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A Feast of Ashes

Chapter Text

Prologue: Whites stones in a small grove

The small grove of trees is nondescript, with nothing but a small cluster of white stones to mark its tremendous significance. As if nothing had ever happened, will ever happen but the song of the wind in the branches of oaks and pine trees.

This is the place where Finwë Nolofinwë will build his fortress. He will close the way up the mountains and, when the day is clear, will see the peaks of his foe’s fortress from the parapets. He can picture the high towers, the way he will make the Sirion River turn slightly to act as a natural barrier. He can picture, clearly, where his builders will raise a hall, barracks for his soldiers, stables for his horses. Nolofinwë is, has always been, thorough, well organized, logical.

 Yet, Nolofinwë knows Barad Eithel will not be as logical as it should. He should raze the grove to the ground, cut the oaks for the doors and the pines for the ceiling of the hall. Nolofinwë knows, though, that he will not do so. That the walls will awkwardly encircle the grove as if it were something sacred to protect.

Because this is the place where Fëanaro died.

 

***

 

… and with his dying breath, his gaze turned toward Angband, he made us swear that we would never relent. Never let cowardice into our hearts, or despair disarm us. A fire wild and pure burnt in his eyes. His soul did not depart his body without a fight, and the sheer strength of his spirit burnt his shell to ashes in anger and defiance.

The walls grow higher each day, and soon the grove is enclosed by them. As he stands near the white stones of the cairn, turned toward the Thangorodrim, Nolofinwë cannot see anything but the dull, grey stones of the walls. He can picture his nephews and with them his brother, his face contorted in anger, his silver eyes turned toward Morgoth, and wonders if by blocking the view, he somehow helped Fëanaro find a kind of peace.

He considers turning the grove into a memorial for his family; for sweet Elenwë, whose body slipped into the sea; for his youngest son, Arakano, dead before the sun could warm his face. What keeps him from doing so is the feeling that, somehow, there’s unfairness in that. Elenwë and Arakano died because of his brother’s treachery. So the walls grow and the groves stays the same, tainted by the ashes of the peculiar death and the feeling that something is just not right.

Perhaps it’s the trinkets. The Fëanorians left a few weeks ago for East Beleriand. For days and nights before their departure, women and children, soldiers and crafters wandered to the grove, leaving small gifts hanging from the branches of the trees or in the crook of their roots: painted stones, carved statuettes, treasured old ribbons floating in the wind.

We commemorate our parents, Aicahendë said. Curufin’s wife. Her parents were childhood friends of Fëanaro, drowned when Uinen broke their stolen Teler ship. We commemorate our friends. Her fellow apprentices, one pierced by an arrow in Alqualondë, another one at the beginning of the Battle Under the Stars, and the last one in the mad charge that had ultimately claimed Fëanaro’s life. We commemorate our one true king, and the life we lost.

Do not even think of destroying this place.

Nolofinwë will not; not with the feeling that it is haunted. Haunted by doubts, regrets, anger, betrayal and tears.

And so the fortress grows, grows and grows, and it is never, never truly Nolofinwë’s own.

 

 

Chapter Text

Irvin, twentieth year of the Sun.

Fingolfin remembers a time when Nolofinwë loved feasts.

He remembers the great hall in his father’s palace, where the mingling lights of Telperion and Laurelin bathed their feasts in silver and gold; they ate surrounded with finely-worked plates covered in leaf of precious metals, embroidered tablecloths and lavish floral arrangements. He remembers the smell of spices and the unique, delicate taste of sorbets made with rose and orange blossoms. He remembers the music, the marble floors, the sprawling gardens filled with elaborate paper lanterns; the slow, complicated dances and the subtle etiquette he spent his life mastering.

Prince Nolofinwë was a master of banquets and balls. He could steer any light conversation as he wished and convince everyone that all partygoers, no matter how boring, high or low born, deserved a share of his undisputed attention. He could brush away insults or turn them back as sharp weapons. Yes, Fingolfin could remember very few feasts in the palace that had not, at the end, ended well for Nolofinwë.

 

He remembers his brother Arafinwë and his wife, dancing a slow waltz of smiles and ethereal white veil as if the whole world doesn't exist. He remembers Finwë laughing in a way that warmed the whole room. He remembers Teler guests and Vanyarin relatives. He remembers the laces on his mother dress. Indis was impossible to tire as a dancer.

The memories blend into a single one. In this prized recollection of a thousand parties, Fingolfin evokes the late moment when he and Indis are the only ones still dancing, a testimony of the stamina that would later take him through the Ice; he evokes the peculiar time when Fëanaro drank too much wine and they laid down in the garden, his half-brother showing him all the stars that weren’t there, but actually were , if you went north enough until the light from the Trees dimed. Findekano and Maitimo switching the baubles in their hair; Tyelkormo and Curuwinfë the Younger fighting for the honor of dancing with Irissë; Turukano and Elenwë, surprised as they kiss for the first time.

Finwë’s smile. Arafinwë’s tales, Nerdanel’s…

Stop .

Fingolfin hates parties.

Fingolfin forces the thought forward. Stop . Wallowing in memories is starting to become a habit, one Fingolfin does not have the time to indulge.

Focus .

Fingolfin wrenches himself back to Irvin; to the crude lanterns hanging from the branches of trees, worn carpets, worn clothes, worn instruments playing worn music and worn people looking at him like he is more than a worn prince playing king in foreign lands he barely knows. He smiles like he is still a young and happy host, greeting group after group to the Great Feast of Reuniting, and pretends he is not afraid that Morgoth will invite himself with darkness, blood and murder.

Fingolfin feels his lips stretching automatically as yet another group of weirdly dressed, small and dull-eyed elves approaches. The delegation is led by a petite white-haired thing with a tanned complexion that reminds him of the Teleri. She looks foreign but civilized compared to the three groups of Avari before her, dressed in blue wool embroidered with abstract, wavy patterns in teal and grey. White furs and pearls adorn her neck and sleeves.The girl is actually wearing the correct number of layers;  a welcome change from the too simple and sometimes quite revealing attires of the Avari.

The girl and her followers bow deep, hands crossed on their chests, the gestures foreign but, in some way, showing kinship to the elaborate dance of politeness of Tirion.

“Best greetings to you, High King Finwë Nolofinwë of the Noldor,” she intones in thick and clumsy quenya, but still : most of Fingolfin’s guests so far had not tried. He blames Fëanaro, the great, beloved savior of the Sindar of Mithrim who was all too ready to speak Sindarin; Fingolfin’s brother had taught the locals the Noldor could, would adapt easily and happily, when he should have demonstrated the superiority of the letters and words of Valinor from the start. “I am the Princess Nissiel of the Falmari. My people lived in the eastern islands of Mithrim. When Moringotto came, a great darkness came over our city. My father, our king, was slain. We are very thankful that your brother, the High King Fëanor, liberated the lands of Mithrim. We are even more thankful that you, High King Finwë Nolofinwë, liberated our lands of Lammoth. Now my people can return. I am very thankful.”

She bows; her attendants bow lower.

“I come with a gift for you, High King.” She gestures to a brown haired girl at her right. “My dear friend Herediriel, the greatest of our musicians. She carries the greatest treasure of my people.”

There is to Herediriel an air of youth that makes the claim of her great skills dubious, but perhaps she is like Macalaurë – no, Maglor –  renowned for musical skills at a very young age. Fingolfin smiles sweetly at the girl. He is much older than the young princess, more experienced in the game of politics. He wonders why she tries so hard to please him, what she hopes for from him.

Herediriel walks forward. For the third time she bows low, holding a carved box out to him. Fingolfin must admit to himself that the craftsmanship is satisfactory. He pronounces a soft, barely audible “thank you, young Herediriel”, to emphasise the intimacy of the exchange, and takes the box from her hand.

The gift is not what he expected. For the first time since the beginning of the greetings, Fingolfin feels… not impressed, not really, but almost.

Inside the box is a necklace of gold, the metal woven with a complexity far above anything he expected the backward North Sindar to make. The king touches the necklace that looks like silk only to find cold, mineral harshness. There are no gems, as the noldorin and vanyarin styles would require, nor the pearls favored by the silversmiths of the Teleri, but the weaving of the threads, the complexity of the knots –

This is something a Noldor might have made. This is something Fëanaro might have made.

Despite himself, Fingolfin starts to feel something that he faked for each of his previous encounters: respect; respect for a people who may share the love of craft of the Noldor.

“This is a magnificent gift, Princess Nissiel.”

“This is the Heart of Foam, High King. My father and my grand-father before him wore the Heart of Foam. It is the… crown, yes, the crown of the Falmari.” She bows. Again. “We of the Falmari wish to return to our lands of Lammoth and the islands. We of the Falmari wish to join your kin, High King Finwë Nolofinwë. We wish to ask for a king. I wish to marry your son, the High Prince Findekano of the Noldor, so your son can wear the Heart of Foam and be king of the Falmari with your protection.”

In the blink of an eye the girl transmutes from charming to contemptible. Fingolfin reins in the rage before it reaches his lips and his eyes. Ready as he is to extend the protection of the Eldar to the weaker elves of Beleriand, his sympathy stops where is family begins. But the masks does not crack: he will not let his heart betray him, and would rather refuse her with kinder words.

“I hear your pleas, young Princess,” Fingolfin answers. He covers the barbs in his heart with honey. “I cannot speak for my son. It is customary, among the Noldor, that couples should know each other for a very long time before they decide to agree to proper courtship, betrothal and ultimately marriage.”

The girl’s smile wavers slightly. For one moment doubt clouds her gaze before resolution comes as a wave, her back strengthening with the remnants of her shattered pride.

“I understand. I am sorry if I am hasty, High King Finwë Nolofinwë. We of Beleriand, we live more fast when there is war. I will be happy to know of your son and see if he is pleased by me.”

“And I, lovely Princess, am happy to meet you as well,” Findekano – Fingon’s voice comes from somewhere behind Fingolfin. Fingolfin feels his shoulders tense in shock. Findekano has been here and off for most of the evening. Why did he have to be here now? Fingolfin watches his son step toward the girl. He can imagine him smiling and she would not know Findekano smiles for everyone. When his son takes the girl’s hand in his, Fingolfin hopes she does not misunderstand that the gesture is pure courtesy. “My father gathered us all at Ivrin, hoping for many unions and reunions. I would be most pleased if you would tell me of your people’s ways. I can tell you of the Noldor in return.”

Fingolfin is surprising by intensity of his own scorn. Nissiel bows very softly to his son. She has beautiful eyes, blue as the sea, and hair long and soft, a charming face and she may take well to some of the manners of the court of Tirion; but in all his years, Fingolfin never pictured his boyish first son as married to anyone , as uninterested in the matter of love as he was.

I do not require you to marry for political reasons, my son , Fingolfin slips into Findekano’s mind.

His son turns back to face him, standing too close to her.

“If my King and Father would release me, I would be happy to wander in your company.”

Fingolfin answers with a laugh that makes the exchange sound like light banter.

“When my High Prince and Son asks with such a smile, who am I to refuse him? You shall be excused for the evening with my blessing. You are welcome to this feast, Princess Nissiel.”

She bows. The repetition of it grates on his nerves.

“I thank you deeply, High King Finwë Nolofinwë. As a testimony of my trust, may the Heart of Foam remain in your keeping for as long as this feast lasts.”

As he watches the girl and his son depart, Fingolfin suddenly understands that he never considered giving the necklace back.

Chapter Text

The matter of Fingon's marriage plagues Fingolfin for most of the evening and night. Laying sleepless in his tent despite his exhaustion, he cannot drag his thoughts away from it.

He wonders why the prospect scares him so. Fingon's youngest brother Turukano married years ago and brought nothing but happiness to his father. Perhaps he is so against it because of Turukano's haunted look, or because Itarillë is growing without a mother. Her aunts are guiding her as she grows up, but it is not the same.

 Fingolfin scrapes together a few hours of sleep before dawn. He is awakened early by the shrill songs of birds, and the sounds of his servant Arandil setting up breakfast. Fingolfin gives himself a few minutes of calm, breathing slowly, feeling his body heavy with sleep. Then he sighs and gets up, every tired, tensed muscle protesting.

 Instead of Arandil, Fingolfin finds Findekano arranging the table.

 "Hello, Dad. Did you sleep well?"

 Fingolfin considers lying, but Findekano's strained smile make all pretense useless.  

 "No, I did not. I am concerned about the matter of your marriage."

 "I am not getting married," Findekano answers quickly. "Well not yet, and I will not marry someone I do not like. I am just... being open to considering the idea of being married."

 He hands over a slice of bread covered with jam and Fingolfin waves it away. He would rather give this conversation his full attention, and eat once the matter is resolved.

 "I do not understand why you would be open to the idea now. If you had spoken of this at Turukano's wedding or the birth of Itarillë, that would have been more natural."

"Why?"

"Would you have children with your new wife?"

"I might."

"How could you?" Fingolfin asks. He makes no effort to hide his disapproval. "How can you consider bringing a child into these lands? Into our war? What life do you think a child will find in Beleriand?"

"Life is the word, dad," Findekano responds. "Your answer to all of this is that we should stop living and stand vigil. You spend to much time meditating on my uncle's grave or watching Angband! I understand that is your way, but it is wholly divorced from my own temper."

He keeps on, gestures fast and wide, hands moving to the rhythm of his words.

"I agree with Nissiel and the Sindar. If we are to die then let us live fast! Let us not live in memories! If I am to die, I want to bring with me memories of children, friends, parties and breathtaking sights! I will not allow myself to be dragged into death with a life half lived!"

"What of the child you will drag into this? You say I will ! Do you know how egoistical you sound?"

"Do you know how patronizing you sound?"

"Mind your tongue when you talk to your king!"

Findekano closes up immediately, his body language switching from exuberant to guarded, lips thinning into a line.

"No", Findekano says when Fingolfin would... what? Take back his words? "If you were my king and only my king, we would not be having this conversation. My king would see that it is in our best interest for me to marry a Sinda."

"I do not agree with this statement."

"You do not want to agree with this statement because you feel the Sindar are unworthy of a Prince of the Noldor," Findekano tells him bluntly. "You think no one notices your disdain, and indeed most will not, but I do. Why do you think most of the Sindar of the north followed the Fëanorians? Fëanaro may have been foolish but he was not foolish enough to antagonize them, and for once he used his charm at the right moment. The Fëanorians were outnumbered, they would have got nowhere without the Sindar. Fëanaro could not invade them because he did not have the power to do so. We, on the other hand, are numerous enough that we are displacing them. It might seem to you that we do not have to make them feel needed; to pretend they are inferior and unworthy now that we are strong, but how long are we going to stay strong if we have no children and do not enlist the Sindar to help us? And just how strong are we against Morgoth if we let them leave?"

"You do not need to marry a Sinda to win allies," Fingolfin answers. He can think of a dozen other means to win their hearts. Has he not shown his will to befriend them already? What is the point of the Feast, if not to demonstrate his good will? "If you insist on marrying to strengthen our bonds with others, then marry a noble lady from the Fëanorian faction."

Findekano lets out an explosive laugh.

"A noble lady from the Fëanorian faction? You have so little respect for the Sindar, you would rather have me marry one of those who abandoned us to cross the Ice?"

Fingolfin reminds him that not all of his brother's followers were complicit in the burning of the ships. Did Findekano himself not advocate for forgiveness? Findekano merely shakes his head.

"This is going nowhere. Let us agree to disagree on this matter before we start throwing truly awful things at each other," Findekano sighs. "You should know Maedhros arrived late yesterday and will be seeing you in private to agree on the etiquette of your official first meeting. He will also tell you Aicahendë gave birth to a son just before he left the March. Try not to be judgmental."

Findekano turns away leaving his father flabbergasted. Of course Curufin would be the one with a child, since he was the only one whose wife came to Beleriand and they were a newlywed couple during the Darkening, but the idea of conceiving a child two decades after Fëanaro's death, in the wilderness of the recently settled eastern parts of Beleriand, in times of war and in a barely built fortress sounds ludicrous to Fingolfin.

"The child," Fingolfin asks just as Findekano steps through the doorway, "What did his mother call him?"

"His name is Celebrimbor, Tyelperinquar Curufinwë," Findekano says and leaves.

Fingolfin bites his tongue, but feels the morbidity of the names: one carried by his first grandfather, burnt to death by a fiery demon; the other belonging to his second, drowned by a goddess of the Sea.

 

***

 

Maedhros comes barely announced, entering the tent right after the elf who was meant to warn the High King of his approach, giving Fingolfin no time to compose himself. The prince wears no elaborate clothing, no crown, no circlet; a simple, short wool cloak covers his right side, leaving his left hand uncovered to show his fëanorian signet.

"Uncle."

The words contains everything: good morning, king, kin, how are you, fine, thank you. Ever since Maedhros came back from Angband, the meaningless politeness oiling the gears of civilized conversation have been absent from his private conversations, and in official ones they remain stiff and chilly.

"Nephew," Fingolfin answers. He gestures to the remains of his meal. "Have you had breakfast yet? Arandil can bring more."

"I have not. Do not bother." Maedhros eases himself into the closest chair, his scared face rendered even more expressionless by the hair covering its right side, the one most damaged in Angband. "I heard Fingon is getting married."

"He is not."

"I heard Fingon is considering getting married," Maedhros corrects himself, unconcerned.

"Do we need to have this conversation?" Fingolfin sighs. Talking with Findekano was bad enough, but complicating matters further by discussing it  with Maedhros is nightmarish. He wants to tell Maedhros that he should mind his own business, but his nephew would only stare in silence until Fingolfin felt uncomfortable enough to relent.

"What conversation?"

Here it is. The expressionless face with a fixed glance, waiting for Fingolfin to unmask.

This is a game two Noldor can play.

"Please, do share your insights."

"I will not be discussing Fingon's marriage but a meeting between my father and an envoy from Thingol."

The mask almost cracks; this is unexpected, but no less annoying. Why must Fëanaro be dragged into everything? Fingolfin nods silently, agreeing to the subject.

"My father saw fit to send envoys to the people of Beleriand. Most answered with hope, admiration and offers of friendship because our arrival freed western Beleriand. Thingol's deputy, however, addressed my father with the patronizing tone of someone who knows better and would give advices to a young newcomer. Because of his tone and the content of the message, and because we found friendlier people in North Beleriand, my father chose to ignore Thingol's advice and it was not discussed thereafter."

Fingolfin wonders how the matter related to Fingon; opening the discussion  with the marriage cannot have been innocent, unless Maedhros is just trying to unnerve him, as a way to remind his uncle that he is without a crown, but not without power.

"Thingol proposed an alliance with my father against Angband."

"I was unaware such an alliance had been made."

"Very few people knew of the offer. My father, myself, my brothers, some at Thingol court, I suppose. My father refused. You find his refusal absurd, don’t you? What was Fëanaro thinking, refusing to ally with the greatest power in Beleriand? Did he refuse because Thingol vexed him?"

Fingolfin does not give Maedhros the pleasure of answering his rhetorical questions.

"No. Thingol, in his message, warned my father. The inhabitants of North Beleriand, he said, are untrustworthy. The worst of them are servants of Angband, wheareas the best are tainted, marred in some way. King Fëanaro, if he wishes to avenge his father, may remain in North Beleriand. His Noldor should purge these lands of the corrupted locals first. Do not talk with the Falmari of the Islands, the Mithrim of the mainland, the Orodrim from the slopes of the northern ranges and countless other tribes. Servants of Angband, all of them."

All of this, Maedhros explains flatly, not clarifying where the Sindar of the North were supposed to go, or if Thingol had expected Fëanaro would simply kill them.

"My father, however, believed himself a friend of the North Sindar already. They showed us what was edible and what was not, they helped us scout the land and settle. Our talks with the Mithrim were fresh and new, a welcome change after valinorean politics and everything that happened in Aman. It was like starting a new life with them. My father spoke of friendship and solidarity: we came for revenge, we will save each other, we will live and fight and die together. Thingol, on the other hand... he was not only patronizing, he was Olwë's brother and married to a Maia, and safely hidden in his lands. So my father sent the messenger away and told Thingol he would be perfectly fine with his new friends and Thingol's advice was not required nor welcomed."

Fingolfin knows Maedhros is finished when he reaches for an apple and calmly starts to eat.

"So you came to tell me Findekano should not marry Nissiel because she is a spy from Angband?"

"No," Maedhros answers after excruciatingly long seconds spent chewing his apple in uncomfortable silence. "I came to tell you Thingol believes Nissiel's people are spies from Angband."

"Do you believe him?"

"I have no proofs to build an educated opinion on. Unlike Thingol, Lord Cirdan welcomed the refugees of the Falmari. As for the Mithrim who followed me East, they have given me no reason to distrust them. Yet."

"Do you?"

"Trust them? No. But I do not trust you either. Are you untrustworthy?"

"Will you believe me if I say I am not?"

"Absolutely not. As I said, I do not trust you." The left corner of his mouth trembles slightly. This is the closest Maedhros ever comes to a smile. "My father trusted them. He was ambushed and died. I trusted them. I was ambushed and almost died. You arrived in Beleriand. Your troops were ambushed and your son died. But I do not know if Thingol is right. Nissiel may or may not be trustworthy."

"What are you going to do about this?" Maedhros merely raises an eyebrow, as if he hasn't already made his mind. Fingolfin may be king and Findekano's father, but he knows Maedhros will do whatever he wants. "Do not pretend you will stand aside while your favorite cousin courts a girl who may be a spy."

"If the High King wishes for my help, I can make enquiries and have her watched.

Fingolfin considers the offer, the obvious trap. Maedhros will have her followed with or without Fingolfin's agreement, but by asking for orders he drags his uncle into his plot. Should Maedhros get caught by Findekano, they will share the responsibility, and Fingolfin will be unable to reprimand him for spying on his heir.

Nonetheless, the trap is tempting. Fingolfin does not trust Maedhros, but he believes without a doubt that his nephew wishes Findekano well. The question is whether Maedhros' good intentions can lead to anything but paranoia and diplomatic failure.

"If your spies are caught, the Sindar will be rightfully scandalized."

"I know," Maedhros answers with the calm and stillness of a windless lake.

Fingolfin wears the crown and hosts the Feast, and will be blamed first.

"Do it."

Maedhros nods and stands up to leave.

"I shall come to you formally with my followers at midday. Maglor will be there. My uncle Naswë came with us, but do not expect him to come and give his respects."

"I think I will survive without them."

Naswë is Miriel's brother. His disdain and hatred for the children of Indis is legendary. The less Fingolfin sees of him, the better.

"As I expected," Maedhros agrees. "I shall see you then."

"By the way," Fingolfin says as Maedhros moves to leave, "congratulation  on the birth of your nephew."

"Thank you," Maedhros answers, the flap of the tent muffling the flat words.

 

Chapter Text

Pretty dresses were something Nissiel had always taken for granted. Now, she tries to choose between her blue, grey and green dresses, and it seems like her life hangs in the balance. The blue dress is the best one, with its beautiful embroideries; the fur is still thick, though not as soft as it used to, and she was able to cover the most damaged embroideries with pearls gifted from Cirdan, but she wore the blue dress yesterday and fears Fingolfin will not be impressed if he sees her wearing it twice in a row. He might get the wrong impression: that the Falmari are too poor to properly dress their princess.

That would, if Nissiel is honest, be a correct assessment of their situation.

The green dress used to be beautiful, and can still be in the dark, but the light of the sun will show the the seams are worn. The grey dress still looks quite new but makes her look like the cute little girl she was when she left the islands at the strait of Losgar. She needs to look like a woman, someone Fingon can appreciate as a wife, not like his little sister.

“Do you think the grey dress would cut it if I added a sexy hairstyle?”

Herediriel snorts. Her own hair is always sort of sloppy, but she is an artist of humble background. No one expects her to be as polished as the princess or the queen, as long as her voice remains birdlike and her fingers swift and precise.

“What do you mean by sexy hairstyle?”

“Something more… revealing? Perhaps? I could tie my hair up so the nape of my neck is showing?”

Nissiel hates how young her voice sounds. She should sound like a queen.

“Why not?” Herediriel plucks absently the cords of her three-corded lute.

“You are not helping.”

“I am not helping because King Coldfish is going to find whatever you do ugly or inferior or inappropriate, no matter the amount of effort you put into it.” Nissiel feels her belly clench. She, too, fears that Fingolfin feels no love for her people, but to admit that to herself means that they have lost already. “I am not helping because I do not think you need to marry one of the creepy invaders who stole our lands.”

“Do not speak like that,” the princess orders. Her eyes move instinctively to the flap of their tent. Oiled leather does nothing to stop sound. “They did not invade anything because we weren’t there to be invaded in the first place!”

Herediriel plucks one of the strings of the lute. The note sounds false and wrong; she plucks the string one, two, three times, and does not grace her princess with another answer, the sound expressing all too well her opinion on the matter.

“Can you at least help me with the hairstyle?” Nissiel’s hair slides from her fingers like water, symmetry and proper braiding escaping her best efforts. “Please?”

The awful sound rings twice before Herediriel puts the instrument away.

“You know,” she chuckles as her hands move to pull up Nissiel’s hair, “I wonder what a sexy Noldorin hairstyle is supposed to look like. They pull their hair so tight, it’s a wonder it’s attached to their heads. You should not dress your hair like theirs. It is too soft and beautiful to be tortured that way.”

Nissiel breathes deeply and tries to ignore her friend and the cramps in her belly. How do you please a Noldo? How to look beautiful to his critical eyes?

She does not know, but it is imperative that she succeeds, lest her people are forced to becomebeggars.

***

She meets Fingon in the great glade where Fingolfin welcomes his guests, the grey dress belted tight around her waist, her hair braided so high and tight her head hurts from the pulling.  She finds him most dashing: hair dark as coal, its darkness enhanced by the shine of the golden ribbons woven into the braids; broad shoulders and strong arms; but first and foremost, his eyes, eyes as blue as the sky when the Sun is risen high. Herediriel finds the Light in the Noldor’s eyes unsettling; Nissiel wants to find it beautiful instead. He is handsome in the late morning light, the sun giving his skin a healthy glow.

“They are a gift from my cousin,” Fingon explains, catching how Nissiel’s eyes dart to his ribbons. With an easy smile and fluid gesture, he slips a heavy braid from his back to show the worn fabric. Nissiel likes how he handles the old things as if they were treasures; as if it didn’t matter that, when looked close, is doesn’t matter that the value is none, as long they still keep their meaning.

“My mother made this dress for herself when she was my age. I am not as beautiful as she was – my mother was a great beauty! But when I wear this dress, I feel I look at least half as beautiful as her.”

“Your mother must have been gorgeous, then, for your beauty is nothing to be ashamed of.”

Fingon has a way of smiling with his lips and voice both that sends shivers through Nissiel’s body; she remembers, faintly, that she is not there to giggle and be seduced: she is there to be a woman, not a girl, and to do the seducing. Her back aches with the weight of her duty. But this is good, at least, because she finds Fingon pleasant, and marrying him may not be such a chore.

“My favorite cousin,” Fingon breaths when the Fëanorian delegation enters the clearing, his voice as warm as a summer day. “Maedhros, High Prince of the Noldor, of the House of Fëanor.”

If Fingon is summer, then his cousin is winter. There is no mistaking Maedhros Fëanorion for anyone else. The Noldor stand tall, and he taller than all; they are fair of skin, and he fairer, his complexion pale as marble. His hair hangs free down his back, a trail of blood swallowed into the folds of his crimson cloak, crowning a stunningly beautiful profile, the perfection of a straight nose dipping to the fullness of his lips and a perfectly chiseled jawline.

Until he turns to look at Fingon; then the spell of beauty turns into one of horror: his right side, barely visible under the curtain of red hair, is a landscape of burns and scars, not a single inch of skin fair to look at; and his eyes, grey and cold, carry in them a fire that runs colder than ice. Maedhros does not stop, merely nodding to his cousin, and soon the horrific face is replaced by the heavenly profile.

“His brother, Prince Maglor the Singer,” Fingon’s voice pulls Nissiel out of her trance. Fingon gives her three more names before Maedhros stops in front of Fingolfin. Of the Fëanorian delegation, he is the only one to bow, but Nissiel cannot say if this is respectful or meant as an insult or something. She knows there are troubles among the Noldor, but they keep their feuds close to their chest and speak very fast in quenya. The High King and the High Prince exchange greetings and polite words, as empty as the wind. “Maglor looks really serious at present, but you have to hear him drunk to…”

Prince Maglor turns oh-so-slightly toward them. Not enough to glare, but enough to impart that Fingon’s words have not gone unnoticed. Maedhros wears no circlet, but Maglor does and the white gems glitter with the movement.  Nissiel’s cheeks run hot. Fingon merely smiles in amusement.

***

“Do you really want to marry into this family?” Herediriel asks once they return to their tents, many hours after their first meeting with the Fëanorian princes. “I do not want to sound negative…”

“I am quite sure negativity is exactly what you are aiming for,” Nissiel hisses. She sat on her camp bed as soon as they entered and set on massaging her sore feet, her best shoes being unsuited for wandering at leisure in the woods.

Herediriel ignores her, pacing lazily.

“… but I have the feeling everyone hates everyone in this family.”

“I do not.”

“You should stop staringat your precious Fingon for ten seconds, just long enough to see the freezing look he got from Maglor when he tried to invite him to spend the evening with… what was is name? Finrod. Then Maglor looked even more murderous when Maedhros decided to grab Fingon to go off to somewhere very far away from his brother in the middle of the conversation.”

“Even if they have family problems, that’s none of your business.”

The pacing stops.

“On the contrary. If anything happens between you and Fingon, then their problems will become your problems.”

“I will help Fingon to solve them.” But her chest feels tight. Fingon has so many relativess, all of them overwhelming in one way or another; Finrod with the sheer light radiating from every inch of skin, Maedhros with his daunting coldness and Fingolfin, whose heavy stares weighs heave as a mountain! All of them seem so much bigger than she is. “He will help us solve our own problems too.”

“I am sure our own problems would be easily solved if we sailed south and then east. Solving them by binding them to more problems isn’t…”

I said that Fingon will solve our problems!

Why must Herediriel always be so difficult? Why cannot she listen to her princess and trust her? Why cannot she understand that Nissiel will not accept the loss of their home, their treasures and their former power? Nissiel’s fingers clench on her skirt. Herediriel is her friend. If her friend does not see her as her queen, then who will?

“Leave me. Your pacing keeps me from thinking. I will solve this, you will see.”

Herediriel throws her a petulant look, but in the end she leaves without comments. Distant sounds of the Feast trickle through the leather of their tent. Nissiel lets her shoulders sag forward and puts her head in her hands. She cannot let Herediriel’s criticisms touch her. She must be sure of at least one thing, cannot doubt everything; she cannot doubt that the Falmari are not done for. Once, they were the most powerful tribe in Hithlum. Her father would never settle for less. He would understand.

She feels the mattress sink at her left and starts, anger rising from vulnerability, but –

But the expected face of Herediriel is not there; it is, in fact, no face at all.

The Shadow watches her in the shape of a man, his visage covered by a lipless mask of ivory. Her blue eyes dive straight into the steel grey of his and she remains still, a doe captured by fear, her voice silenced by the single finger he holds where his mouth should be.

“A pleasant evening, Princess.”

The finger slips down to settle on her hand, the leather cool against her skin.

“I am pleased to find you safe and well. You have grown in beauty since our last meeting. In this attire, I find the likeness to your mother to be… striking.”

Nissiel shivers. The last time she saw the Shadow, she was a child and her mother had walked into the waves.

“Lord,” she starts with a voice strangled by the memory. “Lord, I –“

“Shh, child. Do not fear. I am not cross, and neither is the Holy Mother. We wish for you to be happy and successful. The Mother blesses you and Prince Fingon.”

“She does?”

The relief is as indescribable as Nissiel’s astonishment.

“Have you said your prayers these past years?”

“No, not… not since the Darkness came to Losgar.”

He withdraws his hand from hers and rises, soundless, a mere silhouette of black silk and leather that does not reflect light, and hair white as bone braided in knots of Power.

“We have not abandoned you, Princess. You shall renew your faith and the Mother shall grant you your wish. She shall grant you Fingon’s love and in time we shall have peace.”

“Lord,” she whimpers, “Lord, I thought you would be angry at us… I thought you would…”

“You believed I would punish you?” His fingers trail on each and every possession she owns. She is sure he can see her, even when his back is turned; he would kill her in the blink of an eye if he wished so. “Have we not always rewarded your people’s loyalty?”

“Y-yes, Lord, always…”

“Are you not loyal, Princess Nissiel?”

“We are, Lord. We are. I swear, when I gave away the Heart of Waves…”

“Do not worry. It pleases my masters that the High King keeps the Heart.” The ivory mask turns to her. Featureless; unreadable, the eyes blank and empty. “We shall have peace with Fingolfin, in time, and we wish for our dear friends of the Islands to stand by his side when he bends the knee to the true Gods of Beleriand.”

Nissiel wishes she had the courage to ask what the Gods were doing when the Darkness came upon her Islands and devoured her father. Where was the protection of the Great Smith and the Holy Mother then?

She says nothing. The last time a Queen of the Falmari contradicted the Shadow, she walked into the waves.

“I am pleased. I can see in your eyes that you did not wish to betray us,” that you are too afraid to betray us, “so I will grant you the help of the Mother. Close your eyes.”

She obeys. The last time a King of the Falmari contradicted the Shadow…

“Hold your hands, palms up. I carry gifts for you, beautiful princess.”

She obeys, half expecting some cruel game, but all she feels is something soft, linen perhaps, light and small, in the palm of her right hand.

“This, the Mother offers you for Fingon. The False Gods of Valinor have ensured that their youngest pets lack what they believe is sinful lust. Ensure that Fingon sleeps with this under his mattress, and the spells of the False Gods shall dissolve. Do not, and Fingon shall never see you, or any other woman as desirable. This,” he adds, and another offering falls into her left hand, “you shall hide in Fingolfin’s tent. It will lessen the curse of disdain and scorn, and open his eyes to the many qualities of your people.”

“Lord – “

“I am not finished.” She feels the gloves brushing the length of her thin, fragile fingers. “Always remember, Nissiel,that the game you chose to play is a game you cannot win without my help. The False Gods have spells of their own, spells tightly woven around Fingon and Fingolfin both. Refuse my help and you will be nothing but servants to them. Allow me to help you as I always helped your family and you shall have your love, happiness, children and treasures aplenty. Do you understand?”

“Yes. I do, Lord,” and she does, because when he speaks of disdain the image of Fingolfin’s scowl fills her head, and how could she not see by herself how little respect shows in his eyes?

“I shall have your oath of fealty. I shall be your most precious secret, Nissiel, or your blood will never run between your thighs. The Mother will withdraw her gifts of sleep and dream. Swear.”

“I s-swear. I swear, Lord, I will say nothing.”

The tip of his fingers withdraw from her skin, the slowness deliberate, until she stands in silence with her hands opened and full, not daring to move or breath. When she finally summons the will to open her eyes, the Shadow is gone. Nissiel would almost dismiss the meeting as  a dream if not for the two, small puppets in her hands, crude representations of an elf swaddled in a shroud and bound with intricate knots. Her hands tremble so hard she almost drops Fingon’s puppet.

Her lids close on eyes full of tears, wishing she had listened and sailed south and east.

 

Chapter Text

It all starts with a dinner with the whole family, that turns into a dinner with himself.

Fingolfin cannot pinpoint the moment when the perfectly civil meal derails. He is busy discussing the new settlements in Himring and Himlad when Galadriel and Maglor spring from their chair and start shouting at each other, the words traitors flung like stones from a sling over the half eaten duck; Turgon takes his leaves with Idril before the shouting end with Galadriel marching out, followed by her brothers, Finrod trailing behind them with an air of supreme annoyance that belie his soothing words.

At the end of the fight Fingolfin finds himself alone at the table with Maedhros who, completely unfazed, has moved on the subject of breeding horses; the conversation grows tedious by the time Fingon comes back.

“I am sorry, dad. Turgon says the shouting upset Idril, I have no idea where Aredhel is and all I got from Finrod was a look of despair. When I left him, he was trying to convince his siblings that raiding Maglor’s tent to steal his crown is uncalled for.”

The laugh bursting forth from Maedhros’ throat sounds more like a bark than anything that should come out the mouth of an elf.

“Do not worry yourself, Fingon. If they manage to do it, they can keep it for all I care. My brother insists on wearing the thing. He is neither king nor regent. He does not deserve a crown.”

“If I remember right,” Fingolfin says, knowing very well that he is not mistaken, “this circlet was crafted by your father for Maglor’s wedding.”

“Yes. Well, I will not swear an Oath over it.”

Fingon scowls and says, with more honesty than Fingolfin would have dared in this situation: “This is not funny, Maedhros. I do not think Maglor would laugh and I do not think your father would have appreciated either.”

“Well my father is dead,” Maedhros erupts. “He is fucking dead! Did you not hear the song? He swore and he died and he went in smoke. Nobody needs to care anymore about what he would have appreciated because we do not need to care.”

“This conversation is inappropriate.” And, in Fingolfin’s opinion, Maedhros is speaking far too loudly.

“Why? Because you do not want to admit that the all-powerful Fëanor is still poisoning your existence, your Highness?”

“What I think or want is pointless, High Prince. I shall not have a son denigrate his father in front of me, nor a prince denigrate the words of our former High King.”

“It is, certainly, easier to admit that he was your King now that he is too deceased to order you around.” Maedhros pushes back his chair and wipes his mouth on his sleeve. More than his callous words or the strange glint in his furious eyes, it is this gesture that worries Fingolfin. Maedhros was never crude, and he was never so casually unclean.  “Now if you do not mind, I will leave you to dine with my father’s ghost. See if you appreciate his conversation and good night to you both.”

Maedhros almost bumps into Fingon as he leaves, and that is telling too. Fingolfin breaths a small “go” to his son. As much as he thirsts for his children’s companionship, he worries more about his nephew than himself. Fingon nods silently and disappears.

Alone, in silence, Fingolfin exhales a long breath and sags in his chair. Some part of him, a part he often refuses to acknowledge, whispers that Maedhros is right. Fëanaro has been a constant presence over his life, a treasure, a threat, and unreachable piece of paradise who would taunt him with crumbs of affection and sharp claws. Even in Formenos his shadow had tainted Fingolfin’s life, a black blot on his regency; and now that he is dead, his legend, his oath, his sons still hoover to remind everyone that he brought them to Beleriand.

Fingolfin promised to follow, though he promised before Fëanaro abandoned him, before he received like a knife in the heart the ultimate proof that even after their father's death, his brother would refuse him. And now he still following and feels like he forever will.

Thief.

The voice comes out of nowhere; the first time, Fingolfin thinks he imagined it, the word a mere emanation of his dark musing, but…

Thief.

 His lids fly open.

Thief.

And his stare dives straight into Fëanaro’s.

Chapter Text

By the time Fingolfin decides Fëanaro was never there, he has reached the haphazardly organized part of the Pools favored by the Avari. A tall elf covered in burns and caked blood would have attracted his fair share of attention, but Fëanaro did not. His mocking voice taunted Fingolfin, drawing him out of his tent ; the floating remnants of a crimson cloak led him, but each and every turn brought him to yet another congregation of unaware party-goers. The part of him that is the King smiled and exchanged greetings and laughed to the drunken, slurred jokes in Sindarin and Quenya; the part of him that is Fëanaro’s brother trembled with anger and anticipation. 

And now the laughing and taunting and calls of Thief are gone, and Fingolfin is not entirely sure where he is; only that he stepped into a clearing full of people dancing half naked to the shrill sound of flutes and maddening rhythm of drums. One woman catches his arm, her bare breasts brushing against his arms. Through sheer strength of will Fingolfin, does not recoil. His smile remains placid, his tone calm as he makes excuses they do not understand. Someone starts chanting his name, distorting the pronunciation, and soon they drag him to sit with them on a coarse carpet. A flock of gesticulating Avari assails him, chattering in their inaudible bird-like language.

One of them throw into his face hands full of offerings that looks edible. Or, at least, Fingolfin thinks they are edible; he changes his mind as soon as his teeth dive into the first meat-roll and his mouth starts to burn, bringing tears to his eyes. He coughs, the Avari laugh, and thinks of strangling them.

“You should try this one,” a barbarian dressed in the modest sindarin style unexpectedly advices. Fingolfin eyes him with open disbelief: his is the most fëanorian-compliant Quenya Fingolfin ever heard from a native. The elf sits at his right with ease.  “Try. Paired with goat milk, it does wonders to soothe the burn.”

The advice is followed with the distrust of a cat burnt once, but the Sinda’s words prove true. The burn recedes, followed by pleasant numbness. Fingolfin offers his thanks; he is twice thankful when the elf shares a few words with the Avari that makes them withdraw and go back to their disarticulated dancing.

“What did you say to them?”

“Merely that you appreciated the gift and were not that cross.” A faint smile blossoms; Fingolfin wonders if he has not met the elf before. There is, to him, the feeling of a cherished memory, faded but not entirely forgotten, like a beloved word waiting at the tip of the tongue. “Do not give me that look, your Highness; you looked like Finwë’s wrath born again. A most terrifying sight for those who do not know of the highly flammable noldorin temper.”

“By the way you master our language, I assume that you are acquainted with the fëanorian temper.”

“I admit that I know more of them than I know of you,” the stranger concedes easily, “but I find them no fierier than their grand-father. I have witnessed Finwë’s speeches when he urged us to leave Kuivienen; I have listened to his song of power when he dueled Ahyar the Sorcerer, and many other tribe leaders of old who would have prevented his March, and saw his rage on more than one occasion. Many heard with disbelief the tales of your crossing of the cursed Ice, but not I; I was not surprised a son of Finwë would manage such a feat.”

The stranger turns to pick at the food. The roaring campfires draw a line of gold-red out of a regal profile highlighted. Fingolfin studies the face, wondering again where they met; how the straight nose, dark hair, the high cheekbones and thin lips and voice can be so familiar…

 “Are you related to my father?”

The stranger hands over a plate. The king accepts the plate out of politeness, hoping the selected delicacies are not going to put his face on fire.

“Through my mother. I should have mentioned this sooner, perhaps, but it is a connection I have not considered for… a very long time.” Fingolfin opts for a greenish round fritter from, listening closely to the elf’s flowing voice. By the way he rhythms into every word and sentence, it is easy to guess that he is a singer. “I am called Faelin in these lands, born in Kuivienen under the name Fayalino. I would prefer the name Thulindo in Quenya, though, rather than the most literal translation; I like that it carries both the meaning of spirit and breath.”

The food is not only edible but surprisingly good. Fingolfin swallows the last of a vegetable dumpling and resists the urge to lick his fingers, unwilling to let the lack of restraint of the Avari erode his good manners.

“I was born under the father-name Finwion, then Nolofinwë, and received during my fifth year the mother-name Aracano. My people later granted me the surname of Finwë Nolofinwë, then translated into Fingolfin.”

“Well met then, cousin.”

The honeyed word seems to roll on his tongue with warmth and softness, in a way that scream so much of his father that Fingolfin cannot help but let the heat seep into his bones.

“I did not know I had family among the Sindar,” he admits, in a tone that conveys that she surprise is welcomed.

“I fear I am no Sinda,” Faelin corrects. “I am from the Elkelli east of the mountains. My family started the Voyage and then fell in love with the land. You will meet few of us in Beleriand. The land was dangerous even before Moringotto came.”

They move to talking about the Avari dances and music, Faelin explaining the meaning behind the gestures and laughing at Fingolfin’s outrage when it turns out he stumbled in the middle of some fertility feast and the food is supposed to be filled with aphrodisiacs, explaining why the music sounds so out of tune and how Fingolfin’s ear will grow accustomed to the new sounds of Beleriand and, who knows, may even find them beautiful one day; explaining how fascinating it is that the Noldor have so many words for gold and silver and love but so little for pain and fear and darkness. At some point Fingolfin tastes some heavily alcoholic milk and wonders who in Mandos puts alcohol in this kind of beverage.

Half an hour later, he is leaning heavily on his smaller cousin’s shoulder, wondering if this is how Findekano felt when he met Maedhros: the feeling of attunement and belonging; wondering if what he feels is for Faelin himself, or a desperate longing for Finwë and easy affection. They stop by one of the numerous springs of Irvin, its song soothing after the wild drums and flutes of the Avarin feast, and the cold water on his face reminds Fingolfin that he is leaning on a stranger and should stop making a fool of himself.

“How many languages do you speak?”

He tries to sound as clear as possible as he disengages himself from Faelin to dip his hands in water, but hears nothing but clumsily intoned words.

“Many,” Faelin answers. He leans against a tree, fixing the water with an absent gaze. “The only ones I am not fluent in, as far as Beleriand is concerned, are Kuzdul and the Uruk dialects, save for a bit of the low kind they have east of the mountains. Both people have a taboo about sharing their “holy tongue” and, well… let us say I never got the nerves to go to Angamando itself to ask if they could please teach me.”

 “A wise decision,” Fingolfin says after a low chuckle. “I could use your talents as a translator.”

“If the King wishes for my help, I will oblige. Tomorrow evening, if you do not mind? I fear I may need to sleep a fair share of the day. I drank less than you did, but I do not have your valinorean constitution.”

Fingolfin emits an undignified groan.

“If only I could sleep all day.”

“Alas,” Fealin answers with great seriousness, “I am afraid early mornings are the woes of kings.”

“Do not tease me,” Fingolfin warns as he gets back on his feet. “I will expect you by mid-afternoon.”

For the first time, the bard looks annoyed by Fingolfin’s answer. The king is ready to take his demand back when Fealin accepts with a small bow – the first since they met. He breathes a good night that carries to Fingolfin with the fragility of a butterfly, yet is as audible as a thunder strike; a caress of sounds to belie the anger that flashed, briefly, in the steel grey eyes.

Chapter Text

Are you enjoying yourself?

The voice is like cold water on white-hot metal; it hisses and cuts, yet breaks at the end, out of breath as it slithers into Fingolfin’s dreams.

Are you enjoying the remains of my kingship?

Fingolfin wonders, should he chose to ignore him, if his brother will just go away; fade into smoke and ashes; vanish into death or oblivion; into Darkness Everlasting, perhaps, if he did Doom himself to that.

Are you going to pretend you do not hear?

Fingolfin does not owe any attention to his fallen brother, not now, not ever . He is not the one who started the game; the older brother who wished his younger kin were irrelevant.

Do you think that you will erase the wrongs you did me, if you pretend they do not exist?

But Fëanaro is an old wound, one that will not heal, one that comes back over and over to torment him.

Coward , Fëanaro whispers.

That word Fingolfin cannot bear from him. Not after the Ice.

Your son is right. You are nothing but poison.

Fëanaro’s wrath hits like a wave, anger first, then a mixture of indignation, shock, hurt and disbelief, emotions so strong Fingolfin doubles up in his bed, awoken by the sounds of his coughs and Arandil’s alarmed calls. He blinks the last shreds of sleep away, half-blinded by a thundering headache and lingering nausea.

“My Lord?”

Fingolfin answers with a most undignified noise.

“My Lord, are you alright?”

“Water,” Fingolfin rasps, forcing himself up. “Please.”

His servant hands him a cup filled with the clear water of Irvin. The cool liquid soothes his throat. Fingolfin massages the root of his nose, willing away the pressure behind his eyes and the taste of Fëanaro’s voice.

“Would you like me to call a healer?”

“My Lord?” The clear baritone of Fingolfin’s herald intones through the many layers of canvas. “Prince Turukano and Princess Itarillë are here. Should I allow them in?”

Fingolfin’s first instinct is to refuse, but Turukano is so elusive these days that Fingolfin is certain he will see nothing of him if he does. So he agrees, straightens the clothes he has been wearing since yesterday morning and steps into the common room of his huge command tent.

Itarillë is luminescent; fresh as a flower, her face alight with a rare grin, a ray of the morning sun captured into the white folds of her dress. Fingolfin's returned smile is not the forced countenance of the diplomat, but the spontaneous expression of his love for his sole grand-child. He bows to help the girl kiss his cheek and spies Turukano's expression shifting from neutral to suspicious to a deep scowl behind her back. Fingolfin frowns. The look he gives his son is enough to smother any criticism.

His son sits in ominous silence, absently answering Itarillë’s chatter about doriathrim flower garlands and Findekano's pretty girl. Fingolfin's grand-daughter seems wholly won to the idea of getting such a young aunt, but her enthusiasm is not shared by either her father or her grand-father. They are soon joined by a disheveled, ghostly Irissë, her wild hair framing her face like a halo, wearing only a white chemise that is now a sad mix of grey and light brown, and Findekano, well-dressed but still unbraided.

Irissë’s nostrils flare. Like most followers of Oromë, she possesses an uncanny sense of smell that may well betray her father today.

“My. Either someone here started the party early,” she starts, sitting down in one of the folding chairs, an irritatingly smug smile playing on thin lips, “or someone really had fun yesterday night.”

Turukano’s scowl deepens. Findekano’s curious stare wanders from Fingolfin’s messy braids to the slightly crumpled clothes.

“Is it true, Dad?”

“I suggest that we move to a more decent topic,” Turukano interjects. He had never drunk much and since his widowhood he tended even more to drink his wine well watered.

“Come on, Turgon! Do you know how many times I have been woken at dawn by Father? Forgive me if I enjoy the role reversal!”

“If you enjoy the situation so much,” Turukano tells his brother with obvious displeasure, “perhaps you should be useful as a High Prince for once and replace father today.”

Fingolfin barely has the time to take that in before Findekano declines, arguing that he already planned to do something with Maedhros.

“Besides,” the King concurs with severity, “I did not request help from anyone.”

“I was only thinking about maintaining the dignity of Kingship.”

Irissë snorts.

“I think,” Findekano says, “that the Kingship may survive our father waking up late for once.”

“Yes,” Irissë adds, “I for one thinks that the High King getting hammered once in a while will not exactly shake the foundations of Barad Eithel.”

“Can you please mind your language in front of my daughter?” Turukano says. Irissë merely rolls her eyes. “Perhaps you, Findekano, should be more aware of your duties as our father’s heir. Maedhros’s presence does not mean you are excused.”

The smile drops from Findekano’s face.

“That is rich considering the time you spend with Finrod! So you can go on lengthy trips with your favorite cousin but I cannot spend two days with Maedhros after fourteen years of absence?”

“At least Maedhros came,” Irissë hisses. “Celegorm didn’t even bother to send a single letter!”

“Perhaps he would write if you consented to do so!”

“Well excuse me for believing that he should write first since they burnt those blasted ships!”

“Will you mind your langua – “

“By the stars Turgon!” she yells , “your daughter crossed the Helcaraxë, she’s not made of glass!”

“Enough!” Fingolfin bellows, the power of his own voice making his his head feel as if it is splitting in two. “Do you hear yourselves? Do you? ” He turns to Turukano. “How dare you act like you know more of Kingship than I do? More than I, who was High Prince for twice the span of your life? On whose shoulders did the weight of Kingship rest during the Darkening and the Crossing? Who do you think you are talking to, child?

In another life, Turukano would have cowered; now he does not, and his stare is cold as ice.

“I stopped being a child when my wife, who trusted you and was loyal to you , died because your pride kept you from going back. And for what? To get revenge on Fëanaro? All you do is cry on his grave. Not Elenwë’s, not even Aracano’s. His .” His body is stiff with rage, his fingers clenching at his side. “If I could go back to Tirion right now,” Turukano says, staring straight into his father’eyes, “I would go and beg the Valar to forgive us for your folly.”

“When did I sire a coward?” Fingolfin answers, anger building in his throat, his voice low and threatening. “You followed my lead of your own will, you, who were among the first to call me Finwë Nolofinwë. A fine opinion you had of my pride then. Who, I ask, damages the Kingship? I, who stand unflinching in front of all but my children and most trusted servants, or you, who would defy me when we must make a show of unity? Who hinders us in our war against Morgoth, but the one who speaks of flight when he should be preparing for the fight?”

“And now you sound like him too,” Turukano spits. “Pardon me if I leave before your raving reaches the point when you call me an ally of Moringotto.”

“I did not give you permission  to leave.”

Fine .” The Prince sits. “Fine, let us all stay to listen the tale of your wild, decadent night then!”

“Wild and decadent!” Irissë imitates in such an exaggerated, deep and grandiloquent tone she almost, almost reignites the smile on Itarillë’s lips. “Why wasn’t I invited?” She complains, angling her body toward Fingolfin in a way that calls for him to leave off arguing with Turukano and give her his undisputed attention.

He is not taken in by her act, even less so when Findekano starts following her lead to ask just how decadent. Was it really really decadent or just decadent to a degree?

“Some wild dark elves dancing naked in the woods,” Turukano interjects. His siblings’ antics leave him unmoved. “I shall not say more with Itarillë sitting with us.”

“Oh, that must have been very wild then, if Itarillë cannot hear.”

“Irissë, will you please...”

“Were all of them naked?” Findekano asks, his eyes wide and shining with childish innocence. “And were they naked-naked or only a little bit?”

“And how did they dance? Was it some kind of decadent pavane that they dance on a faster rhythm? Were they touching? Or were they…” Irissë springs from her chair, raising her arms over her head like a madwoman, twisting them oddly. “Were they moving like they were a tree in the middle of a tempest! Reaching for the sky with reckless abandon!”

And then she starts moving her hips, mumbling about being decadent and lascivious , in a manner that is more hilarious than likely to seduce anyone, her arms still bending in odd shapes over her head, turning on her heels and looking so ridiculous that Fingolfin cannot help but watch in fascination. The avarin dance was nothing like Irissë’s parody. “Come on, Fingon! Up! Give us your most lascivious decadent wildness! No, not like this, less stiff! My, you do look like an actual tree!”

“Irissë, this is highly improper!” Turukano exclaims, but his complaint does not carry any weight, nor does it keep his daughter from giggling more and more openly at the sight of her aunt and uncle moving like disarticulated puppets as if the word dignity had never been devised at all. Irissë ignores his protests to grab her niece by the hand and begins a new and completely horrific dance.

The steps are simple; even so, Findekano manages to botch them so spectacularly that Fingolfin cannot keep the hilarity down. It must have reached his eyes first, from the satisfied look on his eldest’s and daughter’s face; then he cannot fight the pull on his lips and before he knows it, deep chuckles are exploding from his chest.

By the time the trio end their dance, Turukano is gone in a huff,  and the four of them are trying to catch their breath. Irissë and Itarillë collapse back into their chairs, while Findekano moves behind his father to untie his braids.

“So, Dad, are you going to tell us about the party?” Irissë asks.

Findekano combs through his father’s hair with his fingers, the gesture gentle and soothing, murmuring a song of healing that makes Fingolfin’s eyelids heavy and his tormented stomach lighter. From the corner of his eyes, he catches Itarillë looking at him with such curiosity that he decides to indulge them. He speaks about his unplanned arrival at the Avari feast, bending the events to ensure the result is funnier than it really was; he dilute the erotic content for the sake of his grand-daughter, focusing on the culinary misadventure and the bonds running from the earth to the dancers to the fires.

He finds himself talking a lot about Faelin, though he will not admit, not yet, how strongly and suddenly his heart desired the bard’s company. Fingolfin wants to confront his feelings with the light of day, far from the maddening drums and strange food, on his own ground. He does not admits how delighted he is when Irissë and Itarillë ask to join him in the afternoon to meet Faelin and hear the old stories from Beleriand. He does not admit how warm he feels when Findekano slips his arms around his shoulders once the girls are gone to tell him he and Turukano should be kinder to themselves. He does not admit that Turukano’s accusation wounded him deeply.

When the flap of the tent falls back behind Findekano, he tries to ignore the scorching voice breathing into his ear.

Your son is right.

And Fingolfin can feel the mocking smile in the voice.

You are nothing but a prideful fool.

Chapter Text

She finishes the letter with the sentence Answer back, asshole. Your half-cousin Aredhel , folds the precious sheet of valinorean paper and seals it with white wax. Would it be easier to tuck it in the box with the dozen letters signed Irissë or to deliver it to the Fëanorian camp? Both paths make her ache, either because of the absence of Tyelkormo or because of the chaffing of her pride.

When he left, she promised herself he would write first.

Aredhel puts the letter into her satchel. The easiest path is the third: to give herself the opportunity to decide later. She storms out of her tent, her white skirt swirling around her knees and her long braid swinging against her back with the energy of purposeful steps. She promised to collect Idril before her visit to the Fëanorian camp. She spots her niece’s back, at least, standing in front of Fingon’s tent, chatting with the very nervous Perhaps-Fiancée of Fingon.

“Now we just need to wait for my aunt Aredhel. She is always late.”

“Who is late?” Aredhel says loudly. “I have been searching for you everywhere . Who is your friend?”

Nissiel bows, demure and delicate as a vanyarin girl and as out of place in Beleriand’s wilderness.

“I am Princess Nissiel of the Falmari, your grace.”

“She is searching for Fingon,” Idril explains with her typical wide sunny grin. “I thought he might be with cousin Maedhros.”

Aredhel shrugs and declares that they shall see once they arrive at the fëanorian camp. She does not mind Nissiel trailing around, as long as she can get rid of her as soon as she needs to attend her own business.

As in Mithrim, the fëanorian camp is striking for its geometrical organization, almost every tent the exact same size except for a few, all of them carefully aligned around a central alley leading straight to Maedhros’s tent. The standard of Fëanor hangs atop the tent, flanked by the smaller, personal flags of his two eldest sons. The three princess have barely gone into the main alley when a woman with a long face scarred by fire, wearing a very warlike leather jerkin, intercepts them.

“Your graces,” the guard intones respectfully. “I am Ruthien. May I help you?”

“Perhaps,” Aredhel answers with visible annoyance. The Sindar and Avari may be fooled, but she is definitely not happy to be stopped by a guard pretending to be an innocent bystander; she spots at least three other elves pretending to do chores, but with weapons nearby and sitting in strategical spots. “Where is Lord Naswë?”

“I can escort you to his camp, my lady.”

“Listen, Ruthien,” Aredhel says, “I appreciate your assistance, but I do not think I need any of it to get by in my own cousin’s camp. Just tell me where Naswë is and I will be on my way.”

“I do not doubt your valor, your grace, but we have received strict orders that we should be most helpful to any guest.”

Fine .” Aredhel throws her hands up. “Let us go, then, be helpful .”

Ruthien escorts them to a square of tents far from Maedhros’. She stops a few paces away from an elf in clothes so simple a stranger would have believed him to be the Lord’s servant; but Aredhel, alone of the house of Fingolfin, is not a stranger, and she knows quite well the severe face belongs to Fëanor’s uncle.

“Lord Naswë, the Princess Irissë requests an audience with you.”

“Thank you, Ruthien. Can you,” Aredhel say, meaning that she must, “escort my niece to whoever is currently at Maedhros’s command tent? I believe she and her friend have errands of their own.”

Idril looks disappointed, her curiosity without a doubt fanned by the former Lord of Formenos’s infamous reputation, but Aredhel does not relent. Naswë nods curtly. Ruthien takes the small signal as an order to leave.

He sets aside the horse harness he was working on, unfolds his considerable height with the grace of a great cat and retreats to his personal tent. Aredhel follows him, her belly tickling with excitement.

As expected, there is no feeling of exile in the old wolf’s den. Naswë was always practical: no trinkets, no faded tokens of Valinor, no furniture meant to reproduce the feeling of a house as in Fingolfin’s pavilion. But there are a scant few objects that carry memories with them. Aredhel lets her fingers trail on personal belongings she shouldn’t touch: an unstringed bow, an old cloak embroidered by Miriel that has been untouched by time for longer than Aredhel’s life, a jerkin with shoulders and arms reinforced with leather to practice falconry.

“What do you want?”

His deep voice sends shivers to her spine. She always liked the rough accent of Formenos, the brusqueness of his tone.

Tyelkormo .”

“You will notice he is not hidden in my tent.”

She sighs.

“Why is he not here?”

He gives her the look that means the answer is none of her business, but rummages in one of his bags and takes out a small bundle of greased and tightly bound leather to hand her. Aredhel’s heart beats stronger and faster, her fingers slowly working the strings open to reveal several pieces of birch bark covered in small, barely readable twengar. She folds the package back and thinks of the letter she carries – of all the letters that sleep in her wooden box.

“You still wear your stag,” Aredhel says, because she wants to stop thinking about Tyelko. “I had half expected you to forfeit your friendship with Oromë.”

Naswë’s fingers brush the pendant hanging from his neck with something akin to reverence. “I did not.”

She steps forward, close enough to raise her hand to touch the wooden pendant and inhale his smell. Leather, sweat and grass. He frowns, but he has not pushed her away. Yet.

“With all the ruckus Fëanaro made about the Valar…”

“I am not my nephew, nor am I one of the fools who drank from his mouth.”

“Have you ever listened to anyone who was not yourself?” He is close enough to kiss, if only she could dare to follow the pulse in her belly; she feels like she could, now that they had flown from the constraints of Valinor. She should feel free enough to claim his lips.

She steps back.

“Will you spend the evening with me?”

“I will think about it.”

She breathes in, her nostrils flaring in anger, but there is something reassuring in him being as unapproachable and unlikable as ever.

“Meet me at the pool with the celandine flowers. Be there, or I swear no amount of guards will be enough to protect you from my wrath.”

“I will think about it,” he repeats, and she wishes she could rip his untroubled face apart to read his thoughts.

***

Aredhel and Idril find Fingolfin in a better shape than when they left him, wearing no crown and simpler clothes than he would when meeting with foreign guests. He looks like he is expecting a friend rather than a stranger, despite his usual slowness to unveil his true self. She lets Idril fill the silence with her tales of the Fëanorian camp and news of the family brought by Maglor, gleaned while she waited for Maedhros to come back from wherever he was with Fingon.

At last, a herald escorts Fingolfin’s guest into the pavilion: a small dark elf with the dull skin of the native and a hooded cloak descending low on his face. Fingolfin springs to greet him, one of his rare, natural smiles lighting his face with a quickness that betrays how much he looked forward to seeing him again.

The guest pulls down the hood, revealing a smaller, more fragile and dull-eyed version of Fingolfin himself: The nose, the cheekbones, the lips and the shade of the hair are close enough for the stranger to be his brother or his son, though Fingolfin stands more than half a head taller than the dark elf, with broader shoulders and arms.

“Here I was, thinking I was suffering from the hangover,” Fingolfin comments playfully on the use of a cloak during such a bright day once the stranger has been introduced as Faelin, a bard from the Elkelli tribes east of the mountains,.

“I hope the pain is considerable, your highness,” Faelin asks with a small smile, “as deserved revenge for requiring me to walk abroad under such sun! Alas for you, no, I can hold strong liquor much better than you do, but my people walk at night and I fear the strong light does not suit my eyes.”

Fingolfin laughs in a way that is more Fingon than the father Aredhel knows, then puts an arm around Faelin’s shoulders to guide him toward the main room of his tent. She grits her teeth. Fingolfin never touches anyone , save perhaps for Idril, because she is still a child to coddle.

Aredhel catches her niece before she follows them, bending to breathe into her ear in an alarmed tone: “I have seen this look before. I think my father is having an acute case of Fingonisis.”

“He looks happy,” Idril says, as if this should be both the beginning and the end of everything, and she finds no reason to dislike their guest. She smiles her brightest smile and bounces after Fingolfin, slipping from Aredhel’s grasp like a fish. “My Grandfather says you are a bard. Will you tell us a story?”

“This is a fantastic idea,” Fingolfin says, making himself comfortable in his fur covered foldable chair. “A great way to become better acquainted with our kin in Middle Earth.”

“Tell us a scary story,” Aredhel orders. “Something dark.”

“I would love a scary story!” Idril bats her eyelashes. “Please! I do not think any story will be too scary with my grandpa to protect me!”

As Fingolfin’s sole grandchild, she commands a fair share of his heart and can manipulate him with ridiculous ease into granting her most of her requests. There was a time when Aredhel could do that too, before she started to find her father’s absolute adoration stifling. She had been his joyful, adventurous child, but he had wanted her to become a peerless, perfect virgin that every noble of Tirion would envy, her energy no longer desirable but something she was supposed to outgrow.

She must not allow herself to be jealous of Idril. It is fine if her niece is everything Fingolfin ever wanted from Aredhel, because the fault is his , not hers .

“The setting is key to this kind of stories. I will need a much darker room and space to seat on the ground. If you would allow me,” Faelin says, turning toward Fingolfin, “I would like to weave a spell into your hair. Pardon me if my request is outrageous – I admit I have no idea if such demand is appropriate among your people.”

“It is highly inappropriate to touch someone’s hair unless they are close kin or romantically involved,” Aredhel answers with a frown. “And even if it was not, I find highly suspicious that a complete stranger would offer to put a spell on the High King of the Noldor.”

“If I wanted to harm your father, princess, I would have used the dagger hidden in my boot to slit his throat yesterday night,” the bard says with casual ease. “I would not have planned for murder in the most guarded part of his camp, where two guards would attack me in five seconds and three more in less than fifteen, in broad daylight. The spell, I assure you, is purely cosmetic.”

“You do know the number of our guards.”

“You do post guards. If you feel threatened, then allow everyone else to be cautious as well. On the matter of the spell, perhaps you would be reassured if you saw me perform it on myself first? The story requires three of those. Bards usually avoid disclosing the secrets of their art, but I may be inclined to make an exception today and show you how it is done”

The fond look he gives Fingolfin reeks of personal favor and Aredhel is sickened to see how delighted her father seems to be, as if a gift from a complete nobody was worthier of his attention than his own children. When Fingolfin points out that the sleeping area is the only room dark enough to fit Faelin’s requirement, she feels like strangling them.

“Please, aunt,” Idril whispers. “You said so yourself, it is like Fingon and Maedhros. Wouldn’t a great friendship growing up between us and our cousins of Beleriand be grand?”

No. Because that would leave her the only one whose soul calls to no one. She would have to watch Fingon drool all over Maedhros, and Turgon and Finrod angled toward each other like the circle of their shoulders create a whole new world between them, and now her father latching on this complete stranger, while she stands deprived of the sorry substitute Tyelko used to be, because he was always Curvo’s and not hers .

“The thing is, we actually knew where Maedhros was coming from.” Aredhel answers. She forces her face to relax and her voice to sound like she is less angry than she is, less bitter, less jealous, because her father had his chance with their mother and Aredhel has been waiting forever for this to happen to her. She wants to sound like he dislike is purely reasonable. “And,” she adds, because for all his faults she loves her father, “we also knew what he was capable of.”

***

The bard lays down a simple oil lamp of clay; some grey powder in a cup of copper, incense on a small wooden plate and, with the care and focus of a craftsman arranging his best work, bones and teeth, white threads and coarse needles, cautiously arranged trinkets on the soft skin of a lamb. He parts his chestnut hair with deft fingers and braids them into complicated knots, nimble and fast as a spider, all the while humming a wordless, oddly out-of-tune song. With the needle he sews wooden pearls and webs of white into the silky coils.

He pushes the braid to his back. It almost disappears into his flowing hair and, from the other side, he parts some other locks to start another tress. In this one he puts the bones and teeth; then, he wets the brown with red from his own veins, darkening the plait with the smell of death.

Aredhel stares. Faelin answers with a smirk and laugh in his voice. This one, he says, is for the villain .

The blood-stained braid slides behind his shoulder like a wet snake. The bard closes his eyes, hums a deeper tune; stops and breathes in silence, long enough for Aredhel’s impatience to rise to her lips. Idril watches, transfixed, and her father waits with this unrelenting patience of his.

Then, the bard reaches for the white braid, inclines his head in a modest, almost feminine gesture, fingers and wrist bending with delicacy; the shadows seem to soften on his sharp cheekbones, to engulf all hard lines in a way that smoothen him into a more feminine version of himself.

His eyes open, silver grey and rounder, and the glow of the lamp shines grey and white on his hair.

“As you will notice,” Faelin says, his voice high-pitched, not as a parody, but with the genuine fullness of a woman, “this spell is quite harmless.”

Idril gasps. Aredhel does not. There is something that bothers her, a likeness between this disguised bard and unpleasant memories, a connection that sets her nerves on the edge, especially in the eyes.

“So you say.”

The bard sighs. The white braid withdraws behind his shoulder, the illusion receding until he looks fully like himself.

“You are under no obligation, Nolofinwë. I can still perform the spell on myself.”

“I am no coward,” Fingolfin answers. “I have seen nothing that seems unclean.”

Aredhel is not so sure of that, but her father gives her the look that means she is starting to get on his nerves, so she swallows her objections and watch Faelin’s fingers go where her mother’s finger should be, if only Anairë had been brave enough to follow them.

Chapter Text

Once under the Stars awoke an elf whose name was lost to blood and sorrow. In him was a spirit that burnt as fire; bright was his mind, quick his limbs and sharp his tongue. He was tall and possessed a beauty pale and fey.

In these times the Shadows preyed upon  the elves. Lovers would wake deprived of their spouses and mothers screaming after their lost child. The elves cowered by the shores of the Lake of Birth and prayed for the Great Mother to save them.

The One Whose Name Was Lost was not one to cower and tremble. He rose from the flock of his weeping kin and walked willingly into the long night. For many cycles of the stars his brothers and sisters wept for his loss; but their tears were of no use to him, and he came back wet with blood and armed with the teeth of monsters.

And from then on, his name was Ahyar, the Changer, and he became the first Sorcerer-King among us.

***

The blood-soaked braid slips into the light, and with it Ahyar’s visage falls like a veil over the skin of the Bard. Finwë’s steel grey washes out of Faelin’s eyes to be replaced by silver-white, and white seems the bard’s hair in the yellowish glow. The lamp casts long shadows, shadows that move in the shape of a man and a beast becoming one.

***

Ahyar came back washed of weakness. He had hunted the Shadow and vanquished the creature; but he had not killed it. He had pushed its muzzle into the ground and whispered words only he knew into its ear. He sold freedom back to his prey and received power in payment.

“I shall set Laws for our people, and those Laws shall protect us. This I say: the Shadows will not prey on us, for I have tamed them; but their submission is not free, and sacrifices must be made. Each time the Brightest Star will go down the horizon, I shall read Truth in the bones and bloods of beasts. Let the Great Mother chose the least deserving of us, and shall this one be given to the Shadows. Out the sacrifice of one, I create peace for all.”

There were some among the elves who would not agree, for it seemed to them that because Ahyar had vanquished alone, they could secure a great victory if they worked together. But Ahyar spoke, then, with a voice terrible and great, and put such fear into their heart that his brothers and sisters bowed to his will, and nothing was done against his rule.

For many years the Peace of Ahyar stood. At the end of each year the Brightest Star disappeared, and Ahyar would split open the belly of a beast to read the name of the cursed one from a bleeding liver; only the cursed ones were always elves he despised, so his kin learnt to fear him, and soon they called him King.

***

The bard’s hand falls like a curtain in front of his eyes; erased are the fey irises of the Sorcerer, to be replaced by the softness of a Girl.

“Ahyar took many elves as his mates, and from the last one, he fathered his favorite child: a girl of surpassing loveliness and dexterity; of all the children he begot, she was the brightest, the most able with her hands and the quickest of mind. To her he taught how to Sing and bind her notes into knots and braids, and many other secrets Ahyar had bargained against the lives of his subjects. The Broideress they called her, for the art of her father she magnified into fabric, and he consulted her often for her wise counsels, but he would not let her walk and be seen by his people, save for the one night when Ahyar choose his sacrificial victim.

Year after year Ahyar delivered his dooms unchallenged, until one night, a young Hunter born of modest parentage stepped forward…”

The Girl’s hand rises to Fingolfin’s brow, descending in a caress light as a feather. It seems to Aredhel that a shadow darker than it should passes over her father’s eyes, but then it is gone and she gasps; for the eyes watching her now are not her father’s, but eyes that emptied of life on the steps of Formenos; and when the Bard’s voice rings against, it seems to come out of her father with the accents and deep baritone of Finwë.

***

“Long have I watched the Broideress, loving her from afar; another year without the light of her eyes would be the worst of agonies! To you I come, Great King, to ask for the price to call your daughter my wife.”

And it was said that Ahyar, though a liar in many things, was, in truth, gifted with foresight; and when he stared into the Hunter’s soul, he saw that this man who was no one would turn to be a great threat to him.

“This man I shall have,” his daughter said before he could plant his name into the liver of a beast, “if my father would chose a price worthy of my hand.”

“The Broideress I would give only to a man of great cunning,” Ahyar said, and in the blackness of his heart he was reminded of the lair of a beast cursed with spells of confusion. To this lair he sent the Hunter, and ordered he should not come back unless he brings one of the teeth of the monster. And the Hunter despaired, for he knew that none save Ahyar had been to the lair and returned.

Still he readied his weapons and provisions. He bade farewell to his parents and friends and stepped into the woods. Seven times he considered turning back; seven times he hardened himself until he reached the mouth of the den.

There he found a white owl perched on the branches of a yew tree, holding a reel of thread in her talons. She watched him with too clever eyes, and a voice full of Power resonated in him when he met her stare.

“This silver thread I gift to you, Hunter, to break the spells of this lair. Bind it to your wrist and be careful never to break the string, or you shall never see the light of stars again.”

The Hunter obeyed. The thread tied itself around his wrist, slim as spider silk, yet strong as steel, and he stepped into the caves. Long he wandered there, and many times he would have lost himself if not for the guiding voice of the Owl; at last he reached the center of the labyrinth, and easily smote the monster that slept here, for it was cunning but not strong. He took the teeth from the beast, small and numerous, and tied them with the silver thread under the starry sky.

The Hunter returned to the Great Lake and bowed to Ahyar.

“Great King, I have brought tribute as instructed.”

Ahyar lowered his gaze to him, and he saw both the teeth and the silver thread; but he said nothing, and devised another plan.

“My daughter I would give only to a man of great strength,” Ahyar said; and he asked of the hunter the fangs of an enormous creature that slept at the source of one of the Lake’s great tributary. And the Hunter despaired, for he knew that none but Ahyar had been strong enough to measure himself against the beast.

Still, he readied his weapons and provisions, took courage from the necklace of sharp teeth around his neck and left the Lake. For seven days he walked; seven times he considered turning back, until he met the White Owl again. Beneath the yew tree where she was perched rested a dead sheep, its belly sewed shut with silver threads.

“Always does the great reptile of the spring suffer from hunger. Bring this carcass to it; its belly I filled with poison. Let it eat its full and fall asleep, and the Fang shall be yours.”

So did the hunter: he rolled the sheep where the wind would bring its smell to the beast. From the shadows he watched the great maw devour the meat, then snap shut with the power of the drug. The monster did not even twitch when his spear of stone pierced its heart, and the Fang was added to the necklace of teeth.

The Hunter returned to the Lake and bowed to Ahyar.

“Great King, I have brought tribute as instructed.”

Ahyar lowered his gaze to him, and kin and strangers both could see anger blazing in his silver eyes; for he had hoped for the Hunter’s death, and he lived still.

“My daughter I would give only to a man of great endurance,” he said; and he asked of the hunter to leave and find a flower in the shape of a star atop a remote mountain, crowned with snow and treacherous ice; but the Hunter did not despair, for he felt deep in his heart that this trial would be the last.

For seven weeks he travelled, and seven times he turned toward the Lake and his beloved; but he did not turn back. At least he reached the roots of the mountain and saw a yew tree, but the White Owl was not there.

For seven days and seven nights the Hunter scaled the mountain until he could breathe no more. The cold froze his bones and the snow turned treacherous under his feet. At least he fell upon a great rock above a sea of clouds and despaired.

Yet all was not lost, for a white-winged snowfinch perched on his shoulder with words of comfort.

“Beloved of my valley-dwelling kin, heed my words! Star-shaped flowers I have aplenty, and for the sake of your love I would part with one, if you would offer tribute to the spirits of Earth and Sky.” And the Hunter slit open his palms and let drops fall like rubies on the snow, and the Spirits were satisfied.

The Hunter descended from the mountain, his heart full of joy at the thought Ahyar would give him the Broideress at last; yet a shadow was on his mind, and he raced to reach the Lake.

“The Truth I have read in the heart-blood of beasts,” the King said, “and this I have foreseen! Great may be your love, but many sorrows will it bring to the Children of the Stars. Fire and blood I have seen, tears unnumbered and the death of the one I cherish more than myself! My daughter you shall not have; her hand I gave already. Too late has your trial been completed, Hunter, for the seed of another has been planted.”

In the eyes of the beloved, the Hunter read that this was the truth: that indeed, in his long absence she had given herself to another –

“Are you seriously telling us that Miriel married someone else instead of grandfather? That’s so ludicrous!”

Aunt !” Idril was wholly taken with a story Aredhel finds more silly than dark, and annoyance at the interruption brings pouting creases to her youthful face. “I was listening!”

Fingolfin, who seemed half entranced by the pantomime, emerges only slowly, as if roused from a deep sleep.

“What for? We all know how the story ends, and an actual storyteller worth his salt would not have chosen to prattle for hours about Finwë and Miriel’s love –”

“Let me be the judge of that,” her father interrupts, his voice still thick with the accents of Finwë. “I do not begrudge my father his past, and Faelin could not have known – ”

“It seems to me, with the way he speaks fëanorian quenya down to every thorn, that he may very well be aware .”

The bard exchanges with Fingolfin a stare that seems more confused than anything else, a stare that does not convince Aredhel of anything. Had Faelin not been such an expert at being three people at once less than five minutes ago, she would, perhaps, have believed in his innocence, but now it seems to her that he would say anything, and look as  guileless as a babe, and yet hide under the mask the manipulative streak of a courtier.

“It seems to me,” Fingolfin starts with the caution of a scout testing the ice, “that you may hold the misconception that I am Miriel’s son.”

“Of course. She is the wife of Finwë, you are his son, and while Ahyar ruled that any elf may separate from their mate for legitimate matters, the Three ruled, according to the knowledge of the Song as taught by the Valar, that none shall have more than one spouse in Arda.”

“And yet,” Aredhel interjects, “you would have us believe that Miriel was married before.”

“A forced marriage Finwë ruled as non-existent.”

“Ludicrous! How can you force marriage? No elf would do such an evil thing!”

“Of course not,” Faelin answers, his voice dangerously soft, “and no elf, according to the Valar, would willingly kill, main, or even threaten another. Such evil things are the purview of stories only; or of orcs, perhaps.”

Aredhel springs to her feet, a shout on her lips and hands curling into fists, for how dare this stranger come into her father’s home to insult them so! But Fingolfin’s voice (the voice of the king) cuts her off, ordering her to sit and glaring, utterly awakened by the bloody memories.

Do not betray us, and if he suspects a thing about Alqualondë, give him no reason to believe the rumors are true!

“Sit,” he orders. “There is no need for this afternoon to degenerate into a fight, and it is the duty of a good host to dispel uncomfortable half-truths. It is clear, to my eyes, that Faelin meant no harm and could not have known the peculiarities of our family since they are hardly the fodder of casual conversations; and despite the Lady Miriel not being my mother, I enjoyed the tale before the interruption and so did Itarillë.”

“I fear that continuing the tale now is not an option.” Faelin sighs, his shoulders slumping slightly in a way that makes Aredhel grit her teeth, because of course he would act like the victim. “It takes strength to summon the memories of Ahyar and Finwë both in a tale. I shall take my leave and have some rest.”

“The protocol requests that one should ask to take their leave from the King.”

“I am not your father’s subject , princess. I shall do as I please,” he says, the steel of his eyes seeping into his voice, in a way that makes it clear that he is not used to obey; but more annoying is the ease with which he turns away from Aredhel, as if she was not worthy of attention. He advises her father with warmth, head and shoulders angled toward him as if to share secrets, to unbraid his hair, wash it with clear water and braid it back to his favorite style to completely dissolve the spell. It rankles that his overly friendly behavior finds such a quick and easy acceptance with her father, and it just hurts to see Fingolfin accept so easily that this nobody may slip from his authority like a fish, after the painful row with Turgon.

“Good. So will I, then.” Aredhel unfolds her long legs and stands to go. She hates that her family has turned into this: fights and tension and circling and avoiding each other, and conversations that always seem to end with uncomfortable silences or shouts. She storms out before Fingolfin can protest, but he follows her quickly enough to catch her before she leaves the tent.

“You disappoint me, Irissë. To speak to our guest like that!”

“I do not understand you,” she whispers furiously. “Since Alqualondë and even more so after the Ice, you have been cold and aloof, and I get it . I get that you are the King now and that some things must change, but you cannot push everyone away and then act like a love-struck youth with a complete stranger!”

“And yet, you are the one leaving .”

“Will the King order me to stay?” She asks. She reaches for his hand. It soothes her, somewhat, to feel the sadness radiating from his skin, to know that he cares more than he lets on. “We are with you. Why must you always remind us that you wear the crown?”

She feels him stiffen. If her father ever shared his doubts with anyone, it was with Finwë or Anairë, never with her or her brothers.

His hand slips from hers.

“When you were younger, I told you that for some of us, love does not come easily. That we need time to build it on the strong foundations of habits and trust, of reason and likeness of mind.” He breathes, halted and uneasy. “I am not young but I was wrong. I can – ” He averts his eyes. “My soul calls to him. I do not know if my heart changed so much or if I was seeking him all along, but I know that we fit .”

He inhales sharply, chest full but silent, until he releases the breath and shakes his head, too embarrassed to add anything.

“I understand,” Aredhel lies through the stone in her throat. “I just – It would be easier if it was us, and I feel like he is telling you what you want to hear. Please, be careful and promise me you will not let him get too close too soon. If he is honest, then – you have all the time you need. But please – do not wear grandfather’s face ever again. It is morbid.”

“I will not,” he says after too long a time. “I will be careful, I promise you.”

There is a part of her that does not entirely believe him; nonetheless she kisses his cheek goodbye and takes her leave.

***

She watches Naswë draw a trail of blood, two fingers descending from his brow to his lips, brushing down the throat to bypass the stag pendant to reach the bone above the heart; she watches him bend his great bow, the taut muscles of his back rolling under the pale skin.

His arrow flies straight, hitting the mark right in the middle; the Sinda champion, a tall dark-haired elf going by the name of Beleg Strongbow, whistles approvingly.

“Perhaps you Noldor are not as hopeless as I thought.”

“The Hunter be thanked that there are still some more than average archers amongst the Tatyar,” Naswë answers. “Back in the old days Elwë could hit the eye of a crow at thrice that range.”

He moves out of the line, Beleg moving in his place in front of the target, smaller and bulkier than the lean Noldo, his tanned skin covered with tattoos snaking around powerful arms; his own arrows lands so close to Naswë’s they could have been lovers flying after one another.

“See? No need to be born by the shores of Cuivienen to shoot straight, old one!”

Naswë snorts in the unimpressed way of an ancient spirit who has seen everything already; they push the targets farther and farther away, until Beleg wins by the length of a finger with a shot that would have won any competition in Alqualondë.

“So”, Aredhel taunts, “you lost.”

“His nocturnal eyesight is better than mine,” Naswë concedes. He smells of blood and sweat, a single drop sliding slowly down his throat to mingle with the blood. “His was not damaged by the Light.”

“Are you making excuses for your defeat?”

“Are you trying to insult me?”

She chuckles at the seriousness of his tone.

“Let’s go. I found a place I want to show you.”

He whips the blood away and covers himself before they go (she wishes he had not), but the smell still lingers, hovering behind her shoulder as he follows her through the woods to one of the highest pools of Ivrin. Aredhel feels the rocks rolling under her feet and lets her sure footing fail her, a lapse that makes her back collide with his chest and his hand grab her waist. His warm breath tickles the nape of her neck in a way that makes her shudder and wish he could just drop everything and –

She jumps out of his reach, climbing the rocks until she reaches the entrance of a small cave hidden by a thin curtain of falling water, dark and wet and calmer than the outside world. She throws her cloak on the ground and lies back, closing her eyes and trying to divine his position by the sound of his steps and the scent of his body.

She feels him settle by her side, his movements silent in the way of the natives rather than with the boisterous presence of their people.

“What do you want?” he finally asks, more annoyed than curious.

“I have questions. About soul mates, the whole they watched into each other’s eyes and they found each other by the will of Eru .”

“Why would you come to me, of all people?”

“Because you will not serve me the usual half-digested Laws and Customs.” She hoists herself on her elbows, studying the long face. “Because you will not tell me silly children’s tales to hide the truth.”

“What truth?” he sighs and opens his eyes. She marvels at the silver irises, the exact shade of Fëanor’s but duller, as if his whole being had refused to be infused by the Light when his nephew’s had drunk so eagerly he had burnt with it.  

“I do not know. The truth about the real world.”

“The truth about Arda is that She is what She is. She is neither marred nor unperfected, but the only one we have, and the fault of Finwë was to believe Manwë’s delusions that if you try hard enough, you can fix Arda into something better. In the real world, some people do open their eyes and discover someone their heart desires and others never do. It all comes down to luck and to the nature of the self.”

“So it is possible? To meet someone, at any age, that fits in the blink of an eye?”

“Yes.” His eyes focus out of the world, watching, perhaps, an imaginary star above their head or lost in age old memories. “Be careful what you wish for.”

“Why? Is it not the best thing in the world, to find someone matched with such perfection?”

“If two voices are perfectly attuned to each other, is the Song always beautiful? If the words and the tune are foul, is the music still worth playing? And what of those who forget the sound of themselves, and are left as the incomplete half of a song if their partner leaves them?”

She thinks of Turgon’s discordant presence; she hears, at the back of her skull, the primal, inhumane scream of suffering tearing out of her uncle’s throat; but she thinks also of Indis’ tales of love that seemed oversweet to her childish ears, of Nerdanel and Fëanaro finishing each other’s sentences when Aredhel was a child, of Fingon’s head turning toward the door long before he could have heard Maedhros’ steps.

“Is not the bliss of belonging worth the agony?”

“It is not for me to say. I find more satisfaction in knowing that my mind is truly my own than in searching for someone to make me feel whole.” She does not expect him to say anything more, but he does, and it surprises her to hear him spill so much; she does not think she ever heard him speak so much, and never with his heart so close to his mouth. “It used to be common knowledge that I shared such bonds with my sister and came to Valinor to follow her – and it was no secret that I despised the other part of her soul and the cage she led me into.”

His stare focuses back to her. She feels naked under the sudden appraisal, as if he were peeling the skin off her to peer at the soft pulp of a fruit.

“It is too easy to think we can sacrifice everything we are for the sake of Love, and much less to see what we become in doing so,” he warns, seeing, perhaps, some part of her she has no deciphered yet; some tune in her song that may have been his in his youth. “But you did not ask me to follow you tonight to speak of these things.”

“No.” She is acutely aware of the way the linen of his shirt clings to his chest, wet with the drops of the cascade. She dares bring her hand to his belly and up, her fingers tangling in the strings of his collar, her fingertip brushing the skin. The touch sends tension up her arm and down, warmth blossoming between her thighs. “I do not seek a husband.”

“And I do not desire a wife.”

She bends to kiss his lips; he meets her with an open mouth and the promise of stifling laws discarded into the wind.

Chapter Text

He dreams of a door that Fëanaro always closes behind him, and of the day when Fëanaro forgets to do so. The door leads to empty hallways with windows obscured by shutters and heavy curtains, clean and empty; this part of the palace does not live, though Nolofinwë lacks the concept of death that would explain why.

In his dreams he trails after his brother until he finds him sitting on a bench in front of the painting of a woman, ghostly under the first rays of Telperion: silver-blond hair crowns milk-white skin, grey eyes the shade of Fëanaro’s, clothes of blue and pink so pale they seem as washed out as her face, immortalized with an expressionless, empty smile and emptier eyes.

 He tries to be silent, but the hollowness of the halls magnifies even the soft sound of his footsteps and brings the treacherous noise to Fëanaro’s ears; he remembers the shouts and betrayed expression more than the hand that grabs his hair, drags him along the halls and throws him on the marble floor, and then Indis’s hand moving comfortingly up and down his back. Their father is embracing Fëanaro – it is always like that, Mother smoothing up Nolofinwë’s or Findis’s feathers while Father cares for their brother’s.

He remembers his brother choking over and over again on the words he had no rights, words broken by baffling sobs and accusatory glares that makes everything look like Nolofinwë has committed a great crime. Finwë sitting on his bed that night and telling him: “I think you are old enough, my son, to learn of Miriel.”

He dreams of Lorien, and finds himself able to walk in his own memories.

He was young when he stepped there for the first time, with hands that were slimmer than they are now, softer than the callused palms and fingers inherited from the Ice. He strides across curtains of grey weeping willow leaves to the cenotaph of Miriel, and it seems to him that the alabaster of her skin holds more life than the painting. He remembers Nerdanel sculpted her from the hazy memories of his brother (half-brother) and portraits, sleeping peacefully on a bed so realistic an unsuspecting guest would expect it to be soft.

The stone feels cold when he dares brush his fingers down the length of her braids, and Nolofinwë remembers no time when he was bold enough to touch. He had been moved to her effigy by the need to understand the ghost that plagued his brother’s (half-brother’s) heart; he had felt like he was, once again, intruding in a territory he had no right to enter, and yet had been obsessed with her. His eyes had taken in every small detail that marked his sibling as his half-brother, every proof that they would never be the family Nolofinwë had believed they were during his most tender years.

Not tonight, though.

Tonight his shameless fingers follow the soft line of her jaw, the white column of her neck, the roundness of a cheek; tonight, Finwë’s braid slips from behind his shoulder to mingle with hers, that braid Fingolfin was told to undo and merely tucked back.

Long have I watched the Broideress, loving her from afar…

His lids fall with heaviness on her image. The part of him that is Finwë remembers her scent (but does he?), the urge to kiss her lips and the lingering grief; the part that is Fingolfin too easily recalls the small moments when his father’s eyes would lose focus at the sight of silver hair.

Great may be your love, a voice that is Ahyar and Fëanaro both foretells, but many sorrows will it bring to the Children of the Stars. Fire and blood I have seen, tears unnumbered and the death of the one I cherish more than myself! My daughter you shall not have!

Fingolfin feels Finwë choke with the sight of Alqualondë, grief and consternation gripping at his throat and wrenching him from the realm of dreams. He soars up to surface back into the awakened world to suck in air like a drowning man. The blueish hues and melodious nightingale songs of Lorien dissolve with the metallic smell of Telerin blood, leaving him alone with the raspy sound of his breath.

“You disgust me,” Fëanaro hammers with the deliberate slowness of utter hatred. “My own mother.”

Misplaced tears of blood trickles from the fallen king’s wounded brow down his soiled cheeks. He reeks of a smell of fire that is not that of the forge, but of flesh charred back.

“This is not –“

But Fëanaro’s hand around his throat silences his explanation (pointless; empty; what was there to say?). They drown back to the dreamlike forecourt of the palace in Tirion, the tip of Fëanaro’s sword resting in the dip of his neck.

“You would take everything, would you not? My crown, my son, my father! You would steal everything from me – and now her?”

Once upon a time, Fëanaro had held his sword to his throat, and Nolofinwë had not truly believed he would kill him; carried by that certainty, he had walked away with a calm detachment that had impressed the crowd. This time, Fingolfin opens his mouth – and the swords withdraws and then sweeps at his neck, the impossibly sharp edge opening the skin like a ripe fruit.

“See, half-brother?”

Fingolfin raises his hands to his throat, his blood raining down his palms from his mouth and neck, down the space between his fingers to the immaculate stones of Tirion. One drop after another; drop; drop; drop, until the cup of his hand overflows.

Drop, drop, drop-drop-drop –

“This is sharper than your tongue, is it not?”

And then Fingolfin is looking down at his hands. His clean hands, shaking but unsoiled.

That was nothing. That was nothing. That was nothing, that did not happen, that was…

His fingers struggle to undo his father’s braid.

… nothing, merely a dream, that was nothing, nothing, nothing…

 

***

The days gets so much better once everyone settle down for breakfast: Fingolfin, still tensed from his mostly sleepless night; Findekano, who fidgets so much his father expects him to jump from his chair at any time; Irissë, lost in thoughts; Turukano, physically present but looking like he is attending an official meeting with the court rather than an informal meal with his family; sweet Itarillë who soon tires of carrying all the conversations and, last but not least: Fëanaro Curufinwë Noldoran, glowering from the other end of the table as if he was planning to replay the farce of cutting his brother’s throat.

And with Fëanaro comes the smell.

The smell of burnt flesh and blood, heavy, metallic, sickening and oddly reminiscent of grilled pork; and this last association is the worst. Fingolfin feels like throwing up when Arandil puts two well-cooked slices of bacon into his plate. He picks at the food without appetite and finally pushes the plate away.

He wishes he could punch Fëanaro’s smirk away.

“You do not have to stay,” Fingolfin tells his children, sounding more annoyed than he wanted to. He is tired of the sullen atmosphere; his pavilion should be their home, not their prison, and he cannot bear it after the dreams and with Fëanaro feasting on every sigh and absent stare.

He is surprised when Irissë is the first to stand, as if his blessings had been the only thing she was waiting for. She kisses his cheek good bye and leaves with some hidden happiness fueling her bouncy steps. Turukano immediately follows with stiff, formal apologies, taking with him Itarillë’s chatter about what Nissiel and her planned for today.

Findekano stays.

The silence lingers, long and thick and full of Fëanaro’s glare. Fingolfin asks, at last, if he can do anything to help his son, because it seems obvious to him that something is on his mind.

“I have been thinking. About Nissiel and I. I would like to – “

He hesitates, in a way that is unusual for Findekano. He is the kind of person who would ask for forgiveness rather than permission, and for him to behave thus betrays either his embarrassment or exceptional reluctance to breach the subject.

“I know that Nissiel and I do not have the… “spark” that some couples have. Like grand-father and grand-mother or uncle Arfin and Earwen. But… Mother and you were happy together, right?”

Fëanaro’s mouth curved with disdain at the mention of Finwë’s second love. Now, his sneer turns to open mockery.

Yes, Nolofinwë, why don’t you tell us about your dull relationship with your dull wife?

The dig cuts deep into his unprepared mask. Fingolfin would have been reluctant to speak of Anairë on the best of days, but now? With Fëanaro sprawled in front of him with a mocking smile and barbs for every word? The passionate Spirit of Fire had never made a secret of his contempt for his cooler marriage, and when their union had proved fruitful, he had merely joked that his half-brother tried to copy a passion he did not feel.

And it was true and a lie; because Nolofinwë had wanted each of his children for themselves, not to compete with the scandalous Fëanaro. He had been happy with his wife for a very long time, he had enjoyed that their marriage was calm and more restrained than his brothers’. He had been busy as High Prince, and Anairë had found a companion that made her heart sing in Earwen. He had not begrudged her their closeness. Perhaps he should have, considering how their story had endend.

He had been happy, but he did not want to discuss this happiness with his son.

“Yes,” Fingolfin answers, in way that does not call for any closer investigation.

“How did you do it?” Findekano insists. “The closest I ever had to a relationship is… well. I never actually had to think about what to do with Maedhros and it’s not like the tales are helping, is it?”

In tales, elves fell in love the moment their eyes met, or they did not. Finwë and Indis had been a good tale before Fëanaro broke them; in a way, Fëanaro and Nerdanel, too, until he burnt their couple away with his horrible temper.

Nolofinwë’s marriage had never been a tale. It would have been a boring one.

The answer is, Fëanaro says with a falsely helpful tone, go ask someone who actually knows something about love.

“You should –“

He cannot take it. He cannot take this whole discussion with Fëanaro looking down at him with mocking pity. And the truth is that he does not know. He followed the traditional steps of courtship. They had liked each other well enough. Nolofinwë had believed it was love after years of building step by step a level of intimacy he had reached in hours with Faelin, and he had treasured that because he did not have the easiness of love at first sight to make it seem tedious.

But Findekano had Maedhros. To walk this path with Nissiel would be like climbing a steep mountain road in the deepest mist.

He sighed. A kingdom he could rule, orc he could fight, but he could not teach his son anything about love.

“I am not comfortable discussing this with you,” Fingolfin admits, wishing he could sound as sorry as he is, but it seems to him that his voice is cold and sharp, and how can he expect Findekano to accept this paltry apology?

“I am sorry.” Findekano breathes deep. “I know this is not easy,” there is an undercurrent of anger here, something that smells like disappointment.

Finwë used to say that no parent can afford to be a coward. It did not matter that he did not have enough bravery for their fights in the end; Fingolfin knows it is true.

“But I need my father to help me. I know you do not like talking about this kind of things but –“

But Fëanaro is smiling, his teeth shockingly white against his soothe stained skin.

“Not now.” Not with Fëanaro watching them. “I… I had a very bad night. This is not a good time.”

Coward.

“But I will think about this. I promise.”

If his answer disappoints his son, Findekano hides it better than Fingolfin would have given him credit for. The younger elf just nods in acceptance and his father is ashamed of the relief he feels.

Impressing display of parenting.

Why don’t you harass your own children instead of spying on mine?

The dead should not talk to the living, Fëanaro explains nonchalantly.

“There is another thing,” Findekano says before Fingolfin can ask Fëanaro what he means. “I wanted to talk about Maedhros.”

The smirk slips from Fëanaro’s face, as does his casual disinterest. How funny it would be not to indulge him, but no: Fingolfin is better than that.

“What about him?”

“I –“ A stop; Findekano fiddles with one of his braid. “It’s…”

Fingolfin frowns. It is unusual for his child (any of his child!) to struggle as Findekano does to find his words.

“I have… this feeling, that he is… unwell.” He emits a self-derogatory laugh, as if impressed by the sheer stupidity of his own statement. “Of course he is unwell.  It’s just – he is there, and not. He stands by me but there is a wall between us.”

“Maedhros went through terrible hardships. There was a consensus among the healers that he may need a lot of time to restore his mind-speech abilities.”

I know. This is not the problem, the problem is when I do feel him. I get this… sort of smell, like rotting flesh. I do not think he has gotten any better in the East.”

Fingolfin does not answer immediately. To Findekano, it would seem like he is lost in thoughts, while he is, in fact, looking straight at Fëanaro, hoping, perhaps, that the ghost will contribute some useful insight. He waits in vain. Fëanaro looks pensive but says nothing.  

“You have been separated for many years and been reunited for a few days. Perhaps he needs –“

“No,” Findekano interrupts him. “No. He does not want me to help. He will not let me see. I cannot do this alone.”

“You want me to speak with him?”

“Please. If he will not allow me, then you, perhaps… he did give you give his crown.”

Perhaps. The gesture did not erase their past. It had been a concession from one rival to another, from the Third-Finwë in name to the Third-Finwë in age. They had been set against each other the moment Fëanaro had named his son. It is not easy to forget that, nor to ignore that Maedhros does whatever he wants; Fingolfin does not see what authority he can really invoke, and the both of them have no bright past, nothing save a common love for Findekano to bond over.

In the end, Fingolfin agrees to help because it is his duty, and because he cannot refuse his son a second time. He watches him leave, passing close enough to touch Fëanaro and still not seeing him.

The smell of burned flesh is unbearable.

What do you want?

What do you mean?

The last time you helped my son, you stole his crown. What will you take as payment this time?

I stole nothing! Fingolfin retort. Your son bent the knee because he recognized that –

That you were the better candidate? Fëanaro laughs. It sounds like a bark, as if the very idea was ludicrous. You never do anything for free, half-brother. In Tirion already you sold your friendship to whoever had influence to spare, and they accepted that currency because my father liked you enough. In his mouth, it sounded like enough was, in fact, very little. One day they will understand that you are nothing but an empty, unlovable liar. You can clothe yourself in as many traits stolen from my father as you can, you will never be Finwë.

What are you even doing there? Do you not have anything else to do with yourself?

Fëanaro’s smile turns to a smirk. He rises from his chair with surprising agility considering the gravity of his wounds and strolls slowly toward Fingolfin’s chamber, where he disappears with renewed chuckles.

Fingolfin finds him hovering near his crown, touching it with his bloody fingers. He knows Fëanaro is not here, yet the idea of putting it back on his head without cleaning it first disgusts him.

Do you want me to be constructive? I am not sure you will appreciate my input.

Try me.

This not my crown – and if this is not my crown, then it is not our father’s either. This is a forgery. Curufinwë’s, I guess? I would know. Did they tell you it was my father’s crown?

I did not ask.

Well. If you are going to talk to my son, ask him if this is Finwë’s crown. If he lies to you, you should start to wonder what else he is hiding.

You were right. I dislike your input. You are trying to sow discord between us.

The dead should not speak to the living, Nolofinwë. Those who breaks this taboo are driven to do so. The silver stare locks with Fingolfin’s, curiously devoid of hostility. If you want to get rid of me, you have to understand what called me back. I am giving you a clue: ask Maedhros and see if he lies.

***

“You look tired.”

“So do you,” Fingolfin answers with a slight smile. “I did not expect you this close to midday.”

“I could not sleep,” Faelin answers. He closes all the window flaps of the pavilion before he pushes the hood away from his face. “I worried.”

“About me?”

“The feeling was not as… focused. But yes, I worried,” the steel grey eyes dive into his eyes with unblinking, shameless straightforwardness. “About you.”

“Why?”

They have known each other for three days, and it baffles Fingolfin that anyone would care for him in such a short time; yet, when he returns Faelin’s stare, he feels the pleasing feeling of recognition and belonging awaken in his heart, and understands that he is less surprised by his own feelings than by Faelin’s, less surprised by his ability to love than by the possibility of being loved back.

The Bard’s words are long in coming and sound like an admission – to Fingolfin or himself, the king does not know.

“You are more likeable than I expected.” He crosses the space between them and reaches for his hand, in that tactile way of his that would be completely inappropriate in Tirion but feels right. “Did something happen tonight?”

He sounds like Finwë, demanding rather than asking, and for one fraction of a moment Fingolfin feels compelled to answer his father’s orders. He catches himself before he does because Finwë and Nolofinwë were equally tall and Fingolfin looks down into Faelin’s dull eyes.

Fëanaro did not happen. Those dreams should be locked down and thrown into the sea.

“Nothing.”

The bard stands still, doing nothing, saying nothing but watching with steel greys eyes that seem filled with unrelenting patience, the sheer weight of it cracking Fingolfin’s practiced mask of lies. The Noldo is keenly aware of the warm flesh against his, of Faelin’s thumb against the back of his hand, the gesture keeping them riveted like a manacle of flesh. The moment swells and lasts until the smaller elf steps forward, close enough to kiss, tilting his head to bring his nose by the earlobe to inhale, in one quick breath, the scent of the other.

“Did you just smell me?”

Fingolfin is dumbfounded; he should be scandalized, would be, if Faelin did not seem so calm and detached; if there was anything else than casual ease pouring from his spirit through the bond of their clasped hands.

“Fear.” The word rolls on Faelin tongue, shameless. “Did you know that fear, along with lust, is the emotion that leaves the strongest mark on the skin?”

Fingolfin steps back.

“I did not.”

Faelin’s grasp tightens on his hand.

What happened tonight?” He frowns. “Did it have anything to do with the tale?”

“I do not appreciate being questioned in my own home.”

Fingolfin withdraws his hand, but the warning is not enough to discourage his cousin; with the voice of one used to give orders and be obeyed, Faelin asks if he undid the braid as advised, and though Fingolfin merely answers that he forgets himself, there must have been some kind of embarrassment betraying his fault.

How could you be so reckless? I told you to – ”

“You are speaking to the King!”

“And you to someone who actually knows what he is doing.”

They watch each other, the king and the cousin who is not his subject, neither bowing nor allowing themselves any retreat, proud and self-righteous to the bone until Fingolfin feels like he is looking at his own image, his feelings mirrored perfectly by this intimate stranger who dares comes this close. It suddenly seems utterly laughable that they could fight over this – fight over being twin souls born too far away from one another. The sheer absurdity of it warms them until they have to bit their lips to keep the laugh from stumbling out, their eyes alight with this spark Fingolfin did not know he craved.