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Unto the ending of the world: 32. Impression
July 18 – August 1, 3019
"Is that Bree?" Húrin asked. Denethor's Halfling might have called it a town rather than a village, Húrin remembered the old reports from Denethor's spies he had read, and he knew not to expect much. But it is even smaller than I thought it would be.
"Yes, and a welcome sight it is," their Ranger guide replied cheerfully.
"Then take us to that inn you keep talking about," the Rohir lord, Erkenbrand, called out. "Traveling is dusty business, and we could all do with a pint or two to clear our throats."
Húrin said nothing. At least, since the Rohirrim and Húrin's men-at-arms did not understand the Elven-tongue, the Northerner generally spoke Westron rather than Sindarin. It was a relief to be spared his rustic accent.
Húrin wondered how far they were yet from the Northern Dúnedain settlements. He had known before they got there that Tharbad was nothing but ruins. What he had not expected was that they would not see even a single farm between Tharbad and Bree, and that the road had been devoid of traffic except for their own group. Their guide called this the Greenway, and that was certainly accurate. To think that the Great Road had come to this state of neglect in what had been part of Arnor… Even the section that ran through Rohan was in better condition.
And as for the Rangers… The northern Rangers at Tharbad had moved as stealthily as the Rangers of Ithilien to take them by surprise, but no man of Ithilien would be so raggedly attired as Bronweg and his fellows, and Húrin still wanted proof of their prowess in actual battle. Had it not been for their cloak pins, which he recognised as the same design worn by the Northerners in Minas Tirith, Húrin would have taken them for ruffians. The Grey Company, as grim a lot as they were – and in truth their attire had been as dour and grey as their mood – had at least looked like a proper company of knights, not like vagabonds. Húrin grudgingly admitted that it galled him that he had seen more men of high Númenorean blood among the ragged remains of Arnor than he would have anywhere in Gondor except Minas Tirith or Dol Amroth.
Now, though, Húrin was glad that they had reached what passed for civilisation in these parts. Hopefully the inn could offer a decent meal and acceptable rooms. He had not slept in a proper bed in weeks, and he wanted a rest from riding. They had been in the saddle every day since leaving Edoras, and today Bronweg had set a harder pace than at any previous time. He was insistent that they not spend even one night among the hills he called the Barrowdowns. While Húrin refused to entertain the man's claim that the hills were haunted, he had also been eager to reach Bree, so had welcomed the faster pace, though he would undoubtedly pay for it the next day in sore muscles.
They passed a dilapidated little gatehouse. Without the damage to the high hedge around the village and the burnt poles and stakes driven into the ground near the gate, Húrin would have questioned whether such a sleepy-looking place needed even these slight defences. Beyond the gatehouse Bree looked pleasant enough, but it was far from a bustling cross-roads town. Even if they were not yet in Dúnedain lands, the Steward's insistence that Gondor would need the North was beginning to look like the hope of a drowning man grasping at thin air rather than a shrewd strategic move.
They had not gone far within the village when Bronweg dismounted and led them into a cobbled courtyard. Húrin noticed they were being watched as they entered, and once they were all in the courtyard a rotund little man warily appeared. His mood changed once he saw their guide.
"Good evening, Master Bronweg," the innkeeper – as Húrin assumed he was – addressed their companion, "Is there anything I can do for you?"
"Rooms for us all, and stabling for our horses, if you please, Master Butterbur," the Ranger replied.
"That should be no problem," the innkeeper answered, adding, "May I ask how long you will be staying?"
"A few days," Bronweg replied, "Enough to rest our horses, and we will want supplies for the rest of our journey if you have them."
"I am glad to hear it," the innkeeper said, "If you do not mind me saying it, business has been bad even after you Rangers got rid of those ruffians. There are hardly any Dwarves on the road, and even fewer visitors than usual from the Shire. But I am rambling; give me a minute and I will send someone to take care of your horses."
Two stable boys quickly appeared after the fat innkeeper went back inside, and Húrin handed his horse over to them. Of course the Rohirrim, including the Lord of the Westfold, insisted that they would look after their horses themselves.
"They should bed down with them, and save paying for rooms," Húrin muttered to Amrothos. Erkenbrand, who overheard the comment, only laughed. Not for the first time Húrin wondered what it would take to get more than the mildest reaction out of the man.
"I will show you your rooms," the innkeeper said as he came into the courtyard again. "Your bags will be brought up for you, and baths can be readied as well if you like." The inn was quiet enough that they would not have to share between more than two, confirming the innkeeper's complaint about business being bad. Húrin thanked the innkeeper for his care, at the same time cringing inwardly at the man's speech. It was bad enough to have to listen to Bronweg's rustic Elvish, but the Bree variety of Westron was worse than the accents of the Rohirrim.
After Húrin had found their rooms acceptable, they followed the innkeeper to the common room to eat. Húrin would have preferred the private parlour the man – Butterbur; such an absurd name – offered them, but he was in the north to gain information; he would learn nothing by eating in private.
Not surprisingly after what the innkeeper had said, the common room was quiet. Húrin assumed the few people in there were locals as Halflings and Men sat together as if they were familiar with each other, and they looked like peasants – farmers and craftsmen coming in for a drink and company. They cast wary glances at the strangers in their midst, but otherwise ignored them.
Húrin and Amrothos shared a table with Erkenbrand and Erkenbrand's servant Wídfara. The Gondorian and Rohirric men-at-arms had their own table, and Bronweg had joined a group of Rangers who had come in just after their own party. After some time, Amrothos, saying he recognised one of the Rangers, went over to talk to them.
Once Húrin and the Rohirrim had finished their meal, Butterbur came up. "I hope you do not mind me joining you for a bit of a chat," the innkeeper addressed them as he pulled up a chair and sat down before Húrin had a chance to agree or disagree. "Now you are free to tell me to mind my own business, but I cannot help wonder where you are all from and what your business is in Bree. From your speech I can hear you have come far, and we do not often get travellers from the south. In fact, lately we have only had trouble coming from there; not that you look like the kind to cause problems, but not all in the Bree-land may look kindly on travellers coming off the Greenway. I must say I took you for a Ranger at first," he nodded at Húrin. "You do have a bit of the look of them, but I think you are not."
Húrin had given some thought to what he could say about the purpose of their journey, so he had an answer ready. "You are right; we are not Rangers, though they are akin to my people."
"And whereabouts are your people to be found?" Butterbur asked next, glancing briefly at the group of Rangers behind them.
"We are from Gondor." Though riled by the innkeeper's suspicious tone, Húrin managed a smile with his answer. He resented being questioned by an overly familiar small-town innkeeper, but the man was likely influential in Bree, and thus it would be better to give him his answers.
"That is not a name you hear very often," Butterbur replied. "I would not normally question you so, but these are suspicious times, and as I said just now, our recent troubles began with travellers coming up the Greenway."
"Indeed. You did mention that," Húrin responded, hoping to stop the innkeeper from retelling the tale of Bree's predicament. With all he had heard already from the Rangers about the so-called Battle of Bree he doubted the innkeeper could tell him anything of either use or interest.
Erkenbrand interrupted him to speak to Butterbur. "We have heard about your troubles, and it is likely that many of those who attacked you have previously made war on my own lands."
"Then they will bother you no further," Butterbur said, sounding for all the world as if he took personal responsibility for the relief of Rohan, although he did add, "Things would surely not have ended so well without the Rangers."
"On an entirely different matter, Master Butterbur," Erkenbrand said, "We carry letters for the Shire, and our guide said to ask you. Can you tell us how to go about having them delivered?"
"Letters for the Shire?" Butterbur looked down, twisting his hands and plucking at the hem of his apron. Erkenbrand had to repeat his question before the innkeeper continued. "After those ruffians tried to invade them, the hobbits are still a bit leery of Big Folk, or I would have said to ask the Rangers. I will look for any hobbit going that way soon, and ask if he is willing to take them. Whereabouts do they need to go?"
"Tookborough and Brandy Hall," Erkenbrand replied. Húrin noted the innkeeper's considering nod at that. He knew of course that these were the ancestral homes of the two Halflings, but it was interesting to note that the names rated a respectful acknowledgement here in Bree.
"It was a pleasure talking to you," Butterbur said, adding, "Now if you will excuse me, it may be a quiet night, but I do also have to look after my other guests. Please call if there is anything you need."
Ignoring the two Rohirrim as they spoke softly together, Húrin considered that, as little as he had liked being put into use as Denethor's Halfling's postal service, at least it had been resolved with a minimum of inconvenience. Hopefully, his real mission would go as smoothly, even if he did not see how the north could benefit Gondor. Only a desperate man would look for help in this forlorn land, but in truth, Denethor was desperate, even if he hid it well, Húrin thought. Beleaguered both in the field and in the Council chamber, the Steward was sorely in need of a success to keep the lords in line. He was drawn from his musings by a smug-looking Amrothos returning to their table.
"I was right," Amrothos stated as he sat down, adding, "The Ranger I thought I recognised is one of the group that came to Minas Tirith, and he is their Chieftain's son."
At that, Húrin took an interest. "Why is he here?"
"He is going to Tharbad," Amrothos said. "He is in command of a half-company to reinforce the garrison there."
Húrin nodded; when they crossed the river, he had thought the site under-garrisoned to defend the work on the bridge. He glanced at the group of Rangers. "Are those all his men, or are there more coming up?"
"I did not ask," Amrothos said, "But I think this is the whole group."
"Remember we are here to gather information," Húrin admonished Amrothos, and asked, "Did you learn aught else?"
"I doubt they would have said more if I had asked," the younger man replied. "They are not talkative, but I did find out that there are constant skirmishes with Orcs near the Misty Mountains."
Húrin let it go and went back to pondering his impressions. If this – a quick count had revealed the Rangers to number only fifteen – is a half company, then the thirty of the Grey Company that we saw were indeed at full strength, rather than odd-sized for being an honour guard for their Chieftain And if they can spare but fifteen for such a strategically important place, what does that say about their numbers? What would Denethor make of it? And those skirmishes… How many were involved on either side, and what was at stake? Patience, he told himself. Patience. He would be in the North for months yet, there was time to find out, along with everything else he needed to learn.
The next morning, Húrin woke up only when it was already light. When he came downstairs he found to his chagrin that Amrothos and the Rohirrim had gone out, and the only thing left for breakfast was porridge. He was reluctantly chasing the last spoonful around his bowl when Bronweg came in, looking marginally less dishevelled than before. The Ranger was about to head upstairs, but came over when he saw Húrin.
"Butterbur thinks he will have our supplies for us today or tomorrow morning, and we know the Road is as safe as it can be. We should reach our destination in a week or two," Bronweg said. He looked at the porridge Húrin was toying with. "That was all Butterbur had left? If you like, I can have a look in the kitchen and see if the cook will take pity on you."
"That will not be necessary," Húrin said. "This is perfectly adequate."
"Have it your way." Bronweg shrugged and walked off again.
Húrin cast a sour glare at the Ranger's back, and forced himself to finish the porridge. It had not been too bad when it was still warm, but now he had to make an effort not to gag on the congealing mess.
As he headed upstairs, he saw that the Rangers who were going to Tharbad were about to leave. Bronweg was outside, speaking to them. He returned inside as they rode off.
The following day, they left Bree early, heading east along the main road. Húrin was fairly certain the Dúnedain settlements had to be close to whatever remained of Fornost Erain and Annúminas, and expected them to turn in that direction soon.
"When are we turning north?" he asked that evening as soon as they had made their camp. Around noon, they had passed a worn looking building that Bronweg said was the Forsaken Inn, and there had been no sign of habitation since then. Surely they should be able to leave the road unnoticed now.
"North?" Bronweg replied. "Oh, you thought…" He gave Húrin a thin smile. "No, unless you like midges, I have no reason to take you north from here." He did not explain further, adding only that Húrin had the next watch before pulling his cloak around him and lying down. Except for the itching brought on by Bronweg's mention of midges and his annoyance at the Ranger's secretive attitude, Húrin's watch was unremarkable, and he was glad when he could finally go to sleep.
The next day, they set off again along the eastern road. By now, Húrin had lowered his expectations far enough that he was pleasantly surprised to see that the east-west road was in better condition than the Greenway. Bronweg kept just far enough ahead that Húrin had no chance to speak to him to find out where they were heading – if not near where Arthedain's last stand had been, where would its people have gone? As far as Húrin knew, except for Imladris and its Elves, there were no inhabited lands between here and the Misty Mountains. He was not even entirely certain where Imladris was; only that it lay near the mountains. Boromir had found it, to have taken up with the Fellowship of the Ring and Isildur's Heir, but Húrin knew no more than that; if Denethor knew, he had kept his knowledge close.
By the end of the afternoon a new suspicion had grown in Húrin's mind. He could see a lone top ahead that had to be Amon Sûl; perhaps that ancient landmark served still as a beacon to the Dúnedain, though it looked as if the tower that had once crowned it must have fallen into ruin. Perhaps the Dúnedain dwelt near the hills to the north of it, or hidden in the wild lands to the south or east?
"Is that Amon Sûl?" Amrothos called out to Bronweg.
"Yes," the Ranger called back, and halted his horse until he was within normal speaking range. "And that puts us almost halfway to the Last Bridge."
"The Last Bridge? Why is it called that?" Amrothos asked next.
"Because it is," Bronweg replied, ignoring Amrothos' annoyed look as he rode ahead again.
The next morning, upon reaching Amon Sûl, Bronweg announced he was going up to have a look around. Leaving the men-at-arms at the bottom of the hill with their horses, Húrin followed him, along with Amrothos and Erkenbrand. When they reached the top, Húrin was disappointed to see that only some low stonework remained of the ancient tower. "Why has the tower of Elendil been allowed to fall into ruin?" he asked, adding at Bronweg's surprised look, "Long may it have been since we from Gondor came north to aid Arnor, we have not forgotten about these lands, or our ancient history. Such a place would not have been allowed to fall into disrepair in Gondor."
"Is that so?" Bronweg replied in a level tone.
"Who are that on the road?" Amrothos, who was looking east, suddenly said.
Húrin turned to look, shading his eyes with his hands against the sun, but he saw no movement. "Where?" he asked.
"I see nothing either," Bronweg and Erkenbrand stated, speaking almost in chorus.
"Almost out of sight," Amrothos said, pointing. "But if you look closely, you can see movement on the road where it curves before disappearing from sight." Try as he might, Húrin saw only a distant haze.
"If you can see that far, your eyes are almost elven-keen" Bronweg replied. "Can you make out anything more?"
"Only that they are coming this way," Amrothos said, peering into the distance again.
"I would rather wait until we know whether they are friend or foe," Bronweg said, "But that would delay us for two more days. We will continue today, and then I will go ahead with one other to scout."
Though he was reaching the end of his patience with slow going and over-cautiousness, Húrin said nothing; after Bree, Bronweg had become even more taciturn and dour than before.
They rode slowly that day, and Bronweg took them further away from the road for their camp than before. Once the camp was set up, he went off to set snares, so they might have fresh meat the next few days. He then spoke to Erkenbrand and Wídfara before announcing that Wídfara would come along with him to scout.
Even if it left him in charge of the camp, Húrin was annoyed over the Ranger's choice. True, his time in Ithilien had been years ago, but he could still handle himself well in a fight. He listened with barely restrained irritation as Bronweg instructed him to return to Bree as fast as he could if they were not back by the next evening, and to be careful if they went hunting or foraging the next day.
"Keep an eye and an ear out for trouble; we may return in haste," were the Ranger's parting words as he and Wídfara led their horses away from the camp.
Húrin set two guards around the camp for the night, taking the first watch himself so that his rest would be uninterrupted. There were no disturbances during the night, so likely enough the travellers were harmless.
As soon as it was fully light, Erkenbrand went off with one of the Rohirric men-at-arms to check Bronweg's snares from the night before. Amrothos announced that he was going to see if he could find any berries nearby. After walking to the small stream nearby to refill his water bottle, Húrin settled in to wait. Bronweg and Wídfara returned by midmorning.
"Elves, travelling to the Grey Havens," Bronweg said, before falling silent again with a troubled expression, leaving Húrin to wonder why this was significant.
Over the next several days they rode in uneasy silence, until they reached a river, which by Húrin's reckoning had to be the Mitheithel. How much further could it be now? They were still in lands that had been part of Arnor, though Rhudaur had been the first of the petty kingdoms that came after to fall to the Enemy's minions. It would surprise him if the Dúnedain lands were located outside the realm of old, but he would wait and see.
"This is the Last Bridge," Bronweg informed them with a wide grin at Amrothos, as they halted at the top of a short slope leading down to the river, which was spanned by an ancient bridge. As they crossed the sturdily built bridge, Húrin noticed that it looked to be of Dúnedain workmanship; and if he was any judge of architecture, it was old enough to be a remnant of Arnor.
After the Last Bridge the terrain became rougher, and tall, dark trees grew on the hills bordering the road. Occasionally Húrin would see ruined towers or the remains of defensive walls crowning a hill, but only on the northern side. To the south the land appeared just as uninviting, but the hills were slightly lower and not occupied by ruins. Still there were no signs of recent habitation, either north or south, and Húrin began to reconsider his idea that the Dúnedain lands were within the borders of Rhudaur.
On the second day, they turned south, entering Dúnedain lands as Bronweg said; he certainly would not have known otherwise, Húrin thought. At first, they had to lead their horses to clamber over a rocky ascent that could not be called a path. It was at least an hour's walk before they could mount again, to follow a narrow trail through rough hilly terrain. Their road was no more than an animal track, and there were no tilled fields or flocks of livestock to show that they were in civilised lands. That night they made their camp under dark fir trees that rustled in the wind, and Húrin dreamt of hidden cities to equal Gondolin springing up from lush green vales to be revealed to him as they came down from the hills.
"Today," Bronweg said the next morning while they broke up camp. He could not be drawn upon to say more, and they rode in silence until noon. As they exited a range of rocky hills and turned a bend in the road, Bronweg halted suddenly.
"Caras Dirnen," was all he said.
About half a mile down the road sat a walled village, surrounding a fortified keep of dull grey stone. Curtain wall, outer bailey, inner bailey, keep; he quickly tallied. Appears soundly built, but not even a moat, and no larger than some Gondorian garrison barracks.
"That is your capital?" Húrin did not even attempt to keep the contempt from his voice. If this was what Denethor had placed his hope on, Gondor was doomed.
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