37. Storm and Calm
“Rain, I think,” remarked Frerin to Haldir, who was walking near the lead cart.
“Doubtless,” Haldir agreed, “though little is likely to get through the trees.”
“Ah, but they are thinnest over the road, you know. If anything gets wet, we will.”
The rain had been falling steadily for some time before it began to penetrate the thick leaf canopy; not yet enough to soak the travelers, but as they moved on enough to make the road unpleasant with developing mud. The air, which was often stuffy under the trees, smelled fresher and a breeze stirred the tattered remnants of the spider-webs. Still the travelers plodded on, the Dwarves chirruping to their ponies to encourage them through the end of the afternoon.
“There’s a good campsite, if I remember rightly, not too far ahead,” said Frerin. “That’s what we’re making for. If you’d like to go ahead to it?”
Haldir nodded, and dropped back to tell Melpomaen. They moved out at a brisker pace than the tired ponies could manage on the muddy road, feeling the drops of water on their faces.
“Too bad that it can’t rain properly in here,” said Melpomaen. “I’d prefer that to this; it feels as if the trees are just shaking off something unwanted from their leaves, rather than enjoying the gift of water. It’s enough to make everything damp and uncomfortable, without feeling worthwhile.”
“I know. But we’ll be out of the woods in a few days, and then if it rains you can get as wet as you like,” Haldir teased him.
They paused as thunder rumbled ahead, then jogged along down the road. At last they came to the place that Frerin had indicated, not as large a clearing as that in which they had first encountered the Dwarves, but an obvious place for travelers to stop; again a hearth had been fashioned of stones for ease in fire-making, and criss-crossing ruts indicated that many carts and wagons had been driven in and out of the area.
“I’ll build a fire if you’ll bring me those fallen branches,” offered Melpomaen. “They might not be too damp yet to catch.”
“And it will make it easier for the carts to get in.” Haldir began collecting the fallen wood, stacking it as neatly as possible near the hearthstones. Melpomaen gathered some dead leaves and a few wisps of dry grass from the lee side of the nearest trees, and with that tinder, was soon able to set the piled wood alight at one end. He would push the longer branches further into the flames as their lighted ends were consumed.
They stood close together with their backs to the fire, waiting for the Dwarves to arrive. There was little else they could do until then, since their packs were stowed in the supply-cart that Khîm drove.
After a longer time than they had expected, the first of the carts came into view. Frerin whistled and beckoned, and Melpomaen went up to him.
“Would you go back and tell the others to come in one at a time? This is narrower than I remembered, and it will take some careful maneuvering to back the carts in between the trees. In fact, if you would, could you ask Orin to help me, and you wait with his cart until we’ve finished with mine?”
“Certainly,” said Melpomaen. He had only rarely ridden a horse – they were little used in Lothlórien – but he had watched the Dwarves tend and drive the ponies for the last several days, and even lent a hand now and again, so he felt little concern when he sent Orin up to Frerin. Rather than climbing on the seat of the cart and taking up the reins, he stood at the animals’ noses, talking soothingly to them in his own tongue, the tone of his voice rather than any words helping to calm them, though they shivered each time the thunder boomed overhead. The storm was growing fiercer above the trees, and Melpomaen hoped that it would pass soon.
It seemed to take a long time for Orin to return. Beyond the bulk of the cart with its piled barrels and bundles, Melpomaen could see Borin perched on the seat of his own vehicle, and still further beyond, half-hidden by the rain now dripping steadily through the leaves, Khîm. As the thunder continued, first Khîm and then Borin climbed down and stood with their ponies, comforting them as Melpomaen was Orin’s. Finally Orin reappeared at Melpomaen’s elbow and took hold of the reins. Melpomaen stepped aside and the creaking wooden wheels on their iron rims slowly began to turn.
When Frerin and Orin had, with effort and some help from the two Elves, managed to back Orin’s cart into a suitable place, it was Borin’s turn, then Khîm’s. All was progressing smoothly when, just as they were loosing the last pair of animals from their harness, the whole place was lit up as bright as a cloudless noon by a bolt of lightning striking one of the great oaks on the far side of the road. The tree split, the noise swallowed up in the louder crack of the thunder, and fell heavily, its wounded bark aflame. The ponies on their pickets squealed and reared in fright, but their ropes held. The two still half-harnessed bolted, pulling free from the grasp of Borin and Khîm. The wheel of the cart struck a tree root and the whole thing tipped over as the off pony’s harness parted and it broke free, plunging along the road away from the burning tree.
Khîm and Borin together leapt to the remaining animal, using their combined weight to restrain it from following its companion. Luckily the leather harness had been loose enough that the tipping cart had not pulled the pony down as well.
At the same instant Melpomaen shouted, “I will go after it,” and dashed to follow the runaway, hoping it would keep to the road and not go off into the trees, where both pony and Elf would risk breaking a leg on the uneven ground.
The picketed ponies calmed slowly as Frerin and Orin moved among them. Haldir went to help Khîm and Borin right the upset cart as soon as they had freed the trembling animal from its harness and taken it to join the others. Surprisingly little damage had been done to the vehicle.
“Dwarf-built,” said Borin in laconic explanation when Haldir remarked on the fact.
“But this was not,” said Khîm, lifting a cask now splintered beyond repair at one end. “Wine tonight, lads,” he called over to the other two Dwarves. “We can’t travel with that, it would only spill.”
Most of the other supplies, though fallen onto the muddy ground, were safe in their stout canvas bundles and bags, though a half-sack of beans had burst its seam and one ham had somehow come completely unwrapped and was plastered in leaf-mold. They piled everything to one side, righted the cart and checked it for soundness, then by main force pushed it into the place Frerin had designated before reloading everything but what would be required that evening.
By now the rain had nearly extinguished both the burning tree and the fire that Melpomaen had so carefully started. Khîm salvaged the latter with a judicious combination of air blown from a small bellows – “No Dwarf would travel without some basic tools,” he told Haldir – and wood carefully placed. That done, he warmed some of the salvaged wine and handed it steaming around in mugs, apologizing that he had only cloves with which to flavor it.
Haldir was beginning to worry about his partner. Melpomaen had been gone in pursuit of the stray for well over an hour, and the weather made the light dim earlier than usual. The Dwarves were concerned as well.
“That pony must be leading your friend a merry chase,” said Frerin. “If he does not return soon, we should perhaps go after him.”
Relieved that he had not had to suggest it himself, Haldir agreed.
“We’ll give him a few minutes more. Who shall go?” asked Frerin. “You, Haldir, must; you are the most experienced tracker among us. But another ought to accompany you, in case,” he faltered for an instant, “in case a message needs to be sent to bring the rest of us.”
“I will go,” said Orin and Khîm at the same time. Then Khîm deferred. “You go, Orin. Better for me to stay here and prepare something ready for our supper.”
Melpomaen did not come back, and so Haldir and Orin set out to follow him. After some discussion, they had elected not to carry torches as being more trouble than they were worth, and the light not yet nearly gone, even if dim. Unless some accident had injured either Elf or pony too badly to walk, they expected to be back well before dark. The worst of the storm had now passed over, and the rain was slackening. Haldir thought that the skies might clear quickly; by his reckoning the moon was near to the full, and some light might find its way even through the dense leaf-canopy.
They set off in the direction that Borin had seen Melpomaen run, westward, looking closely at the edges of the road to see if prints of pony or Elf diverged from the main track. The wet earth revealed nothing to their eyes as they walked along.
A mile and more down the road, Haldir brought Orin to a stop. “Listen.” From ahead came a sound, unmistakable to Haldir as Melpomaen’s voice, in accents that suggested he was urging the pony to move with the last of his patience. They hastened forward and found the missing pair.
“He lost his left front shoe somewhere, and favors that hoof,” said Melpomaen to Orin as the Dwarf clucked to the pony and ran knowledgeable hands down each of its legs.
“We’ll soon have that mended, back at camp,” said Orin cheerfully. “If that’s his only hurt, it’s better than I’d feared.” He took hold of the dangling straps at the pony’s nose and tugged gently, speaking to the animal in the jarring syllables of the Dwarf-tongue, which evidently sounded soothing to it, for it perked its ears forward and followed Orin obediently.
Haldir and Melpomaen fell into step behind, Haldir taking Melpomaen’s hand. “I’m glad you are all right, Maen,” he said, choosing to speak in Silvan although he doubted Orin was listening. “After your accident last autumn, I was concerned. I didn’t fancy having to carry you back to Thranduil’s caverns and wait for you to heal again!” He pressed his lover’s fingers to show that he was not altogether serious in his remarks. Melpomaen squeezed back.
“You should know better, Dír,” he said. “I only ran a little distance after the wretched beast before I decided that I might only frighten it more by so doing. Indeed, each time I caught up it would run off again, but at last it let me near. How far have we to go to get back? I was watching the pony rather than the path.”
“A mile, perhaps a bit further,” replied Haldir.
They plodded on after Dwarf and pony. Their stolen moments together earlier that day seemed very far away to Melpomaen, whose chase after and frustration by the pony had told on him. He wanted nothing more than to curl up in Haldir’s embrace in their blankets, right then, but it would be some time still before that was possible. When they reached the camp, Frerin promptly offered to take the middle watch shift, usually Melpomaen’s, so that the latter could watch first and then have an uninterrupted, if short, night of sleep. Melpomaen could scarcely refuse the kind offer.
Khîm had outdone himself with the meal for the returning pony-rescuers, despite having to contend with a reluctant fire; the rain had passed but all the available wood was damp if not wet. Slices of ham sizzled at the edge of the coals, and dumplings floated on a savory soup of beans and onions. Orin, Haldir, and especially Melpomaen were pressed to take mugs of hot wine while Frerin and Borin tended to the limping animal.
“Thank you, Melpomaen,” said Frerin when they returned to the fire, his thanks heartily seconded by the other three Dwarves. “Had you not gone after Ironcoat, we could have been in difficult straits indeed.”
“We ought to do a bit of trading in one of the Man-villages between Mirkwood and the Misty Mountains,” suggested Orin, “for a spare pony or two.”
Frerin looked dubious. “They’ll be Man-trained, though,” he said. “You know I would have brought spare ponies with us from Erebor if any were to be had, but that plague of hoof-rot last year made them almost as scarce as true-silver.”
“Better Man-bred ponies than risk having to leave a cart in the mountains,” Boring supported his brother. “They can be trained to our ways.”
Melpomaen listened with some interest as the Dwarves discussed the merits and shortcomings of equines and different methods of training them, though at times he had difficulty following when they drifted into technical talk, even though they stuck to the Common Tongue out of politeness. Haldir was indifferent, spooning up his soup, and complimented Khîm on its flavor when he had finished.
“Plenty of savory, and not too much salt,” confided the Dwarf, pleased.
The remainder of the evening was taken up with the usual camp chores; reshoeing the pony was left until the light of the morning.
Several more days of travel passed without further incident. The Dwarves discussed their trade and business at night, and the two Elves were able to piece together a notion of Dwarf-life from what was mentioned in passing. It was a life devoted to making, creating, to a far greater extent than was common among Elves – even than the life of the legendary Fëanor of the Noldor, the kinsman of the lady Galadriel. Instead of walking freely through the forest, Dwarves were more comfortable in their caverns underground, with fires burning constantly, surrounded by metal and gemstones and contrivances.
One evening Borin discovered that Melpomaen was something of a musician, and encouraged him to play his pipes for them all after supper. Melpomaen played the melody that he had composed for Haldir over the winter, though without mentioning to the Dwarves that it was his own. Haldir recognized the tune and was touched by the unspoken expression of his partner’s love. Then Borin and Orin reciprocated, singing in chorus what they said was a traditional Dwarf tune. The words celebrated the pleasures to be found amid the toil of craftsmanship, wresting metal from the rocks in which it hid and drawing it forth in gleaming rivulets, which were then shaped into forms both useful and beautiful. Listening, each of the Elves in his own way appreciated something of the life of their temporary companions. Haldir was struck most by the smelting, the transformation by fire of dull rock into bright metal, while Melpomaen’s fancy was caught by the way in which the Dwarves contrived new and better tools and toys.
Even the forest of Mirkwood, great in size though it was in comparison with Lothlórien, could not go on forever. With delight that they emerged one midmorning into the grassy fields that formed its western boundary. The sky was patched with clouds, but they were high white puffs that did not forbode rain, and it was reasonable to hope that the sun might soon get the better of them altogether.
The Dwarves drew up their carts and got down, standing in a cluster. “Here we part, then,” said Frerin. “I thank you for your good companionship, and wish you good fortune. Know that Frerin son of Frór is at your service!”
“And Orin son of Bór.” “And Borin son of Bór.” “And Khîm son of Mîm,” said the others, each in their turn.
Haldir and Melpomaen bowed in response. “We are at your service as well, good Dwarves. May your journey be swift and your trade prosperous.” They took their packs from the rearmost cart and shouldered them. “Farewell!”
“Farewell,” called the Dwarves, climbing back onto their seats and chirruping their ponies onward. “Farewell!”
The two Elves turned south along a lesser trail as the Dwarves continued westward on the main road towards the distant heap that was the Misty Mountains. Melpomaen let out a long breath. “Well.”
“Well indeed,” said Haldir, smiling. “I am not sorry to have traveled with them, but I am glad to be alone with you again, meldanya.”
They set a good pace, encumbered though they were with their belongings once again. “I thought to travel this path for a day or so and then turn westward again when we have a chance,” said Haldir. “We will need to replenish our supplies sooner or later, though the Dwarves were more generous than I would have expected in sharing theirs. When I discussed our journey and possible routes with Lórindol last year, he told me that most of the villages of Men in these parts cluster near the Anduin.”
“But you did not want to journey further with the Dwarves,” said Melpomaen. “Nor did I, I confess.”
“You read me plainly,” said Haldir. “Can you guess more of my thought?”
“I would guess that you will suggest an early stop this afternoon, if we find a suitable place.” Melpomaen held out one arm and looked at it. “Suitable meaning somewhere that we might wash our garments, and ourselves as well.”
“Exactly,” said Haldir, laughing.
They found such a place at about midday, but agreed that it was too early to justify stopping. Outside the forest, spring was well advanced and the day was warm. Wet clothes should easily dry overnight, and they had delayed many times already on this journey. So they went on, trusting that another stream would be found. As the afternoon passed with no further sign of running water, however, they wondered if they had erred in not taking their first opportunity. The shadows were beginning to reach long when Haldir saw the glint of a stream ahead and they hurried to the little ford that crossed it, going a short distance upstream and nearer to the forest, from which the path they followed had drawn away.
Haldir offered to wash out their things while Melpomaen set up the camp and gathered wood. After a little thought, Melpomaen decided to start the night’s fire and put a stew to simmer, so that they might eat whenever they chose, early or late. That accomplished, he found Haldir at the water’s edge downstream from their camp.
The older Elf was nearly finished with his task. Leggings and other garments were draped across several bushes to catch the late rays of sunshine. Melpomaen saw that Haldir had chosen to wash even what he had been wearing that day. Light rimmed his naked body as he turned to hang out a last undertunic.
“Are you willing to wash one or two more things?” asked Melpomaen.
Haldir took Melpomaen’s hand and drew his lover close. “As long as one of those things is you, Maen.”
“How can I refuse such an offer?” Quickly Melpomaen stripped, setting his shoes next to Haldir’s, where he saw that the other had also placed a drying-cloth to use when they had bathed.
Tempted though Haldir was, he used the soap first on Melpomaen’s clothes before stepping into the water and beckoning Melpomaen to follow him. “It is not warm,” he warned, “but there is a pool just here that is deep enough to rinse off in.”
Melpomaen shivered as the cold water touched his skin, followed by Haldir’s warmer hands. Despite the chill of the water and air, warmth pooled in his belly and groin.
Haldir stroked the lather over each inch of Melpomaen’s body, intent on his task and enjoying it. When he had finished, he bade Melpomaen stoop down and used his cupped hands to pour water over him, sluicing away the residues of dirt and sweat and soap together. Quickly Haldir loosed Melpomaen’s hair from its braids, but let his partner duck to wet it himself before rubbing it with more soap. Melpomaen emerged, spluttering, from a final rinse and took the soap from Haldir to reciprocate in reverse order, washing Haldir’s hair before his body.
Completely clean for the first time in weeks, they embraced briefly before the chill drove them out of the water to share the drying-cloth between them. The fire had burned low in its ring of stones, but the pot simmered merrily as Melpomaen added more wood before he sank with Haldir onto their spread blankets.
“I love you, Dír,” said Melpomaen, running his hands along Haldir’s torso and down to his hips.
“And I you.” Haldir kissed Melpomaen’s cheek, jaw, and chin before finally settling on Melpomaen’s mouth, which he probed gently, almost hesitatingly, with his tongue. Teasing bites on Melpomaen’s lips followed as Haldir’s fingers made their knowing way across Melpomaen’s chest, pinching his nipples to a hardness that was echoed below.
Melpomaen shifted so that his thigh pressed against Haldir’s, their two members rubbing together. He clasped the flesh of Haldir’s buttocks, kneading, his fingers searching out the cleft that parted them and nudging them apart. Haldir sighed against Melpomaen’s mouth and murmured in encouragement, “I set the oil flask at the top of the blanket while you stoked the fire.”
Stretching his arm overhead, Melpomaen found the little bottle by touch. He had to pull his other hand from under Haldir’s waist in order to work the stopper free, but soon Haldir lay on his belly, legs drawn up and spread wide, while Melpomaen’s fingers eased him open.
“Oh, Maen, there,” gasped Haldir as he felt a touch on that most responsive spot within him. Melpomaen repeated his motions until Haldir was writhing and panting beneath him.
“Can you wait?” Melpomaen asked. “For me, Dír, can you wait? Because I want you in me as well.”
Haldir drew in a breath and nodded, biting his lip to distract himself from the sensations that threatened to overwhelm him. He gripped the blanket and forced himself to stillness as Melpomaen withdrew his fingers and replaced them with the rigid heat of his organ.
Seeing Haldir’s excitement mount had brought Melpomaen’s own desire to its height. The slick embrace of Haldir’s well-oiled passage caressed him as he slid inside. He found the position awkward, though, and asked Haldir to rise to his hands and knees that he might thrust more easily. Haldir complied and Melpomaen let himself go, gripping Haldir’s hips so tightly that his fingers left reddened marks behind. “I am yours,” he cried out as he spent.
Haldir ached with arousal. He trembled as he oiled first himself and then his lover, but he had waited for what seemed so long that he would not be easily satisfied. He pulled out completely at each stroke, and Melpomaen underneath him felt a double pleasure with every thrust, first when Haldir passed the ring of tight muscle at his entrance, and again as Haldir’s organ rubbed the sensitive node inside. He had scarcely softened, but now he hardened again untouched.
Gradually Haldir increased the tempo of his movements, his thrusts becoming more rapid but shallower, no longer withdrawing entirely. He could feel his climax approaching and reached around Melpomaen’s hips, stroking his lover’s organ as he pulled their bodies tightly together. A guttural cry escaped Haldir’s lips, his seed spilling deep into Melpomaen. His fingers tightened and sent Melpomaen over the edge again as well, sticky spurts pulsing into Haldir’s palm.
Fatigued with pleasure they lay there, Haldir’s member still within Melpomaen until, softening, it slipped out when he shifted. Twilight had fallen and the little breeze that had earlier stirred the grasses had died down.
“I could stay like this forever,” said Melpomaen quietly into the stillness.
Haldir made no answer at first. Then he said, “You would get hungry, Maen. Do I smell some of your wonderful soup? Shall I bring you some?” Without waiting for a reply, he rose.