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Beta: Innocencest

Chapter 3

Weary from the journey already, the Noldor turned up the river, starting to head inland. Fėanįro spoke to them every morning at dawn, as they stumbled from tents that had been hastily erected the previous evening, rousing their spirits with hopeful, moving words that appealed to the deep-seated pride of their people. Then, before the evening meal, he often addressed them again, and so they always found the energy for another day's travel.

Lake Mithrim, as the natives of the land called it, seemed like a sanctuary for them at last. The pristine waters sat calmly under the stars and Macalaurė found himself wondering if the scene he beheld on their arrival was so very dissimilar to that which met their ancestors at Cuiviénen. He wrote a song about it as the others buzzed around him setting up a more permanent camp for the evening; in his imagination, the busy Elves all faded away, leaving only the silence of a dark lake as the Unbegotten first looked around them and beheld their new existence. He could not help but smile with pride as he imagined all the challenges they must have faced to create their nations of descendants. To start with nothing, and create the works of beauty and majesty that marked out the Eldar… Precious few of the Unbegotten still lived among the Eldar of Aman - many had retired to their own secluded places long ago, finding the chaos of modern existence all to overwhelming. Macalaurė had never thought to ask any of them what they thought of the achievements of their children. He wondered if any of them understood what the Silmarilli meant to his father, or whether they had come to regard them with scorn as had so many others.

So intense was Macalaurė's preoccupied with his composition and the idle wanderings of his mind that they were already in the midst of the first attack before he even noticed the change in the activity around him from mere purposefulness to frenzied panic.

There were many battles after that. Looking back, they seemed to last barely an eyeblink in Macalaurė's memory, but at the time they seemed never-ending. Morgoth's forces ambushed them in hordes, armies of soot and ash-coloured figures screaming curses of death as they ran out of the twilight towards them. They spilled into the camp, slashing through the canvas of tents and rousing sleeping Elves to a scene of terror, havoc and confusion.

Macalaurė's main recollections from that time were of his father, gleaming in new, highly polished armour that covered his tall, powerful form from head to foot. An Elf of metal and light, he seemed to be the only one among them to know no fear. That frightened Macalaurė even more, however. It was then that he finally found himself forced to accept that his father's mind now dwelled upon only one thought: the Silmarilli. Already, he seemed to have half-forgotten about his youngest son; whilst Macalaurė and Maitimo spent many a painful evening trying to bring comfort to the surviving twin - though Ambarussa was mostly too lost in grief to even acknowledge their presence - Fėanįro more often sat in his tent making battle plans or compiling annals and records of all that he saw here in the Hither Lands, from culture and languages to botany and geology.

The brothers managed to stay with their father and his retainers for the first few attacks as they pressed forward, winning victories over Morgoth's armies that would have been glorious had the Elves at the end of each day still found the energy to celebrate. Each time a new attack forced them to move once again, they would re-pitch what was left of the tents a little further into the wild lands of Beleriand, take a head count and an inventory, and then sit down to discuss whether their ever diminishing stock of supplies would support another confrontation on the morrow. In spite of the high morale of the host and their excellent run of luck, Maitimo grew more restless by the day; he knew they had no experience with war or strategy and maintained that in the long-term they had little chance of emerging from this with anything resembling an overall victory. He became sullen and withdrawn, as if he viewed this knowledge as some kind of personal failing on his part, despite Macalaurė's insistence that they were making progress, doing all they could, and no-one could ask for more from any of them.

On the ninth evening since the fighting began, when it was growing colder and the trees' leaves lay crisp and brown over the ground all around, Macalaurė picked up his little snail shell flute in the bag of soft black velvet he had made to protect it, and left the tent he shared with his brother. Maitimo was sleeping, mahogany hair tumbling off the pillow and nearly trailing on the ground beneath his cot, unbraided locks swaying in the cold draught that always seemed to blow at floor level, resulting in permanently cold feet for any whose boots had been damaged in one skirmish or another.

Fėanįro, on the other hand, was still very much awake, even though midnight had long since passed - Finwė's eldest had never been one to sleep excessively and these days Macalaurė could not recall his father ever retiring to bed. He was still wearing half his armour, but his plumed helm sat beside him on the makeshift desk where he was frantically writing out passages in the strange tongue spoken by those few Elves they had met here. Smiling, Macalaurė crossed to peer over his father's shoulder, as he had occasionally done since early childhood. Almost without thinking, he began to mentally sound out the syllables as they were written in Fėanįro's flowing Tengwar. "This speech lends itself to music," he murmured, notes already materialising in his head as the pace of his reading fell into a natural musical rhythm.

Fėanįro started and looked over his shoulder, eyes flashing with irritation before they softened again. He was not known for his patience, but when it came to his sons he could always find some, and most especially with Macalaurė. They both still remembered a time when ten year old Macalaurė had walked in on Fėanįro reprimanding an apprentice rather harshly - the boy had run out, hands pressed to his ears, and had been openly afraid of his father for days afterwards. From then on, Fėanįro had been purposely quieter with his second son, rebuking gently if at all and preferring to leave Macalaurė to consider the consequences of his actions himself. It seemed to work, as Macalaurė had never been a rebellious child and his usual misdemeanours had stemmed from lack of thought rather than intentional malice.

"Yes," Fėanįro said now, smiling strangely. "You will have to compose something in this tongue sometime. Both our people and theirs would be entranced."

Macalaurė hummed a tune as he continued to read his father's writing, guessing at the meaning of the phrases from those words whose forms resembled those he knew and finding that the melody simply fitted itself to the mood without effort. Fėanįro listened, eyes almost seeming to glow in the dingy light thrown by a smoky oil lamp and a few candles - he was no more immune to the effects of his son's songs than any other. As Macalaurė trailed off he nodded, seemingly satisfied. "With you as my son, I know we will never be forgotten," he declared, his voice soft but determined. "All this-" his gesture took in the whole camp, all the Elves who had sailed across the Great Sea "-it should be remembered. The promises and loyalty, the determination and strength…"

Macalaurė bit his tongue, not daring to remind his father in this strange, quiet mood that the burning of the ships was about the most disloyal act he had ever seen. "For a people who 'do not die', we are so fragile - but in the songs we live forever, all of us…" He stood now. Though most thought of Fėanįro as towering, almost a giant in stature, in truth he matched his second son in height perfectly, and Maitimo stood several inches above them both. "You should make a song about the Silmarilli too, a glorious one…"

Macalaurė felt himself wince at those words. He had tried already, wanting more than anything to please his father and make him proud, as he sat for those long hours beside his brother on the ship. But the words that came to him were words of hatred and foreboding, even before the ships had burned, and the only tunes were those of mourning and misery. The sheet of parchment lay abandoned now between the leaves of one of his father's books, only a tiny sketch of Maitimo at rest bearing any testament to its having been used by anyone.

But he never needed to argue the point with his father; Fėanįro appeared to lose interest in the conversation after that and instead returned to his manuscripts once again, only muttering that if any of them wanted better armour, Macalaurė should look in the chest at the far end of the tent.

Macalaurė did so, and what he found amazed him. The suit was perfectly made, in closely-fitting sections so that it could be worn by any of them - save perhaps slender Ambarussa - without leaving any vulnerable points at joints. Patterns reminiscent of life in Valinor were inlaid into it in gold, and jewels, nowhere near rivalling the splendour of the Silmarilli but far surpassing anything merely hewn from the ground, were set around the edges of the breastplate and helm. The weight felt reassuring in his hands - musician's hands, now hardened and callused from too long wielding swords - but would not be restrictive in battle.

"My final piece," Fėanįro muttered, still writing and not even pausing to look up. "Not yet finished - I never set jewels into the gauntlets. Such a pity. I had hoped to give it to Atar…" He spoke quickly and softly and it reminded Macalaurė startling of himself when he held conversations with his secret friends. "He will not need it now, and nor will I. Kanafinwė, will you take it? One of you will use it, surely?" Fėanįro's hand shook slightly and it dawned on Macalaurė that he was speaking as if he expected never to create another item such as this. Had he foreseen something? "When you take back the Silmarilli," Fėanįro was continuing, "they can be set into the helm. People would behold them and finally understand why they must not be given away. Even the Valar would see it…"

Had Fėanįro spoken the words in another tone, they would have been the words of a madman, frightening in their intensity, but his voice was still calm and steady, even if his hands were not. He spoke as one who was so certain his path was the right one that those around him began to believe too - unless, like Macalaurė, they had seen him like this before, and were accustomed to the impact of Fėanįro's powerful charisma.

Macalaurė sighed, reminded as he met the eyes that were bright with obsession, that despite the sanity of his tone, what Macalaurė thought of as his father was now mostly lost in the smothering lust for the greatest works of his life. But something in Fėanįro's voice also spoke of something more now. He talked as if he expected it to be his sons, and not him, to take back the cursed jewels. "Atar…have you foreseen something? Are you expecting to die soon?" He totally neglected to remember tact; he had never been much of a diplomat when calm and right now, trying to untangle brightly coloured threads of knotted up emotions, it did not even occur to him to try until after the words had already left his mouth.

He expected some kind of fearful response from his father, if he had indeed had some kind of premonition of his own death; or maybe, perhaps, that strange calm that comes upon some when they behold their own doom and know that nothing in all of Arda will change it. Instead Fėanįro's eyes narrowed, looking to Macalaurė like twin thunderstorms at midnight, dark and yet lit with fire like sheet lightning - and Macalaurė recognised barely restrained fury. "Yes," he replied, his voice quiet and simmering, heavy with a note of betrayal. "After all the insults they have yet dealt me, after presuming to take from me all that I value - even my own son - they have to spit in my face once more. The cursed Valar…" Impatiently, he brushed back a few loose locks of hair from his face; it was working its unruly way out of the braids. "I dreamed last night; I rarely dream, and when I do, I seldom if ever remember them, but this one…it was different. Nįmo was calling to me - a single long note, pure and tuneful as your own songs, Macalaurė, and yet it went on - so long and loud, vibrating through my mind and the very fabric of Arda. I thought my skull would crack and shatter with the sound, and wherever I ran, I could not escape it." His voice, perhaps surprisingly, had still not grown loud. Though the words tumbled from his lips and his eyes grew unfocused, his voice maintained the same low volume as before, no more erratic than if he had been telling their mother of a wayward apprentice.

"Atar…" was the only word Macalaurė managed to produce. Impulsively, he wrapped his arms around his father, not caring whether the embrace was returned or not. He simply needed the contact, reassurance that Fėanįro, at least for now, was here and real. He could not imagine the world without his father - the powerful presence seemed to be such an integral part of Arda itself.

The desperation in his second son's actions seemed to strike a chord within Fėanįro and he shivered suddenly. "Macalaurė?" He spoke in barely more than a whisper. Macalaurė nodded. "Go to each of your brothers tonight. Tell them that… Tell them that I love them, and they make me proud. Tell them that they deserved better than this. Tell them that the Silmarilli are theirs now: I gift them to my seve…six sons."

Macalaurė had no desire at all to inherit the Silmarilli - in fact, of all the treasures that could have been left to him, those were the ones he desired the least. But for the sake of family he gave his father a slow nod. "Yes, Atar," he replied. "I love you too."

"I have something else for you…" Fėanįro said after a long pause, as if only just remembering it now. "You, of all of them, are different. I think you will appreciate this better than any of the others…" He led Macalaurė to a rosewood chest and opened it, indicating several rows of identically sized and immaculately bound books. "Lore," he murmured. "Tales… songs…essays - all the knowledge of all the tongues of Arda I have heard is assembled here. Those spoken across the sea by our kin, and those I have heard here, spoken by our dark cousins. There is so much recorded here; and still so much left to add!" Fėanįro's voice had changed again now, warm with the passion he held for all of his greatest creations and, to Macalaurė's sensitive, trained ear, far more like the Fėanįro he knew as his father. This was the Fėanįro who was enthralled by knowledge, not enslaved by lust.

Macalaurė took one of the books and fanned reverently through the pages, skimming notes on grammar and idioms, syntax and vocabulary. He marvelled. Of all the things that were later said about Fėanįro, none could deny that he was brilliant. Macalaurė ran his fingers along the spines of the books, imagining the lore that waited just beneath his fingertips.

"I would love to see these completed," he whispered.

"Then I leave the task to you, Kanafinwė. If you can, see that they get back to Tirion. The scholars there will guard them and use them."

Macalaurė bowed his head solemnly. "You can rely on me, Father." The reality was creeping over him with ever-increasing intensity now: he may be very close to losing his own father. Maitimo would become head of the family and he… He supposed the only outcome would be that he would be party to more killing, watching more blood stain his hands and more deaths fall upon his conscience. He cupped his father's face in his hands, almost as he would do to one of the Ambarussa when they were tiny and he was trying, in his own hesitant manner, to reassure them. "Please, Atar - end this madness now! Let us turn back and let the Valar treat us as they will. I trust them to be more merciful, even now, than the fate awaiting us here."

Fėanįro's eyes flashed with anger at the perceived weakness and disloyalty of his son's plea, but then he calmed - whether through pity, shame, or simple force of habit, Macalaurė never did work out. "No, Kanafinwė," he said simply. "I cannot. The Silmarilli sing to me, a shrill song that haunts every moment of my existence, waking or sleeping; it only eases when I pour all I have into pursuing them. Were I to abandon them now - even if I wished to, and I do not, for they are my beloved creations, just as you and your brothers are - their continuing call would tear my mind apart." He kissed his son's hair, the apparent gentleness of the act belying a tautness that ran through his entire frame. "Will you leave me now, little fey one? It angers me now to be reminded of all that the Valar will be taking from me so soon - as if all that they made is not enough for them, they must now lay claim to what little I made also…" He turned back to his writing, hand shaking; Macalaurė was alarmed to note that he could barely control the pen, the normally graceful letters now a mere scrawl. He could sense the fury and desperation mingling in his father, along with a cold, proud insanity that frightened him more than he ever wished to admit.

"I love you, Atar. I hope one day I will see you happy again," were his softly-spoken words as he left.

Fėanįro cursed to himself and tore up the sheet of vellum on which he was working and then, with a sigh, abandoned his work altogether to step into the sharp chill of the perpetual night. He wept for a long time beneath the stars, telling himself that it was frustration at the knowledge that the jewels would never be truly reclaimed, that he would die with their call still filling his head. Yet Macalaurė saw his father and wondered instead if Fėanįro was finally beginning to see the dreadful consequences of his rebellion.

***

After that the world ended, or so, at least, it appeared to Macalaurė. He had never led a company himself before, but in the frantic hurry to get Elves into their armour and out to fight, those who were high-ranking and already prepared for battled were all pressed into command positions. He and Maitimo were wearing their full armour as the horns signifying that they were under attack rang out; it had been an uncomfortable night, sleeping in as much metal as they could tolerate and hurriedly donning the rest upon hearing the first sounds of a new day - or whatever the unending cycle here of fighting, then sleeping, waking and fighting some more, all in perpetual twilight, might be termed.

Maitimo wore the magnificent suit that Fėanįro had left to them the previous evening; servants had brought it over as Macalaurė and Maitimo curled up in their tent to sleep and Macalaurė had insisted that it would look far better on his older brother. Indeed, Maitimo's dark red hair lay in thick curls over the damasked shoulders and he seemed as pillar of flame, imposing and perhaps invincible.

Elves were running to and fro as they emerged from the tent to try to restore order, everyone desperately trying to locate the rest of their respective companies as the Orcs closed in around the camp. The attack had come hours earlier than the scouts had anticipated and the Noldor's lack of fighting experience was truly beginning to show.

Fėanįro's powerful voice bellowed over the commotion of highly-strung, frightened Elves, calling his sons to him and handing out tasks to each. And so Macalaurė found himself suddenly in command of a whole unit of soldiers, surrounded by ferocious-looking Orcs and fighting for his own life and those of his Elves.

Flashes of amber-red across the darkened field, the weak illumination of dying campfires, indicated that Maitimo was in much the same situation with his own company, but Macalaurė had no chance to glimpse more than that. Fėanįro's war cries, rousing and rallying the troops, seemed to be growing quieter as the battled raged on, drowned by screams of rabid Orcs. But the chaos of battle sent Macalaurė's consciousness into such a swirl of confusion that he could not be sure of anything. The secret friends screamed in his head, horrified and thrown into chaos, before retreating and leaving his mind eerily silent, with the company only of his own turbulent thoughts and reactions. It should have made it easier to focus but, if anything, the emptiness was more distracting as it seemed to make the sounds, sights and scents of death resonate all the more.

The fight continued, the Orc host appearing impossibly large; Macalaurė stumbled over the bleeding bodies of former comrades as well as dying Orcs. Each swing of his sword sent a new throbbing pain through his aching shoulders and his palms were raw from gripping the sword hilt. Still the Orcs came, pushing and squabbling amongst themselves to reach the front of the line. They almost seemed to slaver with the thought of tasting blood and death.

As Macalaurė's mind succumbed to the numbness of exhaustion, new realisations came to him through the red-tinged fog that surrounded his awareness. He hesitated suddenly as the next Orc fell upon him; he recognised some of the features in the hideous face with shocking and stomach-churning familiarity. The proud, straight back; the slightly pointed ears; the thick, dark hair hanging to the creature's waist. Twisted beyond all immediate resemblance to the Quendi, these beings were kin nonetheless. He and his opponent both could trace their lineage to those naļve, ancient Unbegotten Firstborn who once woke under the stars at Cuiviénen. "I am sorry, cousin…" he rasped as he slew his attacker, genuine remorse making his sword-arm fall heavily at his side.

"Fall back!" he cried then, unable to bear any more of today. "Fall back!" Calling his company into retreat, it emerged, was probably the only reason any of them survived, and even then barely a fifth of his company regrouped and fled the battleground. His decision had come too late; perhaps the truest evidence of Fėanįro's insanity, that he would try to make a military commander of his second son, the Fey One. Fėanįro's cries could not even be heard now; his reckless charge, the berserker assault of one who saw his death and no longer feared it, had carried him far from his sons and his people with but a small band of followers.

***

Macalaurė gathered the exhausted and mostly injured troops around him and demanded to know who was still fit to fight, sending all others back to the makeshift sanctuary that had been formed from the remnants of several devastated companies and the wounded. The others, he stared at helplessly. "I just want my father safe," he admitted, unable to meet their eyes. "Is anyone still with me?" He expected them to turn their backs on him, betrayed too many times - he was neither a leader nor a warrior. But the Elves' eyes, still bright with the light of the dead Trees, held loyalty and trust. He was unsure if it was for him or Fėanįro, but as they drew their swords and pledged their support - a truly noble act, not the sickening mockery Macalaurė and his brothers had played out before their father in Tirion so long ago - he knew they would follow him and join their father's forces, even if their only repayment would be death.

Fėanįro had covered an enormous amount of ground with his fearless company; their trail took no tracker to pick it up, as it was marked on both sides by an avenue of Orc corpses. The secret friends slowly returned as Macalaurė and his men marched, joining in Macalaurė's latest reflections those distant cousins of his whom he had just slaughtered in their hundreds. Reaching out with a grimy hand, he picked the stalk of an elder bush that overhung their frightful path. He dropped one of the tiny, delicate white flowers on to each broken body as he passed them. The act itself was ludicrous, his younger brothers would have told him with fond mocking in their voices, but he wanted to show that someone recognised what they had once been.

Arms snaked around him from behind and a tender kiss was pressed to his temple. "Yours is the only conscience among us," Maitimo's voice said over his shoulder. "They are monsters, but still you care."

"They were just like us, once…" Macalaurė replied quietly, resuming his fast march with the troops as soon as his brother's arms released him.

"Once. But they forfeited their rights to mercy when they turned from the Valar," Maitimo said bitterly. "Just as we did."

"We had a choice," Macalaurė said, his voice calm and sad. "They were forced." He could not prove this, but in his heart he knew it.

The sounds of battle came to them a couple of miles later in their heavy advance. Fėanįro could be picked out instantly - right at the centre of the mźlée, voice carrying through the racket. He was almost surrounded, blood soaking into his long hair, face a dreadful mask from the grime and gore smeared across it. Had anyone seen him for the first time now, although he remained undoubtedly a leader, at the head of each charge and always bellowing commands to his ragged, struggling troops, an onlooker might start to wonder from where all the legends stemmed. Tattered, bloodied and occasionally trembling with manic laughter, he appeared less a High King of the Noldor and more a madman, his bright, burning eyes the only part of him not coated in layers of dark filth.

The brothers called to their troops, readying them for a charge, and plunged into the valley to cut a path towards Fėanįro, but their arrival came too late: the most hideous creatures of Morgoth that they had ever seen were advancing upon the eldest son of Finwė. Great hulking monsters wreathed in flame and darkness, their eyes burned as only those of the Ainur can; they were Morgoth's own corrupted Maia, his lieutenants, the Balrogs.

Fėanįro had until then seemed almost oblivious to his peril; it had appeared, even when he was fighting alongside just a handful of troops, that he had believed victory could still be won. But now, as he turned to meet the true might of Angband, the expression in his eyes changed. Macalaurė recognised that change instantly; he knew. Fėanįro knew too; he had realised as he looked upon the greatest of the Balrogs, larger than any of its companions, that he was staring at the one who would bring his death. Yet no fear shone in his eyes.

"May the Valar have mercy on him, for all his crimes," Macalaurė heard one of the soldiers murmur as the Balrog raised its arm, brandishing a flaming whip that seemed to be tens of feet long.

Maitimo let out a low, grim curse. "The Valar forsook us long ago - they will not aid us now." They were only a few seconds' advance away from clashing with the enemy, but Maitimo let his eyes fall closed. It made little difference now; the appearance of the Balrogs had caused an almost complete lull in the battle, Elves and Orcs alike turning towards the centre of the battleground with expectant expressions. Only a few scuffles remained; all others were intent on the final duel of Fėanįro and the Balrog whose name, Macalaurė was to find out in later months, was Gothmog. Two beings with spirits of fire, locked in a fight to the death.

"No," countered the soldier. "May they have mercy on him in Mandos."

The whip fell, leaving the very air, it seemed, scorched with the heat. Macalaurė flinched, his vision monetarily blacking out. When it cleared, his eyes anxiously searched the scene for his father's body.

Fėanįro had somehow leapt clear in time, and was now attacking the Balrog with a fury that seemed unquenchable. Despite the futility of the duel, he did not intend to make the victory an easy one.

Maitimo let out a battle cry, more a roar than a true shout, and threw himself through the dumbstruck audience of Elves and Orcs towards the two combatants. Macalaurė, too, felt flickers of the same fire that drove his father kindling deep within his own heart. Drawing his sword, he echoed the shout and called to his brothers and the remaining Elven warriors to charge with him, one last time.

***

The field was dark, a mess of churned mud, sticky blood and dead or dying Elves and Orcs. The survivors of both armies had abandoned the field hours ago to lick their wounds - and mourn their losses.

Macalaurė crouched in a tent lit by the feeble light of a dying oil lamp, several hours' march away, and held his father's hand tightly. It was feverishly hot, despite the enormous blood loss Fėanįro had sustained. Quietly, he sang a lullaby to his father, a sweet, simple song he had learned almost before he could talk. His normally resonant, strong voice was edged with a rough hoarseness from exhaustion and grief; his father still breathed, but the healers had been helpless to control the bleeding from his wounds. What kept him alive now was only stubbornness and, if the wild brightness lighting his eyes was any indication, insanity.

As the last note died in Macalaurė's throat, he turned his head and pressed a kiss to the back of his father's hand. Fėanįro's hands were larger, stronger and rougher than his, but the same supple, tapered fingers that made Macalaurė a great musician were those that had made Fėanįro a great artisan. At the kiss, they tightened on his, warm and stronger than his condition should ever have permitted.

Fėanįro's eyes blinked slowly and came to focus on a point far beyond the confines of the crude, dingy tent. "Atar?" Macalaurė tried, unsure if his father was conscious, or lucid enough to respond even if he was. Nearly an hour ago, it had been Fėanįro's command that had caused their company to halt and acknowledge that their leader's loss was truly drawing imminent. He had still been defiant then, proud and unafraid.

His father frowned darkly, as if in response to something, but for a long moment, he gave no other response. He coughed, blood flecking his lips, and then took a deep, shaking breath. His voice began as a rasp as he spoke, but gathered strength with each word until it seemed to have every bit as much power as Macalaurė had always been accustomed to. "Take me outside, my little fey one," he instructed. "And bring your brothers here. I want to speak with them."

Numbly, Macalaurė made the necessary arrangements, speaking soft words to nearby soldiers. Fėanįro paled slightly with pain as his stretcher was jostled on the way out of the tent, but never did he complain about the agony of his wounds, which must have been unbearable. Macalaurė himself was in a significant amount of discomfort from his own wounds, and none of them had been regarded by the healers as serious.

The six of them clustered around Fėanįro as his bright eyes fastened on Thangorodrim. They burned with hatred and defiance - even though Nįmo was calling to his fėa right then, he would not let this be a victory to Morgoth. Once more, he coughed up frothy blood, but his voice did not shake or waver at all as he shouted his last words to Morgoth.

Three times, Fėanįro's final curse upon the name of Morgoth echoed across that valley. His six remaining sons looked on with grave, resolute faces. They all knew then that their quest was futile. But the Oath could not be broken; they were bound to seek the Silmarilli for as long as they were still alive to do so, even though they strove without hope of ever winning them.

Fėanįro gaze moved from one son to the next, eyes alighting on each. He spoke each name proudly and hopefully, expression softening from its previous rage as he dwelt for a moment on the achievements of each of the handsome young Elves around him. But his last command struck dread into Macalaurė's heart, even though he had known that it would come. "It is now your duty, your destiny, to carry the Oath to fulfilment," he beseeched them, his rich voice unwavering. "Now I can no longer march with you, you must find it within yourselves to finish this task. Take back the jewels; and avenge me!"

The final syllables seemed to carry all the way over the camps of Fėanįro's armies, but they were followed by a silence that Macalaurė thought must have been as complete as that which prevailed before the first songs of the Ainur. Fėanįro was too proud for any humble death-rattle or even a sigh as his fėa abandoned his broken body. He passed silently, with clenched fists, but as the last traces of colour left his beautiful, twisted face and the last breath of air left his lips, he did not merely fall back on the stretcher.

Macalaurė and his brothers would never have a body to bury, a physical token of their dear, lost father to grieve and weep over. For with death, the fire in Fėanįro's spirit was no longer restrained in any way, even by the shackles of the hröa, and it flickered into its full glory. Macalaurė agreed with his secret friends, that he would have liked to say his final memory of his father, before the fire ate him from within, was of the most beautiful face on Arda, lying finally content and at peace; but Fėanįro died just as he had lived, defiant, proud and wild. His skin seemed to glow with inner light, a rich golden-red like winter firelight, before turning uniformly smooth and black, then whitish-grey.

A bitter breeze had been blowing along this valley since they had first entered it, and without effort it picked up the soft dust that had once been the greatest of the Noldor, swirling the ashes through the air in spirals that even now seemed to glisten with the faintest remnants of firelight, lifting them higher, spreading them out, until eventually none of the six sons could still pick out any traces of them.

Macalaurė looked down at the stretcher, running his hand over it incredulously.

"He is gone, Macalaurė," Maitimo whispered tenderly.

"I know," was all Macalaurė had to say. He kissed the palm of his hand, laying it over where Fėanįro had lain. He laughed coldly, ironically, earning himself furious glares from his brothers. He and the friends considered how to put his feelings into words, finally finding ones that fitted the sentiment. "How high we have risen," he spat in disgust, by way of explanation. "How low we have fallen."

***

"Brother, it is a trap! And besides, Atar left us only an hour ago and they know it! Will Morgoth spare us no time for grief?!" Macalaurė's voice was raw and strained, rising in pitch and volume as he spoke. After everything that had already come to pass that day, leaving his head aching and his thoughts in a tumbled turmoil that even the friends refused to touch, the arrival of Morgoth's emissary, begging for parley, had left him trembling, agitated and clinging to Maitimo. "Brother, please do not go!"

Maitimo's hands ran over his hair, strong and soothing. "Shhh, Macalaurė. Please, do not fret. I will come back, I promise you. But the emissary must be answered."

Macalaurė did not loosen his grip on his brother's clothes, his face still insistently buried in Maitimo's dirty, matted hair. "They are claiming we defeated them!" he mumbled anxiously. "You know as well as I do that we did not have any kind of victory on that field. It was slaughter, on both sides!"

Gentle hands disengaged his desperate, clutching fingers from the rough fabric, the collar of Maitimo's shirt where it protruded above the brilliant armour. Maitimo tilted his brother's face to look at him properly. "Macalaurė, I would never lie to you, you know that?" At the trusting nod he received in reply, he went on, "I know it is a trap. Morgoth's ambassador will not come alone. Which is why I will not either. I am going to pick the best of the warriors we have left and we will take the ambassador and his escort by surprise. It will not be Morgoth's downfall, but it should give him something to think about."

Maitimo spoke with a quiet confidence that inspired the beginnings of the same in Macalaurė. He considered volunteering to come too - he was not badly injured, and he felt a responsibility for his brother, especially with their father dead. His secret friends, however, declared that this was a foolish idea, reminding him of how panicked recent weeks had made him, how much the battles had worn at his heart and soul. He would be little help in a clash, he was forced to admit, and Maitimo would only worry about him. Instead, he simply placed the flat of his palm against his elder brother's cheek, sighing sadly as he saw the heaviness and hurt in Maitimo's face. "You are in charge of all of us now," he remarked softly. It was a strange thought, but in Macalaurė's mind, Maitimo was the best leader of all of them.

Maitimo nodded. "I am in charge of leading the five remaining people I treasure the most in this world, on a quest I despise - a quest which will claim all our lives, eventually." He spoke with painful certainty, but neutrally, laying down the facts. "I suppose that I must simply do the best I can for all of you, try to keep you from harm…" He kissed his brother chastely and lovingly on the lips.

In response, Macalaurė's fingers tangled themselves in the red-brown hair once again. "We will look after each other," he promised. "Light will come to these lands again, and spring too, and we will walk among the flowers once more, and I will sing to you." It was a small hope and seemed to Macalaurė to be an impossibly distant one, but it allowed him to find a little, shaky smile. "You must promise me three times to come back…"

Maitimo was smiling too now. It was a smile that was touched with grief and fear, but it reached his beautiful eyes and softened a few of the lines on his face. "As long as you walk on Arda, my dear little fey one, the light of the Trees will not be entirely lost or forgotten." He kissed his brother's eyes, each in turn, accompanied each time by a murmured, "I promise." Then he returned to Macalaurė's mouth, tilting his head and parting his lips with the tenderest affection as he bestowed the kiss. "I promise, Macalaurė. I will return."