Outside, the rain had let up, but the sky was still overcast and the street was still a river of mud. As I slogged through it I understood why the Big Folk insist on wearing clothes on their feet -- what they call shoes.
The apothecary shop was around the corner from the Green Dragon and up a side street that led to Bywater Pool. I entered after wiping my muddy feet on the mat outside.
The shop was dark. The windows had been shuttered against the rain and hadn't been opened again, and only a couple of cheap tallow candles lit the gloom. The ceiling was higher than you normally found in the Shire, and two of the walls bore shelves loaded with jars and boxes. A tall table sat in the center of the room with equally tall stools around it -- along with a single wooden chair big enough to seat one of the Big Folk, and currently occupied.
The Big Guy in the chair was an old one, with long gray tangled hair and an equally long gray tangled beard. His gray, often-patched robe had seen better days, and plenty of them, and his pointed hat was singed here and there. On the table in front of him was a mostly-empty bottle of Old Belegost, cheap rotgut that the dwarves in the Blue Mountains distilled from, it was said, tree moss. He was slumped over, and didn't look up when I came in.
I seated myself on one of the stools, then banged on the table while announcing loudly, "The Mayor says you have to double his cut."
"Like Halls I do," the man in the chair replied without moving. Finally he raised his head and peered at me with bloodshot eyes. They focused on me and he added, "Very funny, Deuce. Remind me to turn you into a slug next chance I get. Wouldn't be much of a change."
"Rise and shine, Doc," I said. "I need your expert services."
He answered in Quenya, or something that sounded like Quenya. I didn't catch the gist, and it's probably just as well.
Nobody knew how old Doc Galdalf was, or where he came from. He used to be a big shot on the White Council, but he backed the wrong faction in a power struggle about seventy-five years back, and wound up being purged. He had knocked around after that, showing up here and there to sponge off of old friends and outstaying his welcome. He finally ended up in Bywater, becoming the village apothecary more or less by default. Some of the stuff he sold was theoretically illegal in the Shire, but a monthly payment to the boys in Michel Delving took care of that.
"What do you make of this, Doc?" I asked, taking Miss Rushlight's ring from my vest pocket and setting it on the table. I noticed my hand hovering near it as if getting ready to snatch it back and return it to my pocket. Magic, I swore to myself again, and firmly stuffed the hand into the pocket of my trenchcoat.
Doc's bloodshot eyes widened at the sight of the thing. He stared at it for the longest time, as if he could discern its nature just by looking at it, and for all I knew he could. He finally said, "Celebrimbor."
"What's that?" I asked.
He gave me an annoyed look and said, "Celebrimbor is a who, not a what. One of Fëanor's brood. His father was Fëanor's fifth son, Curufin the Crafty. Celebrimbor managed to make it through the Old Days with his skin intact, and he settled down in Eregion, what you runts call Hollin. He was good with his hands, and he wanted to set up a jewelry factory like his grandfather, but gramps took the secret of making jewels with him to the Halls. When a stranger showed up in Eregion calling himself Annatar and claiming he could help Celebrimbor figure out his grandfather's trick with the jewelry, the kid didn't ask too many questions. He probably thought Annatar was Aulë the Smith going incognito, but Annatar turned out to be Sauron, who had been the Big Bad's ramrod in the Old Days.
"As a warm-up project, Sauron and Celebrimbor started making magic rings, or at least the kid thought it was a warm-up project. But Sauron had rooked him, and all the rings they made together turned out to be booby-trapped. Sauron went back to his hideout in Mordor to make a control ring that would let him take over anyone wearing one of the other rings. Then he came back to Eregion with an army at his back and beat the stuffing out of Celebrimbor's people. He worked the kid over until he spilled his guts about where he hid the rings, and Sauron grabbed them all. Eventually the elves teamed up with the Westies to take out Sauron, but when the dust settled it was the head of the Westies, Isildur, who wound up with the control ring. He was on his way back home when one of Sauron's suicide squads took him out, and the control ring got lost in the byplay. That was three thousand years ago, and nobody's seen it since then."
I looked back down at the ring on the table. "Doc, you think this could be the control ring?"
The old drunk shrugged. "Could be. How did you come by it?"
"Can't say, Doc. Has to do with a case I'm on."
Doc made like he was all shocked. "Professional ethics, Deuce? I never would have guessed."
"What can I say, Doc? I've got a reputation to keep up." Returning to the business at hand, I went on. "So, how do I tell if this is the big maguffin?"
"Throw it into a fire," Doc said. "If you see glowing red words in a funny language show up on it, that's means it's the real deal."
I didn't say anything out loud, but in my mind I was swearing like a sailor. How had Miss Rushlight come by the control ring? And why had she hired me to take it to a fake brother in Minas Tirith? There was plenty going on here that I didn't know about, and that always makes me see red.
At that moment, I decided, what I really needed was a hit off of Doc's bottle, so I took one. Doc of course got all offended, because I've got hobbit cooties or something, and ordered me to get out of his shop. I grabbed the ring and got.