When Brandir 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.
In silence, 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 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 its body 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; 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