Author's Notes:

Once upon a time, hobbits lived in harmony with Men, farming the upper vales of the Anduin. They lived so quietly, as a matter of fact, that none of the Great noticed them at all. (The Great are more likely to notice troublemakers than folk doing what they ought.) Times changed, a darkness crept over the land, shadowing the hearts of Men, and some Little Folk made the dangerous crossing of the Mountains to the West, while others were driven into the shelter of the forest, where they passed quite a few years in pleasant obscurity once more. It is not always a misfortune being overlooked...

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"Small and Passing Thing" was updated today as well.

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Chapter 28.
Before the Face of the King

Glorfindel dismounted and lifted Thorn down. Assilim pawed the ground menacingly as a guardsman approached to take his reins. Glorfindel lifted a staying hand.

'Touch him at your own peril,' he said.

Stung, the Man answered, 'I offer him no harm, only rest and food in the stables of the king.'

The horse laid his ears back and glared at the Man, flaring reddened nostrils and baring his teeth. The guardsman hastily stepped back. 'Would you rather tie him here to await you?' he said.

Glorfindel smiled faintly and answered, 'He will wait without being tied. Let no man try to lay hand on him, for he will kill or cripple any that approaches.'

The guardsman bowed, 'Yes, my lord,' he said, and raising his voice, added, 'You men heard him! Don't touch the Elf-lord's horse!'

From the expressions on the faces of the surrounding Men, Thorn guessed that none had any intention of touching Assilim.

The captain of the guard said now, 'If you will leave your weapons with me, sir...'

Glorfindel lifted an eyebrow at the Man. 'I have no need of weapons,' he said mildly. Several of the soldiers moved uneasily. 'We will see the king now,' he added firmly.

'Certainly, sir, right this way,' the captain said, indicating that they should follow him.

Glorfindel followed at a leisurely pace to spare Thorn the indignity of trotting to keep up. Looking behind him, the captain modified his own pace without comment. They passed through a wide gateway into a sheltered courtyard. On either side of the stones leading through the centre of the yard was a pleasant expanse of velvety green grass surrounding an intricate knot garden with a fountain at its heart. Birds sang and the music of the fountains soothed, at least until one saw that the streams of water poured from the mouths of small skulls. Thorn's pace did not slacken, nor did he look to one side or the other, but he plainly saw the fountain playing on one side of the courtyard, and that the other fountain, twin to the first, was only partly finished, though already in play. It awaited fresh material, seemingly, for its completion.

They entered the keep. The captain of the guard stopped in the entry hall, hung with bright banners. 'Would you care to take some refreshment?' he said cordially.

'A last meal for the condemned?' Thorn asked with a wry lift to the side of his mouth.

'Would you care for some refreshment, my lord?' the captain said to Glorfindel again, pointedly ignoring the hobbit.

'Not even the courtesy of a final meal,' Thorn said.

The captain's jaw tightened but he still kept his gaze on the Elf-lord.

'We,' and Glorfindel emphasised the word, pausing before going on, 'need no refreshment. Thank you for the kind offer, but we wish to bespeak the king without delay.'

'As you wish, my lord,' the captain said with a bow, then turned to lead them to the waiting king.

The hall of the king was large and bathed in sunshine from the windows set high in the eastern and western walls. Bright tapestries lined the walls and musicians played softly from a balcony. Finely-clad courtiers milled near the entry and along the sides of the room, talking and laughing while servants circulated with trays of food and drink. Still, it seemed to Thorn that a murk overlaid this pleasant scene, as of a dark shrouding fog.

The Man who sat upon the throne was young, Thorn thought, but then he was not familiar with Men. The unlined face was noble, the grey eyes keen, the dark hair untouched by time. Lord Elrond had told him that the Men of the West aged more slowly than hobbits. Still, this one was young, some instinct told him. Young, restless, reckless perhaps, ruthless of a certainty.

The king of Rhudaur rose at the approach of one of the Fair Folk. 'My lord,' he said with a dip of his chin. 'Welcome! It is too long since any of the Fair Folk graced our city.'

'I bring you greetings from the Lord Elrond Half-elven,' Glorfindel said in reply.

'He sends a goodly gift, as well,' the king said, smiling coldly at Thorn. He fingered the hilt of his sword and stepped nearer. 'A fine head of curls on this one! The Lord of Imladris has heard of my collection, it seems?'

'He has heard that you sleep upon a mattress made soft with hair shorn from small heads and feet,' Glorfindel answered, 'and that you have promulgated a new form of decoration in your land.'

'It is all the style,' the king said offhandedly. 'But what can you expect?' he said, lifting his hands in a shrug. 'The king sets the style for the court and the land follows.' He sighed. 'Pity the supply is so limited. My hunters have brought me no fresh heads for months... or have you a fresh source of material?'

'I have brought the king of the Halflings,' Glorfindel said, 'and not as a gift.'

'King of the Halflings?' the king of Rhudaur said with a bark of laughter. 'The Lord Elrond dresses vermin in fine clothing to gain a higher price, I suppose? What does he want for them? I'll pay well for all he can send me, especially if they sport as fine a crop of curls as this sample of his wares.'

'I have brought the king of the Halfings,' Glorfindel repeated, 'to speak with you.'

'Speak? Or did you mean squeak?' the king of Rhudaur laughed. 'You Elves have a name for speaking to trees and plants and all sorts of animals, I know.' He chuckled again, then sobered. 'Forgive me, I mean no disrespect. Of course you may choose whatever pets you like. We have no need to speak to animals before we put them to proper use.'

'We are not animals,' Thorn said, 'but People, for all our stature—or lack thereof.'

'Very nice,' one of the king's counsellors said. 'I have a bird from the Southlands that speaks nearly as well. You've trained the creature, it seems.' He exchanged an unpleasant smile with the king.

'Will you not hear him?' Glorfindel said. 'Have your minds fallen so far under shadow that you cannot see what stands before you?'

'The joke is wearing thin, my lord,' the king of Rhudaur said. 'I see you quite well.'

'Do you indeed?' Glorfindel said, and raised his arm.

Acid light etched every surface, brilliance flooded the great room, drowning everything and everyone within in brightness, driving every shadow from the room. There was no sound at all, of music or conversation or startled cries or even the rattle of the swords and pikes of the guards as all weapons fell to the stones.

Thorn watched in wonder as the king staggered back, one arm thrown over his eyes. The guards trembled and became as dead men; the courtiers bent double, hands over their faces; the servants froze in place, trays extended uselessly.

The Elf-lord spoke softly, yet every word dropped clearly into the silence. 'How far you have fallen, O Men of forgotten Numenor! The Shadow surrounds you, it approaches, it encroaches; can you not see it? Can you not feel its icy chill blowing across this land?

'If you do not turn from the path you have chosen, you will be lost and Shadow will cover all. The land will fall empty, the walls broken, the fortresses haunted, the dwelling places desolate, and the people will fade and be forgotten. Not even the names of her kings shall be remembered. Hear my warning, and turn!'

The radiant glow faded as Glorfindel lowered his arm. The king straightened, blinking, and brushed at his tunic as if there were stains or wrinkles there. The courtiers shook their heads, looked uncertainly at one another, and in another moment began hesitantly once more to talk as the servants bearing trays resumed their duties. The musicians found their place on the pages of music and took up where they had been interrupted. No one seemed to notice that the guards still stood as statues, frozen in place, their weapons on the stones at their feet.

'I beg your pardon,' the king of Rhudaur said politely. 'You were saying?' He seemed a pleasant and noble Man without the lurking murk hanging over him.

Thorn took a deep breath. 'We ask nothing of you, O king,' he said, 'save only safe passage through your country. We will take no game, we will leave no mark but the passing of our feet, and these will be gone with the next rain.'

'How would you travel?' the counsellor with the talking bird said.

'We would follow the Road to the river you call Hoarwell and then down the course of the river until it leaves your country, passing into the land of Cardolan, whose king has welcomed us to join the Halflings who have already built villages beyond the Angle.'

'Cardolan,' a second counsellor grated. 'Another bone to pick.'

'Peace,' said the king. 'We are not at war with our brothers in Cardolan.' Not yet. The thought of Cardolan darkened his brow, but he spoke yet pleasantly to the visitors. 'Very well.'

'Yes?' Thorn said.

'Your people will have safe passage through my land, along the Road and the banks of the Hoarwell, until the Moon has poured himself out and filled himself once more. Any of your folk who linger in my land thereafter, their heads are forfeit.' As he spoke the latter words, Thorn saw shadows creeping into the room, regathering about the king and his counsellors.

'In addition,' the king said.

'Yes?' Thorn replied.

'In addition, any... Halflings... who stray more than an hundred paces from the Road or the riverbank lose their protection and are fair game for my hunters. Be assured, your passage will be marked.'

'Indeed,' Glorfindel said, for he and Elrond had conversed upon this very matter.

'Very well,' the king of Rhudaur said, gesturing to the scribe who'd taken down his every word. 'Write a pass of safe conduct for the Halflings, and send the word throughout the kingdom. There will be no hunting allowed within an hundred paces of the River Hoarwell until the next waxing of the Moon.'

As the scribe wrote, the king turned again to his guests. 'Can we offer you refreshment?' he said. 'Would you care to rest before returning to Imladris, my lord?'

'No, though I thank you for the kind thought,' Glorfindel said.

'Would you like to see the new gardens? Of course, only the bulbs are blooming this early in Spring, but the gardens have been designed to appeal to the eye no matter the season.'

'I regret to say we must be returning immediately to Imladris,' Glorfindel replied. 'The Lord Elrond awaits my report.'

The scribe had finished the paper promising safe conduct; he blotted the page and dropped a blob of blood-red wax near the bottom, then held it out to the king. Without looking, the king pressed his ring to the soft wax and said, 'There, that's done.' The scribe waited a moment for the wax to harden, then rolled the paper neatly, tied it, and handed it to the king with a bow. Immediately he returned to his scribing, for his king was a Man of action and would send out messengers to proclaim the ban on hunting near the Hoarwell without delay.

The king held out the pass to Glorfindel with a flourish. The Elf-lord nodded to Thorn, who took the pass from the king.

'Captain!' the king rapped out.

The captain of the guard came to life, looked in astonishment at his fallen sword, and scrambled to pick it up and re-sheath it. Snapping to attention, he said smartly, 'Sire!'

'Escort our departing guests to the entrance; make sure they have all they need for the return journey,' the king said. 'Then send me your fastest couriers. They are to proclaim a message throughout the kingdom.'

'Yes, Sire,' the captain said with a bow, and turned with elaborate courtesy to Glorfindel and Thorn. 'If you would follow me, sirs,' he said.

'It has been a pleasure,' the king said, turning back to the guests. 'Please, come again sometime when you have more time for us to show you proper hospitality. O, and please convey my warmest regards to the Lord Elrond, and tell him he will be well come whenever he chooses to grace us with his presence.'

'I will pass your regards on to him,' Glorfindel replied. 'My thanks.'

The king bent to address Thorn. 'May you have a safe journey, little one,' he said. Thorn nodded, at a loss for words.

The chancellor announced the next matter requiring the king's attention and the king of Rhudaur stood tall once again and resumed his throne.

Glorfindel and Thorn silently followed the captain out of the throne room, through the entryway and out to the courtyard with its tinkling fountains. Assilim stood just outside the gateway like a fine statue, head high, watching for them. When he saw them he whickered and tossed his head.

'Will you need anything for the return journey?' the captain said. 'Food, or drink, or anything else?'

'Thank you,' Glorfindel replied. 'We have all we need.' He lifted Thorn to the saddle, lightly stepped up, and settled behind the hobbit.

'Farewell!' the captain said. Glorfindel lifted a hand in response and Assilim walked with dignity from the fortress, through the winding streets, and out of the city.

Once they were on the road once more and Assilim had broken into a canter with no encouragement from his rider, Thorn spoke. 'I see why you counselled me to be patient.'

'O?' Glorfindel replied.

'Yes,' Thorn said. 'It is as you said. Men are not so hard to talk to. You just have to get their attention first.'