"We're trapped in twilight
While the gods will drowse."
After: it rains, and Caranthir isn't surprised. A little meteorological venting must be the best the Valar have got.
Thunder crackles somewhere over Anfauglith, and the wind presses the walls of the tent convex around him and Maglor. It shrinks the private medical tent's already diminutive area, forcing him to all but crouch over the bedroll where Maglor lies, gasping arrhythmically. Blood has begun to soak back through the bandage on his left side.
Caranthir tilts his head back against the waterlogged canvas. He sighs. Scouring the camp for a healer to change the gauze is a singularly dismal prospect, given Manwë and Ulmo's apparent pathetic fallacy fetish - oh sorry, he means the blessing of the rain and its (false) Promise of New Life and the lightning representing the gods' Great (impotent) Ire. He'd say as much to Maglor, but he knows his brother is in no state to rail against portents of Doom.
Or maybe he is, seeing as:
"Have you-" Maglor pauses for breath, an awful grating sound, like a dozen Naugrim all sharpening their axes on the same poor stone. "Have- " He starts over, shutting his eyes and visibly swallowing. "Have you heard-" More rasping.
Oh, for God's sake. Caranthir cuts him off.
"Have I heard from the others? No. No, I haven't." He'd almost forgotten about the uncertain - no, okay, fine - the terrified knot in the pit of his stomach.
"So-" A single wet cough, then Maglor forges ahead:"-nothing about how Maitimo's do-"
"Nothing since his passwords in the order to retreat."
In the silent beat that follows, Caranthir knows they're both thinking of the conflagration on the western front- the circle of Balrogs and the whispered news: the King is dead.
Maybe that's half the reason for the rain. Findekáno was a special favorite of Theirs. Funny how the rain won't bring him back.
Caranthir doesn't say this, starts instead, and Maglor does too: "I'm sure he's-
-fine." Caranthir, dolefully.
-fallen apart." Maglor, petulantly. The words linger in the air between them, as if slowly dissolving into the humidity.
"'Fine?'" The attempted sharpness cracks Maglor's voice.
"You know how he does his mask," Caranthir explains.
"That's what I'm-" Maglor inhales. "-afraid of."
"Sounds more like you're angry about it."
"I'm just saying- what if he- ordered us to retreat- and then - just -"
"Didn't," says Caranthir, when his brother falls to wheezing. "Didn't retreat himself. I see what you mean." As Maglor hasn't caught his breath, he goes on. "I don't see why you're so offended by it, I mean of course, I see-" It isn't like this hasn't crossed his mind (hence the knot in his stomach). "- but I wouldn't exactly blame him."
"Good-" Maglor says, "-good- to know- some- one-"
"Look, do you want some water?"
Caranthir's already reaching for the bottle the healers refilled and left on the floor between them. He takes the tattered breathing Maglor offers in reply as a yes, and props him up with one arm, bringing the bottle to his brother's lips with the other. As he raises the vessel, Maglor futilely curls his shaking fingers over Caranthir's, a veneer of independence. Caranthir rolls his eyes, lets Maglor drink a while, then lowers him back into the blankets.
"Good to know someone endorses Maitimo's self-destructive tendencies," Maglor finishes at last, venomously. His voice is still haggard (as voices go), but at least he can manage a complete sentence.
"Well, from his perspective this whole fiasco is his fault," Caranthir says, re-corking the water bottle. (He wasn't expecting a thank-you.)
"His fault?" says Maglor. "His fault? For having a little hope?"
"For being a little delusional. There was never any way this was going to work." Caranthir leans his head against the side of the tent again. He likes the pressure of the rain against his scalp.
"Really?" Maglor somehow manages a snort - or maybe he's just running out of breath again. "Maitimo's plan seemed perfectly reasonable until someone's supposedly domesticated Easterlings decided to make an attempt on someone's life."
Right. That. Four brief shouts of command in the Easterling language Caranthir had never bothered to learn, four ugly shouts over the horrible percussion of battle - and Caranthir, puzzled, for Ulfang's sons could issue no orders without his own express authorization - and turning around in time to see Uldor running at him, but not in time to stop him. Fortunately, Maglor was faster.
"I never thought I'd see the day I'd be telling you you're too trusting," Maglor continues, turning his head toward Caranthir. His eyes are shocky, dilated. Caranthir wonders if it's an effect of the painkillers or the pain itself. "Softness doesn't suit you, dear," he sneers.
Caranthir flushes, gnawing his lip. He's a wounded man, he's a wounded man, keeps cascading through his brain. Caranthir can't be sure if it's the pain or the painkillers talking. Soft.
He swallows, says, "I wasn't soft; I was desperate." He enunciates every syllable like painting a fresco, flourishes jutting out every which way with a certain graceful sharpness. "And Maitimo was, too. I don't know why we thought that if we just-"
"Yes yes," Maglor interrupts, "Nelyo's vetting procedures also leave something to be desired."
"Vetting?" Caranthir repeats. He can feel his heartbeat in his fists. "You think this is about VETTING?"
"Not entirely, but- "
This is stupid. This is stupid. He's a wounded man, but he doesn't get it. He doesn't get that this rain is laced with a message. He doesn't get that the lightning's scrawling something across the sky, and it doesn't matter whether it's 'we don't care' or 'we can't help' because the end result is the same. (The end result is a zero sum.)
"No. No! This isn't about vetting, this isn't about if only we'd have done x, this is about us, and one last experiment to see if maybe, just maybe, if we pulled our weight in this war, the Gods would pull theirs. And guess what? They didn't. They just... didn't, and now what are we supposed to do?"
He wants to stand and pace, but the tent's too small, so he sits here, shouting, with his hands clenched.
"I want to know what they think we're supposed to do! Just go ahead and make a suicide pact? Or just kill each other now and keep our dignity? Or keep running south till he lights the whole damn continent up in another Bragollach? We don't deserve this, we never-"
He pauses, inhales, and Maglor hmphs. "Oh, stop making excuses."
"I'm making excuses? You're the one who's always singing those stupid tragic songs, Makalaurë; you know what happened today."
"I just think it may not have had to happen exactly that way." The bandage moves up and down where the blanket doesn't quite cover it, a weight on Maglor's breathing.
"You're saying you don't believe a word you sing."
"I'm saying," answers Maglor, with effort, "that there's a reason I called it the Noldolantë, not 'The Valar Hate Us.' You just can't stand the guil-" He doesn't finish, for he starts coughing, curling in on his wound.
It's an awful gurgling sound that reminds Caranthir appallingly of the great slimy tentacled things that dwelt in the grottos under Helevorn, or at least how the black water bubbled as they approached your boat. A spatter of blood leaves Maglor's lips, coats the hem of the blanket over him.
Are you serious? Caranthir thinks. Are you serious? He could go get a healer. He could go wander in the rain while Maglor chokes on his own blood and spit, only to pull some healer away from a dying man who could be saved, and bring the healer back here, all to get out of doing this:
He lifts Maglor into a sitting position again, uncomfortably, and this time moves behind him to steady him, wrapping his arms around his brother's chest. He holds him, Maglor's shoulders trembling against Caranthir's mithril mail shirt, until the fit subsides, upon which Caranthir gives him another drink and wipes the blood off his lips and chin.
This is pitiful, Caranthir thinks, looking down at the dribble of blood on the blankets, on Maglor's exposed arms, feeling the squish of the sodden bandage against the hardness of Maglor's ribs. This is pitiful.
And it is also - it's - well - he's sorry. That Maglor got run through. But the rain is loud, and it's doing nothing. Caranthir's still breathing hard. He isn't the only one who could have stopped this. All of this.
But he'll say what he can: "I should have gotten you some mail like mine, except-" He stops himself before the rest tumbles out: except it wouldn't have been much use against a Dwarvish blade like the one I gave Uldor anyway.
I gave Uldor. Right. That.
It had been horrible seeing the sword hanging out of Maglor's abdomen, even as Uldor fell. It had been a dying blow kind of thing, one last jab at the victorious opponent.
All he could see was Ulfang and his sons, kneeling before him in Thargelion, fingers on the hilts of their clean and naked swords, swearing an oath of fealty that of course included something about the Everlasting Darkness (it was only fair).
How strange, he had thought, as Uldor's body hit the sand, not to be afraid.
He hadn't felt a sudden cold chill, hadn't seen the Sun dim like the fingers of the Void were uncurling from behind it, reaching out to capture a new soul. It was just that the battle was hot and bright and loud, and the Man's vacant black eyes were so still.
He knew before the order to retreat ever came that it was over: the battle, the alliance, Maedhros' meteor-bright castle in the air. The Oath too.
Two of the Silmarils were on the other side of this desert, and this desert, he saw, would only spread to cover all of Endor. Someday he would die, crawling across the grey sand toward the Jewels Silmarils anyway, crawling right through the Doors of Night and into the Void. (It was over.)
The battle went on. Caranthir removed the sword, put pressure on the wound, and got Maglor to relative safety. The great beyond retreated back into the theoretical where it belongs.
Now in the tent, with Maglor wheezing against him, in the crooked shadows of the two lamps on the floor, amid the storm outside, Caranthir finds eternity leaking back into reality with the memory and the merciless rain. It's tiresome. (And he's too tired for it.)
"You're filthy," Maglor says, weakly, ignoring the chain mail remark. Oh. I'm still holding him. Maglor's looking at Caranthir's arms.
There it goes: the last thing he's been hitherto successfully ignoring. His hands and forearms are crusted in grit and blood (red, dried to brownish; black, dried to greenish). It feels like they've been dipped in plaster, like in his mother's workshop long ago.
"Mom, it's all over me."
She laughed. "It's part of the job, dear."
He rushed over to her washbasin and scrubbed the skin red.
Now he can't decide if he'd rather scrape the skin off with a knife, or step out of it like a chrysalis. Or maybe he'll stay in it forever, and get swept out in the autumn with all the other unhatched cocoons.
"You should clean that off," Maglor says as Caranthir lowers him.
He's right, of course, but -
"I can't very well use your water, and by the time I find a basin somewhere in this camp, the rain will have done the job."
"Nasty storm," Maglor says, staring straight up.
"Tell me about it."
Maglor says nothing, and they sit in silence. Caranthir picks idly at the crust on his arms, and doesn't think about time. Not much of the gore comes off, and Maglor's breathing becomes steadier, deeper. His eyes are shut. Maybe he'll sleep off his delusions about personal responsibility. The wind throws rain at the tent for a while.
Then it gets louder, briefly.
Caranthir looks up from his wrist, the spot where he's dug through blood to bruises. A pair of healers have entered the tent and shut the flap quickly behind them. They slip off their drenched cloaks. They both have black-looking hair, plastered wet to their faces and necks.
"If you wouldn't mind, my lord," says one, looking down at Caranthir and extracting a roll of gauze from a leather bag.
Oh. He's in the way.
"It does need changing, I think," he says, rising to the full stoop the low tent allows him. He shuffles toward Maglor's feet and the entrance of the tent, as the healers kneel on either side of Maglor.
The one without the gauze pulls a few poultices out of his own bag. They have a bitter green scent that stings Caranthir's eyes. This is stupid. He's kneeling at Maglor's feet with his eyes watering.
They unwrap Maglor's side, and the wound is pulpy; the skin looks inside-out. He's regained consciousness. He's crying out as they touch him, and it muffles the rain in staccato beats.
This is awful to watch, worse than pulling out the sword and reading the runes on it and knowing-what? Knowing that the Gods are pitiless, but we are fools, and here is one of us bleeding out in between.
He excuses himself and walks out into the rain.
(i) Shout-out to Laerthel for inspiring me to write about the relationship between these particular angstwagons.
(ii) The quote at the beginning, and of course the title, are from Blind Guardian's 'Twilight of the Gods.' (Which is a solid, emotionally-compromising jam, which I swear I had not heard until after I finished writing this fic.)