AN: Another for the Henneth Annun challenge fic. This could get interesting.

Disclaimer: I don't own a drop of Butterbur's ale, or anything else about this fic.

Return of the Ranger


The King was coming up the Greenway, and Strider had returned to Bree. And that was all Barliman Butterbur knew at the moment. Well, that and his name as it was shouted at him from across the room.

"Barliman! Another ale!" Jack Harvester turned back to his drinking companions as the large innkeeper bustled over. "I'm telling you, there's going to be scads of them. And not a one of them knowing one end of a plow from the other, you mark my words. They'll just sit around, and when they run out of money, they'll still sit around. We're throwing our arms open to layabouts." The middle aged man nodded decisively, as if there was no more to be said on the subject.

"They served under the King; that should count for something." Will Appledown hefted a pint jug as large as his head and took a long drink. "I've got an orchard they can tend if they need to."

The ringing of the bell over the door drew Butterbur away from the conversation.

"Well, Masters, what can I do for you?" The innkeeper made his ponderous way to the counter, wiping his hands on the apron round his hips as he eyed the men who had just entered.

Two men, looking very uncomfortable in plain work shirts, stood close together. They were thin with the gauntness of age, and both could boast at least fifty years of living. The one slightly in front of his companion answered for them both. "Beds for the night, and a meal. The King arrives tomorrow, and we were sent ahead."

Butterbur waved a large hand toward a table in the center of the room. "Of a certainty, Masters. I'm sure the inn can hold as many as the King has. Nob! Nob, you half-witted Halfling!"

"Coming, sir. Here, sir," Nob skidded to a halt in front of the old soldiers.

"You have horses, good masters?" Butterbur asked politely. At the affirmative nod, Nob scurried off to see to the animals while the innkeeper bustled about setting bowls of stew and a fresh loaf of bread before his new guests. "It's lucky you're not hobbits," he informed the old soldiers. "Half the Shire turned out to greet the King."

"As well they should, the King rides to meet them."

Butterbur was just about to ask what the stranger meant by that, when the bell at the door rang again. Bustling through the crowd that was steadily growing in his common room, Barliman saw a dark-hooded figure stalk from the door to the shadowed corner table, claiming it with such familiarity that by the time the innkeeper set food and ale before him, Strider had lit his pipe and settled in.

"I'm telling you, they look just the same, could he be Elessar?" The talk from the old soldiers was clear.

"His father, more likely. Do you remember Thorongil, Alcarin? Or were you even alive then, so long ago?"

The first soldier spoke again, taking the teasing in the spirit it was offered. "You have a decade on me, Tarannon, but I remember him. He was such a great man. Do you know he talked to me, once, when he caught me sneaking around the camp. He told me I needed to live and grow, so I could fight for him later," Alcarin shook his head as if to clear the long-forgotten memories.

"It's a pity you never saw him fight," Tarannon picked up the thought. "He was unstoppable in Umbar, and fearless. I often wonder what happened to him; he disappeared right after the battle."

An empty mug shoved into his hand distracted Butterbur from the conversation. He bustled in his usual breathless manner to refill the tankard and return it to the pushy Ranger. Strider accepted the refill and took a long drink before speaking.

"Well, Barliman, you certainly look no worse for a few years' wear. How go things in the North?"

"There's a King, now, and he's coming up the Greenway," was all the innkeeper could think to say.

Strider gave a tight smile, "So I heard. But what of Bree? Any troubles at home?"

"None here, but the Shire's still trying to put itself to rights after that great hullabaloo early this year. Scared the Little Folk half to death what with taking in all the refugees and relatives. I wonder if the King ever heard about that. After all he's got his throne down South and his golden cup, what would he care for folk like us?

"I'm telling you Strider, we need someone like that Captain Thorongil they're talking about; he would set everything straight," Butterbur shook his head sadly as he said it. The laughter from the guardsmen's table doubled.

Strider simply smiled and said nothing.