Part One: The Edge of the Wild
An Elvish education had a way of ruining an appreciation for the musical efforts of one’s fellow man. The man currently abusing his fiddle before the common room was no Daeron, by any means, though possessed of a peculiar determination to drag his audience with him into some rendition of “The Ostler’s Dram.” Well-suited for the performer and the place, if in poor taste.
The Stroke of Luck was full tonight with a crowd of regulars, who by now knew better than to persuade him to give up his corner seat. They merely grunted greetings or nothing at all and let him be. On this side of the River, a man’s business was his own--particularly in this far outflung village on the edge of southern Mirkwood. Travelers were seldom asked for a name, much less a purpose.
Aragorn liked it for just that reason.
There were few others to recommend it.
The common room’s oil lamps cast just enough light to squint by. Just as well for every surface from the panes in the lamps to the benches and tables to the glasses bore the grit of what might have been leftover ash under a veneer of Mannish grease. Women and men of uncertain moral standing rented the best of the upstairs bedrooms. And the food was questionable. Tonight’s soup still sat at Aragorn’s elbow, bits of cold, stringy meat floating beneath the congealed surface. The innkeeper’s cat had vanished the night before.
But its reputation had little to do with its atmosphere and more with its location. As the only Inn on this side of the River, it offered a veritable dragon’s hoard of trade, songs, tales, gossip, rumors and information. Information that concerned Aragorn and his friends in Imladris very much.
More than rumor reported that lights had once more been seen on the hill of Dol Guldur since the White Council had driven out its denizens some ten years before. The Wise feared that that formidable fastness was once more occupied by the Enemy or his lieutenants. But the mountains between here and Imladris proved as much a barrier for reliable information as for easy travel. Aragorn, restless and arguably more able to move in the company of Men than those who had fostered him, had agreed to gather the truth of the matter from a familiar in the area, a friend of Elladan’s. A rather elusive figure, even in high circles. A Silvan Elf, he was, known only as Merilin, “the Nightingale.” Amongst the Tawarwaith, as amongst suspicious Men, names were confidences earned.
Messages had gone forth before him, Aragorn had been assured, to make the Nightingale aware of his coming. But in these uncertain days, fear of interception over the long leagues made the wording of such messages vague by necessity, scarcely worth the sending. More often than not, they simply went astray along with their messengers.
Aragorn had spent nearly three days in the area, listening to conversations, picking up pieces of tales, and watching those who came in and out of the Luck. Though he had gathered a good deal of local gossip and a few wild tales about the forest, he had neither heard nor seen any sign of the Nightingale. Perhaps he’d flown off? Or been otherwise detained? What then? He could not stay here forever. His presence had been noticed by more than the innkeeper, and who could say if others than allies lurked in this inn for much the same reasons?
As was his habit when lost in thought, he twisted the ring on his right forefinger. The ring was carved in the likeness of two serpent’s heads, rubbed smooth by ages of wear, encircled by a crown of golden flowers which one upheld and the other devoured. He wore it openly, knowing it a foolish risk but reasoning that it revealed him for an ally if the Nightingale were close. And if the Enemy were close enough to espy it, he was already in greatest danger.
“Evenin’, Strider. How’s the soup treating you?”
Stilwel, the innkeeper, was a portly man with a very red face full of broken veins and smiles, paused beside Aragorn’s favored table as he usually did of an evening. He saw it as a matter of duty that none of his patrons wanted for anything, especially company of one sort or another. He feigned a lack of interest in anyone’s affairs, but Aragorn had learned that a flash of silver sparked an amazing memory for details and names.
“Well enough, Master Stilwel, well enough.”
“You’ll not be leaving us too soon, I hope? Getting fond of us, aren’t you?”
“A few days more. Your inn is most hospitable. I find it particularly difficult to pull myself from this fine ale of yours.” Aragorn drained his glass and placed it on the edge of the bar. “Might I trouble you for another?”
Stilwel smiled, the creases at his eyes crinkling as he slid the glass off the bar and the coin beneath it into his waiting palm. “Certainly, sir.”
When he returned with the pint, they spoke of small matters for a little until Aragorn was certain they would not be overheard.
“I am looking for something.”
Stilwel spread his hands with an indulgent smile. “What man isn’t, my friend? What man isn’t? I’ve seen that look in a man’s eye before. Curse of a long road. I know one or two very fine ladies who would enjoy making your acquaintance if you--”
“Nothing of that sort, no.”
“Couple of lads…out of Rhûn.”
“No. I am looking for a bird.”
“A bird?” Stilwel looked at him as if he had grown wings himself. “I’m afraid I don’t quite follow you, sir.”
“I hear the forest in these parts is home to many birds whose songs are unrivaled even in the halls of kings,” Aragorn said with careful deliberation. “Nightingales, in particular. But I’m afraid, being unfamiliar with these parts, I know not where they roost.”
At the mention of “nightingales,” the many-creased smile on Stilwel’s face faltered, just once, before he hitched it back into a semblance of his former cheer. He laughed. A brittle noise as if something had gotten stuck in his throat.
“Well, Strider, can’t say I’ve ever heard that one before. Fraid I can’t help you. Don’t keep birds. Too messy.” His eye twitched over Aragorn’s shoulder.
“Now, Master Stilwel, you mean to tell me you have never--?”
“I said I don’t know anything about it.” The humor was gone from the man’s face, the red draining out of it as if he’d been gutted.
The silver coin rang on the bar, twisting over itself twice before coming to rest beside Aragorn’s hand. He picked it up and pressed it lightly against his chin.
A frisson ran the length of his nape, the same sense that makes the hart raise his head a heartbeat before the arrow transfixes him behind the shoulder.
In a corner near the hearth sat the shape of a man, watching him. A man Aragorn had never noticed before. His raiment and low hood was of a color indistinguishable from the ash-stained wall behind him, and the shadows chasing over his form rendered him nearly invisible. He had neither plate nor tankard in front of him. Only a small tin into which he flicked ash from the tobacco stick lodged between his fingers.
For a long span of heartbeats, they held one another’s gaze. Aragorn had an uneasy feeling that the stranger had heard or guessed the words that had passed between him and the innkeeper. Every old tale Aragorn had ever heard of Mirkwood loomed large in his mind: how the Necromancer and his servants could snare a man’s soul with a prolonged stare, unearth a man’s heart from his eyes, its doors and chambers, its most secret desires and fears.
Only when the stranger exhaled a stream of smoke and stubbed the fag end out against the table could Aragorn wrench himself away, unnaturally shaken.
He rose, his legs steady as warm honey, went up to his cramped room at the end of the corridor, and threw the bolt. His quarters were damp and cramped, and he had paid thrice the room’s worth, but its costly lock kept out the curious, the inebriated and the thief. He could be alone as he wished.
Sitting on the edge of the pallet he drew his sword, broken a foot below the hilt, into his lap. Even broken it was precious to him. He ran a whetstone over its edges, the rasp of steel and the repetitive motion driving out the fear and the sound of his neighbors engaged in carnal pursuits.
They had fallen into a silence of drunken exhaustion before he had finished. He set the blade close to hand, undressed in the dark, and wrapped himself tight in his cloak. Only then did he let himself drift for a few precious moments into thoughts of her.
The turn of her head in surprise when he had called her by a name of legend, the loveliness of her smile. The touch of her hand upon his as she bade him farewell and to look after himself. What would it be like to know the touch of her lips on his? The softness of her breast? His legs shifted uncomfortably beneath the wool of his cloak. Too long it had been, but he would not take himself in hand. He would not abase her with lust.
Much later, he woke, his legs chilled from where they had slipped free of the blankets. Though there was no noise, Aragorn had the strangest impression that someone stood on the other side.
He rose and eased himself across the room, each floorboard threatening to give him away. But it was the door latch that creaked, a peculiar scraping. Sweat drew an icy runnel down Aragorn’s ribs as he took up the shard of Narsil in his slick hands.
Rheumatic steps lurched up the back stairs, followed by the innkeeper’s voice.
“Who’s that, then? What are you doing there?”
The glimmer of a candleflame slid under his door, and Aragorn unfastened the latch to Stilwel’s ruddy, puzzled face.
The innkeeper blinked at Aragorn, the sword in his hand.
“Someone was trying the lock to my room, innkeeper,” Aragorn said. “What did you see?”
“Not rightly sure I saw anything,” Stilwel said, squinting down the hall, the candle blinding him. “Looked like a black shadow, a bit bigger. Maybe, no more than a cat.”
“A clever beast, that then, to try a door with picks.” Aragorn pointed to the latch which bore a series of fresh scratches.
Stilwel laughed uneasily. The hand holding the candle was shaking. The other was clutched tightly around something that glinted silvery in the pale light. “Stranger things been seen in these parts. What with the forest so close and all.”
Aragorn fixed him in a stare until the man visibly wilted.
“Your ability to deceive is as thin as your ale, Master Stilwel. I would have a word or two with you.” Before the innkeeper could protest, Aragorn seized his wrist and plucked the silver coin from the thick palm. It was his own, taken from his purse, the very one Stilwel had returned to him earlier that evening.
“Who gave you this?” he demanded. When Stilwel said nothing, he squeezed the fat wrist warningly. “Who sought entrance to my room? Why? What price did you name, innkeeper, for the lives of the men under your hospitality?”
A light kindled in Stilwel’s eyes, and he wrested himself away with a surprisingly strong jerk. “I earn a good living, I do, Master Strider. Better and more honest than some ragged vagabond out of the wild. If trouble found you, you brought it on yourself and no need to cast blame hither and thither on those as don’t warrant it. I’ve never wished ill on a man before, and I won’t do it now, particularly if that man’s under my roof. So I bid you goodnight.”
He turned and stalked back down the stairs, grunting at his stiff knees.
Aragorn let him go. Morning would be time enough to have a private word with Stilwel. He withdrew, throwing the latch again and testing it twice. But he did not return to the pallet. Instead, he installed himself in a chair beside the door, and there he stayed with Narsil on his lap until grey dawn seeped through the curtains.