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The Mandrake Child: 5. Chapter 4
- Chapter 4 -
"Marian… She was all I had left," the elf whispered. "My fall, my folly – or so the others used to say. They were right; for all I have ultimately gained is pain and death. But they will never know the ecstasy her love brought me, the thrill of…" He looked up and grimaced. "Forgive me. I shared too much. It is not fitting to embarrass you with such memories."
Seren blinked, breaking the spell. She was huddled on the stairs of the cellar; her skirts were damp beneath her, having absorbed the moisture and chill of the stones, and she suddenly realized she was freezing. But she had no desire to leave – the elf's words had created a web, luring her into a world of wonder and excitement. His eyes were veiled, his tone suggested emotions and passions she had only heard about. Something stirred inside her – something raw and troubling. Seren felt herself grow hot as a blush crept up her cheeks despite the chill of the air. This was not the simple magic of words she had sometimes witnessed in poets and minstrels – an entrancement, rather, primal and calling to things deep and unnamed inside, but also wrong, as though she had intruded on something she should not have seen.
She pulled her arms around her, to both ward off the cold and salvage that precious and strange feeling. She remembered having remained sitting as he had started to speak, but instead of a confession of murder it had been love that had spilled from his lips. His words, though hushed, had rung with passion and venom, and she had begun to comprehend what had pushed him towards the settlement one last time.
"You avenged her, did you not?" she said quietly.
He nodded. "It was the least I could do before I followed her." And, noticing her surprise at these last words, he lifted a bloodied eyebrow. "Elves sometimes die of heartbreak and, I confess, I was expecting such a fate."
"Does it hurt?" she whispered, unable to stop herself. Still he held her in his power, pulling her forward; Seren resisted, though she felt no malign intention in his demeanour.
He smiled sadly. "I would not know… I am to die before my heart is utterly broken by the realization of her death."
Seren startled at the realization. "Oh." Then: "I am sorry."
"I am not discontented…" Cautiously, the elf shifted on his knees, perhaps testing his bonds or flexing stiff hands. He licked his broken lips and cast a hopeful glance towards the bowl of stew that stood on the crate, forgotten.
Seren realized that he must be hungry; this brought her out of her haze once and for all. "Oh, no, you cannot eat it now," she stammered and, picking up the bowl, grimaced: "It is cold… I will heat it up for you." She smiled, eager to please. It felt strange, to speak to a being so legendary and so strange; and stranger even to see it crouching in her cellar, resigned to die.
"You need not trouble yourself," he said softly, tilting his head in submission. "I will accommodate myself very well with what is left. You are too kind to have thought of a mere prisoner in the first place."
The elf did not seem so sorrowful anymore, as though he had accepted his fate, and this upset her more than the prospect of his death. He should not have to await death with tempered impatience; he should not welcome it. He was made to live, to roam free as the songs sang… Legends were made to endure, to allow those like her - those deprived of their own dreams, to wish upon them.
And above all, he should not have to die as a distraction to ignorant villagers, to satiate their hypocritical thirst for violence and revenge.
Seren hurried up the stairs, towards the warmth of the kitchen. What a pity that he should be hanged! For an instant, she imagined a future where he was free to return to his kind to mourn his beloved in peace; where he escaped the captivity of her cellar and fled, far away from her village and the world of men. But as she stepped into the light of the kitchen, those fantasies clattered to the floor. There were lives in the balance; two existences, precious in their own way.
Her mother's uneven breath could be heard from the room, reminding Seren of her worries and duties while down in the darkness, she knew that the elf waited for his fate. He was dependant on her kindness until the final hour came… They both were.
The light from the candles glimmered dully on the edge of the blade that Seren held half-hidden beneath her skirts, the handle clutched firmly in her left hand while the right held out a bowl of warm stew. An offering of peace of sorts, she thought, or a lure. From afar, she saw the elf sitting on his heels and examining his surroundings with curiosity. If not for the bruises marring his features, one would have thought him a mere visitor that had wandered into her home and then, mistakenly, into her cellar. Seren saw the elf's eyes widen briefly as the flash of light cast by the blade reflected in them, behind the bloodied bangs, and then narrow again in surprised acceptance and… disappointment? But still he lowered his head towards the blow, not bothering to struggle. Perhaps he was thinking that he had misjudged her from the start, that all Men were cruel and treacherous. That what little kindness she had shown was but a lie...
It was not Seren's place or pretention to prove him otherwise. No, not her – not his executioner. But in the little time spent upstairs, in her little corner of the world – a place that felt so shrunken up and dark, of late - she had made a choice, a compromise between her duties and her dreams.
She slid behind him, the stew set in front of his kneeling figure, and bent to cut the bonds that bound him. The ropes and leather belts used to restrain him had bitten deep into the pale flesh. Seren thought briefly that offering to tend to his wounds would be appropriate, if ironic, and certainly rejected with the same polite but distant gentleness. She saw the elf freeze and then slowly pull his arms from behind his back, rubbing his wrists. For an instant, the road to his escape was free, no-one stood between him and his freedom, and yet he did not move from his spot.
His wary gaze followed her as she returned to her watching point on the stairs, finally blocking the way out. Somewhere deep inside, she regretted that he had not caught this opportunity to escape; for what bitter regrets she would thus earn would be drowned by the necessity of repairing the damage, and soon forgotten. It had been long since Seren had had the luxury of wallowing in what could have been.
She sat back down and watched him dig into the stew hungrily, the crude wooden spoon wielded gracefully in his long, agile fingers and contradicting the urgency of his chewing. She had forgotten that his meal meant one less for her. The scene, for all its absurdity, was endearing and, fascinated, Seren allowed her eyes trail down his beardless jaw and down his profile and, as he paused and looked up in puzzlement, she realized that a smile had been tugging on the corners of her mouth.
"Hungry?" she asked unnecessarily. "There is more… Eat your full." She decided she could very well skip her dinner just once more, just to make him comfortable.
He shook his head and set the bowl to the ground. His fingertips touched the side of the recipient and it slid away with a scraping sound.
"I could not. Here I find myself wearing your hospitality down to the last thread, taking your food and your time." Again, that gentle smile graced his features. "Do not trouble yourself over me, child, or over the safety of your… investment. I will not attempt to escape – you have my word."
Again he had used that word – child. Had he forgotten what she had vowed to do? That in a matter of days, her small hands – those of a child – would wind the rope around his neck? Seren nodded numbly – she would not tell him that she had planned on locking him up in the cellar for the night. The measure suddenly seemed drastic and unnecessarily cruel; but she could not risk him escaping. Not with mother's life and her father's reputations in the balance.
Could there be another way? A captivity through a promise, perhaps, rather than behind locked doors, an oath on the proverbial honour of the elves?
"You would swear it on her name?" she said.
The elf's eyes flashed with repressed anger and, for a split second, he made to rise from his knees. Seren understood at once that her question had been a grave mistake. She stiffened and prepared to dash up the stairs.
"I have given you my word," he hissed. "It should suffice – or do you Men grant no value to one's word of honour?"
"I cannot allow you to escape," stated Seren simply. "I cannot take that risk. I apologize for my brash words, but understand – your word is not mine to believe."
"Leave me, then," he snapped. "If you cannot understand or sympathize with the pain of losing a loved one, then leave me be until the hour comes; then I will follow you – willingly – to my end. Until then, you have nothing to fear from this elf. Now, kindly remove yourself from my sight."
Seren could feel the blush returning; but this time, it was anger rather than wonder driving her. Anger at herself for her own clumsiness, and spite that her apology had been ignored. She balled her hands into fists and said, "This is my house, master elf. I will do as I please…" Her voice was trembling with the effort of keeping her temper under control. "…and, considering what I have heard and said, I will forgive you your venom."
He tilted his hand to the side. "Ah. I see it now. You have declared yourself mistress of my fate for the simple pleasure of wielding such a power. Such youth, such folly…" He shook his head in apparent disbelief. "Beware, child. Taking lives is not a game you can stop at will. Someday it may find you and crush your perfect little existence… breaking some of that admirable pride in the process."
Seren inhaled sharply. Her head was spinning in rage, blood pounding in her ears at the elf's last words. The urge to scream at him was rising in her throat, choking her. She dug her nails into her palms and suddenly understood the murderous rage that drove men to fight. Some things hurt too badly to be forgiven and forgotten, and made one wish to wipe the words from the offender's lips with a fist. Some things could not be answered otherwise; for no word could undo what had been said. Still, she willed herself to breathe, leaning against the wall and resting her forehead against the cool stone. Nails dug into the moss as the anger subsided, leaving only sorrow and a feeling of emptiness.
"Then wait," she said quietly, pinning the elf down with a cold stare. "It may not take long 'til that day comes. You may even live long enough to see it."
She walked up the stairs on stiff legs, without a glance back. Only as she entered the kitchen did she finally allow herself to express some of the boiling anger inside as she slammed the door on the darkness of the cellar and the one who dwelt there.
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