Lay awoke in an unfamiliar bed, in an unfamiliar room, in the arms of an unfamiliar person. Blinking, Lay frowned at the ceiling of the four poster bed. The bed he was lying on was too soft, too plush, too spacious, and too warm. An arm was draped across him, heavy and weighing down on his chest. Lay looked down at the arm, and his gaze followed it, from the fingers curled around his side, to the crook of the elbow resting on his stomach, to the toned biceps and strong shoulders, to finally, the face of the man lying next to him. He was sleeping peacefully, in the way one does when one is blessed with serene elvish dreams. The stranger was unfamiliar yet beautiful, with platinum blond hair, smooth fair skin, a chiselled jawline and high cheekbones. It took Lay a moment to remember who he was.
Prince Sehun. Of the Vanyar elves. From the Undying Lands across the sea.
Memories of the previous night came flooding back to him. Of hot drunken kisses, Prince Sehun pushing him against the wall, of hands all over him, of tumbling into the bed, the hurried undressing of robes that could not be taken off fast enough, of hands and lips all over his bare skin, of Prince Sehun entering him…
No, no, no. What had he done?
Fully awake now, panic lanced through Lay. Only a thousand of years of coldly honed self-discipline kept him from jolting out of bed immediately. Instead, very slowly and deliberately, Lay gently pried the fingers off him, so that he could carefully lift the hand off his body, and slowly manoeuvre it back to Prince Sehun’s side. He placed the hand back down on the mattress, barely rocking the sleeping prince’s body as he did so. To Lay’s relief, the prince merely adjusted his body in his sleep, burrowing deeper into the covers using the hand that Lay was now free of.
Lay was a well-trained and highly-skilled elven guard, who had served for many years as sworn shield and bow of Rivendell, and was now also considered a war veteran, for having fought on the battlefield in the War of the Ring. Using all the skills he had in his repertoire, Lay slipped out of the bed without a sound, not even the rustling of sheets, his movements steady and swift. With similar stealth, he moved around the room, picking up his discarded articles of clothing and pulling them on noiselessly.
Instead of exiting the room via the door, where he might encounter elven guards on duty, Lay chose to climb down from the balcony. After he had swung himself silently over the balustrade, he allowed himself one last glance at Prince Sehun’s sleeping form, before letting his feet and fingers find support in the grooves of the intricate wood carvings in the column, stepping from one foothold to another until they lead him to ground level.
It was late into the night. Judging from the position of the moon and stars in the sky, sunrise was two hours away. Lay took relief in the earliness of the hour. Rivendell was dark and silent, save for the soothing sound of running water from the many waterfalls and rapids that flowed beside the streets and underneath the buildings and bridges.
Few roamed the streets, with the exception of the occasional guard on night duty. Lay kept to the shadows, blending in the dark, moving silently through the streets that were only illuminated by starlight, until he reached the outer gateways. There were guards on duty there, but Lay evaded them easily, identifying each guard’s blind spot, and darting from one blind spot to another in perfect silence, even as the guards constantly looked around, constantly changing the range of blind spots available to Lay. But Lay was one of the best, and in a matter of minutes, Lay had exited Rivendell without any of the guards noticing. Lay could have openly walked over the stone bridge, citizens of Rivendell were free to leave and enter the city at any time of the day. The guards on duty were meant to keep outsiders from entering the city, and not citizens from leaving or entering it. Lay himself was part of the elven guard, and his comrades would not have stopped him, but would have merely nodded at him in greeting, or perhaps engaged him in small talk, but the shame burning in his gut meant that he was not in the mood to speak to anyone.
In the cover of the forest, Lay picked his way without difficulty through the trees on the mountain pass. It was a path he had tread so many times that he could have walked it blindfolded. The woods were calm and quiet, and the Lay felt one with the heartbeat of the forest and the mountain around him. This soothed him, and he allowed the raging feelings he had kept confined behind an iron will of self-control to be released. Anger, shock, and outrage at himself for his lack of self-control flooded him, and after allowing the feelings to wash over him like a tidal wave, Lay let them go, allowing the turbulent feelings to dissipate into the night, to be swallowed up by the forest around him. Only remorse and disappointment at himself remained. And grief, but grief was not a new emotion arisen out of consequence of his drunken folly. Grief had been ever-present for Lay, ever since the battle of Helm’s Deep.
After trekking through the forested mountain for about an hour, Lay reached his destination. An empty clearing in the middle of the forest, where a patch of grass grew under the shade of an ancient oak tree, next to a clear sparkling brook that bubbled merrily under the starlight. Lay sank to his knees in front of the tree, in between its massive roots, tears pooling in his eyes as he reached out to touch the ground in front of him.
This place was not Xiumin’s grave, not really. Xiumin had been buried at Helm’s Deep, alongside the other elven warriors that had fallen in the battle when the elves had gone to the aid of men at the great fortress of Rohan, fighting alongside the Rohirrim against the orcs of Sauron, honouring the great alliance of elf and men one last time before the elves departed Middle Earth. But before he had laid his beloved’s body in the grave that he had dug himself, Lay had cut off a lock of his beloved’s hair, and brought it back with him to Rivendell after the battle of Helm’s Deep had been won and Lord Elrond had commanded the return of the troops. He had wrapped the lock of hair in Xiumin’s own handkerchief, the silk handkerchief sewn by Xiumin’s mother, which Xiumin had once carelessly lent to Lay when they were both young elvish children, when Lay had fallen down and scraped his knee, which Lay had deliberately forgotten to returned to his then best friend and playmate, even though Lay’s mother had washed it and instructed him to. At that time, he had kept his love for Xiumin hidden in his heart. It was only when they were young ellons, when Xiumin had first kissed Lay under the shade of this very oak tree, that Lay had been open about the long-time affections that he had for his childhood friend. It was also under this tree that Xiumin had asked Lay to marry him, to bond with him for eternity. And it was also under this tree, that Lay had buried the lock of Xiumin’s hair, wrapped in the silk handkerchief that Xiumin never cared very much about, but had been Lay’s childhood treasure.
Lay laid his hand palm down on the ground, exactly over the spot where Xiumin’s lock of hair lay, buried a hand’s span below.
Clutching his hand in the dirt, Lay let the tears come, his shoulders shaking with his sobs.
“I was drunk. I didn’t mean to betray you. Forgive me, my love, please forgive me.”
Lay had vowed, as he had held his beloved’s body, that he would stay true to Xiumin, till the end of days, that he would never take another lover. It had only been a year since Xiumin’s passing, and Lay had already failed him.
It took a while, but Lay’s sobs finally subsided. He sat himself down, underneath the tree, his back leaning against the gnarled trunk, his palm still resting over the spot where Xiumin’s lock of hair was buried. Lay would be doing the night shift today, so he was free to spend the rest of the day with Xiumin. Lay leaned back against the oak, and let his mind rest, his eyes remaining open as was his way whenever he slept out in the open. His dreams flew back to Xiumin, his smile, which highlighted his cheekbones, his laugh, the twinkle in his eyes and the beauty of his voice when he sang, high and lithe.
“My precious Lay.”
Lay blinked, his mind instantly alert. Lay leapt to his feet, and watched the newcomer enter the clearing, the clearing which was meant to be his special place with Xiumin.
The sun had just risen, and beams of sunlight shone through the foliage, reflecting off Prince Sehun’s platinum blond hair and his white robes, which were woven with intricate embroideries of silver thread. Prince Sehun moved with elegance, with the confidence of one who was brimming with elven magic, who knew the secrets of nature, and was one with it. Even now, Lay was struck by his beauty and grace, and in the sober morning, without the help of alcohol to make him bold, Lay was also fully aware of how common and drab he was compared to this high elven prince.
Lay respectfully sank to one knee, his hand over his chest, as was fitting when someone of his station greeted the prince of the high house of Vanyar.
“There is no need to be so formal, my love.”
Lay inwardly cringed at the term of endearment, horrified that someone should address him as such here, of all places, where Lay’s memories of Xiumin lingered, where Lay could almost feel his presence. Sehun helped Lay to his feet. His touch was gentle and loving.
“I looked for you when I awoke with the rising of the sun, but you were not lying next to me, so I came looking for you. I am glad I found you.” Sehun looked around the clearing. “This is a beautiful place, full of life and peace.”
“How did you find me?”
Lay was sure no one had seen him exit Rivendell, and he had told no one of this place. No one should have been able to find him here.
Sehun cocked his head to side, as if surprised that one even had to ask such a question, as if locating someone in the middle of nowhere was an easy feat that everyone should be capable of.
“I did not sense your presence in Rivendell, so I crossed the stone bridge and asked the forest.”
“You asked the forest?” Lay had to keep his mouth from dropping open.
“Yes.” Sehun stated this matter-of-factly, as if anyone could do it. “I projected a semblance of your aura to the forest, and the trees, as well as a few other creatures recognised it, because you had only recently passed through, but I mostly followed the guidance of the trees, because I did not want to disturb any of the moving woodland creatures from their daily chores. I was guided from one tree to another, until I found you.”
Lay’s mind was reeling. Not only could Prince Sehun communicate with the creatures of the forest, he could also sense a person’s presence. There were thousands of elves in Rivendell, and Prince Sehun had automatically known that Lay had not been amongst them when he awoke. And had he also talked about projecting a person’s aura? Did this mean everyone had an aura of their own, which they projected unknowingly to the world? Not for the first time, Lay was struck by how advanced and enlightened the elves of Aman, the Undying Lands, were compared to the elves of Middle Earth.
In the First Age, when the stars were created over Middle Earth, the first elves, raised by Iluvatar, the Creator, awoke and walked the lands. The elves lived in Middle Earth, while the angels, known as the Ainur, lived across the sea, in the continent of Aman. But the first Dark Lord, Melkor, tormented the elves with evil spirits and even captured some of them, twisting them until they became orcs, so that he could bred them to form great armies. The Ainur were split into two groups, the higher order angels were known as Valar, and the lower level angels were known as Maiar. When the Valar saw the plight of the elves, they waged war against Melkor and captured him. After the War of Wrath, the Valar then invited the elves to live with them in Aman. Sehun’s ancestors had taken up the offer, and had left Middle Earth and sailed across the sea, where they had met the Valar and lived with them, benefiting from their direct tutelage. But Lay’s ancestors, distrustful of the Valar, decided to stay in Middle Earth.
Now that the War of the Ring was over, the Valar had once again invited all the elves in Middle Earth to go to Aman. There was nothing left in Middle Earth for the elves. Middle Earth was a fallen world, its magic slowly fading away. Elves, amongst all the races of Middle Earth, were the ones who were primarily tied to magic, and without it, there was no way they would be able survive. Thus, their leaders decided that the elves would take up the Valar’s offer and leave Middle Earth to go to the Undying Lands.
However, though the elves loved and trusted their leaders, and were obedient to them, the thought of leaving the only home they had ever known was a frightening notion to many. To set their minds at ease, the Valar sent a company of elves, led by Prince Sehun, youngest son of King Ingwe of House Vanyar, across the sea from the Undying Lands to Middle Earth. When Prince Sehun and his host debarked from their ship and walked amongst the elves of Middle Earth, the elves of Middle Earth were at once struck by their wisdom and magic. Prince Sehun and his fellow elves talked about the beauty of Aman, how it was a place of peace and plenty, and also about interacting with the Valar. Sehun showed them his ring, made for him by Aule the Smith, and talked of hunting together with Orome, Lord of the Forests, of sparring with Tulkas the Strong, but mostly he talked about his teacher, Nienna, Lady of Mercy, who tutored him and taught him all he knew. Prince Sehun, at only 900 years old, was much younger than either Lady Galadriel and Lord Elrond, long regarded as the wisest and greatest elves in Middle Earth, but it was quickly apparent that Prince Sehun outstripped even them in knowledge and magic. It was this, amongst all else, that convinced the elves of Middle Earth that departing for Aman was a wise choice, that only good things will await them in the Undying Lands, where they too would benefit from interacting directly with the Valar.
Departure from Middle Earth was a slow process, with the elves leaving in batches. The first batches had already left, and Prince Sehun was to remain with the elves of Middle Earth until the migration was complete, due to leave only on the last ship to sail for the Undying Lands. Ever since his arrival two months ago, Prince Sehun had been living in Rivendell. Lay had only seen him from afar, and had never interacted with him on a personal level, until last night. There had been a great feast in Rivendell, to celebrate Mettare, the last day of the year. Lay had been drinking with the other members of the elven guard in their quarters, but after some time, Lay desired solitude, so he had staggered off by himself, and was drinking alone in a quiet corner of the palace gardens, when Prince Sehun came and sat himself next to him. By that time, Lay had been too drunk to question why the Prince of Vanyar would want to seek him out, but Prince Sehun had brought more wine with him, so Lay was not averse to his company, and they had sat and drank under the stars together. Then, somewhere during the progress of the night, Prince Sehun had kissed him, and it had all gone downhill from there.
Prince Sehun had stopped admiring the nature around him, and now had his eye on Lay. Lay could tell from the besotted look in Prince Sehun’s eyes that he was not the only one reminiscing on the events of the night before, except that unlike Lay, Prince Sehun was not thinking back on it with horror. Prince Sehun took a step towards Lay. His heart racing, Lay quickly threw another question at Prince Sehun, to distract him.
“You said you awoke with the rising of the sun? But the sun only just rose, and Rivendell is an hour away. How is it possible that you are here?”
Sehun stopped in his tracks, once again regarding Lay with a vaguely puzzled expression. “Yes,” he mused thoughtfully, considering what Lay had just said. “I supposed it would have taken me one hour, if I had walked the normal way.”
The normal way? This sent Yixing’s mind reeling again, and by the time he realised that Sehun was right in front of him, it was already too late. Sehun already had his hand on the back of Lay’s neck, and was leaning down to meet his lips. Panic overtaking him, Lay threw away all semblance of the decorum that he was required to show to an elf of higher station than him. In quick succession, Lay turned his face away, slapped Sehun’s hand away from the back of his neck, and moved backwards, darting out of Sehun’s reach.
Breathing heavily and his heartbeat thumping in his ears, Lay chanced a glance at the prince. Sehun stood rooted to the ground. He looked stunned. Hurt. Confusion clouded his face.
“I am sorry. Last night… it was a mistake. I was drunk.”
Sehun stared at Lay. “Last night was the single, most beautiful night of my life. And you are telling me, that to you, it was merely a drunken mistake?”
“I beg your forgiveness, my prince.”
Lay let his gaze fall on the spot where Xiumin’s lock of hair was buried. His heart ached.
“You love another,” Sehun said slowly. His gaze also fell on the spot that Lay had been looking at. “He has fallen.”
With a jolt, Lay realised that Sehun must have read his mind. He had heard of High Elves, such as Lady Galadriel, having this power. Sehun must be capable of it as well. Lay knelt down at the base of the tree, placing his hand on the spot.
“He’s my bonded,” said Lay softly. “We pledged ourselves to each other under the name of Eru.”
Sehun knelt beside Lay, and put a hand on his shoulder. “He has fallen,” Sehun repeated gently. “What Illuvatar has bonded, no elf shall tear asunder. But if he has fallen, you are released from your bond. No one would judge you for taking another lover.”
“No,” said Lay, his voice quiet but firm. “I will remain true to Xiumin, till we meet again at the end of days. I will see him again then, when the spirits of the fallen elves are released from the Halls of Mandos, the Halls of the Dead, and I will beg his forgiveness for what I did last night. Xiumin has always been forgiving towards me. When we meet again, he will see that I have remained true to him throughout the ages. He will see how I grieved for him and longed for him every single day we were apart, how I bore my pain and my loneliness through the long years without him, and it is my hope that he will forgive me for that one drunken night.”
“You intend to remain alone until the end of Arda, the end of our universe? Even the Valar do not know the timing of Illuvatar. Who knows when that would happen? Three ages have passed since the creation of Arda and we are now in the Fourth Age. How many more ages would pass before Dagor Dagorath? We Elves are unlike Men. We do not die. You would spend every day and every night between then and now alone? My precious Lay, please do not torture yourself so.”
“Yes, it will be difficult. I would be suffering. But is it not the same for Xiumin? He too is alone in the Halls of Mandos, separated from me, and pining for me. I would stay true to him, just as I know he would stay true to me, if he were in my place.”
Sehun removed his hand from Lay’s shoulder, and got to his feet slowly.
“I am Prince Sehun, of the House Vanyar.”
His voice was barely a whisper, but it was filled with so much pain that Lay turned to look at him, tearing his eyes from the spot where Xiumin’s lock of hair was buried. Lay stood up and faced the prince. Sehun’s face was deathly pale.
“Songs have been sung far and wide throughout the land of Aman of my beauty. Elves and Ainur alike have fallen at my feet, begging for the privilege of a night with me. Always it had been I who decided whether to accept or reject their affections. And the morning after, it was always I who decided if there would be a second night. But you… you…”
Sehun’s voice trailed off, and his eyes shone with unshed tears.
“I am sorry.”
Lay did not know what else to say.
Without saying another word, Sehun turned to leave. Lay watched him go, his eyes fixed on Sehun’s retreating back as he disappeared into the depths of the forest.