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Birch and Thorn

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Legolas Greenleaf entered one of Rivendell's splendours, the main room of its bath-house. It held a pool of two benched depths carved from the living stone of the ground, narrow but long enough to hold twelve at their ease, filled by a hot spring from the deeps of the earth. A light thatched roof above kept out the weather while releasing the steam. At one end, the water overflowed into a steaming rill that was directed to warm the stream of the Brunien, tracing mist up and down in the chill blue evening.

The elf was delighted to be clean again, scoured with soap and cold water nearby. He had journeyed a month and a week scouting for Elrond in the cold wilds, making sure that the lands were secure before the Ring-Bearer's quest. It was the least he could do after bearing the ill tidings that Gollum had escaped from his people's keeping. Once he loosened his limbs with the heat of the deep spring, he would be fit company for the Hall of Fire.

 Unusually, nobody was in the hot pool. Legolas settled down at the warmer end of its length. Against the side wall of the room, he saw that several bunches of fresh birch-switches waited for the bathers' brisk pleasure. A pity that the birch should give up her branches for nothing, with me here alone, he thought.

At the sound of splashing water from the nearby washing-area, Legolas perked up. He was vexed that he could not tell if it was Man or Elf by the sound of the footfall. When the person walked into the pool area, he saw that his ears had not lied; it was both and neither, Elrond Half-elven.

Elrond joined him in the water, sitting close as if in the mood for conversation. But what Elrond said was unexpected. "Was that you whom I saw earlier, speaking with the halflings?"

"Oh, yes. Halflings are good folk," said Legolas, smiling a touch. "Master Bilbo has a fondness for my father, and always takes pains to greet me courteously. May the borders of the Shire never be breached!"

Elrond gave him a searching look and said nothing. Without his robes and jewels, Elrond was still noble. His chest and arms bore virile areas with a light pelt of curling black hair, unknown among the Full-elven. His dark locks were streaming damp over his broad shoulders, and his gaze could not be fathomed. The Lord of Rivendell had never seemed so alluring as he did within the seething water and coils of steam.

If I was in my own halls in Mirkwood, thought Legolas. But he was not; he was the guest, less in years than many at Elrond's table, and had not come to Rivendell on an errand that made him proud. So he remained quiet.

Elrond's look was knowing, as if the water had borne the other elf's thoughts to him, and he spoke at last. "I am sated with this warmth: would you birch me? I shall birch you in turn, if you wish, and then we may return together. There is a fire in my chambers; we might dry ourselves there, if you will forego the hall tonight."

"With a good will," said Legolas, rising smoothly from the water. To be sure that this invitation meant what it implied, he offered to help Elrond out of the water by kneeling and offering his arm. Elrond accepted; stood over-close, slowly smoothing a stray strand of Legolas' wet hair back over his shoulder.

Then Elrond took his place for the birch in a hollow by the wall worn low and smooth by three thousand years of elven feet. After sluicing him with cold water, Legolas wielded the birch with a sure and familiar hand. He worked from the backs of Elrond's knees whisking up to his shoulders and down again, until bark fragments flew from the branches in his hand. When Legolas' turn came, he relaxed into the brisk sting, arching back to meet it, trying to still his excited thoughts.

Elrond's voice was cool and deep. "A question for you, friend; do the people of the Wood ever speak of a custom called ansereg?"

Legolas leaped about as if the wall had scorched him. "You speak of ansereg here? Why do you ask me this? It is not a common thing!"

"You wield the birch with more than ease; the branches told me of your pleasure in it." Elrond was too politic to add that he had read how Legolas had yielded to it in turn.

Legolas bowed. "You read me well, Lord Elrond. But they say all the lore of all our peoples is known in your house."

"This is the lore of other elves besides those of the Wood. In the lost days of Beleriand, the Noldor warriors and guards, even some of the women, undertook strange trials, to harden themselves against duress and torment by twinning the pain of the flesh to the flesh's reward. Some counted ansereg another taint of Morgoth's evil; but none were as fell as the Noldor in their hour. I had my day as swordsman and herald before I became a loremaster; I am no stranger to it! Ansereg has gentled through the years, but remains."

"We say much the same in the Wood; that through knowing ansereg, we may outlast battle and fear, or at the least bind our comrades' hearts to us. But - I did not know the full tale," Legolas said, abashed.

Elrond stepped close and caressed the fine-cut muscles of Legolas' arm. "Would you take a trial of it with me?"

Legolas shifted, desiring and uneasy. "I would be twice-honored. But I do not know your customs in this. For my part, I am most often the standing one."

"And I too tend to domineer when the blood is turned to iron. In the years of the Last Alliance, when this arose, we would strive for it; whoever fell in a fight hand-to-hand would kneel."

Legolas smiled sharply, and his gray eyes kindled. "That, I'd like to try!" After looking over Elrond's body, the chances (and the body) seemed fair. All the better. They doused themselves with cold water again and dressed, and departed for the great house without idle speech.

Elrond's chambers were spare. There were few ornaments besides the lanterns and furniture; a silver ewer and basin, a treasure of a looking-glass, a maize-colored carpet in front of the hearth, and on a table a moon-white stone statue of an elf-maiden. When Legolas commented on it, Elrond said, "That is the image of my beloved, the gentle Celebrían."

There was an awkward silence. Then Legolas said, "In the Wood, the thought of Celebrían has sped many of our arrows, and edged our swords."

"Well spoken! I am glad that I am not the only one who does not forget." He handed Legolas a cedar-wood comb, taking one for himself. They sat before the fire on a deep bench padded in leather and drew the combs through their damp hair until it was sleek and dry enough for braiding.

Elrond finished his last braid and placed his hands on his own thighs, leaning forwards. "Is it just me; or might we cut the heat in here with a knife? I say that we begin. Tell me if this pleases you; that, from standing, we spar together until one of us is thrown down. The one who is brought to his knees stays there, and accepts the other's words and deeds."

 "I agree. Let us start!"

 It was Elrond who took a place upon the floor, standing with his back to the fire and stripping to the waist. Legolas stepped up in front of him, an arm's length away, and at the count of three, the fight began. Legolas bent double and swooped low, hooking an arm between Elrond's legs and bearing up with his shoulders. At first Elrond's stance was swayed, but instead of stepping back and being borne down, he leaned into Legolas with all his weight, locking strong arms around the younger elf's head. Now it was Legolas who was being pressed down and backwards. Instead of trying to stay upright to it, he swayed down, and was able to squirm away.

 As the fight went on, their breathing quickened and they glimmered with sweat. Each time they came together, they grappled longer. Elrond was strong, but he spent his days as a lore-master, while Legolas was a fighter and venturer. In his exuberant strength, he grabbed Elrond's wrists at a good angle and went to bear him down chest to chest. Elrond was on one knee already; they trembled in the balance, Elrond's spine arched back. Too far for Legolas. In the second when he lost his center of gravity, but before Elrond was borne down, Elrond sprang. Legolas had expected to bear Elrond down beneath his body, and the opposite happened to him.

"Ha!" With a fist, Elrond thumped the carpet a bare inch from Legolas' face, reveling in his bewilderment and dilated eyes. "So; this hour is mine!"

"Yes, lord," said Legolas. He did not relax as he lay with Elrond mounted on him. Elrond shoved him back and stood, rubbing his chin with a thoughtful air.

"Finish undressing, then tend to the fire." Elrond's eyes did not leave Legolas as he slithered out of the rest of his clothes, then, naked, took care of the fire very cautiously.

It amused Elrond to keep him busy for a time. At his request, Legolas brought a foot-stool, a glass of wine and a tumbler of clear spirits, a small chest of black wood, and a book bound in green. Once he brought the book, infuriatingly, Elrond told him to put it back. "I merely wanted to watch you bring it," Elrond laughed, and Legolas stiffened, but returned and knelt, eyes glittering.

Elrond sipped his wine, still smiling. "Do not be too angry; I have other tasks for you this night. Stand facing the fire, and place your hands behind your head."

When he had done so, Legolas heard a familiar snapping sound, the sides of a belt being cracked together, before the first blow on his shoulders. Elrond's hand with the belt was so hard that it was more like being beaten with a piece of wood, deep thuds down to the bone. Legolas breathed in measure, smirking without Elrond seeing, feeling pleased and aroused again. If matters had to turn this way, well, this was more like it.

But after a moment, Elrond threw the belt aside, saying, "You take this too well, Legolas! If I had my way, you would not walk from here, but stagger from your bruises for a week. But it would not do to send you forth so; I have more in mind for you."

Elrond turned him around and opened the black chest. There was a tinkle of metal as Elrond sifted through unseen treasures and placed something in his pocket, and other things on the wide bench; devices of polished steel. Only one of them was recognizable, a simple knife. The others were perplexing: a hinged metal bracelet too small for a wrist; something that looked like a set of clasps for a heavy cloak; a toothed wheel that spun on a handle; and a rattling canister. Elrond held the bracelet up, clicked it shut, then eyed Legolas intently. "The ring's measure is small, but it will do," said Elrond.

Legolas quit breathing as Elrond grasped his cock and balls, and ran the metal over them. After the flesh was chilled and subsided, Elrond pressed the three parts together through the ring. The ring's weight made him more titillated by every sensation there; after a moment, he realized that when blood filled that ring-bound flesh, it did not leave. Next, Elrond reached for the clasps, and stroked one against a tilted oval nipple, pinching it until it peaked, then nabbed the flesh in its grip. Legolas nearly writhed as the strange new pain shocked him; it was crueler than any other bite or pinch, a burst of agony flowering in the skin around it. When the first pain was past, it still burned. The second clasp was more chill, then more painful, and when Elrond dropped the chain between them, the weight tilted the clamps so that they burned again.

"We do not have these devices, lord," said Legolas through gritted teeth.

"They are toys of the Noldor, and their like has not been made in many years," said Elrond, stroking the chain as it hung. "Tell me what you wield, then?"

"Birch, thorn, nettle, rush-cane, thongs, our hands and the weapons we bear." They weighed out suffering enough, but nothing like this refined trial. For the first time, he felt truly bested, waiting for Elrond to abuse him as an unlettered rustic. Instead, Elrond reached up and (though Legolas flinched) caressed his cheek.

Elrond now lifted the toothed wheel, and span it so that it glittered in a blur. "This one is not so bad; taste it and see." Elrond stroked the wheel-edge down one leg, and it was bad enough. It felt like being sliced open, yet it left nothing but a flushed track. Elrond carved it about each thigh, up and down each arm, across his back and behind. Shock followed shock; Elrond bit the nape of his neck while running the cruel wheel down his chest. When he flicked at the clamps, pain sprang up again as if the metal bit obediently.

Elrond left Legolas to sweat and, over the bench, shook out the contents of the rattling container - a rain of slim metal rods, over thirty of them. Legolas peered at them curiously. "What do they do, lord?"

"This," said Elrond. He lifted one up; it was as long as a finger, thick enough to sew leather, one end honed to a point. Elrond dipped the sharp tip in the tumbler of strong spirits, then held the point to his own flesh, above one nipple within the fur of his chest. He crimped the skin there with his free hand, and drove the needle through, exhaling hard. Legolas flinched back from the spectacle of the metal stitched through the flesh. Slowly, Elrond drew the pin out, and the blood ran free, and he smiled. "What do you think? Can you bear this?"

"A trial indeed," Legolas whispered, daunted. But he leaned forward slightly.

Elrond set a handful of the pins in the spirits-tumbler and plucked one out. The first pin was slender, and the pain was less than the clamps had been, though the spirit made it twinge. Elrond ran a line of the light pins up the side of each chest, eight below and three above the nipple, like two ladders. The work was slow. As time passed, although they made the flesh shudder going in, a warmth like wine spread from them. Once eleven pins ran up each side of Legolas' chest, Elrond pressed on the lines of metal, twisting some, pulling others out and in by a hair. Legolas was bewitched into a purring daze by the newness of it.

Quicker than thought, Elrond snatched up the chain of the clasps, and pulled them free. With a shout, Legolas staggered, riven by the farewell bite. "You had best kneel again," said Elrond. He had taken a wider pin in one hand, and reached down to Legolas, placing the pin in the white spot where the clasp had bit. Legolas met the eyes of Elrond, and was pierced more than if Elrond had driven the needle into his heart. Then Elrond looked to his work again. Using one hand to pull flesh and one to push metal, he drove the needle through, twisting as it went.

Legolas choked on a strange cry; the flesh around the piercing throbbed. But it could be borne, and his blood sang against the metal at that triumph. When Elrond placed the second wide needle next to his other nipple, he looked up and nodded slightly. Elrond twisted the second needle through, and this he managed to take with no more than a hissing gasp. "Come to the glass, Legolas, and look!" Elrond's voice was ragged.

Legolas swayed to his feet and drifted to the mirror. The metal shone against his white skin; some of the needles were run so shallowly that you could see their lines in relief through the flesh. Around the widest needles, bloody already, the flesh was swelling and reddening.

When Legolas stopped being rapt, he looked up and saw that Elrond had grasped his knife. With one firm hand, he turned Legolas back to the glass, as easily as plucking a leaf. With all the steel set to his flesh already, Legolas did not dare turn again.

In the glass, he watched as Elrond ran the blunt of the knife up and down the rows of pins in his flesh, creating uncanny sensations. With one hand, Elrond began to remove the lesser pins, very swiftly, for spots of blood rose up when the needles were free. Last Elrond removed the wide pins, twisting them again, and blood oozed out through the wounds. Intent in the mirror, Elrond stroked the flat of the knife up the marked ladder on Legolas' chest, smearing the blood upon it. As he pressed against the naked one from behind, Elrond carefully lifted the knife-flat to Legolas' mouth, even as one hand reached around to taunt Legolas' ardor again. "Drink of your courage," he whispered, and Legolas drew his lips and tongue over the bloody blade. Against his back, he could feel the drumming of another heart, and an erection like stone. Elrond stood back: the blade came down.

With one turn, Elrond's mouth was on his, searching out the taste of his blood. Elrond bore him down without resistance, and unclasped the restraining ring. At the feel of the new blood setting his cock to pulsing again, Legolas arched, muscles shifting and flexing. Elrond knelt over him and wiped the knife clean for the sheath, saying, "You know, in the older days, this might have been all that was done for ansereg. They did not *always* have sex afterwards; release might be private, or even denied."

Legolas fell back, riven. He had not even imagined that. Elrond reached down and ran his hand over the light hair tangled on the autumn-gold carpet, the long, hard body streaked with blood. His eyes never left Legolas' staggered expression.

Elrond relented. "But that was changed for those such as you, Greenleaf; steadfast, bright-souled, fair beyond fear." He bore down for a second kiss, eagerly received.

They grappled passionately on the floor, rolling from the carpet to the wood, in unbarred fulfillment of their earlier sparring. Legolas, wincing at his aching chest, melted to let Elrond bear him down again, arching his legs to let Elrond's hand dive freely. He moaned low as the questing hand stroked firmly against the cleft of his ass. Those knowing fingers read his flesh by the tightness, and Elrond said, "This way is hard for you, is it not?"

"Yes, lord."

"Then this I would have." Elrond drew a phial from his pocket.

Even with oil from the phial, and probing fingers, and rolling from lying on his back to kneeling, it was tight work for Legolas to be penetrated. Elrond had gained more than his virile skin from his Mannish ancestry; his cock was wide and blunted, with more ridges and veins than smooth elvish rods.

By the time Elrond finally drilled him, Legolas had coiled his hands to fists on the wooden floor. He turned his twisted face away from the looking-glass. "Don't wait!" Legolas gasped, and struck one fist on the floor as Elrond began to move. Pain shifted into discomfort, then into a stretching, hammering pleasure as the moments passed. As Legolas began to buck back to meet Elrond's thrusts instead of bracing still, they both groaned. "Go on, please yourself," said Elrond, wedging them closer together. The feel of his own flesh inflamed him, and even as he spent, Elrond locked still behind him. He said nothing, and then sighed like a deep-falling wave.

After they unlocked, Elrond all but dragged him over to the bench, where the fire burned low. He passed Legolas the glass of wine, and leaned to toss more chunks of oak on the hearth. Legolas watched the small tasks that Elrond did not set him to. "Is your trial through? Or would you have more of me, lord?"

"Yes; through. And your skin is icy; wait a moment, and I will warm you." It was true; a chill queasiness made him shiver, and the two nipple-wounds were still oozing slowly. Elrond sat down and clasped him fast, stroking his shoulders. "Relax. Breathe deeply." Legolas shut his eyes, trusting the embrace. He heard Elrond murmur in a musical voice, on the edge of understanding; and suddenly nausea and throb receded before a tide of peace in his body. He glanced at his chest and found the wounds closed; the healing hands of Elrond were not just legend.

"Well. What do you think?"

Legolas felt his chest tentatively. "I have felt more pain in the past; but it was pain that I knew. I have not felt my body so strange to me since I was a youth." He looked up. "You are kinder than I expected. And very quiet; you speak little, even at the peak." He sat up straighter, rakish again. "So, I take it the warriors of old tasted such trials, then pranced off to slay three dragons and sixty orcs before breakfasting?"

But Elrond did not laugh, or even smile, only tightened the arm around his shoulder. They both started as, outside the chamber, someone knocked upon the door.

"Who is there?" asked Elrond.

"Lord, your sons Elladan and Elrohir have returned; they have been waiting in the Hall of Fire for some time," said the esquire, through the door. Legolas knew that servant's tone from his own halls, implying that he'd covered for his lord's indulgences as long as he possibly could.

"You must go," said Legolas softly. "I know how it is, myself."

"Yes, I must." The elf-men stood and faced each other for a final embrace. Then Elrond raised his voice; "Lindir, tell them I leave my chambers soon and come to them. Is Mithrandir in the hall? Find him for me. Tell him of Elladan and Elrohir." The servant agreed and left.

"The time is cut short. Yet know this, and remember it. There are few like you! My choice of you was right, yet I rue it bitterly in the proving." Before Legolas could try and make sense of that, Elrond continued. "If it were other than my sons that waited, I would walk down with you; it would honor me. But stay here if you will, and I will return."

 Legolas bowed deeply. "I will stay," he said, quietly. He walked over to the ewer, where he started to clean himself while puzzling over Elrond's last words. The statue of Celebrían caught his eye; and Legolas thought he understood. He was sorry that he had not cheered Elrond more, as well as pleasing him. But trying to be distracted from a longing or sadness was often the best way to make it more intense.

Watching Legolas, Elrond thought of a dark errand waiting, the journey of the Nine Walkers to Mordor. He had rejected many that might have gone, as too over-proud or craven. But now Elrond was certain that Legolas was the best to be the Walker for the elves. He was proud and flexible in good measure, able to look on terrors and pain, courteous at the errand of Thranduil's ill news, and kind to the halfling folk. He would tell Mithrandir to ask Legolas tomorrow if the elf would go; it was certain that he would accept. And I myself am craven at the last, thought Elrond, to shrink from sending my choice on the darkest road. With a sigh, Elrond reached for his own tunic.