Stripping it all away - Edrahils Tale, 2nd and last chapter
This chapter is for Ithilwen, who, in a different way, wrote about a comparable situation in her impressive story The Cold Hill of Himring.
Despite the presence of what might be considered as a slash element, I don't consider this to be slash. UST comes closer, but even that is not quite to the point. I just felt bound to add this warning.
A warning of another kind: This chapter is probably even less pleasant than the first one. But - small consolation - as this is written from Edrahil's point of view, Finrod's death is implied but not described.
We travelled along the river Narog towards its source in Lake Ivrin at the foot of the Shadowy Mountains, walking by night and resting and waiting by day. One afternoon it was Finrod's turn to keep watch while we others rested and dreamed - except Beren the mortal, who slept the time away.
That day I chose not to dream, but to look at Finrod where he sat with his back against a beach, near the rushing river, maybe listening to the counsel of Ulmo, the Lord of the Waters. And as I had bathed in the chilly stream with the others before, now I bathed alone in the sheen of his beauty.
Mortal men call al the Eldar fair, but to us it is different; we perceive lesser and greater beauty among our own kind. Beren has claimed that none of the children of the world is more fair than his Lúthien. As I never set eyes on her, I could not very well gainsay him. Yet I doubt that I would deem her beauty greater than Finrod's.
I am not the only one to think he is beautiful. Since he came to Middle-earth he captured many an elven maid's heart unintentionally, merely by being as he is: fair of face, generous, courageous, strong of mind, disarming, and breathtaking. But he never returned their love.
Nor would he ever return mine. And I do not mean the kind of love that is between a king and his subject, between a liege-lord and his vassal, or even between friends. I mean the love of body and soul that is between men and women. For though we are both male and such a union would be an abomination, this is what I feel for him. The love that is my curse.
That afternoon, I relished in him from a distance, while he remained unaware of my desire.
We grew more silent as we approached the shadows of the Ered Wethrin. The lands seemed empty, yet we all felt a hostile presence, even the mortal. Autumn crept upon us, and there was an edge to the wind blowing into our faces. Soon, we would have to turn Northeast, towards Tol Sirion and its watchtower. It was Finrod himself who had built it in better days, but after the Dagor Bragollach it had become a den of evil: the abode of Gorthaur, Morgoth's chief servant. Orcs would roam all about it; how would we ever pass unseen?
We mostly camped in the woods now, closely together, for it was dangerous to stray. No one hunted alone anymore. Yet one evening I suddenly missed Finrod's presence among us. Beren noticed it, too, but when he made to rise I shook my head and indicated I would do the searching. He nodded, though on an earlier occasion he had rejected my claim that Elves of any kind make better woodsmen than mortals.
Finrod had not gone far, yet he was hard to find at first, for my eyes aimed to high. When I finally saw him he was lying flat on the forest floor among the first autumn leaves. He had removed his helmet and bared his head, and his arms were outstretched. He looked like the humblest of supplicants, I thought, and then I realised that he was precisely that.
I was witnessing an act of contrition. He had shed his pride and was begging the Valar forgiveness, pleading for mercy, asking for the grace to redeem his oath - or all of these. I wondered how guilty he could feel, having had no part in the Kinslaying. Yet he was under the Doom, as were all who had willingly followed Fëanor - and Finrod in his turn had beguiled many into following him. Me, for one.
Did he feel the error of his ways, the folly of his own pride and stubbornness more keenly, now that he saw his own death ahead? For he did, so much was plain. He was truly being stripped of everything, layer by layer.
Perhaps I should have left then, but my legs refused me. I sank to my knees, closing my eyes to pour out my own guilty heart to whatever Powers would listen.
How long I sat like that I could not say, but at some point, a rustle made me look up. It was Finrod, kneeling opposite me, an inquiring look on his face.
'You look pained,' he said. 'What troubles you?'
I swallowed. 'I am not sure that I can speak of it, my... Finrod.'
'What if you try?'
He was too close by, with his fair face, and his eyes were probing me too deeply. Unable to help myself I bent forward to grab him by the shoulders, pull him toward me and press my mouth onto his. I was fully prepared to be pushed, or even knocked away.
But to my amazement Finrod answered my kiss. It was a lover's kiss - and yet it was not. His tongue probed me as deeply as his eyes had done, yet in a strangely detached manner. The kiss was soothing like balm, and the most remarkable thing of all was, that it did not arouse me.
When at last he pulled away, I touched my lips, feeling numb. 'I did not mean...' I croaked; then I found my voice back. 'I only wanted to tell you I am yours, Finrod, even if you can never be mine.' And looking into his eyes once more I saw what I had failed to see before, not wanted to see before: that he did not belong to himself alone, that he was joined to another, body and soul.
'I know,' he said sadly. 'Oh Edrahil, my friend, I am more sorry than I can tell you.' He briefly cupped my cheek, his thumb wiping away a tear. Then, picking up his helmet, he rose and extended his other hand to me.
Together we returned to the others. It was Beren who stood waiting for us, his anxiety turning to relief when he saw us come. For the first time since we set out, I felt less resentful towards the Man. For I was able to accept now that all he had done and all he had asked was done and asked for love requited.
That same night, Finrod laid his horrible plan before us. We would disguise as orcs to be able to pass the Watchtower of Tol Sirion, now Tol-in-Gaurhoth, the Isle of Werewolves. As soon as we met a company of Orcs that was not too large to vanquish, we would shoot the first twelve and fell the others with our swords.
None of us had a better plan, so we carried out his. We found, shot and slew our orcs - Beren proving himself no mean archer and as skilled a swordsman as any - and put on their gear, gagging at the stench. We smeared our hands and cheeks with grime, cut off those foul creatures' matted hair and covered our own with it, grinning at each other in embarrassment. And finally, Finrod cast a spell to change our faces into orcish snouts and our teeth into fangs. One by one he transformed us, until at last he lifted his hands to his own face, withdrawing them slowly while his singing faded.
We gasped, for he had changed himself into the most hideous monster of all. Now even his beauty was stripped from him, and I wanted to weep.
But I found that I could not. Orcs have no tears.
In the end, it was all to no avail. Gorthaur intercepted and questioned us, assailing us with songs of sorcery. As a fallen Maia he is less strong than he could have been, yet mighty as his counter-spells were, with all his chanting Finrod could not overcome him: the Curse of Mandos proved a fatal flaw. We were laid bare and stripped of our freedom and thrown into the deepest dungeon of Tol-in-Gaurhoth. But one thing, Gorthaur could not achieve. No one told him what our errand was. No one turned traitor.
For not even I will speak, despite the horrible images with which Gorthaur rapes my mind: my lord being tortured and violated, unless I speak and set him free. At last I have arrived at this certainty, though the path was slippery and treacherous.
The werewolf can come any moment now; is the creaking of hinges I hear? More than for myself, I feel sorry for my two companions, who will have to endure yet another death. Especially for my beloved lord, who must be in deepest despair, dreading the moment when Beren's death will void his oath.
But as the door opens and I see the familiar, malicious, greedy eyes and hear the panting, the foresight of death comes upon me. And even while the foul beast is upon me, I am granted the grace to know that before he dies, Finrod will redeem his oath to the fullest and be stripped from all that ties him to these sorrowful and mortal lands.
The pain is excruciating, but brief. When it stops, I see the werewolf tear at a lifeless shell. I see - no, sense - Finrod's tears, and to my surprise even Beren's. They should not be weeping for me, I think. They are the ones to be pitied.
Then I am summoned, and heeding the voice of Mandos, I leave.