12. At the Sign of the Prancing Pony
"Scared the life out of us, he did." Merry grinned. "Sitting in a corner glowering at Frodo and then dragging him off without a word of explanation."
"You scared the life out of me!" Aragorn retorted. "between Pippin's nattering and Frodo disappearing in front of the entire common room I thought the lot of you were either mad or hopeless idiots."
"Frodo put on the Ring?" Boromir frowned. That didn't sound like him.
"Not on purpose." Merry explained. "He was trying to shut Pippin up, tripped, and somehow the Ring slipped onto his finger."
"You know how tricky it could be." from Pippin. "Yes." Boromir said quietly, "I do."
This innkeeper was a Man, Beomann Butterbur according to the sign out front. Short and middle-aged, inclining to plumpness with thining brown hair and a large moustache that almost hid his beaming smile.*2
"Thain Pippin! and Master Merry too, welcome back to the Pony." then he saw Aragorn and eyes and mouth opened wide. "Strider?"
"Hello, Beomann," the King said quietly, "we'd better have a private parlor I think."
The innkeeper had regained his self-possession by the time he'd escorted his guests down the passage to a small, well furnished chamber with easy chairs before the fire and straight ones around a table covered by a blue cloth.
Boromir subsided into one of the fireside chairs, closing his eyes. He felt surprisingly tired after a day's easy walking.
"Something's wrong." He opened his eyes to see Butterbur standing with the parlor door closed at his back, frowning at Aragorn.
"I fear so." the King replied. "Tell me, Beomann, have your folk been troubled by anything strange of late?"
"Like the Wights and other things that came out during the War?" the innkeeper started to shake his head then stopped. "Wait, there are the wolves."
"Wolves?" Aragorn echoed, as Boromir and the Hobbits exchanged glances.
"I know. It's the wrong season for them but some livestock's been killed and grey shapes have been seen slinking about the woods. And we've heard howling in the night."
"And did it occur to you to send word of this to Annuminas?" the King asked, perhaps a little testily.
"Now see here, Strider -" Butterbur began warmly, stopped himself, resumed more evenly. "With due respect, sir, Bree's looked after herself for over a thousand years. We're glad enough to have a King again but that doesn't mean we're going to go running to him every time a sheep is killed or somebody hears funny sounds in the night!"
"As it happens," he went on, "we did send to my Lady at the castle for wolfhounds after Farmer Appledore's prize bull had his throat ripped out. If Herself didn't see fit to mention our local troubles to you I don't see why we should either."
Boromir looked at the Man in astonishment. He was accustomed to Merry and Pippin's pertness but saw no reason why the innkeeper should be similiarly privileged. Aragorn however seemed unaffected.
"Did the hounds catch your wolves?"
"No." Butterbur frowned a little. "It's not a regular occurence you understand, but every few months something happens; an animal killed, a shape seen lurking in the forest, howls in the night." a shrug. "Almost as if they're just passing through on their way to somewhere else."
"And so they are." the King said grimly. "Have you heard of werewolves, Beomann?"
The innkeeper paled, swallowed. "Oh no, is that -?"
"I fear so."
"Well." Butterbur swallowed again then looked determined. "That's bad news right enough but we've heard as bad or worse in our time. Bree will be all right. We have the wall and nigh on five hundred Men and Hobbits able to bear arms, but the new villages up and down the Road might not fare as well."*3
"The Princess's Rangers will see to them." Aragorn told him. "What about the farmers and the smaller villages, Staddle, Combe and Archet?"
"If we have to we can bring everybody inside our wall here," Butterbur answered crisply, sounding suddenly and startling like a military commander. "that was the whole point of building it."
"I don't think such drastic measures are needed quite yet," the King told him. "but it might be wise to bring in your farm folk - and I'd be happier if you could persuade the people of Archet to come onto the Hill, they're too vulnerable out there in the woods."
The Man shook his head ruefully. "I agree with you, sir, but there's not much chance of it - you know how stubborn these woodsmen can be."
Aragorn grimaced in agreement. "Do the best you can. At least have them send the children and the old folk to Combe."
"That much I can do. You'll be wanting supper I know," Butterbur continued, sounding like an innkeeper again, "and rooms for the night?"
"Absolutely." the King replied. "We may be staying a day or so - Aranel is to send us an escort."
Butterbur's eyebrows went up. "If *you* are unwilling to travel alone than things must be dangerous indeed."
"Better to take unecessary precautions than not enough." Aragorn told him.
"You get no argument from me there!" the innkeeper retorted and went out the door.
"Put you in your place he did." Merry chuckled.
Aragorn nodded looking rueful, amused but not at all offended.
"Are all your people here in the North so ... froward?" Boromir asked.
The King laughed. "Most of them. As Beomann said they are accustomed to fending for themselves and jealous of their independence. He has known Strider the Ranger since he was a boy, as did his father before him. I do not expect court manners from my old acquaintances." ***
Notes:1 Bree has grown since the WR, it's about twice as big as it was. The wall was built fourteen years ago by Dwarf masons from the Blue Mountains.
2 Beomann Butterbur is Barliman's son, he's in his mid forties and Sheriff of the Breeland, (that's 'sheriff' in the English not Old Western sense.)
3 There are new Inns and settlements, like the Elfstone, from the Brandywine Bridge to Last Bridge, many consisting of just a house or two, thanks to the King's Peace.
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