It was on a fair afternoon in early spring in the year 1436 by the Shire Reckoning (the sixteenth year of the Fourth Age by the reckoning of Men), with the bright sunlight slanting down on the Great Road, though a touch of frost still lingered in the air and the trees were still quite bare of leaf, that three tall strangers came riding into Bree through the South Gate. Two of them rode slightly ahead, deep in converse, while the third and youngest, following some paces behind, cast an eager and interested eye around on his surroundings.
Shortly thereafter, having stabled their horses, they were seated in a quiet corner of the common room at The Prancing Pony. A sturdy middle-aged hobbit hurried over to them with a cheerful smile.
"Fair afternoon to you, masters! Nob is the name, Nob Sandheaver of the Prancing Pony, at your service. And what might you be wanting by way of food and drink? There's not much as is hot, seeing as how we don't get much custom at tea-time, but there's fresh bread and jam and butter, and the mistress has some good cold cuts in the kitchen, and there's a bit of apple pie, if you'd fancy it?"
Nob looked at the men curiously. Of late years, the folk in Bree had grown accustomed to seeing tall men ride back and forth between the settlement at Fornost and the "South Kingdom", as people hereabouts called Gondor; and even the sight of mailed and liveried riders in the service of the King drew no more than a passing glance. The Rangers came as often to Bree as they ever did before the War, though to better welcome now than in days of yore, as the Breefolk had learned to esteem their vigilant service since the bleak winter of 1419.
Nob thought that these three men had a great look of the Rangers of the North, at least from what he could see of them, for one of them was still hooded, and sat back against the wall, his long legs stretched before him under the table, his face in shadow. The youngest man of the party was fresh-faced and bright-eyed, and was plainly dressed in black, except for a silver belt-buckle and cloak brooch. The man who sat beside him was older, dark-haired, with piercing grey eyes and a kindly smile that lit his pale, rather stern features. He too was plainly dressed, in worn dark leathers, a green tunic, and a dark green cloak over all.
"Our thanks for your hospitality, Master Nob. But three mugs of beer will suffice for the moment," the second man said. "I have heard great praise of your master's brewing, and indeed, we have ridden here in thirsty expectation. Young Bergil here could scarce restrain himself, this last hour or more, from galloping into Bree and straight to your tap room," he added, with a teasing smile.
"Sir!" the young man expostulated, flushing. "That was not why..." he broke off, looking abashed.
Well, they were not Rangers, that was clear, or at any rate not from hereabouts, no matter their looks, for their speech rang strange to Bree-land ears. Very fair-sounding and polite it was, and with a courtly ring to it, especially in the low and pleasant voice of the green-cloaked man.
"Well, the beer here is always good, sir, though I say it as should not. And travellers to Fornost do like to stop here for a drink more often than not," Nob said, and turned to fetch their drinks.
He was back in a short time, carefully bearing a tray with three tall tankards, full to the brim. "And will you be needing lodging for the night, sirs?" he asked. "We've some man-sized rooms above stairs, and very cosy they are too, if you've a mind to them?"
The young man, the one named Bergil, took the tray from him with a murmured word of thanks, and put it down on the table, handing a tankard each to the other men and waiting until they both drank before he touched his own mug.
"We may need lodgings, yes, and for more than a single night, if the friends we await should come later than we expect," the second man said. "They were to meet us here today, but we are early, it seems."
Nob tilted his head curiously to look up at the strangers, feeling that there was something familiar about the third man, the one who sat in the shadows. He had not spoken in the hobbit's hearing, but Nob felt that he might recognise the voice if he did. He watched him reach out for the beer, and saw that there was a curiously wrought silver ring on his finger. Not much was visible of his clothing, save for his cloak, woven of a fine material and of a colour that oddly defied description: grey or green or some mixture of both. A beautifully wrought leaf-shaped brooch held it closed at the throat. Again, Nob felt a niggling at his memory; now, where had he seen such cloaks and brooches before?
"Well, the beer is certainly as you described it," the green-clad man said, wiping away the foam from his lip, and tilting his mug appreciatively at his silent companion. "Let us hope the beds may prove so also, if we must stay the night!"
The quiet man now leaned forward slightly to put his tankard down after a long draught, and Nob smiled in delighted recognition. It had been many years since this particular Ranger had visited Bree and quaffed a drink at the Prancing Pony. The smile as quickly turned to a gasp, for now he recalled what else he had heard of this Ranger: why, this was...!
"Yes, Nob, it is I, but we will keep my presence here quiet, if you please," the man said, his eyes dancing. "Where is my old friend Barliman? I should dearly love to see him again, though I doubt he will be as pleased to see me."
"Yes sir! I mean, no sir, he'll be that pleased and proud, I'm sure..." Nob stammered, as confounded as he could possibly be. "The master's down at the market, sir, beggin' your pardon, for there's stores to be laid in, you see, before the spring caravans start coming down the Greenway." He stopped. "But it ain't proper here for you, your lordship, sir, a-sitting in the common room like any townsman, and me serving you beer in a pewter mug just as if..."
"Do not fret, Master Nob," the other man said, the one who had spoken before. "We are here to meet some old friends of ours, from the Shire. We hoped to do so quietly, with as little stir as may be contrived."
"Yes, and you know I have sat in this very room many a time before, Nob, and been glad of the welcome. Don't put yourself out, this suits me very well! But find us a quiet parlour, if you will, and we will wait there in comfort for our friends, whom I think you will know also."
"Yes sir, of course, if that's what you wish; but it ain't fittin', sir, that's what I say, and hold to... And Mister Butterbur will have something to say to me too, I shouldn't wonder, when he hears of it!"
"Well, do not tell him yet, Nob; I should hate to spoil the surprise when we do meet," the grey-cloaked man said, rising to his feet and towering over the hobbit. "It has been a long time since he tried to keep Mr. Underhill from going off into the wild with a long-shanked vagabond of a Ranger."
Nob shook his head doubtfully, but led them down the passage to a quiet parlour with man-sized chairs and some hobbit-sized ones as well. "Remember, Nob: not a word to Barliman, or to anyone else in town," the Ranger said, quietly, with a hand on the hobbit's shoulder, and a friendly smile that warmed his eyes.
So Nob fetched them more beer and left them to wait, feeling that this sort of thing was more than a poor hobbit of Bree could be expected to deal with. "Never in all my born days..." he muttered, walking back to the common room, where Barliman Butterbur the innkeeper found him when he bustled through the door from the kitchen. Butterbur was in a hurry, as he always seemed to be, and did not pay much attention to Nob's tale of three travellers of the Big Folk that he had put in the large back parlour, other than to nod his distracted approval. He was more concerned, it seemed, with the quality of the potatoes that had been delivered, and he soon went off to the kitchen to speak to his patient wife about the supplies that had been ordered, and further provision that they must make for the season ahead.
Not long after, there was a clatter of hooves in the courtyard, and the sound of loud hobbit voices singing gaily drifted in through the open door. Nob, polishing mugs behind the counter, climbed up on a stool and saw two uncommonly large hobbits walk into the room, with a cry of, "Ho, the house! What cheer for thirsty hobbits of the Shire?"
The innkeeper hastened into the front room to greet these loud visitors. When he saw them, a broad smile overspread his rubicund features. "Well, if it isn't Master Meriadoc and Master Peregrin! Or rather, the Master of Buckland and the Thain, I _should_ say, begging your pardon, masters," Butterbur exclaimed. "And Mayor Samwise Gamgee too," he added happily, spotting the smaller figure who followed them in.
All three hobbits wore grey-green cloaks, fastened by well-made leaf-shaped brooches that gleamed greenly like sunlight dancing on a forest pool.
"Nob, look who's here! Hustle lad, don't you stand there there gawping! They'll be wanting a nice cold drink after the long ride from the Shire, and no mistake! Welcome, masters, welcome! Follow me, I'll make the back parlour ready for you - no, I'd forgot, there's the travellers frm the North there that Nob put - well, there's the small parlour, masters, if you won't take it amiss, I'll have it nice and cosy for you in no time at all..."
"Mister Butterbur, sir, I think the Big Folk have been waiting for Mister Brandybuck, Mister Took and the Mayor," Nob interrupted, tugging at Butterbur's apron. "From the North Kingdom, they've come, I believe, especial."
"Why Nob, lad, you didn't say..."
"Quite right, Nob, and we have ridden all this way, _especial_, just to meet them, " said Meriadoc cheerfully, in his booming voice.
Well, booming for a hobbit, at any rate; folk still thought it mighty queer that Mister Meriadoc Brandybuck and Mister Peregrin Took should have come back so much taller and broader from their travels. But there! That was what came of hanging about in foreign parts with the likes of that Mr. Underhill, or Mr. Baggins, or whatever his name was, that did conjuring tricks like disappearing from the middle of the taproom while singing a song. Folk at Bree did not hold with such uncanny doings, and never had. Unnatural, they called it. But least said, soonest mended; and it had to be admitted, their travels seemed to have done Mister Merry and Mister Pippin nowise harm, no, nor Mayor Samwise Gamgee neither. And they had great friends in the lands of the South, it was said, for not two years earlier, the Master, the Took and the Mayor had been appointed Counsellors of the North Kingdom, that was ruled by Men. And that was a thing the like of which no one had heard in all the history of the Shire and the Bree-land.
"Well, Mister Brandybuck, if that's what you came for, then I'll be happy to..." Butterbur began.
"I'll lead them to the back parlour, sir, shall I? And fetch them some of our brew," Nob said hurriedly. "You'll want to see to supper, sir, surely, what with our guests and all."
"So I will," agreed the innkeeper, suddenly frowning at the memory of the potatoes. "Well, see to them, lad. Begging your pardon, masters, but I'd be glad of a word with you when I've seen to things. Nob will settle you in."
The three hobbits exchanged grins and agreed. They hurried down the passage in Nob's wake. The Thain caught his elbow and whispered, "So you spotted him, did you? I always said you were a quick fellow!"
Before Nob could answer, they were at the parlour door. The hobbits rushed through, more like a pack of eager boys than like the chief hobbits of the Shire, and stopped suddenly when they saw the three men waiting there.
"Strider!" Peregrin shouted joyfully, and threw himself into the arms of the tallest, who knelt to receive him. He was quickly succeeded by Meriadoc, while Samwise was left to follow in a more dignified fashion.
No sooner had Peregrin disentangled himself than he let out another cry of delight. "Faramir! I hoped you would come!"
The green-cloaked man embraced him with a broad grin, and did the same with Meriadoc and Samwise in turn. There was a jumble of excited greetings with the three hobbits talking over each other to both men until their excitement tapered off somewhat.
"And who is this tall young fellow?" Peregrin asked, looking up at the third man. "Surely not little Bergil? Come here and let's have a look at you, lad!"
Bergil blushed and smiled and came to be embraced and exclaimed over by Peregrin and Meriadoc, and assure them that his father was very well, and his mother and sisters too, all very happy at home in Ithilien.
Nob, who had been staring wide-eyed at this scene, suddenly recalled himself, and rushed off to fetch more beer. When he came back, the first ecstasies of reunion being past, the men and the hobbits were seated, talking and laughing in quieter tones. Nob was obscurely comforted by the sight of Samwise Gamgee sitting close beside Strider and engaged in a low-voiced conversation with him, while Peregrin Took and Meriadoc Brandybuck entertained the other two men with increasingly outrageous lies about catching improbably large fish in the Brandywine river. If Master Gamgee, who was as sensible a gentlehobbit as ever stepped, saw nothing out of place in these men being here and drinking Mister Butterbur's home-brewed out of the taproom mugs, instead of sitting in great halls and drinking wine out of golden cups, then surely it was all right.
The man named Faramir looked up and smiled at Nob when he put down his tray, and spoke to him. "Thank you, Master Nob. Do you know, for years these hobbits have bragged of the excellence of the beer in these parts, and for once, they have not grossly exaggerated."
"For once! I like that!" Meriadoc said, with pretended indignation. "Though I'm glad to see, Prince Faramir, that you Southern folk can still appreciate a hearty drink when you see one. Well Nob, that was proper fourteen-twenty, that was, and we'll have some more of the same. But what about some cakes with the ale, lad, and a proper tea? For these folk may get by with one bare meal a day and that a skimpy one, but hobbits are used to better!"
"And I am glad to see, Sir Holdwine of the Mark, that the famed appetite of the Shire is unwithered by the years," laughed Faramir. "I pray you, Master Nob, make haste and feed him, for a hungry hobbit is a most dangerous companion, as I know from dire experience!"
Nob nodded and went off, still amazed but now also grinning from ear to ear. Here were hobbits that he knew laughing and joking and talking in the most familiar terms with great lords and princes from the distant South. And all the stories that had seemed so strange and remote, about the doings of hobbits and men in the Great War so far away, suddenly became quite new and real and wonderful. It was almost like being in the middle of a tale.
It wasn't until much later, when the common room was mostly emptied of the evening custom, that Barliman Butterbur finally made his way to the back parlour to speak with his guests. He trotted into the room in his usual style, a cheery smile on his round face, and full of news and chatter.
"Good evening to you, masters, and I hope our Nob has seen to your supper and given satisfaction? Is the fire all right? It's still a touch nippy of an evening in Bree, what with the late frost and all - and there's a shame, because the pipeweed this year will suffer for it, mark my words - yes, the Southlinch has had a poor time of it, and the Southfarthing too, or so I hear. But you'll know more of that than me, coming up from the Shire, sirs - which reminds me: would you prefer the hobbit-sized rooms below in the North Wing, masters, or..." he wound his way to a halt when his eyes finally lit on the tall man standing next to the fire. His brow knit into a puzzled frown, and then lightened in recognition.
"Why, it's Strider the Ranger! Now, we've seen naught of you in Bree since..." he stopped. "But... Gandalf said... Bless my soul!" His plump red face turned pale in an instant. "It's the King!"
He sat down hard in the chair that stood fortuitously behind him. Nob hovered next to him, looking a little anxious. "The King! In my house...! And drinking my beer...!" Butterbur whispered, and clutched at Nob's arm.
"It's as good as ever, Barliman," King Elessar said, smiling. "I remember, many's the time I've come out of the wild to a welcoming fire at the Prancing Pony and a nice quiet drink. It is all just as I recall, and I am heartily glad of it."
Poor Butterbur was quite overcome by joy and confusion, and even shed some tears when the King held a hand kindly out to him. He bowed over the hand awkwardly and then mumbled some scattered words when introduced to Lord Faramir, the Steward of Gondor and Prince of Ithilien, who had also once been a Ranger, or so the King said, albeit in the far South. Only Bergil of the King's Guard of Minas Tirith seemed sufficiently young and un-awesome that the innkeeper managed a coherent and courteous welcome when he was presented. He excused himself, and left to personally see to the preparation of their bed-chambers, promising faithfully to keep their visit as secret as possible.
Finally, when all the last patrons in the common room had said farewell and staggered home somewhat unsteadily, the guests emerged from the parlour to stand outside in the courtyard before the arched entrance. It was a clear night, and the stars gleamed like drops of mithril in a velvet sky. All was quiet but for the chirping of crickets and the hushed songs of distant nightbirds.
"Welcome back, Sire, to your Realm of Arnor in the North," Peregrin said softly. "I trust that you will stay here with your people a while at least. For we have longed for the King's return just as the folk in the South, and though your Kingdom is remade, your people here have seen too little of you."
And the King did stay. Though he rode away quietly in the early morning out of the South Gate, in a few days he returned, riding down the Great Road with a large company of people from Gondor. With him came Queen Arwen, and Eldarion their young son and heir, and the White Lady of Ithilien, and many fair people from the Court of Gondor. And they held court for many months by the shores of Lake Evendim, and all the people in the North Kingdom rejoiced and were glad.
"Our King has returned!" the people cried in all the towns and villages, and many of them journeyed to see him and the Queen and their young Prince and heir. Greatly they wondered at the beauty and grace of Evenstar their Queen, and deeply they rejoiced at the justice and mercy of the King.
And in the Shire for many years they spoke of how the King came to the Baranduin Bridge and spoke with the Mayor and the Thain and the Master of Buckland, and would not break his own law about men never entering the Shire; and how the Queen had taken the Mayor's daughter Elanor to live with her for some weeks and be a Maid of Honour. (Many said at the time that Elanor was the fairest maid in the Shire, more like an Elf than a hobbit, and it was right that the Queen should have only the prettiest maids in her service. To which her mother Mistress Rose Gamgee said that handsome was as handsome does, and _she_ was glad that her daughter Elanor was the nicest hobbit maid in the Shire, and gladder still that the Queen wasn't so silly as some, to value a fair face before a kind heart.)
Everyone in the Shire agreed with the Master, the Mayor and the Thain, when they spoke of the King and said that it had been a merry meeting, though what it had to do with beer, no one quite understood.