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Flight of the Dunedain  by Halrohir Haladanion

Chapter One:  The Ranger’s Charge

The Breeland was in the past a quiet, ordered land of peaceful business, rarely noticing the affairs of the Wide World, except for perhaps the travelers’ talk that could be heard at the Prancing Pony, the popular inn at its center and crossroads.  Up until now, there had been talk of troubles away in the South, and rumors of things south and east which troubled them not.  But the last fortnight held talk of a different kind; for Men had been seen passing through Bree, headed east along the Great Road.  Some were single or in pairs, others a family hauling a cart, or here and there a rider in green and grey.  None stopped to talk, few stopped at all, except to purchase fodder and meal and find water.  The Breelanders gave them passing heed, seeing them on their way, and not minding much in any way.

This day, the chill February wind groped with bitter fingers into any place it could reach, whether the still-bare boughs of trees, the hissing grasses of the downs, or the tightly-wrapped folds of the young man’s heavy cloak which failed to keep out the searching cold.  He stood on a low rise, under trees which provided no shelter from the steady breeze.  With him, stood a horse which, for anyone else, might have been more than tall enough to suit the needs of a rider; the young man, though, was tall in his own right, and the horse barely allowed his legs to ride in any comfort.  Indeed, most of his clothing was stretching, failing slowly to accommodate the growing youth.

With him also, stood a man of greater height, and an air of nobility and authority about him.  His horse was equally strong and noble, but his gear and the harness were plain and unadorned.  Packs and rolls on the saddle showed plainly that the elder man was setting out for a long journey, and not a safe one, for among the gear were also tools of war:  a spear set in a mount, a longbow and a quiver of arrows, and the man himself was girt with a longsword which his cloak could not conceal.  The wind had thrown his hood aside, and the face that the youth beheld was noble, and care-worn, and a copy of his own.

Adar, what would you have me do?” the youth asked.  “Why can’t I ride with you and the others?  I am ready, you said so yourself to them!”

“You were ready for the Trials, and earned your present station”, the older man said.  “And you should be content with that – should, though you plainly are not.”

“You have seen me, you have tested me – indeed, and you judged me!  How does one judge it, how it looks to them, for the captain’s son to be left behind, when all who can ride are needed?”

The father stepped closer to the son, forcing the youth to step back a pace. “You answer your own protest, Halrohir, my son – all who can ride, are needed.  This ride of the Grey Company is not for the untested, but for those who have faced hardships the like of which you have not.  You are a man of barely thirty winters, my son, a stripling in the long reckoning of the Dunedain.  And though you may have been tested as a Ranger, there are perils and horrors which you have yet to face.”  The captain laid his hand kindly on Halrohir’s shoulder.  He could feel the trembling underneath – whether from cold, or the heat of his bruised heart, he could not say.

“There is something else that needs saying.  I cannot allow you on this ride, because there is pressing work to do here.  As I said, all who can be gathered shall ride south to answer the call out of Imladris.  This will leave the lands of the North without the protection of the cloak of the Rangers.  And this, Halrohir son of Haladan, is your charge.  All of our folk who can be moved, the women and maids, the old and young are gathering.  They must be safeguarded, and taken to shelter.  For our race, that means only one possible journey.”

Halrohir listened as his father spoke, his mood slowly changing from despair to curiosity.  “You intend for the folk to flee?  But that means gathering them in one place, which no one does, and taking them to- “

“-to Imladris itself, yes”, Haladan finished.  “Now, listen carefully.  Tomorrow, the Grey Company rides to Bree, and from there, to the Forsaken Inn, a day’s ride east.  You know it well, I think, from past rides.  All our folk are gathering there, and in the shelter of the woods nearby.  At dusk, Halbarad leads the Company as it rides south, across the downs, and thence to the Great Road and south-east to Rohan.  It is left to those who remain here, to escort the folk to Rivendell, under such cover and haste as can be contrived.  There will be few to guard and to watch; and that, young Halrohir, is your task.  Lead the remainder of our folk along the East Road to Master Elrond, who expects us, and will offer us such hospitality as he can.”

“But, how many stay behind?  And does this mean”, Halrohir said with a rising note in his voice, “that I shall lead the folk east?”

“Nay, my son”, Haladan answered, “a captain has already been appointed.  Galador shall lead the folk east to safety- “

“Galador!  The old gaffer!?”  Halrohir exclaimed.  “He can barely ride, let alone draw a sword!  I know we should respect our elders, father, but in truth, his son, Galafin, would be better suited.”

“Galafin…” Haladan held up his hand for quiet.  “He rides with the Company.  And Galador is wood-crafty even in his greater years.  It is done.”

“Yes, father”, Halrohir said, biting back a retort.

Haladan, Captain of Rangers, looked long and quietly at his son.  Halrohir was reeling from inner torment, it was plain.  His son had long been on a quest to prove himself.  The Trials which established him as a man worthy of the company of Rangers were no more or no less arduous than for anyone else.  Haladan was especially proud that Halbarad, kinsman to Lord Aragorn himself, bestowed the rank upon the young man.  But Halrohir was consumed by the desire to stand out, to be first among equals; not for glory or renown, but to be relied upon and to win valor as the protector and bulwark of the weak, and to be worthy of the honor bestowed upon him; indeed, the young Ranger had told him, “Honor must be purchased daily, lest its worth diminish among Men.”

Haladan motioned for Halrohir to mount.  The two men did so, and rode slowly from the rise and the trees, along a fold in the land, where none could see them.  Reining up to a halt, Haladan spoke once more to Halrohir.

Haladanion, this ride of the Grey Company may be its last.  We ride forth to battle and war, and if all hope comes, we shall stand alongside the Lord Aragorn once more.  Even the brethren, Elladan and Elrohir, shall ride with us.  It was Elrohir for whom you were named, and I think it pleased him to learn that.  Fortune may not favor any of us, and it pains me to think that this may be our final parting.  I am proud of you, my son.  Never forget that for a moment.  Your fortunes will last beyond this war, even if we do not return – but if we do, it will be to a brighter future, and your destiny shall rise with a new kingdom.

“Now, come, let us ride back to your mother.  I daresay, we shall find her in her flowerbed once more, tending her morning rose – what is it, my son?” he said, as he saw Halrohir gave a repressed shudder at the mention of the flower’s name.

“I am not sure, father”, Halrohir answered, distantly, as if in a dream, “but a foresight came upon me – that flower has meaning, some time in the future…"

From the corners of the desolate lands, from the barren moors to the wind-swept downs, they came.  From the darkened forests and the abandoned ruins of the Dike, they came.  The elders, the young, the women, bearing their burdens and their goods, some their entire households, they came.  The last of the proud Kings of Men, the Dunedain, they gathered in families and clans, many together, often alone.  From every haven and hollow they came, bidden by the call out of Imladris; gather and rally, and make for the hidden stronghold of their kinsmen, the Last Homely House.

The place they chose for their trysting was as desolate as the land of their birth, as desolate as their hopes for the future of their kind.  A single great building, a hall and a hostel, standing alone and forsaken against the sky and the wuthering winds, its outer sheds and shanties clustered around like lambs, seeking shelter in their mother’s wool.  The Dunedain gathered in the woods near the buildings, their captains and chiefs meeting in the hall of this place whose name echoed their condition, the Forsaken Inn.

The hall of the tavern was spacious, but poor.  Few had resided or visited here, none in recent months.  To have this many gathered here was a windfall for the family that owned and managed the forlorn place.  Many times, over, the proprietor thanked and showed his gratitude for the Dunedain, and their Rangers who guarded his home; he swore fealty to the Dunedain forever after, vowing that none of their kin would ever be turned away of his hospitality while his line lasted.

The hall boasted a great hearth and fire, large enough to roast an entire ox on its massive iron spit.  Around the flagstones sat or stood the captains of this gathering.  Seated prominently in the center was old Galador, a captain of the Rangers from years past, eldest present and charged with the safety of his folk in this evil hour.  

“Hear me, my kinsmen”, Galador spoke to those nearby, his reedy voice still with a hint of his former steel.  “We have gathered as we have bidden the folk to do.  The Grey Company has departed, for their ride to high doom.  It falls to us to labor as we may, for the safety and the lives of our kin.

“We are few, but we are not without strength and valor.  Those of us who can have ridden far these past days, gathering news and spying out the lands before the folk begin their journey.  Indeed, some of the riders have returned, and bring us news.  Our two youngest, Cormadin and Halrohir, have only just returned from my errand of scouring the East Road.  What they may have found, Halrohir shall report to us.”

Halrohir stood forth, his shadow wavering in the light of the hearth, his cloak and gear stained from travel but himself showing no sign of weariness, hardy as he was in his youth.  Several there noted how much likeness he bore of his father Haladan, who rode with the Grey Company southward.

“The lands about us are silent”, the young Ranger said, “utterly void of sigh or sound.  Naught can be heard save the night-speech of tree and stone.  Heavy the heart would be to ride in this empty land, but for the knowledge that it means no evil is abroad to waylay our people.

“For two days, we rode the great Road east, and returned.  Never a sign of any foe was ours to find.  The land seems, maybe, to hold its breath, as we do, waiting for news from the south.  But our road lies east, and peril waits not for us upon that trail.”

“It is well, for our folk will depart with all haste that can be made”, Galador said.  “In two days’ time, the Dunedain will make as long a march as can be, until night falls.  We move by day, for though our host is not great, it is folly to move such a company in the darkness.  The outriders shall guard us, and watch the skies and the lands.  Now, friends, take what rest and ease you may.  We rise before dawn, to our labor’s head.”  The assembled Rangers took their leave of their captain, some staying and finding food and drink; others retiring to what rest they have.  

Halrohir made his way to the counter, for a plate of bread and a flagon of ale.  As he rested his elbows on the bar and chewed slowly, his thoughts ran free.  The last few days were simple scouting tasks, that anyone could have performed with little effort.  His father had built up the mission to something important enough to stay behind, but nothing of the kind had occurred thus far.  His thoughts came up short as he heard Galador calling him.  Going to the captain’s side, he asked, “What does the Captain wish of me?”

“Sit with me, son of Haladan”, Galador said, and waited until Halrohir was seated by his side.  “I am resigned to my age, Ranger.  This will no doubt be my last effort, in service of kinfolk and duty.  I will rely most heavy upon you, to carry out what tasks need gives.  Be my sinews, young Halrohir, and my voice where I cannot be.  You shall be my lieutenant, for this perilous errand.”

“I shall be yours in all things, my captain”, Halrohir said with bowed head.  Looking up at Galador, he asked, “When ought I to start?”

“Start at what, Ranger?  You’ve already begun.  Others listen to your words, and you do not shrink from your duty.  Those are the qualities of my lieutenant.  Now go, eat and rest – your strength will be needed come the dawn.”

Halrohir rose, and went off to find more food and drink, musing over his fortunes.  Now, he has a chance to earn his honor, win valor for his family and his people.  He was, for tonight, content.

 

Dawn of the next morning rose wan and fitfully over the Forsaken Inn.  The lowering clouds screened what light there was in the morning, giving all a sullen look.  But even under the canopy of cloud, there was great labor in the forests and around the hamlet of buildings that made up the Inn.  The Dunedain were breaking camp; cook fires were few, horses stamped in the mist, and riders mounted to scour the lands once more.

Three great wains assembled outside the Inn, near its spacious paddock, each pulled by mighty horses of great size and strength.  The wains were loaded high with goods and store for the long journey to the foothills of the Misty Mountains.  As the teamsters harnessed their animals, old Galador sat in the board of the first wain, directing everything from his high perch.  But ever and anon, his gaze would travel east, knowing on what errand he had sent forth his young Rangers.  Halrohir had departed before dawn with a party of five others, scouts to blaze a trail along the Road and find the first night’s shelter and camp, and make it ready and secure for the folk on the march.

Galador stood up on the board, looking at last over the assembled people.  In addition to the great wains, there were lesser carts, some pulled by lighter horse, others by hand.  Many were on foot, some mounted.  All who could ride were formed up into two companies; one would ride with the wains, the other would circle the caravan out and away as scouts.  They were few, no more than two hundred, and the riders were a tithe of that strength, but it must serve.  With a wave of his arm, Galador signaled the start of the march.  One by one, the wains moved out, flanked by horsemen and those on foot.  


The flight of the Dunedain had begun.


@-@-@-@-@-

Miles eastward along the Road, six riders had found a place off the path, in a hollow in the land which sheltered from the wind and from prying eyes.  Halrohir set the party to work, gathering wood, clearing brush and making a way for the caravan into the hollow.  One rider he sent back along the Road to advise Galador as to their labor.  As the work went on, Halrohir rode to the crest of a small hill, dismounting before reaching the summit and walking up crouched low, scanning the lands around for signs.

Hard and bare and dreary were the lands beneath his gaze.  Halrohir could see several miles to the south and east from this point; nothing stirred, nothing moved.  He stayed here at this vantage point for some time before descending back to his horse, mounting and hurrying down to the hollow.  The work had progressed well; a good store of bracken and wood stood here now, along with a cleared path cleverly concealed, which would allow access for the folk.

The day wore on, the party taking turns to watch, resting in the cool of the hollow at spaces.  At length, just before sundown, the scout returned, riding fast; the main body of the caravan was approaching, and they knew where to go.  Halrohir bade them build two fires for the start of their comfort, and rode out to meet Galador and report.  Halrohir found Galador seated in the front wain, no trace of weariness of fatigue on the old man.  The first of the three great wains which bore goods, supplies and equipment for the wandering folk.   Before long, the curve of the land showed where the thickets had been thrust aside, clearing a path into the hollow wide enough for each of the wains to enter.  The smell of wood smoke reached Galador, an inviting scent of safety.  The old man looked around at the folds of the land, seeing how well Halrohir had chosen the site, and approved of the young man’s actions.  As he surveyed the place, the sound of swift hooves warned him of a rider’s approach.  After a moment, Halrohir reined up alongside the captain.

“Well chosen, son of Haladan”, Galador said approving.  “Our first camp is ready and secure?”  Halrohir’s smile widened a bit, hiding the man’s weariness from his labors.

“You will find all in order, my lord”, Halrohir answered.  “The watch fires are already lit, and there is chip and bough in plenty for the camp’s need.  I have sent three riders on wide patrol, and the others are guiding the folk here.  The wains can be set there, and the horses tethered in safety.  There is even fodder gathered for their need, as well.   Water is in short supply, however, barely enough for the animals, let alone the people.”

“The wains bear water enough”, Galador said.  “I did not expect to find a spring or well for some time.  As we approach Amon Sul, there will be water in the gullies.  Once the ground begins to rise, we will not see water again until we reach the Last Bridge.  That is my concern, but not for today.  All I require is to get off this miserable board!”  He said as he stretched, groaning, favoring his back.  Halrohir dismounted, and offered a hand to Galador, who waved it away and alighted to the ground, unsteady but standing tall.  

“See to the direction of the wains, son”, Galador said, “and I shall walk on, and see the camp.”  Halrohir nodded, and did as he was bid, ushering the three wagons through the wall of thicket and into the place he and his men had prepared that day.  Following the wains came a stream of carts, wagons, and people on foot, eager to see the end of their march, smelling the smoke from the fires as a welcome destination.  The first leg of the flight of the Dunedain was over.

Halrohir watched patiently as the last of the column of his folk moved into the protective walls of the hollow.  Giving a last look back down the path from the Road, he then passed into the perimeter of the hollow, looking to the makeshift paddock where the horses were being tended to by the drivers and other folk.  He gave his own mount over to the men and boys who were tending the beasts, when he noticed a pair of men, a father and son, wrestling with the last wain and the horse that pulled it.  This made Halrohir stop and really look; each wain had a team of great horses to pull them, but this one had only one horse, a beast of a size and build that he had never seen in his life.  The great horse, black with a shaggy mane, stood taller than the tallest Ranger, its legs long as a normal man is tall, rippling muscles beneath its dark hide, the hooves larger than a booted man’s foot, blacker still than the hide.

“Surely, this lone beast did not pull that wain alone!?”  Halrohir asked the drivers.

“He surely did, my lord”, the lad said as he removed the harnesses from the horse.  “Blackfoot here is the strongest horse there is!  Only he could master this wagon without aid. There is no other working horse like him!”

“My son speaks out of youth, Ranger,” the man said as he moved around from the other side of the great horse, “but he is right.  Blackfoot needs no other to help him.  He bore this burden all day today, and look at him – hardly winded, not lathered or straining.  No other horse is his equal for strength.”

Halrohir agreed silently with the two.  Blackfoot was the single most magnificent horse he had laid eyes upon.  The sheer power in the animal’s body was no boast of the two handlers.  He looked closer at the great beast, and examined his eyes.  The eyes were strange, as well:  bright, intelligent, they regarded the Ranger with an unblinking gaze, as curious of the man as the man was of the horse.

Halrohir took his gaze away from the horse with some effort, nodded to the man and boy and walked on, to find a small group sitting near one of the bonfires.  A pot of stew sat warming over the coals.  Gratefully, he accepted a steaming bowl someone handed him and sat on the grass to eat, a cough alerting him to the approach of Galador, who grunted as he sat next to him.

“You did well today, my boy”, he said to Halrohir.  “Tomorrow, Cormadin shall lead the quartering party, as you did today.  Your task will be to guard the caravan as we move out.  Get some rest tonight, for I hope tomorrow is as restless for you as it was busy today.”

“As you wish, Captain”, Halrohir said.  As he ate, his gaze kept moving about, from the group around the fire, to the people making bedding for the night, and then back to the line of horses near the wains…

“Ah, so you met him, have you?”  Galador asked, amused.

“What do you mean?”  Halrohir said.

“The great black stallion, there”, the old Ranger said.  “There are legends and tales passed around between every knowing tongue, save the one that knows the true tale.”

“And who might that be?”

“Why, me, of course!”  Galador laughed.  “Some say Blackfoot is half dragon, because of his size and power.  Others have thought he was a horse of the Elves, fed with some eldritch virtue.  Still others, that he is no more than a bewitched dumb animal with a brutish brain in its oversized skull.  Though some of them strike near the mark, none are the true story.”

“How could it be, that such an animal of wonder”, Halrohir thought aloud, “is kept harnessed to wagons and plows?  Surely such a great horse should be a knight’s steed?”


“Well, there’s more of the tale to that”, Galador said, as he brought forth a skin and drank from it, offering it to Halrohir; the young Ranger accepted it, and took a long pull of weak watered wine.  He handed the skin back to the old captain, who began his tale.

“Nigh on ten years ago”, Galador began, “word came to us of a party of the Elves out of Imladris, that had been waylaid coming over the High Pass.  A party of Rangers rode out at once, thinking that if we could not save the fair riding, we would at least disturb their attackers’ looting.  When we arrived, it was as we feared:  the Elven party had been ambushed, but some survived, holding out in a cave where they could at least hold off the attacks.  We fell upon their rear and scattered them, and tended the living and the dead.

“The Eldar had suffered losses, but all that was left of their animals was one horse, a great black stallion, which was carrying the load of four normal horses.  None of us had ever seen the like of him before!  Well, we rescued them, and brought them to Imladris directly, and in gratitude, they gave us a gift:  the black stallion, which you see there”, he said, pointing toward the giant figure of Blackfoot.

“So, he is an Elven-steed!” Halrohir said.  “A most worthy animal, but if that’s true, why does he not have a rider, and a harness worthy of him?”

“That’s the problem, you see”, Galador continued, “The great beast will suffer no man to ride him!  Perhaps it is his Elven treatment, or something else, but no man yet has mounted him, let alone ride.  But, the Elves told me the tale of how they came by him:

“Long ago, this very horse was foaled in Rohan, in the dales of the Eastfold near the waters of the Onodlo, the Entwash that comes from Fangorn Forest.  Ah, I see you know the stories”, he said, seeing Halrohir’s reaction to the name, “and they’re all deserved.  The waters of the Entwash have a virtue even the Eldar do not fully understand.  This horse, it is said, was drowned and drawn forth from the river's source, and that virtue permeated his very being.  There can be no greater horse than he, for no other beast has been drowned in those mysterious waters.  From Rohan, he found his way to Lorien, and the Eldar husbanded his strength, and made good use of him as a draft animal, all this time.”

Halrohir was lost in the tale, his eyes riveted on the mighty shadow of the black horse.  “So that explains all; an enchanted steed, which even the Elves might not ride.  But surely”, he said to Galador, “the Elven virtue with all good beasts would – “

“None have ridden him, neither Elf nor Man”, Galador said.  “And if that horse has his will, none shall.  He is content enough to be led about, and allowed to run free, and he seems to relish testing his strength to its limits.  You see how he hauled that great wain, alone, an entire march?  That is nothing to Blackfoot – Halrohir?  Where are you… Halrohir!”  Galador called, as he watched the young Ranger stand and walk, heedless of all else, toward the horse tethers, and slowly approached the place where Blackfoot stood.

Halrohir now looked at the giant horse up close, in a new light.  There could be no doubt.  The sheer size and power of this stallion made him the greatest any there would ever know, surely the mightiest horse in all the lands of the North-Kingdom of old.  Fully twenty-three hands high, only a Dunadan could hope to mount him unaided.  Strength and vitality flowed along his flanks; his barrel chest drew deep breaths that echoed in his lungs.  When he pawed the earth, one could feel the slight tremor of the hooves that bore the massive weight.  But to Halrohir, it was the eyes that made more difference.  There was intelligence there; a will that passed beyond the mute thought of animal and beast.

Cautiously, he walked closer to Blackfoot; the horse regarded the man with interest.  Seeing a barrel of fodder at hand, Halrohir reached in and plucked out an apple.  Tentatively, he held the fruit out at arms’ length, as an offer to the great horse.  Slowly, the muzzle swung toward the hand, sniffed, and accepted the apple, downing it with one crunching bite of his jaws.  Halrohir smiled, watching the muzzle swing closer once more.

“You wish for more?”  he said to Blackfoot.  Smiling, he found two more apples, and held one out in his palm, closer than before, taking a bite of the second in his other hand.  Blackfoot took the offered apple, downing it as before, and then looking expectantly at the apple in Halrohir’s hand.  

“Your hunger matches your size, Blackfoot”, Halrohir said.  Offering the half-eaten apple to the horse.  He looked into the beast’s eyes, now fully alert to the man’s closeness, trusting the presence of the newcomer.  Halrohir looked over the horse from front to back, and his gaze held on the great hooves.

“I see where your name came from, great one”, he said, seeing the huge hooves shod with iron, and hair from the legs hanging down like the hide of boots.  “Those are the largest feet I’ve seen in one of your kind.  Huge, dark feet… yes.”  The thought came to Halrohir right then.  “That’s it, that’s what it’s been all along.  Blackfoot is your name among Men, but in the Elven-tongue, it’s more noble.”  Halrohir moved toward the horse, which stood utterly still, his ears twitching, listening to his voice.

Halrohir said softly, “I know your name.  An Elven name, for a horse with great feet that match his heart.  Black Foot."

Morindal...”  Halrohir said.

The horse’s reaction took Halrohir by surprise, as well as all others who were near.  The stallion threw his head back, and let forth a thunderous neigh, a blast like a heraldic horn sounding a charge.  All who heard that cry started at its volume; some sprang to their feet, thinking the camp was under attack.  But though the others heard only the horse’s mighty cry, Halrohir heard something far different; for to his ears the horse’s voice bore a sound of pure joy.

The commotion in the camp died down, after all was assured there was no cause for an alarm.  The horse’s handlers tried to rebuke Halrohir for disturbing the animals, but quickly stopped in wonder when they saw how close the young Ranger stood to the giant beast, which scared off anyone coming close with a deep snorting “Whuff!”  Indeed, the horse suffered no hand to touch him that night, or the next morning, save the hand of Halrohir alone, who was compelled to harness and rig the wain to the great beast, all under the watchful, thoughtful and silent gaze of the horse that now answered to the name of Morindal.

The camp in the hollow began stirring even as the eastern sky began to brighten.  As soon as there was light enough to see, the Dunedain began to break camp in the cold mists that sank to the bottom of the hollow.  Only a few fires burned in the fog, for there was only fire for need, not for comfort.  The folk were busy packing bedrolls and blankets and furs, stowing gear and equipment, and readying the draft animals for the day’s trek.

A party of six riders once more made ready to ride out first, the quartering party that Halrohir had led the day before; today, Cormadin rode in the van, to scour the road before them.  Cormadin sought out his friend before he set out, and found Halrohir struggling with the hitching of the great wain, trying alone to harness the wagon to Blackfoot, who would now let no one else close.  Even Cormadin, as used to horses as any of the Rangers, pulled up short when the dark beast snorted defiance as he approached.

“Well, what manner of work have you found for yourself?” Cormadin asked wryly.  “Have a care, Halrohir – Blackfoot has been known to eat whatever he can reach, so watch out for your cloak, it looks tasty to him, I wager!”

“Better a tasty cloak than tasteless words, eh?”  Halrohir laughed as he succeeded in getting the harness secure around the horse’s great torso.  “The least you may have done would be to lend a hand with the labor – or why do you delay your riding out?”

“Can I not spare a few precious minutes with one whom might miss me when I leave?”  Cormadin laughed in turn.  He and Halrohir had endured the Trials of the Rangers together, and had been fast friends for much of their young lives.  Once more, he tried to approach, and came up short to the towering threat of a snorting black horse.

“It would seem”, Cormadin said, “that this one will let none close to him - or you, perhaps?  Maybe he protects you…”

“You are being foolish, friend”, Halrohir said as he emerged from behind the horse’s bulk.  “At least my task is done, and this great horse is ready – see to your own mount, and perhaps it will run as quick as your wits!”  Smiling at the jests, the two men looked at each other, and then seriously nodded in parting, and Cormadin moved off to mount his own horse and lead the quartering party.  Halrohir watched his friend ride off, then turned to finish up what remained of harnessing Blackfoot, and to his surprise, the horse was also watching the others ride off, a silent but thoughtful look to his eyes.

“I have heard of how you suffer none to ride you, great thing”, Halrohir said to the horse, leaning close as he finished the harness knots.  “Do I see you desire to run with the others, with a heroic and furious charge?”  Blackfoot turned his head and nudged the young Ranger.

“Maybe someday, pulling weights will not be your work, if the right rider comes along – but it seems to me you’ve waited a long time”, Halrohir said.  “There, your harness is ready for a long day’s dragging.  Let me get you moving”.  Halrohir climbed aboard the wagon and with a flick of one rein, drove the wain to the loading area where Galador stood with the others.

“About time you got that wain ready, young one!  We are late in starting”, Galador scolded.  “What, the black did not allow anyone but you to touch him?  So told Cormadin, I think he’s scared off for now, so find your own mount and quickly!”  Halrohir gave the wain over to the two drovers, and hurriedly sought out his own horse.  To his surprise, the horse stood already saddled; Cormadin was waving on the rise above the camp, then turned away.  Halrohir smiled at his friend’s thoughtfulness.  

Halrohir then heard a low horn call:  the ride of the Dunedain was about to resume.  He fell in with the column of wains, carts and wagons, at the front of the column with Galador, waiting for the old Ranger’s orders.  Galador was silent for a good long while, as the morning went on.  The sun, which had been directly in their eyes when they started, had climbed now to that they could march without shading their eyes.  

“Halrohir…” Galador said, “order two of your fellows to ride a furlong ahead – there is fog up ahead, or my eyes water.”

Halrohir nodded, and motioned for two Rangers to ride forward.  After a few moments, one of them could be seen riding back swiftly, halting near the wagon.  “This is not fog, but smoke – Cormadin has found a wagon, pillaged and left to burn.  No bodies were with it, and whatever goods were aboard have been taken, save for this!”  He held up a torn and slashed cloak of thin weaving.

“Someone tried to do as we do, flee along the Road”, Galador said, “Whatever of value they had is gone, but we know a few things.  This wagon was attacked by a group of someone, they were not defended as well as we are, and they paid dearly for their passage across the fens.”

“Should we not make these ruffians pay dearly for their goods in turn, captain?”  Halrohir asked.

“Haste will ruin us all, Ranger”, Galador.  “Especially such rashness as you propose.  I can tell one thing of this rag:  it is that which was worn by those who are not defenseless.  For behold!”  He draped the cloak over his shoulders; the hem barely covered them, not even reaching the buckboard of the wagon.

“A Dwarf wore this cloak, Halrohir”, Galador explained, “and Dwarves never go unarmed.  Whatever attacked them, was armed, and doubly as well, for them to be taken by ambush or assault.  Cormadin will tell us more, since he is at the wagon wreck, reading unspoiled marks; he will report as time permits.  For now, ride to the back of the column, and see to the rearguard, then report to me.”

Halrohir took this rebuttal and dismissal, and rode back along the Road feeling rebuffed for his willingness to attack.  As he thought, he realized he knew not who to attack or where – but the marks would reveal them – then, Cormadin would see them first, and know from where the attackers came.  He bit his tongue, and rode away.

Later that day after a long march and ride, Halrohir was once more riding next to Galador when a rider of the quartering party approached them.  “Cormadin has found a dell where the people may lie hid for one night.  Fuel is scarce, so is water, and he has had to forage long for fuel; but there is grass enough for the mounts.  There is little hiding to be had, as we had last night, but the entrance can be concealed easily enough.”

“Well done, Ranger”, Galador said, “guide us as you can.  Halrohir, send the word back across the column:  little fuel, some water, the mounts and livestock can graze, but we must be watchful tonight.”  Halrohir and the other Ranger nodded, and rode off to their errands.  Presently the dell came in sight.

Cormadin had done well, Halrohir thought to himself, the second camp was little less than the first; though lacking in certain comforts.  A call from one of the wains brought him around to see where Blackfoot would, once again, allow no one to approach him to remove the harnesses for the wagon.  So Halrohir dismounted, handed his horse over to a lad who worked on its saddle, and approached the great black steed.  Upon seeing Halrohir, the black stopped shying and pawing the earth, and became docile, allowing Halrohir to complete the task of unharnessing him.

“Your burden is double, Ranger”, smiled the drover of the wains, “but we can help you by unsaddling your mount in exchange.  I wonder if we might help you, if you are near enough to Blackfoot.”  The effort was only partially successful, as the great black kept moving and would not stand still.  

Halrohir had a sudden inspiration:  he leaned close to the horse and whispered in the Elven-tongue: dartho le, Morindal, gwain mellon nin, tol-lin vin*; the horse became more relaxed and allowed the others near enough to help.

“Well done, Ranger, I think this walking appetite likes you,” the drover said.  Halrohir completed the task quicker than before with help, and once again, after seeing to his own food, came back and saw once again the truth in the drover's words:  the great black accepted every offer of fodder given him by Halrohir's hand.

"Well done again this day... Morindal", Halrohir whispered to the horse, who nodded his head several times at the mention of the secret name.  "This cannot be your destiny or fate, just as watching a slow-moving caravan all day and night.  How I long to be in contest and combat, proving my worth not just with tests of strength - why, even you do, I think!"

The black horse called Morindal simply pressed his muzzle against Halrohir's outstretched arm, and said nothing.

* Hold, Blackfoot, my new friend, our time will come soon

The days began to blend into a long numbing routine for the Dunedain, not just from the damp and cold, but from the seemingly endless repeat of the days and nights as the leagues wore away.  The camp would rise before dawn, break before the sun climbed over the edge of the world, and the march would continue until the sun sank behind them and their shadows pointed the way to their next camp.  Each day, six Rangers would ride forth before the caravan, scouting out the road before them and finding the next bivouac of the night.  The same six would not ride two days together, but would switch their tasks back and forth between the van and the rearguard.  Halrohir led one day’s ride, Cormadin the next, back and forth in rhythm, husbanding their strength.

Since the encounter with the ruined Dwarvish wagon on the second day’s march, all had been quiet, the land falling into deeper silence and watchfulness.  Cormadin had reported that the marks around the burned wain were that of heavy booted feet, and peppered by discarded gear: some from the hapless Dwarves, but others of cast-off daggers and leather straps, broken through overuse.  The first guesses regarding the nature of the attackers, that of Orcs, were quickly disproven upon the discovery of a dead man south of the Road, a ruffian of swarthy and sallow skin and face.

Since that day, Galador had ordered the routine be strictly adhered to for mounting a night watch and the daytime scouts.  None traveled away from the main body of the caravan unless in pairs.  Any incident, no matter how small, was to be reported at once to himself, Halrohir or Cormadin.  And each evening’s halt was the same, cold with few fires and small even then.  Not that there was any lack of fuel, for the thickets and scrub south of the Road provided enough; but many fires would reveal themselves to prying dangerous eyes.

It was on the evening of the seventh day of the march that the folk halted within sight of a line of hills, the end of which was a single mound of rock with a flat peak.  Galador bade Cormadin, who was manning the rearguard this day, approach the lead wain as Halrohir could be seen riding quickly toward them.  The three Rangers held a hasty council at the buckboard.

“The quartering party has found a hidden dell to the south of the Road”, Halrohir said as he reigned up.  “There is much in the way of fuel, not just bracken and brush, but good wood for fire.  And best of news, there is a spring, a small freshet actually, flowing clean and sweet between the stones.  Filling skins and casks will be slow going, but a task worth the effort.”

“What of fodder for the beasts?” Cormadin asked.

“Not in the dell itself”, Halrohir answered, “but we can quarter the draft animals and other beasts in a second dell close by, where there is better grass.  Even so, we may have to use some of the stored fodder…”

“Not unless the need arises”, Galador said.  “We have all the miles of Eriador before us, and the fodder must be made to last.  We are already moving too slow; that hill there, as you both know, is Weathertop, a five-day journey alone on foot, four by horse; even our slow caravan should only have taken six days, but here we are, the end of seven.  And from Weathertop it is, I expect, a fortnight to the Ford of Loudwater. 

“Also, recall the rides we made not three months past, at the bidding of Aragorn and those out of Rivendell.  We combed the lands from Loudwater to Tharbad, up and down the Greyflood, and deep into the Wild, hunting for tidings of the servants of Sauron.  Even though we found no trace or rumor of the Enemy, the lands of the North remain under a dread of silence.  And forget not the battle that Mithrandir himself fought with the Nine on the summit of Weathertop!  I trust not the Road; therefore we must keep to our discipline.”

“Captain, it has been seven days’ march, and some of the folk grow weary,” Cormadin said.  “Though none speak openly, the toll on the very old and very young is telling. If the road is quiet, as you deem, would not one night’s comfort in the wilderness go far in bringing spirits up?”

“We must not break discipline, as the captain says,” Halrohir said.  “It would be rash indeed to reveal ourselves to watching eyes.”  He glanced at Galador, remembering the elder man’s rebuke a few days ago.

Galador let the remark pass.  “See to the passage of the wains to the camp, Halrohir.  Cormadin, pass the word to the folk:  the camp has fodder and fresh water, collect as much wood as they can for the march ahead.  Tonight, they may make fires, but only for cooking; everyone gets a hot meal, as much as can be contrived.  But let there be one greater council fire in the most concealed part of the camp, your choice of location.  There, we shall take counsel as to our next plans.”  Both young Rangers nodded, and headed off to their tasks.

When the two others had gone, Galador stood wearily in the buckboard, stretching his cramping legs.  Seven days of march, and they had yet to reach the Weather Hills.  The beasts could graze.  The wains carried food and water for the folk, but only enough to reach Bruinen with care.  Once past Weathertop, water sources became less likely to find.  And he did not wish to spend even a night in the sight of the hilltop, exposed as they would be to any watcher on the heights.  The captain had to choose, and choose wisely, his course for the coming days ahead.

Swiftly, the Dunedain caravan found its way to the protected dell south of the East Road.  Galador directed all from his perch upon the lead wain, seeing the camp rise quickly while the sun set in the west.  Fires glowed in the gathering gloam from several points, cookfires to both satisfy the empty bellies of the folk, and to provide at least some comfort in the cold and damp of the night.  The draft and pack animals were tethered in the dell just next to the camp, under a watchful guard.

In the center of the dell stood a scrub oak of no great size, but it served as a gathering place for the leaders of the march.  Around the ring of the fire gathered the Rangers who remained behind, the guard of the Dunedain on their lonely trek.  In the place of honor sat Galador, warming his feet and joints in the welcome fire; Halrohir sat on his right hand, Cormadin on his left.  Also there was Ercolindo, another Ranger who had passed the Trials a year before, and Angbrand his kinsman.  Gathered round these were youths who were enduring the Trials but had not yet earned the name of Ranger, but who still guarded their folk, such was this desperate straight.  Four of their number were not present, having been sent to keep watch over the dell and the animals nearby.

“Our situation is not grave yet, Rangers, but still not all is well,” Galador said as the voices stilled.  “We are not moving as swiftly as need demands; we already should have put the Weather Hills behind us, and yet here we are.  The month of February has passed, and it is already the first of March.  The days are lengthening, but the nights are still chill and the mornings damp.  The weather may not hold, for the spring rains will turn to mud the paths we may be forced to take.

“We have had no sign or rumor of threat since the encounter five days ago. We cannot gamble on our folk being unseen or unfollowed for much longer.  And I do not trust the Road, especially not within sight of Weathertop.  Therefore, I purpose to leave the Road but still march east, under the cover of the thickets and rolling lands to the south.”

“Master, that way will see much slower speed, and traveled with much toil,” Cormadin spoke up, “and man and beast will be wearied all the quicker.  At least by the Road, our strength will be husbanded for the leagues ahead.”

 “Nonetheless, that is the path we must take,” Galador said.  “At the very least, I would avoid the view of the hills for as much as can be done.  It may delay the march for a day longer, but the southern path will aid us to the goal.”

At this point Halrohir spoke. “Captain, there is another way.  You say you do not wish to be seen from Weathertop by unfriendly eyes?  Then what of our own eyes, instead?  Let a trio of Rangers ride to the hills, and spy out the road ahead from our own watchtower.  We can gather news, report back to the caravan, and secure the hill so that spies might not take to advantage the heights and the commanding view.”  Several nodded and murmured in agreement.


Ercolindo also added, “That would also allow for perhaps a day to rest the folk and the beasts, gather more food and fuel and water, and be all the stronger when the reports come from the scouts.”

Galador was silent for a moment, considering the ideas while absently scratching the dirt with a stick from the fire.  At length he declared, “Those are wise words, not to be dismissed so quickly.  Then we shall consider this: we shall, as Halrohir suggests, send scouts tomorrow to the hills, while the folk make ready for the day’s work.  But we shall not let the people sit idle; as I have said, we must quicken the pace while the weather is in our favor and unfriendly eyes seem turned away.  Cormadin leads the quartering party tomorrow, so he shall also scout the hills; let two more riders accompany him.  Halrohir and Ercolindo shall safeguard the caravan.  Angbrand, you shall be charged with gathering as much fuel as the wains and beasts will carry. 

“Cormadin, I shall be expecting word from you before we reach camp tomorrow evening.  Look round you from the summit, north, east and south.  I would know anything you see or hear, even in the slightest.  For now, I want everyone to take their rest, get as much as you can for tomorrow.”  With that, the council broke, many turning to their bedrolls and meager fires.  Only Halrohir and Ercolindo remained at Galador’s side.

“How now, Rangers,” Galador said, “you would say more?”

“Captain, Ercolindo and I spoke about this,” Halrohir said, “and we both agree that it might be wise to keep the folk here for one day.  As Cormadin observed, many are weary, and are not as hardy as we who withstood the Trials.  That would give me – I mean, us – the chance to gain more sight at Weathertop.”

“So, you expected to ride to the summit, eh?” Galador said wryly.  “You made the quartering today, it is now your turn to rest while guarding the march.  Cormadin makes the ride tomorrow.  That is my word.”

Seeing that Galador would not be moved, both young Rangers stood and took their leave.  Once they were out of hearing, Ercolindo rounded on Halrohir, his voice tight with concealed anger.

“You just had to slip up, didn’t you?” Ercolindo hissed.  “Your precious glory hunting, wanting to be the one who selflessly rode to Weathertop like Lord Aragorn did in the fall.  When does it end, Halrohir?  Valor and glory are not prizes to be won at a village faire!  And now, the folk will be marched again with no rest, and you cost them that day I asked for!”

“You’re right about one thing, Ranger,” Halrohir answered.  “Valor and glory are not the goals themselves, they are but the clothing on the body.  The deeds that earn them are what come first.  Now, perhaps we didn’t get all we asked for, but at least now we have our scouts on Weathertop, and a better idea of the lay of the land, except for jumping only a day at a time, like Galador insists.”

“So, that was your plan all along,” Ercolindo said, “to get a better eye on the land?”


“Indeed it was,” Halrohir said.  “Galador is trying to be cautious and hasty at the same time.  He wants the folk to move at their best pace, but by leaping like frogs in a marsh from pad to pad.  He can’t do both, and neither can the company.  But I shall take a small compromise and better our situation today, hoping for a larger share tomorrow.”


Ercolindo looked at the younger Ranger, and smiled.  “I see now why you were chosen as lieutenant of the company. You are as persuasive as your father, and can get things accomplished.  I take my leave, so should you.”  And he turned away with a nod. 

 

 

Halrohir stood with his back to the camp’s fires, his eyes gazing up at the star-strewn night sky.  A half-moon rose just over the edge of the east.  No clouds blocked the stars, and only a slight night breeze sighed in the thicket.  And his thoughts wandered over the words of the council.  Once again, it rankled him that others would ride where he should be, earning praise by the fireside.  But Ercolindo’s words encouraged him.

Torn between his thoughts, Halrohir walked over the lip of the dell and down to the next where the makeshift paddock squatted in the night, the animals and draft beasts resting or moving in the dark.  He was challenged and passed by two of the younger guards around the dell, who went on their way.  He first looked for his own chestnut mount, Bregedur, and saw that he had at least a blanket and fodder at the ready.  But then, almost against his will, his eyes turned to the far side of the dell where stood a huge black form like a carven statue, steam rising from his hide in the cool night air, his breath coming like smoke from his nostrils.  He walked slowly toward the place where the great black stallion stood, first taking an apple from the fodder barrel.

Mara maure, Morindal, sen mae nin?*”  Halrohir asked the mighty horse.  Morindal swung his head toward him, nudging him as if in reply or greeting.  Halrohir offered the fruit to Morindal, who crunched into it eagerly and butted the Ranger for more.

Halrohir chuckled, “You truly are an appetite with legs, as I was warned.  What a pair we might make,“ he said as he stroked the horse’s mane.  “We both hunger; you for food, and my fodder is renown.  You know, I shall make you a wager, just you and I:  if we see through these troubled days and this journey of ours, I shall work to free you from this plowman’s life you lead, and you and I shall ride across the moors to adventures.  What say you, Morindal?”

All was quiet for a moment, but then Morindal swung his head away from Halrohir, his neck stretching, as if pointing off to the distance.  The huge nostrils took in air like a forge’s bellows, then blew out with a great “Whuff!”  The black stallion began pawing the earth in the direction he looked, which Halrohir realized was back at the main camp.  There were shouts and a ringing clash of steel on steel.  The camp was under attack.

Then the horses in the rest of the paddock began screaming and bolting.  Halrohir drew his sword and moved toward a small bush, crouching down.  In the fitful evening gloom he could see the shadows of figures moving amongst the horses, releasing them and sending them scattering in panic.  As two of the shadows approached him, he rose up and slashed swiftly with a backhanded cut, felling one of them.  The second had a blade drawn, but the fight was over in a few seconds with Halrohir’s longer sword.

The young Ranger looked around in the gloom, and saw that most of the horses had bolted, even Bregedur was gone.  Only a few braying mules remained, their cries adding to the chaos of noise.  He searched around the paddock, and came upon the two young Rangers who were watching the animals; both lay on the grass with their throats cruelly slashed.  The sounds from the camp were growing louder; cries of men and women rang out in the night, and the fires had blazed up to light the battle. 

Halrohir froze for a moment, staring down at the dead men around him, the two attackers and the two Dunedain.  He had never before taken life by his own hand.  The shock of realization overcame him for a moment then, as if a fire of his own had blazed forth.  His people were waylaid and he, as their guardian, was not there!  But how could he even the odds, let alone put them in his favor?  Then it came to him…

Halrohir ran back to Morindal’s side, and cut the tether rope with one stroke.  Realizing the great draft horse had no saddle or harness, he scrambled up onto the stallion’s back and sat in “elf-fashion” upon him.  If the great black felt the weight of the young man, he did not show it.  Nor did he shy or try to throw him off; Morindal was allowing a rider at long last.

“There is battle and death before us, my friend,” Halrohir cried.  “After this night, you shall be Blackfoot no more.  Si noro lim, Morindal, col lim i dagor!**” And at those words, the great black horse reared and gave out a clarion call with his great voice, and powerful legs drove into the turf, propelling horse and rider towards the light of the camp.

@-@-@-@-@-

The camp was burning.  As the council fire had begun to burn low, and the other scattered fires did as well, sudden screams rent the night air.  The Dunedain were under attack from unseen foes in the dark as daggers and blades bit into cloth and flesh.  How many the attackers numbered was not seen at first; nor did the Rangers stop to count as sword flashed from sheath and arrow flew in the dim light.  At the first shout of trouble, Cormadin and Ercolindo were the first to respond as they stood back to back, blades flashing in a deadly dance.  Angbrand rallied several of the Dunedain who, though not Rangers, could still wield weapons, and formed a wall around women and children.  And even Galador, bent with age as he was, caused the fires to blaze into bonfires for light for the defense as he bent and knocked his bow, letting fly at any target he found.

But the attackers steadily gained the upper hand.  Angbrand and several of his fighters fell to the raiders as they stood at their places.  Cormadin had only just finished off a raider with a spear when an arrow struck his leg from behind, sending him to the ground in pain.  With the women defenseless, the raiders set to abducting several, beheading two who resisted, and were dragging one young girl away from the firelight, screaming for help.

It was at that moment that a thunderous inhuman sound rang out from the top of the dell.  All eyes turned and beheld the sight of a huge shadowy form silhouetted against the night sky, outlined by the firelight.  A dark rider upon a giant horse towered over the scene, then descended at a trot, then a canter, then a full-on charge toward the raiders who threatened the womenfolk.  The rider held a longsword out at neck level, cloak billowing in the wind of the horse’s speed like the wings of a black bat, the giant steed’s breath snorting from his muzzle like the plume of a fiery dragon.  For indeed, some of the raiders shrieked in horror at what they thought was in truth a dragon come to devour them, even as they were ridden down and slain, whether by the slash of the speeding blade or the crushing weight of the stallion slamming them into the earth.

Halrohir and Morindal smashed into the raiders at a near gallop, his sword biting into the eyes and heads of any who stood in their way.  The onslaught of the dark rider broke the raiders into small groups running this way and that, pursued eagerly by the Rangers who had rallied at the oncoming attack.  Halrohir circled the encampment, hunting his foes and riding them to the ground as he found them.  Morindal huffed great gouts of vapor and screamed now and again in that deep-throated neigh, the terror of his coming as biting as the sword his rider bore.   

As quickly as the fight had started, it was over.  Fires burned in at least a dozen places.  Bodies lay all about the camp.  Women and children cried, wounded men groaned where they lay, or tried to stand to help others who were less hurt.  At the place where the council fire lit the camp, Halrohir dismounted and came to stand in the light, Morindal just behind him cropping the grass, Ercolindo standing by him.  Cormadin limped into the circle using a spear haft as a cane.  After a few moments Angbrand appeared, his head swathed in a bloody bandage and his left arm wrapped to his chest.

“How many have we lost, who has made a count yet?” Ercolindo asked.

“We can’t know, not in the dark with the enemy close by,” Cormadin said.  “We might wait for the dawn, though it’s far off yet…”

“No, we cannot wait for any reason,” Halrohir said.  “Let the watchfires burn bright tonight, since the enemy already knows we’re here, there is little point in hiding.  Bring all the animals that remain to this side of the dell, we can’t afford to split our guard.  Hopefully, when the day comes, we can recover the horses, or some of them.”

“Halrohir…” said a weak reedy voice from behind.  The Rangers turned to see Galador, slumped in the shadows against the scrub tree, clutching at his shoulder.  A knife protruded from his chest, his tunic soaked in blood.

“Galador!  Captain, we didn’t see you!”  Halrohir cried as the others gathered round their leader as well.  “Lie still, and let us tend you.  Ercolindo, fetch Glaemad the wisewoman, she can help if she isn’t already busy!”

“Listen… to me, Ranger,” Galador gasped as he clutched Halrohir’s hand.  “Lead the folk… to Rivendell… that is your charge… let the others work your bidding…” he sucked in his breath in pain.  Glaemad had come while he was talking, and began treating the old man’s terrible wound.

“What can you tell us, lady?”  Halrohir asked.

“Leave me to work, and I’ll tell you when I know,” the wisewoman growled, “and don’t ask the obvious answers!  Rangers!” she spat in scorn, “The best of you rode south-away, and you lot are here, and the cursed ones will get by with us paying for the fare!”

The men drew away from the woman, knowing full well her meaning and reason for her anger.  They retreated to the council fire, standing silently watching the flames for a moment, then Cormadin spoke.

“Galador has fallen, and many of us were injured.  The captain’s words were plain.  Halrohir my friend, we look to you.  But if you accept my counsel, we should listen to Galador’s command, and move the folk tomorrow from this place.  We know not if there are more raiders about, and as we’ve seen, we cannot easily defend this place.”

“How can we move anywhere,” Ercolindo said, “if the horses are missing!  And the count I have is grim news: of the twenty-one Rangers who began the march, three are dead, six are wounded, and two of those are too hurt to ride.  We are left with but sixteen to guard twelve score of our folk who can still make the trek!”

“And worse is the damage the raiders have wrought,” Angbrand joined in.  “One of the three supply wains burned, though the loss of goods and stores is less than feared; quick work by the drovers unloaded the wreck before it burned.  Even so, the load must be spread out to those who may not be able to bear up.”

Halrohir through all this was silent, staring into the fire.  His quest for renown and responsibility was complete, with the mantle of leadership flung upon his shoulders.  Only now did he realize the weight of that mantle.  The doom of all the Dunedain rested with him now, and the bitter words of Glaemad bored into his heart. 

Decide, he thought, you must decide!  Adar will judge you if you fail.  Nay, all the people will judge you. Not only must you save them, you must lead them.  How, Adar, how?

Halrohir hung his head with his burden, but then nearly pitched forward into the fire.  Morindal had stepped closer, and nudged him with his muzzle.  He looked up into the horse’s eyes, flickering in the firelight, watching him with a steady gaze.  Steady and strong the horse stood by him, as if expecting the young Ranger to honor his promise.  The great black Elven-steed understood Halrohir’s words, and considered it as a pact, that he would honor in turn.  All these thoughts went through Halrohir's mind in a flash, and his resolve steeled.  He turned back to the fire, and slowly rose to his full height.

“Our first thought,” Halrohir declared, “must be to our folk.  The wounded must be tended, the terrified comforted.  We must learn how many of our folk are still able to make the journey, and Ercolindo shall tell us.”  Ercolindo nodded.

“Next, we must leave this place, for it truly cannot be defended again,” he went on.  “The folk must be roused at dawn, and take stock of our situation at first light.  We shall move again before noon, and make a shorter march to another camp.  We make for Weathertop – not to scout it, but to occupy it.  Yes, you heard me,” he said to the surprised Rangers, “we shall march on Amon Sul and stand fast there.  The people shall hold the hill and the land nearby, the most defensible place and highest ground for leagues in every direction.  There we shall rest and recover, and scout out our routes properly before committing ourselves to daily toiling in the bracken.  Now all of you, there shall be little chance for sleep tonight.  Too much work remains.  Ercolindo and I shall inspect our folk and our equipment.  Cormadin and Angbrand shall allow the women to tend their injuries, for they shall be needed – indeed, we all shall be in the days ahead.  Eat now, and gird yourselves to our labors.”  The others nodded, and the Ranger leaders each went about the tasks which lay ahead.

* Good Evening, Blackfoot, is it well with you?

** Now run for me, Blackfoot, carry me to battle!

Halrohir spoke the truth, for no one slept any more that night.  The watchfires burned bright and gave light enough to work until the dawn began brightening the eastern sky.  The encampment was alive with quiet but purposeful work, everything from gleaning supplies scattered about, to tending the wounded and the dead, salvaging all that could be saved, and scouting out the land nearby for traces of the foe and, more importantly, the missing animals.

Ercolindo reported that few had been slain, though the cost in wounded was high.  As he said that night, three Rangers had fallen, and two were too hurt to ride, one of them being Angbrand.  Cormadin, though wounded, could still ride and insisted on doing so.  Of the twelve-score of Dunedain folk, ten were slain, and a score or more injured, but none badly.  The wise women tended them with such skills as they possessed, but they quickly ran short of every healing herb and poultice they had.  Halrohir sought to aid them by dispatching a pair of healers, protected by a pair of Rangers, to gather what medicines they could.

But it was Galador who was too badly wounded to even think of moving him, so said Glaemad the wisewoman.  He slept fitfully, though the blade was removed and the wound staunched.

“Can he not be placed on one of the wains, and travel in at least some comfort?” Halrohir asked.

“Not likely, no,” Glaemad said crossly, “what do you think ‘cannot be moved’ means?  Your friend Ercolindo was right to think we should stay a day longer, but it’s plain to see you wish to move all the people, and risk the wounded – “

“We risk them all, if we don’t move on,” Halrohir countered.  “Another attack would see us wiped out, we’re exposed and not defensible here.  We move to Weathertop and madam, you must see that they will be comfortable on the march.”  He turned away, brooking no further argument.

As the sun climbed in the sky, the situation for the Dunedain became clearer, and better than hoped.  Most of the draft animals and other beasts were not far away, and recovered quickly, though some few horses were not to be found.  Halrohir’s own mount, Bregedur, was one of those recovered.  The supplies and goods from the destroyed wain were shared among the two remaining wains, and other carts which still had room.  The burned wagon was stripped of anything useful, down to the wheels for repairs and boards for fuel.

The dead were gathered and buried with little ceremony, though much grief.  The bodies of the raiders were collected, heaped into a pyre and burned.  There were thirty dead raiders in all, and some wondered, for though they were Men, they were of a kind not seen in the North: stout, strongly built, sallow skin and slanted eyes, and jutting jaws.

“These are not of the North, surely”, Cormadin said to the other three Ranger leaders as they sat and took a standing bite to eat.  “From whence they come, I don’t know, but they are here in number and they pose a further threat.”

“All the more reason for us to strike out for Weathertop”, Halrohir said.  “And the faster we move, the better.  Galador was right to insist on haste, and now I rue my reluctance. 

“Pass the word:  we resume the march at noon, and travel until dark.  Ercolindo and I shall ride scout and patrol.  Cormadin, you take the lead wain, Angbrand in the second.  Let Galador be placed in the lead wain, as comfortable as he can be made.  Ercolindo, you and three others must ride ahead as quartering party.  Find us the best place possible to hide from prying eyes.  As soon as the others return with the healers, we must be ready to leave.  Go now.”  And the Rangers set about their work while the morning passed toward noon.

The healer party returned just before the sun was high, and with good news.  The Rangers accompanying the women discovered a thicket where the valuable herb athelas grew in a close patch.  The women harvested as much as they could carry, and the wisewomen rejoiced in the bounty.  They now had enough materials for medicines with care for the rest of the journey.

Just after noon, the caravan prepared to march.  Halrohir, Cormadin and Angbrand were in their places, but this time Halrohir was riding Morindal, even though Bregedur had been found.  His former horse was now pulling an overloaded cart.  This change was noticed by many there, for they had seen the great stallion ridden into battle by a Ranger in the night, and the word ran through the folk of Halrohir, the only one who ever rode Blackfoot.  The sight of the youngest Ranger astride the giant black was inspiring to all near; maybe, they said, that a Ranger truly had stayed behind rather than ride with the Grey Company.

Halrohir reined up next to Cormadin, who sat stiff-legged in the buckboard.  He was uncomfortable, but stoically bore it as he spoke to his friend, “Our leader rides a dragon, so it is said!  So, Blackfoot is your new steed?  Should we not rather use him in his better place, as a draft animal?”

“Not any longer, old friend,” Halrohir replied.  “I have struck a bargain with him, and he shall bear me so long as he rides to battle.  He is tired of cartage, and wants to run to the sound of the horns.  And mark this well:  his name is not Blackfoot, not any longer.  He is my friend, Morindal.”  At the sound of his new name, Morindal tossed his head and nickered low at Cormadin.

“I can well see the bargain is struck”, Cormadin laughed, “but I still warn you, watch his appetite – and your cloak!”  He then looked over his shoulder to where the column of carts and wagons stretched behind.  “I think all is ready… captain.”

“Do NOT call me that!” Halrohir said, glowering.  “Galador is the Captain while he lives.  I am merely his lieutenant, directing all in his name until he recovers, and that is how it must be!”  With that, he dug his heels into Morindal’s sides, and rode to the head of the column. 

One advantage Halrohir learned quickly was that Morindal’s great size allowed him a commanding view, seeing farther than a horse of normal size would permit.  From his place, he could see almost the entire caravan laid out behind him.  With a wave of his hand, the Dunedain began to move once more, this time directly onto the Great Road and bearing towards the Weather Hills. 

The march took the rest of the day, going forward until the sun began dipping towards the western edge of the world.  Long shadows began to stretch out before the caravan. The Rangers had moved in a wide circle around the march, shielding the folk from ambush.  Nothing at all was seen or heard.  But many remarked as Halrohir passed up and down the line, the great black pounding away the miles with seemingly no effort whatever.  Several voices called out to him as he passed, shouting greetings and thanks for the battle the night before.

It was just as the sun was touching the horizon when Ercolindo could be seen riding back toward the column. Halrohir rode out to meet him, Morindal’s great loping stride catching up to him rapidly. 

“What news, my friend?” Halrohir asked as he came to a stop.  Ercolindo rode up, his face showing pure wonder at the giant horse now used as a Ranger’s mount.

“I rode back to report,” he said, “we have found an excellent site, the best thus far on the march.  A deep hollow far enough off the Road to cover us all, with tree and brush, and a spring with water in plenty.  There is even room for the animals to be guarded close at hand.  I have set the Rangers with me to gathering wood and building up the spring with stones.  The grass is thick, and will fodder the horses for a time.  Best of all, we are screened from the hills, even from Weathertop itself.  Should you wish, we could even send Rangers to scout the hills under cover of night.”

“Very well done, this is great news for everyone.” Halrohir said pleased.  “Cormadin is guiding the column, let us show him the route.  Then, I want you to show me the site, I would see it for myself.”  After riding a short way back to the lead wain and speaking to Cormadin, Halrohir turned to Ercolilndo.  “Now, let us see what we have, and we must arrive quickly.  Ride hard, Ranger!”

Both Halrohir and Ercolindo spurred their horses and took off at a gallop.  It was soon obvious that Ercolindo’s horse, although a sturdy and swift steed with a good foot under him, was evened up by Morindal’s long-legged strength.  Ercolindo was galloping madly to stay ahead, while Halrohir simply paced him at a powerful gallop, thundering hooves echoing in the gathering dark.  The riders slowed as they approached the campsite, Ercolindo’s horse winded, Morindal also breathing deeply but looking as if spoiling for more.

Both young Rangers looked at each other and laughed, but stopped short. Morindal had swung his head to one side, looking south to the land across the Road, his neck stretched and letting out a low “Whuff!”  Halrohir recognized that movement as the one from the night of the battle.

“I think we are not alone”, Halrohir said in a low voice.  “Ride south, cautiously.  You take left, I’ll go right.”  Ercolindo nodded, and the two split up and rode back to the edge of the Road, crossing quietly and entering the scrub on the south side. 

Man nostich, Morindal, man thar ennas?*” Halrohir asked the horse.  Morindal responded with a few paws of his foreleg, now craning his neck off to the left, his nostrils huffing like bellows.  Whatever was in the growing shadows was now between him and Ercolindo, and all too close to the folk as they approached their camp.  Without pause, Halrohir dug his heels in, and the great black plowed forward through the brush, rewarded by a shout of fear.  A man was crouched under a small bush, within sight of the Road.  The stranger rose up and unsheathed a sword, but seeing the giant horse and rider bearing down on him, he dropped it and threw his hands up to ward off the attack.  Halrohir reined up and his own blade found the man’s throat, the point resting an inch away from his neck.

“Stand still, renegade, or I shall feed you to my horse!” Halrohir growled, hoping the terror of the sight of Morindal up close would break his nerve, which it did.  The man froze where he stood.  Halrohir looked the man over closely; he had the same sallow skin and squinting eyes as the raiders of the previous night.  He could feel his anger rise, but fought to show no sign.

“Ercolindo!  Here!  I have found our guest!”  he called out, and quickly Ercolindo came crashing through the brush, riding up next to Halrohir.

“What have you found, Ranger?”  Ercolindo said, “we seem to have more of these neighbors of ours, though they lost the spirit of our hospitality last night…”

“Indeed,” Halrohir said.  “What say you, renegade?  Who are you, and what is your interest in watching us from hiding?”  The man said nothing, looking back and forth from Halrohir to Ercolindo, his eyes lingering on Morindal.

“Well, speak!  What is your errand here?” Halrohir said with rising heat.  “We slew thirty of your friends last night, in payment for their attack upon us.  Who else lurks in the wild?  Speak!!”

The renegade looked up with a hideous grin, and his voice was guttural, not naturally human at all.  “You’re all dying, slowly, one by one you’ll all be crow-feed.  My master will rule these lands, and we’ll have all that belongs to you.  You cannot run, you cannot hide.  We’ll smell you out and eat you.”

“Your master?  And who might that be, renegade?”

The ruffian smiled and snarled, “Nink-dushatar, sharku, Saruthsi!#”

Halrohir could no longer master his rage.  Leaning forward, the point of his sword plunged into the renegade’s throat and out the back of his neck. The renegade’s eyes went wide as he clutched at the sword blade, then went vacant as he dropped to the ground.  Halrohir leapt from the horse and crouched down to the body, Ercolindo dropping right beside him.  Quickly they searched the body, and found a pouch containing a few coins, some odds and ends, and a slip of parchment inscribed with scrawled letters, sealed by the sigil of a White Hand.

Ercolindo looked at his friend and said, “Did you recognize what he said just then?” 

“I know it as the speech of the Orcs, foul and uncouth as it is,” Halrohir said, “but what curse he meant, I know not.  We must get these back to Galador, if he is awake.  He recognizes that foul tongue, so it is said. That will answer a few riddles.  Come, let’s ride to the camp, the dark is settling in.  Leave the carrion here.”  And with that, the Rangers mounted and sped back to the camp of the Dunedain, where the watch fires were already beginning to light the night.

* “What do you smell, Blackfoot?  What is out there?”

# “The White Wizard, the old man, Saruman!”

The eighth night of the trek saw the Dunedain encamped just within a day’s march of the Weather Hills, with the mass of Weathertop just in sight.  In the deep fold of the land where the caravan of refugees lay, watchfires burned bright and warm, but there was little cheer or song.  Families were still in shock and grief over the losses of the previous night’s attack, although the losses were few, they were no less keenly felt.

The Rangers were not idle, as if they ever were.  As soon as Ercolindo led the caravan to the hollow, Halrohir saw to the order of the guard and defense.  Once all was ordered, the Ranger leaders gathered round a watchfire near the wains.  Galador had insisted he spoke to them, injured as he was, his voice soft and weaker than before.  He sat by the fire, cushioned and propped as comfortable as he could be. He had been appraised of the encounter with the renegade by Halrohir, including the curse in Orcish, and shown the token of the White Hand.

“Rangers, it is past time that you know the full tale, as has been told to me,” Galador said.  “When the Lord Aragorn set out from Rivendell on errand with others, he and others of the Dunedain scoured the lands, as you know, before departing just before the New Year.  Our task was to find any trace of the Enemy or his spies, but there were veiled hints that the Enemy had spies everywhere, even unto the borders of the Shire. 

“You also recall that Bree was actually attacked by ruffians from the Wild at that time, just before the heavy snows.  That is the reason we chose the Forsaken Inn as our starting place, rather than the town.  Too many eyes and ears still watched the Breeland.  But now, we see, we are being hunted.  Halrohir reports that the spy he encountered uttered a name in Orcish, and that name is a sign of betrayal:  Saruman, the White Wizard!”

“Captain, your news is ill!” Angbrand cried.  “Saruman the White is a member of Gandalf the Grey’s high order, and holds the counsels of the Wise.  He also has knowledge of Rivendell, and all roads to the hidden valley.  Surely now, his servants and perhaps his soldiers have that knowledge as well?”

“And these renegades who assail us, what of them?” Cormadin joined in.  “Are these some wizardry that he has wrought, or are these a foul cross between Man and Orc?  If so, then they are doubly dangerous, combining the cunning of Men with the malice of Orc!”

“We have learned much in these last days”, Galador said.  “We now have the source of our troubles and our attackers.  We also know of what nature they may be, but also that they can be slain as any other can be.  We can defend ourselves and our folk, for now.  But if we are hard pressed, our numbers are not great enough to stand up to a determined attack.”

“Which, my captain,” Halrohir put in, “is why I directed the folk to Weathertop.  We can command the hill, and the heights, and defend ourselves better, while scouting the Road ahead more clearly.”

“Yes, young Halrohir, I can understand your meaning,” Galador sighed weakly, the drain on him starting to show.  “And it would seem wise, if we had the numbers, but we do not.  Haste is our only defense, we must keep the folk on the move…” Galador’s voice faded once more. “I tire… I must rest again…”  Willing hands reached out to him, and guided him back to a warm pallet.  Halrohir and the others returned to the firelight, clearly troubled.

“Galador gets no worse, but no better,” Cormadin said.  “So it falls to us to decide for the folk and with Halrohir as our lieutenant, we must advise him as best we can.  My concern is the people.  Now their needs are met, for food and water and warmth.  We have enough draft animals to carry the loads.  But they are wearying of the road, and we have many a day ahead of us still.”

“While we are safe here for now,” Angbrand noted, “we should tend our wounded better.  Rest is called for, for all the reason for haste.  I cannot do all that is needful,” he said ruefully looking at his bandaged arm, “but I shall do what I can.  So would all who are injured and strained by the road.”

“Has anyone even considered where we might find aid in our plight?” Ercolindo asked.  “We are too far from Breeland, and to turn back there means we’d never leave again.  We have to go on, but what help might there be in the Wild?”

Halrohir spoke up, plainly thinking on something.  “When my father told me of this journey, he mentioned that the call to gather the folk came from Rivendell, presumably from Master Elrond personally.  That means that not only are they aware of our march, but may even be aware of our progress as well.  But I can tell you all, the only word I know of was that initial summons to start the march for Rivendell, then silence.  And the leagues between here and the Hidden Valley are long, too long.  I cannot allow myself to think there will be aid coming from the Elves.

“The only hope we have, is to press on, pushing ourselves to our limits and the folk as well.  I would say, rest in this place for one night longer, and allow the people to recover.  We must also scout out Weathertop, and occupy the ring on the hill to spy out the land.  I want everyone to rest now.  I and a few others shall ride to the hill before dawn, and see what fortune may hold.”

“I will go with you!” Cormadin said.  “I can ride, and my leg bothers me less than before.  Halrohir, you need us all to support you.”

Halrohir smiled. “Very well, friend, we shall ride together.  Let us all go to our rest.”  And the council adjourned, Halrohir lingering behind at the fireside.  Cormadin sat down heavily beside him, a skin of wine passed between them.

“You do not trust or believe the Elves will assist us, do you?” Cormadin asked.

“I am troubled in mind and heart,” Halrohir said as he watched the flames.  “The Elves have saved our people time and again, but mostly when it was a time of their choosing, not ours.  Even if they have summoned us here, would they not expect us to make the journey unassisted?  It has been eight days on the march, and the summons came before that.  If the Elves were sending us aid, we should have seen it by now.  No, brother, for so I call you; we are alone, and we must manage this alone. 

“And moreover, my doubts are not just with our task, but with me,” Halrohir said more to himself.  “Being first among equals is a worthy goal, but it means also being the first chosen for the hardship and the labors of all.  I know now that having is much more difficult than wanting.  I wanted leadership and renown, but this taste of it is a bitter thing.”

Cormadin chuckled.  “I recall you at the Trials, remember?  Always stepping forward, always asking for more, testing every edge and boundary.  Pushing yourself to be first among equals, indeed.  Well, now you have it, Halrohir my brother.  The folk look to you, the others look to you – and even Galador considers your words.  And now you even ride the great black dragon, as folk call him!  You have the makings of a great story for the mead halls, and maybe that is a good thing.”  Cormadin, thumped his hand on his friend’s shoulder, stood and moved off into the dark.

Halrohir continued to watch the fire burn down, before taking a space for his bedroll and let sleep take him.  He would rise before the dawn, and another needful scouting would begin.  The night wore on for all the Dunedain, watchful guards just out of the edge of the light.  Horses stamped, fires crackled, soft voices spoke in the dark.  The flight continued.

 

The Dunedain rested well in the hollow beneath the Weather Hills that night, upon learning that they were not moving the next day, but rather resting from travel and toil.  Snatches of songs reminding of better times could be heard near the central fire, before the middle of the night brought peaceful sleep to most of the camp.  But not to all.  The Rangers kept up their ceaseless watch, just out of the edge of the firelight.  The drovers stirred in their sleep by the animals, ready to join the defense should the marauders return in the night.

One who had no peaceful sleep was Halrohir, who kept seeing things in the dark, then faded back to sleep only to wake again at the slightest sound.  Feeling sleep eluding him, he rose from his bedroll and walked into the paddock area, finding the place where Morindal was tethered, still awake and cropping grass.  Reaching into the fodder barrel, Halrohir offered an apple to his new mount, who accepted it without a second bite.  He smiled as he stroked the behemoth’s mane and muzzle.

“We did well today, mellon nin”, Halrohir said, “and there shall be more tomorrow.  You and I shall ride before the dawn.  You have an uncanny nose for danger, and between us, we can use that to great advantage.  I trust I’m keeping up my end of our bargain?”  Morindal lowered his head and shoved him gently back in the direction of the camp, nickering softly.

“Yes, yes, I’ll get some sleep, you great heap!  You do so as well,” Halrohir said over his shoulder as he walked back to his bedroll.  He was already feeling sleep come on as he lay down, and drifted off once again.  Once again, he awoke and sat up, seeing it was bright morning light about him – had he slept that long, and no one woke him?  He quickly rose to his feet, and looked around him.  He saw no camp, no fires, no animals or carts – he was alone, and the camp was gone!  Only a thicket of grasses and bushes surrounded him.  The air was thick with fragrant scents from flowering herbs and bushes.  It was a scene that almost made him relax, save for knowing that this was all amiss.

At that moment, Halrohir smelled then saw something that made him pause:  a rose bush, in full bloom, impossible for this time of year.  It strongly resembled the garden his mother tended with such care, especially the large rosebush it featured.  Her morning roses.  Why did that seem so important in this scene around him, so keen to be noticed?  Were his thoughts so bent on her that he could wander in her garden?

Halrohir stepped closer to the morning roses, and took in their scent, clean and wonderful, their color so vibrant.  The strong aroma of the flowers around him made his head begin to spin.  He thought, for just a moment, that he was being watched.  He shook his head to clear his vison, but to his shock, in the leaves of the bush he saw eyes – startling clear eyes, the color of bottles of green glass.  He knew there must be a connection, something about the morning rose, and those eyes of bottle-green.  The eyes looked at him with an expression of delight, of longing, even of love.  As he was transfixed by the vision of the eyes, he heard the voice over his shoulder, the husky whisper that might be the voice of a lover, saying only one word:  "Rana…"*


At the sound of that voice, Halrohir sat up with a bolt.  He looked around and saw the fire, the camp, he was resting on his bedroll and he could hear the quiet sounds of the camp even at this hour.  Where were the thicket and the roses?  Did he dream all of it?  What did it mean, if there was any meaning at all?  Roses, eyes and the voice – it was a woman’s voice, certainly…

“Halrohir, what are you doing awake?” came Cormadin’s voice from across the fire.  “It’s nearly time for the scouting of Weathertop, have you not had any rest at all?”

“I’m not entirely sure,” Halrohir said, “but I do know I was asleep for a time, so it will have to serve.  But tell me one thing:  do we have extra tack and harness to spare for a mount, and I mean a very large one?”

“What, you mean a saddle and gear for Blackfoot – I mean, Morindal?” Cormadin asked.  “I’m sure I know not if we do.  We are missing several horses from the raid, and their gear was on one of the wagons.  We can certainly try to find something that will fit that half-dragon you now ride.”

Halrohir rolled up his meager gear, and walked behind Cormadin to the wains.  Together, they found a spare saddle, bridle and other harness that at a glance just might fit Morindal if loosened and altered.  Taking it back to the firelight, the two adjusted and pulled and re-strapped the gear, then carried it to the paddock.  Morindal was standing there, watching the two men as they approached with the saddle gear.  At the first sign that Halrohir made of swinging it onto his back, Morindal began huffing and pawing the ground, and then suddenly shifted his bulk to make Halrohir drop the saddle to the ground.

Cormadin moved to help, and the two men began a merry chase, Morindal dancing in a circle with the Rangers trying in vain to get the saddle on.  After several turns, the saddle and blanket landed more or less in place. Cormadin moved to the opposite side, and together he and Halrohir began the task of saddling a horse that refused to be saddled.  Morindal constantly shifted his weight, twice knocking the Rangers on their backsides, but soon the saddle was in place.  The bridle and bit came next, which the great horse twice spat out, but accepted on the third try. 

Then came the moment of truth.  Halrohir planted his foot in the stirrup, and heaved himself off the ground and into the saddle.  Morindal, for the first time since the struggle began, stood stock still and looked around at first Cormadin, then Halrohir, rolling his eyes to meet the Ranger’s gaze.  Tentatively, Halrohir nudged his heels in the stirrups, and the great black responded by a slow walk, as if nothing had changed.  He steered the horse with the reins slowly, both of them getting the feel of the harness. 

Cormadin looked content with the deed.  “Now, brother, at least you look like a rider, and not trying to be an Elf!  Wait, why that look? Halrohir, did I say something wrong?”

“No, nothing wrong,” Halrohir said absently.  “Just something… not real… yet…”

* Wanderer 

Dawn was far off, only a false light on the horizon heralding the coming sunrise, as the Rangers gathered at the edge of the hollow for their ride to Weathertop.  Halrohir and Cormadin led the party, bringing with them six young Rangers who still faced the Trials before them, but each of them eager to prove their mettle, especially to themselves.  The young six sat on their mounts in awe of the two older Rangers:  Cormadin, who though wounded still rode and was determined to labor for the folk; and Halrohir, the lieutenant of the Dunedain, astride the mightiest horse anyone had ever seen, seeming to be filled with resolve and certain confidence. 

Halrohir sat upon Morindal, gazing at the mass of Amon Sul outlined by the false dawn.  What awaited them on that hilltop was anyone’s guess, foe or nothing.  But the time was upon them.  He turned in the saddle to face the other Rangers. 

“Rangers, we ride to uncertain ground”, he said, “but we each know what is expected of us.  The plan I have is plain.  We ride to the north-east, and strike the old protected path that served the fortifications in the days of old.  That way, we shall be screened from unfriendly eyes.  My father told me in past rides of a hollow just west of Weathertop.  It is too small for all the caravan, but just enough for us.  There we shall hold the horses under guard, and make our way to the summit on foot.  Move out, now!”  And taking the lead, Halrohir led the party quietly out of the camp and to the northeast.

The sky was lightening by the time the Rangers reached the sheltered path, and followed the winding course until, as the sun peeked over the horizon, they found the dell beneath the hill.  The sides of the bowl were grassy and green, with a small spring at the edge, a good place for the horses.  Halrohir bade them hold the mounts here, while he and two others, Cenion and Meldor, carefully crept up the slope to the summit. Every so often, Halrohir held his hand up to halt, and paused to listen and smell.  

“Feel that?” he asked the younger two.  “A slight breeze is beginning to build the closer we come to the top.  The wind either carries sound to us, or howls in our ears and deafens.  It also masks smell, or brings it to you.  Always be aware, they are both tools and fools, as they say.”  He continued up the slope, the others right behind in a line. 

“Where have your lessons gone?” Halrohir asked.  “Crouch down as you approach the crest of the hill.  Spread out, or all you’ll see is the backside of the man in front of you.  When we reach the top, you should be on your bellies, even so.”  As they finally reached the top, they were spread on their stomachs, Cenion on the left, Meldor on the right, peeking over the edge of the stones.  The summit where the ancient tower of Amon Sul once stood was little more than a ring of broken rock covered by grass and turf.  There was only enough cover for a man to crouch behind, to say nothing of defending the place. 

Halrohir signed to the others to take up positions around the circle.  Cenion faced west, Meldor to the south, and Halrohir to the east.  There they lay long, watching, smelling, testing the wind and view all around.  Trackless glens and moors stretched out to the south beyond sight, and west past the fens of the Midgewater and the Chetwood on the borders of Breeland, just barely on the edge of sight.  To the east lay the Great Road like a winding snake across the barren landscape, disappearing toward dark foothills and white-capped mountain peaks beyond.

Nothing was moving, no bird called, no sound or scent greeted them.  The breeze that they felt on the ascent had freshened to a steady wind out of the west, and a line of clouds could be seen building.  To the east, the skies were clear and cloudless, the sun glancing off the peaks of ice and, far off on the edge of sight was the gleam of waters in fast-flowing streams. 

After an hour or so, Halrohir softly whistled to the others to move to the center of the ring, most hidden from view.  There they sat up comfortably, and took water and a little bread to fortify themselves. 

“Meldor, what did you see?”  Halrohir asked.

Meldor chewed thoughtfully, then said, “I saw smoke in the distant South, but in the morning haze it was hard to judge how far off.  It was a single plume, as if by one fire and not a settlement.  It may have been a camp, or a single homestead.”

“Any sound?”

“None, Lieutenant, the wind out of the west carried anything away.”

Halrohir nodded.  “And Cenion, what of you?”

“I watched not only the Road, but the skies as well”, Cenion replied.  “Those clouds mean a change in the weather’s coming, and not to favor us.  You could smell the smoke from our own camp to the west, but no noise as such.  Our camp is too far for noise to carry, unless a horn is blown.”

“What of you, Halrohir, what signs do you read?” Meldor asked.

Halrohir smiled.  “Much is told to me, even with what you left out.  Yes, the weather will turn against us, but we have maybe a day before any change happens.  It could be rain, wind, or cold; I judge rain, by the nature of the clouds.  I agree that the wind masks the camp’s sounds, but not the fires, they are plain on the breeze.

“Meldor saw that which worries me”, he went on.  “That single smoke might be the renegades’ camp, or a base from which to stalk or strike.  You are right, that there are no settlements this far away from the Breeland, out in this wilderness. 

“But, it is the east that draws my eye.  That is our path for many days to come.  The wagons and wains cannot move off the Road, the ground is trackless and wheels would falter, and if the weather turns foul, then all the worse for us.  So, we are bound to the Road; but that does not mean we are obliged to all stay on its course.  Riders and footmen can screen far and wide to either side, to our advantage.  But that is for tomorrow.  Cenion, did you see down into the hollow where the folk lie?  Are they screened well?”

“Indeed, I did look for the camp, and except for the smoke from the fires, I saw or heard naught else,” Cenion said.  “But, will we be able to find such camps and dells in the land on the trail each night?  I cannot think that will be the case, do you?”

“I agree,” Halrohir said.  “We shall have the scouts seek out the best places possible for the nightly halts, and that is all we can labor to do.  Now, we have sat here longer than needed.  Let us watch our directions for a while longer, then we shall descend back to the dell, and the others.”  And each resumed their positions, east, west, and south.  But it was only a few minutes when Cenion whistled to Halrohir, motioning him to come near.  Halrohir crawled close, and looked out from the stone ring, Cenion pointing.

“There, Lieutenant, did you see?  Two dark shapes, far west on the Road, crossing from south to north, and they were mounted, riding some small steeds.  It’s too far to be certain, but they were not ours, that’s plain.”

“Time to leave”, Halrohir said without explanation.  He crouched low as he almost ran to the place they entered the circle, the others hurrying to follow.  Once they passed the crest of the hill, they straightened and ran at breakneck speed to the dell. 

Cormadin and the others had not been resting during the absence of their friends.  Cormadin and two others guarded the horses, while he had dispatched the last two Rangers to scout about the dell and the surrounding pathways.  They had not returned when Halrohir burst from the trees into the dell.

“Halrohir!  What news?”  Cormadin said.  “Why the haste?”

“We saw there may be trouble approaching the camp,” Halrohir said between breaths.  “Where are the others?  We need to mount and return, now!”  Cormadin nodded, and put his fingers to his lips, and made a high bird-like call for a few seconds.  An answering call came from away to the north where the sheltered path lay.  Shortly, the last two Rangers appeared at a run.  The rest were already mounted, and the last two scrambled onto their horses.  Halrohir waved his hand, and the party sped off at a fast trot back to the camp.

The scouts rode back into the Dunedain camp to find Galador seated by the council fire, Angbrand next to him.  Ercolindo was standing nearby, behind and between two sallow-faced rascals who were tied hand and foot and kneeling.  Ercolindo’s sword was in his hand and at the ready.

Halrohir rode up to the fireside, his height plus Morindal’s bulk making him look like a towering giant to the kneeling prisoners.  They recoiled at the sight, clearly cowed by the Ranger’s imposing presence.

“What goes here, who are these visitors?” Halrohir asked.

“Spies of our former friend, it would seem”, Galador replied.  “Ercolindo had the forethought to send out a wide patrol at the same time you and Cormadin rode for the hill.  He encountered these two as they were making their way towards the caravan.  They have been most inhospitable, refusing to speak to us except in curses.  They bore these,” he said, as he laid out two cloths, same as they found previously, with the White Hand upon them.

Halrohir looked at the cloths, then to the prisoners, then to Galador.  “What would be your word, captain?  For you can guess mine…” he said as he clenched the pommel of his sword.  Curiously, Morindal lowered his head, his neck stretching towards the nearest prisoner, sniffing deeply.  The renegade leaned back as far as his bonds would allow, his eyes wide with fear.  The giant black snorted and bared his teeth, the gaping mouth inches from the orcish face.

“My horse doesn’t like you”, Halrohir said, leaning casually forward in the saddle.  “Neither do I.  Now, since you are guests here, I will offer you a bit of hospitality.  You tell me what I wish to know, and I won’t let him eat your eyes.  Do we have a bargain?  You may start by telling me how many of you are out there in the Wild, following us.”

The spy of Saruman continued to lean back in dread of the stallion’s teeth, his eyes darting around seeking a way to escape.  The second one looked on in terror of the giant horse; horses ate grass, they were NOT supposed to eat meat, but this – THING – could not be a horse, could it?  The first one looked at the second, who shook his head no, say nothing.  But then he turned his eyes back to Halrohir and Morindal, who was snuffling at him closely.  That was all he could stand.

“We are many, as many as you, and we are all armed.  We tracked you since you started, we heard of you in the town from our lads there.  You can’t outrun us.  One by one, we’ll kill your men, and your women and children will be for the cookfires!”

Halrohir’s fury rose.  “Ercolindo, dagor hon!*”  And with one swift stroke, Ercolindo’s sword parted the spy’s head and shoulders, and the headless body slumped forward.  The second renegade watched in shock, then his eyes turned towards Halrohir, then the other Rangers in turn, finally coming to rest on Morindal’s approaching muzzle…

“Here is your chance, my guest” Halrohir said tight-jawed.  “See if you can do better than your friend.  You wish to live?  Very well.  Take a message back to your friends.  Tell them the Dunedain will not be stayed, we are moving on at our desire and in our own ways.  If there is one more attack upon our folk, tell them,” and here he had an inspiration, “tell them The Rider will eat them.  See that this one finds the Road.”  Ercolindo and Meldor lifted the bound prisoner, cut off his leg bindings and allowed him to walk before their drawn swords out if the camp. 

“By Aranarth’s hammer, you had me scared,” Cormadin said smiling.  “A rather grisly performance, by any means.  What was that supposed to prove?”

“A simple trick, that works when used rightly,” Galador explained.  “Halrohir saw what scared the prisoners the most and built on it, feeding the fire until they broke.  He showed he could be as cruel as any of Orc-kind; they think mercy is weakness.  And the first sight of the great black steed would be enough to rattle even a battle-hardened soldier.  You’ve learned the tricks well, son of Haladan.”

* “Ercolindo, kill him!”

 

The rest of that day, the ninth of the Dunedain’s flight, saw the caravan remain in place in the hollow beneath Weathertop, just north of the Road.  For the first time since the start of the trek, the folk of the Kings of Men could take their ease, stretch out their hurting limbs in comfort, build fires of size for warmth and use.  The word from Captain Galador, through his lieutenant Halrohir, was that they would stay here one more night, and make another march at dawn the next day.  They cautioned that all that could be already packed and stowed should be done so, to make the start all the earlier. 

The healers had labored long through the day and into the evening hours, tending and mending whoever needed aid.  Glaemad the wisewoman personally worked her skill upon Galador, and the old Ranger showed steady improvement; although she told everyone, loudly, that the choice to rest one day did more for him than she could.  

The day wore on to evening.  The Rangers continues their watchfulness into the night, wide patrols on foot to scout out the grounds nearby.  Voices were raised in song around the fires.  The aromas of stew and bread wafted round the camp.  The Dunedain’s spirits rose with these simple comforts, and that alone fortified them for the road ahead.

At the council fire, Galador called for his wineskin, and bade Halrohir approach.  Both Ercolindo and Cormadin were out on watch; Angbrand slept soundly at the healers’ bidding, for though his arm was well-tended, the wound on his head was not progressing to health.  As Halrohir sat beside him, Galador passed the wineskin to the younger man, and after they both shared a draught, the captain spoke at length.

“Halrohir, my son, you are often away from camp, so you hear not the word that is passed between folk concerning you.  You have indeed become a thing of valor among them, a vision and source of strength.  Since the last attack, they see you and that mighty mount of yours as the start of a legend, and it gives them hope.  That, my boy, is what they need most right now.

“When I fell wounded, you rightly assumed the leadership of the Rangers,” he went on, “and I think you learned what it is to lead, not just command.  Your decision to press on to Weathertop was, now at least, the right choice.  And you also elected to stay, and rest the folk, which also turns out to be wise.  You accomplished both.”

“Captain”, Halrohir said, “we now know the nature of the enemy, and who they serve.  We know roughly their numbers, and their intent.  It will be at least a fortnight to the Bridge at Mitheithel, and several days more until we even reach the Hidden Valley.  In fair weather, I judge the folk cannot travel more than seven leagues in one day’s march.   And see, the weather turns against us, for the clouds are building to the west.  How do you think the folk are prepared for the onset of a storm?”

“Better than you think, my boy,” Galador said.  “In the second wain, there is thick canvas and ropes to build tents for many.  There will be shelter from the storms and the cold, should it turn worse.  And you have found several sources of fresh water nearby, so that worry is eased.  But there are two weak points with us:  food, and fuel.  The horses I am not concerned about, it’s the people.  That is one reason that I urge haste; not only to speed our passage through the Wild and to safety, but also to spare the supplies.  The fewer days in the Wild, the better our chances will be.”

Halrohir fell silent, then took a pull from the offered wineskin, before voicing his next thought.  “Captain, there is something more.  We were talking the other night.  What help can we count on, beyond ourselves?  Someone mentioned the Elves might aid us, since they sent the summons to Rivendell – “

“- and I’ve thought the same, son,” Galador said.  “But we have heard no word, seen no sign.  Should the Elves send aid or word, I will welcome it most gladly.  But I will not waste the days waiting, or looking for help that may not even come.  No, we must press on as we can.  Have you given thought to tomorrow?”

“Yes, Captain,” Halrohir said, “I have passed word to all that they should be ready to leave at first light.  Ercolindo shall lead the quartering party, I shall follow in rearguard.  I should like to have the two young ones, Cenion and Meldor, with me as well; they are proving their worth.  I would not halt the march until we have the Weather Hills behind us, though it will make for a long day.”

Galador nodded, clearly getting tired once again.  “Agreed.  And now, I shall let this wine go to my head, and take more rest.  You should sleep as well, Ranger.  Good night.”  And Galador stiffly rose, waving off Halrohir’s offered hand, and went to his pallet.  Halrohir thought this good advice as well, and rolled up in his blanket roll to sleep.

Hours later, he was roused by Meldor.  The sky once more showed the glow of twilight building in the east, the mass of the hills dark against the sky.  Quickly he rolled his bedroll and carried it to the paddock, where others were quietly saddling and gearing horses for the day’s work.  Cenion and Meldor had already saddled their mounts and stood near them, stroking the horses to calm them in the gloom.

Halrohir came to Morindal, gear and saddle at the ready nearby.  The great black watched silently as the Ranger hefted the saddle and blanket onto his back; this time, the horse made no protest.  After accepting another apple, he let Halrohir mount, and the two walked over to the young Rangers.

“You ride with me again, you two,” Halrohir said to them.  “This morning, we are the rearguard.  We wait until after the caravan has left the hollow, then we watch.  Should any try and sneak into our wake for signs or mischief, we shall be waiting.  After a time, we ride to overtake the folk, and go our way from there.” 

“How long should we wait,” Cenion asked.  “And what shall we do until the caravan moves out?”

“There is a little bit of business to attend,” Halrohir said. “Those two spies who were found yesterday concern me.  I would backtrack their trail until the place they crossed the Road, where you saw them.  You said they were mounted, Cenion, on small beasts you saw.  Of what kind were they?”

“I could not see clearly”, Cenion admitted, “but they were munts of the four-legged kind, surely, or they would not have been able to cross the Road openly and so quick.  You wish to find their tracks?”

“Indeed.  Let us be off,” Halrohir said, and the three rode away west out of the hollow.  They followed a winding path, no more than a deer track though the weeds, until Cenion bade them halt near the Road, at the point where he thought he saw the spies cross.  All three dismounted, and Meldor held the horses while Halrohir and Cenion scouted the ground and looked for any sign or trace, his bow bent and ready.  After a long while, the Rangers regrouped.

“I found tracks, and traces of their feet”, Cenion said, “and they were hoofprints, but small, larger than ponies but smaller than horses.  Of what kind were they?”

“I think I know,” Halrohir said.  “I marked where there was a third set of prints, same as the others, but came to the spot later than the first two.  Another scout was sent to check on their progress, it seems.  That means that my ‘message’ was delivered.  The third scout would have taken the word back, along with his companion.  But as to the nature of the mounts, that riddle becomes easier.  They were riding mules, pack animals who would not complain of the extra load.  Those of orc-kind do not ride horses, and horses cannot abide them in turn.  But the mules might consent to be ridden for some distance, but not as battle steeds.

Halrohir looked up at the gathering light of the dawn.  “It is time, the folk are moving out.  We should now return to the hollow, and watch.”  The three mounted and rode back.  By the time they returned to the hollow, the Dunedain had departed.  All that remained were scattered places of flattened grass, fire rings covered with soil and turf, deep slots in the earth where wheels ran, and a lingering scent of horse and human.  The Rangers dismounted and led their horses deep into the brush, and crouched low and out of sight, watching and waiting.

For an hour or more, no sight or sound entered the place.  Nothing stirred or moved.  The Rangers nodded to each other, satisfied that there would be no pursuit, and made to move to their horses.  All three froze, as Morindal swung his head toward the far side of the dell, his nostrils flaring and one hoof tapping the ground.  The younger men looked to Halrohir, who had hit the ground and begun crawling to the edge of the grasses to see the open space.  Sure enough, there was a mule standing in the open, along with a figure man-high, bent over looking at the ground.

Halrohir was about to rise from the ground and draw his sword, but at that moment the stranger stiffened, gurgled and crashed forward and did not get up again.  One of Meldor’s arrows quivered in his throat.  The three sped over to where the body lay, Cenion grabbing hold of the mule’s harness and kept it from running.  The other men lifted the body, flung it over the mule’s back, and brought out their own horses.

“Meldor, that was a skilled shot”, Halrohir said finally. “I want both of you to take this burden of yours and meet up with the column.  Find Galador and show him, he can read more signs.  I shall follow shortly.  Go now!”  Meldor and Cenion nodded, and the two rode off, trailing the mule in their wake.  Halrohir now was alone, Morindal standing still in the middle of the hollow.  When he was sure the other two were out of sight, he spurred Morindal forward, and up toward the north-east, on the same path as yesterday toward the hills.

@-@-@-@-@-@-@-@-@

The Dunedain had moved out of the hollow right on time, and striking the Road headed east without delay.  Ercolindo and his party rode out swiftly ahead, scouting the lands before them.  Cormadin drove the first wain, Angbrand the second at the rear of the column.  Carts and smaller wagons were strung out between them in a long line, others on foot spaced between.  Galador was seated next to Cormadin, feeling strong enough to travel for a while.  He stayed in the wain for the rest of the day, as the column moved steadily along the Road, the heights of Weathertop moving even on the left, then steadily behind them.  Meldor and Cenion arrived with the body and the mule.  The body was dumped on the side of the Road after being searched and turning up nothing of value.  The mule was sent to pull the cart of an elderly couple, who were grateful for the easing of their burden.

There was a commotion among voices on the march, and people were pointing off to the northwest, in the direction of the summit.  Cormadin listened, then looked in the direction everyone was as well, and nudged Galador.  There, atop the highest summit of Weathertop, framed against the westering sun stood a massive dark figure, a mounted rider, cloak billowing like dark wings, standing still and motionless against a backdrop of gathering storm clouds that partially hid the setting sun.

Galador watched, and smiled.  “It’s Halrohir”, he said, “and he’s sending a message, to us and to the enemy.  The Rider is watching the land, and them.  It’s just as the Creed demands.”

“What does the Creed have to do with this?” Cormadin asked, just as Meldor and Cenion rode up.

“And what is the Rangers’ Creed, young ones?” Galador asked.  The light dawned in Cormadin’s eyes, but the two younger men didn’t realize.  “It is your oath, what you all shall recite when the Trials are completed, and you have earned the right to be truly called Ranger:


Where strong arm and valiant spirit must defend the land,

Where child cries or woman weeps, there shall I make my stand;

Let those who walk with evil see my eyes and take to flight,

As they cry out in despair, ‘Beware! A Ranger rides this night!’


Cormadin recited the words with Galador, a lump rising in his throat.  At that moment, Ercolindo rode back from the quartering party, and reined up in time to hear the Creed, and looked to the hilltop and saw his friend there.  The Ranger reported to Galador that a good site had been found a league from there, well-hidden and shielded by brush and scrub.  He turned and rode away, Galador ordering Meldor and Cenion with him.  He turned once more to look at Weathertop behind him, but the summit was empty; Halorhir had gone and, he presumed, was descending the hills to rejoin the march.

After an hour, as the sun had utterly vanished behind the advancing clouds, the caravan found the path Ercolindo had blazed into the land south of the Road, and began to make camp and shelter.  Galador bade them set up one of the larger tents in the center of the camp, in case the weather struck and shelter was needed.  Fires leapt up in several places, and the smell of wood smoke and food drifted about them.  Then at last, a commotion could be heard at the entrance to the camp, glad voices raised in praise.  Eyes turned to see a now-familiar cloaked rider on his great black steed, striding into the camp with heavy footfalls.  Halrohir nodded to all who hailed him, but sought out Galador and the others.  Dismounting, he let Morindal graze freely while he reported to the others. 

“I watched the lands about, and the caravan, for a good while,” he said.  “Nothing else was moving, and no signs on the breeze of trouble; but we are on the wings of the storm, so to speak.  And yes, I stayed on the heights openly and on purpose, for I wanted all to see me there.  It’s part of the message I sent to the enemy, that I am watching; it may give them pause to think before attacking again.”

“You are correct about the storm, brother,” Cormadin said, “already the Weather Hills are hidden by a curtain of cloud.  Rain will shortly be upon us.  Captain, shall we order more tents be set up for the people?”

“Agreed”, Galador said.  “All should have as much shelter as we can contrive.  See to it, Rangers.  The weather is against us, now!”

 

The rains on the night of the departure from Weathertop were not as severe as the Dunedain had feared.  What was heralded as a storm of strength by the wall of clouds in the west turned out to be a gentle, soaking rain, although the searching wind drove the water into every open crevice.  The folk managed to erect several large tents, with one central pavilion centered in the camp like a hall, even as the rain began to fall.  This central tent had a large conical dome, open at the top, with no central post but rather held by slanted poles from the walls, allowing for a hearth fire in the center for warmth.  Here were gathered the wounded, the elderly, and those who were weakened by the journey thus far. 

The rest of the camp was dry enough, with as many people under cover as could be provided for.  Many families took in relatives or strangers, and found room someway for all.  The animals and beasts were tethered near the wains, which were parked close by the main camp; Galador had ordered it so, both to keep better watch on the livestock, and to ease the burden on the folk as well.

 The leaders of the Dunedain shared a small tent near the main hall, a smaller fire in front of the tent door, a large pavilion flap giving shelter from the rains.  There near the fire sat Halrohir and Ercolindo, eating in thoughtful silence.  Cormadin sat there as well, his wounded leg propped on a log; he was healing well, due to the skill of the wisewomen and their herblore.  Angbrand sat next to him, his arm mending but the head wound still troubling him. 

“We will not know how long the rain will hold, not until day comes”, Cormadin said.  “Shall we stay here and hold out until it does, or risk the Road in the weather?  Either way, it’s going to be a wet few days.”

“The weather will have its effect on man and beast alike”, Ercolindo added.  “One thing might be to our good, and that’s the rains will hide us from prying eyes.”

“Or hide them from us”, Halrohir said darkly.  “I do not trust the weather, it works to our enemy’s advantage more than ours.  It makes us burn more wood for more comfort, and the folk need both.  I’ll not deny that a warm fire cheers the spirit, but there is a time for it – and now is not it.”

“Then what would you have us do?”  Cormadin asked.  “We cannot ask the folk to move with more haste.   Though they had their rest, this rain will strain their will once again.”

“Then it is our lot to be their will,” Halrohir said.  “We four, plus the captain, are the most visible signs the people follow.  They are being inspired by our deeds.  None of us dare falter, now.  By my reckoning, we are at least six days until we see the Last Bridge before us; and at least three more until we cross the Ford of Bruinen.  We know not the weather, we know not the Road, and we know not what the enemy has in store.  Too many unknowns make my stomach turn.  I say we all rest tonight as much as we can.  Our new young Rangers, Meldor and Cenion, are proving worthy.  I have set them to guard the camp tonight, turning watches as they go.  That will allow us rest.  And so, to bed.  Sleep well, all.”  And with that, Halrohir stepped inside the ten, found his bedroll and promptly fell into a slumber.  The other three friends did the same, Cormadin staying last by the shrinking fire.

Much later, Halrohir awoke to the quiet of the night.  The rain seemed to have stopped, thought the wind had slackened to a light breeze.  Rising from his bed, he stepped out of the tent to a glorious sunset, reds and oranges and pastels dappling the western skies.  Behind him, the east was dark, starless and full of a wrack of clouds, more like a broiling fume of many fires, a coming darkness more than night.

I could not have slept this long, Halrohir thought to himself, this is another dream.  Is this the foresight of the Dunedain, or something else working on my mind? He continued looking all about him, if some sign would present itself, like the roses or the eyes from the last dream.  He kept looking at the skies in both west and east, dreading both the coming of night and the dark.  It was at that moment that he heard, behind him, that same breathy voice, as if on the wind:  Rana…

Halrohir turned, and there nearby to the east, was a single grey cloud amidst the dark, and in the cloud were the eyes of bottle-green, staring at him once more with a look of such devotion that it smote his heart.  And out of the cloud, or rather in his thoughts, he heard:

Estan lin Halrohir Haladanion.  Boe tog i Dunedain i Imladris, han Thelion gwin nin.

[Your name is Halrohir, son of Haladan.  You must lead the Men of the West to Rivendell, that is your new Trial.]

Halrohir wondered that he could understand the Elven-tongue perfectly, for his use was halting though he could manage to converse in it well enough.  He tried to respond, but only heard the Common Tongue in his voice, “Who are you?  And what do you mean, a new Trial?  I am a Ranger already, in fact and deed.”

No dirweg, Dunadan.  Guidhoth nin farad nin.  Echuio nin i minuial, i lagor ego!

[Be watchful, Westman.  Your foes hunt you.  You must awaken at dawn, and leave quickly!]

“They are that close?” Halrohir asked.  “And who are you?”  He recalled his lessons in the Elven-toungue and repeated, “Man eneth lin, hindgalen?” [What is your name, green-eyes?]

The eyes changed expression, seeming to laugh or smile, then:

Av-osto guidhoth. Tolo an Imladris, Rana, i govaded ennas vin.  Edraith tolon u-haer!

[Fear not the enemy.  Come to Rivendell, Wanderer, and we shall meet there. Help is coming, it is not far off!]

Halrohir suddenly sat up, and it was utterly dark in the tent.  He looked around as his eyes took in the sleeping forms of his friends, and the light coming through the tent flap from the still-burning campfire.  He rose, struggled into his boots, and peeked out to see Galador sitting and tending the fire, which burned brightly and warm.

“Sit with me, lad, we must take thought – but let me see your eyes”, Galador said softly.  Halrohir sat next to him, Galador’s voice barely above a whisper.

“Did you hear it, too”

“I thought I was dreaming, I’ve had the same dream now two nights.”

“A voice in Elvish, and a warning, did you hear it as well?”

“Yes, and it was in the Elven-tongue, and would only answer in the same.”

“My boy, I think that help is on the way at last.  I am told that some of the Elven gifts include speaking into the mind between each other, or in dreams among Men.  That we two have dreamt the same thing, lends truth to that.  What was told to you?”

“We must rouse the folk at dawn, and be on the Road as quickly as can be.  And that the enemy is closing behind us.  But if they’re that close, why do they not attack?”

Silence, then, “I think that either your presence holds them back, or we have friends unknown speeding our passage by holding back the pursuit.  Or perhaps both.  In any case, I deem the message should be heeded.  Dawn is coming, even through the clouds.  At least the rain stopped for now.  We must pass the word, to be ready and strike camp with the dawn.  Awaken your sleeping comrades, and prepare them to shepherd the folk once more.”

“Yes Captain”, and Halrohir entered the tent and roused the others.  The next march was about to begin.       

The morning of the tenth day of the flight of the Dunedain, which on the calendar of the West would read the third day of March, started with a cold, wet mockery of dawn.  The camp began stirring at the first fitful light, a handful of fires burning with weak warmth.  Even though the clouds still hovered over the land, threatening more rain to come, the morning could still shed some light on the scene.

Wagons and animals were hitched together, the wagons loaded with care in the damp.  Horses shivered in the cold, sodden blankets doing little to keep out the chill.  Tents were saturated, but still were struck and rolled into the wains.  People huddled under cloaks and blankets as carts and wagons lined up to leave the site.  The fires were quickly doused, made easier by the mud and water.

Through all of this, Galador sat now at his place in the lead wain, the team of horses standing ready, steam rising off their flanks in the damp and fog.  But it was Halrohir and the other Rangers who spurred the folk into motion, loading a wagon here, or calming a pack animal there, or helping to heave a wagon’s wheel out of the thickening mud, or riding the edge of the camp seeing that all was secure,.  So it was that, with urgent movement born of haste, the Dunedain took to the Road once more before an hour after dawn.

Galador and Halrohir agreed that, after their strange shared warning dreams of the night before, the guard around the caravan was to be heavily increased.  Rather than two rides of six Rangers each during a day’s march, there were now three of ten each.  Halrohir, Cormadin and Ercolindo each led a ride of nine others, three Rangers and six Dunedain who were judged war-worthy enough to ride.  Galador and Angbrand each drove one of the wains, a Ranger with each acting as guard.  Galador ordered Cormadin to act as rearguard, trailing the caravan just out of sight, watching for any signs of pursuit.  Ercolindo rode round the edge of the caravan on both north and south sides of the Road, ever watchful for ambush. 

But it was Halrohir and his ride who rode hard and fast ahead of the Dunedain a league in advance of the march, scouring the Road for any hint of trouble.  With him went Meldor and Cenion, whom he was growing accustomed to have close, and one other young Ranger, whom he did not know.  The six other men who rode in company looked at the Rangers in awe and respect, especially Halrohir and the giant black horse he now rode.  They would thunder along the Road at a canter, their horses working to keep up with Morindal’s long stride. 

For days on, the Dunedain caravan trudged along the Road, their riders out and wide.  They marched through a land of no relief, flat and barren, the only progress noted by the mass of the Weather Hills shrinking behind them, and the peaks of the Misty Mountains becoming clearer to sight.  Since the rains of the tenth day, the weather had turned colder, though the winds had abated.  The nightly bivouacs kept to the south side of the Road, where there was some wood to be found amid the scrub brush; but even so, the folk’s supply of fuel began to run lower. 

Spirits began to dim again as the flight went on and the days wore away.  There was food and water for time ahead with care, but Galador ever and always looked for places with springs and grass for the animals.  The camps were warm enough with the tents set up each night, and small fires to ward off the worst of the chill.  On the eighth of March, the seventh day out from Weathertop and the sixteenth of the flight, the rains came once again, a hard deluge from out of the North passing swiftly south; the next day saw the Road had been washed heavily in places, wiping out signs of any recent passage along its length.

The morning of the ninth dawned, and actually dawned bright and clear. The camp awoke to brilliant warm sunshine in the East, warming the lands and drying the soil somewhat.  The folk relished the change in the weather, however brief it might be.  Once again the wains were hitched, the lines drawn up, and the march continued as before, Halrohir’s party sprinting ahead of the column to scout the Road.

After several hours of a hard ride, Halrohir ordered a halt.  He had driven himself for days with minimal rest, watching and scouting for all.  The others in his party were weary as well, but were determined not to show it.  Only Morindal looked fit and rested, as if his great size and strength begged for more, nowhere near its limits.

“Rest your mounts here for a moment”, Halrohir said.   “Take your ease, as well.  Water and a little fodder for us all.”  All dismounted, walked about and stretched their legs, the horses cropping grass nearby.  After a long pull from his water skin, Halrohir motioned to the third Ranger of the party to come closer.

“We have not spoken much before, I think,” he said.  What is your name, Ranger?”

The young man’s gaze was one of wounded pride, but he still faced Halrohir’s question.  “I am Lainbarad, son of Halbarad.  Your father and mine have both left with the Grey Company.”

“Lainbarad”, Halrohir recalled, “you were the one who placed last in the Trials, but still fought and earned the rank of Ranger.  Your father bestowed my rank upon me, and I am honored still.  I am glad you’re here on this ride.  How do you fare?”

“The chill and rain makes for miserable travel,” Lainbarad admitted, “and I would not be surprised if we find no tracks this day.  The damp earth should be easy for signs to read.”

“Unless of course, there are no signs to be read,” Halrohir said.  “No tracks sometimes mean no quarry to be found.  Nonetheless, I do not say, don’t look.  Come with me, son of Halbarad, and let us see what the Road will tell us.”  He rose, and with Lainbarad following, left the brief camp to search out the Road.  After a while of bending to the ground, slowly searching the Road and its edge, the two crouched low over a log at the roadside.

“Did you notice,” Halrohir said, “as I said, no signs to be read?  The rains have scrubbed the Road clean of anything that has passed since yesterday…”

“But, Lieutenant, surely you saw those broken branches and those marks that broke them?” Lainbarad asked.

“I did indeed see them,” Halrohir said.  “What broke the branches, and when?”

Lainbarad was silent for a moment, then, “It would have been since yesterday, and booted feet were the cause.  But where and who do those boots belong?”

A low whistle off in the brambles made both look, and they scrambled to their feet.  Moving quickly into the brush, the two Rangers, met up with Meldor, his bow bent, and an arrow knocked. He was standing over a body, clearly slain with an arrow, lying face in the mud. 

“I did not shoot him, Halrohir, we found him dead already,” Meldor said as they ran up to him.  “Cenion took two men and is scouting nearby.”

Halrohir rolled the body over with a kick.  The now-familiar face of one of the renegades of Saruman stared up at them in death, an arrow sticking into its throat.  He reached down and yanked the arrow from the body.  “Search it”, he said as he turned the arrow over in his hand.

“What is special about this arrow?”  Lainbarad asked.  Halrohir didn’t answer at first, but then spoke.

“It’s an Elvish arrow”, he said at last.  “We are not just hunted by an enemy, we are guarded by friends, or so it seems.  Or, this may have nothing to do with us; the Elves hunt Orcs as we would hunt wild dogs.  Still, I shall take this as a sign of sorts.  Lainbarad, I have a task for you.  Take this arrow, and ride as swift as you may back to the column.  Find Captain Galador riding in the van.  Give him this arrow, and tell him of what we’ve seen.  Speak to no one else save him, do you understand?  Go now!”  And without another word, Lainbarad mounted his horse and rode off as if he were being pursued.

“Halrohir, are there truly Elves about?  Can we count on help at last?” Cenion said as he and the other returned.

Halrohir turned to the party, his face grim.  “No, and no.  All we have is a dead half-Orc, slain by an arrow of the same fashion as the Elves use.  It might not have been shot by an Elf at all, but by an archer who gleaned this arrow from some forgotten fight.  Cenion, I suspect you found no other tracks or traces hereabout?”

“No, we did not,” Cenion admitted. “But the archer may have been some distance away from his target, surely?”

“True enough, but if they really were Elves, you’d never find even the slightest print or sign of them, such is their skill,” Halrohir said.  “And, I doubt if they are coming, and Galador shares my doubt.  And finally, we have sat here too long.  Prepare to ride, the day goes on!”  He turned to find Morindal and mounted, waiting for the others to saddle up as well.  “To the Road again,” he called, and the nine horsemen rode back to the Road and turned east once more.

They hadn’t gone less than a furlong when without warning, Morindal came to a halt and stood still in the middle of the Road.  Halrohir tried to urge him on, but the horse’s head pointed to the trees on the south side of the Road, and let out a deep “Whuff!”

The three Rangers knew what this meant.  Swords loosened in sheaths, and Meldor’s bow sat ready in his hands.  Halrohir stroked Morindal’s neck, and let the horse walk slowly toward the point where he looked.  When his hooves left the Road, a voice came from the trees:

“Dartho!  Tolo nu-haer!  Man eneth lin?” [Stop! Come no further! What are you called?”]

Halrohir could not believe his ears.  It took him a moment to wrap his thought around it: an Elf was here?  Is it even possible?  He called back, “Estannen Halrohir Dunadan, pedithan hi su mellyn?” [Call me Halrohir Westman, may we speak as friends?”]

From under the trees then emerged two figures, clad in green and brown, one with long black hair, the other a gold-silver sheen.  Both had incredibly long bows, when compared to the Dunedains’.  Bright almost silver eyes surveyed the party, resting most on Halrohir.  The darker figure spoke to Halrohir in the Common Tongue, with a clear and musical voice.

“Hail, Halrohir Dunadan!  I am Cambeleg of Imladris, and here is Dorwin, my companion.  He speaks not your tongue.  We are sent from Elrond of Rivendell to provide what service we are able, for you and your folk.”

“Hail, Cambeleg,” Halrohir replied, “you are most welcome to see.  I suspect we saw your handiwork not long back…”

“Yes, we dispatched a pair of scouts nearby”, Cambeleg said.  “And we heard your approach, but knew not who you were until you drew closer.  Your steed knew us sooner than you did – a most splendid animal, surely!  But there will be time for greetings later.  Half the day is already past, and we have been watching your rhythm of march for several days, now.  So has the enemy, and they can guess where you plan to halt tonight.  We would counsel you to stop the Dunedain where they are, right now, and make camp to throw off danger for one more day.”

Halrohir considered this news, and after a second said, “Done!  We shall all return to the caravan as swift as we may.  Have you horses, can you ride?”

“We have no horses, we have made our journey on foot, “Cambeleg said.  “It was better that we did, for we have been able to hunt your pursuers with greater stealth.”

“Then, if you will allow, we shall bring you back with us.  Meldor shall bear your friend Dorwin with him, and you shall ride Morindal with me; that way we can speak on the way.”  The Elves agreed, and soon they were riding steadily back west to meet the Dunedain.  Meldor spoke the Elven-tongue better than Halrohir, and soon he and Dorwin were lively talking on the ride.  Cambeleg and Halrohir spoke little as they watched for signs of the approaching caravan.  Shortly, in the distance came the vanguard of the Dunedain, Ercolindo riding out to meet them, pulling up short at the sight of the Elves in their company.  Without a word, Halrohir rode up to Galadon’s wain and halted.  Galador was dumbstruck when Halrohir announced Cambeleg and Dorwin to him, as well as their counsel to halt immediately.

“Welcome, good Elves, to what we can offer you”, Galador said. “By all means we should heed your warning, but look around you, there is no place to stop the caravan that would be defensible…”

“We have done that for you”, Cambeleg said.  “Half a mile ahead of you is a hidden hollow, far off the Road on the north side; your scouts, looking to the south, would never have seen it.  It is not large, but it will shelter all if they stay close together.  There is little in the way of water or wood, but the grass is deep for the horses.  Come, we must hurry.  I judge the camp must be ready before sunset.  There, we shall talk further, and share tidings as we can.”

The caravan moved out, and the word passed down the line of folk the halt tonight was guided by Elves, that they had come to help at last.  The news of this ran like fire in their veins, and the wains and wagons moved quickly to the hollow, and the camp was established faster than done to date.  As the sun set and gave way to a chilly night of clear sky and stars, the Elves sat with the Rangers in council by the fire.  Cambeleg gave his report while the Rangers sat and stood nearby, all in rapt attention.

“Word reached us in Rivendell”, he said, “that the Dunedain had heeded Master Elrond’s summons.  He judged that while the lands were empty, they were not friendly.  He arranged for patrols to come west along the Road, for that is where he judged your path would be, for a host of this size.  Once we passed over Mitheithel, our company split into pairs, and began scouring the lands for any enemy, some going north into the Ettenmoors, other south along the Hoarwell, until we found traces of their movements.

“We also learned of the attack on your camp near Amon Sul, and searched for signs of the enemy’s camp nearby.  We discovered much:  your enemy is indeed the agents of Saruman, but you need fear then hardly at all.  Tidings and news has reached Imladris from the south.  The Grey Company has found the Lord Aragorn in Rohan, after a terrible battle was fought by the men of that land against the forces of Saruman.  It is told that the traitor has been thrown down, his fortress overthrown, his followers destroyed or scattered.  They report that Mithrandir has now become the White Wizard and has shown forth great command and power.  The Grey Company is now led by Lord Aragorn, and have ridden east to confront the Enemy.”

“Your news, Cembeleg, is all of wonder, and full of hope,” Galador said at last.  “With the overthrow of Saruman, perhaps any organized attack upon us is lessened, if not gone.  But I would not think that, knowing that there are still his servants here who may not have had your tidings, and continue to obey their last command.  We still should not lower out vigilance, nor slacken our pace.  It is my counsel that we press on, even so.”

“That is wisdom, Captain Galador,” Cambeleg said.  “We have been tasked to assist you as we can.  We have scouted farther than you current riders have managed, all the way to the Last Bridge.  It is a narrow passage across Mitheithel that your folk must traverse, and a dangerous part of the journey.  You are, at your present speed of march, perhaps two days before Mitheithel, then three more days to the Fords of Bruinen and the approach to Rivendell.  Your people have done well in these conditions, but you are not safe yet.”

“Cambeleg, you mentioned others of Rivendell are in the Wild,” Halrohir said.  “Why have you only chosen to reveal your presence and your actions now, and not earlier?”

“Because we could not have reached you any earlier,” Cambeleg replied.  “Those out of Rivendell needed to cross the leagues of Eriador.  Others of the Elves were in the Wild, but not under Elrond’s direction.  They it was who passed news along to us of your progress, but we had no way to bring aid before.

“We have, however, been able to help once we reached you.  Our companions have managed to find the enemy camps, and harass them enough to keep them occupied in pursuing us, and blind to your movements.  It has taken them sometimes a day or two before they found you again, and then we would strike them once again.  Twice in the last four days, they were massing their numbers for an attack as strong as the attack on your camp.  Twice, we thwarted their plans.  But they are, as we said, still out there, and in number.  We are certain of at least one hundred and fifty left alive and battle-ready, but there are smaller scout groups in the Wild; there may be as many as two hundreds waiting on the moors.”

Galador was thinking as he listened, and decided his course.  “Very well.  Rangers, pass the word to the folk:  we rise at dawn, strike camp and move out.  We expect to reach the Bridge over Hoarwell in two days’ time.  I want everyone rested.  Halrohir, you shall set the watch.”

“If I may offer, Captain Galador, Dorwin and I shall be glad to join your guard”, Cambeleg said. 

“We thank you indeed, kindly”, Halrohir said. 

 

At Halrohir’s direction, the watch over the Dunedain camp began just after sunset, only a few watchfires to keep back the dark.  That was all that was needed, for the Moon was one night past the full, the land lit brightly enough to see by in the dark.  For the Elves, Cambeleg and Dorwin, it was brilliant enough light for their Elven bows. 

The two Elves made morale in the camp soar to heights of hope that hadn’t been seen since Weathertop.  The sight of two of the Eldar and the word that Elrond had sent more aid gave the weary Dunedain a cause for carrying on despite their weariness and dread of the Wild.  Songs were raised around the fires again, and spirits rose in the gloom.

As the night wore on, many turned to their blankets and bedrolls for sleep, but not the Rangers, who kept up their watchfulness.  As the moon reached its zenith, Halrohir had stopped his patrol and was standing near the paddock, looking at each of the mounts in turn, his gaze falling on Morindal, who also awake and seemed to be watching the night in his own way.

“As I said, a most splendid animal, is he not?” came Cambeleg’s voice over his shoulder.  Halrohir looked around and saw the Elf walking to wards him.  “Unless I am much mistaken, is he not the same horse that was gifted to the Dunedain who rescued a party of Elves in the mountain pass, years ago?”

“That is also the story I was told”, Halrohir said.  “Galador related that tale to me, when our ride first began, days ago, though it seems now like ages past.”

“And he would be right”, Cambeleg said.  “There will be no other of his kind like unto him, the mightiest horse in the North.  For his own gift is sadly his undoing, we deem.  His strength knows no bounds that we have found, but he is barren.  Many times, under our care we tried to sire him, but no mare will carry his foal.  It is not that they will not, it is that they cannot.  There will be no colt of this mighty one – what did you name him, Morindal?”

“Yes”, Halrohir said, “it is the Elvish for his name among Men, ‘Blackfoot’.  It simply, well, seemed to suit better…”

“It does indeed, because that is his name among our people as well,” Cambeleg said smiling.  “You knew that name in your heart, Dunadan.  Do not wonder at that!  For it is also a gift of your people, as well, to see the heart and know it, even your own.  Allow me, if you will,” and the Elf crossed the paddock to Morindal, who was watching with seeming pleasure at the Elf’s approach.

Cambeleg stroked the horse’s muzzle and massive flanks, ran his fingers through his thick mane, and whispered low in the Elven-tongue.  Morindal began nodding his head vigorously, and every so often turned to look at Halrohir.

“Cambeleg, it is said among us that the Elves once tried to teach all living things to speak, even the trees,” Halrohir said.  “It this true?”

Cambeleg looked at Halrohir, smiling.  “It is part of our memory, and not just tales.  Long ago we wished to hear the songs and voices of all living things, and we still do.  Now, this great beast will tell you things, if you listen close enough, even though you cannot hear him.  He has already told me much:  he can pick your scent out of a mile of the Wild, or out of a camp of Men.  He knows your voice, and will find you.  And more so, you are the only one of either Elves or Men he has ever consented to bear, and he also knows of the pact between you...”

“He… a ‘pact’!?”  Halrohir said in wonder.

“Yes, and he marks it well,” Cambeleg said.  “You promised to release him from a life of drudgery and toil, in exchange for a life of peril and battle and renown.  He will never willingly go back to be a draft horse or pack mule, for he has tasted the chase and the hunt with you.  You gave him your word, and he gives his.”

Halrohir had no words to say.  He walked slowly up to Morindal, and laid a hand on the horse’s nose.  Morindal bent his head and pressed his muzzle into Halrohir’s shoulder.  The man caressed the horse’s head, and the horse replied with a playful butt with his nose. Cambeleg chuckled at the sight.

“Yes, the two of you will go on from these dreadful days to greater things, so long as you are in company,” the Elf said.  “Now, on to other things, which is why I sought you out just now.  Dorwin and I came to you on foot, as you recall.  If we are to accompany the Dunedain, it may perhaps be better if we had mounts of our own.  Have you horses to spare, Ranger?”

Halrohir hesitated for a moment, then said, “We shall find you two, somehow.  I would much rather have you with the scouting parties, as your Elven skills would be wasted as mere guards over the caravan.  Come!”  And the two left the paddock to return to the camp.

@-@-@-@-@-

The eastern sky had begun turning to pastel oranges and yellows, heralding the dawn once more.  The camp was already stirring, horses and wagons being hitched, goods and store being loaded, and tents stricken for packing.  Only two fires burned still in the gathering light, enough for water and food.  The wagons and carts once again lined up in column, and at Galador’s word, rolled south to climb onto the Road, and the eastward trek started once more.

The guard mount had changed, with the arrival of the Elves.  Horses had been found for the two, and they easily joined the out-companies.  Meldor and Dorwin joined Ercolindo’s ride on the flanks; the two had struck up a lively conversation in the night, and were comfortable in each other’s company.  Cambeleg rode with Halrohir in the van, riding far out front of the column; Halrohir’s old horse, Bregedur, was a more than compatible mount for the Elf.  Cambeleg had counseled the others that as many of the Dunedain as possible should have bows at hand, whether riding or on foot.

From the onset of the ride, Halrohir felt a sense of urgent haste this day, and spurred Morindal to a greater pace, so much that the others in the van could not keep up with the mighty black stallion.  Calls from Cenion and Lainbarad did little to slow his pace, and it was not until Cambeleg galloped next to him did he even notice his speed.

“Ranger, what is your haste?” he called.  “The rest of the riders cannot hope to match your mount, and the horses are winded.  We should find a spot to rest rider and steed, even for a little while.”

“Then see to them and rest them, and catch me up later on”, Halrohir said sternly, “for I intend to press on, as long as Morindal’s strength will allow.  A weight of dread is on my mind, after our words in council last night, and I must see this done!”

“What dread, and what weight, mellon nyn?”  Cambeleg said.  “Will you not confide this to me?  Will you not halt, even to speak?”

Halrohir reluctantly reined to a walk, signaling the rest of the ride to do likewise.  The horses were puffing and winded, the riders only less so.  “What would you know, Cambeleg?  You yourself spoke of the peril we may have of crossing the Last Bridge, that it might even be held in force against us.  I intend to scout to within sight of the Bridge, and see for myself what I have led the Dunedain into, safe passage or a trap!”

“Then, allow me to give you counsel,” Cambeleg said.  “It is after noon already, and we shall barely make it back to meet the column before sunset.  You and I shall press ahead to scout the Bridge.  Let your young Rangers, Cenion and Lainbarad, find the night’s camp, and report back.  Then, we are free to spy out the Bridge and learn what we can, and both our tasks are complete.”

Halrohir thought in silence.  “Done”, he said finally, “you speak wisely.  It would seem that haste is ever the crow on my shoulder these last few weeks.  Let us give the orders.”

Shortly afterward, the next bivouac had been found, and work started to make it ready for the caravan’s arrival.  Lainbarad directed the quartering party, while Cenion rode westward to meet with the Rangers.  Halrohir and Cambeleg continued to ride eastward, at a slower pace to spare both horses.  At last, with the sun westering in the sky, they halted.  The land had changed with the miles approaching the valley of the Hoarwell.  The heights of the Ettenmoors far to the north ran down to the Road in tumbled masses of hills densely forested in pine and cedar.  The barren grasslands of the Wild gave way to grass and turves along the roadside, springy and softer.  And the flatness of the land, with hollows and shallow dells, began to steadily slope downward before them.  The Road went more or less in a straight line, cutting through steep slopes on either side until it reached the line of the Hoarwell.

The two dismounted and left the horses in a thicket that provided a hiding place, and carefully walked toward a high point overlooking the Road.  A thick hazel-brake atop a steep embankment gave them a spot to oversee the Road, and there in the afternoon light, the Last Bridge stretched over the river, three buttresses of stone which spanned the Hoarwell’s cold stream.  Long they lay there, as the sun sank behind their view, watching and listening in a tense silence.  Only the occasional piping of some distant birds and the flowing stream of the river broke the quiet. 

After what seemed hours, Halrohir looked over and signed to Cambeleg to leave, but the Elf was tense as a bowstring, a strange gleam in his eye.  He held his hand up as if to call for even more quiet, and signed for Halrohir to have his sword ready.  Silently, without getting up, he drew his blade under his body, his torso and cloak masking both the sound and any light off the blade.  Cambeleg had his bow already strung and an arrow fitted.  Seeing Halrohir’s questioning look, Cambeleg pointed across the Road, not thirty yards from where they now lay.  Soon, even to Halrohir’s eyes there was movement in the brush. 

“Man cenich?” [What do you see?]  Halrohir whispered.

“Yrch, pin egor erchyn**” [Orcs, or something orcish], Cambeleg whispered back.

And within seconds of this, two forms could be seen in the foliage, then two more.  Cambeleg slowly drew his bow up, ready to fire from a crouched pose. Halrohir moved to brandish his sword.  Then, several things happened at once.  Cambeleg’s eyes suddenly widened as he rolled to his side, his bow coming up ready to shoot.  Halrohir, seeing the Elf’s movement, flipped on his back, his sword flying into a defensive hold.  Two more half-orcs had crept up behind them with swords at the ready, lunging to attack. 

At that moment a tremendous crashing sounded through the undergrowth, the sound of rhythmic thudding followed by a familiar thunderous neigh.  Morindal, followed closely by Bregedur, burst through the foliage at a near-gallop, bowling over the two attackers where they stood.  Halrohir leapt to his feet, sword before him, but saw that the horses had done their work too well.  Morindal had crushed the first foe to the ground and brained the second with a smash of his hooves.

A cry from Cambeleg brought their attention across the Road, as the others there had begun to fire arrows at them, several sticking into the trees near their heads.  The Elf was shooting back, the shrieks of pain showing he was scoring hits even through the dense bushes.  Halrohir quickly ran to Morindal and leapt onto the horse, whirling him down the slope and across the Road, scrambling up the far bank in pursuit of foes he couldn’t see, such was his anger.  He saw two dead foes right off, arrows piercing them as they lay.  He saw a trail of branches and leaves, and imprints in the ground where the half-orcs had panicked and bolted away, heedless of any stealth.  He followed the farthest one, and in seconds rode up to the retreating orc who looked over his shoulder, screamed at the sight of the huge black giant bearing down upon him, and tripped in his terror; Halrohir dispatched him with one sword blow.  Cambeleg’s voice could be heard behind him, and Halrohir turned to find the Elf, who was standing over the body of a fourth orc, shot through the neck.    

“We were lucky twice over, mellon nyn,” Cambeleg said, “especially with our horses’ joining the fight.  And neither we nor the horses have had any hurt.”

“That’s not all the luck we have, some of it bad”, Halrohir said bitterly.  “The Last Bridge is being watched and even though these were but scouts, I’ve no doubt they mean to hold the Bridge against our passing.  When these scouts fail to report back, more will be sent.  This isn’t over yet.  Come, we must hide these bodies, then ride hard back to the camp and tell the Dunedain what has happened, and what may happen tomorrow.  They are less than a day’s march away, and we may not be able to fight our way through.”

The two mounted once more and rode west, hard as they could, and just before sunset encountered Cenion riding back to find them.  Under the younger Dunedan’s lead, the three rode into a camp which, compared to the last few days of the Wild, was a garden of green and shade.  The camp was situated in a deep fold beneath a large rocky cliff overhung with cedar trees and greenery, a freshet watercourse seeping from the stone.  The air smelled sweet with pine and conifer, a welcome change from the dust and grasses.  A merry fire blazed in the center of the camp where sat Galador and the Ranger leaders, eager to hear the report.

“This is disturbing news”, Galador said at last after Halrohir and Cambeleg finished their tale.  “If we have a score of Rangers, and perhaps two-score more of war-worthy men-at-arms, we have little chance of fighting our way through a determined defense of the Bridge.  Cambeleg, you said Master Elrond sent a company of your folk to aid us.  Can we expect more, surely?”

Cambeleg was silent for a beat, then said, “As I said, we are scattered as we are seeking the foes’ camps and strength.  Even if I send Dorwin out on errand to gather them together, we could not hope to have them assemble in less than a day, maybe two.  I judge that we cannot linger here, even if this is as pleasant a site as you have seen on the march.”

“I would suggest”, Halrohir said, “that we keep the same march order as we did today, and press on to the Bridge, but pull the scout party closer.  This way, if we find the Bridge is held, or the scouts are beset, Ercolindo’s riders can reinforce quickly.  But we cannot afford the luxury of a slow pace; all the folk must be made aware that haste is life, this day.  Every effort must be made to hurry through the crossing, and put the Bridge behind us.”

All there agreed, and the meeting broke. The Rangers went out to mount the guard and get what rest they could.  Halrohir, as usual, could not sleep right away.  As was becoming a habit, he walked to the paddock where he found Morindal, and laughed softly.  The great horse had been tethered just within reach of an apple barrel, and had craned his neck just enough to snatch them one by one.

“You walking appetite, what will it take to fill your belly!”  Halrohir laughed.  He plucked an apple from the barrel and held it near the horse’s nose.  Morindal sniffed, then gently accepted it, downing it in one bite, and stretched his muzzle to gently sniff the Ranger’s face.

“Rochon mil gar-an Dunadan” [The horse has love for the Westman], came the voice of Dorwin, who had been standing nearby in the shadows. 

Halrohir started, then relaxed.  “I agree with you.”  Remembering Dorwin did not speak the Common Tongue, he tried to remember his Elvish, but faltered at the words.  Dorwin smiled. 


"Im pedich miw a-Westron” [I speak a little of the Common Tongue],Dorwin replied.  “The great black feet chosen you.  Songs for you and black feet.  Songs in… Rivendell.  Visit House of Elrond, we… we all sing one voice about black feet and rider.”  And he nodded his head and went his way.

Halrohir chuckled to himself again, stroking Morindal’s mane.  “Songs about us?  Not in a hundred years will we hear that, will we, you big heap…”

But Morindal just nuzzled his rider, and said nothing.





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