Low in the western sky, the sun was blazing. The sky was black and heavy with the promise of rain, but the clouds had not yet reached the sun. Every leaf, every blade of grass, shone with vivid brilliance in the evening light.
"We cast long shadows," said Legolas.
Aragorn looked at those shadows stretching out across the grass; at their elongated legs and the swathes of blackness that were their cloaks. "So do the trees," he said, "and the sheep in the fields."
"And so does Gimli." Legolas chuckled. "Fancy that! Even a dwarf is a giant in this light."
"Fancy that?" Gimli said. "Are you a hobbit now?" But he could not hide his smile. They had recently been reunited after a year apart, busy with the affairs of their own separate realms, and doubtless he relished the gentle teasing. Nobody teased their liege lord, at least not to their face. That was the preserve of enemies, and the best of friends.
Stretched out to the east of them, their shadows kept walking, their faces featureless. As they moved across the meadow, the grass shivered as small creatures reacted to the temporary absence of the sun. Further away, a rabbit fled, its sudden movement startling a dozen more into flight.
Then the sun faded, swallowed by the black cloud. In that instant, the countryside changed from a place of sharp contrasts to a world of drab grey. "It is raining in Bree," Legolas said. "I can smell the raindrops falling on stone walls."
"It will be raining here soon enough," Aragorn said. His life was now spent in halls of stone, but his old Ranger skills were part of him, impossible to lay aside. He knew the signs. He should have known every inch of this landscape, too. He had walked across it on a hundred different journeys. He had slept beneath its hedgerows and bled beneath its trees. "But it has changed," he murmured, barely speaking it aloud.
Neither Legolas nor Gimli asked him what he meant. Perhaps they had followed his unspoken thoughts, reading them on his face, or perhaps they simply knew him well. They knew him better than most, these two; better than anyone who had known him only as king.
"Of course it's changed," Gimli said, with the air of someone stating the obvious. "It's been, what, eighteen years since you were here? Time enough to build a city on the shores of Lake Evendim. Time enough for dwarves to craft wonders. Time enough for farmers to build barns and plough fields and build a thousand ugly houses made of wood."
"Time enough to thrive," Legolas said, "in the peace that you brought them."
"That we brought them," Aragorn corrected him, "and not alone."
The rain began, large drops falling heavily from the leaden sky. Even in the sunlight, Aragorn had been wearing his hood, but he pulled it further forward now, hiding his face. They were less than a mile from Bree now, and they were not the only travellers on the road, although none were close enough to overhear them.
"I know that," he said at last. "I have seen it on paper. The Greenway is a thriving road again. Foul things no longer howl in the night. There are new villages where once there was only wilderness. I knew it, but…" He gave a wry smile. "But I had not seen it. I knew these lands so well when they were… lost," he said, but it was not quite the right word, because the Bree-landers had never lost their ability to hope. "It seems as though my heart can not quite believe that it has changed."
"Ah, which is why we have come on this little adventure," Gimli said, "despite the frowns and glares of your loyal dogs."
"My loyal guards and I," Aragorn said, "have long since come to an understanding. They accept that as king, I have the right to go wherever I like. I accept that as my guards, they have the right to protest. It is, after all, their job to guard me." He glanced back over his shoulder, seeing the grey-clad figures that were strolling so unobtrusively beside the tree line. They knew that he was aware of them. Unless they were needed, they would keep their distance, and afterwards, nothing would be said. It never was. "My life is not my own. Kingship brings rights, but more than that, it brings duties. I have a responsibility to my people not to recklessly endanger myself on a whim."
Legolas and Gimli glanced at each other, their faces hidden from Aragorn by the shadow of their hoods. "Is this what this is?" Gimli said. "A whim?"
"Of course it is," said Legolas. "He is tired of all the bowing and scraping he gets as a king, and wants to sit in a rough tavern without anybody knowing who he is. It will be just like old times."
An hour or two without responsibility? Impossible. It would be play-acting. But yet…
"Oh no," Gimli said with a laugh, "he wants to reveal himself. Maybe not to all of them, but to that old landlord of theirs, the one named after a plant. Remember how people used to come up to him in Gondor. 'Oh my!' they'd say, 'you're Thorongil!' and then there was stammering and kneeling and astonishment. He wanted us to think he was embarrassed by the fuss, but…"
"Nobody does it any more," said Legolas, "and he misses it. He professed to dislike it, but he wants it again, the open-mouth amazement. And so he comes here. He has a whole new kingdom full of people who used to know him by a different name."
"So many more opportunities for grand revelations." Gimli's eyes were sparkling. "Oh, but I think I am going to enjoy this."
Aragorn smiled. They were wrong, of course, but that mattered not one whit. Nothing mattered except the fact that they were saying it. Nobody teased their liege lord, after all. This was something that only friends would do.
He could have accepted the gift that they offered him; could have laughed and led them to Bree with apparent light-heartedness. Instead, he let them see his smile, then shook his head. "It is a whim," he said, "in a way. I have so many memories of this place. I shed blood to keep it safe. I lost men in that cause. I need to see that it is truly safe, that it…"
"Has had its happy ending," said Legolas, his voice wistful all of a sudden.
"There are no endings here." Aragorn spoke gently, because to the elves of Middle-earth, all stories were coming to an end. "But words on paper are not enough. I need to see that its story is a good one."
He could see it the next morning, of course. There were hundreds of them in the royal party, riding north from Gondor to take up residence in Annúminas. Each night they set up their tent and pavilions, because the new inns and villages along the Greenway were not yet large enough to accommodate such a party. This night would be spent three miles south of Bree. Tomorrow they would ride past it, and the people would doubtless line the road, bowing and cheering.
It would tell him nothing. It meant nothing. But this…?
"A whim," he said. But something that I need to do, nonetheless.
The rain eased, leaving behind the smell of wet stone and freshly damp earth. It had been a dry spring, and the grass was already beginning to turn yellow, although summer had barely begun.
The Prancing Pony, unchanged for the sixty-five years that Aragorn had known it, was transformed. That in itself was enough to make Aragorn falter on the doorstep. Behind him, Legolas stopped in time to avoid bumping into him. Gimli, grumbling, did not.
It has changed, he thought. His surprise was ridiculous, child-like. Of course it changed. Things did. It was what he had strived for all his life: to bring change to places that were shrouded in darkness; to bring renewal.
But… He shook away that childish thought; silenced the part of him that wanted the places of memory to stay forever unchanged.
The changes were good; that much was inarguable. The inn was clearly thriving. It had almost doubled in size, and there were more windows. Rich hangings covered the walls, and the beams were carved in a style that owed much to Rohan. Eighteen years ago, nobody in Bree would even have heard of Rohan. Now messengers and traders moved freely up and down the Greenway. The world was shrinking. Doors that had always been locked were now beginning to open.
A man that Aragorn did not recognise was behind the bar, busy with a large group of travellers. Then, as Aragorn and his friends approached the bar, a hobbit popped up from behind it, standing on tiptoe to peer up at them. "Two more travellers," he said, "and men of mystery at that, wearing hoods inside."
"Three," said Gimli.
The hobbit held up a finger, bidding them wait. Wood scraped on stone as he dragged a stool into place. When he had clambered onto it, he was almost as tall as a short Bree-lander. "Three," he said, looking down. "My apologies, Master Dwarf. We seldom have members of your noble race in The Prancing Pony. They pass through, you know, on the way to the Blue Mountains, but where they stop for the night, I do not know. We did have a party of thirty-one dwarves in here a long time ago, when my dad's dad was a lad – or was it thirteen? – along with old Gandalf. I wonder what old Gandalf's up to now? Anyway…"
"Beer," Gimli said firmly. "Beer for me and my friends. A proper fourteen-twenty."
Aragorn kept very still. Gimli, it seemed, had been talking to one of the hobbits, but had failed to ask some very important questions.
"Fourteen-twenty?" The man had finished serving the travellers, and came rushing up to them now. "Did I hear someone ask for a pint of proper fourteen-twenty? That's Shire talk, that is. They say that the Northfarthing beer of Fourteen-twenty is the best there's ever been."
Gimli nodded energetically.
"The best Shire beer," the man said. "Not as good as Bree-land beer, not even at its best. And yet you ask for theirs?"
"We are travellers from afar," Legolas said, "and we heard some talk, some idle gossip, about a northern beer called 'fourteen-twenty.' We merely wished to try some. I apologise if--"
"Try some?" cried the man. "Try some beer that's sixteen years old? Beer doesn't keep. It is not wine." He spat the word with derision. "'A proper fourteen-twenty,' they say in the Shire, meaning that it's like that old beer that they're so proud of. It isn't the same beer. How can it be? Do you know anything at all?"
Aragorn kept silent, opting not to give them any help. "Not about beer, it seems," Legolas said, "although I believe that my friend here," he said, with a pointed look at Aragorn, "knows more than he is saying. He is wise in many things."
"Three pints of your best bitter," Aragorn said, and the man busied himself with getting them, muttering all the while under his breath.
The beer was unchanged: a taste that ran through a lifetime of memories. It varied from year to year, from brew to brew, but as soon as Aragorn took a sip of it, he was transported to the past. His first visit as a very young man. His last visit with Gandalf before going south to see Gondor for the first time. A snatched drink with Halbarad after nearly dying in the wilds. Waiting for Frodo. That had been the last time, a farewell. One way or the other, he had not expected to come back.
He had feared that there would be no Prancing Pony to come back to.
He let out a slow sigh of satisfaction, and lowered the tankard. "Good," he said. "Very good."
"Proper forty-twenty indeed!" the man muttered under his breath, but he seemed placated. "Are you here to see the king, then?" he said. "We're expecting a full house tonight. It's a bit early yet, of course, but they're all up in their parlours and their chambers getting themselves ready for some proper carousing. They've come from all over to see the king and queen."
"He's here?" said Gimli, his eyes gleaming. "In Bree?"
"Oh no, no he!" the man said. "How could we accommodate a king and all his men, not to mention his elven queen? We'd have to decorate."
"Gild the chamberpots," said the hobbit, nodding earnestly.
"It would be good for business, of course," the man said. "We could put a plaque on the wall - 'The king slept here' – and everyone would flock to see it. But we've done that already, see? Over here?" He nodded with his chin towards the dark corner where Aragorn had sat while waiting for Frodo. "He used to sit there before he was king. Did you know that?"
"I did not," said Legolas solemnly.
"So we get the business," the hobbit said, "without the need to gild our chamberpots. Best of both worlds."
Legolas tugged his hood lower over his face, his shoulders shaking with suppressed laughter. Gimli downed a hearty mouthful of beer.
The hobbit shook his head. "I did wonder about it, at first, when the king's messengers said he wouldn't be staying in Bree, only near it. Were they saying that Bree wasn't good enough for him any more? Then I thought about the chamberpots, and the fact that the town hasn't really haven't got space for him and all his men. We'd have to turf people out of their own homes to make space for them. And then there's that thing old Barliman said."
Aragorn took another sip. "What did he say?" His voice was steady, but his hand on the tankard quivered, just a little.
"He said…" The hobbit drew himself upright and held out his arms, play-acting the part of a broader man. "'Just as long as he leaves Bree alone. That's what I said to old Gandalf. And he said he would. 'He knows it and loves it,' that's what he said. Now, I don't know if Gandalf told him what he said, but I reckon this is him showing that he's keeping his word. He's leaving us alone, not because he scorns us, but because he loves us. Not that we deserve it, the way we treated him. We—'" The hobbit stopped suddenly, and turned small again, the play-acting finished.
"How did you treat him?" The glint in Gimli's eyes was positively gleeful.
"Very well," said the man firmly, and, "Do you need any food?" and, "Run along, Hob, and make yourself useful."
"Are you the landlord of this fine inn?" Aragorn asked, when Hob had clambered down from his stool and gone pattering away. The hobbit had spoken as if Barliman was still alive, but it was always better to err on the side of flattery.
"No," said the man, "though I'm glad you thought it. I should be. Five years now, my da's been saying it. 'Barney,' he says, 'my bones are getting too old for these cellar steps. I think I'll pass The Pony on to you and settle down into a nice, peaceful retirement.' But somehow he never does. Leaves all the actual work to me, of course, but…" He glanced along the bar, nodding to group of Bree-landers who had just arrived. "Speaking of which, I must--"
"Of course," Aragorn said, "but before you go, may I ask if your father is here today? I've came here once or twice, many years ago, and I would like to see him again, for old times' sake."
"He's having his dinner in the back parlour, most like," Barney said. "Go through, if you like." He hurried away to serve the new customers. "You'll never guess what that lot asked for," they heard him saying a moment later. "A pint of the Shire folk's fourteen-twenty!"
"You could have warned me," Gimli hissed through his teeth as the locals roared with laughter and outrage.
Aragorn spread his hands in a protest of innocence. "I didn't know you were going to say that." He had slipped back into his Bree-lander accent, he realised, without even noticing that he had done so. He was Strider the Ranger here, and Elessar the king was… not forgotten, of course, never forgotten, but less present. Today was about the past. "But had I known, I might have stopped you."
"Might have." Gimli caught that, of course. He gave a bark of laughter. "Because you knew, of course. You have to know all about beer, being a k-- Doing the job you do," he said, because the inn was filling up, and even they were speaking quietly, it was best to take care.
"No." Aragorn shook his head. "But doing the job that I did, I had to know all about the Shire and the Bree-lands."
It was not entirely true, of course. Many Rangers had bled and died to defend these lands without bothering to find out overmuch about the people who lived there. Their business was with the dark things of the night. The people had to be defended, but the Dúnedain had a proud heritage of their own, far greater than that of the little people who lived in the wreckage of the northern kingdom.
Aragorn had never shared that belief, or if he ever had, Gandalf had taught him better. Meeting Bilbo had taught him even more, of course.
"So," said Gimli, "are we going to meet this Master Butterbean of yours?"
Barliman was indeed in the parlour, just finishing off a serving of rhubarb pie. He smiled as they entered. "Visitors!" he said. "Come in! Come in! I do so like a good chat."
Aragorn kept his hood raised, knowing that the candlelight cast shadows on his face. It was not yet dark outside, but the windows here were small and old, their diamond-shaped panes almost opaque.
He had wondered what he would say. Ever since leaving the camp, he had wondered. He had come here because he needed to see the place with his own eyes. For just an hour, or not even that, he wanted to surround himself with memories. These people had scorned him and mocked him, but he and his men had bled for them, even so. He needed to know that it had not been in vain. Minas Tirith was fast becoming a wonder, but if his reign was going to mean anything at all, places like Bree had to be small wonders in their own right.
Perhaps he would sit while in a corner and listen to the chatter, he had thought. He had braced himself to hear talk about himself. Of course he would, with the royal party expected through on the morrow. But what he wanted to hear was all the ordinary, normal things: chatter about girls, about children, about dogs, about crops. Echoes of a past that he would never see again. Hopes of a future that needed to come to pass.
"Hello, Barliman," he said, and suddenly he was pushing his hood back, revealing his face. He had not intended to do so. He was not at all sure that it was the right thing to do. But he was doing it. He had done it.
Butterbur frowned. "You look… No." He shook his head. "For a moment there, I thought I knew you. But you seem to know me, and so…" He shook his head again. "Do I know you?"
"I was a customer of yours for several years." Aragorn sat down beside him. Legolas remained standing, still hooded. Gimli hopped up onto a stool, and leant forward eagerly, like a hobbit child watching a magic show.
"Well, I can't say I recognise you," said Butterbur, shaking his head. "For a moment there, I thought you looked like old Strider, him as went on to be king, but then you turned your head, and I can see you're not him. We thought he had a rascally look, but it stands to reason that you'd have to be rascally if you want monsters to fear you, and he's a great warrior by all accounts. And, looking back, I can see there was a… nobility there, too, if you know what I mean."
"And my friend here doesn't look noble?" Gimli said, hugging his knees.
"Well, not like a king would," Butterbur said, "and I mean no insult by it. And there's nothing rascally about you, either, no mud on your clothes or dirt behind your nails. Do you come from the south?"
"I live there now," Aragorn said, "but I was a traveller before that, and your inn was often a refuge for me, a rare few hours of warmth on a cold winter's day. Your beer was a comfort, more than you know."
"Well," said Butterbur, "then I'm glad of it. We get all sorts passing through here. I don't remember all of them."
"This place was a beacon," Aragorn said. "I hope you know that. Monsters howled in the night, and outside there was only darkness, but here there was always light and laughter. People gathered here against the dark, and even when it was darkest, they still laughed. To many people, more than you know, this place was a refuge. Sometimes it was too loud, and sometimes it was not kind, but it was real. It was life. There was a time when it seemed as if all life would end in these parts, but you never gave up."
"Well, I don't know what you're talking about, to be sure." Butterbur shook his head. "But we never stopped serving beer, right through the dark times. Is that what you mean? Who are you?"
"Nobody," Aragorn said gently. "Just a traveller who had cause to be grateful for your hospitality more than once. There were many like me, more than you know." And more than Aragorn knew, too. How many travellers had passed through this place over the years? How many travellers, busy with stories of their own, had refreshed themselves here, before heading out to their stories' ending? 'The king stayed here,' the plaque might say, but he was just one of many, all of them important.
"It's nothing personal, you know, that I don't remember you," said Butterbur. "I never had a very good memory, you know."
"But you're happy?" Aragorn asked it without planning to. "Bree is thriving?"
"Oh yes." Barliman beamed. "I wasn't sure at first, you know. I thought the king would come sweeping in and make changes, that he'd take The Pony away from me and give it to a lord in a golden coat. But he left us alone, as Gandalf said he would. He's building us a world that we can thrive in, and he's letting us grow in it how we see fit. And if that's more poetical than someone like me ought to be, then I'm not sorry for it. It's how it is."
"It's how it is," Aragorn echoed, and he echoed it again some hours later, as they left the inn and headed back towards the camp.
The rain had stopped by then, and the full moon was low in the east, bathing the land in silver. Their human shadows, the guards who were trailing them, were still in their places. Nobody in the inn had noticed their swords. Gimli, Aragorn thought, had still not noticed them at all.
"Do you think he will recognise you when you ride through tomorrow?" Legolas asked.
"Will he gasp with astonishment?" Gimli asked.
"He might," Aragorn said, "but I hope he will not."
They walked on. The common room had steadily filled throughout the evening, and by the end, it had been packed almost to bursting: a place of jostling laughter, shouts and songs. Aragorn's ears still rang with it. His own camp would be far quieter and more cold.
"We cast long shadows," Legolas said quietly, gesturing to their shadows, silver in the night.
"Yes," Aragorn agreed. But the buildings of Bree cast shadows that were even longer. People were out strolling in the moonlight, and their shadows were just as long. The trees, the buildings, the animals, the people all cast their shadows on the land. Their own three shadows were transient things. They touched the shadows of Bree for a little while, but soon would be gone.
"Yes," he said again, "but so do they."