Darker than Night
This story contains torture.
The most striking thing about hunting with Elves is the banners. Humans love to hunt as much as the Firstborn, but they do it without so much flaunting of nobility, the draping of multicolored cloth from every large stick they can find. Amlach isn’t sure that won’t change, but for now, it amuses him to see the pomp and ceremony that comes out when Elves of different lineages come together. Even his lord brought a banner, although the Fëanorian star of Lord Maedhros is austere compared to the others, including those of his own brothers.
It is inspiring sight, more fit for a battle for a hunt, and the contagiousness of excitement is not lost on him. With the Siege in place for the foreseeable future, Amlach knows this explosion of color and Elvish armor is the closest he will likely see to Elves outfitted for war. The sounds of baying hounds remind him of home, although human hunting is more solemn, ritualized in different ways, centered around the game itself, how much meat is brought back to feed a struggling people. There are celebrations afterwards, around fires in the dusk when the hides are ready to dance with. He misses the energy of home.
Amlach catches another human’s eye as the Elves form themselves into the proper hunting parties by rank and lineage, more concerned with this than they are with the amount of deer they might kill. He has, in his few years serving Maedhros, discovered the unspoken bond between all human vassals of Elves—the desire to show the equality and worth of their race, and the secret, almost innate fear that perhaps they can’t prove what isn’t true. They all feel it, and it transcends house. Amlach will probably share drinks during a card game with the man later once they have finished with the hunt for the day. Amlach likes the rare meet-ups between Fëanorians and the even rarer meet-ups between other Finwëans, simply because it gives him a group he automatically fits in with, even if it is these other solitary men and women who have chosen to serve Elves.
That, and he likes people watching. From where he sits, he can spot the Crown Prince, Fingon, from the light that reflects off the gold bands in his hair. Sit at the wrong angle, and it will blind you. There are more Noldorin princes around here somewhere, sitting on horses larger than most bears as they argue and joke about trivial matters to distract themselves from the slow countdown until the war begins again, likely lifetimes of man away.
For now, though, Amlach is Maedhros’s companion on the hunt. Maedhros is looking at Fingon the same as Amlach, squinting slightly as though to decrease the brightness. Maedhros seems to realize that Amlach’s eyes are on him instead of their surroundings and he turns to meet his gaze.
“I have never been much of a hunter,” says Maedhros in his own hoarse words, shooting Amlach a wry smile as they press their horses along their sides to get them moving. The rest of the hunting parties are doing the same, albeit slowly enough. Amlach can see two of the Fëanorians, their dark hair and the ruddy countenance of one leading him to believe it is Caranthir and Curufin, arguing about something. Curufin is smiling; Caranthir is not.
“You have good eyes,” says Maedhros.
“For a human,” says Amlach, twisting his lips in a half-smile, half-grimace.
“We all have our limitations. They are not arguing seriously. Likely Curufin left Caranthir’s clothes out in the rain or something similar.”
“You would think him too old for forgetting something like that,” says Amlach.
“You would think him too old for pranks,” says Maedhros. “And yet, here we are. Well, if they wish to miss the hunt, they are welcome to. Let us get moving. We are falling behind.”
Maedhros’s voice drawls, and he sounds less than genuine about his desire to keep up with the hunting party. When Amlach asks him about it, he says, “I do not seek much joy in the chase.”
“And the kill, my lord?”
“I have done enough of that, I think, and I will do more before the end.”
“How very dire.”
“You are one to talk. I have not seen you smile in four months.”
“An exaggeration, my lord.”
“If you call me that again today, I might scream, and where will we be then?”
“Hunting in a forest with startled animals and angry Elves, my lord?”
Maedhros chuckles. Amlach has learned that Maedhros’s mood is much misinterpreted—he is contained, controlled, but that does not make him cruel or ill-tempered, and his sense of humor has escaped his trials intact. Amlach often wonders what thoughts go on behind that scarred forehead of his.
They are well into the day, and the hunt, before anything unusual happens. The shadows are climbing on the tall, white trees that Amlach finds so unusual, so strange compared to the lands his people have settled. He finds himself slapping his neck and arms as bugs start nipping at him, and the shifting in the bushes is going from potential prey to possible predator. Maedhros begins to show the telltale signs of abandoning the hunt, which involve shifting in his saddle, watching the trajectory of the sun through the tops of the trees, and the telltale, “If I don’t get a glass of wine before long, I’m going to give myself back to Morgoth.” The last is a big hint.
Even as Maedhros is turning his horse around, an Elf on foot makes herself visible, dressed in light armor that’s good for running and made of a combination of grays that Amlach has not seen on any messenger before. Her armor bears a sigil that Amlach takes a moment to recognize, having never seen anyone wearing it.
The Elf, tall enough that she can look Amlach’s horse in the eye (but not Maedhros’s), steps in front of them. “I have a message for you,” she says. Her black hair is plaited down her back, and cheekbones are nearly sharp enough to cut, a trait not unique among Elves. Amlach finds it more fetching on Maedhros.
“Can you not see that we’re hunting?” says Maedhros. They separated from the hounds long ago, and have no dead animals with them. Even with questions of his own, Amlach struggles not to smile.
The messenger does not find it funny. “I have a message for you,” she repeats.
“From Doriath?” says Amlach, giving into his curiosity. She has a hard face, and she looks right through him when she turns her head his way.
“This meeting is not happening,” she says. “Despite his presence.”
“He is discreet,” says Maedhros. “What kind of message?”
She hands a slip of paper to him, Maedhros breaking the seal by swiping it across a letter opener placed just so on his saddle. He holds it up as the elf stands with her arms folded behind her back, glaring at Maedhros with what Amlach can only describe as dispassionate hatred. Maedhros doesn’t seem to notice, or more likely, care.
“This is quite the request,” says Maedhros calmly, folding the letter back up by pressing it against his leg and tucking it into his hunting jacket. “What do the Fëanorians receive if I acquiesce?”
“The Fëanorians receive nothing,” she says, spitting the words. “His Majesty, the King, may, however, raise his estimation of you in particular, which may, down the road, lead to a shift in the relationships between our lands.”
“So he wants something for nothing,” says Amlach softly.
Her face contorts with badly masked rage. “That is not true. His Majesty keeps his promises.”
“Only he has not promised anything,” says Amlach.
She snaps, “He has more esteem than I think he should have for you and your lord, considering that he is—” She stops her words, expression changing as her mind processes how far she has overstepped her boundaries, especially in the situation the King of Doriath has put her in.
“A kinslayer?” says Maedhros, expression unchanged. “Thingol should find messengers with tighter tongues, especially when he is asking for a favor.”
Guilt is not the word Amlach would use to describe the emotion that flashes across her face, but there is decidedly chagrin in the glimpse he gets before her countenance returns to neutrality. She knows she is in the wrong.
“You may return to His Majesty with good news,” says Maedhros. “I will come, not for his favor, but for the cause. You may go.”
She turns her back to them stiffly. She has only gone a few paces before she blends into the trees, her gray armor made, Amlach guesses, for exactly that purpose.
“I am sick of hunting anyway,” says Maedhros. “Tomorrow and the whole next week would have only been more of the same. Although I will have to break the news to my family—Fingon will not be pleased I am leaving my brothers unsupervised around our cousins, but Maglor can rein them in.”
Amlach enjoys the candor with which he speaks, unsure what he did other than serve under Maedhros to enjoy such free speech. He is not surprised how casually Maedhros speaks of Fingon, however, for despite the rumors and his Amlach’s own personal…proclivities, it has taken Amlach years to be sure that the whispers are true. Even now he sometimes doubts, although that is more to do with his own qualms than anything else. The fear that he is only projecting his own desires is real, but he recognizes the way Maedhros looks at Fingon in gazes he has cast at men back home. Sometimes he catches himself doing it at Himring, but he will not allow himself to think along that path.
“What is it that Elu Thingol wants of you?” asks Amlach. Belatedly he adds, “If you do not mind my asking.”
“Of course I do not mind. He has requested that I come to the border of the Girdle and determine whether or not those of his people who have escaped from Morgoth’s captivity are in fact Morgoth’s spies. He will not let them in either way, however, and wishes me to take as refugees those that I deem safe.”
Amlach whistles, something, for all their unearthly prowess, Elves seem to be unable to do. Even now, Maedhros is looking at him with something akin to wonder. “Thingol’s not asking much, is he? And he’s still not even going to meet with the Fëanorians after you do it.”
“I only go because it is the right thing to do…and there is an added benefit.”
The sun is nearly down by now, and Maedhros’s sharp angles are cast into shadows as his broad-shouldered figure maneuvers through the trees. He might look unfriendly to one who does not know him.
“What is that?”
“The knowledge that, while Thingol will never let it be known that I saved some of his people, it will also be thought that he turned them away. If it is secret, his image suffers too. I am not above such petty emotions.”
“Besides,” says Amlach. “These things have a way of getting out.”
“Exactly,” says Maedhros.
They guide their horses in silence for a few moments, each lost to their own thoughts. It is Maedhros who speaks first. “I would like you to come with me when I leave tomorrow. We are not too far from his borders. I suspect that is why he has sought me out in this manner, at this time. I will meet you at my tent in the morning, once I am finished informing my family that I must go.”
“Will you tell them everything?”
Maedhros shrugs, a motion impeded by the scar tissue in his right shoulder, so thick it does not rotate as it should. “Fingon will know. Goodnight, Amlach.”
They are back in the camp now, and Amlach leaves Maedhros to his brightly lit tents and familial diplomacy, heading to the small bonfire on the edge of the camp where the other humans are waiting with their cards.
There is something different in the air here. Looking around, there is nothing Amlach sees that should make him feel the way he does. From the lichen-draped trees to the grassy ferns surrounding his horse’s hooves, he can feel something strange. It manifests as a dampness in his palms and a prickling on his neck.
The sun seems colder here, but when Amlach looks up he sees that it is just the trees, which, when he wasn’t watching, have crept overhead to meet their waving branches with each other, giving the impression of a shifting ceiling above them. There is still room for their horses, but only just. The top of Maedhros’s head brushes the branches of the lowest-hanging trees, a testament to his height.
“Were directions included in that note?” says Amlach. It’s a question he has been thinking for some time. They left early in the morning, while the rest of the Elves were still getting ready for another day of hunting. Most of the dogs had still been asleep, snuffling their noses into the dirt as they dreamed of the next day’s events. Amlach had had to stifle more than one yawn as they departed.
“Are you worried we shall stumble into the Girdle, where we shall be ensnared and die of thirst, hunger, and half-forgotten desires?” asks Maedhros.
“I’m worried we’re going to get lost.”
Maedhros’s laugh is all broken edges and harsh sounds. It reminds Amlach of the deep, hacking coughs people at home got when they had sat out in the rain too long. “I will admit, this is the closest to Doriath I have ever been. But do not fear. Out messenger from yesterday has turned into our guide.”
“What?” says Amlach, startled.
“She has not shown herself to you,” says Maedhros. “And rarely to me. Listen closely, and you may catch a sound or two. My hearing is not what it used to be.
An understatement if Amlach has ever heard one. Maedhros’s famed russet hair is worn long to cover the stumps of where delicate leaf-shaped ears used to be. Amlach has grown so accustomed to speaking a fraction louder than he would naturally that, when he is in other company, he is accused of shouting. Maedhros has never asked him to do so, but Amlach knows his alternative is lip-reading, and he has seen Maedhros reach for a bottle or three after a long meeting enough times to know he does not enjoy it.
Amlach never does hear the messenger, nor does he see her, even when they emerge into a meadow and Maedhros raises his hand, signaling for them to stop. He can’t help but be disappointed; he’d hoped he would catch at least one stick breaking underfoot.
“I believe we are here,” says Maedhros. “They were quite close to the hunting party, were they not? We came further towards the border than we intended. Thingol is likely unhappy about it.” He does not sound unduly concerned.
When Amlach looks around, he sees that the meadow is larger than he initially thought. Past the tall grass there are huts, and even from a distance Amlach thinks they look hastily constructed, their haphazard appearance only increased by the way they are all clustered in the center of the empty space. There are figures, too, which become more clear once they dismount and approach on foot, leading their horses by their leads. The figures are Elves, but none like Amlach has ever seen before, although perhaps he recognizes a shade of them in Maedhros.
They stand from their tasks as Amlach and Maedhros draw near, which are as varied as they would be in any regular small village, some people cooking over small fires while others repair huts or watch livestock. They all stand and watch their visitors. Amlach is surprised by the number of them; well over a hundred, perhaps closer to two. He does indeed know of human villages smaller than that. When they are close enough to see the fear in the gazes, Amlach understands why Maedhros did not bring the advisors and consultants who would have wanted to accompany them here, not to mention the retinue that would have followed. He has seen the same look in the animals the Elves hunt.
These creatures are nothing like what Amlach has come to associate with the Firstborn. They are a disparate group, bonded by misery, and he recognizes the bulk of them as Sindar, with a few tall Noldor dotted throughout. Then there are…others. Amlach’s people own a debt to this other kind, for far back in twilight days quiet Elves who had left their own history behind taught humankind much they did not know, things about the stars and the moon’s reflection on night water that have resonated through generations. Amlach has never met an Avari before, but he can see them among the ranks of the persecuted here.
Maedhros pats the sides of their horses, murmuring into their ears, before heading towards the makeshift village. The horses graze peacefully as they leave them behind, trusting that Maedhros will return for them.
There are Elves coming to meet them, stopping well outside the huts. The Elf heading them is shorter than most Noldor, but there is a familiar light in his eyes that says much. His hair, iron gray, is pulled back in a ponytail, and his features are not ageless so much as battered, like a fort that has been under siege since time immemorial.
The Elf says nothing. When he stands face to face with Maedhros, it is clear how colossally tall the latter is. Around his family, he just seems a bit big. Not now. The Elf switches his gaze between meeting Maedhros’s and Amlach’s own. There are two Elves behind him, both women. They are openly staring at Maedhros’s hand, or lack thereof.
“I am Maedhros, son of Fëanor and Lord of Himring,” says Maedhros. “With me is Amlach, son of Imlach of the House of Marach.”
“I am Caledhel,” says the Noldor.
“A man,” says one of the women, staring at Amlach now.
“Why are you here?” says the other women. It seems like she is speaking to both Amlach and Maedhros at once.
“We were sent to…” Maedhros hesitates. “Bring relief.”
Amlach pushes down the urge to wince all the way to where nearly all of his urges live, a deep, unnamed part of himself that, if he dredged up, would likely paralyze him with desire.
“These people are nearly all Thingol’s,” says the man. “And he brings no relief.”
“He has brought me.”
“A kinslayer?” says the first woman. She is Sindar. Amlach sees no light of Aman in her eyes, but there is more wisdom than the Avari know, or at least he believes they know. She is thin, too thin, with eyes that peer out of deep sockets. She is all bones.
Maedhros says nothing, drawing himself up as he searches for something to say. Amlach fills the silence. “No,” he says. “A fellow sufferer.”
There is a pause. “They are here to make sure we are not traitors,” says the second woman.
“I will not deny that,” says Maedhros. “But I promise you, I will take those of you who are deemed safe and are willing to go to a refuge. Himring is not the most comfortable of homes, but you will be as safe there as you can be in Beleriand.”
The first woman speaks again. “You guard the border. Doriath has the Girdle. You do not.”
“Doriath will never be your home again,” says Maedhros. “Thingol will never accept you. I am the only help he will send.”
She breaks eye contact, looking down. The male Elf, Caledhel, nods ever-so-slightly. “You have permission to come among us. I have already told you my name. I was a standard-bearer for the Lord Finrod before capture.”
“We are Fiera and Ephel,” says the women on the left, the second one. She is not as bony as the first, but she seems hollower. Like her bones are made empty, the way birds’ are. “We are engineers. We were quarrying for His Majesty, Elu Thingol, before capture.”
“You will meet many engineers and similar here,” says Caledhel. “Many of us escaped from quarries and constructions located outside Thangorodrim. Few run from inside His fortress and are seen again.”
“Welcome,” says Fiera, “Although it has been frosty thus far. We are not a trusting people. You understand.”
“I do,” says Maedhros. He nods, and they are allowed to pass. Amlach is prepared for a further difficult reception, especially based on Fiera’s words, but they are approached by the residents of the first hut they pass, lonely on the outskirts of a village that even looks like it is built to huddle for safety.
“You are Noldor?” The woman outside the hut is gripping the thatched sides with tight fingers. Her hair is gray too, but more striking is the scar, so disfiguring that she lost an eye in what looks like the application of molten metal. Her mouth twists down in a permanent scowl, but there is hope in the look she gives Maedhros.
“Yes,” says Maedhros. “I am Noldor.”
Her eyes dart back and forth. Amlach is once again drawn to prey imagery. He sees a rabbit.
“Can you make us safe?”
“Safer,” says Maedhros. “Nowhere is safe.” He reaches his hand out to her, and she shrinks back. His scarred fingers, missing fingernails, hang in the air for a fraction too long.
“The Elves here,” she whispers. “They think I am a traitor. They think we all are. I am so tired. I miss my husband. They took me from him in the night.”
“I know,” says Maedhros. “I do not blame you. It was not your fault.”
“It was not my fault,” she repeats back. Her eyes fill with tears. “It was not my fault.”
Amlach does not understand why she sounds as though she does not believe the words. She ducks away, disappearing back into her hut. Maedhros sighs. “I do not think she is a spy,” he says. “But it is so hard to tell. Morgoth runs deep.”
“I do not think he would be so obvious,” says Amlach.
“I agree,” says Maedhros.
They have not taken fifteen more steps before they are called to again. Two men, one missing his left arm up to his elbow, beckon to them. The one-armed Elf has long brown hair and looks young. He has never thought an Elf looked anything but ageless before; perhaps all the gray hair is throwing him off. Their hut looks more unstable than the rest. Their thatched roof is shedding material, piles of hay coating the ground around them.
“You’re that lord,” says the one with both hands intact. “The one that Morgoth fucked.”
Amlach, who works hard to contain his emotions, still cannot resist staring at Maedhros in shock.
“Excuse me?” says Maedhros calmly.
“His Sindarin is no longer very good,” says the one-armed man softly. “There are not many words left. He means to say, you are the one that Morgoth tortured. His Sindarin will come back. I promise it will come back.”
The first man smiles, revealing a line of broken teeth. “Morgoth fucked us all.”
“I take care of him,” says the other man, a pleading note entering his voice. “He is harmless, I swear.”
“I know,” says Maedhros. “Coarse words do not make a bad man. You are welcome in Himring.”
The one-armed man nods, then hesitates. “I lost my arm in the mines,” he says. “You did not work in the mines?”
“No,” says Maedhros. “I was not there to be worked.”
The man nods again, touching the other man on the elbow lightly, drawing him away from Maedhros and Amlach, who feels less and less like he belongs amongst these survivors. When they turn away from the two men, Maedhros shakes his head slightly, rubbing his chin. His hand trembles slightly when he does so.
“Are you all right, my lord?”
“That was bracing.”
There is something Amlach wants to ask, but it would not be appropriate. It would not be appropriate even if he were Fingon, something he sometimes wishes were true. Maedhros reads the expression on his face as though it were the title page of a book. “I know that silence, Amlach. It is not your usual kind. What is it?”
“It is not an appropriate question.”
“That does not matter. Ask it, or I will wonder what has become of you.”
“Do you think it was his Sindarin, or that he meant…what it sounded like?”
Maedhros runs his hand through his hair, an action he does not do often, as it reveals gray roots and those maimed ears. “I would not be surprised if Morgoth brags…” Maedhros shakes his head, harder this time, trying to dislodge unsavory thoughts.
Maedhros likes Amlach for his honesty, but Amlach will not—cannot—ask what he truly wants to: whether or not what the Elf said was true.
Amlach is no psychic Elf with the ability to read into others’ minds, but the way Maedhros’s eyes dart around the camp, the forced serenity that he exudes, the darkness hiding behind his smile now, suggests the answer.
“Noldor,” calls a female Elf, voice as cracked and worn as Maedhros’s own. “Secondborn. This way.”
Their heads turn as one, and they follow the voice to a third hut, this one set back and apart from the others. They find the Elf who had called them standing outside of it. Her face is aged, aged a way Amlach thought Elves were not capable of, wizened like the oldest grandmother in a village. Her back is bowed, and there is a cane leaned against the outside wall of the hut. There is youth in her eyes, but no light of Aman. Her light comes from elsewhere.
“What is it, ma’am?” asks Maedhros.
She waves a hand towards them, beckoning them into the tent. Maedhros has to nearly fold in half to fit. Amlach has trouble as well—he often forgets he is well over six-foot-tall now that he spends so much time with Maedhros, who towers well over a foot above him.
The inside of the hut is covered with furs and even a few blankets, spread out with the only light streaming in from the opening they entered from. In the half-light, Maedhros almost looks whole.
The woman approaches Amlach, stroking his face as he sits down. Everything in him protests at this intrusion, but he says nothing.
“You should not hold such fear in your heart,” she says. “No one at Himring would throw you out if they knew.”
“What are you talking about?” he says, words coming out too fast for even him to pretend to believe them.
She sits down in the darkest parts of the tent, hiding the frailty of her thin limbs, the bags under her eyes. “I am called Northriel,” she says. “Morgoth took me for my mind. I can tell things. See things. Feel the future.”
“A talent I do not possess,” says Maedhros. “But many of my line do.”
She grins, revealing another mouth full of broken teeth. Maedhros lifts his hand to his own mouth unconsciously, and Amlach wonders if there are still hurts he does not know about despite his years in Maedhros’s service.
“We do not all come from kings,” she says. “Nor do we all have anything to lose. But even us common folk can be born with talents.”
“I have never doubted that,” replies Maedhros. Amlach wishes the small room was not filled with so many shadows.
Northriel’s eyes flick up and down, examining him. “You come closer to believing that than nearly all others in your position.”
She pulls three earthen cups from a hidden niche, offering them to Amlach and Maedhros. Amlach sips the contents and does not shudder despite his instincts. The liquid, tea probably, is far too warm for the weather.
Maedhros drinks all of it with the intensity of one who is truly enjoying something. “That is something,” he murmurs.
Northriel rocks back in forth slightly as she explains. “It counteracts some of the damage the Dark One has done inside. Those who have not suffered as we have do not appreciate it so much.” She casts a sly smile, one that seems to slip Maedhros by, preoccupied as he is with the tea.
“Who do you believe is a traitor?” asks Amlach, cutting to the chase.
Northriel’s expression changes. She reaches for their hands. Up close, Amlach examines Maedhros’s left hand, pink with scars, half the last finger missing. Northriel seems distant, somewhere else, her gaze focusing on a point somewhere beyond them.
She squeezes Amlach’s hand, her grip firm. She does the same with Maedhros. “I remember you,” she whispers. “I was there.”
Amlach is only just processing her words when his surroundings change and her words become the background of his mind. While seconds earlier he was in a fur-lined hut, he is now in a high, wide hall, with towering pillars and a looming throne at the front. Everything is black, a black darker than night and more beautiful than obsidian, shimmering with menacing strength. When Amlach looks at the throne, he sees the demon of the Valar, the plague of childrens’ nightmares, sitting within. The clank of chains in his earshot, he realizes with horror, are attached to his arms, his legs. He looks at his own limbs and discovers them slender, feminine. The stench is unbearable. The Elves chained around him are standing in their own filth.
“Bring him out,” says, no, booms, no, that’s not it either, reverberates, the Dark One, eyes of burning coal, grinning with ivory teeth that glint with malice. “Show them the one who would be their king.”
There would be silence but for the nearly imperceptible shifting of Elvish bodies, trying not to breath for fear of punishment even as discomfort crawls up their bodies and clogs their throats. A shape near the base of the throne moves, solidifies, and Amlach feels familiar fear spread through him—the body he is in knows that form as Mairon, as he calls himself, and forces others to call him. He is one who brings hate, and pain. Mairon slips away, and years in cramped legs later, but what Amlach knows rationally cannot be more than half a very long hour, he returns with a chained form in tow.
The memory slips in and out suddenly, and Amlach can glimpses his own hands, large and masculine, gripping Northriel’s hand and the furs below him respectively. He sees Maedhros briefly, his only hand in hers, his face white with emotion. Then he is back in the hall, and his vision is presented with the one that Morgoth was referring to, dragged in on legs that cannot support their weight.
Amlach feels bile in his throat, but the body filtering these memories feels nothing but a dull ache. She is hungry, and she is tired, and she has seen others look like this Elf before him. She does not know who he is, only that he, like her, is not free. The Elf in front of her is worse off than she is, but for how long?
Amlach knows it must be Maedhros, because why else would she be showing this to them, but he cannot reconcile the leader he so proudly serves with those bent limbs and broken ribs, nor in the way he cowers, hands shielding his face, when Mairon turns to him. Amlach cannot see his eyes, for his matted hair, brown with caked blood and tangled beyond hope, hangs over his features.
“Then cannot see their king’s face,” says Morgoth in the same awe-striking voice. Amlach—Northriel—trembles.
Mairon draws his hand back and a glittering knife appears in his fingers, long and bone white. He grips Maedhros’s head and yanks it back, cutting off his matted hair so close to the scalp that blood runs down in a heavy, slow trickle, as though his blood knows that there is but little left.
Maedhros makes no sound, not out of bravery, but of exhaustion. When all his hair is piled on the floor around him, Amlach recognizes his gray eyes, but the face is all wrong. His eyelids are nearly swollen shut, while his jaw is the wrong shape, broken so that he cannot shut his mouth. There are only jagged edges where the straight lines of his teeth should be, and there are gashes in his chin made by the painful task of eating. Northriel touches her own mouth, as Maedhros had done, the Maedhros he knows, when glimpsing her earlier.
“Stand for your people, Nelyafinwë,” commands Morgoth. Amlach has never heard that name before.
“Stand,” echoes Mairon.
Maedhros shifts, balancing on his knees and hands. Two hands, how could Amlach not have though to notice that, when it is so fundamentally wrong? Maedhros seems unwilling to do more.
“Stand,” repeats Mairon. He kicks Maedhros, who lets out a reflexive noise, a guttural scream, like an animal.
Maedhros stands, and it is slow. The more his legs unfold the clearer it becomes how many times they have been broken and left to fester. He falters halfway through, but continues at a menacing step forward of Mairon’s, past the cracks of his legs breaking again until he stands, wavering, at his full height. Nothing feels impressive about it.
“Kneel to your king,” commands Morgoth.
Without hesitation, the Elves chained together kneel for Maedhros. Amlach can feel the cold floor through the thin fabric of Northiel’s shift. Maedhros is shaking violently as his body protests standing up.
Mairon’s knife warps and shifts in his hand, becoming a many tailed whip, and he brings it down on Maedhros’s back, toppling him over. He whips him again, and again. Northiel’s past self does not feel more than that same dull ache. She has lost her family, and the orcs were not kind to them. She does not know this Elf, has no reason to feel for his cries. Amlach, trapped inside her, watches with rising horror as Maedhros is whipped until he is slipping in his own blood, whipped until he cannot stay upright enough to prevent the whips from hitting more than his back, curling around his buttocks, his legs, his neck. The Elves watch.
There is something vile on the whip, something that wrenches sobs from Maedhros when breaking his own legs did not. The Elves watch. The whip turns back into a knife, and Mairon grabs Maedhros’s head again, placing the knife on his throat.
Amlach blinks away his own invisible tears, and he is in the hut again. Maedhros, still sitting next to him, is shaking, his whole body wracked with uncontrollable tremors. “That was not yours to show him,” he says, raw emotion distorting his voice as much as the scars on his throat. “That was not—you should not have—”
“You should not have shown me that,” says Amlach quietly.
“You did not watch,” she says. “I was there. The Lord Maedhros was there. So were the traitors.”
“He does not need to see that,” says Maedhros, sweat beading on his forehead. He meets Amlach’s eyes, then breaks the gaze only a fraction later, not focusing on anything.
“He will see what you cannot,” replies Northriel.
Northriel grabs their hands, and the memories come in flashes now. Maedhros’s body, limp, in the great hall again, but this time Amlach makes sure to look at the rest of the Elves, the way they react. Most are looking as commanded, but there is a distance in their eyes that tells Amlach that they are not seeing, their spirits well on the way to broken. Some watch with horror, their expressions open as disgust and pity flickers across their faces. A small Elven girl is one of them, trembling in rags at her father’s side. She reaches out to Maedhros, then closes her hand and lets it drop. She turns her head towards Morgoth, staring at her with the same openness as before, a mixture of revulsion and curiosity marring her small features. Morgoth is watching Maedhros, but Amlach can feel something in the air between them, a connection, like their voices are in the wind, if only he was attuned to hear them. He feels like an instrument has been plucked on a wrong note, sending vibrations through him.
“Not her,” he whispers. No words leave Northriel’s mouth. This was her world.
Her father tries to pull the girl close. She does not resist, but her movements are rote. Amlach looks at Morgoth. The black walls, the smooth dark floors are getting closer, not in reality, but in his mind, and he is getting short of breath. The orcs in the corner of his vision, the ropes and the swords, the sounds of torture in the floors below him, are all audible and present and with him in that moment. He is overwhelmed. He knows the little girl is a traitor.
The scene shifts, colors and places and screams flashing past and around and through him, leaving him with the echoes of misery emanating from his pores, giving him phantom memories he does not know and does not wish to have.
Northriel is mining now, blood clotting against the handle of her pick. The Elves next to her on either side are the same. When he breaths in, Amlach can taste the tang of metal, layers of dust coating his throat. Her throat. The way is lit by candles, but they do not emit a healthy light, only a sickly glow that keeps them all in shadows, makes the orc guards loom taller than they are.
The Elves work hard, not because they want to, but because there are whips at their backs. Some, Amlach realizes, have more reason than that. He sees the light in some eyes that tells him they have been to the land beyond the sea. The walls sing to the touch of these Elves’ broken fingers. It is not comfort enough. It is a chain of another sort.
Amlach sees one Elf, ardor in his violet eyes as he pries gems from the walls with his bare hands. Blood drips from his hands, but there is no pain, only zeal in his erratic movements. As Amlach watches, a fingernail drops to the uneven stone ground. Amlach has already turned back to the quarrying with Northriel before he realizes that there are no orcs breathing over that man’s shoulder, no lash marks scoring the tunic he wears.
The setting shifts again, and the pain Northriel suffers in the interim would be enough to bring him to his knees if he knew who he was, caught between a man sitting in a hut and an Elf captured for so many long years by an enemy she barely understands. Now he is in a dark cavern, where grimy, half-naked Elves huddle together, feeding the weakest among them gruel and speaking in hushed tones.
“Please stand up, Adar,” whispers one Elfling. “Please.” Even her shadow, cast by a lamp, looks small. “You have to work. They’ll…you have to. Please.”
Her words become background noise to the rest, a solid hum at the back of their minds. Amlach watches her for weakness, watches her father. There is love, he thinks, and grief too keen for words. There is no room for Morgoth.
He sits with them for a long time. Northriel sits with them, easing the Elf’s pain. Amlach is lost in them for many minutes, eventually remembering his purpose. There is a man in the back that he missed at first. He has gathered a pile of dirt and rubble from the mines, slivers of metal and coal up into a little pyramid. He is whispering the same as the Elfling is, a double litany. “Please, you have to work…They’ll…you have to...please. Please.” He is sitting alone. In his mouth, the words are a chant.
Amlach looks back at the girl and her father, but sees only the bent wood of the hut. Northriel’s hut. “Was that all of them?” he asks, his senses unsure, the spices in the hut making his body tingle. He reaches out and puts his hands on a blanket below him, trying to make sure it is really there. The fibers are coarse, the threads worn. He is real. He is there. So is Maedhros; his eyes are badly bloodshot.
“I wouldn’t know,” she says.
“But…it was so obvious. The man at the end…”
“The father?” croaks Maedhros, knitting his brows together. “Or the daughter?”
“The man with the pyramid in the back. Is he here?”
“Yes,” says Northriel. “You silly man. Why would I show you otherwise?”
“Oh,” says Amlach.
Amlach thinks of her as an old woman, but Maedhros is likely older. She seems so wise as she shakes her head. “Tell Caledhel what you saw. He will make sure they are removed from us.”
Maedhros stands, or gets as close as he can in such close quarters. “I leave this to you,” he says shortly.
He still does not meet Amlach’s eyes. “I am sorry,” he says. “I did not want to see.”
Maedhros’s face distorts so intensely that he resembles the orcs who tortured him. “Do not fear,” he says. “You are a man. You will die soon enough.”
He ducks out of the hut and disappears, leaving Amlach feeling as though he has been struck. Northriel says nothing as Amlach stands slowly, trying not to look at her. When he does, he can feel himself remembering what it is like to be her, to have arms half his size and much less hairy. To be captured by Morgoth, to be tortured. She smiles at him as he leaves, and he attempts to return it, but even he can tell he did not succeed.
Back outside in the little village, the sunlight is strong, the breeze thick with the scent of flowers and wild grass. Amlach squints in the light, trying to remain impassive as he processes what Maedhros said. He knows the Elf is upset, but there is no need…Maedhros should not have…he tries to swallow past the lump in his throat, pushing the ache inside him away for now so he can do as he was told by a lord who does not respect him after all.
The world is more beautiful than he remembers. He can still feel the harsh stone under his slender, bare feet and the rags that pulled at thinning flesh. There are a handful of Elves near him, watching anxiously. Amlach is their executor. Their executioner. The fear in their eyes dates back so far. As he passes them, he sees an Elf standing in the middle of them, a pyramid tattooed in ink on the front of his right hand.
He strides back towards Caledhel, finding him at the front of the village talking with a group of Elves. Hunters of a sort, by the look of some of them. There is a woman with them, talking with Caledhel with a grave look. He knows the shape of her face, the set of her cheekbones. The girl who had reached for Maedhros, then opened her heart to Morgoth.
He goes up to Caledhel and says, “May I speak with you alone?”
Caledhel raises his eyebrows. The leaders stare at him, his attempt to be quiet about it clearly no match for Elvish ears, especially ones still intact. “I do not lead alone here. We are a group. You can say what you want to all of us.”
“No,” replies Amlach shortly, resisting the urge to place his hand on his sword hilt. “No, I cannot. I must speak to you alone.”
“Where is Maedhros?” says the traitor, parting her lips in a smile. “Why would he leave you in charge?”
Amlach balls his fists, then unballs them. There is a lump the size of a hornet’s nest in his throat. His mind and body are buzzing as much as if there was one. “I must speak to you, Caledhel. Maedhros is indisposed, and I speak with his authority.”
The Noldor acquiesces. “Fine. If it is so important.”
They walk away from the group. When Amlach stops, Caledhel beckons him forward. “Not far enough for prying ears of the Firstborn.”
They walk until they are at the eaves of the forest, the bristling quiet of the Girdle at their back.
“She is a traitor,” says Amlach flatly. “The one who asked for Maedhros.”
Caledhel does not react. “Despite her youth, she is one of my most trusted advisors.”
“You did not see her. Northriel showed me much. The past, mixed with the present.”
“Did she not show the Lord Maedhros?”
Blast the Lord Maedhros, Amlach thinks sourly. “He did not see past the walls of his former prison,” says Amlach. “Something you all have in common except me. Perhaps that is why she did not show you. Perhaps that is why did not know herself.”
Caledhel does not speak, so Amlach continues. “I know more traitors. Only two.”
“Three traitors may be nothing to you, but there are few of us. Three is not nothing to Elves, Sindar, Noldor, or Avari.”
“I do not know why you believe men to be so weak-willed as to fall in greater numbers,” grinds out Amlach, who has been in better moods. “But I have your traitors, and in doing so have your freedom to move to safety.”
“What do I do with the traitors?” says Caledhel, suddenly looking as tired as his gray hair suggests. He is switching gears, and Amlach understands his motivations better. He was hoping that, perhaps, somehow, there would not be traitors among them.
“You know what to do with them,” replies Amlach. “Do not demean either of us.”
“You are certain?”
“These are your people. I do not condemn them lightly. I leave this in your hands.” Amlach gives him the descriptions of the traitors. The man with violet eyes, the man with the hand tattoos. Caledhel knows who he means both times. Amlach can tell he wishes he did not.
“If you are looking for your liegelord,” says Caledhel afterwards. “He is by your horses.”
Amlach thanks him and heads in that direction, passing the makeshift huts again. He sees few Elves, but he knows they are watching him pass, dozens of eyes trained on the form that has become their arbiter.
He finds Maedhros sitting with his back against a tree, feeding an apple to the behemoth that carries him. There is a new slope to Maedhros’s proud shoulders, dragging him down. Amlach stands nearby, unsure how to approach him now that he’s here. In the dappled light under the leaves Maedhros’s large form is dancing in emerald shadows.
“I told Caledhel who the traitors are,” he says. “They are taking care of it.”
“Do you know when they will be ready to move out?” The timbre of Maedhros’s voice is strange, flat. Too controlled. He is always calm, Maedhros, but he is usually more than that. Happy, amused, angry. Not this. He seems empty.
“No. The traitors concern them. They are not soldiers, but common people.” Amlach’s frustration is bleeding through. Maedhros knows better than to expect this of them. And he has still not mentioned what he said to Amlach, has not acknowledged the words that cut a gaping hole in him.
“Once they have killed the traitors they must be ready. Now.”
“That is unreasonable,” says Amlach.
“Sometimes I wonder why I keep you by my side.”
“Sometimes I wonder why I stay by it,” snaps Amlach. Maedhros has been through much, more than he saw, more than he can ever imagine, but that does not excuse the scene he is witnessing. He has contented himself to live in the long shadow cast by the Lord of Himring for the remainder of his life, saying goodbye to his lands, his people, the solace he found in rough arms that he will never see again. All given up, to fight Morgoth in a time of peace. To serve one of the Firstborn, although he had once been opposed to the idea. An Elf he had grown to respect, to feel…to try not to feel…more than that. The cacophony in his chest right now tells him how much he has failed not to feel for Maedhros.
“I did not ask to see what she showed. I saw it, yes, but it changes nothing. We have work to do.”
“Yes. We do.”
Maedhros does not move. Amlach is unsure what to do, but he is angry. He has always known of Maedhros’s torment—it was what he based his decision to pledge his service to Maedhros on—but he never expected to see the torture in motion, never wanted to, and he does not enjoy being treated like he did. “Is that what you see when you look at me?” he says finally. “A corpse?”
Maedhros stands up, pacing back and forth, boots crushing the grass and soil beneath him. He stops, looking at Amlach. He knows when Maedhros is thinking, can see the fine scars on his lips that run up and down, like stitches. Above those scars is the smooth expanse of his cheeks, his jawline, about half his forehead, the only places on his body still left an unpainted canvas. Amlach knows what his elegant clothing is hiding, and now he can visualize the pain that caused it.
Maedhros knows he knows, and that is ruining everything. Amlach would not want another to know what he does either, but he cannot help it. Maedhros looks at Amlach, really looks, and Amlach struggles not to lose himself in his flint eyes. “I do not see a corpse,” says Maedhros finally. “It was cruel of me to imply such a thing. I apologize.”
Amlach nods slightly, posture stiff. Maedhros’s face cracks, and he smiles slightly. “You are a proud man, Amlach, and I am sorry for not treating you better.”
“Thank you,” says Amlach. “My lord, I know I am not ideal, but if you would ever wish to speak to me about…these matters, you know I have a unique perspective.”
Maedhros lets out a long, ragged breath. “And thank you. I only worry that if I begin speaking of that time in my life, I will be unable to stop, and my control will slip. You must understand, Amlach, that my control is everything. Not just for myself. I love my brothers, but…” Maedhros shakes his head. “I prove my point already. Just know, I was unfair on you, but please remember that I appreciate your service.”
“I know,” says Amlach calmly. “You wouldn’t know what to do without me.”
“I would not,” he responds. “And I will not.” Amlach’s heart jumps again. Maedhros meets his look with a level expression. “I will mourn your death,” says Maedhros. “More than you ever know, for I do not understand it, and you are so much to me.”
Amlach does not know what to say, but in the way he knows how to speak louder for Maedhros’s sake, and to make sure to repeat his orders in the back of a group to those who could not hear his words over the rasp of his throat, Maedhros does not expect him to speak as he struggles to find a place for the emotions that have been let loose.
They begin walking back to the village. Amlach tries to put the torture in the back of his mind, but images of Maedhros’s naked, broken body rise unbidden in him. Another thing to hide. The knowledge is part of him now, the images burned into his mind. Maedhros’s suffering is with him for the rest of his short life.
He is pulled from his reverie when they reach the village. The three traitors are standing at the perimeter of the huts. Two are sobbing, one smiling.
“I had to,” sobs the man with the pyramid tattoo. “We all had to! You know what he’s like!”
Caledhel and the people are gathered around.
“Get out,” says Caledhel. “Never show your face around here again. You have betrayed us. Our people. Our race.”
Maedhros and Amlach exchange a dark look, one tinged with surprise and disappointment.
“You are letting them go?” says Amlach.
“We are not mindless killers,” says Caledhel.
“They are,” says Amlach.
“Perhaps not with their bare hands,” says Maedhros. “But he is right.”
There is nervous shifting. The sobbing becomes louder. Amlach and Maedhros unsheathe their swords in the same movement. Amlach does not relish the job, but it is easier with Maedhros’s screams in his head, the feel of a pickaxe in his bruised hands. They could be stopping more Elves from ending up like him. No, her. Northriel, not him.
“No,” says the Elf with the pyramid. “You can’t! You don’t know what it was like! You weren’t there!”
“No, the human wasn’t,” says the woman with the melted face, standing in the crowd. “But we were. And we did not turn.”
Amlach slides his sword into the Elf’s chest, grunting slightly as his muscles push the blade past sinew, organs, and bones. Maedhros does his same to the traitor at the other end. It is Amlach who kills the woman who was the little girl. She is still smiling as she dies. The three hands between Amlach and Maedhros are slick with blood when they turn back to the crowd.
“Our safety is paramount,” says Maedhros. “They knew where we were going. They knew this part of the Girdle.”
Caledhel is slow to agree, but eventually he purses his lips and says, “Those who wish to go with you to Himring are welcome to.”
The woman with the disfigured face is the first to move, instantly joining their side. Northriel is next. The rest of the group decides the same, joining one by one, stepping over the bodies of the traitors as they come to stand with Maedhros and Amlach. Caledhel is the last to come over, but he does come.
“Will twenty-four hours be sufficient time to get ready?” asks Maedhros.
“Yes,” says Caledhel. “Half that time.”
“I am glad to hear it.”
Maedhros sounds back to normal, and Amlach must push the remainder of his resentment at Maedhros’s earlier harsh words away. Maedhros claps Amlach on the shoulder. “Come. We have work to do.”
Amlach lets a grim smile escape his lips. These Elves are strange ones, especially the Lord of Himring, but he cannot bring himself to regret putting his lot in with him. Especially not when Maedhros smiles like that.
About the Author
Luxa is a longtime fanfiction writer, both in general and for The Silmarillion. Her works have been translated into several languages, and she has written too many stories for too many fnadoms. Her work can be found under LuxaLucifer on Archive of Our Own, Luxa at the Silmarillion Writer’s Guild, and, if you want to embarrass her, LuxaLucifer on fanfiction.net.