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Title: By the Waters of Uinen
Author: Eni firstname.lastname@example.org
Warnings: Het! Doom, Maedhros gets paired with a female! Argh!
Beta: Tuxedo_Elf, the supreme ruler of the universe.
Disclaimer: Characters and world belong to Tolkien, not me. No insult intended to the good Professor and, of course, no profit being made.
Summary: The aftermath of the attack on the Elves of Sirion, and what happened when Maedhros sought healing for his brother.
A/N: Meleth can be found in the Book of Lost Tales 2, in "The Fall of Gondolin".
Stones scattered to either side of powerful hooves as the great war-horse cantered along the lane - the rider would normally have slowed for such poor ground but this time he had more immediate concerns than sparing the horse's feet and joints. His brother, held against his chest and swaying despite the support, whimpered with pain as the horse stumbled on a rock, and finally Maedhros slowed the pace. "I will find help for you soon," he whispered softly to Maglor, glancing once again at his brother's side. The pale blue tunic was slowly turning red-brown as the bloodstain spread.
His answer was just another unintelligible expression of pain and Maedhros sighed, unsure if Maglor had understood or even heard. The sword-wound was deep, that much he did know; Maglor's skin had taken on a worrying chill and was almost grey from blood-loss. But he still lived, and Maedhros clung to that small comfort. After all, none of the others did, not any more.
He could not even bring himself to shed tears of grief at the deaths of Amrod and Amras; in fact, he privately envied them. Death freed them from the Oath, freed them from the curse. They, unlike him, could start over, perhaps.
He, on the other hand, was left with little more than the clothes he wore, and the wounded - he did not dare to class Maglor's condition as "dying" - Elf in his arms. Had he even some bandages, or gut for stitches, he could have helped Maglor more; as it was, the wound was bound with nothing more than strips from Maedhros' overtunic.
A few miles further on the grassland became forest, the trees broad, squat and knobbly from hundreds of years of coppicing and forestry. Maglor stirred slightly, his parched, faint voice requesting water. There had to be a spring somewhere near here, Maedhros thought to himself, reining the horse in by the side of the track and dismounting with great care for his brother's comfort.
Indeed, after closing his eyes for a few moments and listening hard, he thought he could hear a quiet trickling sound, smell damp earth nearby. Working more from instinct than a sense of direction, he crossed the dry ditch beside the lane and carried Maglor into the forest.
It was not heavily overgrown; aside from a few fronds of bracken catching lightly on his arms, there was little to impede his progress. But as the trickling noise became more audible, he made a most intriguing observation: all around, tied to branches of the trees, were strips of old, dirty cloth. Some were ragged, as if they had been there for years, others merely bedraggled as if from a few weeks' weather. He barely had time to wonder about this local oddity, intent on watching his brother, but nonetheless some part of his mind recognised that it was unusual.
The spring was clear and the water tasted sweet to him. Leaning Maglor against his chest, Maedhros scooped water in his hand for his brother to sip. Maglor drank greedily, in spite of his weakness, his eyes seeming to focus again as Maedhros splashed more water over his face. He was too tired to thank his brother verbally, but his eyes showed his gratitude well enough, and Maedhros pressed a light kiss to his hair. "Rest now, pitya," he said softly.
As Maglor allowed himself to relax and half doze, Maedhros turned his attention to the injuries. They did not seem to be infected - at least, not yet - but he washed them again anyway and rinsed out the bandages, wringing as much water as he could from the fabric. Still, it was far from dry as he started to rebind his brother's abdomen. At least the bleeding mostly seemed to have stopped.
He talked quietly to his brother as he worked, seeing that his voice seemed to make Maglor's expression less pained. He stopped to stroke the clammy hair. "We can stay here for a while," he assured his younger brother. "This place feels…safe, somehow."
"It is not often I see other Edhil in these parts," said a soft voice behind him. It was polite and cool, distinctly feminine and bore the inflections of a well-educated Sinda of Gondolin. Maedhros was unsure whether to feel relief or dread at her presence; if she guessed what they had done, she would not think kindly of them.
He turned slightly, looking over his shoulder at her and letting the hood of his cape fall slightly further forward to hide the brightness of his reddish-brown hair. She would have little love for him from the moment she realised she dealt with sons of Fëanor, and his priority at present was to obtain as much help as possible for his brother. "My brother was hurt in a fight. He was thirsty and I stopped here to let him drink." He kept his inflection neutral, betraying nothing of his thoughts, intentions or origins.
"You came from the Sack of Sirion?" she asked flatly.
"How… You have heard of it so soon?" Maedhros cursed himself for his uncertain answer. Did she know that they had been the perpetrators of that crime?
"Messengers reached here earlier today. Some carried children, orphans of the attack." Her voice wavered, the slightest note of grief creeping in, and she bowed her head. "So, you were there?"
Maedhros nodded noncommittally, not really meeting her eyes.
"How bad was it?"
Maedhros had no need to lie. "It was one of the most terrible things I have ever seen," he said. "I will never forget the horror." Some of the cries of pain and anguish were still echoing in his ears; images of children fleeing, parents desperately defending them to the last, still floated before his eyes. Maedhros hated the Elf that he had been for those few hours, hated him and wished him dead; and could not ignore the fact that the Elf was him.
"Those bandages are too wet," she stated, as if she had not heard his reply. "The wounds will fester. Can you carry him?"
Maedhros nodded. "Thank you, my lady. Let me fetch our horse, though?"
She sighed, as if resenting the extra time it would take, but allowed him to carry Maglor back to the lane and took the horse's bridle herself, realising that Maedhros would not easily be able to manage his injured brother and a war-horse. "My house is just a little way from here. Try not to scare the boys; they have seen enough already."
"You have children, then?" Maedhros asked, a little wistfully. He had sometimes wished for a family himself, but love seemed to evade him…and the Middle-earth he and his family had created was not a place he would think to bring children into anyway.
"No." Her voice was flat, toneless. "The messenger brought them to me; I was their father's nurse once, long ago. Their parents are both gone now, and someone had to take them in."
Another stab of pain shot through Maedhros. He bit his lip and said nothing, merely following the elleth as she led them through some thinner trees to a well-built stone cottage.
He was initially surprised to see the two small boys, not running round shouting and playing as children of that age might be expected to, but sitting together, huddled in front of the fire and holding hands. He could not see their faces; they sat with their backs to him and were wrapped in a blanket as well, but a few locks of black hair were visible where the blanket had slipped from the smaller boy's head. Maedhros wondered what they had seen of the slaughter, whether they had witnessed the death of their parents. The elleth knelt in front of them, giving them both a brief, gentle embrace and speaking a few soft words to them both before pointing Maedhros to a door opening off the living room. "Put him in there. He needs to rest first and foremost."
Maedhros took his brother into the cosy bedroom, which did not at present have a lit fire, and laid him on the bed. Maglor's response was another moan of pain, but his expression relaxed as his body became aware of the comfortable surface beneath him. Maedhros stroked his cheek lightly. "Safe now, pitya…"
The elleth appeared in the doorway. "Let me help you clean his injuries properly and bind them in dry bandages…" It was clear that this was an instruction rather than an offer; she was working before Maedhros even had a chance to thank her. He stood back and watched as she took care of the wounds, trying to stay out of the way. She worked quickly, her manner calm but efficient.
"Thank you," he said finally when she turned from the bed. "Is there anything I can do to repay your kindness?"
She looked him up and down. "Do not scare the children, and do not tell them who you are," was her neutral reply.
"Who I am? You mean…you know?"
She reached out and ran a finger down a lock of his hair that had escaped from the hood of his cloak. "'Russandol', they call you, do they not?" she said. "Not many can boast that colour hair, or that way of speaking. Yes, I know, Son of Fëanor."
Maedhros nodded slowly. "Yet still you helped us?" He found it impossible to reconcile the concept: his brother's life had just quite possibly been saved by an elleth who had known those Elves whom he had just slaughtered.
"It is the Valar's job to judge, not mine," she replied. Her voice was soft, polite without being either friendly or hostile. "I am not a Kinslayer; I would not stand by and let an Edhel die when I could have saved him by my intervention."
Though her tone did not change, Maedhros read it as an accusation. He knew what he was, and he still could hardly believe anyone would still show such a kindness to his family. Even Findekáno, his dearest friend, had looked at him with the pain of betrayal on that final occasion that they had glimpsed one another across the battlefield. He could not think of the words to express his thoughts; of all the Elves, he was the least deserving of favours. In the end, he could only offer his word on her request. "I will offer you my promise that not only will I do all I can to avoid upsetting the children, for as long as I stay here I will protect and defend all three of you. Believe me when I say I wish to be able to offer safety rather than death for once."
She looked almost amused. "Always swords," she remarked.
Maedhros sighed, slightly ashamed. "You are right - in these times, warriors are all too liable to forget that not all problems are best dealt with by waving weapons around. Perhaps I would do better to offer my help at weeding the herb garden?"
"That would probably prove helpful," she answered, seeming to soften just a little, "assuming you can tell the weeds from the seedlings." She started back to the living room.
"I can learn," Maedhros assured her. "My lady," he added, causing her to halt and look back at him. "I would like to have a name…so that I might remember this favour."
"Meleth," she replied.
Maedhros thought it was probably apt, even from the little he had seen from her so far. He looked at her properly; she was neither plain nor breathtakingly beautiful, but her eyes were dark and warm, and she carried herself with a quiet dignity and grace.
"The children," she added, "are Elrond and Elros. I suppose you might recognise their names. Your brother captured them, I am told. The messenger who brought them to me took a great risk when he managed to rescue them."
Maedhros had not been told of this and he bowed his head, ashamed. "Had I known, I would have ordered them free. Bad enough that we forced their mother to leap from the clifftop, that their grandfather and little uncles…" He broke off, realising that he could list family member after family member who had been slaughtered by him and his brothers. "Were they hurt?" His voice sounded suddenly small.
"Only shaken. But they are still confused and upset. Everything familiar to them is gone now and they feel…lost. Alone."
"May I see them?"
"If you think you are capable of doing so without frightening them."
Maedhros knelt in front of the boys, eyes scanning their faces. He was not sure what he searched for, but he saw traces of his cousin Turukáno in their faces, the tiniest hint of their mutual ancestor Finwë, and just as clearly, hints of Elu Thingol and Lúthien. They stared back at him, bemused and wary. Each squeezed the other's hand so tightly that the small fingers were turning white. Did they know him? Or were they just fearful that his appearance would represent another move, another round of being ripped from somewhere safe and taken into the unknown? "My name is Russandol," he told them gently, though his voice, hoarse from tiredness, sounded rough to his own ears. "I hope that with time, maybe we can become some kind of friends…"
The smaller of the two boys, presumably the younger twin, gave Maedhros the tiniest smile at that. "Are you Lady Meleth's husband?"
"Now, Elrond, what did I tell you? I am just Meleth - I am not an important Lady like some of your ancestors." Meleth smiled at him and brought over glasses of milk for both children.
"You wear nice dresses like Ladies do." Elrond looked back at Maedhros. "Are you, then?"
Maedhros shook his head with a smile. "No, little one. I am not her husband. My brother and I are just visiting for a while. He is hurt and needs somewhere to stay while he gets better."
"This is a good place to get better," the elder of the boys, Elros, stated. "The water makes people better."
Maedhros glanced over at Meleth in confusion, wondering if this was some fabrication of the youngster's frightened mind, but she nodded agreement. "Uinen's influence in the waters of the spring is strong. Many Men and more than a few Elves come here, seeking healing."
"Is that why my brother started to look stronger after he drank?" He considered this, and wondered if more of the water could be brought to speed Macalaurë's recovery. He wondered also whether Uinen would still care to lend her aid if she knew whom she was helping.
Meleth nodded once more. "See how he is overnight. He may well be significantly better by morning. Do you intend to join us for a meal?"
"The cloths… Yes, that is an interesting curiosity. I was intrigued when I first came here, also." Meleth proved to be an engaging conversationalist, though she remained a cool aloofness when speaking to Maedhros that utterly dissipated when she addressed the young boys. Elros and Elrond were quiet children - unsurprising really, with their experiences - and well behaved, eating neatly and not hesitating to assist Meleth with clearing away the dirty plates after the meal. They remained close to each other, each seemingly relying on his brother for comfort more than on their foster-mother. Maedhros tried hard to win at least a wary trust from them, with, he liked to think, the tiniest success. At least, he *thought* it was a small smile that Elrond gave him when he thanked the boy for taking his dinnerplate away. Meleth was now putting on tea for all four of them, settling a full kettle of water over the fire. "It was a custom started by Men, as you might have guessed. When someone is ill or injured, they take a piece of clothing from the person and tie it to a tree close to the spring. It is believed that as the piece of cloth rots away, the cleansing waters will carry away the sickness and pain with it. Even now, the Men hold to this belief, as you must have seen."
Maedhros pondered this. "Does it seem to work for them?"
"The power of belief is very strong," Meleth replied neutrally. "But I, personally, think that there is more to it than that. Perhaps the Lady Uinen carries away the sickness in the water. Perhaps the Valar simply seek to reward the dedication of the Men." She shrugged. "When they leave the tokens by the spring, their sick do seem to improve."
"How long does it take? Hours? Weeks?"
"It depends," she said. "Sometimes the person is looking better as their relatives return from the spring. Other times they must wait for slow weeks."
Maedhros nodded and thanked her as she brought over hot tea. Sipping it slowly, he savoured the delicate herbal taste; it was a far cry from the dark, bitter infusions made by soldiers in army camps. The water Meleth used for cooking and washing, she had told him, was not from the spring but from a well behind her house. Naturally, this was far quicker, and it seemed discourteous in her opinion to waste water that held such importance to the local Men on mundane tasks such as washing mud from hands.
The both glanced towards the bedroom in which Maglor rested at the sound of a soft whimper. "He wakes…" Maedhros started, but Meleth was already halfway there. The boys watched them quietly; curled up together on the rocking chair, where they were taking it in turns to read in soft voices from a large book.
Maedhros followed her into the bedroom, bringing with him a candle to add to the light already provided by the oil-lamp Meleth had just lit. "He will be thirsty," Maedhros mused and dashed back for a cup of water. Maglor did indeed drink greedily as Meleth's slender yet capable hands supported his dark head. His face was now, at least, warm to the touch, and the wounds had not started bleeding again. "Brother? Maglor?"
Maglor's dark eyes opened and focused on him; they showed pain and exhaustion, but were alert. "How do you feel?" Maedhros asked. His voice was soft, tender but tense with concern.
"Bad," Maglor replied with difficulty. He had to pause even after that one word. "But better."
"Rest more, then," Maedhros told him. He laid a kiss on Maglor's cheek and smoothed back the dark hair. "We are in a safe place for now."
Meleth watched them quietly for a while before she turned and left, leaving Maedhros alone with his brother. Once more, he wondered how Meleth was able to bring herself to offer them safety and shelter after all the crimes they had committed. Perhaps she had sent a message to the few survivors of Sirion, informing them that the Kinslayers were here. Perhaps this was all a trap…
Perhaps they both deserved to fall right into it. He decided that if this was to be the end of their accursed lives, he would rather stay here for his brother's sake and let Maglor rest in comfort for another few days, rather than take to the road once more only to be caught by Elves wanting blood vengeance in no time at all.
Meleth had offered him a bedroll in the living room, but Maedhros instead chose to sleep in a chair in the bedroom with Maglor, in case his brother's condition worsened during the night. And indeed, Maglor developed a raging fever by midnight, his skin pale, clammy and shaking with ague.
Maedhros gripped his brother's hand hard, to comfort himself as much to reassure Maglor, and moistened the parched lips with water every hour or so through the night. Sleep would have evaded him anyway, so he did not resent the chore. He awkwardly changed the bandages on his brother's wounds several times, checking that they had not started bleeding again and looked clean, at least as far as he could tell by lamplight.
Dawn finally came, flooding the room with a wan, grey light that made Maglor's sunken features stand out alarmingly. The normally expressive eyes were underlined with dark smudges now. Maedhros kissed the burning cheek. "I will see what can be done to help," he murmured.
He hoped there was something in the beliefs of the Men after all. He hated seeing his brother suffer like this…and Maglor was the last. If he lost his brother now, it would be only him left. He looked at Maglor's clothes. What could he take? It had to rot, Meleth said, so the leather gauntlets would not be ideal. And he would rather not leave Maglor half-naked in the condition he was in, especially as there was a cold, dismal fog around this morning.
"A strip of cloth will do," Meleth informed him from the doorway. "Take the hem of his leggings."
"You are awake early," Maedhros commented, though immediately took his belt-knife and began to cut the tough fabric. It was rather fiddly with only one hand, especially as he was taking pains not to catch his brother's skin accidentally, but the blade was sharp and he had soon removed a generous strip of cloth.
"I thought you would probably want tea, and suspected you might appreciate a break from caring for your brother for an hour or two. The boys will sleep until midmorning so if you rest now, I can take over."
"Thank you," Maedhros said as he removed the scrap of linen and folded it, tucking it into his belt. "But before I can rest, I want to take this…his condition worries me, I admit."
Meleth nodded neutrally, her expression betraying nothing of her thoughts about the unconscious son of Fëanor. Maedhros inclined his head politely as he left, making his way quickly back to the spring. His height made it easy to find an empty branch and he knotted the rag into place without too much difficulty. He had also brought a jug to fill with water from the spring; surely it could not hurt Maglor, and it seemed to help the last time. It was odd; his heart felt a little lighter as he walked back to the cottage, as if the trip had really done something. /Wishful thinking,/ he told himself. /It cannot take effect that quickly./
Indeed, Maglor's condition was unchanged as Maedhros re-entered the house. Meleth took the jug from him, pouring water into an earthenware cup for the next time Maglor woke. "Now sleep," she told Maedhros in a no-nonsense manner. "You do your brother no good killing yourself with exhaustion and worry." Maedhros opened his mouth to speak, but she cut off his words before they even formed. "If anything changes I will wake you. Now either sit in that chair or let me arrange a bedroll on the floor." Her tone implied she would accept no argument, so Maedhros flopped defeatedly into the chair.
Sleep claimed him as soon as he allowed himself to relax - he had not realised how tired he was, or paid much attention to his own wounds which, although superficial, were still uncomfortable.
When he woke, Maglor was awake, albeit weak and clearly in pain. Maedhros smiled at him, and received a slow, faint smile in return. "Can I get you anything?" he offered.
Maglor shook his head stiffly. "But you can tell me…who is the elleth?"
"That is Meleth," Maedhros explained quietly. "She let me take you to her house while you recover. She has a good heart…and from what she tells me, she was once a nurse to Turukáno's grandson."
"We nearly killed Eärendil's wife," Maglor replied flatly. "We would have killed her, had she not leaped."
"I know," Maedhros said with a resigned sigh. "But there is a chance to at least undo some of that. Eärendil and Elwing's twin boys are here."
"Here? In this house?" Maedhros nodded. "They are our responsibility, then. We took all they had…we should provide for them now. We owe them that much at least!" Maglor's voice gathered strength as he spoke, his face gaining a little more colour. Ever since Doriath, they had both struggled with their consciences. The Oath bound them to do things they despised. Maedhros bore it, as one might bear a weeping sore, but he knew for his gentle, thoughtful brother the pain sometimes gnawed at him unbearably. It was no real surprise that Maglor would jump on a chance to make some small amends for their deeds.
"I will speak to Meleth about it. She seems to be coping well with them."
Maglor gave his brother a slightly enigmatic smile before closing his eyes tiredly. "She sounds like a capable lady." His face was growing a little tense from pain again.
"She is," Maedhros replied. He stroked Maglor's cheek lightly, deciding his brother had probably had enough chatter for a few hours. "And kinder than we deserve." He tugged the blankets more closedly around his brother and ordered him to rest, blowing out the candle by the bed to emphasise his point.
Maglor slept a lot more that day, but it was peaceful sleep now, and when he woke again around dinnertime he seemed far more comfortable. Maedhros brought him a little of the stew Meleth had made, which his brother consumed hungrily. "My compliments to our lady cook." He fluttered his long and far from unattractive eyelashes and Maedhros glowered in mock outrage.
"You were barely alive yesterday, and already you are trying to woo our kind hostess!"
Meleth peeped round the door at them. "What is all this about wooing me?" She had gradually started to warm towards Maedhros over the last day, the conversation consisting of fewer veiled accusations and subsequently flowing more naturally between them. There had even been odd jokes, and the occasional laugh that the boys had shared. They seemed like bright children, Maedhros had concluded - despite all they had been through, they were starting to bounce back. Earlier, Meleth had persuaded them to sit on the grass in front of the house and take advantage of the pleasant afternoon, and it had looked as if they enjoyed themselves at least a little.
Maglor pushed himself up a bit more into a half-sitting position, and smiled. "I just asked my dear brother to pass on my praise for your excellent cooking."
His reply was an amused smile and an eyeroll. "Why, thank you," Meleth said. "Can I fetch you anything else?"
Maglor winked, a little playfully. "I do not suppose you have desserts here?"
"How do you do that?"
"Make friends with everyone so quickly?"
Maglor shrugged and smiled at the two youngsters sitting on the chair by his bed. "I was bored; they were bored. Elros peeped in to see me and I asked him to read his book to me." He looked amazingly cheerful and even the boys seemed less quiet today. Maedhros shook his head and came into the room, smiling at Elrond and Elros.
The boys cautiously returned the smile and Maedhros idly ruffled Elrond's hair; Elrond scowled slightly and went back to his book.
"Have you any idea how annoying that is?" Maglor asked his brother.
"How annoying what is?"
By way of answer, Maglor lifted his arm - slowly and if his facial expression gave any clues, with more than a little discomfort - and patted Maedhros on the head, ruffling the mahogany braids and utterly ruining his normally prim appearance. "There, you see. You used to do that to me all the time and it was awful. Did you never notice me glowering at you?"
"No…" Maedhros started, attempting to smooth his hair down.
Maglor snorted, amused. "No wonder these two seemed unimpressed with you." He shook his head and the boys leaned close to each other and shared a small giggle. "Apparently you do not meet the exacting standards they have set for any future husband of Meleth."
"I am not going to marry Mel…!" He started to retort, but just then a scrunched-up handkerchief sailed through the air and collided with his head. "Which of you threw that?" More surprised than angry, he looked at the two youngsters, who looked back with defiantly innocent expressions. His gaze moved to Maglor, who winked and flexed his fingers.
Maedhros gave a long-suffering sigh, seeing all three of them were now looking at him in mild amusement. "Boys…" He decided now was a wonderful time to see if Meleth needed any help with the house.
"Meleth, please could I talk to you for a while?" After three more days, Maglor was making a wonderful recovery - today he had even asked to be allowed to sit in a chair by the window for a while. Maedhros indulged his brother, and the boys came to visit, telling Maglor about the things they found outside and persuading him to sing nursery rhymes to them as they snuggled up with him as if he was their new naneth. Maglor's voice was hardly its usual quality after his recent ordeal, but he was more than happy to oblige.
Meleth nodded and indicated for Maedhros to seat himself before the fire as she brought tea. Meleth, he decided, did make exceptionally good tea. "I wondered… After my brothers' men captured Elrond and Elros, how did you know that I would not try to take them prisoner again when you led me to your house? It would seem an unusual risk to take, considering my reputation."
Meleth smiled thoughtfully. "A good question. I listened to my gut feelings. And I saw how much you cared for your brother. Perhaps I am a fool at heart…"
"Perhaps you still have faith in your people."
"Is that wise, though? What if you had turned around and run off with them? What if you still do so?"
"Do you think I will?" Maedhros tilted his head and looked at her.
"Then I suppose the faith paid off."
Meleth seemed to consider this, sipping her tea. "Only if, when you both leave, you take a little shred of mercy with you. I would like to believe you can manage that much."
"So would I," Maedhros agreed quietly. He watched the flames for a few more minutes before adding, "That was why I wanted to ask about the boys."
"What about them?"
Maedhros sighed. "I feel I owe them something, after all we took from them. If it is easier for you, my brother and I have discussed this, and we would…be prepared to take them in ourselves."
Meleth looked incredulous. "Do you really think your army camps and draughty castles would be better for the boys than keeping them here?"
It gave Maedhros pause. "Well…I just was not sure if it would be too much bother for you. I mean, I assume you chose to live in such a quiet place for a reason. I would like to offer some kind of support…"
Meleth glanced around the comfortable little room, her expression neutral and hiding whatever thoughts might have been passing behind her eyes. Then she drained her teacup and set it down. "Let me consider your offer. We can discuss it more in the morning?" She rose, smoothing the skirts of her plain dress.
"Of course," Maedhros replied. "Goodnight, Meleth."
"Goodnight…Russandol." Maedhros gave her a slightly surprised smile at her use of the nickname, and was even more taken aback when she squeezed his shoulder before leaving.
The following morning, Maedhros and Meleth spent a long time in quiet conference, leaving Maglor to entertain the children. The soft singing was a constant, unobtrusive background sound as they talked, reminding them that they were not entirely alone, but providing reassurance that the boys were unlikely to overhear the conversation. It seemed best to leave talking to the boys about their possible future until *after* some sort of plans had been agreed upon.
"So you are saying that if the boys went with you, they would have a fairly permanent home in your keep, yes?" Meleth sounded relieved. "It would not be a case of moving from camp to camp and growing up with soldiers as their only companions?"
Maedhros nodded. "I cannot predict the future, of course. But my intention would be for them to come back to the fortress my brother and I hold. There are very few children there, I admit, but there are some. And there will always be plentiful food and good healers just minutes away."
Meleth swallowed and glanced around the room. It was a generously sized cottage, comfortable and not at all claustrophobic, yet cosy and welcoming. "It would still be a very different life to this one. Dark, lonely halls… And I suppose they would not be allowed to run and play outside when they felt like it?"
"Oh, I would not be so sure of that." Maedhros gave a crooked grin. "They are boys…I seem to remember being one once, as well. Something could be arranged, I am sure. They deserve to have space to run and play - and later, I suppose, learn swordplay and riding."
Meleth nodded, then seemed to make a decision. "What would you say if I suggested that they went with you…but only if I came too, as their nurse and companion? They know me, and trust me - and I am sure you and your brother will not always have time to be parents as well as lords and warriors."
"You would live in the house of the Kinslayers?"
"I would live in the house of the sons of Elwing and Eärendil, and even if that house also contained Kinslayers, I would accept it if it was also the safest place for them to be. In this case, they have nothing you would wish to kill for, I suspect, and nor do I. You have offered them safety and security, which they need. I can offer them time. And love."
Maedhros smiled, slowly, warmly and genuinely. "I think…I think that would be wonderful, for all of us." He realised after speaking that he might have sounded rather keener about the proposition than would be strictly warranted just by the concept of knowing the boys would be well cared for. He also realised Meleth had picked up on this and had given him an odd look. "I mean…I have come to enjoy your company in these last days," he tried.
Meleth smiled softly and shook her head in apparent amusement before going outside for some water from the well.
Maglor swatted his brother. "You old…soft…kitten!" He was chuckling fondly. "I remember a few years ago, when *someone* told me he would never fall victim to those kind of feelings."
"Makalaurë, I am not in love."
"I know," Maglor replied, sobering a little. "But you like her."
"I do like her. She is…"
"Well, yes," Maedhros replied, a little defensively. "I was going to say that she is a reminder to me that not all Elves are without faith, hope or conscience."
Maglor rolled his eyes. "You are turning romantic as well as soft, brother!" But his voice was kind and he squeezed Maedhros' hand as he spoke. "You know, you should talk to her…"
"She would roll her eyes at me and tell me not to be absurd."
Maglor rolled his eyes. "Do not be ridiculous. She is growing fond of you too." He grinned. "And before you ask me how I know this - I just know. After all, she stops telling me off for at least half a minute each time I mention your name."
They both looked up at the sound of a soft shuffle of small feet at the doorway and bit back sighs. Two pairs of dark eyes, two or three feet above the floor, peeped around the doorframe.
"Hello there, little ones," Maglor greeted them. "Does Meleth want my brother to go and help with dinner?" He grinned at his elder brother; Maedhros had been suspicious for some time now that Maglor was thoroughly enjoying taking advantage of his infirmity in order to receive as much pampering as possible.
Elros nodded quietly. "She says it is a special dinner tonight."
"Because of the full moon, you know," Elrond continued. "She says you can help too. Someone needs to fold the napkins." He pointed at Maglor.
Maglor's grin faded a little bit, realising that he was not going to get waited on hand and foot any more. "Well…I suppose I could." Regaining his dignity, he told them more firmly, "Please tell the lady that I would be delighted to help out."
Maedhros smiled and followed the little ones out, returning a moment later with a pile of five elegant - but unfolded - linen serviettes. "Have fun, Káno!"
With a considerable amount of help from his brother, Maglor was able to make it out of the bed to join the others at the table. Though neither Fëanorian was entirely sure why the full moon warranted celebration, such occasions were rare enough in their lives these days that they made sure to enjoy themselves. The boys were laughing more freely now, and willingly sang along with Maglor's ditties. Though Meleth - or occasionally now Maedhros - had to sit up at night to soothe their nightmares, it seemed that they were healing with that enviable resilience of the very young.
Maedhros spent the first couple of minutes of the meal watching Meleth as discreetly as possible, trying to see if there was any truth in Maglor's claimed, but was forced to look less distracted when Maglor gave him a playful swat. "I am meant to be the daydreamer, not you!" he laughed. Instead, he asked Meleth to tell them of Gondolin before the fall; the legends surrounding the city had always fascinated Maedhros, and the splendour she described in such vivid detail made him long all the more keenly for the Valinor he had once left behind without a second thought. Elrond and Elros, too, seemed enthralled; their father had been around their age when he had left Gondolin, and so they were clearly trying to imagine how it must have been, growing up in such a place. Maglor listened as well, but Maedhros realised rather soon that his poor brother was rapidly tiring, which was confirmed when Maglor almost nodded off in his apple and barley pudding.
"We had better put him back to bed," Meleth observed, eyes twinkling with amusement as Maglor replied with a sleepy grunt. She started to help the Fëanorian to his feet, but Maedhros intervened, sliding an arm around his brother.
"Let me, Meleth," he said. "You have already worked yourself half to death this evening. I can manage one sleepy baby brother without a problem." She started to argue, but it was clear that she appreciated the offer and it was only a token protest; she did look grateful as she sat back down and allowed Maedhros to half-steer, half-carry his brother back to bed.
"You are starting to sound like her husband," Maglor muttered as he lay back.
"You are almost asleep," Maedhros said wryly, "so I will pretend you did not say that."
When he got back into the living room, Meleth had already sent the boys off to bed as well. She was holding a bottle in one hand. "I did not want to get this out while the children and our invalid were looking on, but you are welcome to a glass if you wish."
"What is it?" Maedhros asked. He had never developed a palate for some of the unusually-flavoured liqueurs favoured by some Men.
"Wine - fortified." She poured a glass; it was a deep golden-amber colour, and the scent was rich and slightly oaky. Maedhros nodded, accepting the glass as Meleth poured a second for herself. He sipped; he was impressed.
The following hour passed quickly and pleasantly, Meleth relaxing more and talking easily on all kinds of subjects. Despite Maedhros' assumptions to the contrary, their political views were not entirely at odds and he already knew that they shared a love of old poetry. But all too soon, Meleth was standing and yawning, confessing she was ready to head to bed now. "Sleep well," he wished her courteously, standing and crossing to her chair.
"Thank you," she replied with a smile. "You too."
He kissed her cheek - chastely, but with real affection. She paused and raised a slender eyebrow. Then she smiled again and did the same to him. "Goodnight, Russandol."
"Only a few more steps!" Elrond called encouragingly.
"Only a few?" Maglor replied sceptically. "I would have sworn there was half of the Great Lands between me and that chair!" His voice was rather rough with strain and he leaned heavily on his brother's hand - the only support he was now offered - but he was essentially making his slow, careful way across the living room all by himself. Meleth waited by the inviting armchair, holding a small bowl of pudding as an added incentive.
The twins both giggled at Maglor's complaints but kept calling encouragement until the Fëanorian was finally able to flop into the chair, panting slightly. The boys clambered straight into his lap, both wearing smug grins as if the achievement had been all their doing.
"Elros, Elrond, please do not jump on him like…" Meleth and Maedhros both started to say at the same time. They were cut off by an amused glance from Maglor, and his insistence that it was quite fine and the boys were no trouble. Of course, this only made the boys' smiles larger.
Maglor was looking around; he had seen the room only once before, when he came out for dinner a few days ago, but had been mostly concerned then with pretending to be considerably stronger than he was at the time. Now, he took in the decor and furniture, and clicked his tongue slightly at the sight of the empty terracotta vase sitting upon the mantelpiece. The bridge of his nose wrinkled slightly in the tiniest of frowns, and he cast Maedhros a conspicuous look.
Maedhros knew better than to argue with that particular look; he simply excused himself politely and left the house for a few minutes.
When he returned, he held a posy of small, pink corncockles. The flowers, he had noticed many times before, grew in abundance across Meleth's herb garden, and she seemed disinclined to weed them out. He approached her as she was pouring the tea - Maglor nodding approval all the while - and cleared his throat quietly. "Meleth?"
She turned, her gaze moving down to the flowers he was holding, and slowly, she smiled. "Thank you," she said simply, and took them from him. "I always thought they were pretty." She lifted the vase from the mantelpiece and started to fill it from the pail in the corner. Maedhros followed automatically, in case she needed an additional hand for anything but, as usual, she was finished before he had even reached her, setting the vase back above the fire with a contented little smile.
Maedhros glanced at the sweet little display - she had arranged them far better than he would have. Then, on a whim, he carefully lifted one of the flowers from the posy, shaking it dry again. "What are you doing?" Meleth asked. Maedhros smiled and tucked the little flower under one of her neat braids.
His reward was an almost girlish blush - and Maglor looked more smug than ever.
Maedhros slid another box from under the bed. "Taking these or leaving them?" The box contained mostly old clothes, winter cloaks and blankets, but also a few ornaments and personal trinkets.
"Let me have a look?" Meleth crossed the room from where she was sorting through miscellaneous pots and pans, checking which of them were worth bringing when they embarked upon the long journey to Maedhros' keep in a few days' time. She inspected them and lifted out a few of the blankets. "They are not too worn," she remarked as she shook them out. "If nothing else, we can take them for the journey and discard them once we are there." The other items warranted more careful inspection. Meleth eyed them longingly, but both of them were well aware of the rapidly growing pile of necessary supplies, which left little room in the rather ramshackle cart they had purchased for any items of luxury. "Some of these could be sold," she admitted, her voice rather wistful.
"Keep the ones that mean most to you," Maedhros advised quietly. "There will be space for them, and we do not need extra money that much."
Meleth nodded and sat down on the edge of her bed, looking at them. "They are the only things I was able to save from Gondolin. Some of them belonged to Eärendil; I had been intending to give them to the boys when they are older."
Maedhros seated himself beside her, wrapping an arm around her instinctively. "Put them to one side, and we will see if we can fit them in once everything else is packed. They are not terribly large or heavy, so I am sure we can find space."
"If we cannot, I am sure I can find somewhere to store them for safekeeping, so the boys can come here one day and retrieve them." She looked at him firmly. "I know what you are thinking, and you will not sacrifice one of your own blankets to make room. I am not *that* sentimental." Nonetheless, she leaned into the embrace slightly.
"I do not think many of us can afford to be terribly sentimental these days," he replied. Few Elves in Middle-earth had not known the heartache of having to leave one's home and often also family, leaving behind familiarity and comfort for one reason or another. "But there is room still for memories."
"Of which not all will be bad." Meleth said, looking up at him and giving him a nostalgic smile.
Her eyes really were very lovely… He stroked the hair back from her face; it was a little dusty, since she had been poking through old boxes and wardrobes for the last few hours. She reciprocated; he was rather grateful, as it had been falling in his eyes for a few minutes now. The smile on her lips became intrigued. "Your hair is not just plain red," she commented. "It has paler strands…and dark brown."
"It was that colour since the day I was born. My mother claimed it was because I had traits from all sides of the family."
Meleth's smile widened and she flicked a bit. "…and a cobweb."
"I was certainly not born with the cobweb, I can assure you…"
"I should hope not." Her voice was lighter now, teasing and warm. Maedhros gave in to temptation then and leaned down, kissing her gently on the lips.
She made a soft, surprised noise initially, but then relaxed in the embrace, parting her lips and continuing to finger his hair. As he pulled her closer, making it into a proper kiss without any objections on her part, she shifted slightly so she was perched on his lap.
That was the scene that greeted Maglor when he peeked round the door to ask about a book he had found. He shuffled quickly away to make sure the boys were suitably busy.
Maedhros, utterly oblivious, broke the kiss slowly and reluctantly, then rested his head on top of Meleth's.
A few days passed and Maglor's injuries improved steadily. The boys, too, were better, suffering from fewer nightmares and behaving - or misbehaving - as one might expect of youngsters their age. Maedhros and Meleth both agreed that now would be a good time to leave for the keep, with the possessions organised and everyone now in a state to travel.
Maedhros' war-horse did not seem impressed when they harnessed him to the wagon; clearly, the animal considered such menial tasks below his dignity. Nonetheless, it was far easier than attempting to purchase a couple of oxen or a donkey, and Maedhros assured the horse that his pride would recover from this injustice.
They sat Maglor on the seat at the front of the wagon, and Elrond and Elros would take turns either to sit beside him or ride the horse. They wrestled on the grass in front of the house to see who would get to ride first; Elros won and so let Meleth help him on to the horse's back. "You are sure this horse is sensible?" she asked Maedhros firmly.
"I would not have bought him if he was highly strung, I can assure you," he replied. Indeed, the horse tolerated the young boy's restlessness well, ignoring Elros' flapping feet and waving hands. "Still, little one, I would suggest not winding him up; it is good manners, if nothing else." Elros quietened, and Maedhros smiled to show he was not angry.
"Where are those trinkets?" Maedhros asked as Meleth came out of the house with a few final bags of possessions. The wagon was loaded precariously high, and the axle creaked a little, but so far everything had fitted in.
"On the bed," she replied. "I was leaving them until last."
He walked back with her after helping her load the bags; as they stepped inside, he slid a discreet arm around her waist, liking the way she moved closer automatically as he did so. After that kiss a few days before there had been little of note between them - one slightly over-familiar goodnight kiss and a few embraces, but nit much else. Still, it was a rare enough experience for them both, and it was slowly rekindling a warmth inside Maedhros that he thought had fallen forever cold a long time ago.
The keepsakes, each wrapped individually in a soft rag, stood on the abandoned table by the bedroom window. Meleth picked up several, looking relieved as she realised they would certainly be able to find space for them somewhere. "The house sounds different now it is empty," she remarked. "Hollow. Hopefully someone else will stumble upon it and make a home for themselves here."
"That would be a good ending," Maedhros agreed. He brushed his lips over her cheek as he bent to pick up the remaining items, and then smiled when Meleth turned her head to make it a proper kiss.
There was a squeak from outside and Maglor's lower voice asking Elrond please not to poke his brother with that twig. Meleth rolled her eyes and broke away from the kiss with a sigh. "They are impatient and we are not really being productive."
Maedhros reluctantly agreed that no amount of kissing would bring them closer to his keep and followed her out. Meleth took her time shutting the front door and bidding farewell to the neatly kept garden and all the rest of this little haven of warmth. He had to admit, he would miss it too. For a little while, it had been as if the Oath no longer bound them, and he had felt lighter as a consequence. Now, he supposed, it was time to return to reality.
The keep looked rather foreboding from the outside, tall and dull, built from grey stone that withstood all the elements but never managed to look cheerful. The boys' faces fell at the sight - Maedhros supposed they had been hoping for something grander, like the magnificent city of Gondolin that Meleth loved to describe in fireside tales. "It is safe, and inside it is warm and comfortable," he repeated to them. "I think you will like it once you get in."
Meleth looked unconvinced as well, but he was fairly sure it would grow on her. He had spent enough time on the journey working out exactly what rooms he would assign to her and the twins, and even what furniture would be moved in for them. After she left her home and everything familiar to her, he wanted to make sure she did not regret the decision. Also, as Maglor reminded him on a near-daily basis, he did like her.
All of them were weary and footsore, but even the boys had never complained. Maglor was already growing as proud of them as if he were their father, and Maedhros admitted he was becoming attached too. He supposed that in some ways they had become a peculiar little family. He drew a small amount of comfort from the knowledge that at least this time, these young twins were saved and would now be cared for.
The wagon rolled under the heavy portcullis; the boys stared up at the wicked spikes, hanging at present thirty feet or so above their heads. Meleth turned as a pan rolled off the wagon, disturbed by the rattling of the wheels over cobbles, and dashed back to retrieve it and set it back on top. Maedhros had been rather surprised that the wagon's axle had survived the long journey, but amazingly everything still seemed to be in working order. The war-horse had even seemed to have grown used to his new role as a beast of burden, though now, back amongst sounds and smells he remembered from before the attack on Sirion, he pricked up his ears and stamped at the ground as the wagon came to a stop.
Meleth helped the children down as Maedhros offered a hand to his brother. Maglor walked a little stiffly still, but otherwise no one would have guessed he had been hurt, and he smiled brightly at one of their captains, who instantly approached them with greetings, news and anxious questions. More than a few speculative glances were thrown towards the elleth who travelled with them, and the boys drew some raised eyebrows also, especially those well-informed enough to deduce who they were.
Maedhros instructed some servants to prepare the room he had mentally reserved for his new family days before, giving them very specific orders on what standard of comfort he expected. He introduced Meleth to a few of his aides, whom she greeted with the same rather distant courtesy she had paid to him when they first met. Maglor, meanwhile, had bent down beside the boys and was pointing out whose rooms lay behind all the windows they could see from the courtyard, and they seemed to be showing an interest at least. "That is the library there," he explained, indicating a row of windows to the north edge of the courtyard.
"That one?" Elros asked, pointing at the central window.
"Yes, and the ones to either side. That whole floor is the library, little one."
"How many books have you got?" Elros asked, incredulous. "There must be hundreds!"
"A few thousand, I think," Maglor informed him with a smile. "If you want, we can go and look at it later."
"Later? Why not now?" Elrond's voice was a rather petulant whine. Maedhros could not help but smile in relief to himself as he overheard; as annoying as it was, at least it meant that Elrond was recovering and acting like a typical child.
"Yes," Elros agreed, his tone identical. "Why not now?"
Maedhros looked down at the boys and chuckled. "If you wait just a few moments while we get your rooms and possessions taken care of, I am sure my brother or I will be able to give you a tour. Perhaps you would also like to see the stables? If you wait quietly for a minute or two, I will take you there as well."
The boys fell silent, the cherubic smiles appearing on their faces so endearing that a couple of scullery maids who were crossing the courtyard stopped to point and coo.
Several young aides came out to greet Maglor and Maedhros as well, faces bright with relief. There had been rumours that the brothers had escaped the battlefield alive, but very little proof, and the keep had been struggling recently, with some people insisting that neither Elf would return. Consequently, more faces were appearing at windows with each passing moment and the sense of tense waiting that had filled the air when they arrived was now starting to dissipate into a kind of forced hope. Real hope, of course, had died long before, but everyone clung to the illusion that somehow, in a few months or years, everything would work out well.
One of the cooks, still wearing his flour-dusted apron, bustled out with a plateful of hot pasties and sweetmeats, offering them to the new arrivals. "Just one?" he remarked in amazement as the boys hesitantly took a single pasty each. "Take three. You have come a long way and you need to keep your energy up if you wish to keep growing!"
Elrond's smile was shy but mischievous, and he duly chose two of the biggest pieces he could find. The cook's approving nod was all the reassurance Maedhros needed that those two youngsters were going to fit right in here.
"Will this do for you? I thought you would like somewhere private for when you want a few minutes away from the boys."
"Thank you," Meleth replied gratefully, walking a slow circle of the generous, comfortable room. "It is perfect." She looked back at him with a dryly amused expression. "When I first saw your keep on the horizon, I admit I expected it to be little more than bare stone walls and crude furniture inside. It is surprisingly nice to be proven wrong."
"We all like to sleep with warm toes at night," Maedhros said. More true, of course, for the Elves who had been forced to make the long trek across Helcaraxë - another guilty weight on his conscience - but he was sure it applied just as equally to any Elf.
"We do," she agreed. "Which is why I am wondering how you managed to think of everything else, but forgot to leave me a bed warmer." Her tone was neutral, making it impossible to tell whether she was serious or teasing. Maedhros scanned the room, expecting to see such a copper pan hanging beside the fire, then sighed.
"I am sorry. I will have one brought immediately. To think I would overlook something so obvious…"
"As long as the boys have one, it is fine," she assured him, her smile returning. "Tonight, I am sure alternative arrangements can be made…"
She trailed off, as Maedhros felt himself almost but not quite blushing. Had he interpreted that correctly? Her smile did not waver and she shot him a mildly amused look. "Unless you are worried about your brother's teasing?" she asked pleasantly.
"I think I will survive it," Maedhros replied, double checking that the bedroom door was indeed both shut and locked.
"You are a resilient Elf," Meleth said sincerely. She came over and slid her arms around his waist, looking up at him with an expectant expression. Taking the hint, he pulled her into a gentle but deep kiss, fingers burying themselves in her hair.
He was not altogether sure how they ended up at the bed, her curled up on his lap, him with his arms around her, kisses moving down now over her neck. He tugged slightly at the collar of her dress, and then paused with a soft sigh. "How does this come off?" he asked, confounded and acutely embarrassed about it.
"Do not tell me you have never undressed a lady before?" was her reply. She extricated herself carefully and, turning her back with a coy modesty that she probably would have realised was unnecessary, had she considered it, began to unfasten the simple dress. It was only a matter of a few hooks and buttons; as a plain dress suited to travel, it was not even intended for wear with a corset. Still, to Maedhros it looked endlessly complicated. Had she been wearing armour, of course, he could have had her out of it in a moment…
He chewed his lip slightly as he watched her undress, then softly admitted, "I have not."
She turned back to him, dress hanging off her shoulders. "Oh…I had assumed…"
"That this old warrior has tumbled his share of ladies?" He shook his head. "Not this one. He has been too busy - and no one ever asked." He could not help but sound a little regretful.
Meleth rolled her eyes. "Perhaps you should work on your seduction skills, rather than blushing whenever a woman gives you a hint and then rueing your lack of success with her. You might find your luck improves." Smiling, she gave him another kiss, coy and a little playful, and let him slide the dress the rest of the way off her.
Her body was warm and smooth against his, her legs tangling round his as they touched and pleasured each other. Her lips closed around the tip of his ear, tongue caressing it teasingly; he found himself purring and whimpering helplessly. It did not take long for them to finish each other; he spilled over her hand at the same time as she let out a low, sweet cry and pulled his body hard against hers.
It felt wonderful, lying there against the soft sheets with her head resting on his chest. He lifted his hand and ran it through her hair, which was slightly damp and still delightfully soft. Meleth was tracing one lazy finger in a circle round his nipple and he laughed sleepily. "Am I doing an adequate job of warming your bed?"
"Mmm," was Meleth's less-than-coherent reply. "Bed-warmers do not cuddle so well. Can I keep you instead?"
Maedhros pondered this and decided that the idea was, overall, rather appealing.