Only a Game
4. The Prancing Pony
The entrance hall was a large room going far back into the hill, there were many doors and corridors leading off from it and at the back I glimpsed a dark wooden stair case. The ceiling was low and huge dark beams of timber ran through the whole length of the hall. The walls were panelled with dark wood, which had the wonderful patina only the passage of centuries can convey. The white washed walls above the panelling were streaked with grey and in the corners I spotted some cracks. The floor was covered with a faded carpet of burgundy red, and in front of the stained glass windows to either side of the door sagging easy chairs were positioned.
I walked up to the reception, a huge desk crafted from the same dark wood as the panelling.
No one was in sight, but a brass bell sat on a red bit of felt. My stomach did a flip and I picked up the bell, again wondering at how solid this bell – which only existed in a computer game and my imagination – felt in my hand. I rang the bell, and the high tinkling sound surprised me again.
After a moment, a door to the left behind the reception opened. A short plump woman with brown curls and red, dimpled cheeks emerged and walked up to the desk, smiling at me.
"Good day to you, my lady! What can I do for you? Mary Butterbur at your service."
Mary Butterbur? She was not in the books. But she certainly looked and sounded like a real person. Cool! Perhaps they had decided that old Barliman needed a wife… or a daughter, I thought, because the woman could not be much older than thirty.
I cleared my throat. "My name is Jarro; I'm a ranger from the North. I am looking for – " I paused. They would not know Aragorn's name. And what was it, what Frodo had called himself at Bree? Underhill! "I am looking for another ranger. He's called Strider, a tall man with dark hair and grey eyes. And some hobbits out of the Shire, a Mr. Underhill and his companions." I smiled at Mrs. Butterbur. I felt this had been quite a good act, I had sounded all natural and self-assured.
But Mary Butterbur looked at me with an expression of puzzled amazement on her face.
"Strider? Hobbits out of the Shire?"
"Yes, I wanted to meet them here." I said, with a mounting feeling of apprehension. Perhaps the game was not as well programmed as I had thought it to be up until now.
"There have not been any Hobbits from the Shire visiting for a long time. During the life of Barliman Butterbur the first, some two hundred years ago, there was quite a lot coming and going between Bree and the Shire, because the legendary Master of Buckland, Meriadoc Brandybuck the Magnificent and the just as legendary Great Thain Peregrin Took were great travellers and knew people from all over the world. But that was a long time ago, and I don't think I have ever seen a Hobbit from the shire."
Then she narrowed her eyes and looked at me suspiciously. "Ranger, you said? Vagabonds? Gipsies?" Her hand reached for the bell – and I had the sudden impression that her ringing would produce burly male Butterburs set on inflicting bodily harm on me to protect this Mary Butterbur.
"No, no, no! Not at all, not at all! We are not vagabonds or criminals – thieves or something. We are just…" What kind of people were rangers? "We are just… people from the North. We travel a lot. That is why some people call us rangers. Don't you know?" I stared at her. This was a curious error for a computer game to develop.
"Rangers. People from the North." Mary Butterbur did not sound convinced. "If you say so. But I don't know any rangers. And I don't know anyone called Strider. Perhaps your friends will be along later." She looked at me expectantly. "Do you want a room? Or something to eat while you are waiting for your friends?"
If the game did not play the story as advertised, I was not sure whether I wanted to spend more time in this world of illusion. Perhaps I'd better go back and ask the nice doctor out to dinner.
But I guessed taking a room and having a meal would not hurt. Even if there was a flaw in the program, which had swallowed the plot, the inn was amazing, and this Mary Butterbur-person was absolutely life-like.
"A room would be lovely", I said and put my hand in my pocket, feeling for a purse. To my relief there was a purse, and it felt quite substantial. "And dinner would be great."
This put the smile back on the face of the landlady. "That's two shilling for the room and six farthings for breakfast. Dinner is at six, that would be eight farthings with soup and dessert."
"How about two shillings ten farthings for bed, dinner and breakfast? And I might stay for another night." She thought about my offer, and then nodded.
I opened my purse, feeling my heart race when I realized that I did not know what the money I had mentioned would look like as coins in this game. But somehow, miraculously, when I went through the contents of my purse, I heard a voice in my mind each time I touched a coin, which seemed to say – in the same tone I heard my own thoughts in my mind – a beautiful new shilling, a brass farthing, a silver penny and so on. I counted the money on the desk. Mary Butterbur watched attentively, and then she smiled at me and rang her bell once.
Out of a door to the right a small figure entered the hall, running up to the desk. At first I thought it was a child, but when I looked at the person more closely, it was a hobbit.
Could not be anything else. And again I was amazed and thrilled at the way this game did work.
The hobbit was as tall as a human child of ten or twelve years, but had the figure of a grown up, the proportions were in no way stinted, just a bit smaller than an adult human would normally be. And there was the beginning of a pot-belly, so the hobbit was likely not young. He had a mob of curly brown hair, merry brown eyes and he did indeed wear no shoes. His feet however were not abnormally large. The edges of their soles looked worn and brown and leathery, which was not surprising if the hobbit had never worn shoes in his life, and there was a mob of curly brown hair growing on them.
"Bob, take the Lady Jarro to room number twenty-one. And then I will need you back in the kitchen." Mary Butterbur turned back to me. "Bob will show you to your room. I will see you later. Dinner is served from six o'clock in the guest room."
Having said that, the landlady disappeared through the door to the left.
Bob, the hobbit, smiled at me. "Please follow me, my lady. Do you have any more pieces of luggage I can help you with?"
I shook my head. "No, that backpack is all I have. I will carry that myself."
I did not like the thought of entrusting the box with the switch into the hands of a programmed hobbit. Maybe I had watched too much Matrix. Nope. I just preferred to carry my stuff myself.
Bob took me up the stairs on to the first floor and way back into the hill. Finally he stopped at a brown door with the brass number twenty-one nailed to the wood.
"This is it", the hobbit said, and opened the door with a flourish.
I stepped into the room and was instantly delighted.
This was the picture of an English country inn or bed-and-breakfast.
The walls were washed in a warm yellow colour and the room was very well supplied with comfortable furniture, a big bed with a yellow and white chequered counterpane and two nightstands with thick white candles, a chest of drawers with a white and blue ewer and bowl for washing, a small desk and a chair and a brown and yellow rug on the scrubbed boards of the floor. A window looked out across the stables towards a meadow with grazing horses.
"The bathroom is just over there", Bob pointed to the right. "Will you need anything right now?" "No, thank you", I answered and put a small coin in the hand of the hobbit.
Bob bobbed his thanks and left to help in the kitchen as he had been ordered to do by Mary Butterbur.
When the door had closed behind him, I walked to the window. Stables, horses, everything looked real. I touched the wood of the windowsill. Real! I put my backpack down on the floor. A thump. It sounded real. I sat down on the bed. A comfortable, firm mattress, soft, clean covers.
I closed my eyes.
Everything felt real.
I felt real.
This was really strange.
Everything seemed to work perfectly.
Why then was the story not the way it was supposed to be? Why was the story not the way Mr. Smith had explained it was going to be for me?
Mr. Smith had said I would meet Aragorn in the Prancing Pony and he would ask me to help him get the hobbits safely to Rivendell. That sounded logical and fine to me; it fit well into the original story.
How was it possible that the original story had warped in this way? If I had understood Mary Butterbur correctly, she was the descendant of the original Barliman Butterbur, and the war of the rings was over by more than two hundred years. How could a computer game develop an error like that?
Perhaps I ought to exit the game and tell Mr. Smith that his programme did not work quite the way it should.
But then I looked around the lovely room and thought about how real and funny the hobbit had been. I could just stay for the night and see if the game perhaps returned to its original plot. Just to see what happens, I told myself. Just to be able to really tell this computer firm how their game worked and how it did not work.
Sleeping and eating in the game would certainly be a test of the depth of its features. I was not certain about using the toilet, however. I had forgotten to ask how depth of this particular detail would look like in the real world. And I did not want to wet myself or worse in front of the attractive young physician. Just don't think about it, I thought. Maybe this detail won't come up at all.
I washed my hands and face and went down to have a look around.
The Prancing Pony was a large mansion, with sprawling out-buildings, stables and barns, there were a lot of man-size rooms, but also some hobbit-holes and small rooms for dwarves built into the Bree-hill. It was brilliant to see everything in the light of day and at leisure.
Judging from the horses and ponies in stables and meadows, the inn was quite busy at the moment and as the afternoon passed, I grew more and more excited about what kinds of people I would meet in the guest room at dinner.
I was not disappointed. The programme might be flawed, but it was certainly up and running.
When I entered the guest room at half past six, it was already crowded with travellers and inhabitants of Bree.
There were short, friendly men and women looking a bit like Mary Butterbur, country folk content with their place in this world.
At a long table a company of traders were sitting and discussing the condition of roads and the inclement weather of the past years.
In a corner – I hastily looked away, just to look back surreptitiously at once – was a group of what had to be dwarves, short, stout figures the size of a hobbit, but much stronger in built and girth. They wore long beards twisted into complicated braids and had fierce eyes set under bushy brows. They were smoking short pipes and had large mugs of beer sitting on the table in front of them.
At a round table in the corner some hobbits were obviously celebrating a party. Probably a birthday, because one of the hobbits was presenting the others with little wrapped boxes.
The room was brightly lit with many candles; it was warm and cosy, not at all as gloomy as in the movies. But it was spring, the cloudless sky darkening to a cool midnight-blue darkness, not at all like the rainy day, on which the hobbits had reached Bree in the movies.
I chose a seat in a corner from which I could see most of the guest room, and close enough to hear as much as possible from the conversations of the other guests.
Bob and another hobbit, a young hobbit girl with light brown curls just touching her shoulders and an easy smile, were serving. Mary Butterbur was at the bar preparing mugs of beer and filling glasses with red wine.
I ordered a glass of red wine and the daily special.
The red wine was very nice, it smelled fruity and tasted a bit like Chianti. The special was a soup with mushrooms and a steak with green beans and a baked potato and a raspberry tart for dessert. Everything smelled wonderful, and the taste and texture seemed more real to me than many a meal I had cooked myself in the real world. How in hell is this possible, I asked myself.
When I had finished and felt as full as I ever had in real life after eating a three-course-dinner,
I remained in my corner sipping slowly at a second glass of wine and observing the other guests.
"The Elves are gone, I tell you." One of the traders was saying forcefully.
"Yeah", another man of the company put in. An ugly swarthy fellow with yellow teeth and slimy black hair. An understudy from a certain movie about a certain young wizard? "They are gone. They know that bad times are coming for Middle-earth, so they have gone, leaving us mortals to stick it out. Traitorous demons!"
"I say it's just as well that those unnatural creatures are finally gone", a third trader commented. This one not quite as ugly, but his face was sallow and his eyes were mean.
"This is our world. Those unnatural beings had no business ever being here. Look what they did when they were here! They brought only war and death. Now we can at least live and trade in peace."
"Sure, sure"; the second one answered. "But how long will this peace last? I tell you, bad times are coming. I feel it in me bones."
Yet another trader joined the debate, this one younger and actually nice looking. "I heard the sons of this legendary Half-Elven, Elrond of Rivendell, still dwell in the secret valley at the foot of the Misty Mountains. Then not all elves would have left Middle-earth. So perhaps the rumours are not true that the earth is changing."
"I don't believe this is true", the first man objected. "First, no one has ever seen this valley. And then, what ever would they want here, all alone? What would they be waiting for if all their folk had gone across the sea? And mind, I am not sure they do. Perhaps they are not really immortal and those are only tales. Perhaps they just died, every one of them."
"If they did, I say good riddance!" That was the one, who did not like elves at all. "Unnatural creatures, corrupting our lands, if they are dead, that's all for the best."
Then the talk turned back to matters of trading.
I sat in my corner and stared into my glass of red wine.
Was it possible that the programme was not flawed at all?
Perhaps this was a game set in Middle-earth after the war of the rings, and Mr. Smith had accidentally used the wrong programme for this test run.
Yes, that must be the solution. I was in Middle-earth. And it was the Middle-earth of the books and the movies. Elrond had lived here, his name was still known. There were hobbits and dwarves.
And… Elrond's sons!
Perhaps they really were in Rivendell.
I thought about the map I had found in my pack. If I was not very much mistaken, the road to Rivendell had been on that map.
I could go to Rivendell.
My stomach did a little flip. I could go to Rivendell and meet the handsome twin sons of Elrond I had so sorely missed in the movies.
That would be a perfect adventure!
My heart started beating faster. A real adventure, I thought.
Whereas I had known the story of the game I had started out to play, I knew nothing at all about this future Middle-earth, where apart from Elrond's sons apparently no one I knew from the original story was still alive.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.