Frodo blundered through the dense, opaque gray fog towards distant voices calling his name: "Frodo! Hoy, Frodo!"
Suddenly the calls changed to shrill cries of "Help! Help!" He treid to run towards them struggling up the steep slope, frantically shouting his friends' names until his breath gave out. Then a high, horrible, un-Hobbitlike scream froze the blood in his veins and stopped him in his tracks. It was followed by a second scream and then a third. Finally, after a long and terrible silence while the fog darkened around him, came another cry of "Frodo!"
"Here! I'm coming!" weak with relief he finished scrambling up the steep side of the down and staggered towards the voices.
"Frodo! Mr. Frodo!" Sam materialized out of the thinning fog and they fell into each others' arms.
"Sam! Sam, what happened?"
Before the gardener could answer he was displaced by Merry and Pippin, both hugging their cousin in passionate relief and both talking at once:
Merry: "Where did you go?"
Pippin: "All of a sudden you were just gone!"
Merry: "Really, Frodo, you must be more careful!"
Pippin: "What if you had run into the Barrow Wights too?"
"Barrow Wights!" Frodo gaped. The fog had thinned to a drifting whisps and the stars shone bright overhead giving him enough light to see the tall, cloaked figure suddenly looming behind his friends. Frodo gasped in horror and tried to shove Pippin behind him, hand groping for Sting's hilt.
"No, it's all right, Mr. Frodo." Sam assured him.
"I am not a Wight," the figure said wryly.
"This is Lightfoot," Sam explained. "He rescued us."
Frodo blinked. What was one of the Big Folk doing out on the Downs?
"What brings four Hobbits out of the Shire and onto the Barrow Downs?" Lightfoot asked, like an echo.
"We – we were making for Bree," Frodo stammered in answer.
"You would have done better to say on the road," the Man answered.
"We were taking a short," Frodo admitted.
"That was unwise." The hooded head turned in response to something the Hobbits could neither see nor hear, "As is staying out on Downs after dark." Light foot unslung his bow and knocked an arrow. "Follow me."
The shelter the Man brought them too was uncomfortably like a barrow to look at, long and low with a turf roof. He lit a lamp on next to the door then crossed the stone floor to light a second on a cupboard at the far end of the oval room. Six cots, three to a side, stood with their heads to the wall and piles of neatly folded blankets at their feet. They seemed enormously long, long enough for two Hobbits lying head to head. There was a fire laid ready on a stone slab between the two plinths upholding the roof, and wood stacked near the door.
"Come in," said Lightfoot.
The Hobbits took a few uncertain steps into the room, moving together in a clump. Frodo had seen only three other Big People in his life; Gandalf, Tom Bombadil and Goldberry but this Man was taller than any of them, his hooded head almost lost in the shadows of the ceiling. Then he did off his cloak and Frodo saw with a shock that Lightfoot was not a Man at all but a Woman!
She had long, black hair plaited and coiled around her head and a long, pale face that could have been pretty were it not so grim and stern. She wore a long, worn leather coat and a sword belted around her waist. She did that off as well and laid it with her cloak on one of the cots.
"Is – isn't this a barrow?" Pippin asked hesitantly.
"It was intended for one," the Woman answered. "But left unfinished for some reason, my people have used it as a guard post since the days of the Witch Wars. Are you hungry?"
That is a question Hobbits seldom answer with a no and one well calculated to raise their spirits. A table with several stools stood between the hearth and the cupboard, as oversized as the cots and clearly made for very Big People indeed –like Lightfoot. The food was rather disappointing; rolls of dried meat and fruit, and cakes of flat hard bread. But there was also a cordial that Lightfoot poured from a leather flask, gold colored and tasting of honey and apricots. It warmed the four Hobbits from top to toe easing their fears and weariness.
After drinking it Frodo felt brave enough to ask about the Barrow Wights. "In the Shire we say they are the ghosts of the ancient folk buried in the mounds."
The Woman's grey eyes flashed alarmingly but her voice was calm and gentle as she answered; "That is not true. These are the graves of my ancestors. Some are from the days of the Kings but others are far older, from the Elder Days before Men entered Beleriand to join the High Elves' war against the Great Enemy. The Souls of those buried here have long since passed into the West and beyond the Circles of the World.
"The Wights are evil spirits out of the Witch Kingdom who cloth themselves in the bones of the ancient as a garment. My kinsmen and I avenge that desecration when we may, but there are many other dangers in the Wild these days now that Sauron has returned.
Frodo swallowed. "So we have heard. We were warned to stay off the road."
"No doubt your advisor had good reason for his warning," Lightfoot answered judiciously. "But friends as well as enemies watch the roads out of the Shire. In any case I doubt he meant for you to try to cross the Barrow Downs so close to nightfall."
All four Hobbits blushed. "We fell asleep," Merry admitted shamefacedly, "after we stopped for lunch. We didn't wake 'til near sunset."
Lightfoot nodded as if that was to be expected. "It is best not to stop or rest on the Downs unless in some protected place such as this. Even in daylight they are not truly safe."
"If I might ask, miss, what were you doing out here all alone if it's so dangerous?" Sam reddened to the ears as the Woman's bright eyes turned his way but met them stoutly.
"The Downs lie on my path homeward," she answered mildly, apparently unoffended. "And I am armed and on my guard against Wightish spells." She stood. "Try to get some sleep. This place is defended, the Wights cannot enter here."
"Like Tom Bombadil's house," said Merry.
Lightfoot shook her head. "Not so strongly as that – but sufficient." She turned towards the lamp on the cupboard and the three younger Hobbits all cried out in alarm:
"Don't blow it out!"
She smiled at them, stern face softened to gentleness. "I wasn't going to." She looked at Frodo: "Light is the best defense against wraiths of all kinds."
Even Black Riders? Suddenly Frodo was sure that Lightfoot knew far more about them than she was letting on – maybe everything. His hand went involuntarily to the pocket holding the Ring but he felt no desire to bring it out – quite the opposite. Almost as if the Ring itself didn't want Lightfoot to see it.
Note: The 'protection' on the Ranger Shelter needs a strong and practiced will behind it to be most effective, just as defensive walls need warriors behind them to repel foes. If the Hobbits were alone they would not be safe even in the shelter.