This story adheres to the version of Amrod and Amras' deaths recorded in the published Silm.
The title is from Isaiah 66:24/Mark 9:48.
"I suffer, but still, I don't live. I am x in an indeterminate equation. I am a sort of phantom in life who has lost all beginning and end, and who has even forgotten his own name."
-Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
My life is a story of eternal things. I've lived a million pages of the impulse that ended up branded on my fëa, of damnation's chronic death-rattle, of deathless things that cannot live and of transient things that stay forever. I am the theme of a poem about inkstains, my father's anvil, and the unshakeable cliffs behind me.
"Maybe it isn't right to end them here." Maitimo's eyes flit between the brown cliffs above us and the white beach sprawled under our feet. He too thinks on things that will last. The arm of a sea star rests beside my boot, half-petrified in the winter air. I kick at it, and wish it were whole.
"This is the safest place," I answer, ignoring his malapropism. My voice sounds shriveled, controlled, like drying figs for a profit. "We'd be fools to do it up in the town. They're having enough trouble containing the other fires without our lighting pyres, and the sand down here won't burn."
"It isn't right to do it looking West."
"So we'll turn our backs to the sea."
"Or spit in the water and hope it washes up on Manwe's feet." (Battle sometimes renders him sardonic.)
"That's blasphemy, you know."
"Not as obscene as this." He extends a pallid hand toward the two crooked piles of broken boards from the town, and the twins' vacant hröar on top, eyes still open, shredded intestines spilling out like dead worms up close or melted amethysts from a distance. I swallow acrid bile and try to keep my stomach from feeling so light.
I hope to the gods there are no flies. Winter in the South might not be enough to kill them all. There weren't any flies in Doriath, just Esgalduin, swift and black, darker than clean water should be. It was deep, too, deep enough for blissful drowning. We built pyres on its bank, for Maitimo believes in pyres.
"Annihilation is better than decay," he said.
He also said, "Curvo wouldn't want to be dirty"; and "Moryo and Turko would want it to be quick." The twins nodded, and I blinked. If he thought it best to immolate the entire forest, I couldn't argue.
"There is nothing so obscene as this," he repeats now in a raspy whisper. A single cold sea breeze brushes our skin, tugging his black cloak out behind him and smelling sharp. I watch his anguish slowly clench and unclench his fingers, silent as the breeze stills. The sun is a white fire amid the high and delicate clouds; the morning after marches onward like a broken toe.
"We should move quickly, Nelyo," I murmur. "I- I doubt the men want to spend another night here, and I hate to see-"
"Pityo and Telvo lying there," he finishes, "lying there so open with their damn armor rent and their eyes toward the Sun. And only half that dried blood is theirs." He traces a boot through the sand. "It wasn't supposed to happen like this."
"Just as we were supposed to regain all three Jewels under the stars."
"Yes, regain them after Father reached Morgoth, cut the heart out of his fána, then trampled it into the frost. I remember." That is my brother's curse. He curls a finger around the white bone stretching thin the flesh at the end of his right wrist.
"You always remember. You would remember we are fated to decline." His mouth twitches upward as in a spasm.
"But that should never have meant I had to watch it."
"Who made Arafinwë's talebearing sons our diplomats?"
"To hell with that treacherous hound."
"You sent Findarato to his death."
"Our oath would require Nargothrond."
"I bind myself to the destruction of Doriath and the eradication of all its people from the face of Arda. This I swear by the snows of Taniquetil."
"My lord, what should be done with the young princes?"
"Tie their wrists and leave them to the winter."
"Ambarussa! Stop! They are children."
"Whose fathers slew my brothers."
"Listen to me, no innocents were to be harmed at Sirion."
"There are no innocents here."
What sinners my brothers were. I have sand under my fingernails from building the pyres, stuck in the drying blood there.
"Nelyo, we are no better than they," I tell him. "We but suffer different symptoms of the same disease." He shakes his head.
"They made their own choices."
"As do you and I."
"Makalaurë, I began to hate all of them for it."
"That is your symptom." He makes no defense; it's too late for that. Defense is what we've needed all along.
Father places the helmets on the dining room table, stroking the tall scarlet plumes one by one with a flourish. What kind of bird has feathers like that: too long for a cardinal, too dark for an ibis. He must have dyed them, which is a bizarre thought. The helmets' steel glints starkly in the light of the blue lamps hanging from the ceiling, and by the yellow and orange oil lamps mounted to the walls.
"So this is why he's assembled us," murmurs Telvo, lips almost brushing my ear as he leans down. (I've gotten used to my youngest brother having two inches on me.) "Gifts."
My father gives decent presents, when he gives them at all, but he makes them, so they are all reflections of himself. The last thing he gave me was a bronze-laid metronome with a ruby to slide up and down the needle. It's lovely and halfway functional, but I never use it, for it clicks very loudly, and can't seem to keep a stable rhythm.
"Helms with faux feathers," I amend Telvo's observation. "The explanation should be a marvel."
The seven of us are scattered around the margins of the room. Turko and Curvo sit back to back on one of the divans; I am the valley between Pityo and Telvo on the ottoman; Nelyo and Moryo are in separate chairs, but Nelyo's fingers are idly twisting Moryo's thick hair into a braid. (Moryo scowls but sits still.)
"My sons," begins Father, pacing, "you are all very fortunate. In light of the recent murmurings in Tirion, it has become a necessary precaution that our House be prepared to withstand violence." He shrugs, but I feel as though I'm rolling off his shoulder, plummeting toward the floor. Armor is the stuff of history books with gold-trimmed leaves and no creases in their blue spines, the stuff the Powers wore so Melkor's blades wouldn't make them bleed. I don't wear the stuff.
"I give you helms first, before swords even," he continues, then stops suddenly beside Curvo and strokes the arm of his chair without looking at him. "For the mind is the most dangerous weapon we possess. It is to be safeguarded, steel-plated, and brandished all at once. You will receive swords later, and you will learn to dance around a man and jab at his throat and send him sprawling backwards into the dirt. You will learn how to bring a man to his knees, bowing his head, and you will learn the strength of your right arm. But oh, my sons, it matters little if you leave your best weapon at risk."
My father is mad. He dreams of phantom battles and of groveling foes with vulnerable necks. He craves a conquest, so he dreams of winning something. He dreams things I'd weep to sing of, and of which I want no part.
"You may take them now." He extends a hand toward the table.
I rise between the twins, and all seven of us step up, each quietly locating the helmet with his name on the slip of paper under it. I lift my helm, and find it is no heavier than one of the circlets we sometimes wear to royal feasts or ceremonies. The steel chills my hands as I run my fingertips around it, noting the smoothness of the edges; the fake plume is very soft.
"Won't you try it on, Kano?" Father's smile seems genuine-like his motives-and I comply.
I barely feel the helm against my skull at all. I wonder if it would withstand a blow from so much as a rolling pin, and the red crest I know adorns the top must make me look like my father, my brothers, and a rooster. I glance around at us: eight swaggering gamecocks now destined for the ring. But Father stands in front of me, and his eyes are bright.
"How does it feel?"
"Very safe." His lips turn slightly upwards.
"Just as I hoped it would." He lifts an arm and takes the plume between his fingers, runs a hand up it as if to fluff the individual feathers. "Do you understand why you have this?"
I want to say no and slam it onto his head, for if Father thinks to arm us against his half-brothers—or worse, against the Valar—his mind is the vulnerable one. Yet I am wiser than to tell him this.
"Yes," I answer, dragging the words out like heating glass, "as a precaution against any violence that may arise." He shakes his head.
"No, do you understand why you, Kano, have this?" I purse my lips.
"Because I am yours?" I know it isn't what he means.
"No." His hand drops. "You have this to protect your music and your gift. A rhythm is good for concentration; a harp is good for laments. An army with no trumpets has no hope for victory."
"Thank you," I return half-heartedly, dipping my head but shouting on the inside. So I am to be his bugle boy. "I am happy to be useful." I am a liar.
"Without your mind my world would be too silent." His hand quivers; he cannot abide silence.
The sea laps placidly at the strand, stealing sediment one grain at a time as it vomits up mollusks and seaweed. Dead, wet, brown clumps of plant sprinkle the sand at random intervals, till the foundations of the cliffs sever this segment of the coast. Tiny oval shells, indigo on the inside, pock the damp sand like claw marks. Coquina, Findekáno once called them in Aman. Maybe the name is different here.
"Kano, you're right." Maitimo looks at me now, and I notice the long, neat scratch running diagonally across his nose and right eyebrow. "We ought to end them now." End. It's the wrong word, and he knows it. End. Like we're the ones ripping their torsos apart and leaving them staring.
"Don't use that word." The reprimand spills out of my mouth like knocking over a glass. "I don't 'end' my brothers."
"Someone has to end them." He purses his lips and softly snaps them. "Better us than nature; better fire than worms. This is the end." I swallow and sink my boots into the sand.
"Would that it were," I answer him. "Would that it were, but they are oath-breakers, Maitimo. The Oath and the Darkness don't allow for endings."
"The Void is oblivion."
"The Void is nothingness." I bend and pry a coquina out of the sand, toss it back into the sea. "That isn't the same thing."
"How would you know?" I glance back at Maitimo, and his arms are crossed, and his eyes are dull.
"I've dreamt of it." The nightmare always drowns me in darkness, stuffs it in my nose and mouth until I must breathe through it as through the smoke of ships. The silence gives me tinnitis, and I must think and never sing. At first the lyrics and the notes accumulate inside me like air in a lung that can't exhale, packing in and in while the molecules start swirling and colliding until they at last stiffen in the wrong place. They stretch me, and I am gorged. A soul can't explode. I suffer and accommodate it. The ornate conciertos dwindle to harp solos, to limericks, to pianissimo scales, to a blank knocking rhythm, then silence. I don't create. I have ceased to be (Maglor). The process reverses. The imprisoned symphonies evaporate all but instantaneously, absorbing much of me with them. A soul can't implode. I shrivel, and I am less. No more music. What is music?
"What do you dream?" Maitimo's voice is distant.
"You remember Father's graphs," I state, for it is my brother's curse to remember.
"The chains of equations and the broken charcoal pencils and the tiny squares on the parchment."
"Some of the most complex had a vertical asymptote at zero. The line approached the axis forever and ever, and each point's absolute value would shrink to the millionth part of a whole, until the line became unrecognizable, invisible. Some would oscillate; some would steepen; yet none could ever reach zero." I find my finger tracing curves through the air between us. "That's what Everlasting Darkness is like."
"An eternal decline," he posits, "a fall with no landing." He twists his lips into a snake or a smile. "I always tried to hope for something final."
"Finality is forgiveness: no debt to be paid, no lashes to receive. Your deeds in life then amount to nothing. No one gets that-" I swallow salty air. "-how much less the accursed?"
"It was good to dream that death might be the end. We've already proved it isn't the beginning." Somewhere above our heads, a gull shrieks. "Decay is impatient."
"And never finished."
"At least in the darkness I will cease to see it."
"A sad day it is when we wish for blindness."
"Yet it is a bittersweet day when death gouges out one of our eyes." His voice is flat. "You know what I said beside Esgalduin."
"Through your tears," I qualify, "in a madness of grief." Like your present one.
"I meant it."
The birch branches under my brother are probably scratching his dead periwinkle skin. The pyre stands four feet off the ground, and he lies on it with eyes closed, clean for a casualty. The wound was to the base of his skull, and the blood under his skin has gathered purple around his eyes, black on his eyelids, like the mask of a raccoon. Maroon patches have appeared behind his ears, and when I found him on the stone floor and lifted his head to cradle it, my fingers grew sticky with blood and wiggled bone and touched something soft inside.
"Makalaure, give me your torch." The flame wavers faintly under the ash-grey sky. The clouds are grey and stagnant above our heads. The ground is rocky here by the river's ravine: no undergrowth or trees to set on fire for many yards, at least. "Or do you want to light them yourself?"
I turn back toward my three living brothers, copper heads covered by dark hoods, for the snow is beginning to fall. Of the three broken bodies on the pyres by the river, Curvo's is only the eeriest. Turko's and Moryo's still make my chest feel as if it were about to burst.
"You're welcome to do it, Makalaure," continues Nelyo, voice stretched like a wide suture, "unless Pityo or Telvo…?" The twins stand close beside him, rigid jaws making them look more alike than they have in years.
"I will," says Pityo. He takes a step toward me and extends his hand for the torch; like mine, his gloved fingers tremble. "I…" His gaze darts between the three of us. "I won't have to live listening for their voices at the door if I can remember light- burn—doing this." Nelyo nods.
"Then you must," he answers faintly.
Pityo begins with Turco, and the dry branches crackle as the flame spreads, at last leaping up to surround his hröa and lick the snowflakes out of the air. ("How many, Kano? How many can you catch on your tongue?") No. No. My beautiful brother who could speak to doves. I should throw him in the river and put out the flames; he'll swear at me, then dare me to jump in. I clench my hands stiffly.
The torch quivers in Pityo's hand; he now crouches by Moryo's feet. I swallow sharply, and have to avert my eyes. He's too pale, so pale I wouldn't have known his body if not for grandfather's hawk nose, so pale he looks afraid, so pale he isn't Carnistir, is only Morifinwe on the inside. (Yet there's nothing on the inside.) I embed my teeth in my lower lip.
Nelyo inhales swiftly, crisply beside me, and I glance at his face. Tears run torrentially down his cheeks, tracing white patterns in the battle grime.
"They belong there, they belong there, they belong there," he murmurs, then turns his face toward me. "They bore a shadow all their own."
"Don't speak to me." My voice splinters. "Don't speak to me, if you can speak only folly."
"You would have seen it today if you'd been with us, if you'd seen-" He doesn't trail off but stops abruptly, tone staying low. "They were half in the Darkness already."
"Don't speak to me."
My tears have begun to skew my vision like a kaleidoscope (fruitless and disorienting), yet I manage to meet Telvo's gaze. He takes a step toward me behind Nelyo and leans down so his lips nearly brush my ear.
"Has no one told you - -" He lines up the words with effort, like glass beads on a taut string. "- -what Turco brought on Dior's sons?"
I don't know if Nelyo heard, but he turns his back on the pyres and begins to walk. He crosses the rocky bank and sets foot on the yellow undergrowth yards away, though Curvo has but just begun to burn. My kaleidoscope makes the smoke look silver and the purple corpse, monstrous.
The charnel-scent of the burning flesh permeates the air, intrudes my nostrils. It could be over-cooked venison, could be sausage without the seasoning; it is an ugly red and brown scent. My stomach churns and roils, as if I've ingested a nest of centipedes. I raise my hand to my face and breathe into my index finger. My glove's grey wool is stiff with dried blood, but the copper scent is better than the umami one. Eru nîn. My broken little brothers. Eru nîn. And we end in conflagration. (Damn it, and I swear in Sindarin.)
The cold rubs my jaw and numbs my filthy skin as in Hísilomë where the mist kissed my father and mingled with his ashes. There was no odor then, just the wet, fresh, tender scent of the fog soaking into the earth like the spring that wasn't under the stars and the shroud of the sky.
"Touch me," he pled, and the blood he coughed sprayed onto my hands. "Oh, my sons, touch me-" He coughed. "-and promise me the Silmarils."
Nelyo took his hand, and Pityo and Telvo each stroked a shoulder. Curvo placed two fingers on his lacerated neck to feel the feeble motion in the veins, and Tyelkormo cupped a hand around his cheek. I didn't want to crowd him; I didn't want to pain him. Moryo stood like me with his arms at his sides, contorting his lips to keep them from trembling.
We swore again. "Dread nor danger, not Doom itself." We were fools enough to swear again. As if we needed two damnations.
I rub my lips together and the dry skin chafes like the last two brown leaves on a tree dead of disease. Termites would have hollowed its trunk, and white fungus would have coated its emaciated limbs in a sepulchral hoarfrost.
My own stomach too is hollow; the cavity of my torso feels as if consumed by a canker or picked over by vultures. Someone sliced open my chest and ripped my stomach agape. They spread out the ribs and the birds landed on my face, and their feet left clawmarks like the fossils of veined leaves imprinted in the skin. At least my brothers are safe from that. At last they're safe from the world charmed to raise its hackles against us.
The smoke of their disintegrating bodies aspires toward the sky. My joints ache with the cold, and a thin layer of snow slowly coats my hood, my boots, and the bare ground. The three of us stand and watch while heaven turns from ash to indigo to onyx over our heads. Maybe we'll sweep the ashes into the river.
The turquoise waves collapse onto the sand, leaving the foam residue of their crests behind until the tiny bubbles pop. They make microscopic holes in the grains beneath, like the pricks of a needle. The spiny brown sea star arm still protrudes from the sand between Maitimo's boots and my own. I lift my gaze and stare out over the sea, watching it blacken as it sprawls toward the horizon. Another breeze blows my hair forward, and I jerk the loose black wisps behind my ears. It blows salt-spray on my skin, which stings. The white sun has begun its descent, fleeing westward toward Taniquetil like wouldn't-we-all. No oaths to stick the sun to the Dying Lands here.
"It's probably time." Maitimo's voice slices our silence. I simply nod. "We should have brought something with us to - "
"The page had a torch before you sent off him and the rest." Maitimo dismissed the men once the wood was deposited here by the harbor. It was a stupid thing to do. He's gotten awfully stupid anymore. He looks at me as if I were a falling flag.
"You have something, I'm sure." It's a statement in permanent black lettering, and he seems to think it's the end of the matter, for he puts his back to me and starts toward the pyres.
I think I have a flint somewhere. I'm not rubbing two sticks together. Pull out one of the broken boards or birch twigs, and the pyres will collapse like statues with feet of clay. My brother is walking toward the crooked stacks of wood, toward the stiffening hröar on top. (It's rigor mortis and the salt-spray.) He weaves around the seaweed clumps; they look like clumps of hair. My brothers' beautiful hair will raise an awful stench when we burn them. I should cut it all off and put it in a wooden box and shut my head inside and suffocate in the darkness and their scent. I would to God I had a shovel. My soul for a damn shovel.
"Makalaure." Maitimo tries to make his voice clear, but it sounds like wet shoes squishing in the rain. But he's summoning me. I join him by the pyres, eyes on the sand, rummaging in my pockets for the metal of the tinderbox. Pens in here. A hunting knife. A crust of bread. I've got it.
"Here's the firesteel," I mutter, extracting the black hoop from the rusting box. The metal curve looks like a broken chain link, if with a wider rift. I place it in my brother's outstretched hand. The chalcedony flint I grip myself has grown thin. It seems we've agreed to ignite the pyres together. My eyes fall on the twins.
Their limp necks tilt their heads to unnatural angles, inclined toward one another. The intestines spill out their torsos periwinkle, red, grey. (The sinking sun lends them a horrible luster.) Their skin is pale under the dried blood spattered brown across their faces and hands. Pityo is closer to me, and I can see his sword-arm is broken. He's still beautiful.
"Shouldn't we..." Maitimo's whisper tapers off. He tries again. "Shouldn't we at least try to close their-"
"It's too late," I silence him. They'll have to burn with their eyes open. "You know they wouldn't stay shut."
"You don't want to touch them," he observes - - he accuses.
"Do you want to?" I take out the tinder (a brittle square of scorched linen) and begin arranging flax around it so it won't stop burning. The soft yellow strands lie soothingly on my palm.
"No, but perhaps they deserve -"
"Stop stalling, Nelyo." The Silmaril at Sirion has seen him make a habit of procrastinating things that will never go away. His throat writhes as he swallows, and his gaze darts about methodically, as if he were counting the number of sticks and boards beneath our brothers.
"I'm ready," he says. "I'm only... No." His jaw hardens, and he locks his eyes with mine. "I'll remember them like this forever anyway." Ten thousand years from now he'll still know every curve of the coils of their insides, which flowers the bloodstains resemble.
"That's a heavy burden," I concede, catching the quiver in my own voice. "But I'm ready."
I hold the flint above the hand with the tinder, clutching the argent stone until my knuckles poke out from the skin. Maitimo strikes the flint and scrapes my fingers with the steel. It takes three more blows before a single orange spark falls like a king's tear onto the tinder. I blow on it, and it engulfs the tinder, begins to consume the flax in my hand.
"Drop it, Makalaure." The flame spreads white-yellow across the top of the flax; I could be holding a ball of fire.
"I-" I can't. Not on the wood, not on my brothers, not like this, not by the sea, not without the Silmaril, not in the winter, not at sundown -
"Drop it!" The flame bites my skin. "Drop it now!" I gag on a cry of pain. It's going to consume the flax and spread across my skin. My brothers are beautiful, and how they'll smell. My hand will catch on fire, and I'll wave it in the air like a shooting star. I should let it burn. "They'd want you to drop it." They wouldn't. I do.
The birch wood crackles as the flame runs along it. Maitimo and I step back as it hurries across the pyre, and after several minutes rears up into full conflagration. The heat of it blows onto our faces as if we're standing by a bellows. My father's. Though his own soul devoured him, he wouldn't have believed in pyres.
I would I were weeping. I would that my hand hurt.
"If only," murmurs Maitimo, and I can no longer hear his tears. He doesn't need to say the rest: if only this weren't the beginning of their hell. Or if only it were. But isn't ours, either.
I glance down at the stinging salmon patch on my palm as the horrible meat-smell begins to rise. I cover my nose with my good hand, and find I dropped the chalcedony on the pyre, as well. I don't care. I look at Maitimo; his cheeks are dry, blood and grime still coating them like a painted clay mask.
I would he were weeping. Then I'd think us both more alive.
The cliffs stand behind us, permanent as damnation, like pedestals for the periwinkle dusk sky. Our brothers burn before us with a nauseating stench. We stand and watch un-weeping, a pair of undead, immortal things. I feel like a fëa spurning Námo's summons, a stalactite growing down into an abyss, a tumor that always re-forms, a black hole chewing up galaxies.
"How long do you think it will take us?" I ask my brother as the fire feasts on.
"To join them?" He purses his lips. "I thought we had already."
We live in a downward spiral of smaller and smaller vortices, and one day they'll shrink me till I forget how to sing. The raw burn on my palm throbs at last. I trace the shapes of notes on it, stem by stem, dot by dot, gently, madly. The dermis tingles and stings.
The invisible composition doesn't stop; I hear it in my mind, each note played in a minor key on a double-strung harp. It's a dirge without lyrics; it weeps over me and in my place, for I must think and never sing. If I live a song, I'll get no coda, just a decrescendo. My life is a story without an end.