Secret Garden - Chapter 1

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'Secret Garden'

Chapter One - 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 2