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From his perch on the hilltop, Beliond watched the richly dressed man and his guards ride toward the town gates. He saw one of the sentries step forward to hail them and presumably ask their business, and he also saw one of the man’s guards casually knock the sentry aside with the staff of the standard he carried. Well, well, that was interesting. Whatever was going on here, it apparently was not a visit between pledged-for-life blood brothers.
For a few moments, Beliond pondered his course of action. He needed to get back to the Woodland Realm to pass along the information he had been carrying when he spotted this group of well-armed horsemen rounding the west end of the Sea of Rhûn. But so far as he knew, the men of this town were an independent lot who had sent no soldiers to join the army that had invaded the lands east of the forest some years back. Beliond grudgingly admitted that staying out of those battles must have taken an independent streak that he had to admire.
Either that or they preferred to spend their time and energy reaping a profit by making and selling their potent Dorwinion wine. The things Beliond had seen in his years as a spy told him that was possible too, given that they were men. In Beliond’s opinion, it did not do to become too trusting, and if one of the town’s inhabitants had told him that the day was sunny, he would have immediately pulled his hood forward to keep the rain out of his face.
Still, until now, these men had committed no evil against the Elves of the Woodland Realm, whereas the lot that had just ridden through the town’s gates looked as if committing evil was their life’s calling. The situation bore investigation, he decided, and a day or two’s delay in getting home would not really matter.
Alone on the hilltop, he smiled. This trip had been a boring one. Entering a town of possibly hostile men being plagued by a group of even more hostile ones would give him a chance to keep his skills from growing rusty. He hid his bow and pack behind a log and started down the hill.
It took him an hour to reach the gate. With his hood up to conceal his ears, he had no trouble entering the town. It was a market day, and in his travel-worn clothes, he blended easily among the men and women from farms and villages who were passing in and out. Besides, one of the sentries was undoubtedly nursing his broken head, and the other had probably hotfooted off to report the horsemen’s arrival to his officers. Or maybe to hide, Beliond thought cynically. At any rate, he saw no sign of either sentry and stayed comfortably tucked in a small crowd of people until he reached the line of stalls and carts. Then he slipped away and wandered through the marketplace with his ears open to catch the gossip. And gossip there would be, he was sure. The horsemen’s arrival could not possibly have passed unnoticed.
He did not have to wait long to reap a harvest of news. At a stand selling bread, a kitchen maid’s voice was sharp with excitement. “I need every loaf you have. Lord Abun is holding a feast for that man from Rin, although from what I could see, he’s none too pleased about his arrival.”
“Is that a fact?” The stall’s proprietress took the basket the maid offered and began slowly sliding loaves into it. Beliond judged that she had no intention of turning the bread over to the maid until she had wrung every drop of information from her. “What’s the Rin man here for then?”
“I could not say,” said the maid primly, and then, as Beliond had expected, she went on to say as much as she could. “Our steward is from Rin too, and he says that this visitor is the oldest son of the lord there. He says we’ll learn soon enough what a real lord is like.” The two women exchanged ominous looks. “I reckon the steward knows this young lord, because I saw them with their heads together. Now he’s parading around like he’s about to be made a lord himself.” The scorn in the maid’s voice told Beliond exactly what she thought of the steward.
“Will the feast be good, mistress?” asked a cheery voice behind Beliond, and they all turned to see a man carrying a harp on his back and wearing the short coat and helmetlike leather cap of a minstrel.
“I reckon it will,” the maid answered, her eyes traveling up and down him. She hesitated and then smiled archly. “Will you be there?”
“I will indeed. Your lord wants music at this feast.” He leered at the maid in what Beliond thought was a thoroughly disgusting manner, but she seemed to take no offense. The minstrel bowed, and both women watched as he walked away.
“He’s new,” the proprietress said.
“Nice legs,” the maid observed. The women looked at one another and giggled.
With a roll of his eyes, Beliond turned away and put the two of them out of his mind to think instead about what he had learned. A minstrel, he mused. Beliond knew with certainty that any Elf was a much better musician than any man he had ever heard.
Of course, he would need a harp. He started after the minstrel with the nice legs.
Beliond paused outside the kitchen door to tug at the short coat. He was taller than the minstrel, and he felt distinctly airy below the waist. The cap, on the other hand, was a bit too big, and he had had to pull it so low to cover his ears that it had slid over his forehead and sat just above his eyebrows. But he thought he would do. He raised his fist and knocked.
The door opened to reveal a soldier in the livery of the young lord from Rin. Beliond’s attention sharpened. If Abun’s guards had already been replaced by these foreigners, then events were galloping along. “Lord Abun sent for a minstrel,” he announced. “I am he.”
The guard’s incredulous eyes flicked down and then up to eye Beliond’s helmeted face. He turned. “Cadin,” he called, “come and see the musician Lord Abun has provided.” Another man came out of a doorway, holding a fat chicken leg in his hand. The kitchen, Beliond decided, just as he had thought when had circled the outside of Abun’s hall, mapping it in his head. The man with the chicken leg looked at Beliond and then at his fellow guard, and the two of them broke into simultaneous broad grins. Beliond’s eyes narrowed as he thought about how these two would look with the hems of their tunics pulled up over their arms and heads and the imprint of his boot sole on their backsides. He would see what he could do for these two later, he promised himself.
“This way,” the first guard said, gesturing along the hallway to a door at the end. “The steward is waiting for you.” Beliond brushed past him, baring his teeth as he did so, and had the satisfaction of seeing the man start backwards. Then he made his way into what proved to be a small chamber at the back of Lord Abun’s Great Hall.
A short, supercilious looking man was tapping his foot next to a wide doorway on the right. The steward, Beliond immediately concluded. The man glanced at Beliond and then looked again, dismay writ large across his face. “You are the new minstrel?”
Beliond bowed. “I have some poor skills with a harp, my lord.”
The sound of footsteps came from the doorway, and the steward hastily straightened. “I suppose you will have to do,” he all but moaned. “You’re so late that I can’t send for anyone different now.”
Two opulently dressed men came through the wide doorway, and both the steward and Beliond bowed. Beliond recognized the young lord from Rin, whom he had seen arriving, and concluded that the other man must be Lord Abun. The young lord looked smug, but Abun’s face was red and he was breathing hard. Beliond had spent enough time around his own king to realize at once that he was looking at a ruler in a raging temper.
Although they were no more than two feet away, both lords ignored Beliond and the steward as if they were invisible. “I tell you, Thade,” Abun said, “you may be able to force me to say I am stepping aside in your favor, but my people will never accept you. I will be back in control by next week.”
From under lowered lids, Beliond glanced at the young lord whose name was apparently Thade. He appeared amused rather than frightened by Abun’s declaration, and Beliond was immediately certain that Thade did not expect Abun to be alive the next week. He probably did not expect Abun to be alive six hours after he announced he was ceding his rule to Thade. In Beliond’s experience, men who seized control of other men’s lands found life simpler if they tidied away any remnant of the old regime.
“We will see how things are next week when next week comes,” Thade said and strode toward the entrance into the Hall, shoving Beliond, who had stumbled into his way.
Abun glared after Thade, opening and closing his fists. “Arrogant, pus-filled pimple on an orc’s privates,” he fumed under his breath. “Witless little wiper of a warg’s backside.” Beliond’s respect for Abun soared. He liked a man who could express himself well. Evidently comforted by giving vent to his feelings, Abun drew a deep breath and followed his “guest” into the Hall, trying to dodge around Beliond but becoming tangled with him despite his efforts.
“Beg pardon, lord,” Beliond murmured, but Abun’s attention was focused so strongly on Thade that he seemed to barely notice the encounter.
The steward glared after Abun and then gave a dismissive shrug. “Go in,” he ordered Beliond. “Play until they tell you to stop. You can eat in the kitchen afterwards.”
“Thank you, sir.” Beliond bowed and took his harp from his back, bumping into the steward as he did so. He left the steward brushing off his tunic where Beliond had touched him.
As he had expected, tables filled with Abun’s courtiers and household ran down either side of the Hall, while the two lords sat at a head table at the other end of the room. The Hall was quieter than was usual at feasts in Beliond’s experience. Most of Abun’s people sat murmuring uneasily to one another and watching the two lords. Moreover, Beliond realized, apart from the serving girls who were now setting out platters of food, no women were at the feast. Abun’s men were expecting trouble, Beliond thought, and wanted their wives and daughters out of the way. Beliond was already planning for trouble too. Only he hoped that what he had in mind would damage Thade and his thugs more than Abun’s subjects.
He suddenly realized that everyone at the tables was looking expectantly at him as he stood in the center of the room. Hastily, he bowed to the head table, gave a final tug to his short coat, and lifted his harp into his arms. What should he play? The Lay of the Children of Húrin struck him as a possibility, but he quickly dismissed it. These men were certainly not children of Húrin by any remote stretch of kinship and were unlikely to appreciate the Lay. They would probably like the song about the maiden and the goat he had learned in a tavern to the south, but that one struck him as inappropriate for a lord’s Hall. In the end, he settled on a song about spring in the forest.
He ran his hand gently over the harp strings and a ripple of sweet sound ran through the room. Ah, he thought with satisfaction, at least the minstrel with the nice legs had kept his harp in good tune. Cradling the instrument, he plucked at the strings to find his melody and then opened his mouth and sang.
Throughout his long journeys, Beliond was almost always alone, and in his solitude, he sang to himself often, softening his loneliness with songs he had shared with his fellow warriors before Dagorlad, songs he had sung to his son when he was a child in the too short days before he was killed, songs he had used to woo and voice his love for his wife before she sailed west. And always, of course, there were the songs that were pieces of the great song of Arda. This forest song was one of those, and it seemed to meet with his audience’s approval, for by the time he had finished, the room had grown silent.
“Ahhh,” sighed a man at the table to his left, and everyone broke into applause.
“Sing us another,” Abun called from the head table, and Beliond prepared to oblige. Really, he thought smugly, you would think these men had never heard good music before. He sang a second song and then a third, and by the time Abun let him go, he was beginning to grow anxious lest he not have time to learn what he needed to know in order to help Abun. He did not really trust Abun, of course, but the man was clearly preferable to Thade. Finally he was dismissed and could go back toward the kitchen, where he had no doubt the servants were gossiping freely.
In the chamber behind the Hall, he found a kitchen boy just setting down a platter of sweets for the serving girls to come and fetch for the tables. “Good day, lad,” Beliond greeted him, and the boy nodded a little cautiously in return. He did not seem to be able to take his eyes away from the cap pulled low over Beliond’s face. “I see no guards in Lord Abun’s livery,” Beliond observed. “Where are they?”
The boy scowled. “That Thade’s soldiers surprised them. We thought they were guests, or they never would’ve taken our men so. And then they locked them up!” He all but stuttered with indignation.
“Abun has dungeons?” Beliond asked.
“No. They’re in the old buttery out behind the Hall. I can hear them pounding on the door, but would you believe it, the steward took the key! I think he’s in league with Thade. They come from the same place, you know.”
Beliond knew an ally when he saw one. “How would you like to help Abun turn the tables on Thade and his men?”
The boy looked startled. “How?” he asked cautiously.
“Where are Thade’s guards?”
“At all the doors,” the boy said promptly, “and outside the front of the Hall. They made everyone who went inside leave their weapons.”
“Then I think the first thing we need to do is get rid of Thade’s guards.” Beliond fished in the pocket of the minstrel’s coat and pulled out the purses he had lifted from Abun, Thade, the steward, and one of the door guards. Thade’s was particularly heavy with silver, but they all contributed something to the stack of coins Beliond handed to the boy. “I think Thade’s men need to try some Dorwinion wine,” he said. “In fact, I think they need to drink as much of it as you can buy with those coins.”
The boy’s eyes grew huge and round. “I can buy a skin for each of them with that,” he said in awe. Beliond smiled and nodded approvingly. The boy was a natural. With a gleeful snort, the boy closed his hand around the coins and raced ahead of Beliond down the hall and out the door, with the door guards watching him go.
Beliond turned and went into the kitchen. “Sit you down, good minstrel,” said the cook, turning from the fire. “Get him meat and drink,” she ordered a kitchen maid, whom Beliond recognized as the one he had seen buying bread.
The girl frowned at him. “You’re not the minstrel I saw in the market.” The cook and a second maid turned to look at him.
“He decided not to come and sent me instead,” Beliond assured her.
The girl harrumphed and then muttered to the cook, probably assuming that Beliond had ears like a man and would miss what she said. “The other one was charming. This one looks scary and daft to boot.”
“Don’t be cruel,” the cook admonished in a low voice. “He can’t help what he looks like or how many wits are in his head.”
Another maid edged nearer them and giggled. “He has a nice bottom. Had you noticed? That coat shows it off just lovely.” Beliond tried to tug the coat a little lower. Drat the minstrel for being so short.
The first maid shrugged and went to fetch Beliond’s dinner. She smiled condescendingly as she set it in front of him. “The lamb is really tasty,” she encouraged him and went back to washing dishes.
Just as Beliond was finishing a plate of what was indeed very good lamb, the steward came into the kitchen. “The feast is going well, if I do say so myself,” he said. Beliond raised an eyebrow. The steward made it sound as if the quality of the feast was entirely his doing. The cook and the maids exchanged a sour glance. “I for one will be glad to have Thade running things,” the steward went on. “Abun has no ambition, but this town will be powerful once Thade carries out his intentions.”
“How do you know what Thade’s intentions are?” the cook asked.
“Never you mind,” said the steward smugly. “Just know that Thade and I have been friends for a long time.”
Beliond doubted that. In his experience, men from Thade’s class seldom befriended men from the steward’s, although they might make use of them. Beliond believed that Thade had been getting information from someone here, and the steward was the obvious candidate.
The boy Beliond had sent to buy wine ran into the kitchen, and the steward spun to grab his arm. “Where have you been?” he demanded and brought the back of his hand hard across the boy’s face.
“Leave him alone!” cried the cook.
The steward scowled at her. “He needs discipline. You all do.”
With his free hand, the boy dabbed at the blood that had welled from the corner of his mouth, but he said nothing, only looked past the steward at Beliond and gave a tiny nod. Beliond winked at him, and the boy smiled slightly.
A sudden loud laugh came from the hallway, and then the sound of a male voice bellowing the very song about the maiden and the goat that Beliond had considered and rejected as entertainment for the men in the Hall. Frowning, the steward released the boy’s arm and strode out into the hallway. It was time, Beliond decided. He rose, slung his harp on his back, decided his coat was too short to allow him to bow to the cook and the giggling maids, and followed the steward out of the kitchen, stopping only to pat the boy on the shoulder.
“How could you be so irresponsible?” the steward was demanding of the two guards, whose flushed-faced grins never changed. “I intend to report you to Thade as soon as he is out of the Hall.”
One of the guards pushed the steward making him stumble against Beliond and thus saving him the trouble of brushing against the steward in order to plant Thade’s, Abun’s, and the guard’s empty purses on him.
He made his way to the buttery, which he had seen in his earlier round of the building. Indeed, he had heard the men banging on the door, but he had not known then whether he wanted to release them or not. Now he did. He pulled the dagger from his boot, worked it into the lock, and had the door open within three minutes.
He stepped back as a burly and rather bruised man with an air of authority came barreling out. “You and your men are needed,” Beliond said hastily. “Thade’s guards are drunk, and he is in the Hall by himself, ripe for the picking. Now is your moment. Seize it and give Abun’s town back to him.”
Other soldiers crowded up behind the big man. “Do you want us to hold him, sergeant?” one asked doubtfully, his eyes on Beliond’s cap.
The sergeant regarded Beliond with narrow eyes. “Not yet,” he said. He looked back at his men. “We will go to the armory and get what weapons we can. Be careful. This minstrel says that Thade’s guards are drunk, but they are still there.”
“You will want to arrest the steward too,” Beliond called after him. “He has been spying for Thade, and besides that, I think he has been thieving. You should search him at once.”
The sergeant nodded over his shoulder and then took off at a run with his men right behind him.
Beliond hated to miss out on seeing the end of the events he had set in motion, but he judged it wisest to be on his way. His only real regret was that he had not been able to deal with the arrogant door guards himself. Ah well. One could not have everything.
He made his way to the spot behind a privy where he had hidden the tied and gagged minstrel, but to his disgust the musician was gone. That was just like a man, Beliond thought disapprovingly. If he had stayed where Beliond put him, he would have had his harp, coat, and cap back now.
He folded the minstrel’s coat neatly on top of a nearby rock wall and set the harp and cap on top of it. Then he fished his tunic out of the bushes and pulled it on, grateful for its length. From the direction of Abun’s hall, he could hear men shouting, and he hastened toward the town gate. That tough looking sergeant reminded Beliond of the sword master who had trained him and Thranduil and Maltanaur. He was undoubtedly an unnaturally suspicious sort and would soon want to know what had become of the minstrel. Beliond’s work here was done in any case.
Beliond slid into the welcoming embrace of the trees of the Woodland Realm, happier than he could say to hear their song again. He enjoyed the solitude of his trips to the east, but his spirit was at ease only among the trees of his home. He made his way along the faint path that he knew would lead him to the flet of the Elf who would take his report, pass it along to Thranduil, and give him any new assignment that the king had for him. If he was lucky, he would have time to sleep under the stars here before he had to set out again. By , he had reached his destination.
“Mae govannen,” he said to the Elf who was tending a pan of fish cooking over a campfire.
“Mae govannen, Beliond,” the Elf responded. “I thought the trees sounded as if they had seen you, so I caught an extra fish.”
“Good. Do you want my report now, or would you like to eat first?”
“We will eat,” the Elf said. “But you are to report directly to the king rather than to me. He has summoned you home.”
Beliond’s annoyance knew no bounds. Thranduil could be very high handed sometimes. “What does he want, do you know?”
The other Elf shook his head and pulled a message out from his belt. “He sent this with instructions I was to give it to you as soon as you arrived.”
Beliond slit the seal with his dagger and unfolded the parchment. As usual, Thranduil was brief: “Come home, old friend. I have a special task for you, and you have been away long enough.” Beliond frowned. What in Arda could Thranduil want with him? Thranduil knew how Beliond disliked the more densely populated area around the stronghold. “A special task.” Beliond was not sure he liked the sound of that. He folded the message and tucked it inside his tunic. He had known Thranduil for a long time and was confident of his ability to manage him. Whatever the king wanted, Beliond would deal with it and be on his way on his own again. And for now, there was fried fish and the knowledge of a job well done.
AN: A de-Tolkienized version of this story can be read for free at the online magazine, Swords and Sorcery.
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