On a clearer day, Claire thought, it would have been a fine view.
Rain misted her face and beaded in her hair. The tower house's old stonework was slick with moisture, and the air smelled of damp moss and salt. In the crenellated rock she felt the thrum of history beneath her fingers, and imagined the house's stories bleeding through her skin and into her blood – perhaps a heroic stand against reavers, or a son lost at Flodden, or a Catholic priest cowering in a crevice while the Crown's Protestant soldiers tramped by. Whispers, echoes, fragments. Behind her the main road rumbled and snarled like a monster crept down from the hills, and low cloud rolled through the valley across the bay. Her eyes stung with the wind's chill, but she gripped the parapet and breathed deeply of the sweet, cool air, a blessed change from the diesel fumes of the motorway.
“I believe this is the sort of weather the Scots call 'dreich.'”
His voice was light with laughter, and yet rich, deep, steeped in music and memory. She spun and threw herself into the offered embrace; he held her close, one hand cupping the back of her head. His leather jacket was wet with the rain but she pressed her cheek against it anyway, clinging fiercely, breathing in the familiar scent of woody herbs, and as he wrapped his other arm tight around her waist something settled inside her like a log shifting into place at the heart of a fire – a sense of relief, of logic satisfied, of coming home at the end of the day. Her cheeks heated in spite of the cold. She was a little ashamed of it, this admission of need. It was what she had wanted to feel after Christmas with her family, the satisfaction and rightness of being back where one belonged – but throughout those three weeks at home, she had been plagued by restlessness like an itch she was unable to scratch.
A now-familiar pressure nudged at her mind – the weight of power, a keening lament, the burn of lightning and fire. She relaxed as he'd taught her, closing her eyes (not necessary, but it made things easier) and letting him in. An astonishing sea of emotions rolled off him – burning, protective love; relief at seeing her safe; sharp delight at their easy, physical contact; disbelief, even now, at her acceptance, at having this basic need for touch and affection met after so many thousands of years. Guilt too, but his was not like hers. Under the layers of warmth and pain-edged joy ran a bitter rill of doubt that insisted he should not need her, nor her him – that he should never have involved her in his life.
She stepped back and smiled up at him, gently gripping his forearm. “It's good to see you.”
“Likewise.” He pushed her hair back from her face. “You look well.”
“You sound surprised,” she teased.
Gently he brushed his fingers across the thin silver scars on her cheek, where Thuringwethil's claws had bitten. Regret stirred behind his eyes but he said simply, “I missed you.” And was afraid for you.
She took his hand, the scarred skin cool and damp. “It was only Sheffield. And just for a few weeks.”
But they both knew that was no guarantee of anything. Not any more.
He lifted his eyes and looked out over the bay. The clouds poured onto the surface of the water and huffed and curled with the wind. “Quite the meeting place.”
She shrugged. “It's distinctive – and right by the main road. Hard to miss, even in this weather.” A mischievous grin. “And quieter than a service station.”
Maglor's mouth tightened into a disapproving grimace.
“Don't look like that,” she laughed. “Anyway, where's Aelios? I thought you were travelling together?”
“He's downstairs.” He curled his fingers into her hair again, and a hint of reproach crept into his voice. “He had the sense to stay out of the rain.”
“Alright, point taken. There's a tea room across the way; we can warm up in there.”
Carefully they climbed across the wooden walkway back to the stair tower. Claire traced her fingers over the stone, wondering if her idle imaginings of earlier were anywhere near the truth. Maglor, she knew, could listen deeply to the land and its tales, follow them through the earth and into the structures its characters left like monuments in their wake – but she didn't ask it of him often. What he uncovered was often painful, and besides, even in this quiet corner of rural Scotland, one never knew who was listening.
She shivered, suddenly afraid that watchful eyes waited in the hills across the bay. She quickened her steps and slipped a little at the top of the stairwell.
“I love these old ruins,” she said, in part to lessen the press of silence around them. “I think I'd like to buy one and restore it.”
“Well. We could, if you wanted to.” Again that ribbon of guilt. “We have the money.”
“Are we going to be in one place for long enough?”
A pause, a soft sigh. “I wish I knew.”
Claire bit her lip. “Well. I suppose turning it into a home might spoil it. There's something romantic about a crumbling heap of stone.”
“True.” He turned, and even in the half-light his silver eyes gleamed. “And of course, keeping it warm and dry would be far from easy. The flat in St Andrews was bad enough.”
“Don't remind me.” The old building had been wonderfully cool in summer, but in the winter months it had been almost impossible to maintain an acceptable temperature. “It's no wonder we were always ill.” She paused, weighing her next words carefully. “Actually, it's funny. This is the first winter in a long time that I haven't had a bad cold.”
Maglor halted again.
“Tell me.” She laid a hand on his shoulder. “Please. What did – she do to me?”
He didn't reply aloud, but again she felt him at her mind's edge, song and storm together.
Not here. Gentle, quiet. Not now.
Then you do know.
I am guessing; that's all.
Fear rose in her like a cyclone, but just as quickly his power caught at it, soothing now, and she thought of the kind musician who had sung his brothers to sleep and held two frightened children amid the burning wreckage of their home.
It is not what you're afraid of; I know that much, at least. He held out one arm; she tucked herself against him, and he kissed the side of her head. You are not becoming like her.
“Are you sure?”
“I'm certain.” I would be able to tell – and I promise you, I would not hide the truth.
She looked up, startled by the deep respect she felt in those words.
“That said,” he added, “I suspect that Aelios knows more than he's letting on.”
She nodded slowly. They both knew what Aelios was, of course – there had been no hiding that, not after Venice – but she, too, suspected that they did not know everything. Not yet.
Maglor's mind caressed hers once more, and then the contact was withdrawn.
“How's Harrison?” he asked as they continued down the stairs.
“Fine. Although he doesn't believe for a minute that I've got a teaching post in America.”
“No.” Maglor's voice was amused, and not a little proud. “I didn't think he would.”
They ducked under a low stone archway that opened onto a part-covered courtyard. Bare trees sprouted from tumbledown walls – and in a corner, leaning elegantly against the remains of a great hearth, stood Aelios. He stepped out of the shadows as Maglor and Claire approached, and even in the grim drear of the Scottish winter, he drew the eye like the sun he was born from.
“Ray Bans?” Claire asked with a teasing smile. “Really? In this weather?”
He laughed and drew her close. “Better than the alternative, I think.”
“Maybe.” She kissed his cheek, warm even in the drizzle and chill. “You might get away with pretending they're contacts.”
He shook his head, the scant light catching his red curls. “It isn't worth the risk.”
“I quite agree.” Maglor scanned their surroundings like a cat before adding, “Especially after summer. Tales of fiery-eyed angels are the last thing we need.” He flashed a grin at Aelios. “You're hardly inconspicuous as it is.”
Aelios quirked an eyebrow. “Neither are you.”
The waitress in the tearoom evidently agreed. Claire had to smother giggles in a napkin as the young woman found ever more spurious reasons to return to their table, gawping shamelessly at Maglor and Aelios, and glaring resentfully at Claire. Natural, really, Claire supposed, eyeing her companions, both of them more beautiful than any human had a right to be.
Not that either of them are human – at least, not as most people understand it.
And here she was, drinking tea with them at the side of a trunk road in the Scottish borders. It was almost funny – yet the memory of summer waited like a shade at her back, creeping closer whenever she tried to forget.
They left with several hours of daylight to spare. The forecast was for snow on the high ground, and as they travelled north the rain thickened into sleet – and then the sky cleared and the hills sharpened into peaks like broken blades. Winter sun glinted on cold, fierce lochs; shadows stirred in the breathing mists, and thick trees clung frowning to the mountainside.
A land of ghosts and faeries.
Claire thought of the legends of monsters in the deep lochs, of giants walking the hills, and even now, in the daylight, she half-believed them.
They passed a pair of hikers on their way down into the village – a middle-aged woman and a much younger man, perhaps mother and son – and then the manse came into view, the old yew tree's vaulted branches curved protectively over its roof. A sacred place, Maglor had said. Warded. Guarded. Safe – as far as that was possible.
The Bentley and the Lamborghini pulled onto the driveway one after the other. The air was sharp with the tang of a gathering storm, but it was not here yet, and dusk was a while away.
In a makeshift shelter at the side of the house, fat dry logs were slotted together in piles. Claire built them a fire while Maglor cooked (they had stopped at a supermarket outside Inverness to pick up provisions) and Aelios walked the outskirts of the village, the best equipped of all of them to sense any lurking threats.
He returned as the light disappeared from the sky. Outside the window the landscape faded into sullen grey-blue, and flames snapped and leapt in the hearth. Claire looked up and smiled as Aelios stamped mud from his boots, and then, after checking the curtains were tightly drawn, shed his glamour. Scarlet hair tumbled down his back; bronze eyes flared with searing light; his carriage, always proud, took on an easy, prowling arrogance that in earlier times would have had mortals pressing their faces to the earth and murmuring reverent praise to this god made flesh.
From the kitchen doorway, Maglor watched, admiring, amused. “Better?”
“Much.” In one easy movement, Aelios – Coldagnir, Nemrúshkeraz, Urphiel – coiled his blazing mane onto the top of his head.
Carefully Claire took a log in the fire-tongs and added it to the stack already burning in the grate. “Did you find anything?”
“Nothing we need worry about.”
She knew too much now for that answer to concern her. There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy. “Edenel?” she asked.
“Not far away; he will join us this evening.”
She nodded, wondering whether to wait for his arrival.
Aelios tilted his head. “Something troubles thee.”
Unbidden, and in spite of her earlier fears, her lips curled upwards. Aelios, too, smiled ruefully, catching himself; even now he occasionally forgot. It mattered less here, among the three of them, but it earned some strange looks from those on the outside.
“Yes,” she replied eventually, and looked at Maglor, whose gaze was encouraging. “I want to know why my leg healed so quickly after Venice, and why I haven't been ill once this winter.” She poked at the fire. Slits of red heat glowered beneath the bark of the logs. “Why my senses are sharper than they've ever been in my life. Why I can feel – see – things that I didn't believe existed this time last year. And...” Her lips felt as dry as summer gorse. “I want to know why I feel like I'm being looked for. All the time.” She shivered despite the fire; Maglor crossed the room to sit beside her, and she leaned into his embrace. “Even here, with you.”
Aelios exhaled, but he did not look surprised. “You have spoken with Olórin?” he asked Maglor.
“Yes. He had his suspicions, but could not say for certain without seeing her.”
“He may not have been able to guess all of it in any case, although no doubt he would have come very near.” He picked up the whisky bottle they had left out on the bookshelf, uncorked it with a woody pop, and poured the golden liquid into three waiting glasses. “I do know,” he admitted. “I did not tell you at first because, like Vanimórë, I did not wish to overwhelm you.” He raised a placating hand as Claire opened her mouth to object, and passed her one of the glasses. “If I was wrong then I am sorry, but I will tell you now. It is past time you knew the truth.” His gaze lingered on Maglor as he settled himself beside them in front of the fire. “Both of you.”
Claire shifted to look around at Maglor, but he wore the same inscrutable mask that she knew from their earliest days together in St Andrews, before he had truly trusted her. “Yes,” she said slowly. “I think it is.”
Aelios stretched out long, graceful legs and steepled his fingers, clearly thinking. “You both know who – and what – Vanimórë is.”
Claire nodded. Maglor's arm tightened around her waist, and she stroked her thumb over his wristbone.
Aelios lifted an eyebrow. “It does not sit well with thee, I know,” he said to Maglor.
“That he is Sauron's son?” A wry smile hid in the musical voice. “It's plain enough whose side he is on, and he did help Claire, but yes, it seems...odd. Although I know I should not judge by blood alone.”
“No.” Aelios pressed his whisky glass into the palm of his hand. “He did more than help Claire,” he said softly.
A weight settled in her limbs like mist grown solid. She felt – again – like she was seeing something around two corners, or glimpsing it through fog in a mirror. She remembered the times in St Andrews when she'd almost guessed Maglor's identity, and then the edges of her knowledge had shattered, as though she'd grasped at sheets of ash. But that had been Maglor's own power deflecting her, pushing her away like a repelling magnet. This time, the reluctance was all her own.
The bronze eyes were soft, understanding. Are you sure you want to know?
Yes. There was steel behind the thought. I need to.
“Very well. Thuringwethil and her kind, as you know, gave rise to the tales of the creatures called vampires. Those left in later days drank the blood of their victims, but that alone was not enough to effect the transformation...do not worry,” he added as Claire tensed. “That is not what is happening to you.”
She felt the brush of Maglor's power at the borders of her mind. I have told you this. Teasing, affectionate, reassuring – although beneath it she felt his own worry for her. Do you not believe me?
One by one she forced her muscles to relax, leaning against him. “What, then?” Her voice sounded frightened and thin – and outside the wind was lifting, cackling against the windows and across the chimney shaft as though it mocked her.
“Thuringwethil's chosen victims – mortal or Elf-kind – did not often survive.” Aelios lifted his eyes to meet Maglor's. “You have encountered her, of course.”
“Yes.” After more than eight hundred years, fury still flowed through his voice like white-hot iron. “The boy she took from us – his death was...”
Claire thought of his strangled snarl, the flash of terror in his eyes when she'd recounted her story – the only time she'd ever seen him truly afraid.
Aelios looked away, shadows flickering in his face. “I know. I have seen it too.”
Was he remembering Angband, she wondered – or Utumno? She laid a gentle hand on his arm.
Aelios curled the fingers of his free hand around it, smooth and warm. “It is some old, dark magic, brought to dreadful fruition by Melkor and Sauron. A poison – in her bite, her breath, her kiss, her claws. Swift-acting and lethal.”
The ghost of a memory stirred, a whisper from a dream creeping through the gauzy layers of a long-ago sleep. “But I didn't die.”
“No.” He squeezed her hand. “You were dying, though, Claire, when Vanimórë brought you back to Summerland.”
Behind her, Maglor inhaled, the edges of his breath catching like a rag on a nail.
“I think...I think I knew that.” She thought of the terrible brightness of the lights, the scalding heat through her body. “And he saved me.” The brandy, the odd rich taste of it, metal and spice together... “What did he put in my drink?”
Fiery eyes widened as though impressed – but there was pity there too, and reluctance even now. “Claire, you must understand – the medicine of this world is advanced, but it could have done nothing against her magic. It was no drug that Vanimórë gave you.”
Ribbons of mist curled away in her mind, leaving a window she wasn't sure she could look through. Not yet.
The branches of the yew tree rattled against the roof. The wind snarled, and the flames snatched upwards like dancing rags. Aelios looked up at Maglor, who was as still as a crouching cat. “There is power in his blood,” he said quietly. “Power to heal, and purge, and...change.”
“Change?” Claire swallowed. Power in his blood...the cut on his hand, he said it was one of her claws...he lied, he lied... “Change how?”
“I think you've guessed – or begun to. In Mordor Vanimórë grew close to some of the young warriors who served him – soldiers of the Harad or Cathaia, even Gondor. He offered them his blood, and those who accepted became Khadakhir. Guards of the Prince, stronger and hardier than other men.” A strange expression flickered in the sun-god's eyes. “And immortal.”
The weight of his answer grew cool in her bones. She felt sick – and yet she wanted to laugh. The rise and fall of Maglor's chest against her back had stilled entirely. “No. I can't be.”
Aelios looked away, not arguing with her, knowing that at her core she already understood.
“I can't be,” she repeated, and turned to Maglor. “That's mad, it's...” But how could she say it wasn't possible, with everything else she had seen and done and learned?
Maglor's eyes were full of grief – not the ancient sorrows she had grown to recognise, if not understand, but a new anguish, for her and for this new, unthinkable thing they must both accept.
“Did you know?” she asked. (How calm she sounded – so still and cool, her courtroom character at the surface, as though she were back in London and nothing had changed.)
“No.” The lovely voice was taut. “I guessed there was something, but not – not this.”
Her lungs had shrunk in her chest. She put down her whisky and stood, wrapping her arms around her stomach and gripping her elbows, half-afraid she might drift apart. “Sauron's blood. Inside me.” A sharp breath. “You said I wasn't becoming like Thuringwethil, but -”
Aelios interrupted her. “You are not being corrupted, Claire, by her or by him.”
“But I can feel him – that's it, isn't it? Why it's like I'm being watched. Followed.”
“Yes. Blood calling to blood.”
She shivered, remembering how it felt to walk down the Pends at night, half-expecting a figure from centuries ago to slip out of the shadows and grasp her arm. “Could he find me here?”
“Vanimórë was on this Earth for almost seventy years and managed to avoid him,” Aelios pointed out gently. “And you are safe enough in this house.”
Claire thought of the yew tree, its branches wrapped around the manse like a friend's embrace, and then glanced back at Maglor. He stared into the fire as though it held the answer to a riddle, his scarred hand gripping his glass so tightly that the flesh streaked white and red.
Carefully, hesitantly, she touched his shoulder. “It isn't your fault.”
He lifted his head and gave a soft smile as he met her eyes. “Isn't it?” he asked. “Without me, that creature would never have found you – and she certainly wouldn't have followed you to Devon.” Regret lay beneath his words like a chasm. “Gods, Claire, I'm so sorry.”
Because he knew, he understood. For thousands of years he had lived among mortals, sharing their lives and then and watching them die, and now it would be the same for her. Harrison...
Tears rose through her like a burning wave; she covered her mouth, and Maglor came to his feet and cradled her close. She closed her eyes, rested her cheek against soft cotton for a moment, inhaled. Enough.
I'm alright. She squeezed his hand, and turned back to Aelios.
“I assume it's permanent?” she asked. Dispassionate. Facts. She could cope with facts. “There's no way to reverse it?”
Maglor, still holding her hand, tensed.
“I see.” It was only what she'd expected – although she was shocked by the curl of relief through her gut. She sank back onto the rug in front of the fire and crossed her legs, savouring the warmth of its flames.
“He wanted to explain,” Aelios said.
“Then why didn't he?”
“He was afraid you would argue – or bolt – and then it would be too late.” Firelight shone through the whisky in his glass. “He wanted to earn your trust and speak to you openly. Thuringwethil complicated matters, but he meant to offer you the choice.”
“It was not his to offer!” Maglor flared.
Claire held up a hand, watching Aelios intently. “Like the – what did you call them? Khadakhir?”
Aelios lifted his eyes to look up at their companion.
Claire understood. So Maglor didn't have to be alone again.
Guilt flickered across the chiselled features. “He had no right.”
“Perhaps not, but Vanimórë never could bear injustice, or needless suffering.” Aelios curved his full lips into a smile, and his eyes danced as though at some private joke. “In that respect, he is not unlike many others of his bloodline.”
Maglor shot him a sharp look.
A chill prickled through her limbs, a puzzle half-understood. She thought of Torcello, of Maglor standing in the shadows of the old farmhouse – and she had been dazzled by the lagoon's aquamarine light, and just for a moment it had seemed...
“His mother was a woman of Finrod's people,” she remembered, wondering.
“Yes.” Aelios straightened, gauging Maglor's reaction with care. “And – in the world I came from, at least – she was the daughter of Fëanáro.”
Flames leapt. Smoke and ash drifted from the grate. Orange light gleamed in Maglor's hair, and his eyes snapped like sparking steel. “My father had another child – a daughter?”
“Her name was Móriel. When Orodreth fled Tol Sirion her husband Hendunár refused to leave, and so did she. Sauron captured her and used her for his...experiments.” The beautiful mouth twisted. “Fëanor knew nothing of her.”
Maglor closed his eyes, the grief and regret of Ages crossing his face in waves of shadow. “Hells. A sister...”
Claire crossed the room and slid her arms around him, pressing her cheek against his shoulder.
“In that world, yes.” Compassion tempered caution in Aelios's voice. “Not necessarily in this one.”
“But Vanimórë existed here,” Claire objected.
“Yes, and so did Glorfindel – but here he is Lalwendë's son, is he not?”
Maglor nodded briefly.
“And where I come from he is the child of Finarfin. The different worlds do not always align.”
But Claire could feel the doubt in Maglor, the yearning to know, to be sure. Unbidden, she heard Vanimórë's voice in her mind - “your world has a new dimension added to it...” - and wondered where he was now, whether they would ever be able to ask him their questions. Whether he would even answer.
Something else came back to her, half-remembered from the edge of a dream – a woman's voice, soft and wise. “Godblood...Sauron's blood, and Fëanor's...it will be a burden...”
“Is that why I knew where to find you?” she wondered aloud, and looked back at Aelios, who had tilted his head enquiringly. “I didn't know about the house on Torcello,” she explained. “But the morning after I – after Thuringwethil -” Maglor put his arm around her shoulders. “I was walking by the sea in the cove at Summerland, and I knew.” Lightning arcing across continents... “I knew where to go.”
“It makes sense,” Aelios agreed. “Vanimórë's power would not have...settled in you, and has not now, not fully. Your mind and body would respond in unusual ways.”
“Wild magic?” She thought of Harrison and Theo's video games, full of Nordic warriors and medieval wizards.
“Of a kind.”
“Blood calling to blood,” Maglor mused, repeating Aelios's words of earlier as though formulating an idea. He squeezed her shoulders. “I won't be a moment.”
He disappeared up the stairs and onto the shadowy landing. The wind howled around the manse, and Claire suddenly felt bone-weary, the way she sometimes had in Venice – as though she'd like nothing more than to stretch out beneath layers of blankets and drift into the comfort of sleep. She sank onto the bulging sofa and hugged her knees.
Aelios threw more fuel onto the fire and came to sit beside her. “I know it would be foolish to ask if you're alright, but is there anything I can do?”
She shook her head, and curled her fingers around the whisky glass he offered her. “Thank you for telling me.”
“I wonder now whether I should not have spoken sooner.” He smiled ruefully. “I imagine Maglor will have some choice words for me later this evening.”
“He'll save the worst of it for himself, I'm sure.”
“Not for Vanimórë?”
“Well. He might like to.” Claire breathed in the comforting smell of spice and sherry-wood, and thought of long nights in the Whey Pat in St Andrews, laughing and teasing while the folk band played in the back room. She smiled at Aelios. “But I doubt they'll ever meet.”
Swirling air moaned a dirge in the chimney. Sparks hissed upwards, and the back of Claire's neck prickled, as though warning her that something approached...
Stop it, she scolded herself.
“And you?” The liquid bronze eyes were concerned. “Are you angry?”
She leaned into the cushions, considering. “No,” she realised. “No, I'm not. After everything that had happened that night, the idea that he was a god who could make me immortal...he was right that it would have been too much. I might well have run again – or argued, or even attacked him, I don't know.” She took a swallow of whisky, and stared at the fire as the drink slipped down, stroking her insides with soothing heat. “And if the alternative was certain death – probably horrible death – then I understand him. I think.”
The smile widened. “You're kinder to him than he would be to himself.”
“From what you and Edenel have told me, he sounds a lot like Maglor.” She lifted her eyes. “Aelios, if he had managed to speak to me -”
But she paused at the sound of Maglor's light tread on the stairs.
I know. The voice of Aelios in her mind was like a summer sunset, blood-red, a whisper of danger beneath glorious heat. Tell him. It may help.
She nodded. I will.
“Here.” Maglor settled himself on her other side, and held out the bundled cotton scarf that contained the palantír from Summerland.
She frowned. “I thought we weren't going to use it?”
“I know. But it has called to you before, and you did not have my father's blood in you then.” Pain like a blade lit the silver eyes. “I thought, perhaps, now that you do, and you know about it...”
“It didn't work for either of us in Venice,” she said gently, but accepted it – heavier than it should be, for the size – and began to unravel the layers of soft sheer fabric. “And there's no reason for it to answer to me rather than you.”
She looped the last swathes of cotton away from the stone; Aelios lifted them from her arm and laid them to one side. She looked up at them both, uncertainty plucking at her chest, thinking of Pippin and the stone of Orthanc. The palantír weighed in her lap, shimmering, almost seeming to breathe.
Maglor laid a hand on her arm. On her other side, Aelios smiled, let a little of his god-power curl loose, and it warmed and lightened the air like a sunbeam through fog.
Claire smiled back, swallowed, and cupped the palantír in both hands.
Nothing. It glittered in the firelight, irridescent – but quiescent, still. Cold.
She sighed, not realising she'd held her breath. “I'm sorry.”
“Don't be.” Maglor gripped her arm gently. “It was an idea, that's all.”
Frowning, she traced her fingertips over the stone's smooth surface. “I wish I knew what I'd seen,” she murmured. “It was like...stars, and white fire...great arcs of light, and pinpricks of silver and gold...the strangest blues...mists like silk...”
“None of which sounds like it was meant for Thuringwethil,” Aelios said wryly.
“But nothing since then, either.” Claire held the stone out to Maglor. “Do you want to try?”
Longing stirred in his face as he took it from her, handling it with the same care one would take of a delicate child – but its inky depths remained dormant, even for the last living son of its maker.
“I'm not sure what I expected.” He gave a bitter smile as Aelios passed him the scarf to wrap it with. “Even if it showed us anything, it would no doubt only add to the puzzle. They were never intended to provide answers, after all.”
Claire had a sudden image of the Seeing Stones being used like the magic eight balls she and her friends had once giggled over in the school playground, and coughed hastily into her sleeve.
Maglor watched her as he laid the palantír aside. His eyes were dark with pity and grief – and beneath, anger simmered again.
So much has been taken from you. That sharp edge, the flicker of lightning. Because of him – and because of me. And you were not even asked...
He looked over at Aelios, who straightened as though ready for a challenge – and then something spat and hissed in the kitchen, and the acrid smell of burning food drifted out through the door.
“Come on.” She squeezed his hand, but allowed a note of warning to slip into her voice. “Practical stuff first. We can talk about this when we've had dinner.”
Edenel joined them after dark. He said nothing aloud, but it was plain that he knew what Aelios had shared with them. Perhaps they had spoken mind-to-mind. When he greeted Maglor he rested his brow against his kinsman's for a moment, and when he kissed Claire's cheek she felt a whisper like moonlight at the edge of her thoughts.
We are here for thee, my dear.
She swallowed the tears that threatened, and gripped his arm.
When they had eaten, Aelios and Edenel cleared the table and stacked pots and plates in the sink, insisting they could manage when Claire offered her help. She smiled – it seemed mad, the god of the sun and the twin of Finwë washing up the remains of a Sunday roast – but she didn't argue and returned to the living room, the remnants of a glass of red wine in one hand.
Maglor sat in a wingback chair by the fire. He had rebuilt it, and the wind that whirled about the house like a demon had whipped the flames into a raging tower, their peaks chasing up the chimney shaft as though trying to escape from the grate and into the storm outside. One ankle rested on his knee; his scarred hand held an empty wine glass, while the other cupped his chin. The familiar furrow sat between his brows, and the silver eyes were far away.
She knew how deeply he could sink into memory, and approached with care – but he looked up and smiled as she padded into the room.
“I'm sorry to leave you to clean up.” His voice was tired, and shadows sat beneath the sharp cheekbones.
“Cook's privilege.” She perched on a leather stool by the hearth. “Anyway, Aelios and Edenel said they don't mind.”
He nodded, and his gaze returned to the fire.
“Maglor.” She leaned forward and curled her fingers around the arm of the chair. “I know...I know this isn't what you'd have chosen, and I'm so sorry -”
“You're sorry?” The smile grew incredulous. “Hells, Claire, none of this is your fault!”
“Well. It isn't yours either.”
He covered her hand with his, and linked their fingers together. “How do you feel?” he asked softly.
She opened her mouth to say “fine” - but what emerged sounded lost and frail. “I don't know.”
“No.” He curled his other hand around hers. “No, of course; how could you?”
She turned his right hand over, and with the tip of one finger traced the scars his father's jewel had left behind. She knew its patterns now, its perfect symmetry. “I'm frightened.”
“But...” She watched the firelight flicker over those beautiful features. “If things had gone to plan – if Vanimórë had offered me the choice – you do know what I'd have done, don't you?”
Maglor arched one eyebrow. “Run for miles, I should hope.”
She gave a half-laugh, and folded his scarred hand into hers. “Idiot,” she said gently.
His mouth quirked. “You've been away from Theo for too long. You never used to speak to me that way in St Andrews.”
“I didn't know then. You were...you seemed...not above me, but there was always...” She shrugged. “You were different, and I didn't understand why. Not that I'd say I understand now, exactly,” she added. How could she? All that loss, those long years of grief – and the things he'd done, things she knew and had accepted, but it hadn't been easy, and even now it hurt to think of them. Alqualondë...Menegroth...Sirion...
He turned his head away, towards the curtained window.
“I'm sorry. I only meant that I didn't live it, so how could I really know?”
“You've felt it, though, at least in part.”
It was true. From the first time she'd heard him play in Younger Hall, there had been something – ancient grief curled through each note of his music, like foam at the crest of a wave. “I'm not putting this well, I know. I'm tired, and today has been...odd.”
He laughed at that, and lifted a hand to cup her cheek. “Quite an understatement.”
“But I would have let him do it.” Cold steel, and a flame she had felt in herself only rarely. “I would have asked him to change me. So we'd have been in the same position, in the end.”
Maglor's eyes widened. The reflected firelight danced there, skittering in the deep winter draught. “I would not have let you.”
Whip-swift, she returned, “I wouldn't have asked.”
“Hells.” He stroked his thumb across the silver scars. A small smile, a flicker of laughter. “Claire...I've told you before that you remind me of Fingon, but you could not have sounded more like him then if you'd tried.”
For the first time since Aelios's revelation, a deep, genuine smile spread across her features. “Do you mean that?”
A vicious gust rattled the windows and drew a moan from the old stone walls. Claire shivered; Maglor opened his arms and tilted his head in invitation, and she laughed a little as she curled into the chair beside him.
“I feel like we should be making some sort of plan,” she said, settling her head on his shoulder.
“A plan for what?”
“What we do next. Where we go.” She breathed out slowly as warmth stole through her limbs, and she began to relax. “But I suppose there's plenty of time for that.”
“Yes.” He shifted as she fitted herself against him, and ran his fingers through her hair. Time is one thing we're unlikely to run short of, now.
And they sat together as snow drifted from the sky and piled against the manse, and they watched the fire burn.