Under the Curse: 9. The Quick and the Dead

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9. The Quick and the Dead


The Houses of the Dead were grey with mist and stark with silence. It seemed to Fingon that the mist and the silence were one, and all about him. He floated in them as in a sea of sorrow. Thus he remained, pervaded by mourning and regret, until a presence made itself felt, huge, towering endlessly over him, dropping away beneath him like a bottomless pit, stretching out all about him like a vast, boundless plain. Mandos, house and dweller alike.

He knelt and looked up, or whatever it was disembodied spirits without knees and a face did to subject themselves to judgement. To his fëa, it did feel like kneeling and facing. And naked he felt, too, as if he was being tried before a huge, hungry mob, stripped to the skin, with nothing to hide his shame, his marring, his pain and his fear.

Perhaps he was. What if those he had killed and led into disaster and sent into a bloody and disastrous war were watching him now, reduced to his bare essence?

Whatever that was.

'How do you plead?' asked Námo the Judge, voiceless, faceless, bodiless: why wear a fana to speak with the dead? It did in no way diminish his presence, daunting, forbidding, far greater than Fingon remembered from the halcyon days of Valinor - unless it was he who had shrunk. He realised he could not remember the Mandos who trod the pathways of the Blessed Realm in the body of a Firstborn. This was the Mandos of the Doom of the Noldor, the Power that his mind used to cringe from in Beleriand, whenever he remembered his red hands. The only Power in this place.

'How do you plead?' repeated the Judge.

'Guilty,' Fingon answered. It was strange to speak without a voice, to sound without reverberating. It felt wrong. He hated it already.

'Guilty of what?'

'Kinslaying.'

'Why did you do it?'

Fingon thought for a while. 'I did not stop to think,' he answered finally, with an effort. 'I saw my friends under attack and rushed in. I rue the moment I drew my sword. But I truly believed -'

'It is enough if you answer my questions,' the Judge said sternly.

'I bend to you, aire.*'

There was a pause.

'Guilty of what else?' asked Námo.

This was more difficult. Killing Telerin mariners who fought to protect their ships was by far the worst thing he had done in his life, it seemed to him. Of what else was he guilty? Of believing, like most of his kin, that the Noldor were great enough to defeat one of the Powers on their own? Of stubbornly fighting on, wasting countless lives including his own, instead of acknowledging his error and praying for help? There were more ways to kill than by wielding a blade: by leading others into disaster he had slain them just as effectively.

Suddenly, he knew with perfect clarity that all his thoughts were an open book to this stern and inexorable Vala, but that it took a conscious act of will to turn such speculations into confessions that would elicit a response.

So let them be confessions, he decided.

'Then,' the Judge said, having read him, 'I assume you are prepared to ask forgiveness of the fëar of all those you harmed with your sword, your word, your pride, and your call to war? Of the Teleri of Alqualonde, some dwell in my House still. Of the others, many arrived not long before you.'

Fingon was taken aback. 'Ask forgiveness? Of all of them?'

'Of those who are here.'

'How many?'

'Count them as you go, if you must,' was the dispassionate reply.

He realised he had not known what shame and fear was until now. Compared to this, standing naked in the flesh before a leering crowd would be a pleasure.

'But some - or many - may not be willing to forgive me,' he objected.

Justice will not yield. 'If you want their forgiveness, ask them again. And again.'

Fingon balked. This was too much; asking it once ought to be enough. But turning his mind to the Judge he became aware of the emptiness that had replaced the stern and imposing presence confronting him mere moments ago. Námo had withdrawn to where he could not follow, and once more the grey silence enveloped him.

He mourned. He yearned for his body. His memories assailed him and he could not ward them off. But what he remembered was not the blue of the sunlit sky or running rivers, the green of lush meadows or waving forests, the flaming reds of a sunset. What was love in a place like this? What was joy? He remembered dying. Fighting. Killing. He needed to rest, to find peace. So he withdrew into himself.

But he could not rest, and the peace eluded him.



In his mind, a living tapestry was being woven. There was one Telerin mariner he remembered because the sea grey of his tunic matched the sea grey of his eyes. That was before his blade made a red stain on the front of the tunic and the eyes glazed over. Fingon had been better armed, and not a drop of the blood staining his clothes afterwards had been his own. An unfair fight. At the time, he believed that the Teleri were waylaying the Noldor on the behest of the Valar, and that it was his freedom he fought for. Much was allowed in such a battle, he thought and the mariner had not begged for mercy.

Now he knew that Olwë and his people had only defended their most beloved creations, something every Noldo should understand. And the freedom he had longed for proved to be as elusive as his shadow - not even worth his own life, let alone another's.

So, if he were a Telerin mariner, why would he forgive?

Pointless to beg.

I want to be properly punished, he thought. Let Námo pronounce his sentence and be done with it. So many thousands of disembodied years. Dead for the lifetime of Arda and no parole, if that is what it takes.

But then, he wondered what Time meant in these halls and how its passage was measured. Not by the slow wheeling of the stars, nor by the swift waxing and waning of the moon or the vaulting of the sun across the sky. Those were words for nothing in this place beyond all places.

After several long rounds of thought that always ended where they began, Fingon became aware of the presence of another inmate of this prison, another fëa next to his own, or perhaps close would be a better word. Not a Vala but someone his own size - insofar as size mattered in a place as large as Death yet no larger than the room within each lonely soul. And it was a sad presence.

'It grieves me to find you here, too,' the other fea said. 'While we were alive I only wished you well, though at times it must have seemed otherwise. Can you forgive me?'

Recognising him, Fingon was dismayed, feeling that he should have sought Fingolfin out, instead of the other way around. 'But could a son presume to forgive his father?' he asked.

'Why not, if a father can presume to forgive his son?'

It was then, that Fingon allowed the first thought of Maedhros to emerge from the abyss of his despondency. Was it possible? Could they be reconciled over the love his father had abhorred?
There was an indefinite pause. It occurred to him that he was asking for the possibility of unconditional love to exist in Arda Marred.

'I beg your forgiveness,' he whispered finally, 'and you have mine.'


The colour of his father's presence shifted, as when a gust of air causes grey waters to shiver with brilliance. 'O, my son.' Another, gentler ripple. 'Do you know that this is a beginning?'

'Not a very hard one,' Fingon replied.

A movement of assent. 'For me, it is perhaps a little more difficult.'

After a while, Fingon realised what his father maent. 'Your half-brother?'

'Yes, my brother.'

'Did you...' Fingon hesitated. 'Did he...?'

'He begins to listen, I trust.' his father answered.

There was no need for more words. If my father speaks with Curufinwë Fëanaro, I cannot sit here and remain stubbornly silent, Fingolfin's son thought after another, indefinite pause. I must move on.

***

To go on was to inflict his death on others.

The snow around Doriath was trampled by the feet of kinslayers. Much of it was red or pink, as the surviving warriors had used it to clean their bloodstained blades. Everywhere, bodies lay bedded in the snow, attackers and defenders alike. In death, they looked the same. They would. They were all Elves.

Except Dior Eluchil, Maedhros thought with the precision of detachment as he sat on a tree trunk amidst the dead. Dior was but half Elven. His corpse lay inside Menegroth, side by side with those of Celegorm, whom he had killed, and Curufin, who had killed him but not survived his avenging blow for long. Caranthir was also dead. And the Silmaril they had tried to regain had vanished. He knew that the jewel was no longer in Menegroth, though his three remaining brothers still continued their futile search of a thousand lifeless caves.

Or two of the three, for looking up he saw Maglor approach between the black boles of the trees. His eyes were swollen, his face was grimy, like that of a boy who has wiped away his tears with dirty little hands. He halted three yards from his brother. Most people kept their distance nowadays. Maedhros supposed he looked more terrible than ever, probably because he was dead but for the semblance of life suggested by the motions of his hröa.

'They are gone,' said Maglor, shivering despite his cloak.

'They? There was only one Silmaril in Doriath,' Maedhros told him.

'I mean our brothers!' Maglor almost yelled, before adding in a more level tone: 'I gave orders to bury them. We cannot just leave their bodies in Thingol's halls.'

I know what you meant to say, Maedhros thought. But why mourn? At least they will shed no more blood. What does it matter where the body decays, when the soul is doomed to darkness everlasting? There are worse places to rot than in the dwellings of dead kings whose hands touched a Silmaril. But he kept his thoughts to himself.

'Why are you sitting here in your shirt, Russandol?' his brother suddenly asked. 'It is freezing. Surely you must be cold?'**

Maedhros shrugged. 'I could not bear my armour any more. And I do not feel the cold. I could roll naked through the snow, and it would not affect me.'

'Yet you have not used it to wash the blood from your hand.'

'My hand deserves to remain bloody. And you may have washed your hands, but there is still blood on your left cheek and in your hair.'

Maglor scooped up a handful of snow and tried to clean the gore away. 'Is it gone?' he asked when the snow had melted, pink liquid dripping from his chin.

'Some of it,' Maedhros said tiredly. Do not deceive yourself, Maglor. And please, go away.

But Maglor stayed. 'Do you know where Celegorm's servants have taken the boys?' he wanted to know.

'What boys?'

'Dior's sons. I heard they were taken to the woods, but...' Maglor's voice trailed off.

Strangely enough, Maedhros felt something stir then, a faint tingle of his frozen heart that seemed to indicate it was not entirely dead yet. He averted his face.

When they found Celegorm's servants, the rumour turned out to true. The boys had been left in the woods to die from exposure or starvation or worse. By some twisted logic, his underlings seemed to consider this a fitting revenge for the demise of their lord. Maedhros rebuked them, and if his brother had left him in peace, that was all he would have done. But much later that day, on the way home, Maglor asked him if they waged war on children, and how much deeper they could fall. Neither of them knew the answer, but it was Maedhros who slipped away in the dead of night to seek Dior's sons in the depths of the forest.

Threading a path among the black, contorted trees, his feet marring the moonlit snow, he wondered what someone like him would want with a child. Son was a word to be cherished by others; his love had been barren like winter, burning like frost, a scalding blaze that could never warm the heart of a home. Being what he was, he had not regretted it - until the loss of Fingon had robbed him even of that fire.

But now... the flame of a child's spirit was young and strong. If he could save those two, or even one of them, would its heat thaw him up, and would he be able to bear the pain this would bring? Would they, perhaps, remind him of the child he had been once, in a different Age of the world, before the loss of light and innocence, limb and the life of his kin?
He did not know the answers, nor were they hidden in the forest. Footprints he found, but nothing more: emptiness where a living thing had passed, traces of being short-lived as a winter season. When the snows melted, Maedhros ceased his vain search.

To Maglor, he said that the boys must have fallen prey to the stray wolves he had cut down. Sadly, his brother agreed this had to be the case. But Maedhros knew better: there were no wolves left in those dead forests. The only predator for many leagues around was he, more fearsome and ferocious than any wolf. The sons of Dior Eluchil were swallowed by the black pit where his heart had been.

Two more down, he found himself thinking. How many left to go, for the sake of his father's jewels? Did he still want them? He thought not. If he cared about nothing else, why should he still care about the Oath?

And so, he forswore it.

***

The first fëa whose forgiveness he begged was Coiriel's, mostly because he expected it to be easy. To his dismay he found that not every refusal to forgive is born from hatred or caused by a grudge. She told him there was naught to forgive.

Fingon doubted that this would be acceptable, and he renewed his plea, pointing out that he had let her die in vain; she had merely saved him for Gothmog's black axe. But proud as she was of her sacrifice Coiriel would not allow him to diminish it by admitting she had anything to forgive him.

Fingon reported back to the Judge. 'What am I to do if it does not work, aire?'

'Work? What do you mean?' Námo Mandos wanted to know.

'I mean,' Fingon began - and faltered. What did he mean?

'You had better think it over,' the Vala told him.

So Fingon thought, and thought, and at some point he supposed that he had been too impatient to make it work, and that learning to wait was a lesson long overdue. And while he began to exercise patience, another imprisoned fëa sought him out.

'Forgive me for failing you at your last battle, Finno***,' the other said. It was Turgon.

Overcoming his initial shock to find his own brother among the dead, he replied: 'But you did not fail me, Turno***. The battle was lost through no fault of yours.'

'That is not how I see it.'

The mixture of stubbornness and despondency permeating Turgon's presence bothered Fingon so much that he said: 'If it helps you to move on, I will grant you whatever forgiveness you need.'

The response was chilly, or it would have been if Fingon had still been able to feel cold. 'You think I am collecting pardons to be rehoused as soon as possible? You could not be more mistaken!' And Turgon began to recede and turn away.

'Wait!' Fingon said. 'Turno, my brother, there is no way I will grant you a pardon that you do not need. Yet I am willing to acknowledge that you did not do enough. Neither did I. There was no way either of us could have done enough, as the Doom of the Noldor foretold us. Let it not stand between us.'

At that, the cold began to lift, though Turgon spoke no more, and seemed to withdraw into himself. Fingon tried to reach out to him, but his brother slipped from his feeble embrace.

Pensively, Fingon returned to the Judge. 'Work was the wrong word,' he confessed. 'I cannot earn a new body by urging others to forgive me, can I?'

'It appears that you begin to see more clearly,' was the reply. For the first time, the Vala seemed to relent.

'My brother helped me. He is wiser than I am,' Fingon ventured.

'He has different things to learn.'

The tapestry in his mind - if it was in his mind - came alive again. Fingon saw Coiriel leap in to shield him, with purposeful grace. He saw her fall, the knowledge that she had but delayed the inevitable etched on her dying face.

When he returned to her she was surprised, not expecting him back. He told her how right she was: that he felt bound to beg her forgiveness did not mean she owed it to him to honour his plea, for how could she forgive him if she did not blame him? Having been forced to declined her offer of love he could but accept the offering of her death. She was right. Her death was her own.

Coiriel was silent. 'Your humility dwarfs my pride, aranya,' she said at last, sadly.

'Aranya? There are no kings here.' How would a disembodied fëa wear a crown or hold a sceptre? Yet he knew too well that this humility of his was nothing but pride of a high king come down. He knew had a long way to go yet.

***

When it became known that Dior's daughter held the Silmaril at the Mouths of Sirion, Maedhros did not march against her, for had he not forsworn the Oath? So he left his sword in its scabbard. His three remaining brothers did the same, none of them more relieved than Maglor.

But it is impossible to shed your shadow, or to disregard your the past as if it has not shaped you. How had he ever thought he could? If he left Elwing alone, the bloodshed in Doriath would have served no purpose whatsoever. Dior and Nimloth and all those other Doriathrim - pointlessly slaughtered. Their young sons - perished for naught. His brain writhed and twisted to see the logic of abandoning the hunt for the bloody jewel. Vainly. The Oath had destroyed his heart, yet apparently that was not sufficient. Now it attempted to demolish his mind as well. This was what happened when you wanted the impossible: to forswear an oath sworn in the name of Ilúvatar Himself.

There was no appeal.

He saw it in his brothers, too, the twins and even Maglor, who tried so hard to be true to himself. Fëanor's sons were ensnared in their father's fate, as Eluréd and Elurín in Dior's.

There was no escape.

We had better remain consistent, his tormented brain told him. Do we not owe it to our victims to have killed them for a reason?

Elwing also seemed to think there was a reason - or else she would not have jumped into the sea and abandoned her children when the attack came, merely to save the Silmaril. And save it she did; though her sons would have perished if Maglor had not found them and allowed his heart to be touched by their innocence, and the fact that the boys were twins like Amrod and Amras.

Who were slain and doomed to everlasting darkness. As were Celegorm, Caranthir and Curufin.

Though his own chance of getting heirs was forever past, and though he did envy the boys their youth and innocence, Maedhros did not begrudge Maglor his love for these newfound sons. But for the rebellion and flight of the Noldor, his brother would have fathered children of his own on the bride he had reluctantly left behind in Valinor. For a son of Fëanor, he would make a passable father.

After the first confusion following the destruction of the Havens, Maedhros managed to avoid these children worth less than a Silmaril - until one day he went to too seek his brother and found an unknown boy reading one of Maglor's books. When asked, the strange boy refused to give his name. 'Why? You could not keep me and my twin apart anyway,' he said, vainly trying to hide his too obvious unease behind a mask of belligerence.

He guessed it was one of the peredhil. 'I was well able to keep my own twin brothers apart,' Maedhros told him.

'And you sent them to their deaths together,' was the shrill reply, before the peredhel fled his presence.

Maedhros blinked. It was plain that Elwing's son did not only fear him, but despised him as well.
He said as much to Maglor, asking him for curiosity's sake if teaching those children some manners had proved too difficult.

His brother shook his head. 'I never told them to despise you, Russandol. He must have seen that you despise yourself. Do not deny that you do.'

'Do I not have every reason to?' Maedhros asked. 'I am the one who orders the slaughter. The one who leads his brothers to their doom. You think that raising children can make you forget our father's Oath? You still deceive yourself, then. If I tell you to take up your sword and fight again, you will, though you would never do it of your own accord now. That is why I am despicable - and you know it.'

Maglor took a step closer, and another one, until their noses almost touched. 'You are mistaken.'
For a moment, Maedhros thought that his brother was going to kiss him, and he tensed, ready to push him away. But it did not happen.

Turning away to the window Maedhros asked: 'Which twin do you think it was I met?'

A sigh. 'Elrond, most likely, given the fact that you found him with a book. Don't be too angry with him,' Maglor added forlornly.

Maedhros was incapable of anger. Nor could he rejoice like his brother did when, one evening shortly afterwards, the Silmaril appeared in the sky, blazing in all its glory. After all, there were still two Silmarils left on earth, the Oath was unredeemed, and a sense of foreboding told him the jewels were not safe in Morgoth's crown.

***

'Why should I forgive you?' the Telerin fëa asked Fingon. 'You murdered me. You sent me to languish in this place and long for my body for many more years than you have been here. I left a wife behind, and children; parents, sisters, and friends. Even if I could forgive you my suffering, how could I ever forgive you their grief? Do not ask the impossible.'

Fingon, remaining silent, found himself wondering if this was the mariner with the sea green tunic he remembered slaying. It did not seem to matter, nor did one ask a victim about the colour of the clothes he wore when one's blade took his life. Yet something told him that this was the very person he remembered so vividly.

The Telerin's angry misery was oppressive; it seemed to billow about him like a sultry cloud, dark smoke from a smouldering soul. Briefly, Fingon was tempted to ask him why he had not begged for mercy. But the moment passed: no one deserved to be brought in to a situation where they should have to plea for what was rightfully theirs. So he begged him forgiveness, not once, but repeatedly. He would have been prepared to go on doing so, except that it apparently added to the other's anguish. And he ceased. 'You are right. I do not know why you should grant me pardon.'

Again, he returned to the Judge. 'There is one fëa...' He faltered, his carefully wrought arguments forgotten. But Námo Mandos seemed to be waiting patiently, and at last Fingon blurted out his despair. 'I keep begging his forgiveness again and again, but he cannot bear with me, aire. Can I not stop tormenting him? Why do you not release him? What has he done wrong?'

Those last two questions seemed overbold, and Fingon expected a rebuke, but the reply was composed as ever. 'That remains a matter between him and me,' said Námo, 'unless you can find answers of your own and act on them. Find a valid reason why he should forgive you. Such a reason exists.'

'Would it not be selfish to do so?' Fingon objected.

As before, the Vala merely said: 'Think it over.'

So Fingon sat, and thought, and thought, until he was ready to return to the mariner. 'I can give you a reason why you should forgive me,' he told him.

'I do not want to hear it,' the other replied.

'You do. For it is precisely your refusal to forgive me that keeps you here. If you will not do it for my sake, do it for your own.'

'And my family, and my friends? I cannot speak on their behalf.'

'They will accept it,' Fingon said calmly, knowing it to be true. 'As it will lead to your return, they will accept it. And you do not need to forgive me what I did to them, only what I did to you. If I am ever released, I will beg their forgiveness as well.'

The Telerin mariner remained stubborn. 'You only try to make me accept your plea for your own sake.'

To that, too, Fingon had the answer. 'There is no way I can keep my own benefit out of this,' he admitted. 'But will you truly let me,' - he braced himself - 'the one you hate and despise most, stand between you and your release?'

The silence that followed was so long that the impatience Fingon was doing his utmost to unlearn, threatened to resurface. It felt like an itch of the soul for which speaking was the only cure, yet he knew that he would spoil everything if he urged for an answer.

In the end, he was unable to remain completely silent. But much as he yearned to hear the other deny his hatred and scorn, he forced himself to say: 'I will go now. Let this be a matter between you and the Judge.'

Unable to tell what the mariner would do, and knowing he might never find out, Fingon left to seek out the next Telerin Elf he had killed.

Outside the Halls of Mandos, the Sun burned and turned and the stars trod their slow dance, the winds blew and the waves crashed, but he could see, nor hear, nor feel it.


(TBC)


*Holy One. The proper way to address a Vala, according to the Elves of Aman (shameful confession: I can't find the footnote...)
**In LotR, Legolas does not seem much affected by the snowstorm on Caradhras. On the other hand, in 'Of Tuor and his coming to Gondolin', we read that both Tuor and Voronwë were 'tormented by the cold' (p. 38). As this story is set in the First Age, I've decided to ignore the LotR evidence in favour of UT: Elves, too can suffer from cold.
***These versions of their names suggested by Círdan (thanks).


This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.

Story Information

Author: finch

Status: Reviewed

Completion: Complete

Era: 1st Age

Genre: Drama

Rating: Adult

Last Updated: 03/15/04

Original Post: 07/08/02

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