The thrush’s tidings reached the King that very afternoon, and their effects were just as swift. As Nenthel had predicted, there was much that King Thranduil wanted done. Within two days, he had called together a mighty host to march to the Lonely Mountain and claim Smaug’s ownerless hoard. They would move out within the week, and Thranduil, having appointed a regent, was at their head. Even his only son, Legolas, would accompany him.
However, the youngest scouts in the King’s service had to stay behind. Their place, Nenthel explained, was at home, keeping evil from the inhabited forest.
“I don’t see why they can’t make an exception, just once!”, Alduin cried unhappily, the day before the host was due to leave. He had his heart set on marching with the King’s best, and fine daydreams of claiming riches untold for the glory of Mirkwood.
“It wouldn’t be fair for everyone else.”, Menrial explained to her friend for what seemed like the hundredth time. “Besides, someone has to stay home. When we’re older and more skilled, we’ll be able to go on expeditions like that.”
“Expedition? You make it sound like a hunting trip! There won’t be anything like this again for four hundred years.” Alduin kicked a stone bitterly. “And I’ll probably be too young even then.”
Menrial gave up, exasperated. She had only two hundred years to her name, and Alduin had three hundred, but sometimes it felt like the other way around.
Still, she couldn’t deny that she too had hoped for a place by the king. But her gender as well as her age had made her chances slim indeed, and she hadn’t had any illusions about the matter. Female elves were allowed to be scouts if they worked hard enough (as she had), but they never went on military campaigns.
Even if they were better than their male counterparts. Menrial stole a glance at Alduin. She knew, instinctively and through experience, that she was fleeter, nimbler, and while he was stronger, she had more than enough cunning and resourcefulness to make up for it. She was not arrogant about it – how could she be, when every day she had to diplomatically humble herself, restrain herself, in order to maintain a healthy partnership? But it did bother her, and sometimes, especially now, when he was being so childish, it was a veritable thorn in her side.
A few moments later, Menrial was relieved to see the scout base ahead, marking the end of patrol duty for the night. She signed both Alduin and herself in, and left a note of ‘no encounters’ by their names. Meanwhile, Alduin was pleading with a weary but still obstinate Nenthal to for ‘an exception’.
“I’m sure I can be more use with the king than here at home. Isn’t there some way I can prove myself?”
“In Eru’s name, elfling, don’t throw your dignity on the ground for such a hopeless cause! The King himself wrote down the names of those who were to stay. No exceptions can be made.”
“But – ” Alduin started, and then would unleash a thousand reasons why he should be the exception, why he was special, why it mattered so much.
Menrial attempted to say goodnight, but when Alduin still hadn’t heard after the third time, she shot the scout master a sympathetic look over the top of her partner’s head and headed home.
It took her little under half an hour to reach the little clearing, silver in the moonlight. The house of her family was built between two large trees at the far edge, a graceful wooden structure with a peaked roof and a little balcony that looked out onto the front doorstep. Engraved leaves, flowers and animals danced over the window frames and the across the front door, and soft yellow light shone out through the windows, warm and inviting.
Menrial knocked on the door. After a moment the it opened, to reveal a tall, fair-haired elf.
“You’re back.”, she said as Menrial stepped inside. “I was afraid something had happened.”
Menrial felt a stab of guilt. “I’m sorry, Naneth*.”, she replied, unfastening her sword belt, and hanging it by the door. “We must have come in late from patrol.”
“Well, one cannot help that.” Aris said practically. “Come. I have dinner waiting.”
Tonight, the evening meal was a thick soup of mashed roots and nuts, with a handful of sweet berries afterwards. As usual, Aris questioned her about her day, and especially about Alduin. Menrial told her only that he wanted to go with the king tomorrow, leaving out his childish refusal to take no for an answer, even from his superiors. They were friends, and she owed him some confidentiality.
“Your father,” Aris said, “was like that when he was young. He wanted to see the world and have adventures. He had a noble spirit. And he became less rash with time. Perhaps your Alduin will, too.”
“Perhaps.”, Menrial said, and hastily switched the subject. She had been aware for some time now that her mother had her eye on Alduin as a potential son-in-law. Menrial had no more feelings for Alduin than for a friend, and, however much it might please her mother, she was not planning on marrying any time soon.
The remark about her father, though, interested her. Manoth had died long before Menrial was born, killed in a hunting accident. He had been a scout, and a very good one. It was partly Aris’s tales of his accomplishments that had led a young Menrial towards her chosen profession. So Father had wanted to see the world! He too had looked far off, over the trees, and wondered.
At the end of the meal, she thanked Aris, and headed upstairs. There were still a few things to do. She changed into a new shift, combed out her long hair, and splashed some water on her face, giving a small mirror on a table in the corner of the room a cursory glance before sitting down before her desk. A pale, oval face, with high cheekbones and a pensive mouth, met her gray eyes. Pointed ears the shape of mallorn leaves protruded slightly from beneath straight, fair hair.
Her appearance was that of a typical Mirkwood elf. She was no great beauty, as King Thranduil’s late wife had been, or even as pretty as her mother. Her face had been this way ever since she reached maturity at age forty; ageless, unchanging. Her routine for the past one hundred and sixty years had been the same as well: patrol and practice during the sunlight hours with her partner, dinner at night with her mother and then this time, which she had to herself before she was due back at the scout base. Elves did not sleep.
All in all, it was almost….tedious. She loved scout work and she loved the forest, but sometimes she wondered if she had only exchanged one type of boredom for another when she renounced the life of the lady and took up the sword. She could have dwelt at court, for some of her mother’s cousins had royal blood, and would have taken her in for her mother’s sake. She could have spent her days feasting, dancing, singing, instead of traipsing along deer paths, burning out spider’s nests (which had scarred her for life), bringing in petty game for the king’s table. She had borne the pain of spiderbite, and looked into the many-eyed face of death more than once, but she was still ignorant of much.
The lands beyond Mirkwood, for instance. Menrial opened a drawer in her desk, and pulled out a well-thumbed map. It showed Mirkwood in much detail, from the king’s palace to the evils of Dol Guldor in the south. But the outside world was rather sketchy, defined only by a few landmarks – the Lonely Mountain, Laketown along the river. Beyond the Misty Mountains there was nothing at all, save a small mark indicating the Gray Havens. South of Mirkwood was the land of Rohan, then Gondor, and Morder brooding like a fat spider in the far southeastern corner. It was only a poor replica Menrial had copied from a map in the scout library, but it shared the universal trait of the woodelves’ maps: the tendency to show little of the world beyond Mirkwood.
Menrial ran her finger over the path the King’s host would take, up the river to Laketown, then through the marshes, then finally arriving at the Lonely Mountain, to claim Smaug’s wondrous treasure.
I would like to see all of that., she thought longingly, and wondered whether her father had felt the same, long ago. Just once.
A small voice, her conscience perhaps, told her that she was sounding just like Alduin, childish and petulant. But now, alone, she had the courage to contradict it. No! He wants glory, and he will not recognize that the journey will probably be long and hard and uncomfortable and never as glorious as he can imagine it. I – I know it won’t be some fairy tale. But at least it would be a change. Something different. And maybe…
Maybe there was some way she could prove herself to them, show that in the service of the King she was equal to any male.
That made up her mind: everything converged into one thought, and all the lucid explanations she’d given Alduin, trying to cure him of his folly, seemed empty. It didn’t matter that she was supposed to stay behind; it didn’t matter that it was her tedious duty.
She would march with the king tomorrow, whatever the cost.
* Naneth=Mother in Sindarin Elvish.