Dying is painful.
I hit the rocks hard enough to be instantly killed, but the wounds inflicted during the battle hurt far more than from the fall itself. My heart stops. My skull, bashed open anyway, bleeds profusely, golden hair charring from the Balrog’s fire.
My soul leaves my body.
I feel the overwhelming Call of Mandos as I would feel the urge to eat, drink or breath. His voice pulls me; in my now bodiless heart; pure terror battles with a desire stronger than I ever felt before. My heart does not resist the call for home, for safety and pardon, and the relief of the crushing culpability for all the wrongs I inflicted on others; relief from the unbearable pain.
The black, burning tendrils of the Balrog’s spirit wrap around me like a cage. In the rage of his defeat, he means to carry his opponent back with him, and so even as the Call still tugs every part of me West, even as I struggle mindlessly to follow, the scorching claws pull me apart and keep me still.
A houseless spirit is defenseless.
I remain in my enemy’s clutches for moments unnumbered, blinded by agony, unable to think during my unraveling at the hands of beings far more powerful than myself until everything fades and I am taken by a new kind of pain: lack of breath, the extreme ache in every muscle, the discomfort of my nakedness on the hard ground. The pain recedes. My chest fills with air. My spirit settles back under my skin. Calloused fingers caress my brow, brushing hair damp with perspiration away from my face.
I open my eyes slowly. I am lying in an empty room bathed in darkness, walls of unadorned stone encircling me. I blink and focus on the face above me.
“Moryo.” I struggle to remember the new name. “Caranthir.”
A slight smile plays on his lips. Moryo was never beautiful by the Eldar’s standards. His freckled skin, dour face and dark eyes didn’t fit the pristine standards of Tirion; in a way he reminds me of Maeglin, beautiful and dangerous in the way of an exotic creature. Yet, blinded by love or perhaps a greater understanding of beauty, I always wondered how others could call Moryo ugly once they saw him smile. When he does, a single dimple appears on his left cheek. I raise my hand to cup his jaw and am amazed at how real his skin feels.
How can we change so little? How can Moryo’s skin feel like it did on our wedding day during the Unrest? After Alqualondë? After the great battles of this Age and Eru knows what more? How can his smile still show this single dimple after the Oath?
“Laurefindil.” My name crosses his lips like a sob despite his smile. “How I missed you. I am so sorry, Lauryo. I am so sorry this is the time and place for our reunion.”
“Why? Because we are in the Halls? Because we are dead?”
“We are not in the Halls, Lauryo, and we are not dead – not anymore. We are in Angband, re-embodied by the good graces of Melkor.” He barks a humorless laugh. “The Balrog who killed you took your soul with her when her spirit returned to her master.”
“Nardis. She is…”
“How in Mandos do you know the Balrog who killed me is a she? What are you doing there?” I feel like laughing. I didn’t know he was dead. Five hundred years ago, when my name was still Laurefindil when I pledged myself to the cousin of Elenwë’s husband, I believed our love would be strong enough for me to feel each of his heartbeats. I thought we would be strong enough walk in the streets hand in hand. I thought we would be brave enough to tell our families despite the feud running deep between Fëanor and my mother.
And now Moryo is dead, and I didn’t know. For how long was I a widower?
“I refused Mandos’s call. Turns out those who do end up here. No, do not ask,” he stops me as I open my mouth. “This is not the place. We are in the rebirth dungeons and can be interrupted at any moment. I will explain once we reach my room.”
He gives me a set of plain clothes, almost as fashionable as a sack of potatoes. His own attire is bland and less than flattering, hardly prettier than what I would have expected of a thrall.
Moryo’s room is just that: a room, singular intended. A filthy curtain of leather hangs in front of a cavern more or less dug as a square, with two big alcoves carved inside the wall in the shape of coffins (beddings, I should think); smaller ones act as shelves. There is no furniture except the niches, and two grown elves can hardly stand together in such a small space.
“You can have this cot. Curufin used to sleep there, but he moved out a few days ago, so it’s yours.”
“Curufin is here?”
“What happened? Why is he not with you anymore?”
“He is all right. As all right as we can be here.” Moryo used to be loud, but he keeps to hushed whispers: the curtain doesn’t allow us any privacy. “He will tell you later. Are you hungry?”
“No. I need to understand. What are you doing here? Why is Curufin here? Are your other brothers with you?” How much did I miss since the Battle of Unnumbered Tears? No one in Gondolin even knew some of Fëanor’s sons had died! By the way they survived every battle with barely a scratch while Fingolfin and Fingon were crushed, I was wondering if they weren’t indestructible.
“I may be wrong. I have been here for six years but things are changing fast. Maedhros, Maglor and the twins are still all right… or if they are dead, word did not reach Angband. Celegorm went straight to the West. Curufin refused the Call. I didn’t want to leave him alone.”
“Was it the Oath? Did the Oath negate the Call?”
“No. I do not think so. Celegorm died before us and his spirit was already gone. I heard the Call. Curufin is…” Caranthir shakes his head. “… it’s complicated. I cannot tell you now.”
“Lauryo. I will not tell you. This is Angband. You could be tortured or forced to repeat what I am telling you. I cannot risk this and neither can you. We should keep to superficial conversations.”
“‘Superficial conversations?’” How can he ask me to keep to superficial conversations? After five centuries away from each other? We are married, and yet I spent more years as an estranged spouse than as anything else. “Perhaps we wouldn’t be here if we had had more than superficial conversations. That’s what we used to do, did we not, Moryo? We avoided talking about important things. We never talked about your father, or your brothers, or the Oath, or Alqualondë or anything that mattered. Tell me, when you torched those ships, was I something more than a superficial thought to you?”
“I am not the one who disappeared in a hidden city while the rest of us toiled every day against orcs and traitors.”
“Fine words for the son of one,” I say, and the unbidden image of Fëanor’s wrathful face and flaming eyes erupts between us. Caranthir jerks violently, limbs tensed as if to strike, but he doesn’t and that leaves us eyeing each other in stifled hostility.
At least Caranthir breaks the silence with an angry groan and an annoyed gesture of the hand, storming out, only to turn at the last moment. “Do not leave this room. You are as safe here as you will ever be.”
And there I am left, buried under leagues of rocks in this prison with a cryptic Fëanorian and a deadly tiredness settling into my very bones. I settle in one of the niches, on a thin mattress that was probably never washed, if it was ever clean to begin with. Sleep takes me before I know it.
I am awakened by Caranthir’s clumsy steps, ragged breath and horrid breath against my face.
“You are here,” he drawls, reeking of alcohol. “You are here. This is not a nightmare. You are here.”
He fumbles to his own bed, face flushed almost red. Being drunk really does nothing good for his looks.
“Are you drunk?”
“Very much. Grog. That’s all you can have here, orcish grog.”
“That is disgusting.”
“Shut up. I have work in three hours. I need sleep.”
But Caranthir only groans and moves a little until light snores fill the room. I ease from my cot, disgusted, and leave the room despite his warnings. I find myself in a long hallway dotted with leather curtains and chose a direction at random through dark tunnels. I finally stop in a corridor with one door only and a single figure standing in the middle, inky hair braided against the strong, broad back of a smith.
The figure turns and I know him – Prince Maeglin of Gondolin who, Idril told me before my death, had fallen from the walls. We were never friends, but he is a face from Gondolin and I never wished him ill. How many of our own are there with us? How many damned to this prison of iron? I stride to him and pull him into an enthusiastic embrace. His body goes rigid in my arms.
“My prince,” I say. With each new hour, each moment, I find people I loved (still love) in this place. This is not the war I expected. I thought we would be heroes, and those who would fall would be out of Mandos in mere days once the Valar understood how brave and right we were.
War is nothing like this. From the moment I set foot on the deck of Caranthir’s bloodied ship I understood that war was nothing glorious and Fëanor had lied to us. There had been pride and fire in my husband’s eyes when he Swore; on that ship, he had been empty and silent, uncaring, not even bothering to clean the blood off his clothes.
At least, I thought, at least we still have death. A scared elf dies everyday while a brave one suffers lightly. And yet! Maeglin is brave, and so am I. I am recklessly courageous. And yet — where are we now? Doomed not once but twice.
I let go of my prince. His skin is ashen, his dark eyes fleeing. He takes a step back as if burnt.
“Glorfindel. You shouldn’t be here.”
“Neither should you.” I will not ask him how he ended here. I cannot recognize the look on his face, nor the submissive slouch of his shoulders. “Have they been hurting you?”
He starts violently and finally meets my gaze.
“You are blind,” he answers, voice strangled and hostile. He takes another step back when I try to reach him. What happened? We were never friends, but Maeglin isn’t (wasn’t) scared of me, and never have I given him any reason to fear me. “You shouldn’t be there,” he repeats. “If my fa…”
We both turn toward the sound of one of the massive, iron door opening on the tall, slightly slumped form of a dark haired moriquendi. His is a face I have and never will forget, for I was there when Eöl murdered our beloved white princess.
I was there; obviously, Maeglin and I aren’t the only one to remember.
“This is Glorfindel of Gondolin,” Maeglin introduces me. “He lost his way. I will show him back to his chambers.”
“Are you a servant?” Eöl interjects. His clothes are notably better than mine and Caranthir’s. Whatever the dark elf does in Angband, he is no mere slave. I remember he is a smith: would his hatred of the Noldor be enough to turn against his kin and pledge himself to Morgoth? “I know him. He is Caranthir’s whore and beneath you. Let the pet handle him.”
My spirit soars in wrath. How can such a disgusting person dare speak this way to me? To Maeglin? How can my prince just look at the ground and nod like as chastised child? This Avari I saw thrown from a cliff – and by Mandos’s Hall, he deserved such a fate.
It is not cowardice but utter astonishment that keeps me from barreling into Eöl to teach him how to speak to Lords of Gondolin, for another dark haired elf quickly follows the murderer out of his room, head modestly bowed, fully dressed in undyed but more or less well cut clothes and braided with the simplest style, meant only to keep the hair from the face. His silver eyes shine with the proud light of Aman, but still he makes a show of obedience when Eöl commands him to take me back to my ‘owner,’ without flinching, as if he feels perfectly at ease with acting as a servant to such a personage.
Never has Curufin looked so unlike his father.
We were mere acquaintances, and not friendly ones at that: Curufin supported his father in all things while my mother was a staunch opponent to the High Prince. Nonetheless, the sweet, meek smile, submissive demeanor sickens me to the core. Here is Maeglin, who won’t meet my eyes and behaves as a beaten dog would, standing right by Fëanor’s son, more docile than a living doll, without even a hint of unhappiness marring the pristine skin of his face. Is this really Angband, or have I fallen into some mad dream where no one behaves as they should? Where the proud wolf turns to a mouse and the sons of fire obedient puppets of clay?
I let Curufin lead me by the arm. His hand is warm against my skin. I hear Eöl’s door closing behind us.
“What were you doing here?” Curufin asks in a conversational tone. As if we were meeting only yesterday in Tirion to have some tea. “Angband is not a place to wander. You could have met quite a lot of unpleasant people.”
“Does Eöl count as unpleasant?”
“Of course not. Please do not slander my master.” His master? “Eöl is powerful here, Glorfindel. Do not cross him.”
“Do I really need to spell ‘reality’ to you?” He stares at me, a cutting glare much more like him than his puzzling demeanor around Eöl. “Caranthir didn’t get you back for nothing. You are not in Gondolin anymore and you clearly have no clue about what is going on here. Listen to my brother and obey him unless you want more pain and problems than you already have.”
“I expected better of the sons of Fëanor.”
“Do not sully my father’s name with your traitorous tongue,” he hisses. “None of you have any right to expect anything from us. I have no idea what Caranthir sees in you and I do not care: stay out of my business and do not bring unnecessary danger toward my brother, or I will ensure that you discover precisely what he saved you from.”
He precedes me into Caranthir’s chambers, where the snoring has gone up to reach an alarming level, to the point that I see Curufin sigh more than I hear him.
“Grog. I am half-certain this poison is turning us into orcs from the inside out.” He pulls Caranthir none too gently to arrange him into a less noisy position. “Listen for the gong. Wake him in two hours.”
He barges into me as he gets out, a shoulder hard as rock hitting my bony one. My new body is far thinner than my former, well trained one, and Curufin’s frame tells of long hours of work in the forge.
I sit and try to put some meaning into what I have seen. I need to know what happened to Maeglin and, if possible, rescue him out of this place. Eöl is gone to the enemy, if he was on anyone else’s side to begin with. Caranthir is too unreadable to guess whether he is trustworthy and Curufin… something is clearly wrong with Curufin. With Turgon gone and Idril Ulmo knows where, Maeglin is now my liege.
I watch Caranthir sleep for the first time since Alqualondë. In the dimness of our room, I have both the time and quietness to review my own failures. I drift into awaken dreams out of boredom rather than out of exhaustion.
I remember the days after the first Kinslaying, my first meeting with the large-scale brutality of a battle. I was shocked to witness Moryo’s unaffected face, the blood covering his sword and armor still. He was unsmiling, barely blinking. He did not tell me he was sorry or show any ounce of regret. He did not question his father or brothers or the Oath. He did not argue loudly like Celegorm did when Aredhel confronted him (shouting that they had shot first). He did not cry like the twins. He did not try to explain, as Maedhros did, that it had been an accident and their father couldn’t have desired such a result. On his face there was nothing, and so I believed he felt nothing.
The gong pulls me out of my reveries. I wake Caranthir with a light touch on the shoulder that makes him groan and curse.
“What I am supposed to do?” I ask him before he leaves. He hasn’t said a word since he awoke; not as if it was a long time ago, since there is nothing to eat, drink or wash in here, and he has no reason to linger by me.
“Stay here. There is clean water somewhere on the top shelves. I will be back with food at midday. Do not wander.”
I drift into back into troubled dreams, eyes glassy staring right at the ceiling. In my reverie, Gondolin and Tirion merge together, until the bloodied streets of Alqualondë overlap with Gondolin’s burning square. A black silhouette turns against a background of flaming red – and I do not know if I am looking at Caranthir or Maeglin.
I start back to reality; to a reality I do not want to belong to. My throat constrict around packs of tears. I am a warrior, a singer, a friend; I am the one who makes jokes and lighten the mood. Give me a sword and I will perform. Give me a command and I will follow with the grace of a well-trained dog. I am not the kind of person armed to just die and be reborn in a place where my honesty and good intentions are of no use to anyone.
Unless, of course, I am meant to be of use; meant to be go back to Caranthir or Maeglin by some superior force. Faith, Turgon claimed. Faith is the key to enduring. Someone, out there, wants be to be there and help.
“I missed you,” I tell Caranthir as soon as he reappears in our alcove. I have been rehearsing for the better part of two hours all the things I never said that should have been said. “I am sorry that I did not talk to you after Alqualondë. I am sorry that I didn’t fight harder for our marriage. I am sorry I never wrote to you. I swear I will be there for you now.”
I beam with my best smile, the one that never failed to summon his perfect dimple. He sighs.
“The past is done and gone, Laurëfindil. You cannot change what I have done, nor undo your own mistakes.”
Well. That went well.
“We are yet young.” I close the very small distance between us to bring my fingers to his cheek. “You are speaking like we are some kind of old Unbegotten with no room for change.”
“Are we?” I snake my arm up his neck, my brow seeking his, noses touching. “Lauryo. We cannot, I do not have much time…”
“You cannot or you will not?” I try not to remember that this used to be one of Fëanor’s most annoying moto. He bits his lips, his face slowly turning into a lovely pink.
“Of course I will. I haven’t… had, anyone, since you left.”
“Ah, and I was thinking it was my personality that you missed.” But I have missed his hands, his body too, so when he kisses me softly (a good-bye kiss), I answer with fire and want blazing through my spirit, brought close to my skin, scorching him with the too long bottled up feelings of anger, loss and lack of him, of the frustration of highs mountains encircling me and rage and all those long nights spent touching myself, thinking of a strong body speckled with fire and dark hair with no face. I have a purpose. I will make us indestructible again. I will bring hope back into his heart, whatever it costs me.
“We don’t have to take long,” I murmur against his lips. “I want to feel you.”
I do not even need to coax him into arousal. I get up only to find myself crushed against his chest, my buttocks cupped by hard, strong hands. I grab his shoulders and dig my fingers into them.
Our lovemaking is too quick and devoid of grace, but oh so satisfying after years of celibacy. The feeling of his body grinding against mine, his hands on my backside pushing my belly against his, his muscled back rolling under my fingers – and his hungry lips on my neck, sucking my sweat and naked skin, marking me as his (Caranthir’s whore, Eöl said); all of this sends my spirit soaring like a bird spreading its wings after a long winter.
And Eru, do I soar! I glow and meet his boiling spirit with all the passion of mine. The touch is blissful ecstasy, running through our joining tongues, through the skin of our chest, so close we could be one, and yet even stronger in our throbbing members. I come first; he follows me before I have time to descend, pulling me back up into a second wave of pleasure where our spirits merge. Caranthir never comes before I do; his self-control, in this, is greater than mine.
I unclench my fingers from his shoulder, slow and unwilling, and feel my spirit splitting from his and let the cold and emptiness settle back, as it did each time we made love after Formenos.
His shoulders are dotted with freckles, little brown specks going down his arms. How could I forgot so many details about his body? I run my palms against his arms, feeling the perfectly smooth skin. I used to map the freckles as if they were stars to be assembled in little constellations.
Caranthir leaves in a rush with swollen lips, a smile on his face and a dimple showing on his cheek.