A hand on his shoulder. "The twins are gone."
Of course they are gone, they are dead, is Maglor's first hazy thought upon waking. Then he looks up. Maedhros bends over him, face pale, eyes intent with worry.
"What do you mean?" he cries, sitting up.
"They're not in the camp, and their things are gone. I've looked. There are tracks in the grass leading south."
Maglor rises immediately. "I will go now. I shall have to take Celeblain; I can't track them on a horse, but we will need his speed to catch up to you. Don't wait for us, though."
"We cannot both go," Maedhros says.
Maglor looks at him in surprise. "Do you mean to come with me?"
"I am a better tracker than you," Maedhros says matter-of-factly. "They are children and they have a light step. But we cannot leave the others leaderless."
"They do not really need us," Maglor says.
"They need you."
Maglor doesn't know what to do. The boys' welfare is his responsibility; it's his fault they managed to run off in the night like this. But it is true that Maedhros will do a better job at finding them, and there is something in Maedhros's manner that speaks of a peculiar sense of responsibility. He is thinking, perhaps, of another pair of young boys for whom he searched long ago.
"Go, then," he says. "But please hurry."
"I will find them," Maedhros says. It's all he has to say. He frowns, but it's a frown Maglor hasn't seen for a long time. He wore it before his abdication; he wore it before the Nirnaeth. I will do this thing, his face declares.
Maglor believes he will.
Elrond wakes to the sound of his brother's screaming.
When he opens his eyes, he screams as well. Standing above them is a black bear.
To say it's enormous is an understatement. The bulk of it above them blocks everything else from view. One huge paw is on his brother's legs.
Elrond tries to squirm away, but the bear snaps at him, revealing horrible yellow teeth. Then it returns its attention to Elros, who is lying most directly beneath it.
"Help!" they both cry, but it's useless—there is no one to hear them.
Elrond grabs a stick. His hand is shaking; he doesn't know what he means to do. He holds it in front of him like a dagger. He might stab it in the eye, but he can't reach.
He doesn't get a chance to try. Suddenly there is the sound of running. The bear turns to see the cause of the disturbance. Elrond turns too.
He advances toward the bear, sword in his hand, hair flaming out like a mane. The bear senses the threat immediately. With surprising speed, it moves forward and lunges.
Maedhros is ready. Before the bear can strike, he slices into its shoulder. It roars in pain and tries to bite him, but Maedhros dodges. There is a streak of metal, and the battle is over—Maedhros's sword is plunged to the hilt in the bear's side.
The bear falls to the ground. It dies more slowly than Elrond would have expected, trembling a little as its blood seeps into the leaves. Elrond watches it, unable to move.
Maedhros pulls out his sword and wipes it on the grass. His eyes move over them in a cursory fashion. "Are you hurt?"
They shake their heads, or try to. They're both shaking as it is.
"Was... was that from Morgoth?" Elros asks, clambering to his feet and pulling up Elrond beside him.
"No," Maedhros says. "Just an ordinary black bear."
"But aren't bears afraid of people?" Elrond asks.
"Yes, they usually are." Maedhros looks up at the shadowy forest canopy. They've slept through most of the day, and it's getting on evening. "There is something wrong with this forest. I don't think it's safe anymore. You're certain you're not hurt?"
"Fine," Elros manages.
"I suppose you realize what a miracle it is that you are even alive. If that bear had attacked you a few minutes earlier, you would both be dead."
Elrond thinks it is more than a miracle. He has never seen anything like Maedhros just now—the way he moved like his arm and sword were one, the fluidity of his attack. And although he is frightened of this ferocity—the battle at the Havens still like a brand upon his memory—he cannot help but admire it as well. Someday, he thinks, I want to be able to wield a sword like that.
"Thank you," he says quietly.
But Maedhros seems not to hear him. "When we get back, Maglor will apologize to you, as if it's his fault you ran off. But it was nothing less than suicide to go off like this alone, and you knew that. You shall never do such a thing again."
"But we can't go back," Elros says.
"It isn't up for discussion."
"But we're deserters! He won't let us!"
A strange expression comes into Maedhros's face. It's almost as if he's going to laugh. "Deserters. Well, I suspect Lord Maglor, in his kindness, will pardon you. Now follow me."
Maedhros begins to walk. Elros grabs their pack, and they hurry along after him. They come to a clearing where Maedhros's horse—a black beast of a stallion—waits. Looking at him, you would think him half-wild, but at a word the monster stoops docilely, and Maedhros helps them up. Maedhros mounts himself, and they are off with a gallop.
They ride out of the forest and head east, away from the setting sun. Maedhros takes care to stay away from the trees. He doesn't explain why he came instead of Maglor, and they don't ask. They silently share a piece of waybread from their bag. Elrond knows his brother is thinking the same thing he is—they are trapped. There is no longer any question of escape.
It doesn't matter. Maedhros and Maglor are right about one thing—the world is no longer safe, and they, children, are useless in it. No one is going to save them from the sons of Fëanor—the sons of Fëanor are the ones doing the saving.
The ride long into the night. It's nearly dawn when they stop. They share another meal of water and waybread. It's gotten very chilly, and the twins can't stop shivering.
Maedhros frowns, then shrugs. "We're in no particular danger. I'll build a fire."
Elrond wonders if they should help, but Maedhros goes about his business as if they aren't there, so they wrap themselves in their blankets and watch. It's funny to see him pile logs, strike tinder, and build up the flames, all one-handed. He works so efficiently that it seems effortless, but Elrond guesses that it must have taken him a good deal of practice. He wonders for the first time how he lost the hand. In battle? But the right hand probably would have been his sword-hand. How did he survive the fight?
Maedhros must have seen him watching, because he says, quite softly, "My best friend cut it off."
Elrond and Elros both stare.
"Why?" they demand in unison.
Maedhros still doesn't look at them. His face is red in the firelight. "I was a prisoner in Thangorodrim. Morgoth was very pleased at having the eldest son of Fëanor in his grasp, so he decided he would rather torment me than kill me. He hung me by my right arm from a precipice. Fingon came to rescue me, but he couldn't free me. I asked him to kill me, but he was cleverer than that, and cut off my hand." He smiles vaguely. "One might question whether he made the correct choice."
Elrond can only look at him in horror. Cutting off your friend's hand might be less awful than killing him, but he can't imagine doing either.
"Does it hurt?" Elros asks.
"Not anymore, no."
"We're... we're related to King Fingon," Elrond says timidly. "He was our great-grandfather's brother." He wonders why Fingon and Maedhros were friends to begin with, but it's probably not a good question to ask.
"He was my cousin."
"We're related." It's not a thought he likes.
"Where are your other brothers?" Elros asks.
Elrond and Maedhros both look up in surprise.
"In the stories people tell about Lúthien and Beren," he says quickly, gaze fixed on the ground, "there are sons of Fëanor. But their names are different. And people speak of the seven sons of Fëanor." He looks up. "Are they in Ossiriand?"
"All of my brothers save Maglor are dead," Maedhros says.
Elrond gasps despite himself. "All of them?"
"Yes." There is no movement in his face. In the darkness, he looks like a wooden carving. He says nothing more, and Elrond knows they must ask no more questions.
"Go to sleep," Maedhros says at last. "I'll be keeping watch."
Elrond lies down by the fire. He doesn't close his eyes right away. The sky is gray and starless; the fire is the only light he can see. Maedhros sits beside them, staring out into the distance, apparently immune to the cold.
As Elrond falls asleep, his worries about the future fall away, and all he can think about is what Maedhros has told them tonight. His mind is crowded with phantoms—ghosts of dead brothers, and friends wielding swords against friends. It is so strange and sad, and he does not know how one person can bear it. Apparently they bear it by becoming like Maedhros.
Yet this morning, when he killed the bear, he was like a hero. He saved their lives, and thought nothing of doing so. Why are they alive and his brothers dead? None of it fits together.
He looks over at Elros. He is clearly asleep, mouth a little open, hair sticking up at odd angles. The sight of him is comforting.
They are safe with Maedhros watching over them, he decides. It doesn't make sense, that he should be a source of safety, but that's how it is.
He falls asleep quickly, and sleeps well.
Maedhros sits by the flickering fire while the boys sleep. They are folded up like young birds, . Fear has been riding beside him all day. It's been a strangely unselfish emotion—not, I will fail them like I failed their mother's brothers, nor, Maglor will blame me if I cannot find them. The thoughts that predominated were those of the boys themselves, Elrond and Elros, so young, and vulnerable, and alone.
Not that he's been doing a particularly good job of acting on these generous feelings. What possessed him to tell them about Thangorodrim, he hardly knows. Whatever Maglor may say, it's a grisly story to tell children. Yet he was once so good with children—eldest brother to six of them, with seven younger cousins to boot. He listened to them, and made them laugh, and taught them about the world without alienating them from it. It kept him young. But that was ages ago; he has been old for a long, long time.
He has not been such a good brother since he came to Middle-earth.
The boys sleep until an hour past dawn; he lets them have their rest. When they wake, they share breakfast and ride for most of the day. They don't talk.
It's sunset when Maedhros spots a cluster of riders ahead. He raises a hand; in the distance, Maglor waves back and gallops to meet them. Soon Maedhros can make out his face—it is all exultation.
"Are they all right?" he cries, dismounting.
Maedhros looks at them; they are couched, one on top of the other, in an unlikely slumber. "Asleep," he says softly.
"Ah," Maglor says. "Shall I take one of them, then? They look a bit crowded."
Maedhros dismounts and lifts one of the twins off the horse. The boy is lighter than he remembers young children being—or perhaps he's become accustomed to heavier burdens. He carries him, gingerly as a glass sculpture, into Maglor's waiting arms. As the transfer is made, their eyes meet, and Maglor nods as if he understands something.
Relieved of the weight, Maedhros mounts his horse and rides on to meet the rest of the party. Maglor rides after him.
After a few minutes, the remaining twin wakes. "Where's Elros?" he asks groggily.
"Riding with Maglor. You can see him again when we stop."
"Oh," the boy says, and falls back asleep.
And for one painful moment, Maedhros is a creature of envy. What is happiness but to fall asleep with the certain knowledge that one's brother is safe? The possibility of it gleams like an unattainable jewel, clear and miraculous.
Ambarussa and Ambarussa—in his memory, they are laughing. They are dead, but in death they have, at least, each other. Maedhros can hardly imagine a more desirable lot.
Some Nerdy Endnotes
This story uses two pieces of History of Middle-earth canon—the story of Amras's death at Losgar, and a version of the Tale of Years that gives us a birth year for Elrond and his brother (according to which they're six-year-old twins when they're captured at Sirion. Whatever six years old means for half-Elves. I guess I imagine them as very precocious five-year-olds.)
Halfway through this fic I thought it was a good idea to try to use HoME to reconstruct the Sirion story beyond what's available in the published Silmarillion. This was a horrible idea. Luckily the whole thing fell to pieces when I discovered the letter in which Tolkien describes the twins as being found in a cave, which is a nice story but deeply confusing because elsewhere Elwing is said to know that they were captured, and how would she know that if they were just left in a cave somewhere? Unless they were carried off by some of the assailants, left there, and then retrieved by Maglor, I suppose. It's all very confusing. (Tolkien also portrayed them here as infants, which is much less interesting to write about, even if it makes their change in guardianship less emotionally taxing.)
At any rate, I gave up and decided to stick with published Silmarillion canon (except for the stuff above.)
"May the stars shine upon the end of your road" is a direct quote from The Fellowship of the Ring; Gildor says it in parting to Frodo.