Smoke hung thick in the air of the squalid tavern, the faintly sweet smell of burning apple-wood vying with the less pleasant odors of soured dish rags and unwashed bodies. Gildor, no stranger to smoke, barrooms, or the bathing habits of mortals, paid the stench little mind. He settled more comfortably into the shadows, his attention seemingly on his second pint of the evening. In truth, he was listening to the flow of conversation around him and watching the nonsense unfolding two tables to the right.
Erestor causally tossed his knife into the air and it flashed in the dim light, revolving three times before returning soundlessly to his hand. Cheers - and groans - echoed, then there were calls for another chance, and the chink of coins hitting the table. The weapon somersaulted again, spinning more rapidly, and landed once more, the leather-wrapped handle comfortably cradled in Erestor's hand. A heartbeat later his fingers closed around the grip and the blade sprung into a defensive position.
Gildor put down his glass and sat up straighter, his muscles tensing in anticipation.
"Don't touch the knife, son," Erestor said, his voice deceptively mild. "I wouldn't want you to get cut."
An uncomfortable silence fell over the table. "Wasn't gonna hurt it," one of the more sodden young men in the crowd retorted sullenly. "Just wanted to see how heavy it is." He looked around, his eyes lighting on the scarred wooden door that marked the passage to the sleeping rooms. "Betcha can't stick it in that doorframe over there," he taunted.
"Not without ruining the point of my knife, no," Erestor agreed wryly.
"Betcha a pint!"
Erestor picked up his nearly empty goblet and relaxed slightly, a smile playing on the corners of his mouth. "Since I don't want a pint and you don't need another, I think I'll pass," he said genially, draining the last drops of fourth-rate wine from his glass.
"Sayin' I can't hold my drink, are ya?" the challenger blustered, starting to his feet. "I oughta-"
"You oughta get your coat and go home, before you get in trouble too big for you," the innkeeper broke in, clamping a firm hand down on the boy's shoulder. "I don't hold with fightin' in my house, and I don't want no quarrel with the Fair Folk." The man glanced at Erestor with a mixture of anxiety and reproach. Elves at his tables were less rare than they had once been. While he didn't want to anger his regular patrons, he was equally wary of offending the exotic strangers who appeared from time to time, making him oddly nervous with their quiet voices and ancient eyes. Allies of the King, they were, or so he had heard.
"No harm done," Erestor said blandly, rising to his feet. "I'll have another glass of red while my friend finishes his ale, and then we had best be getting on." Waving off a patently insincere protest that they were welcome to take a room and stay, he moved to Gildor's table and dropped into a chair, not speaking until his refill arrived.
"You're determined to end the night in a barroom brawl, aren't you?" Gildor teased under his breath, shifting so that Erestor, too, could sit with his back to the wall. "And all for less coin than it will take to settle our bill."
"The game is its own reward," Erestor shot back good-naturedly. "Besides," he added, his dark eyes sparkling wickedly, "we can take them."
Gildor chuckled, drawing a few suspicious scowls from the crowd. "Probably," he allowed, "but I doubt Elrond would appreciate us stirring up trouble just now. He has enough headaches."
Erestor shrugged philosophically, giving his knife an idle toss. "If we win, he'll never know. If we lose-" Erestor broke into a broad grin "-I'm sure his breeding will keep him from speaking ill of the dead."
Gildor gave a snort of acknowledgement, but with the thought of Elrond his attention had turned to more sober matters. "I wonder if the master of this fine establishment has any inkling just how near he is to a good number of the dreaded Fair Folk?" He paused as though expecting comment and Erestor motioned for him to continue. "Large companies of elves may pass unseen, but large companies of men do not. Surely there is gossip."
Erestor shook his head slowly. "I'd say little information or anything else moves between Annúminas and the likes of our host." He glanced around the room. "There's not a dark head or grey eye among them, and a century is as good as an Age to these folk. The Númenóreans are too fine to mingle with the locals, even in sport."
"Still no fan of Elendil? Ereinion likes him well enough."
"Elendil is acceptable," Erestor admitted, setting aside his empty glass, "but Isildur is a bloody fool. And," he added pointedly, "men die and leave their kingdoms to their eldest sons."
"Assuming there are kingdoms to leave," Gildor reminded him, "and that becomes more unlikely by the day."
Erestor laughed unexpectedly, pushing back his chair. "And on that uplifting note, we should make ourselves scarce." He dropped a generous stack of coins on the table. "We may have to go a good way to find shelter."
"We may have to go a good way to evade your pursuers, you mean," Gildor snipped without malice, pausing to toss back the last of his ale. "Lead on, then."
The moon was full and the air was cool and crisp, a pleasant change from the suffocating atmosphere of the tavern, and they walked at a leisurely pace, the easy banter of long friendship an accompaniment to the rustling and whispering of the night. They had just passed the last of the ramshackle dwellings on the edge of the village when there was a glimpse of flickering light and the sharp snap of a twig underfoot from the trees beside the muddy path.
"Your friends have come to play," Gildor murmured wryly, and a moment later they were under poorly planned and deplorably executed attack.
Though the outcome was never in doubt, Erestor sighed with relief as the instigator's knife dropped uselessly to the ground and the other three would-be ruffians fell back uncertainly. There was no point in rousing the village by killing the idiots. "That was very foolish, boy," he said conversationally, his own knife still firmly in hand. Gildor tightened his grip on their assailant's wrist and twisted harder, and the young man yelped in pain, sending his companions back another step. "Far enough," Erestor snapped, stooping to pick up the still burning torch one of the attackers had thrown.
Gildor kicked the fallen knife toward Erestor and gave his captive a sharp shove to the chest, landing him in a heap just in front of the other troublemakers. To the drunken men it must have seemed as though his bow appeared by magic, an arrow nocked and ready to be drawn. "Move before I give you leave, and I'll pin you to a tree," Gildor promised.
The remaining three miscreants immediately dropped to their knees, and Erestor smothered a grin.
His hair gilded by the dancing torchlight, Gildor pulled himself up to his full height - which was nothing special by elven standards, but quite enough to impress four inebriated mortals sitting on the cold, sloppy ground - and glared. "You have no idea what ruin you might have brought on your people," he said haughtily. "Fools! We are emissaries of the King! We are expected and our path is known. The whole of your miserable village would be razed to the foundations in retribution if we did not arrive safely." He snorted disdainfully. "As for your own pathetic lives, they are as good as forfeit already. I could kill you where you cower and be rewarded richly for it."
The four captives stared blankly, though whether in terror or confusion, Erestor was not quite sure. They were drunk, after all, and obvious simpletons with it. "Now, Gil," he chided with apparent sincerity, extinguishing the torch in a puddle of muddy water, "it is late, and we have miles to go. I am in no mood to deal with a pile of corpses-"
Gildor buried an arrow in the mud a hand's width from the leader of the gang, and the boy whimpered audibly. "No need to deal with them," Gildor retorted, an unpleasant smile curling his mouth as he nocked a second arrow. "Leave them to the wolves and worms."
That they understood, and the elves might have found the resultant begging and wailing amusing, had the day been shorter and the drinks more palatable. Things being what they were, Gildor was tempted to make good on his threat and Erestor was not inclined to stop him.
But there was Gil-galad to humor and Elrond to consider and the Númenóreans to pacify...
Gildor regretfully suppressed his homicidal urges and waved the men to their feet with his half-drawn bow. "Start running and don't look back," he ordered darkly, "or I will be the last sight of your wasted lives."
"We can see for a hundred furlongs in the moonlight, and my friend can put an arrow through a bird's eye at half that distance," Erestor called after them. "I would suggest you take him seriously."
For several seemingly endless minutes the night was punctuated by a series of bumps, thuds, and curses, then suddenly a far-off door slammed, followed by another, and another even more distant. Gildor and Erestor stood in silence for a moment longer, then Erestor burst into laughter. "Emissaries of the king?" he hooted. "Leave them to the wolves and worms?"
Gildor grinned. "And I can put an arrow through a bird's eye at fifty furlongs, too."
"Maybe that was an exaggeration," Erestor admitted, "but you can certainly put on a show. The minstrels lost a great talent when you took to the twilight."
"No matter. All the world's a stage, you know."
"Yes," Erestor agreed dryly, "it is. But I rather think we are meant to remain behind the scenes. That's why they call us spies."
Gildor winced. "Not spies, Res. Purveyors of information that may be of use to our associates."
As always, Erestor merely shrugged. The friendly sparring over semantics was as old as their role in Gil-galad's far-flung web, and not likely to end anytime soon. "Whatever we are, we are out here fending off fools in the mud when most of our comrades are sitting around Elrond's fire or holed up in the barracks," he pointed out. "Let's find somewhere to pass the night."
They stayed with the dwindling path for some time before Gildor abruptly turned off into an abandoned field, leading the way over the rubble toward what appeared to be a derelict barn, a hulking building with wide-hewn wooden floors flanking the center aisle of bare earth. One side of the structure hung ominously above a creek that had washed away the pilings over the years, but an old tack room at the upper end was dry and protected from the wind, a few scattered scraps of leather the only sign of past use. "I think we can build a fire on the dirt floor out there," Erestor mused, spreading his bedroll before digging through his cloak for a flint and steel. "If we keep it small it won't burn the barn down and likely will remain hidden."
"A little heat would be welcome," Gildor agreed, "I'll find the wood if you'll spark the tinder."
Before a quarter hour had passed a small fire was crackling, Gildor's wineskin was warming at a safe distance, and a leaf-wrapped bundle of jerked venison was moving from hand to hand. "The water out there is deep," Gildor remarked, offering Erestor half the last piece of jerky and tossing the leaves into the fire. He grinned, his eyes twinkling in the firelight. "We could swim if it were a shade warmer."
"Thanks, but I think I'll pass," Erestor retorted, stretching expansively as he rose to his feet. "Here," he said, swallowing a squirt of stout red wine before tossing the wineskin to Gildor. "This is just about right. I guess we should-"
Erestor's voice trailed off, and Gildor turned to look at his friend expectantly. "We should what?" he prodded, pausing to squeeze a stream of wine into his mouth. Erestor was staring into the fallen corner of the barn, and Gildor immediately came to his feet, his hand going to the hilt of his knife. "What is it?"
"Nothing's wrong," Erestor reassured him, peering into the dimness. "I thought I saw something gleam over there." He carefully grabbed the unlit end of a branch from the fire and moved to the edge of the precariously tilted wooden floor. "I thought I saw...look! I was right! Peacock feathers, Gildor! There by the outer wall. They must have roosted in here when the barn was sound, maybe even hid their eggs in the straw."
Gildor looked at him warily. "I see."
Erestor chuckled. "No, you don't, but that is to be expected. Finrod had peafowl at Nargothrond when I was a boy, but that was long before you came. Horrible, screeching noises they made, but they were gorgeous." He paused, and a shadow seemed to pass over his face. "I remember my mother wearing peacock feathers in her hair. Papa said they were bad luck, but she laughed and paid him no mind. Makes you wonder, now." He extended the flaming brand further, and Gildor caught a glimpse of shimmering gold and turquoise in the darkness. "You seldom find shed feathers in the wild. They don't last long in the weather." He stepped cautiously onto the warped floorboards. "I'm going to take a few."
"Res!" Gildor protested, grabbing ineffectually at his friend's shoulder. "The place is rotted through. You can't-"
"It's only four or five paces. Just stay back, and I'll be fine," Erestor said confidently, feeling his way across the creaking expanse of splintered wood. He shot Gildor a look of pure mischief. "You're the heavyweight here, remember." Twice the floor shifted, and Gildor held his breath while Erestor stood perfectly still, but a moment later the feathers were in hand and Erestor made his way back, a triumphant grin on his face. "See? I told you I would be-"
There was a sharp cra-a-a-ack and a portentous tremor, and the floor disintegrated under his feet.
For an instant Gildor could not move, assailed by rushing memories of lives intertwined, of hewn stone and dragons and destruction and jewels that burned white hot. Of friendship and laughter and steamed mussels and confidences around a thousand fires. Then reflexes honed by countless years in the wild took over and he lunged forward, catching Erestor by the braid and grabbing the neck of his tunic, pulling him to the safety of the dirt floor.
A heartbeat later the whole back side of the building collapsed into the swift-running creek.
Erestor's face was ashen, his breathing harsh in the sudden stillness. "Well," he joked unsteadily, flipping the dark rope of his hair back over his shoulder, "I always knew this style was practical. No matter what Galadriel says."
"What in the name of Ilúvatar and all the Valar were you thinking?" Gildor ground out, his voice shaking even through clenched teeth. "You could have been killed, Res. I could have lost you."
Erestor grinned crookedly, raising his hand in evidence. "I got the feathers, though."
"Of all the idiotic, addle-pated, irresponsible, unnecessary risks you have taken since we met, this is the trump. I ought to," Gildor spluttered, overcome by his sense of helpless outrage. "I should-"
Words failing him, Gildor caught Erestor's face between his hands and kissed him hard, pouring all of his frustration and horror and joyous relief into the frantic contact. They went down with a squeak of surprise into a tangle of limbs, the feathers fluttering unnoticed to the ground, and the kiss quickly became much more. Something primal - a thrusting, grinding dance of tongues and hips and gasping sighs that in the end became its own music. At last Gildor laced their fingers together and raised his head, searching Erestor's faintly flushed face with a peculiar mixture of hunger and unease.
Erestor's eyes were wide and bottomless as he curled one leg firmly around Gildor's hip. "Yes," he whispered, "I believe maybe you should."
What surprised Gildor most was the ferocity of it all, the wildly spiraling sensation that drove out all thought and restraint. Erestor was like an eel beneath him, strong, supple, and vaguely menacing; a powerful creature surrendering by choice rather than necessity, demanding his pleasure and offering more in return.
Gildor had never known submission so complete, or emotion so tangible, so freely shared.
The aftermath, a slow waking to haphazardly removed clothing and smears of sweat-made mud, was quiet and a little guarded, two old friends weighing the sudden change in a relationship that spanned the millennia. Erestor picked up his cloak and led the way to the creek, scrubbing briefly in the icy cold water just above the jumble of fallen wood. Gildor tarried a little longer in the stream, watching Erestor make his way up the bank and into the barn before shaking off the worst of the water and wrapping himself in his own cloak to follow.
The fire was tamped for the night and Erestor's damp cloak was draped over a convenient rail, so Gildor spread his nearby before tugging on his leggings and turning toward the tack room.
Erestor sat cross-legged on his bedroll, his bare chest still gleaming with a faint sheen of moisture in the soft glow of one of his precious candles. He had released his single braid, and Gildor noticed with a bemused glance that he had plaited a peacock feather into one of his forelocks, the brilliant gold and green and blue startling against the pitch-black of his hair. "You look like an Avari prince," Gildor said with forced lightness, and Erestor laughed.
"Then you will not mind humoring my royal fancies," he countered. He stretched languidly, a fleeting grimace crossing his face as he shifted position.
"Res, I am so-"
"Don't!" Erestor snarled savagely. "Don't you dare say you are sorry, Gildor Inglorion." There was a startled silence, and after a painful moment Erestor spoke into it, his voice less certain. "Unless you truly are sorry."
Gildor shook his head hesitantly. "Not sorry that it happened, just-" he swallowed hard and met Erestor's solemn gaze, shrugging helplessly. "I just always thought it would be different. Softer, slower."
Erestor's lips twitched. "You've often thought about shagging me senseless, have you?" he teased, and Gildor gaped wordlessly.
Erestor smiled, then, a genuine smile that made Gildor believe everything was going to be all right, after all, and he found himself smiling in return. "No damn it, not often. Just occasionally. After too much ale."
"Never mind," Erestor said cheekily, reaching to snuff out the candle. "I daresay we can remedy that."