrond answered first. “And so, in a week's time, we will take the guard of Imladris to join the Galadhrim in Lothlórien. Galadriel and Celeborn will spare as many men as are not needed to protect the Golden Wood - for if our day goes to ill, the battlements of Dol Guldur can be seen from Caras Galadhon, and they will not leave their people so bereft.”

Elladan did the math, and the numbers were still not to his liking. Thanks to Gandalf's going behind the walls of Dol Guldur, they knew that the Enemy was not the same as he once was in might of spirit, and yet, Dol Guldur was still guarded enough. The Nine walked the halls of Minas Morgal in Mordor, rebuilding the dark land to its black glory once more - but the Nazghûl could be summoned at their Master's will, and with their unholy ways, who knew how fast they could arrive to strengthen Sauron's forces?

Their people were few compared to the might they once were. Both death in the wars of old and leaving for the West had exhausted their numbers, and with their families and childbearing couples the first to leave for the Undying Lands, their numbers were very slow to rebuild. Those who remained in Ennor were those who loved the land and stood for its protection, and yet, they were now few. The brunt of the fight to come would not be to the Elves, Elladan knew. When the final days came . . .

And yet, he acknowledged ruefully. It was best to think of one battle at a time. The might of Imladris and Lothlórien would meet, and from Mirkwood . . .

“And the Dragon?” Elladan asked. “Thranduil stands to lose as much as Lórien if this goes to ill – perhaps even more so.”

“Gandalf,” Elrond's eyes twinkled as he said so, “sees to that on his own accord – away from the wisdom and permission of Saruman, might I add. Though my heart bodes ill for Thorin Oakenshild himself, the threat of Smaug has too long reigned in the north. Gandalf's timing is right, and Mirkwood will aid him in his endeavors – whether they realize it or not.”

“Then Thranduil will send no help in arms?” Elladan asked.

Elrond shook his head. “No,” he answered. “He will protect his own, but it will take much for him to march for the good of all once again. He lost more than most on the plains of Dagorlad, and the shadow touched his heart with a grief that has still yet to heal.”

No more than most, Elladan thought, uncharitable as it was. So many had died to bring peace to their lands – as they had ever done. And yet, there were those ready to stand again and again, as many times as would need be. While he did not thirst for war, he was eager to meet the Enemy to return his pain in kind . . . eager indeed.

If Elrond saw the rising of violence in his eyes, he did not comment, but the feeling of warmth around him grew – pushing the red of the bloodlust away.

“Help shall augment our forces in an unexpected way,” Elrond finally said, watching his eyes as understanding dawned.

“Isengard's forces?” Elladan finally understood, delight filling him as he imagined that particular bit of prodding.

“Galadriel can be most persuasive when cross,” Elrond said simply. “In the end, the White Wizard had no choice but to agree.”

Imladris, Lothlórien and Isengard . . . Three Ring-bearers, and three of the Istari between Gandalf and Radagast and Saruman . . . even with their depleted numbers, it would be enough, he decided. More than enough.

“We leave within the week, then?” Elladan asked.
 
"We shall leave to group in Lothlórien at the next week's end, yes,” Elrond said gently.

Elladan heard the stress on the word, and he knew . . .

“You will go without me?” the words were plain, dropped from his mouth like stones into the water.

Elrond raised a brow, and the golden warmth he had been feeling left him as his father withdrew his power. Immediately his pain came back tenfold, and he grit his teeth in reply, stubbornly holding his father's stare without blinking.

“You need to let your arm heal,” Elrond said. “And, I will need someone left here to lead. The Ring will leave the valley, and the wards protecting Imladris will weaken until I return with Vilya.”

“Then leave Erestor in charge,” Elladan countered. “He knows better than I the running of the valley.”

“Yes, Erestor is both a skilled tactician and a more than competent steward. And yet, he is better when advising, not leading absolutely,” Elrond countered, his voice hardening. “You are a born commander, and you understand - ”

“ - which is why I would be better served with you,” Elladan countered. “It would be for ill to leave me behind. Better, even, would it be if - ”

He almost countered that he would be better suited in his father's place before he caught himself. Though Elrond had spent long centuries as a leader during a watchful peacetime, he knew the ways of war in a way Elladan would never be able to understand – for such a fight would never again belong to the Elves of Middle-earth as it once had. He knew his father best as a healer, as a scholar with a quill in hand . . .  but he was also the son of Elwë and Finwë's combined might, with the blood of Mankind's foremost fathers and a Maia divine running through his veins, at that. It was all too easy to forget Elrond's heritage until he was forcibly reminded of it, feeling as the blue weight of his father's spirit filled the air around him – answering his unconscious challenge. He felt his skin prickle in awareness as static seemed to crawl up and down his spine, warning him of a force he would do well not to trifle with. Still, he squared his jaw and met his father's eye unblinkingly, unwilling to give.

“I need you here to protect that which I will not be able to defend myself,” Elrond said plainly, finally pulling back the force of his fëa before it turned smothering. “There will be warriors aplenty marching on Dol Guldur, but I need one here, to protect that which is our dearest hope for the future to come.”

Estel, Elladan thought with a pang, his cheeks coloring as he realized what his father was asking of him.

“You are pacifying me,” still Elladan countered. He could feel as Elrond's healing returned to him, again numbing his pain. The force of his spirit was once more like a star – giving its light, but not burning from such a distance away.

“I would not,” Elrond said simply in answer. “I think too highly of you for that.”

Elladan raised a brow, but could not counter the other when he had been so moved into a corner. He fought the urge to sigh, not wishing to stay behind, and yet . . .

“I trust you,” Elrond said simply, seeing as the war waned in his eyes. “I trust you with all that I hold dear, as I ever have.”

Elladan swallowed, and did so around a stone. His throat was thick as he nodded, remembering only Celebrían smiling as she tried to sooth her husband's fears of her crossing the mountains. He remembered joining her high spirits, vowing, “We shall see her back safely, Adar, you have our word."  He remembered the solemn trust that had been gifted to him in return.

He breathed in through his nose, and gave his vow again, “I will not fail you.”

He held his father's gaze without blinking, and saw where Elrond's eyes dimmed for a moment – weary with an old hurt. And yet, it was not hurt felt for his own pain, Elladan realized. Instead - “You have never failed me,” Elrond said gently as he stood. “Never.”

Elladan closed his eyes as he held on to his words – needing them more and more every time they were spoken. He felt tears burn, but he did not let them fall as Elrond gently touched his brow. He felt that familiar warmth touch his spirit, and he did not fight it as sleep settled upon his consciousness once more. Instead, he closed his eyes, and let himself heal.

Chapter Text

The day after next, Elladan was looked over and declared fit enough to leave the healing rooms. Of course, he was warned to keep to the least menial of tasks – which meant that anything of interest was to be far from him until his arm was fully healed, and he was stuck indoors with scroll and pen as a result.

Upon hearing that he would be taking over Elrond's duties, Erestor had prepared a stack of missives for him to see to – dealing with everything from replenishing the valley's larders and wine cellars (which Thorin's company had been able to consume at a rather alarming rate), to more menial matters, such as the conditions of the various foot bridges over the Bruinen, which would have to be maintained while the summer months were still with them.

It was all very . . . interesting, he tried to convince himself. Though he was over two thousand years old, he was still as a mulish child with his schoolwork whenever there were words on paper to be seen to. At least, that was what Erestor had said as he heaped more scrolls upon his already considerable pile. Elladan had fought not to scowl at the prim steward's well meaning teasing – which would have only solidified the truth of his words. Even so, he made a face when the older elf left, nearly certain that he was being punished.

You are not being punished – but crafted, Elrohir tried to point out when he 'thought' loudly enough for his twin to hear. If the unthinkable ever came to be, or if their father eventually went West before they did, then the valley and its governing would fall to them. Everything he now learned would prove to someday be of value, Elrohir reasoned. Even so, it was easy for his brother to say so, for Elrohir had always been the more patient one between them. He did not mind sitting through the tedious and mundane if it was of importance. And now . . .

He would much rather be in his brother's place, he thought with a pang that was equal parts grief at their impending separation and envy. Elrohir had left him toiling in the library in order to help Glorfindel organize the guard for their upcoming journey over the mountains. The valley all but sang with a restless energy for the fight against the Enemy to come, and he hated knowing that he would not be taking part of it. He should be out there, helping where he would be most of use - not inside, hunched over parchment with a quill in hand.

Elladan felt a tightening in his chest, and fought to push his darker thoughts away before Elrohir could pick up on his frustration. It was bad enough that his brother was going without him, and yet, he would feel as such if Elrohir took any task that separated them. They had not been parted for more than a day at a time since their birth, and the idea of now spending so long away from his twin was something that he could not think of without grief.

And yet, he would not reflect on such things now. He did not want to dampen Elrohir's spirits with the black tug of his own. Besides - the tally of feed the horse-master wished to order was taking all of his concentration. He had room to think of little else.

Sitting at the table across from him, Estel looked just as miserable as he. Elladan had moved his work into the library so that he could sit with the child – who was catching up on the studies he had missed during their two week sojourn from the valley. Head injuries were nothing to treat lightly, and the boy had not been allowed near his pony or to practice with his bow since returning. While Elladan was able to rationalize why he was to stay behind while the rest of their fighting men left Imladris, Estel was a child with a child's mind, no matter how much they prided him for being wise beyond his years - he did not like that so many he cared for were readying to travel beyond where he could see, and went with swords and bows, at that.

Estel carried his worry and his unease close to the surface, and that worry expressed itself as a short temper and a restlessness of spirit. Already he had been scolded for being disrespectful to his mother when Gilraen tried to dress the gash on his brow, and he had coldly ignored Glorfindel when the warrior had tried to cheer his mood – blaming the Captain of the guard for the fight to come with a child's hurt form of logic. Estel had made his amends to both, but knowing that he had acted ignobly drew his mood even further down. As a result, his face was sad as he stared unblinkingly at the empty page before him, and he absently played with the feathered end of his quill rather than writing with it.

When it became clear that Estel was learning as much of his Adûnaic as he was progressing through his tallies, he pushed both of their scrolls aside and took out a deck of cards. While such games were a more human pastime than an elven one, Estel was mortal, and Elladan would see that he was able to bluff his way through any hand by the time he returned to his folk. Aragorn's father had been one of the best card players of Elladan's long acquaintance with the Dúnedain, and he would ensure that Arathorn's legacy was carried on in even the smallest of ways.

This was one of the many things that he wanted to tell Aragorn about his father. Someday, Estel would learn his name and heritage, and while the histories would tell of Arathorn the Chieftain, he looked forward to being able to speak of Arathorn the man. He was counting down the days until Estel's twentieth birthday much as Gilraen did – she being all but eager for her son to know the father who had given his all for his people and his family.

And yet, until then, he regaled Aragorn with tales from own his mother's time spent in Moria during the Second Age. He spoke of how the Dwarves played with dice and cards quite like this, and shared the words of one of their more humorous ditties that detailed the evils that came with placing a bet that one could not keep. His stories lightened the child's mood, and even garnered a smile or two – a smile that Elladan had shared, glad as he was to think of his mother in a lighter context than he normally did. He was happy to dip into his wealth of stories, and Estel had been curious about Dwarves in general since learning who had resided in Imladris while they were gone. Better was Aragorn's curiosity than his bleak mood, and so, Elladan indulged him where he could.

His stories had ebbed to silence as they passed a hand in quite companionship. Estel's brow was furrowed with thought, and yet, his mind was not wholly on the cards. Elladan saw where he gathered his words, and waited to pry – knowing that he would speak when he knew what he wanted to say.

“I am sorry,” Estel said after the silence turned long between them. “It was a foolish thing of me to do, and I know regret that my actions put you - put us - in so much harm.”

Elladan did not have to ask him what he was apologizing for. “Yes, it was a foolish thing to do,” he agreed, having waited for this conversation. “Most likely, we would have taken you at the summer's end, when the nests were empty of the Eagles' young. You did not have long to wait.”

Estel looked down, his face flushing, and yet, Elladan saw no need to put him through more counsel than that. The boy had already been corrected by Elrond and Gilraen both – and was serving out his sentence in the kitchens with Bethril every evening for the next two weeks, at that. So, he softened his face, letting Estel know that he carried no resentment or lingering anger.

“I wanted to do something amazing,” Estel said without looking up, trying to explain his motives in the best way he knew how. He played with the corners of his cards as he spoke, not really seeing the suit they held. “I wanted to impress you with something that had not been done before . . . I thought to present you with an Eagle's feather upon the morn, and imagined that you would have known pride for how much I had learned and applied what I was being taught . . .”

“You already amaze me,” Elladan said, his words simplein reply. “And you do so even without having reached the nests on your own.”

Estel's blush deepened, but not only from shame. The child peaked up from beneath his bangs, his eyes wide with his hope. “I am sorry,” he said sincerely once more. “I will not be so foolish again.”

“I have already forgiven you, Estel,” Elladan said warmly. “And yet, you are a growing child,” his voice turned rueful. “Perhaps it is better not to make promises you cannot keep. I know that you will think more carefully about your actions next time – and there is wisdom learned in that. Your insights will be great as a man, I feel, and you have already taken a great step towards their learning.”

Estel glanced down again, his brow furrowed with his thoughts. “I have been told so often,” he muttered, his eyes turning a stormy shade of grey. “And yet . . .”

Whispers were dropped often about his future, but nothing was ever specifically said, Elladan knew. This was an old and common reason for frustration, and one that grew all the more so with every passing year.

“You knew my father, did you not?” Estel asked after a moment, his every word hesitantly phrased. Since he was old enough to understand – and espy the difference between Men and Elves, at that – he had known that Elrond was not his father in blood. Even so, the idea of Arathorn was a hazy reality to him, something half-understood, as if known from a dream.

Carefully, Elladan answered, “Yes, I knew your father.” He kept his face straight as he said so, for Estel knew that he was at liberty to answer little more than that.

“Can you tell me anything more?” Estel asked, such an eager light brightening his eyes that Elladan felt his own heart hurt with it. “Can you tell me anything about who I really am?”

A moment passed. He reached over to tilt the child's chin up, looking into his eyes as he did so. “You are hope,” he responded simply, watching as Estel fought not to roll his eyes in reply.

“I knew that you would say so,” he complained, and Elladan smiled.

“Ask an Elf no questions, for they will answer you neither yes or no,” he stated, to which Estel gave a loud sigh.

“Then it is wise of me to ask you,” Estel said cheekily, his eyes narrowing. “You want to tell me the truth. I can tell that much, at least.”

The child had him - insightful little creature that he was. Even though his words were matter-of-fact, a part of them still carried a sharp edge. He searched Estel's face for a long moment, seeing both Arathorn's serious brow and Arathorn's expressive grey eyes as they lightened . . .

And so, he said, “Your father was a very brave man who gave everything for his family.” It was the truth in its simplest form. “He would have known nothing but pride for his son.”

Estel swallowed. Elladan could see how much even the smallest of words meant to him as he took them and held them close, examining them for their every sound and shape.

“And, your father was the best card player I have ever known,” Elladan admitted when he turned his attention back to their game. “It is a skill you have inherited, I see.”

Just that easily, Estel smiled, his mood lightening as quickly as it had set in. While his face was still grave in expression, his countenance was no longer weighed down. He did not have the answers he sought, but for now, he knew enough to tide him over.

Estel turned back to his hand, and Elladan watched him, seeing the ghost of Arathorn hover over every move the boy made. And yet, such thoughts would not do – for neither he or Aragorn. So, he turned his attention back to the cards, and made his move.



.
.

As was planned, the guard of Imladris left the valley at the end of the following week.

At the east-gate, he hugged Elrohir goodbye – not bothering to hide how much he would miss the other while they were parted. When he pulled away, he clapped his twin on the shoulder and gave him his favorite set of throwing knives to use in a pinch. He tried to keep his voice light and easy, but he knew where his sorrow clung to his words and betrayed him in his eyes.

He next said goodbye to his grandparents, vowing that he would set out to visit the Golden Wood when next his time with the Dúnedain allowed him to do so. He did miss Lothlórien and the healing that the realm provided, but crossing the mountains grew all the more perilous with each passing year, and he cared but little for braving the Redhorn Pass for obvious reasons. Galadriel caught the trail end of his thoughts, and the warm gold of her spirit touched his in reply, soothing over the angry lines of his fëa with her grace before she turned away. Celeborn was more tangible with his comfort – embracing him as if he were still a child and smiling warmly before turning to join his wife.

The whole of the time he said his farewells, his father had been biding a quiet goodbye to Aragorn – kneeling down so that he was eye to eye with the boy, and speaking with words Elladan could not hear. Gilraen stood behind her son, her hands warm on Aragorn's shoulders as Elrond promised to return before the onset of winter. Estel nodded at the vow, and yet, his grey eyes shone with the words he refused to say – he liking but little that they rode out clad in mail, with their weapons close at hand. He had already lost one father, and with a child's fear he worried for saying farewell to another. Though Elladan had not of foresight, he felt that he would see his family again, and so, he forced a smile to his face as he promised his father that he would lead Imladris well in his absence.

As he said so, he looked over Elrond's shoulder to see where Glorfindel had picked Estel up and spun him about – asking him not to grow too tall while they were away, else he would not be able to carry him as such upon returning. The request had Estel giving the smallest of smiles in return – the half Vanya's presence ever a light to those around him.

After the last farewell had been said, Elladan stood at the gate with Gilraen and Aragorn as the guard rode out onto the mountain trails. Estel watched the mail clad warriors with wide, envious eyes, only saying, “I wish that I was going with them,” when the last warrior left to form the rear of their host.

“You will find yourself riding out soon enough,” Gilraen said. Elladan looked, and saw the way the tips of her fingers turned white upon her son's shoulders.

“Much too soon for my taste,” Elladan added, speaking ruefully so as to draw a smile from the child. “Already you make me feel old enough as it is.”

The corner of Estel's mouth curved up before turning down again, he watching the guard with serious, narrowed eyes. Behind him, Gilraen too looked on – she had said farewell many times in her life, and looked to do so many times still. She had been young even amongst the eyes of Men when she first came to the valley, and she still looked so with her face untouched by age, and the dark, honey blonde shade of her hair still bright with youth. Only her eyes betrayed her, weighing upon her face with an age still many years past her.

“Who do they go to fight?” Estel asked after a moment. “It must be quite a foe for so many to have been gathered in the valley.” Thoughtfully, he puzzled through his thoughts – this being the first time he had met Galdor and his folk from the Grey-havens, and the representatives of Mirkwood, few as they came. He had spied Saruman from a distance – as they had discreetly tried to keep the one from the other. Radagast too they had steered Estel away from, for while Yavanna's Maia was a kind and gentle soul, he was too close to Saruman in both respect and confidence, and it would take but for a word . . .

And yet, he called himself from his thoughts, knowing that Estel already had a sharp mind for one so young. He would know a lie, and though he was shielded from much, they could not keep him hidden from all. “They go to fight a very dark being,” Elladan answered, glancing over at Gilraen as he said so, not wanting to share anything that she would not agree for her son hearing. Her face was serene. Her mouth made a thin line, and yet, she did not gesture for him to stay his words. “They march upon a creature of evil, who has plagued these lands since days of old. While we cannot yet destroy him, we hope to push him back to the lands of his rule, thus forcing him to leave the forests to the east in peace.”

Gilraen took in a breath at his words, and exhaled slowly. Ever did the Enemy search for the sons of Elendil, and he knew that Aragorn's dreams were at times plagued by Sauron reaching out to touch his mind - vainly attempting to expose him from his hiding place. There was a curse upon Númenor's sons, and though Elendil had been of the Faithful, he had too long lived underneath Sauron's shadow. He, like the rest of Númenor of old, had been touched by a darkness ancient and powerful, and even though his deeds were worthy and honorable, never would he or his line completely escape the taint of his presence until Sauron was destroyed completely.

“I know of whom you speak . . . there are times when I can see him when I dream,” Estel whispered on the wings of his thoughts. He glanced to Gilraen and Elladan in turn, as if asking leave to tell a secret. “He is beautiful in appearance, and when he speaks his voice is as warm as music. He searches . . . he gives such promises . . .”

Elladan swallowed, hating the truth of his words as they were spoken. Even Elrond's wards could not completely keep Aragorn's mind free from Sauron's taint, and he hated the frustration that came with fighting such an intangible enemy . . . an enemy who moved in sleep and fought in shadows.

Gilraen knelt down so that she was eye to eye with her son. She rubbed Estel's shoulder soothingly, her brow as pained as his own, she being even more helpless to fight against the untouchable and formless than he.

“But then the dream turns dark when I run for him,” Estel continued, biting his lip with his words. “Then I see him as he truly is . . . He is fire; seeing everything, consuming everything . . . ”

“Shh, child,” Gilraen said. “These are nothing but dreams, and can harm you not.” And yet, her voice was whispered, she knowing the truth of their threat as her son instinctively understood the foul nature of the mind trying to touch his own.

“Where they go . . .” Estel paused, unsure of how to form his thought. “Do they . . .”

“Yes,” he did not lie. “That is the foe they will face.”

Estel looked to where the last rider had disappeared into the mountains. “It scares me,” he revealed on a whisper, looking back to them when the shadows on the path would reveal no more.

“It scares me too,” Elladan admitted on a whisper as they turned back inside the gate. “ . . . It scares me too.”



.
.

It was not until weeks later that he felt a rippling of joy across his spirit.

He paused, and Estel looked up from beside him, having noticed the change in his stride. “What is it?” he asked.

“They reached Lothlórien,” Elladan answered him, his voice soft as a light of white and gold danced about his soul like sunlight upon the water, warming him even from such a distance away.

“How can you tell?” Estel asked, curious.

He knelt down and took the child's hand in his own, unable as he was to find the words to explain what he felt. He opened his mind to the boy, letting him feel the dancing touch of Arwen's spirit as it reached out for his own. While he was close with his sister, her presence within his spirit had been muted from so far away, he sensing her only in occasional bursts of feeling and awareness. But now, with Elrohir at her side, and his twin's joy a nearly tangible thing to his senses as it intertwined with Arwen's presence, he felt as if she were physically by his side – a specter of light and warmth he could almost reach out and touch.

Estel blinked, and looked as if he wanted to step back at the radiance that washed over him. “What is that?” he asked, his voice whispered as he looked on the interplay of spirits with an amazed wonder.

“That is my sister,” Elladan answered, amused as Estel unconsciously tried to reach towards the warmth of their bond, drawn to it like a tree towards the sun. “Ever is her spirit a light, and yet, it is one that I have not felt in too many years. Sometimes, it is easy to forget until reminded, as I am now.”

“She is beautiful,” Estel said on an exhale, meaning his every word as Arwen's spirit winked one more time before fading away, once more becoming a source of warmth deep inside his soul.

“Yes . . .” Elladan could not help the fond look that crossed his face then. “Yes, she is.”



.
.

Near the end of the fall, he could feel the day that the White Council marched upon Dol Guldur.

Estel had long since healed from his Midsummer's Eve adventure, and he was now all but pacing the halls with his restlessness for the return of the valley's residents. That day, a feeling of unease fell upon all in the land for the conscious will of Sauron turning for the first in such power and might, and Estel was no exception. While the child could not consciously understand the cause of his restlessness that day, Elladan guessed that he could feel the same shadow that he did – both Sauron reaching out from his stone walls for the first, and the residual empathetic links he bore with those in the valley telling a tale his conscious thoughts would be unable to fully understand.

Elladan had returned early that morning from riding out to check the outer wards of the valley's defenses. Though the spells protecting Imladris were weakened with Vilya's departure, they were still holding, and Elladan trusted that they would continue to hold until the Ring was returned.

Aragorn had been asking for weeks to ride with him – even if it was just to the mountain trails right beyond their home, and no further than that. Those ways were still safe, he was quick to argue, for the outer wards protected the forests and mountains around the valley, and their scouts kept any danger from reaching so close to their dwellings. There would be no harm in venturing out, Estel reasoned, hope lining his every word.

Elladan knew that he was being overcautious, but it was not until that day that Aragorn was finally able to sway him – which was a result of his own restlessness as much as it was due to the child's. He could feel the battle from far beyond as it licked at his skin, and his temples hurt from his constant effort to buoy his twin's spirit from so far away. The peace and tranquility of Imladris was suffocating when he could all but hear the warcries and feel the vibrations of steel crossing steel when he closed his eyes. He would go mad if he was forced to remain still and look over scrolls that day – and in that, he sympathized wholeheartedly with Estel.

Any reservations he may have had about taking Aragorn faded as soon as they left set out upon the mountain trail. Almost instantly, Estel was full of breathless delight, chirping excitedly and trying to take in everything all at once, as if this was his first time leaving the valley's gates.

Elladan did not mind his good cheer in the least. The day had dawned as a shadow in his mind, even though the sky was cloudless and the sun overhead was bright. Though he could feel where Elrohir tried to dampen their connection, he could still sense the battle as it rolled like a tide upon the shore – receding and advancing as Sauron's ranks poured from the gates of Dol Guldur as waves crashing upon the rock. As a result, he was quiet as they walked the trails just above the valley, where the great waterfalls of the Bruinen gathered in jeweled tiers before pouring down into the basins below.

Estel sensed his mood, and he soon turned silent to match. He walked a few steps ahead of him, pausing every so often to shoot at imaginary targets in the wood. Sometimes he would frown, while other times he would smile, his target in the trunks of the trees a clear hit with what he had pictured in his mind. Each time his arrow made a clean strike Estel would look over his shoulder, and yet, Elladan was slow with praise that day. He could feel as Elrohir took his own aim and fought his own foes, while the filth the Enemy employed burned with a cold fire across his senses.

At that, he looked up, feeling a whisper of disquiet ripple across his own skin. For a moment, it was hard to disengage what he felt from what Elrohir felt, and yet . . .

Ahead of him on the path, Aragorn heard what he had sensed. His head was tilted, and his arrow rested nocked against his bow. He lowered his weapon, trying to listen to something moving in the wood.

Elladan stepped forward, peering through the trees to look down on the trail they had just come up from. He looked, and saw -

By his side, Estel started, surprised when there were two deformed figures on the path – Orcs with stooped backs and strong limbs, dressed in light armor with their hands on the hilts of their swords at their sides. The sound of the Black Speech was muttered, and even with the distance between them, the sound was discordant, blighting the natural beauty of the valley with that which was unnatural, that which was blasphemous to the fairness of the creation surrounding them.

The pair of Orcs were complaining to each other as they followed the river, Elladan heard – they liking but little the song of the water and the dance of enchantment that sweetened the air. Imladris was a stronghold of old power and of deep magicks – and that must have sickened the Orcs just as their muttered words pelted against his own spirit as blows against his skin. He narrowed his eyes, seeing the sigil of Gundabad in the black markings upon their armor. They had come down from the north then, he would wager, sent from Bolg's recaptured stronghold underneath the northernmost peaks in the Misty Mountains.

He could deal with them easily enough, Elladan decided. His true worry was for how many more had slipped through the gaps in the valley's defenses. Most of Gundabad's might would have headed east to join Sauron's forces, he would have thought. And yet, if Sauron thought that the valley's weakened defenses would be an ample time in which to scout out the hidden location of Imladris . . .

Most likely, these two were merely scouts – spies with strict instructions to let none know of their presence while they sought to see what they could, and that had true anger burning low in his bones. Imladris was a safe haven, a peaceful land of song and healing, and for the Enemy to dare defile it, even in thought . . .

He drew his sword and turned to Estel – who was looking with wide eyes on the pair below them, this being the first time he had seen an Orc in his life.

“How are they here?” Estel whispered, unblinking as he took in each line of jagged bone, each ridge cut into the pallid flesh of the creatures before them. The first time Elladan had seen an Orc, he had felt pity for the bleak parameters of their unnatural existence – much as what now flickered though Estel's eyes. But those years were now long behind him, and Elladan only felt a cold fury fill him for the defilement of their presence upon the land.

“The wards surrounding Imladris are weakened,” Elladan explained with clipped vowels. “They must have slipped through our watch.” Easier would it have been for two lone scouts to move in secret, he thought. Anything more would have been easily detected and seen to. But now . . .

“I do not think that they come to fight – only to spy, and yet, a fight they shall find.” He stepped back from the line of the trees, walking back towards the path – which the Orc pair would take straight towards them. He placed his hand on the hilt of his sword, calming his breathing as his blood pumped hot and angry through his veins.

And yet, as he drew his sword, something unexpected happened.

A sharp pain bloomed at the top of his thigh, biting into his skin with the familiar burn of an arrow piercing flesh. The pain was ghost like for all of its intensity, forcing him to kneel as he tried to process what he was feeling. He ground his teeth while at his mind, he felt both Elrohir's annoyance and pain with being struck. An Orc arrow, he understood as Elrohir moved to shield him from what he was feeling, shot by a sentry on the wall.

Elladan ground his teeth as his twin pulled the arrow from his skin, feeling it as if it were removed from his own flesh, and -

“Elladan!” he could feel Estel's small hands at his shoulder, trying to rouse him from the haze that had taken him. “Elladan, what is wrong?”

He pressed the heel of his palm into his thigh, as if to stem an invisible flow of blood. The phantom pain continued to ghost through him, and he ground his teeth at the sensation - even as he welcomed more, knowing that any burden he could take from Elrohir could mean the difference between life and death in such a melee. Elrohir protested, but he was stronger than his twin in that moment – and he forced the link between them to remain open.

“Elladan?” Estel asked again, worry leeching into his voice as he glanced back down the ridge again.

“Elrohir,” he forced the name out, even as the Orcs turned on the path beneath them. They scented the air like dogs, their lips drawing back from their teeth as they traded grotesque smiles with each other. “He is wounded, and I . . ..”

Estel's eyes were wide. He bit his lip. “Then you can feel . . .” he waved a hand, unable to articulate his question.

“Yes, I can,” still he answered. “And I will not be able to fight as I normally would,” he said grimly – what had begun as an easy dispatching of an unaware foe turning into a perilous situation indeed. “I need you to climb as high as you can, and hide.” He gestured to a nearby evergreen, its limbs growing tall and strong from the rock. “No matter what, do not leave this tree. Either I will be successful here, or help will come for you. Only do not leave the tree, do you understand?”

He hated the fear he saw in the child's eyes, but there was no time to shield him in that moment. Reality was raw and real before them, and Elladan winced as he felt the pain in his leg throb anew.

“But - ” Estel tried to argue, but Elladan cut him off.

“No,” he hissed the one word out on an exhale. “You are to hide, do you understand me?”

Estel was silent for a moment, but he nodded, bravely holding his gaze. “Yes,” he finally answered. “I understand.”

“Good,” Elladan pushed him towards the tree. Estel climbed quickly and surely while Elladan walked forward to where the pair of scouts had found their scent on the air. Even with his bad leg, he had strength enough in his arms and upper body, and if he could get close enough . . . he was angry and frustrated, and he had someone to protect just behind him. Even with his handicap, he was a foe not to be crossed.

He spun the sword in his hands, and stood his ground.

Though the Orcs could not smell blood, they could smell the sour scent of his pain – and their eyes were wide and glassy with anticipation as they stalked closer, foolishly thinking this fight to be an easy one.

“You are far from home, Elf, are you not?” the first Orc teased as he came closer. His voice was a grating sound, like a blade striking bone.

“ . . . or aren't you?” the second mused aloud, tilting his head. “We must be close then, if you were crawling back from whence you came.”

“We do not smell blood, but pain,” the first one said thoughtfully. “Why could that be?”

“Well, we do not smell blood yet,” the second added, and they both laughed, amused by their own wit.

Elladan fought the urge to wince. The Enemy had never seen that his servants had evolved enough to properly give what he would consider to be true banter, and instead of deigning them with words in reply, he simply bared his teeth and stood his ground, tightening his hold upon the hilt of his sword.

He did not speak before stepping into his opening blow – surprising the first Orc with the strength behind the swing – a blow which would have severed his head from his shoulders if he did not find a way to block it in time. The Orc hissed, and Elladan spun around to fight the second off of his back. His footwork was off, and his strikes were clumsy as he felt Elrohir struggle to his feet again.

The battle beyond was growing, he thought, tasting ash in his mouth and feeling as a shadow rose from the battlements of Dol Guldur, taking shape . . . The spirit of Sauron was rising, and even as a mere shadow the force of his presence was smothering, drawing on unconscious fears and intensifying every pain a hundredfold as he joined the fight as a fell specter of wrath. Elladan felt where Sauron mercilessly tore through his twin's mind – as he did through all upon the battlefield - finding each disquiet thought and painful memory and pressing on them as fingers poking a bruise.

The psychic onslaught was worse than the feel of the arrow piercing his skin. Over and over again he saw the glassy look in his mother's eyes . . . he was reminding of how red the blood of the Orcs was as they turned the den inside out with their scourge of vengeance. And yet, it was not enough to assuage the guilt they felt, the blame . . . From the distance, he could feel as Elrohir's fears about his own choice were brought to life. He feared the black veils of a mortal death, and yet, he would brave through it for him if that was what he chose. Together, always together they would go, and -

He forced himself to cut through his twin's thoughts, bearing through the mental onslaught as if he were a tree with deep roots in a storm. Today would not be the day they faced such an end, he decided fiercely. It would not. Hold on, he thought as Elrohir drew in a shaky breath, trying to stand tall through Sauron's onslaught. Just, hold on . . .

Focus on your own fight, Elrohir hissed at him. He tried to dampen their connection, but to no avail – he could not when his mental energies were being expended elsewhere.

I would be, if you did not distract me to begin with, Elladan tried to return, but the Orc before him was faster than he first had thought, and he narrowly avoided a slash across his abdomen. He snapped his elbow back, and connected with the second Orc's jaw, even as the creature's sword glanced across his arm. The cut was superficial, but it burned – inciting his annoyance more than anything else as he turned away from the blade.

Careful, Elrohir said without humor, and Elladan stumbled when he felt another pain pierce his abdomen – an arrow to the side, he diagnosed, gritting his teeth against the white-hot sensation.

Careful! He gave in return, what he tried to make teasing was instead a sound of worry between their minds. He could then feel where Elrohir was being forcibly turned away from the battle – Glorfindel, Elladan thought, thankful. The feeling of shadow was growing, growing – but it was growing as if chased . . . The Three rings, he understood then. They would be able to triumph over the shadow of Sauron's spirit as long as the One Ring was far from his grasp, and their goal was almost realized as Sauron rose even higher, blocking out the sun above with the great span of his shadow.

Hold on, he thought once more. Just hold on . . . your fight is almost done.

And yet, even as he helped his brother through his pain – forcing him to keep consciousness as he was turned away from the battle – his own battle became perilous indeed. His distraction had cost him, and the pair of Orc had pushed him back to the edge of the ravine, where there was nothing but a sudden drop waiting behind him and Gundabad steel poised before him. He needed to focus, to concentrate, and yet, it was hard to do so when he could not tell one battle from the other.

The first Orc was laughing - laughing, the thought burned. They were not moving quickly to finish him, he realized, seeing where their blows were teasing as they toyed with him – not understanding the cause for his pain and distraction, but taking advantage of it anyway.

That was, until -

He heard a whooshing noise whistle through the air, and then the first Orc fell, an arrow protruding from the back of his skull. The Orc's eyes widened almost comically in surprise, while his mouth gaped – but then his body toppled, his life gone as quickly as they blow had been set.

“Elladan!” Estel called from the tree. He turned just as the remaining Orc did to see where the human child had balanced precariously in the branches to brace himself for a clean shot with his bow.

Elladan felt both gratitude and fear fill him as he realized that Estel had given his position away. He hunched over even as Elrohir did, unable to breathe as he felt another body slam into his own upon the battlefield, stealing his breath away as Glorfindel moved to face their newest foe. Their connection was too much between them, too much, but he could not find the means to dampen it. He couldn't, when he sharing his brother's pain was the very thing keeping him upright as chaos reigned around him, and -

Estel was quick to reload his bow again, but this time the Orc saw him, and batted the second arrow harmlessly away. He stalked forward – forgetting about Elladan in his anger as he moved towards the tree. The third arrow Estel fired was wildly off-mark, and his hands shook as he loaded his forth arrow.

Estel, Estel, Estel, Elladan thought wildly, struggling to get to his feet again. He had to -

Finally, he felt as a great blue weight settled upon the bond he bore with his twin. So immersed as he was then with Vilya, and entwined with both Galadriel and Gandalf as they wielded their own Rings, his father was able to cut his connection with Elrohir, even across such a distance. He did so just as Elladan blinked against the visage of a massive eye, wreathed in flame and blooming from the shadow of his spirit . . . for the Ring-bearers were not the only ones in their minds then. They were not alone, but shared as Sauron saw the boy he had long hunted, and Sauron knew . . .

The fierce rush of protectiveness he felt then was enough to break him free from his haze. No, he thought. He is ours, and you shall touch him not. Not again shall you -

“Little boy, little boy,” the Orc taunted in a sing-song voice as he drew himself up into the first branch. Estel was trying to climb higher, but he would not do so quick enough, Elladan saw as he rushed forward. “Foolish dead little boy -”

Elladan did not think, he flipped the grip of his sword in his hand and threw it as a spear with every ounce of strength he had left within him, wildly hoping -

It was a clean blow. The force with which it was thrown embedded the sword through the scaled armor the Orc wore, and found its place as it sank in deep. The Orc gave a strangled noise in surprise, and then fell from the tree, making a sickening sound as he landed. Elladan stalked forward, satisfied as he turned the body over to find him dead.

He knelt down, still out of breath in both the wake of the battle and he sharing his brother's pain. Though their bond was now muted thanks to Elrond's interference, he could still feel where Elrohir fought, and Elrohir struggled . . .

“Elladan?” Estel jumped from the lower branches to land right beside him. He ignored the corpse at his side to kneel down next to him, his bright grey eyes expressive with his worry and fear. “Elladan, are you -”

He reached over to place a hand on the boy's shoulder. “I am well,' he assured, even as the battle swelled beyond him, reaching its pinnacle . . .

He was still kneeling upon the ground when he felt the exact moment when Sauron fled. The Maia's evil spirit snapped like a cord before flying to the south-east like a storm. Birds took from the trees at the black breath upon the air, and the river splashed angrily in its cradle as the land itself recoiled from Sauron's flight.

Elladan winced, his very bones hurting with the evil presence hovering over the land, until – suddenly - it was over as quickly as it began. The land stilled, and he felt as if he could breathe once more.

“What . . .” Estel tried to catch his breath. “What was that?” he asked. His eyes were wide, and his cheeks were flushed – he having felt the rippling of Sauron's passing as they all did.

“That,” Elladan had to try twice to speak, “was proof of our success.”

“And earlier?” Estel asked, his words coming quickly with his concern. “Is Elrohir alright?”

Elladan closed his eyes, and felt for his twin once more. This time, Elrond let his presence through, and he felt a dull pain echo in his own body as he took stock of his brother's wounds. “He will live,” he finally answered, “I believe that his pride shall remained wounded more than anything else. An Orc archer got the best of him – of which I plan to tease him about for centuries.”

Estel let loose a deep breath. “Good,” he answered, nodding his head in relief. “That is very good.”

Finally, the gravity of what he had done set in. Estel blinked, and sank to sit on the ground, staring numbly at the Orc who had come so close to being his end.

“You saved me again,” Estel said in a small voice. “I -”

“And you saved me,” Elladan cut in, nodding his head at the first Orc, still further off – the boy's arrow a telling mark from the battle. “Just like your father did more than once,” he said, touching Estel's cheek fondly. He still could not quite catch his breath. “Brave and loyal to a fault, as was he.”

Estel flushed, and looked down. When he glanced back up, his pale expression had hardened into something satisfied – something that was both strong and pleased. Elladan gave a smile of his own, pride for Estel's courage and bravery filling him as a warmth greater than the cold the shadow had previously inspired, even as -

“Although, next time, when I tell you to stay in the tree -”

“I did stay in the tree,” Estel protested, his face forming a deceivingly innocent expression. “I did not leave the branches.”

“You are dealing with technicalities, young one,” he pushed the child's shoulder, rolling his eyes as he said so.

“Which worked out for the best,” Estel pointed out. “I . . . before I ignored your counsel out of pride, but here . . .” Here it was different, here it was more than pride, and he was thankful for the child's recklessness – truly he was. Someday, it would not be termed recklessness, but bravery, and he felt pride bloom inside of him for the man Aragorn would soon become.

Elladan's face softened, unable as he was to keep his cold expression. “Wise indeed,” was all he said as he struggled to his feet again.

“Now,” Elladan said, placing his full weight on his leg to find the phantom pain now gone, “We should return. The sun is setting, and there will be those in the valley looking to hear what I may tell them.”

Estel nodded, and accepted the hand he offered to help him to his feet. He dusted himself off, and smiled cheekily – spent adrenaline and boneless relief a heady mixture when felt for the first. “We need to stop having such adventures when leaving the valley,” he said as they started down the trail again. “Elsewise, Lord Elrond will never let us out the door again.”

Elladan smiled, and knocked the child's shoulder as they walked. “Already, young Estel,” he said with a solemn gravity, “You are wise beyond your years.”



.
.

As it was with all journeys and their endings, their return trip home was much more peaceful than their first time trekking over the mountains.

This time, Bilbo Baggins was able to enjoy the scenery around him – not running for his life and dodging all sorts of unsavory and dark things along the way. He could almost fool himself into thinking that he was on a rather long walking holiday, though the woods and hills he passed through were far away from the Shire indeed.

Rivendell was quieter this time, though he knew that was mainly from the absense of his companions. He had become quite used to a ruckus at the dinner table; to loud songs and jovial laughter and life. And now . . .

As always, thoughts of the fallen caused a curious sort of weight to settle in his stomach – as if he had swallowed a stone and his body could not quite figure out what to do with it. Though he had his share of differences with the late Dwarf-king, there was no denying the majesty and tragedy of Thorin Oakenshield's tale . . . While the legends would say one thing, Bilbo would remember the one he still considered a friend, and it was the loss of his friendship that he mourned more than anything else.

Rivendell was made for such reflection, Bilbo thought next. It was a warm day, late in the spring, and the waterfalls fell in crystalline shapes, their cascades flashing prismed colors as they caught on the sunlight. The land sung, soothing his thoughts as he reflected on them. The Last Homely House eased his pains and provided rest to his bones . . . bones which felt heavy within his skin now . . . very heavy indeed.

He sat on the lip of one of the fountains, quite content as he smoked his pipe and made grey rings dance upon the air. He had not realized how sensitive Elvish noses were during his first time in the valley, and it was not until Gandalf telling him so that he understood the kindness of doing so outside in the open air. It was better for the tomes he looked over too, he thought – which had been a great relief to the steward, an unsmilling fellow named Erestor, though he did not say so outright. Bilbo was simply glad for the chance to pass more time within thelibrary of Imladris. There was such a wealth of stories and their telling here, each adventure all but waiting for his eyes to live themselves anew . . .

Yes, quite healing indeed, he thought as he flipped to the next page.

While he could not see anyone else, he had been aware of a pair of eyes watching him for some time now. The knowing he felt was a bit of a sixth sense that he had picked up on the road - with so many sleepless nights passing while they were pursued by creatures black and fell. The awareness was a habit he had yet to shake.

Odd, he thought, how this step was heavy to his ears. Most of the Elves he had met were as light on their feet as hobbits were, and -

When next he looked up, he saw a little boy standing in front of him, peering down from over the top of his book. Curiously, he looked up at the child, taking in his mop of curling black hair and the odd brightness to his clear grey eyes . . . a brightness not quite unlike the light of the Elves. He spied next the curved shell of his ear, realizing that he spoke to a child of one of the Big-folk – a son of Men.

Curious indeed, he thought . . . most curious.

“You are not an Elf,” the child said simply, peering into his eyes much as Bilbo had been staring at his own.

“Neither are you,” Bilbo returned, putting the book aside so as to better see the boy as he spoke.

The child gave a half smile, looking impishly up from beneath his bangs. He too held a scroll from the library just beyond – a study on Númenor of old, Bilbo saw, the name touching something at the edge of his mind. Along with the scroll, the child had a long and handsome feather that he was using as a place marker. The feather was nearly as long as Bilbo's forearm, colored a familiar shade of golden brown . . . He puzzled over such an oddity for a moment, before – ah!

“The Wind-lords were once kind enough to give us aid against some rather unsavory folk,” Bilbo nodded towards the feather, understanding at once what he saw. Ever did he enjoy telling his tales, and watching the curiosity leap in the young eyes before him was no exception. “I remember pressing my face against their feathers and holding on for dear life – so, you see, I would remember such a thing anywhere.”

“I climbed to the nests with my brothers and Lord Elrond at the spring's beginning,” he revealed, pride filling his eyes and puffing up his small chest as he did so. “The Wind-lords welcomed me, and gave me a gift.”

“And a kingly gift it is,” Bilbo agreed. There was something almost familiar about his eyes, he could not help but think. There was something there that tickled the back of his mind . . . something that was more than first met the eye.

“I am sorry,” Bilbo said a moment later, shaking his head at his own rudeness. “I must admit that my time spent with too many dwarves to mention has made my manners quite rusty. My name is Bilbo Baggins, of Bag-End – that is, if my infernal relatives have not yet torn each other to pieces fighting for it.”

The boy smiled, amused. “My name is Estel Elrondion,” he said in return, holding out his hand. “I am pleased to meet you.”

Bilbo shook his hand, amused. “Estel . . . hope?” he translated, knowing a story when he saw one. A human boy with an Elvish epessë, and an Elf-lord's own name given instead of his father's . . . Yes, Bilbo reflected, there was quite the story here indeed.

“I am told so often,” the boy's – Estel's - eyes twinkled in a way that was all the Elves in shape.

“Well then,” Bilbo sat back, exhaling a ring of smoke as he did so. “The afternoon is drowsy, and I have found myself quite mourning the loss of my company. If you would not mind humoring a rather odd hobbit, I would like to hear your tale of the Wind-lords.”

Estel bit his lip and glanced down at his scrolls before making up his mind. He smiled, and sat beside him on the lip of the fountain, his eyes alight with his words as he gathered them to share.

“It started,” he began his tale, “when my brothers and I left the valley, right before Midsummer's Eve . . .”

Chapter Text

Homesick

For some, entering the Last Homely House was said to be akin to stepping into a song of old. There was healing to be found in the water; there was peace for the having on the air. Everywhere one turned there was good cheer and wise faces, and yet, Thorin Oakenshield had never felt more restless in a place before.

Not even the Shire, with its quaint rolling hills and rather simple folk, had put him this on edge. He would rather be folded into Bilbo Baggin's hobbit-sized hobbit-hole once more before he rested his head beneath Elrond's roof. The air in the valley made his skin itch; it made his breath quicken with a nameless disquiet. Magic, many in his company had whispered as they passed over the river into the city, from wide eyed Bilbo to wise old Balin who held stories in his bones. Even his own nephews had looked on in awe and silent wonder, and yet . . .

He had never felt further from Erebor as he did standing beneath the eaves of Rivendell, and that was the honest truth of the matter.

He had spent too long in the sun for such thoughts to be plaguing him, he thought ruefully. Too long had he dwelt upon the ground, rather than beneath it, far from the stone halls of his true home. More was Erebor than the might of his people. The mountain was their very soul, born as they were from the rock and the hot breath of the Maker, and his heart ached all the more so with each season that he passed away from the Lonely Mountain.

They had already tarried in the valley for nearly two weeks. Beyond him, in the Hall of Fire, the sounds of songs and laughter could be heard as the Elves marked the summer solstice with celebration and good cheer. His own folk had joined in with the festivities; grudgingly at first, and more for the wine that was served than any true wish to socialize with their hosts, truth be told. He could hear the deep sounds of dwarven songs attempting to rise above those of the Elves as they were sung. He imagined the look on the face of the leading minstrel – Lindir, Thorin believed he was called – and felt a smile tug on the corner of his mouth, despite himself.

Beyond the main dwellings, the gardens were a grand combination of natural beauty and a careful eye for planting alongside both crafted fountain and the natural flow of water from above. While the gardens were beautiful enough – dwarf as he was, he could appreciate beauty in all things, even in things he himself cared but little for - they were merely another reminder of the strange timelessness of the land about him. Better did he appreciate root and soil than the fair things that grew from the ground, and so, he made fists of his hands as he walked, preventing himself from reaching down to pick up handfuls of the black earth. It had been too long since he molded something – anything – and now, better did his hands know the feel of a sword to a smith's hammer.

His thoughts heavy, he turned down a small path, not wanting to encounter any other on his wanderings. Here the roses grew wild and unbound from their trellises, nearly spilling across the stone path as they grew up the mountainside bordering the city. These blooms were dark, he saw, the red hardly visible in the light of the setting sun. The thorns were hardy and wild looking, the vines tangled and untrained. He blinked, and recognized these from the lands to the northwest - from the forests of Rhudaur. A strange choice, he thought then, different as they were from the more exotic blooms he had seen coaxed to grow in the beds he had passed. These roses were small and stubborn, made to grow in harsh soil, with little sun and the coldest of weather. This plant was a survivor, Thorin knew, taken deep from the forest lands.

Curious, he continued down the path, only stopping when he heard voices coming from a small alcove made by the rose covered trellises and sharply rising stone.

He peered through a gap in the foliage to see a woman with dark, honey blonde hair gathered beneath a black veil, sitting on the lip of a basin that caught the falling water from the rock above. She was speaking to none other than the lord of the valley himself – and upon seeing so, Thorin fought the urge he had to step back down the path. And yet, something had his gaze returning to the woman in black, drawn despite himself. He had heard tell that Elrond had a daughter – some ethereal beauty, the stories said - and a wife departed over the sea some time ago. And yet, this woman was neither . . . for when she moved, he could see the curved shell of a human ear, declaring her as mortal-kind.

A human woman? Thorin puzzled. Though Rivendell was a haven to all, for a daughter of Men to take Elrond's attention from his kin and their celebrating the solstice was curious indeed. They were speaking, and Thorin pressed closer, wanting to hear what they said.

The Elf-lord had piercing eyes, knowing eyes, and Thorin cared but little for holding his gaze for too long. He had avoided their host for the majority of their stay, and he would continue to do so for as long as he could. Gandalf swore that the long memories in the valley could reveal a secret now lost to his kind, and if the Wizard spoke true, he would be indebted - but no more grateful than that. Yet, while Thorin did not care for holding Elrond's stare, this human woman had no such qualms. She tilted her head up with a graceful dignity, and was somehow made all the more so by the dark shade of her garb, marking her as a shadow on the brightness of the valley around her.

Thorin listened, and he heard -

“Perhaps there will be a Midsummer's Eve in the future where you shall at last convince me to join in the revelry,” the woman's voice was soft with both firm refusal and gentle appreciation. “And yet, for now, I would rather keep my own vigil. I . . .” she exhaled and glanced down, her strong veneer cracking the slightest bit.

She bit her lip, visibly gathering herself. “One day I shall do so,” she finally said, a note of finality in her voice. “And yet, that day shall not be today.”

Elrond was silent for a moment, and where Thorin thought that he would push, he instead inclined his head. There was an understanding in his gaze, and his eyes were soft with that same kindness that unsettled Thorin more than anything else – such a thing at odds with his own deeply rooted notions, his own bruised history. “Then I will leave you to your memories,” Elrond said, his voice gentle. “But know that there are those here who would welcome sharing your burdens, once you are ready to see their load lightened.”

She looked down in answer to his words, but she did not speak – she could not find her voice, Thorin would wager, and upon feeling the thickness of the emotion upon the air, he turned from his spot, not wishing to pry any further.

Yet, as he did so, Elrond too turned to take his leave, and Thorin quickly moved out of the way - hoping that he went unseen in the shadows growing on the path. Elrond did not turn to him, and Thorin thought himself to be successful; that was, until he saw the amused glint that settled in the Elf-lord's gaze - a glint that Thorin knew well enough from the likes of Gandalf to understand in full. He let out an aggravated breath between his teeth, annoyed.

He turned to continue on down the path, and yet, he paused before passing the human woman in her alcove. That same something that inclined him to listen now slowed his step and had him looking in on the woman in black – staring until the weight of his eyes gave him away, and the woman frowned.

She did not look up. Instead, she said on a sigh, “Glorfindel, you are much more persistent than your lord if you think that you can succeed where he - ”

“I am no elf, my lady,” Thorin broke through her words, his deep voice immediately separating him from any other she may have thought him to be.

She blinked and looked up, startled, and yet, the surprise on her face softened upon seeing him. She did not stand from her seat by the fountain, instead staying where she was eye to eye with him. She did, however, incline her head, curiosity lifting the veil of sorrow from her eyes.

“Indeed you are not,” she said, smoothing her hands over the front of her skirts. She reached up to wipe discreetly at her eyes. “I apologize for my error.”

“There is no need,” Thorin replied. “You do not resemble the fair folk yourself, and I must admit myself as being puzzled. It was that which drew me from the path.”

And she was a riddle, he acknowledged to himself - for she did not have the wild look of the Dunlendings about her, nor did she resemble the simple sons of men remaining from Minhiriath and Enedwaith, who moved to join the Middle Men in Bree-land. Rather, she was more like the people from the forests - the remnants of Arnor and old Númenor itself. This he knew from learning his histories while preparing to someday rule from his grandfather's throne.

“Tell me,” he said, recognizing the noble tilt of her brow – the regal way in which she held herself, “What is a Lady of the Dúnedain doing so far from Rhudaur? Should you not be with your kin, celebrating the solstice?”

“No longer do I claim such a title amongst my people,” she replied first. She raised a brow, and yet, if she was put off by the frankness of dwarven tongues, she made no mention of it. “And while you are observant, you cannot see that I do dwell amongst my kin - for the stories have long stopped telling of such things in anything more than whispers.”

Thorin waited, but she did not elaborate. Instead, she titled her head, and introduced herself, “I am Gilraen, daughter of Dírhael. I was born of the Dúnedain, but no longer do I dwell amongst them. I am a refugee, the same as you, for Imladris took me in when I needed its protection, and I am not yet in a position to return to my people.”

He found his jaw setting. “I am Thorin, son of Thraín,” he gave his name in reply. “And yet, I seek not of such refuge,” he added, liking but little of the implications in her words. “I dwell here only for answers to questions I cannot answer alone.”

“And yet, something tells me that you shall find both peace and your answers to be one and the same. Most do,” Gilraen rolled her shoulders in an elegant shrug. “For you too are far from home, are you not, Master-dwarf?”

He narrowed his eyes at her words. She spoke them plainly, as fact rather than question. The warm grey of her eyes held a clear quality that he did not quite know how to translate.

“I am sorry to have disrupted your vigil,” he said after a moment, not wanting to respond to her words. He looked behind him on the path again.

“The gardens are free to all,” Gilraen said. Her mouth made a rueful shape. “And I do apologize for not being the best of company. I believe I have made you uncomfortable, and that was not my intention.”

A moment passed between them, with nothing but the sound of the falling water and the singing from beyond filling the onset of night.

“These roses are yours, then?” Thorin asked when the silence stretched. He felt as if he should apologize, and yet, he was unsure of what precisely he would be apologizing for. “They are from Rhuduar, are they not? I have passed through the north forests before – seeking what work and shelter I could find while traveling back to my kin in the Blue Mountains. Your people were kind, and generous when they had little to give.”

“That does sound like Aranor. He is as Arador his brother was when he led my people,” she said, fondness touching her smile like a ghost. “Yes indeed, I brought these roses to the valley. My husband used to bring me these flowers when we were courting – and long after, at that. I was married on a Midsummer's Eve twelve years ago . . . and eight years ago I was made a widow when my husband was slain. I needed something tangible with which to busy myself from my grief, and this corner of the gardens holds the fruit of my labors.”

That explained her robes of black, and the sorrow that clung to her as a cloak. Thorin swallowed and found his throat thick, for this was ever proving to be a land of widows and fatherless boys. “I am sorry for your loss,” he said, his voice deep and grave – and true, for the empathy in his bones was the same as his pulse then, drawing him breath for breath.

“I keep his memory here,” Gilraen replied in a soft voice, looking down to hold one of the dark blooms in her hands. The red was stark against the pale shade of her skin. “I have tried to join in the festivities in years before, but I do find them to be . . . too much when I am not able to match such good cheer. I detest when all is peace and tranquility, and yet, I alone am filled with such sorrow . . . it is as if my memories are a stain to the beauty around me. Sometimes, it is easier to bear that alone.”

“Perhaps I may at least empathize with your wish for peace and solitude. I have heard more of elvish songs these last two weeks than I ever cared to hear at all,” Thorin said. Amusement touched her eyes in response to his words.

“There is a healing to the songs that I appreciate,” she said, not outrightly disagreeing with him. “And yet, I do prefer hearing them at a distance some nights. My years make me as a child in the eyes of even the youngest elf, and, as such, all in the valley see it as their personal duty to see to my comfort and health in all things. Though they mean well, I do wish to remember Arathorn alone on nights like these.”

She was silent for a moment, and he let her find her words, “And you?” she glanced at him. “You must have had a reason for not passing me on by, even if that reason was not consciously known to you at the time. Who is it that you mourn, Master-dwarf? Who haunts your steps this eve?”

Thorin was drawn short, made silent by her insight. There had been a cord drawing him towards her, and that same cord had bound him even when he wished to turn away. The solstice was filled with memory for him – old memories, so far from his reach that he at times found them to be as specters amongst his own mind.

Unbidden, he remembered how the sunstones high on the summit of the mountain would capture the light on the longest day of the year and reflected it down through crystals into Thrór's halls. The light had shone with such a brilliant glory, making all seem touched by gold and its radiant splendor. He remembered sneaking through the halls with Frerin and Dís, stealing out to Dale beyond to see the human children as they celebrated the solstice with bright colors and loud songs. He remembered, and . . .

He mourned not a mate, but rather a name, a match of spirits that was as true a marriage as any other. He mourned a land, he wanted to say - a beautiful land of mountain stone and halls threaded through the deep places of the earth. He mourned for a stolen kingdom, toiling underneath the desecration of an evil creature. For years, he had longed for, rather than mourning the loss of Erebor. It was as if his mourning would make his loss real . . . as if such grief would make it permanent, and so, he had concentrated only on its return, and let his thoughts of vengeance sustain him.

. . . Erebor was not yet lost to him, not so long as he had a breath within him to see it returned and restored to its glory of old.

And so. “Home . . . I mourn my home this eve,” he finally answered, unable to find the words to say more than that. For, truly, what words were there to explain the gap in his spirit that was Erebor lost and Erebor stolen? No . . . there were no words.

“Ah,” Gilraen said on an exhale. Her eyes were alight with understanding, and he knew that she would not make him say more than that.

Beyond them, the revelry had quieted, and one lone voice started to sing once the last of the sun's rays touched the mountains beyond, declaring the onset of night. The voice was low and mournful, and yet, there was a power to the song - giving hope and thanksgiving for the light, even as it died and the older glory of the stars came out to reign for the night.

Thorin exhaled, and Gilraen started to softly sing along, still holding the rose in her small hands. A long moment passed, and finally, he went to sit on the opposite side of the basin from her. Rather than listening to the elven singer beyond, he instead listened to the cadence of the water as it fell. He concentrated on the heartbeat of the earth beneath his feet, on the music of the stones as they thanked the sky above for the warmth of the day. He listened, not to the minstrel, but rather to the human woman's unpolished voice as she sang, her words full with both her mourning and her hope for the light to come.

And . . . for the first since reaching the valley, he did not feel quite so far from home.

Chapter Text

Between

At first, his plan had seemed to be a sensible one.

Of course, the rain from the day before had turned the path through the grove behind the palace to mud, and the brambles from underbrush snared at his tunic as if trying to keep him in the hade of the trees. He was sodden, and the tan skin of his boots was now caked the color of mud, and yet, it had been worth it. He had felt only relief, even as he wiped his damp hair from his face. The first days of summer were thick and humid with the spring rains still lingering on the air, and the sky above seemingly pressed down on to smother the ground below.

Unfortunately, his trials were for nothing, for when he came out on the other side of the path - slipping back into the gate closest to his father's halls like a thief rather than a prince - they were waiting for him.

Arafinwë sighed, resigned, and briefly thought himself as cursed.

“We meet again,” still, he forced his voice to come out clear and level. He tilted his head up, refusing to look down. The gold atop his head was very bright, he knew, even underneath the grey of the overcast sky.

By the time he slipped away from them, his lip was swollen and bruised, and his books were hopelessly muddled from where they had spilled from his pack. At least, he reflected as he gathered his things together, the blood on his mouth had ended the insults rather early. The older boys had all fled, whispers of the king's son falling from hushed mouths as they all fled their separate ways. Such a reaction was queer, Arafinwë thought, for the cut on his lip only stung, and he would take that brief discomfort over the continued blows of their words a hundred times over.

Yet, he was young. Perhaps it was something he would understand better with time.

He had not made it but steps towards his rooms before one of his mother's ladies noticed him, and then there was a flurry of movement and questions and seeking hands all around him. He was washed and then put into clean clothing, sitting silent and still as his mother shooed her ladies away to dab a minty smelling salve on his lip herself. He forced himself to remain still at the cold sensation, instinctively wanting to draw away.

When asked what happened, he looked down and said that he fell and hit the rim of the fountain. The stone ways were still slick from the rain, and it was a plausible explanation. It was the truth, as well,  minus the part about him slipping. Yet, he kept that thought to himself, not wanting to worry his mother any further. She always had a way of knowing when his words were less than their whole, and so, he kept his words as close to the truth as he could.

Not close enough, it would seem, for a moment later Indis sighed and tilted his chin up, forcing him to meet her gaze. Her eyes were very blue, he thought, like the gems Fëanáro liked to dabble with. His own eyes were more like hers than his father's - unlike the rest of his siblings, who were clearly Finwë's children from the identical shade of their black hair to the clear grey of their eyes.

And then, there was him, who was small and slight like Indis. His skin was pale, more pink than the olive undertones his father and siblings bore. His features were Vanya-delicate, with not one of the stronger features of his Noldo father to be seen. His hair was as Laurelin's light when she was at her full brilliance, bright and gold and not the slightest bit Noldor at all.

Perhaps he thought his last thought too loudly, for Indis looked away from him a moment later. Her jaw was tight, even though her face was carefully serene – the look she wore when she was upon her throne, Arafinwë recognized.

But next she blinked, and she then looked like his mother again. “My son,” was all that she said, kissing the top of his head as she did so. Her quiet voice sounded like an apology.

Her arms were warm, and she smelled like sunrise and spring. Though he was much too old for such things, Arafinwë let himself be held for a moment longer, the embrace soothing away the events of the day. Indis let him go a heartbeat later, and he turned to leave after promising to be more careful in the future. He looked over his shoulder before passing through the door into the hall beyond, and saw that her face was sad when she thought he could not see.

Later, he was carefully smoothing out the pages on his abused books, each tomes about seashells and their classifications, borrowed from the library a few days before. He had so many questions that he wanted answered before they visited Alqualondë later in the summer, and yet, he did not want the library's keeper to think him careless with what he borrowed. So, he strove to return the books to how they were before his encounter with Atsion. He was working, slowly and surely, when a shadow fell over him, long in shape.

He did not look up. “Nolofinwë,” he greeted his brother, having felt him as he came near – his presence ever like the ocean on a calm day, lapping against his senses as if he were a seashore. This too was his mother's gift to him, and one that he valued.

Arafinwë felt a warm hand tilt his chin up, drawing him away from his books. Ever were the points of brother's fingers like brands, for Nolofinwë was the most like their father where he was the most like their mother – and Finwe was ever a fire, warm and consuming. Nolofinwë was nearly three decades older than him, he having reached his majority just the year before. He was as tall and broad as their father, and yet, Arafinwë did not feel small next to him - even though Findis often teased him with saying that he was nearly a foot shorter than his siblings were at his age.

Dutifully, he let his brother examine his split lip, and where there had been sadness on Indis' face, something hard settled on Nolofinwë's brow in response to what he saw. His ocean-soul picked up a ripple, as waves rumbling in warning of a storm.

“You slipped and hit the fountain?” Nolofinwë said, his voice warm and deep. Arafinwë could hear the question there, even though he spoke with no inflection in his tone.

“Yes,” he answered, looking back down at his book again. The page on mollusks had suffered when Atsion had kicked it, and Arafinwë did not know if he would be able to coax the wrinkles away.

He did not need to look up to see that Nolofinwë raised a brow, dubious. He could feel it.

“I may have been pushed,” he muttered a moment later, not looking up from the page. One wrinkle fled before his careful fingers, but there was a larger one down the middle that was beyond hope. Mud muddled the words and distorted the carefully penned pictures. He was not sure how to mend that.

The feeling of storm and waves picked up. Arafinwë could feel the undertow churning beneath them.

“You should have told Amil,” Nolofinwë said a moment later. “She already knows, and yet, it is better to hear it from you rather than glimpse such a thing in your thoughts.”

Arafinwë set his mouth. He moved on to the next page, the mollusks past his ability to save. He pressed his first finger against the wrinkle that greeted him until the skin at his fingertip turned white and bloodless.

“If I did so, I would have to tell her why I was pushed,” Arafinwë said softly. “I would not do so.”

The whispers were not new to him. He could hear them whenever he was near any crowd of people, especially in his father's court. Though they were rarely spoken where he could overhear, he could still feel them, the same as he could sense the ocean of his brother's soul. He could read the stares, he could hear the hearts of those who looked at his mother and called her the false-queen. Her son, the whispers would turn next to him - who looked so much like Indis and so little like Finwë. Born of the Vanya-whore . . . Not-real . . . Not-right . . . Filthy . . . an insult to her memory . . . the words went on and on.
 
. . . and he would not repeat such things to his mother - his mother, who could feel the thoughts of others as he did.
 
No.

He tapped his fingers against the wrinkled page, frustrated.

A moment passed before Nolofinwë said, “You can fight back,” in a gentle voice.

Arafinwë shrugged. “I ignore them. My doing so frustrates them; it makes them angry. They want me to fight back, and so, I do not.” Typical Vanyar, they always said in reply. Weak and unable to fight – but able to steal. Do you know that you do not belong, little Vanya? Ever did they mock and sing, and their words always became worse when he said nothing in reply. And if he dared to smile, as if pitying their small and simple views, if he dared to say that he was proud of his Vanya blood, his Vanya hair and Vanya eyes, if being Noldor meant to act as they did . . .

Well, that was when Atsion finally pushed him.

“Then you will have many more bleeding lips in the future, I foresee,” Nolofinwë said dryly. “Come.” He took the book from him, and though Arafinwë did not want to, he let his brother draw him to his feet.

“Now,” Nolofinwë said. “You stand like this.” He stood with his feet even with his shoulders and his knees slightly bent, easy and balanced within his tall frame. He looked more and more like their father with every passing season, Arafinwë thought, and felt a pang that he himself did not.

Arafinwë copied him, making a fist – holding one to his chin to protect his face, and then another out, as his brother did.

“Not like that,” Nolofinwë said. “You will break your thumb before harming anything on your opponent,” he fixed the position of his fingers.

“But I do not want to break anything on my opponent,” Arafinwë said, fighting down the numb, queasy sensation that he had at the thought of fighting anyone.

“And hopefully, you shall not have to,” Nolofinwë said, his voice low and comforting. “When they see that you are prepared to defend yourself, that alone shall help deter bullies. More often than not, they are cowards at heart, and do not wish for an equal confrontation - they wish only to pick on those weaker than they. Use your words first, as I know you would prefer. But if ever things go too far, I want you to know how to defend yourself.”

He let out a breath, but let his brother shape him. He did not like how his closed fist felt; he did not like the coiled energy that met him when he jabbed experimentally with nothing but the air to absorb the force of his blow. It did not feel . . . right, and he could not tell if that was the Vanya in him, or just he . . . himself.

It was hard to tell which was what, at times, he thought next. He did not feel akin to his father's people, and yet, neither did he identify with his mother's people. It was because he was both, he was something more, Indis always said when he tried to explain his feelings, and while that made sense, it still provided him with no definite answers. He still felt as a visitor in his own skin, not quite fitting. That too, was something that would pass with time, or so he was told.

“There,” Nolofinwë finally said when he was satisfied. “More often than not, if you stand up to a bully once, that shall deter others in the future.”

Perhaps, Arafinwë thought, even if he did not quite believe. And yet . . .

“You speak as if from experience,” he said, curious as to that which he did not know.

“I do,” Nolofinwë said, a small smile tugging on the corner of his mouth. “You may look the most like Amil, but that did not mean that we did not go through the same thing when we were younger. Findis had this same conversation with me when I was your age, and I benefited from it.”

Arafinwë nodded, understanding. “Yes, I would not want to fight Findis either,” he said in a grave voice. Where his brother was as an ocean, their oldest sister was like lightning in the sky. She always danced across his senses like static, to the point where there were times when her presence almost tickled. It took much to move her from her calm, but in anger she was truly frightening.

“Neither would I,” Nolofinwë agreed, amusement lining his voice. “That's what they learned the hard way.”

That, he could imagine as truth. And yet . . . Findis had to go through this . . . Nolofinwë had to go through this. He could not imagine anyone being cruel to Lalwen, for Lalwen was gentle and loved by all – she like the Mingling Hour of the Trees' to his senses. And yet, if Lalwen too had to endure this, and came out the better for it . . .

Then, Arafinwë decided, he could too.

A moment passed, and his brother must have seen his thoughts pass over his face. He sat back down when Nolofinwë did as well, suddenly tired from the events of the day. He felt stretched in two different directions, a part of him never wanting to leave the walls of their home again, while the other part of him wished to go beyond the boundaries of Tirion and never stop. He let his thoughts tug on him until he felt dizzy from the effort it took to make sense of them.

“You know,” Nolofinwë said, finally breaking the silence. “Sometimes, I wish that I looked more like you.”

He looked up, surprised. “Truly?” he asked, not able to believe him.

“Truly,” Nolofinwë confirmed, reaching over to tug on one of his braids. “If I did, then I would not look so much like him.” His voice was tight over the last word, and he swallowed afterward, as if trying to clear a stone from his throat. “Sometimes, I wished I looked more like me – myself - and not like . . .”

Him. Arafinwë did not know if he meant their father, or Fëanáro himself – for all three looked alike to the point that was uncanny. Even still, there were times that Arafinwë wished that he too looked as they did – especially when Atsion and his flunkies stopped him. Perhaps, if he looked more Noldo, then he would feel more Noldo. If he looked more like Finwë, perhaps more would see that he too was Finwë's son, just as much as his firstborn was.

“Is Indis really our mother?” he asked then, trying to voice something that had long sat ill at ease with him.

Nolofinwë blinked, clearly surprised. “I think that she would know if she wasn't,” he answered wryly, but that was not what he meant. 

“No,” Arafinwë shook his head. “I mean, is she really married to father? People say that their marriage isn't real, and yet, if she is not real . . . then is she really our mother? Are any of us real?”

Nolofinwë was silent for a long moment. Arafinwë could feel the same sadness in him that he earlier felt from their mother. “The Valar themselves decreed our parent's marriage acceptable by the Laws of our people,” he answered carefully. “We are Finwë's trueborn sons, as much as Fëanáro is.”

The Valar said that he was real. It should have silenced all of his doubts. It should have meant more than it did – and in that, Arafinwë reflected, he was not very Vanya-like at all. He looked down, feeling his stomach twist in an awful way.

Nolofinwë put his arm around his shoulder, leaning very close to him – as if preparing to share a secret. “Do you love Amil?” he asked.

What a silly question. “Of course I do,” he answered without a thought.

“Do you love Atar?” Nolofinwë continued to ask. “Findis? Lalwen? Fëanáro, even?”

“Yes,” he answered after a heartbeat. He spoke truly, for he even loved Fëanáro, who felt like flames - nothing but the fire and its heat - to his senses.

“If the love you feel is real, how can you not be real?” Nolofinwë asked him, watching and seeing where he was unable to dispute such logic. “Now, stop thinking such foolish thoughts, for they will do you ill if pondered for too long. You are Vanya as much as you are Noldo. You are born of two great peoples, and loved by those you love – you should be proud of that.”

“I am proud,” he was quick to assure his brother. And . . . he was. Truly he was. Even when Atsion and the others said their cruel words and tried to push their thoughts of his worth in against him, he was still proud. They could repeat the words of their fathers to their heart's content, but it would not matter.

He let out a deep breath, ready to face them again upon the morrow, if need be.

“Now,” Nolofinwë pushed him to his feet again. “Show me your fist. I want to see what you remembered.”

So, Arafinwë stood, and held his ground.

 

Chapter Text

Days

It struck her then, just how painfully mortal her husband was . . . how mortal she was.

No matter what gift they had been given, all gifts could be taken away. This land was unkind to those toiling upon its surface, and where she was once songs and spells – power and ruin and divinity all at once – she was now only human. Her veins carried only blood, and her heart beat with nothing but the few years she had remaining to her. Her weapons were now the bow upon her back and the dagger at her side. Once, she had learned to use both in order to participate in the games Doriath held during the summer months, but her skills had only ever been used in sport, with nothing but camaraderie and competition in mind.

And yet, now . . .

Lúthien could only protect those she cared for with what her own two hands could muster, and Beren, as ever, did the same.

Their green isle was far from the shadow reigning in the north, and yet, no part of the land was untouched by Morgoth and his taint. They would not journey through Fëanorian held lands to return to Doriath – where her son had spent the winter, for she would not deprive Dior of his heritage, no matter that her own relationship with her parents had yet to fully recover – and so, they instead traveled the little known pathways through the Taur-im-Duinath, venturing to the river Sirion beyond. The paths through the forest were strange and dark, and yet, she would rather contend with the twisting shapes in the wood rather than deal with Fëanor's sons in Amon Ereb – their second and only other choice of travel without going leagues out of their way - and through more dangerous lands than that.

They traveled north up the river, and made it as far as the hills of Andram before encountering the small party of Orc-scouts – looking for a way into Doriath through her mother's spells, or looking to assess the Fëanorians' numbers just to the east of the hills, she was not sure. Yet, it did not matter as she and her husband took to arms, silencing any mouth that would have told them otherwise.

Her new body was slower and more cumbersome than her elven form, but it was still strong and supple enough for her to see their foes vanquished. Arrows rang out rather than words of power, and steel sang in place of spells of protection. It was a dance she was slowly learning, but learning well.

She fought best by Beren's side, her body instinctively knowing the twist and turn of his, even in the heat of battle. Where his sword struck, her arrows flashed, picking off the targets threatening him while he watched her back at close range. It was all a perfect, synchronized dance until an Orc-arrow glittered black in the approaching twilight, and -

Lúthien did not recognize the sound that came from her throat then. It was an ugly, desperate thing as she tried to warn Beren and turn on the archer who had slipped past their defenses all at once. The Orc fell, and yet, she only fired all the more quickly after that – two arrows she released, and then three and four and ten until there was no longer a threat remaining . . . only death and stillness and Beren with a black arrow embedded in the flesh where his chest met his shoulder.

The wound was not fatal. He had heard her and turned in time to take the blow just above his heart. “I am fine,” he tried to assure her. Yet, his face was white; his eyes were bleary from pain.

“You have never lied well,” she tried to twist her mouth into a grim smile as she said so, but she could not force her body to listen to her commands.

Her fingers trembled as she broke the shaft and then carefully removed the arrow from his arm. She observed the wound, and saw with relief that the arrowhead was not poisoned. The wound would pain him, but it would heal. Quickly, she cleaned the wound in the river and dressed it with nimble fingers. Later, when they stopped for the night, she would have to see to it better than that, but for now there were dead Orcs in the clearing, and there was no telling how many more were following.

They were able to make it to the Falls of Sirion before night fell completely. Here the river dipped in massive and breathtaking shapes, its waters rushing and wild from its birthplace in the marshlands just beyond. They climbed up as far as they could while the light was still with them before settling in a defensible position for the night. She formed their small camp as quickly as she could before turning to her husband again. Beren was clearly tired from the events of the day, and yet, while he held his face in a grimace, no longer did he look to be in overwhelming pain.

When at last she drew away the temporary bandages from earlier, the arrow wound was angry and red – but the blood was clotting, and it did not look to be infected. Grateful for small mercies, she treated the wound and rewrapped it once more, frustrated that she had to resort to such rustic measures to take care of him. Once, she would have been able to mend the flesh merely a song. She would have been able to see him made new, and yet, now . . .

If he had not turned . . . if she had not warned him in time . . . if the archer had aimed the slightest bit lower . . . she could have lost him.

Thoughts of what-if were unwise in every sense, and yet, she could not keep her mind from being swallowed by them. Her thoughts turned as the water over the cliffs beyond, and she could not move her spirit to calm.

“That should hold until we reach the Girdle,” she said. Her voice was too quick from her mouth, giving her agitation away. “My mother should be able to heal you completely once we reach Menegroth.”

With but a word, Melian would set him to rights, while she could only watch . . . watch and hope that the Valar would continue to be kind, allowing them to live their few years together in peace. And yet, Ennor was not a kind land, and it was even crueler still to those of mortal years - who toiled with even more than the failings of their bodies during the breath of time they had allowed to them. It was hard to trust in fate and its offerings as she once had, and now, she could do nothing more than inhale and try to get her pulse to slow.

She soothed her fingers down over the bandage, feeling the heat from the ruined flesh beneath. The cloth was very white against the dusky shade of his skin. When Beren reached out to wrap his hand about her wrist, she looked and saw that his eyes were dark; a shade of steel in the night.

“I have survived worse,” he said, his voice shaped to steady her. His thumb traced over the fragile lines of bones underneath her skin. His fingertips were callused and thick, just as hers were starting to be. “I have already moved heaven and earth for you. It will take more than an exceptionally lucky Orc to take me from you once more.”

His bravado was a show, trying to draw her own peace once more. Lúthien tried to let his reassurance touch her and sink in deep, and yet, she could not . . .

She folded her opposite hand over his, feeling as the cold she had felt during the battle warmed again underneath his touch.

“You will see,” Beren continued, drawing her down to lie on the grass next to him. The spring ground was still cool, but it was a soothing bed next to the heat of the fire . . . the warmth of her husband. “Someday, we shall die old and grey together. There will be naught but moments between out last breaths; for you shall go and I will follow, and we will then see what the One has in store for us together.”

She laid her head against his chest, listening to the soothing rise and fall of his lungs; the steady pulse of his heart, ever beating and alive. Alive. The sound did not lie.

“Is that foresight I hear?” she whispered. Her own heart was calming to match his own. She breathed, and breathed with him.

“Not in the way you would know,” Beren allowed with a smile. He ran his hand up and down her arm, holding her securely against him. “Perhaps, I should better call it a hope . . . a wish, even.”

She took in a deep breath, and exhaled slowly, taking his words and trying to make them her own. Hope . . . wishes . . . Each was insubstantial as mist, and yet, they were all that was to be had. All she knew was that she would do her best to see those wishes through to their fullest. She would not give him up . . . not so easily.

Her fingertips were dead of her mother's might and magic, but they were still warm as she leaned over to tenderly clasp his face between her hands, sealing her vow with a kiss. When she closed her eyes, she found them burning and wet, and yet, she did not hide her tears as the kiss became heated between them. Their embrace turned possessive and claiming, almost desperate with the relief that flowed through them both. Careful of his injured arm, she moved to rest atop him, his hand on her back pressing her even closer to him. It was not close enough, she could not help but think, and where she could no longer reach out and touch his spirit with her own she instead burrowed against him – as if attempting to crawl beneath his skin and join him in the flesh, never to be parted again.

She traced every familiar part of him, moving from the stubble on his chin that had so fascinated her at the first to the curved shell of his mortal ear. Each strong slope of muscle and powerful line of limb was hers to remap now, her fingers paying special attention to the missing stump of his hand, telling all where he had given up so much for her – for these years of mortality they had left to live between them.

He was still here, his touch said - ever warm and consuming as he filled her senses with a now familiar heat. She could feel his blood thunder when she moved her mouth down his neck to taste his pulse – hot and aware and alive. Alive, as he would be for many more years to come.

And so, Lúthien brushed her thoughts away, and let herself live.

Chapter Text

Faith

The first time Isildur was old enough to understand his grandfather's telling of Nimloth the White Tree, he thought to understand how his forefather Elros felt when Maglor Fëanorian sang of the wonder of the Two Trees. It was a wonder that was almost spiritual in shape; it was a heartfelt bond with the light that both sheltered his people and symbolized their devotion to the powers in the West. Nimloth was ever a symbol of peace and prosperity, and now, as the skies over Númenor darkened and their days lengthened with Shadow . . . the White Trees' days were numbered, and all in Amandil's household sat in shock upon receiving the news. All around him were faces unable – or, unwilling – to accept such news as the truth.

Amandil had been weary at the end of his speaking, hunched over and still in his seat by the fire. Isildur sat numbly besides his brother, watching as their father put a hand on their grandfather's shoulder, offering a hollow consolation in the face of such an unthinkable horror. As remnants of the Faithful, they all bore the same burdens Amandil bore, and yet, Ar-Pharazôn's slight against the Valar was more to Amandil – it was personal, a gross insult to the once great friendship that existed between them in their youth. Over time, Amandil had ceased to whisper but Calion would not do such a thing, instead he simply sat with a crease to his brow and a frown to his mouth, quiet as Ar-Pharazôn's rule turned even more savage still.

More and more so, Elendil took on his father's duties while Amandil made plans of his own – whispering that he would sail West to entreat the Valar to intervene on behalf of those pure of heart who still remained on Númenor's soil. As their forefather Eärendil had before them, he would brave the ban in place to those of mortal days, and plead for the deliverance of his people. Though Elendil advised against it – entreating rather that they sail back to Middle-earth, and leave Númenor to its doom - Amandil insisted that he had to still try. Númenor had been given as a blessing to Mankind, and he would not give such a gift up to the sea – not until he had done everything in his power to save the land he so loved from the night Pharazôn pulled down around it.

And yet . . . what could they do now? Nimloth was set to burn, and the King was drunk on the idea of immortality – making him vulnerable to the golden voice behind his throne, speaking all the more loudly into his ear with each passing season.

“We can do nothing yet, father,” Elendil whispered, trying to sooth Amandil's guilt over their inability to save the White Tree. “For all of our sakes, do not blame yourself. Calion's mind is not the mind you once knew.”

His father always spoke with a gentle weight and quiet wisdom. Normally, it was a weight and wisdom that Isildur agreed with and obeyed absolutely, as befit an eldest son. Often it was whispered that his father more closely resembled Elros than even the earliest Kings of Númenor. When the Kings from Tar-Atanamir's rule on started to vocalize their desperate yearning for immortality, the ruling family began disposing of the likenesses of Elros in the King's City. Paintings, tapestries, statues - all disappeared over the years as his descendants cursed him for dooming them to a mortal's span of days. And yet, here in Rómenna, where the land was still fair and the Faithful relatively sheltered, there was one bronze bust Isildur remembered seeing in his grandfather's library . . . He remembered being a child, asking why the artist who crafted the sculpture erred in crafting his father's mouth and line of brow - for the rest was quite accurate, and such skill should have demanded that every detail was perfect. Elendil had laughed before explaining that the bust was not he, but rather their first king – though he was flattered by the compliment. Now Isildur held that likeness only in his memory - for even that statue had been smashed with Sauron's rise to power. Such a thing was too dangerous to keep, lest they give Pharazôn any reason to think them anything but faithful to his crown and reign.
 
And Isildur was tired of whispering in the shadows. He was tired of dreading, of wearing black during the day and bearing the Eye embroidered upon his chest in the light; while, at night, he would bow to the West and whisper his prayers as he had been taught to long ago. He was tired of secrets and shadows, and, most of all, he was tired of seeing hope die in the eyes of the people his grandfather led. Always it was a little at a time, and yet, it was all the more so with each passing day . . .
 
With these thoughts in mind, he did not say a word after leaving the house that night. He simply saddled his horse, and rode hard for the King's City of Armenelos, a plan – foolish and desperate – forming within the depths of his mind.
 
He rode fast and ceaselessly across the King's Road, only pausing to sleep for an hour or so that first night and exchange his horse with a fresh mount to carry him the rest of the way. He arrived early the next day, just in time to see the festivities for the burning of the Tree pick up full steam, the people of Armenelos out and rejoicing for the sacrifices that would baptize the new Great Temple to Melkor in a holy fire.
 
The streets were full to bursting, and banners with the Eye of Sauron waved from every roof and window. Darting like fish through coral where children in black with red streamers in their hands, laughing at what was past their ability to understand. Abâr Mulkhêr! Abâr Mulkhêr! the crowd undulated as something living, cheering with high voices, shaped to worship. Praise Melkor, Lord of Arda and Deliverer of our Souls, the crowd cried, and Isildur felt his ears burn, sickened by what he heard. It was not yet noon, and yet, already the wine flowed and men stumbled drunk in their strides. Women of the night peddled their services in the full light of day, and Isildur pushed one woman with a dark veil of red silk away from him, the golden coins decorating her skirt dancing musically with her every step.
 
Performers twirled to the sound of the harp, flute, and drum, while jesters drew laughter from the masses by dressing up as each of the Valar and comically falling over each other to please the crowd. Isildur looked to where a jester in blue, with white face paint and Manwë's mark upon his brow, tripped and 'bowed' to another wearing the black and flames of a Priest of Melkor. He felt his heart twist in his chest as the crowd laughed, some even going as far to dump their goblets of wine on the prone clown as they passed by.
  
Isildur waited for night to fall before donning the 'borrowed' costume of one of the King's Guard and making his way through the palace walls. When he and Anárion were young, they had spent much time in Armenelos with their father and grandfather, and they had learned well the secret passages threading through the palace walls. He now walked those same hidden ways with baited breath, waiting when he heard noises, and creeping on when all was silence around him. Most of the palace's residents were celebrating in the streets beyond, and his way was mostly clear as he came out of the passage behind a tapestry. He was in an empty corridor, one which lead to the courtyard surrounding Nimloth herself.
 
When Elros had first overseen the building of Armenelos, those thousands of years ago, the palace was wholly designed around the White Tree. Beyond him, the open courtyard was surrounded by tall, elegant pillars of white and pink marble, threaded through with veins of gold. There were guards ringing the Tree, posted to detour any of the Faithful who thought to be foolish with their heroics – quite like himself, Isildur thought wryly. The days were late in autumn, and the winter was nigh upon them. It had rained earlier in the day, and beads of ice crystallized on Nimloth's nearly barren branches. Even in her waning days, after years of neglect and abuse, she still stood with her boughs held high and proud – as regal as a queen with her grace and steadfast endurance. She all but glowed in the light of the crescent moon above – for Ithil was kindred to her, the Moon having been born of the great Tree Telperion the same as she. Nimloth took strength from the moonlight, Isildur could not help but think. He prayed then, hoping to make her strength his own.
 
He looked, and was nearly disheartened to see nothing growing upon her naked boughs, until he saw - there . . . It was small and withering, but there was a fruit waiting to be plucked on her lowest branches.
 
Isildur felt relief fill him, nearly tangible in shape. Hope still lived then.
 
And so, Isildur took in a breath, and stepped out into the moonlight -
 
- only to be stopped by a voice at his back.
 
“Guard.” 

There was not a soul in Armenelos who did not know that voice, Isildur thought, instantly going still as cold dread filled his every limb. He could feel as his heart flickered, as his breath caught. Yet, he forced himself to stillness as he turned to meet the Zigûr's eyes. The guard's helm he wore was thick, and the night was shadowed. He would not be known, so long as he kept his face hidden.
 
Yet, was the Sorcerer not said to read both hearts and minds? Isildur knew the whispers, but he did not know what was truth and what was fabrication by the masses. Hating his not knowing, he bowed before Sauron's watching gaze, dropping to his knees and making a fist of his hand and touching it to the red Eye embroidered over his heart.
 
“My lord,” he gave in a low voice. It took everything within him to keep his tone from trembling. He looked, and saw only the polished black boots before him. When the Maia stepped towards him, he did not make a sound upon the stone, moving more like a spirit than a man of flesh and bone.
 
Isildur had been little more than a youth when Sauron was first brought to Númenor in chains. Even still, he - like every other in Númenor - had marveled when instead of the monster the legends spoke of, they were presented with a fair and impossibly beautiful creature. The great scourge of Middle-earth surrendered to Ar-Pharazôn's might before one sword could be drawn, and freely submitted himself to capture - wise and wry words falling from his mouth rather than oaths and hateful barbs. Even now, after years had passed, Isildur was still not completely used to the tall and elegant man – with a face more beautiful than any Elf and eyes composed entirely of golden flame. More dangerous than his unearthly beauty was the aura of charm and . . . enticement that he seemed to wear like a second skin. Isildur always felt drowsy around the Maia, his thoughts muddled and his spirit flickering - as if unsure of whose control he was truly under.
 
That was a feeling he could not afford now, not when so much was at stake. So, he steeled himself against the other man's probe, and held himself strong underneath his curious stare.
 
“The rotations were done a quarter hour ago,” Sauron said, his eyes narrowing as he looked him up and down. Underneath his closed fist, Isildur could feel his heart thunder. “You are late.”
 
“My apologies, Zigûr,” Isildur inclined his head even deeper. “I was caught up in the festivities, and lost track of the time – a tribute to the splendor and glory you have bestowed upon us, no doubt?”
 
His temples throbbed as if there was a vice settling about his mind. The aura emanating from the Maia seemed to flicker then, to pulsate. Words lingered on the tip of Isildur's tongue – the truth, his every closely kept secret – and yet, with a mental shove he swallowed them away. He kept them his own.
 
And finally, Sauron took a step back. His eyes narrowed in displeasure, and Isildur felt as if he had just narrowly escaped a blade at his neck.
 
“It is a night of revelry,” Sauron finally allowed, the golden melody of his voice nonetheless carrying his ire. “But that does not excuse such tardiness. Do not let it happen again.”
 
Isildur felt a last wave of discordance brush against his skin – promising of what future errors would bring, and foreshadowing what was to come once his 'superior officer' was told of his folly. Yet, by then, Isildur would already be long gone.
 
He bowed even lower still, nearly pressing his forehead to the cold ground before a shadow passed over him and then fell away. Finally, Isildur felt as if he could breathe.
 
He waited until the Maia's silent footsteps left down the hall before looking up to watch as Sauron turned the corner. When Isildur finally stood, his legs were weak. He had to wait a moment before he trusted himself to walk.
 
Waiting another minute, he then reached into his doublet to take out the powder, turning to step out into the courtyard beyond. His heart hammered in his chest, while above him Nimloth's branches seemed to glitter – welcoming him beneath her silver eaves. He strode across the grass, approaching that first unsuspecting guard with purpose in his stride. He took in a breath, and prayed.
 
Our mother Varda, dear lady of light, he entreated the Valar as he had been taught, so long ago . . . Manwë, lord of the heavens . . . Aulë, strong in might . . . Yavanna, bountiful in gifts . . . Ulmo, ever watchful . . . Námo, just in judgment . . . Vairë, spinning our fates . . . Irmo, master of dreams . . . gentle Estë, mother of healing . . . dancing Nessa, lighting our joy . . . innocent Vána, keeper of youth . . . Tulkas, unmatched in arms . . . Oromë, father of the hunt . . . merciful Nienna, weeping for our souls . . . 
 
He prayed, and held his faith close as he struck.
 
 
 
.

.
 
Sauron turned from the quivering boy and continued onwards down the hall. Through the pillars surrounding the courtyard, Nimloth cast a tired white glow, throwing long shadows to curve and stretch in the night. The dark swallowed him as a kindred as he walked, troubled by his inability to read the guard's soul.
 
It was not too surprising, he thought next, trying to dismiss his overactive thoughts as nothing more than paranoia – understandable, given the events of the morrow. Many generations had passed for Lúthien's descendants, and her blood no longer solely remained in the line of the King. There were those scant few in Númenor whose hearts he could not read; whose thoughts he could not deign due to the blessings in their blood – and that boy was simply one of those few. In life, Lúthien had been troublesome enough, and now she continued to plague him even in death.
 
His thoughts darkened. Around him the shadows lengthened, answering his turbulence of spirit. The flames leapt and danced from the torches on the wall, betraying his unease more so than any expression upon his face. He would be lying to himself if he said that his more . . . tactful way of dealing with Númenor was not only a strategic move on his path to complete dominion over the lands, but also a way to thrust a blade into the memory of Lúthien herself. All of those centuries ago, it had seemed simple to defeat the desperate girl on the isle of Tol Sirion. What would a half-elf, her wolf, and a mortal man do against the Lieutenant of Angband? The very idea of defeat had seemed laughable . . . that was, until he returned to his Master in failure, and from his prostrate position before the throne, stared up at the absence of a Silmaril upon Melkor's brow.
 
Melkor had held him personally responsible for dear Melian's half-breed whelp making a fool of him. Sauron had held his tongue through his Master's rage, knowing that pointing out that at least he had been defeated in battle – a battle he was prophesied to lose, at that - while his Master had been sung to sleep by the song of a somewhat pretty maid was not the way to earn his lord's good graces once more. And so, he bore through Melkor's rather ingenious forms of punishment, knowing all the while that Melkor sought nothing more than to sooth his own bruised ego by inflicting the blame on another.
 
And yet, the unforgivable part of Lúthien's crimes had been his Master's inability to forgive him as the years passed. He dropped down in status until he was on par with the lowest of Orc slaves, assigned only the most menial of tasks in the pits while Melkor smiled down cruelly from above – satisfied that he felt his 'failure' in the most acute of ways. And then, he had passed out of Melkor's mind for many seasons to come. Even when the loss of the Silmaril turned out to be inspired in further rendering the bonds between the Sindar and the Noldor . . . even when Melkor laughed to see his enemies tear themselves apart from the inside out in yet another Kinslaying, and then two . . . Still Sauron toiled, and Melkor did not look his way.
 
He redeemed himself somewhat with his machinations during the Battle of Unnumbered Tears – both suggesting the use of the Easterlings as double agents, and plotting the movements of their troops that resulted in the death of Fingon the Valiant and the capture of Húrin of Dor-lómin. Melkor was power and consuming chaos, but Sauron was logic and strategy – and his Master would not have been able to accomplish what he did without him whispering at his feet. Even still, it was not until he later tore the location of Gondolin from Maeglin's broken mouth that Melkor looked on him in favor again. Yet . . . even then, it was not the same. Only at the end of War of Wrath itself, with Manwë's herald at the door and their army falling in ruins, had Melkor looked at him – truly looked at him once more.
 
His eyes terrible and fathomless, Melkor had then freed him from his duty to Angband, letting him go to live and fight another day in his name. Melkor had freed him, but never released him, and bound he would now ever be.
 
Go, little Maia, the stone form had rumbled, not even looking at him as he sat on his throne to receive their 'guests'. His voice had been deep then, a cadence of molten rock and black heat that Sauron felt from the core of his spirit to the bones of the form he chose to wear. Go now, Mairon, but remember . . . my servant you will be until the end of days. Never forget that.
 
Even then he had been unable to leave. He had remained rooted to the spot as if he were a part of the mountain itself. No, I will stay. No, I will fight . . . I will not leave you. Ever was he the adoring servant, and if need be, he would pay even the ultimate price at his Master's side. In the end, it had taken Melkor flinging his disembodied spirit as one would chase a dog from the yard to get him to leave – just in time for Eönwë's army to breach the throne-room, and all was then chaos and loss.
 
He felt as if he were leaving a part of his soul behind when flying from Melkor's side, watching as the great might of his spirit was subdued and chained by those who dared to call themselves superior. His own spirit had flickered with rage, with grief, but what could he do? He could do nothing more than wait . . . wait and carefully plan. And now, here he was, all of these centuries later with his Master's name once more arising in glory, worshiped in direct opposition to the powers in the West themselves.
 
And . . . if he happened to avenge himself upon Lúthien's wretched descendants all the same . . . Well, that was a more personal form of satisfaction, but satisfaction still it was. At first, the idea had been ridiculous – he bowing before the power of Men, no matter how mighty their nation was? Surrendering to Númenor? Quaking in fear at the sound of their marching feet? Even now, the thought caused him to tremble with both dark amusement and rage in the form of flesh he wore. A body was just that, and another one could be conjured at will. And yet, he vowed that he would remember each lash and blow inflicted against this hröa with the memory only a Maia possessed. Dragged through the streets of Umbar and then across the sea to the harbor city of Rómenna, where he was then paraded to the King's City in Armenelos . . . his chains had been gold, but chains they still were, and Sauron remembered.
 
Each jeer of the crowd . . . each lash this King of Men so foolishly thought his right to inflict . . . each demand this mortal child so arrogantly thought his right to make . . . Even when his answers became dire and direr still, the King still scurried to obey, the tables of power shifting between them without Pharazôn's conscious realization. A temple to Melkor here . . . a sect of black robed priests there . . . and then a sacrifice or three or a hundred to follow . . . He gave trifle parlor tricks of 'magick' until all in Númenor called him Sorcerer and bowed to him lower than they did even their King. Slowly but surely he had moved up from a dungeon cell to a room of his own in the palace to all but governing that palace . . . Do you wish for immortality, your grace? Then pass your enemies through the fire . . . pass the White Tree through the fire . . . pass your sons and daughters through the fires – give and give and give until you have nothing but your own soul to feed the flames. When the smoke at last pierces the Doors of Night, Melkor shall hear your cries, and when he walks free once more . . .
 
Well . . . Melkor always rewarded his servants most handsomely, even if not in ways his servants always understood, or appreciated.
 
While Ar-Pharazôn scurried to obey, Sauron kept his counsel close, and remembered . . . He remembered, and he swore to never forget.
 
It turned out that Eärendil's dear heir was just as debased and deviant as all would claim he to be. While he understood the usefulness of . . . physical persuasion, pains inflicted on others, no matter how cruel or severe, were always done with a purpose in mind. He held the same apathy for torture as he did for beating a fold of metal upon an anvil – twisting and molding it until it formed a shape either practical or beautiful in nature. He himself had learned similar lessons at Melkor's hands. His Master was always few in words with praise and many in blows for failure, and whatever 'pains' he inflicted on his captives he had experienced a hundred fold himself – for the paper thin bodies of the children of Arda could only endure so much before they broke, and broke for good. One had to be clever to inflict pain on a Maia, and yet, from his Master's hands, such pains were a baptism in fire, teaching him, molding him . . . At Pharazôn's hands . . .
 
. . . this king of Men all but reveled in the pains he inflicted on others. His eyes would lighten and his mouth would turn like a wolf whose mouth whetted at a doe stumbling in the wood. This king of Men was all black rot and a scorched soul that even Sauron the Abhorred looked on and saw debased to its core.

Wiser still were men like Amandil and Elendil, who knew suspicion and caution when he first took the knee to Númenor outside the gates of Mordor. Though descended from a sister of the fourth King, the lords of Andúnië bore more fey wisdom (and Lúthien's enchantments in their blood) than Pharazôn's whole council combined. If Pharazôn had listened to his once-friend in the beginning, then Sauron would have taken much more drastic measures to see Númenor destroyed than the long-term deception he practiced now. The Men of the West had expected a monster, what they received instead was a beautiful being speaking honeyed words and oh so humbly surrendering to the might of Men.
 
Surrendering . . .
 
Surrendering.
 
Ha, how such a thing was laughable!
 
If he willed it, he could have filled the minds of each in the army before him - filled them with brimstone and fire until they were all but clawing each other in their desperation to free their own burning souls from the prisons of their flesh. Such was his power with the One Ring about his finger, (and how he felt an ache of spirit as he thought about his greatest weapon; the child of his spirit that was buried safely in Barad-dûr for the time being.) Dealing with Pharazôn's arrogance in such a way had been his right as Lord of Middle-earth and heir to Melkor's might. Ever was he his Master's devoted disciple, succeeding where he now could not . . . And yet, the strength of Númenor was no trifle matter. It would have to be handled with more tact than such wanton destruction.
 
Sauron remembered the days before the Sun and Moon first rose, when his Master returned from Valinor after his first imprisonment in Mandos' Halls. Gazing at the stolen Silmarils in the looking glass, his black might of a Lord had whispered the secrets of his escape. His brother wanted words of love and devotion, pleas for forgiveness and hopes for reconciliation, and so, Melkor had spoken all that Manwë wanted to hear. Melkor, whose very soul was Arda had taken a knee to one who was only Heaven, and vowed to live as a thrall, lower than the lowest in Aman, in exchange for freedom from Námo's black Halls. Melkor had humbled himself, he had debased himself, and yet, his guise of 'penitence' allowed him to fell the great House of Finwë with nothing more than whispered words and blackened tendrils of doubt sent deep within dreams.

Love, Melkor had scoffed. Both sons of Finwë had feared the other for their place in their father's heart, and their love for each other had suffered as a result. That fear had stayed as an unspoken whisper before Melkor's fine work; a secret that all tried to bury. And yet, after Melkor . . .
 
Well, Valinor knew not of the Light for so long, and never again like it did in the days of the Trees'. Now Finwë's house was broken and scattered, and the least of his great might now survived as these Men thanks to the thoughtless choice of Eärendil's son. Elros callously threw away his length of days, failing to foresee the lengths his descendants would go through to reclaim what was 'rightfully' theirs . . . If Sauron moved to further that opinion, if he whispered into ears and ghosted through dreams until the secret wish of the Númenoreans turned into a tempest of righteous indignation and arrogant conviction, well . . .
 
Sauron had learned well from his Master. Soon, he too would surge forth to take even the light away from ever darkening Númenor. He would not stop until his foes were nothing but a lost people beneath the waves, while he . . .
 
. . . he would remain. He would remain, and he would endure to live and fight again. This was the truth than allowed his knee to bend, that allowed his head to bow. This was the certainty that let him count the moments until this Man would know, and see that there was only one power left in this world - and that power rested not in Ar-Pharazôn's golden hands.
 
Sauron looked up at Nimloth's white boughs, quaking in the starlight as if she knew her end was near. Soon, he shaped his thoughts as a prayer as he turned away, as a holy offering of words. He did not know if they reached his Master beyond the Doors of Night, and yet . . .
 
Soon, he prayed, and felt his faith form as a promise.
 
 
 
.

.
 
The night air was cold with more than the onset of winter. The clouds were few and thin above, draped in gossamer veils around the light of the sickle moon. Crystals of ice formed on the railing of her balcony from the rain that had fallen earlier in the day, lingering long after the stormclouds themselves fled.
 
Her lady had softly suggested closing the doors and coming in to sit by the hearth, where she would not take ill to a gust of the cold. But she was a daughter of Númenor; she did not take ill, and she was the Queen besides. If she wanted to stand in the cold and look down on Nimloth's empty, barren branches, then she would.
 
This was what she wanted; and was one of the few wishes she could fulfill with her crown as her shackles and her royal blood the very thing that chained her to the hell of her living. So, Zimraphel sent her fluttering ladies and maid-servants away, and stood with bloodless hands clasped about her balcony rails, ignoring the cold as it bit into her skin.
 
The hour was growing late, but she would find no respite in sleep that night. Her heart was heavy, swelling to overwhelm the cavity of her chest. After all that her father had done, after all she had done in her days as Númenor's sole Ruling Queen to see the deeds of their forefather's set to right, their hard work was now brushed away as if from a gust of wind. Númenor would now do the unthinkable, the unforgivable, and she could do nothing but watch. She could only watch, knowing that this was wrong to its very core. This was sacrilege, this was blasphemy – an evil even worse than the black Maia that her husband so foolishly thought to claim as his pet and jester. She was wise enough to see the puppet strings binding him, even when her husband so foolishly called them chains. She knew who ruled from behind her husband's gilded throne, and no matter how many times she tried to find Calion within Ar-Pharazôn and beseech him to see reason, she only seemed to secure his feet even more firmly down his twisted path.
 
Oh, she knew his arguments. She knew them as well as she knew the name he sought to force on her. Often she would listen to him preach, her face pressed to the marble floor as she bowed – bowed - like a penitent peasant rather than Númenor's Queen. She was the rightful heir to Elros' blood, while her husband had to change the laws going back centuries to validate the farce of their union. Even now her blood heated at the thought, turning thick and angry within her as she thought about the indignity heaped upon her shoulders as Pharazôn smiled to see her bowing so . . . She remembered how his Zigûr inclined his head from behind the throne and smiled to match - as if she were a dog to be trained, rather than a queen and wife to hold in respect for her counsel as an equal in wisdom.
 
“When the Elves first came upon us, we were a small people, little above the beasts of the field with our language and traditions. Now we are mighty, so mighty that even Gil-Galad the High-king of the Elves depended on our forefathers to fight their wars when the Zigûr came forth to conquer Eriador. It was not the might of the Elves that pushed Sauron back to Mordor - nay, it was us. It was our might, our strength. And such was our might and strength that not even Melkor's Lieutenant dared to wage war with us. The great Sorcerer surrendered in wisdom, and threw in his lot with the side of power.
 
“Now our years do not match our might, and still the Valar in the West would have us toil. They sit on their thrones and lie to us about the existence of the One, while chaining our true lord Melkor away. They watch in glee as we grow old and die after so few years of living - and they do so because they fear us, because they know that we are strong enough to take even Valinor by force if that is what our lord Melkor demands of us. Once we break free from the chain of the Valar, such a reward will then be ours. As Númenor was given to us for our devotion to the One; immortality shall be given to us by one who is even greater than the lie of Eru. We shall be deathless; and our reign – yours and mine, my queen - shall be endless.”
 
He would always have to stop at that point of his tirade, clenching his fists and taking in deep breaths to calm his rapid heartbeat. He would blink, and always was her husband something more in those moments . . . something other while the Sorcerer's eyes glittered as flames behind him.
 
The throne-room was all gold and sapphire, denoting the ocean and its might underneath the gold of the sun. The light from the torches chased mad shapes across Pharazôn's brow, catching in his nut brown hair and setting it aflame. It had bothered him since their childhood that he did not bear the coloring of the King's line, she would remember in satisfaction whenever she saw Elros' crown upon his brown brow. Once, she and Amandil had teased him with affection as children, back when her own hair had been thick and black down her back, not bound away in artful coils and jeweled nets. Calion would only scowl and pushed them in the waves in those days, his warm brown eyes laughing. And yet, now . . .
 
His eyes were cold. She could not see Calion within them no matter how hard she tried.
 
“It was not our choice that did away with our days,” Pharazôn would then drop his voice to a whisper. “It was not our choice, but rather the Indilzar's choice. It was not his right to do away with the days of his descendants; to chain them to these mortal forms. I seek justice with my actions, I seek that which is rightfully owed to us. And where the Powers in the West will not be moved by our plight, I will seek out my endless days with a higher Power, a greater Might.”
 
“At what cost?” she would dare to raise her head in reply. “At what cost will you buy that which the One himself has not seen fit to give?” For while the days of Men were relatively few, they were still days to live and live to the fullest before they found beyond the circles of the world and the Gift that their true Father promised to them . . .This she had been taught from her earliest days, and she could not yet bring herself to turn away from those teachings.
 
She remembered sitting with her father in the courtyard below, tending to the White Tree and praying that Tol Eressëa would once again become visible to them on the western horizon. Her father taught her the names of the Valar, and told her stories of the birth of her people - speaking of both their great friendship with the Elves and their deeds of bygone days. when the might of Men had been so selfless and full of valor that the Valar gave them this great land as a gift, as a blessing . . .
 
Carefully, her father had taught her how to pray, and Nimloth had turned her crystalline boughs towards their songs of thanksgiving - fully blooming for the first time since the evil of Ar-Gimilzôr's rule.
 
And yet . . . her father was dead now. Her father was dead, and Calion, who had been her friend in their youngest days had usurped both her hand and her throne, leaving her helpless as her father's fine work was destroyed and Númenor plunged into a blackness darker than any before her husband's reign.
 
Now the Great Temple to Melkor stood dominating the horizon, terrible in shape and black in might. It's build was young and new, the last stone having been set but days ago. The White Tree was set to burn as the opening sacrifice with the sunrise, darkening the golden ceiling with the black of smoke for the first time. She had lost count of the souls who had been selected to pass through the fires next, and no matter how she worked to secure their release, she knew that they would never walk free again. Those whom her husband believed to be traitors to his rule would fall to the Zigûr's cruel ideas of devotion, slaughtered before Melkor's pitiless eyes in the name of eternal life. When she spoke too vehemently in defense of Nimloth, Sauron had even raised a copper brow, and suggested that perhaps something beloved – something personal – should be sacrificed to Melkor to show the depths of Pharazôn's devotion, cutting her words at their roots. She understood the threat as it was made, and the worst part was that Pharazôn had not blinked in reply. He had considered. He had vowed to give even that if Melkor demanded it so. She wanted to tear the Sorcerer's smirk from her face with her bare hands then, but to do so would have only given him the reason he needed to finally see her cast aside.
 
Beyond the Faithful whom she worked for behind the scenes, she was simply glad that she only had her own soul to protect from Sauron's Eye, and not a child as well. She had decided long ago that she would never be a mother. When her husband first forced this marriage on her, she had taken precautions so that Calion's child would never take root in her, as much as she had once wanted nothing more than a family of her own . . . a son to give her father's name to, and a daughter to teach the songs and prayers of old. And yet, now she was all too thankful that she took such measures. For the Zigûr's eyes on her were bad enough . . . if she had a child to protect from the flames, as well . . .
 
She tasted bile in her throat at simply the thought. She could not swallow against it.
 
And yet, she was startled from her thoughts by a movement in the courtyard below. She looked, but only saw where the guards seemed to be staring straight ahead, looking without blinking as a cloaked figure darted forth over the cool grass. He wore a guard's black uniform and gold feathered helm, with the red Eye of Sauron staring up from his chest, and yet . . . it was no guard who approached the White Tree with a careful reverence in his stride and awe to the tilt of his head. It was no guard, but rather, one of the Faithful who lifted his hand as if in apology to the doomed boughs. Nimloth seemed to brighten beneath the touch, and then, and only then could she tell the face of Elendil's son when the imposter threw his visor back so as to better look at the majesty before him – beautiful, even in the face of such a death. She could easily tell dear Amandil's face in the line of his grandson – spying out the strong features and the nearly fey build that Silmariën's descendants carried even when the king's line had all but completely lost its resemblance to Elros as time went by.
 
And yet, now . . .
 
Isildur, she recognized, fear leaping in her chest. That foolish, foolish boy. Did he not know that it was more than his own life that he risked? Did he not understand that Calion had been looking for all but an excuse to see Amandil's kin put to the sword? He would give that to him now, and all for . . .
 
No.

She turned towards the door – to what end she did not know – but was stopped when Ar-Pharazôn stepped into her chamber at that same moment, his eyes glittering with the promise of the morrow.
 
“My lord,” her voice came out startled. She fought the urge she had to glance over her shoulder, not wanting to give away the boy in the courtyard below.
 
“You are as restless as I, if I could startle you so,” Pharazôn said, coming closer to her. There was amusement etched into his face, and yet, there was a question too.
 
For not the same reasons are we sleepless this eve, she thought, but did not say. “I am filled with anticipation for tomorrow,” she said, placing herself between her husband and the balcony. Her words were not wholly a lie.
 
“It is to be a day of glory, matched by none other since this nation's founding,” Pharazôn said in a low, reverent voice. If he felt any apprehension for killing the tree his kingship was prophesied to be tied to, he gave no sign. Instead his gaze was eager, like a wolf with eyes turned towards the moon.
 
Zimraphel came in from her balcony, shutting the doors firmly behind her. “The night air grows cold,” she said in explanation.
 
And she was cold. Her robe for the night was the finest of silks, but it was thin. Gooseflesh broke out over the exposed skin of her forearms, and she shivered when Pharazôn lifted her hand to see proof of her body's chill. If she were any other wife, and he any other husband, it would have been a mark of affection when he folded his arms around her, sharing his body's heat. She merely closed her eyes against the embrace, and swallowed around a stone.
 
“You shiver,” he said, his whisper ghosting against her hair.

She exhaled. “Only from the cold,” still she said, her voice a whisper. Let him think her coy, she thought, for she could not hide the leaping of her pulse when there was the sound of the guard below, awakening from whatever enchantment Isildur had used on them.
 
She felt her breath catch. Her people lived on borrowed time, she knew, for not long would the Valar – would the One – allow this race of Men to so openly scorn their rule. How long would black smoke have to burn the sky before Ilúvatar remembered his children – both striking with a father's rage, and sparing those faithful with a father's love?
 
She did not have the time to wait, though. Isildur did not have the time – and so, she turned in her husband's arms. She met his eyes even as he looked to turn away, drawn by the ruckus below.
 
Not once in her marriage had she ever kissed her husband without the affection being forced on her. Never had she accepted Pharazôn with joy, and over the years her husband had lost interest in her bed when her body proved to be barren to him – though he did not know that to be from her own doing. She threaded her arms around his neck and kissed him now, closing her eyes and forcing down her revulsion as she forced her hands to be tender, her mouth to be delicate with a wife's devotion.
 
“To celebrate your success,” she drew away from him to whisper, her voice pitched low as her heart thundered in her chest. Her pulse leapt from fear and worry, it was true, but Pharazôn did not know that.
 
He looked at her in such a way then. His hands - his cruel, merciless hands - cupped her face in a way that was nearly tender. For, somewhere deep down inside, he did bear an affection for her. It was debased and it was wrong, twisted as so much about him was, and yet . . . it was love where his bones were black rot and his veins all but yellow with venom. It was enough to save the foolish, brave boy below. And so, Míriel fought with the one weapon she still had to her, and twisted her husband's affections in order to spare the lives of those who still believed as she believed.
 
Our mother Varda, dear lady of light, she prayed once more, hoping beyond hope that this time they would listen, that this time, her prayers would be heard . . . Manwë, lord of the heavens . . . Aulë, strong in might . . . Yavanna, bountiful in gifts . . . Ulmo, ever watchful . . . Námo, just in judgment . . . Vairë, spinning our fates . . . Irmo, master of dreams . . . gentle Estë, mother of healing . . . dancing Nessa, lighting our joy . . . innocent Vána, keeper of youth . . . Tulkas, unmatched in arms . . . Oromë, father of the hunt . . . merciful Nienna, weeping for our souls . . . Please, remember your servants . . . shelter your children in their time of need. Please, as your humble daughter, I beg of you . . .
 
. . . Please.
 
She peered up through the glass panes of her balcony doors, her eyes finding the heavens through Nimloth's great branches . . . but no answer was found by her. And then her husband was blocking out what light remained from the stars, smothering her until there was only him. In reply she held her belief close to her chest once more. She kept her faith as a truth – lining her bones and filling her lungs, swearing that she would let it define her until she had not a breath left within her to do so.

 
 
 
.

.
 
His son did not open his eyes until the first days of spring.
 
 At first, Elendil had known a fear unlike any other when he was broken from his anxious pacing by a page announcing Isildur's return. He had known from the first that something was not right – for the page's face was pale, and his eyes flickered to rest anywhere but on his own. When he had first realized that Isildur was gone, he could risk no action for fear of exposing his son. And then, when word had reached them as rumor that the guards had tried to capture a criminal who stole a fruit from the White Tree . . . while the guards had been unable to capture the culprit, they had dealt the thief wounds aplenty, and were of the opinion that it was only a matter of time before their quarry was found. Elendil had worried, sick with his apprehension until late in the evening the next day, when his son was announced as returned.
 
His worst fears had been confirmed when he came down to the courtyard to see Isildur bloody and half-alive upon the back of his horse. His ruined guard's costume was in tatters about his body and his eyes were closed with unconsciousness. He had collapsed against his horse's neck, and only some animal's wisdom had kept him from falling during the long trek back to Rómenna.
 
And yet, in his hand he clenched a single, withering fruit. A single silver fruit, saved from destruction even as black smoke dotted the horizon – visible from the roof of the Great Temple, no matter the miles between Armenelos and the seashore.
 
“You foolish boy,” Elendil had breathed, he being the one to pull his son from the horse. Once Isildur was on the ground, he held his son close, his heart twisting in both fear and relief – fear, relief, and such an overwhelming pride that for a moment he had not been able to breathe around it. “You foolish, brave boy.”
 
Those in his household were of the Faithful, and not a one would betray Isildur's deed. Even still, for many days Elendil feared Pharazôn's men arriving with swords and chains at his doorstep. Yet, the days turned to weeks and then to months, and still none had come to take his son into custody. Isildur had disguised himself well, and no one knew who sought to give Nimloth her last chance to grow again. His son was safe. Safe, and yet . . . as the winter came and lingered, Elendil feared that Pharazôn would eventually come to claim a corpse for his torments – for Isildur had been unblinking since the day of his return. No matter what poultice or charm they tried, the healers had been unable to move him to awaken once more.
 
Isildur still lived, the healers said. Only, he lived lost within his own mind. He could awaken in the next minute, or he could awaken years down the line – there was no way to tell in cases like these. And yet, Elendil clasped his belief close to his chest, and held on to his faith that his son would open his eyes once again. His faith was all he had left to him.
 
He, Anárion, and Isildur's childhood sweetheart Ûrien, took turns staying with him during the day. The healers said that while he could not reply, he could hear them in his slumber, and their words would do more than they knew in stimulating his brain. Elendil would often sit and speak about everything and nothing, giving his words until his voice was raw. Most nights, he started out reading whatever scroll demanded his attention that day, and ended up telling his son how proud his mother would be if she was still there with them. Anárion found him like this most nights, and yet, as much as his son pushed for him to take rest for himself, he knew that his youngest child slept by Isildur's side more often than not. Anárion was often to be found on his brother's right, while Ûrien slept at his left, they both unwilling to let him awaken to an empty room.
 
When the winter finally broke and the spring rains softened the ground enough for planting, Elendil himself took the seeds from Nimloth's fruit, and planted them out of sight from all. He then bowed over the hidden seed and prayed – prayed as he had not since he was a small boy and faith was easy in its simplicity and certainty. He prayed for hours, keeping to his devotion until his eyes had no tears to give and his voice was raw. He stayed until he was emotionally spent, and then he left Nimloth's memory to grow again in peace.
 
. . . it was not until that first green shoot pierced the soil that Isildur awakened, opening his eyes with the first unfurling of the seed, and Elendil knew then with a certainty that the prophesy of old was true. Nimloth lived and breathed with Elros' line, and she had bonded herself to his son for the bravery of his deeds.
 
The house came alive with sounds of rejoicing that day. There were songs ringing through the halls, while laughter was found around every corner as long, mourning faces remembered that their mouths could smile, that their throats could sing. Elendil welcomed the good cheer with open arms, feeling like the sprouted seedling himself for his son once more alive and well. He could not keep his joy from his eyes, and his mouth all but ached from the strain of holding a smile for so long.
 
It was late into the night now, and Anárion had left them both to see the household put to order nearly an hour ago. Elendil still sat at his son's bedside, unable to turn away. On Isildur's opposite side, Ûrien had fallen asleep almost a quarter hour ago. She was a slender woman with seemingly delicate features, though the last few months had proven a spine of steel to exist where many would only see a flower, ready to wilt in a stiff breeze, before. Ûrien had been a favored playmate of Isildur as a child, and she had grown to remain a close companion as they turned older still. Elendil wished to someday call her daughter, and the events of the past few months could only hasten that goal towards fruition, he hoped.
 
With her white skin and pale blonde hair, the black she wore nearly washed her out. The red lining, and the embroidered eye upon her chest . . . the eye seemed to be staring at him, Elendil could not help but think. It stayed unmoving as Ûrien finally gave into exhaustion and fell asleep with her head leaning on Isildur's bedside. Her breathing was deep and even – at peace for the first in far too long.
 
Elendil watched as Isildur stared at the girl, his eyes far away as he reached out a hesitant hand to sooth her hair away from her brow. The smallest of tasks wearied him after so long a bedrest, and even reaching over to touch her left him drained after a moment. Elendil waited for him to settle in against the pillows, biting his tongue to keep from asking if his son needed help adjusting himself, or if he wanted a glass of water. Isildur would ask him when he needed aid, and he did not want to coddle him too much before then.
 
Instead, he too looked at Ûrien, allowing a fond smile to touch his mouth – for both of his children. “She has scarce left your side these long months,” Elendil said fondly, giving in to the urge to reach out and touch his son's hand. “She will make a fine wife, when you get to asking her.”
 
Isildur looked from Ûrien to him, and then looked down at his sheets again. His face was troubled. “I would not bring a wife into such a land as this . . . and I most certainly would not condemn a child to live in such darkened days,” he swallowed, as if the thought was a malediction, rather than a blessing. “Our family is marked in Ar-Pharazôn's eyes, and to bring her into that . . .”
 
“Time is against those of us with mortal years,” Elendil commented. “In the end, you may not have time to wait against the length of your days.
 
Isildur raised a dark brow. “You now speak as the Âru does.”
 
“Perhaps,” Elendil acknowledged wryly, not allowing mentions of Pharazôn to darken his spirits – not this eve. “And yet, I simply encourage you to live in the years you have. Ûrien is daughter to Faithful parents, and she too holds her faith still dear. She is marked with or without you are her husband, my son.”
 
Isildur let out a deep breath. In her sleep, Ûrien turned towards him, as if unconsciously seeking his warmth. Elendil watched the adoration that filled his son's gaze – even without his will – and knew that he would have a marriage to plan in the time to come, no matter Isildur's current reservations.
 
He let out a deep breath, pleased.
 
After a long moment, Isildur turned back to him. “Nimloth?” he questioned then, changing the subject. “She lives no more, does she not?”
 
“She was the kindling that started the fires in the Great Temple,” Elendil answered, his jaw tight as he forced the words out. “Yes.”
 
Isildur closed his eyes, long and slow. “Then . . .” he hesitated. He could not form his words. “The fruit . . .”
 
“Was planted successfully,” Elendil answered gently. “And, most curiously, you only opened your eyes this morning with the seed's first sprouting.” He leaned back as Isildur processed his revelation, confusion darkening his eyes for a moment. “It was foretold, long ago, that the Kings of Elros' line would find their fates intertwined with that of the White Tree. Perhaps, there was more truth to that then first was known.”
 
“I am no King,” Isildur pointed out wryly. “Our family cannot even claim lordship over Andúnië any longer, and even if we could, I would still have at least another century to come into that title, given grandfather's constitution.”
 
“And yet, you are of Elros' blood, are you not?” Elendil was not so sure. Ever did Pharazôn move to push Númenor down a path that it would not survive. If, during the days after . . . but no. Such thoughts were formed only through the haze of possibility, and Elendil would give them no further thought. “All I know is that Nimloth . . . she grows with you, she lives with you . . . Someday, you shall plant her again in fair soil, and your children and your children's children will know peace and light beneath her boughs.”
 
“How very elvish of you,” Isildur said. “Do you have the Sight, all of these years, only to remain silent about it?”
 
“It is nothing like that,” Elendil said, his eyes sparking at his son's teasing. “I only give voice to a hope, one that I believe in dearly.”
 
“Faith,” Isildur said in a low voice, solemnly nodding in reply. “Yes, I do understand that.”

And he did. He believed more than them all, perhaps, for none other had dared to stretch their hand towards Nimloth as his son had. Elendil felt pride fill him, even as the days remained dark on the horizon ahead. Isildur was silent now, closing his eyes in contentment – for already the span of the day had wearied him, and the path to healing would be long in the weeks to come.
 
As his son nodded off the sleep, Elendil bowed his own head, and yet, before he could slip into the familiar routine of his prayers, he paused. He hesitated.
 
Blessed Father, he instead addressed the One in his heart, needing to believe that somewhere they were heard – that somewhere the one who had created all was indeed listening. Please, watch over my son as you have so long watched over me. Remember your Faithful in their time of need, and deliver us from the Shadow. As your humble servant, I beg of you . . .
 
He had no signs to say whether or not he was heard. The shadows were still on the wall, and the candles were quiet in their holders. Outside, the wind was lazy against the shutters. And yet, it did not matter. Elendil looked up, and let himself hold faith.
 
As the last seeds of Nimloth turned in the gardens beyond, Isildur did too, and Elendil watched them both stretch their roots to grow. As he threaded through the main street, almost unable to move for the masses flooding the corridor, he looked and saw where the King's guard pulled bound men through the crowds. Some shivered and stared ahead with glassy eyes, unseeing as they were lead to their doom; while others stood with their heads held tall, all but challenging the crowd and its cruelty with the defiance in their gaze. Each man and woman was either of the Faithful, or accused of being so as a result of their angering the wrong person with the King's ear, and now they were drawn as prisoners of war through the streets towards the great dome in the distance – where they too would feed the flames that would devour Nimloth upon the morrow. Whatever doubt he carried before was replaced by resolve as he followed the poor wretches with his eyes.

That will be you if you are not careful, a voice that sounded like Anárion – ever the sensible one between them – rang in his ear, and he set his jaw, determination filling him.

Keeping his hood wrapped tightly around his face, he traveled deeper into the city, to where the herb-mistresses and seers made their livings off the ever more superstitions masses, peddling both the truly arcane and that which was smoke and glitter to those who passed their way. There was a crone that he knew to be discreet, and he brought his potion from her – adding gold enough to ensure her silence, before slipping back into the crowded streets again to wait for the fall of night.

He could not bribe the King's guards, not here – not with such death and barbaric appreciation for bloodsport all but saturating the air around him. The city nearly vibrated with blood-lust and bestial anticipation for the 'sacrifices' that would start with the morning hour, and Isildur felt his stomach turn at the thought. Any bribe he would attempt would simply be pocketed, and his secret told anyway – he given like a bone to the dogs now reigning at the head of this once fair land.