Chapter 2: The Cost of a Night's Lodging
Boromir guided his horse beneath the swinging sign and into the inn yard. The animal plodded up to the door, his proud head drooping low, then came to a grateful stop. Boromir patted his neck and leaned forward to murmur, "Here's the warm stable I promised you, Ayreth. Pay no attention to the smell."
Ayreth lifted his head and twitched an ear at his rider. They had ridden long together, this princely man and kingly steed. From the fields of Rohan, through Dunland and Tharbad, along the Old South Road, through the ruined city and across the Greyflood they had come, and in that time had reached an understanding. If Boromir of Gondor required him to sleep in a noisome byre such as this, then Ayreth of Rohan would condescend to do so. Such was the loyalty he owed his rider.
Boromir swung down from the saddle and moved to Ayreth's head. The horse nudged him affectionately, and Boromir absently stroked the animal's velvet nose as he gazed around the inn yard. It was a humble place, with ramshackle stables on one side and what, from the sounds and odors emanating from it, seemed to be a combined pigsty and compost heap on the other. The house itself was large and solid, with a lamp burning above the stout wooden door and yet more lights glimmering from behind many shuttered windows. The yard needed sweeping and the roof needed patching, but it was a mild night, and Boromir was not concerned with leaks.
"Ho! Innkeeper!" he shouted, pounding on the door with his fist.
After a moment, the door creaked open. A short, broad man in a greasy leather apron stared up at Boromir, no welcome in his face. Shrewd eyes, narrowed in suspicion, took in his full appearance and dwelt uncomfortably on the sword hilt glinting beneath his cloak.
"Are you the innkeeper?" Boromir demanded.
"I need lodging for myself and my horse."
"I'll see your coin, first, traveler."
Boromir glared down at the other man, struggling to control his temper. He was not accustomed to being treated like a thief by the likes of this landlord, no matter how ragged his cloak or dusty his boots. Unconsciously, his hand moved to his sword hilt, as he drew himself up to his full, commanding height. The inn keeper visibly shrank under his cold, green gaze.
With a contemptuous snort, Boromir pushed past the him into the entryway. "Only after I see the state of your sheets."
His haughtiness seemed to reassure the inn keeper. Bowing and rubbing his thick hands together, the landlord began to talk in a quick, grating whine. "Indeed, sir, indeed. No offence meant, I'm sure. It's a strange lot we get coming up the Greenway in these times, and a man can't be too careful. Took you for one of them Rangers, I did. Queer folk and none too open with their purses, if you take my meaning..."
"I'll also need supper," Boromir said, cutting off his flow of excuses, "and fodder for my horse. Do you have someone I can trust to groom him properly?"
The landlord hesitated, still plainly laboring under a strong suspicion that his new guest did not have the money to command such services, but afraid to say so. Boromir relented and tossed him a silver coin. The landlord bowed again, this time with real enthusiasm.
"My son will see to him at once. A fair hand with horses, he is. Supper in the common room, sir, and I'll have a room prepared. If you please, sir..." Another bow, and he waved a hand toward the doorway on Boromir's right.
Boromir ducked through the low opening and found himself in a dim, crowded, fire-lit room, full smoke and the hum of voices. He could see few details, through the thick air, but he could smell bread and meat cooking. His stomach promptly growled. At the landlord's urging, he crossed to the trestle table that dominated the center of the room and pulled up a stool. The landlord bustled away to bring his supper, and Boromir studied his fellow guests curiously.
A pair of dwarves were hunched over the fire, their heads together in private conversation. Several farmers lounged on benches around the walls, smoking, sipping ale from wooden tankards, and chatting in a desultory fashion. A much louder group of men occupied the other end of the table. Boromir counted six of them - large men in rough woolens and leathers of dark shades - all banging their dishes about and shouting for faster service. One had a gnarled walking stick propped by his seat, the head a polished knob thick enough to crack a man's skull. All of them were armed. In the corner behind the fireplace sat a lone figure, cloaked in shadow. Boromir caught a glimpse of long hair framing a calm, stern face and hooded eyes returning his gaze, but the arrival of his meal distracted him, and he turned away from the silent watcher.
The food was tasty and hot, much better than he would have expected in such surroundings. He ate quickly, all his attention on his meal. When the landlord thumped a tankard down beside his plate, he barely acknowledged it with a nod. He had forgotten, in his seemingly endless travels, how good meat could taste when you didn't have to kill and clean it first, or pick gravel and twigs out of your plate.
Finally, Boromir pushed back his trencher and waved the landlord over. He looked at the greasy, grinning man with something close to approval, a full stomach having mellowed him considerably.
"That was excellent. Now, is there hot water enough for a bath in this place?"
"Of course, sir. If you'll follow me, sir."
Half an hour later, Boromir emerged from the bathing chamber in the cellar, clean and groomed, with the worst of the dust brushed from his clothes, feeling positively benevolent. He crossed the entry hall to the common room and stepped inside once more. The crowd had thickened in his absence, mostly local men, by their dress and manner. Boromir approached the bar, where a plump, middle-aged woman of plain but kindly countenance held sway.
She looked him over, eyes twinkling, and asked, "What can I pour for you, young sir?"
"Whatever you have in that keg," he replied.
Dimples showed in her round cheeks. "My best home-brewed. I don't broach that cask for just anyone, but seeing as you have such a handsome face, I might be persuaded."
Boromir eyed her skeptically for a moment, taken aback, then broke out in a reluctant smile. Pulling another coin from his belt, he dropped it into the woman's hand. "Is that persuasion enough?"
She sighed mournfully. "He hands me cold metal and calls it persuasion!"
Still pouting, she flounced over to the keg to fill his tankard. Boromir watched her for a moment, then let his eyes travel around the room. He noticed the group of ruffians at the table shooting him appraising glances and muttering among themselves. With a casual gesture, he thrust his cloak back off his shoulder and turned to let the firelight catch the length of the sword that hung at his belt. Sword and silver-mounted horn glowed redly in warning.
The voices from the table dropped to an inaudible murmur, and Boromir let his cloak fall closed again. He had no fear of rabble such as this, but the reminder of what perils he might face on his road undermined his good humor. His smile had turned to an expression of cool reserve when he accepted his tankard from the woman and stepped away from the bar.
He intended to find a seat near the fire and study the room at his leisure, but he found his way barred by the grim-faced stranger who had watched him from the shadows. The man loomed up before him, taller even than Boromir himself and made larger by the loose folds of the cloak swathed about his frame. He gazed down at Boromir, dark eyes glinting beneath their heavy lids, and smiled.
"Drink with me, man of the South," he said.
Boromir barely controlled his start of surprise. It took him an effort to meet the stranger's slightly taunting gaze without showing his own discomfort. Though he had not chosen to travel in disguise - Boromir, son of Denethor, disdained to skulk and hide behind lies and shadows - he had not expected to be recognized so easily, outside the borders of his own lands. And he had caught a note of condescension in the stranger's voice that he did not like.
Lifting his chin to meet the other man's gaze more directly, he answered coldly, "I prefer to drink alone."
"No man prefers to drink alone." There was no mistaking the amused condescension now, and Boromir ground his teeth together in annoyance. "Come. I am weary of my own company."
That had been a command - a softly spoken one, but still a command. Anger flared in Boromir, and his hand dropped to his sword hilt. He was on the point of giving this stranger a sharp lesson in courtesy, when he suddenly remembered the purpose of his being here. He needed information. And what better source of information than a man who seemed to know more than he ought?
The anger drained away as quickly as it had come. Boromir took his hand from his sword and gave a rueful laugh. "I, too, am weary of my own company, but I am not accustomed to taking orders from haughty strangers."
"Or from anyone, I deem." The man smiled again, with real humor, and gestured for Boromir to precede him back to his private corner beside the fire. "I would warn you not to reach for your blade so readily, but as I wish to have a comfortable chat by the fire, not a contest of arms, I will keep that advice to myself."
Boromir sat down on a wooden bench, with his back to the wall, and propped his booted feet on the hearth. The stranger resumed his seat in the darkest corner.
"You may give any advice you like," Boromir said, easily. "Whether I heed it or not is my own affair."
The man sipped his beer, his eyes gleaming at Boromir over the rim of the tankard. "Do you ever heed the counsel of others, I wonder?"
"No." At the man's arrested look, Boromir chuckled. "Not according to my brother, who is over-full of wisdom and over-fond of sharing it. But as it happens, you have found me in a mellow mood. I came to these lands in search of counsel."
"I wondered what could bring a soldier of Gondor up the Greenway in such dark times."
Again, Boromir felt a flare of anger and disquiet. How had the stranger known from whence he came? He shot the man a darkling look from beneath his brows and saw the taunting smile again. "Who are you, and how do you know I come from Gondor?"
"My name is my own," the man answered flatly, "and I am a Ranger of the North. I know many things hidden from lesser men." Boromir gave a snort of disgust, and the man's rigid mien softened into laughter. He pointed to the gauntlets Boromir wore on his forearms, which bore the device of a great, flowering tree tooled into the leather. "You wear the White Tree of Minas Tirith, and you carry yourself like a soldier. A captain of men."
Boromir relaxed, but his smile did not return. "And you carry yourself like more than a wanderer from the North."
"I am a Ranger," the man repeated. "We are what we are. It is not for you to know or to question."
To his own surprise, Boromir felt no resentment of his words. He merely gazed at the Ranger, wondering what manner of man he was beneath that stained cloak and grave face. A man used to his own kind of command, clearly. A man to be treated with caution and, perhaps, respect.
"Do you have a name, Soldier of Gondor?" the Ranger asked.
"Boromir." If the man recognized the name of Denethor's heir, he gave no sign.
"What counsel do you seek in these lands, Boromir?"
"I have been sent to find a place called Imladris, home of Elrond Half-Elven. None in the southern realms now remember the secrets of Imladris, if ever we knew them, and we know only that it lies to the north, hidden from the eyes of men. I traveled north through the empty lands, but I found no signs to lead me to Imladris, so I turned aside, into the West and the haunts of men, to seek counsel from those who still remember."
The Ranger regarded him in silence for a moment, then asked, "What business have you with Elrond?"
"My business is my own," Boromir answered, in soft mockery of the Ranger's own words.
"Then I cannot guide you to Imladris."
"You know where it lies?"
The Ranger nodded. "I have walked the woods of that dale many times, and listened to the music of the elves. It is a place of beauty and power beyond your understanding, Boromir of Gondor."
"Whether I understand it or no, I must go there," Boromir said, harshly. "If you cannot tell me where it lies, then I will find it on my own."
"I can tell you, but that does not mean that you will find it."
"I will search, 'til my last breath, and die with the name of Imladris on my lips."
The hooded eyes gleamed at him afresh, while the Ranger's pale face grew thoughtful. "I see no guile in you, and no evil beyond the given lot of men. But there is much that will hinder you on your quest - grief and despair, a lack of belief in the very thing you seek. You have a dark road ahead of you."
"I am not afraid of darkness."
A faint flash of the old condescension, then the Ranger bowed his head in acceptance. "The place you seek is to the north and east of here, at the feet of the Misty Mountains. There are roads that will take you there, but they are perilous. Were I to attempt this journey, I would strike north, leaving the Greenway, and follow the river Hoarwell until I had passed the southern downs. They are evil. Do not enter them. Then I would make for the East Road and follow it across the Hoarwell and Loudwater. The realm you seek lies at the end of that road. It's common name is Rivendell."
Boromir sat in silence, pondering the Ranger's words. Finally, he lifted his gaze to the other man's face and said, "Thank you, Ranger of the North. I am in your debt."
The Ranger shrugged. "Why speak of debt, when we fight the same enemy? I do not know your errand, soldier of Gondor, but I sense its urgency. I only hope you will come to Elrond, in the end, though my heart misgives me."
"I will. Is there no name I can give to Elrond, when I tell him of the man who led me to him?"
"None. But if you are truly fortunate, you will find my captain there. Strider, he is called. Tell him that his brother-in-arms sends all duty and affection."
Boromir rose before dawn, paid his shot at the inn, saddled Ayreth, and was cantering along the Greenway by the time the sun had risen. He had much to think about and much to cause him disquiet. In the sane light of day, he was apt to view the Ranger's words with less credulity. Indeed, what could a nameless wanderer know of his inner doubts or the perils he faced? And yet, he had known the very thing that Boromir sought - the path to Imladris. To Rivendell.
Should he not take the Ranger's advice and strike north from the road? Boromir scanned the terrain to the north, wondering what lay beyond those gentle hills. Why did the Ranger warn him so particularly about the darkness waiting for him? Was it not the same for any man who braved the unknown? What could he, Boromir, possibly carry within his heart that could endanger his quest? It was folly. Presumptuous folly.
The road meandered down into a shallow cutting, with earthen walls rising to either side. Boromir rode forward, his gaze automatically scanning the top of the walls for signs of trouble, but his mind was elsewhere. Ayreth picked up his pace slightly.
A muffled thump sounded behind them. Boromir jerked on the reins, and Ayreth shied nervously. Boromir's sword was half drawn, and he was twisting in the saddle to look behind him, when something struck him a vicious blow in the back of the head. He was briefly aware of voices and of Ayreth rearing up, neighing in anger, then he tumbled from the saddle and slid into blackness.
To be continued...