There were very few people Strider liked. Sure, Estel liked people, as did Aragorn, and even Thorongil had friends. But Strider? He had his fellow Rangers, but he didn't get along with most other people.
One exception was the cook of the Prancing Pony.
Besides the fact that his meals were delicious, he also refused to be cowed by the mysterious Ranger. Their first conversation had gone much like this.
"You scared the barmaid," a raven-haired green-eyed young man said casually as he approached with a plate of dinner. "By her tales, I'd expected you to be green and have fangs at the very least. You're oddly disappointing."
The man wasn't goading or showing false bravado either; Strider could tell that much. "Most people believe such," Strider said with a small smirk. "You don't."
"I've always found it oddly comforting when dangerous people look the part," the man said blandly, setting his plate before him. "That third man at the bar? Now he's one I don't like. He acts like he's drunk, but pours his ale into his companion's pints when they are not looking."
Strider raised an eyebrow, impressed despite himself. "I noticed."
The man inclined his head, as if already having expected that, and left for the kitchen.
The man, whom Strider later found out was called Ares and was the cook, continued treating him in that vein. It was oddly.. refreshing. Someone who wasn't a fool, but wasn't scared of him either.
One evening, Ares asked him something. "Would you have time for some swords sparring tomorrow morning?"
Strider raised an eyebrow. "Now why would you want that?"
"Who else is there?" Ares replied. "Bree has no able swordsmen."
"And you think I am one."
Ares made a wavy motion with his hand. "I've seen you walk. I know you can fight. And you're not the sort that carries a weapon and not know how to use it."
Ares then walked away. Strider stared after him. It was true: you pick out a fighter by their walking style, balance, and lack of unnecessary movements.
Ares was a fighter.
The next morning Ares was in the main area of the inn an hour before dawn, his sword by his side. "So sure I would come?" Strider wondered.
Ares shrugged. "You saw me walk, too. I knew you'd come – if only to satisfy your curiosity."
Strider inclined his head. "Follow me."
They went to a secluded clearing within the town wall, where Ares removed his sword from his scabbard and then removed a wrapping from the hilt. A ruby appeared.
"Nice sword," Strider said dryly.
Ares winced. "Technically, it's a cheap one, because this belonged to my ancestors."
Ares raised an eyebrow. "Trying to disarm me before we even started? Nah. Come and get it." He raised his sword and took a few steps back. Strider drew his, and attacked.
Ares' fighting style was.. well. Effective, at the very least. Strider managed to tear a lot of clothing, but not to actually do some real damage. Ares preferred to open himself to smaller blows in order to form a good attack. Strider's style was to not let anything hit him.
Strider was gaining on Ares, having him nearly pinned to a tree, but then suddenly Ares set one foot against the tree, launched himself into the air, landed behind Strider and placed the tip of his sword against Strider's back.
"Dead. Do you yield?"
"I yield," Strider said. In a real fight, the sword would be coming through at the other end – he was about as dead as he could be without actually being so.
Ares immediately removed the sword and went to the other side of the clearing, watching him warily. When Strider sheathed his sword, he relaxed. "Good fight."
"Nice jump," Strider said dryly. "Didn't know it was possible to jump like that without running."
Ares smirked wickedly. "My secret. Same time tomorrow?"
Strider inclined his head. "I'll be there."
"What do you want for breakfast? Then I'll see if I can make that."
Strider smirked. "Blueberry pancakes."
There wasn't a set menu at the Prancing Pony, nor could one pick their dish: you could have whatever the cook made, which was based on availability and what he felt up to making, really. Thus the ability to choose a dish was a rare one indeed. And if Strider just happened to have a fondness for blueberry pancakes.. who would blame him?
Things continued much like that. Whenever Strider's travels brought him (close) to Bree, he would stay at the Prancing Pony and spar with the cook. They were pretty evenly matched: Strider was technically better and more skilled, but Ares had a lot of tricks up his sleeve and what he lacked in skill he made up for in sheer boldness. They had an easy friendship, which worked mostly because they refrained from asking questions. Strider didn't ask where Ares had needed to learn to fight (because he fought too reckless to have been taught by any teacher but experience, where failure was not an option), and Ares never asked about his Ranger job, where he'd come from, where he was going.
Also, to the amusement of them both, Ares usually served Strider in the inn.. The barmaid still hadn't warmed up to him.
One day, as Strider was in his room at the inn tending to a nasty gash in his calf (courtesy of an Orc-blade), there was a knock on the door. The door opened before he could respond, and Ares suddenly stood in his room. "Nasty," he commented upon sight of the wound, throwing him some bandages. "Did your luck run out or something?"
Strider glared at him. "Shut up."
"I brought some pastes," Ares said lazily. "I have a poison antidote, stuff to keep the wound from getting infected and stuff to make it heal faster. What d'you need?"
"What's in it?" Strider snapped.
"Herbs, plants and flowers," Ares said dryly. "And it works like a charm. I use it every time you get a lucky shot at me."
Strider sighed. "Give."
Ares did so, explaining what to use for what (poison antidote for real or suspected poisoning of the wound; anti-infect stuff for deep wounds and heal-faster for just about everything).
It worked like a charm.
Then Strider was asked by Gandalf to track down Gollum, and then to guide some Hobbits to Rivendell.
"A favour," Strider murmured as Ares set down his plate beside him. They were never openly friendly with one another (and they weren't exactly friendly in private either – more about swords, insults and verbal banter than anything else).
"I don't like those," Ares replied while busying himself with straightening the tablecloth. "I do requests, though."
"The dark-curled hobbit and his friends."
"I'll keep an eye out," Ares promised.
Later that evening, when he had dragged Frodo to his room, there was a knock on the door. "Incoming!"
As he recognized Ares' voice, he didn't tense.. much. Sure, he might have known the man for six years now, but with the One Ring so near?
The door opened and three hobbits burst in, Ares behind them. "I made them leave their weaponry behind," Ares said, thoroughly amused. "Mr. Underhill. As the cook of this fine establishment, I feel the need to confirm that you're not being held against your will."
Frodo looked between the two men uncertainly. "I'm not," he said hesitatingly.
Ares nodded. "Good. Now what's the problem?"
Strider settled on the short version. "The Nazgûl are after this one."
Ares scrunched his nose. "I hate those damn beasts. Alright, I'll hand in my resignation tomorrow. I'm pretty decent with a sword."
Ares insisted, no matter how much Strider said he didn't have to. So the next morning, Ares first cooked breakfast hours before dawn, scribbled a note for the innkeeper, and went with them.
Not much of anything happened until Weathertop, when they had a run-in with some Ringwraiths. Ares drew his sword, yelled something in an unfamiliar language, and a silvery-white stag appeared to chase the Nazgûl away.
"You're one of the Istari?" Strider asked wide-eyed as he checked to see if no one had gotten hurt.
"Nah," Ares said. "Just a plain ol' wizard."
"You don't use a staff," Frodo said slightly accusingly.
Ares shrugged. "I can cast through my sword. The ruby is a focus.. never mind," he added at Frodo's confused look. "That Gandalf chap uses a stick of wood with a crystal. I use a stick of iron with a crystal."
Later, when the hobbits were sleeping, Strider questioned Ares some more.
"I didn't see the point in telling," Ares said frankly. "I wouldn't have lied to you, had you asked, but I was you didn't."
Strider sighed. He could understand that, honestly. "I understand. So, about that sword of yours?"
Ares smirked. "The blade is poisoned, the edge never dulls, it's virtually impossible to destroy, it adjusts to its rightful wielder. Few other things, too."
"The blade is poisoned?" Strider asked. "I never saw it."
"The poison is literally inside the blade," Ares said. "Special kind of steel that absorbs anything that would damage a normal sword. I'm immune to the venom, which is kind of good since the antidote is very rare. But it has a practice modus, kind of, which is why you didn't get poisoned whenever I scraped you." Ares shrugged. "Wake me for the second watch."
And just like that, they continued.
At the Council of Elrond, Ares spoke up after Gimli had tried – and failed – to destroy the Ring. "May I examine it? I will not touch it."
Elrond nodded, and Ares stepped forward, setting four stones with carvings on them on the ground around the stone table (he himself standing inside the square) and activated some kind of shield.
"Gandalf, make sure your magic doesn't cross it – it might drain you dry," Ares said grimly. "It's designed to drain any compatible magic inside it or at its borders. It'll prevent the Ring from gaining power from my examination."
Ares then held a hand over the Ring, taking care not to touch it, and muttered something. A lot of numbers, colours and symbols hung in the air.
Ares seemed to know what they meant, muttering and frowning to himself. Occasionally, he sort-of squeezed around the Ring and the numbers changed.
"Sauron is a genius," Ares declared after over an hour. "A stupid genius, but a genius nonetheless." He inserted his sword in one of the four stones he'd placed around the stone table, and they all watched as the Ruby became red. He then turned to address the Council once more. "He managed to create Soul-Aspect Horcruxes. Simply said – he split his soul in two, one part the aspect 'good' and one part the aspect 'evil'. A soul, like everything else, is always balanced, which is why you can't be good or evil – you're always both. It's like every ooze of soul has a red and a blue side, and Sauron managed to have all the red sides up in one half of his soul and all the blue sides up in the other half. He then destroyed the connection between them and then destroyed the 'good' aspect, placed the 'evil' aspect into the Ring, and put the Ring on. Sauron himself was actually soulless – all of his soul was in the Ring. Interesting way of self-possession."
"Why was this stupid?" Elrond asked.
"Besides the fact that he lost all free will, for free will can only be gained when there is both balance and chaos? He tied the Ring directly to Mount Doom and Mordor. When you throw the Ring into Mount Doom, which is virtually impossible due to the spells on the Ring, the mountain and Mordor will explode."
"You're saying we can't destroy the Ring?" Strider asked.
"No," Ares snorted. "There's one glaring hole in Sauron's plan." Ares idly removed the Sword from the stone on the ground and gathered the other four stones.
"What hole is this?" Gandalf asked.
"Well.." Ares looked at him with an isn't-it-obvious expression on his face. "Why not simply bring down Mount Doom?"
Not a single Council member lacked a dumbfounded expression.
With a sharp crack, Ares disappeared. Ten minutes later, a very tired Ares returned.
"Stay 'way from the ring," he murmured with half-closed eyes.
Then, an earthquake began, and a loud noise was heard – later reported to have been heard all over Middle-Earth.
The Ring caught fire and burned very, very hot, incinerating the stone table it was sitting on. When the fires left and the earthquake and noise stopped, the Ring was gone.
"How?" was the question on everyone's lips.
Ares shrugged tiredly. "Balance," he said. "Nothing can exist without its opposite – nothing can exist if it cannot be destroyed. The Ring could only be destroyed by Mount Doom.. and Mount Doom is no more."