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a song of staying

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The Halls of Mandos are wreathed in mist and lit only by memory. They are a labyrinth, a maze of rooms and endless corridors with high arching ceilings, and rough, stone-hewn walls through which the dead may pass and wander as they wish. The residents are not all the same; some hurt more grievously than others, some rush headlong and ceaselessly back into life and emerge gasping, clothed in naught but grey, and stumble through the downhill woods to those that would take them in. Others remain, lingering longer than they ought to, caged by themselves. There are no doors in Mandos but those you make on your own. The Doomsman of the Valar’s abode- and he himself, for they are one and the same- are for Memory, for Healing without tears, for letting the spirit mend the remembered wounds of the flesh.

They are not for song, but for whispers, and yet a bright voice rings out like a bell all the same, a thunderclap in the darkest corners, those that dare encroach on the Void itself. Death is a circle, and should his world not reflect that?

The song is one of treachery, of trust afterwards, of broken bonds reforged, and it ripples through the air in a single clear note, until-

“Ah, no. That’s not right. It never would have worked, would it. Perhaps- no, wait. Not that either.”

The singer stands alone in a long, close corridor, frowning to himself. Not even the light of memory remains here, and perhaps that is a blessing. Personally, he suspects that this is but a dream sent from Lórien, for purposes he does not quite understand. But who is he to understand the mind of a Vala?

No, Finrod Felagund knows he has tried to empathize with one of the Powers before, tried to find common ground and sing of what might yet be, should they forge a path forward together. It was his greatest feat and his worst failure. He thinks he has had quite enough of trying to pry forth motive when none wishes to be given, and besides, it is far better than the nightmares where all he dreams of are teeth in the dark, snapping closer, and the stink of fear and animal musk and rotting flesh on hot breath.

He takes a breath, and resumes his song.

Broken bonds reforged, hope for the future, the bright light of fair Aman shining through the clouds, hope in the feathers of an Eagle-

And still, the dissonance, his voice faltering.

“Not that, either.” Finrod curses, creatively, and is privately very glad there’s no one around here to hear it. His father would have a fit, but his father had not been privy to the linguistic innovations of the Edain, which, while inappropriate, are very useful for expressing frustration without setting someone’s hair on fire.

“Cousin,” rasps out a familiar voice, one that he has not heard in the better part of an Age. “Will you please stop singing? My brother is the wordsmith among us for a reason.”

Finrod is not ashamed to say that he starts at the sound. Of all he may have thought- not even hoped, but thought- to encounter here, the eldest son of Fëanor had not been among their number. And yet here he is, emerging wreathed in shadow, insubstantial as a wraith. He is more haggard than he had been when Finrod had last seen him at Himring, when his mien had been the stone and ice of the fortress he had clawed from unwilling mountain.

Finrod had died, not even a handful of decades after.

He remembers wondering if this is what his cousin had faced. He remembers wondering how Maedhros had emerged from it.

He remembers that were it not for the mercy of eagles, Maedhros would not have emerged from it. He wonders if it would be better had he not- he wonders if Maedhros thinks that.

“I may be no Makalaurë, but I can carry a tune,” Finrod answers. His eyes still scan his cousin’s form, lingering at the two hands it seems to possess. One flickers faintly, in and out of existence, as if his fëa cannot decide which body it remembers.

And on the more substantial one, a blackened scar twists the palm. It is no uglier than what he had become, but Finrod aches to see it. He, too, had wept to hear of the fate that had befallen his cousins at the end. How could he not?

Almost as if Maedhros hears this, his form shifts, darkening and cracking, crusted over charred skin that is too realistic for Finrod’s taste. This is how he had chosen to die.

They had crossed the ice. He had burned.

Finrod does not think of this as justice.

“That remains to be seen,” his cousin says instead. He speaks as one not used to it, as one surprised to know that he has a voice. Finrod remembers his time in Mandos’ sprawling halls; communication had been done without need for words. “Your voice is pleasant enough, but I cannot say that composition is your strong suit.”

It lacks the cutting edge that would be there in young Curufin or fierce Celegorm as they were in Nargothrond, already whittled down to nothing, their Oath gnawing at their bones. To look upon Maedhros then, one would not have known the horrors he carried, despite the scars, despite the missing hand, despite the distance in his gaze or the bitter twist to his lips. To look upon his brothers, it was immediately obvious.

He does not want to think of those last days. So he retorts instead: “Are you saying that I lost to Sauron and died, because my singing was terrible?”

“No. Singing was never going to save you from his grasp.” And this is no light-hearted conversation, though Maedhros tries to make it be. Finrod had heard he’d made habit of jesting of his time on Thangorodrim. Finrod suspects he would have found this more disconcerting, and more objectionable, if he has not now developed the same habit himself.

“It worked for you, did it not? I will not hear you say that I was wrong to make the attempt. What else was there to do?” There is something too genuine in his voice as he asks that.

“If you recall correctly,” Maedhros says, his voice perfect ice, “I was not the one who did the majority of the singing. But what else, indeed? No, cousin. I cannot say you were wrong to try. You faced him, how could you not?”

How could he not, indeed, when it would have been his death otherwise?

“I do not know,” Finrod says, quieter than he means to. Old scars, nonexistent wounds burn. They fester under his skin, the stink of old blood and bowels starts to pervade the room. “I would have died for them. We would have died for each other. We did die for each other, in the end.”

“You died unbroken, son of Arafinwë. Cousin,” Maedhros says this last word hesitantly, a sharp contrast to his earlier statement. Finrod looks up, meets his eyes. They are still dead, and it takes all his power not to shudder at the sight. “That is more than most can say.”

“And yet, we- they did not need to die at all. Had I won, had I been better-?”

“Had you not invoked the Kinslaying?” Maedhros asks.

“Had you not done the Kinslaying,” Finrod corrects, waspish.

“You think to blame your failure, your arrogance, on us? You killed for those boats too, let us not forget. You would have taken them, had my father sent them back from that far shore. You cannot think to claim innocence from that deed, when it was done willingly.”

“And yet, it is not the worst evil you have participated in, now is it? What of Doriath? What of Sirion? You speak of Kinslayings, you speak of boats, and yet you have set elf against elf, against those helpless after Gondolin, your own people. What say you now of kinslaying?”

Maedhros flinches. His form flickers yet again, and he looks younger, his eyes wild, hair matted to one side with blood. It is gone soon. Finrod does not take joy in this.

“I say that I knew what I was doing,” he answers. His voice is dearth of any emotion. He is looking directly at Finrod. “I say that Alqualondë was chaos, and yet ignorance excuses nothing. I say that I have never claimed innocence. It is not the worst of my deed, Findaráto, and yet I never denied the blood on my hands. Even as the first of our kin fell beneath my blade, I knew that this was only the first of the evils I set my hand to. But I could not turn away.”

“You could not turn away?” Finrod exclaims. He cannot help himself- the thought is absurd. “If you knew then, how could you continue? You wrought many evils upon Middle Earth.”

A hoarse, pained sound tears itself from Maedhros’ throat. It takes Finrod a long moment to realize that it is laughter.

“How could I continue, he asks,” Maedhros muses, dark and bitter. “How could I not? You know nothing of Oaths, Finrod Felagund. You know nothing of those sworn to higher powers. We heard of your death; Curufin wrote to say that he advised you not to go even before it. We heard of your death and we mourned, and you ignored advice based on a promise you had made, did you not? In the name of friendship, in the name of a debt to be collected, though Finrod the Wise would not call it such. The Oath came above all else, it could not be denied, it would not be denied. Not until we had the Silmarils, and they burned us. Do you know what it felt like, the unshakeable knowledge that everything we did to get them, would ensure they would not suffer our touch? I knew it. Maglor knew it.

“Where were your songs then, of healing, of hope? They could not save us, they could not right the wrongs you committed, they would not right ours. And you think to speak to me of Oaths, of denying what we swore upon that far shore. You knew me when the Trees bathed the world in its light. Before Formenos, before my father turned bitter and suspicious, before he coveted his creations more than all else. And you know what has become of me.

“Tell me, Nóm. Do you think that I did not try to hold it back? Lúthien held the Silmaril and we left her in peace, for she had earned it, had she not? And she was mortal, doomed to die, it would come to use. And even before that, we kept the watch, we kept the peace, and kingdoms such as yours flourished. But your song had naught of that. You were naïve to think it would work, when you had seen so little of the evils we were capable of that you could not recognize that which you wrought with your own hands.”

Finrod has no answer to that, just as he had no answer to the triumphant blast of Sauron’s voice in Tol-in-Gaurhoth, just as he yet cannot find a satisfying conclusion to his song.

But he does not have to answer. He wonders if it is cowardly, that he is grateful for it, or simply prudent.

“Uncle, please,” comes a third voice. Any inadequate rejoinder he may have melts on his tongue, but he senses that he’s not the most shocked of the two- no, three- now arranged here. “There’s no need for argument. A song can only do so much, can it not?”

There’s a flicker of light now, just the barest glow that illuminates both the haggard, worn planes of his cousin’s face, and the terrible darkness that still lurks in the eyes of your youngest relative that still lingers within the Halls.

“Tyelpe,” Maedhros says, nearly a whisper. Something passes between them, and a shadow detaches itself from the formless shape of the wall, drifts closer. He is even more insubstantial than his uncle. “I did not know you were listening.”

“You were near shouting.”

Finrod, absurdly, feels as if he is intruding on something sacred. It vanishes when Maedhros’s attention snaps back to him, and there is nothing on his face anymore. Whatever tenderness was there is gone, had it been there at all. He was right, in that Finrod knows what he became.

“We have a difference in opinion,” Maedhros says simply, and that- well. That is enough, is it not?

“Your uncle means to say that my participation in the First Kinslaying but nothing else makes me a fool,” Finrod says, more acerbic than he means to. He finds that he does not regret it. “And to that- well. I have only this to say: I have made my amends, Maitimo. I have prostrated myself before Olwë and worked with my two hands on those shores to repay the debt, while you languish here in your misery and self-pity.”

He sees his cousin flinch and then gather himself up for a returning blow, a faint spark catching in his eyes. But this is not the way it should be, Finrod knows that. He was harsh, bitter, and his cousins do not know truly how to apologize. And in this instance, the fault is his. Finrod is tired of holding grudges.

“And yet,” he sighs. “The song is incomplete. It does not work.”

“It never would have worked.” Maedhros does not look at him, but at the shade of his nephew. His voice is vicious. “You were ever the optimist, cousin, but in this- it would have been futile.”

He who was Tyelperinquar Curufinwë, third of his name, who the Returned had whispered about in admiration and pity in turn, simply smiles.

It’s a terrible, terrible thing to behold. Finrod still remembers seeing him before the Darkening, this tiny youngling with wide eyes and his uncle’s name by way of his father. He remembers seeing him older but still far too young in Nargothrond before he’d left, a silent shadow to Curufin and Celegorm and the poison they’d spat, frowning at his father’s back. Finrod has heard second-hand that he’d left not long after Finrod had, forsworn his father-name and his lineage.

He has heard, second-hand, that he picked both back up again in the Second Age, when need was dire and he had no other choice. He has heard second-hand of what his fate was, and he had ached to hear it. He aches more to see it.

But there is very little of the first and second Curufinwë in him. Where Fëanor had burned as bright as a pyre and Curufin had been as sharp as a blade, Tyelperinquar is here brittle and diminished. But he is still himself, is he not?

“You are too harsh a judge, uncle,” he murmurs. “And yet how can I fault you? Sauron left his mark on all those who entered the pits of Angband and were lucky enough to crawl out. They never healed as well as they could, and yet they lifted their faces to the light and tried. We mourned them, even as they mourned themselves. I called them friend. They had been left to Sauron’s devices in that black pit, but they were not the lesser for it. They were changed,” he says, and there is something of his father’s fire in him, and of his father’s father’s fire. “And they were not the lesser for it.”

“Were they not?” Maedhros asks, bitter, and Finrod does not need to look at him to know his gaze has drifted to his right hand, now absent, as his spirit remembers the shape of the wound.

“No,” his second-youngest cousin says, and his voice is fierce now. “They were not. I do not care if I must believe that, simply because of what happened to me. It’s true.”

Finrod has never faced the horrors of Angband, not like Maedhros did. And from what he knows of Tyelperinquar’s fate, he has never faced Sauron like that. But- he knows what it is to reach out, and to be burnt.

He does not need to say anything; Tyelpe is looking at him, still haunted.

“He was my friend,” he says. That is it. And that- Finrod cannot even imagine. He knows Sauron, he knows the Necromancer, the shape-changer, in disguises foul. He knows a voice scraping at the walls of his mind for a crack, a shred of vulnerability, fingers trying to pry their way in. He knows wolves and their lord and the bite of their teeth and the red, red hunger of their tongues.

“Tyelpe-,” Maedhros starts, obviously having the same feelings about this as Finrod. It is a strange, uneasy alliance.

“All he knows is trickery and deceit,” Finrod tells him. “He was not your friend. Whatever he was, he does not deserve to be called that.”

“Whatever he was at the end, it does not change who he was when he came to me. Annatar Aulendil, he called himself, and perhaps I was foolish and naïve to believe it. Perhaps I thought that after everything, I could recognize evil when I saw it. But I- I was not wrong to see good in him then, Uncle. Finrod saw it there too.”

“No,” Finrod says, too quick. He’s appalled at the thought. Was that the theme of his song, good within evil, kernels of light? He had not intended it then. He is not sure he could intend it now. “Whatever good there was in him, it was gone, and he abandoned it gleefully. I sang of a better world, of freedom and trust and of the world we had left behind here.”

“And between us, we wrought beautiful things,” Tyelperinquar tells him, and it is barely a whisper. “I would have liked to rebuild that which was lost and lift our people, united, to greater heights. I saw him, and I thought the Valar had blessed our attempts. I saw him- and I thought, I thought I was right, to turn to art and knowledge, bring them to Middle Earth as we hadn’t been able to before. Angband was gone, and yet its former captives were still here, and did they not deserve a beautiful world? Did they not deserve to feel as if they belonged, even if what it took was creating a place for themselves with their own two hands?

“You sang of freedom and trust, and I wanted that, too. No secrets between us, for secrets had brought only ruin before. I did not swear any oaths but those to myself, and I wished to mend the harm that was done by my family.” Here, he pauses.

“And yet, even that I reneged on. I kept my secrets, my Three. I died to do so, and I do not regret it. In the end, I loosed an evil upon Middle Earth like no other before it. I remember what he did to me. I know it well. And yet, I cannot say he was not my friend at first.”

“Tyelpe, you do not truly think he would have chosen otherwise.” This, from Maedhros, with the air of something that has been a sore point between them before. Finrod agrees with him, and yet-

“But you did. Even until the end.”

A ghost of a smile.

“Yes. I asked him to destroy the Ring, the pinnacle of his art and mine, and he destroyed me instead.”

“He did not hesitate to destroy you,” Maedhros corrects, and there is heat in his voice again.

“I set myself against his will, and I lost,” Tyelperiquar says instead. That is neither here nor there. “You may call me naïve for it, Uncle, but did Fingolfin not fight Morgoth himself and wound him? Did you not face much worse than what he did to me? Did my friends, those who would have been thralls, not have to live through it? They were deceived, too, and yet- Sauron has left such a mark on me, I wonder that I would not know him again if I were to see him.”

“I set myself against his will and lost too,” Finrod tells him. “There is no shame in it. We died to protect what needed protecting. Who needed protecting. Did your people not make it out of the city? Did your will not buy enough time for him to be defeated? That is not nothing, Tyelpe. Against the Enemy, victory must be taken where it can be.

“Even,” and he pauses here, glances at Maedhros, who watches on inscrutably, “Even if they were not the enemy at first. Even if they were once your friend.”

“You would say that he was lost from the moment he forged the One, had there ever been good in him to begin with.”

“I would say he was lost the moment he cast his lot in with his foul master,” Maedhros mutters. Unhelpful, and yet, not entirely wrong.

“There is something to be said for second chances, is there not? I do not think we are wrong to offer them,” Finrod says, to both of them, and to himself. “Certainly, being corporeal again and leaving Mandos is the epitome of those chances. And if I were to do it again, I would still do as I did. If it had spared even one of them, it would have been worth it. If I had triumphed, I think that all Beleriand would have been made the brighter for it.”

“For striking him down, or for convincing him there was a path yet open to him?” Tyelpe asks, softly. Finrod cannot lie.

“Either.”

“Someone spoilt by the Enemy- truly ruined, truly corrupted- could not have made such things as he did. But the One will be the last thing he ever forges, that is not twisted into a weapon. It is the last thing of beauty that he will ever make, and even that will be undone, and I will grieve when it is as I grieved when he was lost to me, for the best, most precious part of him went into it, even if he thought it an easy sacrifice to make.” Tyelperinquar says this, and the Halls ripple around him. Not an Oath, but a Doom. A fate, inevitable.

He does not say anything more, whatever energy sustaining him through this fading quick, and he curls in on himself to simply sit with his back against the wall. Finrod does the same to his right, without complaint, and after a long moment, Maedhros joins them, bracketing him in.

“Speak for yourself, nephew,” he says, and there is something that might be warmth, might be fondness in his voice. He sounds more himself now than he has in their entire conversation, and Finrod aches to hear it. “I am not quite so forgiving as you. For what he did to me, I would be content to see him diminished and struck down. For what he did to you, I would do it myself.”

“I think we have had quite enough heroic last stands against Sauron. Or stands, in your case,” Finrod says easily. “At the very least, leave that one for Curvo.”

There’s a whisper of a laugh from Tyelpe, and the shudder of barely suppressed mirth from Maedhros. Finrod is inordinately proud of this.

“Curvo nearly swore another Oath to tear down the walls of Mandos and slay Sauron himself,” Maedhros says, after a moment.

“That is very like him.” Finrod can’t help it, he laughs, and the sound is much louder than theirs, but if the Hall seems lighter for it afterwards, he cannot bring himself to feel too self-conscious about it.

“I very nearly pity Mandos, if he has to endure my younger brother’s sharp tongue.”

That too, is so like Curvo that Finrod does not know whether he ought to laugh or weep. He closes his eyes instead, feels the dampness gather beneath his eyelids, and does not let it turn the smile from his face.

“I’m amazed he wasn’t drawn out by my apparently terrible singing.”

“Perhaps it chased him off instead. As the eldest, it lies upon me to deal with inconveniences.”

“Is that what this is, Maitimo? An inconvenience? Because if so, I cannot apologize for another’s intervention.”

“Nor would I ask you to.” And the, quieter: “It is no inconvenience.”

Finrod merely hums. Perhaps, if Irmo has his own plans, it will happen more frequently. But perhaps it would be according to his plan if it did not.

They sit in companiable silence, shoulder to shoulder, Tyelperinquar between them, until Finrod opens his eyes and he is in Tirion once more, facing the dawn.