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Halrohir stood with his back to the camp’s fires, his eyes gazing up at the star-strewn night sky. A half-moon rose just over the edge of the east. No clouds blocked the stars, and only a slight night breeze sighed in the thicket. And his thoughts wandered over the words of the council. Once again, it rankled him that others would ride where he should be, earning praise by the fireside. But Ercolindo’s words encouraged him.
Torn between his thoughts, Halrohir walked over the lip of the dell and down to the next where the makeshift paddock squatted in the night, the animals and draft beasts resting or moving in the dark. He was challenged and passed by two of the younger guards around the dell, who went on their way. He first looked for his own chestnut mount, Bregedur, and saw that he had at least a blanket and fodder at the ready. But then, almost against his will, his eyes turned to the far side of the dell where stood a huge black form like a carven statue, steam rising from his hide in the cool night air, his breath coming like smoke from his nostrils. He walked slowly toward the place where the great black stallion stood, first taking an apple from the fodder barrel.
“Mara maure, Morindal, sen mae nin?*” Halrohir asked the mighty horse. Morindal swung his head toward him, nudging him as if in reply or greeting. Halrohir offered the fruit to Morindal, who crunched into it eagerly and butted the Ranger for more.
Halrohir chuckled, “You truly are an appetite with legs, as I was warned. What a pair we might make,“ he said as he stroked the horse’s mane. “We both hunger; you for food, and my fodder is renown. You know, I shall make you a wager, just you and I: if we see through these troubled days and this journey of ours, I shall work to free you from this plowman’s life you lead, and you and I shall ride across the moors to adventures. What say you, Morindal?”
All was quiet for a moment, but then Morindal swung his head away from Halrohir, his neck stretching, as if pointing off to the distance. The huge nostrils took in air like a forge’s bellows, then blew out with a great “Whuff!” The black stallion began pawing the earth in the direction he looked, which Halrohir realized was back at the main camp. There were shouts and a ringing clash of steel on steel. The camp was under attack.
Then the horses in the rest of the paddock began screaming and bolting. Halrohir drew his sword and moved toward a small bush, crouching down. In the fitful evening gloom he could see the shadows of figures moving amongst the horses, releasing them and sending them scattering in panic. As two of the shadows approached him, he rose up and slashed swiftly with a backhanded cut, felling one of them. The second had a blade drawn, but the fight was over in a few seconds with Halrohir’s longer sword.
The young Ranger looked around in the gloom, and saw that most of the horses had bolted, even Bregedur was gone. Only a few braying mules remained, their cries adding to the chaos of noise. He searched around the paddock, and came upon the two young Rangers who were watching the animals; both lay on the grass with their throats cruelly slashed. The sounds from the camp were growing louder; cries of men and women rang out in the night, and the fires had blazed up to light the battle.
Halrohir froze for a moment, staring down at the dead men around him, the two attackers and the two Dunedain. He had never before taken life by his own hand. The shock of realization overcame him for a moment then, as if a fire of his own had blazed forth. His people were waylaid and he, as their guardian, was not there! But how could he even the odds, let alone put them in his favor? Then it came to him…
Halrohir ran back to Morindal’s side, and cut the tether rope with one stroke. Realizing the great draft horse had no saddle or harness, he scrambled up onto the stallion’s back and sat in “elf-fashion” upon him. If the great black felt the weight of the young man, he did not show it. Nor did he shy or try to throw him off; Morindal was allowing a rider at long last.
“There is battle and death before us, my friend,” Halrohir cried. “After this night, you shall be Blackfoot no more. Si noro lim, Morindal, col lim i dagor!**” And at those words, the great black horse reared and gave out a clarion call with his great voice, and powerful legs drove into the turf, propelling horse and rider towards the light of the camp.
The camp was burning. As the council fire had begun to burn low, and the other scattered fires did as well, sudden screams rent the night air. The Dunedain were under attack from unseen foes in the dark as daggers and blades bit into cloth and flesh. How many the attackers numbered was not seen at first; nor did the Rangers stop to count as sword flashed from sheath and arrow flew in the dim light. At the first shout of trouble, Cormadin and Ercolindo were the first to respond as they stood back to back, blades flashing in a deadly dance. Angbrand rallied several of the Dunedain who, though not Rangers, could still wield weapons, and formed a wall around women and children. And even Galador, bent with age as he was, caused the fires to blaze into bonfires for light for the defense as he bent and knocked his bow, letting fly at any target he found.
But the attackers steadily gained the upper hand. Angbrand and several of his fighters fell to the raiders as they stood at their places. Cormadin had only just finished off a raider with a spear when an arrow struck his leg from behind, sending him to the ground in pain. With the women defenseless, the raiders set to abducting several, beheading two who resisted, and were dragging one young girl away from the firelight, screaming for help.
It was at that moment that a thunderous inhuman sound rang out from the top of the dell. All eyes turned and beheld the sight of a huge shadowy form silhouetted against the night sky, outlined by the firelight. A dark rider upon a giant horse towered over the scene, then descended at a trot, then a canter, then a full-on charge toward the raiders who threatened the womenfolk. The rider held a longsword out at neck level, cloak billowing in the wind of the horse’s speed like the wings of a black bat, the giant steed’s breath snorting from his muzzle like the plume of a fiery dragon. For indeed, some of the raiders shrieked in horror at what they thought was in truth a dragon come to devour them, even as they were ridden down and slain, whether by the slash of the speeding blade or the crushing weight of the stallion slamming them into the earth.
Halrohir and Morindal smashed into the raiders at a near gallop, his sword biting into the eyes and heads of any who stood in their way. The onslaught of the dark rider broke the raiders into small groups running this way and that, pursued eagerly by the Rangers who had rallied at the oncoming attack. Halrohir circled the encampment, hunting his foes and riding them to the ground as he found them. Morindal huffed great gouts of vapor and screamed now and again in that deep-throated neigh, the terror of his coming as biting as the sword his rider bore.
As quickly as the fight had started, it was over. Fires burned in at least a dozen places. Bodies lay all about the camp. Women and children cried, wounded men groaned where they lay, or tried to stand to help others who were less hurt. At the place where the council fire lit the camp, Halrohir dismounted and came to stand in the light, Morindal just behind him cropping the grass, Ercolindo standing by him. Cormadin limped into the circle using a spear haft as a cane. After a few moments Angbrand appeared, his head swathed in a bloody bandage and his left arm wrapped to his chest.
“How many have we lost, who has made a count yet?” Ercolindo asked.
“We can’t know, not in the dark with the enemy close by,” Cormadin said. “We might wait for the dawn, though it’s far off yet…”
“No, we cannot wait for any reason,” Halrohir said. “Let the watchfires burn bright tonight, since the enemy already knows we’re here, there is little point in hiding. Bring all the animals that remain to this side of the dell, we can’t afford to split our guard. Hopefully, when the day comes, we can recover the horses, or some of them.”
“Halrohir…” said a weak reedy voice from behind. The Rangers turned to see Galador, slumped in the shadows against the scrub tree, clutching at his shoulder. A knife protruded from his chest, his tunic soaked in blood.
“Galador! Captain, we didn’t see you!” Halrohir cried as the others gathered round their leader as well. “Lie still, and let us tend you. Ercolindo, fetch Glaemad the wisewoman, she can help if she isn’t already busy!”
“Listen… to me, Ranger,” Galador gasped as he clutched Halrohir’s hand. “Lead the folk… to Rivendell… that is your charge… let the others work your bidding…” he sucked in his breath in pain. Glaemad had come while he was talking, and began treating the old man’s terrible wound.
“What can you tell us, lady?” Halrohir asked.
“Leave me to work, and I’ll tell you when I know,” the wisewoman growled, “and don’t ask the obvious answers! Rangers!” she spat in scorn, “The best of you rode south-away, and you lot are here, and the cursed ones will get by with us paying for the fare!”
The men drew away from the woman, knowing full well her meaning and reason for her anger. They retreated to the council fire, standing silently watching the flames for a moment, then Cormadin spoke.
“Galador has fallen, and many of us were injured. The captain’s words were plain. Halrohir my friend, we look to you. But if you accept my counsel, we should listen to Galador’s command, and move the folk tomorrow from this place. We know not if there are more raiders about, and as we’ve seen, we cannot easily defend this place.”
“How can we move anywhere,” Ercolindo said, “if the horses are missing! And the count I have is grim news: of the twenty-one Rangers who began the march, three are dead, six are wounded, and two of those are too hurt to ride. We are left with but sixteen to guard twelve score of our folk who can still make the trek!”
“And worse is the damage the raiders have wrought,” Angbrand joined in. “One of the three supply wains burned, though the loss of goods and stores is less than feared; quick work by the drovers unloaded the wreck before it burned. Even so, the load must be spread out to those who may not be able to bear up.”
Halrohir through all this was silent, staring into the fire. His quest for renown and responsibility was complete, with the mantle of leadership flung upon his shoulders. Only now did he realize the weight of that mantle. The doom of all the Dunedain rested with him now, and the bitter words of Glaemad bored into his heart.
Decide, he thought, you must decide! Adar will judge you if you fail. Nay, all the people will judge you. Not only must you save them, you must lead them. How, Adar, how?
Halrohir hung his head with his burden, but then nearly pitched forward into the fire. Morindal had stepped closer, and nudged him with his muzzle. He looked up into the horse’s eyes, flickering in the firelight, watching him with a steady gaze. Steady and strong the horse stood by him, as if expecting the young Ranger to honor his promise. The great black Elven-steed understood Halrohir’s words, and considered it as a pact, that he would honor in turn. All these thoughts went through Halrohir's mind in a flash, and his resolve steeled. He turned back to the fire, and slowly rose to his full height.
“Our first thought,” Halrohir declared, “must be to our folk. The wounded must be tended, the terrified comforted. We must learn how many of our folk are still able to make the journey, and Ercolindo shall tell us.” Ercolindo nodded.
“Next, we must leave this place, for it truly cannot be defended again,” he went on. “The folk must be roused at dawn, and take stock of our situation at first light. We shall move again before noon, and make a shorter march to another camp. We make for Weathertop – not to scout it, but to occupy it. Yes, you heard me,” he said to the surprised Rangers, “we shall march on Amon Sul and stand fast there. The people shall hold the hill and the land nearby, the most defensible place and highest ground for leagues in every direction. There we shall rest and recover, and scout out our routes properly before committing ourselves to daily toiling in the bracken. Now all of you, there shall be little chance for sleep tonight. Too much work remains. Ercolindo and I shall inspect our folk and our equipment. Cormadin and Angbrand shall allow the women to tend their injuries, for they shall be needed – indeed, we all shall be in the days ahead. Eat now, and gird yourselves to our labors.” The others nodded, and the Ranger leaders each went about the tasks which lay ahead.
* Good Evening, Blackfoot, is it well with you?
** Now run for me, Blackfoot, carry me to battle!
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