A Princeling Lost
For rabidsamfan, April 22, 2005
Ithilien, Summer 1428
The nanny stormed out of the nursery with fluttering skirts, her face a study of surprised anger and more than a hint of horror.
"Elboron? For pity's sake, where are you, lad?"
Said lad was barely 20 meters away from her, well hidden behind a pillar. He wore soft, light cotton breeches, suede boots and a loose shirt with rolled-up sleeves. He had inherited the deep gray eyes of his father and his regular face, the beautiful bone structure still partly hidden behind the last remnants of baby fat, but his hair wasn't ebony dark but blonde instead, like pale flax. His father called it the Mane of Rohan (which never failed to make his wife and son laugh), but right now the latest offspring from a long, noble line of gondorean stewards was in a rather gloomy mood.
The King was about to visit the court of Ithilien, and the women (including his nanny) were in a state of emergency for days now. Elboron had taken the chance and gone in the run when he found out that he was threatened with bathing and combing and being stuffed into fine, tailored garments made of velvet (the try-on alone had been an ordeal for both sides). He thought the tight breeches, the silk shirt and the richly embroidered jerkin to be very uncomfortable and decidedly unmanly. His mother, the White Lady, wife of the Prince of Ithilien, had tried to comfort him with the prospect of a long ride with her after the King had returned to Minas Tirith, but Elboron had no intention of waiting for such a late reward… not if the price to pay was so high.
He sneaked down to the main entrance; the entrance hall stretched before him in its midday-silent glory, the white marble floor sprinkled with rainbows from the clear summer sunlight streaming in through the colored glass windows. Freedom was near… but then he saw the two patrolling men in the green garb of his father's guards, and he stifled a curse between his teeth (which would have made his nanny faint had she known that her seven-year-old fosterling had picked it up in the kitchen and that he actually knew how to use it).
Suddenly he heard steps coming near from somewhere down the hallway, and voices of at least three people talking to each other. If he stayed where he was he would be caught within minutes, surrendered to a fate worse than death. His thoughts tumbled in his head, but then the slender body relaxed and a smile curled the corner's of Elboron's mouth. With fast, soundless steps he slid around the corner into a rarely used side corridor, deeply thankful for his soft-soled boots, and was gone.
"Prince Faramir, I don't know what to say…!"
The voice of the nanny was trembling: the poor woman was dangerously close to leave off herself in a flood of tears.
"When did you see Elboron the last time?"
That was Éowyn; she was already dressed to welcome the King; shining silk flowed down from her shoulders to her feet, held around her slender waist with a belt made of delicately chased golden chain-links, shaped like water lily leaves. Her hair fell down her back without a clasp or hair band, crowned by a slender diadem of pale blue gems. She looked lovely and despite the summer heat fresh like a font of cool water, and her husband found it rather difficult to tear his gaze away from her and to get back to the more urgent problem which troubled them right now.
"The guards told me that he didn't leave through the main entrance; but there are two smaller doors to the East and the West, one of them barely more than a narrow, hidden gate. He may well have taken this one to escape." Faramir said thoughtfully.
"Escape from what kind of enemy?" Éowyn asked, only the tiniest hint of sharpness in her voice. "What might threaten him in his own home, under the eye of his parents?"
The Prince of Ithilien grinned.
"That's not too difficult, I suppose." he said; he walked over to the bed of his son and lifted the richly embroidered jerkin that lay there, neatly spread on the counterpane. He turned to the nanny who meanwhile hid her face behind an enormous white handkerchief.
"What did he say when you told him to dress up with this?" he asked.
"He…" The nanny sniffled. "He said before he'd wear this he would prefer to have twenty elvish lessons with Master Olorhel."
"Aha." Faramir heard the snort from the direction of his wife, stifled just in time, and he blessed the fact that said teacher of his son wasn't present in the room. Master Olorhel was a well of knowledge concerning both elven languages, Quenya and Sindarin, but he was not very skilled to make the subject matter interesting for his young student. Elboron called him a bleak old bore, and Faramir couldn't help secretly agreeing with him. He didn't dare to meet Éowyn's gaze.
He was saved by a guard who entered the room with fast steps. The man bowed shortly.
"I was in the stables, my Lord." he said. "His pony is missing."
"The he might be anywhere." he said. "It is nearly impossible to find him in time. We have to ride down to the landing stage now… the King will arrive any moment."
He would have a long conversation with his son and heir this evening. A very long conversation.
Elboron was two miles away from the residence now and very proud of his deftness. Nobody had seen him when he sneaked into the stables and guided Thistle out, and now he was safe (and he did his best to ignore the thought of the consequences and what his father would say when they met again).
He rode through a small forest now, enjoying the green shadows shielding him from the heat. The Anduin was close… he could hear the river flow, not roaring and untamed as in spring when the melting water from far away mountains made it swell and sometimes rise over the banks, but quiet and steady. He could swim since he was five; his father had taught it to him and since then it was one of his most cherished joys of summer. Sometimes his mother called him my little fish… and again he felt a short pang of guilt. She would probably be not very pleased by his sudden disappearance.
The trees opened to a wide clearing; at the far end there stood a house, built of stone and wood, roofed with cedar shingles. A garden spread in the rear… large beds with herbs, rosemary and sage, melissa, lady's mantle and lavender, filling the warm air with their intense scent. A stable and a shed dreamed in the summer sun; the shed was obviously the newest building, and it had big glass windows to the south and the west, which was rather unusual.
Elboron dismounted from his pony and looped the reins around the sturdy branch of a beech. He stepped out into the sunlight and had halfway crossed the clearing when suddenly the door of the house was opened. The boy heard a whistle and then a female voice; he gazed around for a place to hide and then hurried over to the shed; luckily the door wasn't locked, and he slipped inside.
A woman came out of the house, a big, storm-gray dog beside her. The dog whined, then he started to bark joyfully. He ran over to the shed and sniffled at the door, his tail wagging with excitement.
"Ah… do we have a visitor?" the woman asked. "Quiet, lad, quiet now. Come here." She had a warm and friendly voice, hiding a smile. Her hair was long and copper red, tamed to a thick braid. The skin of her clear face was barely tanned, she had green eyes and a full mouth. The belly under her loose, sleeveless gown with a deep neckline was visibly rounded; the woman absently rubbed her back while she watched the dog that finally gave up his exploration, came back to her and pushed his cool, damp nose into her hand.
"That's a good lad." she said. "Shall we have a look who's in there, hm?" She laughed under her breath. "But you'll stay outside, or you will get between my pots and mess around with my medicine powders again."
The woman walked over to the shed, but before she could open the door, she heard the dimmed sound of hooves on the soft ground. She turned around and saw a big sorrel appearing between the trees. A man sat in on its back, tall and dark-haired. Their eyes met and a smile spread on both faces.
"That was a rather short patrol, wasn't it?" the woman said. The man swung out of the saddle and embraced her, burying his face in her hair and inhaling the familiar scent of herbs that constantly surrounded her like a spicy cloud... witness of her work as the Healer of Ithilien for nearly eight years now.
"Yes, love." he said. "The residence is in an uproar. The King has arrived half an hour ago, and apparently Elboron has vanished without a trace right before he came. Lord Faramir is rather worried."
"Worried --- or angry?"
The woman smiled, took his face in both hands and kissed him. He returned the kiss, holding her even closer before he suddenly stepped back, a hint of trouble in his eyes. His gaze wandered down to her rounded waist.
"Are you well, dear? Perhaps I should be more careful…"
The woman sighed with a mixture of humor and despair.
"Listen", Her voice was patient. "It will take nearly six more weeks until the child is born. Last month we were in Minas Tirith, and I'm still perfectly well. I am healthy, love, and the child is, too."
" I know." the man said, slowly stroking her cheek. "It is only… we have been waiting for so long." He laughed softly. "Maybe I still don't really dare to believe it. After all it is a miracle that you are here with me."
The woman caught the hand on her cheek and kissed the palm.
He was right. It was a miracle… a miracle to feel the familiar body close to her every morning, knowing that he woke up before her, waiting for the moment when she opened her eyes. Feeling his mouth on her lips and his hands in her hair when she turned around into his open arms. It had taken him nearly four years before he stopped startling in the middle of the night, shaken by the fear that she might have disappeared again.
Suddenly she narrowed her eyes.
"Wait, love… what did you say a moment ago?"
The man frowned.
"Hm… that I should be more careful?"
"Before… ah. I told you that the residence is in an uproar because Young Elboron has miraculously disappeared. And that the King has arrived."
"Good Gracious – I should change my dress! Lady Éowyn told me that the King wishes to visit my herb garden after midday, and I simply forgot it! Nobody should see me in this old potato sack – strictly speaking not even you." She blew her husband a kiss and hurried in the direction of the house, as fast as her heavy body allowed it.
"You are beautiful." he said, giving her a fiery gaze.
"And you are blind." she retorted. "Right now I look like a Mûmak." She came back to him and made a tiny, nearly invisible gesture towards the shed. "By the way - if I'm not totally mistaken and if Garaf hasn't lost his fabulous sense of smell, you can find our lost princeling in there. You should look for Thistle; I think Elboron has left her somewhere in the woods nearby."
A slow grin spread on the face of the ranger; he followed her with his eyes until she disappeared in the house, then he strolled over to the shed, whistling softly under his breath.
One hour later the ranger's wife was back in the gardens again, this time properly dressed it a light, yellow gown, the fine fabric protected by a huge apron. She stripped blossoms into a small bowl when she heard her long awaited visitor approaching; a tall man, his dark hair shot with fine silver threads, his face still young. He didn't wear the usual regalia of his royalty, and breeches and skirt were of an illusive simplicity. But she placed the bowl on the ground, gave him a heartfelt smile and curtsied deeply.
"Your Majesty… I am happy to see you, and honored."
"And I am happy to see you, Noerwen of Ithilien." the King replied blithely. "You shouldn't bend down in your condition."
"Oh, please don't." The woman shook her head. "I keep telling my husband that I feel fine. And I didn't manage to collect all the lavender blossoms after the first dew this morning. It's easy work."
The King pulled something out from under his light summer cloak.
"I am sure you already waited for this." Noerwen gazed down in wonder at what he was holding in his hands… a small volume, bound in soft, thin leather of a creamy white. She saw rosemary and thyme and willow twigs, entwining to a pattern on the cover, and she took the volume and pressed it against her heart.
When she looked up, laughter was dancing in her eyes.
"So you finally managed to get Mardil to sort his notes, my Lord?" she asked, and the King shook his head.
"No, not I, for this would take more than the patience and skills of a king." he said, and a grin curled his lips. "It was one of my young scribes, Elwin, who managed this miracle. He told me that he had no problems with your texts and images, but Mardil constantly lost either notes or sketches, or he tried to make changes in the last minute, and he nearly drove him insane."
Noerwen opened the small book and read the title: Herbs for Healing in Northern Gondor and Ithilien. She flipped cautiously through the pages, catching a glimpse of a recipe here and an accurately drawn leaf there, and when she closed it again, her eyes were shining. She curtsied again, took Aragorn's hand and kissed it.
"Thank you, my Lord." she said. "Now I have only one favor to ask; if you could stretch your grace and the patience of your scribe once more and ask him for another copy. I promised Merry to send him one if we ever got this finished. He's working at a book of Shire herb lore, and he will surely find this very interesting."
The King raised one eyebrow.
"You are in contact with Merry?"
"Yes, I am." Noerwen raised her chin. "I met him after the battle on the Pellenor fields, and we became friends. And since I… since I came back, I started writing letters to him, and he answered them. It is a rather lively exchange meanwhile."
"Has he any idea what happened during those two years in between?" the King asked, his brow slightly furrowed.
"He has indeed." Noerwen replied, her gaze very open. "He already asked many questions before I was forced to return… home… and I thought I owed him the truth. He was surprised, but not too shocked."
"Was he?" The King shook his head. "Interesting. But I should already know that hobbits are of a sturdy kind."
The book was placed in Noerwen's big basket, carefully wrapped in her apron. Steps approached, and when the Healer peered over Aragorn's shoulder, she saw the Prince of Ithilien and the White Lady coming out of the woods. Both looked concerned.
"My Lord Faramir… Lady Éowyn", she said, "I heard Elboron disappeared this morning. He is still missing, isn't he?"
" Yes, he is." Éowyn answered, visibly nervous.
"Then I'm perhaps able to ease your heart, my Lady." Noerwen said. "Just a moment." She turned to the house. „Damrod?"
The back door opened, and her husband appeared on the threshold. He stepped aside, and then a small figure stood in the doorframe.
"Elboron!" The voices of Faramir and Éowyn in a disbelieving unison.
The lad walked the few meters down to the gardens, upright and with slow steps, like a doomed man on the way to his execution. The King watched him come, a glow of honest admiration in his heart. Brave rascal. he thought.
Then Elboron stood before them. He bowed before the King and kissed his hand.
He bowed before his parents, blushing deeply, and when he straightened his back, the adults could see that his chin was trembling.
"You left the house secretly instead of greeting the king, and you caused a lot of trouble by escaping your duties." Faramir said sternly. "Is there anything you have to say to your excuse?"
"Father, I am sorry." Elboron said, his cheeks turning from a bright red to a deep pallor. "I didn't want to disappoint you." His composure was visibly spent, and now his eyes were full of tears.
"May I suggest something?" That was Noerwen who had considerately kept herself in the background before.
"What is it?" Faramir asked, his gaze still fixed on the compunctious face of his son.
"I would like to take the boy with me during my next herbal excursion." she said. "Damrod will be with me, and your son will have to follow all my orders. I could use two extra hands, and it might teach him the obedience he seemingly needs to learn."
The bowed head of the lad jerked up and a sudden color streamed back into his cheeks. For a short moment gray eyes met green eyes, and he swallowed. "But, father…" His voice trembled.
"That's a splendid idea." Faramir said, visibly satisfied. "This will teach you a lot about humility, my son. You will do everything the Healer asks you, and she will tell me if you don't."
Noerwen nodded solemnly, and again her gaze and that of Elboron met.
"As you wish, father." the lad murmured.
"You should take Elboron up to the residence." the King said; he had watched both, the exchange of words and gazes, with keen eyes and ears, and he knew the young prince rather well. "Perhaps a few days of house arrest would be a good beginning of his punishment… and some extra elvish lessons."
Faramir had to struggle to keep the stern face he wanted to show his son… especially when he saw the wild panic in Elboron's eyes, undoubtedly caused by the thought of Olorhel's somniferous methods of teaching.
"Won't you come with us, your Majesty?" Éowyn asked.
"In an instant, my Lady." The King answered. "I have to discuss some matters with the Healer. Just go ahead."
He watched together with Noerwen how father, mother and son walked over the clearing; Elboron's shoulders were bowed, he was a picture of deep ruefulness. When they had vanished behind the trees, Damrod came out of the house, bowed before the king and laid a hand on the shoulder of his wife.
The King turned around and glared at the Healer.
"Now enough of this buffoonery." he said. "Don't try to tell me that you didn't do that little lout a great favor. I saw the twinkle in your eyes clearly enough."
"I told you, love, that it would be dangerous to do that in his presence." he said.
"That was bad luck." Noerwen replied. "And I have to ask for your forgiveness, my Lord. But I think he will learn enough hard lessons within the next days – let alone the next years. And besides… crawling along the ground in the woods, searching for arnica and horsetail, will teach him some of the humility his father is expecting." She smiled at Aragorn.
"Not if he obviously enjoys crawling along the ground, his nose in the underbrush." the King retorted dryly. "I guess this is not the first excursion he undertakes with you?"
"No, the third one." Noerwen replied in the same dry tone. "He has a great gift for finding rare herbs. His father has no idea of it, but Lady Éowyn knows… thankfully enough she kept her silence, or the secret would be out. She doesn't lie very well. " Her eyes and the eyes of the King locked for a long moment, then Aragorn relaxed and started to laugh.
"You are incorrigible." he said, when he had regained his breath. "But this is one of the things I like about you, Noerwen of Ithilien. You are a lucky man, Damrod."
"I know, your Majesty." The hands of the ranger and his wife entwined on her shoulder. "I know."
"And now I will follow our lost princeling and his parents." The King sighed. "And I will tell my scribe to make a second copy of the book for you, as soon as I have returned to Minas Tirith." He smiled, a twinkle in his eyes. " And I will not tell the Prince of Ithilien how cheekily you fooled him… I guess, because it was a good idea." His gaze rested for a moment on her belly. "You will be a fine mother, Noerwen."
He turned away, crossed the clearing with long steps and vanished between the trees.
"What kind of book?" Damrod asked.
"I'll show you." she said. "But now I'd like to go inside and lie down for a while. I'm tired… and you finally have the chance to pamper me the way you want to for months now."
She wrapped both arms around his neck.
"Use it well." she murmured, close to his mouth.
He smiled and kissed her, and then he said what he had said the night before he made love to her for the very first time, nearly ten years ago.
"I have mastered more difficult tasks than that."
And he lifted her up on his arms, carried her into the house and closed the door behind them.
Garaf – (Sindarin) wolf