Keeper, Chapter 1
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With upmost caution, Rylittle eased his way past the rickety wooden gate that marked the edge of the keeper's property. While the small square of land, with its vine-draped little stone cottage and well-maintained flowerbeds, did not look particularly imposing. If anything, it was charming. But even so, the man felt ill-at-ease. The keeper was said to be a kindly soul, gentle, though equally aloof as other of her species. Though, it was not the keeper the trader particularly feared – it was her bees.
He was a little more than halfway down the path, moving at a steady shuffle, when one of them approached. Drifting lazily in the warm spring breeze, the insect's wings glittered as they moved. The trader froze as the bee neared. It landed on the lapel of his jacket. Rylittle could not breathe, could not move, could not speak for fear of being stung. So he stood helplessly in the middle of the keeper's path, staring at the small creature resting on his chest. He was so preoccupied he did not note the approach of the bee's mistress.
A light hand moved to offer forth a finger. After some consideration, the bee mounted the offered limb. The keeper withdrew her hand, putting it eyelevel.
"They're very wary of strangers," she said calmly, eyes only for the golden velvety body of her tiny charge. "I'm sorry that he frightened you."
"N-not at all," Rylittle assured her, gaping. Though he had come to her cottage many times, the keeper never failed to stun him. Her calm demeanor wasn't unusual of elves – or so he'd heard, he had not encountered many, as most of the Wood-elves preferred to remain deeper within the forest – and neither was her beauty. It was that combined with the casual nature with which she interacted with her bees that threw him (and likely everyone else) off guard. She treated them as her children, her friends.
The keeper peered at him for a moment before straightening. "Come inside. I just put the kettle on, and I am sure your journey has been long."
"I shall tell you the news of the Esgaroth," he agreed, following after her as she moved inside. Just before the door, she set the bee on a blossom that hung from one of the flowering vines.
She never asked after the goings-on the world of Man. But he got the feeling that she liked to know. Rylittle suspected that the keeper was, in her own way, fond of humans. After all, she lived so near the town, not nearly as deep in the Woodland Realm as most other elves. Some speculated that she once had a human lover, others that she was an outcast of her peoples. But Rylittle didn't know what to think – only that the Erlea, her name, was not elvish.
So he spoke of the world beyond the Greenwood. He spoke of the rising threat of war, the chaos rising in the realms to the east. She was interested, though clearly very troubled by his words. Content to listen, she offers nothing herself of the elves or life in the Woodland Realm. Occasionally she might mention news of Oropher's court, but that was rare. He suspected that she was not often with her own kind. Few elves lived so close to the edge of the forest. Most preferred to stay near their court. Perhaps it was the hives that caused the distance. He would not dare ask.
They sat at her table, which was cluttered with books and bowls and a variety of sewing things. One of the leaded windows in the kitchen was open, and bees would come in and out as they pleased. A few landed on the rim of Erlea's cup, or in her hair, though they did not bother with her guest; these bees, it seemed had manners. For that Rylittle was eternally grateful.
Erlea, for her part, did not seem the least bit bothered by the insects. When one landed on the rim of her cup just before she took a sip, she waited patiently for the bee to explore the edge of the pottery, then drank once the creature deemed the spot fully examined. They sat on her knuckles, along the hem of her sleeve, carelessly dancing in their bee-like way, fat, glossy backs flashing in the yellowy afternoon light that seeped in from the many windows of the cottage. He could not help but watch them as he quickly swallowed his tea – clove and some kind of citrus, sweetened heavily by some of the keeper's wildflower honey – with a measure of wariness. Despite his hostess's relaxed nature, he was on-edge.
Once the tea had been drunk it was time to look over her stock. From her pantry, the keeper presented several fine jars of honey, ranging from dark amber to soft gold in color. Rylittle selected several in the middle of the spectrum, though he preferred the milder colors himself. After paying her, Rylittle thanked the keeper and made a hasty exit. He didn't like being around those bees any more than necessary.
Once Rylittle left, I return to my sewing – before his arrival I had been mending a few summer dressed, lazily adding embroidery to the hems of one old summer frock I'd had for neigh twenty years. The violets were delicate, only a few shades off the light purple of the dress. In the spring there isn't much work beyond tending my gardens and generally looking after the bees, collecting the first honey of the season.
Most of the bees have returned to their work. A few flutter near me as I settle in the armchair beside the window. Soon, I am lost in the steady motion of making stitches. It's nearly dark before I become fully aware again. By then I've finished the hems and have moved on to the bodice. I've lit my lamps, eaten a bit, then sit by the fire to read until bed. The bees are now in the hive. All is quiet about my cottage. I'm just about to change into a sleep shirt when there is a knocking about the door.
I rise to answer, straighten myself, then cross warily to the door. I do not often get guests, especially not this late. Twice in one day, too, rarely happens. Wary, I open the door, peering out into the blue-black darkness of the Greenwood forest.
A tall man stands on the flagstone porch. He is grey – in the beard, in his cloak, in his twinkling eyes. Holding a staff and wearing a tall, pointed hat, he's whimsical in his appearance. Wearing a wide smile, he regards me with something akin to cheer.
"Erlea Honeywell of Bee's Keep," he announces. "Your cottage and grounds are just as nicely kept as they told me."
"Thank you, sir," I reply. "I make a point to tend most gently to my lands. How might I be of service to you? Are you lost?"
"No," he assures me cheerily. "I suppose that I am not, provided that you are indeed Caladhiel, also known as Erlea Honeywell to those who walk among Men."
Without another word, he pushes lightly past the threshold to move inside. He removes his hat, setting it on the table, then props his staff beside the door. Once he has done this he stands, waiting for me to invite him to sit. I do, still confused.
"I – I am afraid I do not know you, sir. Though it does not trouble me to host you tonight, I should like to know your name, for I find it unsettling that you should know mine, yet I know not of yours."
"Funny thing, names," he says. "They tend to only barely express a person's parts. Though yours says much about you, young elf…it clearly tells that you are one of two worlds. I am Gandalf the Grey."
It is a name that is familiar to me. Mithrandir. The old wizard's reputation is known to many. Relieved, I incline my head. "It is good to meet you, Gandalf the Grey."
He smiles. "It is good to meet you as well, Caladhiel. Or, Erlea, if you prefer."
At the mention of my double names, I wince. "Caladhiel, if you please. Erlea is the name I use only in the world of Men."
Something flickers in the old wizard's eyes. "Very well."
I do not respond to the question in his eyes. Instead, I fill my kettle and set two mugs upon the table. They're lovely mugs, gifts from one of the merchants in Esgaroth after they had sent a particularly incompetent delivery boy to my wood. Wide brims, glazed to a buttery yellow color, flecked with terra cotta and brown. A bee is embossed on the center face of each. I love them so – the craftsmanship is excellent, equal to that of many I'd found at Greenwood. The wizard watches me as a move about the kitchen nook. I avoid his gaze as I measure out the tea, fill the teapot, set a few biscuits upon a plate, and bring the whole arrangement to the table. To my flattery, the wizard sweetens his tea with the small pot of honey at the center of the table. This honey is the color of sunshine, and tastes of spring. It's the first collection of the season.
Once settled, I am contented to speak. "What brings you to the Greenwood, Gandalf?"
"I seek an audience with Oropher. I have council to give him."
"I know not whether he will listen. King Oropher has an open court, but he is not one to heed the words of others," I say with a frown.
The wizard continues. "Nevertheless, I must see him. But, I found it to be late in the day when I reached Esgaroth – I required shelter for the evening. It was there that I was told that you resided on the edge of the forest. So few of your people do, I found it quite intriguing. But then, I thought perhaps it might be fitting that a daughter of half-elven would feel out of place in both worlds."
Many things in his statement give me pause. "You knew my father." It is not a question.
"Elurín was not one for the courts either," he says gently. "I can see that his daughter also favors seclusion."
I look down at my mug. "You are mistaken. It was my mother who wished to distance herself from the court. It was only after she passed that my father wished for distance from the world – any world."
"Which is why he sailed for the Undying Lands."
Gandalf hums, sipping his tea. I follow suit, and a comfortable silence falls between us. I can't bring myself to ask any more questions, fearing the things that might be dug up. The wizard, in the meantime, is looking about my main room.
"You have done well for yourself. I can imagine it must be difficult on your own."
"Not too difficult, no. I have the bees. The land is not too much to manage." I stir another teaspoon of honey into my tea – it is very bad, especially before bed, but I can't bring myself to care too much. "I do not mind it much, no."
"No, I can see you do not."
We talk a while longer, then I offer to show him to my spare bed. It is a pallet in the corner of the spare room, simple, but comfortable. I lead him to the back, show him where to bathe, if need be, and where the sink is. We say good night, then I climb up to my own bed in the loft. Snuggling into the quilt, I am not soon into sleep; the words I had shared with Gandalf trouble me.
I did not inquire as to how he knew my father – and perhaps it is better I did not. I do not often think of my parents. It has been so long….
After a bit of tossing, turning, and staring blanking up into the dark thatch rafters, I finally find sleep.
The next morning I serve the wizard a breakfast of stewed apples and wheat bread, along with more tea and a soft goat cheese. He is merry, ready to talk. I am less willing, though I politely carry on a conversation. Thankfully, he begins to tell me a long story of unicorns found in the forest near Bree, so I am required to do nothing more than listen. It is an amusing tale. Soon, I find myself measurably happier.
After breakfast Gandalf takes his leave. Before stepping out of my threshold, he inclines his head to me.
"Thank you, Calahdiel Honeywell. I know my presence was unexpected, though, I hope, not completely disrespectful. I simply hoped to see the daughter of an old friend." He pauses, seeming to hesitate. "I know the memories are, perhaps, not particularly happy ones for you. But you father is a good fellow –"
"There was no harm, Gandalf. I welcome you to come again, and I wish you well in your audience with the king." The words are sincere. Despite the odd situation, I find that I do rather enjoy the old man.
He smiles, eyes crinkling in the corners. "As do I. Keep in good health."
"And you as well."
With that he departs. I watch from the doorway until the gloom of the forest swallows him. Then, I turn back inside, back to my chores.
Some darkness summoned the meeting of kings. Thranduil peered around the table to see Elves, Men, and Dwarves alike, conferring quietly as they waited for the meeting to start. The birth of a new alliance was taking place. He was not sure that he liked it, but the elves of Greenwood did not have to like such an arrangement to take part in it, as his father had said. This alliance would be more than beneficial – it would save their lives, save Arda. If the rumors around Sauron and Mordor were true, to ignore such an offer of friendship would be foolish….
Though they sat near Lord Elrond, Gil-galad, and Celeborn, Thranduil made no effort to speak to them. He left the politics to his father, preferring to instead observe the room. Reports are given, promises and trades made. In the end, all leave a touch more aware of the looming threat of war on the horizon.
The very same threat the wizard Gandalf had warned them of, only a few months ago. As he sits at the table, silent, his fist clench, thinking back to when the Grey Wizard stood in their hall, appealing to their court to meet with the other leaders of the realm. He'd traveled throughout Arda, beseeching the kingdoms come together. He'd not been happen to see hear the Wizard's news, but he'd taken his advice, and accompanied Oropher to the meeting of all the kingdoms.
"What think you of the progress today?" Oropher asks his son as they ride for the Greenwood.
Thranduil takes his time in answering. Tightening his grip on his reigns, he answers impassively, "What was needed to be said was said. All we may do now is wait. Train our men. Forge more weapons."
Oropher nods. "If we do not ride to war before the year is out I shall be surprised. Though, not disappointed. We must ready the forest. I have no doubt that there is an approaching threat from the south. We may have to ask those beyond the palace boarders to join us for their own safety."
The thought of asking the rural, woodiest of wood elves into their home is unappealing. Despite the distance that will inevitably be placed between, the prince still crinkles his nose at the thought. Those that live outside of their direct protection are fiercely independent, wild elves. Some might say uncivilized. They lived beyond the straight rule of the Greenwood throne for a reason, that reason usually being a wish for seclusion, a dislike of court event, nobles, or simply regulation.
"We shall do what we must," Thranduil answers diplomatically. "I would take no pleasure in moving any of our people from their home, but if the situation calls for it, I should not hesitate."
"It will be a good time off," his father agrees. "Will you be riding forth with me to Dagorlad, should we be asked to go?"
"Of course. I should not dream of doing otherwise. I will command by your side, always."
"You shall command by my side until I no longer have a side," Oropher smiles.
"May that never be, my lord."
"I know you would be most bereft without your father."
"Myself and the wood. I do not know what I might do without your council." Thranduil looks to his father in all seriously. "I do not know how I might be king without your guide."
"Do not say that," the king scolds sternly. "I have done all that I can to see that you could carry on without me should the need arise. You will be a good king, Thranduil."
"All forbid that I should be."
"Yet you might very well be. Welcome the crown, Thranduil, should it come to you."
The prince does not answer. They ride on, passing through the tall, antler-like gates of the Greenwood forest. Once they are within the wood, both men feel their hearts calm significantly. For the duration of the ride, the prince lets all thoughts of war fade from his mind.
I promised I'd have a LOTR piece out soon! This is my first one – I fell in love with the movies after Desolation of Smaug.
Please let me know what you think! I've done as much research as possible, with a little tweaking. Please let me know if something is off! Questions, comments, critiques, concerns, I try to answer them all!