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Fandom: Lord of the Rings
Title: 3000 Third Age, May
Rating: Australian PG.
Notes & Disclaimer:
The Prancing Pony can be something of a cesspit at times. Particularly when Bill Ferny and his crew turn up for a drinking session. They're young enough and fool enough that they seem to enjoy getting thoroughly and completely drunk, to the point where they lose all semblance of decency or manners. Then I get to dodge their hands while collecting the empties and swat them away when they try to grope me. All part of the job, you see. Barliman always tells me that I needn't to work on the days when Ferny's gang comes in for a drink, but I always refuse to stay at home. For one thing, if I do, they'll think they've cowed me. For seconds, if I miss one of their drinking sessions, I miss a fair deal of crucial information. Not one of them can hold their tongues when drunk.
One of the Rangers is due in some time in the next day or so. I'm their main intelligencer in Bree, so they usually know to come straight here. Besides which, The Prancing Pony is the only place in town which offers accommodation. Barliman knows of my interests, so to speak, although he thinks that I merely pass on the town gossip and news for those rangers who have kin here and pick up news of my own Ranger kin in the north. Which I do, but that's fairly incidental. My true task is to keep an ear to the ground and listen for signs of trouble. If there's one thing that the Dunedain have learned in hundreds of years of patrolling Eriador, it's that a little interference of the right type in the right place at the right time can save a lot of bother further down the line. That's the main reason why I do what I do.
I've been doing this for two years now since the last contact here, a herbwoman called Breelindir, died in an accident. I'm part Dunadan myself, although you'd not guess it to look at me. I'm not of the high families; rather my kin are of a family which was larger and more well-connected. They wound up having to breed out into Bree, rather than breeding in. So I'm about half and half Dunadan and Breeland blood. I'm short and stocky, like a lot of the Breefolk, although it seems my family has retained the Dunadan colouring, more or less. My hair is a bit lighter than the norm for the Dunedain - a dark brown, with a lot of red lights in it, rather than the standard blue-black. I've also got the grey eyes, through some freak. (Both of my brothers have eyes of brown, which means that they blend in even better down here than I do.) I'm the best of us at intelligencing, though. Men with drink in them will talk with a woman, something I learned when I was nursing Father through his grief over Mother's death. Men with drink in them will also try other things to any woman within range; Father taught me well. I'm able to defend myself against those tricks now.
Either way, telling you all of this isn't getting those empties collected from Ferny's table, so it's high time I got to and started collecting them. This should be fun.
It is. Provided your definition of "fun" includes "being surrounded by a group of drunk rowdies, being groped, having hands forced up your skirts, or down your blouse and tugging at your hair while you can't retaliate for fear of dropping the mug in your hands". Mine doesn't. As it was, I was hard put not to deal out slaps and kicks in order to get away from them. Being surrounded like that does tend to set off my nerves. I smiled sweetly at all of them, while I collected the mugs and tankards that were scattered around the table.
"Now lads, hands to yourselves, remember," I reminded them. Usually that was enough to jog their memories of their manners, even when they were far gone in ale, but not today. Damn. I looked across at Barliman, seeking permission for what I was going to do next. He nodded. Good oh.
It's about the only trick of my Dunadan relatives that I know of, this talent of being able to fade into the background. I've found it very useful, especially when I'm being pestered. The only problem is that it only works when they're not touching me, or paying me obvious attention, so I have to deal out some rather solid slaps to make them let go. Once that's done, I tip the wink to Barliman, who suddenly appears to notice what they're up to and gives a hoy. That's my cue to vanish into the background, which I do with the ease of long practice. Once I'm out the door, I should be safe enough, especially as I can sneak back in within about five minutes without them noticing.
Well, almost. This time it didn't work that well. I was sneaking out, while someone else was sneaking in. Tall, very tall, with the hawklike nose and high cheekbones that tend to mark out the Rangers in this town. Well, there's my contact. Of course, I can tell from the bemused look on his face that he doesn't know that I'm his contact here. Bugger and damnation. A quick scan tells me that I've not bumped into this Ranger before, you should pardon the pun. Ah well, he's tall enough and strong enough and probably canny enough to be able to cope with a gang of roughnecks. Old Barliman may disapprove of the Rangers on principle, simply because they don't stay in the one place, like the Breefolk, but underneath he approves of 'em. About the only thing he has a problem with them about is the fact that I seem enamoured of them (as far as he's aware). He's scared stiff that he'll lose his best barmaid in years to a swollen belly and a cottage up near the Angle. Hmph. Little does he know quite how unlikely that is.
I beg the ranger's pardon and duck out the door quickly, before Ferny and his crew can spot me and start their sport over again. Behind me, I can hear Barliman grunt disapprovingly on seeing his new "guest", but I'm away out the door and down the corridor toward the stables. I take a quick look around, seeking out the newcomer's horse, if he's brought one. It appears he hasn't. However, Bob is there, currying down one of the hobbit-ponies which lives in the stable most of the time.
"Who's the newcomer?" I asked him.
Bob grinned. He knows of my interest in the rangers, although he doesn't know of the reason for it. He just thinks I'm curious about my kin (he's a hobbit, he knows my family tree forwards, backwards and round corners). I don't bother to disillusion him. I get the occasional letter from my kin up at the Angle, delivered by whichever Ranger is passing through Bree, but most of my interest in whichever Ranger is passing through is purely professional. No, not that profession, although I'm as adept at it as the local whore. It's another way of getting information, after all.
"'is name's Strider, round these parts. I've no notion what your kin'd call 'im," Bob told me.
I nodded. I'd not heard the name before, although I got most of the nicknames that the various Rangers were referred to by down here. Interesting.
"'e's generally very polite, but 'e dun't say much, just like the rest of 'em," Bob continued. "'E were very friendly with Mistress Breelindir while she were alive, but aside from that, 'e dun't 'ave much ter do with the women."
"Thanks for that, Bob," I tell him. "Can I get you something from the kitchens?"
"Nay, but a mug of ale wouldn't go astray," he replies, with a grin. I grinned back over my shoulder at him, as I headed back in toward the common room.
"I'll see what I can do!" I laughed.
I crept back into the common room with my customary stealth, coughing as I reappeared at Barliman's elbow. I noted that the Ranger I'd bumped into had taken a place in the corner by the chimney-nook. It was a place I was starting to think of as the ranger-seat, simply because just about every single ranger who came there gravitated to that one spot. I knew why they chose it: it was the one seat in the room which allowed an uninterrupted vantage of all of the various entrances and exits. Just by sitting there, a person could monitor the comings and goings of the entire room, without having to stir, or even be obvious about it.
"Ah, there you are, Magda. Be a good girl and get Strider there a meal from the kitchens, would you?" Barliman had spotted me and was getting me out of the common room. Apparently young Ferny had been making his threats again. I'd heard them all: how Bill Ferny was one day going to be a big man in the town of Bree; how Butterbur had better be polite to him now and keep the ale flowing; how he'd get his revenge on that uppity wench (me); every single one of his beery mutterings. The first time I'd heard them, I'd been tempted to send them all off to the Angle straight away. I'd had the sense to check with Barliman first, though. Bill Ferny gets vicious in his cups; all this muttering is a prelude to physical violence, but it doesn't change much from one episode to the next. I'd mentally marked young master Ferny down as someone to keep an eye on, but aside from that, I kept quiet about his mumblings.
Obedient to Barliman's instructions, I headed back out to the kitchens, although not before drawing a tankard of ale for Bob. I took the tankard out to the hobbit, who nodded appreciatively as I dropped it off on the windowsill of the stables. Then off to the kitchens, where Barliman's apple-cheeked wife, Jenny, quickly got together a plate of food for the ranger. From her care with the plate, I gathered that this "Strider" was one of the more regular visitors to Bree, something which intrigued me. The Chieftain was supposed to be fairly well known about these parts; I'd been looking forward to meeting him. Still, I don't suppose that this "Strider" was likely to be him. After all, the Chieftain was supposed to have been raised by the elves up around Rivendell, supposed to be part-elf himself, from what I'd heard. I'd been lucky enough to see those two elven princes one time they'd come through the Angle, so I had a guess at what the Chieftain was supposed to be like. Certainly it wasn't this long, lanky, raw-boned man who hunkered down in the corner, smoking away at a pipe. Of course, that didn't mean that I wasn't going to drop off the information I had already with this "Strider", anyway.
"Here's your meal, sir," I said, smiling at him as I deposited the plate on the table before him. "Looks as though the stars are going to be bright tonight."
There, that was the marker put out for him. I just hoped that he was quick as most of the others to pick up on the words. I couldn't use the usual sign at the moment; it was still daylight outside, although the sun was setting rapidly.
I wasn't disappointed. A flicker of surprise in his eyes, then the response. "Not so bright as in the wild, I fear."
I cocked my head to one side. "Why, I'd heard that the northern stars were brightest."
A slight nod. "Meet me outside, near the stables, in an hour. We'll see."
Right, appointment made. I smiled flirtatiously at him, so that if young Ferny's gang were watching, they'd guess that a different type of assignation was being made, then turned on my heel, heading back to the bar. Butterbur shook his head at me.
"You'll get no satisfaction from your tricks with that one, lass," he told me, disapprovingly. "He's had any number of the village girls cocking an eye at him any time these twenty years, not a one of them has had a drop of luck with him."
"Maybe I'll turn out different?" I suggested cheekily.
"Maybe," was the rather sceptical response.
The hour passed fairly quickly. When Ferny's gang progressed into a beery brawl with one another, I sneaked out of the common room, heading for the stables via the kitchens. I was nervous; I could do with some of Jenny's stew to settle my stomach and give me some ballast for the upcoming interview. I begged a small bowl from the mistress of the inn, taking it with me to the yard near the stables. There I leaned up against the wall, in a dark corner where I could watch the doors leading out from the inn itself. I'd have adequate warning if the strange ranger came out using one of those.
Of course, I'd have no warning whatsoever should he choose to walk out the front door of the inn, then walk around to the stable doors (which this man had). Just a sudden sense of a tall presence next to me.
"The evening star is beautiful this night," he said. I could tell from his voice that he was smiling, although I had no idea why. For myself, I was busy trying to choke down a mouthful of hot stew without burning my mouth or throat.
"You'd be Magda, then?" he asked, as though he hadn't noticed my discomfort. He was a Ranger. I knew he had.
I nodded, swallowing hastily. Luckily I'd managed to suck in enough cool air to make the mouthful of stew slightly less scorching on my throat, but I could still feel it all the way down to my stomach.
"I've got some information that needs to be passed on to the Chieftain," I told him. Now, what could be in that phrase to make him smile so?
"I shall see that he hears it," I was told. He was still smiling in that strange way, as though there were a joke there that only he knew of. Possibly the sight of a low-bred tavern wench near choking on her stew, I suppose. Now that I had the leisure to observe him a bit more closely, he had all the marks of a high-family northerner. The extreme height was just one of them; there were others, mainly to do with the shape of the eyes, and the angle of the jaw and cheekbones. I looked about for the star on his cloak, trying to figure out which of the Houses he was a son of.
"Well, there's word of another bear in the woods to the north and west," I told him. "This one's supposed to have taken a few cows up around Archet way, as well as being spotted by a couple of the Shire patrols. It's been active since about mid-February, which doesn't bode well. It also seems to have lost its fear of Men."
That got a nod.
"There's also tales from Archet of wolves coming down from the north. Nobody's seen the wolves, but the folk there are frightened."
"Most important thing is that there's starting to be strange folk heading north, apparently. We've not seen any of them in Bree, but the peddlers are telling strange tales. Strange beasts in the woods, ponies being scared for no reason that they can find. There was a party of Dwarfs who set out for the Blue Mountains about a year ago from Bree. Last month we got a party coming back from the Blue Mountains looking for them. From the little I was able to pick up, it was suspected that they hadn't got as far as Bree at all. They were all mightily surprised to find out that this first party had been here. It sounds as though the roads to the south and west are being patrolled by something, although nobody has any knowledge of what."
This drew another nod out of the ranger, although he looked rather thoughtful about this last. He stood silent for a long while, lost in contemplation. I took the opportunity to down some more of my (now-cooled) stew. Eventually the ranger spoke.
"Are you able to send a bird north?"
I nodded. I kept a small coop of birds at my brothers' farm, I could easily get time off on the morrow and go out and visit them. They'd welcome me with open arms, as my visits to the farm tended to mean that they got a good meal for a change, rather than having to bach for themselves. "What would you have me send?" I asked.
"Say that the patrol at Sarn Ford needs to be increased in strength, to the full troop of thirty," I was told. I gasped in shock.
"I can't send that out under my rune! I'd get the reinforcements, sure enough, but they'd all be stopping by here first to scold me for being so bold! I'd probably even wind up with the Chieftain himself coming down here to box my ears for me!"
This time it wasn't a smile, but a laugh that greeted my statement. By this time I was incensed.
"It's all very well for you to laugh," I hissed up at him, "but I'm not some high-blood lord. I'm just a bloody crossbreed who's barely tolerated by her high-and-mighty northern relatives for the sake of who my mother was. If I send such a thing, I'll be likely to lose my posting here. Nobody will want an intelligencer who gives bloody cheeky orders to the Captains up at the Angle. Then what's left for me? I can stay a barmaid the rest of my days, or marry one of the farmers around here. Better yet, I could wed one of their oxen, if I've still the taste for intelligence."
I was shaking with anger, but I knew that I'd still need to send the message. "I'll send your message for you, Strider, but I won't send it under my own rune. Write it down, I'll take it and send it tomorrow, but it needs to be signed with your rune. You understand me? You can afford to have the Captains questioning you. I can't."
A nod from the ranger. "I apologise for having offended you, Mistress Magda."
"Apology accepted," I said, rather crisply. "And it's Magda. I'm no man's mistress, so I just wear my own name." With that, I picked up my bowl and headed for the door to the kitchens, not looking back. I'd made it as far as the door when I felt someone behind me. Expecting the ranger, I turned angrily, but found instead that I was looking at Bill Ferny. He was drunk, drunk enough to be at the vicious stage, where he'd lash out at anyone. Damn. I instinctively tried to fade into the shadows nearby, but he was too quick for me, catching me by the wrist.
"Oh no you don't, wench!" he muttered, forcing his face near to my ear. "Bloody well turn me down for some lousy ranger!"
He had a firm grasp on my wrist, which he was rapidly parlaying into a solid embrace of me from behind. His other hand was coming around and groping my breasts. I could feel him against my back. I knew from the tales of the village girls that Bill Ferny liked a girl who fought. It meant that he felt justified in striking out at her, bruising her. I'd seen what had happened to Lucy Goatleaf when she'd caught Bill's eye. The bruises had taken many days to fade. There'd been rumours of more cuts and bruises where they couldn't be seen; other rumours spoke of her uncle Harry having held her down and taken his turn also. I was determined to avoid ending up that way. So, rather than tensing up in his embrace, I relaxed.
It worked. He lessened off the grip on my arm, allowing me to twist my wrist out of his grasp. Once free, I stepped backward onto his foot, hard, then rushed forward out of his reach. He roared with frustration, anger and pain, reaching forward for me. But I was ready. As I say, my father had taught me well. I ducked beneath his clutching hands and drove a fist low into his belly.
He doubled over, to wind up lying groaning on the floor. I kicked him in the belly, for good measure, as he lay there.
"Touch me again, Bill Ferny, and I swear by the Valar above, I'll geld you," I told him, my voice shaking with anger.
"Are you safe?" The voice from behind me was that of the ranger, Strider. He came up to stand near me. "I saw what he tried to do. He was meaning to harm you."
"I'll give him another chance because he's probably the most cowardly little sneak in these parts," I told the ranger, speaking loudly enough that Ferny could hear. "The thought of losing his precious dangly bits should do the trick, I'd say. You know I mean it, Ferny. You know my brothers will mean it too, when they hear of what you've tried. So from now on, your hands stay off me. Else it's the old two-brick-trick for you, laddiebuck!"
I turned away from Ferny, away from the ranger and walked off, toward the staff quarters. I was more shaken than I was showing. I dearly wanted to get out of public view for a while. I fled up the narrow stair to my room, where I sat down on the edge of the bed, hugging myself tight and shaking like a leaf in a high wind. I was both shocked and frightened to hear a tap at the door.
"Who is it?" I called, the tension in my body making my voice higher-pitched than usual.
"Mistress Magda?" Ah, the ranger. It sounded as though he were concerned. I stood up, shaking all over, but mananged to unlatch the door.
"It's just Magda," I told him, after I'd opened the door to him. "As I told you, I'm no man's mistress. You'd best come in."
I gestured him into the small room. A narrow bed, a small washstand and the chest where I kept my clothes comprised the whole furnishings of the room. I sat down on the bed once again, while the ranger leaned against the door, staying a careful distance from me. I was still shaking and close to tears. What had just happened in the kitchen yard had been too close to some memories that I'd thought long buried. Memories of what had happened after mother died.
"What is 'the old two-brick-trick'?" The question came from my erstwhile guest. It was enough to snap me out of my shaking.
"It's a reference to a rather nasty way of gelding oxen," I told him, pulling myself together through the telling. "You put the bullock into a small pen, then you clap two bricks over the appropriate area. Once the animal gets over the shock, you've got yourself an ox. But it won't trust humans very much."
He winced. A rather common reaction to that story from men. Despite my shock, I grinned.
"My brothers feel the same way about it," I told him. "Their method of gelding is to tie a tight cord around the appropriate bits. After a week or so without enough blood, they start to drop off. As far as we can tell, it's less painful for the bullock as well. Plus the bullock doesn't learn to link the pain to humans, so it trusts people."
He quirked an eyebrow at me. I grinned at him again. "Are there any less ... detailed farm anecdotes that you would share with me?" he asked, smiling faintly.
I chuckled. "I grew up on a farm outside Bree, m'lord Strider. As a result, I know a lot of farm stories."
"Just Strider. I'm no lord." A quick smile from the Ranger. A very nice smile, come to think on it. "You mentioned your mother. Was she of the Dúnadan?"
I nodded. "Not of high lineage, though she could trace her line back to the House of the Nightingale. She met my father when she was ranging through Bree as a young lass. He went North to wed her, but brought her back to Bree. I'm third of four. The fourth killed her. I was ten."
A nod. "What was your mother's name, if I may ask?"
Another nod, this time with a touch of sadness. "I met her but the once. A promising Ranger, I thought at the time."
I nodded my thanks. I knew without having to be told that this was his way of expressing sympathy over her loss.
"Aye, she would have been," I said. "She was tall and slender, something which often worried the women here. Each of the birthings was hard for her, so none of us knew why she chose to get with child that fourth time. But she would have been a good ranger."
A nod. "Are you all right?" The question was factual, accompanied by an appraising look. A reminder that each of us had our business to be going on with, if we weren't to raise suspicions in this place. I nodded back and preceeded him out the door.
As we walked to the stairs, I knew that Nob had spotted the pair of us leaving my room. I gave a grin. Well, that would be another little fillip for my reputation, for none would believe that I'd had a ranger in my room without tumbling him. Given that this one was apparently somewhat elusive, I could probably parlay that into a lot more information from the girls in the village. All of a sudden, this was turning into a very good evening.
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