2. Mae Govannen
Chapter Two: Mae Govannen
"Well met, well met, oh maiden fair,
Pray tell me whether you know
My one, my dear, my own true love?
She is dead, sir, long ago . . ."
Traditional English Folksong
Sigrid traveled north along the banks of the Celduin for three days. She had left the trees far behind, and the swift river ran through wide grasslands. After the first night, she moved by day, finding dense thickets of brush to lie down in at night, where she lay wrapped tightly in her threadbare cloak. The first nights alone had terrified her, and she spent them jumping at every stray sound of an owl or a night insect. But after a day or so, her foot-weary exhaustion sent her off into a dreamless sleep.
Early in the fourth day, she began to hear a great roaring sound to the north and the river seemed to pick up speed as it ran past her. Eventually it revealed itself as a huge waterfall tumbling down from a high plateau. Sigrid found a portage trail that took her to the top, and at the summit, she found herself on the shores of a long lake that stretched off northward into distant hills.
Being on the left-hand shore, she had no choice but to head north along the beach. It was the right way, for she could see, far off, a speck on the water and the haze of smoke rising from a town. By the time she reached it, it was late afternoon and the sun had sunk low in the western sky. She was dirty and footsore, and her cram had run out the day before.
Another river, not so wide or swift as the Celduin, came in from the northwest, emptying into the lake and blocking her path. On the other side, she could see a guard hut and a wooden causeway that led out to the town. It looked to be a goodly sized town. Surely there would be well to do folk there looking to hire a maidservant with a strong back and a willing hand.
On the shingle sat rafts of lashed barrels and two boats -- the sort Sigrid was used to on the river at home. She looked around her and saw no one about. What harm if she used one to get across to the northern bank? She took one of the boats and paddled across the river, carefully beaching the craft on the other side. She headed toward the causeway.
"Hey, you! Yes, you, lass! Who gave you leave to use that boat?"
"I meant no harm, sir. Merely to get across." Sigrid saw three men coming down the beach from the guardhouse, and she noticed a look exchanged among them.
"It so haps that it was my boat, and I charge a fee for the use of it," one said, and the others nodded, smirking. "What now have you to give me?"
She had nothing, and she began to regret the pride that had made her leave the pennies on her aunt's table. "Forgive me, I meant no offense. I will find work in the town and repay you, if only you will let me pass."
"Not good enough," the man said. "There is a fee for the boat, and a toll for the bridge. If you have no coin, we will take that toll in favors of a tenderer kind. A kiss or two for me and my mates -- and perhaps a feel of them pretty bubbies for me, since it was my boat you were using." The man's two companions nodded eagerly.
"No. Let me pass or let me go." The very thought of being handled by these louts filled her with disgust."Don't be such a princess," the man leered. "It's nothing you won't be doing in time, anyway. Lasses of a mind to be 'friendly' earn far more coin in the taverns -- and in the private houses from what I hear tell."
Sigrid shook her head and made as if to turn away. "I said no. Now let me be!"
But the man had hold of her, grabbing at her dress and trying to clutch at her bosom while the others looked on, laughing. Sigrid struggled and pulled free. In the process, she lost hold of her bundle of clothing, which came undone and strewed out on the ground. She tripped and went down herself, falling to her face and tasting dirt."What is this ill thing? Stop it immediately!"
She heard a new voice. A deep one, used to giving orders from the sound of it. The laughter of the men ceased suddenly and they moved off. Sigrid turned her head to the side and saw the legs of horses like a thicket of young saplings. A mounted group.
"Churls! Has it come to this in latter days? That you would trouble a woman upon the road? Explain yourselves!"
"She used a boat, my lord . . ." one of the men said. "We required payment."
"Liar! That boat belongs to one of my own people. My gold rebuilt this town. My blood rebuilt it. And you would ask payment from those who wish to enter it? Get out of my sight!"
Evidently, they had listened, for Sigrid heard the sound of footsteps beating a hasty retreat. And she heard another set, getting down from the horse and moving on the path beside her. "Truly, Galion, I wonder why I ever thought to help these Mortals." From the corner of her eye she saw pale hands gathering up her scattered belongings, and she blushed to think of a gentleman gazing upon her meager possessions, much less her one spare shift and her clouts. "Are you unhurt, lass?"
Sigrid raised her head from the dirt to see a pair of feet clad in boots of softly draped leather. Her eyes traveled upward, taking in tightly fitted linen trousers and a long fingered hand held out to her. There was a great signet ring on the forefinger of this hand, with a stylized oak leaf upon it. She took the hand and allowed her benefactor to help her to her feet.
Once standing, she raised her face for her first look at him, and she had to raise it high, for he stood a full head taller than the men of her village. Had she not already known he was a man of wealth from the mounted retinue, she would have seen it immediately from the quality of his clothing, for although he was dressed for travel, his riding jacket of deep green sueded leather was finely cut and the high collar was studded all about with tiny gold beads. They shone at his neck like a constellation of little stars and they matched his bright golden hair, which was bound back into two thin plaits behind his ears and held at the ends by tall bands of silver.
From his face, he looked to be no more than a youth, although a youth unlike the coarse oafs she was used to fending off. But the firm set of his lips and his masterful bearing spoke otherwise -- of a man seasoned by long years of command. Indeed, this was no Man, she realized, and the gently pointed ears confirmed it. An Elf stood before her; one of the Fair Folk her uncle had spoken of.
Their eyes met, and Sigrid found herself staring into the depths of Ages past. So fair, so wise, but so very, very old.
"Elbereth!" His eyes shot open and she heard him draw in his breath sharply. His hand clasped convulsively around hers and hung on. "You will come with me!"
He said it in that very manner, as if it were a foregone conclusion. Then he seemed to remember himself and smiled lightly. "I cannot leave you out here upon the road, lass. You might come to more harm." Tossing her bundle of clothing to one of his men, he took her by the waist and set her sideways across the front of his saddle. Swinging up behind her, he motioned for the group to ride on.
"Shut your mouth, Galion, or a fly will go in," she heard him say. She felt grateful for the strong arms fencing her in as the big bay charger moved onto the wooden causeway. The waters of the lake, just past the railing, seemed very far below.
Sigrid cast a quick sidelong glance at the elf who rode beside them. His slate blue eyes were wide, and his brows were practically nestling in his dark hair. He was clad in the same green and brown leather as the one she was coming to think of as the lord, but not so richly detailed. He was some kind of trusted retainer, she supposed. The others, who rode behind, she deemed to be bodyguards. Galion, as the Elven-lord had called him, held her bundle in one hand, the reins of his mount in the other, and he stared unabashedly, making no attempt to conceal his amazement.
The eyes of the elf-servant were not the only ones upon her as the group made its way through the narrow streets of the town. There was, perforce little room in a town built upon pilings, and Sigrid could almost reach out and touch the shutters of the houses from her perch aboard the big bay stallion. She felt the stares of curious housewives from windows and doorways.
They came to a tall building on the edge of the market pool. The Elven-lord lifted her down as grooms rushed out to take charge of the horses. Others came, including a stout man who looked to be the innkeeper himself.
"I trust your journey was a safe and pleasant one, my lord," he said, bowing. "The delegation from Rhûn arrived yesterday and they await you. Your rooms are in readiness."
"My customary suite?"
"Yes, my lord, the ones overlooking the water. The beds have been readied for you and your man."
"See to it that the third bed is made up. This lady will be with us as well."
Sigrid saw the innkeeper's eyebrows shoot just as high as the Elven servant's had, but he recovered himself admirably.
She was rather surprised herself. "My lord," she whispered as the chambermaid led them up the stairs, "I do not think I . . ."
"Have you any other place to stay?" he asked bluntly. She shook her head. "Well, then, it is settled. Have no fear, lass . . . ah, what is your name?"
"Sigrid," she murmured shyly.
"You will have your own bed, Sigrid, and I, Thranduil Oropherion, give you my pledge that neither I, nor any that is mine, shall trouble you in it."
"Not cursed likely!" she heard the servant, Galion, mutter under his breath.
The rooms were clean and pleasant, with a sitting room that had a view of the lake. While Thranduil conferred with the chamber wench and pressed some gold into her hand, Sigrid looked around. She had never seen anything quite so grand; not even the house of the village headman.
Within a few minutes, footmen arrived bearing a tub and buckets of hot water. "I will attend you, Sire," Galion said, beginning to direct the footmen to the largest bedchamber where Thranduil would stay.
"No, Galion, I plan to spend the next hour with the delegation from Rhûn. You may join me or spend the time in the tavern drinking that horse urine you call ale. I thought Mistress Sigrid would like the chance to refresh herself first. Or are you suggesting that I smell like a horse myself?"
"Of course not, Sire." Evidently this manservant was careful with his tongue, although to Sigrid, he still looked dubious of the situation.
"Is this agreeable to you, lass?" Thranduil said, directing the footmen to a smaller side room.
She nodded. How could it not be? A real bath with hot water all to herself? At home, she swam in the river in the warmer months and in the winter had to wipe herself down from a basin of tepid water, all the while trying to avoid the leering eyes of her uncle.
"Very well. We shall dine when I return." He left, along with the footmen.
Sigrid went into her small bedchamber and stripped off her travel-begrimed dress with a grateful sigh. She stepped into the tub and crouched in the hot water, using the ewer to pour it over her hair. She found a cake of fine white soap beside the tub, and she made use of that as well, to scrub away the dirt of the past days. Cleanliness was such a relief, and as the water turned dark, she realized she must have been quite a sight, with her filthy tangled hair and her dirt smudged face. How she must have smelled to those two refined elves, she did not care to think.
The water soon became so dirty that she did not care to tarry long, despite the comfort of the heat on her sore limbs. A towel had been laid out along with the soap, but once she had dried herself she could not stand the thought of putting on her filthy, sweat-stained dress again. Her other dress was in her bundle, out in the parlour, along with her other things. Taking the blanket from the bed, she wrapped it about herself and stepped out of her room.
She found the chamber wench laying the table with silver utensils and goblets. "Where are my things?" Sigrid asked, looking about the room.
"Your lord had me take them away for washing and mending, and he told me to do the same with the dress you had on once you were out of it." At Sigrid's look of dismay, she continued. "Don't you worry, though. I've a dress ready for you, along with a fresh shift. And a night dress, too, for tonight. You won't have to sleep naked."
"You can procure these things so quickly?"
The girl laughed. "When the Elvenking gives us gold and tells us to do something, we do it, with no question or backtalk."
"You didn't know? Well, I suppose not. He isn't much of a one for state in these days, although Master innkeeper tells me he came with his entire army two hundred years ago. But if you want my opinion, the story about the dragon burning the town is a tale for old wives. Dragons are just a fable meant to frighten silly girls out of their virginity."
"I thought the Elf-king was an old wives tale to frighten silly maids out of wandering in the forest," Sigrid said.
"Oh no, he's real enough. King Thranduil comes from the Wood almost every year to deal trade with the Easterlings of Rhûn, and of course he stays here, this being the best inn in Laketown. We look forward to his visits, for it means lots of fine wine to serve and tips in gold for all of us -- Anya and Katrin in the tavern especially, seeing to the special needs of the men of the east. They're lusty fellows, for all they dress strange. But never the king himself or that manservant of his."
"Perhaps the Elves are not made the same way as Men are," Sigrid ventured.
This elicited a bawdy laugh. "Oh, I've seen a few of the raftsmen, and there's little difference. And after five years of turning over his room, I can tell you that the mighty Elvenking sometimes spoils his sheets of a night, just like the next man. But never a word or deed out of line from him, although there have been a few maids who might have welcomed it in my time, and long before, from what I hear. So I think you should be safe enough here tonight -- assuming you want to be safe, that is." The wench turned and rummaged through a basket nearby. "Here's a shift, and the gown I told you about. And a nicer comb, and a ribbon for your hair."
"Oh no," Sigrid said. "This is too fine." The dress was of soft wine colored wool, simply cut but elegant, the shift of fine linen.
The maid shrugged. "I'd've been happy to sell you one of mine, but this was what he wanted. I'd say you've fallen into a bit of good fortune, lass, at least for the next few days."
Sigrid took the clothing and went back into her chamber. She would far rather have been given a dress in which she could look for work as a domestic servant. This was the gown of a lady, and although it looked lovely once she had it on, it would be of little use to her after the next few days -- assuming this Elvenking kept her with him that long. How like a man used to riches! No thought of practicality at all. She combed out her hair and plaited it into a single braid down her back.
Thranduil and his servant had returned when she stepped back out into the parlour. If she'd wondered how she looked in the dress, she wondered no longer. "Very pretty," the king said with a smile. "Eh, Galion?"
"Yes, Sire," the elf said with a sidewise glance. He still looked puzzled, Sigrid thought. The chambermaid merely smirked.
"I almost regret I will not be able to show you off at dinner, but the common room stinks of pipeweed. I cannot abide it for long. We will dine here, if that is agreeable to you," he said, nodding at the already set table.
Sigrid was so ravenous that she would have taken dinner out on the barren lakeshore as long as she was fed. She nodded, as a group of footmen brought in trays of food. And such a feast it was! She saw a joint of venison, a roast chicken, and a baked fish, all born on heated platters, along with several dishes of steamed summer vegetables and a basket of bread. And of course wine, both red and white in tall decanters.
Sigrid seated herself, but feared to begin eating, despite her hunger as the footmen and chamber wench bowed and left. A daunting array of silverware lay to either side of her plate. She was used to eating with her knife, at home, and occasionally she used a crude wooden spoon, but here, all was a mystery.
Calmly, Thranduil began to eat, using each utensil in turn, even though this led him to have no more than one bite of anything for the first few minutes. Gratefully, Sigrid watched and made note. The use of the silver with the three tines for spearing meat came with a little difficulty, but soon she was managing it with ease. There was one for the venison, and yet another for the fish, she noted. She felt relieved when Thranduil picked up a leg of chicken with his bare hand, offering her the other drumstick. This was more like it.
She narrowly avoided drinking the water from a small bowl in front of her, as Thranduil dipped his fingers in his own and wiped them on a linen cloth. Sigrid had indeed wondered how water with mint leaves floating in it would taste. With an amused look, the Elf-king raised his glass of red wine to her and winked. Sigrid tasted her own wine.
"Take care, lass," the servant, Galion, said quickly. "Dorwinion can be overpowering for one unaccustomed to it."
That made Thranduil laugh out loud. "Galion speaks from vast experience," he said, with a conspiratorial chuckle.
Sigrid saw the other elf color slightly at the tips of his ears, but he seemed to accept it in good humor. She had not found it strange that a servant should be taking his meal with a king, for the two of them seemed to have an easy camaraderie between them. Galion's warning would not have been necessary, for she could tell that the wine was strong at her first sip. Drinking gingerly, she made the glass last the entire meal.
Even so, by the time the meal had ended and she could eat not another bite, the wine had gone to Sigrid's head. And had she not been tipsy, she was exhausted from the events of the day. Excusing herself, she went to her bedchamber as the footmen cleared the table and brought another bath up to the room.
"Rest well, lass, and may your dreams be sweet ones," Thranduil said as she went. Galion merely bowed, but he gave her a smile. Sigrid thought that perhaps she was winning him over.
She changed into the linen nightgown and cleaned her teeth with the shredded willow twig laid out on her washstand. The bed was soft, the sheets were clean, and the night breeze off the lake felt pleasant on her skin as it blew in through the open window.
From the next room, there came the sound of water pouring, and she smiled as Thranduil began to sing. "When Spring unfolds the beechen leaf, and sap is in the bough; When light is on the wild-wood stream . . ."
She drifted off to sleep, lulled by the sound of splashing, and his lovely, lovely voice.
* * *
To be continued . . .
* * * * * * *
Author's note: The opening quote is a paraphrase of the traditional English folksong, The Mayor's Daughter Of Islington.
Thranduil's bathtub song is by JRR Tolkien, The Song Of The Ent And The Entwife, from The Two Towers. According to Treebeard:
"There was an Elvish song that spoke of this, or at least I understand it. It used to be sung up and down the Great River. It was never an Entish song, mark you . . ."
At the end of the Second Age, Thranduil and Oropher dwelt in the western glens of the Emyn Duir, later to be known as the Mountains of Mirkwood. Thranduil would have known this tune.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.