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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.
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