Later, what Fingon would remember the most of the flight back to Mithrim was his frustration at how far they still seemed to be from their destination, and how the chill air above the clouds seemed to have frozen not only his hands and feet, but his lungs too. He remembered staring at Maedhros ashen face, at the blood dripping slowly from his cousin's severed wrist, down Maedhros' left hand and arm, the fingers clamped - bone white and vice like where blood was not coating the skin - upon the once gushing artery. Maedhros' life fluid covered both their bodies, his clothes, his cousin's naked form. Maedhros smelt of foul smoke and grease and that sick smell that coated every healing room and tent that Fingon had ever encountered on these shores. That smell of injury and waste that no disinfectant, regardless how strong, could totally mask. His emaciated frame was like ice against him, despite Fingon's clothes, his cousin's skin papery thin and bruised horribly. As the leagues passed, his breathing grew so faint that Fingon strained to watch for each slight breath and watched hawk-like for a weakening of the fingers pinched around the ragged wrist.
He prayed as he watched the clouds swell past them, still plump and white despite the despair in his heart. Mandos had already done so much, he knew, in sending Thorondor to them, but it still felt wrong that Arien was still shining so brightly and that the sky was still so painfully - gloriously - blue. Why? Why was Arda so estranged from their plight?
He looked back at Maedhros' silent, bowed form in his arms, watched for the elf's next breath and felt tears of gladness and thanks come to his eyes when he saw the chest rise and fall once more. He pressed his lips to the head beneath those tangled, torn, greasy locks, and murmured a prayer of both thanks and hope. After all that had happened, it would only be cruelty - surely? - that could cause Ilúvatar to let Maedhros die now. Surely, if Mandos had sent them Thorondor, then Ilúvatar also watched over them, and this beautiful day was symbolic of that hope, a sign - perhaps - that a celebration of Maedhros' full recovery was swiftly impending upon them?
Maedhros suddenly shuddered and slumped over further, doubled now before him, trapping Fingon's arm under his waist, and Fingon felt terror seize him once more.
"Ai! You are not dying on me, are you?" he hissed, tears coming to his eyes. Had he done wrong in not granting Maedhros' last words to him? That plea that he end his life? Were the memories of torment truly too great for Maedhros to bear? To overcome? Surely not! His cousin - eldest of his cousins and siblings - was the strongest elf he knew. He was the one whom Fingon had always admired the most, always respected the most, always loved the most after his mother. Maedhros would not give up... could not be beaten, surely?
And yet... against Morgoth... His tears felt tight against his cheeks. They had already dried in the icy wind that lashed against his face.
And then, at last, Thorondor began to descend and the clouds parted and Fingon saw that they were within sight of Lake Mithrim. Even so, he continued to weep, and his hot tears soaked his face and dripped off his chin, for Maedhros would not move and even the elf's left hand had fallen limply away from the now-sealed artery.
It was two days before Maedhros regained consciousness. Fingon's best healers attended to his spent form night and day. Fingon too rarely left his side, fearful that Maedhros might wake and then slip away again, perhaps never to regain consciousness.
When he was advised on the afternoon of the second day that Maedhros had awoken, he rushed to the healing room in which his cousin rested. Maglor, Maedhros' youngest brother, was already there, the elf sitting silently at the bedside and holding Maedhros' left hand in his own. The bandaged right lay limply on the coverlets. Both brothers turned their heads and looked at him when he entered. Maglor smiled weakly. Maedhros did not.
Maglor rose, told Maedhros that he was going to find something to eat, then made to leave. As he passed Fingon, he inclined his head and quietly repeated the words that he had already said more than once to him since their return...
"Thank you." Then, ducking his dark head, he passed Fingon and left the room.
Fingon looked at the elf lying in the bed. Maedhros still looked terrible, but so far from the unconscious form that he had been hugging as he had slid from Thorondor's back upon the courtyard of the halls of the Sons of Feanor that he could not help but smile in gladness.
"I am glad to see you awake," he said, and proceeded forward to take the low seat that Maglor had vacated. Then, as he gazed closer at Maedhros' face in the golden light and saw that grief still lined it, he felt his smile falter.
There was a long silence. Then, Fingon said, hesitantly, "Did I do wrong in not honouring your wish?"
"Only time will tell," Maedhros replied quietly. His voice was still scratched, still as hoarse as it had been when Fingon had heard it beg for death upon that black cliff-face. Fingon wondered if it would ever recover its once smooth and luxurious timbre. "I suppose, seeing as Mandos himself sent one of his servants to assist you in your venture, that he desires me to stay here a little longer."
"Do not talk like that."
Maedhros shot him a quizzical look. "Do not talk like what? Do not speak what I truly think?" His lips pursed and all of a sudden his face became alien and thin and mean in the light, in this new gaunt body that he now inhabited. It was distressing and disorientating to witness. "Maglor said that I should count my blessings: he reminded me that I can still see, I can still hear and taste and talk... my heart still beats and I still have... three whole limbs left." He paused, inhaled shakily, then exhaled - the breath trembling from him. He looked away.
There was a long silence. Finally, Fingon exhaled and reached out to take the elf's left hand and cup it between his own hands. The limb felt bony, frail and chilled under his own. "You should count your blessings," he said. "You are handicapped, aye, but you still have your other hand. You can relearn how to write, how to use your sword..."
Maedhros inhaled again and looked back at him, tears bright in his dark eyes. There was a shadow in their depths that Fingon had never noticed before... or perhaps it had never been there before, and he felt a shiver run up his spine even before Maedhros whispered, tears slipping down his cheeks, "But my mind, Fingon... My mind. I do not want to live with this mind. I cannot! He still has his hand on my head."
"As does Mandos. As does Ilúvatar."
Maedhros shook his head, stared wildly at him, eyes huge and black. They seemed to look straight through him. "You do not understand."
"Let me try."
Maedhros just shook his head again, his face crumpling. "This... and my father's Oath... you could never understand, Fingon. And if you did, I could never forgive myself."
Fingon stared at him. He did not know what to say or what to do. He felt like he was drowning in those tears: dying, lost, cold and alone... So he looked away from those terrifying eyes and down at the elf's remaining hand, still clasped between his own. Uncertainly, he squeezed it gently between his own, and then, echoing what Maglor had been doing when he had arrived, he began stroking it. "I love you," he said. Then, when there was no response for a few moments, he repeated, softer now, "I love you."
Again, silence followed. Then Maedhros suddenly sighed, his tone more steady now. "I love you too, Fingon." But his voice was weary. "And I will not reject your gift to me. I will live."
At the time, Fingon had felt such indescribable relief and gladness on hearing those words. But then, later, after he had retreated and seen Maglor's tall form waiting patiently outside in the passageway, he had met the younger elf's troubled eyes and seen in them a shadow that echoed Maedhros' tormented ones. That was when he realised that it was not a will to live that tied Maedhros to his decision to survive. No... not at all.
It was not just Morgoth's hand on his eldest cousin's head.
It was Fëanor's too.