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Icy gusts waked Gandalf from his reverie before the roaring fire in the taproom of the Prancing Pony. He peered expectantly over the glowing bowl of his pipe to see a tall, dark-haired man, swathed in a dripping-wet green cloak and hood, standing in the doorway. Gandalf flicked his hand in a quick signal.

As Aragorn made his way across the crowded taproom, Hobbits and Men alike cast him dark looks; one muttered, “Watch out, Strider’s here!” At Gandalf’s table, the Ranger threw off his cloak and reached his hands out to the fire.

“You’re late,” Gandalf said.

“Couldn’t be helped,” Aragorn shrugged. “Business at Sarn Ford. You don’t mind a day or two of loafing over Butterbur’s beer, do you?”

Gandalf grunted, took a long draw on his pipe and blew several luxurious smoke rings. “Anything of note?”

“Nothing unusual. I’ll tell you when I’ve had a smoke and some hot food.”

“Fair enough.”

Sitting down, Aragorn reached inside his jerkin and brought out a pipe and a sweet-smelling pouch of pipeweed. He pushed the pouch toward Gandalf. “Longbottom Leaf. I’ve brought some for you.”

“What a handsome, fragrant wad,” Gandalf said. He cleared his throat. “I do have a matter I wish to discuss with you.” He closed his eyes and sucked at his pipe, knowing the delay would irk his friend. “When are you going to tell me?”

Aragorn arched his brows. “Tell you?”

“Come now, my friend,” Gandalf said. “It’s not easy to surprise me, and we know each other well.”

Aragorn took refuge in applying a light to his well-tamped weed.

“Last year, Elrond tells me. So that’s why you stayed so long in Lórien!”

“Now you know,” Aragorn said, with one of his rare, mirthful smiles. “It changes nothing.”

“Nothing and everything,” Gandalf said. “Is it true you vowed that no marriage will take place until you win the thrones of both Gondor and Arnor?”

“She should have no less,” Aragorn said gruffly.

Gandalf waved his pipe in the air. “I understand the lady herself is not as demanding as either her father or her betrothed.”

“Perhaps,” Aragorn said.

“Your heart is now one with your duty, I guess.”

“That is so.”

Gandalf let the silence stretch on a while before he continued, “And you will be Beren as well as Elendil.”

Aragorn shifted restlessly in his chair, one corner of his mouth quirking in a rueful smile. “Only you would dare to say that. You know my views.”

“For a man with so little pride, you have remarkable goals,” Gandalf chuckled. “I have heard nothing for many years that has given me so much pleasure.”

“Thank you.”

An elderly Hobbit stumped abruptly to the table. “I suppose you want some food,” he said to Gandalf in a surly voice. “But why you share your table with Strider is beyond me.”

One knobby finger tapping the aromatic weed pouch, Gandalf winked at the old fellow. “He brings me the best pipeweed in the Shire.”


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