It has been a relatively fair summer, but it is still young enough to feel the cold bite from the lingering spring night. With this knowledge I recognize that the upcoming autumn and winter will be one of the hardest I have ever seen. Though tonight is one of those colder nights, that isn't how I found my way into the tavern…

I stare harder into the fire as if trying to absorb some of its warmth while I sip my ale at a table in the middle of a dining hall. While it isn't boisterously loud, it most certainly is a busy little place. It appears to be a family run business, considering the little lad helping his big sister and mother race tankards of ale across the hall. The man behind the counter watches each of them warily, concerned as the patrons became more inebriated with each mug. I smile at his worry, and divert my attention to the fire again.

The Hog's Breath is a small time tavern on the edge of Bree. This is a small establishment made for those who are not wealthy enough to stay at a place like the Prancing Pony; though the name isn't exactly as welcoming as it could be. While this tavern was not quite so well endowed or convenient for the weary traveler, it was clean and dry with decent ale. I'm not surprised that this place may have been over looked, but I wish it would receive more recognition. It might have helped the poor people residing in it…

I didn't plan on stopping in any tavern as I passed through Bree. After spending the last three days combing the wilds for a particular dwarf, I still have nothing to show for it. Naturally, I only have myself to blame for putting so much into the rumors – what had I honestly been expecting? As I passed through Bree all corners of the small village were murmuring about of the various dwarves that had passed through there all day. Unfortunately, none of them sounded like the particular dwarf I was looking for when I managed to eavesdrop. Thrain had not been seen in years, but I have a feeling he would be difficult to miss.

However, another observation I made is that when the conversation deviates from the dwarf folk there is dark presence hanging over the people's whispers as they spoke of something sinister. As of last month a cluster of Ettenmoor ghouls had recently come south and nestled in the South Downs. At first, only one careless ranger had suffered at the hands of the foul creatures, but despite the caution taken by the other rangers nearby, four children had been taken by these creatures. It is shocking to hear that they would come so close to town, let alone steal children who would return home in the late hours of the day. The first had been a little girl returning from her grandmother's house, the next two were boys eagerly returning home to show their parents the coins they had earned for chopping wood, and lastly was a baby girl who had been snatched from the cradle.

It makes me sick. Having turned up nothing on Thrain I put the silly rumor behind me and face the current dilemma facing the people of Bree. As much as it pains me I have to wait for another attack. The problem with trying to track ghouls is the fact that they are ethereal beings and when in their element they can be hard to trace. I need something fresh since the last child that had been taken was over a week ago. Some people whisper that perhaps the ghouls had moved on, but no one would blatantly say it, in fear of being responsible for the death of another child. I know the ghouls are very territorial and after the first child, the town's fate had been sealed.

I sigh into the metal half mask covering my mouth. It's cold metal covering everything from nose to my jaw and held there by the straps over and under my ears. I pull it away when I sip my ale, but the coolness helps keep my mind clear so I allow it to settle back into place between drinks.

My original mission would have to be put on hold – again. I should have anticipated this considering I became a ranger of my own volition, but that didn't mean I didn't have my own goals and intentions. Perhaps after this I could start a trek back up north. If I couldn't reach him through Thrain, I have no qualms stirring the hornet's nest.

A large clatter comes from outside and there are people running like blurs past the door, but there is no other sound. Others in the tavern, including myself, look at the door. I purposefully place my back to the rest of the room, despite my instincts and ranger training telling me to put my back to a wall. I need to seem accessible, like I have nothing to hide. The people here wouldn't trust me otherwise and I need to be trusted if I am to stop the threat impending on this town. A few moments pass and a woman is brought in and placed at a table near the door; she couldn't be later than her thirties and fairly pretty, if she weren't sobbing uncontrollably and writhing as if in pain. The man beside her, the one that had brought her in looked fearful, I have no doubt what he just saw.

"They took my baby!" the woman screams.

"Who did?" asks one of the patrons.

"Who do you think?" asks another angrily.

There is a solemn silence that passes through the tavern and it only serves to amplify the poor woman's sobs. The first sound indicating that I had even moved is the gentle rustle of the cloak still firmly attached to my shoulders. My footfalls are the only real warning the people surrounding the weeping mother have before I approach the man who had brought her in. He jumps a little, at first, before he looks at me questioningly. I suppose he is still a little shook up after seeing the ghoul. I'm not surprised – they are silent as death and work from the shadows. I remember what that fear felt like…Not wanting to annoy the man I go about signing in Nezkish, a hand based language used commonly by humans. It is believed to be a blend of the elvish hand signs with a few select dwarven signs from their own language, Iglishmek. His eyes widen before recognizing my intentions.

"What's he saying?" he asks aloud to the room.

I roll my eyes despite myself. I have stopped being annoyed by being referred to as a 'he,' especially since I found it has helped me in many a situation. I stand at about five foot ten and while I am lean, the muscle I have built up easily conceals my true gender. I have cut my hair very short, even shorter than most men. I thought it made me look more feminine with how narrow it makes my face look. The mask partly helps with that as well. However, I feel like many of my more subtle movements and mannerism it should be obvious that I am a woman. Over the years I found that I cannot help finding some amusement in the fact that men couldn't tell I am a woman. It reminds me of how long I have been searching...

"Is there anyone here who knows Nezkish?" he asks loudly.

Come to think of it I have so well adjusted to my male role, that I wear the mask to hide the more feminine features of my body as well as my voice. There is a cover within the mask that prevents my voice from escaping, and the story behind that addition to my travel attire is better left forgotten. Thankfully, my teaching in Nezkish as a child still comes in handy.

"I can."

I turn and I'm sure there is great surprise to be found in my eyes. Standing there is the little boy who had been working behind the bar earlier. I recognize his little blond head that had passed me many times to treat patrons closer to the back of the hall. He couldn't be more than 10 seasons of age, but I am more surprised to see the light bronze color of his skin and well-rounded size of his cheeks; I have seen too many sickly pale children his age, but they were barely even half his size. His father, the barkeep, stands behind him with his hands on his son's shoulders for support. The man must be nearing fifty, but his eyes almost seem older, particularly when he looks at his son. I eye the man curiously, wondering how his son came across learning Nezkish, especially when he didn't.

"His little sister is mute, good Ranger. He has learned the language on his own by picking it up from travelers and is now teaching her. My wife and I are learning as well, but my son knows the language far better," the father explains.

What a smart little boy. My gaze falls back down upon the boy with new admiration. I find him returning my gaze and I take another good look at him. While his clothes are well worn, he fits them well, as a child should. He gasps as he feels the full force of my eyes, but I can see that he is curious about me. I suddenly have a new sense of vigor as I think of the children that were killed and wonder if they were anything like this brilliant little boy…I sign quicker now and with purpose.

"He wants you to take him to where the girl was taken," he says shakily. I smile under my mask. I find it very endearing that he wants to do well before me and his father. It's adorable.

"What does he think he can do? These are Ettenmoor ghouls; they are like shadows. They remain unseen unless they wish to be seen. One ranger already perished. You cannot defeat them," says a man at a nearby table. A loud whimper emerges from the mother who had, until now, fallen silent.

I am wasting my time at this point, but I don't know where the attack occurred so until then I am stuck here being useless, while the ghoul returns to the South Downs. These people were going to kill another child if they did not make haste.

"Do you have any idea who this is?"

A slight shiver runs down my spine as I recognize the voice, it didn't matter what form he took, he always sounds the same. All heads turn to man situated near the door of the tavern, but I feel no need to look at him. He had likely chosen another face to tell everyone the same story. I do not know who he is, but he knows me inside and out; every good deed I have ever done and all of my darkest memories. It does not frighten me, but it rarely does me any favors. I have a feeling he is in league with the wizard, but I could not tell. He never spoke to me directly unless I approached him, but even then he is evasive.

"This is the Golden-Eyed Ranger," he continued, "He hails from the greatest clan of orc killers these lands have ever seen. His clan alone held off the orcs of Gundabad for the last part of the second age. This ranger has travelled all over helping the free people of Middle Earth and faced creatures far more terrifying than a few ghouls."

I can now look at the man and indeed the face had changed. His blond hair is slick with natural oil and some dirt. He has green eyes and a strong chin, which likely hadn't seen a razor in two days. His wardrobe is simple and plain, but the mud on his trousers and boots indicate that he had been working; that, and the angry welts on his hands. The last time we had met we had been in the small town along the Icebay of Forochel, trying to help the locals with an ice beast believed to be a descendent of Carcharoth. I had found myself being challenged in similar fashion on the docks when he appeared. He had been an old man that time, easily forty years older than the face he wears now, but somehow just as captivating. He has appeared many times before that as well in the various places I had passed throughout Middle Earth; he had been an elf, a child, and even a woman once. I have taken to calling him The Storyteller. I call him this because the only thing consistent about this being is that he would tell my story wherever I went.

"Is that true?" asks the barkeep. I don't remove my eyes from the Storyteller while I sign to his son.

"He says, 'Yes,'" says the boy.

There is a moment of silence as the people in the tavern weigh their options. Slowly they began whispering amongst one another trying to decide if I am worthy of the deed before me and wasting more time. I never thought the people of Bree would be so wary of strangers, they were acting as secretive and cautious as a bunch of dwarves. I am knocked out of my reverie by a hand squeezing on the armor on my forearm. It is the mother who seems to have now finally gotten a hold of herself. Her eyes plead with me, using words that do not need to be spoken. I nod to her, a promise to do my best…should these fools actually let me go after the ghouls.

I take another hard glance at the man beside her and I can see some familiarity between the two. Perhaps they are brother and sister? He finally takes me in as a whole and sends me a skeptical look. I send him a silent, challenging glare in hopes that he will give in. However, he raises his head high and looks me in the eye. I can't tell if he is trying to intimidate me, but since I initiated the challenge nothing less should be expected.

"Follow me, Ranger," he says.


Elsewhere on the same night, poor Bilbo Baggins had just spent the evening entertaining a company of 13 dwarves. They had properly decimated his pantry, damaged his property, and destroyed his poor bathroom. However, he found their current situation almost charming, if not a little sorrowful. The dwarves sang of home and the destruction that befell them in the Lonely Mountain. Even though Bilbo was still quite perturbed by the sudden invasion he could not help, but feel empathy for the uninvited guests. Losing one's home would certainly stir great sorrow. Though their plight, and his good manners, prevents him from kicking them out of his house entirely, he is still quite set on not following Gandalf's request to join them in the morning.

Somewhere along his travels, Bilbo is sure that Gandalf has forgotten what it means to be a hobbit. They are not warriors, or burglars; what could he possibly do to help them? Part of him, though he would never admit it out loud, is quite intrigued with the idea of an adventure. While he had never considered incineration as his possible demise before tonight, the idea of going out to see all that Middle-Earth had to offer is almost tempting. However, Bilbo has a name and a reputation to uphold in the Shire. He is his father's son, but at the same time when he thought of his mother he knew she would have gone in an instant.

Bilbo's face fills with sorrow as he thinks of his mother. He remembers that she had gone to Rivendell several times and wanted to take him when he was older; she even managed to get his father to agree. But that was before that winter…The outside world is not made for hobbits and that was that. As the night stretched on Bilbo fell asleep at the end of his bed, listening to the grumbling of sleeping dwarves. As Bilbo's night ends, the Golden-Eyed Ranger's has only just begun.

It is sundown on the next day when Thorin and his troupe made it to the small city of Bree. Thorin and Dwalin had debated the latter half of the day on whether or not they should push on, but with the miraculous reappearance of their burglar they decide one more night sleeping with a roof over their heads wasn't such a bad idea. Thorin initially planned on taking the company to the Prancing Pony, despite his previous encounter with the bounty hunters, but there were too many people and the risk of the journey was too great to chance it. So they stop at the farthest corner of Bree and manage to find a tavern.

"Hog's Breath? I surely hope they aren't talking about the owner," says Kili. The company burst out a short bout of laughter. Even Thorin gave a light chuckle.

"We will rest here tonight," he says, returning to his cold and determined demeanor.

Gandalf goes inside to pay for the stabling and lodging for the night leaving the company to their own devices. Thorin and the other dwarves go to stable their ponies, but it would appear that the hobbit was having trouble with his mount. As Bilbo tries to bring one of his large feet over the pony to get off, the pony shifts uncomfortably and he sits back down. He did this three times before Bofur and Bombur took pity on him and got him off the pony. Thorin didn't bother to stop himself from rolling his eyes at the incapable hobbit. Thorin knows the halfling is inexperienced, but at this point he would be impressed if Bilbo could find his room in the tavern by himself.

The dwarves enter the tavern as the hobbit trails after them like a dog following its master. The hovel isn't all that large, but it the large influx of people that makes it seem much smaller. Most of them crowd near the entrance, actually looking at the company expectedly before looking away again, almost…disappointed. This seems odd to Thorin; that the people here didn't take notice of the company of dwarves that just marched through the door, which he imagines is quite odd for the town, let alone the tavern. There are a few patrons actually drinking scattered among the tables, but not many. As Thorin navigates through the crowd he found Gandalf at the front of the bar. He approaches the wizard, wary of the patrons.

"What is going on here?" Thorin asks.

"Apparently last night a ranger went after some Ettenmoor ghouls that had taken a small child. He has not yet returned," says Gandalf solemnly. "Everyone here is eagerly awaiting his return."

"Awaiting a dead man," says Thorin bitterly. "Ghouls travel in packs and Ettenmoor ghouls are particularly swift. No man can take them alone."

"Then you have not heard of our ranger, Master Dwarf," says a man sitting at a table closest to the bar. The man appears to be no stranger to hard times or hard work judging by the ash smeared along his face and the calluses on his hands. He currently smokes a pipe, eyeing the dwarves with curiosity. Thorin does not appreciate the curious look his company receives since the last thing he needs is someone asking questions. Dwalin, who senses his king's hostility, steps forward with his hands on his axes. Gandalf also hones in on this odd character, finding him familiar, but unable to place him.

"Oh? What is so special about your ranger?" asks Fili in a challenging manner. He had also sensed his uncle's discomfort and sought to aid him. The man didn't seem offended in the least – on the contrary, he looks quite excited at the prospect of someone listening to his stories.

"The Golden-Eyed Ranger," he pauses for effect, "Is one of the most powerful men in all of Middle Earth."

A heavy pause fills the air before the dwarves starts laughing. The man had a look of surprise about his face, as if this were a reaction he hadn't expected. A similar look passes over Bilbo's face, but he became curious despite himself.

"Who is the Golden-Eyed Ranger?" he asks genuinely.

The mysterious man leans in closer to the hobbit, causing the small halfling to shrink back some. Gandalf, though more out of worry for the hobbit, leans closer as well.

"Well have you ever heard of Erebor?" asks the man.

For a moment the group tenses again, unsure of how to respond to the man's question. However, Bilbo quickly answers him to avoid any further questions.

"We've heard of it…in stories that is," Bilbo amends.

The man continues to smile at the small creature and presses forward with his tale.

"A day's journey from Erebor into the Grey Mountains lays a fortress; a fortress called Imelkane. There housed some of the greatest warriors of Middle Earth. They have fought alongside men, elves, and dwarves alike against the evils of Gundabad," he spoke, enjoying the attention given to him by the company. "These warriors were gifted with strong hearts and golden eyes. For the last part of the Second Age they held back the stronghold of Gundabad until it finally fell dormant. There was peace…until the resurgence little over a decade ago. They burned the fortress and annihilated the inhabitants within. Very few survived."

"The clan of Imelkane hasn't been seen in years," says Thorin roughly. "What makes you think the ranger is one of them?"

"The golden eyes for one," the teller says bluntly. "And the stories I have heard throughout Middle Earth."

"And that is all they are – stories," Thorin replies harshly. He turns his back to the man and starts walking down the rows of tables. "Come on." The rest of the company follows Thorin's lead and takes up a table in the middle of the hall where the least amount of people were present. A barmaid follows behind them ready to hear what they would like to drink. Only Bilbo and Gandalf remain behind with the mysterious man.

"I do not believe I heard your name, friend," says Gandalf. The wizard is quite curious about this man. While he did so covertly, he continues to stare at the man hoping to find the gap in his mind and remember where he had met the man before.

"My name is Tirian," says the man with relative ease and a smile.

"Please forgive our friends," says Gandalf. "They have suffered much hardship and they don't always realize when they throw the weight of it on others."

"It is alright, my friend," he replies kindly. "I am quite used to bearing the burdens of others."

"I for one," stutters Bilbo unexpectedly, "would like to hear the story."

Gandalf smiles warmly at the hobbit, for it was people like him that kept the darkness from his heart with nothing more than small kindnesses. Tirian grins keenly, but suddenly stands up.

"Then let us move to towards the fire, for surely a tale of such grandeur can be told no place else," he says.

Gandalf, Bilbo and Tirian move to the bench beside the fire, only a table away from Thorin and his rowdy crew. Bilbo sat facing the fire until Gandalf and Tirian take the bench on the table opposite him. Bilbo finally allows his curiosity to have the better of him and ask his first question.

"So the ranger is of the Imelkane clan? I read about them. They were clan of people trained by a Mirkwood elf near the end of the Second Age," Bilbo asks.

"Oh, yes! Best of the best! Until those foul creatures overran his home and the poor lad was there when it all happened," the man says gruffly.

Gandalf notices Thorin tense behind Bilbo. Despite that Thorin doesn't believe that the ranger was of Imelkane, the story of their people remind him a little too much of home.

"How did he survive?" asks Bilbo.

A scowl crosses Tirian's face and his voice becomes hard, "Not quite sure, but I think it has something to do with his mother. One of the orcs captured her and took her to Gundabad…you can only imagine what they did to her."

The truth of the matter is that Bilbo could imagine the horrors of orcs. Despite having little more than a fauntling when the Fell Winter came it had changed everything. When the wolves and orcs entered the Shire after overpowering the rangers, they had taken his father from him and his mother had died of a broken heart. He missed them both terribly and could sympathize with the ranger. He missed his mother especially and thought of her with a sad smile, but then brought up the next thing on his mind.

"What about the boy's father?"

"Died when he was a lad I'd suspect," says the storyteller. "Not uncommon amongst the clan of Imelkane, but the boy must have certainly loved his mother. To have followed her to Gundabad…"

"How old was he?" asks Bilbo suddenly.

"Not sure," says Tirian, rubbing the stubble on his chin, "Everywhere I've been I've heard something different. Youngest I heard was eight and the oldest was fourteen."

"Fourteen?" asks Bilbo incredulously.

"At most," he says. "According to rumor he hid himself in the halls of Gundabad for almost a year before the orcs slit his mother's throat."

Bilbo gulps nervously at the thought, but Gandalf eyes the man warily. Now even he doubts the story. How could a human child, Imelkane or not, survive the harsh halls of Gundabad for a year unnoticed? However, the two beside the man aren't the only ones listening, or skeptical.

"The swill! Not only does he insult the good people of Imelkane, but our intelligence as well," grumbles Gloin quietly. There is a silent agreement throughout the company, but they continue to listen to the man as they sip their ale.

"After that he disappeared for a few years before reappearing in the ranks of the Dunedain rangers. He has been serving with them since that time, but a few years ago he left his troupe in search of someone and has been travelling ever since," Tirian says offering swift end to the story for Bilbo.

"Someone?" asks Bilbo.

"I have heard a couple theories," he says not offering much information on the subject.

"What have you heard?" asks Gandalf, feeling on edge.

The man pauses and chooses to stare at the table as he continues. "Once I heard he was looking for his uncle who had once been a ranger some time before the lad was born."

"Wouldn't his uncle have gone looking for him?" asks Bilbo.

"He could have been looking for the lad, but no one has seen the man since the aftermath of Imelkane. He was last seen leading the survivors to the village of Thoth along the northern borders of Mirkwood. No one has seen him since."

There is a moment of silence among the three by the fire, unaware of their distant audience who were hanging onto the words of lore weaver. The dwarves hold their ale close to them and exchanges glances as they listen. They all knew what it meant to lose loved ones without ever really knowing their fate, particularly Thorin and Balin. They were there the day that their loved ones became trapped within the mountain with the dragon. They likely starved if they weren't killed by the dragon fire; among those trapped in the mountain was Thorin's mother. He had last seen her running with a group of their people towards the western gate, but it had closed before she could make it out. They remained trapped in the mountain that had once been their home.

Then there was the Battle of Azanulbizar. Thorin's hands clench tighter over the mug and he suppresses the growl that forms in his throat. Early in the days of engagement he had lost his little brother, Frerin, at the East Gate of Moria. He had found his brother's corpse covered with the dead of the enemy; while he had died a warrior's death Thorin had felt a largely responsible and carried the weight forward. It seems so long ago now, but the sight of the dead is still fresh within his mind. Thror, his grandfather, had been beheaded by the pale orc, Azog the Defiler, and the head was thrown at Thorin's feet. In his rage he had tried to attack the orc head on, but his father held him back in hopes of protecting his son. Thrain tried to lead the charge himself, instead, but he was swallowed up by the battle and never seen from again. That day he lost his grandfather and while Thorin knew and despised the fate that befell his mother, he had no clue as to the fate of his father.

He had been in this town six months prior, following a rumor that his father had been roaming the wilds, but it had been for naught. Now he has a new mission…

"And the other theory…" presses Gandalf.

Thorin actually glances over his shoulder to see the man's eyes narrow on the table grain. He voice suddenly sounds hurt, as if the story he tells is now his own.

"The other theory is that he is trying to hunt down the orc that killed his mother."

Dwalin releases an undignified snort that even the storyteller could hear. Tirian suddenly breaks into a soft smile, happy to deviate from the dark tone the tale had taken.

"Is there something you would like to add, Master Dwarf?" the teller asks.

"Aye. You forgot the part where my fist meets your face," Dwalin growls. The other dwarves start laughing, finding Dwalin's anger at the story well-founded. Bilbo's eyes widen at the empty threat as Gandalf rolls his eyes at the ill mannered dwarf's words. The man, however, continues to smile.

"What part of the tale displeased you, Master Dwarf?"

"Lad," starts Balin, "I travelled to Imelkane when I was, but a lad myself. The people there were kind, never able to turn away from someone in need. While they never got involved in other people's business, they could finish it with swift justice. They never had any darkness in their hearts. When we heard they had fallen under the hands of the orcs we mourned them."

"Despite their ties to elves?" Tirian asks calmly.

Dwalin opens his mouth, ready to defend the honor of the dead people, but surprisingly Dori speaks up. "Dwarves once had relations with elves as well. We learned our lesson," he says solemnly. The rest of the dwarves were thankful for the intervention, but cannot stop their faces from scrunching up in disgust at the mention of the elves.

"I wish I could say the same for the people of Imelkane," says the man.

This peaks Thorin's interest, "What do you mean?"

Tirian's smile disappears into a slight frown, "After the elves failed to help the dwarves of Erebor, the people of Imelkane thinned their relations with the Greenwood. Less trade, less travelling between the realms, and less…communication. It is because of these reasons the Elvenking left them to suffer at the hands of the orcs."

"The elves left them to die?" asks Bilbo incredulously.

"Why am I not surprised?" says Oin. "You can't trust those pointed-eared, tree shaggers."

There is a murmur of agreement amongst the company. Since they had placed their undivided attention on the storyteller they had not seen the people near the front of the tavern start filing out of the structure. Even the few patrons in the back of the establishment manage to pass the dwarves unnoticed. The commotion outside had been completely overlooked by the dwarves so that they could banter against the storyteller. Even Bilbo has been caught up in the argument; only Gandalf notices.

"That aside, your story is ridiculous," states Dwalin firmly. "First you say he survived for almost a year as a boy in Gundabad – How? And then you insult the warriors of Imelkane's honor and bravery by saying one of their own has become consumed with something as petty as revenge. I do not believe you."

Small cheers erupt from the company, but they quiet when the man's smile grows. There is nothing more insulting to a storyteller than to not believe his tale, but this man seems to care not.

"If it is answers to the tale you wish for, Master Dwarf, you should ask the chief character," he says raising his hand and pointing at the bustling group of people standing around the door as they part for the ranger. "He just walked in."