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Written as a companion piece to The Road Not Taken and in response to HASA's "Your Favorite Poem" challenge. Many thanks to Raksha the Demon for her helpful comments.
Night fell early at the turning of the year, and the birch trees gleamed like bleached bones in the twilight. Snow swept across the western highway, stirring the yellow leaves that lay heaped around the milestone. To the north of the road, a narrow path divided the trees.
Two riders trotted out of the storm and reined in their mounts at the crossroad. With a faint jangle of harness, the horses whickered and tossed their heads, eager to find the warm shelter of a farmstead.
The first rider drew back a hood of plain wool. He wore his fair hair in a warrior’s plaits, and his face was young but stern. “There lies the old road to Tharbad, lord. Even in these days of peace, few riders take that path. Dwarven folk, for the most, and messengers of Elessar King.”
The second man nodded. “Though the road has become less perilous, it is still a long and hard journey.” His hood was cast back, and white hair brushed his shoulders, shorn after the fashion of Gondor. With surprising grace for one so old, he swung from the saddle, and handing the reins to the other rider, he knelt beside the milestone. The front of the marble tablet was deeply carved with runes, while elvish letters were chiseled on the back. Pulling off a heavy gauntlet, he traced his fingers along the graven lines, brushing away the dust of snow. “One hundred leagues to Tharbad, two hundred and thirty to Imladris,” he murmured. “And whither thence, Boromir?”
The only sound was the sweep of snow among the bare branches.
"One day I will follow, my brother, but for now that journey must wait.” The white-haired man straightened and rose to his feet, shaking the downy flakes from his cloak. He stared into the woods as he drew on his gauntlets. “When did they set up the milestone? It was not here when last I came this way.”
“Four or five winters past, lord. Old Ragnvald could say for certain. He owns these woods and the fields hereabout, though his house is in the next village. On this darkest night, he and his folk will be drinking waes hael by the fire.” The fair-haired rider leaned forward to stroke his horse’s neck.
“Then let us join their Yule and leave these woods in the keeping of the snow.” The man of Gondor put boot in stirrup and swung lightly into the saddle. Their breath like smoke in the cold, the horses set out at a willing pace. He started to sing, in the language of the Mark. “Swift is the mare, bright is the sword.” His voice was low yet clear.
“Now drink we waes hael to king and to lord,” the younger man joined him.
Short is the day, dark is the night,
Feathers of snow soon brushed away their tracks, so that none would know they had ever passed that way.
Whose woods these are I think I know.
My little horse must think it queer
He gives his harness bells a shake
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