Disclaimers: The only characters that I own are Edric and his family. I don't own Aragorn or Arwen or any of Tolkien's properties.
"Father, the King is coming. The King is coming!"
Edric turned to look at his son, Braden, as the boy raced through the door into the tavern. Hearing his son's words, he hurriedly placed his cleaning cloth on the counter and hastened to his son's side. The entire village had been making preparations for the visit of the High King of Gondor and Arnor. A messenger had come through several days ago telling all that the king was on a tour of his new realm and would be stopping in the village. He planned to meet with his people and the leaders of the village to see how things were run and determine what might need to be done for the people of the village. Since the king could not possibly visit every village in all of Gondor and Arnor, the messenger had told several nearby villages that the king would be here if they wished to see or meet with him. Because of that, the town was filled to overflowing with people. None here had ever seen the king or queen, and had only recently learned that the king had even returned to Gondor.
Once he got to the door of the tavern, Edric started pushing through the crowds toward the main street where the king would be passing by. When he reached the main street, he discovered that he could push through no further. There were so many people here that they were packed far too closely for anyone to move. He found a spot toward the back and leaned up against a wall, craning his neck to try to catch a glimpse of the king and queen. He had apparently taken too long in arriving, however, and he saw only the backs of the king and queen as they rode by.
From the back, he could see the queen's long, dark flowing hair as it cascaded down her back. She was wearing a dress made of a rich, dark green material, and there was an intricate headdress made of silver and gems adorning her head. On the horse next to her was a man with hair as dark as hers, though much shorter than the queens. He was wearing a circlet of silver rather than a full crown, which Edric supposed must be much more comfortable for traveling. The king was wearing a dark leather surcoat over a chain mail shirt, with leather and steel pauldrons on his shoulders. There were four knights of Gondor riding in front of them, and four knights behind them. The knights were not dressed in full armor, but rather in chain mail hauberks with leather overcoats. Edric was able to catch a glimpse of the silver emblem of the white tree of Gondor with seven stars arching over the splayed branches that was embroidered into the guards' leather overcoats. Behind the knights came several men that Edric now knew to be Rangers. Having befriended several Rangers in the course of his life, Edric scanned the faces as they rode by, but saw none that were familiar. Once the Rangers had gone by, next came the king's advisors and the ladies-in-waiting in all their finery, and then all of the rest of the king's escort including the cooks, healers, men to handle the horses and other assorted laborers. The procession continued for a long time, and Edric stood spell-bound along with all the other villagers. None of them had seen anything like this in their lives.
When the procession finally consisted of only the supply wagons, the villagers slowly broke, and many followed the procession to watch the spectacle of the camp being set up a short distance away from the village. Edric pushed through the crowd to hurry back to his tavern. Many people would be looking for a good noon meal, and he would do a great deal of business today.
Once back at the tavern, he and his family remained busy for many hours as people came and went, looking for and receiving a good, hot meal. There was hardly any break in the flow of people between the noon and evening meal with so many people in the village, and Edric knew he could not expect the flow to slow even into late evening as men gathered to drink and celebrate.
It was just after the usual dinner hour when the door opened and Edric glanced up to see who had entered. Freezing in his movements, Edric beheld a face he had thought to never see again. In the doorway stood a man dressed in a worn traveling coat with a dark cloak draped around him. His hair was dark as the night, and his eyes were a clear grey, capable of a piercing stare. 'It was amazing', he thought to himself. 'The man hasn't changed at all. Perhaps there are a few more lines on his face, and a hint of grey in his beard, but it seems as if the decades have not touched him.'
Breaking out of his surprised stupor, Edric moved forward with a wide smile on his face. "Strider!" he called out as he approached the man in the doorway.
Strider turned to look at Edric, studying the face of the man approaching him. A smile spread across his face as he replied. "Edric?"
Reaching out to clasp Strider's arm in a friendly gesture, Edric nodded enthusiastically. "Yes, Strider, it is I."
Returning the gesture and gripping Edric's arm in a firm grip, Strider reached out with his other hand and grasped Edric's shoulder. "You've grown."
Edric laughed. "It has been many years, Strider." He paused, then forged ahead. "And yet, you do not seem to have aged."
Strider merely shrugged in response, and Edric stepped back, gesturing for the man to come further into the tavern. "As you can see, we are quite busy tonight, but I have a table in the back room, if you wish. It will be quieter there than out here."
"That would be fine," Strider said, nodding, as he began to follow Edric through the tavern. "If you are not too busy, would you care to join me? It has been long since I have seen you, and I would like to hear of your life."
Stopping in his tracks, he turned to face Strider. "We only met once when I was very young. Why are you interested in my life?"
Strider looked steadily at the younger man. "The day we met, you showed me a kindness that was not extended to me very often. Because of that, I remembered you and have often wondered about your life."
A wry grin curved Edric's lips. "Then we seem to be akin in our thoughts. You were such a mysterious figure to a young boy that I have often wondered who you were and what your life was like. I will join you for dinner, as I have yet to stop for a moment to partake of my own meal. But I would like to hear of your life in return."
"Agreed," Strider said with a nod.
Resuming his trek through the maze of chairs in the tavern, Edric led the 'mystery man' as he had come to think of him in his childhood, to the back room where a few tables yet stood empty. This room was much smaller than the main room, and only a handful of tables would fit here. Since there was only one set of customers in this room, it would be much quieter and allow for conversation. Edric seated the man at a table and excused himself to notify his wife and son that he would be joining a friend for dinner. Braden nodded and followed his father to the back room.
Before taking his seat at the table, Edric introduced the man to his son.
"Strider, this is my son, Braden. Braden, this is Strider."
Braden looked sideways at his father. "This is the man you always ask the other Rangers about?"
Edric flushed slightly in embarrassment as Strider gave him an amused look. Taking pity on him, Strider turned his attention to Braden. "It is a pleasure to meet you."
Remembering his manners, Braden turned back to the man, inclining his head toward him. "As it is you. May I ask what you wish for dinner this night?"
A smile spread across Strider's face as he remembered one of the main reasons he had come here tonight. "I would like a bowl of your beef stew with a couple of slices of fresh bread and a mug of your best ale."
"I would like the same," Edric told his son as he sat down at the table, remembering the stew he had given to Strider so long ago. Apparently, that small encounter had left an impression on them both.
Braden left the room, returning shortly with their food and drink. Edric waited until the food was settled and his son had left to resume the conversation. "I was rather surprised that you remembered me. It was a long time ago, and you must have met a great many people on your travels."
Lowering the spoon of stew that he had started to raise to his mouth, Strider studied Edric as he replied. "The life of a Ranger is a hard, often lonely one. Many of those we encountered did not trust us, they did not know us, and had no desire to. As I said earlier, you showed me a kindness, and I appreciated the gesture more than you can know."
Looking down at the tabletop, Edric found himself unable to meet Strider's eyes. "I fear I am not so unlike those others as you might think. When I first saw you, I saw only your outward appearance and thought you must be an assassin or bandit or something of that sort. It was only when you knelt to help me clean up my mess that I changed my opinion. Surely no assassin would help a clumsy child pick up after himself." Deciding that he needed to see how Strider was reacting to his confession, Edric looked up to meet his eyes.
There was no hint of condemnation in the expression of the man sitting across from him, and Edric relaxed as Strider spoke again.
"But you did change your opinion. I realize how…off-putting we Rangers sometimes appeared to people. You, unlike so many others, were willing to look beneath that surface when something happened to challenge your initial perceptions. That was what endeared you to me. With the simple act of bringing me a bowl of stew, you made sure I would remember you." A look of curiosity crossed his face. "But how did you remember me? You were only a boy when we first met, and I was just one of many customers who ate here. Yet you called my name when I walked in the door tonight."
Knowing how honest Strider had been with him, Edric knew he could be no less. "You left quite an impression on the young boy that I was," he said, starting slowly. "I had quite the imagination at the time, and as I said, first imagined you as an assassin. After you helped me clean up the mess, I felt quite guilty for having judged you as I had without knowing a thing about you. The stew was partly a way of saying thank you, and partly due to my guilt. It did teach me something about looking beyond the appearance of others, though, and I tried to never again judge someone else the same way."
"That alone makes me quite glad that we met the way we did," Strider replied.
Silence fell between them then as both men began to eat. The conversation had taken priority, but both men were quite hungry, and decided that this was a good place in the conversation to take a bit of a break. Once the food was gone, both men sat back in their chairs and Strider was the first to speak.
"The stew was as good as I had remembered. You must relay my compliments to the cook."
"My wife will be happy to hear it," Edric replied. "It was my mother's recipe, though my wife is just as good a cook as she is."
"Do your parents still live, then?" Strider asked. "I do not believe I ever met your mother, but I do vaguely remember your father."
"My father passed on five years ago, but my mother still lives. She now lives with my wife and I, and has greatly enjoyed having Braden around."
Strider reached for his mug of ale. "I am glad to hear that she is doing well, though I am sorry about your father." He took a drink of his ale as if in toast to the man.
Taking a drink of his own ale, Edric started the questions he had long wondered. "I know now that you are a Ranger, and having befriended several Rangers over the years, know roughly what your life must have been like, but I would like to know more about you. The mystery that surrounded you has loomed large in my mind for many a year."
"What would you like to know?" Strider asked carefully, taking another sip of his ale.
"I often asked the Rangers that I encountered if they knew you and if they could tell me how you were. Even the ones that I knew quite well were careful whenever they spoke of you. I could rarely get more than a comment that you were doing well. Are all Rangers so secretive?" Edric's drink sat before him, forgotten.
Strider hesitated before answering. "It was often dangerous for any to know exactly where the Rangers were. Secrecy was essential to our survival, and became a way of life for us. I am sorry if that bothered you over the years."
A shrug was Edric's reply. "Do not worry about it. I was only curious. So, you do seem to be doing quite well." Edric's glance took in the clothing that the man wore. His coat and cloak had been laid across the back of an empty chair earlier in the evening, so his clothes were now clearly visible. No longer was he wearing dirty, travel-stained clothing, but a short tunic and pants of richer wool material. The tunic was a deep blue, while the pants were black. While the clothing was not made to look expensive, the material used and the superior cut of the cloth made Edric think that it was of a high quality.
The smile that spread across Strider's face lit his eyes up from inside. "So I do not look like the scruffy Ranger you first met?" He waved his hand to indicate that he did not expect Edric to answer that. "My lady wife threw out all of my old clothing, and ordered new travel clothing for me. I am only grateful that she allowed me to keep my old coat." A gesture to the coat on the chair made it clear that it was the coat in question. From the looks of it, Edric did not doubt that it was the same coat he had first seen him in, many years ago.
From the fond smile on the man's face, Edric assumed that the marriage was a rather recent development. Most men who had been married for a longer amount of time would not have reacted so well to having their clothing discarded. "How long have you been married?"
"Less than a year," Strider responded with a smile.
Edric stared at the man in front of him. Though he looked as if he were only forty or so, he had to be quite a bit older than that, for Edric was thirty two, and Strider had appeared nearly the same age decades ago. Knowing that the question might be considered rude, he was very hesitant when he asked it. "Why did you wait so long? I have been married for many years now, and you are many years older than I."
Strider's eyebrows rose toward his hairline as he stared at Edric. He had obviously not expected such a question. It was a minute or two before he answered, and in that time, Edric squirmed uncomfortably in his chair. That had been a bad question to ask, he should have known better than to give it voice.
"The situation was quite complicated," Strider finally said, his voice soft. "There were things that I had to do before I could settle down and take a wife or start a family. Those things were only recently accomplished, and I finally received her father's blessing."
Sensing that the topic was one he should not be prying into, Edric quickly changed the subject. "How is it that you do not seem to have aged since last we met?" His eyes widened as he remembered something he had learned long ago. "Is it true, then, that you and the other Rangers are descended from the Númenoreans? It is said that they lived longer than normal men and aged far more slowly."
Strider nodded his head. "Yes, it is true that the Dúnedain, my people, are the last descendants of the Númenoreans."
"So is the new king, is he not? I have heard it said that he is the direct descendant of Isildur. Is that true?" Placing his elbows on the table, Edric leaned forward, waiting to hear if this man knew something about the new king.
"He is," Strider answered.
"Do you know the king? I had not thought of the timing before, but that you arrived today makes me think that you do know him, or at least that you were part of his escort. Do you know him personally? What is he like?" The questions tumbled out one after another, giving Strider no time to answer one before the next was asked.
"You could say that I know the king," Strider replied carefully. "One thing that I can tell you about him is that he cares deeply for the lands and peoples of Middle-earth, and will do all that he can to see that all prosper and live in peace."
"Is it true that his queen is an elf?"
Before the man could answer that question, they heard an unusual hush spread across the common room. Through the doorway, Edric saw two of the Gondorian soldiers escorting a cloaked figure inside. They stood still as they scanned the room, apparently looking for something. Turning back to Strider, Edric murmured his apology, and hurried out into the common room to greet the newcomers.
"Good evening, may I help you gentlemen with anything?" Edric came to a stop before the Gondorian soldiers and looked back and forth between them for an answer. He was unable to see beneath the hood of the cloaked figure. A slender hand pointed out from beneath the cloak toward the back room. Edric turned to see Strider walking toward them.
"We found him," one of the soldiers said. "Thank you for your offer, but we do not seem to need your assistance.
Strider approached the cloaked figure and gave a short bow before gesturing the three newcomers toward the back room. "Would you care to join us in some refreshment?"
The guards looked questioningly at each other, but the cloaked figure nodded and took Strider's outstretched arm, allowing the Ranger to lead her to the back room. Edric stared in surprise as his mind filled in the fact that the hand he had seen extend from the cloak belonged to a woman, and as she was escorted by two of the king's guards, she must be someone of some importance. Perhaps she was one of the queen's ladies.
Strider escorted the lady and the two guards to the now empty back room. Edric moved to follow them, but the guards barred his way. A stern look from Strider had the guards moving aside to let him pass.
Once Edric was inside the room, Strider helped the lady to remove her cloak, and Edric found himself staring in shock. This was the most beautiful lady he had ever beheld! Her skin was smooth and pale, and seemed to shine with an inner light that he had never seen on another living being. Her hair was a lustrous sable and her luminous grey eyes shone with that a wisdom that belied her youthful appearance. When he saw the delicate points on her ears, he knew whom he was facing, and was stunned into immobility.
Strider turned toward him with the lady on his arm. "Edric, I would like you to meet the Lady Arwen. Arwen, this is Edric, the young boy I told you about. Though he is a young boy no longer."
At the introduction, Edric was shaken from his stupor and fell to his knees with his head bowed before the queen. "My Lady." Those were all the words he could squeeze past his tight throat.
"Please arise, Edric," the soft, rich voice had a touch of humor in it, and he looked slowly up into her face. She was smiling softly down at him, and gestured for him to get to his feet. "It is a pleasure to meet one who bestowed a kindness upon my beloved at a time when such kindnesses were all too rare."
At that, Edric turned an openmouthed expression of astonishment toward Strider.
A smile spread across the man's face, and he started laughing at the look on Edric's face. Quickly closing his mouth, Edric stared at the man he had known only as Strider. If the elf woman in front of him was the queen, then Strider had to be…King Elessar.
"My Lord?" It was more a question than anything else.
"Peace, Edric," the king said, reaching down a hand to tug him gently to his feet. "I am still Strider, the Ranger you met long ago and have been enjoying a meal with this night. That I am also known as King Elessar is of no consequence here."
Head spinning, Edric just stared at the man in front of him. "No consequence?" he asked in a hoarse voice. The king just shook his head and guided Edric back to his seat before seating the queen and re-taking his own chair. The thought that he was sitting at a table with the king and queen rendered Edric mute, so he simply watched as the king and queen spoke to one another.
"How did you know to find me here?" Elessar asked Arwen. "I took great pains to slip away and leave no tracks."
"I am quite aware of that, my love," Arwen answered with a laugh. "The guards are getting quite annoyed with you. You are supposed to bring them with you for protection. They keep complaining that they cannot protect you when none know where you are."
Elessar rolled his eyes. "I have survived many years on my own without their protection. I do not think they should worry so. I am well able to protect myself."
She smiled at him. "That is true, but you were not a king then. You should not be slipping away from your guards so frequently. They only want to keep you safe."
A long sigh escaped him. "Very well. But you did not explain how you found me here."
Another light laugh escaped her. "It did not take the skills of a great tracker to find you tonight. You spoke of coming here for many days before we arrived. Once we discovered you missing, I gave you enough time to enjoy that bowl of stew you seemed to be craving, then took two guards with me to track you down and reassure them that you had not been carried off by enemies."
Chuckling at her words, the king nodded to his wife. "Then I thank you for allowing me time to speak with my friend here before stunning him into silence with your beauty. Would you care for anything to eat? I fear that I abandoned you before the evening meal. I trust the cook saw to it that you still had a hot meal on time?"
"Yes, I have had dinner. Though some dessert and perhaps a glass of wine would not go amiss." The queen turned her gaze on him expectantly, and Edric realized that, as the owner of the tavern, there was something expected of him.
Shaking his head briefly to clear his mind, he found enough presence of mind to speak. "My wife made peach tarts for dessert tonight. Would that be acceptable?"
A smile lit her face. "That would be quite nice, thank you."
Excusing himself, Edric made his way to the kitchen to pick up dessert and drinks for all of them. He made sure to take a moment to get a hold of himself and make sure that he did not go in there and sit in stunned silence any longer. This was hardly the impression he wanted to make on his new king and queen. Though the thought that Strider was his king was enough to make his head spin, he took a deep breath to clear his head before re-entering the room with a tray of food and drinks.
Once he had served them and sat back down, he had to ask the question in his thoughts. "Do you mind if I ask how you became king? I did not think the Steward would readily relinquish control of Gondor, especially to a Ranger from the North."
A sad look crossed Elessar's face, making Edric regret asking the question. "That is a long story. Do you have the time to hear it?"
Edric nodded eagerly. For a chance to hear this story, he would gladly give up any responsibilities he had for the evening. Come to think of it, he would gladly give up sleep, if it required the whole night to tell.
The queen began eating her tart while the king launched into his story, occasionally pausing to eat a bite or drink his ale. Edric listened with rapt wonder to the whole tale of the war of the ring.
Once Aragorn's tale was complete, he and Arwen asked Edric about his life. Though he felt his tale was quite ordinary by comparison, he told them about working in the tavern with his parents, meeting a beautiful young woman and falling in love, marrying and starting a family. They seemed quite interested in his story, so he told them about Braden, what he was like as a child, and what his dreams were for the future. While Edric was quite content to stay where he was, working in the tavern with his wife, Braden desired a different life. He wanted to be a soldier, and fight to defend the land he loved. Detouring from speaking about Braden, Edric told Aragorn of the people he had met throughout his life, focusing mostly on the Rangers he had befriended. Aragorn nodded in recognition of many of the names, and Edric told several tales of his friendship with those men. The three of them spoke long into the night, sharing many tales with each other. Arwen was coaxed to tell Edric many tales of her own life, what growing up in Imladris and Lothlorien had been like. Her world was quite different than the one Edric had experienced, and he was enthralled by her tales.
When the hour had grown quite late, Aragorn and Arwen made ready to head back to their camp. They had a full schedule the next day, and needed at least a little rest. Aragorn pulled out a coin purse to pay for his meal, but Edric refused to accept the payment.
"I am in the habit of paying for food and services that I receive," Aragorn protested.
"This night, these tales mean far more to me than any coin you could pay me," Edric insisted. "Please, accept the meal as a gift, from a friend."
Aragorn looked steadily at Edric, pleased that he felt comfortable enough to make such a plea, then put his coin purse away.
"Thank you," Edric said.
"No, thank you." Aragorn stood and extended a hand to bring Arwen to her feet. As he helped her into her cloak and shrugged into his own coat and cloak, he turned once again to face Edric. "When your son is old enough, and if he has your blessing, you should send him to Gondor. If he is half the man his father is, I would be proud to have him as a soldier in Gondor's service." Stepping closer to Edric, he once more clasped his shoulder. "Thank you for this evening, my friend."
With that, the king and queen of Gondor and Arnor swept out of the room, to be followed by the two guards who had remained at the door the entire evening, and Edric was once again left staring after them in wonder.