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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.”


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