8. Feathers and Confessions
This chapter is dedicated to St. Roheryn; especially the feathers, which should make wonderful decorations for her altar.
Melpomaen gently reawakened Haldir once the middle of the night had arrived.
"There has been nothing amiss, so far as I have seen or heard," he said. "But the night grows surprisingly chill for the season. I found I had to put on my cloak."
Haldir embraced his friend. "Too bad we cannot both sleep at once, and share our warmth! But I have left the blankets warmed for you."
The younger Elf nodded, removing his shoes and slipping into the place Haldir had just left. "A benefit of taking the first watch, that. I trust yours will be as uneventful as mine."
"Uneventful, yes," said Haldir, raising his eyebrows, "If you discount our little interlude."
Melpomaen blushed, glad that the dim light would not reveal his embarrassment. "Well, there is that. You know what I meant."
"I know." Haldir smiled to himself in the dark. "Rest well, Maen. Until the dawn."
As Melpomaen nestled down into the blankets and drifted into the world of dreams, Haldir began to walk around the camp, letting himself gradually awaken to full alertness before he moved out of the circle of the firelight. He would not go far – with just the two of them it would be unwise – but he wanted to get a sense for this little wood at night, so different from distant Lothlórien.
The wood, which was hardly more than a large copse, was mostly of ash and alder, with an occasional oak such as the large one under which Melpomaen had chosen to situate their camp. Hazel and blackthorn scrub seemed to comprise most of the undergrowth, though here and there, where a tree had died or fallen, grass and other tender plants flourished in the sunlight.
Haldir deftly avoided walking into a prickly tangle of blackthorn as he wandered. He bent to finger one of the sloes, but the frosts of autumn were still to come and the fruit was not yet ripe. He missed the great silver trunks and golden leaves of the great mellyrn of his home, familiar and yet always beautiful, and the tiny yellow elanor that starred the grasses there.
Sighing, he returned to the fire and settled down to keep watch, wrapping himself well in his cloak, for Melpomaen had said no more than the truth when reporting that the air had become cool. He yearned to return home, and yet wished to prolong this journey as much as possible. Duty and honor drew him on; love held him back. The warring obligations seemed irreconcilable to him. He frowned and rubbed at his temples, wishing that there were some solution that could relieve him from necessity – but there was none he could see.
The rest of the night passed without incident. At dawn Haldir nudged Melpomaen awake, and they broke fast with cram and the fruit that Haldir had prepared the evening before.
Covering over the fire pit carefully with dirt and making certain that all their belongings were safely stowed in their packs, less than an hour after the sun rose they were once again headed south. The little wood in which they had stopped was an outlier of the great forest of Mirkwood; soon they would reach the Men-i-Naugrim, the old forest road of the Dwarves, and leave the River Celduin behind to travel west on that dim path.
Haldir tugged at Melpomaen's arm to draw him to a halt. "Look." He pointed. Ahead a flock of six swans rose from the river, their wings cutting gracefully through the sky, and turned to wing their way south.
The two Elves watched as the great white birds disappeared into the cloudy morning.
"I wonder," said Haldir thoughtfully. "If they nested here, and were not simply stopping on their journey to warmer lands... Wait here a moment." He darted off among the reeds clumped along the shore. Melpomaen heard him give a cry of triumph.
"Come, Maen! We are in luck, for this was indeed their summer home. There is a treasure of feathers here."
The dark Elf turned and picked his way through to the swampy river's edge. Haldir was riffling his hands through the downy quills that lined the great mounded nest, pulling out those that were most perfect. Melpomaen smiled at his friend's excitement.
"What use are they, though, to us?" he asked, stepping to Haldir's side.
"Why, none at present, I suppose. But they would make excellent gifts for my mother and cousins – the women like to use such things to adorn their festival garb. And they make a pretty writing-pen, though a crow feather better holds the ink, I understand. Feathers are light to carry; I would take the best of them with us. It will not take long to choose some," said Haldir.
"If you wish," agreed Melpomaen. "They certainly will not add to our burden, which gets lighter daily in any case. Think you that we will be able to travel through the forest with the supplies we now have?"
Haldir looked up, his hands slowing from their careful sorting through the downy pile.
"No," he answered consideringly, "I think we shall have to hunt ere we reach the western border. There is game, we know that, but we will want to be wary in hunting and stay near to the road."
Melpomaen nodded. "Agreed. Have you found enough to your liking?" he added, gesturing at the little heap of feathers Haldir had set to one side.
"Nearly. One or two more," and Haldir delved into the last unexplored quarter of the nest, pulling out a final beautiful plume and holding it up.
"In fact, I may keep one for myself," he said, a slight smile on his face. "But that will do. Just let me tuck them all away here in my pack."
"Do. My feet are getting damp!" complained Melpomaen good-naturedly. "Why could you not have chosen to hunt feathers in a tree, rather than along the river?"
Haldir dug an elbow into his ribs. "Why, because I wanted to hear you grumble at me, of course. All right. Back to the trail with us."
They marched steadily on for the rest of the morning. The clouds grew thicker, and a light rain began to patter down as they paused at midday for a bite of cram.
"If we make good time this afternoon, we should reach the edge of Mirkwood today, I think," remarked Melpomaen. "I'll be glad to be back under the trees, especially if this rain does not stop."
"So will I," said Haldir. "I enjoy walking in the rain, usually, but it is unquestionably less pleasant to set up camp in the open than in the woods, when it is raining."
They walked on. By good fortune, about mid-afternoon the rain began to slacken and the clouds to roll away. Glimpsing the sun, Melpomaen smiled and said happily, "Even if we do not reach the Dwarf-road by this evening, it seems we will have a chance to dry out overnight."
Haldir merely nodded. He had grown more and more silent throughout the day, responding to Melpomaen's sallies only perfunctorily. Now the younger Elf asked bluntly, "What is bothering you, meldanya? Is it the weather? Or did you not rest well enough last night?"
"Neither. The rain seems to have ended, and I am no mortal Man who must have eight hours of sound sleep or wake unrefreshed. No, Maen. I worry what will become of us, of you and me. This is no easy problem to solve with a moment's thought; you know that as well as I," he said.
Melpomaen sighed. "I know. I had never given such a possibility even the slightest thought, before, so I never considered how it might be. Why must it be thought such a bad thing, that two binn should love each other, even though the usual course is for a benn and a bess to love and wed?"*
"I was taught that it is because our first fathers, awakening beside the starlit waters of Cuiviénen, had each beside him the bess with whom he was to join, and that this meant that for each benn born after, there was one bess meant to be his mate; anything else was thus unnatural and due to the corruptions of Morgoth," said Haldir. "When I was a youth, I worried greatly about it, for I did not meet any bess whom I could love, and I was ashamed that there must be some contamination inborn that prevented this in me. And more so when I realized that I had greater feelings towards other binn than to biss. I never truly fell in love with any, till I first saw you, meldanya, but I knew where my emotions were likely to tend."
"How, then, were you able to overcome that shame? For surely you did, and before we ever met, or your own sense of dishonor would have kept you from ever speaking? How did you know that there could be true love between binn, given the jokes and the sniggering comments we all heard as children? For me, perhaps, it was easier, since I believed until you showed me otherwise that I did love a bess, Caranfíniel who rejected me," said Melpomaen.
Haldir flushed. "It is something that I would rather not talk about as we walk," he said. "Wait until we stop for the night, and then I will tell you. I see the eaves of the wood draw near; another hour or two of walking and we will reach them, and set up our camp, and then I will speak further of this."
Melpomaen could hardly dispute his lover's decision on the matter, though his curiosity was great. But he was glad that Haldir did not refuse to speak altogether.
It was nearly dusk when they finally stopped. Tonight was Melpomaen's turn to prepare the meal, and he set to it willingly to hasten Haldir's recital, while the older Elf gathered a substantial stack of wood to last them through the night.
"We'll probably want to do as we did on the outward journey, and travel by day through the forest as we have been doing since Dale," Haldir said. "But it might be a good idea to hunt tomorrow, and not enter the wood until the next day, when we should be better supplied."
"Yes, certainly," said Melpomaen impatiently. "Our meal for tonight is cooking but will take some time yet to be ready. Please, Dír. Tell me how you came to decide that you were no thrall to Morgoth by your very nature."
Haldir sat down on the edge of the blankets. Looking down, he began to toy with the point of his knife-blade, drawing it along the tips of his fingers, as he spoke.
"I was wandering about, not far from Cerin Amroth in fact, simply enjoying the wood and some time alone. I had but recently joined the rangers, and this was, I think, my second time of leave from my company. I did not know the land thereabout well, but had found a pleasant little stream and a tiny waterfall that tumbled over a rocky shelf to join it, perhaps twice my height, and was exploring along it. I had just realized that I could go no further without climbing up the rock, and was turning back when I saw that someone else had come to this solitary spot. Two others, in fact. I would have simply greeted them and gone my way, but by the time I saw them they had already begun to disrobe, and I saw that it was two binn who were there. I could not get past them without being noticed and causing everyone great distress, so I decided I would have to wait for them to leave."
He took a breath and continued. "I did not want to see what they were doing; something shameful, I was certain. But – and I cannot entirely regret it, though it was dishonorable of me – curiosity finally overcame me, and I looked."
"One of them I recognized, a slight acquaintance, someone who dwelt near my parents in Caras Galadon; he had no spouse. The other I did not know. The details of what they were doing are unimportant, and I have tried to forget most of them, to belatedly grant the couple their privacy, but one thing was clear to me, simply from how they behaved toward each other. This was no simple rutting like animals, as I had always thought such a thing must be. No, they clearly felt the same bond, the same kind of union, that I had only ever seen before in wedded couples. They were tender, they were joyful in their mutual love. This could be nothing to do with the evil of Morgoth and the marring of Arda; such exaltation of the spirit could only come from Eru Ilúvatar himself. Eventually they ended their tryst, and then departed. I do not believe either ever realized I was there; certainly they gave no sign of thinking themselves observed."
Melpomaen stirred, and laid a hand on Haldir's knee.
Haldir went on, "But having seen them, I realized that what I had been taught, I could no longer believe. I cannot quite make myself feel that it is entirely good, that I should love another benn; for one thing, such a couple as we cannot have children, we cannot contribute to the continuation of our people in that way. But far better this than to be solitary for all our lives, I think. So eventually and after much thought I accepted that if this is to be my fate, I should embrace it and live as fully as I can within it."
At last he looked up at his lover, his voice thick. "And so I shall. But we cannot change how all our people think, and that is what will hurt us."
Tears were running down Melpomaen's cheeks, and he reached to embrace Haldir, who leaned into him.
"It will never be easy, will it? But I am glad, so very glad, that you told me that," Melpomaen. He felt Haldir's chest heave, and the other Elf began to weep as well. Melpomaen tightened his hold with one arm, rubbing the other hand in easy circles on Haldir's back, murmuring all the words of comfort he could remember.
At last his tears slowed, and stopped, and Haldir looked up.
"I'm sorry. I never spoke of this before, of course; I did not realize how greatly it affected me." He drew his hand across his face, wiping away the wetness there.
Melpomaen used one finger under Haldir's chin to draw his face close, and kissed him in benediction. "You need not apologize, meldanya. For anything."
Haldir managed a crooked smile. "And now I am starving. Do you think the soup is done?"
Melpomaen chuckled at the practical question. "Probably, yes. If you are all right now? The soup can wait, otherwise."
"No, I really am hungry." Haldir drew himself up to sit cross-legged again. "We shall have to continue with this talk at some time, but not just now. I cannot speak any more about it now."
"No, I see that," Melpomaen said soothingly, handing Haldir his share of the meal. "Here, you will feel better after you have eaten something, I'm sure."
Haldir dipped his cram in the broth and nibbled on it. "I do not know how you do it, Maen. We have the same ingredients to work with, and yet it always tastes better when you cook than when I do."
Melpomaen smiled, glad to see that Haldir seemed to be recovering his equilibrium. "Natural talent, I suppose," he jested.
That brought a wry laugh from Haldir. "That must be it. An Elf of many talents, you are."
"Indeed I am, as you know. But talents, like swords, grow rusty if they are not honed regularly. After the meal I think we should exercise our talents together?"
Haldir raised an eyebrow. "If you mean what I presume you mean, then yes. But I would like to try my abilities first... I had something in mind, this morning, before less pleasant thoughts crowded it out."
"I shall be at your command." Melpomaen flourished his hand and pretended to bow low, something impossible to do properly while seated.
His hand was taken by Haldir, who pressed it to his lips and said, "Ah, Maen. If I had not already loved you, I would now. Just to be near you cheers me."
Melpomaen used a finger to trace the outline of Haldir's mouth. "I am glad of that, Dír."
The finger was drawn inside and Melpomaen felt a pulse of heat in his groin as Haldir circled it with his tongue, then relinquished it to the cool evening air.
"Finish your supper, first," chided Haldir, and bent to his own bowl. He had not exaggerated his hunger; not the day's long walk, but the strain of his confession had drained his energy.
"With a promise such as you make me, I might well emulate a greedy child and gobble down my food. But I will not. There would be no purpose in finishing before you, after all," said Melpomaen, who nonetheless ate with a certain alacrity, and had polished his bowl to shining before the other was through.
Standing up, he began to clear away the meal preparations, holding up his hand to stifle Haldir's protests.
"I know, you are going to say that since I cooked, you should do the rest. And so you should, usually. Not tonight. I want to do this for you, love; there is so little else I will be able to do," he finished with a touch of bitterness in his voice, a note that Haldir comprehended fully.
By the time Haldir had finished eating, Melpomaen had put away all traces of the meal except for the bowl and spoon his partner had used.
"Now, then," he said, taking those and setting them aside, "what do you will of me?"
"Only that you follow where I lead; and tell me if my path is not one you wish to take. But to begin with, stand here beside me," said Haldir.
They kissed lingeringly, hands threaded through each other's hair, tongues exploring and wordlessly sharing their love. Haldir moved one hand down Melpomaen's back to draw the other closer to him, feeling the play of muscles under the skin as he shifted his weight, one foot between Haldir's legs, their hips interlocking. Now Melpomaen reached to hold Haldir around the waist, leaning back slightly as he tilted his head to let Haldir move from lips to cheek to neck, lapping there at the sensitive skin in the hollow of his throat.
"Hmm," he sighed, closing his eyes to the sight of the red firelight to focus on the waves beating through his body. Now Haldir had relinquished his hold and was moving around, lifting up Melpomaen's dark hair to tease the back of his neck with light kisses, running one finger around his ear and down his throat.
"Stay as you are," came the whispered command, and Melpomaen waited patiently to see what Haldir would think to do next. The answer came with the touch of cloth on his face.
"When you did this to me, it made the moment more memorable," Haldir said, knotting the fabric firmly behind Melpomaen's head. "Now I will show you what it is like; to be cut off from one sense only heightens the others."
Melpomaen swayed a little, standing blindfolded and alone. He heard cloth rustling and supposed that Haldir was removing his own clothes. Then Haldir's hands were upon him again, slowly unfastening ties and pulling out laces, lifting one foot and then the other to remove his shoes, and again as his leggings were tugged down. Melpomaen shivered as the cooling night air struck his bare skin.
"A little," admitted Melpomaen.
"Then come here nearer the fire," and Haldir led him by the hand, urging him to the blankets laid close to the blaze. Gentle pressure on his shoulders brought him to kneel, then to lie prone, head turned toward the light he could not see. His arms rested by his sides, legs extended and slightly parted.
Haldir knelt away from the fire. He had removed only his tunic and shoes, as yet. The sight of his lover stretched out waiting for him made him catch his breath, and he reached for self-control. A smile quirked his mouth as he drew out one of the feathers he had so carefully collected that morning, and began to brush it lightly across Melpomaen's body: along his legs, arms, back, neck, even between his thighs.
Melpomaen quivered under the teasing touch, his skin rising up in gooseflesh at the unpredictable movements. After a few moments he could bear it no longer and laughed out loud.
"I am sorry, Haldir," he gasped. "That tickles!"
"Well, since I was bringing up such gloomy ideas earlier, I hoped to make you laugh with this," Haldir told him. "But I hope it feels good as well?"
"Yes," Melpomaen assured him. "Just... strange."
"That is all right, then." He continued, stroking the goose feather along the other Elf's spine, down the inviting crack, then back up to the shoulders. After a time he laid the feather aside carefully and began to use his own fingers instead, at first with a light touch, but gradually more firmly.
Melpomaen could hardly tell when the change occurred; though it was true, as Haldir had said, that the lack of sight made every other sense more alert. He could smell the still-damp leaves and grasses around, the smoke of the fire, a lingering wisp from their meal, the scent of their two bodies. The taste of Haldir's mouth still persisted. The crackle of the burning logs, the rustle of the trees, and his partner's breathing filled his ears; he could even hear the subtle squeak of his own joints whenever he moved slightly. But most of all it was the touches on his bared skin that occupied his attention. As Haldir began to knead his muscles with fingertip and knuckle, he gave himself up completely to the sensual pleasure of it.
For his part, Haldir enjoyed the idea that Melpomaen was entirely focused on him; having experienced the blindfold himself once, he knew what it would be like for the other.
He began to speak softly as he continued to stroke and massage his lover, from ankle to neck.
"You said earlier that you were glad I had spoken of how I found out that two binn might love truly. But you must know I was afraid to explain, because the way I did so was not with honor. And it was an overwhelming experience; everything that I had once believed of myself was suddenly turned upside down, and I no longer felt that anything in this world was secure and safe."
"I know," murmured Melpomaen. "I understood that."
"And so many years later, when I had despaired that I would never find anyone, neither benn nor bess, whom I could love, to meet you... and to believe that you might never return my feelings. It has been like swimming across an unknown lake, never knowing where there might be a rock unseen below the glittering surface."
"Mmm," was the reply.
"It is strange to me that you can accept this with relative ease, you know, Maen. We must talk of that sometime."
"If you will. But not tonight, meldanya."
"No," agreed Haldir, and fell back into silence, one hand running lightly along Melpomaen's back, caressing rather than teasing now. With his other hand he loosened his last garments. He crouched awkwardly to slip them off without losing touch and disturbing his partner. Then, languorously, he stretched his own body over Melpomaen's, pressing chest to back and kissing the side of his face below the sight-concealing cloth.
Melpomaen turned his head a bit further, to let Haldir's lips capture his own. They tasted sweet and wild, and he sighed in contentment.
Now Haldir moved onto the blanket and rolled Melpomaen onto his side, slipping his hand along the line of the dark-haired Elf's ribs and reaching down to the eager member below. Melpomaen groaned as Haldir grasped him, sliding down to the base and hooking two fingers around the tender pouch that hung there. Haldir kissed him gently, using his tongue to coax open Melpomaen's lips, sucking the other's tongue into his own mouth and tugging on it even as he stroked his hardened cock. He could feel the tension gathering, matched in his own body, and abruptly pulled back and sat up, only to lie down again facing the other way, so that he could take Melpomaen into his mouth.
He licked first at the head emerging shyly from its hood, then opened further to engulf him completely, letting his throat relax as much as he could.
Melpomaen flung one arm over Haldir's hip to draw him closer; the musky scent of Haldir's desire tempted him, and suddenly the older Elf was aware that Melpomaen was reciprocating, kiss for kiss, caress for caress. Each swirl of the tongue he gave brought a mirrored answer, and thrilled him in delight. They lay, so, for long moments, carefully holding back from reaching the pinnacle of their delight, prolonging the exquisite joy. Then Haldir released Melpomaen, waited until the other did the same, and sat up, tugging at Melpomaen's shoulders until he did so as well.
Haldir set Melpomaen's feet so they encircled his back, and moved close until they were pressed together from rib to groin, their lengths pulsating against one another, still moist from the wet kisses. Embracing his lover, his own legs enwrapped Melpomaen's buttocks and clamped them to him, rocking them together like babes in the womb. He reached up to tug the blindfold from Melpomaen's face, wanting him now to see his face.
"Please," whispered Melpomaen hoarsely. "Please, meldanya."
"What?" was the soft reply.
"Please, now," and with that encouragement, Haldir rubbed his own hardness against Melpomaen's straining organ, slipping one hand between their bellies to stroke them to a joined climax. They kissed, gazing at one another, their spirits mingling even as their seed.
"Your eyes – they will kill me, their beauty is too great to sustain," murmured Haldir against Melpomaen's mouth, enraptured by the glory he saw. (2)
Melpomaen drew in a shuddering breath, and laid his cheek against Haldir's shoulder, too spent to respond.
(1) Benn (pl. binn) and bess (pl. biss) are the Sindarin words that mean "man" and "woman" respectively, in the general sense, not referring specifically to mortal Men. Note: the more commonly seen terms nér / neri and nís / nissi are Quenya, not Sindarin; these two Elves from Lothlórien would not have used them. I can justify an endearment in Quenya, but not an ordinary word! It took me half an hour to track this down, using HoMe vols. 5 and 10, and the online site Ardalambion. Who says smut can't be pedantic in its own way?
(2) Paraphrase of two lines from the poem "Merciles Beaute" by Geoffrey Chaucer: "Your yen two wol slee me sodenly; / I may the beautee of hem not sustene."
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