2. Chapter 2
- Chapter 2 -
Six years later
Aeve kicked the ball despondently. It bounced forward, unharmed, and that only fuelled her anger further while unshed tears burned her eyes. It was so unfair! After all, she was only two years younger than Kilian, and already twelve! Surely she was old enough to accompany them to the fair! But no, her mother had refused to listen to her pleas and her promises of obedience. Her excuse? "The times have changed…" Ha! And Kilian – that insufferable, pretentious little troll! - had smirked behind their mother's back as they rode off to the fair.
She trudged down the forest path leading to the clearing – not that she would find any of her friends there. Everyone had gone to Aston. Everyone save her. Aeve refused to think of the fun her friends must have been having at that exact moment, but flashes of music, dancing and merry laughter played over and over in her mind. Sveyn, who had been invited along with Kilian, had taunted her with promises of bear tamers, and gypsies, and ministrels, and…
"Aargh!" Aeve shrieked in frustration, balling her hands into fists so hard that her knuckles hurt.
The cry echoed through the woods. Frightened birds took off from the nearest trees, shaking the branches… And then the silence descended once again upon the forest. But it was an attentive silence, as if the woods themselves had become wary of her presence and watched her for her next move. Aeve decided she did not care. Walking up to the ball, she kicked it again as hard as she could.
"Hmmph." Aeve scowled. How on earth was she supposed to entertain herself for a day – a whole day! – if every single one of her friends was gone? She remembered her mother's instructions: do not go out after dark. Do not talk to strangers. Do not go alone into the forest. That was unfair!
She looked up to see the ball in the middle of their clearing. Their empty clearing. Once again, the ball went bouncing between the trees, dancing madly in the tall grass; it tumbled forward with the slope of the path and Aeve followed, watching her feet with a gloomy fascination. One kick, another kick… each squelch of wet grass saying, unfair. She had been waiting for this day for months, doing every chore her mother requested of her without a word, enduring it all for the sake of the golden moments that glittered ahead: the Fair of Aston! And how had she been rewarded?
Ahead, the ball lay innocently in a nest of grass, as if mocking her. Aeve aimed a vicious kick and slipped. She flailed her arms to steady herself, but the shock of the impact knocked the air out of her lungs. She struggled to sit up; she could not breathe, and tears that she had been holding back came flowing freely. Aeve forced herself to breathe in – a hissing intake of air, then another as the pain in her chest subsided. Wrapping her arms around herself, she sat on the cold ground until the sobs were gone as well.
Her anger had disappeared, replaced by a feeling of abandonment and shame. Aeve realized that she had behaved like a spoiled little girl – exactly like Sveyn used to say. She blushed at the memory of his words. He always found a way with them, twisted them so that they hurt, and rang in her ears long after his mocking laughter had died down.
Pushing herself from the ground, Aeve tried to brush off the grass stains on her skirt. Then she looked up, and screamed in fright.
A face was looking down at her. Ageless, pale and so very sad, its eyes open yet unseeing. Aeve rested her hand on her chest as if to calm down her wildly beating heart. It was only a statue; it could not harm her. Carved out of white stone, it represented a woman of magnificent beauty, dressed in a gown adorned in jewels. The statue watched her in mournful silence. Its arms were outstretched, as if to welcome Aeve to her realm.
Still shaking, Aeve took a step back. Where was she? A flash of white to her left made her jump. This time, though the delicate features made it hard to tell, Aeve thought it was the statue of a man. A beardless face, pointed ears showing beneath the long, flowing hair… Aeve's heart skipped a beat. This was an elf! Suddenly, her surroundings appeared to her clearly: she was standing amongst the ruins of an elven garden. Magnificently carved arches appeared here and there, almost smothered by roots and vines; stone peeking out from beneath the moss. Even the air was different, here. Still, but waiting; silent, but not empty. It felt… alive.
Aeve took another step back, almost falling in her hurry. Elven lands! Sveyn's stories flashed through her mind. Forbidden lands! She retreated hastily until the strange magic could no longer be felt. The statues watched her sadly through the trees. Only then did Aeve allow herself to relax. No-one had seen her; no-one would know.
It was then that she saw it: her ball, lying in the tall grass that grew against a stone wall. She bit her lip. It was her favourite toy, but she dared not go back for it. Full of regret, Aeve turned around; the ball was lost. She had to accept it. With one last regretful look over her shoulder, she gathered her skirts and ran back to the village.
The statues watched her go.
"She will lead them here." Urúvion looked up from the fire to meet Elladan's eyes. "This place is no longer safe."
Elladan chose not to reply and glanced to his brother in hopes that he would answer. It had been several years since they had last spoken of the purpose of their staying. Maybe the time for the long-awaited explanation had come, triggered by the intrusion of the little mortal into their realm? But Elrohir was sprawled in his seat by the fireplace, his fingers playing with the ball left by the girl. His eyes, though focused on the flames, seemed dreamy, as though Elrohir's mind was entirely elsewhere.
"We are no longer safe," insisted Urúvion in a low voice as he looked at each individual sitting in the room. "We must leave."
Elladan suppressed a weary sigh. He knew what was coming.
"I cannot see what is stopping you," retorted Glorfindel as he stretched out his legs towards the fire. In the dimly lit room, his figure, wrapped up in a dark cloak, blended with the shadows; only his hair blazed as though woven of gold. "If you are eager to leave, please be so kind as to suit yourself."
"Urúvion meant no offense," Lindir chimed in, his voice soft and melodious. "You know we all long for what we once lost."
Elladan smiled in the twilight of the room. Lindir, ever the pacifier. Always defending even the most foul-tempered person. But he wondered how long would his friend's patience last. How long before he, too, questioned the reason that kept them here, far from their loved ones. For even he could not blame Urúvion for his impatience. Over the years, they had retreated deeper and deeper into their home, progressively abandoning the outskirts of Imladris as the territories of Men expanded. But they had not left, urged by Elrohir's plea to remain a little longer. Mortal years had turned into Long Years, and the world around them had inexorably forgotten their existence.
Help me, Elrohir! he thought. Show me, help me understand what you saw!
He knew that his loyalty to his brother would never fail; that he would remain by Elrohir's side until the world ended, and beyond if he had to. Elrohir needn't even ask. But sometimes, he would question his brother's reasons, and his treacherous heart would stop believing in him – if only for a split second. He understood what it felt like for their friends. When loyalty fought against love, hearts bled, no matter which side won.
Urúvion glared at Lindir. "I need not your help," he grumbled. "I only speak what many are thinking. Even you" – he pointed at Lindir, who opened his mouth to protest. "Even you wonder why we are still on this side of the sea."
Lindir shifted in his seat and looked away. "I will remain with Elrohir," he muttered.
"But so will I!" Urúvion exclaimed. "So will I. But I only ask one thing: to understand!"
"Alas, you seem too young to be able to. If I were Elrohir, I would not attempt to put anything into your empty head," Glorfindel drawled. "And I will tell you more, Urúvion. I am tired of your complaining. If you have not the patience to wait, then leave. Leave! I will build your ship with my own hands."
Urúvion almost jumped to his feet at Glorfindel's insult, but managed to rein in his anger. His hands grabbed the arms of his chair so hard that Elladan almost expected the wood to give way at the pull. Glorfindel's lips curled into a feral grin as the warrior leaned forward in his seat, eager to continue the verbal spar, and Elladan understood that even the ancient warrior was tired of waiting.
"Enough!" Elladan snapped, but realized that his voice sounded almost pleading. "Enough, all of you!" He rose to his feet. "Each and every one of us…"
He stopped. It was not his place to remind them of their losses, or boast of his own. All of them had seen and given enough, be it Glorfindel the Balrog-Slayer or the young Urúvion. All of them deserved to know the truth. Urúvion was right: it had been too long.
He settled for a banality: "Soon our task here will be done and we will go home."
"But when?" Urúvion said quietly. "When? Will that be before the Men come, and we are forced to fight for our lives?"
"They will not come."
They all turned at the sound of Elrohir's voice.
"Tomorrow I will bring the toy to the edge of the forest. They will not follow the path down here. They are too afraid of us." Elrohir looked at the ball in his hands, then rolled it between his palms. "You ask for answers," he said. "And I wish I could give you some. But it is not within my power." He looked up to meet Elladan's eyes. "Those who wish to sail must do so. For I cannot say how much longer I must remain here."
Elladan cocked an eyebrow. "Are you implying I would leave you, brother?" he said quietly, challenging Elrohir to deny it. "I would have thought that after all this time…"
"And how much longer can you stay?" Elrohir snapped. "How much longer can you bear to be parted from our family and not resent me for it?" He shook his head. "No. I would rather lose you for a Long Year than alienate you forever."
His voice betrayed his pain, and Elladan realised that of them all, he suffered the most in their forced exile. After all, each of them merely followed Elrohir out of loyalty and friendship. They never questioned what they felt, and thus their path was clearly laid out before them. But Elrohir stepped on uncertain ground, guided by touch and hearing and intuition rather than rationality. He had no reason other that he knew he had to stay.
Acting on impulse, Elladan took a step towards his brother and pulled Elrohir into a rough embrace. "You will never lose me, Elrohir," he whispered into Elrohir's ear. "Together we were born, together we shall go."
"It is settled, then." Glorfindel rose from his seat and pulled his cloak tighter around him. "I bid you all goodnight." He walked out of the room, the glimmer of his golden hair disappearing in the darkness.
Lindir rose as well and bent to retrieve the harp he had propped against his chair; he had not played tonight for fear that the wind carried his music to the villagers. The mortals feared the elves, for all their stories of elven cruelty and viciousness; but they did not know that they were equally feared now. The last Long Years had shown the remaining elves what would happen if they were discovered: torches, pyres and armies at the edges of their woods, ready to draw them out like beasts.
And thus, Elrohir's obstination was all the more inexplicable. What good was there left in the world worth staying for?
Urúvion watched the two elves go; he seemed defeated, as though their renewed allegiance to Elrohir had broken his confidence in his rightness. With a last, pleading look to Elladan he got to his feet as well. "Goodnight," he whispered, and bowed slightly before following his elders.
"It is easier for Glorfindel," Elladan heard Elrohir say. "He has not seen any of his kin for so long that his pain must have dulled. But Urúvion… His mother sailed but a few Long Years ago."
"They will stay," Elladan replied quietly. "They will stay…" But he wondered what the price would be of such blind devotion and sacrifice.
He recalled his brother's words. Even if he remained loyal to Elrohir, how long would it take before doubt and longing drove their friends away? Would they all sail without looking back, with bitter memories of shame and a broken promise? Elladan did not want his friends to be ashamed… And himself, could he truly find the strength to maintain his faith in Elrohir? It had already shown signs of failing…
It seemed that whatever his choice – and their fate, Elladan would soon find it difficult to look himself in the eye, whether he faced his reflection in a mirror, or his twin brother.