TALES OF OLDER DAYS
~ it was a dark and stormy night ~
I am not J.R.R. Tolkien and I do not own Middle-earth.
This story is dedicated to altogether too many people. They know who they are.
There are those who say that a story shouldn't start with the weather. Still, the heavens were as black as the back end of a goblin's kitchen and the wind howled through the ragged clouds after the frightened Moon; so down below in the town of Bree, where one small figure scampered breathlessly between puddles in the hammering rain, it was perfectly plain that it was a dark and stormy night.
Take a moment to consider Bree. The town has seen better days.
Fourteen hundred years earlier, for example, a visitor might have found the town in its heyday: snugly situated at the crossing of two great roads and three great kingdoms, the single uncontested and perfectly neutral spot between Arthedain, Cardolan and Rhudaur. Embassies, merchants and adventurers had swollen the town to bursting point; Elves heading west had been a common sight; so too had been the Dwarven parties that still journey on the Great East Road, if less frequently since the rise of a fiery terror in Khazad-dûm. In those days was built the Inn of Bree; it stands here still, along with the high walls and strong gates of more prosperous years. Since then, the kingdoms have been lost and the roads have fallen into disrepair and disuse. Bree is no longer a rich and busy town.
The streets were almost empty. Here and there gleamed lantern-light behind drawn curtains, but midnight was no more than a memory and anyway the rain splashing over the red-tiled rooftops had kept most of the town's usual night-birds at home.
Most. An ominous echo caused the small figure to skid rather hastily round a corner, ducking into a mud-slick alley that would have been dank at the best of times. Voices blurred in the distance. Maybe they wouldn't notice the entrance – but no, there were footsteps at the other end of the alley –
– they were getting closer –
Panicking, the urchin shot out the other end of the alley and slammed into someone who really shouldn't have been there.
The collision drove the breath out of both of them. "Elbereth!" came a startled exhalation at least two feet above the urchin's head; the urchin was grabbed by the collar, despite an attempt to wriggle desperately away. Flailing did not produce the desired effect. "Lemme go! Lemme go!" the urchin protested, painfully aware of the pursuers in the alley. "I gotta –"
Gruff shouts rang through the street. "There he is! Hey, you there –"
The urchin flailed harder. "Lemme go!"
Darkness and the storm conspired to shroud the street. Even an Elf's eyes would have been hard pushed to make out more than shadows moving through the pouring rain; the urchin, panting and blinded by fear, was overwhelmingly aware of the short, ominous figures emerging from the alley and the firm hand preventing any escape. "Well, this looks promising," murmured someone nearby, in the silky vowels and consonants of someone who had been brought up to speak Westron in the Elvish way. "We haven't seen Dwarves fighting each other for a very long time."
"I'm not sure this one is a Dwarf, actually," a similarly accented voice replied above the urchin's head. By pitch alone, it might have been a man or a woman speaking. "It's rather light."
There were four Dwarves; they had come out of the alley and stood threateningly in the street. One marched forwards, axe in hand. "You there," he said gruffly. "That boy's got something of ours. We want it back. Give him up, now."
He reached for the urchin with a mailed fist. The urchin squeaked and shrank back into the folds of the stranger's suddenly welcoming cloak. "Here now," said the stranger, mildly enough, "why don't we talk about this –"
Even in the dark, the edge of the Dwarf's axe glinted. The sound of the stranger's sword leaving its sheath was startlingly loud.
Events balanced on a blade's edge. No one moved.
"This is ridiculous," complained the silky voice of the stranger's companion. "A fight in the middle of Bree? We've only just arrived. What has this child stolen from you?"
The Dwarf was slower to reply than the urchin. "A thing of value."
"String is valuable to a Dwarf," said the urchin's captor. Rain trickled down the steady length of his sword. "What are you going to do to the boy?"
"What we do to all thieves!" the Dwarf growled. "Give him up!"
"No," said the urchin's captor and added a few words in a strange, harsh language that struck the urchin's ears like rocks shaken together in a sack.
This seemed to catch the Dwarves by surprise. After a minute or two, the chief dwarf replied in the same rough language, rather falteringly, which caused the second stranger to snort and remark in sarcastic Westron, "They've forgotten their own tongue so soon! It's only been what, four centuries since Hadhodrond burned?"
"Four and a half!" said the Dwarf angrily. "That's Khazad-dûm!"
The second stranger snorted again and said something sharp in that other language, of which the only word that the urchin could make out was Moria. "Unless," he added mockingly, "you prefer to use the Mannish tongue?"
The Dwarf's response was not in Westron; the urchin, currently trying to achieve invisibility through sheer willpower, thought he sounded rather huffy. More rocky words were exchanged. At last the Dwarf lowered his axe and stepped back, apparently conceding the argument.
"Run while you can, boy," he told the urchin. "You can't hide."
After which, to the urchin's considerable surprise, he left.
The gale had lessened to a light shower and a hint of moonlight was beginning to creep cautiously out of its cloudy shelter. Rainwater swirled in the street. "Well now," said the second silky-voiced stranger, as the splash of iron-soled Dwarven boots faded into the murky distance, "that's over, for the moment, so what have we got here? Who are you, child, and what did you steal?"
"Hmm," said the urchin's captor, shaking the dripping, muddy urchin out of the surprisingly dry folds of his cloak. Darkness and the depths of his hood hid his face; he was very tall, especially for a traveller in the Breelands, and he wiped the rain from his sword before returning it to its sheath. "I wonder –"
His equally tall companion, prowling past him, clamped a hand on the twitchy urchin's shoulder. "It's whatever the child's got under his coat, of course. He's far too bloated." Cold fingers pressed under the urchin's chin, startling the urchin out of a surreptitious examination of the surroundings. The stranger's voice was light and perfectly dispassionate. "You won't get anywhere by running away, you know. Where do you live?"
"Think he'll tell the truth?" said the first stranger. "Let's take him on with us to The Prancing Pony and see what old Bob has to say."
The urchin was aware of no one at The Prancing Pony called Bob, but felt under no obligation to mention this. More urgent considerations presented themselves. "Not The Pony! Not there!"
"Why ever not?"
The urchin gulped, raised on tiptoes by the pressure of the cold fingers. "That's where they're staying!"
"Oh," said the second stranger. The cold fingers removed themselves from the urchin's chin, for which the urchin was grateful, having rather missed the ability to breathe. "Very well. There used to be an inn over by the South-gate –"
"There ain't now," gasped the urchin. "Look, 's nice o' you –"
"Wasn't it just?" said the first stranger, with affable menace. "If we can't go to The Pony and The Two-Faced Vintner isn't there any more, maybe you can recommend somewhere else. And then we can sit down in the dry and talk about who you are and why you're stupid enough to steal from Dwarves."
The urchin stole a glance into the comfortingly shadowy alley. "Yeah. Sure."
Bree might have seen better days, but it would take another six hundred years of slow decline for the town to dwindle into the village of T.A. 3018. A number of alehouses still throve in the surrounding streets, mostly patronised by less discerning drinkers; it was to one of these alehouses that the urchin led the silky-voiced strangers – reluctantly. Had an escape route presented itself, it would have been swiftly taken. Unfortunately, not least because the second stranger maintained a firm grasp on the urchin's ragged collar all the way, none did.
The alehouse was run by a tall, skinny woman called Kat Ferny. Her hair was brown and her skirt was red and she knew the urchin far too well, since she was the urchin's aunt. Not that she displayed any of the concern that might have been expected of an aunt when the urchin crept into the quiet common-room well past midnight. In fact, she erupted from the kitchen with a rolling pin wielded ominously in her hands, and if it hadn't been for the urchin's rescuers standing critically amid the empty benches, wraithlike in their grey cloaks, the urchin might well have regretted escaping the Dwarves.
"They-wanna-place-to-stay-an-I-brought-em-here!" said the urchin in one breath and glanced nervously up at the strangers. "Uh..."
"That's right," said the first of the silky-voiced strangers, slinging his battered leather bag down onto the dusty floor. His hands were white against the shadowy cloth of his cloak; free of his hood, the smooth lines and translucent fairness of his face shone youthful in the smoky room. A thick coil of black hair lay braided over his shoulder and his dark eyes glittered with amusement.
Kat Ferny gaped. So did the urchin. Elves were a rare sight in Bree these days.
The Elf raised his eyebrows. "Are we too late for supper?"
They were, of course. Miss Ferny retreated to the kitchen anyway, apparently stunned into acquiescence by so startling an apparition. This left the urchin alone in the common-room with the two Elves, a somewhat disconcerting circumstance, especially given that the second Elf was standing in the way of the door.
The first Elf glanced critically around the common-room. "Well, this could be worse," he said and arranged himself with careless elegance on a bench by the remnants of the fire. He grinned at his companion. "Better than a night in a wight's barrow."
"Most things are," retorted his companion, whose own uncloaking had revealed a very similar dark-haired Elf of youthful appearance, garbed without ostentation in a greenish tunic and leggings. He crossed the dusty floor in two leonine paces. His eyes were piercingly keen. "Now then. What's your name and what are you doing stealing from Dwarves?"
The urchin quailed. "Never stole nuffink –"
"Don't be silly, boy. You're hiding something under your coat. What is it?"
"Never –" started the urchin again, unwisely, and saw the Elf's expression. "'m not a boy," she said sulkily instead, resorting to evasion. "Sir."
"There's a thing," said the Elf. "Nor am I. What's that got to do with it?"
The urchin was frankly startled. It was true that the Elf was both willowy and startlingly beautiful, besides being in possession of a silkily ambiguous voice; but then, so was the Elf who sprawled amused on the bench by the fire. Elves were supposed to be golden-tongued and fair of face. Everyone knew that. For Elves, in fact, they seemed very nearly ordinary. The urchin had taken their weapons and clothing and willingness to get on the wrong side of four Dwarven war-axes to mean they were men.
The Elf-woman exhaled. "Well, what's your name? I'm getting tired of calling you 'child'."
"Gogollescent," muttered the urchin. "'s Gogol for short."
"Strange name," yawned the Elf by the fire. "Maybe you should take your coat off, Gogol. Must be wet through, the way you're dripping."
A static shadow was indeed soaking itself into the dust around Gogol's battered boots. She scowled at the Elf and knotted the sopping cuffs of her overlong sleeves together, clutching defensively at the bulge beneath her coat. "Weren't me what chose it. What's yours? Yez a woman too?"
The Elf who was a woman snorted; the one by the fire only grinned and said, "No. I'm Erestor and my wife's name is Melinna. We're passing through Bree on the way to see a couple of friends. That was the idea, anyway, before you ran into me so abruptly. And now we've been introduced, so why don't you sit down and tell us what you've stolen from the Dwarves? You owe us that much for saving your skin."
Gogol had never put much stock in the common law of tit-for-tat. "Yeah," she said, calculating her chances of making a break for the exit. How fast was the Elf-woman? Gogol was very good at dodging. It had to be odds-on in her favour at least. "Sure. I –"
The door slammed open in a rain-edged blast of wind and black air. On the threshold stood a pair of armoured Dwarves; behind them, a cloaked figure loomed out of the dark.
The Elves were visibly startled. Melinna swung round at once, reaching for her sword, in the same moment that Erestor ceased to lounge by the fire and rose in a single fluid movement, two long knives shining in his hands. Gogol was already scrambling for the shelter of a nearby table, one arm crooked protectively around her perilously acquired prize. The Elves had got themselves involved in this. They had volunteered. Let them handle it.
She squeezed herself into the darkest corner she could find and held her breath.
The Dwarves had taken up position on either side of the door. Now the cloaked figure came slowly into the common-room, long sleeves falling away from slim wrists as the hood came back. Gold spilled over the woman's shoulders in loose ringlets; the mass of her hair was caught back by a rope of black pearls knotted into something elegantly akin to a diadem. Squinting between chair-legs and the bottom of the table, the urchin could just make out a slice of perfect profile.
Her voice was low and melodious. "Mili," she said. "Are these the gentlemen who obstructed your attempt to regain my property this evening?"
A third Dwarf stumped in from the dark. Had the urchin been able to contort her skinny body into only a slightly closer approximation of a pretzel, she would probably have recognised the chief of her earlier pursuers. Beard bristling, he jerked the door shut and glared at the Elves. "Yes, ma'am. That they are."
"Naturally we did," came Melinna's cool voice. "He waved an axe at us."
"I am sure he is nothing if not zealous in the prosecution of his duties," said Ma'am, her voice dropping a notch in a way that might have sounded seductive, had the threat been less obvious. "You will, of course, turn the thief and my property over to me at once."
Gogol, under the table, gulped. The Elves glanced at each other.
"No, I don't think we will," said Erestor. "Why would we do that?"
Ma'am seemed momentarily inclined to react badly to this. Then she produced a thin smile and a flick of her hand that caused one of her guards to dart forwards and pull out a chair. It was rough and splintery; she seated herself as though upon a sculpted throne. The fall of her cloak revealed her patterned skirts, elegant in black and silver.
"My name," she said, "is –" and she uttered a word involving far too many 'z's and peculiar inflections for the urchin, at least, to have ever remembered it "– but you may call me Inez. Lady Inez. I desire you to return to me my property, gentlemen. And also the thief. Elves are an honourable people. Surely you will not harbour a criminal?"
"Some Elves are," said Melinna. "Dead ones, mostly. What are you doing wandering around with a Númenórean name? The island's been under the sea for two and a half thousand years."
Lady Inez's eyes narrowed. "I am a lady who has been robbed and seeks proper requital."
"So you said. What if the child returns your property?"
"I will be indebted to you," replied Lady Inez, rather haughtily. "But I shall not be satisfied until the thief is also turned over to me."
Erestor appeared to be entranced by the play of firelight on his knives. "Pity," he murmured. "You won't be satisfied, then. What is it, by the way?"
The lady rose with startling suddenness, her shadow splashing ominously titanic over the smoky walls. "A thing of value," she said softly, arranging her arms under her cloak so that her looming silhouette gained an odd appearance of folded wings. "I want it back. I will take it back, one way or another. And that boy cowering under the table will discover what happens to those who dare to steal from me."
None of the rather numerous threats made against Gogol in the past had caused her to feel quite so nervous about a victim's wrath. She cowered harder. The Elves, on the other hand, regarded Lady Inez critically; they might have been awarding marks out of ten. "Not bad," said Melinna, "for a mortal. I've heard better."
Erestor grinned. "Celegorm Fëanorion in full flow..."
"Now there was an honourable Elf." By the way her mouth twisted, the epithet was less than wholly complimentary. "And if we don't give up the child, Lady Inez?"
A nasty suspicion struck Gogol that the room's temperature had dropped by several degrees. Her limited viewpoint showed her only the shadows cast by the raised axes of the Dwarves. Judging by their feet, the Elves were lightly poised; it was impossible to tell whether they intended to fight or run.
"Why then," she heard Lady Inez say, "you shall share his fate. Mili –"
At which point, a vigorous bronze clamour started up on the other side of the shuttered window and Bree's night watchman could be heard informing the world that it was two in the morning. Moments later, a thunderous knocking at the door announced the watchman himself. Kat Ferny's alehouse had a reputation for brawling and rough behaviour unsuited to the polite streets of Bree; the watchman had seen light glimmering round the edges of the shutters and come to assure himself that all was well.
"'ere," he said, when he had quite got his breath back. It was obvious that he was at least as startled by the presence of Elves as by the weaponry on display in the room; where Dwarves went, metalwork of a martial sort was sure to appear before too long. "You shouldn't wave swords an' axes an' things around like that. A pers'n might get 'urt."
"So they might," said Erestor easily and sheathed his long knives. "Lady Inez was just going. Isn't that so, ma'am?"
Lady Inez's expression could have frozen a Balrog.
"Precisely," she purred. "We shall conclude our business at a later date."
The urchin was considerably startled for a second time that night when, without further ado, Lady Inez and the Dwarves departed.
So did the watchman. Since Kat Ferny was nowhere to be seen, this left only the Elves, whose patience appeared to have worn thin; at any rate, Erestor reached under the bench and hauled Gogol, wriggling and protesting, out of her refuge without paying any attention to her complaints. He set her down in front of the hearth and stood over her ominously, while the Elf-woman prowled around the common-room like a cat sniffing out a mouse.
"What have you stolen?" he demanded. "Stop batting your eyes. Just tell us!"
Gogol surveyed her options. This did not take long. She cringed and gave up.
"Uh... a dragon's egg."