Maglor shifted the load of wood on his shoulder to stop a knot from sticking into his neck and paused to look around. He was on the edge of the tree line, almost back in the clearing, with his roughly chopped windfall. He liked to do this himself occasionally, although there was no real need. There were always people to do the chopping and fetching, even now, even after the war that wasn’t, the Nirnaeth Arnoediad, when so many of their followers had died or fled, as had so many others after the Incident at Sirion, as he tended to call it. The word was sarcastic and had driven Maedhros to violence a few times, but then that’s what brothers were for: to make you crazy. To everyone else he supposed it sounded coy.
The trees stretched as far as he could see, covering the foothills and then rising in tiers up mountain slopes to where in summer bare rock took their place. Now there was only snow, blankets of it, much like down in the lower forest where footprints soon filled in and it was wet and sodden under laden branches. This was why he had sought out windfall and low hanging branches half broken by the pressure of snow. Too much work to take an axe to young, strong growth. Instead he had roamed the wood, looking for bounty and enjoying the silence. There had been deer a while ago, but he had not come prepared to hunt and was able to stand and watch their progression without simultaneously visualising them dead in the snow. They had enough meat, and personally he would have been happy enough to go without and watch their easy grace without plotting murder as he did so.
There had been enough blood.
Somewhere far north he could hear the low grinding noise that had been a backdrop to life for weeks now, growing louder on the still days when the air hung cold between the trees. This was one such day, with a blue sky and weak sunlight. He breathed in the scents of pine and smoke and horses - there were still horses, Maedhros had even taken a whip to one of the men for using rough hands and words on one. That hot rage had been a memorable sight, and the animals were now treated like precious children. Maglor was glad of it. He had always loved horses, for their wit and stubbornness and occasional downright bloody-mindedness. Maedhros was completely unsentimental about the matter; to his mind the horses were their pack animals and means of escape from massed attacks and should be treated with the same care that would be given a good sword or a well-oiled bow.
The house was built up against the side of the hill with a stream flowing past in summer, iced over now. There was a well nearby, so they were not short of water. This had formerly been someone’s hunting lodge, he recalled, which they had taken over years ago and kept as part of the endless circuit between keep and rock fort and defensible homestead. Scattered around were smaller shelters, some built from wood with decent roofs, others little more than a circle of rocks with a thatch topping and a leather door curtain to keep out the draft. In the old days, these would have been the officers’ quarters and there would have been rows of tents to accommodate the rest, but that was back before… he caught himself out, dwelling on what had passed, and shrugged it off, putting his free hand up to steady the wood. He was getting maudlin; he blamed the winter, it wreaked havoc with mood. It was why bards came into their own in the white months on this shore, offering worlds beyond the present in which to while away the time.
He had trained bards, but now he was all they had left. It was his voice that rose of an evening by the fire, where before it was an honour for him to gift the men with a single song.
There was an open veranda along the front and one side of the house, with an overhang that protected it from the worst of the snow on the side facing the prevailing wind. He almost missed seeing Maedhros sitting there, so still was he and so well did his clothes blend with the age-darkened wood. He was leaning back on a wooden chair, wrapped in that ancient, ratty fur cloak of his with a hat of the same substance covering his sunset hair. Maglor corrected himself. Right now, thanks to their limited ablution facilities, his brother’s famous locks were rust brown and far less remarkable.
He stopped at the bottom of the steps and looked up. “Any chance of a hand here?”
Cool grey eyes left the horizon, surveyed him, refused to rise to the bait. “My new woodsman? Bring it on up, my good man.”
Maglor gave him a jaundiced look. “Been in my vodka and this early? Come on, it’s as much for your benefit as mine.”
“I’d call the boys but they’re up the hill collecting holly. And no, it would need to be colder than this before I touch that foul stuff.”
He still made no move to rise, which did not surprise Maglor who gave a sound of annoyance and went up the shallow steps, compensating for the extra weight with his thighs. He glared at his brother as he passed him, then carried the wood into the entrance where it joined a medium sized pile up against the wall. There had been winters when the pickings had been leaner because they were in areas where trees were short, stunted things. This cycle at least they wouldn’t freeze. Something Maedhros said penetrated and he went back outside.
“That’s what I said, yes. Just a few boughs - brighten the place up for them.”
Maglor moved closer, trying to sniff the air without being obvious about it. Maedhros wasn’t a drinker, but there was always a first time. He had become inward-looking since Sirion, which had affected him in ways that Doriath had not. Seeing some of his own men turn on their brothers-in-arms in defence of the haven had left its mark along with the loss of the last, the youngest, of their brothers. He had no more illusions, nothing left to believe in, and his mood grew ever grimmer and quieter as time passed. He and Maglor had made a kind of accommodation after everything, a tacit agreement that their fates were eternally intertwined now and that blame and anger were a waste of time, but lately there were days where he never spoke beyond necessities, a contrast to his eloquent former self.
“No, I have not been drinking. That is your retreat. Holly - there’s a tradition I’m told.”
“It’s a Sindarin custom, yes,” Maglor said carefully. “To call back the warm days - red for fire, green for strong, growth. There are songs about it. We’re — taking on a few new traditions then?” As yet the Noldor had no ritual for the turning of the year, commemorating instead the anniversary of their arrival in Endórë.
“Well, they are part Sindar. They should be more familiar with that way of doing things.” He said it in a throwaway, lazy tone which snapped Maglor’s full focus onto him at once.
“You’ve always drawn the line at teaching them anything more than the basics about that side of their ancestry…”
“And you added Beren and Lúthien to those basics as I recall, yes. But they are Noldor royalty, Turgon’s great grandchildren, and that is where the focus of their education should rest, not on a bunch of Sindarin myths and fantasies. Why are they here, if not for the fact that we share a common bloodline?”
Their extreme youth had saved their lives in Sirion, but it was their descent from Finwë that had brought them here rather than left in the care of some Sindarin survivor until such time as Círdan and Orodreth’s whelp should arrive to claim them. “I thought it was fair to tell them about their mother’s people,” Maglor said mildly. They had been through this too many times for it to be an argument. “When your great grandparents on your mother’s side are beings of legend, it seems unfair to me that you should be the last to know.”
“Singing the damn song for them was taking it a bit far if you ask me.” Maedhros spoke without heat. He had said this before, and many other things besides, not all of them polite. He walked through life a reluctant slave to an oath sworn in hot blood to please a father no one could ever wholly please, but where Elwing was concerned he took her escape with the Silmaril personally.
“I like singing.”
Before Maedhros could attempt a counter to this, another deep rumble came on the wind and through the earth beneath the lodge. Even the ice on the hidden river seemed to shudder. Maedhros looked north. “They’re busy today,” he said simply, as though continuing an earlier conversation. “Settling in, I imagine.”
He seemed about to say more, but the boys returned then, their clear voices carried before them on the air. They came into view, their arms filled with red-studded greenery, talking animatedly. They were tall, gangling children, half grown, with the awkward joints and not yet fully defined faces of mortal adolescents. Amongst elvenkind there was no term for the stage they were currently going through, which Maglor thought was a pity: he liked the endless curiosity and sense of adventure that seemed to go with it.
The boys reached the bottom of the steps, greeting them with respectful nods, and waited politely, identical faces flushed and happy under the wolfskin caps that Maglor had sewn himself to give as begetting gifts the previous year. The days of princely gifts were long past.
“Well, up you go then,” Maedhros said briskly. “Get that stuff inside, make sure you don’t track dirt onto anything, and try and arrange it decently. There’s some thin wood in there too, and paint. I had it brought over. You recall Doron’s way with this? Make a few star and sun shapes, paint them and hang them around the place.”
“Yes sir.” Their voices were soft and flowed together fluently. They took the steps sedately one at a time, manners recalled, but still hurried past the elders of the only family they knew and disappeared indoors, their arms full of brightness.
Maglor waited till they were out of earshot before saying quietly, “They asked to do this before and you forbad it. You said there would be no rituals that wouldn’t have been allowed had Father been here.”
“Which doesn’t say a thing really,” Maedhros pointed out. “He might have been entertained by the sheer overdone tastelessness of a Sindarin Yule. Who knows?”
He had that air of calm certainty that often heralded the fact he had taken a decision others might find wanting. Maglor recalled it from the days just before he handed his birthright over to Nolofinwë, an uncle for whom he had little taste. That was back in the days of purpose, when their goal still seemed achievable. Maglor went and crouched next to the chair, moving his shoulders under the damp patch where the wood had rested. “What have you done?” he asked quietly, his voice sure.
Maedhros laughed down at him. “Done? Nothing - yet. Perhaps nothing at all. I’m still deciding. But right now let us try an experiment. Let us see if those two take to their mother’s roots as easily as they seem to think they will. We can talk later tonight.
The boys did a good job of decorating the common room of the lodge with the holly and an assortment of cut out shapes, the paint still damp on many. One of them had found a few orange candles from somewhere and set them as a feature. There was even a small Yule fire, carefully contained in a brazier. Maedhros had ordered meat roasted and shared out, and got Bronio’s wife to mull some wine. Maglor watched all this with a growing sense of unease but said nothing, even offering a few seasonal songs after the meal.
As it grew later, men wandered in to get warm at their hearth and out again to find more to drink, returning less steady than on the previous visit, taking advantage of the fact that Maedhros had apparently deemed this a festival night. The big room was packed. A niggling concern about security and sentries spoke to Maglor, and he made his way out as unobtrusively as he could. Elros saw him go, but he was talking to Gurior, who had seen life at Cuivienen and was always ready to complain about his bad judgement, as he named it, in returning to the harsh lands of the Hither Shore. Maglor shook his head in sympathy at the boy and let himself out.
The chill was almost a physical force after his warm spot near the fire, the bard’s place of honour. He stood a minute adjusting, pulling the bearskin he had picked up on his way out around him. The air was clear and clean in its coldness, Varda’s lanterns a million brilliant, icy lights glittering above. Somewhere under its thin layer of ice he could hear the stream murmuring past. There were voices, both inside and out; they would be drinking properly in one of the huts, he guessed. Not under Maedhros’s eye, never that. The trees were a dark huddle under their blanket of snow, seeming closer to the lodge than they had in daylight. He was placing the watch stations in his mind, preparing to do a circuit of the camp to make sure everything was in order when he saw his brother.
He stood at the end of the veranda, looking into the darkness, a tall, unmoving shape. Something about the set of his shoulders prickled Maglor’s nerve endings. He moved forward, careful not to walk too soft: his brother was not good about people creeping up behind him. Without turning, Maedhros moved closer to the table in the corner, making space for him.
He was looking north as he had been earlier. Maglor joined him in watching. The tree covered slopes were snow-quiet, the sky black and moonless, but above the rim of the mountains strange whorls of light played and there was an occasional sharp crack, almost like ice splintering, and the shock vibrated under the ground. “What do you think they’re doing now?” he asked after a while.
Maedhros shook his head. “I could wish Kurvo’s son was with us. He was his father’s best student, they might have discussed the kinds of forces that must be in play there.”
“They’re trying to break him out of his lair, aren’t they?” Maglor asked softly.
His brother shrugged. “They have weapons we could only dream of, so yes. And the shocks get stronger as the light gets brighter. Father used to talk of a power that could split the very earth if harnessed correctly, and that it would take trial and error to wield it, but wield it we could. I think this might be what he was talking about. They brought it with them and now conventional methods have failed, they’re getting ready to use it.”
They had heard the great host out of the west as it marched inland from the coast, banners waving and trumpets blaring, carving a trail wide and flat enough to be justly called a road. Maedhros had sent scouts - or spies, if you like, he had said with a wry shrug - to count their number and note the banners. There had been few friends of their father in that multitude, and Arafinwë the ambitious younger son had ridden near its head alongside Manwe’s Herald. There had been debate, because it was not a decision either of them had felt entitled to take for everyone, and then what remained of the Fëanorian army melted into the hills and prepared to wait out events, stealth the only defence that remained to them.
The army had gone north and for the next few years there had been little to show for it. At times wagons travelled down the road, taking supplies. At others, messengers came riding down to the base that had been set up on the coast where once a small fishing village had dozed. Then things changed. There had been rumblings, massive lightning storms, and a sudden exit of orc bands, leaderless and undirected, burning and maiming because that was all they knew, but determined to do it in the lower stretches of Beleriand if possible, not in the north. Hence the need for a strong watch at the perimeter. Hence the fact that a night with song and warmth and strong drink was a rarity and one to be indulged with care.
“Are we far enough away?” He had the basics of smith craft, as had all their father’s sons, but none of the more arcane knowledge. Even Fëanor had finally accepted his gift lay elsewhere.
“I don’t know. Probably not. I thought we could keep out of the way up here in the hills, and deal with the overflow as the vermin try and escape south but if we’re close enough to feel the earth shake already — I don’t know, Kano.” His face was shadowed, his eyes star bright in the dark. His breath frosted the air, leaving a white mist between them. Maglor saw as though for the first time how thin he had become, the lines of his face hard, gaunt. There was a tension about his mouth that had never been there before, not even in the harsh days after Thangorodrim when he pushed himself to heal, to grow strong, to heft a sword in his left hand with greater skill than ever with his right.
Fingon had been alive then. Not deserted and betrayed by the person he had most believed in. It had broken something in Maedhros and everything that had come after had gone that bit further towards trampling on the shards. And then the little princes had been lost after the bloodbath in Doriath and the remaining light had gone out. Before, he had respect. Now he had it still, but mainly he scared people.
“East.” Simple, firm. He had thought this through. “Beyond the seven rivers there’s a mountain range. Beyond that, I think. I’ve sent Garavon north to see if they’ll let us help. If the answer is what I expect, that’s where we’ll go.”
“I thought we were meant to talk about this kind of thing first?” He said it because it was there to be said, because it was the kind of thing that passed between brothers. It didn’t matter really.
“Not that. That was my choice to make. There is something else though. The boys.”
Maglor frowned. “The twins? What about them?”
Maedhros met his gaze straight and sure, his older brother who had been there through it all, the only person left in the world who really understood, who remembered that house over the sea with the brood of boys growing up together, the tempestuous, passionate parents, shouting, laughing, loving. The only one who knew where he came from and who would be at his side when they reached their inevitable destination. “They have to go back, Kano. We can’t keep them safe where we’re going. We need to send them to the island. Artanis is there, Gildor - the family’s true born survivors.”
“No.” Maglor said it flatly, no space for argument. He was a fatalist who did what had to be done and took life as it came, the bitter with the sweet, though there had been little enough of that since the boats burned, not till they took two tiny children from Sirion to keep safe from the horror they had themselves unleashed. They were blood kin, Noldor princes in their own right, who neither of them had been willing to see raised by that sea wolf Círdan or an unknown like Angrod’s grandson. They were nominally under Maedhros’s wardship, but from the start there was no denying it, they were Maglor’s boys.
Maedhros sighed gustily and placed his left hand on his brother’s shoulder, still with that straightforward look. The gesture was startling; he seldom touched people by choice. “Yes. I’ve already sent Hyandanno to Balar...”
Maglor started speaking, trying to drown out his voice, but he kept talking. “If they let us go north there will be no safe place for two half grown boys, you fool. And if we go east - we will be flying ahead of something unimaginable. I have no idea if we’ll survive, I have no idea how far we’ll need to go, but one thing I do know…”
Finally Maglor pulled out of his grasp and pushed him away, shouting over his words. “Where is this any different to how it’s been up till now? What is safety? Where is the risk greater? Why would it be any safer down there on that island? What makes Balar...”
“Because Artanis is there.” Maedhros threw it into the gap between words as he paused for breath, each syllable falling clear and distinct.
“What are you talking about?” Maglor’s voice dropped back to something just above a whisper, but it might as well have been a shout into the night’s stillness. He was shaking, and the anger that churned in his chest almost but not quite as strong as the fear.
“Think! Artanis is there.” Maedhros put the hand back on his shoulder, this time his grip was gentle. “Arafinwë is an ass, but even so he would try and make sure his daughter survived whatever it is they’re unleashing. And Gildor’s there too, and not only was Grandfather nonsensically fond of him, but Arafinwë was always scared to death of Lalwen. He’ll not willingly have her son in harm’s way.”
“Give them over to strangers…” The veranda, the snow-coated rail, the clean, dark night all felt unreal. The planks creaked too loud under his feet, the blood beat too strongly in his ears. “Is this why you let them decorate and light a Yule fire? Quickly make good little Sindar of them? I - we have raised them since they were tiny, they know no other life. How can you talk about — giving them away? They are our blood, Nelyo!” His voice cracked on the last words, the childhood name slipping out unnoticed.
Holding his right arm crooked to fend off attack if needs be, Maedhros looked at him bleakly. “Yes, they are. And look where that blood has led us, brother. Look at what it has left in our wake. Do you want them to be the next sacrifice to words spoken in anger to please the man who gave us life? Think, Kano. What do you want? To do what’s best for them - or for you?”
A dog barked. Maglor had a glimpse of someone crossing between trees, one of the guard that had been set. An owl called, a hunting cry. From inside he heard a great gust of laughter and wondered distantly what that had been about. And then he looked back and Maedhros’s tall, dark form was still there, the hair tucked under the edge of his cloak, his eyes strangely peaceful.
“Love is a hard thing,” Maglor said finally, because he supposed words were necessary. “Keeping something close and safe is difficult. But it is harder by far to let it go, to trust it to someone else’s sword arm and wit. I am no stranger to doing things the hard way, but – I do not know how I will let them go, children of my heart if not my blood.”
Maedhros looked at him bleakly. “You will do it because that is your way. You have logic where I once had dreams. You will do it because it is right. You will do it because you must.“