Note: Dedicated fondly to the Tim in my life: a hobbit if ever there was one!
Tailings and Tales
The Stranger: November, 2980
Strictly speaking, Barli was not allowed in the common room after seven o'clock. Mam said that drunken men were no fit company for small boys, and that if Barli hung about in the evenings he was bound to learn rough language and lewd stories and all manner of unsavoury things. Barli didn't know what lewd meant, but he was smart enough to know better than to argue with his mother when she used that tone of voice. This week, however, Mam and Meadowlark were gone to visit Nuncle Sherry up Combe way, and Barli's father was of a different mind when it came to small boys in the common room.
'One day, son, you'll own this place, and when you do you'll need to appreciate how business gets done. And most of the business in Bree sooner or later gets talked of right here in The Pony! Besides, I'm shorthanded with Nick gone, and I can use a quick pair of young feet between the kitchen and the hearth. That mother of yours never ought to have gone off while we was shorthanded, if she wanted to have her fine feelings! And to take your sister with her, too!'
So last night and this, Barli had been not merely allowed in the common room but virtually trapped there, trotting from table to taps and ferrying orders to Old Tim in the kitchen. Old Tim had been the cook at The Prancing Pony ever since Grandda Butterbur had tired of slaving over a steaming stewpot in between making cheerful rounds of the guests. Da often complained that Mam ought to take up the cooking and spare them Tim's wages, but the truth was that deep down he liked the old hobbit a bit better than he liked money. That meant they were practically dear as brothers, Mam said.
Really it wasn't fair to pick at Mam for going. She had been planning the trip for weeks, and looking forward to it the way a child looks forward to the Midsummer Festival. Just because Nick the houseboy had walked off the job last Saturday after Da ordered him to stay late again with no promise of extra pay didn't mean Mam should have to miss her visit to her brother's. Of course she could have left Meadowlark, who wasn't allowed to serve in the common room at all but could at least have taken charge of the washing up… but Barli thought his sister deserved her rest, too.
Meadowlark had been installed as the bedroom maid last winter, and that meant that she spent most of her day going from room to room making up the beds and sweeping the floors and cleaning up after guests. She was fourteen now, and old enough – so Da said – to take an apprenticeship if she'd been a boy, but she was small for her age and the work was really a bit too heavy for her. Sometimes Barli sneaked off from his lessons at Mr. Thistleby's parlour school so that he could help her turn the straw ticks.
But without Nick or Mam or Meadowlark, they were woefully shorthanded. Last night hadn't even been that busy, and they had still been run off their feet. Da had been up well into the small hours scouring heaps of mugs and tankards, and plates on which cold food had long since congealed. And then he had woken Barli at the crack of dawn to start in on the beds as soon as guests began moving on. Da hated to make beds, and having to do it today had put him in a foul mood.
Still he was all smiles and jollity as he bustled through the common room that evening, serving up drinks and laughing with the regulars. Da could be a bitter old crosspatch behind closed doors, but he knew how to keep up a good front for the guests. Barli thought that when he was the proprietor of The Pony, he would let himself be just a little bit sour on nights he felt it, even if the patrons did want a cheerful landlord. Folks liked a genuine person more than a sly one, that's what Mam always said.
Despite his busy day and a couple of good tongue-lashings, Barli was in fine fettle that evening. It was thrilling to be here, in the familiar place at a forbidden time. He was a good potboy: he waited at luncheon practically every day when his morning's lessons were done. Da was bound and determined that his son was going to grow up to be a lettered man, but he didn't see much use in geography or history or arithmetic: Barli could learn the first two better at the inn anyhow, he claimed, and the first one was no use to anybody at all. What did it matter where distant rivers ran or what far-away cities were called, when all a man could want in the world was to be found right here in Bree-land? And even reading and writing had to wait when extra hands were needed in the inn.
'Here, lad!' one of the patrons called, and Barli hurried over to his table, weaving between chairs in the crowded common room. 'Fetch me up another draught of beer, would you? There's a good boy.'
'Yes sir! Right away!' Barli said crisply. It was his mother who had taught him his manners, and she had done a proper job of it.
'Ain't he a spry one!' said one of the first man's companions as Barli scurried off. 'How old d'you think he is?'
'Old enough to fetch me a pint, I reckon,' the first man said, and they all chuckled.
Barli slipped behind the counter that hemmed off the brewing barrels from the rest of the room. Da brewed his own beer down in the cellar, and it was the best to be found in any of the four villages. Barli tipped the tankard he had taken from the customer and thrust it under the tap. He opened the stopcock slowly, letting the beer run down the side of the vessel so it formed a big, fluffy head. Da always insisted on that: if you pulled a pint with a tall cap of foam and got it to the table right quick, most customers wouldn't even notice that the top inch and a half of their cup was filled with nothing but air and stardust. Two ounces here or there might not seem like much of a savings, Da said, but skimmed off of every pint it added up quick.
Barli wasn't sure how he felt about that. It seemed to him that if a customer paid for a pint, he ought to get a pint. After all, if Da ordered ten pounds of chops from the butcher and was given nine and a half instead, he'd be livid with black rage! Still, he did as he had been taught and hurried back to the traveller and his friends. One nice thing about shorting the glasses was that it was easy to move about without sloshing anything over the rims.
There was a wail of wind as the front door came open, and the noise of boisterous talk and laughter. Four husky men came in together, hoods low over their heads and water streaming from their shoulders. From the gesture one of them made and his companion's scarlet blush and soaked rump, Barli gathered that one of the men had taken a tumble in the street. A freezing rain had been pelting down since mid-morning, and now the streets were slick with a thick coating of ice.
He sped for the entryway where the common room opened off the front hall, and snatched up the long-handled mop that stood there. As the men went past, shaking water from their rapidly shucked cloaks, Barli swabbed up the water they left in their wake. It would never do to have a guest slip on a wet floor!
'Evening, sirs! Welcome to The Pony!' he said proudly as he set to work. These were local men, and they all knew him. Mr. Stitchwort chuckled and ruffled Barli's thick, coarse brown hair. Then they all moved on to find a table. Barli nodded to himself, very satisfied. Even if they did only see him as a boy, they had gotten their welcome and liked it, too. That was an innkeeper's first order of business.
For a while after that he was busy scooting from table to table and darting back and forth from the kitchens with the heavy trays of food. Everything smelled heavenly tonight: Tim had baked up a nice big ham, and he was roasting summer hens to a perfect golden brown. There were potatoes, mashed, roasted or boiled as the customers liked; and turnips (mashed); and stewed plums with brandy sauce. There was bread, of course, and a nice thick soup made with a beef bone Da had got cheap off the butcher, and for a sweet there was crisp apple pie and stout cheese.
Barli had had his supper already, before most of the crowd had turned up. He was glad. It would have been hard to carry all those plates of good things to eat if he had been at all hungry. But penny-pinching or not, Da took pride in his ability to keep his family well fed, and Barli was a sturdy, stocky young boy even at the tender age of nine.
It was nearly half past seven when the door swung open again. Da didn't like to bother with guests knocking, and everyone 'round here knew it was best just to walk in. Barli didn't much care for that, either, but he supposed he wasn't the innkeeper and it wasn't for him to say. Still, his father was near the exit making merry conversation with a couple of hobbits from Staddle, and he excused himself promptly to greet the new guest. Barli ducked under the arm of a broadly gesticulating traveller and went for his mop.
To his surprise, the guest was still in the doorway when he reached the common room threshold. Looking down the front hall, Barli could see his shape against the light of the shingle-lamp. His face was shadowed in the poorly lit vestibule, for Da didn't believe in lighting more candles than strictly necessary to keep folk from tripping in the dark. It didn't help that the man had his hood low down over his face and was huddled in a soaking cloak. But Barli could see that he was very tall, even hunched over as he was against the wind whipping his back. He was much taller than Da, anyroad, and he was still standing right in the doorway and letting the cold air in as he came to the end of a murmured statement.
'When hens give milk I will!' Da exclaimed, clearly affronted. 'I don't go doling out supper for the asking, and as for the other that's the strictest rule of the house! No coin, no bed, and that's final.'
The stranger said something that Barli could not quite hear. His voice was hoarse and very low, but there was a sort of a musical note to it: measured, like the chords of an old song. Even without the words, Barli could see that the man was speaking very respectfully: much more respectfully than customers usually did.
Da stiffened a little, jerking his head back as if he had heard something surprising. 'Would you, now?' he said. 'All night, 'til we're shut up and ready for morning?'
'All night,' the stranger agreed, and now he was speaking just loudly enough that Barli could hear him. He was a trifle disappointed. The way his words rolled, he had hoped he might be a traveller from some faraway land, but his accent was just like that of any other Bree-lander.
'For the tailings and a night's bed,' Da clarified. 'Off the plates, not the proper leftovers I can sell tomorrow?'
'Yes,' the man said, audibly but still very softly.
'Well, all right then. I don't suppose you Rangers know much about waiting at table, but you ought to be able to work out how to clear up. Go in and get to work at once, before I come to my senses and change my mind!' Da stepped away from the door and swept his arm imperiously towards the common room. 'And leave that mucky thing out here: you can't slop around in that if you're seeing to paying guests.'
There was a note of mocking disdain in his voice, but the tall man only nodded and tugged the door closed behind him. He seemed to lean back against it for a moment, though from the front Barli didn't think his father could see. Then he reached for the throat of his cloak – which now it was in out of the backlit doorway Barli could plainly see was choked with mud almost to the hips, as well as dripping. There was a glitter of silver as the man undid the clasp, but whatever it was, it was hidden by his hands and vanished swiftly into his belt-pouch almost before Barli saw the man's hands move. Most likely trying to hide a belonging of worth from Da's calculating eyes, he thought. A silver brooch, even a poorly made one, was worth much more than one night's board and lodging. He wondered why a man who owned such a thing might have no coin to spare for a bed. And he wondered what his father was talking about with tailings.
The man was now removing his cloak with care, doubtlessly trying not to spatter the walls, the bench and the landlord with a spray of chill, mucky water. As the garment came away his shaggy head of dark hair ruffled about his face, and his weatherstained clothes were revealed. He wasn't dressed so specially, either: another disappointment. His clothes were drab and commonplace, though admittedly soaked through with sleet. That was worth noticing: he must have been outside for hours if the freezing rain had got right through his cloak and all that rusty green wool to his skin. He wasn't fom the town.
But Barli's eyes grew wide when he saw the long sword belted to the man's hips. He had seen swords before, but never like this. It was much bigger than the sturdy short swords that the watch carried, and it was far more slender than the doughty blades you could sometimes see on the back of a dwarf coming to or from the Blue Mountains. The hilts were unusual, too, but in the gloom and hanging as it was on the man's far side, Barli could not make out any details.
'You stay away from the casks, now, and if I catch you nicking food from a fresh plate you'll be out in the street quicker than you can say good-for-nothing,' Da said sternly. 'If you break anything, I'll take it out of your hide! And don't you dare swallow a mouthful where the guests can see you!' Then dusting his hands he marched back through to the common room.
The stranger watched him go, an unreadable expression on his face and something smouldering in his grey eyes. Then he cast his gaze down to his sodden boots with the softest of sighs, and came through as well.
'Welcome to The Pony, sir! Good evening!' Barli said with forced good cheer as the tall man passed him. He paused, and eyes that a moment before had gone dull and weary sparked with sudden pleasure.
'Why, thank you, young master,' he said in mild surprise. 'Are you the potboy?'
'Yes sir!' Barli said, puffing out his chest proudly. 'Barliman Butterbur, at your service!'
'The landlord's son? I rather think I am at yours, at least for tonight,' said the man. He held out his hand to shake, pulling off a wet woollen mitt as he did so. Barli took it. The hand with its calloused palm had a good firm grip, but it was terribly cold. Close in, and with the bright light of the common room to aid him, Barli could see that the man was very pale: not at all florid of face like the ruddy men of Bree. And those eyes were queer, too: far more knowing than they ought to be and somehow shimmering in their perfect greyness. They parted hands, and the man shrugged a deprecating shoulder. 'I shall be clearing tables and scrubbing pans this evening.'
'Oh!' Now Barli understood why his father would break his firmest rule and let someone bed down for the night without paying. The man had offered his services in trade. 'Well, we'll be glad of the help, and no mistake. What's your name?'
The tall stranger looked at him oddly and twitched his shoulder in a chagrined sort of way. 'I suppose I ought to do something about that,' he said nonsensically. Then his eyes searched the room like a shrewd merchant appraising the square on market-day, or that was what Barli thought. He had not the experience to recognize the abrupt, anxious but calculating assessment of a beleaguered Captain on a field of war.
'Where should I begin?' the man asked, effortful willingness in his voice.
Barli shrugged. 'There's no trick to it. They push away their plates if they're finished, and the kitchen's through there.' He pointed. 'Just be sure and ask if they're done with their mugs. If they're wanting more, I'll be the one to fetch it.'
'Yes,' the man said with a hint of dry amusement. 'It seems your father doesn't trust me near his taps.' Then all of a sudden he was off, moving for the first table that looked to have cast-of dishes and taking the smell of wet wool and chilled perspiration with him.
Someone called for another drink, and Barliman hurried off. It was easy to fall back into the pattern of the work, and he soon almost forgot the stranger now moving through the room with unusual agility. He nearly jumped out of his skin fifteen minutes later when the tall man came up behind and touched his shoulder.
'This is not the best use of our energies,' he said matter-of-factly, guiding Barli over towards the counter. He stopped short of it and nodded to the two tankards the boy held. 'You stay here and fill, and I shall fetch them to and fro.'
Barli looked up at him uncertainly, for it was not the way things were ordinarily done. But the truth was that he was beginning to tire, his short legs aching from the second night of running about. The man had much longer legs, and he was just in out of the rain: likely he could do with a bit of trotting to warm him. Decided, Barli nodded and started in with filling the cups.
By the time he was finished with his two, the man had come back with four more. He was very quick on his feet, and they began to make inroads in managing the throng. Dreary nights were always busy, and this was a mighty dreary night. Da was hurrying back and forth from the kitchen with laden plates: it seemed as if just about every male in Bree, Big and Little, wanted a bit of gossip and some of Old Tim's cooking tonight. After a while the stranger was bringing back empty plates with the tankards, and ducking into the kitchen to leave them by the big dishpan.
It didn't take Da very long to notice the arrangement, and to work out that he wasn't getting the best part of it. It was twenty minutes past eight when he sidled up beside Barliman and herded him out from behind the counter. 'You take the orders and bring out the suppers,' he said. 'I'll manage this.'
'Yes, Da,' Barli said obediently. Fetching the plates wasn't as easy as standing stationary behind the counter, but it wasn't the hard, constant work of clearing dishes and carrying drinks, either. He went gladly enough into the quiet of the kitchen, where Old Tim was mashing a mountain of potatoes.
'Busy night, Master Barli!' he said cheerfully. 'Who's that Ranger been popping in and out with the dirty plates?'
'The tall man?' asked Barli. 'I don't know: he wouldn't tell me his name. Da's letting him work through tonight for a bed. I don't think he's got any coin. What's a Ranger?'
'He's doing what? Your Da? Mr. Butterbur?' Tim said incredulously. 'Letting folks stay here when they can't pay?
Barli shrugged helplessly. 'We can't manage without another pair of hands, not tonight. We're all behind like a cow's tail as it is.'
The kitchen door swung open and the tall man came into the room, shoulder first with both hands full and head ducked so he didn't smack it on the lintel. He had half a dozen plates stacked in one, and the other was draped with the handles of more mugs than even his long fingers should have been able to hold. There was a sheen of sweat on his brow, though his face was still very pale. Hurriedly he went to the table at the back door, where a tower of dirty dishes already stood. He lowered the cups carefully and then set down the plates. Most were empty: hard-working men rarely left much of their suppers, and hobbits never left anything at all. The one on top had a corner of a slice of ham half-buried in a clump of Tim's smooth mashed turnips and a few loose peas. Barli watched idly, waiting for Tim to finish filling the plates needing potatoes. He expected the stranger to scrape off the leftover food into the hogs' slop bucket.
Instead he did something that was utterly astounding to a boy who had never wanted for three hearty meals a day. He picked up one of the soiled spoons, scooped up the peas and most of the turnip, and popped it into his mouth. His eyes closed briefly as if in relish – as though that spoonful of cold yellowish glop was the most delicious thing he had ever tasted. Then he went after the rest of it with the spoon.
Barli was gawping, open-mouthed, and Old Tim followed his gaze just in time to see the odd man bite down on the second mouthful.
'Here, now: what do you think you're doing?' the hobbit exclaimed, sounding every bit as taken aback as Barli felt.
The man's eyes were momentarily questioning, and then softened with understanding. 'My arrangement with the master of the house,' he said apologetically. 'For my labour I am to have shelter this night, and my pick of the leavings of the paying patrons.'
Now Barli understood what his father had said at the door: the stranger was not to have a choice of the good leftovers, the saleable leftovers that would be rearranged by Tim's skilled hands into cottage pie and savouries and all sorts of pleasant things for tomorrow's luncheon. He was to have the scraps.
It hardly seemed fair. As with the business with underfilling the drinks, this looked very much like one of his father's tricks to save a penny and so get something – in this case an extra pair of really quite capable hands – for nothing. Barli wondered if the man knew what a poor bargain he had struck, and what he would do when he realized it. He looked like he could be a tough customer, what with that long sword and all.
Still, he didn't have it in his heart to be silent. Sometimes Da's penny-pinching made him feel ashamed, and he didn't want any part in this. 'That's not fair,' he said. 'You're doing Nick's work, and some of Mam's too. Nick was paid eight coppers a week, and he got his supper every night. A proper supper, too, made up just for him. Ain't that so, Tim?'
Tim shrugged his shoulders wordlessly, his eyes on his work. He was mixing something into the soup pinch by pinch, tasting with a long spoon as he went.
'It's so!' Barli said unnecessarily. 'Even if Da don't pay you, you ought to get supper.'
The tall man shook his head. 'It seems like this Nick of yours is a shrewder negotiator than I,' he said. 'Don't let it trouble you, young Master Butterbur: it's your father's affair and mine.'
Barli did not know what to say to this. Happily, Tim did. He was used to ordering a houseboy around, and whatever his strange remuneration this man was taking Nick's job tonight. 'You'll need to wash that lot, and right quick,' he said. 'I'm down to my last couple of plates.'
'Yes, sir,' the man said in precisely the same tone Barli himself used when his father gave him an order. He was already rolling up his sleeves, but as he did so he looked around the kitchen. A moment later he was unbuckling his sword-belt. 'Have you somewhere I can put my blade?' he asked. 'It's proving a hindrance in the crowd.'
'Around the corner in the larder,' said Tim, as if this was the most reasonable and commonplace of questions. 'It'll be safe enough there. Master Barli won't touch it, will you, lad?'
'I won't,' Barli promised. The sword looked even longer when the man had it in his hand, even though he was gripping the scabbard and not the hilt. He closed the distance to the larder door in two long strides and reached around to lean his sword upon the inner wall. Then quick as a flash he was back at the heaps of plates, almost to the elbows in the wash-water.
'Go on, my boy: get those out there,' Old Tim said. 'Tell the fellow wanting a boiled egg that I've got it in the water: if he wants a good firm yolk it'll be another few minutes.'
Barley nodded and picked up the plates, balancing the first between chest and forearm and taking the other two in his hands. The door had a double-jointed hinge and he nudged it with his toe. Then he was out into the heat and the din of the crowded common room.
For a while he had no time to think about anything, for they were falling behind with the tankards again. He was soon running them back as fast as his father could fill them, and then all of a sudden the tall man – the Ranger, as Tim had called him, whatever that meant – was back in the main room, hard at work. The customers were used to his presence now, and they swiftly fell into the habit of addressing him like a member of the staff.
'Here, you fellow: I'll take another!'
'Oi, longshanks! Over here!'
'Got room for another in those arms of yours?'
The man answered all of these summons promptly and with a courteous word or two, though he never smiled or tried to make conversation as Barli's father did. Da was running again, back and forth between the taps and the tables: it was just too busy to be managed otherwise. Racing though he was, Barli couldn't help his curiosity. He stole surreptitious looks at the tall man whenever he could, wondering what sort of a person he was. He knew he was being cheated but he didn't seem to care enough to confront the landlord and demand his due. It wasn't at all how Barli's own father would behave, he knew that.
Hopelessly curious, Barli waited for a rare quiet moment while Da was wiping down the countertop and no one was calling out for more beer, and approached his father.
'Da?' he said, glancing over his shoulder to be sure that the stranger was in the kitchen instead. 'Who is that man? Tim said he's a Ranger. What is a Ranger?'
'A no-good layabout that tramps the roads without no sense of responsibility,' Da answered scornfully. 'They don't got homes, and they don't often got money, and they sleep rough most of the time. They're a strange lot, though they don't seem anything to be afraid of. Lazy, mostly, I guess, and queer. Let that be a lesson to you, my son: them that's idle day to day will regret it sooner or later. Hungry enough to eat other folks's slops; serves him right.'
Serves him right for what? Barli wanted to ask, but he didn't dare. Mr. Longhole was waving to him from across the crowd, standing up by his chair to do it, and the boy hurried off with a quiet; 'Yes, Da.'
He didn't think his Da had quite put his finger on it. The Ranger-stranger was certainly not lazy: he was working harder than either of them, now back again and weaving through the crowd. There had to be some other reason that he was down on his luck. As he crossed the room, Barli kept a lookout for those tables where guests had come to the end of their meals. So many of the plates standing by stocky elbows were empty and Barli thought the man had to be halfway starving by now, what with all the running around.
His suspicions were confirmed when he came into the kitchen with fresh orders for second helpings from one of the hobbit tables. While he was reciting these lengthy requests to Tim, the man came in with another heap of plates and a few empty soup bowls. His pale face now had a greyish cast to it, and his hair and collar were damp with clammy sweat. He set the dishes down and stood there motionless for a minute, hand gripping the edge of the washtub.
'May I have some water?' he asked throatily, his back still turned to the hobbit and the boy.
'Pail on the windowsill: help yourself,' Tim said. He was starting in on a new loaf of bread, paring off the heel with careful economy so that Da wouldn't scold him for wasting. He hardly seemed to glance up as the man crossed the room and took the dipper with a hand that shook for a moment and then tightened its grip to rock-steadiness. He drained it swiftly and took another measure. Then he set down the dipper and drew in a deep breath through his nostrils before turning back to stride out the door.
Tim put down his knife. He took the thin, floppy piece of bread that he had just cut, and the somewhat stouter heel of the old loaf, and held them out to the Ranger.
'Here,' Tim said gruffly. He sounded just the way he did when Barli got himself into a spot of trouble and the cook had to cover for him. 'Something to be going on with.'
The man's keen eyes narrowed warily. Clearly he wanted the bread, but he was weighing the matter against his earlier words and whatever inscrutable principles lay behind them. 'I cannot,' he said. 'Other considerations aside, I wouldn't want to get you into trouble.'
Tim shrugged. 'If the master asks, I'll tell him I was feeling peckish. Go on: you're to have the scraps, ain't you? It'll do you more good than it'll do the pigs.'
'Thank you,' the man said. He sounded breathless, although he hadn't been panting from his exertions before. He plucked the two slender bits of bread and bolted them down hastily, moving swiftly for the common room door even before he had finished swallowing.
Barli turned to ask Tim what he thought of the peculiar visitor, but Tim was already busy with the loaf again, humming loudly to himself. So Barli just recited his orders instead and got on with it. Back out in the common room, he found himself tracking the Ranger with his eyes more diligently than ever. So he wasn't afraid to do things behind Da's back. That was good. Barli guessed there wasn't much his Da could do to the man anyway; not if he knew how to use that sword. His lean forearms were hard with muscle: it was clear whenever he lifted a heavily-laden tray of foaming tankards to one strong shoulder.
About a half-hour later, Barli went back to the kitchen to find Old Tim gone from the room and the yard door stood ajar. This was nothing unusual: the elderly hobbit had to go out several times in a night. The draft of bitter cold air coming in at the door was actually refreshing in the overwarm room. The stranger was in its path at the man-sized work table, one hip thrust against it to bear some of his weight.
As Barli came in, the Ranger was plucking up a chicken bone from the top of a pile of plates that had not even made it across the room. It looked like a bare bone to Barli: part of a leg that some customer had already picked clean. But the man lifted it to his mouth and began to gnaw on it with vigour, stripping away every last shred of meat and gristle. Then he dropped it back among the detritus of plum pits and eggshells that were all most folk left and reached for a bowl. He tipped it to his lips and drank the dregs of another man's soup. Barli felt sick.
Only as he lowered the dish did the man spy the boy over its rim. He blinked once, ponderously, and then curled up one corner of his lip in a wry little half-smile.
'Cook will be back shortly,' he said. 'If meat is wanted, I can get a start on carving it.'
'You could have a piece yourself,' Barli blurted out, relieving the mounting pressure in his chest. 'Of the ham. A real piece, right from the bone and still warm. Father wouldn't ever notice that.'
For a moment the man only looked at him, eyes soft yet somehow piercing. Barli wanted to squirm or to look away, but somehow he couldn't manage either. Then the man blinked again, and suddenly Barli was able to look down at his shoes.
'That would be stealing,' the man said mildly, not at all in the scolding way Mam might have. 'Your father and I struck a bargain, and on a night like this I was fortunate to strike one at all. I must uphold my part of it, or it's as good as breaking my word.'
'You took bread from Tim,' the child argued.
'Could Tim have given that bread to a guest?' asked the man. Of course the answer was no, but that seemed like such a foolish reason not to eat.
'But… but you're hungry,' Barli protested feebly. He could imagine nothing worse in all the world.
'I am, but not so hungry as I was when I came to the door,' said the man patiently. 'I'm steady on my feet now, and but for my cuffs I'm dry, and I am out of the weather – which is the main thing. I had forgotten how November can bite in these lands.'
'Then you are from far away!' Barli exclaimed eagerly. 'I thought you must be: you look so different. But you speak just the same as we do.'
'How else should I speak?' the Ranger asked, perfectly ingenuous.
'I don't know…' Barli began, petering out as the man stood straight again and moved the dishes to the tub. The piles were mounting again, and he set to washing with a will. Not long after that, Tim came back in with his cloak up over his head, and Barli was back to work himself.
Around half past ten the rush finally died off. Some of the regulars hung about and many of the lodging guests were slow to seek their beds, but most with wives at home had to be off. Kitchen service trickled to a crawl, and the calls for beer and spirits were punctuated more often by requests for mulled wine or a hot toddy or even a warm milk with nutmeg. After a while the tall man stopped coming out to clear tables and began trying to work through the ever-present mountain of dirty dishes. The later diners tended to graze on their meals, and whenever some choice morsel was pushed aside in dismissal Barli hurried it back to the kitchen with it. Each time he was greeted with a quiet word of thanks and that queer, canted not-quite-smile that was both amused and somehow moved. Barli found he was quite excited when he found a plate with a hunk of untouched potato, or a fatty rind of meat. Once he even brought back a whole stewed plum, left sitting in its sweet sauce.
At last Da announced that he could tackle the crowd quite well himself, and sent Barli off to tell Tim to close up the kitchen. He came back to find the old hobbit already at it: covering the remains of the ham with a clean cloth and swinging the hook that held the huge soup-pot to the back of the hearth where its contents could simmer all night. This time it was the stranger who was gone from the room, but before Barli could ask where he had gone he was back. He came in through the door with one of the big water-buckets in each hand: he had been to the well. His hair and shoulders were wet, and his boots seemed to want to slip on the floor, but he did not let them.
He emptied one bucket into the dishpan, which Barli hadn't noticed was empty. Then he poured the contents of the steaming kettle over the cold water, and refilled it from the other bucket before hanging it over the fire. He picked up one of the dirty bowls and scooped three fingers' worth of soap into it, added some hot water, and beat the mixture with a fork like he was scrambling eggs. When he had a good froth of bubbles going, he emptied the bowl into the dishpan and stirred the water with his forearm. He seemed very good at all of this, for somebody who didn't have any home or responsibilities. He had finished with the plates: they were neatly stacked in four pillars on the taller of the two tables. Now he started in on the mugs.
'I can wipe,' said Barli, coming up beside him and taking a cloth. 'Da's taking care of the latecomers.'
The man looked at him again, not quite quizzically and with that strange knowing gleam. 'Thank you,' he said. 'I would welcome the help.'
They worked in silence for a few minutes, but Barli found that he just could not keep his mouth shut. Mam always said he was too inquisitive, and if he didn't watch it folks would take him for nosey. Still he couldn't help it. He had been wondering and puzzling all night long, and he finally had a chance to ask a question or two.
'My Da says you're a Ranger and you don't got a home,' he said. 'Is that true?'
'I suppose it is, in a way,' said the man. 'I certainly don't own a comfortable little house in a peaceable village, if that's what he means.'
'What else could he mean?' asked Barli.
The man arched an eyebrow. 'What else indeed,' he said in a singsong way.
'What do you do? For a living, I mean?' Barli pressed, encouraged that he had not yet been told to hush up and work.
'What I must,' said the Ranger. 'Lately that has meant wandering in the Wild.'
That did not sound like any sort of a living to Barli. He thought about the wide, wild lands beyond the comfortable town wall; away from the farms and cotholdings that surrounded Bree. There was nothing out there but trees and rocks and trouble. Everybody knew that!
'What do you eat out in the Wild?' Barli asked worriedly.
'What I can carry and what I can catch,' said the Ranger. 'I've had no time for hunting, not in three weeks, and there's a limit to what a man can carry on his back if he wants to keep limber, even if the burden grows lighter each day. Tomorrow I'll go out in the woods and sniff out a rabbit or two. That should see me through quite nicely.'
That made a little more sense. Rabbit was very nice, when spiced and roasted and served up with parsnips and potatoes and good fresh bread. Barli found that he felt a bit better. 'Where do you sleep?' he asked.
'Tonight I'll be sleeping in one of your vacant rooms, provided your father was content with my work,' the tall man said. Barli didn't notice that it was not much of an answer. 'I understand the inn is not at capacity tonight.'
'No. We almost never are. Half-full, lots of the time. Tonight it'll be about three-quarters, because folks from Combe and Staddle won't want to ride home in the sleet,' said Barli. 'Mam says we'd do better trade if Da would let her wash the sheets after every guest, instead of just once a fortnight when it's that room's turn on the schedule. He says soap's too expensive, and we'd have to take on more help, and most travelling folks wouldn't know a clean bed if it jumped on them.'
A wistful look flicked through the man's bright eyes, but only for an instant. Then he shrugged his shoulder and dragged the rag out of a hobbit-sized mug with a squelch. 'I think you'd be surprised,' he said. 'That's something to consider when you're an innkeeper yourself. Sometimes it's the travelling folk who most appreciate the little luxuries like clean sheets.'
Barli found himself wondering if this man had ever had a bed of his own, with clean sheets and a fat straw mattress with a goose-down pad on top of it, and a quilt sewn by his mother and two nice, plump pillows in a neat little room where he could shut the door when his sister was too irritating. He wondered where Rangers came from, and how they got to be Rangers. He supposed, with some surprise, that this tall stranger must have had a mother once upon a time. He wondered what she would have thought if she knew how her son was living. His own Mam would have been sad and worried and ashamed. She always said she wanted Barli to amount to something, which as far as he could see meant making a good success of The Pony and settling down with a nice wife.
'Did you ever have a bed?' he said before he could stop himself. He flushed crimson. This was almost certainly a rude question.
But the man only curled his lip again and tilted his head to one side, pouring out a tall tankard and handing it over. 'Why, yes,' he said. 'Not so very long ago I had a most comfortable bed, in a fine stone house with a walled garden on a very respectable street.'
'Why did you leave it?' asked Barli, baffled. Who would leave a house on a respectable street to sleep out in some ditch, or beg a night's shelter from a niggardly innkeeper?
'The bed was comfortable, but my situation was not,' the stranger said with a finality that was almost a command. Barli didn't stop to wonder whether he was commanding the boy, or himself. He bowed his head once more over his wet work.
'Do you know any stories?' he asked, unable to think of any other way to change the subject.
The man looked up from the dishwater in some surprise and very nearly smiled. 'One or two.'
'Would you tell one?' Barli said hopefully. He hadn't expected the peculiar man to be so patient with his questions, and it didn't hurt to ask.
'Very well. What sort of a story would you like?'
'Something about faraway lands,' answered Barli promptly, scarcely believing his luck. This was his favourite kind of story. Sometimes when there were travellers from afar staying at the inn, he would creep down into the front hall and listen as they told their tales around the common room fire. He wasn't usually allowed across the threshold after seven o'clock, but Mam seemed to tolerate him lurking on the other side of the doorway so long as he didn't make a nuisance of himself.
'Faraway lands…' the stranger said in a curious tone, and all of a sudden his eyes were far away, too. Then he came back to himself and nodded, falling back into the rhythm of his washing again. 'Very well. There is a land called Rohan, and it is very far away. If you follow the Greenway almost to its end you will come there, and you will find a country that is very flat, with only low rolling hills instead of the great stony ones in this country, and very few forests. The people of Rohan are skilled horsemen, and the husbandry of their animals is unequalled among Men. The horses of Rohan are fair and fleet and very clever, and the best of these horses belong only to the King…'