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The Stronghold  by Aldwen

The feast was indeed ready soon. When I came to the dining hall Elrond and Elros were already there in reverent astonishment looking at the table that beyond the usual fare was laden with all kinds of delicacies, cakes and pastries, fruits and berries from orchard and woodland. Wide-eyed, they then raised their faces towards Maedhros and Maglor.

“All this… Is all this indeed because of us?” Elrond quietly asked.

“All this indeed is because of you,” Maglor confirmed. “This is your day.”

The twins looked at each other, elated smiles dawning on their faces.

“Thank you!” they exclaimed with one voice and rushed to embrace our uncles.

“This is wonderful!” Elros later said dreamily, reaching for yet another pastry. “I wish every day were like this!”

“Do you?” our eldest uncle asked. “Indeed? Are you certain?”

“Uncle Maedhros, when you ask questions like that, the correct answer is usually “no”,” Elros said with a sigh.

Maedhros laughed.

“This time there is no correct answer, Elros,” he replied. “I merely want you to think on what you just said. Just for a short while, and if you will still be convinced of that – then it is the correct answer for you.”

Elros furrowed his brow and stared for a while down at his plate. Then he looked up resolutely and shook his head.

“No,” he said. “It were not good if every day were like this. Not at all. How could we then tell apart the feast-days from the ordinary days? It is so nice to wait for a feast – we would miss all that!”

Elrond nodded.

“And if every day was a feast day we would not have lessons at all,” he added.

Elros shrugged his shoulders.

“That I could maybe endure,” he said uncertainly.

“Well, I could not,” his brother replied. “I like lessons. Besides, it would take too much work and… everything to make each day a feast-day. The store rooms would soon be empty.”

Elros sighed and nodded.

“You are right about that,” he said. “No, a feast every day would not be good at all!” Then he looked sidelong at Maedhros. “I knew at once that this was one of your complicated questions, uncle!”

To that our eldest uncle merely smiled.

Much later after the dinner that had lasted long into afternoon, after the twins had run to the kitchens and thanked everybody there for preparing their feast, we were all in the great hall. Elrond was curled up on a couch, deep into one of his new books, but Elros was struggling with the blacksmith’s puzzle. I had made several of those for the boys; Elrond had set his aside for later clearly favouring the book, but Elros sat with a furrowed brow turning the puzzle in his hands slowly and examining it from all sides. Then he twisted and turned it, and the pieces came loose.

“I did that!” He sprang to his feet with a yell of triumph. “Cousin Celebrimbor, I did that! I separated the pieces! Elrond, Elrond, did you see? Did you see how fast I was?”

“Of course, you did that, and, of course, you were fast!” Elrond raised his head from the pages. “You are smart!”

His twin beamed at the praise. Then he cast his glance at the window, and his face fell.

“Oh… There are dark clouds over there! It may rain tomorrow, and then there will be no riding!”

Maglor laughed at the swift change of his mood.

“Tomorrow is not yet here, Elros,” he said. “These clouds are so dark that we may feel the rage of the storm already tonight and enjoy the sunshine tomorrow. And even if it will rain, I am certain you will find something to do inside. There may be some dragons about hiding in the dark places of the stronghold. Or… other things.” With that, he cast a glance at me, likely alluding to our exploration of the dark-panelled gallery.

But Elros did not understand our silent exchange.

“No, there are no dragons here anymore,” he replied sadly. “There was only one, and we sent him away. Still…” He fell silent in thought. “Still there could be something else…” His eyes flashed hopefully. “Yes, there could be great spiders in the basement or… or… Balrogs!” he then exclaimed with excitement. “Yes, there could be some Balrogs in the basement too, Balrogs with terrible swords!”

“Balrogs do not carry swords, they have whips of flame.” Our eldest uncle interrupted him. “And, believe me, Elros, you do not want to meet any of those fiends in the basement. Or anywhere else.” His voice was quiet, yet with a faintly sharp edge to it.

But Elros was not daunted. He ran to Maedhros and looked at him expectantly.

“You have seen a Balrog, have you not? What are they like, uncle Maedhros? Are they in truth three times as tall as the Elves? And do they have wings of shadow?”

“I believe I brought these questions upon myself.” Maedhros sighed. “Yes, I have seen Balrogs, more than enough of them. They are less than twice as tall as the Elves and they have no wings but for all that they are no less terrible. And no, Elros, I will answer no more questions about Balrogs. You would have nightmares if I were to tell you more of them.”

“But, uncle…”

“No Balrogs. Even though it is your begetting day. Ask for some other story.”

That was not a voice to be argued with, and Elros sighed despondently.

“Very well, another story then…”

But his brother interrupted him. Suddenly Elrond closed his book and sprang to his feet, looking in dismay at the dark clouds outside.

“Our ponies, Elros! If there will be a storm, they will be frightened outside in the pasture! The big horses are used to the weather, but the ponies are not; they will be terrified!”

“They too have dwelt outside before,” replied Maglor. “But that was in another place, and there were more ponies about. They may feel somewhat lonely and scared here. So if you are concerned for them you may run to the pasture and take them to the stable. But make haste; the storm will be here in a short while.”

“Yes, uncle!”

The boys dashed off. Lightning already flickered against the clouds over the distant hills, and the rumbling of thunder was heard, faint, yet distinct. After a while Maedhros rose and went to stand by the window.

“The onset of storms is swift here in the hills,” he said. “We should not have allowed them to go out in this weather.”

“They will be well,” replied Maglor. “It is not yet dark, the pasture is not far, and they have each other for company. You should not fear for them.”

“I should not.” Maedhros smiled sadly. “You speak true. But now when we have allowed these children into our hearts… That is what we perhaps should not have done, in the first place.”

“It may be so, but it is too late for that, brother mine,” Maglor quietly replied. Then he too cast a glance at the window where the first drops were already drumming against the window panes. “I will light the fire. They will likely return soaked by the rain.”

Fire was blazing in the hearth when the twins returned. They had already changed into dry clothes, but their hair was damp, and they were shivering slightly.

“Come to the fire at once!” Maglor exclaimed. “You are drenched like little water voles!”

The twins giggled, but then Elros looked at him reproachfully.

“Uncle Maglor, water voles are not ever drenched! Their fur does not allow water to get through. Uncle Maedhros said so! He knows everything about water voles!”

Maglor cast a dismayed glance at his elder brother who shrugged his shoulders, lips twitching in a smile. Then he turned back to the boys.

“Water voles or no, you are freezing! Get close to the fire, both of you!”

The boys obeyed and stretched upon the great bearskin in front of the hearth.

“The ponies were very glad we took them inside,” Elrond then said. “They did not like the rain and the thunder at all. We had to search them for some time; they were hiding in the thicket.”

“Yes, but they came when we called them, as we got closer,” added Elros. He fell silent for a while, then spoke again. “Uncle Maedhros, you said we can ask for a story if it is not about Balrogs.”

“I said so, yes,” our eldest uncle replied, somewhat warily.

“Well, me and Elrond, we thought of a story we want to hear.”

“And that is…?”

The twins looked at each other. Elrond nodded encouragingly. Then Elros went on.

“We want a story from a very long time ago. A story from the time when there was no Sun and no Moon yet. We want to hear a story about Middle-earth under starlight.”

Maedhros regarded the boys with unreadable face.

“Please, uncle!” Elros exclaimed. “You must remember some of those old tales you once listened to! Please!”

Silence fell. Maedhros looked in turn at his brother and me, his eyes flashed. Maglor sighed and bowed his head but I endured his gaze waiting for the onset of the storm. The twins realized that something was not right. Elros bit his lip.

“I… I again said something I should not have said, did I not?” he asked in a fallen voice. “I did not mean to be rude, I truly did not! I am sorry,” he whispered. Elrond took hold of his brother’s hand, staring at us with a frightened face.

Anger in the eyes of Maedhros faded. He released me from his gaze and turned towards the boys.

“No, Elros, you said nothing wrong,” he replied. “Believe me.”

“I did.” I softly said. “I spoke out of place earlier, even though my intent was good. But I should not have told of things that were not mine to tell. Forgive me, uncle. I regret I have stirred memories that should have been left alone.”

“It is not your duty, brother-son, to guard your words in fear that they might bring me grief.” Maedhros shook his head. “Think of that no longer.” He turned to the twins now. “I promised you a story you want to hear. So that story you will have.”

Elrond looked uncertain.

“You should not tell us a story that makes you sad, uncle,” he said. 

“Yes, you should not.” Elros nodded in agreement.

“It will not make me sad,” Maedhros replied.

“In truth?” Elrond still looked unconvinced.

“In truth. I promise.”

The twins’ faces slowly lit up.

“Will there be adventures, uncle?” Elros asked, already forgotten his distress. “And scary things?”

“And nice things too?” Asked Elrond hopefully.

“All of that,” Maedhros replied with a smile. “Very well, listen then. It befell in this very land, but far, far to the east, in a valley where swift streams were feeding the waters of a great lake. There was yet neither Moon, nor Sun, and the only light that this land knew was the starlight…”

He fell silent and frowned, then shook his head.

“No, this is not right at all,” he said, rising, and looked around.

The storm was here; lightning flashed from time to time, thunder rumbled now close, and gusts of wind threw sheets of rain against the windows. The hall was brightly lit with lamps and candles, but Maedhros now extinguished them all leaving only one candleholder by the door. Now most of the light came from the brightly blazing logs in the hearth. Then he went to the fire and sat down on the bearskin beside the twins who were watching him with shining eyes and excited faces.

“These stories should be told in the twilight by the campfire,” he said. “But since we are under the roof, this will have to do.”

And then Maedhros began the story anew. But now he spoke in Quenya, and the ringing sounds of the Elder language fell like water in swiftly rushing rapids. His deep, resonant voice filled the hall, and we were held fast by that voice and the threads of the skilfully woven story, and as he spoke, light of the days now long past was slowly kindled in his eyes, and despair and grief of many years faded.

The tale grew like a great tree, branching out, its boughs entwining, casting shadows, bearing blossom and fruit, and suddenly we were there, and we looked at the stars shimmering on the surface of the lake, we felt the soft touch of wind and the grass on the shore, we trembled with the fear of the Dark Hunter, but above all that our hearts were overflowing with joy and wonder at things new and marvellous to behold. One story was branching into many, and many tales joined into one, but we sat there, still and enchanted, and firelight flickered upon our faces like once, so long time ago, in the time of peace, in the land now lost to us.

The voice fell silent. But still the water drops fell tinkling in the pool, still the wind was softly sighing in the branches. I turned slowly and saw that Maglor’s hands were running over the strings of his harp, but his eyes were closed; he was still there, on the shores of Cuiviénen, and I too allowed myself to slip back into the dream from which I had half-awoken.

Only when the music ceased did I awake fully. I rose and looked around. It was long past midnight; the storm outside had passed, and large and bright stars glittered in the windows. Those by the fire were fast asleep; Maedhros stretched on the bearskin, the twins curled up on either side of him, their heads resting against his chest. Maglor sat watching them for a while, then he quietly rose, put more wood in the fire, took a blanket from the couch and covered with it his sleeping brother and the children.

“I will not wake him,” he replied softly to my unspoken question. “It is seldom that my brother rests so peacefully. Let them sleep here.” Then he sat back in his chair again and resumed playing, and I wondered as I took my leave – how many sleepless nights had he spent like this, with the power of music attempting to hold together the pieces of his brother’s shattered soul, despite his own despair and weariness?

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