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‘Marry me.’

Haleth took a moment to realize what he had just said. Her breath was still short, her limbs still stiff by their lovemaking. In bed Caranthir wasn’t delicate at all.

There was no place for delicacy or sweetness in their nights together: nothing but a dark, hungry desire that, for some hours, erased everything else. In those hours there was no place for duty and responsibilities, no place for regret or sorrow or worries, nothing but the simple pleasure of their bodies entwined together, of her nails scratching his back, of his mouth pressed between her legs, on her breasts, of his rough hands tracing patterns on her skin, following the traces of old scars.

There wasn’t much talk either, during those moments. Haleth didn’t go to him for talking, and Caranthir seemed to treasure his words as much as he treasured the gold that he kept in the caskets of his fortress. Even afterwards, when they lied together on the furs of his or her bed, naked limbs entwined, her head on his broad chest, they exchanged but a few words, usually interrupted by a kiss, until they either made love once again, or fell asleep.

When Haleth realized what he had said, she just laughed in answer. As she moved to sit up, Caranthir grasped her shoulders, his long, elegant fingers strong as steel against her skin.

‘I’m deadly serious, Haleth.’ Those hands, that she knew could hold swords and axes as if they weighed nothing, that had slayed countless Orcs, were grasping her with care, neither hurting her, nor treating her as if she was made of delicate elven glass. ‘Marry me.’

She just avoided his gaze.

At first, everything had been simple enough. Caranthir was handsome, and her nights were lonely enough to make her long for a companion. Perhaps an elven lord wasn’t the wisest of the choices, perhaps she would have thought about it twice, once, when she was younger and with less shadows. Now her father and brother were dead, and Haleth was the chieftain of a people of survivors, people she couldn’t fail. Today duty would be her only companion, her first and only husband, so what mattered, after all, if she spent some nights with an elven lord?

Or at least: this was what she had said to herself at first. But, as the months had passed, the nights she had spent with Caranthir had become more than the ones spent by herself. Despite what she had initially thought, they had all but grown tired of each other, even when their naked bodies had ceased to be a novelty.

Perhaps, it was because he was one of the Eldar, and no mortal Man could compete with his beauty. Caranthir had the face and the body of a god, and the grace that the Powers of Arda had given to the Firstborn alone, that no mortal possessed. Tall and strong was he, with long black hair as thick and soft as silk, sharp but fine features that could have been chiseled by a divine smith, and dark grey eyes that can easily burn in anger as in passion.

But still, was it mere lust for his beauty and strength, it would have been much easier for her. She had taken plenty of lovers, men and women she shared a night or some months with, that she may have respected but never loved. She had felt no regret any time she had left them.

This time, though, Haleth had no words for what she really felt for Caranthir. Love, especially, was out of the question. Love was for children and fools, she told herself. Better to eradicate any feeling for him out of her heart before it planted its poisonous roots in her, better to do it before it put any dangerous idea in her mind. Her people would always come first: so she had sworn on her father’s tomb, who had died for those same people, and she had not sworn lightly.

In the stories of her people, love was dangerous, for it could easily turn the wisest man into a fool. How foolish, how senseless would it be to fall in love with someone who wasn’t even a man, but an elven lord that would still be alive and prosper, unchanged from the first day she had seen him, when she and her people, and the children of her people, would be nothing but dust?

They had often talked about arrangements, alliances, exchanges. Never marriage, never. Not that it had even crossed her mind, in truth. For who had ever heard of a man of the Eldar marrying a woman of the Edain, or vice versa? The mere thought was something too absurd to be even mentioned, like the Sun rising in the West instead of East.

‘Why?’ Why such madness from his part, he who had lived many centuries? Caranthir seldom joked, and while his words may be sharp as a sword, he would never make her the butt of a cruel joke.

‘Why not?’ He took her face in his hands. The dim light of the candles draw odd shadows on his face, making him look even less human, even more distant from her. ‘Why not, Haleth? We have already shared a bed. Let us speak our vows in front of Eru Allfather, joining in one soul as well as one body.’

‘Caranthir’, she exhaled, pondering her words carefully. ‘I always thought that I made my intentions clear from the start. I did not marry any of the men I’d bedded.’

His eyes darkened. Haleth wrapped the blankets around her body, almost absently. Her words had been, perhaps, too harsh, but it was better to make everything clear, rather than alimenting some absurd hope.

Caranthir raised from their bed, without bothering to cover his nakedness with a blanket. He didn’t start to dress himself again, but merely stood in front of her, a dark god in the faint light of the candles.

‘If you don’t love me, I won’t force you, of course.’ he said with tranquility. ‘But I beg you to take a little time before giving me a definitive answer. You don’t have to fear that this is a mere whim, or a joke from my own part. You know I’m a man of honor, Haleth. If I make a promise to you, I’ll keep it. I too made my intentions clear from the start.’

‘You talk like a lovestruck fool.’ She had never wanted to shake him so badly like in that moment. How could he stand here in front of her, with his inhumanly perfect body and his unreadable face, and speak such nonsense with a calm voice? ‘It’s not something I expected from you.’

‘Again: I’m not trying to convince you. I’m merely asking you to think about it.’ He turned, allowing Haleth to see his well shaped buttocks. ‘You may not have expected it from me, but it is the costume of my people to choose with care for our bed-fellows.’

‘Care is one thing, marriage another.’ She quickly averted her gaze. His naked body was an almost painful reminder of their shared passion, and thus the last thing she needed. ‘I may think about it for as long as you wish, Caranthir, and you can talk about honor until you grow hoarse, and it won’t change anything. I know you’re a man of honor, but what’s honor in front of death? Do you really want to have a mortal wife?’

He didn’t reply, nor did he turn, but she could see the muscles of his right arm twitching.

‘I do’ he answered at the end, a note of steel in his voice. He turned towards her again. ‘Then let me be the first elven lord who married a mortal woman. You’ll be a queen among Men, a queen like the Beleriand has never seen.’

‘Being a chieftain is enough for me’, she replied. ‘I care not for pretty crowns or fancy titles. Such has been the way of my people since the moment we woke up in the East. I was chosen by the Haladrim to guide them, not to dominate them.’

She found comfort in the thought that, had she accepted his offer, her pride would never have left her heart at peace. It was tempting, especially for her, who had always felt that she was born to lead her people, even when her father and brother were alive. In truth she had never imagined that they would die leaving her in charge, but she had often fantasized about taking a small company of women for herself, those able to fight with sword and spear, like herself. She had wished to travel with them across the Beleriand, until her name would become as famous and as celebrated as the ones of Bëor the Old or of Malach Aradan.

Would it still be her, if she let herself be dressed in elven silk, adorned in the delicate jewels the elven ladies used to bear, eating exquisite foods in golden plates and drinking fine red wine in silver chalices? She wasn’t an elven lady, nor would she ever pretend to be one. The costumes for the Eldar weren’t for her, she wasn’t Bëor the Old, who had lived for a long time among the Eldar, even changing his name and his ways for the sake of the people of Nargothrond.
Such was an easy way to lose herself. Then, all the passionate tenderness, and the complicated respect she felt for Caranthir could turn into resentment.

‘I’ll not change that,’ said Caranthir, almost as if he had read into her thoughts. ‘Still, Haleth, I’m putting a kingdom at your feet. Not only will my throne be yours, and you’ll rule at my side, but everything I possess, I’ll share that with you. My army, all the elven warriors in my fortress will follow your command, my hand will be yours, and so will all the riches of my realm, the gold, the silver, and all the gems you wish. My people and your people will live side by side, not merely as lords and vassals like in the kingdom of Felagund, but as friends and companions, made one people by a bond of blood, for if you’ll ever want any child, our children will be princes and princesses among Men and Eldar alike, blood of the blood of Fëanor as much as of the First Men.’

He really bargains as an old fisher-woman, she thought.

Caranthir knew what she really cared for, he knew that nothing, nor love, nor the malice of the Lord of the Dark Land, nor the will of the High Powers, would make her abandon her own folk, the desperate Men who had trusted her in those terrifying seven days they had spent under siege, seven atrocious days in which the Iron Hell had threatened to swallow them whole.

He knew she would always put them before him, no matter the cost.

So he had made his move. How could she resist the temptation of having her people fed and sheltered, defended by tall walls of stone instead of walls of wood, without having to worry about finding a land safe enough to keep them all?

Even more, not simply as the vassals of the great elven lords, but as their peers, as the people of a queen like the Beleriand had never seen.

Oh aye, it was such a delicious vision the one he offered her.

‘You said that I’ll have your people at my orders, but do you think that they’ll accept so easily to have a mortal woman commanding them? One thing is to be your ally, another your queen.’

‘I’ll make them accept you as their lady, then.’

Wrong answer, she thought. It wasn’t only the Edain who thought that marriages between Men and Elves were a folly, many among the Eldar thought it too. The House of Fëanor may be different for a lot of things from the other Houses, as far as she’d heard, but if they never accepted them as their lady, not even Caranthir’s authority could change their hearts. What would be of a lord and a lady who weren’t accepted by their own people?

‘What about your brothers, then?’ she continued. ‘Would they accept me?’

The sudden rashness of his tone told her all what she needed to know.

‘It doesn’t matter. My brother Maedhros renounced our father’s crown, despite our father’s struggle to keep it, and our advice to not give it away. After this, what right do they have to speak against my will?’

‘Do you realize what you are saying?’ She straightened her back. ‘If you aren’t a fool, then why do you insist on such nonsense? It can’t be, Caranthir. You talk as if it’s only a mere matter of marriage and business, as if it’s something that can be bargained easily! You can’t just forget the Fate of Men, as your kin calls it, you can’t just forget that one day I’ll die of old age, as you’ll remain forever young! What you are asking from me is impossible!’

Caranthir, for once, seemed at a loss for words. He simply stared at her, and Haleth could do nothing but shiver, because she had never seen such despair in his eyes, not once since their very meeting. For her, Caranthir was strong and immovable as a mountain. And now, it was like that mountain was slowly crumbling in front of her very eyes, as if crushed by the hand of a god.

‘Perhaps I’m a fool, then.’ He sat on the bed once more, and let out a laugh, but it was a laugh bereft of any joy. ‘Perhaps I’m but a madman. Haleth, please, listen to me. For my kin, the matters of love are serious ones, and even the mere act of lying together is a carefully made choice. So, let me be as sincere as you were with me: I love you. After all those years of nothing but blood and war, it was you, and you alone, who showed me that there’s more in this world but endless fights. Haleth, your people are the Children of the Sun, and for real you were like I saw the Sun rising for the first time, after all those years in the darkened lands in the North.’

Haleth closed her eyes for a moment, tightening the sheets around her body. She didn’t want to look into Caranthir’s eyes, not when he was looking at her like this, like he was ready to throw himself at her feet.

My people need me. She knew, she would always put them first, and yet …

… and yet. Those stolen moments with Caranthir, his hands on her, his voice calling her name, his hips rocking against her own, his thick cock piercing her her body as one would break through a carefully locked castle. All those were the only things she had taken for herself since her father and her brother had died. The only indulgence she had allowed herself: Chieftain of the Haladin she may be, and she would always be first and foremost, but in Caranthir’s arms, she could be nothing but Haleth, all her grief and worries gone, albeit for a few hours only.

Perhaps, their relationship had been nothing but a mistake from the beginning. If he was a fool, what was she then?

She moved close to Caranthir, who was sitting with his shoulders bowed, his long dark hair falling all around him like a curtain, and took his face in her hands: ‘Caranthir, believe me if I say that I don’t want you to suffer. But willingly or unwillingly, one day I will have to leave you, and there’s nothing we can do about it. None of us can bend fate to our will.’

He took her in his arms and Haleth allowed him to do that, pressing her head against his chest, letting herself be lulled by his warmth. His heart was softly throbbing under her ear: an immortal heart that would never cease to beat, and had pulsed at the same rhythm of her own for so many nights.

‘I know’ he said, grimly. ‘There’s no damn day it doesn’t pass without me thinking about it. And yet, and yet, Haleth! Not even fate can change my love, after all.’

She pressed a light kiss on his shoulder, and sighed. ‘Sometimes, I do wonder why the gods were so cruel in making us go into the unknown after our deaths. Why can't our kin just pass into the Halls of the Dead like your kin do, so that we can return with time? What bliss it would be, for death would stop to look so frightening and terrible to us, and we can meet our loved ones again!’

Haleth remembered her father, her brother and her mother, too, who had died only four years ago for a thing as common as an illness. She would have given anything to see them again, to embrace them, to hear their voices. What thinking had led the gods to give such a blessing to the Elves, leaving only incurable, hopeless grief to Men?

‘Aye, a blessing.’ His hands were gentle on her back, but his voice was full of bitterness. ‘Or at least, a blessing in theory alone. In truth, not everyone returns from the Halls of the Dead, and it is not allowed for us to speak with the ones who remained there. My grandmother, for all the love and pleas of our father, and his father before him, never returned to us. Now the Blessed Lands are forbidden to us, and even if we were to cross the sea, the way to the outer lands is closed and carefully watched, and the gods are deaf to our prayers and our tears. Aye, such a blessing, to be forced to choose between a dim illusion of peace and bliss, at the price of swallowing our pride while we kneel in front of the gods, and an endless war in which our grief and our suffering will be seen as but a punishment for the moment in which we stopped to meekly bend our heads in front of the Powers!’

His voice was full of anger, now. Caranthir the Dark, he was called, for his raging temper, but Haleth had witnessed it only on the battlefield, where his fury transformed him into a god of war. To see him so rageful in a moment of shared intimity was something she had never seen, and that would rather never see again.

‘Caranthir.’ She raised her head and put a gentle hand on his cheek. ‘I had no idea my words would cause you such suffering. It seems that there’s a lot that I don’t know about the Eldar.’

‘No need to excuse yourself.’ He took her hand and pressed a kiss on her palm. ‘Mine kin as thine are still separated by a deep divide, so deep and overwhelming that few of us dare to cross it. Ah, my hope is to put a first bridge on such a divide, as I told you before, but as you said, it isn’t an easy deed.’ He sighed deeply. ‘Sometimes I do wonder if, perhaps, Eru hadn’t been fairer to Men than to Elves. Aye, thy kin goes into the unknown, but we that know what happens after our deaths, we don’t find much consolation in it either. Mandos hasn't always been fair to my kin.’

Mandos. So the Eldar called the Judge of the Dead, the great Power to whom all destinies were revealed. The Inexorable, as Men called him, for he was the grim shadow that followed them since their first breath, and his other names were pronounced even less.

Caranthir rarely spoke of such matters, as he rarely spoke of his life before he came to Middle-earth, but Haleth had managed to understand that he too, in his own way, feared the Inexorable, whom no gold and no steel could stop. A fear that shouldn’t belong to the blessed Elves, and yet, it was there, a bitter reminder of that same darkness that Caranthir always carried with him.

Caranthir the Dark: such an ironic name, for in the depths of his heart, concealed beneath his sarcasm and his pride, there was a sorrow and a pain as black as the darkest pit of the Iron Hell, as well as a cruel fury and a never-resting anger, that from such pain had once come.

Haleth had never asked Caranthir about his past. They both had their well-kept secrets, that they felt no need to share, and she knew too well that it was better to not open certain doors, to not renew certain wounds.

Even so, she had heard all her life the tales of Fëanor, the Spirit of Fire. Caranthir rarely mentioned his father, the great elven king who had died long before even the sun and the moon had risen in Middle-earth, even before the Fathers of Men awakened in the East. Fëanor was almost a myth for the mortal Men, and the Eldar spoke his name with reverence, as if it was a blessing, or a curse.

Haleth remembered her father fondly, the man who had carried her on his shoulders when she was but a tiny child, who had carved for her and her brother little wooden animals to play with, who laughed and danced with her mother at any Yule festival. Did Caranthir hold similar feelings for his father, that figure of both light and darkness that was to her as distant as the great Powers who dwelt far across the Sea?

She sighed: ‘Aye, a big divide still separates our kins. I do wonder if it will ever be filled, and if it will ever be, it will be in such a distant time that I will be long dead by that time. And you will still be alive.’

‘This should be a consolation?’

‘I’m merely saying what I think.’ she raised and pressed her brow against his own. ‘I spoke in haste, and I fear that my words may have been too harsh. But Caranthir, you’re dear to me. Dear enough that I don’t want to see you suffer for the sake of a promise that we both know we can’t keep. I told you that we Men go into the unknown, and we fear such unknown, but we live, too, and life is still full of opportunities, of joy, of love and hope, all things that allow us to chase away the dark. Not even the Grim One can decide how I’m going to live, and what direction I want to give to my life. And such advice I give to you: His shadow may be dark, but your life is yours and yours alone.’

He closed his eyes, and for a moment it was like the burden of all his years fell on him. ‘I wish it was that easy for me, Haleth. The Grim Vala isn’t so forgiving towards the ones who dared to defy him. He wasn’t towards my father, and I’ve no hope that it would be different for me.’

Haleth said nothing, but kissed his closed eyelids. How could she reply to such desperate pain? That was something that went beyond her, and beyond any mortal Man. No mortal had a place in the high quarrels of the Powers in their Undying Lands, and none could bend the Higher Fates at their own will, no immortal elf, nor mortal man, nor the dwarves who came at last.

‘I can’t reply to this, and you know that.’ She circled his waist and pressed once again her head against his chest. ‘I have neither the power to change fate, nor the sight for guessing what would happen one day. But let me say a thing to you: even if I’ll never be your wife, my dear, I’ll still be your companion. You’re not the only one who had walked in the darkest of the night, Caranthir. But those moments I spent with you … those moments were ours and ours alone, and none, nor the demons in the Iron Hell or the gods in the Outer Seas, can take them from me. They allow me to chase away the dark for a while, and for me, that’s enough.’

Caranthir said nothing, but his hands grabbed her shoulders, and without any other word, he kissed her. It was a long, hungry kiss, something they both had longed for. Haleth threw her arms around his neck, and his tongue slid in her mouth, exploring her, opening her mouth for him.

‘Haleth, Haleth.’ he whispered when they finally broke the kiss. ‘ Then you wonder why I could make a fool of myself for you.’

‘I’m as foolish as you are, then.’ she answered, gently caressing his face, sliding a finger on his freckles. She always took delight in tracing the patterns that his freckles drew in blemishes on his face, the same pale brown little spots, similar to constellations on his skin, that decorated his shoulders, his hands, his buttocks.

It was a little detail she loved of him, for she had noticed that it was an uncommon trait among the Eldar: somehow, it was something that made him look more human, less otherworldly. One night, when he had found her tracing those patterns on his skin with her fingers, he had told her that he had inherited his freckles from his mother. Such a common, almost banal affirmation for anyone else but for Caranthir, who talked about his mother even less than he talked about his father. By the pain in his voice, he had loved his mother dearly.

Right now, his eyes were free from shadows, the pain held at bay for a while, as hers was any time she was with him.

Love. Such a little word, and yet such a complicated one, one that Haleth wouldn’t even dare to say in the secret room of her mind. And yet, despite all, despite all the darkness and the sorrow, a little seed of love was slowly growing inside of her, ready to full blossom, like a tiny snowdrop that pierced a thick coat of ice.

Listening to the slow, but firm heartbeat of Caranthir, Haleth asked herself if she would ever tell that to Caranthir.

One day, she promised. After all, she had all her life …