The two Rangers arrived late in the evening. The house was already full, so Eilen could not help but sigh to herself at the sight of them, though outwardly she was lady Welcome herself.
They looked as if they had been walking all day – and every day for several years before that. The younger one was thin, with restless hands; the older was greying and had a much easier way about him. Father and son? They were certainly enough alike. Two tall pale men with grey eyes and dark hair; Dúnedain, like the Rangers tended to be. Eilen had seen plenty of them; fewer these days, of course. The younger one pulled out their papers – bearing the Prince’s own seal, no less – which entitled them to board and lodgings at his expense. Eilen glanced behind her to the fire and the music and made a swift calculation. The other guests tonight were mostly merchants – cheerful, good-humoured. Pampered. All of whom had arrived earlier. Whereas Rangers, for all they’d done, were used to being outside... “I can do hot baths and supper,” she said, regretfully, “but you’ll see from the size of the company it will have to be the barn for the night.”
What happened next was quite strange. As Eilen watched, a slow happy smile crept over the younger man’s face. He turned to his companion and looked at him as if to say, Are those old bones of yours still up to it? In return, the other gave him a very narrow look and then turned to address Eilen directly. With a bow of the head and that impossible courtesy all his kind managed no matter what the journey had been like, he said, “Thank you, mistress – that will suit very well indeed.”
“Two Rangers,” Eilen explained to Bey, when he asked, and her husband raised his eyebrows in surprise. Rangers came this way less often now. The road here was the safest it had been since the war. The safest it had ever been, and Bey and Eilen should know.
Bey and Eilen first met when he was eighteen and she was fifteen. When he was twenty, Bey had gone away to war. Then he came back, and yet another year had passed, and finally Eilen had turned to the quiet steady man beside her and demanded to know when, if ever, he was going to ask her to marry him. So he’d asked her there and then and had got her answer right back. That had been fifteen years ago. One day, in the third year of their new life together, Bey had come home shaking with uncharacteristic excitement. When he had explained, Eilen had understood at once, and known as well as he did that they had to be part of it. The land was being resettled, out south along the road from Emyn Arnen, the land both their folk had fled all those many years ago. And what the Prince wanted now was people willing and able to keep the road open.
They knew they could do it. Bey’s mother kept an inn on the second circle of the City, and Eilen had been there since she was fifteen, and then had stayed throughout the siege to nurse. And Bey, of course, had been to war. So out they had come with a band of fellow fools and hopefuls, and here they had remained. At first it had been desperate – gates and locks and long dark uncertain nights, a fair few of those spent holding lamps over Rangers young and old as their companions pulled arrows out of them and did the best they could. And then one evening you looked round to find you were safe at home, and were laughing till the tears ran down your face as that plump and kindly spice merchant from Belfalas told you a likely story about his wife’s sister and some bats.
When the two rangers reappeared, looking much less grubby, Eilen led them to the last quiet corner and made good the promise of supper. The younger one ate like a sixteen year old; the older less impressively but still very well. When he was done, he sat back and lit his pipe, and watched with mild interest as the other made short work of the rest of the apple pie. They talked only a little, and when they did, it was in that soft grey speech the Rangers were in the habit of using amongst themselves. When the younger one finally finished his supper, he leaned back too and began to watch the room, his arm slung carelessly across the back of his chair. Eilen saw that his fingers were shifting in time slightly with the music. As they should. They were well known in the area, up and down the road either way, for the very good music they made here under the sign of the Seven Stars.
Geyst started up another song, a newer one he had taken a fancy to over the past few weeks. Eilen was sure he would move on from it soon, but in the meantime she would be busy whenever he sang it. She took the ale back around the room, stopping to talk at each table. A verse and a chorus in, she glanced over at her rangers – and the sight of the younger one took her breath away. His hand had gone dead still; his face was stricken. Eilen looked at him with pity. Well, that was not so hard to read. A friend, perhaps? No, not a friend, not that particular look and this particular song. A brother. Had to be. Eilen picked up the flask, and began to weave her way through the crush to the corner of the room.
Oh, but these new songs, the ones the men had brought back with them, they could crack the heart open within you if you weren’t prepared. Aydan and Bey had gone to war, and Bey had come back, and then sat patiently beside his brother’s sweetheart for a year until she was done with her own grieving, and ready to begin the dance again. And they had come out here together. And they were growing old out here together, while that beautiful daring boy she had loved so much lay cold in the ground in the north somewhere, before a black and broken gate. Two brothers went to war and one came back: a story so terrible and so ordinary one man could make a song about it, which another man could sing as if it were his own, and bring tears to a third man’s eyes. And he did sing it so well, didn’t he?
Eilen was not even halfway across the room when the older one, taking his pipe out of his mouth, leaned forwards to say something to his companion. The younger man started and stared across the empty plates at his friend. He wiped his hand across his mouth, said something which earned a quick reply – and then, wonderfully, the younger man began to laugh. He put his hand to his forehead, and laughed until his shoulders shook and the tears ran down his face, while his friend watched on as if he had just achieved a victory as great and unexpected as breaking down a black gate. When the younger one recovered his composure, he turned back to listen to the music again, and his face now bore a smile of unusual and vivid beauty. Later, Eilen heard one of them – she wasn’t sure which – whistling off-key as they went outside to bed.
She made the breakfasts bigger than usual to make up for the accommodation, but to her eyes both men looked as if they had had a perfectly good night’s sleep. She watched them from the kitchen step as they planned the day’s journey. The younger one seemed to be doing all the talking, gesturing with outstretched hand north and west towards the royal hills, while the older one listened and nodded every so often, seeming happy to follow his lead. As they were about to head off, Eilen, sorry to see them go, called after them, “Will we see you back this way again, do you think?”
The two men exchanged a look. The younger one tilted his head at his friend, almost quizzically. Thinking about the old man’s bones again, perhaps. “Neither of us travel as much as we used to,” the older one said, and the younger nodded regretful agreement. True enough, and Eilen was sorry for that too, even if it could only mean a change for the better that the Rangers were no longer needed in this part of the kingdom.
“Well, it’s a shame,” she said and then, thinking of the seal they were carrying, added, “But you tell that Prince of ours when you speak to him that we don’t see enough of your company down this way these days. I’m sure he can do something about that. You’re always welcome here, each and every one of you.” She laughed. “I’ll even make sure there’s beds free next time!”
The younger man smiled back at her; a swift glimpse once more of last night’s brilliant smile. “I’ll be certain to mention it. Next time I speak to the Prince.”
“Who’ll no doubt pass it over to the King to decide,” said his friend, dryly.
The King. Eilen laughed at the very idea, and waved her dishcloth at them to shoo them on their way. They were small figures in the distance before she remembered she had meant to ask them their names and if they were indeed father and son. She supposed, in the end, it didn’t matter. But she was as good as her word about the beds, to Bey’s horror, given that merchants and so on were the bulk of their business these days and didn’t much like finding themselves turned out into the barn. But it wasn’t that often, he had to agree. Not these days.
For Alawa, who likes Rangers. The song Geyst sings may or may not be like Fairport Convention’s cover of Neil Gow’s Apprentice, which I was listening to while writing this.
Altariel, 11th June 2007