3. Chapter Two: Ash and Ember
Author's Notes: It's a true sign of life regaining some semblance of normality if I can churn out a chapter in under five months and a longish one at that for your patience. Special thanks to Thorongirl, Ilaaris, LadyGreySun, Ragnelle, kestrels, Calenlass Greenleaf1, Sierra Leone, Elsendor, Nieriel-mithril, Valante, TheLauderdale, and ziggy3 for taking the time to review the first two chapters. Fresh insight always helps keep me on track, and reviews, especially, open a seldom-cracked window into that most mysterious part of a writer's craft: the reader. Thank you all for shedding a little light!
Chapter Two: Ash and Ember
Borders are scratched across the hearts of men, by strangers with a calm, judicial pen, and when the borders bleed we watch with dread the lines of ink along the map turn red.
Imladris, 15 October, in this year of 2993
To the most esteemed Lord of Erebor and restored King under the Mountain, Dain II son of Nain, greetings and goodwill from Master Elrond of Imladris and his folk.
As the season deepens in our valley, and the roads become ever more treacherous, it is to the advantage of both of our respective realms if this business at hand is concluded forthwith.
To that end, should the agreed-upon trade be subject to difficulty upon its journey—including fire, water damage, or outside attack of the servants of the Enemy (but excluding carelessness and thievery of persons responsible for the goods' safe transportation), it is agreed herein that both parties who have stake will hereby reduce by half all tariffs, and the cost of replacement, labor, and weregilds as may result from outside circumstances will be evenly divided, according to the agreement between the Mountain and Imladris laid out in full below…
The blotting sand sifted across still-glistening ink, burying the carefully crafted words and reworked phrases beneath a pile of grey ash. Elrohir wiped his ink-stained fingers on a handkerchief and stood to stretch with a soft groan. Neck, back, fingers, legs, even his eyes ached from being forced to confine themselves to the form of a chair, the width of a secretary, the rigor of pen and ink and endless sheets of blank parchment while he pored over the last trade agreements of the season between Imladris and the newly-established King under the Mountain. Dain II was typical of dwarf-kind and notoriously difficult to negotiate with; he had delayed and demurred all summer. And now autumn was half-gone.
Elrohir washed his hands of the entire matter, figuratively and literally. Their coal, iron, and gemstones for Imladris' spices, linens, and wines. If the dwarves did not accept it, they would find this winter less comfortable than past ones. Forcing his cramped fingers around a stub of sealing wax, he picked up a candle to add his father's seal. The problem now would be finding a messenger to take it. With the season deepening quickly, fewer and fewer dared the mountain passes and the long, perilous journey between here and Erebor.
A draft caressed his spine, pricking the hairs on the back of his neck, yet the shutters and door were closed. It was as if someone had opened an invisible door or window in the walls.
A threshold gaped, a starved mouth in a face of bony granite. The chill seeping from it was overpowering as if the blackness had breath and blood. It wanted to swallow him. It beckoned him forward with a crooked finger and spoke words to him in a tongue he did not understand. Low and throbbing and very far away, like a heartbeat, like a voice calling from beneath the earth, the sound of drums…
The candle in Elrohir's hand jerked, splattering wax all over the fresh document and nearly setting it ablaze. Startled and disoriented, he gazed wildly around the room as if half-expecting to find that the dark door had opened in his chamber. It had not, of course. After the little flame licking along the parchment was extinguished and his pulse slowed to a more reasonable rhythm, he owned that he had been in this room for too long.
There were days when he wished his mother had given birth to Elladan first, then he would be the one closeted in close chambers, leaving Elrohir free to gallivant about the wilds with Gildor and his men for seasons at a time. He rubbed his face hard, trying to clear his head of the echoes of drums.
"Don't let me startle you."
Elrohir's head snapped up towards the doorway. As if conjured by his thoughts, there stood Elladan, fresh from the stables in muck and straw-caked boots with a damp and unfamiliar cloak draped over one arm. His clothes were threadbare, his hair pulled into a loose queue at his neck, his face a little gaunter, a little browner. But he grinned at Elrohir's surprise.
"Must you bring half the stables in along with your disreputable footwear?" Elrohir inquired.
"Well, that is a fine 'well met, brother. Your absence was felt by all and sundry. How glad I am to see you safe and sound!'" Elladan retorted in injured tones, tossing his filthy cloak across the back of an upholstered chair.
Elrohir scarcely noticed, the horror of the unknown door still strong in his mind. Whether it had been a vision or a result of fatigue and overwork, he could not tell, and the more he thought about it, the more he wondered if he had actually seen anything at all.
"You look a little queer. Are you all right?"
He looked up to find Elladan beside his chair, looking down at him with an expression that reminded him far too much of their father in its breadth of concern and anxious inquiry.
Immediately Elrohir sat up and relaxed his face into a bland smile, only his fingers' continued tread through his hair betraying the depth of his disconcertion. "I'm fine. A little tired."
"Have you shut yourself up in here for days?" Elladan cast an eye around the room, somewhat disordered with crumpled piles of parchment on every flat surface, empty ink bottles, slivers of broken quills and sharpened nibs. The flagstones before the fireplace were littered with ash and cinders, and a whole host of dreg-filled teacups aligned the windowsill.
"Well, if you had been here to give me a little aid, it might not have taken so long," Elrohir retorted, glancing down ruefully at the ruined document.
"Have you eaten?"
Elrohir rolled his shoulders noncommittally.
"Nor slept, either, by the look of you. You look dreadful." Only half-playfully.
"I have been otherwise occupied of late," Elrohir protested, resenting this rather hypocritical statement from his brother who looked as you would expect one who has roughed it in the wild for months at a time to look.
"Yes, tricky business those trade agreements," Elladan said with a sniff at the document that had taken him most of the day and now sat still smoking faintly. "Must make sure the linens are not mistaken for toadstools and all that."
Elrohir suppressed the urge to cast his eyes heavenward. "Spoken as one who has never had to write such in his life."
"You are surly when you're hungry." Elladan cuffed his shoulder, eliciting a surprised grunt from its owner. "Come! I must wash and change, but afterwards, we'll air you out a bit. A decent meal, a draught of wine and a little company will do wonders for you. Gildor's fellows are rounding up the lads in the barracks for a little homecoming celebration."
"No, thank you. Knowing you, I would not find myself able to stand ere nightfall. And a night of carousal I cannot afford. This needs to go out by the morning." It would take him the better part of the night to recopy the document. "And I must find a messenger to—"
Elladan dismissed his protests with a flick of his fingers and a sharper glance that had not quite lost all its concern. "It is after nightfall now. Messengers won't go out until tomorrow morning at the earliest. You have plenty of time. I'll even deliver them to the courier myself, if you like. You are joining us."
Elrohir followed his brother through the door that adjoined their chambers and folded his arms in a feigned attitude of insouciance against the doorframe.
"Estel arrived while you were gone. He was not alone."
Elladan loosened his boot laces. "I know," There was a note of reproof in his voice. "He and Haldir were there to greet me in the courtyard."
Elrohir's gaze fixed on the chest at the foot of Elladan's bed.
Elladan must have sensed something in his silence for his other boot dropped to the floor with a thoughtful thump. "Is that why you shut yourself away? Because Haldir is here?"
After their initial, inauspicious encounter, Elrohir and Haldir had come to a tacit accord to avoid each other. A feat made difficult by the fact that both often sought the same places for diversion and amusement and the same persons with whom to socialize. If they did meet in passing, they spoke of small things with a civility polished by long habit under watchful eyes and ended the conversation as quickly as decency would allow—sometimes before.
But Elrohir tired quickly of such pretensions. It wasn't in him to feign amity and ease when he felt neither, and his own quarters offered ample privacy, space to think, and a means of distraction. Or so he told himself to keep from thinking about how narrow the walls seemed after three days, how tired he was of reading, and his indignation of having to hide. Was he not the heir of Imladris? Did he not have a right to walk about his own halls without fear of being discomfited?
But he did not leave his chambers.
However, explaining all this to Elladan, who viewed his feelings about the captain as something of an embarrassment, would only invite censure, accusations of stubbornness, or worse. So he said nothing.
"Elrohir," Elladan said in the kind of half-conciliating, half-patronizing tone one takes with a horse that refuses the bit, "It was long ago. How you can carry a quarrel for so long—You would think you would be grateful."
"Grateful!" Elrohir hissed, aghast. "Grateful? What on earth for? What has he ever done that you should feel grateful to him?"
"Our knighthoods, for one," Elladan retorted, calmly. "Or do you forget that he stood for us at our ceremony? That our skills and our swords are of his honing?"
"I like to think we had some little to do with it," Elrohir said with some asperity. "But that is the past, and it is not of the past that I would speak."
He advanced to the window in a pretext of examining the night, but the bright candlelight made a mirror of the glass. He stared at his reflection for a moment before offering, "He has appropriated the lodge for his use."
"The lodge he built, you mean?"
Elrohir ignored him. "A passel of young hunters and scouts have taken to spending their evenings there. Indulging in vulgar songs, violent tales, and fugitive liquor." From his own window, he could see the lights, and he had left the casements shut and locked to muffle the singing.
"You speak as if we were not guilty of the same when we were young." Elladan laughed, and the sound goaded Elrohir into turning abruptly.
"That is not the point! You may laugh, but you have not been here. It is not fitting for our soldiers to squander their time so, whatever leniency he allows his in Lórien. I would not have my men so poisoned with his habits."
"Poisoned?" Elladan echoed with an incredulous twitch of an eyebrow. "A little strong choice of words, don't you think?"
"Not at all. You know better than I how he ill-uses himself and, indeed, have told me as much."
Elladan shifted so that the bed slats creaked and was silent for a little. "If it distresses you, then tell him so. Bid him cease. You are marshal of the barracks after all—"
"Has your journey truly so fatigued you, or are you being deliberately obtuse?" Elrohir snorted. "He will not heed me."
Elladan had sense enough to concede this point. "If even Grandfather is at pains to manage him at times, I can see how you might flounder. But what can one do? He has always been a law unto himself. He is the way he is."
Elrohir returned to his perusal of the window, of the mirror-faces therein. Ever a wonder that two faces so alike could conceal minds so very different. "Always his champion, you are. One would think he had never done anything to injure anyone."
A sigh of long-standing frustration fetched up hard against his back.
"Elrohir, I do not want my first night home to be spoilt by bitterness and ill-feeling." Elladan's eyes caught and held his in the surface of the glass. "And I will not have you slandering him to his face."
"It is not slander if it is the truth," Elrohir murmured, tipping his chin up mutinously. "You would accuse me of poor memory, but you seem to have forgotten the court-martial you attended along with the rest of his transgressions."
Strangers' curious remarks regarding Imladris' Lady and her 'close companion' had circulated for years. Whoever saw them walking in the gardens or dancing on a festival night could not fail to mark the devotion between them or the fact that the captain was more often seen in her company than her husband. Rumors of stolen caresses in dark-stricken corridors and trysts in secluded groves proved fine fodder for the valley's gossipmongers, but went ignored as such since Imladris' servants were discreet to a fault and spread no idle tales. Even tentative questions put by unimpeachable friends were at first gently dismissed out of hand then met with defensive incredulity.
But when the then-marshal of the barracks burst unannounced into the family's private chambers one night, closely followed by two wardens, who shouldered between them the captain of Lórien, blood sluicing down his face from a judiciously given blow, the matter could no longer remain unaddressed.
When Angren related what he had seen, Elrohir had merely stared at the bloodstained stranger before him, unable to fully divine how and why his world had turned on its head. Elladan had been outraged and unbelieving. Their father had been silent. Their mother, conspicuous by her absence.
Even now, Elladan's expression darkened with warning. "Yes, I attended that shameful farce—as did you—and you know as well as I, Angren had no love of Haldir—"
"I also know that Haldir did nothing to defend himself. He let them cut his sacred braids and lash him like a cur. What is that if not proof of guilt? If not for Grandmother's unfathomable indulgence, he wouldn't have his head or his manhood, much less the commission he so egregiously neglects now." Elrohir had not realized he'd begun to pace from corner to corner until Elladan's next words brought him up short.
"Mother defended him."
The three words sparked the frayed edge of his temper. "Of course she did! She always did! Indeed, one wonders what manner of favors he plied her with to merit such consideration. For all the good it—"
But his brother's face checked the diatribe on Elrohir's tongue. It had closed, tight and hard and dark as a crevice through which he could not pass. He faltered and fell silent.
"It is well Father did not hear you say that," Elladan said with deliberate softness as if to underscore Elrohir's outburst. "Elrohir. I will not argue this again. I have no wish to grow angry with you, and I shall if you continue. I do not ask you to enjoy his company. I am asking you to let me enjoy yours. I am newly returned home and, for once, most of the people I love are here, whole, and desirous of feting my return properly with an entirely inappropriate amount of the vineyard's finest vintage. If you love me, give me this."
Without waiting for a reply, he jerked his tunic over his head, flung it in the direction of the wicker basket, and stalked into the bathchamber, shutting the door carefully behind him as if he did not quite trust himself not to slam it.
Faced with the implacable countenance of the wood grain, Elrohir deflated. Shame, cold and sickening, pricked the edges of his conscience. Earning Elladan's anger before his brother even had a chance to wash the dust of the road from his body was not how Elrohir had pictured their long-awaited reunion.
He sank slowly onto the edge of the quilt in his brother's former place, resting his elbows on his knees, and gazed unseeingly at the braided carpet.
Even without his presence, Haldir once again proved the loose string that threatened to unravel the weft of the family cloth. Harder words than these had been exchanged between he and Elladan over this very matter. But for all the times Elrohir had made his argument, had craved an ally in his kin, Elladan refused to relinquish the tight-clutched imago of his childhood idol.
At times, especially now, Elrohir almost wished his brother's ignorance on himself that he might have such unshakable faith to steady him, that he might be free to believe that everyone was what you believed them to be, and the world was not the dark, unforgiveable place he knew it was.
When Elladan emerged an indefinable time later, Elrohir swallowed bile and pride both and spoke towards the floor. "It was not my intent to incite a quarrel—particularly not when I have longed for your homecoming. It is very dull here without you."
Elladan pulled fresh clothes from his chest, the wet thorn-thicket of his hair concealing his expression. "Is it?"
A small concession, those two words, but Elrohir took them as a sign of his brother's softening. Knowing he had tried Elladan's patience, he forced his lips into a semblance of a smile. "Hideously so. How fared your journey? Tell me all. I want to hear every sordid story, every ridiculous ballad, every bawdy jest. In Gildor's company, I'm sure there was no lack."
Elladan looked up through his hair then flung an arm around Elrohir's neck with a suddenness that robbed his breath. "Indeed, no, there was not! And I shall be most happy to oblige! But if you desire a full account, I suppose you will just have to join us after all."
Partly to restore peace between them, partly because he could not stand the thought of sitting at his secretary another hour alone with his thoughts, and partly because Elladan looked to squeeze the breath out of him if he did not, Elrohir agreed.
Blue and green lanterns strung amidst the branches leant the grove a festive, vernal air as if even the oaks and maples sought to delay the dark days just a little longer. But the wind carried more than a hint of autumn's bite, and the heat of the bonfire on his face and the wine in his veins was welcome indeed.
Though consciousness of his station and his dignity rendered an all-out carousal out of the question, Elrohir found he was enjoying himself, despite himself, satisfied with a corner and a cup of wine that, if not endlessly emptied, at least remained pleasantly half-full. For the first time in days, the muscles in his back and shoulders had let loose their tension.
Even Elladan's sidling off with a few comrades for a little gambling and tale-telling failed to move him overmuch.
He looked up from the glowing wood as Gildor Inglorion stood with a purposeful air, his fair hair gilded by lantern and lambent flame. A conspiratorial smile hitched up one corner of his lips as he lifted his mazer high. The talking and jests quieted. All eyes turned to him.
"A toast!" he called, his voice ringing out with practiced ease over the assembly. "To the hospitality of the Master of Imladris and his folk! Their grapes are as sweet as their maidens. Their land as glorious as Spring in Yavanna's gardens—"
Elrohir rolled his eyes. "And your tongue as cloying as birdlime! Cease your flattery, Gildor, and let us drink ere we perish of thirst!"
Amidst the laughter, Gildor cast a look of mock-sternness down his nose at him. "It is well, young lord, that you are the provider of such bounty, or I might be tempted to pour it over your head."
Elrohir acknowledged both threat and cheers with his own raised tin. Amidst Gildor's merry company, no gloom could last for long. The wandering Elves always provided a much-needed bout of levity and change when they visited Imladris, and those not on duty at the barracks, learning of their advent, had shirked other entertainments to meet them. Old comrades exchanged news; new acquaintances exchanged names and a little more; talk and wine-warmed laughter swirled through the air, sweeter than a final breath of spring.
"This is the most cheerful you have looked all night," Gildor remarked, taking a seat beside him. "When you came with Elladan, I thought he was dragging you to your execution, what with the dour look on your face."
"I have not been in the best spirits of late," Elrohir admitted.
Though he granted Elrohir an understanding smile, Gildor did not ask for details. A lifetime of leading a company of wandering Elves—most of them either Exiles or chance-met strangers who had left their homes, their families, their lives, for reasons of their own—had all but extinguished his interest in others' private affairs. For which Elrohir was grateful.
"Well, I am glad to see them lifted," Gildor said and changed the subject easily. "I would find it hard not to be when you are here in the autumn. There is a certain tinge of memory in the trees that is not present at other seasons. Though as early as autumn has come on, I think we look to a hard winter and a long. If your father will have us emptying the buttery, we may stay the season."
"You know perfectly well my father has asked you many times to remain permanently if you wish," Elrohir told him over the rim of his cup.
Gildor laughed, the light of the fire on his smooth, handsome face making him seem younger than his many years. "Ah, but as your father very well knows, my heart is not made for one home. I chose the wandering life long ago and am content in it. I cannot change now."
"Though I will say," he added after a thoughtful pause, "I am glad to know that Imladris is here. It is not often we find a place of safety and rest where our gear—or other things—can be mended."
"Your journey was not an easy one, I take it?" Elrohir had seen something like relief in the hard, lean faces of Gildor's men this night. Edginess lurked beneath their slightly too-loud laughter, a tension they vetted with wine and song and comradeship.
A shadow flitted across Gildor's face. "It seems with every passing year, the world grows a little darker, and the roads we once traveled unmolested are not as safe as once they were."
"I can scarce imagine anyone or anything causing you much concern, Gildor," Elrohir said. There were few indeed who would be so brash and so foolish as to challenge an elven company openly upon the road, and he said as much.
Gildor looked at him, and Elrohir was taken aback by the sudden gravity in his stare. "Nonetheless. You were missed."
Elrohir sensed mild recrimination in his elder's words. Elladan's desire for errantries abroad had only increased with the years, and each time they rode out whether in the company of others or together alone, Elrohir worried. All it would take was a twist of a horse's leg to throw its rider into a tree, an unseen arrow from a night-shrouded grove, or in the thick and clutch of battle, a poisoned blade nicking an arm…And he could not bear to think of their father, alone in the great house, having to hear the news that another of their shrinking family had been lost to orcs.
So he had stayed, braving Elladan's disappointment—and, truth be told, his own at whiles. He did not like the feeling that Gildor thought him a coward for his choice.
"I was needed here," Elrohir retorted a trifle defensively. "My father desired my presence, and I do not have the luxury as Elladan does to abandon my responsibilities and duties for a lark in the wild."
Far from taking offense at Elrohir's churlish reply, Gildor laughed his easy laugh. "The curse of the firstborn, I am afraid, Elrohir. I meant only that your brother was good company though it was not the same without you. We do so tire of staring at the same faces for seasons on end."
Abashed at his childish oversensitivity, he mumbled, "I doubt my own face would have alleviated that." But his words were half-lost under a shouted hail.
"Not I, my lord!" One of Gildor's men had overheard them and detached himself with a little difficultly from his seat upon a fallen log. "I could feast upon the sight of your noble features though a king's table were laid before me."
"Ausir, you flatterer." Gildor cuffed the shoulder of a Noldorin elf who crouched easily beside them. He was lithe and sinewy with a narrow, hawklike face. "Elrohir, this is Ausir. He's been traveling with me for years uncounted now. And a more feckless, miserable rascal you could never hope to meet."
"Always free with your compliments, my lord," the 'rascal' said, unrepentantly filching the wineskin from his lord's hand and refilling his mazer.
"With such company, I'm sure Elladan felt right at home," Elrohir said and held out his own.
Ausir obliged. "It is an honor to meet you, my lord. Your brother has told us tales."
"Has he indeed? Not too maligning, I hope," Elrohir japed in an effort to forget his earlier distemper.
"Not too," Ausir agreed with a wink. "I had heard of the legendary skill of Elrond's sons with a blade, but I had yet to see it with my own eyes until we had the honor of your brother in our company."
Elrohir frowned. "I hope his blade-skill was not too much needed upon your road."
"Blade-skill is always needed when dealing with orcs," Ausir said, taking a swig from the skin.
Elrohir struggled to shake the fog of wine from his limbs as he sat up abruptly. "Orcs?"
Ausir's dark eyes flicked from Elrohir to his lord questioningly and back again.
"We were upon the Great-Road, near the bridge of Tharbad a fortnight past," Gildor explained, snatching the wineskin out of Ausir's hands. "It is treacherous there since the loss of the king. The marshes have grown wild, and the river-crossing perilous with all the snow we had last winter. The undergrowth was thick upon the other side. We did not see them until it was too late. Ausir's horse was killed out from under him, and if not for your brother's quick thinking and a good deal of luck, we might have lost him, too."
"I am glad to see you safe and sorry for your loss," Elrohir said. The words sounded mechanic even though he meant them for he was fond himself of his own mount. For wanderers like the Exiles of Gildor's company, a companion was as close as many would get to home.
Ausir nodded but did not raise his eyes.
"I have never known orcs to stray so close to Dunland territory before," Gildor said, fiddling absently with the wineskin's strap. "The herdsmen, in particular, have set traps for Sauron's servants before to keep their flocks and homesteads from being raided."
"Orcs are arrogant. They will dare anywhere if it means they stand to gain something or cause misery to others," Elrohir said blackly, staring into the fire until the smoke and heat beat at his eyes.
"We need not talk of this now—" Gildor began.
"How many were they? Did you take any captive? Question their purpose?" Elrohir rattled off the usual litany.
"Large for a roving band. About a score, maybe. They must have had some other errand for they did not press their advantage and headed north. Such as we were, we could not pursue, and we are not in the habit of taking prisoners anyway. It would have been foolish to try." Gildor sounded as if he had had this argument before, and Elrohir did not doubt Elladan had pressed insistently for the pursuit.
"I'd say we were lucky enough not to be taken captive ourselves," Ausir said, staring into his cup. "Who knows what they would have done to us."
Elrohir went very still. Even after all these years, it still hurt to hear.
Gildor looked hard and meaningfully at Ausir. The elf's lips went white and slack as he realized the thoughtlessness of his last remark.
"I-I beg your most sincere pardon, my lord. I meant—"
Elrohir shook his head. There was nothing to be said for it. He had grown to hate that constricting look, that look where they saw, instead of him, a woman covered in blood and nightmare.
As the silence stretched to an unbearable length, he drank off his cup in one long, hard swallow and got to his feet as quickly as the vintage's heavy hand allowed.
"It is late, and I have lingered overlong. Where has my miserable brother slipped off to? I would not leave him bereft of my company without first informing him of the fact." He meant to sound light and teasing, but neither Ausir nor Gildor so much as attempted a smile.
"He and a few lads retired to the lodge, I think," Ausir offered as if to make up for his gaffe.
Avoiding Gildor's concerned glance, Elrohir thanked him and went in search of Elladan.
Once beyond the fire's reach, the wind wrapped its chill arms about him, but fortified by the wine's vigorous embrace, he leaned into it as he sought the unlit path between the bonfire and the lodge.
When he and Elladan had been youthful enough to consider the lodge a venerable distance from home, it had been a secret place and a special point of pride to which only they and those they favored were permitted access. The better part of four seasons' labor had seen an edifice that blended the naturalness and durability of Silvan architecture with the elegance and comfort of Noldorin design.
But deeper than its fashioning, in the air of the rooms, in the grain of the rafters, in the scent of applewood smoke from the chimney, lay the memories of lazy days and gentle nights, shared confidences and kept secrets.
Elrohir had not entered it in years, and even the trees seemed to think little of his return for they snagged at his heels with their roots, and the earth bowed its back underfoot, so that he all but fell against the door when he finally reached it. Had his legs felt less like stirred honey, he might have left Elladan to his wassail in favor of bed.
Heaving open the door released a gush of firelit air, the smell of men close-quartered, and a shout of raucous laughter that struck him full in the face. Dazed, he halted on the threshold.
"Elrohir! At last!" Elladan waved him in over the laughter. "Shut the cursed door, will you?"
Elrohir did as he was bidden, more because he had been bidden rather than out of a desire to do so. He had thought it more crowded, but as his eyes adjusted to the smoky interior, he picked out a mere handful, who had commandeered the rush-rug in front of the fireplace: his brother and Aragorn, naturally, the young scout Lalaith from his own command, and one or two he did not recognize but by the fashioning of their dress and hair guessed to be two of Gildor's.
Judging by the loose sprawl of their limbs and the hectic flush in their cheeks, they had outdone their comrades at the bonfire in celebrating Elladan's homecoming. Indeed, a wine barrel stood upended and tapped at the hearthstone corner and seated comfortably atop it was the one person Elrohir had not hoped to meet tonight.
Haldir acknowledged him with a slow nod and an upraised glass. "So. Sullen Turin has deigned to emerge from Menegroth at last to mingle with his baseborn fellows. What has so engaged your time, Elrohir?"
Elrohir knew better than to disregard the question. "I have been otherwise occupied."
"Ah. Trade agreements have their uses too, I suppose," Haldir's smile suggested he knew Elrohir's game and was letting him off lightly. "Now that our merry company is complete, it's time for something finer than this swill your brother insists on downing."
Snorting indignantly, Elladan pulled Elrohir down to a place between him and Estel. "I am glad you came. You do keep to yourself too much, brother," he whispered loud enough for the room to hear.
"And you have had more wine than is good for you."
Elladan grinned lopsidedly at him and tossed a languid arm around his shoulders. "That I have and an excellent vintage it is. Haldir has just been regaling us with one of his, ahem, exploits in the South."
"A load of rubbish." With a little difficulty, Lalaith hauled himself up onto his elbow and fired an accusative, albeit blurry, glare across the room at Haldir, who was rooting through a cabinet. "I don't believe a word of it."
"I never lie," came the muffled answer.
"But no woman—even a Harad trull—can do that with her—"
"Do not say it again!" Elladan stuffed his fingers in his ears with a delighted grimace.
Elrohir glanced sidelong at Aragorn. "A Harad woman? You did not mention that."
"I had very little to do with it at all," Aragorn said, expelling a stream of pipe smoke in his comrade's direction. "And from what I was told, said wanton was more modest than many queens."
"I knew it!"
"Estel. You are ruining my fun." Haldir returned with a dusky bottle and seven glasses. He stepped over the ranger's outstretched legs and thrust one into his hands. "Drink this. At least, that will stop your mouth."
Elrohir warily accepted the finely-wrought crystal glass handed him—the same kind of finely wrought crystal that usually adorned the cabinet in his father's drawing room—and eyed the amber liquid within.
"Father will be little pleased at your filching his good whiskey. And his crystal, for that matter," he muttered, prompting a guilty wince from Elladan.
Haldir heard him. "Are you your father's scullery maid or his heir? Set your mind at ease, Elrohir, we shall see them safely returned by morning."
"If much emptier," said one of Gildor's men with a grin. "What shall we drink to?"
"To the fairest lady ever to grace the paths of Imladris," Lalaith said at once, thrusting his glass so vigorously in the air, he nearly spilled it. "Tathariel Gelmir's daughter."
"You make the same toast every time, Lalaith. One would think if you so desired the lady, you would have abandoned our company for hers by now," Gildor's man grumbled, but he raised his glass in salute nonetheless.
Elrohir only wet his lips. His father's whiskies were potent.
"You don't understand, Cúron," Lalaith moaned as one in mortal torment. "She is a—a true lady. I couldn't go to her just…"
"It has nothing to do with the fact that her father is also one of Elrond's retainers and would have your jewels for even thinking of laying hands on her, would it?" Cúron returned slyly.
"Well, yes, there is that too."
"Ah, well, have another drink. But go slowly with this one will you, son of Rancir?" Elladan said, attempting to muster his commander's voice and being marginally more successful at swiping the rest of the whiskey out of his scout's indignant reach. "Your father will skin me as is for allowing you so much leniency and exposing your tender ears to all our bawdy talk."
With the typical fervor of the young, Lalaith protested vehemently that he was well of age to indulge in their sport and their tales, and his father had no say in it whatsoever.
"So, the lady is beyond your reach, is she?" Haldir said, beckoning Elladan to refill his glass.
The youth sighed. "What shall I do?"
"Oh, there are many remedies for such ailments. The easiest is to look only as far as the end of your arm," Haldir said, lifting the glass to his lips.
This earned choking snorts from both Elladan and Cúron and a bemused frown at his right hand from Lalaith.
"Or, barring that…" The harsher burr of the captain's Silvan 'r's' were beginning to tell through his Sindarin. "…take a horse to the nearest town of Men, look for a red door or a crimson lantern in the window, inquire within whether there are any—what did you say the lady looked like again?"
"She is beautiful beyond compare. Her eyes are like emeralds…her hair as dark and sweet as honey…She is unlike anything I have ever seen."
"They all are. It should be easy enough then to find a lady of that quality. And—" He made an expansive gesture to encompass what would follow.
Lalaith slowly turned a mottled purple as he realized what was being implied, and his hand dropped to his hip in search of a blade with which to defend his lady's honor. "Tathariel is fairer than any mortal slattern. How dare you—?"
Elrohir had heard enough. The poor lad was too wine-addled and too young to know that Haldir was purposefully trying to get a rise out of him. "He is not in earnest, Lalaith." Then to Haldir. "I cannot see what poor sport you find in baiting the boy, Captain. Particularly when not all of us are as…knowledgeable as you about where to slake our baser thirsts."
Beside him Elladan stiffened, but Elrohir paid him no heed.
Haldir cast him a look that lingered somewhere between amused and unfathomable in its intensity. "It is 'Captain,' still then?"
"I believe it was you who sought distance between us," Elrohir replied.
"Drink your drink, Elrohir. You look parched." Haldir jerked his chin at the still full glass in Elrohir's hand. "Or are you some timorous flower that you fear anything stronger than water?"
Elrohir was not fool enough to yield to such deliberate provocation. Instead, he mustered as much contempt as he could and smiled with it. "I am quite comfortable, thank you."
But his little act of defiance only spurred the captain's barbed tongue to further lashes. "Since brambles and weeds along the roadside are so little to your liking, might I inquire what fair flower has turned your head this season? Or do you remain in the cloister of your study amidst your tomes and your quills, seeking nothing warmer than another candle to better your light?"
Dimly, Elrohir saw Gildor's men exchange uncomfortable glances. Lalaith was fidgeting with his drink. Elladan and Aragorn sat, silent and watchful. They sensed something in the air. There was too much jeering behind the jest, too much intent to draw blood rather than score a mere scratch. And draw blood it had. For Haldir had, as he usually did, struck upon the truth.
Elrohir had not had a lover in more years than he would safely admit aloud. He had had his share of fumbles and dalliances when a young soldier, as they all did, but after his mother's departure…his desire for it had dimmed. Or rather, the comfort of a night's bedplay, even with a willing and able partner, seemed a hollow palliative for a greater pain. Burying his face in sweet curls or laying his head to rest on a soft breast only sharpened the ache and the loss of one who had drifted forever beyond his reach.
Of course, the only one he had divulged this to was Elladan, and he glanced at him, fearful that wine and fellowship might have sufficiently loosened his brother's tongue to the point of divulging confidences. To his relief, Elladan stared fixedly down into his glass and did not look up.
"I would rather not make spectacle of my privacy, Captain, if it is all the same to you," was all Elrohir said.
Suddenly very aware of the eyes of the company itching over his skin, the dryness in his throat, he lifted his glass to his lips and drank it off. The liquor scalded him all the way to his stomach, prickling down his forearms and numbing his fingertips.
"Could it be there is nothing to make a spectacle of?" Haldir inquired lightly. His hard smile sharpened into a leer. "Or, perhaps, it is not the slick folds and soft sighs of a doe you desire at all. Is that it, Elrohir? Does the hardness and vigor of a stag call you, instead?"
Elrohir was not sure if the treacherous warmth suffusing his neck and face was that of the whiskey or the words, but he set the empty glass down with a decisive clink. Struggling up, for his limbs had grown unaccountably awkward and heavy, he inclined his head to the others. "Thank you for your company, gentlemen. But I think I have had my fill for one night."
Elladan looked up at him appealingly. "You do not have to leave."
Elrohir just shook his head though the dizziness behind his eyes made him wish he hadn't and headed for the door.
He did not know how it happened, only that the room turned over beneath him. He heard a surprised exclamation and the sound of smashing crystal. Somehow, the table had overturned with he sprawled beneath it. Breathless more with surprise than hurt, he lay where he had fallen, blinking up at the rafters which were swimming blearily in and out of focus.
"Are you all right?" Elladan asked, scrambling to his feet.
Considering the question carefully as the table shifted off him, Elrohir did not try to rise at once. His elbows ached where he'd scraped them trying to catch himself, and his shin throbbed from a blow he did not remember. Little, stinging ripples of pain suggested glass had slithered beneath his skin. But no bones seemed twisted; no muscles wrenched.
"I think so." He made to push himself up onto his elbows, but a boot heel planted itself on his chest, thrusting him back against the floor.
"You haven't answered my question." There was an unfixed quality about Haldir's gaze as he loomed over Elrohir's prone form.
"Haldir." Aragorn's tone held more than a little warning.
Haldir ignored him.
Dizzy and aching, Elrohir did not care anymore that he was playing into Haldir's hands. He had been well and truly provoked beyond bearing. If the captain sought to force a confrontation so badly, Elrohir was more than riled enough now to give him one. He surged up against the boot heel. "Let me up at once, Captain!"
The heel pressed harder, forcing the breath from his already-bruised lungs. "I wonder if you would play the willing sheath to another's sword."
Fire erupted along Elrohir's side and hip as he felt the grind of glass under him.
"You are hurting me." Elrohir grabbed him, but Haldir whether by cunning design or imbalance, fell atop him, pinning Elrohir's shoulders with his knees; fingers twined in his belt for a securer hold. Elrohir thrust himself up wildly, but Haldir had the advantage of weight, height, and position. No physical force on Elrohir's part, however furious, sudden, or increasingly desperate could dislodge him.
"A wild stag, you are." A bead of sweat swam the line of the captain's neck down into his collar.
Following its descent, Elrohir saw the means of his freedom. As if succumbing to exhaustion, he let every muscle in his body go slack. Triumph flickered in Haldir's eyes.
"Felled by the hunter already, are you?" The taunt caught slightly in his ragged breathing, his hold easing a fraction.
Elrohir barely heard him over the thundering blood in his ears. His fingers had gone numb, so he did not feel them closing around the knife. With wonder, he watched it as its razor edge pressed to the long tendon under Haldir's jaw where the pulse fluttered like bird wings.
Incredibly, Haldir smiled still as if under the caress of a lover instead of a blade. Detaching his fingers from Elrohir's belt, he wrapped them instead around the wrist that held the knife and leaned into it until a thin, bright line of crimson appeared along the steel. The candent glow in his eyes was not entirely all of drink, and even though the knife was in his hand, Elrohir felt a tiny frisson of something very like fear dance down his spine. A warm drop fell onto the corner of his lip.
"There." A drawling gnarl that dared him to press harder. "Your courage has not flown so far as I thought."
"That's enough." Aragorn's voice snapped like a lash, flaying apart the silence that held them all in thrall. "Haldir, release him."
Haldir took the knife from Elrohir's limp fingers and gave his cheek a light, stinging slap before lurching to his feet.
Elrohir had not quite grasped Haldir's weight lifting from his chest until he was hoisted from the wreckage of crystal by his underarms.
"I think you have had enough for one night, my friend." Aragorn carefully picked wet glass shards from his back and shoulders, but an abruptness in those fingertips betrayed a depth of displeasure his light tone did not.
Elrohir opened his mouth to protest vehemently, only his foster-brother's censorious eyes were not fixed on him.
Haldir calmly slid his knife back into its sheath and dabbed at the blood welling from his neck. "Oh, cease your cosseting, Aragorn. Elrohir knows I tease rough."
"Yes, well, you have thoroughly displaced the mirth with your 'teasing.'" Aragorn plucked at Elrohir's sleeve which the latter only realized now was seeping an ugly red.
"It is nothing," he murmured, brushing off Aragorn's hands. The taste of iron on his tongue turned him cold and sick.
Aragorn ran an eye over him then turned to the remainder of the company with a wan smile. "For my part, I had hoped our merriment would end on a lighter note, but it is late, lads. And I think some of us have overstretched themselves more than they will admit."
Gildor's men and Lalaith, who had busied themselves with tidying up the table and hunting for pieces of crystal still embedded in the rug, abandoned their task at once and slipped out with hurried goodnights. Elrohir could not bring himself to look at any of them.
As soon as the door closed upon their backs, Aragorn's face hardened. "I do not know what ails you both tonight, other than too much wine, but I will have no more of it, do you hear me? Whatever is between you, settle it and soonest." He gestured disgustedly to Elrohir's cut. "That arm needs to be tended before it festers. Elladan, see Haldir to his room, will you?"
Haldir bristled at Aragorn's dismissal. "I am perfectly capable of taking myself off, Aragorn. I need no nursemaid."
Aragorn rounded on him, and even Elrohir was slightly taken aback by his fury. "Then do so! You have disgraced yourself here and caused needless harm to both Elrohir and yourself. You and I have had words before of this, Haldir. And I tire of repeating myself."
Elrohir had never heard Aragorn talk to Haldir like that—usually he was the soul of patience where the captain was concerned, far beyond the point when others would have despaired. It seemed the limit of that limitless patience had been reached at last, though Elrohir was not vain enough to think himself the sole cause.
Haldir's eyes blazed. "Almost as much as I tire of hearing you. All your self-righteous palaver and your fucking—"
Aragorn said something in a foreign tongue Elrohir did not he said silenced Haldir, the captain's shoulders going up and back as if against a blow, his face draining of wine-flush. For an instant, his teeth bared as if he would return Aragorn an even ruder answer.
Shrugging off Elladan's hand roughly, he stalked up the loft stairs without another word and vanished into the dark interior of the bedroom. Elrohir felt a twinge that had nothing to do with the glass in his skin when Elladan followed, not even glancing in his direction.
Still stiff-shouldered and breathing rather hard, Aragorn turned to him. "Your arm, Elrohir. Now, if you please."
Elrohir rolled up his sleeve at once.
"It's a scratch. Let me get water to clean it well, and I'll bandage it for you."
Clearly still trying to master a temper he was not accustomed to losing, Aragorn gathered up what supplies he needed and swung a pot over the remains of the fire to heat water, almost spilling half of it in his agitation.
Elrohir sank onto a chair beside the newly-righted table and rubbed his face with his uninjured hand, wishing he could put his head down and sleep. But his arm throbbed with every beat of his heart. "I cannot fathom how you endured such for so long."
"Some days were easier than others." Aragorn blew out his breath, and his shoulders sagged. "I should not have spoken to him so."
"He deserved it," Elrohir said, lifting his head.
Aragorn shook his head. "He is not himself. He has not been…"
Elrohir closed his eyes in exasperation. "Estel, your generosity of spirit does you credit. But you have nothing to reproach yourself for. He is drunk."
"Even so. He is my friend. Just as you are my brother." Aragorn suddenly turned and fixed Elrohir with a gaze so exacting, he instinctively straightened. "What is your quarrel with him?"
Elrohir did not even try to deny the existence of such a thing; he was too tired. "It was long ago."
Aragorn's expression softened as he brought the steaming pot over and set it on the table. "Clearly, whatever happened between you still pains you enough that you would rather forsake all company, including mine, to avoid his, unless forced."
Elrohir, who could have steeled himself against Aragorn's scrutiny, could not stand his pity and stared down at the table grain. "What did he tell you?"
"Only that you quarreled. Elladan says you two are too much alike to like each other."
"Elladan is a fool."
Aragorn snorted though whether in amusement or irritation it was too difficult to tell. He wrung out a cloth and pressed it lightly against Elrohir's arm, sponging away the blood. "At the least, you are nearly as skilled as he at avoiding questions you have no desire to answer."
"I do not have the practice he does," Elrohir replied through gritted teeth. "Ai, Estel, that stings!"
"Yes, well, perhaps next time, you will remember before acting the young hotblood instead of a lord and your father's heir," Aragorn chided him.
"He provoked me." Elrohir looked into his foster-brother's face challengingly. "What would you have had me do? Yield?"
"Yes," Aragorn said with such frustrating reasonableness Elrohir could have hit him. "You would have shown yourself the better man by acknowledging what he was about and refusing to be goaded."
Elrohir fell into disgruntled silence. Easy enough for Aragorn to rebuke him when it was not his honor the marchwarden had impugned. Of course, he was right, but it was hard to reconcile with Elrohir's much-abused pride, which demanded satisfaction in vengeance rather than gentle assuagement. It was not the first time Aragorn had hinted that his pride needed tempering, and though he recognized this fault in himself, he had yet to find a constructive way of dealing with it.
At length, he cocked an eyebrow at the man. "When did you become so wise, young one?"
Some of the tension bled from Aragorn's face as he smiled. "Not so young anymore. Life has taught me a few things—and you and Elladan and Haldir have done the rest."
Elrohir pondered this for a little, only stirring when Aragorn spoke again.
"We were only ever friends, you know."
Elrohir stared at him, nonplussed.
"The lady Finduilas and I," Aragorn explained gently.
"You do not have to explain to me, Estel."
"I know, but I would put you at ease. Haldir told me of your concern. He was worried in lieu of truth you might put credence in rumor."
"I never doubted you," Elrohir muttered. "Or your intentions towards Arwen."
Another smile, a little too knowing. "I never thought you would."
Aragorn tidied away the bloodied cloths, banked the fire, and came to sit down beside him with his pipe. He lifted his eyes towards the dark loft stairs and said in a sunken voice, "I know better than most that his is not the easiest company, and I do not ask you to tell me what came between you if you do not wish to…but surely, whatever transgression, it is not something that cannot be put aside. After all this time. Can you still be so angry with him?"
The hand that alighted on his shoulder was warm and coaxing, and Elrohir wanted with all his heart to lean into its comfort and return the desired answer. But he stood instead, knowing that if he didn't, he might never find the strength to.
"You forget, Estel. This is not the world of Men where things are easily adjudged to history and rendered toothless by the blunting of years. Elven memory is long and longer in Imladris than most." The half-darkness of the room, lit only by firelight, made it easier. "You know that he was court-martialed."
"I heard something of it, yes. And I have seen the scars on his back."
"He was lashed thirty-six times with a hithlain scourge. Did he tell you why?"
Elrohir's lips twitched humorlessly. Of course, he would have said that; it was just true enough. "Your mother was quite young when she wed with your father, was she not?"
What little of Aragorn's face he could see looked startled by this non-sequitur. "She was twenty-two. What does that have to do with—?"
"Had she ever had a lover before? Or after, for that matter?"
"I never asked. Why—?"
"All mothers have secrets they withhold from their children," Elrohir said. "Haldir was my mother's. And a well-kept one, at that. He was our knight-errant, our mentor, our friend—Elladan's and mine—and better known to us than our own sire. We never knew. After they were discovered…together, he was court-martialed and exiled though my father could have demanded his death. He should have for then she might still be with us. It was for him that she was in the Pass when the orcs seized her. They tortured her and degraded her, and she would not have been there at all were it not for him. Tell me, Estel, that you would forgive him had it been your mother. Tell me you would set aside his transgressions."
He could not see his foster-brother's face in the shadowy light. But his mother's haunted him from the fire, her bruised and hollow gaze, her birdlike hands clasped protectively at her breast around a leaf-shaped lump of gold.
The last bits of applewood snapped in the grate and crumbled into ash and ember.
hithlain-a type of specially woven rope of Lórien, silken to the touch. As a lash, however, it is said to be one of the most excoriating of punishments.