8. Nightfall: The Nirnaeth Arnoediad, 2
The army marched at a speed that even the Eldar found taxing, but Maedhros spurred them on relentlessly. Mercilessly, he thought once, knowing it to be true, but his sense of urgency overrode all his other feelings. And as he could not find mercy even with himself, how would he find any with others?
Maglor complained once on behalf of their mortal allies, who lagged behind, and succeeded to provoke his grimly silent brother into a rant. 'So their feet are killing them? Then their feet must be in Morgoth's service. Tell them to lop off those treacherous limbs and crawl on all four, if they want their beloved ones to live out their miserably short lives!'
Maglor stared at him.
Maedhros thought of his own, treacherous hand serving Morgoth at Alqualondë, lopped off to prolong his miserable life - and all of a sudden it hurt again, ghostlike, as it had done so often since it was first severed by Fingon. 'I know,' he spat. 'My tongue is as foul as yours is fair.'
'You fear that Fingon has not postponed the attack,' his brother stated flatly.
As often, Maglor was right, though his truths were as gloomy as his songs, nowadays. 'We may yet come in time,' Maedhros said, trying to convince himself. 'We must make more haste.'
But as they rounded the last hills of Dorthonion and reached the easternmost stretches of Anfauglith, on the eve of their fifth marching day, his Elven-sight showed him how well founded his fears were. In the centre of the Gasping Dust a battle raged. The plain was a sea of fell creatures enclosing an island of once bright mail now red with blood and sunset, with a ragged banner of blue and silver in the middle.
'They are surrounded,' Maglor said, aghast.
They were. But it would take the eastern army almost a day to reach them.
'We shall not halt tonight,' Maedhros decided.
This time, darkness did not bring respite. By the dull red sheen of Angband's fires they fought on, the padding underneath their armour sweat-drenched or crusted and chafing. Their arms and feet seemed to lead a life of their own as they hacked and blocked and thrust and dodged, pressed ever more closely by the Enemy's troops. At last, when all they could do was defend themselves, Fingon ordered a thangail to be formed and exchanged his sword for a spear long enough to reach across the wall of shields.
He did not know how far they had retreated across the plain. Most of the time, he did not even know which way he faced and where to look for succour; though he clung to the hope that his brother had not sent all his troops into battle, and that Maedhros would be there by sunrise. If only their shield-wall would hold... Perhaps they could muster enough strength to make a last, desperate attempt to break out at first light...
Increasingly, he had to take recourse to memories he thought he had buried long ago. Memories of crossing a waste of cruel ice, in an endless night beneath the stars, of the body pressing on while the mind insisted that it was much easier to lie down and die, and of a coast emerging into view when all seemed lost. When he felt or saw anyone falter or sag with fatigue, whether Elda or Mortal, he shared those memories out, without knowing if and how they were received, though sometimes he felt an echo of gratitude, and once or twice a sustaining memory from a neighbouring mind.
When day broke, aid did come at last: his brother's host, marching up from the South, with steel unstained and bright in the glory of the morning. And Fingon heard the glad cries of Huor and felt the surge of joy in the heart of Húrin Thalion as Morgoth's orcs scattered before the swords of Turgon and his warriors, and the two armies merged after hours of hard fighting.
'We will yet prevail,' Turgon said when they embraced briefly amidst the carnage.
'This night has passed indeed!' Fingon replied.
There was little time for more words. To the east, the clear notes of war trumpets rang out to herald the arrival, longed for, despaired of and unnoticed in the heat of battle, of Maedhros and his army.
'So there he is...' Turgon remarked, and if there was a slight hint of mockery in his voice Fingon could easily forgive him for sheer relief.
With renewed vigour, they threw themselves at the orcs, as the Eastern army did from the other side, and for a while it seemed as if the tide had turned indeed, as if it was a matter of hours or less before their hosts would unite to rout Morgoth's troops and assail his fortress to retake and avenge.
But in their limited wisdom and failing Sight, none of them knew the true strength of their foe or the full weight of their doom. When it descended on them it came from the North, pouring towards them in the shape of wolves and wolfriders, of Balrogs, and of dragonspawn led by one huge, evil beast, a flame-belching Worm: Glaurung, father of Dragons.
And as Fingon saw the fire-drake approach, thrice greater than he remembered him, wedging his golden terror between the screaming armies, he remembered a hopeful thought from his past, from a moment of shared love in a glade in the forest. No dragon will come between us.
Yet it had.
Uldor and his fellow traitors had almost reached the standard, but it mattered not. They would never be able to join Fingon's army now, with so many Easterlings turned craven, others slaughtering Elves, and Glaurung and the Balrogs coming between them. The Dwarves had turned away the dragon, but then they had turned away themselves, and it was all one.
The Union of Maedhros! he thought, filled with self-loathing. What in Arda made me believe I could sow unity and reap victory? 'To evil end shall all things turn that they begin well,' as the Curse had foretold. Discord, death and destruction would ever be their harvest. Insights that came but with defeat.
Maedhros lowered his sword, a dead weight in his hand. He ought to fight on, kill more orcs - they were so much easier to kill than Elves - but he was filled with disgust rather than with battle fury, as if the evil glee of Morgoth was concentrating on him alone amidst the clamour and the bloodshed. Uldor was close by now. His eyes full of hatred were all that was visible of his face through the visor-slit of his helmet, the hate of the traitor for the betrayed. As my father would have hated Fingolfin, had he ever lived to meet him again, it crossed Maedhros' mind, an unbidden thought that drained his will to fight.
He will kill me, he thought. I hope it will not kill Fingon.
Uldor was not a tall man, and his curved blade entered Maedhros from below, between two shoulder plates of his armour. It was not enough to slay him, but he stumbled and sank to one knee, and he felt Uldor's foot against his hip, seeking leverage to jerk the blade out. It took some effort, and the Man staggered back. It was his undoing. Another blade flashed past in a wide, horizontal arc. The next moment, Uldor's head flew from his shoulders.
Maglor. 'Why do you not fight? What ails you, fool?' his brother shouted with uncharacteristic fury.
Blood welling from his shoulder, Maedhros tried to rise, but found he could not. 'The Oath,' he said hoarsely. 'The Kinslaying. The Curse. That is what ails us.'
This was defeat, as became increasingly clear, even if it would not be brought about by Glaurung. There was no limit to the darkness surging out of Angband to engulf them, and at the crest of that wave burned the evil flame of Gothmog, Lord of Balrogs and slayer of Fëanor. Other he was than Glaurung, the father of destruction, who was above all bent on wreaking havoc and bring terror. The Lord of Balrogs went ahead with a purpose. The purpose of collecting the prize on the High King's head.
Try as they might, neither Fingon nor Turgon were able to keep their diminished hosts together. The unending stream of foes drove a wedge between them, as it had ever been the strategy of their Master to divide and rule. Even while laying about in the fray, Fingon found himself thinking that his own grandsire Finwë had unwittingly aided Morgoth by marrying twice, giving him the opportunity to create discord in his House. But then he realised he had just wished himself back to non-existence, questioning the very wisdom of his Creator. He cursed his own thoughts, and his heart cried out in fury that Arda should be so cruelly marred.
Too soon, he lost sight of his brother's standard, and all he could hope was that Turgon at least would escape this slaughter, and Húrin, who had fought at his side for so long. Again and again he raised his sword and brought it down, rising beyond the pain of fatigue, oblivious of wounds, knowing he would not live to see the sun set. His forces, hardly worth that name now, were hemmed in on all sides. His guards fought ferociously, knowing this to be their last battle and desiring to do all the damage they could before they were slain. Fingon glanced at the one fighting beside him, surprised to see it was not a guardsman. In that instant, the warrior turned his head to meet the gaze of his King, and Fingon saw his eyes.
Her eyes. It was Coiriel.
In the brief, motionless moment caused by his shock, Fingon neglected to parry the scimitar sweeping towards him.
But Coiriel saw it. She blocked the stroke with the very blade he had forged and given to her, less than a fortnight ago, and its wielder fell back. Then, whether she slipped and lost her balance or stumbled with exhaustion, she dropped to one knee. Another orc darted forward like a snake, aiming a spear at her unprotected eyes, and thrusting it deep into the left one. She toppled without a sound, even as Fingon cut her killer in two with one blow of Ringlach.
He felt his whole body shake then, and his eyes wanted to weep because she had died to protect one already doomed, but his will held back the tears that would blind him. There was no time for regret or mourning, for in the face of certain death every remaining heartbeat is precious even to the Eldar.
He steadied himself. Less than a dozen guards were left standing in this miserable plot of earth to which the High King Fingon's realm had shrunk. Leaping over Coiriel's empty shell he felt a strangely detached fury that made his blows and thrusts even more accurate, and deadlier than before. Towards the end, he reached eastward in his mind, seeking the one touch among a thousand that could ease the pain of passing, and just when the last of his guards was slain he found it, faint but unmistakable.
No more need to fear that Maedhros would be the next to fall into darkness, now that he knew that he would be the one. Briefly, Fingon begged forgiveness for feeling this small measure of relief, knowing what his beloved would have to suffer. Then he turned towards Gothmog, who towered over his coveted prize. He could ward off the first blow, and the next one, but before his numbed hand could raise his blade again, another balrog threw a coil of fire around him, pinning his arms against his body, and he was doomed.
And he knew that it had been so since Mandos spoke his Curse; this was merely the execution of the sentence. You proud, arrogant fool. Did you truly believe that children such as you could defeat a Power unaided?
Looking up, Fingon saw the black executioner's ax descend.
Dying was brutal but brief: a searing, blinding pain, followed by a sensation as if something was torn from him. And the High King of the Noldor was no more; what was left was a bleeding hull that had been his hröa once, and a naked fëa, aghast at being unhoused. Yet slain ye shall be - there it was, the Summons -and your houseless spirits shall come then to Mandos - he shrank back, be it only for a moment - and there long shall ye abide and yearn for your bodies - already he felt lost without it - and find little pity - he deserved none at all - though all whom ye have slain should entreat for you - but few of them would, and he would spend many long ages suing for pardon.
And yet there was no other House open to him, and his spirit flew home.
Maedhros did not know who dragged him to safety. He could not care less about safety. He was wounded, and in pain, but the suffering of his body was nothing compared to the agony of his soul.
I am guilty of his death, he thought. Fingon had but fought this battle to prevent the sons of Fëanor from slaying their Elven-kin once more. If I had not loved him I would have defied him, High King or no, and attacked those who held the Silmaril all the same. And he would still be alive.
So even his love was deadly. This was what it meant to be cursed. All that you touch shall wither. All that you love shall be lost. He was Fëanors heir and Fëanors long shadow into times to come, blocking out the light to all that was near to him.
When Maglor came to see him, Maedhros had struggled to a sitting position. His shoulder was bandaged, his arm in a sling. The right one, meaning the useless one. An irrelevant mercy.
'What news from the West?' he asked his brother, who stood at the edge of the clearing where they had sought refuge for a while.
Maglor hesitated, looking dismal. He cleared his throat as if he meant to chant a dirge, like the dwarves had done when Glaurung slew their King. His eyes focused on a point behind his brother, and his thoughts were shrouded - yet obvious.
'Fingon? That is not new,' Maedhros said with a stony face, wishing he had a stone for a heart. 'I know he is dead. I felt him die, I saw his flame flare, and fade. But he fought valiantly until the end.'
Now, Maglor came closer, limping a little. 'Yes,' was all he said, avoiding his brother's eyes.
'I did not know you were wounded,' Maedhros said.
'Nothing worth dwelling on,' Maglor said. His voice sounded strange, as if the gold in it was tarnished. 'It heals fast; a few hours ago I could hardly even stand. Your wound must be healing, too. You ought to be able to move on. We cannot stay here. There are orcs roaming about.'
Instead of rising, Maedhros lay back.
'Did you hear what I said?' his brother demanded to know.
'The dead cannot hear the living.'
'You must not...'
'I am dead!' Maedhros cried, loud enough to send a flock of birds into the air, squeaking and flapping nervously. The warriors resting on the other side of the clearing - where his face bothered them less - turned their heads.
'If you insist,' his brother said coolly. 'But forgive me if I postpone the burial awhile. I have some more brothers to account for first.' He began to limp away.
The next moment, he halted to look back, and suddenly there were tears on his cheeks. 'He is free, Maitimo. Broken, and freed to be remade, however long it may take. Cling to that.'
Free of me. Stupid, well-meaning brother, why did you stop Uldor from finishing me? 'Believe me, if I were alive I would weep,' whispered Maedhros.
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