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Star of the North  by Halrohir Haladanion

Chapter Two:  Hazards at the Ford

Halrohir and Dorwin spent the rest of the night awake and talking by the fireside, talking now merrily, now somber, about the past five years and each one’s comings and goings, always referring to the first time they met, during the flight of the Dunedain to Rivendell.  Halrohir marveled at Dorwin’s command of the Common Tongue, speaking it as easily as he spoke his native Elvish. 

One thing Halrohir did learn, was Dorwin’s penchant for mischief.  During the time that he was asleep, Dorwin had not only built the fire with wood he had brought, but braided Morindal’s mane into neat black rows of tight, thick cords.  The great black seemed to approve, especially as his mane was now out of his eyes.  Dorwin had also braided flowers into each weave; Halrohir looked askanse at that, and he was sure even Morindal did as well.

The dawn began lightening the eastern skies with umber pastels behind clouds, heralding a sunny day ahead.  Halrohir broke camp and had his gear packed, swiftly he thought, but Dorwin was already to go, seemingly never unpacking.  As was the usual way of the Elves, Dorwin rode “elf-fashion” with Forosul, no saddle or harness or bridle at all.  All his gear he simply slung over his shoulder in a large baldric, a knife at his hip and a quiver of arrows on his back as his only gear of war.  The two companions mounted, and with a dig from Halrohir’s boots and a whispered word from Dorwin, the two set off on the next stage of their long trek.

The first day’s ride together passed slowly, as did the next, because of the sameness of the lands they rode through.  The Greenway was barely more than an overgrown track through the grasses, an old and unused country road.  Here and there among the low rolling downs there grew scrub trees and pine or cedar in places.  But there were, even in this wilderness, traces of the works and hands of the Kings of Men from the past; for at intervals there stood small pillars of stone, half a man high, set alongside the track.  Dorwin explained to Halrohir that these were markers for travelers as to the distance of the roads, each one a league apart.  Faded, but still deeply etched into the stones to be read, were numbers in descending order: “three hundred seventy” read the first stone they passed from their camp, then “three hundred sixty-and-nine”, and so on, marking the leagues south to the ancient capital of Gondor at Osgiliath.

“Who knows how many of these gondlars, these ‘stone pauses’, will we find still standing in our journey?” Dorwin wondered.  “But for the ones that do, they will mark the passage of the leagues in the empty lands.” 

“For nothing else will”, Halrohir said ruefully, “there is no relief to these moors that could even be closely used.  These stones make perfect sense, then.”

The riders passed steadily on, Dorwin setting the pace, for Forosul could not hope to match Morindal’s relentless stride.  Though Halrohir had reckoned he could have done twenty leagues a day, with Dorwin’s company they could manage fourteen.  This would add an additional day before they reached the crossings at Tharbad, but it could not be helped.  The first day passed, then the second, then four, the league-stones marching past and counting down.  Each night’s camp was lit by firewood gleaned from the scrub near the road, with stories and words shared at the fireside until sleep took Halrohir, leaving Dorwin watching through the night.

At the fifth day’s camp, beside a broken gondlar whose barely-read number showed 301, Halrohir looked ahead down the Greenway.  They had been slowly descending into a vast open valley and could see just a few leagues off copses of trees growing near the banks of a vast water.  Here the Greenway ran straight away toward a cluster of stone ruins at the edge of sight.  The grasses on either side of the roadway had given way from prairie grass to rustling marsh-tails and smaller plants without fragrance. 

“There lies Tharbad, the old ruined city,” Dorwin said.  “The ancient causeway has fallen into total ruin and is now a rocky ford dangerous for man or beast.”

“Yet that is our road”, Halrohir said, “and the only road across the Greyflood for leagues in any direction.  And who knows how treacherous the crossing shall be, if the snows from the North have not swollen the river?  Had you no word before you set out?”

“Yes, and it is not good.  The heavy snows of the Misty Mountains are already melting, and the Mitheithel, that Men call the Hoarwell, is flooding the crossings to the north.  Even the Ford of Bruinen is treacherous.  But there is hope that, this far downstream, the floods have not reached Tharbad yet.”

“We must make the crossing tomorrow and be beyond by our next camp.  I fear any delays.  How does Morindal seem to you?”

“I have not noticed any change in him, and I have been watching him through the days”, Dorwin said smiling.  “His appetite surely has not faltered, as sure as his strength has, neither.”

“All the same”, Halrohir said, “I’m concerned, and rightly so.  I confess, Dorwin, that sometimes I wish I could ask him and he’d answer somehow.  I know his moods, and his dispositions; but the way of the Elves with good beasts is beyond me.”

Dorwin grinned with mischief, “Then might you allow me?”  And they rose from where they were seated on the grass and came to the horses tethered side by side.  The Elf approached Morindal, who watched him with great interest.  Dorwin laid his forehead against the stallion’s and whispered a few words in the Elven-tongue.  After a moment, Morindal shook his head as if to chase away a fly and snorted once.  Dorwin’s face showed a momentary bit of surprise, then he turned to Halrohir.

“He truly was a steed of my people,” he said with an expression of wonder.  “He knows our speech, and he hears you when you talk to him.  He knows you cannot do the same with him, so he must make his wishes very plain.  His hearing and smell are superb, as you know by his warning and danger signs.”

“So, he knows of our journey, and why?”  Halrohir said in amazement.  “But, how is he, how does he fare?”

“He is aware that he is not like any horse in the land, and the waters made him what he is.  He does not feel any need for haste, for his strength has not lessened.  He is well, for the present.”

“And, he told you all this.  I envy you, Dorwin.”

“Say not so.  You have a friend in this creature, this beast of wonder, and you are only separated by language.  He will not forsake you, because he knows you will not forsake him.  This ride is proof of that.  Now see, we are distracted, for the fire is lighting the grasses!”  Dorwin pointed back to the campfire, where a log had fallen outside the circle and some of the drier turf was alight.

Later that evening, when the fire had burned low and all was in darkness, and a sliver of new crescent moon was climbing in the eastern sky, Halrohir was walking around the campsite as Dorwin tended to the dying fire. He crossed over to where the horses stood, holding two apples from his dwindling store.  He offered the first to Forosul as a gift, who eagerly munched happily on the fruit.  He laughed as he looked over at Morindal, whose expression was of sheer disappointment.  He offered the second to the great black, his customary crunching following, and ran his hand through his still-braided mane.

“So, you can hear my every word, can you, you big haystack?” Halrohir asked the horse.  “You’ve never failed me.  But I’m afraid, Blackfoot.  I’m afraid of failing you.  With Dorwin’s help, we’ll make it, I thought; but he’s slowing us, and I fear we’ll not get to the waters in time.  So, you have to tell me, in any way you can.  If your strength lags, or your time is approaching fast, you’ve got to let me know.  It would, it would kill me to think I failed you.”  And he wrapped his arms around the horse’s neck.

Morindal lowered his head and pushed Halrohir aside, and the man felt wounded and rejected for a moment.  The moment passed when he realized that the black stallion was looking off to the left, his neck stretched, his right hoof pawing the earth slowly but heavily:  the danger sign. Halrohir drew his knife and stood by the horse, realizing he was backlit by the fire’s small glow.  He peered off into the darkness where Morindal pointed, straining his ears for anything.  Not a sound met him, no stirring in the grass.  Suddenly, off to his right, there was a high-pitched twang and a cry to his front.  Dorwin appeared suddenly at his side; he had strung his bow and landed a shot in the gloom.  Wordlessly, the two moved to investigate what the Elf had shot, and they fond the target:  a man, dressed in rags and a thick leather jerkin like cast-off armor, clutching a small dirk in his dead hand, Dorwin’s arrow stuck in his throat.

“That was a fine shot in the dark, my friend”, Halrohir said.

“I was aiming for his chest”, Dorwin replied. 

They searched the body, to find little that would tell them anything:  a purse with coins of some value, and a shoulder sack with a few meager belongings.  But both stopped when they opened a small envelope, with a previously broken seal plainly with the emblem of the White Tree of Gondor. Inside was a small parchment, still legible.

“The letter of marque of a King’s Messenger”, Halrohir said grimly.  “This stalker in the shadows must have ambushed one of them and stole the letter and purse.  And look at the blade; it’s a dirk, of a make that a common thief would not have.”

“And this close to Tharbad”, Dorwin said.  “We may find the ruins are not friendly, and the crossing more perilous than just rocky waters.  We should allow the fire to die, and not relight it, for fear of attracting other moths like this one.”

“Agreed.  I must ask your elvish habit of never sleeping to keep watch for us in the night.  But also, watch Morindal, for he warned us first.”

So, the night passed without light, save for starlight and the waxing moon.  As Halrohir dozed, Dorwin walked in a circle around the camp, singing softly to himself and gazing at the stars above.  Slowly the sky turned light once more, heralding the sunrise, and Dorwin roused the Ranger gently.  Quickly they broke their meager camp, leaving the thief’s body where it lay, and rode on.

At last, on the sixth day of Halrohir’s ride, the two companions reached the edge of the ruined river-port of Tharbad.  Once a bustling port of kingdoms long past, the deserted, desolate place was a tumble of stone archways and pavestones, the Greenway giving way to a partially-paved road that ran straight as an arrow between the buildings.  They had not ridden long when they came upon the fords, and there they halted briefly.  A great bridge and causeway once spanned the Greyflood here, the Greenway leaping over the river in three jumps between islands in the stream.  But the bridge and causeway had collapsed into rock and mire, still visible in the swirling currents of the river.  The ford here looked to be every bit of a mile wide, and the distance between the eyots several furlongs at a time. 

“This will be a crossing every bit as treacherous as Mitheithel was”, Halrohir said, “even before the half-orcs of Saruman destroyed the Last Bridge.  We should stay mounted until the horses can no longer walk safely.”

“Horse and man, and Elf, can swim”, Dorwin said, “but I agree, we should ride as far as the road allows.  Shall we be off?”  And they continued down the low slope from the causeway’s end to the water’s edge and began wading through the shallow water.  The going was easy at first, for the river bed was firm and allowed good progress.  They came to the first eyot and paused, stone and masonry from the fallen bridge making a pile of debris that made the island larger. 

The passage to the second eyot was a more cautious going.  The horses stumbled, once or twice at first, but more often as they went on.  The rocks and sunken masonry were slimed and slippery, and footing was increasingly hard.  The water had risen up the horses’ legs, up to Forosul’s forelegs but only to Morindal’s knees.  Both horses walked slowly but steadily until harder and drier ground was beneath their hooves, and they heaved out of the water onto the higher ground of the fallen supports of the bridge.

Here they halted, the riders stepping off to the water’s edge.  Halrohir stayed with the horses while Dorwin scouted the path before them, testing the waters and looking ahead to the best possible path to continue the crossing.  After a few minutes of watching and looking, Dorwin returned.

“The worst is not over, I deem”, he said.  “We are fortunate that the floods have yet to reach here, but the channel is before us; the river is not shallow and the current runs swift.  I fear the horses will have to swim and bearing us as well.  But there, you can see the other bank is close.  Just this one last wetting, and all will be over.”

“I feared it would come to this”, Halrohir said.  “I don’t doubt Morindal can swim this, but what of Forosul?  How is his strength, compared to the current?”

“He is of good stock, though of course no match for that black behemoth of yours.  We will, however make the passage as quickly as possible, lest his strength fail.  Come, let us not wait!”

They mounted and plunged into the swirling waters and aimed the horses’ heads for the opposite shore.  They walked on the riverbed, the water rising past their legs, then their flanks, until even Morindal was now swimming with powerful strokes of his legs.  Forosul was struggling against the current, Dorwin speaking to him urging him on.  Steady was their progress, but they slowly swept downstream, missing the mark of the other bank.  Suddenly their hooves found purchase on the river bed once again, and the horses heaved out of the river, stumbling on the slick stones but gaining more purchase until, at last, they burst free of the water and mounted the bank.  The Greyflood had been crossed.

Halrohir and Dorwin had discussed what they would do once Greyflood was behind them, and they agreed not to wait a single moment by the river’s edge, because of the thief of last night.  They did not even halt after the crossing, but rode on at a canter, putting as much speed on as the tired horses could manage.  After a league or more, riding down the Greenway with a course as straight as before the fords, Morindal halted despite Halrohir’s urgings.  He turned his head to Forosul, then looked up at Dorwin, then back to Forosul.  Halrohir was confused, but Dorwin laughed.

“He means for us to stop here, and give Forosul a rest”, the Elf said.  “Well, as good a place as any, I suppose.  We can all dry off in this bright sun”, and he dismounted lightly.  He walked to Forosul’s head, where he touched the horse’s forehead to his own.

“Only for a while, though”, Halrohir said grimly as he alighted.  “I don’t trust this place.  Look around, there’s no shelter, not even a tree or hollow to wait in.  See down the road a way, there looks like another set of ruins, and that might hold some promise.  And look at this marker nearby”, he pointed at one of the league-stones, “it still says ‘two hundred-and-ninety-five’ plain enough.  That means we’ve been but six leagues from yesterday’s halt.”

“I agree, we need some place to rest for the night”, Dorwin said.  “But Forosul is nearly spent from the crossing, mellon nin.  One more league is about all he can manage now.  Come, let us go on, while there is still something left to him.”  And they remounted and rode once more, and after an hour at a slow walk, they approached a tumbled-down house of stone and wood, an old homestead from the looks of things, long since abandoned and overgrown.  The only firm part of the structure still standing was a chimney and a hearth of dry-laid rocks.  The remains of the walls made for a somewhat enclosed space to keep the horses and bed down for the night. 

While Dorwin built a fire in the old hearth, Halrohir scouted round the place, finding no signs of anything beyond field mice or creatures of the wild.  That this was once a farmstead there was no doubt; old pieces of forged tools were inside and outside, rusted and falling into dust.  Wood had been worked by tools and hand, lumber cut and shaped.  There was wood in plenty for a fire, and Dorwin produced a treasure from his belongings, a flask of cordial he brought from Rivendell.  Shared with Halrohir’s rations, everything tasted like a feast made in a great hall.  And in this ruined house, the travelers passed the night and the horses rested, but they remained ever watchful for what might lie ahead.


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