His breath came short. Every movement of his chest, every jolt of the litter was agony. The axe of Gothmog, chief of Balrogs, had smashed most of his ribs. He could feel them cutting into him with every movement.
The armour had turned the edges of the axes well. But the weight of them! It was more than Fëanor had thought was possible. They thudded into him like hammers, working him like red-hot metal, as the whips of fire cracked around him.
They’d beaten him too long. He coughed, and white pain shot through him: red stars filled his eyes. He was not so much tempered metal, as overworked and cracking: no use for anything any more.
The litter was tilting. They were going uphill now. It shifted his weight slightly, and suddenly he was acutely, terribly aware of the fractured hip. He could hear his own breath wheezing harshly. His mouth tasted of blood and iron. He fought to keep his eyes open, fought to hold onto awareness, fought over each breath as if his enemy had come to steal it.
The mountain-path was steep. Looking out across the wide shadowy plain below, Fëanor could see the distant, looming mountain-wall, black against the starry sky, lit here and there with points of red fire.
As he watched, a great bloom of flame erupted from the westernmost peak, dyeing the whole nearest wall of the mountain-fortress red. Then the flame died, and across the vast lower slopes uncountable numbers of tiny flames crawled across the black. The mountainside was fortified, terrace and cliff-wall, and every wall and door and peak was defended by armies clad in iron.
He had not realised that his enemy had prepared so well. He had thought that he was alone, save for Ungoliant, and perhaps a few servants. He had always been alone before, in Valinor. Fëanor had not imagined this great three-peaked mountain-fortress at the gate of Angband, defended by demons of fire and regiments of twisted slaves, backed by a vast unconquerable mountain wall.
No force of the Noldor could hope to overcome such entrenched and overwhelming power.
Breath by breath, jolt by jolt, Fëanor was losing the battle. He could feel his grip on life loosening. The pain was fading now, into grey mist, and it would have been welcome were it not for unfinished business.
“Stop!” He could barely manage a whisper, but they heard him. The litter was set gently down upon the mountainside and they gathered before him, eyes bright under the stars, hiding the terrible peaks. His tall sons, strong and deadly. These at least would be loyal beyond question, loyal to the last.
“Curse...him,” he managed. Maedhros leaned forward, trying to hear. Fëanor summoned his remaining strength. “Curse him!”
“My dying curse... lies on my Enemy, and on his form and on all his power, “ he said. The curse steadied him, and he was able to manage a faint echo of the voice that had called them all out to follow him across the Sea. “I can stay no longer. I lay it on you, my sons, to hold to your oath. Repeat it now and avenge your father!”
“We will!” they said with one voice, and began to call out the words, defiantly. " Be he foe or friend, be he foul or clean, brood of Morgoth or bright Vala, Elda or Maia or Aftercomer...”
The pain and the greyness surged again, in nauseating alternate waves. Fëanor could not hold to his dying body any longer. He had said all there was to say.
But Fëanor, of all the Noldor, had thought hardest and longest about death: about the choice that lay before him. Even the Valar could not take that choice from him. It was the gift of Eru. He did not simply let go. He waited for the wave, gathering every scrap of the fire of his spirit, every resource left in this broken body, and then he leaped.
Behind him, stripped of everything that had held it together, his body fell to ash. High above, Fëanor hung against the stars, without form or weight. The dark wind blew through him, and he shivered automatically, before realising that shivering was no longer something he could do.
Then he heard the summons, like a clear horn-call echoing out of the West. The call of Mandos, to return to Aman, to shelter in the Halls. He began, unthinking, to move towards it. Far below, the lamps carried by his sons and their people began to move again along the steep path up into the land the grey-elves called Hithlum.
He thought of of the Halls of Mandos, where the dead wait, unable to act, unable to make new things, unable to do anything but watch. Trapped into inaction, under the grim rule of Mandos, until the Valar should, perhaps, graciously choose to release them back to life. His mother was there, and now his father was gone behind those doors too.
But they would not take him . He had a choice, and his oath held him to his purpose, strong as a band of steel. Fëanor stopped, high above the open hillside.
The horn-call sounded again, louder this time, more imperative.
Slain ye may be, and slain ye shall be: by weapon and by torment and by grief; and your houseless spirits shall come then to Mandos. There long shall ye abide and yearn for your bodies, and find little pity though all whom ye have slain should entreat for you.
That was what Mandos had said. A bleak fate for the king of the Noldor and their leader in rebellion. And for all the posturing of the Valar, for all their threats that their wrath would follow Fëanor and his sons wherever they went, they had no power to insist that he obey their summons.
Fëanor turned away, looking out over the wide lands east of the mountains. One last time the summons sounded, and then it ceased.
Unhindered by the material eyes of a body, it was strange how much more you could see. The land shone with a subtle sheen, as if the reflected starlight were many times brighter. Through it all, like a web, Fëanor could see the dark taint of Morgoth, spreading faint through shadow, rock and tree. Spiralling inward at last to the great three-headed mountain, it pulsed faintly when the volcano flared, and it was cold, colder than ice.
It repulsed him. The bitter cold of Morgoth struck at him, biting painfully into the wounds that still showed on the spirit-echo of his body. He found himself moving west again without thinking, away from the sullen glow of the three-horned mountain.
No. No. No. He would not go running back to the Valar, like a child with a broken toy — as if the Valar would do anything but imprison him, anyway. He would make his own way. His oath held him, giving him strength.
He was still a spirit of power, for all that he was unbodied. Perhaps they could not hope to overthrow the mighty fortress of Angband and bring down Morgoth at the heart of his power, not yet — but that did not mean giving up entirely. The Enemy was still only one person, no matter how great his power.
* * * * *
The last of the pale Elf-lamps were disappearing over the pass, west into Hithlum.
Let them go . He would carry the fight to the Enemy’s stronghold himself, alone. Let the Balrogs come: without a physical form to harm, his flame shone brighter than any of theirs.
There on the mountainside, without tools, without needing any forge save his own fierce will, he fashioned a spirit-blade, made from the power of his vanished body, made from anger, skill and runes drawn upon the rock. The edge shone in the starlight with a bitter cold.
He made no scabbard for it. He did not intend to need one.
He swiftly crossed the shadowed flatlands that lay between Eithel Sirion and the lower slopes of Thangorodrim, and came at last to the great steep-walled valley that led deep into the mountainside, banded with black iron, and lit red with countless watching flames.
Spreading through the still air, through the ground underfoot, the harsh, acidic taint of Morgoth was everywhere, becoming more solid, more and more an obstacle that he had to push through as he approached the iron gates. Despite himself, Fëanor’s pace slowed.
Then the Balrogs came. They needed no physical form to find him. Now he was bodiless, he could see them as spirits of pure darkness, darker than the mountain-shadow. The flames that had attacked his body could not be seen. All the better. He lashed out at the first with his spirit-blade, leaving it stumbling in his wake, then cut the second clean in two. The third retreated, silently: too dark to see where it had gone to hide. No matter.
The Gates of Angband were not made only of iron. They were made of some sorcerous substance, stronger than stone and tainted through and through with the poisonous essence of Morgoth. Fëanor found it hard to even look at them, but he lifted his spirit-blade, and attacked them anyway.
The doors rang with the sound, echoing into the dark, but they did not give way. Not with the first blow, and not the tenth. If the sword had been made of any physical metal, it would have been notched, but Fëanor strengthened it with his own will, and it held. Still, no-one came to challenge him.
A movement, some distance away. He swung around and lifted the sword,trying not to notice how tired he felt.
It was a single figure, in the height and shape of an Elf. There was a darkness to it, with a strong hint of the taint of Melkor, but there was something else there too: a power that Fëanor did not recognise, like a light hidden behind a veil.
“You seem to be very keen to enter,” it said. The voice was light and not unpleasant.
He lifted the sword. Tell Morgoth that I am here, to take back my Silmarils. Let him come out and fight!
“And why should he be interested? You don’t seem to be making much of an impact on the gates. You don’t even have a body. Most of His servants can’t even see you.”
I will wait for him. He cannot hide forever.
The figure laughed, a ripple of sound that echoed strangely in that dark, dreary place. “Oh, I think you underestimate the size of Angband. He could stay inside until the fires of Thangorodrim are burned down to cold ash and I seriously doubt that he would even be bored. My lord is good at keeping himself entertained. But you can’t stay here that long, of course.”
I will wait for him until the stars die in the black wind at the end of the world, if need be. And then I will be revenged.
“You really won’t. You’ll simply join our happy throng, here in Angband, as his servant. But Fëanor, enemy of Melkor, will not be eager to do that, I’m sure.” It laughed again, as if it had just realised something amusing.
“Oh, but you don’t know ! I suppose death is very new to ...you people. How charming.”
Fëanor slashed furiously at the figure with his sword, but it was further away than he had thought, or perhaps it moved at just the right moment, and it continued as if he had not moved.
“The Lord Melkor’s will is stronger than yours,” it said conversationally, and the voice was easy to listen to, a golden voice, reasonable and persuasive. Fëanor leaped forward, the sword flaming in his hand, and this time it did at least visibly step aside.
“The body is stronger than the spirit, you know. Bodies go on working when the spirit is... quite broken. Without the body, the spirit will not die. But it will not be protected... Look at yourself! ”
Without meaning to, Fëanor glanced down at his spirit-self. A darkness was half-hiding the flame, like a veil that crept, slowly, so slowly, around him. He looked back at the darkened figure. The veil of darkness across its light was the same.
What is this?
“You know what it is. It will only spread, and spread, until you are trapped forever in the dark.” It moved backwards again, nimbly, avoiding his stroke.
“The longer you stay here, close to Him, the faster it will come: the faster your light will fade. It will spread through you to the living, too, for it is alloyed with all the stuff of this Middle-earth. It will be in your voice, in your touch, and from bodiless spirit to other minds, it spreads swiftly. That is why the Valar have forbidden the living to speak with the dead.
“It is the taint of Melkor... Oh, very well, of Morgoth, if you prefer! My lord has many names, I’m sure he’ll like this new one you have made for him, to add to all the gifts he’s already taken from you.”
Fëanor leapt at it, slashing wildly, and this time the blow connected. The figure parried hastily with a sword of darkness, and leaped backwards in his turn. They were well away from the gate, now, outside the entrance to the deep rock-walled chasm that led back to the plains.
“Careful! Now you have torn my cloak. And all I wanted was to warn you. Leave here. For soon you will have no choice but to stay forever. Just one more damned spirit in the dark... That seems a waste of your talent, my lord Fëanor.”
Who are you?
“One who has long been an admirer of your work. I have a special interest in the dead, so your current condition interests me. Truly, your strength is remarkable. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. You took the powers of your body with you, when you left it? That’ s not supposed to be possible.”
Fëanor could feel the taint creeping upon him. Horrible, and familiar. And here there was no door to close to keep it out, nothing that you could pin down with a sword, even a spirit-sword made from the essence of the mightiest of the Noldor.
Why would you warn me, servant of darkness? Why would you care?
“Oh well, I am an admirer of your work, as I said. And perhaps... I too have taken some steps in directions that I might not have chosen, if I had been warned. And so, here I am, warning you. But the choice is yours. Go — or stay, forever.”
Above them on the cliff, innumerable flames were crawling. Fëanor could hear the sound of many feet, hundreds, coming down through secret unseen doors into the valley floor. But worse than all of this was the creeping darkness upon his own spirit: biting, cold. He could feel now that it was coming directly from the mountain. His sword-tip dropped. There was nothing more to be done here, not yet. Not yet.
In the dark near the Gates, Sauron stood watching him go. And he smiled.
* * * * *
On the shore of Lake Mithrim, standing beneath a bare and leafless tree, Fëanor watched the stars in the still dark water, thinking what to do next.
His first thought had been to return to his sons, to plan the next assault, but the voice of the servant of Morgoth preyed upon his mind.
“The Valar have forbidden the living to speak with the dead,” he had said, and that at least was true, no matter what other lies he had spoken. Who knew what the Valar might do if that ruling were broken? So far, they had not intervened to stop him by force, but unbodied, he was exposed. He had no desire to be carried off to the Halls of Mandos by force.
Something silver leaped in the lake, shattering the star-reflections into concentric ripples. The trees might still sleep here, safe from the darkness, but there was still life awake in Middle-earth.
It was not that Fëanor was inclined to pay much attention to the pronouncements of the Valar. But now he had seen the size and strength of the fortress of Morgoth, it was clear that there had been important factors left out of his plans, and he was not yet sure of their scope. He should not, then, speak with his sons unless he had good reason to do so.
Movement to the North, around the camp caught his eye. A strong force was marching out. They were a good distance away, but Fëanor recognised Maedhros at their head, even in full armour, from his height and something about the way he held his shoulders.
Maedhros or any of his other sons might recognise him, if they looked straight at their father, and certainly if he addressed them. But as long as Fëanor did not call on them mind to mind, it was unlikely that any of the Noldor would see a spirit that they were not expecting. He followed the marching Elves, swift as thought.
They crossed the Ered Wethrin by the pass, and headed east across the shadowy plain that led towards Angband. Not far from the last foothills of the mountains, the party paused. More than half the force headed off, some going north and some south, walking softly and stealthily with their weapons ready in their hands. The remainder of the party set off east again, spread out a little, so as to appear more numerous.
A small black-clad group came into view, ahead of them on the road from the Gates. Some were Orcs mounted on short-legged black wolves, the rest, taller, were on foot. One of them seemed to be carrying a bundle. Maedhros halted and swung up a hand. What was he doing?
“I am here to accept your surrender as agreed,” he called to them. “Surrender the Silmaril to me. Then we will negotiate terms.”
What happened next was almost too fast to make sense.
A great rush of black bats swooped down on Maedhros and his troops, striking viciously at their faces. The elves struck at the confusing whirl of wings with their swords, distracted and confused. Then, unexpectedly out of the North-West, a great number of wolfriders crashed into the flank and rear of the distracted Elves.
The Noldor hastily turned to face them, rallying. Fëanor could hear Maedhros calling to his rearguard for reinforcement. The whirling bats made it hard to see what was happening.
He strode forward, striking out with his spirit-sword at the bats, which shrieked and circled away from him.
Somewhere to the west he could hear shouts and screaming. He turned to look, and saw only a regiment of orcs in heavy armour, appearing through the darting cloud of bats. Their iron-shod feet drummed heavily on the hard ground, and they yelled as they came. There were Balrogs around somewhere too, he could feel the iron-heavy taint of them on the still air, but he could not see them yet.
He charged the orc-troop from the side, cleaving right through their ranks, leaving confusion in his wake. The air was still filled with circling bats. He could hear fighting going on all around, but it was hard to see who was fighting who: he doubted any of the Elves would realise in the confusion that he was there at all. One thing was clear. Maedhros’s party had been attacked by a vastly more numerous force.
Fëanor’s charge had taken him near to the remnant of the rearguard, who were standing firm but unable to break the weight of the oncoming orcs. Well, there he could help.
Fëanor smashed into the rear of the force of orcs that were locked in combat with the rearguard. He could see orcs peering around over their shoulders, nervous, unable to see him, yet aware of him none the less as a terrible danger and he laughed as he slew them.
The rearguard was encouraged by their enemies’ hesitation, and drove back at them with a shout. Across a sea of iron orc-helms, Fëanor saw Caranthir at the head of the new attack and stepped back a little. He was not ready to meet his sons again, not yet.
The bats had vanished. Looking around Fëanor saw orcs retreating, running for the safety of Angband as fast as they could go. He could see a few of Maedhros’s guard fallen in the distance — but there was no sign of Maedhros himself at all.
* * * * *
Again and again, Fëanor made up his mind to speak, mind to mind, with his remaining sons. Again and again he decided that it was not yet the time to take the risk. The frustration of being unable to command events burned in his heart.
Maglor, as Fëanor’s eldest remaining son and so, by default, now his heir, received the messenger of Morgoth when he came, in the makeshift camp lit with lamps, beside the dark and mournful lake.
The Enemy’s messenger was a tall slender person, who wore a badge showing black clouds crossed with lightning. Perhaps long ago, he had been a Dark Elf, but there was a red fire in his eyes now, and his face was marked with lines of cruelty and weariness. He walked into the camp with apparent confidence, surrounded by watchful guards. Maglor and his brothers met him in the gloom by the eastern gate.
The message he brought was a harsh one.
“The lord Melkor has your king.” The messenger threw the crown that Maedhros had been wearing when he vanished contemptuously at Maglor’s feet. “He is our hostage. You must obey. My lord requires you to leave this land, and go back where you came from, or South into the far lands. My lord cares not which. Only if you do this will the Lord of All the World return your brother.”
Maglor looked at the messenger calmly, although his brother’s faces around him were dark with anger. “Morgoth will not return him, whatever we do. We know him. We know he lies. We are sworn to overthrow your lord and take back what he stole. You will not stop us.”
“Your brother will suffer for it,” the messenger said sullenly.
Maglor met his eyes silently for a moment. Seeing the light of the Trees of Valinor in his face, the messenger stepped back in alarm.
“That is all the message we have for you. Go! Take it to your master!” Maglor’s voice was clear and full of power, and there was not one note of hesitation in it. He might have been acting in a play, portraying the role of fearless prince, with nothing real at stake at all.
It was only afterwards, when he looked after the messenger heading East to Angband, that you could see the tension in his face. Even then, it was only for a moment.
* * * * *
Fëanor was looking out towards Angband from the pass of Eithel Sirion, when he felt, distant yet clear, the presence of his enemy far off and high above. It was too far, too high up for even elf-eyes to see clearly, but somewhere, high up towards the mountain peak, above defended walls, cliffs, scree-slopes, and precipices, Fëanor knew, Morgoth stood and looked out on Middle-earth. Fëanor looked at the veil of darkness that lay still upon his spirit-hands, and knew that he dare not approach too close. He cursed, silently and bitterly.
The great volcano rumbled, long and low, and the plain shook beneath the feet of the Elves. Fire belched into the sky. Fëanor looked up and saw, far above and utterly out of reach, his eldest son suspended by one arm, hung alive upon the precipice by his enemy. If he had still had tears, he would have wept. But he could not, and so, instead, he raged, silent, unseen and bitter.
* * * * *
Once Fëanor’s sons had taken stock of their position, their father watching every moment, silent and unseen, it was clear that they did not have the numbers to mount a serious challenge to Angband. They could not hope to assault the fortified slopes of Thangorodrim, let alone breach the Iron Gates.
All they could do was make safe their own position and try to build up their strength. Set up mines and forges. Breed the few, precious horses carried by ship from the West to Losgar, in the hope of being able to field mounted troops one day. Build a new life in this new place, when they knew that their Enemy was growing stronger beyond the mountain-wall, and their rightful lord was kept as a prisoner in torment.
Celegorm wore himself thin arranging hunting parties for the strange beasts that wandered the star-lit forests, while Caranthir organised the building of fishing boats to catch the silver fish of Lake Mithrim, and Amrod and Amras set up groups of foragers. These needed great caution and armed protection, for orcs and beasts of Morgoth could often be encountered in the wild woodlands far from Angband. Maglor was standing up well to the challenge of leading their people; he and Caranthir together made a formidable partnership, even in the absence of Maedhros, who had always been their leader.
Curufin had other concerns.
“To build armies, we must have supplies. We must be able to feed our people well, to thatch their roofs and provide food and bedding for the horses. We must have farms, ” he told Maglor flatly.
Maglor frowned at him. “That would be welcome, if we could have it only by wishing for it. But the Sleep of Yavanna lies on these lands. I can hardly command our people to build farms to grow crops by starlight.”
“Not by the light of these distant stars, no,” Curufin said doggedly, refusing to be daunted. “But how if the light were collected, intensified? Focussed where we need it most? Then, perhaps we could begin to awaken this land.”
“You think that can be done?”
“I think it can. Let me take a little time to work on it. I can trap star-light in a lantern easily enough: to scale it up to light an acre, two acres, and more... it should be possible.”
Maglor considered. “It would make the land safer, if we could light it. The beasts of the woods have no love for light, and we will need every sword-hand. Very well; go ahead.”
Fëanor could not have been more proud of Curufin. It was the kind of thing he would have planned himself. It would not be an easy thing to achieve, but if it worked! Ah, then the Enemy would have something to fear and marvel at.
The days ran past, measured only by the turning of the stars, and stretched out into years, while Maedhros hung in torment on the mountain, and far away, his brothers and their people worked with furious speed, building, mining, forging, and tried not to think of him.