It was promising to be a muddy spring, or so his grandmother said. Not good for work on the northern slopes, but then outside work had halted and there were whispers that it should be abandoned completely. Iri tried to be understanding – his own dear friend, brother to his brother in arms Jari, had not returned to Belegost with the king after the Dagor Bragollach. But that hadn’t been aimed at Belegost exactly, as Iri understood it, and time enough had passed without further attack. He thought they should be out there, at least as far as the slopes though. And in his heart of hearts he yearned for farther fields.
There was nowhere grander than Belegost, not in the east with their kin and maybe not even in the west, where the elves had sailed from. There were rather newer places though, and if it was decided that not even the outer works were safe, then Iri despaired of ever seeing anywhere past it. He would grow old and stooped and the furthest he’d have ever seen was the horizon.
“Straighten up boy,” the watch commander said as she passed by, silently for such a well armed woman. “A dragon could sneak up on you, with all the attention in your eyes.”
“Sorry commander,” he said, and hurriedly fixed his eyes back to the fields below. Blinking, he worried for a moment he had failed his charge and that he was daydreaming – but no, atop a trio of horses sat unfamiliar figures, tiny on the secret roads below him, and moving fast. “Er, commander? We’ve got company.”
She was at his side in a flash, her eyeglass appearing in her tanned hand.
“Mahal’s balls,” she swore, “elves, here?”
“Elves?” he repeated, eyes going wide. She nodded, and was already turning and headed for the nearby stairs. It said something that when Iri quickly followed her she didn’t tell him to keep at his post. “Commander, where are you going?” he asked, hoping the phrasing would make it sound like he wasn’t planning to go with her.
“To tell the king, he’ll want to receive them.”
That response brought Iri to a stop where he was on the stairs. Far off sights were well and good, but the idea of tailing behind his commander and ending up face to face with royalty was another thing entirely. And yet...
Well, where was the son of miners and songsmiths likely to meet an elf, otherwise?
Bolstered by the idea, he set to following after her, wincing at how he rattled as he went. To his surprise the commander was waiting at the end of the stairs, her arms crossed.
“Hurry now – you’re the one who spotted them,” she said.
“Yes, and?” he asked, and she smiled, mouth a wicked curve he knew to fear.
“Well that means you’ll be making the report, young Iri.”
“What?” Iri asked, heart leaping into his throat. He’d only done one messy braid in his beard this morning – it was just wall watch after all, he’d told his mother as she eyed him disapprovingly. Oh, what would she say if she found out he met nobility with his hair barely done? His concerns must have been obvious, because the commander, who was not a woman of common humour, kept on smiling. “You’re mean,” he said, trying not to sound too sulky. She laughed.
“I am,” she agreed. “Don’t state the obvious boy, it’s not good for keeping your mind sharp.”
Sharp enough to know he couldn’t win a game of wits with the commander – not when his sister was already running rings around him – he bit his tongue.
The Commander just laughed again.
As it turned out, he didn’t have to make any reports to the king himself, though giving them to the guard captain was hardly any better. The older dwarf was shorter than Iri, and about twice as wide, and he’d sent a young messenger practically sprinting out the door with just the wave of hand after Iri had given his lackluster report.
“Anything else?” the captain asked, looking to the commander.
“They were wearing Feanorian colours,” she said.
“Well who damned else would it be?” he asked, “haven’t had word from Nargothrond in nearly a decade.”
“Elves sir, I doubt they’ll notice until they reach half a century,” the commander said and the captain snorted.
“Very true.” He stood, and nodded to them both. “Anyhow, I best collect anyone known for shining their armour well and go make a show of it. You two, back to your posts.”
“Oh,” Iri said, briefly stooping and then rapidly sitting back up. “Er, yes sir.”
The commander eyed him.
“Last I heard it, all the elves’ markets got stepped on by dragons. No doubt you can spy at least one there, on the marrow. They’re usually easy to spot.”
Colouring at his own transparency – he could hear Jari laughing about he’d best never take up a career in gambling. As if Iri’s mother wouldn’t hang him by his beard if he suggested it. “Thank you sir,” he said and the commander clapped him on his back.
“You’ve got to work on your dissembling, Buriul,” she said. Iri sighed.
“I know sir.”
Otrís paced outside the council chambers, not for the first time cursing whichever ancestor decided that women’s place was outside them. Next to her, as if trying to be infuriating, her sister sat, seemingly engrossed in her embroidery.
“Aren’t you the least bit worried?” Otrís finally asked, turning and just barely remembering to keep her voice pitched low.
Avíss just hummed. “Not especially, I’m sure we’d have heard if it devolved into pitch battle by now,” she said. Otrís scowled.
“Don’t be coy, don’t you want to know what they’re doing here?”
“Asking for something, I would think,” Avíss said with an easy shrug of one shoulder. “Perhaps they mean to abandon the northern front and head east, and want use of our roads. Dagor Bragollach was a crushing blow to them, I cannot imagine it easy to watch the towers of your long vigil corrupted to evil purpose.”
At the reminder Otrís let out a sigh, her shoulders loosening just a touch. “I do not think the elves are here as enemies,” she said. “But I worry. Maedhros Feanorion saved your husband, what favour will he ask to strike the balance?”
Finally her sister looked up, green eyes glittering with the intelligence most people thought belonged only to Otrís. “Whatever they will, it’s not our job to dictate their requests, only to judge them afterwards.”
“And yet we are out in the cold, while others make the decisions,” Otrís said and her sister laughed softly.
“They are elves, my beloved sister, if we ask for two days to make a choice no doubt they’ll tell us not to be hasty.”
Otrís laughed, and finally sat beside her sister. “Would that were true, but I saw them march into the chambers sister. If there are hasty elves, I fear they are among us now.”
“Fear? Otrís please, for once look to the light in a situation and don’t just worry about who the coals will burn,” Avíss said. “I doubt they wish to bring harm to us, and if they are in haste, it is only because they have spent their long patience in miserable guardianship. I know you’ve a big heart, let our allies shelter in it at least a moment.”
“Fine,” Otrís said, leaning back. “For you, sister.”
“Ah, as good as I’ll get. Now if you really loved me you’d go grab my other hoop and help, this project is taking ages,” her sister said and Otrís snorted.
“I would walk the Grinding Ice in the nude for you,” Otrís said. “But I will not embroider.”
Her sister pulled a face, and Otrís pulled one right back, forgetting for a moment her own vigil.
Silence descended on the council once the leader of the elves – Palorion - said his piece, gracefully folding himself onto a chair quite frankly not sized for him. Azaghâl did not pay him overmuch mind however – these were messengers, not politicians, and their piece had been said plainly and without any hidden meaning. His councilmen could not claim quite the same level of guilelessness however, and he watched their faces carefully, his own face still.
Galar stared back, his old grey eyes grim, lips a bloodless press. Not promising, but then Galar had long mourned his sons, and in his grief he no longer thought of anything but withdrawing even further to the shelter of Dolmed. It was not an instinct he failed to sympathize with, but he remembered the stinking smoke, the red fires, and the merciless undulating waves of enemies spewing from the haze of death and destruction.
Dolmed was strong, and old and proud. But if all else failed and kingdoms of elves came crashing down completely, she would not be strong enough to shield them from such greed and hatred. Not for long enough, anyway.
No, the enemy might not hold the dwarves in the same contempt he did the elves, but Azaghâl greatly doubted it would matter. Some day, those eyes would turn to them, and then they would fall.
And he would be damned if they died buried under their own mountains, the bones of their enemies lining the road to the doors.
Looking past Galar he saw more contention. Brúni and Duneyrr were in a pitched, hissing battle that he could not hear, but which had the attention of one of the messengers. Hugstari and Andvari were more in accord, and when they felt his gaze they looked up, Andvari nodding every so perceptibly.
He supposed it made sense – where Galar had lost his sons both Hugstari and Andvari had gained their seats by way of blood spilt. They were young, the fires of the great forge still bright in their eyes; they no doubt sensed a chance for revenge.
The other three were not so easily read. Ker he studied only briefly – Otrís would tell him what his opinion was to be for next session, Azaghâl knew, and what her answer would be was not one he was willing to guess. His sister in law was not his enemy, as some families found to be a problem – she loved Avíss too well for that. But foreign policy had never been a place she showed much interest.
“You have travelled long, and hard,” he said finally turning back to the elves. Three sets of shining eyes landed on him with a piercing swiftness – it was rather less a metaphor than the light of Mahal’s forge, and his short practice bearing the brunt of such gazes did not make it any less curious. He soldiered on however. “We will reconvene in a week hence, to decide, and until then we will discuss it. You are welcome to explore the city in the meantime, unless you are requested to return to your liege lords.”
The head elf shook his dark head. “No, we are to wait for your answer, your highness. We thank you for your hospitality.”
The other two murmured in assent, and he stood just so the poor blighters did not need to keep themselves folded up any longer. The rest of his council followed suit.
“Of course,” he said, and nodded. Taking the hint, people trickled out the door to the main halls, save Ker who stayed seated, no doubt waiting for Otrís to come grill him. Leaving him to it, he said to the elves, “my seneschal will get you settled,” just as the lanky man loped in. “If you are in need of anything, speak to him. It is my hope that tonight you will honour me with a meal, as you are of course honoured guests.”
More soft acceptance, and the three tall figures quickly converged on Billingr who, to his credit, did not even blink. Azaghâl quietly made his way to the door that led to his private quarters, unsurprised to see Otrís’ delicate face waiting for him just beyond the opening.
“Hello Otrís, how has your day been?” he asked as blandly as he could, just to watch her nose twitch – and the gleam in his wife’s eyes as she looked at him from beyond Otrís’ shoulders.
“You two are made for one another,” Otrís said darkly, making his wife smile. “Well, what did they want?”
“The High King Fingon, at the behest of his trusted cousin Maedhros Feanorion, is gathering an army to besiege the forces of Angband. We have been invited to join.”
The sparkle and smile both dropped from his wife’s face, and Otrís’ expression went blank. He nodded gravely.
It was a heavy request – but they had saved his life, and there was honour in knowing he was now trusted to possibly return the favour.
Otrís loved her sister, and often admired her, but now she did so doubly. The last minute addition of three elves to supper meant sourcing comfortable furniture – in this case, one of the resident Longbeards on staff had mentioned eastern elves that sit kneeling on pillows. Azaghâl had mentioned seeing no such thing in the halls of Maedhros, but they were creators and crafters, it was enough to spawn innovation. It also meant the chef was running around like a headless goose, but Otrís understood this to be the brusque dwarf’s preferred method of operation. All through it, her Avíss directed staff and saw to adjustments with a dedication that suggested she cared not at all that the elves had come to ask such heavy favours.
It was a good thing. To be a host was an honour, to be a bad host a disgrace that did not bear thinking of, and her sister’s skill both warmed her, and shamed her. Had she been in charge, she was not sure she could be asked to forget what they asked of her husband.
“If you keep frowning like that, you will be as aged as the mountains ere you reach your next half century,” her sister teased as they looked one another over for last minute fashion advice. As was typical, her sister floated effortlessly in her skirts, long blonde beard done up with beads and glinting with golden netting. Otrís was hardly a troll, but her preference for plainer styles sometimes did make her seem a bit the sparrow to a peacock.
“Well, someone needs to make sure you can finally be the pretty one,” Otrís said, forcing herself out of her frown. “Do not fret, I won’t scowl at the elves.”
“I’m not worried about that at all, you’ve never been as rude to guests as mother feared you would be,” Avíss said as she reached out and tugged one of Otrís’ necklaces slightly to the left. “This is a lovely kirtle – I don’t think I’ve seen it before?”
“Ker brought it back from that trip he took to the east, three decades past,” Otrís said, “I’ve worn it...but I suppose mostly around the house.” Her husband was no great intellect, but he was kind, and he was unfailingly generous. Otrís did not ask for much, as she loved him too much to take advantage, and she always made sure he knew she appreciated whatever he gifted her.
“Tsk, you would keep all that lovely embroidery to yourself. Copper thread! It’s so lovely against the green.”
“We will be late to your own dining room if you devote yourself to inspecting my hemlines for tips,” Otrís said through her sudden smile. Her sister grinned back, shameless.
“I’m sure they wouldn’t mind waiting a bit,” she said and Otrís snorted, shoving her lightly.
“Well I would. I skipped the noon repast when I heard what the chef was suddenly planning to unleash. I could eat Duneyrr right now and still demand more.”
Laughing, her sister took her by the elbow, and together they made their way to the receiving room. Ker and Azaghâl were both present, though they did not appear to have been waiting long. They both turned as they entered, straightening like soldiers awaiting inspection. Otrís laughed again, and hurried over to kiss her husband on the cheek.
“You look grand,” she told him, and he beamed.
“As do you. That’s the dress I bought you! Does Avíss like the embroidery?”
“Oh I do!” Avíss said from where she was tugging her husband’s perfectly arranged clothing into something beyond perfection. “I shall have to steal it from the laundresses, and inspect it.”
Her husband, well pleased with himself, just nodded happily and Otrís sighed, kissing him again. “You big oaf,” she said, more fondly than she once thought she would. All it did was make him smile more – indeed his face was mostly beard and grin when the seneschal glided into the room, bowing lowly.
“Your highness, my lord, my ladies, may I present Leithedir, Brethil and Hwinion, of the court of King Fingon.”
The three elves bowed very lowly indeed. Otrís could not fault their manners, and she was gratified to find they had taken as much pains to dress well as their hosts. Uniformly dark haired, they wore what hair they did have very long. There were not many decorations between them, but they had been on the road, and Otrís assumed that meant packing light. They were all dressed in the same colours – the High King’s colours, though one wore a band she knew meant he served under Lord Maedhros.
“We are honoured, and humbled, by your hospitality, your highness,” the shortest of the elves – for what little that meant – said.
Azaghâl nodded seriously, and there was a brief moment where it seemed, with the formalities out of the way, no one quite seemed what to do. If she had any doubt about his role before, she knew for certain why her husband had been given an invite – beyond the fact Otrís was very ready to invite herself and him with or without her sister’s approval. He easily bustled forward, shaking hands with all three and asking about their journey here.
“I don’t travel west much these days, roads aren’t safe,” he said as he sat himself down, an implicit invitation for everyone to follow suit. High benches and several pillows had been co-opted to suit the much lankier elven frames of their guests, and the three elves thankfully caught on very quickly, sitting with ease and apparently not remotely noticing the last minute nature of their construction.
Which maybe they didn’t, Otrís was a damned good builder and, it must be said, her brother in law was no slouch either.
“Yes, the line has broken and we must move with as much haste and stealth as we may, when we travel so far north,” Brethil said, and Hwinion smiled slightly.
“Unless of course we are serving as a distraction,” he said, and the other two elves nodded, laughing quietly. Her husband laughed right along, and Otrís felt a sudden spark of envy at his easy camaraderie. She at least summoned a smile. Being a bad hostess might be a nightmare, but making her sister scramble to make up for her recalcitrant little sister was hardly any better.
“Were you much harried on the way here, then?” she asked, both out of interest, some concern and to gauge how dangerous was danger in their minds.
“Not too bad, Morgoth’s eyes are fixed elsewhere than these plains for the moment. Getting out of Himring was the biggest challenge,” Leithedir said. “Do your patrols encounter much resistance?”
“Not generally, some enterprising goblins creep along the slopes but we’ve not taken any serious casualties yet,” Azaghâl said.
“Small mercies,” Leithedir said seriously. “We are glad to hear it though. Often we feel our role these days is to play the dancing fool so others slip beyond notice. It heartens us to hear it works.”
There was no anger or sadness in the elf’s words, not his companion’s faces – but it shone, carefully hidden, in Avíss’s face and Otrís was forced to sympathy.
“We are grateful for such steadfast allies,” Azaghâl said in ways that worried her nearly as much as the elves’ easy statement of sacrifice provoked compassion. Scything her eyes towards him she tried to gauge what he was thinking – but to her ire he hid it well.
No matter, she knew perfectly well. Her brother in law was principled beyond reproach. No doubt he was scheming to leave her sister a widow.
Which was the sticky web she found herself in. Otrís was not without sympathy, nor was she stupid. Morgoth was no friend to the dwarves, that they might weather his reign if he claimed the lands under the sky as his own in full. But she had always been her sister’s stalwart defender, even when Avíss herself was not.
And she did not think she could bear to see her sister weep over her husband. They had done so once already, certain of his death when the rage of Angband had fallen on them previously. She would not revisit it, not if she had any say.
By the time he got home everyone knew about the elves, and on top of that someone somewhere had found time to whisper into ears, and everyone thought they knew what they were here for.
Not that you would know, walking into his house to find his father still working, and his mother apparently oblivious.
“Hello Iri, Jari – how was your turn on the walls?” she asked as they tromped in.
“I was shifted to market watch,” Jari said. “So I missed all the excitement.”
“Yes, Iri saw elves, imagine!”
“Really? It’s been some time since anyone came to us – Nargothrond is it?”
Eyeing his mother, Iri was relatively certain she was up to date on the gossip, and just letting Jari feel like he was bearing news. And then he was certain, because as Jari launched into his fourth-hand account, she sent Iri a wink.
“And my little Iri saw it all did he?” she asked – yes definitely teasing. Iri fought the urge to cover his face, knowing he was likely red up to his ears.
“All I did was tell the captain of the guard,” Iri said. Jari elbowed him.
“Still more exciting than listening to grandmother’s bargain,” Jari said.
“And safer,” mother said, finally setting aside the paper she had been scribbling on and standing. “Alright, o mighty soldiers you can come help me make supper.”
“After a day of working? You’re a slave driver,” Jari grumbled, but gamely followed mother into the back all the same, where Varr had apparently already been sent to work. She brightened when they entered.
“Iri! You saw elves!”
“From afar, only,” Iri said.
“Is it true they’ve come to use the king’s life debt to the Feanorul?” she asked, speeding along as if Iri hadn’t spoken.
“That’s what the runners from the council are saying,” Jari said. “Doesn’t seem right, saving a king’s life and then demanding he give it up.”
“I doubt they’re demanding, the High King’s elves have ever been good allies to us,” mother said.
Jari made a little sound, but didn’t disagree. Varr didn’t know anything about elves, and Iri’s education hadn’t been very thorough on the details, he was now realizing. Shifting uneasily, he groped for something to add, but it was his mother who got the final word.
“I know you mourn your brother, Jari, and it speaks to your love. But there was no Belegost to protect the elves’ brothers and sisters, nor their elderly nor their children. Perhaps this is simply how they mourn.”
Iri had grown up with his mother’s soft, firm words. They had lulled him to sleep, corrected his mistakes, and always guided him forward. Now they settled in his chest like a warm glow, as the truth of what she said sank in. Next to him Jari’s mouth was downturned in a borderline pout, but he didn’t argue, and silence, save for the quiet instruction of his mother to Varr and the request to move between jobs, fell among them.
Galar had resisted the urge to bury his face in his hands for three days now – no more would he do it. As another round of arguments gathered around them, young hot heads yelling despite the table being barely a dwarf and half wide, and the king at the end of the table, firm faced and quiet, he wondered why he hadn’t retired when he had the chance.
Next to him Andvari at least was quiet, for all he was an incurable rabble-rouser. Of course, he was barely in his seventieth year, he was meant to be a little hot headed as of yet. Eyeing the younger man, he found himself being surveilled, and he tugged at his rapidly greying beard as he met the clear green gaze.
“The howling wind will never move a mountain,” Andvari said, “so what will move you, Galar?”
“Hmph,” Galar said, tugging at his beard again. He had not thought to be approached like this – Hugstari had already loudly spent yesterday outlining how Galar was an old fossil, and letting him make policy was as sensible as leaving it to their honoured dead.
Had he not been sitting on the other side of Andvari, Galar would have hit him upside the head. Yes, he was the oldest on the council – had served as a young man to King Azaghâl’s father, but he was hardly senile, and his lungs were as healthy as a bellows. No, he was not to be put up on a shelf just yet.
“Well, at least you’re smarter than your cousin,” he said. “So to reward your wisdom I’ll be honest. Nothing. I am safe in Belegost whether we march or not, but littering the ground with our young will not benefit us.”
“Nor will cowering in our mountain as it comes down around our ears spare them,” Andvari said, and Galar shook his head.
“The elves are not so spent and broken as they might fear, we are not needed boy, and we’d better look to our needs. It’s not reasonable to ask anyone else to do it.”
Andvari just hummed in response, and there was another long look – so very like his mother, Galar recalled her suddenly, a vibrantly glowing little thing, flitting around ballrooms and capturing hearts like the sky did sparks. Another of their young lost, though no one to blame.
Andvari finally looked away without adding anything, and Galar pushed the wandering thoughts to the background. Reminiscing in council wasn’t going to make young twerps listen to him – not that much seemed likely to do so. At the front the king shifted, and Galar bit back a smirk as he finally stood, startling the arguers who appeared to have forgotten where they were.
“Enough, if you are going to use my council to rehash personal problems, then we might as well retire. We return on the morn again – maybe you can all consider making your points in an orderly fashion.”
Shamed, the others shifted, murmuring apologies. Galar just smirked, and watched as they trailed out, one by one, marching like very tiny armies decamped against one another.
“You’ve something to say, councillor Galar?” the king asked, sounding a bit less frosty. Galar pursed his lips, and considered the king.
“Well you heard Hugstari, I’m on death’s door, should I waste my breath?”
The king’s mouth twitched slightly at that, and he inclined his head. “You have served long and well, I will take any of your advice with the honour it deserves, Galar.”
“And yet an honoured wind is still just wind to a mountain,” Galar said, remembering the boy councillor’s words. “Still, I owe it to our young to try. We have lived safe for many years, to march openly on the enemy is not just a question of being allies to the elves – it is to mark Belegost as the home of enemies.”
“You fear for the city then, should the gamble fail and Morgoth stay on his throne?” the king asked.
“Fear is not the same thing as prudence, your highness” Galar said.
“No,” the king agreed, gaze heavy and tone severe. “It is not.”
The bars near the market were always busy of course – good drink deserved patronage, Iri’s father had always said and Iri and his fellows in the guard agreed completely. Now, however, they were busy and also extremely loud. The king had declared a day ago the elves’ reasons for coming to Belegost – the rumours were true. Debates raged on what they should do, as if anyone outside the council were likely to have any say at all. For his part Iri thought it was grand – his mother was right, the enemy had stolen much from the elves. But also, the elves came from well beyond the horizon. He couldn’t go to their holds in the West, but he could at least get well into Beleriand at last. If the king decided not to muster the army and only take volunteers – as some thought he should do – then Iri already knew he would go.
“Mahal’s mighty hammer,” Jari muttered in his ear as he turned away from the Firebeard currently standing on a table loudly denouncing the folly of trying to force a confrontation. “I don’t disagree but I cannae take another fucking word from his lips.”
“Here, we’ll finish up and find somewhere else to drink,” Iri offered, and Jari’s amber eyes went wide with horror.
“This is our place! Our table! We can’t just give it up to LOUD MOUTHED LUMPS OF COAL FOR BRAINS,” he stood and turned abruptly to yell the last part stunning the bar into quasi-silence. Slowly, the drunken Firebeard turned to them with slightly bulging eyes.
“What did you call me, runt?”
“Ah, so that’s why you talk so loud is it, trying to hear yourself talk?” Jari shot back, and Iri groaned, trying to tug him back down. It was to no avail – Jari had barely stopped talking before the Firebeard launched himself across his table into Jari, knocking them both down into a tumble of red hair and beards that was hard to tell apart given all the thrashing they did.
Iri sighed, and drained his ale, and hoped against hope his nose would make it through this without another break before he leaned down to try and grab someone to restrain them – who didn’t matter.
Another supper was not needed, Azaghâl didn’t think. Instead he sought the elves out in their own rooms. They seemed surprised by his arrival at their door, but the three easily brought him in. The servant lent to them for their stay – for they were guests of the king, and not simple travellers – bustled off to get food and drink, and Azaghâl gratefully took a seat in their drawing room.
“Your majesty, allow us to apologize,” Leithedir said. “We have spent some time among your people – we sense there are problems beyond the request we may have inadvertently stumbled upon.”
Azaghâl paused, understanding the implicit question and wondering how much he wished to reveal to these three foreigners. After a moment, he decided that the broad strokes would serve.
“We are a people who value our privacy,” he said, because in a sense it was true. “The Dagor Bragollach startled many, and the losses we took weigh heavily on those close to them. We have always kept a step away from the world outside our doors, now there are some who think it would be safer to build walls, not gates.”
“Ah, I understand, in a way,” Hwinion said in his soft voice, but added nothing else. Unsurprising – he had proven an elf of few words. The other two elves nodded, and he sensed a story they would not tell. “Well, we apologize for applying pressure to the bruise, your majesty.”
Azaghâl shook his head, and fought a sigh – muttering a soft thanks as cold honey tea and crackers was set down between them. “It’s more a lancing of a wound. The council has been lively, but it is too long that we’ve dealt in whispers from shadowy corners – which is not our way. We speak out when there are words to be said, it is a good thing to return to it. And though I understand my people’s concerns, my mind is my own, and though I have kept it open for good advice, I find myself unpersuaded. I owe lord Maedhros my life, and even if I did not, it is remiss to think us removed enough from this world that we could weather all evil without aid. Now, tomorrow I will make my decree, and in a fortnight we will march to join your Union.”
The elves straightened a little, self-lit eyes widening. “Your majesty,” there was a pause as Leithedir clearly collected his thoughts. “We thank you. You have proven a steadfast ally. Your part in this Union – our Union,” he stressed the our , “will not be forgotten.”
“They do say the memory of elves is long,” Azaghâl said, and the three nodded, either missing or ignoring the slight humour in his words.
“Longer than you might think,” Brethil said. “Well, let us drink and eat, as allies and friends – if we may, your majesty.”
“Of course,” Azaghâl said. “To duty.”
Otrís paced her and Ker’s bedroom, an unpleasant feeling building in her head – behind her eyes and trickling down her throat. “This is madness,” she said, looking up to see her husband watching her from the doorway. “You see this, don’t you Ker? We did not come to Beleriand to war with the Powers, we came to live. All this will do will cement us as enemies – as yet we have escaped notice.”
“Not truly, our caravans have never travelled unmolested,” Ker said. She shot him a look.
“And this will better it?” she demanded. “No! It will make it all the worse, and then you too will be in danger, not just our king and all his men! Please, my love. Please go and remind the king of this – I know you did not speak in council today and I appreciate that you know when to hold your tongue but the time has passed!”
“You are right,” her husband said, and then to her surprise he brusquely walked up to her, catching her face in his hands. “What do you fear in truth, Otrís? You are not one to walk from a fight and I have left you to your council, as I know you well prefer, but now I must say as your husband – speak to me of your worries.”
She stared at him, tears pushing at her eyes, and fought the urge to push him away. At last she said, “You do not know what it was like, when we were young. My sister’s first troth broken by death, and my sister set to weeping for a could have been. And now, less than twenty years married, and she might return to that dark place! It is selfish, but I cannot bear to see my sister thus again. I am the moody one, she is built for smiling.”
“Ah Otrís, no one person is meant for one emotion. You have smiled many times, and your sister has no doubt cried when you were not there to see it. Avíss is strong, and the king is wise and clever, as well as a noble fighter and stalwart ally. And I will be there at his back, to protect him. You needn’t fear.”
Caught off guard, she jerked away. “What? You are no soldier! Surely you are not compelled to join?”
“Save for by the binds of marriage, no I am not,” he said. “I could easily remain with the quartermaster. But I have fought on my travels, many times, and I learned to fence with a sword before my words. I have already pledged myself to the king, and he has accepted this. It is beyond your ability to control, Otrís, so let go of your fear, it will not serve you any longer.”
Genuinely unable to think of what to say, Otrís just gaped at him, like a blind cave fish pulled rudely from the water. He waited though, for her to collect herself, and finally she did so.
“You,” she hissed, “have gone behind my back husband. Would that you had only chosen another’s bed but no, instead you betray not my body by my very soul! Out with you! Go attend to the king, since he is clearly more in your care than I!”
Ker, the brave fool, leaned over and kissed her cheek. She would have struck him, but the breathless terror in her chest kept her paralyzed.
“I will see you when we sup,” he said. Only when he was away did Otrís dare to let a tear – she thought to stop it there, but just as her husband had acted without asking her, so too, it seemed, did her emotions, and she fell to the floor in a puddle of skirts, sobbing into her hands.
She was still there when the door creaked open, and she barely registered her sister’s gentle voice.
“Oh Otrís,” warm arms wrapped around her. It was very much like being a little girl again, Avíss curled around her as monsters prowled the halls of their childhood home. Otrís no longer believed her sister was all the protection she would ever need – and yet, she curled into the embrace, trusting it to provide at least comfort. It was selfish she knew, she was not alone in being faced with cruel reality.
The three days at the end of a week were always chaotic. Iri liked it however – the bustle and noise of the market was just so incredibly lively. He often felt as if it created a sort of energy. It was a feeling his father often spoke of, found in the crafting halls and forges. Iri appreciated their people’s arts of course – how could he not, when they were the greatest to be found east or west of any mountain in Middle-Earth? But he was not a crafter; he was a soldier, and he found his sense of life in the bustle of people, be they brothers in arms or sellers hawking their wares.
His mother, on the other hand, was not known for her tolerance of pushing, shoving and yelling. Iri kept himself to her shoulder, acting as a shield so that she had room to walk, and allowing her to focus on her bartering. For all she said she loathed the market, Iri had always admired her dedication to getting a good deal.
“Four copper pieces and not one more,” she said as she eyed a bundle of radishes. “Don’t think I cannot tell these are from last season.”
“Five pieces,” the seller said, jaw set.
“One less than your last demand? Hardly,” his mother said, and turned to him. “Come along Iri, there are more tractable sellers who will appreciate our coin.”
“Pah!” the seller threw up his hands, “four pieces. Your mother’s tight fists are nearly as famous as her voice and fast fingers,” he said, and Iri beamed back.
“Indeed, I am honoured to be her son,” he said. Unity was important in negotiations – he and Varr knew this well, and he kept the truth of such things close to his heart. It earned him a chuckle from the seller, and a wink from his mother.
“You-” the seller was cut off by the shrill of a trumpet.
Confused, they all three turned towards the central square – and Iri’s eyes went wide when he saw the bristling King’s Guard around the stage that sat there. The king’s banners wavered in the air, and on the platform – causing the noise of the crowd to briefly dip, and then surge in whispers – was none other than the king’s own herald.
“What in Mahal’s great halls?” his mother said, and Iri could only shrug, eyes glued on the king. “Does he mean to announce his decision here and now?”
“I guess – what else could it be?” Iri asked, and he smiled as his mother sent him a worried look, her eyes dark with worry. “Don’t fret mother,” he said, voice raising just enough to be heard over the herald’s introduction.
“It is a mother’s prerogative,” she said, and then placed a quelling hand on his arm as the herald finally looked up, expression clear and proud even from across the market.
“-and so it is, good people of Belegost, as many have no doubt heard our allies among the elves have asked us for our aid. They seek to end, once and for all, the threat of Dwargoth. As he is our enemy as much as theirs, our lord king Azaghâl, first of his name has declared thus: in two weeks time, on the night of the Budding moon the army will muster forth, and join the Union of Maedhros, and bring our own banners to those of the high king and his vassals, human and elven alike. So it is signed, so it is decreed.”
Again there was a brief silence, and then, unlike before, the noise of the market was not a rushing-roar of whispers, the deafening shouts of dwarves with opinions. His mother’s lips were pressed together, and she turned on her heel. She didn’t have to say what she was thinking – that buying now would be more trouble than it was worth, and so Iri obediently followed at her heels, barely remembering to grab the radishes as they went.
Iri’s mother didn’t say much as she helped him pack. Varr did – an endless prattle of questions and meaningless suggestions he struggled to keep up with, but even she had run out of things to say as the time wore on. It seemed to him as if no one had spoken in days, not even father, who had emerged from his work long enough for a few meals, seemed to have anything to say.
Despite himself, it was making Iri nervous. Toying with the buckles of his half-donned armour, he was wondering if he’d made some sort of horrible mistake when there was a knock at his door. A moment later, his mother and Varr entered.
“Am I running late?”
Mother shook her head.
“No, but I thought you could use help.”
He should have said no, that he was a grown dwarf who could dress himself. Instead he nodded, and the two got to work. It was silent at first, just the whisper of leathers and soft clanks of metal, and then, softly, his mother started to sing.
It was an old Longbeard song, one he’d only heard very rarely. He knew it though, and so did Varr, and quietly, they joined in as they continued their work.
Azaghâl had spent most of the previous night bidding farewell to Avíss, so that their public parting might be less tearful, if not easier. Not that he ought to have worried, Avíss was beautiful as she ever was, back straight and eyes cleared, as she spoke to the gathered army.
“Go forth, Army of Gabilgathol. You march in the name of our Maker, and though the heart of the mountain remains with us here in the city, within you my people rests its spirit. Serve it well, and return to us and the Stone in your time.”
The cheer that followed gave the king all the cover he needed, he met her eyes, and pressed his hand to his chest. Her eyes, glittering in the morning sun, creased ever so slightly.
I love you , she said, her fingers splayed across her chest. Return my heart.
I will. I will. He said in the privacy of his own mind, where it could do no harm. To her, he simply said, and I love you, my own heart .
And then he turned and the heralds called the army to begin its march as the great gates of Belegost groaned open for the first time in most dwarves’ lives.
The night after their march found the dwarves settled near other even later arrivals - a handful of dark skinned, dark eyed men who were all very stern faced until they decided you were an alright sort, and whose tents were largely red-woven fabric, as well as an army of elves that had, apparently, appeared quite out of nowhere, unlooked for. Stationed on the edge of their camp closest the nexus of these two disparate groups, Iri found himself longing to slip between their foreign rows and explore.
Having no desire to spend the battle chained up for even mild forms of desertion, he instead stared intently at everyone who passed by. Be they tall elven warriors in gleaming armour, laughing in the gloaming and shining with an eerie light all their own, quick footed humans in grim faced, hushed clusters or any sort of camp following, dragging last minute projects from one place to another, he watched. It wasn't watchfulness however - no, they were different and new and Iri very badly wanted to talk to every single one of them.
No one stopped to talk to him however, except his own people, and those just his fellow guards.
"Why the glum face, hoping to see more action tonight, Buriul?" one of the older guards, a man who had survived the Sudden Flame alongside the king, and lost an eye and an ear for it, clanked as he settled into a relaxed stand nearby. Intimidating though he was, Iri was somewhat relieved it was not Jari, who had not stopped grumbling about open skies and strange creatures since they left the mountain. And then Iri felt a prick of shame, for Jari was a dear friend and his discomfort was not something Iri should, even privately, resent or mock.
"Something like that," Iri said, unable to look him in the remaining eye, both for his lack of compassion toward a brother in arms and heart, and because he could not admit he wanted to talk to the strangers. In doing so, a trio of very tall elves caught his eye - they were laughing, the tallest of them had the other two in some sort of head lock.
Iri had no idea elves did that.
"Ha, well count yourself lucky. You'll see action aplenty soon enough, and wish you hadn't."
"Will it be all that bad, you think?" Iri asked, finally turning to look at the man - who he found was also inspecting their merry allies.
"Well, the elves don't seem too concerned," he said - and somehow they heard him. The one nearest turned and flourished with a little bow.
"Forgive us if we've disturbed you," he said, though his eyes glittered in the new starlight, they didn't glow, and his Taliska was passable - at least to Iri's inexpert ear. "We are simply pleased to reunite with long sundered kin."
The tall elf - who was also very, very broad, even to a good dwarvish eye, said something that Iri did not understand. Their third member replied in equally alien words, but the tone was one Iri knew well.
Don't joke about that!
Their speaker, grinning, shook his head, and Iri's unlooked for partner waved a hand. "Ach, no trouble here sir elf. Enjoy your night."
"You two, good dwarf!" He tacked on something Iri didn't understand, but his partner nodded.
"What did he say?" Iri asked once he thought the elves were out of earshot.
"No clue, but they're always muttering it as they tromp off to go stab things or roam around on those ghastly horses of theirs. Some sort of good luck parting I guess."
"Oh," Iri said, and then suddenly very conscious of how he didn't know anything at all about a single one of their allies, asked, "...should we have said something back?"
"Doesn't seem to be expected," the other man said, patting him. "And besides, we come with much more tangible forms of luck, we call 'em axes."
Iri’s ears were still ringing when one of the older guards hauled him to his feet. Around them lay dwarves, some groaning, some silent and some stilled in a shape that wasn’t quite right. He looked away from those fastest, instead looking to those standing. His left arm hung useless next to him, a sharp, burning pain at least telling him it was still there. Looking about he swallowed, blinking past tears of pain. The smell of dragon blood, burnt hair and half-melted armour was still strong, and he choked on his first few breaths.
“The King...?” he managed, and the pale eyed woman grimaced.
“Can you walk?” she asked, and he nodded. “Alright, we’ll bind up that arm and you can join us in searching.”
Iri could only nod, his words sticking in his throat. She just patted him on the shoulder, as if she understood, and they went their separate ways. Few people spoke, except to call for help. Iri found he had few reasons to call out at all, once he joined in the searching.
It seemed to him that most of the living were already standing – except looking around he did not see the king, nor Jari.
The march back to Belegost felt longer, and maybe was, weighed down by their dead. At the head of the bleak parade the king had been laid out. Iri kept to the back.
Jari had not wanted to see the world – the harsh, terrifying world – and so Iri would see him returned to the Stone he loved.
Six days and five nights after the Army of Belegost returned, the city’s people turned out en masse to bid farewell to their dead. A sea of white and black dressed figures had piled into the central market space, cleared of any suggestion of commerce. At sunrise that day the list of the dead had finally started being read, names given back to the stone one by one. Just shy of a third of the force were to be interred, and to give each name the gravitas it deserved meant it would take at least two days, maybe three.
Otrís stared out at Belegost’s mourning masses and found her own pain numbed – neither Azaghâl nor Ker had returned to Belegost. To her or her sister. She had groped for the rage she felt entitled to – for the abandonment, for the wane look of Avíss’s face. But every time she did, she found only tears and the desire to weep.
So she turned away from it all. She stayed straight-backed, and dry-eyed, the picture of a princess of Belegost, ready to bear the weight of the very mountain if she had to. Her only concession to her own pain she held in her hand, and was her sister’s white knuckles intertwined with hers.
The time-keeping fires drew low. The mourners’ cries became fainter.
And the names continued.
Iri did not know how long he sat in the gardens, but it was long enough for parts of him to go numb. Jari’s mother and father were not nobles, but they weren’t poor. They’d opted to have Jari buried in the small greenspace they owned, where his grandparents laid. As tribute, he was next to Nýi, whose body would never otherwise be returned to the stone, lost to the grasping hands of Angband.
“Come Iri,” a soft, small voice startled him from his teary eyed silence, and he turned as he felt small hands on his shoulder. Varr looked back at him, her dark eyes soft. “Jari would not wish for you to sit in silence and weep until you go grey. Come and eat, and at least share your sorrows with those who loved him also.”
Iri swallowed past the lump in his throat, and blinked uselessly – more tears simply fell. “I cannot,” he choked. “It’s- it feels wrong.”
“Why?” she asked, kneeling next to him, “did he not turn to you when Nýi died?”
“Yes but – Jari never wanted to leave Belegost. I did, and we did and now he is dead and it feels...” he dashed helplessly at his cheeks, trying to dry them. “I feel I betrayed him somehow.”
“Oh Iri,” Varr said, and wrapped her arms around him. “It’s not your fault.”
“I know, but it feels as if it is,” he said and she kissed his cheek.
“Come inside,” she said again, stepping away only so she could tug him upwards. “Let mama feed you. Jari will be here when you come back.”
“And every time until I stop,” he said glumly and she nudged him.
“Like he always was,” she said, lacing their hands.
Iri let her tug him away from the burial site. The pull of guilt was strong, but so too were the arms of the ones he loved.
May it be, he thought, that the pull of love would always be stronger than any other.