“Ah, our guest,” says the great enemy, the black lord of Thangorodrim, when his servants bring Maedhros down to the belly of his fortress. The twisted form on the dark throne is not the form Melkor wore in Valinor, but his voice – deep, fierce, fair – has not changed. The Silmarils shine on his brow with a light that will never be seen in the world again, and the sight of the work of his father’s hands makes something lurch in Maedhros’s stomach. His oath, he tells himself.
“I am the High King of the Noldor,” he begins, in a voice that sounds thin as a reed in this vast dark cavern. It is a hollow claim. The Noldor in this Middle-Earth are his six brothers and their ragged band of pirates. For all he knows that is all the Noldor that exist in the world. Who knows how the Valar punished the exiles abandoned on the far shore? He pushes the thought of it out of his mind. “I am –” he begins again.
“Oh, yes, yes, I know,” says the black shape that is Melkor – that is Morgoth, Morgoth, only Morgoth now. “One of Fëanáro’s boys, isn’t it? Coppertop – the dim one. Let me look at you.” He gets off the throne and advances on Maedhros. He is tall and mighty, armed in black steel, and his dark gaze is cold as the gales of uttermost North. Maedhros does not quail.
He is proud of it then. Later he knows better than to think he would have had a choice if Morgoth cared enough to want him crawling.
“Yes,” says the Enemy, after he has walked once about Maedhros and looked on him from all sides, “you’ll do.”
And that is the last Maedhros sees of him for some time. He is taken away, and put in a cell, and for weeks on end – for months, he thinks – he sees no one but the thin ragged creature that brings him his food. At first Maedhros thinks it must be one of the Dark-Elves of Middle Earth, and tries to speak with it, first in his own tongue, and then with the few scraps of Sindarin he knows, and finally in the ancient forms from his grandfather’s oldest songs. The creature never answers. It moves strangely, and its eyes gleam in the dark. On the day it comes down with Melkor’s chief servant, the gleaming bright-eyed Maia who walks always in his own red light, Maedhros finally sees that it is not an Elf at all but an ugly twisted mockery, a half-bestial thing.
Orkor, he remembers from Finwë’s most fearsome stories. One of Morgoth’s dark creations from ancient times.
And of course it could not speak to him. Its mouth has been sewn shut with great black stitches.
He is brought to the black throne room, but it is empty, and Morgoth’s steward leads him on, behind the throne, down a spiralling stairway into the very bowels of the earth. The Orc scampers behind them on all fours. The gleaming Maia abandons Maedhros at the foot of the stairwell. “To keep our Master company,” he says to the Orc, and his bright eyes flick to Maedhros without a hint of pity, and he smiles. “Tell him I go to seek the materials he asked of me.”
The Orc struggles onto its hind legs. Its spine is bent. Maedhros thinks of flight, of the spiral stairway. But the Maia steward is still behind him somewhere, and though the Orc is a twisted pathetic thing, its arms are corded with heavy muscle and its long talons are sharp. He dares not throw his life away a moment before he must. The black void waits for him if he abandons his oath. Perhaps there will be a chance for the Silmarils, he tells himself, as the Orc leads him forward. Its ruin of a face wears expressions poorly, but there is a slavish longing in its eyes.
It draws him through a high black arch into a great cavern-chamber. Maedhros is expecting another throne room, a lair of lairs. Before him lie fiery pits and great walls of ice. Morgoth moves among them at his ease, Silmarils still upon his brow, heavy gauntlets encasing his hands in steel. The Orc falls upon its face at the sight of him. Maedhros stares once more at the jewels of his father’s making.
“At last,” says Morgoth, when he sees them. He strides forward. Maedhros trembles despite himself, but the Enemy pays him no heed. He scoops up the Orc, instead, by the scruff of the neck. It is no small creature – were its spine not twisted it would be taller than Maedhros, and he is the tallest of his kin – but towering Morgoth lifts it lightly and holds it up before his face. It flinches and gibbers in the light of the three shining Silmarils.
Morgoth bears the ugly creature cradled in his arms to a great black anvil, lays it down there as carefully as Fëanor ever laid out gold for the working, and speaks a fell Word. The Orc convulses and splits open from collarbone to belly. Morgoth has his tools lying close by his hand – as any smith would: for this, Maedhros now understands, is not a throne room but a forge. The Enemy unpeels his creature’s skin from its flesh, and its flesh from its bones, laying all open for his wintery gaze and the merciless light of the Silmarils. As he works he sings a song of power, a song with words that belong to no tongue of the Elven-kindreds.
The Orc lies bleeding silently on the anvil. It does not die for a very long time. Morgoth unravels its veins and arteries, lifts out its internal organs one by one, until at length Maedhros comes to feel pity even for his vile jailor. “At least kill it!” he cries, though it takes all the strength in him to speak while the weighty discords of Morgoth’s music still ring in his ears.
Morgoth pauses his dread song and glances at him. “What would be the use of that?” he says. “Come.”
Maedhros does not move.
Morgoth frowns. “Come,” he says again. The might of a Vala’s will is in the command, and this time Maedhros stumbles forward all unwilling, and begins to know fear indeed. Morgoth smiles when he sees it. “It astonishes me,” he says, “how completely you Elves have failed to understand what we are. And yet it should not. None knows better than I how low a metal went into your making.” He gestures to his great black anvil, and Maedhros turns his face away. The Enemy smiles. “Squeamish, O High King of the Noldor?” he says. “But I would have you observe.”
He takes up a curved blade of adamant and slices into the bleeding Orc’s face. The cut is both precise and deep; flesh and bone part before the knife and the skull is cracked and opened. The suffering Orc dies with a last rattling gasp during the process. Morgoth lifts out its soft brain in one metal gauntlet. “The dust of a dozen dead stars,” he says softly. “Stone and salt and water in due proportion. Meat.” He sneers. “And that is an earthly mind.” He closes his fist around the Orc’s brain. It squelches. “Well suited to its purpose and its place, but no more able to comprehend me than an ant can understand you, O King. And yet you presume to challenge me.”
“I am no Orc,” says Maedhros.
Morgoth starts to laugh. Maedhros does not understand.
His father would have known, he thinks later. Standing in the heart of Morgoth’s great forge, watching the master-smith at work, his father would have known at once.
Thereafter he is summoned each day to the forge at the heart of Angband. He has a Balrog for a jailor now, a thing of flame and shadow that leaves red burn marks in the shape of its fingerprints on Maedhros’s skin when it drags him before its Master. On the second day Morgoth plucks him up as he had plucked up the Orc, and for a dizzy moment Maedhros hangs in the air with his feet kicking helplessly and the light of the Silmarils a brilliant blinding glare before him, and is afraid. But Morgoth snorts, tosses him down by the anvil, and seems to forget he is there. It is his Balrogs that chain Maedhros where he was cast down.
Morgoth is always the same: tall and terrible, iron-handed, crowned with the Silmarils. And he is always working. Thereafter he pays little heed to Maedhros. His attention is all for the works of his hands. He disassembles, studies, repairs, destroys, blood spilling across the black anvil. He sings as he works. Maedhros tries not to be reminded of his father. The hours by the anvil are very long, and there is no safe place in the forge to turn his eyes. The great sheets of pale ice that wall the cavern are not mere decoration. The Enemy uses them for storage.
Bodies locked in ice do not rot.
“Aulë is in some ways the best of them,” remarks Morgoth to him on the fifth day over the bloodied fragments of what was once a Dwarf. “This is fine work. Unimaginative – hidebound – but fine work. It is a pity he has so little ambition.”
He does not seem to expect a reply, which is as well. Maedhros thinks of the gentle-spoken Smith who had walked so freely among the Noldor in Valinor. Has he a buried flesh-forge like this one? How did he make the Dwarves? He is beginning to think that Morgoth spoke the truth when he said the Elves did not understand the Valar: and Morgoth himself is proof that there is much to fear in what they do not understand.
The burning Maia steward returns after seven days. He bears a frozen corpse before him. “More await your pleasure, Lord,” he says, “but this may interest you most of all.”
“Ah,” says Morgoth, a long sigh of satisfaction. He takes the still figure in his arms and lays it on the anvil. The rime lies so thick upon it that no face can be seen beneath the cold reflections of the forge fires. “And how fare the trespassers on our northern marches?”
“As well as can be expected,” answers the steward with a smile.
“Perhaps we should send them aid. We have many servants who need fear neither ice nor snow. What say you?”
“I would say, Lord,” says the steward, with an air of high virtue, “that it is hardly my place to speak on this matter. Surely only their King can properly say what would be best for his people.”
“Wisely spoken,” says Morgoth. There is hot pleased malice curling through the words. He turns his fell gaze upon Maedhros, who had foolishly grown used to being ignored; had begun to feel a little safe. But Morgoth has not forgotten him. “Perhaps our guest will not understand the import of his choice,” he says with a cold smile. He picks Maedhros up again between a steel thumb and forefinger. The chains clank. “Show him.”
The bright Maia smirks. With a gesture of his hand the high wall of ice across the far end of the cavern darkens into a black mirror. Maedhros does not understand what he is seeing at first. The sea of ice is so great and dark; the ragged train of people so small.
“Perhaps a closer view,” says Morgoth, all solicitous. “The eyes of Elves are not so keen as ours.”
The steward bows; the mirror reflects another angle. There is Maedhros’s cousin Turgon, stumbling through the snow as one blinded, shuddering in the bite of the wind, tears freezing on his cheeks. The treacherous ice slides and gives way beneath his feet. Maedhros cries out.
Then Fingon is at his brother’s side, hauling him upright before the grinding ice swallows him. Maedhros stares at his valiant kinsman. He is gaunt and shadowed as a wraith. “I see that some fresh sorrow has befallen the house of Fingolfin,” comments Morgoth with mild, mean satisfaction.
“Certainly. There she lies,” says the steward.
The black mirror becomes a wall of ice again. Morgoth drops him and turns with pleasure to the anvil. Maedhros does not understand until he looks up at the rimebound body lying there and sees the strands of golden hair dripping as the ice melts. The frozen face of his cousin’s wife Elenwë is still fair in death. Maedhros groans aloud in sorrow.
“You need not look so pale,” says Morgoth. “Though you and your brothers set your kin upon that cold path, there is nothing now that you can do for the dead.”
“And there are many dead,” murmurs the bright steward, still smiling; Maedhros begins already to hate his smile above all the horrors of this place.
“But as for the living –” Morgoth says. “They are in your hands, O King. Speak and a dozen of my Balrogs shall set forth to keep what remains of the host of the Noldor from the cold embrace of the Helcaraxë. Your kinsmen may yet live to be guests in my halls. Let it not be said that Melkor is without mercy.”
The steward laughs.
“Well?” says Morgoth. “Speak. Shall we have your people brought to us?”
Maedhros cannot speak without weeping. The bright Maia laughs harder seeing it. “No,” Maedhros says. “No.”
“No?” says Morgoth. “Our guest grudges his family any relief. Hard are the hearts of Elvenkings! But we must yield to his will in this, Mairon. Let them struggle on without hope. Bring me the bodies.”
“Leave the dead to rest!” Maedhros cries. “What purpose can it serve to outrage them, to –”
“My purposes,” says Morgoth, “are not for little Elves to know.” But he smiles. “Yet you are my honoured guest. Perhaps I shall teach you.”
A day and a half Morgoth works upon the body of Elenwë the fair. Not once does he permit Maedhros to look away. “If necessary,” he says, “I shall pin your eyes open; and you shall regret that.”
Malice darkens his deep voice then. But more often his words are calm and clear. His Maiar servants gather at the edges of the forge as eager listeners and students, and cast envious looks on Maedhros for his privileged seat. Maedhros is minded of Aulë the Teacher once more, and of many others among the Valar and Maiar in the West: how much satisfaction they take in laying out the shapes of all their hidden knowledge of the world! Never has Melkor been more clearly of their kindred. But dire beyond imagining is his knowledge. For as Fëanor shaped metal and stone, so Morgoth the Black Lord shapes flesh.
Elenwë’s body is of great interest to him. “A shame,” he says, “that there are so few Vanyar among the Exiles. A terrible shame. Still I must use what I can find. For though Aulë is the best of them, and dares most, still he is not the greatest. Manwë and Varda are dull indeed in their thought, and we need not bore ourselves with the simple mechanisms of the heavens. No, it is the work of Yavanna that concerns me now. See for yourself what improvements she has wrought upon the Eldar!”
Maedhros does not know enough to understand what Morgoth finds so interesting. He longs to look away. The steward Mairon draws close to peer at the ruin of a dead woman. “Mightier they are than the Elves of Middle-Earth,” says Morgoth with pleasure, “and as the flesh, so the spirit: the light of the Trees has done its work upon them. Simplicity itself and yet complex beyond imagining. She shall not achieve so great a work again. And now all its power lies with Us: and We shall find better uses for it.”
Morgoth bids the Maia to set up mirrors of black ice all about the great anvil. He will not remove the Silmarils from his brow, will not so much as set a hand to them, but their cold bright light, reflected over and over, leaves no part of the splayed corpse unrevealed. There is nothing, Maedhros begins to understand, that Morgoth cannot twist to his own dark purposes. Light itself is forced to serve him, and in serving him only makes this shadowed place fouler. His heart cries out in grief to see the work of Fëanor used so. He speaks no word, and makes his silence his protest, denying the Enemy the sight of suffering that he so enjoys. But bright Mairon gives him sideways smiling glances as his dark master works, and clearly knows what a deep sorrow lies in Maedhros’s heart.
After a day and a half it would be hard for anyone to tell that what lies upon the anvil was once a woman. Morgoth is done with her. The remains go into the ice. Maedhros is finally dismissed back to his cell, in the company of his Balrog jailor, and there he vomits till there is nothing left in his stomach, and must sit surrounded by the stench till he is summoned back to the forge once more.
He believes he understands now. “Very well,” he says to the Enemy. “If I am to be next, begin now. Have done with me. I am ready.”
Morgoth frowns at him. “But you shall not be next,” he says. “What a waste! Had Fëanor had seven hundred sons, still I should not wish to consume the metal too rashly. As he had but seven, so I shall be patient, and use what I have with care. And you are by no means ready. The hearts of your kind are to me as a scroll written in childish letters, and I see defiance written still in yours.”
“And though I be your prisoner I shall defy you till the end of Time,” says Maedhros, “so wait no longer.”
“Time,” says Morgoth, “is far longer than you know: and you are Time’s prisoner far more than you are mine. Defy me as you will, Coppertop. You would not be the first. Many of your kind have refused the will of Melkor: and many have bowed thereafter. It may be a thousand years hence, but all who stand in the shadow of their rightful lord eventually learn submission.”
“Not I,” Maedhros says, but his voice is thin. There is no escape from Angband. And he can see bright Mairon in the corner of his eye, and he is laughing.
From Elenwë Morgoth seems to have learned the last of what he wants to know of the workings of living flesh. No more bodies are brought out of the ice to be defiled on the black anvil. Now he works with strange metals and dull grey stone. Pale flame pools in his steely hands and glitters, trapped, inside the tiny and intricate mechanisms he forges like a black mockery of the Silmarils. None is larger than Maedhros’s fingernail, and there is neither loveliness nor splendour in them, but they are infinitely complex. The finished objects Morgoth tosses carelessly at the base of the anvil. At first Maedhros tries not to look upon them. Then he begins to feel that they move when his gaze is not on them, and after that he dares not look away.
“Let us attempt the experiment,” Morgoth says when he has forged nearly three dozen such mechanisms. “A Dark-Elf, Mairon. Find me something suitable.”
“Lord,” says the steward with a bow.
He returns the next day with a still figure in his arms. Maedhros feels less of a lurch inside than he once did. He is growing too used to this dark place. The heart must turn cold or else surrender to despair and death, and despair and death he may not surrender to, not while his oath still binds him. The Elf is dead, and nothing may be done for the dead. It lies by Morgoth’s feet in a silent heap.
Four great black shackles Morgoth forges upon the anvil, and while the metal is still hot he lifts his prisoner one-handed and throws him down. Flesh sizzles in the binding. The Elf begins to scream.
Maedhros jerks out of his miserable stupor in horror. It is not dead. It is not dead.
Morgoth takes up his knife of adamant and begins to cut.
These are not the great butchering cuts he had inflicted on the dead, but small elegant slices. Into each incision Morgoth slides one of the tiny glittering machines of his own forging. He begins to sing as he works, that same dark song of old, ringing with unhappy discords. Some of the watching Balrogs take up the ugly tune. The Elf on the anvil screams until it can scream no more, and then begins to sob quietly. The light of the Silmarils shines mercilessly down upon its suffering. Maedhros calls out to it in his own tongue, words of kinship and empty comfort, but it cannot hear him over the hideous music.
When his work is done the Enemy takes up a pale bone needle and sews his incisions shut again. The Elf lies in the still exhaustion of pain. Morgoth seats himself upon a throne beyond the black anvil and bends his dark gaze upon his victim. The light of the Silmarils shines from his brow.
The Enemy waits.
Maedhros, chained by the anvil, sees the Elf’s muscles flex and shudder as the transformation begins.
It is slow. It is slow. Morgoth has planted evil in his victim’s flesh as a gardener plants seeds in the soil. The watching Balrogs still hum the black music of their master’s making, and in its strident disharmony Maedhros seems to hear what he cannot see: the sprouting and rooting of hidden ugliness, sinking tendrils like claws into flesh, dragging tendons out of true and cracking open the marrow to sow bones with something new. The Elf lacks the breath to scream. It pants in agony as its body snaps and twists against the shackles.
It takes hours. Maedhros puts his hands over his ears but he cannot block out the dread music.
It only stops when there is the sound of metal snapping. The creature on the anvil has broken its fetters. Morgoth straightens up. It is the first time the Enemy has moved since the transformation began.
The thing that rolls off the anvil and falls shuddering on its knees on the floor is no Elf. It looks up and its eyes are – wrong: a fell light shines deep inside them. Its face is deformed: too many sharp teeth bristle in its maw. Morgoth stands and gazes down upon it, and the newmade creature looks up at him in horror and despair. “Mokhna nai?” it cries. Maedhros does not know its language, but he can hear its woe.
“You are mine,” answers Morgoth, and he removes one great black gauntlet and stretches out his naked hand. It is burnt and black. He rests it against the creature’s skull, where the ragged remains of dark hair are coming out in hanks. “Ruk,” he names it. “Strongest of your kind – so far.”
Bright Mairon stands close by with his familiar much-loathed smile. “Orco,” he translates helpfully, as if Maedhros could not see, could not guess. His father would have known long before now what lay at the end of all Morgoth’s dark craft. His father the smith would have known.
The Orc wails once. Morgoth puts his black hand under the creature’s chin and tilts its face up. Its cries are cut off as it meets the Vala’s eyes. The will of the Enemy falls upon it, and it shudders, and is silent, and its look turns worshipful.
“A fair attempt,” Morgoth says, and pushes it carelessly aside. His dark gaze falls on Maedhros and his lip curls. Maedhros trembles. Morgoth flexes his naked, burnt hand and his face twists unpleasantly. He is in pain. “A first attempt,” he says.
That Orc becomes Maedhros’s jailor thereafter. It will not speak to him, no matter how he tries to address it. Something is broken in its mind. Maedhros thinks often of his first jailor, the spine-twisted creature he mistook in the dark for an Elf, and afterwards despised. He had not erred after all.
Morgoth makes more Orcs. Mairon is constantly on the hunt for fresh victims. Not all the new-forged creatures leave the black anvil so twisted in appearance as the first. Some seem barely changed at all when the black transformation is done. But Maedhros sees their eyes. He does not need to be told why Morgoth is making him watch.
His one bitter comfort is that all the Elves the bright Maia brings to be fed to his master’s craft are strangers to him. None of his kinsmen are among the reforged Orcs, and none of his friends. He thinks often of his brothers camped in Hithlum, of the vision of his cousins that was shown to him. He dares not ask what has become of them, lest his speech recall his family to the Enemy’s attention. Perhaps all those who set out across the Grinding Ice are dead. It is a vile thing to find himself hoping for it, but better that, better that by far, than what Morgoth plans for them. All bright things are twisted here: all hope to cruelty, all courage to shame, all light to the darkest ends of all. It is by the light of the Silmarils that Morgoth shapes his most evil works.
He does not remove his heavy gauntlets again, but Maedhros does not forget his glimpse of the Enemy’s burned hand, nor that single wince of pain. It is the only sign of weakness Morgoth has shown.
It is months before understanding strikes – months of watching the black work of the forge. Morgoth has turned his attention away from his Orc-creations and towards some new mischief. Little biting lizards now run loose around the anvil, and snap at Maedhros’s fingers when they can get close enough. Morgoth seems pleased with them. Yet some dark frustration still gnaws him.
When Maedhros sees the truth he is ashamed that it has taken him all this time. Coppertop, the dim one, Morgoth had named him.
“You cannot touch them,” he says.
Morgoth breaks off his work and his dread song to glare at him. But Maedhros is not unfamiliar with the frowns of a master-smith interrupted, and his realisation occupies all his thoughts and makes him, perhaps, foolish. “You cannot lay a hand on them,” he says. “You dreamed of possessing the Silmarils and instead they burned you and bound you to pain. You are trapped in that form, O Morgoth Bauglir: thus the Constrainer is constrained. No wonder you slave in your forge! But your own flesh will not be changed, no, not though you try for a thousand thousand years.”
“Stay your tongue, Elf-King!” snaps bright Mairon.
“No,” says Morgoth, deep and terrible. “Speak, little Elf. Dare you claim to know the doom of Melkor World-King – Melkor who was born before Time to rule all?”
Words rise swift to Maedhros’s lips. He does not have the gift of foretelling that belongs to some of his kin, but some clear light seems to him to have pierced the belly of Angband, and by it he can see further than he knew. “You shall never control the Silmarils,” he says. “Though you strove to master my father’s work through all of Time it would defy you, and though you twist the light of the Trees to your own uses, yet it remains the Light, and shall not submit to you, and will be taken from you. The scars you bear will never heal. Morgoth you are named, and to Darkness you belong, and all the cunning of your artifice cannot change what you are – thief! Murderer! The Silmarils are of the Light. They will not submit to a defiled hand. Touch them, O Lord of Shadow, and you shall burn.”
There is silence in the great forge.
It is broken by laughter. “So! So!” says Morgoth. “Our honoured guest presumes ill-manners, and dares to speak of Doom. Doom has he spoken indeed, but not for Us. And thus Melkor tires of patience. Slow or fast your spirit shall break, son of Fëanor: and now I find I prefer haste.”
As quick as a striking snake he reaches out his hand and seizes Maedhros by the scruff of the neck. His back hits the black anvil, and terror seizes him before Morgoth takes hold of his wrist.
“Yes,” says the Dark Lord. His cold fingers are tight about Maedhros’s wrist as a vise. “Ten thousand years I might have waited, but a hundred instead I allot to you, and at their end you shall have learned better manners. You shall beg me for the favour of your transformation then, O High King of the Noldor, grandson of murdered Finwë! You shall beg: and perhaps I shall be gracious.”
Adamant he takes up as he speaks. The Silmarils blaze above the horror of his face. Maedhros looks to them and not the swift cruel work of the dark smith’s hands. He looks to the light. It is all he can do.