9. Chapter Nine
An hour before sunset, on my begetting day, I heard shouting coming from downstairs. I was in my dank, little chamber, trying to get some much-needed sleep before the undoubtedly tiring feast, and when the voices became loud enough to hear even with my down pillow covering my ears I flung off the covers and marched outside, thoroughly, thoroughly irritated. I had in my sixteenth summer shifted to the west wing, and shared a floor with Maedhros. Usually, his mere presence was enough to ensure complete, disciplined silence from even the rowdiest of elves. Perhaps he was not here? I knew he sometimes sat in the library to pore over accounts.
The argument seemed to be taking place on the stairs. I strutted down indignantly, making sure to look more tired than I really was to make my displeasure evident, and ready to give a righteous speech on conduct. My words abruptly withered in my throat when I saw Maglor, of all people, screaming full in the colourless face of his brother. Some of his hair had come loose of its clip, and his usually immaculate tunic was wrinkled from his explosive gestures. His cheeks were flushed with anger, and the tendons stood out in his neck in an almost grotesque manner. He was entirely unlike the tender man who laughed with fond affection when my brother or I lost our temper. "You can order your men and your favourite hounds, Maedhros, but you will not order me, not in this matter!" he shouted, and, for the first time I had known, his voice instead of inciting unbearable beauty trembled with a rage that could have crumbled stone and made rivers stand still. I don't know how Maedhros bore it. It must have squeezed his heart and weakened his will, loosened the very threads that wove body and spirit together.
Yet I should have known that Maedhros son of Fëanor was not one to be deterred by this alone. "How dare you," he returned in a hiss. His arms were held rigidly by his side, as if he were striving not to strike his brother.
"Do not talk to me about daring to do anything! It is right – "
"And now you speak of what is right?" Maedhros thundered, taking a threatening step forward, and I gasped and covered my mouth, because I thought from the savage look on his face that he would break every one of Maglor's bones. I'd heard the sound of crunching bone before, in Sirion, during hunting. It was disgusting. Appalling. I was not ready to hear that sound come from Maglor's body. Luckily, it did not. "Was it right for you to abandon me, again and again, little brother? You did not protest our father's deeds at Losgar with me, you did not even properly attempt to assemble a search party for Angband, you left me to search alone for two children at Doriath, and then you spout nonsense about what is right?"
"You left to attack Morgoth on your own, like some witless boy," Maglor roared back, "and I had five brothers and an army to keep in check, so do not accuse me of leaving you to a fate I could not help! And do not even try to – "
"Shut up! I will not let you make decisions that will end in more grief than is necessary! I am ordering you, as your older brother, as the head of the Fëanorian house, and as high commander of our host, you will not do this!"
"I will, Maedhros, and so help me, I will gladly face the pits of Hell for it!"
"Then you will be dragging them down with you!"
"What are you so afraid of?"
"Can you truly be such a fucking idiot, Maglor?" I winced and drew my brows together, shocked. Not even in my dreams had I dared to use such language. "You can mess with me all you like, but messing with yourself? I can barely recognise you! Are you trying to convince yourself that they are your thralls, to pick up and throw away at will? The Maglor I knew – "
"Is right here!"
"Was never such a coward!" Maedhros bellowed, lunging forward and clutching the front of his brother's tunic, nearly lifting him off the floor. The two men stared at each other, breathing hard. Suddenly Maedhros spoke and with a start I realised he knew I'd been standing there: "Get the hell out of here, Elrond. You did not hear this." I did not move. My feet seemed to stick to the ground, as if they had grown roots. Maedhros appeared not to care. He returned his attention to Maglor, whose face was now going from hued to pale. He suddenly collapsed to his knees, burying his face in his hands, shaking his head.
"Maedhros," he said in a voice drained of all energy. "Maitimo. Nelyo." He took a great, gasping breath and clutched his brother's sleeve. His shoulders shook. It was painful to even look at him, so broken, so pathetic. I had never seen him this way, and was strangely repelled by this transformation. I should not have been. What sort of person was I? And yet...
"Nelyo, Nelyo," he murmured. Each time he said it Maedhros cringed. Then, in a tight, choked voice: "I want to go home." And Maedhros kneeled down, pried the other man's hands away from his face. He said gently, "This is home. We have no other. I..." He sighed wearily, closing his eyes, grimacing. "I am so tired."
Maglor dropped his head against his brother's shoulder, clasped his dark copper hair with one hand, and let his eyes fall shut. "Do not leave me."
With a sigh, Maedhros shook his head, then waved me away. I stared and stared like a fool. Then, slowly, my legs feeling heavy as bags of sand, I retreated to the hallway, and ran to my chamber. Once there I stood still, my chest heaving. The sound of my breath seemed offensive to me. My body shook with...I don't know what. With a sudden cry I grabbed a cup of water from my desk and hurled it against the wall. There was a bang, and then shards of clay were dropping at my feet like little, proverbial pieces of hearts. Dazed, I set my sandal on one and crushed it.
Then I looked up and it was dark outside.
During the feast Maglor played his harp and sang, and there were silence and tears and wistful looks, as usual. After it was over and the people began once again to chatter, Maglor sat by my side at the High Table, pulled me close, and kissed my temple with dry lips.
On the morning of the hunting trip, when the sky was daubed with pale gold in the East, our party stood silently in the courtyard with our swords at our hips and our bows slung across our torsos. The birds had begun to chatter, their faint song puncturing the otherwise still atmosphere. Maglor stood grimly at the head of the company, wearing a fitted tunic and a dark green cloak with a hood, and on his belt was a fine ivory bugle, tipped with silver. Elros had not wished to join us. He had responded to his invitation with, "Are you joking? I will not be able to move my little finger after this feast!" and had told us to carry on without him.
I chewed my lip, unusually nervous, when he ordered for the gates to be opened, and clutched the mane of my horse. Despite the fact that my brother and I had begun hunting with the Fëanorians at the age of twenty, today I could not shake off an uneasy feeling. Sweat dotted my forehead despite the cool air. Taking a long breath, I counted to ten, then back to zero, calming myself.
The sound of the horses' hoofs pattered like slow rain when we trotted out of the fortress.
We rode into the now blazing horizon, the hounds taking the lead, and I could see the forest of Taur-Im-Duinath towards the south as a dark, thin stretch. It would take a fortnight by the time we got there and returned. Few Elves roamed its paths, for wild wolves and sometimes even Orcs were likely to be found as well, though I was told that even the latter feared its darkness. We could have gone the other way, to the river, and caught nets of fat, silver fish, but game was better in the forest. One could, of course, have pointed out that the river was by far a safer option, but the Noldor, as I knew well, seemed to thrive on near-blind courage that bordered on foolishness. They sucked it in like ordinary people sucked in air. I did not share their taste for it, and still don't – a trait that having three children hasn't helped.
For hours each day we rode, stopping every now and again to eat or set up camp. Maglor was silent and brooding, and spoke curtly only when he needed to give orders. I would catch him looking at me with an odd, furtive expression sometimes, though I did not want to ask him about it and potentially anger him. There was little worse, I thought, than having him grow wrathful towards me. The few times he had, the experience was more than unpleasant. He always apologised later with a blush and a bottle of good wine to share, and we always returned to our easy talks afterwards, but until then I would lose both my appetite and my focus on my studies, and would huddle in bed, rolled in the furs, as if I were ill.
By the time we approached the forest, my clothes were torn and stained with dirt, and my hair, breaking. I probably smelled hideous, because we all did; at first I could scarcely abide standing next to the others, but soon my nose grew used to the stench and we could sit together for our evening meals without rudely corrugating our brows.
At the break of day we rode into the dense trees, our arrows and hunting swords ready. It was a deep, dark wood, with ample foliage and rank, decaying vegetation on the ground. I breathed in its heavy, musty smell, not entirely unpleasant to me, because of its familiarity. The air felt cool on my bare forearms, and I felt a pleasant shiver run through me.
The hunt, for its part, went well. We had caught six roebucks, three boars, and some foxes, and would catch smaller game on the way back. I remained mostly unharmed, with only a few scratches, though a few of our party had broken limbs and deep cuts, though, as soldiers, it was neither their nature nor their obligation to complain. I bandaged their wounds and administered medicine as best as I could, along with a couple of other healers, and with difficulty suppressed the exhilarating thrill of being able to put my studies to practice. In later years it would become both more satisfying and more tedious; a fledgling, I had not yet tasted the bitter blood of battle. But of that, another time.
We prepared to leave in the small hours of a mild morning, gathering together just at the border of the forest. I was preparing to mount my snorting, grey mare when a sharp sound like a whip cut the air and someone screamed shrilly. I whirled round, agape and yet in a stupor, as the soldiers around me drew their weapons. An ellon had been shot in the thigh and lay writhing on the ground like a wounded caterpillar; we were under attack.
As I drew my own sword, a company of Orcs leaped from the trees, howling battle cries in their guttural, sharp voices, and brandishing curved blades and iron maces that blazed in the light of the sun. One of them thrust a scimitar at me; snapping to my senses, I parried it with my own blade, and began to fight in earnest. The noise about me was a buzz in my ears as I bent all my attention on killing. I had managed to wound my enemy, delivering a grave blow to his waist, but swiftly another Orc joined in against me. I knew I could not fend off two. Nevertheless, I redoubled my efforts, but received a deep cut in my right shoulder. The pain was hot and stinging, like fire and acid melded together. Crying out, I dropped my sword, half from deep horror at assuming the blade might have been poisoned, and clutched the wound with my hand.
I dropped to my knees as both of them raised their blades. In my stupor I thought desperately, I can't decide between sending a prayer to the Valar or remembering my brother!
I could only watch, dazed, as I saw one of the Orcs' head roll off with an abundant spurt of dark blood and land on the ground with a grotesque thunk. Maglor. The other Orc swung his scimitar at him savagely, but Maglor was too fast for him: with dizzying speed that I found hard to follow, he fluidly disarmed his opponent and stuck his sword through the other's chest. It was all over in a few heartbeats.
When Maglor turned his attention to me, breathing heavily, his voice raspy, I saw that his left arm had been broken, and stuck out at an odd, unsightly angle. He had a gash on his forehead and another across his chest, and his concerned eyes were beginning to droop, as if he had been administered a dose of potent drugs. There was no way he could have stood another second with those wounds. Poison then, I thought blearily, my head spinning. It was probably polluting my own veins, as well. The blades...
Abruptly, Maglor's head snapped up, and I a heard a low, feral growl directly behind me. I never understood how frightening an attack from behind could be until then. Whatever good blood that was left in me grew cold, and I seemed to have forgotten how to move – or was that the toxin? Turn, fool, turn! I thought furiously to myself. Maglor had already charged ahead clumsily and was fighting his – our – enemy, with desperate strength, his face corrugated in pain and in forced focus.
With a last, urgent burst of energy, I turned and violently swung my sword, hacking the Orc's legs. I saw flesh part and heard bone split, and a squeal pierced the air. The Orc dropped, dead, to the red earth. I had never hated anything more in my life.
A second, obscene fwump sounded, and I twisted round to see Maglor lying before me on his front, eyes half-lidded, lips bloody and parted, sword still in his gloved fist. He was unconscious, or dead. I made a distressed sound and reached awkwardly to him, my limbs confused and uncoordinated because of the poison, and grabbed his cloak with stiff fingers. "Ma'lor," I slurred. My vision was blurring. The chaotic sounds around me were a dull roar in my ears. After some hazy scrambling I managed to get his head on my lap and to gracelessly stroke his temple. I wanted to check his pulse, feel the quiver of life, but it grew dark suddenly, as if someone had cast a heavy velvet blanket over my eyes.
I am aware that Taur-im-Duinath was greatly feared by both Orcs and Elves, but I have deliberately breached this canon.
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