The common room in the Prancing Pony was filled with folk both Big and Little. A chill was creeping into the late autumn air but the crops were in and Gandalf’s blessing still held to Butterbur’s ale, even though Barawin, the great-great-great-grandson of Barliman, was now the proprietor. The times were prosperous and everyone was in the mood for song and good cheer, even the long-legged man who sat silently in the shadowy corner, smoking a pipe, pointedly ignored by all.
His presence made them nervous. They owed all their good fortune to him, however, so said nothing. Rather they kept a respectful distance, approaching only now and again to bring a fresh pint or to refill his pouch with the finest Longbottom Leaf imported from the Shire, or a meal if he called for it. Longbottom was his favorite as they all knew. Uncomfortable as a dead king walking made them, his money was no good here. Barawin’s patrons took great pride in paying his tab.
The arrangement was pleasing to him, especially as it afforded him room to stretch out his famously long legs and kept him in good smoke. He always wore the dusty clothes and riding boots of the old Rangers, not the Black and Silver of Gondor that was both his right and the proper kit for the King’s Men who now watched the roads. Out of kindness, he kept the cowl of his cloak drawn. His grey pallor and piercing eyes tended to frighten the uninitiated.
He sat now watching a reenactment of Frodo Baggins’ famous disappearance, smiling at the embellishments and misinterpretations that had almost entirely altered the performance from the actual event six generations earlier. He had been there to witness that, of course, but did not care to correct the many errors. The half-sauced players had the spirit of the moment right, and that was all that mattered.
Just as the hobbit playing Frodo leaped off the table, falling with a clatter into a cluster of barrels brought out for this very purpose, the door to the common room flung open, allowing a chill gust of wind and a tall, wide-shouldered man to enter.
The newcomer’s hair was long, unruly, and beginning to grey. There was a hint of the grey in his complexion as well, visible above the thick scar that ran completely round his neck, but he seemed hale and hearty otherwise. The thick mantle draped over his shoulders, a bear skin by the look of it, added to his imposing visage, as did the great sheathed broadsword he cradled in one arm. The room fell silent. All eyes were drawn first to him, then the long-legged man in the corner. The stranger’s eyes followed the crowd and the two men sized each other up for a long moment before exchanging the barest of nods.
Barawin, an innkeeper as fat, bald, and scatter-minded as his ancestor, strode up to the stranger, wiping his hands on a smeared apron while offering a hopeful smile.
“Can I be of service, my lord?”
The stranger smiled. “Yes, I’m tired from a long ride. Have someone tend to my horse, then bring me a flagon of ale and a plate of mutton. You do have mutton in these parts?”
“Oh aye, my lord, we do indeed, and the best ale in all the King’s lands!”
“Well, we shall see. It’s been awhile since I’ve had the opportunity to properly wet my beard.” The stranger’s grin broadened and he slapped a surprised Barawin on the shoulder, causing the innkeeper to stumble slightly. “I’ll just take a seat in the corner.”
“Of course, my lord,” Barawin murmured, turning first one way then another, trying to regain his bearings. “Rob! Rob! You woolly footed slowcoach! Where are you?”
A young hobbit came out from behind the bar where he had apparently been tapping–and likely sampling–a new barrel of the Pony’s finest. He hurried over. “Yes, sir. Here I am. What needs doing?”
“We’ve a new guest from out in the Wild. His horse needs tending and–Rob, wipe that foam off your upper lip, will you? How many times have I told you not to dip into the product until after your shift?”
The hobbit ruefully applied a sleeve to the incriminating evidence and offered his best chastened look. “Sorry, sir. Won’t happen again.”
“And how many times a night do I hear that from you?”
Rob made a concerted effort to appear more chastened. Barawin sighed, completely unconvinced. “Tend to the horse, then get straight back in here and see if the gentleman needs a room.”
“Aye, Right away!” Rob knuckled his forehead and scurried out into the night. Behind him, the buzz of voices had picked up again and someone called for a song.
“What was I going to do?” Barawin stood in the center of the room for a moment racking his brains. “Right! Ale and mutton. I’m on it!’ With that he hurried off to the kitchen.
Meanwhile, the stranger made his way to the corner occupied by the long-legged man. “Mind if I join you?”
At a gesture from the hooded man, the stranger leaned his sword against the wall and took a chair on the opposite side of the table, but like his host’s, facing the room. His host drew back the hood he wore, revealing a haggard yet handsome face framed by long brown hair flecked with grey. “Do you have a name?” he asked the stranger.
“Eddard Stark,” the man answered. “My friends call me Ned.”
“I am Aragorn,” came the reply. “Strider in these parts.”
Ned extended a hand in friendship. “It’s good to meet a kindred spirit,” he said.
“Aye, well met,” Aragorn answered.
The two men, both of few words, sat back enjoying the rest of the patron’s merriment. In short order, Barawin brought round two plates of mutton, a flagon of ale, and a second mug for the stranger. “Enjoy, my lords,” he said before hurrying off..
Ned looked at the second plate with a hint of suspicion. Aragorn laughed. “You needn’t worry, friend. It won’t be added to your bill. These kind folk take good care of me. They would take it as a personal slight to see me go without while a companion feasts.”
“Then feast with me,” Ned answered, his ready grin returning. “And tell me something of these parts. How is it that these men and–well, I’m at a loss–these little men live together in such easy friendship?”
Aragorn returned the smile. “They are known as Halflings to men, elves, and dwarves, but call themselves hobbits. Though they are small of stature, and perhaps too well fed, they have strong hearts and are surprisingly brave in a pinch. Their heroes stand taller than those of any other people in all of Middle Earth.”
“Indeed? I would hear more of this.”
“And I am happy to tell you, friend Ned. First, though, I would do battle with this mutton.”
The two men set to eating and soon enough their plates were clean and the meal had been washed down with the last of the flagon of ale.
“Ah,” said Ned. “That was right proper, that was. Now let me hear the tale of these hobbits, Aragorn.”
Before Strider could begin the story, however, the door flew open again. Rob came running in, his eyes wild and his face a deathly white. “A Black Rider!” he cried. “A Black Rider has come!”
The common room erupted. There were shouts of fear, and calls to arms. Those nearest the door, slammed it shut, then piled tables and chairs against it. The rest turned with beseeching looks towards the two tall warriors in the corner. Ned had leaped to his feet at Rob’s entrance, snatching his blade from the wall, but Aragorn remained calmly in his seat.
“Calm yourself, Rob,” he said gently. “The Black Riders are no more. They perished with their master more than two hundred years ago. You know this.”
“Aye, I know it,” Rob answered, his face still ghostly pale. “Be that as it may, there’s a Black Rider out in the courtyard right now, or I’m a goblin. You have to believe me, Strider. You must save us!”
Aragorn rose to his feet and pulled aside his cloak. He put a hand to Andúril, his sword, but did not draw it. “I still don’t believe you, Rob, but something has frightened you. Describe this Black Rider you say you’ve seen.”
“What do you mean describe him? He’s tall and dressed all in black, isn’t he?
Strider smiled wryly at the stable hand’s cheek. “Dressed all in black, you say. Perchance, did you catch a glimpse under his cowl?”
Rob frowned. “No sir, he weren’t a-wearin’ one.”
“No. But I couldn’t see his face to tell whether he was a wraith or flesh and bone, ” Rob answered. “I haven’t lost my wits, you see, but I do remember the stories. This rider had no cowl but he wore a shiny black helm, the visor carved into a fearsome image. Like a black skull it was. And his voice was deep and evil-like. Powerfully frightening, it was.”
Strider’s raised a brow in concern. “What did he say?”
“That was even more frightening,” said Rob. “A bit odd, too. He was breathing heavily. Long, rasping breaths, but oddly clipped. He had no horse, so perhaps he was out of breath.” The hobbit paused, remembering the experience with a shudder.
“Yes, but what did he say?” Aragorn pressed.
Rob’s attention snapped back to the presence, and he clutched at Strider’s sleeve. “You won’t believe me if I tell you!” he moaned, a haunted look in his eye.”
“I’ll believe you, Rob,” Strider said gently. “Just be out with it.” The man put a comforting hand on the hobbit’s shoulder.
Rob took a deep breath, steeling himself before answering, “He said he was looking for Baggins.”
A collective gasp came from the room, big and little folk alike. They all knew the legend. There was no doubt among them now that the Riders, or one at least, had returned.
Ned, who didn’t know the legend, looked to Strider for guidance. The former Ranger and King drew Andúril. “I still have my doubts,” he said, “but this tall black rider may be very dangerous. Evil they were, capable of black magicks. Their breath alone can kill.”
Ned gripped his sword with both hands. “Not much different from the White Walkers who come over the wall into Westeros when winter comes,” he said grimly. “But evil must be dealt with.”
“Aye, friend,” Strider replied, and the two turned to face the door.
Strider was about to give an order to clear the tables and chairs from the door when the latch rattled. Everyone but Strider and Ned drew back to the far side of the room. Many of them had produced cudgels and pitchforks, and Barawin was quietly passing out more. Cowards, they were not, and would fight if need be, but they thought it wise to give the two professionals room to wield their blades.
The latch rattled again, then the entire door shook heavily. There was a brief moment of quiet, then the chairs and tables flew back from the door as if of their own accord, and the door blew open.
Ned and Strider, battle hardened as they were, had been quick enough to duck under the barrage. The rest of the inns patrons were dazedly picking themselves up from under furniture, though, when a tall figure in a long black cloak and matching helm strode stiffly into the room. He held a strange cylinder, like a sword hilt with no blade, in his right hand. His breathing was indeed intimidating, loud and ragged, but in an oddly metered fashion.
The figure did not speak, but gave measured looks to the two warriors facing him, swords at the ready. A long beam of red light emerged from the cylinder, and he brought it up as he slid into a battle stance.
Strider and Ned moved apart, slowly flanking the figure to either side. Suddenly, all three leaped into action, steel swords parried by the saber of light. The black figure, for all the stiffness in his gait, was surprisingly agile and fluid in battle. Outnumbered, he could not land a clean blow, but neither could his two adversaries. The trio danced their deadly tango around the room for two or three minutes, until Ned and Strider’s breath became as ragged as their silent foe’s. At last, the duo managed to maneuver the black-clad figure into a corner. Their swords came down simultaneously but the stranger somehow parried both with his glowing blade, and held them off, his strength matching theirs.
As the two men exerted every ounce of their remaining strength to push him down to the floor, the stranger took his left hand from the hilt of his glowing weapon, raising it, gloved fingers spread wide beside his helmeted head. Still holding his adversaries at bay, he brought his free arm forward in a pushing motion between them. Untouched, the two men inexplicably flew across the room, swords flying from their hands, and found themselves pinned against walls in the far corner, unable to move.
The Pony’s patrons gasped in fear. The dark figure stood, weapon still alight, and faced them all. His breathing was the only sound to be heard.
Barawin, a cudgel gripped in one white-knuckled fist and a serving tray in the other, stepped forward. Summoning all his bravery, he spoke in a squeaky voice, “I’m sorry, sir. Your type isn’t welcome here. You’ll just have to ride on back to Mordor and give Sauron our regards.”
“If he’s decided to return to Middle Earth, as well, that is.”
Barawin opened his mouth to speak again, but the stranger raised his left hand again. Nothing happened this time, other than the slow-witted but nonetheless wise innkeeper deciding to close his mouth of his own accord without a uttering a word.
“I know not this Mordor of which you speak, nor do I have a horse to deliver your message,” the black stranger spoke in a deep, chillingly mellifluous voice. “Is this place not what you call an inn?”
“It is,” Barawin replied, rather confused. “The Prancing Pony it’s called, and I am the proprietor, Barawin Butterbur.”
The stranger seemed to hesitate.
“Aye,” nodded the frightened and befuddled innkeeper.
“You are not, by any chance related to a man named Stevens?”
“Yes, he held a similar position of authority to yours back on the Death Star in my galaxy,” the stranger said. He nodded stiffly towards Barawin’s left hand. “Surprisingly dangerous with a tray, he was.”
The innkeeper’s hand tightened on the tray but he answered honestly. “I’m sorry to say he’s no relation, though at the moment I dearly wish he was” he said.
The black figure considered the reply for a moment. then he visibly relaxed. His weapon’s glowing blade vanished. Strider and Ned slid to the floor with a pair of loud thumps. As they picked themselves up and fetched their swords, the stranger paid them no mind, continuing his conversation with Barawin.
“What does a Sith Lord have to do to get a meal and something to drink around here?” he asked.
If Barawin had been confused a moment earlier, he was totally flummoxed now. “I–that is we–thought you were looking for Baggins.”
The stranger nodded. “I was,” he replied.
Barawin’s knuckles tightened around both tray and cudgel once more, even more so when the black figure raised his arm and drew it back much as he had during the battle. The rest of the crowd let out another gasp while Strider and Ned gripped their swords and took a step forward, weary, but prepared to renew the conflict.
The stranger paid none of it any mind, and everyone relaxed when they realized he was merely gesturing out the door. “The guard at the gate said it was quite the show, and I was looking forward to seeing it.”
Barawin swallowed in relief. “Well then,” he said, still unable to get the squeak out of his voice. “Find a seat, and I’ll have Rob bring something ’round.”
Turning away, he shouted, “Rob, you slowcoach! Where have you gotten to?”
When Rob appeared from the kitchens sheepishly wiping his chin, the innkeeper launched into another tirade. His guests, meanwhile, set themselves to restoring tables and chairs to their proper places, the performers setting up their barrels for a command performance. The dark figure looked about, then walked over to Ned and Strider.
“Apparently, we began on the wrong foot,” he said, clipping weapon to belt and holding out a hand.
“Yes, friend,” Strider replied. “An unfortunate misunderstanding, but one to be expected when you go around these parts dressed like a black rider.” After a brief pause, he ventured, “What, if I may be so bold, is a Sith Lord?”
The stranger hesitated again, letting out one or two breaths before cocking his helmeted head and answering, “By all appearances, much the same as a Black Rider.”
The two men stiffened, but the dark figure laughed, and raised both hands to show he meant no harm. Reaching to his neck, he unlocked his helm’s visor. It came off with a hiss, revealing a sad, weathered face even greyer than Strider’s.
“Don’t worry,” he said, his voice much less intimidating now. “I’ve retired. The name is Anakin, but my enemies call me Vader.”
“As have we,” Ned smiled. “Eddard Stark, but call me Ned. And this is our host, Strider.”
Smiling, the Ranger said, “Well, many know me as Aragorn, or Elessar Telcontar, but I’ve left all that behind, too.”
The three shook hands. Anakin took up a chair and slid it around so that he too faced the room, with the pair happily making space for him.
As they waited for Rob to bring more ale and another meal, the three weathered warriors compared weapons. Anakin was impressed with the lightness and balance of Andúril, but the Vader in him held an appreciation for the heft of Ned’s broadsword. Ned, meanwhile fiddled about with the lightsaber until, accidentally touching the button which activated the blade, he sliced the neighboring table in half and singed the hair off an outraged hobbit’s foot.
After mollifying the aggrieved halfling, the trio settled in to watch the night’s second reenactment of Frodo’s visit to the inn. Perhaps it was something in the night air, but Mr Underhill’s vanishing act again featured an unexpected ending.
As the barrels scattered and the hobbit in the lead role hid under a table, dancing lights like hovering snow appeared above the dais. The flickering lights coalesced into four men in strange dress. All were wearing black trousers tucked into boots, but, while their shirts were uniformly tailored and each featured a black swoosh on the breast, one wore red, two blue, and the leader gold.
The two men in blue held square boxes that made strange noises, like birds who had drunk too many pints. One fellow had a dark look on his face, and the other greenish skin and pointy ears.
The pair in gold and red held cylindrical objects that faintly resembled Anakin’s lightsaber, pointing them about the room warily. After a moment, the fellow in red, pocketed his device with a smile. Moving to the nearest table, he lifted a mug, took a deep draught, licked his sleeps, and smiled at the fellow in gold.
“They’ve got beer, Cap’n,” he said in a thick brogue. “They must be friendly. And look at the wee folk! Could be we’ve found a world that’s evolved parallel with Ireland.”
“Aren’t you the cutest little leprechaun?” he said, kneeling to address a fair-haired, rosy-cheeked hobbit, pinching the halfling’s cheek, and adding, “Erin go Bragh?” He received a kick in the shin for his trouble.
The captain chuckled, and gave one of his blue-shirted companions a questioning look. “Bones?”
“Don’t look at me, Jim,” the frowning fellow snarled, “I’m a doctor, not a damned anthropologist.”
The pointy-eared member of the captain’s crew waved his device about the room, pausing momentarily as it aligned with Strider, Ned, and Anakin. There were no life-signs emanating from the three armed men. Turning to pass on this strange piece of information, he found the captain, now seated at a table, surrounded by barmaids, both big and little, all giggling and running fingers through his hair. The pointy-eared fellow raised one eyebrow in reaction to the spectacle.
“Fascinating,” was all he said.