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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.
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