2. The Courtesan's Story
"Every Harlot was a Virgin once . . .
The Son of Morn in weary Night's decline,
The lost Traveller's Dream under the Hill."
'To The Accuser Who Is The God Of This World' by William Blake
"And what would an elf ask of a one such as myself?" The tone in the young man's voice was teasing, seductive.
Legolas stood in the parlour of a house on the sixth level. He had seen a brief moment of surprise flash over Barlomi's face when he lowered his hood to reveal himself. He had then felt the young man's gaze upon him, the dark eyes running up and down his body, the pupils dilating when they found a part to the mortal's liking. Evidently, he was finding much to like.
Legolas was quite used to this kind of intimate scrutiny by mortals, from the females and the males both. It had made him uncomfortable for a time when he first ventured out into the world of Men as a much younger elf, but he rarely let it bother him now.
"Conversation, Master Barlomi," Legolas said, serenely.
"No other form of . . . intercourse then? A song perhaps? My tongue has other uses than mere idle talk."
Legolas could not forbear a slight smile. "No. No other intercourse. Information is what I seek today. I will pay you for your time."
The young man shrugged. "Whatever you wish, my lord. I am always at leisure to a friend of the king's."
Legolas sighed. So much for anonymity. He would lay his cards out upon the table then. Observation of his father had taught Legolas that candor could be a useful negotiating tactic at times, and indeed, Legolas was far more skilled at honesty than he was at guile. "Master Barlomi, I first need to know if I may rely upon your discretion."
The young man tilted his dark head. "Those who come to me seek to unburden their minds as often as they seek to unburden their loins. I hold this trust as sacred as if I were Holy Man or Healer. Whatever they may be, your secrets are safe with me, Prince."
"I see you know who and what I am. And so you may understand my reticence."
"Indeed," the young man said. "I know it is said that tales of lust are seldom told about you Nimîr. It was the 'seldom' that intrigued me. I had hoped that you came to me today hoping to have more than your ear filled. Your long unmarried state has not gone unremarked by the folk of Elessar's court. Nor has your close friendship with the king. It made me wonder."
Legolas shook his head and laughed inwardly. Knowing the proclivities of his own father's folk, where no elf's business was his own and Thranduil's own butler Galion was among the worst of the gossipers, Legolas had known there must inevitably be talk, but he had hoped it might be otherwise among the august folk of Gondor. Evidently not. "This is not an unusual thing among my people."
Now Legolas laughed aloud. This bêthnaru was a man nimble on his verbal feet. "No -- marrying late. For us, the bonding of faer is a serious matter, and it takes however long it takes. And for some, it will take until the end of all things, for they are not called to the opposite, merely the same. We call that 'turning to the east,' and whether it is done as a way of life or a mere temporary expediency, my folk look aside and pretend not to notice."
'And are you, Prince, eastward turned?"
Legolas shook his head. "No, westward, whence came a woman with raven hair and grey eyes. She would not have me, and it will be long ere I forget her."
"Then, why are you here in my house? To titillate yourself with the salacious details of my days and nights? If that is so, I acquiesce. But you will pay for that pleasure, my lord, just as if you pleased yourself with my body."
"Call me Legolas, for I would speak to you as one man does to another. I will be plain; King Elessar wishes to send me to Harad in return for you, and I must know certain details before I give him an answer."
Legolas watched as a wide grin split Barlomi's face, the first honest emotion he had seen the young man evince. "Oh, I wondered who he would find to send! I could not fail to notice that the pickings here are very slim. Poor King Elessar! You should have seen his face when I proffered my letter of introduction to him and he realised his dilemma." The young Southron's laughter was deep and throaty, quite opposite to his previous manner of carefully studied seduction.
Legolas's light silvery laughter joined him. "You should have seen his face when he made the proposal to me. Poor Aragorn!"
"Well, this was not how I had envisioned spending my afternoon," Barlomi said, "but I am game for it. Be seated, my . . . er, Legolas, and we will talk. May I offer you a glass of wine? The wine here in Gondor is not so fine as that made from the sweet white grapes of my homeland, but it is quite pleasant to the palate."
Legolas took a passing interest at the mention of wine, for he was always on the lookout for vintages to recommend to his father. "A glass of wine would be delightful, although I confess that what I would most like is the dark ale that the dwarves favor."
Barlomi laughed again. "Truly? As it happens, I have developed a taste for it lately, and keep a supply of it about for myself and certain guests. I will join you in a glass." He rang for a servant, and a stolid Gondorian appeared. Legolas judged the manservant to be a former soldier, since he walked with a pronounced limp and had a bearing that could only be described as military.
"Very well, Legolas," Barlomi said, once the tankards of ale had been brought and set down before them, "what is it that you need to know?"
Legolas cleared his throat. Suddenly he had no idea of how to begin. "I must learn the requirements of your trade, Master Barlomi, for I need to know if I can pose convincingly as a bêthnaru in your land without . . . without . . . "
"Without dishonoring yourself? Nay, do not show me that face, for I am not offended by the term. I have heard worse." He laughed. "What you need to know is, can you play the role of bêthnaru convincingly and yet preserve your chastity."
Legolas nodded. "You put your finger on it."
"With the women, it will be no problem for in my homeland a lady's body must be kept sacrosanct for her husband. Even if the lady have no husband in the past, present or future."
"Would you be a bit more plain, my friend?" said Legolas.
"No penetration," Barlomi said, bluntly. "But there are other things allowed."
Legolas laughed. "Just like home. It seems unfair to the ladies, though."
Barlomi made a face. "Since when has life ever been fair?"
"And the lords?"
"That may be more difficult."
"Must you submit yourself then?"
The young man shrugged. "I 'must' do nothing. Nor would you be forced to do anything against your will should you undertake this ruse. Officially, our job is to be a pleasant guest at the court of whatever patron hosts us, to sing a song or two of an evening and show ourselves attentive in conversation. Whatever happens later, in private, is entirely at our own discretion."
Legolas nodded. "This is not too very different to my duties at home in my father's court. Minus the private session, of course."
The young man shrugged. "You may decline the private invitations, if you wish. But no bêthnaru with that attitude retires rich. And we all wish to amass wealth against the day when our charms must fade and the admirers grow few and their gifts less generous." He sighed. "Of course, you are the son of a rich king, born to privilege. And your charms will never fade. Even so, to be believed as a bêthnaru, you will need to give the illusion of being one who shares favors. You may even have to share a few in reality. It would look rather strange, otherwise."
"That is what gives me pause," Legolas admitted. "To be compelled in fleshly matters is against the very nature of my folk."
Barlomi shook his head. "It is not that way. The joys of love rest not so much here," he gestured at his groin, "but here," he said, tapping his head. "If the lords and ladies could order us to our backs or our knees with a snap of the fingers, where would be the sport? Where would be the thrill of the seduction and the satisfaction when we yield? Nay, my job is to give my patrons the illusion of being desired as much as they desire me. For some this is not a difficult task, for they are folk pleasant to look upon and lie with. For the others? Well . . . I deem that they need the illusion most of all."
"Have you ever had to refuse a patron?"
The young man sighed. "Once. I have done much, for the right price, but there are some things . . ." He shook his head. "I was not punished for it. The only consequence was that I was no longer in that lord's favor ever after, and it cost me his generosity. You may be asked to do things that are distasteful to you, Legolas, but you will never be forced. And you will never be put into a situation where you have not at least a choice. I cannot promise you, though, that either choice will be to your liking."
Something about the young man's manner made Legolas pause. "I would know, Barlomi, what makes a man turn to such a life."
The Southron threw back his dark head and struck a languorous pose. "Look at me, my friend; how finely made I am. I was not born to spend all my days staring at the back end of a bullock as I plowed a field. To end up old before my time like my father, who can barely rise from his bed of a morning from the pain in his bones. Or like my brother, who went for a soldier and came home with a limp and missing three of his fingers. Or like my other brother, who came home not at all."
He shrugged. "You fear loss of dignity, Legolas, but there are many other kinds of slavery that the son of a rich man would not understand. For me, this profession was a way out; a chance for freedom and respect that is not usually given the son of a peasant. I live well. I laugh and jest with kings and nobles. My parents at last have enough food to eat and a house to spend their final years in comfort. My sisters have, thanks to me, dowries that will allow them to marry the sort of men who will treat them well, rather than as beasts of burden. If what I have to do to achieve this is dishonor, then I am happy to dishonor myself. It seems but a small price to pay."
"Was it a sacrifice, then, to be sent north to a court that does not engage in such practices?"
Again, Barlomi dissolved in laughter, slapping his thighs such that Legolas could see the son of the peasant farmer shining through beneath the veneer of the sophisticated bêthnaru. "How little you know, my elvish friend! I have done far better here in Gondor than ever I did in Harad. And you would be surprised at some of my admirers. They are all so very grateful here, to have a chance to grasp at a little beauty. At the end of a mere two years, I shall have amassed enough fortune to go home and retire. I shall take Belegund here with me." Legolas saw the brusque Gondorian soldier flush as Barlomi caressed his hand as he refilled the ale mugs, and he smiled to sense how things were between the two men. "I will live the life of a gentleman, and it will be some other fellow staring at the backside of a bullock. But it will be my bullock and my field he is plowing."
"I would I had your pragmatic attitude, my friend," Legolas said. "But I go to Harad for a different reason -- if I decide to go at all. Knowing what you do, do you think I can bring the deception off successfully?"
Barlomi eyed him speculatively. "Of all that Elessar might have chosen, you have the best chance at it. You look the part. To reveal who told me this would be indiscreet, but it is said you have a skill at evading amorous snares that is worthy of a woodland creature."
Legolas smiled and sipped his ale. "That is because I 'am' a woodland creature."
"You are more than that, my friend. You are a consummate diplomat, as we all must be. I believe the word genius was used. Even so, this mission would require all your skill and cunning if you intend to return home . . . untouched."
Legolas drained his glass and rose. "I must take my leave of you. I have much to ponder. But I thank you for your time and your candor, Master Barlomi." He held out a gold coin.
Barlomi shook his head. "You spoke to me today as one man to another. An equal. It is a gift I rarely get. For once, let this be my pleasure."
Legolas returned the gold piece to his pocket and nodded gravely. He held out his empty palm to Barlomi.
The young man clasped it warmly. "Whatever your decision, Legolas, I wish you well."
"I'll do it."
Aragorn looked up from his desk in grateful surprise. "Legolas, I do not know what to say . . ."
Legolas held up his hand. "I will do it on one condition -- that no whisper if this ever reaches the ears of my father."
"Tell Thranduil that I have convinced his son to pose as a prostitute? I can well understand why you would wish that kept secret."
"No," Legolas laughed. "Not that. Although if he ever finds out about that you are on your own. I mean the fact that I can play the harp." Aragorn flashed him a bemused look. "Adar always wanted me to be a bard or some other peaceful thing. I did not want to be peaceful, so I stubbornly refused to learn every musical instrument he tried to have me instructed in. Glavras finally taught me how to play a harp while we were out on patrol, but I would never give my father the satisfaction of letting him know that. If he should find out now, I am in deep trouble."
Aragorn solemnly crossed his lips with his fingertip. "Not a word, my friend. Not one single word."
To be continued . . .
Nimîr: Adunaic for Beautiful Ones, Elves.
bêthnaru: Adunaic for courtesan or 'geisha,' literally, 'conversation man.'
faer: Sindarin for spirits or fëar
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.