The lake-shore lay under several inches of snow, the lake frozen and covered with a white blanket. Maedhros sat leaning against the trunk of a leafless willow, whose branches vanished into the ice, hung with glittering icicles like glass beads. The sinking sun threw long-fingered shadows across the icy lake and frozen fields, creeping behind the Mountains of Mithrim in the west, in what felt to Maedhros like a constant reminder that no hope would come from that direction.
He was wrapped in a warm cloak against the cold, his right arm in a sling to prevent him from jolting movements. The stump was still tender to the touch, but he knew that, in time, it would heal completely.
The lake lay to his right, the last rays of sunlight turning it into a glittering spectacle trying to catch his eye, but he was not looking at it. His gaze was to the northeast.
There, across the peaks of Ered Wethrin, lay Angband. The day had been grey and cloudy, so he could barely make out the mountains, but the sky seemed pitch-black in the northeast, where Morgoth sent forth his dark fumes.
How long did it take him to notice I was gone? Maedhros wondered. Whom did he punish for it? How long will it take him to prepare his revenge?
He heard faint, light footsteps behind him. Fingon, to tell him it was time to go back inside where it was warmer. And possibly to tell him once again that his plans for the following day were not a good idea. But Maedhros had made up his mind about it.
“Just a while longer,” he said without turning. “The air out here helps me think.”
The footsteps halted.
Maedhros looked out over the frozen fields. “Is there always so much snow here in winter?” he asked.
“I have seen more.”
Maedhros had a sinking feeling in his stomach at the realisation that it was not Fingon who had joined him, but Fingolfin. He still did not turn around, keeping his gaze fixed at the distant mountains. In all this time, he had barely exchanged ten words with Fingolfin. He had had a feeling that his uncle had held off this conversation on purpose, not wanting to catch him at a disadvantage when Maedhros was weak, and vulnerable. But now that he was going to return to the southern shore on the morrow, he should have known that he could not avoid this conversation any longer.
He could hear Fingolfin sitting down somewhere to his left.
“So you are going back to your people tomorrow.”
“You are going to walk?”
“Yes. Alone. As I said before… the air out here helps me think.”
“I am sure your brothers could have come with horses.”
“I would not have them come near your camp with horses,” Maedhros said firmly. “A day’s walk will be fine.”
They sat in silence for a while, their breaths forming small frosty clouds before their faces, dissipating quickly.
“Fingon told me you stood aside when Fëanor burned the ships,” Fingolfin said at length. “He also told me he had this from Maglor. Why did you not tell him?”
“Is it something to be proud of?”
“You do not seem to think it is.”
“I saw a wrong and did not try to right it.”
“You saw a wrong. Where all others did not. If nothing to be proud of, it is something that sets you apart.”
Maedhros was silent.
“And as for righting it… We both know how stiff-necked my brother could be.”
Maedhros finally turned to look at him. “Yes, that we do.”
Fingolfin sat on a tree root six feet away from him, watching him, his piercing gaze never leaving him.
Maedhros knew he was being measured. Fingolfin knew how stiff-necked the father had been. He was trying to determine how stiff-necked the son would prove.
Maedhros was the first to look away and turned again to the northeast.
“He is not idle,” he said.
Fingolfin followed his glance. “His Orcs fear the sunlight.”
“But you know as well as I that this will not deter him forever.”
Fingolfin’s silence was answer enough.
“But what will he find when he finally breaks forth from Angband?” Maedhros went on. “He might choose the night. He might choose a cloudy day. He might create that cloudy day himself. And when he does, will he find the Lords of the Noldor sitting idle in Hithlum, eyeing each other across a lake?”
Fingolfin looked back at Maedhros. “Will he?” he asked.
“One of the last things you ever said to my father was that you would follow where he led.”
“He should have remembered those words when he left us at the edge of the Ice. But we are here, and he is not.”
“No,” Maedhros replied softly. “He is not.”
“You saw him die,” Fingolfin said after a slight pause.
Maedhros did not answer. Fëanor had been gone for so long, and yet he had never had even the slightest chance to mourn his death. He felt that the first people with whom he wished to discuss his father were his brothers, not Fingolfin. Even though Fingolfin’s view of Fëanor was likely to be much closer to Maedhros’ own than he would likely find with some of his brothers, this would feel like betrayal.
“What were your last words to him?” Fingolfin asked.
Maedhros stared into the darkness ahead of him, where, somewhere, lay the mountain pass where Fëanor had died, unmarked by any grave or tomb.
I wish it had been words of love, or at least of farewell. But he was already far beyond that. “The last thing I said to my father was to swear to him I would keep the oath. It was all that mattered to him.”
For the first time, a look of sympathy crossed Fingolfin’s face. “What a burden he left you,” he said quietly.
“That may be. But that burden is mine to bear.”
“How many burdens can one man bear?”
“I will bear as many as I must. I will not fail him.”
“No,” Fingolfin said sadly. “That at least I am sure of.” The last remnant of sunlight had vanished in the west, and his face was cast in shadow.
Maedhros fell silent again. Darkness had swallowed Ered Wethrin, and the dark fumes rising beyond them, but it seemed to Maedhros as if he could still feel their presence there.
Fingolfin rose. “Fingon did ask me to tell you to come back before you froze.”
Maedhros smiled slightly. “Thank you. I will.”
He turned to see his uncle slowly walking back towards the lights of the houses and tents of the camp.
The older elf halted.
“I never thanked you for your hospitality.”
“That is right, you did not.”
“Thank you,” Maedhros said softly.
Fingolfin gave a nod, then he slowly turned and went back among the trees.
Maedhros turned back towards the lake and rested his head against the rough bark of the willow behind him, closing his eyes.
No, he would not fail his father. But nor must he fail his people. And if keeping the oath meant dooming his people, then his only choice was to pass on the one burden that was his to pass on, and keep the other, that he would never be able to lay aside.
He would keep the oath. He would continue the war against Morgoth, as Fëanor had commanded him. And if such be his curse that his every endeavour was doomed to fail before he had even begun it, then at the very least he would fulfil his father’s legacy – to let his deeds be the matter of song until the last days of Arda.