Maerdir crept down the deserted passageway, keeping close to the rough stone wall. There were torches burning at intervals, but the mid-ground between the sconces lay in deep shadow. So far, so good. He had marked the passageway as suspicious days ago, but this was his first chance to investigate. Each time he passed it before, there had been guards. Nothing obvious, no heavily armed warriors, but nonetheless there were always men with hard, watchful faces hovering around. This time he had taken a stroll down there just before the evening meal and finally drew the lucky straw. There was no one in sight, just a few stragglers heading for the communal dining hall.
He doubted he would find anything really important, perhaps grain stores or something along those lines that needed to be rationed out to the populace, but at least he could say he looked everywhere. Gildor had been insistent. He was getting strangely obsessive about secrets and hidden threats, but he was the leader of the wandering companies and royal to boot: it was as well to humour him.
it was very quiet, the only sound he could hear was of water dripping ceaselessly somewhere, which was strange in itself as the passage was dry. He wondered at that; they were fussy here about wastage. The river water had a strange, oily taste, so drinking water was drawn from underground springs and carefully apportioned. It was as well tonight had paid off, he thought. He would need to leave within the next few days before someone became suspicious that he was still around. He had long since sold off the selection of textiles he had brought to trade, and this was an expensive place for a simple merchant. He suspected the high prices might be deliberate policy, Mirkwood disliked outsiders.
There was a door which seemed to lead in the right direction, away from the residential parts of the underground city. He stopped and considered it. There was a bar across, fitting snugly into a groove, and a padlock gleamed in the faint light. Maerdir frowned at it then reached into the pouch he wore at his waist, bringing out a leather bag from which he withdrew a thin metal probe. He was listening carefully, but there were no footsteps, no voices, no sense of anyone nearby. Hunching forward he started fiddling with the padlock, moving the probe carefully back and forth, concentrating on the minute clicks and hesitations. Moments later there was a soft snap and the padlock opened. Nodding his satisfaction, Maerdir returned the probe to the bag, put it back in the pouch, then silently drew back the bar.
He pressed his ear against the door, but could hear nothing. Taking a deep breath, he opened it a crack and looked in – and blinked against the brilliant glare of afternoon sunlight.
He slid in through the gap and pulled the door closed behind him before looking around. He seemed to be in some kind of hothouse. Perhaps his first thought about a grain store hadn’t been that far off course after all. This might just be an extension of the kitchen gardens. Lush, verdant growth spread out on all sides, a veritable sea of emerald leaves and bright blossoms. Maerdir’s Noldor forebears had been more interested in creating things or taking them apart to see how they worked, and he knew rather less about plants than his Sindar brothers, but even he could see this was no vegetable patch. Flowers for ornamentation then perhaps? But he had seen few floral arrangements since his arrival in King Thranduil’s halls, hardly surprising in the midst of a forest.
There was no one in sight so he took a chance and followed the stone flagged path deeper into the hothouse. Sunflowers towered above his head, broad-leafed vines twined around poles and trellises. The sound of running water was louder now, and a more careful look around showed him the channels between beds of rich, dark soil. He could hear bees droning, and when a sudden movement startled him it turned out to be a butterfly, red and black with splotches of yellow. He had an uncomfortable feeling of being watched, of eyes on his back, but each time he glanced around, he saw nothing, just row after row of plant life, some in beds, some in serried rows on low tables.
The sunlight streamed in through windows along the far wall and a row of skylights above. There were round, silvery balls set close to ceiling height, their placement suggesting lanterns of some kind. It seemed a cheerful, inviting place, especially after days spent shut away from the outside world, and an unconscious smile tugged at his lips. Rows of brilliant blue flowers drew him, daisy-like but large and cheerful in their identical white pots. He was bending to smell them, though daisies seldom had much scent in his experience, when a voice shouted, “Hey, you! What are you doing here?”
He shot up instantly, his heart thudding, and had a twinge of unease when he realised it was not a gardener addressing him but one of the hard-faced watchers. Hiding the shock, he put an innocuously friendly smile on his face and said vaguely, “Why, I lost my way, got turned around and found myself out here. These are lovely flowers. What are they, I’ve not seen their like before.”
The guard was approaching with long strides, almost though not quite running. Trying not to be obvious, Maerdir glanced around to see if there was another way out. There were buildings down at the far end and beyond them was a door. He began moving towards it, hoping it would be open, because the guard was between him and the entrance he had used.
“Stop right there,” he was warned, and that was all it took to set Maerdir off at a run. Foliage rustled on either side of him, and he could have sworn one of the long-leafed bushes seemed to reach out for him. Behind him he could hear voices, risking a glance back over his shoulder he saw the guard had been joined by two others. The door was closer now, but as he raced past a bed of yellow daisies a creeper with deep orange blooms sent out a tendril that wrapped itself round his ankle. Maerdir hit the ground hard. He struggled to get free, but the vine tightened, mithril-strong. He was fumbling for the concealed dagger he always carried when the guards arrived.
There was no fuss. Two grabbed him by the arms, incidentally relieving him of his dagger, and he watched in disbelief while the third stroked the creeper, which responded by unwinding from his ankle and twining back round its trellis like a normal plant. Struggling against the iron grip on his arms, Maerdir started to realise just how much trouble he might be in. “Look, I’m sorry. I told you, I got lost. No business here, I know. Just – wandered in. The door was open, thought I could take a short cut back and it was so nice in the sunshine…..”
That creeper couldn’t have tripped him and held onto him. It was impossible. He needed to calm down, he wasn’t usually the panicking type.
“He saw Abla there,” one of the guards said. “What’ll we do with him?”
“Not sure, have to ask Madame…”
“Who is this? How did he get here?” The voice was female, high and angry. For a moment Maerdir thought this might be a good thing, girls usually liked him, but when he turned and saw the woman bearing down on him, he wasn’t so sure. The heavy apron and severely drawn back hair seemed too – professional for comfort somehow, negating her very obvious charms.
“Says he found the door open, m’lady. He got the padlock open somehow, I’ll swear to it having been locked.”
The woman advanced, eyes fastened on him. “He is an outsider, yes?” she asked, her bell-like voice disdainful. Distractedly, Maerdir noticed smudgy purple stains on her fingers.
“Trader,” the guard on the left told her. “He’s been wandering past the tunnel entrance way too much these last few days for it to be chance.”
“Hmm,” She stopped in front of him and stared. There was something wrong with her eyes, Maerdir thought, his stomach lurching sickly. They were an unnatural leaf green and cold as ice. And that accent was one he should know but right now couldn’t place. “Who sent you?” she asked. Her voice was almost conversational, but the look on her face belied its mildness.
“No one sent me,” he said, trying to keep his voice level. “I just took a wrong turn. I….”
The slap rocked him back on his heels. Had his arms not been gripped, he would have fallen. “You lie,” she said coolly. “I ask you again, one time more. After that, we are no more polite. Who sent you?
Maerdir shook his head, his mind racing. Any situation you got yourself into, you could always get out of. Always. That was what his father had taught him, wisdom he in turn had learned from his father who’d come across the Ice with Fingolfin. “No one sent me,” he said determinedly. “Just thought there might be something in here that could be useful. For trading.”
She gave him a look of disgust and flicked a glance at the guards. “See what you can learn from him. When you are done, give him to my babies. There has been no meat in two weeks.”
Hours seemed to merge into days or perhaps years. He no longer had any real concept of time and was barely clear about his own name. He had been taken into a little room where he was beaten, kicked, and his hands and the soles of his feet burned with hot coals till his screams seemed to be coming from outside, not connected to him at all. The same question kept being repeated: who sent you. He gave Gildor up fast, he knew the Finwëan would have done the same for him, only faster. The horror set in when they refused to believe him. He would have offered something else, but there was no better story to tell. Slowly, through the pain, a new fear grew: what would happen when the torture stopped?
Finally they left and he remained lying on the floor in a half conscious stupour. When they came back, the open door let in a light unlike any he had seen before. These were new guards, not the ones who had captured and tortured him. They dragged him to his feet and one prodded him unceremoniously in the back. “Move, you. Outside.”
During the questioning his ankle had been sprained or broken and he limped on feet that were raw and bleeding. He had tried to convince them it was Celeborn at one stage, but one of them had gone away with that information and came back scornful, and after that the efforts redoubled. The only other name he could think of was Elrond of Rivendell, but he was too afraid to try. Now, dully, he wondered why.
Once outside the room he blinked at the light in confusion. He had been right about the globes, they were lanterns, big balls of shimmering, greenish-yellow light. The illumination was not cheery like sunshine but harsh, throwing shadows into stark relief against the path. Surreal as a dream, a group of young girls moved amongst the plants pouring small amounts of something from long, silver flasks in careful doses. He tried to cry out, but when one glanced his way her eyes were incurious and she returned to her chore without paying him any further attention. His last little flare of hope faded. There was no other avenue of appeal, the hands on his arms were impersonal. He was a task to see to completion, nothing more.
They headed towards a less well lit area of the hothouse, a space where the lamps’ bright light did no more than outline the path and the shapes on either side. Suddenly, without warning, he was released. While his mind was whirling, trying to take this in, understand it, a hand in the centre of his back gave him a hard shove forward and a voice close to his ear said, “Get on with it then. Walk. Get going.” A sharp jab of pain in his back from a dagger point emphasised the words.
Maerdir staggered, arms flailing, then found his balance. Despite the voice in his head telling him he was missing something here, something important, he needed no encouragement. He stumbled forward, his steps taking him into the pool of shadow ahead.
“If you reach the door at the end there, you can go,” a voice called behind him. The comment was greeted with raucous laughter. Gritting his teeth against the pain, whimpering, Maerdir kept walking: had he been able, he would have run.
Unlike the rest of the hothouse, the roof here was covered and the ground bare. There were rows of trellises at intervals, from which hung vast shapes that in the dim light looked like long, purple marrows, some supported by steel brackets below. Many dangled near the path, and his arm brushed one or two as he hobbled past. The door was close enough to see clearly now, even in the gloom, and his guards had not followed him. He knew he should worry about what might be on the other side, but he was taking this one thing at a time. First he had to get there.
He was more then half way when something caught at his sleeve and held tight. He tried to tug free, but nothing happened. Looking down, he saw his sleeve was somehow being gripped by one of the marrows. He frowned, pulled harder. Nothing happened, except he felt something brush his other arm. He glanced sideways to see another marrow moving in a non-existent breeze. Maerdir felt sick. He jerked his arm, grasped the sleeve with his free hand and tried to tear the cloth. Still nothing happened. The material wasn’t caught on anything, it somehow seemed to be – inside the vegetable, or whatever it was. Looking closer, he saw an almost invisible seam down the front of the thing – a pod of some kind then, not a marrow.
Somewhere just out of reach there swum a memory of Gildor, drunk, holding forth about sentient pods, elf killers, but there was no time to worry about that now, all Maerdir cared about was forcing it to let go.
Something grabbed at his hair and held. Yelping, he tried to turn. There was another one, right at his back now, leaning out from its trellis. Others were beginning to sway towards him, too. Pulling frantically at his arm and hair, he increased his efforts to get loose. Desperately he stuck his thumb up against the seam of the pod that held his sleeve and pushed, hard. Nothing happened for a moment, and then slowly, horribly, it parted like giant lips. And kept parting, opening.
Even in the gloom, Maerdir could see the inside glistening and gleaming with some harsh-smelling fluid. He gave a strangled cry and reached up to pull at his hair, tear it free if necessary, but he was already out of time. The grip on his hair vanished and then something closed wetly over his arm, clamping down with a burn like raw acid. He yelled and flung himself violently back, trying to jerk loose, just as another pod found his leg and started tugging in the opposite direction.
The last thing he heard before his own screams blotted out the world was a voice that sounded like the woman in the apron, crooning out of the dark: “Yes, my darlings. Feast well and grow. Soon it will be time to join your brothers on the Outside.”
Distantly Maerdir was aware of a flurry of movement filled with sucking, slurping sounds and an engulfing mass of dark shapes. And then something covered his head and his screams were swallowed into obscenely squelching darkness.