My thanks for the fellow reptiles on the Lizard Council for picking the nits!
I own nothing. Not the characters, places or any money, aside from the good captain. The Tolkien Estate, however, does.
I tried my very best not to pay attention to the undignified snorting sounds the Lady Galadriel was making in an unsuccessful effort not to laugh at me. It did not bother me one bit that every time I blinked my eyelashes stuck together, nor was it pressing on my mind that my hair was a tangled mess of dirt and assorted debris, and would probably have to be cut off entirely. The fact that I was beginning to attract flies was the least of my worries.
What concerned me was the expression on Lord Celeborn's face. For a long, agonizing moment he stared at me in open-mouthed disbelief, until he shook his head abruptly and turned to glare at his wife. She was holding her stomach and turning a shade of pink I had never seen, in a manner most unbecoming her exalted status and lineage. As one gifted with truly extraordinary powers she likely already knew what had happened to me, and I found her lack of sympathy and understanding towards the plighted shocking. But then again, after all I had been through I was hardly one to pass judgment on anyone's behaviour.
I hung my head in shame and considered my options. I did not wish to leave Lórien; I had been born here under the rule of King Amdir, and lived my entire life within her borders. Upon reaching my majority, I had chosen my life's work as that of a fighting man, like my father and brother and uncles. I had worked hard and steadily risen in rank, and I liked to think that I commanded some measure of respect, if not love, from my men. All my dignity and authority - everything I had worked for to achieve, all the sacrifices I had made to ensure the continued safety of my home and my family - all of that I was now in danger of losing. My predicament was such that I could see no other outcome. I would be asked to go. My parents would no longer recognize me as their son. My future looked very bleak indeed.
Lord Celeborn waved his hand irritably at his wife's handmaidens who led the now visibly shaking lady away. He then dismissed the guards and attendants until we were alone in the room which, despite its grandeur, did not seem to have walls thick enough to muffle any sudden outbursts of laughter. I grimaced and tried to make myself invisible, a task rendered impossible by the fact that I was wearing nothing more than a sock on my left foot, a quickly-fashioned loincloth, a considerable amount of honey and what felt like half of the Golden Wood. I was sticky and filthy, bleeding from numerous small cuts, and the unbearable itching was beginning anew. Only the centuries of strict military training I had received prevented me from bolting the scene and making a run for Mirkwood, where, I was given to understand, presenting oneself in similar fashion would not raise eyebrows.
Something trickled slowly down my spine and made its way between my buttocks. From where I managed to summon the willpower to keep from fidgeting, I do not know. To this day I regard it as one of my more heroic deeds.
Lord Celeborn pinched the bridge of his nose. That was usually a good sign for the wise to start searching for a place to hide. His words were delivered with a dreadful voice, promising seven kinds of trouble if the answer did not satisfy. "Explain yourself."
Oh how I wished I didn't have to. I truly had no clear idea myself of what, exactly, had happened. The day had been long and exhausting. Things had gone steadily downhill until at about noon when my life had become such a disaster I had thought it not possible to sink any lower. Of course, at that point I had been presented with a shovel. A certainty was forming in my mind that this had to be some kind of revenge on the part of the Belain, still harbouring a grudge from when my forefathers had refused their summons. Why they had chosen me as the means to vent their displeasure I could not say. If I made it through this day I would have to seek out any surviving ancestors and bring them rich gifts for keeping us safe from the whims of the gods. I shifted, or at least tried to, as my feet seemed to be stuck to the floor. My sock-clad foot made a pitiful squelching sound.
"Um." It was not a good start, I knew. My lord did not suffer fools gladly, and demanded respectful and impeccable conduct from his warriors. Something I was clearly not succeeding in. Honey was now getting in places unmentionable, seriously distracting my thoughts. "It is a long story, my Lord."
Celeborn's eyebrows rose. "I have all night, Captain."
It had all started innocently enough. I had been leading my soldiers back from a month-long patrol, to get some well-deserved rest and time to prepare for the upcoming harvest festival. On the way we had met with a small group of farmers who were struggling with ropes and pulleys as they hauled sacks and barrels to flets high up in the trees to keep them away from the reach of vermin. They had asked for help, and tired though we were I had ordered my men to work and supervised them sorting out the rigging and start moving the produce from carts to trees. Dried fruit, grain and nuts were lifted high above me and things had run pretty smoothly until we came to the large barrels of honey.
It took me a long time to be able to eat honey again. At times mere thought of it still makes me feel rather sick.
The third barrel of honey hoisted upwards must have been made by Men. It was about two thirds up the tree when the rigging, for some reason, failed. The pulley suspending the rope cracked and broke, and the heavy load dropped. On its way down the barrel hit a thick branch with no little force. The cursed thing smashed into pieces like it wouldn't have done if it had been properly made. My attention was caught in the angry soldiers picking themselves up from the ground and trying to untangle themselves from the fallen coils of thick rope, and not above me, where, with the wisdom of hindsight, it should have been fixed.
Suddenly everything was one big, sticky mess. Honey rained down. No. That is wrong. Honey did not rain down; it engulfed me in one horrible, golden gloop. Wood and iron came down with it, scattering on the ground and hitting me, giving me some very impressive bruises. For a moment I thought I would die. I was blind, I could not breathe and I felt something I had thought impossible in my adult years - I was panicking. Slowly, painfully, my senses returned and I filled my lungs with sweet air. I rubbed my honey-covered eyes with honey-covered hands and found myself turning the air blue with every single oath I had heard during my long life. My men and the farmers were staring at me wide-eyed. I have never been one to use coarse language; in fact I have taken it upon myself to see to it that at least some measure of decency and decorum are maintained amongst Lórien's finest.
I did say I was respected, did I not? Being liked has never been high up on my list of priorities. Understandably, then, my behaviour was causing them more concern than the accident that had befallen me.
Lord Celeborn was drumming his fingers on the arm of his chair. He did not seem impressed by my story so far. Frankly, neither was I. As if that lapse of attention had not been bad enough, I had continued to commit, in half a day, more mistakes than even a clumsy newly-recruited youth could manage in his first year.
"I thought it would be best if I left the men to sort out the mess and walked back to a pond we had passed some time earlier. I would wash myself and my clothes, and then catch up with the patrol and return here as planned."
My liege lord pursed his lips and tilted his head to the right. "I see. A commendable plan, indeed. Please tell me why, then, I am granted a far more detailed sight of you than I would have ever wanted to see?"
"I, um, ran into a bear, my Lord."
"A bear," came the flat-voiced reply. My shoulders slumped so far down my hands were almost touching my feet.
"Yes, my Lord. It must have smelled the food, and thought I would make a tasty snack."
"I find it hard to believe that any of my warriors, especially one as accomplished as you, would have any trouble in dealing with a bear."
"Normally yes, my Lord. But you see, I was doused in honey. I would have escaped to the trees had I been less... slippery." And it had been a big bear. Very big. And judging by the look on its face, very hungry, too.
And because I was merely walking a short distance in a protected forest I had lived in for uncounted years, and because everything I tried to grip either stuck to my hand or took to flight, I had left my weapons with my men, in a hope that there would be something worth salvaging left. The sword and the knives, for sure, but I was already resigning myself to commissioning a new bow. It had taken quite a hit from the barrel pieces. The arrows were a lost cause, too. The last I had seen of my quiver was it being upended and honey poured out.
I had given orders for the men to clean the honey off the weapons while I was tending to myself. That way we would be on our way back home sooner than what it would take if I had to clean my bow and sword with everything else. More than likely they would simply draw lots and leave the task to the unfortunate loser but I remained hopeful that they would not bribe the farmers to do their work. I had paid good money for the weapons.
But that also meant that I was facing the hungry bear armed with nothing else but my bruised head.
"So, Captain, was it then you decided the best course of action was to divest yourself of your clothes?"
Oh, stars. I tried my very best to shrink enough to fit in between the floor boards, or to become so slippery I would simply slide away. Instead, I merely felt increasingly sticky. It had been a good idea at the time. It had taken me only a heartbeat to form a plan to distract the beast and save myself from becoming its lunch and dinner. I would give it my jacket to chew on and make myself scarce. Simple. Easy. Except, of course, it wasn't.
It had been a job and a half to peel off the honey-soaked garment. It had been my idea to fling it to the side of the path but since my fingers refused all co-operation the jacket flew straight and true right where I had not intended and hit the animal in the face. Naturally enough, that resulted in it becoming very angry indeed and chasing me across the woods. That had not worked in its favour, however, as honeyed or not, I can easily outrun almost anything thrown in my way. Any soldier of the Golden Wood can. We are that good. Everything would have been just fine had I only paid attention to where I was going.
Believe me when I say that always, always keep your eyes on where you are heading. The ants whose home I unintentionally destroyed were quite put out with me, admittedly for a very good reason, and showed it clearly. It did not help that they got stuck in the honey so that they could keep on biting me. The agony was indescribable.
What was I to do? I ran on, flailing and batting myself in an attempt to get the creatures off of me. The hill had been quite large, and the ants were getting in my hair and under my shirt and I could not even begin to contemplate where else. Finally I threw myself on the ground and rolled around. That helped a little, but I could not fight down the panic rising in me again.
Once again I failed to follow the simplest lesson I had learned when I had been but a babe in petticoats. Curse my weakness! I did not deserve to stay; I was not worth the rank of an officer in Lord Celeborn's fighting forces. But I had been on fire from the ant-bites, the pain made only worse by sweat, honey and the accumulating dirt which stuck to me with gleeful abandon. Twigs, leaves, animal droppings – everything I came across became a part of me until I resembled an obscene snail, which, due to some nefarious meddling by the Enemy, was forced to build his shell out of filth.
Lord Celeborn looked more thunderous by the moment. I could hardly blame him. Had it been me in his stead I would not have maintained my composure this far. My fists clenched and my eyes watered as I fought to keep from scratching myself. The impromptu loincloth was slipping and I had to squeeze my thighs together and hold my body in an awkward twist in an attempt to cling to what was left of my dignity. My eyes were fixed on a point somewhere left of Lord Celeborn's feet. I counted at least a dozen knotholes in the floorboards before I could continue.
"I was not thinking clearly, my Lord."
He leaned back and gave a small wave of his hand to indicate that he was not inclined to harbour any illusions concerning my sanity. I briefly wondered if he would send me to Imladris to be examined by Lord Elrond before being banned from ever entering polite society again, then realized with a sudden surge of relief that it would most certainly be the last thing he would do. Imladris was no longer an option for me. I would plead for sanctuary in Mirkwood, and if refused, I would continue to fight the Enemy on my own until I perished or found a place where none of this would matter.
"Go on." Celeborn was clearly bent on torturing me, wringing the rest of the humiliating story out of me with no regard for my wellbeing. I would not have believed the prince I was sworn to serve, for whom I was prepared to lay down my very life, would have such a foul taste for cruelty.
The dirt had continued to accumulate, the ants had continued to bite, the forest itself had turned against me in sudden rage and torn my skin and blinded my eyes until, in my agony, I had torn off all my clothes to be rid of all things hurting me. That was the only thought in my mind. To make the pain stop, to find relief from the fire burning my skin.
And only then my torment had begun in true. I bent to remove the last sock and in my haste lost my balance. I took some staggering steps backwards and – to my eternal shame - tripped on a tree root. Time stopped and my heart skipped a few beats as I fell on my back and continued on the momentum down a steep hill, gathering more cuts and bruises and debris until I came to a stop on the edge of a large clearing.
I stood gingerly, checking for damage and marvelling how I was still alive. Then, suddenly, I was on full alert. All my senses were screaming for impending danger and I turned slowly to assess the threat, ready to either flee for my life or fight to the bitter end.
It was worse than I could have ever imagined. Neither any ravenous predator nor a nightmarish monster from the Enemy's lands could have made my blood run as cold as the sight before me. I froze.
Apparently I had interrupted a group of young women practicing their dance for the harvest festival. I forgot the itching, I forgot the honey, all I knew was that I was naked and somewhere I was most definitely not supposed to be. Afraid to make any sudden movements lest I accidentally provoked an attack I inched my hands to cover myself. Something slid down the side of my head and dropped to the ground.
To their credit only few of the maidens screamed in fright, considering what a sight I must have made. To my horror most of them did not turn their heads or cover their eyes. They elbowed each other, and pointed at me, and whispered and giggled. I cannot claim any extensive knowledge over the idiosyncrasies of the opposite sex, but I felt their less than ladylike manner made the situation only worse.
If it had been my men facing a woman in such a state of distress, or as it was, in any state of undress, they would have felt the full brunt of my wrath had they not behaved as decency dictated. Some of these women, they leered at me. My mortification knew no boundaries.
"And this is your explanation as to why you were found parading yourself in front of my grandchild in your… natural state?"
Ah. Yes. The Lady Arwen. She had been there, leading the dance, and her presence had been one of the first things I had noticed. I wished I was a more reckless individual, because then I could have told my lord how his words were both unfair and thoughtless. Firstly, going about naked and covered in honey can hardly be called my natural state of being. And secondly, her behaviour had not been what one would expect from someone claiming close kinship with the Lord and Lady of Lórien.
There had been no displays of shock or horror from her part, nor was she in any way sympathetic towards my humiliation. She had most pointedly not averted her eyes. She had grinned at me and made comments she must have thought of as funny, her clear voice ringing loudly in the silence. But I had been raised better, so I kept it all to myself. Far be it from me to criticize the child-rearing methods of my betters, but I had to wonder how the standards seemed to differ in two places enjoying such a close friendship.
The few screams had alerted some of the off-duty guards who could always be found loitering around any group of women. They sauntered over and nearly choked with mirth as they saw me. Any amount of threats and glares from my part did nothing to stop the most hilarious jokes. One of the ladies at least showed some compassion and handed me the large piece of colourful silk they used in their dance, so that at least some amount of modesty would be preserved. It made an almost serviceable loincloth. I was saddened when I realized it would be completely ruined after this; her gift had been the only good thing that had happened to me during the entire day.
To round off a perfectly miserable experience the word had spread with unusual speed, and reached the ears of the Lord and the Lady. Naturally they were curious to see the orc which had assaulted the maidens in the middle of their dance rehearsal, and I was herded here before I had a chance to escape to the bathing houses.
Yet another long silence ensued. Lord Celeborn regarded me tapping a strange rhythm with his fingers. Flies buzzed around me. Honey dripped slowly to the ground as I sweated with nerves. The flimsy silk managed both clinging to my body and simultaneously slipping even further down. I was beginning to develop a cramp on my side for standing in a strange pose for so long. Finally I raised my head to see how his mouth twitched much as his wife's had when I was escorted before them.
That was it. All hope was gone. I would go to Mirkwood and take my chances with the spiders. There was no way imaginable I would ever live this down. There was no cave dark enough for me to hide in until the shame passed. The only thing left to do was to hurry across the border and come up with a new name and past before my reputation caught up with me.
"Go now, Captain, and please do take a bath. No more will be said about this matter," he said with an ever so slightly shaking voice. I rolled my shoulders, set my jaw, executed my most formal bow, pried my feet off the floor and marched out of the door. I studiously ignored all sounds coming from behind me.
All my remaining strength drained out of me as I stepped outside. I leaned against the railing, still moving stiffly to avoid showcasing the most private parts of my body to all and sundry. I took in deep breaths, willing my knees not to buckle and my body to stop shaking. This was almost more than I could bear.
I startled when a woman detached herself from the shadows by the grand staircase. I recognized her as the one whose silks I was now wearing. Marvellous. She was more than likely here to claim her property back and make my humiliation complete. I fixed her with my most intimidating glare, but which puts fear in the hearts of common soldiers does not seem to have any influence over the females. Soon enough I gave up. I was simply too exhausted to care anymore. If she was to send me walking to my home bare-bottomed, so be it. All I wanted was this day to be over.
She did no such thing. Instead, she looked at me from head to toe for a while, the hundreds of tiny copper mallorn leaves sown in her dancing dress shimmering and jingling quietly with her every move. Then she seemed to make up her mind. An unsettlingly determined look spread on her face as she came over to me. She produced a large towel and a little jar of salve, and a kind smile.
I stared at her, utterly dumbfounded. What did she want? None of this made any sense to me. I watched her smile waver, and suddenly it became important not to let her lose it. There must be something I could do to rectify the situation. My foggy mind raced.
"Caundir. My name," I offered. That seemed to be the extent of my conversation. But the smile was back on her face.
"I know. I have been wanting to..." She bit her lip. "Never mind. Meril," she said, nodding.
Meril, I thought. Perfect. It occurred to me that I would like to see her dance. I would have to postpone my exile until after the harvest festival. I also realized that I was not quite as coherent as usually was my wont. No matter. The less I thought, the less complicated my life seemed to become.
Again she proffered the towel, and as I took it, picked a leaf from my hair. That left me with only one reasonable course of action. I followed her down the stairs and into the bathing houses. Which was, of course, wrong and against all propriety but so had been the entire day and I truly was beyond caring. Mind blissfully blank I let her usher me in the hot water, and then obediently bent this way and that as she helped spreading the salve – sweet, sweet heaven! - in places I could not reach myself. After that she proved my earlier suspicions correct by sighing at the ruin of my hair and then having me sit on a low bench while she cropped it short.
All I could do was to sit perfectly still and let her wield her scissors about my head. The room was silent save for the soft chime of the copper leaves, the clip of the scissors and the sputtering of the oil lamp on a corner table. Her scent filled my senses and the touch of her hands became the focus of my world. Eventually she laid down her scissors, moved to stand in front of me and, in the end, claimed me as her own.
A week later I did see her dance. At first she moved among the maidens with the measured and slow pace of the formal songs of praise. Then, much later, when the great bonfires were lit, she took me by the hand and we danced to the raw sound of drums and flutes, celebrating the time of plenty in its most ancient form. Any lingering thoughts of leaving the Golden Wood vanished after that.
As ever, Lord Celeborn was true to his word. Nothing was said about the incident, at least not to my face. I was resigned, however, to endure some amount of jesting from my men who I deemed were entitled to some amusement. Lovely Meril put a stop to that before it could even begin by showing up to see me off to my next bout of patrol with a long, lingering kiss. The knowing grins I received afterwards I was happy to ignore, and I even allowed some bawdy remarks.
I would never have guessed that life would have such joy reserved for me; that I would once be sitting under the stars, cradling my newborn daughter asleep and safe in my arms. I am still awestruck at how only one short day in the endless years of my life could have such profound consequences. I have no doubt that I will always remember every detail of it, both painful and those filled with pleasure. My memory is aided by Meril, who insists on giving me a jar of honey every year a week before the harvest festival. She claims she does it so that I wouldn't forget how to laugh at myself, but I suspect she only enjoys tormenting me. Be that as it may, now I have a family, a wife and a baby girl, to love and to protect. She will grow up a happy child, safe and without fear, I will see to that.
One thing remains absolutely certain, though. As long as I live on this side of the sea, no child of mine shall set foot in Imladris.