1. Family Traditions
Time: approximately F.A. 390
The wind was howling outside, louder now than it had been during most of the day. The sound made Celebrimbor shiver and move closer to the fire, trying to soak up more of its warmth. He didn't like to be cold, had never liked it, and he usually tried to avoid it whenever possible. Low temperatures did not affect elves easily, but after spending more than a few days in the cold winter air, Celebrimbor had begun to wonder whether his skin would ever feel warm again.
With some chagrin he admitted to himself that it might not have affected him that much if he had taken the time to prepare properly for a longer ride. But there hadn't been time, and so he had ended up grateful for every moment of dim sunlight that could provide some warmth. He hadn't actually feared that he would not manage to get through this - he knew himself to be too robust for that - but he had nevertheless felt profound relief when he had finally reached his destination, and hadn't protested when he had been led into a small chamber, given a mug of something warm to drink and told to stay there.
He turned around when he heard the door open, relaxing slightly when he recognized his uncle's tall form. Straightening, he bowed his head slightly, a gesture prompted not only by habit but also by genuine respect.
"Are you feeling better?" Maedhros asked after scrutinizing his face for a moment.
Celebrimbor nodded, staying where he was as he watched the older elf step closer. The chill had faded from his body a while ago, but he was not willing to move away from the fire just yet. Its warmth was comforting, as was the light it gave. He hadn't bothered to light the candles on the desk, not seeing any reason to do so at the moment, when he wouldn't go near them anyway.
Maedhros came to stand next to him, carefully avoiding an invasion of his private space. Still Celebrimbor was acutely aware of his presence. It was difficult to ignore Maedhros, even when he was not consciously trying to be in the foreground.
"The Men I know are aware of the dangers of winter nights when they are ten years old. They know that it is folly to venture out alone. You are much older than them, so I assume that you are aware of it as well." The older elf looked at the fireplace for a moment, then moved to add a few more logs. "Although I am sure that your father will want to have some words with you about this. What was so urgent that you had to come here?"
Celebrimbor sighed and looked into the flames, watching as the new logs caught fire. At a sudden he was not certain how to broach the topic that weighed so heavily on his soul. On the way to Himring it had seemed so clear how to explain everything, and he had also easily pictured the possible reactions and results to his words. But now that he was supposed to talk about it, he found himself at a loss of words.
Maedhros' gaze was on him, easily felt in its intensity. "You are welcome to stay here, Celebrimbor, but I want to know the reasons behind this," he said firmly. "If only so I know what I should expect to happen."
Nodding slightly, Celebrimbor looked up again, into his uncle's eyes. "Father asked again why I haven't sworn the Oath yet," he said quietly.
An expression of weariness crossed Maedhros' face, and for the blink of an eye Celebrimbor thought that the other elf looked truly old, as if the years of his existence had finally caught up with him like they did with the Edain.
"Again? I was hoping he would cease this..."
Shaking his head, Celebrimbor sighed once again. "He expects it of me. I probably shouldn't even have been surprised that he brought it up again." It had been a long time since Curufin had put the choice of accepting or refusing to swear the Oath before him for the last time; Fëanor had been dead only for some years back then, and they had just departed for Beleriand. That had been a time of changes, of insecurity, and Curufin had not pursued the issue when Celebrimbor had asked to be allowed to take time to consider the issue. He should have known better than believing that his father would let it rest indefinitely.
"What did you do?" Maedhros asked.
Celebrimbor held his gaze for a moment longer before looking away, not wanting to see whether the grey eyes would show disappointment or approval at his answer.
"The only thing I could do. I said that I would think about it. And then I went to the stables and left." It had been a desperate move, motivated more by the fear of Curufin's reaction at a denial than by rational thought. When he thought logically about the matter, then Celebrimbor knew that his father would not force him to take the Oath. He would have to face unpleasant times, that was certain, but he could have dealt with the consequences. But logic was not always stronger than fear, and he had seen his father's anger too often to not try and avoid it.
Maedhros was staring at the fire when Celebrimbor turned to look at him again. "Did you at least tell someone where you were going?" he asked. "They will wonder where you are."
Celebrimbor shook his head. "No. But Celegorm was in the stable when I left. He probably guessed why I was there, and where I was going."
"He did not try to stop you?"
"No." His uncle had just looked at him in a strange way, disappointment and compassion mingling on his face, and had then pretended to be completely occupied with examining his horse while Celebrimbor had hurried to saddle his own mount.
"And you came here. Why?"
Celebrimbor shrugged. "It seemed the best place to go," he said.
He truly had not thought much about his destination when he had set out; all that had driven him was the need to put some distance between himself and his father. Rational thought had set in later, when he had realized that there were not many places that made sense for him to go to. At first he had considered heading for Lake Helevorn, to Caranthir's settlement. His uncle would have welcomed him warmly, and Celebrimbor knew that his reasons for a visit in mid-winter would not have been questioned much. But he also knew that Caranthir shared Curufin's opinion when it came to the importance of the Oath, and that he would not be allowed to put it all behind him for at least a little while.
Himring had seemed safer in that regard; Celebrimbor had been certain that Maedhros would want to know the reasons behind a visit at this time of the year, and that there would be no way around the discussion they were having at this moment. But he had also felt confident that he would not be reproached for evading the choice his father had put before him. And he also felt a tiny flicker of hope that Maedhros might offer support. It was not something Celebrimbor felt he could safely count on, but even the smallest possibility of improving the situation was welcome.
"Leaving might not have been the best idea. Did you ever try speaking to Celegorm about this?" Maedhros wanted to know. "Curufin has always been more likely to listen to him than to me."
Celebrimbor shook his head. "There would not have been any use in it. Father's mind is set, he won't let himself be talked out of it this time. He wants me to swear the Oath, and he won't let the matter rest so easily. And Celegorm would probably support him anyway."
"Probably," his uncle agreed. "Still it is worth a try. You cannot avoid Curufin forever. Eventually you will have to return."
"I know. But at that moment I couldn't help it... I just had to get away. I didn't trust myself to stay and not give in to Father's demands."
Maedhros regarded him with a certain amount of surprise. "You think of refusing?" he asked, tone carefully neutral.
Briefly Celebrimbor hesitated, not sure at a sudden whether answering Maedhros' question was a wise thing to do. He was not even certain about it yet anyway... But at the same time, there had never been a choice he needed to make. The Oath was his father's, not his own, and he could not possibly take it, not so much because of the implications it carried but because he did not feel any urge to follow his elders in this. He could not comprehend what they had to have felt to swear it, what conviction was necessary to believe in doing this.
"I am considering it," he said.
For a little while they both remained quiet, listening to the fire and to the wind howling outside. It was a calming tranquility, and Celebrimbor found himself more at ease than he had for a long time. Speaking to Maedhros had not done much to soothe his troubled mind, but his uncle's presence and attention were comforting, as was his current silence. Maedhros was pragmatic enough that he would not have hesitated to voice his objections at Celebrimbor's choice if he had thought it necessary to do so. That he was not saying anything now seemed a good sign, and it was encouraging for Celebrimbor to see that his decision was not being immediately dismissed as foolish.
Not for the first time he found himself wondering whether his uncles regretted swearing the Oath. He knew that Curufin did not; his father had followed Fëanor's example in this, and he was the last person to regret such an action. No, Curufin would never doubt the necessity and the righteousness of what he had done. But Celebrimbor was not so certain about some of the other members of their House. Celegorm and Caranthir appeared to be comfortable, or at least not openly uncomfortable with what they had done.
But his youngest two uncles were a different story already. Amrod and Amras had been quite glad to settle in lands not in immediate proximity of Angband, and Celebrimbor couldn't help suspecting that their devotion to hunting and roaming were also a way to keep their minds focused on more harmless topics than what they had vowed to do in that fateful moment in Tirion. Maglor seemed to be a similar case, although he appeared to find his distraction in the task of securing his lands and in his music.
And as for Maedhros... Celebrimbor could not imagine that anyone could suffer the way he had done and not develop somewhat jaded feelings towards the Oath that had been the reason for it all to happen in the first place.
"If you do not fulfill Curufin's expectations, it will be hard to predict his reaction," Maedhros said after a while. "You are welcome to stay for now. I will not cast anyone out, especially at this time of the year. But you know as well as I do that you are merely delaying the issue. Curufin will want to hear your answer at some point, and he won't expect a refusal. Or accept it easily."
Celebrimbor sighed. "I know," he said. "Father keeps pointing out that I am Fëanor's grandson and that I have to be ready if this heritage falls to me one day. That I must strive to recover the Silmarils."
"He is right in this. The Silmarils are your heritage." Maedhros paused for a moment, then continued in a very sober voice. "As is the Doom of Mandos, with all its implications."
"I never wanted this," Celebrimbor protested quietly, trying not to sound as miserable as he felt at hearing these words. He knew that they were true, and his thoughts had run along similar lines far too often recently. Still, hearing them confirmed by another made them far too real.
"Nobody ever asks the heir if he is content with his duty." Maedhros looked at him, and for a moment he thought he saw a flicker of emotion in those normally unreadable grey eyes. "It is not easy to have the fate of our House resting on your shoulders."
"No, it is not," he agreed in a subdued voice. "Sometimes I wish that I could just leave that part of myself behind. It is not as if I am even suited to be a leader." It was a talent he had failed to inherit, something he knew irritated his father whenever it became too obvious. Celebrimbor had never truly needed to assume command of others, and he found himself not interested at all in it. A waste of time, when he could as well use his energy in the forge and occupy himself with something he was good at.
"Leadership is something you learn when it becomes necessary."
"But it never will be for me. Whom should I lead? You are the head of your house, and even..." Celebrimbor hesitated, not sure whether it would be considered tactless to address this. But Maedhros had never before seemed to mind outspokenness. "Even if something happens to you, then my other uncles will assume that position."
"And what makes you so sure that they might not die as well?" Maedhros asked. He did not appear to be fazed by the subject, but with him it was sometimes difficult to tell whether something affected him or not. "Must I remind you how little it takes for an elf to die in this world?"
Celebrimbor shook his head, trying to push away memories of the dead he had seen in his life and failing. "No," he said, shivering inwardly as the images lingered in his mind.
"You will be the only one of our House when none of my brothers are left. My sisters in law stayed in Aman, be it by foresight or by chance. Amrod and Amras couldn't care less about marriage. And I doubt that Celegorm is going to easily forget Aredhel. So unless something truly unexpected happens, you are going to remain the only one of your generation in this family."
"What about you?" Celebrimbor asked, even though he was not sure whether it was a wise thing to do. He had never managed to figure out why his eldest uncle had not married yet; it was one of those family mysteries nobody seemed willing to ponder for long.
"I do not wish for a wife," Maedhros said firmly, his voice ringing with a hint of defensiveness to Celebrimbor's ears. "Do not expect me to ease your position. Look at Celegorm if you want, but even this most likely is merely wishful thinking."
Celebrimbor sighed, nodding. "I know, though I wish it weren't so."
"Wishing doesn't help. Face it, and make the best of it. And that includes speaking to Curufin."
"Must I?" Celebrimbor asked, hating how childish he sounded but needing to have this answered. "I have spoken to you about this now, after all, so perhaps this is enough?"
Maedhros regarded him calmly before shaking his head. "I am not your father, Celebrimbor. He is the one you need to tell. Consider this a practice lesson if you want, but ultimately it is Curufin who wants an answer, not I."
"But you are the head of our House."
A strange expression briefly crossed his uncle's face. "Unfortunately," he said.
Celebrimbor wisely decided to ignore this comment and went on. "Father would listen to you if you told him to let it be, if only because he has to."
Maedhros' eyes narrowed at this, and Celebrimbor held his gaze for a moment before he went back to staring at the flames. Asking Maedhros to speak to his father about this was a logical thing to do from his point of view, but the elder elf obviously disagreed with the idea.
"He might listen, but you know as well as I do what he would think of such an interference. How do you imagine he would react if I told him that he must not make demands of you?"
Celebrimbor looked down at the floor, feeling tired at a sudden now that this hope was gone. "He would be angry," he said quietly. "And it wouldn't change his mind. Quite the opposite, probably."
"The only one who could ever convince Curufin of something was Father. And he hardly needed to do so because they were of one mind most of the time anyway." Maedhros sighed, and Celebrimbor started at suddenly feeling his uncle's hand come to rest on his shoulder. "I am sorry that I cannot offer you a way out of this, Celebrimbor," the elder elf said quietly. "But there is nothing I can do."
Celebrimbor opened his eyes again and met his uncle's gaze, not quite so intense anymore. "It helps already that you do not condemn me for not taking the Oath," he said.
Maedhros smiled mirthlessly. "Why should I wish to see another suffer from it?"
"Misery loves company?" Celebrimbor returned, his own smile more genuine, but then he fell serious again. "Thank you."
He shrugged. "For listening, maybe."
They did not speak any more, just stood in front of the fire in companionable silence, both of them pursuing their own thoughts as they watched the flames. The talk with Maedhros had not brought a solution at all, Celebrimbor realized. The situation was still the same as before, with all its implications and inherent problems. But nevertheless he felt more confident than he had in a long time.