And All Our Wounds Forgiven
Be all my sins remembered.
-Shakespeare, Ham. III.I
Edrahil’s clipped steps across the marble hall betrayed all the desire for a declaration of war. Strangers waylaid on the path below the Ringwil, he said. How they had come so far under the eyes of the watchers was a fact Edrahil proved reluctant to address.
“They bore these, My Lord, though they did not give them up willingly.” On the dais steps, he laid such arms as Finrod Felagund had not seen in many a long year.
The bow was just what it should have been: the possession of a wealthy hunter who preferred namelessness and practicality over familial pride.
The longsword, however, spoke enough for both of them. Felagund did not have to glimpse the engraving in the pommel to know what manner of steel he held or what visitors awaited at his door.
A prickling disquiet hummed in his fingertips. Such lightness for a thing capable of severing body from soul. The steel had been folded in a manner he had never seen before yet it remained balanced, fit to his hand. Unpolished and darkened with oil, it would never betray its bearer with a gleam, even under the bright guide-lamps of Alqualondë.
The presence of such princely and bloody arms in his realm boded ill, particularly with the recent news from the East.
“Bring them here,” he said to Edrahil.
The hounds entered ahead of their guard: massive creatures more than a little wolf-blooded by their muzzles and the size of their shoulders. They made no sound save for their claws against the floor, but their pelts bristled as they circled the fountain in the center of the hall. From the foot of the dais, their yellow eyes scrutinized him with something more than animal intelligence.
Their masters, when they appeared behind Edrahil, were nearly as wild and wayworn, suffering less care than their gear. Their raiment, despite its fine weave, had borne the brunt of Northern climes, their faces and frames the brunt of a Northern winter. Even had their arms not lain in his lap, Felagund would have recognized the sons of Fëanor at a glance. They carried themselves high despite their raggedness and took no notice of Edrahil’s men who held their lances a little too low for an honor guard.
Felagund rose as they approached. “Greetings, kinsmen.”
“Aiya, tyenya!” Celegorm returned, his beautifully hard features and the quiver at his hip not the only thing marking him apart from his brother. “Though one needs must wonder what manner of kinsman greets his cousins as if they were knaves intending to rob the house once admitted. And in so alien and unlovely a tongue besides!”
“It is against custom to bear arms in my halls. Even for kinsmen,” Felagund said with care. “Only my men-at-arms do so, and then only at need. These are perilous days, and we do not dare endanger our own lives by showing too much trust.”
“‘To those who have never earned it,’ you would say, if your courtesy did not restrain you.” Celegorm set his boot heel upon the fountain’s lip and leaned an elbow on his bent knee.
Felagund ignored the insolence and Edrahil’s indignant hiss. “I have never said so.”
“Though others less courteous may,” Edrahil interjected with a dark glance at one of the wolfhounds who had laid himself proprietarily on top of the dais steps.
Celegorm curled his lip but continued to address Felagund. “Truly, perilous, indeed, are these times—and perilous the women and children we left on your doorstep. Or so your Sindar dogs seem to think, judging by how they growl. Very valiant they are when surrounded by their fellows. One wonders how they might be otherwise.”
Edrahil’s face flushed. Striding forward, he thrust Celegorm’s knee off the fountain. “If this is the fashion in which the House of Fëanor entreat for succor, it is a wonder they are not all houseless and adrift in the wilds.”
Felagund cast him a warning look. Humility was not something he expected of any of Fëanor’s house, but respect and even-temperedness he commanded from his men: whomever their guests and however unwelcome.
Celegorm fell back a step, smirking, and opened his mouth, likely to hurl an even more enflaming rejoinder that would have had them at swords’ lengths. But a hand closed about his upper arm, forestalling his words.
“Peace, brother. You hunt enemies where there are none.”
Where hardship had annealed Celegorm’s beauty with brashness, muddying one with the other, Curufin, as he would be known now, had been pared down to the edge of what remained necessary. His features were honed as if by a whetstone, throat, jaw, the hollows of his eyes sharp as knifeblades. He took Felagund’s gaze and held it.
“Our kinsman is justified in his suspicions. Can you say we would have done otherwise had our places been exchanged?”
Celegorm shrugged off his brother’s hand but fell silent.
“Forgive my brother his rusty graces, Lord,” Curufin continued, stepping forward and even bending his neck in what might have been a gesture of obeisance. “It has been a long and weary way for the both of us, and we had hoped to find friendlier welcome amongst our kindred rather than such chill suspicion as we found at Doriath’s borders.”
Such courtesies. Felagund had to suppress an ironic smile. How carefully they danced around each other. Unforgotten grievances sheltered beneath deferential addresses, the way wounded animals lie up in their lairs.
His mother tongue had never felt so unsuited and unwieldy in his mouth as it did now.
“If you wished for a kinsman’s welcome, you might have been better served going South instead of West,” Felagund said though without heat. A dark chill spurted along his arteries. “Or have the Ambarussar too been overrun?”
“Little enough news have we had of them, but they are few and nearly as houseless as we have been,” Curufin said. If the uncertainty of his youngest brothers’ fates touched him near, he did not show it. “Their safety lies in secrecy and small numbers. We could not in good conscience overwhelm them with our folk and imperil their lives.”
“Yet you are less unwilling to imperil me and mine?”
The bright lanternlight cast shadows across the hollows of Curufin’s face, making them look deeper, more desperate. “Nargothrond is strong and unknown to the Enemy. And news of it will not reach Him through us. Indeed, it is hoped that our presence here might assuage older hurts. It is not only the wounded and weak we have brought with us. Those who held the Pass of Aglon against twice the number of Morgoth’s forces we have brought also: warriors and craftsmen, weavers and horsemen. Men and women who would set their skills to the service of one generous enough to give a bit of shelter and bread for greater gifts.”
Felagund smiled in truth. So, now, bartering. “You speak as your father did.”
“I speak as myself, out of urgency,” Curufin insisted, his hand clenching on his empty scabbard. “The East is fallen, save for Himring, which Maitimo holds, barely. Carnistir’s people are scattered to the winds. The Ambarussar have fled south. Dorthonion is laid waste despite your fair, young brothers’ valor. Whatever grudges that once lay or still lie between us must be set aside, or the Enemy will laugh as he pinches us out, one by one, between his claws.”
Felagund was not a fool. He had been often enough in the circles of kings and princes—and in the presence of the sons of Fëanor—to know when he was being manipulated, for good reason or no, and with enough truth. The remark about Aegnor and Angrod, in particular, cut him deep. That loss was still too near.
Edrahil laid a hand on his shoulder and bent to his ear. “My Lord, not one of yours would question you should you choose to turn them away. In fact, I know of no few who would thank you on bended knee. The sons of Fëanor have ever been treacherous in word and deed for the sake of their oath. They say they can provide safety and aid. But it is doom and death that follow on their heels.”
Felagund traced the star of the House of Fëanor emblazoned into the pommel of the sword. The pads of his fingers tingled as if burnt. “But against doom and death there is no surety in these days. Even for the faithful.”
Edrahil said nothing, but Felagund had long learned to read his silences. He would not be the only one displeased with the presence of the sons of Fëanor in their realm.
“Be at ease, my old friend. I shall not be eaten by these wolves.” Raising his eyes and voice, he said, “I will not have it said of me that I turned away kinsmen at need. Nor that I nursed long-forgiven grudges while the Enemy gloated over his victories.”
He descended the dais steps and handed the black sword to its owner without releasing his eye. “Let this trust be earned.”
The Sirion, swollen in his banks, crashed against the rocks on either side, filling the woods with a tumbled and confused rush of water. But for the river, all else was silence. But it was not the silence of a damp autumn night that held the wood in thrall.
Felagund, with a score of his hunters about him and the sons of Fëanor following, stole through the trees. They dared risk neither light nor flame for they had come at last within sight of the Isle. Felagund did not allow himself to glance up at the high tower he himself had raised. He had no desire to see what evil Sauron had put it to.
Yet even as he thought it, the trees gave way for a brief instant, and his eyes betrayed his will.
He should not have been able to see such a distance, in such a night, with the mist heavy on the river and the blackness about the tower. But some enchantment seemed to be in the moonlight for it glared on the great gates like a lamp, mocking with cold brightness the two beloved faces impaled between the crenellations. Aegnor. Angrod. Some enchantment had kept the corruption at bay, their features still painfully recognizable. The shreds of Felagund’s own colors flapped beneath them, a foul and unworthy shroud.
“This cannot be,” whispered a voice. “They are—”
“My Lord,” another whispered, Edrahil perhaps, urgent and low. He was aware, distantly, of someone’s hand on his arm. “We cannot linger here.”
The wind gusted across the river, carrying in its arms the sound of voices, faint and gossamer on the air. Felagund jerked towards the sound, pierced by its familiarity, by the anguish in it.
“That is his voice. Listen!”
“Voice, My Lord?” Edrahil echoed, his face dark under the trees.
“This way.” Felagund struck off towards the riverbank, his steps slow, uncertain at first, all his senses straining. Bracken crackled underfoot, but the wind blew strong across his face, bringing with it an acrid smell on the air, burning flesh and hair. A cry of pain cracked from the trees close to the riverbank. A keening wail.
Then he was running, heedless of the alarmed calls of the men behind him, the scratch and tangle of branches, the stumbling roots.
But one branch latched onto him and did not let go. He struggled, cursing, until the branch struck back, snapped his head back hard enough to spark white across his vision.
“Hold, fool! I have no mind to die this night.”
Felagund stumbled and fell heavily as the branch released him, the taste of iron on his tongue. He touched his broken lip, the mist before his eyes clearing.
“The voices…” he whispered. “I heard my brother.”
“Fool,” Curufin said again, standing over him, tensed, as if waiting for him to spring again. A tremor of anger and fear ran through his voice. “These are not your woods anymore. What you heard was nothing but cunning glimmer-craft to drive you to madness and death. So it was when the Enemy came against us in Aglon. Look!”
Scarce a yard beyond him, a precipice dropped away to a soaring depth. Dim below, the Sirion could be heard, churning restlessly. Sweat pricked over Felagund’s skin, and he remained seated on the damp leaves, all the strength gone from his legs. Even now, he could hear Orodreth’s cries, calling for Felagund to come to him, to save him.
Stooping like a hawk over a fallen sparrow, Curufin hauled him to his feet and searched his face, but whatever he found there displeased him, for he did not ease his grip as they retreated from the baleful gaze of the tower, deeper into the woods.
A pale light fell about their feet. Curufin carried a small hand-lamp in his free hand. It lit his face with softness, starlight instead of candleflame. Slowly, the heaviness eased from Felagund’s legs and thought, and he became more aware of the others behind them, his throbbing mouth and the unrelenting grasp on his arm.
Suddenly, the iron grip dropped away. They stood at the edge of an open patch of woodland. A few elves about the fire lurched to their feet, their weapons already to hand.
Felagund had a glimpse of Orodreth’s face, wan and bruised, before his younger brother was in his arms, his chin pressing hard against Felagund’s neck, solid flesh. No ghostly voice.
“Did you see? Did you see? Aegnor and Angrod. They called to me. They bade me come to them. I—”
“Shh,” Felagund soothed, digging his fingers into his brother’s hair. “I am here now. We have come to take you back with us to Nargothrond.”
There were few…so few left of the garrison of Minas Tirith, but they gathered up what they could, helping wounded and sick alike. They all were drawn and taut with long-living in the haunted woods. But the thought of Nargothrond heartened them.
Felagund kept near his brother as he rallied his men, and he did not miss the look cast towards the sons of Fëanor who had not entered into the camp but stood with their backs to the firelight, watching the darkness.
“You know I have always trusted your judgment,” Orodreth said, low in his ear.
“Then continue to do so. It is thanks to their aid that I found you at all,” Felagund said, shortly. “Come. We must make haste. The Enemy will not wait for us to gather our strength.”
His words proved all too true when the night shattered under the weight of wolf-voices, breaking out in all directions. The hue and cry filled all the woods.
Felagund met the first that leapt at him with the edge of his sword. After that, he knew nothing. Dark shapes and light. Now brighter, now darker. The tug and visceral twist of battle. Yet, even in the midst of the howling, screaming, rocking mass that their comrades and enemies had become, he was aware of Curufin, near him, as masterful a wielder of his black sword as maker. He had but to touch a wolf, and it dropped. The starlight that blazed from his fist dismayed the enemy and glittered in his eyes.
“Stand fast!” he roared over the tumult, and Felagund, wind too ragged for words, could nothing but obey.
The wolves broke under the determined defense, but even as they fled, a few of their orc-companions turned and shot. Most of the arrows went wild. One did not.
Almost directly in front of him, Curufin stumbled and would have collapsed had Felagund not caught him against a tree. An arrow had pierced his shoulder, and his tunic glistened in a darkly widening arc.
Felagund smiled though it pained his bloodied lip. “I thought you had no mind to die this night.”
Ignoring the other’s groan of complaint, he pulled Curufin’s arm over his shoulder.
Once freed of the pursuit, or reasonably sure at least, they could hide in the dense copses for awhile, Felagund called a halt to the staggering company. More than a few of their number had taken wounds, and the others were little better for exhaustion and fear.
Felagund, neck and back aching from Curufin’s grip, lowered his charge to the ground beneath a spreading oak.
“I will return,” he said, very much aware of the gratitude he owed this man for the night’s work. But first, he needed to ascertain his brother’s welfare and find supplies for his own had been lost in the flight.
When he returned, Celegorm was crouched beside Curufin, his fingers buried in his brother’s shoulder. At the sound of Felagund’s approach, his face turned fiercely.
The haft of the black arrow lay in the dust at Celegorm’s feet. “You drew it forth. Why did you draw it forth?”
Celegorm did not even glance up. Blood stained his hands dark. “I have tended my brother’s wounds before. We have dealt with worse than wolves and stray arrows.”
Felagund threw the satchel to the ground, ignoring the implied slight in the other’s words. “Even so, the bolt should not have been drawn forth. He bleeds.”
Celegorm said nothing, but the tension in his back and shoulders bespoke a hound readying itself to bite.
At the sound of the rasping voice, all of Celegorm’s body yearned towards it.
Curufin raised his head a little. His face held a disturbingly sallow tint to it. “Too often have I been at the mercy of your needle and still bear the fruits of your efforts. I think…this time I will trust to our cousin. He has…a woman’s slender fingers.”
Celegorm snorted, but Curufin merely looked over his shoulder at Felagund.
Cursing softly under his breath, Celegorm got to his feet and withdrew to the fire, Felagund hurrying to replace him, pressing his hand tight to the wound.
“You’d think he expected me to slit your throat,” Felagund said, pulling the edges of the tunic down to further inspect the wound. “What a bloody mess.”
“Poor Tyelkormo. Even in his tender ministrations, he is rough.” Curufin shifted restlessly under Felagund’s hands as he searched the wound.
“I am sorry it hurts, but you must be still. You are fortunate this is not worse, given he pulled the arrow as he did.”
“He is not fond of you,” Curufin gritted out. He was sweating and trembling finely, but by some grace of fate, Celegorm had managed to clean the wound passably well. “Do not be offended. He is not much fond of anyone. Other than his hounds, of course.”
“There must be great love between you for him to be so protective of you,” was all Felagund said as he fished bandages from the satchel. He had not missed the blame in Celegorm’s eyes. He touched the hem of Curufin’s tunic. “This will be easier if I help you.”
When Curufin answered nothing, he unfastened the lacings one by one and pinched a sleeve between thumb and forefinger. It was like undressing a child.
Curufin aided him a little by sitting up and maneuvering one arm gingerly out the sleeve. Once his arms were freed, the rest of the tunic lifted easily over his head, and he sank back, pallid and exhausted.
While Felagund’s hands occupied themselves with applying pressure and binding the wound, his eyes of their own accord strayed over the bared torso, the silver marks of bow and blade that marked it. Some were old, some not so. There were many: the blood work of years. Strange that he should be tending such a one in such a place.
Curufin followed his gaze with half-hooded eyes, and his lips mirrored the wound in his breast. “Not so fair as my brother, am I?”
“Actually, I was thinking it was strange that you, of all men, should spill your blood for my cause when…”
“When once, I was so eager to spill your kinsmen’s blood on the quays of Alqualondë? On the contrary, it seems only just that blood should pay for blood.”
“Perhaps,” Felagund said, uncomfortably. “I would rather a man pay with better deeds.”
Curufin laughed. “What ill deeds have you ever done, Lord, that you feel you must atone for them by tending my wounds?”
The question took him aback, and he finished his task in silence without raising his eyes, resolving that no more words of what had happened at Alqualondë would pass between them, then or ever.
“I will fetch you something for the pain.”
When Curufin had drunk the draught that would aid his sleep Felagund crouched on his heels beside him. “I am grateful, Lord Curufinwë for—”
“Do not, I beg you. Words of thanks are awkward things, too often less sincerely meant than spoken.”
“I am sincere,” Felagund said, a little offended that his words had been taken as duplicitous.
“I believe you, but for the formalities that continue to bind your tongue.” Curufin sighed and settled his head deeper on the folded cloak beneath his head. “What lordship have we now, we beggars on the wild heathland? Rulers of the sheep and gorse. Though I cannot speak for my brother, for my part, I wish you would dispense with them, Lord Artafindë or Findaráto or whatever you call yourself now.”
Felagund, ameliorated by the unexpected offer, took no notice of its caustic delivery. “Felagund. I am called Felagund. Very well then, Curufinwë, if—”
“Nay, not Curufinwë. Curufinwë was my father, and he is dead. Nor will I be Atarinkë, nothing more than his image. Nor Curvo. ‘Curufin’ I would be called.” His eyes blinked lazily towards sleep. “A different name for a different man. And, perhaps, a different fate.”
“Curufin, then,” Felagund said, disentangling the empty cup from limp fingers. It was a fair name in the Sindarin tongue, and it felt good to say it aloud at last. “But not for the dispossession of your lands do I name you thus familiarly. For friendship. For what you have done for my brother this night and for me. For better deeds.”
Curufin closed his eyes.
“I will leave you to your rest.”
He had not gone three paces when Curufin called his name, jerking him abruptly to a halt with the sheer newness of it.
Half-outside the firelight, Curufin’s eyes glinted as distant stars glimpsed from the mouth of a cave. “It is a well-crafted name at that.”
The loss of Minas Tirith was a sore blow amidst a series of sore blows. The passages north, but for the Hill of Himring, and much of the western lands were utterly closed to them. More than one of his lords spoke of withdrawing all their people into the safety of the caverns, of preparing for siege. But this Felagund was loath to do. It sat ill with him to cower like a rabbit in its warren at the merest whiff of the hounds. Nargothrond was yet secret and as long as it was so, it was safe. His people should be able to have their freedom while they could.
With the help of the sons of Fëanor, he tripled the watch on the plains of the High Faroth until not even the smallest chaffinch could lift its head within a mile of the Ringwil without their being awares.
Strangers that wandered too near their country were turned back. Some were Men, flying wayward and nigh witless from the onslaught of the Enemy. Others were Sindar and Noldor, ousted from their ravaged realms and strongholds. But even to them no shelter was offered, and none of Felagund’s folk would reveal themselves.
The dreams plagued him often.
Disquieting at first for the echoes of his brothers’ voices, the howls of wolves and the feeling of hard fingers on his arm that snapped him into waking. Later, the dreams grew softer yet somehow more dangerous.
One night, he woke, gasping, twisted in sweat-dampened sheets, that part of him that he had thought long wrestled into submission aching between his legs. After his galloping heart eased, he recalled only a sensation of two. Bent over like beasts. The Nauglamír—or was it an arm?—yoked round his neck, tightening inexorably so that he could scarce breathe through his arousal.
Suddenly Nargothrond, for all its vastness, felt suffocating.
Edrahil expressed concern at his choice, but Felagund merely laughed at the idea of taking a retinue while still within the boundaries of his own realm. He took only his horse and rode up to the High Faroth.
The Ringwil, icily cold at this season, cut a deep-cloven course across the highlands before plunging into the Narog above the Doors. Felagund followed it up the hill and into the birches, their skins reddish and peeling, their limbs and hair burned yellow and the bracken at their feet reduced to an ashy copper. The whole plain of Nargothrond looked charred with flame.
His fingers tightened on the reins of his mount. Such dark thoughts were not in his nature, but of late even nature itself seemed to twist to the will and reach of Morgoth.
“Distraction does not become you, Felagund. An enemy might have put a bolt in you, if not for our eyes.”
A bolt, indeed, struck him low in the belly at the sound of that voice. He checked his horse abruptly, peering up through the red branches, but the speaker remained hidden, save the voice.
“It is not safe for you on the ground. Leave your horse below. We have news for your ears.”
Felagund scaled the rope ladder tossed down to him and emerged through a hole in the floor of the platform where Curufin stood watch with several of his folk. They were all heavily armed, and an air of uneasiness hung like mist about him.
“What other kind but ill?” Curufin said, the corner of his mouth twisting wryly. He leaned against the railing, seemingly at ease, almost unconscionably so. But the black sword hung at his hip, and his eyes did not move from their northward focus.
“We have had word of an orc-legion ravaging its way down the Sirion, even as far as the outskirts of Doriath,” he said as Felagund came to stand beside him. “My brother and several of our folk have ridden out to keep watch on their movements and to give us forewarning should the worst occur.”
“If they reach here…”
Dorthonion. Himring. Minas Tirith. Fingon and Thingol were entrapped within their own borders. Now it was their turn.
A black heaviness settled across Felagund’s shoulders, and the men who stood about him seemed to dim and diminish. The wind swept across the grasses, bowing their faded blooms over the banks of the Ringwil. The river hissed over its stones. Not a bird stirred in all that vast solitude.
Celegorm did not come that day or the next. But Felagund rode up when he could to stand his own post. Sometimes, Curufin was there, and they would speak together in the Sindarin tongue, mindful of their fellows, the conversation taking the shape of whatever they could grasp to hand: husbandry, glass-working, horses and the breeding of, a subject Curufin expounded on with surprising knowledge and enthusiasm.
“I would have thought your brother keener to the breeding of horses,” Felagund offered, half in jest.
Curufin flicked his wrist in a dismissive gesture. “Oh, my brother knows how to ride them, certainly. And to bend them to his will. But he has little subtlety for bloodlines, for the allowances of each horse’s manner and make. He does not realize that a strong horse is best coaxed with gentleness, not mastery.”
Felagund chuckled at that. “If he is so with a horse, little wonder he lacks a wife.”
Curufin smiled, but it seemed somewhat strained. He turned away abruptly.
Felagund had little time to wonder what had put him so suddenly out of sorts when one of the watchers beside them stirred.
“Riders, My Lords! There! To the north!”
Both Curufin and Felagund came to the rail. Sure enough, the riders were galloping full-tilt across the plains, fording the Ringwil so swiftly, the horses’ flanks glistened with beads of light.
Celegorm swung down from his mount to meet his brother. “Thingol proves his mettle at last! Or, at the least, his wardens do. The orcs are slaughtered. The axes of Beleg Cúthalion and the hardy Men of Brethil are sharp, indeed.”
Felagund let out his breath and followed Curufin down to the ground. Celegorm looked little pleased to see him, but Felagund feigned ignorance.
“I thank you for the timely news,” he said. “But my heart forefends so easy a victory. This is only a respite, a moment to breathe and gather our strength. We must prepare.” He turned to Curufin. “I would speak with you.”
“The safety and endurance of Nargothrond lies in secrecy, not strength of arms,” Felagund said slowly, his voice echoing in the hollow darkness of the roof. “Even so, I took the liberty of gathering what we have should it come to battle. Some of the most ancient houses of Tirion wore that plate.”
Only half-heeding him, Curufin paced the length of the long hall, eyeing the rows of lances and pikes, the shapes of empty men between them. He flicked a breastplate and listened to the dulcet ring. “Gilt tabards, thin plate. Rust has eaten into half of the steel. It might as well be tin. Fit for peacocks on parade, not soldiers.”
“The Helcaraxë had a tendency to drown the man who wore heavier metals,” Felagund said. Though he had sworn that no word of Alqualondë might pass between them, the little black knot of ice that had worked its way inside his chest after the death of beloved Elenwë on the Ice had yet to thaw.
Curufin looked back at him, and something flickered in his face, but he turned back to his perusal too swiftly or Felagund to catch what it was. “Still. Some of these may be of use. Better than armor, would be your lances, if we replace the tips. Small, narrow blades for quick-striking and stealth. We would not need to use much metal. The veins in this gorge are surpassingly poor in any case. But we will make do with little.”
“If you can arrange it, I would be grateful.”
“Yes. I can arrange it. And better, I can instruct your folk in how to make a proper blade, rather than this…this travesty of a willow twig.” He thrust the sword he had borrowed back into its wooden stand. “Yes. Something must be done about this.”
It did not take long before the forges were lit once again in Nargothrond. During the long winter that followed Brethil’s victory against Morgoth’s forces, Curufin trained the smiths and metalworkers in the making of arms and armor, chainmail light as gossamer but hard enough to turn aside all but the most direct blows. Blades, lances, bows, steel-tipped arrows beautiful and deadly by the thousands were oiled and stacked. Lanterns, too, he made. Little lights that gave color and richness to the dark caves.
Though he favored gems and glass over metalwork, Felagund came often down to the smithies, relishing the waft of strong heat, the acridness of molten steel and the unearthly music of hammers.
Curufin’s forge was always first-lit and last-cooled. The arc of his back and the dampness far down his tunic betrayed his long hours, but he seemed unconscious of it. Though blackened and blistered, his hands worked untiringly and quickly, the metal changing into whatever shape he desired.
Felagund often brought a ewer of water with him and would, at whiles, fill a fluted glass and leave it on a corner of the anvil where it often stayed, ignored, until it slipped from the horn and shattered.
Curufin bent over the forge with the attentiveness of a lover. Taking up a twist of wrought iron, he plunged it level amidst the coals. There it warmed and wetted, or so Felagund imagined, until Curufin drew it forth, white-hot, only to wrap it in yet more steel and iron, layering and folding, strengthening and shaping.
Quenched at last, the steel expelled a spent breath, and Felagund, echoing it, stood and stretched, stiff from watching.
Curufin, as usual, paid him no heed, but the glow of dampened coal lit his face as he examined his work, a small, uncertain, curving smile there as if his lips were not quite sure of their shape yet. But Felagund smiled to see the work begun.
The feasting in the upper halls showed little signs of slowing when Felagund slipped away, pursued by the strains of harp and pipe, the laughter of a people content with peace but prepared for war. He found Curufin, as he knew he would, in the empty smithy, bent over some work or another.
“Still here at this hour!” Felagund chided, offering a placating smile when Curufin jerked at the sound of his voice. “Be at ease, my friend. This is a night for joy. Not work.”
“I did not hear you.”
“Your mind was bent upon matters too great for me, I’m sure.” He extended the glass of malmsey he had brought from the feasts above. “I looked for you. Your brother told me, rather grudgingly, that I might find you here still.”
“He knows I do not like being interrupted. Still. The thought was kind.” Curufin graciously toasted him and quaffed the drink in a long swallow, the tendons in his neck flexing. He pushed his damp hair off his face. “What can bring the king from his revels down to these humble environs, hmm? The people will lack their lord ere long if he be not there to tell them when to dance.”
Too long accustomed to Curufin’s tone to mind it now, Felagund refilled the proffered glass and his own. “I should not think so. They are accustomed to my strange ways and will think nothing of it.”
Curufin lifted an eyebrow.
“They are well into their cups too.”
“And you are not?”
Felagund rolled his shoulders.
Curufin eyed him over the rim of his glass and smiled. “You have no skill for evasiveness, Felagund. What brought you here, truly?”
Felagund set his glass aside and beckoned Curufin to follow him. “I have something I would like to show you."
He led Curufin through the smithies and up two flights of stairs until they came to the armories and treasuries. He stopped before a scalloped wall that had no seam, and from his belt pouch he took a small, golden key, fitting it neatly into a small flaw in the stone. There was the slightest snap as the well-oiled lock gave.
Beyond stood the pride and joy of many a household of Tirion. Jewels of every shade—from the deepest tones of the Narog to the white of the mountain snow—flickered in the light of the lamps burning there. There were instruments of gold: flutes and pipes, a drum banded with mithril, a great silver harp wrapped lovingly in cloth-of-gold. Crowns and colliers, tressures and silks. The Nauglamír reclined on its velvet pillow.
“I found this, not meaning to, as the saying goes,” Felagund said as he walked to a niche far back in the corner where a plain coffer of wood lay. No jewels glinted within, no gold. But precious in any case. The warrior’s mahogany face almost smoothed of expression from wear and handling, but his cleverly-jointed limbs still bent and twisted almost like a man’s. His little iron sword had held an edge when he had received it though it was somewhat dull now.
“My sweet cousin, Aredhel, gave this to me when I was a boy. I always wondered what craftsman could be so clever to make such when we had had no whisper of war, no idea of battle…”
“A bauble,” Curufin said with scarce a glance at it.
Felagund’s fingers closed protectively around the small warrior. “You asked me once what ill deeds I had done. In their time of need, I forgot my friends. In my own desire, I did not do more to dissuade them from a path they should not have trod—”
“I am not interested in your guilt.”
“I feel none. I am not responsible for your deeds.” He kept his face turned away as he reinterred the warrior in his coffer. “But I regret that I did not do more to part you from them. Or dissuade you after.”
“I have never heard a man say so much and yet speak so little sense.”
“Then let deeds serve.” Felagund turned to a stone plinth beside the coffer and took up the knife that lay there.
Curufin stepped back, suddenly wary, his hand fumbling at his belt for a sword he no longer wore.
Felagund turned the hilt towards him. “This is Angrist, made by the dwarf-smith Telchar of Nogrod. He fashioned it for me, but I do not believe he will think it ill-bestowed.”
Curufin stared as one stricken.
When he made no move to take it, Felagund added, “A token of unseemly gratitude, you will think it, I daresay. But if any man has earned my gratitude in these days, it is you.”
Curufin laughed, a hoarse, disbelieving sound. “For a man who but moments ago was chiding me for my ill deeds, it seems a strange offering.”
“You did not appreciate the other.”
“I cannot accept it.”
Curufin licked his lips, still poised for flight. Felagund had never seen him so dispossessed of his usual arrogant offhandedness. “I would feel obliged.”
“Nonsense!” Felagund very nearly laughed which might have sent the other fleeing in earnest. “Have I not said we are friends? Have you not already given me more than this can repay? I would ask nothing of you in return.”
“Such gifts seldom lend themselves to better deeds.” Curufin’s mouth quirked, curling up under unsmiling eyes.
Slowly, Felagund laid the knife on its stone plinth. “If it displeases you so, then you need not accept it.”
Curufin sighed with a touch of his old exasperation. “It does not displease me. In truth, you undervalue its worth, if you surrender it so willingly for a few sheaves of hammered steel. But I would rather earn such a gift. Keep it for me until then.”
“If that is your wish.”
Somehow, he was not displeased. Though he had offered the gift sincerely, he had half-believed that Curufin would take it, thankless, as his due. To have him refuse…knowing what it was…
They kept step beside one another as they climbed up to an open corridor, the pillars of which branched the length of it like tree trunks, their leaves and branches pressing against the roof. The Narog could be heard beyond the arched windows, thundering in its rapids. It seemed to break the spell of silence that had held them since leaving the treasury.
“Do you not concern yourself with the eventuality that the river will wear away the cliffs and flood the caves?”
Felagund laughed, the sound thin and hollow even to his ears. He had never spoken to anyone, other than Galadriel, of the vision that had come to him of the fate of Nargothrond. And he did not speak of it now. Instead, he affected a lighter tone. “Well, if it floods, we shall learn to swim, I suppose.”
Curufin looked at him and seemed, uneasily, to guess what he had left unspoken. “You do not think your realm will endure.”
“I think that we ought not to look too far ahead,” Felagund said with care. “One never knows what course the river will take.”
“You speak as one who has conversed with mortals,” Curufin said with a grin. “There are rumors of you, you know.”
“That you took Men into your service.”
“I did, yes.”
“And into your bed.”
Felagund glanced out the window, the Narog foaming far below. Bëor was a softer memory now, bereft of too much pain, but it seemed ill to speak of him here when other things between them had yet to be said.
“I have embarrassed you.”
“No, not at all,” Felagund shook his head, glanced at his companion. “I merely did not realize my doings were of such interest and speculation to others.”
Curufin rolled a shoulder. “I hear many things. Though I seem to recall some maiden you once favored. Some ship-maid.”
“A Vanya,” Felagund corrected absently. It had been a long time since he had thought of her. “Amarië, yes. She was a weaver. But she would not come with me.”
“Unwilling, then?” Curufin’s hand brushed his, and he had to resist the urge to flinch.
“Virtuous, rather. Enduring. Patient. Kind.”
Curufin made a small, curdled noise in his throat. “Why did you not stay with her, then, this imago of profound love?”
“My own faults drew me from her, I think,” Felagund said, unruffled by Curufin’s tone. He slowed beside an alcove where the jeweled lamps did not quite reach. “I idealized her. And to be set upon a pedestal and worshipped from afar is a poor fate for a woman who desires a husband’s arms and bed.”
“Depends on the husband,” Curufin said. Then added, “Then you were unwilling.”
“I…found other passions.”
Curufin cast a measuring gaze up at the shadow-hung roof, as if some beast lurked amidst the scalloping. “Cave-hewing, for instance?”
A frisson rippled down Felagund’s spine. Was it suggestion he heard in Curufin’s tone? What things were words! Capable of baring and sheltering at once.
Curiosity, he would think later when privacy and solitude gave him space to sort himself out. That intrigue of another mind, another existence, another skin. Curiosity and propinquity. It had ever been his curse.
When Curufin put a hand on his neck, the calluses on his thumb rough against Felagund’s cheek, Felagund did not move away. A strange, forge-heat radiated from the other’s skin, his whisper flashed between them like a spark.
“Send away your shadow, Felagund. You are safe with me. I did not take your little knife.”
Only then did he note the figure standing half-concealed and familiar between the pillars behind them. He heard himself say, “Edrahil. Leave us.”
The subtle urging of Curufin’s palm on his shoulder and the inviting dimness led him back into the alcove, his back bracing against the veined window panes.
Outside, night pressed against the glass. The Narog was a faint sensation of movement and white foam far below, its roar dulled by the beat of blood in his ears. On the far eastern side, the gorge rose high, near to blotting out the stars entirely. Along the cliff-line they shone, small, cold pinpricks.
Curufin kissed him the way he welded steel, thawing rigid iron with applied heat and pressure, prying open to discover, forging out of the hot and molten something tangible, something dangerous and sharp.
Felagund turned his face aside abruptly.
Curufin drew back a little, his eyes luminous in the shadows. “You will offer me one of the finest pieces in your treasury. Yet this…this is too great?”
“I do not know what ‘this’ means,” Finrod answered, honestly, sweating despite the chill glass against his back.
“By your own confession, you are no stranger to such things.”
“It is strange coming from you.”
“Why? You are fair to look on. We are not kin so near as to violate our laws. I have felt the way you watch me, and I feel the way you press against me now. I am no stranger to such things either. Or, could it be that you believe the only heat I desire is of a forge’s making?”
“No. I did not think that.” Finrod looked calmly into Curufin’s eyes, knowing what he read there. “You have not mentioned your wife.”
The word hung between them like an unsheathed blade.
If he had lied, denied it, or evaded in any way, Felagund could have dismissed him.
Instead, Curufin chuckled ruefully and retreated until the chill on the back of Felagund’s neck made itself known again. “You would make a lash of my ill deeds and flagellate me with them. As you well know, faithlessness is one of the least among them.” He braced his elbows on the window ledge and gazed down at the Narog, but Felagund did not think him lost in contemplation of the river.
“There are those who would say I am the calculating kind. That I would seek your favor to gain some unknown vantage. But, truth be told, it has not helped my cause at all.”
“And what cause is that?” Felagund asked, but Curufin did not seem to hear.
“She is not in my heart, Felagund. We wed young and more at the behest of my father than my own.” He turned from the window, met Felagund’s eye. “We are not our fathers’ sons, you and I. Else you would have turned back to Tirion, wed your pretty Vanyarin maid. And I would have given Fëanor an army of grandsons, instead of one fragile soldier, to carry on the name of our house.” He looked out at the night, at the stars. “Even Celebrimbor, the greatest of my crafts, is not of me. He is not bound as I am bound. And I am bound. Though in sleeping bonds. May they sleep forever.”
Felagund made no answer.
The soft words had long ceased to be meant for him.
Curiosity and propinquity. Ever his curse. His own, unsleeping bonds.
In Tirion, when hot words had been sworn, he had said, “It is none of mine.” On the Ice only, “This is mine.” At Mithrim, “All is forgiven.”
And now…? And now…
Perhaps, “This is what it is to be unfaithful.” Or, “This is truth.” Or, even, “This is an even more elaborate lie.”
Curufin undressed him in the king’s apartments. They lit no lamp. All things now would be done in darkness. Callused hands mapped his shoulders, the way a sculptor does raw marble, searching for the living shape within while Felagund kissed the corded neck, smelled damp coal and hot steel, rubbed his cheek against the puckered scar whose wound he himself had healed in the woods long ago.
The urge to get under clothing, under skin and sweat, overwhelmed them. They pried at each with teeth and tongues and clutching hands as if they could make the living world suit their desire. Shape their fate into one of their own making.
The dark pressed close, but Curufin’s grip on the back of his head remained constant, gentle despite the roughness of his palms.
When Felagund knelt on the rug to nuzzle the crease of his lover’s flank, he knew himself complicit in the ill deed done here, however small, however possible the forgiveness afterwards. But how could this be ill? What was wrong with what they did, if they might win for themselves a new freedom in the doing?
Hammers beat with unabated fury at his temples.
The ring once worn on Felagund’s own finger rested on the table between them, but Felagund had not so much as glanced at it, so taken was he with the visage before him. Bëor’s beloved features gazed back at him out of another face: gaunter, haunted. But even ravaged by long and weary ways, Beren son of Barahir son of Bëor looked enough like his grandfather to be his ghost save his youth was not yet blighted by age or smoothed by peace.
Beren had wept in telling of his joy in Doriath, all too brief, all too quickly spent. Felagund wanted to rise and press his lips beneath that dark hairline. To tell him that he knew the depth of his grief. But he had not the strength to rise, body and spirit heavy with the understanding that had come so quick and, suddenly, so unwanted.
Their fates were not their own, no matter that they would have it so.
The Silmarils would not be held in darkness forever, and the oath of the sons of Fëanor would pursue them to the uttermost end. Even as his own oath of loyalty and love, sworn without words to Bëor, with words and a token ring to Barahir had come for him in Beren.
“Then the Oath of Curufinwë Fëanaro stirs again, even as he feared,” he said, half to himself, feeling the tightening of his bonds around him.
Felagund raised his eyes to Beren’s face.
“Curufin and Celegorm dwell now in my halls, and they have shown me friendship in every need, but I fear for you if your quest for that which is theirs be told.” Slowly he took up the ring, squeezed it until the cool, smooth edges cut into his palm. “Yet my own oath holds; and thus we are all ensnared.”
The night was moonless, his chambers utterly bereft of light when his lover came to him.
Neither spoke of the words exchanged in the courtyard: of Celegorm’s vow to pursue any taker of the Silmarils to death and beyond. Of the folly to come. Of regret. But the weight of silence hung between them larger than the shadows, sharper than a blade. His lover’s sweat tasted of something stronger than malmsey and steel, and a bruise made a hole beneath his eye when he leaned over. Felagund pressed his wrist against it, traced the arch of eyebrow above, but his hand was forced away, his head pushed down.
The bed’s leather supports creaked with the force of their coupling, which had never before been reduced to this. Felagund bore it with gritted teeth, half-expecting an arm to come snaking about his neck. When the end came at last, Curufin, usually so silent and stern, let out a keening wail like a wolf, like a man felled from behind.
Felagund dug an elbow into his ribs, pushed him back, off, his own heart thumping hard against his shoulder blades. “What a performance you make! Do you mean for the entire cavern to hear?”
Curufin retreated, crouched on his knees at the edge of the bed, his eyes flashing in the dark. “What do you fear, Felagund? That the boy will hear? That little boy, you keep so secreted from me? On the long, cold nights on the road to death, will he warm you?”
“You of all men have no right to chide me for cleaving to my oath. I would rather be forsaken than forsworn.”
“You are already both, and damn you. You of all men know the cost of an oath kept.” A whisper of anguish. “Is it not written in me?”
Felagund’s anger cooled as suddenly as it had flared. He reached out, laid a hand on the sweat of Curufin’s arm, tracing the curve of a shoulder, the hard knots of bone and muscle that resisted his coaxing.
“You know the place in which I stand. My oath holds me as surely as yours. I am sworn.”
Angrist, long since earned, lay glittering in its own light upon the bedside table. “I could free you of it...”
“You are a better man than that.”
Felagund let his hand drop slowly to the sheet. “You would make an Amarië of me. Set me on high that I might spare you from your fate. But your fate pursued you hither, and it will pursue you still when you leave. That choice is long past. If not the son of Barahir, another.”
Curufin said nothing, only that wry, little smile, as if his lips did not quite know their shape, giving itself up under Felagund’s fingers.
“From this moment on, we will either find or lose our souls.”
Chapter end notes:
Canon-familiar readers will note I borrowed a line straight from the Silmarillion and paraphrased several others.
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