Darkness was coming down quickly. The walls of Bree had come into view as we’d crested a hill a few hours earlier, and I expected us to arrive just before nightfall, but there was an odd chill in the air, and the sky turned purple earlier than I expected, as if autumn had advanced more here than in other places.
Rather than staying on the Greenway as it approached Bree from the south, we had elected to cross the plains, weaving between farmhouses, to approach the west gate, in case anyone who’d been told of a reward might be expecting us to arrive from the south. By the time the gate was in view, the sky was full dark and hung about with countless stars. The town huddled at the base of a large hill to the northeast, surrounded by walls made mostly of hedges and lined by ditches. Humble fortifications compared to the vast walls of Rammas Echor, and the parapets of Minas Tirith’s mighty rings, but it did not seem Bree needed to be ready for war; these defenses would be adequate to ward off bandits and scoundrels like those we’d met in the Vale of Andrath.
Under the stars we could see the roads outside of Bree now nearly empty, though within, lights twinkled and fires cast plumes of smoke towards the peak of Bree-hill. Far ahead and to our left, we saw a small group of ponies hurrying towards the west gate; their hobbit riders were asked at the gate what their business was, and we paused to watch from a considerable distance, so we might know what sort of welcome to expect when it was our turn to arrive. The great gate had been closed, and a man warding it seemed inclined to question them more than they wished to be questioned before allowing them through a smaller door.
I did not hear how their discussion concluded, however, for there was a deep chill that suddenly came upon us, and with it a sense of dread. It was a feeling I had never felt before and could not give a name, save for poetic and florid phrases that hint at and do not capture the sense of it; one might speak of the feeling one has just before someone gives terrible news, a clenching in the heart, the weariness of a fight that one cannot win, or the darkness in the thoughts when one wakens in the middle of the night alone. For me, it felt like the sound of Elemir’s shield clattering on stone in a forgotten piece of nowhere, and in the echo of that noise, a whispered voice almost but not heard, reminding me that he had fallen because of my failure as his Captain. I never learned what the others felt; it seemed too personal a thing to ask, even days later, comfortably around a fire in the Pony with a pint of Barliman’s Best in hand.
It was an effort to turn and look towards the sound of clattering hooves on stone, off to our left. There, against the darkness I made out a shapeless form; it was less a figure, and more the impression of slow, deliberate movement. Whatever it was, it was somehow darker than the night around it, and it was heading in the direction of the hobbits at the west gate, but then it stopped. I could see nothing like a face, but I was nevertheless sure, utterly sure, that it had turned to look directly at us.
As if in answer, the stone in Shadryn’s staff flickered with a jagged lightning flash that, in that moment, I felt sure was visible to the figure, the man at the gate, and all of Bree; but thinking back on it, probably seemed only like an oddly red firefly, even should anyone be looking in that direction. But the shape nevertheless began to approach, coming into focus as a dark-cloaked rider on a black horse. Its movement was deliberate, but more curious than purposeful, as if it were seeking something, and thought the stone might be it.
We stood there on our horses, transfixed for what seemed like the whole night, not even thinking to move, as it crept towards us. The dread that hung about the creature made my thoughts muddled and whirling; every time I tried to clear my mind and choose a course of action, I was reminded of some other decision I’d made that had gone wrongly, and every such mistake and misdeed weighed ten times heavier on my soul in that moment than it ever had in the depths of a grim, lonely night.
At last I closed my eyes and recited under my breath the oath I had taken to Gondor when I had joined the officer corps, and this seemed, for a moment, to hold at bay the gloom. I looked up towards the gate. The hobbits had apparently secured entry to the town, none the wiser of the dark shape that had been dogging their footsteps at a distance, and the door was now closed once more, still warded by the same scraggly man. “Make for the gate,” I said, then repeated it more firmly, as my companions were still in the thrall of the black rider’s air of dread..
Through clenched teeth, I barked, “Make for the gate!” once more. This time, Shadryn took from my voice enough clarity to put her hand over the stone, hiding its shine. The figure seemed to notice, but was not dissuaded in its approach; I imagined that somehow it sensed the stone itself, not its glow. However, a few moments later, it stopped. After another instant of staring at us, it then turned and rode towards Bree, swift and utterly silent. It veered aside at the gate and made its way north, almost immediately slipping out of our sight as it disappeared into the darkness of night. Perhaps the stone was not what it sought after all.
It was as if our thoughts had been in chains and suddenly were free. We lurched forward, and soon made our way to the gate, where the scruffy man, Harry Goatleaf, commented on it being an odd night to receive not one but two groups of travelers so late, and on a night of such ill portent, but he directed us on to the inn. “Best we keep to ourselves,” I said, “in case anyone is following the reward,” though I was thinking more of the dark figure. It was clear we were not its quarry; the stone had been but a distraction to it, though perhaps enough of a distraction for its intended prey to slip out of its reach, for now. Still, it forebode an ill omen. Dark things were afoot even here in Bree, dark things with an interest in artifacts of power like the one Shadryn was innocently carrying, and I was leading her right into the middle of it.
Here ends the tale of the journey to Bree.
Ioreld and his companions may have further adventures yet to be told.