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Filial Piety

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The prisoners knew not if the wolves would devour them in any set order, but the two spaces on the wall besides Aglar were now empty. His body was the only that remained on this side, and soon the wolves would be feasting on his remains. Aglar knew this with a grim certainty. He was trying to make a bet of the wolves’ lottery and received profanities from his companions for that effort. Only the mortal had laughed. Tacholdir and the king might have smiled; the pit was too dark to tell. Uncle Edrahil was too busy trying to soothe the captain to pay any heed to him. In the quest for more responses, Aglar called out to his companions, “Worry not! Perhaps the wolf shall choke on me.” That got another laugh from Beren, a sound made of an alloy weak in true humor. A stark echo in the dungeon. Aglar’s words came from pure viciousness, so the impurity of a response to his jest was fitting. Grim mortal humor. There was nothing not defiled by death in Beleriand; humor grew around it like new growth of a tree, the callus tissue around the wound of a broken branch. Beren was not the first mortal that Aglar befriended who used humor as shield and sword. They needed steel, not merely iron, and so horror was the carbon added to their happiness to make it strong enough to withstand a land where death was present and certain. That was Aglar’s theory, at least. He thought this before, but now in the darkness it was truth bright as a furnace. When his body was enslaved to misery and darkness, it fell to his mind and spirit to follow. Gorthaur wanted that. Bright, kind, or noble feelings had abandoned Aglar, leaving as company only those thoughts that reflected the torment of his surroundings. Hatred demanded less effort to nurture in the dungeons of Tol-in-Gaurhoth than hope. Cold apathy would ask for nothing from him, but such surrender was not yet his choice. If he could not muster the energy for hope, hatred was the best of what options remained. Hatred was warmer than the freezing stone with its rime of ice that could only be melted by slow application of body heat, the only reliable source of drinking water in this pit. Best of all, hatred blocked fear and shielded the mind from pure despair. Hatred did take effort to conjure, but at least it was something to feel.

Gorthaur’s wolves were too impatient to let starvation and cold kill them. They wanted a brighter pain than the ice. The enemy was predictable, and Aglar was losing his energy for patience.

Humor only covered hatred like a flimsy mask for so long. And the Lord of Werewolves was not his target. Eventually Aglar drew a shuddering breath and spoke. “He killed my father. You should have never allowed them inside the city. They are backstabbers; they killed my father.”

“Cousin, shut up,” Edrahil shouted.

“Why? I speak the truth!”

This angry shout caused some of his companions to flinch; Aglar could hear the faint scrape of chains from their movement. Consael murmured a question, but Bân was the one to vocalize the dubiety loudly. “Your father was Noldor! They were Kinslayers, true, but surely you cannot blame all deaths at the Havens on them.”

“And bringing up the shade of the massacre of Alqualondë is what got us into this dungeon!” Edrahil screeched at them again, and this time it was King Finrod who flinched at the underlying rebuke.

Aglar closed his eyes, finding the darkness behind his eyelids more tolerable than the dungeon’s lack of light. The hatred was still there; he found comfort in that it had not abandoned him yet.

“I thought it was your aunt that died?” Consael murmured, but in the silence of the dungeon the sound carried. Gadwar was asleep, and the captain was no longer screaming.

“Lossion’s mother? No, I speak of the direct murder of my father!” Aglar spat. He pulled against the chains and felt the iron cuff break the skin around his wrist. Blood trickled down.

“What part of not using names did you not comprehend?” Edrahil roared.

Aglar twisted his left hand into a rude gesture, though pinned to the wall by the chains and the darkness of the dungeon made the gesture impossible to see. “He died for the High King; what matter is it if I speak his name? All my family’s names?” Aglar felt the hatred bleed away as if both the spoken words and the wound across his wrist were lancing it. “I am ill-tempered because I was poorly tempered by life. Sorry, smithing pun. Bad Gódhil habit. Mother’s grandfather was a very famous smith.”

Consael laughed. “You told me."

 


 

Huddled around a campfire, the natural inclination was to share stories. Tonight the twelve sat in the shadow of the Ered Wethrin; tomorrow they would don the false raiment of orcs. The early autumn air was crisp, making the fire a necessity. Two of their party stood as lookout, but the rest sat in small groups with cloaks draped around shoulders and pitched their voices as to blend with the snapping of the low flames. Above, unseen, an owl hunted. The mortal Beren twitched and smiled at he sat beside King Finrod with other elves around him. The smile was of bewildered joy, a familiar act of companionship returned when once he had been bereft. The memories were easy to read on Beren’s face as he looked around the circle of warriors warming their hands against the fire, speaking lowly to each other, or in Gadwar’s case, crooning softly as he roasted the first of the ripe hazelnuts. Already he had passed around the hawthorn berries. Beren had rolled the red haws across his fingers in soft astonishment, thanking Gadwar for sharing the gift. Now he sat quietly, content, if their presence was food enough. Sadness, too, in those red berries. Aglar wondered what bearded faces did Beren see in the flames’ veil and if he knew that Aglar saw the mortal man’s ancestors in Beren. Aglar’s brother served Prince Angrod and Prince Aegnor and had fought alongside generations of Bëorians. Through Craban, Aglar knew Boromir, Belemir, and warriors like Dagnir and Amathen. Dead men and borrowed ghosts. Unlike his brother Craban, he had not met the grandfather to whom this Beren had been named, but those eyes and cast of the nose was unmistakable. No ring was needed to prove that Beren was Barahir’s son. Aglar desired to ask if Beren remembered Craban, if his younger brother had taught Beren to feed the crows and received trinkets and warnings in return. Aglar’s brother spoke to the wild animals of the forest as Beren did, asking for their sight to scout. This morning Beren had diverted their path when he heard the crows cawing, and Ethir directed everyone to hide in the trees as wolves patrolled below in a ravine. Aglar hugged the branches of the tree he was camouflaged in and dared the others to make jests about red squirrels, but no joke came. Faron would have made the joke, had he been there. Only Beren’s fleeting second of confusion, once the wolves were long past, as he watched the elves gracefully descend, and King Finrod’s words explained Beren’s odd face. The king asked Beren if hiding this way from the enemy patrols felt familiar, and had Barahir and his men hidden among the trees as they just did. Sitting around the fire, Beren was sharing a story with Ethir of scaling a tree and hiding in its branches as they had so earlier - not from any orc patrol but from his mother to escape chores as a young boy. His father had to climb up and calm him to crawl down, as he became frightened by the heights. From the story’s clues, Beren had been only seven or eight. Craban too loved to climb as a boy, forever vexing their mother.

But it was not for Craban’s sake alone that Aglar chose to help this man of Bëor fulfill an oath, though he owed his own life debt to Barahir’s men.

“Lords Curufin and Celegorm address you as cousin,” Consael stated, the shadow of his words a question, “and I could tell there was no love between you, even before what transpired in the throne room.”

The words were quiet, hidden by the crackling of the campfire and the whispered conversations of the others. Edrahil and Gadwar were conferring over tactics, and King Finrod and Ethir were now mapping out the details of their planned route for Beren, as Captain Heledir and Arodreth argued over the position of one of the mountains. Bân polished his sword, the smell of wax mixing with the dregs of stew, roasted hazelnuts, and waybread that they had eaten. Somewhere in the dark of the forest, the owl hooted.

Aglar sighed and began to explain familial history to his new brother-in-law. He pitched his words low as to not disturb the others. “My mother, Vénea, is niece of Nerdanel the Wise, the mother of the sons of Fëanor. My mother’s grandfather is Mahtan Urundil, and thus through him did my grandfather, mother, siblings, and myself inherit this red hair.” Aglar twisted a curl around his finger with a self-deprecating grin. “My father was born in Cuiviénen, the second son of a man named Sarnë who died before Oromë came. My father’s older brother was taken by the Dark Hunters as well. Craban, my younger brother who died in the Dagor Bragollach, his given name was Mornaiwë in honor of my lost uncle.

“My father,” Aglar paused, gather his composure, and continued, “he grew to maturity alongside High King Finwë and had ever been his companion, but he did not wish the politics and tulmoltion of court. Once in Valinor, my father retreated to the north where settlement was limited and isolated to recover from grief. To Túna he came rarely, when High King Finwë asked, and thus met and married my mother, back when Great-Grandfather Mahtan’s family was still high in courtly favor. But when Prince Fëanor became increasingly ...difficult, more unwilling to listen to any voice but his own, more paranoid, more focused on hammering others to his will and demanding total obedience and mastery over their thoughts, eventually Great-Aunt Nerdanel separated from him. This bitterly upset Prince Fëanor, and blackened her name in court. My mother always admired her aunt, so our family was greatly displeased of behalf of Aunt Nerdanel. Steward Edrahil,” Aglar nodded across the fire, “his father, Enedir, is my mother’s younger brother, though Edrahil is many years my elder. Uncle Enedir denounced the royal family, lammenting how even Aunt Nerdanel’s infinite patience had been consumed in their furnace, and how she was slandered as an unfit wife. Nor did he appreciate the slanders against the Valar. Mother’s family is very devout to the Valar, especially Aulë. Uncle Enedir decamped from Tirion entirely. That is why Edrahil joined with Prince Finarfin’s following, and why he grew up so familiar with Alqualondë. Before Morgoth’s parole I remember the situation was not as tense, but there was always tension, and as for my siblings, they were too young to remember. When Prince Fëanor pulled the sword on Prince Fingolfin and threatened to kill him, that was the blow that shattered the ill-tempered wrought iron of our peace. Father could not believe when that happened, he told me. He had been summoned along with all of King Finwë’s lords to council, loathe though he was to attend, and watched as Prince Fëanor entered armed and armored. Later my father was called as witness by the Valar when they tried to establish the truth behind all the lies and accusations of thralldom - and I know now how naive and false that claim feels to you, having grown up under threat of Morgoth and his true enslavement.”

Consael chuckled.

Aglar tugged at the edges of his cloak, watching Gadwar argue with Edrahil. The flames partly obstructed their body posture, but he could tell there was little heat to their disagreement.

“Awkward coldness is barely adequate to describe what was cast when Formenos was established within a few leagues of our family land. We were not allowed to visit the treasuries, and Mother especially was wroth that we be equated with Fëanor’s alternative court-in-exile. But Father would not denounce his childhood friend Finwë. That is why, in the Darkening, my father followed Prince Fëanor, out of desire to honor his dead friend's memory and wishing to avenge his death. And I think Father thought his duty was to try to restrain his dear friend’s son, to offer him wisdom and guidance. Little good it did; Prince Fëanor stopped listening to Aunt Nerdanel years before, and she was the only one would could change his obstinate will and consider another’s thoughts before his own. Father was spitting into a blacksmith’s forge thinking he could cool the flames.” Aglar grit his teeth and calmed his anger once more. “Mother refused to follow in Exile. She went to Great-Grandfather Mahtan. My oldest sister, Amanië, was betrothed to a Vanyar lord; she stayed. And my youngest brother, a babe-in-arms, was too young for a journey. This arrangement was not unusual among the families that followed through the Exile to Beleriand.”

“The princes are much the same,” Consael observed. “We joked amongst ourselves of the lack of women of the Noldor, wondering if you came looking for wives as well as to make your kingdoms.”

Though Consael did not mean it so, Aglar took the words as a pointed reminder. “I vow I shall make your sister a golden ring. I’ll pattern it to match the golden shell locket that she wears.”

Consael hesitated. “If you followed Fëanor in the Exile, does that mean that during the First Kinslaying…”

Aglar bowed his head. “My father was there when Fëanor spoke to Olwë’s people, hoping to incite them to rebel against their king and the Valar, and when they and Olwë rebuked him. By that point Fëanor had finally cooled his temper and was beginning to hear counsel if it pertained to increasing his power and lessening the long odds of making war against Morgoth. My Father took that as a hearty sign of improvement, overlooking that Prince Fëanor was still motivated by spite and fear of his brother and the Valar, focused as much on diminishing the remaining stability of Valinor and those that had chosen not to follow him into rebellion as he was on the goal of avenging King Finwë. When Prince Fëanor suggested to steal the ships, my father spoke against it. I ...my father sent me as a messenger, to run for my uncle in Prince Finarfin’s camp, to reach Fëanor’s youngest brother, have him join in negotiations, as he was son-in-law to King Olwë. Father hoped that he could help to sway the Teleri. I had barely crossed the bridge when I heard the shouting start. I ...my sister Arë was there. She saw my father...” Aglar hesitated. “After, afterwards it was my duty to lead our family, to decide our course.” He stared at his hands, at the calluses from sword and bow, at the sliver of a hawthorn skin red under his fingernail. “But you ask if I am Doomed, Brother? If I fought as King Fingolfin did, if I wed your sister with bloodstained hands? Yes, Consael. And I cannot ask your forgiveness for it.” Aglar almost spoke further details of his father’s death, but in the darkness he could not. The owl hooted again, as Aglar sat with shaking hands and a dead tongue. Consael watched the flames and waited for his brother-in-law to continue.

“My aunt, my father’s younger sister, died on the docks fighting the mariners, in that first charge to capture the ships. She was headstrong and drawn to the freedom promised in Prince Fëanor’s speech. Aunt Laiquawen was wild, always was, and infamous in her day,” Aglar explained to Consael. He spoke in a low tone, mindful of the others across the campfire. Captain Heledir was swapping lookout duties with Fân, gathering his weapons and the horn. Gadwar had finished both the foraged hazelnuts and his debate with Edrahil and was peering over at Consael and Aglar’s huddled conversation. Almost desperately Aglar tried to steer the story away from the First Kinslaying. “She ran off once, we think with a betrothed Vanyar lord, but nobody knows for sure, because she returned a year and a half later to drop off a newborn infant with my mother and father. She had married, but would not name to whom and had removed her rings, and said she was not confident in her ability to raise a child. My mother had just given birth to me, you see, so Aunt Laiquawen thought it best for Cousin Lossion to be raised by someone better equipped - especially in temperament. No one dared mention what happened to Prince Fëanor’s mother, but they all were thinking of it. And that’s why it was so surprising that Aunt Laiquawen joined his following, see? Most of my childhood I heard the prince railing against my father’s sister. Ugly emotions because of uncomfortable the scandal was. When Great-Aunt Nerdanel brought her family up north to visit us and the other family who lived nearby, the one whose daughter married Caranthir, Mother often had Lossion stay in other parts of the manor. Or sent him to visit relatives.”

“I never heard gossip of this.”

“Oh yes. That’s why Cousin Lossion has his name. Aunt Laiquawen gave birth to him on the slopes of Mount Oioslossë. When she dropped him off at my parents - temporarily or so she said- Father brought him to my mother with the words “Unexpected Gift”. Mother threatened that would be his father-name if Aunt Laiquawen refused to name the father, but Father said Aunt Laiquawen already named him after the snow on the mountain, so Annalossion he would be. Lossion if we were not feeling pretentious. My mother was very conscious when we were growing up to not allow Lossion to call her mother in fear of stealing Aunt Laiquawen’s rightful role. Not that it made a difference; Aunt Laiquawen only came for extended visits for his year anniversaries. Cousin Lossion loved his mother, but in the same distant way that I love my Aunt Lissë.”

“Wait, is that why they called him Hecilion?”

“My cousins started that cruel epessë. I know that they were your lords, but they could be unkind as children and as you can see-”

Consael twisted his face into what a charitable mind could label a grin. “Do not defend their characters to appease me. Was he at the docks as well?”

“With High King Fingolfin. A trusted retainer, long before the construction of Eithel Sirion.” Lossion came to leadership and poise effortlessly, Aglar thought not for the first time. A side benefit of greater height, he joked to himself, wondering if his youngest brother would also have grown taller than him by now, if he as eldest would be the shortest of his siblings. And just as laughable was the idea of his cousin acting dishonorably. Lossion clinged to people, pouring his heart into proving his loyalty, a response to his first abandonment. Not a rare trait in his family. It hurt, almost ten years later, Lossion’s death.

“My sister, Arë, fought with our cousins, boarded a ship, and made it to Beleriand, but I have not heard of her whereabouts in decades. Craban swore she did not die, that she lives and fights still, but since the Bragollach I have no inkling of her survival. Only my family that did not go into Exile and Uncle Edrahil have I guarantee that they live. The only ones that I have not failed to safeguard.”

“Cousin Edrahil,” Consael corrected.

Aglar waved a hand. “As a babe I called him Uncle, and I am too old to change my ways now.”

“So you knew them as children?” Consael asked, speaking of the sons of Fëanor.

“They were men grown, all but the twins, by the time my second sister was born. My playmate growing up was my cousin, and Lossion was more brother to me than cousin, almost as if he were a half-brother, as Gadwar has. Truthfully, Cousin Lossion in manner, appearance, and personality was ever more akin to my father than I, so much so that people would mistake me for his nephew and Lossion as his son.” Aglar’s small chuckle was a sound of old pain, not humor. “He was close to my second sister, Arë, as well. Likely because they were the only two to have my father’s coloring, and both no talent or interest for crafting or writing. When we started making swords and shields in secret, Arë was thrilled. This new activity pleased her more than needlework. I wonder if she chose rebellion because of how strongly Amanië disapproved. My sisters had a rivalry, one I admit I am at a loss to fully understand, for I never felt such towards Lossion or Craban. I was my father's heir and needed to stay by his side, but Lossion chose Tirion and to cleave to Prince Fingolfin when he was appointed king while Finwë went into exile, seeing Fingolfin as the most honorable prince, the one most mindful of his responsibilities. That was the final separation between him and Aunt Laiquawen. There were many unsatisfied in Valinor, chaffing as my Aunt did, and thought that there was some great and lost freedom in the past that they could reclaim if only knew who to blame. At first this was the Valar, later it was also the unknown mortals. Resenting the princes and councilors who held power and whose voices were heard before others, or resenting the newer generations who were making their own thoughts and speaking new words, and Fëanor’s commanding rhetoric could appeal to both, because he claimed his position as the king’s oldest and thus power through his might, but couched his worlds as exciting illicit rebellion, as freedom to be sole and independent masters.” Aglar hesitated. “I cannot claim innocent to the appeal.

“I admired Prince Fëanor’s talents, and I remember fondly still when he taught me how to work in a forge. I had no spark of genius, and he had no temperament to teach. The lessons did not last. Wisely they stopped before frustration destroyed any remaining joy, because I could not meet what were to me impossible standards and no deviation from instruction was accepted. He was not...he was harsh.

“My cousins loved their father, but there was this undercurrent. Worried that a parent’s love was finite and conditional, an object that could be transferred in ownership, that was the heart of the tulmolt of the Noldor and our Exile. My father sat down and explained this to me, that his love for my cousin and each new sibling did not lessen the love he felt for me, even if it diminished the attention that he could devote to me alone. Father wanted me to love Lossion, and my siblings. To not quarrel with them, or feel jealousy. Arë and Amanië’s rivalry worried him. He felt keenly still the loss of his own father and elder brother, and the estrangement of his sister. I did not understand his feelings, how he felt unworthy in the shadow of his own father and brother, until I felt the same loss.” Aglar dismissed the burn behind his eyes as woodsmoke. “My father was a wise man. I cannot fill his place.”

“What do you speak of?”

Beren called out the question, as loud and sudden as the hooting owl that had disappeared, and Aglar answered, “Family.” The mortal smiled in response, but Aglar quelled a deep shudder, for the face that stared at him through the flames of the campfire was Barahir. The cast shadows shifted the shape of the face, darkening the hollows of the cheeks and pushing the angle of the eyes, thinning the mouth to a stern frown, until it became Beren’s father. Lord Barahir watched him beside a campfire, the smell of ash and Bân’s sword polish throwing Aglar’s mind back to the day after the fens, back when he was half-delirious with pain. There was no accusation in those eyes, but his shoulder and arm lunged out with their phantom pain. He would be in Mandos now, joining his brothers and father in death, if not for Barahir.

Aglar wondered if Beren saw his father’s face in his reflection. He knew he found only his mother’s features in his own face. Was the burden easier, he wondered. Did Beren stare at his reflection and beg answers from his father’s ghost, wishing to know if his son had earned pride or disappointment?

 


 

Aglar opened his eyes. Still he saw nothing, but neither did he hear the clicking nails of an approaching wolf or the stench of their putrid breath. Blood had poured from his wrist down to the crook of his elbow. It felt as disgusting as the hanks of orc hair and purloined armor.

King Finrod spoke in the darkness of the dungeon. “Have hope.”

Aglar laughed. “A sword!” he shouted over to where he knew Consael hung naked in the darkness, finishing the confession he had not the willpower to speak of the evening before they found thirty orcs encamped under the watching cry of the owl and bats. Once enspelled with mouths full of illusioned fangs, no one wished to face another in quiet companionship around the campfire while staring at the transformed faces of their friends. Now nothing chained Aglar’s tongue, except the knowledge that Gorthaur was waiting for the prisoners to confess. “A sword-blow to the back had killed my father! That night on the bloodstained quays was the first that I had seen anyone murdered by dreadful tools, novice that I was, but a killing blow from a mariner’s arrow looks not like that from a stabbing blade. That was why I never boarded, why I turned away, but too coward to turn back. Accursed fools! All of us! What hope?” Aglar growled, pouring all his remaining despair and hatred into his final words. Panting in the quiet of the dungeon, he waited for the wolf to come, certain now that he had failed his father.