The village of Bree seemed small and rustic to eyes accustomed to the fine stone built cities of Gondor but it was the first settlement of Men larger than a farmstead they'd seem since passing through the Gap of Rohan and as such a most welcome sight.
The town numbered about a hundred houses clustered on the side of Bree Hill and protected by a dike and hedge pierced by a large wooden gate where it crosses the road. Fortunately the sun, though low, was still shining as they approached and the gates stood open or Hurin suspected they might have had some difficulty talking their way in.
They were only three; Hurin himself, the Lord Cemendur and their servant Rumil but they were Dunedain of Gondor. Tall, lean men with dark hair and keen, light eyes wearing bright mail beneath colorful surcoats and long swords at their sides. They were very different from the ruddy, stocky, brown haired villagers who parted for their horses, eyeing them with mingled astonishment and suspicion.
The narrow cobbled street climbed the hill to an inn-yard, the sign of a rearing pony
hanging above the hospitably open door. A short, fat, balding Man swathed in a white apron popped out at the sound of hooves on the cobbles - and froze in his
tracks mouth slightly agape. Hurin was becoming very tired of that reaction. True the Dunedain were growing few even in Gondor, but not so rare as to evoke this kind of slack jawed amazement in Men of other kinds.
The innkeeper recovered himself and bustled forward. "Welcome to the Prancing Pony,
Masters. Beoman Butterbur is my name, at your service."
"I am Cemendur son of Nardil." the Councilor replied with his usual polished courtesy. "My companions are Hurin son of Beren and Rumil son of Rhudan. We will require supper, a room for the night and stabling for our horses."
"Right you are, sir. Follow me if you please. Dob, take the gentlemen's horses!"
The innkeeper proved more efficient than his appearance might have suggested. In very short order they found themselves seated at a table in the Common Room spread with a plain but plentiful meal, the object of covert stares and whisperings from the local
"We don't see folk of your kind often in Bree." Butterbur explained apologetically. He hesitated visibly then blurted; "You're not Elves are you?"
Rumil, caught taking an experimental sip of Bree beer, choked on it enabling Hurin to conceal his own reaction by pounding him on the back.
Cemendur kept his countenance - barely. "No. We are men of Gondor."
Butterbur looked vastly relieved, and maybe just a little disappointed. "Gondor." he echoed, then his eyes widened. "Why that's the southern kingdom isn't
it? You're a long way from home, sir."
"Indeed we are." Cememdur agreed. "We are on a mission for our Lord. Did you know Gondor once had a sister kingdom here in the North?"
The innkeeper puffed up indignantly. "We're decent law abiding folk here in Bree, of course we've heard of the King!"
"I beg your pardon," Cemendur said quickly. "I meant no offense."
Butterbur nodded mollified. "But they're long gone the Kings of Old. The witch-folk of the North killed the last of them hundreds of years ago."
"We know. But our Lord wondered if some of the Kings' own people, Men of the West like ourselves, might still live here in the North."
This time Butterbur shook his head. "Oh no, sir. They all died with the King or went to live with the Elves. They're all gone now, the Men from the Sea." he continued with a sort of wistful pride. "Bree was here before the King came and we're still here now that
he's gone and all his fine folk with him."
"Their chief cities were north of here, Annuminas and Fornost," Cemendur persisted, "Does no one live there now?"
"That's wild country, sir, no settled folk just Rangers."
"Rangers?" Hurin repeated curiously.
"Vagabonds," the innkeeper replied dismissively, "hunters, bandits too most likely. A nasty bunch of rogues if you ask me. There's three of them right over
there." He turned to point to a corner table, but it was empty save for three abandoned mugs. Butterbur blinked. "That's odd. Hey Dickon!"
"Yessir, Mr. Butterbur?" a nearby serving boy called back. No - not a boy, Hurin realized with a shock as he looked more closely. A Halfling right out of fireside tales, his big, bare feet covered with curling hair.
"Didn't I see Hawkeye and the Padfoot Brothers in that corner just a moment ago?" the innkeeper asked.
"Right you are, Mr. Butterbur." the Halfling looked at the empty table and shrugged. "They seem to have gone off though."
"That's Rangers for you," the innkeeper said turning back to the Gondor men. "They come and they go, no knowing when or why."
"What do they look like, these Rangers?" Cemendur asked thoughtfully.
"Tall, dark, grim faced customers." Butterbur replied promptly. He made a face. "Sinister if you want my opinion. They behave themselves right enough here in Bree but I wouldn't
care to meet one in the Wilds, might do anything they might."
"I should like to see some of these Rangers." Cemendur mused later that evening, sitting in a chair by the window of their room.
"Bandits living wild? Thorongil couldn't have come from such people." Hurin objected from the middle bed.
"Master Butterbur did not impress me as a judge of men." the Councilor replied dryly, "He mistook us for Eldar didn't he?"
Rumil, looked up from his unpacking with a broad grin. "I'm not going to forget that remark in a hurry! Not even my dear old mother ever thought I was fair enough
for an Elf."
"Nor does mine think so well of me - not that I disagree with either lady!" Hurin laughed. Then said to Cemendur, "We continue north then, sir?"
The Councilor nodded. "And hope to meet some of these 'Rangers'."
"Not all tall, dark men are Dunedain." Hurin pointed out.
"True." said Cemendur. "But I wish to judge for myself."