Secret Garden - Chapter 3

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'Secret Garden'

Chapter Three - 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 night.”

“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 4