It was another peaceful day in Aman. In fact every day had been peaceful in Aman for two Ages or more.
The Maia Pulukhâz, who in another time and place was called Puck, was bored. He surveyed the many realms of Arda spread before him. Two of them interested him the most. There was the one the inhabitants referred to as Middle-Earth, and the other, which the denizens called The World.
In sheer high spirits (and because he couldn't abide rules), Puck had several times stirred a little Middle-Earth into The World. Once he had taken the Saxon Aelfwine, and caused him to be brought to Tol Eressëa, off the shores of Valinor. He had been in much trouble for that. Aelfwine had been returned, and his tales had passed into the mythology of his time and place. Another time, he had stolen Frodo Baggins's Red Book, and left it in a library in Oxford. Of course, he had had to add something of his own that time, by way of a key to a language that was completely unknown in Oxford.
Nothing much happened for a long time, as those of the World counted such things. The tale was translated, published, and read by many, and much enjoyed. The fun did not start until the Days of the Internet, as Puck called them to himself. Much was written and read and discussed about Middle-Earth, and more than a few people from the World wanted more than anything to go to Middle-Earth. In particular, they wanted to join the Fellowship.
Puck watched intently, for this gave him an idea of such mischief, such enormity, that even he hesitated, imagining the wrath of the Vala, Manwë, when he discovered Puck's impudence.
But the temptation was too strong…
The Fellowship was sitting fireless in a dell in the wild foothills of the Misty Mountains. They had left Rivendell four days before, and progress had seemed slow and tedious, as they trudged up and down through the folded land. They had been travelling by night, the better to avoid prying eyes, and the previous night's march had been through land that was drear and rocky underfoot. After a sparse and cold breakfast, for they dared not make a fire, all save Legolas wrapped themselves in their cloaks, rolled into the shelter of the scrub that furnished the bleak hillside, and fell into an exhausted sleep.
Legolas surveyed the brown landscape, his thoughts wandering in memories of happier days. As the sun climbed high in the sky, he became aware of a distant mewling, right at the limit of his acute hearing. As he listened he fancied it had a human tone to it. It certainly sounded distressed. He pondered whether he should wake one of the others and investigate. Then he thought about how tired they had all been, with the possible exceptions of Aragorn and Boromir. And it was almost certainly some sort of animal. How foolish he would feel if it turned out to be a lost rabbit kit or some such.
A while later, he could still hear the noise. And it was most certainly getting closer. Legolas moved noiselessly to where Aragorn lay and clasped his shoulder. Aragorn's Ranger instincts were as sharp as ever, and he sat up instantly alert, reaching for Andúril.
"Is it my watch already?" he asked, gauging the position of the sun.
"No, but I can hear something strange. And it's coming this way." Aragorn listened.
Inevitably (thought Legolas), Aragorn said, "I can't hear anything." Legolas gave him a look intended to remind him of the superior senses of the Firstborn without having to spell it out.
"We had better investigate," said Aragorn, shaking Gandalf's shoulder.
So it was that Aragorn and Legolas, both armed, crept out of the hollow they had camped in, keeping low amongst the scrub, following what Legolas said was the direction of the sound. Soon, Aragorn could also hear it. He raised his eyebrows at Legolas, for what it most sounded like was a woman crying.
They peered over the lip of a hillock, to where the land fell away into a rocky little cleft with a small stream bubbling through it. Beside the stream was the crouching figure of a young girl, crying bitterly. Aragorn made to stand up, to go to her aid, but Legolas grabbed his sleeve, and pulled him down with a firm hand. He put his mouth close to Aragorn's ear and whispered, "Go carefully. This may be some trick of the Enemy, sent to make us drop our guard."
"You stay here then. Cover my back." Legolas duly drew an arrow from his quiver. Aragorn took the precaution of sliding his sword from its sheath, before he crept noiselessly into the valley. Legolas marvelled at the Man's skill. It was wasted here it seemed, for the girl did not turn until Aragorn stood right at her shaking shoulder.
"Madam?" he said quietly. It was as if he had pricked her with his sword tip. She shot to her feet, and drawing in a great breath opened her mouth wide. Aragorn was ahead of her and dropping his sword grabbed her none too gently by the arm and covered her mouth. The scream died before it was born. The girl was fighting now, with a quiet desperation, but absolutely no skill. Legolas, sure now that there was no danger, stood up, still pointing his nocked arrow at the struggling figures.
"Stop it," Aragorn was saying, "Stop it at once. Do you hear me?" But it was not until the girl set eyes on Legolas and his great bow outlined against the sky that the fight went out of her. She slumped wide-eyed in Aragorn's arms, then scrabbled backwards against his legs, as if trying to conceal herself. Cautiously, as if expecting some trickery, he let go of her, and looked up at Legolas, on the lip of the cleft. Legolas certainly had a flair for the dramatic, he thought, looking at the elf's slender figure in archer's pose.
"Well she certainly doesn't seem to have seen an Elf before, from her reaction," he said. "Where are you from, Madam?" The girl looked bewildered and jabbered at him. He looked at Legolas, "Do you think she has lost her mind?"
"I don't know. Perhaps some great mishap has befallen her. She is only half dressed." For the girl was exposing much more goose-pimpled flesh than was seemly. Legolas continued, "And someone has shorn her hair."
"I suppose we'd better take her with us. If she is as she seems, we cannot leave her alone in the wilderness, prey to any fell creature that comes this way."
"And if she is some ruse of the Enemy's, we cannot leave her to report back to him," finished Legolas. Aragorn pulled the girl to her feet. She hung back, jabbering at him
again as he tried to drag her out of the little valley.
"We certainly don't have time for this, " he said, and taking his neck scarf, he knotted it tightly round her mouth, picked her up, and threw her over his shoulder. She beat futilely on his back as he strode off back to the camp.
When he set her down in front of Gandalf, he could see she had been crying afresh. Tear tracks streaked her dirty face, and her almost bare chest heaved disconcertingly with sobs.
"Who are you?" Gandalf asked, looking at the girl intently. When he removed her gag, she responded with her incomprehensible babble, looking round at the assembled Fellowship with astonishment.
"We think she may have lost her mind," said Legolas.
"It may be so," replied Gandalf, "But that sounds like speech to me. And not a language I know." He grasped the girl by the chin, and looked into her eyes for a long moment. "There is nothing but confusion here. I do not think she is an agent of Saruman, nor of Mordor. But I have absolutely no idea of how she got here. Nor, do I think, has she."
"What are we going to do with her? We cannot take her with us on a journey such as ours. Nor can we afford the time to take her back to Rivendell."
"There are taverns in Gondor which employ such as her. Look at the paint on her face, and fingers and toes," said Boromir, who was lying on one elbow regarding them. "And I know well what men do with her like." He let his gaze wander insolently over the girl's half naked body.
"I dare say you do," replied Aragorn, "But no woman, maiden or no, shall come to harm in my care." But he did wonder about her clothes. The top was similar to a lady's undergarment, thin strapped, and low cut. Her lower half was covered by what amounted to a mere strip of cloth round her hips. Both were too brightly coloured, and too tight. She wore light shoes with open toes, and unbelievably high heels. He cast his eyes aside from all that bare flesh. His gaze had an embarrassing tendency to wander back to it when he wasn't concentrating. "She certainly needs some more clothes. And some more suitable footwear. She won't be able to walk in those things," he said, indicating the ridiculous shoes.
Frodo rummaged in his pack. "I think one of my shirts would fit her. And Sam has a spare blanket she can use as a cloak. But all of our trousers," he indicated the other hobbits and Gimli, "would be much too short. And as for shoes…" The hobbits all laughed.
In the end, Aragorn gave her his spare trousers, and Legolas pulled out a pair of soft boots, which although the feet were much too long would probably be the right width.
The girl turned the garments over in her hands, with an expression of disgust on her face. When she got to Aragorn's trousers she threw them on the ground, and shouted something, then folded her arms with an expression of determination on her face.
"I don't think she likes the idea of those," Boromir said with a smirk.
"Oh let her go bare-legged then. She'll soon change her mind at nightfall when it gets cold," said Aragorn crossly, picking up the offending garment. The girl scowled at him.
"We might as well eat, now that we're all awake," said Gandalf, "And walk for this afternoon. Perhaps we can rest more tonight." They passed round their meagre store of food, which by now consisted of hardtack, dried fruit, and a kind of jerky. The girl ate the dried fruit, but refused to touch the jerky. When Sam saw her trying to gnaw through the hard biscuit, he showed her how to dip it into a pan of water to soften.
"Otherwise you'll break your teeth, Miss," he said kindly, with much miming. A ghost of a smile flitted across the girl's surly features. Encouraged, Sam said, pointing to his chest, "Sam. Sa…a…m."
She seemed to understand, for she pointed to herself, and said, "Ellie." After that, she wanted to know everyone's names, and Sam told her, and she repeated them after him, her eyes widening with shock as each new name was introduced. Legolas was the last, and before Sam could introduce him, she gasped, "Legolas," Her pronunciation was strange, but the name was all too recognisable. The company looked on in shock, for it was apparent that the girl had some secret knowledge of them or their quest.
"This is most strange, " said Legolas, "For of all this company, I am the one that it is least likely a woman of the Second-born would know, for I have travelled little outside the realms of the Elves."
"Legolas Thranduilion," the girl continued, as if aware that they discussed her.
"Well she certainly seems to know not only your name, but your lineage," said Aragorn. They all looked at her. She reached out to Aragorn, who stiffened, but she merely lightly touched the scabbard of his sword, and said, "Andúril." She touched his hand, and jabbered a short phrase. The word Barahir was all too clear amongst the meaningless sounds.
"And yours," said Legolas sourly.
"Mithrandir," she said to Gandalf, who raised his eyebrows. "Olórin."
"She seems to know all too much about each of us. And no doubt about this very secret journey," Gandalf said, his gaze intent under his bushy eyebrows.
But she seemed to know nothing of the names of the hobbits, for her words were incomprehensible. But she did point most alarmingly at Frodo's chest, where the Ring was concealed. He clasped it protectively through his waistcoat. And her eyes sought out the hobbits' bare, hairy feet time and again, as if these too were new to her.
"We still need to decide what to do with her," said Aragorn, feeling a little more comfortable now the girl's chest was decently covered, and Sam's blanket covered her bare thighs, although she was rather strangely clad for one of her sex, "All choices seem evil to me."
"We cannot leave her here in the wild, for who knows what evil creature may happen upon her, and extract whatever information she has. At the very least she would be eaten by wolves. And even if she were not so taken, Rivendell is the nearest settlement, and it is days away," said Gandalf. "And none would find it who knew not where to seek, for Elrond has hidden it well. She would never arrive."
"Nor can we take her onwards. She is obviously soft and her hands are unused to hard work. She would slow us down, and endanger us with her with her lack of knowledge of the wild," said Legolas.
"Well, it seems that the least of the evils is to return to Rivendell with her," said Gandalf, "Though we can ill afford the time."
They set off as the sun was high in the sky, and for once it was pleasantly warm. There had been a bit of a struggle for Ellie had gone to Bill the pony, and started to pull at his packs, making signs that she wanted to ride. Boromir shouted with laughter.
"I daresay you would have us all carry double weight, while you ride in state. On this quest you see before you those of such birth as you are unlikely ever to set eyes on again. And you would ride, while we walk, carrying the burdens!" Of course she could not understand his words, but something of his tone seemed to seep through to her. She dropped Bill's bridle, and ceased trying to take off the packs. Her head sunk in such dejection that Aragorn felt pity for her.
They started at a good pace, for in the rare sunshine, spirits were high, and all were keen to get this detour over with. Ellie trudged slowly with them, though her expression was disgruntled. After a mile, she started to fall behind. Out of courtesy, Merry and Pippin, who had often struggled to keep up with the longer legs of the big members of the party, fell in with her.
Conversation was limited. Eventually, Ellie just plopped herself down on the grass. Merry tugged at her sleeve, trying to pull her up, but she refused to move.
"Hey!" called Pippin, not wanting to shout names out loud, for fear of evil ears overhearing. The rest of the party looked round. Aragorn and Boromir ran back, and both looked blackly at the recalcitrant girl. Aragorn pulled her to her feet, but she refused to stand, slumping down to the grass again.
"Well I can get her to move, even if you can't," said Boromir, drawing his dagger. Aragorn's noble heart quailed to see a maiden subjected to such indignity. But as Ellie jumped to her feet, backing away from Boromir, he was thankful to see her moving, for carrying her was not an appealing proposition.
There was little more trouble from Ellie for a while, after that. When she flagged, Boromir brandished his dagger a little, and she quickened her pace. Aragorn was alarmed, though, to see tears running silently down her face.
The winter sun was disappearing behind the Misty Mountains, and they were passing through a shallow valley, by a fast flowing stream. As they came to a small spinney of trees, Ellie suddenly broke from her position, and dashed into the bushes. Like a flash, Legolas was after her, leaping lithely over fallen logs in the path. When he came upon her, she was wrenching aside her clothes, and then she crouched. It took Legolas a moment to realise what she was about, and stiffening with hideous embarrassment, he turned his back. Though he knew he was too close for her comfort, and both would have preferred him out of earshot, he did not want to leave her alone, even so close to the path.
When Legolas stalked back, Ellie in front of him, both their faces were red and cross. Gimli said, with amusement, "I think I know what that was about." The rest of the party laughed then to see the dignified Elf so discomfited, but Ellie hung her head.
Aragorn clasped her thin shoulder kindly and said, "It is nought be ashamed of. It is a natural function. Although it seems our stiff-necked friend here doesn't think so. I should have thought more of your comfort." Perhaps she understood a little that it was not she who was the butt of the joke, but Legolas, for she gave him a thin smile.
Since they were stopped, they sat near the stream for a while, ate a little, and refilled their water skins at the stream. Ellie, removed her – or Legolas's boots with exaggerated care, and dabbled her feet in the icy water. Gandalf came over, and taking her leg in gentle hands, looked at her foot. In several places, blisters had formed and burst, and the flesh was almost bleeding.
"She will not be able to walk much further with feet like this. Aragorn, do have any of that salve?" Aragorn removed a small tin from the pouch on his belt.
"I shall need to replenish this before we leave Rivendell a second time. I brought little enough to start with." Gandalf rubbed the blisters with the salve, and taking cloths from his own pack, tore them into strips and bound her feet with them.
"We have barely walked ten miles. This is not fast enough," said Legolas, behind them. "Surely we must put her on the pony if we are ever to get back to Rivendell."
Aragorn sighed at the thought of unloading Bill. It would not be the first time he had carried so much, and Boromir, Legolas and Gimli were doughty. Gandalf too was hale and strong, despite his apparent advanced age. But the hobbits' small size made it impossible to carry such weight, though they each ate at least as much as a Man. "I suppose we will have to ditch some of the provisions," he said. "For we will need less than we carry to return to Rivendell. Though it grieves me to have to ask Elrond to again dig deep into his winter supplies for us." He grabbed the small shovel from Bill's flank that all such parties carried for latrine purposes, and threw it to Boromir "Here, dig a hole, for we must bury some of our food, and we do not want attract fell scavengers onto our trail." He himself began to sort through the saddle-bags, picking through what could be left, and what would be needed.
"Bring me your packs," he said after a while, and passed out parcels of food, and heavier winter clothes, and all else that could not be replaced.
"And you, Madam, must now put on these." He handed her his spare trousers, which she had turned her nose up at before. And indeed, they weren't unworn. Perhaps Aragorn's stern face made her realise that argument was futile, for she took them, and put them on, under the cover of her blanket. When she looked up, Sam noticed that she had to hold the bunched fabric at her waist, to stop them falling down. Wordlessly he took off his own belt, and passed it to her. "I need this least of all of you, " he said to the company, looking down at his still plump stomach ruefully.
The newly filled packs were much heavier, pulling at shoulders and backs, though Aragorn had parcelled out the supplies according to the strength of each. It was going to be a wearisome march.
As the afternoon, wore on, Legolas joined Sam at Bill's head. Sam always liked to walk there, holding the bridle, though Bill needed little leading, and murmuring to him. Several times, Legolas had seen him pass Bill some sweetmeat from his pocket. Sam's love for Bill – and the pony's love for Sam, amused him.
He looked at the girl. Slouched on the pony, her eyes were level with his. To Legolas, who could ride a horse as if it was an extension of his own flesh, she looked most uncomfortable. Certainly she was not accustomed to riding. After a while, she said, "Mae govannen." Legolas almost jumped. Her accent was strange, but it was quite clear that she had said 'Well met,' in Sindarin.
"Ah," he replied in kind, "So you speak Sindarin, strange traveller." She looked at him blankly, and shook her head, a gesture which appeared to mean the same to her as to him.
She pointed to the Mist Mountains. "Hithaeglir?" He nodded. She seemed to know some names, at least. Then she pointed roughly north. "Imladris. Elrond," she said, clearly.
"Gandalf," called Legolas urgently, "Come here, and listen to this." The old wizard hurried back to them, from his usual place at the front of their troop. "Listen," said Legolas again. He pointed to the mountains. "Hithaeglir," said Ellie again.
"And she named Imladris, and Elrond. Gandalf, are you sure she is innocent of any evil intent? I dislike it that she has come here, at this time, knowing both so much and so little."
"It is strange indeed. Well for good or ill, we are doing the best we can in taking her to Rivendell."
For once, they made camp at dusk Gimli and Gandalf took the first watch. The girl made another fuss about sleeping. From her gestures, it appeared that she thought there was more comfortable equipment in their packs.
"As if we would sleep on the ground if there were soft beds to be had," huffed Boromir.
"I dare say she is in pain from the unaccustomed riding," said Aragorn, indicating that she lie down between himself and Legolas. And she did move stiffly, and as if in pain, but unusually, she made no complaint.
"At least we are best placed to keep an eye on her," he said apologetically to the Elf, who did not look particularly pleased.
At dawn, Aragorn woke, and looked across to Ellie and Legolas. Legolas glared back at him. It was not hard to see the reason for the Elf's bad temper. Ellie had rolled close to him in the night, and still slept pressed close to Legolas's body. She snored in her sleep. As he watched, she turned towards Legolas, and threw an arm across his stomach. Legolas looked as if he would have an apoplexy. He was shaking with rage. Aragorn himself shook with silent laughter as the elf removed the offending limb from his body.
"Anyone would think we were wed, " hissed Legolas. "As if I would wed such a girl. A mere babe. And of no beauty whatsoever." That last bit was true, thought Aragorn. She certainly did not have the flawless beauty of the Elves. But something in her forlorn appearance appealed to his chivalrous nature, and he indicated that the seething Legolas should be silent, "Do not let he hear you speak so," he hissed back, "You would hurt her feelings. No woman wants to be told that she is not beautiful."
"Her face may be plain, but the rest of her is all right," said Boromir, who had woken as they spoke. It was obvious that he was thinking of the bare flesh he had seen when they had first met her.
"Don't be vulgar," chided Aragorn, hoping that Boromir wouldn't try something
unspeakable with the girl in his care. "I consider her to be under my protection, so please do not make any advance to her." Boromir gave a knowing smile that made Aragorn feel smirched.
"There is no time for dalliance, in any case," said Gandalf, "Nor should any take advantage of a girl alone amongst men." He gave Boromir a sharp look.
That morning, Aragorn himself took the embarrassing task of showing the girl to the latrine, and indicating how she should cover what she did there from the pile of earth left beside it for that purpose. He even waited himself, at a distance while she used it, and gave himself over to smoking a bit of his precious pipeweed, hoping that Bilbo would replenish it from his precious store. Elrond kept no such thing in his house, and he knew the hobbit's opportunities for obtaining it were few.
All seemed to have settled into a sort of grumpy acceptance of the girl, except Legolas, who gave her a wide berth. Amusingly, she had taken to following him around like a lovelorn puppy. But only the hobbits made the effort to speak much to her.
Legolas sought refuge with Gimli, whom Ellie seemed disinclined to come near. It was a sacrifice for Legolas, who considered him of all the Fellowship the poorest company, for the dwarf walked in grim silence.
Frodo walked with Sam and the pony for much of the following days. When Aragorn walked nearby, it sounded as if he was teaching her some words of Westron. How practical the hobbits were, he thought.
The spirits of all were low as they made their way back into Rivendell, a few days later, aware of how much time they had lost on a quest of such great import. All were unduly tired, too, from the weight of the packs. All in all, thought Gandalf, they would set out again, later, more tired, and less well provisioned than they had left the first time.
Elrond must have had some foresight that they were nigh, for he had ridden out with some of his household, and a number of spare horses, and met them at the Ford of Bruinen. Whilst the Elves rearranged the Fellowship's packs, he said in a low voice to Gandalf, "What does this mean? And who is this girl?" Gandalf explained, and Elrond's face became more and more grim.
"I see. Well naught else could be done I suppose. Though it is ill to see you back here so soon. When we reach the house, come at once to my chamber with this girl. Let us see what we can find out."
Gandalf and Aragorn duly brought her before Elrond. A steaming flagon sat before him on the table where he was wont to do his paperwork, and three cups. Elrond filled these, looking hard at the girl, as he passed one to her. It was spiced wine, and she sniffed, then sipped with evident pleasure.
"She is very young," said Elrond. "No more than fourteen or fifteen, I would guess. I hardly feel such a young maid can be a danger to our plans."
"She knows a great deal about each of us. More than I expected anyone outside this household to do. She speaks neither Quenya, nor Westron, nor the tongue of Rohan. The few words she does know are Sindarin names. Her presence here at this time smacks of some mischief."
Gandalf was stroking his beard, thoughtfully. "Mischief. That reminds me of something that happened once before, long ago. There is one of my order who would cause such mischief for the sheer pleasure of the prank without thought for any grief that might ensue. He is not allied with Sauron, but acts only on his own account." The others waited, but he did not elaborate, except to add under his breath, "And there is little I can do about it, hampered as I am by my task, and my form."
Oromë was watching Pulukhâz covertly. He had been doing so for some time. His sister Nessa was beside him. She asked, "Do you think Pulukhâz is unduly interested in the events of Middle Earth?"
"I wonder. His behaviour is certainly suspicious. Do you remember that business with Aelfwine? Could he have done something similar?"
"He was always a rogue. Let us look."
The two Valar looked into Middle Earth, and what they saw appalled them.
"We must tell Manwë," said Nessa, "But first he must try to make amends himself." She waved her hand at him.
In Elrond's room, Ellie was stumbling with half learned Sindarin words.
"Elrond. Book. Mithrandir, Aragorn. Andúril. " She mimed 'broken'.
"You see, she knows much of us," said Gandalf to his old friend, "And yet so little."
He felt a sudden dislocation of time and space. The air shimmered like a heat haze. And there before them, sitting on the hearth rug, was a shining being. All in the room leapt to their feet, but Gandalf held out his arms in front of Elrond and Aragorn, saying, "I thought as much. I know him."
The creature had the form of a man of shimmering beauty. But his robes were coloured brightly in green and orange and purple and his lovely face held a mischievous expression.
"Pulukhâz," continued Gandalf. "I might have guessed that this fiasco was the work of your hand. Are you here to continue your mischief, or to correct it?"
Puck laughed, and his laugh was like the song of all the birds in a spring morn. Elrond watched the unfolding events with a thoughtful expression. Aragorn and Ellie gaped.
"And you might have clad yourself more decently. We do not generally appear here in our true forms," continued Gandalf sternly. "You deserve to be cast into the outer void for your impudence. And Manwë may yet do so. You had best make amends."
Puck waved his hand, and Ellie disappeared from the room.
"Where have you sent her?" asked Elrond.
"She is returned to her place, and will soon wake after a troubled sleep, and disturbing dreams," the Maia replied with a laugh, and his voice was like the sound of flutes and trumpets. "That is all I shall do. You can deal with the rest, Olórin." And he vanished with another shimmer of the air.
Elrond looked at Gandalf questioningly.
"That troublesome sprite could have chosen a better time for his meddling," Gandalf said quietly. He sighed. "But others must deal with him. The Fellowship will set out again tomorrow, and none shall remember this detour. Nor shall any of your household. Save you." Elrond smiled at this, for the Maia Pulukhâz had been the most beautiful thing he had ever seen, and he wanted to hold the memory close to his heart.
As for Pulukhâz, suffice it to say, his punishment was one he long remembered, and never again did the tales of these two worlds collide.
A/N With thanks to Wendwriter for corrections, and Ardalambion for assistance with Pulukhâz's name