The cast (for now)
Balaraukô: The balrogs
Fluithin: Originally, Gothmog's mother and an ogress; here she is a former maia of Irmo.
Fairëliantë: A former maia of Namo Mandos.
The last time Mirfin sees his father, he is holding his mother back, a mere silhouette with bright eyes, hallowed by the red glow of torches. He is screaming that it is too late; that the Shadow has taken their son, that they tried. They are too late, she has done her best, and he can’t lose her too – for he will, without a doubt, lose her if she tries to follow the Shadow to get her son back.
Miriel is screeching. Mirfin doesn’t know if grief makes her claw and rave or if she feels, in her heart, that her little boy is still here, and she’s fighting to run to him. That the strong arms holding him now are unbreakable but aren’t actually hurting him. That the hand on his mouth that keeps him from screaming back is surprisingly soft. No claws, no teeth.
He likes to believe she knows.
Mirfin isn’t alone. The Shadow takes many children during the March, as if it has suddenly tired of capturing full grown adults. The boy is carried to a pack of a dozen of frightened elflings (Tatyari like him), and the dozen becomes a hundred and more by the time they reach Angamando. They are cold, tired and afraid, and sick of the uncooked red meat and fruits the Shadows hunt to feed them. They miss their parents, though Mirfin doesn’t miss his father all that much. Finwë left for the West before his birth and came back changed, with strange eyes, weird trinkets and an unhealthy, devouring obsession for “the Light”.
He wants his mother.
Angamando is everything the story said it was; worst, even, for the mind of the boy couldn’t imagine the destroyed landscape, biting cold, sharp stones and burned grass. Everything is enormous and terrible and scary. The Shadows take them to dark tunnels where no stars ever shine, a whole bunch of wailing children waiting to be devoured.
But it never happens. Angamando is not nearly as awful as the story said.
The Shadows take them to an underground cavern. The walls are strange, far to smooth to be natural, and the ground is covered in furs. It is pleasantly warm, lighted by fires, and there is plenty of food. All in all it is a lot better than the dreadful March, and if their host isn’t lying, no one is going to be eaten.
Mother would have liked it there. She doesn’t even want to go West – she goes because she loves father and because he believes their children will grow happy there, happier than in Cuivenen. Miriel believes the story is altogether too pretty to be true.
Their host is named Maironôz, though he’d rather have them call him Mairon than butcher his name with their ineffectual tongues. He is beautiful, taller than any quendë Mirfin has ever seen, with a skin the color of gold and coppery hair. His eyes glow as if an inner fire is warming them and his teeth, so perfect and bright when he smiles, have the unearthly texture of mother-of-pearl.
Mairon is not alone in Angamando. The fortress, he explains, is defended by the mighty Kalimbo and his troops. He shows them briefly to the children, but the enormous, fiery demons are a terrible sight for them. The next day they meet with Fairëliantë and Fluithuin. The first one is silent and alien, her grey skin of her four arms and too long fingers strangely translucent. What she does is “a bit too complicated for your young minds”, Mairon says, and he moves on to Fluithuin, a lovely lady who looks a lot like Mother: silver hair, kind, soft eyes and, though she is taller than most women, she is dwarfed by Mairon.
After the first day, the children are left to Mairon’s and Fluithuin’s care. She is a mother to them all, ensuring they are fed and comfortable. She tells stories about the World, how the Mother-Father of all things created the Valar and gave Arda to Melkor, the God of the gods. She tells of his long travels in the Void in search for the Flame, and how he used it to create all life on Arda. She tells of the great wars and how his brothers and sisters, jealous, struck him down and took him to the West, the great prison of Arda.
She soothe their fear as they tremble, knowing their parents are going there, to the West, where they will burn in the Light and be enslaved by the thieves. “For we must all obey the Great King,” she says, “but while there is honor in doing so for Melkor, who is the eldest and the most beloved of the Mother-Father Of All Things, this right belongs to him alone, and to bow this low to another is sinful in the eyes of the Mother-Father. She sleeps now, but at the end of times she will wake, and everything will be made right. You, my children, are the Faithfull, and in Arda Unmarred you will be rewarded by She for your fealty to Her son.”
Every night, Mirfin prays that Mother will be rewarded too. It’s not her fault if Finwë dragged her west.
Fluithin is kind to them, protecting them from the nightmares of Irmo, drying their tears and revealing the truth, but Mairon is hardly a father. He likes to be addressed as Great Teacher and supervises their “education”. He teaches them the Holy Tongue he made for them, the arts of numbers and letters, and watches as they train their bodies. He gives small token to those who do well, yellow and red tiles which, he says, will make sense one day. Mirfin easily wins the red one and struggle for the yellow one, but at least he has some, while others have none.
Mirfin is fourty-seven according to Mairon’s calendar when the tokens’ meaning is revealed. All the children, five hundred of them, are lined in front of the Four. Mairon presides the ceremony (one doesn’t need to be a genius to understand he’s the true leader here), flanked by Fluithin and Fairëliantë, while Kalimbo watches from behind them, his hulking form towering above their heads.
The first rows are full of Tokens. Mirfin has nearly a hundred of them hanging from his neck, sewed into his clothes or around his wrists. He’s not the strongest one, but he made it to the first row; nearly all his tokens are red. The children are split into three column, one for the “full red” on the left, another for the “full yellow” on the right, and the “mixed ones” in the middle.
Mairon starts explaining. All their life, he has watched them, tested them, forged them to be the core of his greatest gift to the God of Gods. They will be the leaders of his army, second only to Kalimbo’s balaraukô, his priests, the fathers and mothers of his soldiers. Soon, he says, the uruk will grow and become strong enough to overthrow the slaves of the thieves.
And they, his children, will be the uruk’s leaders in all things.
The first two ranks, Mairon declares, will be the new alpha of his new people. They will live as mates and sire children and rule side by side. The red will be his warchiefs, the Mulaks, and the yellow the guides, the Gashans.
The next rows, up to the one before the last one, will be the betas. They will bow to the Mulaks and Gashans, protect and help them, relay their words to the inferior uruks that will constitute the bulk of Melkor’s army.
The last row is made of those who never earned any token. Those Mairon calls with a stern voice.
“The glory of serving Melkor,” he says, his voice powerful and endearing, “is not given but won. It is an honor to be deserved. You have been disappointments from the start to the end, with neither the will nor the talent to be worthy of the God of the Gods. But behold! You have reasons to hope, for your souls, when they will depart their shameful bodies, with be caught in the Net of Fairëliantë. There she will keep your souls, and they will be remade to be of use to the True King of Arda!”
Mirfin has killed before. He killed animals when he was taught to hunt and cook. He killed lowly uruks, deformed and pitiful creatures compared to himself, when Mairon started their training as warriors. He has, however, never killed a friend or another quendë. As the new Mulak of the Tatyarsh, he is ordered by Mairon to slit the throat of a token-less girl he knows well, even liked, but he does so without any complain, be it from her or himself. His heart beats too fast, his belly cramps, but he tries to hide his discomfort from Mairon, to be worthy of him. Fluithin’s face is as soft as it always is, and he trusts her, she who looks so much like Miriel.
The token-less girl will be reborn. He knows she will.
When Melkor comes back from Valinor, Mirfin has killed more creatures than he can remember. Uruks, animals and quendi; mostly uruks, lately, since Mairon dislike his precious alphas wandering in and out of the kingdom. He is fiercely protective of them, their prized talents and knowledge. But Mirfin never forget the girl.
It was, after all, his baptism in blood.
By then, Mirfin has grown strong. He is not the tallest nor the quickest, but he is wise according to Mairon, and one of his favorites. He has a natural talent for languages that the golden god finds quite charming, and a strong voice that makes him his master’s main Singer. He can make anyone cower with the power gathered by his throat; in his Nation, it’s been a very long time since one of his betas tried to defy him for the throne of the Mulak of the Tatyarsh.
His position as First Singer comes with a seat at Mairon’s council, along with the First Blade, First Shield and First Bow. His first Gashan used to belong there, too, as First Priestess, when Mairon created the Council of the Nations, but she died a few years past in childbirth and his new Gashan, Agarin, is yet too young to be in favor. Her seat remained empty until today, and her replacement is from a rival nation.
“I have decided to send you out on the battlefield,” Mairon explains after the traditional blessings in the name of the God of gods. Despite Melkor’s return, none of the Mulaks and Gashans has been allowed in his presence yet; secretly, Mirfin was hoping today was the day. But there is no smile on Mairon’s face, no optimism, only the deadly seriousness of his words.
Sending alphas to the battlefield is highly irregular.
“The Noldor, slaves from the west, have followed our God and Master back to Middle Earth. They are the vanguard of the Valar and must be stopped. The scouts of the Nanyarsh tell us the Noldor landed at Losgar.”
The Nanyarsh live in the mountains by the sea, though their alpha stays in Angamando with their peers: the Mulak communicates with his betas subordinates through osanwë, and by the same mean he relays orders. Mairon made sure all his officers are gifted in mind speech precisely because he wants them to lead from afar.
Now, the Mulak of the Nanyarsh, Usu-Tuku, First Bow, holds up three fingers in silence: the gesture every alpha has to make when they request permission to speak, for it is sinful to address the gods freely unless allowed so. Mirfin has been granted years ago the privilege of doing so in private; Usu-Tuku, with his uruk name, is a lot younger and not yet in the Great Smith’s favor.
“The Nests of the western range are… puzzled by the actions of the Noldor. Their ships burnt two nights ago, and further reports suggest it was voluntary, since the destruction was very thorough despite the distance between them. One of their ranging party was captured yesterday, but unfortunately, their language is alien to us and their minds remain closed.”
If Mairon is surprised by the burning, he keeps the feeling close to his chest.
“The Noldor are divided. The burning of the ships may be a result of their infightings, or mean that they have such a fleet assembled that they don’t care to send their ships back. The Nanyarsh will guard Lammoth and the coast with renewed strengths. You will move your whole forces there and direct them at your discretion. Now, let us plan the battle ahead.”
“As for now, we outnumber the Noldor a hundred to one, ten to one if we consider only the troops available for a direct assault. Our main priorities, as ordered by the God and Master, is to destroy the noldorin vanguard, reinforce our positions on the coast, and then finish the quendi of the south. Despite their victory last summer, Doriath didn’t try to push their advantage. I believe the south can wait for now.”
“The God and Master has set another goal that is quite dear to him. He wants the leader of the Noldor captured and brought to him whole and unspoiled. Kalimbo agrees with me that his own forces are a bit too… strong to manage this particular part of the plan.” A slight smile allows his Mulak to laugh with Mairon. The Balaraukô are great killing machines, but as unable to keep their prisoners alive as they are to build a snowman. “This task will be entrusted to you. I believe that our First Singer, Sword and Shield will be sufficient to defeat a single noldo.”
They strengthen their back. Of course we will, each of them wants to scream. Each of them would do it alone with his eyes closed and one arm tied to his back if they could: their society is ruthlessly competitive, and each of the alphas would murder his own children to make Mairon proud.
“Let us set the trap then, my students.”
The battle goes both horribly wrong and fantastically well.
The first battle of Beleriand has been a tie, with a defeat on the field against the troops of Doriath, but an occupation of almost all of Beleriand. The first fight against the Noldor is a first class butchery that puts everyone to shame.
Mirfin cannot say that he loves his people. He knew what love was, a very long time ago, but it’s a word no one uses in Angamando. Mairon didn’t even bother to create it when he crafted the Holy Tongue. The Mulak feels responsible for the Tatyarsh. They are his strength, his power, and without them he is nothing but a lonely warrior: hardly anything more than the uruk rank-and-file.
He loses half his warriors in three days.
It took three centuries to breed them.
Everything fails. They knew the uruks were weaker than elves. They are, after all, unable to meet the alphas and betas (who are physically very much like their Sindarin cousins), and no one expected the Noldor to be weaker than the sindar. But there is weaker and weaker, and the Mulaks are astonished by the fragmented images they receive through osanwë. The Noldor are taller, broad shouldered, with a terrible light in their eyes that puts terror in the heart of the troops. The betas struggle to keep control of their troops, and there is only so much Mirfin can do when his soldiers are too panicked to even try to understand his orders.
The leadership fails by the second day. Half the Mulak don’t even know how many soldiers they lost. It’s like Mairon’s system, so perfect, so well made, so sustainable, is suddenly turning to ash because it’s just not working. In front of the fury of the west, the mind links aren’t holding.
Mirfin waits for the punishment. When his troops will return, he can chose to have one out of ten killed right away, or one out of twenty and be flogged himself. The failure is his own; he knows he will ask for the flogging.
Mairon’s face is hard, jaws clenched, his mind working so fast he forgets to breathe. By the third day, the only piece of good news is that their target, the noldorin king, is riding dangerously close to Angamando, well ahead of his army. Kalimbo hoovers in the background, but the smith smells more dangerous than the hulking Balaraukô.
“Burn them,” the god hisses. His golden eyes flash red as blood, his hair glows as metal melting. “I want them burnt and crushed and turned to ashes. Kill them all under the eyes of their king. Make him feel powerless against your might!”
The great demon roars, a terrible scream that shakes the mountains; the echo of his children and brothers is even more terrible, like a thousand drums, and their strength lights the fire again in the Mulaks’ hearts.
The alphas don their armors. The uruks’ swords and armor of iron are outmatched by the noldor’s steel, but Mirfin’s was crafted by Mairon itself with thin, blackened mithril, leather infused by Power and fire-resistant silk. It’s been decades since the Mulak wore it in combat rather than for mere ceremonies, but the outfit hums against his skin as if glad to taste blood once more. The gloves and boots hug his fingers and feet like lovers; the helmet, a silver mask with a white mane reminiscent of his hair, is as dreadful as it beautiful, the blank face of death, and though it covers the mouth, Mairon bent the metal with sorceries known only to him to make the voice carry farther than it should. Mirfin’s sword is subpar compared to the piece of art adorning his body, but he isn’t planning to use it much compared to his true weapon.
They ride after the Balaraukô to war mounted on the back of black wolfs. The demons spread their dark wings and spring through the tunnels. They are too heavy to fly. They jump a lot farther than anyone may guess.
By the time Mirfin’s great black wolf carries him to the hills looking down on the place of the noldorin royal’s guard last stand, most of them are dead already. Some stray horses managed to escape the closing ring of the Balaraukô, and those who didn’t are piercing the air with their dying whinnies. The smell of burnt flesh hangs across the plain, overwhelming. The banner of the noldoran is still high, flapping, but the design is smeared in grim.
A white bird comes and fly. Its wings change into a flowing cloak of grey, its feathers turn to the light clothes of a hunter. Mirfin shivers, for Fluithin the Dream-Broideress is with them. It is easy to forget Fluithin was a Shadow once, skilled in roaming the world and snatching preys, and that she has tricks of her own to defend herself.
Clad in an armor of obsidian glass from head to toe, Mairon, mounted on the biggest and meanest wolf of Angamando (one, some says, that he fathered himself, taking the shape of a beast, to ensure its strength), looks down at her, unreadable. What they say to each other is lost to the world, but at the end she doesn’t depart.
The Balaraukô make a great game of snatching the survivors one by one, always careful not to upset the king. The noldor’s position is hopeless now, for they rode to the middle of nowhere and cannot hope to break the circle: even if they managed to give the slip to the demons, the plain is on fire. Finally only the king remains, his face contorted by blind rage, his hair twisting in the wind around his pale head. With a start, Mirfin sees for himself that he’s glowing, his skin emitting a soft light, and his eyes are piercing like a white-hot blade.
The quendë rages and screams, but Kalimbo evades his charge with a mere flap of his wings. Wherever the noldo goes, his enemies only evade him, jumping to the burning high grasses, laughing at his feeble efforts, for for all his might, he’s still so small and fragile compared to their primordial strength.
“I want him whole,” Mairon orders. The signal for the charge of the First Sword, First Shield and First Singer. “Mirfin. Sing him down.” I want him humiliated, sobbing at your feet, he states through osanwë. Remember, student of mine, that the memories of your mother are your strongest theme. “Narwë, Eshda, be ready to restrain him if needed. I won’t have one of you killed by this rebellious piece of trash.”
The three dismount and run down the hill, leaving the two gods watching atop the mount. Their wolfs are nimble but unprotected for the fire they are running through. At least they enter the circle strewed with corpses, Mirfin first, the two Mulaks flanking him a few feet behind.
The noldoran turns to them, eying them with a fury that reeks of madness. He towers over the Singer by half a head and probably weights as much naked as Mirfin does with his armor on, but it’s the eyes who bother the alpha: the feral orbs of a beast gone fey. Now the beast is eying him with suspicion, wondering, perhaps, why the enemy is sending them when the Balaraukô were doing such a good job at making his life miserable.
Mirfin bows, as does one when starting a duel for the prized position of alpha. He is a servant of the true God of the gods; he honors his master by behaving with grace. The gesture startles the king, who utters a few words in an incomprehensible language.
Then Mirfin starts to Sing.
He throws the might of his Master against the king, and Sings in valarin of the greatness of Melkor, his powerful voice slamming into the king like a wave. The noldoran takes a step back as if hit; his lips curl and he Sings back in a valarin that doesn’t fit his throat (it never does when they learn it after childhood, when the tongue stops being so nibble and pliable), words of a broken chain, disdain and revenge that Mirfin turns back to him –foolishness and pain to come, but there is the King again, throwing all his spirit’s strength for light and a love that hurts more than a thousand blade.
And so they go on, back and forth, until the sheer force of the noldoran’s song his forcing the uruk king to the defensive. The First Singer relays desperately on his skills and refinement, but his opponent hammers through everything with a fire that burns hotter than Mairon’s furnaces, his spirit so strong and bright it takes all his tricks not to get scorched. An uruk with lesser will and conviction would have crumbled after the first passage of arms, nevertheless Mirfin deflects the brute strength with all the cunning he can summon. He’s waiting for a mistake to strike true and fast: the noldoran is full of cracks while the Mulak is of solid rock, but even he can break faced with such relentless force.
With no sign of weakening on the king’s part and his own forces fading, Mirfin falls back to his strongest shield. Out of his mouth and mind she comes, the image of his Mother, of her hopes and bravery, and how she loved him; and surely none can deny the valor of a quendë hallowed by such affection, from such a woman, and he sings of her strength and beauty of mind and body. The sheer power of the memory (Miriel fighting Finwë to take him back whatever the cost, Miriel looking at him, Miriel singing to him, Miriel teaching him the tongues of animals and the way of the bow with trembling arms) rips his throat apart; the mask is burning with barely contained power, his lungs are aching, his spirit reeling from the effort.
The noldoran keeps silent.
They watch each other, shaken, drained to the core. Mirfin stays up by sheer will, his trembling legs threatening to give up. Never before has an opponent wounded him so.
The noldoran takes a step forward, sword in hand.
Mirfin’s fell from his finger ages ago.
He feels death coming, but the white arms circling his shoulders are soft and cool. He is on his knees, bathed by the floating, silver mane of Mother’s hair. Miriel is dressed as she was when her son was taken from her, clad in white furs sewed with wooden pearls. Her eyes are grey and luminous, the exact shade of the king’s. Her body has the diaphanous quality of mist.
“Don’t, Fëanaro!” she gasps. Wounded. The fey glare, Mirfin can now see, has receded behind a veil of exhaustion, grief and dismay. Why does he have her eyes?
The noldo takes a step back, shocked, conflicted now that his anger doesn’t lead him anymore. His face is a battleground for so many emotions, betraying the shattering of everything that was holding him together despite the massacre, the heat, the tiredness and the mind-wrecking duel.
The cool arms leave Mirfin’s shoulders. His Mother, his Miriel is leaving him, walking toward this creature of light and furor, but he can’t even get up to follow her. Fëanaro is retreating, unsure of her, of the woman in front of his eyes, not thinking clearly; she goes to him and caress his grim-soiled cheek with her snowy fingers.
“You look so tired,” she breathes. “Sleep, my love,” and she helps him to the ground, helpless and spent, his eyes closing against all his instincts, in the arms of a woman who can’t be there.
She turns, and it’s Fluithin’s face looking back at Mirfin, a sad smile playing on her slim lips.