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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."
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.
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