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Dawn this day had not yet crept over the edge of the world, shrouded in mist and fog, as the Dunedain began to break camp once more. As the tents were struck and the wagons loaded for another days’ march, the leaders gathered round the last fire still alight for an urgent council. Galador was seated upon a rock and standing in a circle about him were the Rangers Ercolindo, Cormadin, Angbrand and Halrohir. Also there were Cambeleg and Dorwin, the Elves of Rivendell.
Galador had barely recovered strength from the knife-wound of twelve days ago. Angbrand had been injured in the same fight and, though his wounds had healed, his head pained him greatly. Cambeleg explained to Dorwin of the injuries; Dorwin had some skill as a healer and tended the Ranger’s injuries as they sat in council.
“We all know of the peril that awaits us,” Galador said. “The scouts’ report of yesterday shows the Bridge may be held against us. We cannot spare any more as scouts, let alone soldiers. Yet the Bridge must be secure for the passage of our folk. Who here shall read this riddle for us? Cambeleg, share with us your counsel, perhaps?”
The Elf rose and walked to the firelight. “Counsel is as twisted as the mists of the morning fog. Your path lies forward along the Road, across the Mitheithel and on to Bruinen and beyond. But if either the Bridge or the Fords are held in strength against you, you will be hard pressed to cross either or both.
"If you ask for counsel, for this reason we were sent by Master Elrond: to guide you along the safest and quickest path. The quickest would be the Road, but not the safest. But as Halrohir said, haste is life. We must be ready to take the Road across the Bridge, and as rapidly as we can. You are now half a days’ march from the Bridge, and I wonder that we have not been attacked again while we camp.”
“That would be because, I judge, they’re massing their full strength, and leaving only certain places watched”, Halrohir said bitterly. “Cambeleg tells us there may be as many as two hundreds out there in the Wild. The attack near Amon Sul was a trifle, compared to what would happen if those numbers were to fall upon the camp.”
“That would also explain their scouts at the Bridge”, Galador said. “They would send others as to why their first scouts did not report. Their attention has been drawn this way and that, first by you and Dorwin and the others of Rivendell, then by our own actions. They have no great captain among them, and no strategy for either attack or harassment. We can use that to our advantage, one last time.
“We shall send out our scouts and teams as we concluded last night,” Galador said, “with this change: we shall have only four scout the Bridge, and they shall be Halrohir and Cambeleg, if they are willing; and Meldor and Dorwin, who shall be together. Ercolindo shall plan on his full ride, as before. Cenion and Lainbarad shall lead another ride together; and Cormadin shall once more watch our trail, to be certain we are not pursued. Angbrand, my boy, you shall take the other wain, and I shall lead. Every man and boy who can bear arms or bend a bow must be ready to do so. Our full strength, even unto its bitter end, must be ready.”
The council broke, everyone seeing to their tasks. Soon, the entire caravan was in motion, and rolling onto the Road even as the sun peeked over the horizon. The Rangers led their rides into the wilderness alongside the line of march, fanning out far and wide, seeking signs of their elusive foes. The four chosen scouts rode fast and hard to the Bridge where, as before, they dismounted and crept carefully to within sight of Mitheithel’s bridge.
In the dim morning light seen through fog and swiftly blowing mists aloft, everything seemed muted and quiet; even the voice of Mitheithel was muted in the grey dawn. Halrohir quietly ordered the Elves to go wide to left and right, while keeping Meldor close by. Weapons drawn, senses stretching, they awaited the coming of any news.
They had not long to wait. Soon, Dorwin returned and spoke softly but swiftly to Meldor, too swift for him to follow. After pleading with him to slow down, they carried on their muted report, and finally Meldor turned to Halrohir, smiling.
“Finally a change, brother! Dorwin and Cambeleg have both encountered more Elves out of Rivendell, and they bear news! The Elves are holding the Bridge against the half-orcs and have sent word out all ways to rally more. No word shall reach the enemy about our passing this day!”
Cambeleg returned shortly after, smiling with hope. “The Dunedain may cross Mitheithel with dry feet and safety this day”, he said, “They have also secured a fine encampment a half-day’s march east of the crossing, and your folk may rest there. And that is not all the news, friend Halrohir. The others of my kin we have encountered have sent messages of report back east to Imladris, to appraise those there of your progress. There will be no doubt more aid coming, and soon."
For the first time in what seemed like days, Halrohir allowed himself to breathe. Could help really be on the way for his people? The looks on the faces of everyone, Meldor, then Dorwin, then Cambeleg himself, seemed to all agree; but then, why did he still feel the dread? The dread, not of another attack or ambush, but of his own failure, of leading his people into another trap? No, he decided, this may be good news to report, but he would not rest or relax his guard until the Dunedain were safe.
Not even half the day had passed, with the sun’s path finally burning away the morning mists and revealing a brighter but cool day, did the first wagons of the Dunedain approach the passage of the Bridge. As the wains and carts rumbled down the Road and across the Bridge, many hearts dreaded the crossing of the narrow way, despite the news that had reached them, that the Bridge was held by friends. But as they began the approach, there on the opposite bank stood the towering figure of the Dunedain’s dark rider, watching over them and showing the folk that all was well, and they could cross in safety.
Halrohir remained at that spot for a time, until many of the column saw him there. Cambeleg, at his urging, rode next to Galador and reported to the old Ranger of the news out of the east. Galador was visibly pleased to hear it and stood in the buckboard to look back down the long, winding caravan as it passed over Mitheithel, scarcely believing their luck thus far.
At last, the second wain passed over the Bridge, Angbrand riding atop the board, and looking back to catch a glimpse of Cormadin in his place at the rear. The change in his comfort wrought by Dorwin’s brief care was visible, but Angbrand looked forward to the next stop and finally, the end of the flight.
All the Dunedain, whether on foot or riding, were in fact heartened in even greater measure that evening as they reached their encampment, a small bowl in the rolling hills south of the Trollshaws, and saw the fires already lighted and, of all things, a meal prepared by their Elven guests. Savory aromas wafted around the fires, and flagons of warm drink staved off the coming chill of night.
“This is but travelers’ fare”, Cambeleg said to many of the Dunedain to whom he talked, “a light meal beneath the stars for those weary on the Road. But the end of your way is in sight. So take heart, men and folk of Westernesse, for the twinkling lights of the house of Elrond are not far away now.”
The night closed in, and watchfires blazed bright in the dark. Voices lifted in song, and there was laughter in the camp. It was as if, by crossing the Hoarwell and the Last Bridge, that they had passed through the Wild, that the border with fear was behind them, and there was only a few days’ march of safety left. But three minds did not share the merriment that night. There on a low rise overlooking the camp stood Galador, Halrohir, and Ercolindo, and the Rangers were troubled.
“Two days and a third to the ford of Bruinen”, Galador said, “then the crossing, then perhaps a day’s march beyond that, and the end of our journey at last. On the fourth day, we shall cross into Imladris, and all will be done, a tale of our people for years to come.”
“The dead tell no tales,” Halrohir said. “Only if there are folk who survive will our tales be told.”
“There were none following us”, Ercolindo said, “the Elves did their work well. The enemy has not marked our crossing Hoarwell, and that will put them off their reckoning.”
“Unless they await us at Bruinen”, Halrohir said. “We have one last river to cross before safety. And it is still a strong mountain stream that comes cold from the Misty Mountains, it will not be an easy crossing.”
“Halrohir, the Elves would’ve marked any presence of the foe, and we’d have a report”, Ercolindo countered.
“Unless they themselves were slain, and there was no one to report back”, Halrohir said with rising anger.
“We would’ve heard that, too”, Ercolindo nearly shouted, moving inches from the young Ranger’s nose. “What is this mind of yours, Halrohir? Are you hungering for a fight, for disaster to befall? Is that it?” Halrohir’s fist came up in anger, ready to come to blows, when a steel blade flashed directly between the two men’s faces. Galador had drawn a dagger and stuck it between them.
“You will stop this at once, both of you!” Galador growled. “My two best, fighting like beggar children over a scrap of cloth. Folly! Ercolindo is right, we would have heard report, good or ill, from our Elven allies and for once, no news is good news. Halrohir is right, we are too close to the end of the race to become arrogant of our challengers and trip at the finish. I rely on both of you, and this must cease!” Slowly the two Rangers backed away, glaring at each other but not daring to enrage the captain any further. Galador sheathed his blade.
“I agree with Halrohir, that the ford might be held against us, but also that our enemies might come from behind us in a mad sprint to catch us. I need your vigilance, both of you, over the next few most important of days, the last race. Do not let your feet falter and therefore your people. Now I’m going to find some food, you both weary me.” Galador walked down the slope to the nearest fire, and Halrohir could see how bent the old Ranger had become, the weight of age and his final ride upon his shoulders. He turned to Ercolindo, who was looking at him.
Both men said at the same time, “I’m sorry”, and then smiled. They too went in search of the comfort of food and song. For a moment, Halrohir lingered behind, looking up at the stars and the waning moon, still bright in the sky, before turning towards the firelight.
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