Politics of Arda
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Long Road Home, The: 17. Reunion
Dusk was falling fast, turning the shadows a deep black-blue. Bree-hill rose from the surrounding flatlands, a black shape silhouetted against the darkening sky. Little dots of light sprang up at the hill's foot as the people of Bree lit lamps to ward off the night. Aragorn reined in his horse and waited for Legolas and Gimli to catch up.
"How much further do you plan to travel today?" Gimli asked. "It is getting late and my insides are grumbling for sustenance."
"And they do not do so in silence," Legolas added.
Gimli snorted in response and shifted in his seat behind the elf. He grimaced as several of his joints made a popping noise. "Soon my bones will take on the shape of this horse's back."
Aragorn grinned at the grouchy dwarf. He had learned long ago that Gimli's bark was far worse than his bite.
"It is not much further," he assured Gimli. He pointed at the cluster of lights. "Only to the town. We must make haste, though, or we may find the gate closed for the night."
Gimli harrumphed. "Aragorn, you are the king. If they have closed it, you can simply order them to open it. They would not dare keep you out."
"Mayhap not. But I prefer to continue keeping my presence unknown. If Boromir should learn of our coming--"
"He had better not run again!" Gimli interrupted. "I have no wish to chase his accursed hide all over the known world. I am a dwarf, I am not made for riding."
"We shall find him, my friend," Legolas said. "The rumors tell us he is near."
"Yeh, yeh. But time's awasting! Let us not tarry any longer. Go, Legolas. Get this beast moving. Warm beds and hot food are waiting for us."
They reached Bree a quarter hour later. The gatekeeper was preparing to close the gate when the hooves of the horses echoed on the bridge spanning the protective dike that surrounded the town.
"Oi, hold up!" Gimli cried. "Let us pass first."
The guardsman stopped shoving at the gate and grabbed his torch to cast a light onto the travelers. He appraised them with a long look.
"Well, my!" he said, startled. "It's not oft one sees the little folk travel with men. And on horseback, no less!"
"That is not by choice, I assure you," Gimli said. "No offense to this fine beast, of course." He reached to pat the horse's flank. "But I must correct you. I am not a hobbit. I am of the race of dwarves."
"A dwarf, say you! I beg pardon. I've never seen one of the Stone-masters. I must say I did think you were a mite tall for a hobbit."
"Hmm." Gimli sounded placated. "I bet you have never seen an elf either, have you?"
Even as he spoke, Aragorn knew the caution came too late. And it did not matter, really. The people of Bree would learn of them soon enough; to see a man, elf and dwarf travel together and visit their quiet village was bound to set tongues wagging. He would just have to hope that they found Boromir before word of their presence reached him. Boromir might have been a fool for leaving, he was not stupid. He would know who they were, and might disappear quietly again. Gimli was right about one thing: they could not chase Boromir all over the kingdom.
"An elf, master dwarf?" The gatekeeper raised his torch a little higher, closer to their faces. "By the spirits! You speak true." His eyes had widened and his tone was a curious mixture of awe and alarm. He gave Legolas a bow. "My apologies to you also. I have never seen such as you either."
Legolas did not seem perturbed in the least by the man's behavior. He gave him a quick nod and an enigmatic smile.
The gatekeeper turned toward Aragorn. "And you, sir? Are you a man, as you appear? You understand, I mean no offense but I must ask these questions or I would be remiss in my duties."
"I am as I appear," Aragorn said. "A man, like yourself."
Gimli gave a soft chuckle, earning him a glare from Aragorn.
"I traveled to Bree often in my younger days. Pray tell, does the Prancing Pony still serve the finest fare in town?"
"Aye, sir, that it does."
"Then would you let us pass already?" Gimli growled. "I have a strong desire for good food and a soft bed tonight."
"Oh. Yes, of course. Beggin' your pardon." The gatekeeper scurried aside and waved for them to enter. Roheryn squeezed through the small gap, barely wide enough for a single horse, that was left between the gate and its post. Arod followed closely.
Aragorn glanced back over his shoulder once they were in the streets of Bree. The gatekeeper was staring after them, his job and the gate momentarily forgotten. Aragorn sighed. News of their arrival would have reached every household in Bree by midnight. At least the gatekeeper had not recognized him as the ranger Strider. Aragorn did not know how widely spread the knowledge was that Strider and the new king in distant Gondor were one and the same person, and for the time being he had no particular desire to find out. It would complicate their search greatly.
They trotted further up the road, leaving the Westgate behind, until they reached the Prancing Pony.To Aragorn's pleasure, the inn appeared much as he remembered it; if anything, the three-storied building looked even more inviting to a wearied traveler than it had before. The whitewashed walls of the stables were clearly visible despite the darkness of the night. The windows of the common room glowed with a warm yellow light. Muted laughter and snatches of song drifted out to mingle with the aroma of roasting pork from the kitchens.
"Ah," Gimli sighed. He closed his eyes and inhaled deeply. "That smells delicious! I hope they have made enough; I am so hungry, I believe I could eat a horse -- oh!"
The last was a startled cry when Arod sidestepped abruptly, nearly unseating the dwarf. Only a quick grab for Legolas's cloak kept him from falling off.
Legolas leaned forward and stroked the horse's neck. "Avaro naeth, mellon nín."
Twisting in the saddle, he added to Gimli, "You should watch your tongue. Arod might refuse to carry you any further. And how will we ever find Boromir if we have to travel at the pace of dwarven legs?"
Gimli glared at his companion, muttering something below his breath. Aragorn's sharp ears could not quite make out the words, but he thought he detected something about being glad to never see the backside of a horse again. Out loud, though, Gimli said, "I did not say I would eat a horse, I said I could."
Aragorn chortled and urged Roheryn to pass under the archway into the courtyard. He was happy to see it was Bob, the hostler of old, who greeted them and promised to see to the horses. Bob did not seem to recognize him either, but then Aragorn had never had much business in the stables during his ranger days; he usually visited Bree on foot.
Once assured that the horses were in good hands, he led the others back through the archway and up the steps to the inn's entrance. He froze at the top of the stairs. For a moment he was unsure why, yet certain that something was not as it should be. Then it came to him. The letters above the door: they read The Prancing Pony by Archibald Butterbur. Aragorn felt a pang of sadness, mixed with a smidgen of guilt. Barliman Butterbur, the old cheerful innkeep, was one of many he had failed to keep safe from danger. He knew the thought was foolish, that nobody expected him to be personally responsible for every single subject of the kingdom, but still, he felt blameworthy.
"Aragorn? Is something wrong?" Legolas's voice was soft behind him.
Aragorn gave a start. "No. Not wrong. Just... different."
"What's the holdup?" Gimli complained from the bottom of the steps. "Let us go sample some of that roast. Some fine ale would not go amiss either, I would say."
Legolas chuckled and said softly so only Aragorn could hear, "You best continue, my friend. Or I fear Gimli will go through both of us to get to the food."
The common room was packed to capacity. Aragorn stopped again in the doorway, watching the crowd enjoy pints of ale. Red-faced maids waved their way through the mass of bodies, their arms filled with tankards as they tried to keep up with demand.
"C'mon laddie," came Gimli's voice from the hallway. "Keep moving." He shoved past Legolas and Aragorn so he could see for himself why the others had stopped once more.
"Oh." He sounded disappointed. "I do hope they slaughtered a big enough pig."
Aragorn laughed at the dwarf's singlemindedness regarding his dinner. It reminded him of the hobbits they were to meet in Bree, how they managed to eat enough food for someone thrice their stature, and in the direst of circumstances too.
"Do not worry, Gimli. If memory does not fail me, today has been market day. Most of these folk have come only for drink and will soon go home for dinner. We merely have arrived at the busiest time."
"So you have indeed, good sirs!" a cheerful voice broke in.
Aragorn turned on his heels to watch the newcomer. He was a short, thickset man with a ruddy face and wearing a white apron upon which he was wiping his hands.
"You must be Archibald Butterbur."
"Aye, so I am, indeed. How may I help you?" Butterbur replied.
"We are looking for lodging," Aragorn said. "And dinner. My good friend Gimli here," he placed one hand upon the dwarf's shoulder, "has not stopped talking about your pork roast ever since he first caught a whiff of it out in the street."
Butterbur gave a hearty laugh. "You will find it to your liking, I can assure you! I fear you may have to wait a spell, though. As you can see, our common room is full. It will be perhaps another quarter hour before we can properly set out a table."
"I believe," Aragorn said, forestalling the protests he feared from Gimli at any further delays, "that you have a private dining room available?"
Butterbur's brow furrowed. "We do, indeed. But I am afraid it is already occupied. I have some of the little folk visiting, and I feared they might get trampled in the crowd, so I put them up in the other room." He gave an apologetic shrug and was forced aside when two burly farmers exited the common room and made for the outer door.
"G'night, Butterbur," they said.
"Goodnight, Alden, Woody," Butterbur replied absently, his mind still on how to best serve the interests of his new guests.
"Those little folk," Legolas asked, "are they from the Shire, by chance? If they are, they might be the friends we were hoping to meet here."
Butterbur's face brightened. "Aye, they did come from the Shire, sir! Come, come, let us see if they are your friends."
Pleased at the prospect of being able to keep everyone happy and not having to make his guests wait for their dinner, Butterbur scrambled ahead. Many lamps lit the hallway, reflecting off the wood paneling that was polished to a shine, casting the inn in a cheerful light. They turned a corner and the din from the common room faded to a dull roar, occasionally broken by a burst of loud laughter.
Butterbur stopped before a door and rapped his knuckles on the wood. "Pardon the intrusion, little masters," he said while opening the door, "but these gentlemen believe they might be friends of yours."
He put himself out of the way and allowed Aragorn a good look of the room and its occupants. Sam, Merry and Pippin sat around the table, their chins barely clearing the surface though thick cushions had been put on their seats. The table was laden with enough food for a state banquet and mouthwatering smells rose from the dishes.
"Strider!" Pippin slipped down from his chair and raced over, waving a half-eaten chicken leg around. "And Legolas! And Gimli!" He reached with his free hand and gently tugged the dwarf's beard.
"Eh! Watch it!"
Pippin chuckled, his grin widening. "Just making sure my eyes aren't deceiving me."
"Hmm. Next time, go... go..." Gimli threw a desperate look around, searching for an alternative. "Go pull on the elf's pointy ears!"
"Can't." Pippin giggled. "He's too tall."
Aragorn bit his cheek to keep from laughing. He felt his insides warm in the glow of friendship and bonds forged through shared hardships. It was the kind of bond that would never break; it would last over many, many years, and it would not matter if they visited each other's home often or not. Still, it was good to see the hobbits and he was doubly glad he had decided to make the journey.
"You look well... sir," Sam said, adding the honorific a little hesitantly.
"Hush, Sam," Aragorn said. He cast a look over his shoulder, but Butterbur had already disappeared, no doubt to see to his many guests in the common room who were clamoring for another keg of beer to be brought out. "Call me Aragorn."
"Yes, Sam," Merry said with a smile, "He's in disguise, remember?"
Sam looked unhappy. "'Tis not right, I say," he muttered.
"Is that pork roast I see?" Gimli said, changing the subject to what was dearest to his heart. He pointed at one of the dishes on the table.
"Aye, it is!" Pippin said. He gave an exaggerated bow and a wide sweep of his arm in invitation. "Though we missed dinner, we are happy to share our supper with you, Gimli. There are chicken legs, also, and smoked ham and pie and apples, and lots of other tasty dishes as well."
While they enjoyed their evening meal, they exchanged news and gossip. Aragorn kept quiet, listening mostly, simply enjoying the uncomplicated camaraderie. He had not fully realized how burdensome the responsibilities of his kingship could be until he shed them, however temporarily. He sometimes missed the simple ranger's life, where one's worries often did not extend beyond where the next meal would come from, or where to make a bed at night.
The hobbits divided an entire meatpie among themselves before handing Gimli the plate with a few left-over crumbs. Aragorn hid the smile that formed unbidden as he caught the look of dismay on Gimli's face. It would never cease to amaze him how much food the hobbit-kind could devour, and then still be hungry for more. It had been a source of endless amazement ever since he first encountered their race.
Not about to be outdone, Gimli snatched the last chicken leg from beneath Pippin's hand. Pippin looked taken aback for an instant, then he shrugged and reached for an apple.
There was a soft knock on the door. It opened a moment later, and Nob entered. He held a large pitcher of ale in one hand and a plate of steaming sausages in the other. Behind him one of the kitchen boys carried in a tray filled with more sizzling dishes. "Master Butterbur thought you might want some more food," he said.
Gimli's face lit up. "And he is most right! Come, come, put those here." He rapped his fingers on the tabletop in front of him. "Those hobbits are robbers; they would steal the food from a dwarf's mouth if given the chance."
Nob frowned for a moment at Gimli, not sure if the dwarf was jesting or not. He placed pitcher and plate on the table before his gaze fell upon Aragorn. Recognition dawned on his face.
"Oh, hello, Mr. Strider. It's been a while since..." His voice trailed off and he gave a puzzled look. He cast an uncertain glance at the hobbits, who were too entranced with the new dishes to notice.
"They," Nob indicated the hobbits with a dip of his head, "told the old Mr. Butterbur that you are..." Again he stopped himself short.
Aragorn could easily read the thoughts on Nob's face and took pity upon the hapless hobbit. Though he wished to remain unknown as long as possible, he was not about to deny who he was. "What they said about me is true," he said. "But you would earn my gratitude if you kept my presence quiet. Not many here would still know to associate me with the ranger of yore and thus recognize me for who I am. And for the moment I like it that way."
Nob, who had turned pale at Aragorn's admission, nodded his head vigorously. "Of course... sire. My lips are sealed." He made an awkward leg and was about to turn away when he stopped. "My lord... Have you come to help with the search?"
Aragorn had not an inkling what Nob was talking about but the hobbit looked at him with such eagerness to hear the answer that he didn't have the heart to say so. "Tell me more about this search."
Relief spread over Nob's face. "Oh, I knew help would come!" His outcry was loud enough that it silenced the conversation of the others. They turned their attention to Aragorn and Nob.
"I told Mr. Butterbur the rangers have never let us down. And with the king himself to help--"
"Hush, Nob," Aragorn admonished him. "Nobody is to know, remember?"
Nob blushed deeply. "I'm sorry. It is just such a comfort to have you here, sire. One of them is my cousin, you see. His name's Willy, Willy Sandybanks."
"Tell me everything," Aragorn ordered. Nob was not making much sense but his distress and relief were genuine. Aragorn worried if he had tarried too long in Gondor and should have traveled north sooner. "And start from the beginning."
"First we heard of it was when folk started traveling up the Greenway," Nob began, wringing his hands. "Some of their townsmen disappeared and were never seen or heard from, they said. We Bree-folk did not pay much attention at first. People from the south have always been a bit odd, you know. But then people around here started disappearing. My cousin, he's from Staddle. He went to the forest to collect spring onions, but he never came home. Folks say it's orcs that took them. Just like they took old Mr. Butterbur!" He burst into tears and rubbed his face with a slip of his apron. "Poor Willy. If that's true, I will never see him again."
"Yrch," Legolas muttered in a voice filled with disgust. With the single word, he managed to convey the age-long hatred his people harbored for the twisted elves from Mordor. Aragorn gestured for him to keep quiet.
"How long ago is it that your cousin vanished?"
"Four days, my lord. His friend Drogo went missing at the same time. There is talk in the common room about mounting a search party." Again, he wiped his eyes. "But I fear that's the ale talking. On the morrow, they will not be so brave."
"Aragorn will find your cousin," Pippin said. "Will you not?"
Aragorn hesitated. Searching for missing hobbits and chasing after orcs was not what he had envisioned when they embarked on their journey north. But how could he resist the look of trust in Nob's eyes? And had he not felt guilty over not being able to protect all his subjects mere moments ago? What sort of a king would he be, if he did not help his people when he was needed?
He gave a curt nod, and Nob exhaled in relief. "I will try," Aragorn said. "If your cousin is still alive, we will find him."
"Thank you, my lord!" For a moment, Aragorn feared Nob would drop to his knees and embrace his ankles in gratitude but then the hobbit pulled himself together. "I will not tell anyone who you are," he repeated before he rushed from the room.
"Well, that is just splendid!" Gimli grunted. He pushed his empty plate away and leaned back. "I thought we had come all the way here to find that misguided fool. Now I learn that the plans have changed and we are going off on an orc chase."
"Are you not pleased to see our friends, then?" Legolas asked quietly. "That alone should have made the journey worthwhile."
Gimli's face darkened beneath his beard. He blinked, chastened. "Well... Of course! Gladly I would have traveled twice as far to see our fair hobbit friends. But... but..." He glared at Aragorn for a moment, then sighed as a satisfied belch escaped him. "Ah well. It has been a while since my axe tasted orc necks. Might as well give it something useful to do while we're here."
"That is settled then," Legolas said.
A pungent scent began to permeate the room. Merry and Pippin had lit up their pipes and were puffing contentedly. Pippin pushed a leather pouch in Aragorn's direction.
"Here, Strider. Have some."
"Tis Longbottom Leaf," Merry said through a cloud of smoke.
"First harvest in four years," Pippin added. "And still the best in the South Farthing."
"So, indulge yourself, my friend."
"Or has your lady made you give it up?" Pippin's eyes gleamed with mischief.
Aragorn laughed. "She has tried," he admitted. He pulled his own pipe from his tunic, ignoring the pained look on Legolas's face, and began stuffing its bowl with a clump of pipeweed. "But it was one thing I would not give up. So we have an agreement: I do not smoke indoors, and Arwen will not complain when I do so elsewhere." He passed the pouch on to Gimli. Legolas's expression turned even gloomier.
Pippin nodded pensively as he blew out another puff. "That sounds like a kingly arrangement."
"Pippin!" Sam heaved a deep sigh. "Stop poking fun at... at Aragorn. It is not seemly!"
"I will," Pippin said around the stem of his pipe, "if he tells us what was so secret that it could not be said in a letter."
"Aye," Merry agreed. "I take it that is not orc hunting!"
Aragorn felt the smile melt from his face. The time had come; he could no longer avoid the reason why he had come, and he did not relish the thought. He had no idea how the hobbits would react to the news of Boromir's survival. He still was not sure how best to tell them, although he had had many weeks in the saddle to think on it.
"The news I have to tell you will be as startling to you as it was to us when we first learned of it, not three months ago."
"Then perhaps," Merry said, "we should send for another pitcher of ale first." He upended his pipe and emptied the ashes onto one of the dirty dinner plates.
"I shall go," Gimli offered.
Aragorn pondered what he would say long enough for Gimli to return with not one but two full pitchers of frothing beer. Legolas raised an eyebrow. Gimli placed the pitchers on the table before he shrugged at the elf. "I thought two pitchers would be better than one. We might have need for it." Legolas nodded in understanding.
"Aragorn? You're beginning to frighten me." There was not a trace of humor left in Pippin's tone and he looked grim. "Is it such bad news that you dare not tell us?"
"No. No, 'tis not bad news at all. I am just unsure how to say it." He cast a quick glance at Legolas and Gimli but that one look told him they would be of no help. He sighed. He recalled how difficult it had been to explain what Faramir had finally revealed to him. He remembered their response, such an echo of his own -- anger intertwined with relief, joy, disbelief, the sense of betrayal -- and knew there was no gentle way to break the news to Sam, Merry and Pippin.
"'Tis about Boromir," he said softly. "I have learned that he did not die when we sent him down the river." Gimli made a soft noise and gulped down a large swallow of ale. "Boromir survived. He lives still."
For long minutes, the room was utterly quiet. Behind the closed door, Aragorn could hear muted sounds from the common room and the clink of dishes being stacked in the kitchens. The three hobbits did not move; they seemed frozen. Pipes and tankards were forgotten, the beer slowly going flat as they stared at Aragorn. Only their faces betrayed their thoughts, and an entire spectrum of feelings crossed their features.
Finally, as if on cue, Merry and Pippin unfroze and jumped up at the same instant. "What? How? What happened? Where is he?" The questions came flying at last.
"Why would he do such a thing?" Sam asked, his voice much quieter. "Mr. Frodo would have been so pleased to know. And now I can never tell him." He looked sad and his eyes glistened. Even with Frodo gone from Middle-earth forever, Sam's first thought was to his master's well-fare. It tore Aragorn's heart and for a brief moment, his anger at Boromir flared anew.
"Because he is a stubborn fool," Gimli snorted. He had not forgotten the needless guilt Boromir had caused him to feel for many years.
"He was ashamed," Aragorn said. "He did try to take the ring from Frodo. He blamed himself for your capture at the hands of the orcs. In Boromir's eyes, it meant he had failed when he was most needed."
"But that's ridiculous!" Pippin cried. "Boromir defended us. I will never forget how hard he fought so we could flee. And I have always believed he died trying to help us." He dropped back onto his seat, hard, looking suddenly older than his years. "That's what I told his father."
"He did not die that day," Aragorn repeated. He was stunned with the sudden realization that they had never fully spoken about what happened on Amon Hen or about Boromir's fate. At first, too many urgent things had demanded their attention to take the time. And once the war was over, the exact details no longer seemed to matter. What was done, was done, and dwelling upon it too painful. They had mourned Boromir's passing together, even if the exact method of that passing was different in everyone's perception. He regretted never having talked in more detail with his small friends.
"I saw him fall," Merry muttered. "Pierced with many arrows."
"Aragorn saved him," Legolas said.
"Aye," Gimli added, "and then we lost him again when we let the boat slip."
"Boat?" Merry asked, confused.
Aragorn gave a quick account of what happened. He explained that they had found Boromir on the brink of death. He told how he had managed to stop his bleeding and keep Boromir alive, and how they had placed him in one of the elven boats for quick transport toward Minas Tirith where they might help him better. Gimli looked at the floor when Aragorn mentioned how the boat had escaped from his grasp.
"I presumed him perished," he concluded, "and never dared discuss it again. Denethor held the broken Horn of Gondor and I assumed that was all that was left of Boromir. I am sorry for not speaking sooner."
Silence again reigned, as the three hobbits tried to come to grips with this unexpected turn of events.
"So, where is he?" Merry broke the silence at last.
"Yes, where?" Pippin added. "I have a few choice words to say to him!"
"You will have to wait your turn, laddie," Gimli said.
"We know not where he is, exactly," Aragorn said. "He is not far from Bree, that much we have learned. It appears he spent the last few years here in the north."
"He must miss Gondor terribly," Sam said. His eyes were distant, as if he were again feeling the desolation of being far from home, never knowing if he would ever return.
"We know by what name he goes," Legolas said. "Erandír."
"I have heard that name mentioned," Sam said. "That is the man they say avenged Mr. Butterbur. The old Mr. Butterbur, I mean."
"That was Boromir?" Merry asked.
"So, now what?" Pippin said. "How are we going to find him?"
"I do not know," Aragorn admitted. "First, we must help Nob and find those missing hobbits. We shall look for Boromir afterwards."
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