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Thranduil's Begetting Day  by daw the minstrel

Many thanks to Nilmandra for beta reading this chapter for me.  Just as a reminder, Calylad is Maltanaur’s grandson.  He’s about the same age as Sinnarn.  Nalden is Calith’s son. He’s 10 years younger than the other two boys.


Chapter 2.  The Perfect Gift

Peering into each stall as he went, Sinnarn made his way down the central aisle of the stable with Nalden at his heels like an eager puppy.  From the stableyard came the calls of grooms going about their morning routine.

“Will he have a shovel for me too?” Nalden asked.

“Probably,” Sinnarn said.  He was used to Nalden’s constant presence now.  Nalden was so good-hearted that Sinnarn had been unable to be irritated at him for very long.

In the last stall, he found Calylad with a pick in his hand, cleaning the hooves of a little grey mare.  “I am just finishing,” he said when he saw them.  He dropped the foot he was holding, gave the mare a friendly slap on the rump, and came out into the aisle.  “The shovels are over there.”  He pointed to three shovels leaning against the stable’s back wall and grinned at Nalden.   “I thought you might be coming too, Nalden.”

Nalden blushed but nonetheless looked pleased by the attention.  They each shouldered a shovel.

Calylad glanced toward the sound of the grooms’ voices.  “We should go out the side door.”

Sinnarn nodded.  Today was his grandfather’s begetting day and thus theoretically a holiday, but with so many horses in the stable, Calylad’s father probably expected him to lend a hand.  But what Sinnarn had planned would be much more interesting, and he did not see why his friend should miss out on it.

They slipped out the stable’s side door and made their way along a path that quickly took them into the forest.  Sinnarn led the way.  He wanted to go to a spot he had found the previous week when he was out with one of the foresters, checking for signs of disease among the maples.  If he was right in what he thought he saw there, he would have a perfect gift for his grandfather.  They neared a maple grove.

“Look for arrowhead mushrooms,” Sinnarn said.  “There should be a whole bed of them.”  They spread out.

“Here!” Nalden cried almost immediately.  Sinnarn hurried around a stand of scalebark bushes to find Nalden all but jumping up and down in excitement and pointing at the mushrooms growing in the bushes’ shade.

“Good job, Short Stuff,” Sinnarn said.  Nalden glowed.

Calylad came up to stand beside Sinnarn.  “You think rilliums are under there?”

“Maybe,” Sinnarn said.  “I hope so.  When my grandfather found them on our camping trip, he said arrowheads like the same conditions, so you can use one to find the other.  They will be about a forearm’s length down.  Dig carefully.  We do not want to cut them.”  They began to ply their shovels.

“Is it true rilliums stink?” Nalden asked.  In his desire to heed Sinnarn’s words and be careful, he was lifting the soil away a finger’s width at a time.

“Only when you cut into them,” Sinnarn said.  “I brought a bag to keep them fresh because we will need to put them someplace until I can surprise my grandfather tonight.”

“I would worry more about poisoning someone than the smell,” Calylad said.  He dragged his arm across his sweaty forehead.

“My grandfather says you just have to cook them right,” Sinnarn said.

He pushed the tip of his shovel into the dirt, and a powerful stench leapt up and punched him in the nose.  He reeled and was instantly transported back to that day in the woods the previous summer.  His grandfather had sliced the rilliums to cook them while the guards backed away with horror on their faces.  It had taken all of Sinnarn’s love for his grandfather to make him hold his breath and eat a few of the things.

“We have found them!” he cried.  “Stop digging.”  He scraped at the dirt with the side of his shovel, and there they were:  juicy black lumps connect to one another by thick twists of curling roots.

“I take it back,” Calylad said in a voice muffled by the hand over his nose.  “I would worry more about the smell.”  Nalden scuttled away, his eyes wide and his hands clasped over the lower part of his face.

“I have no idea what you are complaining about,” Sinnarn lied.  Careful to breathe through his mouth, he used his belt knife to slice the roots and pry the rilliums out of their dark bed.  Juice oozed from the cut roots.  Sinnarn heard Nalden gag.  He reached hastily into his belt pouch, drew out the brightly-colored sack he had brought, and began shoving the rilliums into it.

“Is that the bag the Man from Dale brought?” Calylad asked.


“What was in it?”

Sinnarn shrugged.  “Mannish rubbish.”  He pushed one last rillium into the sack, then drew the drawstring tight, hoping that would contain the smell.  He wiped his hands on a tuft of grass and turned to his friends, holding the bag as far away from him as he could and thinking hard.  He had planned to take the sack to the palace kitchen and ask Cook to keep it for him until it was needed, but he could see now that would not work.  Cook would clout him over the head and throw the rilliums in the fire.  “Can I hide them in the stable until it is time to give them to my grandfather?”

Calylad snorted.  “Of course not.  The stink would drive the horses into a frenzy.”

“Where then?” Sinnarn asked.

“How about the cave by the rapids where they store the boats?” Nalden said.

“Good idea,” Sinnarn said.

“It is a good idea,” Calylad agreed.  “That cave is far enough up the river that people are unlikely to wander in and throw up from the fumes.  Nalden and I will go first Sinnarn.  You keep well behind us.”

Sinnarn snorted.  “You are being ridiculous.”  The snort cleared his nose a little.  He did it again and then followed his friends toward the Forest River.

They turned upstream, away from the palace, at a point where rapids churned in a long, rock-strewn stretch.  A short distance beyond the rapids, a narrow cave snaked deep into the river bank.  Calylad opened the door that had been fitted to the cave’s mouth to keep animals from claiming it as a den.  He and Nalden stood aside as Sinnarn arrived.

“We will wait here,” Calylad said.  He and Nalden had both pinched their noses at Sinnarn’s approach.

Ignoring their efforts to outdo one another’s reactions, Sinnarn entered the cave. As soon as he was an arm’s length inside, Calylad let go of the door and it slammed shut.  Sinnarn heard him mumble something to Nalden that made them both laugh.  Enough light seeped in around the door that Sinnarn did not care if it was open or closed.  Except for the fresh air, of course.

He edged his way past the line of stored boats to where the cave narrowed and continued on.  It went back a long way, and Sinnarn judged it wisest to store the rilliums well away from the entrance.  He finally found a place where rocks lay jumbled against one wall and hollowed out a storage space.  He deposited the bag in it, balanced a rock to screen the bag from view, and stepped back to examine his handiwork.  Good enough, he decided, and went back to rejoin his friends.

When he shoved the door open, he found Calylad and Nalden sitting near the water’s edge. They climbed to their feet as he emerged. Both of them sniffed at his approach.

“You might want to wash your hands,” Calylad said.

Sinnarn raised his hands to his nose and immediately crouched by the river to rinse them as best he could.  The other two waited at a short distance. At last, Sinnarn decided he had gotten most of the rillium juice off, and when he approached Calylad and Nalden, they did not flinch, so he assumed he was clean enough.

“I need to get back to the stable,” Calylad said.  They started along the path toward home.

They had taken only a few steps before a smiling Eman of Esgaroth emerged from the trees and walked toward them. They halted.

“Mae govannen,” Sinnarn said.   Then he wondered if he should have greeted the Man in Common. Even his grandfather would be displeased if Sinnarn offended the Mannish guests, but he had not had much contact with Men and found them an odd lot.

“Good morning,” Eman said cheerily.  “The king has fine weather for his celebration.”

“He does,” Sinnarn agreed.

Eman hesitated, then snapped his fingers.  “I just remembered.  Wasn’t it you to whom the king entrusted Dale’s gift last night?”

“Yes, it was.”

Eman leaned closer to him.  “We of Esgaroth would dearly love to know what Dale gave the king.  We would not want to give a gift that was less than your grandfather merited.”

Sinnarn smiled.  Something about this Man made Sinnarn long to torment him.  “I am sure the king would welcome any gift Esgaroth gives, no matter how small.”

Calylad shifted from one foot to the other, and Sinnarn read the message he was sending.  If Calylad’s father had missed him, he would be growing annoyed by now.  “We must be on our way,” Sinnarn told Eman, and he led his friends into the woods.  He glanced back once to see a frowning Eman looking after them.

“That’s the one who thought Eilian was a groom yesterday,” Calylad said as soon as they were out of earshot.

“He is nosy,” Nalden said.

Sinnarn had to agree.  “I would not want him messing about with the rilliums,” he said.  He considered what to do.  “I think perhaps we should lock the cave door.  I will get a padlock from my grandfather’s store room.”

“I have never seen a padlock,” Nalden said.  “Will it really keep people out?”

“Oh yes,” Sinnarn said.  “They would need the key to get in, and I intend to keep that.”

They made their way back to the stronghold and went first to the stables to return the shovels.  The moment they stepped into the stables, Calylad’s father emerged from a stall.  “Where have you been?” he demanded.

“I was helping Sinnarn prepare his grandfather’s begetting day gift,” Calylad said.

His father had looked ready to scold, but at Calylad’s answer, he paused.  “Very well.  But I need you now.  Do not go running off again until I say you may.  And Sinnarn, I hear your naneth is looking for you.”  A groom called to him, and he grimaced and went off to hear what the Elf wanted.

Calylad took the shovels and rolled his eyes at Sinnarn.  “You will have to wait until later to check on Eman and the boat cave.”

Sinnarn took his leave with Nalden following him.  On the way out of the stable, they passed Calylad’s grandfather, who sat on a bench just inside the doors.  “Mae govannen,” Maltanaur said.

“Mae govannen,” Sinnarn returned, his mind on what to do about locking the cave.

As they neared the palace, he turned to Nalden.  “Can you come in with me, Nalden?  I will give you the lock and you can put it on the door.  I will show you how.”

“Of course.”  Nalden’s face lit up with eagerness.

“You can keep an eye on the cave while Calylad and I are busy,” Sinnarn told him as they started over the bridge leading to the Great Doors.

“You can count on me,” Nalden said.


Eman of Esgaroth blew out his breath in exasperation.  Elves were the most maddening creatures on the face of Arda.  In Eman’s plain hearing, Thranduil had told his grandson to put Dale’s gift away, and yet Eman was sure he’d seen it in the boy’s hand just a short while ago.  Why would Thranduil store his begetting day gifts so far from the palace?

He grimaced.  A begetting day.  How could Elves celebrate such a thing so openly?  How did they even know when such an occasion should be celebrated?  Did a male keep track of every time he bedded his wife and do it so seldom he was certain when he had gotten her with child?  Did he then tell his children about it?  The whole matter was too odd to spend much time thinking about.

But then Elves were odd.  Eman had expressed his appreciation for last night’s feast in the strongest terms possible, and Thranduil’s youngest son had looked at him as if he dropped his trousers.  Maybe he should have announced his intentions to make this a begetting day.  Maybe they would have liked that better.

And another thing.  How was he supposed to sort out the amount of deference due various Elves when the high and the low mixed together without rhyme or reason?  The groom who had cared for his horse when he arrived had turned up at the previous night’s gathering in silk robes.  Eman did not understand it at all.

He walked moodily onward.  The wretched grandson had not had the colorful bag with him just now, so where could he have left it?  Almost instantly, a possible answer to that question appeared.  A door was set in the rocky bank of the river.  His heart quickened.  This must be where the gift from Dale was stored.  He would just duck inside and have a quick look.  The Trade Council would want to know if Dale had put Thranduil in their debt because, if that had happened, the Elven King was likely to join with Bram in demanding the docking fees be lowered.

He pulled open the door and peered inside.  A cave stretched ahead of him with a line of overturned boats stored down its center.  He stepped inside.  The heavy door slammed behind him, plunging him into almost total darkness.  He swore, pushed the door open again, and propped it against a rock so he would have enough light to see what he was doing.

He made his way back into the depths of the cave, peering under each boat as he went but seeing no sign of the gaudy sack.  When he reached the last of the boats, he hesitated.  The light grew faint this far from the door.  Moreover, a faint, unpleasant smell lingered in the air.  Still, he had come this far.  He might as well see what he could find while he had the chance.

He moved carefully through the cave, feeling his way as he went.  A pile of rocks loomed against the wall on left, and he had kicked one of them before he realized how far out the pile extended.  The rocks slid a little apart, and the smell grew stronger.  He was starting to back away when he glimpsed a patch of yellow.  He leaned forward with narrowed eyes.  There it was!  Helad of Dale’s gift to Thranduil.

Stepping gingerly over the loose stones, he reached for the sack, turned toward the light coming from the door, and opened it.

A powerful stench flowed out of the bag and formed a cloud around his head, burning his nose and making his eyes water.  He had never smelled anything like it.  If some plague had killed every fish in the Long Lake and all the carcasses had piled up on the shore and been left for two weeks in the hot summer sun, they would not have smelled worse than this.  He dropped the bag and ran toward the entrance, erupting out into the clean air like a drowning man leaping out of the water.  He kicked the stone away from the door and let it slam shut, closing in the putrid fumes.  Then he dropped to the ground and just breathed.

What in Arda had been in that sack?  Was this the “very fine” gift Dale had given to Thranduil?  Surely not.  If it was, then Esgaroth had nothing to worry about when the time came to negotiate over docking fees.

But what was it?  He pictured the dark, juicy looking lumps and was alarmed to realize there was something vaguely food-like about them.  Were the lumps some sort of Elven delicacy? Could anyone actually bring themselves to eat them?  And horror of horrors, what if the things were served at tonight’s banquet and he was expected to put them in his mouth?

No one could make him do it, he vowed.  To Mordor with diplomacy.

He drew one more lungful of blessedly stink-free air and climbed to his feet.  He was feeling shaken and wanted to go back to his room and lie down for a while.  He took the path that led to the palace, and as he rounded a bend, he came face to face with Helad of Dale.  The man’s face looked strained.  He nodded curtly to Eman and went on his way without speaking.  Eman judged that Helad was feeling the stress of the constant presence of Elves about as much as he was.

He set off again only to find a determined looking Elf coming toward him.  He groped his memory for the Elf’s name.  Beliond, that was it.  Eman had seen him watching Helad during the previous night’s feast.  Beliond brushed past Eman as if he were not there, his attention all on the fading form of Helad.  For a moment, Eman almost felt sorry for the man from Dale.  Beliond was a little frightening.

Once again, he started for the palace and once again he found an Elf coming his way. This time though, it was the smallest of the three boys he’d seen near the cave.  The boy carried something small wrapped in what looked like an old tunic.  He eyed Eman suspiciously and raced past him, intent upon whatever errand was taking him back toward the cave.  Eman didn’t care.  The child was too young to worry about.  He went on his way, and this time the path was empty.


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