5. 5 - Sorrow And Laughter
- Chapter 5 / Sorrow And Laughter -
The long, pale locks glimmered dully in the light of a single candle as I slowly unbraided my hair, enjoying the feeling of it streaming unbound and free down my back. It has been confined under the hood, wrenched into tresses for so long now, that I almost expected to see it snake out from the braids out of its own volition. I ran my fingers through the heavy mass, and winced when the encountered tangles that promised a good amount of pain later.
I tugged on the strings that held the cloak and let it fall to the floor in a puddle of muddy fabric. Disgustedly nudging it aside with a foot, I started to remove the old, torn dress I'd been wearing for some time now. It stank, since I had reduced its washing to the strict minimum: smell, I had discovered, was just as powerful a repellent as a grotesque appearance. Once the offensive garment pushed aside as well, I walked to the wooden tub that I had filled with water. From the dark surface, a thin, pale face stared back at me: serious eyes that seemed almost too big for such scrawny features, and unnaturally diluted in colour; chapped lips, dirty cheeks. Sighing, I accepted the face as mine and stepped into the water. It was warm, it was pure and for the first time since long ago I had the opportunity and the time to scrub myself clean.
First I washed my hair, until it was no longer oily and matted; then I proceeded to scrub my skin, until the water turned a murky shade of brown. Then I deemed I was clean enough to be able to face the others – and the elf in particular – without blushing in shame of my appearance, and stepped out.
Those clothes shall be burned, I thought as I glanced towards the heap on the floor. I pulled on a new dress, struggling to tie the strings that held it together. Before all of this, I could've called Elswide to help me, but not anymore, despite my hopes for things to return to normality. Elswide no longer spoke to me.
When I had arrived to the kitchens, grinning in anticipation of my former friends' surprise and joy, I was met by a deathly silence. The women stared at me, wide-eyed as though they had seen a ghost. My smile faded, and I was starting to worry when Alfreda finally shrieked and lunged forward to embrace me. Rowena grinned and joined her, teasing her elder for the tears she was shedding on my shoulder. I hugged them both with the love and energy that I had held back for too long, and kissed their cheeks, and cried in joy as I recounted what had happened in the Hall, and how we were finally free. When I was finished, I had disentangled myself from the two older women to meet Elswide's eyes.
"You hear me? It is over!" I had laughed, and went to embrace her. I halted when I saw her take a step back, and shake her head.
"I believed you had left," she had whispered.
I had spread my arms, showing her that it was truly me, and that I was not gone as she had thought. "I haven't!" I had said brightly. "I was here all along…"
"…And you told me nothing." Elswide countered, her eyes far too serious for me to keep on smiling.
"Elswide… I had to, please believe me!" I had cried, exasperated. Why could she not see that I had no other choice? That I had barely trusted myself, so to reveal my identity to someone else…
"I could believe you," she had said, "if I had not believed that my friend could not comfort me because she was far away, or maybe even dead. I believed that she had to protect herself, but all this time, Morwrei? All this time, you were here, you saw what he did to me and you said nothing?"
"I was here!" I had protested. "I was here each time, and I took care of you!"
"No!" she spat. "Magge took care of me! Yes, she tended to my wounds… But I could not tell her half of what had happened, Morwrei! I did not trust her like I trusted you! She knew nothing! Nothing!" Tears were streaming down her cheeks as she had advanced upon me, her small hands clenched into fists. "How could you just… leave me like this?"
I had stood there, lost and ashamed, wondering how I had not taken this into consideration in my scheme. If she had called me cruel and twisted I would have accepted it. Truth was, when it had come down to my safety, I had not thought of anything else, and did what I thought I had to do. It had seemed as simple instinct of survival, then. Now, it seemed like heartlessness.
I hung my head low. "I am sorry, Elswide."
"I am sorry too." She looked at me with empty eyes. "So sorry that I thought I could trust you. It would've saved me a lot of worries if I hadn't. And as for worries, I already have my share." With those words she turned around and left, and neither of us made a move to follow her.
"Leave her be" grunted Alfreda, glancing towards the door. "She just needs to…" She shrugged, and went back to her cooking.
But I did not believe the words she had almost said. It was not time that Elswide needed. It was a new youth, the years she should have spent living in married bliss with a husband who loved her, the child who had died under its fathers' blows, and all the children she could now never have. And friends she could trust.
I nodded anyway.
An evil death has set forth the noble warrior
Of sorrow sing the minstrels of the Golden Hall
That noble cousin, who always held me dear
Now is held in darkness, behind a grave's cold wall.
Éowyn's song rose above the plain, full of an emotion that seemed my own, as my throat constricted in sorrow at the sight of our prince being carried into his tomb. He had been so handsome, so brave and kind… I tried to imagine that the world was divided into two equal parts of good and evil; the day Théodred died, it had lost some of its brightness, allowing shadows to prevail, if only a little. I wondered whether Gríma's banishment had restored the equilibrium in our part of the world: the sun shone brightly in a clear sky. The wind, that had been cold and biting in the last days, had become warm and carried the fragrances of spring flowers. It was vexing, really, that such a lovely weather beheld such a sorrowful ceremony.
I watched as the tomb was sealed with a stone slab, and bowed my head in a last sign of respect to the prince. But as I glanced up towards the crowd assembled by the mounds, I felt as though it were my tears and my heavy secrets that were locked away. I saw Gandalf standing by the King, his white clothes shining in the sunlight. The Ranger stood to his left, his eyes grave as though Théodred had been a friend, and not only the deceased prince of a kingdom in need.
The ceremony was now over, and I started to make my way back to the palace, feeling slightly selfish for enjoying the sunshine in such a moment. Yet it was undeniable: I felt better than ever since months, daring to stand tall without risking to be discovered, to speak without being hit, to watch without being thought a spy. It was as though all the troubles of the kingdom had been mine, and someone had come to take them off my shoulders. I closed my eyes briefly to feel the warmth of the sun on my face. Yes, now I was free again.
The elf nodded in greeting as I passed him by and I nodded back, slightly confused and – surprisingly – annoyed by the slight smile on his lips. I had endured many a shocked expression since I had discarded my disguise, and hadn't paid any attention to those looks and whispers. Yet his amusement irritated me.
"Tis too grievous a day to smile, Master elf," I said, my voice reproachful.
He shrugged. "If I cried, would that make it happier?"
I narrowed my eyes as I studied him, trying to detect mockery in that melodic voice of his. The elf wasn't smiling anymore, but the ghost of it lingered in his eyes, ready to reappear. He bore my examination with patience, though it must have been very rude in his eyes. I, however, could not help myself: I had never seen another elf.
"No, I suppose not," I finally conceded. "But it doesn't feel right." I suppressed the urge to stomp my feet childishly to emphasize my point.
"And yet you were smiling," he argued, "when you closed your eyes…" He tilted his head to the side, looking at me. "You're smiling now…"
I realized that I had involuntarily grinned at the image of me stomping stubbornly, and forced my face to adopt a serious expression, failing somewhat as the elf burst into laughter.
"You are unpredictable, Morwrei. A smile one moment, a hard stare the next…" He smirked. "Old in the morn, yet young in the evening…"
I looked at him, surprised that he had remembered my name. "I am a woman of many talents, Master elf," I countered, smirking.
He smiled again. Ah, that smile… It made one's heart race and flutter, like a wild dove locked into a cage. No doubt that many a maiden from the palace would be dreaming of those lips, for the nights to come. Would one of them see her wish granted?
"Then may I introduce myself to your illustrious person?" he said, his dark blue eyes twinkling, and I fought the urge to blush like some shy peasant girl. I pushed my chin up, feeling much less dignified than ridiculous.
"You may," I replied, feigning haughtiness.
He bowed with a flourish. "I am Legolas, from the Woodland Realm."
And we simultaneously burst into laughter, oblivious to the scandalized glares of the passers-by.
Suddenly he turned his head abruptly towards the West, sobering. "Aragorn!" he called, and pointed to the horizon. The Ranger looked up, and I followed Legolas' stare. Out there on the plain, a lone horse trudged tiredly towards the city, carrying two riders: children, judging by their size. I gasped, covering my mouth with my hands as one of them swayed in the saddle and plummeted to the ground.
Instantly, a group of men raced towards the stables to get their horses; Legolas hurried to join Aragorn and the King, and I understood with a pang of regret that our small respite had come to an end.