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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.
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