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Blood to Iron

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There was one tall tower in the citadel of Himring. At its pinnacle, beneath the pointed roof and the banner of silver and black, there was one room. And in the room stood one elf-man.

He had taken the high stair when messengers had told him of a rider who came. There, he had bid his vassals to leave him to wait, and bring the rider to him. The vassals had obeyed, and said they would leave him alone.

Maedhros knew better. He gazed out the tower’s window, open to the wide plain of Ard-Galen, and kept his eyes locked on the shadowy horizon. He could see a line of mountains beyond the plain, one tall, sharp peak oozing dark fumes. It was called Thangorodrim, and from there the heart of evil’s will sent out its force. Looking upon Thangorodrim, though it was small in the distance, Maedhros felt he did not wait alone.

Maedhros was heedless of the cold wind that scythed across the plain and into the tower, as if driven by malice. His strong face, renowned for its beauty, did not twitch before it, and his storm-grey eyes did not blink. Using his only hand, he brushed a stray lock of auburn hair away from his face. Without looking away, he reached above his head with that singular left hand.

There was a looped chain above the window, looking lonely and misplaced. It had swayed in the wind until he took it and drew it taut. As he did so, a grim smile unsettled his beauty. He shook out his right arm. Below the elbow, hidden in the folds of a long black sleeve, was a stump, bound in black linen.

At the sound on the stairs, he looked over his shoulder, then locked his eyes on the shadow in the North with a new fervor. “With one chain, you bound me. With another, I have gained a victory over you. And now he comes, and I will tell him of that victory.”

“We will see if he lets me keep it.”

Fingon had ridden to Himring with hope and fear churning in his breast. At his last visit, it had been an amazement to see how his peer and lover, Maedhros, was treated by the people whom he ruled. It seemed as if they had transferred the veneration they had once given the Valar onto their lord, an elf as they were elves. To his further astonishment, this adoration had been extended to Fingon himself. “We have both been touched by the Valar,” Maedhros had explained. “They answered your plea for aid to release me from my torment as I hung in Morgoth’s chain on the cliff of Thangorodrim. To them, this shows that we are not forsaken as we fight Morgoth, here in this Middle-earth.”

While Fingon acknowledged that the Valar had most definitely replied to his plea, he did not think it deserved such unsettling devotion. If the eagle that had come to lift him to where Maedhros had hung was a sign of the Valar, then he’d been favoured every time he rode a horse, or petted a hound. Perhaps he had been; perhaps everyone was. Still, Maedhros had, indubitably, been touched by one of the Valar; by Morgoth, who had taken him in battle, harrowed his spirit, and then put him to ensorcelled torment.

At this visit, Fingon was hoping that, now that the raising of Himring was done, his boon companion had found some ease. There had been a great many Elves who had left the land of Aman for Middle-earth, whether by the ships commandeered by Fëanor or by the long road of the Grinding Ice. Most of them had sought a freedom. For some it was just avoiding the shame of return; others wished to walk again Middle-earth where they or their kin were born; more wanted the freedom to explore new things and meet elves unknown.

Fingon too had his dream of freedom. In his deeps, he had hoped, in a land where the old ways of the elf-people might change, to walk down a hallway, have the folk who passed be well aware he was off to meet his virile lover, and for it not to distress anybody much. The dream had faded as he crossed the Grinding Ice. Here in Himring complete, with Maedhros’ folk, it came back to him. The touch of fulfilment in the honour he was shown was sweet. But would Maedhros be free enough to taste that sweetness with him?

It was far from certain. There had been only two ways to free Maedhros from the unbreakable gyve that bound him to Thangorodrim’s cliff; to slay him or to hew off his hand. Fingon had stayed with Maedhros as he healed for as long as he might, but duty had divided them. The first time they had met anew, it seemed that Maedhros had recovered, for the most part. He was canny enough, both accepting the allegiance of half the host of Fëanor’s followers, and acting as a political sacrifice, forfeiting his kingship and retreating to watch against Morgoth at the edge of Ard-Galen. The second time, Maedhros had seemed very much his craftsman father’s son as he supervised the building of the grey fortress. But these faces and skills were not Maedhros’ heart.

At each visit, his lover had learned that whenever Maedhros slept, his memory-dreams had revolved around his torment on the height, and he was drawn and restless. He had not been eased by the deeds he had done to put things right amongst the Noldor.

Of the grave folk of Himring, the one who came to get Fingon had been, in the past, merrier than most: Maedhros’ own body-servant and esquire, Rodendil. He said nothing about Fingon’s preparations, even though he had washed after his ride, rebraided his dark hair, and donned a cloak and tunic of red. He simply murmured, “Well met, my lord. What brings you here so unexpectedly?”

“I had a wish to see my friend; no more and no less. My usual impulsiveness. I did not tarry long enough to let anyone burden me with politics, have no fear,” smiled Fingon.

“Then follow me,” was Rodendil’s only reply. Fingon’s mood began to plunge. A lord had few secrets from his body-servant. In the past, Rodendil would have had a daring quip for him. Today Rodendil did not even meet his eyes as he gestured to Fingon to follow.

Fingon strode after him. They went up a high stair that had been half-built when he was last there, and along finished floors that had been raw before. To Fingon’s alarm, they went past the doors that he knew led to Maedhros’ private chambers, passing instead to a tower stair. “Where are you taking me?” Fingon asked.

“To my lord’s lookout,” was the brief reply.

“Up these stairs? Then I shall go alone.” The esquire fell back with considerable relief. Fingon scaled the stairs, his unease growing.

And thus he entered the tower chamber, to see his lover standing before a window, clasping a chain with one hand, head turned to see him. “Well come, dear friend,” he said. Fingon stopped still, staggered, as memories he too had struggled to set aside possessed him.

“So you feel it too, then,” said Maedhros. “Sight plays on your remembrance as well.” He released the chain and came forwards. “Seeing me hanging by one wrist, did you think again of me on the walls of Thangorodrim?”

“You know I did. You have been troubled – have you gone mad?” Fingon said. “Either that or you use your skill at politics on me. I thought we agreed to leave that out of our quarrels.”

Maedhros met this near-anger calmly. “I have no quarrel with you, beloved. But you may have one with me when we are done. And this is a matter for us as lovers. I needed you to remember, for what I will now say. Will you hear me?”

Fingon collected himself. Not knowing whether to brace himself for a quarrel or a bout of sorrow, he said heavily, “I will listen.”

“The news is both good and ill. You recall that the memory of Morgoth’s torment never left me. Every time I sought rest, I saw it before my eyes. I am healed and free of that, now.” Fingon’s mood changed like a bonfire in a high wind blazing up. Maedhros lifted his arm to still Fingon’s rising joy; without thinking, he had raised his right arm, bare of its hand.

Despite this, Fingon cried, “Yé utevinyes! What fair thought brought this to be?”

“You saw me there clinging to the chain, and were ill at ease. I too had such a flinch at memory. In the making of Himring, one day I happened to glance at a chain hanging against a block of stone. I was sick with remembrance, remembering the gyve that bound me during my long torment. Standing safe amidst my people, I quailed and felt darkness upon me again. I felt my hand again as a ghost, a suffering shadow. And I thought; what am I afraid of?”

Maedhros shifted his body to face Fingon fully. “I realized how deep was my terror of torment renewed. It was gnawing at my life. You and a few others had seen it. Did I not master it, I knew the fear would consume me and drive me into folly, as hatred did to my father. I thought of the last pain I felt in Angband; the pain you gave me, cutting off my hand and freeing me. And I bethought the way to free myself again, this time from the fear…”

“So you faced the chain, clasped it and found it harmless? Well and wise, beloved,” Fingon said.

“In part.” Maedhros turned and looked out the window. “I faced the chain, clasped it, and, yes, found it harmless. Then I bid someone to thrash me until I bled.” Softly, he added, “I had tried putting myself to pain. But it was not enough.”

Fingon’s mouth was empty of words.

To his silence, Maedhros said, “Perhaps you think me all the deeper into madness? I have wondered that. I wanted to be able to laugh in the face of torment. I wanted to turn my blood to iron, to be as unbreakable as the gyve that once bound me.”

Fingon unfroze. “You did this more than once? But why? Where the cure, where is the good, in this?”

“Every time, I felt the dark tide of my fear withdraw more. It was so alike, and yet so unlike. Taking the suffering from a fellow elf, reminded me of why I needed to endure, for my people and those I loved, and the oath love led me to.” Fingon wondered which oath Maedhros meant at that. There had been several; oaths of love and kinship, and oaths of vengeance. But Maedhros spoke again.

“I have not come to my ill news, yet. It is that I came to feel like I betrayed our love, every time I felt the touch of another on me.” Maedhros shed the tranquillity of his recollections at last, and sorrow and shame broke his voice.

The wind of his mood changing, Fingon cried, “Even though they gave you nothing but pain? What did you do? Tell me! Where was this done?”

“In this high chamber. The wind reminds me,” said Maedhros.

“No, on your body, your fea. You say it makes you feel you betray me. So tell me what it is you do and feel. Tell me!” he shouted, come to anger, and near despair.

Maedhros, as ever, stayed even-tempered before his lover’s changing moods. If anything, he seemed relieved, as if he had had a response he expected. He responded to the interrogation by returning and lifting his arm to grasp the chain. “I stand here, thusly, with my back to the one helping me. For my torment, I bid these be made, after the style of the Balrogs’ flails.”

Maedhros walked to the wall near the door, where some items had hung unnoticed. He unhooked three flails; one a strap, one of nine tails, each with a brutal knot, one with braided tails like tentacles. He held them out to Fingon. “Then I bid them be wielded, as I had seen thralls tormented. Across my back. My legs. Everywhere.” Fingon stepped up and took one of the flails, as if proffered a dead snake. Still terrifyingly unperturbed, Maedhros added, “I bid this done until I was gagged, to hide my cries from those outside the chamber. I learned that it takes far longer to reach that point, when you have chosen your suffering.”

Fingon eyed the flail in his hand, astounded. It was of dark leather chased with silver, to match the black livery of Maedhros’ house. The leather was exquisitely tooled. Maedhros could not have made it single-handed. Someone had thought it fit to lavish craft on this item made to torment Maedhros, his Maedhros, and it brought him the first spark of jealousy. “Were you clad?”

“As I was clad on Thangorodrim. At least here my loincloth is clean,” said Maedhros, dryly.

Fingon only said, “Stand to the chain, again.” Maedhros replaced the other two flails on the wall, then did so. Fingon looked and judged. “It would be chaste with your clothes on. But not without them. Not with your beauty.”

Again, Maedhros turned his face to meet Fingon’s eyes. “But chaste it was. There is more terror in it than you may think, even among our fair folk.” The chain clinked as Maedhros drew it tighter. “With my fear of torment gone, this was the worst that remained; telling you of my choice. Just because I chose further torment does not mean I wanted to torment you.”

The words filled Fingon’s mouth; you’re mad. But he kept them caged behind his clenched jaw. Had he not known himself mad twice before? The first was to think that, eluding all tradition, he and another elf-man might love. The second was the fiery urge to wrest his lover back. He had not stopped to ask for aid, but gone forth in secret, not waiting for wisdom to make him craven. The madness – and the rightness – had carried him forth, alone. It had possessed him until the bone of Maedhros’ wrist cracked beneath his hewing.

Perhaps something like that was kindled in Maedhros, now. He had not surrendered to Morgoth. He had defied his powerful father. And now he stood confessing, tense with pride and honesty, and admitting his fear. There was an awful power to the moment. For again Fingon was struck by memory; the last time Maedhros had been so raw with him was upon Thangorodrim’s height, pleading for mercy in death.

Fingon lifted the flail slightly and said, “Let me see for myself, before I say?”

For the first time, Maedhros’ fear showed clearly in his face, yet also there was hope. The two lovers passed close as Maedhros disengaged himself from the long sleeves and slim vest. Fingon took the fabric, still warm from the white body that stood revealed, and laid it aside. When he looked up again, Maedhros was tall and stretched, with the chain once more, and waiting.

Fingon’s first strike was tentative.

He shook his head, and swung the flail without coming near, gaining the feel of it. Briefly, he brushed back Maedhros’ hair, then went to his place again. “That did not hurt you, no?”

His eyes closed, Maedhros nodded. The sombreness of a trance had fallen on him.

The second time, the flail Fingon wielded left a mark, a stripe harsh as sunset’s colour. Maedhros exhaled.

The third blow Fingon sent across the other shoulder. This time, the leather cracked against flesh loud as a thunder-clap in the silent room. Instantly, another stripe blossomed. Maedhros tilted his head forwards and made a sound, more than breath, less than speaking.

Fingon felt his own skin blazing as he gripped the flail. His guts roiled. What he saw now must have been what Maedhros was like at the start of his endurance, the first time Maedhros issued his strange commands in this lookout. Fingon’s imagination painted what he would be like twelve strikes forwards; marked and proud, the white skin reddened, a glint of triumph in his eyes. And perhaps a touch of blood?

Even imagining a drop of blood was too much. He could not bring this torment to its full flower. His voice rough, Fingon said, “If someone endured you long enough to torment you to screaming, they had a chaste heart, indeed. For I cannot.” He stepped up, closing the gap between them, near enough that his breath was on Maedhros’ nape. “Your beauty breaks me, and I must love you.”

“Then I do betray you.” Maedhros withdrew the hand from above and crossed his arms over his chest, making his naked, marked back arch. “I will do this no more, then.”

“Did I say that? No. I said that another is more chaste than I. This is not madness. I don’t know what it is. But I love you enough to endure its mystery, if it brings you the iron blood you seek.” Fingon gently closed the last gap between them, with a touch he knew Maedhros was too proud to ask for. “I hurt you so much. I maimed you. I would have slain you.”

Maedhros turned in such a way that Fingon’s touch was unbroken. “Yes. For love.” To Fingon’s eyes, the entire quality of Maedhros’ face had changed. It was not the mask of lordliness or stoicism he saw; it was his lover’s expressive face again.

Fingon glared out the tower window. “Then let Morgoth Bauglir see that you have it, and let it wound him as a harbinger of your oath’s triumph.”

“Our triumph,” said Maedhros, laughing. “For it will come.” His mouth, pressed to Fingon’s, was warm with a slight taste of blood.

Fingon’s lips parted to accept, and they were heedless before the window, though the scything wind howled until the banner above snapped like a flail. They had no care for it as they stepped down from the place of confrontation, following their love to a chamber they would share, for a time.

The autumn night was long in Himring, and after their taste of madness, their games were wild. Years later, Maedhros said to Fingon that they had played on ansereg’s very edge that night, though what they tasted had no word to bound its flickering flames. They shared their passion of old, renewed beyond tenderness, with a fire that burned away shame. Maedhros confessed every strange deed, and named those who had aided him. Fingon, rich with his lover alive in his embrace, forgave them all. Maedhros was less forgiving of himself; he urged Fingon to ravish him, pin him and force him. It could not have been done had not Maedhros been as wax to his lover’s touch.

Fingon sought within himself for a gift of the bedchamber to match it, and found several. He shivered and stiffened as Maedhros toyed about him with a certain knife. With his eyes closed, he whispered permission for Maedhros to do as he pleased with it, and the blade lingered long at Fingon’s right wrist. He opened his eyes once, to see Maedhros ablaze like a forbidden jewel. When Maedhros set the blade aside, it was to take the second gift that Fingon offered, Fingon himself to the deeps. Maedhros made that strong noble tremble to his tall bones, and cry out that he blessed the knife and gyve that had brought them to that hour.

The next morning, it chanced that Maedhros went to the side chamber to wash when his body-servant brought hot water and cold. Fingon did not go in then. He waited until the servant, Rodendil, walked out of that room. Passing by, Rodendil lowered his head, again not looking at his lord’s companion.

Rodendil’s shyness had a world of new meaning after Maedhros’ revelations. The iron that had seized Fingon before seemed to return. He asked the esquire, “You love your lord beyond your station, do you not?”

With trembling hands, the esquire set down the ewer he carried. “What brings you to ask, sir?”

Fingon snapped, “You have seen him at his fairest. He told me everything.”

The esquire whirled about, his fair face gone grey. He fell to his knees. “I beg of you, don’t send me from him! I’d do anything for him –” Collecting himself, he added, “I know he is not mine to love as you do. He is my lord. I must follow him as he bids me. Forgive me, I beg. I’d endure as he endures, to show myself worthy of his service. You could wreak it upon me yourself, lord, to see the truth of it.”

Fingon gentled with mercy at this desperate bid. More fear, he saw before him, and more aching for forgiveness. But even then, he did not understand the power of what Maedhros had unleashed. He replied without knowing that his words hammered the first link in a long chain. “You’ll have to find somebody else for that. I am faithful to him. And you keep to your faithful service, too; give him what he needs, as he said before. I command it. Do we understand each other?”

A clear voice came from behind him. “By your words, I think we all do.”

The pair in the centre of the room turned. Maedhros had come out and was standing calmly, white linen folded around his waist. “Thank you,” he added, with his same proud softness. He placed a hand on Fingon’s shoulder.

Fingon, in turn, reached down and gave the pale esquire a hand to draw him up. The three were linked briefly, for a moment. Then a cold wind rattled the room’s great window, and the esquire took the chance to slide away, leaving the two lovers looking together towards the wind’s source, the shadowed North.