Secret Garden - Chapter 5

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'Secret Garden'

Chapter Five - The Garden

 

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?”

“The seeds.”

“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…”

“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.”

“Quiet.”

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.
 

Epilogue