Table of Contents

Chapter 1 - Eregion by A.J. Hall

“This is brilliant. Standing there, Lady Galadriel looks exactly like the Lady of the Lake. Just like she was in that scene where she had to break the news to Arthur about Excalibur being the vampire after all, and not Mordred.”

“‘The Lady of the Lake’? To my knowledge the Lady Galadriel brooks no comparison with any in Middle Earth — save one alone. Who is this Lady of the Lake, and in what realm does she dwell?”

“Oh, you must have seen Quest for Camelot. That Lady of the Lake. Of course, Hester Macauley isn’t really the Lady of the Lake. She just acts her, and it turns out she’s not a bit like her in real life.”

“You can say that again. To begin with, if someone put Hester Macauley in a lake, I’d make sure she stayed there. But Arthur, code red. The Council’s about to start.”

“Friends, kinsmen, visitors from remote lands. I bid you all welcome to Lothlorien. Welcome you are, and, should your heart bid you tarry with us, welcome you stay.”

“A dangerous promise, that, when there are hobbits in the audience. Next thing you know, seventeen years have gone past and you’ve been feeding them six meals a day while they’ve been turning up at every party you throw, inflicting long, absymally-scanned ditties about the less mentionable bits of your family history on the assembled company.”

“Douglas! Hobbits aren’t at all like that!”

“Really, Primula? You can’t think of anyone like that — in your family, say?”

No. Definitely not. And anyway, I can’t imagine Lady Galadriel having the sort of family about whom even Bil— about whom anyone could make up inappropriate songs.”

“That’s what you think. Just don’t mention her uncle. And I’d avoid the topic of her brothers, while you’re at it. Especially the one who ended up on the wrong side of a werewolf.”

“I cannot deny, my spirit has been uneasy recently. In thought I have paused, as one who hears distant rumbling and awaits the breaking of a storm which will sweep away all that they have known. Now, by roads which have not been travelled these many centuries, come messengers bearing the heaviest of news. Step forward, Legolas Thrandulion and tell us your story.”

“Aye, I guessed it. Trust an elf to call on an elf to speak first. Those pointy-eared buggers always stick together.”

“Nay, Lady Galadriel, not without you also call upon Lobelia, daughter of Blanco, kin to that Bilbo whom my father named ‘elf-friend’ on the field of the Five Armies. She has been my companion in all that befell, and is as worthy of to be called ‘elf-friend’ as her kinsman; nay, as any who held that title, save Beren alone.”

“Good grief, Lobelia, what did you do?”

“Well, give me five minutes and I’ll tell you. But the elf’s making a ridiculous fuss about nothing, honestly.”

“Allow the Council to be the judge of that, Lobelia, daughter of Blanco. Step forward. Now, proceed, Legolas Thrandulion.”

“Since the death of Smaug a great work of rebuilding has commenced in Erebor, in Dale, and in Laketown. There have been marketplaces built, and theatres; terraces planted for vines, and orchards to make fair the mountain sides. Yet, side by side with the workings of peace, ever have watchtowers and battlements arisen. About these matters my father has consulted long into the night with the kings of Erebor and Dale. Never have I seen his attention so drawn to matters outside his borders. And my heart tells me the reason. My father sees this time as a brief pause, during which we may garner stores and build up fortifications against battle to come. That being so, I chafe to be out and doing. I was not born to be a farmer or an architect: no dishonour to those who are. After consulting with my father, we determined I should go out as a scout, and, on his advice, I directed my steps towards the fortress of Rhosgobel on the western borders of Mirkwood, the seat of the wizard Radagast.”

“I see. Being immortal means never having to learn the difference between a soundbite and a shaggy dog story.”

“Douglas. Shut. Up.”

“To cut short a long tale, Radagast welcomed me with all good cheer, but those things I learnt in his hall troubled me, nonetheless. The White Wizard, it seems, has once more enlisted Radagast’s help and that of the birds and beasts who obey him on the task of searching the Gladden Fields, but to what end, he would not be drawn. As for Mithrandir, he had passed through Rhosgobel in haste some ten days earlier, heading west towards the Dimrill Stair, and bade Radagast say nothing to Saruman of his journey.”

“There have ever been tensions within the White Council, though it has been easy to dismiss them as conflict between those who agree on aims but disagree on methods. Long, though, have I doubted the inward heart of Saruman.”

“No shit, Sherlock.”

“I won’t tell you again.”

“I determined to follow Mithrandir, though with little hope of catching him. Here, though, fortune aided me. Months earlier, Radagast had found a young eagle lying injured on the edge of his lands, an orc bolt buried in the top of its wing. He had nursed it back to health and strength, and now it was ready to return to its kin in the Misty Mountains.”

“Good Lord. Could that be the strains of Middle-Earth, Middle-Earth Uber Eagles I hear?”

“Douglas —!”

“No, Carolyn, he’s right. Why has no-one properly looked at air power before? You can’t base a global transport strategy around cadging lifts from birds who fortuitously owe you favours.”

“And who are panting to repay them in feather mites. True. But seriously, you two: can it. I doubt I’m the only one who’d prefer this Council to end in the same decade it started.”

“Aye, lassie, you have the right of it. They say time runs strangely in the Golden Wood, so that a month passes while you think it but a week, but your companions make ten minutes feel like an Age.”

“In love and gratitude to Radagast, the eagle consented to bear me over the mountains, and set me down close to the confluence of the Bruinen and Mirheithiel rivers. Radagast had not vouchsafed to me any inkling of Mithrandir’s intended direction. Nevertheless, having heard him talk of the Shire, I chose to follow the path of the setting sun until I reached the Greenway, and then turned north. Shortly after sun-up on the fourth day of my journey I chanced upon the Grey Pilgrim himself, sitting in the shade of a cherry tree, puffing away on his pipe. ‘Pat you come,’ he said, as if he had planned the meeting. ‘There’s an inn over the saddle of that hill. If we make haste, we may reach it in time for a late breakfast.’ And there we met Lobelia, and of that I shall let her speak.”

“Who, me? Well, all right, if you insist. Um. Well, hello everyone. I’m not going to explain what I was doing in the South Farthing because to be honest it’s difficult and embarassing and I can’t see what possible relevance it can have to anything. But there I was, having a quiet breakfast all to myself when the elf and the wizard came in. The landlord introduced them to me, and the moment the wizard heard ‘Baggins’ at the end of my name my bl- blasted cousin Bilbo got mentioned, and before I knew where I was we were in a private parlour and I was being asked for my opinion on some scrolls that looked as if they had been dug up out of a grave, as if the name ‘Baggins’ suddenly turned me into some sort of consultant tomb-robber. If you ask me, for all his penchant for self-aggrandising anecdotes about his so-called adventures, there’s an awful lot my dear cousin Bilbo has edited out of his life. And then he has the nerve to go on about spoons! Spoons! Which, I might add, my husband’s family purchased quite properly in an auction which was being held solely because Bilbo had been inconsiderate enough to dash off to fulfil a prior criminal engagement without leaving a forwarding address. And that’s when everything started going wrong. There’s a curse on that horrible hole, you mark my words, and we haven’t seen the last of it yet, not by a long chalk. But no-one ever listens to me. They just don’t. Ever.”

“Lobelia. Calm down. Have a glass of water. I’m sorry, Lady Galadriel, she’s not normally like this, but my cousin has been going through an awful lot, recently.”

“That I know, Primula daughter of Gorbaduc, and the Council will know presently. For if anyone here feels minded to judge this worthy hobbit for her tears, then I bid them pause judgment until they, too, have stood in opposition to a Balrog of Morgoth.”

“Good grief, that’s not so much burying the lede as strapping it to an ICBM, firing it into the deepest crater of Vesuvius and yelling, ‘See you on the other side, big boy!’”

“A Balrog? Durin’s Bane? None in this age have faced such a peril. Now I understand how Gandalf the Grey, wisest of wizards, fell at length into shadow. But heavy lies my heart at such news.”

“Lobelia, what can you possibly have been thinking?”

“Well, I wasn’t thinking, was I? Not straight, anyway. And you wouldn’t have been, either, with that thing pounding after you puffing out smoke and flame. It was like that time I was at Mistress Adadrida’s school in Harbottle, and our nature walk took the wrong turning and we ended up in a field with a bull. And my instincts took over, and I ended up running at it opening and shutting my umbrella. Um. Both times, actually.”

“You took an umbrella — I repeat, an umbrella — into the mines of Moria? The mines of Moria?”

“Mistress Adadrida said a true lady should never be without an umbrella or a parasol, as the day might require. And it worked — at least, the horrible thing took a couple of steps backwards, and I think if it had had a proper face, it’d have looked quite surprised.”

“I bet it did.”

“Anyway, the wizard took advantage of its confusion to get between me and it, and then he told the elf to pick me up and run. We crossed the bridge — the wizard was quite right, I’d have never been able to run across anything so narrow on my own, even without that thing chasing us. And then we got to the other side and stopped. The wizard turned round, to face off against it on the bridge’s centre. Then he shouted ‘You shall not pass!’ and broke the bridge between him and it with his staff. It fell into the chasm below the bridge, but as it went down it lashed out with its flaming whip thing and caught the wizard by the ankle and dragged him after him. And I’m never going to forget how horrible the whole thing was as long as I live.”

“And thus you fled out of Moria onto the mountainside, and so to Lorien. Legolas Thrandulion, tell us what it is you bore with you into our land.”

“Mithrandir, as we all now know, carried certain scrolls with him when he crossed the Misty Mountains. By a quirk of fortune, when he fell in Moria those scrolls chanced to be in Mistress Lobelia’s pack.”

“Well, they were my family heirlooms. Or, at least, hobbit heirlooms in general. They belong in the mathom-house in Michel Delving. Anyway, if you want to see them, here they are. Though I warn you, they won’t look like much.”

“Now this is indeed passing strange. Five hundred times and fifty have the mallorn trees shed their leaves on Cerin Amroth since last I saw this hand. I know it well, though the language written in it is strange to me.”

“To everyone including the wizard, actually. It’s ancient hobbitish. Even in the Shire, you only see it on inscriptions and in the first words of Wills, and in the very oldest deeds at Great Smials or Brandy Hall. And to make matters worse, the second half is enciphered, only it’s a terribly easy one, at least, it is if you knit. Bilbo wouldn’t have had a clue, even if he’d still been in the Shire when the wizard got there, but then he’s never turned a sock heel in his life.”

“Your talents are many, Lobelia Nordacil, and your thirst for knowledge deep and hard to slake. It was a lucky chance that led you from the Shire. Who knows what you might have become, confined within the walls of a single hobbit hole, even were it the most luxurious in the Shire. For the most ardent of spirits are those most in danger of being turned awry.”

“I have to say, speaking as someone who’s only met him at family get-togethers, life with Otho would turn anybody awry. Whatever else comes out of this adventure, never having to pretend to be polite to that piece of — of frogspawn for the rest of my life makes it all worth while. But why did Gandalf find scrolls written in ancient hobbitish on this side of the Misty Mountains? And who was buried in the grave and why were they dug up in the first place?”

“As to the last, I can only share what Mithrandir told us. Last autumn some men of the Beornings, digging through a bank to create a new drainage channel, disturbed the grave of a very small person, a child they would have thought, but that her feet were the size of those of a warrior grown and her grave goods and ornaments befitted a lady of age and rank. Her hands were folded on her breast, and beneath them lay a leather bag, within which these scrolls resided. Beorn the Old, recalling that one of like stature had been numbered among the company of Thorin Oakenshield and named ‘hobbit’, ordered the lady reinterred with all honour, and the grave sealed up. The scrolls he retained, and sent word to Mithrandir, most learned of the Wise in hobbit-lore, hoping he might unfold to him the mystery of who this lady had been, and why she had chanced to be buried there.”

“Yes: and who did the burying? If she was the only body they found they can’t have dug into a forgotten cemetery, but if the body was properly laid out and wearing jewellery and so forth it doesn’t sound like a murderer covering up, either.”

“Good heavens, Martin, we’ll make a Miss Marple of you yet.”

“Not a hobbit funeral, anyway. We don’t bury people with — things. It’s wasteful.”

“So it is. All those luscious opportunities for sniping about which branch of the family should have inherited them, buried forever.”

“There’s something we’ve all been overlooking. Who buried the hobbit?

“Of course! Who buried the hobbit?

“Arthur, you don’t have to do a silly voice just because Douglas chooses to. Douglas, drop the silly voice. Now. What are you driving at?”

“Logically, the person who wrote the scrolls must either have been the burier or the buriee. The scrolls were written in ancient hobbitish, which prima facie suggest they were written by the buriee. However, Lady Galadriel recognised the handwriting. Given how everyone here has been looking at Lobelia and Primula, I suspect they’re the first hobbits to wander into Lorien in elven memory. So, we may infer the scrolls were written by an elf who’d lived with hobbits long enough to become fluent in the language and who didn’t learn that language in Lorien. So, once again: Who buried the hobbit?

“You are shrewd, Douglas son of Richard; may Elbereth lead you also to wisdom. Long ago, before my daughter Celebrían married the Lord of Imaldris, one of her closest companions was an elf-maiden of Lorien, one who from her cradle felt the sea-longing of our people. Hiraeth was her name. Many times she wandered far from the borders of our realm, yet always love of my daughter brought her back. On Celebrían’s marriage, Hiraeth accompanied her to Imaldris, but her wanderings did not cease. She journeyed to Ered Luin in the far west, south to the lands of the Haradrim and north to Lake Evendim. The maps she drew lie in the archives of Imaldris. Greatly she dared, travelling up and down the land, but her wandering urge was not assuaged. So it chanced that on that unlucky journey when my daughter was captured by orcs on her way from Imaldris to Lorien Hiraeth was not among her company, and greatly she rued it. But the works she had written in centuries careless and uncounted proved of great worth in the search for my daughter. Without them, my grandsons Elladan and Elrohir could scarcely have hoped to find Celebrían this side of the halls of Mandos.”

“And these scrolls were written by Hiraeth?”

“Indeed. When my daughter decided to sail for Valinor, we thought Hiraeth would accompany her. But she came to Lorien, and asked to look into my Mirror. When she had finished her eyes were troubled. ‘It is as I have ever feared,’ she said. ‘I shall go from here and never see Lorien again, yet the straight road across the seas is not for me. When next you hear of me the storm will be upon us that we have dreaded and prepared for all these years and the word I bring will be of darkest doom, with but the faintest thread of hope woven therein.’ Daughter of Blanco, stand forth and tell us what you read therein, which brought Mithrandir hastening back to Lorien with such reckless speed.”

“Well, the first part is this — Hiraeth? — writing as herself, only she doesn’t give her name or anything personal. She just says she was travelling alone, ‘And at dusk I found myself on the edge of the Gladden Fields, a deserted land, groaning with memory of battle, long ago.’ That’s pretty much her general style; she doesn’t half go on a bit. Though I suppose it makes more sense if they were battles that people she knew had fought in. Anyway, she was looking for somewhere to rest for the night and to light her cooking fire, when she happened across an old, old hobbit, searching for firewood along the river’s edge. And though the hobbit was thin almost to starving and her clothes threadbare, she insisted on offering the traveller the hospitality of her house. It turned out she was living alone in smials which had once held many people. Mostly the tunnels were bare, and some were fallen in, but the two rooms where the old hobbit lived were furnished fit for a — Hiraeth uses a word that’s really hard to translate, because hobbits don’t have queens or such. The closest I can get is a cross between ‘Thain’ and ‘head of the family’ but in the female form.”

“Would, ‘A matriarch, a great person in her way’ cut it?”

“Are you sure you didn’t know the wizard, Douglas? Because that’s what he said, pretty much. Anyway, the old hobbit tells the traveller she hasn’t heard her own speech for years, and the traveller — Hiraeth — says she learnt it in the Shire. ‘What and where is the Shire?’ asks the old hobbit. So Hiraeth explains there’s a land on the far side of the mountains, where only hobbits dwell, and the old hobbit gets all tearful and says she hopes her sons’ sons have found a home there. Years before, the quality of the land had started to decline, and nothing they did could restore its fertility. The harvests were poorer year on year, and the beasts sickly, and many infertile or miscarried. So they decided to move south, the whole family, and then perhaps west, to try to find somewhere better.”

“They moved off and left their gran behind to starve? That’s awful!”

“No, they didn’t. They were going to carry her with them, but she refused. She said, ‘Suppose he returns, and finds us gone? I abandoned him once; I will not do so this side of the grave, should he choose to return.’ From how Hiraeth makes her sound, I don’t think anyone could have made her change her mind, once she’d made it up.”

“A hobbit after my own heart.”

“So who could the ‘he’ have been, one wonders? A close family member, one whom the whole family had abandoned, since none of them thought of leaving messages for him. A pariah, perhaps even a criminal, or at least one suspected of dark deeds.”

“Douglas, that’s really clever. You’re practically Hercules Parrot.”

“Yes, and if he doesn’t stop squawking I’ll put a cover over his cage. Kindly ignore my ridiculous pilot, Lobelia. So, did the old hobbit tell Hiraeth who she was waiting for?”

“Not at first. But Hiraeth stayed with her through the last days of summer and on into autumn, and cared for her. She mended the leaks in the roof and repaired the woodwork. She hunted game and wild pigs, butchered them and smoked them for the winter, and made sausages and blood-puddings. She plucked nuts from the woods and ground them into flour; gathered herbs and berries and dried those —”

“What is this, Little Hole by the Big River?”

“Well, I think all those bits sound jolly interesting, and, what’s more, I bet they’d think so back in the Shire, too. Go on, Lobelia.”

“Through all this time the old hobbit had still not told who she was waiting for. But, at the turning of the year, she was taken ill, with a congestion of the lungs and fever. Depite Hiraeth’s nursing, both knew that this was near the end. That was when she spoke. Actually, this is the bit where the enciphering starts: ‘He was named Sméagol, the youngest son of my youngest son. He fell into shadow, but I should have saved him.’ Her grandson had gone out fishing with his friend, one of his cousins, Déagol. ‘It was his birthday, and we had planned a feast for him, but when he returned, wet and his eyes wild, we put aside all thoughts of feasting. For Déagol had not returned with him; Sméagol told us he had been pulled into the Great River by a big fish, and though he had searched up and down the river banks, no sign of him had he found, save only his sodden hat.’”

“I don’t think Miss Marple would have been fooled for a moment. The last person to see the missing person is always the most likely suspect.”

“I don’t know this Miss Marple you’re so obsessed with, but that’s exactly what the old hobbit seems to have thought, too. Also, after Sméagol came home, stuff started happening. Everything from petty theft to the hen coop door being unlatched after they’d been shut in for the night, so a fox got in.”

“So her grandson was playing poltergeist? Why?”

“Because he knew the family suspected him of killing his cousin, and the more they suspected, the more he hated them. But they could never catch him in the act. So one day the old hobbit made a bowl of his favourite pickled mushrooms, put it in the larder and told everyone not to touch them: they were a treat, for supper. Then she said she was going to take a nap. It was harvest time, so the smials fell quiet as the grave, with everyone out in the fields. But the old hobbit stole down to the wine-cellar. There was a crack in the cellar-door which gave her a perfect view of the larder. And she waited. And waited. At last she saw the door to the larder open. But no-one came in. She saw the bowl rise from the shelf and tilt. But no-one was holding it. And she saw the bowl level itself, and set itself back down on the shelf again.”

“So what did she do then?”

“When she knew the coast was clear, she went into the larder and saw, as she’d suspected, that the bowl of mushrooms was now half-empty. She threw the rest of them away, and washed out the bowl. Just before supper, one of her daughters came to her. Sméagol was in his room, very sick, and she was afraid it might be something contagious. ‘I expect he ate something that disagreed with him,’ the old hobbit said. ‘But I’ll take a look at him, to make sure.’ Sméagol was lying across his bed, and had fallen asleep. Round his neck the old hobbit could see a gold chain, of dwarf-make, which was one of her greatest treasures and which should have been safe in her strong-box. But on that chain hung a ring she had never seen before. ‘It was plain gold, without gem or ornament, but the perfection of its roundness, and the rich colour of the gold made it more beautiful than any jewel imaginable.’”

“Golly! That’s amazing, because —”

“Arthur, I said ‘code red.’ So what did she do?”

“She said that she couldn’t help it; she reached out towards it. But the moment her hand touched the ring, Sméagol woke. He shouted ‘It’s mine! Leave it alone! It’s my birthday present! He found it and he gave it to me. It’s mine!’ In that instant, she knew instantly what had happened to Déagol, and he read in her eyes that she knew. He flew at her and bit her, and got his hands round her neck, choking her. With her last strength, scarcely knowing what she did, she caught at the chain and it snapped, so the ring rolled off into the corner of the room. He dived after it, so she slipped through the open door, screaming for help. So the family expelled him from the smials, for proven theft and assault, and on suspicion of murder. She told no-one of the ring, or of what she had seen in the larder. For, she said, ‘It was in my heart that I could have had the ring taken from him before I expelled him, and greatly I wished to do so, for he was no safe guardian of the power it held, but part of me knew an ill fate lay on it, and that my duty was to drive that fate from my home. So he went out from my smials, and the ring with him, and I have never seen him since.’ And in that hour, she died. But Hiraeth gave her word that she would seek for Sméagol, and tell him his grandmother regretted and remembered him to the last, and — if the chance arose — see the ring destroyed.”

“Mum, can I say something now? Because what I really wanted to say is, this is a really brilliant coincidence, us being here, and Lobelia being here, and Lobelia telling that story here, now, to us.”

“Arthur, whatever word you’re groping for, I doubt it’s ‘coincidence’. A coincidence is when two things that are similar to each other happen unexpectedly at the same time.”

“Well, what else would you call it? Lobelia told a story about a gold ring that makes you invisible, and it just so happens I’ve got one of those in my pocket. Now. At this minute.”

“Well, as show-stoppers go, that was a biggie.”

“Douglas, there’s one thing that’s been bothering me. When we were in GERTI, about to perform our emergency landing, you shouted, ‘Arthur, wherever you are, take it off.’ Did you know then he’d got the Ring?”

“Well, obviously I knew he’d had it. I mean, didn’t the story about the short bloke in the cave, with the anger management problems and the obsession with fish ring any bells?”

“To be honest, at the time Arthur told us, I was too busy first feeling relieved about not being a dragon any more and then about not having been eaten by a dragon to take in the finer points. But if you knew he’d got it, why didn’t you do something earlier?”

“Because I assumed, naturally, that Aslan would have confiscated it when we went through that gateway he made between Dragon Island and GERTI. After all, if Boston Airport can snaffle your nose-hair clippers on the grounds that you can’t be trusted with them airside, I’d have thought an omniscient divine being, no matter how furry, would have stopped Arthur — Arthur — keeping hold of the One Ring of Ultimate Power and Doom.”

“But, Douglas, Boston airport security wouldn’t have cared at all if I’d been taking the nose-hair clippers groundside. I mean, why should they? There’s probably a gun shop on the concourse. So perhaps — from Aslan’s point of view, Narnia is airside and our own world is groundside? So he doesn’t care how much trouble he unleashes on it, because that’s not his department.”

“I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I don’t think you’re being entirely fair to the lion. After all, he — or someone — did bring us here. Where people know about the Ring, and how dangerous it is, and where there is a chance of destroying it.”

“But he stole GERTI. If we’d had her, the Ring would be in Mordor by now.”

“No meterological service, no chance to refuel, no air traffic control, no airstrips, a lot of spiky mountains including a live volcano at the end, to say nothing about risk of airborne Nazgul. Who are you, and what have you done with the real Martin Crieff?”

Don’t, Douglas. Just don’t. That’s truer than it’s funny right now. In fact, why don’t you just shove off somewhere and make snide ‘I know who you really are’ jabs at Aragorn or something? I’m not in the mood, and I’ve got to think.”

“Considering myself dismissed — sir.”

“Well, Lobelia, have you thought? What are we going to do?”

“There’s no we about it — or at least, there doesn’t have to be, not if you don’t want to go. Lady Galadriel made it quite clear no-one should feel forced to join the Company.”

“Of course I don’t want to go. Who in their right mind would? But I told you about those dreams. If I don’t do it, our sons will have to.”

Your sons, maybe. Mine — well, that was one of the decisions I made when I chose to leave Otho. No little Sackville-Bagginses for me.”

“Even if that is true — and I don’t see why it should be (children in general, I mean, not Otho’s in particular), but let’s leave that aside for a moment — there’s still hobbit girls and hobbit boys who don’t deserve to grow up under the shadow of — under a shadow, if there’s anything we can do to save them.”

“I know that. But that’s not why I’m going. It’s the old hobbit. She doesn’t sound like the sort who’d be happy leaving a job undone, and nor am I. And when I decoded the scrolls, when the wizard couldn’t, and the elf couldn’t, and perhaps even Lady Galadriel couldn’t, then I thought maybe I had some sort of purpose in my life after all. But it’s a long way, and I don’t know anything about anything except ancient hobbitish and knitting and the proper way to eat asparagus, so I don’t think I’m going to be much use.”

“Piffle, Lobelia. Absolute piffle. You know that thing Lady Galadriel called you? ‘Lobelia Nordacil’? I asked Legolas what it meant, and he said ‘Fear-slayer.’ Apparently no-one — except perhaps someone called Glorfindel, and even then it isn’t clear if it’s the same person or some ancestor of his — has ever stood up to a Balrog and survived. And no-one has ever done it with an umbrella. You’re a natural.”

“Oh, Primula — I don’t want to go all stupid and sentimental — I was never good at the sloppy stuff, even at school. But that’s the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me. And I’m so glad we’ll be travelling together.”

“And so am I. Oh, I’m sorry if I startled you. But I’ve been having a very trying time with my son. Trust this, from one who knows: having offspring is the precise reverse of a bed of roses. Apart from the manure and spikiness during the early and adolescent stages, obviously. But honestly! After all those years in which he wouldn’t go a step without asking my permission, he’s now taken it into his head to go to the back of beyond to throw a ring into a volcano and I haven’t been able to talk him out of it.”

“I thought it was very brave when he stood up before all the Council.”

“Well, I suppose bravery’s one way to describe it. If you haven’t known Arthur as long as I have. Still, that doesn’t matter right now. If Arthur has taken it into his head to go to Mordor, then I suppose I shall have to go along with it for as long as he’s serious. And then, when he forgets all about it in favour of becoming an itinerant onion-seller or something, it will be a great comfort to me to have some sensible women around to make sure commonsense prevails. Now. Do you think these elves have ever heard of the concept of ‘a nice cup of tea’?”

“You are troubled, Martin Sacarámar, and I see in your inmost thoughts the concern which causes you to wander, sleepless, through strange corners of my realm.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t know where I was allowed to go and where not—”

“My wards are strong, though not perceptible to mortal sight. If you can walk a path in Lorien, be assured that path is open to you. But it is not of trespass I wish to speak. At the Council you spoke of commanding the skies, independently of the favours of the eagles. The Council’s business took a different turn, or we would have heard more of that. So now, follow me.”

“Douglas, are you there?”

“Are you by any chance a dwarf with a large axe and an even larger hole where his sense of humour ought to be? In that case, I believe the ‘Douglas’ of whom you speak may currently be taking a short break in Far Harad.”

“It’s just me. And I think he’s calmed down. Aragorn talked him into entertaining everyone with the songs of his homeland. I didn’t know so many words rhymed with ‘gold’ before.”

“Oh? How many did he manage?”

“I lost the will to live after verse eighty-six.”

“One to remember next time we’re crossing the Russian steppes, then. Or, here’s an idea. How about, ‘How many ways can you get the word ‘mithril’ into a film title’? Start you off if you like. ‘Play Mithril for Me’. Clint Eastwood.”

“‘One of Our Aircraft Is Mithril’.”

“Good one! OK, ‘Mithril Congeniality.’ At least that should be something to keep us amused tomorrow as we’re paddling merrily down the stream.”

“Ah. Yes. That. Well, that’s actually why I came back from the feast. I’ve got something to tell you. You see, last time I messed things up because I got distracted by something shiny. And this time the shiny thing is the biggest and shiniest thing there could possibly be. And I don’t trust myself not to mess it up again. So I’m not going. I’m staying here. In Lorien.”