The voices floated across the cavernous space, echoing off the walls, ringing out one by one, then all at once. They were indecipherable, a senseless jumble.
He sat at the head of the ragged stone table, the cacophony around him waxing and waning like the tide, urgent to hushed to furious. He hardly heard any of it; the rising pressure in his temples, the hiss of white noise in his ears steadily drowned everything out.
“—crossing with difficulty, over the mountain pass—”
Still, he tried to follow the thread of conversation. It was a strategy council, him and a rabble of those still alive, those of high enough rank to be of value. The only way forward, now, was to push ahead, to regroup, to scour for an answer to the questions that had plagued them all for weeks, since everything had collapsed, to no avail—what now, what next?
It was his call.
He knew this, and it made his heart pound uncomfortably in his chest, straining against his ribs. They all answered to him.
He was their commander.
He couldn't breathe.
The room swam before his eyes and he blinked desperately to clear the fog away. The torches on the walls seemed to flicker like starlight, luminous and dizzying, dancing in the corners of his vision. He was losing his grip. He felt like he was slipping away, somewhere distant, somewhere cold and empty. Disoriented, he sat, as his subordinates did the talking for him. He heard their words, poured every last shred of strength into concentrating on them, but said nothing in return, staring blankly at the slate of the table before him.
“—they ought to consider their losses—”
He was exhausted. For weeks, he’d not slept. Not since the battle. He couldn’t. He tried, and woke in the night, shaking, shivering violently, dried tracks on his cheeks from tears he did not remember shedding. After that, wide awake in the suffocating darkness of his chambers, he could not close his eyes again. He was afraid of what he would see, this time, the next time.
There was work to be done, too. The hours he freed by foregoing rest, he spent poring over maps, looking after every little thing, every cog in the machine, discussing pressing matters with the generals and captains that remained, who’d made it out in one piece, those who were not reduced to rotting flesh on a blood-splattered battlefield. Still, all the while, he was dangerously absent. There, and not. He was accustomed to overexerting himself, to working himself to the bone no matter what it cost him—it was his duty, it had always been so, to lead, to command, to give all of himself until he could no longer stand. These past weeks, though, he could hardly even find the strength to breathe.
Now, like then, like all those times, he forced down the nausea and listened intently, tried closing his eyes as though it would help him concentrate on the words shooting back and forth across the hall. But it was different, and it scared him; something inside him was finally shutting down. He felt ill. The table in front of him blurred, the faces all around swimming in and out of focus as his chest grew tight. Everything felt wrong. His head burned with exhaustion. He was drained, utterly, undeniably at his breaking point. His hands shook. He could barely see them, as they lay flat on the tabletop mere inches away. Everything was fuzzy. Everything was spinning.
The voices continued. Someone spoke louder; from across the table, someone else raised their tone in retort. He clenched his jaw and tried to ignore the buzzing in his ears, the deafening rush of blood. This was wrong. He felt panicked, suddenly. He couldn't do this.
“—beyond that which Lord Melkor faced—”
He flinched. Abruptly, he felt cold. It came out of nowhere, a numbing chill, running down his spine to the tips of his fingers. Nobody seemed to notice. He couldn't do this. The noise rose to a crescendo. The voices died down all at once, the words losing meaning; he could hear his own pulse, roaring, overwhelming. It was anger, irrational, and terror and confusion and panic, all rising up like bile in his throat, suffocating him, pressing down mercilessly on his lungs.
He couldn't get through a single assembly. Not fucking one. He couldn't pinpoint the hurt—it was everywhere and nowhere, sharp and vicious yet somewhere far away, an echo, a shadow. He was drowning in it. His eyes burned, tears prickling, threatening to spill. He was not going to cry. He couldn’t. He squeezed his eyes shut, for a moment, his fingers trembling against the tabletop. It took all his willpower to show no weakness, to refrain from curling them into desperate fists. His skull felt like it was cracking open from the inside out. He was not going to cry in front of them. They were, all of them, his subjects now. They answered to him. They belonged to him, served him blindly. He wasn’t—
The hall fell silent.
He didn't remember speaking. He must have. The noise died down gradually. Bickering turned to whispers, then to stray murmurs, exchanged glances. But nobody moved. He didn't remember speaking, but, surely, he could not have left any room for negotiation.
He did not look up, kept his eyes trained on a nondescript smudge on the stone. More forcefully, holding his breath to keep his voice steady, he repeated the order.
He took a shaky breath, a last-ditch effort to calm himself, as a single second passed in deathly silence.
Then, there was scraping, shuffling, hesitant at first and then urgent, chairs pushed back in a frenzy to obey. It didn't matter what happened now. He was already gone, composure fizzling out, self-control snapping clean in two, run through with a razor sharp blade. He ducked his head down, squeezed his eyes shut, hands curling, nails biting into his palms, and focused on breathing. In and out. His body was giving in, succumbing to the exhaustion, the pain, the anguish that had not left his side in weeks. His ears burned, he felt feverish; it was impossible, yet he burned. His heart pounded, trying to claw its way out of his ribcage. From behind gritted teeth he choked back hysterical tears—he could break down, let the panic take over for a little while, but he would not cry. He wasn't going to be a fucking child. Everything hurt so much—his heart, his head, he was incompetent, useless, sending everyone away because they’d hit a nerve, and he couldn't sleep, and he couldn't see straight, and he had no one left, no one, he was alone with all of it, all of this. He couldn't do it.
He couldn't draw enough air into his lungs.
As lights flickered behind his eyelids, exhaustion, delirium taking over, he flattened his hands on the tabletop like the surface could steady him. He pressed his palms against the solid stone like he could learn from it—how to become cold, how not to feel. He couldn't breathe. It was no fucking help. When his people most needed someone infallible, untouchable, an indestructible leader to take the helm, when they needed someone who did not let emotion poison their mind, their heart, wrap around their soul and crush them to dust, he crumbled. Useless. He sucked in a breath, a tiny sliver of air. And again. He gasped, newly dizzy, and opened his eyes.
He focused on his hands, waited for everything to swim back into focus.
And when it did, he blinked to clear his head, then glanced up at the length of the room, found Thuringwethil standing at the far end of the table, closest to the door. She wasn't moving; she was watching him warily, concern knitting her brows.
“You, too,” he told her, unkindly. He sounded wrecked. Weak. Useless.
Instead, she came closer. Her steps were slow, like he might lash out. Hesitant, like he would shatter into little, broken pieces at any moment and she would get caught in the crossfire. There was worry on her features, head tilted in such sincere pity he couldn't help but hate her, in that moment.
Even when she was almost by his side, looming over him, he found he could not stand. His breathing was quickening again, throat tight. Every muscle hurt from the strain of holding back his collapse.
He stared up at her, bared his teeth, snarled, “Get out,” but it was more of a whisper than anything, a shaky sob caught in his throat.
She closed the remaining shred of distance between them. When she pulled him to her, he let her. When she wrapped one arm around his shoulders, placed the other hand at the back of his head, when she pressed him tight against her, he let her. It was a gesture so delicate, so comforting it terrified him, how desperately he’d needed it, this warmth, a hint of solace, how badly he could not stand to be alone. Her hand ran back and forth through his hair, soothing, and his breaths were ragged, heaving gasps, and soon he was hyperventilating, and the dam broke, the tears spilled. Within moments, sobs wracked through him, uncontainable, and he reached blindly to grip the front of her robes with trembling fingers. He mumbled something, or tried to—the words didn't make it past his throat. It was like a shard of glass was lodged there, cutting him open, spilling everything. He was descending into hysteria, a stupid, infantile meltdown, feeling helpless, worthless, like he was bleeding out, all the strength in his body sapped away.
But her hands were gentle, her touch so soft. For a moment, for what felt like a single second, he stopped thinking altogether. He’d felt so empty, all this time, and it was all bubbling back up now, spilling over, consuming him from the inside out. He let it. For that one moment, he could not see, could not hear; his senses had all vanished, replaced with searing anguish, an anguish that lessened with every shudder, with every broken sob. However long it truly lasted, he couldn't find it in him to care. He let it all out, choking on the tears, shaking in her arms, letting the pain obliterate him. If he didn’t, if he didn't first reduce himself to ashes, he could never truly build himself back up.
Time passed sluggishly as she waited for the tears to subside, for Mairon to grow still in her arms. When he did, he quieted but did not move, continued to lean against her like there was simply no strength left in him to remain upright. But, soon after, he shifted away from her arms, slumping heavily against the backrest of his chair. He was so hollow, frighteningly empty. He didn't look at her. He was ashamed. She took the hint and gave him space.
Now, she sat at his side, to his right—a silent companion. Her robes were soaked through, a dark patch on her waist where she’d held him close. He’d heaved himself dry. He’d been holding so much back she could not imagine how he’d kept himself in one piece until now.
Though he was calmer now, the damage done could not be denied. He did not need sleep, not really, but his skin was papery white, stretched thin over him like an ill-fitting cloak. He was jittery, withdrawn, like the slightest nudge would render him unconscious. The shadows around his eyes were a stark contrast to his sickly pallor; he was drained, eviscerated, like there was nothing left. She presumed he’d not slept since the battle, since he lost everything. His injuries had been grievous and he’d had no time to see to them; the days afterwards had been chaos, the ground beneath their feet unsteady. Even now, weeks later, she doubted he had healed completely, that he’d given his wounds the care and attention they warranted. He didn't seem to care. To him, all that mattered was pushing forward, no matter the cost.
It was going to be his ruin, if he carried on this way, in the grip of his overwhelming turmoil. And though he looked numb, now, placid, staring off at the far wall, she knew, instinctively, that it was because he felt too much to be able to handle it in this state. It was too much, yet there was nothing he could do but endure it.
Their connection had gone beyond anything she’d ever seen.
She was there, days after the battle, when Mairon had collapsed, mouth open in a silent scream, twisted in the kind of agony she had never seen before—not in all her years in the fortress, not on the prisoners in the dungeons, certainly not on him. He never let anything show. He was always composed, their imperturbable lieutenant. Yet he’d crumpled to the ground, to his knees, gasping, trembling, curling in on himself like he’d been run through with a spear. That’s how she knew he was gone. Gone for good. Gone from this world.
Because Mairon had felt it. It was as though a part of him had vanished then, too, had been torn viciously from him, a vital organ ripped out, leaving a mangled, gaping wound.
He’d been inconsolable, after, unresponsive, catatonic. And when he’d ordered her out, his voice hardly above a strangled gasp, she’d obeyed and left, stupidly, naively. She should have stayed, held him, to ensure he did not unravel.
Here in the hall, holding him as he cried, spilling everything he’d kept suffocated for so long, was her atonement, her apology for her mistake, for having been a mindless servant rather than a good friend.
Only she knew the extent of his pain. Nobody else knew what he meant to Mairon. Nobody else could be there for him.
He pressed a shaking hand against his mouth to stifle his erratic breathing, sniffled, tried to hide it. It was written in every one of his movements, in the lines of his face, how greatly he despised himself in that moment, how he abhorred the slightest hint of weakness—in himself even more so than others. He didn't want pity. Not hers, not anyone’s. He did not want sympathy. But she could not allow him to be alone, so alone in everything he felt, alone with everything he’d gone through. He’d lost his master, dreadfully, violently. He’d felt him torn away, the pain worse than death, a part of him carved out. All he knew, all he loved, gone in an instant. And immediately, without a moment to mourn, he’d been forced to take up the mantle, to assume leadership without hesitation. To take over and become the very person he’d only just lost.
But, cruel as it was, he had no choice but to learn to live with the pressure. The responsibility, the grief—they were things that would never go away. She could not carry the weight for him. She could only strive to steer him in the right direction now, onto the right path, remind him that he did not have to be utterly alone, that even if the crown was his own burden, his worries were not. If he brewed in his pain for too long with nobody to share it with, without a hand to pull him out, he would one day shatter, whatever it was holding him together gradually crumbling to dust.
“It’s not been long,” she said quietly. “You’ve every right to feel this way.”
For a while, there was no response. He kept looking down at his hands, fiddling absently with one of his rings. She followed his gaze—it was a thin band, stygian black.
When he did speak, his voice came as though from a distance, clouded over, distracted. He was present, physically, but hollow inside, everything scooped out, swept out with the tears.
“It does not matter what I feel. I cannot afford to.”
Before she could ask further, he went on, gritting his teeth to compose himself. “I can’t—I can’t even get through one day. Not one. Not one council.”
Again, she tried to respond and, again, was interrupted.
“I know you want to talk. I know you want me to talk. I'm not going to. You mean well. I appreciate that, your concern, I always have. But theres nothing you can do for me, not now, not about this. I’ve—it’s my burden, my fault.”
Quickly, she said, “None of this is your fault.”
This time, he remained silent. He felt guilty. Guilty. She did not ask why—whether he was upset with himself for feeling this way, for feeling so strongly at all, or tormented because he had survived, made it out, and his master had not. Responsible, because he had been mortally injured and had left his master no choice but to save him in his stead.
“But, Mairon,” she went on, brightly. “I was not trying to get you to talk. Why would I want that? You love the sound of your voice so dearly it would be a pain, afterwards, to silence you.”
He was never going to respond to sincere sympathy. The basis of their relationship had always been this—casual barbs, teasing, harsh words spoken without ill intent. If she was going to get through to him, she had to remind him of the ties between them, of how well she knew him, how much his wellbeing meant to her. Over the ages, they’d cultivated their strange camaraderie, always there for one another, supportive but not overbearing, close enough but not too close. And now, when he needed her most, it was her duty to jab at him, to offer a sharp quip to serve as a reminder of who she was—a loyal friend, a familiar face he could trust above all others, one who had never let him down.
He looked up, finally, eyes bloodshot, but the lines of his face had gone soft. There was an amusement there, a hint of surprise at the unseemly timing of her brazenness.
Her tone dipped, then, taking on a more serious note now that she had his full attention. She met his eyes, only barely refraining from reaching over the table and covering his trembling hands with hers. “You don't have to talk. But, I want you to understand, if you ever need—”
She trailed off. He would never admit to needing anyone, would rather die, proud and stubborn, than seek out help. “Mairon, I don’t want you to suffocate. You have to give yourself time. I cannot begin to fathom how you feel. All I know is that I need to be there for you. I am going to be there for you, whether you like it or not, even if you try to have me dragged away, kicking and screaming. Contrary to what you might believe,” she added with a crooked, little smile, “I do not enjoy seeing you hurt.”
Towards the end of her speech, he’d gone blank again, face hardening. She’d lost him, with something she’d said. He was floating in and out of awareness this whole time, there with her in the hall one moment and gone the next. Everything about him was fragile, unsteady. Brittle, like webs of splinters on a pane of glass, ready to fall apart at the smallest touch.
The silence stretched on and her concern grew.
“He made me go, you know,” he said finally, gazing at the door at the end of the hall, glassy eyes glued to it, reddened, unfocused. “He ordered me to leave. He knew what that would do to me.”
He was spiraling again, slipping swiftly back into his shell, behind the walls he’d built up to protect himself. She’d triggered a memory, a pain so great he did not want to relive it. But he hadn't spoken about his master before, not so openly, not since he’d lost him. It was a good sign. It hurt him, she knew, but it was good, it was progress. She grabbed hold of that thread and tugged, drawing him out before he regressed.
“He didn't trust anyone else to see this through.”
When he looked back up at her, his expression was oddly stricken. Surprised. Frightened, as if he’d only just realized the extent of the faith placed in him, the true weight of the burden upon his shoulders.
It flickered over his face—every little thing he felt—and she saw plainly how vulnerable of a state he was in, in that moment. It was painted all over him, his pain, his fear, the loss, the confusion. It looked so foreign on him, on someone who always went to great lengths to remain composed, cold, stoical. He was much like a lost child, now, who’d wandered too far from home. He did not know where to go next, what to do from here. In an instant, he’d gone from a servant, in command of legions but subservient still to a greater power, to becoming the greater power himself. From losing everything in a single moment to having to rebuild it all on his own. And he did not know how he was meant to live with that role.
But, slowly, a change went over him—like something had clicked, deep down, at her words, awakening a truth he hadn't known. There was a reason he had to pull himself together, someone he had to do it for. There was nobody alive to show him how, nobody to do it in his stead. It was a burden thrust upon him because he was the only one who could survive its weight. His jaw clenched, muscles coiling, like he was bracing himself for an impact. For war. His breathing grew steadier. The hurt turned to rage. Despite the exhaustion, the frailty in the dark shadows around his eyes, it jarred her how easily he transformed, how seamlessly he obliterated whatever humanity lingered inside. He had to. He could grieve, but he could not let it consume him; he could not let it become a fatal flaw, an irreparable weakness. A flame ignited, the uncertainty in his eyes turning to a burning fury, a beast lashing against its chains, eager to barrel out onto the battlefield and massacre everything in its path. It was as though he meant to rise, then, rush back out into the world and tear Valinor to shreds with his bare hands, to destroy everything that stood in his way.
“Very well,” he said, sharply. “I need—”
Abruptly, just as she’d feared, he pushed his chair back and stood. He swayed only slightly as he did, bracing himself with a hand at the edge of a table, the hollow clank of his rings hitting the stone echoing about the chamber with a damning finality.
She flinched at the sound, ready to reprimand him. He looked to be readying himself to rub his hands together, to announce it was time to get to work, to wage war—like he’d not heard a word she’d said, like he’d failed to realize she was trying to make sure he put himself back together before throwing himself mindlessly into whatever came next.
But he took a deep breath, instead, a harsh rattling sound, and bowed his head.
“—I need to rest,” he said quietly, in bitter defeat. His lips twisted, disgusted, like he would rather do anything else than give into his body’s pathetic demands. “You’re going to go find somebody to brew me something that will put me to sleep for a day, at the very least.”
A wave of relief flooded her; she almost laughed at the absurdity, at his stubbornness.
He caught sight of her amusement and fixed her with a stern look—patronizing, lordly, one that worked on anyone but her. “One day,” he stressed. “Not an hour more. And you don't mother me again. I don't need you to look after me, hold my hand, tuck me in.”
She held his gaze, lips pursed, and jerked her shoulders in a lazy shrug. She did not say it aloud—you absolutely do—but he caught her meaning well enough.
It was going to be his ruin. He was going to isolate himself despite her warnings, foregoing common sense, refusing help. Choosing foolishly to go at this alone would surely unravel his mind; there was no other way it could end. But that was an obstacle for another day—something she would confront him about when he was thinking clearly, rationally, when she could try to reason with him, if nothing more.
For the time being, she simply smiled.
“I can’t stand you,” he said pleasantly. From him, such words were almost affectionate.
At times, there was a subtle glee to him, a childlike insolence, a petulance that he had no doubt picked up from his master. So much of him had left its mark, so much sinking into Mairon’s subconscious. He would have no problem reviving their might, raising it back up from the scorched ground. He would slip into the role of his master without a hitch, bring the world and everyone in it to their knees.
With those words, a cheerful insult in lieu of a farewell, he pushed himself fully upright and turned to head for the door—back straight, face blank, eyes cold. Mairon was gone, in an instant, a heartbeat, replaced with the lieutenant, their lord, their master, his mask in place. It would remain securely on until he reached his quarters, until he could stop pretending. And then he would collapse. She prayed, silently, that he would keep his promise and do his utmost to sleep for as long as he possibly could. She hoped she could stop worrying, for now, if only for a single accursed day.
He was at the far end of the hall, by the opposite end of the long table, when she called out to him. He paused, turned halfway.
She wanted to offer one last warning, a final, desperate plea, before he set off to ruin himself in the name of retribution.
“Pace yourself, Mairon. Give it time. There’s so much time,” she said. “He would not want you to drive yourself to ruin to achieve this.”
This. To crush the very foundation of the universe to nothing. To skewer Ilúvatar himself on his fell blade.
For the first time in weeks, a hint of a real smile, however small and tired, curled at Mairon’s lips. There was a fondness so genuine to it, a sincerity that spoke louder than words.
“Yes, he would.”