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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.
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