1. Chapter 1
- Chapter 1 -
The Hoarwell has its source high in the Misty Mountains, and its waters carry the cold gathered during the journey through the icy peaks. It flows deep and dark, through the plains of Eriador, until it finally joins the Bruinen.
Before this crossing, in a peaceful valley, lies the small human settlement of Black Oak. It is of no strategic importance whatsoever, claimed by neither shadow nor resistance's forces during the War of the Ring. Only echoes of the battle had reached the village folk, who make their living from the earth, like their fathers and their fathers' fathers before them. Not much has changed for these people since Sauron's fall and the arrival of Elessar to the throne of Gondor.
At one time, the villagers saw to see elves dancing in clearings in the nearby forests, or heard their enchanting songs in the evenings. But elves have since left these shores, and no more do the people of Black Oak remember them, or mention them other than in their legends. Those wondrous creatures, the race of the Firstborn, are now said to be a myth, the tales of encounters blamed on their ancestors' credulity and primitive beliefs.
Little did the inhabitants of Black Oak know that the legends were about to resurface.
The first rays of the morning sun glided lazily up the white peaks of the Misty Mountains. Once over this obstacle, the light poured down into the valley like water out of a broken dam. The sun invaded Black Oak, glistening on the slate roofs moist with dew.
Above the village, on a small hill unclaimed by farmers and overgrown with tall, yellow grass spared by a kind winter, stood an ancient oak tree, the namesake of the settlement. Its roots ran deep into the earth, its leaves remembered the songs of the Eldar that the wind used to carry.
In the shadow of the tree, leaning against its massive trunk, sat a man shrouded from head to toe in a dark cloak. Hidden from curious eyes by the curtain of grass, he watched the village, his long pale fingers playing distractedly with an early flower.
The air above the plain was beginning to shimmer with the upcoming heat, and the first day of spring promised to be exceptionally sunny and warm. The ground was cold, though, as the silhouette noted with distaste. He jumped slightly as an identical silhouette emerged from behind him, and sat down as well.
'What are you doing?' asked the newcomer in a low voice.
The watcher wrinkled his nose in annoyance. 'Dancing and singing, brother, can you not tell?'
His brother cocked an eyebrow under his hood. 'I have seen you come here for nearly twenty years,' he said. 'And still I don't understand what you find so interesting in this settlement.' His keen eyes scanned the village and its surroundings. 'Well, it's certainly not hostile,' he said, as the first watcher remained stubbornly silent. 'And I can see no strategic asset…' He glanced at his brother in annoyance. 'By the stars, Elrohir, what is it that you find so fascinating?'
'Be quiet!' hissed Elrohir, swatting him on the arm. He continued to watch the settlement, noting how it seemed to spring to life, the people starting their day and their work. His brother shifted impatiently beside him, obviously expecting an explanation; none came, so he settled down beside Elrohir, silent and unmoving. If his thousands of years had taught him something, it was patience.
As the sun crossed the sky, nearing its solstice, Elrohir suddenly leaned forward, seemingly drawn to what was happening in the village. Awakened from his own reverie, Elladan followed his gaze.
The door of one of the shabbier-looking houses opened, and a small figure emerged, pulling a wooden pail too heavy for its form. The gait was crooked and irregular, and the young woman – for it was a young woman, almost still a girl – struggled with the weight of the bucket.
Elrohir's heart constricted painfully in his chest, as always, at the sight of the crippled girl in the plain below. Guilt washed over him once again in a powerful and crushing wave. If only he had been more careful that night, if only he had listened to his twin and Glorfindel…
Elladan frowned, his eyes going from his brother to the girl. 'A mortal?' he said. 'Please, Elrohir, tell me it's not what I think it is.'
The watcher sighed, and ran a thin, pale hand though his dark hair. 'I wish I could tell you what you want to hear,' he sighed. 'But you have guessed right.'
His brother pinched the bridge of his nose in a gesture so alike to his father. 'Elrohir,' he almost growled, 'She is mortal.'
The other elf smiled sadly. 'She is.'
Elladan cocked an eyebrow. 'I am not sure whether your lack of concern on the matter is a good or a very bad sign,' he said. 'But I certainly hope you are not serious.'
Elrohir rose to his feet and checked that their presence had remained unnoticed. He needed not worry; the young woman seemed in too much trouble with her task to notice anything else. 'In fact I am, brother' he said quietly. Elladan's reaction, though annoying, had been foreseen, and showed nothing else than the intense brotherly love the two elven twins shared. It pained Elrohir to realize his brother would guess his intentions any minute now – and he knew what would follow. He heard distinctly the screech as Elladan gritted his teeth.
'Brother,' Elladan hissed, leaping to his feet and catching Elrohir's arm in a vise-like grip. 'Tell me you are not thinking about following Arwen's footsteps.'
'Not here, Elladan,' growled Elrohir, shaking his brother hand away. He cast one long, regretful look towards the village, and started to walk down the small hill. Elladan followed without a word more, but his impatient silence promised a long and unpleasant discussion once out of reach of human ears.
The Hall of Fire was deserted. Night had descended upon Imladris, and the long shadows cast by the flames seemed to fill the room, reminiscent of the evenings once held in the Last Homely House; memories of happier times. Elladan squatted by the fireplace, kindling the fire until it warmed up the chill air of the empty hall.
'A solemn place to talk, brother,' noted Elrohir dryly as he discarded the cloak – a precaution against human eyes, more for their protection than his.
'And it is a grave matter we must speak of,' countered his twin. 'Hence my choice.' He settled down into one of the chairs; Elrohir sat down beside him, stretching his legs towards the flames. They remained silent for a while; choosing their words as one would plan a battle. Finally Elladan spoke. 'For how long has it been going on?'
His brother snorted. 'Brother, you are talking of it as if it were some crime.' Elladan's gaze darkened, but he didn't comment; Elrohir chose to answer. 'A year,' he whispered.
'And you never told me.'
'I expected your reaction.'
Elladan glanced at him sharply. 'And still you persisted.'
Elrohir bit back an angry retort, suppressing the urge to tell his brother that he was free to do whatever pleased him. He knew that only concern and fear dictated Elladan's smothering protectiveness and that, were it his twin who walked on the edge of mortality, he, Elrohir, would have reacted in the same panicked manner. 'I did not choose, Elladan,' he explained instead. 'I am not my heart's master anymore; therefore I must yield to its desires.'
'And you desire to die?' Elrohir inhaled sharply at the question, and glanced at his brother in reproach. Elladan caught his stare. 'I am sorry,' he said softly. 'But you must understand that this reminds me rather painfully of memories that I'd rather not awaken.'
'I know.' The thoughts of Arwen hung in the air between them. 'I miss her too. But I am beginning to understand her point of view.'
Elladan shifted in his seat. 'Eärendil,' he murmured, 'I am beginning to wonder whether it is not a curse, this choice of ours.'
'Or a way to test us more…' Elrohir sighed. 'I am sorry for your pain, brother. But a choice lies before me: suffer, or have you suffer instead.' He smiled wryly. 'It appears that I am a very selfish being.'
The two brothers sat in silence, reflections of one another; but that mirror was beginning to shatter. 'Promise me you will think about it,' said Elladan suddenly. 'This is not a decision one should make lightly.' He held up his hand as Elrohir frowned in annoyance. 'Peace, brother. Hear me out. If you choose to remain with me, I will be happy; selfish as it sounds, I know you will consider it. And one day we will sail, and see adar and naneth again. Do you not miss them? In Valinor, your feeling will remain, pure and alive. You can carry her memory over the sea, and love her forever.'
Elrohir could not deny it; he remained silent.
'If you stay… True, you will see her. But what certainty do you have that she will return your feelings? And if she does… She is human. Not everyone is as constant in their feelings as Estel was. One day she will tire of the newness and the magic of elven love; she will leave you, and you will be left – alone, for I can not bear to remain and witness it – to wither away and die. Remember what human death means, Elrohir. It is a lonely, painful agony that seems to have no end; your body refuses to obey your mind and betrays you in the most humiliating ways. You will crawl, you will weep, and die. And never see your family again, as we will never see you. If not for your own sake, then for ours – reconsider it. Have we not lost enough already?'
Arathorn. Estel. Arwen.
The faces of those loved and lost flashed in Elrohir's mind. Elladan was right, of course.
'I will think about it,' he conceded half-heartedly, and his twin smiled.
'It is all I can ask,' he said softly.