2. Chapter Two
I cannot fathom why my steps frequently led me past the cell wherein Elerrína was confined. I did not speak to her, for I had no business with her. Yet I would often shoot surreptitious glances within, and my cold cynicism would withdraw in favour of nervous concern when I did so.
Finally, when I could bear it no longer, I asked her dispassionately, "Why did you bind yourself to one who is doomed past eternity?"
I had to know. Laurefindë had asked me to join with him for eternity. I had balked at the idea, for a bond was only a restraint imposed upon choice, heart and ambition. I had sacrificed much for him, but to ask more of me would be to snap the taut lines of our mutual regard past restoration. He had refused to see that, but when had he listened to me? Years later, I was no closer to understanding why love demanded pledges, bonds and eternal vows. How could Elerrína tie herself to the dying prince through a bond, a bond that was not reciprocated?
"He needs to live," she whispered. "Milord, did you not see it in his heart? He needs time. I can give him that."
"I had not known that bonds were as fickle as this to the Eldar," I said crisply, wondering if Laurefindë would have bound himself to another in circumstances as this. Her hair was distracting me from my detachment.
She did not reply, tilting her head in bewilderment. I gestured to the soft mound of her stomach and said coolly, "You were no virgin. You had a child. Was the father among the thralls taken?"
She flinched and looked away. I could have pried the information easily enough. But I shook my head and said quietly, "The prince dies even as we speak. Your energy, even if you give him all you are through this wretched one-sided bond, will not suffice to keep him alive. He is poisoned and his mind is broken, past aid and sanity. Love, born of fickle circumstances as it is, cannot save him."
"I respect him, milord," she said softly, her eyes shining in sadness. "I have no right to profess undying love for the prince. I did not know him at all. All I know is that I shall die here, and it does not matter, for I can serve no purpose in life. But his life will serve a purpose, or many, and if I can help him live, I shall."
"If I told my lord, you would be killed, painfully, slowly," I enunciated each word clearly, and watched the impact hit her hard.
Then she rallied and said hesitantly, "The prince begged me tell you that one can hoodwink the Gods with fool's gold."
"You conniving bastard!" I shouted up at his insensate form.
He was nearly in the clutches of Námo, and certainly leagues away from lucidity and sanity. I cursed myself and cursed him thrice the more before cloaking myself in enchantment and going up to him. Melkor would have me slain - agonisingly - if he were to ever hear of my doing.
When I touched his cold skin, and rubbed the soiled, vermin-infected garment tattered by the winds, he moaned and stirred, though grey eyes did not crack open to meet my regard. I felt the lack of bloodflow in his right hand, it was lost to him, I knew instinctively. His extremities were benumbed and his lips blue. I closed my eyes and willed my healing powers to course into his form, fighting tooth and claw with Námo who seemed most set on taking the prince.
I was right. Elerrína's strength had not been enough. If I had not gone to him then, he would have passed away in a day or two. The idea unsettled me more than I cared to admit.
Incoherent mumbling passed his lips, and I conjured water before gently settling into the process of rehydrating his body. Laurefindë would have probably swooned on seeing me thus. He had accused me of not having a single charitable bone in my body.
But a measure of lucidity had returned to the eyes that were a cursed foremother's legacy as they opened to meet my gaze.
"There is no benefit in the gifts of a sinner, they say," he murmured wearily, arching up to the waterskin I had drawn away in concern of straining his swallowing reflexes.
"When have you ever gone by what they say?" I asked, equally tired of everything.
His eyes regained the smallest measure of the sparkle that had characterised them ere Melkor had sent him into insanity. I brought the waterskin to his parched, broken lips and gently tilted it, staring in wretched fascination as the rivulets of clean water made gory tracks down his defiled, marred torso.
"I seem to be on the last rung of insanity if my vision has conjured images of you coming to my consolation," he breathed hoarsely.
"I came to declaim you as the conniving bastard that you are," I muttered. "But I had to bring you to consciousness to make you hear that."
His lips quirked in a ghastly parody of the easy smile that had once played across on them. But he rallied well enough from death and whispered, "My mother would be most put out by such an accusation, Mairon. Whyever would you say such a thing?"
"Gold," I said quietly. "You claim that you can hoodwink the Gods with fool's gold?"
"I claim only that which has been proved, Mairon." He tried to lean in, not even wincing at the movement. That, more than anything else, showed me how inured and numb he had turned to the pain. I swore and leant in myself, placing a tentative hand on his shoulder.
"You see," he continued hoarsely, in a voice broken by defilement, disuse and screams, "a certain advisor to Aulë hoodwinked more than one of the Ainur by convincing them that he would choose the path to darkness spurning love and light to achieve his ambition."
"Continue," I breathed softly, taken in by the eerie light within his eyes.
"He did not choose the darkness spurred by ambition." His numb fingers brushed mine stiffly. "He chose it for his golden love who Irmo would have taken if the Maia had not consented to obey his whims."
I snarled and struck him hard in the pelvis, my fist jousting with bones. The jarring propelled him to the rock face and his eyes rolled back in his head.
"Mairon, Mairon," he whispered, "are we not the unluckiest among Eru's creations, you and I?"
"I should have let you die, wretched prince," I muttered, fighting off the urge to save him from this purgatory. "Laurefindë shall ever hate me."
"If you had told him," he began softly.
"As much as I hate to admit, I would rather have taken your place on this cliff face than ever, ever subjecting him to the distress of Irmo's wiles," I swore. "It was my burden, my choice, my path and my heart. I regret nothing."
"If that is the truth, then you are fortunate," he murmured. "To be untainted by regret is no mere feat."
"You know well that it was not the truth," I said wryly. "In better days, I might have enjoyed verbal jousts with you."
"Pity, is it not, that we meet under the cloud of Atalantë?" he breathed, his eyes regaining their solemnity. "Come no more, my fate is not yours. Not every charm can hoodwink the Gods, Mairon. You have chosen your path, now begone along it, for there is no drawing back. The doom upon you allows no half-measures."
"You see my doom then?" I queried.
"It is of no import," he said, not unkindly. "Away, please, for I need no pitying gaze upon my plight. I may have lost all, but it is cruel to be reminded so."
"You unearthed a secret deep buried," I said. "What purpose shall it serve?"
"As I said, Mairon, your fate is not mine." He closed his eyes exhaustedly. I offered him one last sip from the waterskin. Gulping, he continued, "I know what evil I intend to do, but I know not if I shall live to finish what I started."
"My lord!" The minion came running in horror. "The host of Feanáro's brother has come!"
I shielded my eyes against the sudden radiance and rushed away to find Melkor, all the while staring at the red orb that came riding through the heavens, flaming in the west as Nolofinwë blew his horns. At the uprising of the great light the servants fled into the deep caves, and Nolofinwë passed unopposed through the fastness of Dor Daedeloth while his foes hid beneath the earth. Then the Elves smote upon the gates of my lord's keep, and the challenge of their trumpets shook the towers of Thangorodrim; and the one fastened to the rock heard them amid his torment and cried aloud, but his voice was lost in the echoes of the stone.
I entered Melkor's chamber to find him gazing at the new spectacle through the window. I went to stand beside him, veiling my deepest secrets as always, before casting my eyes to the skies.
The window faced the Thangorodrim and we could see the prisoner who had stolen Melkor's darkest secret. The red orb of fire and gold climbed steadily upwards until it shone down its fiery radiance upon the wretched prince. I watched, fascinated, as life warmed in his blood and his pulse gained slowly. Eyes, grey as the starlit meres of Beleriand, came up to look at the brightness above and his body shuddered.
Then his regard turned towards the window, drawn undoubtedly by the radiance of his father's jewels set in Melkor's crown. A disdainful quirk of his lips was bestowed ere he returned his gaze to the fire above.
"The Ages of The Stars have ended," Melkor murmured thoughtfully. "Now it is time to burn and fall."
"Atalantë," I said quietly, remembering what the prince had said.
"The downfallen?" Melkor asked amusedly. "I did not know that you shared my penchant for embellishment of words and omens."
"Shall we attack Nolofinwë?" I asked hastily, not choosing to draw his attention to the subject of the downfallen and how I had come to meet my fall.
"Love is a cursed, miserable thing," I told Elerrína when I chanced to pass by her dungeon.
It had become a routine. She would call out to me when I passed, imploring me to share tidings of the prince. I had ignored her, snapped at her, tortured her, given her over to the guards, and willed her to fade. She reminded me of someone I did not want to be reminded of, green eyes and golden hair, rockfast devotion and unconditional love. Finally, I had thawed, offering her a scrap or two of tidings whenever I passed by.
She seemed in remarkably robust health, despite the ill-use suffered at the hands of her wardens. Perhaps the revived spirits of the prince had helped her recover.
"Why would you say that, milord?" she asked me softly, her eyes cast to the pallet where still remained the tatters of the cape the prince had worn when he had been captured.
"Because," I gesticulated angrily, "it makes one choose follies one would have never contemplated otherwise."
If not for my wretched regard for Laurefindë, I would have been safely cloistered now in Valinor as Aulë's advisor. If not for the damned rationalist dying upon the Thangorodrim, Elerrína would have been still unspoiled and relatively safe. And if not for Varda and Melkor and their unvoiced love, none of this would have happened.
"The Princeling is living on borrowed time," Melkor said.
I could only hope that he did not know how literally true his words are.
"His cousin has been searching relentlessly for him," Melkor continued thoughtfully. "Love, if I am not mistaken."
He was never mistaken when it came to that intangible subject.
Later, that night, staring at the mild whiteness of the moon, I came to my decision. My path was chosen. I could not retrace my steps. Laurefindë was forbidden to me. Having chosen what my mind dictated, I could not do anything to change circumstance.
But there was something I could do ere I sealed off the past and immersed myself in the darkness.
And that I would do.
It was easy enough to lure the cousin to the right paths in the guise of a falcon after having sent a cryptic note proclaiming knowledge of the prince's whereabouts and willingness to lead the cousin there if only he agreed to follow the falcon. He began singing as we advanced deeper into the lair of Melkor that I called home. I feared that he would draw attention and give us away. A more abominable performance on the harp, I am yet to hear.
I led him to the rocks and he exclaimed in horror when he saw the spectacle above. I went up to the prince, still in my guise, and roused him to lucidity.
"I told you to keep away, Mairon," the prince whispered. Then his eyes widened and he saw the harpist beneath.
"I will save you," the hot-blooded cousin swore defiantly.
"Mairon, please, please, please take him away from this hell!" The prince drew upon nonexistent reserves of strength to beg me.
"You know the darkest secret of my lord," I told him quietly. "Use that and obtain Varda's aid to escape, Prince. Your cousin will see you saved. He does love you."
Findekáno, for the cousin was named so, had begun imploring the Gods to send succour from the starlit skies. I wondered if the Gods, who had not bothered thus far, would suddenly take an interest in the proceedings.
"I shall not forget this," the prince whispered, stricken.
"You should." I let a tendril of my thoughts caress his mind. "I mean to never turn back to the light again, for as you said, we are allowed no half-measures."
"Make the best of it," he said solemnly.
"I intend to."
"Elerrína," he began tentatively, as the stars fought above and a shooting cascade of brilliance fell down as lode metal to the grounds.
"Begone," I advised him. "I will do for her what I can, a clean death once you are recovered and need her bond no longer."
His eyes glistened strangely before he closed them and whispered his summons to Varda. Findekáno continued his prayers to the Gods throughout, his voice breaking as he regarded the desecration wrought upon the one he loved.
Later age transcripts by loremasters say that the prince begged for death when his cousin came to save him. It is a flawed account. He did indeed beg for death, but only after he had been decapitated and fallen into his cousin's arms. It was when desperate fingers had come to probe his nether passage and Findekáno whispered harshly, "Tell me they did not do that to you! Death was better!"
The prince had staved off unconsciousness and breathed wretchedly, "Kill me then."
There were massive hunts and a massacre, orchestrated by me upon Melkor's commands. The guards who had been on the path Findekáno had arrived through were slaughtered and fed to the vultures. The guards who failed to find the prisoner and his saviour were thrown into the fires.
I remained my lord's right hand lieutenant, as ever. After all, my loyalties were proven thrice over and my cruelty knew no bounds. To fall by my hand was considered infinitely more accursed than falling by my lord's hand.
"Milord," Elerrína whispered when I passed the dungeon on my way to a destination.
"I cannot do anything at all if the fool decides to visit again," I said crisply.
She bowed her head in gratitude and I realised the sight of golden hair did not affect me as terribly as it once had. I had passed the test. It was time to delve into the darkness that awaited me.