There were three of them, all raven-haired, standing shoulder-to-shoulder inside the gates. Ñolofinwë had never seen them in such bright light before. It made them look grim and fey, skin paler against the black of their hair than he was used to seeing, and their eyes pale and shifting in the broadness of the sunlight.
Fëanáro looked restless, in that tense, coiled way of his that seemed like it took a monumental effort of his iron will to keep from dashing off to do, solve, fix, create. At his right shoulder, Makalaurë stood peaceful – almost resigned – whilst at his left Carnistir glowered.
“He looks pleased to see us,” remarked Lalwendë brightly. Behind them, Findekáno snorted.
“He looks like a king being more royal than thou.” There was a pause. “I am not kneeling to him, Father.”
Ñolofinwë narrowed his eyes against the glare from the lake at their left. “I think, under the circumstances, that sentiment can be forgiven.”
“But not the action?”
Ñolofinwë glanced over his shoulder to meet his son’s challenging glare. “You are an adult, Findekáno. You can make your own decisions in awareness of the consequences.” His eyes slipped away, past the guards who tailed them, and back to where the beginnings of a camp could be seen on the far rim of the lake. “I would, however, recommend diplomacy. Please, let me handle him. We have enough hatred amongst our own and I don’t want another battle. We’ve lost enough already – remember: there are bigger things to forgive than a refusal to kneel to the king.”
They were almost within earshot now, and fell silent for the final approach. Ñolofinwë took in the encampment. The gates were made of broad wooden beams, as thick as his forearm and braced and bracketed with industrial strength iron. The walls into which they were set had been built at an angle to form a rampart. Ñolofinwë was not surprised to notice their immaculate construction; neither was he surprised to realise that Fëanáro's camp was geared for war.
The guards flanking the gate wore armour from throat to thigh and carried long, sharp swords. Ñolofinwë halted Roccor at the gate's threshold before them and dismounted. Behind him, he was glad to hear Findekáno and Lalwendë do the same. The guards did not move, save for a darted glance shot at their leader who finally stepped forwards outside the gates.
In the morning sun, Fëanáro was as resplendent as he had ever been. The crown on his head was functionally small, but no less beautiful for it and set with tiny white gemstones that glittered like the light on the lake as he tilted his chin pridefully up. He wore gleaming armour formed of delicate leaf-shaped plates that were certainly tougher than anything Ñolofinwë could imagine. The sword on his hip was familiar – Ñolofinwë remembered all too well staring down its sharpened edge in a hall to the west of the sea. Over it all, he wore a cloak dyed a deep, venous red with stitching in gold and a jewelled clasp at his throat. He was, without doubt, King in Middle-earth.
Ñolofinwë dropped to one knee. Over his shoulders loomed the shadows of his sister and his son, defiant in the morning sunlight. He shot a glare backwards at Lalwendë, silhouetted against the lake. She braced her hands on her hips and cocked her head at him.
“He’s my brother too, Ñolvo. I have as much right to hate his guts as you do.”
Ñolofinwë rolled his eyes at her. So much for diplomacy. But Fëanáro ignored her, as he usually did. Instead he approached Ñolofinwë until he was but a pace away and stood, arms folded across his chest, looming. His own pride simmering beneath his forced outward calm, Ñolofinwë averted his gaze and stared determinedly at his brother's heavy, hobnailed boots, doing his best to imagine legions of Morgoth's minions crushed beneath them instead of the sand bloodied by innocents. It didn't help.
“You…” said Fëanáro at length, and Ñolofinwë looked up into his face then. Fëanáro shook his head, which would have looked like an arrogant toss of his hair to anyone who knew him less well than Ñolofinwë. “You are an arsehole.”
Ñolofinwë blinked at him. Then, he began to laugh.
Fëanáro bristled. “That was not intended as a joke.” It simply made Ñolofinwë laugh harder. He laughed despite all the death behind and around them, despite the trouble in Aman and the years of misery on the Ice, he began to laugh. Or perhaps he was laughing because of it.
"Ñolvo!" his brother thundered, "I am absolutely deadly serious – what? Have you become utterly demented? Get up off the floor, for pity's sake!"
Straightening and standing, Ñolofinwë caught his breath and ran his hand down his face. "It is just --" he began, then paused to swallow another hiccough of hysterical laughter. "It is just that really, Fëanáro, I think it is I who should be calling you the arsehole."
Fëanáro huffed a chuckle that was more exasperation than humour. "You persistent, insufferable pest," he sneered in that affectionate way of his, and then he sighed. "You weren't meant to follow me."
Ñolofinwë quirked an eyebrow at him. "I don't think we should start listing all the things either of us wasn't meant to do," he said, at the same time laying his hand on Findekáno's shoulder. Beneath his palm muscles bulged, filled with the stresses and griefs of recent history. But Findekáno kept his peace, and the uneasy silence, and bore Fëanáro’s scrutiny.
"Leave your weapons at the gate," Fëanáro said eventually, and turned on his heel. "And come inside."
Inside the encampment walls was a bright, bustling industry. Predictably, a number of the small huts appeared to be smithies, with benches and cooling troughs outside and smoke billowing from the meagre chimneys. A number of unhitched wagons stacked with crates and barrels stood in a line, with no clear indication of whether they were being received or removed. In places a few tents were still erected, but they were ragged and unoccupied for it appeared as though the Fëanárians had moved beyond canvas some time ago.
Fëanáro led them through the camp to a long, single-storey hall. A pair of guards stood on either side of the arching doorway at the hall’s southern end. Like those on the front gate, they wore elegant armour and carried blades. Beneath their cloaks Carnistir and Makalaurë too were armed and armoured, in the same interlocking leaf-like plates as their father. The entire place felt as though it were on its guard. If his brain were less frost-addled, Ñolofinwë suspected he would be intimidated by the weaponry surrounding him, especially given the owners’ track record. But he felt strangely at his ease, and likewise neither Lalwendë nor Findekáno – whom Ñolofinwë suspected of having a dirk still secreted about his person – seemed fazed by the situation.
"This is quite an establishment you're setting up," he remarked as he stepped through the doorway, observing that the half-carved wooden doors were pocked with divots as though they were to be reinforced with the wrought metal stacked to one side.
Fëanáro dismissed the comment with a wave of his hand, like a fly were buzzing around his face.
"We first started building in the dark. It's not the most attractive." He braced his hands on his hips and looked up through the scissor beams to the hall’s ceiling. Ñolofinwë’s attention alighted on a patch of earthen tiles amidst the thatch.
"No,” Fëanáro went on, “it’s certainly not attractive – but it's functional for the time being.” He jerked his chin at the area of the roof Ñolofinwë had noticed, then swept his eyes around the room. “It took us a while to find the ores and stones we needed, so to start with we had to settle with what the lakeside can offer. But Curufinwë is applying himself to architectural improvements, now we’ve got the resources sorted out."
"And weapons too, it seems.” It was said gently enough, but it was the spark to Fëanáro’s tinder. His whole demeanour changed in an instant, as his expression shut down and his eyes darkened, and he spun away to stalk a few crackling paces across the straw-covered floor.
“We need weapons!” he snarled, turning back to glower at Ñolofinwë. “How are we to fight a war without them?”
“That I understand.” Ñolofinwë gestured to Fëanáro’s armour. “But all I see speaks of defence, rather than attack.”
"Morgoth is belligerent – he has stolen my greatest treasures, and still he is not content...” Fëanáro narrowed his eyes and half-turned towards the nearest window. There was nothing happening outside it, but he seemed fixated nonetheless. Ñolofinwë presumed that he had lost his attention to a private vision. The moment stretched taut. Ñolofinwë glanced at his nephews, hovering to one side of their father. An uneasy glance passed between them and then, for the first time since Ñolofinwë’s arrival, Makalaurë spoke.
“We fought a battle shortly after we reached the Eastern shore,” he began, but broke off as Fëanáro reanimated and spat soundly upon the floor.
“Ambushed in this very encampment, we were,” he growled, “hence the fortifications."
"You too?" Ñolofinwë dipped his head; that explained much of what he had seen since arriving on Mistaringë’s northern shore. “Then Morgoth is indeed belligerent; we were attacked almost as soon as we set foot in Valariandë.” He swallowed hard against the grief that closed his throat and felt Findekáno step closer in solidarity. “We lost Arakáno."
From the corner of his eye, he saw Makalaurë’s lips tighten as he lowered his head. Carnistir averted his gaze, but Fëanáro looked up with his eyes bright and sharp again.
“It pains me to hear that,” he said, his voice uncharacteristically – dangerously – quiet. “We too suffered great losses.”
“Not your sons?” Ñolofinwë realised with a twist of his innards that he had heard no mention of several of his nephews.
Fëanáro gave a jerk of his head that was neither confirmation nor denial. “Tyelkormo has gone scouting with the Ambarussa and Tyelperinquar is assisting Curufinwë. But Maitimo – Maitimo is dead.”
Ñolofinwë’s stomach plummeted. At his shoulder, Findekáno took a choked intake of breath and Ñolofinwë felt his son’s fëa turn cold and grim. He reached for Findekáno’s elbow, but before he could say anything Makalaurë looked up from the floor and crossed his arms across his chest.
"I keep telling you, Father, that he is not dead," he muttered peevishly.
Fëanáro looked as though he were barely refraining from curling his lip into a sneer. "And I keep telling you that it would be better if he were."
Ñolofinwë shook his head to clear it. “Hold, brother – so when you said that Morgoth has stolen your greatest treasures –”
Fëanáro smirked without humour. “I was not just speaking of the Silmarilli.”
Hot on the heels of his renewed grief for Arakáno, Ñolofinwë found this too much to process. The sudden withdrawal of Findekáno’s warm support as his son's fëa closed in on itself was cause enough for concern, without the icy dread that trickled down Ñolofinwë's spine as it became clearer what peril they were all wound into. He gasped a breath; then, before Findekáno could find his voice and temper and widen the fracture between their houses beyond repair, he stepped away from his son and touched Fëanáro’s elbow instead.
“Can we speak outside?” he asked, softly but with an undertone that brooked no refusal. Fëanáro’s eyebrows rose in surprise and he immediately drew himself up straight enough to place a space between them, but to Ñolofinwë’s relief he did simply nodded and marched away towards the door. Leaving Findekáno in Lalwendë’s capable hands, Ñolofinwë followed.
He found Fëanáro around the side of the hall, leaning against a tree and staring north-east towards the inky clouds that billowed in the distance.
“I take it you have tried to rescue him?” he said quietly. Fëanáro snorted and eyed him obliquely.
“You heard me the first time when I told you he is dead,” he said after a moment. Ñolofinwë looked pointedly around him at the fortified buildings and shook his head.
"And yet you remain within spitting distance of the enemy."
A slow, sharp smile sliced its way across Fëanáro’s features. ‘Oh, how well you know me, little brother,” he returned scathingly. He tossed his hair back, took a deep breath with closed eyes, and then looked squarely at Ñolofinwë. “Would you like to see my plans, then?”
Relief loosened the anxious knot in Ñolofinwë’s stomach even as he felt a bloom of adrenaline. He stepped alongside Fëanáro, close enough that their shoulders almost touched.
“I would. We could be on the same side, you know.”
The flames of Fëanáro's eyes flickered over him without disturbing the prideful uptilt of his chin. They were silent in the wind for a moment. Then, Fëanáro’s lips tightened and he looked back towards Angamando.
"Since we arrived here, Morgoth's true form and will has become all the more clear," he said, then paused, pursing his lips. "Maitimo’s capture has put things into perspective."
He was standing perfectly still, but Ñolofinwë could feel the heat of his fëa roiling and churning. There was rage there, and impotence, both ventilated by sobbing breaths of grief. You really haven't given him up for dead, have you? And you are not sure whether you wish that he were.
"I meant it when I said you were not supposed to follow me."
Ñolofinwë blinked in surprise. That could have been an accusation, but in fact it almost sounded like an apology, or as good as he would get from the proudest of the Ñoldor.
"Perhaps your injustices are greater in number than mine, now,” he replied. “But brother, please never forget that my father was killed too."
"I know it, I know it." Fëanáro gave an agitated swipe of his hand, then turned so they were facing. "That surely means we have a common enemy." It was said with his customary certainty -- and yet, Ñolofinwë felt again his brother's spirit waver in question.
"We have done all along," he said quietly. They stared at each other for a heartbeat, before Fëanáro frowned and turned his shoulder towards Ñolofinwë again.
"You are quite right that it is you who should be calling me the arsehole," he said to the sky.
Ñolofinwë just had a view of his profile, stern and stony against the bright morning. He could tell it galled Fëanáro, this was definitely as close as he would ever get to an apology and a truce. Progress! For I cannot win my own people’s support if you will not accept my aid.
He had just opened his mouth to respond when his sister’s voice interrupted him.
"Ñolvo! There you are! I've been searching for you."
Ñolofinwë bit back his frustration as the moment's delicacy fractured and turned to her with all the patience he could muster.
“What is it, Lalwendë?”
“It’s Findo,” she replied, clutching at her elbows. For the first time since they had set foot on the Helcaraxë, she looked young and scared, her joy and cheer extinguished. “He’s gone.”