The man had been watching his house for an hour now. He wore dark jeans and a grey jumper, with the hood pulled up over his face and his hands folded into the front pocket. Impossible to guess his age, or much about his appearance. For the fourth or fifth time, Brian Proust glanced out of the window of his front room while pretending to be engrossed in some domestic task – plumping the cushions, or untangling the pulleys for the blinds. It was a degree or two under freezing outside but the strange man had barely shifted. One would think he didn't feel the cold at all. There was little of interest on the street, and the iron railings his observer leaned against could not be comfortable. Perhaps he had identified that number twenty-seven was home to an old man living alone. It wasn't a bad area, but that was no guarantee of anything.
“Well, there's nothing worth stealing here,” he muttered to himself. “Some nice tobacco and a few old books, and that's about it.”
And besides, he wasn't averse to using a few of his old tricks. The watcher wouldn't expect that.
Although you'll be in trouble if anyone sees you doing anything out of the ordinary, he reminded himself. Well, it couldn't be helped, if that was what it came to.
It was three o'clock. It would be dark soon – already he'd switched on the electric light in his front room, to avoid tripping over the cables that trailed across the floor from the Christmas lights. To distract himself from the watcher for a while, he pulled an old hardback edition of Ivanhoe from the bookshelf, and settled down to read.
Half an hour later and the man had not moved. Curious and irritated more than concerned, Proust put down his book and opened the cupboard under the stairs, where he kept the bird seed. He smiled as he remembered Wendell's delight at the bird table in the garden – although he admitted it served a practical purpose as well as a sentimental one. The internet was wonderful for communicating over long distances, but his brother tended to occupy corners of the world that it didn't yet reach.
He hauled the bag into the hallway and balanced it on the bottom step as he fiddled with the locks. Perhaps if he stepped outside, the watcher would take action.
Cold, stale winter air poured into the small vestibule. Cursing the builder that had fitted the door to open inwards, he gripped the bag and shuffled sideways onto the porch. The watcher tilted his head to one side – and suddenly, with no bricks and glass between the two of them, Proust knew him. The Music was quiet these days but there was no mistaking him, a yearning, fierce melody threaded with adamant and white fire and old, old grief.
Proust put down the bag, straightened, and folded his arms. “You stood and watched me this way once before, many Ages ago.”
The watcher gave a laugh like a song from a long lost legend. Strong, slender hands – one terribly scarred – pulled down the hood. He shook free a mane of black hair, and when he smiled his grey eyes blazed like the jewels he had once wandered the world seeking. “You took longer to recognise me this time. You're losing your touch, old man.”
“Aren't we all?” Mindful of the ice, Proust started carefully down the steps.
“No – wait.” Maglor crossed the street and opened the garden gate, then paused. “You don't mind if I -?”
Proust waved his hand impatiently, grateful that he no longer needed to negotiate the skate rink in his garden. “What are gates and doors between old friends? Come to that – why in the name of Elbereth did you not ring the doorbell?”
“And where would be the fun in that?” Maglor clasped Proust's right hand in both of his. “It's good to see you, Olórin.”
In response Proust pulled him into a close embrace, joy and sadness warring inside him – and guilt. He had thought Maglor must have been killed long ago, perhaps in one of the many wars of these late Ages. Again, he had underestimated him. The wind stung against the tear tracks on his wrinkled skin. He should have known that the last Fëanorion would find a way to survive. Why had he not sought him out? Would he never, never learn?
Maglor tightened his grip for a brief moment. “Do not blame yourself. I have not always wanted to be found.”
Proust stepped back, startled by the ease with which Maglor had read his feelings. He had lost none of his power, then. “How did you find me?”
“Luck only. I was passing through, and felt you in the Song.” A smile curled across the sculpted features. “You are quite distinctive.”
“Hmm.” He didn't doubt the truth of the words, but it seemed odd that Maglor should be wandering around his own sleepy corner of south-east England. It seemed too much of a coincidence.
Gently, carefully, he sent a soft tendril of power seeking towards Maglor's mind, and found it rebuffed by a wall of smooth glass. Very well. Two could play that game. He set some light barriers around his own mind, small lines of flame flickering at the borders of his thoughts and emotions. “Are you staying nearby?”
“At a pub in town.”
He lifted one bushy eyebrow. “And that's how you plan to see in the New Year, is it?”
“Well.” Maglor tilted his head, his smile taking on a playful quirk. “Unless a better offer comes along.”
“A better offer. I see.” Proust sniffed, and pulled his face into the stern glare that had cowed yeargroup after yeargroup of mutinous teenagers. “I don't suppose that a quiet evening with an old friend would come up to the mark, then.”
“Oh, I don't know. That would depend on the friend.”
His mouth twitched. Not for the first time, he wondered which was more incorrigible – Hobbits, Finwëons, or human teenagers. “What about one with an extensive whisky collection who is very interested to hear what you've been doing for the last several thousand years?”
Maglor laughed and picked up the bag of birdseed. “You've won me over. Lead the way.”
The house wasn't what Maglor expected. It was clean and airy enough, with cream coloured walls, polished floorboards and slightly battered, squashy furniture, but there was nothing unusual on view – unless one counted the shelves upon shelves of books, and the elaborate wooden pipe resting on the piano in the corner. It was a good instrument, he thought, his fingers drifting idly over the keys. Later, he told himself. He wondered what Olórin was called now, and glanced towards the kitchen before picking up one of the Christmas cards on the mantelpiece – a cheap cardboard creation adorned with an ugly robin.
Merry Christmas, Brian, and all the best for the New Year. Sarah.
Brian? He snorted. Surely he could have done better than that?
Curious now, he picked up another, this one with a more tasteful picture of a snow-covered city.
Merry Christmas, sir! (Sorry...it's too much of a habit, we can't even ditch it for Christmas cards!)
Hope all is well with you. Isabel is growing fast – Derry says she looks just like me, but she definitely has his eyes. What do you think?
We'll bring her across to see you in the New Year; she can just about cope with long car journeys now.
All our love, Anna and Derry.
He smiled. “Sir.” So Olórin was a teacher now, or he had been. Fitting. And it seemed he'd been popular with his students, judging by the volume of cards and letters updating him on their lives. That was no surprise either. He heard the kettle whistle and wandered through to the kitchen, where Olórin – Brian? He wasn't sure he could cope with that – was arranging biscuits on a plate.
“You're welcome to something stronger, if you'd like,” said the old man, pouring hot water into the teapot.
Maglor shook his head. “Just tea for now, thank you.” There were more books in here; an entire alcove had been shelved out for storage. Most of these were recipe or gardening books, although there were a few on other topics – the history of pipeweed, Scottish landscapes, and some old volumes of Greek philosophy. On a middle shelf, exactly at eye level, was a framed photograph of two dark haired young people, arms around each other, in a park somewhere under a beech tree with blazing red leaves. The back of Maglor's neck prickled; he knew he was being watched, and turned to smile at his host. “It's a lovely picture.”
“The two in the photo - they aren't yours?”
“No. They're former students of mine – although I think you guessed that, having looked at my Christmas cards.”
Maglor opened his mouth to try and explain. The cold squirm of guilt made him feel like an errant child again, standing in front of his father. It wasn't a sensation he was familiar with.
Olórin drew his beetling brows together. “It's generally considered bad manners to read another person's letters – and mind.”
“Oh, and you've never done the latter?”
He smiled and picked up the tea tray. “Come through here.”
He led the way to a small conservatory with a glass-topped, wrought iron table and plastic chairs spruced up with colourful cushions. Cacti and succulents were scattered on the shelf that ran the perimeter of the room. A long, thin, walled garden stretched out from the back of the house, with pots and flowerbeds positioned at different levels. Nothing was in bloom at the moment, and it was getting dark, but Maglor could imagine the colourful chaos of it in spring, with cascades of flowers pouring out of the edges of their beds, and different shades of green sketching areas of light and shadow along the trail that wound its way to an arbor at the garden's end. He settled himself in a chair and breathed in the smoky, tannic scent drifting from the teapot. “Forgive the question, but what would you like me to call you now?”
The old man chuckled. “Not Brian, if that is what troubles you.”
And you tell me not to read minds.
There's no need to read your mind. For an instant, behind the twinkling eyes of the retired schoolteacher, an ancient golden power flared. “You read my cards,” he continued out loud. “I watched your reaction – that is all. Your family possessed many skills, Makalaurë, but hiding thoughts and feelings was not one of them. You, I have to admit, are better at it than most, and you have improved further over the years, but in your unguarded moments you are as easy to read as a child's picture book.”
Maglor kept his expression carefully neutral.
“And in answer to your question – Proust. Or Olórin, if you cannot think of me any other way.”
The old man nodded. “The surname I took when I returned. I needed a first name too, of course, for official documents and so on, hence Brian. Inevitably that is what my colleagues called me. English schoolchildren, however, have a tendency to refer to teachers by their last name only, especially when they think they are out of earshot. I have grown fond of Proust.”
As you were once fond of Gandalf. Maglor kept the tenor of his thoughts closely controlled this time – gentle, and conciliatory.
Yes. After a slight pause the edges of their minds touched, affectionate and glad to meet again, much as they had clasped hands on the porch. Maglor tilted his head and looked into the blue eyes, searching for another glimpse of the old power, but for now it had retreated behind the mask of the kindly schoolteacher. Yet he still felt it in the Song, a soft but insistent thrumming, confidently but unobtrusively supporting all the melodies and harmonies around it. Maglor smiled and sent his own thread of the great Music reaching towards it, and the two twined – fierce, aching silver and loving golden flame. He closed his eyes, sinking into the chords and whispers they created.
A warm, rough-skinned hand over his own brought him back to the little conservatory. Fine flakes of snow like frozen dust were settling on the roof.
“The tea will get cold,” said Proust softly.
“Eru forbid,” replied Maglor, raising an eyebrow.
Proust poured. “And you? What do you call yourself these days? I can't imagine you go by Maglor Fëanorion in twenty-first century Britain.”
“No. Only a few have known me by that name.”
“A few?” He proffered a small china cup on a saucer. “I'm surprised it's any.”
Maglor accepted the cup and blew over the top of it. “Only one living.” Carefully he shielded those thoughts and memories from any questioning outreaches of power, but Proust did not pry, not this time. “At the moment I go by Mark Lowry.”
It was Proust's turn to snort. “How original.”
“Lies should be as near to the truth as possible. That way they're easier to remember, and harder to disprove.”
“Spoken from experience?”
“Of course.” He sipped the tea, savoured the bitter, soothing liquid on his tongue for a moment, and swallowed. “So. The Istari have returned to the world.”
Proust's eyebrows flew up at this. “When last I looked, I was one Istar, not several.”
“Oh, come.” Maglor leaned back in his chair, fixing him with a steely stare. “You ask me to believe that they sent you back alone, without even Aiwendil for company? Perhaps not Alatar and Pallando,” he added with a goading smile, knowing this would needle the old man. “They never were much use.”
“They played their part, the same as we all did.” He glared at Maglor over his cup. “They were not the only ones who hid in the shadows during that struggle.”
“I did everything you asked of me, Olórin, and more. Do not forget that.” He allowed a note of ice to creep into his voice, and flashed a memory into the old man's mind – blood and fire on a hilltop, and a pursuit that had seemed without end. “Tell me I'm wrong.”
Proust sighed. “You are not wrong – and I have not forgotten. Please forgive me.” He removed his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Aiwendil is in the rainforest in South America. Pallando is in Russia. Alatar, I do not know. I haven't heard from him in twenty years.”
Maglor nodded, staring at the tiny tea leaves floating in his cup. “Why are you here?”
“Of course not.” Irritation flared inside Maglor. “You know what I ask. Do not play games with me; I am not one of your pet Hobbits.”
“My brothers and I are sent back into the world every so often, to do what good we may.”
The old man remained infuriatingly calm, Maglor thought, narrowing his eyes – and the explanation was too glib. It had the feel of a rehearsed line. He suspected it had been used before to deflect requests for an explanation, and wondered to whom Olórin might have divulged his true nature, apart from himself. “The Ainur interfere in the world only at times of great need.”
“The world is always in great need, one way or another.”
Again, far too glib. Keeping his gaze on his teacup so that Olórin didn't read his intentions in his eyes, Maglor sent a few threads of thought questing quietly into the other's mind – only to feel a gentle rejection like the warm lick of a new flame. His head snapped up, and there it was again, the light of that ancient fire, flickering and dancing on the old face as though laughing at him.
“We both have our secrets, it seems,” Proust smiled, and selected a custard cream from the plate.
That we do, old man. Maglor was careful to stop the thought from escaping. After all, there was a long night ahead. There would be time to find out more.
The world is always in great need, one way or another.
Proust sucked on his pipe and watched a gaggle of excited children scramble from the car that had just parked outside his neighbours' house. It was true, of course, but not the whole truth – and Maglor knew he was not telling all. He glanced over his shoulder at his unexpected guest, who was crouching over the chest of spirits and thoughtfully considering each bottle. Despite himself, Proust smiled. He might have known. “Have you made a decision?”
“Almost.” The tilt of the head again, the winning smile that had always enchanted all who knew him. “You have quite the collection.”
Proust shrugged modestly. “One of the great pleasures of the modern day.”
“I agree.” He held up a bottle of Bladnoch Samsara. “Shall we start here?”
“Please – do the honours.” Proust gestured to the tulip-shaped glasses he had waiting on the table. Outside, excited shrieks drifted from next door as family members greeted one another and exclaimed how much the children had grown.
Maglor passed him a glass and raised his own. “Slàinte mhath.”
Eru, that voice. Still so beautiful. “Slàinte mhòr.” Proust closed his eyes and nosed the whisky. Orange blossom and vanilla were laced through the tang of the alcohol. How was anyone ever reckoned even close to him in skill? Even Tolkien had written with some certainty that Daeron had been the superior musician, but Proust found it hard to believe.
Maglor sat on the floor with his back against the sofa, one leg crossed over the other. The smile took on a knowing slant.
Proust narrowed his eyes. You were listening. Again.
You were broadcasting. He tipped his glass in Proust's direction, then took a sip. And you were being very kind. I thank you – but Ronald Tolkien only recorded the truth as he received it.
A shrug. “Well, some of the truth, anyway.”
“Makalaurë.” Proust's voice was sharp, but amused. How had he not seen this before? Maglor was right, he was losing his touch. “Am I letting my imagination run away with me, or at some point in your life, did you meet -?”
“Yes. Once when he was a small boy, and then later as a young man.” Maglor's grin was mischievous and delighted. “You didn't think he'd dreamed it all?”
“You'd be surprised,” Proust responded drily. He took a sip of his whisky, chewing it in his mouth and savouring the pleasant warmth of it against his throat as he swallowed. “What else have you meddled in over the years?”
Maglor laughed, and for a moment the Song rose, rallying for this bright star who was so tightly woven into it. “Openly? Very little.”
“And less openly?”
“Oh, I've watched and influenced from the shadows, here and there. Nothing you'd disapprove of,” he added.
“So you aren't scattered through the history books under many different names?”
“Not the history books, no. Although there are one or two of my names you might recognise.” An image landed in Proust's mind – Maglor as a green-clad archer, hooded cloak billowing, bow drawn taut. The Noldo chuckled at his expression. “The risk became too great, in any case – especially once the Secondborn learned how to paint decent portraits again. And even more so after they invented photography.” Another sip, and he swirled the amber liquid in the glass. His eyes grew far away, and the Song quieted, became as a comforting caress. “I do not love all of their handiwork, but I confess that their ingenuity astounds me. My father dreamed many of these things might be possible, but I doubt he thought the Secondborn would discover them.”
For a fleeting moment Proust wondered what the world would have been like, had Fëanor walked among the Secondborn – had he somehow survived the ancient wars and the breaking of the world, as his son had. Or better yet, if he had never sworn that damned Oath! A terrible ache filled him at the memory of the beloved face, blazing in fury and grief, whipped by flying strands of dark hair, uttering the vow that Olórin would have given anything to capture and pour back into that wounded soul – but a madness had been on Fëanor, and even Olórin, wisest of the Maiar, had no means to sponge away those dreadful words. Carefully he banked his mental defences against Maglor, anxious that none of this should drift over into his mind – but Maglor was staring into the bottom of his now-empty whisky glass, apparently lost in his own thoughts.
Proust got to his feet and added another log to the fire, giving it a little nudge of Power so that the flames flared and the burning wood hissed. Maglor looked up with a start, and smiled a smile that did not reach his eyes.
“Forgive me,” he said. “Memories.”
“Good ones, I hope,” Proust said gently.
Proust refilled the whisky glasses – a different bottle this time. This one had a deeper colour and smelled rich with spices. “That is infinitely better than none.”
“Better to have loved and lost?” Maglor replied with a lightness that did not fool the old man for a moment. “I know. And it was long ago now.”
Yet for you, ever present.
Yes. Yes. Maglor closed his eyes and breathed deeply for a moment. Unable to help himself, Proust reached out to brush the edges of his consciousness, half expecting the wall of glass again. To his surprise, though, Maglor had let it drop, and mingled with the old grief for his family was something else, raw and new.
Maglor opened his eyes, clearly feeling the gentle exploration of his emotions. “Meddlesome rascal,” he said without rancour.
He sounded so like the Olórin of old, rebuking the child Makalaurë for some misdemeanour. The reversal of roles startled Proust, and mirth struggled for a few moments with shame at his intrusion.
“It's alright,” Maglor said, before the apology was formed. “I let you see.” He leaned forwards and tossed another log onto the fire. “This is how it is for me now – do you understand? New sorrows on top of the old.”
“Do you wish to tell me about it?”
“No.” He looked away, staring out of the window where snow continued to fall. The glass reflected the tiny flames dancing along the new log, catching in the seams of bark that peeled away from the grain. “There have been times when I have almost lost myself in the despair again. It is like a vortex deep in my mind – a place that I dare not go in my saner moments, but in darker ones I throw myself into it, never sure if I will climb out, or if I want to.”
“And yet here you are.”
“And yet here I am.” He passed his drink under his nose but did not put it to his lips.
“I thought you dead.” It sounded accusing, petty. Again Proust felt ashamed.
“It almost happened a few times. Pompeii. Hastings. The Somme.” Maglor lifted the sweatshirt and folded down the waistband of his jeans. A faded mess of old scars was etched across his left hip and lower stomach.
“It will disappear in time – all the others have. Well...” He paused and flexed his scarred right hand. “Almost all,” he added, a bitter twist in his smile. He rolled his sweatshirt back down. “It was a shrapnel wound,” he continued conversationally, as though discussing the weather. “Or rather, a collection of wounds. The doctors and my troops called me their miracle; none of them could understand how I lived through it, let alone recovered enough to go back to the Front. For the rest of the War I was their mascot.” He gave a barking laugh. “Can you imagine? Maglor Fëanorion, a good luck charm!”
“I can easily believe it.” Burning protective love rose up in Proust as he imagined how Maglor must have looked to those young men long ago, silver eyes blazing in the face of the mud and guns - and then unbidden an image came to his mind, a vision of the beautiful creature lying mangled on a stretcher, light fading from the face that had seen so much and lived for so long. Tears sprang to his eyes.
“Ah, old friend.” Maglor reached out and clasped his hand. “There is little danger of such a thing happening now. We are past the days of conscription and forced service, at least in this country.”
“And past many other things.”
“Indeed.” Again the tilt of the head, the questioning smile. “Is that why you're here?”
Proust reached for his pipe and slid his tobacco pouch out of his pocket. Hold a little longer, he thought to himself, and reset the protections around his mind. “Is what why?”
“Come, we know each other too well to keep playing games. You feel it as keenly as I do – the Song is fading.”
Maglor watched the old man fill the bowl of his pipe and tamp down the fragrant brown shreds. The old man didn't meet his eyes, instead taking an experimental draw, testing the air flow through the tobacco and up the pipe. Maglor knew it wouldn't help to press, so instead he sank himself into the swirls of the Music around him, feeling for the loving golden fire that was Olórin. There – impossible to miss. He had not lied; that strain of the Song, Ages old, had called out to him as soon as he'd arrived in the little market town, and in joyful anticipation he had gone looking for its source. Now, its gentle confidence wavered a little, uncertainty catching its edges.
“Is it coming?” Maglor asked, anticipation and dread building within him like the snows that whipped and swirled outside. “The Dagorath?”
Proust struck a match and scowled, looking for all the world like Gandalf grown irritated with one of his hobbit comrades. “Are you so eager for it?”
“No,” Maglor said, so quickly that the word was uttered before he realised he was lying.
Power flashed again behind the old man's eyes. The pipe glowed, and for a moment the features outlined in the soft light were not those of Proust the retired teacher, but an ageless and beautiful being, at once kindly and terrifying. “If you are so desperate for things to end, why did you not succumb to one of your many wounds and have done with life? Why keep fighting?”
“I will not let that old crow Námo have my soul so easily!” White-hot anger flared within him. “That is if he even wants it. Perhaps he would simply cast me into the Void.”
“That would not be your fate.”
“Why not? You were there; you heard what we all swore. Oh, long Ages have passed, but do not tell me that I have suffered enough, that the Valar would be merciful. If that is what you think then you only prove – again – that you know them not at all.”
“We have discussed this before.” The Maia retreated behind the man, and Proust blew out a puff of smoke. “We did not agree then and will not agree now.”
“How can you still believe in their wisdom and goodness?” Incredulity laced his anger. “If they are so pure, so benign, then answer me this – where are my father and brothers?” He paused, waiting for a reply. Proust sucked the end of his pipe and stared at the fire. “You cannot. They have not told you, and in your heart, Olórin, you know why that is! Still they are punished, still they are kept prisoner, and there will be no mercy, we knew that all those thousands of years ago! On the House of Fëanor the wrath of the Valar lieth from the West unto the uttermost East, and upon all that will follow them it shall be laid also...”
“Do not make me remind you why that Doom was pronounced!”
“I do not need to be reminded!” Images and sounds flooded over him – the ring of steel, the screams of the Teleri, warm thick liquid smeared on armour and bare skin; the frantic splashing of Noldor cast into the harbour, being picked off by the Teleri arrows; the righteous cry of Fingon as he and his people charged into the battle; the terror and despair on the Teleri faces when they knew the day was lost; the smell of blood on the salted air...he felt Olórin's power reaching out to him, trying to draw him back, but he flung it away. “I do not claim to have paid, or to have done enough to atone for my deeds, but if my family are in the Everlasting Dark, then why do the Valar not simply tell you so? Because they know it is wrong. To condemn an Elvish soul to that abyss...” Pain seared in his chest, a blade of grief twisting in his heart. “I do not wish for the end, Olórin. I wish for a new beginning. I wish for the Door of Night to be broken, for my father and brothers to be released, for the world to be cleansed of evil and then healed.” A sob tore from his throat like a wild creature escaping a trap. “I am tired. Can you not understand that? I have seen too much.” The wild fever of memory receded, leaving a throbbing ache in his soul. “So tell me, old friend. How long must I wait?”
Proust did not answer. Maglor returned himself to the present one detail at a time – the tickle of the rug under his hands, the giddy shrieks of the children next door, the burnt vanilla smell of the pipe.
“Please.” His mouth was dry. He sipped his whisky, but the burn did nothing to help. “Are you here because the Music is ending, and the world must prepare?” He reached again for Olórin's sound within the Song, and once again felt the golden heat twine around his own melody, which now sounded jagged and lost.
“Would you believe me if I said I do not know?” Proust laid a gentle hand on his shoulder. “The Song has quietened, yes, but only Eru knows whether it is ending, or whether this is simply a period of calm before some great resurgence.”
“Have you ever known it do this before?”
“No, but I do not know everything.” If he had turned and looked up, Maglor would have been willing to bet that the old eyes were twinkling again. “And nor do the Valar.”
He did look up then, startled.
“I know you think me their puppet,” Proust smiled, “but I was there at the beginning, and saw as much as they.” He glanced at the clock on the mantelpiece, as though deciding to be truthful in the dying hours of the year. “It is not in their purpose or their mercy that I trust, but in Eru's.”
“And does he still watch and listen, I wonder?” Maglor could not quite keep the hard edge from his voice.
“Yes.” The reply was soft, soothing. “He does.”
“He did not show you everything, though, did he? He took away your vision of the Music before you saw how it could end – or so the tales in Valinor had it.”
“It's true that we did not see how things would unfold once the Children came into the world.”
Maglor finished his whisky and poured another. “Then perhaps there is no great purpose. Perhaps he simply grew bored and stopped creating.” He smiled tiredly. “I'm sorry. You will have to have faith for both of us. Mine appears to have deserted me.”
As if in response he felt himself cradled by golden power. Gentle warmth caressed the ragged edges of his exhaustion. Please tell me.
Oh, very well. Perhaps it would help. “There's not much to tell.” Another swallow of whisky. “I have – I had – a very good friend. A woman. She's the one I spoke of, the one who knows me by my true name.”
“Do you love her?”
He smiled wryly. “Yes, very much, although not in the way you mean.” That cause was lost a long time ago. “So much that...that I cannot bear to see her age, and...” He did not finish, but he did not need to. It was clear enough what he meant, even without the kind presence quietly observing what was in his mind. “I left her. I told her that I could not see her again – for her own good as much as mine,” he added. “She would have given up everything else in her life to walk beside me, and I could not allow that. In the end I would only have brought her grief.” A log shifted in the grate, and red light gleamed through the whisky glass. “She called me a coward.”
“Then she does not know of what she speaks.”
“No, she's right. I have done this over and over again through the years. I cannot watch them grow old, knowing what will come.” He leaned back into the sofa, tilting his head and closing his eyes. “Every time, sooner or later, I uproot myself and leave them.”
“Because you cannot lose anyone else.” The hand moved from his shoulder to his forehead, and stroked his brow. The skin on the tips of the fingers was softer than he expected, and warmth bloomed where they touched. “That is not cowardice, Makalaurë.”
“It is selfish.”
“Love sometimes is – whatever the poets tell us.” The voice had softened too, the crackling edges of age smoothed away. Golden light filtered through Maglor's eyelashes, and he knew that if he opened his eyes it would not be Proust he saw sitting with him in the room. Outside, fireworks began to scream and crack, although it wasn't midnight yet.
“Ai, Olórin.” He felt himself relax into the glow of that warm light. “If the world is not ending then what are you doing here? You never did tell me.”
A low chuckle like a soft vibrato note from a cello. “I suppose it's fair – truth for truth.” Maglor felt a warm, heavy pressure on his mind then, and opened himself to the contact. There was a blurring, and suddenly he stood on a familiar shore, one that he'd left a long time ago. Straight, dark red hair whipped around his face in the wind, and he knew then that he was seeing Olórin's memories through the Maia's eyes. The breeze lifted slow, rolling waves from the sea, and the air tasted of salt and magic. He felt the Song within him and it had a sweet familiarity, as though he were delighting in the performance of some half-forgotten symphony, not hearing it for the first time. Beside him a voice spoke – cool, commanding, but not unkind. It was no Vala's voice, and he knew them all.
“Find them. Help them.”
“I do not understand, my lord.”
He turned, but there was nobody there, not even a footprint in the sand...
And then he was back in his own body, in Proust's living room, and the old man was pouring more whisky and humming softly to himself.
“Find them?” Maglor echoed questioningly. “Help them? What does he mean? Who was he?”
Proust simply smiled and passed him the bottle.
“That's not an answer!” Maglor wasn't sure whether he was irritated or not. “Who needs help?”
“I am still trying to understand it myself.” Proust glanced towards his shelf of Christmas cards. “I confess, I thought I had done what I needed, but perhaps not. Since here you are.”
Maglor tilted his head. “But to borrow a phrase from you – when last I looked, I was one, not many.”
“And I am beyond help.”
“As you say.”
He had expected an argument, and felt a little hurt at that response. Hurt! He berated himself internally. He had no right to be hurt, and no right to anyone's help.
Proust still smiled.
“Find them. Help them,” Maglor said again, slowly. There was only one “them” to which he had ever truly belonged. Hope began to unfurl in his breast, and a crowd of beloved faces sprang into his mind. “Olórin...”
“Do not leap to conclusions,” the old man cautioned. “We know next to nothing.”
“Then why tell me, if you don't believe it?”
“Believe what? We have four words, no more, and I may be wrong. It would not be the first time.”
It was true that hope was a dangerous thing. Carefully Maglor caught at the swirling, silvery threads of elation and tempered them with the memories of long years of loneliness. Yule had always been a strange time, liable to tease the heart and mind, awaken old dreams and set ghosts walking the earth.
“Whatever those words mean, I do not believe that you are here by luck alone,” Proust continued gently. “Perhaps the New Year will tell us more.”
Maglor glanced at the clock. Five to twelve.
“Do you still play?”
“Of course.” Maglor smiled at him, trying and failing to contain his wishful thoughts. Nelyo...Tyelko...father... “I was merely waiting to be asked.”
He went to the piano and traced the keys with gentle, practised fingers. Proust, having opened a third bottle of whisky, came to stand behind him as he carefully sounded a G major arpeggio. It was only an upright piano, but the timbre was rich and pure.
“I have never understood it,” murmured a voice above him – Olórin again, he thought, feeling the familiar glow at his back. “Always, since you were a child, you have been able to make them speak to you.”
Maglor's lips curved in a smile, and with his left hand sketched the tune to a peaceful canon, the notes echoing warmly in the little room. With his right he added a well-known melody that spoke of times gone by and the kindness of old friends.
Anyone standing outside in the snow, looking in through the old bay window, would have seen two beautiful and seemingly young men at the piano – one with black hair, utterly absorbed in his playing, and behind him, right hand resting on the pianist's shoulder, one with long, dark red hair and kind blue eyes. A close observer might have blinked, wondering how the red-headed one could be glowing, but would most likely have dismissed it as a trick of the light.
As the church clock in the town centre struck twelve and a cheer went up from the pub down the road, the pair raised their voices in song, the pianist with a yearning melodic tenor and the redhead with a rich bass baritone. Up and down the street the same melody and words drifted out through the old single glazed windows, hope and nostalgia curled together in each note.
For auld lang syne, my dear,
For auld lang syne,
We'll take a cup of kindness yet
For auld lang syne.
This sort of sits within my Second Chance storyverse, and acts as a continuation of/companion piece to Pilgrim Through This Barren Land, but I don't think you need to have read either of those to understand what's going on.
I actually wanted to post this on New Year's Eve itself, but it wasn't quite finished. Apologies, and belated Happy New Year.
Thank you to Spiced Wine, for reshaping the way I think about the Valar; if you haven't already, go and read her work. It will change the way you view canon forever.
Thank you also to Ziggy, for the endless encouragement.
I actually wanted to post this on New Year's Eve itself, but it wasn't quite finished. Apologies, and belated Happy New Year.
Thank you to Spiced Wine, for reshaping the way I think about the Valar; if you haven't already, go and read her work. It will change the way you view canon forever.
Thank you also to Ziggy, for the endless encouragement.
Chapter end notes:
Like "Pilgrim," I know this raises questions, suggests more to come and hints at many, many more stories in the background. I have accepted that I'm going to be writing a Maglor series; there's no fighting it any more. Those who know me know that I'm a slow writer, so apologies in advance for that. I hope you enjoyed this offering, and that it's satisfying enough by itself. Oh, and for the curious, what Maglor starts off playing is the Donna Nobis Pacem/Auld Lang Syne arrangement by Yo-Yo Ma and Chris Botti. Find it on Spotify or Youtube. It's beautiful and is more than half the reason this story was written.
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