Of Strawberries and Memories
Glorfindel, Elladan, and Elrohir were mounted on the finest war steeds in the valley and wearing ancient battle armor that gleamed brighter than the moon. Amusement shone in their eyes as they grinned down at their lord. He was scowling back up at them in a casual (for him) robe and pair of slippers with his circlet of mithril resting on his head.
“Do not treat this as a lark. If you do not take this seriously neither will those you seek out.”
Glorfindel’s grin faded to a polite smile. He bowed his head. “Yes, my lord.”
The twins continued to grin. “Yes, Adar.”
Elrond closed his eyes and un-clenched his jaw. “Remember to answer any questions they ask you politely and . . . truthfully, but also with a certain amount of . . .”
“With a well-timed shrug and as few details as possible.”
Elrond met his sons’ gazes and nodded. “Yes, use all you have learned of diplomacy in this matter.”
Glorfindel’s smile became a grin again. “I am certain they will perform well on this quest, my lord. They are your sons.”
Elrond gazed at the identical, grinning faces before him. His own mouth was set in a firm line. “I am sure.”
Three elves came forward. They handed standards of Elrond’s household up to the riders. Elrond watched the warriors get the poles into the correct hold and lift the banners towards the sky. The elven lord cleared his throat. The three warriors looked back to him. On Elrond's face was a grin scarier than most of his scowls. “Also know, my trusted warriors, that if I learn you have in any way sabotaged this endeavor, I shall make things most unpleasant for you.”
The twins glanced at each other. Glorfindel’s smile wavered. “I assure you, my lord, we will do no such thing.”
Elrond nodded. “You may go on your way.”
The warriors turned their steeds. The stallions cantered down onto the main rode of Imladris. When the road diverged into three forks each elf urged their steed onto a different path. The missives in the message bags they carried rustled with the rhythm of their mounts’ hoof beats. If they delivered these envelopes with enough dignity and pomp, perhaps the recipients would realize the true honor their lord’s request was.
The grey charger sped through the thick air and thicker shadows lying over the forest kingdom’s only road. The gold hair of the elf riding the steed streamed out behind him. The brightness that clung to him refused to be swallowed by the darkness covering all else in this area. Even the path a length before his mount was briefly lit before they passed.
Spiders hissed, wargs growled, and orcs muttered to themselves in the distance. But none attempted to cut him off. For one thing, he was on the safe path. No creature of darkness could step upon it. Nor would the elf stray from it. He had learned its course by heart. He was older than it.
Secondly, the white spear he carried was leveled to point straight ahead. He wore the armor and sword of Mirkwood’s Captain of the guard. Oropher had worn it while serving the King of Doriath. Thranduil had worn it while serving Oropher, King of Green Wood the Great. Now Thranduil was King, and Beldoron wore the suit.
He had left the guarding of his father’s palace to an elf who had served Thingol with Oropher and helped train Thranduil and his sons. The King had agreed to it. For, Beldoron had received an errand from the queen.
The elleth turned and curtsied. “My Queen.”
Lathwinn laughed. “I am still not used to that. I have found one willing to carry your letter for you. He is on his way.”
Mellolaes beamed. “Oh thank you, my queen.”
Lathwinn grinned back and tucked a lock of hair behind the other elleth’s ear. “You are more than welcome Mellolaes. The favor was small enough for one who is family to us.”
Lord Elrond’s need of a nurse to care for his adopted manling was made known throughout Imladris. The twins and Glorfindel handed out the missives. They also answered questions of the elves and elleth who received them. Most queries were about Estel’s howls before and during baths, and if it was true that manlings fell down and hurt themselves when they walked or ran.
Glorfindel and the twins were careful in their answers. The mere fact these were the questions made the recipients reluctance clear. No lights came into their eyes or smiled flashed over their faces as they read. They went into their homes and came out with their answers sealed into white envelopes. They handed these to the riders. Glorfindel, Elladan, and Elrohir took their replies with a nod and smile, before riding off to the next house.
Beldoron pulled up his mount on the outskirts of the Golden Wood. His eyes gazed hungrily into the trees. They were not dark. A smell of health and joy emanated from them. Music echoed through them.
Memories of visits past washed over Beldoron. He closed his eyes to relive a few moments he had known in this place. They snapped back open as a voice came up from somewhere below him and before his mount.
“Greetings Beldoron Thranduilion, many years have passed since we walked in Lothlórien together.”
Beldoron looked down into a pair of silver eyes. He swallowed his jealousy, and smiled. “Hail Celebdir, I have a letter for one blessed enough to dwell in Lothlórien.”
The sentry started. Then he grinned. “When my watch is up, I will see it is delivered.”
Beldoron returned his grin. He handed the letter to the other elf whose hair was nearly white. Then the Thranduilion turned his mount to go. The other elf sighed.
“Ah, in happier days I could have invited you in for a day or a year of rest before you went on your way.”
Beldoron looked back with a sad half-smile. He shook his head. “And I would have accepted, but I cannot tarry for a year, or even a day now.”
The other elf nodded. Beldoron finished turning his steed toward the mass of dark trees in the distance. He leaned forward, and his horse cantered toward them.
“When are my brothers and Glorfindel coming back?”
Legolas looked up from the clay troll he was holding. He and Estel had been on the manling’s bedroom floor playing with the child’s wooden and clay toys. The boy had been using both hands to maneuver the matching figurines of two dark haired elves atop war steeds holding matching spears. Every half-minute or so, the manling let go of one of them to pick up a elf figurine of pale wood with strands of golden silk for hair holding a dull sword of smooth, polished stone. The troll the Silvan played with had no chance. Legolas grinned at the boy. “They will all be back this evening, Estel.”
The manling looked up at him from beneath furrowed brows. His bottom lip was beginning to stick out in a pout. Legolas’ grin widened as he lowered his voice.
“Imagine how livid they shall be when they learn what fun we had without them.”
Estel’s head snapped up. His eyes widened as they met the elf’s. “What fun, Las?”
The Silvan stood to his feet. He stepped back towards the door while gesturing the manling forward with his hand. Estel shot to his feet and followed Legolas out of his room and down the hall. The elf had turned to face forward and taken the boy’s hand in his own. The elf’s jerky movements made it seem as if he was striding towards his goal, but the length of his steps kept him by the manling’s side. As they walked down the spiral stairway, Legolas glanced down at his friend. “Do you remember the candy I bring you?”
Estel’s eyes widened still more. A grin lit his face. He began to hop down the hall steps. “Uh-huh! Uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh.”
“Would you like to learn how to make it?”
“Yes! Yes! Yes!” As soon as the youngling reached the bottom step he leapt off and raced down the hall leading to the kitchen. Legolas kept up with a laugh. Both reached the kitchen at the same time.
An elf and an elleth stood before a table with the first batch of strawberries floating in a vat of chill, spring water. They were rinsing and sorting the fruits into three different bowls. Legolas walked up to them and gave a slight bow. “May we have some of those?”
Both servants nodded. The elleth pointed towards the dish in front of her. “These are those to be eaten within the day. You may have some now.”
Legolas lifted Estel up to help him pick out which berries they wanted. The pair took a dozen of the biggest strawberries with them to another table. The other servant got them a jar of honey, wax-paper, two forks, and a dish. Legolas poured a few dollops of the honey into the dish and showed Estel how to spear the berries on the forks, dunk them into the amber syrup, hold them over the dish to drip, and place them on the wax paper. After half of the berries had been coated, Legolas turned to the manling and winked.
“Now, Estel, since we do not have the special Silvan coating for our candies, they will not be easily stored. I am afraid we have to eat them right away.”
The manling smirked up at the elf. Then he snatched the biggest fruit off the paper and popped it into his mouth.
Mellolaes sang to herself as she cut a length from the reed of the exact thickness, and sturdiness required. She continued the song while plucking one of the wild strawberries from the basket next to her, and stabbing the reed through the fruit. She gazed at it for a moment.
The strawberry was so bright red it would dazzle a mortal’s eyes. It was almost a shame, but needed to be done. The end result would be beautiful in its own way. Besides, Mellolaes could tell from the look and smell that, like the others in the basket, this strawberry was not quite sweet enough for a Silvan’s raw-eating standards.
She dipped the fruit into the clay jar before her. The elleth had reached the chorus of the song. Mellolaes lifted the fruit into the air again.
Golden drops of honey fell back into the jar. Her smooth, quick motion matched the note she sang, Mellolaes dipped her work into a second jar of clear glaze. Every Silvan elf knew the recipe for this last ingredient, and none shared it with any elf not born among trees.
The elleth then placed the reed into the holder with the other thirty she had finished. The holes were just big enough for the reed to slide through. A little lump of clay stuck beneath the hole, and molded around the reed, held it perfectly in place. The honey and glaze coated fruit was held safely aloft to air dry.
Mellolaes continued to sing and work. She paused only when she sensed another walking in her direction. The elleth prayed they would walk by the storage room she had taken refuge in. When they did, she turned back to her task. Then a group stopped outside the door. A knock echoed from the wood. Mellolaes grimaced and sighed. “Enter!”
An elf with brown hair and grey eyes swung the door open. Mellolaes turned to greet him with a smile. It only fell a little when two elleth stepped up behind him. Both had bright green eyes and hair with highlights the color of the fruit beside her. The elf spoke. “Mellolaes, these elleth would like to be of assistance with making the strawberry-centered honey-drops.”
The elleth on his left stepped forward. “We are both from Strawberry Meadow.”
Mellolaes repressed another sigh. She grinned at both elleth. “Come and help me then!” She scooted over on the earthen floor. The elleth happily sat down on either side of her and began to work. Within an hour, Mellolaes learned the two were good friends who had known each other since the year the younger was born. They had come to the palace at the “request” of the king. The penetration of spiders into the woods surrounding the Strawberry Meadow had become too frequent.
Their voices grew wistful as they spoke of the home they had left behind and of the birds who once feasted on the fruit that grew there. They winged creatures had fled the southern wood before the elleth had. The meadow was now empty and silent. Mellolaes’ throat grew tight as she listened. “Are you going to help with the establishing of strawberry plants in the nearby field?”
Both elleth looked up with grins. “Oh yes.” They were soon chattering about what should and should not be done when the seedlings were planted. Mellolaes listened carefully. Her aid in the project had been requested as well.
When the conversation turned back to reminiscings between the old friends, Mellolaes slipped away. The other elleth were too lost in the past to notice. Even that distracted their work was like polished stones amid the gravel that was Mellolaes' own. They were more practiced in the art than she.
Mellolaes sprinted through the palace’s earthen halls. Elves who saw her called after her, asking if she was busy with a task they could aide her in. She stopped to answer them with a smile that did not reach her eyes. “I am in a hurry, but I need to do my next task alone.” Then she turned and continued her dash.
I need to get out to where I can breathe, she shouted in the confines of her own mind. But she only fled to her room.
After slamming the door shut behind her, Mellolaes took out a tapestry she usually worked on after the first frost. Like all tapestries Silvans toil over in winter, it was an outdoor scene of springtime. The elleth sang a different song to herself as she worked.
After a few hours a knock sounded at her door. Mellolaes looked up with a smile. She recognized the knock and presence of the person on the other side of the door. “Come in!”
The door slammed open. A golden-haired elleth in warrior’s garb leapt onto Mellolaes’ bed. Then she threw her arms around the servant. “Nurse! You poor, poor thing! Sewing scenes on a tapestry in springtime!”
Mellolaes let go of both the needle and cloth to wrap her arms around the much younger elleth. Even with their age gap the elleth had been considered “and adult” for centuries. Still, Rhovamil often behaved like the elfling Mellolaes had supervised when her royal family members had been indisposed, or incompetent, in the case of Rhovamil’s brothers. They had tried, but had had no idea how treat a little sister. Mellolaes smiled as some memories that came to mind. “Sweet elfling, have you just returned from guarding the path?”
Rhovamil pulled back. Her face was scrunched into what she meant to be a scowl, but resembled more of a pout. “I am not an elfling anymore, Mellolaes!”
The older elleth smiled sadly at her. “I know, Rhovamil, but you shall always be an elfling to me.”
The younger elleth rolled her eyes with a wide grin. Then she collapsed backwards onto the mattress. “I tried to convince Ada that nearly three days in this crowded place was worth three full days in it as it used to be, but he said he had already taken that into account when he punished you. Otherwise, it would have been seven days.”
Mellolaes shivered. “Thank you for trying, my sweet.”
“Can I do anything?” Rhovamil peered up with sorrowful eyes at her old nurse. Mellolaes grinned and went back to her needlework.
“Tell me of your watch on the path.” After several heartbeats of silence, she looked up at the warrior. Rhovamil was staring at the tapestry tracing a figure her nurse had sewn into it. The younger elleth’s usual grin was not there. Mellolaes softened her voice. “It is as bad as that then?”
Rhovamil shrugged. “I did not get to shoot anything. The silence was worse than battle, except that we all came back unscathed I guess.”
Mellolaes rolled her eyes. Rhovamil would always rather be “scathed” than bored. The younger elleth flung her hands into the air.
“But it is no better! If anything the woods are worse! They are dark, and all the trees are afraid, and you can feel things creeping just out of range and watching and smelling and listening to you, but not actually attacking or coming close enough for you to attack them! We kept some travelers safe in return for sharp knives and gold we can use to purchase more weaponry and supplies, but . . .”
“But it does not feel like enough.” Mellolaes finished for her.
The warrior nodded. A tear that had formed in her right eye slid down her face. Mellolaes put down her needle, thread, and tapestry. She wrapped an arm around the younger elleth and drew the warrior to her side. Rhovamil began to cry into her shoulder.
“We are losing our wood, nurse! We are losing it to those cursed monsters! We are going to have to die or move away! I will hate living anywhere else! I cannot even kill those taking our home from us!”
Mellolaes rubbed the young elleth’s back. Her voice was the low calm of despair. “You will get to kill something soon enough.”
The older elleth drew away. The younger elleth sniffed and wiped her nose. Mellolaes gave her old charge a half smile. “Want to help your old nurse with her weapons training?”
Rhovamil gave a weak smile and nodded. In a few moments they both held wooden training blades in their hands. The warrior was barking instruction to the slower and more awkwardly moving elleth. “Hold your right blade straighter! Do not grip them so tight! Faster!”
Mellolaes was somewhat distracted by the change in her old charge. Rhovamil was stabbing and dodging in smooth, accurate movements. She knew exactly what and what not to do. Not even a ghost of either her cheeky grin, or childish pout was on her face now.
This was not Mellolaes’ little elfling. This was Rhovamil Lathwinnian of the Pathway Guard well on her way to becoming a captain, if she survived long enough in these darkening days. Mellolaes did not know what she would do if Rhovamil was brought back as a breathless corpse, or simply disappeared into the growing shadow. She turned her mind from the possibility and concentrated more on following the warrior’s instructions.
“Get him Dan!”
Elladan leapt forward. His blade sliced through the air. Legolas jumped back with a grin. The Silvan deflected the strike with his own blade and followed up with a stab of his own. The darker elf twisted aside, but still caught the slash across his right bicep.
Elrond had sent his jesting-natured son to those most likely to deny their lord’s request. The eldest twin had also had the least households to visit. He had returned hours before sunset.
Not being in the least winded from his leisurely ride, Elladan had assented to Estel’s request he spar with their visitor. Being the guest, Legolas had had the choice of weapons. The Silvan had unmercifully chosen twin knives.
They were using wooden blades just in case. Elladan’s mouth was set in a hard line. Legolas wore an evil smirk. Wood scraped against wood. The combatants' rhythm of lunge and dodge was only broken by an occasional “gasp” from Elladan when a strike connected. Estel sat a few steps outside the boundary line. There he cheered for his brother and sipped water from his favorite clay mug.
A shriek echoed over the training yard. Legolas turned his head toward the manling. Elladan grinned. He jabbed the tip of his wooden blade into the other elf’s gut.
Legolas breath left him with an “oof.” Then he scowled at his opponent. What a dirty trick, having the youngling distract him like that. Elladan smirked back at his friend, thrust the training knives into their sheath at his back, and looked to his brother.
“What is wrong, Estel?”
Legolas turned his head also. He expected to see another smirk on the manling’s face. The Silvan's eyes widened. The child was scowling into the contents of his glass. “He’s in my water again!”
Both elves raised their eyebrows. “Who is in your water?”
The manling lifted his head. The bottom lip stuck out in a pout. The grey eyes had almost disappeared beneath heavy, dark brows.
“The bug! I’ve picked him out ten times! Ten! It’s my water! Tell him he can’t swim in my water, Dan!”
Legolas blinked. Among Silvans, and the elves of their kingdom, carrying glasses outside was a rare occurrence. If you did, getting a bug in its contents a dozen times or more was a forgone conclusion. They removed the bug, put it in a place the insect could dry off, and took another sip.
Elladan frowned. He hoped the bug in question was not a fly. Insects that crawled over rotting meat and piles of dung should not come into contact with what members of the “Sickly race” put in their mouths.
He strode up to the manling, knelt down, and peered into the glass. Then he smiled. A large grasshopper was treading water in the cup. The elf took the container from his brother’s hands and poured the water out onto the grass. The insect hopped away as soon as the water level allowed it to. Elladan then scooped the manling up onto his right shoulder and began to carry him toward the house.
“Let’s go get you a fresh glass then.”
Legolas stared at their retreating forms. Elladan glanced over his shoulder to smirk at his friend. Then he looked back to the house. The Silvan crossed his arms. He resolved not to go so easy on the older Elrondion when they returned.
The elf smiled up at his mother peeking down from a tree branch. “The message has been delivered, nanneth. I left it with Celebdir. He will make sure it reaches Malthendui’s hands.”
Lathwinn grinned at her son. “Tell the kitchen servants they are to give you a dozen honey-covered strawberries.”
Beldoron laughed. “Can I give you a ride home or are you on watch?”
Lathwinn shook her head. “I am indeed watching the border now. I must stay until the dawn.”
“Is my sister at home then?”
“Yes, and you must go now or she will have eaten your share of the honey-covered strawberries. When you arrive, tell her to give her nurse the good news.”
Elrond leaned back in his chair gazing at an opened letter with his chin resting in his hand and the tip of his index finger pressed into his temple. Erestor stood behind his right shoulder reading over it. The door opened. Elrohir strode in.
“Here are the last of the replies, Adar.” He slapped the stack of envelopes down upon the desk. His father answered him without looking up.
“Did any you spoke to give indications of hope?”
Elrohir stared into the stack of folded white paper as if by doing so hard enough he could change his answer. Elrond laid his own slip of folded paper down and reached for the top envelope in the stack the younger elf had brought.
“That is a, ‘no’ then. Be not angry Elrohir. I know these replies are not due to any lack on your part.”
Elrohir sighed. The tenseness melted from his frame and face. “Thank you, Adar.”
Erestor strode around the desk. “I will start the first draft of our request to Lothlórien.” Before the elf reached the door it swung open to reveal their house guest.
“How fared the survey throughout the Hidden Valley?”
All three dark haired elves glared at him. The light haired elf’s smirk became a sympathetic grin. “Not at all well, then?”
Erestor stepped by him, closing the door and leaving the Silvan in the room with Elrond and his son. The Lord of Imladris locked narrowed eyes upon his guest’s face. “You are supposed to be watching, Estel. Where is he?”
“Do not fret, elven lord. I left your son with Rochellon and Glorfindel. The manling is taking a riding lesson atop the gentlest of the ponies in your stable. I was curious as to how the search went for his more permanent caretaker. You cannot blame me for that. I am ‘Silvan’ after all.”
Elrond ignored the barb and looked to his son. “Do you remember the instructions I gave you and Elladan?”
“Yes sir. I will go inform him.”
Elrohir strode by his friend, opened the door and went out, closing it behind him with a soft click. Legolas had turned his head to watch him do so. He turned back at the sound of the elven lord’s voice.
“Legolas, come over to my desk. I would ask something of you as well.”
Mellolaes curled up into her bed with a smile. The King had called her in that evening to tell her he would consider her sentence served at dawn tomorrow. If she was not so weary from her practice with Rhovamil, she would be too excited to sleep. In fact, if Rhovamil had been there for her entire sentence, she was sure it would not have been boring. Looking after the elfling for seventy years had taught her it was impossible to be bored in her presence, terrified certainly, but not bored.
The Silvan elf stood over the sleeping manling’s bed, remembering another time. It was so long ago the manling most likely didn’t remember it anymore. He hoped not. To him it was yesterday.
“I want Da! I want Ma! Ma, ma, ma, ma!”
Feet that would fit in the palm of his hand pummeled his middle. Instead of pulling away from his assaulter, his arms drew the small creature closer. He tried to lay the tangled head upon a shoulder. The head would not go down. It felt like the wailing would cause his ears to bleed. He ran his hand up and down the short back.
“Hush now youngling, hush, hush, hush.”
“I want Da! I want Ma! Ma! Maaaaaaaaaaaaa!”
He had no idea what to say to that. How could he reply to a cry so desperate, and so impossible? With his ma or da were the worst places for this little one to be. Oh where were the ones who should be holding him?
He lifted his head. One word, two voices, so alike it was hard to know where one ended and the other began. Two identical forms approached, identical in the black blood staining their armor, identical in the grief twisting the expressions on their identical faces, even their steeds were identically lathered in foam.
And yet, another problem presented itself as they dismounted and came to him. Which member of his kin did he pass the manling to? He decided to dislodge his burden and pass him to whomever the manling himself reached toward or whoever grabbed the boy first.
He began to turn the manling toward them. Short arms wrapped around his neck. Slightly longer legs twisted around his waist. Fingers clawed into his back. Another screech seemed to rend the lining of his ears.
He sagged and looked to the darker elves for help. They appeared to have melted in front of him. They both lowered themselves to their knees. He knelt with them. The darker elves touched the manling’s shoulders, back and head. They cooed to the child. The boy turned his face to each of theirs in turn. The babe stopped screaming, sniffed, and spoke. “Dan? Hir?”
But the manling did not let go. The child did not let go for many hours. Even in his sleep the babe awoke and clung when they tried to move his small form. He himself did not sleep that night at all. When the manling finally did go to his “brothers” the shrieking began again when their friend disappeared, not stopping until the grey eyes could see the lighter haired elf. Not until the babe was placed in a crib in Imladris was he able to leave his burden. His burden . . .
“That is the way they see you little one . . .”
The now larger form in the bed didn’t stir. The chest, back, and tummy just kept rising and lowering in the rhythm of breathing. He smiled at the sight.
“I am glad that is no longer true of me, nor was it ever true for your family, but we must find you another who will also not see you that way. However important you are, whoever your father and ancestors are, you are not just an important burden or task. You are you. That is enough, mellon nin. Never let them convince you it is not enough. Even if you must learn to not mind bugs in your glass.”