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Ashes  by Aldwen

We anchor the ships in a narrow firth, overshadowed on both sides by the shoulders of the mountain ridge. A good while passes until we unload the vessels, lead ashore the horses and carry everything else – provisions, tools, materials. Weapons. Meanwhile the rain abates, and stars appear overhead. They are veiled at first, but then a breeze drives away the last clouds, and the vast expanse of the sky is suddenly strewn with countless glittering dots of light. Many of us look up to admire their radiance. In Valinórë, the stars were always obscured by the greater glow of the Trees.

“I have never seen stars so bright!”

Tyelperinquar stands still beside me, eyes turned skywards, delight and wonder on his face, terror of the days past forgotten for a while. But then there are swift steps and Curufinwë’s impatient voice behind us.

“What are you staring at? The tools will not unload by themselves!”

Startled, Tyelperinquar turns and meets his father’s irritated gaze. Then he sighs, bows his head and follows Curufinwë back to the ships, to help carry ashore the remaining chests.

At last everything is unloaded. I stray some two hundred paces away, to the place where a forest of evergreen trees climbs down nearly to the high water. Their trunks are leaning away from the coast, due to the wind, as I guess, and the roots of those closest to the shore are partly bare, the sand and gravel washed away. Some trees have already fallen to the overwhelming power of the wind and the waves, and lie on the coast or partly in the shallows, like bare bones of great sea-animals.

I turn away from the gloomy sight, ascend the slope and take some steps into the forest. A faint scent of resin lingers in the air. The canopy overhead is dense, and there is a thick carpet of needles underfoot. I lay my hand on one of the stems, and sense a faint warmth beneath my palm and life coursing under the rough bark. I feel it, just like I felt the trees and plants back in Valinórë; I close my eyes and feel other trees around me also, as well as undergrowth, ferns, and mosses. This quiet place is full of life and, despite the dismal view on the seaside, the forest is not hostile at all. No, it is beautiful even, in a strange, solemn way, and suddenly a desire comes over me to wander under the dark crowns, to explore the growing things, to learn of their shapes, of their uses. I tarry in the woodland with eyes closed and hand resting against the coarse tree-bark until a sound of a breaking twig in the distance reminds me that I am in a strange land, alone, apart from the others, armed with only a knife.

I descend to the shore again. Some fires are lit, more for cheer than for warmth, but Fëanáro has not ordered to set up a permanent camp. I see his sons in the distance speaking together; then Nelyafinwë nods resolutely and approaches his father. I see him saying something, pointing with his hand towards the Sea, likely asking about the arrangements to ferry across Nolofinwë’s host. Fëanáro replies. They are too far for me to discern what they say, yet I see disbelief and horror dawning on Nelyafinwë’s face. Then Fëanáro laughs. His laughter, loud and full of contempt, silences the conversations around the fires and draws many gazes towards them. Nelyafinwë shakes his head furiously, he grabs his father’s sleeve and speaks on, swift pleading words, but Fëanáro pulls free from his son’s hold, turns his back on him and walks away. Nelyafinwë remains standing frozen on the waterline. Staring with narrowed eyes after his father, he clenches his fists, and dismay on his face turns into cold fury.

Shortly afterwards, Fëanáro calls us together and announces his decision not to return for Nolofinwë and his people.

“Why should we go back for those who think so little of our errand?” he cries. “Even as we marched, they complained and muttered behind our backs! Their desire for Endórë is half-hearted, as is their wish to avenge the wrongs we have suffered! We need them not; a useless baggage on the road! Let them remain! Let them crawl back to the thrones of the Valar and beg forgiveness! We need them not!”

He speaks and speaks, and his words once again set our hearts and minds aflame, so that even later, as we already hold burning torches and kindle arrowheads, this seems to us the right way. This seems to us the only way, and we put to use the torches and release the arrows. The rigging is the first to catch fire, then the furled sails and tall masts. Then the white hulls, too, are burning, and it looks like the Sea itself is ablaze, wasting away in a bonfire this world has not yet seen.

The fire is at its mightiest when my bewilderment passes. The bow that has released a flaming shaft falls from my suddenly numb fingers, and I sway, overwhelmed by the weight of realization and guilt. This is the worst we have done, it occurs to me. Not Alqualondë. This. The wanton destruction of the work of the hands and hearts of others. We have laid waste something that may never be made again. Regret and grief claw at me sharply at this thought, and I wonder if others feel the same. Perhaps not. Not yet. They are still under the sway of Fëanáro’s voice. Only Nelyafinwë has taken no part in what we have done. Arms folded on his chest, he still stands motionless on the shore, looking at the wide expanse of water, and the flickering light of flames is reflected on his pale face.

The burning is great and terrible, but also swift. The flames die and the water is dark again, its surface broken only by charred pieces of hulls. There are no more stars. Smoke has obscured them, and it still hangs in the air above our heads like an accusation.

Nelyafinwë does not turn when his father approaches him. Fury distorts Fëanáro’s face, his words are hot and angry, yet they break to shards against the wall of icy silence his son has set between them. At length he loses his patience entirely, seizes Nelyafinwë’s shoulder and turns him by force.

“How dare you disregard the orders of your father and King?”

Nelyafinwë wrenches himself free. He is but a little taller than his father, but in this moment he seems to be towering over Fëanáro.

“My father,” his voice is cold and sharp as a blade, “would never have demanded my obedience in matters that would so darken my heart and his! And there are orders I do not take even from a King!”

Fëanáro’s face is white in anger. His hand strays to the hilt of the sword at his belt. My heart misses a beat, but even as I make a step towards them, Fëanáro releases the weapon, turns on his heel and strides away, his cloak billowing behind like wings of a great black bird. Nelyafinwë looks after him with cold contempt, but his expression changes when he notices Tyelperinquar further on the shore staring at the charred remains of the ships in the shallows. The youth wipes away tears, but then swiftly draws his hand back, unwilling to show that he is weeping. Nelyafinwë draws a long, shuddering breath and goes to comfort his brother-son.

I look around and see bewilderment slowly falling away from people. There are frozen, rigid postures and pale, terrified faces. There are torches fallen to the ground or, still smouldering, gripped in trembling hands. There are quiet snatches of speech, ending as abruptly as they have started. And the smoke still burns in our eyes while ashes still fly in the air, settling on the water like a grey shroud.

Other Fëanáro’s sons are not far from the shore. Tyelkormo sits on the ground, knees drawn up, arm set around his great wolfhound, fingers firmly locked in Huan’s grey fur. Makalaurë holds the twins in embrace. Morifinwë has strayed some distance away and is now throwing stones at a withered tree that still stands nearby the shore. He does it with such force that the dry branches he hits break off and fall to the ground. Curufinwë stands watching him, arms folded, a fierce scowl on his face. They all have likely seen the exchange between their father and eldest brother, and a blood-freezing thought enters my mind unbidden. What would they have done if Fëanáro had drawn his sword on Nelyafinwë?

It seems to me suddenly that the ground beneath my feet is slipping away, that everything is collapsing, unravelling – everything that was once good, strong, and meaningful. Trust. Honour. Bonds of family. Friendship. I go to seek Fëanáro.

I find him near one of the fires. He sits there alone, sharpening his sword. The whistling sound makes me shiver, yet I must at least attempt to speak with him.

Fëanáro senses my presence and raises his head, his eyes glint in the firelight. “What do you want?”

His question is so sudden and fierce that I do not find words at once. Apparently he sees my silence as an accusation.

“So you too are one of those who know better what I should and should not do? Like my wife, like my wretched half-brothers and that brat Nelyafinwë?” He nearly spits out his eldest son’s name. “If I shall want your advice, Aldanwë, I shall ask for it! Do you understand?”

“I…” But then I fall silent. I am on your side, I wanted to say, but now I realize that this reply would not be honest. Not any longer. So I say something else, something that still is true. Something that will always be true. “I am not your enemy.”

“Are you not? Indeed?” Fëanáro regards me with narrowed eyes. “That remains to be seen.” There is not a sliver of warmth in his voice and his gaze. “Now, get away! Leave me!”

I followed you! We followed you! We took part in the madness you contrived!  How dare you treat us like this? I want to scream to his face, to shake him until some sense returns to his anger- and hate-clouded mind. Yet I do none of these things. Instead, I stagger back and do as he told me. I leave.

In bewilderment of anger and grief I stray far along the shore, and when the beach at last ends with black cliffs stepping into the Sea I sink down on a boulder and sit there, staring at the dark water. And likely, I deceive myself when I cling to a faint hope that maybe beneath the consuming flames of hatred still burns the warm fire of creation. That there is still some pity and care behind the hard, unyielding gaze. That maybe, just maybe, under the layers of anger, pride and arrogance, under the guise of the King of the Noldor, there is still that boy I met in the gardens of Lórien. That boy who was my friend.

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