At the sign of the drunken goose by Chiara Cadrich
Summary: Horor and humor tales from the Inn. New : a tale about Tolkien-fan associations.
Categories: Fiction Characters: None
Content: None
Challenges: None
Series: None
Chapters: 24 Completed: No Word count: 59052 Read: 7642 Published: October 16, 2015 Updated: June 16, 2018

1. Welcome at the Inn by Chiara Cadrich

2. The drunken goose by Chiara Cadrich

3. The riddles contest by Chiara Cadrich

4. Samhain's damned soul - Chapt 1 - Birth by Chiara Cadrich

5. Samhain's damned soul - Chapt 2 - Tree by Chiara Cadrich

6. The hammer and the star by Chiara Cadrich

7. The embalmer by Chiara Cadrich

8. The hospices of the red edge by Chiara Cadrich

9. The tale of Master Gigolet by Chiara Cadrich

10. Visitors in the cellar by Chiara Cadrich

11. The winter of the wolves - The wandering hunt by Chiara Cadrich

12. The winter of the wolves - The beat of Thalion by Chiara Cadrich

13. The winter of the wolves - The long chase by Chiara Cadrich

14. The winter of the wolves - The black beast. by Chiara Cadrich

15. The little prince of the bakehouse by Chiara Cadrich

16. The little princess of the lectern by Chiara Cadrich

17. The isle of the golden king by Chiara Cadrich

18. The Herbmistress by Chiara Cadrich

19. Adunaphel by Chiara Cadrich

20. The gravity of the cooper by Chiara Cadrich

21. Pretty Suite from the Hills by Chiara Cadrich

22. Hearing at Brandy Hall by Chiara Cadrich

23. Adar Nostomereth by Chiara Cadrich

24. The brotherhood of the Taste and Must by Chiara Cadrich

Welcome at the Inn by Chiara Cadrich
- "Good evening, my good fellow! My companions and I are looking for an inn for tonight. Could you tell us..."

The gaunt farmer interrupts his work. Resting his hoe for a moment, he painfully straightens, casts a frightened glance at the rider and, lifting his cold-shivering finger, points at the cobbled road without saying a word.

A wide and short gossip, ruddy and shyless, empties her basket of onions in her cart and puts her thick eyeglasses on. After a carefull inspection, she hails the conveyor:

- "Stride along the King’s cobblestones. On Castle square, no possible mistake, you’ll find for sure. "

The captain of the company, somehow abashed, nods a thank and leads his caravan of overloaded and exhausted mules. Soon the road runs on a well-kept pavement along Thalion’s first huts, from which emerge disheveled poor devils in the midst of sheep. The convoy passes under a wooden porch and enters the town proper, protected by a high fence on a ridge. Climbing the slope in the middle of cottages and workshops, they reach the square, lined with the only real town houses.

The riders stop over, seeking the inn.

The facades of the square houses display their past pomp. Engineered beams are maintained with makeshift dyes. The tailor’s storefront exposes some spruce dresses but his workshop hardly sells utility clothes; to survive the owner's great-grandfather also had to improvise weaver, but the current tailor jealously keeps the expertise of his predecessors. The apothecary once sold subtle imported compositions from Harad. Now the herbalist survives distilling remedies and perfumes himself, with local products. Times are tough but Thalion’s craftsmen retain, as a talisman ennobling their days, the memory of past glories and the know-how of their ancestors.
Northward, an imposing building of fair stones and red brick borders the square with its powerful slender facade. The castle of Thalion, once the summer residence of the kings of Tharbad, still casts a protective aura.

Gregarious, the mules have stopped in the center of castle square, tight like a flock shivering at the approach of night. No hostel! Yet it is time to find shelter. Twilight clears its bright colors one by one, still blazing for a few moments with warm and caring tones.

-« No possible mistake… ! », mutters the disappointed leader. The former captain is in charge of a few mules, three fighters and precious commodities to be sold on the greenway. He must make a decision quickly. He hesitates for a few moments, when the oak castle gates open noisily:

- "Hear ye, Hear ye! Good pilgrims conveying from Far South!"

A figure in livery advances, brandishing a lantern on the porch of the castle. The character, lanky and dignified, harangues the surprised traders with histrionics:

- "In quest for bellydrench, hearth roaring or sack hitting? The sign at the Drunken Goose regally accommodates riders and their mounts! Right this way, my lords! 1 "

The man, dressed with a jabot, multiplies the bows, his lantern held up at arm, while praising the establishment with the distinction of a butler:

- "The castle’s estables may cater for thy mounts, arroy and cargo in our faithful guard. Shalt thou aucthorise thy guidance up to thy dormitory? 2 "

The numb understanding of the caravan captain finally lights up with a flash of lucidity: the hostel is housed within the castle walls! The talkative and sententious bailiff is none other than the inn’s doorman. With an anguished doubt as to the rates of the institution, he reluctantly gives the order to proceed to the porch, lit by the crepuscular rays.

The porter - who despite his nice outfit, is also the groom, waiter, room boy, butler and handyman - encourages the riders by clever allusions to the comfort of Thalion’s castle, former royal residence within the famous town fair... with the dignity of a noble house herald, he leads the guests to the stables in the light of his lantern.

In a corner a sow wallows, surrounded by a dozen fighting piglets. Two lean cows, dowagers of the house, lazily chew their hay, next to two donkeys and a huge draft horse. The stable boy lodges the mules and horses in large stalls, souvenir of the royal stables. After helping the travelers to unload their bales in a shed, he entrust the key to them and without giving them time to negotiate the rates, he leads them into the yard and into the main building.

.oOo.

The travelers enter the old keep, after a flight of worn pink marble steps, by antique double doors of immaculate black wood, speckled with fine silver stars arranged in a circle.

- "Welcome under the Sign of the Drunken Goose!"

A huge blond guy welcomes the travelers, behind his bar resting on a half-dozen barrels of beer. The man tries to put on a fair face but the scar that disfigures the left side of his jaw would scare a goblin, despite his shrewd gaze. The former captain knows to gauge men of war. The worn white shirt of the tenant, surprisingly cut, betrays a distant lands’ adventurer. They exchange a short military nod and the householder, resigned and lucid, tells with a kind gesture:

-"Master Gigolet will take care of you! Welcome!"

The huge room extends under four vaults, all of which are based on the same central pillar of pink sandstone. Massive candelabra light the center of the room. Candles burn off a tallow smell and black smoke, in addition to the thick fumes from the enormous fireplace with a poor draw. Large logs end up burning under a pin topped with a sheep oozing its fat and sizzling pleasantly smelling promises.

The porter - Master Gigolet – approaches the captain, with the obsequious and competent air of a palace bailiff:

- "Well came home! 3 Messer Finran, sire of the Sign at the Drunken Goose, makes thy Lordship aware thy pouches be hoisted up to thy barracks. The company, seated in the vast hall of the hosts of said tavern, would delightly swoon to be told thy exploits and deeds from distant baronies by mouth of such distinguished travelers."

The distinguished travelers exchange incredulous looks:

- "He said what?"

They had been assured that along the greenway, they would be able to make themselves understood with westron. The captain, coming from the minor nobility of Imloth Melui, has got some letters in Dúnadan tongue. He explains to his comrades that their luggage was brought to their room, and the guests would love to hear some news from the South.

To tell the truth, the approximate syntax and pompous turns of the usher, make poor justice to the Sindarin tongue that once flourished at the court of Tharbad. Yet master Gigolet does his best to perpetuate the memory of a sophisticated time, but his ancient vocabulary and noble-like expressions produce a mixed impression on the travelers. The captain thinks he’s hearing an offspring of a kitchen boy, aping the manners of the castle nobility in its heyday. But he wonders how much can the food and shelter cost, so coated with precious and adulterated verbiage. Thus he seeks to cut short:

- "You are very urban, master Gigolet. We are tired and should bed after a quick and light meal."

The smooth and emotionless face of the stilted butler yet lets out a disapproving eyebrow thrill:

- "Thy Lordship, do thou allowest the home-legislating courteous charter be told?

- He said what?

- I think he wants to state the rules of the hostel."
The caravan leader represses a temper of his three colleagues, who expect some rogue craftiness:

- "Do, master bailiff, we are listening carefully.

- Coins be of good Kings’ alloy. Shame and discourtesy oblige winasse punishment for whole hall. Specious business be mended in alcoves out of Great Hall. Good feeding be halved, for him narrating a tale of nice outfit, for her singing a lay or gigue dancing, over the approval of our hall. May fresh ale offset truthful news – But behold bashing fibs!"

The dazed travelers are not sure they understand. The captain translates the best he can:

"Counterfeit money is denied. We must behave, otherwise pay a drink for everybody. Uh... no trade in the common room. The meals are half price for anyone who tells a great story, uh… or sings or dances, for the company in the great hall. And the drinks are free to anyone who provides for real news!

- But why so? Whence come stories, songs, dances and girls? Have we fallen into a shanty? ", objects a traveler suspiciously and threateningly towards the poor butler, who struggles to maintain decorum.
His colleague – who may not be the brightest fellow – would fancy some free pints, but he suspects some commercial trickery:

-"What is this place all about, Captain? This ale thing isn’t quite clear…"

The usher tries to maintain his dignified manners but his indignation overwhelms his temper:

- "Messer Finran is infastuated with enscripted tales. His hostellery, cheekily and prolixly renowned, is attended by worthy gaulters 4 telling chosen lays. At vespers, Thalion’s frank community moots around a warm blaze and fallacious or thruthfull tales. Elders meditate in remembrance, petties raise in letters. The tales of our glorious past lull the nocturnal fears and firm up our brotherhood. No gaiety girl around!"

The captain, wishing to avoid any annoying incident, still laboriously assumes the translation:

- "Master Finran likes litterature… uh… which is books. He attracts every able-minded around to tell good stories in his inn. Every evening, Thalion’s free men gather around a good fire and tales, fictions or true news. Old people tell their souvenirs, children learn to read. He says that sharing their glorious history strengthens team and undertaking spirit. Well well… it seems a bit strange but I think this inn is respectable."

The former captain understands why bind the community together. But Thalion’s literate gatherings leave the chief caravan merchant, quite unmoved. He has not travelled two hundred leagues through Rohan and Dunland to tease the muses. His duty is to lead commercial transactions.

The good usher sighs – here is another band of uncultivated swordsmen and venal traders, who must be circumvented the proper way! He softens his syntax while adding in a more confidential tone:

-"If you come here, as I believe, for some commercial business, weaving bonds with local traders might prove useful. Many are present tonight, as every evening."

Reluctant, the captain thinks hard. He checks his purse. After all, having their meal at the common room would fit his finances. With a downcast mustache and low shoulders, they are slowly heading to the grand hall when the usher adds:

- "The custom recommends our guests to take on their best humor before appearing in the great hall!"

The four men waddle while wringing their hands and elbowing to remain at the rearguard. Their smiles wrinkle when the travelers discover their public.

Two or three dozens bourgeois and farmers observe them with gentleness and interest. Peasants with breeches placidly joke with several craftsmen, recognisable thanks to the tools hanging at their belt. A handful city-dwellers, with sober and a bit worn dresses, converse meaningfully in a low voice. Most remain standing up, warming in front of the hearth, a beer pint in hand. Dignified and cordial, all obviously live in the village or nearby, and are not ashamed of staring at the travelers with curiosity.

A little further away, three Dwarves eat silently - which is without pronouncing any word, but the ustensils, their chewing and their swallowing, without forgetting their belches of satisfaction, make as much noise as a forging mill in full activity! It seems the dwarves pay full price for their peaceful meal…

A watchful silence settles when the travelers come in. The looks, most friendly, some a bit derisive, converge towards the caravan chief who sighs with resignation. His stooges shine neither by the academicism of their rhetoric, nor by the correctness of their song. And as for dancing, better not think of it… the loyalty and courage of his comrades show only a weapon in their hand.

-"You are the chief…" seem to say their elusive looks.
Overcoming an unpleasant cold sweat and a strange sensation of knotted stomach, the caravan captain commands an ale, recollects his memories about a Harlond boatman song, and here he goes… 5

.oOo.

Now you know why, at the Sign of the Drunken Goose, tales are nurtured, news are reported and these who wield them are welcome. Master Gigolet and Sire Finran are collecting some of these tales in the next chapters.
See thou soon !

.oOo.
End Notes:
1 Are you looking for dinner, fireside and bed? The inn at the Drunken Goose royally accommodates riders and their mounts! This way, Gentlemen!
2 The castle stables will shelter your mounts, their equipment and loads, safely guarded. May I show you your room?
3 Welcome
4 From Galtier, joke-teller
The
The drunken goose by Chiara Cadrich
At the sign of the Drunken Goose…

The second assistant tailor clears his voice. Gently nudging at him, his boss, a man with a broad presence, discreetly said to him: "What about enlighten our fellows travelers about the beginning of our inn ?". He grumbled somehow but the tailor’s daughter encouraged him with a wink. Shyly, the second assistant stepped forward in the light of the candelabra and raised his voice, warming his tone with several clichés.

.oOo.

"I am telling you about a time that only wizards remember. The good town of Thalion woke up at the clear sound of trumpets. At dawn, the garrison hoisted the standard of the kings of Cardolan, when the exuberant court of the young sovereign came to our provincial citadel, to escape the unhealthy summer heats of Tharbad. Carters drove up the greenway from the market-city to the Arthedain towns, supplying with luxury goods, its haughty noblemen, crafty traders and boisterous scholars.
Indeed, during winter, the slowed traffic gave back its provincial gentleness to the charming burgh alleys.

Craftmen devoted in intense cold tasks, clay was dug under snow, cartwrights and ironworkers mended tools and furniture along the short daylight. The pig was joyously killed for the family to prepare sausages, smoked pallet and saltings in the courtyard, under the watchful eye of Grand’Ma. On his shoulders, the castle’s venator brought some deer that would be welcome at the hospital of Nienna’s sisters.

The numb castle smoked from all the chimneys above the haughty towers and the potbellied buildings. For several years, it has been accommodating an old dowager, a great-aunt of the king of Cardolan, abandoned there by mistake after the summer heats, when the court had gone back to Tharbad. The poor lady had been forgotten in this province when a major art event had suddenly called the young idle nobility back to the capital.

The first week, she had indignantly refused to write and beg for what she deserved by right of her peeress’ rank.

Then a gentleman had come to show apologetic in the name of her royal nephew and nonetheless liege-lord. He had gone back empty-handed, since the great-aunt accepted no less than flat apologies by her rascal grand-nephew in person. Then the forgiveness demands had become scarce, hardening the lady’s resentment and stubbornness. Aunt and nephew saw each other only next summer, when the young monarch’s court brought again its splendors to Thalion, to flee the Gwathlo’s nick-bricks and miasma.
The great-aunt haughtily received her nephew, acting as the castle’s lady and reminding him of his duties. The young king had matured and gained some confidence while freeing himself from the tutelage of his father’s former counsellors. The chancellor, a favorite of his aunt, had fallen into disgrace. And indeed the old lady’s remonstrances irritated the king.

It came to his royal mind that he should assert his authority by making an example of his own family. He publicly took act of the decision of his beloved aunt to remain at Thalion, since her health had prevented her from answering her king’s call for a whole year. In his great wisdom, the king would entrust her with a task fitting the lady’s will and weak health. She was granted Thalion’s castle as a dowery. She would dwell there around the year and administrate the fief and the hospital, while reporting to him.
Thus was the lady skillfully assigned to isolation, far from the court, its golden splendors, festivities and intrigues. After a short phase of disbelief, she had been consuming with indignation. Her favorites turned away from her as weathercocks in a changing wind. Acrimony did not help. The following summer, decreased to stewardship tasks, she was so busy organising the royal sojourn, that she ended up welcoming the court’s departure with relief.

That is how the dowager reached some form of detachment, if not serenity. Her difficulties had won the affection of Thalion’s inhabitants, who appreciated her wise management of the royal hospital and her enlighted rule.

The years went by, the aging and resigned lady attended to her duties, having given up even the dream of marrying. Under her friendly authority, the town lived at the rhythm of a provincial austerity. Feasts and fairs where obviously not forbidden, but one laughed far less frankly than formerly. The propriety of the customs somehow stiffened the country’s gentleness. The ribalds were turned into nurses or left the town. The poor solitary lady’s boredom seemed to influence the atmosphere in town. Since that time, Thalion has kept a kind of courteous independence and decent simplicity of a provincial main town.

.oOo.

A winter evening, during which loneliness had been nagging the dowager more than usual, a poor knight came to pass the sleepy burgh, and asked for hospitality at the castle.

These were happier times: hospitality and courtesy duties were not neglected – fear had not yet invaded Eriador’s baronies. The horseman proudly held his hunting spear, and his arms bore a device of modest but brave reputation. The antique rules of hospitality were observed.

Damsels were dispatched to serve him, as fits a noble house. To tell the truth, the damsels rushed by themselves, since distractions and boys were scarce at the castle. The knight was relieved of his mount, led to the dwelling, disarmed, undressed, bathed, brushed, perfumed, combed and dressed with a magnificent satin mantel. Only the jealous competition between the damsels prevented any disruption, annoying for the knight’s renown or the castle’s reputation.

But the youth’s laughter encouraged the lady to revive somehow. She gave orders for a supper of good taste, with splendor but no ostentation. Yet, for the occasion, she went so far as to indulge a sweet revenge – she had the most prestigious wines taken from her great nephew’s cellar, put on her guest’s table.

When the knight laid his homage at her feet, the lady thought he had a vigorous, elegant and youthful demeanor, despite his grey hair. A slight nearsightedness gave the rider a dreaming gaze and ample gestures, the lady found quite charming. Somehow exhilarated by the courteous eloquence and the deferential manners of her guest, the lady listened to his deeds. Lulled by the knight’s witty loquacity, and seduced by his decent modesty, she began to dream about sweeter and less lonely mornings.

The company of the gallant brave seemed so pleasant to the dowager during supper, that at the end of the evening, the rarest bottles had been unsealed. The knight rocked on his chair, trying to preserve his noble bearing and colorful eloquence, while the pale dowager, sweating, got rid of her white tulles to unveil her neck, she believed charming but was too slender and long.

After the meal, the poor old lady, whose faded charms and slight coquetting had hardly touched the errant gentleman’s heart, appeared at her balcony, in hope for a moonlit and romantic serenade. But the knight was snoring in his room, brought down by the heady wines, while the dowager caught a cold and had to go to bed.

The next morning, the whole castle square was laughing at the hapless and drunken goose, exposed at her balcony a winter evening. When the gallant rider bowed before her, she hid her illness and received him with a regal courtesy. After nightcap, the knight went fighting the enemies of the kingdom, bearing some mysterious white tulles at his spearhead.

.oOo.

Several days later, the poor old lady succumbed to a vicious fever.

The whole town mourned her « sovereign » and gave her funerals respecting her noble wishes: sober, dignified and unanimous.

Quickly the royal nephew took possession of the dowery, he had knowingly given to a childless relative.

The rights she had granted to the town of Thalion were immediately denied, and the royal justice recovered the full blindness of its fast rigor. The hospital itself had to close quickly – the staff could fortunately move into an inn that was founded on castle square.

In remembrance of the lady who, in her despair, had wisely governed the town, the innkeeper was about to give her name to the new establishment. The royal bailiff forbade it, wishing to close once and for all the dowery exception. So the inhabitants secretely decided to give the inn the name « At the drunken goose », as a last homage, apparently disrespectful but discreetly grateful.
Many years later, this very name was of course re-used when the ruined castle was strengthened and moved into by master Finran to shelter his inn… »

.oOo.

The sweating young man emerges from his tale as out of a pond. He has been pretty good. But the eyes of his beloved, sparkling with pride, seem to him sweeter than the applause of the connoisseurs, who have appreciated the new variant about the old lady’s moods. Indeed this tale inflates at each narration, with some unexpected ornament.

Flying on the wings of success, the teller of the evening imagines he’s now first assistant tailor and dreams about a happy marriage and a workshop of his own…

.oOo.
The riddles contest by Chiara Cadrich
The riddles of master Gigolet

A few years ago, a slick fellow tried to play games on Messer Finran. Who would have thought that possible? Usually his scars and his imposing stature do not encourage to take him lightly... Here's how.

.oOo.

A fat man, lithe and laughing, sat at the bar and asked for pullets and pies, engulfing them before one could count them. But the bold and cunning fellow was not willing to pay, challenging master Gigolet to have him throw up his meal. The poor waiter nearly swoon at that bleak prospect ...

This petty thief thought he would get away with that dine and ditch but Messer Finran, with his iron fist, seized and bound him over a barrel, from which he could not move all night long. He was given clear water, but that was all. After three days of this, the eat-and-run called for mercy, and accepted Messer Finran’s deal.

Every evening he was opposed to the hosts of the great hall in a riddles contest. He was promised that he would be released as soon he wins. But in Thalion, especially at the sign of the Drunken Goose, the antique riddle game is often practiced and everyone hones his tricks. This means our thief was not to be released any time soon!

Yet he was granted a roast chicken every time he lost with panache.

The game had been lasting for two weeks and the thief could not manage to win. One night he tried other arts. So Messer Finran was forced to release him when the infuriated guy pretended singing with his rattle voice, only good for dehorning cattle!

Since that time, when a traveler has been too timid, he is offered a riddle contest, while the landlord retains a smile...

Here are some of the riddles heard in the great hall. Most are pretty easy, but will you find all the answers?

.oOo.

1
Ten companions
who never stride
the roads together

2
Passenger without luggage.
Heir without purse.
His legacy will not bequeath.
Knows how to do,
But may not do so. (1)

3
Patient sequence,
Winding line unrolled too quickly,
I may not be forced to stop,
But I stop for each of us.

4
Two squads of swashbucklers sorted by size,
Winner and loser in turn,
Vassals of the same headman.

5
Flies without wings,
Grows landless,
Worries as wisdom decimate,
Age governs its color.

6
Comes friends closer,
Opens onto the unknown,
Yards between the yards,
Ribbon on the dress in the world.

7
Neither empty nor full,
Of air, it is not.
Dark or bright according to ease,
Away from the nest, but cozy by reputation,
Fragrant volutes sometimes escape.

8
Intermediate link
In a chain that multiplies
At each step or dwindles
Without which would be less
As a tree root, proud and vigorous

9
Steward opposes any,
Captain shows the way,
Sergeant lies lasciviously,
Loving Corporal clothes his golden armor,
Petty soldier listens silently.

10
Chrysophile inextinguishable
Selfish arrogance
Bane of the greedy,
Curse of his victor.

11
My many parents are slender than me,
I am pettier than my child.
I have a gorge but can only sing,
I flow but do not drown,
I have a bed but never sleep there

12
More powerful than the dragon,
More vulnerable than the newborn,
The blind man sees me,
The deaf hears me.
Who eats me dies.

13
When you discover me, I disappear.
When you share me, I weaken.
I win eternity in the death of my jailer.

14
Soft and implacable master,
Whimsical and lascivious slave
I brighten dark skies
I darken judgment.

Blind who never cheats,
Instigator of major revolts
And loose dropouts.
I burst the sleeping heart,
But calms the wounded mind.

15
It is mine to the exclusion of any others.
I head forward to meet it every morning without yet knowing it.
It will catch me and impose itself one evening.

.oOo.

Is everything settled? Hast ourst honorable host guessed all these riddles?
If you write to us a review, you will be given the answers you got wrong.

.oOo.

Notes
1- Inspired by Sacha Guitry, about literary critics: « They know how we do it, but they cannot do it! »
Samhain's damned soul - Chapt 1 - Birth by Chiara Cadrich
Samhain’s damned soul – Part 1: Birth

The looks of the regular customers converge to a tall and slender man, sat apart, absorbed in melancholic and intimate confidence with his pint. The ageless man scraps his dark mop of hair, raises his tired yellow eyes and gives a disenchanted look at the audience:

-« All right, you asked! »

Rhast supplies the town with peat, collecting the clods in winter, drying and delivering them all year round. But his rough groundbreaking also made him Thalion’s gravedigger. He buries the dead, maintains the wells and mends the fence when the town can allow it. Taciturn and observer, he speaks scarcely but to good use. Some pretend he is Messer Finran’s former comrade-in-arms – others, that this penitent mobster flew Tharbad for his life.

Obviously, his famished weasel’s face, his tall arched silhouette and his detached gait have owed him the brat’s bogeyman status and several unflattering surnames. Rhast frightens somehow whoever knows him not. His disenchanted and sharp gaze pierces many secret, giving any soul the unpleasant sensation of being stripped bare. His presence has the power to root out of the mortals heart, the turmoil beneath the reassuring family well-being or the assuaging domestic comfort. When one runs into him, one remembers that dark terrors will one day take us to the grave. He knows the horrors of the under-world. But he seems to fear nothing, and that is weird.

It is rare Sire Finran asks him for a tale…
And just before Samhain, the dead’s nights?
So be it.

.oOo.

A couple of farmers are walking back to their cottage. The young wife, pregnant and nearly at term, braids a crown of flexible branches. The young husband, panting and bending under a huge firewood bundle, can hardly follow her:

-« We shall call him Tordemir, like my father! This is a family tradition, from father to son, since our ancestor, the butler of his majesty Malvegil of Arthedain!

- Your father was a drunkard, hardly able to remember his own name! His memory could only recall his last booze! Maybe, Tordemir the ancestor was appointed to the trash can, if he ever existed!

- Stop speaking ill of my family! Anyway Tordemir, that’s a beautiful name!

- A bumptious name. That stinks low nobiliary, idle and haughty. I prefere Tuisog!

- … boaf ! That is not a name, it sounds like nothing!

- It means « Prince » in my ancestors’ tongue!

- Isn’t that bumptious now? Are you sure it will be a boy, anyway?

- I told you a dozen times, I come from the shamans of Prenn Lûth… I can read the omens!

- Yes of course! And you were taught in the guts of your mother’s uneatable roast boars?

- Torgil, let my mother’s soul rest in peace! Do you wish her to roast your feet during your sleep? I know she would fancy that, you Arthedain pig!

- Oh, stop your silly dunnish non-sense tales! What is that good for, this play-acting, giving birth in the woods, calling for visions, planting trees at night, reading the guts, listening to the spirits… Please live within your time!

- Oh yeah, let’s talk about your degenerate customs! You probably mean hanging out with your sloth buddies and get drunk at the Goose! That's for sure, visions, you don’t need to call them in the open, they naturally come in the vapors of boozer! Let me tell you this cushy Arthedain bourgeois’s life of yours is definitely over! You're going to get to work! Soon you will be a father!»

.oOo.

In the midst of the pinkish swellings, the child appears, contained in congested and tight muscles. His hand is hanging out of the vulva. The small hail hand, which cyanotic fingers open convulsively, is grasping for help in this world. For a dozen hours, the stomach’s efforts strive to drive this cumbersome life, tearing screams of pain from the body, twisted across the poverty linens. In this profile decomposed with suffering, the appalled father recognizes not the slender girl with impish traits and bewitching charm, who ran in the hills, a spray of heather in her arms.

Old Sarff, the village midwife, rolls terrified eyes. Curse! The Lord of the Dead’s black hand has cast anathema to the household. She's somehow a witch and this bode gives her cold sweats.

Suddenly a croaking slaps in their back, nearly stopping the old woman’s heart. A big crow, dark as soot, watches them with its cold and evil eye, perched on the table. A viscous carrion flap hangs at its gray beak. Where does this one come from?

- "Get rid of it, quick!", whispers old Sarff.

Trembling with mistrust, Torgil grabs a broom and opens the door. The bird leaps on the edge of the bed with a hoarse cry of contentment, like a host pressing before mealtime. The angry husband strucks a blow that gets lost but forces the bird to give up its dark intentions.

- "Do not kill him, whatever!", yelps the witch.

The crow must retreat. Past the door, the bird looses a cry of protest and hate while taking off. As soon Torgil closes the door, wilderness seems to awaken around the cottage. A mournful roar rises from the depths of the earth, invading the air and insinuating by all the slits.

The mother, entering new contractions, jogs to the vindictive rhythm of the wind’s assaults on the door. The midwife repels the small arm, returns it to its original egg. A din of evil crows is unleashed on the stubble.

-"Guard the door!", curtly orders the witch to the husband.

Then she sings the call of spring, trying to cover the malice of the Lord of the Dead by her quavering voice.

With lard, the midwife coats her fingers, she slowly introduces as a wedge. Penetrating slowly with a rotating motion of the wrist, she expels mucus oozing with disgusting sucking sounds. Torgil, livid, empties his bile in a bucket. With an effort grin, the witch sinks again, adjusting the posture of the child, while the other hand rests on the belly and guides the repositioning.

A silence settles as a satisfied smile passes over the midwife’s face, overcome with fatigue. But a low growl and beast snorts are heard behind the door of the cottage. The fears of the night come forward when bodies are exhausted and the hearts low. A wild beast is prowling around the cottage, sniffing the hesitant beginnings of life, tracking the flickering steps of the weakened prey.

Then the whole body of the mother suddenly shakes; it seems she is split with a heavy cleaver, like she saw the oxen cut at the castle. On her bed of misery, her revolt breaks out so violently at the rhythm of thunder, that she twists with an irresistible stiffening of the neck and the child slips from the hands of the midwife. Blodwen violently relaxes her legs with the fixed idea of getting rid of that witch who tortures her by quartering from the kidneys to the belly. The rage of Samhain slips into her while the growling animal scratches at the oaken door and pushes with its broad shoulders. Blodwen insults her torturer and tears her face with her nails.
Torgil rushes to calm his wife.

- "Gard the door, imperiously orders the witch, We must hold on yet!"

Torgil buttresses on the door where beats a bad wind. The spent midwife finally releases her hand, gently leads the little feet while ending the version motion. The witch sighs, forehead in sweat, breathless, like after a violent effort. The thundering warns that her enemy has not given up. The wind and rain are twice as strong, blasting on the groaning hovel. Torgil pushes the table against the door and resists the blows of the Night.

There are few appalling moments, the unfortunate mother screams even louder, as the head comes out and pushes the flesh, that round in a wide livid ring. The child falls into a final effort, under a rain of blood and dirty waters.

At the same moment, the beast, drunk with the smell of blood and the pulsating life, forces the door and tumbles its defender. When its rumor invests the cottage in a victorious roar, the fire dozes, plunging the modest interior in a darkness of underworld.

Horrified, the old witch shrivels on the tiny, still and sticky being, blowing pathetically in his little lungs, again and again.

But during the night of Samhain, mortals may not summon life with impunity. The Lord of the Night comes forward to take his due. A large shadow spreads its powerful scrolls like inhuman muscles that darkens the entrance of the poor cottage.

Torgil sees fangs in favor of a lightning and brandishes his fork. A low rumble throws him to the ground, panting and bathed in his blood. An impenetrable cloud looks down at his victim, savoring the unique aroma of flesh palpitating with terror.

Meanwhile the annihilated witch gives her breath to the child till she has no more, exhaling her hope of life and inhaling only the blandness of death. She blows again and again, as the Lord of the Night greedily contemplates her pitiful attempts to postpone the inevitable.

But then the rooster crows. The rooster announces the return of the day, of men and their domination. The black cloud of malice thrills with a breath of doubt, and advances to finish this.

But old Sarff finally feels a slight shudder from the tiny mouth under hers. Suddenly the child launches his first cry. As if struck by lightning, the shadow creature rolls on itself, flowing back toward the door.

Then the rising sun throws at the window, the red shadow of the great barrow, which summons fear back to its den. Darkness vanishes, leaving its living, yet overcome prey, in a sinister roar announcing frustration and thirst for revenge.

.oOo.

Old Sarff comes home, by the grove in the evening. Last night, she defeated the Lord of the Night. She subtracted from Him a new-born prey, that the carelessness of his parents had not protected with a saving elm. She usually avoids that night, using subterfuge to advance or delay the mother’s labor. But this time, He almost overcame her...

Exhausted, the midwife slowly walks towards her house. The works of the last twenty four hours have ripped her of any other wish than her poor mattress. In addition to that horrible night of Samhain, spent in watching and fighting, she has attended two other patients. This is not any more for people her age... She should perhaps retire, she thinks distractedly. She could join her younger brother, who settled near Bree after the war. She would dedicate to her nephews, finally ceasing to wander...

Twilight feeds her melancholy while the last rays bath the valley with an uncertain glow. At the way’s next turn, she will walk up the slope to her left and join home. She speeds up like an old horse near the stable.
While sunlight greets her with one last blaze, Sarff chills with fatigue, cold, and an indefinable doubt... What has she forgotten?

Searching in her old memory what awakened her anxiety, the midwife hardly recognizes this path that winds through the valley. It's weird, this mist... The path is now lost in a cold mud where she wades while chilling her old feet. A little further, the witch stops, confused. A stale smell of decay and sulfur slowly rises from the marsh. The old lady, distraught and very miserable, tries to position, but thick clouds ghostly veil everything around. Did she miss her trail ?

Suddenly, a gurgle sounds behind her, as muffled by the fog. Sarff’s breath accelerates. Was it really a foul exhalation of the swamp? A buzz goes to her head while her heart is racing. She has to get out of there! She soars at random, at once pursued by a rumor that swells with low and sinister rumblings.

When the old woman stumbles and falls into the icy mud, the contents of her bag spreads on the floor. Then the witch remembers what she forgot. Blodwen’s placenta! The placenta she had kept for ritual burial to neutralize the Lord of the Night’s evil! She forgot, miserable!

Then the screed of shadow and night overwhelms her. She even cannot cast an incantation, as the hunting surges on her, breaking her heart with a shooting pain and cruelly rummaging her viscera.

.oOo.

The next day, a cowherd finds, in the middle of his field, the corpse of old Sarff, who seems to have succumbed to a heart attack. Stray dogs, probably attracted by a placenta that she had kept, have horribly mutilated her body.

.oOo.

With his cuffs, Rhast wipes the foam from his lips. Putting his empty mug on the table, the gravedigger with a weasel’s profile turns his jaded look, to a silent audience who fathoms him with amazement.

- "So what? Must not go out on a foggy night with a fainting heart!", he says with a sly grin.

The room does not appreciate his humor any more than his tale. Rhast is not gifted to lighten the mood.

- "It was inevitable someone should give this stolen life back..." he says with a shrug.

This drought funeral arithmetic deeply hampers the assistance. Would Rhast deny men the right to fight the long defeat? Would the time of their death be a foregone conclusion? Peasants and town dwellers revolt at this idea. Yet many feel powerless and fatalistic, especially on this night of Samhain. Faces, outraged and silent, scream their unanimous need to exorcise this odious insinuation.

- "Well, all right, let's finish this! Here's more! But then, do not you come and complain if the moral does not fit your taste either..."

.oOo.

To be continued…
Samhain's damned soul - Chapt 2 - Tree by Chiara Cadrich
Samhain’s damned soul – Part 2

- "Come on, Torgil, It’ll be good for you!", loughs Blodwen.

The baby in her arms cheerfully agrees with everything mummy says.

- "But that is icy cold!", retorts the man concerned, shivering entirely nude, with water at his ankles.

- "Come on! Show your courage to your son!"
The daddy, his courage somehow numbed, cannot feel any more any of his extremities, bluish and shriveled by the cold, and pathetically points out that such a treatment may deprive his son of any possible sister or brother to come.

- “In spring, sap strengthens up all the branches, my man… “, insinuates the roguish girl, while repressing a smile for her spouse’s modest dispositions.

Torgil must obey. After several steps in the stream, he dives in the cold water. Then he rushes out of the stream and, dripping and blowing, runs to a young tree he had spent two hours to split along its height. He quickly passes between the two bows under the baby’s alarmed looks and his wife’s loving eyes.

- "Look, Tuismir!, she sings. The Goddess gives you a brand new daddy…"

Thus Torgil is reborn in Arda, expelled from the Goddess’ symbolic vulva, purified, dripping from the world welling, nude and innocent as for his first day.

Putting the baby in a basket of wicker and elm, Blodwen energetically dries her husband with a tartan of her clan. Then she gives a tender kiss on the blue lips:

-"Get dressed, quick!

- Am I to do this for every birthday?

- No, but whenever you behave not as I said!”, she says with a playful tone.

- “Blodwen, don’t take advantage at that!”, retorts the husband while helping his wife to straighten and bandage the tortured tree.

- “Torgil, this is important for me, to protect my family as my ancestors did. The world is full of forces we do not understand. And the elders knew how to protect from them. I only ask you to find a pretty elm tree! We must re-plant it today, one year after his birth, and only you can do this! That will be your son’s protecting tree, consecrated the day he came here. Everybody has one, even you! I planted an ash tree for you, the day we married.

- I never asked you to plant a tree for me! I can defend myself! Why perpetuate rituals you do not understand?”
Harshly stung, the young dunlending woman answers:

- “Who says I do not understand them?”
She adds sneakily with a vengeful smile:

- “See how traditions are good! You are cold? You are entrusted to run through the forest and find a pretty little elm tree to protect your son! See you! It is time I feed him up!

- Can’t you feed him here?

- Are you insane? Breast-feeding here? You want me to catch a pneumonia?”

.oOo.

Ruminating on his resentment, Torgil swiftly strides the trail, his hoe on his shoulder:

- “Can you believe that?”

The young father furiously shoots at a small stone that rolls before him on the trail.

- “She’s never satisfied! Summoning the spirits! Bathing in winter! And these trees, ever these trees!”

But his irritation is not enough to warm him up:

- “Damn! I am freezed...”

His steps slow down. Torgil is thinking, he cannot perform two tasks at a time…

- “By the way, how can I recognize a young elm in winter?…”

The steps accelerate somehow:

-“I shall ask Eothor, he will know for sure!”
The stride becomes almost merry:

-“And maybe he will take me to the forest with his cart, and back to my cots!”

Torgil’s steps get back to a virile and determined pace:

- “After all, Arthadan tradition for a birthday, is to offer a round!”

His pace still gains some firmness as he gets away with the last bits of his guilt:

- “Oh bother! Anyway I must warm up!”

.oOo.

-” … Let’s have a sip, death let’s defy,
To the health of our Cardolan!
Since neighbour Araphor the vile,
Has brought forth his flag at a fault!
His despicable knights cause pain,
Coveting grassy hills and fields.
Haro you King of Arthedain,
Against thour arms let’s raise our shields!” (1)

The pints rattle under the cheers ending the famous refrain. Young people drink greedily to the health of their beloved kingdom, under the jaded eyes of the Drunken Goose’s tenant. Where beer flows freely, courage seems endless...

Yet a veteran, sat in a corner, is observing the youth with a bitter and disillusioned air, sipping his ale sparingly. He led a squad of Cardolan during skirmishes along the Menatar Romen. He made a difference at the siege of Amon Sûl. He was one of the few to survived the hordes of orcs and trolls of Angmar, which annihilated Cardolan’s army on the Barrow Downs. His amputated leg reminds him of that every day.

So he leaves their youthful enthusiasm to the drunken brawlers! They will discover soon enough that petty politics of men, their futile hopes and selfish interests are only scattered brooks against the tides of their time.

- “By Bema (2), these accursed Arthedain keep on plundering the country! I have seen another convoy this morning!

- You're exaggerating, Eothor! They maintain order since our troops have been scattered. Without them, there would be chaos, like in Tharbad, where thousands of refugees are languishing. Their convoys are bringing food and medicines.

- But you're soft! You fraternize as if Angmar’s victory was not their fault! Well hidden in their fortress of Amon Sûl, they have let us torn apart without moving their princely bottoms to rescue our valiant companies!

- You speak as if you had been there!

- I was fifteen, I could have gone along with my father and the company of mercenaries! My mother kept me from going! But now she won’t hold me! We must prevent them from bringing north anything valuable!

- Yeah, somebody tried to oppose it, you know how he ended up! Luinril was hanged ten days ago, for attempting to take back Hir Eredoriath(3)’s old grimoires going up north to Bree.

- Let's drink to the memory of Luinril, our hero! He at least has opposed the traitors who attempt to annex the country!”

While beer streams rush in the exalted and thirsty throats, the door of the inn opens in a crash. A strong sergeant of the Arthedain royal army enters the common room, followed by his patrol:

- “Hey, you should calm down! Fellows inciting to riot? Come on, you separate!”

The warlike tendencies of the small group are quickly dulled. Young people scatter themselves, grumbling against the occupier.

- “Hey, you, the leader! You certainly don’t think you get away with that?”

Eothor, his chubby face scoring a strong determination, grabs a stool behind a table, ready to defend his life dearly, as his father in the Battle of the barrows. The patrol will make short work of this tall young man, awkward and somehow pudgy...

Torgil interposes with a conciliatory tone:

- “Come on, my lords! I am a recent father who just celebrates the first birthday of my eldest! Would you mind forgetting this misunderstanding on this festive day?”

The sergeant doesn’t like hearing his king insulted, but he is a decent fellow. He snatches the opportunity to show the Arthadan magnanimity. Eothor, carrying no weapons on him, is left free with a warning he does not care about.

.oOo.

The two friends go apart in an alcove, carrying the pitchers abandoned by their companions.

- “Thank Bema you came, Torgil! Otherwise it would have been a bloodbath...”

His friend does not mention the bluster:

- “I am angry too... You won’t guess what she invented?”

Eothor slips a worried look towards Torgil. He is again going to talk to him about «Her». He is still going to complain about this girl, so divine that she is haunting his thoughts all day long. Eothor has always been madly in love with Blodwen, which in turn has always seen him as a protective older brother, a big clunky guy, the eternal best friend and stooge of the beautiful Torgil.

The romantic giant, slightly paunchy, hides the immense injury of his life under the cheeky outside a voluble rhetoric, vindictive peacockeries that have now found their cause - the defense of Cardolan against its raptor neighbor Arthedain. But for the time, Eothor feels a strange uneasiness. He loves Torgil as a brother, and never yet has jealousy shown its abject grin to him.

Yet tonight, Torgil’s selfish attitude irritates him.
Perhaps he even grudges him for saving him minutes ago.

The young father unpacks his couple problems on the table as one empties a bottomless trash. Indeed he does not deserve Blodwen, says the big lovesick for himself.

After the fourth round of drinks, in the inn that the patrol almost emptied, Torgil is still rehashing his domestic conflicts. But his friend has only one idea in mind: to teach a lesson to this little pretentious, unaware of his own luck...

- “You know what, interrupts Eothor exceeded, we'll go get your little tree!

- You'd do that?

- Of course! Aren’t we friends?”

Here they are, Eothor at the reins, and Torgil sitting among potatoes, soon snoring like a drunkard. Outraged, Eothor stops as soon as possible and digs the first young plant that looks a little bit like an elm.

- “That will do the trick for this selfish bastard!”, he mutters, depositing the plant in the bosom of his sleepy friend.

.oOo.

Torgil is walking with a heavy step, sobering slowly into the misty evening air. Something in the tone of Eothor made him feel that his friend had had enough doing the dirty work for him. So he wanted to make the last miles by himself, the sapling under his arm, pacing the road in the middle of the moors with his hesitating drunkard step. In front of him, hung on the hoe on his shoulder, oscillates the small lantern Eothor lent him.
Coming slowly to his senses, the young father mutters the obvious self-reproaches. True enough, he could have behaved somehow... Also true he should not have been ranting as he did...

Night falls completely, isolating the solitary walker in his bitter thoughts. For sure, he should not have gone to the inn. He should have directly fetched an elm. But a least, he’s got one…

Torgil feels increasingly guilty as he approaches his cottage, where Blodwen is expecting, he imagines with a wry smile. In those moments, Torgil hates to veil with domestic benevolence, what he -deep inside- considers as a weakness before his wife. He loves her, but he cannot stand her authority.

Suddenly a fork comes out of the fog, at the foot of the gallows. This is where Luinril’s corpse is rotting in its suspended steel cage. A stench recalls that the corpse of the “Cardolan hero” has been hanging for only a few days. Torgil shivers despite himself.

-“If I had your courage, he exclaims exalted, I would put down these ridiculous beliefs under my roof! Instead I let myself pilloried by my wife, and I had to entertain the whole Goose about that! Cursed be wedding!”

A sad rusty creak from the suspended cage replies tersely. Torgil, surprised, launches derisively as to exorcise his own amazement:

- “Well, Luinril, come dance for my son's party! You should explain my wife to leave these spirits alone! Then we may get rid of these silly antics.”

Torgil is relieved he made his complaints loud, although his eloquence is only manifested in the absence of his wife. He resumes his way in the fog with his meandering approach, vowing that never again would he bend to such absurd demands.

But it is unwise to invoke the dead during Samhain night. In the darkness without a breath of wind, the cage swings a sprightly pace. The head of the corpse, which has just lost one eye, looks over the gaunt shoulder with a disturbing grin of satisfaction.

.oOo.

Early in the morning, Blodwen muses at the window. The fresh air tingles her nostrils but peddles humus and pine wood fragrances in pristine skies. The day is beautiful!

Joyfully, the young woman loads a barrow with appetizing food, she lengthily and lovingly prepared, some tools and the elm plant that her beloved husband finally brought yesterday. Then she wakes her little family up, dresses them warmly and briskly leads them behind the house, up to Torgil’s tree, she planted above their welling.

Blodwen stands a picnic table under the young slender ash, merrily humming a hills’ old tune, while Torgil plays with their son, perched on his belly.

-“And what is this for?”, asks the husband by pointing a wooden plate that usually serves to cram the remains to be swung to the pig.

- “Why, Torgil, for feast days, we lay the table for the poor, it's tradition!”

- “Not again, thinks the husband, still another traditional day! How painful customary acrobatics must I attend now again to please the spirits?”

The answer comes at once...

- “There, everything is ready! But first, a few formalities...”, happily launches Blodwen with a nod to her son's address.
Torgil ducks his head, while small Tuismir claps his hands excitedly.

The family plants the sappling near the ash, just close enough to enjoy the protective force of the young slender tree, but far enough to develop its own personality without taking umbrage at its umbrella.

Tuismir is allowed to plant some crumpled apples at the foot of the sappling. Then Blodwen puts a snack by the welling, that chuckles its eternal indifferent air between mosses.

.oOo.

Retracing her steps towards his two men, Blodwen leaps and pales, stopping short. Torgil follows the gaze of his wife and lacks fainting while Tuismir starts crying, awkwardly trying to reach his mother's skirts. A silhouette wrapped in a dark shroud is installed before the plate of the poor, apparently waiting for the meal to start.

- “Who are you?, Torgil launches with an unsteady voice while grabbing a spade. What do you want?”

The dark cap slowly turns to Torgil. An unbearable stench rises and grasps at the throat of the living, as if pestilential myriads larvae were blooming together to spread the foul moods of a dead unable to leave this world. Then rolls a sepulchral voice, the tone of which seems yet to seek for conciliation:

- “I was invited to the party. I come to received my share.”

Torgil blanches, throws him a cheese and exclaims, waving his spade:

- “Luinril, take this and let us alone!”

The shape slowly gets up. The smells of corrupted flesh suggest what the dark coat still veils from view.

- “The share I owe by right is this life, stolen in the gap between the kingdoms of men and shadows.”, says the voice with a tone without appeal, raising a raw index, with disgusting putrid reflections, which points to small Tuismir.

- “It's too late!, roars the young mother while coming in front of her son, her heart swelling with a lioness rage and strapped with a brazen insurance. The vows to the Goddess are pronounced and the child has a place in the kingdom of men!

- These vows were spoken in the wind of Samhain and the Goddess knew nothing of them. The protective tree that you planted is not fit for your son!”

Blodwen’s confidence collapses suddenly. She turns her distracted and begging gaze to Torgil, who looks down not to cross it. She is not a shaman of clan Prenn Lûth, but she knows that nothing will prevent the lord of the night to take his due. Unless a sacrifice beyond human life... powered by a black resentment, Blodwen grabs Torgil’s ax and with a powerful blow of despair, slices the young ash.
The dark shape whistles like a wounded snake and screams with rage:

-“You choose to keep your son! But what would I do with this bum unbeliever?”, bawls the mantle considering appalled Torgil, already won by a waxy, grayish complexion.

- “He promises to give you rest!”, roars the woman in tears, trembling like a leaf ready to fly in the wind of Samhain.

.oOo.

Covered with icy sweats, Torgil is fencing against the oaken door. Finally the galgal’s lock gives a deafening creak. Grabbing his lantern, the young man steps back precipitously, giving way to the shape darker than night, that enters the dome of the dead.

His wife warned him: “This is your last chance! You do what I promised in your name! Or we shall be separated forever!”

For this time he complies point by point. Illuminating a piece of parchment with his lantern, he tries to read the ritual begging the Lord of the Night to receive this distressed soul. He understands nothing of what he is reading, but slowly the doors are closing.
Suddenly a cry rings out:

- “In the Name of the King, who goes there?”

When the shadow passes over him in a raspy breath of frustration, Torgil falls backwards, dropping his lantern off suddenly. Overwhelmed by horror, he hears the groans of the slain soldiers quench one by one under Luinril’s greedy blows.

In the morning, the sergeant arrests him in front of the barrow. The patrol does not know what happened exactly, but three Arthedain soldiers were killed that night with Torgil’s spade, who was found besides the dead.

.oOo.

Public order and justice are issues the royal legate of Arthedain does not take lightly, by these troubled times. Furthermore alarming news have spread about the barrows along the greenway, and led the old Hir of En Eredoriath to proclaim prudent measures and give full authority to the armies of Arthedain in his barony.

The suspect is accused of stealing the remains of Luinril and killing soldiers of Arthedain who were arresting him when he was trying to give the dead a burial. There is therefore no mercy to expect for the charges relate to both opposition to martial law and breaking in the dead’s shrines.

Indeed, Torgil is sentenced to death.
Eothor attempts to flex the legate. In vain.
The grieving wife comes and begs for his life on her knees. For special measure of humanity, Torgil is strangled in his cell.

Then his body is shut and hoisted into the odious cage hanging at the gallows. Therefore he must not endure a slow death in front of his wife, but his remains will remind everyone that the justice of men does not accommodate with dead rumors.

.oOo.

A vigorous ash has very quickly grown under the body of the unfortunate, invading his cage in less than a year as if a late vow to protect its occupant had meant to retain him and surround him with tenderness. The neighborhood has been terrified at this growth.

It is said that at nights of red moon, a ghost calls for burial to any passerby.

.oOo.

Last night, the skeleton of Torgil was stolen. It is not known who did it.

Alerted, Blodwen comes to mourn at the foot of the ash under the gallows, her two years old boy in her arms. Eothor, who had been bearing his guilt around for months, took them in his cart.

On their way back, Eothor offers an elm sapling to Blodwen, who raises her beautiful eyes, suffused with tears, but overflowing with gratitude.
Tomorrow is Samhain and Tuismir’s birthday.

.oOo.

Rhast spreads his arms in a gesture of helplessness:

- “Woa, whoa, whoa, I have nothing to do with this! You asked for the end! Reportedly, it's about that time that the barrows’ inhabitants began to stir. But you should not believe everything you hear... Anyway you know this tree: the lonely ash, six miles north of Thalion on the greenway, not far before the first barrow. When you pass nearby, nothing weird happens... most of the time...”

If you think about it, indeed a solitary ash, at a place called the Hangman’s fork, stands huge and twisted, and metal bars are embedded in its main branch at a pole’s height... But that does not prove anything...

.oOo.

NOTES
(1) In 1409, the kingdom of Angmar launched a heavy blow on Arthedain and Cardolan, who united to resist. Cardolan’s army was destroyed at the battle of Tyrn Gorthad, while Arthedain hardly resisted the assault at Fornost Erain and Weathertop. Cardolan’s King was killed with his sons, and the kingdom survives in unrest, as Arthedain tries to re-unite the old Arnor.
(2) Name that the woodmen, the Beornings and the Eothraim (and thus later the Rohirrim) gave to the Vala Oromë. This name comes from the anglo-saxon béme « trumpet ». Oromë blew his hunting horn while chasing Morgoth’s beasts.
(3) The Hirdor of En eredoriath is a baronny encompassing Tyrn Gorthad and most of the South Downs.
The hammer and the star by Chiara Cadrich
This short novel was posted in response of a challenge, which theme was « The doors of Moria ».

.oOo.

At the sign of the Drunken Goose…

Tonight our story is told by a young lonely dwarf, whose great conquering nose often tinges with deep carmine. The divine bottle, auxiliary or substitute for many muses, often provides him with company. Our dwarf peddles small luxury goods, on the greenway, to rivermen or the inhabitants of the Blue Mountains. Somehow poseur and vain, this bearded mountebank often takes liberties with reality -the value, quality, origin and composition of his goods are sometimes approximate. To put it bluntly, his family ended up throwing out this failed merchant, who lives a dilettante poet’s existence.

So for now his finances force him to dine at a discount. Furthermore he appreciates the warm company and the kind attention of the great hall of the Drunken Goose.

When a busty weaver asks why dwarves and elves are still at war, he exclaims, and at once dusts off a tale by peppering it with home-made approximations.

.oOo.

Around SA 1200, a powerfull Maïa , who was called Annatar, the Lord of Gifts, arrives in Eregion. Meanwhile Celebrimbor, famous silversmith and Fëanor’s last kin, welcomes him in his brotherhood, Galadriel leaves the land.

Eregion, Gwaith-i-Mírdain , SA 1584

The crucible wild blaze splatters the porphyry wall, projecting there monstrous shadows of two giants striking back. The elf and dwarf are picking on a tiny flicker, precipitating their steel hammer with the regularity of a clock and the power of a ram. The stubborn glow throbs and glazes with a cheerful tinkle under each powerful blow. Purple fumaroles roll around the artisans’ wrists, distilling acrid bloody and stormy fragrances. Like a living being, molten metal is a whimsical and challenging servant. But the two masters slaughter their enchanted maces with consummate skill and perfect accordance.

Pinchers twirl, anvil sings in two voices a bewitching air. The twice hammering shapes the noble material, sublimating the smith’s delicate science by the jeweler’s transcending intention.

And suddenly a double ring hatches, like two flowers emerge from the same original bud, the refined Noldorin lines running on the subtle Naugrim alloy.

The two friends together deal the separating blow and raise their works to the light, exchanging a satisfied and conniving smile in the sweltering heat of the forges.

Then with the same gesture they dive back to work, chiseling and crimping the twin rings, they exchange and round off slowly. Power words chanted in Khuzdul echo with the elven incantatory litanies until morning.

Finally dwarf and elf walk out of the forges, staggering with fatigue but thankfully enjoying the thrill of this fertile communion.

Celebrimbor, dazzled by this disturbing merging experience, begins to understand that the sharing lord Annatar once offered him, was not as altruistic as he had thought at the time. How misled he had been... A long time ago he had earnestly sought the alliance of Lady Galadriel, but she had rejected him from her thoughts, refusing to share his creative excitement. But now Celebrimbor had met Narvi the dwarf...

.oOo.

Throne room of Khâzad-Dûm, SA 1628
From his throne, the great dwarf scans the splendors spread at his feet and the necks prostrate before him. His lofty forehead radiates a compelling determination. His brazen arm holds an irresistible quiet strength. His dresses trickle with gold and silver, these dwarven toys. Thousand jewels crown his august white hair with an unreal flickering.

Durin the third is enthroned in majesty in the ceremonial hall of Dwarrowdelf. His glance is order.

His fist shines with the lights of a golden ring, set with an emerald. Since he claimed this gift from Celebrimbor as an heirloom, the King under the Mountain does not experience weakness any more. When he withdraws in himself, visions form and his penetrating wisdom reveals the ways of power.

-"Fràar! Come to me!"
The commander of the mines comes forward and bows respectfully.

- "For many moons Mahal has been sending me a dream. Have galleries set down northward, from the ninth depth. We shall find a vein that the world would envy us. Even more than today, our kingdom will ensure its dominance among the seven clans and hegemony over its neighbors. "

While Fràar, overwhelmed by the prescience of his king, musters his captains to reach the depths, the King under the Mountain continues his inspiration:

- "Narvi! Come here!"

The first ambassador does not appear in the large hall any more, without a shudder of apprehension. The king’s understanding has become subtle and deep, but his vision has hardened and Narvi fears his decisions.

- "The fate of our people is imminent - wealth, power and fame torn from our mines with the sweat of our brows. I order that should be built impassable doors that keep the mountain from the greed of our enemies. No one may pass them without the blessing of the King under the Mountain. Go!"

.oOo.

Western door of Khâzad-Dûm, SA 1629

After months of grueling work, the western gates are erected. Narvi is about to complete his work by solemnly dedicating them to the authority of the King under the Mountain.

- "May this seal bear no ill omen!", he sighs deeply, thinking that never before the entrance had been closed.

But suddenly his heart leaps for joy. Light footsteps climb the stairs of the stream behind him. His dwarf soul recognizes a friend even before Narvi can identify the cheerful and shrill voice that hail him:

-“ Hey, Master Narvi! Why do you close your stone house? ”
The thankful dwarf turns to the newcomer:

- "Celebrimbor! Be twice welcome, in this moment of doubt! I have built dwarven doors... but may not seal them. My heart warns me. Yet the will of the King under the Mountain must be obeyed…”

The tall elf instinctively grasps his friend’s reluctance. He thinks for a while and smiles at the dwarf, with a star in the background of his look:

- "Of course! But your king has left you free, about how to carry out his order..."

Then the two friends work hard, carving, engraving, inlaying tiny moonstone crystals. For a whole day and part of the night, the two soul mates support and inspire each other to dedicate the union of two people. When the moon rises, Celebrimbor and Narvi join their voices and twin rings to pronounce the sacramental vow. The inscription is illuminated briefly before vanishing, while the doors majestically open:

« Ennyn Durin Aran Moria Pedo mellon a minno. Im Narvi Hain echant Celebrimboro o Eregion teithant i thiw hin. »
Ravished, the two companions lengthily contemplate each other’s work. It seems to them, their friendship will bloom as long as blaze on these doors, the Hammer of Dùrin and the Star of Fëanor.

.oOo.

Throne room of Khâzad-Dûm, SA 1629, one week later:

- “Never did any descendant of Durin dare so brazenly to disobey the King under the Mountain!”

Narvi, kneeling and mortified, beholds the remains of his beautiful black beard, scattered on the floor around him. He has not even had the opportunity to justify his deeds. The fury of the King under the mountain falls on him with a blind intransigence.

The ruler of Dwarrowdelf feels betrayed by his own blood. The door, which was to ensure the safety of his people, was tainted by a foreign hand! The password has been revealed! Dùrin the third fulminates:

- “You shall no longer leave the mountain! Since this door cannot be safe, I'll give it a perpetual keeper! I make you hereditary sentinel of the western door. May your sons, if you ever beget, expiate their father’s fault!”

The king is about to dismiss Narvi. Then, suspiciously contemplating his ring for a while, he changes his mind and says:

- "And I strictly forbid foreigners to enter Khâzad-Dûm! The head of anyone who disobeys this order, will be severed, along with his accomplices, be they of Dùrin’s blood!”

.oOo.

Western door of Khâzad-Dûm, SA 1697

The warg tears the head of the elf warrior who was fleeing before him. Eager for warm, clear blood, he devours the viscera, then stops when seeing a girl who reaches the top of the stairs. The terrorized slender elf is frantically hitting her little fists on the closed stone door when the warg interrupts her screams by crushing her chest in a sickening crack. The monster shivers with delight, swallowing the tasty flesh, subtly veined with terror...

As far as the eyes can see, holly bushes burn and dark hordes ride by. Elven refugees flock, harassed by orcs mounted on dire wolves. Fugitives fall exhausted, soon slain by an orc or shredded by a warg. A group of women and children, protected by some elves in arms, is slowly progressing on the paved road. Celebrimbor was able to gather the best surviving swordsmen after the sack of Ost-in-Edhil. Helped by Elrond and Glorfindel, he is leading the little band, to find refuge with his friend Narvi, to the western gate of Dwarrowdelf.

Finally the harassed group joins the portal. Sated, the coward animal that was feasting at the entrance moves away carefully.

Celebrimbor stands in front of the doors and appeals to friendship. In vain. Behind locked doors, a dwarf with a short black beard is crying his impotence, hampered by his comrades.

The Fëanorian hoarses. The doors remain sealed, under the horrified eyes of the elves. Hope is dying in their heart. Out of himself and disbelieving Celebrimbor cannot reject his friendship vows, nor cast a curse on the treacherous line of Dùrin.

Then the sky darkens even more, as if all the storms of the Misty Mountains assemble for the kill. Evil creatures themselves, fearing what approaches, disperse whining.

Annatar, Lord of gifts, hurls raging to the door. It is no time any more for him to conceal his malice in a glorious coaxing presence or a subtle promising word. His ferocious greed and thirst for domination over all life, alter his unreal beauty and clear the battlefield. Driven by an unquenchable frustration, he chases the brave who tore the Elven rings from his control.

More than by his implacable hatred for this vile renegade Maia, Celebrimbor feels overwhelmed by an irrepressible disgust, this supreme nausea from which frees only death. Recognizing the noxious rumor that announces Morgoth Bauglir’s henchman, he sends the heroes away. Alone, he will stand while the remnants of Eregion’s folk flee.

Struck by the glazed look of the Fëanorian, Elrond and Glorfindel obey and let him to his fate. Bringing together the survivors and leading them to the north, they pretend to aim for the Redhorn Pass and mislead the tracking.

In front of the closed door, a desperate revolt confronts an insatiable lust.

This revolt is fair, the right unquestionable, the resistance fierce. However perfidious hatred has long veiled its violence with cunning, creeping at the heart of his enemies to know, divide and conquer them. The dark design of domination will break the resistance with a relentless compulsion, for he knows everything of his opponent. Celebrimbor has but one secret to reveal, that Annatar is to extricate from him with palpitating shreds of his disjointed body.

The Lord of Gifts comes forward. He is to give death.

.oOo.

The Fëanorian is cornered and bloodless. The devious Maia watches his last blow to snatch his sword, gauntlet and hand at a time. Then the slow torture will extirpate out of his prey, the last secret of Celebrimbor. Annatar will know where are Vilya, Nenya and Narya. And his reign will be complete - inevitable and final.

Exhausted but undaunted, Celebrimbor gathers all his energy for a final assault. Annatar already has him in his power, and smiles at his sacrificial victim with a winning and sneer rictus.

But then comes out of the wall a short shape in shining chainmail. The Maia has only time to see a dwarven mask grinning a curse. Celebrimbor’s galvorn sword and Narvi’s war hammer fall down together in a single flash, on Annatar who switches on with a cry of terror.

.oOo.

The gates of Moria have closed. An explosion has dug a deep crater in front of the threshold. The surprised Maia had to draw on the very essence of his flesh to survive this onslaught, led by hatred tenfolded with love. As a thick smoke is clearing, Lord Annatar painfully rises among the corpses. His jagged face will never hoist again, the deceitful smile of his insolent beauty.

He just missed supreme victory. His curse falls on the sealed doors, this time in vain. But the line of Dùrin will not be forgotten.

The remains of Celebrimbor and Narvi are impaled on tall irons spears, carried as banners by a troll guard.

United in death, the dwarf and the elf will keep their secret, long after are erased on the doors, the Hammer of Dùrin and the Star of Fëanor.

.oOo.

The plump weaver has sat down beside the voluble dwarf. Success confers a certain charm... As the hall loudly congratulates the Naugrim for his history, she leans on his shoulder and languidly whispers in his ear:

- "I had guessed what was written on the door : Speak, Lover, and come within !”

The understanding of the young woman surprises the dwarf, who stares at her with interest for the first time of the evening. So at least someone could follow him... But she adds with a glance:

- "I know that, since it is also written on my door!”

.oOo.

Notes
1-Maïa, pl Maïar : prime being akin to the Valar, whom they are sometimes the followers. Olorin, Iarwain Ben Adar (Tom Bombadil), Melian and Sauron are Maïar.
2-Smith’s brotherhood.
The embalmer by Chiara Cadrich
.oOo.

Sometimes ocean-going vessels berth at Tharbad, after sailing the grey-flood upstream to sell their goods. So it happens master mariners make the journey to Thalion to overcome their usual intermediaries, find products for return and increase their profits.

That is how a captain from Pelargir, tanned by salt spray, ran aground one night at the sign of the drunken goose. He had experienced quite a few trials - at the last crossing, for example, he had repelled two pirate attacks before reaching the estuary. Somehow braggart, jingoistic and frankly bored with everything, the mariner readily reported a Southern legend, as it is whispered in the slave galley of Umbar.

.oOo.

Carried by the ebb, fast schooners sailing towards the open sea, were horning the call for recognition of the corsairs of Umbar (1), to salute the impressive galley that was towing its spoils of war to the slave market.
By land breeze, the harbour launched its sea lions towards the waves of Belfalas, to conquer gondorian merchant ships. Boats of all sizes docked and unloaded before going refit or boarding new goods.

Myriads seagulls bickered, plunging into the waters reddened with viscera, near the fish stalls.

Loaded with spices and smuggled powders gleaned under the coat, the herbalist Zirzîgur paced the dock to get back to the store, snapping his bewitching smiles with equal success, to the harbor girls and to the matrons of the merchant class. The hunk was known for lavishing his elixirs of youth and some favors to a wealthy female clientele.

The door of the shop closed over the teeming life of the overheated docks and its strong emanations, relegating under the blazing sun, the complaints of the gulls and the hubbub of the fish auction. In the calm and cool darkness of the store, the iridescent pottery, closely aligned on the shelves of precious wood, reassured customers by their discreet luxury and the reliability of their medicinal illuminations. The young man locked the door and threw around the voluptuous look of the upstart.
This sumptuous institution, its reputation, its customers, all this now belonged to him. He was especially concerned to perpetuate the worried loyalty of a very select clientele, eager of the occult services of the pharmacy.

.oOo.

That same morning, he had found his magister, motionless in his satin chair, as austere and dry as a mummy of the An Karagmir (2) catacombs. On the mahogany table, the last drops of the old despot’s favorite remedy were souring in his silver cup. At his age, a dosing error could be lethal... Unless the decrepit miser has confused the preparations that Zirzîgur had completed for him the day before...

The apprentice embalmer stared at the corpse of his old master with revengeful jubilation. But some worry lines altered his mocking smirk - since this morning, the body seemed already plagued by decomposition.

Zirzîgur would have to excel and embalm his deceased master with all the art he had been taught. Wealthy families of old Númenorean stock, which the old apothecary had provided with his expertise in expensive private consultations, on the floor of the shop, should be fully reassured about the capabilities of the young practitioner.

For the occult Númenorean tradition had survived the Gondorian invasion and the reign of Castamir descendants: throughout their lives, its followers were abusing of the pharmacopoeia expedients and obscure spells, to challenge their decay. With the approach of death, the most perverted even succumbed to the promises of a distant re-birth.

Thus some people had paid dearly, and in advance, fraudulent services of an embalmer well versed in dark knowledge. These rich Númenorean customers had absolutely to recognize in this corpse, pulled back to the grace of his youth, the tranquilizing demonstration that their remains would pass through the ages.

Zirzîgur carried the corpse to the lab and began to work...

.oOo.

Some years later…

The attractive young man had succeeded beyond his expectations. In the fullness of his manhood, he had become an accomplished and recognized practitioner, bewitching and sure of his art.

In addition to his knowledge of herbalism and alchemy, his skills had been enriched by the arcanes of his old master, annotated with his expert hand. He had found these ancient scrolls, while forcing the secret drawer of the desk where the embalmer had hidden his will. By the way Zirzîgur had immediately realized it was better not to deepen their origin. About the will, a solvent of his own and a few clever spidery scrawl had done...

Perfecting his beguiling eloquence, he had moreover discovered a keen sense of observation and political instincts. The dashing honor officer Zirzîgur had bought for gold the charge of apparitor of the pharmacy aboard the privateer fleet, key to the prestigious gates of naval aristocracy and Sesame of the wealthy merchant guilds.

After him joining the Seraglio, the admirals wives familiarly called him out with the Gondorian name of Meleithron (3). Whimsical and expensive mistresses of merchant princes indulged his services, thanking him with useful alcove secrets and exotic treats. The days of ball, the ladies paraded in his pharmacy and Zirzîgur put a point to ensure the privacy and confidentiality of each of these visits.

The embalmer enjoyed these mature women like so many unique flowers to bloom, treat, water or resize occasionally. To all he promised an ever renewed brilliance of their beauty. To each he lavished exquisite and refined attention, so fine, just and personal, that the patient, intimately understood by the handsome embalmer and reassured by his mirror, returned home reconciled with her own attractiveness.

In incurable cases, Zirzîgur also knew how to sparingly handle the scalpel of his former master, remodeling flabby flesh into velvety curves.

But for the women most eager to stop time, those who had exhausted the striking effects of his slimming broths, his vitalizing ointments or his love potions, Zirzîgur reserved his private performances.

.oOo.

In these delicate circumstances, the elegant embalmer resorted to techniques of greater complexity, which required a gentleman’s finesse and a patiently assimilated centuries-old knowledge.

The ritual required the presence of a young comely person, vigorous and healthy. Usually, a harbour girl obligingly attended the ceremony. Sometimes Zirzîgur bought at the free Southron (4) counter in the slave market enclave, a healthy and obedient girl, he freed when she had completed her task. Profit did not prevent some kind of panache, on the contrary!

The patient and the assistant were initially the subject of a rigorous and complete toilet, refined body care and sophisticated relaxing massage. Then the embalmer administered subtle drinks to the two women, speaking to them gently until they slide into a dreamless sleep. Then the staff withdrew for the most delicate phase of the ritual.

The next day, the patient awoke alert, invigorated with new energy, animated by sparkling sensations of renewal and vitality. Small sneaky pains, organ laziness or chronic fatigue, feelings of oppression seemed evacuated by new blood. The following days, her tissues firmed sustainably, its excess fat was smoothly drained, her skin found a satin touch, her hair flamed with seductive sheen. The discrete scars on the arms and neck of the patient disappeared quickly, absorbed by a regenerative impulses and the attentive care of the "magician". And it happened that the lady, in the heat of her gratitude, experimented on the spot, her renewed charm and ardor.

As for the assistant, she also indulged care, although less luxurious, but these allowed her many wounds cauterized and her vomiting and dehydration treated. The girl, chosen young, usually found health back after a few weeks of depression and fatigue. Handsomely paid, she could set her own shop out of the slums. Meleithron was buying a luxury good conscience, in the form of patronage!

Zirzigûr stood as the supreme lord of youth among the aristocracy of Umbar, not just women. But his talents and income were not limited to the beauty of the living: a repository of knowledge and his late master of commitments, he dispensed with Mithril price, to the heirs of the black Numenorians, the posthumous care their unholy hopes demanded.

.oOo.

Several years later…

The widow of the chief Admiral Borazor has raised her confidant Meleithron to the rank of adjudicator of the drug market for the Grand Corsair Council, shortly after his hundred fifty-three years. Zirzigûr was now in control of rare products, and began to perfect the recipes and practices his former master had discarded.

His professional curiosity prompted him to explore the possibilities of these forgotten techniques.

No doubt Zirzigûr was also beginning to worry about the future. Now a mature but still very attractive man, he had gained in authority and presence. The blood of Numenor flew in his veins, which, with the help of some remedies of his own, promised quite a long life. But he felt, for many still tiny signs and a diffuse weariness, he would soon engage in the best of his art to stay fit.
Thus he pushed his experiments. Of course alchemical and necromantic research occasioned here and there some collateral damage. The assistant girls lost their hair, sometimes the sight or the use of some limb. But Zirzîgur, motivated and courageous, surpassed every obstacle, and made a sensational discovery: the vital fluids of a woman in love proved to be the most potent elixir of youth that one could experience. In addition, the profit was tenfold if the recipient patient was the subject of her passion!

Soon he dared not use harbour girls as assistants. He had, more and more often, to supply with research assistants at the slave market. To finance these investments, he sold under the cloak, some organs and cells of the few assistants who did not survive. The progress of knowledge and ultimate success were at this price.

For Zirzîgur reached his goal, and developed a process which would avoid the heavy equipment to transfuse the vital humors to the patient. What an unprecedented advance! In this way, he could indulge himself with a high virtue elixir.

.oOo.

For nearly half a century, Zirzîgur burned the candle at both ends. His professional successes found their reward in an unbelievable lifestyle and unbridled love life, with an almost unchanged appearance.

However, when he reached the age at which some Dunedain begin to experiment some weariness of life, Zirzîgur, for his part, felt only the backlash of his excesses, undergoing thousand hassles of an "old beau" at the edge of decline.

It happened one night of depravity, he made the mistake, for sheer derision and perversion, or maybe to deceive his anxieties, to bewitch and seduce one of his customer, wealthy and influential, but worried, tenacious... and plump.

He came to experience a great reluctance for her, the more painful since he had to spare her. The lady was harassing him with her assiduity, jeopardizing his reputation, pushing him to the limit and exacerbating his fear of tomorrow. One evening that he reluctantly gave his wearisome girlfriend, the attentions she had been forcefully crying for all day, he got a brainwave!
He finished the evening with more vigor than usual, and the lady fell asleep, fulfilled and confident...

.oOo.

A few days later, he finally yielded to the entreaties of the passionaria and organized, in absolute secrecy, a revitalization ritual.

The embalmer and his patient committed to a rigorous toilet, peppering with few saucy interludes, without allowing to satisfy these appetites. The patient was pampered, accepting exquisite sweets and heady liquors with a languid air. A massage administered by the master himself plunged her into a fluffy bliss.

When the plump woman was ready for the ritual, the embalmer settled his clever device around the numb body, skillfully incising her, setting glass cannulas and injecting subtle mixtures.

With a morbid satisfaction and an impatience fueled by a long exasperation, the embalmer bustled around the plump client, so deeply in love. Slowly distilled, the humours of the enamoured woman, so beneficial for the beloved, were dripping in a crystal goblet that the loving woman had offered to her lover. The lady was not a patient any more, but the unconscious victim of the ritual. The vase was slowly filling with clear fuchsia elixir.

All night the embalmer activated, pulling the quintessence from his girlfriend, respecting step-by-step protocol he had perfected. There were but a tiny glitch, but it allowed him to indulge a domineering and vengeful impulse.

The lady casually opened her eyes, returning to the level of consciousness where the events are observed as outside of oneself, from a promontory without affect nor sensation. Zirzîgur winced a cruel smile, where she read all his hatred, his need for revenge and fear of aging, which surpassed her own. When the embalmer gave him an additional sedative, she knew his betrayal, and the innermost of her deceived soul, already soaring, she vowed her torturer to eternal remorse. But the ritual continued inexorably, channeling vital humours of the helpless victim.

The next day, all traces of the ceremony were gone. Single witness to the abject scene, a goblet full of a thick fluid, waited on the office of the embalmer. The exceptional concentration of the elixir gave it a deep dark vermilion, which brilliance reminded Zirzîgur the lewd spark that sometimes lit the eye of its late plump owner.

.oOo.

After a day of fasting, the embalmer bore the youth cup to his lips. Shaken by the extraordinary power of the drink, he had to sit down and drank slowly, letting its principles radiate to the end of his limbs.

Before losing consciousness, Zirzîgur found that the potion had a horrible aftertaste of gall, like a whiff of deadly disillusionment.

When leaving this world, he realized that the vermillion red was rather a color for anger and hatred rather than for love...

A few days later, his young dispenser found the old pervert lying on the ground, his skin like a parchment from d’An Karagmir. She looked at his bald head, his hollow eye sockets and skeletal limbs in his robe woven with gold, with a fine and cruel smirk.

The Alchemist had been caught by the tide of time, that his subtle and powerful ointments mixtures had dammed for so long!

.oOo.

The sea wolf, big voluble man who illustrated his tale with suggestive gestures, cast a superior glance at the common room. Somehow disappointed, he found that his story had not overwhelmed the assistance with horror. Instead, a strange sense of resigned solidarity had crept into the hearts, to the victims certainly, but also, somehow, for the young fallen man.

In the north, too, Morgoth’s lies threw in the souls of men, shadows of fear and denial of death. Every day, Thalion’s farmers fight through love and friendship, the doubts creeping from the depths of the barrows.

This cozy inn of the drunken goose is one of their refuges against loneliness.

.oOo.

NOTES

1- Umbar, main harbor of the numenoreans in middle earth, at the bottom of a huge natural anchorage, far south of Gondor. In the third age, the perverted black Numenoreans made war in Gondor, who submitted them in TA 933. During the kin strife, the harbor sided with the usurper Castamir. His vanquished rebels then fled to Umbar in TA 1448, to found the oligarchy of corsairs, leading a privatteer’s war or leading deadly raids on the coasts of Gondor.

2- Necropole of the black numenorean princes of Umbar anchorage, since the imperial period of Numenor in second age, until the beginning of the third age. The tombs are situated in a desert and dry valley, a dozen miles east of Umbar harbor. Some family from numenorean descent, pay some servants to tend and guard the tombs. A small southron town has developed near the oasis, at the entry of the valley of the dead.

3- Equivalent Sindarin of adunaïc Zirzîgur, that means "love wizard"!

4- When Gondor captured Umbar, slavery was abolished. Later, when the usurper Castamir’s followers took refuge in Umbar, they had to make concessions with their Southron allies. An independent enclave was granted to them near the harbour, a free market zone where slavery was legal.
The hospices of the red edge by Chiara Cadrich
.oOo.

Good evening everyone! Tonight master Finran had a strange idea! He told us the story of a fellow innkeeper, then he stopped right in the middle of it! Satisfied with himself, he asked his friend Rhâst to continue, and so on with his neighbour...

As all this was likely to cut short, he imposed a theme: the red edge!

At the end of the evening, the common hall had made a colorful tale, multifaceted, where the most romantic hope of wenches, along with the laborer’s cynicism could be recognized.

Here is what it resulted in...

.oOo.

The oak sign swayed creaking under its mast. It bore the effigy of a grim cleaver, whith a sharp edge glistening with fresh blood.

The hospice of the red edge took its name from its founder, Caranlain[1], former executioner of Baron of En Eredoriath[2]. Legend had it that he had left his charge, noting with dispair that his office’s customers increasingly tended to come back from their graves to disturb his sleep.

These were troubled times indeed. Doubt crept into the minds, Dunedain kingdoms seemed to erode by the threatening shadow of the Witch-king, and the tombs of the Kings won by dark spells.

So our executioner sold his charge and converted into the worthy profession of ghost hunter, with the blessing of his lord who had some urgent use for it.

Caranlain established his quarters in an abandoned post house that served the greenway. Perched atop a hill on the South Downs, mid-way between Bree and Thalion, an old dilapidated tower - which bore the name of Barad Luindalf - neighbored a main building and stables, all surrounded by a rubble wall.

He strengthened the modest fortifications and dug a well. His large family provided to stewardship with discreet efficiency and parsimonious affability of an ancient line of executioners. Fodder collecting, cultivating a vegetable garden, farming land to sheep herders, all these arrangements were made with cold blood (!) of an industrious family.

By necessity, the establishment rather quickly became a haven in the middle of a hazardous crossing. Travelers rightly feared the stage rallying Bree and Thalion. When fog or night invaded the Barrow Downs, fear spread by the hills bristling with stone teeth. People disappeared in uncertain circumstances and rumors of atrocities were told. Then father Caranlain lit a fire at the top of his tower, beacon of hope for the unwary travelers lost in the void.

The shelter became famous for its vigilant hospitality, even if it was somehow less comfortable than a hostel. Merchants saved from disaster often offered, by generosity and gratitude, large sums that allowed the family to flourish. Popular saying gave them a new name: the "bloody hospices." But this success attracted dark venomous wrath against the sign of the red edge.

Under such a standard, the coming war began with bloody auspices.

.oOo.

For this was a war for good. The shadow was leading a sneak attack, yielding apparently to mustered forces, to regain ground on weakened hearts, insinuating a creeping fear.

The remains of kings waved under their mounds, nightly escaping to the wilderness, in search of lost souls and fresh blood. The lies of Morgoth haunt the memory of humans since the dawn of time, with death as an odious dispossession or usurpation of a sacred heritage. The Witch-king, by his evil spells, gave to see the frightening spectacle of great souls suffering the throes of unworthy death and impossible rest.

Men, their dead kings should have inspired, were troubled and disbanded, abandoned by faith. The most desperate were found bloodless and pale, motionless and icy as stone, near the big barrows, if not eviscerated at the bottom of a ravine.

The bloody hospices supported a permanent seat. During day, under the protection of the glorious star, Caranlain and his son roamed the greenway, condemning the barrows doors, affixing the powerful sigils[3] forged by their lord. Women closed in the desecrated graves, pronounced calming words and banished the evil spirits that infested the sanctuaries with their lies.

At nightfall, they lit on the greenway a standby fire indicating the path that rose to their stronghold, and stirred up the straggling travelers there. When the kingdom of shadows resumed his rights, cold blowed from the graves to the foot of their walls. When wolves and ospreys cried at night, the guards of the bloody hospices slept with one eye open.

But when silent darkness won every corner of the country by a moonless night, then all watched tirelessly, repelling fear and persistent rumor of rattling bones in the cold air. Women sang a song of forgiveness, which casts out fear and disperses the illusions of the Dark Lord.

It happened that abject creatures attacked the walls, during a night of deep darkness. Then the master of the hospital defended his kin with the edge of his former office, while his cronies waved sulfur torches. The cleaver worked wonderfully, cutting undead flesh and breaking the evil animating the spoils.

.oOo.

The fortress held out, the last bastion of light facing the furious ocean of human fears. The Caranlain family stood fighting around the inflexible father.

Of course all preferred praise for their unwavering watch than suffering the fleeting looks and shy ways towards the executioner! The family shared the feeling of a promotion.

Only the youngest, bright Firniel, showed an independent and whimsical spirit. Certainly, she helped her mother and her sisters-in-law and showed gentle patience with her nephews, but she spent most of her time dreaming elven tales and foreshore lays.

Her universe, populated by sprites, august kings, tiny fairies, elves as beautiful as the stars, was a counterpoint to the obscure fight of their lives. The girl often escaped, running hills, courting the Zephyr and murmuring the loves of Earendil to valleys sources. The family ended up not worrying about her escapades, especially as Firniel seemed insensitive to the fears and doubts of adults.

But one evening, when the low cloud ceiling masked night light, she did not return to the shelter.

.oOo.

Her brothers and father frantically scoured the black moor, torches in hand, calling for her all night long.

Only in the early morning, did they, exhausted, find her quietly leaning against the upper stone of a large barrow. She gently chanted ballads of old, smiling casually as inhabited by a sweet secret.

The girl was returned to the fold, surrounded, nourished, rubbed with invigorating leaves and inspected at every angle. She suffered these inconveniences with all the good grace one is able of at seventeen springs. Her mother noticed that she had nothing, not even a sniffle.

Then came the ritual question:

- "But, Firniel, what did you do out all night? What is wrong with you?"

With gentle authority and disarming grace - You people cannot understand, this is a girl’s story! - she had all the men ousted out of the room. When her stepsisters had closed the door with ill-concealed excitement, she announced with a candid aplomb, she had found the boy of her dreams.

The men, ambushed behind the door, heard a chorus of hysterical screams.

They could take few more details out of her, except that he was a son of old family, never married, with an elven beauty and exquisite sensitivity...

The mother, stunned, inquired about the intentions of the young man. Her daughter appeared to think for a moment and, with a little childish pout belying her grave tone, she said:

- "He is much older than me, but he is not yet ready for marriage. I do not mean to hurry him! We should take our time!"

Speechless before such maturity, the mother agreed to spare the father and prepare him calmly to these news.

.oOo.

The father found this idyll very hasty, and the circumstances particularly unseemly - a young man of good family should not lead the girl of his thoughts into shadows and dangers. Draconian security measures fell upon the household. After locking his daughter in her room, he decided to surprise the young dandy.

Caranlain climbed atop his small but valiant dungeon and sat for a long watch. He scanned the night without failing, determined to spot the cheeky lad if ever he came. Hours weighed heavily on his lids, but he stood up immediately when a distant murmur rippled the smooth darkness.

Far below, a clear wisp was dancing on the road, eclipsing the semaphore his people had lit at dusk. The father's eyes widened like saucers when he recognized his youngest child frolicking at night. He roared like a bear, harmed in his pride and threatened in the flesh of his flesh. How had she managed to escape? And what madness, magic or attraction made her sparkle like a flare of hope adrift on a sea of ink? Grabbing his red cleaver, he plunged into the ocean of liquid darkness, to rescue his precious little girl.

.oOo.

In great fury, Caranlain rushed down to the greenway. He called, horned, raged. A heavy reluctant silence spread around him. Fog seemed to fill the air with its icy indifference. Then a light tune, blown from a hill pipe, scattered several mocking notes, as through the veils of a remote time. Sweat chilled the executioner’s powerful spine.

Controling his fury and now fully aware of the danger, Caranlain took a firebrand and followed the trail of the sour tune, in the winding alleys of the old necropolis. Relentless, the father called his child with his heart and his voice, feeling around him the growing malevolent attention of restless souls. He erred lengthily, waking the minions and calling upon himself the anger of vengeful spirits.

The pipe hushed. A curl of fog revealed a large stone portal, that opened on a lighted tomb under its turf tumulus. The former executioner shivered with horror. His little girl must be there for sure, laying at the mercy of a spirit of hatred and thirst for her life. He brandished his loyal red edge and advanced valiantly.

.oOo.

Unreal shimmers lit the stone vault. Caranlain set his firebrand on a door-flare, but men’s light is no avail in the dead’s kingdom. A skeleton, wrapped in gold chains, seemed to be waiting for him from the depth of time, sat on his stone throne. A red flame burned at the bottom of his hollow orbits. The man stopped, fascinated by the hypnotic sparkling of the malevolent will.

Grey foggy arms brushed and wrapped him like wet algae in an icy stream, striking him with stupor. Fleeting and macabre images assailed his mind – a childish hair, disheveled by the wind, revealed a fleshless face, eaten away by the gangrene. He firmly pushed this corruption back, but another scene sprang to his mind – his daughter paralyzed under the impure embrace of an obscene corpse.

This time fury overwhelmed him. His cleaver beat down on the skeleton with great strength. As he frenzied and the golden-helmed skull threw its last anger look, before being smashed by the red edge, Caranlain felt his limbs abandon him. The torch light flickered and hope died in his heart as he stumbled on the cold paving stones.

.oOo.

Caranlain awoke to the sound of a little treacherous tune, sour as a coward’s threat and insidious as a contagious disease. He found that he was hampered on a high stone bench. He tried to struggle, but his limbs were paralyzed. The odious tune gradually gained strength and confidence, forcefully chanting the hateful vanity of its abject repetitions, fed by the fear and helplessness of the sacrificed.

Then he saw it. A long twisted creature was standing at his benchside, bitterly withered and mad with desire to annihilate this life intended to run freely in the sun. A short and pale blade in hand, the hideous corpse, covered with scales and eaten by decay, chanted its litany of killing, attentive to the fear of its victim. Caranlain’s terror was boundless – then the former executioner fully understood the ultimate desperate fury of the doomed. When the infamous casting reached its acute and powerful pitch, the hysterical ghoul, with flaming orbits, was brandishing its pale dagger above the the unfortunate’s heart.

A word snapped like a death sentence. But the voice seemed like a beautiful starry night:

- "Down!”

The awful creature retreated, cowering on itself and hissing like an old cat. Two figures, inhabited by a soft diaphanous light, entered the barrow. The largest, bearing a majestic authority, came casting irresistible injunctions to the ghoul, who writhed belching up in the dust and returned to its sarcophagus. The slenderer, graceful and considerate, unfastened the unfortunate Caranlain and calmed him with a kiss on the forehead:

- "Come on Dad, you should not linger here at night! It's dangerous, you know! "

.oOo.

The former executioner had been obediently led back by his youngest, to his bloody and still family hospices. After a bowl of hot soup, and in the light of day, he had recovered his spirits:

- "But who is this young man, Firniel? What is his father’s job? »

As you can see, parents are all the same everywhere!

- "His father died long ago. He was the head of a powerful family!

- But then he does nothing of a living, he is a nobleman?

- Yes, he is a noble man, in every sense of the word. And he is not idle: he cares about containing evil spirits, like you, Dad! But it's true he… sleeps all day long.

- Why did he not come home along with us?

- He cannot, he's... allergic to sun. And all these sigils everywhere, these give him a headache!

- But what do you do all night long, walking by the Downs?

- I've told you, Dad, this is where he lives! »

Caranlain did not know there was a noble mansion in the Downs.

- "You've already gone to his home?

- ... Yes, Dad... "

The daddy considered the short answer and the anxious look of his daughter. While understanding, he felt older, all of a sudden. He sighed deeply:

- "It will be very hard for your mother..."

The girl smiled. Indeed her father still had some menial details to overcome…

.oOo.

Since that time, the hospices of the red edge have been living to the rhythm of rather peculiar domestic arrangements.

Firniel divided her time between her father’s refuge and her husband’s barrow. During the moonless weeks, she left the living world to abide underground in the company of Lord Eldanar. This last descendant of a noble family of former Arnor, swore by Mandos, a long time ago, not to leave Middle Earth before experiencing true love...

This tiny twist to the conservative convenances of En Eredoriath had some advantages. The fight against evil spirits that plague the graves, was very effective. The merchants were able to resume shuttle between Bree and Thalion, the road was much safer since Firniel found this exquisite ally.

Obviously, there were also a few minor drawbacks...

Every month, the master of the hospices of the red edge had to bring his son-in-law, what kept him in good shape. We all know that love is blind, but you would certainly not want your beloved daughter to live with a husband in advanced state of decay?

As a matter of fact, lord Eldanar, the step-son, needed two good pints of fresh blood every new moon in his barrow.

The guests of the bloody hospices did not all get back on the greenway in the morning... But rest assured, the former executioner always chose, for the needs of his step-son, a hardened criminal or questionable character, whose disappearance would bother no-one...[4]

.oOo.
End Notes:
[1] Sindarin caran, red and lain, edge.

[2] The Hirdor (hereditary domain) of En eredoriath encompassed Tyrn Hyarmen (the South Downs), and Tyrn Gorthad (the Barrow-Downs).

[3]These are signs, seals, that bear thaumaturgic powers, affixed to repel spirits and ghosts.

[4]This short novel was inspired by the film
The tale of Master Gigolet by Chiara Cadrich

The small monotonous voice was reeling off the reading lines. Ducked on the grimoire, the fair-haired boy grimaced with effort while deciphering the exploits of Eärendil, leeward the boreal islands. His neighbor, a girl taut as a bow, anticipated with her lips in the next wonderful twist, by reading over his shoulder.

-« Next ! » said the master's harmonious voice after the son of Tuor had snatched his fellow mariners from the hydra’s clutches.

- "Not you, Eliahel, you already read sooner! Regain thour plots, mine kids!”

With a pout, the girl walked between the benches, dragging the little boy with her.

Under the high and mighty oak beams, a few flies buzzed in flour dust, streaking some light rays falling from skylights on the gloss lectern. In Master Gigolet’s class, everybody read the same book. But what marvelous books! The latter, a leather-bound tome, with heavy illuminated pages, once belonged to the Royal Library of Thalion. The oldest handwritten note dated back to the early days of Thorondur, the first king of Cardolan.

Master Gigolet ran his scrutiny among his pupils. It was the turn of Mardoc and Lulabille. The small dunish boy was staring at the wall and the girl was ducking her head, in the futile hope that the educational ambitions of their magister would slip past them.

The master sighed. Sunny spring meadows captivated the minds of his students, young and old. He ended the class with a benevolent gesture. The children rushed into the attic, raising a cloud of flour, rushed down the stairs and scattered in the courtyard, celebrating their deliverance with a long, liberating and unanimous outcry.

Master Gigolet closed piously the lay of Eärendil and Elwing. He had saved and restored several dozen valuable books of the old castle library. He still fought on the most damaged and older ones, drawing on the wise’s memories and his pitch or wax pots, to correct the ravages of time and parasites. The relics were kept in the driest area of the castle, the cereal reserve. The class also was held there, bringing together around the master, the cat who forsook hunting rodents to warm near the stove, artisans’ sons sent there to learn to read and count, and young farmers escaping their chores.

.oOo.

Master Gigolet laid the venerable volume in the cabinet and prepared to get down to his copyist tasks. Suddenly he gasped: young Eliahel had remained sat in her place, a dull worry wrinkle barring her forehead, and was looking at him with a stubborn air.

-« What is it about, Eliahel?

- I want to know the end! They are so slow reading… »
Master Gigolet smiled indulgently - "they" were even slower when writing or counting... But the little pupil’s impatience intrigued him:

- "Thou aspire getting acquainted with the outcome of the lay of Eärendil and Elwing! Hast thou no fear of sad an end? "

The master spoke formally to all students in his inimitable quaint style, down to the muddy and uneducated sharecropper offspring.

- "I want to know anyway! Eärendil cannot die, I don’t want that!

- Running ahead of his destiny won’t soften it! If the outcome was revealed, the next lesson would not be listened to! And what a shame when every book has been thoroughly read! »

A pained expression sneaked into the young sharp look. But the little girl knew the heartstrings of her old Master:

- "Will you not invent a new story for me, Master Gigolet?"

The master scratched his occiput. Certainly, the thirst for knowledge and tales of this girl would have to be quenched! And why not convince her parents to make an assistant out of her... He leaned toward the girl with a learned and clumsy air, but his eyes twinkled with joy:

- "I may not aucthorise thour voyage in the lay before thour cronies. But we may entertain ourselves with tonight’s feasting! Thou would hear abundance of tales, bachelette believe me, and possibly flowered lays. Run forestall thour kin! »

- Yahoooo! ", Squeaked the girl bounding down the stairs.

.oOo.

For that night, the innkeeper master Finran had crafted, with the help of his good girlfriend the baker, loads of pancakes for the feast of the equinox. The Inn of the drunken goose hosted many families who came to share their latest jams and the first honeys for a vigil of tales.

Excited, small Eliahel had mobilised her mom, dressed in her finery, her dad, who hid his shyness behind an impressive mustache, her grandma who loved pancakes because she hardly had any teeth left, and her younger brother even if he was only interested in stories when fighting occured.

When master Finran welcomed them, the girl declared that Messer Gigolet had promised to tell a story that he had kept by himself. The landlord took the opportunity and mischievously said:

- "Hear ye, hear ye! Here Messer Gigolet will tell you the gesture of his youthful exploits! »

The ovation that always rises with great eagerness and spontaneity, to designate the first volunteer for each evening, had just befallen to the butler school-master, who now was to reveal his past.

.oOo.

« To tell the whole truth, the young Gringolet - here yours truly servant - heavily descended from his mountain – in every sense of the term! As a cadet of a modest family borne near Morthond in Gondor, I had left me father, a horse lad, and me mother, a laundress, for apprenticeship as a lawyer cleric. I learned calligraphy under the quick stick of this learned and severe provost of laws, by escribing change letters, reporting encrypted columns, copying all day long, signs nobody had given himself trouble to teach me, and solely fought their way up to my memory.

Dame! Please do not imagine such a status was to be complained about! I was garnished, sated, dressed out anew! Reading and abacus as a bonus! At night I warded the shop of me master. I had profits - without his acquiescence since my meager wages would have suffered - nimbly reading his library: books large and small, serious or poetic, in vernacular language or high tongue of old, classic or licentious.

- Oh yes, Mother Harloat, licencious books too!, added soberly Master Gigolet, while casting a ribald look at the premium gossip of the village. Without a guide, the blind falls at every step!

Hereunto disparate and solitary readings resulted in various chances, the most lasting being mine oratory custom, that every joker in this room forgivingly describes as unique. »

Distributing some ales to the attentive tables, Master Finran allowed himself a slight clarification:

- « These disparate and solitary readings had various unfortunate consequences, the most enduring being my language tics, that the greatest meekness of my best friends cannot help but call unique. I have to correct this last point: the verve of our friend raises our morale to mirth and joy, because it is delightfully unique! »

The sober face of Gigolet, that his pint had barely embellished with a shy pink, lit up with a modest and grateful smile. He continued:

- "A customer of the shop took a liking to me - pen squire of the Lord of Morthond of his state. So Gringolet - for this was then me naming, inherited from me progenitor, his lord called him by the same nickname as his steed! - made his first humanities under his rule. (1)

Me Master and benefactor had trouble to convene –legal clercs are tough people and litigating over any case - but eventually I joined Dol Amroth’s clerics copyists school for my thirteenth spring, on my esquire benefactor’s funds.

There I crossed galore of common youths, some full of their ancestries, the others hungry for power. Under such healthy competition charter, me modesty - already very much turned down - and incomplete education earned me the involuntary - but sometimes deserved – role of those Baronets’ scapegoat. Such high families cadets esteemed themselves winners by right. Gentry and merchant bourgeoisie contenders rivaled in pettiness for winning honors.

A baronet in particular - Howty, eldest of a family of judges and diplomats in the service of the crown, the Dowties - bitterly challenged the palm with me. Our ambitions to become loremasters in the Royal Library of Minas Tirith, though shared, could not admit two winners of the same age. This exacerbated rivalry promised therefore to occupy much of ours lives.

Indeed Howty won the first race for much mortification of thour servant, who narrowly missed the award – which was to accompany, as a clerk, a real diplomatic mission. From time to time, Gondor used to send a legate embassy to Tharbad. The northern Dunedain kingdoms had crestfallen a long time ago, but the city still held prestigious trade and influence. Steward Belecthor therefore displayed Gondor’s power, when money could and wars obliged.

When Howty declined this first prestigious charge, the students thought this petty nobleman meant to shorten his way to the summit. Thou can imagine your servant Gringolet took the opportunity and went to his place in the legate’s court”

.oOo.

Once is not custom, the butler of the Drunken Goose was seated before a pint, with satisfied looks on a captive but willing audience.

- "I remember our glorious delegation! A dozen distinguished dignitaries -diplomats, linguists, civil engineers, officers... Thirty horses richly caparisoned conveying a foot soldiers company. One would have expected such an expedition in the time of powerful imperial numenor...

As many merchants joined the expedition.

Our passage through the worthy kingdom of Rohan was a long succession of receptions and feasts. The plenipotentiary was honored as a king, and his court lodged in good hostelry. While His Excellency was drinking in the company of King Brytta Léofa in his golden castel, I had privilege of transducing a commodity exchange treaty with the mouth officer of Meduseld...
Then I radiated with an immense pride! Can thou imagine? My first official sealed act!

Finally our company forded the Isen. The legate summoned me to witness as a clerk, his interview with the Lord of the lands lying over-river, at the southern foot of the Misty Mountains.

A powerful wizard (2) dwelt there then, on behalf of Gondor it seemed, though he showed some jealous independence in his policies. The legate, who until then had behaved like a powerful lord in the fullness of his thought, stood before him as a petty figurehead. Then I understood why I had been selected, the last of the delegation subordinates, to attend the interview.

Many remonstrances were addressed to us. The magician Curunir was leading subtle dealings with the Dunish clans to restore peace among them. Gondor’s interference was deemed unwelcome. The master of Isengard addressed to us with the tone of an accomplished general, for young and promising valiant lieutenants, but whose judgment ought still to be refined to mingle in such delicate matters.
My Master had huge difficulty recalling Gondor’s sovereignty, and had to concede that his passage was not to thwart Isengard’s high dealings.

On the way back, the proud legate, angry at himself for being charmed so easily, let his despiteful wrath fall on my own head. Far from the skylights of the magician’s tower, he resolved to act as he pleased for his lord the steward, and made me promise to report only what he dictated to me then. I began to understand why Howty had shunned this mission’s duties.

Since Curunir had tricked me - for derision I presume- with the name of Gigolet instead of me patroname, the legate pretended this alteration was a great honor, which remained me name. Maybe it was also a way to remind me of me duty of reserve?”

.oOo.

"The expedition continued along the way, which pavement dwindled as Enedhwaith approached. We repeatedly had to suffer much from the exacerbated rivalries of the Dunish clans, the pacifying charter hatched by Curunir languished to settle. Our band, which rode so magnificent in Minas Tirith, was coveted for mounts and commodities.
For two weeks, actual command was granted to the escort’s captain, so hostile and defying seemed the crossed villages. Gondor’s power was but far remembrance in most remote areas... With great difficulty, our squad repelled an ost who openly attacked all merchants convoys.

Woe to me! I was estranged from my buddies by sudden storm. Hiding me hide to escape the estropiors, I continued for a few days on the way to Tharbad, hoping to catch up the delegation.

Short of pittance, I was forced to beg for bread alms. What a mistake! The family I cried asylum at, deaming me helpless, grabbed me person, tied me and sold me to the highest bidder as hostage! "

.oOo.

"The Ardelaigh clan lived on petty thefts, far in the hills to the north of Dunland. They possessed tin and iron mines, they exploited with the help of various dwarven families. They constantly launched raids to get slaves for their mines. This loathsome clan acquired me as a vulgar nerd, led by his chief Sarlaigh, spineless and coward as a hare.

During weeks that seemed years, I worked as a convict, digging and propping the guts. Stifling heat and absence of light tamed the most resistant in less than a year. Air and pittance lacked. From time to time, the clan fired the proppings, and the ceilings collapsed. For a few hours, dust spilled, then the most ardent abuse resumed.

Me thin corpulence let tenuous hope of survival under hereunto conditions. Me looks got several years older. Yet survival befell to me, by me jailers’ will, who wished their orders should be understood by prisoners from all homelands. (3) I soon learned their language, which sounded like me Morthond Valley mountaineers’ tongue. Attached to this employment, I had occasion to eat tad better than my unfortunate companions. I was deemed harmless and coward, and could freely move inside the mine.

Chance would have it, one of the gallery collapse coincided with a major feasting. One of their plunderers band brought a booty of Gondor wines, on which our guards had their share, thus hanging around somehow.
After stealing pittance and liberating prisoners at hand, I escaped.

.oOo.

The Ardelaigh Provost, in wrath, grabbed me collar the next day. I was unfortunate enough to be taken by a pond, far to the north of Dunland near the Sirannon river. Dunlendings are superstitious people. Hereunto beliefs obliged to sacrifice myself to the goddess of renewal, for the sake of expiation.

I was forced to fasting, then to chewing medicinal plants that removed any restraint. Slowly, I fell into an uncontrollable trance. I invoked the goddess in her dunish language, begging her to receive me in order to renew her vitality. I rushed in dark waters to devote my life to her.

Horn goat! On the other side of the lake, a large shape with a golden hair appeared, brandishing a long and pale spade. In me own delirium, I thought I saw an elf of old, a survivor from the glorious hours of Ost-in-Edhil. I invoked the warrior of the Noldor from the former ages, and now he replied loudly, imploring Elbereth, light carrier to the people in need.

The bawdy dunlendings believed this was a powerful ghost of yesterage, and fled madly at his wrath.
Thus master Finran - the Noldo warrior - could take me out of deadly waters with great cunning and, once my hallucinations calmed down, take me to a civilized place.

.oOo.

"In Tharbad, I discovered that the delegation had turned back toward Isengard, having lost half of its civilians, dead or abducted. The people around Gwathló river were deeply discomfited.

However the tribes (4) of the low lands, contrite by the endless abuses of their hills’ cousins, took their distance with weapons in hand. The rout of our expedition without even paying for the abducted, sounded like a death knell for the debris of Cardolan. Looters without faith nor law would take control of the roads. The plain then rebelled in a glorious burst of pride!

Finally, with no other support than his savior’s, your servant endeavored to make himself useful as a translator, scribe and notary. "

Then Messer Finran interrupted :

- "Our friend Gigolet is too modest. He personally contributed, through his testimony and skills, to seal an alliance between the Saralainn confederation and the former cantons from Thalion to Tharbad. It was an achievement that reminded everyone that the legacy of Cardolan kings had not completely disappeared. The hills’ wild men were defeated, but that's another story ... "

.oOo.

Ultimately, master Gigolet had been persuaded to live in Thalion. The community needed a public writer, a scholar who could disentangle commercial commitments, or write agreements compliant with the subtleties of customary rights of the various ethnic groups.

He did much more. He founded a small school. He discovered the remains of the former royal library of the citadel and saved what could be mended. The community adopted him as its alive memory, a link with a glorious past which sense he revealed to them, so that this glory nourish their hope.

Indeed Master Gigolet had become the pen bailiff of a castle, although this was not the castle of his youthful dreams.

At times he wondered what had become of his old rival Howty. But this has long ceased to torment him.

.oOo.

NOTES

1- I sympathized with a regular customer of the store, the private secretary of Lord Morthond. Gringolet - as it was then my name, handed down from my father, his lord called him like his horse! – attended college under his leadership.

2- Sarouman received the keys of Orthanc around TA 2759.

3- I managed to survive, thanks to my jailers, who needed someone to translate their orders to all their prisoners.

4- The Saralainn tribes occupy the lower Gwathlo bassin, from the Dol Tinare hills to the river estuary.
Visitors in the cellar by Chiara Cadrich
At the Sign of the Drunken Goose…

A wide and austere hobbit stepped hesitantly under the sandstone arches. He was hailed with strange words but a friendly air. This Big Folk hostelry looked like the Green Dragon, but still, what a strange name... the Drunken Goose! He climbed on a stool. The regulars made efforts so that he would feel comfortable, but they had not welcomed any hobbit from the Shire for quite a long time. He ordered his meal with reluctance and caution, under amused looks, while news were shared, from a much bigger world than his usual horizon.

First sniffing some leeks and tatters soup with an informed air, he was tempted, then he sank into a diligent and repetitive swallowing, from which he emerged reassured. Thus he spent a long time before giving a fresh look around.

Now that he was satiated enough to appreciate the supper’s quality, he took his time. The cabbage broth, roasted lamb and beans had conquered his taste. But the beer had him adopt the place: definitely acceptable!
So when his turn came to tell a story, he gathered his childhood memories...

.oOo.
Somewhere in the Shire, a few years ago…

-“Go ahead!”

Encouraged by her brother’s gestures, little Pimpernel crawled among the rushes, imitating the hunting fox.
Whereas her adorable chubby limbs demonstrated the proverbial Hobbit skills, that was still the kid’s first robbery. Her quilts sprang up as red plumes, from time to time exceeding the bushes when the apprentice burglar ventured to have a bold blue glance at her future victim.

A last look back, in order to strengthen her determination - "Go ahead!"- And the little hobbit-girl crawled among the last irises.

In the wash house in front of her, old damsel Neatmole was vengefully beating her laundry, struggling on parts of her trousseau, patiently embroidered over the years of waiting for a more and more unlikely suitor. She did not trust anyone else to care and refresh her precious fabric. From time to time, the laundress carefully screened her embroidery at the early morning rays, while grumbling some curse at her lazy debtors. When the precious laundry shone with a virginal splendor worthy of herself, then old Neatmole suspended it to dry on the ropes.

Silent as a marauding cat, Pimpernel reached the slabs, and hid behind the parapet. Dry cloths, carefully folded, lay there beside the jewelry of the minx, who removed them before handwork.

While the miser and severe laundress recited her assets to the rhythm of her paddle strokes, the nimble girl subtilized a piece of thin veil. She was about to leave on all fours, when she advised a magnificent golden pin that had belonged to her mother.

The bitter memory of her Mummy in tears, standing before the intractable bailiff and embarrassed shiriff, rushed to her throat, sweeping any doubt and silencing any remorse. Yielding to the irresistible temptation and overwhelmed by a delicious sense of retributive vengeance, she took the jewelry and stole away.

.oOo.

Once at the top of the coomb, she triumphantly exhibited her booty. Her brother dragged her farther away. The expected triumphal praise turned into bitter recriminations:

- "I told you, only the veil! The gold pin is no longer Mummy’s!" her brother Padigar sharply rebuked her.

Their father, Rudigar Wickerfine, farmer of the old maid, could not pay his annual fee after a poor harvest.

Neatmole had accepted the family jewel as a pawn, but she wore it openly, to the chagrin of her debtors, whose farm adjoined the minx’s luxurious hole.

- "Daddy may get into big trouble because of that!"

The girl burst into tears, her baby face dotted with freckles, flooded with the tears of injustice:

- "But the veil too was her’s! And you told me to take it!

- We shall give it back! We just need it this morning! "

The veiled blue look of the little one got tougher, as the implacable child’s logic detected some flaw in the reasoning of her elder brother. With her thin golden eyebrows furrowed and small fists clenched, she launched defiantly:

- "Well then, we give the pin back too! So no trouble for Daddy!"

.oOo.

Too late.

The hoot of an old owl, injured in her pride and property, went up from behind the hill. Lady Neatmole had certainly discovered the theft. Padigar took the veil and the pin and ran to the laundry. The old lady was furiously rummaging her cloths, trying to summon help from the neighborhood. Obviously she was after her pin… No way he could stealthily give it back!

However, Padigar approached, driven by a sudden inspiration, remaining hidden in the gorse. He held the pin, cocked his arm and... splash!

The jewel dipped in the wash pond, a few feet from the rim where Pimpernel had taken it.

The old buzzard ceased her noise, sure she had detected a suspicious noise. Her magpie look, attracted by the glint of gold under the lapping, lit with a beacon of hope.
Padigar, before disappearing, had the satisfaction to see her splashing in the wash, unstable on slippery stones.

As he was walking away to join his younger sister, he heard a resounding "splash", followed by a delightful string of profanities he could only half understand.

.oOo.

With serious conspirators faces, the two children were running along a hedge of hazel, boxwood and hawthorn.

- "You see, we must be quick. If we harvest it before adults can find it, we may sell it a good price and we help Daddy! When he returns from Bree-land, he will be proud of us. And maybe later, he gets Mum’s pin back."

The young hobbits crept by valleys and glades, weighting these broad issues, with some hope pegged to their soul, and reached the Old King. This ancient oak was standing in the middle of a pleasant glade, populated by young crooked birches, like many courtiers eager to bow to their hoary sovereign. The respectable trunk, once decapitated by lightning, had survived and replenished but it was now partly hollow, like a long cask.

The children unpacked their equipment and beheld the coveted treasure: a superb wild hive, industrious young stronghold nestled in the lap of the old affable and idle King.

.oOo.

Everything went for the best. Besides, the reader should never doubt the ingenuity, skill and perseverance that young hobbits can deploy for food, let alone some candy.

The light canvas had allowed Padigar to operate without interference, and therefore the small conquerors returned to the village without any bite, carrying a jar full of honey and a hive enclosed in a burlap bag. Padigar got a good deal with the bees but they kept the honey jar, which would make the delights of the family together with Daddy back from Bree.

Our urchins were even lucky: they could quietly return the canvas smearing with honey, by hiding it under the pile of wet clothes and embroidery, thrown pell-mell into the cellar, that their farm shared with Damsel Neatmole’s mansion. No doubt she had not spent time to inspect all her effects, during her hasty return to the fold...

.oOo.

Annihilated by the emotions of the day, Pimpernel and Padigar fell into the sleep of children, which grants oblivion of trials without losing their lessons, closes wounds without tarnishing their glory and restores, intact in the morning, the candid and feverish promise of a new sunny day.

The next day, Padigar had devised a new expedient, to relieve their dear Mummy from her hard work.

For poor mother Wickerfine slaved, entitled with the roles of maid, cook and seamstress for old Damsel Neatmole, moreover assuming the farm heavy works in the absence of her husband, who had gone to sale two oxen at the Bree fair. Her sewing had even ended up spoiling her vision.

Thus her son felt, in the absence of the family head, invested with the eminent role of food provider for the Wickerfine hearth.

Hence the brilliant idea of the day. While he was negotiating his hive, father Sorrelgrind had complained nearby, he had to attend the ford’s Comitia for the day. What would become of the old farmer’s early cherries, in the midst of harvest? It was essential to avoid the old hobbit, a loss he could certainly not afford!

.oOo.

After a hearty breakfast, hosted by the perpetual complaints from the irascible neighbor and landlady, the children armed themselves with a few bags and baskets, and slipped away in open fields.

At the end of the morning, they had left, at father Sorrelgrind’s door, three large bags of gleaned cherries, in return for which, each child carried a fruit basket. It is true that, for the account, Padigar had to shake off some cherry trees, but several green fruits just do not bother to make jams, do they?

.oOo.

Their conscience was perfectly serene despite this transaction unwittingly imposed to old Sorrelgrind. So the children were returning to the farm, crowned with the satisfaction of accomplishment. Pimpernel hopped on the sentry, humming jingles, when she stopped dead. She stepped back and threw her brother a look of terror.

White as a sheet despite her adorable freckles, the little anxious face seemed unable to inspire. Alarmed Padigar shook her somehow. Pimpernel took breath, but to dump her overflow of screaming and crying.

Between sobs and gasps, the young Hobbit pointed a bird corpse, between two mounds near the road.

Padigar approached. A gray wagtail laid with her wing extended. He was about to free his sister from this distressing spectacle, when he realized that the bird was alive. A little plaintive cry startled Pimpernel, whose gasps of terror immediately turned into sympathy whining:

- “Waaa! Poor bird! Why does she not fly anymore?

- I think she has a broken wing.

- Waaaaa! This must hurt... Waaaaa! I don’t want thaaaaat…”

Padigar, abashed, did not understand why the girl, who cheerfully squished ants to the rhythm of her nursery rhymes a moment ago, showed so fond of a wounded sparrow.

- "Look, be reasonable! It happens, you know... Let me explain. You like Whirdy, old Neatmole’s cat?

- Yes, she is very soft...

- She has to eat, too. She catches mice and bir...

- Waaa! I do not want Whirdy to eat poor little sick bird! Waaaa..."

Padigar vainly reasoned, comforted, cuddled, used authority, nothing helped - he had to bring the wounded bird home.

.oOo.

The children settled the wagtail in a basket and hid it all at the bottom of the cellar.

Pimpernel was responsible for feeding it - children must assume their choices, had learnedly and firmly told her older brother! Despite her distaste for viscous and creeping things, Pimpernel courageously brought numbers of earthworms and cockroaches, the sparrow feasted on.

After a few days, Padigar felt sorry for his little sister. He procured - King knows how ! - A beautiful crate, painted with deep smooth red, in which he bred cockroaches, feeding them with the old Neatmole’s leftovers.

.oOo.

A few days later, Pimpernel and Padigar were weeding the beans square, when they saw a strange man climb the path and stop nearby. The children stared at the stooped old man, who was leaning on his staff, throwing them inquisitive looks. But a tender smile and fine wrinkles on the edge of his eyes, belied his angry eyebrows under the blue wide-brimmed hat.

- "Well, should you not welcome an honest old man who lost his way?"

Moved by a bad feeling, Padigar stood awkwardly while Pimpernel hid behind him, keeping an eye on the curious character.

- "Have a good day, Sir… Sir... how, respectfully?

- Do you not know my name?"

Pimpernel took out her ingenuous face behind the skirts of her brother:

- "Sir... Gandalf? The maj..juggler? "

The wizard suppressed a slight smirk - his reputation mattered to him more than he admitted. And about that, he disliked not being a majuggler...

- "Absolutely! And in your opinion, what brings a majuggler at the farm of Wickerfine family, close to the workshop of cooper Galabroc?"

Padigar, his face on fire, had suddenly frozen. Surprised Pimpernel looked at her brother losing composure and twisting his hands guiltily.

- "Keep out of majuggler business because they are subtle and quick to anger!", growled the old man.

- "I did not know that this beautiful crate was yours! I give it back to you right away!

- In any case you knew that it was not for you, while grabbing it in Galabroc’s storeroom! It was intended for my cousin, a... juggler too. What would father Wickerfine say, if he learned his son steals from his neighbors? "

Very soon the red magic box, marked with the rune G, was returned to its owner, while a shameful scarlet marked the little hobbit’s brow.

- "I shall check that Padigar and Pimpernel Wickerfine behave with dignity and help their mom till their dad’s return, whom I met in Bree three days ago! And if I am not satisfied, I shall send you my terrible cousin Radagast who pays me a visit these days!

- But that's not fair! We help Mummy all the time! And the crate was for Griselda my sick bird!", Threw the little one, from the top of her foot-and-a-half.

Nothing beats a sincere and vigorous childish indignation to question a wizard, even a magi-juggler, by shaking somehow his priorities. He did not show it, but the old man promised himself to keep an eye on this Griselda.

.oOo.

A few days later, the situation in the cellar was turning to a disaster. In the absence of the beautiful waterproof crate, cockroaches had escaped and were walking in the shelves of the pantry, multiplying and attacking any poorly protected food.

The children were desperately fighting against the invasion, feeding the convalescent wagtail on their preys. Already Damsel Neatmole had complained about her untidy mansion. As for their mother, she was so tired, that she had not noticed anything yet, but the farm and the manor would shortly be completely contaminated.

.oOo.

The wizard opened the cellar’s door. A huge cockroach sped between his feet. Embarrassed, Gandalf turned to his cousin:

- It's here... I fear they have taken possession of the place. If you could fix this...

His pupil flaming, the brown wizard sternly sized up the infestation.

- "Well, we shall drive them out," he said in a tone so hard that even his accomplice shuddered.

Gandalf, somewhat concern by this fierce determination, saw him move away apace, rummaging through his pockets in search of some secret elixir of his.

Puzzled, he sat on the stump, father Wickerfine had carved as an armchair, and filled his pipe. Pimpernel joined him and slipped her tiny hand in her favorite majuggler’s callosum beater. Her flickering pout begged the gray pilgrim with a pleading look. The wizard affected a confident and serene look, but he wondered what alarming last resort measure, his honorable relative could concoct against the cockroaches invasion. As for Padigar, he stood sternly, with a closed face.

A few minutes later, cousin Radagast returned, with a perky and combative look. He seemed deep in conversation with a ruffled ball of quills, from which emerged a small pointed nose, that retracted when the children approached.

- "May I present Picky to you? It is a brave and young hedgehog, who will not refuse to help you in your misfortune, since he wins a home in the bargain. He loves cockroaches, earthworms and other small annoyances of hobbit homes."

.oOo.

The children, first amazed by cousin Radagast’s ingenuity, quickly adopted the little hedgehog, which proved clean, discreet and sociable, as far as he quickly won the good graces of Whirdy. He led a merciless war at every creeping creature and quickly got the manor and farm rid of their adverse commensals. He became their silent and faithful guardian, working at night to rest all day long.

When father Wickerfine returned, well satisfied with his long run, he found a peaceful home and life resumed its reckless course.

The wagtail herself, cheered up by one of Radagast’s liquor, had regained the skies. She reappeared from time to time, and her returns never failed to announce a happy event or the visit of some majuggler.

.oOo.

A few years later, when old Damsel Neatmole departed this world, she left a vast legacy. To the astonishment of the neighborhood, her farm was bequeathed to her tenants! Furthermore she attributed to Pimpernel, in anticipation of her wedding, a magnificent golden pin. This pin, that came from the distant South, was a cicada insect, unknown in the Shire. Most considered it a cockroach, but the jewel would remind Pimpernel all her life long, the dangerous and delicious time of childhood.

.oOo.
NOTES
The winter of the wolves - The wandering hunt by Chiara Cadrich
The winter of the wolves 1 – The wandering hunt.

.oOo.

At the sign of the Drunken Goose, the noggin is played, history is rewritten, memory is wandered in, paradox is cultivated, in short, stories are told.

It has become a tradition, everyone brings in his talent, the joker, the inventive, the meticulous, the bombastic, the liar...

Master Gigolet narrates the history of the kingdoms of yore and heroic times. Villagers assault with saucy anecdotes. Rhast, the gravedigger and road worker, has made a specialty of shivering winter evenings. Bonim the dwarf peddler, turns pitches and relates exotic tales in the fashion of Eriador.

As for Finran the tavern master, he has collected many travel stories - particularly his own - but his special ability is to have his customers talk, instill confidence, flatter creative verve or revive lazy memories.

Of course passing travelers are invited to share news from distant lands and exchange tales or songs.
But some stories are not talked about.

Because relating misfortune does not exempt from it. It draws it nearer.

Thus some stories are untold, like this one.

.oOo.

When Finran arrived at Thalion, it took a long time for him to be accepted. It took time to loosen tongues...
Finally some brandy of pear helped the miller to consent and tell him...

- "Once upon a time, north of here, reigned the Hir [1] of Tyrn Gorthad. A nobleman, a descendant of the first Numeroreans who had come to explore and enlighten our shores. It is even said he was a nephew of Odrazar the Great. He had managed to keep his County safe from the hordes of Angmar, and ensured the safety of the barrows.

He was animated by a passion for hunting. Some prediction was even said, at its birth, he would become the author of deeds, that a dozen generations were to remember.

Luck seemed to smile to him this year. He had won a landslide victory over the hillmen of Rhudaur, had rallied the Feotar townships and their militia, had assured an honorable harvest, and his wife was to give birth before spring.

After heavy snowfalls, fat and meat ran out at the castle and in town. The Hir therefore sent for his chief ranger, who summoned the villagers for a great hunt. So the lord would feed his household, as well as widows and orphans of the village.

Once again his luck and skill prevailed: a herd of deer was decimated.

The hunters were happily returning to the village, when the castle bell rang an alarm, signaling an extraordinary event. The Hir therefore left his beaters, leaving the game to them, and hastened towards his moat with his pack and pikemen.

Coming out of the thicket, they came across unusual traces, as if the mother of all wolves and her pack, had came from the North to the downs of Tyrn Gorthad.

The tocsin called him again to the castle. No doubt his wife was taken by the first pains of childbirth... Or maybe the bell announced another exceptional event... such as a monstrous pack, a distinguished hunter like him should eradicate, to ensure the safety of his land and people?

Faith in his lucky star and his heroic passion for hunting prevailed. Mustering his exhausted people, he embarked along the enigmatic trail.

As the day declined, the small band dislodged a pack of large gray wolves, that defended their offspring to the last. Yet the men’s courage and tenacity eradicated the monsters. Contemplating the carnage of his arms, his ripped dogs and his exhausted pikemen, the lord heard again the bell call sound.

Then erupted from the thickets, the hugest wolf that ever trod his lands. The monstrous beast, streaked with black and white, disemboweled dogs with a few rants, slew the master ranger and fled under the foliage.

Carried by such ire and intoxicated by the hunt fever, the Hir mounted his horse and began pursuit, alone.
Through potholes and thickets, he long tracked down the monstrous animal, that deployed a thousand tricks to escape. Finally, at nightfall, the Hir managed to corner the beast at the bottom of a former quarry. He dismounted from his panting steed and grabbed his spears, approaching his huge panting prey.

But who was the hunter, who was the prey? The beast was facing him, ruffling his powerful loin and buttressed on his strong legs. Showing neither fatigue nor fear, it rolled red eyes burning with challenge.

Then again a call arose from the castle, distant, its tone veiled by these uncertain leagues that separate the world of women and home, from wilderness and wonders. The lord, feeling his destiny was about to be fulfilled, dismissed the call again.

Suddenly a doe appeared, tall and beautiful, suffused with a silver glow like a full moon. She came forward while still echoed the call of the wife, begging the Hir to assist in the event of birth. Or was it the white doe belling?

When the Hir came to his mind, the beast had disappeared. Frustrated for missing his great victory, his huntsman's anger turned towards the wonderful animal. He furiously charged the white doe!

Alas! The Fairy of the forest, for she was the doe, forgave neither his hunting fury nor his shortcomings towards his wife. She disappeared in a flash, and overwhelmed the Hir with a curse.

It is said that since that disastrous winter, a wandering pack roams from cottage to cottage, followed by a mounted ghost. When a newborn cries there, the sole rider lingers a while, in hope of being relieved from his curse, if only the young father would dare, some birth evening, open his home’s door, to the wild rumors that beset men in the depths of winter."

.oOo.

Finran found the tale edifying and well-turned, but when he objected with a smile, that there was little reason to fear the cold season, the keen eye of the livid miller alerted his interlocutor:

- "We should not laugh at tales. There is some truth in each of them. Since this time, every seven years, we have a very... stressful winter... when terrible things happen...”

Finran did not contradict the miller, but his incredulous look brought his guest to explain:

-“The elders will tell you that the worst season ever experienced was the Long Winter in fifty-eight [2] ... - four abominable months...

That winter, something came lurking forward with the cold. A demon from the North extended its arms to strangle us with its icy fist... Wolves came in large numbers. Real monsters, vicious and cunning. At first they were heard, roaming around remote farms. The first time the wandering pack was seen, that was full moon, with on their heels a misty shade of a mounted huntsman...
You know, the herds are brought back from the plateau in winter. Stocks are herded into pens, beyond the Tharbad door, with their reinforced shelters. Well every night, they tried to force a fold to make a carnage. Often the nasty animals managed to enter... This ruined and famished many families...

Farmers and shepherds who came out to defend their flock were attacked - some were devoured. A large and well equipped party was needed to force them to flee.

By day, men tried to flush out the wolves that hid in the countryside. They tried to find their den to trap or kill them, but they could find nothing...

Every night, however, they returned and prevailed. Soon the surrounding farms were emptied - farmers who could no longer defend themselves, brought their families to the city, along with their food reserves, cows and barnyard.
But full moon nights were the most terrible. The mad beasts attacked the windows, digging galleries. Some fragile huts of the poorest, in the outer town, were attacked. Several families were decimated before help could reach them. All the old, women and children of the suburbs were finally repatriated within the walls of the city. Even the militia was struggling to defend - the carnivorous horde attacked anything living. In the end, the city was under siege.

And then the Long Winter retired and the wolves disappeared. When the earth thawed, Thalion counted its dead and finally was able to bury them. But the suffering was not over.

The wandering hunt was heard again, several times, leaving behind a morbid streak, a terrible disease, which transmitted from herds to people. The sick became livid and weakened, for the neck and joints folds were covered with dark pustules. Languor took the sick and those who cared for them. To stem the tide, it was necessary to burn houses and shelters, and clean the place... and sacrifice three quarters of flocks. During the year that followed, death mowed the lives of the weakest –the hurt, young or old - before Thalion could get back up..."

.oOo.

Since this awful winter, our town shuts away from the first snow. I know this till I was a kid. My mother tried to hide her fears, but I captured the frightened eyes of my elders when the wood echoed with ghostly cries of wolves and wandering hunters.

Then for several years, it calms down… Then suddenly evil resurfaces, a woman hears a race at dusk, and disturbing things happen, and people lose their minds...

Then Thalion organized itself: these winters, the fence is repaired and raised, sheep pens are barricaded, fires are kept lit at every door of the wall, guarded by two armed men, when stout at heart one can be found. Watchmen await at the windows of the most exposed farmhouses.
Still, fear and evil persist. In winter, when a misfortune happens at the wolf howl, we well know the cause...

These nasty wolves are heard, then seen, prowl around the city, they become cunning, snarling and... malicious. They force the barn of a farm, in a remote hamlet. They venture into the streets of the suburb, before the fence. The people become very cautious, but it is not enough... Last time two children disappeared. The driven big game that followed yielded nothing, but we lost a hunter, we found on the moor completely devoured after thaw!

The last time, two children disappeared. The great beating that followed yielded nothing, but we lost a hunter, we found on the moor, next spring, completely devoured! The elders are right: the wandering pack comes back as surely as the raven on the remains of the goat!

.oOo.

Finran remembers that evening very well, slowly spent to circumvent the sweating miller.

He had to take him back to his home, because since big guy did not walk very straight. On the threshold of his mill, they heard a scream in the distance, short as a warning. The miller had rushed inside, inviting Finran to stay for the night. The innkeeper had declined because he still had to inspect the wort in the brewery.

However, walking back to the Drunken Goose in humid gusts, Finran was happy he had taken his lantern and his rapier.

Since joining the village several years ago, the landlord has lived some difficult winters, but he had never before to face the wandering hunt... Yet occasionally some nights, the fleeing look of a storyteller at the inn, betrays his reluctance to tell about "the winter of the wolf", for fear to call the pack and its attendant horrors.

.oOo.

To be continued…

.oOo.

NOTES
[1] Hir, hiri : prince, baron
[2] That is the Long Winter of TA 2758-2759 (Shire Reckoning 1158-59), sadly famous, that famished Eriador (Year of Dearth).
The winter of the wolves - The beat of Thalion by Chiara Cadrich
The winter of the wolves 2 – The beat of Thalion.

At dawn this morning, which promises to be fine, the Inn-keeper musters Thalion’s hunters, and organises a great beat. For several days, alarming news had been affecting his friends and neighbors’ morale – a sheepfold broken into, decimated farmyards, strange hunting rumors in the deep woods, flocks dispersed to flight…

A former mercenary and captain of Thalion’s militia, Finran has decided to attack evil at the root and lead his comrades to force the adversity. Nothing like a victorious tracking to banish the ghost of the “winter of the wolf”!

The beaters are posted at the edge of the furthest farm. As for the shooters, they are lain in ambush under the branches of a deep hedge over a long bank, far away north on the greenway. Between the two teams lies a wood, the beaters should empty of its predators and if possible of its game. Furthermore, a group equipped for big game tracking rests listening, waiting for the hunt master’s signals.

.oOo.

A pale winter sun floods the immaculate valleys with brilliant light. In the dry pungent morning air, the dogs yelp joyously, hauling their master’s sled on the glittering snow. The pack is panting at the swift rythm of the dominant bitch, hitched ahead.

Finran, the blond giant, has taken from his birth land, the northern marches of river Anduin, a trio of wolf-dogs, which ancestors, it was said in his family, had fought Urd’s sled-hords. The miller’s black mastiff, solid and stocky, had finally accepted the harness despite his bad temper. Last but not least, a small bastard bitch, swift and clever, a fine scent tracker with its snout in the wind, is running with the other dogs.

Master Finran has prepared everything. He sends the signal for the hunt’s opening, launching an uproar on the line of the beaters, who step forward. The men’s conquering and fierce cries invade the secret spaces of the woods. Their unexpected yapping, muffled by the snow-laden bushes’ heavy silence, embolden the minds without calming their fears.

Riding his quick sled, Finran inspects the bank, from where the dislodged game is to be shot at. Exciting his dogs’ fervor, he runs and pushes the harnessed team, enjoying the sunny breeze in this morning of men.

.oOo.

Placed atop a hill at the south-east of the wood, Finran observes the branches, heavily loaded with frost and hanging ice. As a rule of his thumb, the barely audible noise from the nearest beaters, place them half a league away from him. Further away, the vast arc of their ranks should close by the north-west, beating the game towards the greenway that runs northward.

In the course of hours, tawny and great-horn owls are fleeing the din with indignant cries. As the sun projects the first shadows of the indented crests on the South Downs, crows are gathering on the solitary trees’ branches, waiting to scramble for the pickings.

Some hares in winter-livery rush from the woods. Finran must order the dogs to stay quiet – this small fry is not for today. Soon his young bitch, his prefered tracker, means to pursue them. The hunt master rebukes her severely – young dogs with fine snout must not get the habit to work on sight.

Then a change comes in the limpid air – furious barks sound far away, the muffled rumour of a mad rush inflates in the woody hills. The former mercenary makes peace inside, feeling the engagement coming. His breath appease and amplify, rejecting silver blasts in the icy air, while his blood beats irrigate his tempers and limbs with the vitality of his youth.

Suddenly the first big game appears out of the wood, leading his horde to cross the large space to the greenway. The frightened troop rushes to the east, straight to the trap.

Yet, two furlongs away from the bank, the large male suddenly stops, proudly raising his antlers, as a challenge to the poorly ambushed archers. The troop of the female and young anxiously regroup behind him, meanwhile several overweening brockets rush headlessly before the hunters. Arrows fly, breaking down their recklessness.

Taking advantage of this timely diversion, the stag rushes into a breach of the hedge, and tumbles two lancers to open a way out for his herd. The huntmaster observes his overwhelmed henchmen reforming their ranks and tending for their wounded, while the herd is escaping to the snowy downs.

Several panicked stinking beasts [1], the hounds had driven out of their winter holes, are fleeing the invasion as well. The hunters have recommended not to attack these forest cleaners, but the peasants pitilessly shoot at these pests that visit and empty their farmyards.
Yet the huntmaster keeps a cool head and does not interfere. – the beat has still gathered enough meat for a month scarcity. Thus he lets the men release steam as exutory blows against their winter fears. He reserves himself since the icy wind murmurs the true test is still to come.

.oOo.

The horns have called for retreat. The men, satisfied with their victorious beat, gather their trophies and report to the huntmaster – a litter of wolf cubs was driven out in shame to the north. Several wounded men had been rescued and tended – most clumsily injured themselves during the hunt. And the last group of beaters, the northernmost, has surrounded some beast in a swale, at the bottom of a ravine, and had been holding it at bay for an hour. Spears and bows are being prepared, the dogs are held back, since the men think it is a big bear.

The huntmaster raises a worried brow and hurrily drives his hound pack toward the north. He knows the sad reputation of this ravine. Rhast his henchman calls it the "Dale of ever jail". This is where, several years ago, the gutted remains of some hunters, lost in the midst of a "winter of wolves" were found at spring...

.oOo.

In this late afternoon, a flight of ravens circles hovering in a dark sky above the Dale of ever jail. As Finran approaches the stone stele erected in memory of the victims of old, the dogs suddenly stop, disoriented and hair bristling. Floating out of the ravine in thin ashy curls, a foul smell rises the bile in his throat, recalling the filthy blandness of battlefields and the putrefaction of graves.

The huntmaster arrives too late. Wilderness has reclaimed its rights. Finran crosses the survivors of a massacre, shaggy, pale and dazed, barely able to support the wounded, rolling terrified eyes without answering his questions. Decimated dogs have fled through the copses - half of them will not be found alive. The few experienced hunters who have fought in the fray, tell strange and discordant reports, speaking of a wild charge, vicious black beasts [2], others evoking a giant deer. Rhâst himself, nicked at his groin and his head spinning, can barely describe what he saw - a beast, he says, brutally launched its pack on the novices, gutting and trampling the poor devils in the muddy wallows.

The confusing traces reveal to perplexed Finran, the presence of several animals that do not normally coexist.

But the huntsman has never encountered such a mischief, a trick so deadly to men. He is shaken, especially since the thickets reveal carnivore droppings and traces that only Cubs could let around their lair...

.oOo.

Finran reads terror and doubt in the attitudes and actions of his men. Even his lieutenants avoid his looks, overcome by the horror of the dale. The winter of the wolf seems to have imposed its immemorial law...

He has made his decision. Soberly, with the assurance of a mercenary that no retreat could defeat, he gathers dried meat reserves, piles furs and oilcloth on his sled, and attaches some hunting spears and javelins.

Finran orders to take the wounded and the dead before the night closes on the tomb of the cursed valley. His lieutenants agree while looking down - this is a task at hand for them.

Then the blond giant goes a-hunting, alone with his dogs.
The master of winter sent him a challenge, he will face at whatever cost.

.oOo.

To be continued…

.oOo.

NOTES
[1] In hunting, the name "stinking beast" refers to almost all mustelids: weasels, martens, badgers, stoats, otters, ferrets, polecats.
[2] In hunting, the « black beast » means the boar. Naturally it is rather an adult boar, rather than the young, which livery is striped.
The winter of the wolves - The long chase by Chiara Cadrich
The winter of wolves Part 3 – The long chase.

.oOo.

The sleigh slides on a heavy, gray snow in the waning day. The hunter, his eyes fixed on his trail, heaves to the rhythm of his skate steps, easing the effort of the harnessed dogs. The mingled raspy breaths of mastiffs and master, flow as thin white scrolls, signs of an obstinate and ardent life, the dry air instantly dissolves in cold mineral silence. The swift and repetitive rhythm carries the thoughts of the huntsman in a fleeting half-consciousness.

Finran likes to let go in the thrill of the race, letting the hunter’s will blend into the pack’s instinct. The big game recalls his soul as a young man, lord among the warriors of his clan. In the high valleys of Anduin, the Eothraim then measured the man’s value, with the number of his war victories as well as the prowess of his pack.

At that time, his father commanded a free nation, who fought the orcs Gundabad, living on raising goats and hunting.

The distant memory of his first battles returns floats in Finran’s fluid consciousness - the incredible influx of vitality irrigating all his being with exhilaration and hope, when victory sublimates combat rage and terror in the clash of arms. He sees himself back as a boy, proudly reaching the target for the first time in a pine glade, in a morning of eternity on the northern roof of the world. Therefore his silver arrow meets its mark every time, provided he saves it for the right time.

The immanent danger also floats, the slow defeat of his kin, driven from village to village, the grieving of his relatives and repressed tears in the eyes of the warrior widows. Danger did not defeat them; the end came when hope waned.

That is why Finran has shaken the fearful winter torpor of his friends in Thalion, his new family, his new people. But he seems he has failed again. His prestige as a captain has led them to brave their fear, to face the winter of the wolf, but the beast has crushed their pitiful rebellion and cast terror into their hearts. The beast... or whatever he is now tracking, since he dares not guess which creature has left traces of such gigantic hooves...

The snow begins to fall as darkness grows, sowing its veil of doubt on their track, and numbness in their hearts. The dogs certainly feel the drop of their master’s will. The pack slows down, pulling Finran from his dark thoughts.

The night coming neigh, he cannot find a place to make a fire. He sets up the two tents in a hurry and shelters his pack, that curls up after some bickering of precedence.

.oOo.

Dawn calls for effort without bringing hope. Low anthracite clouds spread their smoothly coated malice on the downs, freezing the hills in icy stupor.

The hunter probes the horizon and sniffs the flakes still falling around: the day before, he had launched his dogs toward the west, stalking his prey three leagues along, before being forced off. Now, although his innate sense of direction whispers where the track was heading to yesterday, the hunter may not cast his dogs on the trail, hidden under a considerable snow depth.

The huntsman, without conviction, then packs up his equipment. He sets up the hitch, but saves the bitch, he leads before him on her leash, just in case, to the west.

After a mile, the flakes are scarce and Finran sees again some bushes, their bare branches dart from under a small layer of snow. By some miracle, the storm seems to have been fierce just on the eminence where he spent the night...

Still persisting, the hunter has the dog work in a wide valley, in order to regain the lost track. The brave animal finds several, much to the confusion of her master, who must put her back on the hunt after recognizing the footprint of a lone wolf.

After two hours of research with conflicting and confusing results, the huntsman admits defeat. With rage in his heart, he harnesses the bitch with the packs, and launches his sleigh to the south and Thalion.

.oOo.

As the hunter climbs a dreary slope in order to angle at the top, suddenly dogs swerve and station themselves at a standstill, except for the mastiff which already wants to rush.

A plain opens to the west, bathed by a surreal glow under the dark cloudy canopy. There a large deer raises its majestic antlers. The huntsman has difficulty in assessing its age, the powerful black silhouette shivering like a mirage on the pristine slope. The dark forest giant seems to defy the bewildered hunter.
Here is the bloodthirsty beast with gigantic hooves! Victory still lies within reach!

Finran launches the hitch with a dry order.

The team quickly approaches his game, which proudly gazes at them, motionless under the cloudy sky rolling its dark threats. The vast breadth of the beast slowly reveals to the subdued hunter, amazed by the small scale of the animal’s antlers. Finran avidly observes the powerful anatomy of his opponent. The antlers seem built to cut and kill, their narrowness must give the animal a high mobility in the undergrowth. Its strong and dark legs nervously scratch the snow like an aurochs of Rhûn, ready for charging. The challenging posture surprises the hunter, who, taken in doubt, slows his pace and looks around. When he unhitches his pack and launches it at full speed, less than a furlong away from the beast, it takes flight with a leap while the dogs snarlingly yap, sensing the kill.

But the enthusiasm of the hunter is short. The vigorous beast outruns the unleashed pack with supernatural ease, forcing Finran to collect his dogs and re-harness to pursue it.

The hunt will be long, but time works in favor of the hunter, who knows that the number of pursuers ordinary proves a decisive advantage.

Finran leads his pack along the fresh tracks, saving the force of his dogs and anticipating some turns of the beast, sometimes pushing westward, sometimes northward.
In the maze of the downs, the hunters pursue strange rumors, their game’s track alongside other traces, sometimes heavy droppings the huntsman cannot identify.
At the bare summits spiked with chalky rocks, the manners of the beast confuse the hunting, pushing it to speed up, feigning the slips of tired games. Twice in the bottom of valleys filled with snow, the beast comes back on itself, its track repeating strangely at the crossroads of ancient and garbled ways .

The winter sun makes a brief appearance at its zenith, as the trackers reach a gentle wooded slope descending before them. At the bottom of the valley, a wood protects a rapid river which bed, deeply trenched, runs westward to meet the Brandywine. Again the dogs give voice. When Finran unties them, all burst forward.

But the beast may not be so easily cornered. One jump is enough for him to cross the river. It passes like a shadow of fear, hung with pale golden rays that pierce above the icy riverbed.

Finran admires the aerial grace of the dark colossus, that lingers on the opposite bank to brave him a few moments, before resuming its light running to the north.

Recovered from his shock, the huntsman gathers his frantic dogs, and without risking to cross it, slides along the river, cursing his opponent.

At nightfall, finally, the hunter finds an upstream passage and beat the thickets on the presumed path of his game, north of its crossing.

The track stretches before him, clear and yet troubled by strange counter-ways. But Finran must resolve to set up camp. He distributes their food to the dogs, ensuring that the pack leader receives her due first.

All night long, during the light sleep of the huntsman, many thoughts confront in his mind - his passion for hunting, his vital need to conquer and his fearful wonder at the beast, this brute force from the forests, which has decimated its assailants and so far beaten his pursuit.

.oOo.

The snow has stopped falling from the misty skies when the hunt resumes at dawn, along a thin track. Soon Finran must have his bitch work ahead of the pack. From desolate plateaus to thickets crowded with snowdrifts, the team slowly travels westward and northward.

As the bitch appears to have diverted to other routes, again the hunter gains height and again sees the great deer, his threatening hieratic figure defying him at the edge of a bare wood. Does the beast begins to feel tired, to linger this way after two days of pursuit?

Finran launches his team at the bottom of a ravine, to approach the game without being seen. When ordered to leave it, the crew gives a furious jerk. But the mastiff collapses with a shrill yelp, paralyzing the sled.

The hunter puts his pack back in order and examines the enormous dog that whines softly, lying on his side in the snow. The mastiff is suffering from a lengthening of the posterior, and is unable to run.

Finran swears under his breath. In the remote valleys of the Gray Mountains, poor dogs, injured at full speed, were sacrificed, especially during a ritual hunt. But the huntsman no longer feels the heart to abandon a companion which faithfully served him, and by the way does not belong to him. He has already caused enough deaths during this hunt.

Finran makes an inventory of his equipment: besides salt meat, biscuits, salt and water, they transport tents, blankets, utensils and some hunting weapons - spears, arrows and daggers. Food being scarce, he cannot feed his team if hunting remains vain.

The huntsman heals the mastiff and, with rage in his heart, leaves with the bitch. Long they hunt the hare and Finran must correct his bloodhound, who gets distracted by seeing squirrels dig their hiding places. In hare coursing, a-views are pernicious for young dogs, because they are getting used to searching with their eyes rather than their nose. Hours later, the hunter shot a couple of white hares he distributes to his pack.

.oOo.

But Finran has also established a comprehensive plan of big game ways around. And he feels more troubled and worried than ever. Ways of wolves and other animals co-exist, that should not even cross. And again he saw some traces of the beast’s monstrous hooves.

So far his pride, his town’s honor and his hunter’s instinct pushed him forward. Now he feels, he knows that a monster, a powerful animal from the legendary depths of the old forest, cast a curse against men, and against him in particular.

Deep inside, the seasoned hunter whispers to give up and come back in great numbers to trap the beast. But the warrior he still is, knows that dispelling the shadow of fear must be accomplished promptly. Finran resolves to pursue the beast and slay it if he can.

He loads the ailing mastiff on his sleigh, and resumes his hunt, determined to flush out the beast.

.oOo.

Therefore Finran follows dark tracks, interspersed with cunning traps, constantly get him close to the disturbing shadow of the old forest. The team soon feels the influence of its spells.

A path steeply leads them to the midst of a frozen pool, which gives way under their weight. Finran saves his pack but he loses some of his equipment.

When he attempts to make his way, the latter seems to have disappeared ...

Further away, the dogs at bay are driven into a deep lair, they exit defeated but covered with parasites and painful thorns. The hunter must stop again, for hours of care and a new cold night.

The next day, the tracks still prove as confusing, but all day monstrous hooves’ prints spur Finran.

As the twilight thickens ghostly shadows, snow starts to fall again. But the poor trees surrounding the camp are not covered. All night long, their black branches whisper in the wind, the malicious chant of trees disturbed in their winter slumber.

.oOo.

Finran, despite his exhaustion, at first cannot get to sleep, under his makeshift shelter. Finally, an hour before dawn, he sinks into a strange dream.

His shelter has turned into a cabin.

His four-legged friends are gone, perhaps relegated to the threshold.

But Finran cannot sleep because the bed is occupied by a woman.

She bears the determined traits of Aleth, the baker of Thalion, plump and talkative widow, who shares many nights with the landlord.

Then Finran discovers why he cannot join Aleth: she is right in childbirth!

Finran helps his best, vaguely touched by this hypothetical sudden fatherhood.

But through the small wooden windows, hunting scenes can be seen, and hounds and horns are heard around the cabin.
Suddenly a powerful fist knocks on the door of the hovel.

The opening door reveals the face of Finran’s father, imploring the aid of the young father to find rest.
Should he abandon the child for the curse of the wandering hunt to finally stop?

Finran wakes with a start.

Usually he does not dream - at least, he does not remember his dreams. Never had he felt the evocative power of what he has just seen. Thus these disjointed thoughts are binding upon him like a truth. But he still has to decode them...

Should he sacrifice himself to save Thalion? His father had sacrificed for their people to escape to Eriador. Finran doesn’t possess anything from them, except the silver arrow, the arrow with which he learned to shoot. Would his fate be to follow his example?

Or does the dream require him to get back to Thalion, like the Hir of the tale?

Stubborn as ever, Finran resolves to continue hunting ...

.oOo.

To be followed...

.oOo.

NOTES
[1] Track of a pursued animal, followed thanks to dogs’ olfaction.
The winter of the wolves - The black beast. by Chiara Cadrich
The winter of wolves Part Part 4 – The black beast.

.oOo.

Finran represses his enigmatic dreams and follows his huntsman instinct, sometimes his dogs exciting to hurry, sometimes stopping them to consider strides [1] on the track. Now his team is winding through thick, squat and gnarled trees, huddling like naked old men shivering in the cold of winter. Here some vigorous conifers head up through dry snow drifts, there dozens of slender hazel arms, bent over mossy stumps, sadly whistle in the wind.

The muffled silence of the vegetal sleep falls, while Finran doubtfully examines the traces [2] left by his game on the trees. The team keeps on the track, ever onward towards the heart of the old forest. The snow now seems scarcer, and sometimes the sled must turn around long strips of bare earth and wet leaves. The speed [3] of the beast seems not to slow, neither in open spaces, nor in the deepest thickets.

.oOo.

Yet after a few hours, at the bottom of a short ravine, half full of blue ice, the traces of the beast seemed to hesitate, then change direction, and go back on its track repeatedly. Seasoned and attentive, the huntsman is not fooled by such distressed game tricks. The hunter knows that these tricks must have greatly delayed his game. But Finran wonders why the beast tries them now, whereas she taunted him repeatedly.

The hunter pushes the dogs until nightfall, since he is certain, by the look of the beast’s strides, it is slowing down and tacking more. Finran thinks the monster, driven to its lair as he has never been, is reluctant to reveal it as his ultimate lodging.

Then the chiaroscuro of a gap in the bushes, reveals to him a herd of deers, accompanied by their last spring’s fawns, a furlong away on his left. The huntsman orders silence to his dogs and approaches, notching his silver arrow. Finran aims at the strongest female, when the gigantic beast suddenly burst before him, giving warning to the deers, that flee into the woods.

Now the beast intervenes to protect his herd... Finran has finally discovered the weak point of his opponent.

.oOo.

In a few strides, Finran joins a hollow stump full of wet leaves. He takes a strong support on it and carefully aims at the beast, breathing deeply and smoothly.

To his surprise, the animal does not run away.

Its hoarse breathing exhales long hot steam sprays, that vanish on the glittering snow before him. The animal carefully scrutinizes the shooter, stopped as if to leap forward, while the deer’s cavalcade is fading behind him.

Then, with its head lifted up, its nostrils quivering, the great dark stag keeps the attention of the hunter.

Some sixty cubits [4] away, the eighteen antlers seems as slender as a steed of old, as powerful as a Rhûn’s aurochs and as flexible as a mouflon from the Grey Mountains. Its horns, branched in deadly daggers, strangely confines to a cubit on either side of the fierce head. The sparkling drips [5] and golden eyes of the beast throw challenging lightning, to which however Finran does not still respond, fascinated by the noble and courageous bearing of his opponent.

The beast lowers its antlers, his hoof scraping the snow.
Finran draws his arrow further.

For a brief moment, in the flash of an eye, are superimposed on the present, these blessed moments of learning, under the niggling rule of the grandfather.

Then the teacher, satisfied with his student perseverance and address, gives him the silver arrow, precious among all, forged by the dwarves, taken by his ancestors in the treasure of Scatha the dragonness. It never broke, he always found it. In hunting, it goes straight to the aim, provided he performs a perfect approach. The silver arrow kills then quickly, without unnecessary suffering, the game that the hunter respects.

However a mishap troubles his mind, a detail his captivated intellect slowly points at: at the end of the powerful legs, the beast’s hooves appear thin and flexible, unlike the gigantic traces the pack has followed so far.

The beast slowly turns still staring Finran with its fiery gaze. The hunter hesitates. What kind of victory would that be, on a willing opponent, that showed the courage of the father of its herd? He relaxes and disarms his silver arrow.

But then come back to his mind, his decimated men, his friends down, and the terror of his kin.

Too late.

The big black deer has lunged at small stride in the brambles, when the hunter has come to his senses, under the astonished gaze of his dogs.

.oOo.

Finran insults himself and pushes his bitch back to work.
After an hour, it sniffs so well in the gray night, that she finds the beast’s trail, that a few strides confirm by the light of the full moon.

But are these the strides of his game?

Soon the bitch sniffs a scent, quite close. Within moments she finds many steps, but of wild boar! Finran has only time to stop the team and recall his bloodhound, and suddenly a herd of black beasts burst in his direction from the bushes.

The evil beast has diverted the hunter on some dangerous game!

The group of boars sweeps on the team. Finran grabs a pike and defends his dogs, screaming imprecations to scare the intruder. Within seconds, the herd is gone, the sled upside-down with the bandaged mastiff. A big male has disjointed the dominant dog, which bowels has spread on the snow.

The poor beast lies on his side, moaning piteously. Guilt embraces the heart of the hunter as he gazes helplessly the agony of his pack leader. To tears, Finran remembers the moments of complicity, serenity and success with this good companion, he has weaned himself.

Then, simply, with rage at heart but unabated, he assist her to leave this world without more pain.

After several minutes of stupor, Finran digs the snow and ground as he may, and buries the beloved remains. After a brief thought to Bema, he stands up, a death flash in his eyes, and goes back a-hunting, cursing the beast to the lethal silver of his precious arrow.

.oOo.

Finran unhitches all dogs and even disbands the mastiff, which can at least defend itselves and escape if necessary. But the determination of their vengeful master inspire his dogs, that foresee the kill.

The bitch is put to work again, followed by the other dogs a few yards away. The strides of the beast can be read like the pages of a book, through thickets and frozen streams under the cold light of the moon, that sometimes pierces the dark cover.

Finally the group reaches the top of a dark ravine, overlooking a valley of brambles and low trees. The star of the night makes a brief appearance, grimacing icy threats as a faint hunting with hounds rumor is running through the air.

Has Finran dreamed these strange noises, these pack howls, this ride and the horn echoes through the valley?

Sweating under the spectral halo of the moon, the huntsman probes his dogs: the pack roars and shudders, its hair bristling. His instinct is not mistaken: the heart of winter, the source of Thalion’s fears is wallowing in the lair at the bottom of this ravine.

Leaving the sledge at the summit, the group descends cautiously near the frozen bed of a stream, and penetrates under the brambles. It's warmer under the canopy of snow that covers the low vegetation like a shroud. An oppressive darkness reigns over this under-world, barely lighted by some unreal halos from holes in the snow canopy.

Finran lights a torch, and the group advances slowly. A smell of peat rises from the leaves carpet, corrupt by uncertain hints. The semi-circle range, the hunters had spontaneously adopted, gradually reduces to a tight group of shaggy dogs around the man, who must often hack the intertwined branches with his rapier.

Suddenly the dogs growl dully. Finran sees a pair of evil eyes glowing for a second, at the edge of of his torch’s reach. Immediately, the huntsman plants his torch on a mound and calls his dogs around him.

His maneuver saves their lives. Wild screams rise around them, whereas a huge black wolf advance his disgusting maw oozing with thick slime.

The monster does not have time to launch its call for the kill: an arrow throws a deadly shine through his throat.
The leading wolf collapses. His rival, a large male with silver coat, throws himself on the remains, still animated by upheavals, and devours its entrails, thus taking possession of both the vital energy of the fallen leader, and the command of the undecided pack.

But the new king doesn’t benefit from his throne. The moment his bloody mouth is lifting from the carnage, the victorious flame burning at the bottom of its orbit goes off abruptly, cut short by a new projectile.

Finran calmly takes advantage at the stupor of the pack, shooting coolly a reckless wolf that had exposed himself too much.

Then the pack disbands. The archer, after his double feat, spends yet some arrows. His victory would be total if his dogs, feeling fear in the enemy ranks, were not launching in pursuit of the wild beasts. Finran has great difficulty recall them, and is forced to rescue them with his hunting spear, when one of them faces with a vicious dark wolf.

Silence finally settles. The decimated pack has fled without leader. Three males and a female lie on the ground, and no more than four individuals, probably female, have fled. Finran heals the wounds of his exhausted dogs and affords some time to recover. But curious abrasions inflicted at the foot of the shrubs arouse his curiosity [6].

He explores the surroundings, finishes off the dying wolves and discovers the den of the pack. He ruthlessly exterminates the cubs. Then he cuts up without delay the remains of the two most impressive beasts. Returning to his dogs, Finran, staring into space, cleans his bloody dagger in the snow and casts the purifying ritual.

He has exacted the terrible revenge of the northern men in the name of his whole kin, who were overwhelmed by the terror of the wolf. The henchmen of the beast are routed. Tomorrow he will force its lair and bring its remains!

.oOo.

On a broad space, Finran clears the snow from the brambles in order to breathe fresh air. Taking a risk, he goes and get his sleigh alone. Then he lights a fire as best he can with the available dead wood. After a frugal meal, he sinks into the soldiers’ sleep - immediate, deep and refreshing.

Slowly into the night, as the moon passes through the silent sky, a drizzle fills the valley, which in Buckland is called sleep vapor, and had indeed got the dogs sound asleep.

Yet a rustling awakens Finran before dawn. No doubt his hatred for the beast is the strongest. Under the canopy of snow, muffled sounds reach him, grunts and mumbles fuse in the icy mist.

He calls his dogs, unsuccessfully. He fuels the fire and lights a reluctant torch. His bow can be of no help in this foggy night, the hunter takes his spears, and heads at a guess in the mist. His light torch at arm's length, Finran advances under the thicket, like a blind man trusting only his ear.

Long, the man strides, with some hurried footsteps in the snow and frozen mud, then trying to calm his panting and listening to the grunts moving away. It seems to him that his game, whatever it is, follows a complicated path, turning frequently when the hunter is coming by. After a time difficult to assess, Finran finally realizes that he is getting lost and thinks to turn back.

But suddenly he comes across a stride, fresh and huge. The hunter examines it carefully. A large pinch [7] is accompanied by a mark of guard, distant and perpendicular. Puzzled, the huntsman remembers the many paths crossed in recent days, where strangely coexisted footprints of several species. This one is rounded, large and firm. Could he have confused the stride of a deer and a boar? Or would this be the trace of the forest’s perverted offspring from another age?

Finran wants to find out for sure; he follows the steps with caution.

Walking through the sleep vapor as a ghost in pursuit of a rumor, the hunter perseveres, orienting with the grunts on which he gains slowly, while the gray dawn is rising and the mist is warming up.

Finally Finran reaches the bank of a small river, frozen in an ice with water iris reflections. The milky color of the bank gradually gives way to dull blue and green transparencies down to the middle of the riverbed, where can be seen the undulations of long black and silver algae, under thin clear ice. Several willows, on the opposite bank, let their melancholy branches lurking in the mist. The thought comes to the hunter, that this river, probably the Withywindle, must be a pleasant place in spring.

But there it is, where awaits a nice sized boar, hidden under the roots of an upturned stump on the edge of the wood. When the hunter has walked near the shore, in the open space, the black beast comes out of hiding and rushes behind him.

The boar charges the intruder with all its might. But its proud impatience betrays him - a small grunt of evil resentment comes out of it, and warns the hunter, whose only resource is a dangerous landing fall, to avoid the lethal charge.

Incidentally, the beast breaks the shaft of one of the spears, narrowly missing him with his groin. On the ground, Finran would be in a very bad position, if the momentum of the animal would not allow him to stand up and brandish a stake.

The boar is powerful and frightening, stubborn and fierce. With its huge size, it nevertheless seems young, based on its peculiar way to charge and lash the air towards the man's legs, trying to throw him to the ground. The fight is long and demanding, the hunter multiplying his feints and holding his moves to reduce his risks. Finally Finran’s experience prevails: taking advantage of the boar’s reckless charging, he manages to thrust his pike, precisely at the heart. The beast collapses heavily, shattering the weapon under itself.

The huntsman approaches, his dagger in his hand, whereas his victim, hardly shaken with spasms, is spreading some black blood with pungent smoke. Finran finishes off his game, watching the gray-black fur, which keeps in places some red highlights of a young boar’s pelt. The hunter frowns: despite the large size of the animal, it is but a pig [8]! Weary and exhausted, the hunter checks his anterior legs - much thinner than the mysterious strides...

The man, out of breath and full of doubt, is raising when his gaze meets a pair of eyes, cut off in the shadows of the forest, about twenty yards from the river shore.
Bloodshot and bulging eyes, dart on the man a swiny look of hatred and a pledge of death. The filthy jowl with venomous thrills advances, studded with ivory swords. Its hysterical and deafening roar vomits the visceral loathing towards the biped, whereas vile defiled stench of stale are spreading. The monstrous incarnation of the original forest depths, of the fanatic digging in the muddy wallow, of the great primordial and wild rutting, has risen to challenge the supremacy of mankind.

The dead pig, yet of exceptional build, was therefore only the complacent and reckless page [9] of the brambles’ sovereign. The true black beast, accomplice of the carnage on Thalion’s pikemen, is finally taken out of its den...

The tremendous muscle mass undulates under the dark pelt as the beast advances, sometimes shivering with murderous rage spasms.

The beast has come out of the wood, but the hunter, lucid, knows he cannot deal with it. Thus the great stag knowingly brought him here, for him to undergo the ancient law of the forest...

.oOo.

Yet Finran grasps his last spade and faces the monster.
The old mâle takes advantage of his page’s error; it immediately comes in contact with its tired prey and overwhelms it with tusk strokes. The monster has two pairs. The first takes the form of one foot long swords, wielded over the brawn. The second, are wounded on the sides of the jowl.

The boar shakes his black and gray coat, its huge size enabling it to fend towards the chest of his opponent, constantly forced to retreat. Finran’s extension, with his spear, hardly allows him to hold off the foul jowl, hitting the brawn without hacking it.

Huge but surprisingly agile, the beast quickly takes the ascendancy over the man and drives him to the icy bank. Finran tires quickly, the tusks have already slashed him on the shoulder and forearm. Then the huntsman must risk all for all. Anticipating a frenzied reel, he hits aside, wielding his pike with one hand.

The hunter immediately pays his imprudence: in a loud bellow, the monster lacerates his arm with the back of its brawn and throws him to the ground!

But he dealt his blow! The stake has remained stuck in the eye of the monster that jumps up in pain and rage.

Instinctively Finran crawls a little further and gets up, painfully holding his broken and bloodied right arm.
Panting and nearly fainting, the hunter anxiously contemplates the beast's efforts to get rid of the weapon. Finran still cherishes the hope that the monster, overcome by grief, would abandon the field. He holds his last weapon in his left hand, his faithful but short dagger.

Finally, amid venomous pain belchings, the spear is snatched in a spray of dark blood. For a few more moments, the animal staggers, seeking his prey with a clumsy frenzy.

Finran backs gently, noiseless. But the beast sees with its one eye.

Trembling with rage, the beast walks towards his virtually defenseless prey and pushes a defiant roar, which sounds echoing long on the banks in the old forest.

Within a few bloody strides, it is galloping.

The hunter, in a heartbeat, embraces the whole breadth of his years, his intoxicating youth withered by grief, his maturity sprinkled with vain victories and sustainable cowardice, and redemption in a new life. Some female faces dance one last medley, sending him in turns the tender grin of regret and the serene compassionate smile, just before impact.

Finran expires at the sound of ground flesh.

When his gaze returns to this world, he sees, with a clear acuity, a large stag oust the blind side of the beast, in a slow but irresistible pressure ripping the filthy dark pelt. The crushed ribs are those of the huge boar, torn by the antlers of the deer!

The monster, disjointed and unbalanced, swerves onto the ice of the river. In a crash, the thin layer at the center of the stream breaks, precipitating the huge mass in icy-cold running water.

La puanteur du grand sanglier s’évanouit dans un bouillonnement de cristal. Comme se lève cette chape de relents, Finran croit que la berge s’éclaire d’une douce lueur. Le grand cerf, à présent fauve et doré sous la clarté salvatrice, et l’homme, au bras ensanglanté, se contemplent dans un noble regard de paix. Le chasseur sait désormais que le coureur sacré de Bema, le dieu veneur de son peuple, n’a pas quitté les Terres du Milieu.

The stench of the great boar vanishes in a crystal bubbling. As this screed of reek vanishes, Finran believes the bank is lighting up with a soft glow. The great deer, now fawn and golden under the saving clarity, and the man, with his bloodied arm, stare at each other in a noble peaceful look.

The hunter now knows that Bema’s sacred runner, the huntsman god of his people, has not left Middle-earth yet.

.oOo.

But suddenly the frozen river cracks again. The horrible jowl springs back, with vile pig cries, as the wild boar is trying to climb and regain balance on the ice. Behind him, his powerful hind legs seem to struggle in a dark and silver tangle of weed, which attract it to the bottom.

Finran screams his refusal. In an instant, he grabs his bloodied spear with his able arm and ventures on the ice to meet the monster.

Ruthless, the hunter slays strikes again and again at the boar’s head, which eventually let go and sinks in the dark blue and green swirls of the Withywindle.

.oOo.

Finran long inspires, deeply. The lighter air seems to dissolve the weight that was grasping his heart.

Exhausted but serene, the prostrate hunter lays down near the bank, and closes his eyes for a moment.

Yet he knows that this relaxation will cost him his life...

.oOo.

When he wakes up from his dream, his head is spinning. A large deer is walking away on the opposite shore, disappearing into the mists with the sound of curious bells, that sow strange "Derry Dol, Ding a-ling Merry lol " in the sparkling air.

As the majestic beast is leaving the scene, a peculiar little rhyme comes to his mind, like the recollection of a dream or an old memory:

Stooge Beaucent [10] has gone out
At Hays-end to mow some wheat
Mending assignment to meet
All damage made by his snout!

For dinner he is retained
By Withywindle the mermaid
For many years or hundred
The rose garden prunes One-eyed!

.oOo.

Finran cannot explain how his arm was washed, mended and bandaged, nor by what miracle his dogs could harness to the sled and come down to him. But at the edge of the Old Forest, one should be surprised at nothing and have better go his own way.

Pink dawn prompts to departure. However, before leaving, he still has a duty to perform.

The hunter drags the valiant fallen pig for his master and hangs it by the hind legs, at the branches of a solid ash. He bleeds it out, empties it and castrates it.

Finran solemnly distributes offals to his waggling pack. The hungry dogs, even the mastiff, pounce on them barking happily, while the hunter buries the bowels.

Finally the servant of Bema sets a ritual fire. There he roasts the liver and frivolities , seasoned with secret herbs. After a short meditation, he eats them slowly, assimilating every bite. Finran accepts a share of the beast’s power, ravished from the primitive world to appropriate his courage. Thus the hunt leader strengthens his sturdy soul to the dangerous source of wilderness, to avoid his kin to be confronted with it.

Then he looks up toward the east. Black branches glow with a thousand starred smiles in the rising light. The thaw has begun.

.oOo.

From now on, at the sign of the drunken goose, it will be risked telling the terrible stories of the winter of the wolves. Hassle and hazards of winter may not be avoided, but fear might be somehow better exorcised.

.oOo.

NOTES
0 - This story is inspired by real hunting episodes, but transposed to imaginary creatures of Middle Earth. Unlike our world, wolves are more or less evil creatures, which attack humans, and wild boars can rise to gigantic sizes, when an evil spirit leads them.
Moreover, I was inspired by the next job: Fabre-Vassas Claudine. Le partage du ferum. Un rite de chasse au sanglier. In: Études rurales, N°87-88, 1982. La chasse et la cueillette aujourd'hui. pp. 377-400.
1- Footprints of a game.
2- Damages made by a fleeing animal, to trees and branches.
3- The speed and firmness of the game’s trajectory can be deduced from its prints.
4- Length unit : a foot and a half, around 45 cm.
5- The eyes of the deer possess, at their inner corner, a kind of slut, the drip, from which oozes an unctuous liquid, offensive, particularly abundant during the mating season.
6- The abrasions are left by young wolves around the place they grow up.
7- The two central fingers of the wild boar lean against the ground are called the “pinches”. The atrophied fingers situated behind and above the pinches are "the guards".
8- A boar of 1 or 2 years old is name a « Pig of the sounder »
9- Company animal, usually a two or three years old male, a lonely old solitary takes with him, probably to sacrifice it if it is distressed.
10- Beaucent is the name of the wild boar in the Roman de Renart.
The little prince of the bakehouse by Chiara Cadrich
.oOo.

At Thalion Castle...

The petty boy sneaks stealthily between flour sacks, oil jars and saltings barrels, struggling under the weight of his loot. Under the arches of red brick, that exhale fresh yeast fragrance, the baker removes steaming loaves from the oven and places them in large baskets. While the stout woman shoves again heavy white balls, the boy approaches the stove and plays with firebrands, mimicking fabulous spells.

- "I saw you, Ostomir! Do not play near the stove! The other time did not tell you enough?" The matron says quietly, continuing her work with detachment.

Her son believes her somehow a fairy. The tender maid, down from the hills of Dunland, knows secret rituals - beer never gets spoiled and golden loaves gather between her soft expert hands. The storm is her friend and she has got eyes in her back!

Annoyed, the boy gingerly sits down, putting his huge ledger open on the oaken table, stained with wheat flour.
The furnaces glow in the dark bakery, animating the illuminations of the ancient tome, with an ardent epic life.

- "Where did you take this book again? You know you must not disturb the visitors! "

The woman’s quiet voice startles the child as she’s filling the oven, wielding her long pallet effortlessly with a slow and weary gesture. The petty blond scowls at her, with an adorable guilty look of his:

- "I took the wizard’s ledger in the library! This is the one we read with my dad! Would you read it to me, pleeease? "

Despite this charming and imploring grimace, the pale eyes of the baker fog up with sadness. The shovel joins the wall with a tired and resigned gesture

- "I cannot read, my little prince! But still I shall tell you a story... "

From the glossy buffet, a pitcher of milk and a golden brioche emerge, just like magic. The mother recites a story, embroidered a thousand times over the illuminations. The glory of the King, his wild romantic passion, his terrible forbidden love take shape under the eyes of little Ostomir, until this brief and wondrous era of felicity when, withdrawn into a hunting lodge, she gave birth to her little prince...

This is not the story of the wizards’ grimoire, Ostomir knows that. But this is the story of his mom and his dad, they alone will ever know. For the sweet mother lacks the strength to reveal its sad end... Ostomir comforts his mother and scolds:

- "When I grow up, I shall be a magician. And then beware, you visitors..."

The lonely wench tenderly runs her hand through the diaphanous hair of her son:

- "Now I want you to put this book back. You must promise me not to meddle with visitors!

- You know, usually they do not even pay attention to me...

- We are no longer anything for them, just shadows that populate their kitchens! Never give them the opportunity to hurt you!"

Ostomir agrees, to please his mother. But how could he leave the books, blazing witness of his dear father’s glory, at the hands of these ignorant visitors who usurp his castle?

.oOo.

In the attic of the sign of the Drunken Goose...

A pale and slender girl is lying on a bale of wheat, under the eaves, the cat in her lap. Leaning on her skinny ribs, a large leather book spreads under her hungry gaze. Firmly clutching the venerable tome, she flies from line to line, picking a gallant pirouette here, there a dazzling image.

Under the window, avaricious with light, the girl blows out, with the corner of her mouth, the rebellious lock which bars her ardent face, enlightened by reading.

Diving in the lay of Eärendil and Elwing, she quenches her heroic thirst with limpid verses of the Elven stanzas.

- "Give me my book back!"

She is immersed in a critical page. Her steel spirit parries, alongside her hero, the treacherous blows of the northern islands’ Hydra. You can imagine this is not the time to drop the story.

- "Give me my book back!"

An irritated eyebrow rises above the vellum. The faded eye grows afraid. The cat wakes up, bristles its coat and flees spitting. The ledger swiftly lowers.

Bare feet in the attic’s flour, the four-years-old toddler gazes at the girl. His big eyes plead with the children’s seriousness and an impatient pout. His chubby little hand lifts his thumb to his mouth along with a wrinkled doll, rag magician but loyal companion.

The upset girl winces and starts dryly, with her fierce teenager voice:

- "You scared me! But who are you? I’ll give you stories!"

Stunned by the violence of the visitor, the little boy backs end flees, his lips trembling.

It's always like that. The visitors have invaded his life. Everywhere these upstarts track him with their vindictiveness. They haunt his castle where life used to be so good.

.oOo.

In the great hall of the Drunken Goose...

- "Well, Eliahel, where are you running to like that? Looks like you saw a huge rat!"
Under the venerable arches of red sandstone, the trembling girl stands as white as a moon of Samhain. Yet in the presence of solid Finran, she calms down a bit:

- "That was no rat! It was a boy!"
The blond giant tries to make her smile:

- "All right, you don’t like him. But is he worth rushing down the stairs from the attic? Is he so ugly?

- No, you don’t understand!"

Leaving the red wood counter, the scholar Gigolet comes by, alerted by the noisy gesticulations of his protégée.

- "He appeared just like that, out of nowhere. He wanted the book of Eärendil. And when I cried, he was gone!"
Intrigued, Gigolet asks:

- "What is the likeness of this stripling?

- A tiny blond boy. He was sucking his thumb. He was pale. And then there were lots of holes in his singed clothes! When I shouted, he disappeared! "

Finran and Gigolet look at each other. Before the contorted face of the old scribe, Finran, with a bullying air, turns to Eliahel, clicks his sword in its sheath, and launches gruffly:

- "Come on, my little chick! Your reading obviously blurred your sight... It was certainly Eothor’s youngest!

So take these pancakes and bring them to your brothers and sisters!"

The girl no longer trembles, or maybe with indignation:

- "Then how come he did not leave any trace on the flour in the attic?", She grumbles, seizing the plate.

Now Eliahel is sent outdoors, under the healthy sun rays, Gigolet sits down, his face worn. Before the hesitating look of the public writer, once will not hurt, his friend the landlord pays him a pear brandy. With reluctance and weighed words, the altered scribe indulges in his tale:

- "More often than you would believe, we took a glimpse at a youngster wandering through the aisle of our granary aturned into eschole . Happens precious parchment disappears for a few moons - still ancient tales of elven magic, such enchantments of Doriath, the charms of Nargothrond or the wonders of Gondolin.

We searched through many tomes. The castle of Thalion burned partly in the year one thousand four hundred and nine of ours age, while the last ruler of Cardolan, King Ostoher, had perished with his ost and offspring. We could recollect the wall housing the ovens and bakery, was consumed at dusk, by an accident of a wench’s child mimicking a fire mage.

This tragedy passed almost unnoticed in the chronicles of those malevolent hours, but from that time it is now and then reported a childish specter haunting the remnants of ours venerable mansion, maintained in the illusion that the people living there are only passing visitors, vile usurpers the King will chase on his return."

.oOo.

NOTES
The little princess of the lectern by Chiara Cadrich
The little princess of the lectern.

.oOo.

The rain is hammering on the dungeon slates. Hailstones hit the fogged window. Squalls utter ghostly moans in the chimney. The creaking castle buttresses on its ancient oak beams, opposing the autumn onslaught, with the mass of its ancient stones, and the inertia of the welter life has cluttered its walls with - the small habits of the inhabitants, their lost loves, their inveterate vices, not to mention several heavy secrets.

Tonight we read. This evening the inn is visited by a prominent character, a grizzled old man, affable but lively, feared bearer of prophecies and tireless fighter of defeatism. All faces turn to the lectern, brought down from the attic. The old house purks up its somewhat hard-of-hearing ear, and scolds its little rowdy commensals.

When Eliahel is reading a tale of old, the common room is illuminated by elven splendors, the vaults populate with seabirds in a sky before the fall of kings, the air carries fragrances of hope from another age.

The girl’s clear voice rises as the minstrels’ harps once in Fornost. Her grace flies on rhymes, sowing enchantment in souls. The dreams of the audience, quenched by chores, snorting and taking force, don the hero’s armor and cherish his banner of justice.

The light verses run under the sun, awakening spring in hearts. The bud of hope and the flower of renewal hatch, grow and exhale bittersweet sap, that their feeder roots derive from legends.

Fresh Eliahel launches the verses of the tale, with a new and bold tone. Yet the archaic language charms the ear with its weathered rhythms. The generations gathered for the vigil, delighted, find in the chronicles of the kings, the echo of their thirst for life, the refrain of their labours and the ferment of their courage.

Villagers and travelers share, during this evening, a little more than a distraction. Throughout the venerable pages, the fatherly figure of the kings of yore extends its protective wing and awakens the pride of the ancient people of Arnor.

.oOo.

Eliahel is reading slowly, rejuvenating a turn or mimicking a posture occasionally, with an innate sense of rhythm that captivates the small community. The girl knows all the rough edges of her beloved pages, softening them with grace. Thus, without unbridling her text, the reader has time to observe her audience.

Her immediate family struts dressed up in the front row, while Gigolet her master, proud as a king's cadet, sends paternal looks to his protégée.

In the warm light of candles, toddlers form a still circle, their chubby faces raising to the girl at the lectern. From time to time they pilfer some forest fruits their elders are sifting, curious about wonders but worried about monsters, which shadows, revived by the tale, are lurking outside.

A little further, the women, their lap loaded with embroidery or stitching, sigh at the disgruntled loves of the court ladies. His thumb in his mouth and his gaze into space, a marmoset, sated with mother milk, is dozing in the plump arms that gently rock him to the rhythm of the rhymes.

The men, at last, in the glowing darkness of the back rows, winnow wicker and sculpt boxwood, nodding to the exploits of errant knights. The old man, sat in a large chair, is quietly teasing his pipe in perfumed spirals, but the alert embers of his pupils observe the audience’s moods with interest. Sir Finran scurrily circulates in the ranks, renewing jugs and mugs, and beer invades the tables, just like trolls are spreading from north in the tale.

The room shudders. The shadowy noose tightens on the castle. A kid starts crying. But the royal guard stands firm!

A tall youth, the village idiot, rises terrified from the bench, waving his table-fork against the invaders. The gray old man reassures him with a kind look and he resumes his place among the herdsmen, tasting the sweet knowing heat of the vigil. The obtuse boy escapes for a time his heavy clay thoughts; his spirits, loosed by the tale, commune with his peers in dreams.

On a bench leaning against the wall, two young people exchange tender and playful glances, pretending to listen to the tale. From under her hood taffeta, a surly peasant, chaperone of the girl, throw from time to time inquisitors and discouraging eye shots, without much success.

A young farm boy, hidden behind the pillar, participates in the battle with all his soul, casting spells like this gray magician who sometimes roams in the tale. The little man has probably escaped his mother and slipped into the high room for the vigil.

But the storm is gathering and the hordes of the Witch-king break on Cardolan’s rich lands. The audience becomes one, its nerves tense, the boy rages in unison with Eliahel and the bruised kingdom survives the ordeal.

A round of beer, hot drinks and just baked biscuits, comes right to cheer the room. Eliahel, pampered and patted, is sipping her egg-nog among the children.
But when she looks around her little accomplice, he seems to have vanished!

.oOo.

Eliahel must find out for sure. Several times she thought she saw the blond boy lazing in the aisles of the attic above the bakery of the castle. She even wonders if he would not be a bit of a hidden child of the baker and master Finran. Concealing her approach behind sacks of flour, the huntress observes her prey, who is carelessly watering at a source of knowledge, sitting on a pile of dilapidated tomes, stolen from the scribe.

So here is the little villain who steals Master Gigolet’s to-be-restored books! Leaning on a heavy leather volume, blondboy seems absorbed in contemplation, his pale, melancholic face lit by a faint smile.

Eliahel is slowly approaching the little player. She focuses on the open book, above the boy's frail shoulder.

The king stands in the center of the illuminated page, his gold brocades ignite the hearing with a glorious majesty. The noble dignitaries, supporters or parasites of his power, encircle the sovereign. His close family, gathered near the throne, seems to look far away to the uncertain limbo of a threatening future.

The King asks the posterity with his mysterious gaze, where the blond boy is getting lost. The pale child, immersed in the image of the past, lets Eliahel lookk at his side. In a thrill from beyond the world, the girl realizes the resemblance of the child, with the hieratic gilt icon that contemplates him across the centuries.

- "Please, tell me a story!"

In a fragile moment, even silence may not be broken. Eliahel feels the boy’s need for connivance - she whispers:

- "Which story do you want?"

The boy makes a faint distracted grimace:

- "When a good story is told, the book's images are joyful...

- I like pictures too, but I prefer tales. In a tale, those who listen carefully all find beautiful images.

- When I listen carefully, I hear it's my dad who tells me the story.

- Who's your daddy?"

Again a soft impatient reproach is fleeting for a moment in the eyes of the little boy.

- "The most beautiful story is my Dad’s.

- I do not know the story your Dad tells you. The story in this book is all about the King.

- But my Dad, that’s him!"
Eliahel startles, not daring to turn to her little companion, who is pointing at the king in majesty. Dizzy-making, the girl can almost feel the cold breath of the boy, who repeats imperturbable:

- "Please, tell me this story!"

He is sitting quietly, his legs in the air. His pale face is not begging. His eyes are not crying. But his clear and serene look is weighing like a reproach, applying this unconscious right of children to quietly require and grab the essentials.

So Eliahel reads the ancient lines. It is about alliances, war and honor. It reports the hours of the kingdom, great or mediocre - harvests and epidemics, fairs and taxes, the exploits of knights and the disputes of the world leaders.

- "You telling poorly! The picture is not beautiful at all now! Please, tell me a story where my Dad is happy!"
The thin voice, which rises serious and concerned, elicits a distant need, unfulfilled for ages.

- "But I've read exactly what is written!"

His puppet mage over his nose and his thumb in his mouth, the child takes refuge in a protective silence. A tear rolls along his sheer cheek, and gets lost in the shadows of the attic. His look, remote and sad, seems not to see the girl any more.

But a gust flows the candle out in a chill, plunging the attic in icy darkness. Covered with cold sweat and distraught, Eliahel felt for the ladder.

- "Yet I had told you not to approach the visitors, blows a mother's voice, like in a dream. Their stories are sad and wicked. Come, Ostomir, do not cry anymore! I'll tell you the story of Mom and Dad, and if you kindly have your nap, I will give you buns..."

.oOo.

In the courtyard of the castle, the girl gesticulates in front of the old man who takes the sun, sitting on the edge of the well. The grizzled man raises a bushy and inquisitor eyebrow under, the brim of his large faded hat:

- "A little blond boy? "

Eliahel explains, voluble:

- "His name is Ostomir.

- I do not see…

- I think he is the son of the baker!

- Really? But Finran and the baker did not... No, you must be mistaken, my child!

- Well, not our baker! The bker from the time of yonder!"
The wizard removes his pipe from his mouth, squints slyly and stares with interest at Eliahel, who adds:

- "He is very small, very cute, very pale, and he still sucks his thumb!

- ...

- And he never answers any questions!

- ...

- And he's always got a rag doll, designed as an old man with long stick and beard...

- Oh yes? A puppet that looks like me? "

The wizard, intrigued, takes a puff while turning his eyes towards the section of collapsed wall.

The breach overlooks a vast field, on which the provost of Thalion, once had the lists and galleries risen for spring jousting.

.oOo.

Colorful memories arise from pipeweed smokes.

A piper from the South Downs hosts a farandole of girls on the pavement in front of the Castel. With rosy cheeks and a short breath, they laugh and concede their flower headdresses to young men. Plumed pages and squires challenge the ribboned bourgeois.

The King rides along the row of tents, decorated with the arms of bannerets of Cardolan and errant knights of lost Rhudaur, to the lists where his court is awaiting.

The jubilant crowd gives passage to King Ostoher, flanked by his son in arms. The brass tubes burst into glorious fanfare, and all bow to the monarch who sits at the center of the gallery.

Then the jousters advance on their prancing steeds, anticipating the fight. Suddenly a woman rushes to the column, pulling her child under the hooves of a battle horse. The kid had a narrow escape, but the crowd laughs at the confusion that broke up the parade.

The austere black dress of a long neat woman splits the crush of onlookers. Her wrinkled face poses a stern look on those guilty of disorder and launches her judgment:

- "The etiquette must be respected! Your position at the Castel does not allow you any freedom! Therefore both of you regain the bakery and go about your chores! "

The eldest son of the King intervenes graciously:

- "Come on, Lady Severine, today is a feast for all of us!"

The duenna tilts reluctantly, while the young man takes the boy on his shoulders:

- "And you, Ostomir, you'll see better from up there!"

The boy, a laughing blond, seems to share some affection with the prince, like an idolized big brother. The mother sends a grateful smile, and it is with confidence that she leaves her son, proudly perched on the gleaming armor, waving his wizard puppet with enthusiasm.

Gandalf, pensive, expels a puff of smoke. As the memory fades away, the old man uses his staff and turns to Eliahel, with a strange penetrating look:

- "How could I possibly remember such a distant time? As for you, you should run the hills in the sun. Let the stories for winter evenings! And don’t you lose yourself in ghostly mirages. It is not good for mortals, to stretch time indefinitely and remain forever in their memories..."

.oOo.

The following evening, a red moon is rising above the hills when Eliahel walks out to draw water. She sees the old man sat amid the breach, in the rubble of the collapsed wall. A book on his knees, he is softly reading, by the light of the stars. A pale and indistinct shadow stands beside him, occasionally resting his head on the wizard’s shoulder.

Eliahel approaches slyly. Gandalf concludes his tale:

- "So Ostoher, last of the kings of Cardolan, joined his ancestors with his fallen sons. You see, he managed to repel the enemies of the kingdom and can now rest in the domain of Mandos.

- Why does my Daddy not come back from Mandos place?

- My boy, he found a beautiful kingdom prepared for him and your brothers.

- But I expect them!

- They too are waiting for you...

- You think I'm allowed to go too, in the beautiful kingdom?

- Of course! Your place has been reserved for you when you played the fire wizard... It's a great kingdom for small children.

- But I don’t want to leave Mom here with the visitors.

- You are right. You should perhaps ask Mom to come with you there?"

The boy does not need to convince his mom - she always knows everything, her Mom, she's somehow a witch. The sweet hill-girl takes her son by the hand and Gandalf leads them by forgotten corridors of the old castle. In the crypt of the dungeon, the wizard asks the boy to waver with his puppet. Immediately a large dark door opens, revealing a room from which flows a bright light, warm and soft. Ostomir embraces Gandalf who declares:

- "Now you're going to follow your friend the wizard towards the light. And when you get there, tell the King, the tales the visitors taught you!"

Mother and son, radiant and transfigured, fade in the halo. When the door closes, an icy breeze blows under the arch, wrapping around the granite pillars. The wizard grabs young Eliahel, who has silently advanced to the door:

- "No, my child, your time has not come! Do not be sad for them, they have finally found the true end of their story.

- But I want to know where he is going!

- You still have much time to live that story! And many people here need you! You will have to live your own adventures, invent your own stories and transmit the gift, before searching the rooms beyond.

- I'll miss him ! "

Gandalf addresses a knowing smile to Eliahel:

- "Me too. But he is so much happier now, that we will always remember him, with his laughing dimples and his pretty face that never answers questions!

- ...

- ...and in the meantime, look what he gave me for you!"
The wizard reaches to the girl, with half a dozen dilapidated tomes. There are more volumes than master Gigolet would dare hope to find.

.oOo.

NOTES
The isle of the golden king by Chiara Cadrich
.oOo.

At the Sign of the Drunken Goose

The captain often sails back to Thalion, in summer. There he sells spices and buys tin and bauxite ingots from the red hills. Somehow heated by the hard bargaining of the morning, but satisfied to have concluded a deal with his trading partners, he is seated at the inn, and now treats the great hall with a tale of distant seas.

It is rather pleasant for him just to educate these local pedestrians, to brighten up their dreary peasant evenings with memories flattering the Númenorean majesty. After a good swig of ale, the sea wolf wipes his foamy mustache with the back of his leather glove, and dives with ease in waters infested by legends...

.oOo.
On board a whaling ship of Umbar [1], a long time ago …

In the cramped cabin paneled with precious woodwork, the ship's officers shared a meal around the commander’s square. The boatswain, solid swarthy Southron, greeted rudely and went to take his shift. The commander, tight in his neat coat, gave him a stiff salutation and continued his perorations:

- "What glorious days, gentlemen! Imagine our radiant Queen at the head of the most beautiful ladies of the island, offering her blessing on the jubilant docks! Imagine our thousand ships setting sail at dawn, custodians of the sea men’s faith! Imagine a thousand prows cleaving through the waves of destiny to enslave the enemy!"

The proud aquiline look of the old sailor became distant. His memory was evoking an apogee, a capricious fate had taken away for ages:

- "Our brave troops, brilliantly commanded, subdued the terror of the dark forces, enveloping the enemy by skilful maneuvers and imposing the superiority of our weapons. Everywhere from Harondor to Umbar, subjugated tribes disowned their abject alliances and ranged themselves alongside their liberators.

Our King, Ar Pharazôn the Golden, gathered lesser men from middle earth. The advent of his universal reign revived our distant relatives and ruled the weak, called by the imperial indulgence, to serve his peacekeeping glory.

The black enemy of men, tamed, swore allegiance and bowed, heavily chained, at the King's feet, after which he was exiled to a shameful captivity. Our King Ar Pharazôn erected a gold column in Umbar, that commemorating these achievements and brought every night, the light of Númenórean salvation to stray mariners. Since then, our fleets remain in control of the oceans and maintain the hope of our renewal! "

The whaler’s squeaking rocked the minds of the officers to the rhythm of the waves in the glorious chimeras of their commander, that united their souls into a fervent beam.

The door of the square suddenly opened, breaking the charm. A young man, dressed in the latest fashion silks, made a nonchalant entry:

- "Hello Company ! So, Commander, still immersed in the glories of the past? It almost seems you have participated in these noble celebrations! Maybe we should dream of... more realistic tomorrows? "

The commander, whose neatly shaved jaws shuddered with offended spasms, harshly addressed his second:

- "Here is, you miscreant, the void that threatens us all when the ethics of the men from the sea are trampled. Your cheeky moral laxity should not have you neglect your duties and our beliefs! One day our King Ar Pharazôn will awaken from the abyss, to claim to the world, what glory promised him! Then the men of Westernesse will be freed of the lies of the western Powers and their elven minions. The sinking of our blessed island shows how far these cowards fear us, taking over the blessings of the world for their own benefit. "

The young man corrected his bearing, snapped the heels of his polished boots and declared on a skeptical tone:

- "What a well worn manifest! Give mankind eternal enjoyment of its destiny, nothing less? While waiting to snatch these coveted secrets, I respectfully suggest not insult the future and to spare the powers of this world.

A storm is preparing - dark clouds assemble at an alarming rate. Your presence is required on the upper deck!"

The commander stared at the disbeliever ensign with steel blue eyes, stood up stiffly and left the square, followed by his officers.

.oOo.

The viscous swell bore sinister glows. The foam spread there in scurrilous streaks. In the distance, a dark mass flew over the grey ocean, threatening cavalcade that thundered in livid lightnings.

Opalescent chasms racked under gusts, the whaler took a worrying glide. Already the crew was plagued with discouragement, and waved their talismans to the heavy sea. The commander gave orders, stiff as justice on the quarterdeck. Three of the shift crews got into the shrouds and joined battle as the wind began to howl, while the last shift crew wired the whale pots. Wisps began dancing among the tops, while liquids terror spears rained down on the deck.

The sailors were inspired by their commander’s sovereign calm - the mariners furled the sails, hauled the brails and filled the ports. But the strings were barely knotted, a great surf seethed around the ship. A gigantic wave raised its misshapen shoulders and swept abeam, stealing a third of the crew.

Under the deafening outcries of sea spray, the commander himself, fighting at the helm, ordered the sailors to be securely attached, and reinforced the teams at the bilge pumps.

The second-in-command swiftly improvised a solid lifeline along the mast footings. But the hurricane, like a blind executor, was quartering the ship. The masts were soon erased and thrown into the sea, and hauled the ship to the bottom with a supernatural power. An oar leader, a harpooner and several sailors were thrown over-board before the cables could be cut.

Throughout this dreary night, the whaler heaved and drifted on forgotten seas, the crew struggling to survive under the orders of its inflexible commander.

.oOo.

The creaking of a pulley, shrill and insistent, awoke the second-in-command. His head heavy, he straightened up and looked around - a rocky coast unveiled its bleak screes in thick mists. Silent waves gently bathed this unreal shore, while the ship was lying on its starboard side, ripped on rocks, outcropping at low tide.

Some crew members, survivors of this ordeal night, answered the call of the ensign. Haggard and ragged, they seemed emaciated outcasts, escaped from a lost world. The commander was still unconscious, moored to the whaler's bar like a lanky specter on a ghost ship.

.oOo.

When the food saved from the wreck was disembarked, the remaining two officers took counsel and resolved to explore the shore.

The most urgent need was fresh water. They sent several teams who long wandered among the bare rocks, without finding a soul, but with growing unease. Headlands seemed to whisper their dismay, sneaky landslides hampered their progress, faults exhaled a dull hatred of the living. Men feared these rumors, hushed by a thick haze. A hostile will seemed to hover above their heads.

After a few days, it was clear that this land was an island, fully encircled by rocky shores, constantly hidden in fog. The commander solemnly proclaimed that the King's men, heirs of Númenor, took possession of this land.

The officer’s assurance worked wonderfully - immediately his men felt relieved from the fugitives fantasies that had appeared through the mist.

Then the men discovered a thin rivulet that was lost at the bottom of a barren valley. Up the dale, they found a source, seeping a bitter water that smelled sulphur. They had to content with it.

Exploring further, the team walked into a cave, the entrance to which stood a large stone statue, that seemed to arise from the sparkling rock. Struck with fear, men worshiped this terrible guard, which watchful eyes twinkled in the light of their torches. The cave was full of riches, worthy only of the treasure of mighty kings of old - ancient gold coins, jewels, weapons of high lineage lay there under the watchful eye of the colossus. This high king, crowned with gold, handed a powerful and greedy hand to grasp eternal glory, followed by an entire people.

Despite their weakness, most sailors returned laden with riches. Some were inhabited by a strange feeling of greatness, others imbued with a heavy sense of responsibility. But fear gripped them all. One of them yet, a solid harpooner, quarrelsome and mocking, evoked in a hearty laugh, the delights of the harem he could afford with these riches, and loaded a heavy jewels chest on his shoulder.

Just after the team had left the cave, the harpooner, all gleaming with gold necklaces piled around his neck, slipped on an unstable rock, and broke his neck after a long fall. His companions gazed his dislocated corpse, floating above a shroud of urchins and diamonds.

The team silently reached the bank. Deep inside some of them, discipline strengthened, but these useless wealth threw the crew in a superstitious depression.

Thus the two officers resolved they should explore themselves the island methodically, without exposing their topmen and harpooners to its evil spells.

.oOo.

The commander and the ensign left the next day. After recognizing the caves housing the treasure, and felt the urgent appeal of the golden King, they climbed long in the fog, surrounded by the dead silence that reigned on the island now. At the altitude where fog dissipated, they discovered a strange refuge.

Luxurious mosaics depicted a refined life, scholar and harmonious. The rooms of the large house, witch walls decorated with rich paintings, were half ruined. Yet broken relics, mismatched antiques and trinkets furnished, as a patchwork that had been recovered from shipwrecks for centuries. They explored the ruins and found a room decorated with many feminine objects, but without ever meeting their hostess. Someone seemed to live there as a hermit, haunting a palace of another age, seeking her fishing net between two marble statues. The two officers, confused by the grace and decrepitude of the residence, recognized many familiar details of arts and techniques, suffering the torment of the exile discovering his devastated homeland.

Resuming their ascension, they reached a wide flat space, empty and silent. The pristine sky, inhabited by no bird flight, seemed to observe the esplanade.

Overlooking the east of the island, a belfry crowned with tired golds, projected nostalgic rays. On the western side, a large dead tree unfolded the shadow of its bare branches over a catafalque, on which stood a strange dark stone construction. Hideous idols sacrificed here the firstborn of many species, while obscene totems uttered abject silent desecration.

Confused and panting, the two officers did not dare imagine the unthinkable. Violent images harassed them as they were trying to collect their thoughts - a majestic couple tore each other under the eye of a dark figure, draped in contained malevolence. The two men came down the slope, unable to formulate the foolish assumptions that gave a lump in their throats.

.oOo.

At dusk, when they reached the palace, a wandering light, similar to the mirages that lure the lost sailors, had them join the antique dining room. The two officers discovered there a sumptuous dinner, which seemed to be awaiting for them. Shaken by such a great mystery, they did not dare turn away and did honor to their invisible hostess. At the end of the meal, the light led them to a room, where they succumbed to sleep.

Dreams of nostalgic grandeur visited them. A high king wearing gold and plumed with pride, seemed to command them to rebuild the Númenorean power. The commander experienced restoring the dignity of the Lords of the sea, with the wealth saved from the rocks and waters of this island. Her cap dripping with pearls, a sublime Queen stood alongside the high King, and seemed to weep tears of diamond, begging them to deliver her from her ordeal. The ensign dreamed himself as a champion of his queen, reviving ancient alliances.

The next day, inhabited by visions of a hieratic glory, the two sailors awoke at dawn.

A hooded and diaphanous figure was watching them, standing at their bedside.

Terrified, they asked what their hostess wanted. A female voice, light as a breath and drawling like centuries of torment, charged them, as a price for her hospitality, to imagine and carry out any gallant deed on her behalf.

The two officers bowed, one for honor and the other for grace, and took leave.

.oOo.

By temperament and conviction, these two men were reluctant to cooperate. Their secret dreams matched too badly. Thus both dedicated to his own work.

The commander chose to consolidate the golden tower, which radiant hues reminded of the glory of Númenor and would guide the ships of his heirs. He managed to make a mortar and gilt the reinforced dome.

The ensign destroyed the dark altar, hurled the evil stones to the sea, and purified the marble catafalque by fire.

But the two men opposed about the dead tree. The ensign wanted to revere it as a relic of ancient times, the commander wishing to burn it as a sign of allegiance tainted with opprobrium.

They drew their swords, and probably the blood of one of them would probably have defiled the catafalque again, if at that time a seagull had not thrown its swift and graceful shade between the fencers. Under the protection of the sea bird arose from the sun, reason finally prevailed when the two sailors realized the venerable wood could help to refit their ship.

Against all odds, so they worked together, mustering the remains of their crew. Within days the trunk had been cut into planks and logs, and brought back to shore. The ship’s carpenter, fortunately, was still alive. They built a wooden crane, straightened the ship thanks to tide, and finished the refit. Finally the two most beautiful branches of the ancient tree, gave passable masts.

.oOo.

Finally the exhausted castaways would be able to escape.
Discord, however, broke out about the treasure. The two officers had to exercise extreme firmness to prevent the crew from overweighing with gold and gems, a ship that could not be maneuvered easily.

The morning of their departure, as the sailors were pushing the ship into the water, up to the waist, the mist rose, for the first time since their arrival on the island. As fog was retiring, a hooded shape silently approached the prow, stowed a green bough [2] there, and returned to the shore. The crew was so overwhelmed with terror, that the last attempts to embark more gold and jewels were forgotten.

The tide was rising, the breeze was rushing in the makeshift sails, and the ship departed from the island.

That's when they heard seabirds, which last roamed the sky with their graceful flight and their joyous cries.

As the sailors were watching the island drifting away, escorted by her new residents, it seemed to them that a high wave came befall the creek, where remained abandoned wealth and traces of their passage. As the wave ebbed, they thought they saw, nestled in the hollow of emerald rollers, a fast swimmer, vivid image of "Tar-Miriel, Queen purer than silver, ivory or pearls." But the fugitive mirage vanished, while the high wave flowed back towards the west, and the mists enveloped the island with their illusions again.

Then the survivors sailed, a moon long, their lives entrusted to the remains of an old tree. The day when the bough faded at the ship’s prowl, the lookout announced the end of their torments.

Back to Gobel Mirlond, their home port at the mouth of the river Harnen, the commander and the ensign, who had tolerated the time of the crossing, soon parted.

As you can imagine, this adventure ran in taverns from Gobel Mirlond to Umbar and even beyond! There were many expeditions to the island . But it is said in the south, that the curse of the golden King ferociously pursued those he found unworthy to covet his riches.

.oOo.
At the sign of the Drunken Goose…

The captain spits a smelly chew he was brewing along his story. A young peasant takes the opportunity to ask the fate of the two officers.

- "Obviously, the cabin boy wants to know if they took advantage of the treasure? All right!

It is said that the captain took power in the principality of Harnen, with his share of the treasure. He became a rather decent sovereign, inhabited by high and old-fashioned convictions about government, even if he failed to rally the rival city of Ramlond. No wife accepted him - too austere, too strict! - But he ruled with rigor and justice, even if his dreams of grandeur sometimes led him to expensive expeditions.

The ensign, meanwhile, a romantic dreamer, joined the Gondorian ranks. They say he became the guardian of ancient sacred places, on the island of Tolfalas."

- "And you, Captain, did you try your luck?

- Here's one curious matey! But that's the whole point, the end of this tale! Yet it is for you to answer this! Would you defy the curse of the Golden King, and what would you do with his treasure? "

.oOo.

NOTES
[1] The heaven of Umbar was, during the Second Age, one of the main Numenorians naval bases of middle earth. The imperialist ideology of the island gradually turned the trading post, into a first-rate military bridgehead. When Númenor was submerged, the fleet and the Númenoreans settlers in the harbor of Umbar remained faithful to the ideals of "King's men" opposing the "faithful" exiled in Arnor and Gondor. For centuries, those nostalgic for the Númenorean omnipotence made war to Gondor, until the King Eärnil 1st captured the city in TA 933.

[2] Oïolaïre : Bough of Return, a branch of a tree with persistent and aromatic foliage, which remained green near the sea water. This branch was placed as a lucky charm at the bow of the Numenorian ships, usually by a woman from the captain’s family. This custom was imported into the island by the elves of Ossiriand. The shoot was a sign of the alliance with Uinen, the maya of marine waters.
The Herbmistress by Chiara Cadrich
The herbmistress.

.oOo.

At the sign of the Drunken Goose…

Sat deep in an old chair near the hearth, a large Hobbit was holding forth, from time to time pulling a puff from his luxurious enameled pipe. His large overweight plush character confirmed his confident tone of clan chieftain, that brooked no contradiction:

- "Of course nay! That is Tobold Hornblower, my great-great-great-great-grandfather, who invented the art of smoking pipeweed, nearly some two hundred years ago in Southfarthing! The best plantations lay obviously there, from Longbottom to the banks of Brandywine, around my family mansion."

Harold Hornblower was full of praise for his glorious ancestor, who had developed methods for cutting, drying and preserving herbs, while inaugurating a genuine Hobbit art of living. Every generation, a careful selection of plants allowed an increase in the quality of the leaves, and sometimes led to some famous innovation, like the roll of pipe-weeds.

This was a secret technique to roll several leaves on themselves with an elaborate overlapping – leaves of exceptional quality and subtly matched varieties. The subsequent leaves-roll made it possible to smoke pipeweed… without pipe, but with an incomparable refinement. Still it was necessary to cut the end of the roll with understanding, and to own the adapted leaves-cutter, since an incorrect cut ruined the pulling of the invaluable object. At the time of Finran and Gigolet, the leaves-rolls were an amazing luxury, that Master Hornblower kept for his personal reserve.

But tonight, sat in the hall in the middle of large white fumaroles, Harold glorified another ancestor, Tobold’s mother.

.oOo.

The Shire, Southfarthing, The Far Downs…

Sitting under bundles of herbs hanging from the beams of her shop, the robust Hobbit healer glared mockingly at her patient:

- "So, Agenor, you married young Daisy?

- Oh, for sure, she's a nice girl... And vivid with that!

- What folly took you, you old stag? You don’t marry a young girl at your age!

- Ah, with all due respect, affection, that may be neither rushed nor denied!

- Affection! Now that’s all you can wait for, you old weasel!

- As a matter of fact, if you would kindly oblige me...

- What is it you want exactly? I’m warning you, I shall not give thee any love philter!

- I would not presume that! Now I thought about some little pick-me-up... You know, whatever cheers the heat up down there in the right time, if you follow me..."

Alchemilla Hornblower had understood pretty well. She sighed ruefully to the farmer from Frogmorton, a confirmed bachelor who finally, it seemed, had found a use for his fortune.

- "And what does Daisy think about this cheering-up?

- Ah well, she is not reluctant... For sure... Since she would fancy petty hobbits... And me either... So if you could fetch me some herbal cure of yours...

- I’m afraid in your case, herbs are worthless! Agenor, you need something more… invigorating. Now here is what you’re going to do... "

At the back of her shop, Alchemilla searched on the shelves, putting aside clay pots and jute bags, which held her herbalist treasures. She was not abused by the alibi of the offsprings, but she gave her patient, two leather bags connected by a cord:

- "Here are wild boar testes, dried and powdered. You have to dilute two pinches in the broth of an old rooster. And then, Daisy and you swallow the broth, every full moon fasting: children will be born at home every nine months! "

.oOo.

At the Green Dragon Inn, in Bywater, a lonely and tipsy ploughman was trying once more, to extort her secrets from mother Alchemilla.

- "Herbs to fight an "idyllic coma"? What next? I'll give you one secret!"

The solid Hobbit, half amused but feigning anger, grabbed the fellow by his collar and dragged him into the yard, where he finished in the pigs trough.

- "You see? When you drink too much beer, no need of herbs, just pour lots of water on!"

.oOo.

A small hobbit was curling up on his straw mattress, watched over by the family gathered under the thatch. Painful whistles accompanied the cloth that went up and down on his frail chest. Alchemilla smiled reassuringly in response to the worried child’s look, crushing between her rough palms, some dried bright blue flowers, over a bowl of boiling water:

-"Do not worry! You should breathe this every time your throat whistles! And next moon, there will be less pollen, you will get better! "

.oOo.

When Alchemilla reached her sixties, people had begun calling her "well preserved". Indeed she wasn’t uglier than she had been at twenty! Her unsightly, energetic and reassuring face, had not aged. A refrain on her lips, she strode across the Shire’s moors, in search of rare herbs, or serving the needy and the sick.

Naturally, the healer’s juvenile endurance was accounted on behalf of herbs and complicated ointments, patiently brewed in her hole. But the irascible herb mistress always refused to confide her secrets of youth.

.oOo.

Leaning on her patient, Alchemilla Hornblower exclaimed cheerfully:

- "So now, pretty Melissa, you feel weak and you want a "food compliment"? Well here's one: Congratulations, because you're pregnant! No wonder you are constantly hungry despite your bounced belly! Your good-for-nothing husband finally produced something useful!"

The herbalist care in the Shire, often meddled with midwifery and healing. But what Alchemilla liked above all, was her self-proclaimed function of nagging marital disorders.

.oOo.

The Brandybuck squirmed before Alchemilla, nervously manipulating his hat. The dreaded Hobbit healer had a reputation for eccentricity and authority. But she knew her plants better than anyone.

- "You want to become a herbalist? And how can I make a trustworthy herbalist, with a wealthy and idle Brandybuck cadet? "

The young hobbit, sheepish and red as a beet, was about to withdraw, when the irascible Herb Mistress changed her mind:

- "By the way, you have access to the portal of the Old Forest, haven’t you? Then I'll give you a chance!"

Young Galadoc Brandybuck was sent to forage beyond the Brandywine, because it is said rare species could be found under the trees near the Withywindle...

.oOo.

Melissa’s childbirth had been a long struggle. But, in the morning, the young mother was holding a beautiful little hobbit, her cute little feet already covered with brown fuzz.

Alchemilla, arranging her bottles and towels, tossed carelessly:

- "She will be called Pilosella! That will suit her! "
Then, ignoring the stunned and indignant air of the parents, she went out to tour her patients...

The herb mistress authoritatively gave, to the children she helped in this world, names of plants that inspired her. That was her strange and only requirement...

.oOo.

- "Ah, Master Agenor, it's you! I did not recognize you with that wild boar mop of yours! How is Daisy? Her varicose veins not too painful? And how are Artemisia, Bugrana, Marjoram, Burdock, Linden, Bearberry, Chastitree, Hyssop and Celandine? And I forgot the triplets, Asperulia, Astragalia and Agripalma?

- Wonderfully, thanks for asking! But now, Good Mother... You find not, perhaps twelve children, this is enough?"

Alchemilla did not intend to facilitate the old farmer’s task. She leaned back in her chair and crossed her arms sourly. He continued laboriously:

- "Good Mother, I can’t sleep any more. We emptied the purses long ago , but my Daisy is very spirited and... I would like to ask you for a cure... to put things in their former state, so to say."

Alchemilla looked at Agenor with commiseration:

- "And what does Daisy think about that?

- Well, the children tire her a lot, but she asks for more...

- All right, come back to me together; we shall arrange that. You’ll get my precious recipe to calm your transport. But where did I store it?"

Some years before, Alchemilla had had to administrate some to her late husband. Maybe she had a little pushed it...

.oOo.

The beautiful young Hobbit lowered her misty eyes. Obviously, it was not even necessary to examine her, she was in "interesting circumstances." Always these embarrassed poor girls turned to Alchemilla, even if they were reluctant to venture to her hut, lost in the moors of the Far Downs.

The healer gently patted the girl’s hand:

- "Do not worry, I shall fix that all!

- So you'll give me some herbs? "

Alchemilla nodded, stood up and took her sturdy walking stick, the one with iron heel. Then, turning to the girl, she flashed a glance:

- "Yes, this is for a particular kind of weeds! Wait here! "

And she went out.

Two hours later, Alchemilla came back, pulling a scoundrel by his ear. He was about the same age as the girl. The healer had seen them hang together often enough, to be pretty sure of not mistaking the father...

.oOo.

Alchemilla emerged from under the thatch:

-" Yes that's right! Nasty parasites have invaded your roof... "

The energetic Herbs Mistress ordered a fumigation, with leaves, her son Tobold and her assistant Galadoc collected and withered. The smell persisted long into the cottage. The people were a little inconvenienced, but the parasites did not resist.

.oOo.

Galadoc Brandybuck was returning once again from the Old Forest. This time he brought tender cattail shoots. The day had been very trying. He even claimed that the strains along the Withywindle were doing very bad jokes...

The herb Mistress could only clamp down on such a bad faith:

- "No, I shall not tell you what you can cook with these plants! You're not ripe yet!"

Alchemilla, with age, became increasingly authoritarian and secretive, but she seemed to hold a kind of elixir of life, a secret resistance, a mystery of life.

Yet she never revealed it...

Not even, it seems, her son Tobold, who nevertheless shared her passion for medicinal plants.

This rascal had always been her only weakness. Alchemilla often took him by surprise, dreaming about larks, lying on a hillside.

He strolled idly through the woods, returning to his mother, to be forgiven, the plants he could not identify.

One summer morning, he returned to the hole, his looks haggard and dreamy. He confessed only to have strayed into a dream, lying on a hillside near Longbottom, in a field of sweet Galenas he was particularly fond of.

Alchemilla watched him closely, and tried to teach him the business more rigorously.

.oOo.

Tobold, whimsical and inventive, hardly gave the impression to assimilate his mother’s lessons.

Yet he did not miss a beat, but he updated the inventory of knowledge, in a critical and innovative way, far from the patient and dreary catalog of intractable Alchemilla.

Thus one day, he surprised his austere teacher, by submitting a personal theory. Over the years, analyzing the most effective part of each plant, he had also wondered about the most profitable way to absorb their essence.

Tobold had listed the different modes to administrate remedies, discussing the benefits and limitations of the ingestion of herbal teas or powder incorporated into foods, mouthwashes or gargles, fumigations or inhalations, poultices and lotions applied to the skin, baths.

After many experiments, he had concluded that the inhalation of the medicine in vapor form, assured in many cases the quickest diffusion of the active ingredient.

Only the enema could sometimes compete with this efficiency, but at the cost of insurmountable reluctance among most of their patients...

.oOo.

At the Inn of the Drunken Goose…

- "Then, Master Harold, will you tell us at last the secret of dreaded Alchemilla?

- I wish I could! But all my father was able to discover, is contained in these few lines from the will of my ancestor. Figure it who may:

I can promise the usufruct of my coveted secret, to anybody who follows the precepts heretofore: The Herbmaster, scrupulous about rules of his art, will collect and prepare his own herbs, varyingheir origin to ensure their sustainability, experience any potion without abusing it, and reveal the absence of secret to those he founds worthy of it."

.oOo.

NOTES
Adunaphel by Chiara Cadrich

.oOo.
-…I do not fear either pain, or death.’
- ‘What do you fear, Lady?’ he asked.
- ‘A cage’, she said. To stay behind bars, until use and old age accept them, and all chance of doing great deeds is gone beyond recall or desire.’
Eowyn and Aragorn, The return of the King, Book V

.oOo.
At the sign of the drunken goose…

The captain dislikes children.
Usually.
But this petty peasant girl has got wits and personality...
And above all she appreciates a well told story!
Yet, a story with a heroine, mastering her destiny... a girly saga, so to speak... What a disturbing idea!
But the ocean terror is not a man to lower his flag!
Especially since he has little public today...
So the young girl Eliaher will have her girly tale...

.oOo.
Numenor Island, peninsula of Orrostar

The girl rushed under the stone arch of the ancestral mansion, her arms full of shiny fabrics. Exotic silks swept the parquet of the ancient dwelling, as the heavy drapes slipped from the thin shoulders of the girl.
Adunaphel spread the rich treasures on the antique oak of the lord’s table. As the servants deposited her coffers around her, on a venerable moth-eaten bearskin – souvenir of the paternal hunts - she got ready to defend and extol her purchases.

Perfumes, velvets, spices, balms, satins, jewels, these extravagant riches bore, to the eyes of the outgoing only child, the lure of distant lands. Once a year, the reclusive heiress of the northern highland manor, was allowed to ride down to the royal market of Rómenna, Numenor’s largest heaven. There, the heavy ships unloaded the wonders of middle-earth, on large docks teeming with life. Spray bore a perfume of adventure, of many places to explore, of wealth to conquer.

These plots of a distant elsewhere, exiled in the moors of Orrosmere, these lavish promises of an exciting future, were the only luxury to distract Adunaphel’s boredom. The girl threw her insolent sea blue gaze to her parents, raising a determined chin, ready to face their recriminations.

But as usual, the bitter old man and the whimsical hostess were quarreling. Yet neither remembered the origin of these bitter disputes. The picky prosaic father was annoyed by the mother’s vapid musings. The selfish bohemian wife irritated by her husband’s avaricious pedantry.

Sighing with weariness, Adunaphel brought out her treasures. Oh, leaving Orrosmere... deserting its wastes and moors, fleeing its uneducated drovers and travel the wide world!

Cramped in this dark dusty manor, the girl had long dreamed that a bold sailor would save her destiny, deprive the dismal monotony of the desert heaths, to sail with her to a distant glory.

.oOo.
Sitting under the ancient arch of her clan, Adunaphel glared the men who succeeded before her. The contenders bowed obsequiously or clumsily, with awkward homages. None could take up the mediocrity of this pitiful flock, rigged with worn party clothes and wargear of another age, to woo the young woman!

The impetuous flower of her youth had hatched into a beautiful young woman, fiery and determined. At her adorable feet, were gathering tasteless gifts - sheep skins, baskets or boxwood trinkets. Only a few weapons, forged with the steel of her province( ), proved worthy of Númenórean engineering, and found favor with the heiress.

Adunaphel took a jaded look of the assembly, recognising with disdain, the striking effect of her proud bearing and radiant beauty, on this uncouth rabble of enamored males.

On the death of her father, her mother had run away, pursuing her fantasies with the last elves who still attended the western heavens. Therefore the King's Men( ) had seized the domain, suspecting some treachery. The young woman, out of arguments, had appealed to the clan’s lawyer, a distant cousin.

From the corner of her eye, she watched her savior, who stood by her side. His aquiline profile seemed to smile at the ceremony, as if the ridiculousness of each contender strengthened his own position, and drew nearer the inevitable bridal outcome. Adunaphel ranted inside, against the smooth, greedy and lustful cousin, but for now only his presence was holding the bailiffs in respect.
Cornered in this ancestral prison, the young woman now knew she should rely on herself only to seize her destiny, and sail to a distant glory.

.oOo.
Island de Numenor, heaven of Romenna,

Adunaphel, dressed and disguised like a man, roamed in the docks of the commercial heaven, her jewelery hidden tight under the seam of her leather belt. Commodities and sailors crossed in a perpetual mess, nevertheless to supply the beautiful alignment in the warehouses. Horses pawed at the capstan hoists, carts were delivering food, immediately embarked on the ships’ large bellies in a dizzying hubbub.

Several times she had to pretend to draw her sword, pushing away marauding troopers and ribald sailors. She was in a hurry to leave Numenor. The liquidation of her assets and gifts, had not gone unnoticed. Her bedridden cousin would soon recover, she had little time.

But luck favors the bold. A not-so-scrupulous looking captain agreed to take her on, for the price of her brightest ruby.

During the crossing, Corumir, a young corsair with a hell seductive scar, killed time with her by exchanging lessons of dock-fight with lute lessons. And sometimes their limbs mingled in melee, in accordance with the sweetness of the tune.

Rocked by the waves in a makeshift hammock, the young woman had seized her fate, and was sailing for adventure to distant shores.

.oOo.
Middle-earth, Umbar bay, Grand Market

Adunaphel glared the crowd with all her hatred, chained on the platform. The rebel jolts of her bare breasts were fanning the jeers of the motley crowd. A big fat-lipped trader in rich saffron robe, outbided the prices thrown by a stumpy bully, whose two scimitars were crossed in the back of his shining armor.

Under the mocking gaze of Corumir, the warrior with a gleaming skull won the auction, smoothing his impressive mustache with a fine air of a connoisseur. Adunaphel had been sold, between the fish auction hall and the cloth market, the rich arabesques of which she had recognized.
Stripped and whipped for the pleasure of the crowd, the young woman was crying her destiny, and ruminated a distant revenge.

.oOo.
Middle-earth, Umbar bay, Vamag Peninsula

Beyond the arcades enclosing the seraglio’s garden, the ocean sparkled in the moonlight. Under the lunar shade of orange trees fragrant foliage, a fountain sang softly.
Kneeling before her lord and master, who was lounging on a soft bed of silk, Adunaphel dragged subtle enchantments from her lute, that night after night, helped the irascible bully to overcome his insomnia.

As the young woman sounded her latest chords, an affected applause came to break the spell, awakening Baron Vamag. The favorite, omnipotent eminence of the harem, jealously watched her influence. The vicious brunette with large doe eyes curled around the master, having the curtains closed by the eunuch in her service. Only his expert care could bring rest to the warrior who reigned hither...

.oOo.
Brutally woken from her sleep, Adunaphel felt a strong hand fall on her mouth and her neck crushed against the eunuch’s powerful chest.

Panic seized the young woman who struggled like a panther. Surprised by this opposition, the aggressor decided to get out of the common room, to finish his disgusting task. Tightening his grip on his victim who already weakened, he quickly walked around the garden pond.

But Adunaphel, in a last reflex, strongly tipped her weight across the legs of the eunuch, at the risk of breaking her neck. The mountain of flesh gave a little falsetto cry, when they swung into the calm water.

The eunuch, unlike the Númenorean, could not swim. She managed to get out of the basin, armed herself with a rake that was lying nearby. With a ruthless glint in her eyes, permanently prevented her attacker to get out.
The next day, the eunuch was found, obscene sperm whale floating off, his huge belly in the air, already swollen by decomposition.

He did not fail anyone, since the favorite, strangled in her private room, could not claim him. Horrible lacerations around the neck of the beautiful gazelle, looked like the powerful rings of a snake, that would have snared her in her sleep.

Forgetting these dramas, Adunaphel the survivor was tuning her lute and meditated the ways of destiny, glimpsing a distant light. ( )

.oOo.
Majestic in their sand-colored robes, three turbaned men advanced to meet the Baron. Putting their right hand on their chest, they solemnly bowed their sunburned proud faces. At the invitation of the Lord, the emissaries of Harad's tribes sat with him around a crafted brass tray. Until nightfall, coveting supremacy in the region, the conspirators meditated Numenor’s imperial policy, pondered the strength of their dangerous neighbor Borazôn and forged alliances.

Aside the baron, a kneeled scribe noted the talks down, completed a large map of the bay, and assessed the necessary supplies for the coalition troops. Discreetly consulted on crucial points Adunaphel took part in the negotiations, forging the political future of the region.

For several years, the energetic Númenorean assumed the authority of Baron Vamag in his absence. She had begun by imposing its power over the seraglio, then over all the palace internal affairs. Gradually, the baron had given her the stronghold’s economic reins. Her deep political intelligence had enabled her to overcome difficulties with merchants, farmers, miners and fishermen, modulating taxes, negociating transactions, ruling harshly when necessary.

Leaning on her plans and books of account, Adunaphel the housekeeper was building the foundations of her destiny, nourishing the desire of a distant power.

.oOo.
Middle-earth, Umbar bay, near the Borazôn stronghold

The cavalry of Southrons allies had long since disbanded. The phalanges of Vamag fled madly to their base camp, the pass of Isigir. There Adunaphel commanded the rearguard, in charge of troops logistics.

When news of the disaster spread, she knew her hour had come. The baron had just perished, his skirmishers defeated by the compact formation of Borazôn heavy infantry.

The descendant of Orrosmere’s lords proved a worthy commander. Her soldiers channeled the fugitives, providing water and the comfort of an entrenched rally point. Adunaphel showed an inflexible discipline, decapitating here and there recalcitrant sergeants. Her authority, revealed at the crucial moment, allowed to gather two-thirds of the dead Baron’s troops. When the heavily armed enemy formation, arrived exhausted at the top of the pass, it broke on the fortifications hastily built by the fugitives.

The allied tribes, flying to the rescue of victory, completed the success of the day, by harassing from horseback, the dismantled troops of the lord of Borazôn.

That night marked Adunaphel’s accession to power: a conquering Princess, she had built, by this unexpected victory over her powerful neighbor, a sustainable ascendancy over the proud warriors of Harad.

An unexpected satisfaction was even granted to her: the boorish scarred corsair, Corumir, was discovered an officer of the vanquished army. Delivered to her at sunset, feet and hands bound, the unfortunate tried to flex the new sovereign, but his flirtatious smile was betrayed by fear. He changed tactics, offering his arm and sword. Too bad - the hilt was adorned with jewels the robber had taken off his victim before selling her as a slave.

Adunaphel brilliantly donned her queen role - accepting the gift, she showed her gentleness, by condemning the guilty scum, only to the galleys. Indeed her fleet needed arms. Nevertheless she ruled an additional measure, in order to strengthen the contribution of the condemned. He was previously deprived of his male attributes, which significantly increased his muscle mass.

Perched on the stallion of her victory, Adunaphel the triumphant saw her destiny dawn on the verge of a distant satisfaction.

.oOo.
Middle-earth, Umbar bay, Vamag Peninsula

Arrows whistled, obscuring the sky. Powerful war machines were pounding the citadel where Adunaphel’s troops were entrenched. Standing on the battlements, the slender steel lady brandished her gleaming sword in challenge to the imperial legions of her native island. Her iron hand still maintained discipline among the faithful battalions, but for how long?

Tar-Atanamir, King of Numenor, tired by defections, betrayals and personal ambitions of his settlers - some of which had taken the lion’s share - sent an armada to restore the imperial order throughout the Bay of Umbar.
The admiral acted methodically, landing his army and re-deploying his fleet to block the heavens. He isolated his allied opponents with his light cavalry, cutting their lines of communication. His war machines reduced the strongholds one by one, after his invincible heavy infantry had broken the charges of Southrons riders.

The steel lady, the tribes feared and respected, hid her anger behind unwavering obstinacy. Submitting, bowing down before the admiral was inconceivable. Yet tomorrow, assault would be given, and nothing could stop it.
Surrounded in her dungeon, Adunaphel the besieged cursed her fate, fuming with rage under the impassive eye of the númenórean admiral, who was watching her with his spyglass, from a distance.

.oOo.
At nightfall, the shots stopped raining on the gutted fortress. Darkness spread in deep silence, leaving the besieged to their dark thoughts. The moon did not rise that night. A mist crept through the valleys, paralyzing the living with an irresistible lethargy.

The steel lady, at the top of her tower, saw a hooded shape advancing, shadow of terror among the mirages of a night without hope. Had death come personally to avoid her ignominious surrender and grant a noble end?

But Death does not speak. And the Mouth( ) long urged her. Exalting Adunaphel’s desire for high deeds and domination, the envoy rejected any end. The Prince of the Night offered a chance. The opponent of Numenor recognized the value of Adunaphel and proposed an alliance. And to seal the latter, He would provide a powerful token. And the future would open to the strong who would join in His just struggle. A high destiny, eternal, waited for the few who dare force glory.

Even driven to the brink, Adunaphel remained a clever woman. The Iron Lady probed the heart of the emissary, as she long had been able to read the souls of men. But the Mouth was not a man any more for ages...

She played her fate. With nothing to lose, Adunaphel took the pledge and became queen and sorceress, forever.

.oOo.
The next day, the assault found no defender. The ruins of Vamag housed only swarms of bats, the attackers could not reduce.

Doubt seized the Númenórean camp. Rumor has it that the Queen, a witch, had vanished in a noxious haze, carrying her troops in the folds of her night cloak, to the elusive heart of the Southron desert.

When the first cases of a strange ailment declared among the assault troops, they began to murmur that the magician had her revenge. The contagion seemed to come from the unfortunate the bats had bitten, who now died in agony. When the admiral succumbed to this unknown disease, the expeditionary corps broke camp, and sailed to Numenor.

Goddess of the nomads of the far South, Adunaphel had defeated her enemies, and her memory would rally her followers to revolt, until the dawn of time.

.oOo.
At the sign of the drunken goose…

In the darkness of the back room, an old man snorted, as if awakening from a dream. He emptied the ashes from his pipe into the fireplace, throwing from under his bushy eyebrows, a keen glance to the captain and his young audience. Many details of this story had just been revealed to him. But he alone knew the true end.

Drawing on his ash stick, the old man came to sit near the captain. Stroking his long gray beard indifferently, he gave the epilogue, watching from the corner of his eye, the reactions of the young Eliahel:

- For decades, the steel lady beleaguered the tribes of Harad against the Númenórean invader - and later against Gondor.

For the pledge that was granted to her, gave an indescribable power. Undisputed mistress of the wastes south of Mordor, she reigned for centuries on its nomadic peoples, as a revered and feared goddess.

The pledge Adunaphel had accepted long preserved her sumptuous body, far beyond the natural life of the Númenóreans. Her flamboyant beauty and fiery eyes subdued all living.

But this terrible token was none other than one of the nine rings of power of old tales. The existence of the steel lady, indefinitely extended by the voracious and insatiable desire of the Great Eye, was dried of her own vitality.

Spear of terror in the inexorable hand of her master, parched spirit surviving a corrupted flesh, Adunaphel the Nazgûl was subjected forever to an inexhaustible thirst for domination, which did not belong to her any more.

.oOo.
The gravity of the cooper by Chiara Cadrich
The gravity of the cooper

My participation for the challenge "A character and an apple" of the “Poney Fringuant”.

.oOo.

At the sign of the Prancing Poney

A solid hobbit was rolling an enormous cask of cider in the courtyard of the inn. The metal hoops of the barrel rattled on the ancient paving stones. Master Perry’ carrier, an important liquor merchant in the East Farthing, scratched his impressive sideburns, arched his back to overcome the dungeon steps. Master Gigolet, coming to his aid, noticed some curious pins forged on the hoops of the barrel.
- Oh! Yes, that’s a friend of mine’s beautiful invention. I wish I could use it here! But let me tell you that...
The delivery hobbit sat down on the vast marble steps of the main building, wiping his bare forehead. He needed a break...


.oOo.

Bywater coopery, several years ago…

Whistling with detachment, Abaloc attached the last barrel in his cart, under the critical eye of his elder brother:
- Master Perry ordered his dozen casks for tomorrow night. You have time for four trips back and forth!
But young Abaloc had other plans in mind. A certain waitress at a certain inn of Whitefurrows, deserved he would load his cart, a little more than usual, to afford a stop on the way and a little tete-a-tete by candlelight!

Thus the youngest son of the Newtonne family, who was in charge of deliveries, had adjusted the pegs of his cart in order to ensure the balance of four imposing oak barrels.

- Do not worry! Daddy’s tons are solid and the road descends all the way from here to Whitefurrows! Three trips will suffice! Father Perry will pour his fermented juices into casks as planned! You were not annoyed last year by the barrel of "Perrysweet" he gave us in thanks!
The elder shrugged. Indeed, the vintage had left him with a delicious and lasting amber sensation, like a ray of summer dispensed in the middle of winter. His younger brother, though hardly skilled with a cooper’s knife, knew how to maintain the network of customers and the reputation of the Newtonne house, expert in barrels, casks and barrels of all sizes, for generations. Abaloc developed his empathy in any inn, praising the quality of the liquors that family production helped to maintain. He had a knack with landlords and brewers, and, though incapable of handling the dolor without injuring himself, he was given credit for a fine gift of the gab.

The young hobbit checked his knots, then harnessed the mule with a resigned gaze. The gentle animal knew too well, who would have to overcome the not-so-flat road.

.oOo.

Abaloc started the cart, all perky at the thought of the beautiful smile of his beloved. The mule scowled somehow, then trotted softly under the expert whip of the delivery boy. The miles passed quickly through the fresh air of October, under the joyful squalls of passerines.
But what was to happen, proved not long in coming.
Shortly after Frogmorton, the cart began to squeal so naggingly, that even the mule was worried.

Our hobbit stopped, and could only note the damage. Under the cart’s excessive weight, a wheel had distorted, threatening the axle to yield.

.oOo.

His heart enraged, Abaloc unharnessed, unloaded, disassembled the wheel, and ran down to Whitefurrows. There he had to struggle with a very uncooperative wheelwright. To help the craftsman adjust and recirculate the distorted wheel, he even had to consent to replace his apprentice, who had mysteriously eclipsed on his arrival!

Finally, after several hours of palavers and sweat at the bellows of the forge, Abaloc was finally able to run back to his cart and on the road again.

But as he passed the inn, he caught sight of his pretty waitress, who shared winks and trays with the wheelwright’s apprentice, by candlelight!

.oOo.

Our poor and bitter hobbit delivered his four barrels, had to bow during Master Perry’s grumbling about his first delivery delay, and went away piteously. The day was falling on the sweet countryside of the East Farthing, foggy with grim mists of autumn.

His situation was not brilliant. He had eight casks left to deliver, and he would scarcely have time to return to Bywater before nightfall. This meant he would still have to make three trips, because with such a wretched cart, he could certainly not load more than three barrels per trip. But three trips were not possible in one day...

Abaloc mulled the problem over, he could not see how to get away with it. He would have to confess his delay to his family, to stand his brothers’ jeers, to apologize to the customer...

.oOo.

Dismayed by all his disappointments, our poor hobbit made a halt and sought a little comfort at the bottom of his food basket. The mule chewed its oat peck, while the clerk leaned against the wrinkled trunk of an apple tree.

Abaloc contemplated the valley, which bucolic appearance and still green sage grove would have delighted his hobbit heart, in other circumstances. Not far away the Water [1] unrolled its brown curls swollen with the rains of the day before. A hive nestled at the fork of the apple tree where he had found refuge, cradling our hero with a reassuring purr.

He slowly ate the victuals prepared by Mother Newtonne. Abaloc realised he was missing a dessert when he had his last bad luck - an apple fell on his head!

Not his day. The last apple of the tree was bound for his poor woolly head! A little annoyed, he nevertheless had the reflex to appropriate the culprit, in order to extort a hungry revenge from it.

But the crumpled apple began to roll in the grassy slope, now leaping between the clods, a hobbit at its heels. Despite his agility, he could not catch up with the fruit, which fell into the river. He watched the gilded apple move away, dancing softly on the beer-colored wave.

At last Abaloc had an idea of genius! He was going to use the river to tow his barrels from Bywater to Whitefurrows! By letting them float, tied to each other, he could make one journey in one day and keep his promise!

.oOo.

And that was how young Newtonne , discovered the secrets of universal – casks - traction, thanks to an apple that had fallen on his head. But you already knew this story? Undoubtedly, a scientist in search of an attractive reputation, will have diverted this anecdote to formulate a minor discovery.

What is less well known, is that on the same day, Abaloc [2] had experienced another essential principle, which says that the attraction of bodies, though universal, is not necessarily reciprocal. Here is a grave founding law, that only a hobbit maid could have brought to light, and which has escaped all our learned plagiarists!

.oOo.

NOTES
[1] River of the Shire, which originates in the west farthing near Needlehole, flows east through the Rushock marshes, then passes between Hobbiton and Bag-end, before feeding The Bywater pool. After which its course, swollen by all the rivulets of the valley, runs parallel to the Great East Road, from Frogmorton to Whitefurrows, and throws itself into the Brandywine at Bridgefields.

[2] Abaloc, whose name uses the radical Afal / Aval - the apple in gaelic - had a second surname Isahoc, so his full name was Isahoc Newtonne. Any resemblance with an English scientist of the 17th century would be pure coincidence.
Pretty Suite from the Hills by Chiara Cadrich

Pretty suite From the hills.
.oOo.

At the sign of the Drunken Goose…

The old ranger rarely passes by the Drunken Goose. When he comes to rest, he tells the villagers the adventures of his youth. In fact, it is not clear how old the man can be: his bare forehead denies a robust carcass. But mostly, his stories are a little strange. It seems that the ranger has lived them, although they seem to tell of distant centuries.
.oOo.

In a hidden mansion of the Dùnedain, between the lake and the hills...

Behind the fogged diamonds, the snowy hills were lost in the grayness of a winter morning. The boy's mind was wandering alongside the Dùnedain hunters.
- Arahad, would you please repeat the fourth movement of the suite, in A major?

The boy startled, back in the old tower of the worm-eaten mansion.

His music teacher - a distant aunt, Arahad called her the old goat - had a rattling voice, and absolutely horrifying calls to order. The old goat’s long virtuoso fingers stirred for a moment on the strings of her harp, chanting a chord in G major, of ample majesty.

Arahad's crazy head, still ruffled by his imaginary ride in the Twilight Hills, spat out with vexation:
- "Why should we learn all this? There's no point, for defeating orcs!"

After a pained nod, the old lady retorted in her ragged voice:
- "Orcs make no music. Are you not better than an orc?

You only think of fighting! The exploits of your father, our lord Araglas, have no other object than to preserve the greatness of the Dùnedain, our arts, and our literature, in the hope that one day they may be reborn.

Much more than the glory of our lineage, it is your sister’s grace and your brother’s lore he is protecting, and you will soon have to protect, and better still, to transmit to the next generation! Our people have gone into the darkness to survive the hatred of the Witch-King of Angmar; But each of our shadows must be equally valiant with a sword or a feather. "

Arahad looked for help around him.

His elder sister, who usually embraced her siblings with a serene and protective glance, looked at him severely. Her bearing regal, as befits in the line of Isildur, and her bust straight in an austere wimple, the young girl held her bow with a supple and graceful wrist. Ready to attack the suite of Arvedui on her viola da gamba, Eleanor [1] waited for the goodwill of the cadet, her eyebrow and little finger in the air.

The younger brother, perched on a stool between his elder sister and the professor, tried to hide behind his pipe, a smile of embarrassed complicity. As a silence lingered on, little Dirhad, without saying a word, sketched some notes on his instrument with his graceful fingers.

Arahad thanked him with eyelashes. Hesitantly, he reproduced the movement on his recorder. O Miracle! Dirhad had transposed from memory, the sequence his elder brother missed.

The theme rose almost in spite of himself, a modest lament chanting the harshness of the hills, soon relayed by a ritornello of the pipe, hopping like a stream running down the slopes to Lake Evendim. The fullness of summer bathed the small paneled room, as the majestic viola took the counterpoint of the recorder and embraced whole Eriador, loaded with ears and grapes formerly harvested by the Dùnedain. The professor's harp resumed the theme, taking the children to the ice of Forochel, where the treasures of the Dùnedain kingdom in the north lay, according to legend, since the last King of Fornost had hidden them there.[2]

The suite [3] ended. The children emerged from an awakened dream, a little astonished at having overcome it, as if the force of the theme had carried them to its long-anticipated end. A knowing smile sketched on Eleanor's gentle and almost maternal face, lit up Dirhad's studious look, stretched a satisfied grin on Arahad's fierce lips, before sowing a tear on the professor's dry, wrinkled cheek.
.oOo.

Several years later…

The exhausted Dunedain were laid all over the old marbles. The patrol, surprised by the enemy, dressed his wounds and recovered his strength. Arahad, guided by the instinct of Isildur, had known how to rally his men and lead them into a hidden refuge. The leader of the rangers was now making the tour of the bivouacs, comforting his fighters. At the vigil, his younger brother told them the tale of the Kings.

"... and you will call him Arvedui, for he will be the last in Arthedain. But a choice will be offered to the Dùnedain, and if they take the least promising in appearance, then your son will change his name and he will become sovereign of a vast kingdom. Otherwise, great evils will happen and many men's lives will pass before the Dùnedain can rise again and recover their old unity." [4] Thus spoke Malbeth [5] in the hour of peril for the kingdom of the north. And since that time, the Dùnedain cherished the memory of their greatness, a tenacious hope and hidden ferment of a distant renewal.

Then rose a little duo of flutes, light as a breeze in the branches of hazel. In the cheerful melodies of the two brothers, echoed the heroism of the kings and the patience of the wise. And soon hummed the whole company, the comforting airs of the suite of the hills.
.oOo.

Several years later…

The Dùnedain, clad in coats of arms, had gathered around their captain. The rich tunics and the gaudy robes flaunted in the breeze which bathed the consecrated place.
Like a sapphire entwined between the hills, Lake Evendim shimmered below. No queen of Fornost had ever worn, a jewel more magnificent for her marriage.

Arahad and his bride exchanged their vows before their friends and relatives, under Manwë's gaze. The suite of the hills rose, a joyful blessing for the married couple and a solemn promise of renewed hope.
.oOo.

Several years later…

The west wind blew on the Barrow-Downs. In the shadow of a raised stone, a majestic woman drew desperate chords of the viola of her childhood.

The ladies of the Dùnedain whispered with her, along with the low humming of the men, young and old gathered around them, like a ramparts of lofty statures.

Beneath the vault of heaven flew sad clouds. One last time the suite of the hills rang in honor of the man who had fallen to defend it.

The lord of the rangers played his score alongside his sister, as his companions carried to the grave the remains of their brother Dirhad, a wise among the brave.

As the sun suddenly pierced the clouds, the moorland blossom lit up with warm purples. Arahad thought with gratitude, that no king of Annuminas had ever had a more sumptuous funeral, under his golden catafalque.
.oOo.

In the hidden mansion of the Dùnedain, several years later…

A kid glared at the rolling hills through the diamonds. Not far away, a new sun illuminated a spring valley with gold. The child was running in a dream among the broom, in the land of sprites. His hands had fallen down the strings of an old harp. [6]

A beautiful lady finished a solemn minuet with a graceful bow. In a firm and gentle tone, she recalled her pupil from his reverie, then handed the grinning boy back to work. From time to time she would glance at a pram, where a toddler had fallen asleep by the purring of her viola. A nostalgic smile passed over the lady's regal face, when a tall man entered the room.

The leather of his equipment seemed lustered, and his cloak worn out by a long use under any weather. But a star, a silver fibula, shone on his tunic, designating him as the chief of the Dùnedain of Arnor. The ranger was watching the scene with a dreamy, amused look as an air of sweet eternity sang to his mind.

The kid, blowing with a sulky look, took advantage of the interlude to interrupt his scales:
- "Were you obliged to learn all this too?"

The warrior read a spark of rebellious hope in the kid's pupil, in search of a paternal dispensation. Arahad hesitated. His own scales were a bit rusty...

The lady raised a teasing eyebrow - she straightened up and dressed her bow, as if to inspire her brother. The ranger smiled at her, took a long object out of his quiver, unrolled the satin stuff.

Then Eleanor and Arahad intoned the opening. As if by magic, the vault opened and scents of pine trees descended from the Blue Mountains. The suite of the hills, like in the past, led the audience through the paths of remembrance and hope.

The child under the spell abandoned himself to the fullness of the chords celebrating the austere beauty of the Ettenmoors. Savoring the subtle harmony that enveloped the Baranduin's millennial course, he remained speechless for a moment.

Then it came to his mind that he, too, would probably have to prove himself to the ungrateful kingdom of scales and arpeggios.
- "Then you must have learned all the whole suite?"
- "No, my son, I do not know the end of it. But we shall teach you what we have learned, to your little cousin, to you and all who will come. Then it will be up to you to take over the suite, and perhaps will you be among these who will finish it?
.oOo.

At the sign of the Drunken Goose…

Will you believe it? The old ranger manages with his pipe! When he plays a ritornello, the youths leap on the old flagstones, invite their gallants and soon the whole room knock their hands in cadence, as if one were celebrating the return of the king in beautiful spring!
.oOo.


NOTES
0- Inspiration : La petite fugue,Maxime Le Forestier. La suite des montagnes, Alan Stivell
1- In sindarin, the etymology of this modern name gives « Sun of the elvish world » (El – Eä – Anor). Nice chance?
2- These are two of the Palantiri of the North.
3- A suite, in Western classical music and jazz, is an ordered set of instrumental or orchestral or concert band pieces.
4- The Lord of the Rings. Appendix A
5- Master Palantir-Seer, who predicted the fall of the Dunedain of Arnor. His name means « Golden Speech » in Sindarin.
6- In passing, allow me to praise ancient music and the consort. Just as a counterbalance to king instruments - piano and violin - the classical tenors of which neglect too often, sometimes to the point of contempt, the medieval and baroque masterpieces that gave birth to them.
Hearing at Brandy Hall by Chiara Cadrich
Hearing at Brandy-Hall

.oOo.

This fic is my participation for the Poney Fringuant challenge “A picnic”.

.oOo.
At the sign of the Drunken Goose…

Harold Hornblower, a pint in his hand and a chicken pestle in the other, remembers some gastronomic anecdotes about Buckland.

.oOo.
Brandy-Hall…

A mixed crowd of hobbits of both sexes and all ages massed from the vestibule to the reception hall of Brandy-Hall. Respectfully lined up under the austere gaze of the ancestors framed between the joists, they scrutinized and eagerly tilted their ears in the direction of the room where the Master of Buckland sat. A solid farmer had brought a gigantic pumpkin, rolling it before him on the lustrous floors of the ancient manor. Behind him, a hobbit woman with red cheeks cast eloquent glances at him, without noticing that an urchin was chomping at an apple in her basket. A little farther on, a stout fellow, his tools hanging from his belt, was wiping his forehead with his handkerchief with an anxious air. A young maid was fluttering from one to the other, bringing a refreshment to an old man, or a stool to a pregnant hobbit, unable to answer the question that everybody asked her: "When is it my turn?

Indeed, the clan chief - Garbadoc, the Brandybuck [1], master of Buckland - held an audience every morning during the week, and watched protestors and complainants processing before him. His authority was recognized on both sides of the Brandywine, from Stock to the swamps of Deephollow, and the slightest neighborhood dispute was obviously submitted to his arbitration.

But today the mob was losing patience. A cousin by marriage of the Brandybucks, who had come to pay an old debt in kind, held in his arms a turbulent piglet, which smell and ardor gave way around him. When his standing repayment kept quiet, it was the cousin who grumbled with as much ill-humor as propriety permitted him to manifest.

For the line was not advancing. The applicants had been making the crane since early morning, waiting for the goodwill of the householder. Mother Lactantia had already demanded a bench, where she was giving her large breasts to her little ones, to the great relief of all, for the feeding had stopped the braying of the hungry babies. After the two breakfasts and the morning snack, the gurgling of the empty bellies became insistent along the queue. Marmosets and adults threw indecent looks of envy on the baskets and trays, which the contestants had brought to sustain their requests.

The situation had become critical. The private audience of an old Weasel seemed to drag on - Weasel is the name of an elderly hobbit, of course. So the young maid ventured to the door of the court-room, and politely scrawled on the walnut burr.
...
No answer.
...
New scratches.
...
Not better.

The maid turned round to the long line of the applicants, whose insistent eyes all converged towards her pretty white taffeta cap, now quite unmade. Under the popular pressure, she slowly opened a door and glanced.

Immediately the young hobbit girl hurriedly closed the door and, pale and a little trembling, faced the visitors:
- I ... I'm going to get help!

As she slipped out of the corridor, the applicants looked at each other in amazement.

Shortly afterwards, the servant returned, with her short, pressed step, followed by the hushed stride of M. Gorbulas, who held the charge of “Manor Mayor”, that is approximately a butler.

The nephew of the clan chief, in his turn, opened the door with the unctuous discretion he was known for.

After a brief glance, he closed it as fast as the servant had done. Having recovered his countenance, he announced with the honeyed and sententious tone of a palace-clerk:
"Dear visitors, please do not falter! We shall soon remedy such a distressing situation!

And he rushed in turn in the corridor, followed by the maid. This time, regards and murmurs of astonishment became tinged with a little commiseration.

Then came the sturdy strides of Mr. Rorimac himself, son and heir of the Brandybuck, carrying in their wake the obsequious steps of Gorbulas and the breathless trotting of the servant.

Rorimac opened the wing, risked a look and closed the door. After a short consultation with his acolytes, he turned with embarrassment towards the visitors, cleared his voice with dignity and declared:

"Still a little patience, that should not go on forever."
And the trio went up the hall. This time a hint of anxiety could be seen in the visitors' gaze. A baby began to cry.

But soon there was a tinkling in the corridor, the energetic and jerky stumbling of Mirabella Took's shoes and cane. She was the wife of Gorbadoc and mistress of the manor. Son, nephew, and maid followed her, half reassured by the presence of a superior authority, and half frightened by what might result. Mirabella, her brows furrowed, had the doors wide open.

.oOo.

Slumped in his large audience chair, Gorbadoc, the venerable Brandybuck dean, was gently snoring in his august sleep. The complainant seemed to have fallen asleep too, bending on her stool. Doubtless both had fallen into abysmal reflections, where fatigue had surprised them. The applicant, a renowned herbal mistress in the Shire, had a somewhat fiendish reputation, to hold secrets of youth. In fact she had come to claim the Brandybuck should grant her access to the Old Forest, to collect herbs that grew only there.

An embarrassed silence ensued, when the visitors discovered what the clan chief was devoting his private audiences. All of them noticed a small vial, on the low table within reach of the Brandybuck. Apparently the treatment of youth needed a lot of sleep! Some tense smiles were sketched on the lips of the most irreverent, but none dared to laugh openly or to cast gibes. Yet the rumor was spreading towards the rear of the mob, which massed at the entrance of the seraglio.

Only Mirabella seemed really comfortable. It must be said that the daughter of the Old Took, one of the famous triplets , had always held her rank among the Shire’s public affairs. She went up the room to her husband's arm-chair, and loudly struck the slab with her cane.

The Brandybuck opened a lazy eye. He perceived the crowd of curious hobbits massed at the entrance of the court-room, full of gifts and armed with requests. There was a blacksmith who had come to obtain a delay for his debt, several of his farmers bringing their tithes to him, masons whom he had summoned to reinforce the crossbow bridge, and many allies of his family, he felt a little shaken in their confidence in his authority. The livid and petrified air of his maidservant, the stilted posture of his majordomo, the contrite face of his son, and the smug smile of his wife, told a lot about his household’s disappointment. He felt he would have to channel this mass of people and deal with their demands with flying colors.

- "I was meditating… deeply… on the case of Mother Alchemilla," he said, in order to gain time, while standing up a little in his chair.

As a matter of fact, he had gone asleep on a problem of conscience: to allow the herbmistress to enter the Old Forest was no problem for him, but he had to ensure the safety of the old Weasel. And the worm-eaten strains of the Withywindle sometimes made jokes ... totally inappropriate. The old lady, very authoritative and independent, refused any form of escort: "I must be able to look for any plant, precisely at maturity, whatever time of the day or phase of the moon, without dragging with me one of your Brandybuck heavyweights!" She insisted. How could he ensure access for her, and remove unwanted creatures away from the hay?

- "And have you finally ruled, Most Dear, on the case of Mother Alchemilla?" his wife told him, with a certain decorum, not without irony.

Gorbadoc’s pupil shone with a brilliance of intelligence, chasing away any remaining of drowsiness:
- "Absolutely!" He yelped with a jolly air.

Mirabella gave him a broad smile, this time without any irony:
- "Maybe now we should take care of the others..." she whispered
- "But I already gave a thought to that!"

It goes without saying he had not thought about it at all. According to his intuition of the moment, he raised his tone, standing up like the Mayor of Hobbiton at the tribune:

- "I order a large picnic on the bank of the Brandywine, at the clearing of Haysend!" Let the ban of my debtors proceed and join who’s pleased!

.oOo.

Immediately the entire household began to move. The maid told the kitchens, the butler levied the pantry, and Rorimac summoned the family, while the invigorated crowd emptied the place.

Soon a continuous line of wagons and armored cars had been formed and was moving southward, constantly reinforced by families who joined the procession, some with hams and sausages, others with loaves and buns, and the more modest with loads of vegetables from their gardens. As Gorbulas passed the great gate of Brandy-Hall, driving a cart loaded with pots, cheeses and a few very promising barrels, Gorbadoc charged Rorimac with a rather special errand under Mirabella's knowing glance.

The joyous cavalcade, augmented by a few families at each farm, reached the end of the road at Haysend. The hedge of hawthorns and brambles, which separated the bocage from the Old Forest, joined the river almost at the point where the Withywindle River was pouring its living waters into the muddy stream of the Brandywine. On the greasy lawn of the bank, a picnic-in-the-countryside was improvised, one of the most memorable during the reign of Gorbadoc.

A first snack, solid, swift and unadorned, first restored the declining forces of the applicants who had been waiting all morning long at Brandy-Hall. Then the Master of Buckland gave them a generous speech, which exempted his debtors, for the price of the victuals supplying the picnic. The arbitrations were postponed to a later date, and it is even said that some of the adversaries reconciled themselves around Mirabella’s famous pies. But the cunning patriarch also put to work the craftsmen that were there. In a record time, the masons, helped by the numerous Brandybuck, Took, Bolger, Weasel and other cousins, excavated a tunnel and erected a solid door under the hedge. Gorbadoc solemnly handed a key to Alchemilla, while retaining a double for the use of the family.

When the earthwork was over, a real feast was organized. The barrels of beer and wine were drilled, and an open-air kitchen improvised around the pins where some arrears of debts were already roasted, in the form of a pig and a few sheep. The good mood swept across the company like a stream descending from the summits after a period of drought. They ventured to hunt mushrooms on the other side of the hedge, and the whole assembly regaled themselves with a gigantic omelet with bacon and mushrooms, after Alchemilla had sorted the harvest. A certain Bilbo Baggins, one of Mirabella’s nephews, an eccentric still unmarried, amused the assembly with his tricks - he disappeared under the table as if by magic, then reappeared behind the barrel of beer, maliciously showing the pocket-watch stolen from the Master of Buckland!

When the Brandy-Hall orchestra began its first jig, an ovation greeted Gorbadoc and Mirabella. A considerable number of hobbits from both shores of the Brandywine had joined the merry company, which made high noise and great feast all afternoon. Games and contests were going well, encouraging unexpected encounters.

At supper-time, the kitchenware and teams of the inns around had been called as reinforcements, for newcomers had swelled the ranks of the party-goers. Lanterns were suspended at the branches of the hedge and aspens along the Brandyvine. The impromptu picnic now looked quite like a wedding feast, though the guests were lying in the grass on the flowery tablecloths of Brandy-Hall.

Then came a tall figure, all dressed in gray. Rorimac had gone to fetch him on behalf of his parents, and had found him at the Prancing Pony at Bree. Stuffed and cheerful, the hobbits were not alarmed by his presence, although his reputation as a "trouble-peace" had long been established. Sat to the right of the Brandybuck, the old man smoothed his long white beard with a dubious air, but his black pupils shone an amused brilliance under his broad-brimmed hat. The wizard puffed strangely evocative smoke rings from his pipe:

- To share the benefit of your debts, to carry your household to the banks of the Brandywine, to dig a second access under the hedge, and all this for Widow Hornblower? What a strange idea...
- The whole neighborhood will benefit from it. And I am pleased to see that the debts I have cancelled, have been spontaneously shared by the beneficiaries. As for Mother Alchemilla, she is a valuable help to my people. We owe her that.
- You killed two birds with one stone...
- I had to re-raise my prestige somehow... Some brilliant action was required!
- You have acted wisely, said the old man, by relieving the poor.
- But Gandalf ... What about the creatures along the Withywindle?

The wizard smoked and breathed a curious volute in the form of a little bearded figure, with a feather in his hat.
-"Oh, if I were you, I would not worry too much," he answered, winking. With the rustle you've made here all day long, I wager that the grumpy old strains have retreated to the heart of the Old Forest! And I shall send a message to old friends who can watch over the tranquility of the river...

.oOo.

It is said that after this memorable picnic, the Brandybuck did not hide any more from having the restorative naps. These interludes were salutary, he said, to give wise judgments. Occasionally, the naps were prolonged unreasonably, even during public hearings. His entourage let it be, for it is said that right decisions were made at the moment of awakening – anyway who would have dared to interrupt the Master of Buckland’s inspiration? Some even suspected he did not always fall asleep, but sometimes observed the attitude of the plaintiffs, behind his half-closed eyelids, which helped him to form an opinion.
.oOo.

Notes
[1] The clan leader is called this way.
[2] Mirabella, Belladona and Donamira were a famous trio of shameless hobbit triplet sisters. It is said that the old Took had married a fairy, and that all the fantasy, independence, oddity, and even the magical powers of his wife, had incarnated in the rebellious personalities of their triplets.
[3] Alchemilla Weasel, widow Hornblower. You've heard about her.
Adar Nostomereth by Chiara Cadrich
.oOo.
At the sign of the Drunken Goose…

Farm hands and craftsmen huddle around the hearth that brightens up the ancient walls with warm, reassuring reflections. Despite the bitter cold around Thalion, the winter chores are progressing well; cowherds and farmers share a well-deserved mulled wine. Yesterday Master Finran gathered the neighbours to kill the pig in the castle courtyard, so a little festive air is sounding now for the winter solstice. Tonight the great candlebearer has been hoisted, a souvenir of the royal festivals, filled with all its candles.

Some wrinkled apples, the children of the class have removed from the attic racks, simmer gently in mouth-watering molasses, while the black blood pudding is perkily fricoting. The baker is greeted with cheers when her chubby arms distribute full trays of hazelnuts cookies, while the landlord is pulling the first white beer...

Now is the time for old stories, enriched at each solstice eve.

.oOo.

Somewhere in the Shire, during the Long Winter 2911-2912 of sinister memory…

- Hey, Grazer! Giddyup, Cabochon!

The cart squeaked painfully in the roaring wind. Josso flogged his wobbly hitch with anguish, looking at the snow heaps that blocked the way. The ox and the donkey did their best, but struggled to drag the overloaded cart. The eldest son pushed bravely to the wheel, even though the snowdrifts were already over his shoulder.

- "We should never have left our hole in these conditions," Josso told himself.

Yet his wife, inspired by some imperious dream, had insisted on joining the great smials of the Tucks before the expected birth. What a foollish thing to do…

The utter cold colored his cheeks with carmine, but his brown locks now bent under the frost. Josso composed a voluntary and optimistic face to glance under the cart’s tarpaulin. His two daughters were supporting his wife, who was lying on a bundle of straw, while his youngest son was watching and filling a small iron stove.

Josso flogged again, obtaining an admirable pull from his team, so devoted but so unsuitable... The wind softened a little, but the snow fell in heavier flakes. The road and the green hills country, unrecognizable, slowly disappeared under a thick pallid and uniform shroud, which erased all the likeable beauties and the least points of reference in the landscape.

Suddenly a cry of stifled terror sounded under the tarpaulin. The scared face of the youngest daughter appeared in the front and stammered, her lips a little shaking:
- Mom just lost the waters!

Our hobbit suddenly lost that rosy complexion that had been his youth’s success. He had faced many perilous or annoying situations, but this expedition looked beyond his strength.
- … We'll arrive soon! he shouted with as little conviction as he had left.

But the worried look he gave to his eldest bracing on the wheel, belied the decided tone of his words...

Then the bursts of wind rose again, intertwined with long howls that froze the blood. Father and son looked at each other with fright.

Pairs of oblong eyes appeared here and there, shining with an evil flame and staring at the petrified cart. Then grey silhouettes flowed silently in the white fog, soft and menacing...

.oOo.

He had appeared from nowhere.
Armed with their straw-forks, Josso and his elder son Bosso, cornered at their frightened hitch, desperately repelled the pack’s cowardly attacks.

One had just heard tiny tinglings and, in a lightning, his tall figure had thundered the leader, a vicious white wolf, that rolled mad red eyes and drooled a thick bloody foam. Then his sword had slain an enormous wolf, with a ruffled grey pelt.

Soon fear had changed sides. Two swift she-wolves had their pelt scorched and flew for cover under the forest, large ghostly mass from which emerged sad frozen branches. The pack disbanded with pitiful yelps.

Josso and Bosso, quite surprised at being still alive, sharply looked at the new-comer. The end of his staff still shone with a flickering light, as their saviour was approaching, dragging on the snow a long sledged wooden box marked with a « G » rune. This recalled far souvenirs for both shocked hobbits – a vaguely familiar old grey man, fond of firelights. He took off his large-brim hat and smiled, but the fire of fight still lingered in his dark look. Apart from his wizard staff and his blazing broadsword, he almost looked like a gentle oldtimer, draped in his grey mantle.

But the Hobbits were shortly taken from their stupefied contemplation:
- Daddy, whimpered a small voice at the rear of the carriage.

Father and brother rushed to help the youngest daughter. They found her trembling under the tarpaulin she had defended, covered with blood.

A wolf lied dead at the back of the cart, a sharp butcher’s knife deeply plugged in its ear. The courageous young hobbit - Primavera – had fought with teeth and nails for her dear ones, as is said in Frogmorton, and slain the monster that had ventured its mouth into the cart. Miraculously, she had no harm other than some bruises – the blood on her face and dress was the beast’s. But that sticky dark venom disgusted her deeply…

.oOo.

The wizard had quickly taken charge of everything, loaded his own box in the cart and had led the family to a nearby sheepfold, nearly buried under the snow.
- I know where we are, Bosso said. That’s Fredegar Tuck’s wood stockpile! He’s a cousin at third degree of ours who…
- Of course it is! The wizard interrupted, somehow irritated. Where else would you have us shelter nearby?

This place is perfect for what we have to do…
The passengers – and first of all Mrs Myriamel Timber, who had stoically gone into child-work – and the content of the cart were swiftly unloaded. Everyone, even the ox and donkey, was lodged in the cabin, that was emptied of its lumber piled there, while the wizard was scheming some trick of his own.

Josso Timber, who was a « carpenter of the Hatchet » undertook to repair this all and before sunset, he and his sons had reinforced the structure, filled the holes and set a proper door, that could be blocked from the inside. The stove even allowed to boil some snow and heat the cabin somehow. Just on time! Indeed Grazer and Cabochon would not have been able to warm up the Timber’s last born with their breathes, by such a cold night.
Outside a cruel blizzard was roaring, while hobbit-eater wolf packs roamed nearby. Sometimes strangled yelps were heard around the fortune house. After uttering words of safekeeping and soothing, the wizard kept watch near the door, as he remembered the spells the Witch-King of Angmar once weaved in the north, when his minions crossed the frozen Baranduin. No indeed, this long winter did not seem entirely natural, his cousin from Greenwood was right… The hobbits were forced to bury themselves in their holes. Though the ancestral great smials like Tuckborroughs or Brandy Hall, provided with ample hidden cellars, did not fear the famine, the small isolated farms like Timber Meadow were much exposed. The times were dark and the wizard was pondering his retort.

But in the cabin, the enlarged family laid sound asleep, under the old wanderer’s care. Grazer and Cabochon quietly chewed straw in their corner. The children’s muffled breathes recalled the serene country existence in their beloved Shire. The tiny noises of the baby’s hungry suction at his mummy’s breast, paced the night hours, like a protective jingle repeated to exorcize their fear. The simple happiness of an overcome test, and a hope for better tomorrows accompanied the child’s birth.

.oOo.

In the deepest of the night, the wizard went out for a short patrol. The wolf traps he had hidden – dreadful weapons forged by the dwarves of the Blue Mountains – had worked wonderfully. Silently and pitilessly, he finished the monsters that were snapped up by the steel jaws, and rearmed the traps. The surroundings seemed calm, but the wizard felt the pack’s vigilance under the frozen eves of the forest. From time to time, a far howl warned that the pack’s forced retreat would not remain unpunished. The snow had stopped falling, and sometimes he even glimpsed stars across the grey clouds.

After his meticulous inspection, the old man took a long object from his bag, planted it on the ground, and lighted a wick that hang under it.
- Now the time has come, he murmured. May you help us in our need!

A small dwarven rocket suddenly sprang up into the sky, finally bursting into a silent plume.

One more star was now shining in the firmament. Strong and tenacious, it did not seem to be affected by the heavy clouds pushed by the wind.

.oOo.

The next morning a dull, cold dawn chased away the ghosts of the night. The wizard’s light lingered in the midst of threatening clouds, sending glittering rays here and there.

When a curious chime tinkled around the shelter, the whole family gathered in front of the door, speechless. Even Cabochon and Grazer forgot to chew their straw.

A large green sledge was twinkling on the snow. Thousands of bells jingled when one of the reindeer hit the snow with his hoof or shook its splendid silver pelt. The wizard was in great conversation with a short, brown-robed figure, who was gesticulating enthusiastically. The unfolded wings of his fur hat fluttered with the rhythm of the brown man’s arguments. He welcomed - on his staff, his arms and shoulders, and occasionally his head - many birds of all kinds, he answered to and sent back with the appropriate tweeting:
- Thranduil lends me his wedding carriage. Trrlluît! He has neither the taste nor the use of it. Zuît Zzluuît! And for now he prefers to discourage his son's plans for marriage... Pshitt Psshuîît! I keep this little wonder for myself! Kikikiki kikikêkê!
- But is that not a little... obvious?, objected the wizard.
- My Rhosgobel Reindeers team is fast and has no equal to go unnoticed - Kwakak! - or to defeat on occasion, the wild beasts of Dol Guldûr! Trrlluît!
- After all, nodded the grey wizard.

The whole Timber family – with nappies, baby, provisions and gear – embarked in the wonderful sledge, they found cluttered with bags and parcels of all kinds, salted ham of the Eotheod, remedies from Rhosgobel, golden buns of the Beornings, Dwarven automatons from Erebor and other mysteries of distant lands.

The children, delighted, insisted to take on Cabochon and Grazer, who rolled imploring eyes on the cabin’s stoop. With a hint of good will and a stroke at an enchanted chime, it’s amazing what you can carry in a mage’s sledge! Indeed he was undoubtedly a mage, and even probably a King mage, guided by the mysterious star, and that greatly enhanced the grey wizard’s prestige in the eyes of the Hobbits.

Soon our wizard had attached his box and embarked, and the team speeded in a joyously rhythmed jingle.
- I’m told Tuckburroughs is besieged, His brown cousin said, in a cloud of soaring sparrows.
- Only the Thain would be able to coordinate the fight across the Shire! We have to pass and entrust him with the weapons! The grey wizard said.
- Then we must be quick, The brown mage smiled while vigorously shaking the reins.

Much to the delight of the children - but with a certain apprehension on the part of Myriamel - the reindeers provided a powerful effort, and the elven vessel seemed to slide on a cloud of light snow. And, curiously, the sledge floated limply, following the rays of the protecting star, which seemed to indicate the right direction.

.oOo.

When the improbable carriage reached Tuckburroughs, the situation was not brilliant. It seemed that winter had concentrated there most of its attacks, to bury the soul of the Shire under an ice grave.

The Tucks, who had first fought and turned snowdrifts into walls of snow, had been overwhelmed, forced to abandon the village and to retreat into the ancient smial. But all the doors and windows were now blocked by a thick layer of hard snow. The defenders, at first delighted with this protection, had understood that they were besieged, could no longer make use of their bows and arrows, and now could only rely on themselves.

The Wolf King had established his throne at the foot of the ancient larch, under which the Tuck, on fine days, rendered his ordinary judgments. The venerable tree overlooked the hill under which were excavated the galleries of the Tucks. Twilight was approaching, and already the beasts were digging on the hill; the fortress would soon be invested.

Yet the wolves had reckoned without the two old men’s fighting spirit. Their decision taken in a moment of consultation, the beautiful green sledge swerved as the reindeer herd made a supreme effort to force the siege.
The bells burst into a song of joy, as the sled was accelerating in a dizzying way. The over-excited brown mage shouted "Yo-ho-ho!" while whisking the wolves that dared to approach. The occupants of the sled felt themselves transported with a fighting cheer, while the wolves moaned and dispersed.

But the Wolf King was not the least of the vagrants. He howled to call his guard and got ready to leap and swallow all that fresh flesh.

He should have known better, because the grey wizard did not mean to play a minor role in front of his cousin. He had prepared this moment for a long time, and took from his box a package carefully labeled "Dagnir Carcarotha". When he brandished his sword, a flash of red light cast a fiery glow on the whole sled, as if the flame of hope and life itself had been revived.

The king of the white wolves, in his pride, caught in his mouth bristling with yellow fangs, the fying "gift" dropped by the grey wizard. The monster burst into hundreds of purple and green sparks, which scattered around it to pursue the wolves of his guard.

The grey wizard, very satisfied indeed with his little trick, distributed many other "gifts," which the young hobbits began to throw around the giant larch, and even in its branches. The feathered friends of the brown mage dropped some of them at the bravest wolves, that also exploded in sheaves of purple glows. The whole hill soon resembled an immense firework, the age-old tree shining with a thousand lights, surrounded by the mysterious bundles of the two old men.

The enchanted sledge finally stopped near the illuminated tree. Myriamel was delighted; her little one seemed fascinated by the magical spectacle that marked his birth; she even surprised herself with throwing a few small packages to widen the circle of light around the hill. A family of squirrels descended from the larch and entered into conversation with the brown mage. A couple of badgers, who had taken refuge between the centenary roots, also came to his aid, and soon he was able to guide the fine team on the hill disfigured by the wolves.

While the grey wizard unloaded the sled’s incredible
contents, his cousin was frantically digging the ice. Thus was cleared the duct of the great fireplace of the Tucks’ smial. Cautiously, the children slid along a rope, followed by the baby in a wicker basket, then Mrs. and Mr. Timber.

The brown wizard did not want to drag on - he had to fly back to his beloved forest. But he confided to his grey friend, a most precious package: that was green seedlings with beautiful red stars.
- They are called Poinsettia. You have to plant them all around this larch!

The grey wizard did so under the eye-catching supervision of his brown cousin. When he finished, the grey got up massaging his bruised back:
- I imagine they are useful in the fight against wolves? These horrors are allergic to it, maybe?
- "Not at all," replied the brown, distractedly. But I find them very pretty in winter. It is important!

At last the grey wizard bade farewell to his fantastic cousin, and the marvellous sledge flew away one last time, under the bewildered and already somewhat nostalgic glance of Cabochon and Grazer.

.oOo.

The grey wizard buried a few more traps around the hill and lingered a little to complete his enchantments. No one had ever seen a tree so beautifully garlanded with lights on a night of birth!

Then he sent down the packages and the victuals before introducing himself also by the chimney, which did not go without hardships!

When he landed on the slabs of the Great Hall, in the middle of the packages he had brought, he was covered with soot. An ovation followed this unconventional entry.

The Tuck ordered a big party. The fall of the Wolf King and the distributed victuals contributed much to revive the forces and the morale of the defenders, but the wizard suspected that the presence of the newborn hobbit, saved with his family from a certain death, was the real marvel which gathered the inhabitants to overcome this terrible ordeal.

The chimney could at last be lit again. During the vigil, the wizard’s memory was sollicitated for tales of old. Late into the night, the replete guests gathered and sang tunes of Ancien Arnor, and the wizard discovered that many elven enchantments had transformed, while passing from the Dunedain to the Hobbits, into funny ritual ditties, apparently senseless, but with a strange incantatory power.

Several bottles, stored since the marriage of the Thain’s grandfather, were opened for the occasion. Unfortunately, it appeared the vintage had altered – indeed it smelled like an old wine and sparkled like a beer. Yet some jolly jokers indulged in tasting the dubious beverage – its fine air bubbles revealed to enliven the festive spirit of the guests. It goes without saying that this happy brewing coïncidence, committed by an obscure winegrower by the name of Domper Hinion, was afterwards elucidated, improved and enjoyed at Tuckburroughs, for every party worthy of the name.

.oOo.

Josso Timber, after seeking a bit of courage at the bottom of a well-deserved white beer mug, consulted the Thain and, on his advice, came before the worthy wizard to present his new-born. He approached clumsily:
- With all respect, Myriamel thanks you for your gentle and proper care! And also thanks to this inronmongery of yours, all we Hobbits are to kick this filthy white wolves brood beyond the Brandywine! So to honour your Wizardship, if I might say, we Timbers would be honoured you would be so kind to be appointed wizard-parent of our little one!

Abashed, the wizard overcame his embarrassment and took the baby in his arms. Everybody around supported and insisted lively! For a moment, it seemed many wrinkles had faded at the temples of the old wizard, who passed his callous hand on the newborn’s head, while a soft glow haloed around the child and his protector:
- I still have many names in the tongues of Elves, Dwarves and Men…

The wizard smiled at the small restless form, who was wailing and mistreating his grey beard:
- Yet let it be! So in High Tongue I will be Adar Nostomereth . That doesn’t sound so bad!
And a toast was made to the health of the baby Hobbit and his Wizard-father.

.oOo.

Epilog

The day after, the Thain had the mysterious parcels opened. The Hobbits discovered a true arsenal – torches that burn all night long, wolf traps forged by the Dwarves, metal collars to protect de hounds, iron peaks that do not break in utter cold, and various remedies and soothing victuals.

The grey wizard uttered some words of liberation on the main doorway, that opened free of its ice gangue. Then the army of the Tucks could muster the whole Shire and methodically repell the white wolves.

The huge snow falls that had buried Eriador during this memorable winter, were followed by a slow spring thaw, that ended all of a sudden at the end of april. An unprecedented flood filled the Gwathlô vale, drowning the great city of Tharbad, commercial crossroads of prime importance.

Yet the tradition of distributing gifts for Yule, the feast of winter solstice, survived the catastrophe, and the many tests that were to follow. That is how this tale came to us, somehow baroque but undoubtedly authentic, a tale about a birth celebrating the renewal of light and hope, under the protection of wonderful forces.

Oh, of course, this adventure has been re-assimilated and transformed by the people that fought for the cultural and religious supremacy of our world…

But you have certainly guessed now, dear reader, who is hiding indeed behind the legend of Santa Klaus…

.oOo.

NOTES

[1] Which is winter 1311-1312 according to the Shire Reckoning.
[2] Small elven translation, at my risk and expense:
While translating Christmas as « the fair of nativity ».
Santa Klaus “The guardian of Nativity”: Adar Nostomereth in Sindarin, and Atto Nostameren in Quenya
Quenya : atto, the father ; nosta, the birth ; meren, the feast.
Sindarin : adar, the father ; nostor, the birth ; mereth, la feast.
[3] The feast of Nativity imposed itself only lately in the Christian Canon. A roman emperor first instituted a syncretic feast by joining the winter solstice feast (Yule by the celts, Jôl/Jul in Germany-Scandinavia), the roman feast of the undefeated sun’s birth (sol invictus) and the feast of the Mithra cult, celebrating the birth of the god and the victory of light over darkness.
End Notes:
Thank you Karl for your equestrian help !
The brotherhood of the Taste and Must by Chiara Cadrich
The Brotherhood of the Taste and Must
.oOo.
The people from the Greenway are a bit weird. At Bree as well as at the Drunken Goose, they recount tales, write verses and sing in languages they constantly reinvent. Their strange mania, driven by a desire for who knows what, evoke the scents of a forgotten era and tell us of the world under a more ardent light.

.oOo.

Bree, on a fair day ...

Fellow Keenbeak and Cousin Pathlin were going off together to peck at a few glasses. Arm in arm in the streets of the old town, the friends enjoyed life, food and puns. The mood was frisky and the season propitious. The fair was going well, displaying its delights in the fair town of Bree.

Craftsmen praised their leathers, fabrics, pottery or wood stuff. Everyone went about their business, if possible juicy. A dwarf from the blue mountains was sharpening scythes, hitched to his grinding bench, in a deafening lament. Hillmen from the South, proudly sporting tartans, exchanged their large sacks of coal. Wheat merchants from the Gwathlo river rubbed shoulders with local market gardeners and competed in a feasting atmosphere.

The notary Nestegg, eminent alderman assisted by the guards of the door, watched over the weights and measures, collected the royalties and regulated the disputes between the shop-keepers. A motley crowd gathered in front of the stalls and feasted on the fair dishes that smelled so good under the canopies. Farmers had their pies and confectionery tasted. Lads and girls exchanged glances in front of the stalls, heavy with food. Travelers and locals mingled happily, sharing news from the wider world.

Cow-herds negotiated, leaning with emigrants from Dunland, shouting at their acquaintances who roamed the muddy streets. Some Shire Hobbits were cautiously wandering among the crowd, driving a pair of oxen or geese for sale at the cattle market. Sometimes you met one of the rangers, a taciturn warrior dressed in worn leather, at the arm of a Lady with a royal bearing under her linen scarf.

As a native, Keenbeak gave the owner’s grand tour, instructing his "cousin from the countryside" about the metropolis’ customs on busy days.

Oh, Pathlin did not live far away - he was a farm hand just north of Chetwood. But he rarely came to town, to stare with his down-to-earth gaze.
Keenbeak himself lived in "the capital", Bree itself. This dilettante, descended from some knight, had put away his ancestors’ rapier and lent his pen in the service of Master Nestegg. A little clerk, a little copyist, a little public writer, Keenbeak happened to write madrigals for pretenders in search of inspiration.
Thus, while delaying his own indefinitely, he boasted of having concluded some prestigious unions, and felt intimate with many well-known characters in Breeland.
The fellows, townspeople and country folk, wandered through the alleys all afternoon, under a rather mild autumn sun. They were finishing a hot porridge at the end of the main street, in front of the old stables of the coaching inn, when they realized that the night was beginning to fall. Going up Main Street, they met the merchants repacking the fair reliefs.

The onlookers were dispersing, returning to the hamlets of Staddel, Archet or Combe, while the visitors made their way to their inns or guesthouses.

Pathlin and Keenbeak, stunned by their day, watched the Dunlendings pull their carts by hand, while the doorkeepers were picking up the latecomers who were dismantling their tents.

By dusk, the streets of Bree had emptied, making the village look very quiet. Blazed by the glow of the setting sun, swirls of smoke rose from the cottages, which seemed to curl up on themselves in the night cold.

- "Ah, well, that's just the same as at the farm!" Pathlin told, half disillusioned, half teasing. In the city people get to work when chickens!

Upset, his cousin Keenbeak had to agree that the streets had got somehow sparse because of the autumn evening freshness. But it cost him such a glorious day would end up so sadly. The fair town, hectic and animated, had once again shrinked to a chilly and routine village.

- Come on to the Prancing Pony, he tried.
- Well, we've been there before! Pathlin refused, remembering the cranial impulses that had followed his bender the night before.

The cousins were preparing to return to the city dweller’s room... when Keenbeak had an illumination!

.oOo.

Two furtive silhouettes were walking down the alley. On the look-out, the taller one progressed with the elastic and cautious step of an aristocrat lost in the slums. At each suspicious noise rising in the night, he waved his lantern to pierce the mist. The most paunchy of the two followed, hobbling along with the quiet pace of a peasant in the middle of his fields.

The friends roamed the street, lined with the stalls of humble craftsmen. The common people had piled up there, in the lower town sheltered by the palisade, mingling over the centuries, their modest cottages with the ruins of the royal buildings and the old workshops.

Suddenly a watchdog’s mouth roared at a hole in a doorway, barely missing, to snatch Keenbeak’s calf. A solid hobbit appeared at the bull's eye, inspecting the street, a candlestick in his hand.

"Good evening, Master Degriper!" Said Keenbeak playfully, trying to surpass the furious barking.

The round shutter closed in indistinct grumblings. The Breelander’s jovial cordiality was matched only by his mistrust at nightfall. The dark legends from the Greenway and the Barrow-downs had a hard life ...

The alley widened. Pitchy forks sprang up in the mist. The oak beams had disappeared long ago; only a dozen sinister moss-eaten stone columns remained, posthumous proof of the town lord’s power. Disturbed, the tawny pierced the night with its ghostly call, before leaving the master pillar with a wings rustle.

Pathlin shuddered as he was passing under the gallows, standing in the middle of a vast square, as if the surrounding hovels shunned these cursed pillars. The old court was erected next to it, entrenched behind the spearheads of its austere portal. The sculptured figures of severe rachimburgs, draped in their old-fashioned robes, supported its pediment with their worn bundles.

.oOo.

Keenbeak, after many conspiratorial looks, pushed the gate, which opened with an unpleasant squeak. He made a felicitous step under the magistrates’ procession, along an imposing vault, where echoed Pathlin's glib clogs.
At the end of the corridor - how many convicts had left the place by that dismal gut? - Keenbeak braced himself on the door, to no avail. Pathlin untied it with a well-fitted shoulder shove.

Then the accomplices slipped into the sanctuary and pushed the door back. The marbles of the front hall sent a solemn snap for a long time, as if ushers whispered to each other, the arrival of eminent persons.

Keenbeak raised his lantern; fading golds lit for a moment on the lintels stuccoes. Pathlin stepped forward, more impressed than he admitted, by the imposing ceiling height and the grand rectitude of the colonnades.

Yet furniture was piled up in a corner, covered with cobwebs. High screens, a little mothballed, huddled between the columns, depicted hitherto scenes of exotic shores or familiar countryside. Large trunks were full of motley accessories.

Fooling around in this junk, Pathlin discovered mobile wardrobes, past dresses of theater princesses and flashy outfits of operetta knights, were wisely waiting, in their lavender-scented covers.

Keenbeak commented with the detachment of some jaded city dweller:

- ... Oh, these are just the pieces and sets of some theater companies that finish their tour in the city!

In fact, the last traveling company had perished, bodies and souls lost at a foggy night in the maze of the Barrow-downs. The troop’s luggage, found disemboweled on the road in the early morning, had ended in the old court, where it sometimes served during the summer festivities.

But Keenbeak continued his peroration:
- What an irony, isn’t it? There is only one step, from the magistrate’s toga, to the comedian’s disguise! After all, the judicial ritual stages its authority, just as the dramatic scene exerts an authentic incantatory power ...

The farmhand no longer listened to Keenbeak's learned ramblings. The cousin’s practical instinct had drawn him farther, to the lights flickering up there.

.oOo.

Pathlin walked to the courtroom, which was rustling with muffled conversations.

Some braseros, purring with logs, bathed in soft heat and changing ochers, the little room’s paneling. Facing a platform, a few rows of wooden benches were crowded with little people and big folk, all wearing a strange multicolored cap. On the pulpit sat some imposing figures in gowns and caps, who gesticulated less than the others, but whispered with a more mysterious and solemn air.

Motley groups occupied the spans and debated about so-and-so candidacy, outraged about so-and-so’s statements, the merits of a third, and gloating about the common preferences or the aspirations of the left-out. The serious and inspired look, and the convinced tone of the protagonists suggested that some momentous decision depended on the outcome of these deliberations. Yet the groups often punctuated their debates in a low voice, furtive libations and discreet snacks.

When Pathlin entered with his good-natured look into the warm, cozy little room, the rows turned to him in an inquisitive silence.

Keenbeak, who had swiftly adorned the audience’s regular dress, rushed to his cousin's side and took the intruder by the shoulder with a protective air.

The hubbub resumed slowly, with the newfound indifference of the courtroom’s occupants.

.oOo.

Our friends sat in a corner, Keenbeak was draped in his satisfied air - after all, did he not just avoid a major diplomatic crisis? - and Pathlin had the desire to laugh:

- What's all this mess?

Keenbeak waited greedily for the question:

- "My Cousin, this is the Extraordinary Council of the Merry Knights of the Taste-Must!," he said with emphasis and enthusiasm.

- The knights of Must Taste! Pathlin whispered with a mocking, sullen pout...

- Absolutely! I'm a permanent honorary member, after... many services rendered..., Keenbeak added with a pinch.
Pathlin saw the truculent trowel of a ruffian he was acquainted with, who wore toga and cap like the rest of the assembly.

- "Ah well, this one’s not a knight, I counter-swear that! It's the boyfriend of my wife’s young cousin! He is a lumberjack in Chet wood. Horses, he makes them drag the trunks, not charge the enemy!

- Dear Cousin! The Merry Knights of the Taste-Must are no military order! Our friend Smashrod is one of our most faithful butler, providing for the supply of the throats of our councils.

The subject was beginning to interest cousin Pathlin. The Merry Knights Guild showed a certain sense in appointing Smashrod, a colossus, to tranship beer and wine casks. Obviously, Smashrod had to take some of the contents to make himself fit to carry the container. Indeed this charge doubly deserved consideration...

.oOo.

Some attendants brought baskets and trays, that joined the flaccsids and barrels, abounding on the tables at the foot of the platform. Everybody casually helped oneself, but without jostling. Keenbeak grabbed two pints:

- Ah! Here are the panetier and his tabellions! The debates are to begin!

- What debates do you mean?

- Well! The grand business of our brotherhood is to support the cultural richness of our beloved city of Bree.

- ...?

Pathlin ‘s awe and bewildered look prompted Keenbeak to rephrase:

- The Merry Knights love music, comedies and tragedies, fine arts, quality products, ...

- ... and great meals, I got it, finished Pathlin with a smirk.

- Real foods satiate the spirit! Keenbeak retorted, with a meat pie in his hand and his mug in the other.

- Indeed! Pathlin replied, emptying his. But then, what of these debates?

- The council decides which cultural activity should be supported and encouraged. The most promising are first presented here.

Pathlin did not clearly discern what a cultural activity might be. Of course he had attended a few rural plays and dances on the trestles at the spring fair. But the present assembly, even if it included good food, adorned itself with very mysterious rites.

The platform was full now and the session seemed about to begin. The aldermen - the dignitaries of the brotherhood - had risen. All wore a striped toga of bright colors that recalled the cap.

The dean alderwoman, an elderly hobbit perched on a raised chair, smiled at the assembly with a benevolent maternal air, but her sagacious gaze missed no sign of mistrust, boredom, or misunderstanding in the audience. Beside her, the notary Nestegg, whose bald head was not comfortable with the small multicolored cap, was flicking through a thick leather cartulary, frowning his thick eyebrows. On their right, a tall, playful woman trimmed her pen with an air of application, often adjusting her cap with a coquettish air.

Other dignitaries completed the table, not without filling it with plates and timbales. Finally, a tall man came to sit down at the end of the platform, looking patient and decided like a merchant coming to negotiate some business.

- "Oh, this one I know," Pathlin whispered, "He's Master Granmalter. He buys barley and hops at the farm.

- He is one of the delicacies providers of our guild. We value the high quality of Bree productions.

"So he's also an Alderman," Pathlin whispered admiringly.
- Not exactly! Master Granmalter is only seneschal in the hierarchy of our brotherhood. He can only oppose the proposals of the aldermen, provided that he has beforehand gathered a significant motion...

Poor Pathlin’s Head was turning:
- Oh ! But how is that we may recognize seneschals and aldermen?

- It's very simple, cousin! The color!

- The color of the cap?

- Nay! The color of the nose! Rose for the knights, Red for the seneschals, Violet for the aldermen!

Pathlin was beginning to glimpse the logic in these hierarchical subtleties. Indeed the aldermen and women sported with a beautiful set, a crimson nasal gradient of the most beautiful effect.

.oOo.

The president simultaneously began the agenda and a good share of pie:

- My dear friends ! - Scrunch - I declare open the one-and-a-half plenary diet - Yum - of the Merry Knighthood of Taste-Must! Mmm! May our taste buds and our minds – crunch - never fall asleep! I wish the upcoming brewing is as rich as for the previous winter, and accompanies the finest entertainment! - Slurp, slurp, slurp, licking fingers, not to lose even a crumb - Before submitting to your sagacity, the fruit of the consistory’s thinking, we shall begin to read our comput, that Master Nestegg here, had the kindness to proceed for us ...

A good sweep brought down this hearty introduction.

Bowing obsequiously, the notary put on his glasses and started with the content of the accounts - a long, slow, meticulous, exhaustive, superfluous, punctilious and horrifying reading through of detailed expenses and recipes, punctuated from time to time, by laborious deglutitions of water! The last straw! The audience sank into a lamentable lethargy. Only the merchant Granmalter, impassive, seemed to follow attentively the diligent arithmetic unpacking.

After the third methodological digression - which concerned an astute surplus value on acres planted with grenache - the president felt that the cooking of the room was coming to an end. She interrupted the notary on a somewhat technical exchange rate and launched:

- Dear Master Nestegg! Your reputation for accuracy is second to none! How about preserving your saliva to expose your conclusions?

As luck would have it, a roast boar's head made its entrance, all steaming on its bed of fricasseed onions and mushrooms from Chet's wood.

- "That's our notary’s sin" whispered Keenbeak to his cousin.

And indeed, the alderman quickly dealt with the conclusions, skimmed through the usual reservations about the comput’s sincerity, and conceded his discharge while inhaling the roast’s smell. When a hanap of vermilion wine came to sublimate with its promising reflections, the venison cut just in front of him, the worthy magistrate abandoned all restraint and sat down... definitely.

Pathlin winked at his cousin who nodded:
- Happens there were many things to forgive in the comput of the Merry Knights?

But the Dean changed the subject as quickly as possible:

- I now give the floor to our Constable of High Causes.

The young woman who had hitherto devoted herself to recording the minutes of the proceedings, raised a sad face towards the audience, like a skilfully composed theater mask:

- Merry Knights! We must now evoke a painful loss! One of us, who we considered our brother, a promising author with a happy and alert style, has left us!

- Is someone dead? Pathlin asked as an aside.

- No! Keenbeak whispered. But our favorite author, Master Vessaim, let himself be seduced by a competing institution!

- Ah well, I know this one too, he's the blacksmith!

- Yes indeed, replied Keenbeak laughing, and he is also a Marshal in our brotherhood!

The capped passionaria continued, effigy of pain declaiming with histrionics:

- The henchmen of mercantile art have bribed our muses!
The merchant Granmalter frowned. Perhaps he did not appreciate the hara on the financial motivations of sponsorship.

But the harangue continued, warming the room progressively:

- The Companions of the Fine Gullet – Shame on their name! - let loosely gleam vain artifices! Let us refuse these unjust maneuvers, etc.

The Dean, ambushed on her high chair, examined the room from under her half-closed eyelids. When the latent indignation began to express itself in the form of jeers and imprecations against the Companions of the Fine Gullet, she spoke:

- Merry Knights! You fully measure the threat, I can see it. Our consistory, after much debate, has decided to undertake a reform to meet the peril! We are listening to you !

.oOo.

There were a few seconds of daze.

The Knights looked at each other, dismayed and a little ashamed. It was painful to be so snatched from the comfort and the wait-and-see attitude of the spectator.
The Dean called for them, quizzing them directly!
While the room buzzed with worried rumors, Keenbeak enjoyed himself a lot and commented with relish the initiatives, timid, courageous or absurd, which bloomed here and there, as well as the reactions that one could observe on the benches of the former court. The session was launched and seemed already sinking into chaos.

- But why did she do that, the Dean?

- You see, my cousin, it is very difficult to weave between interests and to cope with the inclinations of so many knights. The consistory is easily criticized, especially when only they do act. The Dean alderwoman is particularly targeted, despite her great age and her eminent sagacity...

The creased forehead of astute Pathlin testified to the intense reflection that agitated his mind:

- Oh, so she lets them wade into the tank, before getting them out? She did that on purpose?

- It's possible! Do not worry! It will not be long before we perceive the meaning of the manoeuvres under this apparent disorder! Would all this mess left to chance? I hardly believe it... Anyway, some tenor of the consistory would pretend to be the instigator!

- But what about do they criticise the Dean?

- On everything and its opposite! For example :
When she speaks, she monopolizes the attention, but when she gives in, she gets rid of it!
When she calls for calm, she abuses her power, but when she encourages debate, she lacks authority!
When she is rigorous, she takes herself seriously, but when she is debonair, she is not up to the height!
When she exposes her ideas, she imposes them, but by proposing choices, she is indecisive!
Bold, she is accused of imprudence, but cautious, she is judged incapable!

- Oh well, I see that! This is nothing but lazy slap-mouth! (3) The hen that pecks and cocks the most is never the one that lays the biggest egg!

The cousins exchanged a knowing glance. The deliberations of the city seemed to have nothing to envy, comparing with the gossip of the farm...

But the assembly began to turn sour. A histrion had stood on his spurs, demanding to reshape the rule of the Knights, arguing that a stricter selection of postulants, would guarantee a flawless fidelity.

Immediately a fanatic cut him off, calling on the audacious to justify his own motivation and the services he had rendered. Several protagonists responded at the same time and in the same tone, and the assembly sank into a frightful confusion.

The most recently armed knights felt threatened. The oldest, shaken in their habits, made themselves the defenders of tradition. Those members who only frequented the brotherhood to escape the daily routine or a cumbersome spouse, felt that the deep purpose of the association might escape them. A hustle and bustle settled around the room like a fabulous beast with multicolored bonnets on its back, whose monstrous spine shook itself, rocking in turn the rows, the platform and the aisles of the hearing room.

The Dean Alderwoman was wrestling with her little mallet - a vestige of the ancient tribunal - striking vainly the worm-eaten oak of the office. The Seneschal and the
Treasurer looked at each other with a gloomy air. The least tabellion had a say. Soon two clans clashed, opposing the tribunes of art and fine studies, to the supporters of saucy feasting and songs.

This disorder impressed Pathlin, much more than the hectic activity of the market during the day - the city revealed here its true nature, complex and multiple, rich in traditions but constantly recomposing the priorities of its factions, in unstable balances of power. Keenbeak, who was greatly amused by these good fights, admitted that this time the Consistory maneuvers might not have the desired result. He remained confident, however, and remarked that the emotion of the belligerents prevented none of them, to make honor to pies and pints.

And Pathlin thought that these quarrels seemed almost an inherent part of the rituals of the brotherhood, as if the knights fund pleasure in such a fight... A bit like the incessant bickering of his masters, at the farm, whose couple inevitably enamelled the evenings...

.oOo.

Keenbeak was right. It was precisely when the consumables ran out, that the knights felt the need to bring some order to the debates. Spontaneously, they regrouped into factions to sharpen their arguments, like spears under the banner of a spokesman, and cast suspicious glances at the protest group of the neighboring bay.

Pathlin leaned toward his cousin:

- Last fair, I saw a little farce with the fine team of the farm Grovey. We found that pleasant, with my wife. But would it be even funnyer if we had a competition? And it made me think that Master Vessaim the blacksmith is an impulsive, who cannot resist a challenge of any kind or a beautiful audience. You only have to tell him that the best wins... What do you think, cousin?

Keenbeak considered for a moment his astute friend:
- Wait for me there, cousin! I think you passed your admission test hands down!

With a flexible and decided step, Keenbeak reached the platform and slipped behind the aldermen. He had a long talk with the dean, in a low voice. A joyous spark of mischief shone for a moment on the eye of the old Hobbit, who nodded cautiously. The poet stepped on the platform, clearing his throat and winking at his cousin.

- Oyez, Merry Knights! Oyez!

.oOo.

NOTES
(1) It's like at farm, people go to bed at the same time as chickens! (at dusk)
(2) The reader will undoubtedly appreciate this involuntary pun.
(3) It is only idle talk.
This story archived at http://www.faerie-archive.com/viewstory.php?sid=1666