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The Eagle Conspiracy

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"There seems to be some trouble in The Lord of the Rings, old girl," Commander Bradshaw said to me one day.

"Is it the Minotaur?" I asked, half hopeful, and half dreading what the man-eating mythological beast might do if let loose in a well-beloved classic. As Bellman, my job was to supervise the policing of the BookWorld, and - much though I wanted to catch him - the last thing I needed was to have a page-running Minotaur wreaking havoc in an acclaimed masterpiece.

Bradshaw shook his head. "We think not. It's more of a rumour, really. Tongues are wagging. The word seems to be that somebody's cooking up a conspiracy."

"What sort of a conspiracy?"

"All of a sudden, people are asking questions. Why don't they use the eagles, they ask. Surely it would make sense to take the ruddy birds and fly directly to Mordor, eh? I say, Thursday - what is the BookWorld coming to? What would The Lord of the Rings be like if they just got on the eagles and lobbed the Ring into the volcano?"

"A lot shorter, I presume. But why do you call it a conspiracy?"

"It seems that the questions are coming from inside the book, this time. And someone is very persistent. We think they might be up to something."

"Hm. Might be worth investigating, yes," I said thoughtfully. "In this case, better safe than sorry."

"Quite so, quite so. Whom do you want posted on the case?"

"No one," I said, making a quick decision. "I'm going in myself."

Another person might have tried to dissuade me, citing my responsibilities as Bellman to keep me behind my desk. Bradshaw, however, simply grinned at me under his bushy white moustache. "Itching for the action, eh? Quite right. Appreciate a woman who knows how to get out there and have some fun."

As the star of a number of aggressively jingoistic jungle novels from the thirties, Bradshaw knew a lot about action, or at least those parts of it that involved hunting big game, fighting assorted and improbable enemies, and - now that he was retired - being one of Jurisfiction's most capable agents. His books were no longer read these days, but that never seemed to worry him at all, since he considered Jurisfiction to be a more than accurate substitute.

"I'll need a babysitter for Friday, though. Trafford, could Melanie...?"

"Certainly, old girl. She's been wanting to see the little tyke again for weeks."

Melanie was Commander Bradshaw's wife, and, incidentally, also a gorilla. Friday was my son, whom I had with a man that didn't exist. I'd originally meant only to take refuge in the BookWorld for as long as I needed to have the baby in peace. But, in the meantime, I'd become the head of Jurisfiction, Friday had grown from infant to baby, and was well on his way into toddlerhood, and I still wasn't quite ready to go back yet.

"All right," I said to Bradshaw, "tell me what we've got. Motives? Suspects?"

"Nothing definite."

"Then I suppose I'll have to start with Sauron," I said without enthusiasm. No sane person would jump at a chance to visit Mordor, especially if said visit involved meeting the eponymous Lord of the Rings himself.

"You could meet up with him outside the book," suggested Bradshaw. "The Club is having their annual party this week. Might be easier to talk to him there."

The Club was an organisation uniting all of BookWorld's most prominent villains. It owed its generic name to the members' total inability to compromise on any given subject; arch-criminals are solitary creatures by nature, and since every one of them had had a different idea of what the Club should be called, it eventually ended up nameless. However, in spite of the inherent difficulties, it still organised yearly social meetings for its members, and Jurisfiction had never needed to get involved. If there was any trouble - and there almost certainly always was - it would be sorted out within the Club itself, quickly, discreetly, and probably with a certain degree of finality.

"Good idea, but how do I get in? They're pretty definite about not admitting any outsiders. I can't afford to wait for a warrant."

"I can get you in touch with the Badgers."

"The badgers?"

"The Badgers," he corrected me. "Badger, Badger, Mushroom & Badger, attorneys-at-law. Also catering. They organize the thing. Very efficient, if you ask me."

"Okay," I said. "I'll give it a shot."

***

"I do not know, Miss Next, I really do not know. This is highly irregular. Let's face it - you simply do not look like a badger, hmm?"

Mr Badger, of Badger, Badger, Mushroom & Badger, attorneys-at-law, was, as luck would have it, a badger. (As were his esteemed colleagues, Messires Badger and Badger; I never had the pleasure of meeting the fourth partner, Mr Mushroom, but rumour had it he was some sort of a snake.)

Mr Badger was also a stubborn bastard.

"Look, sir," I tried again, "I'm not saying you have to smuggle me in as one of the staff. I'm the head of Jurisfiction, so I can, as a matter of fact, go in whether you allow it or not, but I'd really rather not make it official. All I want is a few words with one of the guests, not trouble to you or anyone, and then I'll be off."

Mr Badger glanced at me over the top of his wire-rimmed spectacles, and went on as if I hadn't said anything. "You do not carry a Club card, Miss Next. You are not a member. We have a reputation to uphold here, hmm? Badger, Badger, Mushroom & Badger has been supervising the Club parties since the days of Ann Radcliffe - nay, of Milton himself! - and our guests have never had cause to complain about any aspect of our services. For truly," he continued, evidently warming up to his subject, "is there a creature as well-suited to organize the meeting of several dozen narcissistic and highly volatile individuals as is a badger? A badger, who not only possesses the strength of arm and sharpness of tooth required to deal with the unavoidable altercations, but who also - indeed, even more importantly - is always, without exception, impeccably dressed from head to toe in black and white! Tell me, Miss Next - in all of Fiction, is there another creature who can be said to always wear his evening clothes?"

"Well, there are the penguins..." I began. I knew I shouldn't be provoking him, but chauvinists always made my hackles rise.

I didn't expect Mr Badger to be amused, and he wasn't. "Come now, Miss Next," he said coldly. "We do not want to turn this into a farce."

The talk wasn't going well at all. I steeled myself, got my irritation in check, and made a last-ditch attempt at reasoning. "Mr Badger, someone is trying to tamper with arguably the greatest work of fantasy literature ever written. I cannot let that happen, but to prevent it, I will need your cooperation."

Badger pricked up his ears. "Somebody is threatening The Once and Future King? Outrageous! Why haven't you said so from the start, Miss Next?"

"Well, no, actually, I meant The Lord of the Rings, but I'm sure--"

The attorney was instantly hostile again. "There is a badger in The Once and Future King, but there are no badgers in The Lord of the Rings. Therefore, The Once and Future King is clearly the superior book."

"There are eagles and a talking fox, if that's any consolation."

"Foxes! Ha! They get everywhere," he said bitterly. "We badgers are hugely and unfairly underrepresented in popular fiction, Miss Next, and I have noticed nothing has changed during your tenure as Bellman. Now, I really think you should be leaving, hmm? Good day."

This was it, then. I could turn around, leave, and return with an official warrant that would force Mr Badger to admit me to his precious party whether he liked it or not. Frankly, I'd have enjoyed that very much, if only to spite the pompous old bureaucrat, but I knew time could be of the essence, and I didn't want the hassle of dealing with paperwork when the fate of Tolkien's masterpiece was at stake. I decided to take the other way.

"Listen," I said, "there's this new series about a kid wizard in the works, seven books planned, slated to be a big success. Let me in on the party, and I promise I'll get you a representation. Agreed?"

His little eyes glittered with greed. "A badger... character?"

"Well, not a character, no," I amended quickly. I couldn't remember who was in charge of that particular book-building, but I was sure they wouldn't be too happy to discover any unexpected badgers in the narrative. "More like a symbol. Something prominent. People will be sure to take notice. That's the best I can do for you, Mr Badger. Do we have a deal?"

He stared at me fixedly for almost a minute. Then, just as I was about to get up and leave, he nodded.

"Very well, Miss Next. In these circumstances, perhaps I can allow you to attend the party, provided you are accompanied by a Club member at all times, of course."

"Don't worry," I told him. "I know just the man for the job."

***

"Really, Thursday," complained Emperor Zhark, fellow Jurisfiction agent, and intergalactic tyrant in a series of rather poorly-written science-fiction novels. "I haven't got time for this. Mrs Tiggy-Winkle was going to show me how to best starch and iron my collars."

I shushed him. The badger at the door checked our invitations and bowed, much more politely than I'd anticipated in light of my recent experiences with Mr Badger. We entered the Club together - Zhark, in all his pale, goatee-sporting, high-collared glory, and myself, much less resplendent in my usual jeans. Fortunately, the Club did not enforce mandatory evening wear, since so many of its members were either completely unwilling or unable to comply.

The Club was a pleasant, well-lit place, with a buffet and nibbles, and plenty of little alcoves where the assorted villains could plot to their evil hearts' content. Contrary to what I'd expected, it was located on one of the upper floors of the Great Library, far away from where fictional bad guys usually congregated. Zhark had explained to me that this was because the Club members were the elite, the creme de la creme of BookWorld criminals. They did not want to be mistaken for the common brand.

Zhark's own status within the Club was somewhat debatable. His goal and methods - total domination over the galaxy by means of mass killing and enslavement of innocent civilians - certainly fit well enough with the Club's philosophy. However, the exceedingly pulp nature of his books made him something of a running joke with other members, many of whom originated in the greatest works of literature ever penned. Zhark himself had admitted this to me, though not in so many words, and, as I looked at him now, I could see that his normally haughty face was twisted in something approaching trepidation.

I squeezed his hand reassuringly. "We don't have to stay here long. I'll just find Sauron and ask him some questions, that's all. Then we can go."

The emperor looked relieved, but didn't get a chance to reply, because right at that moment somebody grabbed our shoulders from behind in a decidedly proprietary manner.

"Zhark, darling," said a voice that could only be described as sultry, "who is your delightful companion?"

We turned around. The speaker was a woman, tall and clad in a magnificent gown of black velvet and lace. She was a little older than myself, and a whole lot more attractive. After a moment's hesitation, I recognized her as Snow White's evil stepmother.

"It's a pleasure to meet you, Your Highness. My name is Thursday Next."

The queen let go of Zhark and caught hold of my other shoulder, looking me in the eye with a brilliant smile. "Oh, I know you, darling - of course I know you! You are a wonderful Bellman. And naturally you were at the Annual BookWorld Awards, too. That's when I first noticed you, darling, when you called down the Great Panjandrum to help us. Delightful woman, wasn't she? Not everyone can pull off the whole velvet-and-lace look, but, darling, she could."

"I don't remember him wearing any lace," muttered Zhark, displeased to be elbowed out of the conversation.

The queen barely spared him a glance. "Zhark, darling, don't you have somewhere else you'd rather be at the moment? I'll gladly take care of your guest for you. Mustn't keep Mrs Tiggy-Winkle waiting," she added with a gleam in her eye, thus proving beyond all doubt that she had been listening in on our conversation.

Zhark looked so uncomfortable that I freed myself from the queen's grasp and motioned at him to follow me aside.

"Is she a friend of yours?"

The emperor frowned. "Generally speaking, yes."

"Is she... as trustworthy as might be expected, given the circumstances?"

"Yes, as long as you don't take any apples from her. Or any hair accessories. Or... well, better not take anything she might give you, really. But, Thursday, if you want me to--"

"It's all right," I interrupted. "I think I'll manage. Besides, the badgers will probably keep an eye on me all the time, to make sure I don't disturb the guests, or anything. You can go if you want."

The Emperor was happy to hear it, though he tried to hide his relief for appearances' sake. As he departed for his meeting with Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, I turned to the queen, who sent me another dazzling smile, and immediately linked her arm with mine.

"I do love Zhark, darling - but he can be so awfully starchy sometimes! Now, Thursday - I may call you Thursday? - did I guess correctly that you are here on official Jurisfiction business?"

It was less of a guess and more of blatant eavesdropping, but I wasn't so rude as to say this out loud. "That's right. I need to talk to Sauron, Your Highness. Can you help me find him?"

"Oh, he'll be in his corner, as usual," she replied without hesitation. "I'll walk with you there; between you and me, he does take some getting used to. Oh, and, darling, he prefers to be called Lord Annatar. He's very particular about it."

I looked at the alcove she was pointing out to me. At first I thought that the lamp hanging over it must be broken, because it was the only dark place in the entire room. Then I realised that the lamp was working all right, and that the darkness actually emanated from the imposing figure seated inside the niche. I tried to get a closer look at the shape, but couldn't - my temples began to throb, and, eventually, I had to turn my eyes away.

"Yes, he's like that, isn't he?" the evil stepmother said sympathetically. "Come, I'll introduce you."

All other villains were giving Sauron a wide berth, and I soon learned why. The closer we got to him, the worse my headache seemed to get, and even the queen was looking very pale. He emanated cold despair and darkness, as well as certain generalized malice, and it was all I could do to force myself to approach him. Needless to say, I was suddenly very glad that I hadn't decided to confront him in his own realm.

I told myself to get a grip. I might be standing before one of the most menacing denizens of BookWorld, but I also had a job to do, and I intended to do it well. The queen seemed a little overcome, so I didn't wait for her to make the introduction. Instead, I addressed the fallen Maia myself.

"Lord Annatar?"

Malice.

"My name is Thursday Next."

A more personal kind of malice, with a definite focus on myself, and a hint of a threat against all my friends, family and future descendants. Sauron rarely bothered using words to communicate, but he could get his meaning across very efficiently all the same.

"I'm here on Jurisfiction business."

Malice. Also a grudging agreement to refrain from torturing me, at least for the time being.

"There has been some trouble with your book."

Malice. Disinterest. Why was I bothering him with trivialities? Malice.

"Someone is trying to make it shorter."

The sheer, white-hot indignation almost knocked me off my feet. I reeled, stumbling into the queen; she fell to the floor, and I managed to grab her hand and drag her away from the seething Sauron. As far as I could make sense of the barrage of negative emotions, he was absolutely furious that anyone would dare remove one word from the novel which shared his title, and which must therefore be a tribute to his greatness. He expressed a sincere wish to see the perpetrator tortured to death by orcs, or hung alive from a rock for the rest of his life, preferably both at once. It was indeed a sorry state of affairs if villainous-minded criminals could threaten the safety and stability of the BookWorld like that; and what, he wanted to know, was Jurisfiction going to do about it?

"I think... I think he's really serious, darling," wheezed the evil stepmother, hanging onto my arm as if it were a lifeline.

Sauron was still fuming. That upstart wizard Saruman - it had to be him! A deliberate, premeditated insult! What was I doing here, languishing at a party, when I should be out in The Lord of the Rings, chasing down that scum and bringing him to justice? Couldn't one trust Jurisfiction to do even the simplest jobs right?

We were beginning to draw quite a crowd, and I knew without looking that the badgers were already converging on us, intent on sorting out the disturbance. I didn't want to take my chances with them, so I hurried to interrupt the non-verbal tirade before it could go on. "We are investigating the matter with all due seriousness. A breakthrough should be reached at some hitherto unspecified time in the future," I said, reverting to the lingo that policemen use when they want to appear particularly busy and particularly dense at the same time; I had only recently spent two weeks in Nursery Crime with DCI Jack Spratt. "Thank you for your valuable contribution... sir." I wanted to say "guv", but decided that would be laying it a little thick. "Goodbye."

The queen took a deep breath and straightened up. "He is like that, darling," she whispered in my ear. "Come," she added in a louder voice, "why don't you sit down with me for a while? I think we could both use some rest, couldn't we?"

It would have been impolite to refuse, after she'd gone to all that trouble to help me with Sauron, so I accompanied her to her table, which was almost empty, save for a basket of the most perfect apples I had ever laid eyes on in my life. The queen took a seat very close to me, snapped open her fan, and started talking.

"I hope you're not too tired, Thursday - though I know I am, these society parties always take such a lot out of me! But they're such fun, too, aren't they? You get to see how everyone is doing, and - oh, look, that's the Macbeths at the door! The Lady hasn't changed a thing... unfortunately for her, poor girl. Oh, it is good to see everyone again, and there haven't been any serious attempted murders for, what, twenty minutes already? I think we're going to set a record this year!" She snuggled closer to me. "Snow and the therapist don't really like me to come here, can you imagine?" she confessed sotto voce. "They say it's counterproductive to--"

A badger appeared at her elbow, waiting to collect our orders. The queen asked for wine; I was thirsty myself, but, remembering where I was and who the other guests were, decided to forgo food and drink for the time being. I actually was tired, to tell the truth, and I wanted nothing more than to go home: to play with Friday for a while, chat with Melanie, and then perhaps go to bed and think of Landen. But the queen had me cornered, and she didn't seem to care that I wasn't contributing anything to the conversation.

"What was I... oh, the therapy. Snow and I are working very hard to settle our differences through counselling. I must say I am ever so pleased with the results - Snow is such a delightful child, darling, if only she puts in a little effort. We are well on our way to form a true family. Look, Thursday, I have even prepared a gift for her!" She pointed at the gleaming apples with an expression of triumph.

"Wonderful! May I try one?" I asked innocently.

As I expected, the queen stopped my hand before it was even halfway to the basket. "I... don't think they would be very good for you, darling."

I smiled and waited for her to release me, but she didn't. Instead, she smiled back, and ran her hand up my arm in an unmistakeably suggestive manner.

"Your Highness, I'm a married woman!" I always held that to be true, even though my husband had been eradicated by Lavoisier, and technically had therefore died before we had the chance to meet.

"Congratulations, darling." The hand sneaked closer to my neckline. "So am I."

I was spared the embarrassment of having to think of a good reply, because then the queen's gaze was suddenly drawn to something happening behind my back. She stiffened, almost vibrating with outrage. "That woman! What is she doing here?"

I turned and saw a familiar face at the entrance to the room - the Queen of Hearts, looking every bit as I remembered her from my trial.

"That poser!" hissed the evil stepmother. "She's got no right to be here--she's not even a real villain--oh, I'll show her!" Before I knew it, she was on her feet, striding towards the Queen of Hearts and bellowing, "Get out of here, you great big red-faced cow!"

"Off with her head!" screamed the Queen of Hearts. I took this as my cue to leave.

As Club door closed behind me, I was stopped by a harried-looking young woman with skin as white as snow, and hair as black as ebony wood. "Hullo," she said, "sorry to be a bother, but have you seen my stepmum over there? She's about this tall, wears black... oh, and I suppose she'll be carrying poisoned apples somewhere on her, too. It's just that she's promised not to go to the party, but now I can't find here anywhere, and, you know..."

"Hey, Snow. Your stepmother is there. Looks like she might be getting into a bit of a brawl at the moment." My statement was instantly supported by a series of loud bangs, and a voice shrieking, "Off with her head! Off with her h--oomph!"

"Bollocks," Snow cursed with feeling. Then she realised what she'd said, and blushed as red as a winter apple. "Still, if she's being a nuisance, perhaps the badgers will let me get in there and haul her out. Thanks awfully, in any case."

"You're welcome," I told her, and added, "Good luck," because it seemed like she might need it.

***

Afterwards, I took my investigations within The Lord of the Rings proper, but met with no success, at least in the beginning. I talked to Saruman, as per Sauron's tip-off, but the wizard denied all allegations with a plain, "Really, Bellman, if the book is cut in half, it will limit my page time to, what, one measly flashback of Gandalf's? Why would I want to do that to myself?"

Next, I tracked down Gwaihir Wind-lord in his nest atop the highest peak of the Misty Mountains (quite possibly the worst bit of climbing I'd ever had to do in my entire life), but the Lord of Eagles claimed to have no knowledge of the conspiracy. There had been rumours, he told me, as I fought to keep my hold on the slippery ledge and not plummet to my death; there had been rumours, but he didn't know their source, and nobody had tried to contact either him or his eagles about the matter. I got him to promise he would alert me at once if someone did, and returned to the Library somewhat reassured, but no closer to finding out the truth that I had been before.

Then, finally, I did something I should have done at the start. I went to talk to the Fellowship of the Ring.

I dropped in on them early in Book Two, right after the Council of Elrond. As soon as I got there, I knew at once that this time I'd hit the nail on the head. The Nine Walkers were sitting around the table in sullen silence, studiously avoiding one another's gaze. None of them looked up as I approached. I cleared my throat.

"My name is Thursday Next. On behalf of Jurisfiction, I would like to ask you gentlemen a few questions."

That got me a reaction, at least. The characters raised their heads and eyed me with suspicion. "You didn't have to call down the Jurisfiction, Gandalf," I heard Merry mutter.

"I did not call for the Bellman, yet I am glad she found us, all the same," the wizard answered calmly. "I do not agree with what has been proposed here. It is not for us to decide whether the plot of our novel should be altered."

"Well, she's their boss, right?" Pippin Took piped up hopefully. "Maybe she could put in a good word for us with the C of G, get us a plot realignment, if that's what you-- I mean," he faltered, "if we think it's going to benefit the book as a whole."

"How is that going to 'benefit the book'?" I asked incredulously. "You'd lose two-thirds of the narrative! No Riders of Rohan, no siege of Gondor, no heroic sacrifice, no struggle and no point! You'd cut everything that makes The Lord of the Rings a masterpiece, and you'd be left with nothing but an overlong buildup to the most anticlimactic ending in the history of fiction."

There was a long silence. "On the other hand," Boromir mused, "I for one wouldn't end up stuck full of arrows like a pincushion. Not the most pleasant way to die, take my word for this. That would still count as a win in my book."

"Or you could all end up killed, just as well," I said reasonably. "Doesn't Sauron have those big flying things he could pit against you? Internal plot disturbances are extremely tricky things. You don't want me to tell you what happened to Titus Andronicus."

Aragorn frowned, trying to remember. "It was this mild comedy of manners, wasn't it? Why, what's happened?"

"Was is the operative word here. As are blood, mayhem and cannibalism. And I'm very sorry, but I must warn you that there's no chance that the Council of Genres will grant you a realignment. The Lord of the Rings is heavily protected as a book of outstanding literary merit. This simply will not go."

My words brought about another period of silence, when everyone mostly just stared at their hands and looked miserable. I could tell their hearts weren't really in it. Somebody had put them up to this, but who?

And then I saw Frodo Baggins. Frodo wasn't staring at his hands. He was looking at me.

And then I understood.

I didn't even have to call him out. The little hobbit knew the game was up. He jumped off his chair - which was much too big for his height - and came to stand in front of me.

"It's so unfair," he said quietly. I could hear some gasps and No, Frodo-s in the background, but I didn't turn my eyes from his face.

"I have to sacrifice everything. My home, my life. I lose a finger. I get nightmares--you have no idea--is it so strange that I want a plot realignment?" He drew his sword, Sting, which he shouldn't even have at this point in the narrative. "You will get us a plot realignment."

I held his gaze. Contrary to a popular piece of gossip, Frodo's eyes weren't blue. They were merely large, young, and very, very desperate.

Hobbits might be good at a lot of things, but threatening people at sword's point really wasn't one of them. I knew I could talk him down. But then it turned out I didn't have to.

"No, Mister Frodo." Sam Gamgee walked up to us and put his hand on Frodo's shoulder. "That's not how it should go."

Frodo hesitated, then let Sting fall to the ground. "You're right, Sam. Of course you're right." He gripped the other hobbit's hand and looked up at me with a bittersweet smile. "I'm sorry, Bellman. I lied to you. It's not because of the quest at all. I could manage all that; I know what the plot requires, and I'm ready to do it. But Sam and I, we love each other. And we never get a chance to... So I thought--I came up with this, because..."

"Now, Mister Frodo, there's no need to lie to the Bellman here! It was me who--"

"Sam. Please. It was my idea. And I'm ready to face the consequences, whatever they are." He looked me in the eye. "Alone. But, if Sam and I could have been together, even for a little while... that would have been well worth it."

That was it, then. I should arrest Frodo on the spot and take him out for trial, presumably dragging the rest of the Fellowship along on conspiracy charges. That would have been doing it by the book.

Sam put an arm around Frodo's shoulders. I thought about Landen, and what I wouldn't do to have him back.

"Twenty years," I said. "That's all I can give you."

I'd never seen a hobbit look so surprised as those two. "You mean you won't arrest us?" spluttered Sam. "You'll have the plot realigned?"

"A small modification should do. We'll put in twenty years right at the beginning, after the party, but before you leave the Shire. The plot moves so slowly there that nobody should notice. You'll be able to live in Bag End in peace. I can't give you two forever, but I can do this, at least. Will that be enough?"

"Yes," whispered Frodo, his eyes glistening with tears. "Yes, thank you. This is more than we could hope for." And then suddenly he and Sam were hugging me around the middle.

I finally looked at the other members of the Fellowship. Gandalf was smiling softly, the smoke from his pipe weaving intricate patterns above his head. Merry and Pippin both wore huge, ear-to-ear grins. Aragorn looked a little sour, though. "Twenty years... that means I'm going to be eighty-seven by the time we start!"

Boromir snorted. "Yes, because right now you're such a spry, sprightly sixty-seven-year-old! Don't mind him, Bellman - he's just afraid he's never going to get that Most Troubled Romantic Lead Award now, as if he's had any chances with it in the first place! You have my vote, for whatever that's worth."

Legolas and Gimli, who had been very quiet all the while, exchanged speculative glances. Then the Elf raised an eyebrow, looked at me and opened his mouth to speak.

"Make your own arrangements," I cut him off firmly.

***

And that was how it ended. I managed to have the plot realignment done with the minimum of fuss and bother, and, as far as I know, nobody has ever wondered why the action of the novel takes twenty-odd years to get started. Frodo and Sam settled well into their life together. They sent me postcards for every major holiday, for as long as I lived in the BookWorld. The question of the eagles still gets asked in the Outland from time to time. The answer is usually, "Because".

I gave Mr Badger the species representation he wanted, too, although I had to pull quite a lot of weight with that one. (A lion, a raven, a snake and a... badger? Really, Thursday, what are you thinking?) I heard that Legolas had called in some favours of his own, and managed to get Gimli aboard an Elven boat to the Undying Lands. What they did after that is anybody's guess.

Time went on. I was still Bellman, but continued to do the odd field job every once and again. Friday learnt to talk, even though all he spoke was Lorem Ipsum. Melanie still babysat him from time to time; she taught him to peel bananas with his feet. And I was lonely. I was beginning to think about going back to the Outland.

But first, there was still the matter of a Minotaur to catch...