Cwen climbed the steps to the Bree-town Hunter’s Lodge and told herself that the quiver in her belly was just her imagination. She paused on the top step and adjusted the cloth over the basket she carried. Clearing her throat, she tucked a strand of her dark hair that had fallen loose from her bun back behind her ear. She looked at the familiar building for a long moment before passing through its door.
Inside, pipe smoke hung heavily in the air. Even though it was early in the afternoon, there were several men lounging about with mugs in their hands and bow staffs nearby. One man laughed raucously as he whittled at a block of wood and nicked his finger. Swearing loudly, he continued to laugh and then spotted her.
Raising his hand into the air, he called out, “If it isn’t Tain of Rohan! Got a potion t’ make this disappear, love?”
Cwen smiled as she went over to the table where he and two other hunters sat with several empty mugs between them. The other two called out fond greetings to her as well, but only the injured man stood at her approach.
“Tully Hopwood,” she said, her high sweet voice betraying her excitement to see him. “It has been a long time, my friend.”
The tall man grinned brightly as he set down his carving knife and pulled out a handkerchief. “Too long, Cwen. But it is good t’ see ye again. We miss your food ‘round here! Cook is good enough, but we always looked forward t’ your fare come Tuesdays.”
Cwen held up the basket. “I had an inkling that you appreciate this, and it appears that I am right. Pies: coney and chicken. In honor of the good old days.”
All three men’s faces lit up. “Well now, look at that!” Tully took the basket she offered and gestured for her to lead the way back toward the kitchen. “Let’s get these back t’ Cook so he can learn a thing or two, eh?” He took one out and left it on the table and like wolves on a lamb, the two men started fighting over it. He merely laughed and followed her as she wove her way through the tables. The men who knew her raised their hands in greeting and those who did not leaned over to inquire about her, she was certain. Not much had changed at the Lodge in her year-long absence.
“What brings ye back t’ Bree?” Tully asked her after he handed off the basket to the cook. “Never really thought I’d see ye again, what with all the fire and crazy murders and whatnot.” He gestured toward the roof.
“Biramore and I returned a wounded pet that found its way in Buckland,” she answered as her eyes roamed around the kitchen. She noted dryly to herself that there were fewer pie pans scattered about. “He had to leave to return to the Shire – a caravan had hired him – and thus I remain as I wait for something to pan out.”
Tully raised a bushy black brow. “What might that be, lass? Surely you’re wanting to get back home to Neilia and the quiet life of a hobbit.”
“The young woman to whom the animal belonged? She has a certain…situation that concerns me. I would like to see her whole again, though I do not think I could risk going to protect them myself. I risked the road to Rivendell and I fear that was all I could do.”
“Get that look off your face, Cwendlwyn.”
“The look like ye got t’ go saving someone again.” Tully looked at her sternly. He waited for the waitress to pass by to drop off some empty mugs before continuing. “Ye just can’t leave well enough alone and let folks deal with the hand they’ve drawn for themselves.”
“This is more than that, Tully. This is no Arodionn Vallanor. No Lord Saren, or whatever his name turned out to be. This is a young woman who fell into peril under no fault or ill will of her own. Just her naivety.” Cwen shook her head and sighed. “I would she live to learn her lesson and make better choices, Tull.”
“Cwen, ye can’t go traipsing about Middle-Earth just because ye feel sorry for the lass.” Tully put a cautious hand on her arm and turned her to face him. He said quite seriously, “Not when ye could be cooking us some more pie.”
Laughing, Cwen shook her head. “I miss this place,” she admitted. “You and the men.”
He beamed. “’Course ye did. Who wouldn’t miss a dim and smoky room full of manly men boasting about who’s bow is bigger? You’re welcome back any time!”
She smiled and nodded. “Thank you, Tully. That means a lot to me, especially when you had to replace your roof because folk were targeting me. Twice.”
He chuckled. “We got it raised and all is right in the world. Don’t you worry.”
She looked at him with a tilt of her head. “Yes. Don’t worry.”