After some thought, Menrial decided to speak to her mother about her desire to leave with the king.
“But what of your duty to the scouts?”, Aris said. “I had thought that was important to you above all else.”
“It is..” Menrial trailed off. “..and it isn’t. Not anymore.”
“Why?”, her mother asked, her voice oddly strained.
Menrial hesitated. Finally, she said; “I’m not sure. I’ve always wondered about the outside lands, and now that there’s a chance to finally see them I can’t turn it down. Mirkwood has become stifling, in more ways than one. I’m tired of spider killing and endless patrol. I’m tired of working hard and never being recognized for it, simply because I’m female.”
“So you joined the scouts for amusement and personal renown?”, Aris inquired coldly.
“Of course not! I wanted to do good!”, Menrial protested. “Like Father.”
“And now, like your father, you have tired of the work and wish to pursue empty daydreams instead, abandoning your duty and your family.” Aris’s words were harsh and bitter, and they cut Menrial like a knife.
“But Manoth didn’t -”
Aris cut her off sharply. “Oh yes Manoth did. What do you think happened to your father after he’d played his part in all those heroic tales you were told from your cradle? I’ll tell you what happened.” She picked up Menrial’s map, which her daughter had laid on the table before her. “This happened. And within a year, he’d left the forest, and all that came back of him was his empty boat!”
For a time, neither moved as the angry words sank into silence.
“But you told me he died in a hunting accident.”, Menrial finally managed.
Aris just watched her for a moment, her eyes glittering with unshed tears. “No.”, she said. “I’m sorry. I should have told you the truth. The king sent him to be one of his ears and eyes in Laketown, when he requested it. But he fought the dragon with the men of Dale, and he fell..and they sent his boat back on the river.”
She sighed. “I promised myself long ago that I would be no Erendis to his Aldarion, nor make of our daughter another Ancalime*. If you truly think your heart lies out of Mirkwood, then who am I to stop you from searching for it?”
Menrial bowed her head, blinking back the moisture that blurred her own vision.”Thank you.” How much had those words cost her mother? How much had Aris suffered, waiting year after year for a husband who would never return, raising her daughter with only tales for a father?
“Very well then.”, said Aris, and taking a deep breath she regained some of her old composure.
“Now, how are you planning to leave the nest, aew nîn**?”
“I thought that if I could find a proper uniform, then I could slip into the ranks when they leave in the morning.”, Menrial said. “Then – “
” – you’d be discovered as soon as they made the roll call, and sent home in disgrace before you were even out of the forest.” Aris finished. “No, that’s not going to work.” She eyed Menrial’s slight frame. “Perhaps if you were taller…but as it is, you’ll never be able to pass for a male. Have you thought about going as a healer?”
Menrial shook her head. “I don’t know enough about herbs. I’d have to pretend to be an apprentice, and they’re only allowed to go under a mentor’s supervision.”
Aris sighed. “Then, little as I like it, I’m afraid there’s only one option left. Listen carefully. We don’t have much time…”
A few hours later, in the dim light of dawn, two figures passed the front gate of the palace and hurried down towards the riverbank. No one saw them, for it was not yet time for the troops to gather.
Aris led her daughter along the river for some time, until they came to a place where the shoreline curved in to form a calm pool. And there, set a few paces back into the riverbank, was a small boathouse. It was as finely crafted as the cottage Menrial called home, and in a similar style, with a peaked roof and carvings everywhere. However, there were no leaves in its design, save for those of the living ivy which clung to its sides. Instead, fish and otters frolicked among dancing waves.
The sight of the building seemed to affect Aris deeply, for as soon as the little cove came into view she stopped, and did not move onwards for sometime. Menrial waited patiently, even though the heavy burden she was carrying was becoming uncomfortable. She remembered Aris’s words.
And all that came back of him was his empty boat…
“Naneth?***”, she asked. “Is this…”
“Yes.”, said Aris quietly. “Long years have passed since I last came here. Nenthel has kept it up, for Mathon’s sake. They were friends once.”
“Oh.”, said Menrial. Nenthel had never spoken of this to her. Yet another revelation she’d never suspected.
Aris put her bundle down, and took a small key out of her pocket. Then she went over the boathouse, and after tearing aside the blanketing ivy, unlocked the door. Bending over a bit, she ducked into the darkness. Sounds of moving and scraping came from inside, then Aris’s voice, a little unsteady.
“It’s too heavy for me. I’ll need your help.”
Menrial dropped her baggage and hurried over to assist. The interior of the house was dark and the air was musty and old. She felt around, and then smooth wood met her fingers. Taking a firm hold of what she guessed was the side of the boat, she lifted, and with Aris carried it outside.
They laid it on the riverbank, and Aris went back inside for the paddle, after telling Menrial to start loading the supplies. As she did so, she could not help being a little distracted by the sheer beauty of the rowboat. It was made of a sleek, dark wood, and Mathon’s carvings lined the outside, culminating in the figurehead. This was of a river otter, staring inquisitively ahead into the distance, its beady eyes full of curiosity. Menrial ran her hand over the top of its slightly cocked head, wondering at the craftsmanship.
Aris came out then, with the paddle, and Menrial snatched her hand away guiltily at the pained look that crossed her mother’s face when she saw. She returned quickly to her work. Aris did not say anything, only stepped forward and began to help her.
“Do you remember what I told you?” she eventually asked, as they worked.
Menrial dutifully recited the plan they’d worked out. “I take the boat straight down river. The journey should take only a few days, and there’s a small settlement of men on the way, where I can stop for extra supplies if I need them. Once I get to Laketown, I’ll trade some of the jewelry you gave me for food and lodging. I wait there until the army arrives, and then try to slip into the ranks when they leave for Lonely Mountain. By that time, if I’m found out, it’ll be too much trouble for them to send me back.”
“Good.”, said Aris. The boat was now fully loaded, and ready to go. The faint sound of trumpets came to them on the breeze. The king’s army was gathering on the green. “You’d best go now. The earlier you arrive in Laketown, the better.”
“Yes.”, agreed Menrial. She bit her lip and blinked away the tears that were swelling in her eyes. “I’m grateful for your help, and I’m sorry it has to be this way.”
“Don’t be sorry, sweet.” Aris hugged her, and kissed her lightly on the forehead. “Just promise you’ll come home soon, that’s all.”
“I promise.”, said Menrial. “I swear.”
She pushed the boat off into the water, and leapt in, turning back for a moment.
Menrial picked up the oar and began to row, looking back over her shoulder again and again, until she could no longer see the white-garbed figure standing alone against the dark trees.
The formerly empty clearing in front of the king’s palace was now filled with a clamor of elves in military uniform. The standard of Mirkwood waved high in the breeze, as the roll call was repeated row after row in each company.
“Vanyar Nanir, present and accounted for.”, announced Caption Earel of the 23rd company. “And that’s all, thank Eru….wait a moment! Who are you?”
He had caught sight of another elf standing after Vanyar in line, or rather, behind him. In fact, now that all eyes were upon him, the elf looked as though he was trying to hide behind Vanyar. “Step forward!”, ordered the caption impatiently. “I don’t have all day!”
The elf obeyed, albeit reluctantly.
“Name?”, requested Earel again.
“Alduin Tevmir.”, Alduin said, without thinking, then cursed himself inwardly for giving his real name. They’d check the list! They’d know he wasn’t supposed to be here, and all of last night’s effort would be wasted!
“You’re not on my list.”, said the captain, with a frown. “Explain yourself.”
“I was transferred from another company.”, Alduin fibbed.
“Really? Cael!” Caption Earel called to a lower officer, who dutifully hurried over. “I need you to go to Feavril of the 14th Company, and get confirmation for the transfer of one Alduin Tevmir.”
Alduin’s heart dropped to his stomach.
But fortune was on his side. At that moment, there was a chorus of trumpet blasts, the signal to move out. Other companies began to march, among them the 14th, and Cael had to hurry back to his post. The meticulous Captain Earel was forced to drop the inquisition in favor of moving out his elves.
“We’ll investigate this further as soon as there’s time, Alduin Tevmir.”, he said. “For now, you’ll march with the 23rd.”
So it was that Alduin Tevmir left Mirkwood in full military uniform, a triumphant new member of the 23rd Company.
* Aldarion was a mariner king in the Second Age. His wife Erendis resented his long voyages, and eventually renounced him and raised their daughter Ancalime independently. The story is found in the Unfinished Tales, by J.R.R. Tolkien.
** aew nîn = my little bird (Sindarin elvish).
*** naneth = mother (Sindarin elvish)