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The eighth night of the trek saw the Dunedain encamped just within a day’s march of the Weather Hills, with the mass of Weathertop just in sight. In the deep fold of the land where the caravan of refugees lay, watchfires burned bright and warm, but there was little cheer or song. Families were still in shock and grief over the losses of the previous night’s attack, although the losses were few, they were no less keenly felt.
The Rangers were not idle, as if they ever were. As soon as Ercolindo led the caravan to the hollow, Halrohir saw to the order of the guard and defense. Once all was ordered, the Ranger leaders gathered round a watchfire near the wains. Galador had insisted he spoke to them, injured as he was, his voice soft and weaker than before. He sat by the fire, cushioned and propped as comfortable as he could be. He had been appraised of the encounter with the renegade by Halrohir, including the curse in Orcish, and shown the token of the White Hand.
“Rangers, it is past time that you know the full tale, as has been told to me,” Galador said. “When the Lord Aragorn set out from Rivendell on errand with others, he and others of the Dunedain scoured the lands, as you know, before departing just before the New Year. Our task was to find any trace of the Enemy or his spies, but there were veiled hints that the Enemy had spies everywhere, even unto the borders of the Shire.
“You also recall that Bree was actually attacked by ruffians from the Wild at that time, just before the heavy snows. That is the reason we chose the Forsaken Inn as our starting place, rather than the town. Too many eyes and ears still watched the Breeland. But now, we see, we are being hunted. Halrohir reports that the spy he encountered uttered a name in Orcish, and that name is a sign of betrayal: Saruman, the White Wizard!”
“Captain, your news is ill!” Angbrand cried. “Saruman the White is a member of Gandalf the Grey’s high order, and holds the counsels of the Wise. He also has knowledge of Rivendell, and all roads to the hidden valley. Surely now, his servants and perhaps his soldiers have that knowledge as well?”
“And these renegades who assail us, what of them?” Cormadin joined in. “Are these some wizardry that he has wrought, or are these a foul cross between Man and Orc? If so, then they are doubly dangerous, combining the cunning of Men with the malice of Orc!”
“We have learned much in these last days”, Galador said. “We now have the source of our troubles and our attackers. We also know of what nature they may be, but also that they can be slain as any other can be. We can defend ourselves and our folk, for now. But if we are hard pressed, our numbers are not great enough to stand up to a determined attack.”
“Which, my captain,” Halrohir put in, “is why I directed the folk to Weathertop. We can command the hill, and the heights, and defend ourselves better, while scouting the Road ahead more clearly.”
“Yes, young Halrohir, I can understand your meaning,” Galador sighed weakly, the drain on him starting to show. “And it would seem wise, if we had the numbers, but we do not. Haste is our only defense, we must keep the folk on the move…” Galador’s voice faded once more. “I tire… I must rest again…” Willing hands reached out to him, and guided him back to a warm pallet. Halrohir and the others returned to the firelight, clearly troubled.
“Galador gets no worse, but no better,” Cormadin said. “So it falls to us to decide for the folk and with Halrohir as our lieutenant, we must advise him as best we can. My concern is the people. Now their needs are met, for food and water and warmth. We have enough draft animals to carry the loads. But they are wearying of the road, and we have many a day ahead of us still.”
“While we are safe here for now,” Angbrand noted, “we should tend our wounded better. Rest is called for, for all the reason for haste. I cannot do all that is needful,” he said ruefully looking at his bandaged arm, “but I shall do what I can. So would all who are injured and strained by the road.”
“Has anyone even considered where we might find aid in our plight?” Ercolindo asked. “We are too far from Breeland, and to turn back there means we’d never leave again. We have to go on, but what help might there be in the Wild?”
Halrohir spoke up, plainly thinking on something. “When my father told me of this journey, he mentioned that the call to gather the folk came from Rivendell, presumably from Master Elrond personally. That means that not only are they aware of our march, but may even be aware of our progress as well. But I can tell you all, the only word I know of was that initial summons to start the march for Rivendell, then silence. And the leagues between here and the Hidden Valley are long, too long. I cannot allow myself to think there will be aid coming from the Elves.
“The only hope we have, is to press on, pushing ourselves to our limits and the folk as well. I would say, rest in this place for one night longer, and allow the people to recover. We must also scout out Weathertop, and occupy the ring on the hill to spy out the land. I want everyone to rest now. I and a few others shall ride to the hill before dawn, and see what fortune may hold.”
“I will go with you!” Cormadin said. “I can ride, and my leg bothers me less than before. Halrohir, you need us all to support you.”
Halrohir smiled. “Very well, friend, we shall ride together. Let us all go to our rest.” And the council adjourned, Halrohir lingering behind at the fireside. Cormadin sat down heavily beside him, a skin of wine passed between them.
“You do not trust or believe the Elves will assist us, do you?” Cormadin asked.
“I am troubled in mind and heart,” Halrohir said as he watched the flames. “The Elves have saved our people time and again, but mostly when it was a time of their choosing, not ours. Even if they have summoned us here, would they not expect us to make the journey unassisted? It has been eight days on the march, and the summons came before that. If the Elves were sending us aid, we should have seen it by now. No, brother, for so I call you; we are alone, and we must manage this alone.
“And moreover, my doubts are not just with our task, but with me,” Halrohir said more to himself. “Being first among equals is a worthy goal, but it means also being the first chosen for the hardship and the labors of all. I know now that having is much more difficult than wanting. I wanted leadership and renown, but this taste of it is a bitter thing.”
Cormadin chuckled. “I recall you at the Trials, remember? Always stepping forward, always asking for more, testing every edge and boundary. Pushing yourself to be first among equals, indeed. Well, now you have it, Halrohir my brother. The folk look to you, the others look to you – and even Galador considers your words. And now you even ride the great black dragon, as folk call him! You have the makings of a great story for the mead halls, and maybe that is a good thing.” Cormadin, thumped his hand on his friend’s shoulder, stood and moved off into the dark.
Halrohir continued to watch the fire burn down, before taking a space for his bedroll and let sleep take him. He would rise before the dawn, and another needful scouting would begin. The night wore on for all the Dunedain, watchful guards just out of the edge of the light. Horses stamped, fires crackled, soft voices spoke in the dark. The flight continued.
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