Kindly Winter's Gift

"Théodred! There you are!"

The Prince turned reluctantly, glancing into his empty cup. He'd hoped to have escaped the Hall moments before, as there was someone waiting for him in the royal stables and he was anxious about being detained. A distant relative from the Westfold had stopped him not long before and asked how his training was proceeding; Théodred had obligingly given a short summary. He'd just satisfactorily ended the conversation and was preparing to leave when his father called.

"Yes, father. Do I have a responsibility to fulfill?"

Théodred studied his father's features as he approached. Théoden's normally contemplative face was open and smiling, no doubt somewhat influenced by having imbibed of the ale and mead which flowed freely.

"No, my son- nothing of the sort." He enfolded Théodred in a strong embrace. "I hadn't seen you since the start of wintergamen and I simply wished to bid you fair tidings. May Béma continue to look fairly on you as the days grow longer and you grow ever taller."

Théodred grinned as his father stepped back. At sixteen, Théodred was already nearly as tall as the King. Apparently he, too, had inherited the gift of height from his Gondorian grandmother, Morwen, of whom Théodred had a few fond, vague memories from his childhood.

"Thank you, father." Théodred pulled some shaggy pieces of tawny hair behind his ear. "May Béma protect you and all men of the Mark."

Théoden nodded his head slowly. "May he indeed." He clapped Théodred on the shoulder and turned to mingle with the throng of guests in Meduseld. "Oh- would you tend to the horses? They too have reason to celebrate, as you are well aware."

Théodred took a moment to revel in his good fortune; now he would be able to stay gone for some time and he wouldn't be sought out. "I shall. I was just on my way to the stables when Tóswífan stopped to speak with me. I provided him with my progress in horsemanship and fighting knowledge."

"Ah yes," Théoden murmured, stroking his beard. "He is my cousin Fréawyn's son, so he is your…" his voice trailed off. "Distant cousin something." He gestured vaguely into the air. "I am glad to hear it. You're certainly of an age at which you need to be practicing your skills of communication. Dealings in diplomacy will come later."

"Of that I have no doubt," Théodred said with a small sigh. He tilted his goblet so his father could see it was empty. "For now, however, I'll fill my cup and take some oat cakes for our horses."

"Thank you."

With a brief nod and a relieved smile, Théodred strode to a collection of barrels, allowing one of the stewards to fill his chalice. He wrapped three of the round treats in a cloth and put them in his breeches' pocket before making his way through the crowded hall into the lung-burning cold of the outdoors. The stars crackled with frigid light far above him in the black sky. Théodred clomped down the stairs, tugging his woolen coat close to him as he made his way around the base of Meduseld. His pace quickened as he approached the welcoming torches held by the guards, causing some of the sweet alcohol to slosh to the ground.

"Héalwine. Onthéon." The Prince greeted the doorwards, feeling a ghostly thought of pity for the two, forced to stand out in the elements on a night of such revelry. He knew others would soon come to relieve them, however, so without more thought about it he pressed open the heavy wooden door and walked into the warm, pungent enclave of the royal stables.

Once the door was fully shut behind him, excited moths of anticipation seemed to fly around Théodred's insides. A sly smile crept on his lips as he walked to the back of the structure, past the many stalls and their equine occupants. Before he reached the last wooden partition, it occurred to him that he was a bit late. What if his companion? No, Théodred would have seen him back in the Golden Hall. Reassured, he rounded the stall.

"Ah, Théodred! I was beginning to think you'd forgotten!"

Staenwine, a chestnut-haired son of one of the King's counselors two years Théodred's senior, stood up languidly from the bale of hay he'd been sitting on. His innate grace of movement had often drawn Théodred's eye to him in the past year. Staenwine was also unique in other ways, having a twin sister, Staentwylas, and eyes a rich brown that reminded Théodred of well-oiled leather.

"I was detained. My apologies." He offered the mostly-full chalice and Staenwine accepted it graciously.

"Thank you," he said, toasting Théodred. "To wintergamen." He thought for a moment, slightly tilting his head. "And dear companions."

"I should like to drink to that," Théodred said earnestly, taking back the cup and helping himself to a healthy swallow.

"You like to drink to many things," Staenwine teased.

"Mead is good for you! It explains why I'm almost never ill," Théodred insisted, trying to give Staenwine a serious look.

Staenwine rolled his eyes, putting the chalice down on a hay bale as Théodred took off his coat and hung it on a nearby hook. "You also like to believe many things, especially those which you find suit your wishes well."

Théodred walked slowly toward Staenwine, seeing the expression on his companion's face change from bemusement to focused hunger. "You suit my wishes well," Théodred said, his voice husky and his pulse speeding in his veins. "Just not nearly often enough. I have missed you."

"And I you," Staenwine murmured as Théodred cradled his palms at Staenwine's jaw, stroking his thumbs on the older youth's cheekbones. "So let us make the most of this, this longest night of the year."

Théodred leaned in, brazenly licking against Staenwine's lips, which were warm and tasted of honey. Staenwine opened his mouth, allowing Théodred's tongue to delve hungrily. Though the Prince was rather new to these experiences which made his heart race and intimate places in his groin throb, he pursued all that he could with enthusiasm. Their tongues slid around each other in excitingly unfamiliar ways as Théodred passionately kissed his dear one. He wanted to meld with Staenwine, to somehow claim him as his own. In his heart of hearts, however, he knew that pairings like theirs were encouraged to stay hidden in the shadows, especially when the ruling family was concerned. Couplings within éoreds were not unheard-of, but accepted far more readily when out on extended patrols, not back at home.

"You taste wonderful," Théodred gasped, drawing his mouth away to breathe before licking up Staenwine's coppery-stubbled skin to his ear.

"Mmmmmm," Staenwine rumbled, sliding his hands down Théodred's back to his firm buttocks, pulling their pelvises together. Théodred couldn't help but press against Staenwine's strong form, biting at the sensitive skin of his earlobe until he heard a low chuckle. "I think your horse may be missing its wintergamen gift."

"What?" Théodred was focused on trying to wring more of the needy noises out of his beloved, kneading his fingers against Staenwine's scalp and breathing hotly in his ear.

"Did you bring some cakes for Léoma?"

"Oh. Yes." Reluctantly, Théodred stepped back from Staenwine and put his hand in his pocket to fish out the crumbling treats. "They're somewhat crushed."

"I'm sure he will enjoy them all the same," Staenwine said, eyes twinkling with humor.

"Not as I enjoy you." The cakes and cloth were placed next to the cup before Théodred quickly returned to press himself against Staenwine, grinding his hips against the older youth's almost desperately. He intertwined their fingers, holding them next to Staenwine's head against the wall to brace himself.

"My firefoot, always rushing ahead," Staenwine said affectionately, and the heat in Théodred's groin smoldered nearly to burning. He nuzzled against Staenwine's neck, nip-kissing the scratchy skin as though trying to taste the strong pulse underneath. "You don't need to be so hasty," Staenwine went on, the ragged edge to his voice betraying his interest in his lover's enthusiastic pursuits. "We have time to enjoy each other. I have a gift for you, besides."

Théodred slowly circled his head up so that he gazed steadily into the rich brown of Staenwine's eyes. "Wintergamen gifts are traditionally for one's horse. What are you implying?" he asked, feeling an unexpected jab of indignation and ire. He was younger and less experienced, but Théodred had believed far within his heart that in their affections, he and Staenwine were equals.

"Théodred, I fear you've misunderstood me." Staenwine lowered their joined hands and pulled them against his ribs. "Surely you know that you are far dearer to me even than Salupád."

The twins were notorious in their fondness and spoiling of their respective horses, so the Prince couldn't help but raise an eyebrow at that comment. In return, Staenwine raised Théodred's hands to his mouth, kissing both sets of knuckles before splaying them on his chest.

"I would like to gift to you myself," he said in a manner so serious that Théodred felt dizzy at the implications. Staenwine was clever and loyal, thoughtful and a skilled warrior. He carried himself in a way that Théodred knew meant that the appreciative glances of several girls (and one or two of the boys) had not gone unnoticed — and yet Staenwine wished to pledge himself at this moment to Théodred, even knowing that a time would come when Théodred would be expected to marry and produce heirs. Uncertainty and hopefulness hung thickly around them as Staenwine stood, stroking Théodred's chapped thumbs, awaiting his reply.

"I am overwhelmed," Théodred said shakily, taking a deep breath and clutching at Staenwine's fingers. "Much of my life is not for me to decide, but in this, I am honored, and offer you myself as well."

A warm smile bloomed across Staenwine's austere features. "I cannot tell you how glad I am to hear you say such. Your beauty, Théodred," he murmured. "Your bright eyes, your back, your quick legs…"

Théodred's eyes closed as a too-chaste kiss graced his mouth. He let out a disappointed whimper.

"It's your spirit that draws me closest to you," Staenwine spoke reverently against Théodred's lips. "Though I must admit that even before my first taste of you, I watched you astride Léoma," Staenwine released Théodred's hands to run his own down to Théodred's hips, which he held in a tight grip, "and an unnatural desire to be the leather next to your skin has never left me."

Théodred released a strangled gasp before claiming the mouth resting on his. Their teeth clacked together in his possessive, inelegant kissing driven by the lust and adoration coursing through him. He didn't know what all was involved when two men were joined, but he thought he would combust with unquenched need if he weren't allowed to cover Staenwine's body with his.

"Want you," he growled into Staenwine's collarbone. The jutting angle was now partially exposed since Théodred had begun clawing at the unfortunate jerkin keeping him from the dark curls springing up at the top of his beloved's chest. "Show me what to do. I want…" his voice trailed off as Staenwine gripped the back of his head, steadying him and feasting on Théodred with a smoky gaze.

"You shall want for nothing."

* * * * * * *

It was the cusp of dawn when Théodred slid under his sheet and bedcovering. He winced a bit, shifting to lay on his stomach, mindful of his rather sore backside. If what Staenwine had said was true, Théodred would also need to be careful to cover his upper body and neck with his highest-collared capes, lest everyone in the Golden Hall see the evidence of his lover's passionate markings. At the remembrance of their recent hours together, a flush of arousal swept through him and goosebumps rose on his arms.

He turned carefully onto his side, burrowing deeper under the sheepskin for warmth. The unfamiliar sensation of leather around his wrist drew his attention to the additional tangible, and equally unexpected gift he'd received from Staenwine. With a smile, he turned the braided straps until he could see the clever bronze clasp. When fastened, it formed a pair of spread bird wings: "For your speed and the heights to which you will doubtless soar," Staenwine had said while they'd lain together, still unclothed and spent. Théodred had accepted it humbly, thanking him with words and lips.

For a long time Théodred waited impatiently for sleep, his mind whirling with memory and anticipation for the future. As he finally began to drift off, their last conversation before getting dressed and joining the citizens of Edoras in rest settled in his thoughts.

"Though this is the longest night of the year, it's not nearly long enough," Théodred had complained, covering them with the heavy blanket Staenwine had brought.

"No," Staenwine had replied, drawing fanciful patterns on Théodred's back as they listened to the horses in their nearby stalls. "But there will be others, and this one I shall treasure always."

Théodred had nodded his agreement, his head on Staenwine's shoulder, drinking in the musky scent that wafted from his skin. He rubbed his lips softly against a small constellation of freckles, profoundly content yet already ruing the impending sunrise.

"What do you think I will dream of," Théodred had asked, "now that I've been able to know such real affections this night with you?"

Staenwine had chuckled, pulling Théodred closer to him.

"Longer nights, I suppose."

* * * * * * *

Author's Notes This is written for Annmarwalk, who must be in collusion with my Muse; I'd never written about Théodred before, but it was he who came to mind for this giftfic exchange, Christmas 2005.

The title is taken from a stanza in Walter Wingate's poem, "From Above the Fog."

I resurrected several of the Anglo-Saxon names I used when writing "Daughters of Oromë," and their meanings are listed below:

Onthéon= to be successful, thrive
Tóswífan= to wander
Staenwine= stone-friend, builder
Staentwylas= stone-two (twin)
Léoma= lightning
Salupád= dark-coated

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