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Prologue: Ale with the Rider
The Breeland was a densely inhabited townland in the north of the Reunited Kingdom, sitting astride the roads that crisscrossed the land. The Great Road ran east to west, and the ancient Greenway ran roughly north to south. Dominated by the chief village of Bree, which was situated at the foot of Bree-hill, there was also the smaller hamlets of Staddle on the other side of the hill, Combe which lay in a deep valley to the east, and Archet on the edge of the Chetwood. Circling Bree was a large and deep dike and hedge, with two stout gates on the west and southern walls. And in the center of the village, at the crossing of the roads stood the large and well-known inn, the Prancing Pony, famous in story and song both far and wide.
This evening, a pleasant April twilight that was cool without chill, the Pony boasted a packed common room with many visitors and patrons, laughter and loud talk filling every corner. Business was not only good, it was downright prosperous, as compared to the lean times of five years past, during the times of the ruffians and the bad troubles from the South. There was now much coming and going up the old Greenway from the lands to the South, where the stories and songs being passed up the road were a wonder to hear.
There was, first and foremost, the return of the King of old, the chief of the Rangers who had come into his own. The Rangers, it turned out, were in fact the remnant of the Great People, the Kings of Men out of the West, and they were now regarded with different eyes as defenders of the land. Word was sent that the King’s messengers would ride north to survey the lands and set the wilderness to order in his name, and to reassure the Breelanders that, by the King’s wish, their lot would only get better. That turned out to be a promise kept.
And the stories of the great war! The Rangers who had gone away to fight were gone for more than six months, gone in the spring and returning in the fall, reduced in number but not in glory. They told of the terrible battles, the daring stands against the foe, and not a few told of the horns of the Horse-lords blowing in the morning, and the banner of the King on the winds of the dawn.
But the Breelanders also heard a story that was closer to home. For during the troubles, just east of their town at the Forsaken Inn, the Rangers had gathered all their folk and fled overland on the Great East Road across the waste to the hidden valley of Rivendell. Led by the few Rangers who had stayed behind, they fought the cold and their foes, and had come back stronger than ever.
Tonight, a merry company sat by the hearth sharing the talk they heard and the speculation running wide through Breeland. There were three Men; Darcy Heathertoes, Tom Thistlewool, and Magnus Appledore. Also, with them were two Hobbits, Rowly Mugwort and his friend, Aldegard Sandheaver, whom everyone called Al for short.
“It’s all to hope for the future, for Bree at any rate,” Rowly was saying as he drank his ale while swinging his feet. “Young Nick, who is my sister Angelica’s oldest boy, was just offered to be apprenticed to Bobbin Bullrush, the carpenter in Archet! A fine start to a fine trade, and that you can tie to.”
“Nar, that’s nothin’”, Tom drawled, “I meself just had to add a second barn to me yard, what with all the meal we’ve been grindin’. Why, I’ve even had to hire two new hands to manage the work, and I’ve been able to pay them smart wages an’ all. These last years’ve been wonderful harvests, especially that summer after the Rangers came back, remember how golden everything was?”
“Aye, that was the year of all those weddings, too.” Al Sandheaver recalled. “And then the year after, with all the birthing and christenings, too. Even the livestock were busy. The mares foaled, the cows birthed, not a stillborn at all for anything. Truly a golden year.”
“And the ale’s been golden, too!” Magnus said, and everyone chuckled in agreement. No one could remember the beer at the Pony being this good before the bad times; rumor had it that a wandering wizard had laid a blessing on the beer for seven years, and it would not run out soon. “But, what of you there, Darcy? Is naught good to your lot?”
Darcy shifted uncomfortably, then said, “well, you see lads, it’s like this: Rosamund said yes. We’re getting married.”
The company roared with laughter and thumps on the shoulder for their companion. Unknown to the five there, a pair of grey eyes watched them from the gloom of an unlit corner, a mug of ale in a gloved hand and a smile beneath the eyes. The face lit by the light of the common room was young but worn, framed by dark hair.
“Yes, laugh on, good people,” the man said to himself, “and it will all only get better, you wait and see.” And the man rose up to an imposing height, his cloak pinned over his shoulder by a silver six-rayed star. As he walked toward the door of the Inn, he touched the arm of a passing barmaid, and whispered in her ear. She looked up at the man with a little gasp on her lips and smiled wide.
The laughter at the table had died away, and glasses raised around, when the barmaid appeared and laid down fresh ale for all five there.
“Here, lass, we didn’t order no more ale, we’re still drinking these!” Magnus said.
“You didn’t order them, masters,” the maid replied. “This round is a gift, in honor of the one of you just getting married.”
“And who ordered it, so that we might thank him proper?” Al asked.
“All he’d say is, ‘The Rider drinks with you tonight’.” She said, glancing at the figure stepping out the door with a swirl of his cloak.
All five there looked at each other, then jumped up from their seats and burst out the door, little Al blurting out to the barmaid “We’ll be right back!” They were standing outside in the street looking this way and that, not sure what they were looking for, when around the corner from the direction of the stables there came the steady, heavy beat of huge hooves. As the three men and two hobbits watched there came a horse, gigantic in size and power, black as the night sky; and riding him was a tall figure, cloaked in black with a rayed star on his breast, riding off into the night.
“Horseman, please hold up”, Darcy cried out, and the rider halted in the middle of the street. “Were you inside the Prancing Pony just now, and did you order a round of ale for a party of five?”
The rider pulled his hood down, and answered, “That I did, for it seems there is a wedding in the offing, perhaps?”
The party there seemed to have lost their voices, but little Al piped up, “Then you’re he, Halrohir the Rider. We would be so honored to have you at our table, to drink with us properly. If you are on some errand, I understand, but to meet you at last – “
“My errand is not pressing, so I might stay at least one round in your company”, Halrohir smiled as he jumped from the saddle to the ground. He tethered the black stallion to a post, then whispered something in a strange tongue to the beast, who blew out a great “Whuff!” Turning to the company with a grin, he let them lead him back inside the lighted tavern hall.
The six went right back to their places, the barmaid hovering over the table as if just about to clear it away. Halrohir signaled the barmaid to bring six fresh ales, including one for himself, and handed her two gold coins; one for the fare, and one for her. She took the order and the coins and left, looking at Halrohir with barely disguised devotion.
“So, friends, shall we make that toast?” Halrohir asked, “To Darcy and, her name was -Rosamund, yes – to the new family and your house! Good years in times to come!” And all six there took a pull of their mugs in salute.
But Darcy raised his ale once more, “And to our guest, Halrohir the Ranger, the great dark rider of the North: where he rides, life is good!” Halrohir smiled and pulled his ale in salute.
“But what brings you here to Bree tonight, Ranger?” Rowly asked.
Halrohir smiled, “Even I like to enjoy a warm fire and hot food, and the company of others. And there’s news to be had, and stories, and people to meet, like you. I like to hear of the doings of folk inside the hedgerows and farms, for each of you have stories to tell, you know.”
“Oh, come now, Ranger, you’ve seen it an’ done it, haven’t ya?” Tom asked. “I mean, what’s the likes of Breeland to you, that’s seen all the wide lands of the North clear down to Dunland and beyond? And what’s fought in battles, mind? Not that there wasn’t that some scrap right here in Breeland, mind…”
“True enough, though that never should have happened,” Halrohir said, “but battle and war are the province of men who are willing to face death, or at least cause it. The first time I…killed, there was no time to think, there was only time to act. But after the killing was done, then your mind and heart go to war with each other. And that, I wasn’t prepared for.” Halrohir went quiet, sipping his ale thoughtfully.
“Now, Ranger, what might we know from you about places you’ve seen?” Al asked, trying to break the mood. “The word here in Bree is that there’s something queer going on away east, towards the Misty Mountains and all.”
Halrohir smiled, “Perhaps not the Mountains, but closer in to Breeland. The word has come up the Greenway by way of the King’s Messengers, word of a great work to be begun. The Tower of Amon Sul, which once stood upon Weathertop, is to be rebuilt, and made a fortress for the King here in the North. So, all manner of craftsmen, artificers, architects, sculptors, carpenters,” he said, nodding to Rowly about his nephew Nick, “those who deal with supplies for men and beasts”, he nodded to Tom, “will have their skills and goods in demand; all paid for, by the King’s purse. It will be a busy time, once the building starts.”
The Breelanders’ eyes were alight at the prospects. “And just when is all this work supposin’ to start, eh?” Tom asked. "This is the first word we’ve heard tell, and though you’re a Ranger and all, you’re not a King’s Messenger from up the Greenway.”
“We have ways of hearing things, long before others, or we wouldn’t be Rangers, would we?” Halrohir said slyly. “Now, to be honest, the Messengers did come up the Greenway to speak with us about this, because the building site must be secured and watched, and that work falls to us. And it will fall to you, worthies of the Breeland, to be ready when the orders for goods and skills come pouring in.”
There were nods around the table, and especially thoughtful looks from Tom and little Rowly, who stood to do quite well in such a situation. But Al was hungry for more. “What else can you tell us, Rider? I mean, about where you’ve been, and where you’re bound to go? You were leaving, but it’s late for a journey, unless you were sleeping under the stars tonight.”
Halrohir considered, then said, “You’re right, it is rather late to be starting out, but my errand is such that it can’t wait. Which is why my mount is still saddled and ready outside. So, with this, my friends,” he said as he drained his ale in one long pull, “I must bid you all a fond farewell.” He rose, and the others rose as well. “But know this, that I’ll be back in Bree from time to time, just to see how things are going along. Goodnight!” And he rose from his chair, all the others doing likewise. Darcy held out his hand, and the Ranger took it.
“It was a fine thing to meet you, Ranger, no mistake”, Darcy said. “You’ve given us all good news and thank you for your blessing on my up-and-coming. I suppose that it’s too much to hope to see you there?”
“My errand will take me far afield, for many months to come”, Halrohir said, “but this I will say: I shall look in afterward, to see how your new nest is building. I will have business with Bree once this errand is done. Until our next meeting, friends!” He said to all as he turned and left the tavern, his cloak billowed behind him as he swirled out the door. The others followed in his wake and reached the street just in time to see Halrohir in the saddle, wheeling the great stallion around and riding off. As he passed them, the horse slowed his pace, looked at them and blew a snorting blast from his nostrils in token of greeting, and then off the two rode into the night.
Halrohir and Morindal rode out of Bree by the southern gate, saluting the watchman as they walked past. As the gate closed behind them, the great black sounded off with a thunderous neigh, and great gouts of earth flew from his hooves as he broke into a canter and sped down the road, turning onto the Greenway headed south. He was twenty miles south of Bree, up on the South Downs, when he stopped to make camp in the dead of night. A hasty pine-needle fire crackled brightly, and while he was brewing something hot to drink, he crossed to where Morindal stood close by. He stroked the horse’s mane and nose gently, offering an apple which was quickly munched.
“They wanted nothing but to talk about me, you know,” Halrohir said to the horse, “little knowing that this errantry is all about you. It will be a long, long ride, my great friend, but I will not push you, even to your massive limits; it will be an easy ride, just watch.” Morindal nudged the Ranger as if in understanding, which Halrohir was certain he could.
It was now five years since the flight of the Dunedain and the ride of the Grey Company, five years since Halrohir and Morindal first met, and rode together into battle and fame. Both were now heroes, the Rider who had no fear; and his mount, the mightiest horse in the North, who could cover all the lands in three days’ ride, it was said. But it was a lonely life, this Ranger’s life, and he only hinted at it with the Breelanders tonight how lonely it was. Halrohir longed for company many days, for his friends were far away and distant on errantry of their own.
One of his closest friends was the Elf, Cambeleg, who had fought at his side during the Flight, and they had ridden together across the lands for some time afterwards. But on that fateful September day three years ago now, when Elrond and the Three Keepers, along with the last of the Eldar rode to the Grey Havens and took ship to the Undying Lands, Cambeleg left with them.
Their parting was bitter, and Halrohir would never forget it. Halrohir had been just near the woods of the Forsaken Inn, a day’s ride east of the Breeland, when he encountered the last ride of the Keepers. He realized as he watched the procession pass, that so much beauty and wisdom was leaving, and the world was about to get a little dimmer. But then he heard Cambeleg’s glad shout, and the two embraced as brothers.
“Our time is over, that of the Deep-Elves, my friend”, Cambeleg had said then. “All whom are left, you see here in this company. There are still those in Middle-Earth with that blood, especially the royal house of the Telcontari, whom you serve. But the Dark Elves and the Silvan Elves will still be here, though they will fade with the years, slowly forgetting and being forgotten.
“It will be left to the Kings of Men, such as yourself, to remember the Elder Days and recall the Dark Dangers to folk that the years will bring. There is labor to be done, and still deeds for your hands and heart, so do not despair!”
“I still grieve for this parting, beyond the world’s end, so the Wise tell us”, Halrohir said with a tightness in his throat. “I had hoped you would stay, but my head told me what my heart denied. I feel lost at this, my friend.”
“I know your grief, but let it pass like the seasons will”, Cambeleg said. “You must look to your people, and yourself. For your life will now be a long and exciting span of years, filled with adventure and valor and yes, even love. Remember from our meeting? Those ‘eyes of bottle-green’ that were foretold to you? Do not stop seeking for them, child of Numenor that you are.”
Halrohir remembered something then, “Recall what else was foretold, the warning of Morindal? Every twenty years, he must drink of the Entwash again, to renew and restore his youth and strength. How much longer before that time is upon us?”
“I would wait not at all,” Cambeleg said, “but set out as soon as you can. But if you count the years of the founding of his strength, you have but four years from this season before you see the years suddenly catch that beloved behemoth. Make haste, for his sake, and yours!”
And that was the reason for Halrohir’s errantry, this urgent ride across the lands: for the time of Morindal’s destiny was at hand, less than one year remained to the great heroes before the span of years expired. And Halrohir would risk the lands, and anything at all, for his horse that he held dear to his spirit, as much as the horse held his master.
Halrohir looked drowsily into the dying embers of his campfire, the night-speech of the land around him lulling him to sleep. “I will do this”, he said to himself, “for Morindal. I swear it.” And he cast himself down onto his bedroll and into a restless sleep.
Chapter One: The Rider Goes South
Halrohir awoke the next day later than he had planned, the comfort of the wilderness lulling him deeply into slumber. The fire had burned out in the night, not even a warm coal to reignite for a new fire. Looking around him, even the morning mists had burned off in the bright sunlight, and Morindal stood nearby on his tether, contentedly cropping what little grass was left.
Shaking off sleep, Halrohir rose and covered the fire in earth. He rolled his bedroll into a tight tube and tied it across the back of the saddle. In two saddle pouches on either side were the rest of his gear: clothes and sundries, wrapped in wool stockings; food wrapped in cheesecloth, mainly biscuits and slips of cured meat, enough for one grown man for weeks with care; cooking gear, including a small pot with a kettle lid, spoon and fork, and some spices, all wrapped in a cloth so as not to clink together; and of course, a small supply of apples for Morindal, a gift from a Breeland farmer. Smiling at the memory of the farmer’s gift, he took one and offered it to Morindal.
“It’s a late start to the day, my friend,” Halrohir said, as Morindal downed the apple in his usual crunching bite. “This day will be just a ride until nightfall, then we’ll get back into the rhythm of day and dark. As I said, we shall take our time, but there is a time to our journey that we cannot stray from, even if we wanted to.”
With that, Halrohir finished checking the last of his gear, the gear of war: his sword on a holster affixed to the left side of his saddle; two hunting knives, forged in Rivendell by Elven-smiths, a final parting gift from Cambeleg, knives which would hold their edge for a longer time than most; and a short bow of hawthorn, with a quiver of a score of arrows. He knew how to make and fletch arrows, of course, from part of the Trials, but these would suffice for now.
Satisfied as to his gear and to how he left no trace of his camping place, Halrohir collected a few bits of kindling and some wood for their next camp, not knowing what may lie ahead. He then heaved into the saddle and urged Morindal to a trot to start on their late morning trek. They had stopped close to the Andrath, the pass between the South Downs and the Barrow Downs, the long high ground twenty miles south of Bree. The Andrath split the long heights into two, with the Greenway running through it. As they rode through, Halrohir reined up at the crest, the highest point where the road leapt over the downs. He looked back over his shoulder to the north, seeing green lands and just on the edge of sight. If he squinted and looked long enough, shading his eyes with a hand, he could just discern the tilled lands and farm country of Breeland. Turning forward, he looked south to see the Greenway and the lands beyond, the barren moors and lands of Eriador leading south.
“A long and lonely ride we’ve picked for ourselves, Morindal mellon nin,” Halrohir said as he ran a hand through the horse’s mane, “but one that must start someplace. Let’s be off.” And they rode down the sloping road, the height of the South Downs giving way to the flats and unremarkable lands of southern Eriador. Morindal’s pace was steady as a marching drumbeat, trotting then walking, then picking up a trot again, tirelessly pounding away the miles. Even after the years he had spent with the great black horse, Halrohir always had wonder in the stallion’s seeming bottomless well of strength and endurance. They made good time in the day remaining to them, having traveled by Halrohir’s reckoning about forty miles from the last camp, when he reined up near a tiny group of trees he had spied, just about a furlong off the road. As the sun began to set and the light to fade, he had a small fire burning, boiling water in his kettle, and Morindal grazing nearby. As his tea and broth were steeping, he ran over in his head the reckoning of the journey before them.
Before departing on this ride, Halrohir had devoured every map and every story, and talked especially to his father, Haladan, who had ridden with the Grey Company during the War of the Ring. With all this knowledge, he mapped out his route and committed it to memory before riding out. He planned to keep to the Greenway through Eriador, a three-day ride until the road crossed the Greyflood River at the ruined city of Tharbad, the only reliable crossing of the river for miles in any direction. There through the ruined town ran an ancient causeway, built by the Kings of Men in the days of their might; but as the centuries passed and the town fell into ruin, the causeway became nothing but a broken ford, as treacherous to cross as the Greyflood itself.
Once the Greyflood was behind them, Halrohir reckoned it a further six days of steady riding, passing through the old lands called on the maps Enedwaith, the Middle-lands. This was of old the region that lay between the borders of the Two Kingdoms, Arnor and Gondor. At the end of that leg awaited the Fords of Isen, the border of the kingdom of Rohan, the home of the Horse-Lords from where in years past, Morindal himself was foaled.
This might be the first real obstacle on the journey; for the Rohirrim, he was told, did not suffer any to ride across their lands without leave. And if there was one thing he could not get in advance of the journey, it was the leave of the Rohirrim to ride freely through their realm. To that, Halrohir trusted to his name, his rank, his father’s name, and the name of the King. And to this end, Haladan had given Halrohir one thing to aid his quest. In his gear he bore a letter, with the seal of the King obtained from the King’s Messenger at Bree, declaring he himself to be a King’s Messenger, hopefully with leave to ride through Rohan without let or hindrance. At least, that was the intent.
But once they passed over Isen and crossed into Rohan itself, came an obstacle that no letter or word could solve. Halrohir had no clear idea, no matter who or where he searched, or any indication as to where or how he might find the source of the Entwash, where should be the origins of the waters that might restore Morindal to his vigor. It couldn’t very well be any stream or rill running into the river itself, or there would be herds of giant horses running over the plains; it had to be a precise location where these waters might be found. And for that, he only had one clue.
One of his recent rides took him over the borders of the Shire, the land of the hobbits west of the Brandywine River. During his brief visit, he had heard tell of the Three Travelers who resided in the Shire, three valiant hobbits who had adventures in one year to last three lifetimes. One was a Knight of Rohan and had ridden with the host of the Rohirrim at the great Battle of the Pellenor. The second was a Knight of the Citadel of Minas Tirith, who had ridden with Mithrandir on his great horse hither and thither across the lands and was present at both the Siege of Gondor and the fight before the Black Gate. The third, it was told, was the gardener of the Baggins of Bag End who had borne the Enemy’s treasure into the Black Land and set the Dark Tower to ruin. Mighty stories, to be sure, and hardly to be believed, were it not for the accounts from the Grey Company who had seen it all come to pass.
But the most intriguing part of these tales, the part that interested Halrohir the most, was the account of the two warrior-hobbits who were uncommonly large and strong. The secret to their size and strength, it was said, was they too had drunk of the same mysterious waters of the Entwash that had given Morindal his virtues. Although he was not able to have an audience with the Travelers personally, Halrohir talked with every possible source he could find regarding the tales. And he had pieced together his plan, based on the word gleaned from the loose accounts and vague reports.
Somehow, Halrohir had to make his way northeast across Rohan once he crossed Isen, over the trackless miles of open plains, until he struck the line of the Entwash itself; then follow the river north until he reached the southern eaves of Fangorn Forest. From there, he had dark imaginings of having to enter the wood itself, to find within what he sought: the fantastic creatures from out of the Elder Days, the Ents themselves. Halrohir had no illusions of confidence as to how that encounter might go, but it was Morindal’s life or death in the balance. And that was all he needed to decide.
So, by his own calculation, and his being familiar with Morindal’s endurance, Halrohir reckoned on a journey of a fortnight in the saddle, barring any encounters with trouble of hardship along the way. Weather might play into the trek, as every river he crossed might be a torrent; ruffians or worse might waylay him on his way. He might even get turned back at the borders of Rohan by the march-wards, letters from the King notwithstanding. Too many troubles, and too early in the journey for worry. The first step was to cross the Greyflood safely, then all else would follow.
While Halrohir had been running all these thoughts through his mind, he absently watched the sun fade below the horizon and the twilight close in upon the lands. It being April, many of the blooming trees and brush and field flowers had begun their season, and the lands of Eriador were fragrant with spring after winter. Especially this last winter; for though the worthies of Breeland recalled the recent years of plenty, just this last winter was as harsh in any memory, with bitter cold winds and snow far down upon the mountains. That did not bode well for the spring flooding of the rivers, and Halrohir realized this among his possible hazards.
Halrohir stood up and stretched, the fire dying slowly and all receding into shadow. He walked past Morindal, letting the horse’s bulk block the firelight, and he stared up into the night sky. A blanket of stars stretched overhead, pierced now and again by a shooting flicker as a star fell from the heavens. All was incredibly quiet, not even the night breeze stirred the grasses. He returned to the campfire, his blanket unrolled, his saddle a pillow. He cast himself down onto the bedroll and slowly let sleep take him.
Hours had hardly seemed to pass when Halrohir awoke, startled to see Morindal snuffling into his face. He bolted sitting upright, his eyes focusing on a brightly blazing fire, and a figure sitting by, poking at the flames with a stick. He had his hand on the hilt of his dagger out of habit in the Wild, and it flashed in the firelight.
“You give welcome to all the same, Dunadan? Your friend has more sense than you, and he is a horse”, the newcomer said as he turned to face Halrohir. Silver-gold hair framed a fair face and bright eyes and a smile of mischief that flickered in the firelight.
“Ah, so now you know me,” Dorwin laughed. “And you even hear my speech better, do you like it? I took the time to learn your Common Tongue since our last meeting. Years pass. Seasons change. Even words do. But it was not hard.”
“All the same,” Halrohir said in surprise, “how came you here? I left Bree but yesterday, although I’ve been planning this errand for a long time.”
“True enough,” Dorwin replied. “But if you seek to find the reason for my joining you, look to your own father. He it was who confided in me of your errand, and your reasons for abandoning the North on a ride of your own. For that is what you are surely doing? Putting aside the burden of the Ranger, and going forth to save your friend, this creature of wonder?”
Halrohir had to admit it. “Yes, that’s true, as far as it goes. Would you not do the same for a friend or brother? For that is what Morindal has become to me. My companion on the weary road, my brother in battle. How can I look at myself if I let him become dead, or worse?”
Dorwin threw more wood onto the fire, and in the blazing light, his Elven features looked ethereal, but with a force of purpose behind those eyes now. “Dunadan, others have shared your worry and your labor, though you might not have known until now. You spoke with your father about Morindal. And he spoke with me. And I, in turn, spoke with lore masters in Imladris and elsewhere. You wish to find the source of the Onodlo, and the Ent-draughts? You need not seek it alone. For I offer to come with you, and together we shall see this marvelous sight. Will you have me, as a guide and companion?” And smiling, he held out his hand.
Halrohir was overwhelmed by Dorwin’s offer and candid honesty. He also recognized the truth, and the wisdom, behind the Elf’s words. With Dorwin as a guide, he stood a fighting chance of finding his goal and saving Morindal. The choice was easy. He took Dorwin’s hand in partnership.
“You are most welcome, Dorwin of Rivendell”, Halrohir said. “May we both journey to good fortune, for Morindal’s sake. But, how did you find me? You’re not on foot, surely? Have you a mount of your own?”
“I most surely do”, Dorwin said, “and there he is, my Forosul, my ‘Northwind’ in your tongue. Look at them both, he and your Morindal, getting to know each other!” Halrohir watched the two, Morindal and a smaller horse, circling each other beneath the stars, high whinnies from Forosul versus Morindal’s deeper snorts.
“Now, the dawn is not far off,” Dorwin said, “so let us both have a light meal, and for the horses as well. Then we might have a long day to ride, and the miles shall fall behind us. What say you, Dunadan?”
“An early breakfast, and an early start to the day both sound well,” Halrohir agreed, digging into his gear for food for them to share. The ride had taken a turn for the better.
Chapter Two: Hazards at the Ford
Halrohir and Dorwin spent the rest of the night awake and talking by the fireside, talking now merrily, now somber, about the past five years and each one’s comings and goings, always referring to the first time they met, during the flight of the Dunedain to Rivendell. Halrohir marveled at Dorwin’s command of the Common Tongue, speaking it as easily as he spoke his native Elvish.
One thing Halrohir did learn, was Dorwin’s penchant for mischief. During the time that he was asleep, Dorwin had not only built the fire with wood he had brought, but braided Morindal’s mane into neat black rows of tight, thick cords. The great black seemed to approve, especially as his mane was now out of his eyes. Dorwin had also braided flowers into each weave; Halrohir looked askanse at that, and he was sure even Morindal did as well.
The dawn began lightening the eastern skies with umber pastels behind clouds, heralding a sunny day ahead. Halrohir broke camp and had his gear packed, swiftly he thought, but Dorwin was already to go, seemingly never unpacking. As was the usual way of the Elves, Dorwin rode “elf-fashion” with Forosul, no saddle or harness or bridle at all. All his gear he simply slung over his shoulder in a large baldric, a knife at his hip and a quiver of arrows on his back as his only gear of war. The two companions mounted, and with a dig from Halrohir’s boots and a whispered word from Dorwin, the two set off on the next stage of their long trek.
The first day’s ride together passed slowly, as did the next, because of the sameness of the lands they rode through. The Greenway was barely more than an overgrown track through the grasses, an old and unused country road. Here and there among the low rolling downs there grew scrub trees and pine or cedar in places. But there were, even in this wilderness, traces of the works and hands of the Kings of Men from the past; for at intervals there stood small pillars of stone, half a man high, set alongside the track. Dorwin explained to Halrohir that these were markers for travelers as to the distance of the roads, each one a league apart. Faded, but still deeply etched into the stones to be read, were numbers in descending order: “three hundred seventy” read the first stone they passed from their camp, then “three hundred sixty-and-nine”, and so on, marking the leagues south to the ancient capital of Gondor at Osgiliath.
“Who knows how many of these gondlars, these ‘stone pauses’, will we find still standing in our journey?” Dorwin wondered. “But for the ones that do, they will mark the passage of the leagues in the empty lands.”
“For nothing else will”, Halrohir said ruefully, “there is no relief to these moors that could even be closely used. These stones make perfect sense, then.”
The riders passed steadily on, Dorwin setting the pace, for Forosul could not hope to match Morindal’s relentless stride. Though Halrohir had reckoned he could have done twenty leagues a day, with Dorwin’s company they could manage fourteen. This would add an additional day before they reached the crossings at Tharbad, but it could not be helped. The first day passed, then the second, then four, the league-stones marching past and counting down. Each night’s camp was lit by firewood gleaned from the scrub near the road, with stories and words shared at the fireside until sleep took Halrohir, leaving Dorwin watching through the night.
At the fifth day’s camp, beside a broken gondlar whose barely-read number showed 301, Halrohir looked ahead down the Greenway. They had been slowly descending into a vast open valley and could see just a few leagues off copses of trees growing near the banks of a vast water. Here the Greenway ran straight away toward a cluster of stone ruins at the edge of sight. The grasses on either side of the roadway had given way from prairie grass to rustling marsh-tails and smaller plants without fragrance.
“There lies Tharbad, the old ruined city,” Dorwin said. “The ancient causeway has fallen into total ruin and is now a rocky ford dangerous for man or beast.”
“Yet that is our road”, Halrohir said, “and the only road across the Greyflood for leagues in any direction. And who knows how treacherous the crossing shall be, if the snows from the North have not swollen the river? Had you no word before you set out?”
“Yes, and it is not good. The heavy snows of the Misty Mountains are already melting, and the Mitheithel, that Men call the Hoarwell, is flooding the crossings to the north. Even the Ford of Bruinen is treacherous. But there is hope that, this far downstream, the floods have not reached Tharbad yet.”
“We must make the crossing tomorrow and be beyond by our next camp. I fear any delays. How does Morindal seem to you?”
“I have not noticed any change in him, and I have been watching him through the days”, Dorwin said smiling. “His appetite surely has not faltered, as sure as his strength has, neither.”
“All the same”, Halrohir said, “I’m concerned, and rightly so. I confess, Dorwin, that sometimes I wish I could ask him and he’d answer somehow. I know his moods, and his dispositions; but the way of the Elves with good beasts is beyond me.”
Dorwin grinned with mischief, “Then might you allow me?” And they rose from where they were seated on the grass and came to the horses tethered side by side. The Elf approached Morindal, who watched him with great interest. Dorwin laid his forehead against the stallion’s and whispered a few words in the Elven-tongue. After a moment, Morindal shook his head as if to chase away a fly and snorted once. Dorwin’s face showed a momentary bit of surprise, then he turned to Halrohir.
“He truly was a steed of my people,” he said with an expression of wonder. “He knows our speech, and he hears you when you talk to him. He knows you cannot do the same with him, so he must make his wishes very plain. His hearing and smell are superb, as you know by his warning and danger signs.”
“So, he knows of our journey, and why?” Halrohir said in amazement. “But, how is he, how does he fare?”
“He is aware that he is not like any horse in the land, and the waters made him what he is. He does not feel any need for haste, for his strength has not lessened. He is well, for the present.”
“And, he told you all this. I envy you, Dorwin.”
“Say not so. You have a friend in this creature, this beast of wonder, and you are only separated by language. He will not forsake you, because he knows you will not forsake him. This ride is proof of that. Now see, we are distracted, for the fire is lighting the grasses!” Dorwin pointed back to the campfire, where a log had fallen outside the circle and some of the drier turf was alight.
Later that evening, when the fire had burned low and all was in darkness, and a sliver of new crescent moon was climbing in the eastern sky, Halrohir was walking around the campsite as Dorwin tended to the dying fire. He crossed over to where the horses stood, holding two apples from his dwindling store. He offered the first to Forosul as a gift, who eagerly munched happily on the fruit. He laughed as he looked over at Morindal, whose expression was of sheer disappointment. He offered the second to the great black, his customary crunching following, and ran his hand through his still-braided mane.
“So, you can hear my every word, can you, you big haystack?” Halrohir asked the horse. “You’ve never failed me. But I’m afraid, Blackfoot. I’m afraid of failing you. With Dorwin’s help, we’ll make it, I thought; but he’s slowing us, and I fear we’ll not get to the waters in time. So, you have to tell me, in any way you can. If your strength lags, or your time is approaching fast, you’ve got to let me know. It would, it would kill me to think I failed you.” And he wrapped his arms around the horse’s neck.
Morindal lowered his head and pushed Halrohir aside, and the man felt wounded and rejected for a moment. The moment passed when he realized that the black stallion was looking off to the left, his neck stretched, his right hoof pawing the earth slowly but heavily: the danger sign. Halrohir drew his knife and stood by the horse, realizing he was backlit by the fire’s small glow. He peered off into the darkness where Morindal pointed, straining his ears for anything. Not a sound met him, no stirring in the grass. Suddenly, off to his right, there was a high-pitched twang and a cry to his front. Dorwin appeared suddenly at his side; he had strung his bow and landed a shot in the gloom. Wordlessly, the two moved to investigate what the Elf had shot, and they fond the target: a man, dressed in rags and a thick leather jerkin like cast-off armor, clutching a small dirk in his dead hand, Dorwin’s arrow stuck in his throat.
“That was a fine shot in the dark, my friend”, Halrohir said.
“I was aiming for his chest”, Dorwin replied.
They searched the body, to find little that would tell them anything: a purse with coins of some value, and a shoulder sack with a few meager belongings. But both stopped when they opened a small envelope, with a previously broken seal plainly with the emblem of the White Tree of Gondor. Inside was a small parchment, still legible.
“The letter of marque of a King’s Messenger”, Halrohir said grimly. “This stalker in the shadows must have ambushed one of them and stole the letter and purse. And look at the blade; it’s a dirk, of a make that a common thief would not have.”
“And this close to Tharbad”, Dorwin said. “We may find the ruins are not friendly, and the crossing more perilous than just rocky waters. We should allow the fire to die, and not relight it, for fear of attracting other moths like this one.”
“Agreed. I must ask your elvish habit of never sleeping to keep watch for us in the night. But also, watch Morindal, for he warned us first.”
So, the night passed without light, save for starlight and the waxing moon. As Halrohir dozed, Dorwin walked in a circle around the camp, singing softly to himself and gazing at the stars above. Slowly the sky turned light once more, heralding the sunrise, and Dorwin roused the Ranger gently. Quickly they broke their meager camp, leaving the thief’s body where it lay, and rode on.
At last, on the sixth day of Halrohir’s ride, the two companions reached the edge of the ruined river-port of Tharbad. Once a bustling port of kingdoms long past, the deserted, desolate place was a tumble of stone archways and pavestones, the Greenway giving way to a partially-paved road that ran straight as an arrow between the buildings. They had not ridden long when they came upon the fords, and there they halted briefly. A great bridge and causeway once spanned the Greyflood here, the Greenway leaping over the river in three jumps between islands in the stream. But the bridge and causeway had collapsed into rock and mire, still visible in the swirling currents of the river. The ford here looked to be every bit of a mile wide, and the distance between the eyots several furlongs at a time.
“This will be a crossing every bit as treacherous as Mitheithel was”, Halrohir said, “even before the half-orcs of Saruman destroyed the Last Bridge. We should stay mounted until the horses can no longer walk safely.”
“Horse and man, and Elf, can swim”, Dorwin said, “but I agree, we should ride as far as the road allows. Shall we be off?” And they continued down the low slope from the causeway’s end to the water’s edge and began wading through the shallow water. The going was easy at first, for the river bed was firm and allowed good progress. They came to the first eyot and paused, stone and masonry from the fallen bridge making a pile of debris that made the island larger.
The passage to the second eyot was a more cautious going. The horses stumbled, once or twice at first, but more often as they went on. The rocks and sunken masonry were slimed and slippery, and footing was increasingly hard. The water had risen up the horses’ legs, up to Forosul’s forelegs but only to Morindal’s knees. Both horses walked slowly but steadily until harder and drier ground was beneath their hooves, and they heaved out of the water onto the higher ground of the fallen supports of the bridge.
Here they halted, the riders stepping off to the water’s edge. Halrohir stayed with the horses while Dorwin scouted the path before them, testing the waters and looking ahead to the best possible path to continue the crossing. After a few minutes of watching and looking, Dorwin returned.
“The worst is not over, I deem”, he said. “We are fortunate that the floods have yet to reach here, but the channel is before us; the river is not shallow and the current runs swift. I fear the horses will have to swim and bearing us as well. But there, you can see the other bank is close. Just this one last wetting, and all will be over.”
“I feared it would come to this”, Halrohir said. “I don’t doubt Morindal can swim this, but what of Forosul? How is his strength, compared to the current?”
“He is of good stock, though of course no match for that black behemoth of yours. We will, however make the passage as quickly as possible, lest his strength fail. Come, let us not wait!”
They mounted and plunged into the swirling waters and aimed the horses’ heads for the opposite shore. They walked on the riverbed, the water rising past their legs, then their flanks, until even Morindal was now swimming with powerful strokes of his legs. Forosul was struggling against the current, Dorwin speaking to him urging him on. Steady was their progress, but they slowly swept downstream, missing the mark of the other bank. Suddenly their hooves found purchase on the river bed once again, and the horses heaved out of the river, stumbling on the slick stones but gaining more purchase until, at last, they burst free of the water and mounted the bank. The Greyflood had been crossed.
Halrohir and Dorwin had discussed what they would do once Greyflood was behind them, and they agreed not to wait a single moment by the river’s edge, because of the thief of last night. They did not even halt after the crossing, but rode on at a canter, putting as much speed on as the tired horses could manage. After a league or more, riding down the Greenway with a course as straight as before the fords, Morindal halted despite Halrohir’s urgings. He turned his head to Forosul, then looked up at Dorwin, then back to Forosul. Halrohir was confused, but Dorwin laughed.
“He means for us to stop here, and give Forosul a rest”, the Elf said. “Well, as good a place as any, I suppose. We can all dry off in this bright sun”, and he dismounted lightly. He walked to Forosul’s head, where he touched the horse’s forehead to his own.
“Only for a while, though”, Halrohir said grimly as he alighted. “I don’t trust this place. Look around, there’s no shelter, not even a tree or hollow to wait in. See down the road a way, there looks like another set of ruins, and that might hold some promise. And look at this marker nearby”, he pointed at one of the league-stones, “it still says ‘two hundred-and-ninety-five’ plain enough. That means we’ve been but six leagues from yesterday’s halt.”
“I agree, we need some place to rest for the night”, Dorwin said. “But Forosul is nearly spent from the crossing, mellon nin. One more league is about all he can manage now. Come, let us go on, while there is still something left to him.” And they remounted and rode once more, and after an hour at a slow walk, they approached a tumbled-down house of stone and wood, an old homestead from the looks of things, long since abandoned and overgrown. The only firm part of the structure still standing was a chimney and a hearth of dry-laid rocks. The remains of the walls made for a somewhat enclosed space to keep the horses and bed down for the night.
While Dorwin built a fire in the old hearth, Halrohir scouted round the place, finding no signs of anything beyond field mice or creatures of the wild. That this was once a farmstead there was no doubt; old pieces of forged tools were inside and outside, rusted and falling into dust. Wood had been worked by tools and hand, lumber cut and shaped. There was wood in plenty for a fire, and Dorwin produced a treasure from his belongings, a flask of cordial he brought from Rivendell. Shared with Halrohir’s rations, everything tasted like a feast made in a great hall. And in this ruined house, the travelers passed the night and the horses rested, but they remained ever watchful for what might lie ahead.
Chapter Three: The Long Middle-Marches
Halrohir and Dorwin spent the night in watchful solitude after their crossing of the Greyflood. All of them, both horse and rider, were taxed from fording the river, except perhaps for Morindal, who was if anything hungrier than his wont. The giant black horse began cropping every tusset of grass within sight of the ruined house, while Forosul was simply munching in his fodder bag. Halrohir and Dorwin were content with their shared meal, and the Ranger slept soundly while the Elf watched the hours pass undisturbed. But neither of them forgot the encounter of the previous night with the thief in the shadows, upon whom they found the stolen letter of a King’s Messenger. Halrohir mused on that long after the sun had set, reading over the torn parchment several times as he puzzled out its riddle.
“The parchment is torn in two, and only the bottom half remains”, he explained to Dorwin. “So much of the messenger’s errand is gone, but this is plain, when and where he came from and where he was headed. The last lines read, done by my hand in the city of Minas Tirith, on this the New Year’s Day, in the fifth year of the reign of The King Elessar, and of the new age the third, so signed, Camwaen, King’s Writer and servant of the Steward of Ithilien.”
“This tells us that this letter was signed on the twenty-fifth of March, barely a month ago”, he went on, “and that the bearer rode out from the White City headed north. He must have been waylaid at Tharbad or nearby, as he was fording the river and headed up the Greenway from Gondor.”
“Is there naught you can glean further?” Dorwin asked.
“Only a half-broken wording near the frayed edge, which reads in part, deliver your packet to Calcallon, the King’s Minister at Annuminas, or his deputy, Ranger Captain Galador should he not be present. Galador! They never received this message, or the packet that the errand-rider bore. Alas, that the road is still too perilous for any to travel, even after the return of the King.”
“If we speak of roads, then why not about the roads ahead?” Dorwin asked. “I suppose you have a clear plan as to what you might do, and where you might go?”
“I had thought of continuing down the Greenway until we crossed the Fords of Isen, on the borders of Rohan”, Halrohir said, “then on northeast to strike the Entwash, and follow it north into the forest from there. I had thought it would be six days, at Morindal’s pace, to arrive at Isen; but with Forosul setting the pace, it may be closer to nine. We have to consider about food and water for both us and the mounts.”
“There are places for water, and fodder for both we and the beasts”, Dorwin said, then grinned. “Even the Ranger must learn some new things about life in the Wild, I deem. I shall show you some simple works that will make it easier to pass the long and lonely miles ahead. That will wait for the morrow, and our next day’s march.” And with that, the Elf let the watchfire burn a little lower, while Halrohir rolled up in his blanket and uneasily fell to sleep.
The next day dawned slowly but with great news from the skies. Dorwin had been watching the light climb over the eastern horizon when Halrohir arose to see the Elf first standing to the east, then the west, then turning to the north. At length, he turned to Halrohir and spoke.
“The weather is changing. See, the clouds are distant over the western sky, and there is a tang of rain on the wind, rain borne from the Sea. Even if we break camp and begin riding soon, we shall be overtaken by those clouds before the day is out, even before we could find a camp. I trust you thought of what to do in the event of the weather turning against you?”
“Yes, I had”, Halrohir replied. “I brought with me oilskins, heavy cloth treated with oil that repels water. With these, I make a small shelter. It was meant for one full-grown man plus his gear, but I suppose we could squeeze the both of us inside.”
“Good, you have shelter, now what of water and meal?”
“Morindal can graze, and I have skill as a hunter and trapper in the Wild.”
“But hunting and trapping will take time, time you do not have to spare from Morindal’s errand. And what again of water, or were you going to drink from the same puddles that your faithful horse would draw? Let me teach you a way. Have you your kettle handy?”
Dorwin quickly rebuilt the fire to a blaze, and Halrohir’s kettle-pot was set to the boil, filled with brackish water from a nearby depression at which the Ranger turned up his nose. As the kettle began to sing, Dorwin piled more fuel beneath it, bringing the kettle to a roiling whistling boil. After several minutes, he reached with a branch and took the kettle off the flame, setting it aside on a stone to cool.
“Such is the first step”, Dorwin explained, “boiling the water until all that is impure is killed. Second, we do this”, and he produced a heavy cheese cloth, draped it over the lip of Halrohir’s metal pan, and poured the water over the cloth.
“This strains anything that may have not been purged in the boiling. Still, this water is too hot to drink, so it must be allowed to cool. What happens next, is this”, and Dorwin poured the boiled and strained water into a water skin, separate and larger than the one he used. “This water skin has a nugget of pure silver inside. The silver, when immersed in the warm water, further kills anything which might poison the water, and prevents mildew from forming within the bag or the water itself. Not much silver is required; it can also be used in anything even as large as a barrel – for that as much as a silver coin will suffice – and water can be brought safely over great distances.”
Halrohir was amazed. “Marvelous! What a thing to learn! So many can benefit from this wisdom. What else can you show me?”
“First things first, mellon nin”, Dorwin said, “for now we must prepare more water for all of us. Start gleaning more water, and I shall rebuild the fire.” And the two friends set about their work. Soon, both Halrohir and Dorwin had full water skins, to which Dorwin had added a precious nugget of silver to Halrohir’s; and Dorwin’s larger water bladder was also filled, for which they would use for the horses in the leagues ahead. Firewood they had in plenty, stripping the ruins of the house for kindling and fuel. Soon they had the camp cleared, then they mounted and began the next leg of the ride south.
“You spoke of food, Dorwin”, Halrohir asked as they jogged along at a trot. “Have you any tricks in your sleeves for that, as you did for the water skins?”
“Not in my sleeves do I carry water”, Dorwin grinned, “nor food for that matter. But here, you tell me what precautions you already have. What do you pack for journeys like this?”
“I’ve packed cornmeal cakes, baked hard and crisp and wrapped in cheesecloth so they’ll keep longer. Many of these will keep a man in the saddle for a long journey. Also, I’ve brought slips of cured meats, which can either be eaten plain or warmed over the fire. Morindal will eat the cakes as well, he likes them for the salt taste.”
“All well and good, my friend, but would you know how to extend you store, or to make it more enjoyable to the tooth on the way? Here, see this,” and Dorwin produced from his bag a glass phial, with a golden liquid inside.
“Honey from the bee-pastures of Rivendell”, he said. “Sweet to the taste and fortifying in a way all its own. Those with long lore of plant and herb tell us honey has much the same effect as silver does with water, and this will aid to reduce illness if one feels ague approaching. Now, I have brought for both of us what should be enough to last us the trek, should we not have a chance to replenish our stores.”
“There is one other thing I have, my friend”, Halrohir said, and that is the writ of the King’s Messenger I bear. I am hoping that, by using its influence, we might claim hospitality wherever we go, and whatever hosts we find might refill our stock of rations for the next leg. Once we reach Isen, and cross into Rohan, we shall meet folk who will provide us with many things. Until then, we might not even find folk at all.”
So, the day’s ride continued, as they talked and schemed of their road before them, as the gondlar marched past, counting down the leagues. Just south of the ruined farm, the next stone read “two-hundred-ninety-and-four”, and both Halrohir and Dorwin were in earnest to make good time before the weather changed against them. South and east they travelled, glancing over their right shoulders at the gathering clouds, while looking ahead at the empty, dreary moors that opened before them. They had come to Enedwaith, the Middle-lands, the vast and barren land between the realms of old, Gondor in the south and Arnor in the north. Nine days they had given themselves for passage though that lonely land, and the two riders were determined to keep that pace.
As the sun began westering that afternoon, the stone pillar numbered “two-hundred-seventy-and-nine” was just behind them, showing they had gone full fifteen leagues, a good day’s ride without a hard effort. Neither horse seemed winded, nor were their riders especially tired, but both agreed they should husband their mounts and themselves and rest where needed. After scouting around both sides of the road, they found a small stand of stunted trees a furlong to the west, and there made their camp. Halrohir had found in their scouting signs that this spot had been used before: charred wood lay scattered in places, and stones had been moved, but the signs were old, and not recently left. While he searched and began to make camp, Dorwin watched the northwestern skies, and seemed pleased with what he read in the clouds.
“The weather has turned”, he said as he sat down next to Halrohir, who was working with the now crackling blaze and boiling water. He gratefully accepted a honeyed cake that the Ranger handed him. “The clouds now move northeast, leaving us be for now. We shall sleep dry tonight, and feel the air, as well; it will not be chill tonight. Now, will you insist on this pace for a while? I would agree, so long as the weather holds for us.”
“I was hoping you’d agree”, Halrohir said as he munched on a honeyed cake. “It seems the horses agree, too. Look at what they’re doing!” They turned to watch, as Morindal was shoving a cake with his nose toward Forosul, who sniffed at it with interest.
“I offered a few of them to Morindal, but then he began sharing them with Forosul”, Halrohir laughed. Laughter and talk circled the camp far into the night again, as the stars wheeled overhead and closed out the latest day of the long errand.
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