The pulse in his throat quickened and the hard point in his neck bobbed with a swallow. Maegln felt his face grow warmer, and knew very well that she could see it on him. Unless he could alter his own thoughts to stop it, a flush was clearly visible on his face.
But Maeglin watched her approach him. The water rippled around her stomach and in her wake. The crest of the ripples turned to slivers of bright silver with the moonlight, but it wasn’t enough to catch his gaze because they were focused on her.
The clothing that Berúthiel wore most often was free-flowing and loose, but Maeglin was able to guess at how slender she was, and with the clothing she imagined her to be very catlike. But without her silks she appeared, to him, something else. It was so easy to forget that she was mortal. Presently, Maeglin’s eyes darted around her form, even on the shape and swell of her chest before meeting her eyes again. The heat on his cheeks dissipated somewhat as he wrapped his mind and thoughts around the moment.
The request was met with a silent nod, and his the restlessness of his mind subsided with the task. But it was a short respite, because he reached up with both hands and placed them on the outer edge of her dark shoulders. Touching her warm skin with his wet hands sent a thrilled jolt down his back, and desire rippled through him. Undoubtedly she would have noticed. “Turn for me.” Maeglin’s instruction was quiet and low as he nudged with hands for her to turn around.
With her angled so that the spot of hair was right in front of him, Maeglin dropped one hand from her shoulder, re-wetted his fingers, and then took a hold of the matted black hair. “It is from the battle,” he said, rubbing at it between his fingers and thumb. The elf confirmed it when he inspected the residue on his fingers. “Blood.”
It didn’t take long to un-mat Berúthiel’s hair, and when he was finished he combed his fingers through a couple of times it to ensure it was gone. “There, it is gone.”
Berúthiel could almost hear his quickened heartbeat, or maybe it was her own, loud in her ears. There was a long and silent pause as he looked at her, his eyes sweeping openly across her body now. She was not abashed by it, but found herself, oddly enough, almost insecure. Would he be pleased by what he saw? She felt like a girl staring into the eyes of her first lover.
His hands touched her bare shoulders and the same jolt which shocked through him shocked her also. They’d touched before, many times; but this time was so very different. Desire for him surged in her and her face grew as hot as his as she turned around in the cool water, compliant to his quiet direction.
His hands were gentle in her hair but she was more aware of his proximity than anything, the heat of his long body like a column of pale fire behind her. Her skin stood out in chills and she bent her neck beneath his touch, remembering that other day when she had bent her neck as his fingers brushed the scars graven there.
She caught a sharp breath as he spoke again and she turned around, moving closer as she did so. Little more than a breath separated them now and she smiled, lifting her hands to twine them into his own dark, wet locks.
She stretched up onto her toes, her body swaying forward, and closed the distance between them. Her breasts brushed his chest and she gasped again and finally caught his lips with hers.
They had kissed before, many times; but this time was different.
Maeglin held her eyes, absolutely aware of a two things at once.
First, that they were going to share in a rather intimate ritual. Bathing communally was something he’d done before, though not often with Elves, more frequently with other men (Dwarves usually, but less often nowadays as their suspicion of them only increased over the years). Absolutely not with women. It took a moment of reminding himself that this was an exceptional woman, and there was no issue to stand in the way except for the newness of the idea.
Secondly, he’d have to undress. Maeglin had considered leaving pants on - but those were dirty like his tunic. He’d not bared his body wholly to a woman’s eyes before - that he knew of, anyway. Not that he was insecure of his body (quite the opposite, in fact; he was silently proud of it and the scars he bore from this life) but there was a thought of nervousness at the simple idea of undressing.
This would be simply cleaning themselves, right?
But why did the air hold something that seemed perfectly content to linger and bend instead of snapping away and making his taut arms relax?
A flush of blood rose to his face as Maeglin realized what it was that she was doing. He half-turned away in a show of allowing her some privacy, but his gaze remained near where she stood so that her form could remain in his periphery. Swallowing, the elf followed suit with the removal of his shirt - the easiest item of clothing to remove. The grey, blood-stained shirt slipped over his head and was folded easily. Maeglin’s hands, calloused and freckled with pale and dark scars, settled over his hips with thumbs hooked into his pants to simply slip them down to his ankles. But he paused, watching Berúthiel without pretending he wasn’t watching as she stepped into the water.
He might as well have been struck dumb - Maeglin’s grey eyes focused on her hair as it moved as she did, and exposed the scars down her spine towards the swell of her hips and bottom.
His eyes moving downward reminded him that he had pants to remove, and he did so in haste to simply get it over with. Her nonchalance was a boon in that it took away the edge of anxiety of undressing, and it helped him in keeping his expression neutral and movements deliberate. The pants joined the shirt in being folded and set beside his boots, and then Maeglin made his way to the water. He joined her, remaining a couple arm-lengths away and upriver. The water was cool against his belly, and Maeglin hissed quietly through his teeth as it chilled his skin.
"You have something in your hair at the back of your head," Maeglin said aloud with his eyes on her face after lingering on the curve of her waist. He gathered his own, straight hair in a hand and combed his fingers through it to remove knots. "
Berúthiel was aware, and more than aware, of the way his eyes followed her. Oh, he pretended to a sort of half-courtesy at first, glancing aside – but she knew he marked her form. She could feel his eyes on her flesh as an almost physical presence and her breathing quickened just a bit.
She was not shy about returning his regard when at last he began to undress and join her. She had imagined before, of course she had, what he might look like beneath the layers of his garb. A long, cool expanse of pale skin stretched like moon-washed silk over the steel of his muscles. Would there be scars? Tattoos? Smooth, or lightly limned in soft dark hair?
She drank in the reality of him now, openly and without shame, finding it better than any imagining could ever be.
His cheeks had gone red and hot, she noted, and she smiled lightly. There was affection in her for him, and understanding. He had been terrified of this once, uncertain of her desire. They had come so close to each other that day, close in a way which provoked the desire he had spent his second lifetime walling out away. Both had been hurt by it, but she understood him now, and even the memory of pain was gone from her.
He likely was still terrified, and still uncertain. But she thought perhaps they’d gone beyond the need to wait. She hoped so, anyway. Perhaps tonight a door might be opened in that wall he’d built. Perhaps tonight it might be demolished entire.
Turning toward him, Berúthiel made no attempt to cover her small breasts as she waded nearer him, looking up into his eyes. She was fey and fearless now, committed to the path she’d chosen.
“Something in my hair? Would you help me with it?” she asked, tilting her chin as she waited to see if he would reach for her.
“—What sort of kiss?”
She grinned and swayed toward him, lips just slightly parted.
"Mm, you are simply the perfect height.”
The kiss was only on his cheek, but it lingered, lips brushing the high arch of his cheekbone with gentle insistence.
“—I am glad my height pleases you.”
Even to his own ears that sounded terrible, and he held back a wince. Actions were always easier than words for him, so he turned his head, pressing a gentle kiss to her cheek in return.
"More than just your height pleases me."
She leaned her forehead against his cheek a moment, hiding a smile.
She smiled somewhat bitterly and turned to face him more fully, wiping the tips of her fingers together, scattering the condensed moisture upon them in a fine mist which fell and beaded on the silk of her pantaloons.
"All things remind me of such pain," she told him with perfect honesty. "I was taught that to love another person is to be weak, because it opens you to that pain. To love another is to invite injury."
She shook her head a little, but did not drop his eyes. “And it’s true, as far as it goes. You and I both know that. But I would rather have the memories of my siblings warm within me than to have been cold and empty all my life.”
"Of course," Haldir murmured in response, his voice low and reluctant. He folded his arms across his chest, the fingers of one hand tapping nervous rhythms on the opposite bicep.
"As my brothers are to me, the stars in a dark winter’s night." His eyes wandered the room in a concentrated effort to look everywhere but at Berúthiel. "I cannot help but wonder, however, how much different their life might be if they had our parents to raise them."
"Very little different, in some ways," she murmured, watching him as he avoided her gaze. "You are the eldest? Still, they would love you thus, looking to you for both protection and example. As my brother did me, before he was lost to me. As my sister did, also. We had parents. A mother too distant, a father too…cruel.”
She brushed her fingers lightly across his arm and then dropped her hand again. “I, too, wonder what it might have been like to have true parents, parents as they’re meant to be. But that cannot now be changed.”
♎ your muse tracing one of my muse’s scars
It was hot, the sun beating down upon her and sticking her hair to the back of her neck, sticking her garb to her sweat-sheened body. Berúthiel did not mind heat itself, but there was a dampness to this northwestern air, lacking from the deserts of her homeland, which she found unpleasant.
Sighing, she gathered up her long, loose locks and fought to tame them, twisting her hair into a long coiled rope upon her head and securing it all with a handful of pins. They would have to move into the shade soon, and find a cool drink to share.
The gentle touch upon the back of her neck came as a surprise and she stiffened a moment before realizing that Maeglin’s fingers were tracing out the scar there, the first in a long line of symbols that followed the arching curves of her spine and ended just above the swell of her arse.
The scars were hidden, most of the time, and she realized now that perhaps he had not even known they existed. She shivered lightly under his hand and dipped her chin, arching her neck into his touch.
“They go all the way down,” she murmured, an unvoiced question in her tone.
Do you want to see?
His mind and thoughts were a mess, like the tangled threads of various shades of two colors that were close but not quite the same. And the more Maeglin attempted to sort it out, the harder it was to contain. More and more things vied for his attention, and so he ultimately shoved it into silence like boxing up a puzzle to solve later.
But yet his thoughts couldn’t stop picking at the knot of thoughts. The sound she made when he’d pulled away remained like a haunting echo. It didn’t seem to bode well, and as though looking for confirmation, Maeglin quested out towards her with a thought so light that it could be likened to being able to feel if someone was looking her way. There was nothing reaching back. Berúthiel was absent.
An invisible hand groped inside in chest and tugged. The corners of Maeglin’s mouth pulled back in a grimace as he swallowed the discomfort away. Mantric words came to mind as he willfully made himself unreceptive to probing tendrils of thought.
Perhaps it would be worth something to think on it later. Later… not now, and alone.
Maeglin turned his head to face Berúthiel as she spoke, reminding him of the Quenya tutor he had when he was younger. For his part, the Elf angled his body partially to her and clasped his hands behind his back in a formal and distanced display of attentiveness.
"There were differences between the Elves and between Men, but I had never exactly been clear as to why. I had never concerned myself with them or cared why they were different, with few exception. Even then, it was not on the nature of their spirit." Pausing for breath, Maeglin turned his dark eyes ahead of him while working his jaw in silent thought. The curiosity was genuine, but it lacked the ardor of one desiring to use the information for personal reasons. "It must have taken you some years to formulate your methods?"
Berúthiel nodded jerkily, her head bobbing on her neck in a movement more birdlike than catlike. She’d kept crows long before there were ever cats at her side.
"Some years indeed. I began as a child in my father’s libraries and archives. He…encouraged independent study. I found an old text in a box of neglected scraps. It was so old as to be only a clay tablet, but the incised marks were still hard and clear. Dated from the earliest days of the migration westward, I think, written in the temple-city of Sun-Awakening and carried with the pioneers. It was broken, though, incomplete — but that is where the idea first came to me that it should be possible. So I began to look for more. In An Karagmir’s libraries, my home. In the libraries of An Pharaz, another city much like my own, when we visited upon diplomacy. In the Haven of Umbar’s teeming markets and the great Library of Umbar also. A child I was, but a princess also, and not without resources. The last pieces I found in Gondor, though, in the archives of Osgiliath.”
She fell silent, remembering that long quest, and the pleasures of it. Whatever had come afterwards, the scholar and the sorceress in her remembered assembling the puzzle with great pleasure. She shook her head sharply. “No one else ever thought to look, maybe. They did not put the pieces together because they did not even see that there was a puzzle there that might be assembled into a new thing. The texts were…healer’s manuals, religious scriptures, books of philosophy, the works of Resurrectionists and Necromancers and the Blue Monks and the Sun’s Daughters. They seemed to have no point of connection.”
Never had she spoken so deeply on this subject to anyone before, and a flush heated her face. She turned her eyes away, fingers interlacing in front of her in an oddly anxious gesture. “But I found it,” she concluded. “Much good it did me.”
His fingers inexorably echoed the pattern of hers; the golden eyes above deep shadows followed every tracery of slender brown digits over metal he knew would be cool in the warm air – a bit rough here, where the intricate pattern grew too narrow for the smith’s rasp to fit, and here smoothly iridescent where a hundred hands that were now dust had stroked it, perhaps as she did, trying not to; or maybe as he would have, before the flood, unabashed in sensuality.
The knot of sorrow that replaced the heart of this hollow body stirred and coiled as he reflected that he did not need to wonder why she, so young, knew she was not supposed to do this harmless, lovely thing. Some artisans he had known – mostly among Men and Elves, for few halflings and no yrch or Khazad (to whom the act would quite literally equate to sacrilege) – to be enjoyed by eye alone, but he never had. It seemed as alien to him as creating life only to forbid what you’ve created to do the same…Perhaps he projected, selfishly, but he liked to think the smith responsible would be glad of the princess’s enjoyment.
He knew then that it was for her he’d come here. It wasn’t that she was the key; perhaps she was, but that didn’t matter. She was a person, alone. She needed someone to let her know it was all right to caress the inlay of a tea table.
It was so finely carved that he didn’t notice the jointing until her hand brushed over it, and even then, with his eyesight dimmed by exhaustion and by overuse of the third eye, he couldn’t be sure, but tilted his head as a bird does. “Does it move…? It’s very beautiful.”
“I do! They’re beautiful, like robin’s eggs, or clear warm seas. Favourite colour…hm.” He drew one knee up and wrapped his arms loosely around it, thoughtfully nibbling his lip while he stared into the distance. Finally he shrugged, laughing, and grinned. “Favourite colour for what? I like the blue teacups. They must be lovely with the amber tea in them.”
He already thought she was special, but he could tell she was trying to impress him, and she did – not just by her meticulousness, and the knowledge she was so keen to tell him about, but by the fact that she wasn’t superior about it, and that she cared about impressing him, eunuch slave though he was. He breathed in deeply in appreciation of the tea-spirit and grimaced playfully at the dregs, then beamed at the announcement of tea-for-real. Her enjoyment of the ceremony, and its beauty, made up for the ache of grief that, of taste and touch, only memory remained to him, and besides, he was used to that anyway.
So his warm smile held a quiet ebullience as he carefully accepted the teapot and lifted it into the long, graceful pour. His hands described a shape like a swan’s neck, stylised into calligraphy – the long glide up and the shallow, graceful curve into just enough of a dip to tip the narrow stream of amber into the blue cup. The pour grew subtly deeper, just so, and higher, to the extent of his long arms, just as he finished; and there sat an elegantly foamy cup of tea, which, reverently placing the pot upon the gleaming wood of the table, he passed across to her, solemnly and with a respectful bow of his dark shaggy head. Afterward, he glanced to her for permission to pour his own.
"Uh huh!" the little princess declared proudly. "The top is just a tray and it comes right off and then the legs all fold up tight like a little bug and unfold again when you need it to be a table instead of a bug!" She was tempted to show him, but the tabletop was covered in the tea makings and she’d have to move them all and the tea-cups would be on the floor then and might get broken and that would be terrible! Later she would, though. When they were done with the tea.
"What’s a robin?" she asked him, tilting her head. It lay eggs so maybe it was a bird? But it could be a type of lizard, too, or maybe a snake, or she’d heard that in the menagerie at An Pharaz they had a kind of really weird rodent-looking thing from the Dark Land that had fur and stuff like most mammals did but also laid eggs! She wasn’t sure she believed that, though; she’d have to see it for proof. But either way that probably wasn’t what Ziya meant, she didn’t think.
"Favorite color for — for anything!" she responded, tilting her head. She’d never thought of it that way. Wasn’t a favorite just a favorite? Wasn’t that the point, that there was just one? How could you have more than one favorite thing? She liked lots of colors but blue was always her favorite because it made her think of Ammë. “If you could have a new tunic made in any color, what color would you pick?”
Ziya’s reactions as she made the tea pleased her. He smiled and grimaced and laughed and was quiet in all the right places. Her new friend clearly understood how important tea really was, she could tell! Her Ammë said tea was the most civilized of all things, and that the ritual of the tea should always be respected because it made everyone slow down and pay attention for once. People didn’t pay enough attention to the world, her Ammë said. Always rushing about and thinking the wrong things were the important ones.
Ziya wasn’t like that. The little princess was sure her Ammë would love Ziya when she understood that about him.
And he poured the tea just right, too. She grinned as she watched the smooth stream of brightly-scented liquid shimmer in the air as he poured it out into the blue cup. She took it delicately between both her hands, holding it with just her fingertips. Some people used little silver-chased frames to put the glasses into, but she liked the heat on her fingers. It hurt, but it felt good, too. She breathed in really deep and felt her nose prickle with the mint and grinned, looking up at Ziya. Only then did she realize he hadn’t poured his own.
"Aren’t you thirsty?" she asked, confused.
While Berath prepared her herbs and water, Fingon maintained an interest, though he sat with his shoulders hunched; he’d been more exposed before his healers, but that had generally been when his wounds were severe enough that he did not have the energy to be embarrassed. But the aches in his arms and sides, and even the insides of his legs, were beginning to ache. A small fight it might have been, but still a fight, and a few days’ worth of riding did not help matters.
The herbs let off light odours, and they might even have been relaxing—but between the boiling water and threaded needle, the king tensed in anticipation of pain, his hands curling around the edge of the bench and grasping it tight enough to turn his knuckles white.
Back in Aman, no one had ever needed to stitch his flesh back together. No one had poked holes in him, either, but he imagined that if they had, the wound still would have healed on its own with ease.
Fingon waited until he had a spoken confirmation that Berath was finished before trying to move his leg. Fortunately, it was still mobile, and if he could stand on it before, no doubt he’d still be able to walk despite the addition of the bandage.
It still stung, but he’d learned to tell the difference between the sting of hurt and the sting of healing, and this followed the latter. “Thank you,” he breathed. Then something like a laugh escaped his mouth. “Think I’ll make it back to my chambers dressed like this?” Dressing seemed like a burden. Besides, he wanted a bath. He’d probably have to keep his leg propped up against the side, or at least keep the water shallow enough that it would stay dry if it remained bent.
As Fingon stood, Berath leaped to her feet, arms outstretched in case he should stumble or crumple when the injured leg took his weight. He seemed strong enough, though; perhaps stiff on that side, perhaps swaying very slightly, but no human could have stood so firmly as he stood now with such a wound in his leg. Envy and distrust prickled at her again; it was not fair, it was not right that these people should be so much more gifted than her own!
We were not made to die, she heard in her memory, her mother’s voice sharing the Wisdom of their tribe in the secret shadows of their chambers by night. But the life eternal was stolen from us. Taken away in punishment for a crime we never committed. Given to the white-fiends in our place.
Her lips thinned out as she looked up at Fingon, all the fey humor that had been in her suddenly wiped away by that memory. Berath was strong and magically talented; she had been taken and trained by the Shadows and so she could not openly count herself of the Wise as her mother had been — but still she knew too much, too much ever to forget.
What happened in that darkness, o my mother? What happened?
"It seems unlikely," she said, her voice only slightly tight. She scrubbed at her face with one hand, hoping her change in attitude would seem only weariness from her labors. "I will aid you. Lean on me."