The Apple Thieves
I think this entire place is made of gold. Well, maybe not made of gold, but it just seems to … I don’t know, sing. In the air, like. Maybe it’s the light, or the time of year. ‘Cept, it was all fog and mist and drizzle out there in the Wilds, and in here, it’s just, well, golden. Kind of like sunset, but all the time. I can’t understand it, but I don’t think it’s one of them things you need to understand.
Mister Bilbo always said how lovely t’was, but I never imagined anything like this. The slabs under my feet aren’t cold but a little warm, like they’ve been basking under a stronger sun all day, save I know mid-autumn doesn’t touch stone in that way. There’s something in this place, deep and constant like a heartbeat. My feet take me to a rail, penning me back from the falls below, and I lean into it, feeling the cool updraft from the plunging water on my face. I am getting damp, there’s tiny droplets lacing over my skin, but I don’t care. The scent of it is so clean, so pure, I can feel it numbing the memory of that awful place out there on the hill, Mister Frodo’s pain…
He’s alright now, but I can’t get that image of Him attacking Frodo out of my head; it’s like a sharp itch I can’t reach. The only consolation I can take is that Lord Elrond’s fixed him up right. He’s a serious chap, but there’s kindness in his eyes and he did right by Mister Frodo, and that’s all I can ask. Frodo has been ordered to stay in bed, and I’ve taken it on myself to see that those other two don’t disturb him.
Only thing is, with this place being made for bigger folk, I can’t find them. I turn to look at the buildings behind me. They are open to face across the valley, and the elves I see walking through the adjoining corridors are very important-looking, with their smart robes and tidy hair and that. A lordly-looking gent strides along the corridor. He’s tall, and there’s something about him that makes him look real imposing, with ‘specially fine clothes and a silver circlet placed on his dark hair. I’ve never seen anyone like that before, with so much authority and –
He stops and looks straight at me. Piercing like; it’s like he’s trying to see through me. My heart’s flipping in my chest, and I try smiling and wave, but he doesn’t smile back. After a moment I lower my hand and my smile runs and hides. He blinks those searing eyes, and moves on his way, and I turn back to the river, ducking my shoulders in with the hope I might get smaller.
I hear something behind me, the whisper of cloth. I turn on the sound like a dog with his tail pulled - and the lord and lady stop to look at me, like I’m a curiosity at a fair. I feel like a definite oddity now. His brow lifts in interest and she gives me a small smile. My ears burn and I bow. “Govannen mae.” The words fall off my tongue, and I don’t know if they’re right or no. But she laughs and her smile grows and he offers me a quick bow, and they walk on. I’m lost, but I don’t call after them. My sense of direction was never the best, but I don’t think I’ll trouble those folks with my being lost.
I always wanted to see them, ever since I was a lad, but now that I’m here, and they’re here, I feel like an intruder in their secret home. I don’t fit in a place so wonderful as this, not really. They all smile at me – well, mostly - but there’s an extra something in their eyes, and I can’t look at them, not without wanting to look down or away. They are all so very marvellous and lordly, so beautiful and wonderfully dressed, and I am just a stunted and scruffy thing, I don’t fit. Square peg, round hole as my gaffer always says.
Just beyond a pretty little bridge to my left lies what looks to be an orchard, and I take myself there, feeling that it’s best to get out of the way of these grand folk.
I feel better settled under the eaves of these trees. Their shadows hide me nicely. My cheeks puff out and I let my back give up the rod I’ve been forcing it straight with, my shoulders slouching forward. There’s no-one around, and I’m probably more lost than before, but I don’t mind, not with the sweet smell of late apples and turning leaves and the peace of this place.
I’d like an apple. These ones are fat and vivid green, drooping the branches with their weight. But the trees are typically elvish; that is to say, the lowest branches are about three feet above my head. I look around me: it’s large, this orchard, wide and spacious so’s the trees can breathe. Tall yellowing grass tickles at the bases of the well-established trees, pitted in spots by fallen fruits to make twisted vases. Probably after about fifty feet the trees stop, and I can see a strictly sculpted hedge acting as a divide between the orchard’s graceful chaos and the neat order of the garden beyond.
There’s no-one else here, just me and the trees. How I’d love an apple… With hope I pick one of the fallen ones up, but it gives a little under my fingers with bruising, and I drop it back down again and huff in disappointment. It’s such a tease, being surrounded by lovely hanging fruits, like great baubles…
There’s an apple, nice and low, with the afternoon sun wrapping its vivid green skin like a gold sweet paper, and I jump for it. My fingers stretch out so far I think I’ve made one arm longer than the other, but they still miss by a mile, and my feet hit the ground a little too hard and I curse. I try again, but I’m further off than I was last time, and I plonk myself down in misery against the tree’s trunk-
“Stealing apples, little thief?”
I think I’ve left my skin behind.
I’m on my feet and my heart’s hammerin’ with fright, and I’m spinning, looking for the owner of the voice … but there’s no-one here with me. Just the same as before: me, and the trees. Did I imagine it? Another cast around, and still I can’t see no-one. “Hullo?” There’s a breeze talking with the top branches, but that’s it: there’s certainly no reply to my call. I shake my head. A proper fool, I am. “You’re going crackpot, Samwise Gamgee,” I chunter at myself, releasing my shoulders and shaking the fright-tingle from my hands. “Gaffer always said you was, and now you know you is.” I stop and think on the sentence. “That’s not right. ‘Is’? ‘Are is’? No … ‘you were’-”
“‘Gaffer always said you were, and now you know you are’ … which is an odd turn of phrase however you choose to look at it.”
An elf drops from the very tree I was trying to get my apple from. The grass bows under his feet like there’s no real weight on it, parting for him rather than bending to him, and I can do nothing save stare…
He’s a tall chap – which says nothing, they’re all tall – but there’s much that’s different about him … like the fact that there’s a bow and quiver over his shoulder, for one. There’re no flowing and dressy robes like I’ve seen the fine ladies and gents wear, but his clothing is practical, with a dark jerkin and leggings, arm guards and boots. A guard, maybe? There’s a fine layer of dust to him, like he’s been on the road for days, making him even less like the others. He’s all greens and browns – forest hues, like – and his hair’s the sun bleached grass and his eyes the darker shades of a clear summer day coming to night. None of the others I’ve seen look anything like him, from their clothes to the colour of their hair, and my fascination’s caught my surprise and flipped it on its back.
“You choose to disrespect Lord Elladan by taking such apples?”
Startled, I remember the trouble I’m in, and I feel shame burn so deep in my cheeks my mouth’s gone hot, and he’s staring at me, one brow arched. My head shakes fervently and I cast my eyes down. Again I wish I were small enough to disappear, like an orchard mouse. “Oh no! No, sir! I was just – um … I was just -”
The elf guard waves me into silence with a slender hand and my tongue shrivels in my head. What have I gone and done? I’ll be kicked out for sure … do they put apple thieves in gaol? My toes curl into the grass as I await my sentence. Banishment to the Wilds. Imprisonment, maybe. Forced service ‘til the day I drop -
“Were this my orchard, I would consider it an insult if you do not at least try and steal one of the good apples. It suggests to me that you think them not worth the effort.”
I blink. Did I hear him right? “Beggin’ your pardon?”
“That -” he says, gesturing with a careless and graceful flourish at my choice of fruits “- is a bad apple.” A hand reaches up, and unlike me, he can pluck it from the branch without a shade of effort. It rotates before my eyes, and he’s right: the side I’d not seen is all pocked where the wasps have got at it. “Now if you want a good apple,” he says, turning his attention from me and to the heights of the boughs above our heads, “then you have to work for it.”
And he primes himself all fox-like and he’s in the tree without so much as a scuff of his boots. The upper branches give a gentle wave as he climbs into their heights, and even though he’s moving about up there, I can only just spot him, like he’s a part of the tree almost. No wonder I didn’t see him. I’ve never seen anyone move so quick or so silently through a tree before, and though the loftier branches twist and writhe for the sun, they don’t trap him, like he’s no bigger than a polecat.
There’s a shrill whistle, and my wonder turns sharply into alarm as it rains apples. I was always a good catch, and I snatch some of them from the air before they hit me on the head, but there’s that many coming down and I’ve not enough hands, and I’m dodging them before they can split on my noggin. My arms shield my head and I wince, but nothing hits me, and when the dull thuds finally stop, I look up in time to see my new partner in crime drop from the heights of the tree, his own chosen fruit trapped in his teeth. As soon as he reaches the ground he sits, leaning with casual grace against the trunk. He sees me still stood, and he gestures for me to sit myself. I find my own tree and mirror his action, ‘cept I can barely see over the waving heads of grass. He laughs, but not mocking or condescending, like.
I remember the fruit he has filched for me and feel not a shade of guilt as I bite into one still clutched in my fingers. Juice swells through my mouth, sharp and clean and sweet. The hardness of the flesh puts up the right resistance against my teeth, and the crisp tear I hear is wonderfully satisfying. A murmur of appreciation wells from my throat before I can stop it, and I see my new friend smile to himself at my reaction. I can’t help it: this has to be the best apple I have ever tasted.
“’Ank you,” I manage around a mouthful. He lifts a brow, presumably at my rudeness whilst trying to be polite. He might be a guard, but there’s something regal about him in his affront, and I’m embarrassed again. “Sorry,” I say quickly after I forcefully swallow down the piece before I’ve chewed it properly. “Gaffer’s always tellin’ me not to do that, and then I go and do it.” I can feel it jammed half way down. “He’d give me a proper swat round the ear for that one.”
The guard gives me a quizzical look and a half smile, like he thinks me peculiar. Finally he shrugs a shoulder. “Do not worry on it,” he says, turning his eyes to the glaring afternoon sun over my head and staring into it all absent like, as if ‘tis nothing more than a candle.
“Your gaffer… Gaffer…” The word doesn’t sit well with him, and he roles it around his mouth for a time. “Your gaffer says a lot, doesn’t he? Gaffer… What is a gaffer?”
“You know,” I say without thinking around another mouthful of apple. “My ‘da.” He blinks at me, and I role my eyes, forcing the apple down my throat. “Alright then, my father.”
“Ah, I see.” Understanding softens the confusion in his eyes. He smirks. “Gaffer … I wonder what Ada would think if I were to call him Gaffer. My gaffer…” It’s strange, but sadness takes the merrier edge from his eyes for some reason, and he goes distant. He takes up a small hunting knife from his boot and cuts pieces from his apple, but doesn’t eat them, lining them up on an outstretched leg instead. There’s a rumour of isolation about him, and I get the feel of an echo of it as I sit forgotten.
And then it’s like he’s remembered me when his eyes come to me and he smiles, like he’s pushing his shadows away. We’re properly back together with a question: “Am I to understand you are one of the periannath I have heard rumour of?”
He has changed the subject, and I’m glad for it. “Aye, sir, I am … or I think I am, anyways,” I add, thinking on the strange name he’s given me. “If we’re speakin’ of the same thing, there’s four of us hobbits come here with Strider.”
“Very well, then. Hobbits,” he amends, and he looks amused that I’ve corrected him. “How are you enjoying Imladris thus far?”
The look I give him must be as blank as my mind. Another strange name! But he reads my confusion clearly enough and elaborates, tellin’ me ‘tis just another elvish name for Rivendell. “Oh, quite well, sir,” I reply. “Quite well … ‘cept I keep gettin’ lost all the time, seein’ as this is a place built for bigger folk than us. And it’s wonderful being all surrounded by such grand ladies and gents…” My words give up on me and I fall quiet. It has been near a week since we arrived here, and this is the most at ease I’ve felt, sitting here in a giant orchard with a strange elf guard eating thieved apples.
I’ve not said nothing to the contrary, but he reads me better than most would care to, and it surprises me into honesty. “’Tis just a bit lonely, is all.”
“Lonely? Do you not have your fellow hobbits to keep you company while your friend recovers?” He selects one of the apple slices from the middle of the tidy row on his leg and pops it in his mouth. He’s eating them in order, every other one. Glad to see I’m not the only one that plays with his food.
“Well, yes, but with those two tearaways it’s more like I’m their minder than their friend. You get tired of chasing after them, you know? But there’s no-one here I can talk to. All them ladies and gents in their fine robes… Everyone’s so grand and important-lookin’, and I don’t want to get in their way. It’s alright with you, you’re just a guard or somethin’ of the sort -”
A surprised buck of laughter and he’s choking on his apple.
“I’m sorry!” I’m on my feet and my heart’s flying with panic, and he’s sat forward coughin’ and splutterin’. “Samwise, what’ve you done? Are you alright? I’ll get someone -”
His eyes are bright and streaming and he’s thumping his chest with his fist, but he’s laughing as he coughs, and he waves his spare hand at me and shakes his head. “Fine,” he eventually manages. The gentle melody of his voice is ruined and his words come out all fractured and jarring. “I’m – ’m fine.” Another spate of choking coughs, but they’re not as bad as they were, and he leans back against his tree. He gives his head a shake and pulls in an experimental deeper breath. When nothing happens, he looks at me again and smiles wide and chuckles.
I just nearly killed an elf. How would I explain that one? An apology is forming at the back of my throat, and my mouth opens to release it –
“What goes on here?”
We’re caught! Just over my new friend’s shoulder stands an elf lord, arrived silent as a ghost and just as frightening. He’s in robes, but different to them other lords I’ve seen: where theirs are bright and colourful, his are more sober and earthen. Long hair glints the colour of the sun in the afternoon light, and his back couldn’t be straighter if he were lying on a slab of stone. There’s no smile about his eyes, unlike my guard friend, and he’s got me pinned in an unblinking glare so powerful I think my feet are turning to rock. We’ve had it now, we’re both caught and in trouble, and it’s my fault…
But the guard seems completely unfazed by the arrival of his better. Where I’m on my feet and doing my level best to not flee, he’s not so much as twitched. He looks up over his shoulder with an amiable smile – an amiable smile! – and tips his head in acknowledgement. “Lord Aysfell,” he croaks, and coughs again.
This Lord Aysfell’s brows nearly disappear into his hairline as he finally takes his eyes from me and fixes them on my fellow thief. “Are you quite well?”
The guard nods at the question and coughs again, wiping his red eyes with the heel of his hand. “Lord Aysfell, this is Samwise.” He gestures to me with a courteous nod, and I’m being stared at again. Cripes, those eyes are hard. “He is another one of the hobbit folk we have encountered in the past.”
And then I realise that they’re both looking at me, and there’s expectation on both their faces, and with a jolt it finally registers with me that I’ve not actually acknowledged them. “Oh! Govannen mae! Samwise Gamgee, at your service, sir.” I bow hastily and hear my friend laugh again, and I look up to see Lord Aysfell looking at me right peculiar. I don’t know what I’ve done wrong, and unsure, I turn to my friend for answers.
“Nearly,” he says with a smile. “We will work on that.” I’ve done something wrong and I’ve no idea what it is. He turns again to his lord, still leaning unconcernedly against his tree. Two more contrasting figures I don’t think I’ve ever seen. “Samwise and I were just sharing some of Lord Elladan’s fine apples.”
Lord Aysfell looks unimpressed, and I’m given another flat cold stare, like I’m a bad influence on his guard. “Clearly.” To my relief, he takes his attention from me and turns it on my friend. “My Prince, your presence is required in Lord Elrond’s study.”
There’s a heavy sigh from my companion. “When we discussed this earlier, it was decided that our news could wait until the council.” I’m forgotten, and they’re carrying on like there’s been no change. My elf friend’s tone has turned on a knife edge from teasing and content to sharp. Suddenly there is old authority and real displeasure in his voice, and something flickers over Lord Aysfell’s face, almost a flinch.
“It has been decided that it cannot wait.”
“And that was a decision made without consulting me. I have not even seen a wash basin yet, Aysfell.”
“I understand, my Prince. But -”
“Prince?” My mouth’s hanging open, but I’ve not the power to close it. “You’re a prince?” The exclamation’s burst from me into the middle of their conversation, but my shock’s wiped out my self-control.
Now there’re two sets of eyes on me, one pair amused and the other a touch thunderous. “Yes, Perian. Prince Legolas of the -”
Lord Aysfell frowns and turns to the other elf in the grass, the guard who is really a prince. “Say again, my Prince?”
“They prefer being called hobbits.” The slices of apple are deftly collected into his waiting left palm - skin down - and he’s on his feet without a shade of effort. There are trails of dried grass stuck to him and bits of earth, but he leaves them where they are. The play that had danced through his eyes moments before is gone, and there’s an old severity there, and he wears it like he’s felt it his whole life as he concedes to Lord Aysfell’s request. But when he turns to me where I stand, still rooted to my spot like I’m turning into one of these apple trees, a shadow of a smile ghosts over his lips, and his eyes shimmer one moment. “Navaer, my apple–thieving friend: I am certain our paths will cross again.” And he bows to me.
My body jolts to mirror his action, and my back bends low. I stay there, looking down at the heads of the grasses that nearly touch my nose. How long should I bow for? I’ve never bowed in my life … mind you, I’ve never met a prince before. Hesitantly my head lifts just enough for my eyes to peer out from under my brows. I’m surprised, but I feel a swell of loneliness when I find it’s just me and the trees, only the pocks in the grass where the stolen apples have fallen telling me there was ever anyone else here.
The windows are wide open. It’s an elf thing, I’ve decided: they like having the windows open. Whenever I pass a door to the outside, it’s always open. It’s like no-one’s ever explained to them what windows and doors are for. The thin drapes that form the only barrier between us and the night waft lazily in the breeze, dim silver light set in them by the moon. The valley beyond is swathed in a fine mist, hanging around the bases of the trees in a ghostly shroud, like. I don’t like it.
“Stop being such a fool, Samwise Gamgee.” My voice sounds like a lost and lonely thing with only the snores of the other two as a response, but I carry on: “You’re just seein’ things ‘cos you’re afraid of tomorrow, that’s all.” And that’s the truth. I am afraid of tomorrow. That’s the funny thing about fear: sometimes it takes fearing something else to realise what you’re really afraid of. I’ve committed myself to something today, and I’m not going to go home for a very long time.
Pippin’s snoring picks up. They both snore like a pair of boars anyway, but his has reached an all new level. ‘Tis beyond me how they can sleep like logs knowin’ what we’ve got ahead of us tomorrow…
The pillow’s already been flipped for the cool side, but I still flip it again. When I pitch my head back down again, I can’t feel a difference. I’ve been lying here for hours, listening to the silence of the house beyond their snores. There’s an owl somewhere outside, puncturing the peace of this place with its lonely calls. I’ve tracked the moon through the sky as its light has peered nosily into the different shadows in the room. Tiredness pulls my eyelids shut, but my worry for what the morning will bring pushes them open again, and it’s a fight I know I’m not going to win. My last night in a proper bed, and I won’t sleep.
Dinner was a strange affair. The nine of us all sat together, and I’ve never shared a meal with a more peculiar mix of folk: it was to be our last evening in Lord Elrond’s house, and a beautiful feast was laid on for us, but we were seated at the end of a long table away from all the elf lords and ladies. Gandalf sat at the head, with this dwarf chap, Gimli, sat on his right, and he in turn was sat next to Pippin and the rest of us hobbits. To Gandalf’s left was Boromir, a man from a city far to the south that I can’t recall the name of. He was talking with great passion to Strider – and what a shock he’s turned out to be! – and by Strider was the elf guard who is really a prince, who apparently knows Strider very well. It seemed a deliberate move on Gandalf’s part to have him and Gimli as far away from each other as they could get without being in separate rooms, but the distance was not enough to stop their occasional sniping at each other.
The bigger folk talked endlessly of strategy and timing and distances, of weapons and dangers we would encounter along the path and places to avoid, and it did nothing but set fear deep in my gut.
I’ve no idea what the time is. It’s late – or early, depending on how you look at the dark hours of the night – and I don’t think I can stand this a moment longer.
The flags are a little warm under my feet, a bit like the stonework outside under the sun. Nestled into a corner is my pack, and I retrieve the stolen apples from deep inside, careful not to jostle the pots, and I take my leave of the room, Merry and Pippin’s snores giving me a noisy fanfare in farewell.
By night, this place is completely different. The silence stretches out through the hallways and from empty rooms and it’s like there’s no-one else living in the place. Even when I pass chambers where I know there are elves, there’s no rumour of deep sleeping snores coming from them. As the moonlight brushes against the clean flowing edges of the carving on the pillars and lights my way, I’m hit by the peculiar sensation that I’ve only now truly stepped into the world of the elves and the hair on the back of my neck rises… It’s beautiful, but ever so sad.
Despite my sense of direction being so shocking, I can always seek out a kitchen, even in the dark. I pass deeper into the house, through the myriad of twisting hallways, I lose the guide of the moon and find myself relying on my nose to draw me to where I want to be, and, sure enough, I come eventually to a tall door. I’ve not a hand spare, I’ve that many apples, so I catch the latch in my teeth and tug. Fortunately for my teeth, the door opens easily enough, and a grin splits my face.
This is most definitely the kitchen. The welcoming burn of the banked fire throws its gentle orange glow over the facing planes of a long table and many chairs and paints the nearest stone flags with dark light. There’s the smell of roasted meat and herbs and bread, and I can just about see that someone’s left a covered bowl on the side near the fire’s heat. Bread proving for the morning, most likely.
I reach up over my head and put my apples on the table, and go to give the fire a good stir with the poker. It flares to life, the sleepy flames licking upwards lazily in greeting, and I feed them a log, which they are more than happy to devour. The light has changed to a brighter yellow now, and the shadows dance with the joy of the fire’s new-found avarice. In the greater brilliance of the room, I set about finding what I want…
There’s nothing like a good pud when you can’t sleep.
The larder is not hard to find: it’s in the far corner of the room, but away from the light of the fire. Fortunately, there’s a collection of candles in the middle of the table, all huddled together for the night like roosting pheasants, and I take one and light it. The new flame gutters and twists with reluctance, sulky that it’s been woken so early, but eventually it steadies and I can take it through to the pantry and set it on a shelf. It’s pretty large, the pantry, with great stone shelves towering high above my head. I can smell spices and the sweet hues of dried and fresh fruits stirring with the stronger scents of fine cheeses and hanging meats, and it’s about all I can do to stop myself pinching half of it for my midnight feast. I have a plan, after all, and I must stick with it.
There’s a spot of climbing involved in getting everything I need – the butter and honey are several shelves above my head – but when I’ve eventually found everything, I take my haul to the table and set about finding equipment. Getting the right dish is a tad more challenging. They’re not in the pantry, with easy to climb shelves: they’re in a different corner of the kitchen, set in a recess above the high side surface. I drag a chair over and climb up, finding myself balancing precariously on the thin back. It rocks and throws an alarming buck under my uneven weight, but I stretch my fingers out regardless. My first attempt is unsuccessful: my straining fingers catch a large pot but can’t hold it and it clangs into its fellows with an awful din. My heart leaps for my mouth, and I feel like a bad lad who’ll have his ears boxed.
But I’m determined, and my second attempt ain’t nowhere near such a failure, and I manage to get my dish before I go over.
It’s taken some real rummaging, but after a time I’ve got all the bits and bobs I need for a spot of midnight cooking. Again I need the services of the chair to reach the table top, but this time there’s no need for me to balance on the back of it, not with the table being lower than the workbench. I feel like a child helping his mama cook, having to kneel on a chair to reach, but before long I’m pealing and slicing my apples and throwing them in the dish with the butter and honey, and I find myself settling into this over-large kitchen pretty easily. A kitchen is a kitchen no matter what the size, I suppose, and I can feel at home in anyone’s.
There’s something that I find real relaxing about making cobbler, and I’ve a feeling - after that secret meeting earlier - that this will be the last chance I’ll have to make it for a very long time. I’m not all that keen on that thought, so I make sure I enjoy the making as much as I can, plying the dough and more honey together briefly before dropping gloopy chunks over the apple. Gaffer hates having honey in the cobble…
Even trying to drag it out some, the making of my midnight treat don’t take all that long, and it’s ready for baking, almost a tad too soon for my liking. I wish I could stay in this giant kitchen forever, making cobbler and staying warm by a gentle fire… “You’re a fanciful fool, Samwise Gamgee,” I chide, fetching the raw cobbler from the table and sliding from my chair. There’s an iron shelf above the fire on one side, and I put the dish on there, giving the fire another good stir to bring it up a bit. Satisfied with the fire’s enthusiasm, I climb back onto my chair and look at the mess I’ve made, flour marking the oak top like bursts of mould and honey standing proud and rich like sap coming from the wood. There’re shavings of apple peal everywhere, and the cores litter the place like fallen soldiers. I never was a tidy cook.
It all needs cleaning. My least favourite part. With a sigh, I force my hands to start picking up the mess…
There’s the scent of wood, old and dry and scrubbed, with the sharper tang of apple peppered over it. It’s a wonderful smell, and one that I can’t say as I’ve ever knowingly smelt before. I’m warm, and the smell is trying to lull me … but I can feel a crick in my neck, and I don’t quite get how I’ve ended up like this…
It’s with no small measure of reluctance that I force myself to sit up, but I’ve got to bring my head up right slow. My hand hooks over my neck and I wince as I make my fingers knead and prise at it. Sleeping on tables ain’t a good idea at the best of times, least of all when the table is covered in apple peal and flour. And a sigh unashamedly breaches my lips when I see exactly how far I got with the clearing up. That is to say, not all that far at all.
My eyes wander up the length of the surface, taking in the destruction I’ve managed to sow out over the ancient wood. In the middle, the candles burn low and mark the limit of the destruction, and my eyes travel beyond to the table end -
Fright throws me up in the chair and turns it from a seat to a bucking pony. I catch my shins and elbows on the table and fall gracelessly through the gap with a yelp and the chair is rammed across the stone floor with a horrible scrape that’ll surely wake the whole house. When everything finally stops, I’m on my rear with my knees jammed up under my chin.
What just happened? I can’t seem to sort my head: my heart’s going mad. Everything hurts –
My chest compresses tightly and I don’t know why, and to my confusion I’m in the air for a moment and back on the chair, which has somehow manoeuvred itself back into place … and there is a pair of real alarmed eyes looking into my face. And then everything floods back in embarrassing detail, and to add to my humiliation, I know my ears are glowing like a pair of great beacons lumped onto the side of my head.
“Are you alright, Samwise?” The concern in my rescuer’s eyes bridges to his voice, and I realise there is a steadying hand holding the top of my arm. To make matters worse, I recognise him all too well… Because it’s him: the guard who is really a prince, the one that has now scared the life out of me twice.
My tongue turns to a leather strap in my mouth and I can’t talk. What do I say? What do I say to a prince? Worse, what do I say to someone who’s just seen me fling myself on the floor?
“Sorry Prince… Prince…” I can’t remember his name! “–Yes, just a bit … um…” Didn’t he ask me a question? There’s something on my face: I can feel it poking into my cheek as I try to talk, and to my utter horror I realise I have a long piece of apple peal stuck to me like a great big slug. I snatch it off, but he’s seen, and I don’t know where to look, and I find my eyes skitting over my lap, my hands, the table, anywhere but at him. I’m trapped in hot embarrassment and part of me wishes I’d slipped through the cracks in the stone flags. The idea of a prince witnessing my oafish clumsiness and beetroot face is killing me … ‘cept, when I do eventuallylook up, he’s not there.
Instead, he’s at the kitchen fire with his back to me, and with a jolt I remember my cobbler, the cobbler I was so looking forward to, the cobbler that is most likely burnt and ruined. And I’m suddenly fretting in my seat like a worried parent, and it has nothing to do with elven princes or errant apple peal.
“Is it alright? T’isn’t burnt, is it?”
“It’s… Well…” He’s crossing the kitchen, holding the dish in a cradle of thick cloths but carrying himself all stiff, like someone’s handed him a baby and he’s no idea what to do with it. He lowers it to the table in the one clean spot – the place where the dish was in the first place – and we both stare at it.
The only one that talks is the pudding, juices bubbling and popping at the edges of the dish like it’s laughing. The smell coming from it is terrific: the combination of sweet apple and aromatic spice is wonderful, with just a taint of honey in the background. The cobbles are all haphazard, dotting the surface like golden pebbles. There’s a dark mark over one side of the dish where the juices have spilled over and burnt on the outside, and it’ll be a swine to clean…
It’s the finest cobbler I’ve made in years.
While I’m grinning from ear to ear like a proud da, the prince is frowning with bafflement at my creation like he’s found a three-headed duck.
“What is it?” It’s a cautious question, almost like he fears the answer.
I’m fixed with a look that tells me he’s none the wiser. “You know, cobbler. A type of pud.”
His brows lift just a little, and he’s trying to look like he’s enlightened, but I can see he still doesn’t fully understand what I’m on about. ‘Tis odd, but I feel a stab of sympathy for him, that he’s never had cobbler before …
Hesitation holds me back a moment, but before my head can come to a conclusion of whether it’s a good idea or no, my mouth is making decisions for me: “Would … you like to try some?”
His brow arches, proper surprised that I’ve asked. When that expression stays there and he’s silent, I know he’ll say no. Probably just as well, really; cobbler ain’t exactly a prince’s fare, it does look real messy, and I can understand-
My mouth hangs wide like a post box with busted hinges. What can I say? I’m stunned stupid and there’s not a word that comes out, but it doesn’t seem to matter anyway, because he hasn’t waited for my reaction: there’s a careful clatter from behind and I twist my neck to see. There’s a cupboard above the work surface, high and – I am forced to admit to myself – not exactly hobbit-friendly. But it’s not a problem if you’re one of the bigger folk, and when he turns back there’re two fine bowls in his hand. They’re set on the table with spoons, and he’s gone again, only this time to the pantry.
Something in me recovers my wits enough to start dishing it out. The spoon bites through the glorious crust and into the softer filling beneath with just the right level of resistance for my liking, the rich spices and heady scent of honeyed apple greeting my suppressed hunger and pulling it to the fore of my mind. And my belly gives an appreciative rumble of anticipation, too.
“I don’t understand how you can be that hungry after everything you and your companions ate at dinner.”
He’s back with a jug of cream, only this time I manage not to jump: elves move like cats, and it’s going to take some real getting used to. It’s all going to take some real getting used to, and I’m more than a bit scared, knowing we’re going there … I don’t like being so honest with myself, and my tummy does an odd little flip.
“Are you alright, Sam?”
“Hmm?” I’m being watched, the scrutiny of his dark eyes sharp and inescapable: he’s taken the next seat, and I try and look back at him, but there’s something about elvish stares that I struggle to connect with … it’s a peculiar thing to describe, but they kind of burn. It’s a bit like trying to look right at the winter sun’s glare catching on water. But I realise what’s drawn his attention to me: I’m sat still as one of them statues in the gardens, my cobbler in front of me and my spoon suspended over the rim of the bowl.
Lying crosses my mind, but I can’t do it. The spoon lowers into the bowl and my hands find each other on my lap. Before I can stop it, honesty pours into my mouth: “What do I think I’m doing?” The words come out and I can hear my own upset in them and I know I should be embarrassed, talking to an elf-prince like this, but he doesn’t say anything and I can’t stop myself. “I’m a hobbit gardener – I don’t belong with the likes of lost kings and elvish princes and fine lords. I fight weeds, not Ring-wraiths…” I shake my head and press it into my hands, looking down at my cobbler and not wanting it anymore. “What are you doing, Samwise?”
I don’t half feel miserable.
There’s a pause in his voice, and I don’t know if I want to hear the next words, the words he’s trying to find that will confirm what I’ve just said. “You’re right: you don’t belong here. Go home.”
“You know, out there … the Wilds have no care for kings and princes: the untamed places of the world have no regard for birth or assumed titles. We all bleed, Sam. The only real difference is kings and princes are far more attractive to arrows.” There’s a smirk in his tone, but I can’t find it in myself to react to it. He carries on regardless: “In the Wilds, we are equal-”
“How can a gardener be equal to a warrior?” It’s a hair away from being snappy, my tone, but it’s too late, I can’t rein it in. “How can I be anywhere near you? I can’t fight!”
There’s a dull thud as he falls back against his chair and I hear him sigh, exasperated. I keep my eyes to the table. I’ll leave for home in the morning, that’s the best thing I can do…
“Did you try to stop them?”
“Pardon?” My eyes betray me and peer under my hands at my companion. Like me, he’s ignoring his bowl of cobbler, his concentration instead on me. I’m being given a deadpan stare, and despite myself, I feel my innards crawl with discomfort. It’s like havin’ the weight of the world dumped on my head.
The elf prince reiterates with deliberate care, emphasising each word: “Did you try to stop the Wraiths from attaching Frodo?”
Defensiveness bolts into me and shoves aside my misery. “Of course I did!” And don’t I remember it: us hobbits against towers of black strength that seemed to eat the very heart of you with their presence. I remember my fear spurring me to attack, and how useless that was when I was swept aside like a leaf caught in a broom. “Not that I was any use…”
“Then why did you bother to try, if you knew there was nothing you could do? A hobbit gardener, against the darkest servants of Mordor?”
The unexpected turn of his question paralyses me: it delivers a cold bite and I’m stunned by it. I feel betrayed. “I … I couldn’t just - leave Frodo to them!” My tongue’s tripping as I strain to defend myself. “He’s my friend! You don’t abandon your friends…” But my words melt and I’m done, and there’s shame coiling in my belly at my foolishness -
But he smiles at me, a proper gleaming smile and he sits forward again. All the gravity is gone from his eyes, like smoke in the wind. It’s such an unexpected change that my hands lower themselves to the table top, the spilt flour and tacky pieces of apple sticking to my palms. My mind’s gone numb and all I can do is stare at him, at the elf prince who’s confused me more in the last half-minute than I’ve ever been in my entire life.
“Skill at arms is worth nothing without true strength, Sam, and it seems to me that you have that in abundance.”
A fresh burn flares over my ears, and I know the colour they must be. It’s in my cheeks too. It’s not shame, not this time, but embarrassment, and that’s enough to make my face go hotter. I must be the shade of a ripe raspberry by now, but he doesn’t seem to care. He blanks my reaction like he’s not noticed – he’s real good at that – and his spoon’s back in his hand as he says:
“I would rather feel those who escort the Ring to the gates of Mordor know their hearts over their weapons. You can be taught swordsmanship, Sam, but I am sure Frodo would sooner have his friend at his side than an entire army.”
And that’s it: he sees himself as finished with me and leaves me to my embarrassment, as he finally returns his full attention to the bowl in front of him. Lookin’ at it now, it looks right messy – sticky slop, as my Gaffer calls it - and he’s giving it a real thorough inspection before his spoon even touches it…
“Sorry it’s such a mess: I know it ain’t anythin’ as like you’re used to-”
“Sam.” There’s a note of exasperation and I’m given a look that’s right peculiar: a smirk and – and this one I find right surprisin’ – just the slightest hint of a cringe. “I feel we need to reintroduce ourselves.” Before I can do anything with my need to apologise – again - he’s on his feet, and to my complete surprise he bows to me after the elven way, his hand extending from his heart in a graceful sweep. “Mae govannen. I am Legolas, an archer of the Woodland Realm.”
And that’s it. He gives nothing more of himself, and I realise that what he has given is all he wants to offer. I’ve a feelin’ that had that Lord Aysfell not showed up, he’d never have said who he was. There’s no desire there to be seen as anything other than what he’s shown me, and while I never expected it, I find myself grateful as I stand in my chair and bow to him as us hobbits do, legs straight and upper body pitching low. “Samwise Gamgee of Hobbiton, at your service, sir.”
When we both sit back down again, I’m given an easy smile, one that’s relaxed and even a touch relieved, and I can say that the grin I give back reflects it as I take up my spoon again…
We both know about the apples. We both know about the apple peal on my face … and I know he’s a prince, and he knows I’m a gardener. And that’s alright, because we’re both just apple thieves in the end.