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The Tenant from Staddle
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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11
Quarters in Bree

Quarters in Bree


The Alvric who some weeks later looked over the land of Eriador through his crystal lens a day’s journey south of Bree, or so Berevrion told him, was much leaner and more muscular than the one who’d left Minas Tirith in March. He’d taken his turn fetching water and splitting wood for cooking fires, he’d erected his own small tent in the evening and taken it down and stowed it in the morning, and had learned to cook a passable meal over an open fire, much to everyone’s amazement. He’d even learned to bathe in a stream or small lake, something he would never have dreamed of doing before he left Gondor.

Over the past few days as they rode Alvric had been questioning Berevrion about the laws of Arnor.

"Originally Gondor and Arnor were ruled by the same laws, those worked out by Elendil, Isildur, and Anárion together based on the code they brought from Númenor. There were magistrates and city or village heads within villages or specific sections of larger towns and cities to settle minor disputes while serious offenders could expected to be taken before one of the lords of the realm, and eventually to the King himself if the matter was sufficiently serious or could not be settled under any lesser authority. After a few generations the law restricting the Sceptre to a male heir was rescinded, which proved to be pointless as never has there been a generation when we did not have a male heir; and in the few cases when a daughter was born first ever has the daughter willingly and of her own volition given over her claim to her brother, although that occurred once in Rhuadar and twice in Cardolan. In Arthedain during the years of the divided kingdoms it happened only once that the firstborn was female, but she died of a wasting disease while still a child, and none questioned that she would not be able to follow her father.

"We had the common laws against smuggling, slavery, spying, espionage, forced marriages, the forcing of women or children to work in unsuitable or unhealthful or unwholesome labor for the gain of the father, husband, or other kinsman or guardian, and so on. We had the common laws of protection for women, children, and the infirm, protecting the inheritance rights of widows and orphaned children, offering education and training and employment opportunities for those who must provide for themselves when their usual sources of support had been lost. We had the laws that ordered that those who labored for a living must not be exploited and their working conditions must be as safe and healthful as possible; that they must be allowed to join guilds that would offer them teaching and training and that would require redress for negligence at the hands of employers...."

Alvric listened, for these were indeed the common laws of Gondor as well. "How did the royal line go from Kings to Chieftains?"

"As village sizes decreased and our towns and cities were destroyed by enemy actions and waves of diseases always sweeping in from the southeast, our people formed smaller and smaller villages, most fortified and guarded by one or more of our hereditary lords and their forces. As we were descended from those who arrived in the ships in Elendil’s own direct retinue, already most were of the direct lineage of the royal family of Númenor; we have intermarried to the point that we are all almost equally of royal blood, although the lineage, father to son, of our Kings has never been in question.

"Eärendur sought to make each of his sons a king in his own right, and split the realm into three lesser kingdoms. His eldest son Amlaith and his heirs of Arthedain continued to make alliances with the sons and daughters of the direct lines of Kings in Rhuadar and Cardolan, and so Aragorn is as directly descended from those two lines as he is from the lines of Isildur and Anárion through Amlaith and eventually Arvedui for Arthedain and the North, as well as Fíriel daughter of Ondoher for the South Kingdom. Plus an examination of the Roll of Arnor will show that a number of younger sons and daughters of royal blood in Gondor who went willful missing ended up in Eriador, allying themselves with our royal lineage, usually with younger sons or daughters, most recently Arien of Dol Amroth who left with Captain Gilthor who was grandson of Argonui, Aragorn’s great-grandfather. Gilfileg son of Gilthor and Arien is currently next in line after Aragorn, at least until Aragorn and Arwen produce a child of their own. Lord Halladan and his remaining brother Hardorn are five generations from the royal line, while I am eight. Most of us are related to Aragorn on both his mother’s and his father’s side, you will find.

"The villages have tried to remain self-sufficient for the most part, and each has sent out its own patrols, usually coordinated by the Chieftain or his Steward. In the last hundred years our villages dropped to as few as eight and then rose to fourteen. The thirty who rode south to find Aragorn in Rohan were drawn mostly from the troupes from Fornost and two villages in the Angle, north of Rivendell. These particular troupes have done most of the patrols of the West Road which we will reach tomorrow, the Weather Hills, and the borders of the Breelands and the Shire. Those villages south of Rivendell have done most of the patrols of the Misty Mountains toward Hollin; the rest patrol mostly alongside the forces of Rivendell and protect the passes eastward and the northern borders.

"Aragorn was born in Fornost, the fortified royal fortress city of our lineage. Since Arvedui’s fall it has been rebuilt slowly and carefully. However, shortly after Aragorn’s birth his father removed his family back to the Angle where they lived in the keep ruled by Halbaleg, brother to Aragorn’s mother Gilraen. Arathorn died two years later in a fight with orcs from the Misty Mountains, at a time another of the plagues struck our lands that killed many and cost us many unborn children as their mothers found themselves miscarrying. Lady Gilraen and Aragorn themselves were almost lost to us, and it was given out that the heir of Isildur had died, too; but instead he was taken to Imladris to be raised in safety there. Only when he had come of age at twenty was he told his lineage and his destiny and released to us, and those who knew the secret bore witness that this was indeed the son of Arathorn and Gilraen, alongside Lord Elrond and his people’s testimony to the same facts.

"Mostly the lord or village head of the settlement has seen to settling local disputes, with the Steward and Chieftain dealing with more serious cases, our few cases of murder or spying as well as disputes between villages or in the families of our lords or village heads. We have but few guilds left, although we hope to see them reestablished now that Arnor is again reclaimed by the King. Halladan and I will be reviewing our records of statutes with you and some of those who have served in place of the Council among us."

"And what of these Breelands and the Shire?"

"Bree is at the crossroads between the West Road and the Greenway, which is the name given the old North Road toward Annúminas and Fornost. There has always been a village or city there. The original Dúnedain city was destroyed during the final days of Cardolan, I understand, although other peoples have built there at different times, or so the records and Gandalf tell. The current village was founded about fifteen hundred years ago by a mixed group of Hobbits and Men. There are three other villages that are part of the Breelands besides Bree itself--Archet, Staddle, and Combe. Then just over fourteen hundred years past some of the Hobbit settlers from the Breelands, upset by a recent invasion of their lands by Men from the South who failed to respect them and following another of the plagues that have wracked Eriador since the final fall of Osgiliath, approached Argeleb the Second and asked if there might be a land they could settle that would be theirs and theirs alone, and Argeleb granted them the lands west of the Baranduin, in what had once been the heart of Cardolan. They entered in and settled there, digging their smials into the hills and ridges of the land and cultivating fields, planting gardens, and ordering their orchards.

"The Hobbits are a peaceful people, much given to farming and handicrafts. For the most part they are devoted to tradition and comfort, and they look on any who display what they see as undue curiosity or a taste for adventure as aberrations. Yet, as Gandalf is fond of saying, they are a people full of surprises. They have lived so long at relative peace that they had forgotten what it is to fight to protect their lands; and so it was that Saruman’s Men took the Shire with what appeared to be ease. But they can be roused when it is needed, and then they are indomitable. From what we understand this Lotho Sackville-Baggins managed to gain control of most of the four Farthings of the Shire within a fairly short time, although his army of Men never truly managed to dominate either Buckland on the eastern shore of the Baranduin, between the river and the Old Forest, or the Tooklands in the Green Hills region of the West Farthing. Once our four returned, each armed and proven, they roused their land, and in little over two days the Hobbits of the Shire had driven almost all of the invaders out.

"The former Wizard Saruman had arrived in the Shire a month prior to the return of Lord Frodo’s party, and a few days before the Hobbits arrived from Rivendell he ordered his creature Gríma Wormtongue to kill Frodo’s fallen cousin, or so I understand. The letter Lord Frodo sent to Lord Halladan indicated that Saruman crowed about the murder and how weak-willed a being Wormtongue had become, and at that Wormtongue snapped and killed his master, only to be killed himself by Hobbit archers. From the letter Sir Meriadoc sent Aragorn, it appears that after the death of his body a shadow rose up from Saruman’s form, but was blown apart on the winds, and that this appeared almost a parody of what was seen when the Ring went back into the Fire and Sauron’s spirit rose up tall and menacing before a great west wind blew it to naught. It was a mean end to a spirit intended to be a teacher and guardian."

They rode in quiet for some time before Alvric commented, "In only two days the Hobbits of the Shire took back their land and drove out the invaders? How long had the Men dwelt there?"

"Some months--nearly a full year."

Alvric gave a whistle. He remembered the Pheriannath as he’d first seen them: the brief glimpse of a small figure astride Gandalf’s great silver-grey steed, riding up through the city toward the Citadel; the two Hobbits astride ponies riding up from the coronation of the King Returned, the other two walking in the procession; the small figure standing beside the King as their beloved young Steward was raised to Prince of Ithilien, the light seeming to fall equally on him and the King by whom he stood; the same small figure riding before the King himself down through the city as the Rohirrim left to return to their own land; the small figure that stood guard so often on the King himself; the four of them visiting the market in the Fourth Circle, examining a book, baskets of fruit by their sides; the departure on fine, blooded ponies from Rohan....

"It is hard to imagine four so small of creatures standing up to the reported might of Isengard," he said at last.

Berevrion’s face was solemn. "You will learn, Master Alvric--never, never underestimate Hobbits. Our folk have esteemed them ever, and particularly since the final days of Arvedui, for the courage and faithfulness of those who came out of the Shire to fight for our King then. Gandalf ever honored them and taught us not to undervalue them; we have never found reason to question his initial estimation of them. Then when Bilbo Baggins left the Shire some eighty years ago to accompany thirteen Dwarves and the Grey Wizard to Erebor to put an end to the terror of Smaug----"

Alvric had gone white. "You mean that was not but a tale told from the north?" he demanded.

Berevrion smiled. "Indeed not. Bilbo is Lord Frodo’s beloved older cousin, you see, and it was he who found the Ring in caverns below the Misty Mountains on that journey. He kept It sixty-one years before he gave It over into his adopted heir’s keeping; Frodo bore It seventeen before it was determined what It was, and he agreed to bring It out of the Shire to Rivendell. Remember this--the Shire has ever given birth to extraordinary individuals.

"There are two things to know about Hobbits--no matter how simple they appear on the surface, underneath they are strong beyond knowing and there will come the time when they will stand for themselves and what they love with a fierceness and determination one cannot anticipate unless one has seen it; and never get between a hungry Hobbit and food."

Alvric wasn’t certain whether that last was serious or not, but it gave him food for thought. Finally he asked, "Did you speak much with the four as they returned north?"

"Much, but mostly I seemed to be listening to discussions between them and Halladan as he sought to learn what he must know to take their land into account in the renewed administration of Arnor. As Captain Pippin is the Thain’s heir and Sir Merry is heir to the Master of Buckland and Lord Frodo kinsman to both they could tell us much of their ways."

"Their Thain has stood in the stead of the King for them since Arvedui’s death, I understand."

"Yes--in keeping with Arvedui’s own will, Aranarth laid that upon Bucca of the Marish as he made preparation to return to the Shire once the war with Angmar was finally closed. But the main governance of Hobbits rests with their family heads first, then the village heads, who are elected, and then and only then in the hands of Thain, Master or Mayor. Disputes between families are usually settled by the heads of the families coming together, often with the affected village heads, under the mediation of Mayor, Master, or Thain--whichever is closest to the situation, or so I am told. The family heads meet regularly, they tell us, and usually under the supervision of the Thain or his representatives, although the Mayor may also call them together at need, to decide which regions of the Shire might best benefit from the excess of goods or foodstuff on offer from the various families and to exchange the most important information between the four farthings and Buckland. Most of the work of their lawyers is simply the writing up and registration of their various agreements and contracts, as the King already told you; there are very few disputes or incidents requiring legal advisement among them.

"Their laws are few enough--the right of one to strike a blow ends at the nose of the one he would strike seems to be the gist of it. Most contracts and agreements must be witnessed by at least seven. Property may not change hands without the exchange of at least a coin unless it is to one’s heirs in the execution of one’s will. One may not marry until one reaches the age of at least twenty-five, and even then the marriage must be agreed to by the parents or legal guardians of the marriage partners before the bride or groom reaches thirty-three and majority.

"Family heads are to see to it all of their name are provided for, and must be willing to aid children born to daughters of the family who make calls on family ties. In most cases all four have told us that a mere call on another individual’s family head is enough to make certain debts are paid or illicit actions are redressed. Until recently they had no gaols or prisons, for wrongdoing was addressed primarily on an individual family level and rarely needed stronger consideration. Now they do have a gaol of sorts, or so I am told, and Lotho Sackville-Baggins’s cousin whose perversion of their contract law was used to aid him to gain control of much of the Shire before the four even left the land is held there now, according to Lord Frodo’s letters.

"Usually when there is damage to a property, all in the community work together to repair or rebuild as necessary. Damage inflicted on one by another is expected to be redressed promptly by the one who inflicted the damage. Sexual incontinence is almost unheard of; dissolutions of marriages have occurred so rarely Sir Merry said he could think of only one report in the entire Shire in sixty years."

Alvric shook his head. "It is almost without belief they should get along so amicably."

"I agree," Berevrion nodded. "But so they have lived within the Shire for over fourteen hundred years now."

Alvric was very impressed. "I certainly can’t think of any Men who could have done anywhere nearly as well."

"Nor I," agreed Berevrion. "In the last thousand years there have been yet a few who have betrayed our people from amongst our own, and some who have abused their families to the point marriages have required dissolution. Yet amongst the Hobbits, family sanctions have offered the greatest deterrent against wrongdoing in most cases for over a millennia; and neither has there been the need for a general assembly to deal with wrongdoers until now, although the letters of all four indicate such is expected now, once the full investigation as to how the situation has reached its culmination is finished. And, knowing Lord Frodo, that investigation will be most thorough and impartial."

He sighed, and added, "The Master is the major authority in Buckland and the farmland of the Marish west of the river; and oversees the flow of goods and services from their region throughout the rest of the Shire, oversees the care for the High Hay, the great hedge bounding their land to the east between Buckland and the Old Forest, and sends most of the Bounders who watch over the traffic over the Brandywine Bridge. The Mayor oversees the Quick Post and its messengers; the activities of the Shiriffs who help keep the peace, make certain property markers remain in their places, help round up strayed animals and report damage to fences and hedges to the affected property owners, see those who’ve drunk too much home safely to their families, investigate reports of fights, and so on; the activities of the bulk of the Bounders of the Shire who watch over the borders of their land from within; and the activities of the land’s lawyers, including the countersigning and registration of most legal documents. As far as the folk of the Shire are concerned, however, his most important activity is to officiate at most banquets involving more than one family, including banquets offered for meetings of family heads. The Thain is in charge of the Shire Muster, the gathering of any armed forces required for the protection of the Shire, mostly comprised of Took hunters with bows; he oversees what little official correspondence has been exchanged with the Council of Breeland, and keeps the records for the Shire to be shared with the King’s representatives should the King come again. Mostly it is his prerogative to call for meetings of family heads in times of general crisis and to make final decisions as to how those crises will be met. And, as the family heads of the two largest families in the Shire the Thain and Master have control of the greatest part of the wealth of the land."

Alvric again thought for a time. At last he asked, "And how do things differ within the Breelands?"

"There is a village council in each of the four villages, and a general council with two representatives from each village council plus an elected head, currently Barliman Butterbur, proprietor of the Inn of the Prancing Pony in Bree village itself. Each village council is comprised of both Hobbits and Men, as is the general council. Complaints that cannot be settled between the involved parties are brought before the village council; and serious problems such as major thefts, destruction of homes or barns or crops, murders and highway robbery, go before the general council. Among the Hobbits of the Breelands most family business is conducted by family heads as happens within the Shire--rarely will a Hobbit of the Breelands be brought before any of the village councils, although such is common enough for Men and on occasion visiting Dwarves who have grown too rowdy. Again, laws are mostly applications of common sense and common decency. Records are not as scrupulously kept as is true within the Shire, and an even smaller percentage of the population is literate; but most business dealings are guaranteed by written contracts and agreements, and there are groups of lawyers in each village who see to the writing of these and the filing of them with the head of their local council. Guards on village gates are usually Men who apply for the position; villages are surrounded by wooden palisades. They have no true militia, but when Saruman’s bully boys sought to take over Bree and the Breelands as they later did within the Shire many came together to fight them off, including both Men and Hobbits, as happened under the leadership of Sir Meriadoc and Captain Peregrin within the Shire once they returned and heartened their folk."

Alvric smiled. "I wish the laws and running of the realms were as simple and fluid, and that we didn’t require a standing armed force."

One of Berevrion’s escorts laughed. "The patrols of the northern Dúnedain have not been a standing force for a thousand years--we have been a riding force, or at times a creeping force; but we’ve not been allowed the freedom to remain a standing force since the death of Arvedui and before."

Alvric found that a sobering thought.

It was when they stopped for the noon meal and he allowed Holby out of his carrier while they prepared and ate that he used his lens to examine the area. "It is such a great land, and with so few folk," he commented to one of the escort.

"Once this land was as heavily populated as Gondor itself, but the Enemy has seen to it that has not been true since the days of Eärendur," the Man answered. "He encouraged the folk of the Dunlands to attack our peoples from the south, and the chief of his Nazgul came down from the north with the forces of Angmar to assault us repeatedly. Spies from both sources came among us with false intelligence or as assassins to slay our kings and the heirs of their houses or to fire our lands. Then the Enemy learned how to loose plagues across the lands, and ever our peoples have suffered. He encouraged dragons, trolls, and orcs to breed and fall on the lands of Dwarves, Elves and Men; he encouraged the breeding of wargs and great spiders and other, worse creatures. All folk of the North have been repeatedly diminished.

"My family was once of Rhuadar; Erador there--his ancestors served the King of Cardolan. We have been the Rangers of Eriador now for over a thousand years, until now at last we are restored as the Dúnedain of Arnor and the King’s Men. And this will again become a settled land under the rule of a proper, beneficent King. And we are proud to be Aragorn’s kindred."

Far to the east he could see the peaks of the Misty Mountains; to the south were forested lands and in the distance a settlement they’d passed in the early morning hours; to the north he could see the line of a plain, growing hillier and forested to the west. A sparkling stream crossed the line of the road, and what appeared to be a ruin stood alongside it just to the west of the road.

Erador saw the direction Alvric’s crystal was focused. "A farm stood there sixty years back, a prosperous place settled by folk from the borders of Dunland. Then one day our patrols saw smoke and hurried here to find the farm had been fired and its folk all taken or killed. We managed to find the ones who fired the place and were able to rescue the son and two daughters of the farm; but they would not return here again; instead they settled in Tharbad."

Alvric watched as Holby investigated a rabbit hole dug into the small hill that rose near where they’d stopped, then pocketed the crystal and saw to the transfer of his gear to Jongleur for the afternoon’s ride. The mare, whom he’d renamed Abia, watched with interest, then finally freed went to roll in the grass before returning to be groomed.

The grey cob received its attention next, allowing Erador and Alvric to return the pack saddle and its gear. All was much lighter than it had been when they left Rohan, of course; and soon enough the cob was also readied for the afternoon’s journey.

It was as they were preparing to remount that Holby stopped in his return to his master, lifted his head to listen and sniff, and barked the alarm; it could be seen the horses were all looking off to the north. Berevrion and his Men readied themselves in case those riding toward them were unfriendly, but soon enough were resheathing their swords as Alvric scooped the small dog into his arms.

"Eregiel is coming," one of the escort noted as they watched a lone rider accompanied by a great hound cantering easily toward them. Then out of the scrub to the northeast came a second rider to join the first; again there was a readying followed by relaxation. "Hildigor," the same guard said. "We are expected, apparently."

Two young Men dressed in grey-green riding leathers and cloaked in grey with the silver stars of Arnor at their shoulders soon drew up their mounts before them. "Welcome, Berevrion," the one with the hound following him called. "Halladan sent us three days’ ride south of Bree to await you, indicating you were due to return at this time. What news from our Lord Cousin?"

"He is well, Eregiel, and in response to the requests made by both Hildigor’s father and Lord Frodo has sent this one to help in the review of the statutes of Arnor and to work with the lawyers of the Shire."

The other young Man smiled. "That is welcome word. It appears that Lord Frodo has need to see this done earlier rather than later--Faradir has found a tenant already on one of the lands given to his maintenance."

All looked at one another with surprise. "A Man has moved onto one of the grants made to Lord Frodo?" Berevrion asked. "When, and how did he take the news that the land belonged to another?"

"No Man, cousin, but a Perian and his family, driven from the Breelands by the violence of those who assaulted there a year past. They had sought to take the lands just north of the Shire, hard by the Brandywine. The father and his younger children went into the Shire to meet with Lord Frodo and to come to an agreement regarding tenancy, and returned to their intended steading some time past. A letter came to my father a few days ago asking for one to offer training to the Shire lawyer chosen by Lord Frodo on how specifically such tenancy agreements are to be written, and to help choose an agent to administer his and Lord Samwise’s lands in Arnor as they are administered within Gondor. The sooner he can assure Lord Frodo that we can offer him the assistance he has requested, the happier my father will be."

"Well, it appears that we will be able to do so very soon indeed," Berevrion said. "Alvric son of Maerdion, these are Hildigor son of Halladan and Eregiel son of Miringlor. Master Alvric is assistant to the Master of the Guild of Lawyers in Minas Tirith."

Hildigor’s smile was wide and satisfied. "Already we have one capable of meeting the Ringbearer’s needs? That will be well received indeed."

His companion was nodding. "And it will give Master Hedges and his family peace of mind as well." At Berevrion’s look of question he added, "The Hedges family has settled on the grant just north of the Shire, and I’ve found them to be quite delightful, Uncle. Bob tells me his meeting with the Ringbearer went quite well, and the children were enchanted by him and Bag End."

Berevrion laughed and shook his head. "He told me he appears to be a magnet for children, and that the children of the White City came from all the circles to spy on him and his companions, as apparently had been true in his home before he left it as well. Certainly the son and daughter of the couple who lived next door to him would watch out for him and listen to whatever stories he told with eagerness. It appears to be the same now."

Eregiel lifted an eyebrow. "So Teo, Lilia, and Anemone all say, and that his younger cousin who lives below him on the hill admitted to spying on him and doting on his tales." He looked from Berevrion to Alvric. "Then I must suppose that as we have no waiting to do we might as well assist you as we can." He examined the small dog Alvric held in his arms. "Artos will be pleased with the company along the way, I think. You brought that one all the way from Minas Tirith?"

Alvric nodded, giving the hound a wary eye. "He enjoys traveling with me. You are certain yours will not hurt him?"

"He appears to get along famously with the Hedges’ ratter," was the answer. "Lister was taken rather aback by him at their first encounter, but after the initial flurry of barks the other day appeared to be pleased to see him. You don’t need to be worried for your dog’s safety with him."

Alvric wasn’t so certain, and apparently Holby wasn’t, either, as he twisted in the lawyer’s arms and resisted going into the carrier, trying to keep an eye on the hound’s activities. At last, however, he was fastened within, immediately poking his head out and locating the bigger dog, barking furiously at it.

Then they were mounted and heading north again, Erador this time taking his turn as scout and Eregiel dropping back to guard the rear. When he found he could no longer see or smell the hound that followed behind the Ranger, Holby at last turned his attention again to the surrounding scenery, his small nose busy. Hildigor rode alongside Alvric, examining him. "Have you enjoyed the journey, Master Alvric?" he asked.

The lawyer shrugged. "Actually, I’ve found it far more enjoyable than I’d anticipated," he admitted. "Although," he added, "the four days straight of rain and cold we had as we approached Tharbad nearly convinced me to turn back to Minas Tirith--or perhaps my family home in Lamedon. I don’t particularly enjoy cold weather, I find, particularly when I am riding through rain getting my clothes soaked." He shook himself at the memory.

Then he asked, "Is there anyplace where I could find furnished rooms within the city of Bree?"

Hildigor gave a laugh. "Bree doesn’t count as a city, Master Alvric. It is quite small--smaller, indeed, than Tharbad. There are two inns, although the Prancing Pony is larger and has a better reputation than the Silver Fox. You could take rooms there...."

"Rooms in an inn? I have never cared for inns, I fear. Little privacy, folk coming and gong at all hours, new neighbors and company by the day. It is enough to deal with going from appointment to appointment. To deal daily with the fights of those taken with drink, and poor music poorly played and sung by those who due to ale or wine think they sing more sweetly than the nightingale--I very much fear I would find it distressing and it would do my work ill."

Hildigor considered the lawyer’s words, finally admitting, "You have a point, sir, although I assure you the Pony is far better than most I’ve seen--not that I’ve seen that many, admittedly. The walls are actually substantial, as is the building; they have proper quarters for Hobbits on the ground floor of one wing, with their beloved round windows and doors; and the floors and stairs are solid. Their food is excellent, and their ale even better, you’ll find. Their wine is perhaps not as good as one could obtain from the Shire--I had the pleasure two years past of tasting some Old Winyards given to our Chieftain some years ago, and that was indeed an excellent vintage; but even the Pony’s is at least passable."

Berevrion laughed. "You have been to so many inns, youngling?"

"Well, at least six," Hildigor admitted. "And none of the other five was anywhere near as good as Butterbur’s."

The older Man was still smiling. "The Pony is a good place," he admitted. "But I can appreciate his objections to staying in the Pony indefinitely--plus there is always greater danger in an inn of having one’s room and possessions rifled and stolen. When we get to Bree we will stay the night, at least, and speak with Butterbur about what accommodations might be available in the town."

"You think he’ll wish to deal with a group of sinister Rangers?" asked Hildigor.

"He is not as wary of us as he was," Berevrion pointed out. "And he’s honest, as well as more aware than most as to what goes on with the Breelands. He’ll know who might be willing to let a cottage or furnished rooms if anyone will."

They arrived in Bree the following day just before midday, having ridden harder than they had for some weeks. Alvric was well disposed to dismounting and remaining so for some days; and it appeared he was in good company, considering the almost unheard groans he heard as his companions dismounted as well. "A hot bath!" he heard Erador mutter, and he heard soft laughs that somehow appeared to be of agreement from several others.

They took five rooms in all, Eregiel indicating he would ride on to let Halladan know of the arrival. Alvric had a room to himself and Holby, for which he was grateful; and one of the first things he did once his own goods were removed from the cob to his room was to seek out the bathing room, only to find it was already in use by a couple of the others.

At least they were thoughtfully swift, and in the end he found himself sharing the bathing room with Berevrion, as it proved there were two tubs within the room. "I hope you don’t mind sharing the room with me," the envoy apologized, "but the thought of this has sustained me for four days now. Believe it or not, we Rangers don’t truly enjoy being forced to ride without bathing for weeks at a time. We’ve done so because it has been necessary all our lives; but we so hope that particular state of affairs is no longer considered the norm for us."

Once again Alvric found himself brought up short by the thought of how dangerous life in the North Kingdom had been for centuries.

Berevrion had taken a private parlor, and a meal was brought there for them all, after which several men disappeared into their rooms to take advantage of beds with clean sheets and blankets, and for a change soft pillows under their heads rather than packs or rolled cloaks over stones or hummocks.

Erador remained sitting at the table buttering one more slice of bread. "I’d almost forgotten what fresh bread tastes like," he murmured as he added a spoon of preserved berries. "I keep vowing there will come a time when I won’t have to deprive myself of such a thing, you know."

Alvric laughed. "If my brother were to know the particulars of the journey he would not believe it of me that I’d actually completed it. Now, when at last we go on to Annúminas, how long will that journey take?"

"It depends on how long one wishes to ride in a day. Our patrols usually have made the ride in seven to nine days, although one sent as a messenger to Bree can make it in three if one wishes to endanger a horse. We are looking now at good places to set up stations to handle changes of steeds and errand riders from Annúminas all the way to Minas Tirith, and hope to have all properly in order within five years. Then in case of emergency it should prove possible for swift riders to reach Aragorn’s side in little over a week and a half, riding day and night, should such emergencies come. We look to improve the roads as well, and to have special coaches to carry goods and passengers more swiftly and safely throughout the combined realm."

"You won’t rest now?"

Erador made a face. "I’ve drawn the first watch. Now, Butterbur is a wonderful host and a most honest Man; but the same cannot be said for all who might be guesting here. More than once we’ve had to protect our own from other guests within the inn. I suspect one day there will be a barracks complex here near the Breelands where most of our folk can remain outside the inn, although I suspect even there a guard will be set throughout the day and night to watch for those who would think to ‘borrow’ from their fellows."

He laughed. "It was so that our Lord Cousin’s true identity was first made known to most of those within his own company when he returned to us and rode first with our patrols. He was assigned first to the troupe of Berenion, who has ever helped train our newest recruits. My father was in the company, and was one of those who looked on this young Man who’d ridden with Elves with a level of mixed disdain and some awe. One of the others was always needing something, and appeared to think of the rest in the troupe as being so much his brothers they ought not to be upset if he constantly ‘borrowed’ from them. Having torn his own cloak and aware Aragorn carried extras, he went looking without asking for one to wear. He found Aragorn also carried a second sword’s sheath and brought it out to taunt him with it--then found himself spilling out the hilt of Narsil. He described it once to us, the utter silence that followed the fall of the sword’s hilt and the realization of what sword this was and who it must be who carried it. It had been rumored that Aragorn had not actually been killed by the plague that decimated our numbers when he was small; but that this was he was a shock. Orimirion stated he trembled under Aragorn’s gaze, for as young as he was he yet could cause others to quail with a mere look.

"And Halladan has told us of a quarrel between Aragorn and Lord Frodo as they rode between Minas Tirith and Edoras. It was on a day one of his wounds had again become inflamed, and the Ringbearer was in some distress. Aragorn wished to ease the pain with a draught and the Hobbit was resisting, furious to realize this was happening yet again. He said each was glaring at the other for perceived obstinacy, and it was wonderful to see how each in his own way sought to subdue the other with a look. He advised us not to draw the ire of both upon one of us at one time, for he doubted any of us could survive such combined looks."

Alvric laughed aloud. "I hope I do find occasion to see Lord Frodo yet again while I am here in the north," he said. "I never saw him angry, although I have observed him commanding his youngest kinsman on one occasion. The folk of the capital always called that one the Prince of the Halflings, yet he was so plainly the youngest of the four and apt to teasing the others."

He found himself growing more solemn. "I’ve never had the chance to actually speak with any of the Pheriannath, you realize. To find there are such as servants here has been somewhat of a surprise and shock."

Erador sighed. "Hobbits will employ servants, but it is always from among their own they will do so. But, then, few Men could dream of fitting within a Hobbit hole with any comfort, after all. But for Hobbits to hire themselves out as servants to Men within the Breelands is common enough, I think as much to provide food for themselves as for any other reason. Hobbits must eat a good deal, or so we are told. They are usually pleasant and enjoy setting things in order; and there is no gardener better than one of Hobbit kind--all say this. And most of the lawyers in the Breelands are Hobbits, you will find--lawyers and bookkeepers. There is something about those Hobbits who seek out an education that gives them over to such pursuits for some reason we don’t fully understand."

Again food for thought.

Alvric repaired to his room to find Holby had already settled himself on the bed; he laid himself down by the dog and relaxed into the featherbed, soon finding himself sleeping. He didn’t rouse until supper.

All went out to the common room for the evening meal, and again the roasted joint served proved good, and the ale even better. Alvric was feeling expansive when Berevrion beckoned him over to speak with Butterbur.

The florid innkeeper was rather wary, but answered easily enough.

"I don’t know of any that offers furnished rooms regular," he said, "but I do know as Denra Gorse may well be willing to take you as a boarder. She and her brother lived together on the west side of the village, you see; but her brother died in the fight against the ruffians that tried to take over. She’s findin’ livin’ on her own isn’t always easy. There’s some what looks on her in that house as is hers now and would like to have both for themselves, of course. She’s a comely enough woman, you must understand; but the one she might of loved in her younger days died in one of the epidemics, and she’s never looked at any other since. So, she never married, and neither did her brother, bein’ rather shy. He was just comin’ to admire a woman from Combe when the village was assaulted, and so their courting never come to nothin’." He described how to find Mistress Gorse’s house, accepted their thanks, and went off to answer a call from one of the Dwarves who was visiting.

*******

Denra Gorse sat in her parlor opposite Carnation, who helped cook and clean for her, after a busy morning cleaning out the chimneys. Fell had always taken that chore; but he was gone now. A swift had decided to build a nest in the flue for the bedrooms, causing quite a choking for her the previous evening when she’d thought to warm her chamber before she went to bed. She and Carnation had had quite a time of it, getting the nest cleared away, and the swift had been understandably furious with them, of course; but it was done now and the last of the soot in the bedroom cleaned away.

"I suppose as I ought to go start yer luncheon," Carnation was saying as she fortified herself with a slice of bread with sugar on it and a cup of tea. "I’ll finish this and...." A ring at the bell interrupted her.

"Who would call at this time of day?" Denra sighed as she rose to head for the door. "No, you stay there, Carnation--you’ve been taking two steps to each of mine and need to get that bread and sugar down you."

She opened the door to find a Man the likes of which she’d never seen before--perhaps only an inch taller than herself, with curly hair of a light brown much the color of toast and a neatly trimmed mustache and beard. He was very neatly dressed in a tunic of golden brown under an embroidered surcoat decorated with an image of a crescent moon. "Mistress Denra?" he asked, rather tentatively. At her nod he continued a bit more confidently. "Oh, good, then I wasn’t mistaken in the directions Master Butterbur gave me. My name is Alvric son of Maerdion, and am a lawyer from the city of Minas Tirith."

She looked at him, somewhat confused. "A lawyer, a Man?" she asked. "And since when do Men take up the writing of contracts?"

He colored somewhat, apparently taken aback by her statement. "I’m sorry, Mistress," he said rather diffidently, "but in Gondor all who take up the study of law tend to be Men, as we have none of other races dwelling amongst us. Indeed, I am the first assistant there to the Master of the Guild of Lawyers for the realm. Nor in Gondor are the activities of lawyers limited to the writing and presentation of contracts and agreements. I also serve as a magistrate for the Fourth Circle, hearing disputes and making judgments upon them in the name of the King."

"What King?" asked Denra.

He smiled. "You had not heard that there is at last a King again, over both the ancient North Kingdom as well as Gondor?"

"Well, I’ve heard some odd talk, of course," she said, "but it was just odd sayings as was said by them Hobbits as went through here and caused such a stir at the Pony a year and a half back, the one apparently disappearing as he did."

He straightened, for he’d not heard the tale as yet. "Perhaps," he said slowly, "you might in the future tell me the story. However, I assure you there is a King once more, and indeed he is one born and raised here in Eriador, for he claimed the Crown of Gondor and the Sceptre of Annúminas as the heir of Isildur. He sent me north to his kinsmen here in Arnor to help review the laws of the North Kingdom so we might bring the laws of both North and South in line with one another, and also to work with the lawyers for the Shire and the Breelands that they might write contracts and agreements that would be binding under the laws of the outer realm. Now that Sauron is no more there will be many more seeking to enter and settle within Eriador; and the Dúnedain of Arnor will once again move freely and openly throughout all of the North Kingdom."

"What does this have to do with me?" she asked.

"Master Butterbur indicated that you, of all the folk here in Bree, might be willing to accept me as a boarder, Mistress."

She was affronted. "And why might I wish a boarder?" she demanded.

He was beginning to feel very conspicuous, standing on the doorstep while she questioned him. "Please," he suggested, "if I might come in I would be glad to answer your questions."

She looked out. Mistress Fennel next door was peering out her window, watching; and the Blackroot children were openly gawking. "I’m sorry," she apologized. "I’ve quite forgotten my manners, obviously. Please to come in, sir."

She led him into the parlor where a Hobbitess of early middle years sat in a low chair opposite the fireplace, a plate with a half slice of buttered bread remaining on it on her lap and a teacup in her hand. "This is Carnation Sandybanks, who does for me," she gave by way of introduction. "Carnation, this is Master----"

"Alvric. Alvric son of Maerdion of Lamedon, now of the city of Minas Tirith," he explained, then added, "That’s in Gondor."

"Gondor," Carnation said rather blankly. It was obvious she’d never heard of the place.

"The South Kingdom," he tried to explain, "where the King dwells for now."

"What King?" she asked in a tone that reminded him of just how Denra Gorse had made the same question.

He sighed. This was obviously not going to be easy.

"Would you like some tea?" asked his hostess. "I can fetch you a mug if you’d like."

"Tea?" he asked. "I fear we don’t drink tea in Gondor."

"It’s made by steeping certain leaves in boiling water," she began.

His face lit up. "Oh--you call it tea here? We refer to it as an herbal drink in Gondor, you see. We also on occasion drink coffee, when we can get the beans from Harad and Khand, of course."

"Coffee? Ye can get coffee?" Carnation asked, surprised and pleased. "I’ve had it but once, for the beans are very dear to come by. I’ve not seen any offered here in over twenty years, in fact. Some come through the Shire then, ye see, from sea traders, it was said."

"Coffee," Denra said as if storing the word away in her mind, looking from the Hobbitess to the Man. "You will drink coffee in Gondor?"

"On occasion," he repeated. "But I would welcome the chance to try your herbal drink."

"Tea," she corrected him.

"Tea. I would welcome some--tea. Thank you," he added.

Reassured, she went into the kitchen and fetched out one of Fell’s mugs and filled it from the teapot, then set the mug and a small jug of milk and a bowl of sugar with a spoon and several biscuits from the crock in which she kept such things, and brought it out to him. He’d settled on the sofa, looking just a bit anxious. She found herself feeling slightly amused and more curious than she’d been. She placed the tray by him. He looked at the jug of milk with an expression of confusion as if he couldn’t imagine why it might have been included in the contents of the tray, lifted the mug and smelled it, smiled, and tasted it gingerly.

"A bit bitter, but quite nice nonetheless," he assured her, examining the sugar, then spooning some into the mug and stirring it expertly. He tasted it again, then smiled more fully. "Thank you very much."

She slipped a biscuit off the tray and saw that Carnation, having finished her bread and sugar, was quick to do likewise before settling more comfortably into her chair. It was obvious Carnation intended to hear what this one’s business was before she went off to fix the luncheon she’d spoken of earlier.

The Man sipped at his tea, then finally set it down on the low table that stood between them. "Let me begin again," he said. "I was sent here to Eriador by the King himself." He turned to Carnation and explained, "Just over a year back our Lord King Aragorn Elessar came out of the North and assisted in the defense of our realm against the forces of Mordor."

Carnation stopped with her biscuit halfway to her mouth and looked at him in shock. "There’s truly a Mordor?" she asked.

"Oh, yes, there was, Mistress--Sandybanks?" At her nod, he continued, "Minas Tirith, the capital of Gondor, sits in full view of the Mountains of Shadow that have ever been the western walls of Mordor; and Sauron’s creatures have ever assaulted our lands. Last year in the early spring Sauron sent a mighty army to take Minas Tirith, although the army failed to do so. We offered a stout defense from within the city, of course; and the Riders of Rohan arrived, I’m told, in the early morning to raise the siege, followed near midday by reinforcements led up the River Anduin by our Lord Aragorn Elessar himself. When all sent by Mordor had died or fled from the defenders, it was decided that we needed to send an army to the gates of Mordor itself to draw Sauron’s remaining forces out of his land. So it was done, and Aragorn Elessar himself led that army.

"Once the final battle was engaged all changed, for the Ringbearer at last was able to come to Orodruin and cast into the Fire there the Enemy’s great Ring, and with that gone Sauron lost all, for too much of himself had he put into that Ring. The war was won in the end not by valor in battle but by stealth and faithfulness. Sauron was utterly defeated, and Mordor fell at the last.

"Lord Aragorn was acclaimed as King for his lineage as the heir of Elendil through his son Isildur’s line as well as the fact he is also descended through Ondoher and his daughter Fíriel from Isildur’s brother Anárion as well. He accepted the Winged Crown that denotes the King of Gondor; and just ere he took our Lady Arwen as wife he was given also the Sceptre of Annúminas by Lord Elrond of Imladris showing he is also acknowledged King of Arnor."

"Ye’re sayin’ as there’s a King again?" repeated Carnation.

"Yes."

"And he’s king of----"

"Of all the original lands ruled by the Sea Kings from Númenor," he said, finishing her thought. "He is King of both Gondor and Arnor, from the borders of Angmar to those of Harad; from the shores of the Sundering Sea to the west to the Ephel Duath, for the lands of Mordor he has given to those who were once Sauron’s slaves, and the borders of Rhun. Only Umbar is not part of our lands once more."

"What’s that got to do with us?" asked Carnation.

"The Breelands and the Shire are part of Eriador and Arnor, and although they will be allowed to continue to govern themselves for the most part they are nevertheless under the King’s protection. I am sent in part to assist the lawyers of the Shire and the Breelands to learn to write agreements and contracts that will be valid in the outer realm as well as here."

The Hobbitess exchanged looks with her employer. "But why come here? We’re no kind of lawyers, after all."

He began to feel wary again, and sipped at his tea to give himself some time to think how to state his desires. "I arrived here in Bree yesterday with some of the King’s kinsmen who are on their way back to meet again with his Steward, Lord Halladan."

"Didn’t see nobody enter Bree yesterday savin’ for some Rangers," Carnation interrupted.

Well, he’d been warned that the people of Bree had always tended to treat the Rangers of Eriador with a level of disdain and distrust, and he could see it in the eyes of both the woman and the Hobbitess. "Those you know as the Rangers are the descendants of Elendil’s own people, mistresses," he explained carefully. "They have never sought to cause discomfort during the days of uncertainty when their numbers have diminished so; but they have guarded your lands and the lands of the Shire secretly for a very long time. Only when those who patrolled this region went south to aid their kinsman Aragorn did their guard fail, not for lack of care for your people, but because he truly needed them elsewhere. They returned last fall accompanying the Ringbearer and his companions as they returned to their own homes, and the patrols have been resumed. However, they find that refugees from Dunland and other nameless lands entered Eriador in large numbers while the last of the war raged, and they are hard put to identify those who seek to make an easy living off others from those who merely wish to settle lands of their own. But if they can do it the Rangers will keep those who enter the region from causing any more distress to the folk of the Breelands and the Shire."

Carnation and Denra exchanged looks. Denra asked, "So, explain again why I might wish to accept you as a boarder."

He sighed again. "It was the suggestion of Master Butterbur this might be true," he explained. "He said that you had lived here with your brother, but that he had fallen in the defense against those who sought to invade your land as happened also in the Shire. He continued, explaining that there are those who have importuned you here----"

"Impor-whatted?" asked Denra, feeling this must be somewhat insulting.

Alvric stopped and tried to think how he might explain without giving more offense. "He said some have bothered you, trying to push themselves on you, Mistress Denra. He indicated they appeared to wish to force you to marry them so they might have a fair wife and your home and property. He indicated that he believed that if there were a Man residing in your home it would deter the suitors--keep them from pressing their unwanted suits on you," he explained, seeing the confusion both expressed.

The expressions of both his interrogators had cleared, and now they were looking at one another with consideration in their eyes. Carnation said slowly, "That would certainly give that Bender Cotman something to think about, Miss Denra."

"I agree," Denra answered. "He’s been the most persistent and offensive of the lot, and all because he knows I can’t myself easily throw him off the place." She examined him with new interest. "You wouldn’t mind standin’ beside me from time to time to let the fools know I’m not alone when I say I’m not interested?"

"No, I wouldn’t mind at all. I’ll admit this, though--I won’t be here at all times, for I’ll need to go north to Annúminas from time to time."

"There’s a place called Annúminas?" asked Carnation, her curiosity fully aroused.

"Oh, yes, the ancient capital of Arnor, some seven to nine days north of here on Lake Evendim, or so they tell me. It and the fortress of Fornost have been much diminished since Arvedui’s death, but are being rebuilt in preparation for when the King comes again to reside for a time in Arnor. He speaks of a conference in a few years involving notables from Bree and the Shire and other lesser lands here in Eriador as well as across the Misty Mountains, and including Elves and Dwarves that all might discuss how border disputes might be handled and how they will deal with trade and so on."

"So, a good part of the time you wouldn’t be here at all," clarified Denra.

"Even so, Mistress Gorse."

She nodded, thinking. "Could you help sometimes with the cooking?" she asked.

"I’m not an expert at cooking, as I never tried it before I left my rooms in Minas Tirith to travel here, but I’ve learned some along the way. Yes, I’d be willing to help cook if you would be willing to teach me more. How much would you wish to accept for my room and board?"

The discussion went on for some time; and Carnation slipped off to the kitchen to get luncheon started while they considered what might be done and how, then came back to become part of the further debate. At last he asked, "Do you live here, Mistress Sandybanks?"

"Live here? Oh, no--nothin’ like that. My husband ‘n his brother and our families share a hole in Bree Hill. It’s a big place, it is, but Flora and our children see to it. I help to bring in some extra money and food, don’t ye see? Takes a good deal o’ provender raisin young’uns, ye must understand."

"I see," he said. "Then your home is truly dug into the hill?"

"Oh, yes, it is. Nice, comfortable place it is--we’ve nine bedrooms and two bathin’ rooms and a privy, four larders and two pantries and a huge kitchen and three parlors...."

He was much taken aback. "I’d never have dreamed a hole dug into a hill could be so large," he said.

"Ye must be careful with the ventilation shafts, ye see," she explained, "but it works out well. There’s some as prefers houses as they usually have windows for most o’ the rooms; but give me a good smial any day, I says."

"I see."

"Ye’ll see some o’ the childern from time t’ time, but mostly they stays at home ‘n helps about’ the place and with the gardens ‘n all. We’ve a big vegetable garden near the Commons, and flowers in the dooryard."

"I see. Well, I look forward to meeting them. Shall I write up the agreement, or would you prefer to have it only verbal?"

"You’d write it up?" asked Denra.

Carnation continued, "Ye’d not have a Hobbit lawyer write it?"

"I am a lawyer of the realm, after all," he said, smiling. Then he thought, "But there is one more thing I forgot to mention--my dog. Holby came with me all the way from Minas Tirith, you see. My sister took the cats while I must be gone, but I brought Holby with me. It would have destroyed him had I left him behind."

"A dog?" Denra asked.

"Oh, yes, a small, smooth-haired dog, black and white. He’s quite sweet, you’ll find. I’ll feed him and see to it he gets his walks as I do at home at Mistress Arië’s establishment, you see.

"And who’s that?"

"My landlady where I live in Minas Tirith. I don’t care to be forced to take care of a house of my own, and have no family living with me. And with my work I must spend a good deal of time in the Citadel or the archives or working alongside my Master or hearing disputes in the magistrate’s court, so I’m not a good deal of time in my home. The rooms suit me well. She offers suites for a number of Men who are in similar situations or who spend only a few weeks in the White City each season, preparing our meals and seeing to the caring for our rooms. But those of us who keep animals must see to them ourselves. I always purchase the food for my cats and Holby myself."

Denra was intrigued. "You keep cats and a dog?"

"Yes, three cats, all sisters and all tortoiseshells. I find I rather miss them; but I couldn’t have very well brought them all this way."

"We do have a mouser, although during the day she prefers to spend most of her time outside. If she accepts your Holby I think we’ll accept him, too."

And so it was decided.

When at last he set out to return to the Prancing Pony for one more night it was with the understanding he would be paying two silver coins of the realm per quarter to have the room in which Fell Gorse had slept, the use of the second parlor for his own purposes, and free run of most of the rest of the house as well in return for help with the cooking a couple nights per week and assistance with maintenance for the place. He found himself hoping nothing complicated would be needed, as he wasn’t certain how to do much in the way of repairing shutters and so on. But tomorrow morning he and Holby would be moving into the house of Denra Gorse, and he’d be starting a new way of life for his time in Arnor.
Quarters in Bree

The Alvric who some weeks later looked over the land of Eriador through his crystal lens a day’s journey south of Bree, or so Berevrion told him, was much leaner and more muscular than the one who’d left Minas Tirith in March. He’d taken his turn fetching water and splitting wood for cooking fires, he’d erected his own small tent in the evening and taken it down and stowed it in the morning, and had learned to cook a passable meal over an open fire, much to everyone’s amazement. He’d even learned to bathe in a stream or small lake, something he would never have dreamed of doing before he left Gondor.

Over the past few days as they rode Alvric had been questioning Berevrion about the laws of Arnor.

"Originally Gondor and Arnor were ruled by the same laws, those worked out by Elendil, Isildur, and Anárion together based on the code they brought from Númenor. There were magistrates and city or village heads within villages or specific sections of larger towns and cities to settle minor disputes while serious offenders could expected to be taken before one of the lords of the realm, and eventually to the King himself if the matter was sufficiently serious or could not be settled under any lesser authority. After a few generations the law restricting the Sceptre to a male heir was rescinded, which proved to be pointless as never has there been a generation when we did not have a male heir; and in the few cases when a daughter was born first ever has the daughter willingly and of her own volition given over her claim to her brother, although that occurred once in Rhuadar and twice in Cardolan. In Arthedain during the years of the divided kingdoms it happened only once that the firstborn was female, but she died of a wasting disease while still a child, and none questioned that she would not be able to follow her father.

"We had the common laws against smuggling, slavery, spying, espionage, forced marriages, the forcing of women or children to work in unsuitable or unhealthful or unwholesome labor for the gain of the father, husband, or other kinsman or guardian, and so on. We had the common laws of protection for women, children, and the infirm, protecting the inheritance rights of widows and orphaned children, offering education and training and employment opportunities for those who must provide for themselves when their usual sources of support had been lost. We had the laws that ordered that those who labored for a living must not be exploited and their working conditions must be as safe and healthful as possible; that they must be allowed to join guilds that would offer them teaching and training and that would require redress for negligence at the hands of employers...."

Alvric listened, for these were indeed the common laws of Gondor as well. "How did the royal line go from Kings to Chieftains?"

"As village sizes decreased and our towns and cities were destroyed by enemy actions and waves of diseases always sweeping in from the southeast, our people formed smaller and smaller villages, most fortified and guarded by one or more of our hereditary lords and their forces. As we were descended from those who arrived in the ships in Elendil’s own direct retinue, already most were of the direct lineage of the royal family of Númenor; we have intermarried to the point that we are all almost equally of royal blood, although the lineage, father to son, of our Kings has never been in question.

"Eärendur sought to make each of his sons a king in his own right, and split the realm into three lesser kingdoms. His eldest son Amlaith and his heirs of Arthedain continued to make alliances with the sons and daughters of the direct lines of Kings in Rhuadar and Cardolan, and so Aragorn is as directly descended from those two lines as he is from the lines of Isildur and Anárion through Amlaith and eventually Arvedui for Arthedain and the North, as well as Fíriel daughter of Ondoher for the South Kingdom. Plus an examination of the Roll of Arnor will show that a number of younger sons and daughters of royal blood in Gondor who went willful missing ended up in Eriador, allying themselves with our royal lineage, usually with younger sons or daughters, most recently Arien of Dol Amroth who left with Captain Gilthor who was grandson of Argonui, Aragorn’s great-grandfather. Gilfileg son of Gilthor and Arien is currently next in line after Aragorn, at least until Aragorn and Arwen produce a child of their own. Lord Halladan and his remaining brother Hardorn are five generations from the royal line, while I am eight. Most of us are related to Aragorn on both his mother’s and his father’s side, you will find.

"The villages have tried to remain self-sufficient for the most part, and each has sent out its own patrols, usually coordinated by the Chieftain or his Steward. In the last hundred years our villages dropped to as few as eight and then rose to fourteen. The thirty who rode south to find Aragorn in Rohan were drawn mostly from the troupes from Fornost and two villages in the Angle, north of Rivendell. These particular troupes have done most of the patrols of the West Road which we will reach tomorrow, the Weather Hills, and the borders of the Breelands and the Shire. Those villages south of Rivendell have done most of the patrols of the Misty Mountains toward Hollin; the rest patrol mostly alongside the forces of Rivendell and protect the passes eastward and the northern borders.

"Aragorn was born in Fornost, the fortified royal fortress city of our lineage. Since Arvedui’s fall it has been rebuilt slowly and carefully. However, shortly after Aragorn’s birth his father removed his family back to the Angle where they lived in the keep ruled by Halbaleg, brother to Aragorn’s mother Gilraen. Arathorn died two years later in a fight with orcs from the Misty Mountains, at a time another of the plagues struck our lands that killed many and cost us many unborn children as their mothers found themselves miscarrying. Lady Gilraen and Aragorn themselves were almost lost to us, and it was given out that the heir of Isildur had died, too; but instead he was taken to Imladris to be raised in safety there. Only when he had come of age at twenty was he told his lineage and his destiny and released to us, and those who knew the secret bore witness that this was indeed the son of Arathorn and Gilraen, alongside Lord Elrond and his people’s testimony to the same facts.

"Mostly the lord or village head of the settlement has seen to settling local disputes, with the Steward and Chieftain dealing with more serious cases, our few cases of murder or spying as well as disputes between villages or in the families of our lords or village heads. We have but few guilds left, although we hope to see them reestablished now that Arnor is again reclaimed by the King. Halladan and I will be reviewing our records of statutes with you and some of those who have served in place of the Council among us."

"And what of these Breelands and the Shire?"

"Bree is at the crossroads between the West Road and the Greenway, which is the name given the old North Road toward Annúminas and Fornost. There has always been a village or city there. The original Dúnedain city was destroyed during the final days of Cardolan, I understand, although other peoples have built there at different times, or so the records and Gandalf tell. The current village was founded about fifteen hundred years ago by a mixed group of Hobbits and Men. There are three other villages that are part of the Breelands besides Bree itself--Archet, Staddle, and Combe. Then just over fourteen hundred years past some of the Hobbit settlers from the Breelands, upset by a recent invasion of their lands by Men from the South who failed to respect them and following another of the plagues that have wracked Eriador since the final fall of Osgiliath, approached Argeleb the Second and asked if there might be a land they could settle that would be theirs and theirs alone, and Argeleb granted them the lands west of the Baranduin, in what had once been the heart of Cardolan. They entered in and settled there, digging their smials into the hills and ridges of the land and cultivating fields, planting gardens, and ordering their orchards.

"The Hobbits are a peaceful people, much given to farming and handicrafts. For the most part they are devoted to tradition and comfort, and they look on any who display what they see as undue curiosity or a taste for adventure as aberrations. Yet, as Gandalf is fond of saying, they are a people full of surprises. They have lived so long at relative peace that they had forgotten what it is to fight to protect their lands; and so it was that Saruman’s Men took the Shire with what appeared to be ease. But they can be roused when it is needed, and then they are indomitable. From what we understand this Lotho Sackville-Baggins managed to gain control of most of the four Farthings of the Shire within a fairly short time, although his army of Men never truly managed to dominate either Buckland on the eastern shore of the Baranduin, between the river and the Old Forest, or the Tooklands in the Green Hills region of the West Farthing. Once our four returned, each armed and proven, they roused their land, and in little over two days the Hobbits of the Shire had driven almost all of the invaders out.

"The former Wizard Saruman had arrived in the Shire a month prior to the return of Lord Frodo’s party, and a few days before the Hobbits arrived from Rivendell he ordered his creature Gríma Wormtongue to kill Frodo’s fallen cousin, or so I understand. The letter Lord Frodo sent to Lord Halladan indicated that Saruman crowed about the murder and how weak-willed a being Wormtongue had become, and at that Wormtongue snapped and killed his master, only to be killed himself by Hobbit archers. From the letter Sir Meriadoc sent Aragorn, it appears that after the death of his body a shadow rose up from Saruman’s form, but was blown apart on the winds, and that this appeared almost a parody of what was seen when the Ring went back into the Fire and Sauron’s spirit rose up tall and menacing before a great west wind blew it to naught. It was a mean end to a spirit intended to be a teacher and guardian."

They rode in quiet for some time before Alvric commented, "In only two days the Hobbits of the Shire took back their land and drove out the invaders? How long had the Men dwelt there?"

"Some months--nearly a full year."

Alvric gave a whistle. He remembered the Pheriannath as he’d first seen them: the brief glimpse of a small figure astride Gandalf’s great silver-grey steed, riding up through the city toward the Citadel; the two Hobbits astride ponies riding up from the coronation of the King Returned, the other two walking in the procession; the small figure standing beside the King as their beloved young Steward was raised to Prince of Ithilien, the light seeming to fall equally on him and the King by whom he stood; the same small figure riding before the King himself down through the city as the Rohirrim left to return to their own land; the small figure that stood guard so often on the King himself; the four of them visiting the market in the Fourth Circle, examining a book, baskets of fruit by their sides; the departure on fine, blooded ponies from Rohan....

"It is hard to imagine four so small of creatures standing up to the reported might of Isengard," he said at last.

Berevrion’s face was solemn. "You will learn, Master Alvric--never, never underestimate Hobbits. Our folk have esteemed them ever, and particularly since the final days of Arvedui, for the courage and faithfulness of those who came out of the Shire to fight for our King then. Gandalf ever honored them and taught us not to undervalue them; we have never found reason to question his initial estimation of them. Then when Bilbo Baggins left the Shire some eighty years ago to accompany thirteen Dwarves and the Grey Wizard to Erebor to put an end to the terror of Smaug----"

Alvric had gone white. "You mean that was not but a tale told from the north?" he demanded.

Berevrion smiled. "Indeed not. Bilbo is Lord Frodo’s beloved older cousin, you see, and it was he who found the Ring in caverns below the Misty Mountains on that journey. He kept It sixty-one years before he gave It over into his adopted heir’s keeping; Frodo bore It seventeen before it was determined what It was, and he agreed to bring It out of the Shire to Rivendell. Remember this--the Shire has ever given birth to extraordinary individuals.

"There are two things to know about Hobbits--no matter how simple they appear on the surface, underneath they are strong beyond knowing and there will come the time when they will stand for themselves and what they love with a fierceness and determination one cannot anticipate unless one has seen it; and never get between a hungry Hobbit and food."

Alvric wasn’t certain whether that last was serious or not, but it gave him food for thought. Finally he asked, "Did you speak much with the four as they returned north?"

"Much, but mostly I seemed to be listening to discussions between them and Halladan as he sought to learn what he must know to take their land into account in the renewed administration of Arnor. As Captain Pippin is the Thain’s heir and Sir Merry is heir to the Master of Buckland and Lord Frodo kinsman to both they could tell us much of their ways."

"Their Thain has stood in the stead of the King for them since Arvedui’s death, I understand."

"Yes--in keeping with Arvedui’s own will, Aranarth laid that upon Bucca of the Marish as he made preparation to return to the Shire once the war with Angmar was finally closed. But the main governance of Hobbits rests with their family heads first, then the village heads, who are elected, and then and only then in the hands of Thain, Master or Mayor. Disputes between families are usually settled by the heads of the families coming together, often with the affected village heads, under the mediation of Mayor, Master, or Thain--whichever is closest to the situation, or so I am told. The family heads meet regularly, they tell us, and usually under the supervision of the Thain or his representatives, although the Mayor may also call them together at need, to decide which regions of the Shire might best benefit from the excess of goods or foodstuff on offer from the various families and to exchange the most important information between the four farthings and Buckland. Most of the work of their lawyers is simply the writing up and registration of their various agreements and contracts, as the King already told you; there are very few disputes or incidents requiring legal advisement among them.

"Their laws are few enough--the right of one to strike a blow ends at the nose of the one he would strike seems to be the gist of it. Most contracts and agreements must be witnessed by at least seven. Property may not change hands without the exchange of at least a coin unless it is to one’s heirs in the execution of one’s will. One may not marry until one reaches the age of at least twenty-five, and even then the marriage must be agreed to by the parents or legal guardians of the marriage partners before the bride or groom reaches thirty-three and majority.

"Family heads are to see to it all of their name are provided for, and must be willing to aid children born to daughters of the family who make calls on family ties. In most cases all four have told us that a mere call on another individual’s family head is enough to make certain debts are paid or illicit actions are redressed. Until recently they had no gaols or prisons, for wrongdoing was addressed primarily on an individual family level and rarely needed stronger consideration. Now they do have a gaol of sorts, or so I am told, and Lotho Sackville-Baggins’s cousin whose perversion of their contract law was used to aid him to gain control of much of the Shire before the four even left the land is held there now, according to Lord Frodo’s letters.

"Usually when there is damage to a property, all in the community work together to repair or rebuild as necessary. Damage inflicted on one by another is expected to be redressed promptly by the one who inflicted the damage. Sexual incontinence is almost unheard of; dissolutions of marriages have occurred so rarely Sir Merry said he could think of only one report in the entire Shire in sixty years."

Alvric shook his head. "It is almost without belief they should get along so amicably."

"I agree," Berevrion nodded. "But so they have lived within the Shire for over fourteen hundred years now."

Alvric was very impressed. "I certainly can’t think of any Men who could have done anywhere nearly as well."

"Nor I," agreed Berevrion. "In the last thousand years there have been yet a few who have betrayed our people from amongst our own, and some who have abused their families to the point marriages have required dissolution. Yet amongst the Hobbits, family sanctions have offered the greatest deterrent against wrongdoing in most cases for over a millennia; and neither has there been the need for a general assembly to deal with wrongdoers until now, although the letters of all four indicate such is expected now, once the full investigation as to how the situation has reached its culmination is finished. And, knowing Lord Frodo, that investigation will be most thorough and impartial."

He sighed, and added, "The Master is the major authority in Buckland and the farmland of the Marish west of the river; and oversees the flow of goods and services from their region throughout the rest of the Shire, oversees the care for the High Hay, the great hedge bounding their land to the east between Buckland and the Old Forest, and sends most of the Bounders who watch over the traffic over the Brandywine Bridge. The Mayor oversees the Quick Post and its messengers; the activities of the Shiriffs who help keep the peace, make certain property markers remain in their places, help round up strayed animals and report damage to fences and hedges to the affected property owners, see those who’ve drunk too much home safely to their families, investigate reports of fights, and so on; the activities of the bulk of the Bounders of the Shire who watch over the borders of their land from within; and the activities of the land’s lawyers, including the countersigning and registration of most legal documents. As far as the folk of the Shire are concerned, however, his most important activity is to officiate at most banquets involving more than one family, including banquets offered for meetings of family heads. The Thain is in charge of the Shire Muster, the gathering of any armed forces required for the protection of the Shire, mostly comprised of Took hunters with bows; he oversees what little official correspondence has been exchanged with the Council of Breeland, and keeps the records for the Shire to be shared with the King’s representatives should the King come again. Mostly it is his prerogative to call for meetings of family heads in times of general crisis and to make final decisions as to how those crises will be met. And, as the family heads of the two largest families in the Shire the Thain and Master have control of the greatest part of the wealth of the land."

Alvric again thought for a time. At last he asked, "And how do things differ within the Breelands?"

"There is a village council in each of the four villages, and a general council with two representatives from each village council plus an elected head, currently Barliman Butterbur, proprietor of the Inn of the Prancing Pony in Bree village itself. Each village council is comprised of both Hobbits and Men, as is the general council. Complaints that cannot be settled between the involved parties are brought before the village council; and serious problems such as major thefts, destruction of homes or barns or crops, murders and highway robbery, go before the general council. Among the Hobbits of the Breelands most family business is conducted by family heads as happens within the Shire--rarely will a Hobbit of the Breelands be brought before any of the village councils, although such is common enough for Men and on occasion visiting Dwarves who have grown too rowdy. Again, laws are mostly applications of common sense and common decency. Records are not as scrupulously kept as is true within the Shire, and an even smaller percentage of the population is literate; but most business dealings are guaranteed by written contracts and agreements, and there are groups of lawyers in each village who see to the writing of these and the filing of them with the head of their local council. Guards on village gates are usually Men who apply for the position; villages are surrounded by wooden palisades. They have no true militia, but when Saruman’s bully boys sought to take over Bree and the Breelands as they later did within the Shire many came together to fight them off, including both Men and Hobbits, as happened under the leadership of Sir Meriadoc and Captain Peregrin within the Shire once they returned and heartened their folk."

Alvric smiled. "I wish the laws and running of the realms were as simple and fluid, and that we didn’t require a standing armed force."

One of Berevrion’s escorts laughed. "The patrols of the northern Dúnedain have not been a standing force for a thousand years--we have been a riding force, or at times a creeping force; but we’ve not been allowed the freedom to remain a standing force since the death of Arvedui and before."

Alvric found that a sobering thought.

It was when they stopped for the noon meal and he allowed Holby out of his carrier while they prepared and ate that he used his lens to examine the area. "It is such a great land, and with so few folk," he commented to one of the escort.

"Once this land was as heavily populated as Gondor itself, but the Enemy has seen to it that has not been true since the days of Eärendur," the Man answered. "He encouraged the folk of the Dunlands to attack our peoples from the south, and the chief of his Nazgul came down from the north with the forces of Angmar to assault us repeatedly. Spies from both sources came among us with false intelligence or as assassins to slay our kings and the heirs of their houses or to fire our lands. Then the Enemy learned how to loose plagues across the lands, and ever our peoples have suffered. He encouraged dragons, trolls, and orcs to breed and fall on the lands of Dwarves, Elves and Men; he encouraged the breeding of wargs and great spiders and other, worse creatures. All folk of the North have been repeatedly diminished.

"My family was once of Rhuadar; Erador there--his ancestors served the King of Cardolan. We have been the Rangers of Eriador now for over a thousand years, until now at last we are restored as the Dúnedain of Arnor and the King’s Men. And this will again become a settled land under the rule of a proper, beneficent King. And we are proud to be Aragorn’s kindred."

Far to the east he could see the peaks of the Misty Mountains; to the south were forested lands and in the distance a settlement they’d passed in the early morning hours; to the north he could see the line of a plain, growing hillier and forested to the west. A sparkling stream crossed the line of the road, and what appeared to be a ruin stood alongside it just to the west of the road.

Erador saw the direction Alvric’s crystal was focused. "A farm stood there sixty years back, a prosperous place settled by folk from the borders of Dunland. Then one day our patrols saw smoke and hurried here to find the farm had been fired and its folk all taken or killed. We managed to find the ones who fired the place and were able to rescue the son and two daughters of the farm; but they would not return here again; instead they settled in Tharbad."

Alvric watched as Holby investigated a rabbit hole dug into the small hill that rose near where they’d stopped, then pocketed the crystal and saw to the transfer of his gear to Jongleur for the afternoon’s ride. The mare, whom he’d renamed Abia, watched with interest, then finally freed went to roll in the grass before returning to be groomed.

The grey cob received its attention next, allowing Erador and Alvric to return the pack saddle and its gear. All was much lighter than it had been when they left Rohan, of course; and soon enough the cob was also readied for the afternoon’s journey.

It was as they were preparing to remount that Holby stopped in his return to his master, lifted his head to listen and sniff, and barked the alarm; it could be seen the horses were all looking off to the north. Berevrion and his Men readied themselves in case those riding toward them were unfriendly, but soon enough were resheathing their swords as Alvric scooped the small dog into his arms.

"Eregiel is coming," one of the escort noted as they watched a lone rider accompanied by a great hound cantering easily toward them. Then out of the scrub to the northeast came a second rider to join the first; again there was a readying followed by relaxation. "Hildigor," the same guard said. "We are expected, apparently."

Two young Men dressed in grey-green riding leathers and cloaked in grey with the silver stars of Arnor at their shoulders soon drew up their mounts before them. "Welcome, Berevrion," the one with the hound following him called. "Halladan sent us three days’ ride south of Bree to await you, indicating you were due to return at this time. What news from our Lord Cousin?"

"He is well, Eregiel, and in response to the requests made by both Hildigor’s father and Lord Frodo has sent this one to help in the review of the statutes of Arnor and to work with the lawyers of the Shire."

The other young Man smiled. "That is welcome word. It appears that Lord Frodo has need to see this done earlier rather than later--Faradir has found a tenant already on one of the lands given to his maintenance."

All looked at one another with surprise. "A Man has moved onto one of the grants made to Lord Frodo?" Berevrion asked. "When, and how did he take the news that the land belonged to another?"

"No Man, cousin, but a Perian and his family, driven from the Breelands by the violence of those who assaulted there a year past. They had sought to take the lands just north of the Shire, hard by the Brandywine. The father and his younger children went into the Shire to meet with Lord Frodo and to come to an agreement regarding tenancy, and returned to their intended steading some time past. A letter came to my father a few days ago asking for one to offer training to the Shire lawyer chosen by Lord Frodo on how specifically such tenancy agreements are to be written, and to help choose an agent to administer his and Lord Samwise’s lands in Arnor as they are administered within Gondor. The sooner he can assure Lord Frodo that we can offer him the assistance he has requested, the happier my father will be."

"Well, it appears that we will be able to do so very soon indeed," Berevrion said. "Alvric son of Maerdion, these are Hildigor son of Halladan and Eregiel son of Miringlor. Master Alvric is assistant to the Master of the Guild of Lawyers in Minas Tirith."

Hildigor’s smile was wide and satisfied. "Already we have one capable of meeting the Ringbearer’s needs? That will be well received indeed."

His companion was nodding. "And it will give Master Hedges and his family peace of mind as well." At Berevrion’s look of question he added, "The Hedges family has settled on the grant just north of the Shire, and I’ve found them to be quite delightful, Uncle. Bob tells me his meeting with the Ringbearer went quite well, and the children were enchanted by him and Bag End."

Berevrion laughed and shook his head. "He told me he appears to be a magnet for children, and that the children of the White City came from all the circles to spy on him and his companions, as apparently had been true in his home before he left it as well. Certainly the son and daughter of the couple who lived next door to him would watch out for him and listen to whatever stories he told with eagerness. It appears to be the same now."

Eregiel lifted an eyebrow. "So Teo, Lilia, and Anemone all say, and that his younger cousin who lives below him on the hill admitted to spying on him and doting on his tales." He looked from Berevrion to Alvric. "Then I must suppose that as we have no waiting to do we might as well assist you as we can." He examined the small dog Alvric held in his arms. "Artos will be pleased with the company along the way, I think. You brought that one all the way from Minas Tirith?"

Alvric nodded, giving the hound a wary eye. "He enjoys traveling with me. You are certain yours will not hurt him?"

"He appears to get along famously with the Hedges’ ratter," was the answer. "Lister was taken rather aback by him at their first encounter, but after the initial flurry of barks the other day appeared to be pleased to see him. You don’t need to be worried for your dog’s safety with him."

Alvric wasn’t so certain, and apparently Holby wasn’t, either, as he twisted in the lawyer’s arms and resisted going into the carrier, trying to keep an eye on the hound’s activities. At last, however, he was fastened within, immediately poking his head out and locating the bigger dog, barking furiously at it.

Then they were mounted and heading north again, Erador this time taking his turn as scout and Eregiel dropping back to guard the rear. When he found he could no longer see or smell the hound that followed behind the Ranger, Holby at last turned his attention again to the surrounding scenery, his small nose busy. Hildigor rode alongside Alvric, examining him. "Have you enjoyed the journey, Master Alvric?" he asked.

The lawyer shrugged. "Actually, I’ve found it far more enjoyable than I’d anticipated," he admitted. "Although," he added, "the four days straight of rain and cold we had as we approached Tharbad nearly convinced me to turn back to Minas Tirith--or perhaps my family home in Lamedon. I don’t particularly enjoy cold weather, I find, particularly when I am riding through rain getting my clothes soaked." He shook himself at the memory.

Then he asked, "Is there anyplace where I could find furnished rooms within the city of Bree?"

Hildigor gave a laugh. "Bree doesn’t count as a city, Master Alvric. It is quite small--smaller, indeed, than Tharbad. There are two inns, although the Prancing Pony is larger and has a better reputation than the Silver Fox. You could take rooms there...."

"Rooms in an inn? I have never cared for inns, I fear. Little privacy, folk coming and gong at all hours, new neighbors and company by the day. It is enough to deal with going from appointment to appointment. To deal daily with the fights of those taken with drink, and poor music poorly played and sung by those who due to ale or wine think they sing more sweetly than the nightingale--I very much fear I would find it distressing and it would do my work ill."

Hildigor considered the lawyer’s words, finally admitting, "You have a point, sir, although I assure you the Pony is far better than most I’ve seen--not that I’ve seen that many, admittedly. The walls are actually substantial, as is the building; they have proper quarters for Hobbits on the ground floor of one wing, with their beloved round windows and doors; and the floors and stairs are solid. Their food is excellent, and their ale even better, you’ll find. Their wine is perhaps not as good as one could obtain from the Shire--I had the pleasure two years past of tasting some Old Winyards given to our Chieftain some years ago, and that was indeed an excellent vintage; but even the Pony’s is at least passable."

Berevrion laughed. "You have been to so many inns, youngling?"

"Well, at least six," Hildigor admitted. "And none of the other five was anywhere near as good as Butterbur’s."

The older Man was still smiling. "The Pony is a good place," he admitted. "But I can appreciate his objections to staying in the Pony indefinitely--plus there is always greater danger in an inn of having one’s room and possessions rifled and stolen. When we get to Bree we will stay the night, at least, and speak with Butterbur about what accommodations might be available in the town."

"You think he’ll wish to deal with a group of sinister Rangers?" asked Hildigor.

"He is not as wary of us as he was," Berevrion pointed out. "And he’s honest, as well as more aware than most as to what goes on with the Breelands. He’ll know who might be willing to let a cottage or furnished rooms if anyone will."

They arrived in Bree the following day just before midday, having ridden harder than they had for some weeks. Alvric was well disposed to dismounting and remaining so for some days; and it appeared he was in good company, considering the almost unheard groans he heard as his companions dismounted as well. "A hot bath!" he heard Erador mutter, and he heard soft laughs that somehow appeared to be of agreement from several others.

They took five rooms in all, Eregiel indicating he would ride on to let Halladan know of the arrival. Alvric had a room to himself and Holby, for which he was grateful; and one of the first things he did once his own goods were removed from the cob to his room was to seek out the bathing room, only to find it was already in use by a couple of the others.

At least they were thoughtfully swift, and in the end he found himself sharing the bathing room with Berevrion, as it proved there were two tubs within the room. "I hope you don’t mind sharing the room with me," the envoy apologized, "but the thought of this has sustained me for four days now. Believe it or not, we Rangers don’t truly enjoy being forced to ride without bathing for weeks at a time. We’ve done so because it has been necessary all our lives; but we so hope that particular state of affairs is no longer considered the norm for us."

Once again Alvric found himself brought up short by the thought of how dangerous life in the North Kingdom had been for centuries.

Berevrion had taken a private parlor, and a meal was brought there for them all, after which several men disappeared into their rooms to take advantage of beds with clean sheets and blankets, and for a change soft pillows under their heads rather than packs or rolled cloaks over stones or hummocks.

Erador remained sitting at the table buttering one more slice of bread. "I’d almost forgotten what fresh bread tastes like," he murmured as he added a spoon of preserved berries. "I keep vowing there will come a time when I won’t have to deprive myself of such a thing, you know."

Alvric laughed. "If my brother were to know the particulars of the journey he would not believe it of me that I’d actually completed it. Now, when at last we go on to Annúminas, how long will that journey take?"

"It depends on how long one wishes to ride in a day. Our patrols usually have made the ride in seven to nine days, although one sent as a messenger to Bree can make it in three if one wishes to endanger a horse. We are looking now at good places to set up stations to handle changes of steeds and errand riders from Annúminas all the way to Minas Tirith, and hope to have all properly in order within five years. Then in case of emergency it should prove possible for swift riders to reach Aragorn’s side in little over a week and a half, riding day and night, should such emergencies come. We look to improve the roads as well, and to have special coaches to carry goods and passengers more swiftly and safely throughout the combined realm."

"You won’t rest now?"

Erador made a face. "I’ve drawn the first watch. Now, Butterbur is a wonderful host and a most honest Man; but the same cannot be said for all who might be guesting here. More than once we’ve had to protect our own from other guests within the inn. I suspect one day there will be a barracks complex here near the Breelands where most of our folk can remain outside the inn, although I suspect even there a guard will be set throughout the day and night to watch for those who would think to ‘borrow’ from their fellows."

He laughed. "It was so that our Lord Cousin’s true identity was first made known to most of those within his own company when he returned to us and rode first with our patrols. He was assigned first to the troupe of Berenion, who has ever helped train our newest recruits. My father was in the company, and was one of those who looked on this young Man who’d ridden with Elves with a level of mixed disdain and some awe. One of the others was always needing something, and appeared to think of the rest in the troupe as being so much his brothers they ought not to be upset if he constantly ‘borrowed’ from them. Having torn his own cloak and aware Aragorn carried extras, he went looking without asking for one to wear. He found Aragorn also carried a second sword’s sheath and brought it out to taunt him with it--then found himself spilling out the hilt of Narsil. He described it once to us, the utter silence that followed the fall of the sword’s hilt and the realization of what sword this was and who it must be who carried it. It had been rumored that Aragorn had not actually been killed by the plague that decimated our numbers when he was small; but that this was he was a shock. Orimirion stated he trembled under Aragorn’s gaze, for as young as he was he yet could cause others to quail with a mere look.

"And Halladan has told us of a quarrel between Aragorn and Lord Frodo as they rode between Minas Tirith and Edoras. It was on a day one of his wounds had again become inflamed, and the Ringbearer was in some distress. Aragorn wished to ease the pain with a draught and the Hobbit was resisting, furious to realize this was happening yet again. He said each was glaring at the other for perceived obstinacy, and it was wonderful to see how each in his own way sought to subdue the other with a look. He advised us not to draw the ire of both upon one of us at one time, for he doubted any of us could survive such combined looks."

Alvric laughed aloud. "I hope I do find occasion to see Lord Frodo yet again while I am here in the north," he said. "I never saw him angry, although I have observed him commanding his youngest kinsman on one occasion. The folk of the capital always called that one the Prince of the Halflings, yet he was so plainly the youngest of the four and apt to teasing the others."

He found himself growing more solemn. "I’ve never had the chance to actually speak with any of the Pheriannath, you realize. To find there are such as servants here has been somewhat of a surprise and shock."

Erador sighed. "Hobbits will employ servants, but it is always from among their own they will do so. But, then, few Men could dream of fitting within a Hobbit hole with any comfort, after all. But for Hobbits to hire themselves out as servants to Men within the Breelands is common enough, I think as much to provide food for themselves as for any other reason. Hobbits must eat a good deal, or so we are told. They are usually pleasant and enjoy setting things in order; and there is no gardener better than one of Hobbit kind--all say this. And most of the lawyers in the Breelands are Hobbits, you will find--lawyers and bookkeepers. There is something about those Hobbits who seek out an education that gives them over to such pursuits for some reason we don’t fully understand."

Again food for thought.

Alvric repaired to his room to find Holby had already settled himself on the bed; he laid himself down by the dog and relaxed into the featherbed, soon finding himself sleeping. He didn’t rouse until supper.

All went out to the common room for the evening meal, and again the roasted joint served proved good, and the ale even better. Alvric was feeling expansive when Berevrion beckoned him over to speak with Butterbur.

The florid innkeeper was rather wary, but answered easily enough.

"I don’t know of any that offers furnished rooms regular," he said, "but I do know as Denra Gorse may well be willing to take you as a boarder. She and her brother lived together on the west side of the village, you see; but her brother died in the fight against the ruffians that tried to take over. She’s findin’ livin’ on her own isn’t always easy. There’s some what looks on her in that house as is hers now and would like to have both for themselves, of course. She’s a comely enough woman, you must understand; but the one she might of loved in her younger days died in one of the epidemics, and she’s never looked at any other since. So, she never married, and neither did her brother, bein’ rather shy. He was just comin’ to admire a woman from Combe when the village was assaulted, and so their courting never come to nothin’." He described how to find Mistress Gorse’s house, accepted their thanks, and went off to answer a call from one of the Dwarves who was visiting.

*******


Denra Gorse sat in her parlor opposite Carnation, who helped cook and clean for her, after a busy morning cleaning out the chimneys. Fell had always taken that chore; but he was gone now. A swift had decided to build a nest in the flue for the bedrooms, causing quite a choking for her the previous evening when she’d thought to warm her chamber before she went to bed. She and Carnation had had quite a time of it, getting the nest cleared away, and the swift had been understandably furious with them, of course; but it was done now and the last of the soot in the bedroom cleaned away.

"I suppose as I ought to go start yer luncheon," Carnation was saying as she fortified herself with a slice of bread with sugar on it and a cup of tea. "I’ll finish this and...." A ring at the bell interrupted her.

"Who would call at this time of day?" Denra sighed as she rose to head for the door. "No, you stay there, Carnation--you’ve been taking two steps to each of mine and need to get that bread and sugar down you."

She opened the door to find a Man the likes of which she’d never seen before--perhaps only an inch taller than herself, with curly hair of a light brown much the color of toast and a neatly trimmed mustache and beard. He was very neatly dressed in a tunic of golden brown under an embroidered surcoat decorated with an image of a crescent moon. "Mistress Denra?" he asked, rather tentatively. At her nod he continued a bit more confidently. "Oh, good, then I wasn’t mistaken in the directions Master Butterbur gave me. My name is Alvric son of Maerdion, and am a lawyer from the city of Minas Tirith."

She looked at him, somewhat confused. "A lawyer, a Man?" she asked. "And since when do Men take up the writing of contracts?"

He colored somewhat, apparently taken aback by her statement. "I’m sorry, Mistress," he said rather diffidently, "but in Gondor all who take up the study of law tend to be Men, as we have none of other races dwelling amongst us. Indeed, I am the first assistant there to the Master of the Guild of Lawyers for the realm. Nor in Gondor are the activities of lawyers limited to the writing and presentation of contracts and agreements. I also serve as a magistrate for the Fourth Circle, hearing disputes and making judgments upon them in the name of the King."

"What King?" asked Denra.

He smiled. "You had not heard that there is at last a King again, over both the ancient North Kingdom as well as Gondor?"

"Well, I’ve heard some odd talk, of course," she said, "but it was just odd sayings as was said by them Hobbits as went through here and caused such a stir at the Pony a year and a half back, the one apparently disappearing as he did."

He straightened, for he’d not heard the tale as yet. "Perhaps," he said slowly, "you might in the future tell me the story. However, I assure you there is a King once more, and indeed he is one born and raised here in Eriador, for he claimed the Crown of Gondor and the Sceptre of Annúminas as the heir of Isildur. He sent me north to his kinsmen here in Arnor to help review the laws of the North Kingdom so we might bring the laws of both North and South in line with one another, and also to work with the lawyers for the Shire and the Breelands that they might write contracts and agreements that would be binding under the laws of the outer realm. Now that Sauron is no more there will be many more seeking to enter and settle within Eriador; and the Dúnedain of Arnor will once again move freely and openly throughout all of the North Kingdom."

"What does this have to do with me?" she asked.

"Master Butterbur indicated that you, of all the folk here in Bree, might be willing to accept me as a boarder, Mistress."

She was affronted. "And why might I wish a boarder?" she demanded.

He was beginning to feel very conspicuous, standing on the doorstep while she questioned him. "Please," he suggested, "if I might come in I would be glad to answer your questions."

She looked out. Mistress Fennel next door was peering out her window, watching; and the Blackroot children were openly gawking. "I’m sorry," she apologized. "I’ve quite forgotten my manners, obviously. Please to come in, sir."

She led him into the parlor where a Hobbitess of early middle years sat in a low chair opposite the fireplace, a plate with a half slice of buttered bread remaining on it on her lap and a teacup in her hand. "This is Carnation Sandybanks, who does for me," she gave by way of introduction. "Carnation, this is Master----"

"Alvric. Alvric son of Maerdion of Lamedon, now of the city of Minas Tirith," he explained, then added, "That’s in Gondor."

"Gondor," Carnation said rather blankly. It was obvious she’d never heard of the place.

"The South Kingdom," he tried to explain, "where the King dwells for now."

"What King?" she asked in a tone that reminded him of just how Denra Gorse had made the same question.

He sighed. This was obviously not going to be easy.

"Would you like some tea?" asked his hostess. "I can fetch you a mug if you’d like."

"Tea?" he asked. "I fear we don’t drink tea in Gondor."

"It’s made by steeping certain leaves in boiling water," she began.

His face lit up. "Oh--you call it tea here? We refer to it as an herbal drink in Gondor, you see. We also on occasion drink coffee, when we can get the beans from Harad and Khand, of course."

"Coffee? Ye can get coffee?" Carnation asked, surprised and pleased. "I’ve had it but once, for the beans are very dear to come by. I’ve not seen any offered here in over twenty years, in fact. Some come through the Shire then, ye see, from sea traders, it was said."

"Coffee," Denra said as if storing the word away in her mind, looking from the Hobbitess to the Man. "You will drink coffee in Gondor?"

"On occasion," he repeated. "But I would welcome the chance to try your herbal drink."

"Tea," she corrected him.

"Tea. I would welcome some--tea. Thank you," he added.

Reassured, she went into the kitchen and fetched out one of Fell’s mugs and filled it from the teapot, then set the mug and a small jug of milk and a bowl of sugar with a spoon and several biscuits from the crock in which she kept such things, and brought it out to him. He’d settled on the sofa, looking just a bit anxious. She found herself feeling slightly amused and more curious than she’d been. She placed the tray by him. He looked at the jug of milk with an expression of confusion as if he couldn’t imagine why it might have been included in the contents of the tray, lifted the mug and smelled it, smiled, and tasted it gingerly.

"A bit bitter, but quite nice nonetheless," he assured her, examining the sugar, then spooning some into the mug and stirring it expertly. He tasted it again, then smiled more fully. "Thank you very much."

She slipped a biscuit off the tray and saw that Carnation, having finished her bread and sugar, was quick to do likewise before settling more comfortably into her chair. It was obvious Carnation intended to hear what this one’s business was before she went off to fix the luncheon she’d spoken of earlier.

The Man sipped at his tea, then finally set it down on the low table that stood between them. "Let me begin again," he said. "I was sent here to Eriador by the King himself." He turned to Carnation and explained, "Just over a year back our Lord King Aragorn Elessar came out of the North and assisted in the defense of our realm against the forces of Mordor."

Carnation stopped with her biscuit halfway to her mouth and looked at him in shock. "There’s truly a Mordor?" she asked.

"Oh, yes, there was, Mistress--Sandybanks?" At her nod, he continued, "Minas Tirith, the capital of Gondor, sits in full view of the Mountains of Shadow that have ever been the western walls of Mordor; and Sauron’s creatures have ever assaulted our lands. Last year in the early spring Sauron sent a mighty army to take Minas Tirith, although the army failed to do so. We offered a stout defense from within the city, of course; and the Riders of Rohan arrived, I’m told, in the early morning to raise the siege, followed near midday by reinforcements led up the River Anduin by our Lord Aragorn Elessar himself. When all sent by Mordor had died or fled from the defenders, it was decided that we needed to send an army to the gates of Mordor itself to draw Sauron’s remaining forces out of his land. So it was done, and Aragorn Elessar himself led that army.

"Once the final battle was engaged all changed, for the Ringbearer at last was able to come to Orodruin and cast into the Fire there the Enemy’s great Ring, and with that gone Sauron lost all, for too much of himself had he put into that Ring. The war was won in the end not by valor in battle but by stealth and faithfulness. Sauron was utterly defeated, and Mordor fell at the last.

"Lord Aragorn was acclaimed as King for his lineage as the heir of Elendil through his son Isildur’s line as well as the fact he is also descended through Ondoher and his daughter Fíriel from Isildur’s brother Anárion as well. He accepted the Winged Crown that denotes the King of Gondor; and just ere he took our Lady Arwen as wife he was given also the Sceptre of Annúminas by Lord Elrond of Imladris showing he is also acknowledged King of Arnor."

"Ye’re sayin’ as there’s a King again?" repeated Carnation.

"Yes."

"And he’s king of----"

"Of all the original lands ruled by the Sea Kings from Númenor," he said, finishing her thought. "He is King of both Gondor and Arnor, from the borders of Angmar to those of Harad; from the shores of the Sundering Sea to the west to the Ephel Duath, for the lands of Mordor he has given to those who were once Sauron’s slaves, and the borders of Rhun. Only Umbar is not part of our lands once more."

"What’s that got to do with us?" asked Carnation.

"The Breelands and the Shire are part of Eriador and Arnor, and although they will be allowed to continue to govern themselves for the most part they are nevertheless under the King’s protection. I am sent in part to assist the lawyers of the Shire and the Breelands to learn to write agreements and contracts that will be valid in the outer realm as well as here."

The Hobbitess exchanged looks with her employer. "But why come here? We’re no kind of lawyers, after all."

He began to feel wary again, and sipped at his tea to give himself some time to think how to state his desires. "I arrived here in Bree yesterday with some of the King’s kinsmen who are on their way back to meet again with his Steward, Lord Halladan."

"Didn’t see nobody enter Bree yesterday savin’ for some Rangers," Carnation interrupted.

Well, he’d been warned that the people of Bree had always tended to treat the Rangers of Eriador with a level of disdain and distrust, and he could see it in the eyes of both the woman and the Hobbitess. "Those you know as the Rangers are the descendants of Elendil’s own people, mistresses," he explained carefully. "They have never sought to cause discomfort during the days of uncertainty when their numbers have diminished so; but they have guarded your lands and the lands of the Shire secretly for a very long time. Only when those who patrolled this region went south to aid their kinsman Aragorn did their guard fail, not for lack of care for your people, but because he truly needed them elsewhere. They returned last fall accompanying the Ringbearer and his companions as they returned to their own homes, and the patrols have been resumed. However, they find that refugees from Dunland and other nameless lands entered Eriador in large numbers while the last of the war raged, and they are hard put to identify those who seek to make an easy living off others from those who merely wish to settle lands of their own. But if they can do it the Rangers will keep those who enter the region from causing any more distress to the folk of the Breelands and the Shire."

Carnation and Denra exchanged looks. Denra asked, "So, explain again why I might wish to accept you as a boarder."

He sighed again. "It was the suggestion of Master Butterbur this might be true," he explained. "He said that you had lived here with your brother, but that he had fallen in the defense against those who sought to invade your land as happened also in the Shire. He continued, explaining that there are those who have importuned you here----"

"Impor-whatted?" asked Denra, feeling this must be somewhat insulting.

Alvric stopped and tried to think how he might explain without giving more offense. "He said some have bothered you, trying to push themselves on you, Mistress Denra. He indicated they appeared to wish to force you to marry them so they might have a fair wife and your home and property. He indicated that he believed that if there were a Man residing in your home it would deter the suitors--keep them from pressing their unwanted suits on you," he explained, seeing the confusion both expressed.

The expressions of both his interrogators had cleared, and now they were looking at one another with consideration in their eyes. Carnation said slowly, "That would certainly give that Bender Cotman something to think about, Miss Denra."

"I agree," Denra answered. "He’s been the most persistent and offensive of the lot, and all because he knows I can’t myself easily throw him off the place." She examined him with new interest. "You wouldn’t mind standin’ beside me from time to time to let the fools know I’m not alone when I say I’m not interested?"

"No, I wouldn’t mind at all. I’ll admit this, though--I won’t be here at all times, for I’ll need to go north to Annúminas from time to time."

"There’s a place called Annúminas?" asked Carnation, her curiosity fully aroused.

"Oh, yes, the ancient capital of Arnor, some seven to nine days north of here on Lake Evendim, or so they tell me. It and the fortress of Fornost have been much diminished since Arvedui’s death, but are being rebuilt in preparation for when the King comes again to reside for a time in Arnor. He speaks of a conference in a few years involving notables from Bree and the Shire and other lesser lands here in Eriador as well as across the Misty Mountains, and including Elves and Dwarves that all might discuss how border disputes might be handled and how they will deal with trade and so on."

"So, a good part of the time you wouldn’t be here at all," clarified Denra.

"Even so, Mistress Gorse."

She nodded, thinking. "Could you help sometimes with the cooking?" she asked.

"I’m not an expert at cooking, as I never tried it before I left my rooms in Minas Tirith to travel here, but I’ve learned some along the way. Yes, I’d be willing to help cook if you would be willing to teach me more. How much would you wish to accept for my room and board?"

The discussion went on for some time; and Carnation slipped off to the kitchen to get luncheon started while they considered what might be done and how, then came back to become part of the further debate. At last he asked, "Do you live here, Mistress Sandybanks?"

"Live here? Oh, no--nothin’ like that. My husband 'n his brother and our families share a hole in Bree Hill. It’s a big place, it is, but Flora and our children see to it. I help to bring in some extra money and food, don’t ye see? Takes a good deal o’ provender raisin' young’uns, ye must understand."

"I see," he said. "Then your home is truly dug into the hill?"

"Oh, yes, it is. Nice, comfortable place it is--we’ve nine bedrooms and two bathin’ rooms and a privy, four larders and two pantries and a huge kitchen and three parlors...."

He was much taken aback. "I’d never have dreamed a hole dug into a hill could be so large," he said.

"Ye must be careful with the ventilation shafts, ye see," she explained, "but it works out well. There’s some as prefers houses as they usually have windows for most o’ the rooms; but give me a good smial any day, I says."

"I see."

"Ye’ll see some o’ the childern from time t’ time, but mostly they stays at home 'n helps about the place and with the gardens 'n all. We’ve a big vegetable garden near the Commons, and flowers in the dooryard."

"I see. Well, I look forward to meeting them. Shall I write up the agreement, or would you prefer to have it only verbal?"

"You’d write it up?" asked Denra.

Carnation continued, "Ye’d not have a Hobbit lawyer write it?"

"I am a lawyer of the realm, after all," he said, smiling. Then he thought, "But there is one more thing I forgot to mention--my dog. Holby came with me all the way from Minas Tirith, you see. My sister took the cats while I must be gone, but I brought Holby with me. It would have destroyed him had I left him behind."

"A dog?" Denra asked.

"Oh, yes, a small, smooth-haired dog, black and white. He’s quite sweet, you’ll find. I’ll feed him and see to it he gets his walks as I do at home at Mistress Arië’s establishment, you see.

"And who’s that?"

"My landlady where I live in Minas Tirith. I don’t care to be forced to take care of a house of my own, and have no family living with me. And with my work I must spend a good deal of time in the Citadel or the archives or working alongside my Master or hearing disputes in the magistrate’s court, so I’m not a good deal of time in my home. The rooms suit me well. She offers suites for a number of Men who are in similar situations or who spend only a few weeks in the White City each season, preparing our meals and seeing to the caring for our rooms. But those of us who keep animals must see to them ourselves. I always purchase the food for my cats and Holby myself."

Denra was intrigued. "You keep cats and a dog?"

"Yes, three cats, all sisters and all tortoiseshells. I find I rather miss them; but I couldn’t have very well brought them all this way."

"We do have a mouser, although during the day she prefers to spend most of her time outside. If she accepts your Holby I think we’ll accept him, too."

And so it was decided.

When at last he set out to return to the Prancing Pony for one more night it was with the understanding he would be paying two silver coins of the realm per quarter to have the room in which Fell Gorse had slept, the use of the second parlor for his own purposes, and free run of most of the rest of the house as well in return for help with the cooking a couple nights per week and assistance with maintenance for the place. He found himself hoping nothing complicated would be needed, as he wasn’t certain how to do much in the way of repairing shutters and so on. But tomorrow morning he and Holby would be moving into the house of Denra Gorse, and he’d be starting a new way of life for his time in Arnor.

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