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Ghost Fires: 1. Ghost Fires
It lit a perfect ring,
In which I saw some weeds and stone
Beyond - not anything.
- Leonard Cohen.
Autumn is here, making it is easy to walk through the leaves unnoticed. Grey, red, brown – Hithlum is made of these colours. Just like the dull unattractiveness of his cloak. And there is wind, poisonous and sweeping, that makes ash rise off the earth like a swarm of insects. A wash at the end of a long journey would be good, but the air has settled on the ponds too, with the weeds and the snakes and the slime. Maedhros needs to be careful, or he might run out of drinking water. He is rationing the contents of his flask, though. It is not very hard. He might be wrong, but thirst and hunger seem to matter less than they did once.
The orcs are gone, finally. It took them about half the time it took for Maedhros’ body to heal, to overrun the kingdom and plunder it, and get bored. There was hardly much, by the end; most of Fingon’s treasures are in Balar, or in what used to be Himring. There is really no need for camouflage any more. Hithlum is a wasteland. Besides, Maedhros would hardly stand a chance against even a single orc patrol, alone as he is. But he is careful all the same; out of habit, perhaps, or in some kind of practice.
Maedhros is not yet completely healed, either. His right arm, where his shield hung and was shattered, is in a cast. He has to drag one foot slightly as he walks. Maglor is afraid the leg may not heal at all if he does not rest it. But he feels it getting better within him, he feels the bone and flesh knitting itself back. His body, what he has of it, is replacing itself. His sword and knives hang down his right side, as always, concealed suitably along his clothes. He will never stop taking himself seriously until the very end.
Try not to wonder why I chose this, of all ways, to get to you. Put it down to my having little opportunity to be there in person, and forgive the lack of eloquence - your opinion, not mine - you are being subjected to. Be so kind as to refrain from judging my calligraphy at this late date, at least. I feel entitled to claim superiority in that area ever since certain well-remembered events that I shall not rehash here.
Yes, Maedhros takes himself seriously, to all appearances. His gravity keeps his people grounded, focused on their task. Soldierly.
We were so careless about these things, you and I. I always reckoned that if you, being who you are, could get away from scholarship and dedicated artistry, then I could as well. Russandol, you have been a bad influence on me. Indeed, who gave me my first hunting spear? Who made it a point to race me around the city just to see how long it took me to beat him? Who first took me swimming to the deep places of the sea?
By the Valar. If Káno were writing this, he would make certain to tell you that that was where it first dawned on me that your eyes are exactly like the sea. And that reminds me – who first taught me to swear? Too much, too many, these sins. I demand rightful repayment, as a son of Nolofinwë, for being distracted from my serious intellectual pursuits in order to follow you to the ends of the world.
That is hardly truth. Maedhros remembers long days and nights of argument and debate, measured and carefully extracted reasons for the way the world is and used to be. He was also the first to drag Fingon to one of their grandfather’s councils. Maedhros has always liked being one step ahead of the competition.
He glances up at the hill. Where the white tower was, once, there is now – nothing. A charred foundation of stone, not more than twice Maedhros’ own height. The ash floats down from there.
He looks to the left. The army quarters are still there. Mutilated and ragged beyond recognition, but there. They are without a roof.
If someone were to look, it would be the saddest sight in the world. An empty landscape such as Hithlum now is, is bad enough. And then there creeps in a lone figure, as grey and silent as the picture itself, wandering with no apparent direction, a leaf in the wind. The speck of life makes the desolation worse, somehow. It defiles the death and absence in this place.
But Maedhros knows what he is doing.
Ironic, how even following you to the ends of the world has not quite achieved what I had in mind. There have been times in the past years when the pain of being separated from you has been almost too much to bear. It has even, I will confess, made me angry with who we are. I’ve often wondered if it would be so bad, after all, to just leave and live the simple life. Go back to being unlettered and uncomplicated, like the Avari. We would wander, hunt down our meals, find streams to drink at, sleep in trees.
But then the orcs would come, and then even we would be unable to do much. Oh, enough damage, I suspect – your confidence is highly contagious – but not for long. Not forever.
Of course I would mean for you to accompany me. Without you, I might as well stay trapped in this howling chimney of a palace and be overlord of all the Noldor in Beleriand.
Forgive me. If the circumstances are what I imagine they are, and Káno has not made a terrible mistake, or you have not been snooping around in his room again, then this must be hard. The thought almost makes me want to put an end to the exercise and tear up this leaf. But who knows what is to be, Maitimo. Perhaps you will even look over this in time and be able to laugh at the - admittedly wan - humour. No, I don’t mean that hurtfully. But such things do happen. Mortals in their unpoetic, taciturn way remark, “life goes on”, and it strikes me as strange that we, who have had immortal life at our disposal, did not consider this obvious wisdom first. Perhaps it was because we never needed to know it before.
And you have life in you. Life of the purest, fiercest kind, like everything else about you. Allow a warrior his moment of sentimentality, and let me say it – I have never known anyone so wonderfully alive, as you. Everything you do and touch and so much as look at, seems to overflow with the simple power of your will. That is worth saving, Maitimo, no matter what happens to the rest. Keep that safe. Keep that burning.
He has direction. He remembers every turn, every corner, even the spot where one of the cobbles had a slight chink in them. Now it is all a straight line, all flat plain and dry land. Devastation, the great leveller. But the long way is important. He will step around the erased landmarks, even if they are nothing but stray bricks now. He is a Noldo. Obeisance must be paid to all works of the hand, even those that could not fulfill their immortal destiny.
Even through the poison, the stench from the barracks is palpable. Maedhros saw the mortals who had been burned on the other side in huge, communal pyres. He passed them on the way. Not many elves remained here – most were at the battle, and the few who survived are in his ranks now. He thinks the women mostly escaped to Balar, and wherever else mortal women go when fleeing from home. Some of them probably jumped on the pyres to save themselves from the looters.
Curufin still dreams of the Battle. He has the most violent nightmares imaginable, even though, strangely enough, none of the others do. But then, Curufin has had an overdose of violence. It is all catching up on him. Celegorm tries and stays up with him as much as possible.
Maedhros knows that there are withered bodies in the building. He enters, taking in what there is to see. Nothing much has been left to look at. The bodies have decomposed quickly. The guards were probably ushered in here to make it easier. There are signs of a struggle - the dried blood stains, the quickly rusting, twisted armour, and then the fervid, rotten air. No elf ought to die this way. But then, no elf ought to die.
He bends his head and thinks fiercely. Not the words – not the dumb, slight words the elves evolved to speed the souls of fellow-warriors from Beleriand to the Halls of Waiting. There are names Maedhros will never utter again, not after everything he has been through. He does not know what to feel, at first. But the dark behind his shut eyes squeezes and emits a sudden flash of light. He directs anger and strength and life around him from his thoughts. To mark what these people once were.
That is all. He has done what needs to be done.
He continues to walk through the rooms. The walls are crumbling, but are recognisably walls. There are still rooms.
You do not need this to remind you of me. I do not write with that end in mind. No, merely a wish to leave you something tangible, something to hold and recognise as my marks. Because there is nothing I can say, Maitimo. There is nothing I can write that will not look bald and utterly inadequate, and will not take away from the things that have passed between us. Words are cheap, all said and done. Sometimes it occurs to me that we might have overrated ourselves on being Quendi. And in the time I have been with you and touched you, breathed you in, felt your presence in my mind, and yes, looked into your eyes that are like the deep parts of the sea, no matter what they held in them, I have known for certain that I do not, in fact, care too much for words. Consider this a gift of touch and sight, then.
Maedhros can breathe the scent of the parchment he holds, in the big, dank room at the very top. The sun is trying valiantly to cut through the smog, and up here, thanks to the creatures that blew up the roof, it succeeds slightly.
A final token. I wish I could offer you something more – some heart’s ease, some rest. But exhaustion is a luxury I cannot afford, and that you may not even begin to consider. Hence this, and the sentiments attached.
You probably have every idea of how I feel right now. You always know. Never mind that, Maitimo. It likely matters very little to me.
The winds are swirling between the walls, grey and very cold. Mortals frighten their children with stories about dead spirits that look and feel like these winds. Maedhros fumbles a little, and finds his tinderbox. It is rather a neat little construction, another one of Curufin’s handy inventions for him. A person need use only two fingers to snap it alight. Sometimes it functions less than perfectly though. It needs to be clicked twice or thrice to set up sparks. The parchment flutters precariously between his other two fingers. He needs to be careful. He has burnt his fingers like this before.
Look at this sometimes. Hopefully you will find a little of the writer in between his lines. At this last, I want you to remember that everything that you will recognise is a thing of your making. Everything you know and love, is because of you, and what you have been to me.
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