Secret Garden - Chapter 2

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'Secret Garden'

Chapter Two - Mithlond

 

“Oh you’ve missed him by about a - week, is that what you call it? Ten days? He took the road with the group from Mirkwood. They come down every year to buy salt fish for their king. Strange bunch.”

The elves of Mirkwood were a byword for strangeness, Elladan thought, but no more so than Círdan’s right hand man, Galdor. Granted he was old, granted he had survived the fall of Gondolin, but neither fact accounted for his general creepiness. He walked with a stick although no one could attest to any injury, wore his hair just above shoulder length, a style favoured by mortals, and had an unfortunate habit of looking just past whoever he was addressing. No matter; Círdan had implicit faith in him and trusted him with all manner of important arrangements.

They were in the front garden, which followed the Mithlond standard: a mix of sea grasses, succulents, grey-green bushes covered with tiny cream blossoms, and a number of woody shrubs with strange, parchment-like flowers, all neatly enclosed in white stone borders. It looked out over the water, but the mist was coming up again, creeping chill under clothing, and the afternoon sun swam indistinct. Elladan preferred the other side of the bay, the part that had been the old king’s capital, even though palaces and nobles’ houses had long since been turned into hostelries and temporary apartments, and meals in the grand hall of Gil-galad’s palace cost a bronze a night.

Ery wouldn’t set foot in Mithlond unless he had to. He had lived there in the days of glory, before it became little more than a staging post before the final, irrevocable impetus across the sea. Elladan knew without being told that he found the city’s decline depressing.

“He went off to Mirkwood? I wonder how we could have missed him on the road? We saw no one in Mirkwood colours, but they’d have had to take the King’s Highway to reach the High Pass.”

He was careful to keep his tone appropriate for a young captain asking a simple question, though as a son of one of the most famous families in Endor he had no hesitation in probing an elder. Galdor however squinted at him suspiciously. “Are you suggesting I am mistaken, Captain?” he asked sharply. “I should think I know Mirkwood elves when I have dealings with them. Gil-the-lush was almost sober enough to sit a horse when they left, so I think he knew where he was going, and they were most certainly heading east.”

Elladan raised his eyebrows very slightly. “I have never seen my cousin mount a horse unless he was quite fit to ride it, Galdor. I was merely wondering how it was we missed them. It must have been during one of our stops.” Either that or the Mirkwood elves had taken Gildor off the road rather than run into them. It was an unsettling thought.

Galdor, having been reminded that he was speaking to the Finwëan woman’s grandson, forced a helpful expression onto his face. “Perhaps my lord could tell you more,” he suggested. “Will you be dining with your men? If not you could ask him over dinner, he’s from home right now.”

“I’ll raise it tonight, yes. Several of my men have family here, so I gave them the night and tomorrow free before we head back.” Back on the horses and on that endless road home, Elladan thought ruefully. He had picked a horse with the strangest gait and not a pleasure to ride. He hoped at the end of this his story about why they had gone all the way down to Mithlond instead of turning back at Bree held water. Even a drop would do. The explanation had been Erestor’s idea, though not one of his better ones.

He was turning back to go into the house when a flash of strong blue caught his eye, at odds with this garden of muted, neutral shades. Crossing the soft grass at an angle, he managed a good look at the cluster of flowers growing in the shelter of a spreading shrub before Galdor caught up with him.

“Not that way,” the aged elf told him unceremoniously. Elladan put on his well-practiced puzzled look, at which Círdan’s aide cleared his throat and modified his tone. “You can’t get through to the house from there. You have to go back the way you came, along the porch. There’s nothing over here, just brush.”

“Ah. That’s all right then.” Elladan gave Galdor his second best smile and made for the porch steps. The flowers would still be there later, when he’d be able to take a better look. Not too close though, he reminded himself. Just in case. He still remembered a forest glade, a patch of blue and yellow flowers, their heads bobbing and nodding as though actively seeking the intruding elves on the other side of the clearing.

Dressed for dinner in the simple elegance of grey tunic and pants, his hair neatly pinned and braided, Elladan let himself out onto the front veranda and with studied casualness took the few steps down to the garden. He looked around with eyes that were more alert than his manner might suggest. There was no one in sight but he kept moving with the same seemingly aimless gait until he was level with the side of the house. Stepping back into the shadows, eyes fixed on the sea as though studying the waves, he eased his way slowly round the corner until he had a good view of the side garden.

The flowers bloomed up against the house and in little clusters amongst the more recognisable bushes and showed no sign of closing despite the deepening dusk. Yellow and blue they were, just the same as those he and Ery had seen in Rivendell on that ill-fated afternoon, plus there were some deep pink additions scattered here and there. He wondered if the limited number meant there was something special about those. He was also aware of a strange humming sound, almost as though he stood close to a drowsing beehive, although a quick glance around proved that wasn’t the case.

Elladan watched for a while, half tempted to try picking one of the pink blooms, but worried in case they could send a warning to whoever had planted them there. The rest of the strip of garden alongside the house seemed innocent enough, nothing else growing there seemed particularly unusual. Elrohir would have known for sure, he had an eye for plants due to his being a healer and needing to know their properties. Even Elladan knew the most innocuous little garden flower often had uses not apparent to the casual gaze. He had learned this very young, on the day he picked a bunch of seemingly innocent pink blossoms for Nana, only to have his father personally scrub his hands and force him to drink a vile-tasting concoction that had made him violently ill.

Shaking himself, he turned his attention to the present situation: Elrohir was a ten day ride away and couldn’t help him here. Not for the first time, Elladan wondered if he and Erestor had been right to leave him out of this, but Roh was no warrior, despite giving it a good try, and also found it hard not to share secrets with Arwen. The thought of Arwen suspecting he had a more than friendly relationship with Erestor was enough to bring Elladan out in a cold sweat. No one with half a grain of self preservation willingly gave a baby sister that kind of power.

After one final look, he edged back around the house, fiddling with the front of his pants in a way he hoped would give the impression to anyone watching that he had been caught short and chosen the shadows for obvious reason. Taking the steps back up to the porch, he put his mind to finding a way to raise the subject of the flowers with Círdan.

“Ah, yes, Gildor. I was surprised he left, but he had a sudden yen to pay a visit to Mirkwood before the winter drew in and closed the High Pass. He seemed ready to settle here for a few months, but he has never been noticeably predictable.”

Círdan swirled the pale golden wine in his glass as he spoke, favouring Elladan with a small smile. The Shipwright was not a warm man, not someone to have a cosy chat or indulge in idle speculation with. He was a great lord who dealt in absolutes, in correct answers, in concise explanations. His silver hair was paler than Elladan’s grandfather’s, and his eyes, the steel grey of a winter sky, were set beneath light eyebrows. He carried himself very erect. Celeborn was a prince of lost Doriath, but he was nowhere near as uncompromisingly regal as his distant cousin. One of their father’s most telling threats when the twins were young had been that he would revert to the practice of earlier ages and send them off to Mithlond to be fostered if they didn’t behave.

“I was hoping to run into him, Father was a little concerned when he didn’t come east with the rest of his people for winter,” Elladan explained, moving fish around on his plate. “I missed him on the road, too. When did you say he left?”

“They might have gone overland rather than keeping to the road,” Círdan replied. “I believe that is the usual preference for Thranduil’s people. They left – ah, about half a moon past.”

“That might explain how we missed them then,” Elladan agreed obediently. “Father will be disappointed. I suppose Gildor took everything with him? Didn’t leave anything to come back for?”

“Not that I am aware of,” Círdan said. “Galdor might know something. Perhaps you could ask him.” He glanced down the table, but Galdor had not joined them, in fact only a few of Círdan’s senior mariners were present. Elladan felt out of his element but at least he could give his attention to the meal which was unexpectedly tasty.

“Oh, I almost forgot,” he said after finishing another mouthful and putting his fork down. “Father was wondering – you gave him a plant some time ago, something unusual with bright blue petals. It had a small accident and never recovered and he was wondering if you could perhaps send a few seeds so he could replace it? I’m sure I noticed something similar earlier…?”

Sipping his wine, Círdan gave him a thoughtful look. “Of course. I know exactly which you mean,” he said mildly. “Native to Mirkwood I believe, though they grow very easily, ours come from a mere handful of seeds. I am sorry to hear there was a misadventure with the one I sent your parents. Perhaps you would like to take a seedling back with you?”

“Oh no, I don’t think so,” Elladan said hastily. “I can’t speak for how it would survive on the road. I --- might forget to water it,” he added with an ingenuous smile. “Seeds would do very well, if that’s not a problem. It would make a nice surprise for my parents. It was so bright and cheerful – in fact they liked it so much they kept it in their private parlour.”

“I’ll have it seen to before you leave,” Círdan told him. “Be sure to remind Galdor, I will speak to him later.”

“They looked just the same as the ones Gildor sent you,” Elladan concluded. “Slightly bigger, but I don’t think that means anything. I slit one open on the road but it just looked like what it was - a broken seed. I thought of bringing one back for Rohir to play with, but he’d want to grow it and see what happened and then I’d have to tell him the whole story and he’d forget not to tell Wen and she asks too many questions.”

“Like when did you first see these flowers and what happened to make you sure something was wrong and why were you there anyhow. Yes I know. What did you do with them?”

“Oh, I burnt them in the fire that night. I wasn’t carrying those spying little sods around with me, they’re unnatural.”

Erestor chuckled softly. “Good word for it. So – they grow in Mithlond, Gildor has gone to Mirkwood, and – where does that leave us?”

“Sitting here by the library fire on a cold afternoon with winter coming down…?”

“Be serious for a change.” Erestor kept his voice down because the library was quiet that time of the day, which was why they had chosen it. There were only a couple of die-hard scholars deep in their studies and the duty librarian dozing at his station near the door. “What do we do next?”

“Well, we could find a secluded corner and you could show me how much you missed me while I was gone?”

“I have a meeting with the Jewellers’ Guild at the tea bell, so that’s hardly practical. Anyhow, all the best places are outside and look at the weather.”

“This is our first winter, we’ll have to adjust,” Elladan said seriously. He could be very practical when his interests were involved. “You can’t sit there looking sexy and unobtainable and then tell me sorry, it’s too cold. Specially not if you’re wearing your hair loose.”

Erestor slanted a look at him that was far from innocent. “You might have to get over your – thing – about my hair being loose. I like it down in winter, it’s warm.”

“And smooth and silky and winds round my wrist just so….” Elladan leaned back in his chair and let his foot rest against Erestor’s ankle in a way that was meant to look casual.

“Hush you.” Erestor tried and failed to hide the smile. “And stop that. Come, we have more important things to worry about. Should we just hope Gildor’s all right and that he’ll come past on his way back from Mirkwood, or is there an alternative?”

Elladan stared into the fire frowning. For a few moments he looked distant and inscrutable, rather like his grandfather, then he met Erestor’s eyes. “There was one thing that really worried me – besides not seeing him and the Mirkwood crowd on the road even though our paths should have crossed. Something I haven’t told you yet.”

“And that is?”

“He’d left an old cloak and a couple of oddments – a book, some shells, new harp strings, very like Gildor – and it was all in a bag that had split down the side, which must be why he had to leave it behind. I’d asked if there was anything of his, offered to bring it through with me. Anyhow, Galdor handed that over and I thought nothing of it till I saw the bottom, under the cloak.”

“A blood-stained dagger, women’s underwear, the herb he uses to make his hair that unlikely colour…?” Erestor hazarded.

Elladan grinned. “Oh, I wouldn’t have blinked at any of those. No, it was this…” He fiddled in the soft bag fastened flush against his hip, fashion’s current answer to the pocket, and pulled out a fold of cloth. After a quick glance around to make certain they weren’t being observed, he passed it to Erestor. “Open it carefully.”

Erestor, who had brought a book over to the hearth with him for cover, placed the cloth on the open pages and unfolded it delicately to reveal a twist of white paper. He looked at it and then over to Elladan, eyebrows raised.

“Open it carefully,” Elladan repeated him helpfully.

Erestor did as bidden. “There’s nothing here, just some purple stai ----- ah.”

“Yes - ah. Purple. Like the missing dye.”

They looked at one another, then Erestor folded the cloth, which was about the size of a handkerchief, and weighed it in his hand thoughtfully. “Yes, I think it’s time we said something to your father. If this is the same dye that vanished, Gildor might be in rather a lot of trouble. A visit to Mirkwood might be in order.”

“Erestor, I hardly think there is cause for concern over Gildor, not when he left Mithlond with the avowed intention of paying a call on King Thranduil. No doubt he’s long over the High Pass by now and across the river enjoying the Greenwood’s hospitality. There is nothing to suggest he is in any kind of danger. The very idea is absurd.”

Erestor breathed in, counted to twenty, breathed out. He could not afford to get aggravated and say more than he should. He was starting to think it would have been better – simpler – if he and Elladan had made up some lie to explain their proximity to the flowers when they first found them. “It just seemed a little strange, the way Elladan heard it, and the fact that there was no sign of them on the road. And I did need to speak to Gildor about the matter of the dye that vanished…”

Elrond looked irritable, but then he had firm ideas on when and where business should be dealt with, and Erestor had ignored convention and tracked him down to his sitting room in the family wing. Celebrían sat peacefully in the corner near the window stitching away at something and appeared to be paying no attention to what was happening across the room.

“You’re hardly suggesting Gildor had something to do with the theft of the shipment…”

“No, no of course not,” Erestor said hastily, “but he knows the most about where it was going and to whom, and – and we found a few unusual seeds and traces of the dye in an old bag of his that Elladan had the presence of mind to bring back with him.” He held his breath.

“Seeds? What do seeds have to do with all this?” Elrond’s voice rose sharply at the end of the sentence. Celebrían glanced up, then went on with her work.

“Sir, I have no idea. All I know is they were like nothing either of us had seen before, though we had reason to suspect they belong to a – most unusual plant Elladan spotted in Mithlond. As for the dye – that’s what I want to discuss with Gildor. Urgently.”

“The dye is highly prized in Mirkwood, Elrond,” Celebrían said thoughtfully. “You don’t think perhaps someone there had something to do with the theft, do you? And that dear Gildor might suspect them and has gone to investigate?”

“Gildor investigate? The only thing Gildor would be interested in investigating would be Thranduil’s wine cellar. And if he’s got himself in some kind of damn fool trouble, he’s only himself to blame.”

“They don’t have a wine cellar, dear. That sweet prince Legolas told me they have an entire cavern set aside for it,” Celebrían explained with a bright smile. “I don’t doubt Gildor would be interested in a tour of it though. Still, if he is in some kind of trouble, as you seem to believe, should we not send someone along discreetly to make sure he’s all right? He is my cousin after all, and you always say family should look after family.”

Erestor had not expected help from Celebrían, but he would take what he could get. He kept quiet and let her deal with Elrond, which was something she did well. Elladan entered while she was speaking and Erestor smiled a greeting, masking his relief. Elladan had wanted his father told, so let him do his part then. “I was just telling your father how you found Gildor’s bag with the seeds and the traces of dye and how concerned we are for his safety.”

“Oh good, I was coming to talk to you about that, Ada,” Elladan said, his grave expression the epitome of honest concern. “We really should have seen him on the road, something must be wrong if they had to hide from other elves. Thanks for raising it, Erestor.”

The smile he flashed was beatific, making Erestor want to shake him, though it was hard to be angry with anyone so utterly tall, dark and gorgeous. Taking his lead from Celebrían’s unexpected assertion that Elrond was worried about her kinsman, he said, “Yes, your father was just expressing his own concern for the prince.” A few reminders of Gildor’s rank would hardly go amiss. It was all too easy to forget sometimes that he was in fact Finwe’s grandson.

Elladan helped himself to an apple and sat on the arm of a chair polishing the glossy red skin against his tunic. “So – what should we do about it, Ada? Someone needs to go and look for him, I suppose and…”

“I will write to Thranduil,” Elrond interrupted brusquely. “I would have waited till next we heard from Mirkwood, but under the circumstances I can send a letter mentioning the trade faire at the end of the season and ask casually if he arrived safely. He’s hardly likely to come to any harm amongst elves, Elladan. And yes, Erestor, I will be certain to mention his title and that my wife is a little concerned about her – what is he, Celebrían? Third cousin? Fourth?”

“I think it’s best to be vague about the details, dear,” Celebrían said with just a hint of determination in her sweet voice. “And really, I think Dan’s right, we should send someone to make sure that he’s all right. I don’t like to think of him alone amongst strangers who might not understand his ways, and – well, it is Mirkwood, Elrond. They’re quite - different there.” She turned worried blue eyes up to her husband as she spoke and there was just the smallest trace of a pout. Erestor was startled by how much he was reminded of Elladan.

Elrond cleared his throat and glared at his senior advisor and his son. “I’ll think about it. We can leave the matter here for now. Elladan, was there something else you wished to speak to me about?”

Elladan tossed the apple from hand to hand “Oh, not really, no. Just came past to say hello, ask how you were, tell you about Gildor. “

“Good. Well, your mother and I will discuss it and reach a decision. Meanwhile, your brother was saying you don’t spend anywhere near as much time with him as you used. You might look in there if you’ve nothing else to do. He has a new interest: genetics.”
 

“And of course any further offers of trade would need to be written down, signed and sealed,” Elrond concluded, putting the letter of recommendation to Thranduil with the list of items Rivendell would like to see at the next trade faire into a leather diplomatic pouch with the seal of the House of Eärendil, a busy device showing sails and a seagull on an azure field with the towers of Gondolin facing the trees of Doriath. “It all needs to look authentic.”

“Oh yes, no one will suspect this is more than it seems, a high level reaching out on the matter of trade. No overblown delegation, just your son and your seneschal talking directly to the king. Harmless but important enough to be taken seriously.”

“Yes. Yes, it’s a good idea in its own right, meeting with Thranduil...” Elrond sounded a touch vague about that and Erestor wondered how much input Celebrían had allowed him. He could hardly ask, so he bowed his head, fingers circled to forehead in a salute. “If that will be all, my lord, I have a few matters to finalise. We should leave at first light, and Elladan still has to get our escort organised.”

Elrond waved a hand. “Go right ahead. And yes, he can sort that out. Probably best to pick unmarried warriors, it’d be easier for them to leave at a moment’s notice, so to speak.”

“Probably yes.” Erestor had often made similar arrangements for Gil-galad with even less warning, and it was his experience that girlfriends complained louder and with more effect than wives. He kept that piece of information to himself, just grateful it was no longer his job. “He’s well respected, I’m sure he’ll make the right choices.”

Elrond looked pleased. “He’s coming along, isn’t he? No more philandering, turning into a decent captain, and this concern for his mother’s cousin is laudable. He seems to have outgrown that wild stage at last.”

“It would seem so, my lord,” Erestor agreed. There were stories he could tell that would suggest Elladan had not yet fully left his so-called wild stage behind, but they were not of a type to share with one of his parents. Their recent meeting in the hayloft, for example. “I’m sure he’ll enjoy a little diplomatic work. He likes being taken seriously, and it’s my experience that he loves a challenge.”
 

Chapter 3