It is to the song of begging eagles and rushing wind of Almaren: Mairon wakes to a cavern in his chest. It is a gaping thing, stitched of cobwebs pale and legs that wriggle in the dark – and as he shifts to the side to rouse himself he can feel the squirm of it push between his teeth.
The others do not notice.
Upon the arches of his feet Mairon balances in the forge as his eyes slide to the left. He flits the glances, short, darting towards his peers: but their face remains unchanged. All of them, unmoved. A collaboration of the blind. And where Mairon is still, inside he is wriggling. He is struggling: a bird tangled in a web.
A flame cracks then at Mairon’s front through the beating of the hammers, and he starts forwards. It licks a path along the bench that almost catches him, as for one brilliant second the Maia wonders if his reflection could be reduced to that of smoke.
The mallet he makes that day is a feeble thing, of bending steel and weight lopsided to the right. Mairon absorbs the look Aulë shoots him with a calculated indifference though on the inside he curls like wood under a furnace.
“Better days will find you,” his Master encourages with the placating tone of those bewildered, and it takes everything Mairon has to school his features into a smile.
There is something stirring in his bones and he is unsure how to voice it. Does he scream it? Does he spew it like a poison? Would Aulë ever really hear?
Instead he smiles a gracious smile as he pins his wrists behind his back; the fingers of his right hand pressing hard, anchored down, to crush the worm that leaks from a hole stretching open on his palm.
“Indeed, my Lord. I will only serve you well.”
He is rotting.
It makes sense, then, that the next time he sees the Vala the shadows stitch so far up the walls Mairon loses himself into the dark.
Melkor plunges him into the humid heat; some spoiling spit that sticks into the air. Mairon tastes it as he swallows, the foul edge clawing at his tongue. His Lord is beautiful – of this he sees nothing else – and his Might is some elusive beast that forever slips from Aulë’s grasp.
Mairon watches the monster watch him, elusive, slick under the sliding smoke upon the walls as he offers not a word. He tries to ignore it: though inside his bones are curling, and his hair stands on its end.
And somewhere along the lines he forgets, reeled in by the pull of Melkor’s hook.
He is the fish flopped out of water; and Mairon struggles not for air. Instead, he forgets the feeling of his skin before the rough splinters of the ash. That his hair was ever anything but bloody, nor his ribcage curved of steps that had once made a whole.
In place the dirt upon his cheeks is freckles, and the creases down his back a watermark of birth.
He is misplaced – somewhere. Lost in some fey world he cannot reach. His back pressed to a cot that chafes of cotton. Tired; in a distant land that smells of salt.
The talons dig hard into his sides the first time they fuck.
Or rather, the talons dig hard into his sides the first time Melkor fucks him, for Mairon does very little, prone and pressed fast into the bed. The rough of grunts beats across his back as in the rear of Mairon’s mind he hears hammers, and smells the pungent tang of incense. There somewhere he sees Aulë’s face, staring back at him in bewilderment. It is a parody now, seeming apt to make him laugh if it were not for the claws dug into his hip and the feeling that he is being split entirely in two. He tilts his brow forward, smothers himself down into the sheets.
It should not be like this, he thinks. He hopes, too: for a moment, legs pressed into a frog-step, the grit of his teeth a poor distraction for the pain. But the thought is fleeting, as he feels his Master tremble when he comes, growling like a wild thing, shaking like a stag.
Yet it does not matter: though the Silmarils pierce new burns into his back. Mairon remembers he that was made of scales before this, anyway. So it must not really count.
And it is funny, how the cloy of time and rot do tempt.
How he fishes worms out of his skin and sees only blood. Mairon has learned to dig them out the captives in his stead, with heated barbs and hooks to use as bait – the screams that lave a pain he can no longer taste.
He learns to find the joy in watching others quail. There is a fleeting burst of love there, in the moment before their wit snaps. The shattered smear across the walls that tells the truth of his own lies, and drips like honey down the sandstone – all the way down onto the floor. The sprawl that struggles in a violent jerk before him tugs a smile across his lips. Ah, for there it is: that clawing hope made all the sweeter from the ruse.
He could still climb out, he reasons.
He could still –
Eonwë’s feet are covered in mud, and somehow it is cleaner than the disgust that dents into his lips.
“You cannot think that this excuses it. What you have wrought is beyond any conceivable reproach."
Mairon wants to tell him –to scream and shout, and hit the Maia in the face. He wants to ask him, spit it through his wriggling teeth and the slit that is his tongue. Can he not see the worms? Can he not smell the rot that lingers on Mairon’s skin, and the scales that layer down his arms like a serpent? That coil around his spine? He is lost, all hope squashed into some small cavity below his chest and he has misplaced the key. Melkor stole it from him, a time ago – before the bees and the violent hum of song. He was already gone, and can Eonwë not see that this is the game? That it was like this from the start?
The words burst out of him in a jumble, as he spits them to the sand.
Sorry. Sorry. Can I come back? Please help me come back. Please –
He presses his lips into the boots, defeated, and lets the mud slide up his gum.
They say a leopard cannot changes its spots. Over the long years, Mairon finds this to be true. Where his faces change and his hair grows gold the worms remain, and they burrow ever deeper into his skin.
He flees for pity and for face, and for that terrible conviction. That were he to return, perhaps, they might look right inside of him: and see there what is left.
He hides it like a precious thing – that empty ribcage filled with lice. And instead he crafts a jewel so complete that he can almost pretend, when he slips it on his finger. The power surges down his hand in a shiver. The worms, below, they shrink.
He sees the briefest flash of gold, and knows no more – sucked under a wave so deep Mairon loses all idea of time.
For Melkor works in the most melodious of ways. Mairon feels himself sung, a second time remade. For now he is of boneless spine and the wriggling ribs of fire – where he sits upon a spire, the world below him swirling.
The feeling, now, knits right into the webbed veins of his fëa, as Sauron he is most exultingly – rotten to the core.
A piece of him is lost; and he wonders again at the look on Aulë’s face on a day so far away now he is blind. It is a whisper, a ghost, and he sees all: yet misses the smallest of things. The tiniest creeping of legs, and feet that wriggle in the dark. The rogue blink of admiration that once lingered behind a stare.
And Mairon is again still, yet inside he bellows.
For something crawls amongst the very heart of him – a worm, of hairy feet and burning hand. It reaches in its pocket –
And it is laughable, were he able to peter out a breath.
A Maia dying over a Hobbit – frayed apart right at the breast. Not with hooks, not with bait, nor talons in his hip, but through the silent wriggle of something small unseen. Low and rustling; the whisper down the hole.
And he figures yes, it is indeed the time to die. For Melkor's voice calls to him from the caverns of the earth, in a churning bass he once thought fear.
And it is okay. It is okay now, this burst inside his heart. The black worms spewing forth at Mordor’s throat, and the lick of flame preparing for the swallow. He sees Aulë’s face, and a look much like betrayal – and it –
It is okay.
He can feel it, swallowing up his bones, and he knows: it is okay. It does not matter.
He has been here from the start.