All characters are property of J.R.R. Tolkien.
The dark welled up in the shadows of the fir trees and pooled behind the mossy rocks. A wave of slate grey washed across the sky and the smell of wood smoke curled up from the valley floor. The birch trees bark shone silver in the growing darkness. Golden pennies of dying leaves fluttered through the dusk and the distant pines smelt cool and secret. This was the night of walking abroad, where the people lit fires to the memory of the dead of which there were still too many too soon gone.
Somewhere in the middle of this gloom was a man with hair as inky black as the sky at midnight, wide grey eyes and over bitten fingernails. He had a slightly harassed look, which although he didn't know it made him look the image of his shipwrecked ancestors. He looked like someone who had had to do rather a lot of thinking on the spot.
There was a general feeling, and he was sneaky enough to know what people whispered behind his back, that all things considered he'd turned out rather well. So tonight he was walking out in the firelight and remembering his own dishonourable dead who stretched back in perpetuity with their inkblot hair, glittering eyes and rampant thanatophobia.
As was the tradition the children started to call for a story. Some of the adults shushed them, thinking it too soon to talk of ghosts and goblins and other enchantments of the stories it was traditional to tell. Some of the adults shushed them because they saw he was near. They saw him looking into the firelight and averted their eyes.
Suddenly he turned his back to the flames and began:
"Once upon a time in a tower of ice and anthracite lived an old wizard. He had silver hair and black eyes and long black fingernails like daggers that he drummed against the black marble of his throne with a noise like the clicking of knitting needles. He wore a circlet made of spiders' webbing, and a great dark spider hung between his eyebrows like a jewel from a crown. He was the oldest man in fifty miles, the rudest in a hundred miles and the wisest in a thousand."
"He had ten cats in silver collars, and twenty frogs that lived in a silver fountain and seven silver mountain foxes that sat at the black foot of his throne. He had a book that contained everything that had passed, and a crystal that showed everything that would be in the future, and a mirror that could show anywhere in the waking world as it was right now. And he had two great ravens with glittering rings of adamant on their claws; one perched on the left arm of his throne, and one perched on his right."
"One night the wind was blowing and the bats above the west tower were screeching and the two ravens ruffled their feathers and complained of rheumatism. The wizard paced the great hall pondering how to turn base metal into gold. In the great crystal ball a giantess stood behind a bridge and ate tin boxes of people and in the great mirror a stranger knocked on the wizards front door."
The man was polite and clearly smart even if he did make it a little too obvious he found her attractive. She did her best to be discouraging. She argued with him over petty things and slipped little insults in every so often. There was no honour in being reduced to this paltry meanness but in the absence of other targets he was all she had. She must have used up a life times supply of forced pleasantries in the service of her uncle and now there was nothing left but exhaustion and a weak sneer.
Her fellow prisoner made some oblique comment about nothing. She started ranting at him again.
"It's all poetry to you. All star sets and sunrises and waves crashing in on long forgotten islands. Would it kill you to live in the world for once?"
She paused, kicking herself, hating herself, but going on.
"And take a bath. You stink of paraffin."
He looked slightly incredulous.
"You can smell it too?"
"Of course I can smell it. You reek."
"I do wash," he said, "but it doesn't wash away."
"I thought that only I could smell it because it was just a symptom of…well, you know. Every time I mentioned it to the healers they just change the subject. So I assumed it was part of it."
"Part of what?"
"What we are in for." He shrugged.
"Whatever you are in here for, I am here because I was wounded in battle. A battle you did not even attend."
"You broke your arm."
"Fighting an opponent that made everybody else run away!"
"I got shot in the shoulder by a plain old wooden arrow. No poison, no curses, no puncturing of the lung. I should have been on my feet again the next morning."
"Take it up with the Valar. I'm not responsible for you being fragile."
"Don't you understand? We're not here because we are wounded. We are here because we broke down."
"After an hour had passed the stranger was still rapping on the towers' front door, pulling his cloak over his face to shield it from the rain. The wizard, who did not like to be disturbed by unexpected visitors at late hours of the evening, grunted and growled and waved his hands. Then great forks of lightening came out of the sky and struck at the stranger like silver javelins. The cats mewled and the foxes wailed and the frogs croaked most sorrowfully."
The raven on the left said he would fly out into the storm, and the one on the right said he'd always known him to be a fool, so the one on the left replied he would fly out into the storm and furthermore he would return with a bolt of lightening in his beak.
Then the raven that sat on the right hand side of the throne puffed himself up to twice his normal size and cawed and said, "Fie, fie, fie, I should like to see you try. You'll be burnt down to raven crackling as soon as you touch it."
But as the windows were tightly barred and neither raven could open them with their claws, these theories remained untested.
The spider looked up from spinning another silver antimacassar for the wizards throne and said:
"He's wearing rubber boots."
Just then they all heard the click of the lock on the front door failing.
"What is in the world is that?"
The blonde woman turned to him and lifted up the vellum bound dusty book. She'd got dust on her cheeks. He made a note to add "dusty women" to the list of things that made him happy with the world.
"We northerners can read you know."
"Still, that book is hardly light entertainment for a spring afternoon."
"I want to know what sort of people I am marrying into."
"And what do you think?"
"I must admit I'm a little perturbed by the devil worship and human sacrifices."
"That was only for one particular, very dark, very brief time in our history. Besides, it was hardly a custom that had universal support. My family were very against that kind of thing."
There was a silence that went on for longer than it should have.
"Yes," he said, "really."
The weather grew calm and the stars came out. The wizard paced his throne room staring at the figure in the mirror slowly climbing the great staircase towards the wizard's chambers. The foxes put their paws over their eyes and the cats climbed up the curtains and the frogs wept into the water of the fountain. The crystal ball of the future showed a great green monster rise up out of the ocean and terrorise a huge ship with no sails but three chimneys. The wizard stood in a star in a circle and chanted in a language last spoken three thousand years ago.
The wizard's father and his grandfather and his great grand father and his great- great- grandfather and his great- great- great-grandfather and his great-great-great-great grandfather all dragged their dusty bones from their graves at the base of the tower. They chased up the stairway after the stranger with a great moaning at being raised, and they wailed and rattled their bones.
The raven on the left said, "Why, I do believe great-great grandfather still has some marrow in him."
And the one on the right cawed and said that it was just a speck of earth.
Then the raven on the left said it was indeed marrow, in fact he would fly down now and bring it up here to gnaw.
Then the raven on the right flapped his wings and croaked and said: "Fie, fie, fie! I should like to see you try! If you steal great-great grandfather's marrow bone he will curse you and all your feathers will drop off and your skin too, then your insides will drop out and you'll have to sleep forever at the bottom of the tower with the wizard waking you up every time he has an unexpected guest."
The raven on the left replied he would steal the bone, and furthermore he would then fly up into great-great grandfather's chest and use his ribcage as a xylophone.
As they were thus distracted, they did not notice that the stranger pulled out a tin whistle and started to play.
The spider looked up from her spinning and said "There's no sound like a tin whistle to grate the bones of the undead."
Just at that moment the skeletons turned back. They wailed and howled and gnashed their teeth so hard that they fell out from their jawbones and clattered on the stairs like hailstones.
She found the queen unsettling, and not just due to general unpleasant embarrassment of past events concerning the queen's husband. She found the queen disturbing because she seemed to travel in her own sphere of twilight. There was something veiled about her even in the noonday sun. She seemed a little unfamiliar with the act of living life rather than watching other people construct events at a discreet distance.
Said queen was currently holding her hand and kissing her cheek. She looked up into the sunlight and tried not to flinch. She'd never been one for close physical contact with those she was unfamiliar with.
The queen released her and began addressing her in that chant-like, lilting accent that always made it sound like she was mumbling. She felt momentarily sorry for this dark stranger in a strange land and wondered if she ever regretted her choice to come to the White City. So she smiled back and did her best to understand what the elf was saying.
At first, she seemed to be just wishing her and her husband happiness so she smiled and curtsied and looked pleased. Then it appeared she was going to give some kind of gift, so she curtsied again, but for a long while it failed to appear. Then one of the queen's handmaids appeared carrying what looked like an elaborate red and gold feather headdress.
"And this," she undulated, "Is a sacred Emlin-naur of Valinor that I give to you and your husband that you may live on in blessedness."
The headdress suddenly winked a beady black eye at her.
She thought curtseying again would be over doing it, so she took the great golden bird from the elf's hands with nothing but some garbled thanks. It felt very warm. The queen suddenly smiled with something like human mischief, and then in a cloud of shadowy hair was gone. She was left alone, clutching the bird to her white dress like a brilliant wedding bouquet.
After a while her husband returned. He touched her shoulder gently and looked down at the strange gift. The bird gave him an appraising stare with his bright black eyes.
"I had heard it said that elves do not understand the evasion that mortals call tact."
She stroked the golden bird's gorgeous back.
"I must admit it makes a strange wedding present."
"Do you know what it is?"
"She called it an Emlin-naur, not that name was known to me." She paused. "It's not some strange Elven fertility token is it?"
"No, it's not that."
He smiled and continued softly.
"I believe they were known as Lyftfleo to the North men of old."
"I'm afraid this soldier must show her ignorance in matters of lore."
"The bird that was known in Numenor as Zhar-fita the Fireborn, or Holy Garuda by the men of the south, and by the Easterlings as Everliving Huma?"
"How about its Westron name, Master Sage?"
He smiled a little wryly. The bird sang one clear, liquid note.
The wizard flew into a fury and flung his hands above his head. A great smoke of green and blue shot up into the air. The cats all hissed and spat in unison, and the foxes howled like the mountain wind and the frogs jumped five feet in the air. The man in the mirror circled his slow way up the staircase, drawing ever nearer to the throne room of the wizard. The book of the past ruffled its parchment pages, and in the crystal ball a great monkey clung to a high tower and swatted at birds of metal.
Then the wizard chanted in a terrible voice, in a language not heard for three thousand years. And he summoned all the water in the earth to rise up and flood the lower floors of the tower and drown the one who came to disturb his peace.
The water rose with a roar and a fume up through the dungeon floor. Up it went to the dungeon ceiling bursting down the door and rushing up the stairs in a great white wave. Then it flooded the wizard's cauldron room where he brewed elixirs of doom, and it rushed up through the kitchens and disturbed the sausages and the hams, and up through the armoury room making the swords dance about in the foam, and tore at the books in the library and rent the fabric in the tapestry room. It pushed on up and up until it broke over the stranger and washed up fifty feet above his head.
Then observing the new element that had suddenly arrived in the tower, the raven on the left said he should like to try swimming. And the raven on the right said try and then sink like a stone is all you would do. Then the raven on the left said, why so? Gulls can swim. And the raven on the right said, "Fie, fie, fie! I should like to see you try! Because we are of a greater wisdom and lineage than common water bobbing gulls, and anyway they have webbed feet." And the raven on the right said "Pah! Anything a gull can do a raven can do better. I'll bob on the surface of the water if I want, and furthermore if I dip my feet in the great white candle as wide as a tree trunk that burns at the foot of the wizards throne I will have white wax webbing on my feet as good as any gull.
So the raven that perched on the left arm of the throne flew down to the great white candle, as wide as a tree trunk and dipped his feet in the molten wax beneath the flame.
The raven said "OUCH!!!!!!!"
The raven on the right wept with laughter.
And the spider looked up from her spinning and said, "By Eru, that stranger is a strong swimmer."
True enough, in the mirror behind the throne room the stranger was hauling himself up onto the last landing of the tower and shaking the water from his cloak.
She looked on as her husband addressed his small audience. By now, the night was as dark as the depth of the ocean and he was as white as a mausoleum. The old bones of Numenor poked up from beneath his young face, eyes shining with mischief, waving his long fingered hands like skeletal butterflies.
She'd heard tales by the fireside herself of course, when she was a little girl and the world was wide and ripe for adventure. She'd heard tell of dragons under ancient mountains, and strange trees that moved in the depth of forgotten woods. She'd heard tell of secret pools where the fish had lived so long in the dark they no longer had eyes, and caves where an echo could last for a thousand years.
But the tales she liked best were the tales of the sailors who rode the white waves of the sea. They found strange islands where the birds were footless and flightless from breeding amongst themselves for so long and strange animals that would run to their hunting knives because they didn't know that men ate meat.
When she fell in love with him the world suddenly stretched out before her again, as full of possibilities as it had been when she was a child. She fell in love with an island species mutilated and mutated by a million years of inbreeding in pale cities always under attack. She thought him as exotic as a dragon and as secret as the heart of the forest.
"You still get nightmares," she said after they had shared a bed for three weeks.
"So do you," he'd said.
The wizard waxed wroth and the stranger was still on the stairs. In the crystal ball of the future a man in blue flew three times round the world. And the foxes rent their fur and the cats played a sad lament on their whiskers and the frogs sang a hymn to Elbareth. The raven on the right was bandaging the blistered feet of the raven on the left with his beak. And still the stranger strode up and up.
So the wizard asked his ravens what he should do.
The raven on the left said he would fly down and peck his eyes out. The raven on the right said do you know how tough human eyeballs are? And the raven on the left said he would fly down and peck out both his eyes and furthermore he would bite his nose off. And the crow on the left said, "Fie, fie Fie! I should like to see you try. The stranger will take his dagger to you and then he'll have his wife pluck you and serve up your naked indignity for dinner."
They were still arguing when the stranger burst into the room.
And all the cats fell from the curtains.
And all the frogs dived to the depth of their dish.
And all the foxes whimpered behind the throne.
And the great candle guttered and the spider stopped spinning and the ravens stood as still as carven stone.
And the stranger said:
"May I present my compliments from Tom Taper the city's best baker. You left your change behind."
When they arrived home, his hair still smelt of wood smoke. He reached his hand out to Fleo and ruffled the feathers of his crown. The bird gave him that weird, ancient look that seemed so like understanding. He fussed over the bird for a moment then turned back to her.
"Can I ask what that was all about?"
"Do you know those rumours that always go on along side history?"
She pulled two oak leaves and a small spider out of his hair.
"The old wives tales."
"The slanders of witchcraft and villainy never recorded in the annals."
"I should like to make sure when my father becomes an old wives tale he becomes the right one."
"You want all the mothers in the White City a hundred years hence to threaten their children with the mad, bad old steward of Gondor to get them to their beds quietly."
"I have the feeling he'd find that terribly amusing."
"I'd like him to be somewhere where he can look down and be amused."