12. Chapter 11
- Chapter 11 -
"All is quiet," Elrohir announced as he propped his bow against a tree and crouched by the small, barely smoking campfire next to Elladan. "Any news from Glorfindel and Lindir?"
"None." From his side of the fire, Urúvion sighed and poked the coals with a smouldering twig.
The small group was gathered by the edge of the forest, having abandoned Imladris to the surveillance of just a few men to ensure their proximity should the heiress be in danger. They were stationed just deep enough not to risk being spotted – as their best scout, Gwillin had made sure of that. The village was quiet, after several days of hushed unrest followed by a barely contained rebellion. The exodus of people fleeing the draft had ended as soon as the army had left the village; before that, men, women and children had crossed the woods not far from their camp, making all of them nervous and irritable.
Now, after the chaos, the silence of the forest seemed eerie.
Elladan stretched his legs towards the fire and rubbed his hands together, trying to ward off the bite of the upcoming cold morning. Their night had been a long and dreary one, like many before; they took turns in patrolling the perimeter of their small camp, talked quietly and with reluctance, occasionally listening for a sound indicating that Lindir and Glorfindel had returned. Elladan missed the long past evenings in his father's home, when the darkness of the corridors was lightened by firelights from the Halls, and the mornings were promises rather than simple indicators of the time that had passed. He remembered the nights, so similar and yet so different, when he had sat with the Dúnedain and shared their companionable routine. There had been warmth and camaraderie in those moments, even as danger loomed. Now they were all tense, minds too preoccupied with what awaited them to take comfort in the company of others.
Suddenly Gwillin, who was sitting opposite of him with his eyes trained on the flames, looked up, stiffening as his hand shot to his lips to request silence. He leaned forward, shifting his weight to his feet and stood up. "Kill the fire," he mouthed.
Elladan reacted quickly, kicking earth into the stone circle that harbored the fire; the flames were buried instantly. The forest night, black as tar, fell upon the camp like un upturned cauldron, and he blinked as his eyesight shifted to adjust to darkness. Then he heard the footsteps.
Someone was coming; walking quietly, most certainly out of caution rather than aiming for stealth, stumbling over sticks and piles of leaves that covered the path; Elladan distinguished, amongst the sounds of the forest, the rustle of the leaves touched by a hand in guidance. He slowed his breath instinctively, registered the deepening silence as the others imitated him. The path lay nearby, just far enough to ensure them invisibility to an untrained eye; it appeared empty, but the footsteps were drawing closer. Whoever was coming could not see them, he thought, unless they chose to reveal their presence. He saw Elrohir take a silent step back, fading right through the vegetation as though it was immaterial.
Elladan held his breath as the girl appeared between the trees. She was walking with her hand extended to touch the bushes that grew along the path, her steps slow but purposeful, her eyes scanning the depths of the woods. Again, he reminded himself that she could not see him, but stilled as her gaze wandered, unseeing, past where he stood. Aeve – she seemed so young, so frail in nothing but a nightgown and a shawl, shivering in the forest draft. Whom had she come to seek at this hour? Was it a lover that she came to meet, unaware of the danger and blinded by misguided attraction? Elladan felt his anger grow at the man who would lure a girl into the woods at this hour. At least they were standing watch, unbeknownst to her. They would keep her safe.
Aeve stopped, appearing to hesitate. Her hand left the leaves that rustled beneath her touch to tuck itself under her armpit as she wrapped her arms around her. "Are you there?" she called out.
No-one answered her; except for their silent presence, this part of the forest was empty. Elladan caught Urúvion's questioning look and shrugged. Nearby, Gwillin was crouching low, a hand on the hilt of his dagger. Elladan doubted he found any threat in the girl, but of all of them he was the most cautious, a blessing in uncertain times but an annoyance in peace.
"I… I know you can hear me." She shifted on her feet, probably feeling stupid for talking to no-one. "Elves! I'm calling for you now. I need your help."
Elladan felt his eyes widen in surprise. He knew she had seen him that one time long ago, lurking by the edge of the forest, and thus knew of their existence. He suspected that she was afraid of them, as the stories told by older friends and parents taught her to, and would not have wagered on her coming to find them of her own volition. Now that she was here, standing in the middle of the forest and calling out for their help – the excuse they had been waiting for to intervene, the one chance they had to get her to safety – he was at a loss.
"I…" Aeve hesitated again, and Elladan felt a surge of pity for her, mixed with admiration for the courage it must have taken to wander alone into a dark forest to search for beings reputed dangerous and fickle. "I will do whatever you want in exchange." But that courage was waning - she fidgeted nervously with her shawl, lips thinning into a scowl. "I know you're there. Won't you answer me?"
He sought out Elrohir's face amongst those of their group and read the same shock he was feeling; but there was also hope, and he nodded to his brother. The time had come.
"We heard your call," Elrohir said softly. "We have come to respond."
One by one, they stepped into the scarce moonlight that filtered through the canopies. Aeve gasped, stumbling back in a fright that she managed to repress.
"Wow." Her whisper did not go unnoticed, and Elladan almost chuckled at her amazement. The younger elves, Urúvion amongst them, openly smiled at being stared at. She was just as much a wonder to them as they to her.
"Do not be afraid," Elrohir continued. "you are safe. Tales of our… bloodlust," he added with a small smile, "are a mortal's invention."
"But you could be saying that to mislead me," she argued suddenly.
Gwillin smirked. "You came to find us," he said.
Elladan shot him a warning look that Gwillin bore with a defiant expression. "Let us light the fire again," he offered, "and dispel shadows and doubts once and for all."
He bent and, picking up the twig left by Urúvion, dug the coals out of the dirt. The few remaining embers, almost smothered by the heavy fabric, glowed faintly in the darkness and he blew on them gently to rekindle the flames. The half-consumed logs crackled as the fire took.
Elladan took this opportunity to study Aeve from up close: long, tangled hair the shade of cinder, blue eyes and a figure that would benefit from a little more food. Thin limbs moving with the shy grace of youth, a few healthy scrapes, a pretty, honest face.
But she looked nothing like Aragorn.
"What is this help that you requested?" Elrohir spoke again.
His words seemed to pull her from her thoughts, hopefully dispelling the remains of wariness and fear. It would be long before she fully trusted them, Elladan knew, but at least she could finally feel unthreatened in their presence. She nodded, as though remembering the purpose of her visit here, and looked up to meet Elrohir's eyes.
"Something bad has happened, and it's my fault," she said. "They took..."
A rustle, too loud to be just a gust of wind in the branches, alerted Elladan. He looked up, reaching out to pull Aeve behind him and out of an eventual harm's way, just as Thangyl, one of the scouts in charge of patrolling the southern part of the woods, came running down the path.
"The army…" he breathed out, "at the edge of the woods. It has begun."
Aeve sat in silence, half-dazed and permanently fighting the urge to stare. If she ever told her friends what had happened to her no-one would believe her - Aeve still had trouble believing it herself. She had entered the forest and called out for help, as though summoning the woods themselves for assistance; and her call had been answered. The elves had stepped out of the shadows, pale spirits with glowing eyes. They had brought her back to their dwelling – into the deep valley where she had ventured once, well beyond the first stones of civilization where she'd stopped back then. They had promised safety and help - but now it seemed they weren't listening anymore.
The elves seemed to be arguing amongst themselves, their flowing language occasionally punctuated with harsher syllables that indicated urgency and annoyance. Aeve could not understand a single word, but their body language was explicit enough. Occasionally one of them – he had introduced himself as Elrohir on their way to the elves' home - would nod in her direction, his expression softening just for an instant before his voice regained a hard, commanding tone. He was a dark-haired and slightly less feminine-looking and more muscular than the others, with the exception of the one who seemed to be his twin; Aeve guessed he was the leader of the group.
She sat in silence with her hands tucked under her thighs to stop herself from wriggling on her chair. The beauty of her environment was lost on her - they weren't listening, her initial query lost somewhere in their argument, and time was running by; there was a point where nothing could be done anymore to help Sveyn, and every minute brought it closer. The battle was near, the armies in place and he was trapped somewhere in the lines. Still she dared not interrupt them – it was considered impolite in her own society, and who knew how the elves treated such offenses? They could even take back their promise of help, and what would she do then?
Elrohir spoke again, pushing his hands downwards, fingers outstretched. Here, stay, Aeve understood. "Rhaich!" Another elf threw his hands into the air in annoyance; but the matter was settled. She felt hope at the thought that she could finally voice her need for help.
"It is safe here," Elrohir said as he turned to face her. "You are safe here. We will not take unnecessary risks. We will wait this conflict out."
"But..." She looked at the calm faces staring back at her. "But what about Sveyn?"
He smiled at her, one of those condescending smiles that people usually reserved for frightened children. "Do not worry – your family can be brought to safety as well. We understand your concern..."
"No, you don't!" She slid off the chair, glaring at the kind, puzzled faces. "You aren't listening to what I'm trying to say – I don't care about my safety. My family will be fine..." She halted, thinking of her father, and Elrohir's twin seized this opportunity to speak up.
"Then you try to understand, Aeve," he said softly, stepping out of the circle of elves to stand by his brother's side. "We have been expecting you, waiting for this encounter to happen for long, long years, even before you were born. It is our purpose here – to protect you and safeguard your bloodline and its nobility." He touched her chin, pushing it up to tear her eyes off the floor where she'd been stubbornly staring since he began to speak. "Many of our comrades have died to bring us to this moment. More will fall if we leave this place before it is safe to do so, not to mention the risk it would put you under."
"Nobility? Me?" Aeve frowned in confusion, searching his eyes for a confirmation that he was joking. "No, you're mistaken. I'm nobody, I mean... I'm not a lost princess, or something."
"You are the heir of an old line," Elrohir declared, folding his arms and leaning against a pillar. "The descendant of a great King, who was a brother and a friend. You are Aragorn's heir." He shrugged. "But I do not expect you to know the name. Know only that we are sworn to protect his kin."
His tone bore no hint of mockery, and Aeve let the words sink in, examining the possibilities and consequences in her mind. This unexpected twist, discovering herself to be the heir to a prestigious bloodline with the titles and status at hand and a small army of strange, ancient guardians to help her reclaim what was hers, certainly flattered her ego. She tried to picture herself in the fanciest dress she could imagine and wearing a crown; the dull shine of gold under her skin as she sat on a sumptuous throne, the elves bowing, ready to obey, as she ordered them on a mission. The woman in her vision did look just like her, a little prettier perhaps, a little older. But the dress she wore was too simple, the elves' reverence stiff as the unwise orders rang out and they left with bitter hearts to do her bidding. No, this fate was not hers. For all the magnificence of such a prospect, Aeve knew she was just a peasant girl.
"No, you're wrong," she whispered. "I'm not the one you need."
"Do not think that we have not considered this possibility," the twin said – or was it Elrohir? Aeve was starting to get them confused. "Physical resemblance would have been an additional proof," he seemed to size her up, his lips curling into a barely perceptible pout that Aeve chose to ignore despite the stab at her pride, "but such traits would have, understandably, weakened over the generations."
"Additional proof?" Aeve bit her lip. She did not know whether she wanted a confirmation of the news or rather a chance to disprove them. "So... Do you have, like, documents about this... bloodline?"
The elf shrugged. "We did – but, just like many other precious things, they were lost over the last centuries. But there are other ways of knowing, if not solid proof than at least a clue to confirm what we feel in our hearts." He shot a stern glance towards the other elves in the room, and Aeve guessed that the subject had been one of disagreement over the past years. Had they been watching her, voicing their doubts about whether she made a suitable heir to that King's line, criticizing the way she walked or talked for not being regal enough? Aeve felt her heart sink. If they'd been waiting all this time for just for her, they had to be disappointed.
But Elrohir's twin continued: "We were glad to see that the old lore is still kept alive in your family." And, as she frowned in incomprehension, he clarified: "The song. You can sing in Sindarin, a language taught to Aragorn when he came to stay with us in the previous Age. Perhaps you even possess a token that we would recognize, that could have been salvaged from the sacking of Minas Tirith – that would be a welcome sight."
"The song? You mean the one with the foreign words?"
Then it dawned upon her. Aeve felt her eyes widen as she covered her mouth in shock. "You are wrong," she breathed out, "so wrong. It was Sveyn – he taught me the song, he said his mother used to sing it to him when he was a baby. He... he..." She struggled to remember the contents of that old chest that Shawn Innerney, Sveyn's father, used to keep in the back room of the tavern and that she had seen open but once. "His father has an old banner," she said, "with a white tree embroidered onto a black fabric. And the necklace!" She gestured breezily to her own neck, remembering the chain she had seen through the opening in Sveyn's shirt. "A silver pendant, with stones like diamonds and fancy volutes..."
"The Tree of Gondor, the Evenstar." Elrohir leaned forward hungrily, his eyes boring into her as though he longed to lunge and shake the truth out of her. "This Sveyn has the Evenstar?"
The sudden shift in his demeanour was frightening; Aeve stumbled back until her ankle brushed against the foot of the chair and reached out for the armrest to steady herself. "I don't know," she hissed out, defensive. "Maybe you should go find him and ask him? He was probably still wearing it when the soldiers took him." She glared at the elf, and the triumph of finally being heard out left a bitter taste on her tongue.
"Sveyn is the heir," the twin whispered, looking at his brother. "He is the heir, and she..." He shook his head. "The child. The child is the heir to the line – a future that can be, that we must ensure it will come to pass." Aeve did not understand what he was saying, but the elves seemed to care little about her now. "The vision spoke of his son, and it will not happen unless the boy survives." He swerved to face her, his hands gripping her arms with a strength just a squeeze short of painful. "Where is he now?"
"With... with the army," Aeve stammered. "They took him yesterday evening." And, as he let go of her, she added in a whisper: "I tried to tell you..."
"Prepare for battle," Elrohir said, "though I know we have all been ready for years. We leave within the hour. Our time has finally come."