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Praise the Birch

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After Aragorn’s coronation procession through Rohan, a great camp of Elves and Men lingered beside Helm’s Deep for two days. Many farewells were said amongst its tents. Soon, the folk there would part to return to Rivendell and Lórien, Gondor and Rohan. The night before the camp broke, a pair of grey shadows slipped away, to share a more intimate farewell beneath the trees.

The shadows were silent as only elves could be, swift as clouds, close as lovers. Safely amongst the leaves, one shadow paused against the branches. The shadow became shape, a hand was revealed, and a hood drawn back on a cloak of Lórien.

Legolas shook his bright hair free of its confines and said merrily, “These mithrim-cloaks even deceive your own guards, Haldir. But I do not think you mind it, do you?”

Haldir drew back his own hood, and Legolas saw his strong, gracious face darkened with colour, from embarrassment, arousal, or a combination of both. “I thought you were agreed that it was best to be discreet in the great camp?” Haldir murmured.

“Indeed! I do not forget that you ride with Celeborn. But we are free in the wildwood now, and can do as we wish. Come here,” Legolas said, with a smile. He had stolen intimacy with Haldir several times over the journey away from Gondor. However, tonight, in the camp by the thick, sheltering trees, he had seen an opportunity. He knew he would not see Haldir again for many a year. As if Legolas had picked up on the life-pace of mortals, the thought pained him, even though he knew they would meet again, and dwell together in Ithilien. So he had urged Haldir to join him, with a vow that he would vouchsafe something special – verily, two things.

Softly, Legolas asked, “What do you think, my friend, of these copses set here? They are the Huron-trees that move, come here to set up a new branch of Fangorn wood.”

Haldir stood silently, inhaling. Fangorn was no common forest, even in these trees, set to ward Helm’s Deep. The branches were thick with curling leaves and draping moss, blocking out starlight and moonlight. These woods did not have the usual night-sounds of insects and birds. The sense of brooding, wordless awareness, more ancient than speaking folk, slow and deep, was overwhelming. Every breath drew it in more heavily, along with the rich scent of the forest floor. Haldir’s wood-elf eyes looked about and widened. He stepped forwards and stroked the silver bole of a tree. “It is as beautiful as you said. Never have I felt the life of the trees so deeply.” He turned to Legolas, and his look was sombre. “Will this forest fade like the woods of Lothlórien, with the changing of the days? The years belong to mortals, now.”

Moved by his understanding, Legolas kissed his companion once upon the mouth. They lingered at this before Legolas drew back slightly to speak. “I fear that it will, in time. Both the woods and the wood-elves are passing. This place is a blessed island of what it must have been like for the Elves of ages past. And it is here that I will show you what I promised; a rite of ansereg, though I know now I am far from an expert.”

They were close enough that Legolas could feel Haldir’s cheeks flush once more. Haldir, slightly taller than Legolas, bowed his head to say, “You still know far more than do I. It was but spoken of in Lothlórien, never done.”

Ever curious, Legolas asked, “Why is that? There was no law against it.” He drew under the sheltering branches of a birch tree. With all his keenness turned to Haldir, he failed to observe that the canopy of leaves was lower, now, than when they had kissed.

“No. And when I say never done… perhaps I protect some people.”

Legolas said, calmly, “What you mean is, you never did it.”

“No,” Haldir admitted.

“Why not?” asked Legolas, his voice cool.

Haldir hesitated long before he replied. “You might think me craven for my reason. I knew the Lord Celeborn disapproved of it, and I have been in service to him since I was a lad. I would not taste it now, did I not know I would serve another soon.” He knelt briefly before Legolas.

Legolas’ expression softened. “And you would not offend your lord, even in secret. You show deep fealty, Haldir, and there is naught craven about that. My father Thranduil ever cursed ansereg as an invention of the cruel Noldor. He said the Elves of the West used it to try and harden themselves against the war that they had called down on them.”

Haldir dared to ask, “Does that trouble you?”

“My father has my fealty in many things, but I am not in bond to him. Besides, his thinking ansereg wicked gave it more spice, for those of us in the Greenwood who liked it!” Legolas laughed, but Haldir stayed sombre. “We are not in Lothlórien now, faithful one. How bide you?”

“Eager… yet afraid,” Haldir admitted.

“That’s perfect,” Legolas said. He felt a joyous sternness flood him as he murmured, “Absolutely perfect.”

Haldir inhaled. They stared into each other’s eyes a moment. Haldir said, impulsively, “Yea, you will be my lord tonight, and have all my fealty; and I will give myself to you in ansereg. Do with me as you will!”

Absorbed by passion and rebellion, Haldir reached up and snapped a branch off the birch above them, meaning to proffer it to Legolas. The branch was cracked before Legolas could cry, “Not from these trees!” It was too late; the wood was severed. Holding his breath, Legolas looked up, remembering how the living trees had torn down Isengard and exterminated hordes of orcs.

The trees were silent, save for a light rustle of wind in the branches.

Twice as stern as before, Legolas glared at Haldir. “We are fortunate, it seems. The trees of Fangorn suffer your trespass. They do not always give up their wood so willingly. Give me the branch! If you are so eager to suffer by it, then suffer you shall.” He snatched the branch away from Haldir. “You have already said that you give yourself to me in ansereg, Haldir. And for your trespass, you may not say when the rite begins. It starts now! Shed your clothes, to the last stitch,” he ordered.

With his arms crossed, Legolas watched Haldir strip. Away the cloak and the belts, away the vest and the two tunics; and when Haldir bent to undo his footwear, every muscle in his back curved gracefully, and his thick hair fell like a silver river in the dim wood’s light. Watching, Legolas felt in him, again, the bright urge so like that of battle, to take fierce pleasure from exerting his pride on the beauty before him. He weighed in his mind what he, himself, had learned of ansereg’s deeper side, and let it calm him.

Giving the rite a Silvan twist, Legolas drew up Haldir’s wrists and placed his hands to grasp two branches of the birch that Haldir had despoiled. “Hold these; to let them go shows you cannot bear what I do. I might please you, even as you cling to the tree,” he said, caressing Haldir’s high, muscular croup. “Or I might give you naught but torment, to see if you are worthy to guard Celeborn of the Trees and the Lady adored by my friend. Do you understand me?”

“Yes, my lord,” said Haldir.

Legolas drank in a deep, hot breath. He cared little for his princedom, or being named first, except for times such as these. In silence, he walked the circle of ansereg three times around Haldir and the birch’s trunk, trailing the birch branch behind him, giving it the honour of the favoured tool for that hour. Once this was done, he said, “You have made me question your understanding once before, Haldir. Do you remember? I know you do. Tell me of it.” With fast fingers, Legolas began to craft the branch he held. Listening, he stripped off the long twigs and bound them together with the narrowest twig of them all. Bound like this, the twigs would whip in cruel unison, especially after the leaves were loosened in a few strikes.

Haldir’s fingers curled around the birch branches, and he confessed, “When first we met, my lord, in the woods of Lórien, I misunderstood you and your companions. And I was severe beyond need.”

Legolas agreed. “Not only were there those in our party who never did hurt to any, and had suffered much, but you thought me traitor for bringing them hence with Aragorn. I like it that time has proved me right.” Now Legolas was smoothing and peeling what had been the strongest part of the birch-branch into a switch. This done, he said, “Tell me; tell me what I did to you for honour that night…” Legolas slid the branch over Haldir’s exposed back, its smooth touch silky and threatening.

A shudder passed through Haldir’s flesh. It could not be contained, though his hands and feet stayed still as if he too had grown roots. “You made me feel your knives, and give you mastery.”

“That’s right. And I wanted to do more. I wanted to thrash your fair archer’s back until it bled. I wanted to see you bite your lips for pain and yearning. I wanted to know if you would scream or shout or be stoic. And, by the fair birch, I shall do it now. Brace yourself.”

With his warrior’s arm, Legolas sent the birch-bundle to sweep Haldir’s back, once across, once back, sending leaves flying. Scratches sprang up already. Haldir arched towards the tree with a hiss of pain, setting himself to endure.

Legolas alternated birch with switch as he worked, his whole body warming from the focused violence he dealt out. He learned much about Haldir. Stoic at first beneath the blows, when they grew sharper, he leaned his head forwards and muffled his own cries with a proud mouthful of his hair. Legolas striped him across the arse with the switch, three times, just to hear his strangled agony. As Legolas went to the birch-bundle again, he sensed what he had not heard before; the deep groan of the trees of Fangorn. Wood-elf born and bred, he could understand them, just barely.

The trees were pleased, it seemed, that their despoiler was punished.

He turned back to his work of ansereg. Haldir was clinging to the branches as if letting go would be his death. Every muscle, from ankle to neck, was taut. In the twilight, some shadow-bruises were already rising from the switch, and a few dark threads showed where the birch twigs, wielded cruelly, had torn Haldir’s silken skin. His hair was damp with sweat, tangled and natural as the branches about them.

Legolas stepped forwards and swept that hair back. Directly in Haldir’s leaf-shaped ear, he said, “You are splendid.” Haldir’s tightness melted like wax. If one word of praise affected him so, he was deep in ansereg’s circle. Legolas slid his free hand up against Haldir’s arse, and felt the flesh push back against him. He bit Haldir’s neck in appreciation, then drew back to flail more.

Even with the blows coming to Haldir’s shoulders, arse, and thighs alone, sparing Haldir’s lean waist, this second bout soon had Haldir rasping and wincing, clearly at his limit. Legolas lowered the switch. It was time to give Haldir some focused praise, then take care of their hot blood. But as he moved to set the switch aside, the trees moaned savagely, loud enough that even Haldir listened to the sound. Haldir, startled out of his focus on himself and Legolas alone, turned his face up and whispered, “What? I understand them, almost…”

Legolas listened. The moans were frighteningly familiar. As he understood it, the trees were displeased at the torment’s end. Yet Legolas had seen that Haldir was at the edge of his endurance. Protective anger filled him. Legolas wanted no other to torment Haldir, nor to hurt him. Haldir had trusted him through pain, and he owed him protection. He thought quickly.

Speaking with intimacy, he murmured, “Haldir. To know ansereg truly thou shouldst taste both sides of it. Come thou; take up the birch thou gavest to me. Thou shall deal to me as I have dealt to thee.”

Haldir turned about, still grasping the branches, glazed and stunned; he was on his knees in his mind, if not in body. He managed to stammer, “My lord. I – it would be –“

Subtlety was no use, with Haldir entranced by pain and domination. Legolas barked, “Do you speak to deny me? Do as I say!” He set down the branches with great respect, then ripped off his own cloak. He threw down the tangle of his tunics and belts, his leggings and boots after them. Now he, too, was equally vulnerable to any revenge of Fangorn’s trees. “Step back with honour. I will take your place.” Coming as close as he dared, he whispered, “Be savage. I was wrong; the trees want their revenge for the branch you took. They watch and listen. Did I not torment you, they may have done so!”

Haldir let go of the branches at last, understanding, and Legolas took his place. Two kinds of fear filled him, now. The first was that Haldir was inexperienced in this. But Haldir was other things, too, proud, fierce and tough. From the corner of his eye, Legolas saw him turn and listen. His wariness made it clear that he too felt Legolas’ second fear; the hunger of the trees about them.

Haldir said, hesitant at first, “I know thou – you - are worthy. But I would see this worthiness.” Then he found his breath and said, “As you saw mine.” Still waiting, Legolas heard him try switch and birch out on the open air.
Then the first blow hit, and his grimace of pain was half a smile. Haldir would not let them down.

With the part of him that was not alert with terror and pain, Legolas was impressed by Haldir’s fire, if not by his accuracy. He had Legolas in agony right away. He did not control the birch strictly, and stinging lines cut into Legolas’ arms, and wrapped around his legs. He bowed his head and arced his shoulders back, rather than cry out, and the sharp switch cut across them. Ai, the pain! It felt like the birch’s sap had turned to malice, sharpening the switch. Suddenly, it stopped, and Haldir cursed softly. “Both broken,” he heard Haldir say; and yet the wood still moaned menacingly about them.

Haldir only needed to hear that creak once. He stepped immediately beside Legolas, and Legolas turned to see him. His face seemed almost illuminated by heat, his eyes’ silver cutting the night. Briefly, he was awed. Was he so transformed in his turn? “We need more,” Haldir growled. Before Legolas could ask if it was the wood or his own fire that called him on, he arched up with a shout of surprise. Unexpectedly, Haldir had struck across his arse with one broad archer’s hand.

Legolas grinned through the ache at his friend’s cunning. The blows rained hard, but Legolas soon felt why they were not favoured in ansereg. Hard as Haldir struck, he felt none of the agony that had wracked him before. It was a duller pain that soon turned into a glow, making him feel roused to his stricken bones.
Just as Legolas was struggling to try and put this into words, Haldir stopped. His voice heavy with dismay, Haldir said, “No! I was clumsy with the branches. You’re bleeding.”

Legolas reached back to stroke what he could of his back. Looking at that hand, he saw blood, which he smeared against the birch’s trunk. A deep groan arose within that very wood. In instinct, they both stepped away, shoulder to shoulder, looking up. The forest’s groans and rustles grew louder. But then, strangely, the birch’s branches arched down around them, tenting them safely.

The wood fell silent.

“I think…I think we are forgiven,” Legolas whispered. “At least by this tree.” With a touch of his wicked humour back, he added, “I let go of those branches, you know.”

Haldir started. “Yes, but, the tree – ”

Legolas silenced him with a bloodstained touch, laughing lightly. “Where I come from, that means I owe you your pleasure.” Among the Noldor, that sign of withdrawal would have meant that he would have been given healing and spirit-strengthening talk. He liked the custom of Mirkwood’s hidden cabal better in this matter. And he had enjoyed seeing Haldir’s fire revealed. The threat of the trees was a price worth paying, for that.

Haldir took his turn to think. Legolas leaned against the birch as he waited, letting the bark abrade him into more pain. He was breathless and hungry for the next challenge. What revenge would Haldir take with his pleasure?
Haldir showed himself, in his way, equal to Legolas under trial. “You shall have me as the storm takes the forest; ride me and use me as you would. Thus we shall end the rite as we began it.”

Legolas embraced him and smothered a laugh against the hollow of Haldir’s shoulder. “I do begin to believe you are a match for me, and all my mad caprices.” Unsaid, he thought to himself; a match that I might love.

Haldir returned the embrace and said, “You are not mad.”

The little defiance kindled his pride again. “No? Voyaging to present word of my people’s failure to Elrond; then, off to Mordor with four Halflings, two Mortals, and a Dwarf? You yourself thought that strange. And, after a thousand perils, the Dwarf becomes my closest friend? Have I got a point there, Haldir?”

Haldir knelt before him, so that his knowing, hungry face was turned up, to admire all Legolas’ own beauty. With the slightest of smiles, he said, “Yes, my lord. You are aright, as before. Punish me anew…”

What they had endured together brought them close and sparked them. For some moments, they wrestled in the litter of leaves, feeling each other hot and tender and swift, compared to the sombre, heavy trees. Though they were both male, it felt as natural as if they had been two of the first Elves to walk Arda, exploring themselves together in innocence. Their shared fear of the forest about, and of their courage in enduring it, intensified that feeling.

Legolas drew Haldir to his knees over their cloaks, and placed a firm hand on his nape to bend him double. With his other hand, he caressed Haldir’s nethers. He bent Haldir more to expose the root of him, his shaft risen hard and his virile sac, swollen and roused, as tight and tempting as fruit on the branch. Legolas toyed with him, laughing as Haldir yelped at a pinch, then groaned at a probe. As if he had never known shame to unlearn, Legolas lapped at his own hand to make his fingers slick. When Haldir’s breath was free of protest, Legolas took out a small tin that he had carried, against a lucky chance, for the thousand leagues of his quest. Its seal had never been broken, but he opened it now, and made good use of its sweet, rich unguent. Then, they rutted like stags, fast and strong. When Haldir tensed for pain, Legolas folded his body entirely against his lover. He reached beneath their locked loins to hold Haldir’s shaft until, pain forgotten, he spent against the birch-roots with a shout of surrender.

When all was done and they lay together quietly, the protective canopy of the birch lifted. Silently, they met each other’s eyes, feeling their peril anew. They braced themselves.

The pair listened to the silence. It had the same quality as the silence that that had let them remain, at first. Legolas decided, “We are fortunate that we are Elves. The trees let us belong here – for a time. Now, I feel, we must give the branch back. And then we must hasten. Don only your cloak, and carry the rest.”

Haldir reached up and pulled hairs out of his head. He wound them, like mithril threads in the moonlight, around the bloodied, broken branch and twigs. This done, he laid the bundle at the base of the tree with a bow. The birch rustled as if a wind caught it alone.

One moment more, and they were ready to leave. Legolas felt some regret as he closed his cloak. The strange beauty and peril of this place would indeed fade. He hoped that something else fierce and fair would take its place.

Haldir insisted on going forth first, thinking that more dangerous. Just as he stepped away, Legolas felt a tap on his shoulder. Alert, he whirled around, perfectly meeting a branch that smacked across his face. Frozen, he heard the birch-leaves rustle with a whispering edge, and he feared again. The forest knew, and drank it in. The whisper faded with a satisfied edge. Then the birch’s branches bowed, as if beneath invisible snow. There was one crack; and a small branch fell, landing before his feet.

Laughing uneasily, feeling himself every bit as mad as he had declared himself to Haldir, Legolas took up the gift. “I will keep it,” he told the tree, “and remember.”

Then, he fled.