Tales of the North
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An excess of weather: 2. Six makes company
Perhaps Guilin was right, Halladan thought as he huddled over a tiny flame to protect it from the rain and wind, perhaps frost would be better than mud. He cursed at the water trickling down through his hair and nearly extinguishing the fire. It had taken him long enough to coax this flame from the sodden wood he'd gathered, it would be annoying to have to start over again. Without dry wood at hand, he had little hope of keeping the fire burning all night, but he would try to keep it going long enough at least for a hot meal. He could just about stand the rain, as long as he had something to warm him.
Of course, by morning, the fire was out, but at least the rain had slowed to a drizzle, and Halladan had the fire going again quickly. By the time he left, his gear was mostly damp rather than soaked. It would still not be a pleasant journey, and Halladan cast a regretful look at the westward Road as he led his horse down from Weathertop towards the northern path. Bree and the Pony would have to keep until he came back south again.
After six days in the Weatherhills and along the Greenway, Halladan was glad to see the familiar outline of Fornost's ruins in the distance.
"Halladan," the gatehouse sentry greeted him. "How was the road?"
"As pleasant as ever," Halladan replied, adding, "If you like mud, that is. Quiet, though."
"Not surprising. Even Orcs have the sense to stay out of the rain."
"Rain's still better than an Orc den."
The sentry grimaced. "Isn't that the truth... Go on in. You'll be back on the road soon enough."
Inside, Halladan first headed for the stables to take care of his horse. He wondered what the sentry meant by his comment about going out again. By his reckoning there were still several days before they were due to go out. He was nearly done when another Ranger peeked in to the stall.
"You're late. Have you reported in yet?"
"Good day to you too, Ingold," Halladan replied. "No. I only just got here. And what is the rush? Bereg's not usually that..."
"Captain's not here, and we're not going out with him," Ingold cut him short.
"Oh? Why not? Not injured, is he?"
Ingold nodded sourly.
"So who is replacing him, and do you know yet where are we going?" Judging by Ingold's mood, he wouldn't be surprised if they were indeed leaving the next morning.
Another man joined them, but as Halladan had just bent down to check his horse's hooves, he only saw a pair of legs appear next to Ingold. The voice was unmistakeable, though. "Sarn Ford; and I'll be taking this patrol myself, if that meets with your approval, Ranger."
"Of course, Captain."
Halladan hid a grin by turning to attend to a knot in his horse's mane as Ingold pulled Arador aside to speak to him. He understood now why the other man was out of sorts. Normally, Bereg's second would have taken their patrol, moving Ingold up to the lieutenant's position, but if Arador was taking them out, Galador would be his second, just as he was for Bereg. Or would the Captain take a man of his own choice along? Halladan shrugged internally; it mattered little to him, he was satisfied to be an ordinary Ranger – maybe one day a lieutenancy, but he had no desire to command a company. Ingold was ambitious though, and was likely torn between seeing this as a missed chance and an opportunity to impress their Captain.
Ingold had apparently had his say, and muttered something about having to check his pack. Arador cast a bemused glance after him, then turned his attention back to Halladan.
"When are we leaving, if I may ask, sir?" Halladan said.
"Day after tomorrow," Arador replied. "I only arrived yesterday myself."
"How was your summer patrol?"
"Not too bad, though I'm glad to be back south again. But enough of Rangering. What news is there of home?"
"Not much. Your lady wife and Bereth send their love. The Chieftain is as well as can be expected, and wishes you a quiet patrol for the winter." Halladan did not add that Argonui had told him in private that he and Bereth should not wait too long to get married, as he would like to see at least one great-grandchild before he died.
"And my sister?" Arador asked.
"I am sure she will send you a letter with a message-rider. I did not speak to her while I was in Caras Dirnen," Halladan replied, reluctant to say too much.
Arador sighed. "Lad, Fíriel will come round soon enough. She is hardly a demon."
"I know." Maybe not a demon, but... Halladan thought it better to say nothing more. He was not about to argue with the Captain about his sister's merits.
"Well," Arador said, giving him a sharp look, "I'll let you get on with your work then. Remember, sunrise day after tomorrow."
It was still at least half an hour until sunrise, with the last pale stars fading into the brightening sky, and Halladan was surprised to find he wasn't the first of their party in the courtyard. Ingold and Galador were already there, as was one of the recruits they would take along.
"Halladan, this is Hador," Galador introduced them.
"First time out?"
"No, I did Annúminas this summer. I'm really looking forward to this patrol, sir. Do you think we will get to fight Orcs? I really want to get my star."
Both Ingold and Galador snorted in amusement. Halladan managed not to smile at Hador's over-enthusiasm. He would get over that soon enough once their patrol encountered the first real trouble. It was good though that one of the recruits had some experience already, even if Annúminas was an easy posting. From what Halladan had heard, the other was fresh from the training camp, and had never even been outside the Angle.
Before long Arador arrived, the other recruit in tow. They left Fornost before the sun was even over the horizon. After the quick start, Halladan expected Arador to keep a faster pace than Bereg would have done, but their progress the rest of the morning was leisurely. Ingold and Galador rode with Arador; both the recruits seemed too overwhelmed by being on patrol with the Captain to provide much conversation, so Halladan had to make do with the company of his own thoughts.
Those thoughts almost inevitably took him back east towards Caras Dirnen and Bereth. It was at least four months before he would see her again, and even with the Chieftain favouring their match, he could only wait and hope that Bereth would win past her mother's resistance. Worst of it was that if he thought about it, Halladan felt he could even understand Fíriel's position. What did he have to offer Bereth other than months of absence, and a life of constant worry? He shook his head and sighed. Suddenly he missed Guilin; without his friend there to stop him from moping and feeling sorry for himself, it was all too easy to let such gloomy moods overwhelm him.
Most trees had already turned to their autumn colours and some had even lost their leaves. Halladan recalled the geese he had seen flying south so early, and he wondered when they would see the season's first snow. By noon it was beginning to cloud over, and by the end of the afternoon, his question was answered, as thick, wet flakes started to fall from a leaden sky. The snow soon fell thick enough that it didn't melt upon hitting the ground, and Arador quickly led them off the Greenway.
"Why are we leaving the road?" Hador asked.
"Look behind. What do you see?" Arador said, ignoring Galador's impatient gestures to move to deeper cover as he halted to answer the young man's question.
"And a trail," Saeros interrupted. "But if we leave a trail, can't we be followed?"
"Yes, that's right," Arador said. "So why did we leave the road, if it's no safer than staying on it? Hador?"
Hador looked at the trail, then back at the Captain, but said nothing. When it was clear he wasn't going to answer, Arador turned to Saeros, nodding at him to speak. The younger of the recruits first hesitated, then answered, "It's still snowing and even if we do leave tracks, they will be covered again quickly."
"Well done," the Captain said. "Also, it's late enough in the day that we may as well stop now, rather than ride on and risk our trail being followed."
In the morning the snow had melted, and it was raining again as they set off.
"Does it ever not rain?" Saeros asked plaintively after they had been under way for an hour.
Halladan shrugged. It was hardly Saeros' fault, but he was becoming irritated with everybody's complaints about the weather. True, the autumn had been miserably wet and all the signs suggested it might be a cold winter, but talk changed nothing.
"Get used to it, lad," Ingold replied gruffly. "A Ranger's life is naught but mud and rain."
"Except in high summer, then it's dust," Arador obliged by providing the traditional rejoinder to the traditional complaint. "Besides, it snowed yesterday. Snow's not rain."
All, including the recruits, groaned at their Captain's comment, and though they were still wet and cold, the mood lightened perceptibly. Even Halladan felt better for the jest; talking about the weather might not bring change, but it was preferable to thinking of Bereth constantly.
Arador further improved moods when they stopped around noon to rest the horses. "If we continue to make good time today, we will reach Bree tonight and we can stay at the Pony."
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