In his dream Gelmir comes to sit beside him, and rests his head fondly against his shoulder, and Gwindor realizes for the first time he has not forgotten his brother’s face, after all.
Russandol glances up at him, as he enters the room late in the afternoon. Maglor is humming a pretty, gentle little tune as he sits on the floor, head leant drowsily against the sickbed. Fingon has set aside his physician’s mantle at present, and is giving his cousins a lively description of Frog’s kittens, which he had evidently been called upon to visit at breakfast.
“Oi, Maitimo!” Celegorm calls, his voice a little squashed from his sprawl on his bench. “Look who it is!”
Russandol looks a little more rested, and a little more alert. His left hand is tenderly, tentatively, stroking Maglor’s glossy dark head.
When Celegorm calls, he smiles, welcoming Gwindor in.
For a moment, it is as though there has never been darkness in this room at all, as though safety is a thing they can truly have.
Russandol, still screaming, still wild-eyed, clawing at Gwindor’s arm with the only hand he has left, trying to fight back and recoil away, all at once—
Russandol, subsiding into shaking, hopeless weeping, turning his face away from the lantern-light—
“I’m Gwindor,” Gwindor says, again and again. The nail marks on his arm sting. His eyes sting, too.
“It’s Gwindor, lad. It’s me.”
“I want to help. Tell me what I can do, Red. Anything at all.”
It is very quiet, in this room, when it isn’t thronged with people. It is an upper room, set near the corner of Mithrim, on the side facing the empty hills. The only other chambers nearby are those kept by Russandol’s brothers, who seem to have made very few friends among the people they pretend to rule. No sounds of the boisterous dining hall below reach this place; there are no footsteps, and no casual conversation or laughter from the hall. When night falls upon solitary watches it is like they are the only creatures left alive in all the world.
Gwindor finds he is still getting used to it. Loneliness.
“Tell me who you are,” Russandol whispers hoarsely, finally breaking the silence. He does not look towards Gwindor at all. The flicker of the candle flame shows his eyes in the dark, and the thin sharp profile. “When I wake up. I never—I never know.”
“You want me to stay until morning, then?” Gwindor asks, careful not to stretch his aching shoulder. That’s something as can’t be done around Russandol, with his quick eyes. They took his hand, but they never took his eyes, nor the way he always feels things he shouldn’t, with what he sees.
Russandol says nothing. He does not look at Gwindor’s shoulder. Then, sure as clockwork, he begins:
“I didn’t mean—I shouldn’t—you should rest—“
“You know I don’t sleep,” Gwindor scoffs, cutting him off with a fine show of his old irritability. He folds his arms forcefully and without so much as a wince, scowling. You can’t wince, around Russandol. “Not as deep or long as to make me miss it, anyway. I’ll stay, Russandol. It will be me here when you wake up.”
Russandol twitches. There is something wrong with his jaw but it isn’t dislocated now, of course; this is something else.
“It might be me alone,” Gwindor allows, gruffly. “Or there might be Estrela come in too by then— or your uncle, or your brothers. I’ll tell you, if it is. But no matter who is here— it’s never going to be them, Russandol. Never again.”
Russandol twitches again—he moves. Turns his head, slow and painful, and looks full at Gwindor for almost the first time since he came back to life. Russandol doesn’t like to look directly at anyone; he tilts his head down, or slightly away, or speaks in profile, from the corners of his eyes and mouth. He was always this way, even when Gwindor first met him. For the first time, he wonders if maybe he was not always this way to his brothers. To his cousin.
Russandol’s face is mostly his own again. The change is in the ragged scar left across the bridge of his nose, one edge cutting dangerously close to his left eye. The change is in the expression in those eyes—like he’s trying not to look out of them.
Trying not to let anyone look in, maybe.
“Gwindor,” he says, in his low forge-voice: “It’s always them.”
He does sleep, after a little while, and Gwindor does stay, his shoulder aching awfully.
Before he slept, after he spoke, Russandol had tried to offer up a smile.
Enough to break a heart, that.
Beren carries a crowing Frog all the way to the lakeshore, high up on his shoulders, and does not seem to mind the careless way the boy pulls at his hair. Gwindor follows with Sticks, who is too fine a lady now to hold his hand, and has even a little silver drop pendant around her neck now on a thread-like silver chain.
“‘Twas a gift, and none of your business,” she informed him, still a little sulky. “And I had wanted to show it to Russandol today, not go paddling about in an old lake.”
“Complain to Estrela, not me! It was she who insisted.”
She had, in fact, intimated she thought fresh air would be good for both Gwindor and the children, but he shan’t be sharing that particularly humiliating information.
When they reach the lake’s edge, Beren makes a show of running straight in, making Frog shriek, before laughing and tossing the little boy up and off his shoulders, swinging him safely down to the shallows. He keeps hold of Frog’s hand and walks down the shoreline with him, pointing out various waterbugs and birds, and pausing for a game of pebble-tossing. Sticks joins them for the pebble-tossing, lured by the mesmerizing way the ripples from every stone waver out in wide, dark rings.
Gwindor isn’t one for throwing things, so he stays seated on the grass, watching the children play. It is a frosty, clean, open sort of day. The cold breeze is wonderfully refreshing, and Gwindor must own that Estrela was perhaps correct to shoo him out of Mithrim’s stale rooms.
He wishes Russandol were strong enough to have some time out in the sunlight again too, with laughter and river stones and children. Maybe it would be a little easier for him to feel himself alive again, if he were.
When Gwindor at last heaves himself up to join Beren in the shallows, the water is cold enough to make him swear. Sticks laughs at that, and mocks him, and he shakes his boots at her.
When he retreats back up the riverbank to dry off, Beren comes too. Beren has a nice smile, and a pleasant, open laugh. It makes sense that he and Finrod are friends. When Gwindor asks, he gladly shares the story of their first meeting—years ago, apparently—but when Gwindor asks if he had any history with Haleth, too, he hesitates, then shakes his head.
“Haleth’s people are the Haladin, much farther east from here. I never met anyone of her tribe, before. I am from the north of your California Territory, much nearer the coast.”
“Oh, aye,” Gwindor says, embarrassed. “Ah—Apologies. What is your tribe, then? If you don’t mind me asking.”
The young man’s smile fades.
“I do not mind. And—Barahir is the name of my tribe. Of the people of Beor.” He looks back towards where the children are splashing in the shallows and shrieking, their high voices carrying far across the water.
“I am the only one left.”
“You’re right. It’s Lem,” he admits, though it’s even worse, saying it aloud. There’s something hurting in his throat. “Won’t let me alone. Don’t know why.”
That isn’t quite true. He hasn’t really made any friends among the men here, nor even among Fingolfin’s followers. Doesn’t care to, to be honest. But he surprises himself sometimes, by feeling that violent, brutish man’s absence at his side—when he sits at table at mealtimes, or walks in halls that still feel strange. He had come to rely so much on Lem, during his days in the mountain’s shadow. He had told himself relying on a man and liking him were two separate things, and had hated that Russandol had insisted he be forgiven.
Russandol had known, somehow. Known that the loss of even a man like that would be like this.
“It is all right if you miss him,” Estrela says. Gwindor shrugs, awkward and with only one shoulder.
“He was not kind,” she continues after a moment, very softly. “But he was your friend. Our friend.”
He scoffs at that, too, or tries to.
Estrela says: “He was never cruel to me.”
“He was cruel enough.”
(Fingon’s quiet, worry-drawn face this morning, as he examined the distorted break. Russandol’s face too, watching him.)
(When did it happen? Fingon had asked, and Russandol, not looking at Gwindor, speaking before Gwindor could speak, had lied.)
“It is still not wrong for you to feel—“
“Belle,” he says—bites the name short, shuts his eyes. “Estrela, damn it. Estrela. I don’t want to talk about it.”
She puts one hand gently on his bad shoulder, the way she always used to, massaging the bad place with her thumb. She rests her face, gently, against his hair.
“All right,” she whispers. “I’m sorry.”
Nothing for her to ever be sorry for, not in all the world, but she’s gone before he can put that into words.
“The cooking is terrible here,” he assures Russandol, in a conspiratorial hush. “Coffee’s even worse. You aren’t missing out.”
There are not enough rooms to hold them all comfortably in Mithrim. In the narrow, barracks-like sleeping quarters, there were already four or five cots to a room, each cot provided with a small chest for belongings, and no other furnishings. To try to fit the newcomers, some straw pallets have been hastily fashioned and laid out on the floor stones of these rooms, leaving scarcely any floor free for walking on. In the dining hall, tables have been pushed to one side of the room to free up more space for beds. Mealtimes are now scheduled in shifts, to account for the reduced table space. Those who take chief duties in the sickroom stagger their shifts, so that at least one man is free to stay with Russandol at all times.
As a result, Gwindor rarely sees anyone he knows at meals—not Fingolfin, not Fingon, not Maglor. Celegorm, of all people, has made blunt overtures of friendship of late, but he is never in the dining hall, likely preferring to eat out-of-doors with his dog. Gwindor has made no overtures of friendship to any of Russandol’s other brothers, and has had little interaction with Caranthir since the first few days. The less he sees of venomous little Curufin the better, in his opinion. As for Amras—
Gwindor cannot bear to be very long around Amras.
He is too alike.
“I wish he would sleep,” Maglor says hollowly, as they wait together in the hall outside the sickroom, exhausted. He leans with his back to the wall as though he wishes he could slide down it to the floor.
It is mercifully quiet in the hallway. Even the sound of Fingon’s voice has died down. It had been an unspoken agreement among them that if Russandol had a nightmare again tonight, Fingon would be the one to stay with him. Maglor had practically fled from the room, when the screaming started.
“He is sleeping,” Gwindor corrects, humorlessly. “That’s the problem.”
“I wish he would take the sleeping draught, then,” says Maglor, wringing his hands. “This cannot be helping him—to wake up every few hours like that. To be living whatever—whatever he is living, in his head.”
Gwindor scowls. “Must have his reasons.”
“Reasons! He’s scarcely sane. He’s dreadfully hurt. We should not allow him to torture himself this way, when he is this weak—“
“Weak!” Maglor jumps, and looks to Gwindor with startled eyes. “You don’t know what weakness looks like. The whole time I knew your brother, at the mountain, he never had a day’s rest from their tortures. Not a single day there wasn’t some bastard there to hurt him, or degrade him, or laugh at him.”
Once, the bastard was me.
He doesn’t say that, aloud.
“He had nightmares there, too. Had his fevers and his pains. Had times where he was forced flat on his back, where he couldn’t so much as stand. Times they made him crawl. But all that time, he was brave. That in there—“ he points, a stab of his finger towards the closed door—“I’ve seen it before. That’s what bravery looks like, there. You can’t imagine it. But you must understand it. You must understand, that screaming in your sleep, or eating when you know you can’t keep it down, or even just breathing, when all you want to do is die quiet—that is what fighting looks like. Your brother, he’s a goddamn hero. And if he doesn’t want your drugs, then by God! He deserves to have his choice.”
Maglor stares, with his round deer’s eyes. He is always wan, this brother, but now he is white to the lips.
“Maitimo doesn’t want to die.”
Gwindor stares too, breathing hard.
He said too much. Christ, he’s said too much and too little all at once, and how is this boy supposed to understand that, with his unscarred hands and his lily-fine skin? Who does he think he’s talking to?
Russandol loved him. Trusted him. Remember that.
Like rose petals, the anger slowly flushes open high on Maglor’s cheeks. He blushes like Russandol used to, when he was caught in moments of high feeling.
“And I know he was brave. Of course we know, all of us; he’s always been the best of us. I know you think you know him, but you don’t know the half of it. Maitimo never stops fighting.”
There are tears in his eyes. That, too, was Russandol’s way.
“I only wish,” he says, in a much smaller voice, “that he would let himself rest.”
When Fingon steps out of the room to ransack yet more of Mithrim’s stock of medicines and herbs—a tedious and particular task he is loath to entrust to anyone else—the boy in the bed he leaves behind waits motionless for him to return. Of course, there’s naught else for him to do but wait, these days. Gwindor doesn’t know how he stands all the stillness. Russandol never was the sort to willingly hold still for long, even in those first days after Gothmog whipped him bloody. He was always so eager to prove he was more than that spilled blood, more than those broken bones.
To see him now nearly two weeks abed and yet to attempt to defy his keepers at all—it’s like seeing him giving up.
Gwindor can’t tell him that.
Gwindor can’t tell anyone.
“That was better,” Fingon says encouragingly, drawing his cousin’s red hair back with practiced tenderness as Russandol retches again. The gentle brightness of his voice is at odds with the drawn look upon his face, but of course Russandol cannot see that.
“Every time, you keep it down a little longer,” Fingon soothes. He lets go of Russandol’s hair a moment, to place a careful, reassuring hand between his spasming shoulder-blades, on one of the small, unmarked places amidst the whip-scars.
“Every time, Maitimo! That’s progress. You’re getting stronger. This sort of reaction is only to be expected, really, at this stage, but you are improving faster than I had even hoped. You’re doing—you’re doing so well.”
“Oh aye, it’s been hell,” says Davy. Davy is the name of one of Fingolfin’s men—his former coachman, as he readily explains, who rather than seek other employment in New York City decided to throw in his lot with Fingolfin and go west. He has the look of a man who used to weigh a good deal more than he now does, and he sets to at breakfast as though eager to make up for lost time.
Gwindor, who finds his stomach a little uneasy and unused to proper cooking again, eats much more slowly. To his advantage, however, his more measured pace allows him to be a more attentive and encouraging audience.
Davy shoves the last of his griddlecakes into his mouth and chews enthusiastically, leaning back on the bench. “Took us over a year to make it here, when the plan from the start had us in California in less than six months. It was all that Feanor’s fault, you know—but it don’t do well to speak ill of the dead, so I won’t say any more about him. I’ll warrant you’ve heard enough—
“I was lucky, for I had no family to bring with me, from the city. Master Fingolfin of course had his wife, and the household, and all his children. His youngest son was killed quick, in an ambush of that Bauglir’s doing—not that we realized it, at the time. Poor Master Fingon blamed himself for that, as he was our physician, and it was his asking about town for news of Maedhros that set Bauglir’s spies onto us. There was a posse waiting for us a day’s ride out of town. That was in . . . Kansas Territory, I believe. Last October. They shot poor little Argon in the throat, first thing, and Master Fingon did his best, but—well. Argon never had a chance. You know what I mean; I know you’re the soldier.”
Lem, choking on the blood and froth as he died.
Gwindor swallows, hard.
The former coachman shakes his head.
“It was awful business, that. Argon was scarcely fifteen, and a kind little fellow, bless his soul. I knew him from when he was a babe, you understand. The way his family took it, and all without being able to provide him a proper Christian burial . . . Well, it doesn’t bear thinking about. After that, we fled north, hoping to throw off the hunt. But Master Finrod’s maps didn’t cover the north country, and so it was slow going. And when the snows came . . .”
Gwindor recognizes the haggard look that comes across the man’s face, as he remembers. It is the same he saw on Fingon’s brother, at the wall.
“Lady Anaire was a gentle woman, and the death of her youngest hit her hard. She had always been of fragile health, ever since I knew her; she couldn’t last that winter long. Again, Master Fingon did his utmost. But what could he do? We were trapped in the blizzard for months. Her death hit him hard—very hard, in truth. He was a very different child, and a very different man, two years ago. Before we left New York.”
Slowly, Davy glances about the room. Seeing no one near enough to overhear, he leans a little closer to Gwindor, as though wishing to confide some dark secret.
“I know what most our company thinks of Maedhros Feanorian,” he says, very low. “But I think it is good for Master Fingon to have him to care for, in truth. After he lost his brother, and his mother—he needed this. A chance to save someone else he loves. Those two were close as brothers growing up, you know—they were always together. Fingon used to worship the ground that boy walked upon.”
“Not me,” says Turgon, straightening up with a grimace. His shirtsleeves are rolled up above his elbows, even in this cold, and he is sweating from the work. When he lifts one arm to mop at his brow, Gwindor notices for the first time the gleam of a wedding band, on his left hand.
A wedding band, but no wife that Gwindor has seen. He supposes, sickly, that he can guess at what that means.
Turgon says: “I don’t think I could stand the sight of him, at present. Not after what he did.”
Then he pauses, perhaps seeing something traitorous in Gwindor’s expression, and he shrugs, stiffly.
“I am grateful for Fingon’s sake, I suppose. I must be; it would have killed him, I think, if Maedhros really had been dead. Or—if he had died despite all his efforts. So I can be grateful to him for having the decency to stay alive, but that doesn’t mean I want to see him. Anyway—come round and tell me what you think of setting arrow loops here; I’m not sure of the height, and as a military man you must have some experience—“
“Because he never used the name you gave me,” Russandol explains thinly, in the afternoon when his uncle has left them alone. Sunlight comes through the single window in a pale and shivering fall; it never reaches Russandol’s eyes. It just catches dully in his ragged hair. “He didn’t . . . know it mattered.”
Maitimo, Gwindor remembers, in that voice neither Fingon’s nor Maglor’s.
“His mistake,” he says, light as he can, and with a smile that likely does not look much like a smile at all. “But listen, Red, the others don’t know. About—any of that. Ought I say something to them?”
“I hate to see them hurting you,” Gwindor protests, but Russandol forces past him, in a strangled voice:
“Bullshit,” Gwindor snaps on reflex, but he can’t even be properly angry over Russandol’s familiar martyr tendencies resurfacing again, not with the lad so grey-faced and weak, and frightened over something as simple as a name.
“Don’t tell them. Please, Gwindor, don’t. It would kill Maglor—I don’t want to hurt—”
Russandol tries to say more, but his voice catches, and turns to coughing, and the sharp, terrible way his face contorts makes Gwindor suddenly remember what Fingon had said about his ribs.
“Damn it,” he exclaims, reaching to try to help hold Russandol’s spasming body still, but Russandol cringes away, even in the midst of his pain. Gwindor freezes, hand outstretched.
“Do you want water?” He asks at last, hesitantly withdrawing his hand. Russandol, the fit mostly passed, has tears in his eyes as he shakes his head faintly. No. He is shuddering, which is bad, but not as bad as the coughing.
When Fingon enters the room to begin his watch he takes them in at a glance—his cousin, gasping, and Gwindor still sitting there like a man gone daft. He drops the bundles in his arms all in a tumble and flies to the bedside, putting a steadying hand on Russandol’s shoulder. Russandol is still trembling.
“Try some water,” Fingon urges, very kindly. He takes the cup from the little table and holds it to Russandol’s lips and Russandol’s teeth rattle against the metal rim but he does drink. He does not shake his head no at Fingon.
His shoulder has gone rigid beneath his cousin’s hand.
“Thank you,” he whispers to Fingon when he has done, and he closes his eyes.
Russandol has not asked for a mirror. Even when Fingon must peel back the dressings, he does not look at the amputated wrist.
He holds Gwindor’s hand tightly, with his left hand, and he does not make a sound.
“Gwindor,” Fingolfin says quietly, peering up from the water-stained book he has propped upon his knee. Gwindor, half-dozing upon Celegorm’s bench, rouses and looks with instinctive alarm towards the sickbed, but Russandol is sleeping quietly, and looks no worse than before.
Which is to say—he looks half-dead, but his breathing is even.
Half-dead. Not dying.
“I am sorry,” Fingolfin adds, no doubt observing Gwindor’s fright. “I did not mean to disturb you, if you were sleeping—“
“Not at all,” Gwindor hastens to say, awkwardly waving off the apology. “What is it?”
“I have observed that your children—not that I wish to imply you sired them, understand, but only that they are of your company—those children, I mean, call you Soldier. Are you a military man, then?”
“Militia. Not very good one, either.” Gwindor rubs at his eyes. “As should be obvious, I daresay, considering where you found me.”
“I ask because my son has begun to focus his attention upon improving the fortifications of this place, and I thought—if you had any experience in warfare—I might ask that you take a look at his efforts and offer any advice you might see fit.”
Seeing Gwindor’s confusion, he smiles faintly.
“My other son. Turgon.”
“Only if it is not too much trouble, of course. I do not wish to impose.”
Fingon, Aredhel—even Finrod, who it seems is yet another cousin, and not a sibling at all—have all come to see Russandol, since his rescue.
Only Turgon has kept away. Turgon, who before they learned who Russandol was gave Gwindor his coat, and wished him good luck.
“I do not know much about war,” Gwindor says with a bleak smile, “only about massacre. But—I shall see what I can offer.”
“Why do you call him Russandol?”
“The children made him the name, and it was better than anything they called him there. He never minded. I never even heard the name Maedhros, until I met you lot. Why do you call him Maitimo?”
“Oh,” Maglor says, his mouth pulling down a little in the corners, “that’s what we called him, as children.”
Gwindor frowns too, thinking. Remembering a time in the slave compound, when he sat by Russandol’s sickbed, and the boy reached out in his sleep, hand piteous and searching.
Remembering what he said then, in his dream.
Hesitant and gruff, he gambles: “And he called you cano?”
“Fingon and myself, yes.” Maglor’s mouth trembles dramatically, and he lowers his gaze back to his sleeping brother’s ravaged face, tears actually trembling on his lashes. Everything he does is theatrical, this one, and his grief is pretty as a poem. He tenderly straightens a meaningless wrinkle in the blanket, and his hands are trembling too.
He doesn’t even ask how Gwindor knows.
In his dream, he is laying ties on the railroad again, same as always, beneath a blazing, blistering sun. Beside him, Lem is swinging his hammer, same as always, the sound a familiar song. Lem mutters something foul and disrespectful under his breath, sweat dripping down his nose, and Gwindor laughs—couldn’t hear what he said, exactly, but laughs anyway.
When he looks up, pausing to stretch his aching back, Gothmog is standing there on the lip of the hill, watching, his great whip silver-white in the sunlight, all his face in shade beneath the broad brim of his hat—
Same as always—
“Sir. You must watch him close. He—he’s a stubborn cuss, and he’s all lies when his back’s to the wall. Your son doesn’t seem to notice. And maybe I’m the one wrong, as he’s the doctor and your—your Maedhros’ dearest friend, I hear. So he must know what he’s doing, only I think he might also only be seeing what he wants to see. What Maedhros is trying to show him.”
Fingolfin, when he frowns in thought, looks a little like Russandol had when puzzling out the finer details of their mad escape plan. Focused and somber and far too tired.
“You think my nephew is hiding something? His injuries?”
“His injuries! Nothing could be hiding those now, so he tries for the next best thing; to hide the pain. I’ve seen him whipped bloody, sir, and I’ve seen him still refuse to lie quiet. But he doesn’t move in that bed, not a twitch. Doesn’t look at that hand. That—arm. If he weren’t sick over it, wouldn’t he look?”
“Fingon told me yesterday that Maedhros refused his offer of increased laudanum, before he changed the bandages. He took this as a good sign, that the pain is perhaps not as severe as he had feared. If this is not so . . . “
Fingolfin is a strange man: a leader who is kind, and a master who is gentle. He is grieved to hear what Gwindor says, but he listens intently, and he responds without anger. Instead, he breaks off with a sigh, and draws a weary hand across his face.
“I shall suggest to Fingon that he might continue to offer Maedhros the laudanum, as a precaution. Beyond that, I dare not impose, for fear of crippling my son with doubts he cannot have for his work, or for denying my nephew the dignity of his choice. But I shall watch him, Gwindor. I shall speak to him myself, if I can. Thank you for coming to me.”
One of the Mithrim men offers him coffee at breakfast, in a squat tin cup. Gwindor nearly can’t stand the first sip, but by the time he has drained the lot he is savoring the rich bitterness, feeling more awake than he has in years.
His first coffee in years, goddamn.
Makes you almost fear to wonder what other things you have forgotten to miss.
“You shouldn’t have come back,” Russandol whispers. His elbow twitches, and he closes his eyes.
It is easier to confess to him, somehow, with those bright eyes of his closed.
And so: “I didn’t,” Gwindor says. He forces a wretched chuckle. “‘‘Twas your fool cousin as went back for you. All I did was follow him.”
The chuckle turns into a sob, which he hastily stifles, wrestling with himself. Russandol doesn’t need this. Russandol needs rest. Peace, and quiet, and gentle care—
“Damnit, Russandol,” he is saying before he can catch himself, truly weeping now. “I should never have left you at all.”
Russandol opens his eyes. He wept too, that first day, but his eyes are dry this time, his face very pale beneath his bruises. He stares at Gwindor a long while, and then lifts his hand—his only hand—to rest it clumsily on Gwindor’s own. The effort pains him; he grits his teeth with it, still staring.
“Gwindor,” he whispers again, very small. “Don’t. Please, don’t.”
So Gwindor doesn’t. It takes some doing, but he regains mastery over himself, and wipes his face messily with his jacket sleeve.
Ain’t even his jacket sleeve. He’s borrowed it, off Fingon’s brother, and now he’s wept and snotted all over it. Christ.
“I’m sorry,” he croaks at last. He turns his hand palm up, to hold Russandol’s fingers gently in his, and offers a watery smile. “I only—I was a coward. And I let them—let them—“
He cannot put it all into words, what was done. He doesn’t even rightly know the full of it, only what Fingon said, and what he’s seen with his own eyes, in a firelit cave and a canvas tent.
What did they do to you? He wants to ask, but at the same time that’s the last thing he ever wants to learn. He swallows, and gently rubs Russandol’s fingers between his. They are icy cold.
When he looks up to Russandol’s face again, Russandol is staring now at their interlocked fingers, his breathing shallow.
“I only found you after your cousin—freed you,” Gwindor says, stumbling over the word as his own gaze is drawn, helplessly, towards the bandaged right wrist. “He carried you all on his own, down the mountain to our old forge. He fought Mairon there, and saved you again. I came after all that. Damn useless, as I always am.”
“Your cousin Fingon is a brave lad, stubborn and mad as they come, I reckon. Naught in him but kindness and a bravery too big for him. I see the resemblance, I really do.”
That does not draw so much as a twitch of a smile from the broken body in the bed, but then Gwindor had not really hoped that it would.
Instead, he realizes Russandol is still staring, fixedly, at where his hand is trapped in Gwindor’s grip. His eyes are so wide, the whites are visible all around the silver irises.
“Russandol?” Gwindor asks, hesitantly. “Russandol?”
He releases the lad’s hand, and it is only then that those slim fingers start trembling, helplessly, and his hand curls closed—curls pitifully back towards his now-heaving chest.
His maimed arm is rigid by his side.
“I’m all right,” Russandol manages, when he has calmed somewhat. “Don’t go.”
“As if I could ever,” Gwindor retorts, grieving, but he sits back down in the chair, hunched and anxious.
He does not ask what Russandol remembers.
He recognizes Caranthir when the boy enters the room quietly, shuffling his feet. There are two chairs at Russandol’s bedside, but Gwindor doesn’t much like sitting so close to the center of things, so he is hunched on the floor, back to the stone wall, keeping his stubborn watch from the corner. Caranthir shoots him a lowered, uncertain glance, then stumps to one of the chairs like he had to nerve himself to do it, sinking down with a huff.
Gwindor is invisible, after that. Caranthir just looks at his brother a while, shoulders hunched, and after long minutes of silence he suddenly bows his head. In grief, Gwindor thinks, until the boy begins muttering prayers over a string of clay rosary beads that are suddenly in his hands.
The surprise is almost comical. Gwindor never thought of Russandol as a Catholic—Never considered his religion at all, truth be told, in all his wondering about the boy’s life before. Russandol never seemed the praying sort. It is absurd—it is almost macabre, to picture him in a church, dressed like a gentleman, with his own set of beads to count.
a Mháthair Dé,
guigh orainn na peacaigh,
anois, agus ar uair ár mbáis . . .”
The cadence is vaguely familiar, but the words are foreign. Gwindor doesn’t mean to fall asleep, but he does, to the sound of this half-grown brother praying, and sniffling, once or twice, between his beads.
It is after he leaves the kitchen buzzing like a kicked beehive that Gwindor first meets one of Russandol’s brothers directly. He recognizes this one from the tent—homely, ruddy-faced, and with dark-scowling brows—and will later learn his name is Caranthir. A mess of names, all these boys, and Maedhros not the least. Caranthir had seen him in the kitchen, it seemed, when Gwindor was busy bullying these strange freemen into preparing a broth of bone marrow for his invalid. The boy followed him into the hall, and stops him on his way back to the newly-made sickroom.
“What is it?” He snaps, distracted. Russandol’s brother does not blanch.
“I thought you might want—to wash—“
There is a basin of water in the boy’s blunt hands, dripping over the sides where he has overfilled it. There is a lump of soap floating, and a dishrag crumpled beneath his arm.
“Oh,” is all Gwindor can say to that, very stupidly. He hadn’t stopped to consider his own state, what with the little doctor working himself half to death and Russandol being—being—
The truth is he isn’t used to cleanliness, and with the realization comes sudden embarrassment.
“Thank you,” he mutters, spilling more water as he awkwardly accepts both basin and cloth. He carries them outdoors to the courtyard, and crouches beside the wall in a corner where there are no windows, to hastily wash his face and hands.
Or he planned for haste, but once he begins, he cannot stop washing, feverishly, all the dirt and ash and sweat and blood sluicing from his skin in black rivulets to the earth. He blinks furiously, and sniffs, drawing the back of one wet hand trembling over his mouth.
There’s still blood dark beneath his fingernails, even with all his scrubbing. Can’t reach it.
No way of telling if it’s Lem’s, or Russandol’s.
In his dream, he never finds Russandol at all, nor Fingon. He climbs the dread mountain alone, following a trail of scattered and gory pieces: a foot, an ear, an arm, a hand—a hand looking new-severed, looking exactly as he knows such things to look.
One hand, and then another. Up the snowy slope.
He is searching for Russandol’s head, in hopes the lad still has his eyes left.
Somehow, in the dream: this is important.
At last there is a smell of water in the dark air, and beyond that a faint tinge of woodsmoke from campfires Gwindor had feared he would never see again. He puts his head down and pushes one step before the next, breathing raggedly. He is exhausted, God help him, he could fall to the grass right now and sleep a hundred years. He would, if he was alone.
But there in front of him is Fingon, sobbing every breath as he forces his way onwards, bent nearly double beneath the weight of the body slung across his shoulders. And there is that body, still breathing, still beloved. Gwindor can’t rightly see Russandol’s face in the dark, but he can hear his breathing, and that means his friend is still here. Somewhere, in the dark, he is still here: the brother Gwindor loves.
“God, the light,” Gwindor rasps, seeing the first flash of firelight through the trees. Fingon sees it too, he thinks; Fingon is crying, but his bloody hands hold tight. “Only a little farther now, Fingon. A little farther and he’s safe. Don’t stop. Brave lad, don’t stop. You’ve saved him.”
You’re not gone, Russandol. I’m looking square at you, and I can see you’re not gone—
I’m sorry I didn’t come sooner—
have they done—