Now I will tell you what happened next.1
So, me and Princess Éowyn and Mr Elessar and all the Rangers and hobbits had just arrived at Isengard, where the army of Rohan were besieging the wicked White Wizard Aruman,2 and found out that the King had been poisoned, which was quite bad.
Immediately, we were shown to the tent of the King, where he lay, old and dying, his face green and his hair falling out in clumps. His skin was covered in boils and lesions, and he was moaning and frothing at the mouth. His entire body was convulsing and sometimes he got a bit sick. Heavy were our hearts as we gazed upon this tragic and gruesome scene, a scene only punctuated by the weeping of the Rohirrim and the old king sometimes gurgling horribly.
‘Oh father, father, father,’ wept Éowyn sadly, her tears in her eyes, and then falling from her eyes. Her eyes were very pretty, actually.
Swift did I go to the bed of the king, and look upon his ghastly countenance. Even as I watched, one of his teeth crumbled and fell out. He seemed quite sick.
‘Since when has King Théoden been quite sick?’ I demanded sternly.
One of the Rohirrim, a serving man called Gunthar or Hungtar or something, answered, ‘Verily, lord, it was but from this evening past. The king took to his evening meal, as is his wont, and then so it was so that he retired verily even unto his evening repose. But some short few hours a bit later, we did hear the most horrible moaning and crying even from his very bed, and so did we come unto his aid, and did we find him in this state most tragic. I fear that it be so that he be not long for this world, verily it is so as it is.’
I went to the bed of the king, and looked upon his pale and sickly face. Even as I gazed upon him, his tongue lolled out, and one of his boils popped and released a foul green ooze.
Then, from behind me, I heard a call, the call of a voice I knew well but had not heard for many a year, until I just heard it again that moment by Théoden’s bed. ‘Hail, Lord Tallow!’ cried the voice that I recognised.
I turned, and saw there standing there three men, clad in gear of war, tall and blonde and nearly as tall as me. At once I knew them, though it had been many years since I had seen them, until I saw them there. These were the three sons of King Théoden, mighty and valiant men by all account.
‘Hail, Prince Théodred, Prince Éodred, and Prince Éomer!’ I cried gladly, for those were the names of the sons of Théoden.3 ‘How are you, anyway?’
‘Aye, bad indeed,’ said Éomer woefully. He was the youngest of Théoden’s sons, a great pity, had I oft thought, for it was he that was the wisest and best of the princes, and thus best suited to the kingship.4 ‘Verily be it so that our father will soon perish, for he is sick and dying,’ he added wisely.
‘Yes, yes, he’s dying,’ hissed Éodred, the middle son. He was shorter than his brothers, an ill-favoured, squinting and sallow sort of chap, who looked like a liar or a thief or something.
‘And then I shall be king!’ cried Théodred, the oldest, tallest and stupidest of the brothers. He was a goodly sort of man, but foolish and simple, though kind of heart.
‘Indeed,’ I murmured suspiciously. There was something in the old king’s grotesque suffering that had raised my suspicion. Immediately, in commanding and gracious tones, I said, ‘Leave us! I would speak with my allies alone.’
The three princes withdrew, leaving me alone with Théoden, Mr Elessar, and Éowyn. I am learned in much lore that is known by few, and from the very first moment, I had identified the king’s suffering as being caused by something, something that I now said out loud. ‘The king,’ I said solemnly, ‘has been poisoned. And I think one of his sons has done it!’
‘Poisoned?’ gasped Éowyn beautifully. ‘How terrible!’
‘This is a serious accusation to make, Lord Tallow,’ said Mr Elessar gravely. ‘What proof do you have?’
I paced up and down by the bed, thinking hard. ‘First, consider this,’ I said knowledgabley. ‘The king was taken ill, but a few hours after dinner, the perfect moment in which to feed him something poisonous. Now, consider the reactions of his sons. Éomer is clever, and well he knows well that if Théoden dies, the entire kingdom of Rohan will be destabilised. If he is hiding evilness in his heart, he would know to kill his father. Théodred is the eldest, and if Théoden dies, he will gain the throne, giving him ample motive to commit murder. And Éodred’s a little creep and I don’t like him.’
‘He is a little creep’ agreed Éowyn lusciously. ‘Also, they’re my brothers.’
‘Oh yes,’ I said. ‘That’s right. Anyway. I also think I know how he was poisoned - for his maladies can be caused but by one singular, if peculiar, cause. Théoden is suffering from dragon poison.’
‘What?!’ said Mr Elessar and Éowyn sultrily. That is, Éowyn said it sultrily. Mr Elessar said it normally, like a man.
‘Indeed, there can be no other explanation, for his symptoms all match dragon poisoning most exactly,’ I said learnedly. ‘So we must discover how this might have come to pass to be. I must investigate carefully, and use every ounce of my cunning to uncover this mystery.’
So off I went, leaving the king’s bedchamber and wandering the wide halls of Edoras, the golden castle of Rohan where the walls are made of gold, yea! and also the walls, and the floors,5 but not the windows or the doors. First I found Éodred, who was sneaking around somewhere.
‘Well met, my friend,’ I said, looking at him suspiciously.
‘Lord Tallow,’ said Éodred creepily. ‘To what do I owe the pleasure?’
‘Oh you know,’ I said, ‘Just asking for news really. Tell me, do you know if there have been any dragons around recently?’
With my keen eye, I thought I detected Éodred becoming a little more cautious. A trick of the light? Or was he hiding something?
‘Aye, yes, a dragon,’ sneered Éodred. ‘Why, my brother Théodred slew a great brute of a dragon just last week, Sarumon had sent one to eat all the poor people about the place, and Théodred my brother did nobly ride forth and slay the beast!’
‘Did he now?’ I asked questioningly. ‘Interesting.’
Next, I went out into the courtyard, where Théodred was practicing sword fighting with his sword. I hailed him, and asked him about the dragon he’d just killed.
‘Oh yes, that,’ said Théodred. ‘Well, this horrible wyrm was flying all around, burning the villages and eating the maidens, and well you know, that bally well couldn’t stand! So off I rode, and I killed the brute.’
There was a strange hesitation in the prince’s answer, as if he was lying. ‘Are you lying?’ I asked.
‘Ha ha ha, no, of course not!’ lied Théodred.
‘I see,’ I said. ‘And how did you kill the dragon, exactly?’
‘Well, I, I rode up to it, and, erm, I killed it. With my sword. And then it was dead, and I’d killed it, and…’ stammered Théodred, sweat pouring down his brow at my insistent interrogation. I knew, if I kept this up, he could not hide the truth from me forever!
‘Oh, I didn’t kill it at all,’ wailed Théodred. ‘I was going to, you see, but it was very big and scary, and I didn’t know how to do it. So I got my other brother Éomer to kill it for me! He can tell you all about it.’
So off I went to find Éomer, who was hearing the plight of the common people, like a good prince who deserves to be king one day. ‘Hello,’ I said.
‘Hail, Lord Tallow,’ said Éomer. ‘How can I help you?’
I fixed him with a beady eye, a stare of knowing and finding. ‘I know the truth,’ I said. ‘I know you killed the dragon, not Théodred.’
Éomer smiled wryly. ‘I see it is no use trying to mislead you, Lord Tallow,’ he said wryly. ‘Aye, I killed the serpent. I waited until it was asleep, and then I crawled inside its belly and stabbed its heart from within.’
‘I see,’ I said. ‘Why did you lie about it?’
Éomer shrugged wryly. ‘It was the best thing to do,’ he answered. ‘The people need to know that their future king is a strong and mighty man, it was better that they should believe Théodred did the deed. So I cut out the dragon’s tongue and gave it to him, so that he could take it to the King who’s our father and prove to everyone that he is ready to take the throne.’
I nodded. ‘It is not right to lie,’ I said. This is true, it is not good to lie. Lies are the weapons of cowards and traitors, feeble and craven folk who deserve death for their wicked words. Is it not said that a single lie may beget a thousand tragedies? Better always to be honest, to be brave when confronting the error of one’s own ways, than to seek an easy way out and thus wreak great mischief and evil.
I have known many liars, and none of them have come to a good end. Best always to speak truly, to be right and goodly in thought and word, and not to seek to mislead honest folk. Better, too, is it to believe the words of a truth-teller, to heed the words of one who speaks ever openly. Only by being honest and trusting folk can we hope to be folk that are both trusting, and honest, and verily are these noble virtues for which we should strive. Oh! that there were more folk honest and trusting in this wicked world in which we live. Oh! how noble a life it be, to live truly and free of deceit.
Aye, this is a good lesson, and you would do well to heed my words! To lie is to reduce yourself even unto the lowest and foulest of beasts, nay, lower, for even the beasts of the field do not speak falsehoods! To lie is to make oneself no better than the dirt on my boot, or the dirt on someone else’s boot, a really dirty boot, from tramping around in the fields all day, treading even in the dung of the cow and the goat and the pig, and then the dirt dries and it stinks and it’s really hard to clean off, especially if you stood in a really foul puddle of muck, the muck of a liar and a fraud.
‘So you should not have lied,’ I said. ‘But I understand why you did so, and that you did so for a noble cause.’
‘I see,’ said Éomer. ‘Please forgive me for my mistake, Lord Tallow.’
‘I forgive you,’ I said, and Éomer wept as I left him, to go find Théodred again in the courtyard.
‘Well, Théodred,’ I said. ‘Now I know the whole sorry tale, and the part which you played in it.’
‘Forgive me, lord, for my deceit,’ said Théodred unhappily.
‘All is forgiven,’ I said graciously. ‘But don’t lie again, for sometimes it is so that liars reap an evil reward, yea, even the reward of death and murder, slain in their own home. But I have a question of you - pray, tell me, what did you do with the tongue of the worm that you slew?’
Théodred seemed puzzled. ‘Why, I cooked it and served it to the king,’ he said. ‘My brother Éodred told me to do it, he said that the tongue of a dragon possesses strange and magical properties, that it would restore our father to youth and vigour and give him the gift of languages.’
‘Fool!’ I cried. ‘These are myths and fancies, legends spun by stupid old women! The tongue of a dragon is deadly poisonous, as indeed be every part of a dragon - you have slain your own father!’6
‘Nay, nay, what have I done!’ wailed Théodred unhappily. ‘Oh, forgive me!’
I looked behind me, and noticed that Éodred was also there, slowly creeping up, and then the final piece of the mystery was revealed, the whole insidious plot. ‘Nay, there is naught to forgive,’ I said dramatically. ‘For how could you know otherwise? Did you not do that which your evil brother wished you to do?’
‘Lies!’ hissed Éodred like a hissing snake.
‘Lies?! Nay, I alone in this wretched company speak true!’ I shouted heroically. ‘You knew, Éodred! You knew the dragon’s tongue was poison flesh, and you knew that Théodred would be too simple to realise! And so you told him to serve the meat even to your own father, aye, to poison him and slay him, on the orders of your true master! On the orders of Aruman the White!’
Everybody gasped in shock, the entire throne room suddenly surprised into shocked silence in surprise. Éodred alone did not gasp in shock, of course, because everything I had said was definitely true and he knew it. He took a step forward, and said, ‘I can explain…’ and then he rushed at me, with his sword drawn, to strike me down!
I, of course, could have stopped him easily, but before I did, Théodred stepped in front of me, shouting, ‘I must do this to repent of my deceit and to save the life of Lord Tallow, who is the best of us, and win my own redemption by sacrificing my life for his life! Do not weep for me, for I do this now gladly, that by the shedding of my blood I may win glory and peace. Farewell, oh gentle world, and my people, I plead forgiveness for my failings. Remember me gladly and kindly, for I knew not the evil of the terrible deed which I did!’
Then Éodred’s swift sword stroke, aimed for my heart, hit Théodred instead, and he died, and his blood went everywhere! Then Éomer swung his own sword and cut his traitorous brother’s head off, and Éodred’s blood also went everywhere, and also he caught fire and exploded in a cloud of smoke and ash, and thus was it known that he was definitely in league with dark and evil magics and I was right about everything.
‘Nooooo!’ said Princess Éowyn, as her brothers died, her chest heaving massively.
‘Great tragedy has been done here this day,’ I said solemnly. ‘And a great man, Théodred, has lost his life. Now hear ye, people of Rohan, the Prince Éomer shall be your next king, for he is a good man!’ And the people cheered.
Then the serving man, whatever his name was, came up to me. ‘My lord,’ he said. ‘The King Théoden is dying.’
So we all went back to Théoden’s room. He looked really bad. Weeping, one by one we went up to him and paid our final respects.
Last of all did Mr Elessar, ragged and the least of our company approach the bed of the dying Théoden, and then something strange indeed happened. For even was it so as it was that Mr Elessar took his hands and he laid them upon the chest of the horribly sick old king and behold! a change came over the face of the old king at once, a change as if he was getting better, because he was getting better! His lesions healed over, his breathing became less laboured, and his face turned a ruddy hue almost at once, and he opened his eyes! King Théoden lived!
‘Good morning,’ he said. ‘What’s going on, hm?’
A great hush came over the entire room, for indeed did we think indeed that the king’s last moments had come to pass. And as we stood, frozen in amazement, a sweet fragrance stole through the room, a subtle scent that gladdened the heart and cheered the spirit, so that we all felt new life and hope come unto us, even as King Théoden had felt. How was it possible that this happy miracle had come to pass?
And even as we all wondered this, a piece of lore crossed my mind, an ancient and true piece of wisdom known to only the wise in Gondor now, and I murmured in the stillness, ‘The hands of the king are the hands of a healer.’7
My words broke the air, and a few other people repeated my wisdom, and a great murmur and chant rose among our throng, ‘The hands of the king are the hands of a healer. The hands of the king are the hans of a healer. THE HANDS OF THE KING ARE THE HANDS OF A HEALER!’ And we kept on chanting that for a bit, and thus was the rightful King of Gondor revealed in Rohan.
But as we cried these words in joy and joyfulness, Mr Elessar stood in the middle of the room, every eye upon him, shaking his head. ‘But I don’t want to,’ he said.
1 Clumsy though this be when set down in the written word, it must be remembered that Nick Tallow primarily told this turgid pack of lies in rustic inns and lowly halls, often over several nights or even weeks. Hence, such a lowly attempt at producing and resolving suspense makes a modicum of sense when the story is considered in its original form, as a serialised and spoken narrative; though it remains idiotic that he includes this narrative device in the written text.
2 Presumably a bastardisation of “Saruman”; Tallow seems to have had a peculiar difficulty in keeping the name of the White Wizard straight.
3 King Théoden Ednew of Rohan was, as is known well, the last king of his line, his only son Théodred being slain in the strife of the War. Tallow seems to have been aware that King Éomer Éadig, Théoden’s sister’s son, was not the next in line to Théoden for the kingship but mistook the relationship of the two men. The middle son, Éodred, is entirely fictitious, seemingly included by Tallow to avoid sullying the good name of Théodred, who was beloved by many.
5 The Golden Hall is accounted a marvel, yet clearly it is a marvel that Tallow never set eyes upon.
6 This is a strange passage, and I fear I have not fully teased it out. In my travels, I heard many ancient legends in the North that are of similar form to the one Nick Tallow tells here. In particular, there is a mythologised account of the tale of Túrin Turambar and his slaying of Glaurung in which Túrin is indeed not slain, but takes the heart of Glaurung and eats it, and thus gains knowledge of the speech of birds - from this tale, presumably, comes the strange legend that the Kings of Dale can understand the tongues of birds.
Tallow, clearly, is playing upon this legend, and to his credit, his assertion that the eating of any part of a dragon would not grant magic powers but would prove ill seems credible - though likely this is a guess on his part, for I do not know of any confirmed source that describes the committing of such a barbarous and foolish act. However, Tallow’s changing of the heart to the tongue is strange to me. It may be that this was a version of the story local to Trestlebridge, yet I do not think so, for the legend has a venerable and storied tradition in the North, with little variation. Yet Tallow is insistent that Théoden was poisoned by a dragon’s tongue. Likely it was but some idiotic fancy of his, yet I cannot but suspect that I have not discovered the full truth of the matter - alas, this be one mystery I must leave for others to unpuzzle.
7 This be true, yet the King Elessar was no simple magician or wonderworker, being a man true skilled in the art of healing. Tallow’s mystical and simplistic portrayal does the late king’s knowledge great discredit.