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Across Dark Waters  by Zimraphel

Author’s Note: This is a very AU look at the journey to Mandos that is based partly on Greek mythology and on an old Gypsy folktale. Therefore, do not expect the story to conform 100% to everything Tolkien said about Mandos.

When there were no passengers to be ferried, the boat and its steersman remained at dock in the black waters that separated the realm of Mandos from the rest of Valinor. Save for the lapping of the water against the quay, the lake was still. No fish swam in its depths, nor did loons or crickets sing in the perpetual twilight.

The shores of Cuiviénen were like this, they say, thought the ferryman. Much time he had for introspection, even when bearing the shades of the dead across the water, for most of the newly deceased were silent, obediently following the summons of Mandos yet stunned and withdrawn at the loss of their hröar. You do not know the half of it, he wanted to tell them. Enjoy what semblance of a body you have now. Those wispy forms you wear for the crossing will be shed like old cloaks when you go into Námo’s house for His judgment, and you will become no more than little puffs of mist.

He had had a body once, a true hröa, not this bent and pale form with which he pulled the oars of Námo’s barge. It had been strong and beautiful, as the hröar of the Firstborn were. Have you ever seen an ugly Elda? he thought, and laughed.

--Dost thou find amusement, even in this silent place?--

“I take what I find,” he chortled. “I never hear You laughing.”

A dark mist coalesced on the quay above him. --Laughter is not My business, Elda. The Halls are a place of reflection, repentance and healing--

“And laughter is not healing? I find it a most soothing balm in this dreary place.”

--It is not within My sphere of influence. Much time hast thou had for thy contemplation. I have come to ask thee if thou art not filled with remorse, if thou art not ready to leave these shores and take up residence in My halls

The ferryman looked out across the waters. When the mists cleared, he could see the distant hither shore on which the half-embodied fëar of the dead gathered to wait for him. “It has become rather…comfortable here.”

--Thy comfort is not My concern. Thy healing and reembodiment is. Thou wert not set upon this lake for thy amusement--

“Then I shall endeavor to laugh a little less loudly, if it disturbs You so.”

The faceless mist that was Námo roiled with agitation. That was not unexpected; he was very good at irritating the Lord of the Dead. --Nevertheless thou wilt answer My question: dost thou know any remorse, any sorrow for thy misdeeds in life? And do not bandy words with Me this time. I wouldst have a plain answer of you.--

“If You insist,” he sighed. “Yes, I feel sorrow sometimes, especially when I see the children coming across. They do not have to tell me, I see how they died. I see it all laid out before me, as if spread on a loom, and I am sorry for that. But know this--I do not take back my deeds.”

--It would have been most surprising to Me if thou didst repent so soon. Yet thy sorrow is sufficient. Thy term here is finished, and thou wilt join Me in My house--

At that moment, he would have expected to be able to rise from the boat that had been both dwelling place and prison for what might have been years or millennia, for indeed time in this place was not marked and flowed measureless. Yet the bent hröa Námo had given him for the task remained fixed in its seat, as if the judge of the Dead was playing some divine jest upon him. Had He a sense of humor, I might have believed it.

--I will tell thee again, I do not do this for thy amusement or Mine--

How splendid. He is reading my thoughts.

--But thou must perform one last task ere I permit thee to join Me. Look yonder at the hither shore and mark the one who awaits thee--

Across the water he looked, and saw a dark figure aggressively pacing back and forth along the shore. Even at a distance, this one was of fiery temperament, obviously another Noldo. Now what could this one have possibly done that was ill enough to warrant Námo’s attention? For He does not trouble Himself with the mundane evils of Arda, and certainly does not bring them to my attention.

--Listen, and I will tell thee--

Well, it is about bloody well time. Maeglin ceased his pacing and looked out over the water, watching the slow, steady approach of the boat. He did not know how long he had been waiting there on that barren, twilit shore, only that he felt strangely disconnected to himself. Oh, he had a hröa of sorts, in which he could pace and toss stones at the oddly placid and black waters of the lake, but he knew it was not truly his body.

He remembered fire and noise, and a howl of rage in his ear as powerful arms lifted him up and hurled him out into the darkness. Oh, yes, Tuor in all his mortal and savage rage, and completely heedless of the irony he wrought, sending the son to his death even as the father had died, broken on the crags of Amon Gwareth. Maeglin would have laughed had Tuor’s embrace not crushed his ribs and snapped his collarbone and forced the breath out of him.

He remembered a moment of weightlessness before gravity found him and wrenched him downward. How strange he could not remember striking the rocks below when he was certain that if he ever died, he would feel every stab of pain, each loss of breath as his fëa was pulled toward Mandos.

The boat was white, a ghostly shape gliding along the black water. A figure, wrapped in wisps of gray cloth, hunched in middle to pull at the oars. Maeglin splashed ankle-deep into the water to meet the vessel, grasping it with both hands as if to pull it to him.

“Are you so eager to reach the other shore, then?” asked the figure.

“It’s far better than waiting here.”

“Then climb in, son of Eöl, and we will depart.”

Maeglin clambered over the side and slid into the bottom of the boat, where he took a place across from the oarsman. Dark water dripped from his legs and pooled around his feet, but he paid it no mind. He was already cold and miserable. “Who are you?”

“I am Námo’s ferryman,” came the reply. Under the gray rags, it was difficult to tell what manner of creature he was, whether Firstborn, mortal or one of the lesser Maia. He was pale and nearly amorphous, save for his eyes, twin dark fires that burned as they inspected their latest passenger.

“I did not know He had a ferryman.” Maeglin’s gaze swept the dark lake. The mist had risen and he could not see the shore they had left behind, or the one that lay ahead of them. “I thought—”

“What did you think? That you would hear Námo’s call and that you would close your eyes and—poof!—the very next moment you are a wisp of pale sheen in His hall, hearing His judgment? Ah, there is much you do not know about Mandos, and with good reason.”

Maeglin felt a sudden chill of apprehension. He had not expected mercy from the judge of the Dead, that was true, but the Halls were a place of atonement and healing. Only mortals believed in torment after death. “I could have refused the summons,” he answered thickly.

“Yes, you could have refused, but that was before you stepped in the boat.” The black eyes studied him. “It was not what you thought it would be, was it?”

“Death, you mean?”

“Or life, whichever you prefer.”

He did not care for the other’s riddles. The word games the Gondolindrim so enjoyed had seemed to him a tedious waste of time. “I should have killed Tuor first. Of all the stupid things I did not consider…” He ground his fist into his palm and watched the starboard oar cut a smooth track through the water.

The gray shape bobbed over the oars as if in agreement. “I know but little of your deeds, son of Eöl. Time in this place is static, and heeds little the passage of years or the doings in Arda, but I see enough to know you have done ill. You do not seem particularly remorseful.”

Maeglin laughed, and the ripple of sound carried harshly across the water. “My desire was literally within my grasp. Why should I rue it?”

“Yet much suffering you wrought to bring you to that pass, is that not so?”

“Perhaps, or perhaps not,” Maeglin answered. He shrugged. “Who is to say Morgoth would not have eventually found the Hidden Way, whether I betrayed it or no? His servants are cunning, they are. At least this way I was not at a disadvantage.”

“Indeed,” mused the other, “who is to say?” The voice was low, subtly mocking, and Maeglin wanted to strike the insolence from him. No one, neither man nor woman, would have dared mock him so in Gondolin. “Only Námo knows the fates of all.”

“Then hold your tongue, ferryman, and keep to the oars. I grow weary of your prattling.”

“As you wish,” was the reply, “but look yonder. The shore grows near.”

The mist lifted from the surface of the water and Maeglin at last had a clear view of their destination. What he saw was not encouraging. Not that he had expected a place of great warmth or beauty, but the brown, barren reality struck him where the abstract could not. An autumnal landscape bordered by the skeletons of dead trees; a path cut through the faded woodland to the gates of a squat, derelict-looking hall that looked far too small to hold the spirits of all the dead who purportedly dwelt there.

That is Mandos?”

There was no answer from the other, save a slight tilt of the head asking what he had expected.

Noiselessly the boat slid in along the quay. “Now then, son of Eöl, take now the oars and hold her steady while I tie the line.”

Maeglin glared at the oars were thrust at him, but lowered them into the water nonetheless. Nimbly the gray figure leapt from the boat onto the quay, and Maeglin did not notice until he was standing on the wooden pilings that there was neither line nor anchor. That is it. I will have no more of this nonsense. Shoving the oars off his lap, he made to stand, but found his legs would not move.

“I would not throw the oars too far if I were you, else you will have no way of steering the boat,” the other advised him.

“What have you done?” Maeglin hissed. “Let me up!”

“Nay, I do not think so.” The other’s voice was soft, measured in the face of Maeglin’s growing fury. “Though Námo willed otherwise, I might have taken pity upon you and let you up. I would have stayed behind, for I am not particularly eager to leave this familiar shore for the Halls of Waiting. Yet in you I see my own ills magnified ten thousand times, and when I hear now the word kinslayer I shall hear a name other than my own.”

Cold fear crept into Maeglin’s belly and for a moment he ceased struggling. “Who are you?” he croaked.

“Who am I? You who are born of the Noldor should know better than that. Every Noldo, every Teleri on this side of the Sundering Sea knows my name, and to them it is both a curse and a reckoning. Yes, you know me, son of Eöl, though I died long before you were born.”

Maeglin growled in frustration as the cold, dark eyes burned into him, for in this he had been outmatched. He watched as the other’s spindly fingers parted his robes, that the incandescent fëa could burn though the gray rags.

Spirit of fire. I am well and truly trapped. “Ai, Elbereth—”

“I would not waste my breath and try to call upon Her now, Maeglin, for only Námo can hear you and He has already judged you.”

“You are a fine one to talk!” Maeglin hissed. “You are as much a kinslayer as I am.”

“Am I, son of Eöl? And you think to wound me with that epithet? I do not deny that I slew many innocents before Gothmog ended my life, but I did not go to Alqualondë with malice in my heart. Yes, I defied the Valar and went to the Teleri intending to seize their ships when they refused me, for I believed my cause to be just, as I still believe it, but I did not go intending to spill blood. That evil I rue as much as any.

“But you knowingly betrayed your own people and went back to them knowing they were doomed. What warning did you give them, what chance of escape did you offer? Was the promise worth the pain you wrought? Nay, malice you intended, and malice you wrought. Now it is your turn to ferry the dead and watch their faces as you bring them across the dark water. Yes, you may try to look away, but their pain will draw even your eyes. Look now, son of Eöl, to the hither shore. Even now they gather, awaiting the passage.”

As Maeglin looked, he saw a great crowd of the dead amassing on the shore where before he had been alone. Gray shapes, sad wisps and tatters they were, and among them he saw faces he knew, looking out across the water in sorrow and bewilderment. Behind them, more came, until he could not see where they ended.

“All the dead of Gondolin, Maeglin, and it is your lot now to face them, even as I faced the countless dead of Doriath before you.” The other’s voice caressed him like steel and burnt him like fire. “It is the will of Námo, to face them in all their pain and sorrow and anger.”

Maeglin tried to look away from the dead and yet could not. All the House of the Mole is there, all the warriors who served me and their kin who did not flee. And Salgant I see, and Ecthelion, slashed and burnt by flame—and Turgon. He made a moaning sound in his throat. I cannot face them all--nay, I cannot!

“Ah, yes, it hurts, does it not? Should I tell you now how much pain it will bring you, their silent reproach, though you think yourself immune? Shall I tell you of Dior’s little sons, needlessly left to die in the wild, huddling in terror where you sit now?”

No more!

“No more, son of Eöl? You do not wish to hear of my own sons, whose fëar were broken as surely as their bodies that lay slain in Menegroth? Do you think my heart so cold I could face them and not quail with grief?”

Maeglin twisted away from the other’s words, yet he had nowhere to turn but the hither shore and already he felt the restlessness of the dead pulling at him, their mingled voices calling to him. His hands twitched, reaching for the oars before he realized what he was doing; he shoved them away from him in horror.

“You cannot resist the call of the dead, son of Eöl. You will bear them across, every one of them, and feel their pain as though it were your own.”

He squeezed his eyes shut, hating the dead, hating Námo, and above all, hating the voice that mocked him. If he could only move, he would have liked to take the other by the throat and crush him into silence while he flailed and gasped for mercy. “Kinslayer,” he hissed.

“Yes, I am that, and so are you.”

Turning, the other moved up from the quay, a gray shadow creeping toward the bones of the forest. Maeglin watched him, hearing his own breath come in short, terrified rasps. “No! Come back! You cannot leave me!

The figure kept walking, receding until it vanished utterly into the landscape of the dead forest. From the shore there was only a cold sigh of wind and the skittering of withered leaves.


At his back, Maeglin heard the murmuring of the dead. More numerous now, restless with anticipation, and their unease dragged his attention to the hither shore and his hands to the oars, whether he would or no.


In Gondolin, Maeglin was lord of the House of the Mole.

Three of Fëanor’s sons—Caranthir, Celegorm and Curufin—died in the fall of Doriath. Afterward, Dior’s young sons, Elúred and Elúrin, were abandoned in the wilderness and left to die by Celegorm’s servants.

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