28. Midwinter Day
Melpomaen yawned and stretched, wrapping an arm around Haldir. “Happy mettarë to you,” he said. “When does our watch start today?”
“Late morning,” Haldir reminded him. “We still have several hours till then.”
“Do we indeed?” Melpomaen’s voice was knowing. “And how shall we fill those long, dull hours?”
“I’m certain we can think of something,” said Haldir, letting his fingers trail along Melpomaen’s bare chest. He snuggled closer.
“What is it?” asked Haldir. “What amuses you so?”
“I was just thinking how queer it is to be here, in Mirkwood, and to be with you this way. A year ago I would never have imagined it.”
“Nor I,” said Haldir in contented tones, “but I am very glad we are here together.”
Smoothing a stray lock back from Haldir’s brow, Melpomaen kissed his eyelids. “I would not trade this for anything else in the world,” he murmured, and kissed him lingeringly on the lips.
Pulling back a little, Haldir said, “Not until I’ve rinsed my mouth.”
Melpomaen shrugged and said, “As you choose.” He waited as Haldir rose from the bed, lighted the candle, and went to fetch a cup of water. He admired the lines of Haldir’s body, the firm muscles across his chest and ridging his abdomen, the smooth pale skin, darker on his arms where it was more exposed. As he watched Haldir walk back, he felt desire stir. He sipped from the cup Haldir offered, then setting it down, held out a hand to his lover.
Haldir understood the wordless request and slipped beneath the covers, kneeling above Melpomaen with a knee on either side of his hips, their groins just brushing. The light touch tantalized, and Melpomaen reached out to take Haldir’s waist and press them more firmly together. The urgency of his passion still surprised him sometimes. He could feel Haldir hard against him as well, the quickening pulse of his desire.
“Meldanya,” Melpomaen whispered. “Dír, my beloved.”
Haldir looked at him, the eyes under the level golden brows dark pools in the flickering light. Melpomaen felt he could almost drown in them.
“Meldanya Maen,” Haldir whispered back, and leaned down to kiss him delicately.
Melpomaen felt Haldir’s tongue slide between his lips and open his mouth. He felt closer to his lover while kissing like this, he thought, than at almost any other time. Even being inside Haldir, or the reverse, did not always bring this sense of closeness, of intimacy. He responded in kind, and their tongues entwined for a long moment before Haldir broke off and looked deep into Melpomaen’s eyes once again.
“I do not know what the traditions are here,” Haldir said, “about giving a gift to a loved one on mettarë, but I have one for you. Would you like it now or later?”
Melpomaen considered it. “Later, I think,” he said at last. “If there is some traditional time to exchange gifts here, we should participate, and if not, I have no doubt that it will keep. I have one for you as well.”
Haldir nodded. “That is what I thought, but I felt that you should have the choice.” He leaned down and rubbed his cheek against Melpomaen’s. “Shall I give you instead a gift that I could not give in the presence of others, one that requires no unwrapping?”
Melpomaen drummed his fingers on Haldir’s shoulder, pretending to think. “Oh, I don’t know. It doesn’t sound like much of a present.”
Chuckling, Haldir said, “It’s nothing you haven’t had before, that is true, but it will also never wear out.”
“I know it is a present that I will enjoy receiving, then.”
“So I should hope,” said Haldir. He dipped his head, kissing Melpomaen at the sensitive spot in the hollow between neck and shoulder. His tongue traced a warm wet pattern across Melpomaen’s throat, and the dark-haired Elf shivered in anticipation as he felt Haldir’s teeth scrape across his nipple and then his mouth suckling at it before moving across to the other.
He tangled his hands in Haldir’s hair and used one thumb to trace the outline of Haldir’s ear, while the other hand stroked the nape of his lover’s neck.
After lavishing attention on Melpomaen’s chest, Haldir slipped lower, seeking out the hollow of Melpomaen’s navel and tasting it. Melpomaen could not restrain a gurgled laugh.
“Sorry,” he said as Haldir looked up with a quizzical expression on his face. “Tickles.”
Haldir grinned. “That’s all right,” he said, and did the same again, just to hear the laughter rumbling through Melpomaen’s body. His lover’s member was firm against his chest and he rocked from side to side a little to show that he was not unmindful of it, as he continued to explore the skin of Melpomaen’s belly. Then he slid a hand beneath Melpomaen’s buttocks and pulled them closer, breathing warmly and feeling Melpomaen’s organ twitch in response, but he ignored that for the moment. Instead, going further down and taking the sac below into his mouth, gently mouthing, with his free hand he rubbed the skin between there and the puckered hole beneath.
He pulled away long enough to ask Melpomaen to pass him a pillow or two, which he put underneath his lover’s hips to raise him up. Then, remembering what Melpomaen had done once before to him, he traced a line with his tongue down to the tight opening and licked at it, eliciting a startled but pleased sound from the top of the bed. Wetting one fingertip in his mouth, Haldir placed it there with the slightest of pressure, and waited until all at once Melpomaen relaxed and let him inside. With no oil yet, Haldir took great care not to push too hard or too quickly, but nudged along the passage until he could feel through the membrane the spot that would bring his lover great pleasure. He glanced up to see that Melpomaen’s eyes were closed, his head thrown back, and his chest heaving quickly.
Now Haldir licked at Melpomaen’s straining shaft and took its tip into his mouth, rolling his tongue over the loose soft skin and tasting the first hints of bitter seed. He moved leisurely, to prolong Melpomaen’s delight, and when his lover began to pump his hips Haldir withdrew both finger and mouth and knelt up to reach for the oil flask.
“Turn over,” Haldir murmured, and, his eyes still closed, Melpomaen did so.
The sight of him – hips raised, legs parted, ready and waiting – brought Haldir to an almost painful hardness. Quickly he applied the oil. With one swift and sure thrust he was within Melpomaen’s tight hot tunnel, and felt rather than heard his groan of pleasure. They moved together, rocking in union, each shifting motion bringing its own moment of joy. Haldir stroked Melpomaen as they moved until he could scarcely tell where his own skin ended and his lover’s began.
Melpomaen felt surrounded, embraced, wholly completed by Haldir’s love, trembling in an ecstasy so profound that his orgasm, when it came, was almost unnecessary. His cry of Haldir’s name was muffled against the bed.
Haldir’s skin was flushed and damp as he continued to thrust, his need rising to urgent heights, until at last he quivered in release and let himself fall forward, still sheathed within his lover’s body. He rolled them off the pillows and curled them up, spoon fashion, his chest against Melpomaen’s back, breathing ragged.
When their heartbeats had slowed, he stroked Melpomaen’s hair and whispered to him, “Was that not a good gift to celebrate the end of this season together?”
Melpomaen nodded and reached up to entwine their fingers, bringing Haldir’s hand to his mouth and kissing each fingertip.
After a time they arose, washed, and dressed. Melpomaen stripped the bed of its linens while Haldir brought clean sheets from the chest, and together they remade the bed freshly for that evening.
They had only a short watch shift that day. Haldir knew they had Legolas to thank for the fact that, from early afternoon, they were free to join in the festivities in Thranduil’s halls. The Great Hall, where the king held audience, had been transformed with boughs of evergreens, trailing bittersweet and branches of red-berried holly lending variety. Every lamp and candle in its sconce was lit – it seemed nearly as bright indoors as out in the pale winter sunshine.
There appeared to be no particular order to the events of the day. A space had been cleared outside for several weapons competitions, including an ongoing archery contest. Melpomaen entered that, but though his arm was healed from the injury he had sustained on their travels, he had not yet completely regained his old abilities. He took his loss with good grace, however, encouraging Haldir to try a turn. Haldir demurred, but agreed to try his skill at the knife-fighting competition. Melpomaen watched, trying not to show his admiration and pride too obviously, as Haldir won several bouts. His next competitor was none other than Captain Legolas.
The captain fought with not one, but two knives, and Melpomaen found himself both fascinated and taken aback by the ferocious grace with which he moved. He decided that if Haldir could be compared to a great mastiff, strong and fierce, Legolas would be a wild cat: lithe, sleek, and unpredictably dangerous.
Haldir pressed hard, but in the end, Legolas had the victory. They clasped hands in salute, and Legolas turned to meet the next Elf or Man willing to pit himself against the king’s son as Haldir moved away toward Melpomaen, wiping his face.
“I knew the captain was skilled, but I had no idea how skilled,” he said ruefully.
“You have nothing to be ashamed of,” Melpomaen assured him. “I have never seen you fight better, and twice you nearly took him.”
“Thank you.” Haldir hugged Melpomaen, then let him loose, remembering where they were. “Shall we get something to drink?” he suggested. “After that, I feel as if I could manage two flagons without a quiver.”
Back in the Great Hall they accepted mugs of hot spiced cider from a smiling girl who kissed them each on the cheek and wished them a happy mettarë. Haldir drained his at once and had her refill it, then they moved off among the crowd in the hall.
The air was sweet with the sounds of singing from one end of the room, accompanied by harp and pipe. They could tell that the tune was a traditional one for winter; it was a melody known in the Golden Wood also, but the harmonies sung here were different. Haldir and Melpomaen moved closer to listen. As they worked their way through the crowd, a voice hailed them.
“How fare you two?”
It was Vida, the woman they had brought to the king’s caverns after the loss of her son, and with her her husband Baldor. They exchanged mettarë greetings all around, Melpomaen stumbling slightly over the Common Tongue.
“I had not heard that the search party had returned,” said Haldir to Baldor, with a slight lift of inquiry in his voice.
The Man shook his head. “Only a few of us. We are to replenish our supplies and leave again in four days’ time.”
“No success?” said Melpomaen.
“I fear not.” Baldor flicked his eyes at his wife. “We have been close to catching the beast several times, but always he has eluded us, and the woods are filled with dread rumors. The great spiders are danger enough, but this unknown creature. . . Still, we have hope to find him before spring. In the snow he must leave tracks.”
The two Elves nodded in sympathy rather than agreement, and Haldir sought to turn the conversation to more pleasant matters.
“Are you enjoying this festival?” he inquired.
“Oh, yes,” said Vida, “we have had a good time in the kitchens preparing all the special foods for the occasion – sweetmeats of more sorts than I had ever imagined, and great pies of game, and roast birds with sauces of every description. Luckily most of it could be cooked in advance, and free us to come celebrate the turn of the year. How about you two?”
“We had our duties earlier tody,” Haldir said. “Perhaps we were lucky with that, being strangers. But if you don’t mind – we were going to listen to the singing. We are familiar with the tune, but this harmony is new, and we should like to hear it.”
“Please do, do not let us keep you,” said Vida.
Baldor added, “A pleasure to see you again.”
“And you too,” said Haldir.
“Good luck on your hunt,” Melpomaen said.
“Thank you.” Baldor bowed. “A happy mettarë to you both.”
When they reached the corner where the singing was taking place, Melpomaen and Haldir realized that it was a most informal arrangement. Any person who wished to sing or play simply would, and then leave when he chose. After one song was finished, another would begin. Melpomaen could not tell if the songs were being sung in a traditional order, or if it was merely a question of what melody first came to someone’s mind. When another song began that seemed familiar, the two Lórien Elves joined in softly, singing the harmonies they knew when those did not conflict with the ones sung here.
Haldir had not realized before just what a fine clear tenor voice Melpomaen had. While traveling they had sung little, except for the occasional walking song, not wishing to draw unwanted attention to themselves as they passed, and even here in Mirkwood Melpomaen had rarely participated in such singing as happened of an evening in the guards’ common room. Haldir muted his own voice to better hear and enjoy his partner’s.
Someone else evidently appreciated Melpomaen’s ability as well, for as the song ended, one of the pipers laid aside her instrument and came over, introducing herself as Dúlin, and asking Melpomaen where he had been hiding his glorious voice.
Melpomaen shrugged. “In the guards’ quarters, I suppose.”
Dúlin shook her head, saying, “That harmony. That was beautiful. Did you make it up yourself?”
“No. . .” Melpomaen began.
“Well, come and sing it for me again. I want to note it down.”
Melpomaen looked helplessly at Haldir as Dúlin tugged at his hand.
“Go on,” Haldir laughed. “I will still be here somewhere when she is through with you.” He watched them vanish through one of the archways, out of the hall.
His cup was empty, and Haldir decided a bit more cider would be in order. He made his way back towards the table, going along the other side of the room this time, past the king’s great chair. Thranduil saw him coming and beckoned as he passed.
“Happy mettarë,” said the king gravely, “honored stranger. Or perhaps not so much of a stranger now? Honored guest, rather.”
“I thank you,” Haldir bowed, “and wish a happy mettarë to you and yours as well, my lord.”
“I believe that my son has conveyed our invitation to you and your friend to stay, if you choose, has he not?” Thranduil asked.
“He did, thank you, my lord. We are considering whether to do so. In any case we would have to leave for a time to complete the commission that I undertook and that brought us here to begin with, but before we depart we will certainly inform you and Legolas of our decision.”
The king nodded. “I understand. Enjoy yourself this evening, Haldir.”
Haldir bowed once again and left. He did appreciate the king’s offer and knew that there could be many advantages for them to remain in – or rather, return to – Mirkwood, but his heart yearned for the mellyrn of his homeland and for his family, and he did not think he would ever be happy were he to be parted from them forever. Much as he loved Melpomaen, and much as he enjoyed their passion as he had done that morning, he knew that over time it was more than simple lust that brought them together. A bond such as theirs was a thing of the heart and mind and fëa, not solely of the body, and while he would regret the loss of that part of their love when they returned to Lórien, and Lórindol’s company, he would regret far more not returning. But this was something he had yet to discuss openly with his lover, and today was not the day he would choose to do it.
Having recharged his cup, Haldir moved on to listen to some storytelling in another part of the hall. Many of them spoke in verse, but Haldir thought that the most vivid story was one told in prose. It was recited by an Elf with white hair, which she had braided in a coronet that shone like silver in the light of the lamps. Her tale was of Oropher, Thranduil’s father, and the Elves he led to Mordor as part of the Last Alliance. Haldir listened intently. He had heard stories of the battles against the Dark Lord before, many times, but this tale gave him a new perspective on the events. When she had finished, he caught her eye and bowed in silent reverence. She blushed and smiled, understanding his appreciation, and then turned to listen to the next storyteller.
After a time, Haldir became aware of someone at his elbow, and he turned to greet Legolas. They moved away from that part of the room, not wishing to disturb anyone.
“Did you conquer all later comers as readily as you defeated me?” asked Haldir, a smile dancing in his eyes.
Legolas chuckled. “Ah, most of them far more easily, I must say. You put up an excellent fight for one not used to fighting with one knife against two. I must congratulate you again on your ability.” He looked around. “But where is Melpomaen?”
Haldir rolled his eyes. “A woman called Dúlin dragged him off to sing her some harmonies for a song.”
“Oh, no!” The expression on Legolas’s face was a study in amused dismay. “He’ll be lucky if she lets him free before mid-night. She is a distant cousin of mine, and finds nothing so compelling as music, especially anything new to her. We may be obliged to go root him out of her chamber for the salutation of the stars at dusk.”
“Yes,” agreed Haldir, “I am sure he would not want to miss that, for it is something neither of us has ever seen.”
“It is beautiful,” said Legolas, his eyes distant. “Even when the skies have been cloudy for days, there always seems to be a break and a glimpse of at least one star. Since today was clear, we will delight in the whole of the heavens.” He dragged himself back to practicalities. “It is a simple thing, really. Everyone will go out just as the sun sets, and wait in silence. When the last light of day is gone, there is singing in praise of the Kindler, who set the stars in place. After that, back inside for more music, feasting, dancing. . .” He looked at Haldir, his face troubled. “And gift-giving. Is that a custom among your people, whoever they are, that you give something to those closest to you, to mark the turn of the year?”
“We do have that custom, and I have something to give Maen. I am glad to know when it would be proper to give it to him.”
“Perhaps we should fetch it now – and rescue him from Dúlin, as well, so that if he has a gift for you he can be prepared,” Legolas said.
“A good idea. You will have to show me where Dúlin might be – I certainly have no idea, I simply told Melpomaen to meet me back here in the hall when they were finished,” Haldir remarked.
“Certainly. This way.” Legolas led them down several branching corridors and knocked on a door. “Dúlin? I am sorry, but you cannot monopolize our guest for the entire evening,” he said, entering a room crowded with assorted instruments, musical scores in varying states of completion, and some items that Haldir could not recognize.
Melpomaen and Dúlin were sitting at a large table. “Wait a moment, I am just finishing. . . there.” She set down her quill and carefully stoppered the ink bottle. “Melpomaen is going to teach me all the songs he knows,” she said triumphantly to Legolas. “He knows a completely different set of verses to the ‘Doriath Carol,’ can you imagine?”
“Yes, cousin, but now he must come with us. It is not long until sunset, you know – you were not going to miss the rest of the evening’s events, were you? Melpomaen will still be here tomorrow, and next week, and next month, for you to learn every word and harmony he can recall.”
“All right,” Dúlin said regretfully. “When can you come back, Melpomaen?”
“Ah – perhaps the day after next? In the late afternoon, for an hour or two before I must stand watch. Would that suit you?”
“If it must. I will see you then, here in my rooms.” She turned back to the score before her, uncapping the ink and making a few minor corrections, clearly no longer aware of anyone else’s presence.
Back in the corridor, Haldir raised an eyebrow at Melpomaen. “Well?”
“She is quite – intense, in her passion for music. But a great artist. She played several of her instruments for me, including one I would like to learn myself sometime. She called it a cittern, I think that was the word. (1) It had a pleasant sound, and one could play it while also singing.”
Melpomaen seemed to have caught his hostess’ enthusiasm, and Haldir smiled to hear him. “I am glad you had such a pleasant time.”
“But it’s almost time for the salutation of the stars, is it not?” Melpomaen asked. “That is why you came to find me?”
“We have to go to our room to fetch our gifts first,” Haldir told him. “Legolas says that traditionally, those are given shortly after singing to the stars, and we should have them with us.”
“It is not of great importance,” Legolas said, “but I thought you would want to participate with everyone else.”
“Thank you,” said Melpomaen. “I do indeed.”
Legolas waited in the hallway as first Haldir, then Melpomaen went into their room. He could not see that Haldir was carrying anything at all, and decided that whatever his gift for Melpomaen was, it was small enough to fit in the pouch on his belt. Melpomaen, on the other hand, brought out a largish cloth-wrapped parcel, bound about with a blue cord.
“Ready?” Legolas inquired. “You’ll be able to leave that in the Great Hall, Melpomaen. No one will disturb it there.”
(1) A cittern was a medieval instrument, shaped like a lute. Its strings were made of wire and it was played with a plectrum or quill.