6. Chapter Six
Maglor's song had been wordless, a fine tapestry of notes, simple in form and exquisite in cooperation. They wove together like undulating waves, swelling and then sinking, only to rise again in splendour. Hearing his supple, preternatural voice was like allowing the spirit of Eru to spill into my ears and caress my mind, gentle as soft grass, firm as living rock.
For the first time that night, I slept soundly; no shadowed dreams troubled me. I could not tell for Elros, who always slept like a felled tree-trunk, unconscious to the world.
The next day the weather grew warmer, and Amon Ereb was cast into buttery sunshine, highlighting in great dark streaks the sharp shadows of its skeleton. The creepers on its grey walls, hitherto subjected to constant rain and hence soggy and disgruntled, quivered happily, gay as small elf-children.
I, for one, felt sticky and uncomfortable in the cotton clothes I had worn since the early morning, and it was now close to evening. Wiping my damp upper lip, I pulled my book back to me and resumed where I had left off, but my mind wandered. Elros was down at the stables, being taught horse-riding by a stable-boy he had some days ago befriended. I told him to ask a groom for more professional help, but he sniffed at me. I had shrugged my shoulders and let him go.
I read for another hour or so, and then slid off my chair, starting to feel bored. Running my fingers through my damp hair, I decided I would take a bath. "Elros can entertain himself for a good while when he gets back," I thought. Grabbing a fresh set of clothes, I skipped downstairs, taking two at a time and nearly colliding into a wall. I slowed down.
When I got to my destination, I saw the baths were mostly empty, and sighed in relief.
I was about to head to the usual secluded spot I bathed in with Elros when I glimpsed Maedhros – courtesy his singularly conspicuous hair – languidly soaking in a (mercifully murky) pool with his elbows resting at the edge, his hair clubbed tightly behind his head. I could see the scars of past battles, and also of his time in Angband, tracing a vile pattern over his chest and his arms. He seemed not to care; with his posture he looked like much like a sated wild cat, lazy and proud, possibly about to yawn and show its great teeth.
Arbitrarily, I recalled Maglor's tale of Maedhros' friendship with King Fingon, and pursed my lips. I had listened to the account with great attention, face in hands, as Maglor told of the cousins' trips in the great mountains, their hunting parties, their duets (I had started at the thought of Maedhros being able to sing), and their lengthy talks in the palace of Tirion. "Fingon may well have been our brother," Maglor had said, raising his eyes to the ceiling, eyes dazed. Then he smiled to himself. "I taught him to play the lyre, did you know? It took less time than I thought it would, for he had buttered fingers before I met him."
Sucking my teeth, suddenly too shy to go further, I turned, and would have rushed out had Maedhros not seen me and beckoned me with a finger. As I stood fidgeting before him he said in his wry drawl, "Why did you turn away?" Next to his left arm, I noticed, there was a small wooden box, along with a carelessly folded robe.
"There is no reason," I mumbled, avoiding his gaze. Maedhros tilted his head back, baring his chalk-white neck, revealing blue-green veins branching across it beneath the skin, like an old tree against a misty snow-scape. I could see his pulse, and this made me nervous, for I was aware that what kept him alive was this blood, blood, blood.
He smirked, inclining his head to one side. It was a very awkward angle, reminiscent of a broken neck, and made my stomach stir. I wanted to leave.
"Tell me," he said smoothly, pulling his head back into place, "do you know how to play chess?"
I said I did not, though I had seen people playing it before in Sirion. They sat for hours on uncomfortable wooden chairs, staring and staring at the game like it held all the answers of Eä – which, obviously, it did not. It seemed a dreadful bore. Maedhros arched an eyebrow when I spoke so, and reached for the box nearby. The slender muscles in his shoulder and his arm flexed and clenched, rippling like waves, offering me a stark view of his fine anatomy. He had a bone-structure that most sculptors would give their front teeth to examine closely and then to attempt to mimic in stone.
He commanded, 'Sit," and I did so hastily, tucking my feet beneath my knees. He opened the box, revealing it to be a checkered board; several small wooden pieces fell out of it. He set the board between us and began to place the pieces, white on one side and brown on the other.
"I just had a game with a fellow soldier," he said slowly as he arranged the pieces, "but he was a terrible partner. I am hoping you will be better."
His tone was patronising, and I wondered if he was ribbing me, but kept my lips sealed as he placed the last piece home. Maedhros looked at me from beneath his lashes, resting his cheek in his hand in an almost predatory fashion. To this day I am certain he did it on purpose, just because he could. He said, "Do you at least know a few moves? None at all? Well, I suppose I must show you."
He twisted so that he was more comfortably seated; some of the water sloshed onto the cool slate floor. With great patience, he began to teach me. White moves first. The horse can be used cunningly. The king is the most important piece, though the queen is the most powerful.
Slowly, I began to learn. We played our first game, in which I was beaten within a few heartbeats. Maedhros laughed, a surprising, deep sound that seemed to come from far within his chest. He reset the board and said we could have another game. I was vanquished twice more before I began to get used to it. By then my brow was dotted with sweat, and Maedhros' hair had begun to slip out of its knot; it sprang away from his skull and frizzed around his thin face. He was a good partner, helpfully critical but not cynical, offering praise only when it was due, challenging but not aggressive. I felt an inexplicable pull towards him, as if clutched by gravity: a disgraceful, irrational sense of loyalty towards this bitter, hard-hearted man, this destroyer of my world.
I suddenly noticed he was scrutinising me in a frigid, calculating manner, as if I were some unpropitious artifact, and I chewed my lower lip, trying fiercely to concentrate on the game.
I was just about to take his queen and utter a cry of triumph when a groom rushed in the chamber, chattering agitatedly to Maedhros in Quenya - I could understand only 'horse' and 'pain' and 'boy', having memorised the translations in the library. In the wink of an eye Maedhros had hauled himself out of the bath and pulled his threadbare robe about himself, and was walking rapidly towards the arched exit with the groom. He looked over his shoulder and called, "Excuse me, Elrond," and then disappeared.
I sat gazing after them. Drawing a breath, I found I was in a vile mood, though nothing had been done to secure this. Maedhros' presence had always troubled me, from the time he had found us in Sirion.
He had forced us to walk before him, his callused, soiled hand on the scruff of my neck, as if I were an indisciplined pup, to his brother, who was perched on a stone by the steep cliffs, still and silent as a young tree. His face was turned away from us, focused on the frothing waves far below. Maedhros clutched my neck almost painfully. "Here," he called without preamble, and his voiced reached further than even my father's, "you can have these." I was given a little shake, and I wondered what these meant, before I realised he was indicating my brother and me. Anger surged through my chest at such a reference, and I trembled.
Maglor turned very slowly, his gaze still pensive, as if unwilling to tear away from the rolling waters. His unruly black hair lashed back and forth with the sea-wind, at odds with his composure. When his eyes reached us, they widened slightly, and his bloodied lips pursed. The hand that grasped his longsword twitched. He held his brother's stare for an almost unbearably long time, during which I nearly began to sob, wishing I could run away. Beside me, Elros had dropped to his knees, shaking, eyes wild with grief and panic.
Maedhros exuded an overwhelming aura that forced the paler-willed to maintain a distance from him. For my brother and me, being this close to him was an almost unmatched ordeal. It was like standing near a ruby-hot furnace, whose impassioned heat would melt the skin off your flesh if you did not move away quickly.
I blinked and shook my head, slipping back to reality, back to the steamy baths of Amon Ereb. Looking at the abandoned game, strewn with a scant few pieces, my heart twanged. I swung my clothes over my shoulder and got up, and had only just reached the entrance when I met Elros.
"Elrond!" he said, beaming. His hair looked like a thicket of shrubs, his cheeks raspberry-tinged from the cold outside. His clothes were filthy, speckled with faded brown spots - he had probably fallen in the mud. I noticed that he was favouring one foot slightly, but was unable to think about it because he immediately continued, "It was so much fun! I had the most wonderful time, and my mare was so beautiful – "
"You are going for a bath?" I interrupted. He nodded and raised his brows. "You look like you could use one yourself - why, you stayed inside all day and you are sweating so heavily! What were you doing? Climbing the walls?" He jerked his chin towards the ceiling.
I opened my mouth and shut it, wondering how to explain that I had found Maedhros, naked, in a pool, and that he had amiably – or, as amiably as Maedhros Fëanorion could manage – asked me to play chess with him.
"Never mind," I said. "Come, I will join you."
We went to our pool near the corner, discarded our clothes, and sank in, sighing in happiness as we felt the filth wash off us. I was mentally tired from the game, and wanted rest and silence, and ideally also a hot cup of chamomile tea with the little flowers swirling at the bottom. At the very least, I would have liked to think about these things, but Elros kept talking about how very beautiful his pony was, and how nice the stable-boy was, and how prettily the women had giggled while watching him, that it took a commendable effort to stop my hand from clamping over his flapping mouth.
We returned to our chamber, and Elros, excited from his earlier rigorous exercise, paced restlessly around the room, a broad smile on his face, while I sat against the pillows on our bed. Eventually, he came to my side and plumped down, massaging his left ankle.
"Did you hurt yourself?" I asked suspiciously, and not a little wearily.
Elros shrugged, peeling off his stocking; his ankle was swollen and slightly pink. I scowled, irritated at his obliviousness. "What have you done now? Must I always watch your back so that you do not break it?"
He ignored me in that infuriating manner and muttered, "I must have twisted it."
"Oh, hang it!" I exploded, briefly wondering with surprise where I had picked up such language. It was probably from Agorael or the soldiers. "Confound you and your tendencies, Elros! I am not disturbing Maglor again for help."
My brother's eyes were narrowed. "Did you eat soot for breakfast today, Elrond?" he asked caustically.
I stood up resolutely, sighing. "I will call for a healer."
He returned loudly, making me cringe, "Perhaps it will go away."
"We do not know that; it might get worse. Wait here, and do not move."
I had been to the infirmary only once before, when Maglor showed it to me during one of his tours. The entry was curtained off by a threadbare cloth that reeked of mothballs, yet when I went in, motley, sickening smells of herbs and of ointments pervaded my nostrils. The room was long and rectangular, akin to a large prison cell, with a crooked slate floor. A few haggard men reclined on the coarse beds; two of them glanced at me with disinterested expressions, like animals briefly interrupted at a particularly lavish meal, and then turned their eyes away.
Ignoring them, I approached a woman who was sitting at a broad desk, poring over an impractically thick book with an impractically heavy magnifying glass. She raised her small round head when I cleared my throat, the glass still at her eye, so that the rolling organ was enlarged several times and I could see the flecks of blue in her watery grey iris. "May I help you?" she asked politely, though somewhat condescendingly.
I told her of my brother's condition, and she reluctantly rose from her desk. "Where is he?" she said.
I gave her directions, and she left the room to fetch Elros. When she came back in a few minutes, she was letting my limping brother lean against her - he could barely set his foot down.
"You'll have to stay in bed for a couple of days, little master," said the healer as she helped him, groaning, into a bed near the corner. "It was silly of you to keep on riding when you had twisted your foot."
Elros gazed at his lap, abashed and a little annoyed. I went over to him, pulling up a wicker chair from near the window and sitting down, while the healer got a clay pot of strong-smelling medicine and some ice wrapped in cloth. Elros winced and pressed his lips together as she applied the latter on his ankle. "Hold it there for a while," she said. "I will come back in a couple of minutes." She disappeared through an arched doorway that led into another room.
I sighed and leaned back in my chair. "You are impetuous, Elros," I said. "And we have to hand work tomorrow to our tutor. Have you finished it?"
"No," he replied, looking a little awkward holding the bag of ice to his ankle; water was beginning to trickle down on the sheets, and he idly flicked it off.
"I have only done half. Shall I get our books here? We can finish it."
"Well, I would like to get it over with. Give me a moment."
I dashed out before he could protest, up to our chamber. Picking up both our books (they were quite thin) from the desks, I exited. As I was trundling precariously down the serpentine staircase, I saw, quite by accident, Maedhros slip quietly into the hallway that led to Maglor's chamber. I hesitated, pursing my dry lips, then stealthily followed, wondering at his stern expression. At this point I was familiar with my own unhealthy inquisitiveness, and no longer attempted to curb this habit, as I knew little could work against it.
Once I was sure Maedhros had gone to his brother's room and had shut the door, I crept into the corridor and pressed an ear against the wood. At first, I could hear only muffled murmurs, buzzing like persistent, lazy bees. Then, all of a sudden, Maedhros' voice burst out, making me start and flinch away: "You know exactly what I mean, Maglor!"
A low voice, this time Maglor's. I heard footsteps advance rapidly towards the door, and I scurried back, but my anxiety was unfounded: they receded. Someone was pacing. Trying to calm my hammering heart, I drew closer once more, swallowing. Again I heard the footsteps, and again their sound grew dim. It was like a perilous game of trying to remain hidden when you could not get what you wanted by doing so.
Again, Maedhros spoke: "I met Elrond today in the baths." I grew tense at the use of my name. What was he saying about me? My ears must have adjusted to the feeble sounds, for I heard Maglor reply, "Yes?"
"It appears to me, brother, that the princes of Sirion are becoming a bit too comfortable in our humble, dark halls." I dropped my gaze. Comfortable? To be sure, Elros and I had grown familiar with Amon Ereb's grey walls and its strange denizens. It had not occurred to me that I was comfortable, though perhaps there was some truth in his words.
The sound of a chair creaking. It was hideous, akin to the screech of nails on a board. "Was it not your idea to bring them here?" Now Maglor was angry; his voice was tight and accusing.
"I spoke in Sirion out of frustration or sarcasm; probably both. I certainly did not expect you to assent; perhaps I placed too great a faith in your intellect. Did you do so only because of your guilt? If you did not aid me in Doriath – "
A fist or something heavy slammed down on a desk, making it rattle, and Maglor hissed, "Shut up." His voice was so suffused with detestation, so unlike his usual, agreeable tone, that for a moment I thought there was a third person in the room who had spoken. He continued, "Do not mock me."
"You," came Maedhros' cold reply, "are the one who mocks yourself, dear brother." Then he turned acerbic. "For you have the love of your soldiers and of me, and perhaps now also those elflings who will one day grow tall enough – and wise enough – to put us to sleep. That is, if we survive that long." There was a pause. "Do you wish to torment them to the end of their days?"
What, I thought, in heaven's name was he talking about? Gritting my teeth, and steeling myself for a base act, I stooped and placed my eye at the keyhole.
It was like looking through a binocular at a stage that was far away, set for an exquisite drama. The Fëanorionnath were situated close enough together for me to see both of them clearly. Maglor was seated on a chair, his fist still shaking on the desk. He was breathing heavily and not looking at his brother, who was standing beside him, fingers clutching the back of the chair, jaw taut as an arched bowstring. A fire, lit somewhere nearby, was the only source of light, and threw onto their still figures a ghastly orange glare.
At length, Maedhros said, puncturing the heavily pregnant silence, creating an almost obscene effect, "Your mind is so filled with hatred that it festers like a rotten wound and infects your thoughts, which flow through your very limbs like noxious pus. I do not envy you." Then he stepped away, towards the foot of the bed, sat down cross-legged on the floor, and folded his arms across his chest, his back resting against the chest of clothes. He sighed deeply through his nose and closed his eyes. "Wake me when you are done mourning."
"That one is not in our course," said Elros, furrowing his brow and peering at the title of the book I was reading. He was reclining in his bed, his foot propped on two pillows.
"That is correct. We have not reached here yet." I flipped the book and showed him the page I was on. "It is about the rebellion of the Noldor. This is just an abridged copy, though." I had, after my eavesdropping, become keenly interested in the topic, and had retrieved from our chamber this history book. It rendered me bemused, but luckily not sullen or defiant.
Elros looked suspicious. It did not suit him. "Is it any different to what we were told at home?"
I contemplated his question, tracing my hand across the fine, slightly faded letters. "No," I said slowly, "but the reasons seem more complicated."
"I cannot tell you so quickly, Elros."
"Well," he returned, "give it here."
I hesitated, then put it in his hands. He immediately proceeded to peruse the index. The healer came back in again and put an earthen cup of tea on the bedside table, then returned to her desk. Elros read on. At length I have up any hope of getting my book back, and picked up my volume of numerals. "I will finish my work, then," I said indignantly.
"You do that," Elros mumbled, half-lost in the book's contents already. Taking off my sandals, I put my feet on the bed and began to read. Whenever I looked up, my brother's face seemed grow darker, until I felt obliged to ask him what was wrong. "Nothing," he replied flatly, placing the book down on his lap. His hair had come loose of its band, and some of it fell over his forehead in a loop. I reached out to push it back, but he slapped my hand away.
"What is the matter with you?" I asked, surprised at his abruptness.
Elros wiped his nose and ignored me. I could not get a word of explanation out of him. When our dinner was brought to us, he merely picked at his bread, scowling. "Come," I said in a poor attempt at humour, "If you do not eat, I will finish the brie, and you will be sorry."
He shrugged and looked away from his food. I considered pressing him, but then decided against it and piled the cheese from the tray onto my plate. "Do as you wish, Elros."
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.