The Angle: Slashverse Arc
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To Unwrite Them: 3. Not In Our Stars
No, Aescing was just large enough to look the other way when it came to some of the lasses and the men they entertained. Most travelers would turn up their noses at the girls, but Rangers were not so particular as the average merchant: hardship had taught them that so long as the bed was not acrawl with fleas or other unwelcome creatures, it was better than the cold, hard ground. And if the girls were poor things, bony sometimes and not particularly entrancing, it was that or spend one's nights hurting for want and unable to do much about it without disturbing others or risking the cold night air. On a night like tonight, following hard upon a day when breath frosted in watery sunlight, no one wanted to go see to his own affairs somewhere in the darkness.
And so Halbarad had watched Andir bait and tease one lass all evening until finally, to the vast relief of his companions, he excused himself and disappeared from the tavern. Not long after, the lass followed. "There goes a man in desperate need of a wife," Balthir remarked with a soft chuckle. Aragorn simply shook his head, bemused, paid a barmaid for Andir's drink, and signed that they needed no more at their table. "What if he returns? He might be thirsty after such... exercise," Balthir asked, raising a brow.
"Then he can pay for his own drink," Aragorn replied, easily. "Besides," he added, " does Andir look to you like a man who plans to return tonight?" At that, Balthir had to laugh and concede the point. It had been a long journey west from the edges of Gondor, but their course called for them to pass through Bree, then go north to Fornost, and then finally, by a wide loop, return to the Angle. Andir would doubtless take what he could this evening, for between Aescing and Bree, and again Bree and the Angle, was a wide waste of empty space.
"Well, mayhap he shall not trouble us further with his groaning each night," Balthir said after a moment, and then pushed his chair back, rising. "For myself, I shall be content to sleep on a mattress, however thin, for once. Good night, gentlemen."
"Rest you well," Halbarad nodded, and Balthir clapped him on the shoulder on his way to the stairs that led to the rooms built over the tavern. "I feel for him," he murmured as Balthir disappeared.
"Mayhap I should let him turn north at Tharbad. He has not seen his wife for almost half a year," Aragorn sighed.
"Ah, now that is the fellow-feeling of a man pledged," Halbarad teased lightly, reaching across the table to tap a fingernail against the plain gold band that Aragorn wore in place of Barahir's ring, quiet reminder of his vow. "See how the prospect of marriage softens you? Already you begin to lose that pitiless edge that would hold all to their duty before desire. Poor Andir and I shall soon be run ragged for want of the others, whom pity, born of your love for a certain maid, shall cause you to send home, leaving all the work for us."
Aragorn laughed at that, and gave Halbarad a rather darkly wanton look as he purred, "Indeed? Then best you rest while you can, son of Hirthon. For mayhap I shall send Balthir off on the morrow, and avail myself solely of you and Andir."
"Always a pleasure to serve," Halbarad answered back, deadpanned. There was a silence, as each man tried very hard to keep his thoughts to himself, not to break first. It was not a long contest, for Aragorn's mouth twitched, and when Halbarad simply raised a brow, his chieftain dissolved into laughter. Halbarad, for his part, merely smiled quietly and raised his glass in mock salute. "Your health, 'Ælfric'!"
"I would blame my loss on drink if only I could," Aragorn replied, grimacing as he downed the last of his beer.
"A man must have some pride, though. This might well be dishwater," Halbarad complained, and shook his head. "Aescing must be the only town in Rohan without a proper brewer."
"A dubious honor, that. Ah well. So Balthir is to sleep, and Andir to bed...."
"And where do you go?" Halbarad asked, standing as Aragorn rose, though already he suspected the answer.
"Out," came the laconic answer, and Halbarad shook his head. It was cold enough that even a Ranger would complain, and sunset was long past; most men would find nothing in the darkness but misery, but Aragorn would seek solace in such a night. And there was nothing at all that Halbarad could do to persuade him otherwise. So:
"Be careful, then."
"Never fear. Watch yourself," Aragorn replied, and, leaving a few coins on the table, made his way across the dim-lit room and out the door into the night. Halbarad remained on his feet a few moments, but then sank back down into his chair with a sigh. Well... and now I am alone, he thought, and took a long swallow of beer. Not in the hopes of drowning that particular ache that came of watching Aragorn leave, but because bad as it was, it was something to take the taste of solitude out of his mouth. Not even solitude in itself, Halbarad amended silently, but loneliness. Andir would doubtless be gone the whole night; Balthir, as men were wont to do who found themselves on the last legs of a journey, had taken to talking of his beloved Tiriel whenever the opportunity arose. That made his company intolerable at the moment, even in sleep. Aragorn, ever since his betrothal, had taken to fits of restlessness like tonight, and Halbarad knew well its source. It was, after all, akin to his own restlessness, which sprang from the absence of one beloved, when circumstance made absence feel so very much like unattainable presence.
In truth, Halbarad might have known that this would happen, for he had seen it before. When men married, their friendships changed—the lass who had been a source of amusement for friends of the lovelorn was no longer open to jesting, but a closed door beyond which friends could no longer pass. It was only natural, and Halbarad did not begrudge anyone the happiness that came of a good marriage, but it was different with Aragorn. For if Aragorn loved Arwen and hated the long road that separated him from her, Halbarad loved Aragorn and felt himself displaced by Arwen. Of course it could not but be thus—he had always known that. Indeed, he had been one of those who had tried to push Aragorn to marry, lest the unthinkable happen (as happened all too often, of late, as the Age grew darker). Granted, his betrothal to Arwen, though binding, did not relieve Halbarad or anyone of the fear that Aragorn might die without issue; still, Halbarad was relieved to know that his friend was at least committed. And if Aragorn lived to marry happily, then he wished him well of Arwen. But that did not mean he did not miss Aragorn, whom he would have be more than friend, if only that were possible.
Jealousy is an ugly thing, Halbarad thought, and he did not particularly like it in himself. He particularly did not like it since, although Aragorn knew very well his tastes, Halbarad had kept quiet about his particular affections. What point in revelations? Aragorn was uninterested—that had been clear very early on, and Halbarad knew that he would do his chieftain no favors if he presented him with a rival to Arwen's love. Worse, it might have broken our friendship, and that I would not lose. So in the end, what have I lost? Nothing. There was never aught to be jealous of, he told himself. To which his heart replied that he knew very well that men were always jealous of what lay beyond their reach. Witness Númenor's fall, witness the destruction of Arnor over petty jealousies that had split the kingdom... witness the loveless marriages in the Angle that endured because there was no other choice, while husbands and wives looked elsewhere for solace.
As I, too, look elsewhere, he thought, and grimaced. He and Aragorn might jest about matters of love and lust, as friends would, but there was a reason why Halbarad nearly always won the little contest that followed such jokes: it was not difficult to keep a straight face when longing made him ache beneath the laughter. Aescing truly was no place for longing such as his, and if it had been long since he had lain with another, that was not unusual. Hence it did not excuse the risk he was about to take. He was not some raw youth, enthralled to his own desire, after all, but a captain who ought to be in command of himself. But this was the first journey he had made in his friend's company since Aragorn had returned from years of service in Gondor, Rohan, and Harad; this was the first time he had had to confront that closure in Aragorn that came of his betrothal to Arwen. So near, and yet so very much farther than ever before.... After three months on the road together, alone and yet ever subject to Arwen's ghostly presence, it hurt too much to be the only one tonight with no place to quench his longing.
And so, with a sigh, he glanced round the room, carefully scrutinizing faces over the rim of his tankard. A town like Aescing might not be the most luxurious, and it was certainly... inconvenient... for men like him, but Halbarad had been on the roads since he was twenty years old. From long experience guarding caravan wains, and many a night spent in the meanest of taverns and inns between Bree and Lake-town, he knew that there was a pattern to crowds. One who knew it could read many things, particularly if one had spent much of the evening eavesdropping on the conversations of others. It was not intentional—it was simply a Ranger's habit, to keep an ear open for anything of interest.
And so, after a time, Halbarad fixed on a lad sweeping the floor. It was the dark hair amid the sea of pale that caught his eye first. Not the true black of the Angle, but a definite, unruly brown. Dunlending blood, mayhap, or else one of lost Tharbad's sons, likely. And young as he was, there was something about his face, the almost beaten deference he displayed, and the general aura of discomfort that Halbarad sensed in those around him, that was painfully familiar. Nervous blue eyes darted glances here and there, watching the press of men and women, and the hands that held the broom were clenched tight about the wood. Halbarad watched as the lad worked his way about the edges of the room, always careful to avoid bumping into anyone, attention divided between his chore and the guests of the tavern.
Inevitably, the lad looked at last to the table in the darkened corner where the Rangers had sat, and those wide eyes met Halbarad's. A moment, they stared at each other, and then the lad glanced down again, seemingly absorbed in his task. But after a few moments, he looked up again, and found Halbarad still watching him. This time, though, he did not look away, but the lad's gaze wandered warily, if curiously, over Halbarad's person. Then it was back to sweeping again, though now the lad's course bent towards Halbarad. He kept his eyes studiously on the floor, however, passing before the isolated table without looking up, and Halbarad almost smiled at that bit of overacting. "Lad," he said quietly, and the boy paused. Only for a moment, but then he pulled out a washrag and bent to wiping the table with great industry.
"Can I help you, sir?" he asked, glancing up to search Halbarad's face... and then let his gaze drop to fix rather obviously on his groin.
"Mayhap," Halbarad replied, cocking his head. And then his eyes narrowed slightly, his tone sharpening as he asked, "What is that on your face?"
"Sir?" The innocence of the tone did not prevent the lad from raising a hand to pull a few strands of hair forward to cover the still visible traces of an old bruise. Not a good sign, that, and Halbarad cursed inwardly. I do not need to deal with this. He does not need to deal with it. So said prudence. But the lad himself seemed... not unconcerned, but certainly he was doing his best to hide the evidence of mistreatment....
"Did someone hit you?" Halbarad asked quietly.
"What business is it of yours?" the lad asked, tone sharpening now with a certain defiance.
"I do not know. Maybe none," Halbarad conceded, and watched as the lad visibly relaxed. Were he a less accomplished actor himself, Halbarad might have flinched at the other's ineptitude. For the Valar's sake, lad, how have you survived if this is the best you can do? Of course, it might not matter how good an actor a man was in a place like this. Aescing was just small enough that to sneeze in your bath was event enough to merit report in the tavern. Doubtless the entire town knew as well as Halbarad did where and with whom this lad slept, which ordinarily would have put him off from the boy. He had seen too often what could happen to lads like this, and Ranger though Halbarad was, even he had to be careful in the Angle not to flaunt his affection for some of the men. Do not bring it home, was the mantra of those who wandered the Wild. Do what you must, with whom you must, to help you through the long nights so long as you are not unwanted; even vows could be 'bent', but discretion was the rule: Do not bring it home, where your families can see it, where your wife (or your lover's wife) might see it. Such was the ironclad tradition under which a Ranger lived, when need grew too great, and Halbarad had always been careful not to offend it. In that respect, he was fortunate—so long as he was discreet, he need never answer questions at home that might lead to humiliation or worse. That was clearly not the case in Aescing, however.
So why, then, do I consider taking this lad? For the sake of the Valar, Halbarad, will you ruin a child like this? To which painful desire replied, He has already ruined himself, from the looks of it. And since he has chosen, why not avail yourself? He wants it as much as you do, from the look of it. Why not please yourselves then, and let all fall as it may? The lad was staring at him now, clearly waiting for him to continue, and so, despite his reservations, Halbarad asked, "If I were to ask you to leave with me, would you get another fist to the face?"
"You need help in the stables?" the lad asked, steadfastly ignoring the latter half of the question.
"What would you do in the stables, if I said 'yes'?"
"I... take care of the hayloft." The hayloft. Valar help him, he will not last if he proceeds always like this!
"What if I said I would rather go elsewhere?"
"Then we can go elsewhere. Hire my service, and I can help you however you like."
"I see," Halbarad replied, considering. Who was it, he wondered, who was it who said once that that which I should not do, that I do indeed? He could not remember, but later on, he would ask. For whoever said it was a wiser man than I! "Meet me behind the tavern, then. And lad?"
"Sometimes men think it would be easier to rob a man for his coin, given that he is already... shall we say, 'on the outskirts of the law'?" Halbarad leaned back in his chair and rested a casual hand upon the pommel of his sword. "I would not entertain any such thoughts." That for a warning, since it was always wiser to be safe, even if Halbarad had no fear at all of this boy's intentions. It might cost him a tumble every so often, but that was no great loss if it left him his hide intact. And then again, he had found that sometimes, other men took a certain comfort in knowing that should others take ill their association, that he could offer some protection for both of them. For a time, at least, he thought guiltily, and then they are alone again.
"Of course not. In the back, then," the lad replied just then, and with a nod, he moved off with his broom. Halbarad bit his lip and bowed his head a moment, not feeling particularly good about what he had just done. 'Tis too late now—you should have kept quiet the while if you had wanted to be virtuous. You knew what would happen if you opened your mouth—once you begin, 'tis begun and you will see it finished. Thus it always is with you, for good or ill, his conscience berated, and he sighed softly. Only be careful with this one: he has not had an easy time of it, that is plain. With that in mind, he slouched down in his chair and made himself consider the watery beer left in his tankard. There was a certain timing to such trysts, and to leave now would be obvious. Penance for offenses against prudence, he thought, with wry, dark humor, as he took a sip and let the bad taste roll about on his tongue. Prophetic, that—he had a feeling that he would have a bad taste in his mouth for months to come....
It was some hour and a half later that Halbarad, leaning against the tavern wall that faced away from the main street, heard the sound of someone trying to move stealthily in the dark. After a moment, a silhouette appeared in a patch of moonlight, and stood for several moments, staring uncertainly into the darkness. "Here, lad," Halbarad grunted, pushing away from his place in the shadows, and the boy started.
"I am sorry if I am late," the lad apologized.
"You take such time as you need. This is not a game you play."
"No," the other replied, and there came a soft sigh. "No, it is not."
"Do you have a place to stay?"
"I do. Unless you would rather your room?"
"My room is shared by three others," Halbarad replied, allowing a note of wry amusement to creep into his tone. "I think you may find it crowded."
"Oh," the lad answered, sounding a bit startled, but then he seemed to calm, and Halbarad fancied he heard a smile in his voice as he said, "Then come with me, sir." A hand fumbled his in the darkness as the lad led him down the dark alleyway, and then left to circle well around the tavern. At length, they came to a shabby little guesthouse at the edge of the town. The boy marched unerringly up the steps and quietly opened the door, beckoning for the Ranger to follow. There was more darkness within, except for the glow of a few poor embers in the main hearth, and then the lad tugged him along down a short hall, to a door at the end. Here, he paused and fished around in his pocket, at length producing a key, which he pressed into the keyhole. A soft click! sounded, and the lad pushed the door open and went within. "Wait here a moment, please," he murmured, releasing Halbarad. The Ranger obeyed, listening to the lad's progress across the floor. Clearly, he knew precisely where everything was. Of course, it is not a very large room, either. Some four paces from here to the wall, he noted, as the footsteps came to a halt.
There was the sound of a match striking, and then light came into wavering existence. Just a single candle, and why not? Candles could be expensive, after all, for a lad who pushed brooms most days. As he had guessed, the room was small, little more than a cupboard, and quite spare: one stand, a bed that took up one wall, a small chest in another corner, and a basin and pitcher set on the floor beneath the stand. The tiny hearth was bare, and so also was the floor; the bedclothes were neatly laid out, and if they were worn, they looked clean. Candlelight concealed many ills, it was true, but still, there was a tidiness in the arrangement of the lad's few possessions that spoke well of him. He had some pride, clearly. "Come in, please," the lad invited over his shoulder, still worrying a tin shut before setting it back beside the candle on the stand.
Halbarad did as instructed, moving forward just far enough to shut the door, and not without a backwards glance. Habitual caution, that, as the lad turned round, holding the taper before him. The glow cast odd shadows on his face, which was thinner than Halbarad liked to see on one so young and who did not wander the Wild. Crossing the floor in two long strides, he paused before the boy. Closer inspection by candlelight revealed that he wasn't completely beardless, which was a relief. And he was a lanky thing—likely he would have his height in a few years. Still, there was also more evidence of healing bruises this close, and not just on his face. There were some faint, yellowed marks on his neck, as well....
"How old are you, son?"
"Does it matter?"
"Yes, it does."
That earned him another surprised look, but then the lad shrugged, and replied, "Sixteen, or maybe a little more. Mum was never quite sure of me."
"Sixteen and your own man? Then what did you do to get those bruises?" Halbarad asked, reaching out to touch the other's face lightly, then run a finger down over his throat. That caused the boy to stiffen, though the look he gave the Ranger was not one of fear. Yes, he does have his pride, painful though it may be, Halbarad thought.
"I'll not give you cause to hit me," the other said stiffly.
"That was not my question."
"And 'tis not your business!" came the unexpectedly fierce reply, and Halbarad cocked a brow at that.
"I see. Even though what we do here may earn you another, or worse?"
"I take care of myself." And do such a lovely job of it that you end up battered. But even as he thought it, the lad smiled at him, and then reached to touch the pommel of Halbarad's sword. "You should know something of that, I should think," he said, and raised a brow as he released the grip in favor of unbuckling the belt. And it was certainly not an accident that his hands brushed over Halbarad's crotch as they worked. The Ranger tensed, feeling himself respond readily despite his none too easy conscience. Quick fingers made swift work of the buckle, and stripped off the heavy swordbelt, pressing it into Halbarad's hands. "You can put it in the corner," the lad suggested. "Most men do."
"I see," Halbarad replied, and since there were not many other options, he did as suggested, wrapping the cincture about the sheath and leaning the sword upright in the corner. And as he unclasped his cloak and hung it on the peg set into the wall, he gave the lad a curious glance and asked, "Do you often entertain Rangers, then?"
"When they come, and if they want it. Most merchants go to the lasses," the lad replied easily. "Most Rangers do, too, if they go to anyone. But there are a few, and they always pay well."
"Two marks the night? Expensive, are you?"
"A man has to earn his keep," the lad replied. "And your kind do not come here so often, you know. Aescing is not a place men want to come, usually." To which Halbarad could only grunt in agreement.
"So you work at the tavern to keep yourself between visits, then."
"What else is there?" the lad asked—somewhat bitterly, Halbarad noted. "And at any rate, that is where any strangers go, so 'tis good for me, at least in the summer, when folk come to Aescing." A pause, as clothes rustled in the near-darkness, then, "Why did you come in the winter?"
"You have your secrets, lad, and I have mine," Halbarad replied, as he folded his heavy woolen overtunic and linen shirt together and set them in the corner. "If you have not learned it yet, do not ask after a Ranger's real business."
"Fair enough," the lad replied after a moment. They continued undressing in silence after that, and Halbarad had just rid himself of the daggers he kept secreted about his person when he heard the floor creak as the lad approached. A pair of somewhat chill hands touched bare shoulders, then slid down his back and around, as the lad looped his arms about Halbarad's waist and tugged at the laces to his trousers... among other things. "Shall I help?" came the sotto-voiced question, and Halbarad caught his breath as one of those hands pressed a bit harder. Tempting, but....
"I can manage," Halbarad replied after a moment. The noise at his back sounded puzzled, but the lad stepped away.
"If you like, then." The floor creaked again as the lad retreated to the bed, and there came the sound of cloth rustling as blankets were shifted. Halbarad listened, and made himself continue undressing at the same pace that he had. Point of pride on his part, though many might find it odd, and certainly others he had loved had not understood—but it was one way of reminding himself that his presence here not withstanding, he was not so desperate that he could not wait a little longer. I am not twenty years old, after all, he thought, though certainly his body did not feel the difference in years: desire burned just as fiercely now, once aroused, as it ever had.
When at length, he had divested himself of the rest of his clothing and folded everything up and tucked it into the corner, he turned and eyed the lad, who sat on the bed, watching him. The lad had a blanket draped around his shoulders for warmth, but not so that Halbarad could not see all that he might wish, and for a time, both simply stared, eyes wandering over each other's bodies, pausing here and there. The lad was a bean pole for his age, awkward as a colt, but clearly not a child and (thankfully) showed no sign of wanting to pass himself off as a lass or younger than he was, which practices Halbarad had never understood. And though his face was clearly Rohirric in its structure, something about the overall look of him reminded Halbarad irresistibly of a sixteen year-old Aragorn. The lankiness, perhaps, and the awkwardness as well.... Or mayhap that is simply my mood tonight that makes me see that, he thought, and the ache in his heart over that was not quite lost in the very different ache of tension in his groin.
"'Tis warmer over here," the lad suggested just then, after a period of silence, and Halbarad chuckled softly as he crossed the floor. The other made room for him on the bed, reaching without hesitation to lay a hand on Halbarad's hip and pull him close, then run it up his back, following the curve of his spine. The lad's breath blew warm against his chest, and then damp as he closed his mouth over a nipple, then kissed his way up to Halbarad's collarbone. Fingers dug hard into his shoulder, and Halbarad hissed as they found a knot. The lad paused a moment, glancing up quizzically.
"Have you ever slept for three months on the ground?" asked Halbarad, in response to that look.
"I do not recommend it," Halbarad replied, taking the opportunity to shift his weight and grip, so that he had the lad under him. The other accommodated willingly, spreading his legs and pressing up against Halbarad. Swallowing hard, the Ranger shook his head. "Wait a moment, lad." Bracing a hand to either side of the other's head, Halbarad gazed down at him, and stared for so long that the lad's expression grew puzzled.
"Do you not want me to...?"
"What is your name, lad?"
Clearly, that was not the answer that the other had expected, and the surprise showed very plainly. But then, after a moment, a certain wariness entered his eyes, and he shrugged, covering his discomfort with a falsely bright grin, as he said, "You have your secrets, and I have mine." Halbarad raised a brow at having his own words turned against him, and the boy shrugged. "I do not know your name, either."
"And if I give it to you, shall I get yours in return?"
"As I said, you have your secrets...."
"Business is business, is that it?"
"Something like that," the other replied, softly, reaching up to touch Halbarad's face. He trailed fingers lightly down his chest, over his stomach, then up along the inside of his thigh.... There were some forms of distraction that no one could resist, and Halbarad simply shook his head once in puzzled exasperation, then let the question drop as he leaned down and kissed the other. He felt an arm drape itself about his neck, felt fingers tangle in his hair, as the lad's other hand slid up to curl about his waist, pressing him closer. Halbarad moved a hand to grip the leg that pressed hard against his hip, at the same time thrusting down against the lad, getting a throaty little moan into his mouth as response. Fingers curled more tightly in his hair, dug in at his waist, almost painfully, and Halbarad grunted at that. The hand at his waist slipped then between his legs, pressing hard... too hard! As Halbarad pulled back with a muffled curse, the hand at his neck clutched, seeking to prevent his retreat. "Easily, lad!" he managed, freeing himself enough to speak, though only barely. Want-glazed blue eyes blinked open, staring at him for a moment without comprehension. "Lad?" Halbarad breathed, wincing slightly at the nails digging into the back of his neck.
"Sorry," the other murmured, and very quickly released him, drawing a shaky breath. "I just thought... since you are a Ranger, you might like it...."
"Like it what? Rough?" Halbarad asked, finishing the thought, and got a nod. "Mayhap some do, but there is pain enough to be had beyond that door without bringing it here as well," he replied, sitting up, rubbing the back of his neck. And then he frowned, stricken by the rather nauseating idea that mayhap the lad's propensity towards bruises might not be unconnected with the men he serviced. I just thought... since you are a Ranger.... "Why would you think that about Rangers?" There was a silence, and Halbarad prompted darkly, in a tone that would brook no refusal, "Lad...."
"Some of the... lasses say that they are very rough with them—"
"Eh... some of the lasses did not like it; they thought it was too much, and that the men liked it too well that way. Some will not take Rangers now, whenever they pass through. Better for me," the lad replied, and then flinched at Halbarad's expression. "You did ask. I told you what I have overheard. I do not lie."
"I believe you," Halbarad murmured, feeling his stomach churn as he thought of Andir tumbling some barmaid in a loft somewhere nearby. His was but one of many names that flashed through his mind, all of them known in the closed world of Rangers to buy a night's entertainment now and again or even often. And all of them were now linked by suspicion. Only a fool would think that years of separation, frustration, fear, grief, and pain would not leave its mark on a man, and that sometimes that mark showed itself in the bedroom, even with a wife. It happened, and the Angle had learned to deal with such ugly incidents. Most men were decent at heart, after all; most men learned to control themselves, for those who did not, did not last. And most men knew better than to do aught that might jeopardize their fellows, by turning a town against the Rangers who might pass through. Do not bring it home was not just a rule for the Angle, after all, for 'home' was often as not the men one traveled with. A captain learned, therefore, to watch his men for signs of such trouble, and to deal with those who showed a taste for violence.
But sometimes we do not see. We do not see because we look to the lasses, for their fathers complain. And so long as a man does not 'bring it home,' we look the other way when it comes to lads. For who hears them? Halbarad admitted, swearing softly, and then glanced at the other. Uncomfortable under his gaze, the boy drew his knees up to his chest, then, as he sat with his back braced against the wall, shivering slightly from the cold. And he watched Halbarad warily, now, seeming to steel himself. "And what of you, lad?" Halbarad asked. "You say 'better for you' if the lasses will not take some of the men. Do they go to you, then? Because you do not complain?"
"Some do, most others do not."
"Did a Ranger do this–" and here he reached out to gesture at the fading bruises on face and throat "–to you?"
"But they are rough with you?"
"They always pay well," the lad replied, and shrugged.
"And you always take their coin?" Halbarad demanded, incredulous.
"A lad like me takes what he is given. As you say, there is pain enough outside; what is a little more to me? 'Tis no worse than what I get from others," the lad shot back, lifting his chin with a certain defiant pride. "Better, even, for I eat well after one such night."
Halbarad was silent for a long while, digesting this. He knew very well what most lads like this—'Like this,' like me. Say it and be done with it!—endured, what they feared, and that too many times, they ended badly, especially in places like Aescing. There were lasses like that as well, and even women of high birth who painted their faces to cover the bruises they would not admit their husbands had given them. He had seen them all in his travels, and by comparison could not but count his own lot as favored. What am I doing here? he wondered, feeling ill. I knew I should have let it be, gone to bed early and sated my grief over what I cannot have elsewhere. Why did I come here? He stared at the lad, who gazed right back, unashamed... and got his answer in eyes that still spoke of hunger unsated. Halbarad might not own a mirror, but he knew that look—he had seen his desire reflected in other eyes that could not give what most he wanted, even if hands could give relief. What a sad pair we are tonight! he thought. But at least he has the hope of attaining his desire. "Do you like it when they are rough with you?" he asked, at length.
"What does it matter to you?"
"It matters because if that is what you like, then best you look to another to please you, for I will not," Halbarad replied, with a certain heat. The lad blinked, cocking his head slightly, and it seemed to Halbarad that the other looked at him as he might at a green sun. Confronted with that expression, there was but one thing he could do, other than rage at the world for its cruelty, and so he leaned close and kissed the lad on the mouth—an undemanding kiss, but as full of promise as he could make it. And as he did so, he slipped a gentle hand between the other's knees, and ran it down between his legs, pausing only when he could go no further. The other caught his breath, and Halbarad drew back then just enough to look the lad in the eyes. "Show me what pleases, if you will," he murmured.
And after a moment's hesitation, the other did, reaching out to guide his hands as knees lowered, legs parted, and back arched under Halbarad's touch. And if Halbarad felt a pang of chagrin over the sheer neediness that the other brought to bed with him, he could not but smile, as he bent his head and lent his hands to ease the other's want. Let us use each other well, then, lad, he thought, as arousal flared once more white hot, kindled by the other's desire. Use me well, and if to my eyes, when you are above me, you wear another face to please me best, then be glad. For through that other, I can love you better, and forget that it will hurt tomorrow....
The night was growing quite old when at last the two of them lay quietly together and Halbarad could content himself with simply running his fingers idly through the other's oddly dark hair. And he wondered how long it had been since he had felt something other than bark or bare ground or a stone wall against his back. How long since I lay with another, in a bed, with blankets? Quite a long time, since he could not remember the last such occasion, though he remembered a number of dark corners and alleys, fumbling in the shadows for a half-mark or less because trade had begun to fall off between east and west. Because Gondor's border tariffs were rising as the tension between Barad-dûr and Minas Tirith grew, and only a fool would refuse to see that war must come, sooner or later. Borders were tightening, even now, and that meant that coin was getting scarce for Rangers. A man could not as often afford a night like this; alleyways would do, or a friend who did not mind, and more often than not, one spent one's nights alone. Especially for a captain, who must ever keep his distance, loneliness was a familiar feeling.
And so much as he had wanted to please this ill-used lad, to in some sense redeem his fellows, he had needed this night as well. And long may it last me, though I would be a fool indeed, if I thought that one night's fantasies would pay for all the nights to come–all the nights of knowing that, whatever I may imagine in rooms like these, Aragorn is Arwen's. That shall now and ever lie between us, friends though we be, he thought, and sighed silently, glancing down at the boy whose head was pillowed comfortably on his chest. So much simpler, in one way, to be this boy, for whom doubtless all men were but a means, and satisfaction was a simple matter, even if a rare one. Lads like me, though, never come to a glad end with the one they love, or so it seems. For 'tis not as if, beyond paid service or a friend's indulgence, there is a lass waiting at home for me, nor shall there ever be. 'Do not bring it home': there is no 'home' for me to bring aught to, only the night to pass through with such comfort as I can find, wherever I can find it.
And since unhappy endings were all too common, and this lad had already the makings of one, Halbarad stirred then, gently shifting the lad off of him, and sat up. The other yawned, turning onto his back and stretching as he blinked sleep from his eyes. Then, pushing himself up onto his elbows, he looked up at Halbarad and asked, "Will you leave now?"
"Aye. 'Tis better for both of us if I do. Dawn comes early, and you do not want others to see me creeping from your room, I think," Halbarad replied, rising and going to collect his clothing.
"There is water in the pitcher, if you want it," the lad informed him, and then collapsed back on his pillow, pulling the covers up against the cold.
"My thanks," Halbarad replied. And since it was cold, ablutions were brief ere he climbed quickly back into his clothes. He had just finished lacing the ties of his overtunic, and was reaching for his cloak, when the lad joined him, suddenly. And as he flung the cloak round his shoulders, the other reached out, caught the clasp, and fastened it securely in place—left of center, as ever. Halbarad raised a brow at that, and in the dim candlelight, the lad gave him a close-mouthed smile, which nonetheless seemed somehow more genuine than the others he had given him that evening.
"Will you return to Aescing, as the others do sometimes?" he asked.
"I do not know," Halbarad replied, as he always did when that question arose. The lad considered this a moment, then nodded after the manner of one accustomed to hear 'no' when it was said, however it was said, and to accept his lot, whatever it might be.
"Then fare you well... and my name is Modig."
Modig. Halbarad shook his head and rubbed tiredly at his eyes. Or mayhap 'tis not so simple for him, either. Modig.... "It suits you," he replied. Reaching into the purse at his belt, he felt about, identifying coins by shape and size, and finally came up with three marks. Taking the lad's wrist, he turned his palm up, and pressed the coins into his hand, closing his fingers about them. "Halbarad, son of Hirthon," he said simply, and offered a bare grin. "Good night, lad. And thank you." And with that, he turned and left, quietly closing the door behind him.
The moon was setting over Aescing's narrow streets, as Halbarad paused at the bottom of the stairs. Breathing out a long sigh in a trail of vapor, he pulled his cloak close about him and began walking slowly back towards the light that blazed still from the tavern windows. But ere he had managed two steps, it seemed, a voice called out softly, "Halbarad."
"Aragorn?" Halbarad queried softly, turning sharply, and frowning as his friend appeared just then from the shadows between houses. "I thought you would be long abed."
"I might have said the same of you," the other replied, falling in at his side.
"Aragorn, you were not waiting, were you?" Halbarad asked, suspiciously.
"Mm," the other grunted, noncommittally, which was just as much an answer as 'yes.' And as they walked, Aragorn gave him a queer sort of look, and asked, quietly, "Are you well?"
Am I well? He had just lain with a lad who bore the marks of the spite of others: past and present bruises aside, Modig had had other marks on his body. There were welts on his back from past abuse (or more likely, harsh discipline)–scars as permanent as any that Halbarad bore from years of unseen wars in Eriador and on the road. In candlelight, he could ignore them, as Modig ignored them, and in the warm, dark space between their bodies, imagination had painted a different face from the one before him, had turned a pauper into a prince. Dark hair and shadows, and will enough, and then even a tavern boy's rough hands could feel as those of a warrior. Aragorn would never know that, he thought, bitterly, and knew that he was being unfair, but was unable to feel otherwise tonight. For Aragorn loved Arwen and so would have no cause to know any of it, while Halbarad feared for a scrawny lad he might never see again and made love to an illusion. Am I well? Indeed! And so:
"Of course," he answered, and gave his friend a smile. Aragorn was silent a moment, and his eyes said clearly that he did not believe him. But he recognized that tone, and that look, and so he, too, smiled, and laid a hand on Halbarad's shoulder.
"Of course," he echoed. Thus, with that lie firmly in place between them—secret to neither, yet they would keep it secret—they returned to the light and sound of the tavern, and left the night behind.
"Modig"—Old English adjective and name: "brave."
'Ælfric'—personal fanon, used as a Rohirric nickname for Aragorn in Star and Stone. Rangers operating outside of Eriador are also personal fanon. Both inventions are, I think, reasonable extrapolations but no more than that.
Quotes and Miscellany
"Who was it... who was it who said once that that which I should not do, that I do indeed?"— Halbarad is apparently channeling St. Paul:
"I do not understand what I do; For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do" (Romans 7:15).
"For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do no want to do - this I keep on doing" (Romans 7:19).
Thanks to Nilmandra for supplying the reference. Because I am slightly paranoid, please pay careful attention to how that quote is actually used in the story. Thank you.
Finally: Although this story is complete in itself, if you would like to see a fic that is based on NIOS's specific events, Semper Fidelis may prove interesting to you.
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