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Guarding the Heedless Folk  by Branwyn

The old ranger tapped out the cinders from his pipe as he spoke. “For the most part, they are decent folk, but do not expect them to trust you. Though they gladly accept our help in times of need, we are looked on as little better than vagrants--dangerous vagrants carrying swords, at that. These Breelanders will watch you with some suspicion, so take care not to alarm them.” Angrim leaned down to stow the pipe in the pack at his feet. His shoulder-length hair, that had seemed so black from afar, was heavily flecked with ash-grey strands.

“You need not worry, sir,” Brandir replied with more certainty than he felt.

Angrim rose and went to the counter to pay for their ale and chicken pie. After chatting for a few moments with the innkeeper, he returned to the table. “Well, I had best be on my way. Halbarad will be here in a day or so, but I doubt you will have any trouble. Things have been quiet since those southerners left last month.” He searched in his pack then drew forth a small bundle wrapped neatly in oilcloth and tied with twine. “This is for Halbarad. Tell him that ‘tis Southern Star, last year’s crop.”

“I will see that he gets it, sir,” Brandir said.

“And do not venture too far from the Greenway. No doubt you have heard the old tales about the Barrow-downs.”

Brandir nodded. Even in the far-off Angle, folk spoke in whispers of that place of ill omen.

“From what I have seen and heard these many years past, most of those tales are true,” the ranger told him. “Do not go there unless at great need, and then only when the sun is high.”

“Yes, sir,” Brandir replied. He would do his best to remember this warning along with all the others. He must not drink more than one tankard of ale, or else his wits would be clouded. And he should stay away from Barliman’s cherry brandy entirely. Nor must he show an unseemly interest in the maidens of Bree, for that would lead to fist fights with their brothers. Indeed, Angrim had said, it were best if he did not talk to the maidens at all.

After taking up his cloak and pack, the ranger thumped Brandir on the shoulder. “Good. Then farewell until we meet again.”

As he turned to leave, Angrim added, “And do not play at knucklebones for it leads to naught but mischief.”

After Brandir had promised he would avoid all games of chance, the old ranger made his way to the door and went out into the rain. This late in October, darkness fell early, and the common room was full. The big and little folk of Bree sat elbow to elbow, drinking ale and talking easily. Brandir had never seen halfings before, and he wondered if they had to wear boots in the snow or if that fur on their feet were covering enough. A little apart from the rest of the company, three dwarves studied a large map spread out on a table. They spoke the Westron tongue but with a harsh accent that was like the clang of metal. Brandir quickly bowed his head when one of the bearded travelers looked up and caught him staring.

The halflings at the next table, seeing that he now sat alone, asked him to join them for a round of Barliman’s best cherry brandy. Despite their pleading and teasing, he remembered what the old ranger had said. With some regret he told them no, for they seemed a merry party. And when the men at the table on the other side asked if he would like to join a friendly game of knucklebones, he thanked them but refused the invitation.

“Suit yourself,” a tall, red-haired man said. “There’s no accounting for the ways of rangers.”

After he had finished his ale, he felt rather aimless sitting alone at the table, so he decided that it was time to walk the bounds. The rain had stopped, and the air outside felt clear and cold after the smoke-filled common room. The moon was full, and the buildings and walls cast deep, black shadows. Brandir found little amiss in the village. A hobbit snored in the grass near the Westgate, fallen asleep after a surfeit of brandy. The young ranger gently shook him awake and helped him stumble back to his home. The strange, furtive sounds that he heard near the tanner’s shop turned out to be nothing more than a man and a maiden kissing in the shadows.

Angrim was right--things were very quiet in Bree. Feeling strangely low, Brandir returned to the inn. The innkeeper had said he could sleep in the stable, so after seeing that his horse had plentiful hay, he spread his blankets on the floor of the tackroom and soon fell fast asleep.

The next day was just as quiet. Brandir watched the road for Halbarad, but no one arrived save for a farmer with two oxen to sell. Around him, the Breefolk bustled about at their work. Tired of waiting, he went to the stable to brush his horse and clean her tack. He had finished brushing her and was braiding her mane when he heard two men talking loudly in the stableyard.

“It figures that that ranger would take off just when we needed him.” The speaker sounded more fearful than angry.

“What about the other one?” a second voice asked.

“He looks like he’s barely sixteen years of age. He wouldn’t be much use.”

Brandir could feel his face turning red as he listened.

“Those rangers are born trackers," the second man said, "and at least he would have a sword. If we’re going to find Thomas, we have to leave soon. The sun will set in less than four hours.”

At these words, Brandir vaulted over the halfdoor of the stall and hurried into the stableyard. “You are right that I am young,” he told the two men, and they gawked at him as he spoke. He still held a horse comb in one hand. “But if you have need of a tracker, I am the best you will find in this village.”

“Pay no mind to Bob’s hard words,” one of them replied. His broad nose was smudged with soot, and he wore a blacksmith’s leather apron. “He’s just worried about his brother. Tom left for Archet yesterday, and now his horse has come back to Bree without him.”

Turning to the other man, Brandir asked, “Did your brother travel alone?”

Scowling, Bob ran a hand through his shock of dark hair. “Aye, and now I wish I’d gone with him.”

These lands that seemed so empty were full of hidden peril, and even a ranger could come to grief while faring alone in the wild. But Brandir kept these thoughts to himself and simply asked to see the missing man’s horse.

They had unsaddled the weary beast, and saddlebags and a rolled-up cloak lay in a heap on the ground. Wherever the Breelander was, he was left without warm clothing or provisions. Brandir thought uneasily of the heavy rains the night before. If he were still alive, this man now faced a second night in the open.

The little horse stood with his head down, and his flanks were matted with sweat. Taking care not to startle him, Brandir untangled a handful of burrs and leaves from the long tail. “All wild plants that grow under an open sky,” he told the two men. “He wasn’t running in the woods or across a farmer’s fields.” He gently leaned against the horse’s shoulder until it shifted its weight and let him lift a hoof. The hollow underside was covered with dirt from the road. He carefully scraped it away with a stick. Under the brown mud of the Greenway was a layer of white pebbles.

“Where are the nearest chalk hills?” he asked, looking up from the hoof.

“Due west of Bree,” the blacksmith said, his eyes dark and flat. Due west where the Barrow-downs lay, though no one would say that name.

“Then we have even more need of haste,” Brandir replied. He began to feel the high keenness of the hunt, but mingled with that was the sense that a cold lump of iron was weighing against his heart.

The blacksmith’s apprentice, the butcher, and several other halflings and men joined their party. They armed themselves with bows, long knives, and axes, and one farmer carried a long pruning hook as a spear. Brandir had his father’s sword and a bow that was short enough to shoot while riding. The Breelanders lived in the midst of the wild, so he did not have to tell them to pack torches and firewood and a small store of provisions.

Most of the inhabitants of Bree turned out to wish them good luck as they led their horses through the Westgate. They had to go on foot so they could search for signs of a trail.

As they started down the Greenway, Bob turned to the young ranger. “I didn’t mean to be uncivil. My name’s Bob Heathrow, and my family hails from Archet.”

“And I’m Rory Hawthorn from Bree.” The blacksmith held out a hand the size of a small ham.

“My name is Brandir son of Baranor, and I am honored to meet you both,” the ranger said as he shook the man’s huge hand. Being of indifferent lineage and hence of no interest to the Enemy, he could use his own name among strangers.

The rain had left the ground soft, and the uneven hoofprints of Tom’s horse were easy to spot, pressed in the mud as sharply as the mark of a seal in wax. The tracks followed the road for a furlong or so and then turned away to the west. It was difficult to say when the beast had passed this way, save that it was after the rain had stopped the night before. Now the tracks led them up a long slope. Brandir found a crushed patch of grass where the horse might have fallen or rested for a short while. He stood scowling at it, unsure what to think, when he heard the butcher shout. A trail of boot prints led to the top of the slope. The Breelander may have climbed up to get a better view of the road. When the party of rescuers reached the summit, they could see the endless ranks of green hills broken by chalk white stones.

“We don’t know that those are his footprints; maybe he didn’t go in there,” a voice muttered behind the young ranger, but the tracks were clear and they led straight into the Downs.

“If these are not his footprints, then some other traveler needs our aid,” Brandir replied. It was plain to see that some of these folk would be quickly mastered by fear if they had to face any danger. “Your friend Tom may be injured or sick,” the ranger told them, “So a fire must be ready when we return from the Downs. You three.” Brandir pointed at the ones who looked the most frightened. “Build a fire and keep it burning. Set it on that little hillock.” He pointed down the slope. “And while the sky is yet light, gather what store you may of wood and kindling.”

Sword drawn, Brandir led the rest of the party into the Barrow-downs. Close on his heels, Bob followed with the blacksmith and his apprentice. The stout butcher and two shepherds came next, while the farmer with his pruning hook brought up the rear.

He could see from the tracks that, at first, the Breelander had followed a sure, straight path, but after a time, his steps had wandered. When the tracks led to the stone door of a barrow, the young ranger felt cold with dread, yet to his relief, the footprints staggered away again. As the party passed one mound after another, the high ridge where they had stood was soon lost to sight. The old tales said that travelers soon became bewildered and lost in the Downs, so at every fork in the path, Brandir arranged three or four white pebbles on the ground to mark which was the right turning. Because they could well become separated, he insisted that the others look about them for landmarks and note their bearing in relation to the sun.

Brandir saw no sign of life aside from the wind-ruffled grass. Not a snail crept on the white stones, not a hawk crossed the sky above, and this to him seemed more terrible than the sight of the hunched barrows.

“We have to turn back before long,” the blacksmith murmured when they had journeyed for over an hour. “We must be gone from this place by sundown. How much hope do you think we have of finding him?” He spoke softly so Bob could not hear.

“Hope remains as long as we can follow his footprints,” the young ranger said in a quiet voice, though in truth he began to wonder. When the sun was grazing the tops of the barrows, he knew they must abandon the search or risk their own lives. He made a sign with white pebbles to show that they had turned back from this spot. They stood in a hollow between the barrows, and as he glanced about, looking for some landmark to fix in his mind, he espied a strange patch of shadow on one of the grassy slopes.

As the party drew nearer, the shadow resolved into a huddled body. “Do not touch him! Keep back!” the ranger shouted as Bob, ignoring him, ran forward and knelt beside it.

“Tom, wake up. Wake up now.” Bob grasped the body by the shoulder and gave it a slight shake.

The man lay on his side, with his knees drawn up and his hands held close against his breast to keep warm. His head was bare, and his light clothing would have offered little protection against the chill night air. He did not stir at the sound of their voices, and Brandir feared he was dead. As they turned him onto his back, Brandir saw that this indeed was the missing brother, for the likeness between the two men was plain.

The farmer asked, “Is he dead?”

“Tolman, keep your mouth shut,” the blacksmith growled.

Brandir slid his hand under the collar of the man's jacket and pressed his fingers against the side of his neck. He could not feel any blood stirring under the cold skin, so he drew a knife and held the blade close to the man’s lips. A white shadow of fog appeared on the steel.

“He still lives,” the young ranger told the others. He did not add “but just barely.”

Bob caught at his sleeve. “Will he be alright?”

“He is chilled to the bone, but he seems otherwise unhurt. We need to get him back to the fire,” Brandir said as he unfastened the man’s jacket. Tom stirred and opened his eyes, and Brandir would have sworn that he murmured the word Dunadan, but then the Breelander fell again into his heavy slumber. The ranger found no sign of hurt, so the man must have been overcome by hunger and the cold. The year was turning toward winter, so it was a wonder he still was alive.

They wrapped him closely in blankets then slung him across Brandir’s horse. When they set out again, the ranger and Bob walked on either side of the saddle, keeping an arm on the sick man so he would not slide off. The light was beginning to fail, so two of the party bore torches that flared and dipped in the wind.

They made slow but steady progress, following the way marked by the white pebbles. As twilight fell, Tom began to murmur and turn his head restlessly. He seemed wakeful enough to drink, so Brandir decided to risk a short halt. They had seen no streams in the Downs, and the Breelander’s lips were cracked and bleeding. His brother held him, still wrapped in blankets, as the young ranger tried to coax him to take some water. Eyes half closed, he kept turning his face away from the flask.

“Maybe I can get him to drink,” Bob said with a doubtful scowl.

Suddenly, the sick man looked up at Brandir, his eyes wide and dark. “We will slay thee, Man of the West,” he said clearly in Sindarin. “We will slay thee just as we slew thy ancient kin.”

The flask fell to the grass as Brandir scrambled backward, his hand falling to the hilt of his sword. “Get away from him. Move! Now!”

“Why? What’s wrong?” Bob demanded, his voice both fearful and angry. His brother’s dark head lay slumped against his shoulder.

“One of the creatures of this place has taken him for its own.” The men and halflings stared at him. “Did you not hear the strange language he spoke?”

“Well, I don’t know about any strange languages,” the blacksmith said slowly. “Tom’s sick and out of his head; it’s no wonder if he doesn’t make much sense.”

“His will is no longer his own,” Brandir replied. “This man is in great danger, as are all who travel with him.”

He searched in the saddlebags and drew forth a length of rope. “Until we find a healer, we must bind his hands and keep him gagged.” Brandir did not know who could counter the spells of the mound-dwellers. Lord Elrond, no doubt, yet Imladris lay many leagues away. Perhaps some healer among the Dunedain would have the skill to cure this deadly illness.

Bob glared at him. “Are you out of your mind, ranger?”

“Listen to me, the barrow-wight can use him to wield a blade or chant a spell. He will call the others to us.”

“Bob? Where are you?” Tom murmured.

“That is not your brother speaking. The creature tries to deceive you.”

The blacksmith shook his head. “Calm down, ranger. I don’t see aught amiss, but we'll be sure to keep a close eye on him.”

"You must believe me. We dare not leave him free." Brandir remembered what Angrim had told him--Do not expect the Breefolk to trust you.

From the corner of his eye, the young ranger saw a sudden shadow moving behind Bob and his brother. He swung about to face the threat. Without thinking, he let his hand fall to the sword hilt, and he drew the blade as he turned. He realized his mistake even as someone shouted and the oak shaft of the pruning hook swung toward his face.

When he came to his senses, he was swaying steadily back and forth on a horse’s back. Someone had bound his wrists and then slung him across a saddle. He tried to free his hands, but the cords were drawn tight and the knots held fast. With an uneasy whinny, the horse started and stumbled in the long grass. The ranger choked back a cry as he was thrown against the horse's flank.

“Steady, Brandir.” The blacksmith leaned down to peer in his face. “You’re going to be alright, lad. You were out of your wits for a moment back there.” The man’s huge hand pushed the hair back from his brow. “You shouldn’t have hit him so hard, Tolman. His forehead’s still bleeding.”

“I just meant to knock him over” the farmer replied,” but I couldn’t let him hurt Tom.”

Brandir tried to turn his face enough so he could look about him. The sky was deep blue and soon would fade to black; faint stars had begun to gleam above the barrows. The torches sputtered in the gusty wind, while from the surrounding darkness came the scratch of dry leaves driven against stone.

The horse that carried the stricken Breelander walked at the front of the party. Looking back at the ranger, Tom called in a low voice so that only Brandir could hear, “We will take them and slay them one by one, saving thou for last who should have been their protector.”

The blacksmith said loudly, “Bob, now stop waving that sword around. You’re likely to put someone’s eye out.”

“How much further do we have to go?” one of the halflings asked in a clear, high voice.

“About half a league, I’d say,” the blacksmith replied.

“One by one,” Tom whispered in Sindarin.

Brandir turned his face away and closed his eyes. He had never known such fear, and it made him light-headed. His breath caught against his ribs, and the blood pounded swiftly in his ears. He tried to force himself to breathe slowly and deeply. As he had been taught, he must think not of the danger but only the task at hand. Somehow he must escape.

Wriggling across the saddle, he slid down from the horse and fell to his knees. He quickly staggered to his feet, but when he tried to run, something caught at him from behind, stopping him short as if he had hit a stone wall.

“Don’t be a fool.” The blacksmith held him fast by the shoulders.

Dropping to one side to loosen his hold, Brandir swung about and, using his bound hands, struck the man heavily in the nose. With a curse, the blacksmith let go, and Brandir ran stumbling into the darkness. The Breelanders shouted for him to return, but Brandir knew they would not stop to hunt for him. They could not risk scattering the party nor would they wish to fight a mad ranger.

They had taken his dagger and his small knife for eating, but in the cool light of the moon, Brandir saw the worked stones of a barrow door. The corner edges were still sharp even after a thousand years of wind and rain. He held his wrists against the doorway and dragged the cords back and forth over the edge. Fear urged him on, and he tore the skin from his palms as he worked. At last, the cords were severed. As he hurried away from the barrow, he heard a dry scraping, like the sound of dead branches dragging on stone.

 A cold mist was rising from the ground, yet the North Star still shone above the black outlines of the barrows. Brandir would head due west, to where the three Breelanders were waiting for their return. He could send a rider to Bree, yet he feared that aid would arrive too late. Instead, he must try to persuade the three men to go with him to the Downs, though he doubted that their resolve would be stronger now that night had fallen.

He no longer heard the voices of the party, and the silence seemed to press on him from all sides. The hushed night speech of bird and beast was strangely absent--the only sound was the soughing of the grass and the whistle of the wind against the tall stones. He hurried past gaping doorways, averting his eyes from the blackness within. The land was rising slightly so he knew that he must be drawing near the ridge that marked the edge of the Downs. The wights had no power beyond that boundary, or so the old tales said.

At a dark flicker behind him, the young ranger spun about, staring into the darkness. He was weary and ill at ease, so at first he deemed that his eyes played him false. But then he saw it, a deep patch of shadow moving steadily toward him.

He turned and broke into a stumbling run, recking naught of landmarks or the location of the stars. Behind him, something walked with a swift, heavy tread. With every step, he heard the rattle of harness. He glanced over his shoulder. Shadows hid the dead man's face, but moonlight glinted on the jeweled hilt of a sword. Choking with fear, Brandir drove himself forward.

His follower did not vary its stride, for it had no need of haste. It did not fight to breathe with burning lungs nor did it struggle against weariness. It would run him to ground before he escaped the Downs. Now Brandir could hear the whispering slide of iron mail.

When he looked over his shoulder again, others had joined the hunt. He tried to lengthen his stride, praying that he would not stumble on the soft turf. The stars were now veiled by the haze, and the barrows rose like black islands in a pale sea. Ahead, a faint glow of light appeared in the mist. Though he feared some deceit of the enemy, Brandir ran forward.

A horse whinnied, and he heard the murmur of voices. The old tales did not say if the barrow-wights ever rode horses. The glow slowly brightened and sharpened into the glare of torches that were held by dark figures. They had heard his approach, for they stood with bows drawn and swords at ready.

“Who goes there?” a voice called out.

Too winded to speak, Brandir halted within a few paces of the archers; then the last of his strength went out of him, and he fell heavily to his knees.

Lowering his bow, a dark figure said in Sindarin,“I doubt that a dead man would breathe that loudly."

"Wights,” he choked out then fell forward on the grass.

“Put him back by the horses.” He recognized the voice of Lord Aragorn, and he tried to sit up, but he was quickly seized by the arms and hauled a short distance away. Through the fog came heavy footsteps and the faint jangle of armor.

“Aye, now I see them,” Halbarad’s voice said quietly. A bowstring sang out as an arrow was loosed. “That shot hit the mark, yet the creature does not waver. I fear our bows will be of no use.”

“So ‘tis sword work, then,” another replied. The young ranger crawled to his hands and knees and cast about him for a weapon. “Keep still!” A man reached out a hand and shoved him to the ground.

The rattle of harness grew louder. As the enemy strode from the mist, the lord led the attack with a shout of “Elendil!” With a great cross-wise stroke, he swung at one of the creatures, and its neck snapped with a dry, splintery crack. Halbarad and the others lay about them as if they were hewing dead wood. After short but hard fighting, the struggle was ended.

“There were only four, but we will not prevail if they come against us in force,” the lord told Halbarad. “We dare not tarry here.”

Two rangers took Brandir’s arms and hauled him to his feet, while another brought a torch and held it above him. “'Tis Brandir, lord.”

Lord Aragorn looked closely in his face. “We spoke with the men you left behind at the fire. They said there were eight in your party. Where are the others?” As he talked, he pushed the hair aside from Brandir’s forehead and studied the wound; then he sent a ranger to fetch his saddlebags.

“I am unhurt and can walk, lord,” Brandir said, distraught and ashamed that he was the cause of any delay. Though in truth, his knees would have given way had the two rangers not held him by the arms.

“Answer the lord’s question,” one of the men ordered.

The young ranger could barely speak, for his breath still came in rough gasps. “I left them west of here; they were travelling to the east, though I know not where they are now,” he said, bowing his head. It had been his duty to guide and protect these folk. "We must find them quickly, lord. One has fallen under the sway of these creatures. When I left, he still lived, but he was very weak.”

“You left them?” a ranger asked sharply.

Lord Aragorn shook his head. “We can talk of this later. First we must find the Breefolk.” The lord quickly bound up his wound and gave him a drink of strong brandy.

The young ranger was still too unsteady to walk, so they sat him on one of the horses. Halbarad took a sword from the fallen Dead and tucked the ancient weapon behind the saddle. “The edge is rusted, but still it will serve you at need,” he told Brandir. Then they set out, the tall ranger leading the horse by the reins.

They had gone only a short distance when they heard running hoof beats and a frantic whinny. A stout grey pony, saddled but riderless, came charging out of the mist.

The horses called in shrill answer, but the pony galloped past them without halting. The rangers hurried onward, the sound of their footsteps falling dully into the mist.

They heard distant shouting, and as they drew nearer, a slow murmuring rose and echoed in the hollow places. Brandir caught a few words—cold and heart and stone. Never had he heard anything so hateful or forlorn.

Ahead, they saw the Breelanders, huddled together, their backs against a great stone. The smith, using the long pruning hook, fended off the black figures. Beside him, the two shepherds drew their sturdy hobbit bows again and again. The others stood ready, armed with long knives and clubs. The wights snarled as they pulled the arrows from their crumbling flesh. Surrounded by their gaunt and tattered forms, a pale man with a shock of black hair raised a sword in his fist. His white lips moved in the slow chant.

Though he still felt somewhat lightheaded, Brandir swung down from the saddle, for someone would need to hold the horses during the fight. Halbarad handed him several sets of reins. “Stay back,” he ordered in a whisper.

Silent, the rangers advanced with swords drawn, while Brandir waited with their mounts. These were well-trained horses, steady and proven in battle, yet they sidled and tossed their heads at the stench of ancient decay. They sensed an unknown terror in this place. “Steady, steady,” Brandir whispered to them, praying they would not bolt. The dreary murmuring rose until he could hear a strange song, and he deemed it was hopeless to fight the dead. Why had he not seen this before? Soon the lord Aragorn would give them the order to retreat.

One of the horses quickly swung its head to one side and stared between two barrows; then it whinnied loudly and pulled against the reins. The barrow-wights turned at the sound, and Brandir felt the malice of their gaze, and the light of the moon and stars seemed suddenly distant and far-away. He longed to drop the reins and flee.

Then Lord Aragorn’s voice rang out above the chanting. “Let us teach these dry reeds a new tune!” he cried in the Common Speech, and the moment of doubt was past. Shouting, the little band of rangers charged at the enemy. For a moment, the Breelanders stood amazed, until the blacksmith shouted, “Friends! To us!” With a mighty swing of the pruning hook, he lopped off the head of a wight.

Assailed from both sides, the wights fell back. Some of the creatures fought with skill, and Brandir guessed that these had once been soldiers of Arnor. Yet others could scarcely hold a sword and no doubt had been farmers and tradesmen when they had walked under the sun.

Bringing his sword down in an arc, the lord swiftly dispatched an enemy then beheaded a second on the back stroke. He pushed his way through their ranks until he reached the stricken Breelander. Laughing, Tom slashed at Lord Aragorn’s face. Stepping aside, the lord easily parried the blow. He caught the man’s tunic with one hand and, with the other, brought the pommel of the sword down on his skull. The Breelander dropped to the ground and did not rise.

Brandir started as a horse bumped him sharply with its muzzle. Halbarad’s great bay rolled his eyes and snorted. The young ranger glanced over the horse’s neck, and then he espied the dark figures, outlined against the stars as they silently hurried between the barrows. They were going to fall on the lord and his kinsmen unawares, yet any warning shout would go unheeded in the midst of the fight.

Dropping the reins of the other horses, Brandir hauled himself onto the bay and untied the sword from behind the saddle. A spear would have been better, but as Halbarad had said, this weapon would serve at need. The young ranger had counted only four of the enemy. If he were lucky, they would scatter and flee before a galloping horseman. Certainly that was how most men would respond to such an attack; only a highly-trained soldier would stand and fight a mounted opponent.

The bay whinnied in protest as Brandir urged him toward the dark shapes, yet the great-hearted beast did not refuse as the ranger gave the signal to trot. Now Brandir saw that there were six of the creatures, not four. He swerved the horse to the left just as he reached the enemy, striking off a head as he passed. Then he wheeled the horse about to make another pass. Three of the barrow-wights fled, and as he rode by, he slew another. That left only one, but as he closed with the creature, it seized the bay’s bridle and swung a sword at his leg, slicing into his boot. Brandir realized with horror that he had just had the misfortune to meet with a long-dead armsmaster.

As he leaned forward, trying to strike at the creature, the bay screamed in terror and reared, throwing him from the saddle. The ancient sword went flying from his hand as he fell and landed on the soft turf. The horse turned and fled, as he scrabbled in the grass for the hilt. The wight drew near with measured steps, a dark shape against the night sky. Brandir closed his hand around cold metal and stumbled to his feet. The creature’s eyes gleamed with the glow of decay, and it moved with the cold rustle of iron rings. As it struck at him, the ranger brought up his sword. The enemy’s blade was turned aside, but the force of the blow knocked the sword from Brandir’s grasp.

Though he was left unarmed, he had seen how brittle the ancient corpses were. Hoping to break the barrow-wight’s neck, he drove the heel of his palm under its chin. The jawbone shattered in a cloud of dust, but he did no other hurt. The ranger screamed in pain as the creature caught his arm and broke the bones with a sharp twist; then it seized him by the back of the tunic and started to drag him away. He swung out a leg and tripped the creature, throwing them both to the ground.

Shaking, he tried to crawl away, but the wight flung itself on his back, trapping him under its weight. Though its body was shriveled and light, it still wore mail and a heavy coat of plates. With his uninjured arm, he swung over his shoulder at its wizened face. With a laugh, the creature turned aside the attack and, driving a dagger through the flesh of his hand, pinned it to the ground. The young ranger gave a choked cry.

“Arnor is fallen so low that it sends its children against us,” the creature rasped in Sindarin. It seized a handful of his hair and dragged his head back. He felt a steel edge slide against his throat.

Cold be hand and heart and bone,” it whispered beside his ear, breathing out the stench of the grave. “And cold be sleep under stone.”

The fog seemed to rise around them, blurring his sight. Heedless of the agony, he tried to pull his hand free, but he had too little strength left.

Never more to wake on stony bed.“ The knife pressed against his throat, and he could feel the throbbing of the great vein against the steel’s edge, and he thought he would go mad from fear.

Then something hurtled out of the darkness with a shout, and the whistle of steel was followed by a sharp crack. The barrow-wight was flung forward, its body falling heavily across his shoulders. His face pressed into the turf, he struggled to breathe.

The weight was quickly lifted away, and as if from a far distance, he heard Halbarad cursing. He groaned weakly as the blade of the dagger was drawn from his hand.

“Stay with us now, lad. We will soon get you away from here,” Halbarad told him. From the darkness, Lord Aragorn said, “I can bear him on my back; you watch for any others.” When they took his arms and began to lift him from the ground, the fog rolled up and he knew no more.

He slowly became aware of quiet voices nearby.

“How did you find him?” the rumbling voice of the blacksmith asked.

Lord Aragorn replied, “We had left him to guard the horses, but when I looked back, they were running loose.”

“And the trail of bodies led us right to him,” Halbarad added.

The blacksmith gave a short laugh.

Brandir opened his eyes and saw Lord Aragorn kneeling beside him in the early morning light. They were on the long slope between the Greenway and the Barrow-downs, where Brandir had ordered the frightened men to stay behind and build a fire. Around them, rangers and Breefolk were cooking breakfast and feeding the horses.

The lord felt his brow and smiled at him gravely. “You have taken no lasting hurt, though no doubt that broken arm will ache each time it rains until the end of your days.” He drew aside the blankets, and Brandir saw that his injured hand had been swathed in linen and the broken arm had been neatly splinted.

Leaning over Lord Aragorn’s shoulder, the blacksmith grinned down at him. “I am glad to see you are still with us, ranger. When they brought you back, we feared the worst.”

“What happened to the others?” Brandir managed to whisper.

In Sindarin, the lord replied, “Three of the Breefolk are wounded, and one may be left a cripple. I have done what I can for Tom Heathrow, but I have little skill against the spells of Angmar, It may be too late to save his life. ” With a sad shake of his head, the lord rose and went to where the stricken Breelander lay. They had wrapped him in blankets warmed by the fire, but his skin was so pale that Brandir would have thought him dead save for the slow rise and fall of his breast. Lord Aragorn laid a hand on his brow and spoke quietly to him, but the Breelander did not stir. Sitting cross-legged beside him, sword resting on his knees, the lord watched the ailing man closely.

As the first rays of sunlight slid over the ridge and gilded the empty lands below, Tom opened his eyes and stared at Lord Aragorn.

“My lord,” the Breelander murmured.

The blacksmith peered in his face. “Tom, that’s just Strider the Ranger. Don’t you remember him?” Turning to Lord Aragorn, he said, “After all he’s been through, it’s no wonder he’s lost his wits.”

Lord Aragorn took the sick man’s wrist and felt for the heartbeat. “He was struck in the head and may be confused for a while.” The lord slid an arm behind Tom’s shoulders then he held a cup so he could drink.

When he had emptied the cup, Tom stared at Lord Aragorn doubtfully. “Now why on earth did I say that? We don't have any lords in the Breeland.”

“And I scarcely look like the son of a nobleman,” Lord Aragorn said with a wry smile.

To spare the wounded a long journey on horseback, two riders were sent to Bree to fetch a wagon. The rest of the party would have to wait until they returned in the late afternoon.

Closely wrapped in blankets, Brandir sat propped against a hawthorn tree as the rangers and Breefolk hurried about the work of the camp. He was weary and his wounds ached and never had he felt so useless in his entire life. With one arm set in a sling and the other one swathed in bandages, he could not even eat a bowl of gruel without help.

A hawk was circling high above the road, and in the clear autumn light, he could see the dark barring on its feathers. Back and forth, the creature drifted with graceful ease. Perfect and without effort. As he watched the hawk, he thought about the past day. It had been his duty to protect the Breefolk, and he deemed that he had done little to earn his lord’s praise. It seemed as if every choice he had made had gone amiss, yet others had paid the price for his mistakes. As the hawk drifted back and forth, he decided what he must do, and before they left for Bree, he would speak of it to Lord Aragorn.

When the sun was at noon, the lord brought him a bowl of hot stew. Since Brandir could not wield a knife, he set about cutting the meat in small pieces.

"May I speak to you frankly, lord?” the young ranger asked.

Lord Aragorn looked up from his work. “Certainly. What is on your mind?”

“I wish to ask your leave to return to the Angle.”

The lord nodded. “You will need to rest for several days, but once you are fit to travel, you have my leave to go. I had planned to send you to stay with your kin until you are fully recovered from your wounds. That broken arm will take some weeks to mend.”

“I mean that I should stay there, lord, and not return,” Brandir said, and he felt his face turning red.

Lord Aragorn set down the knife and looked at him gravely. “Is it your wish to resign from your company?”

With a heavy heart, Brandir pressed on. “My father’s brother has often said that I have the makings of a farmer. His lands are near the Mitheithel, and he is ever in need of men to work the fields.”

“So you wish to be a farmer instead of a ranger?”

Brandir did not answer this question, for he could not lie to his lord. Instead, he replied, "I think it would be for the best."

“That is useful and honorable work, for our people must be fed as well as defended. Yet you have spent many years learning the skills of a ranger. Why do you now wish to follow another path?”

Brandir stared across the grassy slope, toward the empty road. The hawk was still wheeling overhead. “Lord, you would be better served if I were weeding turnips. I was charged to protect these people from harm, yet three of the Breefolk lie wounded and all would have been slain if you and your kinsmen had not come to our aid.”

The lord laid a hand on his shoulder. “You did not act unwisely, and often things will go awry in spite of the wisest decisions. Take the word of an old campaigner who has seen his share of disaster. Return to the Angle for now, and we will speak of this matter again once your wounds have healed." Then Lord Aragorn glanced at the bright, blue sky and smiled. "But I think you are no more a farmer than that hawk up there is a pigeon.”

The End


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