- Chapter 14 -
Aeve watched the end of the exchange from behind a pillar, hidden in the shadows of the hallway that surrounded the courtyard. Holding her breath in fascination rather than in an attempt of silence, she stared shamelessly and took in every glimpse of face and expression, armor and demeanor she was offered. These new elves were as different from those she had already met as she was from Ida, or at least one of them was. Until now, she had assumed that black or brown hair was a trait shared by all of their kind, but the elf she had seen in the courtyard was everything but dark. His locks had shone in the sunlight brighter than the gold-plated locket that Ida had received for her fifteenth birthday – and that made Aeve green with envy for months. He was tall and handsome; Aeve ended up admitting to herself after a long internal struggle and a great deal of remorse that he was more beautiful than Sveyn.
She rolled around the pillar and out of sight, her back against the carved stone, as the visitors departed, and stole a last glance over her shoulder. Gwillin, her assigned keeper, grimaced at their retreating backs, looking almost human for a second – less than perfect, so much that she didn't feel obliged to look sheepish when she felt his eyes on her.
She had been bored and restless before, left to her own devices in the confines of the room that had been assigned to her while waiting for the elves' return. Whatever had they expected her to do? The room itself had once been richly decorated, the places that had been stripped of furniture and tapestries glaringly evident despite years of inoccupation. There still were paintings on the walls, revealed to her as the sunlight circled the room with the day's decline; but the handsome knights, the cities white and beautiful ladies could not hold her interest for long. There were no stories to be heard about them, their faces were unfamiliar.
Gwillin had to know some of their stories, she decided, and even the worry for Sveyn's wellbeing could not smother her curiosity completely, not now that it had been piqued further.
"Have they found him?" she asked as Gwillin brushed past her and down the corridor.
"No." His voice echoed off the stone walls, cold and detached. "That would be because they were not looking for him. Glorfindel and Lindir's mission was of… another nature."
Aeve sensed the change in his voice at the mention of the last name.
"You don't like Lindir much, do you?" she blurted out, hurrying to keep in stride with Gwillin's brisk pace. This was not the beginning of a heroic tale, but she liked gossip just as much.
He barely spared her a glance and, brief as it was and laden with annoyance, she thought she also saw amusement in his grey eyes. She risked pressing the matter further, feeling quite smart at having caught a display of human emotion in that stern face of his.
"It's obvious that you don't, you know. It's allright… There are also people I don't like, but that doesn't make me a worse person. I think."
"Does it not?" He curled his lips into a half-smile. "Well, thank you kindly for this piece of wisdom. I am most reassured."
"Eh, you're welcome." Letting the jibe slide, she picked up her skirts so that they would not tangle before her feet, increasing her capacity to keep up. "So, why don't you like him?"
He narrowed his eyes, glaring at her from his height. "That is hardly your business."
"That is hardly relevant. You could still tell me, if you wanted," she countered and, after a meaningful silence, added: "But you don't want to. Fine." She stopped and, waiting for him to walk further away for an increased dramatic effect, said, "If you don't want to talk, I won't force you. I can see you don't like mortals very much, and I won't bother you further with my presence." She could almost see the process of thought ticking away in his head as he paused mid-stride. "My family needs me, and I should go home."
"You cannot." He spun around, annoyance clear on his face. "It is yet too dangerous for you to return to the village."
"I don't care." It was a low blow, Aeve knew it, and risky as well. She really hoped he had qualms about laying a hand on his protégée, or she was seconds away from being simply locked up in her room – she knew that her own parents would not have hesitated to do so. But elves, it seemed, did not exercise confinement as a punishment, if they punished at all. Gwillin scowled.
"You are being… unreasonable. You are not so young as to not know what awaits you should you get caught."
The reminder of Sveyn's words stung unexpectedly hard. Unreasonable, hot-headed, stubborn, she had been called all that these last years, and worse. Whether she behaved accordingly or not used to be a concern, but more often than not it got overridden by her pride and temper, and Aeve realized she was tired of keeping those in check. Never mind the trouble it got her into, never mind the danger for the others.
"Well, I am mortal," she agreed with what she hoped was grandeur, shrugging a shoulder to emphasize the statement; but her voice cracked in the middle of the sentence. "You can blame it on my blood. And I'm scared and tired and bored, and unless you pull that stick out of your behind, I am going home. Now." She realized that there were tears stinging her eyes, that her fists were clenched and that despite all her anger, Gwillin just stood there, towering over her. He was yet to react to her rude words, and she quivered inwardly at the anticipated reaction.
"Blackmail, how charming. Tell me, how often does that work?"
Slightly abashed, she wiped her eyes as she shifted her weight from one foot to another. "Often enough," she conceded. And, refusing to back down from her threat, she stared him in the eye. "Well?"
He seemed to decide that she was worth the trouble; either that or he was sufficiently afraid of Elladan and Elrohir to let her go into danger. "Very well," he said eventually. "Come. I may tell you something – not necessarily what you want, mind you – if you promise not to behave like a spoiled elfling again." He smirked. "I had parents too, you know. And I still remember their favorite punishments. I have no doubt, from personal experience, that you would find them unpleasant."
Aeve had seen the Hall before, but somehow it seemed more crowded now with only Gwillin's long legs stretched out towards the fire than it had with all the elves gathered inside. She watched him roll his shoulders and sink deeper into his seat, his angled body casting crooked shadows onto the painted walls. It was a little like one of those travelling theaters, where the décor was part of the story, and where the puppeteers' hands were the evil witches edging towards the peaceful scenes in the background. But Gwillin was not evil, simply bitter and probably very, very old.
"If I tell you, will you remember?" he asked suddenly. He was not looking at her, staring into the fireplace instead as though her answer did not really matter. "Will you remember us, our names, our stories? I know Lindir has been keeping track of us, of those who died and those who still live; but I fear his records will not survive this enterprise."
He turned to look at her, then, and smiled sadly. "Do I come across as vain? I fear I do… Ah, well. We all have our weaknesses." He nodded to his own affirmation and stared into the flames again. "We all have a heritage to keep."
A stray draft crept through the hall and found a way under the layers of Aeve's clothing. She shivered, which seemed to pull Gwillin out of his reverie. He pushed himself up and, casting a sharp "Stay here," over his shoulder, disappeared into a corridor. He was not gone long, Aeve surmised, before he returned with something that looked like liquid silver draped over his arm.
The fabric slid over her shoulders, heavy yet flowing and so very unbelievably soft. Like quicksilver, Aeve thought again as she ran her fingers through the fringe lining the shawl.
"It belonged to the last mistress of the House." Gwillin's voice was distant again. "Her name was Arwen, and she was my Lord's only daughter. And your Sveyn's ancestor too, by the way," he added with a small nod towards Aeve as she pulled the shawl higher to ward off the draft on her neck. "Her choice doomed her to die a mortal's death alongside Aragorn, the Great King whose line they… we are trying to preserve. Sveyn's blood is half hers… But this too was forgotten."
"Why did she die?" Aeve whispered, loath to break Gwillin's line of thought yet devoured by a curiosity that demanded she discovered Arwen's story before his mind strayed onto another path.
"She chose to live a short life beside the one she loved instead of an endless one with those who loved her. Her father, her brothers… Elladan and Elrohir," he clarified under her puzzled stare. "She married their foster brother Estel, the man who would become Aragorn. Their son Eldarion started the line that ends with Sveyn."
"But it will not, will it?" Aeve looked at him from her seat, her knees huddled against her chest for both warmth and comfort.
"That depends on you, does it not?"Gwillin's glance was sharp and inquisitive. "Have they told you about the prophesy? Have they told you all of it?"
Aeve shifted in discomfort under his gaze. Truth was, the elves had spoken little of her role in the story, after they had discovered that she was not the heir they had been waiting for and getting ready to safekeep in their home. They had departed in a hurry and no-one had bothered to tell her why exactly it was that she still needed to stay. Gwillin's question voiced her doubts, putting words on the feeling of unease she had been harboring.
"Why do they need me?" she asked quietly. "What does it have to do with me?" Was it a look of pity that Gwillin gave her? Did his eyes soften just a little, right then, at the thought of her fate?
"No-one will force you," he said calmly, crossing his legs before the fireplace. "But the line needs an heir, and Sveyn will – eventually – have to sire a child. And the vision, the prophesy that was shown to Elladan and Elrohir, was an image of you holding an infant in your arms." He paused, allowing her to piece the bits and pieces of information together.
Aeve could feel her cheeks flame up at the situation implied by his words; she looked away, feeling his eyes on her face as she busied herself with the fringe of the shawl.
"You love him." Gwillin's voice was calm and steady, and Aeve found it unnervingly reasonable as he disserted on her future. "He will grow to love you… Even though it is not necessary." He sneered, breaking the impassible façade he had been maintaining. "I hear mortal men do not need this kind of pre-requisite." He seemed genuinely disgusted at his own words, and though utterly mortified, Aeve could not help but feel a little grateful for his anger.
It was no prank, this time, no childish and stupid joke; she shuddered at the unsaid affirmation that she could be asked to lay with a man who did not care for her, but only for his own good and that of his line. Gwillin was speaking of that duty that honorable women were expected to fulfill according to the stricter traditions of the land, a perspective that she had long ago labeled as the most humiliating that could be.
It was something murmured to her by her mother, once, when she had first sought to understand the changes of her body; a story centuries old endured by many women before her time. This could happen to others, but not - never – to her. And not with Sveyn, whom she had secretly admired and bashfully desired for the last months, despite her anger at his antics. Not with Sveyn, who could be kind, and make her laugh even when she was feeling sad, trying hard until she cracked a smile through her tears. They had nothing sacred going on – they had nothing at all, by all standards, but there should have been an unspoken law that protected the young and lovesick from such realities.
"But what if I don't want to do it?" Aeve whispered, horrified. Then with more strength in her voice as she imagined herself at the side of a jaded, indifferent Sveyn, she confirmed: "If he… If he doesn't love me, I don't want to."
"The weight of duty… You feel it, do you not?" Once again, Gwillin's smile did not reach his eyes. "You wanted to know why I did not like Lindir. You have it. It seems to me like he is the only one who has never lost a thing to this cause – no loved one, no principle or illusion; there is not a mark on his soul. He has everything to gain, but nothing to pay it with." He ran a hand though his dark hair, perhaps oblivious of the wariness the gesture betrayed. "Glorfindel – the charming one who rarely means it, sacrificed his hopes of ever founding a family to the preservation of a bloodline long lost. Elladan and Elrohir lost their sister long ago, and now risk losing one another. I…" He stopped himself at the price of a visible effort, and shook his head. "Enough. Know only – and this I swear – that no-one will force you into this marriage. I will not allow it."
The house was unnaturally quiet – too much so to be called homely, despite what Gwillin had told her about its past. The vast hallways stood silent, the large windows held no warmth within the walls of the dwelling; it felt as though Rivendell had been built for decoration rather than comfort, or at least a mortal's idea of it. The elves and the statues seemed to like the place just fine.
Aeve jumped when she heard a rustle; she spun around, expecting one of the elves to emerge from a nearby corridor, his quiet ways betraying that the sound had only been made to warn her of his imminent arrival. But only leaves waltzed in, carried by the autumn wind.
She sighed, huddling closer to the dying fire. She was not cold, wrapped in the soft silver shawl; but the gold-red reflections crackling in the circle of stones reminded her of home - of how a home really should be. There should be voices, she thought, and footsteps, instead of these inhabitants who moved like shadows and spoke in whispers. There should be joy, loud and invasive, or grief poignant for everyone to see. Life should beat like a drum, instead of shuffling through empty corridors like a ball of dust.
Aeve pulled the shawl tighter around her shoulders, where the light of the fire did not touch it, the shimmering fabric took the color of what she imagined the sea to be. Her nose caught a scent, almost masked by the smell of dust and lavender used to preserve the fabric, and she wondered about the lady whom the shawl had once belonged. Arwen, whose delicate hands had folded it lovingly and set it aside in regret, smoothing the creases as though to apologize for the abandonment, arguing that it was for a higher cause.
A higher cause… Did that apply to her now?
Something rustled in her back again, but she did not bother to turn around. The elves could announce themselves if they wished to speak to her.
"The colour suits you."
Aeve jumped at the sound of the familiar voice, twisting around from her huddling position so that she could witness what she just heard. Sveyn grinned at her from the looming doorway, his smile tired and void of that mirth that used to infuriate her when born at her own expense.
"Grey was always your colour."
"You!" she whispered, scrambling to her feet and still clutching the shawl to help her hold on to her thoughts. "You're back!"
He opened his arms to show that indeed he was unharmed; mostly, anyway, she noted grimly, minus the scrapes and shallow gashes that marred his skin here and there. The armor he wore hung from his body, ill-fitted and obviously heavy. It had chafed an angry red line at the base of his throat, and Aeve winced as he absent-mindedly tugged at the collar to allow the sweaty wound to breathe. She took a tentative step towards him. They had parted in confusion, and her own feelings were still a mess. How did he feel, after what she had done to him? And how did she feel, now that she knew..?
"They brought me here," he said simply, shaking his head. "Elves. Huh. I never would've thought…"
"They're nice," Aeve snapped defensively, immediately regretting the tone but not the words. He was not responsible for her situation, and had no more chosen his fate than she had. She fingered the fringe of the shawl, eyes downcast. "They have been very kind to me… To us." Quieter she added: "They undid what I have caused."
She did not hear him approach, for all his heavy mail and his usual lack of discretion; but suddenly he was standing before her, and she dared not move for fear of both scaring him off and inviting him closer.
Sveyn's hand was warm on her skin as he touched a bent finger to her chin, pushing it up. "Don't," he said. "I don't blame you, I was angry myself." He let his arm fall, and Aeve guessed how much effort the gesture had cost him. The armor he still wore, and the smiles he persisted in flashing her, drank his strength by the minute.
"You're wounded," she blurted out and reached out to touch his neck, but pulled away at the last moment. "Get out of this mail, and let me take a look." She blushed at his suggestive smile, but her embarrassment was dampened by the fact that it was laden with more exhaustion than innuendo. Still, as often before, she did not know how to respond with something else than annoyance or embarrassment, and their halting conversation drew to an end. This was a familiar scheme of flirting against uneasy silence, a ground she had never found her way out of, and one Sveyn mastered beyond challenge.
It could not be all there was to them, was it? Would things always end up on this terrain, all seriousness eclipsed by pretend light-heartedness. Sveyn would never love her if she could not match up to his banter. She almost resented the elves for having answered her that day, in the woods, for leaving her with the knowledge of the truth and an impossible choice – almost. She did not want to imagine what would have happened to Sveyn had they not done so.
He is often charming, but rarely in earnest, she remembered Gwillin's words about Glorfindel. In that instant, she missed the elf's honesty.
"Stop it," she sighed, to Sveyn's obvious surprise as he opened his mouth for what had to be another witty line. "You don't mean it – any of it. I don't want your jokes, I don't want your flirting. It's all you ever do... And if you want me - all of me, the good and the bad - this will have to change."