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The Book of Mazarbul
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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4
Rescue, Courtship and Other Complications

The particulars of the Barrows’ history and the origins of the Barrow-wights are taken from “The Tolkien Bestiary” by David Day.

“Longshanks” was originally one of the names given to Aragorn. Since Halbarad’s family was most likely of pure Dúnadan blood, too, I thought it would match his father just as nicely.

The Hobbit they meet is, of course, not Farmer Maggot from LOTR, but his father.


~~~

CHAPTER 03 – RESCUE, COURTSHIP AND OTHER COMPLICATIONS

‘Twas late afternoon, almost evening, when Hallavor and Rei, too, reached the standing stone, the shadow of which was supposed to point into the right direction of the Great Barrow. However, the Ranger only shook his head when looking at the long, thin shadow that stretched out before them for a while, ere getting lost in the thick, white fog.

“We cannot follow it, not now,” he said. “The shadow only shows the right way at a certain hour of the day.”

“Do you know which hour that would be?” asked Rei.

“Unfortunately, not,” answered the Ranger. “But I do believe we can assume that it is already over. Look: our young friend was here… and is now gone.”

“Mayhap we can follow his footprints then, despite the fog,” suggested Rei. “I am not interested in the Barrow anyway. I want him.”

“Are you certain you do?” asked Hallavor. “I know you are angry, but is the chance to kick the youngling’s backside worth the risk?”

“Oh, aye,” said Rei with glittering eyes. “That filthy thief has stolen my pony! I want Baraz back – and I want to pull his beard out, hair by hair. You can turn back if you are afraid.”

“Daughter, mind your tongue when you are talking to me!” retorted Hallavor sharply. “I shall not have you talk to me in such insolent manner, no matter how angry you are. You know I would never allow you to walk into grave peril alone, but I can rightly expect you to listen to me when I am telling you about dangers I know more of than you do. Am I understood?”

Rei had the decency to hang her head in shame. “Forgive me, Father. ‘Tis just… I am so angry…”

“I understand that,” replied Hallavor, “and perchance I understand the true reason for it more than you do. That is no excuse to be rude and inconsiderate, though. I know Dwarves can have a fearful temper, but I hoped I had taught you proper manners. You will not shame my House with such behaviour again. Ever.”

“Nay, Father, I shall not,” said Rei meekly. Dwarf women were generally expected to treat their males from above; in her anger she had forgotten that Hallavor was not only a Man but a Man of royal descent, even though only through a side branch. His ancestors had ruled Cardolan a long time ago, and through his mother’s line he was closely related to the current chieftain of the Rangers as well.

Consequently, he was the best person to ask about the Barrows and their horrible dwellers, given that they had once been part of the kingdom of Cardolan, together with what had become the land of the Halflings since the fall of the North-kingdom.

“Are these truly your ancestors, the Men buried here?” asked Rei, gesturing vaguely in the direction where she guessed the Barrows to be behind the impenetrable curtain of fog.

The Ranger nodded. “They are; but the Barrows are older, much older than my family… indeed, than our people in the whole. When my ancestors returned on their ships from fallen Númenórë, this place had already looked the same for a long time: no trees, no water, only grass and turf covering dome-shaped hills that were crowned with monoliths and great rings of bone-white stone. Our sages say that these hills were the burial mounds that had been made in the First Age of the Sun for the Kings of Men.”

“Who were these Men whose Kings lie here?” asked Rei, her curiosity now piqued. Dwarves loved tales from old times, and the Rangers were usually able to deliver them at wish.

“We know not,” replied Hallavor. “Their deeds were no longer remembered, not even then, not even in legend. Nonetheless, the Barrows were sacred and revered, for the entire Second Age, and at the beginning of the Third – ‘til out of the Witch-kingdom of Angmar many terrible and tortured spirits fled across Middle-earth, desperately searching to hide from the ravening light of the Sun.”

“What kind of spirits were they?” asked Rei, fascinated and terrified at the same time.

“Demons whose bodies had been destroyed,” replied Hallavor. “They were looking for bodies, in which their evil spirits could dwell. And so it was that the Barrows became a haunted and dread place.”

“The demons then became the Barrow-wights, did they?” Rei guessed. “Undead… things that animated the bones and jewelled armour of the ancient Kings of Men who had lived in this land in the First Age of the Sun… long before your ancestors would come here.”

The Ranger nodded. “I little doubt that they are disturbing the rest of my forefathers as well,” he said. “The Barrow-wights are of a substance of darkness that can enter the eye, heart and mind – and crush the will. They are form-shifters and can move from shape to shape and animate whatever creature they wish.”

“But what is their true shape?” asked Rei. “That should be the one in which they would be the most vulnerable, I deem.”

“I fear I cannot tell,” answered the Ranger. “All I know is that they often show themselves the unwary traveller in the guise of dark phantoms with cold, luminous eyes. Their voices are cold, too, and their bony hands have a touch like ice and a grip like the iron jaws of a trap, ‘tis said.”

“Is it true that the can lay a spell on any living thing?” asked Rei.

Hallavor nodded, his eyes becoming haunted. “Aye, that they can. They very nearly lured me into one of the Barrows when I last was here. Without the chieftain I would have been lost, young though he still was, barely a Man grown… at least for one of our kind.”

“So the Barrow-wights can be defeated, then,” concluded Rei.

“Not easily,” replied Hallavor. “They are powerful spirits that can be held at bay only with a spell of strong incantations.”

Rei’s eyes sparkled with excitement. Among other things of power, Dwarves liked spells, too, and were a great deal less reluctant to use them than Elves and Men.

“Do you know the spell, too?” she asked.

“I know the words,” answered the Ranger, “and as I am within my rightfully inherited lands here, I might have the power to cast the spell successfully. I cannot promise that it would work, though. I am nowhere near as strong in such matters as my ancestors used to be.”

“For shame,” Rei sighed. “Is there no other way to destroy them?”

“They only can be destroyed by exposure to light,” replied Hallavor, “for light is that they fear most. They are lost and tortured spirits, whose last chance to remain in Middle-earth depends on the dark safety of the Barrows. Once a stone chamber is broken open, light would pour in on the Barrow-wights and they would fade like mist before the sun and gone for ever.”

“I doubt that we could break open any burial chambers,” said Rei with a frown. “Not without a dozen of my kind with great hammers.”

“Nay,” the Ranger agreed, “and we have wasted enough time with storytelling already. Let us find our young thief and flee from here as long as we still can.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Náli’s escape from the now headless Barrow-wight was not of any lasting effect, unfortunately. Without a chance to consult his secret map, which would have been difficult while running for his life, he soon lost any sense of orientation. He was aware of the fact that he was running in circles inside the Barrow, but everything was better than letting that… that thing catch him. At least as long as he was running, he was not dead.

But the dark magic of the Barrows was such that not even a panicking young dwarf could keep running indefinitely. After a while – whether it had been a moment, an hour or a lifetime, he could not tell – his knees finally gave in; he faltered and fell to the cold, hard stone ground. For a moment nothing happened; nor was there any sound, and he almost began to hope that he might have managed to shake off his pursuer, even though the smaller, more sober part of his mind knew all too well just how unlikely that would be. And indeed, ere he could have clambered to his feet again, that iron-cold, iron-hard grip seized him anew. This time the icy touch went to the very marrow of his bones… or so it felt. He was almost grateful when darkness enveloped him.

Yet Dwarves are made of stronger stuff than the rest of the Free Peoples, and thus when he came to himself again, his mind cleared quickly. As he had heard told of in old tales many times, he found himself lying flat on his back upon a cold slab of stone. Unlike the unfortunate victims in those stories, however, he was still wearing his own clothes, and even his backpack and the weapons he had picked up earlier lay next to him. Of the Barrow-wight, there was no sign. Either it had gone to call the others of its kind… or to find another corpse to possess. Evil spirit or not, it probably could not do much without the proper body part at his disposal.

Whatever the reason of its absence might be, Náli did not intend to wait for its return. That he still had his things was a heartening thought, so he got a hold of himself and climbed down from the stone altar… or whatever else that slab upon which he had been laid might have been. Now that his senses had returned to their usual awareness, he could hear that sad and dread chanting again; that cold murmur that he had heard before and that had made his heart heavy with fear and sorrow. This time, he could even figure out some of the grim, hard and miserable words. Not all of them, but enough to fill him with dread anew.

Cold be hand and heart and bone,
and cold be sleep under stone:
never mare to wake on stony bed,
never, till the Sun fails and the Moon is dead.

For some reason, those last words broke the spell that had nearly caught him already. In the secret tongue of Dwarves, the Moon was named Máni, and Máni had been the name of his own father, named after the Man in the Moon, the protector of thieves and lonely travellers. Náli regained full awareness once more, and now he was angry. Aye, his father was dead, killed by the cursed Easterlings, but he… he was still alive and would be damned if he let some Barrow-wight beat him!

His adventurous spirits lifted again, he grabbed his backpack, picked up his weapons, and – after having stuffed a few handfuls of the jewels laying around into his pockets – he determinedly set off to find a way out of the Barrows.

He had examined the perimeter of the whole thing at least four times ere he would admit that it was hopeless. There was simply no way out, none at all. All passageways that he had seen before were now sealed, including the main one through which he had come in in the first place. He was trapped in the Barrow, imprisoned, caught.

Elves or Men, or any other creatures might have panicked from that realization. But Náli was beyond panicking now; he felt a strange calmness fill his heart. He might have spent his entire life in the great outdoors, but he was still a Dwarf; being in a stone chamber under the earth frightened him not. It was a natural thing for him, and so was fighting. He would make his last stand here, in the burial chambers of long-gone Kings of Men. He would fight ‘til his last breath, and he would die with the lady Rei’s name on his lips.

Decision made, he sat down on the slab of stone again, with the great axe in his left hand and the beautiful sword he had found in his right, and waited.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
As expected, Rei and Hallavor had no difficulty following Náli’s footprints, despite the thick fog enveloping them at the very moment they headed for the Great Barrow. Dwarves had the weight of grown Men – or more – and thus when wearing heavy travelling boots, they made deep footprints; deep enough even for someone without Ranger training to follow them. Hallavor could have done so blindfolded, and Rei was almost as good. Plus, she had the nose of a Dwarf – like a bloodhound, her foster father liked to tease her – and thus she could easily smell both her stolen pony and that cheeky little thief who had taken the good beast.

They followed the same path Náli had trodden a couple of hours earlier, and soon they reached the two huge standing stones that leaned slightly towards one another like the pillars of a headless door. Beyond them a dark, black shape loomed ominously against the clouded sky. Despite its less than inviting sight, Hallavor was relieved.

“We have come the right way,” he said. “That before us is the Great Barrow.”

“And that at its foot is my pony,” replied his Dwarven daughter grimly.

Indeed, there was poor Baraz, sweating and trembling in this hostile neighbourhood. She neighed happily upon seeing her mistress, and trotting to Rei, bumped her shoulder with her nose, nearly overthrowing her. For her part, Rei was every bit as happy, petting and stroking the neck of her beloved steed, making sure the pony was unharmed.

Hallavor, however, was worried about wasting precious time and urged her on. Not having a map like Náli had, he could use only half-remembered tales and lays to find the entrance of the Great Barrow. He had never quite come this far when entering the Downs in the company of the chieftain all those years ago.

After some desperate searching, he finally found the doorframe outlined under the withered grey stone of the barrow. But no matter how much they tried to get the door open, it did not give… as if it had been sealed by more than merely a complicated lock.

“I sense magic at work… and not of the good sort,” said Rei, shivering a little. Dwarves, while only used the simplest for of whetting and creating spells, had a strong sixth sense for whatever magic had been used near them.

“Just what I needed,” groaned Hallavor angrily. “I cannot break a sealing spell cast by a Barrow-wight. I am not a magic user myself, and need all my strength to speak the words that would break the Barrow itself.”

“Then speak the words, now!” answered Rei urgently. “When the Barrow’s spell breaks, mayhap we shall be able to open the door as well.”

If I can break the spell of the mound,” corrected Hallavor, “we can only hope that our young thief will be reasonable enough to run for his life. We cannot enter the Barrow to search for him; that would mean the death of us all.”

He squatted down in front of the enchanted doorframe and brought forth the ancient ring he had been wearing on a chain around his neck for as long as Rei could remember. He laid the ring on a flat stone before him.

“This is the ring of the Kings of Cardolan that used to symbolize their powers over these lands,” he said. “It belongs to me by birthright, and by the same birthright, it gives me a certain… power over the resting place of my ancestors. Whether it will be enough to break the Barrow open or not, I cannot tell. We shall see.”

He cradled the ring with both hands and closed his eyes, focusing on the enormous task that lay before him. After a moment, he began to speak – not in Westron, not even in Sindarin that was often used by the Dúnedain when dealing with Elves or with their own kind, but in a rougher, ancient tongue that Rei could not understand but had come to recognize as Adûnaic. A tongue long fallen out of use and only spoken among the Rangers when they did not want anyone else to understand them.

The rods of the spell were ancient. They came fro the olden days before the Fall of Beleriand and had once been spoken by the chieftains of the Edain to keep all evils at bay, to chase Morgoth’s creatures away from their settlement. The spell itself had been detected in these very Barrows, written on the walls above the heads of dead Kings or Queens, to ensure their peaceful rest… as long as there still was someone to cast it.

Rei could not understand a word of the spell, but she could feel its strength… and she could see how much strength it was draining from Hallavor. She wondered whether if it would work at all… whether it was worth to risk her foster father’s life to try saving that obnoxious little thief. Whether they should just leave Náli to the consequences of his own stupidity.

Then she heard a loud, rumbling sound, as of stones rolling and falling, and in the red light of the setting sun, she could see one side of the Great Barrow crack open, as if a narrow door would be opening in the western side of the hill.

“Father,” she said urgently. “It’s happening… see!”

Hallavor looked up, his face drawn and grey with exhaustion. “Good,” he said. “Go and call him. He shall not have much time.”

After a moment of hesitation, Rei ran up the hillside and stuck her head through the door-like opening. Her glance fell into a small, stone chamber, with long slabs of stone lining its walls, and richly clad corpses lying on those slabs, lots of treasure heaped up around them. In the middle of all this, on one of the empty slabs, Náli was sitting, holding a beautifully-crafted, large battle-axe and looking around himself wildly. Glancing up, he spotted Rei, and his eyes widened in awe.

“My lady Rei! What are you doing here?”

“I came to get my pony back – and to tear you apart from lib to limb, you miserable little thief!” growled Rei. “My father, though, believed it to be his duty to save your worthless life – so get out there lest all his efforts might prove made in vain!”

Náli did not need any further encouragement. Grabbing sword and axe, he hurriedly crawled out of the stone chamber, accepting Rei’s outstretched hand for support. Barely was he out under free heavens, Rei let go of him – and backhanded him with a force that made him stagger and nearly knocked hi off his feet.

“That was for having stolen my pony,” she told him. “And believe me, this is just the beginning.”

“Rei,” Hallavor interrupted. “We do not have the time for this. Not yet. Night shall fall, soon, and we need to leave this place at once.”

Rei nodded, and – grabbing Náli by the scuff of his neck – went for the ponies; her own and the one they had rented from Butterbur. Hallavor secured the ring around his neck again and mounted his own horse. They fled the way back on which they had come with the best speed the horses were capable of, followed by a long, trailing shriek that was fading away into an unguessable distance behind them.

“Hurry up!” Hallavor urged them forward. “My spell will only keep the Barrow-wights at bay for a short time. We must reach the feet of the Downs before nightfall. If we can do that, we shall be safe, spending the night in the house of an old friend.”

Náli found that a promising perspective – and was greatly surprised by Rei’s pitiful groan.

“Tell me that we are not going to enjoy Tom Bombadil’s hospitality, Father,” she all but begged.

Hallavor shot her a baleful look. “You can turn back and enjoy the hospitality of the Barrow-wights,” he replied tersely. “I for my part shall be happy to sleep under a roof tonight where no evil things can enter; for the spell-casting has drained a great deal of my strength, and I am weary.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
That silenced both young Dwarves – not that Náli would have felt like arguing, he was too busy nursing his jaw that Rei had nearly dislocated with her powerful backhand stroke – and followed him across the hills, ‘til they finally reached a small stream that was merrily bubbling southwards. By the sight of the water Hallavor seemed greatly relieved.

“Elbereth be thank,” he said. “This is the Withywindle, the stream that crosses the Old Forest near the Halflings’ country. We have not got lost as I feared. Now all we have to do is to follow the stream and we shall come out of the Downs right at Bombadil’s house.”

Náli was glad to hear that. He had had enough adventure for the next year or so – and preciously little gain out of it – and wanted nothing more than a good evening meal and a halfway comfortable bed… well, and perhaps some medicine for his bruised face. He did not feel up to deal with anything more at the moment. Rei seemed less than happy about their destination but chose not to protest again, as Hallavor was very obviously not in the mood to argue with her.

Thus they followed the stream in not-quite-comfortable silence, dragging along the frightened beasts ‘til they finally came upon a small stone house, sheltered under an overhanging hill-brow, from which the Withywindle bubbled down in merry falls.

For some reason he could not quite explain, Náli felt all his sorrows lifted from his heart at the sight of this friendly little house; and he could not help but smile when he saw him who had to be the master of the house step out into the porch to see what kind of guests had come into his domain.

It was perchance the strangest person he had ever seen – and he had seen his fair share of queer people during his long journeys between Rhûn and Eriador – a Man, or at least so it seemed. At any rate, he was too tall to be a Dwarf, although still not quite tall enough for a Man, not even for one of the Bree-folk. His round, ruddy face and long, brown beard, too, were rather Dwarfish, but no self-respecting Dwarf would ever put on such ridiculous yellow boots and such a tall, battered old hat, with a long blue feather stuck into the band, no less. Blue must have been his colour, for his coat was blue, too, and so were his eyes; blue and very, very bright, like those of a curious bird. Náli was certain that few things would ever remain hidden from those eyes. The round, red face was creased into a hundred wrinkles of laughter; whoever the man was, he obviously enjoyed life very much.

Upon recognizing at least some of his visitors, the man’s face broke into a wide, delighted smile.

“Friend Hallavor!” he cried out happily. “How good of you to pay a visit to old Tom Bombadil! And is this little Miss Rei? My, but you have grown in the years I have not seen you. How long has it been? Five years? Ten?”

“More like twenty, I would say,” replied Hallavor. “How are things going in your hidden little corner of the world, Iarwain? You have been undisturbed, I hope?”

Tom waved off his concern with a large hand. “Oh, you know me, Friend Hallavor; little even disturbs Tom Bombadil within his own borders. And I do not go out a lot in these days. Have people come to me instead.”

“I seriously doubt that many would find their way either through the Downs or across the Old Forest,” said Hallavor dryly.

“Those who need, do,” replied Tom simply. “You have, have you not?” Then he gestured invitingly towards the house. But do come in, friends! Goldberry has just laid the table in the main room; she will be delighted to have guests sitting with us tonight.”

He led them over the wide stone threshold into a long room, filled with soft golden lights that came from a row of lamps swinging from the beams of the roof. In the middle of the room stood a table of dark, polished wood, and on the table many tall, yellow candles burned brightly. The entire room was wrapped in that gentle golden glow – it was very soothing.

A lovely woman came out of the kitchen to greet them, her gown green as young reeds, shot with silver-like beeds of dew. Her golden belt was shaped like a chain of flag-lilies, set with the pale blue eyes of forget-me-nots. She wore her long, pale gold hair down, tumbling over her shoulders, and her own rustled softly as she came laughing to greet them.

“Welcome, good guests!” she said, her voice clear like the falling rain over the surface of a deep, clear lake. “Welcome to the house of Tom Bombadil. I am Goldberry, the River-daughter, his wife. Sit now and wait ‘til the Master of the house tends to your tired beasts; then we shall have evening meal together.”

Náli was all too happy to sit and rest in one of those low, rush-seated chairs standing around the table, and Hallavor seemed relieved, too. Only Rei shot dark looks at the lady of the house; Náli could for his life not understand why. Mistress Goldberry seemed friendly enough, busying herself about the table, setting plates and food upon it: yellow cream and honeycomb, white bread and butter, milk, cheese and green herbs and ripe berries. Náli could feel his stomach grown loudly, and he became deep red with embarrassment, but Goldberry just smiled at him and went on with her work.

As soon as she was done, Tom returned and led the guests to their room, so that they could wash themselves before sitting down to supper. It was a low room with a sloping roof, with walls of clean stone but mostly covered with green hanging mats and yellow curtains. On the flagged floor, which was strewn with fresh green rushes, four thick mattresses lay, three of them piled with white blankets, as if their hosts had known they were coming and how many of them there would be.

Against the opposite wall was a long bench laden with wide earthenware basins, and beside it stood brown ewers filled with water, some cold, some steaming hot. Náli groaned in pleasure by the mere sight of such comfort. He could not remember the last time he had a proper bath or a soft bed to sleep in. There was not much luxury when one was living on the road, and even in the villages of the Breelands, the best he could hope for was getting the chance to sleep on the straw in one of the stables.

When they were all washed and refreshed, they returned to the main room and sat down for supper, Hallavor and Rei on one side of the long table, Náli alone on the opposite side, while at either end sat Goldberry and the Master. There was a fire in the wide hearth before them, and it was burning with a sweet smell, as if it were built of apple-wood. The smell made them even hungrier, but no matter how much they ate, there always seemed to be more, ‘til even Náli felt full enough to burst.

After supper, Tom and Goldberry rose and cleared the table swiftly. When everything was set in order, the lights in the room were put out, except one lamp and a pair of candles at each end of the chimney-shelf. Goldberry then took one of the candles and wished them all a good night and deep sleep, ere retreating to her own bedchamber. Halabor went out to the porch to have a pipe and a long-overdue chat with the Master of the house, for Tom and he had known each other for a long time and often sent messages, exchanging tidings that worried them for some reason.

That left Rei and Náli alone in the main room. There were both too tired and too full to go to sleep right away; thus they, too, left the house and went to the flower garden, as Rei had the one or other bone to pick with her devout admirer.

“For stealing my pony, I should tear you to pieces with my bare hands,” she told him without preamble, but her eyes were not half as cold as they had been before; a good meal always mellowed her mood, and besides, the fact that he had dared the Barrows and faced a Barrow-wight, just to be able to court her, impressed her, almost against her will. “In truth, I might still do so. But Father meant I ought to listen to you ere I beat you to a bloody pulp. So I strongly suggest you start talking, as long as I am still willing to listen.”

“I did not intend to steal your pony,” answered Náli defensively. “I just… I just borrowed her. How else was I supposed to get to the Barrows and back? I would have given her back, I swear by Mahal’s beard!”

“Yea, sure,” Rei shook her head doubtfully.

“I should have!” insisted Náli. “Had I the coins, I would have rented a pony from Master Butterbur, but I had nought, not even enough to eat. Which is why I wanted to raid the Barrows – how else could I hope to court you?”

“What makes you think you do have a chance at all?” asked Rei with an arched eyebrow.

Náli’s shoulders sagged in defeat. “I had to try something. From the moment on when I first set my eyes on you in the Prancing Pony, I knew you were the one for me. That it could be no-one else but you. I hoped that if I could return with a sack of treasure from the Barrows, you would at least consider accepting my courtship.”

Rei shook her head. “I have got a home and a purpose among the Rangers. ‘Tis a good life. Why should I wish to run off with a thief, to live in danger and poverty on the Road? What could you possibly offer me that would be worth such a foolish choice?”

Náli reached into his pockets and took out the handful of gemstones he had managed to stuff there back in the Great Barrow.

“This is all I could take with me – all that I can offer,” he said. “Please accept them as my courting gift. I know they are not much… but they are everything I own.”

“Then you should keep them,” said Rei. “You should sell them to a goldsmith and be freed from poverty for a while. That was your original plan, was it not?”

“That was before I met you,” replied Náli. “I… I do not want them anyone if I cannot have you.”

Rei shook her head in exasperation and gave the gemstones in Náli’s broad palm a closer look. Then she suddenly took in a sharp breath.

“Have you an idea what you managed to stuff into your pockets?” she asked in amazement, picking out four small, round, deep blue stones with multi-facetted surfaces. “These are moon-stones of incredible value! The Dúnedain of old wore them as rings or brooches. ‘Tis said that if two lovers carried such stones on them, they could feel each other from great distances. These stones are very rare, as they cannot be found anywhere in Middle-earth. They were brought from Westernesse, thousands of years ago, before the isle of Númenor was swallowed by the Sea.”

“You mean they are magic stones?” asked Náli, stunned by his own good fortune.

Rei nodded. “Many stones have strange powers, as we all know. But these… the Elven-smiths of Rivendell have told me about them. They said, the stronger the bond between two lovers is, the longer the reach of the stones would be. It always depends on the owners, apparently.”

“Imagine what they could do, set into betrothal collars,” said Náli dreamily.

Rei laughed. “You never give up, do you?”

“No,” replied Náli simply and poured all the other gemstones into her cupped hands. “Please, have them. I have no use for them,” and with that, he stood and went back into the house.

Rei stared after him with mixed feelings for a while. She liked the stones just fine, but she felt bad about keeping them while still reluctant to accept his courtship. Considering how poor he was, it just did not seem right. But she could see that he was adamant about giving them away, and so she stored them in her belt pouch, uncertain what to do with them. She would think about that tomorrow. Right now, all she wanted was to sleep.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
In the morning, all three of them woke up wonderfully refreshed after a night of undisturbed sleep. It had rained in the night, apparently, for through the open windows at either end of the guest room they could see water dripping from the edge of the thatched roof. But the morning itself was bright and clear, and the sky pale blue, with only small puffs of white clouds upon it.

After they had washed and got dressed, Tom called them to the breakfast table, and they went eagerly. They ate in Goldberry’s company, while Tom was tending to their steeds. They were nearly done with eating when he came back in.

“Your beasts are ready and eager to go,” he said, “and you would do well to start early. For while it promises to be a glad morning, weather in this country is a thing even I cannot be sure of for long. In truth, it can change quicker sometimes than I can change my jacket.”

“I thought you were the master of these lands here,” said Hallavor teasingly.

“I am,” answered Tom with a merry wink, “but I am not the master of the weather; nor is aught that goes on two legs.”

They laughed at that – even Náli felt as if a heavy burden had been lifted off his heart – and agreed to have an early start. Hallavor hoped they could strike the East Road in a day’s journey and get back to Bree late in the night. It would be a considerably longer way than the one on which they had come, but Hallavor wanted to make a wide bend around the Barrows and did not mind the time they would lose. Neither did Náli, to be honest. The last thin he wanted was to face a Barrow-wight again.

Thus they said their farewells to Tom Bombadil and his lady and set off to return to the village of Men after their short trip to the enchanted lands. They were all glad to leave this strange place behind them, despite the tranquillity and hospitality of Tom’s house.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
They rode all day, not too quickly, but steadily and with only a few short breaks at every four hours or so. Hallavor expected them to reach Bree about an hour after the closing of the gates, which would make it possible to slip into the village drawing as little attention as possible. He preferred it that way, and besides, it would be safer for them all. The Bree-folk were good people, but suspicious about strangers.

Shortly before nightfall, however, they came across a waggon, drawn by two stout ponies. In the driving seat a broad, thick-set Hobbit was sitting, with a round, red face and curly, iron-grey hair.

“Hoo,” said the Hobbit, and the ponies came to a halt obediently. They must have had excellent training; but again, with Hobbit ponies, that was not surprising. The Little Folk tended to their beasts better than anyone else in Middle-earth.

Their master looked at the mixed group of travellers with shrewd interest.

“My, my,” he said. “If that ain’t Master Longshanks and his Dwarf lass! What are you doing in this wild country, my good Ranger? I thought you’ve left Bree two days ago already. At least that’s what old Butterbur told me when I delivered him his taters. It seems he was wrong, though.”

“Not entirely,” replied Hallavor. “We have left Bree on urgent business two days ago. But that has been dealt with, and we are going back for supplies before we set off for our home. “Tis good to see you again, Master Maggot. How are you and your family doing in these days?”

“As well as it can be expected,” answered the Hobbit with a shrug. “I’ve not been the same since the missus passed over some four years ago. I’m getting older, I am; but that’s fine. My eldest son’s old enough to take over the farm, once I’m gone. I’ve taught him all that I know. The only thing he needs is a good wife, and he’ll do just fine. That, I still want to see: the next generation of Maggots in Bamfurlong. After that, I’ll close my eyes in peace.”

“I am certain that the farm will be in good hands with your eldest,” said Hallavor in agreement; he knew the farmer’s firstborn, who was as stout and hard-working a Hobbit as all the others in- or outside the Shire. “What other news did you hear in Bree, though?”

The Hobbit shrugged again. “Well, folks in Bree seem to be a mite upset. Apparently, some thief not only has pilfered old Barliman’s pantries, he’s also stolen the pony of one of his patrons,” he looked pointedly at Náli who tried to seem unfazed, although his stomach suddenly shrunk to the size of a small, wrinkled apple.

“They say ‘twas some young Dwarf, one that used to do tricks in the other villages,” continued the Hobbit. “They spoke about hanging him, should they get him, they did.” He paused, then added carefully. “I wouldn’t show my face in Bree for a while if I was him, for sure.”

“They would hang someone for having stolen just a bite of food?” asked Rei.

“’Tis not the food, ‘tis the pony,” explained the Hobbit. “Big People take such things seriously, as I’m sure Longshanks has told you.”

“But it was my pony, not theirs!” said Rei, shaken by the mere thought of hanging someone.

“That might be so,” replied the Hobbit, “but that doesn’t matter to them. They’ve got laws against such things; very strict laws. One cannot blame them, I s’pose, living along the Road, where all kinds of people come along, not all of ‘em savoury.”

“But-but I got my pony back!” exclaimed Rei.

The Hobbit shook his head. “That won’t matter to them, not a bit. They’re good folks, the Bree-folk are, but they take theft very seriously. Always have.”

Hallavor and Rei exchanged worried looks. They knew, of course, the harsh laws of the otherwise decent and friendly Bree-folk against theft, but they had not expected Náli’s deed having been found out already. They had kept the fact of Rei’s pony being stolen to themselves; but whatever Butterbur might be, he certainly was no fool and figured out the reason why they had needed to rent one of his ponies.

“We cannot take him back with us,” said Hallavor. “Bailing him out of the holding cell would be a great deal more complicated than simply letting him go. And while I do not condone theft as a rule, we cannot let him be hung. That would be a bit harsh; more so as you did get Baraz back.”

“So what are we doing with him?” asked Rei. Hallavor gave her a thoughtful look, as if trying to guess her intentions.

“’Tis up to you,” he said. “’Twas you pony that he stole; 'twas you whom he wanted to impress. Do you want to save him?”

Rei sighed. “Aye, I do. He cannot help being hit by the love-longing; ‘twas not his choice. And he is a thief; that is a trade among us. Not a highly respected one, granted, but an accepted one. I do not want him to be executed for what he is.”

“What are you planning to do then?” asked Hallavor.

Rei did not answer at once. After a moment, though, she dismounted and led his pony to Náli, handing the lad the bridle.

“Take her,” she said. “I must bring the other pony back to Master Butterbur, but you shall need a steed to get away from here as quickly as possible.”

Stunned, Náli started to stutter his thanks, but she silenced him with a brash gesture.

“’Tis only a loan,” she warned. “I want Baraz back, as soon as you are safely out of the Breelands. Do not even think about slipping away with her – I am a Ranger, and a good one. I can find you, wherever you are trying to hide. I shall meet you at the Forsaken Inn; and be Mahal be merciful to you, should you not wait for me there – for I certainly will not. Go now, ere I change my mind!”

A frightened and confused Náli thanked her profoundly and galloped away on Baraz’ back, following the East Road as it led westwards, to the Weather Hills. Hallavor stared after him for a while, then he sighed and shook his head.

“I have a bad feeling about this; a very bad feeling,” he said. Then he turned to the Hobbit who had been watching the events with great interest. “Master Maggot, could we pretend that you have not met us today?”

“Why, certainly, my good Longshanks,” answered the Hobbit brightly. “I’m not planning to go back to Bree any time soon, and who else would think of asking me about you? I won’t even have to lie to anyone.”

“Thank you,” said Rei quietly.

The Hobbit shook his head. “Don’t mention it. The lad might be a thief, but I don’t want to see him hung.”

They thanked him again, and the Hobbit parted ways with them, driving his waggon homewards. Hallavor looked at Rei thoughtfully.

“You realize, of course, that the lad is your responsibility now,” he said.

Rei nodded. “Believe me, Father; I am not particularly happy about that. But I could not let him die.”

“I understand that,” Hallavor sighed. “Does this mean you are accepting his courtship?”

“I might… consider it,” answered Rei carefully. “I am not yet certain about that.”

“I would hate to have you leave us, but this is perhaps for the best,” said Hallavor. “Sooner or later, you ought to return to your people. And courtship does not mean necessarily betrothal. I wonder, though, what has changed your mind so quickly.”

“That I can show you,” Rei smiled and poured the gems into his palm. “Have you ever seen moon-stones, real ones? I never believed that they even existed. And now… look what little thief has brought me from the Barrows! Are they not beautiful?”

Hallavor, staring at the legendary treasure of his forefathers in stunned awe, could not even answer her. It was as if the old tales had come back to life before his very eyes. Aye, Dwarves were drawn to treasure more than any other people, but no-one could have looked a these stones and not be captivated by their beauty. Small wonder that even Rei’s heart had mellowed a bit towards the lovesick youth who had risked everything to get them for her from a haunted Barrow.

~TBC~

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