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The rest of that day, the ninth of the Dunedain’s flight, saw the caravan remain in place in the hollow beneath Weathertop, just north of the Road. For the first time since the start of the trek, the folk of the Kings of Men could take their ease, stretch out their hurting limbs in comfort, build fires of size for warmth and use. The word from Captain Galador, through his lieutenant Halrohir, was that they would stay here one more night, and make another march at dawn the next day. They cautioned that all that could be already packed and stowed should be done so, to make the start all the earlier.
The healers had labored long through the day and into the evening hours, tending and mending whoever needed aid. Glaemad the wisewoman personally worked her skill upon Galador, and the old Ranger showed steady improvement; although she told everyone, loudly, that the choice to rest one day did more for him than she could.
The day wore on to evening. The Rangers continues their watchfulness into the night, wide patrols on foot to scout out the grounds nearby. Voices were raised in song around the fires. The aromas of stew and bread wafted round the camp. The Dunedain’s spirits rose with these simple comforts, and that alone fortified them for the road ahead.
At the council fire, Galador called for his wineskin, and bade Halrohir approach. Both Ercolindo and Cormadin were out on watch; Angbrand slept soundly at the healers’ bidding, for though his arm was well-tended, the wound on his head was not progressing to health. As Halrohir sat beside him, Galador passed the wineskin to the younger man, and after they both shared a draught, the captain spoke at length.
“Halrohir, my son, you are often away from camp, so you hear not the word that is passed between folk concerning you. You have indeed become a thing of valor among them, a vision and source of strength. Since the last attack, they see you and that mighty mount of yours as the start of a legend, and it gives them hope. That, my boy, is what they need most right now.
“When I fell wounded, you rightly assumed the leadership of the Rangers,” he went on, “and I think you learned what it is to lead, not just command. Your decision to press on to Weathertop was, now at least, the right choice. And you also elected to stay, and rest the folk, which also turns out to be wise. You accomplished both.”
“Captain”, Halrohir said, “we now know the nature of the enemy, and who they serve. We know roughly their numbers, and their intent. It will be at least a fortnight to the Bridge at Mitheithel, and several days more until we even reach the Hidden Valley. In fair weather, I judge the folk cannot travel more than seven leagues in one day’s march. And see, the weather turns against us, for the clouds are building to the west. How do you think the folk are prepared for the onset of a storm?”
“Better than you think, my boy,” Galador said. “In the second wain, there is thick canvas and ropes to build tents for many. There will be shelter from the storms and the cold, should it turn worse. And you have found several sources of fresh water nearby, so that worry is eased. But there are two weak points with us: food, and fuel. The horses I am not concerned about, it’s the people. That is one reason that I urge haste; not only to speed our passage through the Wild and to safety, but also to spare the supplies. The fewer days in the Wild, the better our chances will be.”
Halrohir fell silent, then took a pull from the offered wineskin, before voicing his next thought. “Captain, there is something more. We were talking the other night. What help can we count on, beyond ourselves? Someone mentioned the Elves might aid us, since they sent the summons to Rivendell – “
“- and I’ve thought the same, son,” Galador said. “But we have heard no word, seen no sign. Should the Elves send aid or word, I will welcome it most gladly. But I will not waste the days waiting, or looking for help that may not even come. No, we must press on as we can. Have you given thought to tomorrow?”
“Yes, Captain,” Halrohir said, “I have passed word to all that they should be ready to leave at first light. Ercolindo shall lead the quartering party, I shall follow in rearguard. I should like to have the two young ones, Cenion and Meldor, with me as well; they are proving their worth. I would not halt the march until we have the Weather Hills behind us, though it will make for a long day.”
Galador nodded, clearly getting tired once again. “Agreed. And now, I shall let this wine go to my head, and take more rest. You should sleep as well, Ranger. Good night.” And Galador stiffly rose, waving off Halrohir’s offered hand, and went to his pallet. Halrohir thought this good advice as well, and rolled up in his blanket roll to sleep.
Hours later, he was roused by Meldor. The sky once more showed the glow of twilight building in the east, the mass of the hills dark against the sky. Quickly he rolled his bedroll and carried it to the paddock, where others were quietly saddling and gearing horses for the day’s work. Cenion and Meldor had already saddled their mounts and stood near them, stroking the horses to calm them in the gloom.
Halrohir came to Morindal, gear and saddle at the ready nearby. The great black watched silently as the Ranger hefted the saddle and blanket onto his back; this time, the horse made no protest. After accepting another apple, he let Halrohir mount, and the two walked over to the young Rangers.
“You ride with me again, you two,” Halrohir said to them. “This morning, we are the rearguard. We wait until after the caravan has left the hollow, then we watch. Should any try and sneak into our wake for signs or mischief, we shall be waiting. After a time, we ride to overtake the folk, and go our way from there.”
“How long should we wait,” Cenion asked. “And what shall we do until the caravan moves out?”
“There is a little bit of business to attend,” Halrohir said. “Those two spies who were found yesterday concern me. I would backtrack their trail until the place they crossed the Road, where you saw them. You said they were mounted, Cenion, on small beasts you saw. Of what kind were they?”
“I could not see clearly”, Cenion admitted, “but they were munts of the four-legged kind, surely, or they would not have been able to cross the Road openly and so quick. You wish to find their tracks?”
“Indeed. Let us be off,” Halrohir said, and the three rode away west out of the hollow. They followed a winding path, no more than a deer track though the weeds, until Cenion bade them halt near the Road, at the point where he thought he saw the spies cross. All three dismounted, and Meldor held the horses while Halrohir and Cenion scouted the ground and looked for any sign or trace, his bow bent and ready. After a long while, the Rangers regrouped.
“I found tracks, and traces of their feet”, Cenion said, “and they were hoofprints, but small, larger than ponies but smaller than horses. Of what kind were they?”
“I think I know,” Halrohir said. “I marked where there was a third set of prints, same as the others, but came to the spot later than the first two. Another scout was sent to check on their progress, it seems. That means that my ‘message’ was delivered. The third scout would have taken the word back, along with his companion. But as to the nature of the mounts, that riddle becomes easier. They were riding mules, pack animals who would not complain of the extra load. Those of orc-kind do not ride horses, and horses cannot abide them in turn. But the mules might consent to be ridden for some distance, but not as battle steeds.
Halrohir looked up at the gathering light of the dawn. “It is time, the folk are moving out. We should now return to the hollow, and watch.” The three mounted and rode back. By the time they returned to the hollow, the Dunedain had departed. All that remained were scattered places of flattened grass, fire rings covered with soil and turf, deep slots in the earth where wheels ran, and a lingering scent of horse and human. The Rangers dismounted and led their horses deep into the brush, and crouched low and out of sight, watching and waiting.
For an hour or more, no sight or sound entered the place. Nothing stirred or moved. The Rangers nodded to each other, satisfied that there would be no pursuit, and made to move to their horses. All three froze, as Morindal swung his head toward the far side of the dell, his nostrils flaring and one hoof tapping the ground. The younger men looked to Halrohir, who had hit the ground and begun crawling to the edge of the grasses to see the open space. Sure enough, there was a mule standing in the open, along with a figure man-high, bent over looking at the ground.
Halrohir was about to rise from the ground and draw his sword, but at that moment the stranger stiffened, gurgled and crashed forward and did not get up again. One of Meldor’s arrows quivered in his throat. The three sped over to where the body lay, Cenion grabbing hold of the mule’s harness and kept it from running. The other men lifted the body, flung it over the mule’s back, and brought out their own horses.
“Meldor, that was a skilled shot”, Halrohir said finally. “I want both of you to take this burden of yours and meet up with the column. Find Galador and show him, he can read more signs. I shall follow shortly. Go now!” Meldor and Cenion nodded, and the two rode off, trailing the mule in their wake. Halrohir now was alone, Morindal standing still in the middle of the hollow. When he was sure the other two were out of sight, he spurred Morindal forward, and up toward the north-east, on the same path as yesterday toward the hills.
The Dunedain had moved out of the hollow right on time, and striking the Road headed east without delay. Ercolindo and his party rode out swiftly ahead, scouting the lands before them. Cormadin drove the first wain, Angbrand the second at the rear of the column. Carts and smaller wagons were strung out between them in a long line, others on foot spaced between. Galador was seated next to Cormadin, feeling strong enough to travel for a while. He stayed in the wain for the rest of the day, as the column moved steadily along the Road, the heights of Weathertop moving even on the left, then steadily behind them. Meldor and Cenion arrived with the body and the mule. The body was dumped on the side of the Road after being searched and turning up nothing of value. The mule was sent to pull the cart of an elderly couple, who were grateful for the easing of their burden.
There was a commotion among voices on the march, and people were pointing off to the northwest, in the direction of the summit. Cormadin listened, then looked in the direction everyone was as well, and nudged Galador. There, atop the highest summit of Weathertop, framed against the westering sun stood a massive dark figure, a mounted rider, cloak billowing like dark wings, standing still and motionless against a backdrop of gathering storm clouds that partially hid the setting sun.
Galador watched, and smiled. “It’s Halrohir”, he said, “and he’s sending a message, to us and to the enemy. The Rider is watching the land, and them. It’s just as the Creed demands.”
“What does the Creed have to do with this?” Cormadin asked, just as Meldor and Cenion rode up.
“And what is the Rangers’ Creed, young ones?” Galador asked. The light dawned in Cormadin’s eyes, but the two younger men didn’t realize. “It is your oath, what you all shall recite when the Trials are completed, and you have earned the right to be truly called Ranger:
Where strong arm and valiant spirit must defend the land,
Where child cries or woman weeps, there shall I make my stand;
Let those who walk with evil see my eyes and take to flight,
As they cry out in despair, ‘Beware! A Ranger rides this night!’
Cormadin recited the words with Galador, a lump rising in his throat. At that moment, Ercolindo rode back from the quartering party, and reined up in time to hear the Creed, and looked to the hilltop and saw his friend there. The Ranger reported to Galador that a good site had been found a league from there, well-hidden and shielded by brush and scrub. He turned and rode away, Galador ordering Meldor and Cenion with him. He turned once more to look at Weathertop behind him, but the summit was empty; Halorhir had gone and, he presumed, was descending the hills to rejoin the march.
After an hour, as the sun had utterly vanished behind the advancing clouds, the caravan found the path Ercolindo had blazed into the land south of the Road, and began to make camp and shelter. Galador bade them set up one of the larger tents in the center of the camp, in case the weather struck and shelter was needed. Fires leapt up in several places, and the smell of wood smoke and food drifted about them. Then at last, a commotion could be heard at the entrance to the camp, glad voices raised in praise. Eyes turned to see a now-familiar cloaked rider on his great black steed, striding into the camp with heavy footfalls. Halrohir nodded to all who hailed him, but sought out Galador and the others. Dismounting, he let Morindal graze freely while he reported to the others.
“I watched the lands about, and the caravan, for a good while,” he said. “Nothing else was moving, and no signs on the breeze of trouble; but we are on the wings of the storm, so to speak. And yes, I stayed on the heights openly and on purpose, for I wanted all to see me there. It’s part of the message I sent to the enemy, that I am watching; it may give them pause to think before attacking again.”
“Agreed”, Galador said. “All should have as much shelter as we can contrive. See to it, Rangers. The weather is against us, now!”
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