7. Chapter 7
- Chapter 7 -
Wyn was given a tray and a pitcher of ale, and quickly directed towards a table in the back. She glanced at the room, which seemed to have grown to the size of a field in a matter of minutes. The tray held in both hands, so unlike the graceful swerving of the other girls, Wyn started to make her way across the room. The pitcher teetered with her every step, rattling like a taunting laugh, and she tried to watch out for those who would think it funny to make her trip. Some didn't even hide it, leisurely stretching out their legs in the passage with an air of defiance and anticipation, looking her straight in the eye. So Wyn would lower her gaze and mumble an apology, and awkwardly step over the obstacle.
'Your ale, sir,' she said quietly as she finally set down the pitcher, inwardly breathing out in relief. She noticed that the customer had kept his hood, his face mere shadows in the dimly lit room. His clothes, simple yet well-sewn and obviously made of material more resistant than asthetic, marked him as a traveler or a hunter, perhaps one of the few rangers remaining in Eriador. Beneath his cloak Wyn caught a glimpse of a scabbard.
A ranger, then; one of the men who were still respected and watched with awe wherever they went, in remembrance of the time when they wandered through the land and kept its peace, even through Arda's darkest days. Heroes, if only by association with the legends of old.
Of them, too, Wyn had heard many a tale from her grandmother when she was little. The old woman had spoken of courage and sacrifice, of bloodlines thought lost; of swords reforged and kingdoms restored into their former glory.
Smiling despite herself she turned away, her vivid imagination already painting him as a long-lost heir to some faraway land, on his way to reclaim his throne and save it from the clutches of an evil wizard. A beautiful tale indeed. Maybe he truly was someone extraordinary, who had stopped in this shabby tavern for a night, gracing them with his presence. Or maybe he was just a man; it was all the same to her. Her fantasies had often proved brighter than real life, though just as painful in their impossibility.
Thus dreaming, Wyn didn't notice the pair of legs stretched out in her way, for rest or on purpose. Stumbling, she released her grasp on the tray as she tried to put her good leg forward to break the fall, only to step on the hem of her own dress and feel herself unexpectedly caught. The iron circle of the man's arms around her was immediately broken as he peered down at her. 'Are you alright?' he asked, his voice low but still audible in the surrounding tumult.
Are you alright. Three little words that shook Wyn deeper than she could have imagined possible.
She had not expected them, or anything approaching. In the seconds that followed her rescue from a fall to the floor, she had braced herself for a mockery, a sharp word or two to remind her of her place. In fact, she had not expected anyone to move as she fell, save for standing up in order to have a better view of the show. She had reached out, hoping to absorb the impact and spare her damaged leg. Wyn looked up into the darkness cast by the hood, and nodded uncertainly, and waited. She waited for a reason, for an explanation, but none came.
The stranger stiffened at the string of insults proffered by the man on whose legs she had tripped: whether it was for her hurting him or the ranger spoiling his fun, Wyn could only guess.
Her saviour's hand slid beneath his cloak to rest menacingly on the hilt of his sword that was revealed into the light of the room: long and curved, unlike any weapon Wyn ever saw her father make. 'Sit down,' he hissed, looking directly into the drunkard's face. 'Now.'
Wyn wondered whether the man could see the stranger's face: he paled and sank back into his chair, his legs safely tucked beneath it; apparently, he had lost all desire to quarrel. With his surrendering, the other occupants of the room, who had been hoping for a fight to distract them, turned away in disappointment, and back to their drinks. Wyn and her role was forgotten for a moment.
She realized she was standing empty-handed in the middle of the tavern. The stranger bent and retrieved her tray from the dirty floor. He handed it back to her.
'Thank you,' she whispered. Then, to herself: 'I should get back to work.'
He caught her by the elbow, the gesture firm yet delicate, as if he was measuring his strength every second of that contact, afraid to harm. Startled, Wyn didn't have the reflex to draw back as he leaned forward. 'Don't give up,' he whispered into her ear; his warm breath tickled her skin. 'Don't forsake your dreams. Keep believing: I promise they will come true.'
The pressure on her arm disappeared as he brushed past her without a word more of comfort or explanation and, throwing a few coins at the counter, slipped out of the tavern.
Elrohir was boiling inside with conflicted feelings, torn between rage at those filthy men's behavior towards Wyn and his own love. How dare they? How dare they even look at her, let alone taunt her so with her infirmity? He clenched his jaw until the muscles ached; a welcome distraction from his wrath, for he feared he would go back and kill one of the infuriating scumbags. And that, no doubt, would seriously compromise his chances with Wyn.
No, it was better to vent the anger on himself; the one responsible for it all. Although Elrohir could not see how much more he could torture himself. The feeling of her body in his arms, the realization of how fragile and skinny she was, had triggered the sadly familiar guilt he felt each time he was reminded of how dire her situation was. But this time, something else had flared up alongside it: something wild that stirred in his stomach, stretched and purred, its thoughts momentarily shared with his. It gloated at the warmth left on his skin by the young woman, and asked for more.
Pushing down the surge of desire, Elrohir glanced one more time back at the tavern and started to make his way out of the village. The night air cooled down his anger, turning it into mild disgust with men in general. The sky was dark above him, full of stars, and the moon shone down in all its silver glory, illuminating the plain and reflecting off the pale, humid grass. It was as if the earth and the heavens had been inverted, the black soil now above, and the clouds beneath his feet.
Elrohir played his words over and over again in his mind. Hope, he had promised her; and hope she would get. And happiness, if he could. But how?
'…she believes that one day, her elven prince will come to whisk her away on his white horse, all dressed in flowers…'
Elrohir smiled. Fate seemed to work in mysterious ways, but for that he was immensely thankful. His happiness, and Wyn's, had been prophesized long ago, by an old woman telling a tale to her granddaughter. A girl who could not, and must not marry otherwise than in this particular manner; a girl who could wait for him alone. Only he could decide to make this miracle come true.
Elladan turned in his bed, wincing as the pounding in his head intensified. Never again, he thought, never again will I follow Glorfindel into his drinking oblivion. He cursed aloud, immediately regretting it: the words echoed in the empty room and slammed back into his face. It was only a slight consolation to know that his mentor was experiencing the same agony, somewhere in his study.
'He is your brother…'
Of course, Glorfindel was right. No matter how vexing Elrohir's decision, how painful the breaking of their bond, Elrohir would always remain his brother. He would not change, no matter how Elladan clung to that insignificant hope; his brother would not step back towards him. Then it was he, Elladan, who had to make a step towards Elrohir. Accept his choice, once and for all, and stop fooling himself: there could be no question of sailing. Not when his twin still lived on these shores.
Too often had he rescued Elrohir from danger, and been rescued in turn. They had bled and laughed together, hidden from Erestor's wrath and stood side by side next to the cold stone of Estel's grave. But the loyalty went further.
Being the oldest, he had once been told to protect his brother as an elfling, and the habit had never really faded away. It was a duty that he had towards Elrohir, and a purpose. A guard that he had stood for many Long Years, unconsciously shielding his twin from harm, leaving the best for him. Elrohir always came first.
It was only natural for Elladan to remain now, no matter how he resented his brother for forcing him into it. Just a little longer would he walk on this earth that he had come to love; just a little more pain than he already felt, only to gain a few precious moments of that brotherly complicity.
In the end, it almost sounded like a selfish decision.
Truth was, Elladan could not imagine his existence without his twin by his side, always present like a mirror image, or a shadow. Even in blessed Valinor, a land of peace and rest, he knew he would feel his brother's absence like a hole in his own heart; no war or conflict would take his mind off the one who had remained behind. Days would stretch on, all alike, as he would reminisce of the good old days when he and Elrohir were together.
No, he would find no rest there. He had to stay; he felt it now, more acutely every second. And why not push the reasoning further?
Did he really want to live without Elrohir?
He remembered his argument with his brother, but this time he played both sides. He would be missed, and his decision would bring his parents great grief. And he really, really would have liked to see them again, especially his mother. He had much to say: how he had missed her, how sorry he was for not succeeding in keeping Elrohir safe. He needed to console her, to testify that Arwen had been happy. To tell her he loved her.
In the darkness of his room, Elladan smiled bitterly. You are not the only one with a choice, brother, he thought. Laying on his back, he watched the ceiling as for the first time since days his mind was at ease.