Title: "The Men with the Stars"
Word Count: 1,922
Disclaimer: The characters of "The Lord of the Rings" were created by J.R.R. Tolkien, not by me, and I am not pretending otherwise. I am merely borrowing his characters as a tribute to his genius. No money is being made from this story, so please do not sue. The original characters in this story are mine.
Summary: Barliman Butterbur gets a new perspective on the Rangers. This story was written for the "Stars" Challenge at Teitho, where it received First Place.
Barliman Butterbur surveyed the common room with approval. Business was good tonight. There were plenty of guests, and the servants—both of the hobbits, and the new girl, Tansy, were all being kept busy. Tansy was a young maid of the Big Folk, recently hired to do whatever was necessary, whether it was pulling pints, washing dishes, waiting tables, or making beds. She had no experience with keeping an inn—her people were farmers, and Butterbur had hired her mostly out of pity, as goblins had descended on her family one night not long ago, killing their livestock and setting fire to their cottage. The family had come to Bree, where they had relatives, until they could get back on their feet and reclaim the family farm. Tansy had come to the inn seeking employment, desperate to earn even a few coins to help her family, and so, somewhat against his better judgment, Barliman had hired her as a sort of maid-of-all-work. He had not regretted his decision. Tansy's work ethic and her youthful good looks more than compensated for her lack of experience. Folk were more likely to place orders for drink and food from a pretty young maid than from a fat, middle-aged male innkeeper.
Butterbur was just reflecting how Tansy treated all guests in a warm, hospitable manner when the convivial chatter of the people seated around him ground to a halt. At a table in the middle of the room, Tansy was shouting at a Man—a guest!—who was also shouting, and was getting to his feet, facing her in a threatening fashion. Butterbur snatched up the "innkeeper's friend" as protection, hoping he would not need to use it as he hurried over to placate the guest.
"Here, now, what's all this?" he asked.
The Man, a short Breelander named Tom Goatleaf, who had a talent for stopping by the inn and insinuating himself whenever more generous guests were buying drinks, turned on Barliman, fairly spluttering with rage. "This stupid lass insulted me! Called me a fool!"
"Aye, for so you are!" Tansy was raging too, with bright spots of color on her fair cheeks and her blue eyes blazing. "You know naught about the Rangers, if you could say what you did—"
"Here now, Tansy, that'll do," Butterbur said, firmly but not unkindly. "Go wait for me behind the bar."
"Yes, Mr. Butterbur," she said in a much more polite tone, shooting Tom one last look of angry contempt before doing as she was told.
"That's it?" Tom said explosively. "I tell you, Barliman, she insulted me!"
Butterbur put his free hand on Goatleaf's shoulder. "I heard you the first time, Tom, and I can do my own shouting, thank you. I don't tolerate my staff being rude to guests, but I don't believe you're staying the night, and you've had a bit too much to drink, I fancy, so why don't you go on home to your wife? Least said, soonest mended, eh?" As he spoke, the innkeeper guided the unhappy man past the many tables in the common room, where folk were now resuming their own conversations. Once he had shown Goatleaf out, the innkeeper went back to the bar where Tansy stood. Her head was bowed and she stared at the floor, clearly expecting a reprimand or worse.
Butterbur replaced the cudgel and looked at her with more bafflement than anger. "Now then, Tansy, *what* got into you, lass? Tom's not someone I normally welcome here, but he isn't usually a troublemaker, either, and it's not like you to lose your temper at one of the guests."
"I'm sorry, Mr. Butterbur," the maid said in a small voice. "Are you going to sack me?"
The innkeeper scratched his head. "Well, now, I don't believe there's any call for that, not so long as you don't make a habit of doing this. Tom said you called him a fool—"
The girl's head snapped up, and she flared, "So I did, for he is one! He'd no right to say what he did about the Men with the Stars!"
"The men with the stars?" echoed Butterbur, confused.
"Aye, the tall Men who wear the silver brooches on their cloaks. The rayed stars. That's what I noticed most about them, the night they saved me and my family from the goblins. They're all tall, dark-haired Men with silver rayed stars on their left shoulders, pinning back their cloaks."
"You mean the Rangers?"
"Aye, sir, that seems to be what folk here in Bree call them. Rangers. I didn't know that at the time, though, nor did any of my family." And then, it came out of her in a rush of words. "That night was one like any other. We were all asleep—me, dad and mam, granny, and my younger brother and sister. In the dark of night, we heard our dog barking, and then we heard the most terrible shouting and laughter—it was goblins, Mr. Butterbur, goblins attacking our farm! They stole or killed all our livestock, killed our old dog when he tried to protect us, and set fire to our cottage. They had us in chains, quick as lightning, except for my dad and my gran—I think they were going to kill her because she was too old to be of any use to them as a slave. They dragged me and my mother forward—and they—they were going to do worse to us, and they were forcing dad to watch." Tansy shuddered. Barliman was speechless. "But then, thank the One, the Men with the Stars came to our aid."
"The Rangers," Butterbur said automatically.
"Aye, that's right, the Rangers. Their leader was the tallest Man I've ever seen, with raven-dark hair and stern grey eyes. He and his Men were as silent as the goblins were loud, and in moments, the goblins were shrieking again, but this time with pain and fear rather than with bloodlust. The Men with the Stars killed them all. The leader of the Men with the Stars, he killed the goblin-chief, the biggest and nastiest one, himself." Tansy began to weep. "He—he and his men saved all our lives, sir! And yet afterwards, he apologized to us for not getting there sooner. I wouldn't be here now, without him and the other Men with the Stars, Mr. Butterbur, and that's a fact."
The innkeeper, made embarrassed and awkward by the maid's tears, patted her shoulder in an avuncular fashion. "I'm sorry you and your family have been through such trouble, lass. You're safe here, I promise you. Dry your eyes, now." He hesitated. "Did Tom say something to upset you, then?"
The girl obeyed, using the edge of her apron to do so. "Aye, sir, that he did. I don't understand why folk here in Bree don't like the Men with the Stars, Mr. Butterbur, truly I don't. To listen to some of the talk, you would think the Bree-folk believe the Men with the Stars are all troublemakers, but what Tom said tonight was the worst. He started saying bad things about the Rangers, especially the leader, Tom called him 'Strider'—"
Butterbur started with surprise, but the maid, intent on her tale, did not notice.
"And I told him how the Men with the Stars saved me and my family, sir, I *told* him, but Tom just sneered! He said that Strider was no better than a brigand, and asked me if I was sure that the Rangers really came to my family's rescue. Tom said that mayhap the Rangers and the goblins were in it together!" Tansy's eyes were blazing once more. "So of course I called him a fool! That Tom is lucky I didn't take that pint he was drinking and pour it over his head!"
"I doubt if the Rangers need you to defend them, Tansy," Butterbur said, thinking that tall, strong, grim-looking Men with big swords were seldom the recipients of blatant insults.
"Maybe not, sir, but *I* needed to defend them." Suddenly, the girl took a deep breath and stood up straight, trying to look brave and not succeeding very well. "Are you going to sack me now, Mr. Butterbur, after hearing what I've done?"
"No, lass. I can hardly blame you for what you did, but I don't want you to do it again, understand? Tom is a fool, but we mustn't tell him so." That earned him a faint smile. The innkeeper added, "If he comes in here again, I'll wait on him."
"Thank you, sir," the maid said gratefully. "I know I shouldn't have let my feelings get the better of me, but as far as I'm concerned, that silver star brooch is the most beautiful piece of jewelry in Arda, because it means the Man who wears it is a Ranger, and they're the best." She paused, and added softly; "Sometimes at night, when I can't sleep, I look up at the stars. And then I remember the Men with the Stars on their cloaks, and I think about how they're out there, patrolling, guarding us against goblins and maybe worse. I say a prayer to the Valar for their safety…and then, I can go back to sleep."
Barliman patted Tansy's shoulder again. "I think you should go on home, lass. It's late, and you're had a long day."
"Yes sir. Thank you, sir." Tansy curtsied and made her departure.
The remainder of the evening was peaceable after that. The guests soon finished their eating and drinking and took themselves off to their beds. Finally, when everything had been cleared away, Butterbur allowed Bob and Nob to go to bed, and was thinking about retiring himself when the door opened, and two Rangers entered. It was none other than Strider and that other fellow who was sometimes with him: Halbarad, that was the name.
"It's far too cold and wet for this time of year," Halbarad said, shaking the rain from his cloak. "Two beers, Barliman, if you please."
As the innkeeper drew the pints, Halbarad added with resignation; "I suppose you're going to tell us you're full for the night."
"No," Butterbur said. "I believe I still have a room available. And if I don't, you can sleep on the floor in front of the fire if you like. I won't send you back out into the rain."
Both of the tall Men stared at him. Butterbur had seldom hesitated to send them back out into the elements on previous occasions, and never before had he offered to allow them to sleep before the fire if there were no other accommodations available.
"Thank you," Strider said.
Halbarad, always the more talkative and demonstrative of the two, laughed. "Yes, indeed, thank you, Barliman. You're a lifesaver."
The innkeeper found his gaze resting on the silver stars both Men wore on their cloaks. "From what I understand, that is a better description of you and Strider," he said, and pushed the two pints of beer toward the Rangers. "Drink up. These are on the house."
Halbarad laughed again, this time with astonishment. Strider shot the innkeeper a keen, thoughtful look as he said; "Thank you, Barliman. To what do we owe this generosity?"
"Just thank your lucky stars," the innkeeper replied. Then, chuckling at the surprise and gratitude on the faces of the two Rangers, he bolted the door for the night, and went off to prepare their room.