I sit with my remaining brother in the common room, the hearth before us lifeless. We've been back about two weeks, and my brother is staring into space, trying to dull his mind. I'm sharpening arrows, trying to busy my hands.
I miss making my own arrows, I guess. I miss the tiny wood shavings and the sandpaper against the shaft and the scent of glue like a burst of stars in my brain. The youngest of six (not seven anymore) used to have time for a hobby, but now -
We are two.
We built Tyelko and Moryo and Curvo's pyres by the riverbank, Russandol and Makalaurë and I. I burned my fingers lighting them. (I couldn't see, I was crying, it was like looking at the world through a cut diamond, all blurred colors and unnatural angles.) I burned my fingers lighting them, so even as I covered my nose to watch, I still smelled charred flesh. Russandol stalked off before they were half ash, and he's apparently frozen to death in the woods. (I'm sure that did Dior's kids oh-so-much good. it certainly didn't help me.)
But we are two now, and I have to officiate instead of notch and fletch. I sharpen arrows at night, which just isn't the same as seeing the whole process through, but I like something about the mindless repetition and the facade of productivity.
These days, Makalaurë isn't much for productivity - he's given up on facades, too - and damn it, it's started to irk me. I can't be expected to fill five pairs of boots (all very much bigger than mine) on my own - and then… and, well- there's also how-
(all these years after Losgar I'm no better at being alone.)
So, "Makalaurë," I say delicately, turning to face his chair, "the people are asking if you're well."
"They are," he answers, without inflection. His voice is like blowing on a dandelion and watching the white fuzz float off on the wind.
I sigh. Stupid of me. What was I really expecting? I've gotten nothing out of him but terse declaratives since - since he locked the doors two weeks ago.
It was the first thing he did after we got back to Amon Ereb: locked our dead brothers' bedroom doors with four little clicks like breaking bones, and with the iron key steady in his hand. Maybe he thought that would ward off decay (sealing the sepulchres air-tight), but there are no corpses rotting here, just ghosts.
Ghosts, I've discovered, don't give a damn about latches and cylinders. They slip through the cracks under doors and effuse through holes in walls. (I figure Curvo's ghost carries pins in its pocket, picks the locks, and shuts the doors behind it quick enough to stun the ravished bolts silent, and make the doors appear unmoved.)
Before the hearth we're sitting in the echo of a fifth click, a metaphorical click like my metaphorical ghosts. I sure wish I could be deaf to it.
"The people are wondering," I go on, "why their lawful lord hasn't put in an appearance at the restructure meetings." I pause, hoping. He says nothing. "I've assigned the remainder of Russandol's men to you, as well as Tyelko's command. Carnistir's men and my own have mingled enough over the years, so I've taken his troops. I've taken Curvo's death squads, too. You should thank me for that." I add the last bit with a splintered sort of laugh.
"Thank you." His tone hasn't changed.
"You should be involved." No response."The people have already begun speculating about your absence. I mentioned the leading query -"
"If I am well."
"Yes," I say, "but I didn't mention the speculation itself. When I tell them you're hale and uninjured, they smile. And they say, 'Ah, he must be composing quite the lament for our fallen.'" I let that sink in, or at least I wish it would. Then I go on.
"That's what they think of you, that you're the great minstrel in some artistic fervor, stringing notes together so all our grief sounds beautiful. That's the only plausible reason they see for their lord abandoning his responsibilities."
"I don't have the heart to tell them you haven't written a word." I purse my lips. "Or washed your hair." I scrape my flint noisily. "Or changed your clothes."
While I've been on the other side of the citadel dealing with affairs military and public (the bestowing of posthumous medals, the reordering of command, the filling of gaps in the border patrols), he has been sitting for two week with the ghosts.
"I wanted to give you some space," I say, keeping rhythm with the flint now. "It's been hell on both of us, and I know - between the weather and the Orcs, there wasn't time to process any of it on the march back. I know," I repeat, and exhale. "But, barring a second resurrection on Russandol's part, you're Lord of whatever is left of this house. The people need you. I need you."
He sits there in silence for a minute, twisting a lock of hair around his thumb.
Then he says, "So you want me to write a song."
"It would be a nice gesture-" I shrug. Pointedly. "-after all they've sacrificed for us." Here I look down and straighten my arrow's feathers. "But really," I say, "I would settle for a decent display of leadersh-" He cuts me off.
"You want me to write a damn song." His gaze pivots toward me with a spark that immediately gutters. "After all this, that's what you want-the damn bard to come out with a Goddamn serenata lacrimosa, with a few hyperbolic lyrics and a few adagio chords, and convince you all that nobody died in vain." They're angry words, but they don't sound that way when he says them, utterly without affect. They sound defeated.
But I pick up another arrow, put my flint to the head, and say conversationally, "Historically you've found music a highly effective processing mechanism."
And he says, with a phantom sneer, "Historically we've let you sit and stare at the side of a tent for three months to process. Repay the favor we all gave you after Losgar. Please."
I swallow memories of frozen ground, my father's tears, and incessant, chest-deep coughing (coughing to get the sensation of ashes out of my throat). "Psychosomatic," Carnistir had kept saying, "it's psychosomatic." He was proud of the word. It was the first time he'd gotten to use it outside a classroom.
After a moment I tell him I wouldn't describe early-stage catatonia as terribly effective at Losgar either. "But besides," I go on, "I had the luxury. Dad and the rest of you were there to handle government."
"You think we weren't grieving, too?" He runs a hand through his hair, which is so oily it barely falls back in place. "We had to lead. We gave you what you needed. Leave me alone." The request is less non-sequitur than it should be.
"Makalaurë," I say. I'm holding my flint tight, hands rigid. For the moment I'm successfully keeping myself from throwing it at him. "The trouble is, we certainly don't have the luxury of losing a lord this time. Especially not the eldest left. You've picked up Russandol's mantle before. Why can't you do what you did at Mithrim? Soldier onward?"
We shouldn't be out walking. The fumes off the mountains hang low tonight, and I've had to pull my scarf over my nose to filter the sulfur-stench. The vapors coalesce and writhe over the surface of the lake like dancing ghosts, cast red by the dim glow northward. Forget about shining stars, a smoke curtain falls on the hour of our meeting.
"It smells like Dad's workshop," says Makalaurë abruptly. He's walking between me and the lake, nose and mouth exposed.
"Does it?" I wouldn't know; I spent even less time in there than he.
"During one of the laboratory phases, I guess it was before you were born. Maybe it was the last stage between jewel smithy and forge and - " His lip curls a little bit, which I hear more than see.
"Propaganda machine?" I supply.
"Granddad and Maitimo might debate such literal phraseology," he says, almost lightly, and I do see him shrug, a shifting shadow in my peripheral vision. "But I don't know, I think it's the right idea, with the helms and the blades, and especially the shields. But then I can't have read more than two or three books on the subject, politics, you know, I-" He stops prematurely, like cutting off a loose thread before he can tug on it too long. Before he knows it, his whole cloak would unravel.
"You didn't know what was coming. We would have all read more if we had." I glance at him, and a flare of red light above the smoke shows out a faint smile, before both flash and expression fade.
He makes no reply, and we walk in silence. The two of us do this most nights, though the vapors are seldom this noisome. (we're neither of us good at being alone.)
I adjust my scarf and pull my cloak tighter around my shoulders. It may smell like a workshop out here, but there's none of the heat. Ill manage, though. Our days in Mithrim are numbered.
"I've been meaning to ask," I say, as casually as I can, ignoring the cold that settles in the pit of my stomach, "when are we going south?"
I 've been trying to get my head around withdrawing (around abandoning the war, around taking Moringotto at his word). The weather will be better, and we can bide our time on our Oath. (We certainly won't keep our word to Moringotto, whether we get Maitimo back in the bargain or not.) It'll be better. We'll wait and lick our wounds. It'll be-
"Who said we're going south?"
"You did," I say, "or rather you said nothing?" Makalaurë called no council after Moringotto's messengers left, and Curvo said that meant his mind was made up (oh, the perks of autocracy).
But now Makalaurë is shaking his head, and his lip twitches a little.
"Wait. We aren't?" I grab his arm, stopping him. "What do you mean?"
My scarf sags. My brother turns to face me, and the watchfires across the lake twinkle behind his back like so many fruits of Laurelin. (like so many bellows.) (like so many ships.) My breath catches in my throat, and sulfur fills my lungs.
"I mean we have a war on our shoulders," says Makalaurë, with a sort of equilibrium. I pull my scarf back up and wheeze into it for a moment.
"This- " I try to say, "this isn't what anyone is expecting-"
"Of me?" He pivots forward and starts walking again; I nod and fall in step. He keeps talking.
"The people really think I would abandon the Oath-and the Jewels-and Dad's memory," he says slowly, as if tasting the idea, and trying not to spit it into the silt under his boots, "all at Moringotto's word, all for the barest hope of getting Maitimo back." He pops his lips. "What the hell do they take me for?"
"You're, well-," and I don't know how to say it.
To the people he's the bard. And the bard is harp strings and handkerchiefs and decrescendos.
I don't know how to say it, so I euphemize: "The people, they've- they've heard the Noldolantë too many times."
To them, the bard is the epitome of the individual over the cause. The bard is all sentiment and no spine.
"The Noldolantë?" says my brother, and sighs. "They must be missing the point of it."
This is Mithrim, and smoke hides the stars. We finger bows, not harps. And the bard is- the bard -
"That song," he says, "isn't a dirge or a tragedy or an apology. It's a bildungsroman."
And I tug my scarf higher, for it smells like death out here.
"You call that soldiering?" The listless dandelion spores are back in his voice. "Try good acting."
"I don't see the difference." I put my flint back to the arrowhead.
My brother sits silent for a minute, clenching and unclenching his fingers in his lap, then he stands. I hear his back pop with the stretch.
"Very well," he says, a bit faintly. "I'll write a song." He turns to leave the hearthside and skulk down the hall to his own room. "And I'll wash my hair," he calls back, even softer."
"Thank you," I say, and lift another arrow as he disappears down the corridor.
Before I take the flint to the point, I hear the fifth click. He's locked himself up like the ghosts.
Makalaure barely leaves his crypt for two days, but I'm prepared to take it as a positive sign. He has a tendency to disappear when the artistic fervor seizes him. I hope for his sake it has. I'm letting him off easy, hoping a few days of creative processing might ease his transition back to the land of the living.
On the third evening, I whet ten arrows, and don't miss him much in the common room. But I suppose it's time I checked on him. I inhale, stand, and head down the hall to his room.
Braziers flicker dimly on the walls, and the doors of my dead brothers' rooms are like empty picture frames gaping out of the stone.
It's nearly spring, and the dampness of Southern Beleriand has begun to seep into the citadel. The empty halls smell so much like a cave that I want to throw up. That dank, musty limestone scent permeated the air at Menegroth like a persistent harmony, never quite absent beneath the coppery odor of blood and the battle stench. Now the cave-smell itself is the smell of death to me. Amon Ereb reeks of it.
But I still breathe deeply once I've stopped outside Makalaurë's door. I knock after a moment, but my own key is in my pocket, just in case.
I turn the knob and enter, find my brother at his desk, his back toward the door. It's a small room with a single window. A white hydrangea grows against the other side of the glass; the sunset filters through its blossoms and casts strange, runic shadows across the desk.
Makalaurë's collection of instruments sit on a shelf above the writing table. Lute, piccolo, two harps, a viol. They all look dusty.
I stand to the right of his chair and bend to examine his work. Two sheets lie to his left, completely covered in curling, staggering lines of notes. It isn't the lined paper he generally uses for compositions, and he's only drawn in a few staffs to remedy this.
There's a third sheet between his elbows, half-coated in the same fashion. I don't see any tengwar to indicate lyrics.
I ask if it's the lament.
He says he doesn't know.
I try again: "Well, what's it about then?" Everyone knows Makalaurë's music doesn't need lyrics to tell a story.
"Nothing," he says.
"'Nothing?'" I echo. "So if I started playing it, the Void would appear before us?" I reach for the viol and bow on the shelf in front of me. (It isn't his instrument of choice, but he still taught me and Ambarto, long ago.)
"No," he says, "there's nothing philosophical about it." He shakes his head. "It's just a bunch of notes strung together."
"I don't believe you," I say, then blow some dust off the body of the viol, without touching it. "You've always been Master Moral-of-the-Story. You always write with a point." I smile, but he doesn't, just sits there quietly for too many heartbeats.
"Fine," he says at last, slowly. "It's about Ungoliant, or one of her brood, or maybe just a common garden spider in the winter. Either so insatiable or so famished that she destroys herself, which doesn't resolve her problem." He twists his pen and snorts, "You know, I think it's the lament after all."
"So that's what you think of them?" I ask, meaning all our dead. "A bunch of conniving spiders that couldn't help but commit suicide?"
"'Couldn't help' is a bit strong," he says. "It's closer to 'realized-the-consequences-too-late.'"
"Of... eating yourself?"
"Of destroying yourself, and everything you have, and everything you once stood for, to no purpose at all." His voice and his grip on the pen both tighten at once.
Really? I can't dignify those kind of histrionics. Merited or not, the despair doesn't help.
"That's… probably not going to leave the best impression on the people," I say.
"It isn't for them."
"Not for them?"
"Look," says Makalaurë, and drums his fingers briefly on the wood (a salvo of taps, then stillness). "I tried to write about them. Some kind of soothing, elegiac ode. I can't do it. It always comes back to us, the six of us and this web we've spun and gotten stuck in."
"They're every bit as doomed as we are." Námo minced no words about that.
"They don't have Everlasting Darkness hanging over their heads."
I can't argue that point, and I refuse to follow this thread of thought out into the shadows, where it ends and the ghosts gnaw at it.
So I try to answer lightly, "Look, there's nothing wrong with writing about-" I swallow. "-the four of them. It's good for the people to remember their lords, and it's good for them to remember we're grieving too, just - lay off the symbolism and the doom. And the anthropomorphism in general, if you can help it.
"Memorialize the good. Write about oh, I don't know, a very literal conversation with something that eats spiders, if you have to include them. Tyelko would have appreciated a verse about that, I'm sure."
"Yeah," says Makalaurë, "he would have." His lips twitch upward, just a bit.
"But watch out in your verse about Moryo. No excessive gushing."
"No," Makalaurë agrees, "he'd be so embarrassed."
We both fall silent, so I walk over and open the window, loosening a few hydrangea petals. They fall into the room as I pull the panes. A warm breeze blows in, a southwesterly wind up Sirion from the Sea. (I know the smell.)
"So are you ever going to finish it?" I ask him, returning to the desk.
"Are you going to ride out hunting soon?"
I can't tell if he's teasing (hobby for hobby, slim chance and none), but I laugh anyway. "Are you trying to get me to say 'no,' just so you can stick your nose in the air and say, 'Neither will I keep writing'?"
"Actually," he says, and his voice is quiet but stiff, "I was going to ask if I could accompany you."
"You would?" I can't dilute the incredulity in my voice, but - But maybe half his gloom really is theatrics. Maybe this is working, and he's getting better.
"Stimulates the muse," he replies, shrugging.
"All- all right," I manage. A litany of objections stampedes through my brain: too much to do, you have to finalize the sentinel rotations, you have to brief the rest of the newly promoted captains, you have to take stock of the armory, you have to -
But here is Makalaurë, and his pen is twirling, and he's written real music notes, even if I'm too rusty to know whether the composition is any good, and even if there are no staves behind them anyway. Here is Makalaurë, and his lips keep twitching upward. Just a bit.
So I say again, "All right," more certain this time.
The undergrowth devours the sunlight, absorbing the thin white shafts that part the elm leaves overhead. Midafternoon near the eaves of Ossiriand means tremulous green shadows and the muffled chitchat of our men behind.
Gelion is still a few leagues out, and we purposed to ride that far, to the previous extent of - not our borders, for there's never been such a thing, but to the old edges of the patrols.
Ostensibly, the reason for the excursion is to determine optimal locations for new outposts. (in reality I'm attempting to lure Makalaurë back to war-lordship with an oh-so stimulating wilderness ride.) The sunshine is good for the both of us.
"As discussed at the first council," Eredmir, Russandol's sort-of regent, is saying, "we were forced to withdraw from all outposts shortly after midwinter. We weren't anticipating such a blizzard this far south, and then as soon as the snow had begun to melt, the Orc raids started." He swallows, and the next words come out thinly: "We were- hilariously outmanned."
Hilarious. His son took an arrow to the throat in Menegroth. Of course he wishes we'd left more troops behind.
"After we had withdrawn from the garrisons, I-" (Garrisons, he says, but he means little more than guard cabins. Sometimes he still thinks he's at Himring, turning the gears of an impenetrable machine.) "-started sending out patrol squadrons at intervals, running as far west along Andram and east toward Gelion as they can in a day's time."
"So," says Makalaurë, "no permanent positions at all any longer?" Oh, good. At least he seems to be recalling that this briefing is largely for his benefit.
"Yes, my lord." The man sounds a bit weary, and he slows his mount even further. Our party was going at a steady gallop across the plains, but now the maze of roots has forced us to slow to a walk. "No permanent positions, nor any assignments longer than twelve hours. All squadrons report immediately back to Ereb at the end of their rotations."
"And it seems," I'm compelled to add, "that the shorter range provided pitifully little advance notice of the raids." My brother is quiet for a minute.
"What about the Laiquendi?" he says at last. "Haven't they still been informing us?"
"My. Lord." Eredmir bites off the words. "This is the edge of Lindon," he says, "the land of music. What do you hear?"
The woods are silent. I should have been expecting it-they told me how our last allies had fled-but I haven't stopped to noticeit. Until now. I hear nothing.
No eerie soprano choruses like breaking glass vases, no chords from harps strung with hair. Not even the throb of a wardrum. Between ephemeral snatches of birdsong and the slow, incessant shuffle of the mounts' hooves over desiccated leaves, is strung a sort of maddening tinnitus, as if in the soil and the lichen and the musty air hangs an echo of Song.
"The Laiquendi withdrew their tactical support and then their presence," says the steward, pursing his lips, "around midwinter."
"Hm." Makalaurë makes the sound, so I look back at him. He's compulsively working his fingers through his mount's grey mane. A green shadow, like there are in the woods, covers half his face. "Who'd keep a partnership with Kinslayers?" says my brother Canafinwë, whose voice is like the Sea.
And some of the chitchat behind falters. Damn it. Damn him.
"Not so loud," I hiss at him. "Not with that word."
"What word?" He looks up from the tangle he's made of the mane. "KINSLAYER?"
"Shut the hell up." I'm still hissing. (there's no better word for it.) "We're not using that word currently." I ignore Eredmir's snort.
"Oh?" says Makalaurë.
"It's a slur," I tell him, jerking my head back towards the men. "It's terribly demoralizing."
"It's the truth."
"Hence why it's demoralizing."
I'm not about to wait for a reply - we can't have this argument, not here, not now, and if he's spontaneously acquired such an active moral compass that he can't understand how desperately we need these men, it's going to be a lengthy argument, and a violent - so I spur my mount ahead.
Our company plods forward in relative quiet for about an hour longer. Splintered green light stripes the dead leaves beneath the horses' hooves, and the sharp, somehow green scent of the fresh leaves gives the air a wild sort of edge, like it'll have in a few months when a thunderstorm is brewing. (I inhale, and it's better than arrow-glue.) It's spring, and somehow I've hardly been outside. It's spring, and it's - the end of fox-hunting season.
My brother Tyelkormo would occasionally come south about this time, before the Bragollach, before the Nirnaeth, and before the world started to end. We'd take our men and our mead and our spears on the chase. Our falcons would wheel over our heads, and our hounds would circle the horses or run straight ahead, wailing.
Tyelkormo would take pieces of the kill to the kennels and the falconry to feed them afterward (for roast fox is abhorrent). "They deserve it," he'd say, and clap my shoulder. "They worked harder than I did."
"Positive reinforcement, right?" he'd say, as if he needed an excuse to line his arms with falcons or roughhouse with the dogs. And he named them, every one.
I didn't understand; I let him feed my beasts. They were just tools to me, like my bow and spear.
But today I have no more beasts, and today we're on no leisurely excursion. Progress is slow, and the daylight is waning.
My mount has fallen into step between Eredmir's and Makalaurë's, so I ask the steward, "We won't make Gelion before nightfall, will we?" Eredmir keeps his gaze fixed ahead.
"I doubt it," he replies. "Would you prefer we turn back sooner?"
I tell him it's up to him and kick my mount to a stop, holding up a hand to halt the men behind. "You know the conditions out here," I say. "Will we be safe returning in the small hours of the morning?"
"Most likely, with this large a group," he says. "However, I'm loath to risk lives these days. There's a terrible shortage of them."
I don't rise to the bait, instead nodding my permission to give the order. Makalaurë just sighs, soft yet defiant, like a true grandson of Fíriel.
We turn the horses, and my brother, the steward, and myself soon emerge at the van of the company again. The horses foot their way out of the forest, around the trailing roots and fallen limbs, through a seamless carpet of russet leaves.
Once out of the woods, our company is riding unsheltered into the sunset. Andram spreads out west behind Amon Ereb, distant green lumps in the red light like bleeding, toothless gums.
Makalaurë tangles the mane in silence for a while, but his fingers freeze when Eredmir falls behind us and into conversation with one of the captains. He nudges his mount closer to mine, so we're riding almost shin to shin.
"Do you know his name?" he whispers, leaning toward me. I blink.
"Eredmir's son," he says, "what was his name? I'm going to put in a canto about him."
"I already gave him a medal-you ought to make someone else's son a hero," I say, and spur the animal. My brother keeps pace with me.
"All the same," he answers, voice still low, "I'd like to include him. What was his name?"
"I don't know." I purse my lips. "I saw him die, I knew his face, I told the liaison to the medal craftsman it was for Lord Eredmir's son. I think Tyelkormo knew, I saw them speaking a few times." For Tyelkormo wrestled the hounds and fed the falcons out of his hand. And named them. (I've never named my tools before. It's turning out to be a hard skill to learn.)
"Well, Tyelkormo's not he-" Makalaurë starts, but the sentence fizzles out half-said. He shakes his head, mutters dammit, then looks up again. "He was young, wasn't he?"
"He looked it," I say. "Is that tragic enough to sing of?"
"Better material than the Lay of the Six Spiders."
I smile a little. He's starting to understand, and I've warmed up to the idea of a song. A little propaganda never hurt anyone.
Especially not when I'm terrible at this.
"Were there pyres built to honor all those slain," Eredmir says, and his lips are quivering, though his chin is high, "or only for your brothers?"
"We had neither the time nor resources to do so." I dig a fingernail into the wood and trace a jagged line through the cedar. "The rest of the men were communally interred."
"Communally interred?" he replies, and his lips go steady. "Mass graves?
Mass graves? After all they'd done for you- all they'd sacrificed, and you tossed their broken hröar into a pit and shoveled dirt over it fast enough to forget the debt you owe them."
"My lord," I start, "this is wartime. There's noth-" He doesn't hear me.
"Mass graves!" He smacks the table hard, and jars the flower vase at the opposite end. "And my boy rotting in the mud by that damned river of sorcery."
Heat rises in my face, and I probably look like some strange scarlet cast of my brother Carnistir, skin matching my hair. There's nothing shameful in a group burial after a battle. I know that, and Eredmir should, too.
But - what difference does it make? His son is dead, and my brothers are dead. They're all dead and it ' about the corpses. But I swallow the fury.
"What could we have done?" I say with icicle finesse. "It was the most dignified option, given the circumstances. Individual pyres - or one great one - would have burned the forest down, and for a thousand individual graves we'd still be there digging."
"A thousand?" he retorts, apparently distracted. "A thousand? You lost a thousand men?"
"I don't know the exact figure - "
He interrupts: "You don't?" He takes a vitriolic tone, barely contained. "Of course you don't. You didn't take the trouble to have someone count, just tossed them in like the carcasses of beasts."
"My apologies for the oversight." I lace my fingers together. "I was burning three of my brothers, and trying to keep one - your liegelord - from wandering off after phantoms. Forgive me a bit of indisposition."
He just shakes his head. "Shame on you."
"It was better than the Nirnaeth," I press on, "and you should be grateful that we didn't leave them in the caves with the Sindarin corpses, or pile them in heaps and burn them like Orcs."
"Like Orcs?" he cries. "Like Orcs? How dare you make the comparison when they died as martyrs for you and your souls. They died for your curse and your father's ghost, and you couldn't spare a moment to distinguish them! You despicable, ungrateful-"
"We are all accursed," I say, no euphemisms and no rage. "My father forced no one to march under his banner. We were all damned together."
"No," he says, "no," and tears are streaming down his face now, catching in the scars along his cheekbones. He stands, chairlegs screeching as he shoves backward. "You are the damned ones. And I daresay you've earned it."
We're both silent for a moment, then he clears his throat and bows his head briefly.
"I apologize, my lord," he says. "That was entirely inappropriate."
"May I have leave, before I return to my duties, to inform my wife of this matter?"
"Of course." I've folded my hands in my lap, and I peer up at him like a child who couldn't stand tall if he tried, or a king who can't be bothered to.
"Thank you, Lord Amras."
I nod my reply, and he turns halfway toward the door. But I shouldn't let him go like this. This wrathful. I need him.
"And Lord Eredmir?"
He stops, whirls back around. "My lord?"
"I'm unsure how to say this, but-" And I attempt an indulgent smile. "Your dedication and leadership in our absence were much appreciated."
"What other choice," he replies, with an awful simper like a choking vine, "do I have?"
It's dark by the time we get back to Ereb.
I still dream of smoke, and tonight is no different. I'm back at Menegroth, and somebody's burning something. Lamps flicker in alcoves on either side of the tunnel I'm in, and there's blood smeared on the stone under my boots, quickly being obscured by the smoke pouring into the passage. It swirls around my feet, before my eyes, through my pursed lips and between my clenched teeth.
I've got to yell at my men, tell them to turn around and head back toward the throne room. Maybe we'll get there in time to put an arrow through Dior's skull lookatmeI'mprescient.
I've got to yell. I want to yell something, like - who lit a fire in here this place is made of stone we can't burn it down or blow it up we don't have the rightchemicalsRussandolwouldn'tletCurvobringthem - I can't hold my breath forever -
The smoke's coming faster now. I don't know from which direction; it's like being caught in a blizzard. I can make out nothing of my men besides the glint of a vambrace here and there and my brothers are dead somewhere it's like being completelyaloneI'mnogoodatthat - I can't hold my breath forev-
I wake up coughing, blinking at the stone ceiling of my bedroom while my diaphragm clenches. I prop myself up with one elbow and wheeze into the other.
"Psychosomatic," says a ghost, from somewhere inside my head. "It's psychosomatic."
"Whatever," I murmur as I catch my breath and lay flat again, twisting my wrists to splay my hands against the mattress.
God above, I'd like to make some arrows. (god above, I'd like the glue scent.) As it is, though, I just breathe the damp smell of Ereb-gently, deeply, deliberately-until I fall back to sleep.
The next morning I'm up with the sun. They started preliminary work on the armory inventory in our - in my absence yesterday, and I'm to be advised on the progress before eight o'clock.
Maybe- maybe if the stock of arrows is low enough, and Makalaurë comes around, I'll be able to commission myself as a fletcher. It would do me good. But I've let myself start hoping-too early. These things take time.
I run a hand over my braid as I step out of the corridor and into the common room. My brother is pacing in front of the hearth. And he's humming.
I stop. So does he, for a moment. Then he steps toward me almost delicately, like I'm a ghost that might vanish if startled.
"Ambarussa," he whispers, "will you unlock them with me?" Now I notice he's fingering the iron key.
I tell him yes. (what other choice do I have?)
I half-expect a stench as I open the door to Carnistir's one-time room. But of course there's no whiff of mausoleum, no spiders scurrying toward the light-just dust particles caught in the morning sun. He left his curtains open before he left. The sunlight also catches in their embroidery.
"Has it always been like this?" says Makalaurë.
His eyes roam across the husks of finery that constitute Carnistir's decorating style: fraying tapestries laced with gold and silver arabesques, the faded bedspread, the rug with a map of the constellations.
The rug's unraveling along one edge, as Carnistir had to cut off Wilwarin, the Butterfly, to fit the carpet in this room. The Valacirca is squarely positioned under the bed (as if that will keep the Powers' Scythe from hanging over our heads).
"He brought it all with him after the Bragollach," I tell Makalaurë. "I don't know how he managed it when he was supposed to be fleeing, but you know, he likes-" I purse my lips. "-he liked this kind of stuff, so I guess he didn't want it to burn."
"Well, now it gets to rot." Makalaurë rounds the bed and peers out the window, which faces north. This high on the hilltop, Region's hollies are just barely visible, a dark blur on the horizon.
"I'd say we could make use of it," I say, "you know, give it to some of the people who might need it, if it weren't so…" I gesture eloquently at the musty decor, with all its tattered edges.
"Pathetic?" suggests Makalaurë. I nod once, sharply.
My brother pauses for a moment, then murmurs with a tint of a smile, "What would Dad say?" He shakes his head and turns toward me. "His endless succession of princes over half dead, our armies disgruntled refugees, no finery, no jewels, lords of a little realm between a few empty forests. And all for him."
Makalaurë is barefoot, curling his toes around the carpet's indigo loops. He's standing on Menelmacar; the white clusters of threads that are the Warrior's stars encircle his feet. "He'd scoff."
"Would he, though?" I say, stepping closer to Makalaurë. "He'd have to give us credit-with the possible exception of Turukáno, we're the last ones standing."
"We're on our knees."
He isn't wrong. I glance down and find myself amid the Remmirath, Varda's net spread under my feet. I step over it and toward the window.
"So do we fall on our swords?" I say.
Down the slopes of the hill, our men are conducting exercises, mottled armor still glinting like a dragon's hoard in the light. Further up, toward the eaves of the citadel, a few children fly a kite. If we've got these people, we've got an army, and a fighting chance at keeping our Oath.
Maybe it isn't fair to them, maybe I ought to tell them to run or rebel, but this is Beleriand, and everyone's going to die under someone's banner. Might as well be ours.
"'Fall on our swords,'" Makalaurë repeats, a bit absently. Then he sighs, and his lip twitches upward. "I suppose not yet."
Technically it's Russandol's study-cell-office thing that Makalaurë and I are crammed into, knees almost bumping under the desk. It doesn't feel like Russandol, though (if anything could after half of him got pulverized by Balrogs); it's about as starkly decorated as his bedroom. At least there are no painful mementos to face, nor was there anything to clean out when I occupied it. Despite the emptiness, however, there's still not quite enough room for two.
My brother sits across from me, as diagonally as possible, his back to the door. He's hunched over a sheet of paper with real staves on it this time, and his pen moves, not exactly in a flurry, but with a steady, ceaseless rhythm like a minuet in Aman.
I've finished some armor commissions (a hundred shields, unblazoned, for everybody-knows-who-we-are, not to mention how my treasury is an elaborate fiction, meaning I can't afford frills), and fumble for a place to let the sheet dry, meticulously shifting my pile of blank paper so as not to bump his hand - and I do.
"Sorry." I cringe a little, to my own revulsion. But no, it makes sense to tread delicately- I'd like him to stay here, even if he's just writing his song and conspicuously not being of immediate use. So I apologize again.
"What. Oh. You're fine." He looks up, chuckles through his nose, and shakes his head. "I don't know how Maitimo ever got comfortable at this tiny thing."
"Well, I suppose there's enough legroom length-wise." It's a tall-ish desk, just not terribly broad, elm wood, shot with coffee-colored whorls. Accidental ink dots speckle the surface.
Makalaurë kind of bobbles his head in response, pen hovering over the page before it falls back into rhythm. Before he falls back into his artist's trance and leaves me alone out here in the universe that is.
"So," I say quickly - he looks up. I've caught him. "Written anything about him yet, about Russandol?"
"Yeah." His lips quirk. "Some lies."
"Good man," I tell him, more severely than I mean to. "Such as?"
"Well, I mean…" He twirls his pen in cartwheels over his fingers. "Not necessarily lies, more like legends… tall tales… alternate endings." He pauses.
He's quiet for a moment, glancing back and forth between my face and his draft, like he's trying to decide if he's reached his daily quota for conversation. He chooses me.
"Do you think he found them?"
"Found what?" For some reason my brain jumps to Silmarils in Angband, long ago, and why the hell would Makalaurë be asking a stupid question like -
"Dior's kids," he says. "Do you think found them before he - or they - well - before the snows set in?"
Oh. Of all the absurd things that could preoccupy him.
"I don't know," I reply. "Probably not. It's a damn big forest." I give him a peevish sigh. "Does it matter?"
"I wrote it."
"Wrote it?" I echo.
"I fancied I ought to contrive some kind of redemptive note in this thing. The people need more than a cut-and-dry lamentation," he says. "They need something to cling to. So I thought, what if Maitimo did find them? The blizzard came, but what if - what if he kept them warm till all their last breaths? And the snow covered everything."
Ugh. But my brother is a genius.
"That, um, that - " I grope for words. "That is grossly sentimental."
"I mean, this song has to have at least one legitimately noble death in it. All despair, and no one hearing it will - "
"No, no no," I interrupt, smiling despite myself. "I'm not being critical. It's perfect, even if it's mush. The people will lap it up. You're brilliant," I add, and squeeze his arm.
He looks down at my hand like some dying animal has crawled onto him, trailing blood. It's a look somewhere between pity and revulsion, which contorts his lips downward and softens his eyes.
"There's no reason it can't be true, you know," he says.
"You just called it a tall tale."
"It's hardly an improbable one-" He spreads an almost protective hand over his manuscript. "-and wouldn't you sleep better if you believed-"
"Region," I tell him, dipping my pen, "is too big a forest."
He finishes it. Of course he does. He gives his first public performance in decades in the Great Hall. I sit in the front row, with Eredmir and his wife in her black dress. (The event was going to be outside, but it's raining. It's Southern Beleriand after all, where everything is damp.) (at least we had a back-up plan.)
It's a bit gauche, honestly. Makalaurë's at the front of the crowd with extra lamps around him, on stage like a common entertainer. Maybe I was a fool to exploit this aspect of his public image: He's these people's lord, not their court jester.
I'm beginning to squirm in my chair-and not just because my spine is digging into the wooden back-when his fingers strike the harp strings, and everything fades.
I think I'm drowning.
His voice is beautiful, and somehow I've forgotten that, and he starts in Tirion, in the dark, with our father's voice calling down justice amid the flaring lamps. He skips the blood at Alqualondë and - thank God - the smoke at Losgar. The shipwrecks get a stanza squished between them: lightning, thunder; and pale, bloated bodies floating under the swan-prows.
Then our father's dying, and the Enemy's vapors smother stars. I'm there, and I'm swearing again. In the background, in the very fibers of the moment, I hear Makalaurë singing something about how the mighty King Fëanáro shook his fist at Thangorodrim, but I'm here, and just see Dad's shriveled, charred hands clutching at the cloak I threw over him.
Makalaurë's voice throbs through me like a river underground.
I'm at battles I never won (never fought in). My brothers' banners make my heart leap, though I never had flags of my own. Then the Nirnaeth is an act of desperation, not delusion. It passes in a minor key, in stripes-not mires-of blood. It isn't a rout - I'm just worried for my men.
Then the Silmaril burns in Doriath, and though it's just Makalaurë singing, I hear drums and trumpets, and am there. (I'm here, though, and the attack is as stealthy as possible, launched in the dark.) Then there are viols in my brain, and everyone dies to the sound of them.
Eredmir's son is Seregon, after the flower; the strings weep a solo for him. I get dirt under my fingernails after it's all over, and seregon will grow on the mound (somehow, if sunlight hits the clearing and seregon by some enchantment decides to grow in a deciduous climate - but it will).
My brothers burn like a sacrifice to a nameless and insatiable god. I smell smoke, and do not think of spiders. Russandol learns of Dior's boys, and when he stalks off with his guards in tow he isn't abandoning me in some fool's attempt at making amends. He's off on a quest that will redeem him and me and our brothers before us and all our martyrs and all their survivors. One noble act of charity, and all our ledgers are wiped clean.
It takes three cantos, and ends in harp notes, soft and slow, one for each snowflake as it covers my brother and the children in his arms.
The music ceases, and I emerge from dark waters, gasping. I haven't drowned, but my face is wet. I blink for a moment, till the world loses its cut-diamond filter, and a glance around the room reveals hundreds of teary faces. Eredmir's wife has her arms around her husband, who is bowed in his chair, shoulders trembling, face almost to his knees.
Gradually, like a thunderstorm being blown in or hot magma finally appearing in the smoke over a volcano, then trickling down the cone, applause surges up amid the sounds of weeping.
There is Makalaurë, with his head bowed before the crowd, clutching his harp to his chest, lip twitching, just a little. I wipe my face and resist the urge to run up and kiss him. It worked. This worked. If the applause and the tears are any evidence, it worked. We have them. These people remain ours..
He's just lifted his head and begun walking toward me, applause still reverberating through the hall like a hurricane in a tank, when I feel a hand on my shoulder.
A voice like glass says, "My Lord Amras?" in my ear. I turn, and it's one of the captains. God, what's her name? Ereniel? No, no, it's Dae - something. Come on, what's her name?
Whatever. We have them. It doesn't matter anymore.
"Yes, Captain?" I say. Her hands are shaking, eyes are shining? Like she's happy about something, but there's no way a sentinel on duty would disturb me for good news. (there isn't any good news left this side of the Doors of Night.)
"My lord, I have urgent news from the guards at the gate. I'll tell you plainly, Lord Amras." She swallows, inhales. "Lord Maedhros has returned."
I've grabbed Makalaurë and rushed downstairs, leaving the crying heap that is Eredmir, along with the echoes of applause. The iron braziers here in the entrance hall burn on their stands, and here amid them stands my brother. The other one. The one whom Makalaurë and I should apparently stop presuming dead, ever.
"Russandol." I murmur it like a spell, like a secret word Ulfang's men would use in their heathen rites: with gravity, with humility, with trembling lips.
Russandol just nods. "Apologies for the delay," he says, hollowly. "We… tried."
He has four men behind him, and waves them off with a word of dismissal; I think he took twelve in his search party. He looks haggard and famished, even for him. He's lost his prosthetic. I don't ask. He keeps clenching and unclenching his flesh hand, making all the delicate bones stand out like leaf veins. He has four men with him.
And no children.
"So you failed." It's Makalaurë's voice from beside me, and it sounds tremulous and watery.
"As I frequently remind myself, Makalaurë," says Russandol with a wry sort of grimace. "Don't I get a 'welcome home'?"
"Yes, yes," I find myself answering, even as I steeple my fingers over my nose and mouth and drop them again, still shocked. "God, yes." I embrace him briefly, working my fingers into his ratty cloak. He smells like grass and perspiration; his clothes are still damp from the rains earlier today.
I step back, shaking, ready to cry for the second time tonight, this time out of relief. I'm not alone anymore. Russandol's back, and though he won't lead us to glory, he at least knows what the hell he's doing. And the people like him.
"We've-" I stammer, "we've missed you so much."
"We, ah, we have," says Makalaurë, then begins to recover himself. Maybe. "I just… I wrote you the loveliest dirge."
He says it without levity, almost defensively, but Russandol throws back his head and laughs. I join in vacantly, in a sort of falsetto. Makalaurë manages a simper, though there's something like confusion in his eyes.
"I might have known," says Russandol at last, still smirking a bit. "Save it, why don't you. You'll need it sooner or later."
He claps Makalaurë on the shoulder, then shoves between us to leave the hall. We're by ourselves in silence for a moment.
"At least his room's unlocked," Makalaurë says tepidly.
"Yeah," I say, "at least it's unlocked for him."
After another moment I offer: "I guess this takes the pressure off us. I'm glad he's back." Makalaurë's still holding his harp, I notice. He absently plucks a string.
"He doesn't seem too glad about it," says Makalaurë.
"Well, would you be?"
A stiff breeze rushes in through one of the hall's open windows, heavy with the scent of rain. The wind hits the iron braziers, and the two in line with the window flare up quickly, flames curling like talons. Then they go out, dispersing smoke.
As the smoke wafts toward me, I start coughing, for it smells like death in here.