1. The Crossroads of Eriador
The Ring misseth, maybe, the heat of Sauron's hand, which was black and yet burned like fire, and so Gil-galad was destroyed. – Isildur, FotR
The rain tired of battering, and to give itself time to refresh, lapsed into a fine mist. Although he had not been able to feel his nose for a week, Galdor tried once more to rub away the numbness. The men and women marching behind him sniffled and wrung out their cloaks. This army that he rode before was the most sodden army to pass through Eriador, and when all its segments were assembled at Imladris in the spring, would be largest army of Elves mustered since the First Age. But the high-king Ereinion Gil-galad was late for his rendezvous with the Númenórean high-king Elendil. The day the host left Harlond the skies burst open and had not shut, turning babbling streams into torrents and even Elendil's newly rebuilt road into mire. The weather was only the latest in a string of setbacks.
The first was the stubborn factions of coastal Elves, those descendants of the Sindar and Falathrim who did not accept the tall Noldo as high-king except in matters of protection. They deemed the war a Númenórean war and refused to answer the mustering. Without them, the host was at a third of the strength it could be, and that Ereinion would not accept.
Came the second setback: in the midst of these delicate negotiations an assassin struck Ereinion.
For days no-one except those closest to the king knew whether he was on or over the edge of death; the populace could hardly even agree whether the assassin's tool was arrow, knife or spear, and whether poisoned or non-poisoned. The end of the matter was, Ereinion appeared again in what seemed full health, and the attack on their king (by who, none knew, but obviously more aligned to Sauron's wishes than not) rallied together the factions better than any speeches or promises Ereinion could have offered.
Thus the army Ereinion had promised for Elendil at mid-summer was marching to their meeting-place at Amon Sûl three months late.
Of all the men in Lindon, Galdor, son of an ambitious Falathrim sheep-herder and a Valar-fearing Laegrim lady, was closest to these troubles. Galdor's occupation was the amorphous 'lackey' of Master Círdan of Forlond; he took care of what matters the shipbuilding mystic needed looking into. In these days it meant, by default, he served as the high-king's spokesman and errand-runner. An extension, perhaps, from his role of babysitter from their younger years in Círdan's house in Beleriand.
He saw the high-king now, craning his neck, seeking him out. Galdor caught his gaze.
"Galdor!" cried the king. His horse plopped and squelched through mud to reach his side. "Look to the hill ahead! The crossroads of Eriador! Where the countries of Elves, Dwarves, and Men meet! Many times have I looked upon this village and yet never have I set foot in it. Tell me, what do you know of it?"
"Only what Inglor gusts," said Galdor. Inglor was husband of his youngest daughter, and though a fine man and good father of his son, Galdor thought him the archetype of the speech-infatuated Exile.
Ereinion knew of Galdor's domestic vexations and smiled to himself.
"Inglor calls it a charming village," Galdor sighed. "Which he visits whenever his business entices him to come this far east. Further, one might chance a meeting with anyone here. He claims to have once ran into Iarwyn and drank with him at an alehouse. During another visit, a drink with Prince Drár of the Amyn Luin. (As though that prince could last so long down the road with his heft.)"
Galdor's wife Liel shook her head at him.
"Its founding goes before Beleriand's ruin. The houses sit upon the dust of houses, and those on the dust of still more. It is older than any of our settlements, and, Inglor fancies, likely to outlast those we have."
"Fascinating. I should like to visit." The king made motions to his herald that he should come for instructions. "Who here will join me in Bree?"
Galdor began to say, "No, and neither shall you go." But said Liel first, "Us, naturally!"
A second unhappy horse waded through the mud and at the sight of its rider Galdor relaxed. Círdan had the power to end Ereinion's fancies.
"I oppose this venture," said Círdan. "Unless you take me along and allow me to lead you to the best alehouse."
"Then come! Let us go now!" Ereinion cried with boyish enthusiasm.
Galdor made a noise in his throat.
"My lord," said the king's captain, Peros. "I hope you speak in jest. It would be a simple matter for an assassin to target you in a village. The buildings offer too much concealment. You are safer in camp."
Galdor looked at the captain with gratitude, for he recalled the day of the would-be assassination bitterly. "I agree with Peros. You should stay in the camp."
"Come now," said Círdan. "We shall surround the high-king such that no assassin may have so much as a hair on his head to target. Moreover, the endless rain has taxed his strength. A dry bed shall do him well, do you not think so?"
Peros and Galdor were now trapped in a hole of their own digging. Ever since his recovery from That Day, they had been crying that Ereinion was exerting himself overmuch. Stop walking, ride the horse. Down from the horse, lie down for a time…
And as though to underline Círdan's remark, fat droplets of rain began to splatter their oiled cloaks.
"Excellent," said Círdan and continued on to extoll all the culinary wonders that were to be had in the historic village, while Ereinion gave directions to his herald.
Galdor made another noise, which was ignored. Liel looked at him, smiling, and clucked under her breath. That was the joke in their household. Galdor predicted every mischance, probable and improbable, and in time, whenever he began to caution them, his harried daughters would begin flapping their arms and clucking, "Mother hen, mother hen!"
With one look to the grey sky for patience he followed Ereinion's train as they prepared to make start for the town of Bree.
The townspeople crowded the street and leaned from windows, while their children climbed fences and trees, all straining to catch a glimpse of the Elf-king's party. Booming and prosperous before Eregion fell and Khazad-dûm closed its doors, the town had been used to seeing splendid Elf-lords and ladies passing through, laughing and singing in beautiful and spellbinding voices, arrayed in clothing that radiated colors no mortal weaver could have conceived. But those days lived in stories. The elven kingdom had shrunk behind the Blue Mountains, and only rumors of it reached the people of Bree.
This party of Elves looked to have marched right out of the stories. Tall, handsome, and strong, regal in blue and silver, Ereinion looked everything a king should. Behind, like a silver shadow, Círdan, who looked around the world as though it were a book he had read once but had forgotten how it ends. Peros, thin-faced and dark, an Exile who served king after king with relentless devotion, secretly distraught that he had yet to die defending one. Galdor, shortest in the train, bristling like a small bear woken from a nap, and Liel, intelligent and beautiful by his side. A grim escort of Peros's twenty most elite soldiers encased them.
Círdan was dead-set on one inn, and to no other would he glance. "To the Inn of the Blue Hen!" he cried, til only the deafest grandfathers in town could not know where to the magnificent party of the Elf-king was headed. The townspeople followed the procession, but not too close, wary of those twenty solemn men glistening in Elf-steel.
One leg raised, frozen forever in mid-step, the blue hen shined in fresh blue paint. The remainder of the sign's wood was dark with moisture. The humor the sign imparted to his companions was not lost on Galdor. Liel did not need cluck, only look at him with a half-smile.
Like most buildings in Bree, the Inn of the Blue Hen was built over another's ruins and others would surely follow. The current proprietress was a big-boned woman, who knew of and solved every domestic dispute in town. Eleven children, two deceased husbands, and an inherited inn later, little in Middle-earth could cow her. And she was not impressed by the elvish entourage. Folding her massive arms over her apron, she said to the Elf-king, "Sweetie, I can't have all these armed men in here, they'll scare m' customers away. They'll stay outside, or you'll all go."
"Of course, lady. Just as you say." Ereinion called to Peros to keep his small army outside the inn. "But do not have them line the building. This is not a military display."
Peros tried to protest, but was shooed aside by Círdan. Galdor tried to protest, but was pulled away by his smiling wife to a table. She rolled a wooden fork in her fingers. "How quaint."
They have all been possessed, thought Galdor helplessly.
"Try to smile, Galdor!" cried Ereinion, passing him an ale. "We are beginning the greatest adventure of our lives!"
"I've already had the greatest adventure of my life," growled Galdor. The world-splintering War of Wrath was not an experience to be downplayed. Marriage had been upending too.
"The Deceiver will be ousted, a new age will begin, and… come sit with us, Peros!"
But Peros stalked to the door to glare hawk-eyed at every individual who entered the inn.
Ereinion had the easy laugh and generous nature of his famous uncle Finrod. Soon men and women of the town crowded the room. The proprietress had not seen so much business before, and wished elven lords would stop in more often. She panted by the table a moment to tell them so.
Galdor much too much enjoyed the warmth in his thawed nose and soon forgot his exasperation. He looked at Liel and remembered instead why he had been so enchanted by the laundress of the Lord of the Falas.
The evening dragged on til only Círdan and Ereinion's glasses remained full. Galdor slumped in his chair. Liel's chin rested on her fist. Talk turned from the politics of Harlond, twisted toward alehouses in Harlond, and settled on comeliness in alehouses.
"And Liel is easily the prettiest in this room!" Ereinion declared, draining his glass and motioning for another.
"But not if Elwing were to enter," the king added after reflection. "How Oropher and I fought over her hand, and in the end it was the upstart, peredhel shipwright whom she chose."
Círdan stirred. "I may have introduced them, but tell me, was it my fault? Who had insisted on showing her the shipyard that day?"
"You foresaw their union, you bastard, and used us to bring it about."
"When did I tell you that?"
"Last time we sat in a pub," said Ereinion. He sighed. "And Oropher will not speak to me to this day…"
Círdan waved his glass, splashing, not caring. "Aye, Elwing was pretty, but no match for Uinen, who I saw in mortal form, once."
The shipbuilder and the king sat in a contemplative silence.
"The sea takes all we hold dear," said Ereinion at last.
Círdan nodded gravely.
The two old friends together began to sing a bittersweet song of seamen. Swaying, weeping a little, spilling the contents of their glasses.
On the last note the shipwright fell back, snoring. Ereinion took no notice and continued the song to another chorus, his voice finally dying away into a hum.
The chatter and gaiety of the other patrons remained loud. One man stood apart, head lowered, as though drowsy. Galdor sat up, alert. At that same instant the man sprang toward the king, covering the distance between them in a leap. A blade flashed. But Galdor already had his glass raised and aimed at the man's head. The glass flew, missed his face, but hit his chest with enough force to stun him a moment. That was enough time for Ereinion to jump aside and catch the assassin's armed wrist. Círdan seized the other, and the knife fell from the man's grip onto the table with a ringing clatter. They held him in a bind til Peros stormed in with a dozen men and bound him in rope.
"Cul," spat the man, his cold eyes meeting Ereinion's. "You will burn in fire, for in your arrogance you continue to deny the Mighty One that which is His." Peros would have silenced him, but he fell silent on his own accord. Peros's men towed him away.
"A Black Númenórean," said Círdan. "One of those south-dwellers who worships Sauron as an envoy of the Great Enemy. They call the Elves culat, demons." To Peros he said, "I shall speak with him later."
The inn was silent as a ruin. Men and women stood almost on top each other to give space to the fallen assassin and Elves.
The proprietress apologized through heavy breaths. "No, to you I apologize," said Ereinion and he left her enough coin to expand the inn twice over. Before she caught her breath, they were gone, the sign of the blue hen swaying over their passing.
Back in the camp, Liel and Galdor took shelter under their dripping canvas. Despite all his initial protests against entering the town, Galdor growled that having come that far, they should have at least stayed the night at the inn. Liel, lying in the crook of his arm, did not comment but did at last give her husband an explanation.
"It began two days ago, when we had a pause in the rain. I washed the uniforms of the king's guards, and hung them to dry; when I returned to gather them, I found one missing. I mentioned this to Ereinion and Círdan overheard. A missing uniform may be nothing… or not, said Círdan. If this assassin is planning to steel his way into our camp to complete his task, we are helpless but to wait. Or, we might trap him when and where we wish it. We will make it so easy that he cannot resist. And that is when they formed their plan, themselves as bait, and I had to agree to silence."
"You still might have told me," said Galdor.
"It is not that we do not trust you, but you see, no one could know. Especially not Peros. He would have ruined it. And if we did not draw the assassin out, well, the evening would not have gone to waste."
But Galdor still held the wounded air of a child given a wooden sword in place of an adult's lustrous weapon.
Liel clucked, and then, laughing, kissed him. "My poor mother hen." She kissed him again, he kissed back. "My dearest, dearest, most silly husband. Círdan trusts you, and he relies on you to take the most simple action, so simple that even he does not see it. You were the failsafe of the plot: you saved Ereinion from doomed Eglarest, from foolishness at Eregion, from the assassin's first attempt. As you always have done, you always will."
This started as a chapter to an unposted story, and that wasn't working. Much later I started reshaping it for Shipwright Shrugs, but that didn't work either. So here it is, alone, and at last out of my hair. Ha!