“I can see well enough,” Elrond said. “See, an owl just flew out of the woods.” The shadow of a bird swooped down in the treeless space around the stockade, whirling away soundlessly with its prey.
“And from which wing is it missing two pinion-feathers?” asked his mentor, Erestor, gently. When Elrond did not reply, hiding a surly expression behind a fall of dark hair, Erestor put a hand on the young fellow’s shoulder. “But you are right. Besides, there is more than that to being a good guard. You have many gifts.”
“I know, I know,” muttered Elrond. “Language and diplomacy, the arts of loremasters.” He looked up at the silent archers on a wooden balustrade above the gate. The loremaster and his student were huddled in a lean-to below, near a watch-window. “I’d rather be an archer, like the other guards tonight.”
Erestor nodded. “I can see why. We are freezing our feet in the snow, and they aren’t.”
“It is not that,” Elrond grumbled, and fell silent, glaring out the window slit for the watchers. Erestor let him stay silent until he whispered harshly, “I just feel so useless. Maglor says Elros and I are yet lads by the count of the Elves, but if we were mortal men, we’d be wedded and fighting by now. He doesn’t even know how old we are, only that we are part-mortal and---“
“I know, lad,” said Erestor. “That is why I talked Maglor around into bringing you both on watch with me in turn.” Elrond turned and saw his teacher looking at him grimly. “There is no refuge anymore in Middle-Earth. With the way Morgoth spreads his darkness ever more about the lands, soon it will not be your choice or Maglor’s if you need to fight to survive.”
“Then why can’t he treat us as full warriors now?” Elrond snapped. “I know it is because I am part mortal, and mortal men betrayed Maglor and Maedhros at a great battle.”
Erestor’s sigh was on the edge of patience. “He is as a father to you, and he – we have all lost...” Erestor paused and closed his eyes. Elrond wondered if he was about to weep, about the way the Sons of Fëanor had been driven from their stone halls in the north, or about one of the losses upon losses they had endured in battle. But after a sharp breath, Erestor’s tone was changed. “You say you want to be treated as a warrior. Then show us you can use your head, and let that rule you! I cannot help you if you are a hot-hearted fool, for using your heart alone will get you killed.”
He saw Elrond’s face fall at the rebuke, but before Erestor could reply, the guards above shifted. Erestor stepped up to the window-slit, then remembered his role as teacher and moved back. “Tell me who you see coming – with a watchman’s eye,” he said.
Elrond looked out. The gate faced the East. “Three people – two elves, for they do not break the snow, and one aged mortal hobbling along.”
“Maybe not a mortal,” muttered Erestor. “Let me speak to them.” He glanced up at the archers, their arrows nocked to their long-bows, and lifted his hand in a signal. Seeing the archers sign back, he turned his face to the watch-slit again. Elrond, peering around him, saw that one of the figures had come close enough to the gate to hail.
Erestor was not the most impressive-looking of elf-men, moderately built, moderately fair. Elrond already stood over him by an inch. Still, he was not the chief loremaster of Maglor’s following for nothing. “What news from the woods, wanderers?” he called out, voice powerful and clear across the snow. The three figures stopped at Erestor’s timbre of authority, and turned to each other. Elrond read the fear in their hunched shoulders. To Elrond, Erestor muttered, “Not Noldor. See how they take this.” Again, he called with the same words, in a different elf-language. One of the figures stepped forwards and cried out. “Is this nigh Sirion? We seek the shores of the Sea!”
Erestor quickly asked Elrond, “Language?”
“Sindarin of Ossirand,” he whispered.
“Very good.” Erestor opened the watch-slit wider and shouted, “You are out of your measure.”
The near figure called out. “How far is it away? And which lord of the Elves holds this fortress of wood?”
“Call your friends close, first,” said Erestor. When they had stepped up, within easy bowshot, Erestor bade them throw their hoods back. Their faces were shadowed in the starlight. Two lean wood-elves were revealed, both with silky, dun-coloured hair. Elrond discerned that the one who had come forwards to speak had a mouth in a hard line, and eyes that kept a sharp sparkle. The second elf was vacant with exhaustion. Then the third, hunched figure cast back his hood. Everyone winced at the face revealed, gaunt and drooping, head gleaming bald, yet between pointed ears.
“I thought Elves did not age?” whispered Elrond, anxiously.
“Only one thing mars an elf so; time spent as a thrall of Morgoth.” Erestor’s voice was cold. “Why do you keep company with such a one, you two? Is this why you wander?” Elrond was unhappy, thinking Erestor would not be so harsh had Elrond not angered him. Then he remembered that it was not only mortal Men who had brought Elves to betrayal. Elf-thralls of Morgoth who escaped were often known to do evil’s bidding, and were held outlaw by many, Erestor had said.
The hard-mouthed elf stamped right up to the watch-slit. “He is my kinsman! Is that reason enough?”
“Reason enough,” Erestor echoed. “It cannot be easy to wander the winter wilds. Would you have succour of us?” The hard expression softened, and Erestor spoke on. “You may have safety here, and bread, and fire. But you may not leave us, now that you know where we are, lest you betray us. You must join our company.”
The wood-elf peered at Erestor carefully. “Who do you serve? Which of the High Elves still stand between Angband and the Sea?”
“This is the camp of Maedhros and Maglor, the Sons of Fëanor.”
“The Kinslayers!” The three elves outside clustered together. Elrond barely caught their whispering. “They wrecked Doriath…destroyed the haven at Eglarest…I heard stories…” On a sudden, the ex-thrall’s cracked voice spoke. “What does it matter, after what I did and saw? Let us stay! The cold is in my bones, the darkness in the trees. It is – they did not say they would cast me out. And at the Sea, they…I don’t know. I don’t know.” He covered his head with his arms.
The boldest of the wood-elves glanced back at the gate and called, “What would we have to do?”
“You would not be our thralls, but part of our company. Swear fealty to our lords, labour as we do, fight at need beneath their banners.”
The sharp-eyed elf smiled coldly. “I wondered how the Sons of Fëanor got any to lift swords for them against their kin!”
The remaining elf plucked at his friend’s sleeve. “I am so weary. And I never was much of a warrior.” He looked longingly at the thick walls of the stockade. “It’s better than the orcs.”
“Yes, better, better,” whined the ex-thrall. He lifted his unbalanced head to give them an odd, clear look, and his crazed eyes peered through the watch-slit with disturbing clarity. “Anything is better. Besides, I hear you kill clean.” Up on the walls, the archers laughed, coldly.
The sharp-eyed elf glanced at the stockade walls, clearly considering, before snapping, “Well, you two stay if you must. I have done enough for you both! I have more pride left than you – I won’t have any part of it. Keep you well, and thank you for your time, my lord.” The elf bowed crisply and began to walk back across the snow.
“Come back,” called Erestor, “come back! Archers cover you - they will shoot you down!”
The figure turned, and looked at the top of the stockade wall. The ex-thrall whimpered and drew his tattered hood around his face. The elf paused a long moment, weighing pride against sure death, then sighed and returned, calling, “Well enough. Three of us for your company, then.”
The archers leaped down behind the wall. Two opened the gates, and a third turned to Erestor and dragged him out of the lean-to. “Why did you tell her?” Elrond was surprised; he had not perceived that the wood-elf was a woman until then. He peered through the watch-slit; she was dressed little differently from her companions, and she wore her hair as the elf-man with them did. Perhaps she had sought the shield of seeking male as one more small defense in the hard Wilds.
Erestor struck the archer’s arm away. “It won’t matter after she takes the brand, all right? Did you want the others to bolt, and to slay all three?”
“You have broken the laws of our gates this night, and – “ Both looked at the three Elves, brought hastily within the stockade, and Elrond. “Son of Maglor,” said the guard, pointing at Elrond. “Go tell our lords what has happened here, and be quick about it. Please.” He turned back to Erestor. “As for you – “
Elrond, after another troubled look at Erestor, left them quarrelling in the snow. At first he was quiet as he walked the night camp, past dwellings of logs, or tents arrayed in lines. There was little stone-work. Several thousand Elves lived there. All who remained of the followers of Fëanor’s sons were united under the worn and tattered banners of Maedhros and Maglor. Despite this, the camp was quiet. Many of the company slept long hours to spare themselves the winter’s cold and hunger. Elrond gave in to his excitement and ran, though it made his feet crunch hard through the snow’s crust. Soon he was at a set of tents which were less faded than others. Outside the entry, he said, “Maglor? It is Elrond. May I –“
“Come in, lad,” came a musical voice. Elrond slipped in through the flap, opening it as little as possible. The tent’s inside was warm but smoky, and its roof was high enough that Elrond could stand straight. Four figures sat around a brazier set on stones. Elrond smiled at Maglor’s stern wife, who had been mother to him as Maglor had been father, and then caught his breath. From the shadows was the gleam of a winter-white face, a glimmer from an auburn braid. Maglor’s brother, Maedhros, was there as well. Maedhros only looked at him and nodded. Tending the brazier at his side was his esquire, Rodendil.
Elrond bowed slightly and said, “There are strange elves come to the gate; two wood-elves and one who was a thrall of Angband, once.”
Hard experience had made Maglor’s wife an elf-woman of few words. “Still alive?” she asked.
“Well, of course!” Elrond said. Maedhros and Maglor exchanged a look at that, and Elrond continued. “They will join our company, they say, but Erestor and the guards are quarrelling now. Will you come to the gates?”
“We had better all go. Tell us how it came about as we put some armour on.” The esquire helped Maglor and his lady pick up mail-shirts and strap on plates and greaves as Elrond told his tale. Elrond watched them, then broke his tale to say, “Erestor has the right of it, I think. I don’t think you need to fear anything from them. I saw the guards take their bows as I left.”
They were placing cloaks over their array now. The esquire said, “Better to be sure, yes? My lord Maedhros, we are missing your helm.”
“No matter,” Maedhros said, soft and remote, casting up his hood. Then the five of them went back through the night camp to the gates.
Erestor and one of the archers were still arguing when they arrived. Another archer kept the wood-elves covered. Maglor, taking in the scene, said to Elrond, “Erestor has taught you several kinds of Sindarin, has he not?” When Elrond agreed, his foster-father said, “Then take the wood-elves there to one side and keep them occupied while we settle this. I think you are right that they are little threat, and you are armed and armoured as well.”
Elrond swaggered a bit as he walked over to them. After drawing them aside, he thought for a minute before he spoke, doing his best to represent Maglor. “I am glad you chose to come in and join us. You must be very brave to have survived the Wilds. We are Noldor here, but nobody will hold it against you that you are Avari.”
“Such glad tidings you bring,” said the sharp elf-woman.
Elrond missed her sarcasm. “It has been a very hungry winter. We all grow lean, but none of us will starve. Nor are any favoured over the others for fire or food. All who wear the brand are equal.”
“That’s good,” the wood-elf muttered, with sincere relief on her pinched features this time. As they stood, the wood-elves, even the still ex-thrall, stayed balanced on top of the snow. Elrond wondered how elf-feet did it. The wood-elf spoke on. “I did not walk up to your gates to die. But I may wish that you’d seen my blood on the snow before the end. So it’s true about the brand, then. I had heard the rumour that the cruel men of Maedhros, and those of Maglor as well, are all branded.”
Elrond recited with pride. “They do it very quickly, on the right arm, close to where our lord Maedhros’ wrist was cut. You take it so you might sympathize with Maedhros’ sacrifice and courage. It shows you are brave and true to our lords. Also, it helps to identify our own dead, that we may take them from the field with honour.”
“Are you branded?” she asked.
“I am too young. Soon, though!” Elrond said, cheerfully.
The wood-elf gave him a sour look. “Well, your master was right enough that nothing else matters once you wear that brand. Wearing it makes you known to all as a Kinslayer. If an elf-wanderer meets up with a company, they check your arm for it, now. And if you bear it, you are cast out. Even if you reach the refuge at the Sea. So the brand traps you as a Kinslayer, whether you stay here or go.”
“Oh,” said Elrond. How, he thought, could other elves be so cruel? At least the laws of Maedhros and Maglor gave all wandering folk a chance. He jerked his ankles out of the snow again. “What do mortal men do if they see you with the brand?”
“I don’t know and I don’t care.” Elrond was shocked as the elf-woman spat to one side. “I haven’t met a mortal worth that since Beren departed! Between the High-Elves and the Sickly, we Green-Elves lost two lords and our peace. Alas for Ossirand, and all the arrows we spared mortals!”
Elrond said no more to her, then, his own mouth tightening.
Maedhros came up to where they stood at last, Maglor and the esquire following. It was Maglor who spoke first, his kindly face weary beneath his helm. “A star shines on the hour of our meeting. Now that you are come amongst us, you will join us?” He held out a gauntlet-clad hand. “Our guards here have told you the law of our gates. Do not bring death upon yourselves. Let us spare you.”
Maglor sighed, and his voice was heavy with all the sorrow of the wronged, a music of speaking that yearned for pity. “Our Oath binds us, and we cannot betray it, whether we will or no. My brother and I have been betrayed from every side but our own kindred. Yea, even our own soldiers have turned and fought against us at times. Still, we save what we may against these cruel days.”
The two less hale wood-elves, one broken in spirit, the other in body and mind, turned beseechingly to their bitter-mouthed leader. She kept her mouth firmly shut. Elrond watched her keenly; if she flew at Maedhros or his foster parents, he would be the one to down her, he thought. Rodendil was also watching her closely. Then he saw Maedhros move, and tensed with excitement.
With his left hand, Maedhros drew back his black hood. All the power of beauty Maglor had in his voice, Maedhros still had in his face. No-one glanced anywhere else, least of all at the fascinated Elrond. Maglor stepped back. Maedhros ignored the wood-elves’ leader, reaching right past her with his whole hand to her broken kinsman. Speaking, it seemed, to him only, Maedhros said, “I know what it was like. I know. I took the torment of Thangorodrim.”
The ex-thrall trembled. “You were there,” he whispered.
“I was there. Nine weeks I hung upon the terrible height, chained by my right wrist alone. Greatly did I suffer to be free.” Maedhros held out his wrapped, handless right arm, in parallel with the whole one. “Not to free just my body, but my mind. Are you free? Or do you serve him?”
“I left myself among the mines of Angband; I am lost. This which stands before you is free.” Elrond was perplexed, but Maedhros understood the half-mad creature.
Maedhros turned and spoke to the other two wood-elves. “We are kinslayers, yes. But I wished for my death, once, begged for it. There are things far more terrible to do than to slay one’s own kind, torments worse to suffer than to die. Your friend is evidence of such. Our Oath binds us to fight Morgoth. It is our way, sworn before Illuvatar. And yea, it makes us terrible and fell, even to our own kind! For we are the last bar between Morgoth and the wider world. That is why we do what we do. We cannot do otherwise.”
The archers and Erestor knelt to honour their lords’ words. Elrond smiled, seeing the wood-elves drawn in by the stern beauty and unquenched rightness of the Sons of Fëanor. When the ex-thrall mirrored the archers’ fealty, the other two wood-elves looked around. The wearier wood-elf gave in to the moment and knelt as well.
The last wood-elf standing sighed. “We will serve you, since it seems there is some honour in your way.” And bowed.
Maedhros pulled the hood of his cloak up, grown remote and quiet once more. “Your companions are weary, as are we,” said Maglor. He reached up and touched his brother’s shoulder, protectively. “There is a small ritual, to show us in action what you say now in words. Then we shall all return to rest, and you shall have healing.” He turned to his foster-son and said, “Elrond, good lad, yet another errand for you! The guards must remain, and we walk with our new folk. Dash on ahead and let the smiths know to warm the brand? We will follow.”
Elrond, relieved that Maedhros had set everything right again, ran off through the snow once more. He traced a different path through the camp’s lanes until he reached the settlement’s centre. As he dashed, he considered studying to be a smith himself, if the years would let him. He fretted that, as one half-elven, his time could be as short as his growing had been swift. Nobody had been able to let him or Elros know if they would live an elf’s span or a mortal’s.
In the bitter winter, the great smithy was one of the few warm places in the camp. Elrond was breathing hard by the time he peered through the log building’s opening into its agreeable disorder. The smithy was full of metal and wood, close and smoky. Drawn to the warmth, tame fowl perched in the rafters or were sleepily underfoot, and the camp’s few hounds were piled together in a corner. None of the animals were disturbed by the sound of the smiths hammering away. They laboured through the winter nights to anneal iron into steel, for the potent night-cold was one of their tools, as much as the heat of their forges.
The three smiths at work greeted Elrond pleasantly, with the same mix of cautious respect and amusement many in the camp showed him and Elros. He told his story for the second time that night.
“Bad business, getting an escaped thrall in,” grumbled one smith. Nonetheless, he went into a corner and retrieved a tool wrapped in a sueded hide.
“Two strong backs came with him,” the second smith protested. “And Maedhros wills it.” The first smith nodded at that, placated, and unwrapped the tool he held. The tool was a spar of polished iron with a wooden handle at one end. The other end bore, like a flower of metal, thin strips curved into the elf-rune for the letter M. Looking at it, Elrond tried to decide if the flat M-brand was as wide as a small apple or a large egg.
The third smith shifted the embers in the forge, and the brand was placed in the fire. “Is the freed thrall a smith?” he asked, curiously.
“No, they’re all Laiquendi. Green-Elves.” The smiths all groaned in disappointment.
“Ah, well,” said the third smith, “it does not matter, truly. Since the orcs cut us off from the Dwarves for trading, and the Iron Ridge for our own mining, we’ll be using stone arrow-heads again soon enough.” Much of what littered the smithy was scrap metal waiting to be reforged, every mail-link more precious than gold. “Shall we draw straws to see who shall do the branding?”
Elrond, seeing his errand done, dashed back to meet the camp’s lords and lady. Coming across them and the new elves on the path, he went directly to Maglor. “They’re starting,” he said. Maglor thanked him, and turned back to his wife and the wood-elves. Elrond decided that since he had not been sent away, he would follow and see them take the brand.
Maglor was asking them, “How did you find us?”
The answer surprised them all. “We saw a new star rise from the West, and were following it.” The wood-elf pointed skywards, and everyone turned to see.
Low over the western horizon, a new star shone indeed. Elrond saw Maedhros clench Maglor’s arm, and change back to speaking Quenya. “One of our father’s jewels – the one lost to the Sea! The Valar must have retrieved it after Elwing dove into the sea to flee us.” Elrond tensed at his birth-mother’s name. She had abandoned him and his brother in that desperate flight.
Maglor said, “Then our oath is reduced by one-third. Let us be glad!”
Maedhros straightened as he gazed upwards. “Our oath is made more difficult, thereby. How can we bring down a star from the sky?” He turned and gave Elrond a strange look. Elrond swallowed.
Maglor and his wife, still looking up, did not notice. Maglor said, “Perhaps our mercy will soften it yet, if we get this sign tonight that the Valar still take heed of this Middle-Earth, and kindness to others mend the sin of our Kinslaying with time.”
“We have been kind. It was not always to our advantage. We should have seized that Silmaril while we might have, instead of trying to negotiate. That and that alone is what will shrive our oath; and until then we are cursed.”
Maglor yawned. “Let us not quarrel in front of these new Elves. They have seen enough of that tonight.” He spoke in Sindarin again, loud enough for the wood-elves to hear. “Well, maybe you three and your news have brought us some luck. Once you have sworn your oath, it will be well.”
They came to the smithy. Maglor and his wife entered first, and the smiths hailed them and bowed to them. Elrond had been pleased by how the smiths had welcomed him earlier, but now he chafed seeing how they hailed their lord and lady. When Maedhros entered, they grew more grave, and sank to one knee for a moment. Maedhros lifted a hand in greeting and benediction.
The group fell into a circle around the central forge, which held only the brand. It was not the first time Elrond had seen this sight; when he and his twin had been lads starting to stretch like saplings, they had been shown it when they asked. The circle of faces reddened around the forge. The smith who had drawn the short straw took the brand from the fire, holding it up to cool. Its metal was radiant red. When it had dimmed, he turned to Maedhros. “My lord. Which shall swear first?”
“I! I shall,” croaked the ex-thrall. He set aside his cloak, then the rough poncho he wore beneath it. Everyone flinched. Elrond gasped aloud. He had never seen such a twisted, scarred body. The spine seemed half-collapsed, and the elf’s flesh was livid with the webbed healing that came after burns. It was worse than the old mortals he had seen, like a corpse walking. He wondered if this was what time would do to him, and felt nauseous. Hating himself, but not wanting to be shamed, he slipped back to stand in the smithy’s doorway, to recover himself breathing the cold air. For the first time, the brand seemed wrong. Why pain the poor creature more? Elrond yearned to heal him instead. He watched the other side of the doorway, not the branding.
Elrond braced himself to hear a cry of pain from the smithy, but all he heard was a dim, hissing moan. Then he heard Maglor say, “Well borne,” Too embarrassed to return to the main circle, he glanced outside, listening to hear how the second elf, the woman who had led them, took the brand. The next thing he heard was not a cry of pain, but a shout of approbation. She had taken the brand without utterance or flinch; a good start for her in the camp.
Elrond wondered if, with his mingled blood, he would ever be deemed fit to bear the brand. He peered out of the smithy. The new Silmaril-star was close to overhead now. Which was worse? To be a Kinslayer such as the wood-elves had feared? To be a mortal as they scorned? Or to be craven, as those who fled battle and travail? Was it worth it, Mother? he thought. Why did you have to give up like that? Leave us like that? Couldn’t you have helped them, and given them the Silmaril instead? If you had, they would be free – the ones who took us in, we whom you abandoned. He did not yet have the gift of foresight, so he stood unconsoled, never dreaming that these questions would be answered one day.
Then he jumped. A harrowing scream cut the night from the smithy, the third elf taking the brand. Elrond kept his eyes to the sky, and he shivered on a sudden. It seemed the new star flickered in sympathy.
Why is young Elrond with the Sons of Fëanor? What happened to his parents, Eärendil and Elwing? = The really short version: the parents of Elrond and his twin Elros, Earendil and Elwing, were both half-Elven and half-mortal and got married. At the end of the First Age, Eärendil sailed over Sea to ask the Valar for help against evil. Elwing jumped into the Sea, carrying a potent magical jewel, a Silmaril but abandoning her infant sons Elros and Elrond, to keep the jewel from someone trying to take it from her. That “someone” was the Sons of Fëanor, who were oath-bound to try and recapture the jewel. Maglor, one of the sons of Fëanor, took in Elros and Elrond and raised them. Eärendil and Elwing managed to reunite in Valinor and, after asking the Valar for help, Eärendil was set to sail the sky in a magical boat, carrying the Silmaril as a star. Sourced from The Silmarillion. Also referenced in Bilbo’s song in the chapter “Many Meetings” of FOTR, “Eärendil was a mariner…”
The Laiquendi = Also known as the Green-Elves, a woodland elf-people. The inspiring sentence behind the cultural clashes in this story is from Of the Fifth Battle, The Silmarillion. After the tremendous failure of the Battle of the Nirnaeth Aenordiad, "the sons of Fëanor scattered like leaves before the wind. Their arms were scattered, and their league broken; and they took to a wild and woodland life beneath the feet of Ered Lindon, mingling with the Green-Elves of Ossirand, bereft of their power and glory of old."
The Sickly = A derogatory Elvish name for mortal men. Sourced from “Of Men” in The Silmarillion.
Thanks to beta readers Aayesha and Suzana.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.