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Prologue: Ale with the Rider
The Breeland was a densely inhabited townland in the north of the Reunited Kingdom, sitting astride the roads that crisscrossed the land. The Great Road ran east to west, and the ancient Greenway ran roughly north to south. Dominated by the chief village of Bree, which was situated at the foot of Bree-hill, there was also the smaller hamlets of Staddle on the other side of the hill, Combe which lay in a deep valley to the east, and Archet on the edge of the Chetwood. Circling Bree was a large and deep dike and hedge, with two stout gates on the west and southern walls. And in the center of the village, at the crossing of the roads stood the large and well-known inn, the Prancing Pony, famous in story and song both far and wide.
This evening, a pleasant April twilight that was cool without chill, the Pony boasted a packed common room with many visitors and patrons, laughter and loud talk filling every corner. Business was not only good, it was downright prosperous, as compared to the lean times of five years past, during the times of the ruffians and the bad troubles from the South. There was now much coming and going up the old Greenway from the lands to the South, where the stories and songs being passed up the road were a wonder to hear.
There was, first and foremost, the return of the King of old, the chief of the Rangers who had come into his own. The Rangers, it turned out, were in fact the remnant of the Great People, the Kings of Men out of the West, and they were now regarded with different eyes as defenders of the land. Word was sent that the King’s messengers would ride north to survey the lands and set the wilderness to order in his name, and to reassure the Breelanders that, by the King’s wish, their lot would only get better. That turned out to be a promise kept.
And the stories of the great war! The Rangers who had gone away to fight were gone for more than six months, gone in the spring and returning in the fall, reduced in number but not in glory. They told of the terrible battles, the daring stands against the foe, and not a few told of the horns of the Horse-lords blowing in the morning, and the banner of the King on the winds of the dawn.
But the Breelanders also heard a story that was closer to home. For during the troubles, just east of their town at the Forsaken Inn, the Rangers had gathered all their folk and fled overland on the Great East Road across the waste to the hidden valley of Rivendell. Led by the few Rangers who had stayed behind, they fought the cold and their foes, and had come back stronger than ever.
Tonight, a merry company sat by the hearth sharing the talk they heard and the speculation running wide through Breeland. There were three Men; Darcy Heathertoes, Tom Thistlewool, and Magnus Appledore. Also, with them were two Hobbits, Rowly Mugwort and his friend, Aldegard Sandheaver, whom everyone called Al for short.
“It’s all to hope for the future, for Bree at any rate,” Rowly was saying as he drank his ale while swinging his feet. “Young Nick, who is my sister Angelica’s oldest boy, was just offered to be apprenticed to Bobbin Bullrush, the carpenter in Archet! A fine start to a fine trade, and that you can tie to.”
“Nar, that’s nothin’”, Tom drawled, “I meself just had to add a second barn to me yard, what with all the meal we’ve been grindin’. Why, I’ve even had to hire two new hands to manage the work, and I’ve been able to pay them smart wages an’ all. These last years’ve been wonderful harvests, especially that summer after the Rangers came back, remember how golden everything was?”
“Aye, that was the year of all those weddings, too.” Al Sandheaver recalled. “And then the year after, with all the birthing and christenings, too. Even the livestock were busy. The mares foaled, the cows birthed, not a stillborn at all for anything. Truly a golden year.”
“And the ale’s been golden, too!” Magnus said, and everyone chuckled in agreement. No one could remember the beer at the Pony being this good before the bad times; rumor had it that a wandering wizard had laid a blessing on the beer for seven years, and it would not run out soon. “But, what of you there, Darcy? Is naught good to your lot?”
Darcy shifted uncomfortably, then said, “well, you see lads, it’s like this: Rosamund said yes. We’re getting married.”
The company roared with laughter and thumps on the shoulder for their companion. Unknown to the five there, a pair of grey eyes watched them from the gloom of an unlit corner, a mug of ale in a gloved hand and a smile beneath the eyes. The face lit by the light of the common room was young but worn, framed by dark hair.
“Yes, laugh on, good people,” the man said to himself, “and it will all only get better, you wait and see.” And the man rose up to an imposing height, his cloak pinned over his shoulder by a silver six-rayed star. As he walked toward the door of the Inn, he touched the arm of a passing barmaid, and whispered in her ear. She looked up at the man with a little gasp on her lips and smiled wide.
The laughter at the table had died away, and glasses raised around, when the barmaid appeared and laid down fresh ale for all five there.
“Here, lass, we didn’t order no more ale, we’re still drinking these!” Magnus said.
“You didn’t order them, masters,” the maid replied. “This round is a gift, in honor of the one of you just getting married.”
“And who ordered it, so that we might thank him proper?” Al asked.
“All he’d say is, ‘The Rider drinks with you tonight’.” She said, glancing at the figure stepping out the door with a swirl of his cloak.
All five there looked at each other, then jumped up from their seats and burst out the door, little Al blurting out to the barmaid “We’ll be right back!” They were standing outside in the street looking this way and that, not sure what they were looking for, when around the corner from the direction of the stables there came the steady, heavy beat of huge hooves. As the three men and two hobbits watched there came a horse, gigantic in size and power, black as the night sky; and riding him was a tall figure, cloaked in black with a rayed star on his breast, riding off into the night.
“Horseman, please hold up”, Darcy cried out, and the rider halted in the middle of the street. “Were you inside the Prancing Pony just now, and did you order a round of ale for a party of five?”
The rider pulled his hood down, and answered, “That I did, for it seems there is a wedding in the offing, perhaps?”
The party there seemed to have lost their voices, but little Al piped up, “Then you’re he, Halrohir the Rider. We would be so honored to have you at our table, to drink with us properly. If you are on some errand, I understand, but to meet you at last – “
“My errand is not pressing, so I might stay at least one round in your company”, Halrohir smiled as he jumped from the saddle to the ground. He tethered the black stallion to a post, then whispered something in a strange tongue to the beast, who blew out a great “Whuff!” Turning to the company with a grin, he let them lead him back inside the lighted tavern hall.
The six went right back to their places, the barmaid hovering over the table as if just about to clear it away. Halrohir signaled the barmaid to bring six fresh ales, including one for himself, and handed her two gold coins; one for the fare, and one for her. She took the order and the coins and left, looking at Halrohir with barely disguised devotion.
“So, friends, shall we make that toast?” Halrohir asked, “To Darcy and, her name was -Rosamund, yes – to the new family and your house! Good years in times to come!” And all six there took a pull of their mugs in salute.
But Darcy raised his ale once more, “And to our guest, Halrohir the Ranger, the great dark rider of the North: where he rides, life is good!” Halrohir smiled and pulled his ale in salute.
“But what brings you here to Bree tonight, Ranger?” Rowly asked.
Halrohir smiled, “Even I like to enjoy a warm fire and hot food, and the company of others. And there’s news to be had, and stories, and people to meet, like you. I like to hear of the doings of folk inside the hedgerows and farms, for each of you have stories to tell, you know.”
“Oh, come now, Ranger, you’ve seen it an’ done it, haven’t ya?” Tom asked. “I mean, what’s the likes of Breeland to you, that’s seen all the wide lands of the North clear down to Dunland and beyond? And what’s fought in battles, mind? Not that there wasn’t that some scrap right here in Breeland, mind…”
“True enough, though that never should have happened,” Halrohir said, “but battle and war are the province of men who are willing to face death, or at least cause it. The first time I…killed, there was no time to think, there was only time to act. But after the killing was done, then your mind and heart go to war with each other. And that, I wasn’t prepared for.” Halrohir went quiet, sipping his ale thoughtfully.
“Now, Ranger, what might we know from you about places you’ve seen?” Al asked, trying to break the mood. “The word here in Bree is that there’s something queer going on away east, towards the Misty Mountains and all.”
Halrohir smiled, “Perhaps not the Mountains, but closer in to Breeland. The word has come up the Greenway by way of the King’s Messengers, word of a great work to be begun. The Tower of Amon Sul, which once stood upon Weathertop, is to be rebuilt, and made a fortress for the King here in the North. So, all manner of craftsmen, artificers, architects, sculptors, carpenters,” he said, nodding to Rowly about his nephew Nick, “those who deal with supplies for men and beasts”, he nodded to Tom, “will have their skills and goods in demand; all paid for, by the King’s purse. It will be a busy time, once the building starts.”
The Breelanders’ eyes were alight at the prospects. “And just when is all this work supposin’ to start, eh?” Tom asked. "This is the first word we’ve heard tell, and though you’re a Ranger and all, you’re not a King’s Messenger from up the Greenway.”
“We have ways of hearing things, long before others, or we wouldn’t be Rangers, would we?” Halrohir said slyly. “Now, to be honest, the Messengers did come up the Greenway to speak with us about this, because the building site must be secured and watched, and that work falls to us. And it will fall to you, worthies of the Breeland, to be ready when the orders for goods and skills come pouring in.”
There were nods around the table, and especially thoughtful looks from Tom and little Rowly, who stood to do quite well in such a situation. But Al was hungry for more. “What else can you tell us, Rider? I mean, about where you’ve been, and where you’re bound to go? You were leaving, but it’s late for a journey, unless you were sleeping under the stars tonight.”
Halrohir considered, then said, “You’re right, it is rather late to be starting out, but my errand is such that it can’t wait. Which is why my mount is still saddled and ready outside. So, with this, my friends,” he said as he drained his ale in one long pull, “I must bid you all a fond farewell.” He rose, and the others rose as well. “But know this, that I’ll be back in Bree from time to time, just to see how things are going along. Goodnight!” And he rose from his chair, all the others doing likewise. Darcy held out his hand, and the Ranger took it.
“It was a fine thing to meet you, Ranger, no mistake”, Darcy said. “You’ve given us all good news and thank you for your blessing on my up-and-coming. I suppose that it’s too much to hope to see you there?”
“My errand will take me far afield, for many months to come”, Halrohir said, “but this I will say: I shall look in afterward, to see how your new nest is building. I will have business with Bree once this errand is done. Until our next meeting, friends!” He said to all as he turned and left the tavern, his cloak billowed behind him as he swirled out the door. The others followed in his wake and reached the street just in time to see Halrohir in the saddle, wheeling the great stallion around and riding off. As he passed them, the horse slowed his pace, looked at them and blew a snorting blast from his nostrils in token of greeting, and then off the two rode into the night.
Halrohir and Morindal rode out of Bree by the southern gate, saluting the watchman as they walked past. As the gate closed behind them, the great black sounded off with a thunderous neigh, and great gouts of earth flew from his hooves as he broke into a canter and sped down the road, turning onto the Greenway headed south. He was twenty miles south of Bree, up on the South Downs, when he stopped to make camp in the dead of night. A hasty pine-needle fire crackled brightly, and while he was brewing something hot to drink, he crossed to where Morindal stood close by. He stroked the horse’s mane and nose gently, offering an apple which was quickly munched.
“They wanted nothing but to talk about me, you know,” Halrohir said to the horse, “little knowing that this errantry is all about you. It will be a long, long ride, my great friend, but I will not push you, even to your massive limits; it will be an easy ride, just watch.” Morindal nudged the Ranger as if in understanding, which Halrohir was certain he could.
It was now five years since the flight of the Dunedain and the ride of the Grey Company, five years since Halrohir and Morindal first met, and rode together into battle and fame. Both were now heroes, the Rider who had no fear; and his mount, the mightiest horse in the North, who could cover all the lands in three days’ ride, it was said. But it was a lonely life, this Ranger’s life, and he only hinted at it with the Breelanders tonight how lonely it was. Halrohir longed for company many days, for his friends were far away and distant on errantry of their own.
One of his closest friends was the Elf, Cambeleg, who had fought at his side during the Flight, and they had ridden together across the lands for some time afterwards. But on that fateful September day three years ago now, when Elrond and the Three Keepers, along with the last of the Eldar rode to the Grey Havens and took ship to the Undying Lands, Cambeleg left with them.
Their parting was bitter, and Halrohir would never forget it. Halrohir had been just near the woods of the Forsaken Inn, a day’s ride east of the Breeland, when he encountered the last ride of the Keepers. He realized as he watched the procession pass, that so much beauty and wisdom was leaving, and the world was about to get a little dimmer. But then he heard Cambeleg’s glad shout, and the two embraced as brothers.
“Our time is over, that of the Deep-Elves, my friend”, Cambeleg had said then. “All whom are left, you see here in this company. There are still those in Middle-Earth with that blood, especially the royal house of the Telcontari, whom you serve. But the Dark Elves and the Silvan Elves will still be here, though they will fade with the years, slowly forgetting and being forgotten.
“It will be left to the Kings of Men, such as yourself, to remember the Elder Days and recall the Dark Dangers to folk that the years will bring. There is labor to be done, and still deeds for your hands and heart, so do not despair!”
“I still grieve for this parting, beyond the world’s end, so the Wise tell us”, Halrohir said with a tightness in his throat. “I had hoped you would stay, but my head told me what my heart denied. I feel lost at this, my friend.”
“I know your grief, but let it pass like the seasons will”, Cambeleg said. “You must look to your people, and yourself. For your life will now be a long and exciting span of years, filled with adventure and valor and yes, even love. Remember from our meeting? Those ‘eyes of bottle-green’ that were foretold to you? Do not stop seeking for them, child of Numenor that you are.”
Halrohir remembered something then, “Recall what else was foretold, the warning of Morindal? Every twenty years, he must drink of the Entwash again, to renew and restore his youth and strength. How much longer before that time is upon us?”
“I would wait not at all,” Cambeleg said, “but set out as soon as you can. But if you count the years of the founding of his strength, you have but four years from this season before you see the years suddenly catch that beloved behemoth. Make haste, for his sake, and yours!”
And that was the reason for Halrohir’s errantry, this urgent ride across the lands: for the time of Morindal’s destiny was at hand, less than one year remained to the great heroes before the span of years expired. And Halrohir would risk the lands, and anything at all, for his horse that he held dear to his spirit, as much as the horse held his master.
Halrohir looked drowsily into the dying embers of his campfire, the night-speech of the land around him lulling him to sleep. “I will do this”, he said to himself, “for Morindal. I swear it.” And he cast himself down onto his bedroll and into a restless sleep.
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