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The Mathom House  by Baggins Babe

Minas Tirith. Year 2 FA (1423 SR)

       "I have only one word of advice about drinking with hobbits," said Legolas firmly. "Don't!"

       Merlindor glanced at Gimli, who was grinning broadly. "Why's that?"

       "Because the little buggers will drink you under the table!" said a cheerful voice behind him. "And dance on top of it afterwards!"

       The merchant jumped up and turned. "My lord King!" he began, but Aragorn waved a hand to indicate that he did not wish to be publicly acknowledged.

       "I'm incognito - I'm a simple Ranger of the North, enjoying an evening out." He and Faramir set down the drinks and settled themselves.

       Merlindor had been enjoying an evening at The Merry Mumak, to which he had been introduced a few weeks previously by Merry and Pippin. They declared it to be their favourite inn - the most 'hobbity' they had said - and the merchant found he liked spending time there, even after the irrepressible pair had left to return to the Shire. He continued to visit, often eating his evening meal and talking with Adamir, the innkeeper. He had noticed a group of cloaked figures enter the inn as he finished his meal. Two of them went to the bar and suddenly the stout figure of Gimli had appeared beside him and issued an invitation to him to join them. He had no idea that the two Men were the King and his Steward - one would never have found Lord Denethor in an inn.

       Adamir followed the two Men and placed a bowl of food on the table, together with three different dipping sauces.

       "Breaded mushrooms," Gimli explained. "Now you know why the hobbits liked this place so much. When it re-opened just after the Coronation, Sam showed Adamir how to prepare them, and taught him several hobbit recipes. This is what they would have as 'nibbles' in a Shire inn."

       "I gather you like The Jolly Oli?" Faramir enquired. "Trust our hobbits to have another name for it. This seems to be common in the Shire. This is their favourite inn in the city, and they grew very fond of Adamir because he was recovering in Ithilien when they were, so they spent a lot of time with him."

       "He is saddened that Frodo has left Middle-earth, although he understands why he had to go. He is a brave and generous soul." Legolas sipped his wine. "He fought valiantly at the Black Gate."

       "We ate here a couple of hours ago, but there was an accident nearby - a builder fell from a roof and impaled himself on some spiked gates below.. I went to help and see him safely to the Houses." Aragorn savoured his ale.

       "Poor man. Was he badly hurt?" asked Merlindor.

       "He was very lucky. The spike missed all major organs and blood vessels. He is now in a healing sleep, and his leg must be watched to guard against infection, but he should recover completely."

       "Does Adamir know who you are, sire?"

       "I suspect he does. He's very perceptive and intelligent but he is also tactful and discreet. If he does know he has not said so."

       "The hobbits certainly have a great capacity for drink. I must admit I never tried to keep up with Merry and Pippin when we came here," the merchant admitted.

       "Very wise," said Aragorn drily. "They have always said that their ale is much stronger than the ale of Men or Dwarves, but I must admit I took that with a pinch of salt." He grinned boyishly, looking a lot like Captain Thorongil. "I was wrong."

       "Dare I ask if there is a story behind that comment, sire?"

       Aragorn groaned and Faramir covered his face. "Yes, my friend, there is indeed.............."

                                                   ********           *********             ********

       Faramir knocked on the massive door and heard the King's voice call 'Come in.' He stepped inside and found Aragorn examining an ale keg which stood on a side table. Attached was a large label with a picture of a green dragon and ornate lettering which read: Bywater, The Shire.

       "Your Mettarė gift. Have you tried it yet, sire?"

       "No. I was just about to though. Want to help me taste it?"

       "I thought you'd never ask!" The young Steward was now confident enough in his sovereign's company to speak with him as a friend.

       Aragorn rummaged in a cupboard and found two tankards. "Emergency supplies," he explained with a smile.

       "Naturally. For medicinal purposes?"

       "Exactly! Besides, we have to make sure this ale has travelled well, don't we?" He released the tap and a stream of rich brown foaming liquid poured into his tankard. "It smells good."

       When both Men had a full tankard they each took a long sip, tasted, swallowed and looked at each other.

       "By the Valar! that is the finest ale I've tasted!"

       "Nectar! No wonder our friends sing its praises so often and so loudly."

       Aragorn took a long pull and savoured the rich, nutty flavour of the Green Dragon's finest brew. He grinned at Faramir, and they downed the rest with gusto.

       "Another? I'm still trying to decide if its excellence is due to the barley, the pure water or the brewing method. After all, the hobbits are half our size. How strong can it possibly be?"


       Later, Aragorn thought the third pint might have been a teensy mistake. Or was it the fourth? He started to think this about the time he realised he could no longer feel his knees. This was when sitting upright on a chair became difficult, which was why he was sitting on the floor, leaning back against the wall. His Steward was already down there, flushed and glassy-eyed.

       "Far'mir?" said the King cautiously. "Can you feel your knees?"

       The young Man blinked, then prodded his own knee with a finger. "Yes!" he said triumphantly. "Those are my knees!" He giggled.

       "No, silly. I mean can you feel your knees without ......touching 'em?"

       Faramir considered this question very carefully. "No," he said at last.

       "Can't feel mine either."

       "No, I can't feel your knees. I don' think that would be proper, sire."

       "No, I mean I can't feel my knees. D' you think tha's because it's hobbit ale? I's trying to make us shorter."

       "Does tha' mean we'll grow fur on our feet?"

       "I hope not! Arwen won't like that, you know."

       There was a pause while they considered the implications of furry feet. "I think the third pint might have been an error," Faramir mumbled.

       "An' the fourth was sheer recklessnessness..........ness. Funny word - not sure how you stop saying it."

       "How many pints do the hobbits manage?"

       "Pip said they often drink ten half pints or more. We've been beaten by our small friends again."

       "They eat more, they drink more............ " Faramir fell silent for a moment, then pointed upwards. "Should tha' be up there?"

       Aragorn squinted in the direction indicated by his Steward's unsteady finger. "The ceiling? I think so. 'm almos' sure it shouldn' be down here."

       "No, no. 's at a funny angle."

       The King looked up, then down, and finally focussed on Faramir. "I think we're at the funny angle, my friend. You know where we went wrong?"

       "The third pint?"


       "The first pint?" Faramir asked brightly.

       "No, not even that. We undereshtimated the hobbits," Aragorn said mournfully. "Never under......eshtimate hobbits."

       "Never have drinkin' contests with them either."

       "See! Tha's why you're my Steward. Ver' wise man."

       "Thin' I'll have a nap here. Not so far to fall if you sleep on the floor."

       "Good idea........." A thought managed to struggle to the surface. "The ladies are going to be cross, you know."

       "P'haps they won' notice if we creep in later.........." Faramir's head rolled forward and he fell asleep. The King sat for a while, trying to work out why hobbits could drink five pints of the stuff and still walk home afterwards, but the effort of rational thought was too much and he fell asleep too.

       When Arwen and Eowyn peeped round the door an hour later, they found their menfolk on the floor, leaning against the wall and each other, snoring loudly.


       Faramir was wrenched out of sleep by someone beside him saying 'Aaaaarrgghh!" Reluctantly he cracked one eye open; unfortunately he did so at the precise moment the sun climbed above the Ephel Duath and straight through the window. The King had crawled behind the desk and had flung both arms over his face to shield his eyes.

       "Ow!" Faramir murmured, attempting to speak without opening his mouth.

       "I'm going to kill those scoundrels when they arrive," Aragorn whispered.

       "You can kill Merry, but I want to kill Pippin."

       "If we tell them about this, we'll never hear the end of it," said the King. "We'll never live it down."

       Faramir pondered for several moments, trying not to breathe too loudly because it made his headache worse. "One thing I still don't understand. The Shire-folk eat .....- what - seven meals in a day, and they can drink far more ale than we can. What is the explanation?"

       Aragorn winced and rubbed his face. "I do not know the answer to that, my friend, but I will merely quote our good friend Mithrandir."

       "And he said.............?"


                                                     *******           ********           *******

       Legolas, Gimli and Merlindor could hardly believe their ears. The thought of the King and Steward, sprawled on the floor, drunk on hobbit ale, was too amusing for words. All three were laughing loudly. Aragorn and Faramir pretended to be indignant but their own amusement started to bubble to the surface, and by the time Adamir brought more drinks to their table, all five were chuckling and wiping their eyes.

       "Did you tell Merry and Pippin?" Merlindor asked at last.

       "Eventually. They thought it was the funniest thing they'd heard, and promised me they will tell Sam and Rose as soon as they arrive in Hobbiton."

       "It will become one of the great tales," added Legolas mischievously. "Perhaps it will go into the books and be told to young hobbits many years hence."

       Aragorn turned to Faramir. "There you are. We shall be held up as an awful example of how not to behave,"

       "As well as an example of the powers of hobbit ale."

       Merlindor raised his tankard. "There is only one thing to say." Aragorn raised his eyebrows in query, and the merchant and Gimli spoke as one.


Year 7, Fourth Age South Gondor

Wavelets rippled across the sand at his feet, small ribbons of foam bubbling gently round his boots before retreating; salt spray and a warm sea breeze, an invigorating tang in the air. King Elessar breathed deeply and enjoyed a few minutes peace in the sunshine on the coast of South Gondor. To his right he could see the vast expanse of the River Anduin where it spilled into the sea. Lord Ulmo was in playful mood today, the waters calm, sighing softly of the beauty of the West and the hidden lands of Numenor.

       "Thank you for your assistance, my Lord of the Waters," he murmured, crouching to feel the waves run through his fingers.

       The great ships of Harad which had been arrayed against him had been destroyed in a great storm the previous night, without a shot being fired. Driftwood and the detritus of many shattered lives floated in and was deposited on the beach. One or two bodies lay along the the shore, but the storm had abated in time for many of the Haradric sailors to be rescued. They resisted the efforts to pluck them from the sea for some time, believing they would have their throats cut, as their leaders had told them, but finally allowed themselves to be hauled aboard Gondorian vessels. These now rode indolently at anchor on the other side of the Great River and the prisoners found to their astonishment that, far from being murdered, they were given food, dry blankets and medical attention.

       The waves seemed to chuckle in response to the King's thanks. A soft whisper. "Look to the sea, heir of the Ship-Kings," and something bobbed towards him on a raft of kelp and settled gently on the shimmering sand as the sea slthered back. Aragorn had never seen this before but he knew it for what it was, a great black globe, too large to be carried by one Man.

       "Ai! It cannot be.............Ulmo be praised!" He washed it clean before examining it closely.

       "My lord King! Is that.............a palantir?" Prince Imrahil, attending upon his lord, stared at the object on the sand. As the King touched it it seemed that a tiny flame sparked deep inside. It was similar to the Palantir of Orthanc but much larger and very heavy.

       "Yes, my friend, and not just any palantir. This is the Master-stone of Osgiliath - long believed lost in the fall of the Dome of Stars. It was believed to have vanished into the Anduin, never to be seen again. Yet here it is, rolled to my feet by the Lord Ulmo."

       "A miracle!" Imrahil crouched to look closer. "Could it have been on one of the ships?"

       "No, I do not think so. It must have been lodged somewhere near the mouth of Anduin and disturbed by the currents during the night - with Lord Ulmo's help. Otherwise it could have moved at any time. For it to come here now, to me, suggests the intervention of the Valar." Aragorn rolled the orb and suddenly the small flame in the black depths sprang into life as it became properly oriented. "This will need a proper pillar with an indentation, a bed, as were constructed in the old days to hold the Seeing-stones."

       "You will need help to lift it, my Lord King." Imrahil removed his cloak and between them they rolled the palantir on to it and lifted it, gasping a little at the weight. Two guards came forward to help, and between them they carried it carefully back to the King's ship.


       The commander of Harad's forces was astonished to be told he could have his sailors back.        "Were they not killed? Did the forces of Gondor not slay them or leave them to the sea?"

       "Certainly not!" replied the King's Herald, shocked by the suggestion. "We do not slaughter men who have surrendered, nor do we leave them to drown."

       "Then you are bigger fools than I thought you, for I would not hesitate to kill all prisoners. Nor do we take back those who have betrayed Harad by surrendering to the enemy. Do what you will with them."

       The King merely ndded when he was told of this exchange. The Haradri commander was a proud, stiff-necked and obstinate member of the largest ruling family and Aragorn knew of the beliefs and customs of Harad. They saw surrender as cowardice and any of the sailors who returned home would be hanged as traitors. He bided his time; his ships were well provisioned and he could afford to wait. However, he could use the great Seeing-stone to observe what was going on in Harad. The wreck of the fleet would not have gone down well and many of the ordinary people were tired of constant war. They had lost enough of their husbands, sons, brothers and fathers to war in the last fifty years particularly, not to mention those who had been given as 'tribute' to the Eater of Souls, as Sauron was known in that land..

       On the seventh day, messengers arrived at the camp of the Haradrim and their words spelled death for the commander and the old regime. The heads of the other powerful families had risen against their leader and taken over the government. They wanted no more slaughter. The King's Herald went once more to the camp of the Haradrim and received a very different reception. He was greeted with courtesy, offered wine, and thanked for the treatment of the sailors.

       Within days the terms had been worked out for a temporary peace while the new governing family attended to the needs of the people. The king himself, trusting in the new regime and the common sense of his bodyguards as well as his own instincts, came to the assigned meeting-place on the shore of South Gondor. The sailors were brought along, to testify to their excellent treatment. They were clothed, well-fed and some even laughed a little and talked with the Gondorians as men to men, not slaves to an enemy power. Azarafti, nephew of the new ruler of Harad, was a practical man who had long loathed the continual senseless slaughter and desired peace and prosperity for his people. His ancestors had been traders and the wealth of Harad depended upon trade. Once they had traded in men, both as soldiers and slaves, but now he felt they should trade in goods. Where better to trade than in the White City of the King?

       The two studied each other, the King and the lord of Harad, and each liked what he saw. There was compassion and wisdom in the eyes of the King, and a light the like of which Azarafti had never seen before. In the dark man of Harad in his white robes, the King saw intelligence and a desire for peace and communication. The treaty was signed and the Haradric prisoners returned with assurances on both sides that they would not be killed but reunited with their families. Aragorn assured Azarafti that he would know if this promise was not kept, and kept it was. Those men were now ambassadors and witnesses to the mercy of Gondor. Their families pondered these things and the evidence of their own eyes and ears balanced against the things they had been encouraged to believe for years led them to realise how often they had been lied to.

       As he waited for the tide to turn, Aragorn poured a libation of wine into the sea and thanked the Lord Ulmo once more, for the gift of the Palantir of Osgiliath and for sparing the lives of so many men, which had led in turn to the overthrow of the fanatics and a return to proper government in Harad. He had seen the sailors' return and the wonder and amazement of their loved ones. Perhaps now there could be peace and the foundations of understanding between the two countries.

       "Thank you for your great gifts, Lord of Waters. Thank you for the lives of so many who have been able to go home to their wives and children. Thank you for helping us to win the sea battle without having to take life or lose it, and thank you for restoring to us the great Palantir of Osgiliath. I shall strive to ever use it wisely."

       A voice on the salt wind, soft but clear: "I would not have brought it to you otherwise, Elessar, heir of Numenor and of Earendil...................."

       Several of the crew started to sing as the prospect of home and family loomed closer. Ropes were stowed, sails flapped and bulged in the wind and the great ship began to move. In his cabin Aragorn saw the excited preparations in Minas Tirith through the great Seeing-stone. It was good to be going home.

It has frequently been noted that world dominance is a male aspiration. Females seem mostly content with their little piece of the world but some males would have it all. Nor do they seek to do so subtly by gaining influence in various lands, preferring great armies of their own kind, or orcs and other foul creatures, trolls, balrogs, giant spiders and Rings of Power. This imposing of their Will must be by force, no matter how much grief and misery they cause, because they desire power over others. The causes of this behaviour have been the subject of much specualtion over the milennia - perhaps they are envious of women because they can produce children. Possibly they are completely mad. Then again, perhaps those who try to rule the world are just bullies.

       Not that there have not been powerful women in Middle-earth: the Valar Queens; Melian the Maiar who came to Middle-earth, wedded an Elf and left a bloodline which survives still; great Elven ladies such as Galadriel and the Queen Arwen Undomiel; the shieldmaiden of Rohan who felled Angmar; those queens of Numenor and Gondor. Yet none of these sought to invade and conquer other lands and kingdoms, being content with their own.

       All that domination takes time - thousands of years sometimes. However, less than twelve years after the War of the Ring one person had achieved great influence in almost every part of Middle-earth and beyond the Sundering Sea, yet managed to do so without leaving home or employing orcs, goblin-men or twisted Istari. It really was a remarkable talent.


       In the Glittering Caves Gimli was hosting his father and the Dwarves of Erebor. They had walked many miles underground that day and now settled to eat. Gloin and his son sat quietly in Gimli's own quarters and contemplated beer, fresh bread and salted pork. Only one item was missing, thought Gimli as he rose and opened a store cupboard. He set a large jar on the table and Gloin read the label. Pickled Onions . Summer 1430 SR it said in Frodo Baggins' flowing script. Gimli offered the jar to his father then took one of the onions and bit into it. Dwarves liked their pickles to bite back and Rose's pickling spice blend was absolutely perfect. Of course the foolish Elf would probably turn his nose up at them, preferring that peach wine. His loss then, Gimli thought with a grunt. He also liked the peach wine, although he would never tell Legolas so. It would never do for the Elf to gain the upper hand.

       "You'll never taste better, father."

       "I wonder if she would send some to me?" Gloin pondered, helping himself to another.

       "Why not? I'll ask her."


       In fair Ithilien, Legolas lounged on a flet and gazed at the stars. He sipped from a goblet containing peach wine and wondered, yet again, how Rose managed to bottle Shire sunshine. No doubt Gimli was eating those sharp pickles! Legolas quite liked the sweeter silverskin onions himself, but he never said so to the Dwarf because he would never hear the last of it. He took another sip and the wine fizzed slightly on the tongue, leaving a warm lingering aftertaste of cream, cinnamon and vanilla. It was probably a criminal offence in some places just to sniff something like this! Legolas stretched dreamily and held the next mouthful for as long as possible, just to savour summer in the Shire.


       Lothiriel and Eomer sat in the semi-darkened hall of Meduseld, sharing a small table as they ate supper together. Lothiriel had a sweet tooth and was eating a piece of Rose Gamgee's rich fruit cake, savouring the spicy taste, the moist currants and raisins and the tang of brandy on her tongue. It was a melody of sensations which no cook in Rohan seemed able to quite reproduce, although the fare at Edoras had improved no end since the hobbits' last visit.

       Eomer was not as fond of sweetmeats as his wife but he was enjoying cold meat, crusty bread and some of the finest pickled red cabbage he had ever tasted.

       "I cannot imagine how she does it - in a Shire kitchen Rose makes all this delicious food and does so while looking after an increasing brood of children, being the Mayor's wife and caring for Frodo like a sister. How does she do it?"

       Eomer smiled and forked more cabbage on to his plate. "I have no idea, my love, but let us be thankful that she does. And thankful too that she sends some of that produce to Edoras."

       "If she sends one of those cook books to us, we can make this ourselves and have it every day."

       "Now that is certainly something to look forward to."


       The hubub of the Prancing Pony faded as Barliman closed the door of the private dining-room, leaving the Dunedain to contemplate a very full table - beef, roast potatoes, tureens of vegetables and some batter puddings which the Steward and his brother recognised, having eaten them during their stay at Bag End. Halboron rubbed his hands in anticipation.

       A moment later there was a tap on the door and Carrie Butterbur entered, carrying two large jars.

       "You gentlemen might want to try some of this."

       The label, in Frodo Baggins' elegant hand, said Red Onion Jam. Halboron whistled.

       "Now this is perfection. We had this when we visited the Shire last year. Rose makes it with red wine, redcurrant jelly, various spices and port I believe."

       Hallas, always eager to try new foods, helped himself and tasted it. Everyone watched his expression change to one of wonder and delight, then they all helped themselves and began to tuck in.

       Erithain smiled to see his sons eating so eagerly. "Just think, if we spend Yule in Hobbiton we'll be eating like this every day."

       Halboron chuckled. "Never mind, Erithain. It will only cost you a small fortune in new clothes!"

       "Yes, that's what I'm afraid of - although if all the food is as good as this then I shall consider it money well spent."


      Celeborn, Glorfindel and the Twins were entertaining King Thranduil and some of his people in Rivendell. They would later retire to the Hall of Fire to sing and recite poetry but now they sat down to eat. The roast lamb was accompanied by mint jelly, as made by Rose Gamgee, and soon everyone was exclaiming over the taste. Glorfindel looked at the Twins.

       "I can see I must pay a visit to the Shire. Is all the food this magnificent?"

       "All Shire cooking is superb but Rose is the best cook of them all. She can turn a few simple ingredients into a feast fit for kings and princes."

       Thranduil nodded. "No wonder my son spends so much time there. I should like to visit the Shire and I agree with Lord Glorfindel that it should be soon."

       Elladan laughed. "We shall all go and throw ourselves on the doorstep of Bag End and beg Rose to cook for us. She has promised us a copy of the Shire cook book soon."

       "I believe we need a demonstration of each and every dish first," said Glorfindel firmly, and the company agreed.


       Faramir found himself bundled into the Stewards hall in Emyn Arnen. Eowyn looked flustered and anxious, and she had streaks of flour on her face.

       "Have you been busy in the kitchens, my love?" he asked, with some trepidation. His wife's many talents did not normally extend to culinary creations and the usual sign that she had been into the kitchens was someone rushing for a bucket of water to douse the smouldering ruins.

       She blushed. "I have - and before you say it, no I did not burn down the bakehouse! I just decided it was time I mastered the art of cooking, so I asked Lirien if she would supervise me while I made something."

      "So what have you made?" Faramir enquired. There was certainly a delicious smell of baking filling the air.

      "I wanted to try something from that cookery book of yours. I made this!" She whisked a cloth away and unveiled a fine looking cake. "It's Rose's coffee and walnut cake, and I made it all by myself. Lirien did not have to do anything. She just watched me to see I didn't make any dreadful mistakes."

       Faramir cut a slice and was surprised and relieved to find it was cooked all the way through. It certainly looked as it should. He tasted it and chewed reverently for a few moments.

       "My dearest, this is superb! It really is!"


       "Yes, really." He cut a second slice and then cut another piece for her to try.

       "Oh my! It isn't bad, is it?"

       "Rose would be proud. It is truly delicious."

       "I must write and tell her I've finally managed to cook something properly."

       Eowyn looked so delighted that her husband drew her to him and kissed her, and for a whle even the cake was forgotten.


       Azarafti, Haradric ambassador to the Kingdom of Gondor, reclined on a couch in his house on the Fifth Level of Minas Anor and happily surveyed his supper. There was cold meat, the simple yet tasty potato dish which the Halflings called 'bubble-and-squeak' and some of the spicy tomato chutney he enjoyed. The Lady Rose had been generous enough to send him six jars for his own personal use, a gesture which overwhelmed him. In return he had sent her a book of recipes from Harad and Khand, translated into Westron, and a box of spices from the region.

       Hobbits were unusual and fascinating creatures, he mused. He was pleased to have finally met some although their small stature and simple, gentle nature had astonished him. They seemed too soft and harmless to have brought down the Eater of Souls but the King said no-one should ever underestimate hobbits. Certainly it did not do to underestimate their ability to eat and drink.

       He wondered what sort of person Mistress Rose must be. The King said she was kind, motherly, capable, witty, wise and full of good hobbit sense. He hoped that one day he would meet her and judge for himself.


       Breakfast in the Royal Apartments was always a slightly chaotic affair. Aragon liked to have breakfast with his family and the children were overjoyed to have their adar to themselves for a while.  Arwen was eating bread with Shire honey, which was even more tasty than that made in Rivendell. Little Melian loved strawberry jam and was eating enthusiastically, if rather messily, while Eldarion and Gilraen were sharing a jar of the wonderful lemon cheese, another dish invented by the hobbits. Aragorn selected some toast, lifted a jar and smiled as he unscrewed the lid.

       "Rose Gamgee's black cherry jam," he murmured happily. "The perfect start to the day."


       The gathering on the grass overlooking the sea finally leaned back, replete. The Lady Celebrian rested her head on her husband's shoulder and Elrond smiled down at her. The Lady Galadriel sipped her tea and smiled at the elderly hobbit and the white-clad wizard before her.

       "What a wonderful idea of yours, Bilbo, to have a picnic here. The food was delicious and those scones most unusual. I had never heard of lavender scones before but the flavour is delicate and beautiful."

       "Was it your mother's recipe, Bilbo?" Celebrian enquired.

       "No, my lady. The original recipe was Bell Gamgee's and she passed it on to Lily Cotton, but it was Rose who added the lavender flowers when she was only a little lass. She was always helping her mother in the kitchen and trying out new ideas."

       "I had no idea you could cook, Mithrandir," said Elrond, grinning at Galadriel.

       "A Wizard has many talents, and I spent a great deal of time with hobbits. It is impossible to spend much time with them and not absorb some of their ways." He glanced over to where a white horse stood cropping the sweet grass.

       "I think you must both come and teach our cooks some Shire recipes. We need a little more ...........variety," said Celebrian firmly.

       "It will be an honour, my lady," said Bilbo, bowing.


       Who would have thought of it? Lavender flowers in scones? Yavanna shook her head in wonderment as she watched the little scene.

       "Olorin always says the hobbits can often surprise one, even after many years of study," said a soft voice in her ear. The Valar Queen turned to see the Lord Manwe smiling.

       "They are certainly the most charming and entertaining of all my children," she said fondly.

       "Indeed they are, my dear. They save the world and then feed it. Remarkable! Although I think it is just as well you created them with so little ambition for power. The Lady Rose could wield more power than Sauron if she so wished. Her influence extends to almost every part of Western Middle-earth and here in the Blessed West."

       "Perhaps I should ask Olorin for that recipe?" Yavanna smiled disarmingly.

       "I think that is an excellent suggestion. It would be a crime not to."


       The most influential person in Middle-earth stood in her kitchen, hand-raising a hot water crust for her pork pies in readiness for the hay harvest feast. She hummed to herself as she worked, pausing now and then to listen to her husband's whistling from the kitchen garden, her children's laughter as they played on the lawn, and the soft cooing of tiny Goldilocks as her uncle Frodo sang to her in the study. Her realm was here with those she loved. She needed no more than she had already, and her life was full and blessed.

Can be seen as a sequel to 'Lord Ulmo's Gift.' Following the overthrow of the principal ruler of Harad, a change of regime takes place and tentative diplomatic relations are established. As the nephew of the new ruler, Azarafti is sent to Gondor to discuss a peace treaty.


Year 7, Fourth Age

Azarafti, lord of Harad and leader of a diplomatic delegation to Gondor, looked around the house they had been given on the Fifth Level of Minas Tirith. They had been escorted from the Harlond by the Lord Steward Faramir, entering by the great mithril gates and making their way up through the various levels. Later he would go to the Citadel to present his credentials to the King, but for now he was free to rest, bathe, sleep or explore. Two guards stood outside the house, although the people he had seen on his way up here did not seem angry or aggressive. Some of them had nodded or waved, which surprised him greatly. It was also clear to him that the Lord Faramir was loved dearly by the people. He had been startled to see groups of Elves and Dwarves in the city, busily working on flower beds, walls and buildings, and working together. He understood there was animosity between the two races but saw no evidence of that in the White City.

       A housekeeper, a Gondorian woman, tall and dark haired, had been appointed to look after them, but he was surprised to be introduced to the cook, whose dark skin and black moustache betrayed his origins.

       "You are from Harad? I did not know there were any Haradri people in the city."

       "Oh yes, my lord. There are several, and in most cases their story is much like my own." He spoke Westron well but reverted to Haradri easily enough. "I was a cook in the forces fighting for ............ Him - the Dark One. I regret it now, of course, but at the time I was pressed into the army I was a hot-headed youth with no family alive and looking for adventure." He laughed bitterly. "I found it too! I was a cook - what did I know of fighting and killing? But at the Black Gate they put a spear in my hand and told me to fight. I was still trying to work out how to kill a man who was looking me in the eyes when there was a great rumbling and the Dark Tower came down, shattering as though it were made of glass. The gates and towers flew into the air, tumbling over and over, the ground quaked and pits opened everywhere. Those with some sense surrendered to the great King, for he seemed the sort of man who would give us a quick death if nothing else."

       "The Lord Elessar accepted the surrender?"

       "He accepted it. We were taken away from the field of battle and when he found out I was a cook I was put to work, making meals, helping the healers - anything which was needed really. I watched as myths and legends became real and walked around me - old Incanus himself flying down on a great Eagle, carrying what I first thought was a child; horse-lords from the North; Elves and a Dwarf........... And a King, walking from tent to tent, healing the wounded and watching over the two they called the Ringbearers. I could hardly believe what I was seeing."

       "Did you not wish to return to Harad after the battle?"

       "The King would have allowed it, but we knew what the penalty would be for surrendering to Gondor. We would have been put to death immediately. Some went elsewhere, to Khand or Rhun, but I chose to come back to the city and try my luck. I helped re-build parts of it, working alongside those very same Elves and Dwarves, and I did whatever was necessary. Then I met the woman who would become my wife." He gestured towards the door and Azarafti realised that he was referring to the housekeeper. "The King has always taken an interest in us and when he was making the arrangements for your stay he asked us to look after you."

       "The King takes an interest in ........ordinary people?" Azarafti felt slightly disorientated.

       "Our Lord King takes an interest in everyone. That is what endears him to us."

       "You ........admire him?" Rulers in Harad had always been feared, not loved.

       "I would die for him. He came down to the Houses of Healing in the middle of the night and saved my son's life when he had been despaired of. This is no autocratic ruler, my lord, but a father to his people."

       "I see we have much to learn from this King." Azarafti felt he had to say something and his mind was racing. Reality had been turned on its head and he needed to think about all the things he had been told.

       "I will leave you to rest, my lord. If you need anything just ring the bell."


       Having bathed and changed his clothes, Azarafti returned to the sitting room. A little later the housekeeper brought coffee, which surprised him, and honeycakes. She also brought a letter for him, which had been delivered while he bathed. Curious, he looked at the black and silver seal and the brisk but finely written script, and opened it.

       The King of Gondor and Arnor sends greetings to the Lord Azarafti.

The Lord Prince Faramir tells me that you arrived safely and I hope you are rested and refreshed.

I look forward to our meeting this afternoon, when I hope you will also take tea with us once the formalities are over.  Meanwhile, if you are feeling energetic, there is a shop on the Third Level which may interest you.  The owner is a Haradri and I believe you may have some mutual interests.

Until the third hour past midday.

Elessar Telcontar.

       Strolling through the streets, the man from Harad had time to notice the bustle around him. No cities in Harad were as mighty as this, or as populous. Everywhere he looked there were people talking, trading, calling. Signs of prosperity and peace were evident in the buildings and the faces of the people. Tall, handsome women gossiping as they shopped, excited children playing in the squares and gardens.  A cat drowsed on a wall in the sun and guards greeted people in the manner of friends. His own guard followed at a discreet distance but no-one molested him.

       This sort of prosperity was what he wanted for his own people, worn out by too many years of war. The more he saw of the King's City the more he felt anger towards past rulers of Harad for their short-sightedness and stupidity and their blind allegiance to the Eater of Souls.

       He remembered his eldest brother, who had disappeared into the Dark Tower in the so-called 'Tribute of the First-Born' when Azarafti was only nine years old. Three years later his mother gave birth to a surprise addition to the family, his little brother Shefir. He remembered reading stories to the child in the cool gardens of their house, revelling in the young child's adoration. A deep shuddering breath vibrated his frame and he paused in his walking to calm himself. The memory was so painful he had avoided it for years. He had been down in Far Harad on business for his father when they came for Shefir, then a beardless boy of seventeen. He returned to find his father locked in his study and his mother in her bedroom, both out of their minds with grief. No-one could bear to think of Shefir, the gentle, sensitive scholar of the family, in the dungeons of the Dark Tower. Ironically the Tower fell less than a month later and the family was torn between relief that the foul spirit which had destroyed so many lives was no more and regret that the downfall had come too late for their youngest member.

       Azarafti found himself in a beautiful park on the Third Level. It was full of overflowing hanging baskets and tubs, all spilling their jewel colours in abundance. Trees rustled gently in the warm breeze and there were surprisingly comfortable wooden seats in shady corners. He sat down and closed his eyes, struggling to let go of all the painful memories which assailed him. To his astonishment he found his mind becoming calm and full of pleasant thoughts. Sweet scents filled the air and the drowsy hum of bees was restful.

       He beckoned to his guard, who stood at a respectful distance. "This is a very beautiful place. I did not expect to find such in a city."

       "The Elves have done much to fill the city with living things, my lord, but this garden was designed by the Pherianath, particularly Lord Perhael. It is full of the plants native to their land."

       "Pherianath? I am not familiar with the term. Do they live in Gondor?"

       "Nay, my lord. They are Halflings from the North, from a land called the Shire. It was the Lords Iorhael and Perhael who brought down the Dark Lord, and Captain Meriadoc helped to defeat the Lord of Minas Morgul, and Captain Peregrin saved our Lord Faramir's life. They are full of courage."

       "They must be mighty warriors then!"

       The Man smiled. "On the contrary. They are small, barely four feet in height, and Lord Iorhael is a scholar who loves books and stories. Lord Perhael is a gardener who accompanied his Master out of love. They did what the great ones could not do and carried the Enemy's Ring of Power into the Mountain of Fire."

       "How could these small beings go where the Lord King did not?" Azarafti was now feeling distinctly confused.

       "They were so small as to go mostly unseen, my lord. Their Elven cloaks gave them protection and the Dark Lord was not expecting his greatest danger to come from hobbits!" He chuckled. "That is what the Pherianath call themselves, my lord. Sauron in his arrogance assumed he would be challenged by our King or by Mithrandir. He never considered hobbits."

       "And the other two you mentioned? Did they also enter Mordor?"

       "Nay. Captain Meriadoc came with the Rohirrim and helped the Lady Eowyn to kill the dread Lord of the Nazgul. Captain Peregrin was brought to Minas Tirith by Mithrandir and swore allegiance to the Lord Steward Denethor. He joined the Citadel Guard and saved Prince Faramir's life when his father tried to burn him alive. Then he went with the King's forces to the Black Gate and fought well, killing a troll which threatened the life of Captain Beregond. They are a valiant people when they have to be, but normally they are farmers who love peace and stability, family trees, riddles and songs, growing things, drinking ale, smoking pipeweed and eating at least six meals a day. Our King loves them dearly."

       Azarafti sat in the shade of the rustling birch trees and absorbed this information. It still seemed unbelieveable that the Eater of Souls could be brought down by such a people. Hopefully he would learn more in time.

       "Do any now dwell in the city?"

       "Not usually, my lord, although the Captains visit sometimes. Captain Peregrin is still a Guard of the Citadel and takes up his duties as guard to our King whenever he is here. Meriadoc is a Knight of the Mark and attends upon King Eomer. The Ringbearers have never visited because the Lord Iorhael has been very ill since his rescue from Mordor. He suffered many wounds and the grievous damage done to his soul has troubled him since. He was offered the chance to go to Elvenhome but could not bring himself to leave his cousins and the brothers of his heart.Last year he almost died but we have heard that by some miracle he is recovering. The Lord Perhael tends him devotedly."

       "I see there is much to understand about the downfall of the Dark One. Now, where is the shop the King spoke of?"


       The shop was easily found, in a small court off the Street of Artists and Weavers. Several fine rugs hung outside, some fluffy and made from goats' hair and others woven into exotic patterns. Inside there were elegant hand-painted ceramics and exquisite silks. It took a few moments to accustom himself to the dim light after the brilliant sunshine outside and he did not at first notice the young Haradri who moved smoothly towards him.

       "Can I help you, my lord? You are the lord from Harad who comes to discuss peace with our Lord King?"

       "You are the second Haradri this morning who has referred to the Lord Elessar in such affectionate tones as 'Our King'. He must be an exceptional person to inspire such feeling."

       The shopkeeper nodded. "He is a reminder of the kings of old, those who ruled the Star Isle. He is descended from the first king of the Star Isle. I always loved to hear stories about that land and the Sea-Kings. My brother used to read them to me every night because I refused to go to sleep until I'd heard at least one." He laughed at the memory.

       Azarafti smiled wistfully. "I used to read those tales to my little brother. He loved to hear about the ships and the voyages. Our father found a copy of the stories on one of his journeys, I remember."

       "My brother always tried not to read the tale of the Downfall because he thought it would upset me. It was sad but I think it was my favourite." He looked at the older man, who was staring at him with disturbing intensity. "My lord, is something wrong?"

       "Come to the light, I beg you," he said thickly. He almost pulled the man towards the doorway and scanned his face. The young man had high cheekbones and eyes so dark they were almost black, but these were not what caused the diplomat to gasp and almost collapse. It was the V-shaped scar above the left eyebrow. "It cannot be! My brother............fell in our garden when only an infant. He gashed his brow and a scar remained ever after. Tell me your name."

       "Shefir I was called........." He peered more closely. "Azarafti? Is it really you?"

       They fell upon each other, weeping. Both were shaking so hard they could barely stand. Time slowed and it was as though both were in a dream.

       "How is such a thing possible? We thought you dead - you went to the Dark Tower..............."

       "We never reached it. So much was happening in Ithilien that we were delayed - people in shackles can only walk so fast. We were overtaken by the King and the forces of Gondor and Rohan and we had to hide. Those Men who could not face a confrontation with Sauron the King permitted to go and fight less terrifying foes elsewhere in Ithilien. A group of them killed our guards and we thought they would kill us too but the King forbade the slaughter of prisoners and we were cared for......" He broke off as a beautiful Haradri girl emerged from a back room, a dark-haired child of about two years balanced on her hip. "Nerina! Come and meet your brother-in-law, my love. I thought never to see him again. Look brother, you have a nephew!"

       The girl placed her hands together and bowed. "My lord, Shefir speaks of you every day. We both dearly wished to see our families again but feared we would be killed for cheating death."

       Azarafti raised and embraced the girl, then stroked the cheek of the little boy. "Our priests are now beginning to come round to the notion that cheating death may sometimes be the will of the gods rather than flouting their wishes. It will be safe to write to your families." He turned to his brother. "Mother and Father will be overjoyed to know you are alive! And I still do not understand how you are."

       "We are alive due to the courage of the Halflings, the wisdom of Mithrandir and the mercy of our beloved Lord Elessar. Nerina was taken also and we fell in love in Ithilien in the aftermath of the War. How the Lord Frodo rejoiced to see it, wise one that he is."

       "Lord Frodo?"

       "Sometimes he is called by his Elvish name - Iorhael, as Samwise was Perhael - and you will hear them referred to as the Ringbearers or Cormacolindor."

       Nerina spoke. "There is coffee in the back room. Go and talk together. Go! I will look after the shop and little Benzar can play with his toys until he falls asleep." She shooed the two men through the curtain into a comfortable room with couches and a low table. Shefir fetched cups and bustled around, more practical than his brother remembered him. Over strong black coffee and sweetmeats Azarafti heard his Shefir's incredible tale.


       "We had seen the great army of Minas Morgul go forth towards Minas Tirith. It seemed to go on, the tramp of feet and the thump of drums. The stench of orcs in large numbers cannot be described, brother! We knew there was a great battle going on although we could see little. We heard the horns when the forces of Rohan arrived though! The hair on my neck stood on end! Later there was an uncanny desolate shrieking, and the heavy clouds seemed to lift at the edges, as though the outside world was fighting back. But it was the army which shocked me the most, and dismayed our guards. I saw the green banners with a white horse, the banners of Rohan, and the blue banners with the swan which I now know belonged to Dol Amroth. But it was the mighty banner at the front which took my breath away - black, with a white tree and seven stars and a winged crown! Then the horns blew and the heralds cried a challenge. The King Elessar is come! Let all leave these lands or yield them up! King!  We could not believe it. Our guards allowed the procession to pass without emerging, and then they realised that it would be difficult to overtake it. Perhaps they were reluctant to risk a confrontation, although the confrontation came to them in the end."

       "What of these Halflings I have heard about? Did they truly bring down the Dark Tower, and how was such a thing possible?"

       "Yes, the Lords Frodo and Samwise brought down the Tower. They carried the Enemy's Ring of Power into Mordor and it went into the fire, the only place where it could be destroyed. He put so much of his own power into that Ring that when it finally dissolved there was not enough to sustain him."

       "I've just thought - did the King know you are my brother? Is that why he suggested I come here?"

       Shefir laughed. "There is little he does not know, and the Lady Queen has the foresight of her people. I may have mentioned your name - every time he called in if Nerina is to be believed!"

       "He calls in? To a shop?"

       "He is not an arrogant ruler who refuses to meet ordinary people. His guards despair sometimes as he dives into various shops, goes drinking at some of the inns and wanders about unnoticed, dressed in the greens of the Northern Rangers. No-one looks at him twice when he is thus disguised."

       Azarafti heard the bells strike the second hour and stood. "How I hate to leave when the tale is not fully told but I have an appointment to see the King. There is so much more I want to know - not to mention all the news I have for you. You have many nieces and nephews now. Yashimi and I have a girl and two boys and your sisters all have at least two each. They will be clamouring to meet you."

       The two brothers embraced once more and the lord of Harad stepped out into the sunshine in a city which had suddenly become dear to him.


                                                         Hope Remains

The news of King Elessar's death came to the Shire at the end of Astron 1541, brought by fast messengers. The hobbits grieved, for they loved their King and regarded him as an honorary hobbit. The Mayor, Master and Thain - all grandsons of Master Samwise - marked the occasion with great solemnity but they later held feasts to celebrate the life of the Lord Elessar and the coronation of the new King. Eldarion had visited the Shire many times; indeed he ran round it barefoot as a child, during a visit with his mother and sisters.

       At the end of Forelithe the Steward of Arnor arrived at the Brandywine Bridge with a small casket and a request. The three cousins - Frodo Took, Holfast Gardener and Halimac Brandybuck - were surprised and proud at the favour asked of them.

       "Our Lord Elessar has often said, with great pride, that he was an honorary hobbit. His thoughts were here with you all, his beloved hobbits, and he used to say that his heart was forever in the Shire. This casket contains his heart, which he asked be buried, quietly and without ceremony and public knowledge. He begged that it be buried as close to the Lords Frodo and Samwise as you would see fit."

       The cousins looked at each other. They did not have such customs in the Shire but a note in one of Frodo Baggins' books mentioned the practice among Men to bury the heart in the land of their birth.

       "I'm sure we can honour our Lord Strider's request," said Frodo Took thoughtfully. "He loved the Shire and always seemed at home here. Hol? Would you be willing for this?"

       "Of course. We can bury it between Gaffer and Uncle Fro - it could rest at the head of Gammer Rose's grave."

       The Steward handed over the lead-lined box of black lebethron which had been fashioned by Legolas and Gimli before their departure. "Then I entrust this to you, Thain Frodo, Master Halimac and Mayor Holfast. May the Valar bless you and watch over you always." He kissed their brows as was usual among his people.


       Harding Gardener dug the hole before dawn, when no-one was about to see what they were doing in the burial ground. His father and cousins stood by, Holfast holding the casket reverently, and when Harding felt the wood of Rose Gamgee's coffin he stopped and indicated that all was ready. The Thain, wearing his livery as a Guard of the Citadel, stepped forward, beckoning to Halimac. Holfast placed the casket in the hole.

       "Rest well, dearest Uncle Strider. It's an honour to have part of you here, and I think you'll keep an eye on us all." All three sprinkled some earth on the casket before Harding filled in the rest and carefully replaced the plants. No visitor would give the site a second glance, unless it was to admire the creamy white roses on the grave of Frodo Baggins, the deep gold blooms marking the resting-place of Sam Gamgee and the rich pink flowers shading Rose's grave.

       They did plant a deep red rose and placed what they called a memorial marker nearby. It was of polished oak, like those for Frodo, Sam and Rose, and engraved simply:

"In memory of King Elessar, 1331 - 1541 SR.  Aragorn, son of Arathorn. Estel to the Elves, Hope of his People. His heart lay always in the Shire."

       It was Harding who noticed first and mentioned it to his father, on the latter's seventy-ninth birthday..

       "Da? There's kingsfoil growing round the marker for Uncle Strider. Did you plant some up there?"

       "No, lad. I'm assuming you didn't either?" Harding shook his head. "Well now, Gaffer Sam always said Strider had some magic about him. Only fitting that it should grow where his heart lies."

       "Funny thing is, it isn't growing out of the grave but round the marker and round the edge of the three graves. It isn't choking the rose bushes or the little plants at all. It's almost as if it's making a border."

       "Well if that don't beat all."

       "I've sometimes thought I've seen him, you know." Holfast nodded encouragingly to his son to continue. "When I've been coming down from the stables of an evening. Thought I saw him by the mallorn, sitting as he used to do, with his legs stretched out and his back against the tree, leaning his head back and puffing on that pipe of his. Thought I could smell pipeweed up on the roof t'other night too."

       "Plenty of folk round here smoke pipeweed, lad."

       Harding grinned. "Aye. But most hobbits round here smoke Old Toby or Longbottom Leaf. This was Southern Star."

       "You're not afraid are you?"

       "Course not! His soul is welcome to spend time here whenever he likes. Makes me feel safer if anything."


1557 SR

       Hancho Proudfoot had been to Bree on business. Hobbits travelling out of the Shire was a much more common situation by the early Fourth Age. Two of the Rangers had offered to accompany him if he were willing to wait until the morrow, but Hancho was anxious to be on his way. His wife had recently given birth to their first baby and little ones changed so quickly at that age. He did not want to miss any more than was necessary. He was also regarded as a rather adventurous hobbit and was eager to travel, at least within the Breelands.

       As he rode past the Barrow-downs, their outlines blurred with a mist which never quite vanished even in strong sunlight, Hancho began to wish that he had availed himself of the Rangers' kind offer. He felt increasingly uneasy and certain that he was being watched. He was carrying a large amount of money back to the Shire, payment for the latest batch of Shire wool. As the representative of the Shire's wool producers he held a responsible position. Now he was beginning to think he had made a huge mistake. It might cost him all the gold he carried. Perhaps it would cost him his life.

       Hancho was indeed being watched. Two of the Goatleaf brothers had seen him stow the money in his saddle-bags and decided that they could make a fortune without effort. The Little Folk did not carry weapons, which made for easy pickings. They had ridden ahead and now lurked in the bushes just beyond the curve of the road. It was hot and there were no other travellers in sight. They grinned at each other and waited for the right moment.

       Hancho paused and removed his jacket and drank from his water-bottle. The day was growing very warm but overcast. To his left, beyond the barrows, he could vaguely make out the dark outline of the Old Forest and he shivered. Turning in the saddle he looked back at the empty road. Should he return to Bree or risk going on? Setting his shoulders, he decided to continue. Turning might be even more dangerous.

       To the hobbit's surprise he noticed a rider in front of him. The large horse was standing in the road, the rider clearly one of the Northern Dunedain. His long black hair lifted slightly in the slight breeze and the star glinted on the shoulder of hs cloak. A long sword hung from his belt.

       "Good day to you, master hobbit. I fear it may be unwise to travel unaccompanied. Large amounts of money may tempt certain individuals to rash actions. Two wait yonder in the bushes, ready to ambush you .May I offer my company as far as the Bridge?"

       Hancho sagged in relief. This was clearly an experienced Ranger and only a foolish Man would attempt a robbery with this one around. "Thank you, my lord. I have been feeling very foolish as I was sure something unpleasant was about to happen."

       The Man smiled. "I am merely a captain among the Rangers, and it is my pleasure to see you safe home." He turned the enormous black horse with a star on its brow, allowed it to greet the hobbit pony and the two set off for the Brandywine Bridge. "His name is Gil-galad," the Man explained. "He likes hobbits - and their ponies." This was added for the benfit of his new companion, who seemed rather nervous and in awe of the large animal.

       In the bushes to the right of the road Tom and Barney Goatleaf cursed.

       "It's one of those bloody Rangers! Where did he come from? I never saw him come past us."

       "He must have come from the other direction. We can still do it - there's two of us."

       Barney regarded his brother with incredulity. "Are you mad? Does he look like an easy target to you? I wouldn't take him on, not even if there were six of us!"

       Tom curled his lip and scowled after the riders as they rode westward. He knew his brother was right - that Ranger looked as though he would deal out swift punishment to any caught transgressing the laws of Gondor and Arnor. When the Man and hobbit had disappeared from view the pair scrambled out of the ditch and turned their steps once more towards Bree.

       Hancho and the Ranger rode companionably along, Hancho telling his new friend about the hay harvest and the Man speaking of the many lands in which he had travelled. Hancho ate as they rode, and drank from his water-bottle, but the Man seemed to need neither food nor drink.

       At last the Bridge was in sight. The Ranger Post was a welcome sight in the twilight, lights glowing in the windows, and nearby stood the Bridge Inn with the promise of a meal and a bed, and the same for his pony. They would be home on the morrow.

       "I bid you farewell and a safe journey home to your wife and child."

       "I can't thank you enough for your aid today, sir."

       "It was my pleasure. I enjoyed your company, master hobbit.

       "Surely you don't intend to return to Bree tonight? You and your horse must be tired and need rest and food. You can stay here for the night. You Rangers need some hobbit care and attention."

       The Ranger's smile was almost wistful. "We shall be perfectly comfortable, my friend. I may be needed elsewhere before this night is over. Good-night, Master Proudfoot." He swung the great horse and started back the way they had come.

       "But............You know my name, though I'm sure I never mentioned it, but I don't know yours."

       The horse halted about twenty feet away and the tall Man smiled. "I have borne many names in my life but in these parts I have always been known as Strider." He saluted and clicked his tongue. In moments horse and rider were out of sight, round the bend of the darkening road.

       Hancho sat his pony, staring after them for a long time. Something was bothering him but he could not work out what it was. It was not until he was sitting down to supper that two thoughts collided in his mind, causing him to drop his fork and gulp down a large quantity of ale.

       Was Strider not the name once borne by the Ranger who became King Elessar? As a child in school he had read the Red Book. That was how he was introduced to the Travellers. Well, perhaps someone else had decided to take the name - at least that was how Hancho tried to explain it to himself.

       The other fact which troubled him was that at no point on their journey, even as he watched the Man ride away, could he remember the sound of hoofbeats. His departure had been totally silent, just like his arrival.  I travelled with a ghost, he thought. And that ghost saved me from being robbed - or worse.

It was a sober and thoughtful Hancho Proudfoot who arrived in Hobbiton the next evening and he did not travel far for many months.

1452 SR

The village of Bree was coming to life as an early summer morning dawned. Big Folk and Little bustled to and fro, washing the street outside each shop, cleaning windows and watering baskets, tubs and boxes of flowers. They were preparing for a visit by King Elessar and Queen Arwen.

       From his vantage point atop a ladder, where he was polishing the Royal Warrant above the doorway, Perriman Butterbur watched Mistress Hethersett scrubbing the step of her bakeshop while Widow Appledore polished the windows with a vinegar-soaked cloth. He grinned, although the smile froze when his eye fell on the landlord of the Cat and Fiddle. He pursed his lips in disapproval. Only the disreputableinn at the other end of the main street retained its unlovely exterior in all its grimy glory. Along with his father and grandfather he thought the place lowered the tone. Only criminals, low-lifes such as the Fernys and the Goatleafs, and those barred from the Pony ever patronised the place.

       At thirty-five, Perriman was taller, slimmer and much less red faced than his grandfather. He and his father ran the inn and his mother and wife did the cooking, together with some help from a couple of hobbit lasses. Barliman was still alive and reasonably hale although his joints were too stiff for him to be able to do much these days.

       "What're you scowling about, Perri?" His sister Kate stuck her head out of the window just beside him. She was married and lived in Combe but had returned to help her mother during the Royal visit.

      "Look at the state of that place!" He nodded in the direction of Bree's second inn. "Old Tothill hasn't made any preparations at all. He can't even be bothered to clean the filth off the windows!"

       Kate shrugged. "Don't know why you're so surprised. The place has been an eyesore for years so he's hardly likely to change it for the King. He didn't do anything when they came here about 15 years ago."

       Perri shook his head in disbelief. "What will they think? The Queen lived in Rivendell - I'll warrant she's never seen such a disgusting place."

       "Well, the King knows all about The Cat and Fiddle - he walked past it often enough when he was Strider the Ranger. As for the Queen, I doubt she's as shockable as people think. Seems a sensible lady to me." She grinned. "I'd better go and help Mam - she's fretting that the room isn't good enough." She ducked inside and was gone.

       Carrie Butterbur had been working on that room for weeks. There were new crimson velvet curtains and bed hangings, a lovely tapestry for the largest wall, new rush matting with some Shire rugs on top, and a brand new coverlet which she had embroidered herself. The spotless sheets and pillowcases smelled of lavender and there were at least half a dozen brass jugs and bowls filled with flowers. There was a bathing-room next door. She hoped the King and Queen would think it fine enough. Perri had assured his mother that the Royal couple would love it, and old Barliman pointed out that Strider had slept under hedges and in muddy ditches on occasion.

       He moved on to cleaning the upper windows. Below, he heard footsteps and glanced down to see two of the Rangers, Jester and Goat-herd, otherwise Captains Hallas and Dirhael, who were preparing to ride out and meet the King and Queen. He liked the Rangers, particularly these two. Hallas was always singing, telling jokes and amusing the children with conjuring tricks. Dirhael had earned his nick-name the first time he visited Bree, when thirty goats decided to escape their field and wander down the main street, feasting on people's flowers and Widow Goodbody's best drawers, which were hanging on the line in her garden. The young Man soon had the errant goats rounded up and back in their field, and admitted that, as a boy, one of his tasks had been to herd the livestock.

       He thought back and remembered the many Rangers he had encountered. Of course, at one time the people of Bree had been wary, deeming the grim-faced, dark-haired Men dangerous, until they realised that they were protectors, not enemies. Perri's proud boast was that he had been bounced on Strider's knee when only a babe, and his own son was fascinated by all the Rangers.

       One of the most charismatic was a young Man who had appeared in Bree about five years before. He was one of the tallest among the tall, a beardless lad who still managed to conduct himself with immense dignity. Within a few days he had charmed all the older women with his good manners and bewitched the young ones with his good looks. He soon won all hearts when he rescued a little girl wh had fallen down a disused well, climbing down as sure-footed as a cat and returning to the surface with the child clinging round his neck, to great acclaim. He also climbed a tree near the Breeland Gate, to save a tiny kitten and return it to a worried owner with a smile. No-one knew his name but one night someone at the Pony called for a song. The young Man obliged and Perriman had stood in the shadows, feeling chills up and down his spine. He was singing in one of the Elvish languages, as the Northern Dunedain often did, but Perri somehow understood the meaning behind the words. He found himself transported to a shore, with creamy wavelets running up upon a white shore. His own voice was raised with others in a hymn of praise to the Lady of the Stars. When the last notes died away the Man had a name - Minstrel.

       Minstrel enjoyed his ale, and a smoke, and he sat a horse like a natural. He was friendly and cheerful yet with an air of command which made the older Rangers respect him and the roughest criminals fear him. Whenever he set off on patrol he would bid farewell to his friends at the inn and run around the stableyard with little Hardiman on his shoulders. It was known that he visited the Shire, as many of the Rangers did, and when he appeared again he would often bring pickles or jam from Mistress Rose. Usually his absences were for no longer than six months but Perri had seen nothing of him for over a year. He hoped the Minstrel was safe, wherever he was.

      With the Royal Warrant sparkling and the inn's windows glinting brightly, Perri was satisfied that the Pony's reputation was intact, and carried his ladder inside.


        It was almost an hour after noon when the first outriders appeared. Big and Little Folk lined the street, waving and cheering the Royal couple. Both wore deep blue, the King astride his huge black horse and the Queen riding side-saddle on a pale grey palfrey. They smiled and waved as they rode to the door of the Prancing Pony, where the Butterbur family was lined up to greet them.

       "Barliman, old friend, it is good to be back again! It will be good to taste a pint of the Pony's best tonight." The King prevented the old man from kneeling and smiled fondly into his eyes.

       "Ah, Lord Strider! You don't look any older than when you went off into the wild with those hobbits."

       Aragorn laughed. "If you think that my friend, your eyesight is worse than I thought."

       Young Hardiman bowed shyly and presented a bouquet of flowers to the Queen, who crouched to hug the lad and talk to him.

       Perri's wife, Cecily, was over-awed but managed a curtsey, and Merriman and Carrie were greeted like old friends.

       "So this is your son? Hello Hardiman."

       "Hello King Elessar," answered the little lad, smiling up at Aragorn.

       "You've been in the Shire, my lord King?" Perriman asked as he straightened from his bow.

       "Twice in the last two years. We went to attend Elanor's wedding and we have just come from there following our second visit. My family have now returned to Gondor by ship with the majority of our luggage. We went back because I wished to give the Shire-folk the land of the Westmarch. I suspect Elanor and her husband will move there."

       "I've met the Lady Elanor - she must have been a very beautiful bride, my lord."

       "Radiant. She is not yet of age, of course, but she is clever and sensible and knows her own mind." The King grinned. "You can see I have spent time in the Shire - I am under orders to run back to Gondor in order to lose all the weight I gained there."

       As they made their way inside, Perriman lingered in the courtyard, watching Nob and the other grooms settle the horses. Other members of the party were still riding in, so Perri did not turn when someone rode across the cobbles and dismounted just behind him.

       "Hello Perriman, my friend. I said I'd be back, did I not?"

       Perri whirled. "Minstrel! By all that's wonderful! It is good to see you again."

       "I could not stay away any longer. I am longing for a pint of your finest ale."

       "That's just what the King said............."

       Perriman's voice tailed off as he looked at the young Ranger. He was wearing his sword and his grey cloak with the star clasp, but his cloak was open, revealing a rich blue velvet tunic. Tiny white trees had been embroidered on the cuffs and there was a silver E glyph on the collar, topped with a circlet. Minstrel smiled ruefully.

       "I'm afraid my mother insisted I dress up a little for the occasion," he said. "Nay, do not bow. I am still simply a Ranger, and proud to be so."

       "Minstrel!" Hardiman's excited squeal echoed round the courtyard and the child rushed out and threw himself into the Ranger's arms.

       "Goodness! You have grown- what are your parents feeding you?" He swung the child up onto his shoulders and led the way back inside, ducking low beneath the lintel.

       Perriman shook his head in amazement, and followed Crown Prince Eldarion Elessarion of Gondor and Arnor into The Prancing Pony.

This began as a Halloween story and turned into something more suitable for Remembrance Day.

Gondor, 3rd Year of the Fourth Age

Long skeletal fingers of mist drifted across from the Anduin, swirling dreamily round the causeway forts and floating above the Rammas Echor and the road to the White City. There was little wind but it was a cold, damp night to be out.

       Dorion of the Gondorian Guard shivered as he stood outside the northern causeway fort. Chill wisps of mist seemed to find the smallest gap between his collar and his neck, insinuating themselves about him in an almost uncanny way. He was glad of the single lantern above his head which cast a comforting circle of light in the otherwise all enveloping darkness. The lights from the city were still visible through the mist but they looked a long way away. His father, a soldier of the Citadel Guard, would be at home with other members of the family, celebrating the Souls' Feast. It was said to be the night when the veil between the two worlds was at its thinnest, and Dorion could believe that. He glanced over to his fellow guard on the other fort, which stood on the other side of the great road from Osgiliath to Minas Tirith. At least he did not feel quite so alone while he could see another human being, but the mist was thickening all the time and it was difficult to see anything. He could hear the soft whispering of the river as it rolled towards the sea, a noise which normally would not have bothered him but tonight the water sounded hungry and restless.

       "Stop thinking like a maid!" he muttered to himself. Even as he said it, he wondered what sort of spirits might be abroad on this night. The other-worldly cry of a screech owl made him jump; he remembered the screams of the Nazgul during the Battle of the Pelennor Fields. So many Men and Orcs had died out here in that battle, and the Lord of Minas Morgul had been despatched by the Lady Eowyn and the Pheriain Meriadoc. Dorion suppressed a shudder as he wondered if that dark spirit might be abroad.

       The tide of memory carried him back to the night after the battle, when he was sitting beside his father's bed in the Houses of Healing. The tall dark Ranger from the north had come from healing the Lady Eowyn, Meriadoc and Lord Faramir. He spoke with many who had been wounded in the fighting, and gently reassured a worried sixteen year old Dorion that his father would recover. He had also assured the lad that the Witch-King had gone for good. Convinced that the Lord of Minas Morgul was not about to appear, Dorion was still rather uneasy. The mist was now too dense to see more than a few feet, yet he was beginning to realise that something was out there. He just knew it, although he could not have said how.

       The horse startled him as it trotted out of the mist in front of him. Dorion almost laughed in relief; a runaway horse he could deal with. It was a magnificent looking beast, milk-white, with a mane and tail of spun silver streaming behind it, neck arched proudly. Dorion thought it most resembled the horse on which Mithrandir had arrived in the White City at the time of the War, but that creature had gone over Sea to Valinor with the White Rider. Dorion could not think of any other horse like it in Minas Tirith. The Queen rode a grey palfrey and most Gondorian cavalry horses were dark brown or black.

       The horse trotted in a circle, approaching a little closer. It regarded the young guardsman with an intelligent and slightly mischievous gaze, head tilted in unspoken query. It was then that Dorion noticed something else - the initially solid appearance of the animal had given way to something much less substantial. The body seemed composed of the mist around it, roiling and billowing like milk poured into water. Dorion felt the hairs stand up on the back of his neck.

       Then he remembered his grandfather's stories of the Pelennor, and the great painting in the museum. Six thousand Rohirrim charging in a mighty wave down the slope and into the orcs of Mordor, led by a single white horse bearing King Theoden to their last battle.

       "You're Snowmane, aren't you?" Dorion whispered. The horse bowed his handsome head in assent. "You and your fellow horses saved Godor and I'm sorry you had to lose your lives." The young man bowed to the animal, who whinnied softly, turned and trotted away through the fog.


       In the guard house later, warming himself with meat, bread and mulled ale, Dorion wondered if he had imagined the horse. He mentioned it tentatively and some of the guards laughed and said he had been dreaming. One who did not laugh was the old sergeant, veteran of many battles. He nodded thoughtfully.

       "I've seen a lot of strange things, lad, and I've seen him a time or two, when he chooses to appear. You're honoured - not everyone has seen him, although I know the King himself saw him not so long ago, on his way back from Osgiliath. You weren't dreaming."

       Following a morning's sleep and a late lunch, Dorion made his way out of the great gates and walked across the fields to the green mound with its simple white marble stone. He carried a bunch of flowers which he placed on the mound before standing with his head bowed. He remembered the hundreds, perhaps thousands of horses and the unfortunate mumaks, taken from their homeland in the warmth of Harad and driven to their deaths before Minas Tirith. So many innocent lives. They had even less choice than the men who fought, and were quickly forgotten by most. Dorion resolved that he would make sure they were not forgotten.

       As he walked back towards the gates Dorion found himself hoping he would see Snowmane again, on a night when mist rolled in from the river and the fields were empty.

Written in memory of all those animals who died in wars. Some people estimate that 7 million horses died in the First World War. In London there is a war memorial to the animals which remembers everything from elephants, horses, mules, dogs, cats, carrier pigeons and even the glow-worms which were used to read maps by on dark nights.


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