OF ELFLINGS AND MICE
Disclaimer: The characters, the context and the main plot belong to Professor Tolkien, whom I greatly admire. I'm only trying to fill in the gaps he so graciously left for us, fanfic writers, to have some fun. However, the extended family of Legolas and the individual Mirkwood Elves belong to me.
This is a funny little story about an ordinary day in Greenwood the Great. We are in the Second Age, way before the Last Alliance, and the King of the Wood is still Oropher, not Thranduil. Also, they do not live in Northern Mirkwood yet, where Thranduil's palace would stand one day, but somewhere beyond the Gladden Fields. According to "The Unfinished Tales," Oropher had withdrawn there to be free from the power and encroachments of the Dwarves of Moria. Also, he resented the intrusions of Celeborn and Galadriel into Lórien, despite the fact that he was related to Celeborn (in my stories they are first-grade cousins).
The relative ages of the elflings in this story (I'm miserable at math plus I have a different idea about Elven aging process than the Great Professor) is as follows: Legolas is about six, the female elfling Mírenin twelve and little Rhimlath five. Compared with mortal children, of course. Actually, both Mírenin and Rhimlath have been modeled after two young students of mine.
My sincerest thanks go to Cirdan for beta-reading. :)
Dedication: for Erunyauve, who is responsible for putting this particular plotcritter into my head and provided me with most of the Elven names. Below you can see her review to one of my "Silvan poems" and the stanza she was referring to. Plotcritters, by the way, are like plotbunnies – just a lot more insistent. g
"The 'sleepy mice' are still my favorite part – somehow I imagine the elves being rather tolerant of the mice. I can just see the little elflings dropping walnuts for the mice, while the cook's back is turned."
The sleepy mice are nibbling,
the fallen walnuts are rolling
around the pantry-corner.
And now on with the story, before the introduction gets longer than the whole thing!
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *OF ELFLINGS AND MICE
[Eryn Galen, on the 8th day of narbeleth, in the year 3280 of the Second Age](1)
Narbeleth had begun again, and the Silvan folk of Greenwood the Great were eagerly preparing themselves for the upcoming festival of the fading season, the peak of which always was the annual Twilight Dance. The custom itself was of Avarin origin, but Oropher, King of the Greenwood, embraced the traditions of his subjects fully, leaving his times as a Sindarin prince of Doriath behind and becoming a woodland King willingly.
For, unlike his kinsman Celeborn, he had no desire to leave Middle-earth, nor to be merged with the other Sindar of Beleriand that now lay buried under the dark waters of the Sea. Those were ruled by the Noldorin Exiles, for whom the folk of Doriath had no great love, and Oropher could never understand how Celeborn could have forsaken their own people and bound himself to the Lady Galadriel. He and the few Sindar that followed him from Doriath wished to become Silvan folk and to return to the simple life natural to the Elves before the call of the Valar had disturbed it.
The people of the Greenwood, many of whom were descended from the Avari who never left their deep forests, cared little for the Valar. Only two did they hold in high esteem: Oromë the Hunter, whom they called Aldaron, Lord of the Forests, and even more Yavanna, whom they sometimes called Ivanneth in the Grey Tongue, but mostly by her old name, Palúrien, the Giver of Fruits. For though they spoke in awe and respect about Varda, the maker of the stars that they loved, she seemed cold and distant in their eyes.
But Palúrien they saw incarnated in every tree of the forest, and thus all trees were holy and beloved for them, a sign of her love and protection. And the Elders of the Dark Elves – the Faithful, as they called themselves – told wondrous tales about the Earth-lady in starlit nights, when the feasting folk sat around the fires and the little elflings listened enraptured, with their eyes big and round like Arda itself. Tales about how Palúrien came to Middle-earth when all the other Valar had forgotten about these lands, weeping over the growth that was stopped in the darkness. How she begged for light for these forsaken fields that were at the mercy of the Great Enemy. How she sang to the great trees under the newborn stars. How she taught the Quendi to grow the corn of which lembas could be made – a corn that grow in starlight and needed no sun.
Therefore the Twilight Dance was devoted to Palúrien, and its function was to put the Earth to sleep for the long winter season, so that it would awake in new vigour at the stirring time. It was performed by the Ivonwin(2), the chosen maidens of the Earth-lady, whose duty and privilege it was to grow the precious corn and make the lembas.
The leader of the Ivonwin was Celebwen, the only female grandchild of King Oropher, and the only one of his grandchildren who inherited his silver hair. For this, the King loved her dearly, even though she often seemed as cold and distant as Varda's stars (while doubtlessly as beautiful, too), and that made it difficult to become close with her.
The other children of Thranduil looked very much like their mother, save little Legolas, who took after Elmö's line as far as one could tell – he still was a very young elfling. Lady Lálisin came from a very ancient family of the Faithful – she was the granddaughter of Nurwë who was called King of the Dark-Elves – and had green eyes and auburn hair that changed its colour with the changing of the seasons. Right now, shortly after the passing of iavas(3), she and her four sons were almost red-haired – and so was the majority of the Silvan folk, who shared this feature with their Avarin cousins. Thranduil and his sister Nelladel, who got the rich, honey-blond hair of their late mother, shone like beacon fires among their subjects.
Putting down his harp, King Oropher stepped out of his study onto the balcony of his treehouse(4) and looked down to the Place of Festivals where the Ivonwin were gathering to practice for the Twilight Dance. Custom demanded that they wore silver-hued gowns and dark veils for it, and in the deepening dusk they looked like silver spirits – like the faeri of the forest, the most beloved (and a little feared) creatures of many bedtime stories told to Silvan children.
Even without music, their dance was enchanting. Their slender arms swayed like tree-branches, their bare feet did not make even the slightest noise. Dark and silver clothes swirled like shadows chasing the moon-rays in the night, eyes shone brighter than the stars. And the brightest of all, the most quick and graceful was Celebwen, the Silver-maiden, with her long, gleaming hair of pure starlight.
"She is beautiful, is she not?" a soft voice asked, and Orchal, third-born son of Thranduil, joined his royal grandfather on the balcony. "She has more of you than the rest of us together."
"Alas! She has more than that," Oropher replied a little sadly. "She alone from our whole family does feel the Sea-longing in her heart. One day, the call of the Sea will be too strong, and she will have no other choice but to leave – or fade away."
The blue eyes of Orchal – the only family treat of his father that he inherited – darkened in sorrow.
"Do you hear the call, Grandsire?" he asked. Oropher shook his head.
"Nay… and never did any one from our line. We might have dwelt in Doriath with Thingol and Melian, yet deep in our hearts we always have been of the Faithful. But the Sea-longing lingers in the heart of all Elves, and it can awake without warning. And if it does, not even a Wood-Elf would find peace under the trees of Palúrien any more."
Orchal let his gaze sweep over the majestic trees of his home and frowned.
"I wish not to leave these lands. Ever."
"In that case you should guard your heart carefully," Oropher advised; then he smiled fondly at the young Elf. "What ails you, grandson mine? You should be full of joy. Tomorrow you finally reach the threshold of adulthood – 'tis the greatest feast of a young Elf in his whole life. Are you anxious to face your First Choice?"
"Nay, for I have already made my choice some time ago," replied Orchal, "so 'tis no concern of mine. I was looking for Legolas. Our little leaf has managed to escape his nursemaid once again, and I thought he might hide in your study, nagging you for stories about Doriath… or about our First City."
"I have not seen him all day," it was the King's turn to frown now. Ever since Legolas nearly got eaten by a Warg on his first hunt, the whole family (and every member of the court) was anxious to know of his whereabouts all the time. Unfortunately, this was not an easy thing, as Legolas developed new skills almost every day to vanish from the worrying eyes.
We should be thankful that he has not turned into a frightened little creature after nearly being torn to pieces, the King thought. That little one has a warrior's heart, for certain.
Out loud he asked: "Have you looked in the kitchens? Or in the pantries?"
"Nana(5) sent Lady Elulin to look there," said Orchal. The name of Galion's daughter rang a bell in Oropher's head.
"Was Mírenin with her mother?" Orchal shook his head. The King smiled. "Then they are plotting something together… and I am certain that little Rhimlath is with them, too. Look for Rhimlath; that child is not good at hiding. He will lead you to your brother."
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Legolas, the youngest twig on the royal tree of Eryn Galen, shared his grandfather's view about their little companion. Rhimlath was a nuisance – a clumsy child with a high-pitched voice that gave them away in the moment he opened his mouth (and he rarely kept it shut), with skin as pale and translucent as a wraith's (not that Legolas had ever seen a wraith, but he was sure they would look just like Rhimlath) and an unruly mop of ash-blond hair that stood out of every crowd of Silvan children. Adding to that a slightly upturned nose (like a Dwarf's) and big, round hazel eyes, Rhimlath quite simply was an embarrassment.
Unfortunately, he also was the only son of Master Bowman Nínnagor, the captain of the King's archers and his wife, Silinde, a fierce warrior herself, and a good friend of Legolas' mother. And no matter how much Legolas protested, Lady Lálisin insisted that he kept Rhimlath with him.
"He has no older siblings who would protect him," his mother said sternly. "You are the grandson of the King, and you want to become a warrior – then learn to behave like one. Protecting the weak is the duty of a warrior."
Thus Legolas accepted with gritted teeth that the annoying toddler (as he secretly called Rhimlath) was from now on his responsibility. His adventurous first hunt had made him respected among the other elflings, even those who were considerably older than he, for who else could say of himself that he was almost eaten by a real Warg and nearly died? He could have had friends among the youngsters who were allowed to serve as messengers under the stern hand of Master Alagos – but no, he was stuck with that little imp who could do naught else but look at him with big, admiring eyes and babble.
Fortunately, Mírenin was fond of the little one, or else no amount of motherly strength could have made Legolas tolerate him. The granddaughter of Galion was twice Legolas' age right now: tall and slender already for her young age, her hip-long, smooth hair always several shades lighter than that of the other Silvan children, and she had the broad cheekbones and the slightly slanted, leaf-green eyes of her Avarin grandmother. She was also reasonably good with the bow and the knife and learned herb-lore with great interest.
These skills alone impressed Legolas to no end, but beyond all that Mírenin was an adventurous spirit and curious like a cat. She was the one to climb every tree and to crawl into every hole, and Legolas followed her enthusiastically. Mírenin knew ways to talk to the birds and the beasts, aye, even to the trees, and taught Legolas willingly. Of course, Lady Lálisin possessed all those skills – and much more – as well, but she was careful not to teach her little son aught that might be beyond his understanding. Mírenin had no such concerns.
This time though, surprisingly, Rhimlath was the one who found them the new adventure, as he was the only child whom the chief cook of the King – not particularly fond of elflings tumbling under foot in his kitchen – allowed to be around. For Rhimlath could be as quiet as a mouse if he wanted, and not even Master Aeschín could resist his pale, innocent face when he looked up with those big, trusting hazel eyes.
Mírenin and Legolas were sitting in their own little treehouse (made with the help of Legolas' elder brothers), high up on the top of a young beech were most adults would not risk following them, fletching arrows and plotting for the upcoming feast, when Rhimlath came, climbing swiftly like a squirrel, his pointed little face flushed with excitement.
"I saw them! I saw them!" he squeaked before even reaching the talan. Legolas rolled his eyes.
"Calm down, Rhimlath! Whom did you see?"
"The mice!" Rhimlath answered in surprise, as if they should have known already what he was speaking of. And indeed, they knew. For weeks have they tried to catch a glimpse of the tiny and very shy forest mice that were said to live in some corner of the pantries, but – unlike other children – had had no luck thus far. It had become some sort of competition among the elflings of Emyn Duir to watch the mice through the windows of the pantries, which was not without risk, for Master Aeschín could get really… loud when he caught them.
"Where did you see them?" asked Mírenin enviously. She had the secret plan to lure the mice out of their hiding place and make a nest for them somewhere.
"I was in the bakery, helping Master Rodwen," answered Rhimlath proudly. "She allowed me to grind the walnuts for the sweetmeats." This earned him jealous looks from the other two; every elfling wished to help in the bakery – and receive the tasty treats afterwards – but Rodwen, the King's bread-maker only allowed it before the great feasts. And all too often she chose Rhimlath of all children! It was simply not fair!(6)
"When I was done, she sent me over to the pantries to fetch some more walnuts," Rhimlath continued, enjoying the attention, "and there I saw the mice, chasing each other on the floor. They were so small," he showed his own little thumb, "and had long tails and tiny feet."
"All mice have long tails and tiny feet," said Legolas dismissively; he was angry that Rhimlath beat him in seeing the mice. "You are lying."
"Am not!" Rhimlath's face became bright read from anger. "I saw them!"
"Scream not so!" Mírenin covered her ears, shuddering. "Now that we know in which pantry they are, we shall go to see them ourselves. Then you can prove that you were right. But we must find some walnuts first."
"Why?" asked Rhimlath. Mírenin grinned.
"Master Rodwen keeps the walnuts in earthenware pots, so that the mice cannot get them. We will get the walnuts for the mice, and so they will come out of their holes and straight to us."
"But… but for that we have to go through the kitchens!" Rhimlath protested.
"Nay… you must go through the kitchens," corrected Mírenin, "and keep Master Aeschín busy while we get into the pantry through the back window."
"But… but I want to see the mice, too!" Rhimlath's eyes began filling with tears.
"You will," promised Mírenin. "We shall get them out of the pantry and find a good place for them – then you can play with them as much as you want."
Rhimlath still seemed a little doubtful, but he dared not to speak up to Mírenin. With a miserable nod, he accepted his fate.
"Where do we take the mice?" Legolas asked. "I think not that my parents, or yours, for that matter, would like to have them in the house. And they need to be warm and well-fed for hrív(7), or they will die."
"I know that," Mírenin replied indignantly. "But there is that old pantry that Master Aeschín uses no more. There we make them a nest, feed them and play with them all we want."
"That old pantry has a door from the outside," said Legolas, realizing the stunning cleverness of Mírenin's plan. "We can get there without going through the kitchens, any time!"
"Yea, we can," nodded Mírenin, proud of herself, and she gave the reluctant Rhimlath a little nudge. "Off with you, little imp! We need to move!"
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Following the advice of his grandfather, Orchal began asking after little Rhimlath among the servants of the court. At first he had little luck, 'til he run into old Galion, the seneschal of the King, who was returning from the wine cellars, where he had prepared a proper vintage for the feast of the following day.
"I know not where he can be now," said the ancient Elf, "but in the morn he was helping Master Rodwen in the bakery."
Orchal thanked the old Elf and crossed the enclosure formed by the huge oaks and beeches that bore the tree houses of his grandfather's court. Called the Place of Festivals, it was wide enough to give room for the whole tree city of Lasgalen as the seat of Oropher was called – which was no little thing, for in several widening rings around the Place there were hundreds of tree houses among the strong, safe branches, with as many families living in them. The folk of the Greenwood kept the old ways, unlike their Nandor cousins, and that proved to be an advantage whenever they had been forced to retreat from the Dark One's armies – which had happened twice so far, in Orchal's life alone.
Tree houses were easy to remove, and they could be taken apart, loaded onto pack animals and taken away with the other belongings of the people. Only the buildings on ground had to be built anew: the kitchens and laundries and bathing houses. For though they had their iron heaters filled with charcoal for their rooms, to keep them warm in the winter, they dared not to make open fire on the treetops.
The royal kitchens, which also provided food for the whole court, stood at the northern side of the enclosure, for this arrangement made it easy for the cooks and servants to have the food brought to the guests quickly and easily during the great feasts. They were all in the same long, low wooden house that had a wide, open veranda on its front, where the meals were served while the weather was warm enough to eat outdoors, and from where the various rooms could be accessed. Namely: the main kitchen on the west side, that was the realm of Master Aeschín, the bakery on the east side, that was ruled by Master Rodwen, and – first and foremost – the Great Hall itself, where the royal family and the members of the court had their meals when the weather was unpleasant. This was also the meeting place of the King's Council.
Orchal went straight to the east wing of the U-shaped house, and found Master Rodwen and her helpers busily kneading the dough for the raisin bread that was only served on the greatest feasts, for raisins were hard to get here and had to be used sparsely. His mouth was watering from the mere thought of raisin bread – not to mention from the sweat scent of it – but he knew better than ask for a sample of the freshly baked, damping loafs that were cooling on their wooden shelves.
"He was here all the morning," Rodwen said when asked after Rhimlath, "but then he run off to his friends, shortly after the midday meal."
"I believe I saw him sneaking into the main kitchen, not so long ago," one of her helpers, a dark-haired Silvan maiden whose name Orchal could not remember at the moment, added, looking up from her work.
Orchal thanked her – she blushed a little, for she was new at the court and not yet used to the King's grandsons simply walking in at any given time – and went over to the main kitchen, finding the cooks and kitchen-boys just as busy as the as the women in the bakery had been. Aside of preparing the evening meal, some of them were already making preparations for next day's big feast. The young prince soon detected his own father, wearing a long apron, pickling the meat for his famous wild boar hunch. Thranduil was a very talented cook and enjoyed working in the kitchen at the rare occasions he could escape from his duties.
Mayhap Legolas inherited the escaping from Ada, thought Orchal amused, and looked around if he could see somewhere Rhimlath. A moment later he detected that ever-tousled, ash-blond mop, and he watched grinning the little imp who stood before Master Aeschín, his pointy chin barely reaching the height of the kitchen table, and looked up at the head cook with big, round, trusting eyes, seemingly soaking up his every word.
Oh, they are definitely plotting something, Orchal thought, knowing well that Rhimlath never gazed at any adult with such innocent admiration, unless he was covering up for Mírenin and Legolas. Well, this time he made the innocent act in vain…
"Here you are, little one!" the prince said cheerfully, swinging up the small elfling into his arms. "Forgive me, Master Aeschín, but I have been looking for him for quite some time. I believe he is being sorely missed at home."
After his first shriek of surprise, Rhimlath went very still in the prince's arms. Suspiciously still, Orchal thought, having expected the usual kicking and screaming protests – Rhimlath hated being swept off his feet. Something was up, there could be no doubt about that.
"Take him, if you want," the head cook grumbled, returning to his work. "He has been under foot long enough."
Orchal thanked him and – giving his father a wink that earned him a wide grin in return – took the child out to the veranda.
"So, Rhimlath," he said gravely, keeping the little imp at eye level, "would you tell me where Legolas might be?"
Rhimlath knew he was in serious trouble but tried an almost convincingly hurt look nevertheless.
"I know not," he replied petulantly. "Last time I saw him he was in our tree house with Mírenin." Which was the truth – more or less.
"They are not there now," said Orchal patiently. "Where could they be?"
Rhimlath gulped audibly and blinked in despair. Ai, how he wished for a good answer right now! Unfortunately, he was unable to come up with one that would be no lie, but would not betray his friends, either – which was the very reason why Mírenin and Legolas hated to tell him any secrets. So he chose the way of the stubborn and pressed his small mouth together to a thin, bloodless line, so hard that his chin nearly cramped.
That would have worked with Princess Celebwen, mayhap, who had little patience for the silent treatment, but his bad luck sent Prince Orchal in his way today, who could out-stare the most stubborn elfling of the woodland realm. Rhimlath knew all too well that he had no chance against Legolas' youngest brother – not even Legolas himself had, ever! – thus after some nervous fidgeting he sighed deeply and gave up.
"They are in the old pantry. With… with the mice…" he admitted miserably.
Orchal was still young enough to know how much that confession cost the child.
"With the mice?" he asked, interested. "Now that is something I would love to see. What about you?"
Rhimlath stared at him unbelievingly, torn between misery and hope. Could it truly be that he would get to see the mice, after all? Without a word, he nodded eagerly. Several times.
"Come on, then," said Orchal in a conspirator tone, "we must be very, very quiet. We want them not to hear us, do we?"
Still carrying the feather-light elfling in his arm – for Rhimlath could have changed his mind and run away in a moment – he tiptoed around the whole house, ducking from anyone's view though the windows, 'til he reached that of the old pantry, where only some dishes were kept that the cooks rarely used. He lifted Rhimlath, so that they both could peer through the window – and smiled.
Mírenin and Legolas were kneeling on the floor, their eyes wide with excitement. Two forest mice, barely longer than four inches, their moss-green coat already turning grey for the winter, were sitting on their little bums in safe distance from the elflings, holding whole walnut kernels almost as big as their own heads in their tiny paws, nibbling with great concentration. They had small, round black eyes like tiny buttons, and their noses moved in the rhythm of their nibbling.
"Oooooooh!" whispered Rhimlath in awe. "They have come forth…"
Orchal could not bear the sadness in that little voice. He knew that Legolas found the younger boy annoying, but that was no excuse for sending Rhimlath into the kitchens to cover up for them while they were having fun. Slowly, very slowly, the prince opened the pantry door and slipped in, Rhimlath still in his arms. All those years spent tracking in the wilderness finally paid out.
"Have you forgotten your friend, youngest prince of Lasgalen?" he asked in a low voice, so that he would not startle the little animals – birds and beasts usually feared no Elven voices, unless these were loud.
The two elflings nearly jumped in surprise. Legolas looked up to his brother, feeling guilty and betrayed at the same time. He tried to find a good answer but failed, so he only shook his head, a little ashamed. Avoiding all sudden movements, Orchal lowered himself onto his side and finally let Rhimlath go.
"He seemed to believe that you have," he commented softly, and watched as Rhimlath kneeled and reached out a small and rather dirty hand towards the mice.
One of them stopped eating and looked at the newcomer with bright eyes. Then, obviously deciding that Rhimlath was no threat, it continued the important task at hand… or paw. Rhimlath, forgetting his hurt feelings, eased a little closer, 'til he could almost reach the mouse, laying his hand with upturned palm onto the floor. The mouse looked at him again, sniffled for a moment – then quickly as lightning it leapt into the proffered little hand, curled up comfortably in Rhimlath's warm and soft palm and set forth his nibbling.
"But it seems that the mice have not," Orchal added, watching the pure joy that shone upon the child's little face. Legolas felt the heat of shame colouring his own face.
"Nor will I again," he answered quietly. "I promise."
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
(1) Narbeleth is the equivalent of our October. I chose the year because it was a period of relative peace for Middle-earth, as Sauron dwelt in Númenor with King Ar-Pharazôn, nominally as his prisoner.
(2) Yavannildi in Quenya = maidens of Yavanna.
(3) Autumn (Sindarin).
(4) It was not until the early Third Age that Thranduil sought refuge in the deep caverns at the Forest River. I imagined that in their old home they lived in a more Silvan fashion. The Silvan folk of the Greenwood was related to the people of Lórien and migrated slowly northwards in the early Second Age.
(5) Mom (Sindarin). Abbreviation from Naneth (mother).
(6) According to Tolkien, Elven men usually did the cooking, while bread-making was the appointed work of the women. So I gave Oropher a male head cook and a female baker. Aeschín means "food master", by the way.
(7) Winter (Sindarin).
Thanks those who pointed out the mistakes to me. Hopefully, they are corrected now. I might have mixed up the meaning of Palúrien's name, but honestly, I can live with that. I can always imagine that the Wood-Elves used all of her older names as they came. shrugs