6. In Hot Water
"Afternoon, miss," the park ranger said with a tip of the hat. "What might ye be wantin' today?"
"A hiking pass," Meg asked, glancing quickly at the map of the park posted in the kiosk window. "I thought I'd just walk in to the lake and back today."
The ranger took her money and began filling in the form that would be her permit. "Ye made it out th' other day, then? I dinna see ye leave."
"Yes, it was a lovely ride too - thank you. I never knew that anything as beautiful as Slattadale existed before my sister-in-law told me about it." Meg cringed inside; it had been Gene, not Sally, to tell her of the beauty of the place - and of the mystery he'd found. She didn't like lies; they were too difficult to keep track of eventually, and the truth would only make things worse.
"Well, I heard that there be a storm brewin', so don't be too long on the walk. We don't want to have to send out the search and rescue, should you get caught in an early snow."
"I won't," Meg promised with a wave after folding her permit and tucking it into a pocket. She stuck strictly to the hiking trail until she got around a bend from the kiosk, and then ducked into the surrounding underbrush. I hope they don't have anything like poison ivy or oak, she thought as she pushed through, heading in the direction Wendell had told her to go.
"Over here," she heard him call softly, and pushed through a final set of brambles and into a small clearing. "Come on, up you go. We cannot wait here for long." He put down a hand and stuck out a booted foot to help her mount up behind him. "There is a storm brewing…"
"That's what the ranger said!" Meg commented, slipping her arms around his chest.
"Can you not smell the moisture in the air?" Wendell asked after saying a soft word and getting the grey to start moving again.
She shook her head. "I'm just worried that the guy will remember me and that I didn't exit the park on time," she worried. "It was during a search and rescue for a guy and his brother that Gene saw Imladris, you know…"
"Worry not, that will not happen again. Now that I know to hide us from above, the eyes of those who fly over this place will slide away from Imladris without even noting that there is a ravine there." He patted her hands, clenched at his chest.
Meg frowned. "What do you mean, 'the eyes of those who fly over will slide away'? What is it that you do?"
"I protect Imladris," he answered simply, "and I do so with skills that are mine to use. Have you not wondered why, with the modern vehicles and such, that the path to Imladris has not yet been plotted and set with all the others?"
"I didn't even know there was a path until I got to the edge of the ravine," she reminisced. "I just followed what I remembered of the terrain that I saw from the air."
"But even then, had there not been a reason for you to find us, the path would have confounded you and left you back where you started," Wendell told her firmly. "Lord Elrond was the one who established those paths and their wards; there has never been a need to alter them." He stopped the horse and turned about to listen. "We must hurry, and waste no time in enjoying the sights."
"Nothing that cannot be remedied, unfortunately. I just was hoping this would not be needed, however," he murmured and turned the grey to face in the direction they'd come. Suddenly he sat up straighter, held out a hand, and clenched it; and Meg felt the air still about them as if they had entered a room and closed the door.
"What did you do?" she demanded.
"Shhhhh!" he cautioned in a terse whisper. "Sight I might be able to deceive, but the sound of your voice still travels as the One intended and would give away our location."
Then Meg heard what Wendell had already heard - the sound of masculine voices and footfalls - and grew very still.
"Ye say ye're certain she came this way?"
"I called ahead, an' Doug said the lass never passed the first crossing." This was the voice of the ranger she had purchased her permit from! "She must be strolling off the path. Damn it, I knew there were somethin' about her - an' the fact nobody ever saw her ride out of the park the other day."
Sure enough, the two rangers appeared in a clearing only a few yards away, but seemed not to even notice the horse and riders. They paused only once to look intently in all directions; and then continued on their way, their discussion of her strangeness, as well as what purpose she might have sneaking around parts of the park that weren't open to the public, unabated.
Not until Wendell finally made the grey begin to walk again - and then urged it into a trot - did she dare question again. "What did you do? Why didn't they see us?"
"As I said, I merely made it so that the eyes would slide over us without noticing. I could have kept moving as well, but I was afraid that you might keep talking if I did; it is harder to hide voices as well as sight, and I had little time to prepare." He sounded as if it were something that he did on a daily basis.
He patted her hands around him. "Ah. That is one of the skills of my people, Meg - and the reason I am welcome and have a home in Imladris. It would be very difficult to explain the how; I very rarely stop to think about the how, only to consider the when and the why."
"You're not making any sense again."
His hand remained warm against hers, holding them in place. "I know, and I am sorry that it seems that I must confound you again. Truth be told, you would have a very difficult time believing me if I told you all."
"That again." She wasn't thrilled to run up against his stubbornness and refusal to try to explain the inexplicable.
"Bear with me, and try not to worry too much about that which confuses you for the next eight days less a few hours," he said, obviously trying to reassure her. "I know it is a lot to ask, but I have good reason to ask it; and you will know in due time both the answers to all your questions and the reason I asked your indulgence now."
Meg shook her head. "If I hadn't seen it with my own two eyes, I wouldn't have believed that you could… 'make eyes slide over us without noticing.' And if I didn't know you a little bit, what you just did would be more than a little frightening…"
"I do not wish to frighten you, Meg - far from it. But I fear saying more would only serve to frighten you needlessly."
"I think that is almost as frightening as anything else I've seen or heard so far," she offered testily.
Wendell was quiet for a long moment. "And for that, I am truly sorry."
How he was guiding the grey, Meg couldn't figure out either. Perhaps it was the fact that he shifted often, that the way in which he sat the horse gave it direction; but he seemed to be able to communicate with the animal without use of reins or words, and the horse seemed able to move through fairly dense brush without any trouble at all. In fact, it almost seemed as if the brambles made an effort to part to allow them through.
The ride back to Imladris was far less leisurely than the ride to the village; but even so, the sky overhead was growing dark and forbidding by the time they arrived at the edge of the ravine. Meg found herself huddling against Wendell's back, for the breeze had stiffened and it was a chill one. He still held his hand over hers, however, and the warmth from that touch was heartening, despite the direction her thoughts had taken her since the end of their discussion.
What was she doing, riding into a remote and prohibited region of a Scottish park with a man who could convince otherwise competent park rangers to simply not see them and guide his horse without any visible means at all? What was she doing, returning to a place that seemed apart from any normal flow of time, a place that nobody other than she and her brother had ever happened on?
She wasn't a brave person; her idea of boldness had been moving to Los Angeles upon the death of their mother and the sale of the property in the Midwest. Gene had warned her; he'd lived for a few years in that semi-tropical and yet coldly impersonal city before marrying Sally, and he knew that a small-town girl like her would have difficulty there. She'd gotten her job on her qualifications and the recommendation that her father's old law partner had promised to give her, and landed herself in a cut-throat clerical position where most of the other women there were trying to oust her. Four years she'd been there now, none of them truly happy ones.
Did she honestly think it wise to jump from that grand mistake to agreeing to spend over a week virtually incommunicado in a mysterious estate far up into an ancient Scottish forest, at an estate located at the bottom of a ravine and probably out of any reach of cell phone service? If she ended up wishing for rescue, from what quarter could she hope to see it coming?
And what about Wendell? He wasn't young - certainly not as young as Lord Celeborn or any of the others at Imladris - but he wasn't old either. His hair was a luxurious brown without the slightest hint of grey, and was soft against her cheek as she huddled for warmth. And the torso beneath her arms felt hard and muscled, as if he were used to regularly doing hard labor. She knew so little about him that made any sense, and what she knew that didn't make sense was truly off the wall. Valinor: some place across the sea to the west? He might as well be speaking of Atlantis, for she knew all too well that there was nothing between England and America beside a very few small islands - none of them named Valinor. She'd flown over that sea; she knew how empty and monotonous it was.
There were moments when their eyes would meet, and Meg could feel the warmth and friendship they held for her like a palpable presence. Something was happening between the two of them that she wasn't entirely certain she was ready to examine yet. And that something must have been what had given her the courage to turn about and run back into the ancient Scottish forest with someone who sometimes spoke in riddles and did things that defied explanation. She had eight days with him - less a few hours, as he said - such a very little time indeed!
She felt the first of the raindrops hit the back of her neck, and soon she was soaked to the skin; but where she snuggled against Wendell's back, she was dry and warm, like standing before a welcoming hearth on a cold night. His hand on hers gave her heart, as did the song he was now singing. Beautiful, melodic, with words beyond her understanding, it nonetheless pierced the inclement weather and gave her mind something else far more pleasant to dwell on than the insecurity it had nurtured just a little while before.
She had eight days in one of the most peaceful places she'd ever known, spending time with a man she was finding all too interesting. She could do this - and she was in no danger whatsoever. Imladris was simply too beautiful a place to hold any danger for her.
For the time being, she would entertain no other thoughts than that.
Meg stood just inside the grand front doorway and shivered. From the top of her head to her toes, she was soaked everywhere but where she had leaned against Wendell on the horse; and there she was but damp from running from where he'd let her off up the steps and into the house. But Imladris was big and without central heating, so the entryway where she decided she would try to contain all of her drips to the floor was chilly. She stamped her feet and wrung the rain from her hair in hopes that she would feel as if she'd drained enough water away in just one spot not to make too much of a mess while trying to find her way to her rooms to change.
What she wouldn't give for a hot bath right now - if for no other reasons than to warm up and work out the stiffness from spending so much time on a horse!
She bent and removed her boots, unhappy that tucking her jeans into them that morning had meant that the moisture from the rain had wicked all the way down to her socks, leaving her feet wet and freezing. She'd changed her mind; all she wanted now was to stand in front of the great hearth in the Hall of Fire - or even just in front of the one in her suite - and dry herself before roaring flames.
One of the other women who worked in and around the house happened to walk past, and Meg saw her eyes widened as she took in Meg's wet and bedraggled condition and the puddle of water on the floor. Chattering as if she expected Meg to understand her every word, she left off whatever chore she'd been doing and took charge of an elbow to begin pulling. Not certain if she should resist or not, Meg finally gave in and allowed the woman to guide her toward a set of steps leading downward that she had never noticed before.
By the time she had descended halfway down the stairs, Meg could smell the sulphur; and then she remembered that Wendell had told her once that there were bathing rooms below. No longer unwilling, she followed her guide into a room hung with so many filmy curtains it was impossible to tell how large or small it was. Her guide held aside one of those curtains and escorted her into what turned out to be a small cubby that held little other than a short, stone bench and a recessed hole in the floor filled with steaming water.
The curtain dropped, closing them in, and her guide immediately pointed to a spot next to the bench and indicated that Meg should put her boots there. The moment Meg complied, the guide was before her, carefully undoing the buttons on her wet flannel shirt. When Meg began to help, her guide held up a finger and then disappeared through the billowing curtain, only to return with a woven basket. Into it, she had Meg toss her soaked shirt, her jeans, and her socks; but it took coaxing to get Meg out of her sports bra and panties. But the moment she had resigned herself to being stripped, the woman put out a hand and nodded at the steaming water.
A hot bath had never felt so good! There were steps down into the deliciously warm water that served as a seat once Meg had descended. Her guide adjusted something to her side that made the level of the water begin to rise - only to go to the other end and adjust something else so that the level of hot water returned to its previous state. Another raised finger and a few words, and her guide disappeared again through the curtains, this time returning with thick toweling and what looked like a warm robe. These she set on the bench, and then placed a small bowl within Meg's reach that was filled with more of the semi-liquid soap like that in her suite.
Finally, the woman crouched and asked Meg something, pointing around at the bath and the items she'd brought. Is she asking if I need anything else? Meg shook her head. "Hannon le," she remembered finally, sinking with a grateful sigh into the warm water up to her neck.
"Glassen, hiril nîn," was the response, compounded by a stream of words that included mention of what sounded like the odd version of Wendell's name and Celeborn's as well. With another nod of satisfaction, her guide picked up the basket of drenched clothing and backed out of the curtain for the last time.
"Wait!" Meg called, only to sigh again. She probably wouldn't see her sports bra again until sometime the next day, but it was a small price to pay for the warmth she was enjoying now. At least she would be warm and modest when she did climb from the bath - if she didn't end up relaxing so much that she fell asleep.
Wishing she didn't have to spoil the clean water, she dipped her fingers in the soap and worked into a lather to rub into her soaked hair. The soap was not quite as fine as she was used to at home, but it had a pleasant scent of lavender that soothed. She leaned her head back and rinsed the soap away; and only then saw that the way the water was moving in the bath carried most of the soap away and out the drain, leaving clean, hot water behind. It was a simple design, but worked very well - like so much here.
Meg was almost beginning to doze when she heard the voice of the woman who had guided her here, and soon enough the curtain was lifted aside to admit the familiar lady. The woman's smile was wide, but her gestures were easily enough understood: it was time to get out. She had the huge towel unfolded and ready as Meg stepped up and out of the water, and then unfolded a smaller one that she applied to the wet hair. The moment Meg was completely wrapped in the towel, up came the robe to cover it. The woman again made adjustments at both ends of the bath and then gestured for Meg to follow her back up the stairs.
The sound of the heavy rain dripping from the roof into the garden made a peaceful counterpoint to the very soft brush of feet against the stone floor. Meg hadn't realized how much time had passed until she glanced at the nearest window and found that it was already dark outside. Did I fall asleep in the bath after all? She wished she could ask her attendant, but settled for the satisfaction of at least knowing that she hadn't been forgotten down there until she was a complete prune.
When her guide turned through one of the doors that lined the corridor and into Meg's suite of rooms, Meg breathed a sigh of relief. "Hannon le,…" She gestured with a roll of her hand at the wrist with raised brows, hoping to learn her helper's name. The woman paused in her lighting candles and quickly setting together wood for a fire in the hearth; and she gazed from the evidently strange gesture to Meg's face, thoroughly confused. Meg thought for a bit, then pressed her hand to her chest. "Meg." Then she reached both hands out to the woman with another hopeful look.
"Ai! Im Iavas, hiril nîn," the woman responded, her eyes lighting with understanding.
"Ah!" Meg sighed again with contentment. "Hannon le, Imiavas."
"Uin." The woman shook her head and seemed to be thinking. Then she rose to mimic Meg's outreaching gesture. "Ci Meg," she began, then moved her hands inward to touch her chest. "Im Iavas." She watched Meg's face fold into confusion and pointed to her. "Meg." Then she pointed at herself. "Iavas."
Oh! That was the problem. "Ah! Hannon le, Iavas." Meg smiled again, hoping she'd finally got it right.
"Glassen, hiril nîn," was the smiling reply.
"Im?" Meg pondered what that little word meant.
"Im," Iavas repeated, tapping her own chest. "Ci," she said next, patting Meg on the arm.
"Oh!" How could she have missed something so basic? She tapped herself. "Im Meg, ci Iavas."
"Ma." Iavas was nodding. She'd gotten it right now.
What was that sentence that took her so long to learn yesterday? Oh, yes: "Goheno nîn, Iavas, u-bedin Thindarim."
"Pfff!" Iavas shook her head at her and chattered at her, making Meg wonder if she was being told that it was only a matter of time before that wouldn't be the case. Iavas beckoned, and Meg followed into the bedroom, where there was a lovely dark blue gown laid out on the bed next to a fine underskirt and camisole. The sight of the undergarments reminded her that she had lost her own; and the thought of going commando beneath that lovely dress in front of people like Wendell and Lord Celeborn wasn't all that appealing.
"Iavas," Meg complained, and then began miming pulling up panties and then throwing her hand out. Iavas tipped her head, obviously confused. Meg then cupped her bosom and demonstrated the manner in which she had removed her sports bra, and then pulled up her imaginary panties again. "My underwear. I have no underwear."
Finally, after a third attempt at miming, what she was miming got through, and Iavas held up that one finger again before heading to the wardrobe. There were knobs and handles that opened places that she hadn't even thought to explore yet, and from one of them Iavas pulled a set of very fine silken drawers with a drawstring. She held them up for Meg's perusal and tipped her head. "Mae?"
Meg took the drawers from her companion with a nod; they would feel very strange, but it was better than having nothing at all. And although she really would have preferred to have her sports bra back, the heavier velvet would hide her less than supported condition well enough. Iavas pointed to the sitting room and chattered at her, gesturing for her to dress herself, and then returned to the sitting room. Meg followed just far enough to see her bend once more to get the fire started in the hearth, and then she pulled back to slip into the drawers without an audience.
She had managed to put on and tie the underskirt and pull the camisole over her head by the time Iavas returned. With her help, she had the heavy drape of velvet skirt pulled over her head and tied at the back, and then the bodice. Iavas fussed at the back, and the bodice tightened nicely so that Meg didn't feel quite so unbound anymore.
The dress - even more grand than what she had worn the evening before - was actually warm, with loose velvet sleeves that covered to her mid forearm. All that was missing… She lifted the hem of the dress and stuck out her bare foot. Iavas laughed and pointed to the floor at the side of the bed, where a pair of simple suede slippers sat side by side, waiting for her. She waited until the slippers - surprisingly warm - were in place before tapping Meg on the shoulder and miming brushing her hair.
Meg bent to the pile of belongings at the base of the wardrobe and pulled out her hairbrush to hand it to Iavas, who examined the clear blue plastic handle closely for a moment and then gestured for Meg to follow her into the sitting room. She pulled one of the little stools over in front of the fire and gestured for Meg to sit down with her back to the flames. With that, she fanned Meg's hair out over her shoulders and back and began a slow brushing that was almost hypnotic.
The sound of the tolling bell lingered on the very edges of her consciousness, but the knock at the door when the fifth chime had died away brought her back. Iavas called out an answer and then lifted a finger to halt Meg's rise. With deft fingers, Iavas pulled a small section of hair back from either temple and seemed to weave it rapidly. In just a moment, she finally nodded and stepped back, gesturing that Meg should answer her door.
Wendell's whole face lit up when he saw Meg. "Well now, this is a treat! I take it the gown Norwen found for you fit?"
Meg put out her arms and twirled for him, enjoying the way the heavy skirt flared. "What do you think?"
"I think the attire suits you very well, hiril Meg, and I am most honored to be your escort for the evening's events." His voice was back down in that lower register again, and the shine in his eyes made her blush. He captured her hand and brought the back of it to his lips before settling it into the crook of his elbow. "There will be dancing this evening in the Hall of Fire; perhaps I might interest you in trying?"
"We'll see," she replied, his old-fashioned gallantry knocking her off-balance for a moment. Her heart was beating just a little faster than normal, and she knew that her face was flushed. What was it about this man that affected her so?
Yes, she would dance with him, she decided quickly. She would try almost anything he would tempt her with, if reasonable. She had less than eight days to make the most of her time with him, and she wasn't going to waste a single moment of that time in worrying about whether she would be able to be as graceful or witty as the others around her.
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.