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Guarding the Heedless Folk  by Branwyn

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.

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