"...and then, there was a fall-off in the production of walnut oil, which caused an increase in the consumption of other oils, such as linseed, and so a general oil shortage. And of course oils are a vitally important substance, used for such diverse purposes as cooking, hair care, weapon-care..."
The brief mention of weapons was the first remotely interesting thing Saeros had said all day. Why had Túrin ever agreed to this hunting trip? He supposed Saeros was attractive enough, in body, but then so was pretty much everyone else in Doriath, apart from Túrin's own men. At any rate, no matter what Beleg had supposed, Saeros did not seem in any way inclined to share his passably attractive body with Túrin. Instead he kept yammering on as if he were not walking through Melian's forest, but sitting at a tedious court meeting, so that Túrin could not even enjoy the beauty of nature in peace.
"...and such disastrous consequences should be avoided in the future, and of course the best way to do this would be to place some sensible person in charge of the walnut harvest. I am sure you agree: do you not?"
Surprised to be included in the monologue, and grateful that it seemed to be coming to an end, Túrin nodded. "Yes. That sounds like a fine idea."
"I am glad you think so, as I am hoping to mention the matter to the King—your foster-father—very soon. I have even given some thought to suitable candidates, and it has occurred to me that I have a young cousin who would do a splendid job. She has spent several years living in a rather large walnut tree and—"
"Another fine idea!" said Túrin, feeling the threat of another lengthy speech. "Truly, with ideas like that, I am not surprised that you have been named as one of the King's advisors."
"Thank you." Saeros accepted this cursory homage with a condescending smile. "And you are a Man of, um, intelligence yourself. I am most happy to have found your friendship."
This was more like it. Since the two of them were clearly not friends—acquaintances at best—'friendship' had to be a code word of some sort for the type of activities Beleg had described.
"Should we make camp soon?" Túrin asked.
"Oh, is the night approaching?" Saeros glanced around the treetops, as if looking for the sun.
"A few more hours yet. But I thought we could head east for a bit, until we hit that stream we crossed earlier. We would have fresh water there, and perhaps a clear spot for a fire. Anyway, judging by the tracks we have seen today, this area is free of large predators, and—"
"Yes, yes, that sounds perfect. Lead on."
Túrin looked over at Saeros, surprised by this unquestioning acceptance. His usual hunting companions tended to scrutinize all his proposals, and then to explain to him, with differing degrees of tact, what his Mortal senses and mind had missed. But then they were hunters, so it made sense that they would get obsessive about campsites, the way Saeros did about—what was it?—walnut production.
"While we walk," said Saeros, "tell me: have you any thoughts on our jewel trade with the Dwarves?"
Not just walnut production, apparently. "No."
"Good. I mean, why should you? You Men do not seem to care for fine jewels. However, you might care more if I explain how the poor decisions made by some of those responsible for it might negatively affect the sword-trade. You see, there is a long-standing agreement..."
Túrin did care a little, but not enough to pay attention to all those excessive words. He would have to ask Beleg to explain the situation to him in a sentence or less. Right after he asked him how one should respond to a codeword like 'friendship', and how to manage this sort of 'hunting trip' in general. Oh, why couldn't Beleg be here instead of Saeros? He was a much better companion, and far more than passably attractive, besides.
That thought was certainly deserving of further consideration. But for now, Saeros was here, and Beleg was not, so Túrin drove the idea from his mind as he led the way towards camp.
The business of setting up camp took as long as usual; indeed, longer, since Saeros' idea of appropriate camping behaviour was to stand around chattering about completely insignificant matters until given something to do, and then to talk on while doing it. But at least he seemed to accept Túrin's decision to arrange their sleeping-places right next to each other, saying only, "wouldn't that little heap over there make a more comfortable pillow?"
Túrin looked. "You mean that anthill? Not for me, but then I suppose you Elves are more hardy, and perhaps—"
"There is no need to resort to sarcasm." Saeros sounded quite hurt. "So maybe I missed the anthill, but some of us cannot afford to play around in the woods all day."
"Play around?" It was Túrin's turn to feel stung. "To protect the woods, you mean."
"Isn't that the Queen's job?"
"She protects Doriath from intruders, true, but still there is Orc-killing to be done just beyond the Girdle. Anyway, intruders are not the only danger: there are also predators, disease, forest fires... the hunters and marchwardens together manage the wood's resources." Túrin was proud of himself for overcoming his rising annoyance, and crafting an explanation sure to appeal to his companion: throughout his speeches, Saeros had seemed very interested in resources.
"All right, I suppose the hunters do harvest some of our necessities." Saeros waved a hand in a rather dismissive manner. "But let us not forget that woods other than ours seem to 'manage' themselves well enough. No, this whole forestry business feels to me like more of an excuse to sit around under trees. Not that I truly see the appeal, myself." He glanced around at the nearby trees with contempt, as if they were unwelcome and slovenly intruders.
What sort of an Elf was he, anyway? "Why are you here, then, if you disdain and dislike the woods so?"
"Why, to speak to you, of course." Saeros smiled faintly. "I should have thought what I said today would have made it clear, but if you require it, I can be plainer: I think a closer... acquaintance might benefit us both."
Shocked out of his annoyance by this blatant declaration, Túrin studied Saeros closely: his smile seemed a little forced—but given the embarrassing situation, this made some sense. What was more confusing was Saeros' claim that his speeches had been in any way suggestive. Or was he referring to his lecture on oil, which—so Túrin had heard—had certain intimate uses?
But never mind; the details were not important. Túrin tried to look as knowing as possible. "I daresay you are right."
"Of course I am. After all, these rough types you normally run around with cannot be of much use to you. Oh, I know the King is fond of his Orc-killing heroes, after a fashion, but their influence is clearly waning now that we have seen what heroism leads to. I do not mean just the recent defeats," he added quickly, "but also the King's personal situation. In particular, Lúthien's departure, which, although it is tied to what some might term a victory for the heroic approach to life, has hurt our rulers deeply, to the point that they look for... Well, I think the incident might have made them more willing to adopt you. Which is a good thing, in its way, naturally."
It amazed Túrin that someone could be simultaneously so boring and so offensive; he found himself stifling both a yawn and an urge to hit Saeros over the head with a piece of firewood for speaking so insultingly of his friends, of the King, of himself, and even the heroic ethos he held dear. He had to shut Saeros up: a few more words, and Túrin would be incapable of deepening their acquaintance on any level.
"Never mind the politics," he said. "I hope you will not mind me speaking plainly, as you have done: how do we begin?"
Saeros sent him a rather subtle glance. "What do you mean?"
"Well, since I have spent most of my time here hunting with full-grown warriors, I do not know much about these... friendship rituals of the younger Elves."
"Rituals?" Saeros' subtlety dissolved into confusion. "I know nothing of any rituals."
"Customs, then." Túrin tried to recall what Beleg had said. Shared fantasies of Lúthien had definitely been involved. "Are there any maidens you find particularly attractive?"
"What? I... I am too young for that sort of thing. At least, to my mind—I wish to be fully established in my career before I marry."
"Ah. Good." As a justification for groping one’s companions out in the woods, it sounded more prosaic than Beleg's tales of strengthening the bonds of friendship, but it would do. "What do we do then, compare techniques?"
"Yes, personal techniques." Túrin laid his hand on Saeros' shoulder and looked into his eyes with what he hoped was the right sort of intensity.
"Are you talking about swordplay? Because I do not—"
Túrin moved his hand to Saeros' hip.
"Ah Eru!" Saeros leapt backwards, stumbled on a root, and recovered a few paces away, both hands held out in front of his body. "Get away from me!" His panicked tone made it clear he was not merely suggesting they wait until after dinner.
"What is the problem?" Túrin asked. "Did you want to talk more, beforehand? Because I must confess, talking is not really my—"
"Talk... beforehand? No! You cannot really believe I would ever... Ah, Eru." Saeros put one hand to his lips, as if nauseated.
"What is your problem?" Túrin's voice, which had been holding steadily low for months now, squeaked on the final word. "First you make all those suggestive comments, about oil and a closer acquaintance, and now you act like I'm offering you rotten meat!"
"I was speaking of politics, idiot. And how should I act when you insult me so, you... you dumb, barbaric, mortal beast? I am one of the Firstborn—"
"You are a pathetic excuse for an Elf who cannot tell his ass from an anthill. I have been patient as a rock, listening to your endless blathering, simply because..." Recalling his reasons, and viewing Saeros' now hateful form, Túrin felt rather sickened himself. "Out of courtesy, which you so clearly lack. I have been trying to adapt to your customs, as Beleg advised me—"
"Ah, Beleg, of course. Beleg Why-Not-Go-Hunting-With-Beren Strongbow. I should have known he would be the one to suggest this perversion, with his sick, Mortal-loving mind. Well, most of us are not so open to bestiality!"
Túrin could think of only one response: he punched Saeros in the face, and watched him stumble back to sit on the ground, holding his bleeding nose as he gazed up with a mixture of fear and disgust.
"The King will hear of this," he said at last.
"Good," said Túrin. "Of course, when he asks me why I struck you, I will have to tell him what you said about Elves who dally with Men. I suspect he might consider this a topic of personal interest."
Saeros understood the threat at once: his eyes darkened.
"And now," Túrin continued, "I think I will leave you to get in touch with your tree-loving Elven roots."
He gathered his gear, keeping an eye on his newfound enemy, and slipped off into the forest. Its blissful silence was balm for his hurt pride, and even his disappointment. The northern lodge was only a day away; surely Beleg would be there still, and interested in hearing how his advice had turned out?