The Yellow Bird, part 4
for wildecate on the occasion of her birthday
Orophin returned that night to find the missing begetting-day drawing neatly rolled up on his bed. As was his practice upon receipt of a new one, he removed every drawing he'd ever received from his mystery benefactor, studying them all carefully. Over the years, after so many perusals, the older ones had become fragile and worn around the edges.
The progression of talent and emotion within them drew his attention like a moth to flame; he noted, for example, how the first few decades featured him in the more exciting poses: practicing at archery, or marching to battle in full armour. It was only after considerable time passed that the first heady flush of infatuation seemed to settle, and the emotion inherent in the pictures altered. The scenes became more normal, more mundane: Orophin standing at a window, looking out over the city; him sitting by the banks of the Celebrant, reeling in a very tiny fish and laughing; him asleep under a tree, forgotten book of poetry laying open in his hands. The love the artist felt for him was clear, but it was not a blind adoration; here, in this drawing, the scar on his chin was clearly visible, and the crook in his nose from when Rùmil had broken it in boyhood was evident in every one. The tenderness and maturity of the love clearly shown in every pencil-stroke brought a tightening to his chest, until finally he lay aside the last one he had received only that day, and felt dazzled, as if all the stars of the heavens had flown by him.
Was this love? He asked himself. Was it possible? Could he have tumbled into love with the artist of these drawings, sight unseen? Carefully stacking them on the little table, Orophin lay back on his bed and stared at the ceiling. It seemed immensely foolish, but no more so than gifting one you loved with such objects of beauty, for so long… one could not look at them and consider them foolish, not when love fairly emanated from the parchment.
"I must learn who has created them," he vowed softly, closing his eyes.
The next day, another drawing appeared. Amazingly, it was not of Orophin, but a scene of washer-women at the river, beating clothes against the boulders to clean them. He could almost hear the wet slap of the fabric on the rock, almost see the undulation of the river around their bared legs, could almost feel the heat of the sun on his skin.
Haldir looked at the drawing with grave appreciation, murmuring his approval, but Rùmil's reaction was almost violent. "Do not show it to me," he said savagely. "I do not wish to see it, or any other." Usually the most benign and easygoing of the brothers, this reaction was stunning to Orophin.
Haldir would say little in explanation. "He is… envious that you have one who loves you so," was all he would venture. But he disappeared that evening and would not say his destination, returning when the moon was high with a suspicious light in his eyes.
~ * ~
Dúlinn turned back from the window. Haldir had climbed nimbly up their mallorn and perched, seemingly without effort, outside her bedroom to speak to her about Orophin and the drawings. Exquisitely aware of how she wore only the sheerest of nightgowns and how his gaze had repeatedly been drawn below her chin, she was dismayed to hear of Rùmil's anger and Orophin's confusion.
"No, Merelind does not love him," Dúlinn confided in him, hoping desperately that her confidence in his silence was well-placed. "She is as miserable as Rùmil seems to be."
"Why, then, did she claim the drawings as her own?"
"To protect Emmelin," she replied, watching as comprehension settled on his face. "We have always looked out for her, she is so sensitive and shy, she seems unable to guard herself."
"I had thought she might be lying for Filig," he replied, smiling when her laughter rang out.
"No," she said, grinning. "Filig has had his eye on another, since we have come to the city."
"Anyone I know?"
"Yes, you," Dúlinn said, then laughed again to see his eyes widen almost comically. He glared. She laughed harder.
"Quiet," he hissed suddenly, and swung out of sight just as Heletir entered the room.
"What are you doing, daughter?" he asked, curious. "I heard you laughing."
"Just an amusing… chipmunk," Dúlinn told him. "A very clumsy and silly chipmunk; it fell from the tree." A distinctly unhappy "hmph" came from outside, and she prayed her father had not heard.
"A chipmunk?" Heletir tilted his head back and stared down his nose at his daughter. "A large chipmunk with two brothers, methinks." He glanced at the window. "Do I need to have a… talk with this chipmunk?"
"No, Ada," Dúlinn said breathlessly. "There is naught happening but a bit of… strategizing. On Emmelin's behalf."
"Strategizing?" Heletir looked as if he wanted to burst with laughter. "And you, chipmunk? What say you?"
"We are indeed… strategizing," replied a faint but clearly disgruntled voice from outside. "No talking is needed."
Heletir nodded, kissing Dúlinn's forehead before grinning. " 'Tis not meet to chat overlong with woodland creatures," he told her. "They can be feral and wild."
Another "hmph" sounded, causing Heletir to grin as he left. Dúlinn ran to the window, looking left and right, up and down, but unable to see him anywhere.
"Haldir?" she whispered as loudly as she dared. "Haldir?"
"I am here," he said from behind her.
With a squeak, she jerked back, bumping her head on the sill. "Ow," she said distinctly, then rubbed her bruised forehead. "You should not be inside."
Haldir slashed his hand through the air dismissively. "It is of no importance. Pray finish your tale so I may return ere Orophin begins to wonder where I am gone."
"We must find a way to bring Orophin and Emmelin together, else all perish from heartbreak. I can barely stand the gloom on their faces; they do naught all day but mope and pine for their loves." She frowned. " 'Tis most off-putting."
"And you remain unaffected by this affliction, I suppose?" His eyes were bright, so very bright, as he watched her.
"Certainly not," Dúlinn assured him graciously. "I will confess, Nestad is a handsome figure of an elf, and healer is a fine occupation."
"Nestad is married," Haldir snarled, his good humour instantly fled. "As is Iaun."
"Oh, is he?" she asked carelessly. "Ah, no matter. Listen," she prompted, taking a hold of his sleeve to ensure his attention, "we must decide what to do about Orophin and Emmelin."
"I do not know what to do," he muttered, disengaging his sleeve from her grasp. "I must return." And in a single fluid motion, he slipped from the window and was lost in shadows.
Dúlinn sighed heavily. It was all most off-putting, indeed.
~ * ~
Days passed, and golden summer faded into russet autumn. The mallorn leaves began their yearly tumble to the ground, and weekly arrived another drawing for Orophin. Tensions ran high in all three households until it threatened to burst and Dúlinn knew she had to do something.
"You must reveal yourself," she told Emmelin. "Merelind has lied to keep your identity a secret, but surely you can see how dearly it costs her?" For Rùmil's anger had not abated, and he now pointedly ignored their cousin whenever their paths crossed. Merelind had at first been struck dumb by his treatment, and only yesterday had burst into tears for seemingly no reason when he had walked by her without a single glance.
"I… " Emmelin whispered, but could not speak as panic choked her. What if he did not feel the same? What if he was displeased to learn the artist was she, instead of someone more beautiful, or more gregarious?
"There is no more time to wait," Dúlinn said sadly, and rose to leave. She moved slowly, to give her sister time to act, but no action was forthcoming: Emmelin was frozen in her chair, hand pressed to her throat.
Dúlinn slowly walked the now-familiar path from her family's talan to that of the brothers; there was no guarantee that any of them would be there, but something had to be done, for Merelind's sake, if not for Rùmil's and Orophin's and Emmelin's. And hers… she was weary of all the pretense, and not merely the pretense of Merelind being in love with Orophin. Her heart grew heavier with each step, but she could not turn back from what needed to be done.
Her knock on the door was not answered immediately, but when it was opened, she found Rùmil standing there. "Here to deliver another masterpiece to Orophin?" he asked, an ugly smirk twisting his beautiful mouth.
"Rùmil," Dúlinn began as soon as she was inside, and laid a hand on his arm, "you must cease this hostility. Merelind has done nothing wrong."
"Nothing," he growled, "but love my brother."
"No," she contradicted, "she does not. She has loved no one but you, Rùmil." His bark of laughter, so skeptical, boomed off the walls. "You must believe me, Rùmil. She is withering before us, in the face of your displeasure with her. Your anger is killing her. She loves you, only you."
The hope that bloomed in his eyes was wild but wary. "Why, then, did she say the drawings were hers?"
"To protect she who really created them," Dúlinn replied, evasive to the end. "Go to her, Rùmil. Go now."
He stared at her steadily, then nodded, and was gone. Shoulders slumping, Dúlinn wiped her moist palms on her skirt and went to Orophin's room. Knocking quietly on the door, she cracked it open to find him standing at the table, stacks of drawings arrayed before him as he sorted through them. The expression on his face was soft, and he touched careful fingertips to the lines on the pages as if he hoped to absorb them into his skin.
"I have a clue for you," she said without preamble, and he turned startled eyes to her.
"Dúlinn?" Orophin asked, puzzled both by her presence in his home and her words.
"The identity of the artist," she said, nodding at the drawings. "There is a clue in each piece."
"There is?" Orophin immediately brought one up to his nose, scrutinizing it closely. "But I have studied them for decades, and found nothing."
Dúlinn smiled gently. "You did not know what to look for." She took the drawing from him and spread it open on the table, pointing to an object in it. "Do you see this?" she asked, pulling out another when he nodded. "And here is another, and another." She indicated a third. "It is her hallmark," she told him. "There is one in every drawing."
Shuffling through the many pictures, Orophin's eyes grew wider and wider to realize that, indeed, the same yellow bird appeared in each of them. "How could I have missed this, all these years?" he mumbled, more to himself than to her. Then his shoulders slumped in defeat. "This is no clue," he complained. "How can a yellow bird help me to find her?"
Dúlinn huffed out an impatient breath. "Can you think of no other name for a yellow bird, you great simpleton?" she demanded. "Really, the elves in your family are thick as two short planks—"
Someone pounded on the door, then. Orophin, numb, went to answer it, and was surprised to see Emmelin standing there. "Emmelin," he said by way of greeting, but then blinked as the pieces fell together in his mind. "Emmelin," he repeated wonderingly. "A yellow bird… emmelin."
She blanched. "What?" she asked shrilly. "No, there is no yellow bird. I have come to fetch my sister."
But Dúlinn had ensconced herself in the soft chair that by its size proclaimed it to belong to Haldir, and had taken up a volume of stories lain beside it, reading for all the world as if there were not a scene of high emotion taking place before her.
"You are the yellow bird in the drawings," Orophin declared, watching as myriad emotions flitted across her face: terror, mostly, but the briefest flash of hope that gave him courage.
"No, it is not me," she protested weakly, breath coming quicker in her distress, and turned her gaze down to stare at the floor.
He was silent a long time. "I am sorry it is not you," Orophin said at last, his eyes soft as he watched her. "For I have come to dearly love she who created such beauty for me."
Emmelin brought up her downturned face, joy lighting it like the dawn. "You... love me?" she asked breathlessly, not even bothering to maintain the pretense that it was another who had drawn the pictures.
By way of reply, Orophin simply kissed her, putting all his frustration and ardor into it. His hands cupped her face at first, then moved down her shoulder to her arms, which he placed around his neck, laughing against her mouth.
"Must it always be thus?" he asked. "Will you always be shy with me?"
Emmelin grabbed his ears and pulled him down for another kiss. When it finally ended, both were breathing more heavily, and she said, "I am getting better, would you not agree?"
"Indeed you are," he said with a broad smile that made her heart leap within her chest. "Come, you must walk with me," he continued, taking her hands in his own and squeezing them. "You will explain to me this foolish idea of hiding yourself from me for all these years."
Emmelin looked to her sister. "Go," commanded Dúlinn, nose-deep in her book. "Enjoy." But when they had gone, her gaze became fixed on the page as she became lost in thought. "Merelind has her Rùmil, and now Emmelin has her Orophin," she murmured.
"And what do you have, Dúlinn?" asked a deep voice from the doorway.
She lifted her head to find Haldir standing there, an odd expression on his face as he regarded her calmly. "I have… the satisfaction of knowing my sister and cousin have found love," she replied, her voice just the slightest bit tight as she put down the book and stood.
"Nothing else?" he asked, and took a step closer to her.
"If Emmelin weds Orophin, then I shall have our bedchamber all to myself," Dúlinn replied, a little unsteadily. Oh, why was he staring at her so? His eyes were a dark, dark blue, and fixed on her so intently she thought she might faint.
"Surely you have more," Haldir said coaxingly. "For one such as you, there must be more than just that."
"I do not think there is," she replied snappishly, horrified to hear tears threaten in her voice. What did he want of her? "That is all I have."
"You have a marchwarden, ill-tempered but faithful, if you would have him," he told her quietly. "For he has thought of naught but you for many days now."
Tears spilled down Dúlinn's cheeks. "What are you saying, you wretched thing!" she cried, dashing them from her face. "Do not tease me any longer; you must know that I have loved you for months. 'Tis a secret from no one but you, and I have all but come out and told you so many times—" Her words were cut off when his arms came around her and pressed her face to his chest.
"Ai, Dúlinn… my nightingale…" Haldir said, pressing his cheek to her hair and smoothing his hand down her back. "Do not cry, my heart. I am sorry."
She snuffled against him. "You had better be," she informed his shoulder. "I am not so forgiving as many, and you will have to work hard for my pardon—" He tipped her chin up and kissed her then, tasting her tears.
"Do not overtax my regret," he warned after a long, pleasurable while. "I am not the world's most patient elf."
"Well do I know it," Dúlinn complained, curling deeper into his embrace. "But you are worth the effort, I believe."
"As are you," Haldir returned, smiling foolishly.
Suddenly, she pulled back a little, as if startled. "Haldir, are we… getting along?"
"Certainly not," he said, affronted. "The idea."
Dúlinn only smiled wider. "We are," she said, exultant as she nuzzled against the patch of neck under his ear. "Hah."
He only frowned.