Bree was a town at a crossroads. One road went North, up to the old ruined city of Fornost where according to Aragorn many of the Rangers were born and still went home to. The other went West, to the Shire and Havens beyond. Elves did not pass through the town, for the noise, sights and smells of human habitation were little to their liking, but Dwarves still stopped there, and the town and its environs were home to a number of Men and Hobbits. Within minutes of passing the gates Amaril saw many of Bilbo’s size, if not age, scurrying about and chattering about such things as the weather, price of pipeweed, and the wife of so-and-so’s cousin’s daughter’s adopted son. It was amusing, to see such little people getting so heated about such little things. According to Aragorn it was a good place to gather news, and of all the establishments in the town he seemed to favor an inn called The Prancing Pony most of all. They left their horses in the care of the stablehand and after warning her to mind her manners Aragorn led her in.
Amaril’s first instinct was to turn and run. There was a thin shadow all over Bree, as there was over the entire land, but here, in the knot of people clustered around the bar and at tables, the shadow seemed to deepen. More than one cluster of chatting men made her skin crawl. Part of this may have simply been the dirty looks that were cast their way, and Amaril began to understand Aragorn’s warning. Rangers were not regarded highly by the people they labored so hard to protect and more than once she caught her hand reaching for her knife.
Aragorn did indeed frequent the place with enough regularity that the fat little innkeeper called him “Strider” and found a place for him in a nice dark corner. Amaril kept her eyes down, swallowing her pride and avoiding the sneers cast their way as Mr. Butterbur led them to their seat, chattering and asking after her. Aragorn stiffly named her as “Imlach” and told the innkeeper that she was a kinsman out on his first patrol. Butterbur left it at that. It was strange to see Aragorn, whom among the Elves and Beornings had been treated with such high regard, be so disrespected by his own kindred. Did they not know he was the Lost King? No, she realized, they don’t, for he does not wish for them to know. Not yet, not until he gets his sword reforged, for why else would he be so eager for that not-so-distant day? For his part Aragorn ignored the glares and stares and settled himself quite cheerfully at the table while the innkeeper went for ale. “Sit back and listen,” he suggested. “What you hear tonight might be very interesting.”
“That man over there’s done nothing but glare since we walked in.”
“Don’t point. It only encourages him.”
“Sorry. He’s looking at us as if we were filth. Who is he?”
“That would be my old friend Bill Ferny. Doesn’t think too highly of Rangers.”
“I can tell.”
“Stop gawking, you’ll attract attention we don’t need.”
“He’s got someone strange-looking with him.”
“That would be a Southerner, a refugee most likely.”
“He gives me the chills. They both do.”
“Ignore them. They’ve done no harm to Bree so far, and I don’t want any trouble here.”
“Well it looks like they’re leaving,” she said, taking another glance and relaxing slightly. The innkeeper returned then, with a pint for each of them. He wished them a good evening with the barest of courtesies and bustled off.
“Ah, this is a good beer,” Aragorn said, taking a swallow. “Drink it down lad,” he said, just loud enough for any interested listener to hear, but adding beneath his breath “Take it very slow. This stuff won’t mix well with those herbs you drink. I promise, none will notice if you don’t finish.” She nodded and took a sip. She’d never tasted ale before, and on that first drink she decided that she would have preferred a good strong cider. Aragorn chuckled slightly at the expression on her face. “Not to your liking?”
“This will take some getting used to.”
“Not much though. Still, do you not appreciate Bree all the more now that you’ve been in the Wild for a while?”
“Yes,” she answered, playing her part though she didn’t appreciate Bree at all, or at least, not the Pony. It was too noisy, too crowded, and her skin kept pricking. She stayed for a while longer, and then asked “Strider” if she could go get some air.
“Go right ahead, but don’t be over long,” he answered, sitting back and propping his boots on the table. She’d never seen him so relaxed and left as quickly as she could without running. Never had night air been so welcome as it was when she burst out the inn door and into the small courtyard. She took in a few deep gulps and then stepped out into the street, looking about and listening.
She’d never been in any large human settlement before, and though most of the shops were shut she still feasted her eyes on the signs advertising wares and the people going about their business, most likely returning home for their evening meal. Through one window she saw a man sitting on a table, sewing by candlelight, and behind another wall she heard the clanking of a blacksmith. All in all it was thrilling, until once again her skin began to prickle.
Something evil was coming her way, right up the street, and the road was too choked with wagons for her to easily cross. As they drew nearer Amaril recognized them as Bill Ferny and the Southerner and soon realized that they weren’t about to let her by without some sort of confrontation, probably the exact sort of trouble Aragorn had asked her to avoid. She pulled her cloak about her, adjusting the hood down over her face, preparing to slide around them and let them pass but they turned out to be in no mood for any sort of courtesy. “Want something, Ranger?” Ferny laughed as he and his comrade blocked the entire sidewalk.
“Kindly let me pass,” she replied, trying to think of what Aragorn would do. They reeked of the evil she rejected. If it were her choice, she would slay them both and let them trouble this tortured world no more.
“Oh ho, such manners now. `Kindly let me pass.’ Whoever suspected such courtesy from a Ranger?” His eyes had a malicious glint.
“Not I,” the Southerner agreed, and his eyes too the same glint. “Last one of you I met tol’ me to get off the road.”
“I beg your pardon?” Amaril asked, a thrill of fear running through her.
“One of your footpad friends accosted me on the South Road, asked all sorts of nosy questions. When I tol’ him to mind `is own business he turned me around and tried to send me home. Accused me of being a spy.”
“Oh, well, I came in from the east. I haven’t heard anything about that.” She tried to move past but the Southerner plunked a hand on her chest and pushed her back.
“Oh you haven’t have you?” he asked, and then bared his teeth in a hideous grin as he groped at her. Unconsciously, she backed away a step, and his grinned widened. “Methinks you are not a lad, but a lass.”
“What difference does that make?” she demanded, shaking off her hood so they could see the bright hair braided around her head. The men leered as she dropped a fighting stance, right hand on the hilts of her dagger. It was too close for swords.
“All the difference in the world, Ranger-woman, all the difference in the world,” the Southerner snarled, drawing a great big knife. He held it clumsily, and it was Amaril’s turn to sneer.
“Careful, you might hurt yourself with that.”
“I’ll teach you the meaning of hurt, girlie,” he growled back and made a meanicing swipe in her direction. Amaril leaned back to dodge and drew, but just as they would have clashed in earnest Ferny tugged the Southerner’s sleeve, jerking him away and Amaril felt a heavy hand plunk on her shoulder, and pull, all but taking her off her feet.
“I don’t know what you lot think you’re doing, but I suggest you try it on someone else. Now scatter, before she or I knocks a head off.” The voice was low but terrible and the two evil men, so brave when they thought they were facing one thin woman, fled. Amaril looked around to see who her sudden protector was. He spoke like Aragorn, though he did not sound like him.
The man was indeed a Ranger, for he too wore a silver star on his cloak. His hood was back, and she could see in the streetlights a grim weathered face. Like Aragorn he was tall, with a dark hair and gray eyes, though he seemed younger. If he was a Ranger he must also be Edain, she recalled from her lessons in Rivendell, and that made him trustworthy. “I am Halbarad,” he said by way of introduction as he guided her back down the street. “I am a kinsman of your friend Aragorn. He noticed you weren’t too fond of crowds and sent me looking. He thought you might run into trouble.”
“I could take them,” she muttered sullenly. Exactly why did Aragorn think he needed to send a kinsman out to collect her? Was she a child or a warrior?
“I think that’s what he was afraid of. We have no power here and fighting in the streets won’t earn us any.”
“They were evil.”
“Not even the wise can know that for sure. Now come along.” He led her back to the Prancing Pony, where Aragorn was still smoking and sitting with his feet up, though Amaril had seen his relaxed pose often enough to know he was faking it this time. He couldn’t quite conceal the relief in his voice when he greeted them.
“Ah, good, you found her,” he said softly as Halbarad pulled out a chair for her. “So how do you like Bree?” Amaril shrugged, still feeling a bit sulky.
“Not too much,” Halbarad replied, shoving her into the seat and pulling up a chair for himself. “She was about ready to skin a Southerner.”
“Ferny’s friend,” Amaril explained tersely.
“I was afraid of something like that. What happened?” She told the story and Aragorn shook his head sadly. “Delights in trouble that one.”
“There’ve been a lot of those kind coming up recently. Any excuse we turn `em back, though some we have to let pass, and some will sneak in. We aren’t enough, to fence this entire country.” Halbarad shook his head. “Dark days are ahead. Dark, dark days.” He lit his pipe and took a long inhale, then glanced over at Amaril. “You do not smoke?”
“It is not something we are accustomed to, where I am from.”
“More’s the pity. Here, give it a try.” He thrust the pipe at her. Aragorn gave her the barest of nods, an amused twinkle in his eye. She took it, placed it in her mouth, and took a long inhale. Smoke seared her throat and lungs and instantly she was fighting a fit of coughs.
“Breath out,” Aragorn suggested, “and try not to make such a display.” Amaril quickly got control of herself. “Did you like it?” he asked, not suppressing a grin. She shook her head and both men laughed.
“It takes some practice,” Halbarad assured her.
“Why do you even bother?” she asked, handing the pipe back.
“Well, like drink it relaxes both mind and body but unlike drink it does not dull the wit,” the younger Ranger replied. “It makes for a pleasant pastime anyway.”
“Speaking of pastime, where have you been of late?” Aragorn asked.
“South mainly. There’s something happening at Isengard. Lots of Men coming up that way with lots of interest in The Shire,” Halbarad answered and they began discussing local politics. Amaril tried to pay attention, but she was growing weary. Next thing she knew, they were in a private room. Aragorn brewed up her tea, for she was too tired to do it herself. As she fell asleep, she heard the other two talking in low voices, and Aragorn mentioned both her name and Rhûn. She wondered if Aragorn was looking for help, or anxious to be rid of her. She didn’t blame him. She’d been little more than trouble to him, it seemed. She went to sleep certain she’d be spending the rest of the journey in Halbarad’s company.
However, when morning came Halbarad was already gone, having left before first light to return to his endless watch on the roads. “I explained the whole situation to him,” Aragorn said over their private breakfast, “including your story.”
“I though I heard my name last night.”
“He was very curious as to how I found you and much impressed. You are unlike any mortal either of us has met. If they rest of your people have half the strength and spirit you’ve shown so far we would be the better for having them here. Though I have to say that, because you originate from Rhûn, had he encountered you alone on these roads he might have simply sent you packing back across the mountains.”
“You told him where I’m from?” she asked, almost choking on a piece of cheese.
“Of course. Where you’re from is as important to us as where you’re going. Finish your cheese. The day is growing old.” She swallowed quickly, peeking over his shoulder out the window. The first rays of light were just coming over the horizon.
“Where are we going?”
“South. I’m due to meet Gandalf at the Sarn Ford in a few days. If all is well with him we shall both cross into the Shire. If not, I will have to leave you, and you will have to go on either with Halbarad or any passing Elves, whoever finds you first.”
“Halbarad will be meeting us again?” This did not seem such a bad prospect. For some reason she found the grim Ranger’s company quite enjoyable.
“He’s agreed to swing in that direction, though if he’s more than two days in coming I’d say find someone else.”
“If he’s late he’s dead?” Aragorn’s eyebrows arched in alarm when she said that.
“Did Arwen or Bilbo teach you that?”
“Arwen.” Aragorn nodded. She knew by the grim, worn look on his face that Arwen had not exagerrated.