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The Dunedain occupied the camp which the Elves of Rivendell had prepared, but this night they lit fewer fires, and sang even fewer songs. There had been death among them, more wounds and loss, and the news came of the Warg attack and the terrible fire of Orthanc that had destroyed the Last Bridge behind them. The word of the battle was only overshadowed by the knowledge that they were less than a day from the Fords of Bruinen; and that, in their hearts, the folk felt the river of Loudwater would be the last obstacle that they would have to overcome.
But the obstacles remained nonetheless. The weather at least had restrained the cold, but the chill in the airs that rolled down from the heights of the Misty Mountains before them could not be shut out. The rains had thankfully held back and looked as if they would stop for the next day or so. The encampment was in a heavy wood, shielded from the Road by bracken and low saplings, and abounded with cedar and pine for the fires. Nonetheless, spirits raised by the fires and by the Elven feast prepared for them by their hosts, as well as the Elves themselves. A small group out of Rivendell had ridden west to meet the Dunedain and greeted them with what comfort and merriment could be contrived on the trail.
Several Elves brought healing skills with them, and the wise women of the caravan welcomed them as they all labored. Under their combined care, Cormadin’s wounds were healed swiftly, as were Ercolindo’s many cuts. Meldor presented a challenge to the skills of both Elves and Men, but though he would live, his usefulness for the next few days, if not weeks, was little. Even Galador himself did not pass from the healers’ scrutiny.
“The knife wound was tended well and closed with skill. It shall bother you little. Your greatest wound, Captain, is that of age and time and that, we fear, we cannot stop.”
Angbrand was also summoned by the Elves, so see the progress of Dorwin’s work. What they saw in his eyes and his skin made the Elves go quiet, and they sought out Galador for counsel.
“Your man will not live long, Captain”, the elves explained, “for though the wound has healed and closed, the damage runs far deeper. No skill, save that of Master Elrond himself, will save him. If we reach Imladris in time, and no further hurt befalls him, he may recover and lead a long life.”
This left Halrohir as the only unwounded leader of the Rangers, and he counted himself fortunate beyond his own worth. He walked among the watch fires, listening to the talk and the laughter and the snatches of songs from many voices. Those whom he passed by hailed him and offered him food and drink in both salute and gratitude for his deeds along the way. He stopped at several places, passed by others with a wave and a nod. He noticed a change in himself; he had so often wanted praise and renown, as the hero and leader. But as he had come to realize, both leadership and renown came with a heavy toll. And he concluded that, even though he had not been wounded by blade, the flight of the Dunedain had left its marks on him, as well.
As was becoming his only comfort, Halrohir made his way to the paddock where he found Morindal standing among several other horses, as well as several children who were looking up at the black giant towering before them. He stopped just outside the light of the lamp the oldest boy bore and smiled as he listened to their words.
“See, he’s not half a dragon, like they say, he’s just a horse.”
“Just a horse! Look at him, the biggest horse there ever was! And there’s only one that can ride him, the youngest Ranger!”
“The Dark Rider, they call him. They say he watches over us all, and he scares away the goblin-men with his sword and his horse.”
“I wish I could be a Ranger, someday. And if I could, I would be a Ranger just as great as him, with a great horse and all!”
Halrohir laughed and stepped out into the circle of light. “And the great Ranger you would be, if you could prove it, once you pass The Trials.”
The children jumped, and when they saw who it was, they crowded around him in awe. “Ranger Halrohir! How are you here? Are you going to talk to your black horse, like they say you can?”
“Morindal listens to anyone who talks to him,” Halrohir said, “especially if you give him an apple first. Here, watch,” and he reached into a fold of his tunic and produced an apple. Morindal’s head instantly swung toward him, reaching out to take it.
“See, little ones? It’s a gift to him, for being who he is,” Halrohir said, “and what he is most of all is, my friend through dangers. Once you have seen dangers, then you see how valuable your friends truly are.”
“Ranger, you spoke of The Trials just then”, the oldest boy said. “What are The Trials? What do they have to do with the Rangers?”
Halrohir took a knee, looking the young lad directly. “Tell me your name, young one.”
“I am Galindon, son of Galafin of the Rangers,” the lad replied. “My adarinya rode with the Grey Company, like so many other fathers did. And grandsire is the Captain of the caravan, and even he listens to you now.”
Halrohir looked into the eyes of this boy, just on the threshold of becoming a man. Galindon son of Galafin son of Galador. And there, fleetingly to his sight, came the image of the morning rose. There was a distant, faint connection, somehow. He put it to the back of his memory for now.
“Have your sire or grandsire told you nothing about The Trials, and how important they are to a Ranger?”
“No, milord, they have not, they say I am still too young.”
“And they would be right. The Trials begin when one reaches their twentieth year, and they are the tests and training which show that the Dunadan is ready to earn the right to be called Ranger. These tests are not for the faint of heart, nor the weak of body.”
“But you did them, did you not?” asked one of the other children there. “And the others, they all passed them, too? What are they, can you not say?”
Halrohir sat down on the grass, the children gathered round him and young Galindon setting the lamp down in the center like a campfire. He gazed around the circle at their faces, all expectant and hanging on his every word. It gave him a different feeling, to be telling stories, and so he started his tale.
“The Trials are named for the blacksmith’s trade, the iron craft of the forge,” Halrohir began. “First, comes the Smelting. Just as ore is burnt, and all the slag and impurities are burned away, so are the distractions and impurities of the heart and spirit are burned off from you. Thoughts of greed, of hurting others for pleasure, wanting only to fight – these have no place in the Ranger’s heart. Other metals and alloys are added to the iron, to make it strong; and the Ranger has other things added to him, to make him strong as well.
“Next comes the Forging, where the metal is hammered in the fire to the shape that is needed, heated then cooled then heated, over and over again until everything is just right. The same happens to the Ranger, where skills are repeated over and again until they can be done without a thought.
“And next comes the Cooling. Just as the iron must be slowly cooled to become less brittle and more hardened, so is the Ranger allowed to rest, and reflect, and take stock of where he stands. For this is the last chance one would have, to continue on with the Ranger’s path, or leave and go your own way; for once this point is reached, the hardest Trials begin.” Halrohir noted the eyes around the circle as the children, hanging on his every word, heard his tale; and he also saw in the shadows, others had come up to hear him spin the story of the Trials of the Rangers. He went on.
“For now, comes the Grinding,” Halrohir said with a lower, serious voice. “Just as the blade is sharpened and the edge put on the sword, so is the edge put on the Ranger’s skills. The Ranger learns every craft, every skill, from skill at arms to skill at healing and woodcraft.
“And then, last of all, comes the hardest and longest Trial of them all: the Tempering. The new sword is heated and doused in water many times, until the smith declares it is strong and fit for use by a hero’s hand; even so, the Ranger must be tried and tested with quests, and mission, and tasks; he must ride into danger, facing defeat or even death, sometimes even more than once, until at least three Rangers judge him ready and worthy to wear this.” And he showed them the clasp of his cloak, which gleamed in the lamplight, that of a silver six-pointed star.
“The Star of the North, the Star of the Rangers,” Halrohir said, “the same as the one that the Kings of Men once wore, that no man has worn for many lives of Men. We wear it to remind others, and ourselves, of the heritage of the North-kingdom of old.” And he leaned closer to Galindon, and placed his hand behind the boy’s head, drawing him closer.
“Take heart, Galindon son of Galafin,” Halrohir said, “Should we win the day, there will come a time when you, even you, will stand before two Rangers – for though it takes three to become one, it takes but two to stand by you – and they shall put forth your name to enter The Trials, and become a Ranger, like your father, and his father before him.” Galindon’s face was transported, his eyes wide in wonder at the honor that Halrohir was giving him. There was silence all around them, and in the light of the lamp, Halrohir could see a fair crowd had come to listen to his tale.
Halrohir rose, and many who were there thanked him with warm smiles and gently herded the children off to rest. He walked over to Morindal, who was watching him intently, as if he had heard every word and understood it.
“Well, you great haystack,” he said to the horse, “it seems I have a talent for telling tales around the fire, what say you?”
“Yes, you certainly have, for did I not already name you, minstrel?” came a voice out of the darkness. Halrohir tensed. There it was, the soft, sultry commanding voice from the last dream. He whirled about, searching around for the source of the voice.
“Show yourself, I beg you,” Halrohir said, “for I have heard that voice before, though we have not met, strange as that may sound.” And from the shadow behind from where Morindal stood walked a cloaked figure, tall and slender, black from head to foot but seeming to glimmer in the dark. Two hands reached up to cast back the hood to the shoulders, revealing a woman, young and old, wise and innocent, pale skin and fathomless dark eyes. A silver fillet circled her brow, pulling back hair as black as night revealing two ears tapered like wings, clearly of Elven-kind. And as he took in the vision, she spoke, first in the Elven-tongue then the Common Speech.
“Vin govaded na vedui, ion i Numenore. Hal vin i lynyd, lindir. An im Elennaur.
[We are met at last, son of Numenor. Sing with me, minstrel. For I am Starfire.]
“Spinning stories by the firelight is a talent you hold, minstrel. For not only singing and music are the minstrel’s stock and trade. The gift of the story is already yours and shall be for all your days. Your life shall be filled with gifts, these among many.”
Halrohir stood transfixed, taking in the sight and sound of this woman who spoke on the winds of dreams. “The only gift I would have is to know if my people will survive this ordeal, and to know if the peril of the Darkness will pass us by.”
Elennaur laughed, both an amused and bitter laugh. “Do not lie to me, even if you are a child of Numenor. For that is not your wish, not the wish of your heart. You wish to know if your name will be sung in legend years from now, and that is the sole reason you want your people to live.”
“Often I have heard tell of the secret contempt your folk have for mine,” Halrohir retorted, “but even now your own words betray you. You spoke just now of all my days, and how my life will have many gifts. I have found a true friend in Morindal. I have seen the morning rose, and its promise on the breeze. And I see my fate with this child tonight, my house and his, entwined like the vines of that morning rose, years from now.”
“Oh, but there is one fate you do not see,” Elennaur said as she stepped closer, slowly. “One trial you did not speak of, a path that your people have trodden long before, and long ago, and so often it lies before you, worn like pavestones. That path runs to the Sea, from where all dreams come. And I was harsh just then, like the Sea can be, for just as the tides rise and ebb, so shall fortunes. And hearts.” And she laid one hand upon his breast, just over his heart, drawing closer so that she almost filled his vision.
“You have already achieved part of your wish, young Halrohir, young in heart and sinew. Your name is already known to my people as the defender of his folk, who rides a mighty steed whom none even of our kindred could. But those are tales of fleeting glory. But the tales and songs you should be destined for shall not be achieved by arms. Rather they should be won by words and melody, by mighty and deep themes of music. All those, we might share. All those things, you and I, for as long as this shall last.”
And there under the stars, Elennaur kissed Halrohir.
Or, did he kiss her?
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