Rivendell was just as beautiful up close as it was from a distance, the lights twinkling from the windows in the night, the clear air fresh, the soothing sound of water in the background. Mel even met her first elf, a tall, elegant creature that greeted them at the gate. It was lovely and unreal, and of course, Mel chose that exact moment to have an anxiety attack and pass out.
Which made for a very interesting start to her morning, when she woke up in a bed and a room that she had absolutely no memory of. Panic clawed at her chest for an agonizing moment until she remembered… and then the panic was replaced with an odd sort of calm resignation. This wasn't a hallucination. Mel was almost completely sure that one did not fall asleep (or pass out), only to wake up and pick up the same hallucination right where it left off. She wasn't dreaming. This wasn't a figment of her imagination. This was real. She felt emptied of the fear she had held for her sanity. If she was insane, there was nothing else to do, but embrace it and hope for the best.
There was a soft knock on her door and Mel yanked the down comforter up to her chin, her eyes wide. There was a long pause. What should she do? Should she get up? Should she call out?
"My lady?" a gentle voice spoke as the door slowly opened.
A petite woman with long, blonde hair peeked into the room. No wait, not a woman… an elf. The elf-lady smiled when she saw her wide eyes and stepped inside, shutting the door gently behind her.
"Good morning, my lady." She said, dropping a small, graceful curtsy, "I am pleased to see that you are awake. Your friend will be glad to hear that you are recovering well."
Her friend? Mel's mind felt fuzzy and she tried very hard to think through the cobwebs of shock. What friend…? Boromir? Did she mean Boromir? Because Mel wasn't entirely sure if that particular acquaintance constituted friendship. She wasn't sure what it constituted exactly, but friend didn't sound like the right word.
The elf didn't seem to notice her confusion, instead gliding to a small wardrobe on the other side of the room and throwing open the doors.
"At the request of Lord Elrond, we had some things brought that might suit you, my lady. I understand that you're belongings have been lost."
Lost… yeah… that was one way of putting it.
The elf-maid pulled out a cream colored dress and laid it over the back of a chair.
"I've ordered a bath prepared, it should be waiting for you just through there," she pointed to a door just beyond the wardrobe, "If there is anything else you require, my lady…"
The elf-maid stopped, her serene expression furrowing for just a moment. Mel cringed.
"I'm not a lady," she said, and realized that sounded even worse, "I mean… Mel, that's my name, just please, call me Mel."
The elf tilted her head to the side in a puzzled expression. Then her face seemed to relax, as if she had realized something she should have known all along. She bowed her head graciously.
"Of course, Mel," she said, "Forgive me. I did not mean to make you feel uncomfortable."
The second she heard her name on the elf's lips she relaxed and she realized that it had made her uncomfortable. There were too many unfamiliar things around her, too many things that she didn't understand. Her name was constant. Her name hadn't changed. It was one of the few things she had left now.
"Thank you." Mel said, and meant it.
The serene smile returned to the elf's face and she dropped another small curtsy.
"If there is anything else you require, please don't hesitate to ask. I will leave you for a moment, and let Lord Elrond and Lord Boromir know that you have awakened."
Before Mel could tell her not to bother Boromir, the elf was gone, closing the door almost soundlessly behind her. Mel bit her lip. Then she sighed and dragged herself out of the impossibly comfortable bed and toward the room that promised a bath.
She was not disappointed. A steaming tub of hot water and soap waited for her on the other side. She shucked her old clothes, dirty and torn from the trek through the woods yesterday, and eased her way into the water. She suddenly realized that, despite the fact that she managed to make it to the gym twice a week (most weeks), she was embarrassingly out of shape. She ached in places that hadn't ached since she was in middle school and she took that week-long hiking trip with her aunt and uncle through the Ozarks. But the water was soothing and the soap made her feel almost normal again.
When the water got cold she finally got out and dressed, running a brush through her damp hair as she padded barefoot back into the bedroom, hoping to find her sneakers.
A tall elf with brown hair that brushed past his shoulders and a circlet of gold on his head, rose to meet her. Mel froze in the middle of a brush stroke.
"Good morning, Mel." He said, a small smile on his smooth face, "My name is Lord Elrond. I trust you slept well."
Mel didn't speak for far too long. It took a lot of time to even realize that her hand was still poised in her hair, mid-brush-stroke, and she slowly lowered it to her side. Elrond… Lord Elrond… Lord of Imladris, son of Earendil, keeper of one of the Three elven rings of power… was standing in front of her… right in front of her… and he'd used her name! A feeling of unreality washed over her and she felt a bit like she was floating. She swallowed and tried to ground herself again. Lord Elrond had his hands clasped in front of him, the picture of perfect elven poise and patience, waiting for her to come back to the present. Right… words… she should say words…
"I… It's… I'm…"
Elrond raised an eyebrow, his smile widening almost infinitesimally. Mel blushed.
Yes, very articulate, your use of the English language continues to astound and amaze, Mel, well done…
"It's an honor to meet you, Lord Elrond," she said, finally managing to piece together a complete sentence, "I have heard so much about you, I hope you can forgive my lack of manners. I'm a little overwhelmed."
Elrond gestured to an empty chair across a small table from him and Mel managed to make it to the chair and sit without incident. She was very proud of herself in that moment. 'A little overwhelmed' was such an understatement of how she felt right then that it was nearly an outright lie. Elrond seated himself and he seemed so perfectly at ease that Mel felt more relaxed just by proximity… but only the tiniest bit.
"I have spoken to Lord Boromir about your… situation."
Mel sat up very straight, her mind racing. Her situation? What had Boromir told him? What did he think her situation was exactly? Elrond studied her face for a moment, then nodded.
"Yes, he tells some very strange tales. But he seems to think that you carry an air of truth to you and I see now what he meant. I don't believe you have it in you to be false, Mel. But your tale is one which begs many questions, very few of which have ready answers."
"Any answers would be appreciated." Mel said, "I have no idea what's happening."
Lord Elrond smiled. He had a kind face, old and young at the same time, and his eyes never betrayed any doubts or suspicion. All Mel saw was kindness.
"Why don't you start at the beginning?" He suggested, "Retelling the tale may recall details that might prove useful. And I would like to hear the events from your own lips."
Mel nodded. That made sense.
"There's not much to tell," She said, "I was walking through the woods, I got distracted, and then I… wasn't where I was supposed to be. That's when Boromir found me."
"Got distracted?" the elf-lord asked, his brow furrowing, "By what?"
Mel paused, her hands frozen in her lap. She had been twirling the ring on her finger again, and she hadn't even realized it. She hadn't even remembered that she was wearing it. She felt a cold knot forming in her stomach. Of course… Why hadn't she thought of this before?
"Because it's insane!" she thought to herself.
Then again, this was all insane. She had been rescued by Boromir, slept in Rivendell, and was talking to an elf-lord. There was no part of this that wasn't completely insane. And really, considering what she knew about Middle-Earth and their history with unusual jewelry, she knew she shouldn't be so surprised.
Slowly, she lifted her hand and placed it flat on the table, letting the morning light dance off the emerald and set the gold glowing.
"I… I found this." She stuttered, "It was on the ground, it caught my eye. I was going to turn it in, try to find the owners, but then…"
Lord Elrond tilted his head and studied the ring for a moment, before he reached out tentatively.
Mel swallowed, and then nodded. The knot in her stomach started to flutter. He took her hand in his and examined the ring closely, turning her hand to better catch the light. His face was set in a mask of concentration and Mel saw a small ring glittering on his own hand, the deep blue stone in its center catching her eye. Her breath caught in her throat. Was that…? Was that Vilya? Was she seriously looking at the greatest of the Three Elven Rings of Power right now? Oh, there was so much she wanted to know, so many questions…
She was distracted. That was the only excuse that she had for what happened next, and even she knew that it was a poor excuse. But her mind was somewhere else, on Vilya, on the past, on her endless questions, and that's why she didn't notice until it was too late. Lord Elrond, intent on his examination of her own mysterious ring, put his fingers on the gold band and started to slip it off her finger. The knot in Mel's stomach clenched, and without thought or her mind's consent, she wrenched her hand from his grasp…
And slapped him. Hard.
"Oh my god!" Mel gasped, her hand flying to cover her mouth in horror, "Oh my god, I'm so sorry, I didn't…"
Lord Elrond held up a hand to stop her.
"No, no I should have known. I sensed the power, I just did not realize it had taken such a strong hold."
He touched his cheek absently. A red hand print was starting to develop and Mel thought she might just die from embarrassment. But a smile was playing at the corners of his lips, so at least he didn't seem angry.
"I believe your ring is of dwarven make, crafted either by dwarves or possibly for dwarves. There is an elegance in the design that isn't common in dwarven craft."
"For dwarves?" Mel asked, her heart suddenly racing, "Do you mean it could be one of the Seven?"
Seven for the dwarf-lords in their halls of stone…
Lord Elrond stared at her for a moment, but then he shook his head.
"Of course," he muttered, almost to himself, "Of course, I had forgotten. Lord Boromir did say that you had knowledge of us. No, my la… Mel, I don't believe so. The Seven are lost to us, taken by the Dark Lord or lost to dragons and time. There are none left and if there were, I would know it."
Mel nodded, her heart fluttering back into what might pass for a normal rhythm. She didn't want to think about what might happen if she'd somehow stumbled onto a ring of power. She was barely holding it together as it was!
"It seems my house is destined to be host to many mysteries and wonders," He murmured.
Then he fixed her with a sharp gaze. Mel almost flinched away from it.
"What do you know of the events of the world, Mel?" he asked, "Tell me what you can."
This was a test. He was testing her knowledge, and Mel wasn't sure how honest she should be. But the dangerous glint in the elf-lord's eye made the decision for her.
"I know that there is a war coming." She said, "I know that Imladris is a stopping point and a beginning. I know that a council has been gathered and will meet today to decide the fate of the world. And I know that there is a hobbit here called Frodo Baggins and that he carries something… precious."
"Say it, Mel," He said, his eyes hard as stone, "Do not hide behind riddles, as brave Bilbo Baggins once did. Say it, and I will know you speak the truth."
Mel hesitated. Somehow it felt… wrong to say it out loud. She was scared, to be honest. But Lord Elrond had asked her. So she leaned forward and whispered.
"The One Ring."
Lord Elrond closed his eyes then and his face relaxed. He looked almost pained, sad and far away for a moment.
"I have uttered not a word of the council's purpose to anyone, not even my family. Only the wizard Gandalf and the hobbit Frodo Baggins have any knowledge of the council's true nature."
He opened his eyes and managed a small smile that Mel suspected was purely for her benefit.
"It seems that you have convinced me, Mel. I will help you try to understand what has happened to you as best I can."
"Thank you," Mel said, earnestly, "Really, I can't thank you enough."
He smiled and stood, and Mel stood with him.
"I think a wise first step would be to have you join us in council."
Mel nearly had to sit down again.
"You clearly already have knowledge of the circumstances which have brought us together; I see no reason to hide it from you. And there will be many wise and learned people from many different places in attendance. Perhaps someone will have knowledge or insight into your situation."
This couldn't be happening. There was no way this was actually happening to her!
"You… You want me… to come to the council?"
Lord Elrond raised an amused eyebrow.
"If that agrees with you." He said.
"Yes!" Mel said, nearly shouting in her excitement, "Yes, definitely, I want, I mean, I'll be there!"
"Excellent." The elf-lord said, still looking amused, "Now, would you care for some breakfast. If the hobbits have not eaten it all of course, it is after nine in the morning and they are a… hungry… folk."
At the mention of food, Mel's stomach growled. Loudly. She put a hand over it and tried to hide a sheepish grin. She was starving.
"That… sounds like a great idea. Thank you."
"Come," He said, gesturing to the door, "I will show you the way."
"Just a sec!" she said, scampering toward the bed and digging in the bedding, then dropping to her hands and knees to search under the bed. Not finding what she was searching for, she stood up and put her hands on her hips, staring around the room, perplexed.
"Have you seen my shoes?" she asked, wiggling her bare toes against the cool hardwood of the floor.
Elrond raised another eyebrow at her and only then did Mel suddenly remember who she was talking to.
"Right, sorry." She said, turning away and pretending to look for her shoes in a far corner of the room to hide her embarrassment, "Of course you haven't. I'll just… um…"
"Might I suggest…?"
She turned back and saw a pair of plain cream slippers dangling from his fingers. Mel felt a slight twinge of disappointment, but quickly pushed it aside and smiled.
"Thank you." She said politely as she took the shoes and slipped them on, managing to make one last desperate sweep of the room for her missing footwear. No luck. She was going to have to ask that elf-woman who was in here earlier. Those were her favorite sneakers.
Elrond led Mel out of the room and into the sweeping halls and courtyards of Imladris. Mel tried to soak in every detail, every twist and turn, every piece of architecture, window, door and stairway, as they made their way toward the dining hall. Not only was she in awe of the detail and intricacy of everything around her, but she was also hoping to use some of these details as landmarks. Imladris was a big place, and while Mel was at least adequately capable of finding her way in the woods, using the sun and stars as guidance, indoors she was… a bit directionally challenged. If any of this stuck in her mind, she might at least be able to find her way back to her room. She hoped.
Elrond opened a large wooden door, and all thought of ever leaving fled Mel's mind as the most delicious smells washed over her. She closed her eyes and breathed deep before she stepped inside and took a look around the huge stone hall. It was long and surrounded by columns, with long tables lining the floor and a raised dais that was empty for now. A fire roared in a large corner hearth with benches and stools surrounding it, though they were also empty.
It must have been late, as Lord Elrond had said, for there were not many people around. Mostly elves, brown- and golden-haired alike, elegant and easily spotted, but there were also a few dwarves seated together at a table in the corner (as far from the elves as they could manage), a few Men dressed in rougher clothes and cloaks (but no Boromir, Mel noted), and two small, curly-headed children sitting side by side with heaping plates of food, large furry feet swinging…
Suddenly, Mel was fighting the urge to put a hand over her mouth and squeal. Hobbits! Those were hobbits! They were so cute and little!
"Here is where I leave you, Mel."
Suddenly, Mel remembered who she was with and looked up. Lord Elrond was watching her with a smile and dancing eyes.
"Aren't you going to eat?" Mel asked, a nervous flutter in her gut.
"You must forgive me, but there are many things that I must see to before our… later appointment."
"Oh, right," Mel nodded, feeling silly, "Of course, sure, no apology necessary."
"Will you be alright on your own?" He asked, "No harm will come to you, but I wouldn't want you to feel uncomfortable."
A biscuit hit one of the hobbits in the face and they both burst into gales of laughter. Mel smiled.
"I'm sure I'll be fine." She said.
Lord Elrond gave the two hobbits a look of long-suffering fondness, before he shook his head and smiled too.
"Very well, I will see you again this afternoon. If you have trouble, simply ask for me."
Then Lord Elrond turned and left the hall, leaving Mel standing alone on the steps looking out over the tables of food. The hobbits were still snickering together, and Mel wondered… Did she dare? She decided that, of course she did, when would she get another opportunity to sit and have breakfast in the same room as hobbits?
Before she could second guess herself, she hurried down the steps and made her way across the hall, holding her head up and trying to act as if she knew exactly what she was doing. She sat quietly across the table from the hobbits, a few places further down, and grabbed an apple from the bowl of fruit directly in front of her. Her stomach was rolling and she couldn't decide if it was nerves or hunger, but an apple would cure both.
She crunched into the red, juicy fruit and tried to get a better look at the little hobbits. It was easy to tell now that they weren't children. They were the right height and size, but there was a grown aspect to their faces, even underneath the easy playfulness, that spoke of adulthood. They were young, but certainly not children.
One of the hobbits, the smaller one with sharp features and a reddish cast to his curls, glanced up and caught her looking at them. Before Mel could drop her gaze and pretend she hadn't been staring, he grinned.
"Hey, you're not an elf!" he said.
The other hobbit backhanded his arm.
"Don't be rude." He whispered, before he threw her a charming smile, "Don't mind my cousin. He just let's his mouth fly off the handle sometimes. I'm Meriadoc Brandybuck and this," He ruffled his cousin's hair, "is Peregrin Took. And you are?"
Mel was momentarily speechless, but she tried to recover quickly.
"Mel," she said, "My name is Mel. Merry and Pippin, it's so nice to meet you."
Both of them gave her a surprised look, and then exchanged a look between them, before turning back to her. Pippin leaned over the table and whispered.
"Are you a wizard?"
Mel jerked back, thrown completely off balance.
"Sorry, what? No, of course not, why would you think that?"
"How did you know I go by Pippin?"
Crap. Mel scrambled trying to think of some way to recover her blunder.
"Well, I… um… I've just heard some rumors, you know whispers, warnings, of two hobbits running around Rivendell causing all sorts of trouble, Meriadoc also known as Merry and Peregrin also known as Pippin. We've all been warned to watch out for you two, you know."
She glanced around the immediate vicinity and caught the puzzled gaze of an elf with long blonde hair, but he quickly went back to his bowl when she met his eyes. She thought she caught the hint of a smirk on his face, but it didn't matter because the two hobbits were not only fooled by her terrible fib, they were beside themselves with excitement.
"Did you hear that, Merry?" Pippin squeaked, tugging repeatedly on his cousin's sleeve, "Did you hear that? We're famous! We're probably the most famous hobbits East of Buckland!"
"I'm sure you will be." Mel said, smiling.
"This calls for a celebration, I think." Said Merry, a little twinkle in his eye.
"What do you propose, dear cousin?" Pippin asked, that same twinkle gleaming in his own eye.
Mel tried not to think about the trouble she might have just started. Instead, she decided to take a chance on the porridge and scooped a little bit into a bowl. She tasted it and realized it was sweet and warm and she was probably going to want seconds.
She looked up. The blonde elf was looking at her again, a smirk definitely on his face now. He flicked his eyes to the two hobbits, still chattering excitedly (something about the mysterious disappearance of spoons from the kitchen and Mel winced feeling sorry for the elves that would have to corral them eventually), and then looked back at her and raised an eyebrow. Mel ducked her head and concentrated on her porridge. It wasn't really her fault… Well… okay, maybe a little, but there wasn't much she could do about it now!
Apparently decided, the two hobbits jumped out of the their seats and raced halfway down the hall before they both seemed to remember their manners and executed a rapid and synchronized turn mid-stride, bowing deeply to her.
"Good morning, Miss Mel, I hope we meet again soon!" Pippin shouted, Merry echoing the sentiment, and then they both ran out without waiting for an answer from her.
Mel sat staring after them in befuddled amusement, a spoonful of porridge halfway to her lips.
"And so came about the destruction of the Last Homely House, West of the Sea." A smooth voice said in a low, amused tone.
Mel jumped and looked up. The blonde elf had risen and was standing across from her, his blue eyes sparkling with laughter, a smile tugging on his lips.
"I don't think you know what danger you have wrought upon our host, my lady," He said, his smile widening, "I have heard tell that hobbits are crafty creatures, and the only one I have ever met proved far more troublesome than any could have guessed."
Mel opened her mouth to reply, but found that she had no words. How was she supposed to explain herself? She closed it again. The elf's smile softened a touch and he clasped his hands behind his back.
"Forgive me, we have not been formally introduced. My name is Legolas. Like you, I am a visitor in Lord Elrond's house."
Mel heard very little beyond the name Legolas. Her mouth went dry and she was sure that all color left her face. She swallowed and tried not to lose the little bit of breakfast she'd managed to get down.
He indicated the seat across from her.
"May I join you?"
Mel forced herself to breathe and then to smile.
"I would be honored, your majesty."
That puzzled look flashed in his eyes again, but his smile widened as he took a seat on the bench.
"Ah, I see my reputation precedes me as well." He said, flicking his eyes to the door where the hobbits had disappeared.
"Only good things, I promise." She said, her smile relaxing a little, "You're the Prince of Mirkwood."
She wondered if she'd gone to far, if she should have pretended ignorance, but it was too late now.
"And you?" Legolas said, his blue eyes piercing her from across the table, "I gather you are not from Imladris."
"No," Mel said, stirring her porridge absently, "Forgive me, you've introduced yourself, but I've forgotten my manners. My name is Mel. You've come a very long way. Have you been here before?"
Legolas quirked his head to the side, a smile still playing on his lips. He didn't pretend not to notice her deflection (it was written all over his face), but he didn't press her either.
"Yes, a few times. My father is not one for traveling much beyond our realm, especially in these troubling times, but there have been occasions when exceptions have been made. When Lord Elrond's call came to us and we heard that the dwarves of Erebor were also sending an envoy West, I… or rather, my father… decided it would be worth the journey."
Mel noticed the slip in his tone when he mentioned his father, the hint of a bitter flavor, but she decided he deserved the same courtesy he had shown her, so she didn't mention it.
"I would be pleased to show you a few of the beauties of Imladris, Lady Mel, if you would allow me." He said, "The first time in such a wondrous place can often be overwhelming."
Mel panicked a little bit. Legolas seemed very nice, but he also seemed very perceptive, and while he had been all smiles and politeness so far, it was only a matter of time before he started pushing for explanations that she wasn't sure she could give. Mel had only avoided the hobbits' curiosity through pure luck, and she knew that wouldn't work with the elf.
"Oh, I would never wish to impose…" she said quickly, but Legolas raised a hand to silence her before she had even begun.
"I will hear no polite protests or false excuses, Lady Mel." He said in a firm, but playful tone, "You need a guide, and my morning is free of any obligations. Unless you have pressing business elsewhere, the matter is settled."
Mel opened her mouth and then closed it again. She was starting to do that so often that she was afraid she might be turning into a gaping fish. Why? Why was Legolas, the Prince of Mirkwood, offering to play tour guide to her? She had a feeling it wasn't just because he was a nice guy. Not that she didn't think he was a nice guy, but he wasn't stupid either, and she'd already made some pretty big mistakes with her mouth this morning. His interest was piqued. It was only a matter of time before he got suspicious. And Mel wasn't sure how much trust she should give him.
She took a breath and managed to force words out of her mouth.
"Alright, but I have one condition."
A corner of the prince's mouth twitched up in amusement.
"Don't call me Lady. It's just Mel."
His smile widened and he inclined his head to her.
"Very well… Mel."
He stood and gestured toward the large wooden doors at the end of the hall.
Suppressing a sigh of resignation, Mel dropped her spoon and stood to join him. He took her arm when they reached the steps, linked it through his, and began to speak about the architecture of the elves as they left the dining hall.