A great thank-you to AzureSkye23 for tracing this rabbit's trail with me :)
(The title refers to Psalm 137:2, a lament from exile.)
What is left of me lies here in a thin, patched tent in the camp of the Powers of the world, somewhere that used to be called Ossiriand. The tent has nothing like a floor, so I lie in the dirt, and Angainor chafes my arms (again). My hands tremble. I don't weep. And the iron skeleton of something that used to be my crown cuts into my throat.
The tent is perfectly dark and perfectly silent, but music pounds through my skull, relentless as an alarm bell. (Relentless, for I am made of music.) In Angband I drowned it out with the beating of drums and the shrieks of the damned, but in the silence after my apparent downfall, I hear nothing else.
Sindarin ballads embed themselves in my consciousness, with a few Mannish lays and some echo of the Themes before Eä, but most often I hear songs of the beginning of days.
The Noldor used to gather in the music halls in Tirion and sing of the Battle of the Powers, and of Melkor the mighty, about whom no one could decide whether he was a volcano or a blizzard or a hurricane blown in from Ekkaia, spewing black rain and thundering like a crescendo.
When I heard those songs in Aman I was Melkor the meek, and my arms bore white scars where Angainor had chafed, and the Noldor cast skittish gazes toward the back of the music hall, and whispered behind the rings on their fingers. I am sure they were saying So, which one was he? The glacier or the storm or the burning peak? I was the Enigma of the Age.
They later found out that I am none of those. The storm can be weathered, the Ice crossed, the living fire reduced to ash and scattered on the wind. I was something far more inevitable. I was the crooked mountain never out of sight, whose shadow fell long, whose peak pierced the clouds like biting my thumb to the universe.
But mountains, it seems, can be leveled. Now there are none left to compare me to (save the Pelóri, I imagine, and that would be blasphemy). The Enigma of the Age is solved.
My hands have been shaking since Thangorodrim fell, and now that the sea has devoured Beleriand they are useless, twitching in the darkness like bats in a cage. I spent too much of myself, and now most of me lies under the waves, a playground for barnacles and a graveyard for sharks.
They have told me I too am for the sea, for a grey ship and a sentence in the Ring of Doom. Eönwë laughed with every word, laughed as they twisted my crown, laughed somehow- for all his unholy cruelty - with a Silmaril in each hand.
A spasm grips my fána, of brokenness and of pain. The empty claws that once bound down the Silmarils dig into my skin like scorpion's tails with every breath. (To avoid the pain, I sometimes hold my breath until my brain reels and grey spots materialize in the darkness before my eyes.) Swords and spikes and guillotines be damned, I'm now sure that Mairon never made anything so sharp as these. Damn him, too.
I don't think he would be sorry.
"Melkor," he said, and the cold fingers of one of his hands steadied my wrist, while the other hand hovered over mine, nearly brushing the ruined skin, "let me try again. Please." I winced and hissed as his fingertips kissed the burns, sending something like an inferno rushing down through the flesh to the sad detritus of my soul.
"Please," he repeated. "I must be getting something wrong. Just let me keep trying. Grit your teeth, hold your breath. Or go on and scream, I can tell you want to." He inhaled sharply. "Just hold on. Just trust me. I know I can fix this."
I began to shake my head. The words It's hopeless were congealing on my tongue. But his lips were firm, and his eyes were hard, glittering in the light of the braziers on the walls like the two gold coins I would later have Men place on the eyelids of their dead.
I had seen this look before, when the Maia of Aule had bent over some malformed silver necklace or some uncooperative piece of mountainside. He would lift the hammer or heft the chisel and think, I can fix anything. I think They told him that was arrogance talking; I won him over because I knew it was the truth.
Now he looked at my hands that way, with that look of the craftsman who knows no standard but his own. He ran his gaze over the blackened epidermis and the raw flesh, stretched between the visible bones. Every time I flinched I could see the tendons quiver. Palms, fingers, thumbs, joints - both hands - every place the Silmarils had seared me through their crystal casket. The Jewels sat beside me on the edge of the bed now, never out of sight, and Mairon stood in front of me, beginning to Sing again.
I wondered if he'd slept here, in the king's quarters, during my absence. I wondered if he'd sat on the throne. I'd gotten little information out of him since my return, as he'd been waiting in the shadow of the gates with a question in his eyes. As soon as I dismissed the Balrogs, he grabbed my wrist and took our father's name in vain. "Your hands…" he said, and the question blazed. In the hours since, I had been doing far more explaining than he.
He went on singing for several minutes, till his voice broke and faltered, and he withdrew his hand, biting his lip and curling his fingers. The knuckles poked white through the skin.
"Mairon," I said, as gently as I could with my hands throbbing, "you need to save your voice."
Surprisingly, he smirked. "I'm not worried about my voice."
"So you're worried about me, then?" I gave him a stilted laugh. "I'm deeply moved."
"I am decidedly not," he snarled, then set his jaw and continued coolly, "I have a flawless record when it comes to repairs. I won't see it tainted on those Jewels' account. Nor yours." He uncurled his fist and stretched the fingers. "Go ahead and scream. I'm going to sing again."
And a single note effused from his lips, delicate and despairing, like a snowflake falling into the sea. His fingers ghosted over the exposed phalanges, and what was left of the nerves around them screamed. I did not. I cut him off when that first note dangled into a fermata.
"Mairon," I said, "stop." I fought the urge to grab him by the shoulders and wreak agony on my hands. I settled for wriggling my wrist out of his grip.
His eyes flashed like flipping the coins, and his grasp only tightened. He dared another note.
"Mairon! Stop!" Despite the ruin of my fána, my voice retained its power of Command. He dropped my arm and took the slightest step backward, bristling.
"So you just want to live with the pain?" he started, tone level. "So you're just going to give up? You're just going to let Them have the victory, and suffer whatever curse that Var-"
"It was a blessing," I interrupted. He scoffed. "She blessed them, she didn't curse them."
"Well, she seems to have cursed you."
"Yes, me and any other unclean thing that would touch them." I forced the corners of my mouth upward into a shadow of a smile, invisible for the shadows of the room. Mairon looked thoughtful, and I went on: "But you don't understand."
"I understand that when you took them you were apparently under some delusion regarding your moral and spiritual condition." Mairon had crossed his arms and was looking down at me wryly.
"On the contrary," I returned, serene.
"Oh," said Mairon, lifting an eyebrow. His mouth twitched like there was still a laugh somewhere inside him, hurling itself futilely against the backs of his teeth like a mad prisoner against the bars of his cell.
"Oh," he repeated, and swallowed the prisoner. "In that case, I understand that you've brought this-" Here he seized my left wrist from my lap and shook it once, jarring the nerves. "-upon yourself." He dropped my wrist, and I bit my lip to keep from screaming. (I told myself it was a great show of self-restraint, but in fact my vocal cords were just raw.) After a moment he said, "So perhaps I don't understand at all."
"You don't." I shook my head. "You never saw the Trees. They probably would have blinded you. That light would have destroyed a creature of shadow like you. It nearly did me. It was- it was…" Terrifying, but I couldn't say it.
"It would shine on my skin and seep into me," I went on, "and my darkness would consume it like an animal, even as the light itself consumed the rest of me. Oh, Mairon," I said, "you don't understand. You've never cursed and desired and loathed and worshiped something all at once."
He looked at my face, then dropped his gaze to my hands. He watched the twitching of the tendons.
"Haven't I?" he said quietly.
I didn't know what he meant. I thought he didn't understand. He had never been the bruise on the Undying Lands, and he had never hurled himself against the bars of a cell. (At the time I didn't know what he meant, so I ignored him.)
"There is," I went on, "something distinctly unsettling about a force that cannot be contained." Unless that force is you.
Mairon already knew that. "So you cut the light off at the source and claimed the only things that ever could contain it," he said, inclining his head toward the Silmarils.
"This is all that remains of that light in the Circles of the World." I tried for another apparition of a smile. "So, Mairon, it wasn't delusion, it wasn't self-destruction." (Not yet.) "It was victory at a cost. At any cost."
He tilted his head to one side, then took both my wrists at once. He lifted them delicately, like exhuming some half-decayed thing, with the fingernails grown long and the intestines falling out between the ribs, and the hide so stiff you could snap it.
"It was worth it," he finally admitted. "Now you're the master of the darkness and the light."
"The fullness of the universe has come to rest in me."
He scoffed at that, but laid my hands gently back in my lap, palms up, for they had to be. He said, "You should be smiling." Then he bowed and left the room.
Some time later-Mairon was better at counting the days, for he had clocks and charts and had etched a tally on the wall in his workshop; meanwhile I marked time by the slow, gangrenous spread of new skin over my palms-some time later, I stood behind Mairon in the forge. The dry heat emanating from the smelter set my scabs throbbing.
I wanted to flex my fingers, deconcentrate the pain, but I knew the scabs would burst if I did. Blood would leak onto the floor in here (Mairon would never forgive me), and my hands would never heal (I would never forgive myself). I swallowed and looked at the Silmarils.
"Is it satisfactory?" said Mairon, less suddenly than I imagined. His eyes were minted copper in the ruddy mirk of the forge. He was gesturing to the object beside the Silmarils on his anvil - that is, to my crown.
Its lustrous grey surface caught the red glow of the room on one side and the Jewels' unquenchable iridescence on the other. The shadows, the scarlet, and the blazing white matched my hands (all charred skin, live flesh, and burgeoning scar tissue). The iron circlet ascended into three smooth-edged tines in the center, a perfect isosceles reduction of the Thangorodrim. But it was perfect: all the crags had been shaved down, all the steaming fissures sealed or suffocated. Mairon had a brutal taste for symmetry.
And he stood with his perfect, isosceles chin jutting up at me, and asked again, "Is it satisfactory?"
"It's... unsubtle," I mused.
"It suits you." I couldn't argue that, and besides, the spikes were mountains, and I had heard too many songs of the Beginning of Days. So I quirked my lips a bit and watched Mairon lift a hammer and gently tap each of the spikes, testing the still-warm metal one last time for ductility.
"Meteoric iron," he said after a silence. I hadn't asked what the crown was made of. "We refined it to eliminate the carbon nodes, but I imagine it still has a bit of the Void in there." He wasn't smiling, but his tone was light.
I thought of the vast silence outside the Timeless Halls and walking a quadrillion miles in the cold, only to find that there is no Fire. That the Fire is in the place you left behind.
"A bit of the Void," I echoed. "I suppose that also suits me."
"Will it suit those?" His gaze darted toward the Silmarils.
"It must." I eyed the iron claws framing an indentation at the base of each of the three tines.
"All right." His voice was thin and measured, and he pursed his lips with a martyr's air. I realized he had been expecting more enthusiasm.
"It's a fine crown," I told him.
"Thank you." He didn't look at me. He lifted a pair of tongs and laid the crown flat on the anvil, the empty claws gaping up at the soot on the ceiling. He steadied it, and once satisfied that it wasn't going to roll off the table and crush our feet, extended the tongs toward the first Silmaril, lying to his right.
My hand went up for several reasons, and if not for the tender scabs, I would have grabbed his wrist to stop him. For one he was going to seize one of the Silmarils, which I alone had bought with pain. For another his hands were beautiful. He found gloves cumbersome in the workshop, and though he was using the tongs, all I saw was the inviolate skin racing toward that brilliant, imprisoned conflagration, as if about to buy it with pain as well.
But I bit my lip and lowered my hand. The tongs closed around the jewel with a faint ringing. Mairon set it at the base of the center tine, then braced the crown with the tongs and lifted his hammer to beat the claws into place around it. (I had previously assured him there was no fear of shattering a Silmaril.)
He pounded for several minutes, and with every stroke those flawless fingers dipped towards the fire. They are unstained, I thought, and I pondered this until the pounding stopped.
The jewel had been secured, and Mairon held his hammer at his side, blinking. His eyes were used to the flaring of braziers and the red glow of the furnaces. The light of the Silmaril against the iron was nothing like that: it obscured the black claws that would have striped it, and showed out the metal's fine lines of texture.
"It's beautiful," I said, and meant it. Bindings fit that light.
But Mairon was shaking his head. "I should remake it." It sounded like an apology. "I'll melt the iron immediately and start from scratch. I'll recast the mold as well, make sure the edges are smooth, make sure the angles are- "
"Mairon?" I took my eyes from the crown to study his face. "There's nothing wrong with it. With any of it."
"You have no eye for detail," he spat, but a note of despair mingled with his anger. He gestured toward the crown, and I looked at it more closely.
The jewel's light was unforgiving. It showed out every minute nick along the edges of the tines, every jagged seam of welding.
"These gems are the last ghosts of the Trees," I told him in assuaging tones. "Anything would look cheap beside them."
"I can do better," he hissed like cooling steel."I will do better."
I shook my head, for I knew Mairon. He would spend a thousand years chained to his anvil, forging crowns, and never be content.
"I prefer the rough edges," I offered. "They make it look more like the real thing."
"Then you're too attached to the real thing."
"There's nothing wrong with that either," I sighed, and continued with a tortured smile, "Besides, the flaws suit me." I held up my hands.
"Perhaps they don't suit my work," he said petulantly.
"You work for me," I answered, low, and the words were darker in my ears than I intended them. I didn't care. "Finish this."
He made no answer, but set his jaw and mechanically caught a second jewel in the tongs. He hastily set the Silmaril in the left tine and lifted the hammer. He beat at it long and fervently, in a circular motion as if to obscure it, if he couldn't break it. At last he stopped and whirled towards me.
"It's my own craftsmanship," he said wildly, and his eyes were shimmering. He blinked rapidly, and I realized the liquid lines were the glitter of tears. "You have no right to set the standard for it, no right to demand my labor be some hideous reflection of yourself." His fingers squirmed along the grip of the hammer.
"You chose to serve me." I put something of hypothermia in my voice; it was slow, quiet, and deadly. "If you think my standards inferior, you should have stayed with Aule. You've ruled for three Ages, but this is my realm. It will be full of blemishes. It is a blemish in and of itself." He was silent for a moment, looking with repulsion at my scabs.
"You mean to say you don't crave excellence?" he replied at last. "With nothing to aspire to, your realm won't last long."
"Excellence," I said, "is an illusion. I crave dominance. And this - " I gestured toward the crown. " - is meant to be a prison, not a piece of art. I care about what it represents, not its geometry."
"I never said it was art." He hefted the hammer.
"With you, everything is." I glanced at the last Silmaril, glistening on the anvil like something's brain. "Finish this," I repeated.
"Yes, my lord." The tears were gone, and his voice was thin again. In a few deft motions he had placed and secured the Silmaril. With the tongs he righted the crown so that the Jewels faced us for darkness, rather than the blackened ceiling. He set the hammer and tongs on the anvil with quiet precision and turned toward me.
"I hope you're pleased," he said icily, "with this foulness." He slung his left hand toward the crown. He slung his left hand, and the gesture was flippant and uncontrolled. He slung his left hand - - too far. And shrieked with the agony of the damned.
His ring finger had brushed the left Silmaril. He pulled his hand away instantly, but the flesh along the metacarpal was seared to the bone. After the shriek he said nothing, just clenched his teeth and cradled the left hand to his lips with the right. He shut his eyes, for they were watering.
"I'm sorry, Mairon," I said. I would have touched him if not for the scabs, run a soothing finger along the symmetrical chin, pressed my lips to the burn.
He shook his head and lowered his hands, only a little. "I am a fool," he breathed, and tightened his jaw again. "I'm a careless fool." I took a step toward him and bent to look him in the eyes.
"Yes," I said gently, "you are." His lips trembled, and a tear flashed on his cheekbone. "But you're mine," I said, "and my realm is full of blemishes."
He learned. He learned to be one of my imperfections, and now he'll pay the price, as I will. (The Powers are unforgiving of blights.) In the end he knelt before them as I did. He might now wear a silver chain like Angainor's gold, and for all his diminished standards, he'll weep to lie in the dirt. Perhaps his tent has a floor. Perhaps his tent has a light.
In here the darkness goes unbroken. The mangled crown sends javelins through my throat, and I hold my breath. Some dissonant melody pulsates through my nerves again, and I don't let myself dwell on it.
The ground is cold but comforting, for even this far east, I can feel my own power pulsing beneath it like a heartbeat. If I lie here long enough, some of it might soak back in through my skin. I listen to it until I hear a thudding that is no rhythm of my own.
I hear voices outside the tent - - low, measured Quenya - - I can't make out the words. More movement sets the ground vibrating. For a moment. Then the silence and stillness return.
I open my eyes (they must have been closed) as the flaps of the tent part. A little starlight leaks in, illuminating a figure whose own sheen was once much brighter. The flaps blow closed, and his faint orange aura lights the space between us.
"Mairon, what are you-"
"I'm leaving," he says and sits down in the dirt across from me, pulling his knees to his chest.
"You're leaving?" I echo. "Just like that? Isn't your holding tent guarded?" I pause, pursing my lips. "Isn't mine?"
He lets out a laugh brittle as slate. "They were." He keeps smiling and reaches a hand toward Angainor, not quite touching it. "I didn't get one of these. I think it was one of the perks of surrender."
I press a hand to the earth in an attempt to sit up, but the wrist trembles so badly it doesn't support my weight. I collapse again.
"I too sued for peace," I point out.
"I suppose I looked more innocent."
"I'm glad," I snort, "though you'll hardly look blameless when they discover us both gone in the morning. When does the chain come off?"
He stares at his feet and traces a finger through the dirt, silent for a while.
"I can't," he says quietly. "I knew you would say that, and I almost didn't come because of it. I'm sorry." He doesn't sound it.
"Liar," I hiss. "There's nothing you can't destroy." He shakes his head
"That's Aulë's own craftsmanship, reinforced by some spell of Manwë's besides. I couldn't break it in a forge, much less here with no tools and no time." He lifts his finger out of the dirt, looks at the new brown residue under the nail with something like surprise. "I'm sorry," he offers again.
He digs at the crescent of dirt under the fingernail ferociously with the opposite hand, repeating the motion rapidly, shuddering, long after every particle must be gone.
I've interrogated enough captives to know that most people fidget when they're lying. Not Mairon. Fidgeting is his natural state. It's the lies that come with steady hands and seamless composure. I see in the flurried motion of his fingers that Angainor is in fact a hopeless case.
Damn him, did he come just to gloat?
"Then why - " I say through my teeth, "- did you come - at all?"
"I have a piece of intelligence for you." He stops digging at his fingernails, begins drumming against his calf. "Doesn't that feel nostalgic?" he adds dryly.
"Go on." I ignore the added remark. This is isn't the young craftsman who sold secrets for a smile, who walked in shadow till it befriended him. This is the Lord of Werewolves, a beautiful, sneering thing that wishes he smelled like soap.
"Eönwë would never tell you this, but I- " He pauses. "I feel you need to know."
"What is it."
"The two remaining Silmarils are gone. I put on an elvish hue and got the story out of your guards before I killed them." He gives his lips an equivocating twist. "The last two Feanorians followed a similar procedure."
That oath. The crack in every barrier ever raised against me, it's shattered all their unity-in-diversity like an inverse mosaic. It's toppled almost as many kingdoms as I. And here at last it stains my brother's victory. Would I had the strength to smile.
"Thank you," I manage. "There's something satisfying in it."
"Isn't there?" he murmurs, then sits silent a while.
"What other news have you?"
"Where are you fleeing to?"
"I don't know." He runs a hand through his hair, then laughs softly. "Somewhere warm."
"Seen enough of ice?"
He laughs some more, but nods, and his eyes are hard.
"Far too much." Then he rises, brushing his robes. His sheen falls over my body, and if he goes I'll be in the dark again.
"Why are you leaving?"
"Why would I stay?" he retorts. "Thangorodrim has crumbled, Angband is a grotto for clams, and you, the fullness of the universe, are lying in the dirt like a Goddamn beetle. Your cause has run its course. I swear to you I won't be the next casualty."
His chin juts down at me, and there is something haughty in the symmetry. He has the luxury of changing and of shifting shape, of detachment - of rebirth. I was bound long before Angainor (to a body that would not heal, to a land that would not die, and to a dream that would not live).
"I would never ask that of you," I say. Mairon should never know shackles.
"What would you ask of me?" His voice is hollow, his hands still.
"That you keep," I say slowly, "a little bit of the Void in you."
"You want me eternally dissatisfied?" he spits. "Starving for nothingness like you?"
"I want you eternally searching. You'll find a way to do what I could not."
"Enough with the ambiguity," he snaps. "Don't talk like a sage." I comply.
He merely purses his lips and turns, bursting out through the tent's entrance with a few rays of starlight like heaven biting its thumb to me. As the flaps swing shut, he laughs again, and - He's been laughing. He's been laughing. The madman has broken the bars of his cell. He's free, and he'll be an artist.
But my hands are shaking, and from the edge of the camp I hear the roar of the great, inscrutable, amorphous uncertainty that is the sea and the breaker of mountains. It has a dreadful music of its own.
I am no mountain, no glacier, no inferno, no storm. I'm the ghost of a tainted world, and I myself was the taint. I am for the sea, for judgment, and for the Void.
The music will not cease.