Heart of the Wood by Kenaz
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Written for Keiliss for the 2007 Slashy Santa Fiction Exchange

They are calling, calling, Away, come away!
    And we know not whence they call;
For the song is in our hearts, we hear it night and day,
    As the deep tides rise and fall:
O, Death will never find us in the heart of the wood
    While the hours and the years ride by!

We have heard it, we have heard it, but we have
    not understood
We must wander on together, you and I.

-Alfred Noyes, In the Heart of the Woods



All shall be well,
But not for me
But not for me.

- Current 93, In the Heart of the Wood and What I found There





I.

Though the trill of the flute and the makeshift drumming of hands rose warmly to the rafters, the ears of the Elves on the marches of Doriath were ever alert to the sounds of movement or mischief. Thus, none of them so much as flinched when the door was thrown wide and the shadow of an unlooked for visitor spilled across the floor, a gust of cold air blustering in behind him like a reproach, but merely looked up in their leisure with mild curiosity.

Mablung called out a greeting and waved the newcomer in. "Any time tonight will do, boy," he chuckled, "but breath of Manwë, shut the cursed door!"

Túrin did as he was bidden, but his look of displeasure told of a deed done grudgingly. His plate and mail glinted in the firelight, turning him to a beacon against the Elves' dull leather and wool. The queue that sprung from the nape of his neck was as severe as his expression, and his shoulders, mantled tonight in the grey cloak Thingol had given him to mark the day of his birth, stiffened under the burden of sword, shield, and traveling pack. From beneath his arm, Glaurung's fell countenance atop the Helm of Hador cast a blank gaze of contempt over their revels.

"I am come too late, perhaps," he said tautly. "All the Orcs and dark creatures have been slain and you have made your war on Morgoth, else you would not be lazing about in mirth and merriment."

The piping stopped, and hands ceased their playful patter, but the echo of the music lingered just above their heads. Its ringing presence rendered the ensuing silence all the more damning. On his bunk, Beleg--who had presently been coasting on the verge of sleep -- kneaded his forehead as if beset by a sharp and sudden pain.

Mablung's brow arced like a bowstring, and those who best knew him tensed, knowing well the calm that presaged their captain's storm.

"Biting words from one who has not seen the marches since his childhood, when he wandered lost, half-naked and hungry, delivered here by Cuthalion's lucky intervention. If we take a measure of mirth and merriment here, it is a measure we have earned in sweat and blood."

Dagnir set aside his flute and lifted a leather flask in Túrin's direction. "Come now," he called out amiably, "set down your load and have some wine. This is no night for a dour face."

"No," Túrin replied, adding a perfunctory "thank you" to blunt the edge of his refusal only slightly.

Mablung's jaw twitched. "You accepted our hospitality readily enough in the hour of your desperation, son of Húrin."

No one had noticed Beleg slipping down from his bunk until he materialized in the space between the adversaries.

"Dagnir! Another song!" his voice snapped like a lash. "And someone toss a flask to Galchen. He looks parched." As he spoke, he pried the pack from Túrin's unyielding back. "Come, friend, you carry quite a hindrance, and it is late. Let us find you a bunk."

"I am not tired," Túrin protested, but he followed Beleg to the end of the lodge, his complaint lost beneath the renewed strains of piping and song.

"A fine entrance you have made," he quietly scolded, tossing Beleg's pack up to one of the empty berths. He clucked his tongue, prompting Túrin to scowl. "A wiser man would not have alienated captain and comrades before even doffing his cloak. I take it Thingol has sent you?"

"No, Thingol did not send me," Túrin grunted. "He refused my request for a war party, thus I came here of my own accord." He tugged off his cloak with a flourish and threw it carelessly over the rest of his belongings. "There is naught else I can do as one man alone."

Beleg grabbed his shoulder and wrenched him around, trapping him in a warning gaze. "And is what I and my fellows do here so little, then? Do you find our efforts menial?" Túrin had wit enough to blanch at this, but Beleg gave no quarter. "There is much one man might do alone, Túrin, but a man has the command of his tongue and his temper to do it, and the wisdom and patience to know when to stay his hand. Seventeen summers you have seen, son of Húrin, but it is your form alone that is a man's. You show a boy's defiance still."

"And I suppose an Elf will be the one to show me what it is to be a Man?" Túrin scoffed.

Beleg laughed aloud, impervious to Túrin's grousing as a hound to the milk-teeth of a pup. "Yes, and I am just the one. Your first lesson shall be this: sleep. Or failing that, take some wine and show a more civil face. For myself, I choose sleep and a fresh start at dawn."

"Morgoth does not sleep."

"Nay," Beleg returned, "I should think he fears sleep as a mortal enemy, and dares not let his foul eye falter for a moment." He toed off his boots, uncinched his belt from his waist, and swung effortlessly into his bunk. "But I, on the other hand, have a conscience that is tolerably clean, and I do not fear the respite of dreams."

When Túrin did not move, Beleg tossed him a blanket which he made no move to catch. "Sleep, Túrin. You have amends to make in the morning, and the words will not stick so in your throat when you are rested."

Presently, the wood frame shuddered, and the ropes that strung the adjacent bunk groaned under Túrin's weight as he heaved himself aloft.

"You speak to me like a child. I am grown now, Cuthalion, with a Man's strength and a Man's pride."

Beleg, with his face turned to the wall, sighed and pulled the blanket higher. "Good night, friend. Sleep well." His voice was dulled against the stones. Túrin did not speak again.

Yet despite his admonitions, sleep was now lost to Beleg. He lay silent and wakeful long into the night, until Dagnir's songs had ceased and Mablung had banked the fire in the hearth. Hearing, at last, the heavy sighs of Túrin's slumbering breath, he sat up silently and turned, and until first light he kept watch over the rhythmic rise and fall of Túrin's chest, wondering when the awkward child that he had so conscientiously shepherded had become a comely, if sullen, stranger.


II.

"Beleg!"

Túrin's voice sounded over the fracas, a clarion cry amidst the grunts and roars and metallic clatterings of combat. The incursions had become more frequent of late, and more brazen; dark creatures harried the marches and sought ever to find a weak spot in Melian's inviolable shield. Five days they had been engaged in this most recent skirmish, bouts of disastrous violence followed by portentous lulls that fortokened savagery renewed.

Túrin had been forgiven his audacity, repented it, even, and henceforth had proven his mettle by deed rather than word, fighting with indefatigable fervor. Two years now he had dwelt with Thingol's march-wardens, winning acclaim far beyond his years. Ever was Beleg the stalwart and fell-handed at his side, in rest as in battle, the only one who surpassed him yet in skill and valor. Though now, as Mablung and his men drove the horde north, Beleg had been engaged by a rogue, and the vicious collision of their blades sang a tocsin in Túrin's ears.

He fought his way toward them, hewing the foemen in his path, black blood marking his trail like a vile river. He heard a shout of pain--Beleg's-- and then his own joined it as a bolt pierced his thigh. Someone's hands were soon upon him, and he felt himself pulled out of the fray. He could not see what had become of Beleg.

Yet they were reunited soon enough when the fighting had finished, and Túrin saw that Beleg had taken a wound to his breast. He tried to sit up, but his leg burned fiercely straight down through to his toes.

"The sword is not your best weapon," he hissed, forcing his lips to grin over gritted teeth. "You should have left the blade-work to me."

Beleg smiled wanly. "Impudent pup. I taught you all you know of swords." He stopped speaking for a moment, beads of sweat rising across his ashen brow. "But you seem more in need of remedial lessons in archery, the first of which is to stay on the fletched end of the arrow!"

A retort formed on Túrin's lips and died there as his stomach roiled. The bolt had been withdrawn, but some poison lingered in the wound. The sky lurched and spun above his head.

Beleg carefully rose from his cot and moved to him. "Here. Lie back."

"You should not move about so soon," Túrin half-heartedly objected.

"Never mind that."

Beleg came to him, and with hands that held more skill and wisdom than any other Túrin had ever known, pressed down against his thigh. His touch was gentle as a lover's, and where his palm met Túrin's flesh, a soothing coolness spread. The blighting sap was drawn out of him, and even the breath in his lungs felt cleansed for Beleg's touch. He was loath to relinquish that proffered tenderness and sense of well-being when at last the healing hands retreated. He sighed, and Beleg reached down to him and brushed the hair out of his eyes and drew his fingers down his cheek. His expression was inscrutable.

"I feared for you, you know," Túrin told him.

Beleg's face softened. "You should not have. My fate wills not that I shall drink the draught of death from foes."

"Aye, the Eldar have little concern for death. Nor do I fear it; the Edain are born for it."

"Yet you should not rush to meet it, else it find you sooner than you would wish. You have much left to do, son of Húrin."

Túrin saw then that the wound to Beleg's breast had reopened. "You tend to me at your own peril, it seems." He raised his hand to touch the bandage now glistening red, and brought his bloody fingers to his thigh. "There. Now we have blended in battle the blood of our wounds."

Beleg's smile faltered at this, but Túrin had already turned his head the other way.



III.

The Orcs had been routed, save for a small band of the wounded and the craven who scattered and fled. Snow had begun to fall, and by sunset on the morrow it would lie in thick drifts, swaddling the woods in white. Now the march-wardens rejoiced, for Morgoth's creatures did not strike so hard in the cold season, and when they came, fewer in number, they were easily spotted, easily tracked, and weakened by hunger.

Beleg's voice keened long and low over his blade, a song of sharpening that honed the edge to razor sharpness. Túrin watched him, his eyes following the slow passage of hands over steel. He envied this skill, but it was Elven magic, a song no human tongue could sound. He had only his whetstone and the bits of swarf that burrowed beneath his fingernails.

When Beleg finished, he looked up and smiled. "Yule is coming."

"Another excuse for the men to slink off into the darkness and rut like beasts." Túrin's mouth turned down in a slight scowl.

Beleg appraised him cautiously, then set himself to oiling his scabbard. "So you are a Man, indeed: though raised among the Elves, you spurn their customs. What is it to you if your brothers-in-arms seek respite with one another? Our days are long here and our pleasures few, and they are discrete in their dealings." He could feel the narrowing focus of Túrin's grey eyes upon his back as surely as if they had been dagger-points biting deep and sharp into his skin.

"I have not known you to indulge in such undignified dealings;" the Man challenged.

Save for the quick twitch of one eye, Beleg's face remained impassive. He could not say if Túrin had taken note of it or not.

~ ~ ) * (~ ~




Above the tall pines and the denuded arms of oak, ash, and alder, the night sky stretched dark, infinite and cold. Yet it was warm and inviting inside the lodge, and save for the few sentries remaining outside Melian's Girdle after drawing the short lots from Mablung's fist, all of the march-wardens but one had gathered within. Túrin made himself conspicuous by his absence.

Wine and mead flowed freely, the last of autumn's apples were brought out from the stores, and Beleg had taken down a fine stag and gralloched it for the men to roast. The guardians of Doriath were well-fed and happy, and primed for a bit of mischief. When he did not have his flute pressed to his lips, Dagnir cast roguish looks at Beleg, and when he did play, his eyes followed Beleg through the length and breadth of the room. Beleg considered the possibilities. Perhaps a night spent engaged in rough pursuits might draw his mind away from the path it had followed so often of late, a path that plagued his nights with infernal regularity, but did not bear close scrutiny come dawn.

The night wore on, though Beleg's heart was not in the festivities. He found himself alternately wondering where Túrin had hidden himself, and to what end, and chastising himself for his concern; Túrin, after all, was a Man-- in form, and in fact now, and he took pains to remind everyone of this, Beleg in particular. Beleg knew such concern would have annoyed him.

Dagnir's overtures became less oblique, and Beleg found himself not assenting so much as acquiescing. But Dagnir was no fool. As he ushered Beleg out the door and into a quiet copse out of earshot of the lodge, he slung his arm companionably around Beleg's shoulders.

"Likely he set himself to checking the snares and making certain the sentries are on their guard. You know how he makes himself scarce when there is aught afoot but battle."

He leaned back against a tree and let his head fall backward, provocatively baring the pillar of his throat. "Come, Strongbow, have at it," he growled. "I am drawn tight as your Belthronding this eve."

Beleg met the challenge and thrust his hand between Dagnir's legs, finding him already half-hard and eager for sport. He kneaded him through his breeches, saw his hips rising to ride the friction, and beneath his palm he could feel Dagnir's erection become engorged and demanding. His own body had just begun to stir, though not as ardently as Dagnir's; his thoughts were elsewhere, and he had never been of much use when mind and body were not united. There was a hollow futility to these joinings, he thought, which was why he so rarely sought company of this manner. His body was well accustomed to heeding the demands of his mind, and hungers could be sublimated when the will was strong enough. Dagnir showed no such reluctance to indulge in mere physicality. He reached for Beleg and made a disgruntled noise at finding his partner so disengaged.

With some effort, Beleg reeled in his mind and permitted himself to take some pleasure at Dagnir's touches, but the spider-silk traceries of fugitive thought spun far and free, and the spark wrought by his comrade's hands was not enough to kindle him. There was something drawing him, calling to him, and he knew not what.

The air seemed to be in motion around him, and Beleg became aware of a presence neither benevolent nor malign: a watcher; eyes in the woods espying their revels. Dagnir grasped his wrist and jerked it, reminding him of the task at hand. He had already abandoned his attempts at reciprocation; Beleg's distraction had rendered the effort fruitless. Beleg did not mind; it was not the first time he had found himself in such straits, and not likely to be the last. His senses moved unfettered in the darkness in search of the interloper. He was close. When he scented the familiar strains of leather, of iron and sweat, intuition became certainty: Túrin.

The brittle snap of a twig reverberated in the quiet of the forest, and both Beleg and Dagnir swiveled their heads. There was nothing to be seen, only ice-capped evergreens and the aureate glow of the fire in the windows of the lodge beyond them. Túrin was far too keen a tracker for that; he might have spirited himself away in total silence, unseen by any, and unnoticed by all but Beleg, who was ever attuned to him; he had given himself away on purpose.

When Beleg turned back, Dagnir was watching him, a small smile of mingled compassion and disappointment playing on his face. "That was Túrin, I suppose." Beleg's silence was confirmation enough. "You wish to go to him," he said.

Beleg blew out a breath and it spooled out of his mouth, a spiraling column of smoke. "I do, yes. I must."

Dagnir nodded and let him go.

~ ~ ) * (~ ~




He found Túrin easily enough; he had not gone far. Beleg made no secret of himself, as if he should abjure his skill in stealth, humble himself with the creaking of snow beneath his boot-soles, to expiate Túrin's discomfort.

Túrin wheeled around sharply. "I find I spoke too soon when I named you immune from base indignities."

The shadows made evil shapes across his face, and in them, Beleg caught something of the darkness that harbored at the edges of Túrin's soul seeking ever to blight his hopes. An answering sorrow blossomed in his own heart.

"Túrin ..."

"Let me be, Cuthalion."

Beleg stepped back, but resisted the urge to incline his head. He had done nothing requiring forgiveness, had done nothing to court shame or censure. He would not be cowed by a youth who had barely crossed the cusp of manhood and who held the customs of Men superior to his own. "As you wish," he said, his head held erect, and he said no other words to Túrin that evening, but turned back toward the lodge, leaving him alone in the lightless wood.

~ ~ ) * (~ ~




For days, Túrin's sullen mien lingered low like a fog and he held himself aloof as he had when first he had come to the marches. Beleg could have throttled him for it, but the heat of his own anger was not long to burn itself out. He had neither the time nor the inclination to repine, for there were plans to be sprung. He took Mablung aside and apprised him of his intentions.

"Will you take Túrin?" Mablung asked. "He will be happier in your company than alone with us."

Beleg's face betrayed nothing. Clearly Mablung had not been made privy to the cause of Túrin 's current temper; the knights of the march were nothing if not circumspect, even with each other. He could scarcely imagine Túrin welcoming an extended sojourn with one whose proclivities he so clearly reviled, yet he knew he could not, would not, simply abandon the youth in his choler without a word.

He approached Túrin at twilight; the play of failing blue and purple light against the snow seemed a more amenable setting for reparations than the harsh glare of day.

"I will be venturing west to scout out the strongholds of Morgoth's men. There are times when stealth and cunning will serve in better stead than numbers."

Túrin frowned. "I see. How long will you be gone?"

Beleg's shoulders rose noncommittally. "Until my errand is complete. Through the winter, likely, and perhaps beyond." Watching the furrow between the man's brow deepen, he extended a figurative hand. "Would you care to accompany me? Two can still move in silence, and it has been long since we have roved alone together. Not since you were still a boy."

The soft sibilance of an indrawn breath was as much an assent as Túrin's small, cautious smile. His ire, it seemed, departed as swiftly as it commenced. Ah, the maddening and mercurial temperament of Men!

"You know," Túrin avowed, not looking Beleg in the eye, "there is no place in the world that I would not follow you."

As I would follow you, Beleg thought, turning his face to the West where the last strokes of daylight were sinking below the horizon. Yet there are some places that a Man cannot follow an Elf, and some places where an Elf may not follow a Man.

Then he chided himself for for the maudlin wanderings of his mind, and offered Túrin a smile encompassing all the truths he could not speak.



 

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