Originally begun on 23/02/2012 and completed on 27/06/2012.
Warnings for mature themes, profanity, violence, and inaccurate timelines.
Thanks to Gwedhiel for the beta.
Disclaimer: I own nothing you recognise.
'Great was the sorrow of Eärendil and Elwing for [...] the captivity of their sons, and they feared that they would be slain; but it was not so. For Maglor took pity upon Elros and Elrond, and he cherished them, and love grew between them, as little might be thought; but Maglor's heart was sick and weary with the burden of the dreadful oath.' – 'Of the Voyage of Eärendil and the War of Wrath', The Silmarillion.
We had been riding for many days across the plains, when there appeared from a far distance a sprawling, colourless stone structure that clamped the sides of a lonely hill like an old, insistent denizen, shaped like a deformed tortoise with anthills stuck on its back. On closer inspection it was larger than I had thought possible, and loomed above us like a wrathful god. Clenching my swollen, stiff fingers, I bowed my head and grimaced, pushing back the lump that rose in my throat. We arrived at the fortress of Amon Ereb in the early hours of a chilly morning, when the mist was stretching its fingers across the land and it was somewhat difficult to see.
Maedhros and his company made their way up the jagged, shallow-sided hill as if they had done it a thousand times before – which, I learned later, they had. Despite this the trip was cumbersome and uncomfortable, and I gripped the horse's mane to keep myself from falling off. Eventually we reached the fortress' entrance, which was flanked by an age-worn gatehouse with glassless windows, and at the sound of a great horn, a black portcullis groaned and slid up, and the tall wooden gates swung slowly open. The riders cantered in silence into a wide outer courtyard, where they halted. Maedhros and Maglor, who were carrying us, rode on, through a barbican into another, smaller courtyard.
I was seated in front of Maedhros on his snorting, black stallion, cold to my bones and weary from the long journey, and should have been more frightened than I was. I had been raised within white walls decorated with stately mosaics, where music was played all the day and the halls were sweet with incense; where men wore gold-trimmed jerkins over silk tunics and women strung many-hued gems about their slender necks. Amon Ereb could not have been more different from my home, and I could scarcely help but gape at the incredible – or perhaps, to me, disturbing – structure.
It was built of grey stone, partially eroded and blunted from the elements, from the rectangular, ivy-straggled keep to the cobble-stoned ground where bits of thick, olive-green moss huddled comfortably. The walls stretched above us, the highest seeming to claw hatefully at the sky. From the tips of the two tallest spires, swallowtail flags bearing the emblem of Fëanor flapped recklessly with the wind, now and again made indistinct by the clouds. It seemed a place more fit for interrogation than the residence of elves.
Maedhros dismounted his horse with a flourish and helped me down. I tried unsuccessfully to not shudder at both the puckered stump at the end of his right arm and the thought that he forced my mother to jump from a crag. Why was he touching me? I did not want him to touch me. From the corner of my eye I saw Maglor put my brother on the ground. Not for the first time I wished I was old enough – and strong enough – to strike him down, but my body was small and frail, and, I thought grimly, it would be folly to openly attack a grown Elf who was a master of the sword.
My brother and I were led up a short flight of stairs and through the main entrance – opposite and some distance from the barbican – by the Fëanorians. The temperature abruptly dropped, for the ceiling was impractically high, and though two closely set, burning hearths gaped like fiery eyes at each of the four walls, they did little, it seemed, to warm the dimly lit Great Hall. Unlike the architecture in Valinor I'd heard about, there were no gleaming crystal stairs or ceilings tiled with mother-of-pearl. Yet finely crafted tapestries hung on the walls, many depicting great battles or pale war-horses before copses of trees. Only one showed Tulkas hoisting a small hill on his shoulders as deer and smaller animals sprinted ahead of him. It was not welcoming, though if the situation had been different, I may not have found it repellent, either.
As we walked I noticed that some people, who sat at trestle tables with cups of ale, threw strange, tentative looks at us. But none made any remarks, and none stared longer than a moment. We stopped, and Maedhros turned to his brother and spoke in their mother-tongue: a haunting, lovely language that sounded vile to my ears; I could understand but a few words back then.
Maedhros finished talking and left us, his dark mantle stirring behind him, and stood by the Elves at the tables – who stiffened at his approach – and began to mutter to them. Maglor looked after him for a few moments, as if he pondered something, and then turned to us. "I will take you to your room," he said with a small nod. He led us to the east wing, up a narrow, winding staircase whose outer walls were pocked with arrow slits. On one of the landings he stopped in front of an age-worn door. He opened it, and told us to go inside. We advanced warily, and I wondered if he would push us in and lock us there forever.
He didn't, and stood patiently behind us as we stared at our chamber. From the small door it yawned widely, lit by a latticed window with a curved crack in one of the panes, so that a checkered strip of light swept the floor in the middle, towards the door; the rest of the room was dimmed and partially cast into shadows. It had a double-bed covered in soft brown furs, and heavy, though old, carpets on the floor. There were two desks, on which rested lit candelabras, and a small shelf of leather-bound books next to them. A closet was placed in a corner by the bed. When we tentatively neared the window we saw, far away, river Gelion winding gently like a metallic ribbon across the broad, undulating plains, and beyond that, the steep, treacherous slopes of the Ered Luin. We realised we were at a dizzying height above the ground, and a fall would have resulted in one's body being crushed on narrow stairs that led somewhere beneath the fortress. There seemed a clear, cruel message: we could leave any time we wanted.
"You may rest today," said Maglor when we looked back at him. "You are always welcome to eat with us in the Great Hall, but I guess that for now you would rather have your meals alone. I will tell an attendant to bring you your food in half an hour or so." Crossing his arms, he continued, "You are free to wander whither you will, but I would not recommend going anywhere near the battlements or up the towers. This fortress is large, and it is easy to get lost. I know I did on several occasions when I first came here." He gave a dry smile. In the watery morning light, he looked eerie with his wind-tangled hair and his large, bright eyes. "I trust you will take my advice. Maedhros and I have decided certain rules for you, but we will save you the boredom until tomorrow. Do you wish to know anything else?"
I grimaced and took a shaky breath. "Yes. Will you ever release us?" I dared to look up at him. He seemed slightly bemused by my question, and, after a moment, said quietly, "For now, you are to live here. You are scarcely six summers old, and we cannot leave you out in the wild." When he said that, his mouth twisted unpleasantly, as if he had tasted something bitter. "But when you come of age, you will be allowed to leave, if you wish."
"Why do you not send us back to Lord Círdan? Why keep us here?" I said. He did not reply, but, after shifting his gaze from my brother to me, exited the room, shutting the door behind him. It closed with a surprisingly soft click.
As soon as he was out of earshot I exploded angrily, "He has no answer. He treats us like we are his guests, but we are only his thralls."
Elros said nothing. He plumped down on the carpet, fingered a loose string, and wept. Great fat tears slid down his red cheeks as he fumbled with the thread, trying it into a knot, then into a flower, the way our maidservants used to do to amuse us during restless nights. This he tore off and crushed in his plump hands. Presently he lay down and squeezed his eyes shut, quivering like an autumn leaf.
Exactly half an hour later, someone knocked at the door. I was sitting on a chair, brooding, and jumped when I heard the sharp noise. It did not wake Elros, who had fallen asleep on the bed. I did not reply to the knock, but the person came in anyway: a Noldorin attendant holding a platter with food and a water-basin. He set it on one of the tables. Despite my distaste for anything the Fëanorians offered me, I looked at it. There was white bread, baked chicken stuffed with fragrant herbs, a wedge of soft cheese, and two honeyed apples. Simple, but quite favourable after the meagre, bland diet we had grown accustomed to during the journey here.
The attendant removed two cups of dark, golden liquid from the tray and set them on the table. "This is just warm, honeyed water with lemon juice," he said with a sympathetic grin. "Very useful in cold weather."
When I did not return the smile, he bowed and left. The smell of the food was enticing, but I was determined to be stubborn. I folded my arms, went to the bed, and climbed in. It was not uncomfortable; the furs were warm and coarse and smelled faintly of lavender.
Not a moment later Elros woke, yawned sleepily, and sniffed. "Is that for us?" he asked with sudden eagerness. He slid off the bed and headed towards the food. I'd always been amazed at how quickly he could change his humour. At times it led me to think he was either an idiot of the highest class or a person who could survive in any situation. "Oh! After months of salted fish and hard bread!"
"Do not eat it!" I said sharply. Elros' hand stilled, hovering over the bread. "Why?" he asked.
"Because it is their food," I said through gritted teeth.
Elros knitted his brows. "We have eaten their food before. We would have starved otherwise, and we will starve now if we do not eat. I care not for what you say; I am hungry." He broke a piece of the bread and shoved it between his lips, not bothering to clean his hands first. "I do not like this place any more than you do, Elrond," he said with his mouth full, "but I am not stupid enough to refuse good food. I'm tired of stuff that tastes like parchment."
"It may be poisoned," I replied. It sounded absurd to my own ears.
Elros shook his head and swallowed. "I hardly think they would bring us all the way here, only to poison us. If they wanted us dead they'd have gutted us at Sirion." He took a sip of the honeyed water and wiped his mouth. I left him to eat his fill, stubbornly lying in bed with the furs pulled up till my mouth. My stomach protested indignantly, but I pressed my lips together and tried to think of something else.
I don't know how long I lay in bed. The attendant came back to remove the half-finished food, and Elros wandered around the room, inspecting nooks and corners and trailing his fingers over the geometric designs on the carpets. He ambled over to the bookshelf and took out some volumes. I heard one crash to the floor as he cursed under his breath, and I wondered how he had the strength to be curious such a time.
A few of the candles guttered out. Eventually, weariness came over me and I slipped into strange, dark dreams filled with bright blades and helms and rivers bubbling red with guiltless blood. Or was the blood the river? Distantly, I heard myself groan.
Then someone was shaking my shoulder, and I cried out when I saw Maglor bending over me with a grim face, though I felt ashamed not a moment later, and flushed.
"Well," he said, his voice oddly coarse and scratchy, as if his throat was filled with phlegm, "why did you not eat?" It seemed a silly, frivolous question, and I felt defiance set in my face.
"I was not hungry."
"Your stomach was rumbling even in your sleep. Do not lie." He stood up to his full height, his eyes narrowing. "I said before that there were rules you both had to follow, and though I also said you would hear them tomorrow, one of them is this: you must finish what is on your plate. It is only right."
I felt anger rise in my chest, and I breathed heavily. How dare this shameless excuse of an elf preach to me about virtue! "Why?" I hissed.
Maglor jerked his head, and the heat in his gaze flared so that my anger turned to fright. "Why?" he repeated incredulously. "Because food is scarce in these lands, and the only reason you get so much is because I say so. Many of the soldiers make do with two meals a day, sometimes less. And because," he added, dropping his tone, "you are living under our roof now, and you will follow the rules we set for you."
"Or else what?" I asked, wanting to sound bold, but hearing my voice quaver.
Maglor bent down again, gripping my shoulder with a large, callused hand. It hurt. "Do not try my patience, little Half-elf," he growled fiercely, corrugating his brow. The effect was that he looked like a monster. I shrank against the pillow, distraught, and half-sobbed, "Don't touch me, don't touch me, don't touch me, please." I covered my face and tore at my hair, whimpering.
The flame in his eyes diminished, and he sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. "I did not mean to frighten you," he muttered quietly, as if to himself. He looked at Elros, who was hanging back near the window, flummoxed and trembling. "Make sure he eats his meals," Maglor instructed him curtly. He walked to the door and turned to face us. "Maedhros and I will meet you here at the tenth hour tomorrow morning. Get some sleep." Then a strange, sheepish expression crossed his face, and he cleared his throat and said somewhat gruffly, "In case you want to wash, the baths are downstairs. I can show them to you now."
Maglor had washed and changed, but my brother and I were still filthy from the long journey from Sirion to the fortress. I was repulsed by my own smell, and I am sure Elros was, too. My brother looked like he was going to comply, but then caught my eye and seemed to think the better of it.
"No?" asked Maglor. "All right. There are fresh clothes in the closet; I am not sure if they will fit you properly. If they do not, inform me or my brother, and we will get someone to tailor them." He left, and relief flooded through me. I glanced at Elros, and thought I saw an unusual expression on his face: regret? Or was it loneliness?
I found I did not want to know, and rolled over and stuck my thumb in my mouth. My gaze darted nervously across the cold stone walls, and found no place to rest. Shivering, I closed my eyes and rocked myself, and pretended that I was folded in my mother's arms in a rocking chair on a cold day in Sirion. In my mind she gazed pensively through a broad window outside where the old, silver willows dipped into the river that I had known since teeth had not protruded from my gums.