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Halrohir spoke the truth, for no one slept any more that night. The watchfires burned bright and gave light enough to work until the dawn began brightening the eastern sky. The encampment was alive with quiet but purposeful work, everything from gleaning supplies scattered about, to tending the wounded and the dead, salvaging all that could be saved, and scouting out the land nearby for traces of the foe and, more importantly, the missing animals.
Ercolindo reported that few had been slain, though the cost in wounded was high. As he said that night, three Rangers had fallen, and two were too hurt to ride, one of them being Angbrand. Cormadin, though wounded, could still ride and insisted on doing so. Of the twelve-score of Dunedain folk, ten were slain, and a score or more injured, but none badly. The wise women tended them with such skills as they possessed, but they quickly ran short of every healing herb and poultice they had. Halrohir sought to aid them by dispatching a pair of healers, protected by a pair of Rangers, to gather what medicines they could.
But it was Galador who was too badly wounded to even think of moving him, so said Glaemad the wisewoman. He slept fitfully, though the blade was removed and the wound staunched.
“Can he not be placed on one of the wains, and travel in at least some comfort?” Halrohir asked.
“Not likely, no,” Glaemad said crossly, “what do you think ‘cannot be moved’ means? Your friend Ercolindo was right to think we should stay a day longer, but it’s plain to see you wish to move all the people, and risk the wounded – “
“We risk them all, if we don’t move on,” Halrohir countered. “Another attack would see us wiped out, we’re exposed and not defensible here. We move to Weathertop and madam, you must see that they will be comfortable on the march.” He turned away, brooking no further argument.
As the sun climbed in the sky, the situation for the Dunedain became clearer, and better than hoped. Most of the draft animals and other beasts were not far away, and recovered quickly, though some few horses were not to be found. Halrohir’s own mount, Bregedur, was one of those recovered. The supplies and goods from the destroyed wain were shared among the two remaining wains, and other carts which still had room. The burned wagon was stripped of anything useful, down to the wheels for repairs and boards for fuel.
The dead were gathered and buried with little ceremony, though much grief. The bodies of the raiders were collected, heaped into a pyre and burned. There were thirty dead raiders in all, and some wondered, for though they were Men, they were of a kind not seen in the North: stout, strongly built, sallow skin and slanted eyes, and jutting jaws.
“These are not of the North, surely”, Cormadin said to the other three Ranger leaders as they sat and took a standing bite to eat. “From whence they come, I don’t know, but they are here in number and they pose a further threat.”
“All the more reason for us to strike out for Weathertop”, Halrohir said. “And the faster we move, the better. Galador was right to insist on haste, and now I rue my reluctance.
“Pass the word: we resume the march at noon, and travel until dark. Ercolindo and I shall ride scout and patrol. Cormadin, you take the lead wain, Angbrand in the second. Let Galador be placed in the lead wain, as comfortable as he can be made. Ercolindo, you and three others must ride ahead as quartering party. Find us the best place possible to hide from prying eyes. As soon as the others return with the healers, we must be ready to leave. Go now.” And the Rangers set about their work while the morning passed toward noon.
The healer party returned just before the sun was high, and with good news. The Rangers accompanying the women discovered a thicket where the valuable herb athelas grew in a close patch. The women harvested as much as they could carry, and the wisewomen rejoiced in the bounty. They now had enough materials for medicines with care for the rest of the journey.
Just after noon, the caravan prepared to march. Halrohir, Cormadin and Angbrand were in their places, but this time Halrohir was riding Morindal, even though Bregedur had been found. His former horse was now pulling an overloaded cart. This change was noticed by many there, for they had seen the great stallion ridden into battle by a Ranger in the night, and the word ran through the folk of Halrohir, the only one who ever rode Blackfoot. The sight of the youngest Ranger astride the giant black was inspiring to all near; maybe, they said, that a Ranger truly had stayed behind rather than ride with the Grey Company.
Halrohir reined up next to Cormadin, who sat stiff-legged in the buckboard. He was uncomfortable, but stoically bore it as he spoke to his friend, “Our leader rides a dragon, so it is said! So, Blackfoot is your new steed? Should we not rather use him in his better place, as a draft animal?”
“Not any longer, old friend,” Halrohir replied. “I have struck a bargain with him, and he shall bear me so long as he rides to battle. He is tired of cartage, and wants to run to the sound of the horns. And mark this well: his name is not Blackfoot, not any longer. He is my friend, Morindal.” At the sound of his new name, Morindal tossed his head and nickered low at Cormadin.
“I can well see the bargain is struck”, Cormadin laughed, “but I still warn you, watch his appetite – and your cloak!” He then looked over his shoulder to where the column of carts and wagons stretched behind. “I think all is ready… captain.”
“Do NOT call me that!” Halrohir said, glowering. “Galador is the Captain while he lives. I am merely his lieutenant, directing all in his name until he recovers, and that is how it must be!” With that, he dug his heels into Morindal’s sides, and rode to the head of the column.
One advantage Halrohir learned quickly was that Morindal’s great size allowed him a commanding view, seeing farther than a horse of normal size would permit. From his place, he could see almost the entire caravan laid out behind him. With a wave of his hand, the Dunedain began to move once more, this time directly onto the Great Road and bearing towards the Weather Hills.
The march took the rest of the day, going forward until the sun began dipping towards the western edge of the world. Long shadows began to stretch out before the caravan. The Rangers had moved in a wide circle around the march, shielding the folk from ambush. Nothing at all was seen or heard. But many remarked as Halrohir passed up and down the line, the great black pounding away the miles with seemingly no effort whatever. Several voices called out to him as he passed, shouting greetings and thanks for the battle the night before.
It was just as the sun was touching the horizon when Ercolindo could be seen riding back toward the column. Halrohir rode out to meet him, Morindal’s great loping stride catching up to him rapidly.
“What news, my friend?” Halrohir asked as he came to a stop. Ercolindo rode up, his face showing pure wonder at the giant horse now used as a Ranger’s mount.
“I rode back to report,” he said, “we have found an excellent site, the best thus far on the march. A deep hollow far enough off the Road to cover us all, with tree and brush, and a spring with water in plenty. There is even room for the animals to be guarded close at hand. I have set the Rangers with me to gathering wood and building up the spring with stones. The grass is thick, and will fodder the horses for a time. Best of all, we are screened from the hills, even from Weathertop itself. Should you wish, we could even send Rangers to scout the hills under cover of night.”
“Very well done, this is great news for everyone.” Halrohir said pleased. “Cormadin is guiding the column, let us show him the route. Then, I want you to show me the site, I would see it for myself.” After riding a short way back to the lead wain and speaking to Cormadin, Halrohir turned to Ercolilndo. “Now, let us see what we have, and we must arrive quickly. Ride hard, Ranger!”
Both Halrohir and Ercolindo spurred their horses and took off at a gallop. It was soon obvious that Ercolindo’s horse, although a sturdy and swift steed with a good foot under him, was evened up by Morindal’s long-legged strength. Ercolindo was galloping madly to stay ahead, while Halrohir simply paced him at a powerful gallop, thundering hooves echoing in the gathering dark. The riders slowed as they approached the campsite, Ercolindo’s horse winded, Morindal also breathing deeply but looking as if spoiling for more.
Both young Rangers looked at each other and laughed, but stopped short. Morindal had swung his head to one side, looking south to the land across the Road, his neck stretched and letting out a low “Whuff!” Halrohir recognized that movement as the one from the night of the battle.
“I think we are not alone”, Halrohir said in a low voice. “Ride south, cautiously. You take left, I’ll go right.” Ercolindo nodded, and the two split up and rode back to the edge of the Road, crossing quietly and entering the scrub on the south side.
“Man nostich, Morindal, man thar ennas?*” Halrohir asked the horse. Morindal responded with a few paws of his foreleg, now craning his neck off to the left, his nostrils huffing like bellows. Whatever was in the growing shadows was now between him and Ercolindo, and all too close to the folk as they approached their camp. Without pause, Halrohir dug his heels in, and the great black plowed forward through the brush, rewarded by a shout of fear. A man was crouched under a small bush, within sight of the Road. The stranger rose up and unsheathed a sword, but seeing the giant horse and rider bearing down on him, he dropped it and threw his hands up to ward off the attack. Halrohir reined up and his own blade found the man’s throat, the point resting an inch away from his neck.
“Stand still, renegade, or I shall feed you to my horse!” Halrohir growled, hoping the terror of the sight of Morindal up close would break his nerve, which it did. The man froze where he stood. Halrohir looked the man over closely; he had the same sallow skin and squinting eyes as the raiders of the previous night. He could feel his anger rise, but fought to show no sign.
“Ercolindo! Here! I have found our guest!” he called out, and quickly Ercolindo came crashing through the brush, riding up next to Halrohir.
“What have you found, Ranger?” Ercolindo said, “we seem to have more of these neighbors of ours, though they lost the spirit of our hospitality last night…”
“Indeed,” Halrohir said. “What say you, renegade? Who are you, and what is your interest in watching us from hiding?” The man said nothing, looking back and forth from Halrohir to Ercolindo, his eyes lingering on Morindal.
“Well, speak! What is your errand here?” Halrohir said with rising heat. “We slew thirty of your friends last night, in payment for their attack upon us. Who else lurks in the wild? Speak!!”
The renegade looked up with a hideous grin, and his voice was guttural, not naturally human at all. “You’re all dying, slowly, one by one you’ll all be crow-feed. My master will rule these lands, and we’ll have all that belongs to you. You cannot run, you cannot hide. We’ll smell you out and eat you.”
The ruffian smiled and snarled, “Nink-dushatar, sharku, Saruthsi!#”
Halrohir could no longer master his rage. Leaning forward, the point of his sword plunged into the renegade’s throat and out the back of his neck. The renegade’s eyes went wide as he clutched at the sword blade, then went vacant as he dropped to the ground. Halrohir leapt from the horse and crouched down to the body, Ercolindo dropping right beside him. Quickly they searched the body, and found a pouch containing a few coins, some odds and ends, and a slip of parchment inscribed with scrawled letters, sealed by the sigil of a White Hand.
Ercolindo looked at his friend and said, “Did you recognize what he said just then?”
“I know it as the speech of the Orcs, foul and uncouth as it is,” Halrohir said, “but what curse he meant, I know not. We must get these back to Galador, if he is awake. He recognizes that foul tongue, so it is said. That will answer a few riddles. Come, let’s ride to the camp, the dark is settling in. Leave the carrion here.” And with that, the Rangers mounted and sped back to the camp of the Dunedain, where the watch fires were already beginning to light the night.
* “What do you smell, Blackfoot? What is out there?”
# “The White Wizard, the old man, Saruman!”
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