When the days of freedom are numbered, you long to turn back the hands of time and you refuse to believe to be caught in the snares of imprisonment, entrapped in its noose, choking. Once the air grows sparse and sparser, you simply try to breathe more vigorously. You close the fingers around the rope, only to realise that it were your own struggles that tightened the noose...
Through the shades of the forest gnarled branches reached from dark trees. Fog hung deep between trunks. The smell of the forest should have warned her. The mute whisper of the trees in the wafting wind and the shallow darkness, yarning, threading, gaining ground. And yet it was curiosity that drove her further into the gloom, and beyond the trees a reverberating laugh that seemed familiar. A hunter, stalking. When Aredhel realised her mistake, it was already too late.
Of a sudden the green turned into grey. Out of nothing the shadows swallowed her. Frantic Aredhel spun around, glancing to one side, then the other, only to realise there weren't sides any more. The bark of the woods furrowed open, dissolved into ashen mists. There was no escaping the slavering fingers, dragging her deeper and deeper into the void.
The world stood still, only a weathered rope swung from the highest tree, flying in the wind, and the noose was tightening. Aredhel drew a heavy breath, though she could get no air. An attempt doomed to fail. The narrow ghost light falling upon her eyes was strangely dim, and she could barely perceive her surroundings. Lost, astray in nothingness, ever further down into darkness.
Greedily the deep dragged her down, claiming her, and the fear never again to resurface from the thicket became overwhelming. Aredhel screamed and raged, fought against the gloom. Furiously she lashed out, and she wept until the tears blurred her vision and her voice even failed to produce another sob. Where were gladness and joy? Blighted, lost through her own reckless ideas.
Her hands groped blindly in the darkness, felt razor-sharpness and the tearing of skin, warm blood on the tips of her fingers.
Her hair was caught in slavering hands, spider-fingers scratching over her thighs. Fair legs were revealed by yielding fabric. They ought not be seen, and naked terror loomed in Aredhel's mind. She was plunged into the maws of black cruelty, crashed hard on the ground. A tempest swept billows of dread across her and she could not move, entrapped by unseeing blackness. Her lips opened slightly, begged unfathomably for deliverance, a salvation she had not even known to need. Curiosity as a harbinger of doom. Hope run dry inside her as her strength to resist the unknown failed utterly. Her keen spirit, succumbed to panic-stricken flight, was fading. Yet on the very fringes of her consciousness she sensed a silhouette adrift. Another shadow fused to the gloom, that led and steered her. Through the mist it reached out for her, seized her.
The grim figure's stride was controlled, determined, and Aredhel's weak struggle was lost in the tight grasp of her saviour. Any attempt to escape was thwarted, before she could follow it through, and so knowingly she let herself fall into the unknown.
Only the arms that carried her and the strange buzz that sounded like the hiss of metal in cold water stayed her, held her. Under the cool touch of unfamiliar hands her mind burst open, and she allowed herself to sink into oblivion. Aredhel surrendered while the streaks of darkness settled into the corners of her eyes, and she fell deep, into an ocean of lightless waves, smothering her.
The first thing she became aware of again, was the song of a bird, high above in the tangle of green twigs. Bright buds sprang from small branches. Aredhel turned her head in amazement as she watched the fresh canopy of leaves. Only a moment ago the leaves had fallen, now to burgeon anew into a roof of picturesque beauty, touched by the faint light of a spring-sun. Aredhel blinked a few times against the burning sensation, until she managed to lift her lids completely to greet the day. It was peculiar for the sun to be so low, a bit as if it was ashamed and doubtful, whether its beams were allowed in this sphere.
Aredhel found herself in a clearing. A lonesome circle surrounded by dense bushes, onto which mysteriously the only light of this enchanted forest seemed to fall. Her figure shone under the blossoming twigs and the white of her dress was radiating like fresh-fallen snow in the dark. Only slowly comprehension began to dawn upon Aredhel that her robes could not be as tidy and trim after her infernal journey through the murky branchwood as now it appeared. But perhaps after the impenetrable blackness anything would have seemed bright and pure.
Aredhel looked around. She realised that she did not know where she was. A numb feeling of uncertainty tried to seize her, but Aredhel shook it off by sheer force of will. A step taken on unknown ground that began to tremble audaciously. Hazy shadows retreated before her foot and the light followed her strides through the darkness with striking precision.
With a faint smile, Aredhel lept from one spot to the next, danced a bright path through the thicket. She threw off the terror of the recent past with a cheerful laugh as her usual exuberance returned. It was glorious to move about freely. The chirping of the birds followed her on her way, escorted her on her luminous dance through the gloom, delighted in her euphoric laughter, her blithesome eyes. Aredhel hummed with them and at first did not pick up on the tiny discord amidst their chorus. Not until she paused and listened, the faint noise was discernable. A clanking and clinking. A hammer on steel.
Initially Aredhel was inclined to hesitate, precaution too close after recent events. But naturally once more her curiosity prevailed. With determined strides she floated over the forest floor, white mist in a sea of darkness. And with the pursuit of this unusual sound, she unwittingly sealed her fate.
Aredhel did not immediately see him, so much did he resemble the dark background. Only the whistling of the forge made the Elf visible, let his sombre figure glow. His shape was broad and sturdy, shorter for an Elf than Aredhel was used to. At the same time there was a well-defined sharpness about him, as if his body was a single, solid blade, that could rip the world asunder with one small gesture. Yet it was the short, scarcely perceivable glance that he threw her, which made Aredhel's mind swim. For the first time in her life she was speechless.
She was not certain whether he had actually spoken the words, for his lips had hardly moved. He was busy with staring at the fluid, black metal that spread in the die.
"Eöl“, he said in a shallow tone, the head tilted. He opened his arms in welcome. "This is Nan Elmoth, my home.“
Aredhel did not have to will herself to smile. After all the frightening events it was reassuring to meet another Elf. She was quite sure that at the moment she needed nothing but his company.
As if Eöl had guessed her thoughts, his eyes darted over her, a swift sweep of his dark eyes over her bright figure. Perhaps his eyes could not linger upon her for long enough. "Would you stay?“
Aredhel nodded without thinking, and Eöl's cold gaze flared in the gleam of the fire.
Aredhel quickly realised how taciturn he was. Not a word passed his lips, as she sat tentatively silent across him in the tall armchair, apart from his own the only one in the room. Deep grains and scrollwork were varnished into the filigree wood. Aredhel's fingers brushed gently against the hollows in the white timber. The narrow stilts supporting the seat seemed strangely incongruous in the circular dining chamber. A solitary candle snaked a weak flame into the room and its pitiful light was barely sufficient to make Eöl visible against the dark stone walls. Only when he moved, the shadows flickered and his obscure shape shimmered against the background in a grotesque manner.
His bearing was fluent, elegant, every lifting and lowering of his arms like an incision in the hall, a cut through the air. As if he could – by sheer power of will – tear even the invisible to shreds. His sharp features were barely perceivable, deliberately he stuck to the shadows and his eyes were so distant, so shrouded by deep, unfathomable memory, Aredhel did not dare ask him about it.
"Eat.“ It was a snappish order and Aredhel nearly flinched, when so unexpectedly she heard his voice. The word did not reverberate through the room, was spoken without majesty or haughtiness, and yet Aredhel sensed consequences roll towards her, should she not yield. A bit like Curvo, it flashed through her mind, as she lifted the fork and felt the delicate silver under the tips of her fingers.
"You are a smith“, she stated eventually and shivering drew her bright sleeves over her hands. A few threads came loose from her unusual riding clothes and it almost seemed embarassing to have encountered her host like this.
He distorted his mouth, as if he had bitten on something acrid, and ignored Aredhel's words.
"You lost your way in the woods.“ He did not even look up, the eyes still lowered, fixed to his plate. She chewed slowly, very carefully and briefly considered, whether raising a quarrel with this stranger would be worth the effort. At last good sense prevailed in assuring her that an argument with Eöl most certainly would not benefit her, for she knew too little about him.
"Usually I do not“, she qualified his statement, scraping her fork over the plate. The resulting sound was faint and the delicate metal-work did not bend in the slightest. Aredhel had spent enough time in Curufin's company to recognise a masterpiece. When she finally broke her attention away from the teeth of the fork, she had almost missed Eöl's fading smile. Unwavering he had examined her. Aredhel grew strangely uneasy, for beyond the glow of candle light Eöl's assessment of her lurked in concise clarity. Aredhel adjusted herself in her seat.
"You don't?“ her host said, voice dark and husky. Aredhel shivered under his gaze.
Distract him, flee, something screamed inside her, and without realising it, she made another mistake. "I grew up in the forest. With my cousins. Every summer we spent there, in the green groves of Aman, where the light of the trees only sparsely illuminated the hills and one could catch the sight of the stars beneath Telperion's silver sheen.“
The laughter that sprung from Aredhel's memory echoed oddly from the rounded stones and their gloom seemed to banish all mirth from the sound, and thus Aredhel quickly stopped laughing. It appeared too inappropriate.
Eöl had not even looked at her. His eyes were stubbornly focussed on his plate, as if her words were beneath his dignity and her cheerfulness out of place.
"This house was once built for starlight“, he said. His words were short, ended breathless, as if he were not used to speaking. In his Sindarin Aredhel could discern a distant, desolate accent that was at the same time familiar and foreign.
He rolled the words gently on his tongue, back and forth. Yet he did not taste them, but spit them out with a grace he only granted them with reluctance. Undoubtedly Eöl looked upon his utterance as if he himself was not sure whether he had struck the right tone. Or as if Eöl was all too aware that the pathetic sounds failed to express what he actually felt.
Without meaning to a faint smile crept upon Aredhel's lips. A soft memory wavering on her mind, made her heart light and delivered her from the persistent onslaught of sorrow that longed to surge through her. The picture of a young, arrogant Elf stood out against the otherwise confused threads of her thoughts and took a well-defined shape. Eyes gleamed from the tenuous haze, glittering with teasing and mockery. The armes crossed over his chest, the hair drawn back tightly and artfully braided. But this elf had smiled at her cheerfully, had taken her hand and shown her a world of joy.
Eöl however was different. He only smiled when she was confounded, when bitterness was sparking inside her, because he would not look at her, when she spoke, or dismiss her words as vanities. He hurt her. But instead of withdrawing, she tried, again and again, to gain his attention and every time she succeeded, and his fingers brushed over her arm or she was rewarded with an appreciative smile, an invaluable fire was kindled inside her, a flame she would not want to miss, even if it was only for a short time that she was granted its warmth.
It took a strangely long time for her to get used to his erratic company, to his lack of manners when it came to dealing with other beings, to the way he abruptly emerged from the shadows, that prevented her from ever finding out a pattern in his behaviour or a system to guess his movements.
Eöl spoke his name only once, and never asked for hers, so Aredhel held herself back, until one evening she succumbed once more to his scrutiny as she lay in the bath, enjoying the hot water. He had approached her without a sound, sat suddenly behind the metal-tub and stroked her black tresses and pale arms. It was a strange contrast, when his surprisingly dark fingers settled on the whiteness of her skin, and she marvelled at the strength of his forearms in the flickering candle light.
Perhaps she had too rarely tasted closeness to wonder about the circumstance, or Eöl's presence had become so familiar already, but Aredhel did not ask herself any longer, if maybe it was not good manners to disturb a noble lady taking a bath. Only the candles twinkled warningly, cast a dim light, twisting the surroundings. Perhaps she was only curious.
"You light too many of them“, Eöl said, his voice oddly rough as he spoke too close to her ear. Warm breath brushed over her neck and made Aredhel tremble, yet it softened the harshness of his reproach. It was a wave of his hand that extinguished the light as Aredhel submerged and slipped from his stroking fingers.
Eöl's eyes never flinched when he gazed into the forge or pounded metal with utter diligence, pressed it into forms of glass or cast it into elaborate silver flowers, to line the hallway to Aredhel's chambers. Obviously he rather wanted the metal to bend and to break, to mould it to his will, than – as Curufin aspired - to bring its form to perfection. It was not beauty Eöl longed for – even though he liked to look at it – but submission.
"How long have I been here?“ she asked when he pulled the shining metal from the forge, its blazing heart's glow illuminating his eyes. His gaze told her how foolish he deemed the question, how gratuitous that it had been posed, but Aredhel did not stand down. She had learned to deal with him.
"Twelve full cycles of the moon“, Eöl said simply and weighed the blade with an appraising look, before he plunged it back into the blaze and blew hissing air into the forge.
Aredhel grew cold despite the fire.
Therefor the ring, therefor the rare smile. But did he even know of the custom? And if so, how could she possibly deny him? She was trapped, lost in a forest of dismal promises.
"If you were to wed me-“, he said suddenly, sparks running over his damaged skin.
Aredhel could not shake the disquieting feeling that he knew what she had just thought about. "- I would permit you to roam the woods, just like your cousin of whom you speak so often.“
She had underestimated him. Of course she had. Because who would believe that in a one-sided conversation one colloquist would pay attention to the redundant ramblings of the other, or even remember them? Aredhel would not have dreamed of it and thus unconsciously, she had revealed everything about her, had exchanged freedom for companionship. Once more she felt as if he had her put in iron shackles that bereft her of air and rendered her breathless.
"You will be my ruin“, Aredhel said that evening, which had been as silent as so many before. Eöl had not repeated his request, his demand. Yet still Aredhel let the cutlery fall onto the wood in a loud clatter and stared at him angrily. A smile adorned Eöl's thin lips, twisting their corners. Dark shadows overcast his sharp face and all glee seemed to have vanished from his gloomy expression. Without taking really note of her fit of anger, he raised the spoon to his mouth. "I already am.“
Aredhel paused involuntarily. She could have, should have known. Yet with a frown she kept silent and endured. Too inestimable a price.
Along with her laughter - bit by bit, little by little - all joy and cheerfulness disappeared, all memories of the golden, distant life she had once led, and Aredhel grew deaf to everything around her. No bird chirped when she opened the window, and all the dishes of Eöl's table tasted the same, bland and stale. She slept for long hours and only woke when the sun stood high in the sky, and Aredhel banished it behind thick, blue curtains, for she could not bear its light any more. The days passed and became evermore hollow and meaningless.
Only when she was with Eöl, they seemed tolerable. She missed the blithe laughter of long-forgotten lady's maids, the song of the fountains and the play of the flutes. Aredhel did not dare ask him for it. He did not seem to mind the empty house, the lack of light, the fact that there was no one but her to share the joys and pleasures. For it was her upon whom he bestowed all of his favour.
Eöl gave her birds made from glass, filled with white pearls and precious jewellery wrought from silver and gold, and yet he never asked her if she liked his gifts. He knew of course that he was a master of his trade and that Aredhel would never again see anything more beautiful than his presents.
She suspected that Eöl hid something from her, as he had done even before their first meeting. It was this certainty that held her, the foreboding of a secret, that she was still to discover, something lying dormant in Eöl, that she did not know about, and again her curiosity won out over reason. She sensed the danger and yet she was incapable to escape it. And Aredhel waited, until one day she yielded and threatened to beat him in his own game of hide and seek.
Her mind scarcely registered his words as his hands ran over her sides, chased by a soft tingle. It had been so long since last she had been touched and the distant memory of lost affection mingled with the feel of his fingers, that seemed so similar to familiar hands. Calluses from swinging a forging hammer. Without meaning to Aredhel leaned into the touch, closed her eyes and allowed her body to tremble, distinctly enough for Eöl to notice. A promise lay within her and the echo of missed tenderness.
"I have to warn you“, he muttered against her neck. "I will not part with anything I have taken a liking to.“ She twisted in his embrace, but Eöl evaded her gaze, eyes dark and unreadable.
"Perhaps I don't want you to“, she whispered and felt his hands on her hips, the white ribbons wound tight around his fingers. He pulled her close with such swift a move, Aredhel almost stumbled. But Eöl caught her and forced her chin upwards and then he kissed her. Aredhel felt like she should have tasted her own foolishness on his lips, her self-betrayal and his all-too bitter triumph. Yet the sweetness of promises washed away any doubt. She let go, surrendered and was convinced to do the right thing. Later she would call herself naive. But now for the first time she understood why Celegorm had deemed her reckless.
They staggered through the confusing corridors of Eöl's home, lit by spots of starlight. Shapes of white and black alternating. Their bodies gathering, absorbing each other, seeking their opposite. Aredhel did not register how they clashed, how Eöl's arms pulled too tight to merely express affection.
It was his door she kicked open with a clumsy foot. It was his body that pressed her into the room, hot and demanding. It were his sheets he lay her upon. Too late, Aredhel realised that she was to become a part of Eöl and his history.
"I shall hold you“, he whispered, his lips rough against hers, while his tongue sought its way into her mouth, and yet his hands slipped from her body and he released her from his iron grasp. Eöl's eyes shone dark, like the coals in the forge, half an eternity ago. Aredhel kept her gaze steady, unrelentingly tangled with his. Perhaps she wanted to provoke him, perhaps the other way around. Eöl kept on kissing her, eyes open.
With every pressure of his lips he tried to get even closer. His body weighed heavy upon her, his arousal obvious. But his hands were far from gentle caresses, far from saving grasp or protecting embrace. With every movement he pushed Aredhel deeper into the sheets, which were floating around their melting bodies, tinged by darkness, and she fell ever further. Eöl's eyes gleamed menacingly as Aredhel kept hers still open, kept defying him, withstanding him.
Finally it was Eöl who gave in. With a sound resembling a faint hiss he tore his mouth away from her and leaned back. Immediately Aredhel braced herself on her lower arms and arched into him, breast heaving and falling heavily. Once again breath had become most precious. Eöl curled his lips as if savouring her taste with an expression of surprised satisfaction, while he examined her.
Absent-mindedly he ran his hand over his lower lip, smearing the sheen that still bore witness to their kiss; then, unexpectedly, he reached out. Aredhel willed herself not to flinch as the cold wisp of movement struck her. She was convinced to have imagined the crooked smile on his face, and she swallowed. His picture still engulfed her like a net of black silk.
"I will be gentle.“ His lie dripped from his lips like molten silver, gleaming feebly in the starlight. Some of it trickled through to Aredhel, but it was not intense enough to warn her against her intention.
Eöl's fingers skimmed the air, scantly above Aredhel's skin, just close enough so she could sense the touch, yet too far away to withhold the cruel nature of his game. Long shadows were gliding over her cheekbones, following Aredhels trembling body, that wanted to surrender to the duplicitous caress. And when Eöl honestly laughed – for the first time in her presence – Aredhel's downfall was sealed. She saw in her shimmery angle of view the outline of forgotten pleasure. Later she could not say, if it had been hers or his. She closed her eyes and surrendered.
"It must hurt.“ Aredhel did not look at him as she wrapped the white sheet closer around her body, pulled it up over her bared breast to evade his scrutiny. Her fingers appeared pale around the too-soft down. His gaze weighed heavy on her and of a sudden she felt disgusted by herself.
Why could he not speak up to ask forgiveness for his roughness? Why did he have to stand in front of the bed, undressed and dazed by past pleasure, staring down on her, as if to celebrate his triumph? Why could he not softly whisper, that he was sorry he had lost control, that it would never happen again? Aredhel would have believed every lie, would have embraced it with sympathetic ears and faithful heart, its sweetness so much more bearable than the bitter truth.
Yet he did not speak. His dark strands of hair mingled with hers, and she shrank back, did not want him too close, turned to her side, when she felt the extra weight on the mattress, when he wanted to reach for her. The unspoken words hung threateningly in the air and forbade her to surrender to his attempted caress.
Aredhel's hands tensed up and she drew her lower lip between her teeth. The metallic taste of blood flowed down her throat, filled her, disgusted her. It took all her willpower to suppress the urge to wretch. Not in front of him. Not while he was looking at her.
But the burning on her skin did not ease, not even when the rustling of fabric was audible and Eöl rose and, stepping towards the solitary window, began drumming his finger tips against the frame. Each time the iron grilles connected, a faint clinging was to be heard. Cold moonlight cast his smile in a grotesque shadow.
"Does it?“ Her voice was hoarse, as if she had not used it for a long time, even though she knew the opposite to be true. She swallowed the bitter taste on her tongue.
His shape loomed menacingly at the head of bed, sudden, out of the darkness. Although Aredhel did not move, did not grant him the satisfaction of pulling away, she did know that he felt the surging, smothering fear, that crept up her legs.
The blanket slipped and revealed her body. Silvery her beautiful skin gleamed when Eöl turned towards her. His dark brows knit together into a grim frown and his hard features strove with the darkness.
“There is nothing that will hide you from me.” His words sounded deliberate, and yet as if he was reciting an established wording. No escaping the inevitable. No change of facts.
A confident leap, a groan of the mattress, a creak of the bed frame. Nimbly Eöl knelt on the white sheets, his arms burnt with the dark streaks left by forge and smithery. His eyes glowed in the gloom, when he crept towards Aredhel who still did not move.
From the hunter to the hunted.
“When you crossed the border-” The voice was low but awfully piercing, it dug deep into Aredhel's belly, poisoned her, as the sting of realisation tore into her like a barbed hook. Eöl's smile was fuelled by knowledge, secret knowledge that he had kept to himself, that he had hidden from her. “- I waited for you.”
From honour to shame.
Blindly she had walked right into his trap, like an incautious fawn. Unrestrained and reckless. Realisation hit her like lightning. Aredhel had become the victim of a game, in which she was but a pawn. A game whose rules she did not know or understand, and she had never realised it.
Eöl's hands closed around her white thighs, his thumbs tracing their insides. The contrast of her bodies appeared suddenly surreally stark. She felt sick.
From light to shadow.
“I shall not yield”, she hissed, an attempted opposition, resistance. Aredhel slapped his hands away and leapt from the bed, although she knew it was to no avail. She was already too entangled in Eöl's net.
From truth to self-deception.
His wintery laugh chased her down the corridor, would haunt her to her last breath.