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The gaze was mild – apparently undemanding, but insistent for all that.
She sighed. Ignoring the question would clearly not appease him. ‘What have I learned?’ she asked, as if she had not understood his enquiry – although she would have had to be stupid to misinterpret something so obvious. ‘Patience?’ she offered. ‘Resilience? The knowledge that love cannot be forced, but neither can it be denied. How to forgive, How to be forgiven.’
‘Then, perhaps, your time has not been wasted.’
‘Perhaps not.’ She kept her voice even, suppressing the rogue thought that so little knowledge could have been attained far more quickly and with much less suffering.
The eyes that seemed to see everything gleamed with amusement. ‘I am glad, child, that you have not entirely lost yourself in the process of acquiring wisdom.’
She flushed slightly. Even after all this time she was not entirely accustomed to controlling her inner rebel.
‘It is time, I think,’ he said, ‘to make the summons undeniable. He has fought our hints, wallowing in his own self-condemnation, but although we have been tolerant…’
She felt a shiver crawl across her skin. They could be patient, the Valar, when it suited them, but they would not stand for outright defiance. ‘He feels unworthy,’ she suggested.
‘It is not up to him.’ Irmo’s mithril-bright gaze reproved her gently. ‘He must surrender the spark of arrogance that still burns within him. He still believes himself untouchable – yet he is worn to the frailty of a dying breath … and he needs to put himself into the hands of others – quietly and without pride.’
‘Why him?’ she asked. ‘Of all my sons –residing these long ages in your brother’s care – why is it Macalaurë who earns your absolution?’
A questing breeze stirred the golden trees and tossed the strands of her fiery hair, while Irmo’s dark locks remained sleek. ‘You do not have to be in Námo’s halls to learn,’ he told her, ‘although the burning away of the corporeal helps most see more clearly and starts them on the path to redemption. Macalaurë had begun to recognise his errors before ever he helped his father steal the Teleri’s ships. His obstinacy in perpetuating them, however – his refusal to seek release from his vow…’ He shook his head.
‘Pride,’ his mother suggested. ‘Love for his family.’
‘We are all family,’ the Vala said gravely, ‘and until we see all life as kin, then we cannot expect to move forward to the next stage …’ His feet made no noise that Nerdanel could discern as they brushed through the stiff grass. ‘Yet this one, of all your sons, wearied of vengeance and tried to turn away from the path Fëanor set for them. Learned mercy and the bitter-sweetness of renunciation.’
‘The Peredhel,’ Nerdanel nodded.
‘He loved them enough to let them go,’ he said, ‘because that was what was best for them – and, in doing so, helped sprout the first shoots that led to Sauron’s downfall.’
‘But those actions did not stop my last living sons.’ Her eyes burned, but she had no tears left to shed over the path her sons had followed to their own destruction. ‘Still they chased their father’s jewels at the cost of elven lives.’
‘It is past.’ Irmo’s tone was like balm. ‘And it is not your grievance. Let it go.’
Nerdanel sighed, releasing her emotion with the slow breath as she had been taught.
‘He has watched the sea for so long now,’ the Vala murmured. ‘He will not be able to resist Ulmo’s command – and Ossë will not let him drown, but will nudge him westwards to seek healing.’
He was beyond thin, beyond pale, beyond ragged. Even his kindred, were any of them left on this far shore of the dividing sea, would have had trouble seeing him as more than a shadow at the edge of sight. For years … decades … centuries – he had almost forgotten his name, his crimes, his punishment.
But tonight … The moon gleamed silver on the rocking waves, brightening a pathway that had once mocked him in its impassability, and a sharp breeze blew from the shore, sending battalions of sand grains to attack his bare ankles as if the land itself wished to push him into water whose only use for him would be to feed him to the fish.
‘It is not for me,’ he breathed, his voice, once raised in constant song, now so unused that he could barely croak. ‘My boats were burned long ago.’
It would be so much easier to let go. He had thought that, once – to walk into the water and let it take him – but it had seemed the coward’s way, when he deserved to pay for what they had done. And he had tried. Offered service to this land, these people – done what he could to preserve life, to ameliorate suffering. Every village he had helped, every dispute averted, every child saved was a drop in the ocean of his debt – but it was never enough. The river of time flowed and he had become distant, but the peace of oblivion was not for him. He remained. He would remain when the cities of men had fallen and the trees had crumbled to dust and fires burned through the widening fissures and the dwindling waters boiled away.
He stood and watched, the song of the sea in his ears like an unending hunger.
A small vessel approached against the wind: a pale, bleached version of the shining swan ships of his memory, like bone long drowned and leached clean. A bedraggled sail hung, unresponsive to the penetrating wind as the boat bobbed, nodding at him as if to convince him of its agreement with a hope unstated.
‘Come.’ The waves breaking on the shore spoke insistently. ‘Come.’ The backwash sucked at the sand and pebbles, drawing them into Ulmo’s waters.
Maglor wrapped his arms around his thin ribcage. The sea was cruel. A constant temptation from which he could not turn, but one that he knew better than to indulge. He leaned his head back to gaze hopelessly at Elendil’s stars.
Would it matter, he wondered? If the sea refused him, then at least he would no longer have to try. He would no longer be alone. Death would, in truth, be a kindness, whether he merited it or not.
The tide lapped round his ankles, licking like an enthusiastic puppy and pulling back so that he had to take a step to maintain his balance.
The boat rested against the shore, stubbornly refusing the sea’s nudge, waiting patiently, as if trying to convince him of its harmlessness. He watched it with suspicion, his mind sifting through a hundred thousand memories of nights standing by an unresponsive ocean, seeking one to match with this, dipping in and out of a half-forgotten past.
No. This was new.
This was an invitation.
Fear clutched at his belly and he doubled up to hunker down on his heels, rocking gently back and forth as he stared at the boat.
This was different.
‘Get in the boat.’ The voice echoed with the thunder of the deepest waters, muted by the closeness of the shore and echoing back from the low cliffs.
The words themselves were strange. Not words, perhaps – although it was so long since he had heard speech that he was not sure he thought in words any more. Emotion, perhaps? Love? Whatever it was, he could not resist the force behind them. Without conscious thought, he scrambled into the shallow-beamed vessel. If whoever spoke to him wanted him to risk the sea, he would do it.
She waited patiently, facing east as she had done over more mornings than she could count, never expecting her hopes to be answered. But this time … Irmo had promised. Her second son would return, in the flesh. Not for this one child the path through Námo’s Halls. Not for this one child the chance of a fresh start. What would he be like after all these ages of suffering? How would he be able to bear the brightness of the Blessed Realm against his scarred spirit?
‘Not your burden,’ she muttered. ‘I know not what he thinks a mother’s burden might be. As if I can forgive myself so easily, when, had I stood firm in the first place, none of this might have happened.’
Nerdanel felt others gathering and fought to suppress her worry. What if Ulmo brought him home only to be rejected and cast out by those who still looked askance at her for being her sons’ mother, her husband’s wife? How could she bear that? How could he?
Anar rose behind the horizon, brilliant with pinks and golds, the dark shadow of a small boat a speck on the gilded sea. It grew faster than it should, as Ossë’s hand pushed it against the tide. That, in itself, she thought, should silence some of the scandalised whispers of those who wondered who was left to cross the sea after all these ages and give thought to those shrewd enough to suspect who was coming.
She froze when finally she saw him, still against the pale wood, his black hair framing an empty face. He could not have abandoned his body on the journey, could he? Not with Ulmo’s favour and Ossë’s aid. Without thinking, she waded into the water, splashing drops that caught the light like diamonds as the liquid clung to her and held back her desperate rush to reach her child, but the boat bobbed towards her as if drawn home.
The bow was glass-smooth under her hand, and she fumbled her first attempt to grab hold of it. It was unexpectedly real, solid, most definitely there.
‘Let me take it.’ She barely glanced over her shoulder at the half-elf as he grasped the mooring ring and drew the vessel toward the shore. The marble-pale face of her son was both familiar and heart-rendingly different, two images separated by more time than she could count, faces that blurred together through the tears that dimmed her vision. She reached for him, clasping his wet hand in hers and holding it as if, even at this moment, he could be dragged from her.
Elrond did not try to detach her grip, easing Maglor from the vessel and lowering the light body to the white sand, resting his head in Nerdanel’s lap. He knelt beside them, a finger on the pulse in his foster father’s neck. ‘He needs water,’ he said gently, ‘and small amounts of food – and time.’
‘Will he survive?’
‘He would not be here at all if he were not a survivor.’
Nerdanel looked up at the increasingly large gathering that assembled to gawp at this broken son of Fëanor, afraid of what she might see in the faces of those who remembered their actions and determined to protect one in no condition to protect himself. She was surprised to see only sympathy in the watching elves – well, curiosity, as well, but principally sympathy and a wary acceptance.
She attempted to comb her fingers through his salt-sticky hair and push it away from his face while studying the fine-drawn features. ‘He is so thin,’ she said. ‘So frail.’
‘But he is home,’ Elrond said, and she could hear the joy beneath his calm tones.
Nerdanel drew a deep breath and her thoughts flicked over the centuries of grief and guilt, of loneliness and loss, of the long process of learning acceptance and patience. Of ages spent alone, mourning for those who would not return before the world’s end – and this eventual relenting of the Valar towards her lost son. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘He is home.’
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