Beneath the Surface
January was an evil time to roam the northern lands. The snow lay in deep drifts over the earth, concealing felled trees and dips in the land and other more deadly pitfalls. The wind cut through the warmest of garments and pierced a man to his very bones. Ponds and creeks and standing pools alike slicked over with glass atop of which the banks of snow piled high. If one chanced to stumble unknowingly onto such a surface, one was fortunate to escape with no worse than a twisted ankle or a bruised tailbone. If the hidden ice was too thin to bear the weight of a wanderer and it gave out beneath him – well, a drenched man would freeze to death in minutes.
It was a time of short commons and little sleep, a time of bitter hardships and a relentless struggle to survive. After weeks in the havenless hills, a man came to crave a hot meal and one blessed night out of the cold.
A man came to crave an inn.
Through the driving snow, the Ranger could just make out the lamps of the east gate of Bree. He had to squint against the stinging ice to do so, but the sight gave him the strength to quicken his pace. Long legs pushed resolutely through the unbroken drifts, and he leaned forward into the cruel wind. Ordinarily he would have rounded the village and attempted entry from the west, for less suspicion was afforded even to those of his sort if they came from the direction of the Shire, which the folk of Bree considered a more-or-less civilized region, if somewhat more primitive than their own. Coming from the empty lands in the east any traveller was scrutinized with distrust; good-for-nothing rogues and vagabonds and (most likely!) villains doubly so. But night was falling fast, and entry would not be readily granted after dusk. The east gate would have to serve.
There were no other travellers on the road awaiting entry to the town: only the mad and the desperate would venture out on an evening like this. The Ranger wondered which adjective best described himself, as his thickly wrapped hand lost its grip on his cloak and the garment flew back with a resounding crack. Both were treacherously near the mark tonight. He was half-frozen and ravenous, he had not slept in days, and his mind was beginning to play tricks on him. Far from the caves and niches of the Weather Hills, where at least there was a chance of lighting a fire, he would freeze if he tried to sleep outdoors; and with the storm raging into its third day, to drift into dreams in a snow-shelter would mean being buried alive. Out of long habit he turned briefly leeward so that the wind blew the garment around him again, and he clutched the two sides more firmly. With a sigh that came through his heavy muffler in a billowing cloud of condensation, he bent back towards the wind and pressed on.
He remembered the deserts of Harad: the broad, trackless wastes of bleached sand that rolled and eddied not unlike the snow beneath his feet, and the cruel white sun that blistered the flesh and baked the water from a man's very blood...
It wasn't helping. He was too chilled to be distracted by such transparent devices.
The town wall afforded some shelter from the wind, but here the snow whipped against the stones and stung his exposed eyes and the bridge of his nose—all of his face that could be seen between his muffler and the lead edge of his hood. Loosing his hold on his cloak, he raised his hand to knock. He knew that the aged gatekeeper would hear him poorly over the roar of the wind, and so he put his whole arm into the motion and hammered with all the vigour he could muster.
'Eh, what's all that racket?' a cantankerous voice demanded from the far side of the thick wooden gate. 'I ain't deaf, y'know!'
There was a creek of cold hinges as the porthole in the centre of the door opened. A pair of beady blue eyes peered suspiciously out. ' 'Oo's there? What's your business in Bree?'
For once a perfectly frank answer would serve him well enough. 'I intend to pass the night at the Pony,' the Ranger shouted into the storm, trying to turn his hooded head so that the shards of delicate ice did not drive so stingingly against his face.
The eyes narrowed. Perhaps frankness was not enough after all. 'Why?'
The infernal stupidity of the question was enough to make even the most patient of men shriek in frustration, but to do so would mean sure refusal and another sleepless night in the snow. The price of candour was too high. So the Ranger gritted his teeth. 'I'm told the landlord brews a passable beer,' he snapped, hoping belatedly that his brusqueness would be taken as an attempt to be heard above the wind. It was not.
'No need to be rude, stranger. We don't need your sort in Bree,' the old man growled.
For an instant the Ranger was terrified that he was about to be denied entrance. In that moment of fear he realized abruptly that he was desperate enough to use some of his more unusual talents in order to get past the belligerent guard. With no further delay, he forced his ice-crusted eyelids open and fixed a steely gaze on the man behind the door. He focussed all his will upon the gatekeeper. 'Let me in, and that will be the end of my rudeness,' he said, his voice low and level but imperious.
Despite the roaring of the storm the man heard him – or perhaps he was only responding to the inscrutable demand in the unyielding grey eyes. Whatever the case, he grunted in grudging assent 'Well, all right – but if you make any trouble you'll be hauled in by the Watch!' The ineffectual threat was punctuated with the closing of the porthole. A moment later the small door in the gate was dragged open.
'Thank you,' said the Ranger curtly and not terribly sincerely, as he brushed past the gatekeeper and hurried down the street before the man had an opportunity to say anything more.
Once he reached the centre of town where the tall houses of the men of Bree provided a buffer from the wind, he stopped to collect himself. His eyes burned from being so long exposed to the harsh winds, and his chest was heaving for want of air: the cold seered in his lungs if he tried to draw too deep a breath. A moment's disciplined focus restored some rhythm to his inhalations, and he continued on to the place where the familiar sign swung violently to and fro, creaking insistently into the storm.
The inn-yard was too large an open space: the wind gathered there and swirled madly around, sweeping with it the falling snow and powder plucked from the drifts on the ground. Momentarily blinded, he found his way to the door on the strength of memory and pounded with the side of his fist. There was going to be another unpleasant encounter as soon as someone answered his summons, but at least the landlord would not likely turn away a paying customer. He knocked again, more urgently this time. The firelight within was shining through the thick frost on the windows. The Ranger stamped his feet, trying to stave off the cold a little longer, and thumped a third time on the door.
It popped open and a gust of snow flew inside, eliciting an indignant exclamation from the portly form of the man who had answered. He had his shirt-sleeves rolled up above his elbows, and there was a sheen of perspiration on his round face. He did not even glance at the person demanding entry, but instead busied himself in brushing the snow off of his apron while he launched into a blustering speech.
'If you want a good song and a bit of sup, then I'm your man; but if it's a room you're aft—gracious!' His eyes grew enormously wide as he took in the hooded figure and the obscured face. 'Who are you? What do you want? We don't want any bandits 'round here! I—'
'Calm down, Barliman: it's me,' said the Ranger in hasty annoyance, rubbing one mittened hand against his muffler until the wool wrapping slipped below his mouth and exposed his already numb face to the biting cold.
'You! I might have known!' Butterbur did not look much happier with this revelation, but at least he was no longer on the cusp of panic. 'Well I'm sorry if you were hoping to stay the night, Mister Strider or whatever your name is, but I've no room to spare.'
He moved to close the door but Aragorn stepped forward into the threshold and thrust his shoulder firmly against it. Butterbur took one instinctive step backwards, gripping the edge of the door stoutly and donning a doggedly stubborn expression. 'I don't need a proper room: a space by the hearth will be quite sufficient,' the Ranger said, as affably as he could with his jaw taught with chills. 'You'll get your usual fee.'
'I can't do it!' Butterbur said emphatically. 'No one's moved on in three days, not since this storm started. Seems like half of Archet's staying here! All my guest rooms are full, and there's a party of coal-mining dwarves spending the night on the common-room floor. There's no room for your sort tonight. Now go away: it's bitter cold and I need to close the door.'
He pushed pointedly against it, but Aragorn remained unmoving. 'A place in the kitchen, a corner of the stables, even...' he tried. His teeth were clicking violently in his head now, and coherent speech was difficult.
'A filthy Ranger in my nice clean kitchen? Not likely! And how do I know you're not a horse-thief?' demanded the portly landlord. 'Get out of here before I call the Watch!'
The wind was biting at his back even through his many layers of clothing. Now that he had stopped moving, fatigue was gnawing at him. He was in sore need of sleep, and there was no one else for miles who would dare to take in such a one as he. Briefly Aragorn considered making a show of strength and will as he had at the gate, but then it occurred to him that it was unnecessary. Butterbur was, after all, a good man, if at times rather foolish. He just needed a little prodding to take the other person's perspective. 'Please, Barliman,' he said quietly, humbling himself and letting some of his desperation show through the grim mask. 'Anywhere at all.'
Butterbur looked suddenly very miserable. He appeared to be grappling with himself: his habitual prejudices vying against his kind heart. 'Oh, very well!' he said at last, gruff and exasperated. 'Goodness only knows where I'll put you, but I'll think of something. Now let me close the door: all the heat's draining away!'
Knees weak with gratitude, Aragorn stepped into the entryway, shaking the snow from the folds of his garments. Butterbur wrinkled his nose in distaste. 'You'll have to find a seat in the common room while I try to find somewhere for you to sleep,' he said, sounding as if he already regretted his impulsive decision. 'You'll be wanting supper, I suppose.'
'Not yet,' Aragorn said, a little hoarsely. His throat was beginning to seize up in the warm air, and there was a prickling pain in his tonsils. 'S-something hot to drink, please.'
'I've never seen such a storm!' Butterbur bemoaned, herding the Ranger down the corridor towards the crowded cheer of the common room. 'If it goes on much longer the whole of Bree will be buried in snow! What's the world coming to?'
Aragorn made no reply. There was at least one blizzard every winter, blowing in from Forochel, though it was true that they were not always so cold. Had he had his wits about him he would have remained near Amon Sûl: that was where such of the others as could reach it would gather. But someone had to keep a watch on the Road, even in January, and he could not ask of his men what he refused to do himself.
Butterbur hastened off amid calls for more beer, or food, or a flagon of spiced wine, leaving the unwanted guest to his own devices. As usual, the bulk of the patrons were clustered around the fire, and though for once such an admittedly conspicuous seat held a definite attraction for its heat, Aragorn found a small table in a remote corner and slid onto the chair. He tugged off first one leather mitten and then the other, and then peeled off the damp knitted mitts that he wore beneath. They had been lovingly made by age-wizened hands and carefully felted for him, but there was a hole at the base of one thumb, and the other's cuff was beginning to ravel. He shook them out and laid them gently on the table where they might dry.
His hands were beginning to prickle, and he chafed them together, trying to restore some feeling to his frozen fingertips. Now that he was out of the cold, bone-deep tremors were setting in, and within a minute he was shivering so violently that he would not have been able to rise had the threat of death pressed him. He hugged his arms to his ribs and clenched his teeth resolutely against the fierce chattering. The paroxysms ran their course and faded at last to a fiery tingling that ran along his skin and made his arms and legs itch terribly. He set his jaw against the discomfort and drew back his hood.
He wore a fleece-lined felt hat pulled low over his ears. This came off with a stink of unwashed hair, and he ran a hand through his matted tresses. The muffler had been stiff with frost from his breath; now it was wet enough to be wrung out. He draped it over the back of the other chair and scratched at his neck. Only a fool shaved at this time of the year, and like a wild dog in his winter coat he was at the moment fully bearded. He imagined he must look a fright all around, but it could not be helped. There was no one here to care how he looked, anyhow, or to be pained by it. He thought briefly of his mother, dead now three years, and how it had grieved her to see him weather-beaten and haggard after long months in the wild. He laid a hand on the woollen mittens that had been her last gift to him as a pang of bitter loneliness seized his heart.
A young hobbit whom Aragorn did not recognize came out of the kitchen bearing a tray of drinks. He jostled his way through the crowd, depositing them on tables and into eager hands. When he drew near the Ranger he stopped, eyes wide.
'Y-you're Longshanks!' he squeaked. 'I—I mean Stick-at-Naught... that is to say...'
'Strider,' he said evenly, fighting the weariness that was robbing him of his patience for the morbid curiosity of Bree-folk. He was somewhat mollified when the hobbit seized a tankard from the tray and deposited it in front of him.
'Th-that's yours, Mr Butterbur said,' he stammered. He was staring avidly at the stranger, and Aragorn could only imagine the wild tales and unpleasant rumours that were cycling through his curly head.
'Thank you,' he said, a little more frigidly than he meant to. His fingers found his money-bag where it hung under his surcote and he drew out a copper coin. He set it on the table. 'I value my privacy,' he told the hobbit. 'You may have that if you find something more interesting than me to look at, and there'll be two more if you can get me a little pipe-weed.'
The hobbit snatched up the coin, bit it to ensure it was legal tender, and scurried off again. Aragorn leaned forward, rounding his aching back, and curled his hands about the tankard. The warmth of the vessel penetrated to his bones and he could not help a low moan of relief. He drew the mug nearer, and inhaled the redolent, bucolic aroma of mulled beer. Not waiting for it to cool, he drew a cautious sip over his tongue and swallowed gratefully. After weeks of meagre sustenance, the sugary, heavily-spiced drink had an almost overpowering taste, but it warmed him to the core and settled his snarling stomach somewhat.
He drank in relative peace, interrupted only once when the hobbit returned with a plug of rather poor-quality pipeweed and had to be dispatched with the promised remuneration. A quick rummage through his pack produced his pipe, and he was obliged to rise in order to light it with one of the tapers by the fire. He stumbled a little as he got to his feet, but no one saw him do so. He returned to his table, having garnered only a few avid glances from some of the folk from Archet, and he puffed contentedly on his pipe, letting the fragrant smoke spill inconspicuously over his tongue and out the corners of his mouth. He could blow a fine smoke ring when he had a mind to, but he was too tired for such efforts and in any case he was not interested in drawing any more attention to himself than was absolutely necessary.
Presently the guests began to rise and bid goodnight to the assembly, bound for their beds. Aragorn tucked his pipe away, and bundled his hat, muffler and mittens into his pack. He was just starting to wonder if his reluctant host had forgotten all about him when Butterbur appeared, huffing and puffing and looking uncommonly apologetic.
'I've made room for you,' he blustered distractedly, gesticulating with one hand while he rubbed his balding pate with the other. 'It isn't very pretty, but it's out of the wind and there's a fire in the grate, and its private – I know how you like to keep to yourself. If it's not good enough, I've no idea what else to do. Why you always turn up when you're least wanted I'm sure I don't know, but—'
'I'm certain it will be fine, Barliman.' Aragorn dragged himself to his feet as smoothly as he could. 'Lead on.'
He followed the innkeeper, babbling all the way, up the back stairs and past the third floor. On the last landing, four steps higher than the top storey and surely right beneath the eaves, Butterbur halted and opened a small door. 'I told you it's not much to look at...' he began, hopping backwards a step when Aragorn bowed his head to sweep through the low entryway.
It was a windowless garret room, dingy and disused with cobwebs in the corners. It did not seem to be ordinarily equipped for guests, but someone had brought in a straw mattress – he could see the tracks in the dust on the floor where it had been dragged – and made it up nicely with an old patchwork quilt and two limp-looking pillows. There was a rickety table and an equally wobbly-looking chair, and in the little hob a small but cheerful fire was burning. Against the far wall there were hints of the room's usual purpose: long planks of pine wood were leaning against it, and a disused whetstone occupied one corner.
'You're putting me up in your lumber-room,' he said with some amusement.
Butterbur sputtered impotently. 'You said anywhere, y-you rogue! You scoundrel, you—you—you—'
'Easy, good master,' said Aragorn. 'It suits me perfectly well. Thank you.' He favoured the innkeeper with a rare smile.
Butterbur was stunned into silence, staring mutely at his unwelcome patron. It occurred to Aragorn that the man had not likely seen such an expression upon his face before. The effect, he supposed, was somewhat muted by the beard, but nonetheless it seemed to make a considerable impression upon Barliman. His mouth closed and opened several times, giving him the look of a corpulent fish gasping in the air, and then he snorted. 'Well. Well, then. That's fine, isn't it?' he gabbled awkwardly. 'Well. Well, well, well. Fine. That's fine.'
'It is indeed,' Aragorn agreed earnestly. He looked around the dreary little room once more, and found himself oddly touched by the trouble to which the man had put himself.
'Well, then. If there's nothing else you're needing...' Butterbur began, backing away towards the stairs.
'There is, actually. I'd like a basin and hot water, and a jar of soap.'
'Soap?' Butterbur could not have looked more flummoxed had Aragorn asked for a bowl wrought of dragon-gold and brimming with Elven pearls.
'Yes. So that I can wash,' he clarified.
'You? I mean, you never struck me as having a particular fondness for washing. That is to say, Rangers as a rule...'
Butterbur was in danger of blustering himself into a tight corner again. Aragorn curled his lip wryly. 'I'm making an exception tonight,' he said. 'A basin, water, and soap; and after that I shan't trouble you again until morning.'
'What about supper?' asked the innkeeper shrewdly.
Aragorn shook his head. His exhaustion was clawing at his conciousness and he doubted that after he was finished what he had to do he would have any strength to return downstairs just to eat. 'Not tonight,' he said regretfully.
Butterbur withdrew, muttering perplexedly to himself. Left alone, Aragorn dragged the door closed and fumbled with the silver star that clasped his cloak. There were four pegs in the wall behind the door, and after shaking the garment out once more he hung it up. He looked dubiously at the chair, but decided that it was not up to the strain of being used for its originally-intended purpose. Instead he sat down on the floor and after a few minutes of rather ignominious wrestling managed to remove his boots unaided – no mean feat. The supple leather gave way with a sucking sound. The soft felt shoes that he had been wearing inside the heavier footwear to ward off blisters and chilblains slipped off his feet as he dragged off the boots. He dug each one out with practiced fingers. Like his mitts they were damp. He laid them out carefully before the little fire.
A circumspect knock at the door announced the appearance of the landlord and his hobbit assistant, the former carrying a large tureen of steaming water and a threadbare towel, and the latter a washbasin and a little pot of soap. There was a brief scuffle as they tried to navigate the small room, but in the end they were gone and Aragorn was left alone to resume his divestment.
He wore a heavy sleeveless tabard made of coarse wool broadcloth of a dark, disreputable green and lined in undyed fleece. It was interlined with sturdy Elven-tanned leather, unseen both outside and in, and served as a sort of armour in addition to its primary function of warmth. Unlacing the left side, Aragorn hauled it over his head and laid it by his cloak. His sword-belt came off next: as was his wont when in his own lands he carried Narsil, its broken blade hidden in the nondescript sheath. He touched the hilt with reverence, and then moved to conceal the weapon between the mattress and the wall where even in sleep he might guard it.
His other belt he set on the table, and with it his purse, his tinderbox and the long knife he used for dispatching and dressing game, and as a weapon when snares and fire would not serve. He was then able to haul off his thick, felted surcote, also dyed in drab woodland hues. He hung it by its collar from the peg next to his cloak. His fingers, now clumsy after thawing, fumbled with the lacing of his cote, a warm tunic made of a softer wool than the other garments but similarly coloured. It was wet and as he hauled it off he could smell the pungent stink of perspiration ingrained into the cloth. It needed to be aired and brushed, but there was no foreseeable opportunity for him to obtain such services. He hung it on a peg instead. With a disgusted sigh, he removed his felted breeches, which did not match the make of his other garments, being his own handiwork and so somewhat less skillfuly made. The folk of Imladris thought their outlandish appearance most absurd, but they were an eminently practical piece of attire, especially in winter. Beneath those he wore more ordinary woollen hose, one on each leg. He untied the points that held them in place, and peeled them off. The underhose, which were linen and reeked of shed skin and dirty feet, he flung into a far corner of the room.
Barefoot now, he stood in his shirt and braies and exhaled heavily. In the Wild at the present time of year it was impossible to undress in this way. Body linen could not be changed, nor could one wash. Convulsively, he stripped off the last of his garments, throwing them after his underhose. The gesture was grimly satisfying.
As best he could he washed himself, leaving the water in the basin black with grime, and inspected his body for bruises and contusions that might have been numbed by the cold. Finding nothing of particular concern, he dug through his pack and drew out his clean linen. His relatively clean linen, he corrected himself, for it smelled musty after weeks in his pack. Once modesty was satisfied he recovered his cast-off undergarments. Kneeling on the floor he took a fistful of soap and began to launder them in the remaining fresh water in Butterbur's pot. Without anything to beat them against the task was difficult, but at last satisfied that they were as clean as he could make them he rang out the stockings and the braies and hung them over the back of the chair before the fire, where they might dry.
He twisted the water from the shirt and shook it out, but he hesitated, reluctant to set it down. He slid off of his calves and sat, one leg curled under him and the other knee near his chest, fingering the soft cambric, its whiteness stained by old perspiration and grime and blood that no scrubbing would ever remove. Aragorn felt a twinge of remorse for having spoiled such a perfect garment, but then he reminded himself that such had been the maker's intent.
This shirt was unlike any of his other pieces of clothing. They were all sturdy and practical, and the further from his skin they were, the more deliberately crude and commonplace was their appearance. This one garment, alone of those he bore with him on his wanderings, was of exquisite make and extraordinary materials. It was made of Elven linen, as fine as the weavers of Rivendell could make it: soft as swansdown, sturdy as wool, and so light that even damp as it was it seemed to float between his fingers. The thread with which it was sewn was as slender and as strong as spider-silk, and the stitches were so tiny and so even that each picked up only three threads of the weft. Even his keen eyes could scarcely differentiate one from its neighbour. The seams were felled with care, so that no raw edges marred the garment: it was as beautiful inside as it was without. The front was smocked into delicate diamond shapes that gathered the fullness between his shoulders with function and beauty, and the sleeves and hem were adorned with diaphanous whitework in a pattern of niphredil and athelas leaves. Hundreds of hours of loving labour had been poured into the creation of this garment, and the artist who had wrought it had done so in the hope that her work would be worn and used – and ultimately ruined.
Aragorn ran his hand over the ornate embroidery, and his calloused fingers snagged against the silken couching. She had stood in the Hall of Fire in her father's house and laughed at his protest that such a thing could not be borne into the Wild. It was her gift to him, she said; her favour to safeguard him in his labours, and so it had become. Hidden beneath his Ranger-garb, unseen by any but himself, it was a reminder of her love and of the hope she bore for him. She could not go with him, and for that he was glad, to grapple with the darkness and defy the Shadow in covert warfare in the hollow hills, but she could send forth her thoughts and her devotion... and the work of her hands.
He bowed his head over his knee, burying his face against the delicate garment. It smelled of Butterbur's home-made soap and the odours of the body that one washing could not quite banish, but beneath that it seemed that he could detect the perfume of the niphredil and the golden elanor upon Cerin Amroth on a midsummer night so many years ago. He could see shadowy ebony hair in the moonlight, and feel a soft, cool hand upon his face. A promise of love echoed in his heart, a pledge against that seemingly unattainable day when the world would be free and the wanderer might find his rest.
That was why he fought, he reminded himself sternly, straightening his back and raising his head in defiance of his weary body and flagging spirit. That was why he endured it all: the grime and the hunger, the ceaseless vigilance, the bitter exhaustion. To that end he bore the slights and suspicions of those he protected in peril of his life. To that end he rose up and went again and again into danger. To that end he might someday even march to open war against all the might of Mordor. Because one day, perhaps, when his toils were past he might find peace... and upon that day she would be waiting.
He got to his feet, sore muscles protesting, and hung the exquisite shirt over the chair with his other, more ordinary undergarments. When he awoke he would don it again in place of the plain smock he wore now, to be soiled and spoiled once more as its creator wished. His flagging resolve strengthened once more by the memory of hope, he set about the final chores of the evening. He turned down the tops of his boots so that they, too, might air out a little. Then he banked the small fire with care and turned his eyes longingly upon the pallet in the corner.
A creak on the stairs without made him freeze in the midst of drawing back the quilt. He listened, his keen ears picking up the unmistakable sounds of a heavy man trying to move silently and failing spectacularly. Warily he waited until the feet moved off of the landing and descended towards the rest of the house. Then, swift as a predator in the night he moved to the door and opened it cautiously.
There was, of course, no one there. But on the landing floor the covert visitor had left behind a wooden tray bearing a covered dish. Puzzled, Aragorn bent and lifted the wooden lid. The savoury smell of hot stew assailed his nostrils and sent his stomach roiling ravenously. He smiled down the darkened stairwell in the direction that his benefactor had retreated. On that elusive Someday, he promised himself, he would also find an opportunity to repay this small kindness.
Butterbur had brought him supper.