As his breath flowed over the glowing coals in the bowl of his chipped clay pipe, the flames surged to life before dying back down. Exhaling the smoke into the already pungent atmosphere, Strider turned his eyes once again in the direction of the door in the opposite corner of the inn’s common room. He had heard the rumours, as had all in the Prancing Pony, of four hobbits from the Shire having arrived an hour before, and knew they were highly likely to be the four he was waiting for. Nobody near the door saw his glance in the firelight and wreaths of smoke, but this was partly because, being a Man not prone to taking risks, he had also let the hood of his travelling cloak fall far enough forwards to cover most of his face before he had sat down hours ago. Tonight’s work, he knew, was of the utmost importance.

For the next few minutes Strider contented himself with straining to overhear conversations between other guests at the inn. Travellers, even the Dwarves, he bothered little about; their news was old news to him, a Ranger who walked in the Wilds and influenced the events they only talked of. The locals, on the other hand, were the Men and hobbits he was attempting to listen to. They were the ones most likely to ask too many questions of the type he didn’t want the hobbits to have to answer. The tall, weather worn Man removed the stem of his pipe from his rough lips to take a small sip from his tankard of ale; the golden liquid was high quality and always much looked forward to when he was journeying towards Bree and the Prancing Pony. Replacing the pipe he tried to focus on the words of a small group of Breelanders sitting a few tables away.

In the confused noise and talkative babble it was difficult to discern what anybody, even somebody sitting at the same table as the listener, might be saying. Strider’s keen hearing was shown to its best advantage when trying to pick up a far-off dim sound in the distance against a background of silence or natural noise of wind, birds or rivers. It was beyond any mortal ability, however, to pick out one conversation in a room of many conversations, incessant laughter and much shouting, so Strider did not fare much better than a lesser Man not born of the blood of Westernesse could have done.

Barely had Strider made out the words ‘Shire’, ‘hobbit’ and ‘Sauron’ when his attention was caught by a different sound. The distinctive noise of the door creaking could barely be heard above the volume of the tavern’s guests but because it was different and he’d been listening for it, Strider’s acute hearing alerted him as three of the four he had been searching for walked tentatively into the common room. Obviously the round little innkeeper, Barliman Butterbur, hadn’t suggested they would be safer in a private parlour or their bedchamber. His eyes narrowed as he thought of Barliman’s refusal to let the Ranger visit the hobbits in a parlour as they supped. Did the portly Man not trust the Ranger, as so many did not, or was there a more sinister explanation? Strider wanted to think he could trust Butterbur but offending a friend would be by far the lesser of two evils; if he didn’t let Butterbur know the secret of what was happening in his quiet town he couldn’t pass the information on. If by foul chance the innkeeper was showing sympathy towards Mordor Strider couldn’t afford to trust him with anything.

Suddenly a hush fell over the whole room as the other members of the company slowly noticed the rotund but permanently harried Butterbur leading the three hobbits to a shorter height table close to one of the roaring fires. He clapped his hands, evidently about to introduce them to the crowd, and the few remaining talkers fell silent. A good many names were mentioned but Strider ignored them; he already knew or knew of everybody present. He again tried to catch any whispers but the only voices other than Barliman Butterbur’s were voices shouting welcome, or correcting the innkeeper’s pronunciation of their names.

After Butterbur ran off to see to some other of his numerous never ending duties, the three hobbits were subjected to questioning by the crowd. The sounds swelled and merged into an indistinguishable babble once more as people shouted out, wanting the three to repeat their names, give news from the Shire and give an explanation of what they were doing in Bree. The answers came back as soon as each individual question could be understood. Mr. Underhill, Mr. Took and Mr. Gamgee were, so Mr. Underhill told the crowded room, collecting information for a book he was writing about history and geography of the lands outside the Shire.

At this the crowd stopped asking for news, of which the three hobbits had mentioned nothing yet, and started giving Mr. Underhill information about Bree, advice on how to write a book and suggestions for people he might like to talk to. The middle-aged hobbit pretended to look interested, but failed to write anything down. It was this, maybe, that caused the company to lose interest in the book and turn again to asking for news from outside Breeland.

Given that they had come downstairs into the crowd, things were going as well as could be expected, Strider thought as he remained seated in his corner slowly smoking and occasionally sipping his ale. At least the fool hobbits had not yet revealed Mr. Underhill’s true name, Baggins, or their true purpose. He uncrossed his legs underneath his table and his travel worn but comfortable leather boots creaked slightly. It was the first move he had made, excepting the movements necessary to use pipe and tankard, since he had sat down at midday. His eyes never left the three, although they could not tell with any certainty that they were being watched because Strider had still not removed his hooded cloak or even pushed the hood backwards over his head to lie against his muscular shoulders.

The crowd began now to turn to Pippin Took and Sam Gamgee, Mr. Underhill’s companions, as Frodo himself failed to give them as much talk as they would like. Only a few minutes after they had walked in, Strider noted Mr. Underhill sit down quietly with his half pint whilst the two younger hobbits entertained the crowd by retelling tales of recent goings on in Hobbiton and other villages in the Shire. Staring intently at Mr. Underhill until the hobbit noticed, Strider caught the attention of the curly haired traveller, who immediately called Mr. Butterbur over. Strider had no way of overhearing their words over the applause Sam and Pippin were now receiving but could guess that the hobbit was asking about himself.

As soon as the innkeeper had left Frodo’s side, Strider beckoned for the hobbit to come over and sit down. Frodo did so and Strider dropped his hood back. He was revealed to be a tall Man with dark hair, peppered slightly with grey. The face now showing was as weather worn as his boots but still ruggedly good to look upon. His eyes seemed to miss nothing and Frodo felt he was being scrutinised under Strider’s gaze. There was something slightly proud about his bearing and the set of his shoulders but by no means could Strider be called arrogant. Belted under his cloak and hidden from the hobbit’s view, the hilt of his sword barely made a dent through the think material. Despite the torn, dirt-stained clothing he seemed to be a Man with a knowledge of power and command.

Frodo did not feel entirely comfortable in the Ranger’s presence, especially when Strider revealed, within seconds, that he knew Underhill to be a false name. Strider proceeded to warn Frodo that the current situation was dangerous, but could tell that the hobbit considered the tall Man himself to be the biggest danger in the warm, comfortable but slightly smoky room. The two younger hobbits, meanwhile, appeared to have forgotten the peril completely; Pippin was still entertaining the crowd by acting out stories from the Shire.

Frodo’s whole body tensed as he realised which story Pippin was telling. He knew in a few moments’ time the tale would turn from humorous to one that would best be kept quiet. It ended with Bilbo putting on the Ring of Power he had now given to Frodo but it was essential that the Ring remain a secret. The wizard Gandalf had entrusted Frodo and his companions with the task of taking it to Rivendell, the elf city grown up around the house of the Lord Elrond. If ever returned to Sauron its maker, the Ring would give him the power to destroy Middle Earth. It was plain to Strider and even to Frodo that Pippin must be stopped from mentioning the Ring at all costs; Strider immediately instructed Frodo to do something to distract the audience.

Panicking a little, Frodo jumped on top of the table and shouted, causing people in the crowd to believe he’d had a little too much ale than was good for his little size, so it followed that one called upon him for a song. That one voice was echoed by others in seconds, leaving Frodo no choice. Hobbits can sing fairly well, as a rule, and Frodo was no worse than most. An old song of Bilbo’s invention was the first that occurred to him, and he began.

There is an inn, a merry old inn
beneath an old grey hill,
And there they brew a beer so brown
that the Man in the Moon himself came down
one night to drink his fill.

The ostler has a tipsy cat
that plays a five-string fiddle;
And up and down he runs his bow,
now squeaking high, now purring low,
now sawing in the middle.

The landlord has a little dog
that is mighty fond of jokes;
When there’s good cheer among the guests,
he cocks his ear at all the jests
and laughs until he chokes.

They also keep a hornéd cow
as proud as any queen;
But music turns her head like ale
And makes her wave her tufted tail
and dance upon the green.

And O! the rows of silver dishes
and the store of silver spoons!
For Sunday there’s a special pair
And these they polish up with care
on Saturday afternoons.

The Man in the Moon was drinking deep,
and the cat begin to wail,
A dish and a spoon on the table danced,
The cow in the garden madly pranced
and the little dog chased his tail.

The Man in the Moon took another mug,
and then rolled beneath his chair;
And there he dozed and dreamed of ale,
Till in the sky the stars were pale,
and dawn was in the air.

The ostler said to his tipsy cat:
‘The white horses of the Moon,
They neigh and champ their silver bits;
But their master’s been and drowned his wits
and the sun’ll be rising soon.’

So the cat on his fiddle played hey-diddle-diddle,
a jig that would waken the dead:
He squeaked and sawed and quickened the tune,
While the landlord shook the Man in the moon:
‘It’s after three!’ he said.

They rolled the Man slowly up the hill
and bundled him into the moon,
While his horses galloped up in rear
And the cow came capering like a deer,
and a dish ran up with a spoon.

Now quicker the fiddle went deedle-dum-deedle;
the dog began to roar,
The cow and the horses stood on their heads;
The guests all bounded from their beds
and danced upon the floor.

With a ping and a pang the fiddle-strings broke!
the cow jumped over the Moon,
The little dog laughed to see such fun,
And the Saturday dish went off at a run
with the silver Sunday spoon.

The round Moon rolled behind the hill
As the sun raised up her head.
She could hardly believe her fiery eyes;
For though it was day to her surprise
they all went back to bed!

It was nonsense, of course, but the Breelanders enjoyed it enough to give Frodo a round of applause. Some shouted out, they wanted him to sing it again so they could join in; the tune was a popular, well known one and the words easy to pick up. Frodo, wanting to keep attention off Pippin and also quite enjoying himself, began to sing again. This time most the Men and all the hobbits in the room clapped in time, singing wherever they remembered the lyrics. Frodo began stamping his foot on the table, then jumping to the beat. Strider watched intently as the jumping became an enthusiastic bounce, the skin between his eyes crinkling into a slight frown as if he had known what was going to happen at the end of the song.

As most of the crowd shouted, the cow jumped over the Moon, Frodo himself jumped even higher, tucking his knees right under his chin. He slipped as he landed and fell with a crash under the table. A great shout went up; Frodo didn’t seem to be under the table, nor did he appear to be anywhere else. A complete silence fell for a moment only, then the innkeeper was summoned. Strider didn’t move but his eyes glanced over the whole company again, trying to see if anyone appeared to have an unhealthy interest in the manner of Frodo’s disappearance. Sam and Pippin gasped, it took them a little longer to work out what must have happened.

And Frodo? He was, in fact, beneath the table and had been all along. Under cover of the noise he crawled slowly across the room, trying to avoid being stepped upon. Some part of him felt he didn’t want to remove the Ring from his finger; the better part of him knew it would be best to move out of view then take It off as fast as possible. So when he reached the table where Strider still sat he sat down, slipped It off and clutched It tightly in his fist. Strider said a few well-chosen words, called Frodo by his true name Mr. Baggins, then finished by requesting a private meeting, which left the hobbit shaking.

Luckily for Frodo, Butterbur had by this time come into the common room, called by the confused company. Frodo stood up as tall as it is possible for a hobbit to stand, telling the complaining crowd that he hadn’t vanished but had in fact been talking to Strider the whole time. The grumbling locals walked out, off to the comfort and normality of their own homes; the unfortunate few staying at the inn moved as far away as possible from the three hobbits and the Ranger.

Strider sat, unnoticed, by the fire for several minutes until the three Shire folk made a quiet exit back to their private parlour. Following silently, he slipped into the darkened room behind them, seating himself whilst the hobbits stirred the embers of the fire until it burst into flame once more. Tracking, generally outdoors, was a particular skill of Strider’s, indeed a skill any Ranger should have; it was rare that anybody or anything should notice his presence as he crept along behind for many leagues. The three hobbits, ale-happy as they were, took no especial difficulty to remain hidden from.

As the fire began to blaze once more, bathing the little room in a flickering orange light, it eventually dawned on the three Shire folk that they had company; fearing they would run to fetch the landlord Strider had to immediately remind them of Frodo’s promise of a private conversation before they would sit down.

Strider’s reasons for wanting to talk to the hobbits were several, but connected to one main hope. He had talked at length to the wizard Gandalf, discussing the Ring and what best to do with it after having captured Gollum, who had himself borne it for close to half a century. It was plain to both Man and Wizard that doing nothing was a path they dare not risk; taking the Ring to Rivendell would allow the decision of what to do with it to be made by all. It was also hoped, though faintly, that It might be safe in the Elven haven for all time.

Strider knew he had to do all in his power to see the Ring safely to the House of Elrond Half Elven, no matter the cost to himself or others. He had thought, before he met the hobbits, that it would not be too difficult to persuade them to accept him as a travelling companion, by far the easiest way to increase their likelihood of surviving the journey. But the wizard had disappeared, leaving Strider no way to convince the little ones that he could be trusted. Indeed they thought to question him, until he named his companionship as price for the information he had about the Ring.

Many minutes of debate then occurred, during which time Strider attempted to both warn the hobbits against the danger they already were partly aware was hunting them and to convince them to let him join their party. The first was not in any way conducive to the second, as Sam vehemently pointed out. Strider sighed silently to himself, aware that he had done well at showing the hobbits just how dangerous the situation was. He would now have to give them some reason to believe his trustworthiness; the hobbits would be swiftly killed and the Ring taken if they were to go much further by themselves.

Up to this point Strider had managed to keep all information about himself under close wraps; there was a lot more to him than the weather worn Ranger the Breelanders saw. Something of the rest of his life, he now realised, would have to be revealed. He began to say that he was willing to give an account of himself and to answer any questions the hobbits may ask when he heard footsteps and a loud knock on the door.

As the door began to creak inwards, Strider stood and walked to a dark corner where he would be concealed from somebody entering the room until they turned round. Butterbur walked in, followed by the hobbit servant Nob, neither of whom turned to look into the corner hidden behind the door. The round little innkeeper was wringing his hands and kept looking at the floor; he was obviously uncomfortable with having to say what he knew he had to. With a lot of apologies and explanations, Butterbur proceeded to say that he recognised Frodo as Mr. Baggins from a description given by Gandalf three months previously. Frodo was startled, not only by the description given, but that the innkeeper was a friend of Gandalf.

Still Strider remained standing in the darkened corner, out of sight and out of mind, as Barliman Butterbur then pulled a letter out of his pocket and handed it to Frodo, whose name and address was plain to see on the front. Frodo took it, amid the innkeeper’s explanation that Gandalf had entrusted it to him three months previously and charged him with sending it to the Shire with the next person headed there, but that there had been nobody willing to undertake the journey, causing the letter to be left, forgotten, in Butterbur’s possession.

The muscles in Strider’s abdomen and chest contracted as he stopped himself from inhaling sharply. Any message from Gandalf would contain news of import; though there was no telling if it would be good news or bad. The tall Ranger watched intently as Frodo took it. The letter was left unopened, however, as Butterbur began to tell the hobbits about black-cloaked riders who had been in the area for the last few days, asking to see Mr. Baggins. Strider cursed inwardly, the Ringwraiths were closer than he had thought. He then heard his own name mentioned in no more a friendly tone than before as Butterbur commented that he had turned down Strider’s request to see the hobbits privately before they had entered the common room. At this, Strider decided to reveal him presence to the fat little innkeeper.

Butterbur jumped in shock and let out a bit of a squeak as Strider stepped from behind him into the firelight. The innkeeper exclaimed several times, then complained about Strider to his face, warning the hobbits not to keep company with a Ranger. Butterbur’s ignorance of the true nature of the Rangers of the North irked Strider, who suggested that maybe Butterbur might like to be the one to face the riders from Mordor in the attempt to see Frodo and the Ring safe to Rivendell. Within a few moments the innkeeper had excused himself from their presence, taking Nob as he went. The only useful thing he had said, amid the blustering, long winded explanations and apologies, was to question the whereabouts of the fourth hobbit, Merry Brandybuck, which he did on his way out the door.

Strider noted the comment, thinking that if Nob hadn’t found Merry by nightfall, he would have to go looking for the young hobbit to keep him out of trouble. Then he prompted Frodo to open the letter, curious as to what it might say but also slightly nervous that it might have contained instructions that the hobbits would, three months later, have had no way of following.

Frodo broke the seal bearing Gandalf’s mark on the letter and unfolded it. He read it silently, then passed it to the other two hobbits. Strider watched impatiently as they digested the contents, wanting to know whatever information it held. He was relieved, though, when it became clear that part of the letter said that a Man, called Aragorn but sometimes known as Strider, was a friend of Gandalf’s and could be trusted with everything. This had been what Strider was on the point of saying when Butterbur had appeared, it had taken him that long to be sure of the three hobbits; certain that they weren’t a trap set to stop him contacting the real hobbits.

Sam, however, wasn’t convinced that the Strider standing in the room with them was the same Strider Gandalf had recommended. Facing up to the Man nearly twice his height he challenged Strider to prove himself. There was no other way, now, for Strider to prove to Sam who he was except to scare the hobbits into believing it. He stood tall and proud, threatening them with death if he really was an agent of Mordor. The hobbits quailed under the look he gave them then backed away as he drew back his cloak and placed a hand on the hilt of his sword. He could tell they were frightened of him, and rightly so. As he then said to the Shire folk, he had easily the ability to hurt them, or worse, take the Ring.

Knowing he had scared them enough, Strider smiled; the first time the hobbits had seen him do so. The change it wrought in him was astounding; the good looks and open honesty hidden behind the ruggedness and travel dirt became visible as lines of care and worry faded. They believed now, as he repeated once again, that he really was Aragorn, son of Arathorn, Gandalf’s friend and someone who would fight to the death for their cause. Had he added, directly descended heir of Isildur, therefore heir to the stewarded throne of Gondor, they would have accepted that truth without further question as well.

Strider quoted softly under his breath, a few lines of verse from the poem that accompanied his birth name, Aragorn. This served him well, for Gandalf had written the poem in his letter, which Strider had not seen. The hobbits seemed to take this as final proof that they had found Gandalf’s friend Aragorn; there was no other way Strider could know those words. To show them one final proof of his identity, Strider then pulled his sword, Narsil, out of the scabbard. The blade was broken shortly below the hilt; it could never be used as a weapon of any kind, even against such small foes as hobbits. The sword was clearly the one spoken of, the blade that was broken, in the verse Gandalf had written. Even Sam, now, could find no argument against their allowing Strider to accompany and lead them to Rivendell.

The four then sat and began to plan their departure the following morning. The fire was burning low now, casting dancing shadows across the room. The next few minutes passed well enough, until Strider stiffened in his seat, attentively listening to something down the hallway. A few moments later the hobbits also could hear hurried footsteps, maybe of two pairs of feet, nearly running in their direction.

The door flew open and Merry came panting into the room, closely followed by Nob, who looked fit to scream. Merry started shouting about the black-cloaked riders, saying that he had been outside and seen one. Strider immediately asked where the rider had gone, startling Merry, who hadn’t noticed him until then. The Man didn’t allow time to explain his presence, the information he now needed from Merry was far too important. Within a matter of seconds a course of action was decided; it would be unsafe for the hobbits to return to their own rooms for the night so they would stay in the parlour under Strider’s protection. Nob then spoke, informing Strider that the beds in the hobbits’ rooms had been stuffed to look like they were inhabited, from outside the window at least.

As soon as Nob had left the little parlour, Strider set about securing the door. Whilst the hobbits rolled themselves in blankets, jostling for position by the hearth, he set a chair sitting with its back to the door, wedged under the handle. Seating himself, he waited as the hobbits drifted off to sleep, but did not close his eyes. Seeing such small people at their most vulnerable, he decided as he watched the rise and fall of Merry’s chest in the firelight, was going to be one of the few pleasures of the next few weeks.

Determined to stop that train of thought before it took hold of him, Strider moved silently to the fire. He pushed the larger logs around until they gave out that little bit more heat, which he then decided he didn’t really need; he felt warm enough despite the growing cold of autumn. The hobbits would appreciate the fire, though, he knew. Throwing back the hood of his cloak, he sat down again, but still did not sleep.

Instead he studied the features of the four hobbits, who lay totally unaware of what he was doing. Frodo was the oldest, Strider could tell without even consciously thinking about it. The other three were of similar ages. Sam was the stoutest, Pippin the shortest. But by far the most interesting, to Strider’s mind, was the young Brandybuck, Merry. With his dark eyes and walnut brown curly hair, he captured Strider’s attention, although why that should be Strider couldn’t tell; they all four had curly hair, three with dark hair and three also with dark eyes.

Trying to believe that a closer look would control his fascination for the little person from the Shire, Strider once more stood and walked towards the four laid, fast asleep, on the floor. Crouching down by Merry’s head, he laid his hand a scant millimetre above the skin on the hobbit’s cheek. With a quavering finger he stroked the locks of hair growing from Merry’s temple, careful not to wake him. As his breathing became harsher, quicker and shallower Strider pulled back; trying not to make a noise. There would be a time for this, and it was not now, with black riders waiting outside.

Strider paused a second before leaving Merry’s side, stopping to touch his lips to the top of the hobbit’s head and draw his fingertip along the curve of his jaw, but careful to keep his feel light on Merry’s bare skin. Even so he thought he saw a slight flutter run through the little hobbit’s dark eyelashes as he watched. Staying low, Strider backed away a little, then stood and walked back to the chair, slowing his breathing as he went.

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