Strange as news from Bree
A hundred roofs and chimneys, highlighted by the rising moon ensnare my eyes as the west-gate locks behind me. The road ahead becomes strangely compelling, climbing eastwards through the town, leading my eyes to the looming Menelvagor glittering in the night sky, guarding ceaselessly over the homes of these men. The rustic air is strong here as I wander up the paved street and processions of creaking wood and sharp snaps follow my strides from the many window shutters eitherside. The Swordsman becomes my only companion along this lonely road. I am not fond of this town, and neither is this town overly fond of me. A mutual agreement then. Bree exploits wanderers such as myself, for we bring news to any who will listen from afar, and humour them with tales woven with old lore, and so too do ragged men, ‘rangers’ some call us, exploit the trade and gullibility of the Bree-men for supplies and rumour.
I approach the Prancing Pony warily, and cast my gaze over its many windows illuminated by warm lanterns. I am even less fond of the Inn, it is too loud and too overly populated with wearisome folk flaunting their armour and boasting their deeds, and even the ale to my tastes is not what it once was. I prefer quiet villages, and empty rooms to sit alone with my thoughts, or better yet- the comfort of a tree canopy and the soft earth. But not this night. Tonight the Pony has its uses, and so I stroll onwards, past the trickling fountain and a muttering drunkard who has made the basin his home for the eve.
I see the house-keeper above me flitting from one window to another, her flaxen hair lit by the candle she carries, going about her business. I wonder if the Fat-man Butterbur ever realises how much she labours in those wings. As I push myself wearily up the old steps I feel my boot fit comfortably within the imprinted grooves of countless feet upon the hay-strewn stone. It is good to pass unnoticed, and to blend in with the crowd. A stout and bear-sized man greets me with a polite nod as he looks out across the courtyard; no tavern fights would erupt around him I’d wager, unless he was the cause. And so I enter.
Six strains, as my senses discern. Six strains of leaf from the pipe-smoke that engulfs me, lingering on the beamed ceiling, mingled with the scent of leather, wood, ale and acrid sweat. Slouching deliberately, I huddle myself into the depths of my cloak and amble through the noisome crowd, the vigilant dog by the door sniffs methodically; no doubt the pine trees and mountain air caught into the weave of my cloak must be tantalising to the beast. Some of the halflings recognise me from my profile, and mock with hushed voices. My crooked nose and the ridiculous name ‘lamb chop’ is the source of much amusement to them, though they would not dare to say it aloud in front of me. Were it that I had my Chieftain’s presence, to silence all with a swift glare and a deluge of witty retorts at hand. In truth I am far too old to care, and I bear not the same pride as he, for obvious reasons. As I find a quiet spot a dark haired lady approaches with my ordered mead and a look of idle curiosity in her eyes; I have no tales to tell this night. As she wanders away I become distinctly aware of a melodious sound over the racket of loud-mouthed men lost in their drinking games.
By the hearth a man of tanned skin stands, bearded and clad in sturdy leather with a lyre in hand, played with remarkable skill. I know him. Or I should say I know of him. The Northman some call him, and he is known to be skilled with horses. His fingers slip and the spell of his music is severed, followed swiftly with a furrowed brow as a patron interrupts him. A haggard and pitiful looking man, this patron appeared, and clearly a source of mild disdain to those he passes.
It is a fine art, honed with practice, to enter the Pony and to select your mark- a mark that, with enough persuasion, can divulge the past month’s comings and goings in the greatest and laborious of details. To filter the truth from the nonsense takes patience and an attentive mind; noting their eyes and their gestures as they gossip mindlessly is key...often the silence hanging between their raucous ramblings and tall tales speaks volumes to me, and answers all my uncomfortably blunt questions. The rising smoke from the worn pipe, nestled in my fingers works its advantage, shielding any answers my grey eyes may inadvertently offer to the many prying questions in turn. Everywhere I look, I see sulking men, each clad in black, and slouched against beam and stone- must it be quite so obvious? An apt question, asked by one disgruntled patron and handyman of the bar, a certain Mr. Baywillow, if my ears heard aright. Though no doubt they are as equally nauseated by his presence, and the overly used phrase he is so quick to use. But those hooded-men are not the true danger that lurks in the tavern, it is those whom hide in plain sight that bear the darkest of motives, I deem.
And so the dishevelled and plainly clad man wanders over- he saw me as soon as I him. A crooked smile and a dart of his bleary eyes was enough of a greeting. I gestured for him to sit, pushed my own tankard aside and waited. ‘Finch’, he named himself. A wretched little bird and I pity him. Driven by money and a coward it seems, yet I hold no ill-feeling towards him. Not yet at the least. I half expected to endure the same old news repeated to me from the last time I ventured here, nigh on two months ago- a surprise then to hear a fresh rumour reach my ears, a rumour that has now greatly intrigued me, and disturbed me in some way I cannot yet fathom. The traders speak of it in mild jest apparently, yet I sense the unease in Finch’s wheezy voice, the odd attempt to quell his mild fears with his own coarse jokes. A gnawing doubt and a subtle presence now linger upon the scholar’s stairs it would seem. He instinctively glances out of the window beside me as he speaks of it. News of a ‘Burnt Man’ is enough to unsettle any, and more so when I hear he spins tales of old lore to apparent stragglers from the south with such deliberate distortion and inaccuracy that it makes me wonder as to this man’s motives. No Bree-lander is he, this Burnt Man, that much is clear for the loose snippets that Finch recalls, admittedly muddled in his retelling, are of things none of the locals here could hope to know or remember. I have my fears as to whom and what he may be- by the insinuation of ‘burnt’- but perhaps it is irrational and baseless. My grey eyes descend to the tankard of mead in thought, the liquid recalling a great sea, and the enemies of the Elendili in their port havens. None of their kind could have slipped past our watch and come so far north into the quiet lands of innocent folk. None of their kind. But...I have been wrong before.
The wretched bird repeats his thanks as I hand him the coins wearily, the common room now emptied and quiet save for a few lingering on, sleeping against bench, table and shelf with drunkard groans. I sit and I ponder, the dog now appearing from behind my chair, perusing the ends of my cloak with great enthusiasm. He seems instantly tamed around me and with a flick of my head and a sharp look he sits beside me, slobbering against my outstretched legs as my fingers stroke the pressure point behind his lop-sided ears. On wild wolves, I have done this before, if ever some have dared to approach without a feral lust for a hunt in their eyes, and within minutes the beast is asleep on the ground. As I depart quietly to my room, Barliman, clad in his night-gown, approaches in my absence and raises a brow at the now slumbering dog- yet another reason for him to believe we ‘rangers’ are a queer folk, speaking to animals and turning them against the loyalty of their owners no doubt.
I stride back down the street the next morning, glancing warily at the once welcoming smoke from the passing chimneys, now kissed by a flame-red dawn. Are the Burnt Man’s tales already smouldering their way through the very hearts and minds of this town? I should pay the scholar’s stairs a visit when next he plays with fire...