1. Butterbur and the King
Of course the whole of Bree, not to mention Combe and Archet, was in an uproar. The women hastened to put on their best frocks, and in the inn I set the lads to cleaning the place a bit. Funny, now I think back at it. One of them Rangers was in the bar, and he looked at me sideways-like and said: "Barli, there's no need for all that." Wasn't planning on having the place a mess, though, not for the King.
A while passed afore the first sightings came, and shortly one of the Heathertoes came running to the inn, shouting that there were horses and banners and what-not in sight.
Well nigh all of the village must've been waiting in the street to watch the King's party arrive. And a fine sight it was, to be sure. First came a party of soldiers, all in silver mail with black cloaks and black flags. They rode into our yard and dismounted, and so I sent Nob to help them with their horses.
Following the soldiers close behind was a man with a mighty big banner, all black and blowing a bit in the wind so that the broidery on it shone, like. There was a white tree and six stars and a crown. The womenfolk all started talking about the needlework and how long it must have taken to make that thing, but they soon hushed as the King rode into sight.
There was no doubt it was the King. He seemed taller than other folk, though he wore no crown on his head. He was wearing a great white cloak and black mail and had a long scabbard at his side. Nobody said anything as he rode up.
I fancy that most of the men soon stopped looking at the King, though, as at his side ... well, none of us had reckoned on the King having a Queen, nor one so lovely. I'm not a man for poetry or aught but a good ale and a full bar, but I won't mind saying that I well nigh lost my breath. She seemed to glimmer, like a star. All in white she was, with flowers in her hair. I don't reckon anybody said a thing as they rode to the door of my inn and reined in their horses.
One of their guards came to hold the reins, and the King jumped off his horse and kind of looked around him with a smile on his face. Still didn't recognise him, then. He helped the Queen off her mount and they just smiled at each other for a moment.
I was fair trembling as they came up to me, waiting there at the door of the "Pony". Remembered you're supposed to bow to a King, and managed something that did, but he laughed.
"Barliman Butterbur!" he said. "I am very glad to see that the 'Prancing Pony' is as welcoming as ever."
Looked at him proper, then, I did, and could scarce believe my eyes. "Strider?" I said. "Well, bless me."
"Strider indeed," the King said.
"Old Gandalf said something of the sort," I said, recalling then what the wizard and them Shire-hobbits had told me when they'd passed through Bree a few years before. "But folk couldn't believe it."
"I imagine they couldn't," agreed the King. "Given I used to pass through Bree plastered in mud and saying little about my business. But times have changed, Barliman. I ride North to visit my realm of Arnor, and that includes Breeland."
"It does?" I couldn't help but wonder where Arnor was supposed to be, but you don't argue with folk armed with swords and the like.
"It does. Now, Barliman, may we intrude upon your hospitality? My men would not say no to a bite to eat and some of your excellent ale; our mounts also would gladly stomach some hay."
The horses looked up at that, and whinnied.
"Right you are, Mr Str ... sir," I said. "Nob! Give the horses some hay and a rub-down."
Nob appeared from round the corner, and nodded.
"And if you and your men'd come on in," I went on, to the King, "then we've a nice stew on. And the ale's been uncommonly good since Gandalf passed this way and laid a friendly word on it."
Strider stood back to let his lady go in first, saying something to her I couldn't catch, and then we all followed him in. As I closed the door there was a rush of talk from folk outside.
The King went straight to the bar and looked around him, and the Ranger who'd spoken earlier stood up and bowed.
"My lord Elessar," he said. Strider seemed pleased to see him, and they talked for a bit while I pulled them some tankards of ale and sent Bob to fetch stew from the kitchen. I wasn't that sure whether the Queen would want ale, and was looking over what else we had - there was a drop of red from Staddle way left - but she came over to me as I was looking at the bottle.
"Ale will do, Mr Butterbur."
I looked up, into her eyes, and lost my breath for the second time that day. They ... she ... well, it was unnatural, that it was, like she had lights in her eyes or something. She laughed.
"Do the women of Bree not drink ale?"
"Well," I said, "erm ..."
"Some do," the King said, coming up behind her with the Ranger. "Barliman, my Queen and lady, Arwen." He took one of the tankards of ale and drank deep. "Now that I have missed. They cannot brew a good pint of ale in Minas Tirith, though they try."
He passed a tankard to his Queen and both of them went to sit down, comfortable as you please next to that Ranger with mud on his boots. And there they stayed most of the afternoon, first supping our stew and then seeing any folk who wished to speak to them. Turned out lots did, and the rest came and watched and drank. T'was a good afternoon, and they drank three barrels dry.
We gave the King and Queen the best room in the inn, and they seemed satisfied with it. Couldn't help but remember the times I'd given Strider space in the stables, and begrudged him his place in the bar for the mud he'd trodden in.
They stayed three days in the "Pony", all told, travelling around a bit and seeing the country during the day. The King said that none of us Big Folk were allowed to visit the Shire any longer, that it was land for the hobbits - seems like the Little Folk can still journey to Bree, so I don't reckon we'll be too hard done by.
Afore they left, Strider paid us handsomely for the food and drink and lodging. First time I was ever sorry to see him go, for the inn had been busier than it had been for a long day. He and his lady mounted their horses, and the guard raised his banner, and off they went down the Road, the townsfolk out watching. When they left the Gate, there was a rousing cheer. Last we saw of the King was as he raised his sword in the air in salute.
Never did rightly work out where Arnor was.
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