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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
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
"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
"He saw Abla there," one of the guards said. "What’ll we do with
"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
"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
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
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
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
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.