A/N: I really liked the idea of this story, but I'm not sure I like how it came out, so it may undergo rewriting at some future date. Thoughts? Reviews would be extra welcome!
There's a slightly AU-ish bit which I address in another author's note at the end.
Anything you recognize belongs, of course, to Tolkien.
hröa – body
fëa – spirit/soul
Atar – father
Amil – mother
rúnyo – fire
He opens his eyes.
So this is Valinor.
It is not as he recalls it from long ago in his childhood, golden and lit with the glory of the Trees and Valmar, a sleek galleon of stability that sat upon the Sea. Here, it is all twilight, shot through with fractured shards of sunlight, heavy with mist even though it seems to be dusk. Faint ripples of indigo give a hue of vibrancy to the grey sky, and the water laps coolly around his legs.
It is his own death, he knows instinctively, that has brought him here, yet does not allow him to linger to observe, but compels him to move towards the great edifices of carven stone that stand like a strange, beautiful bulwark on the most level part of the shore, the gateway between the awakening and the Blessed Realm. As he draws nearer to the dry ground, step by step, the ground becomes more unyielding under his feet, hills swelling in his vision behind the Houses.
He can sense a heavy, pervasive existence in the stone manors. How many people must dwell there? Eldar and Men alike, static in themselves but transient in the whole. The Halls of Waiting are full of the Dead, though it is said that they will pass on to new life.
It was right that he was here; he knows this, and he wonders at his waking waist-deep in the Sea. Is this usual?
He realizes his sword is not at his back. Strange—how long had he lived with it bound to him, keeping it as close as he would a spouse, or another limb?—and yet, even as it passes into his thoughts, it passes away without complaint. In Valinor, in the Halls, there would be no shedding of blood by any means, nor any thought of violence. He knows this, had always known it. They are all only spirits.
His skin begins to burn as he slogs onto the shore. He pauses for a moment, shuddering at the pain—the excruciating, horrifying agony—reawakened on his skin. The vengeance of the Silmarils, seeming to tear his one remaining hand from his arm, unbearable; the fire of the chasm which had been his…death.
Death. The word pierces him, and he knows that he is dwelling now—bodiless—the burning vanishes—in an abyss of loss, a permanent knowledge that this separation from hröa is not the ordained fate of any elf. Though still his fëa is bright, it is unattached, and he feels the abrupt and terrible separation keenly.
Thrusting the sense of quivering lostness from his immediate thoughts, he looks again at the Halls. This is his destination: the spreading, smooth curves of rock, the home of an uninterpretable existence. It is here that he is being drawn. His feet have never paused in their journey towards them.
The doors are open, but they have the sense of being by their very existence a confinement: that once passed, they cannot again be departed from without the word of their Keeper. They do not provide a corporeal barrier, but for a house full of souls, the symbolism that they do provide is enough to shut them up in the will of Mandos.
It is not gloom that strikes him when he enters them, as he has been expecting. It is merely a sense of acceptance…an amalgam of resignation, contentment…The one thing he did not recognize in its serenity was ignorance. Everyone who came through these doors was fully immersed in, proficient in, the science of knowing.
Over kindly white stone and wood paneling, tapestries hang on the walls—both abstract and concrete, they seemed to tell stories, many that he had never heard and some that had been heralded throughout his childhood in a hundred ancient lays. Color bursts from them in a compass of life and imagination, in a profound solidification of truth. This history, he realizes; all the history of his people exemplified in thread and canvas. He touches them, but cannot identify the material of which they are fashioned.
A color strikes his eye: a single, tiny thread that seems to burn into him as soon as it has caught his eye. He can see it, now, running from its origin point in a dark vermilion clatter, smooth until it seems to tangle and snag around every other color it meets. It grips him, and he imagines a sob rising in the throat he does not have, because it matches the feelings rising in his spirit.
He does not know how long or how far he walks, but it is not tiring. He stops when he reaches what seems to be the highest and narrowest part of the Halls, overlooking one end of the Sea. There is a balcony, and sitting upon it is someone with a shape. She is spirit, too, but she is nothing at all like him.
She sits at the head of the Halls, long and ephemeral hands skipping tacitly over the working of a loom the size of his parents' suite in Formenos. Dark wheatish hair sprawls down the back of her shimmering cobalt robe. She is massive, and graceful, and pacific.
He realizes at once that this can be no one besides Gwîr, the Weaver, the Mother of Stories. His knees tremble, and he wonders that it is not the Doomsman who has come to greet him, but his Lady. He would think Mandos only too ready to look with anger upon this eldest son of Fëanor, the red-haired, black-hearted, one-handed fiend that drew blades against his kindred, and ultimately left Arda to escape the consequences of his own wrongdoing.
Vairë breaks the silence, as if hearing his thoughts. "You misjudge our place underneath Eru. Know this, Nelyafinwë, that however Eldar eyes look upon us, we are not shaped of that which does not dwell in the heart of the One."
He starts at the cool voice, and its use of his fathername.
"No." Her loom clatters as she speaks, a heavy, sturdy jangling of cosmic fate. She does not explain herself, and he dares not ask. There are more important questions he could pose to her, if he could even dare to impinge upon a Valië's time in such a…frivolous way. Surprisingly, he finds that his need for answers, once so decidedly rooted in him, has misted away, save for one tiny sliver of ferocious ache.
"I do not know…" he trails off; he does not know how to finish.
The Valië's eyes are sad.
"All who come to stay at my husband's halls have a story, elf." Her words hum through precise lingual jungles, as if she has planned every word neatly and instantaneously before releasing them into the air. "Yours is not even longer than most, though in its darkness there are few of your people who can claim as much." With her great, tranquil face, she makes a motion towards the threads of her tapestry that had made themselves so prominent in his vision as he wandered through the Halls—the piercing strain of black, black that burned with the faintest hint of copper, like a dying star straining to break through the thousands of miles of blackness that held it apart from its place among stars that shone over the Sea, the star that no longer knew the welcome of its brethren.
It is his story. It is this which he is here to consider.
He bows his head to Vairë, and it seems that her attention was ever fixed on him and yet disregarding him, as if he is not to be disconnected from her tapestry but is too small to be given full mind to. He allows himself to hurry away, his gaze absorbing the shadows as he sees thousands of unfamiliar faces, and some, too, that he had once known. They turn away from him now, even as they had—rightfully so—on Arda.
White faces, filled with startlement—not shock; anger; grief both forgotten and nurtured; even hatred. They are those he has brought here by his own hand, those whom he killed in his loyalty to the Oath. He thinks perhaps there will be many words for later, which he will have to find within himself.
The black-copper thread tickles at his back, and he remembers whom he has come to see at the first.
He wanders through halls filled with people, and color. Elves roam in silence—some pacing underneath broad and beautiful trees, some sitting in still pensiveness. Gazes flick over him, not quite seeing him. In the distance he sees traces of noise in houses more distant: the microcosm of Mankind, he realizes. To them, Mandos is truly home, for a time. they are meant to be here, and they can revel in the glory of the Undying Lands that they have never before seen. But he is not here to revel. He is here to understand, and to wait…these happier places are not for him.
He moves onwards, searching.
Then, a sharp sliver of prescience flicks into him, stopping him for one shocked moment as he absorbs this new information. She is here as well. He catches his breath, and wonders with sadness how it happened. How had she died? She had not come to Middle-Earth with them from Aman; she should have been safe there.
The two slim, precisely angled figures whisper into his view, and he suddenly imagines his limbs stiffening with nervous energy.
There are no two people he could have disappointed more—however different those disappointments have been. He had left one harbor in hopes of finding the enchanted island, but his ship had been wrecked anyway, far from either home. And now, in the everlasting wane of his self, he still has to face them.
How can he apologize? To assuage the grief of one, surely, would be to tear the heart from the other. He cannot give context for his plea of forgiveness, for to ask it from one would be to spurn it from the other. She will be grieved beyond repair if he mourns his inability, after so many centuries, to recover the Silmarils when he held them in his hands. He will pay out only a glacial, unthawable coldness, a fire made of an eternity of ice, if he admits what a gratuitous, egregious disaster that Oath was in the first place.
What can he possibly say?
Inhaling, he studies more closely the way they sit beside one another: intimate yet discreet; holding themselves apart, but neither burning nor cold. Can it be that death had somehow made forgivable, at least in part, the gap of shattered hearts that had interpolated itself between them in life?
Hope…foreign sensation, he dares let it flare within him…
He knows that they, like him, are without body, and yet he sees them just as they were in life. Could he read their spirits any other way? Perhaps the perception of the spirit relies more heavily on the perception of the senses than anyone had realized, and his estrangement from his parents can extrapolate nothing more.
He wonders how he must look to them. Close, he steps; closer, silent and intangible, but impossible to miss.
The woman is the first to move, and when she does he almost expects to hear a sound like cracking stone, for it clear that she has not moved in a long time, a spirit absorbed for years in her thoughts. So it is with ponderousness—time is of no essence now, anyway—that she looks up from where she sits in some sad serenity at the man's side, her light copper hair (his inheritance from her, his most marked, perhaps only resemblance to her) rippling over her slender shoulders. Green eyes in her florid face widen as they flash to his.
"Maitimo," she whispered—
—and the sound of that name, which had always been hers alone to call him, plunges his heart deep into the memory of older days, tearing off the calluses that have formed over the restitched tatter of stone in his chest.
His mother still thinks him beautiful.
This realization, that she still sees him as something worthy of love, tears all thoughts of words from his mind. If he yet had knees, he would be falling to them.
She has not been here long—not like her mate, who has dwelled in contemplation for centuries. Barely long enough to have frozen her into the philosophic posture she had held—there was no way that she, the Wise, she who had spoken out against the Oath from the beginning, who had fought with nearly as much fire as Fëanor to hold their family together by something antithetical to vengeance, would be made to stay here long. Maedhros briefly wonders if she has actually stayed her departure back to Aman in order to repair something with Fëanor…and to meet her sons again? He wonders how much she knows of his deeds in Middle-Earth.
There is nothing he can say. He does not know what to say. Here, communing with her raw fëa, he realizes he can see all her hurt in a way she never would have displayed in Arda. She must know…she must have seen it in the tapestries, as he had seen his own story, and the stories of so many others, laid out before him. She is intimately familiar with his wickedness.
There is love, too. She loves him still. If she can see him as clearly as he can see her, she will know his grief. She will understand the terror which drove him to this doom.
"Maitimo," she says again, as if knowing how that word undoes his heart.
There is still some rúnyo in him, some fire that holds passion that longs for an embrace, for words of comfort and gentleness and beauty. He is not wholly consumed by fate. He breathes an apology, his grief, and she accepts it as restitution.
In his interpretation of their incorporeal interactions, Nerdanel seems to lift a hand and place it on the shoulder of the elf sitting beside her. A ripple of black hair—a shudder going through the shadows—and the lost King of the Noldor raises his head to behold his eldest son.
His father's face strikes him with a wave of memory. Fëanor's emotions were always raw in life, but here, he can feel them radiating from his spirit. Pain and agelessness remains, yet perhaps the faintest, very faintest trace of youth has crept back to him.
"Nelyafinwë," he says simply.
He imagines that he rises to his feet. This is a face he has admired, and hated, and feared, and never truly known.
He father calls him by the name of his lineage. There is something possessive about it, here; not meant to stir pride, but to cow him. His father claims him. If he had fists, he would clench them.
He has never been able to understand the stars that burned within his father, that drove him to the madness. His younger brother Curufinwë had inherited that fragment of his father's heart—fragmented it was, indeed. he understand that now, understands that while Fëanor never stopped loving them, he could no more turn away the work of his hand and its legacy and glory as he could turn away his own limbs.
In Fëanor's face he sees, for the first time, something like regret. It is not an apology, and it is not grief, but neither is it anger. It is not shame that he seeks to inflict upon his son.
In the silence, Maedhros cannot quite express his anger. Fëanor tore apart the world. Fëanor tore apart his world, too; he destroyed the lives of countless Eldar and was responsible for more.
He steadies himself, searching through his mind for words that he might say. He wishes to inflict on his father some knowledge of all that he had undergone for the sake of the Oath, of the Silmarils which, thanks to the Valar's hallowing, could not be recovered even by the rightful possessors. Not only had he died unhappy, he had died in vain. this night was placd upon him, and it was entirely the fault of his father.
Guilt rips at him even as he knows that to be untrue. He could have abandoned the Oath, even when he knew it was wrong—Maglor had admonished him to do so, had he not? He could have abandoned his father.
But that was not the way of the Noldor.
He had envisioned this moment a thousand times. He had always had some idea of what he would say to his mother if he ever had the chance, but for this meeting with Fëanor he had composed a hundred oratories, none of which seemed to fit now. What was he to say?
Perhaps there would be time, later, to return and speak.
Think you that your words are necessary here?
Maedhros freezes, knowing at once this great, ponderous voice, though he has never heard it before. He turns to behold the Lord of the Halls.
Námo is tall and grey, stark and hard in face, although Maedhros realizes at once that there is no hint of vindictiveness in the Vala. This was what Vairë meant when she had spoken to him. However foreign the joyless Vala seemed to an elven heart, nothing in him was foreign to Ilúvatar.
The Doomsman himself looks over them. His next words are again addressed to Maedhros.
Red one, you know your purpose.
Mandos' words are not harsh, but they are not overly kindly, either. Maedhros takes them in stride, especially when the piercing grey eyes land softly on the form of Nerdanel.
She stares back, and he cannot hear the conversation of their spirits. He wonders if his mother will leave the Halls, as she seems to have permission to do, or if she will wait with his father until his time is elapsed…if it ever is. Whatever reconnection they might have made here, he cannot imagine they could ever eclipse the chasmic estrangement of souls enough that she would sacrifice eternity to stay with her mate. Perhaps she will wait until Maglor comes, if he ever does; Maedhros has the sense that his last brother, though just as pained by the touch of the Silmaril as he, did not follow him into death.
"Amil. Atar." He bows, a farewell given even without a body.
They smile—sad smiles, but not the grim motions of abandonment, of disappointment, of forgetful sorrow. They are only sad in which the ways all elves who come into the Halls are sad: the melancholy of separation, and of a waiting which was never designed to be. He knows the sadness within himself, and knows the resolute years which will abate it.
A sudden spell of restlessness overtakes him. Moving away from his parents, he wades long minutes through the shadows until he finds what might perhaps make a settling-place: a single, vast mallorn, growing from the corner of one wall and meshing with the stone on the other side. He imagines the sun shines from the north onto its canopy of crepuscular virescence.
With a movement of his thoughts, he sits—as much as he can—in the tree's high branches, settling against its smooth bark. He is fëa alone, but he is grateful for the semblance of corporeality allowed him here.
Gwîr's eyes flash again over his tiny crevice, a flash of his copper thread sparking into view for a heartbeat.
Here are the souls of the dead appointed thought for the time of their waiting.
As if a veil of the sky was torn back to reveal a broken moon, the Doom of the Noldor settles heavily on him. The weight of all his life's evils and agonies are made known to him in the blink of an eye. It was this, that he was to think on, this that he was to contemplate for as long as Mandos deemed his fëa in need of atonement.
He thinks of others with whom he might speak—his brothers, or Fingon—and knows that they, too, are here somewhere: coming to grips with their time in Middle-Earth as well as he. Perhaps Mandos will give him the chance to speak with them as well, but he does not know if he wants to.
He has run from his pain, once; even here, he does not know if he can face it, though it will be a kinder pain than the meeting with his parents.
In some part of his being, Maedhros seeks out the voiceless words to thank Mandos—to thank Ilúvatar, if he dares imagine such a thing was of consequence to the Creator beyond the Circles of the World—for this allowance of words, to reconcile some small part of his heart's suffering in preparation for the centuries that awaited him here. To ask a final why? and see an answer.
He thought his voice could not reach them, nor any of their forgiveness; this would not have been the place of his choice to have it, even if he had been able to think it rightly earned; even so, despite all his misgivings about this closure, he holds it close. Perhaps it was only meant for his mind; perhaps he was only allowed this meeting so that he might have a fuller knowledge to contemplate over the centuries. Nevertheless, he will treasure it.
It is his fate to linger in the darkness. He can only petition those with larger minds than he that this seedling of light planted in his heart might someday, by some grace he does not think he could understand, call him to dawn again.
A/N: No record of Nerdanel's death or departure from Aman exists anywhere that I could find, and it seems likely that Tolkien never intended her to even meet Fëanor again after he traveled to Middle-Earth, let alone end up in the Halls of Waiting. Therefore, her death and presence in Mandos is solely an invention of mine for the sake of this plot bunny. Apologies to any bothered readers for my exploitation of canon ambiguity. :)