Chapter 1: Prologue
Maerdir crept down the deserted passageway, keeping close to the rough stone wall. There were torches burning at intervals, but the mid-ground between the sconces lay in deep shadow. So far, so good. He had marked the passageway as suspicious days ago, but this was his first chance to investigate. Each time he passed it before, there had been guards. Nothing obvious, no heavily armed warriors, but nonetheless there were always men with hard, watchful faces hovering around. This time he had taken a stroll down there just before the evening meal and finally drew the lucky straw. There was no one in sight, just a few stragglers heading for the communal dining hall.
He doubted he would find anything really important, perhaps grain stores or something along those lines that needed to be rationed out to the populace, but at least he could say he looked everywhere. Gildor had been insistent. He was getting strangely obsessive about secrets and hidden threats, but he was the leader of the wandering companies and royal to boot: it was as well to humour him.
it was very quiet, the only sound he could hear was of water dripping ceaselessly somewhere, which was strange in itself as the passage was dry. He wondered at that; they were fussy here about wastage. The river water had a strange, oily taste, so drinking water was drawn from underground springs and carefully apportioned. It was as well tonight had paid off, he thought. He would need to leave within the next few days before someone became suspicious that he was still around. He had long since sold off the selection of textiles he had brought to trade, and this was an expensive place for a simple merchant. He suspected the high prices might be deliberate policy, Mirkwood disliked outsiders.
There was a door which seemed to lead in the right direction, away from the residential parts of the underground city. He stopped and considered it. There was a bar across, fitting snugly into a groove, and a padlock gleamed in the faint light. Maerdir frowned at it then reached into the pouch he wore at his waist, bringing out a leather bag from which he withdrew a thin metal probe. He was listening carefully, but there were no footsteps, no voices, no sense of anyone nearby. Hunching forward he started fiddling with the padlock, moving the probe carefully back and forth, concentrating on the minute clicks and hesitations. Moments later there was a soft snap and the padlock opened. Nodding his satisfaction, Maerdir returned the probe to the bag, put it back in the pouch, then silently drew back the bar.
He pressed his ear against the door, but could hear nothing. Taking a deep breath, he opened it a crack and looked in - and blinked against the brilliant glare of afternoon sunlight.
He slid in through the gap and pulled the door closed behind him before looking around. He seemed to be in some kind of hothouse. Perhaps his first thought about a grain store hadn't been that far off course after all. This might just be an extension of the kitchen gardens. Lush, verdant growth spread out on all sides, a veritable sea of emerald leaves and bright blossoms. Maerdir’s Noldor forebears had been more interested in creating things or taking them apart to see how they worked, and he knew rather less about plants than his Sindar brothers, but even he could see this was no vegetable patch. Flowers for ornamentation then perhaps? But he had seen few floral arrangements since his arrival in King Thranduil’s halls, hardly surprising in the midst of a forest.
There was no one in sight so he took a chance and followed the stone flagged path deeper into the hothouse. Sunflowers towered above his head, broad-leafed vines twined around poles and trellises. The sound of running water was louder now, and a more careful look around showed him the channels between beds of rich, dark soil. He could hear bees droning, and when a sudden movement startled him it turned out to be a butterfly, red and black with splotches of yellow. He had an uncomfortable feeling of being watched, of eyes on his back, but each time he glanced around, he saw nothing, just row after row of plant life, some in beds, some in serried rows on low tables.
The sunlight streamed in through windows along the far wall and a row of skylights above. There were round, silvery balls set close to ceiling height, their placement suggesting lanterns of some kind. It seemed a cheerful, inviting place, especially after days spent shut away from the outside world, and an unconscious smile tugged at his lips. Rows of brilliant blue flowers drew him, daisy-like but large and cheerful in their identical white pots. He was bending to smell them, though daisies seldom had much scent in his experience, when a voice shouted, "Hey, you! What are you doing here?"
He shot up instantly, his heart thudding, and had a twinge of unease when he realised it was not a gardener addressing him but one of the hard-faced watchers. Hiding the shock, he put an innocuously friendly smile on his face and said vaguely, "Why, I lost my way, got turned around and found myself out here. These are lovely flowers. What are they, I've not seen their like before."
The guard was approaching with long strides, almost though not quite running. Trying not to be obvious, Maerdir glanced around to see if there was another way out. There were buildings down at the far end and beyond them was a door. He began moving towards it, hoping it would be open, because the guard was between him and the entrance he had used.
"Stop right there," he was warned, and that was all it took to set Maerdir off at a run. Foliage rustled on either side of him, and he could have sworn one of the long-leafed bushes seemed to reach out for him. Behind him he could hear voices, risking a glance back over his shoulder he saw the guard had been joined by two others. The door was closer now, but as he raced past a bed of yellow daisies a creeper with deep orange blooms sent out a tendril that wrapped itself round his ankle. Maerdir hit the ground hard. He struggled to get free, but the vine tightened, mithril-strong. He was fumbling for the concealed dagger he always carried when the guards arrived.
There was no fuss. Two grabbed him by the arms, incidentally relieving him of his dagger, and he watched in disbelief while the third stroked the creeper, which responded by unwinding from his ankle and twining back round its trellis like a normal plant. Struggling against the iron grip on his arms, Maerdir started to realise just how much trouble he might be in. "Look, I'm sorry. I told you, I got lost. No business here, I know. Just - wandered in. The door was open, thought I could take a short cut back and it was so nice in the sunshine....."
That creeper couldn't have tripped him and held onto him. It was impossible. He needed to calm down, he wasn't usually the panicking type.
"He saw Abla there," one of the guards said. "What’ll we do with him?"
"Not sure, have to ask Madame..."
"Who is this? How did he get here?" The voice was female, high and angry. For a moment Maerdir thought this might be a good thing, girls usually liked him, but when he turned and saw the woman bearing down on him, he wasn't so sure. The heavy apron and severely drawn back hair seemed too – professional for comfort somehow, negating her very obvious charms.
"Says he found the door open, m’lady. He got the padlock open somehow, I’ll swear to it having been locked."
The woman advanced, eyes fastened on him. "He is an outsider, yes?" she asked, her bell-like voice disdainful. Distractedly, Maerdir noticed smudgy purple stains on her fingers.
"Trader," the guard on the left told her. "He's been wandering past the tunnel entrance way too much these last few days for it to be chance."
"Hmm," She stopped in front of him and stared. There was something wrong with her eyes, Maerdir thought, his stomach lurching sickly. They were an unnatural leaf green and cold as ice. And that accent was one he should know but right now couldn’t place. "Who sent you?" she asked. Her voice was almost conversational, but the look on her face belied its mildness.
"No one sent me," he said, trying to keep his voice level. "I just took a wrong turn. I...."
The slap rocked him back on his heels. Had his arms not been gripped, he would have fallen. "You lie," she said coolly. "I ask you again, one time more. After that, we are no more polite. Who sent you?
Maerdir shook his head, his mind racing. Any situation you got yourself into, you could always get out of. Always. That was what his father had taught him, wisdom he in turn had learned from his father who'd come across the Ice with Fingolfin. "No one sent me," he said determinedly. "Just thought there might be something in here that could be useful. For trading."
She gave him a look of disgust and flicked a glance at the guards. "See what you can learn from him. When you are done, give him to my babies. There has been no meat in two weeks."
Hours seemed to merge into days or perhaps years. He no longer had any real concept of time and was barely clear about his own name. He had been taken into a little room where he was beaten, kicked, and his hands and the soles of his feet burned with hot coals till his screams seemed to be coming from outside, not connected to him at all. The same question kept being repeated: who sent you. He gave Gildor up fast, he knew the Finwëan would have done the same for him, only faster. The horror set in when they refused to believe him. He would have offered something else, but there was no better story to tell. Slowly, through the pain, a new fear grew: what would happen when the torture stopped?
Finally they left and he remained lying on the floor in a half conscious stupour. When they came back, the open door let in a light unlike any he had seen before. These were new guards, not the ones who had captured and tortured him. They dragged him to his feet and one prodded him unceremoniously in the back. "Move, you. Outside."
During the questioning his ankle had been sprained or broken and he limped on feet that were raw and bleeding. He had tried to convince them it was Celeborn at one stage, but one of them had gone away with that information and came back scornful, and after that the efforts redoubled. The only other name he could think of was Elrond of Rivendell, but he was too afraid to try. Now, dully, he wondered why.
Once outside the room he blinked at the light in confusion. He had been right about the globes, they were lanterns, big balls of shimmering, greenish-yellow light. The illumination was not cheery like sunshine but harsh, throwing shadows into stark relief against the path. Surreal as a dream, a group of young girls moved amongst the plants pouring small amounts of something from long, silver flasks in careful doses. He tried to cry out, but when one glanced his way her eyes were incurious and she returned to her chore without paying him any further attention. His last little flare of hope faded. There was no other avenue of appeal, the hands on his arms were impersonal. He was a task to see to completion, nothing more.
They headed towards a less well lit area of the hothouse, a space where the lamps' bright light did no more than outline the path and the shapes on either side. Suddenly, without warning, he was released. While his mind was whirling, trying to take this in, understand it, a hand in the centre of his back gave him a hard shove forward and a voice close to his ear said, "Get on with it then. Walk. Get going." A sharp jab of pain in his back from a dagger point emphasised the words.
Maerdir staggered, arms flailing, then found his balance. Despite the voice in his head telling him he was missing something here, something important, he needed no encouragement. He stumbled forward, his steps taking him into the pool of shadow ahead.
"If you reach the door at the end there, you can go," a voice called behind him. The comment was greeted with raucous laughter. Gritting his teeth against the pain, whimpering, Maerdir kept walking: had he been able, he would have run.
Unlike the rest of the hothouse, the roof here was covered and the ground bare. There were rows of trellises at intervals, from which hung vast shapes that in the dim light looked like long, purple marrows, some supported by steel brackets below. Many dangled near the path, and his arm brushed one or two as he hobbled past. The door was close enough to see clearly now, even in the gloom, and his guards had not followed him. He knew he should worry about what might be on the other side, but he was taking this one thing at a time. First he had to get there.
He was more then half way when something caught at his sleeve and held tight. He tried to tug free, but nothing happened. Looking down, he saw his sleeve was somehow being gripped by one of the marrows. He frowned, pulled harder. Nothing happened, except he felt something brush his other arm. He glanced sideways to see another marrow moving in a non-existent breeze. Maerdir felt sick. He jerked his arm, grasped the sleeve with his free hand and tried to tear the cloth. Still nothing happened. The material wasn't caught on anything, it somehow seemed to be - inside the vegetable, or whatever it was. Looking closer, he saw an almost invisible seam down the front of the thing - a pod of some kind then, not a marrow.
Somewhere just out of reach there swum a memory of Gildor, drunk, holding forth about sentient pods, elf killers, but there was no time to worry about that now, all Maerdir cared about was forcing it to let go.
Something grabbed at his hair and held. Yelping, he tried to turn. There was another one, right at his back now, leaning out from its trellis. Others were beginning to sway towards him, too. Pulling frantically at his arm and hair, he increased his efforts to get loose. Desperately he stuck his thumb up against the seam of the pod that held his sleeve and pushed, hard. Nothing happened for a moment, and then slowly, horribly, it parted like giant lips. And kept parting, opening.
Even in the gloom, Maerdir could see the inside glistening and gleaming with some harsh-smelling fluid. He gave a strangled cry and reached up to pull at his hair, tear it free if necessary, but he was already out of time. The grip on his hair vanished and then something closed wetly over his arm, clamping down with a burn like raw acid. He yelled and flung himself violently back, trying to jerk loose, just as another pod found his leg and started tugging in the opposite direction.
The last thing he heard before his own screams blotted out the world was a voice that sounded like the woman in the apron, crooning out of the dark: "Yes, my darlings. Feast well and grow. Soon it will be time to join your brothers on the Outside."
Distantly Maerdir was aware of a flurry of movement filled with sucking, slurping sounds and an engulfing mass of dark shapes. And then something covered his head and his screams were swallowed into obscenely squelching darkness.
Chapter 2: Rivendell
Chapter 1 - Rivendell
"And finally there's the matter of the loss of an entire shipment of purple dye to Tharbad," Erestor said. "I have a note asking when they can expect our traders, and the answer to that is they should be on their way home already. This is the first order sent beyond elven lands in centuries and its loss does not bode well for our reputation. We need to decide between sending a second shipment or writing this off as lost trade. Does anyone have any thoughts?"
He had a headache coming onbut let nothing show in his voice or demeanour. After a few initial grunts, there was silence around the table. Glorfindel was doodling on a piece of paper, Elrond had that look that said he was already somewhere far away from the weekly policy meeting. Sun shone into the dark-panelled room through tall windows, creeper fronds bearing pale orange flowers moved in a light breeze outside. The elves seated around the long table shuffled a bit but were unanimously silent. Erestor had given up on a response and was trying to see what Glorfindel was drawing, he was really quite talented, when Elladan cleared his throat. "Why would anyone steal dye?"
Elrond looked pleased. He was encouraging his eldest son to take an interest in the running of Imladris, but Elladan tended to sit quiet through the meetings and escape at the first possible moment. "Now that is a very good question," he said. "Why would someone steal dye, do you think, Erestor?"
"I have no idea, my lord," Erestor said evenly. "This is why I was rather hoping someone might have a suggestion or two. However, the main concern is whether or not we replace it."
"It's a bit late in the year to do that, isn't it?" Elladan asked. "I mean, we're heading into winter and soon there'll be no toads around to milk - or whatever they call it. Not milk, that sounded wrong..." He offered an ingenuous smile and there was a hint of mischief in the depths of those warm grey eyes.
Erestor gave him a bland look. "I had no idea you had made a study of the habits of the Baradamlug toad, Elladan. That is most - admirable."
The smile deepened. "I was very fond of amphibian life when I was small -- ask my sister. But seriously, I don't think we produce more than for our own needs over winter, do we?"
For reasons no one could determine, the Baradamlug toad was found only in Imladris, in a small marsh in the north west of the valley. This meant that one of their most treasured resources was certain unmentionable secretions used in the creation of a rich purple dye. Each year a quantity of the dye was made up, dried into a rough powder, and sold to the other elven realms, while a very tiny portion of dyed cloth became available in the market in Imladris just before Beltane, when it was traditional for unwed elves looking for company for the evening to wear an item dyed that distinctive shade.
Benion finally asked the only question that really mattered. "Have we been paid for the shipment?"
Erestor moved papers around till he found the order. "It seems an advance was paid to us, brought in by Prince Gildor on his most recent visit. The rest was to be paid on delivery.” He glanced over at Elrond. “Perhaps we should send an apology and just refund the retainer, my lord?"
Elrond frowned. "I hope the money has not already been spent," he said severely.
Erestor took another look at the delivery note. Elrond was careful with the pennies, possibly due to having been kept rather short in his youth, and refused to accept that Imladris was not just financially stable, but in fact kept a solid credit balance on its trading ventures. "The amount was to be put towards Solstice gifts for the dye makers, as far as I can tell. So yes, we still have it. Send it back?"
"Send it back, yes," Elrond nodded. "Gildor’s people should be on their way down the Weather Hills for the winter. Send a messenger to meet them on the road and ask him exactly where and who it should be returned to. See if he'll use one of his people. And send a party out to track down the traders."
"I'll get onto it right away, my lord," Erestor said, stacking papers together neatly. He looked around the table. "Anything else? Anyone? Right, then we're adjourned till next week. Elladan, could I ask you to see to this? Your patrol should take you right onto the Great East Road. With luck you'll run into Gildor's people coming down through the Trollshaws."
The morning was almost summery, but the afternoon had turned chill and Erestor closed the windows behind him while he was at his desk reading. His office was neat for once, he had misplaced a scroll earlier and spent the best part of an hour tidying things away while he searched for it. The room had been chosen for location rather than space and was crowded. There were bookcases, a frame holding a map of Middle-earth, or as much as the elves had surveyed, chairs and a corner table holding a wine flagon and a bowl of fruit.
In a few weeks it would be time to start having a fire during the day again, but meanwhile the hearth held an intricately patterned screen from Harad, claimed during Celebrian’s most recent reinvention of the family wing, a return to simple lines, soft shades, and absolutely no red. Fat candles, little figurines, shells and general mementos adorned the mantle, above which hung a painting of the lighthouse at Mithlond; Erestor had taken a liking to it and moved it from a hallway near the main entrance to his office.
The tall windows behind the desk looked out to the other side of the ravine with its trailing greenery. There was a cluster of trees too small to call a forest near the bridge that crossed the Bruinen, from where the road zigzagged up and out of sight on its way to the moorland above. Erestor liked watching the traffic across the bridge when he had time, it was one way of keeping up with movement in and out of the valley. This had given him a reputation for an almost uncanny knowledge of people’s movements, which he had been happy to foster.
A brief rap on the door frame preceded Elladan, who came into the office bringing with him faint scents of autumn woods, gusting wind and horses. He was still wearing the leather upper armour that was standard on patrol, the green tunic and bark brown pants that were as close to a uniform as elves could be persuaded to wear, and carried a copper helmet with the dyed horsehair crest that was a captain’s badge of office. His scabbard was empty as it was against etiquette to bear arms in the House. His loose, dark hair was charmingly windswept.
“Good afternoon, Councillor.”
“Elladan.” Erestor continued sorting papers into two piles – done, not done - and gestured towards one of the two guest chairs. “I hardly expected to see you so soon, your patrol barely arrived back.”
Elladan wandered over to the fireplace and studied the mantel. “Yes, well, I’ll take myself off to the baths presently. I need to report to Glorfindel too, but no one seems to have a clue where he’s gone this time. What is this?”
Erestor craned his neck to see past Elladan’s shoulder. “Oh – I picked up a few carvings from the craft market, to replace the indoor plants. You haven’t been in here since.”
“Looks a bit strange, you always liked to have growing things on here.” Elladan picked up a carving of a cat with a mane. “Never seen anything like this before. Someone smoked some redweed and had a very strange dream?”
“No, no, that’s a lion,” Erestor told him. “They’re found further south – Harad, Khand, places like that. I think it forms part of the coat of arms of one of the Khandian princes. It’s a bit bigger than a wolf and has huge fangs.”
Elladan gave him a suspicious look, turned the lion around a few times, then put it down carefully. “If you say so.”
“I can always find you an illustration,” Erestor said with a touch of asperity, straightening one of the growing collections of crystals on his desk: there was a rose quartz cluster for harmony, some pretty pieces of calcite, an unpolished opal and an amethyst bed. Elladan caught sight of these next and came to look. “I’m sure that little violet you had here was harmless, Ery,” he said seriously. “We should try not to be paranoid…”
“Aren’t you the one who went around accidentally knocking over everything growing indoors in a pot after our little – encounter – in the woods?”
“Yes, well, I might have been a bit rattled, specially after I found two of the strange plants. Even so, I’m sure there’s nothing wrong with normal little things out the garden.”
Erestor and Elladan had discovered clumps of bright yellow and blue flowers unlike any either had seen before, from whose midst they had clearly heard the details of a conversation back at the House between Elrond and Celebrían. The only connection Elladan had been able to come up with involved a similar plant given to them as a gift by, of all people, Círdan, which was in the room where they were talking.
“You found one in your father’s office and the other in your parents’ private sitting room. Hardly coincidental, and after that I’m taking no chances . Did you ever find out where the other one came from? Also Círdan?”
“Oh, I asked Mother and she couldn’t recall.”
Erestor gave him an uncertain look. “That seems a bit odd, your mother never forgets a thing.”
“She seemed to think Rohir gave it to her, which was about as unlikely as it gets.” Elladan turned a small quartz geode to catch the light. “These are meant to inspire you, by the way. Does it give you imaginative ideas? And aren’t you going to ask me what Gildor said? That was what you wanted me to see to, remember - asking him about the dye shipment.”
“I hardly need a piece of rock to give me imaginative ideas,” Erestor said blandly, half an eye on the open door. Elladan liked flirting with danger. “And no, I am old and decrepit and have no idea why I might have asked you to speak to Gildor.” He reached out, turned the geode to the angle he’d originally chosen. “Humour me, please, leave it like that. If I want you to redecorate, I’ll ask. As for Gildor, I assumed you would tell me about him once you were through inspecting my office.”
“Ah. Don’t know. Is there anything else that needs inspecting?” Elladan favoured him with a wicked smile, smoke grey eyes sparkling with mischief.
“I doubt it. Gildor?”
“Should I shut the door? There’s a bit of a draught, might disturb your papers.”
“There is no draught, Elladan, the window is closed. Gildor?”
Elladan rolled his eyes and flung himself into one of the guest chairs. “You are no fun today, you know that? Working too hard, not enough rest or recreation, no stress relief. Yes, yes, I know. Gildor. And I am sorry to report I have nothing to tell you.”
“What do you mean, nothing? He must have said something about the order.”
“Oh, I’m sure he would have. Gildor will find something to say on just about any subject. He chatters even more than Wen. But not this time, because he wasn’t there.”
Erestor stared at him. “Where…?”
“Lindon. Seems he went to Mithlond a few weeks ago. Must have left here, stopped off for a few days with his people and then moved on to the coast.”
“Did they say when they expect him back? He’ll still be wintering here, right?” Erestor forced himself to calm down, there was no point getting upset over anything Gildor chose to do. Royalty, he had learned, answered to no one.
“No idea. “ Elladan produced a small box while he was talking and placed it on the edge of the desk. Despite the chatter and teasing, Erestor noticed he looked tired. “He sent this back from Mithlond for you though.”
Erestor pulled the box over and stared at it, then looked a question at Elrond’s heir. Elladan shook his head. “No idea, it’s sealed. Doesn’t weigh much. I’d open it carefully – you never know with him.”
“Hmph.” The box was square, made of wood, and there was a small black stamp on the side, Gildor Inglorion’s house seal. The edge of the lid gleamed softly in the light. He picked at it with a careful fingernail and something flaked away.
“I think it’s a kind of gum,” Elladan offered helpfully. “Sticks like mortar, you could build houses with it.”
“You’ve tried to open it, obviously.” Without waiting for an answer Erestor pushed the box back. “Here, go ahead. You’ve been dying to.” He slid a thin blade on an ornate bone handle after it, the tool he used to break letter seals and such.
“I thought you were meant to guard my family with your life, not put them in the way of mortal danger.” Elladan shot him a quick grin though and began to work the blade around the rim of the lid. “I suppose this needs younger eyes and a steadier hand, yes.”
“Just open it. I had a long morning, no sense of humour this afternoon.”
“I noticed, yes.”
The lid came loose and Elladan removed it carefully and looked inside. He blinked and held it out to Erestor. They both stared. “What…?”
“Seeds,” Erestor said. “Two of them. Big ones. I’ve not seen anything quite like this before, they’re almost hexagonal in shape. Have you ever…?”
Elladan shook his head. “Not had much gardening experience but no. They seem strange – wrong.”
“What was the message? No, don’t take them out, we have no idea what they are, they might be toxic.”
“Why would Gildor send you something poisonous? There was no message, just that I was to give this to you. The seal looked right.”
“Yes, that’s definitely his. Not that it’s impossible to forge a Finwëan seal, but I’d be inclined to take it as genuine. What do you suppose he meant for me to do with them?”
Their heads were almost touching as they leaned over the desk looking at the contents of the box. Elladan moved in just a little closer and claimed Erestor’s mouth in a quick but thorough kiss. “Yes, I know, door’s open.”
Erestor pulled away. “Damn it, Elladan. You’d just get sent to Lórien for a century or so to learn personal discipline and meet some nice Sindarin girls. Me – I’d be dead.”
Elladan tried to look hurt. “What, I’m not worth dying for?” He tapped the box with a finger before stealing a second quick kiss. “They’re seeds, Ery. I suppose you’re meant to plant them.”
“I’ve been looking for you all over. People will start wondering if you keep spending time out here.”
Erestor put down his book. “Why? I have an urge for a little fresh air and sunshine before winter sets in, that’s all. I come out here in search of somewhere peaceful and out of the way to read.”
“The air’s more than fresh, in case you haven’t noticed. Someone’s put down manure on the river garden and the wind’s blowing straight up here.”
“Yes, I’m painfully aware of that. I wasn’t planning to stay, the book is just a cover after all.”
They were in an overgrown alcove where a long-forgotten bench was slowly giving in to the ravages of time, the wood flaking away and the ironwork rusted in places. Elladan knelt down and parted the bushes to look at the two little plants growing in their sheltered space. Someone – Elladan - had trimmed away branches so that the sun would reach them, and had dug a little moat around them to drain off rainwater. In their way these plants were as well cared for if not better than those in Celebrían’s beloved rose garden.
“This one has a bud.”
“Yes, I saw that. Any day now we should be able to tell what it is. I’ve walked through the woods and gone around the formal gardens and I’ve never seen leaves quite like those.”
“I have,” Elladan said gloomily. “Couple months back. Sunny little glade up on the east slope. You, me, naked and shaking in terror.”
Erestor came to stand next to him. “I don’t know about you, Dan, but I never paid much attention to the leaves. I was too busy getting dressed and out of there.”
“Funny, rounded things with the hint of a point. Like something a child would draw.” Elladan rested his hand casually in the small of Erestor’s back as he spoke, but Erestor stepped away from him sharply. “Not a chance!” he said firmly, gesturing towards the tiny plants. “Not here, ever.”
Elladan sighed and glared down at the plants. “I water you, weed around you, and this is how you thank me? Very nice.” He took Erestor’s hand while he spoke. “Look, they might be able to hear when they’re older, but they can’t see. All right? I’m not about to be intimidated by something that small. “
“We’ll know for sure what we have here in a couple of days,” Erestor said after the tiniest nod. He left his hand in Elladan’s, the chances of a flower bud being able to see were beyond his imagination. He moved away and Elladan came with him, releasing his hand when they left cover and crossed the grass to the path that led down towards the house. “Meanwhile, do you hear anything from Gildor’s people about him? It’s been weeks now.”
“Not a thing,” Elladan told him. “I ask every few days, just casually, when I run into one of them. There’s always someone looking for a sparring partner or wanting to borrow a horse or whatever. No one’s heard a thing. I get the idea if he had gone anywhere but Mithlond, they’d be a bit worried, but Mithlond’s secure. They know he arrived because one of their healers was there and she’s now caught up with them and said she saw him.”
“You’ve not tried talking to her?”
“You kept on about not drawing attention to ourselves, Ery. You need to make up your mind, otherwise I might apply Father’s lectures on showing initiative to the problem and then where would your Plan be? ”
“That would be tiresome if I had an actual Plan,” Erestor said dryly. “Not drawing attention is important, but there’s no harm in asking outright now if anyone’s heard from Gildor. Say your father was wondering. We can’t have royalty vanishing off into the sea mists never to return, even if it’s the female line and he’s more likely to be drunk than sober.”
“You can’t blame him for that when you think what he’s seen --- spying flowers, man-eating pods…”
“I’m not sure I’m convinced about the pods, Dan. It would have been damn useful if he hadn’t left right after we found those flowers. There was no chance to talk, just that one conversation before he left. I tried him again when he came past to set up the order for Tharbad, but he wasn’t having any of it.”
“I don’t blame him not wanting to talk about it. He said he’d seen terrible things… he seemed almost frightened.” Fear was a stranger to Elladan, who lived to take risks. Any fear going around was felt by those close to him as they watched him ramble from one near-disaster to the next.
“I think it was more about caution than fear. I suspect he was worried we’d go to your father with whatever he told us.”
“Well what would be wrong with that? Surely Father should know about this? Eventually I mean. We had good reason to say nothing before, but this time there’s nothing to hide. Gildor sent you a strange gift, we’ve let them grow, one of us --- one of us saw something similar once before...?” Elladan had started with a soldier’s no-nonsense attitude to the problem, but now his voice trailed off uncertainly.
“Yes, then you can explain why whoever that was didn’t go straight to your father about the flowers when he first saw them. See our problem? We need to find something strange enough about these new plants to justify our concern.”
“Still like to know what happened to the others,” Elladan said with a shrug.
“Someone must have gone and dug them over,” Erestor said. “Nothing else makes sense.”
They had gone back to the scene of their first encounter with the flowers the following day armed with gloves, a spade, and a bag to carry the evidence back in, but when they reached the little grove where they had clearly heard Elrond and Celebrían’s voices coming from the midst of a clump of bright blue flowers, there were no blooms to be seen. Elladan shook his head now. “I still think they were made to disintegrate if they were discovered.”
Erestor snorted. “How would that even be possible? Flowers don’t just suddenly shrivel into a pile of dirt. It makes no sense.”
“No, it doesn’t,” Elladan agreed slowly as they reached the gravel path leading round the house. He let a couple of kitchen maids go past giggling before adding. “…but nonetheless it’s what seems to have happened. There was no sign of digging, the grass they were growing amongst was untouched, and yet they were gone. That means either someone removed each one individually and very carefully or --- or once found, they dissolve back into the soil. Seriously, what’s strange about that considering what else we know about them.”
Erestor opened his mouth and then closed it again. They had been over this before. “Whatever happened there, it’s a reminder we need to be careful around the ones Gildor sent us. If it turns out you’re right, we don’t want to give them any reason to repeat the performance.”
The House had started out as a fortified structure, built by warriors engaged in the war against Sauron back when his forces had ravaged Eriador and menaced the might of Lindon itself. Imladris had been a place for warriors to rest and plan their next excursion against the vast armies brought out of the East by their Dark Lord. Later it expanded into a centre for the community of refugees that had sought shelter there, but still it remained a stronghold, a potential fallback position for Ereinion Gil-galad should things go ill for Lindon.
After the war Elrond was recognised as Gil-galad’s Viceroy in the North and had made a corner of the main building into his home, somewhere to relax during campaigns, somewhere to entertain honoured guests and senior members of his household. Over time Elrond expanded this rather basic beginning into a private wing, making space first for a couple and then a family, Later still there were suites for Rivendell’s seniority, amongst whom Erestor was numbered, but still the original House could be discerned with its thick, rough-worked walls, the slit windows in hallways, the steep angle of stairs.
Elladan and Elrohir had shared a suite of rooms once they outgrew the nursery, two bright, airy bedrooms with a comfortable sitting room, but different life paths had led finally to Elladan deciding he would be happier living alone. He always swore loyally that his choice had nothing to do with the incident in which his bedding had been shredded by an injured ferret Elrohir was nursing. He had relocated to rooms in the very oldest part of Rivendell, with a bedroom and sitting room that looked out over the river through a series of narrow windows whose ledges showed the depth of stone used for the original walls. Owls roosted in the roof above and at night the sound of the waterfall lulled him to sleep.
It was a little after dinner when Erestor made his way down passageways and up stairs, taking care to avoid the few people about at that time. Elladan’s rooms were set off a turn in a winding staircase, with an elongated step serving as an entrance alcove. Erestor let himself in the ancient oak door in its arched doorway, closing it soundlessly behind him. He waited for a few moments, listening for footsteps, then locked it.
The short vestibule had a couple of hooks holding cloaks, sword belts and an empty quiver. Erestor crossed the stone flags and went in to the main room, pausing in the doorway to watch. Elladan sat near the fire on a pile of cushions, a lantern and a couple of candles grouped together to give light while he rubbed oil into the leather of his armour.
“You should ignore your father and get a squire to do that,” Erestor told him. “I somehow don’t remember the High King’s Herald doing for himself back in the Second Age. Perhaps I wasn’t paying attention.”
Elladan must have been startled but he had steady nerves and didn’t jump. His hand might have slowed for a moment, but he kept on rubbing firmly without looking round. “There’s some reason you couldn’t knock?”
“Silence was the thought,” Erestor told him. “I have no excuse for being here so it seemed a good idea not to be heard.”
“What was that about not going near one another’s bedrooms? You’ve changed your mind?” Elladan spared him an arch look. “Won’t hear me complain.”
“Hardly. I haven’t suddenly nurtured a death wish, but right now we need privacy.” He joined Elladan while he was talking, putting a small wicker basket with a tight-fitting lid on the floor in front of him. Elladan looked from this to Erestor but said nothing, waiting for an explanation. Erestor knelt and opened the basket. Within on a bed of broad nasturtium leaves lay a small blue flower, roots and all.
Elladan leaned closer to take a look. “Yes, it’s the same. I didn’t have time to go down there today, though I thought they might be open by now.”
“The other one was still closed too tight to be sure of anything,” Erestor told him. “I pulled it up anyhow and burned it, just to be sure.”
“I feel almost sad, we’ve been taking care of them for weeks. And – what are we doing with this one?” Elladan asked dubiously, pointing but careful not to touch.
“Well, if you have a sharp knife, I thought we might take it apart and see if there’s anything different about it.”
“We’re going to dissect a flower?” Elladan, who had lived with a twin who liked taking things apart to see how they worked, looked unimpressed.
“That’s exactly what we’re going to do. Knife please.”
A while later the remains of the plant lay on the floor between them, decorating an old wooden training shield dating back an unconscionable time to Elladan’s boyhood. They sat facing each other, sharing the last of the wine Elladan had brought up to his rooms after supper.
“And that’s what we have. Nothing definite, but not like any flower I can remember seeing before.”
Elladan nodded, his eyes on the shield. “Those little – tubes – going down into the stem from the petals, never seen anything like that before and Elrohir always had plant samples all over the place. Is this the point where we go and tell Father? You could just say Gildor sent the seeds, you grew them, wondered what the point was, noticed they looked a bit unusual ---“
“So Gildor found an unusual new specimen. So what? The question would be why I thought it necessary to take it apart very carefully with a knife. It’s what I’d ask anyhow.”
Elladan didn’t look convinced. “Look, we at least have to sound him out about it, let him know something’s not right.”
Erestor held out his hand for the wine cup. “What worries me is Gildor went off to Mithlond, no one knows why, and the only word we’ve had from him was those seeds. He seemed to feel that was all the message we needed – I’m starting to wonder if he’s in some kind of trouble there.”
Elladan hooked his hair forward, combed his fingers through it and absently began plaiting it into a thick braid. His grey eyes were serious for a change. “If we think he’s in trouble, all the more reason to tell Father. I don’t see it though, I think he’s just found a really good inn somewhere with excellent beer…”
“Found the beer of his dreams, never coming back?” Erestor grinned. “Perhaps, but you’d think he’d send word to his people at least, if not to us. He’s never been so drunk that he’s not let them know where to find him, he’s more responsible than he’s given credit for.”
“So – what is it you want to do?” Elladan fastened the braid off with a casual but efficient knot
“I suppose I should take a few weeks off and go spend a little time at the sea. Breathe in that good salt air, eat fish, go for walks along the beach…”
“You want to go to Mithlond and look for him?” Elladan began passing the blade of the knife they’d used on the flower through the candle flame to cleanse it. “Without telling anyone what’s going on?”
“We don’t know what’s going on,” Erestor insisted. “No one would believe any of this any more than they believed Gildor’s wild stories.”
“Yes but we’re sober, it makes a difference.”
They stared at each other. Erestor had learned the hard way that Elladan was his match in stubbornness. “So you don’t want to go looking for him? No urge for a holiday at the sea?”
“I hate Mithlond, it’s freezing this late in the year and the wind never stops.” Elladan put the knife on a small table and favoured Erestor with a winsome smile as he set about collecting cushions together. “You could try persuading me, of course. Might work.”
“Persuade you? No, I don’t think so. I was just thinking I’ve been here too long, it’s time I left.”
“Ery, no one will barge into my room unannounced. Anyhow, the door’s locked and you’re the only person with keys to most of the locks in the house – as far as I know at least. And what’s wrong with stopping by for a cup of wine and some conversation?”
“Nothing. Just my chequered past coming back to catch up with us maybe. I hate all this secrecy as much as you, Dan, but it’s not worth the risk. Your father has very – set – ideas, there’d be no reasoning with him. You know that.”
Elladan dropped down next to him, close enough that the air between them was warmed. “Persuade me,” he insisted.
Erestor sighed and put down the wine. “Sometimes you’re really annoying, Elladan. I don’t know why I put up with you.”
“I do,” Dan said with a grin, pushing him back against the heaped cushions with a casual hand. “Shut up and stay there while I remind you.”
Chapter 3: Mithlond
Chapter 2 - Mithlond
“Oh you’ve missed him by about a - week, is that what you call it? Ten days? He took the road with the group from Mirkwood. They come down every year to buy salt fish for their king. Strange bunch.”
The elves of Mirkwood were a byword for strangeness, Elladan thought, but no more so than Círdan’s right hand man, Galdor. Granted he was old, granted he had survived the fall of Gondolin, but neither fact accounted for his general creepiness. He walked with a stick although no one could attest to any injury, wore his hair just above shoulder length, a style favoured by mortals, and had an unfortunate habit of looking just past whoever he was addressing. No matter; Círdan had implicit faith in him and trusted him with all manner of important arrangements.
They were in the front garden, which followed the Mithlond standard: a mix of sea grasses, succulents, grey-green bushes covered with tiny cream blossoms, and a number of woody shrubs with strange, parchment-like flowers, all neatly enclosed in white stone borders. It looked out over the water, but the mist was coming up again, creeping chill under clothing, and the afternoon sun swam indistinct. Elladan preferred the other side of the bay, the part that had been the old king’s capital, even though palaces and nobles’ houses had long since been turned into hostelries and temporary apartments, and meals in the grand hall of Gil-galad’s palace cost a bronze a night.
Ery wouldn’t set foot in Mithlond unless he had to. He had lived there in the days of glory, before it became little more than a staging post before the final, irrevocable impetus across the sea. Elladan knew without being told that he found the city’s decline depressing.
“He went off to Mirkwood? I wonder how we could have missed him on the road? We saw no one in Mirkwood colours, but they’d have had to take the King’s Highway to reach the High Pass.”
He was careful to keep his tone appropriate for a young captain asking a simple question, though as a son of one of the most famous families in Endor he had no hesitation in probing an elder. Galdor however squinted at him suspiciously. “Are you suggesting I am mistaken, Captain?” he asked sharply. “I should think I know Mirkwood elves when I have dealings with them. Gil-the-lush was almost sober enough to sit a horse when they left, so I think he knew where he was going, and they were most certainly heading east.”
Elladan raised his eyebrows very slightly. “I have never seen my cousin mount a horse unless he was quite fit to ride it, Galdor. I was merely wondering how it was we missed them. It must have been during one of our stops.” Either that or the Mirkwood elves had taken Gildor off the road rather than run into them. It was an unsettling thought.
Galdor, having been reminded that he was speaking to the Finwëan woman’s grandson, forced a helpful expression onto his face. “Perhaps my lord could tell you more,” he suggested. “Will you be dining with your men? If not you could ask him over dinner, he’s from home right now.”
“I’ll raise it tonight, yes. Several of my men have family here, so I gave them the night and tomorrow free before we head back.” Back on the horses and on that endless road home, Elladan thought ruefully. He had picked a horse with the strangest gait and not a pleasure to ride. He hoped at the end of this his story about why they had gone all the way down to Mithlond instead of turning back at Bree held water. Even a drop would do. The explanation had been Erestor’s idea, though not one of his better ones.
He was turning back to go into the house when a flash of strong blue caught his eye, at odds with this garden of muted, neutral shades. Crossing the soft grass at an angle, he managed a good look at the cluster of flowers growing in the shelter of a spreading shrub before Galdor caught up with him.
“Not that way,” the aged elf told him unceremoniously. Elladan put on his well-practiced puzzled look, at which Círdan’s aide cleared his throat and modified his tone. “You can’t get through to the house from there. You have to go back the way you came, along the porch. There’s nothing over here, just brush.”
“Ah. That’s all right then.” Elladan gave Galdor his second best smile and made for the porch steps. The flowers would still be there later, when he’d be able to take a better look. Not too close though, he reminded himself. Just in case. He still remembered a forest glade, a patch of blue and yellow flowers, their heads bobbing and nodding as though actively seeking the intruding elves on the other side of the clearing.
Dressed for dinner in the simple elegance of grey tunic and pants, his hair neatly pinned and braided, Elladan let himself out onto the front veranda and with studied casualness took the few steps down to the garden. He looked around with eyes that were more alert than his manner might suggest. There was no one in sight but he kept moving with the same seemingly aimless gait until he was level with the side of the house. Stepping back into the shadows, eyes fixed on the sea as though studying the waves, he eased his way slowly round the corner until he had a good view of the side garden.
The flowers bloomed up against the house and in little clusters amongst the more recognisable bushes and showed no sign of closing despite the deepening dusk. Yellow and blue they were, just the same as those he and Ery had seen in Rivendell on that ill-fated afternoon, plus there were some deep pink additions scattered here and there. He wondered if the limited number meant there was something special about those. He was also aware of a strange humming sound, almost as though he stood close to a drowsing beehive, although a quick glance around proved that wasn’t the case.
Elladan watched for a while, half tempted to try picking one of the pink blooms, but worried in case they could send a warning to whoever had planted them there. The rest of the strip of garden alongside the house seemed innocent enough, nothing else growing there seemed particularly unusual. Elrohir would have known for sure, he had an eye for plants due to his being a healer and needing to know their properties. Even Elladan knew the most innocuous little garden flower often had uses not apparent to the casual gaze. He had learned this very young, on the day he picked a bunch of seemingly innocent pink blossoms for Nana, only to have his father personally scrub his hands and force him to drink a vile-tasting concoction that had made him violently ill.
Shaking himself, he turned his attention to the present situation: Elrohir was a ten day ride away and couldn’t help him here. Not for the first time, Elladan wondered if he and Erestor had been right to leave him out of this, but Roh was no warrior, despite giving it a good try, and also found it hard not to share secrets with Arwen. The thought of Arwen suspecting he had a more than friendly relationship with Erestor was enough to bring Elladan out in a cold sweat. No one with half a grain of self preservation willingly gave a baby sister that kind of power.
After one final look, he edged back around the house, fiddling with the front of his pants in a way he hoped would give the impression to anyone watching that he had been caught short and chosen the shadows for obvious reason. Taking the steps back up to the porch, he put his mind to finding a way to raise the subject of the flowers with Círdan.
“Ah, yes, Gildor. I was surprised he left, but he had a sudden yen to pay a visit to Mirkwood before the winter drew in and closed the High Pass. He seemed ready to settle here for a few months, but he has never been noticeably predictable.”
Círdan swirled the pale golden wine in his glass as he spoke, favouring Elladan with a small smile. The Shipwright was not a warm man, not someone to have a cosy chat or indulge in idle speculation with. He was a great lord who dealt in absolutes, in correct answers, in concise explanations. His silver hair was paler than Elladan’s grandfather’s, and his eyes, the steel grey of a winter sky, were set beneath light eyebrows. He carried himself very erect. Celeborn was a prince of lost Doriath, but he was nowhere near as uncompromisingly regal as his distant cousin. One of their father’s most telling threats when the twins were young had been that he would revert to the practice of earlier ages and send them off to Mithlond to be fostered if they didn’t behave.
“I was hoping to run into him, Father was a little concerned when he didn’t come east with the rest of his people for winter,” Elladan explained, moving fish around on his plate. “I missed him on the road, too. When did you say he left?”
“They might have gone overland rather than keeping to the road,” Círdan replied. “I believe that is the usual preference for Thranduil’s people. They left – ah, about half a moon past.”
“That might explain how we missed them then,” Elladan agreed obediently. “Father will be disappointed. I suppose Gildor took everything with him? Didn’t leave anything to come back for?”
“Not that I am aware of,” Círdan said. “Galdor might know something. Perhaps you could ask him.” He glanced down the table, but Galdor had not joined them, in fact only a few of Círdan’s senior mariners were present. Elladan felt out of his element but at least he could give his attention to the meal which was unexpectedly tasty.
“Oh, I almost forgot,” he said after finishing another mouthful and putting his fork down. “Father was wondering – you gave him a plant some time ago, something unusual with bright blue petals. It had a small accident and never recovered and he was wondering if you could perhaps send a few seeds so he could replace it? I’m sure I noticed something similar earlier…?”
Sipping his wine, Círdan gave him a thoughtful look. “Of course. I know exactly which you mean,” he said mildly. “Native to Mirkwood I believe, though they grow very easily, ours come from a mere handful of seeds. I am sorry to hear there was a misadventure with the one I sent your parents. Perhaps you would like to take a seedling back with you?”
“Oh no, I don’t think so,” Elladan said hastily. “I can’t speak for how it would survive on the road. I --- might forget to water it,” he added with an ingenuous smile. “Seeds would do very well, if that’s not a problem. It would make a nice surprise for my parents. It was so bright and cheerful – in fact they liked it so much they kept it in their private parlour.”
“I’ll have it seen to before you leave,” Círdan told him. “Be sure to remind Galdor, I will speak to him later.”
“They looked just the same as the ones Gildor sent you,” Elladan concluded. “Slightly bigger, but I don’t think that means anything. I slit one open on the road but it just looked like what it was - a broken seed. I thought of bringing one back for Rohir to play with, but he’d want to grow it and see what happened and then I’d have to tell him the whole story and he’d forget not to tell Wen and she asks too many questions.”
“Like when did you first see these flowers and what happened to make you sure something was wrong and why were you there anyhow. Yes I know. What did you do with them?”
“Oh, I burnt them in the fire that night. I wasn’t carrying those spying little sods around with me, they’re unnatural.”
Erestor chuckled softly. “Good word for it. So – they grow in Mithlond, Gildor has gone to Mirkwood, and – where does that leave us?”
“Sitting here by the library fire on a cold afternoon with winter coming down…?”
“Be serious for a change.” Erestor kept his voice down because the library was quiet that time of the day, which was why they had chosen it. There were only a couple of die-hard scholars deep in their studies and the duty librarian dozing at his station near the door. “What do we do next?”
“Well, we could find a secluded corner and you could show me how much you missed me while I was gone?”
“I have a meeting with the Jewellers’ Guild at the tea bell, so that’s hardly practical. Anyhow, all the best places are outside and look at the weather.”
“This is our first winter, we’ll have to adjust,” Elladan said seriously. He could be very practical when his interests were involved. “You can’t sit there looking sexy and unobtainable and then tell me sorry, it’s too cold. Specially not if you’re wearing your hair loose.”
Erestor slanted a look at him that was far from innocent. “You might have to get over your – thing – about my hair being loose. I like it down in winter, it’s warm.”
“And smooth and silky and winds round my wrist just so….” Elladan leaned back in his chair and let his foot rest against Erestor’s ankle in a way that was meant to look casual.
“Hush you.” Erestor tried and failed to hide the smile. “And stop that. Come, we have more important things to worry about. Should we just hope Gildor’s all right and that he’ll come past on his way back from Mirkwood, or is there an alternative?”
Elladan stared into the fire frowning. For a few moments he looked distant and inscrutable, rather like his grandfather, then he met Erestor’s eyes. “There was one thing that really worried me – besides not seeing him and the Mirkwood crowd on the road even though our paths should have crossed. Something I haven’t told you yet.”
“And that is?”
“He’d left an old cloak and a couple of oddments – a book, some shells, new harp strings, very like Gildor – and it was all in a bag that had split down the side, which must be why he had to leave it behind. I’d asked if there was anything of his, offered to bring it through with me. Anyhow, Galdor handed that over and I thought nothing of it till I saw the bottom, under the cloak.”
“A blood-stained dagger, women’s underwear, the herb he uses to make his hair that unlikely colour…?” Erestor hazarded.
Elladan grinned. “Oh, I wouldn’t have blinked at any of those. No, it was this…” He fiddled in the soft bag fastened flush against his hip, fashion’s current answer to the pocket, and pulled out a fold of cloth. After a quick glance around to make certain they weren’t being observed, he passed it to Erestor. “Open it carefully.”
Erestor, who had brought a book over to the hearth with him for cover, placed the cloth on the open pages and unfolded it delicately to reveal a twist of white paper. He looked at it and then over to Elladan, eyebrows raised.
“Open it carefully,” Elladan repeated him helpfully.
Erestor did as bidden. “There’s nothing here, just some purple stai ----- ah.”
“Yes - ah. Purple. Like the missing dye.”
They looked at one another, then Erestor folded the cloth, which was about the size of a handkerchief, and weighed it in his hand thoughtfully. “Yes, I think it’s time we said something to your father. If this is the same dye that vanished, Gildor might be in rather a lot of trouble. A visit to Mirkwood might be in order.”
“Erestor, I hardly think there is cause for concern over Gildor, not when he left Mithlond with the avowed intention of paying a call on King Thranduil. No doubt he’s long over the High Pass by now and across the river enjoying the Greenwood’s hospitality. There is nothing to suggest he is in any kind of danger. The very idea is absurd.”
Erestor breathed in, counted to twenty, breathed out. He could not afford to get aggravated and say more than he should. He was starting to think it would have been better – simpler – if he and Elladan had made up some lie to explain their proximity to the flowers when they first found them. “It just seemed a little strange, the way Elladan heard it, and the fact that there was no sign of them on the road. And I did need to speak to Gildor about the matter of the dye that vanished…”
Elrond looked irritable, but then he had firm ideas on when and where business should be dealt with, and Erestor had ignored convention and tracked him down to his sitting room in the family wing. Celebrían sat peacefully in the corner near the window stitching away at something and appeared to be paying no attention to what was happening across the room.
“You’re hardly suggesting Gildor had something to do with the theft of the shipment…”
“No, no of course not,” Erestor said hastily, “but he knows the most about where it was going and to whom, and – and we found a few unusual seeds and traces of the dye in an old bag of his that Elladan had the presence of mind to bring back with him.” He held his breath.
“Seeds? What do seeds have to do with all this?” Elrond’s voice rose sharply at the end of the sentence. Celebrían glanced up, then went on with her work.
“Sir, I have no idea. All I know is they were like nothing either of us had seen before, though we had reason to suspect they belong to a – most unusual plant Elladan spotted in Mithlond. As for the dye – that’s what I want to discuss with Gildor. Urgently.”
“The dye is highly prized in Mirkwood, Elrond,” Celebrían said thoughtfully. “You don’t think perhaps someone there had something to do with the theft, do you? And that dear Gildor might suspect them and has gone to investigate?”
“Gildor investigate? The only thing Gildor would be interested in investigating would be Thranduil’s wine cellar. And if he’s got himself in some kind of damn fool trouble, he’s only himself to blame.”
“They don’t have a wine cellar, dear. That sweet prince Legolas told me they have an entire cavern set aside for it,” Celebrían explained with a bright smile. “I don’t doubt Gildor would be interested in a tour of it though. Still, if he is in some kind of trouble, as you seem to believe, should we not send someone along discreetly to make sure he’s all right? He is my cousin after all, and you always say family should look after family.”
Erestor had not expected help from Celebrían, but he would take what he could get. He kept quiet and let her deal with Elrond, which was something she did well. Elladan entered while she was speaking and Erestor smiled a greeting, masking his relief. Elladan had wanted his father told, so let him do his part then. “I was just telling your father how you found Gildor’s bag with the seeds and the traces of dye and how concerned we are for his safety.”
“Oh good, I was coming to talk to you about that, Ada,” Elladan said, his grave expression the epitome of honest concern. “We really should have seen him on the road, something must be wrong if they had to hide from other elves. Thanks for raising it, Erestor.”
The smile he flashed was beatific, making Erestor want to shake him, though it was hard to be angry with anyone so utterly tall, dark and gorgeous. Taking his lead from Celebrían’s unexpected assertion that Elrond was worried about her kinsman, he said, “Yes, your father was just expressing his own concern for the prince.” A few reminders of Gildor’s rank would hardly go amiss. It was all too easy to forget sometimes that he was in fact Finwe’s grandson.
Elladan helped himself to an apple and sat on the arm of a chair polishing the glossy red skin against his tunic. “So – what should we do about it, Ada? Someone needs to go and look for him, I suppose and…”
“I will write to Thranduil,” Elrond interrupted brusquely. “I would have waited till next we heard from Mirkwood, but under the circumstances I can send a letter mentioning the trade faire at the end of the season and ask casually if he arrived safely. He’s hardly likely to come to any harm amongst elves, Elladan. And yes, Erestor, I will be certain to mention his title and that my wife is a little concerned about her – what is he, Celebrían? Third cousin? Fourth?”
“I think it’s best to be vague about the details, dear,” Celebrían said with just a hint of determination in her sweet voice. “And really, I think Dan’s right, we should send someone to make sure that he’s all right. I don’t like to think of him alone amongst strangers who might not understand his ways, and – well, it is Mirkwood, Elrond. They’re quite - different there.” She turned worried blue eyes up to her husband as she spoke and there was just the smallest trace of a pout. Erestor was startled by how much he was reminded of Elladan.
Elrond cleared his throat and glared at his senior advisor and his son. “I’ll think about it. We can leave the matter here for now. Elladan, was there something else you wished to speak to me about?”
Elladan tossed the apple from hand to hand “Oh, not really, no. Just came past to say hello, ask how you were, tell you about Gildor. “
“Good. Well, your mother and I will discuss it and reach a decision. Meanwhile, your brother was saying you don’t spend anywhere near as much time with him as you used. You might look in there if you’ve nothing else to do. He has a new interest: genetics.”
“And of course any further offers of trade would need to be written down, signed and sealed,” Elrond concluded, putting the letter of recommendation to Thranduil with the list of items Rivendell would like to see at the next trade faire into a leather diplomatic pouch with the seal of the House of Eärendil, a busy device showing sails and a seagull on an azure field with the towers of Gondolin facing the trees of Doriath. “It all needs to look authentic.”
“Oh yes, no one will suspect this is more than it seems, a high level reaching out on the matter of trade. No overblown delegation, just your son and your seneschal talking directly to the king. Harmless but important enough to be taken seriously.”
“Yes. Yes, it’s a good idea in its own right, meeting with Thranduil...” Elrond sounded a touch vague about that and Erestor wondered how much input Celebrían had allowed him. He could hardly ask, so he bowed his head, fingers circled to forehead in a salute. “If that will be all, my lord, I have a few matters to finalise. We should leave at first light, and Elladan still has to get our escort organised.”
Elrond waved a hand. “Go right ahead. And yes, he can sort that out. Probably best to pick unmarried warriors, it’d be easier for them to leave at a moment’s notice, so to speak.”
“Probably yes.” Erestor had often made similar arrangements for Gil-galad with even less warning, and it was his experience that girlfriends complained louder and with more effect than wives. He kept that piece of information to himself, just grateful it was no longer his job. “He’s well respected, I’m sure he’ll make the right choices.”
Elrond looked pleased. “He’s coming along, isn’t he? No more philandering, turning into a decent captain, and this concern for his mother’s cousin is laudable. He seems to have outgrown that wild stage at last.”
“It would seem so, my lord,” Erestor agreed. There were stories he could tell that would suggest Elladan had not yet fully left his so-called wild stage behind, but they were not of a type to share with one of his parents. Their recent meeting in the hayloft, for example. “I’m sure he’ll enjoy a little diplomatic work. He likes being taken seriously, and it’s my experience that he loves a challenge.”
Chapter 4: Mirkwood
Chapter 3 - Mirkwood
Early morning saw Erestor on his way to the stables, bag slung over his shoulder, and running through a mental checklist of work that should have been completed or delegated before leaving. Lanterns still burned at the outer doors and there was no one about in the main part of the house although he knew the kitchens would already be busy. The sky was cloud-heavy and a sombre wind tugged at his clothing and braided hair. It looked like rain.
He hurried down the steps and took the hedge-lined path that led through a shrubbery and out near the bridge. This in turn would take him to the opposite side of the gorge and the trail up to the stables. He had just entered the shadow of the shrubbery when he heard light footsteps coming up behind him. A glance showed a trim, female figure and then she was beside him, grey robed with a shawl over her hair. It was only her height that gave her away; she was tall, like her mother.
“Celebrían? You’re out early?”
The silver lady of Imladris gave a business-like nod. “I am, yes. When you turn off for the bridge, I’ll pay the kitchen a visit. I haven’t surprised them in a while. I wanted to see you before you left. I thought to speak to Elladan, but for this you seemed the better choice.”
“There’s something I can do for you?” He had known Celebrían for years, far longer than he had Elrond, and over time knowing had become something close to friendship.
She passed something to him, rolled in cloth. “Take this with you. You might have use for it. Two drops of the black potion and three of the green, in wine or honey – something sweetish. It’ll counteract the effects of the dye should you need it. There’s only enough for three doses, so be careful with it, very careful. And hide it well.”
“Antidote to the…” Erestor stared at her blankly while his hand went about the business of taking the string-tied roll, slinging his bag to the front and tucking it neatly into a corner.
“The dye,” Celebrían said impatiently. “I have no idea what might be going on in Mirkwood, Erestor, but something certainly is. My mother is very – concerned. Closed societies are always a worry. Tell me – were the seeds Gildor found in any way connected to the rather pretty plant Elrond had in the parlour? The one Elladan managed to knock over and then somehow stand on?”
“Subtle, that,” Erestor said dryly. “Explains why I never heard the details before. He’ll make a wonderful diplomat. Still, he’s not an alarmist and he’s convinced they’re the same…” He was in two minds to tell her about the beds in the forest, but the story was complicated and there wasn’t enough time for suitable editing; they were nearing the end of the shelter of the shrubbery.
“My son the diplomat, yes.” She sounded exactly like her mother there. “Those flowers are not good, Erestor. You seem to realise this. If you see one, you need to destroy it quickly. Watch out for that in Mirkwood, and be suspicious of anything else you don’t understand. Keep the antidote close, too.”
“The dye…” They were running out of time. “What does it do? To elves I mean.”
She stopped, her hand on his arm. “A miniscule dose makes the mind malleable, amenable to instructions. It takes away any concept of right or wrong, destroys free will, choice. Larger doses are not so subtle: a spoonful can kill. Keep the antidote safe. And guard my son.”
Erestor nodded grimly. “I will, my lady. You have my word on it.”
“I know that, Erestor. Just – bring Gildor back safely with you. And whatever you do while you’re over the mountain – trust no one.”
They reached the end of the shrubbery and Celebrían drew her shawl forward to shield her face. Not looking back, she slipped like a shadow towards the house, ready to start the day with an impromptu tour of the kitchens. Her mother’s daughter, she moved like mist, no one not watching carefully would even notice her. Erestor took a deep breath, settled the bag more securely over his shoulder, and made for the bridge.
Gildor had no idea how long he had been in the little room off the garden, it was hard to keep track of time in the dark. Whenever the door opened, the light that flooded his cell was always the same, harshly yellow and unnatural. He never saw its source. Once a day someone brought him food, at which time he had to turn around with his back to the door and his hands on the wall in front of him, otherwise they took it away again. He saw no point in adding hunger to his other discomforts, so he obeyed.
They sluiced the room out and changed the pot every few days. He had to stay facing the wall while this was being done too and grimy water sloshed around his ankles. The first time it happened he had tried to turn round with the idea of making a break for it, and for his trouble had been well and truly beaten.
He heard things though, sitting in the dark. Snatches of conversation, some of it formal and professional, some of it gossip, and together they gave him enough pieces of the puzzle to put together a vista of startling horror. Most of what he heard came from the young girls who were the tenders of the secret garden, girls like the one he had charmed into letting him take just a peek at where she worked. He was good with girls when he was sober, and he had been sober entirely too long now.
He managed to run into her down near the river after days of keeping watch for a likely target, walked with her, talked with her, arranged to meet her again. Noldor royalty was in short supply in Mirkwood, she came back, they kissed under the trees -- well, maybe there was a bit more than kissing involved - and at the end when she had to go back, he asked if he could take a peek at the secret garden she was so careful not to talk about.
'Just a peek' had taken too long, there was too much to see, he had been enthralled in a horrified kind of way. It was one thing to believe rumours and half-glimpsed nightmares, another entirely to see them clear and solid under bright light. This was how they caught him. His famous timing had finally let him down and they descended on him, silent and determined. He managed to run but only a short distance. Then there had been a net and a violent contact with the ground, and being picked up and carried, struggling and kicking, and finally thrown into the dark cell.
He had lain where he fell for a long time, listening for sounds in the darkness. Only when he was certain he was alone did he sit up and go about disentangling himself.
Other than the person who brought his food and kept his cell clean, he only had one visitor. He came after Gildor had been there long enough for the ache from his bruises to start fading and his stomach no longer turn at the swill they served him at his one meal of the day. The door opened, the light spilled in, and he was dragged to his feet, his arms held in an iron grip by two burly warrior-types. A familiar figure sauntered in and stood looking him up and down, whip in hand.
"I knew there was something not right about you. Typical Noldor. Spying, poking your nose into things that are none of your concern."
"I have no idea what this is about, but I demand you let me loose at once." Gildor put every ounce of birth and breeding into it, but there was no threat to underline the words and they sounded hollow in his ears. He fought to keep any hint of desperation out of his voice, which at least salvaged a little of his pride. He used to spy very adequately for Ereinion: this failure was embarrassing as well as frightening.
"You lie." The whip whistled through the air and sliced across his chest. Unprepared, Gildor cried out and tried to pull back but was held in place.
"Not lying. Just came to pay my respects to your family --- old friends..."
The whip sang again, but this time he was waiting and gritted his teeth, making no sound. "You lie," the voice hissed. "My family has no friends amongst your kind. We how our people were left to advance and die during the war, we know how cheap our lives are to you Noldor. Who sent you?!"
It went on, question, answer and punishment. At some stage he was turned round, his tunic slashed open down the back, and the whip rained freely onto his bared skin. Time stopped, the room whirled and whirled again, but pain was a funny thing, if you let it run its course without fighting it was easier to bare. He had learned that lesson a long time ago, crossing the Ice from there to here...
There was a pause in the cycle at last and he heard talking, then an accented voice rose slightly. "She said he must remain alive while she decides what is to be done. He is not like the others." He recognised the accent, and knew it would be death to let anyone know he had.
The response was taut and angry. "Someone sent him. Someone knows something. Either that or it's his own damn curiosity. Either way, he has to be silenced once we know for sure..."
"She says no." The words were like a whip's lash in their own right. "Feed him, keep the cell clean, leave him. She will decide in her own time."
"This is our kingdom, I will not be dictated to by anyone, even her."
A chill silence fell, so chill that Gildor came right back from the half-sleep he had been clinging to, aware of the hands on his arms, the dirt under his feet, and outside the sounds of water and bees buzzing. "This is her project, my lord. She merely uses the resources that have been made available to her. It would be - best - not to seek conflict with her."
The silence resumed, and then at some unseen signal the warrior-types released him so abruptly that he staggered and half fell. No one paid any heed. Footsteps marched to the door and through it, and before he could turn around or cry out, the door closed, cutting off the light, and his world of solitary darkness resumed its course once again.
The journey to Mirkwood was uneventful, although they were alert going over the High Pass where recent rock falls coupled with a day and a half of thick mist called for extreme caution. Erestor had to quietly remind Elladan more than once to allow the captain of their escort to deploy scouts and have the trail cleared without getting involved. An escort team, he suggested, should be allowed to escort.
They were picked up at the river by Thranduil’s forward watch who recognised the banners of Rivendell and offered no more than a perfunctory challenge. The leader sent a messenger on ahead with word of their arrival and then left two of his men to guide them before the patrol moved off down the road in their ceaseless watch.
There were no giant spiders. Erestor thought Elladan was disappointed, though he was too polite to say anything around their guides. He did ask rather a lot of questions about them though, expanding what little information he’d had from Prince Legolas with more extensive knowledge, he explained. Legolas had been loathe to discuss the enemy that prowled the forests of his home. All in all it was a quiet but seemingly unending journey, with Dan so close and yet completely untouchable and an average of eight hours a day in the saddle, something that had not been a part of Erestor’s life for a very long time. When he had travelled with Gildor’s people in the past, walking had been the norm, not riding. Not since the Last Alliance…
The caverns Thranduil had transformed into a palace were vast and impressive, with intricate carvings and artwork, bright hangings, and the occasional sound of water falling. Erestor had been born in Nargothrond a long time ago, his memories had faded, but he thought this might be more impressive. He wondered how it would have compared to Menegroth, upon which it was said to have been based.
He and Elladan were guided to separate suites across a temptingly small hallway from one another. The rooms chosen for Erestor were comfortable without being spacious. The bedroom had a wide bed with elaborate hangings, a chest for clothes, an overstuffed chair and a small washstand behind a screen. The living room was an adventure, complete with heating stones on glowing coals, pretty lanterns and more of the brightly coloured hangings they had seen on the way in. There was only one thing that bothered him about the otherwise cosy accommodation.
“There’s no windows. I remember living in a cave in my childhood and I know there’s more than enough air, but I still feel – breathless.”
“Nothing wrong with breathless,” Elladan told him straight-faced, “I’ve seen you breathless before. I think it suits you.”
“You just get funnier and funnier, yes.”
They were being led through labyrinthine passageways and vast, well-lit halls by two young elves who in another place and time Erestor would have identified as pages. He was less sure here.
“I have a window,” Elladan volunteered. “In the sitting room. It looks out on a little courtyard open to the sky, There’s some bushes and a few flowers. Very engaging. I don’t think you can get out there, but it makes the room feel bigger and airier.”
“I didn’t rate that high, seems. Flowers?”
“Well, you’re just my father’s seneschal and senior advisor. I’m his heir,” Elladan pointed out with a charming smile, the one that had always made Erestor want to shake him hard, the smile that had in fact been instrumental in getting them into bed together. Well, not into bed, not that time at least. Up against the storeroom wall followed by on the floor, yes. No bed in sight.
The memory was banished as they reached a boldly carved set of doors which were opened at their approach. A crowded hall beckoned, brightly lit, the floor of polished grey marble, patterned in swirls of black. In the centre was a mosaic of fighting dragons picked out in red, blue and green with accents of gold. As they drew closer Erestor saw it was made of precious stones and the gold was real.
More notable than the dragon, and no doubt meant to be more impressive, was the dais at the far end of the hall. Four broad red-carpeted steps let up to a platform upon which were set three thrones, a central one with arms and a high back and two more modest seats. Two of these seats were occupied and all eyes had turned that way.
King Thranduil leaned back, supremely at ease, watching their approach. Erestor had met him before of course, during the famous State Visit to Rivendell (an event Elrond swore would never be repeated this side of the Final Battle). He wore his pale hair loose, polished like a fall of yellow moonlight. It contrasted strongly against the russet of his robes and the heavy emerald and gold crown that sat uncompromisingly on his head. He had his legs crossed, an elbow on the arm of his throne. Erestor noticed his fingers were heavy with rings.
The occupant of the lesser throne sat very straight, his face severe and autocratic. He had darker hair than the king, closer to honey, and was dressed in impeccable trousers and tunic, his hair neat under a plain green circlet. Erestor had hoped to meet Legolas again; the prince had been pleasant and approachable during his several stays in Rivendell. He had even struck up a bit of a friendship with Elrohir, whose interests in the healing arts had been sufficiently out of the ordinary to hold some fascination for the visitor. There was a faint family resemblance, which implied to Erestor that this was perhaps a sibling, but little hint of that prince’s warmth and good humour.
They stopped before the dais and Elladan held out a hand without looking round. Erestor placed the letter of introduction into it and stepped back one pace. They had already discussed how to handle this, knowing Thranduil liked rank and protocol. Elladan held out the letter and the monarch took it, had a good look at the seal and then broke it open and read. When he had done he favoured them with an almost pleased look.
“Welcome to my halls, Lord Elladan, Councillor Erestor. This is a most courteous idea of your lord’s, certainly.” He passed the letter to his companion as he spoke. “I hope your rooms are comfortable? Matters to do with trade are not our personal concern, of course, but our son here will be glad to assist once you have rested and had time to order your thoughts. Is that not so, Laegon?”
‘Eldest son,’ Erestor thought. ‘Thranduil’s heir.’ Elladan was saying, “We would be honoured to have His Highness’s guidance in these matters, Majesty. At his convenience, of course. So long as there is time to send items over the mountain for our end of season faire, I’m sure all will be well. That is the only deadline my lord father impressed upon me.”
While he was talking, he flicked a quick glance at Erestor, who caught it effortlessly and nodded. “Lord Elrond thought if there was an interest in the faire, you could select traders to journey back with us, saving time that way. But all that can be decided in our talks with His Highness, of course.”
“I will send for them when I am ready,” Prince Laegon told his father, his voice barely audible, his head turned to avoid looking directly at them. Erestor saw a concerned look flicker across Thranduil’s face and then vanish. Kings knew how to school their expressions, or at least the ones he had known were masters of the art.
“You will both dine with us tonight, if you are not too tired after your journey,” Thranduil said, raising his voice slightly. “Discussion with my son and a few representatives of our craftsmen will begin tomorrow. Is there anything else that would make your stay with us more pleasing? If not…”
“There is one small thing,” Elladan said smoothly. “I believe my cousin Gildor is paying your halls a visit. Perhaps someone could tell him we’re here? I haven’t seen him in months.” The smile again, brimming with confidence.
Thranduil looked around vaguely then said, “Oh. Oh yes, of course. He did travel some distance with messengers I had sent to Mithlond, but never reached here. We assumed he changed his mind and returned to Imladris. Your paths may perhaps have mis-coincided?”
It took Erestor a moment to mentally translate from Mirkwood’s Nandor-heavy Sindarin to the common form, after which he glanced at Elladan with a frown. “Surely there has been some mistake, Your Majesty? We were explicitly told His Highness had been heading this way and certainly he never reached Rivendell. Would it be possible to speak with his travelling companions? Perhaps he said something…”
“The King has told you he is not here,” Prince Laegon cut in. “There is nothing more to be said. I can certainly question the messengers for you, but they were quite clear. Were there some Noldor lord in our realm, we would certainly know.”
“Prince,” Elladan, corrected blandly. “He’s a prince. Son of Finwë of Aman. And thank you, I would appreciate an investigation. Someone will call us for dinner, Your Majesty? We both need to change and unpack.”
“I will send one of my squires. I doubt you need concern yourself over Gildor – he has a taste for wandering, they say. I doubt he would have mistaken his course and got lost.”
Father and son both laughed, then Laegon leaned closer to his father, speaking softly. Erestor bowed and stepped back, waiting while Elladan did the same. The audience was clearly over.
“If I have to look at one more example of quaint beadwork or folk carving, I swear I’ll run screaming home and leave you to sort this out on your own.”
“I’m looking at bows they’d sneer at in Lórien, those throwing balls attached to strings that they use for fighting spiders – they’re interesting – and ornamental daggers.”
“Prince Laegon has been helpful, but I don’t think trade is quite his speciality. I suppose councillors don’t understand weapons and warrior princes would know nothing about beadwork?”
“Well, they’re right about that – it’s pretty or it’s not. My grandmother has beaded whatnots from Khand – the colours tell different stories and send messages and if you wear the wrong one, you can get into a heap of trouble.”
“And a whatnot is…?”
“Sort of a loincloth thing? Apron? It fastens around your waist and covers your bits. Too long is frowned on, it implies you think a bit too well of your - endowments, so it has to be kept in proportion to your height.”
“Galadriel told you that?” Erestor glanced up sharply from the list he was writing.
Elladan smiled back. “Of course she did. This is my grandmother we’re talking about. Said it exactly like that and watched to see if I’d blush. I was a lot younger then, of course.”
“Yes. I can scarcely imagine what it’d take to make you blush now.”
“Well one of the little pages showed me so much leg last night…”
“You need to restrain your curiosity. If you even look too hard, he’ll be wailing rape.”
Elladan looked serious. “I wasn’t born yesterday, Ery. I might not have your years but I’ve been around long enough to know how the world turns.”
They were sitting in Thranduil’s excellent library, a cavern, or series of caverns, brightly lit and furnished with desks, tables and chairs. They had chosen one of the tables and while Erestor wrote up notes on his meetings of the morning and added a rough transcript of Elladan’s own notes, Elladan lounged in the chair opposite him, elbows on the table in such a way that he was leaning forward close enough to speak softly without it being obvious.
They had shared casual and totally innocuous observations about Mirkwood and the opportunities for trade in Elladan’s sitting room, but somehow neither of them felt quite secure there. It was Erestor who had chosen the library, he had years of court experience in Lindon and knew the best way to have a private conversation was to conduct it right out in the open.
“Still nothing about Gildor?” he asked now, eyes on his work.
Elladan shook his head, passing another page of notes to him. “Not a word. I didn’t expect to learn anything from the messengers who allegedly travelled with him, but I ran into a few of the warriors who were in Rivendell with Legolas and asked some casual questions - and nothing. Laegon’s heard nothing either. I did wish Legolas was here though – I’d have felt more comfortable dealing with him.”
Erestor sighed and nodded. “They’re lying, you know. If he hadn’t come here, he’d have made for Rivendell instead.”
“You don’t think he had an accident along the road?”
“Gildor?” He stared disbelievingly at Elladan.
“Probably not, no. he’s not the accident type. So --- someone knows something, but they’re not telling us.”
“Unless he’s still in Mithlond,” Erestor suggested, putting his pen down for a moment and flexing his fingers. Back at home he had an assistant to do this kind of thing.
Elladan gave him a bleak look. “If he is then something really bad must have happened and I just can’t see anyone harming Gildor right under Círdan’s nose, you know? No, too many people knew he’d left for Mirkwood for it to have been staged.”
“I suppose, yes. So – something happened on the way here? Do we have any way of finding out if he arrived or if we should be turning over rocks all the way between here and Bree?”
“I’m doing my best, Ery,” Elladan said simply. “I’m fond of the old bugger, used to tell us the most amazing stories when we were small – when he was sober, that is. Mother wouldn’t let him loose on us when he’d been drinking after he told the one about the old house and the owl and Wen had nightmares for three straight nights.”
“Did he use to drink as much back then? I know he didn’t on the road, but I was never in Rivendell at the same time, so… why’s that girl staring at you? Do you know her?”
“I am that good looking, yes,” Elladan said cheerfully, glancing round behind him as he spoke. The girl was standing at the desk near the door where borrowed books were checked out by means of a complicated-seeming filing system. She looked quite young and was dressed simply in a plain, autumn-brown robe, her dark hair in a neat bun at the base of her neck.
Elladan smiled and nodded briefly and received an uncertain look in answer before he turned back. “Oh – she’s from Lórien. I don’t remember her name but I met her there a couple of times. She married someone from Mirkwood, someone on the king’s staff I think. No, in answer to your question, Gildor liked a drink but didn’t use to overdo it any worse than Glorfindel. That’s a recent thing, past hundred years at most.”
“I wondered. All right, let’s write down what we do know – looking at what we don’t know will keep us here all.”
“Well, we know Gildor left Mithlond in the company of some messengers who no one denies were there…”
Erestor made obscure notes as they talked, forming a short and unhelpful list. He used a piece of graphite so he would be able to erase it later and kept to abbreviations and initials in a loose form of Quenya. While they talked, he saw the girl who had been watching Elladan go and sit at one of the tables and start paging through her book. She never looked their way that he could see and presently he and Elladan got into a disagreement, too mild to be termed an argument, as to the chances of Dan having simply missed Gildor on the Great East Road and the girl was forgotten. When he recalled her a while later, she had already left.
Chapter 5: The Garden
Chapter 4 - The Garden
“I’m sure you find our little gatherings a bit tiresome,” Prince Laegon said smoothly, leading Elladan through the press of people gathered in the Grand Salon after the evening meal. Candles flickered, voices rose and fell, punctuated by sudden bursts of laughter, somewhere music played a slow, sad lament picked out on the harp. Elladan had already attended a handful of these evenings and managed them by putting on what his father termed his ‘party face’, which meant he looked vaguely interested in everything and tried to avoid making eye contact with anyone.
Elladan surreptitiously looked around for Erestor who handled these things perfectly, thanks to years at court in Lindon back in the old days, and narrowly avoided two ladies with hairdos that seemed to include half a forest of leaves, berries, and he could have sworn an artificial bird. He summoned up an easy smile. “No, it’s given me a completely different experience of your father’s kingdom. We always hear stories of hardships and fighting off giant spiders and orcs and never about the more social side of life.”
“No, our life isn’t all gloom and danger, not at all. Is that the general impression people have of The Greenwood then?” Placing a guiding hand on his arm, Laegon looked concerned.
Elladan passed it off with a laugh, noting yet again the habit everyone he met had of calling the place The Greenwood, when Mirkwood was by now the universal appellation. “Oh well, you know your younger brother. He’s the serious type. Probably why he got along so well with my twin.”
“Ah. Yes, he does have a very limited view on things. That is why he’s not here of course, he’s off guarding our borders as usual. Your twin is also more interested in fighting than socialising then?”
“Elrohir?” Hardly. “He’s not the warrior in the family, but he’s training as a healer and takes his studies seriously.” That was about the only thing Rohir did take seriously, but the choice of words meant he was telling nothing but the truth. Outright lies about his twin would have felt wrong.
“So strange that a lord’s son should become a healer. That would not be the way here, of course. My father would never allow such a thing. Then again, your father is not a warrior, so I suppose he sees things – not quite the same.”
“My father no longer bears arms, but that doesn’t mean that in the past he…”
“Oh, I was wondering where you were,” Erestor said in an artificially bright voice, coming out of the crowd to place a light hand on his free arm. It was a deceptively casual gesture, masking a vicious warning pinch. “I’ve been listening to the harpist,” he added to Laegon. “So emotional, such depth of feeling.”
Laegon presented himself as a connoisseur of the arts, which perhaps he was in Mirkwood terms, Elladan thought, resisting the urge to rub his arm where it stung. He wondered, not for the first time, about the skill that had sent Erestor over just in time to stop him mentioning his father’s military career, which couldn’t fail to contrast with the Silvan experience of the series of battles known as the Last Alliance. Even after so long, there were still hard feelings, which made no sense to Elladan who had grown up hearing how old King Oropher had gone about trying to conduct his own campaign with predictably tragic results for his men. He was pretty sure things were remembered rather differently this side of the mountain.
He rejoined the conversation before Erestor ran out of words and Laegon noticed his silence. “Perhaps we can go over and listen for a while if he’s that good, Councillor?”
“Music is very popular in your father’s realm, I believe,” Laegon remarked. “Legolas mentioned there was a lot of focus on music and dance and – I forget what he called them, something about adults dressing up and telling stories?” He sounded politely incredulous and there was again the tinge of disdain when he spoke about what he perceived to be the way of life in Rivendell.
“Plays,” Erestor offered, his smile sincere. He was stunning when he smiled, people often stopped paying attention to the words if he worked at it hard enough. Elladan certainly did. “Plays are our way of bringing history to life or making a point about an important moral lesson. The concept was developed in Lindon, of course.”
“Of course,” Laegon said in a neutral voice. “I can have chairs brought over so we can sit near that brazier? We should be near enough to hear the harpist and still hold a conversation. This way.”
“That’s an excellent idea, Your Highness. Elladan loves music with soul.”
Elladan, who had no time for over-emotional harp music, mentally cursed Erestor’s evil sense of humour, but he had no choice. He followed.
The voice was barely above a whisper. “You’re looking for the Noldo, aren’t you? The Lady’s kinsman. Don’t turn round!”
Elladan was standing next to a grove of bushy little trees, so well-wrought right down to the red berries and tiny yellow flowers that from across the room he had thought them real. The flowers had given it away to him; he always double checked yellow or blue flowers these days. Now he raised his glass to his lips to mask their movement as he said quietly, “Gildor Inglorion. Yes. You’ve seen him? And – who are you?”
Whoever it was, she was on the other side of the pots. “Who I am doesn’t matter. I lived in Lórien and came here with my husband. I – hear things, see things. He works in the Secret Garden, sometimes late at night, and I’ve – I’ve followed him, to be sure he was really…”
The voice, thready and unsure, trailed off. “To make sure he’s going to work as he said he was?” Elladan asked, putting all the empathy he was capable of into his voice. “It must be really hard living in a strange realm and needing that kind of reassurance.”
“I trust my husband,” she replied, her voice firming. “But we’d not been wed long and he kept vanishing in the evenings and I was --- worried. So I followed him. That’s how I found out about it. The door was open and I looked inside. I went in a little way, not far, I didn’t want to get him in trouble, or myself, but it’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before. I had to go back again, look further. He never talks about it but - it’s there. And last time I went to look at the flowers, I heard them talking about the red-haired Noldo, and I realised who it must be. They have him there, locked up. I didn’t know what to do, but then I saw you, remembered you from your visits to Lórien.”
“What is this – Secret Garden?” Elladan asked, moving closer to the nearest artificial tree and trying to keep his voice low but urgent. They weren’t likely to leave him alone for long, someone was forever coming over to offer him more to drink or little snacks, ask if he was enjoying the music, what he thought of the King’s new cloak… The gatherings in the Grand Salon revolved around gossip and advancement, the two primary interests of Thranduil’s court. It was Elladan’s view, backed up by Erestor, that it was the Woodland King’s way of keeping his courtiers focused on the mundane and away from questions about the food supply and the relative scarcity of lamp oil.
“Ssh,” she hissed. “I don’t know what it’s called, that’s just my name for it. It’s in one of the outer caverns, and the doors are kept locked all the time. Rîwnorn - my husband – is given a key when he has to go in there, and I – my uncle made toys and caskets and such, I knew how to make a copy. I don’t know what they’re doing, it’s something to do with creating new plants…”
“Why would that be so secret? Botanists try that all over the world – in Lórien, at home, probably in Mithlond, though I’m not so sure about them nowadays. That’s …”
“Not ordinary plants. They’re not changing the colours or adding a frill of extra petals or any of those things,” she whispered urgently. “They’re making things like nothing else in Endor. Strange flowers that listen and relay words – I’ve seen them test those – and huge pods that can sense people --- the workers are careful of them, very careful. And there’s buildings in the cave where they do other things, I don’t know what… It’s a bad place, Elrond-ion. And your kinsman is in there. For how long, I don’t know.”
“Where is this – secret garden?” Elladan made a show of examining the berries on the tree, every sense alert for someone coming up behind him.
“I have to go --- It’s on the other side of the library, you follow that long hallway almost to the end, turn left and go down the narrow way and there’s doors… I’ll meet you there. Later. After full-dark.”
“All right. We’ll be there. What’s your name, we’ve not been introduced, have we?” Out the corner of his eye he saw two of Thranduil’s favourites bearing down on him and he raised his glass in greeting, smiling cheerfully.
“Eldueth,” she whispered, her voice fading as she moved away. “Eldueth, once of Lórien. This is a bad place, Elrond-ion. You need to find your kinsman and leave while you still can.”
“We have no business here, there’s no excuse if we’re seen,” Erestor muttered.
“We won’t be caught,” Elladan said with sublime confidence. “We just keep our heads down, try and be inconspicuous and then slip down that passage Eldueth talked about. If we’re spotted we can say we were trying to find the ornamental lake and got turned around. It’s their own fault, dimming the lamps at night to match starlight so everything looks different.”
“This used to be part of my job, I know all about being inconspicuous. Which we aren’t. Why would we be looking for the ornamental lake at this hour? From the stories I’ve heard about your childhood, you can do better than that.” He pulled his cloak more firmly about him as he spoke. It was cold in Thranduil’s palace, which at least gave them an excuse to wear dark cloaks over their foreign clothing. He would have liked to pull the hood up over his tell-tale black hair, but knew better. People always looked when there seemed to be something to hide.
Elladan shrugged. “It sounds like a good sight to visit? We might go find it tomorrow – very romantic.”
“We’re not getting romantic here of all places,” Erestor told him firmly. They’d already had this conversation, but it never hurt to remind Dan, who liked to take chances. “And if Gildor is really there as this girl’s told you, then I’m not sure how much sight-seeing we’ll manage tomorrow. Once we rescue him, we’d need to act very normal indeed, talk to crafters, that kind of thing.”
They walked in silence, passing the library, the outer wall of which was carved with representations of dragons and giant birds. “Um – we’d be staying on?”
“Yes. We have to finish sorting out the trade agreement for your father. Anyhow, if we left we might as well own up that we rescued him, which is as good a way as any to start a war. There’ve been three kinslayings, and it’s three too many. I’m not having any part in setting up a fourth.”
“Yes but, Ery, if they’ve done anything to my --- he’s my cousin, right? What if they’ve injured him? I can’t sit back and pretend nothing happened.”
“Yes you can if he gets away all right.” Erestor snapped. “The whole point of the game is to stare your opponent down, don’t blink.”
“Game?” Elladan sounded startled, and in the half light of Thranduil’s palace, Erestor’s smile was wry. His past held any number of strange, late night escapades carrying their own share of danger, quite a few of them even involving the Noldor prince they were trying to rescue. Thinking of it as a game always helped him keep perspective.
“Of course it’s a game. A challenge. You know how you love a challenge.” He put silk into it; he had been Elladan’s favourite challenge for years. He had wondered if the interest would fade once Elrond’s first born finally got what he wanted, but there had seemed no danger of that so far, they were too well matched and the spice of keeping their affair secret had made sure neither of their interest had faded.
“There’s challenges and there’s challenges,” Elladan muttered darkly.
“You’re a warrior, my battlegrounds have been rather different, that’s all.”
Elladan turned his head, looked at him, nodded. “Hearing about it might not be the same as seeing it,” he conceded.
“Why did she tell you anyhow?,” Erestor asked after they’d walked on a way in silence. “How well did you know this girl?”
“Ha. Jealous? No, truly Ery, I didn’t even know her name…”
“Oh now that’s not something to boast about.”
“No, it was nothing like that. I just saw her around a few times, never even had an proper conversation with her. My guess is she’s scared, wants to help, and – well, she’s from Lórien. Who better to approach than the Lady’s grandson?”
“Oh shut up, of course I’m not. How much further, any idea?”
“Just a ways past the library, take a left turn, she said. Maybe the other side of that fountain. Haven’t been down this far before.”
The library stretched along beside them. The main entrance opened onto a square but this was a normal passageway with nothing but a few banners on the facing wall and the regularly placed lanterns to light the way. Were it not for the roof above their heads, they could have been in any town anywhere in Middle-earth late at night. There was no one around, and the quiet made every footstep and every murmured word sound preternaturally loud.
The fountain formed a pause in the passage they were following, not quite big enough to be termed a square or park. A couple of benches faced it and there were a few statues of deer and a pair of ungainly looking birds with huge beaks. “Pelicans, I think,” Erestor said. “Used to get them on Balar.’
Elladan had slowed to look at them. Now he jerked his head to the left. “We’re meant to be going down there, that narrow side passage. That must be what she meant.”
Elladan’s eyes laughed at him. “Scared of the dark? I’ll hold your hand.”
Erestor snorted. “Might not be a bad idea, we need to keep from getting separated. Come on, the later it gets the less chance we can talk our way out of it if someone stops us.”
The passage was gloomy, though it was still possible for them to see their way. It ran a short distance, took a sharp turn, then stretched straight ahead, angling slightly downward. They turned the corner, cutting off the light from the main area. Suddenly things became much darker.
“Where exactly did she say she’d meet us?” whispered Erestor, his head close to Elladan’s.
“Just – here. somewhere here. After full-dark, she said.”
“How are we meant to find her in the dark?”
“No idea. Eldueth?”
“Shh, idiot.” Erestor reached over and felt for Elladan’s mouth. “You have no idea what might be out there watching.”
Elladan’s answer was to grip his wrist, swing him up against the wall and find his lips in a deep, demanding kiss. Erestor submitted without thinking, his body responding as it always did to Dan’s nearness. He broke the kiss at last, breathing quickly, but didn’t move from Elladan’s arms. “When I mentioned challenges and living dangerously, this wasn’t what I had in mind.”
Elladan was running a hand slowly up and down his back. “Getting tired of being good. You’re right there next to me every night, just out of reach, sexy as the Pit in silk and velvet and with all that damn hair. Right across the hallway, and neither of us brave enough to take a chance…”
“I’m sure they’re watching us somehow, and I don’t know about you, but I think the general view of same sex love here would be rather like your father’s.”
Elladan’s frustration was almost tangible. “Father’s a prude. Grandmother blessed a union between two girls on my last visit and the only reason Grandfather wasn’t there was because he was off borrowing horses from the Horselords.”
“Borrowing, yes, let us not ever call Celeborn of Lórien a horse thief,” Erestor said, laughing against his mouth. “That would be too terrible. Come on, let’s just go a bit further, give her more time – she might have found it hard to get away. You say she said there were doors?”
Elladan, who usually knew when he was beaten, sighed. “Doors, yes. I wonder if you can see any better down here when the day lights are on.”
“Filtered light? Should be able to. And there are air vents above us and if I’m right, they’re open to the sky. Look up,” he said, turning in the curve of Elladan’s arm, “really look. Can’t you see starlight?”
“Yes – you’re right.” He could feel Elladan smiling. “So I was romantic after all – kissed you under starlight in a deserted passage in Mirkwood.”
“A beautiful clearing watched over by enraptured forest animals might have more of a ring to it, but… look, can you see a line of light down there?”
Elladan released him, took a step forward and then stopped. “That looks like a door open a crack --- what do you think?”
“Shouldn’t we have seen it before? I could have sworn it was really dark all the way down.”
Erestor shrugged although Dan couldn’t see. “Our eyes needed to adjust? You were preoccupied and distracted me too? It was only open a tiny bit and the gap’s widened?”
“Come on,” Elladan murmured, a hand on his shoulder, “Need to be very quiet…”
“It’s best only one of us goes in there. You stay here, I’ll go and look.”
“Oh no you don’t.”
“She might still be on her way down and then there’ll be no one to meet her. I’ll just take a quick look and come back.”
“Stay here.” Erestor extricated himself and walked on silent feet towards the line of light.
He was in a greenhouse. Strange globes hung from the ceiling, shedding yellow-green light on the scene. The air was warm, humid, and the scents of earth, compost and water struck him as he slid in the part open door and looked around.
There were neatly laid out beds with little paths through them to aid access, an intricate water system sent fine jets of heavy mist over tables holding row upon row of seedlings. White shades seemed to cover windows on the far side, and he would have been happy to bet they looked out onto some secluded corner of the forest. Further down, towards a complex of white-painted wooden buildings that were at odds with anything else in Thranduil’s halls, he could see clumps of bright blue and yellow flowers. The light was different there, more white in the yellow. Sunlight, he thought, fascinated. As the plants got bigger, so they must change the light to help acclimatise them to the outside world.
On his right, away from the buildings, it was darker. He could make out thickets of plants, but there were no lights for growth, no gentle spray of water. He frowned at the darkness, in two minds which side to investigate first. He needed to go back for Dan, decide a plan of action, but perhaps it would be better first to have a concept of the entire area – what had Dan said the girl had called it? The Secret Garden? It was an appropriate choice.
There was something not quite right with one of the beds. Dark shapes moved and swayed in the half light, although there was no wind in this protected area, and faint sounds came to Erestor, unpleasant but difficult to put a name to. He went forward carefully, alert for movement from the brightly lit, white buildings, but there was none. As he neared the thicket that had caught his attention he realised the dark shapes hanging from vines were massive pods, and that there was something on the ground in the middle of the bed.
He recognised the girl by her dress, pale orange with deeper accents, and her long, brown hair. She lay at an ungainly angle as though thrown down and blood seeped into the ground around her. Heavy pods, purple verging on aubergine in the gloom, stretched and yearned down towards her, some even sending tendrils out to touch and attempt to pull her closer.
Erestor knelt just out of reach gathering strength and speed into himself, preparing to launch forward to grab hold of the girl and drag her clear. He doubted she was still alive, but there was only one way to tell. Even if she was dead, he had no intention of leaving her to be plant food. With his attention focused inward, it was only at the last moment that he sensed a presence behind him. Too late he attempted to turn and rise. The blow caught him just off centre on the back of his head and he pitched forward into darkness, consciousness leaving him before he even hit the ground.
Elladan hunkered down against the wall and waited. He had always been better at this than his brother. Elrohir had the healer’s all-encompassing curiosity that needed answers here, now, at once. Rather like Ery, now he thought of it. Elladan could wait. You learned that as a junior warrior. They gave you all sorts of tasks that involved sitting still and learning patience and he’d taken what he could from it. He had also watched his father dealing with his Council and could see where else waiting could be applied to good advantage. One of the places where it made less sense, he thought, was in Thranduil’s underground kingdom, in an unlit passageway, with Erestor somewhere down there, through a door and out of sight.
He counted heartbeats for a while to keep track of time, and when he felt long enough had passed he made his way quietly down to where the door had once stood slightly ajar. Erestor had closed it behind him for reasons Elladan couldn’t begin to guess, except it was the kind of picky detail he might have responded to without thought. When he reached the spot where he thought the door had been, he ran his hand along the wall and soon found it. Standing close he listened, but no sounds came through. Feeling about, he finally found the catch. The door itself felt strange, it was made from carefully sanded wood reinforced with hands of metal. Still, Ery had gone through that door, and he had to follow.
The catch didn’t lift, it turned, which was also novel. The door opened just a crack and he looked in. Light streamed back at him, but it was hard to make anything out. He could hear now though, there was water flowing somewhere and a hissing sound that might also have been to do with water. He opened the door further to get a better look. The light was mainly concentrated at the other end, leaving the entrance in shadow. There were rows of plants stretching off to the left, some potted, some in the ground, while on his right there were a series of dimly lit beds crammed with staked foliage. Down where the light was brightest, he could see a group of wooden buildings, painted stark white. There was no sign of Erestor.
He closed the door, realising with a half smile that he was probably responding to the same urge that had made Ery do the same. There seemed to be no one around, though he knew better than to take that for granted. He began moving as soundlessly as he would have when approaching a den of orcs, keeping to the shadows near the back of what looked like a giant greenhouse. There were little water channels and he avoided these as best he could.
Up near the buildings were the flowers he recognised from previous encounters. They grew in serried rows, and he was careful to keep his distance from them. They also served as a reminder that his movements should stay as quiet as possible; there was no knowing the capabilities of the plants he was passing. One thing he made a note to talk about with Ery later: the plants were all silent, there was no sense of things growing and reaching out, no small flickers of green energy; it was as though the little souls that should be present on the edge of his awareness had been locked away. It was both unnatural and unsettling.
Erestor was hard to spot when he chose not to be seen, but he would know Elladan would follow him in the end and keep watch for him. There was still no sign of him, though a couple of things drew Elladan’s eye, like the marks that said something had been dragged across an empty bed and the pots closer to the buildings that had been knocked over and left to lie. Concern gnawed at Elladan’s mind. He tried to ignore it, put it aside till he had time; worry was a luxury. Right now he was intent on reaching the buildings, as strangely out of place in a cavern complex as the greenhouse itself.
He knew where Mirkwood’s food came from, he had been told about the carefully preserved and guarded clearings and meadows on the fringes of the forest where crops were raised and animals like chickens and pigs were bred. There had certainly been no hint of anything like this. In fact, looking around, this seemed more like a Noldorin experimental farm than something he would associate with wood elves.
His mind was wandering. He brought it back firmly into line and kept moving, utilizing the stealthy crouch Glorfindel had brought from his time watching in the mountains above Gondolin. He kept to the shadows, his objective the back of the cluster of buildings. He had almost reached there without incident when something whipped out of nowhere and twined round his ankle. He bit back a yelp and looked down to where a long tendril had wrapped loosely around his ankle, trying to hold onto him, and his blood ran cold.
“Shit!” he muttered, grabbing at it and tugging. “Get off of me…” The tendril belonged to a young creeper and proved easy to break. Moving out of range he brushed himself off and gave his ankle a rub. “You still have some growing to do. Need to make sure I don’t run into your big brothers and sisters, don’t I?” he snarled at his attacker before continuing on his quest.
Reaching the side of the complex he risked a look around the front corner. There were doors with two or three steps leading up to each and a line of windows. A few small buildings stood separate from and diagonal to the rest. There were the same wooden steps, but no windows. Probably storage. Tellingly, on door was bolted from the outside. He was about to go look down the alley at the back to see if there was a way round, because crossing the open space in front of all those windows seemed a bit heedless, even for him, when a door clicked open and voices reached him.
“Damn,” he muttered, dropping to the ground and huddling close to the wall. This side of the building was in deep shadow and with luck he wouldn’t be seen.
“That second batch was more successful. Distilling the active ingredient from the dried dye is the easy part, activating it is proving the real problem.”
“She wants it ready by the end of the year. The meeting between the King and the Noldo bitch’s husband is set for that time, and if they’re to administer it to Celeborn, there will be no better time.”
“How will they test it though? Getting him to go back and attack his wife will need extreme control.”
“They were talking about trying it on the prisoners. Perhaps the redhead, though a Sinda might have been better. Closer to actual requirements.”
“Hmm. That might be a good idea. I wondered why she was keeping him.”
“Killing him wasn’t good politics, I heard. He’s one of their royals.”
“Ah. Well I suppose the other one will go tomorrow – the pods have already eaten tonight, need to wait till they’ve got their appetites back.”
They had stopped right at the corner, almost within reach of Elladan. He kept very still, barely breathing, while they laughed. “Soon won’t have to worry about their politics or who has to be treated with silk gloves. It’s been a long time since the Dagorlad and all our dead and their maligning of our king, but the wheel turns. It’ll be us who have the ascendancy, they’ll be the ones fighting the darkness unaided.”
“You off for the evening?”
“I’ll have to come in early morning, see how the distillation’s going, but yes. Straight home, my wife promised to bring back my dinner and a jug of wine.”
“She has permission to take food out the dining hall?”
“Oh, it’s enough to say her husband’s working on one of His Majesty’s special projects. And she’s very persuasive.”
“I want to try and be here when they give the other prisoner to Loggi. Haven’t seen him feed before.”
They walked past him and kept going, their voices fading as they made their way through the greenhouse. Elladan assumed, hoped, they were heading for the door. When they’d gone far enough, he started working his way to the end of the building and round that corner. Still in shadow, he crawled the length of the complex, avoiding foul smelling bins mainly containing rotting plant matter. There was a very small gap to edge through at the end, and Elladan wriggled through, reminded in a strange way of looking for tight and secure places when playing hide and seek in his youth.
It was brighter but there was nothing much to see, just plant pots, drums and containers stacked one atop the other and beyond them the locked shed. Elladan considered his options. Except for the two windows furthest away, the rest were horizontal slits set quite high up. He could hear no voices either. Waiting would only bring more danger, and Elladan was good at seizing the moment. Quick strides took him to the bolted door.
They had wrapped a length of chain around the bolt and fastened it with a padlock for good measure. He gave it a long look, then fiddled in his hair for one of the clips that held the shorter side locks back from his face. Breaking the thin end off he drew a deep breath and was about to set to work on the lock when he heard a door open and voices coming his way.
Chapter 6: Laegon
Chapter 5 - Laegon
It was dark and the floor was hard, nothing more than packed earth. Everything was very quiet except for the sound of light breathing close by. Erestor lay motionless, giving no hint of returned consciousness and tried to work out what had happened. He had been in a vast hothouse, there had been pods, Gildor’s pods… and the girl. He had to remind himself not to move as he remembered that, remembered her lying too still with blood seeping into the ground from an undetermined wound, and those – things – swaying and writing on their vines, reaching out towards her. And then there had been a sound behind him, followed by nothing.
Clearly he was getting old. He had been damn careless.
A small movement and a sigh brought him back to here and now. He hesitated, but very much doubted pods sighed. “Gildor?”
“I know the voice, so I assume we’ve been formally introduced.”
Asshole. “Erestor. Remember me?”
“Short. Black hair. Self-destructive taste in men.”
“The first two certainly. Are you all right?”
“Peachy. I love sitting in the dark waiting for my daily meal or the whip, whichever comes first.”
“You don’t need to take that tone, Elladan and I went to quite some trouble finding you.”
Gildor digested this in silence. “You and Elrond’s boy – both here?”
“Don’t call him Elrond’s boy where he can hear you, he’s been an adult for a very long time.”
“Even you look young to me, Erestor.”
“I know, anyone born this side of the sea.” Erestor gingerly explored the lump on the back of his head and wondered if the blow had been hard enough to cause concussion. “What’s going on here, Gildor? What is this place?”
“This? Oh, Thranduil would tell you it’s a place to create weapons against the enemy. He might be a bit vague as to who the enemy is, of course, or what kind of weapons.”
“Pods, you talked about giant, man-eating pods when you were drunk and no one believed you. And then when I told you I’d seen the flowers, you passed it off, told me there was nothing to talk about. Why? What were you trying to hide?”
“I had nothing to hide. I tried to warn people, no one listened. I saw no point in you smashing your head on the same brick wall as I had, especially when you mentioned one of Celebrían’s children was involved. I told you to leave it. Seems I was wasting my breath.”
“Well, if you hadn’t vanished after sending me that tantalising little gift, things might have gone back to ‘Gildor, drunk, what do you expect?’”
“Even though you’d seen and heard the flowers yourselves? Yes, that’s what people do, block out the unthinkable.”
“Is that what you’ve been doing with dwarf brandy the past years? Blocking out the unthinkable?”
Gildor made an irritated sound. “I’m not fond of lying awake plotting how to keep ahead of the people behind this. I might drink a little more than I used to, but that’s no one’s business but my own. Gift?”
“Right. The seeds.” Gildor fell silent for a while, then, “You must be smarter than I ever gave you credit for, how did the seeds lead you here?”
“Oh, they didn’t on their own. But then Dan went to Mithlond to find you and ask what was going on, and you’d already left for Mirkwood. Then he found your old bag and the dye…”
“Twist of paper with a sample of the purple dye that was meant to have gone to Tharbad? Then, seeing as he’d missed you on the road when he really shouldn’t have, we knew you were in some kind of trouble.”
“He found some of that dye in my bag?”
“Yes. In a twist of white paper.”
Gildor’s voice was serious, giving the darkness an ominous edge. “That was nothing to do with me, Councillor. I have no idea who might have put it there, though I’ve found there’s help to be had from unlikely quarters. It’s only recently that I’ve overheard enough to understand the dye shipment ended up here, and why.”
Erestor turned the problem of the dye in Gildor’s bag around in his head a few times but there were no answers to be found here and now. And it was minimal compared to what he had just been told. “The dye’s here? What’s going on, what is Thranduil doing? And why?”
“Thranduil? Oh, he’s harmless. He lives too much in the past, bitter and twisted about his father’s death. Never accepted it was the fool’s own damn fault he died and took half his people with him. No, he just has a grudge against the Noldor and it’s made worse by knowing they have – protection against the dark forces. And in turn he has fed…”
He stopped abruptly. Erestor was about to prod him along when he heard what had interrupted him. “What…?” he whispered.
“The door. Someone at the door.”
Very softly Erestor said, “Well, maybe there’ll be a few answers at last.”
The scratching was replaced by the sound of a bolt being drawn back. Then pale light flooded in, half blocked by a figure in the doorway. “Put the lantern over there and then wait outside,” a familiar voice said. A muscular elf in guard’s uniform came in with a lantern which he hung from a hook, before giving them a scowl and striding back out.
For the first time Erestor could see Gildor, sitting naked on the ground, his arms tied behind him. Before he could say anything, someone else entered the room. Erestor had no idea who he had expected, and felt his mouth start to drop open. “Laegon? What do you think you’re doing? What is this place?”
The prince carried a short whip which he slapped against his thigh as he stared down at them haughtily. “This place, Noldo, is where the problems facing my people, my father’s people, will finally be solved. Not that you will be around to see the resolution, but rest assured, it will be complete and thorough. The worm will turn and the boot will finally be firmly on the other foot.”
Erestor was studying Gildor out the corner of his eye, and he did not like the look of the cuts and bruises. He swallowed the urge to comment on the clichés. “What is going on here? And what happened to Eldueth, where is she? Is she all right?”
“Eldueth? Oh, the woman. Indeed, she has met a fate that we are perfecting to use in our war against the giant spiders, the same giant spiders who will sadly be the cause of the demise of yourself and poor Elladan during an ill-fated hunting expedition. In actual fact, you will follow Eldueth once Madame’s pets have rested. I need you to tell me where Elladan is though. We’ve searched for him and he is nowhere to be found.”
“I have no idea where my lord’s son is spending the evening,” Erestor said coldly. “I assume he found someone to while away the hours of darkness with.” If he could just lull Laegon into believing Dan knew nothing about any of this…
The whip caught him across his upper arm and shoulder, sending him reeling. “Don’t lie to me, Noldo! The two of you are together and he was seen earlier talking with that traitor. You will tell me where he is and you will do so now.”
Erestor gave him a set stare, and was more prepared this time when the whip descended. “I told you, I have no idea. He’s my lord’s son, he doesn’t answer to me.”
“We’ll find him,” Laegon snarled. “Since my father forced me to keep you amused, I feel entitled to my own little entertainment. I have something – special in store for Elladan. For this too,” he added contemptuously, flicking the whip in Gildor’s direction. Gildor cringed back with a low whimper. “Perhaps I will set them up against one another, that would be amusing.”
“What do you mean, what are you going to do with Gildor?” Erestor kept talking while he assessed the layout of the room and its contents and tried to guess at the position outside of Laegon’s guards.
Laegon stared at him thoughtfully, then turned without a word and walked to the door. “You. Go tell Healer Aradon it’s time to test the first batch. Tell him to bring me one dose.”
Gildor made to struggle to his feet, but Laegon was back with them already, his teeth flashing white in a mirthless smile. “No, no. As you were, my Prince. This shouldn’t hurt – much. And if it works as it should, you will know freedom for a little while.”
“The first batch of what?” Erestor had been told before that he needed to learn when to be quiet, but felt it was a bit late to bother with learning a new skill.
Laegon gave him an irritated look, then laughed shortly. “It might be more interesting not to tell you, just watch your reaction when the drug takes effect. But no, the anticipation will make an intriguing study. Briefly, we have acquired a quantity of the powder created from the secretions of the Baradamlug toad, commonly used as a dye. You would be familiar with this, of course. However, our scholars have discovered a more potent use for the secretion. Correctly distilled and energised, it creates a powerful hypnotic, stronger than any we have ever seen before.”
“And you plan to give that to Gildor and hypnotise him into doing what?” Erestor’s mind was racing, cataloguing instances where those involved in creating the dye had shown strange symptoms or when untoward behaviour had occurred. He was horrified to recall several strange, apparently unmotivated assaults, and a couple of bizarre deaths the workers swore were directly related to close contact with the dye. It was around that time, he recalled, that Celebrían had asked Elrond to put stringent rules in place for working with the substance.
Laegon was smiling humourlessly. “Why Councillor, I would have thought you might have guessed. What better test than to see if a man would be willing to dispatch an old friend while under the influence of the drug? If that works, our next steps with the Finwëan witch and your own lord should follow in close order – do not get up, Councillor,” he added sharply as Erestor tensed to rise. “Onnenanc, come in here. I think our guest needs a small lesson in courtesy.”
Erestor was hauled to his feet by the newcomer, who had the biggest muscles he had ever seen on an elf. “By the Pit, are you recruiting orcs to your service, Laegon?” he managed to gasp.
Laegon laughed. “No, but you have to admit he has a quite impressive physique. Onnenanc? A little warm up, I think.”
“Smells like an orc too,” Erestor got out before a massive fist buried itself in his gut. The air rushed out of him on an agonised grunt, and he would have doubled over if he were not being held. Another blow followed, but then a third party arrived and Onnenanc held off, giving Erestor a chance to see the newcomer once the world swum back into focus.
He was short, white clad, and had the fussy, slightly dishevelled appearance of the researcher. He was carrying a vial which he held out to Laegon. “I needed to run one or two more tests, my prince, but…”
“But it’ll work?”
“Oh yes, my prince, I am almost certain.”
“Good. Good. Onnenanc, leave him be for now. Go hold the other one for me instead.”
Erestor felt rather than saw Gildor drawing his remaining strength together and stayed as alert as he could for a signal, fighting down nausea to do so. Gildor’s choice of action though surprised him. The redhead tilted his head a little and sniffed. “Is that smoke?” he asked almost casually.
Laegon raised his head and breathed in deeply, then said to Onnenanc, “Go. Find out what’s happening.” This wasn’t about Gildor trying to create a diversion, Erestor realised. He could smell it too. Elladan’s work, instinct told him.
The researcher who had brought the drug sounded agitated. “My experiments, our research. I must go and secure my papers…”
Laegon sighed. “You will only be in the way, Healer. No one will allow the …”
Raised voices reached them and the smell of smoke increased. The air in the room was already growing hazy. “Your Highness, the packing cases have caught and the flames are spreading.” The guard was out of breath and coughing. Laegon muttered a curse and turned to the door, almost colliding with Healer Aradon who had heard all he needed and was there ahead of him. Laegon followed, not even pausing to close the door.
Gildor underwent an instant transformation, springing to his feet, arms moving. The ropes that bound him fell to the ground. “Come on, let’s get the fuck out of here. There should only be one guard outside now.”
Erestor blinked and nodded, stopping only to take the lantern and smash the glass against the wall. Flames licked and caught while he retrieved one of the larger shards of glass – any weapon was better than no weapon at all.
Looking over his shoulder Gildor grinned. “Good call, Councillor. Glad to see you haven’t lost your touch after all those years of soft living. Let’s go.”
Outside they walked into billowing smoke and the roar of a well-established fire. Erestor looked around for the guard who should have remained on duty, saw nothing, and then almost tripped over a dark shape at his feet. “What the…?”
“Bit too far away to be smoke inhalation,” Gildor said dryly. “I assume Elladan was not bunked down somewhere with convivial company?”
“Not if he knows what’s good for him.”
“Which I do,” Dan said, moving out of the shadows to join them. “Come on, hurry. They’ll soon have it out, there’s plenty of water around here. Gildor… are you all right? Not sure naked is quite your look.”
Elladan led the way back across the greenhouse, trying to take advantage of what cover the plants offered, although he remembered in time to warn about the tentacled creeper he had run into earlier. The fire was the perfect distraction and the thick smoke helped them escape notice.
They wasted no time on questions or explanations and the exit was in sight when Erestor’s suspicions that it had all been too easy were proved right as a dark patch of shadow resolved into a furious Laegon with the orcish Onnenanc at his back. Laegon, his hair unruly and soot streaked, held a drawn sword, At close quarters, Onnenanc would have no need of weapons.
“Look at what you’ve done, you bastard. Decades of work, gone in a single night. You will pay for this!”
His voice rose to a shriek. Elladan took one look at the way his eyes were glittering, reached a hand back to catch Erestor’s wrist and said, “I’ll keep him busy, you get Gildor out of here.”
“Gildor can get himself out of here,” Gildor drawled on the other side. “Leave him. All we have to do is get back into the palace – Thranduil has no idea what’s going on and he’ll be very interested to hear what his son’s been up to.”
Elladan ignored them both and took a step forward. “There’s three of us and two of you, Laegon. Don’t be stupid. Put the sword away.”
“Oh but I cannot allow you to leave here, my lord. You and your father’s servant have seen too much. I cannot allow you to share our secrets with your accursed family.”
Elladan’s stance was deceptively relaxed, legs apart, arms hanging loosely, one hand behind his thigh, the other in front. It would ring no warning bells for someone untrained in the unarmed combat arts of Gondolin. Gildor leaned down to pick up a border stone and hefted it, his face grim, no sign now of the man who had cringed back from Laegon’s whip.
Elladan’s voice was level. “I don’t know what this is all about, Laegon, but I know when something is wrong, and what your people have done to these plants is wrong. There’s no soul in them, no voice. I have no idea exactly what you had going on in that building, but I know no good could come out of a place like this.”
Laegon’s answer was an inarticulate shout as he lunged forward. Elladan sidestepped him, turning with him, his eyes fixed on the point of the sword, his body mirroring Laegon’s, keeping the distance and stance between them constant. Onnenanc started forward but Gildor met him with the stone in his fist and the force of the blow suggested where some at least of his bruises had come from.
Erestor looked from one to the other, then left Elladan to get on with it; he was a warrior by training and the last thing he needed was someone getting in the way and disrupting his concentration. Instead he joined with Gildor in wrestling the huge elf to the ground. Out the corner of his eye he saw Laegon’s arm move and the sword’s blade flash. He heard a faint hiss, Elladan’s intake of breath as the blade cut, and then watched as he stepped inside the sword’s range, right up against Laegon. Glorfindel had spent endless hours training him to do that, until the urge to avoid the blade was no longer blind instinct. Laegon took a startled step back and they closed with one another.
Onnenanc lost his balance at that moment and fell heavily in amongst the nearby tangle of plants. He uttered an unearthly howl and scrabbled to get back on his feet. It was only then that Erestor realised where they were and took in the swaying dark shapes just beyond reach. He also became aware the voices in the background had risen urgently, and above them he could hear Healer Aradon screaming something, but the words were indistinct and his ear took time with the Mirkwood dialect. He looked back the way they had come and saw the flames were spreading and leaping higher, not being doused as he would have expected.
“Something’s highly flammable back there,” Gildor guessed, panting a little. “Come on, we need to get out of here.” He grabbed Onnenanc by a shoulder and a handful of hair as he spoke and gave an almighty heave, sending him directly towards the swaying pods. “There, do something useful. Feed Madame’s pets.”
His words were overshadowed by Laegon’s high scream as he pitched backwards, rolling over to end up near where Onnenanc was still doubled over. Elladan, his face grim, took a step towards him, the glass shard Erestor had handed to him gleaming red.
“I don’t know what’s back there,” Gildor said calmly, “but they’re yelling about something feeding the flames and to run for it.”
“There’s no time, Dan,” Erestor insisted, grabbing Elladan by the arm. “And stay back from those things. Leave him, we have to get out of here. The whole place is about to burn down around our ears.”
They had just reached the path to the door, moving fast, when there was a noise so loud and so harsh it was almost soundless. It seemed to suck in the air around them before exhaling it with a roar of flame and exploding wood. Something that might have been a door flew past them. Elladan stopped to look back, his lips parted, his face alight with fascinated interest. Erestor knew that look. Catching a handful of sleeve he tugged hard. “Dan! Come on, damn you!”
Someone was screaming and he could hear violent cursing. The fire roared, smoke and ash filled the air, raining down on them. They ran unevenly towards safety as the flames gathered like a great storm wave and raced towards them, spreading through the vegetation. His throat burned. Something gave an jagged shriek and a sheet of flame leapt into the air about where the creepers grew. Two girls in worker’s clothing tore past them without sparing them so much as a glance and went out through the exit. Then a howl of pain made them all stop as one and turn.
The scream spiralled higher and higher before fading away into nothingness, like the call of a wolf. “Shit.” Dan breathed. He grabbed Erestor’s shoulders and shook him, his grip hard, his eyes intent. “You – out of here. take Gildor and go. And try and find him something to wear. I’ll be a minute…”
“What in the Pit are you doing?” Erestor hissed, pulling free and forcing down panic. “We have to get out of here, Dan. The fire’s spreading. This whole secret garden of theirs is about to get wiped out.”
“I can’t leave them there.”
“You’re not going back for that madman. Dan, no!”
“Just get out of here. I have to, Ery. I can’t leave him to burn to death. That’s not who I am.”
Erestor looked at him in disgust then sighed, pulled his cloak off and shoved it at Gildor. “Cover up and get out of here. That door leads into a passage. Wait for us there. I’m guessing you don’t want to help the prince?”
“Roasting him over a slow fire would be more to my taste,” Gildor said, taking the cloak and wrapping it about him. “Hurry, there are better ways to die and better things to die for.”
They went back together through hot, acrid air and thick smoke to where they’d left Laegon. Erestor had a whole collection of choice words for Dan, but thought he’d save them for when he had breath. They were almost where they’d left Laegon when a second howl sliced the air. Some distance away there was a crash followed by the sound of shattering glass as someone smashed a window, and the smoke lifted for a few moments. The prince was writhing on the ground, an arm completely engulfed by one of the pods while others had come together in a group and seemed to be tugging and pulling at something.
“Over there,” Elladan exclaimed, pointing. “Those – those are the pods Gildor used to talk about, aren’t they?”
“Them, yes. I told you to keep back, remember?” Erestor spotted Laegon’s sword lying off to the side and lunged for it, barely slowing down. For a moment he hesitated, not sure where he should aim, then be brought the blade down about halfway along the pod. There was an unhealthy squelch and Laegon dropped back onto the ground where he lay unconscious. Nothing remained of his arm below the elbow but shreds of ragged flesh and the pointed end of a bone. There was surprisingly little blood.
Elladan exchanged looks with him. “That is – not good,” he said with feeling, taking off his cloak and kneeling to wrap it tight around Laegon’s arm. “Help me up with him on my shoulder. I – don’t think we can do anything for Onnenanc.”
“He’ll hate you more for saving him than he ever did before,” Erestor warned, helping Elladan hoist the unconscious prince over his shoulder.
Elladan met his eyes seriously. “He can hate me all he likes. It’s better than me ending up hating myself.”
With one hand helping support the dead weight over Elladan’s shoulder, Erestor leaned closer in the midst of smoke and chaos and kissed him on the lips. “You’re nicer than you should be,” he said. “Nicer than I deserve, too. Now can we go please?”
“Prince Laegon offers his apologies, of course. He would have liked the chance to bid you farewell, but unfortunately his injuries do not yet allow him to leave his rooms.”
“Such a hero, helping to put out that terrible fire,” Erestor murmured, bowing low to King Thranduil. “Please be sure to give him our very best wishes for his recovery, Your Majesty.”
“Definitely.” Elladan was careful not to look at Ery, all wickedly correct in his fashionable travelling clothes, symbolising everything he knew irritated Thranduil about the Noldor. “I found him a very interesting companion.”
Thranduil had done them the honour of coming out to see them off, which marked their informal trade mission a resounding success. They were just outside the entrance to the palace and could hear the river flowing past while all around them trees whispered and rustled. There was a small party of crafters drawn up – Mirkwood did not officially have merchants, the concept was against the philosophy of the forest dwellers – and beside them waited the escort who had travelled from Rivendell with Elladan and Erestor.
With any luck, Elladan thought, no one would notice one of the spare horses now had a rider. He was dressed the same as the others, although his clothes were slightly less well fitting and he had the hood of his cloak drawn up over his hair.
“Was anything salvaged from the fire, Your Majesty?” Erestor was asking. “Did none of the saplings survived?” One of the vague explanations put out was that the project had been an attempt to produce a new species of pear. Something had to be said, the fire had spread through the broken windows to the forest and the palace residents had been roused and gone outside to help put it out. There was no point in denying it happened, so the matter of where and why had needed dealing with. Elladan was impressed at the speed and smoothness of the cover-up.
“I’m afraid the entire complex was destroyed,” Thranduil said, “though I believe a handful of cuttings and Master Aradon’s notes were saved. It was a most important project, he was about to expand it to include other, more exotic, southern fruits. They will just have to begin again as soon as another suitable venue can be found.”
“Please tell Prince Laegon I’m sure the research will start up again sooner or later, and I intend to take a personal interest in the outcome,” Elladan said with his friendliest smile, moving away from Erestor to avoid being kicked. He did the next best thing, shuffling and indicating their horses were waiting.
Dan didn’t need Erestor to tell him he had made a bitter enemy the night of the fire. He knew there would be repercussions at some point and supposed he shouldn’t fan the flames, so to speak. But equally there was no harm in sending a warning, no matter how vague. They had no way of proving what they had seen or the depths of the threat they suspected, but whatever Laegon and the mysterious Madame had in mind, Elladan was determined he and Erestor would be ready and waiting.
Chapter 7: Epilogue
“And she didn’t say anything else?”
They were squashed together in a narrow bed in a guest room on the cliff side of the house. It was the kind of room reserved for unexpected and not very important single guests and all it had to recommend it was its convenience to a little used back staircase. The door was locked, the shutters closed, and dust motes danced in the bars of sunlight that slanted through the narrow slats onto the bed.
Erestor lay on his side, head propped on a hand. His hair fell across Elladan’s chest, a stray sunbeam catching the rainbow hues sparkling in the rich blackness. Elladan was idly rubbing his arm while they talked.
“That was it,” Erestor said. “She heard me through, thanked me for the warning for your grandfather, said I’d have to find the means to safeguard those toads in the future, and was pleased we’d managed to find Gildor but thought it a pity he hadn’t been scared off the sauce by his near death experience. I asked her what she knew of Laegon or the mysterious Madame or Mirkwood’s plans for expansion, but she said if I was meant to find the answers, I would; apparently the truth is out there, if one knows where to look.”
“When Mother acts obscure, she’s worse than Grandmother,” Elladan agreed. “Do you think she knows more? She didn’t seem surprised by any of this.”
“I don’t know,” Erestor admitted. “She had a strange life growing up, I think she knows a lot about things most people have never heard of. She did say we’d be best off following Gildor’s example and trying to stay out of it, in fact she told me directly that I wasn’t to involve you in anything more of this…”
“I think I’m old enough to make my own decisions,” Elladan purred, running his hand along Erestor’s flank, the touch butterfly light and enticing. “Don’t you think I’m old enough to make my own decisions, Ery?”
“Stop that, we need to talk. Yes, you’re old enough. You were born old.”
Elladan laughed and returned to running his fingers through Erestor’s long hair. “Your hair’s gorgeous, do I tell you that enough? Especially in the sun. All right, what do we know?”
“You tell me enough, but once more won’t hurt. What do we know? Well, we know Thranduil’s son is a dangerous lunatic…”
“Even with one arm.”
“You shouldn’t sound so smug about that. Yes, even with one arm. And whatever he’s involved in, they’ll rebuild what was destroyed in the fire.”
“Gildor said the dye was highly flammable and when I checked I found he knew what he was talking about. So that would mean the supply they had there is gone, right?”
“It should be, those buildings were among the first to burn. We can hope anyhow. We need to guard the toads and the dye in future so they can’t get any more to make their disgusting drug. “
“And Mother will make sure Grandfather doesn’t meet with Thranduil – I can’t believe they were planning to drug Grandfather, make him kill Grandmother, take her ring, come here, drug Mother, get her to take Father’s ring… Are we sure this wasn’t Gildor’s imagination running away with him rather than joining up the pieces of things he overheard?”
“I don’t think so, Dan,” Erestor said, sliding down slowly to lie with his head on Elladan’s shoulder, hand resting in the centre of his chest. Dan felt solid against him, reality in an unreal world. “It makes sense. I’ve done a little research into the dye and the kind of drug that might be distilled from it and yes, it would be a powerful hypnotic and if it was enhanced in some way I can see that being possible – though it was never tested so we can’t know if it’d work. But it feels right, and he had no reason to make it up. He was sober, too.”
Elladan conceded with a nod, his hand still on Erestor’s hair. “We don’t know how widespread the flowers are, or those pods.”
“Or how many of those different species we saw in the secret garden have been seeded in places like Mithlond or even here.”
“I think we’d know if there were pods here. I didn’t have time to look too hard at the rest, though there was a creeper that tried to kill me. I’d know that one if I saw it again.”
“You know, that sounds exactly like the kind of thing Gildor will say after a few drinks.”
“I’m getting to understand that,” Elladan said dryly, shifting to get the fit between their bodies right.
“The worst is we can’t prove any of it. The flowers are gone, the secret garden is gone, the whole thing sounds like some kind of a wild fantasy. Your own mother says to let it be, that stirring up a hornet’s nest means we’ll just get stung ourselves.”
“She’s scared, isn’t she?” Dan said quietly, stroking Erestor’s hair.
Erestor thought about it, relaxing under Elladan’s rhythmical touch, trying to read past Celebrían’s bland expression as they walked together towards the Hall of Fire, pretending to discuss plans for the harvest festival. “I think she’s uneasy,” he said at last. “I think she knows things she’d rather not talk about. Your father’s a good, decent man, but far too trusting. I think she’s trying to protect her family as best she can. Scared? Not so sure about that. Your mother isn’t someone who scares easily.”
Dan nodded. “That’s probably it, yes.”
“Right now we need to think of a way to find out what’s going on over there and who else is involved.” Erestor moved abruptly so he was lying sprawled over Elladan, arms crossed on his chest, chin resting on his wrists. Elladan gave a half protest, something about his weight, but lay still. Their eyes were almost level.
“Mithlond. Those flowers are all over Mithlond,” he said, idly rubbing Erestor’s shoulders. “And that’s where Gildor disappeared from. And – there’s something really wrong there, Ery. I’m sure Galdor has something to do with it. Do you think there’s any chance Círdan would believe any of this?”
Erestor considered, then shook his head. “It sounds too far fetched. And he’s old fashioned, he would never believe elves could work against other elves.”
“What? He was around for two kinslayings.”
“Yes, but this is different. No Oath, no hot blood, no Silmarils. Cold blooded plotting. He’d never believe it of elves, he’s too straight.”
“I suppose. There’s one final thing.”
“What else? Erestor stretched then pressed himself against Elladan, relishing the feel of warm skin and hard muscle. “It’s getting late, I need to sit in on your father’s meeting with the Goldsmiths’ Guild.”
“Your life is so exciting,” Elladan laughed, rolling them over fast so that Erestor lay under him in a tangle of hair, trying to catch his breath, laughing as well. “Seriously - one last minute seriously? We need to find out who Madame is. Gildor said that’s very important. He said there were people who worked directly for her, not Laegon, and that they were foreign to Mirkwood. Find out who she is, and we’ll know what we’re really dealing with.”
“Can you stop talking now, Dan?” Erestor asked, moving lazily against him. “I’m running out of time.”
A fire crackled merrily in the grate in the old stone room. Scarlet drapes were drawn against the night. A small round table bore a vase of leaves and twigs, a bottle of extremely good wine, two Gondorian crystal glasses, and a small platter of snacks. Finger food they called it, the things eaten casually with a glass of wine.
“More wine, my lady?” Círdan asked, his hand on the bottle.
The woman across the table nodded, the tiny emeralds in her intricately coifed black hair twinkling in the candlelight. “It is most good. From the south, yes?” Her voice was high and clear with a strong but not unpleasant accent, her slanting eyes a green to match the emeralds. She held the glass out in a small, delicate hand, and Círdan filled it.
“A toast,” he suggested, filling his own. “To Prince Laegon’s health, perhaps?”
Her laughter tinkled unkindly. “Burns will heal, arm will not grow. My precious one took it quite off before – before the bad thing happened.”
He hoped she was not about to cry again. She had been in floods of tears when she told him the fate of those nightmare-inducing pods she referred to as her ‘babies’. “Even so, he is important to the reworking of our plan,” she continued. “We will be reworking it, yes? They are most insistent. There must be no retreat.”
She sipped her wine and looked at him seductively over the glass. The look made no impact, Círdan would have her later anyhow, it was part of their agreement. She would lie naked on the couch, her long legs drawn up and spread for his inspection, and when he had sucked and fingered her to his satisfaction and she was keening with need, she would turn over onto her hands and knees for him to plunge into wet heat and ride her senseless as befitted the bitch she was. But first, business.
“It was a good plan. Entice Celeborn to a meeting with Thranduil, drug him, then hypnotise him into taking Nenya from that wife of his. Then having him administer the drug to the daughter, making her retrieve Vilya. I was a little unclear about the next step though. Laegon would never have agreed to those rings going anywhere but Mirkwood, which would not have suited our purposes.”
She tossed her head casually. “Oh, Laegon. So blind with hatred, it is easy to turn his thoughts. No, the rings would have been brought here for safekeeping during the war with Lórien, of course. One of my own servants would have protected them. He could not find fault with that. If he had, he would have died for it. And once here…”
“Once here, Telerin dominance would have been restored with ease, things would be as they were for all those years before the Noldor came out of the West bringing nothing but trouble and arrogance.”
“Yes, yes, as you say.” She selected a cube of cheese impaled with an olive, inspected it, sniffed it, then slid it languidly into her mouth. “And it will still be done, only we find a new way to reach my lord’s no-good, Noldor-loving nephew, yes?”
“Well, first things first. Do we have any of the hypnotic left?”
“No. You will get more.”
Círdan leaned back in his chair. “That might be easier said than done. If there’s nothing left of the store in Mirkwood, then the only place the raw ingredient can be found is Rivendell, and I suspect that will be less easy to get to than it might have been before. Elrond’s brat and that crow Erestor will make sure of it.”
“They not know enough,” she said positively. “Maybe a little about flowers, but not the rest.”
“Maybe not, but I suspect Gildor would have picked up some information at least in the time you were holding him. Why your people didn’t take him and leave him in the heart of the forest to find his way through the spiders I have no idea.”
She shook her head. “No, no. They say he not to be made dead. Not he, not the witch. Not yet. Will be too much questions Over There.”
He grimaced but nodded. “They have a sentimental streak, more like. But very well, we won’t kill any Finwëan royalty, just clip their claws. Drink will silence Lalwen’a son, and once bereft of the ring, the woman will weaken. After that, in the vagaries of war all things are possible.”
She smiled and despite her beauty it was not a pleasant sight. Lifting her glass she raised slanting eyebrows at him. “We drink toast to it?”
Cirdan looked down at her and nodded, his smile matching her own. “Indeed, a toast might be in order,” he said, touching his glass to hers. “To the success of our plans, the confusion of our enemies and the resurrection of the Telerin nation.”
“Morgoth take dwarf and Noldor,” she said more pragmatically, draining her glass. “Break Menegroth, kill my beloved. We not forget. We will tame new pretties. Make new plan. Soon I have my revenge, and all you have lost is yours again. To the future.”
“To the future,” he agreed, and drank deep. “And now, Madame,” he continued, finishing his wine and rising, “there are other appetites we share that need slaking. On the floor before the fire this time, I think.”
She rose and crossed the room to the fireplace, shedding clothing casually as she went. “We are planting a new secret garden, did I say? I tell you all about it while you do good things for me. Tell you how things will be when we make the future our own.”