Fingon glared at the dragon helm, at where it still sat, on the table where he had placed it that very morning—soon after Maedhros had offered it to him as a gift.
The dragon resolutely glared back.
The artistry was unmatched which wasn’t helping with his unease.
It was a kingly gift. It had been when the Dwarf lord had presented it to Maedhros and it remained so, now that Maedhros had in turn gifted it to him.
But Fingon didn’t want it.
That whole episode with the dragon was one he would sooner forget. There had been many daunting episodes in his life, since he had reached his majority, but facing that blasted dragon in battle was perhaps one of the most humbling.
He had been completely stunned when it had appeared. An unexpected new and disconcerting foe created by the malice of Morgoth’s manipulations. A creature of scales and flame, hideous yet strangely mesmerizing. It was pure luck that Fingon’s chosen companions that day were his most skilled archers. Had the dragon been any larger or Fingon’s forces any fewer, the outcome would have been far different.
It was awkward to continuously accept accolades for his actions. I didn’t defeat you, Fingon thought to himself, as he eyed Glaurung’s unnerving metallic likeness. If I had actually killed you, that would be something to celebrate. All I managed was to scare you off, let you escape to crawl back into the depths of Angband, to trouble us more in the future, I dare say.
Conversing with this masterwork of a helm wasn’t going to solve anything, he decided. He had refused to try it on initially. It looked far too massive for his head and he was not about to admit that to Maedhros. Not yet at least.
Not after Maedhros’ heartfelt plea for him to accept the helm, to wear it in battle, to allow him a vestige of comfort in knowing Fingon was protected by whatever purported magic the Dwarves had supposedly imbued into this monstrosity.
Fingon had not met any Dwarves yet, but from Maedhros’ descriptions they were nearly half the Eldar’s height in stature, though stockier and sturdier, broad of shoulder, with large round heads, often heavily armored and universally bearded.
They must be sturdy indeed, if they routinely wore helms like this, Fingon thought, as he lifted the helm with both hands and stepped toward the looking glass at the far end of the room.
Glaurung looked no less alarming in the mirror.
He grimaced as he placed the helm on his head, keeping his hands on either side of it to hold it steady. No use letting go; his head was obviously the wrong shape and size for this headgear. The helm tilted to the left when Fingon did remove his hands. He looked even more ludicrous with it skewed lopsided on his head. One eye was obscured by the nose-piece now, but he scowled at his reflection with his remaining eye.
I look like a child playing with his father’s gear, he thought. This wouldn’t do at all.
Fingon pulled it off his head, shifting its bulk until he could peer into the inner part of the helm itself. Leather chinstrap. Felt padding. Typical interior design, but nothing to adjust it to a smaller head circumference.
He doubted that even Curufin would be able to do much to alter it substantially enough to make it acceptable for battle. And he was quite certain that Curufin had studied this helm quite intently already.
It could be fatal if it slipped even a little bit in the midst of combat. That kind of distraction or unexpected visual disruption would be the difference between life and death.
Fingon shuddered. Maedhros would never forgive himself if this protective gift of his resulted in the opposite. No amount of spells or incantations for protection could ever hope to counter an ill-fit.
Surely, Maedhros knew the fit would be off? He was so intimately familiar with Fingon’s body, he must realize this would be out of proportion for him, even if he hadn’t spent their times together contemplating the dimensions of Fingon’s cranium.
This helm would be too large for any of them.
Maedhros must have tried it on his own head at some point in time. I should ask, Fingon thought.
No, he wouldn’t say anything to Maedhros about it. He would take it home with him, to Hithlum.
He would honor the intent of Maedhros’ gift.
And he would get himself a new helm made by his own craftsmen, one that actually fit and would satisfy Maedhros’ stipulation that he always wear one during battle, no matter how much he hated having something confining his head. If it would give his dearest love a bit of comfort, then it was worth the temporary annoyance of it.
He would get used to it. He could get used to almost anything for Maedhros.
Fingon settled the helm back on the table, running a finger along the edging. Would Azaghâl be offended that his gift had been regifted? Would Curufin object to the item being withdrawn from his analytical orbit?
If anyone could figure out how the power was woven into this talisman, it would be Curufin.
He scowled at Glaurung again. Not that it did any good. Somewhere in the smouldering caverns of Angband that menace still lurked, waiting for a chance to harass them yet again, to rout the Noldor out of Beleriand once and for all.
Not on Fingon’s watch.
He crossed his arms as he regarded Maedhros’ gift. If nothing else it would prove an amusement and a distraction for his father, who was still fostering the grief of his absent son and daughter, gone beyond the reach of mind and heart.
A grief he shared. He may not have been as close to Turgon, at least not in these later years of the bitterness his brother still held against their kin. But Aredhel—his sister had always been his closest friend, staunchest ally, partner in all sorts of mischief for so very long.
Until Maedhros had taken precedence in his heart. Or rather until he had allowed his affection for Maedhros to be more than a well-kept secret.
On these shores at least.
It’s not that he had ignored Aredhel or forsaken her company. It wasn’t that at all.
It had been hard not to focus on Maedhros after his rescue. Hard not to put his effort and attention into Maedhros’ recovery. Into his private plans for the succession. His eventual move to distant Himring.
It was agonizing to have Maedhros so far away, while Fingon kept up his patrols along the borders of Dor-lomin.
They had been forced to only have the chance to encounter each other on diplomatic missions, rare encounters in the wild, the infrequent instances when Maedhros came to sit in council sessions in Hithlum.
Or the times when Fingon couldn’t stand the distance anymore and finagled a reason to visit the icy reaches of Himring.
Aredhel herself had chafed at the monotony of her life in Fingolfin’s court. She’d longed for the freedom to roam the lands at will, as she had in Aman. To hunt in the wild. To camp under the unfamiliar constellations of these stars, the gaze in wonder at the waning and waxing moon in the sky above her. To follow the uncharted trails along rivers and forests, to discover new vistas, landscapes, seascapes, without the stifling confines of an entire battalion of guards.
Instead she had found herself in the awkward role of surrogate mother to Idril, in the responsibility as the chatelaine of Fingolfin’s keep, as the sounding board for Turgon’s grief, bitterness and regret.
Her times of revel and refuge with Fingon had dwindled. As he sought out Maedhros in the rare instances of freedom from responsibilities, his sister sought out the wild unpredictability of Celegorm, despite the disapproval she faced from Turgon for fraternizing with any of the sons of Fëanor.
It had driven a wedge between them, Fingon thought. Between himself and Turgon, who could never forget, but also had no willingness in him to forgive or even tolerate the company of those he felt were responsible for the losses he still felt so keenly.
The idea of the Mereth Aderthad, the coming together of all the Elves of Beleriand, that his father found so essential to their united goal of defeating Morgoth, had found no traction with Turgon.
Fingon missed him. Missed the incisive intuition of his younger brother, the way he honed in on the conundrums that challenged them and used his precise logic to ferret out the answers that eluded others. He missed the sketches that would appear on any available writing surface, when Turgon would let his mind wander and put the visions in his head on paper—the soaring towers that had become reality in Hithlum. The fountains that had decked the courtyards of Vinyamar. The utilitarian but elegant structures that dotted the plains of Dor-lomin.
And the other drawings, the ones that Turgon guarded closely, but that Fingon had glimpsed on rare occasion. Soaring mountaintops with a valley enclosed, towers of white stone, fountains of dizzying shape and size, gates of imposing scope and grace—somehow both ethereal and impenetrable.
Was that what his brother had sought out? A place to bring those innermost dreams to life? A place where Idril could live an existence shaped by serenity and safety, as the long-ago days of their own youth in Tirion?
Fingon hoped that’s what Turgon had found. Hoped that his imagination and vision had given him a respite from the resentment and simmering fury that had plagued him since the Grinding Ice.
And that Aredhel had found the autonomy and independence that she so craved since they had left their home across the sea.
Fingon shook his head. This scrutiny of the helm had taken his thoughts in an unexpected and melancholy direction. Enough.
He would ask Erestor to package this bulky headgear and stow it among the belongings he would take with him when he left for home.
Nothing really felt like home anymore. Not the way returning to his family house had felt in Tirion.
The only thing that even came close was the circle of Maedhros’ arms.
Surprisingly, Erestor was not amenable to packing the helm up.
“You can’t bundle it up and stash it away. You’ve not tried it on yet and there’s work to be done to make it fit.” Erestor crossed his arms and frowned at Fingon. “It needs a fair bit of adjusting.”
“I gathered that. It slipped sideways when I put it on a bit ago,” Fingon admitted.
“It did that when Maedhros wore it too.”
“He actually wore it? When?” This was unexpected information.
“Soon after he got it. Diplomatic mission to Belegost. He felt it would be discourteous not to wear the helm.” Erestor tilted his head. “He managed to come up with a temporary solution. Padding and chin straps and excessively good posture.” His lips quirked. “Good enough to get him in and out of Belegost wearing it but not good enough for a battle. That’s where Curvo will have to come in.”
Fingon shook his head. “I don’t think even Curvo can make that monstrosity fit me.”
Erestor laughed. “Not with that mass of braids you wear.”
Fingon bristled. “They keep my hair out of my face.” And Nelyo likes it this way, Fingon thought. He was the one who first put the gold ribbons in his hair, in those long-ago days of Tirion, when their love was something exhilarating and new, full of promise and joy.
It was still exhilarating and it brought Fingon a joy he could never have imagined in his youth. But the hardships they had overcome to be together had tinged their love with an urgency, an ache, a deep-seated understanding that loss was a risk they faced every day. An understanding that made every moment together mean so much more.
Erestor shrugged. “Curvo always appreciates a challenge.”
Curufin was most definitely his father’s son. Single-minded in intent and purpose. He arrived in the late afternoon, snowflakes clinging to his hair and deep red cloak, sweeping into the keep with a curt nod to Erestor and striding straight towards where Fingon and Maedhros were seated by the fire.
“You’re finally going to let me get my hands on that helm?” Curufin shook his cloak out, draped it over the back of the heavy armchair on Maedhros’ other side, and sank into the cushions with a grumble. His booted legs stretched out towards the fire and he leveled a stern look at Fingon. “How do you manage to do it?”
“Make him behave sensibly?”
Fingon snorted. “I can’t claim that ability.” His eyes drifted to Maedhros, noting the neutral expression but exceedingly sharp gaze he was bestowing on his younger brother. “If anything, I’d say it’s the other way around.”
Curufin snorted. “Haring off to Himring in the middle of winter isn’t being sensible.”
“Then why did you come?” Fingon asked.
“Himlad’s a fair bit closer than Hithlum.”
“Let’s just say I missed the snow.”
Curufin snorted again. “I think you missed a whole lot more than that.” He leaned in, eyes focused on his older brother. “So where is it?”
Maedhros tilted his head to the side, one eyebrow up as he regarded him. “Not much for greetings, are you, Curvo?”
Curufin snorted. “Not much for polite invitations, are you, Nelyo?” He shifted forward to meet Fingon’s gaze. “You need to be here within two days of receiving this. Bring whatever you will require to adjust the fit on a helm.” That’s it. In the middle of bloody winter, he expects me to gallop over on a whim.”
“You’re here, aren’t you?” Maedhros said, leaning back in his chair, a shadow of the crooked smile Fingon loved crossing his face.
“Of course, I’m here, you love-struck fool. You think I’d pass up the opportunity to work on that atrocity?” Curufin leaned even further forward in his seat, his eyes gleaming in the fire’s glow. He looks so like Fëanor, Fingon thought. “I’ve been itching to get my hands on that thing since the Dwarf gave it to you.”
“Azaghâl. His name is Azaghâl.” Maedhros gave his brother a sidelong look.
Curufin waved his hand. “Yes, yes, Azaghâl. Really though, the name you should be mentioning is Telchar; he’s the one that crafted the damn thing. He’s the one I want to meet. When are you going to Belegost again?”
Maedhros stretched out his legs, crossing them at the ankles. “No plans, at this point.” He grinned at Curufin. “Unless you’re bound and determined to go this spring?”
“I’ll go anytime. I came here, didn’t I? In snow and muck and freezing rain, just to adjust a helm to fit over Finno’s luxurious braids.”
“I don’t know why everyone keeps harping about my hair,” Fingon complained. “I’m not the only one trying to keep it out of my face when I’m fighting. It’s common sense. I’ve no idea how your brother manages, with that wild mane of his.”
Curufin shook his head. “Tyelko’s used to it. You must remember how Mother could barely get him to run a comb through it when he was young. I think he’s tamed it, just like all those pets he’s had through the years. It wouldn’t dare shift out of place on him.”
“It might have more to do with how rarely he washes it,” Maedhros said drily. “It’s so clumped and twisted it can’t move.”
“Matted or braided it still makes for unwelcome bulk under a helm,” Curufin pointed out. “If a helm’s going to stay in place and provide protection, you need a close fit, with no slipping or shifting. That’s why Father always put that adjustable ring in, just at the crown of the helm.”
Fingon closed his eyes and let Curufin’s words wash over him—in that moment he could have been back at the house in Formenos: feet warmed by the fire, a fierce debate over metallurgy raging within earshot, the comforting presence of Maedhros a handbreadth away.
It wasn’t Formenos. It never would be Formenos.
Being with Maedhros was enough.
But it didn’t look like he’d be getting out of wearing that blasted helm.
First Age year 470 (pre-Nirnaeth Arnoediad)
There was something majestic and raw about Himring in the winter, Fingon acknowledged, formidable in its stark outlines and sturdiness. It was no less imposing in springtime, but the edges were softer, the green of the hills tempering the thick stone walls, grounding the fortress in the lands around it, rather than setting it apart at the peak.
It had been years since he had ventured this far to the north. Years of strife and turmoil in the lands. Years of loss and grief and unrest.
Fifteen years since his father had ridden off alone, to face their greatest enemy.
Fifteen years since Rochallor had returned to Hithlum, to succumb to his shuddering death at Fingon’s feet to irrevocably confirm the loss of their king, for that mighty steed would never have abandoned Fingolfin had he still lived.
Fifteen years since Morgoth’s malevolence had brought an unwanted crown to Fingon’s head and the wearying burden of kingship that came with the artfully twisted metal of it.
Fingon squared his shoulders. Enough of that kind of thinking. This was a new day. The sun was shining and their plan was coming together, bit by bit, years in the making but finally bringing him a surge of hope he had not expected to ever feel again.
Maedhros’ plan was solid. The two of them had covertly hammered together the foundation of it when Maedhros had last come to Hithlum, eyes bright with excitement, spirits soaring with the belief that this time they would triumph.
Long nights pacing the length of Fingon’s room as they considered each obstacle. Early mornings spent debating the flaws in their plan. Nights stretched out on the thick rugs that carpeted the floor, Fingon’s fingers tracing the planes of Maedhros’ skin as they talked and deliberated and drew breath from each other’s lips when the words could come no more.
They had kept up the dialogue through the winter months in coded missives, the clandestine cipher they had devised in their long-ago youth serving a far different purpose than simply allowing them to put their abject longing for each other into words no others could interpret.
Now he was here, finally back at Himring, the plan solidified and strengthened by the intense scrutiny and analysis Maedhros’ brothers brought to every deliberation.
It was time. Time to reach out to their allies, to bring their strategy to those who could make this become a reality. To the Edain. To the Dwarves of Belegost.
To Orodreth, in his fallen brother’s cavernous kingdom. To Thingol, safe and secure behind the Girdle that protected his realm from the savagery of Morgoth’s raids.
Perhaps word would even reach Turgon, his own brother, sundered from him for so many years. There must be someone, some way, who could bring word to him of their ambitious plan for an all-out assault on the might of Morgoth himself.
It would work, Fingon repeated to himself. It would. It was a masterful plan, exactly the kind of brilliant, devious, unexpected, strategic endeavour that was a hallmark of Maedhros’ dazzling intellect, honed to perfection by the often confrontational input of his brothers.
Maglor’s persistent interrogation, Celegorm’s unfailing directness, Caranthir’s unique ability to conjure up the most challenging obstacles, Curufin’s devotion to detail, Amrod’s unorthodox diversions, and always Amras’ tenacious belief that they would only succeed if they could put aside their differences and bring the diaspora of their kin together.
There were trusted messengers being sent out to do just that. Amras himself would venture to the Green Elves. Emissaries would travel to Doriath, to Nargothrond, to the Falas, to Turgon himself if any trace of his secret stronghold could be found.
Fingon knew the Edain would be stalwart allies. He had no doubts regarding the surety of Hurin and Huor, or in Haldir’s commitment to this cause. Caranthir had brought his own assertions—that the men of Bor and Ulfang were steadfast and true.
Maedhros would venture to Belegost himself, to speak to Azaghâl face to face. The Dwarves were numerous and hardy, well armored and resolute. Their skill in forging would not be amiss—there was need for many weapons to be amassed for this assault. But the sheer numbers and tenacity of the Naugrim would serve their Union well. The fires of the dragon had not daunted them in years past and they were renowned for their fierceness and determination.
Fingon had faith in Maedhros’ powers of persuasion.
Maedhros had not been so assured, the night before. “I ask much of them, Finno. Their caverns are not like our fortresses—they are far easier to defend than our strongholds and greatly undervalued for their concealment. They can hide thousands in those caves and surprise a foe from behind, if one can even penetrate their vastness. They are far safer there than in our ranks.”
“But should we fall they have no safeguard, Nelyo. Their caverns may be vast and deep, but with an unmitigated assault by Morgoth—which will come to them if we falter—they too shall fall, cave by cave, cavern by cavern, until Orcs swarm their corridors and the smoke of their fires drives them out into the merciless hordes surrounding them.” He had squeezed Maedhros’ hand. “He will come. I cannot believe Azaghâl will sit in his hills and wait this out. That is not who he is.”
Maedhros had given him that crooked smile of his. “And how would you know the mind of Azaghâl? You have not met him.”
“No thanks to you,” Fingon had answered. “Take me with you when you go to him. You know I have longed to see Belegost and to meet this Dwarf who is your friend.” He had grinned at Maedhros then. “I need to see with my own eyes the warrior who once bore that immense helm that so weighed me down, Curvo’s modifications notwithstanding.”
“I shouldn’t take you, you know. You are quite a liability to me, in my endeavor to bring him to our cause, seeing as you gave his magnificent helm away.”
“You gave it away yourself! Why should I be reprimanded for doing the same?” Fingon had frowned and leveled a glare at Maedhros.
“Yes, but I gave the helm as a tribute to my noble king, my overlord, the leader of my people, my beloved sovereign.” The twinkle in Maedhros’ eye had been infuriating. “Not to some short-lived mortal with a large head.”
That had made Fingon snort. “You know better than to say that. Even with all of Curvo’s efforts, I still couldn’t tolerate the damn thing. Too heavy, too large, prone to shifting at the most inopportune moments.” He had leaned closer to Maedhros, his voice dropping as he spoke. “You wouldn’t have wanted me to risk wearing it, you know that.”
Maedhros’ had shifted closer, his intertwined fingers tightening their hold on Fingon’s hand. “I do not want any risk to come to you. It was foolish of me to think I could make it work, when I could not manage it myself.” His grey eyes gazed into Fingon’s and in a moment of unexpected tenderness he had traced the stump of his right wrist along Fingon’s jawline. “I would leap at any chance of keeping you safe, you know that. There are incantations woven into that helm, enchantment that is unfamiliar to me. Perhaps it is no more than clever words said in blessing over molten metal. It is likely no more than that, despite Telchar’s skill. But if there were any power to those invocations, I wanted them to protect you. But the repository of those words is too unwieldy. I would never forgive myself if it put you at greater risk.” Fingon shivered at the sensation of Maedhros’ skin against his own.
Maedhros had drawn him into the circle of his arms, lips pressing against Fingon’s temple, breath stirring Fingon’s loosened curls. “The only flaw I see in our plan is that we are not fighting side by side. That I will not be able to keep you in my sight as the enemy draws close. That I will not hear your voice, your battle cry, and know that you are near me.”
“You know it can be no other way, love. The core of the whole endeavor hinges on our armies being split, in lulling Morgoth into thinking we are fewer, in pinning him between our furious assaults and laying his hordes to waste.”
The crease in Maedhros’ forehead had been achingly familiar to Fingon. He had reached up to smooth it away, as he had so many times in the past. “Don’t think that way, Nelyo. This will work. If we can unite the peoples of Beleriand, to fight against Morgoth together, as one—there is nothing that can stand in our way. Trust me on this.” He had let his fingers sink into the mass of Maedhros’ hair, his thumb skimming against Maedhros’ cheekbone. “Now promise you will take me with you.” He had smiled up into the troubled grey gaze. “It seems I’ve some explaining to do before we can bring Azaghâl to our cause.” Fingon’s grin had widened. “I promise you, I can be surprisingly charming and persuasive.”
That had finally broken through the cloud of gravity that had come over Maedhros. “Nothing surprising about it at all.” He had leaned closer. “Not to me. I’ve always thought that.”
The angle of the sun had shifted while Fingon had been clearing his head with this ride through the grassy plain at the foot of Himring’s towering hill. Time to head back.
They would leave for Belegost in the morning.
“It has been a long time since you have graced us with your presence, my Lord of Himring.” Azaghâl greeted them from the top of the dais at the far end of his colonnaded great hall. He was almost of a height with Fingon at that level. “And I am pleased to make finally make your acquaintance, King Fingon.”
Fingon followed Maedhros across the space until they were only steps away from the Dwarven ruler. “It is my pleasure, my Lord of Belegost.” He inclined his head in greeting to the ruler of this realm. “It is past time I visited your glorious halls.”
Maedhros dipped his own head in greeting. “It has been too long, my lord.”
Azaghâl waved away his courtiers and beckoned them to a table set behind him. “Join me.”
Once they were on the same level the height difference was far more noticeable, but Fingon had been misled by the rumours that the Naugrim were not even half the size of the Eldar. Perhaps the others were, but despite Azaghâl not being tall by any comparison, he was not small either.
He was broad of shoulder, far broader than any Eldar or Man that Fingon had ever seen. Broader even than Hador.
Stocky and sturdy, with thick legs and arms and a large head set above those wide shoulders, Azaghâl radiated a solidity of form. Fingon tried to imagine the Dragon Helm on him and it was not as ludicrous an image as he had expected it to be. With Azaghâl’s flowing beard it would make a formidable sight.
“Now we are alone, and I can greet you properly.” The Dwarven king stretched out a hand in the manner of Men, Fingon noted, and Maedhros clasped it warmly with his left hand. Azaghâl pulled at him with a grin and Maedhros bent down to share in the embrace.
It seemed they were on friendlier terms than even Fingon had anticipated.
Azaghâl then turned to Fingon and extended a hand, expression far more serious than it had been a moment ago for Maedhros. “Welcome to Belegost, King Fingon.”
Fingon clasped his hand back, grateful for the years of such gestures with Hador and Hurin. The Dwarven King had quite a firm grip. “No need for formal titles from you, my lord. Please call me Fingon.”
Even after all these years, it was still odd to hear himself referred to as ‘king.’ Fingon didn’t think he would ever get used to anyone other than his grandfather bearing that title. Even when his father had ruled it had not seemed real, to hear him spoken of as High King of the Noldor.
It was even more surreal to hear it in reference to himself.
Azaghâl had grinned at that. “It goes both ways then, Fingon. I am simply Azaghâl.”
They settled themselves at the low table, Maedhros shifting the cushions back a bit to accommodate his long legs.
“So, what brings you to my halls and with such an illustrious companion?” Azaghâl fixed Maedhros with a penetrating stare.
“I seek counsel from you, old friend. Counsel and alliance.”
A surprised expression flitted across Azaghâl’s face before he schooled his features. “You shall have my counsel, should you wish it, but my alliance you have had for many long years.”
Maedhros met his gaze. “And for that I am most grateful. But I have come to speak with you of the future. Of our people and the continuous assaults to our borders, our lands, our homes. Of the enemy we share. Of the dangers that we face from the malice that he holds for us.”
Azaghâl’s eyes narrowed. “You have my attention. You wish my counsel, old friend, but there more you seek from me, is there not?”
Maedhros kept his gaze steady, his voice the strong, determined one Fingon had heard countless times during debates and expositions, the calm surety of it so familiar to him.
Azaghâl did not need much convincing. His realm might be somewhat isolated from the direct assaults that Himring and the Gap so often faced, or the incursions into Himlad and even Hithlum, but that did not make the danger any less. The Orcs had assaulted him on the very road to Belegost, years before, when he had first met Maedhros. They had not ceased aggressions in the intervening years.
“It is only a matter of time,” Azaghâl said. “The dragon was a taste of what is to come, I fear. It may have crept away that first time, after you so valiantly assailed it, Fingon, but as you know from the last battle, it has grown in might. I do not doubt there may be more to fear from that quarter.” He steeped his fingers together before continuing. “You are suggesting a bold assault, Maedhros. Not a feint or a diversion, but a full-scale confrontation, decisive but perilous if all does not go to plan.”
“I am aware that much hinges on timing, location and the resoluteness of our forces, Azaghâl. We were ever watchful, but still taken unawares when the flames came out of Angband and Dorthonion burned to dust and ash and the Ard-galen was laid to waste.” Maedhros leaned forward. “I do not mean to be deceived that way again.”
“So by making the first strike you believe you will catch the enemy unaware? His spies are many and his dominion wide. The movements of your forces will be scrutinized from the very first steps they take.”
He proceeded to question Maedhros on the logistics, the proposed alliances, the methodology of their plan. They talked late into the night, Fingon joining in occasionally with opinions, observations, reassurances, when needed.
But mostly he observed the camaraderie between these two disparate individuals, brought together by fate on the old road years before, and now bound not by any sense of obligation or debt, but by mutual respect and the unexpected friendship that had grown between them as a result.
“You have said your piece,” Azaghâl placed his hands on the table and tipped his head up. “I have my concerns. I have my misgivings.”
Fingon’s fingers clenched together under the table as he leaned forward. It would be a grievous blow to not have Belegost with them. It would not bode well for their cause if Maedhros failed in his mission tonight.
A slow smile creased Azaghâl’s face. “But do not doubt that I will be at your side when you send out the call. I will march with you, to whatever end this may bring us. And I will be proud to do so.” He reached out and clasped Maedhros’ good hand with both of his own.
Fingon sank back against his chair, the tension draining from him as he did. His legs felt stiff and cramped from being folded under him at this low table. A glass of wine would not go amiss to settle the fluttering sensation in his stomach.
They were doing it. This was the first of many steps on a path that would lead them to vindication and victory.
Or desolation and death.
He wouldn’t think like that. They had not toiled and fought and lost so much to give up now. To settle for an uneasy watchfulness that could only end in their deception yet again. No. This time they had to wrest control and fight the battle on their own terms, on their own chosen ground, at the time of their choosing.
It was time to end this.
It was time for the sons of Fëanor to fulfil their Oath and redeem not only their stolen treasures but their very souls from eternal anguish.
Azaghâl stood and then crossed the room to a cabinet built into the wall, returning with a flagon and three glasses. To Fingon’s satisfaction he poured a dark red wine into each of their glasses and then raised his own, tipping it in Maedhros’ direction. “To our continued alliance, my friend.”
Maedhros raised his glass in turn. “To our victory, Azaghâl.”
A shiver went through Fingon at his words, a chill along his skin, a momentary uneasiness that made him want Maedhros to take it back. But he shook it off—a case of misplaced nerves. He had never been the one prone to premonitions or portents. He gave no credence to that.
Fingon tossed his head and pushed himself to smile, taking his own glass in hand and raising it to the other two. “To the future.”
After the Dagor Dagorath
It had taken a long time to find a suitable home when it was all over. Maedhros had not wanted to stay in Tirion, the light of the renewed Trees far too bright for him now, after the long years in Beleriand and the ages he had spent in Mandos’ Halls.
Fingon couldn’t disagree. It was too much for him now too, his eyes unused to that pure brilliance. It seemed a lifetime ago that he had grown up in that light, gazed upon it in its fullness and at the mingling, played and danced and loved beneath the dazzling glow of it.
It was a lifetime ago, he reminded himself. More than a lifetime.
He was not who he had been back then. There was a wistfulness in thinking of himself as Findekáno again, the eldest son of Prince Nolofinwë, a prince in his own right. He had been a so many things since then—an adventurer, a kinslayer, an exile, a wanderer, a refugee, a warrior, a King.
A bereaved son. A forsaken brother. A doomed lover.
Fingon had come forth from Mandos’ Halls to be a warrior again, to take up arms in the battle that would break their world. To fight alongside his loyal followers, his kindred, the man he loved above all others.
To bring about a world remade.
A world that looked very much like the one he had left all those ages ago. One that he cherished all the more for his absence and that he chafed at for the very same reason.
They had gone to Formenos, but the memory of Grandfather’s death had been too much for Maedhros. Too much, when Grandfather still walked the Halls of Mandos, destined to reside there for all time due to choices made. Choices that brought about his own existence, that made this life possible for Fingon.
It didn’t bear to think about it too much.
It had been a nomadic lifestyle for some time—traveling the countryside, revisiting the haunts of their youth, imposing themselves on relatives for weeks on end. His own parents in Tirion. Indis at the palace. Aunt Findis on the slopes of Taniquetil. Weeks with Nerdanel and Fëanor in the new house in Formenos, the rooms strangely echoing and hollow without the commotion of all their sons.
They even managed a few days with Celegorm in his cabin in the woods.
Maedhros and Fingon had drifted from place to place, never setting down roots, finding the familiar vistas unfulfilling in ways Beleriand had never left them wanting.
It had finally taken a visit to Finrod, a visit that had stretched from days, to weeks, to months.
To the acquisition of a small house, not far from the water, with plenty of windows to let in the more muted light of the Trees. A garden for Fingon to tend to—where he unwittingly trampled on the tender shoots of budding plants, a place his day to day frustrations could be vented with bouts of vigorous weeding, a quiet sanctuary when his thoughts became too strident, a place where his Mannish drinking songs didn’t disturb the neighbors.
It boasted a bright study on the second floor that housed most of Maedhros’ books. The rest existed in untidy piles on nightstands, on end tables, atop the kitchen cabinets, in stacks on the bedroom floor. The chaos was a welcome easing of the rigidity Maedhros had subjected himself to in Beleriand.
It reminded Fingon of Fëanor’s old house in Formenos—the controlled disorder of a household constantly in flux. Without the instability and unrest and endless quarreling.
Just a comforting jumble of books and papers, pots and pans, half-finished projects, and an undeniably spoiled and surly cat.
There were no pressing engagements. No weight of responsibility. They came and went as they pleased.
They had settled into an unfettered existence, these Exiles who had returned, had fought yet again for all they held dear, and had then settled down to enjoy the peace that had eluded them for so long.
It aggravated Fingon at times, the very peacefulness of it all. It was hard to let his guard down, to enjoy the lazy days of life on the water—there had to be something he needed to do, to accomplish, to fuss over, to ride out and overcome.
But Aman functioned as it had for so very long—routine and predictable, steadfast and sedate. The days of strife and turmoil were long past and no one was in any hurry to have that kind of instability roused again.
It was boring.
Fingon felt guilty even thinking that, knowing that he should be grateful to be back, appreciate an existence that did not demand he survive on raw seal meat, scale thoroughly barren and treacherous terrain to find his estranged companion, outmaneuver raging bands of Orcs, overcome a fire-breathing dragon, make unwise travel plans through blizzard-like conditions to spend a winter in a forsaken fortress on the outskirts of a desolate hellscape.
He didn’t miss that. At all.
Well, he didn’t miss it much.
When he’d eventually drive Maedhros to distraction with his short temper and vicious attacks on defenseless garden produce, they would leave the seaside together to travel the vast reaches of Aman. To Celegorm in the forests of Oromë. To Caranthir in the plains where he raised horses. Weeks with Maglor in the bustle of Tirion, a whirl of dances and concerts, plays and musical productions.
But it still wasn’t enough. It was too predictable, to sedate, too safe.
“But you would moan about just this,” Maedhros would say. “That we never had time to relax, to enjoy days together without the never-ending gloom of the next battle, the next sortie, the next plan that would fail and plunge us into despair and desolation.”
“I never went on and on about doom and despair. That was you. I was the positive, cheerful one, remember?”
“And look what it got you—an early death and far too many years in the Halls.”
Fingon rolled his eyes. “That’s in the past. I’m talking about now. There’s nothing to do. I’m rubbish with the plants. There’s only so much fishing I can tolerate. I didn’t endure all those years in Mandos to lounge around in a cramped house with a cranky cat and a studious hermit.”
“I’m not a hermit.”
“You’re definitely cranky.”
“Only when you fuss at me like this.” Maedhros intertwined his fingers with Fingon’s, the wonder of a matched set of hands still managing to surprise him after all this time. “I know it’s a slow pace. I know it’s not what you ever truly liked, even when we were young.” His fingers trailed up Fingon’s arms. “But didn’t we dream of just this, when we’d let ourselves actually think about it—of lazy days, with no official duties, no decisions, no responsibilities. To sleep in and then stay out late. To swim in the sun and be on horseback until dusk. To hunt something other than Orcs.”
It had been what they’d dreamed of, those cold winter nights curled up in front of the fire in Maedhros’ chambers in Himring. The summer evenings when they’d pore over maps and argue over supply lines and strategy in Hithlum.
Time just for them.
“Don’t be. I know it’s not what you expected, not after all that. We came out of Mandos to fight a battle, the last battle, and it’s been far too long since either of us had time to ourselves.” Maedhros reached up to tug on one of Fingon’s braids. “I know I’m content to lose myself in books and treatises and pick up my studies where I left off, but that’s not really fair to you.”
“I don’t mind.” And despite his earlier frustration Fingon knew those words were true. It was a relief to see Maedhros immerse himself in scholarship again. He had stinted himself of the joy of it in Beleriand, not allowing himself to engage in it, for fear of losing his edge, his focus, his single-minded goal of winning back the Silmarils and ending the strangle-hold of the Oath.
But it didn’t call to Fingon like it had in their youth. The drive to prove a point or study an esoteric linguistic variance had lost its luster in the harshness of Beleriand. For Maedhros it was a healing balm to his ravaged soul. To Fingon it was a language he had long ago forgotten.
They had come back to their homeland to find it relatively unchanged, but the changes within themselves had rendered it unfamiliar now.
He wasn’t alone in this. The returned scions of the house of Finwë had uniformly balked at taking up their previous positions at court. His father had been quite content to leave Finarfin in charge and in an unusual show of unity, so had Fëanor. Turgon concerned himself with architecture and getting to know his numerous descendants better. Aredhel disdained courtly responsibilities, choosing to revert to her youth and go adventuring with Celegorm and the twins.
His other cousins were much the same, scattering to all quarters, searching out a tranquility of existence that had evaded them for so long.
“I’ve been doing some research that you might find of interest.” Maedhros said.
“Research on what?”
“Men and Dwarves.”
Fingon frowned. “Whatever for?”
“They were there, in the battle. You saw them—Beren and Turin and Hurin. Not close enough to reach, but they were there. The Dwarves of Belegost—they were there too, Fingon. I heard the horns of Azaghâl. I saw the banners.”
Fingon had seen them too. He and Maedhros had fought alongside their own kindred, but they were flanked on each side by the ranks of Edain and Naugrim, returned from wherever they had ranged after death, to join forces once more with the Eldar against their mutual enemy.
“But they’re gone now, back to who knows where.”
“I don’t think that’s quite right.”
“What are you saying?”
Maedhros rubbed his forehead in that way he had and scrabbled through his papers. “I’ve followed some leads, found some references.”
“Travelers, Green Elves who chose to be reborn, Silvans who have traveled the lands since the last battle.”
“They aren’t content to stay in one place, kind of like you, Finno. They’ve gone off exploring the terrain, more like my father than any of them would like to admit, I am sure. I’ve been reading through the reports they bring, the topography, the meticulous details about the plant life.”
Maedhros sighed. “Just because you have a vendetta against plants doesn’t mean everyone does. Silvans have a very close bond with nature. They can sense things through the trees, at least that’s what the ones from Mirkwood and Lothlorien claim. They’re the ones who are off adventuring here in Aman and ranging back to Arda-remade. Finding new forests and sailing down river rapids, climbing peaks and discovering waterfalls. They’re an intrepid lot.”
“Says the eldest son of the man who took his entire family, including his twin infant sons, camping for months on end in the wild. Who spent summers living in and researching caves near the Pelori, who built a seaside shack in Alqualondë for the sole purpose of studying the dialectical differences between the Teleri and the Noldor Quenya speech patterns. Intrepid? Just by virtue of a summer hike along a riverbed? I think not.”
“Your Noldor superiority complex is showing, Finno.” Maedhros was grinning now.
“I have no such thing.”
“Yes, fine, I’m quite cognizant of your Vanyarin heritage, but it’s only a quarter, so please spare me your fussing. I’m well aware that my father is a paragon of adventurous spirit, but even he’s not ranged the far reaches the way the Silvans have or gone back across to Arda. And they have made some remarkable discoveries. Ones that might perhaps appeal to your adventurous spirit.”
“There appear to be habitations cropping up on the far edges of the lands north of here and the parts of Arda that have been explored by the Silvans. Habitations not occupied by our kind.”
“Not occupied by our kind?”
Maedhros’ eyes danced with amusement. “You may have a chance to hoist a mug of ale with your dear friend Hurin yet again, Finno.”
“You can’t be serious? You think those are the settlements of Men?”
Maedhros nodded. “But not just that. I’ve spoken to an exceptionally adventurous Silvan warrior—Oropher’s grandson, of all people.” Maedhros paused and tapped his lip with a finger. “So I suppose that makes him actually only half Silvan, perhaps even less than half, since I’m not sure if Legolas’ mother was Silvan or half Sindar herself . . .”
Fingon growled. “Will you stop with the genetic analysis and get back to telling me what this Legolas thinks he’s found?”
“He’s found caves, in the north, near Araman. He’s on a mission to find the Edain and Dwarves himself—he had close ties to both and is convinced his friends have been reborn and that some are lurking in those parts. He’s certain he saw them at the Dagor Dagorath.”
“I told you I saw Hurin.”
“So you said and I believe you.” Maedhros stepped closer. “From what he has told me there were a few scattered encampments of Edain, right after the battle, but they have dwindled to almost nothing now. Legolas believes they have gone back to settle in Arda.”
“And the Dwarves? You said he had made contact?”
Maedhros moved to shuffle the papers on his desk into more uniform piles. “Of a sort. Not with the ones he seeks.”
“They’ve not all gone to Arda remade then?”
“A fair number likely have. But they were much occupied after it was all over. Aulë kept the Dwarves busy with the rebuilding of Arda. Perhaps some did not fancy another move, so soon after they were released from his Halls and put to work.”
“So where is this Legolas now?”
“Off to the Black Mountains. Or what’s left of them, I should say. He’s made contact with a small settlement of Dwarves, by his account, but not had success locating his friend yet. I am holding out hope that we may have word of Azaghâl in that region.”
Maedhros grinned at him. “Go North?”
“Why not? We used to go when we were young, back when we though snow was beautiful and fascinating.” Fingon grimaced. The Helcaraxë had cured him of that particular illusion. And he was certain Maedhros’ extended time in Himring had a similar effect on him.
“So why would you want to go now? You hate the cold still.”
“They can’t be as cold anymore, as the Pelori are basically just hills now, since they got knocked down at the end of the battle.” Fingon shrugged. “And if there are settlements there I don’t see why we should let the Silvans be the only ones exploring them.”
“For purely investigational purposes then?” Maedhros raised an eyebrow.
“For you, yes. I’ll help you take notes or whatever you want me to do—take soil samples, cuttings from unusual plants, whatever Fëanorian research data you care to obtain, as long as you promise me we can take to the hills and do something instead of sitting around here watching my pathetic tomatoes grow.”
The laugh that escaped Maedhros was positively glorious. “You poor thing, Finno. Pining for uncharted lands and wild terrain again, are you?”
Maedhros shook his head. “No, not really. I’ll not say no to a little adventure, but I think I’m content with what I’ve had. The idea that I can read my books and write my notes without an inferno or catastrophe thwarting my plans is absolutely a luxury I intend to enjoy to the fullest. But as you say, I can’t let an opportunity for on-site research go to waste. So when do you want to go?”
“It’s too late to start today, isn’t it?”
They had taken their time, setting out two days later, packs on their backs, swords at their sides, Fingon’s bow and arrows across his shoulder, Maedhros’ knives in his belt.
It was good to be tramping in the countryside, Fingon thought, spending nights out under the stars, the light of the trees dimming in the distance, the familiar constellations visible above them.
The air was warm during the day with cool breezes coming later in the day, growing even cooler as they drew closer to the foothills of what had once been the towering Pelori mountains, now reduced to a series of small hills.
They passed outposts and small settlements—Green Elves and Silvans who had forsaken the bustle of Tirion and Alqualondë to seek out forests and riverlands like those they had left behind in Arda.
Maedhros and Fingon shared meals and stories with them, picking up hints of what lay in the miles ahead and replenishing their stores with local fare.
“Honeycakes!” Fingon had raved. “I’ve not had honeycakes like that since my days in Dor-lomin.”
Maedhros had given him a particularly fond look. “Look at you—High King of all the Noldor in exile and here you are raving about honeycakes.”
“Let me enjoy it. I never asked to be High King. I was perfectly content to be an indolent prince all my days, but then your father took it into his head to go traipsing across the continent in pursuit of vengeance and got himself killed to boot. You were the one who was supposed to be king, not me. I was supposed to go on jaunts, organize hunts, shoot targets, play lovely songs on my harp for my adoring admirers, and indulge in honeycakes to my heart’s content.”
He found himself pulled into a rough hug, the sensation of Maedhros’ lips brushing over his braids. “Don’t change, Finno. Don’t ever change.”
Fingon slid his arms around Maedhros’ waist and buried his face in his neck, feeling the warmth of Maedhros’ breath against his scalp. “If I’ve not changed in all these ages I don’t think you have much to worry about,” he murmured into the fabric of Maedhros’ tunic, just above a whisper but loud enough for him to hear. He was rewarded with another kiss to the top of his head and a few moments more wrapped in that warm and comforting embrace.
It was good that they had brought heavier cloaks with them, as the temperatures dropped as they wandered along the gentle slopes of the small hills and valleys that had once been home to the tallest peaks in Aman. The caves that Fëanor had studied in his youth, that the Silvans had scouted, were now far more elusive than either of them had anticipated.
“You’re sure they said the caves were here?” Fingon had scrambled up onto a rocky ledge and was surveying the vista before him.
Maedhros was seated on a large rock, paging through his notebook, squinting as he scrutinizing his meticulous but tiny script. “Generally.”
“Generally. What is that supposed to mean?”
“Meaning they are in this general vicinity, with regard to the river and the leading edge of the range, but they aren’t quite obvious.” He paused and traced a line of script with a finger.
“So are you telling me there are secret entrances? That these caves are underground?”
“Something of the sort.” Maedhros lifted his head to gaze up at Fingon, grey eyes as arresting as ever. “They had some unfortunate experiences with dragons and Orcs in the old days, when their kingdoms were more exposed and accessible.”
“You do realize those ‘old days’ you are referring to are ages after our time?”
Maedhros exhaled and leaned back. “Yes, I know. It is a bit dislocating to think of it that way.” He tilted his head. “By all reports Moria and Erebor and the Iron Hills were all quite easy to access, with gates and causeways, grand entrances and conspicuous paths leading to them.”
“So they’ve taken a page from Turgon’s book now? Hiding in plain sight?”
Maedhros nodded. “Something of the sort. Tyelpe gave me an idea of the layout of Moria, when I asked him about it. Said he was fairly certain they wouldn’t do anything quite so open ever again, seeing the way things turned out.”
“Has he gone looking for his friend?”
A shake of the head before Maedhros replied. “No. Not yet. Tyelpe . . . I don’t think he’s quite up for much adventuring yet. I told him I would bring him word, if we made contact.”
It was still hard to comprehend that what came after had been as brutal, if not more so, than what they had experienced in their own time. That Sauron’s penchant for cruelty, his elaborate subterfuges, his merciless and vindictive artifices, had only grown more evident after his master’s demise.
That Sauron’s later deeds had made even Morgoth’s torture of Maedhros pale in comparison.
“So what do you suggest? The light will fade from here completely in a few hours, with the Mingling.”
“There’s light to search for a bit yet. It won’t be obvious, I can tell you that. We may as well take a turn before we set up camp for the night.”
Maedhros suggested they move along the near slopes, where the light was still distinct, not shadowed by the hills themselves. They wove their way up and down the foothills, crept into crevices, and knocked on stony rock faces.
To no avail.
The light was low by the time they gave up to choose a resting place for the night. Maedhros found a cleft in the hills, sheltered overhead by a shallow rocky outcrop and a comfortingly even grassy surface to lay out their blankets. Fingon explored the perimeter while Maedhros meticulously scanned the campsite for any stray rocks that would aggravate them as they slept through the night.
He had amassed a collection of them by the time Fingon returned and was amusing himself by stacking them on top of each other, to make a small tower of stones.
“Shall I knock that down, like I used to when I was trying to catch your attention?” Fingon said as he settled on the cool grass next to Maedhros.
“You did no such thing and you know it. That was always poor Arakáno—he never managed to know where those gangly arms and legs of his were in regards to others when he was young.”
Fingon’s younger brother had been almost as tall as Turgon when he had finally reached maturity, but he had sprouted up at an exceptionally young age and only grown comfortable with his imposing stature shortly before they left Aman as Exiles.
Not that it did him much good, in the end.
Fingon shook his head. No use thinking on that. Arakáno was back with them now and with far less emotional turmoil than the rest of them. Horrific as his end had been, it had been quick and sudden, which is more than could be said for those he left behind.
Maedhros leaned into him. “Whatever you’re thinking about, stop.” He nudged him with his shoulder. “You can knock my pile down if it makes you feel better.
That made Fingon smile before he grew solemn again. “No, I was just thinking back . . .”
Maedhros took his hand. “You’ve had too much time to think back.” He interlaced their fingers and tugged on Fingon’s hand to pull him closer. “We all have.”
He leaned his head on Fingon’s bowed one. “It’s time to think forward, not back. We’ve been given our second chance. No point in wasting it on what-ifsand might-have-beens.” Maedhros grimaced. “That’s what the time in Mandos was for. Recognition and repenting.”
Fingon burrowed his head into Maedhros’ shoulder. “You were doing that even before.”
“Yes, well, some of us had more to atone for.”
Fingon had learned not to argue that point with Maedhros anymore.
They sat in silence, their shared warmth a comfort as the air grew cooler. The stars were brighter here, far in the north, away from the intensity of the Trees.
It made it feel more like home.
Fingon wondered when exactly Beleriand had taken that place of precedence in his heart. When Beleriand had been what he thought of when he heard the word.
Was it when they had buried his younger brother on those shores? Or when he had hewed down trees, carried rock, and toiled in the unfamiliar light of the sun with his father’s men to build those first shelters for their people? Had it grown on him enough by the time Turgon had sketched out the plans for the fortresses they would build—the smaller ones in Mithrim and Dor-Lómin, the series of mountain strongholds that culminated in his father’s proud Barad Eithel, in the towering spires of Turgon’s own Vinyamar?
Or had it been the days of patrolling the terrain of Hithlum, the weeks crossing the plains to reach the cold reaches of Himring, the months spent in that mountain fortress at Maedhros’ side?
Or the years spent on his own, distanced from all those he held dear, ruling over a scattered people, his mind and energy focused on overthrowing Morgoth’s might?
Fingon took a deep breath and then exhaled it out in a rush of air, willing himself to focus on this moment, this time, the person at his side.
Maedhros’ arm curved around his shoulders. “It’s hard not to think about it. I know.” His fingers gripped Fingon’s shoulder through the fabric of his cloak. “They were dreadful years.” Fingon bowed his head as the whisper of Maedhros’ words continued. “But some of them? Some of those moments, those days, weeks, perhaps even a few short years, were graced with incongruous joy and unexpected contentment.”
Fingon’s arms circled around Maedhros. “That is it exactly. That somehow, even in the midst of the brutality and horror, we were gifted moments of surprising bliss, that somehow were all the sweeter.”
He felt lips brush to top of his head. “That is what made it bearable.”
“And what makes this feel unreal.”
Maedhros’ huffed. “Too much of a good thing?”
“No, not that. It is hard to let myself enjoy it fully, I think. As if I dare not let myself succumb to it. I feel as if I am forgetting something or neglecting a task, not being watchful enough.”
“I feel it too. We have both lived lives measured out by the constant threat of combat, of risk, of imminent peril.”
“The threat is gone but the habits stay. We can never go back to the Findekáno and Nelyo that we were before we left.” Maedhros pulled back to look at him, grey eyes bright despite the dimming of the Light. “And I don’t know that I would want to.” His forehead creased. “We took far too much for granted in those days, did not know how to appreciate what we had. But we can perhaps try to blend the best of Fingon and Maedhros with the remnants of who we were in our youth. To be our truest selves.” The furrow in his brow eased. “Because we can appreciate the gift of what we have this time.”
Fingon reached out to trace his fingers over the back of Maedhros hand. “I have you back.”
Maedhros’ turned his hand to grip Fingon’s. “I have all I could have wished for, with you at my side again.”
Fingon leaned in to rest his head on Maedhros’ shoulder.
Their second day had not been much more successful. There were hundreds of these small hills, the crumbled remnants of the mighty Pelori, ranging across the northern reaches. It would be impossible to scour them all.
Fingon had taken to scaling the small heights and surveying the terrain for possibilities while Maedhros stayed on the lower regions, exploring clefts and crevices that thus far had led nowhere.
It was past midday when they reached some slightly higher peaks, bare and craggy, studded with fissures and cracks that seemed to hold more promise.
This particular cleft was deeper than Fingon had originally thought. The clouds had gradually gathered overhead, but the rain itself had caught them by surprise. The rocky overhang they had originally sheltered under had not provided enough cover so they had huddled deeper into the rock wall, shifting into the relative shelter of the crevice.
Their new vantage point gave Fingon a clearer view of the fissure in the rocks. He shifted deeper in, eyes widening as he regarded the unexpected narrow passage that stretched forth into the darkness.
“It’s not just a crevice,” he whispered, tugging at Maedhros’ sleeve. “I think it’s actually a cave.”
Maedhros’ head whipped to the side, one hand on his sword, the other protectively swung across Fingon’s chest, pressing him against the rocky surface as Maedhros surged forward.
Fingon shoved against that arm as he muttered a nearly inaudible complaint. “Nelyo. This is why we’re here, remember? The most dangerous thing we’re apt to find is a bear.” He didn’t mention that his own hand had slipped to the hilt of his sword as soon as he had realized there was more to this hollow than expected.
They pressed further in, the rain pelting down on them, turning the rocky surface a darker shade of gray. Maedhros took the lead, hand still on the hilt of his sword, shouldering his way into what was now quite clearly a passageway, though a rather tight one for someone of his stature.
It was a tight squeeze for Fingon too, his broad shoulders brushing the sides of the stone passage as he edged his way in. This space had not been clearly visible, as the cleft walls had overlapped in such a way that the width and depth was well concealed, unless one was crowded into the space itself.
They moved deeper in, the light dimming as the rocky surfaces met above them. Maedhros paused to run his fingers along an indentation in the surface of the stone, leaning closer to peer at it in the gloom.
Fingon pressed forward. The stone was somewhat protected from the rain here, but a few droplets ran in irregular rivulets down the surface. He followed Maedhros’ fingers as they traced the subtle grooves the water ran in. “Those are runes,” he hissed.
Maedhros nodded and he gave Fingon a brief but eager look, voice hushed. “And recently made, by the look of them.”
They moved further in, the passageway soon widening but plunging them deeper into the darkness. Fingon felt Maedhros’ hand reach back for his own. He grasped it, his free hand still hovering over his sword, but he could not tamp down the surge of exhilaration that ran through him as he did so. None of their excursions thus far, in the time following the Dagor Dagorath, had held even the slightest tinge of actual adventure.
He heard it a moment later—the subtle scuff of booted feet and the scrape of flint. Light flared in the passage ahead and for an instant his vision was filled with the orange glow.
“Halt,” a gruff voice ordered. Fingon dropped Maedhros’ hand and shifted to stand next to him as his eyes adjusted to the light, fingers tightly wrapped around his sword hilt now.
He could make out two squat shapes behind the torchlight, the flickering flames highlighting their faces and glinting on the edges of the battle axes they held at ready.
“Well met,” Maedhros said. He nodded at the two Dwarves who stood in front of them. “My apologies for startling you.” He tilted his head back, in the direction of the passageway they had followed, making sure to keep his hands at his sides. “My companion and I sought shelter from the downpour.”
The one on the left narrowed his eyes at Maedhros. His hair was dark, as were his eyes, braids woven into his beard. “Elves,” he spat, grimacing as he looked from one to the other.
“Well met,” Maedhros repeated. “You are a welcome sight. We have journeyed to these parts for the very purpose of finding you.”
The Dwarf scowled. “What would you be wanting with us?”
“We are friends of old, with one of your leaders. We are here to seek him out.”
The one on the right snorted. “You’ll have your work cut out for you, then. There are near as many leaders reborn as there are Dwarves in these halls.” This one was taller than the other, hair and beard a lighter brown.
“Much the same, where we hail from,” Maedhros replied. “Though many who once led are content to lead a quieter life this time around.”
The taller of the Dwarves shifted his axe to his other hand and slowly brought it down. “Who do you seek, Elf?”
“Azaghâl of Belegost. Is he known to you?”
“Is he known to me?” The dark-haired one blustered. “Is he known to me? Who among us would not know the great Azaghâl?”
“He’s not asking if you know of him,” the brown-haired one muttered. “He’s asking if he’s here.” He turned his attention back to Maedhros. “How come you to know of the Lord of Belegost?”
Maedhros lifted his hands, empty and palms up, in a gesture of openness and said simply “He was my friend.”
“Your friend.” The dark-haired one repeated Maedhros’ words flatly.
They were going to be here all night if this one kept repeating Maedhros’ words. Fingon lifted his hands in the same fashion, mimicking Maedhros’ gesture. “Close enough of a friend to gift him the Dragon Helm of Telchar.” He could not help being pleased with himself for referring to it by its creator’s name, not the ones that had followed it in the years since it had left Azaghâl’s possession. That sign of respect should mollify them to some extent.
It had an instant effect. Both Dwarves grew wide-eyed, staring at Maedhros with an intensity that was somewhat unnerving, Fingon had to admit.
“You!” The dark-haired one barked. “You bloody bastard!”
Maybe it hadn’t been the best idea to identify Maedhros so directly. It was doubtful that any Dwarf from any Age had forgotten who had led the battle forces that resulted in such grievous losses for the Dwarves of Belegost.
The very same person who had been gifted the helm.
There was a reason he usually left the diplomatic matters to Maedhros. He darted a cautious glance at his companion, noting the tell-tale crease in Maedhros’ forehead.
Fingon was therefore quite surprised when the brown-haired Dwarf stepped forward and inclined his head at Maedhros, shooting a quelling glance at his own companion. “Maedhros Fëanorion, I presume?”
“The same,” Maedhros responded.
“Mae govannen,” the brown-haired Dwarf said, the words familiar despite the accent and awkward emphasis on the last syllable of the word. “Well met, indeed. Would you care to follow me? I am sure there are some who would wish to speak with you.”
His use of the Sindar greeting was startling. This entire excursion was already proving to be far more diverting than Fingon had anticipated.
There was some muttered grumbling from the dark-haired Dwarf that Fingon couldn’t understand, but that was swiftly suppressed by the other.
Moments later they were making their way down a wide corridor that sloped downward, the pathway smooth and even below their feet. The more courteous of the two Dwarves took the lead while the other followed behind the two Elves, axe in hand as he glared at Maedhros’ back.
The corridor opened to a larger hallway, with paths leading off to the sides at intervals. Larger caverns could be glimpsed in the flickering torchlight. It wasn’t until they took their second left turn that lit torches appeared, lining the walls at regular intervals, illuminating their pathway with a warm, golden glow.
They paused before a set of carved wooden doors, the representations of birds and foliage on them intricate in the detailed relief.
“Wait here,” the brown-haired Dwarf said. “Drom will stay with you until I return.” His brows lowered. “I will need you to surrender your weapons, before I leave you.”
Fingon did not like the sound of that. These Dwarves were obviously not enemies, likely having fought at their side to rid the world of the great evil, but it did not sit right with him to surrender his weapon to anyone, let alone an unknown Dwarf in the depths of an unfamiliar place. Long years of hardship had made him wary.
Maedhros unbuckled his belt and handed his sword to the Dwarf. “I understand this may be protocol but I do expect it to be returned to me in timely fashion. We are here as allies.”
Fingon reluctantly removed his own belt, thankful for his long-ingrained habit of keeping a knife tucked into his boot and another strapped to his forearm. He knew Maedhros had a few of his own—left boot and right forearm, as well as the ones he usually kept in his belt.
An uncomfortable silence ensued once the Dwarf slipped inside the double doors.
The stonework was solid, if simple. Little if any decoration, other than the carved doors. Nothing like the masterpieces created for Finrod’s underground kingdom—where trees and birds and flowers seemed more than artfully carved stone. Or Azaghâl’s long-gone Belegost, with its towering columns and intricate relief work.
This was a habitation in its nascent state. Perhaps even a temporary abode, a home of convenience. Not anything like the kingdoms of old.
There was a click and then the doors in front of them were opening inwards and the Dwarf—Drom, Fingon reminded himself—eyebrows lowered and eyes still watching them warily, nodded at them to move forward.
It was a large chamber, with simple columns at intervals. There was a table at the far end, on a raised dais, and it brought back Fingon’s memories of his visit to Belegost. To their late-night discourse on strategy and tactics, once they had convinced Maedhros’ friend of the necessity of their allied assault, wine and wit flowing as they spoke.
It was jarring to say the least to see Azaghâl approaching them now, looking no different than he had all those Ages ago, save for the far more solemn expression on his face this time.
Fingon’s chest tightened. It had been an exciting diversion, when he had first suggested it, this search for the alleged Dwarf colonies of the north. A change from the monotony of a peaceful existence, the call of adventure spurring him on.
He had not actually believed they would find much of anything, other than new terrain to study, uninhabited caves to explore, perhaps a surly bear or a ranging mountain lion.
He had not let himself think more deeply on the possibility of this reunion. Not even with their initial reception by the Dwarf guards.
Not until this very moment had he allowed himself to consider the enormity of a reunion with the trusted ally whose death had been a direct result of their own actions.
A friend who had faced the dragon head on, giving the sons of Fëanor a chance to retreat without an utter rout.
Who gave Maedhros a chance to survive the disastrous battle that had been their greatest hope.
It was evident that Maedhros had thoughts on this very thing. Fingon watched as his companion sunk down to one knee, head bowed, hands at his sides palms up yet again.
“My Lord of Belegost, I am grateful to be in your company again. I owe you my life and a lifetime of apologies.” Maedhros voice was strong and carried through the sparsely populated cavern. There were a few Dwarves scattered around the room, all eyes on Maedhros’ bowed head.
Fingon dropped to one knee at those words, following Maedhros’ lead; but he did not bow his head, keeping a wary eye on those around them.
Azaghâl halted his approach. His eyes darted to Fingon for an instant before they settled back on Maedhros. His brow creased and there was sorrow in his gaze. He took a deep breath and then advanced with three sturdy strides to stand in front of Maedhros, who had not moved or raised his head.
Reaching out the Dwarf lord placed a hand gently on Maedhros’ shoulder, resting it there before tightening his grip. “Well met, my friend. I had hoped we would meet once more, before the end of all. But it seems it was not an end, but another new beginning.” Fingon could see his fingers sink into the fabric of Maedhros’ cloak. “I am glad to know you have been returned to the home of your youth and the promise it holds for your people.”
Maedhros raised his head, grey eyes filled with a regret Fingon had not seen since the early days after they had been reembodied, when each day in preparation for the war ahead had also been filled with many difficult and unanticipated reunions.
“My heartfelt regrets, Azaghâl.” His hands clenched into fists as he brought them to his sides. “Nothing went as I had planned.” Maedhros’ head dropped again. “I should have known nothing ever would.”
The hand on his shoulder shifted, reaching forward to lightly touch a braided strand. Maedhros had always kept it short in Beleriand, after his captivity. Short enough that he did not need another to assist him with its care, much to Fingon’s unspoken regret.
He was glad Maedhros wore it long again now.
“You look well, Coppertop.” Maedhros’ head whipped up at the nickname from the Dwarf. Azaghâl gazed down at him, a small smile on his face. “You look well. Now come, stand up and join me for a drink. It has been far too long since I have had the pleasure of your company.” He turned to nod at Fingon, his smile widening. “And Fingon’s as well.”
Azaghâl swept the room with a piercing gaze, eyeing each and every Dwarf, as if daring any to object.
Maedhros remained on his bended knee, the bewilderment evident on his face. “But . . .”
Azaghâl shook his head. “The blame lies solely with that miserable worm and the evil menace that spawned it. I came to your cause of my own free will, knowing the consequences and the risks to me and my people.” His expression hardened as he scanned the room, locking eyes with the other Dwarves in attendance once more, a warning in his gaze this time. “I place no blame on you.” His eyes returned to Maedhros. “Do not take it on yourself. We each choose our own fate.”
Maedhros came slowly to his feet and then stretched out his hand. It was grasped by Azaghâl and they embraced the way Fingon remembered from Belegost. There was some muttering around them, stern Dwarven gazes from every direction. But no word was said aloud as Azaghâl motioned for them both to join him at the low table.
The way Azaghâl waved away their bystanders was familiar too. He waited until the room had emptied to just the three of them before he took his seat.
Fingon sat on the cushion, legs tucked under him, as Azaghâl poured a golden liquid into three glasses.
“Not the same vintage as on our last meeting,” Azaghâl said as he handed Fingon a glass, “but a pleasant substitute. This terrain has not been suitable for producing anything but mead.” He stood in front of his chair and raised his glass. “To unexpected reunions.”
They raised their glasses to him and Fingon tasted the sweet, heady liquid. Maedhros put his glass down as soon as he had taken a sip for his toast and leaned across the table towards the Dwarf. “Azaghâl, truly my words cannot convey the depth of my regret and sorrow at the events of our last meeting.”
“You have conveyed it to me. I accept your words but I cannot allow you to dwell on those events. They are past. We have been given a second chance and there should be no trammels of regret on that.” He leaned towards Maedhros. “You did your best, my friend. Under circumstances that would have broken any other, yet you endured. You have had long enough in Mandos’ Halls to contemplate the consequences of decisions made under duress and hardship. Do not dredge those memories back.” He patted the back of Maedhros’ renewed right hand. “It is good to see you whole, in spirit and in body.”
Maedhros grasped his hand. “It is good to be here and to see you again.”
Azaghâl turned to Fingon and he raised his glass to him directly. “It is good to see you both, together again, as you should be.” He took another deep drink from his glass. “I did not take you to task, Fingon, last time we met, for giving the helm of Telchar to your Mannish friend.”
Fingon’s stomach dropped.
Azaghâl’s gaze was sharp. “I will not reproach you for it today. We are far too different in stature to have made it a good fit. My only regret is that the enchantment woven into it could not have saved you when you needed it most.”
Fingon stared at him. “I regret any offense my giving it away may have caused. Not even our greatest smith, Curufin, could contrive a way to make it fit.” He chewed his lip. “I should perhaps have consulted Telchar himself instead.”
Azaghâl hand made a negating gesture. “I doubt even Telchar could have made the necessary adjustments.” He glanced at Maedhros. “I would not let Maedhros voice regrets but I will allow myself the chance to say I wish I had directed Telchar to make one for you in its place, when you visited me that time. It would have perhaps saved us all a greater grief on the battlefield that day.”
Fingon shook his head. “No apologies and no regrets. We did what we could, under the circumstances given us. I would not take back a single day in Beleriand, not even that one. For each day, each decision, each one of us lost, took us one step closer to the end we sought—Morgoth’s defeat. We could not have brought about his downfall ourselves, I see that now. But the sacrifices made, the tears unnumbered that were shed, the staggering multitude of lives lost, moved the Valar to finally strike.” He took a sip of his mead, his throat suddenly dry as he spoke. “We would not be here now, if we had not done as we did.”
They were silent for a few moments, each caught up in their thoughts and memories. Azaghâl shook his head and sighed, then refilled their glasses. “We are here, as you say, Fingon. And that is more than any of us anticipated. And we are again in each other’s company, unexpected and unforeseen, but gratifying.”
“I had hoped but not truly expected to find you here,” Maedhros said.
Azaghâl laughed. “I should have sent word, I suppose, south to you in Tirion. But we have been busy, tasked with Aulë’s great plan, and now that it is complete our people have scattered. Some to caves even further north, most returning across the sea to Arda remade, and a few remaining here with me.”
“Will you stay here, then?” Fingon asked.
Azaghâl shook his head. “I have not come to a decision yet. It seemed easier to linger on these shores, comfortable and at peace. I am not quite ready for the work of establishing another domain.” His smile widened again. “Let someone else do the delving this time. There are so many returned, who once ruled in days past. They can squabble about their realms without me. I will take what I find when they are done and be content with that. I do not need to be a lord of a vast realm. I have had my fill.” He took a deep drink of his mead. “I have so many other interests I can pursue this time.”
Fingon nodded. It was what had originally driven them to the shore near Alqualondë, what had driven Maedhros back to his books and scrolls and scribbles. The normalcy of a life without strife, without grief, without the weight of the responsibility of lives untold. He had still yearned for adventure, despite the comfort of their current lives, had complained often enough to Maedhros of boredom and monotony.
He had wanted something more.
In reality, the life he had now was a gift, one he perhaps did not value enough. Its pace might be slower, his days filled with gentler pursuits, his nights filled with passion and a love he had once thought lost.
That was a welcome change from the weight of his past life.
A life where he had always felt he had something to prove—to his father, to his uncle, to his brother, to his cousins, to his people.
He did not have to prove himself to anyone anymore. He could do as he liked. With Maedhros at his side.
“If you do go back to Arda,” he said to Azaghâl, with a sidelong look at Maedhros. “Do you think you might want some company?”
“Company? You would again leave this shining land for the distant shores of Arda?” Azaghâl asked.
“Not forever,” Fingon said. He could feel Maedhros’ foot nudging him under the table. “But I am curious to see what your work has brought forth, what those lands have been shaped to be this time.”
“It would certainly be of interest to see how the topography and habitat has altered, if at all,” Maedhros added, reaching for Fingon’s hand under the table.
“Yes, of course,” Azaghâl had an amused glint in his eye. “You had mentioned being a scholar in your youth. I take it you have returned to those pursuits?”
Fingon squeezed Maedhros’ hand. “Cartography is one of his specialties.”
Azaghâl’s hearty laugh echoed in the near-empty chamber. “Then I will be sure to send word when I am ready to depart.” His lips curved up in a smile, the beads woven into his beard rattling gently. “There should be settlements cropping up by now, to give you something other than rivers and ranges to add to your maps.”
“I wonder,” Maedhros asked, “if you have had any word of the Dwarves of Moria or the ones from Erebor? There are those back home who crave news of them.”
Azaghâl shook his head. “The Dwarves of Khazad-dum were some of the first to go. Most, if not all, of those from Erebor and the Iron Hills followed suit. You will find few of them among us. Is there someone in specific that you seek?”
“My nephew was close to Narvi. And the guide whose directions led me to you is searching for his friend Gimli.”
Azaghâl laughed again. “You are searching for celebrated names—Elf friends both of them.” He crossed his arms and leaned his elbows on the table. “To my knowledge they are both in Arda still. I don’t think they were even given a chance to return after the battle—went straight to work and haven’t stopped yet, word has it. The Dwarf who brought me word of you—Fin—was with Gimli in his caves for many years. He picked up a smattering of your language, from Gimli’s Elf-friend.”
“Fin? Why he’s almost got your nickname, Finno,” Maedhros said, grey eyes bright again.
“Is that what you call your king? Finno?” Azaghâl looked amused.
“I’m no one’s king anymore, thank the Valar,” Fingon interjected. “I’m well rid of the title. It suits my uncle far better than it ever suited me.” He smiled at Azaghâl. “It’s what he’s always called me.”
It took an instant’s thought and then he was speaking again. “It’s fine if you call me that.”
Azaghâl’s eyes crinkled in the corners. “Then you will have to call me Az, like this one used to.” He gestured at Maedhros.
“Where did Coppertop come from? Did you call him that back then also?” Fingon asked.
Azaghâl laughed again, a rumbly joyful sound. “No, that was just for show today.” He tilted his head at Maedhros. “Likely why he looked so surprised and almost spoiled my plan. Everyone here knows Maedhros by his name. I wanted to show the sceptics that we were more than allies, that we were friends. We put great store in names, in our culture. By using such a familiar name, one that is more a nickname than anything formal, it confirmed that closeness.”
“Then I’ll have you know we’ve been calling him that for years. It’s been his épesse, his nickname since he was a child.” Fingon turned to Maedhros. “Didn’t your grandfather start it?”
Maedhros nodded. “The first time we visited him. He was overjoyed that I had inherited his hair.”
“So you call him Coppertop too?” Azaghâl asked.
“Russandol,” Fingon said. “You call him that and you’re practically family.”
It was warm and comfortable in the cavern. Fingon leaned against Maedhros’ shoulder as Azaghâl poured them all more mead.
It felt good to think of Arda with anticipation, not regret or wistfulness. The chance to explore new lands that held a memory of beloved and familiar ones. He could feel the thrum of excitement coursing through him as he thought of making the crossing again, by ship this time, not the blasted hellscape he had crossed before.
With Maedhros at his side this time.