Fingon expected to die. He was angry about it—so angry. After the day started out so hopeful, how could they be losing here? But he was the High King, and he’d make them work for it, the bastards. One by one, his people were falling all around him, and it only made him fight harder. He’d never thought of himself as a brave nér, but others called him that—mostly when he was doing whatever needed to be done.
The wind whistled and a stench of ash and swirling embers heralded the arrival of the immense figure who now broke through the last of Fingon’s guard and stood before him, hefting a black axe with a haft thicker than Fingon’s leg. Oh, Eru. He was certainly going to die, Fingon thought, and it was going to hurt a great deal, and he really didn’t want to think about it, so in lieu of thinking about it any more he raised his own sword and cried out a battle cry. It came out thin and hoarse to his own ears. Even his voice was failing now, but at least he would not yield. A ragged, answering cry came from the throats of the few who still stood alive beside him.
Despite his weariness, he gritted his teeth and attacked, pouring all his fear and anger and desperation into it. The Balrog in front of him parried, but he must have been fighting for a long time as well, because it soon became obvious that he and Fingon were somehow not ill-matched. Steel clashed on steel, and sweat ran stinging down into Fingon’s eyes. He laughed without mirth under his breath, because he knew how slowly he was moving, and he could see how slowly his enemy was moving, and it probably looked absurd to any onlookers.
“Back, thou foul thing!” he roared, with lungs that should not have had the ability to make that much noise anymore. The world was spinning before his eyes, but still he fought. The Union of Maedhros was worth fighting for.
“Thou canst not defeat me, Elfling,” rasped the Balrog, but he staggered slightly, one huge foot sinking into a patch of unseen mud, and Fingon knocked his axe to the side and raised both arms for a heavy overhand strike that would finish this battle, at least.
And then he screamed, because something wrapped around his chest and arms, and it burned. Fingon’s arms were caught, trapped, pinned to his chest, and his sword fell from his fingers. He struggled but could not extricate himself as he was pulled to his knees on the muddy ground. He caught sight of his standard bearer falling as well, of his blue-and-silver banner fluttering towards the ground. And this was it, this was the end—and it wasn’t fair, because they had fought so hard—
And the burning eased, the entangling cord loosening. Fingon fell forward onto his knees, gasping, and looked up to see a tall figure in front of him, his red hair streaming in the wind. He had abandoned his helmet at some point, if indeed he had ever worn it, and he half-turned to give Fingon a sweet, weary smile and mouth something. Beyond him, the Balrog rose again, immense and fearful.
Maedhros turned and charged, even as Fingon tried to scramble to his feet. His head was down, and Fingon’s heart thrilled with hope as his spear went through the Lord of the Balrogs, and Gothmog roared with pain. And then as he staggered upright, he raised his axe, and Fingon’s mouth went dry, his mind blank—
“Nelyo!” Maglor’s voice reverberated across the battlefield, raw and powerful and horrified. Maedhros did not flinch, but only stared upward, his head tipped back a little, and Fingon tried to get up, to reach him, but his knees buckled beneath him, and he could only watch as—
—as the axe fell—
—and Russo crumpled—
—and the red of his hair streamed across the ground.
Maglor’s wail was wordless now, unending. Fingon stared, the breath moving raw and rough through his lungs. He crawled forward on his hands and knees, reaching out a trembling hand. “Russo?” he whispered. There was red across his cousin’s face, as if his hair had fallen across the center of it, cleaving one half from the other. His eyes were open.
“Nelyo, Nelyo—“ Maglor was on his knees beside the two of them. “No, no, no—“
Fingon caught him and pulled him away before he could look. Before he could see. Before he could parse what he was seeing. “No, Káno,” he whispered. “No, don’t look, don’t look. Hush.” Maglor fought him, thrashing wildly.
“Let me get to him, let me—I can heal him—”
“No,” whispered Fingon, wondering why his own eyes were dry. He could feel Maglor’s tears on his neck and soaking his shoulder. “You can’t, Káno. You can’t.”
It was a relentlessly sunny day. The sky was a clear blue; birds and insects were singing; a happy little breeze disported itself through the open air. And Nelyo was dead.
Maglor had stopped crying several hours ago, and now he was just sitting outside with his harp, plucking vacantly at the strings of it. His chest hurt terribly. He realized that he was going to have to tell all the others, too, at some point: Tyelko and Moryo and Curvo and the Ambarussar. Because they didn’t know. They hadn’t been there.
Where was Fingon? He had been here. And he had been there. He had gotten Maglor off the battlefield, even though Maglor was fighting him, because he didn’t want to leave Maedhros. Which wasn’t fair, Maglor thought sickly; it wasn’t fair at all. Maedhros might be Maglor’s brother, but Russo was Finno’s air.
His chest hurt. He needed to find Fingon. He needed to make sure he was—not all right, Maglor was certain that he would never be all right again, but safe. Not hurt. His burns from the Balrog’s whip treated. Slowly, he peeled himself up off the tree stump where he’d been sitting, wondering vaguely how he’d even gotten here.
He made his way back to the tent he didn’t remember pitching—maybe Finno had done that as well—and found Fingon lying on his front in the tent. He was sobbing into his arms. “Oh Finno.” Maglor teared up as well, but he brushed his tears away. Fingon had comforted him enough. “Hush.” He knelt beside Fingon, carefully brushing his dark hair back from his forehead.
Weeping, Fingon looked up, his eyes red-rimmed. One hand he had clutched into one of the dark braids in his hair; the other hair a single lock of red hair, like blood smeared across the palm of his hand. Maglor wanted to sob and fall apart. He wanted to follow Nelyo and take the quick road to Valinor. He could not. Finno needed him.
“We can embroider it to one of the ribbons, perhaps,” he said quietly, his voice sounding hollow and far away, as if from a great distance.
“I can’t—” Fingon took a deep, shuddering breath. “I can’t go on without him, Káno. He’s—he’s my everything. He’s—”
“The best of us,” whispered Maglor. “I know, oh, I know.” He pressed his face into Fingon’s shoulder and embraced him. Fingon rolled over and tightened the hug.
“I can’t be the king if I am not his king?” he said, in a wobbling, terrified voice that made Maglor’s chest ache in desperate sympathy.
“You are still his king.” He drew Fingon into his lap and stroked his hair. “He is not with us now, but I know he must be watching us upon the tapestries in Mandos. I know he must be so proud of you, Finno.” Would he be proud of Maglor, too? Maglor blinked back the pain in his throat that made him want to howl like a wounded animal. “He gave his life so that you would be able to keep his union alive.” Oh, was he putting pressure on Fingon? He shouldn’t do that. But he had no idea of the right way to handle this situation. He wanted to lie down and sleep for a week, to dream of the safety of curling up in Nelyo’s arms. Nelyo, who had given up the crown that Maglor should have.
“Yes,” whispered Fingon. “But I cannot do it alone, Káno.”
“You are not alone, Finno. I am here.” A poor substitute, indeed, but it was all Maglor had to offer. He knew how to act. He knew how to inject his voice with the confidence he did not feel but that Fingon needed to hear right now. “I will not let you face this alone. Recall that I was High King for thirty years.” A laughably useless one, but Fingon had no need to know that.
“Yes,” sniffed Fingon. “Ai, I am sorry for putting this upon you, cousin.”
“There is nothing to forgive.” Maglor rubbed circles across Fingon’s back as he knew Maedhros used to do when Fingon woke in the night with nightmares of unending ice and bitter cold. “It is my burden to bear as well as yours.” He threaded his fingers through Fingon’s. “Our fathers are gone and we are the two remaining eldest sons. Somehow we must sort out an impossible situation, but we need not do it alone.”
“Not alone,” Fingon repeated, brushing the tears away slowly. “Yes. We will resurrect the Union of Maedhros in his honor. And when we finally kill that craven monster, I will rip the crown from his skull myself, and—and—” he swallowed and looked up with eyes that were bright with fury and tears, “—you shall have the Silmarils back, Káno, as Russo’s weregild. I sw—”
In blank panic, Maglor pressed his hand over Fingon’s mouth. “I believe you, I believe you,” he gasped, “but do not swear it, Finno. Do not swear it. He would not want that for you.”
Fingon panted and looked up at him. “No,” he said slowly. “I am sorry, Káno—and I am here for you as well. Together we will keep that dark Doom at bay as well. For Russo.”
Maglor pulled him close. “For my brother,” he agreed. “Now let me sing you a lullaby, Finno? You should sleep. You will need the rest, for the coming days.”
“Thank you,” Fingon said faintly. “Please, Káno. But you must get some rest yourself, once I am sleeping.”
“I will, do not worry.” Maglor stroked Fingon’s hair back from his forehead. “Do not worry. Just rest.”
He began to sing as Fingon lay back down, and the rest of the encampment turned their ears towards the quiet sorrow in their songbird’s voice and let themselves feel hope. The king’s husband is dead. The king lives.
The king lives.