“Oh, look - another village is on fire.”
Melkor glanced up from where he had been shoving at Ancalagon’s long, spiked tail wrapping around the stone cottage like a writhing snake, attempting to push it away from the large herb garden where it was crushing the sage. That would never do, the loss of such a savory herb, certainly not. The dragon himself was on the other side of the stone building, bothering the sheep - a task he had become rather accustomed to doing. The furry beasts had gotten quite used to him over the generations through his hassling, even if he did eat one every so often. Or perhaps the sheep were really quite dim, a thought that was too disconcerting to give much ideation to, that they would allow the dragon among them without noticing their dwindling number as they were slowly consumed.
Now, however, Mairon’s words came idling through Melkor’s bizarre thoughts of dragon herding and sheep consumption, and he stood from his crouch out of the fragrant, crushed herbs to instead come to the Maia’s side to gaze with him down from the high rise of their cliff’s bluff.
Sure enough, a blaze of flame and wraiths of thick black smoke rose into the darkening sky from a distant town, far on the horizon.
Melkor frowned and crossed his arms across his chest as the tail now at his back slithered away with a hiss across the grass, Ancalagon slowly making his way around to join them. “How extraordinary,” he muttered under his breath. “What number does that make, nine?”
“Eleven,” Mairon corrected succinctly, gaze still thrown out over the expanse of land open under their mountain’s face. The sun continued to sink quickly, until the orange glow of destruction in the distance was the brightest light through the twilit sky. “Eleven fires in the last two weeks, all started by Men upon their own towns. They are in a state of unbridled chaos, I imagine.”
“There is no need to sound quite so happy about it,” Melkor said, smiling himself.
“I am not happy,” Mairon deferred automatically. “Merely...amused.”
The ground quaked slightly as Ancalagon approached from behind, stretching his vast wings in agitation and folding them once more at his back. A trail of sheep followed him as always, when he was this near the property, bleating unhappily at having to leave their pasture (though why they did at all was a mystery to none save the sheep). They gathered under his large, tree-like legs, and it was a miracle none were crushed beneath massive feet as the dragon stepped over them.
“What is all of this? More death and destruction for us to miss our part in?” he rumbled, his sharp golden eyes catching sight of the fire.
“Almost seems a bit of a folly, doesn’t it?” Melkor mused softly to no one in particular.
Still, Mairon answered. “No, not a folly at all. I must say,” he continued with another wide grin to show slip of teeth, “I enjoy watching the chaos unfold from a distance, as a spectator would in a glorious game of sport. Shall we make bets this time, too?”
The gavel was loud as it fell against the bench at the front of the room. Several people did not hear it, their shouting arguments continuing to ring as they stood from chairs and screamed with anger amongst their fellow townspeople and the gathered visitors alike. Fear had taken hold like nothing else could, infesting even the healthy among them until everyone was sick with it, and no one was capable of resisting the pull when that fear gave to such irascible fury.
This particular town’s leader, a stout man named Alward who had to stand on his chair to be seen when everyone began to brawl as they were, brought the gavel down thrice more, waiting for it to cut through the remaining disagreements as they rose up into the rafters.
Various town and village leaders - and several others besides - had gathered here for the first time since this illness had grasped them so viciously, in the hopes of finding a way through the pain and panic of impending doom by banding together. No answers had since been forthcoming, which led to these horrible arguments.
The request had gone out to the neighboring elders seven times over the last ten years, when the first signs of deathly plague became apparent, and it had taken riots and fires and the deaths of thousands to bring them all here. All nor naught so far, quite unfortunately.
Finally, after another attempt with the gavel, ringing silence fell and gazes turned toward him. Alward cleared his throat nervously, meeting the eyes of several men he knew and even more he had never met before in his life. Fear was palpable on all their faces. He had no idea how he had been put in charge of this whole thing. “We - we need to take a tally,” he began, stuttering slightly, “of how many we have lost to this disease.”
“My entire village is gone!” one man roared from the back. “Save me and three other souls! We’ve had to retreat to Dolan’s home and forsake our community to flame and rot!”
Cries rang again at the outburst and Alward hit the gavel quickly before another outburst could begin so soon after the last. “I have heard of your plight, Horik, and I am terribly sorry for it. And in fact - right, in fact, it was Dolan who - who suggested these notes and details should be taken.” He paused to wipe an old, yellowed handkerchief across his forehead, sweating profusely with his anxiety and a twinge of headache. “We should, perhaps, send word to the White Council, now, for proper aid.”
“The White Council!” someone else repeated, dismayed.
Another took up the exclamation of surprise, adding bitterly, “Do you think they’ll come help despicable people such as ourselves when they’ve let us waste away for ten years?”
“We’re half-dead already,” someone else piped up miserably, slouching low in her seat and covering her face with a thin hand. “No one will arrive in time. Sending a missive of aid - where do we even send a letter to? No, no, we’re all going to die, we’re going to die!”
An old hunched man at the back stood amidst the uproar even as Alward attempted vainly to regain control. He leaned heavily against his cane and the chair in front of him as he found his balance before strutting out and hobbling to the front of the room, coming to Alward’s side at the long table where this town’s council normally sat to hold meetings. A teenager dashed up the aisle behind him, holding their single bag of belongings.
Alward looked at him, grateful. An elder from the closest village to his own, come to his rescue through the chaos.
Dolan, the old man, gazed at him through milky eyes. “Just try to get them under control and send them on their way home, lad. Nothing more we can do here,” he said, voice hoarse and wheezing. “I will write our request to the White Council, to the elves still left here, to anyone who will listen to our pleas. Perhaps this plague will not kill us all yet.”
All Alward could do was nod emphatically, his heart leaping into his throat with fear as he watched the other man and his grandson leave the hall.
The forge, attached to a back wing of the large stone cottage, had once again become Mairon’s refuge. This one, certainly, was smaller and built only for himself - not for the fashioning of an army or for several smiths to crowd around various hearths all at the same time with their many projects. No, this little forge was all of his own making. Small and comfortable, perfectly sized for him to craft anything he desired, with the fires blazing gloriously around him.
It was the one request he had made when they started this crazy journey so long before, that he always have a forge, no matter where they went or ended up. Melkor did not argue with that request, and certainly not as he had grumbled over their inclusion of so many wolves in their midst as they set off. A forge - and the jewelry it created - was a small price compared to dog hair all in his clothes and whiskers shoved in his face.
Each stone here was of Mairon’s own placing, each tool his own creation. The fire had been lit from his own hand and rarely did he let it extinguish; smoke could be seen curling, grey and wispy, from the rear venting chimney at all hours of the day or night. It gave him a peace he had never experienced before, one he cherished like so few other things in his long life.
Just now, Melkor - who usually enjoyed sitting out here with him as Mairon worked, watching and keeping company as he used to do so long ago in Almaren - was off on some oh-so-perilous journey with Ancalagon. A “hunting trip”, they called it, and it was not perilous at all regardless of how Melkor always played them up before he left. They had merely flown to the neighboring mountain to poke at the wild creatures there, and perhaps bring a few back for their dinner. They would be returned by sunset.
And so Mairon had the hours to himself, whiling them away repairing a wall sconce that had somehow been damaged by...well, he wasn’t quite sure, but it was very dented, and the entire side piece likely required replacing. He was sure either Ancalagon, Melkor, or Draugluin were responsible for the poor metal’s demise. Or all three together, even if none were owning the accident.
A faint tinge of magic hinted against his senses, and he placed the tongs on his anvil, pausing to taste the bitter, somewhat familiar, tang of it on his tongue for a moment. It was very weak, and very far away. Nothing, perhaps, but a stirring on the wind? He pulled once more at the filigree edge of the sconce, righting it into the correct shape.
Suddenly Draugluin - always close beside and currently curled by his legs in a large half-moon - rose his head and began to growl at the back of his throat. Moments later, a louder, more vicious sound of the same was taken up at the front of the property by one of the dogs, who began to snarl fearfully.
Mairon dropped the sconce and tongs and ran around to the front of the cottage, anger pulling his own magic close under his skin. It rippled and pulled, fire igniting at his fingertips as he rounded the side and saw an old man with a sneer across his face, holding a long, thin staff and pointing it menacingly at the ancient herding dog, whose teeth were bared in a vicious, angry growl.
Three more dogs had closed in beside their fellow, and Draugluin came bounding up at Mairon’s side, hackles raised. Magical fire erupted over his hand, and he clenched it into a fist. He recognized this person, and fury built quickly in his chest.
“If you harm even one whisker on any of these innocent animals, I will kill you where you stand.”
The man looked at him, incensed at such a kindly welcome as this, and stared for a moment at the sparking white and yellow fire about Mairon’s fist and arm. “Call off your fel beasts,” he demanded.
“They are dogs,” Mairon spat, his eyes flashing angrily as he watched the staff, far too close to the shepherd’s snout. “Very mortal, very weak, dogs. Or have you lost too much of your power, Curumo, to realize that?”
The glare he received was a mixture of shock at recognition and utmost reprehension for the taunt, and it was glorious enough he nearly let his fire out. At any rate, he clicked his tongue, and the four dogs who had the old man cornered - not an old man at all - slunk to him, curling around to look out from around the back of his legs beside Draugluin. All hackles were still raised.
The man straightened and attempted to rearrange his expression closer to one of arrogant neutrality as he ran his free hand, the one not still clutching that damned staff, over his flowing white robes to free them of dirt that was not actually there. “I go by Saruman now,” he said stiffly. “Saruman the White.”
“Yes,” Mairon replied, “I am aware.”
“One would think, Gorthaur,” Saruman said snidely, his lip curling with distaste, “you would be more apt to call a person by their current name than most.”
The jab did not bother him after so many ages of changing names and titles, though Draugluin, understanding more than the wizard realized, growled and stood from the crouch he had taken. Mairon put a comforting hand on the wolf’s high back, lowering his eyes momentarily to the great beast before raising them again to the ancient face across the grassy yard.
He chose his words carefully, crafting them in his mouth before speaking to be sure the full weight would land heavily across those white-clad shoulders. “One’s currently given name,” he said slowly, “is not always the most accurate. I find it better, then, to call a person by the name that best suits them. At least, however, in this curious circumstance. You shall always be Curumo to me.”
Saruman sneered, his elderly face wrinkling with obvious anger. “You dare to speak of things you have no understanding of.”
Mairon watched, fully unconcerned as the man stepped forward across the brightly green grass, stalks bending under his heavy footfalls. “I understand quite well,” he said clearly. “I knew of your arrival in Middle Earth the moment you came upon these shores, and have been at least vaguely aware of your movements around this vast land in the time since. I am also aware,” he added, pausing to lower his voice and tip his chin up. He was still the taller of the two, moreso now with Saruman just as hunched as a man of his appearing age should be. He smiled, a seething, predatory grin with no hint of comfort.
“I am also aware of the fact that you returned a great deal of your power to the Valar in return for this...this position?”
“Do you propose to say I am weak?” Saruman hissed, stopping still with a good distance between them and lowering the end of his staff to the ground. The top flared with a pulsing light, and Mairon glanced at the bit of magic, an unimpressed eyebrow raised. “Do you have any idea the tasks set upon us during our time here, what we have accomplished over the last age alone? And you would stand there and call me weak!”
Mairon looked away, toward the open cliffside and the magnificent view it offered, already growing bored with the argument. He sighed. “As a matter of fact,” he replied, “I do propose such a thing. Especially now. Gracious, Curumo, giving away your power when you had so little to begin with?”
“You are a vile creature.”
There was a snap, and the flare of light flashed outward from the staff’s crystal. Mairon snarled and raised his arm in an arching gesture, breaking the spell before it could form and encasing his dogs in a barrier to protect them from whatever had been growing so near to their delicate bodies. They whimpered and slunk closer to him, balls of trembling fur flush against his legs.
“Were you going to attack me?” he asked, cold voice cutting through the rigid silence that had fallen as the magic quickly dissipated, its stench still putrid on the air. “I would recommend against that course of action.”
Saruman lowered the staff and ran a hand over his shoulder to brush his hair back. His face was still contorted with rage, though he took a moment to contain it. “As you say.”
“What do you want?” Mairon bit out. He reached behind him, feeling a cold nose bumping into his palm, another beside it. The dogs were calming, even if very slowly. “This is surely not a social call. So out with it, what is your woeful mission here? Tell me so you might leave sooner rather than later.”
The wizard was silent for a moment longer, the tension around them both still very tense, and Mairon pursed his lips. He felt power still humming under his skin, ready to pull forward should the need arise, and he narrowed his eyes as he watched Saruman stare furiously back at him.
“I am here,” he finally said quietly, “to speak with your Lord Vala.”
Mairon let out a barking laugh of surprise as these words sunk in, soft as they were. “Melkor?” he said, the name bold off his tongue when the other refused to say it at all. “You wish to speak with Melkor? Why?”
Saruman’s lips twitched into a deep frown, his nostrils flaring as he took in a quick breath. “You have the audacity to refer to one of the Valar by name alone?” He looked around, as though expecting someone other than themselves to appear from the brush or forest and smite him for such a thing. “You beastly thing, forgoing such significant formalities as those.”
But Mairon simply laughed again, the sound cruel through the dumbfounded stillness that continued to fall taut around them. “Formality is something we left behind a very long time ago,” he said by way of needless explanation. He tilted his head to the side, raising a hand and feigning an examination of his fingernails, spotless though they already were. “If lack of formal titles disturbs you so, you should hear the words that pass between us in the bedchamber. Though, on second thought…”
He dropped his hand, watching with glee as mottled color spotted over the old man’s hollow cheeks. He smirked, white, pointed canine teeth showing between his lips. “On second thought, I am not sure that is a place you have ever been welcome, is it.”
Saruman’s face turned into a sneer of rage as such a personal image of his past was thrown forward and he opened his mouth to retort, the words forming already blistering. But Mairon waved off his argument in a very bored fashion, no longer enjoying the battle of wits, as it were, quite as much as he had been a few minutes before. His former forge companion was far too easily riled, as always. He raised his eyebrows as their eyes met again.
“Repellant,” the wizard whispered, his voice full of loathing where there had once been so much admiration. “You are wholly unworthy of - ”
“Melkor is not here,” Mairon said firmly, cutting off any coming squabble and returning easily to the apparent business of their meeting. How tiresome his comments were. “Why, exactly, did you need to speak with him?”
“I would not presume to share business that is not yours, Sauron,” Saruman spat, shifting his staff to the other hand. The use of the name did not achieve the desired effect, and Mairon simply continued to stare coolly at him across the way. He returned the staff to its previous hand, unnerved. “I will return, instead. When will he be back to his house?”
“I do not know. And,” Mairon added before an argument to the contrary could be put forth, “it is doubtful he would see you should you return, regardless. I would say you have - well, roughly the chance of a snowdrift upon the hottest hearth in my forge, of speaking with him directly. Melkor is not one of the Valar you charmed in Almaren, is he?” Saruman’s cheeks colored with anger again, and Mairon decided he appreciated that particular shade of red.
“I suppose you charmed him all for your own, then, did you?” he snapped waspishly, a scornful turn of his mouth twisting his features into something rather ugly.
“Why yes, I suppose I did. There was certainly not a lack of charm from either side, during those times, one can be sure.” Mairon paused to smile again and take a deep breath, pretending to be lost with memories long gone. “So, dear Curumo, explain yourself, will you? And I do promise to put forth your request to my - to my Lord Vala.”
Saruman huffed derisively, a rude sound that brought Mairon’s attention back to him. “Am I to gather your word means more now than it ever has before?”
“You can infer whatever you wish to,” Mairon replied, not bothered by the barb. “Though you can be assured, if you leave here now with your tale untold, it will remain that way. Melkor will not listen to you.”
The wizard’s lip curled again nastily, his anger and frustrations obvious. Silence fell once more, stretching between them like a physical thing that could be severed only with a knife, and sharp enough itself to cut. “Fine,” he finally said, the single word filled with all the hatred seen in his posture. “Fine, I will give you the request.”
“A request, is it?” Mairon opened one arm backward, gesturing around the back of the cottage in a real, albeit almost painful, offer. “Would you like to come into my forge? I will not invite you into the house, but you look as though that frail body you inhabit could use with a good sit-down and a drink.”
“Certainly not. I would not put it past you to poison me with something in my tea.”
“Poison,” Mairon scoffed with a genuine laugh. “Poison is not my style, you should know that by now. Nothing, really, is my style any longer when it comes to death and decay, though poison has never made the list. Now.” He dropped his arms and crossed them about his abdomen, sighing heavily. “What is it that brings you here? Please, do not make me ask you again. Draugluin and I both grow impatient.”
Saruman threw a glance toward the open cliffside just as Mairon had done, though his eyes fell downward, toward the towns dotting the countryside. He pursed his lips tightly before taking a breath to speak. “I come here,” he said with the air of a politician, “on an act of mercy on behalf of the Men you see below you.”
Mairon looked out as well, remembering vividly the fires that broke out so freely and so often as the sun set. He did not speak.
“I am their agent, and they called on me for aid when their times turned grim.”
Nothing else was forthcoming quickly enough, and Mairon rolled his eyes as he turned his bored gaze back around. “And this has bearing on us...how, exactly?”
“The Men below, and all over Middle Earth, are dying.” Saruman paused again, perhaps for dramatic effect that had no such weight as Mairon merely began to tap his foot. Draugluin flopped down onto the ground and rolled against Mairon’s legs, just as bored as his master, and the other dogs quickly descended on him with tails wagging as they began to play with loud growls. Saruman watched the wolf warily.
“They are dying of plague,” he continued pointedly after a moment.
“Yes, yes, I know this.”
Mairon crouched, losing interest in the conversation completely and instead urging Draugluin onto his back to scratch at his large stomach. The four dogs nearly bowled him over in their excitement, and he threw an arm over the shoulders of one closest, who pushed its nose happily against his cheek in greeting. “Oh, I know, I know,” he crooned sweetly.
Another dog reared back and planted her front feet on his upper back, until Draugluin, still belly-up, kicked at her playfully with a very large back leg. The dog fell away, and Mairon reached for her to rub about the ears. “Our visitor is outstaying his welcome, isn’t he? Should we leave him here and go elsewhere, take a run through the woods? Does that sound fun?”
The dogs started happily yipping their response, and Draugluin jumped quickly to his feet, shaking the dirt and grass from his shaggy fur. Mairon laughed, grasping the giant beast loosely about the neck and leaning against him. “Would you like to chase him away, my dear friend? Shall I set you free on him? Yes, precious, shall I?”
Draugluin howled with the idea, the noise loud and echoing hauntingly across the mountaintop as it was taken up by the dogs and several other wolves nearby. This time Saruman took a full step backward from the scene.
“You are appalling,” he grumbled, grip tightening on his staff.
“And you,” Mairon replied distractedly, not looking at him, “truly are outstaying your welcome. For the final time, speak or leave us.”
“If you must know, I come with the request of aid,” Saruman finally snapped, slamming his staff so hard into the ground with his annoyance it sunk over an inch into the dirt. He twisted it out again. “This - this plague, it has already killed many thousands, and the Men are ill and frightened. I need -” He cut his suddenly flowing words off sharply as he heard his own implication, bushy grey eyebrows narrowed. “I need assistance, and thought, perhaps, I might find it here in the form of a higher power.”
Mairon fell onto his back with a whoop of laughter, allowing Draugluin and all four dogs to leap atop him and run their wet tongues about his face as they yipped and barked excitedly. Any pretense of taking this meeting seriously was fully vanished, not that he cared in the least.
“Let me be sure I understand you,” he said, voice muffled and only just heard from beneath a great amount of fur. He caught sight of Saruman standing back, staring in open-mouthed dismay at the scene, before the shepherd padded around Mairon’s head and pawed happily at his nose. He turned his face away, reaching for the dog anyway.
“Let me be sure I understand what you are saying,” he said again, tenderly taking the animal’s soft snout in both hands and to look at her sweet brown eyes. One of them had a deep scar over the lid. He received a pleased lick in return for the attention. “You are intruding on our solitude after we spent so much effort setting ourselves aside, after we called a truce and walked away from everything without any intention of getting involved again - to get us involved? And for nothing in return?” He laughed again, a mirthless, bitter sound that made Draugluin whine.
“Absolutely not. You should leave now.”
The argument was instantaneous, and Mairon was glad he was already preoccupied with his companions lest he lose his temper fully with this ridiculous affair.
“Would you be so selfish to hide your magic and power away up here on this mountaintop, to watch Middle Earth fall into ruin, when you and Lord Melkor have the ability to bring peace to a dying people?”
Mairon sat up at that, gently pushing the animals back as they continued to climb around him. They obeyed with no complaint at the gesture, falling away to sit close by with tails wagging as they watched him closely. He turned a resentful glare to the wizard, who was still standing across the yard. “Why would we bring peace to those who only ever sought our ruin?” he asked acidly.
“It was the elves -”
“The Firstborn still had much sway over Man,” Mairon interrupted shortly. “Our residence in Middle Earth brought us pain and misery at the hands of everyone we faced, and you would ask us to save it? Does your soul truly believe it is an old man going senile?”
“I am prepared,” Saruman offered quickly, before Mairon could get to his feet for a final dismissal, “to bring news of your good deed to the White Council.”
Mairon fell silent for a long, beating moment, weighing these words carefully as they hung between them. “To what end?”
“With the proposition you and your - your Lord Melkor be left in peace here. If that is what you desire.”
“We are already at peace,” Mairon replied, unsure now and doing his best to keep that from his voice. The wolf stood again, coming to his side to offer what unspoken support he could. Mairon reached a hand to rest on his shoulders, towering now near the top of his head as he sat. “Unless this is some form of bribery or threat?”
“There has been talk among the Council,” Saruman began quietly, and Mairon could tell this was information he had not initially been planning to share. He paid closer attention than he had previously, his consideration finally caught. “Talk of bringing forces here to subdue you both permanently, and of bringing you to Valinor for trial and condemnation to the Void.”
“Talk amongst who, specifically?” Mairon asked breathlessly, feeling flutterings of anxiety for the first time in longer than he could remember. War was something they had left behind, something they wanted no more part in. He had been so certain this had been made clear.
“Some of the Council, as I said. And…” The wizard looked away, and it was as though their old, withered friendship flared again for one short moment. “And some of the Valar in the West. I cannot say I agree with their assessment of the situation, now that I have seen you here. And perhaps by intervening with this plague -”
“We could put forth a good mark in our favor, yes.”
Their eyes met again, and Mairon narrowed his eyebrows, mind made up. “I will visit one of these towns myself,” he said, “to get a better understanding of the problems they are dealing with, and will present the idea to Melkor. If we believe this is something we should become involved in, we will do so. My condition for such involvement in saving the race of Men is simple - we are to receive pardon from the Valar on their high thrones in the West, and we are not to be bothered here again, under any circumstances short of apocalyptic. Do you agree?”
Saruman opened his mouth only to close it again, taken aback at the bold requests. “I am not certain I can promise such things.”
“Then Melkor will have no helping hand in your situation,” Mairon replied firmly. “Do you need the assistance of a Vala in this mess of yours, or not? You had best make your decision now, for it is doubtful you will be welcomed back here again.”
“Very well,” Saruman said with a terse nod. “Your terms are accepted. Will you have me return at a later date to discuss plans for a cure?”
“I just explained you would not be welcomed here again once you left, and that was regardless of your answer.” Mairon frowned, though this time it was not held with the fury he had felt minutes before. He felt a kind of melancholy pulling at his chest, as memories from so long ago came and went through his mind of a time spent in a very different place with this same being while their friendship was still true. “You will know quite clearly if we intervene, I can assure you. Please do not return.”
He watched as Saruman nodded a final time, his understanding evident, and turned to go. No farewells were given, and none were missed. He continued to gaze after him as he walked slowly down the path leading away from the cottage out of sight and several minutes later heard the heavy beating of hooves.
Mairon stood and beckoned to Draugluin as he paced back to the forge. The other dogs followed close behind them.
There was much to think about, and the fire would help focus his mind.
Mairon paused at the window of the bedroom for a moment, peering out into the dark, inky night and up at the stars as he wrung out his wet hair with a scratchy towel. The clouds had all but evaporated into thin wisps, and he let his eyes roam across the heavens, bright and cast with silver from the waxing moon only days from full now. The Valacirca was glowing, its constellation both beautiful and painful with the memories it brought. The stars, though - they certainly were a thing of magnificence to behold, he could not deny that.
In the distance, he could see the outline of a very large dragon, jagged and sleek in one elegant shape, moving around the cottage to the sheep pen. For all he complained of their blind adoration of him, Ancalagon had grown rather fond of the stupid creatures. Even if he did eat several of them a year, whether he realized their absence was noticed or not. Regardless, his gentle footfalls rumbled through the earth, startling the packs of dogs outside into a run, as he made a check for feral coyotes. The only other predator to the sheep aside from the dragon himself, those coyotes.
Mairon mussed the towel through his hair again, catching what water he could from his earlier bath, and turned away from the window after taking a moment to pull the curtains closed so the moonlight was blocked and instead firelight flickered across the walls. He caught sight of Melkor, sprawled haphazardly across the bed on his back, one leg still thrown off the side and both arms splayed to take up as much space as he possibly could, and raised an eyebrow in amusement.
“I know it has been quite a while, us being here,” Mairon said, trying to hide the laughter from his voice, “but you do still have to share. Unless, of course, you would rather I go sleep in the yard with the dogs. I’m sure Draugluin would be thrilled, as you will not let him in here, though it is likely my body will freeze to death out there in this unholy seasonal chill. Best of luck retrieving my soul once it flees my icy corpse.”
Melkor made a humming sound at the back of his throat, as though truly considering the ultimatum, and did not move even to turn his head as he finally said, “I suppose it would be nice to have the entire room to myself, for once. It has been nearly a century. What if I were to say your appeal was running short of late?”
“I would call you a liar,” Mairon retorted easily, throwing his wet towel in the vague direction of the bed. It collided with Melkor’s face, and he make a disgruntled noise as he pulled it quickly away. But he did not retaliate, even if he still did not move, either. “There are plenty of other rooms in this large house you’ve scrounged together over these long years,” the Maia murmured, swaying his hips as he sauntered closer. “If you have such a problem sharing, go find another.”
Technically, he supposed, he did have his own quarters quite separate from Melkor’s just down the hall, and while he spent time during the day in that airy high-ceilinged room filled with books and scrolls and comfortable chairs, he much prefered to night here. They both preferred it, truly.
Neither commented on the lack of space again, and Mairon lowered himself to sit on the plush mattress, reaching for a brush on his bedside table to begin combing through his tangled hair. Melkor watched lazily, eyes half closed as he began to doze between taking in the fluid movements of Mairon’s nightly ritual.
“Would you believe,” the Maia said after a few minutes of comfortable silence, “I had a rather peculiar visitor today.”
Melkor’s eyes opened again at that and he turned his head to fully meet Mairon’s gaze, attention quite caught. “And who was this strange person daring enough to come all the way out here?”
“One of my own kin,” he said conversationally, working out a small knot with the brush and moving on to another long section. “He goes by Saruman the White. Ridiculous, to give up his original name for that. Hardly rolls of the tongue, does it?”
“Who is this?”
Mairon looked at him, eyebrows raised in mild surprise. “The Wizard, you know the one? Of the the company sent back from the West so long ago?” Melkor just continued to stare at him blankly, and he lowered his brush to his lap. “Now really, you should be keeping up with this information, it is quite important!” Although truly, it was not of major importance to them any longer, even if these Wizards, as they were called now, were still of great repute off in the world Mairon and Melkor had decided to rebuff and retreat from.
Regardless, this specific actor in the play they left behind had come to pay such an odd visit that would once again have some unfortunate impact on their lives. That, surely, was enough to recall him to their present. Mairon pushed forward with his quest to ignite the memory and continue on with his story.
“The one who went by Curumo when we were under Aulë’s tutelage, do you remember?” he attempted. No spark of recognition came from that, either, and Mairon suddenly grinned mischievously. “The particular Maia you had such a dislike for, who worked beside me in the forge at Almaren?”
That at last seemed to light the memory in Melkor’s tired mind, and Mairon laughed as the Vala crinkled his nose in genuine distaste. “Him? The pathetic little creature who held not a fraction of your power, even then? He is one of these - these foul Wizards?”
“The leader of their entire order, as it stands nowadays.”
He continued brushing through his hair, pulling it all back over his shoulders to tie into a heavy, damp braid. “He was on rather a mission, I am afraid, with his chin very high in the air for one stooping low enough to deign speak to an enemy.” He rolled his eyes as the sarcasm practically dripped from his mouth.
“An enemy he used to have quite a sickening fondness for back in that Almaren forge, if memory serves correctly now.” Melkor scoffed derisively, the expression of disgust still tugging across his face. “What mission is this he was after?”
“He was here to see you, actually. Luckily,” he added before any unhappy interruption could come, “you were off on that silly hunting trip with your dragon. Which, I do not even understand, did not yield us any boon? Well,” he waved a hand dismissively as Melkor sneered at him. “Curumo - or Saruman, as he so ridiculously prefers to be called - is of the idea we should intervene for these ailing Men. He went on at length about it as I entertained him so graciously in our home. I do hope he will not be back any time soon.”
Melkor was silent, his previous expression turning to one of surprise - and not a good surprise. His eyebrows narrowed and his mouth fell open as he sought for something to say. Mairon took the opportunity between blustering words to return his brush to the table and stretched out on the bed, sideways and caddywhompus as Melkor was, and curled easily against his chest, sighing contentedly as large arms wrapped around his body without effort to hold him in place.
He decided, then, in that space of such perfect comfort, to keep the rest of the conversation, of the near-devastating confrontation supposedly discussed by this misinformed Council...yes, to keep the rest to himself for the moment. Or most of it, at the very least. He would share everything when the time was right. There were never secrets here between them for very long. There never needed to be.
“I told him I would venture down to one of the nearer towns tomorrow,” he continued after listening to Melkor’s beating heart, so gentle and quiet. “Get an idea for what they are truly dealing with aside from the fires we see blazing every so often. Perhaps,” he added with a toothy smile, turning his face upward to meet Melkor’s relenting gaze, “this could work out for the best. Save the entire race of Men, get a full pardon from the Valar for anything they may still hold against us. Yes?” He shrugged one shoulder, the other nestled down against the mattress and Melkor’s side. “Only the most beneficial part of the deal in it for us, we can be sure of that.”
He felt Melkor take in a deep breath and let it out quickly in a begrudging huff, and knew the battle was won - even if one had not really been fought on this side to begin with. “Fine, “ was the mumbled response, the word rumbling under his ear through the Vala’s chest. “Go investigate this further, if you must.”
“Fabulous. Now move, you great lump, this is terribly uncomfortable.”
The next day dawned bright and cold, crisp spring air lingering with a touch of winter so close at heel. Mairon stood at the cliff’s precipice, looking down over the sweep of valley far below with great interest. He had a fur-lined cloak pinned neatly about his shoulders with an enameled silver brooch of his own making, the wide hood down over his back ready to be pulled overhead, and had donned simple riding gear for this little journey. Truth be told, it had been far too long since he had ventured away, and the idea of it was beating with a small thrill in his heart.
He gazed down across the landscape, picking his target from the great many towns and villages dotting the valley and spanning the wide countryside beyond. So many to choose from!
“Have you made your selection?”
Mairon turned his head as Melkor came to his side. Their eyes met for a moment, long enough to share a small smile, before both looked out across the land once more. The rising sun was lighting it with brilliant gold, dew and frost glittering around them.
“That one, I think,” Mairon said, pointing across the landscape to a small village closest to the foot of their mountain. It was among the first to be set aflame by the rioting Men and their crazed fears, and still seemed to be in a state of disrepair. “It has been at least two generations since either of us has set foot there, I hope to pass unrecognized.”
Melkor nodded his approval as if such were still necessary. “And what pretense will you use for such an unannounced visit during their time of crisis?”
“Trade,” Mairon said with a wide grin, his story already prepared. “I have taken some gold from Ancalagon’s hoard - with his permission, of course - and plan to barter for food. I am afraid I will not be able to get any cherries for you - ” He chuckled at Melkor’s crestfallen expression and put a hand on his arm. “Not quite their season just yet. Though I hope to purchase under the guise of having been attacked by a band of - oh, I don’t know - bandits or some such, who stole all my food. I shall ascertain the situation from there.”
Melkor laughed, a hearty sound rising up from his chest and ringing around them. It was pleasing to the ear, and Mairon grinned. “You, attacked by bandits! An amusing tale, to say the least.”
“Perhaps I should rough myself up a bit, then, make it look convincing.” But he just shook his head, making absolutely no movement to do such a ludicrous thing. “I’ll rub some dirt over my clothes, I suppose.” He curled his lips downward in distaste at the very thought. “Disgusting.”
Melkor’s smile widened, his eyes sparkling with some terrible idea Mairon did not like the look of. He withdrew his hand, opening his mouth to speak, but the Vala circumvented any questions with one of his own. “Are you taking a horse down, or going on foot? Or maybe turning yourself into a great winged beast? That would certainly be amusing, frightening them into another riot.”
“The horse,” Mairon said, turning away cautiously and still not liking the expression on Melkor’s face. It was far too scheming. “I figured it would be best not to change my shape just now, when they are already so afraid. It would defeat the purpose of our meddling.”
“I suppose you could pass for an elf, to their ignorant eyes,” Melkor muttered. He reached out and ran his hand through Mairon’s hair, which had been left down in a very elf-like fashion rather than the elegant braids he preferred to keep it all out of the way. “A very tall elf who surpasses even their standards of beauty. Will you not change your appearance at all?”
Mairon just shrugged. The thought had already occurred to him - several times, in fact - but he did not find the need very pressing in this circumstance. So many of the Firstborn had already fled Middle Earth; it was unlikely any of the townsfolk he should meet in the coming hours would have laid eyes on one for comparison.
“I will keep my hood up most of the time,” he said dismissively. “And besides, if it were to be pulled down, all humans care about are pointed ears and fair features to make out an elf. They will not recognize me as something different.”
“Fair features? I recall some rather ugly elves from our time,” Melkor said thoughtfully, in a way that was clearly meant to insult Mairon’s own looks regardless of his previous remark.
He turned and shoved at the Vala’s shoulder, pushing him out of the way so he might pass. His horse was already saddled, prepared to make the day’s journey, and he grew tired of putting it off for this silly conversation.
“Wait.” Melkor’s hand shot out, grabbing Mairon’s arm and halting him. Mairon cut his eyes around, somewhat surprised, and their gazes locked. He was taken aback by the intensity of emotion contained there in that blue stare as it held with his, and he relaxed his stance without pulling away.
“Were you going to leave without saying goodbye?” Melkor asked softly, his eyebrows gathering together until he almost appeared distressed.
“You did, yesterday,” Mairon pointed out with a small chuckle, turning his arm so the Vala’s hand slid down to catch into his own. The expression on Melkor’s face was aching into his chest and he threaded their fingers together. “I woke to a note scrawled across a scrap of paper left somewhere I may not have found it at all, save for my attention to minute detail. No farewells to be had.”
“This -” Melkor gestured to the cliffside and the towns below, his eyes still on Mairon’s face. “This is different, though, is it not? You are holding something from this story back from me, some detail that I can tell adds a sense of danger my own trip did not contain.”
Mairon raised his other hand and pressed it to Melkor’s cool cheek, his heart filled with warmth. He weaved his energy into the touch, suffusing it with that same warmth to spread into Melkor’s skin. “You are not wrong,” he murmured gently.
“Should I go on this errand in your stead? Would it be best for you to stay here?”
“Quite the opposite, I believe,” Mairon said, smiling tenderly. “Though I appreciate your concern more than the sun rising over the land we keep.” He rubbed his thumb across that scarred cheek, pausing for a moment to take in Melkor’s face as the Vala leaned so subtly into his palm. “I am afraid the pieces in this game have already been cast, and I am simply making our own gambit to come in ahead of their fall. I will fill you in fully when I see exactly where we stand, if you will trust me only a bit longer.”
“I trust you,” Melkor grunted, even if it was rather grudging. “Though I do not see why I should.”
Mairon brought their still-clasped hands to his lips and kissed their knuckles, so tightly bound together he was unable to discern one hand from the other. Not that he tried overly hard. “Perhaps because you love me,” he murmured without question to the words.
“I have never said such a thing,” Melkor retorted in half-hearted argument.
“Do you need to say it aloud for me to know it is true?” the Maia asked slyly, raising his head and smiling. He began to disentangle their fingers and dropped his other hand from Melkor’s face, brushing over his cloak to smooth out any wrinkles and reaching back for his hood. “Now, I should best go if I wish to return by nightfall. Who knows what horrible beasts I may meet in the woods after dark? Ruffians, wild cats - any number of things to pose an attack.”
Melkor grinned, his worry from before beginning to fade away, and Mairon glanced at him again. “I would fear more for any foul creature who should happen upon you in the dark,” he snickered, smirking. “Oh, and Mairon?”
He paused in his second retreat, turning again to see what Melkor’s request should be - and was met in the face with a palmful of cold, conjured magical dirt. It smeared across his cheeks and nose, rubbed by relentless fingers into his clean skin. He sputtered and spit some of the earth from his mouth, stumbling backward as he did and smacking at the atrocious mess with his hands. Only some of it came away, the rest staining into a horrible smear to make him appear quite dirty as it fell from his face to his clothes.
“Yes,” was all Melkor said, his terribly amused laugh sounding around them once more and choking off most of his words. “Yes, now you look much more prepared to convey your story of being waylaid by bandits.”
Mairon continued to rub the back of his hand over his cheeks as he rode in a useless attempt to remove the dirt. But, magicked as it was, the removal would require magic itself. And a mirror, which he did not have easy access to just at the moment as his horse trotted along down the mountain path. He may not have even packed one in his saddlebag, in an effort to make himself appear even more bedraggled and helpless with a lack of possessions. He scowled.
It was only a few minutes longer and nearing mid-morning, with the retired warhorse’s long stride, that the village came into view. The steeple of the town hall rose above the burned out shells of homes along the outskirts as he slowed the horse to a walk, riding quietly into ruins left to the wind. It appeared many people had either abandoned these outer rings of houses completely, or else pulled further into the sanctuary of the town proper, where shops began to appear in long strips with flats along top for additional housing as the square opened before him. Men and women were huddled among a small bazaar of sorts, walking among stalls of trade goods and various foods, doing business with one another in subdued tones.
Mairon stopped his horse a decent distance away and dismounted, going the rest of the way on foot and guiding the animal beside him.
The sound of hoofbeats, even muted as they were on the dusty uncobbled street, stole attention immediately. People nearest looked around at him, eyes wide and startled. He took on a demure posture, watching them for a moment before making toward a stall with several baked goods that smelled rather lovely, if he were to admit to such things. The table was lined with breads and sweet rolls stuffed with nuts and cinnamon, several cakes and biscuits of sweet or savory design, and more besides. He eyed them as one would who had not seen food in days.
“I wonder,” he said softly in his most vulnerable tones to the stall’s owner, who quickly gave him her full attention, “if I might have something to eat? I am afraid much of what I own was stolen, though I do still have some money.”
She stared at him, open-mouthed with shock. “Are - are you one of the elf-folk?” she asked, voice wavering slightly.
People began to crowd in behind him, though still leaving a bit of wary space. Apparently his hood was not quite enough to hide his difference in build, and he almost sighed for knowing Melkor had been correct. It had been far too long since he had walked among Men. Not a large setback, though, and far too late. It had at least been part of his plan to appear as a Firstborn to these people, at any rate.
“As much as one can be,” he said with a charming smile, this time purposefully letting his hood fall back slightly to reveal his pointed ears as he surveyed the delicious food displayed before him. “A roll, perhaps? My stomach is aching with hunger, I will pay you double for it.”
The woman hastened to comply, taking one of the sweet buns he pointed to into a piece of butcher paper and quickly extending it out to him. Mairon gave her a small grin she simply melted into as he reached into the satchel attached to his belt to pull out more than enough money to cover the cost of his purchase. She accepted it gratefully, holding the gold piece up as though it were a treasure.
Mairon looped his arm through his horse’s reins - not that the beast was going anywhere - and picked off a piece of the delicate pastry to pass between his lips. It was, in fact, delicious. He took another bite, tasting the lovely sweetness on his tongue and aware of several eyes still watching him, before he raised his gaze to look at the baker again.
“I noticed the remains of quite a bit of devastation on my way through your town. What happened here to cause such damage?”
The woman shot a hasty look to the people crowded behind, startled at the question, and quite suddenly they all came forward, seeming to speak at once. Troubles poured forth, of fires and fears and death and illness, and Mairon raised his eyebrows as men and women vied for his attention to tell their stories. A shame for them, really, he did not care at all for what they had to say outside of the immediate picture.
He placed a calming hand on the shoulder of the person nearest, clearing his throat and speaking over the dull roar. “Perhaps,” he said, waiting until they began to fall silent again. “Perhaps I should speak with whoever is in charge here? A mayor, or council leader? After all,” he added as sincerely as he could, “this does seem to be a horrible time for you.”
The baker rushed around her stall and grabbed the arm of a teenager, turning him around and shoving him in the direction of a side street. “Go on, Fee, go get him for our visitor!” The teenager sprinted off at a fast run, not needing additional direction.
It was only a few minutes more of listening to these unfortunate tales before the boy came back, an aging man close behind him and leaning heavily on a carved wooden stick for support. Mairon watched him approach, waiting a moment longer before gently sidestepping his way out of the throng of people to meet him halfway.
“An elf!” the man cried joyfully, his voice raspy even as he broke into a wide smile. “We have not seen one of your kind here in so long, not since I was a boy myself. I thought most of you had left our world.”
“I was passing by on another errand,” Mairon explained briefly. He handed his half-eaten roll to the teenager, who snatched it eagerly, rather pleased with the gift, and finished the pastry in three bites as he watched the exchange curiously. “I was waylaid by misplaced bandits, I am afraid, and ended up here for a bit of food before continuing on my way. It appears, though, you have hit a spot of trouble yourself. What has happened here?”
The smile vanished from the man’s face. He looked at the boy and made a shooing gesture with his wrinkled hand, so that the teenager frowned in disappointment and skulked away back to the dispersing crowd of people. “Aye, we have hit a spot of trouble, you could say. More than that, and we have not had a lick of luck since it began.” He turned foggy eyes toward the ruined side of town, where the buildings were still falling into ruined cinders, and lowered his head. “I fear a great deal more is about to be dealt by Death’s hand, if we do not find help from our White Wizard soon.”
Mairon felt a small flurry of pity for the first time, wriggling in his stomach, at the knowledge their precious wizard had, for all intents and purposes, run so far out of ideas that he was their only hope between life and death.
“What might I call you?” Mairon asked, not putting voice to any of this. They needed their hope and, if he and Melkor were to intervene...well, he was pleased to let Men give credit to Saruman, or Curumo, or whatever bloody name he chose.
“Dolan,” the man wheezed with a small smile. “That was my grandson, there, Fedrin. His father has already passed, his mother only weeks after, and so the child is in my care now. Such a dreadful thing. We are doing what we can to keep our chins up, though it is difficult. Your appearance among us will certainly bring cheer for a few days, at least.”
That statement gave Mairon pause, and he glanced over his shoulder to the stalls and their people. It had been long since his presence had done anything but bring terror and fear; this claim, that he had brought happiness in his wake once more, stirred emotions he had thought quite dead.
“Dolan,” he asked softly, already aware of the answer, “what has passed through here to cause such pain?”
“A plague, lad,” Dolan replied, words sad and suddenly on the verge of tears. “We have lost many to this ravaging illness, and still more leave us every day. Those you see in the town center, with maybe a handful more still abed - we are all left here, when our numbers used to be triple. I remember the face of every soul that has been taken, they haunt me even as I wake. The others - they grow afraid, until their fear drives them to madness.”
“Are there -” Mairon knew what he wanted to ask now, but for some reason the words stuck. He swallowed, meeting the old man’s kind eyes. “Are there still ill here, in your town? Might I see them?”
The request seemed to surprise Dolan, but he nodded anyway, blinking and turning to take a step back. “We have them in our infirmary, though little good it is doing. Seven, now, though I expect the number to rise by week’s end. If you really wish to see them -” He paused to study Mairon’s face, seeming to like what he saw there under the dirt and grime. “Yes, come with me.”
Their infirmary was hardly even that, instead a makeshift hospital of sorts thrown together in the town hall if only because it was the largest building able to house cots and those willing to care for the patients always coming through the doors. Mairon stood in the entryway, taking in the rows of beds. Several were taken, and the tables beside those were laden with vials of salves and basins of water with rags over the rims. The smell was dreadful, the sounds of pained moans just as gruesome. He walked inside, Dolan leading him needlessly to the first bed.
A woman was lying there, rolled to her side and curled in on herself with pain. Large boils and pustules covered what skin Mairon could see, many of them smeared in the salve, though some looked fresh and red, angry with their existence. He sat on the bed beside her, taken by a wave of unexpected sympathy. She did not open her eyes to see her visitor, and he could hear ragged, raspy breath barely passing through parched lips.
“Do they all suffer these ailments?” Mairon asked, turning his gaze to see Dolan standing back. It was not something he blamed him for, as the situation was rather horrid. “These marks and lungs filled with fluid?”
Dolan nodded gravely. “And a very high temperature, as well. We have found no cure, and it spreads so rapidly between us to kill just as quickly. Anyone who catches ill dies within days. Every town we have spoken to - they are all suffering the same fate. I am afraid it is merely a matter of time before we all succumb to this enemy, even if these are not words I will speak to my people.”
Mairon reached out to touch her forehead, feeling the burn of fever under his palm. Her body was close to death, rattling near enough to see. There were minutes, perhaps less, left of her life. She gave a hacking cough, propelling her soul that much closer to the maw of the Void, and her mouth filled with putrid-smelling blood that stained her lips and dribbled down her chin. She was no longer able to breathe.
Mairon felt an odd pull compelling him forward as he watched her light so rapidly fading. Where he would have let her die only a hundred years ago, now he could not stand the idea of watching such a thing befall her when it was brought by such a vile, senseless cause. He closed his eyes, his hand remaining pressed to her fiercely burning forehead as the illness tore her apart for its final attack, and reached out with his senses to feel it. To feel it gnashing at her skin, destroying her organs, turning her blood thick. It was not difficult, even after all the ages, to summon the necessary words and form the healing spells.
The carefully chosen ancient words, so similar to Elvish to untrained ears, fell easily from his tongue and, only seconds later, the woman’s breathing eased and her pallor lost its deathly hue.
There was a thunk as Dolan came forward, his walking stick heavy upon the floor as he leaned against it in shock. “How - how were you able to do that, when the White Wizard was not? He attempted for hours, to bring them peace!”
Mairon understood his error immediately, and he kept his eyes downcast on the woman to run his hand over her sweat-dampened hair as he gathered his words into a believable story. “I am older than your Saruman the White, if only by a little,” he said, easily with the truth of it. “And I promise you, he is just as powerful as you believe him to be. I simply know a few tricks to assist in this particular circumstance given by different...training.”
“Can you fix the rest of them?” Dolan asked excitedly, listing over to the side and unbalanced in his hurry as he looked about the room.
“These here, yes,” Mairon replied honestly, rising to take the elderly man’s elbow to steady him. “Though there are likely many more who are already ill and not showing symptoms yet. I will not be able to heal them, not at this moment. However,” he added, forestalling the crestfallen look as it bloomed sadly across Dolan’s face, “I will return to my home and see what help we can bring to you and anyone else who needs it. With the White Wizard’s blessing, assuredly.”
He was certain now this plague, horrible as it was for the Men wrecked havoc upon, would be containable by Melkor’s hands. And so, as he moved from bed to bed to restore health to those he could, he developed a plan to save them both. It was so simple he wanted to laugh.
“What is your name, lad?” Dolan asked, hobbling along after him with short, wheezing breaths. “What title should we give you?”
“Curumo. You may call me Curumo.”
This is the final chapter!
If you have not already seen it, Naamah_Beherit also wrote an amazing story set in this same AU world, titled Three Ainur on a Mountain (To Say Nothing of the Dragon). It is absolutely worth the read and I am honored to have had the opportunity to have any part in its creation.
And now onward to the last chapter of this fun little adventure. Thank you all for reading!
“I found your gifts. Or are they peace offerings?”
Mairon did not turn around as Melkor strode into his forge, the sconce from earlier held tightly as he rubbed at it with buffing paper. Melkor paused in the large arched doorway, watching him work, before coming fully inside to plop down onto a stool nearby. Mairon saw from the corner of his eye that he was holding a spiced cake in one hand, unabashedly eating it whole. The villagers had laden him down with food as he left several hours earlier, especially the sweets they found him to be fond of upon his arrival, and he had left them all inside without touching a single one for himself. Obviously Melkor had stumbled upon the box.
Mairon smiled down at his work, taking solace from the gentle waves of the Vala’s familiar energy as he sat so close. The day in its entirety - the last two, as they were - had been horribly confusing, sending his thoughts into some silly sort of turmoil he did not like in the least, and he appreciated having Melkor so close, so calm, a reminder of why he was here at all.
“Gifts, yes,” Mairon replied, finally glancing briefly around at him with the smile still on his face. “For me, technically, though I wished to share rather than gorge myself alone.” Melkor held out the cake in offering, pocked with bite makes, and Mairon shook his head in the negative. “No, no, you may have that piece.”
Sheep bleated somewhere in the near distance, just heard over the gentle scrape of the buffing paper against the sconce, and Mairon lowered his eyes again. This life they had found here after such vengeful war, the peace they had fought so hard for despite so many naysayers against them…
All had warned that Melkor would never be tamed, that he craved war and destruction and chaos, that he desired the death of others and the falling of this world. They had left anyway, taking only those things - those creatures - that mattered to them, leaving the war and the world behind to sort itself out in their quite obvious absence. It had, as it stood, ‘sorted out’ and Melkor - Melkor adjusted rather quickly. Other projects to set his mind to, the sheep and the mountains, various ways to craft and create without harm to life, ways to wonderfully harness his great power without the downfall everyone had always expected of him - all here, so far away. In marvelous peace.
And Mairon had believed that had been that, the end of the confrontations to tear them apart, the end of outside interferences and interventions by kin who should never be involved to begin with.
It both pained him and infuriated him, to know this entire time everyone thought them both dangerous still, up here plotting and in need of being stopped by another vicious battle when all the two desired - all they ever desired - was to be left alone.
“What is it, Mairon,” Melkor asked, his voice soft and gentle as it floated through his tumbling thoughts. “Why are you so distraught so suddenly?”
The Vala stood, setting the cake down in its waxed paper on a bench, and came to stand close behind him, placing his large hands on Mairon’s shoulders. Mairon leaned back and turned his head to nestle against Melkor’s neck, taking a moment to settle his mind. Melkor moved one of his hands to brush aside hair loosened from the hasty braid pulled back to his nape, craning his head to peer down suspiciously at Mairon’s face.
“Oh, yes, something is definitely wrong,” he murmured astutely. “You still have dirt on your nose. I’ll remove that for you, shall I?” He daubed with his thumb across the bridge of Mairon’s nose before the Maia could react with more than a flooding of color in his cheeks. He reached up and playfully pushed Melkor’s hand away, turning his face and moving his weight forward to leave the embrace.
“That is your fault to begin with,” Mairon snapped, even if they both knew the reprimand was not at all serious. “As is this,” he added, holding up the sconce he was still attempting to fix and pointing at a large, blackened mark across the broken side. “Your handprint, right here. It won’t come out, I am going to have to make a new one. I am not sure I even want to know what you were doing to cause this damage.”
“How do you know I was the one who damaged it?” Melkor sulked impishly, hands returned to Mairon’s shoulders as he leaned heavily against his back to gaze down at the light fixture. “I may have been attempting to fix damage already done.”
Melkor lowered his face and pressed it to the side of Mairon’s neck, inhaling deeply against him until Mairon’s eyes fluttered with the sensation. “You smell of magic,” he whispered against his skin, their previous conversation rather forgotten. “A scent I have missed upon your flesh for so long. And your eyes...” The Vala trailed off, sneaking one of his hands around Mairon’s chest to tug gently at his chin until their gazes met. “Your eyes are green as the earth. It has been many hundreds of years since I have seen that hue weaving in the everlasting fire of your irises. You healed them. Didn’t you?”
There was no ire or accusation to his tone, merely curiosity, and Mairon returned the smile already on Melkor’s lips. “Only some of them.”
“The blend of colors suits you,” Melkor murmured, releasing Mairon’s chin and dipping his head to press a kiss to the curve of his neck. “Oh, but I have missed watching you use your power. Any form of it will do.”
Mairon sighed, a mixture of sounds happy and melancholy. Melkor had always been ardent with his passions, open and free with his intentions in this regard toward him. The fire the Vala’s lips left against his skin, moving slowly toward his shoulder now, was magnificent, a feeling he treasured as something among the holiest of all things. Melkor’s hand rose along his arm, finding the loose collar of his working tunic and very gently pulling it aside to plant a kiss to the base of his neck.
“Will you share with me now,” Melkor breathed there, and Mairon could feel his long eyelashes against his skin as Melkor slowly closed his eyes, “what this game is we have become so tirelessly enmeshed in?”
Hesitantly, Mairon disentangled himself from those warm, grounding arms and set his tools down so he could turn around. Melkor gazed at him, bemused, and Mairon reached up to run his fingertips back and forth along the sharp line of his cheekbone. “I have a condition,” he said softly.
“And what is that, you cheeky thing?”
“That you not lose your temper,” Mairon replied with a grin at the reprimand. “I have already found us a solution, if you will hear me all the way through.”
Melkor huffed in agitation and turned his head to look outside, considering the presented option. Mairon knew it was just for show, and he let his fingers slide downward as Melkor’s face moved, coming instead to rest along his smooth collarbone. The sun had started to set already, the brilliant hues painting the sky with marvelous reds and deep vibrant oranges, the underbellies of clouds alight with gold.
He could still hear the sheep, their calm noises a soothing addition to the fire crackling in the forge and the rumbling of Ancalagon’s footfalls in their open enclosure as he (not so subtly as the dragon would like them all to believe) herded the fluffy creatures toward the evening pasture. Draugluin had given the nightly howl not long ago, calling all of the dogs to the house, and the patter of paws could be heard among the grassy yard as they packed together. Nighttime was falling, as it always did, with such easy rhythms and routines.
This moment, right here - this was perfection.
The sun began its final descent along the horizon, and the sheen of light cut across Melkor’s face as he gazed off into the distance with his thoughts. It was beautiful, that peaceful glow of yellow against pale skin and gleaming hair, and Mairon brushed several strands away from his eyes. “Will you, precious one? Keep your temper?”
“It is something to do with my brother,” Melkor replied softly without question.
“I do not have full evidentiary support of that,” Mairon began sympathetically, his hand not leaving the Vala’s face in order to give him something to hold to when his anger inevitably rose. A genuine precaution, though also one brought on by affection he did not bother to hide.
So far, at least, Melkor simply seemed...sad. Mairon frowned, sorrow growing in his own chest as the story became real through its retelling. “Curumo - Saruman - he brought word that there has been discussion among the White Council - ” Melkor shot him a confused look, and he waved his hand dismissively. “Oh, you know, that group of Maiar who have taken on the guise of wise old men, or Wizards, or what have you. Right, it appears some of them do not believe you and I are taking the peace treaty we signed seriously.”
Melkor narrowed his eyebrows, and Mairon felt the first stirrings of anger within the well of energy running through him. He resumed the steady movement of his fingers across Melkor’s face. “Not taking it seriously? We are the ones who suggested the treaty to begin with!”
“Yes, I know.” Mairon stepped closer to him again, allowing his own energy to flow and soothe until Melkor took a deep breath. “Curumo came to see for himself. He told me of the dissention when he understood we pose no threat any longer.”
“And what were they going to do had no one come to see with their own eyes first?” Melkor snapped, fury lacing his words. “Ride here ready for battle refusing to hear reason as they cut us down in our sanctuary?” Mairon was silent, though he allowed the answer to that question to be seen on his face. Melkor hung his head, the rage rolling off now in waves. “And here, I thought we were free of my kin, and yours, and the lot of them. It was all a lie, wasn’t it?”
“They merely do not understand,” Mairon offered. “They never have.” He raised both hands to cup the Vala’s face, bringing their gazes together. Melkor watched him, letting his breath slide from his lungs.
“What, pray, is this plan of yours?” he finally asked. The anger was not gone, but its danger had never fully risen the way it so easily may have in the past, and Mairon smiled gently at him as he pressed both calloused thumbs against Melkor’s lips.
“We cure the plague,” he said simply. “Curumo is aware of our involvement, which I gave under the stipulation of never being spoken to, thought of, or otherwise bothered again by anyone from the West or elsewhere. I will even send him another contract to sign, after the deed is done. I cannot do this alone, certainly, and will need the assistance of the mightiest Vala to walk these blessed lands,” he paused to grin rather wickedly, leaning forward to move his fingers from Melkor’s lips and instead pressed a kiss there. “But it will be a simple, simple solution.”
Melkor gave him a growling smirk, his hands finding their way to Mairon’s hair and pulling out the loose braid to clutch in the falling strands. “Explain this solution to me.”
Mairon spun away, grabbing Melkor by the wrist as they parted and pulling him easily toward a workbench at the far wall, away from the forge fire. He quickly lit a candle in the growing darkness with sparking fingertips and lowered a milky glass shade over the taper, throwing gently flickering light over a map spread across the tabletop.
“These towns,” he explained animatedly, gesturing to those marked on the map with red ink, “are those in our valley infected. Several more lie throughout the region as the disease passes from city to city heedless of boundary lines.”
“So all of them, basically,” Melkor mumbled, gazing down where Mairon was pointing. It was true; every Man-inhabited town or village in the entire region was starred by Mairon’s quill.
“Yes,” the Maia confirmed. “I was sure to get as much information as I could from the elder I met with this afternoon, and it appears this plague is exceedingly widespread. It is far more devastating than they realize, to be frank. The man I met, he spoke of deaths in his own home nearing a hundred - over half of those who live there. If each town of this size has losses of similar numbers, and those of larger residencies suffering higher counts - they are easily looking at a loss of more than three quarters of their entire population by the time this disease runs its course.”
“Why did we never think of a plague?” Melkor grumbled under his breath as he studied the map, running a finger between the towns on the heavy paper.
“I certainly considered it even if it never crossed your mind,” Mairon said cheerfully. “But the logistics of deploying such a thing…” He shook his head and frowned, lost in the memories of a time long since gone. “And besides, you would have grown bored with it rather quickly. This one, contaminating lands now, has been festering for almost ten years and could go on for another fifty if untethered. You prefer much more direct attacks.” Melkor gave him a snide little glare that was easily ignored. “In any case, this cure. I was thinking - and bear with me here, will you - a rain shower.”
“A rain shower?” Melkor repeated, too surprised by the simplicity of such a thing to continue grudging against any jokingly mentioned shortcomings in the previous jest. “Do you mean, like a magical storm of some sort?”
Mairon beamed at him in the candlelight. “That is exactly what I mean.”
“Are you asking me to rain down fire and brimstone on these towns, Mairon, because that sounds like a wonderful amount of fun.”
His eyes roamed over the map again, and Mairon watched him closely, greedily. It almost felt as though they were transported back in time for that brief moment, to another room in another age, in the war halls of Utumno or Angband, deep in discussions of where to send the next battalions or to re-engage the next troops. The intimacy of those times, wrapped in discussions of futures untold, of victories and great conquests to be waged under their flying banner...
The silence stretched warmly around them regardless of the cold night, and Mairon stepped to Melkor’s side to slide a hand over his shoulder. “Not fire and brimstone, exactly,” he murmured, “but near enough. We need to make a show of it, to make it obvious this is meant to be a - a moment of healing. Can you create rainbows and flowers and small, sweet creatures to pop up out of the sodden ground instead? Something obscenely happy?”
Melkor looked around at him with a booming laugh, understanding the intention quickly. “And I should, what, put the power of regrowth and restoration into the downpour, then? So anyone who is bathed by the water is cured?”
“As well as the earth itself,” Mairon added with a pleased nod. “Though I was being overly dramatic with the ‘small creatures popping up out of the ground’ bit, please do not do that. I fear I may vomit with disgust if you do such a thing.”
“What of those not touched by the rain?”
Mairon could tell his idea was taking hold. Melkor’s voice was fully interested now, and he ran his fingers up the back of the Vala’s neck into his tangled mane of hair as they both turned their gazes to the map once more. Mairon pointed with his free hand to a mountain very near to their own.
“There is a mine here,” he explained softly, “filled with rich veins of dark green fluorite. I can take enough to cut into hundreds of smaller pieces, and imbue them all with lesser healing qualities as I tumble and smooth them. Enough for each town to get at least four or five for their healers to use on those still ill.”
“Clever, not to give them one apiece,” Melkor said with another chuckle.
Mairon leaned his head against Melkor’s shoulder, smiling calmly in the flickering light. “The idea was to stop this horribly nasty plague, not incite a bloody war by only giving out one solitary magical token for them to fight over. Rather a shame, I suppose, but if it will lead to our continued peace here, it is a price I will pay.” Mairon took up Melkor’s hand from the map, twining their fingers together. “Would you like to join me for the mining expedition tomorrow, my love?”
“So I may turn into a pack mule for assisting you? No, I think not.”
“Oh, do come,” Mairon murmured, kissing the back of Melkor’s hand and letting his lips linger there as he continued to speak. “I can think of so many better things to do with you than merely ask you to carry whatever we may pick up.” He let the insinuation hang in the air and smirked, raising his eyes. “Such as opening a few new tunnels in the mines for me using your ferocious power. I will not be able to reach all the fluorite alone, after all.”
The bespelled rain, when it came, was a thing of magnificent beauty.
Melkor stood at the mountain’s precipice, Mairon at his back clad once more in his heavy traveling cloak, as stormclouds gathered overhead to hide what had earlier promised to be an afternoon full of sun. Not three days had passed since the evening of plans had been laid, enough time to gather any additional materials for the stones to be passed amongst the towns and for Melkor to consider how best to cast his own spell across the land.
Mairon stood aside, looking up to the sky as the clouds rolled in. They were heavy with rain, dark and grey even if their presence was only as menacing as a simple spring shower. Energy spilled from them, igniting over his skin in invisible waves that tugged and flowed through his soul. He closed his eyes and threw his head back, soaking it into his body in a way he had not felt in centuries.
He wondered, very briefly, if the people they were doing this for so far below would feel any of this themselves - or if, more likely, they would remain clueless and ignorant of the extraordinary power they were being allowed to witness.
The pitch of Melkor’s chant changed slightly and large, pearlescent drops of shimmering rain began to fall from the lowest clouds. Mairon held out his hand, catching the closest tear of water as it descended from the sky. It splashed against his skin, beading over pale flesh, and, just for a moment, a translucent curl of vine and leaves of the lightest green appeared there on his palm where the drop hit. It tingled pleasantly for the fluttering of a moment and then vanished, soaking into his skin as though it had not existed.
He reached for another streak of the delicate rain, watching as the lovely little leaves appeared within the beading drops against his freckled arm once more. Had he been injured, or ill, or unwell in any way...the wronged would be healed from this tiny pearl of water. He smiled silently, awed by the power and ease of it.
Rain pattered gently against the ground around them as the clouds moved quickly away from the mountain, seeking to release their healing to the intended region beyond. Mairon watched as the few drops left within arm’s reach landed on the grass nearby. Small shoots rose from the cold dirt, sprouting with the same little pointed leaves he had watched blossom across his skin. They remained there for achingly beautiful seconds before vanishing into fragrant wisps of silver smoke.
A gust of wind rose, and the clouds continued away from the mountains. The rain fell harder, a thick sheet to blanket sick land and its people.
Melkor grew silent after a moment and Mairon walked forward to come to his side. “It will fall for the rest of the day and into tomorrow,” he explained softly. “Enough to touch as many of your ailing souls as possible. Will it do?”
“This surpasses all expectations,” Mairon murmured, the words honest and quiet. He slipped his arm around Melkor’s to hook their elbows and continued to watch as the clouds moved onward. It was impossible to see any people below from this height, though by now the first two towns were feeling the falling rain.
“Shall I join you when you journey out to pass around your little rocks?”
There was enough lilt to this that Mairon smiled, hearing the joke comparing his own magical work to this great masterpiece. He lowered his hand from Melkor’s elbow to grasp his fingers. “If you would like,” he replied. “I fear it will be a long and rather boring trip, all told. To go to every one of these towns...what do you reckon, several weeks to be through the region and back again?”
“If you will transform yourself into something that can fly, the trip should only take a day,” Melkor argued halfheartedly. There was something else to his tone that did not quite make it to the words themselves.
Mairon was silent for a moment, gazing down at the gentle storm. The smoke, as it rose with its silver tails, looked like a thin sheen of mist that clung so close to the land. “Flying still does not solve the problem of transporting all of the goods I must carry,” he finally said with a small grin.
“If you are a large enough creature, I could come with you to carry whatever must be brought.”
“Oh, I do not like that idea at all,” Mairon retorted immediately, pushing Melkor’s shoulder playfully. “I will not turn into some - some winged llama for you to fly all over the land!” He was unable to finish with a composed expression and began to laugh. Melkor grinned widely, shaking his head, and Mairon continued before he could be interrupted. “If you are so put off by the time away, you can stay here. Those weeks are nothing for us.”
“I would rather not be parted from you again,” Melkor said.
The statement came so abruptly that Mairon considered for a moment he had misheard, and he turned his head to look at Melkor’s face in confusion. The Vala did not look at him in return, apparently lost in his own consuming thoughts.
“We did not leave everything behind, Mairon, only to risk losing it all again,” Melkor murmured. “If you are leaving for any length of time, I will go with you. I am not acting as protector, or with fear, or out of some obsessive need to keep my so-called possessions close...”
He trailed off, leaving the thought unfinished. After another moment of silence, he met Mairon’s eyes and gave him a lopsided smile. “I do not wish to be parted, is all. There is no reason why we should be, and so we will not.” He reached out to cup Mairon’s cheek in his palm, rubbing his thumb along his high cheekbone. Mairon sighed and leaned heavily into the tender touch, covering Melkor’s hand with his own. “If this game is unfinished even with all our pieces cast as they are, if my brother is discontent to leave us be as he promised to - I will not be more than a moonsbreath from your side. All I have wanted these last years is peace in my own mind, and I have found it with you.”
Mairon tilted his head to press his lips to Melkor’s palm in a feather-light kiss. “You know I will follow you anywhere, through any trial we may face,” he whispered. “And I would certainly allow you to follow me, if you wish it. Even on such a trivial journey as this.”
Their chosen method of travel, it was finally decided, was flight by way of Ancalagon and a journey of only two days. They landed far enough away from each town to avoid detection - or at least as much detection of the dragon as possible. Melkor stayed behind to grouse about the accrued time as Mairon raised his hood and ventured into each village center with the prepared gift of little fluorite stones.
He spent several hours showing the healers and whoever else wished to see how to tap into the magical properties, how to use them to purify water to give those still ailing, or how to press one to a fevered forehead to drain away the illness; how to pass the tumbled and smoothed rock over blistered skin to restore health to rash, or press them to soles of feet to withdraw impurities. He was careful to explain that these had been specifically created for this particular plague and, once the illness had lapsed away and the people were brought back to their fullest wellbeing, the healing powers of the stones would fade and they would be no more than pretty green trinkets.
“The stones will know when this comes to pass,” he said each time with a mysterious smile.
And it was true, he had gone to great lengths to ensure such a thing. Partly, and he could not lie to himself about this, was because he did not want such power of his own floating about in the world of Men for all eternity. The deal was to solve the problem of the plague, not grant them reprieve from all illness and injury. His sympathy only went so far.
Before he left each village, he was bombarded by questions of the rain from the previous evening. These he evaded with more unassuming smiles and coy words, both taking responsibility and giving it to another higher power. They were all under the impression both he and Saruman were their saviors, and he was willing to leave it there. Especially since Melkor had come all this way only to refuse at the last moment to actually join him for the final deliveries. The mighty Vala would receive no credit by those he saved. So be it.
“There is one more stop I would like to make,” Mairon said as he returned to the clearing where Melkor and Ancalagon were lounging in the sunshine streaming through the trees.
“I thought that was the last village,” Melkor grumbled, rolling to his feet and poking Ancalagon to do the same. The ground quaked as the dragon shook along his spine and stretched out his wings. “Where else do you possibly have to go?”
“I have the contract drawn up. I would like to deliver it to Curumo myself and watch with my own eyes as he signs it.” Mairon smirked, walking forward to run his hand along the smooth scales and hard muscle of Ancalagon back haunch. “You do not have to come inside. In fact, it would be best if you do not.”
Melkor glared at him as Mairon climbed on to the dragon’s back, already prepared to leave. He opened his mouth to respond, but Ancalagon beat him to it. “Because,” the beast rumbled in response to the unasked question, his voice echoing through the trees and frightening a flock of birds, “you tend to make such matters worse rather than better with your sharp tongue and quick temper. Let Mairon tend to this final chore so we may return home. I fear we may have lost several sheep in our absence.”
“Oh, do not fret about that, my dear Ancalagon,” Mairon said with a laugh as Melkor sulked petulantly behind him in the leather saddle, finally ready for flight. “Draugluin can keep a clever eye on them for you while you are gone.”
“What in the name of Eru are you doing here?”
Saruman looked across his desk, papers and scrolls stacked in neat piles around him, and dropped his quill with a clatter to the parchment spread before him. A fire flickered cheerfully in the grate beside him, filling the room with its warmth and bathing the many filled bookshelves with gentle light as it blended with the late afternoon sunshine spilling from high arched windows.
Mairon strode through the room as though he belonged there, a smile widening across his face as he reached into this cloak for a rolled scroll to offer forward in answer to the question.
The wizard snatched it from his elegant fingers, scowling. “How did you even get in here?” he asked sourly, pushing the band off and hastily opening it to see what could possibly be written there.
“I believe we have already discussed your - what was it, the power you traded back in return for your ventures here?” Mairon shrugged and paced away, eyes roaming in a bored fashion along the bookshelves. All titles he either owned already or had no interest in. “Getting through your barrier of spells was little more than a sneeze on my part. What a nice tower you have here. Very...visible from quite a distance.”
Saruman sneered at him, glancing up again after having read very little of the missive in his hands. “How did you even know where to come?”
“Oh, please,” Mairon said with a jeering snort. “I’ve known where all of your Council resides from the moment you came here. Now -” He gestured to the paper, growing impatient. “Sign this and I will be on my way. Melkor is just outside, he will grow bored shortly at being kept waiting and I promise, you do not want him in here. Your little library would not stand a chance against his wandering hands.”
“He - Lord Melkor is outside? He’s here?”
Saruman stood quickly, genuinely startled, and rushed to a window overlooking the vast gardens below. He caught sight of Ancalagon trampling the purple dahlias and into the large rose bushes, and turned again in a swirl of white robes, flustered and stuttering over words that would not come. He spun back to the window, eyes wide and searching. Melkor was nowhere in sight.
“Oh, do not fear. I asked him to at least give me enough time to settle this myself,” Mairon murmured, coming to his side to peer outside as well. “He is probably just snooping around attempting to amuse himself.” He hid his smile, knowing full well exactly what the Vala was doing out there. Only getting into trouble if taking a nap in the sun while his dragon sniffed the pretty flowers and worried about his sheep was considered ‘rude behavior’.
Saruman dashed back to this desk, unaware of Mairon’s thoughts, and grabbed up the discarded paper again to read through it quickly now. “What is this? What have you brought to me?”
“Our contract,” he replied casually, still gazing out the window. “Sign it and we will leave.”
The glare he received in return for this was intense enough that he felt it boring into his back. He caught sight of Melkor’s booted foot as Ancalagon ambled a little further into the garden, and then the Vala came into view lounging against the trunk of a tree. He appeared to be asleep, though Mairon knew he was aware of everything going on around him. It would take nothing more than the slightest tug along their mental link for him wake from the light slumber, to join him here either for fun or destruction.
“Normally,” Mairon continued softly, listening to the rustling of paper as Saruman obviously read, “I would give this to the intended party before our part was completed. But I acted in good faith on the assumption you would honor your end of the bargain we agreed to. I trusted you before, Curumo, do not prove I was mistaken to do so again.”
There was a hint of threat in those last words, and their eyes met briefly as he glanced over his shoulder. Saruman took up the quill, dipping the tip into the inkwell and quickly scrawling his name across the bottom beside Mairon’s own. He cleared his throat, looking up again and then away as he rerolled the scroll to hand back. Mairon strode back to accept the extended paper.
“You should know,” Saruman said haughtily, “you went to action far faster than I expected you to, with that fanciful rain of yours. I have shared this information with the council. However...word has not yet reached the Valar in Valinor of our agreement.”
Mairon curled his lip in true disappointment. “Here, then,” he grumbled, pulling a second copy of the same contract from the lining of his cloak. He tossed it on the desk unceremoniously. “Keep this one as your own evidence and do not back out now. You saw the outcome for yourself. The plague will be fully contained within three days, our part is done. We are to be left in true peace from this point forward, as we should have been before.”
He took a step back and turned to leave, reaching over his shoulders to pull up his hood.
Suddenly Saruman stood again, shuffling through another stack of papers and stalking forward with three of them. Mairon raised his eyebrows, surprised by the vexed expression on the old man’s face. “What is this?” he asked as the papers were shoved into his hands.
“Were you aware?” Saruman asked with a curious fury, pointing with a gnarled finger at his chest. “Of these designs?”
Mairon looked down at the papers, smoothing out the angry wrinkles to expose, of all things, plans for a statue. A statue of a figure with what appeared to be his own face staring back up at him with little dimensions scrawled out to the side in untidy, unfamiliar handwriting. He burst with a barking laugh, his eyes starting to water with its growing intensity. “What is this? Your own idolization of me? I’m surprised at you, I would have thought that fanciful little infatuation with me from Aulë’s ancient forge long passed.”
“One of the towns is building this!” he snapped, grabbing the papers back right out of Mairon’s hands before he could look any closer. Color rose scarlet along his sunken cheeks. “The base has my name! You gave them my name as your own!”
Mairon extracted the plans again, amused beyond reason now. He studied the second page, confirming that yes, actually, this was most certainly his likeness. “Oh my,” he murmured, chortling happily and not even trying to cover it. “Oh, goodness, Curumo, look at this! He is so handsome!” He held the sketch of the statue’s face near to his own and broke into a wide, toothy smile, simply elated. “It looks just like me!”
“The name, Mairon, what did you do!”
“Oh, relax - no, no, silly, I’m keeping this one, you may have the the rest -” He shoved Saruman’s hand away and folded one page, the one with the proposed granite face, to put into his cloak as a souvenir. He handed the other two pieces of parchment back, and the wizard snatched them away irritably. “Stop being so upset, I simply wished to defer the attention away from myself as I gave the assistance you so rightly requested. You wanted the glory, I gave it to you.”
“And now my name will be forever attached to an image of you!” Saruman snarled, incensed. “I pass through that region regularly! And now -”
“They think it is you,” Mairon interrupted, rolling his eyes. “Or at least some old, forgotten version of your old form. Do let it go, won’t you? Besides, I will never see these people again, it matters very little to anyone save your vain self.”
“You, calling me vain? What a turn of events.”
But the anger was gone from his voice, and Mairon’s smile this time was almost genuine. “You do not have a forge here, do you?”
Saruman met his eyes, baffled by the question so different than the conversation they had previously been holding. “No, I do not. I no longer have time for such trivial things.”
“That is a shame. Goodbye, Curumo.” He raised his hand in a gesture of goodwill as he backed toward the door again, readying to leave. “You will find a clause in the agreement you just signed, should you read it over closer, that stipulates neither you nor any other members of the White Council you lead so judiciously never come to our home again, even under the banner of friendship. So this is our last.”
Saruman did not speak again, and did not stop him as Mairon turned and walked from the room. His footsteps echoed through the marble halls as he made his way toward the entrance, and the deepening spring sunlight upon his face as he pushed through the heavy wooden door was a welcome warmth. Melkor sensed his approach immediately and cracked an eye open as he neared the tree.
“How did it go?”
“As well as I expected it to,” Mairon said, extending his hand out to needlessly help Melkor to his feet. “Better, actually. Look at this.” He extracted the folded paper with the sketched plans from his cloak again and let Melkor take it from him, watching as he began to chuckle.
“A statue? They are building a statue of you? That will certainly stoke your ego, as if it is not already quite large enough. Just what you need - a marble effigy to last as long as your immortal life as reminder.”
Mairon hummed noncommittally at the playful jibe, basking in the sound of Melkor’s voice and the warming sunlight to chase away the lingering winter’s chill. He retrieved the paper and tucked it into his cloak once more. “They are carving Curumo’s name on the base to go with my perfect face.”
The chuckle turned into a booming laugh. “Oh, I can imagine how well that went over.”
“And it will be granite, not marble. I do not believe the limited budgets - or limited skills - of Men would allow for them to carve in marble. Their own loss.” They both smiled, looking at one another as the sun began its slow descent on yet another day. “Shall we return home now?” Mairon asked.
“Home,” Melkor repeated softly, the word falling from his lips like an oft-repeated prayer that had not been raised in far too long. “It seems like such an odd concept even still, don’t you think?”
Mairon continued to gaze at him, watching as the Vala turned his attention to the horizon and the far range of mountains. Not their own, though close enough. It had been an odd concept, at first. In the years after the initial treaties and agreements had been signed, after the other Valar had so grudgingly allowed them to have their solitude in return for peace through the land (even if it had been more one-sided than originally thought, a problem now quite taken care of) - yes, at first this idea of “home” was a foreign one.
When before they had been always surrounded by vast walls of stone, engulfed by fumes of sulfur rising from the pits of the earth, the sounds of their own armies always moving to and fro through the halls, forever accompanied by hundreds…
This, now, was so vastly different, so filled with ease and simplicity, and the previous lifetime may never have existed at all. Or, perhaps, it had merely been viewed through a crystal mirror, as though by an indifferent seer to share so many varied outcomes for one single soul’s path, ready to shed them like cards into a fire at her whim.
“No,” Mairon finally replied, reaching out to take Melkor’s hand into his. “This idea of home, it is not so odd any longer. Or at least, no longer for me.”
He nodded, turning his head to look out toward the mountains as well. It did not seem strange in the least to be having this conversation here, in Saruman’s gardens, while the wizard himself likely looked on from that high window in his frivolous tower. Mairon smiled, a sense of contentment washing over him as he took in the sight and thought of what waited for them just beyond that range of snow-dotted peaks.
“This whole world is our home, Melkor. We have simply continued to keep our place in it, here among all things.”