This Mortal Coil
There were many strange things in the caves of the Elves, but Bëor was most wary of the wall that reflected like still water. He stared at himself, his long beard, the grey and dark mingled like the seasons, the many seasons... Lines on brow and cheek spoke of a grimace set by habit. He forced himself to smile and the lines, and the years, fell away. He snorted with laughter and turned away. He did not need to see the world reflected, for it was all around him, the magic realm of the Elves; Nargothrond, they named it, after the furious river at its feet.
All that his eyes could see, but the many small plants and flowers in pots, was made by the hands of the Elves, every single strange thing was carved and polished and decorated. Every wall and roof covered in things, colours, woven cloths, coloured stones, coloured images, reflections... There were shining stones stuck into things everywhere, things that Bëor could not imagine the use of, and things that might have been drinking vessels, but made of something clear as water, that frightened him so that he dared not touch them.
He scratched his chest, frowning, wondering how he could ever hope to learn the ways of these strange creatures. The bearskin needed to be beaten clean and hung in the breeze to air. He himself, looking at all the clean shining things, was dismayed at the mud and dust thick in the bearskin, and beneath his fingernails, and in his once-fine hair. It had not been until they had met Finrod that they had even imagined a person so clean. Bëor was certain that the other Elves would be just as sparkling as Finrod.
The raised voices shouted angrily in the next room. He could not hear the patient voice of the king, only the angry doubts of his people came through the thick oak door. But the caves carried strange echoes, and Bëor felt that all of Nargothrond was in uproar, shouting and arguing. He grinned, if he alone could cause such anger, he longed to see the faces of the Elves when the hordes crossed the mountains behind him...
A different door opened, Bëor was startled, he had not known it for a door, so cleverly were the leaves of its frame carved into the wall. Another lovely Elf, with old eyes in its young face, entered and smiled at him. It spoke slowly and clearly, understanding that he still struggled with the words.
'If you please, we can offer you garments, and a bath.'
Bëor thought for a moment, then decided that he would do whatever these magical creatures wished, if only to learn more of their ways, and discover what threat, if any, they truly posed to his people. For there had been raised voices when he had told them his plan to follow Finrod. They had touched his heart, for some of them were truly fearful of the danger to himself, even more than the possible danger to the people. But the only way to know was to go with Finrod and meet his Elves, and use the friendship between them, which also warmed his heart, to find out all that he could. He looked into the grey eyes of the Elf
'I am called Bëor, what do you call yourself ?'
The Elf smiled, then put its hand on its chest and leaned forwards a little.
'It is my honour to meet you, Bëor. Forgive my rudeness. My name is Gildor, I serve King Finrod, and he has asked me to see to your comfort. Would it please you to drink ? Or to dine ?'
Bëor licked his dry lips 'I thirst, Gildor, for friendship as much as water. I too serve the king, though I do not know how a Man such as me can be of use.'
Gildor nodded thoughtfully
'The King is wise, our peoples have much to learn from each other.' He crossed to a table and poured wine into one of the clear cups. It held the reddish wine as though it were solid, and Bëor held himself still as the graceful Elf picked it up and gave it to him. The clear substance was cold, hard and smooth, somehow it frightened Bëor more than all their swords, bows, spears, helmets and shields. Finrod had taught him much on their long journey, but the clear cup, magic of the highest kind, must be so common to Elves that Finrod had not thought to warn him. He sipped the wine, it was the nicest thing he had ever tasted, he smiled at Gildor.
'I am pleased to wear the garments chosen by the king. I do not know your ways, I am a foolish child among adults, and I know that I will blunder like a hound on the ice. Please will you show me what I should do ? '
The shouting grew very loud. Gildor and Bëor both turned to the other door.
'Follow me, Bëor, the king will be busy for a time, for he will not let them leave until their anger has diminished. He will make them understand, in calmness.' he smiled 'Finrod is very wise.'
There was a great pot in the next room, shining like a sword, steaming slightly. Gildor put a hand in the water, then turned to Bëor with a smile.
'It is our custom to sit in the warm water and to clean ourselves with this, which we call soap. I shall show you.' He dipped the soap in the water and rubbed it a little, the laid it aside. To the surprise of Bëor, foam began to spring from beneath the fingers of Gildor, who rubbed his hands together for a moment. Bëor thought of the tale of the Hot Spring, and of the king who had died when the water had burned away his flesh, though not from heat, but from some danger hidden in the water. But Gildor calmly dipped his hands in the bath, shook them for a moment, then held them up, clean and dripping. He smiled at Bëor and dried them on a richly textured white cloth. Bëor thought for a moment. Finrod could have slain him many times, but had not. The shouting was a worry, but since his own people had also shouted, that might be a good sign. They were alike in many ways, they ate and drank the same foods, it seemed unlikely that their bath would harm him. He looked narrowly at Gildor, then threw off the bearskin and stepped into the water.
The bath was comforting, the warmth reminded him of infancy, and though naked and helpless, he could not feel any threat from the kindly Gildor. The soap was difficult, he gripped it hard and it sprang from between his fingers, but Gildor, suppressing a smile, fetched it for him. Finally, cleaner than he had ever been, he stood in the bath, watching the water streaming down his solid muscles, as Gildor poured fresh water over him. Then a warm cloth was wrapped all around him, and he stepped out, and met the eyes of Gildor.
'Bëor, may I ask the customs of your people concerning your hair ? It is my wish to bathe your hair, but I would not offend you.'
Bëor shrugged. He had always been proud of his thick dark hair, though now the grey was starting to show...
'Gildor, I am in your hands, please do as you think best.'
So Gildor combed out the tangled locks and bathed the hair of the first Man to know the Elves.
A page had brought garments into the room while Gildor was showing Bëor how to use the towel on his hair. Gildor held them up and looked thoughtfully at Bëor. Bëor, still running the soft towel briskly through his hair, stepped over to Gildor, and looked at the garments. They were dark green, a tunic and breeches, and a silver belt. They looked perfect to Bëor, but Gildor was not happy.
'So shoddy, well, really ! I am sorry, Bëor, they were made in haste, but our people will prepare garments befitting such a leader as yourself. Please accept my apology. '
Bëor swallowed, and picked up the tunic. It was as fine as the cloth worn by Finrod, though his people had make good progress with weaving, and smooth fine cloth was coming from the looms, but he had refused to wear any when he left. He had felt, deep in his heart, that he wanted the Elves to see him as he was, to fix that image in their minds, to warn them, perhaps, about who Men truly were.
For there was no doubt now, Men were larger than Elves; the people of Nargothrond had had no garments large enough for him, none at all, and had made some just for him. He pulled the tunic over his head with a hidden smile. These Elves were tall, but they were all thin as stripling boys. He had thought Finrod a young singer, travelling with his songs, and expected to find the adult Elves, or at least, the big soldiers, here in their dwelling.
When Gildor had fastened the silver belt for him, and smoothed back his drying hair, he led Bëor to the wall. Bëor raised his eyebrows and gaped in astonishment. His reflection gaped foolishly back at him. He fingered his long beard and looked at Gildor.
'Have you a sharp knife ? I would cut this a little...'
They trimmed the beard neatly, close against his chin, to show a little more of his face. Bëor was saddened to see how much grey there was. Gildor did not comment. But while Bëor was still looking at the stranger in the wall, an Elf entered, so like Finrod that for a moment Bëor was deceived. But when he turned from the wall to look at the Elf, the likeness was gone. Startled he turned back to the wall, and there was Finrod, or so it seemed, though the eyes were different, and the nose. The magic of the Elves frightened him anew.
What was the size of the bear to the magic of the hunter ?
The new Elf spoke to Gildor 'He wants him now, is he ready ? They will be quieter when they see...'
Bëor stood up straight and looked levelly into the light blue eyes of the new Elf. It was suddenly plain to him, this must be the king's brother, like, and yet not like... The Elf was looking at him in surprise. Bëor smiled, but his eyes were narrowed, he himself alert for anything dangerous.
'I am Orodreth, brother to the king. You are Bëor, and it is my honour to meet you, the first of your kind in Beleriand.' He paused, his mouth worked a little and colour rose on his cheeks. Bëor, leader for many years, saw the signs of word-fear, and smiled comfortingly. Orodreth looked startled, but smiled back 'Alas, Bëor, I prefer deeds to words, as you can tell... But you so resemble an Elf in form that if it were not for your great size, and the strange hair on your face, I would take you for an Elf.'
Bëor smiled 'It is I who am lucky to meet you, lord, and I offer my service to you as kin to Finrod, who has brought so many gifts of craft, skill and wisdom to my people. But I too like deeds more than words, and I know so few of your words, or your things' he gestured at the richly-furnished room 'that I fear I have few words of use to offer.'
Orodreth smiled, but the other door opened and Finrod himself hurried in, his pale golden hair swirling around him, his pale blue eyes shining in his lovely face. Bëor glanced again at Orodreth and wondered how he could have mistaken them. He touched his beard, feeling it for the first time as a shield, hiding his lines and his ageing skin from these dazzlingly beautiful Elves.
Finrod darted across the room and looked with a delighted smile into Bëor's calm grey eyes.
'Oh Bëor, you look marvellous ! Will you come and meet some friends of mine ? You have met my brother; alas, he is my only kin here, but you will like my friends.' He paused 'Most of them, in any case.'
'My lord, dear Finrod, I would follow you into the fire, you know that. Lead me to your people, and I will hope that they do not shout at me as they have shouted at you.'
But Orodreth laughed 'You know little of Finrod if you believe that they were shouting at him. They were shouting at each other, while he watched. You will see.'
Bëor looked in surprise at Orodreth, then at Finrod. Gildor had moved into the background, ready but not involved. Bëor clenched his fists and forced himself to relax. The words of the new language were strange enough, but the language of movement, the dance of the Elves, was an even more deadly challenge; a brambled swamp, in the darkness...
About the Author
hennethgalad writes Tolkien fanfic on AO3 and The Silmarillion Writers Guild.
Dancing with wildness
Moving with kindness, writing
Troubled thinker I.