The Well by Keiliss

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MEFA 2011 Second Place
Beta: [info]red_lasbelin


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The Well



“I tell you, I’m not making it up,” Elrohir insisted, outraged at the very suggestion he was lying to his siblings. “I saw it clear as, clear as I can see Wen here. It – he came around the apple tree and was walking straight at me.”

“Straight at you?” Elladan selected a nut from the bowl beside him on the window seat and flicked it at his twin. “Yes, I’m sure it – he did. And was there some reason you didn’t stop to ask who he was and why he was skulking around the gardens in the dead of night… which reminds me, what were you doing out there so late?”

“Rohir’s got a girlfriend, Rohir’s got a girlfriend,” Arwen crowed,  her tone suggesting how rare the possibility was. “Or a boyfriend. Not sure any right-thinking girl would want one of you…”

“Shut up, Wen,” Elladan said good-naturedly. “I want to hear this. You have a girlfriend you’ve not told me about, brother?”

Elrohir gave Arwen a scathing look, which had little effect on his sister. “I do not have a girlfriend… do not currently have a girlfriend, I mean. Because I’m concentrating on my studies. Healing takes a lot of concentration. I wanted some air before bed, that’s all. And that’s not the point. The point is, there was a – a being of some kind in the garden. I didn’t try and talk to it, to him, because I didn’t know what to say. Aren’t the Houseless supposed to be dangerous?”

“Oh that’s just one of those stories people tell, like the one about Grandmother turning into a bird,” Arwen scoffed. “Ada says they’re imaginative but misguided. How can someone dead hurt us?”

Elrohir looked uncertain. Elladan, who had completed the basics of his warrior training, tried to sound nonchalant. “She’s right, they can’t really hurt us. Anyhow, I still think you saw a visitor or maybe someone who lives down the valley that you don’t know by sight.”

“If it’s one of the Houseless, he’ll come back to the same place at the same time till the moon phase changes,” Arwen said with certainty. 

Her brothers stared at her. “How do you know that?” Elladan asked, though the idea had a kind of resonance for him as soon as he heard it.

“I read it in one of Erestor’s books.” Arwen’s tone defied argument. “And the moon’s just finished waning, so that gives us the rest of the week to catch Elrohir’s unquiet fëa and find out what’s troubling him.”

-------

“I’m going back, this is stupid.”

“We’ve hardly been here any time at all. It just feels like it because there’s no moon, but it happened round about now…”

“You said that ages ago. And this rock is getting damn hard under my backside.”

“Some warrior you’ll be, can’t even stake out a ghost.”

“You think he’s a ghost. Are you sure this is even the right tree? There’s apple trees all over the place down here.”

“Of course he knows which tree it was. Your friends will still be in the Hall when we’re done, you don’t have to be in such a rush to get back.” Arwen sat decorously on a flat stone eating an apple she had kept with her from dinner. 

Elladan glared at her and was about to reply when the air suddenly seemed to grow cold and the shadows beneath the trees become darker. Elrohir reached over and grabbed his twin’s wrist as he used to when they were children. “There,” he hissed. “Over there. Look!”

A shadowy form stood where moments before there had been no one. He seemed to be an elf, quite tall and of average build, but due perhaps to the gloom beneath the trees, his features were strangely hard to distinguish. The air grew colder still, chilling their skin. Arwen had the apple half raised to her mouth and seemed frozen in place; the twins sat motionless, staring as the figure moved slowly towards them. Memories of childhood tales of Houseless elves invading the bodies of the living were reflected in the horrified gaze Elladan and Elrohir turned on one another and in Arwen’s almost inaudible whisper of “Nonono….” 

The ghostly figure raised a hand, beckoning, and the spell that had seemed to hold the trio in place was broken. Arwen shot to her feet, moving backwards, and the twins stumbled up as one. Elladan grabbed his sister’s arm and the three fled back to the house, feet pounding the ground far louder than was customary for an elf. Not looking to see if they were being followed, they charged through the side door with Elrohir marginally in the lead. There was no discussion, they knew where to go. Their parents lived in the family suite almost on the other side of the house, but there was a closer safe haven and they headed straight for it.

It took more than one set of frantic knocks before Erestor opened his door to them. Ordinarily the sight of their father’s Seneschal in casual clothes and with his long hair unaccustomedly unbound would have given them pause, but taking no heed they pushed their way into his sitting room, all talking at once.

“It was there, right by the apple tree…”

“Erestor, we saw one of the Houseless, right outside the Peony door…”

”Erestor, Elrohir found a ghost and it chased us…”

A calm voice from near the fire cut through the babble of information. “A ghost? What in Arda is this about?” 

No one had expected to find Glorfindel here. His hair was tousled and his shirt partly untucked, but none of the young elves was in any state of mind to take note of this or question his presence. Instead, Elladan made an effort to pull himself together in the presence of the legendary warrior. “Sir, my brother saw one of the Houseless last night and tonight we waited for it and, and he came back. Under one of the apple trees, just like Elrohir said. And he called us…”

Erestor favoured the three nodding heads with a jaundiced look. The twins were taller than him now they had their full growth and Arwen, who took after her grandmother in build, was eye level with him, but he still managed to give the impression of looking down at them as he had when they were younger. “Let me get this right. You’re telling me you saw a ghost, a disembodied fëa …?” He held up a hand to stem the new tide of description and explanation. “Outside. Now. Show me.”

Glorfindel, who had tucked in his shirt, replaced his jerkin and pushed his hair back out of his face, crossed to the door. Opening it, he exchanged an eloquent look with Erestor then silently indicated his lord’s offspring should go first. 

-------

“But it was there.”

They were back in the drafty entrance hall after a fruitless search of the stand of apple trees. It was a quiet, seldom-visited corner of the house, and the light from the torches in their wall sconces did little to relieve the basic paintwork and plain wood flooring. Glorfindel stood near the door, and not for the first time in their lives, the twins and Arwen formed a dispirited little half circle facing Erestor. 

“Really Elrohir, I work a long enough day to have the right to expect my evenings to be undisturbed by childish pranks. You are all far too old for this kind of nonsense.”

“But Erestor…”

“And as the eldest I expect you to know better, Elladan. Now go off to your rooms or wherever you’d normally spend this part of the evening, and I don’t want to hear another word about this.”

“But Erestor, it really, really was there. It was!” Arwen turned huge eyes first on her father’s Seneschal and then on Glorfindel, both to no avail even though Glorfindel was a relatively new arrival in the valley and less likely to be immune to one of her wistful stares.

Erestor raised an arm and pointed down the hallway. “Go on, before I decide to make the effort to speak to your mother. I don’t want to hear another word about unquiet spirits or whatever that was supposed to have been. Off with you! Right now!”

-------

“It’s darker than last night.”

“Of course it’s darker, it’s cloudy, no starlight. If you ‘re scared you can always go back inside, Wen.”

“Am not scared,” Arwen said, raising her chin indignantly. 

“We can light the lantern again when it’s time to go back,” Elrohir reassured her. “Just don’t want to scare him off with light.”

“Why would light bother him? His eyes aren’t like ours, are they?” Elladan wondered. “I mean, he probably feels rather than sees us. Or – smells us…”

“Why would he be able to smell things if he can’t see? That doesn’t make sense…”

Once more the air around them turned clammy and cold, and the night seemed suddenly darker. “Hush! Look!” Elrohir hissed, putting a warning hand on Arwen’s arm. “Just – don’t run this time. Wait and see what he does.” 

Elladan and Arwen turned as one to follow where he was looking, and there under the same tree stood the indistinct form of the previous evening. Once more the hand was raised beckoning, but this time there was no rush of young elves. Instead, although they drew closer together, they stood still and waited.

“Hello. Can we help you?” Elladan tried, putting all his disbelief in things like restless spirits into the words. Arwen was about to tell him he sounded like a prig when the spectre began moving soundlessly towards them and then past them, almost gliding rather than walking. The siblings exchanged uncertain glances then, with Elrohir in the lead, started after him.

The shadowy being followed a neglected path that led around the side of the house and up the rocky incline it was built against. This was the oldest part of the Last Homely House, well away from the places they had played as children, with rooms used mainly now for storage. Stones slid underfoot, grass and small plants caught their feet, overgrown branches pulled at clothing, and still ahead of them moved the shadowy shape. Elladan no longer argued this was a visitor from down the valley, not when the branches snagging their clothing seemed to pass right through him.

He disappeared around a jutting part of the house, and when they caught up he stood facing a grassy space enclosed on three sides, in the middle of which stood what looked at first sight to be a heap of stones. He must have waited for them, because only when they reached him and stopped, confused, did he continue on his way. This time he walked straight forward, reached the wall of the house – and vanished.

The night went on quietly around them, frogs croaked, somewhere in the distance a fox barked. Little stones dislodged by their passage rolled and skittered softly. Finally Arwen took pity on her brothers, neither of whom would want to be the first to say this, and asked, “Can we light the lantern now? He seems to have gone.”

Elrohir must have been standing ready because tinder scraped and light flared almost instantly. “Hold it up so we can see,” Elladan told him, moving forward.

“It looks like it used to be – I don’t know, a well maybe?” Elrohir asked, moving the lantern from side to side to get a better look at the remains of a round, stone wall.

Arwen went closer. “I think you’re right, it used to have a roof over it and that’s gone now. It – seems to be filled with sand too.”

“Why would he show us an old well?” Elladan puzzled aloud, looking around to see if there was anything they might have missed. 

“I don’t know,” Elrohir told him. ‘But I think it’s time we went back to see what Erestor has to say now.”

-------

They found Erestor with Glorfindel again, this time in the Hall of Fire, deep in conversation over a bottle of wine. They listened to the night’s adventure in silence, mainly because every time Erestor opened his mouth to say something, Glorfindel held up a hand to hush him. When they finished the two older elves exchanged looks.

“May I speak now?” Erestor asked in an overly polite voice. 

Glorfindel chuckled. “Yes you may. I thought we should hear them out properly. No one tries the same prank twice running – at least my brother and I were never that obvious.”

Erestor nodded reluctantly, looking at the siblings. “Where exactly did you say it led you?”

“Round the side of the house, almost up to the cliff,” Arwen answered at once. It was just the kind of place where they had been forbidden to play as children for fear of falling rocks, but they were grown now – almost. “There was an open space and what looked like an old well…?”

Erestor considered, eyes half closed. “I don’t think I’ve been around there at all, never had a reason to. But then I’ve only lived here a few centuries…”

“Elrond will know,” Glorfindel suggested. “And I think it’s high time he was told about this.”

-------

After a long hard look at his children, Elrond’s only comment was that the matter could wait for daylight, that elves might be people of the moon and stars but investigating old wells by lamplight was more than a touch eccentric.

Morning arrived, and after a brief visit to the scene, Elrond co-opted a pair of unwary young warriors to do some digging. The twins and Arwen went along to watch. By daylight the spot was barely less eerie and deserted-looking than it had been by lantern light. The house surrounded it on three sides and the air had an almost oppressive stillness. Elrohir looked up more than a few times to make sure that no shadowy figure was watching them from one of the empty windows.

Elrond only stayed long enough to see the work started, returning in the afternoon to sit and watch from the remains of an ancient wall built to hold back sand. “It was a well, yes,” he told Elladan in answer to his question. “But that was back when the house was quite new. That part over there,” gesturing to an indent in the wall, “was once a door, and the well served the rooms along here. They were mainly temporary quarters for refugees passing through…. Silvan elves, the occasional mortal family…”

A call from one of the diggers interrupted his flow of thought and he straightened up to look at the partially excavated well. Part of the outer wall had been broken away and the hole was by now very deep, with stones and sand piled on two sides. Both warriors had stopped digging and Glorfindel, who had recently arrived, had gone over to join them. Standing between them, he looked down into the hole and then said over his shoulder, “My lord? You had best see this for yourself.”

Age had bleached the bones white so that they stood out clearly against the darker sand. So far only the skull and a part of the ribcage had been uncovered, but Elrond had no hesitation in saying, “A child, very young. And --- I think I know who this might be. Work carefully, dig only with your hands. We’ll need to give her proper burial when this is done.”

He looked around the space they were in, up at the dusty windows of rooms now used for storage, at the bare cliff into which the back of the house was built, and then in the direction of the small orchard. His face was sad and thoughtful. Finally he gave his attention to the twins who had come forward to look and were now speculating in hushed voices as to who had been buried in the well and why.

“Come and find me after dinner. I’ll have a tale to tell you then. Meanwhile, see that this is done with dignity, and give thought to where we can bury her. That should be your responsibility, Elrohir, as you were the one led here.”

Arwen was sitting on the spot he had vacated, and he stopped beside her before leaving. “All right?” he asked quietly. Arwen was bright and fearless, but had a tender heart and thought deeper than most gave her credit for.

She looked up at her father and nodded slowly. “It was a long time ago, wasn’t it?” 

Elrond nodded. “Yes, it was a long time ago. Come tonight with your brothers. I want to talk with a few people who were here back then, to get the story clear again. Then I can share it with you.”

-------

That night the phantom visitor returned to the stand of apple trees, coming into view around the old twisted oak at the edge and moving with slow determination towards the house. Once clear of the trees, he paused as a tall, slender girl rose gracefully from where she had sat waiting on the grass. After a quick glance at him, she set out, tracing his nightly route around the side of the house and towards the cliff. Her intention was clear; this night the living led and the Houseless followed.

When she reached the place where the well had been, Arwen turned to face her ghostly companion. She stood very straight, her shoulders set against fear, her eyes steady. “It’s all right,” she told him. “We found her. It’s all done now. They took her out of the well and we’ll bury her properly tomorrow.”

He seemed to become more tangible, despite the gloom in the shadow of the house. She could make out his hair and clothing now, old fashioned in style, like pictures she had seen of the Second Age. His face was still shadowy and obscure, and she tried not to look too hard in case she became scared again. 

“We know what happened – at least my father thinks so,” she continued, speaking clearly although quietly because the night felt cold and strange. “She was a mortal child, very young, and when she vanished everyone thought she had fallen into the river. Her parents were distraught and left here not long after. Later that same year, there was another tragedy. Someone hanged himself, back there in the apple orchard, though Lindir says it was just a general thicket of trees at the time. No one knew why. His name was Athradon, he was a member of the garrison.” 

She waited for a response but he stood unmoving, apparently waiting for her to go on. She took a breath and licked dry lips, for the first time feeling just the tiniest bit afraid. This side of the house seemed very far away from people and warmth and light… “That well had been failing and was meant to stay covered to prevent accidents. What we think happened was that Athradon removed the cover for some reason, and forgot to put it back. And the little girl was playing,” on her own, happy in the sun, maybe singing, thinking of toys and dinner, “and fell in and drowned in the shallow water at the bottom. And when Athradon realised, he was afraid, and put the cover back, and said nothing.” 

She shook herself, pushed away the image that had come unbidden of a happy child with chestnut hair. Wherever that little soul was, she was safe and far from this place and time. Instead she looked up at her silent companion. “It was an accident,” she said gently. “Careless but unintentional. It was a long time ago. You need to answer the call now and accept Lord Námo’s peace. You were young, too, probably not much older than I am now, and afraid. You’ve done what you can to right the wrong and see her properly buried. You can go home now. Go on, Athradon. Listen for his call and follow it. It’s time to rest.”

Nothing happened for the space of some twenty heartbeats, but as Arwen steeled herself to try again, Athradon’s fëa dipped his head briefly and raised a hand to his chest. He began walking back towards the orchard where his physical life had ended, and with each step his outline became fainter and fainter until finally Arwen blinked and when she looked again there was nothing there, just the night and the trees, their leaves swaying in the light breeze.

She walked slowly over to the crumbling wall where her father had sat earlier and sank down on it, her breath coming light and fast. She was shivering, but it had nothing to do with the night air, which had become far warmer now she was alone.

Light footfalls made her jump and glance instinctively towards the yawning dark of the empty well before turning towards the sound. Erestor came along the path wearing a casual robe and with his black hair tied loosely back. He was making rather more noise than he would normally, almost certainly to avoid frightening her. 

His usual response to her or her brothers’ misadventures was exasperation, but this time he smiled as he reached her. “We thought you might do this, it was in your eyes earlier. Is all well now?”

She nodded, more relieved than she could say to see him, and got up. “"It’s all over,” she said in a voice made husky by her dry throat. “He’s moved on now. He’s gone home.”

Erestor put an arm round her shoulders. “And so should we,’ he told her. “The nights are growing far too chilly for wandering around the grounds like this. Let’s go to the kitchen and make ourselves some tea. Then we can sit by the hearth down there and you can tell me all about it.”

 

end

 

 




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