1. Chapter 1
Elves are wonderful. They provoke wonder.
Elves are marvellous. They cause marvels.
Elves are fantastic. They create fantasies.
Elves are glamorous. They project glamour.
Elves are enchanting. They weave enchantment.
Elves are terrific. They beget terror.
(Terry Pratchett, in Lords and Ladies)
- Chapter 1 -
It had all started out as a game; an innocent banter of a summer's afternoon, as they lay on the grass of their small clearing. It was close enough to the village for the sake of their parents' peace of mind, and far enough away to give the illusion of isolation and a sense of freedom. The sun shone through the lush canopies high above, its warmth reaching Aeve's skin like a tender kiss from her mother. She laughed as she tried to shield her eyes with her outstretched hands, but still it would seep between her little fingers and tickle her face.
"Silence!" hissed Sveyn as he glared at her.
He was an older boy, the tavern owner Shawn's son, and a good friend of her brother Kilian. Though too serious and condescending in Aeve's eyes, like all the grown-ups, he was usually kind to her… not to mention the best storyteller in their little group.
Aeve stuck out her tongue at him. "You are not the king of me," she pouted.
Sveyn rolled his eyes. "I told you she was too young," he complained to Kilian, casting her a disgusted glance as she grimaced, mocking him. "Let's take her back to the village."
"No!" Aeve sobered and tried hard to appear serious, adult, biting her lower lip in concentration. By far the youngest of the group, she knew that only her brother's intervention had granted her an invitation to the gathering. She would not disappoint him by her childish behavior; more importantly, she would not miss Sveyn's story.
Sveyn scowled at her efforts, but said nothing save for an annoyed look to Kilian, and for a few heartbeats the silence of the forest took over. Aeve knew it was not a real silence: somewhere high above, the birds chirped merrily, and the soft rustle of the leaves surrounded them. But for an instant, Aeve imagined that she was all alone in the forest and that she was far, far from home. And as she turned her attention to Sveyn's words, she forgot the warmth of the sun above, the summer all around and the reassuring proximity of the village. For an instant, she was all alone in a hostile world.
"Hush!" Sveyn said, looking around dramatically as though he feared someone else might be listening. "Be quiet… For these are their woods. They could be close…"
He looked at Aeve who looked around as well, slightly worried. Who was it that he was talking about? She caught the sparkle of amusement in the older boy's eyes and scowled. He was toying with her! Pursing her lips, she pulled herself into a more upright position and glared back. She was not a little girl anymore, to be so easily scared.
Sveyn smirked at her reaction, but then his laughing eyes left her to rest in turn on each member of their circle.
"They could come… If we call for them." He paused. "They would creep up on us, as we sit here defenseless…" he whispered. "…and we must pray they kill us if they find us!"
Ida, a girl slightly younger than Sveyn gasped. Aeve edged forward, suddenly feeling uncomfortable and vulnerable where she was sitting. The leaves around them whispered, birds called out to each other. A loud caw of a crow made her jump.
"Wh… who?" asked Ida in a small voice, huddling closer to her older sister.
Sveyn leaned forward, a mysterious smile on his lips. "The elves!" he said.
Aeve burst out laughing, relief washing over her. Sveyn threw her an annoyed glance.
"What?" he snapped.
"Elves don't exist, silly!" she chided him gently. "Everyone knows that!"
"You think so?" Sveyn smiled coldly. "You think so, little girl?"
"Of course!" Aeve said, her hands on her hips – her mother always did that when she was chiding her father about something. "Papa says that elves are supa… su…" She struggled to remember that word, fidgeting under Sveyn's mocking stare. "They don't exist," she concluded.
But no-one echoed her certainty. All around her were serious, worried faces, and Aeve wondered if Papa could have been wrong.
"Oh, elves do exist, little one," whispered Sveyn, glancing worriedly towards the depths of the forest. "They existed long before we came to settle here, and will still be here once we are gone. They wait in the darkness, they wait until they are summoned." He grinned at Ida, who was watching him in fascination. "And if you call for them… They can make your dreams come true."
Ida smiled as he reached out and touched a lock of her blonde hair. "They can fulfill your wish – one wish. But it comes with a price…"
The children held their breath as he paused.
"You can ask them for gold or glory," he said softly. "For a good husband, or good luck. But be prepared to pay a terrible price! For they will ask that you bring them your firstborn in exchange."
Ida shuddered and drew closer to her sister. "Do they… do they eat them?" she muttered.
Everyone's eyes widened in horror as Sveyn shrugged, that mysterious smile playing on his lips once again.
Aeve crossed her arms, trying to appear unconcerned; but she noticed that the afternoon had drawn to an end, that the sun had set behind the treetops and that the shadows had grown longer, hungrier as though they were crawling towards the little group. The birds had gone silent. It was as though the woods were listening as well.
"They do not!" she said, breaking the silence. "And you are a liar, Sveyn Innerney!"
His laughter made her cheeks redden. "And you are a little, little girl, Aeve Maddens. What do you know of the elves?" He did not wait for reply. "Nothing! Nothing, because you are too young, and know nothing of the world!"
"That's not true!" Aeve was on her feet in a second. "Kilian! Tell him!"
But her brother was lying in the grass with his eyes closed. He opened them lazily at the mention of his name. "What?" he drawled sleepily.
"Calling your brother for help, now?" scoffed Sveyn. "Is that how mature you are?" He nodded with that insufferable, superior air of his. "Go on, girl. Call your brother, or maybe even your Daddy?"
Aeve looked all around for support; but no-one met her eyes. All were watching the rustling bushes warily. So she clenched her teeth in anger, her small hands balling into fists.
"Well, maybe I'm a little girl, but at least I don't believe such nonsense!" she spat, trying to ignore the surge of fear when she thought of the things lurking at the fringe of their clearing. "My Papa always told me to think for myself, and that's what I'll do." She pushed her chin up high, glaring at Sveyn. "There is no. Such. Thing. As elves." There, she'd said it. She held her breath, as the woods seemed to absorb her words.
"No?" Sveyn cocked an eyebrow. "Then what happened to old Avery, then? Do you think that maybe the wolves did that to him?"
Aeve frowned. The death of the old hunter, a few months earlier, had been on everyone's lips for weeks. Her own father and the men of the village had gone to the forest to retrieve his body, and she remembered that she and Kilian had been forbidden to go near the forest for a month after that.
Still, she would not give up. Aeve shrugged, imitating Sveyn's own careless gesture.
"Maybe the wolves staked him to the tree with their arrows, yes?"
"Silly, wolves don't have… Oh."
"Exactly," Sveyn grinned at her. "And wolves have no hunting knives… Those loooong, wicked knives that are so sharp that they can slice a man's throat, and that he's dead before he can…"
"Sveyn!" came Kilian's warning growl. Aeve's brother had sat up, and was glaring at his friend. "She's only six!"
Sveyn looked annoyed. "Look, I told you she's too young to hang out with us!"
Kilian sighed. "Look, it's only for today. Mother's gone to the fair, and I was stuck with her…"
"Stuck? With me?" Aeve's eyes blazed at her brother's confession. So he was ashamed of her, and had felt obliged to drag her along so that he didn't have to sit at home with her? "You are a mean, mean person!" she shrieked, turning on her heels, but stopped as Sveyn's laughter reached her ears. She turned around again and advanced upon him in her rage. "And you, you are a stupid boy!" She jabbed her finger into his chest. "You can keep your stupid tales, I don't want to ever talk to you again!"
"Aeve! Wait!" Kilian called after her, but she stormed off.
Tears blinded her as she ran, stumbling on roots and tangled grass. What a fool she had been! She had thought that maybe they could accept her, and even like her, but no, they had only made fun of her! Kilian was mean – not that she would tell her mother, that'd only confirm Sveyn's words that she was a little girl who needed someone to protect her. No, but she would never speak to him again.
And never to Sveyn, either! He was the most insufferable, the most conceited boy in the whole wide world. And elves did not exist! Ha! She was right, she knew she was. And she would never change her mind.
"Listen to them," muttered Elrohir bitterly. "Long Years of alliance forgotten…" He was perched on one of the higher branches and dangling his legs in what Elladan knew to be irritation. "Better men than those who now live here have fought to maintain the peace and friendship between our races… And all that for what?"
Elladan turned away to hide his smile. He knew his brother's temper all too well; there was no need to fuel Elrohir's anger further with his amusement. He looked up again, craning his neck to see his brother better. "They are children," he said softly. "They know not what they say."
"No." Elrohir shook his dark mane ruefully. "But they repeat their parents' words. And after years of repeating, they will grow into men who believe those lies." His eyes bore into Elladan's. "And you need not hide from me, Elladan. I know all too well your opinion on the subject."
Elladan grimaced at his brother's words. Elrohir read him just as well. "Forgive me. It is just…"
"I know." Elrohir sighed and looked away, into the green depths of their beloved woods. "I remember."
The sounds of the forest took over again, the soft whispers of the trees barely distinguishable now, even to elven ears. The world they knew and loved was disappearing: erased, diluted by the growing presence of men in this corner of the earth. Elladan wondered how much longer it would be before he ceased to hear the trees at all. His attention snapped back to the small group of children below as the voices rose in shades of hurt and anger.
"Elves don't exist, silly!"
In the branches above, Elrohir snorted.
"They wait until they are summoned…"
"Ah, too late, young master," Elladan muttered, shifting into a more comfortable position. The tree that his brother had picked for their observation post was old and gnarly; Elladan's limbs were beginning to protest at the knots and angles of the branches. He glanced at Elrohir, in hopes that his brother had seen and heard enough, and would call their watch to an end. But Elrohir was leaning forward, listening raptly to the children's conversation.
With a heavy sigh, Elladan settled in for a longer stay. Tuning out the high-pitched voices below, he closed his eyes and relaxed against the cool bark of the tree. His hands, until then resting on the rough surface only for balance, relaxed as he allowed himself to feel, to let some of the forest's essence seep into him. Everything was calm, slumbering in the warmth of the sun. The lands were at peace – rare though it had been these last years.
The Fourth Age had ended abruptly in bloodshed and betrayal, as the great Kingdoms of Gondor, Arnor and Rohan had clashed in a terrible war. Few had survived, fewer still amongst those who remembered the old times. The lands, the unharvested fields and the emptied villages had been divided between the surviving warlords. And so the new kingdoms had been born. The Fifth Age had seen the old customs and beliefs fall into oblivion, the legends twisted to inspire fear and ensure obedience. It was a Dark Age in its most metaphorical sense – a time of ignorance and fear.
And still they lingered here – he and Elrohir, and a few of those still loyal to the House of Elrond: Glorfindel, Lindir, and some others. All had grown restless during the last Long Years, but all remained for the love of his brother. And for the umpteenth time since they had watched their father's ship disappear on the horizon, Elladan wondered what it was exactly that Elrohir was waiting for.
"Soon, brother," murmured Elrohir from above, as if he had heard his thoughts. "Soon, our time will come. And then…"
Elladan smiled; but this time he did not hide it. "…we can go home."