The Gyngerbrede

A Little Legolas story for Yuletide. Little Legolas does some cooking, King Thranduil does some listening, and they both have some Yuletide fun.

Author's note: (Gwanur means 'kinswoman'—Legolas is calling her 'Aunt Nerdanel'. örðigskeggi is a real Viking byname and means 'bristlebeard').

The Gyngerbrede

Take a quart of hony, & sethe it, & skeme it clene; take Safroun, pouder Pepir, & þrow ther-on; take gratyd Brede, & make it so chargeaunt þat it wol be y-leched; þen take pouder Canelle, & straw þer-on y-now; þen make yt square, lyke as þou wolt leche it; take when þou lechyst hyt, an caste Box leaves a-bouyn, y-stkyd þer-on, on clowys. And if þou wolt haue it Red, coloure it with Saunderys y-now. Harleian MS. 279, England, 15th century.

Take a quart of honey, & boil it, and skim it clean; take saffron, powder pepper, and throw thereon; take grated bread, & make (the mixture) so stiff that it can be sliced; then take powder cinnamon, & strew thereon enough; then make it square, like as thou wouldst slice it; take when thou slicest it, and cast box leaves over it, stuck thereon with cloves. And if thou wouldst have it red, colour it with sandalwood enough.

It had snowed again during the night and Greenwood the Great looked like the tiny Forest inside the snow globe that Legolas' Ada had given him on his last conception day. Standing upon the terrace, just outside the Gates of Thranduil's Hall, the elfling watched curiously as his friend, Aredhel, holding on to her father's hand, sat down upon the white ground.

"Would you like to play with us, your Highness?" asked his father's Chief Counsellor.

"No, thank you, Lord Astaldo," replied Legolas, politely. "Ada said that I must wait for him here—and that I must not get dirty."

Smiling, Lord Astaldo bowed his head.

Then he, too, sat down, a little way away from his daughter. "Ready?"

Aredhel laughed. "Yes, Ada."

"Lie back…"

Wide-eyed, Legolas watched the pair sink onto their backs.

"Now," said Lord Astaldo, "use your arms and legs as I showed you."

Despite his father's instructions, Legolas moved a little closer. Aredhel was flapping her arms up and down like a bird's wings, and sliding her legs back and forth like a pair of shears.

The elfling frowned—

"Legolas?"

Thranduil approached his small son. "Legolas!"

The boy turned—and the wistful look on his little face took the Elvenking by surprise. "Whatever is happening out there?" He strode outside—and sighed. "Are you not several thousand years too old to be doing that, Astaldo?"

The Counsellor pushed himself up on his elbows and smiled at his king. "Children are only this age once, your Majesty," he said.

"Fortunately," agreed Thranduil.

Legolas slipped past his father.

"Look, Lassui," said Aredhel. She rolled over onto her side and scrambled to her feet and both elflings, standing side-by-side, stared down at the marks that she had left on the snow.

"What is it?" asked Legolas.

"A snow Varda," said Aredhel. "See—here is her head, and there is her gown, and this is the starlight around her."

Legolas grinned. "Ada, look—"

"Come, Legolas," called his father. "We have important things to do this morning."

The King and the Crown Prince of the Woodland Realm mounted their horses and, escorted by a company of lightly-armed warriors, crossed the Forest River and trotted along the imposing, tree-lined avenue to meet their guests—a ragged-looking band of humans, muffled in wool and swathed in furs, slowly ploughing their way through the deep snow, leading their exhausted horses behind them.

Thranduil greeted the men formally, welcoming them to his Hall for the Yuletide celebrations, and introducing his small son to their leader.

"It is an honour, your Highness," said the chieftain, bowing low.

The man was shorter than an elf, and much broader, and his hair and beard were white and unruly, but his smile was kind. Beaming, Legolas placed his hand upon his heart, and bowed his little head, and said, in Westron, as his father had taught him, "I am pleased to meet you, Chief Bóðvarr örðigskeggi." Then, all by himself, he added, "Shall I show you how to walk on the snow?"

To the elfling's surprise, the Beorning did not say yes.

Instead, he threw back his head and laughed—"Ho, ho, ho!"—and all his men laughed with him.

"Ada?"

"Hush now, ion nín," said Thranduil, "I will explain later."

For the rest of the day, King Thranduil plied the Beornings with mulled ale and with roasted meats; then, early the following morning, he lured Chief Bóðvarr into his study to discuss certain matters of mutual advantage.

The Elvenking had planned that Legolas should be present at the discussions—For that is how I learned statecraft, by listening to my father—but, at the last moment, he changed his mind. Lassui has taken a liking to the man, he thought, and the man to him. He would be a distraction.

He beckoned one of his guards. "My compliments to Mistress Nerdanel, Maeglin," he said. "Tell her that I wish her to take care of my son for the rest of the day. Go with Maeglin, Lasdithen."

Gwanur Nerdanel received her orders with a cheerful smile. "I was just going to the kitchens, little prince," she said, "to make some gyngerbrede for my nephews. Shall we go together?"

She held out her hand.

"I did not know that you could make gyngerbrede," said Legolas, scampering along beside her.

"Goodness, child! Where did you think it came from?"

Legolas thought for a moment. "Esgaroth," he said.

The kitchens (which Legolas was usually forbidden to enter) were an exciting place, full of elves slicing, stirring, beating and baking—all cheerfully making the exotic and delicious-smelling dishes that would be served at that evening's Yuletide Feast.

The head cook, though surprised to receive a royal visit, made the little prince welcome, finding him a starched white cloth—which Gwanur Nerdanel tied around his middle—and a high stool, and setting him up in a quiet corner with various strange-looking objects and some interesting-looking jars.

"And there are some fine loaves in the pantry," he said.

"I will go and fetch one," said Nerdanel. "Wait here, little prince."

Legolas nodded.

From his stool, he watched the elleth cross the kitchen and disappear through a door; he watched her emerge, moments later, carrying a long loaf of white bread; and he watched her stop to speak to one of the elves, who was sprinkling something into a bowl…

Legolas waited.

And waited.

Then he examined the utensils, one by one, experimentally running his fingers over the sharp teeth of the grater, pulling a few funny faces in the shiny saucepan, tapping a song on the table with the wooden spoon…

He put the spoon down.

Gwanur Nerdanel was still talking.

Legolas waited.

And waited.

Then he picked up each of the jars in turn, and read its label out aloud. "Sa-ffron. San-dal-wood. Cin… Cin-na-mon. Pep-per."

Pepper? He pulled out the cork, peered inside—the pepper was a fine, grey powder. He sniffed. "Oh!" he gasped, "Ah!" And he screwed up his little face, and—and—and—sneezed.

"A-choo!"

Legolas looked around, guiltily.

But, luckily, no one had seen. He jammed the stopper back in the jar, and put the jar with the others.

"Are we ready, little prince?" asked Gwanur Nerdanel, moments later.

"Yes," said Legolas, hiding behind a huge smile.

They boiled the honey, and added some sandalwood to make it red, and sprinkled in the spices—though Legolas did try to persuade Gwanur Nerdanel that the gyngerbrede might taste better without the pepper—"That is what makes your tongue tingle, little prince!"

Then Legolas added the breadcrumbs, a small handful at a time, and Nerdanel stirred, until the mixture was stiff enough, and they tipped it out, and patted it square, and Nerdanel cut it into thin slices.

"Now for the best part," she said, smiling down at the elfling. She laid one of the slices on a wooden board and, using the point of a knife, she cut it into the shape of an elf—head, arms, body and legs—trimming away the extra paste. "There."

"Can I make one?"

"Of course, little prince." Nerdanel carefully lifted the biscuit, laid it on a wooden rack to harden, and put another slice of gyngerbrede on the cutting board.

Legolas rose up on the rung of his stool and, leaning on the table, (and being very careful with the knife, as instructed), he scratched a figure into the paste.

"He looks happy," said the elleth, cutting round the outline for him. "Wherever is he running, in such a hurry?"

"Outside," said Legolas, "to play in the snow."

Later

The Elvenking's Great Hall was decked with boughs of holly and with garlands of evergreens for the Yuletide feast. Legolas, wearing his very best tunic and his princely coronet, sat at the High Table, between his father and Chief Bóðvarr, who loved children (but had none of his own), and was in his element, teaching the elfling to hang a spoon on the tip of his nose, and to burp at will, and to drain his little tankard of spiced apple juice in a single draught.

"Well done!" he roared.

Legolas grinned.

The chieftain picked a chunk of roasted fowl from a serving platter. "Ah," he said, "I have found a wishbone, your Highness!" He stripped off the meat and held out the bone. "Pull," he said.

Legolas, though he had never heard of a wishbone before, grasped one end, and pulled.

There was a quiet snap.

"You have won, your Highness," said the Beorning. "Look!"

Legolas looked—but could not see how the man could tell.

"Now," said Chief Bóðvarr, "you must make a wish."

"What sort of wish?"

"Any sort of wish—wish for something you want more than anything else in the world."

Legolas looked dubiously at the broken bone.

"Anything," said the Beorning.

"I wish…" said Legolas.

"No!" Bóðvarr laughed. "You must not say it out aloud, your Higness. It must be secret."

"But how will he know what I want?"

"How will who know?"

"Ada."

The Beorning laughed again. "It is the gods who grant your wish, your Highness, not… Oh, I see…" He leaned in closer to the elfling. "Tell me what you want," he said. "Whisper."

The main courses were cleared away, and the serving elves and ellith brought in the dessert trays, laden with cider-soaked caraway cakes and dishes of spiced syllabub, with plates of gyngerbrede and fruited biscuits, and with boards of fine cheeses. To the High Table one of the elves carried a special platter and, with a deep bow, laid it before King Thranduil.

"Look Ada!" cried Legolas, bouncing up and down with excitement. But, over his head, his father and the Beorning chieftain were in deep conversation.

Legolas tugged at the man's sleeve. "Look, Chief Bóðvarr!"

"Lassui!" cried Thranduil.

The chieftain shook his head, smiling. "What is it your Highness? Oh, yes! Look, your Majesty!"

Frowning, the Elvenking followed the man's pointing finger—and even his irritation immediately vanished. On the oval wooden plate, two gyngerbrede elves, one large, one small, were running excitedly across a snowy Forest of rosemary and bay leaves sprinkled with fine white sugar.

"Did you make these yourself, Lassui?" he asked.

"Yes," said Legolas, proudly. "Well, Gwanur Nerdanel helped with the mixing and the cutting, but I drew them, and I made the trees, and—oh," he squeaked (suddenly remembering the pepper incident), as his father picked up the the larger of the gyngerbrede elves and bit off its head, "does it—does it taste alright, Ada?"

"It tastes very good," said Thranduil. "Clever boy."

Next morning

Stifling a yawn—for the room was warm and he had already been listening to the Elvenking's proposals for some hours—Chief Bóðvarr örðigskeggi set his tankard on the table and settled back in his chair, stretching his legs out towards the fire. "That is enough, for now, I think," he said. "It is time you took your son for a walk in the snow."

King Thranduil scowled. "What?"

"The snow," said the Beorning. "I know that an elfling grows more slowly than a human boy, but even Legolas will not be a child for ever. Do not waste these precious days of Yuletide in buttering up a crusty old warrior. Your son wants to play in the snow. Go and take him outside."

"Legolas is a sensible child," said Thranduil. "He understands—"

"He wants to play in the snow," said the Beorning, firmly. "He told me so himself—he wants to play with you. Go and take him out." He folded his arms across his chest. "You will not get another word out of me on any other subject."

"Do not be childish!" said Thranduil.

"Go and be childish!" said the Beorning.

The Elvenking gasped.

The man laughed. "I will still be here," he added, diplomatically, "when Legolas has tired himself out."

"Elflings do not tire so easily, Chief Bóðvarr," replied Thranduil.

"But a man," said the Beorning, yawning openly now, "can take a nap, King Thranduil, and will awaken much more inclined to talk."

"Look Ada," said Legolas, excitedly. as they passed, hand-in-hand, through the Enchanted Gates, "it is snowing again!"

Thranduil, remembering the days when, as an elfling, he had played in the snow with his own father, pointed to the far bank of the Forest River. "Last one across the bridge is a goblin!" he cried.

Laughing, Legolas dashed off, with his Ada at his heels.

And the Beorning chieftain, taking a little fresh air on the terrace, watched them, smiling.

THE END