The doors opened into a small room, little more than an antechamber. Its corners were trees, thicker than the Dark Elf that led Ilrin was around, standing tall and straight. The walls were not made of vines, but of wood, grown to flow seamlessly from one tree to the next. The floor upon which they walked was grown into a curious pattern, as if to suggest flowing water. As Ilrin looked at it, she was almost sure it could move. The small room was lit with a soft green glow, and, searching for the source of the light, Ilrin found her gaze drawn to the trees in the corners. Rising along them in a spiraling pattern were thin leaves, which seemed to glow with light.
Ilrin had never seen such marvelous enchanting. She took a step closer to one of the trees, intending to examine a leaf closer, but the Dark Elf moved swiftly across the room, to the far doors, and she hastened to follow.
As the doors were opened, Ilrin’s eyes widened in surprise. She had expected Eltuthar’s sanctuary to be a place shrouded in darkness, full of black magic and evil weapons. What met her eyes was as far from that as water is from wood. The flowing pattern of the floor continued, leading her eyes to a gigantic tree, its large roots, which splayed out from it for several feet, finally spreading and melting seamlessly into the floor. The tree’s trunk was wide enough for five elves to easily stand in, if not more. The same curious glowing leaves dotted its bark, lending their light to the scene.
The floor was open, with the tree in the center. Only four rooms, one in each corner, stood upon it. More, smaller trees flowed from the corners of the rooms, so that nowhere was there a sharp angle. Everything flowed smoothly into everything else, and very few exactly straight lines were to be seen.
Ilrin had stopped in wonder, gazing at the ceiling, which vaulted high overhead, flowing as did the floor, though with a different pattern, and was surprised when she looked down to see the Dark Elf nearly half way across the room. She hastened to catch up, but not before the door to the closest room opened, and another elf came out.
Ilrin had never seen him before. Like Ilrin’s guide, he wore the black leather of Eltuthar, but his face was kind and young. He stared at Ilrin for a moment, and then, recollecting himself, passed her, heading for the tree. Ilrin followed him at a distance, since he went in the same direction as her guide, and saw that one side of the tree was open to reveal a vast winding staircase within. More of the glowing leaves dotted the inside of the trunk.
As the elf rose out of sight, Ilrin turned her attention back to her guide. Surprisingly, she found him smiling at her.
“You find Eltuthar’s work interesting?” he said. It was more of a statement than a question.
Ilrin nodded. Any fear she had felt of Eltuthar and his Dark Elves was rapidly slipping away in this place. Surely Eltuthar, whom she had been taught was power-obsessed and full of dark magic, could not have done this.
As if he had read her thoughts, the Dark Elf said, “Eltuthar formed this place when he was first exiled from Eld’rin. For him, it was a simple matter. But come. If you bring word from Felnir, you must see him immediately.”
Felnir’s name released Ilrin’s mind from the spell of the building. She looked back down at the Dark Elf and nodded.
The Dark Elf, in reply, took a few short steps to the wall, and pulled open a pair of double-doors which rested there, growing from two trees like everything else. They slid open silently.
Instantly, the peace and quiet of the interior of the building was shattered. Wind ripped through the doors, and a fierce howling, as of a great storm, met Ilrin’s ears. Through the door, she could see a lone figure with his back to her, his hands outstretched to what seemed to be a vast expanse of dark cloud.
Wondering, trying to shield her face from the biting wind, she walked slowly forward. She couldn’t see properly until she had walked through the doors onto the balcony that expanded out from it. The Dark Elf exited after her, and closed the door.
Ilrin had seen several astonishing things in the past two weeks, quite enough for a long while, but what she saw now was greater than any of them.
All feeling seemed to leave her, along with all thought. The only thing that existed, both inside and out, was what she saw and heard. Her jaw dropped.
Before her spread the small plateau she had seen from the path. Its grassy expanse was perfectly flat, and ringed by large stones. The side opposite her was devoid of obstructions, and offered an incredible view of the Great Forest, facing in the direction of Eld’rin, which was hidden from view by the trees.
This sight, alone, would have been quite breathtaking; however, it was not what drew Ilrin’s eyes. Neither were the two elves that stood before her, both facing the forest, one with his arms outstretched, the other watching.
What she saw was the cloud. Black and billowing, the thickest storm cloud she had ever seen stretched from end to end of the Great Forest, quite possibly covering well over half of it. Thunder rumbled within it, and lightning, strangely red, leapt from its spires and columns. Though the black cloud itself was moving, churning tumultuously, though in a mesmerizing sort of way, its borders remained fixed. It neither grew nor shrank. It was as if something held it in place, shaping its every action. Ilrin couldn’t understand where the cloud had come from; it had been perfectly clear as she ascended the path.
And then her eyes fell on the two elves before her. Neither had seen her, but still stood, surveying the cloud. Neither seemed likely to be Eltuthar. One was tall and straight, but he wore a sweeping robe which billowed and snapped in the deafening wind. He, however, was merely observing the storm. The other elf was far too young to be Eltuthar. Ilrin could tell, though she couldn’t see his face, that he must be about her age. His hands were outstretched to the heavens, as though he were casting a great spell. For a moment, Ilrin thought that he must be controlling the storm, but then discarded the idea as preposterous. None but Eltuthar could do such a deed.
“Ael,” called the Dark Elf from Ilrin’s side, making her jump. His voice was strangely audible through the raging wind, and the tall elf turned, his gaze coming upon Ilrin instantly.
His face, Ilrin saw, was lined, but kind, though at the moment it looked at her with a frown. His robes were black, with a tinge of green, though no red symbol was upon his chest. His hair was a steely shade of gray, and swept back from his head almost to his shoulders. He looked at Ilrin with a questioning glance.
The Dark Elf stepped from the balcony and whispered in the elf’s ear. As he did so, the elf’s thick eyebrows rose imperceptibly. Behind him, the storm continued to rage, and the other elf did not turn around.
After a moment, the elf raised his voice and spoke. “Dilmir,” he said, his voice oddly clear in the wind.
Ilrin instantly looked around, wondering if Dilmir was behind her, but she saw no one save for the young elf. And then the truth hit her.
Slowly, as if it were being sucked from the air, the storm began to dissipate. The cloud neither shrank nor grew, but simply began to fade. The lightning and thunder quickly ceased, and soon nothing was left but a faint wisp of white cloud, which quickly vanished as well.
Dilmir lowered his hands and turned. His eyes immediately latched onto Ilrin’s. Ilrin, without conscious thought, took a step backwards, and then instantly wished she hadn’t. Dilmir’s expression did not change in the least, though he looked at her oddly, as if he were trying to decide something.
The older elf, noticing Dilmir’s look, said, “You know this girl, Dilmir?”
Dilmir didn’t change his position or look away, but merely replied in a masked voice, “Yes. She was my friend at Eld’rin.”
The elf turned back to Ilrin, but she remained looking at Dilmir. What had he meant, she was his friend?
“Very well,” said the elf, glancing between Ilrin and Dilmir. “You may follow me.” He walked past Ilrin and opened the doors, motioning for her to enter first. She turned slowly, reluctant to look away from Dilmir, though his look still conveyed nothing to her. She turned at last, and went in through the door, conscious that Dilmir had followed her, though at a distance.
The old elf entered after him and closed the door, advancing across the floor rapidly to lead Ilrin. He passed the giant tree, and crossed to one of the far rooms, opening the door with the palm of his hand. It slid open at his touch, vines snaking away, and he offered his hand to where it had been, signaling Ilrin to go in first.
She stepped cautiously across the threshold, scared of disturbing the delicate enchantments she saw everywhere, but the old elf came in after her, circled a large table, and sat heavily in a chair.
The chair, oddly, though it grew out of the floor, moved when he touched it, sliding smoothly closer to the table. Ilrin heard a soft rustling behind her, and knew that Dilmir had entered as well, closing the door behind him.
The elf motioned to a chair across from him, and Ilrin sat down, Dilmir leaning against the one of the trees that held the door, straight and alert, though his face was impassive.
“I have been told you bring me word from Felnir,” said the elf, leaning his elbows on the table and watching Ilrin. Unlike any other elf Ilrin had met, he did not mask his features. His voice was kind, and reassured her in his presence.
Ilrin started. “You – You’re Eltuthar?” she said. She had thought Eltuthar the Black would be a weather-beaten warrior, not this venerable elf staring at her.
The elf, however, nodded. “That is my name,” he said. “May I inquire as to yours?”
“Ilrin,” said Ilrin, her voice sounding small in the big room. She could not believe that she was talking with the most dangerous elf ever known, even if he was sitting calmly in what appeared to be a study.
“Very well,” said Eltuthar, leaning back. “Now what is this that you bring me, Ilrin?”
Ilrin glanced up at Dilmir. Slowly, he walked to the head of the table, and sat in a chair, watching her, as did Eltuthar, though Ilrin felt somehow that he wasn’t looking at her. She turned back to Eltuthar.
“I’ve been sent by Felnir to warn you that the elves mean to attack you,” she said in a rush.
She could practically feel Dilmir tense in his chair, but Eltuthar merely frowned. “So soon?” she heard him whisper to himself.
“How did he find out?” he asked, aloud.
“He didn’t,” said Ilrin. Her voice suddenly faltered as she realized what she was saying. “I – I did. He told me to warn you.”
Eltuthar raised his eyes to Ilrin’s and searched them for a moment. Ilrin met his gaze, though she would have liked much better to look away. “How soon?” he whispered, after a moment.
“I – I don’t know,” said Ilrin, her voice still quavering. “They could be coming right now.”
Eltuthar sat back in his chair, suddenly looking much older. “I wonder…” he mused to himself in a quiet voice. However, appearing to reach a decision, he shook his head, muttering, “No, far too soon for that.” Rising suddenly, he turned to Dilmir.
“Dilmir,” he said, “show Ilrin a room where she can rest; she is doubtless tired from her journey. Also have her weapons returned to her, she means us no harm.”
Dilmir nodded and rose, beckoning to Ilrin silently to follow him. Ilrin rose as well, looking uncertainly between Dilmir and Eltuthar, then went through the door which Dilmir held open for her. He closed it behind her, and led her to the great tree. She thought he might speak now that they were alone, but he said nothing, and silently led her up the spiral stairs.
In a moment, Ilrin found herself being led down a silent hall, past a row of closed doors. Dilmir went by them all, until he came to one at a corner. Here, he placed his palm on the vines, causing them to unfurl to reveal a dark room, a little larger than Ilrin’s bedroom. Dilmir placed his hand on the inside wall, and more of the curious leaves lit within the room, shedding their light on it. He then silently offered the room to Ilrin.
Ilrin stepped inside, glancing about the walls, which were covered with yet another pattern of flowing water, and then turned to Dilmir. He had been about to leave, closing the door behind him, but she stopped him.
“Dilmir,” she said, unable to bear his strange silence any longer. “What’s wrong?”
Dilmir turned, but said nothing. He simply looked at her quietly. “Nothing,” he said after a moment. His voice was masked, as was his face.
Ilrin found the change in him disconcerting. He had never been good at hiding things, especially from her. “What did you mean?” she asked, “earlier, when you said I was your friend?”
“Weren’t you?” asked Dilmir, his face blank, though his voice carried a faint tone of surprise.
“Am I not still?” asked Ilrin softly.
Dilmir continued to look at her for a space, then shut the door and stepped fully inside. “I thought you would no longer want to be my friend,” he said, “not after what I did, not now that you know who I truly am.”
“Dilmir,” said Ilrin, “I heard Aldir talking with a mage just yesterday. He set you up. He wanted you to react.”
“Why?” asked Dilmir, truly surprised now.
“The council decided that you were too powerful to remain in Eld’rin,” said Ilrin, allowing a hint of bitterness to enter her voice. “They employed Aldir to give them a reason to banish you.”
Dilmir’s face, which had looked almost hopeful a moment before, fell. “And they were right, weren’t they?” he said.
“That’s not the point,” said Ilrin, beginning to feel exasperated. “I don’t care how powerful you are or who you’re related to. The point is that Aldir forced you to use your power.”
Only one line of this seemed to have been heard by Dilmir. “You don’t care how powerful I am?” he said, ignoring Ilrin’s last words.
“Of course not,” said Ilrin, her line of thinking temporarily thrown into disarray by his question. “I’ve known you were powerful for seven years, of course it doesn’t matter to me. As for Eltuthar, you can’t change that, and your relatives don’t change you, no matter who they are.”
It was as if Dilmir’s mask fell away. In an instant, a smile had crossed onto his face, and the Dilmir that Ilrin had always known was back, as though no change had taken place.
“So the council has been against me this entire time,” he said musingly, unable to wipe the smile from his face. “Why didn’t they banish me when I attacked Cyprien? I showed my power then.”
Ilrin only had to think for a moment to come up with the answer. “They couldn’t banish you,” she said. “You had just been attacked by Alfimir. Everything you did you could have claimed as done in self defense. They couldn’t have banished you for that. Besides, they had Alfimir to deal with.”
Dilmir nodded slowly, his brow furrowed, the grin still on his face, though it had nothing to do with his words. “Then I can’t go back,” he said slowly.
“Why would you want to?” asked Ilrin, surprised. “No one there ever treated you kindly, except for your aunt.”
Dilmir glanced up at her.
“And me, I suppose,” added Ilrin, under his gaze.
Dilmir looked back down. “All I’ve ever wanted was to be a normal elf,” he said, the smile finally gone. “Just to go to Eld’rin, train, make friends, maybe become a mage, just like anyone else.”
Ilrin bent her knees, half squatting so that she could look up into Dilmir’s face. “You aren’t a normal elf, Dilmir,” she said, rising as he looked up. “There aren’t any normal elves. They’re all different; they all have something that makes them special to the people that care about them.”
Dilmir looked at Ilrin for nearly a full ten seconds, and then, slowly, a wide smile began to spread across his face once again. “You always could keep me going,” he said, “keep me trying to make the elves see sense.”
“That’s what friends are for,” said Ilrin, finally smiling as well.
Dilmir opened the door and turned to leave. “Get some rest, Ilrin,” he said. “You’ll need it tomorrow.”
Ilrin turned to the elegantly grown bed on one side of the room as Dilmir closed the door, realizing quite suddenly just how tired she was.