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Ashes  by Aldwen

***


The ferocity of the storm slowly lessens. Snow abates, and now at least we must struggle only against the snowdrifts on the ground. The sky clears partly, and some faint stars appear to guide us on our woeful road. The hastily made stretcher we bear in shifts is heavy, for the full armour of the one who lies upon it. I carry it now, together with Nelyafinwë who goes in front, so I cannot see his face. But I see the faces of Fëanáro’s other sons who walk close beside us and cast frequent glances, full of fear and grief, towards their father. There is little hope Fëanáro will live. His armour is broken and blackened by the fell fire of Moringotto’s servants, his breath comes in rasping, painful gasps.

“Stop!” We have reached the pass when voice comes from the stretcher, quiet and laboured, yet still commanding. “Put me down!”

“My lord, we should make all haste to the camp,” I say, wondering suddenly and unfittingly when did I start to call my best friend ‘my lord’ and whether he has even once objected to me doing so. “Only there we can give you the aid and care you need.”

But my words are empty. There is no aid and care that would be enough to heal his body, lacerated by the fire-whips of Valaraucar, and Fëanáro is aware of that.

“I am beyond any aid, Aldanwë, and you know that!” His eyes flash briefly, then the fire in them dies, and he sighs. “Do as I say. Put me down.”

We obey. None dares to go against the will of the Spirit of Fire even now. We set the stretcher on the ground. Fëanáro gasps in pain, but still struggles to sit up.

“Help me sit. I want to see.”

“Father…” Curufinwë’s voice trembles; he has been on the brink of tears since the battle. “Please, father, let us return to the camp!”

“I want to see!”

We raise him up so that he sits, resting against a boulder. His gaze strays around. What is there to see save the stony mountain pass, covered in a coat of snow? But then Fëanáro’s eyes remain bound on something. I follow his gaze, and my heart sinks when I see what he is staring at. Three hideously shaped peaks in the distance. The stronghold of Moringotto.

Rage and hatred flash in Fëanáro’s eyes. He raises a clenched fist towards Angamando and thrice curses Moringotto’s name. This takes most of his strength; his hand trembles, and he lets it fall. But he is not done with his enemy yet.

“My sons…” His voice is faint, yet still it holds a note of command. “Come here, all of you.”

They gather around him. There is silence for a while. And then…

“The… Oath…”

As he is about to bind them with this curse once more, I want to interfere. But I remain silent. My words will not change anything, and what right do I have to stand against the will of one who is dying? Still, when Tyelperinquar makes a hesitant step towards his grandfather, I pull him firmly back and shake my head sharply.

No! Do not!” My lips move without sound.

Whether he understands or simply is too distraught by grief to strive with my will, he remains beside me and repeats not the dreadful words along with his father and his uncles. But they all do it. Tyelkormo, Morifinwë and Tyelperinquar’s father speak loudly, assuredly. Makalaurë’s voice is hesitant. The twins speak quietly, sounding frightened. Nelyafinwë’s voice is flat, without any expression, and his face remains cold and impassive. Still, he speaks the words together with his brothers.

“Yes,” Fëanáro whispers when the last word of the Oath has been uttered. “No other purpose to guide you above this one, though the road be bitter and hopeless.”

His head falls back against the stone. His eyes close. Curufinwë kneels beside him, now weeping openly.

“Father! Father!”

There is no more reply. No more sound or movement. Fëanáro’s body starts to glow as if with a white fire. Light grows so bright that we must avert our eyes, and when we turn towards him again, a sudden gust of wind carries away a cloud of pale ashes. We look at one another in a silent horror. Where the King of the Noldor has lain, there is only his empty armour left. His body is gone.

“Father…” whispers Curufinwë amid tears. He raises a trembling hand and touches the breastplate; it crumbles beneath his fingers. He withdraws his hand abruptly, jumps to his feet and takes a step back. His eyes, full of terror, are still locked on the pieces of his father’s armour.

For a while there is no other sound, save the whistling of wind around boulders in the distance and our own sharply drawn breath.

“Make ready to leave. We return to the camp.” Nelyafinwë’s voice, shaken yet resolute, breaks the silence. He is clearly in command now.

“Father… We should…” Makalaurë speaks haltingly, in near-whisper. “We…” He points with a trembling hand to the place where Fëanáro has died.

“We should do what, Makalaurë?” Morifinwë’s voice is harsh with grief. “There is nothing we can do! There is even nothing left to bury!”

He speaks true. Even the armour has crumbled to dust now, and another gust blows it away in a grey cloud.

Nelyafinwë looks at them all in turn.

“We shall mark the place of his death,” he says.

He takes up a stone, of a size he can easily hold in both hands, and places it on the ground over the crumbled remains of his father’s armour. His brothers do the same. Then the others.

I am the last, and I long stare numbly at the pile of black stones that mark the place where the greatest of the Noldor has passed away. Tears sting my eyes. The memory of Fëanáro’s pride and arrogance, of his disastrous choices fade in the realization that I shall never hear his deep voice and compelling laughter again. I shall never again listen to his explanations of craft, far too complicated for me to understand, yet so exciting. I shall never see him again. Never. It feels so unreal, like an evil dream from which one can awake only when there is enough light. But here there are merely distant stars, and I know we shall remain in the shadows. We shall remain in a world where there will be no Spirit of Fire, in a world bereft of beauty and glory he could still have brought into it. Why did it have to end like this, Fëanáro?


***

We return to the camp in subdued silence and gather in one of the tents raised for healing. There I tend the injuries our people gained in the battle, none of them life-threatening, but some deep enough to cause concern, and some possibly poisoned.

Fëanáro’s sons are nearly unscathed; only Tyelkormo has a shallow cut on his arm. Yet, when I have bandaged that, none of the brothers leaves. The grief and horror of today still chains them, it chains us all, and it will be slow to wear off.

Makalaurë sits motionless in a chair, and silent tears flow over his face. The twins are sobbing. Tyelkormo sits frozen and pale; beside him, Curufinwë has buried his face in his hands. Morifinwë is pacing back and forth, halting occasionally, and in his eyes grief is mingled with helpless rage. Nelyafinwë stands in the corner, arms folded on his chest, face expressionless. Suddenly Curufinwë raises his head, and I see that he, too, has been weeping.

“What happened?” he whispers. “What happened on the mountain pass? Father’s body… What happened to it?”

At the sound of his voice, the others turn.

“A sorcery of Moringotto?” suggests Telufinwë in a trembling voice. “Perhaps his fire-demons claimed father’s body. They marked it first, and then…”

He falls silent at Morifinwë’s fierce glare. Makalaurë stirs. There is a shadow of fear in his eyes.

“Could it have been… a punishment from the Valar?” he asks hesitantly, looking at his elder brother.

Nelyafinwë turns away. Whatever he thinks, he keeps to himself. The others exchange glances; their pale faces and rigid postures give away their growing anxiety.

“The Valar have abandoned us,” whispers Pityafinwë. His hands are trembling slightly, and he folds them on his chest, gripping the edges of his coat.                                                                                           

“We have abandoned them, brother.” That is Nelyafinwë’s voice now, resigned and weary.

“It were them who left the Noldor to Moringotto’s treacherous designs!” Morifinwë’s eyes flash angrily. He halts in his pacing, yet the challenge with which he looks at his eldest brother is half-hearted.

“Maybe. But our road has been of our own choosing.”

With these words Nelyafinwë leaves the tent. A heavy silence falls, full of uncertainty. If they have hoped for words of encouragement from their eldest brother, they have received none.

“If Moringotto is indeed so powerful as to turn our father’s body to ashes even from a distance… What hope do we have in defeating him?” Tyelkormo softly asks.

“None, most likely.” Makalaurë bows his head. “What chance do we stand against the most powerful of the Valar? Or maybe…” His voice trembles. “Maybe even… against all of them. If that was not Moringotto, then… Remember the words of doom we heard ere crossing over.”

Fear in their eyes slowly turns into terror. I cannot watch this any longer.

“No!” I bring my palm flat down on the table. Startled, they all turn towards me. “No.” I repeat in a calmer voice, looking steadily at each of them in turn. “It was neither Moringotto, nor any of the other Valar! Not in vain was your father named the Spirit of Fire! The flight of his own fëa burned his body to ashes, nothing else! Like a flame he lived, and like a flame was his passing!”

They look at one another.

“Do you truly think so, Aldanwë?” Curufinwë’s question is hesitant, yet there is a note of cautious hope in it.

“No, I do not think so! I know so!”

I allow anger into my voice, for it leaves less room for uncertainty. I do not know. Fear is assailing me too, and a wave of grief threatens to wash me away, to pull me into the abyss from which there will be no returning. Still, I refuse to surrender to it; I desperately hold onto even the tiniest crevice I can find. And, whatever the truth, I will not permit the sons of my once-best friend to think that their father was conquered in his death – either by Moringotto or by anyone else.

“Yes, Aldanwë,” Tyelkormo replies respectfully. “Yes, certainly. You would know that.”

“Indeed. The Valar are powerful, yes, but they are not almighty. So do not question your resolve and strength either!” Even as I speak, they sit up straighter, exchange glances and nods of consent. “There is no way back, only forward. Remember how Moringotto’s creatures fled before you!”

With that, I leave the tent and let my words linger in the air behind me. Is it fair to give them encouragement in their hopeless quest? Likely not, but despair would be worse. Much worse.

 

***

I pass through the hastily arranged camp. Fires flicker amid the tents; the glow of the flames creates an eerie dance of light and shadow, reflecting on faces and forms of still busy people. I look for some work where I could add my strength, but do not find one immediately, so I stray away from the lights to the shore.

The sky is clear now, and the dark waters of the lake glitter faintly in the starlight. Snow is but a thin coat here, covering the ground in patches, and close to the water it disappears altogether. The waterside is rocky, strewn with shingles, scattered stones and larger boulders, some of them standing in the shallows and some on the coast. On one of those sits Fëanáro’s eldest son.

He sits there still as a stone himself, and the grating of rocks beneath my feet fails to draw his attention.

“My lord Nelyafinwë.”

Only when I speak does he turn towards me, and I notice with a start how weary he looks – the shadows lining his eyes, the sharply drawn lines of his face.

“So that is who I am now, Aldanwë?” he asks bitterly. “Your lord?”

“How I call you does not change my care and love for you and your brothers,” I reply. “But that you are now indeed, after your father’s passing. The lord of the Noldor who followed him.” Nelyafinwë says nothing. He looks away, and I see that his hands are clenched in fists. “If you want to be alone, I will go.”

After hesitating for a while he shakes his head. I sit on another boulder beside him, ready to share the silence or to listen to him speak – whatever support I can give. Soon the silence is broken.

“This must be how they looked over the Sea,” Nelyafinwë’s intent gaze is towards the dark water. “Watching, awaiting white sails to appear. But instead there was a red glow in the distance. Maybe even smoke was carried over, dark and acrid smoke.” He falls silent, then turns towards me abruptly. “Why did the Valar allow that to happen? How can it be that such things of Light and beauty end in flames and Darkness? Is Darkness then so much stronger than Light?”

Why, indeed? I have not the answer.

“The counsel of the Valar is their own and hidden from the Eldar,” I reply. “But I do not believe the Darkness could prevail, in the end. It is, after all, something that in truth does not exist in itself. An absence of Light.”

“It seemed a being of its own, in Formenos.” Nelyafinwë’s voice trembles with remembered dread. “A bewildering, terrifying presence, nothingness that would swallow everything on its way.”

“Still, the Light proved stronger. The wind drove away the shadows, and so it will be even now. The Darkness is but a cloud obscuring the sky, and once it passes, the stars will shine the brighter. Despite fear and weariness, we must go on.”

“I am not certain I can find in my heart anything that would make me go on.” His eyes are again bent towards the other shore. “Do I even have a heart still? It is as if...”

He falls silent, but I can easily guess what he has left unsaid. It is as if you left your heart in Valinórë, Maitimo. Still, you must go on. Somehow, you must find that strength. You have your brothers and your people to care for, and maybe to make right the mistakes your father made.

Nelyafinwë is aware of my thoughts. “I know I must,” he utters through clenched teeth. “But I do not know how! I cannot find even grief for my father’s death within me. I should mourn his passing, but I cannot! Listen and recoil at my words, Aldanwë! I hate him! Are you not terrified? Are you not?” he whispers bitterly, eyes feverishly bright in the dusk. I shake my head. “But you should be! I hate my father! And I hate myself the more, for I have no tears for him!”

He hides his face in his hands and sits there, swaying back and forth in silent misery, while I desperately and vainly search for some words of hope. Fëanáro, what have you done to your children? I have held Nelyafinwë and his brothers in my arms as little babes. I have healed their bruised knees and sprained ankles after their childhood pranks. I have tended their wounds after the first battles we have encountered. I have remedies for that. But I have no cure for a broken heart.

“I wish I could do something,” I quietly say, painfully aware of my uselessness. “I wish I could help you.”

Slowly Nelyafinwë raises his face towards me. “You are doing something to help, Aldanwë. You came to Endórë. You are here, with us. Even though… I do not fully understand. Why did you follow him? You, of all people, in your wisdom? Surely you saw that my father was mad long before we left Valinórë?”

“Yes,” I reply after a while of pondering. “Yes, I saw that.”

“Then… why?”

I sigh. “I do not know. Maybe I thought I could change his fey mood. Make him see reason. For the sake of our friendship.”

Nelyafinwë bows his head. “For the sake of friendship… Findekáno was my best friend… Yet I abandoned him. I betrayed him. I…”

“No, you did not!” I cut him short. “It was your father who abandoned and betrayed Nolofinwë’s people! That treachery was his doing, not yours! That was his decision, against which you had no power to stand, surely you understand this? So do not dare to blame yourself, Maitimo!”

Fëanáro’s eldest son looks at me for a few moments in silence, then turns away again.

“Do not call me that anymore, Aldanwë,” he says in a hollow voice. “Maitimo remained in Valinórë – a silent ghost roaming the plains, treading the soft grass amid little streamlets that mirror starlight and memories. Only Nelyafinwë followed Fëanáro, and Nelyafinwë is chained by the oath of vengeance, chained forever.”

He stares blankly into the darkness, and I fear that loss, grief and despair will crush him utterly, that he will break under the burden that now lies upon him. To lead his people. To care for his brothers. To fulfil his father’s insane Oath. But I refuse to acknowledge the irreversible ruin. I will do anything to awaken hope in Nelyafinwë’s heart and in the hearts of his brothers – even if that hope is vague and uncertain. Flame can start from a single spark, hidden in grey ashes.

“It needs not be forever.”

“You saw what happened in the mountains and before that.” Nelyafinwë’s voice is still lifeless. “I may hate my father, but I also acknowledge his strength and prowess. If he was overcome so easily…”

“That was far from easily.” I shake my head. “Your father’s death was caused by his own rashness and overconfidence. He stood with but a handful of followers against many. When we came with force, Moringotto’s beasts and fire-demons fled from us, did they not?” I fall silent for a while. His gaze grows sharp, and I see him pondering my words. “They all fled from us. Perhaps the Black Foe is not as strong as we thought, perhaps he can be defeated. And if that could be done, if you and your brothers overcame Moringotto, fulfilled the Oath and regained the Silmarils? Surely, the Valar would forgive you. Moringotto is their enemy as well! Surely they would allow you to return then.”

A faint spark of hope appears in Nelyafinwë’s eyes. “Maybe,” he whispers. “Maybe they would.” He turns his face towards the sky and watches the brilliance of stars for a long while. When he looks at me again, I see that the spark is growing into a steady flame. “You are right, Aldanwë. We must attempt to fulfil the Oath. We must defeat Moringotto, take back the jewels, return to Valinórë and beg Valar’s forgiveness. That is the only way. And we may be strong enough to do it! Our strength is in just cause and steadfast resolve. We shall do whatever it takes to win this war!” He rises and turns towards the encampment. His voice is firm, his expression determined. “Come, let us return. I gave my brothers little comfort before; I should amend that.”

I nod and follow him, relieved that his dark thoughts have departed. As we enter the ring of light amid the tents, Makalaurë hastens towards us. His face is pale, his eyes wide.

“Russandol, there are envoys requesting to speak with us,” he gasps. “From… Moringotto! They ask for a parley!”

Nelyafinwë looks at me briefly and nods, then turns towards his brother.

“Come, we shall speak with them.” His voice is calm and resolute. “This may be our chance to end this nightmare swiftly! Perhaps I was wrong to despair before time!”

Later, looking back on this day, I shall bitterly rue the false hope my words planted. I shall reproach myself for failing to consider Moringotto’s true strength and the webs of deceit he could weave. Oft I shall recall the all-encompassing dread that seized me at the sight of Nelyafinwë’s tall figure retreating in the shadows, and I shall wonder in vain whether I could have prevented the disaster, had I spoken of my foreboding. And even if my reason shall assert I could not have changed anything, in my heart there will always remain this uncertainty, and I shall still blame myself – for speaking, at first, and for remaining silent, later.

 

~ The End ~





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