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A Dream of Darkness

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Chapter 1: The Stranger

The man who walked into the inn was not the type of customer I had come to expect in my time working at The Prancing Pony. Taller than any Breelander I had yet met, his dark green cloak was travel worn and he had the cowl up, shrouding his face in its shadows.

I watched as he paused just inside the doorway and surveyed the room. Evidently finding it to his satisfaction, he stalked further in and made his way to a table in the corner. I expected him to remove his cloak as he approached, or at least lower the cowl, considering the heat of the room, but instead he sat down and stretched his long legs before him, revealing high boots of supple leather that fitted him well, but had seen much wear and were now caked with mud. From somewhere inside his cloak, he produced a long stem pipe that was curiously carved, and began to light it.

As I watched, Barliam, the innkeeper, made his way over to the stranger, a slight scowl on his normally cheery face. I debated attempting to move closer to hear what they were going to say, but I stayed at my place behind the bar, figuring that as the Pony’s only barmaid currently working, I would have my chance to meet the stranger soon enough.

Sure enough, Barliam soon walked up to the bar, filled a tankard, and shoved it in my hands, telling me that the man in the corner would also be wanting a plate of food, and a room for a few nights. Biting back a sarcastic reply, I placed the tankard down long enough to grab a plate of food, and made my way to the corner table.

I could feel the stranger’s eyes on me as I approached, carefully balancing the plate of food and the full tankard as I stepped around some of the Pony’s drunker inhabitants. It was a stormy night, and it seemed as though most of the town had sought refuge under Barliman’s roof from the tempest outside. I made it to the stranger’s table without incident, and set the plate and ale in front of him.

“Barliman said you wanted a room for the night?” I asked, speaking so he could hear me over the dull roar of the other customers.

“You are not the normal barmaid,” the stranger said, as if that would answer my question.

I raised an eyebrow, both at the lack of an answer and at the response. “Quite frankly, I see no reason as to why it should make any difference to you whether I am the normal barmaid or not,” I replied, a bit more bite in my tone than normal. “It does not affect you in any way.”

The stranger leaned forward a bit, allowing me to glimpse the glint of stern eyes. “And you are not from Bree either, judging by your accent, your attitude, and your coloring," he said, glancing at my red hair, pulled back in a tight bun, as he said the last bit. "What is your name, girl?”

“First of all, I have not been considered a girl for a very long time. Second, it makes no difference whether I am from Bree or Gondor or Harad. Third, and only because you will undoubtedly annoy me until I give you an answer, I am Roisin. Now, to repeat my question, would you like a room?”

“An unusual name,” he said, but didn’t comment further. Instead, he leaned back in his chair and replaced the pipe into his mouth. The movement caused the light to gleam off a ring I had not noticed before. Two serpents, with emerald eyes, one devouring, the other crowned with golden flowers. The sight of it made me go utterly still. I recognized that ring - would recognize that ring anywhere, on any finger. And for it to be gracing the finger of this mud-splattered man…

I realized with a start that he had answered my query for a room and was now looking at me curiously. Quietly cursing my inattentiveness, I merely nodded and quickly made my way back to behind the bar. Under the pretense of refilling a drink for one of the patrons, I escaped to the back room and shut the door. Barliman might curse me for it if he found me, but I needed to collect myself before I could return to the taproom.

Three months. I had been at the Pony for close to three months now, after Barliman had found me on his doorstep one night, half dead and delirious with fever. I had spent a week in bed, regaining my strength. When I was strong enough to leave the bed, Barliman had offered me a job, asking no questions about my past or how I had managed to arrive on his doorstep in a storm so similar to the one that was now blowing outside. They were questions I was more than happy to avoid, and the work allowed me to avoid thinking about how to answer them. Because how do you explain to someone that you are not from their world?

I took a deep breath. Another. And a third, attempting to calm my frantically beating heart. I had been young when my parents first introduced me to the works of Tolkien. I had spent my childhood pretending to have my own adventures in Middle-Earth, never dreaming that one day, at twenty-three years old, I would awaken in Middle-Earth with no clear recollection of how I had landed there. There was some memory there, something I could not access, that would explain how I had come to this place, but I had been too afraid to reach for it. Something in my gut told me I would not have that luxury for much longer.

I took another steadying breath, straightened the apron I wore, and opened the door to the taproom. Now was not the time to attempt to piece together some existential puzzle. For now, I was simply Renia, barmaid at the Prancing Pony, and I had customers to serve.

Something had changed. I could sense it as I stepped back into the room. A glance to the corner confirmed that the ranger - for I refused to acknowledge him for who he was, even to myself - was still there, his legs stretched before him. But while his pipe was still lit, his gaze was fixed on something on the other side of the taproom. With dread filling my stomach, I followed his gaze.

A few of the more unsavory members of town had taken up residence at the table closest to the bar. I recognized Bill Ferny amongst them, and a shiver of disgust made its way down my back. Ferny, despite being nearly double my age, had decided that my unattachment to any man in town meant I was open to his… advances. He had corned me once before, trapping me between a table and a wall as he decided to take what he wanted. Thankfully, some of the kinder townsfolk pulled him off of me before he could get very far, but I could still feel the ghost of his fingers clawing their way under the skirts I wore.

I tried to catch Barliman's eye, desperate for a chance to avoid dealing with Ferny and his friends. To my dismay, he was caught up in conversation with Rowlie Appledore, who ran the market in town. Sighing, I quickly filled four pints of ale and made my way to the table, hoping that Ferny wouldn't try anything again.
Unfortunately, it seemed like lady luck had abandoned me. As I stepped up to the table, Ferny immediately turned his attention away from his cronies and fixed his leer on me.

“Well, ‘ullo' there my pretty. I didn’t know you’d be workin’ today.” His crooked teeth were stained yellow as he flashed them in my direction. “Why don’t you take a load off and come warm good ‘ole Bill up, aye?”

I swallowed some of the bile that seemed to be making its way up my throat. “I’m working, Ferny,” I snapped. “And for the last time, I am not interested. Now leave me the hell alone.” I turned back towards the safety of the bar.

Ferny grabbed my wrist, pulling me into his lap. I squirmed, desperate to get free as his putrid breath grazed my neck. “Now now, sweetie. That’s the wrong attitude to take. I’m only bein’ polite here!”

I thrashed harder, trying to dislodge his grip from my arm. I reached for a nearby tankard, ready to smash the thing across Ferny’s head, when a sudden force jerked both him and I backwards. Fenry released me in surprise, and I landed painfully on the floor.

Looking up, I saw that the ranger had lifted Ferny by the back of his neck, and now had the man pinned against the nearest wall. His cowl had been thrown back, revealing a shaggy head of dark hair flecked with grey, and in a pale stern face a pair of keen grey eyes.
“I suggest you control yourself, Ferny,” he said, softly enough that I had to strain to hear him, despite the hush that had fallen over the taproom. “It didn’t look like Renia was all that comfortable, and surely a gentleman like yourself would put the comfort of a lady first.” His words dripped with sarcasm.

Fear settled in Ferny’s face, the fear of a small-time predator being corned by something much more dangerous. “I-I meant no disrespect, Strider” he stammered, “only wanted a bit of fun, you see?”

Strider might have replied, had Barliman’s voice not broken the silence. “Here now, Strider! I must ask you to put Mr. Ferny down. A scoundrel he might be, but I cannot allow my guest to go around assaulting one another! Bad for business!”

Strider released Ferny, who fell ungracefully to the floor, and turned to face Barliman. “And I suppose allowing your guests to harass your barmaid is good for business?”

Barliman’s face turned red, and he opened and closed his mouth several times, giving off the impression of a fish who has found himself on dry land for the first time. “I-I-I,” he stammered several times, apparently having no reply to Strider.

“Really Strider,” I said, climbing to my feet, desperate to diffuse the situation. “Mr. Fenry has only had a bit too much to drink. I kindly ask that you release him, and I will show you to your room for the night.” I gestured towards the stairs, vaguely visible through the seemingly permanent fog of pipeweed smoke that hung in the Pony.

“That’s right, Mr. Strider!” Ferny exclaimed, clearly shocked I wasn’t asking for him to be skewered by the longsword that Strider carried at his side. “Just a bit too much to drink! I’m on my way home, really!” He followed this statement by scampering to the door, followed by a few of his cronies. Evidently the storm howling outside held less fear for them than the stern ranger.

Strider tracked their movements until the door slammed shut behind them, then turned to me. “Lead the way,” he stated simply, following me as a turned my back on the room and heading for the stairs.