Bree was the foremost of an unremarkable batch of towns in an unremarked corner of Middle Earth. Hobbits were so unimportant that it was unclear whether the Dark Lord even knew they existed during the Last Alliance. After all, Sauron had urged Celebrimor to forge rings on behalf of men, dwarves and elves so that he could corrupt each race in turn. No rings had been forged to corrupt hobbits. The Shire was largely known, when it was known at all, as a place where little folk dwelt; as if little folk were just a variety of particularly short humans, and not beings in their own right. But if the Shire was unimportant, Bree was a town whose surest claim to notoriety was happening to exist next to the Shire.

The town was surrounded by a hedge and a trench, guarded by gates at both ends, largely pointlessly, for there were no records of any group, fair or foul, attempting to sack the town in its history, though there had been an incident with a drunken troll a generation back, and wolves a century ago. If anyone had wanted to overrun the settlement, they surely would have set the hedge on fire, rendering it a liability. Beyond the gate were a hundred or so stone buildings, built largely into a set of wide hills that dominated the locality. Atop the hills, or rather making up the tops of the hills, were hobbit homes. Bree hobbits were a bit more worldly than Shire hobbits in that they had got as far as Bree and stuck there. The two groups had some relations and few relationships.

The folk of Bree and the surrounding hamlets and farms were the only humans to settle in the region, and they claimed to have been there since the First Age. It was true that Bree, or something like it, had existed for the last thousand years at least, almost as unchanging as the elves. That was a depressing thought. The prize of humanity was supposed to be that they lived short but brilliant lives, full of wonder and growth, whereas elves simply endured. They were the blossom and we were the branch. To know that generation upon generation of mortals lived lives of no interest called into question the balance of who we were. Then again, many had said that I behaved more like a human than an elf. That was the privilege of impure blood.

The hobbits wanted to spend the night under a roof and I didn't try to dissuade them. There was still half a day left when we reached the West gate, open to travelers. A stocky man came out of a guardhouse, scarcely more than an outhouse, and waved us down as we crossed the bridge.

"Travellers, ho!"

Beren, who was leading, regarded the man imperiously. It was easy to look down on humans under normal circumstances, and Beren was tall for our kind, while this guard seemed short for his.

"Uh..." the man said. "An elf."

Beren continued to stare.

"And two hobbits," the man finished, taking in Frodo and Sam with me on Carfax. "Where you all headed? What are your names?"

"Our business and our names are our own," Beren said. "Do you intend to bar our entry?"

"What?" The man shook his head. He seemed to be thinking very hard about something. "No, I was just saying. You want a place to stay tonight?"

Beren said nothing.

"Well, uh, try the Prancing Pony. Can't miss it, best place in town."

We continued on, and he called the name of the Inn after us again as if we would forget it. Stares greeted us from every face that passed in the long main street. Hobbits were one thing, but elves were another. A woman curtsied to me, and a man carrying a load stopped and waited for us to pass. Beren asked a passerby as to where he might purchase a horse, and we were directed to a bow legged hostler with his own stable.

"Glory be," he said, "what have I done to deserve a visit from the fair folk?"

"We are in need of another mount," Beren said. "One suitable for the hobbits."

"I can have you a pair of ponies," the man said, looking at me rather than at the little ones.

"I'd like to see them," Beren said, and the man gave an awkward bow before scuffling to collect the ponies. They weren't impressive specimens, but it was not an endless journey ahead of us and they would likely improve their health under our care.

The man quoted us a price and Beren tried to gave him the equivalent in elf tokens, beads of colored glass we use to signify debts and favors.

"What's this," the man picked up a token to examine it in the light.

"I have no gold or silver," Beren said. "We do not use it that way."

"What? Well, what am I to do with these?"

"They are a promise of my friendship. Besides, we do not need to keep the ponies, only to make the journey and then send them home to you."

"You're coming back then?"

"No, the animals would return alone."

"Huh." The man said. "I don't really think I can do that. You've got a fine bow, I see. I'd trade one of the ponies for it."

" No," Beren said in a manner suggesting he would have liked to say more.

"I have a little money," Frodo piped up, "but I don't think it's enough."

"Oh!" said Sam. "What about the treasures that Bilbo left you?"

"I didn't pack any," Frodo said. "We were too hurried."

"Treasures we have," I said, climbing down from Carfax, and drawing out the least of the weapons Beren had brought from the Barrow Downs.

The man's eyes swelled out of his head when he saw the jewel set into the pommel of the knife, and the silver finery tracing the sheathe.

"That's worth a pony all right!" the man said.

"It's worth more than all you have," Beren said, clearly put out by the idea of bartering with a priceless artifact.

"Well, I don't know about that," the hostler closed off his expression, preparing to bargain.

I pressed the weapon in his hands.

"We will take both the ponies, some feed, and everything we might need to ride them." I met his eyes, and he quickly broke the connection.

"Yes, M’Lady."

The hostler went about preparing what we needed while Beren pouted and the hobbits stretched there legs.

"It is a small thing," I said to Beren, "in comparison to the task we have ahead. We should give up the entire hoard if it would ensure we made the journey safely."

"I know," Beren said, "but it is a sad end for a beautiful token so recently taken out of darkness, to live among those who cannot understand its value."

"Not an end, just a verse."

The Prancing Pony had two wings sweeping off to the side of a common room and tavern. The keeper was a man named Butterbur, who though clearly busy, happily dropped whatever else competed for his attention for us.

"My Lord and Lady elves, please, please, I'd he honored to have you spend the night with us. I'm afraid we are well booked at the moment, what with a troop of dwarves from the Misty Mountains and a band of southern men taking up the tables, as you see. Not to mention the usual passers through. I do have a few rooms meant for hobbits, round doors and windows and the like, built down into the ground, that might do for your servants. But I can't imagine you would want to share with them."

The keeper's manner, obsequious and jolly at once, made me smile. He nearly swooned. "We will share the rooms for little folk. We are not so proud as to turn down hospitality that is well meant. You have stalls for our mounts as well?"

"Of course, of course." He sent for his stable boy, and there were many gasps and exclamations exchanged over Carfax, who was indeed taller and nobler than any breed in Bree, and knew it. Beren collected our treasures from the saddlebags and the Nazgul blade, and we were led to a small dining alcove off the common room for a meal. First dinner, the hobbits called it.

It was hearty food, hot and heavy on the plate; potatoes and beans and beets with a portion of lamb. Nothing interested me. The little folk took to it with gusto and Beren picked away. We were living on Frodo's coin. Leaving Rivendell, I had not anticipated the vagaries of mortal society. Elves had no need of formal currency. We were all of us perfectly capable of living alone in the wilderness indefinitely, and we so seldom had children that overpopulation and resource scarcity simply were not a concern. For all I knew, Beren was the youngest elf alive, and he was probably older than any monument in Bree.

"You should eat," Beren said. "You're still recovering."

"I will have some bread before I sleep. This isn't the fare for our kind." Even the thought of travel bread did nothing for my appetite. The numbness came and went from my flesh, and at times I felt as if I was floating rather than sitting. Without considering what I was doing, I picked up a cube of lamb with my fingers and popped it in my mouth. Beren nearly jumped out of his seat. All elves are vegetarian. The meat hit my tongue like sunlight pouring over a leaf. I was suddenly warm, and as I chewed and tasted the juices of the lamb my experience only improved. I picked up Sam's plate, pushed what was left of his serving onto mine, and began eating. He was fat anyway.

"Uh?" Sam's mouth hung open.

"You can have everything else from mine," I said, and he seemed satisfied. More of a volume eater, as I had suspected.

Beren watched me curiously. "As long as you eat something, I suppose." But of course that was not all he was thinking, nor I was. It was all I could do not to stuff my face. The desire for warm meat was overpowering. My encounter with the wraiths had changed my tastes; hopefully, it would not be permanent.

Beren gave me more, and Frodo, seeing I would eat nothing else, shared the little that was left of his as well. They were all so careful of me, it was a ridiculous scene, and I felt like a ghoul but I couldn't stop.

Our alcove was kept separate from the common room by a thin clapboard door, barely more than a screen with a handle. Though it wasn't as crowded as it would be when evening came, being the busiest inn in town, there were still groups out in the hall entertaining themselves with games and songs and drinks. Beneath the general clamor, I heard the tread of heavy feet, then a knock on the door.

It was Butterbur. His bald, sweating head peeked in. "Excuse me, but there's a man here who wants to speak with you. If it was up to me, I'd have him out on his heels, a bit of a vagabond he is, but I worried your Lord and Ladyship would want to make your own account of the matter. His name is... actually I'm not certain what his name is but we call him Thumper on account of his...well, do you want to talk with him?"

I wiped the lamb grease from around my mouth. "Let him in."

"As you say, Mistress." Butterbur bobbed his head and shut the door. In a moment, there was another knock.

We bid him enter.

Thumper was a rangy, lean spot of darkness in the doorway, and the source of his name was immediately apparent. He had a drop-foot, the result of an injury that damaged the nerves in his leg, so whenever he stepped it hung loosely as of it were an object being carried on the end of a stick instead of a living appendage. Such injuries were not unheard of. It was likely that he had nearly lost the leg to some accident. For some that might have been kinder.

He regarded us from behind a ragged beard and sat without being asked.

"They say I'm strange," he shook his head, "but a pair of pairs like yours doesn't come by Bree more than once a generation.

"You're a ranger," I said. It was clear from his attire that he spent most of his days in the wilderness. There was an air about him that reminded me of Aragorn, though they were in other ways nothing alike. This man was not beautiful.

"Aye, protector of the north, I am. And I came to see you as soon as I heard you was in town. To warn you."

"Warn us of what?" Beren's dislike of the man was immediate and obvious.

"A ranger," Sam said. "We've seen everything now."

Thumper looked at the hobbit with something like pity, but it was Beren he answered. "Before you came to town there was a figure in black. He spread word that elves would be traveling with hobbits, and that they would be carrying stolen grave goods that belonged to the man's ancestors. Not many would believe such a thing of elves, but it doesn't matter much. It was an excuse for those with a mind for it. Offered land and titles in the south for any man who captured the little folk, or the female elf." He met Beren's eyes, "Didn't seem to care what happened to you though."

"Are we in danger?" Sam asked

"Yes, Sam," Frodo answered patiently, and took his friend's hand. "But we'll be alright."

If this was true, the Witch King was certainly behind it, and he would be nearby, or else ahead of us on the road. The days we spent with Bombadil had put us at a disadvantage, but it couldn't be helped. Humans were greedy by nature, and they couldn't be blamed for responding to untruths that played to their faults.

"We appreciate all you have told us," I said, "but what can we do for you in turn?"

"Nothing needs doing," Thumper grinned behind his beard. "A ranger's duty to protect from the Shadow's own, and that cloaked man, he was no natural type. That said, I would like to accompany you on the road, to see you off safely, at least away from Bree."

"That won't be necessary," Beren said.

Thumper ignored him, looking at me.

"Perhaps not necessary," I allowed, "but we could still use your eyes on the road, and perhaps your sword if things are as you say. I would welcome you, at least for a time."

The man rose, then bowed. "Settled then. Tell me when you're leaving, and I'll meet you at the east gate."

"In the morning," I said, and that ended our conference. As soon as the door shut behind the ranger Beren rounded on me in anger, an emotion I had never seen from him before.

"How could you invite him along? He can't be trusted."

"He is a ranger," I said.

"I heard ranger's can be shifty," Sam added unhelpfully.

"He is a mortal," Beren said. "He has every incentive to betray us. Your opinion of rangers is too high. My family has had dealings with them before, and they are as often tainted by the Shadow as they are bulwarks against it."

"You think too little of them. They are an ancient people, fighting an ancient war, and they do so valiantly."

"You are thinking of Aragorn. Your feelings for him cloud your reason."

The words shocked me, as much for the offense of them as for how invasive they wer.; I had been thinking of Aragorn. I missed him, and seeing another ranger had brought some of those feelings to the surface.

"How do you know anything of my feelings?" I asked coldly.

Beren reddened, looked away. "People sing of Arwen Evenstar and her mortal paramour. I thought you knew."

They sang about us? That was an outrage for another time.

"He has given us aid when he could have easily passed on. For that, this Thumper deserves our gratitude. I am surprised at you, Beren. I thought you were worldly enough to escape this kind of prejudice."

"It is precisely because I know the world that I am telling you not to trust this man."

"Nevertheless, I have made my decision. This is my journey."

The color went out of Beren's face, and when he spoke, it was with formality. "As you say, Lady Evenstar."

We finished our meal in silence, though Sam did ask a few questions about rangers that I answered curtly. It was rather too soon to retire, but we had no desire to show ourselves in town, so we took to our rooms. Rather than share one, Beren and I split the hobbits so that I would be sleeping with Frodo and he with Sam.

Our lodging was comfortable and undersized, much like an authentic hobbit hole, and the bed made me feel like a giant. Frodo courteously offered to camp on the floor, and I didn't dissuade him. He showed no signs of unease with me despite the incident with the Ring. He merely kept it out of sight, though even so, I felt I could have located it in the dark as easily as the blind might locate an open flame.

Frodo and I talked for a while about the Shire and his life there, and I assuaged his curiosity with regards to life among the elves as far as I was able. He knew a surprising number of our songs, or pieces of them parsed and bastardized by Bilbo, who had a habit of filling in blanks with his own imagination. It would have been unwise to venture into the common room, so we retired early after a late snack Frodo referred to as second dinner. The hobbits ate more than their size would suggest, and unlike Sam, Frodo wasn't overweight at all.

It was before midnight when I woke to the sounds of a scuffle down the hall from our room. There were muffled voices, and a thump, followed by silence. I rose immediately and gathered my things, speaking to Frodo to wake him.

"What..muffin?" He muttered.

"Something is happening. I don't think it's safe for us to remain here."

"But...nighttime?" Frodo was still struggling with consciousness when I pressed my ear to the door to listen. Someone was in the hall, and they were conferring in hushed tones. They came closer with each breath.

I flung open the door and stepped into the hall. Three men were moving by the light of a candle, and a fourth was crumpled at the end of the hall. They jerked to a stop, clearly visible in a pale sphere of light, the only illumination. I didn't recognize any of them, just men, worn and slack and stubbly, uninteresting apart from the cudgels they carried and the malice in their hearts.

"Turn back," I said. "It isn't too late for you."

The moment was all they needed to recover. "Where's the wee ones?" Their leader said, pressing forward and waving his cudgel in my face. "You come along quiet and no one needs get hurt."

I used the Water Dance to take his weapon and crack it against his skull. He wavered on his feet, confused, and then sat down in the middle of the hall. The Dance continued around him.

The other two were equally unprepared for resistance. It never ceases to amaze me that mortals believe the mere presence and violent intent of a weapon can make one dangerous. They were no more dangerous to me than children playing orcs. Centuries of training allowed me to respond to their inept fumbling as if our conflict was a part of an ancient and well choreographed performance. Genuinely, there are only so many things one can do with a heavy stick that wouldn't be merely silly or counterproductive, and I was prepared for all of them long before these men's ancestors had decided they liked beards.

Three men down, and I held the candle. I revealed the face of their first victim with the glow. Butterbur moaned.

"Sorry...Lady, so sorry. Tried to stop them." One of his eyes was swelling shut, and he had a growing lump atop his hairless head.

"You did well, sir, and I thank you." I helped him to his feet before collecting Frodo. Beren had opened his door and roused Sam, and they were in the process of tying up the men who had wanted to capture us.

"I'll bring the horses around," Beren said. He gave me a worried look, but didn't say anything about what I had done. Not all elves trained in the Water Dance. Each community had their own style, and as Beren had been raised between communities, it was possible he hadn't had the same opportunities to apprentice as I had.

We were ready in minutes, and Butterbur insisted on sending us off with a package of sweetbreads for the journey. Sam, at least, was pleased with them.

"Never has such a thing been allowed under my roof," Butterbur swore to me. "You have to understand that I had nothing to do with it. Nothing at all. Those men are ruffians, that one is Bill Ferny, and he's not well liked around here. I don't believe a word of that guff about you robbing the barrows. The other two are southerners, and I can tell you I'll think twice before I allow their like to rest beneath my roof again."

"Don't think too ill of them," I said. "Or of yourself. Besides..." I searched Carfax's saddlebags a moment and came up with a gold torch molded to look like a snake, "…we do have the treasures of the dead with us, but they were given freely."

I pressed the trinket into his hands when he seemed he would refuse.

"You are a good man," I said, "and goodness should be rewarded." When he sputtered a further denial, I persisted.

"I am Arwen, daughter of Lord Elrond Half-Elven. Would you deny me?"

Even in these small places such names are known. The innkeeper was nearly beside himself with thanks and praise, so much that it was difficult to pull away. He accompanied us to the east gate of Bree, and vouched for us so we could leave without suspicion despite the late hour. When the town was behind us, Beren gave me a stern look.

"That is twice you have given immortal beauty to mortal hands."

"They appreciate it more," I said, and he forgave me when I smiled.

The road stretched ahead of us under the auspice of bright stars. The hobbits, awoken swiftly and without breakfast either first or second, soon sagged in their saddles. I rode Carfax alone, and Beren seemed content to walk beside me. He was an agreeable companion, all told, despite his youth, and I could not fault him for his features or his golden mane, so different from Aragorn, who was all harsh edges and dark resolve.

We were riding no more than a quarter of an hour when the dark rider appeared. For a moment, we readied ourselves for flight, but it was no King of Angmar pursuing us. It was Thumper.


About the author


Bio: Okay, so I'm just going to go into the whole thing.

I dropped out of high school, and a couple of years later I was in prison for robbing banks. It wasn't until I was in my twenties that I was diagnosed as bipolar and started seeking and participating in treatment and taking medication. After nearly 13 years in prison, I was granted a conditional pardon by the Governor of Virginia, and my sentence was reduced to time served.

While I was incarcerated, I was published by REED Magazine, CURA, and the Carolinian. My work appeared in several PEN Anthologies, and I was awarded seven different prizes in various categories by the PEN Prison Writing and Justice Program.

I'm currently working with Shadow Alley Press to publish my Gamelit novels, and I one day hope to be able to support myself through my writing. Until then, I work at Subway.

Eat Fresh.

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