Barliman Butterbur was in his downstairs room struggling with the Inn accounts when the door slammed open. It was Beomann, his oldest boy, round eyed and panting
"Dad! the Rover just walked in."
Butterbur dropped his pen and shot down the corridor to the common room. The Rover was sitting in the Rangers' usual corner by the fireplace with the sparse handful of other customers clustered around him, all talking at once. The Innkeeper pushed his way through them to find the Ranger looking more than a little bemused by his unaccustomedly warm welcome.
The first words out of Butterbur's mouth sounded plaintive, even to his own ears. "Where did you go?"
"There was bad trouble away up north and in the east." the Rover answered. "We had to go deal with it."
"We had some pretty bad trouble right here," Butterbur retorted indignantly. "fighting even. Some people were actually killed!"
"So I've gathered. I'm sorry."
The Innkeeper pulled out a chair and sat down, a little ashamed of himself for being so snappish. "The Road's not safe these days," he continued in a more apologetic tone, "we've got a nest of brigands somewhere out there in the Wild -"
"Not any more." the Rover interrupted quietly, his grey eyes suddenly very cold.
Butterbur stared at him and swallowed hard. "There's other things too," he said a little huskily. "Wolves, and ghosts or something like it gibbering around the hedge at night."
"Wights." the Ranger's voice was grim. "That's bad. I'd not have expected them to grow so bold. Don't worry, we'll see to it."
Butterbur looked at him, really looked, and saw for the first time the pallor beneath the grime and lines of strain and control around mouth and eyes. "Are you all right?"
The question clearly startled the Rover and he hesitated a little before answering. "Well enough."
"You don't look it." the Innkeeper said bluntly. "You'd best stay here tonight. A hot meal and a good sleep in a proper bed is what you need."
The steely grey gaze softened. "Thank you, I will."
Butterbur stood up, hesitated. "Rover, what's your right name."
The other Man smiled, something Butterbur couldn't remember ever seeing a Ranger do before, said gently. "I am Gilvagor son of Armegil."
He should have known it'd be something outlandish.
The Rover read the thought in his nonplussed face and laughed aloud. Another thing Butterbur couldn't remember seeing a Ranger do before. "Make it Gil. That should come easier to your tongue."
Barliman Butterbur was yanked from his slumbers by a pandemonium of voices floating up the main stair. Rolling out of bed he pulled a dressing gown on over his nighshirt and padded downstairs, with his good wife at his heels, to confront a passel of distraught townsfolk clustered around a hysterical, tearstained Woman swathed in homespun shawls.
"Here now, what's all this?" he demanded.
The Woman, The Widow Thistlewood from Alderedge Farm, threw herself into Mrs. Butterbur's arms sobbing. They're gone! They took them, they took them!"
"Took who?" the Missis asked, guiding the other Woman to the settee before the hall fire.
"My babies!" the Widow wailed, "Tom and Daisy! Skeletons, skeletons in white robes! They crawled through the windows and dragged them out of their beds!"
"When?" Gil's voice clove through the confusion like a sword. Mrs. Thistlewood, struck silent, sat mouth open staring at him.
"When?" he repeated sharply, eyes blazing down into hers.
"Just now." she answered, staring as if she couldn't look away. "I ran after them but lost them in the fog."
"I heard her wailing and calling and brought her here." Will Rushlight, the west gatekeeper, put in.
"We may still be in time if we move fast." the Ranger said, half to himself. His eyes swept the assembled Men, bright with strange fires. "I will need help."
Barliman Butterbur never really understood how he came to find himself walking through a chilly, eldritch fog towards the dreaded Barrow Downs with his clothes pulled on anyhow, a torch in one hand and a wood axe in the other, surrounded by a dozen or so neighbors similarly armed. The Rover strode at the head of their ragged column, grim and purposeful, the fog rolling aside before him. The Breelanders found themselves following him, against all reason, off the road right into the sinister downs.
It was bitter cold, unnaturally so, and shapes moved in the mist on either side. Steel whispered as Gil drew his sword. The long bright blade caught the starlight, glistening, and the shapes and the fog seemed to draw away in fear. The little column came at last to a long barrow hunched at the foot of a steep down. The dark door gaped open and dead cold air flowed from it.
The Rover turned to face them. His eyes glistened like his sword and power went out from him like heat from a fire. "Fear is the Wights' chief weapon, so do not fear! They fear the light and brave Men, so stand firm and you will prevail. I count on you to keep them from my back - for those two children's sake." He turned, and ducking his head disappeared through the black door.
The moment he vanished the fog, and the things in it, drew closer encouraged. Panicked Butterbur thrust his torch into a mowing skull-like face and it shrank away. Geoff Heathertoes swung his scythe exactly as if he were harvesting grain and a bony arm clattered to the ground, wriggling in a tattered white sleeve. The fog drew back. Panting hard, the Men exchanged looks, spirits rising. It was true then, they could do this - if they kept their nerve and held their ground.
Beomann Butterbur was never able to adequately explain to his father, to Gil, or even to himself, the impulse that sent him into the barrow on the Ranger's heels. How much help was a green boy clutching a kitchen cleaver like to be? and yet for all that it stuck in his craw to let the Rover face whatever was there under the earth alone.
Gil carried no torch and neither did Beomann. It should have been black as pitch inside the barrow, but it wasn't. A cold, unholy light burned in the burial chamber and crept, sickly pale, up the passage. And there were voices. Thin, cold, moaning voices drearily chanting in a language Beomann couldn't understand but which seemed to drain the warmth from his body and hope from his soul.
For a moment Gil was silhouetted in the doorway of the burial chamber, then his dark shape vanished inside and Beomann heard his voice cru out a word that stopped the chanters' tongues and shattered the spell like a dropped plate.
Beomann gave a great gasp of relief and crept closer to look inside. The first thing he saw, with horror, was little Tom and Daisy laid out on a slab of stone as if for burial decked in cold, dead gold with a naked sword lying across their throats. The second was three Wights, their white bones clothed in rags of skin and tattered silk. And lastly, facing them, the Ranger, tall and terrible in worn green leather, his eyes and sword gleaming with a pure silver light.
He spoke again, clear ringing words that fired Beomann's heart though he understood them no better than the Wights' song. The undead things shrank and gnashed their fleshless jaws then, snarling, drew long greeny-white swords and sprang at Gil.
His blade flashed clean silver flame as it cleaved the foremost Wight from skull to breast bone. It collapsed in a heap of splintered bone and a cold wind rushed, wailing, past Beomann and up the passage, fading into the distance.
He unscrewed his eyes and uncovered his ears in time to see Gil slice the head from the shoulders of a second Wight and had the sense to get quickly out of the way of whatever it was that fled wailing into the night. More Wights came out of gaping doorways converging on the Rover.
Beomann launched himself at them with an inarticulate cry. Old dry bone splintered under his cleaver as he hacked at limbs and rib cages. It caught on something and was ripped out of his hand. Ducking under the swing of a Barrow Wight's sword Beomann grabbed for a blade lying on the floor, rolled onto his back and skewered the Wight as it bent down to stab him. He scrambled to his feet, swinging the sword inexpertly with both hands as he charged back into the fray. Bone chilling breezes fanned his hair as more things fled wailing into the night.
Suddenly the sickly light went out. Beomann stumbled over a tangle of bone and fabric, fell and lay still, panting, afraid to move in the blackness.
The Rover's voice, breathless but calm, came out of the dark. "Who is there?"
There came a rustling then a warm strong hand clasped his arm. "Are you hurt?"
"I don't think so."
"Well, Beomann, I don't know how you came to be here but thank you for your help. Now let's get the little ones out of here."