The story I am about to tell you did not happen.
It is important to remember that, in the warmth and the wistful moments, on this the longest night of the year when we gather in the Hall of Fire and speak of phantoms, of might-have-beens, of ghosts. When the darkness grows thick and frightful about you, the best thing to do is to stare it down and remind it that you, too, came up out of the black.
The story I am about to tell you is a ghost story, summoning up the memories of those long dead. But not all ghosts are frightful, and not all tales, once told, have the chance to come true…
He knocked on the door. He could do little else. It was the dead of night, and he was in dire straits, and despite being the newly-crowned High King of the Noldor he doubted that any of his servants or council members with their combined millennia of expertise could aid him now.
The envoy had come very late in the evening, riding up to the gates of Barad Eithel moments before the night watch was set to begin. Any later and the portcullis would have been closed, and they would have had to find lodgings in the city until the morning, and then -
- well, then Findekáno Astaldo Ñolofinwion might have had a night of undisturbed sleep.
He knocked on the door again, as loudly as he dared; the bundle of blanket and cloak and oversized knitted hat that he bore in his other arm stirred and made a soft noise that was not quite a sigh.
“Russo,” he called quietly. “Russandol.”
I could go in, he thought. And get skewered for my trouble. Or worse, he does not wake, and then I must stand on the other side of the room and toss coins at him from my pocket so that when he is roused he does not think I am an úmaia come to torment him and slay me in his fear. There was a series of fumbling sounds from the other side of the door, and he sighed in relief.
“Russo, open up,” he said, and it was a whisper that was very nearly too loud to be called by such a name. “I need you.”
The door opened, and Findekáno found himself looking up at several feet of battered but serviceable mail shirt, over which a travel-stained tabard had been haphazardly pulled. There was a belt about his husband’s waist, and a sword hung at his right hip, and his eyes were gleaming and deadly serious.
“What is it?” he asked, hand already going to the hilt of his weapon. “Are there more orcs?”
“What? No!” Findekáno said, and raised a disbelieving eyebrow before shoving Russandol back into his guest room. His husband protested, but let himself be pushed; he followed after and kicked the door shut behind them both. “No,” he continued, “I didn’t wake you up for - !”
He stopped abruptly as the bundle against his shoulder twitched, and stirred, and let out a sound that was distinctly displeased. Russandol was staring at it, having just noticed that Findekáno had not come alone; he was wide-eyed and disbelieving.
“Is that a baby?! ” he asked at last.
Findekáno sighed. “Yes,” he admitted, reaching up and turning the bundle around so that the other nér could get a good look at it. Wrapped up warmly in three blankets and a cloak, with a knitted hat on its head that was at least three sizes too large, was a very annoyed and very tired infant. Findekáno held it out by its armpits for his husband to inspect. It squinted up at Russandol, whose eyebrows had risen to almost comical heights, and then began to cry in earnest.
“Muk!” Findekáno swore, and he looked out at the child like it was a burning coal, fighting not to jerk his arms back instinctively. At the same time, an alarmed Russandol snatched up the baby with one hand and one awkward forearm, cradling it close.
“That is not how you hold a baby!” he said, and despite his frustration his voice was very low.
“I don’t know how you do hold a baby!” Findekáno retorted hotly.
“You have younger siblings!”
“And I also had parents!”
This heated exchange had not calmed the still-crying child, who was writhing its way out of the many layers it had been securely wrapped in and protesting this unfair treatment with every new breath. Russandol groaned and settled it against his shoulder, right arm braced against its legs and rocking up and down gently as his left hand began to rub its back and blankets fell to the floor around him. He turned on his heel and took several short steps along the foot of his bed, turned back around, and returned to where he had been standing. Somehow, miraculously, the easy and practiced motions began to calm the baby almost immediately; Findekáno was impressed.
“My brothers and sister were closer to me in age,” he said. “You know that. I wasn’t ever a babysitter.”
“So why in Arda do you have a baby?” Russandol asked.
The High King sighed, suddenly feeling the weight of his crown. “Because he’s mine,” he said, and then shook his head quite rapidly at his husband’s confused and frightened expression. “No! Valar no, not like that!”
“Then how? There’s really only the one way to have a baby.”
“Technically speaking, in terms of bloodline only, he’s Írimë’s.”
That stopped Russandol dead; even his half-conscious bouncing ceased. “Aunt Lalwendë was married?”
“Apparently so!” Findekáno said, and threw up his hands, and began to pace back and forth. “She married, and that’s her son, only she’s dead, and her husband is dead , because they caught a bad case of dragon, and she named my father as who she wanted to raise him if that happened, except what did my father do?” He stopped, and glared at Russandol, who was not truly the object of his ire.
“What did your father do?” the other nér asked, though he suspected he knew the answer.
“He rode off into the fiery sunset to die in a blaze of song and glory!” Findekáno hissed. It was almost a shout, which started the baby crying again, which made him groan. “ And he left me to raise this… this thing that I do not know what to do with!” He sighed yet again. “I will be a terrible parent. How do you even begin to raise one of these?”
“You’ve got a decent guidebook thanks to your lived experience,” Russandol said wryly. “Just remember everything my father did, and then do the opposite. And it’s not like they stay this way forever. You were this size once, after all.”
“Hard to believe,” Findekáno answered, eyeing the infant suspiciously, “but I suppose you’re right.”
“We all were, more or less. I certainly was; I’ve heard enough stories.”
“ You were never this size,” Findekáno retorted, half-smiling. “ You were always freakishly enormous.”
Russandol rolled his eyes, and shifted the baby against his shoulder. “Still,” he said, “what are you going to do with him? Does he have a name? When was he born?”
“I don’t know when he was born,” Findekáno answered, “and he does have a name. Two of them, though they’re in Sindarin.”
His husband made a face. “Really?”
“But - but he’s our cousin, he’s - really?”
“You can change that,” Russandol said. “He’s not going to remember what he was called. You can absolutely change that.”
“I’m not going to get rid of his essi just because they happen to be in” - he sighed yet again - “Sindarin.”
“That’s as good a reason as I’ve ever heard. And when did he last get changed? He’s fussing quite a lot.”
“Changed? What do you mean? He’s always been this way, at least since he was handed off to me by the poor farmer who managed to bring him here.”
“I mean ‘when was his catch-cloth changed out last?’” said Russandol, and he lay the baby down on the bed and peeled off the last blankets. “Infants can’t use chamber pots or commodes.” He began to undo the tiny buttons on the bottom half of the lavender-colored garment that the baby wore, splitting apart each leg until he was able to bare its bottom half completely. Next to its skin, beneath the outer fabric, was a pinned and folded piece of white cloth in the shape of a somewhat loose-fitting loincloth.
“See?” Russandol said. “Until he’s old enough to know how to shit like the rest of us, this is what you’ll do.”
“... oh,” Findekáno said, trying very hard not to make a face. “That - oh.”
“It’s not as bad as you think it is, Finno,” his husband said, pulling out the straight pins carefully and letting the cloth fall away. “You get used to it.”
“I’m sure you do,” he replied, looking dubiously at the baby and at the catch-cloth, which was soiled. The room was suddenly full of an unmistakable smell.
“I need a handkerchief,” Russandol told him, seemingly impervious to the stench, “and a washrag and some soap and water. Something gentle, that you’d use on your face. We can worry about feeding him later, when he’s comfortable again.”
“Feeding him?” Findekáno asked. “But - what do they eat?” And oh, Eru, am I going to be cursed with dealing with that smell for the next decade?
“Babies?” Russandol asked. “The same things that we eat, once they’re weaned. Did whoever brought him say if he was weaned?”
“I don’t know what ‘weaned’ is,” he said, moving off into the small alcove that served as a bathroom for Russandol’s chamber. He found a bottle of soap that would be kind enough to use on his face, and wet a rag in the washbasin before returning to his husband.
“There aren’t any handkerchiefs here,” he said. “I’d have to go back to my room, probably. We could use a pillowcase, if I wanted the laundry to be furious with me.”
“If you warned them, they shouldn’t be too angry, but a pillowcase is too big. Is there another washrag in the bathroom?”
“I think so; I’ll go look.”
“If you find it,” Russandol said, “bring it back and I’ll show you how to fold it so it stays in place and the pins don’t prick him.”
Findekáno returned to the alcove a second time and was successful, finding a cream-colored rag hanging from a bar by the mirror. A quick examination revealed it was clean, or at least not used enough to smell of mildew and soap, and he picked it up and brought it back to the bed. Russandol had cleaned up the baby quickly, setting the soiled cloth aside; the room now smelled of soap as well as excrement.
“Come closer,” his husband said, taking the proffered rag in his left hand and beckoning with his other arm. “We’re lucky I’ve done this with one hand before.”
“How did you manage that?” Findekáno asked, wrinkling his nose and raising both his hands as if to ward off the smell. “And no, thank you, I can see just fine from over here.”
“It doesn’t smell worse up close,” Russandol told him, chuckling. “You’ll have to learn eventually.”
“I’ll learn when he doesn’t smell like a cesspit.”
“Finno, babies just do these things.”
“And that’s perfectly fine!” Findekáno declared. “I just… I’d rather they didn’t do them where I have to deal with them.”
“Mhm,” his husband replied, smirking as he folded the rag and then arranged it beneath the baby. True to his word, he managed to tuck and pin it in place with just his left hand.
“You never answered my question,” Findekáno said, watching him. The deft twists of fabric escaped his understanding, though he hoped he could guess at the fundamental concept if he needed to. “How did you manage learning to do this one-handed? Are there babies in the eastern marches that you’re obliged to change?”
“My youngest brothers were twins,” Russandol answered, sliding the last pin in place. “I’d have one in the crook of my arm while the other got a fresh catch-cloth, and then I’d trade them out. They screamed if you separated them.”
“And your parents - ?”
“My parents were busy eldar,” he said, “or so I was told. There. He’s all done. You’ll have to button him back into his suit - that’s something I can’t do one-handed.”
“And you’ll dispose of the, ah, the mess?” Findekáno asked, at last drawing nearer to the bed.
“And throw out a perfectly good catch-cloth? No, I’ll be dousing it and the washrag in úþaura powder and setting them out with the laundry in the morning.”
“So you reuse them.”
“Of course you reuse them. Otherwise you’d drown in the expense of it. Can you imagine a new handkerchief every time you wiped your mouth, or sneezed?”
“... I see your point,” Findekáno admitted, buttoning the baby back into his clothes quickly. This whole affair had been remarkably unsurprising for the child in question, and he was now fast asleep again on the bed.
At last, the High King of the Noldor sighed and straightened up, taking the baby with him. He feared the change in position would wake his new charge, but for once his concerns were groundless, and the infant slept peacefully. His husband had taken care of the old cloth and the rag, and quickly came to stand behind him, holding him close in both arms.
“I’m never going to manage being a father,” he said softly, feeling the baby move thanks to some simple dream. “I didn’t know Írimë had it in her to be a mother. But I’ll do a rubbish job of it. He shifted his head, looking straight up at Russandol’s face from below. “You’d be a fine father, given the chance. I’m all frantic energy and uncertainty. You’re steadfast and you keep your head in a crisis.”
“Changing a catch-cloth isn’t a crisis.”
“Hah.” He leaned back, feeling the other nér anchor him, reveling in the warmth of his arms. Despite his newly-bestowed crown, these would still be stolen moments, and so he savored them. “It is if you’re me. More proof that you ought to have a son.”
“Mm,” Russandol answered, and his voice rumbled in his chest and made Findekáno shiver. “If you say so.”
“I do say so,” Findekáno answered. “I’d send him back with you if I didn’t know the sort of place that Himring was.” He looked down again at the tiny elda resting on his shoulder. “Or you could stay here, and we could raise him together.”
Now it was his husband’s turn to sigh. They both knew how impossible such a thing was - the High King and the lord paramount of the eastern marches were far too important apart to justify their being together - and yet they couldn’t help but think on it, their thoughts blending together into a yearning warmth that filled their minds and their bond. There were tears in Findekáno’s eyes, and they were only half-unhappy.
“What’s his name?” Russandol asked at last, breaking the odd spell that they’d woven about themselves.
“Ereinion,” Findekáno answered. “‘Scion of Kings’, if you translate it.”
“Scion of Kings,” Russandol repeated, quiet and thoughtful.
“It’s a very odd name, isn’t it? After all, the only king he’s directly descended from is Finwë.”
“Hm,” his husband answered, leaning forward just enough for Findekáno to see red hair falling on either side of his head. “I think it fits.”
“How do you figure?”
“If he’s your son, he’s mine too. And we’ve both been High King, for some value of the title.”
“Oh,” Findekáno replied, blinking at the realization. “We have, haven’t we?” The thought was oddly comforting, a soft candle-flame in the midst of their longing. “Perhaps it’s his amilessë, and she knew.”
“Perhaps,” Russandol answered, holding him more tightly. He closed his eyes, burning every sensation into his memory, wishing he could exist in this moment forever.
I wish you could stay, he said silently, at last giving voice to their mingled desires and wishes and dreams. I know you and your people have to go back east in the morning, but -
I wish I could too, his husband replied. I know.
They stood entwined and motionless for the better part of an hour, clinging to the fragments of a life they could never have, hoping against hope that this time the Sun would not bother to rise and they could hang in this space between spaces forever.