A Stranger Grown by Rhymer

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Story Notes:

This was written for the February 2015 Teitho challenge, on the theme of "out of place." It placed first.

The arches were entwined with bright flowers, and leafy tendrils clung to the pale stone. Beyond walls and behind doorways, treetops reached towards the cloudless sky. Birds sang unseen in courtyards, and two golden butterflies chased each other above the bleached flagstones, then rose high against the crenelated walls, and then were gone.

"There were no flowers the first time I came here," Pippin said quietly beside him. "No flowers at all, just stone."

"It's changed." Merry shook his head, wondering. He, too, spoke quietly. Unbidden, they had both dropped their voices almost to a whisper as soon as they had passed through the Great Gate. On the road, they had been exuberant, and the miles had passed in song and laughter and the anticipation of longed-for reunions. Now stone walls surrounded them, and all around them were the eyes of Men.

"Of course," Pippin said, rallying slightly, "Gondor was at war then, and had no king."

A young girl turned her head, openly staring. A doll trailed from her hand, its curly hair brushing the dust. It was a hobbit, Merry thought, turned by the dollmaker into something quaint and strange. He turned away; caught another pair of staring eyes. A woman elbowed her friend, and whispered something, shielding her mouth with her hand. He knew that tales were told of them throughout the realm; Aragorn had made sure that they received what he considered was their due. But few of those who told the tales had ever seen a hobbit in the flesh before. Most never would.

"It's such a beautiful city," Pippin said, louder than it needed to be. A petal fell from a balcony far above them, where flowers grew around a metal balustrade, wrought in an elven style. It rested briefly on Pippin's hair, and he brushed it away without looking at it.

"Yes," Merry agreed, just a near-silent moving of his lips.

He remembered how strange Rohan had seemed to him at first, but he had come to love the scent of its grasslands and the warm smokiness of its feast halls. Visiting Edoras a month ago, he had felt a sharp pang of rightness, as if he was returning to a place that had once, in a way, almost been a home to him.

Perhaps Pippin felt the same about Minas Tirith, but it had never felt like home to Merry, even in those joyous months after the fall of Sauron, when the world was full of promise. Forty years, now, since its walls had first loomed before him, distorted and shadowed by his wound-sickness and his grief. Then, recovering, he had looked out at its crumbling stone towers, and sorrowed to think that he would probably die here, so far away from home. They had returned several times, he and Pippin, before their fathers had died and they had taken up their responsibilities in the Shire. Sam had visited some years after that, but this was first time Merry and Pippin had returned in  twenty years.

"But so big," Pippin said, quiet again. "I remember..." He looked upwards, but the lower walls of the city towered above them, and the citadel seemed as far away and impossible as the stars. "I felt so small."

Minas Tirith was not a built for hobbits. It was too vast, and the buildings had too many floors. It was too big for all the inhabitants to know each other, and its people rushed around too fast, and too many of them wore swords. There were old things here, too: far older than the Shire and anything in it. It would be famed in story for as long as the world endured, whereas the stories hobbits told in their taverns at night would never be heard by anyone but hobbits.

"I feel even smaller now," Pippin confessed, "for some reason."

"It's because it's changed," Merry said. "Changed since we were here last. Changed since we had almost come to know it."

Minas Tirith had been transformed. Where once it had been a place of cold, crumbling stone, it was now full of gardens and bright new carvings. The marketplace was teeming with people, some of them clearly travellers from lands far to the south. Stalls sold foods that Merry had never tasted before, and traders shouted about wares he had never heard of. Clothing had changed, and the music was different, and the people walked with an easy confidence and pride, citizens of the greatest city in the world.

"Changed," he murmured again. And we haven't, he almost said, but of course that was not true. He and Pippin had been transformed by their adventures, and the other hobbits considered them remarkable. But they remained hobbits, and that meant…

His thoughts faltered. He stopped, looked up, and caught a glimpse of a vision: a hint of what might one day come to pass.

"It's wrong," he said, speaking to himself, wondering. "It…" He looked at the flowers against the carved white stone, so beautiful, but so strange.

"What?" And Pippin was still there at his side, as if the years had melted away, and the world once more stood at the cusp of ending.


They did not call him Strider any more, the hobbits. In private, they were much the same as they had always been, but the shadow of years lay between them now. Aragorn had been forty years a king. It was forty years since he had lurked in a northern inn, while men and hobbits caroused all around him, and he went unseen. It was forty years since he had been Strider to anyone but these hobbits. Now, it seemed, even that small link with his past had gone.

Despite everything that the years had gained him, he found that he could mourn it still.

They did not bow, though. Even in public, because he had asked them to, they stood tall before him, and did not kneel. They laughed together, when laughter was called for. There were songs, and long hours of talking, late into the night. At times, there was quietness, as they remembered together those who had gone. Legolas was there, and Gimli. Faramir and his family joined them in the Citadel, and Pippin visited his friend Bergil, a veteran captain now, with the honours to show for it, as well as the scars. They were happy together, and the courtiers smiled to see it.

But always, through it all, the shadow.

Two days before midsummer, Aragorn rose early, as was his habit, and walked the ramparts in the cool light of dawn. As the day grew bright around him, he sat down beside the fountain, and closed his eyes, listening to the play of falling water.

The footsteps were soft behind him. Merry, Aragorn thought, for the instincts of a Ranger were never truly forgotten, even after forty years in a palace of stone. He had thought from the start that it would be Merry, for it was in Merry's eyes that the shadow most often dwelled.

Merry clambered up onto the bench, and settled himself on the hard stone. He had left a space between the two of them, a little wider than a hobbit's reach. "I always get up early," Merry said, "now I'm getting old." He patted at his hair, where the sun touched the greying curls and gilded them with the appearance of youth.

Aragorn smiled. "I spent too many years sleeping in hedgerows and rising with the sun. It is a habit that has proved impossible to break. Besides," he said, "the city is never more beautiful than at dawn, when light breaks in the east, where once all was dread and dark."

"It is very beautiful." Merry looked down at his clasped hands, at his dangling feet. "It's changed a lot."

"Yes," Aragorn agreed. Merry was working towards something, he thought, and this was the start of it. He would let it unfold in time. He would not hurry it. "The elves brought the gardens. The dwarves crafted the Great Gate, and much else besides. The Men of Gondor were always good with stone, but now they can craft for beauty, not just for defence."

"That's good." Merry's smile was faint. "But it's not just the buildings. There are new people here, Men that aren't from Gondor or the Mark."

"Haradrim," Aragorn said, "and those we used to call Easterlings. More battles lie ahead, I fear, but for now, we are at peace with most of our old enemies. We are beginning to learn each other's ways."

Merry's legs were swinging, left then right then left, like the child he most definitely was not. "We went to the market yesterday, Pippin and I. We ate such things! Strange spices and pastries, and… goat, I think, and a strange squeaky cheese… oh, and a drink that was sharp and sweet at the same time, and pricked your tongue like pins. Pippin liked it, but wasn't so sure."

"I disliked it when first I tasted it in the east, many years ago," Aragorn confessed, "but I have grown to like it now."

"I expect I would, too," Merry said, "if I tried it a few more times. We don't have it in the Shire, of course."

Far below, a bell started ringing. Others followed after: first one, then another, until all the bells in the city had chimed the hour. Silence fell slowly. The most distant bell was always the last, starting its chime only when the others had already finished.

"Did you ever visit the Shire, Aragorn?" Merry asked into the silence after that last bell had sounded.

"We guarded the borders, for the most part." It was a long time ago, now: over half a lifetime, for most Men. "We came in when we had to, but we passed through quickly, and stayed unseen. I never saw Hobbiton, but Bilbo spoke of it so fondly and so vividly, that at times it seemed as if I had walked its lanes at his side." He smiled at the memory. The pictures were still there, although fainter now, far fainter than they once had been.

"But you never did." Merry looked so small, dwarfed by the stone bench that, like everything else in Minas Tirith, had been made so unthinkingly for Men. "You never will."

So this was it, then. This was the shadow, brought out at last beneath the clear light of dawn. "No," Aragorn agreed. He was quiet. He would wait.

Merry turned towards him; half reached for him, but was too far away to touch. "Why did you do it? Why did you ban Men from the Shire?"

"You know why." Aragorn kept his voice soft. He wanted to reach across the gap between them, but merely rested his hand on the stone bench at his side, near enough for Merry to touch, if he wanted to. He hoped he would. 

"Yes." Merry let out a breath. "You think there's something special about us and our way of life, something simple and uncorrupted, that meant that only a hobbit could resist the lure of the Ring. You want to preserve that. You want to reward us for everything we… for everything Frodo suffered. And then there was Saruman and the things that he did, ruining things, changing things. You want to make sure that doesn't happen to us again."

"Yes," Aragorn said. He knew now what was coming, but "yes," was all he said, no apology, no defence.

"I agreed with you, of course," Merry said. "You consulted us beforehand, and we were delighted, Sam and Pippin and I. We hobbits celebrate it every year, you know: the anniversary of your decree. We drink to our freedom, to our specialness: so special, we are, that the great King Elessar himself has enshrined it in law."

It felt as if a cloud had passed before the sun, but the sky was still clear above them. People were stirring: doors opening across the courtyard, and the hum of conversation beyond the walls. Far away, it felt; faint and far away.

"But how many hobbits have left the Shire since then?" Merry asked. "I didn't think about it until the other day, when everyone stared at us, but how many hobbits have travelled to Gondor? How many have even gone as far as Annúminas? Oh, I know they can, but most of them just… don't."

There was nothing he could say, Aragorn knew. A guard began to walk towards them. Aragorn raised a hand, telling him to turn back. A soft gust of wind caught the spray from the fountain, and the sun made it shine like jewels.

"And then I come here, and see how the world is changing." Merry was shaking his head from side to side. "Changing, and we just stay the same. Oh yes, I know we do so because we want to, because we love our way of life, and we're right to do so. But forty years ago, the world outside our borders was full of dread and terror, but now… Now…" His voice had been rising sharply, his face twisted with something close to pain. Now he let out a breath, and his face softened. He reached out at last, gripping Aragorn's left hand on the bench between them. "The world outside our borders is becoming a marvel, Aragorn, and that's because of you."

"Because of many," Aragorn said, "including you."

Merry shook his head, dismissing the correction. "You made your edict with nothing but good intentions. You wanted to build us a sanctuary, and we love you for it, but one day… What if the sanctuary becomes a cage? What if the world outside our borders changes so much that we grow terrified of leaving? What if some future king, less kind than you, decides that instead of banning Men from entering the Shire, he will stop hobbits from leaving it?"

They will not, Aragorn wanted to say, but he could not do so. Even the Kings of Númenor had fallen in the end.

"It might not happen for many years," said Merry. "It might not happen at all, but…"

It will not, Aragorn could have said, but he did not. He should have seen it years ago. It was too long since he had gone to the north; too long since he had walked along roads that were not built by Men. But he knew now what had to happen. He knew what he had to do, but he could not do it unasked. After forty years of ruling, in this he had to be ruled. It had to come from Merry. 

And a moment later, it did.


The reflected towers of Annúminas rippled on the wind-touched surface of the lake. It was summer, but a summer's day in the north was just as likely to be cool and cloudy as it was to bask beneath a baking sun. "At least it isn't raining," Merry said. It had been raining when they had left the Shire, and few had turned out to wave them on their way.

"Is that the sea?" asked one of the younger hobbits, who had never seen water wider than the Brandywine before.

"It's a lake, silly," another one chided him, but then they both laughed, and Merry knew that the whole exchange had been a joke, a deliberate lightening of the mood.

Not that the mood was sombre, despite the gloom of the sky. They were a party of twenty, many of them hobbits who had never before left the Shire. They had travelled slowly, with many stops to marvel and to stare. As soon as they had left the Shire, they had started to meet messengers on the road. One had hailed Merry, and another had recognised Pippin. Another, a stranger to them all, had stopped and bowed.

Those same messengers greeted them now, bowing once again, and calling Merry and Pippin by their titles, as if they were honoured Men. As they were led to their chambers, some of the hobbits were cowed, and some were openly staring. Until they had passed those riders on the road, some of them had never seen a Man before. They whispered amongst themselves, the braver ones, and the youngest. "So tall!" they said, and, "The towers touch the sky!"

When he saw the chambers that had been prepared for them, Merry had to blink back sudden tears. "Will the King see us now?" he quietly asked their escort. "Just Pippin - the Thain - and myself?"

"He told me to answer yes, and most welcome," came the reply, "if you requested it."

They left the others settling in, exclaiming over the furnishings, unpacking. "They'll get started on the beer," Pippin warned, under his breath.

"Almost certainly," Merry agreed. He saw their escort struggle to suppress a smile, the corner of his mouth twitching. He was glad to see it. He remembered when the guards of Minas Tirith had been stern of face at all times, never even hinting at a smile.

And then they were on a terrace above the lake, and Aragorn was there, alone with a book. He rose to greet them, then went down on one knee to embrace them. The escort said something; Merry barely heard him. It was two years since they had last met, that summer in Gondor when Merry had suddenly felt fear for the future. There was no shadow left between them now, or if there was, it would soon be gone.

"Do you have it?" Aragorn asked, when the greetings were done, and questions asked and answered about family and old friends.

Merry placed the leather tube on the low bench that flanked the terrace. Unfastening it, he slid out the roll of parchment. "Signed by the Mayor and the Thain and the Master," he said, "and witnessed by… oh, so many of them."

"Every family wanted to have a go at it," Pippin said, "to sign their name on a document that the king would seal with his own hand. I'm sure some of them signed it twice. Or… oh, look! Three times! There!"

They looked down upon it, the three of them together. The writing was that of a hobbit, not the polished lettering of a court scribe. The wording was formal, but only in the hobbit's manner of formality: the language of fields, and not of towers. The hobbits of the Shire, it said, were grateful to King Elessar for preserving their ancient freedoms, and for extending the arm of his protection to their way of life. For over thirty years, no Man had entered the Shire, an inviolable decree. The hobbits hereby declared that in future, no Man would enter the Shire unless the hobbits themselves willed it. No Men could enter unbidden, that much still held, but Men could be invited, and would be, from this very day.

"I will seal it," Aragorn said, "because I must. My seal will give it the force of law throughout the realm. But it is your proclamation, too." His hand was resting his hand on the curling parchment, his fingertips touching their names. "It always should have been."

Merry placed his hand beside Aragorn's, close enough to touch. When Aragorn lifted his hand, the document curled round on itself. Merry took it up and returned it to its case. It would come out again on the morrow, when it was formally sealed and proclaimed to the whole northern court.

Together, they moved towards the low balustrade, where Aragorn sat on the ground, his back to the grey lake, and Merry and Pippin stood on either side of him, looking out. "You built us hobbit holes," Merry said, the tears once more threatening to fall. "Hobbit-sized guest chambers at the very heart of the royal court."

A water bird screamed above them, then landed on the lake with an explosion of spray. It was raining on the far side of the water, the hills obscured with misty sheets of grey.

"We brought four barrels of beer," Pippin said, "and all the best Shire delicacies we could find. They came out in their dozens to thrust them at us when they heard that your cooks wanted to try our best recipes."

"And pipeweed, I hope," Aragorn said with a sigh. "Ah, but it is years since I have enjoyed some Longbottom Leaf."

"Pipeweed, too," Pippin confirmed.

"That's good," Aragorn said, sounding for just that moment almost like the Ranger they had met in Bree, and not like a king at all.

Leaning forward, elbows on the carved stone, Merry and Pippin exchanged a look. "Men can be invited," Merry said carefully. He heard rather than saw Aragorn go very still. "We want you to be the first."


The hedgerows were thick with travellers' joy. 'Old man's beard,' the hobbits called it, after its autumn fruit, a mass of white fluff. He had almost forgotten that name. Aragorn stopped, letting his fingers whisper across the silky whiteness. Strands came off in his hand, rested in his palm for a moment, and then blew gently away. It was years since he had seen it, and longer still since he had really noticed it.

Hobbits, he thought, would notice it every day.

A portly hobbit was resting against the parapet of the bridge, his feet outstretched to luxuriate in the last of the afternoon sun. A half-eaten apple rested in one negligent hand, and three more were piled up beside him, along with a stone flagon large enough for two. A Bounder, Aragorn judged, dozing on duty, as no guard in Gondor would ever let himself do.

But the Bounder scrambled to his feet quickly enough when he heard Aragorn approach. "Oh," he said. The apple fell from his hand, and his eyes flickered down to the cudgel on the ground, and then up at Aragorn's face. "No Men can pass, you know." It was somewhere between an apology and a command. "The King has ordered it, and now Master Samwise, too. He's our Mayor," he added, speaking loudly, like an adult explaining something complicated to a child.

"I have an invitation." Aragorn reached into his pouch and pulled out the paper.

"Oh. Yes." The Bounder leant forward, pulling the paper towards him and peering at the signatures. Wrinkling his nose, he let it go again. "They told me you'd be coming through. You're early." He peering upwards, flapping a fly away from his face. "You're very tall." The fly was persistent. The hand flapped again. "Mind you, I am short. Three inches shorter than my dad, I am. I make up for it round the waist; that's what I always say. Apple?"

Aragorn took the proffered fruit and bit into it, nodding his appreciation. He knew the Bounder was watching him as he crossed the bridge. There was a building at the far end of the bridge, half cottage, half guardhouse. Laughter sounded from within, but fell silent as he passed. He felt a pricking between his shoulders. He had always known when he was being watched.

For a hundred yards, they watched him, until they clearly deemed him no threat, or else too uninteresting for further study. The laughter resumed, faint now, and fading away. Soon he was alone, wandering along lanes that were rutted with close-set wheel tracks. A thrush sang from the branches of an oak tree. Swallows flitted above him, but it would not be long, now, before they left. They would be in Minas Tirith long before him, although they would not linger, but move on south.

How long since he had wandered alone? The smells were intensely familiar, bringing snatches of vivid memory: waking beneath an oak tree; nursing a wound in the shelter of a ring of hawthorns; settling down for sleep beneath the summer stars. He knelt and touched the ground, inhaling the scent of the earth. Then, standing, he walked on, his face turned up towards the soft blue sky.

It was almost twilight when they found him. "You're early," Pippin said, but Merry chuckled and shook his head, and said, "No, Pip, we're late. I told you we shouldn't have stopped for that second snack."

They were light with laughter, all three of them, because although this day was significant, it could never be solemn. The hobbits were mounted on ponies, and Aragorn walked between them on foot, his cloak whisked occasionally by the ponies' tails.

"Did they recognise you at the bridge?" Pippin asked, and, "Ha!" he cried in triumph, when Aragorn confirmed that they had not.

Merry had been the only one to feel any doubt on that score. Aragorn had assured him that he still knew how to disguise his appearance. He had spent more than half his life veiling his true nature, assuming the appearance of a wandering nobody, barely worth a second glance. He would shed King Elessar like a man shaking off a fine robe, and assume the mantle of Strider, the Ranger. It was an old robe, stiff with disuse, but it fitted him still. He hoped it always would.

"Told you so, Merry!" Pippin crowed. "It's hard to tell Men apart, you see," he confided to Aragorn. "They're like sheep in that way." He ended with a cheeky grin, unchanged across the years.

"They wouldn't expect it," Merry said. "Even if they've seen you before, they won't expect to see you here. They know we know you, but they don't… " He shook his head, searching for words. "They don't know it here." He pressed his hand briefly to his breast. "The King is a mighty figure far away, sitting on a golden throne. They would never dream of seeing you here, dressed like this."

"And if you look familiar to them," said Pippin, "if they look at you, and think, 'Hmm, he looks a little bit like the King,' they'll assume it's just because all Men look like that. Sheep, you see. Sheep!" He laughed. Fast approaching seventy, but in all the things that mattered, he would never change.

Aragorn resisted the urge to ruffle his hair. Hobbits were small, and there was an innocence to them, but they were not children. Too few Men realised that, but that would change. From this day onwards, that would change.

"So the stage is set," he merely said.

"Ah, yes," Pippin chuckled. "The stage is set."


"Harvest Home," Pippin explained, wiping beer froth from his mouth with the back of his hand. "Feasting and merriment to celebrate the fact that our long labours in the fields are done."

"Or in other words," Merry said, firelight flickering on his face, "it's yet another hobbit excuse for a good party."

"Hey!" Pippin protested. "It's tradition!" He leant forward confidingly towards Aragorn. "Tradition," he said with emphasis, "is important."

"It is indeed," Aragorn agreed solemnly. He shifted position again, but still could not get comfortable. He had spent his time in rough lodgings. He had slept beneath a blanket on ice-hard ground. He had treated with tribal leaders cross-legged on the sand. Thrones, sometimes, had been crafted for him, of quartz and gold in draughty halls. Always, before, he had disguised his discomfort. Tonight it no longer seemed important. No, tonight it was important that he did not.  

Merry was too tactful to mention it, but Pippin might later, perhaps, if the beer continued to flow freely. The other hobbits in the room could not help but notice. They stared; looked away, but always came back to stare at him again.

The chair was too low. His knees were jammed awkwardly against the table, his legs forced to twist to the side. He had to stoop to pass through the door, stoop to avoid low beams, stoop to avoid the swinging ring of candles that dangled from the ceiling.

"There'll be bonfires outside, later," Pippin said, "when it's fully dark. And singing. And food. The harvest looks like a good one, but how can we be sure without testing every bit?"

Standing, Aragorn thought gratefully. Outside. He chuckled in response to Pippin's grin, and raised his tankard, crafted for hands smaller than his. He had never spent time in a place so comprehensively designed for hobbits before. There were hobbits in Bree, of course, but the Prancing Pony had been built by Men, with hobbit-sized spaces added on.

The lesson was clear. The Fourth Age was the age of Men, and there were ever fewer places in the world that were not built with the needs of Men in mind. The elves were departing, and the dwarves, although dwarves, built on a mighty scale, in stone. Just forty years before, the world of Men had been fragmented, but now one kingdom covered a vast expanse of the world. There were fewer and fewer places where a Man from Gondor would feel like a stranger. There were fewer and fewer places where he would feel lost and overwhelmed and far from home.

"Three over here, Mungo!" Pippin shouted, gesturing at a young hobbit who was weaving through the crowd with a basket of indeterminate pastries. "You won't guess what's in them," Pippin assured him, "but they're good. Tookish speciality."

"I was always told they came from Buckland first of all," said Merry.

Pippin shrugged happily. The pastries came, and were handed over happily, no talk of money. Pippin and Merry exchanged incomprehensible jests with the server, making oblique references to things that Aragorn understood not at all, and people he had never heard of. The server addressed Aragorn's friends by their titles, and clearly admired them greatly, but there was no exaggerated deference, and clearly no fear.

"Go on, try one," Pippin urged, when the server was gone. "Go on, guess."

Aragorn obeyed. "Apple," he suggested, "and bacon? I can see the carrot. Some sort of herb…"

"The mystery ingredient!" Pippin tapped a finger against the side of his nose. "Don't ask, because we won't tell. It's a hobbit secret that only hobbits can know."

Only hobbits, Aragorn thought. Not strangers. Ah, but it was good that he had come here! It would be good for every noble, every soldier, every lord: everyone who by their actions, had the power to affect the small people of the world. Whenever a hobbit left the Shire, he wandered in a world built for people of a different size. It was only right that Men should experience the same. If they were shut out of the Shire forever more, they would come to forget that a place existed where they were outsiders; where their ways were not the only ways; where their ways were not the right ways.

It was important to be a stranger at times, to feel out of place. Aragorn had learnt that lesson well in the long decades of his wandering, but he had spent the last forty years on the throne of the Reunified Kingdom, and wherever he went, the world tried to shape itself around him, as people hurried to fulfil his imagined needs.

"Another drink?" Pippin said. "Oh, all right, if you insist."

Aragorn shifted position again, and the table left the ground for a moment, lifted up by his knees. With a cry, Pippin lunged for his tankard, narrowly managing to catch it, as the table legs smashed into the floor, scraping against the flagstones. Fifty pairs of hobbit eyes turned to look at them, as conversations lulled.

"Shouldn't have brought a Man." The voice was low, but it came at that moment of near silence, and it carried as loudly as a shout. "We know what Men are like, and that one has a villainous look about him. We shouldn't stand for it, that's what I say."

"Hey, now, Nob!" someone admonished him. There were other shouts, too. Amid the jostling of the crowd, Aragorn caught a glimpse of a raised stick.

He leant forward, ready to react. Such things could escalate; he had seen it happen. A cry of dissent in a market place far to the south had veiled an assassination attempt. He was the King. They would look to him to take the lead. They always did. They…

He let out a breath; sank back against the too-small seat. Merry had taken over, pushing his way through the crowd with easy assurance. With an apologetic smile to Aragorn, Pippin stood up and slithered through the crowd by another route. Aragorn was left out, forgotten, able to see nothing but a circle of backs. There was too much muttering for him to hear what Merry and Pippin were saying, but he could hear the tone: firm, but not harsh.

The door opened and shut. He resisted the urge to stand up and take a look.

"A little bit too much to drink," Merry explained, returning to his seat. "A common problem at Harvest Home. He didn't mean it."

"Yes, he did." Pippin had acquired three more tankards of beer, and he placed them carefully on the table carefully, almost managing not to spill. "But he'll learn.. His father died in the unpleasantness, you see. We'll put him right."

They would put him right, indeed: Merry, Pippin, Sam. This was the Shire, ruled by hobbits in their own way. It had just been a minor disturbance, over in a moment, but if it had been far worse… However bad it was, it was not Aragorn's place to solve it. He would intervene if asked. His Rangers had protected the Shire for years, but those were from enemies that no hobbit could fight. But this was not his place. The hobbits solved their problems in their own way, and sometimes their ways were very different from the ways of Gondor, but they were their ways. Aragorn was not the centre of things. He was the unimportant stranger, far from home.

He smiled. And then, as they bumped their glasses together, and drank to the world to come, he laughed.

And when the bonfires were lit, he stood with Merry and Pippin at his side, and joined in with songs that he soon came to know, and listened to stories that had echoes of older tales. "It does feel like home, in a way," Merry said. "Minas Tirith, I mean. Because we have friends there, and that matters. It matters enormously."

Aragorn knelt down, and put his arms around their shoulders, one at each side. "It does," he agreed.

"But only the Shire is truly home to me," said Merry, "and this is right."

And will never truly be home to me, Aragorn thought, no matter how much I come to love it. And that, too, was right, because more than anybody else, a king needed to remember what it was to be a stranger, a distrusted traveller moving through the dark.

"It is right," Merry said, "isn't it, Strider?"

"Yes," Aragorn agreed, smiling at them both, at the world, at the night. "Yes, it is right."

Chapter End Notes:

Note: I am sure that Tolkien never envisaged a scenario like this. It seems clear to me that Tolkien meant the ban on Men entering the Shire to be seen as an unambiguously good thing. However, it has always bothered me, and I wanted to explore my concerns in a story. Think of it not as an AU, as such - for nothing in here directly contradicts anything Tolkien tells us in the Tale of Years - but as a "what if?" that almost certainly never happened.

The title comes from a poem by Robert Burns:

I've seen sae mony changefu' years,
On earth I am a stranger grown;
I wander in the ways of men,
Alike unknowing, and unknown.

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