Chapter Forty-five: A Man's Heart
AN: Fair warning: This chapter contains some minor sexual content in the flashback.
They had been trained together, fought together, bled together, known each other for two decades, and Calon could not remember a moment in all that time when he had been as upset with Rivalon as he was now. It was not as though he immediately developed an unfounded, immediate loyalty to the orcess. She seemed sad, and troubled – weighed down by recent events – and Calon pitied her. No, this was more fundamental than that. Rivalon had promised to mind himself, then promptly did the opposite; helping to incite the orc woman to near hysterics. When he realized Rivalon was no longer in camp, after Hedon and Rukhash left, Calon went immediately to look for him.
When it came to orcs, Rivalon's animosity was wholly founded, but he was a grown man, a loyal servant of Gondor; Lord Faramir had given them all an order. More than that, Cadoc was a close friend, an ally to Calon and Rivalon in more ways than one. Backing him in this moment was something they should be doing.
He found Rivalon halfway down the base of the cliff, concealed in a thicket of young ash trees. A good distance away, completely unaware that she was being watched, Rukhash was hard at work harvesting the long, green stalks of a mullein plant. What she wanted with those, Calon had no idea. He did know that Rivalon had no reason to be out here. Hedon was with orc, so there was no danger to her here. Except, perhaps, Rivalon.
The look on his partner's face frightened Calon. He had never seen the man so darkly obsessed in all the years he had known him. Calon knew Rivalon hated orcs, but he never realized he hated them quite this much.
"Rivalon," Calon called his attention.
He turned, cooly regarding Calon for a moment. "I knew you would come looking for me."
Calon quietly ground his teeth. "What are you doing here, watching her? I thought we talked about this already."
"We did," Rivalon conceded, his attention back on the orcess, his eyes dark as a summer storm.
Approaching his grim partner where he stood like a vengeful sentinel, Calon took the taller man's shoulder and turned him, forcing Rivalon to look at him. "What do you think this will accomplish?"
There was a war being waged inside him, Calon could tell that much. With a steadying breath, Rivalon shut his eyes. "I want to hear your words, Calon," he whispered. "I want to look at that orcess and simply see an odd looking... woman of some kind, but I cannot. I am not even sure it is right for us to allow her to touch him as she does... not while he is still asleep."
"Rivalon..." Calon glanced down toward Hedon and Rukhash as they made their way back up the cliff. He was relieved they would not pass by the small copse of trees where Rivalon had hidden himself.
"An orc, Calon. It is an orc!" Rivalon's voice was gaining in volume and Calon was relieved Hedon and Rukhash were well outside of earshot. "How often have we seen their barbarism? They eat the dead. They eat their own dead. You heard what she said; she can smell fear! They are not human, Calon; they are monsters. Cadoc cannot love that thing. Hedon must be mistaken."
"Of all the people to mistake such a thing, Hedon would not be one of them," Calon argued hotly. "He trusts their kind least of all. He said so just yesterday! And look how he defends her now. I have spoken to her, Rivalon. She is short tempered, but hardly a monster. Considering what she has been through-"
"Maybe the rumors about her are true," Rivalon hissed, interrupting. "Perhaps she is a witch. Look how quickly everyone accepts her! Even you."
He was almost dizzy listening to that kind of logic. Calon grasped Rivalon's forearms, willing his own calm into him. "I have never seen you like this, not in all our years together," he said. "You are a reasonable, thoughtful man. Certainly, all of the evidence points in the orcess's favor. A little mistrust on your part, I could understand, but Rivalon, this is paranoia. Listen to yourself, will you? You sound like Dellon's ravings. What is she doing? Nothing! She is terrified of us, and still she remains with Cadoc. She killed her own kind to save his life, and do not tell me that she didn't. Because I would ask who else killed those orcs besides her?"
"Tell me I am wrong," Calon challenged, his jaw firm.
Rivalon's fierce rage faltered under Calon's scrutiny. The firm line of his mouth wavered. "I look at her," he whispered, "and all I can do is remember."
"I know," Calon said softly. "But try to see instead. Please, Rivalon; for me and for Cadoc. He loves that orc. He would not be all the way out here if he didn't. You saw his letter of resignation. You heard Hedon's words to confirm it. Cadoc wants to spend his life with her. Shouldn't we be happy for him, as he was for us."
"Cadoc faces enough animosity for his choice," Calon pressed. "He should not face it from his friends as well. Look how many have already abandoned him."
Faramir's honor guard consisted of more than just eleven men, but many of those men chose not to accompany their lord on this mission. Much like Rivalon, most could not bear the thought of it.
"I know you are right, Calon," Rivalon sighed. "Everything you have said is completely sensible, and when we are standing together, when that thing is not right in front of me, I recognize them as truth..." He took a shuddering breath. "Perhaps I should avoid her while we remain in their company."
Calon nodded, seeing the sense in that. "Maybe you should," he agreed, sad but understanding. There were things in his past Rivalon could not forgive, and Calon wasn't sure it was fair to ask such a thing of him; no matter how much they owed Cadoc for keeping their secret.
His hands still grasping Rivalon's shoulders, Calon laid a light, chaste kiss on his lover's mouth. "I do not want to argue with you," he said quietly.
Laying his forehead against Calon's, Rivalon sighed. "Nor I you," he agreed, "but in the future, when I tell you I would rather not do something, perhaps you will not harangue me until I agree."
"That is fair," Calon said, stepping back from him.
A bright voice broke through the stillness of the moment. "Ahoy, ladies! I don't mean to interrupt."
Rivalon glared at the young, light haired ranger approaching from the direction of camp. "Donir," he growled. "You are not amusing."
"Here now," Donir said grinning like a fox, "I meant no offense. I prefer my bed partners soft and small. How much more of a man are you, that you prefer another man!"
That little jab did not injure Calon, but it did make him angry. In a blink, he snatched Donir by the nape of his neck, squeezing hard. "You are too loose with your tongue cousin!" he hissed. "You told me you would say nothing of it!"
With a grunt, he batted Calon's hand away and rolled his eyes. "And I haven't said a word," Donir assured the older pair. "No one is near. Everyone is back at camp."
"You cannot know that," Rivalon huffed.
"But I do," Donir insisted. "It is far more interesting up there at the moment."
"Why is that?" Calon asked, sharing a suspicious look with his partner.
"Because," Donir replied with a cheeky smile, " Cadoc has just woken up."
The Ranger's station in southern Emyn Arnen was quiet in the space between seasonal occupancy. Six years after the war, the region was safe enough that, in the few weeks after the fall and winter regiments left and before the spring and summer regiment settled in, it could be held with fewer than ten men. This year it was being held by five, and it was Calon and Rivalon's night off of guard duty.
They shared a small supper, retired early and Calon had Rivalon against the wall – his knee between the taller man's legs – as soon as the door to their quarters shut. Normally, they would share the small, two bunk room with another pair of men. Then, the most intimacy they were afforded was the occasional brush of fingers. Just before sleep claimed them, Rivalon would let his hand dangle down the far side of the bed and Calon would clasp it desperately, hoping they would be sent on a long, easy mission by themselves.
That long, easy mission never did come, but being year round occupants at a relatively safe ranger's station did afford them some privacy in the still moments between the major fighting seasons. It wasn't as if they had a household to go back to, as most of the other men did. They had talked recently of buying their own land somewhere out of the way, a place to go home to, but had never done much about it besides talk.
And maybe, in the quiet after, when they lay tangled together in the darkness, they would talk about it again. After Calon was finished trailing his tongue along the, rough gooseflesh on Rivalon's throat; after his lover's calloused hands had stripped off what remained of his shirt; after the heated, frenzied coupling that marked their first evening blissfully alone.
Calon fumbled quickly with buttons as he hurried to undo Rivalon's shirt, as though he were being pursued, as though they did not have all night. Then his mouth was trailing down Rivalon's chest, his stomach, while his partner eagerly urged him further with a gentle, firm push on his shoulders. In that heady, excruciating moment – just before his mouth reached its destination, one hand buried between Rivalon's legs while the other reached for his own arousal – the door opened.
Calon froze like a terrified rabbit as he stared at the blinking face of their captain. That moment had the effect of being dunked bodily into the Anduin River in the dead of winter. Though it was dark as night in the room, the hallway was light enough. Light enough for Calon to recognize it was Cadoc, weighed down by travel gear, standing in the doorway. Light enough for Cadoc to see, quite clearly, what it was Calon and Rivalon were up to in that pitch dark room.
A breathless second passed in which Cadoc's face registered confusion, shock, embarrassment and shock again. Then, he shut the door and his boots thudded back down the hallway from whence he came.
Whatever spell had frozen them was then released, and both men jumped away from each other as though they were burned. Rivalon uttered a swear so profane, Calon flushed. "I will speak with him," Calon said unsteadily as he threw his shirt back over his head.
"I will come with you," Rivalon insisted, sounding pained.
Calon took one look at him, as he buttoned back up, and nearly laughed, feeling hysterical. "I think you should take care of that first," Calon suggested, gesturing towards the obscene tent in Rivalon's trousers. A strangled, frustrated sound came from the man's throat.
"Do what you must," Calon told him as he opened the door just wide enough to slip through. "I will speak with him before he mentions anything to someone else. Perhaps I can talk him into keeping this quiet." Calon did not wait for Rivalon's approval before striding down the hallway in search of Cadoc.
This was bad. Very bad. How could they be so careless? They did not even bar the door! And what was Cadoc doing here? He should not be arriving for another few weeks, when the rest of the warm weather regiment was due in.
As he approached the main room, Calon tried to remember if Cadoc had ever made any off color comments or if he had shown any animosity towards men with similar persuasions, and couldn't recall an instance. While that was somewhat heartening,Calon could not say he knew Cadoc well. They were near the same age; had trained around the same time and been in the same battles; Cadoc, a few years older, had been their captain for the past five years, and led them on many successful patrols; but their relationship was limited to the time they spent fighting together. He knew Cadoc, like just about every other man in his mid thirties among the rangers, had a wife and a child, a son; Calon could recall a few anecdotal stories, but not much more than that. The truth was, he did not know how his captain was going to react, and he was terrified.
The main room in the barracks was long and narrow, with a wide hearth on the far wall and three tall, narrow windows opposite of that. A wooden table and simple benches , filled half the length. The far corner sported several cupboards stocked with long standing rations and trunks filled with various spares: spare blankets, spare sheets, spare clothes, spare bandages, spare medicine. A ranging station was a halfway house for the men that patrolled Ithilien and Southern Gondor. A place for them to stop and rest and heal in between missions. It was neither spacious and comfortable, nor was it inhospitable. The main room was warm and inviting, and Calon had spent many nights here in song and respite and fellowship with his comrades after particularly troubling missions.
Tonight the room was quiet except for the crackling fire and its lone occupant. Cadoc sat with his back to the hearth. There was a clear bottle half full of some liquor on the table – men were always stashing various bottles of communal swill in the cupboards. Cadoc poured himself a generous glass that would probably strip the lining from his stomach.
Calon hesitantly entered, hovering at the doorway. His captain glanced at him briefly before downing his glass.
Relieved Cadoc seemed relatively calm, if not a little red-faced, Calon took a seat across from him. Only then did he see the two other glasses set out. Cadoc poured him a portion and slid it towards him. "When we are done with this bottle," Cadoc said lightly, " I think we will be able to light fires with our breath."
"You are drunk," Calon observed.
"Not drunk enough," Cadoc argued and then nodded towards Calon's drink. "And I should not like to drink alone."
Calon swirled the amber liquid before swallowing it in one go. It burned the whole way down. "Captain," Calon said, nervous, "about what you saw-"
"I apologize," Cadoc cut in. "Ingrid was always telling me I should learn to knock..."
"I'd very much appreciate if you would not mention this to anyone," Calon pressed.
His captain regarded him for a moment, his eyes clear, and Calon realized he was really not so drunk as first suspected. "I am not blind to the world, Calon," Cadoc replied. "And it has never been my practice to spread idle gossip."
"I never thought that it was," Calon stammered. "It is only... Rivalon and I have managed to keep this very discreet, and we would like to continue in this manner. You were there, weren't you, sir? When Denethor hung his guardsman from the second gate..."
"I was not, but I heard about it after," the captain said quietly. "Though, I am not sure you should have fear of that. Lord Faramir is not his father-"
"Even so, sir," Calon interrupted. "We would just as well keep it to ourselves. We have worked hard for our positions."
"It will be as you say," Cadoc said, his palm raised. "You have fought at my back for nearly two decades. Who you take to your bed is none of my business, Calon. We need not speak on it any further. You have my silence. "
"And please," he added "we are not on a mission. You may call me Cadoc."
Calon felt the dread drain from him in a great wave. "Thank you, Cadoc."
"You are back early, sir," Rivalon's dry tone sounded from across the room.
Cadoc shrugged with a knowing half smile and raised the bottle as though it were a question. "Drink?"
"Gracious Valar, yes," Rivalon breathed.
As he poured Rivalon a glass and freshened his own and Calon's, Cadoc regarded both men curiously. "Should I congratulate you both?"
"On what?" Calon asked, baffled.
He gestured to them. "This... well, that you are together."
A blinking, unbelieving moment passed between the two lovers. This was easily the easiest someone had taken this revelation. Recovering himself, Rivalon huffed quietly. "You are four years too late for that."
"Is that so?" Cadoc said, sounding surprised. "Indeed, you have been discreet. No matter," he raised his glass towards them. "A belated congratulations, and many happy returns." He downed the alcohol as quickly as he had polished the previous glass.
Amused, Calon sipped his drink cautiously. "I wish my father took the news half as well as you just have."
"Or my sister's husband," Rivalon added.
"I assure you, I would have preferred to find out... any other way besides that!" Cadoc laughed. "But my village's healer is of a similar preference, and he has long been a friend of my family. You are not the only couple such as yourselves in the world."
Rivalon gaped a bit at that. "Do people know about him?"
"It is a small village," Cadoc said, "but to say it is general knowledge would be untrue. My family knows. We saw a great deal of Auron when my father was ill, and after he died... Well, Auron and his late partner, Limdir, were the ones to help my mother most. I was only ten at the time, and my sister was just born. Two children on a laundress's salary," Cadoc shook his head. "I do not think we would have gotten along without their help."
A forlorn look passed over him, before Cadoc shook himself back into the present. "But, like you both, Auron has never flaunted his proclivities, though I am sure most suspect the truth, even if they do not know it for certain. Attitudes towards such pairings are a little more relaxed where I am from then they are here in Ithilien, but we are not without our bigots. There are few people in Lamedon, and so we have fewer of them."
"Well," Calon said, "I am glad you are not one of them."
"You love who you love," Cadoc said , his voice sad and far away. "Just... lock the door next time, will you? I am relieved you were both mostly dressed, but I wouldn't want to catch anyone with their pants off, no matter who they were with, or even if they were alone. I nearly died of embarrassment!"
"Good!" Rivalon huffed. "So did we."
"I apologize again, for barging in," Cadoc said, contrite. "I didn't think..." he trailed off and sighed, looking away. "I didn't think," he said.
Calon waved him off. "It is of no consequence now. Though I am curious as to why you've decided to grace us with your presence so early in the season."
"I wondered the same," agreed Rivalon as he refilled all the glasses, "and without Hedon shadowing you besides."
There was a general shift in Cadoc's entire mood. Gripping his glass unnecessarily tight, he frowned deeply. "I did not want to be there for the wedding."
Calon and Rivalon shared a confused look "Who's wedding?"
Cadoc's voice was thick with bitterness, "My wife's- my ex-wife's wedding. I suppose she thought she was being civil, but the mere thought of it makes me physically ill."
The corner's of Cadoc's eyes nearly glowed with murderous pinpricks. "We were just divorced!" he growled, pounding his fist on the table. "Just this autumn she handed me papers and asked for her freedom. Now I find she has been involved with this... other man... for nearly a year!" He shut his eyes briefly in an attempt to rein in his temper. With a deep breath he said, "I beg pardon. I do not desire to talk about this. We can discuss anything else."
"I'm sorry, sir," Calon whispered. He felt as though he should have known something was wrong, but then, he had never been close enough to Cadoc to discern the subtleties of his moods.
Grim faced, Rivalon stood and went to the far cupboard. He returned with a bottle of pre-war, barrel aged whiskey. It was an expensive blend, one they had been saving for some unnamed, special occasion.
"If we are going to get as drunk as I imagine we are going to get," Rivalon said cooly, "we should be drinking a better vintage than that swill you keep pouring us."
Cadoc laughed as Rivalon emptied their glasses and refilled them with the better liquor. "I would not dream to argue such well thought out logic," he conceded.
Calon learned more about his captain in the span of that evening than in all the years he had joined him in battle. They steered their topics clear of Cadoc's recent divorce, though occasionally, during a discourse that went well into the night, the captain would stare dully into the fire, his eyes shimmering and distant. But it would only last a moment before he shook the mood off and continued with their conversation.
They poured him into a bunk in one of the unoccupied rooms before retiring to their own room, too inebriated to do much more than collapse into bed.
"He is badly wounded," Rivalon said, quiet, as he stared dully at the underside of the bunk above them.
They had arranged themselves awkwardly on the bottom bed, half draped over one another. Calon cleaved closer to Rivalon's side, happy despite their uncomfortable arrangement. "I would think so," he replied sleepily. "Cadoc has been married since before the War. If I were him, I would feel very betrayed."
Rivalon regarded him seriously then, his eyes dark in the gloom. "You will never be in the position he is in," he said solemnly.
In their years together, they had never discussed fidelity. It seemed as though their one night stand led to regular nights together and before they knew it, they were a pair. Even their discussions about the future – their home together – were oddly intangible, speculative conversations.
But in that moment, Calon realized that he could not imagine a future without Rivalon in it. "And neither will you." He kissed him soundly, mingling tongues. Unfortunately, the swell of emotion Calon felt was not enough to undo the effects of alcohol.
Resting his head back on his lover's chest, Calon sighed with a mixture of longing and contentment. "I love you," he said simply, closing his eyes.
Rivalon's hand strayed in his hair. "And I, you, Calon," he breathed.
They gained a sympathetic colleague that night. Even from Hedon, Cadoc kept their secret, and more, found ways to do them small kindnesses. They did not have roommates assigned to their quarters until late in the season, when the station was starting to fill up. Their captain made sure that they were on the same patrols, so they would not be parted and distracted with worry.
All Cadoc asked was that they kept their wits about them when they were working, and that was something Calon and Rivalon would have done whether it was requested of them or not.
The low, Sindarin conversations floating around camp were like a murmuring buzz. Gathered in the same ring in which they ate breakfast, the rangers, along with Lady Éowyn and Lord Faramir, were discussing the two occupants of the cavern. Tuluston, Oreldir and Celebas were gathered in a grim trio. They looked a little disturbed, in Calon's opinion. Lord Faramir, Uialon, Belegorn and Míron seemed quietly amused.
Hedon sat alone, leaning against the rocky mouth of the cave, as though he were Cadoc and Rukhash's protector. And maybe he is, Calon thought. Attitudes in the group seemed to range from scandalized to astonishment to troubled. Calon was not sure why everyone was so excitable. They all knew that Cadoc and the orc were a couple before they even came on this trip.
Donir went to join the group gathered around Lord Faramir. With sure steps, Calon crossed the span of camp and took a seat next to Hedon. Reluctantly, Rivalon followed him.
"How is he?" Calon asked the large, younger ranger.
"He is resting," Hedon replied dryly. "Rukhash is explaining our presence, and what has transpired while he slept."
"You can hear what they are saying?" Rivalon queried in a suspicious tone.
"I can hear enough to know what they are discussing," Hedon replied dryly. Shutting his eyes, he leaned his head back against the rocky ledge.
"What now?" Rivalon asked, glancing at Calon.
With a shrug, Calon followed Hedon's lead. His short night was starting to catch up to him. "I suppose we wait," he said.
"So they showed up a day ago?" Cadoc asked, though he was really just repeating what Rukhash had told him already.
She was ringing out the rag she used to wipe the crushed Athelas from his chest, sniffling with remnants of her allergy. Grabbing the long plant stalks she had gathered, she began twisting them in her calloused hands, releasing liquid from the stems. "Yea, yea," she sighed, sounding tired.
"They are wearing you out," Cadoc observed.
With an enduring little smile, she rubbed some of the light smelling liquid on his throat. "Yer friends're a pain in my arse," she said. "I ain't never complainin' 'bout Hedon again. Him'n me, we're chums from this point on."
"You've never complained about Hedon," Cadoc argued.
"Not to yer face."
With a knowing smile, Cadoc took her hand, stilling her movement. "I am glad you two are getting along," he said, honestly pleased. He would have to thank Hedon for his patient help over the past day.
"Yea, yea," Rukhash rumbled. "He's a loyal bloke. Can't fault 'im on that."
"Rukhash..." Cadoc started, unsure of how to discuss this, but knowing they must, "...about Thraangzi-"
"Don't, Cadoc," she cut him off. Reaching out, she pressed her hand against his cheek. "What happened between you an' him happened between you an' him. I gave 'im a shot. I told 'im to sod off or else an' he picked 'or else.' Whatever you done don't matter. I'da made the same choice whether you killed 'is sprogs fer a fair reason or whether ya killed 'em fer sport."
"I did not kill them for sport," Cadoc interjected.
"I know," she said, her voice soft and weary. "I know ya didn't. But I'm sayin' it don't matter either way. You're my shaûk, Cadoc; my brogûrzum. It's you before anyone else, even my brother, no matter what you done."
Cadoc was not sure what to say to that. It was obvious to him that she was not so cold blooded to be completely unaffected by what had happened between her and her brother. There was a sadness in her that he had not seen since he first met her. Reaching out, he laid his palm over the soft swell of her abdomen. "I cannot bear to know you are in pain," he told her, angry at himself for hurting her, for being responsible for this tangible sorrow in her.
A few fat tears snuck out of the corners of her eyes, and she wiped them away with a sniff. "This sprog's makin' a waterfall outta me," she said with a breathy laugh and pressed his hand more tightly against her belly. "I blame you fer that."
"But I ain't sure I can blame ya fer the rest'a it," she admitted. "I know you, my Cadoc. I know what it were you did afore ya met me, an' I ain't sure I wanna know what Thraangzi were up ta 'at caught yer attention. I wanna remember 'im like I did before this. I wanna think on him as the older brother what looked after me since I were a little brat, not the brother that I had ta kill fer hurtin' my shaûk like 'e did." Her lip quivered. "You ain't never seein' outta that eye again," she sobbed.
"I thought as much," he said softly, and maneuvered his hand so he was clutching hers. "Please do not cry, Rukhash," he begged. "I cannot bear it."
He pulled her to lay down alongside him and held her while she wept quietly, tucked against his side. It hurt. His ribs were killing him. But Cadoc ignored the pain. Thraangzi had made threats against her that would most like change her opinion of him completely, but Cadoc would never tell Rukhash what her brother said to him. Better that she grieve Thraangzi and remember him fondly after. Cadoc would endure whatever blame she might one day place on him for his part, so long as he could spare her that agony.
Shutting his eyes, Cadoc breathed deeply, taking in the subtle, earthy scent of her hair and skin, relieved to have her close and safe. Rukhash had stilled, but did not seem inclined to move. They lay like that for a long while, content to be together.