On the Shores of a Turquoise Lake by Virtuella

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Story Notes:

Middle-earth belongs to Tolkien. Thanks to Clodia and Finlay for beta reading.

On the Shores of a Turquoise Lake




This was a country of steep hillsides and rushing streams where the scent of wild rhubarb filled the moist, narrow valleys. Rain fell frequently in short showers that left leaves and pebbles glossy in the swiftly following sunshine. Lynx prowled the cedar woods while above them cranes drifted across a sky that seemed higher and more translucent than the solid blue tent that stretched over the plains.




All the waters of this land flowed one way or another into an almost circular valley in the heart of the hills, where they collected in a lake of milky turquoise colour. The depth of this lake had never been plumbed, but it was thought to be fantastically deep. Sleek fish with iridescent green fins swam in those waters, their occasional jumps the only disturbance on the otherwise calm and smooth surface.




On the eastern shore the landscape differed. While elsewhere plants and beasts did as they pleased, water flowed where it would and rocks sat as they had for countless years, here the scenery had been gently but noticeable altered. One might see, perhaps, a shallow pool shaded by a neat curve of rhododendrons, alternately purple and white, or a waterfall directed over a rocky ledge in such a way as to form a perpetually moving curtain to a cave behind. Dotted about the hillsides were clusters of fruitful shrubs and herbs; sloe, rosehip and blueberry, laurel and camomile. The hands that had wrought these changes had been tender, coaxing rather than forcing the land into the desired form. Grown from these efforts had a beauty that combined all the vigour of nature with all the foresight of design.




One such feature was a circle of soaring birch trees whose trunks rose as silvery pillars and whose inner branches had been woven together to create the roof of a lofty pavilion.  Two figures stood under this canopy, strange and yet enchanting to behold. Both were strikingly tall, nearly twice the height of a Man, and thinner even than an Elf. One seemed to be clad in a gown of autumn leaves, brown, red and golden, from which emerged strong limbs the colour of hazelnuts. Her head - for the general shape of the figure suggested that she was a woman of sorts -  was covered by a cap of yellow catkins, or perhaps this was her hair. The other, also vaguely female in appearance, looked fresh and lush with her garb of feathery green. Her eyes were of a glossy bluish black.




“Slenderbeech wishes it,” said the hazel-coloured one. “And you know very well that the future of our people depends on you.”




“How so?” replied the other. “Hollyhide and Strongoak are the future of our people. They already have two Entings, and they may have more. I do not see why I should be needed. Why, Hazeltwig, why?”




The one addressed as Hazeltwig shook her head with a soft rustling sound.




“A forest does not grow from just one branch. You are the only other young Entwife, Elderberry.”




“But that does not matter. I once heard Willowand say that our kind rarely gets too old to bear Entings. Slow to reach adulthood and slow to decline, that’s what she said. So let one of the older Entwives mate with him. I shall not.”




Elderberry crossed her arms and lifted her chin to show how very thoroughly her mind was made up.




“That is not possible,” said Hazeltwig. “Our bodies may remain strong enough to bear Entings, but our hearts won’t allow us to forsake the mate we once chose long ago. For me there can be none other than Beechbone. And so it is with all of us older Entwives.”




“And yet you would have me choose a mate whom my heart abhors?” Elderberry’s black eyes glinted with anger. “I tell you, Hazeltwig, I shall not. Hollyhide’s Entings will suffice. Besides, it is not common for our people to have many Entings anyway.”




“What makes you think that?”




“Because there were only the four of us at the time we set off on the Great March. And even then,” she added, sidetracked by her fervour,  “I detested him. I shall never mate with him, never, never, never.”




With this she turned and stormed off, almost as if she was determined to set out on a Great March of her very own. Hazeltwig let her go and slowly walked away in the opposite direction, downhill, till she came to a little brook among drifts of buttercups.  She dipped her toes into the water and allowed herself a sigh. Even before she had entered the birch pavilion, she had known how this meeting would end, and she had told Slenderbeech so.  Had there ever been such a stubborn maid as Elderberry? It was not only her steadfast refusal to mate Hawthorn, the young Ent who had wooed her ever since he was old enough to think of doing so. She wanted to have her own way in all things. She wanted to dance when the others were resting, to rest when they were singing and to sing when it was time for quiet contemplation. Once she had taken it into her head to make clearings in the almond thickets so that lavender and rosemary could grow in neat rows where she planted them.




“This is folly,” Slenderbeech had declared. “You want to rule over the things that grow from the earth. This is the way of Men and Elves, but nothing good can come out of it for our kind. We all thought like you at one time, and that was why the Ents would not bide with us. Ah, would that Treebeard had convinced me while there was yet time!”




“The folly was all on their side,” Elderberry had replied. “Had they stayed with us, rather than lurking in those wild forests of theirs,  they could have defended us when the servants of the Dark Lord came, and we could all still be together. I don’t see why their backward thinking should stop me from planting a garden.”




“I cannot prevent you,” Slenderbeech had said, “though I urge you to consider the course you are taking. In the long years since the Great March, our people have grown in wisdom. We no longer wish to press our will on the land, but have learned to befriend and persuade it.”




Elderberry however, headstrong and proud, had taken no heed and had planted her garden, which flourished for a while until it was washed away one spring when the snow melted. The failure of her endeavour had irked her, but had done nothing to soften her wilful mind.




Hazeltwig indulged in another sigh. Nothing would move Elderberry to accept Hawthorn; she was adamant in her refusal imprudent though it was. It wasn’t as if there was anything wrong with the lad. She simply nurtured a dislike that had arisen from some silly childhood quarrel and wasn’t going to be persuaded that this was selfish and unbecoming. No, thought, Hazeltwig, there was nothing for it but to return to Slenderbeech and report that her mission had failed.




Meanwhile, Elderberry was briskly climbing to the summit of the hill, where she hurried to the her favourite spot, a rocky outcrop that afforded a view over the entire valley. Her conversation with Hazeltwig, conducted in the leisurely language of the Ents, had taken up most of the afternoon and she could now see the sun setting behind the hills on the western shore. Dusk turned the turquoise waters of the lake into a dull silvery green.




Her heart beat fearfully, and it was not just the climb that had sent it racing. How dare they try to push her around like that! She would never, ever, ever accept Hawthorn’s suit. It was not as if he even loved her. He only wooed her because he could not woo Hollyhide. Elderberry had known it long before they had been considered old enough to court, known it as sure as she knew her own feet, that Strongoak the Brave would choose Hollyhide the Beautiful. Strongoak had never so much as looked Elderberry in the eyes. When the Entings had been declared full-grown – not so long ago that seemed – he had taken Hollyhide’s hand, to the delight of the older Entwives. Elderberry, however, had no intention to form the second-best couple, as it were, no matter how much might depend on it. For a long time, the others had left her in peace, but  recently there had been whispered comments and meaningful looks, a sign that the patience of the elders was running out. And now this. No doubt Slenderbeech had sent Hazeltwig to have this talk, knowing that Hazeltwig was the one Elderberry trusted most.




“But I shall defy them all,” said Elderberry to the world in general.










The three old Entwives stood in the pool beneath the rhododendrons and swayed faintly though there was no wind.  Slenderbeech still had the rosy cheeks that Treebeard had once caressed, but her yellow hair had faded from the golden glow of ripe corn to the pale hues of withered parchment. Willowand, her trusted friend, stood beside her as they listened to Hazeltwig’s story.




“And so,” concluded Hazeltwig, “she ran off. I don’t think there is any sense in pressing her further.”




“Perhaps not,” said Slenderbeech. “If she doesn’t listen to you, she won’t listen to anyone else.”




“If only her mother were still with us…” said Willowand.




“That, alas, cannot be helped.”




They stood with their heads bowed as they remembered the day they had lost Barleyhead, Elderberry’s mother, on the Great March. They had been crossing a hostile plain of sharp rocks and sudden chasms when a blizzard had struck and covered the ground with four feet of snow in the space of an afternoon. A fierce wind had piled it up much higher in some places, and had swept across the land with a violence they had never seen either before nor afterwards. The Entwives had huddled together in a ring with the Entings in the middle, arms locked together, and so they survived, but Barleyhead, who had lagged behind for only a couple hundred yards, was never seen again.     




“I believe Elderberry thinks it was our fault,” said Hazeltwig.




“It wasn’t,” replied Slenderbeech. “There was nothing anyone could have done.”




High above, the moon had slipped out of a pillow of clouds and formed a perfect mirror image in the pool, right in the middle between the three Entwives, who stood as still as trees.








It was Hawthorn who first noticed that Elderberry was missing. He asked Willowand if she had seen her, and Willowand asked Hazeltwig, who asked Hollyhide, who asked Strongoak, who asked Brambleleaf, who asked Appleblossom, who asked Cornflower and so on, and since nobody had seen her in over a week, Slenderbeech suggested that they should go and search for her. The whole tribe rambled all over the shore of the lake and up and down the slopes, and then further into the hills, following the courses of rivers or simply their noses. However, one by one they returned and admitted defeat: there was no sign of Elderberry.




“She has left,” said Hawthorn and his voice sounded rougher than usual. “And so I shall leave, too. I shall seek her and never rest until I have found her.”




“Do you think that wise?” said Hazeltwig. “After all, it would seem that you are the one from whom she is fleeing.”




“I shall not press her,” replied Hawthorn. “I shall promise her that her wishes will be respected, if only she comes home.”




“What a hasty plan this is,” said Cornflower. “We should talk this over some more.”




“What else is there to say?” said Hawthorn. “I cannot allow her to be deserted to her fate, and with every hour that we talk, she might venture further from us. No, I must go, and I must go now.”




Slenderbeech nodded. “Much as it worries me to see you act in such a rush, I fear you are right. The sooner she is found, the better. We should never allow any of us to be separated from the tribe. Only this I will say: do not go alone.”




“I shall go alone,” replied Hawthorn. “Nobody else should have to leave home due to Elderberry’s folly. I am young and strong and any danger that would overcome me would surely overcome my companion.”




And he would not change his mind and left early in the morning of the following day.










Rain fell, swelled the streams and filled the lake, rose again as mist undulating among the cedars and the laurel and thus perpetuated its cycle without a care for the creatures that lived on its abundance. The old Entwives and the small group of their offspring continued to wander the shores of the lake and the lush hillsides, charming a more sublime beauty from the wilderness. Hollyhide and Strongoak had another Enting, and then another, and they grew up to be splendid young Ents. And the whole tribe mourned Elderberry and Hawthorn and gave them up for lost, and so many years went by.




Elsewhere in  Middle-earth, sinister powers changed the shape of the land, darkened forests, turned fertile plains into deserts and made mountains spit fire.  But secretly also the forces of light forged their alliances and made their plans, and so it came that at last the Dark Lord was overthrown and the very bones of the earth sighed with relief. To the Entwives in their valley by the lake, however, came no tidings of these events, only a vague feeling of a fresher air and a clearer sky , which they attributed to a change of wind.








And now this was another country altogether, a windswept heath to the north of the Sea of Rhun, where crooked pines clawed at the low-hanging clouds. Junipers bristled with berries of bitter blue and pale purple heather covered the ground, while here and there a greyish sandy soil lay exposed.




Since the land was flat, one could see far, and indeed the figure striding along between the horsetail and the maiden grass had already made out in the distance she who he was looking for. He dared not hope too much, in case his eyes had deceived him again as they had so many times, but on a plain where all trees were bent in the direction of the wind, there was one figure, a mile ahead perhaps, that stood upright. Nothing that stayed in the same spot here year in, year out could have remained so erect, and yet the figure was too tall to be Man or Elf, too slender to be rock or troll. Besides, Hawthorn fancied he recognised the incline of the head that was peculiar to the one he sought. Elderberry, if Elderberry it was, seemed to have stopped to rest and look around. How to approach her without startling her was the question uppermost in Hawthorn’s mind. It would not do to be hasty now and frighten her off, after he had wandered so long to find her. So he waited.




At nightfall he drew nearer to her under cover of darkness.  Keeping in mind the place where she stood, and matching it against the first rising stars, all he had to hope for was that she would not move on. This, however, was unlikely. Ents like a good night’s sleep as much as the next tree.




When all else was dark and only the shimmer of the stars cast a faint light over the heath, Hawthorn marched in the direction he felt his heart pulling him. With his Entish strides it didn’t take him long to reach the spot. It was Elderberry indeed.  She had taken no precautions to protect herself from any wild creatures while she slept. An owl had alighted on her shoulder and took off with whooshing wings. In the gloom he could see little else of her than that she had wrapped her arms around herself and rested her chin on her chest. His hand reached out to touch her, but he thought better of it and withdrew it. In all the years he had been searching for her, he had not forgotten that it was from him she was fleeing.




So he stood guard by her side, throughout the short night of a northern summer, and thought of the thousands of miles he had walked, the many strange countries he had seen on his quest. Here, on this desolate heath, it had come to an end.




Eventually dawn crept up on the eastern horizon and in the emerging light he began to discern her features. Her lush green was now muted and nearly grey, the skin on her face rough and cracked. Tenderly, he took her hand and raised it to his cheek. She awoke, and when she opened her black shiny eyes he saw that they were unchanged.




“Don’t run,” he said, but Elderberry fell into his arms and wept.










There was no question, they would go home. Elderberry, who had been lost and weary and choked up with her own pride, simply melted with relief and her gladness knew no bounds that Hawthorn had loved her well enough to follow her and find her. Two days and two nights they stood in an unbroken embrace and whispered into each other’s ears the tales of their travels. That Hawthorn knew the way home seemed a miracle beyond belief to Elderberry, but he assured her that the lake in the hills was little further than a month’s walk away. On the third day, they turned their backs on the West and began their eastward journey.




They walked steadily, some twenty-five miles a day and often more, and most of the time they held hands, their finger intertwining like the roots of trees planted close together. At first they talked and talked, but as the weeks wore on, the stream of their conversation trickled away and they marched on in companionable silence.




“I’m so glad you found me,” said Elderberry from time to time.




“I’m so glad I found you,” Hawthorn would reply.




One day they passed through a forest of young birches, and from there on they were followed in secret by three men on horseback, ragged travellers, who took up the trail of the tree creatures and tracked them in a calm and tireless chase. Elderberry and Hawthorn never noticed those pursuers; their minds were bent only on what lay ahead.








Whatever Elderberry had imagined, she could not have foreseen the welcome they received. The news of their return spread with the speed of squirrels hopping from branch to branch, and by the time they arrived at the shore of the lake, most of the Entwives already awaited them there.  Hazeltwig was there, and Slenderbeech and Willowand and the others, and Hollyhide with her Entings who were Entings no longer, and Strongoak, whom Elderberry could now look in the face without a pang. They were greeted and cheered and embraced till they felt quite dizzy, and then they dived into the lake and splashed about until all the grey dust of their journey was washed away and Elderberry looked almost as lush and green as she had in days gone by.




Then the other Entwives brought them big bowls of Ent draught and crowned them with wreaths of leaves and berries and the young Ents fetched their flutes and drums. They danced all night by the rhododendron pool while rush lights floated on lily pads and nightingales sung from the jasmine bushes and while, unknown to them,  three men and their horses rested round a campfire just a handful of miles away.




And now the night was fading and Elderberry stood under the boughs of the birch pavilion as she had on the day she left, and she spoke the word Never once again, but this time she said, “I shall never leave you, never, never, never.”




“I am so glad to hear that,” said Hawthorn, “because I doubt I would be able to find you a second time.”




Then he kissed her and all around them the Entwives sighed with something that was not quite relief and not quite envy. Speeches had to be made, and speeches led to songs which eventually rose with such vigour that they only noticed the Men when they were already standing in their midst.




The singing stopped.




“We come in peace,” said one of the Men, clearly in awe of the sight in front of him. He dismounted, as did his companions.




“This,” he said and held out a kind of pale leaf with straight edges on which stuck a thing that looked like a squashed rosehip, “is the seal of the King of Gondor. We are his messengers.”




The Entwives did not move. They stared at the men, two dark and one yellow-haired.




“Man the mortal, master of horses,” mumbled Willowand. (*)




“If you come in peace, then why do you carry weapons?” said Strongoak.




“We travelled many wild lands and encountered many dangers,” replied the Man. “We will lay our weapons down so you will know that we speak the truth.” And they did.




“Many wild lands indeed lie between here and Gondor,” said Slenderbeech. “What brings you here?”




“It is you that we seek,” said the Man.




“Us? How can that be?”




“My name is Asfaron, and this is my brother Carthan, and this is Aldwulf who saw the mighty Fangorn not two years ago. We bring you tidings that the Dark Lord is defeated and that King Elessar sits on the throne on Minas Tirith. Ents helped achieve this victory, and as a recompense the king has sent rangers into the remote lands of Middle-earth to find the Entwives. We are to let you know that Fangorn would have you return to your lands of old.”




This speech caused no small amount of astonishment among the Entwives. They stood in silence, gently creaking, until at last  Slenderbeech spoke.




“I am Slenderbeech,” she said, “or Fimbrethil in the tongue of the Elves of the woods. Your news gladdens my heart, but as for the summons you bring, we can make no reply as yet. It is a matter that will need to be talked about very carefully. We shall have an Entmoot.”




“Hear, hear,” cried many of the Entwives.




“Let’s spread the word, for while most of us are here, some are missing. Entmoot will be tomorrow at noon. Meanwhile, we will extend hospitality to our visitors.”




So the Men were fed on dishes of nuts and berries and their horses were led down to the shore of the lake. Elderberry and Hawthorne, however, withdrew to the summit of the hill and stood on the rocky outcrop that overlooked the valley.




“Here it was,” said Elderberry. “Here I decided to run away, because I thought you didn’t love me and only wooed me because there was nobody else.”




“I hope you know better now.”




“Oh yes, I do.”




She leaned her head against his shoulder.




“I am worried about the Entmoot,” she said. “They won’t do anything hasty, will they?”




“We’ll have as much say in it as any of the others,” replied Hawthorn. “Is it your wish to stay here?”








“Do you have no desire to reunite with the rest of our people?”




“They are strangers to me, even the ones that shouldn’t. My father is Quickbeam. I have never seen him.”




“Mine is Rowanroot,” said Hawthorn. “I saw him once, but I was so young then that I barely remember.”




“Do you think they are still alive?”




“I don’t see why they shouldn’t be.”




“There has been a war.”




“Nevertheless, we should keep up hope.”




“But I do not want to leave.”




“Neither do I.”








Entmoot began at noon as Slenderbeech had said. They assembled on a meadow of blue poppies that nodded unendingly on their hairy stalks as if they were willing to assent to anything that might be proposed.




The messengers were asked to step forward and tell all they could about the changes in the world and about the new king and his rule and what little they knew about the Ents. The Entwives listened, some with closed eyes, some with arms folded, many with tears in their eyes.




“I say we go,” said Hazeltwig when the Men had finished. “I dearly wish to see Beechbone again.




“If the Dark Lord is overthrown, then our lands of old will be safe to dwell in again,” said Willowand.




Elderberry shook her head.




“Hawthorn and I have only just returned. We do not wish to set out on another march yet again.”




“We don’t have to leave right away,” replied Willowand. “We can wait a few years.”




There were nods of approval from the old Entwives, because many felt they would like to return to their former home, but none wished to leave their new home in a hurry.




“In a year or two…”




“..or three, perhaps…”




“…we might very well go.”




“I don’t see why we should leave the land we have tended for so long!” cried Elderberry. “What are those Ents to us anyway? We have no need of them. If they want to see us, let them come here.”




Startled by this outburst, the older Entwives shook their heads and clicked their tongues and thought that Elderberry really hadn’t changed in all this time. Only Slenderbeech  smiled.




“For once I am inclined to agree with Elderberry,” she said, “though not for the reason that she gives. I believe the wish to return to our old home is understandable, but I do not think it is wise. My friends, what is there in the old land that we did not find here better and more abundant? Our memories might paint the past in golden colours, but if we are honest with ourselves then we have to admit that we have lived nowhere as well as we have lived here. What is there to return to? Burned earth and barren mountains. Is not this our home now?  And would it not be kind to share it with our friends of old? They have never seen the green shimmering fish of our lake or the impossible blue of these poppies. It is time, I think, that they do.”    




At this, there was a muttering and mumbling among the Entwives, and many spoke up, some for, some against, and so it continued into the night. But in the end  Slenderbeech prevailed and Elderberry  trembled with relief and clung to Hawthorn’s arm.




So the king’s men were sent back bearing this message: that the Entwives were alive and well and awaiting the Ents in a country so beautiful and abundant, so wild and vigorous that it could be home for all of them. There was clear water and clear sky, there were lush forests and sweet meadows. There were Entings, and more, perhaps, to come. The Entwives, it said, had changed their ways a little, and if the Ents would change theirs a little, too, there was no reason why they should not, at last, be happy together.




By the shore of the lake they stood, Elderberry and Hawthorn and Hazeltwig and Slenderbeech and all the others,  and they watched as the Men mounted their horses and rode off, up the hillsides and into the cedar forest, where they were soon lost from sight. Wild and dangerous lands lay ahead of them, uncounted miles on the way to Gondor, where King Elessar sat on the throne and considered himself Fangorn’s friend.




In their cedar woods by the turquoise lake, among the rhododendrons and the blue poppies, the Entwives began to wait.









Chapter End Notes:

(*) From the chapter "Treebeard" in The Two Towers.

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