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Exile: 5. Chapter 5
A few of the older Rangers were giving me strange looks as well, but I was too tired and too relieved to wonder why. Running a rag down the blade of my sword, I sheathed the weapon and looked around for Beregir and Hirion.
As I had expected, they were side by side. Ignoring the carnage and the snow that fell thicker now, they were combing the ground methodically for arrows. Hirion looked up as I approached.
"Fine shooting, my lord," he said. Beregir, too, looked up, aiming a playful punch at my shoulder.
"Don't just stand there!" he scolded. "I hope you don't think routing a company of orcs twice our number gives anyone the right to stand around and rest! You're going to need more arrows soon enough, and I am certain you would rather steal from the orcs than make your own."
I stared at him. They both looked at me, expectant. Finally I only shook my head, punching his arm in return, and the two looked at each other and laughed. They kept on laughing for some time, as they continued to collect arrows from the quivers of dead orcs. It was a strange sight, but the other Rangers, collecting arrows of their own, or tending to their wounded comrades, looked on in tolerant amusement. These two must be well-known among all the companies.
Halforth and Engroth stood a little apart, consulting quietly. I was content to pick up those arrows that had missed their mark and fallen to the ground. I was still reluctant to touch the corpses of the orcs, or their weapons that were still attached to their bodies. A cursory examination showed that my leg was neither bleeding nor broken, but it was obvious I had fallen on it the wrong way. Every few steps pain shot though to my hip when I put weight on it. Still, it did not hinder my walking too much, and it would likely prove only an inconvenience.
Bending down to retrieve an arrow, I slipped on snow and fell to my knees. Picking up the shaft I saw red staining the snow nearby, and my first thought was that I had cut my hand on the arrowhead. A second glance proved me wrong, for I saw there was a wide patch of snow, far too wide, soaked with human blood. And the corpse next to me was not an orc, but a Ranger. Though I had not known him long, I knew Caran's face immediately.
I was not the first to find him. No orc had laid him out so, with his head pointed toward the West and his hands folded on his chest. His face was pale, and gentle snowflakes gathered on his eyelashes and in the dark gray of his hair. He might have been sleeping, save for the way his neck lay twisted at an impossible angle, and the raw, red, wet hole glistening at his throat.
I started back involuntarily, dropping the handful of arrows I had collected. I had never seen a dead man up close before.
I turned my back on the corpse and began methodically gathering up the arrows I had dropped, more shaken that I cared to admit, looking around, hoping none of the Rangers had seen my reaction. I stood slowly, a hollow feeling settling in my stomach. I had not known the man well, but he had been kind to me. And he had been alive, leading us, giving orders, only an hour before. And now he was dead.
Straightening, refusing to look at the corpse, I saw Halforth coming toward me. I could not yet muster a smile, but raised a hand in greeting.
He did not seem in the mood for smiling, either, though if he saw who lay behind me he made no sign. "My lord, are you well?"
I nodded, clasping his hand. "Aye. Is all well with you?"
"Aye." His eyes were unusually bright, his face searching. "For which I have you to thank. I have been told 'twas you saved my son's life."
Somewhat embarrassed, I nodded again, not sure what to say. "He is well, though weary," I assured him, "and he is recovering. He stayed with the halflings, for he was too weak yet to come with us."
"I am in your debt," he said abruptly, clearing his throat, watching me with that same intense gaze. A lot of people seemed to be saying that to me lately.
"Halbarad is a brave man, and a fellow Ranger," I said. "I am glad I was able to aid him."
The other Rangers had finished combing the field and were now gathered in a loose knot at the center of the Road, tightening belts, shifting packs, preparing to move out. There were fewer of them than there had been this morning, maybe twenty of us in all. Many of the older men were watching me, I could see out of the corner of my eye, with much the same veiled shock as Halforth had shown first. Those who were not looking at me were watching Engroth.
The commander of the Fornost guard stood alone, a little up the Road. Rigid as granite, he stared away from us. He had not moved since Halforth left him to speak to me.
Finally I turned to Halforth, inquiring softly. "Have I done something amiss? Why do they all look at me thus?"
Halforth was still a moment before he answered. "They always fought thus," he said, his voice strangely rough. He turned away, staring up the Road through the snow at Engroth. "Back to back, in the center of the battle."
I frowned. "Who did?"
He spoke slowly, his face betraying only a hint of cautious wonder, and not a little sorrow. "Engroth and your father. Always. When they stood together thus none could stand against them. And today-when you fought your way to his side, all of us old enough to remember your father saw him again."
I stared at him, feeling a shiver run through me. "I see." Though I knew somewhere deep inside that I did not, and maybe never would. "What will we do now?"
Halforth seemed to tear his eyes away from Engroth, turning back to me, and the present, with an effort. "We have not turned the orcs back," he told me grimly. "They merely fell back a ways, to wait for cover of nightfall. When night comes they will come again, and by that time we must be far from here."
"We will flee? What of the Shire?"
"We have bloodied them badly, and they will not forget it. These will leave the Shire alone and pursue us. At least Engroth builds his plan on that assumption, and I believe it is a fair one. If we can remain ahead of them long enough, we can lead them into ambush."
I nodded. Well it was that Engroth was in command, not I, for I knew not enough of the country to make such a strategy. "Where will we find other Rangers? I know not where the other guards are placed."
Halforth shook his head grimly. "It is not to other Rangers that we go. The largest guard we might reach in time was at Tharbad, and no one is there who will aid us. Our people do not keep many stationary camps. The greater part of our strength move about, in groups much smaller than this, for we seldom encounter a raiding party so large. We are few, and must needs be spread too thin, over too great a territory. We have no way of contacting or gathering enough of our kinsmen in time." He shifted his pack and moved toward the assembled Rangers. "Nay, it is to Imladris we go."
Engroth turned then, as my eyes widened, and I reflected with a bitter irony that my prayer to return home was about to be answered. Though what manner of homecoming this would be I dared not guess.
Engroth's face was utterly still, hinting at some great depth of emotion that lay hidden just beneath the surface. His stride was that of a wolf on the hunt, all energy barely suppressed and waiting to be released in some explosion of violence. He did not look at me, and for this I was grateful.
"Leave all that can be spared," he ordered harshly. Everyone straightened automatically at that tone. This was not a man you wanted to push, not now. "We travel light, and we travel swiftly. Ere nightfall, we shall be pursued." He glared fiercely round, and I forced myself not to flinch when that black gaze lit on me, empty eyes burning into mine, before he looked away at Halforth. "We make for Amon Sûl, and we have no time to rest here. Move out!" The last words cracked out like a whip. We swung into line behind him.
"Well now we know why Engroth isn't happy," Beregir muttered to me. He and Hirion and I had fallen in near the back of the column, where men conversed in low voices as we trudged on through the snow. We held to a swift pace, pressing on despite snow and cold and weariness.
The rush of excitement that had sustained me through the battle and its aftermath had faded, leaving me painfully conscious of muscles strained and sore. Pain in my leg had dulled to a constant throbbing ache, which I could almost ignore if I concentrated on staying in step with Hirion in front of me. "Why are we going to Amon Sûl? Halforth said something about Imladris."
Beregir let out a breath of laughter. "Small wonder Engroth doesn't like you! I forget sometimes you were not raised by us. Amon Sûl was once a watchtower, in the days when Arthedain was strong."
"I did know that," I informed him with an irritated look.
Hirion turned to look back at us, and Beregir gave him a grin that filled me with foreboding. But he only continued, "After the watchtower was destroyed, the hill was used as a beacon. It is still the highest point between the Misty Mountains and the Blue, and if we light a fire atop the summit it can be seen in Imladris."
Elrond had never told me that. "So Elrond will send out reinforcements to aid us?"
The two exchanged a glance I could not interpret. "Unlikely," Hirion told me. "Lord Elrond's sons might come, save that they have no way of knowing which way we take, nor how many follow us. But the fire will tell him that a company is retreating across the Bruinen, and that we are pursued closely by enemies. We have only to make it to the crossing at the Ford, and once we are across the Elves have some sorcery that will make the river rise and drown our enemies."
I had indeed heard tell that Elrond could flood Bruinen, though I had never seen it done. "And Engroth does not wish to go to the Elves for aid?" I hazarded.
Hirion gave a short laugh. "You have a talent for understatement, my lord!" His face grew serious. "None of us wish it, in truth," he said slowly. "Engroth has his own feud with the Elves that I am not old enough to remember, and none of the older warriors will tell me what is the reason. But while they have been our allies a long time in this war, there is little love lost between our two races."
I frowned at them. "Lord Elrond and his kin have never shown me aught but kindness!" I protested. Until I dared to suppose I was worthy to love his daughter, I added bitterly to myself. Some shadow must have been visible in my face, for Beregir looked at me shrewdly.
"Yet even you, I guess, have found you are not considered their equal in all things," he commented. His words struck a little too close to the mark for my comfort. "They are a noble people and honorable, but they are too different from us for there to ever be understanding or love between us. Any man would admire the beauty of their songs, the loveliness of their living forests, the depth of their lore. But to a man who spends all his life fighting hand-to-hand with creatures of darkness in the Wild, there cannot but be some resentment toward those that live a thousand years amid such peace and bliss. The Elves aid us, it is true, but none of those in Imladris save the sons of Elrond have fought in a battle since the end of the Second Age."
"Life is short for us, compared to that of the Eldar. Life is short, and it is often bitter. Information they give us, and sanctuary when we need it, as now. But to a warrior the dearest friend is always him that fights at his side, and his kin those who have known the same grief and the same pain. What means the Doom of Man, or the fight against the Nameless, to one who at any time can forsake these shores and sail to an island where the Enemy cannot reach?"
She is of lineage greater than yours, and she has lived in the world already so long that to her you are but as a yearling shoot beside a young birch of many summers . . . The words of Elrond echoed in my mind, and in my memory I saw again the glades of Imladris where I had seen Arwen walk not so long ago. A different view, indeed, than this column of ragged Men marching through the snow across the barren white heath. A different lifestyle, unbridgeable gulf in understanding. "Do all the Rangers feel the same?" I asked.
"We do not all feel as Engroth does!" Beregir hastened to assure me. "We fight the same enemy, and we each give aid to the other when we can. But friendship between the Eldar and the Edain is a rare thing, and such is not surprising between two peoples so different. But do not mistake me! There will always be a welcome here for you, regardless of your own past. Indeed, it is said your father counted Elrond's sons as friends, and he was loved by all our people, if the older warriors are to be believed."
We camped that night on the South Downs, several hours after night had fallen. The snow had finally stopped, and the clouds were slowly parting, coming apart like tufts of wool, revealing stars scattered like chips of ice across the sky. The hills were covered in snow, and leading away west behind us in the dim light I could see the clear tracks of our footprints.
On halting, I let myself sink to the ground, wondering hopefully if Engroth would decide it was safe to light a fire. This did not seem to be in his plans, however, as most of the men were already selecting patches of ground to sleep on, brushing snow away and unrolling blankets. I knew we would get little rest this night, for orcs move swiftly after dark, and we could not allow them to catch us until we were at the Ford, which was several days away yet.
I was exhausted. It seemed scarcely possible that it had been only a day since I brought Halbarad to Sarn, less than twenty-four hours since I last slept. I marveled that I had remained on my feet through the whole grueling march, for Engroth kept up an unforgiving pace. My leg was too numb from cold to hurt much, but my feet ached, and I could no longer feel my hands. My shoulders felt rubbed raw from the straps of my pack, and my back cracked painfully as I let my burdens fall to the ground and tried to stand straight. I wanted nothing more than to lie upon the cold ground and sleep, with or without fire.
But I was curious, and Halforth had been assigned the first watch. It was less than ten minutes since we halted, but all the Rangers now lay stretched upon the ground with all appearance of being fast asleep. Apparently these knew how to snatch what rest they could when the chance presented itself. All but Halforth, who watched west for pursuing orcs.
And Engroth, who sat in silence at the other end of the camp, brooding over I knew not what.
And I, who moved as silently as I could to sit beside Halforth. He looked up as I approached. "You should take some rest, my lord," he said softly.
"I know," I answered him. "But my mind is troubled, for there are many things I do not understand yet."
He turned to face me, and I could hardly make out his expression in the darkness. "I will do my best to answer your questions, my lord."
I drew my knees up to my chest, staring down the hill at the clear trail we had left. Now I had his undivided attention, I was uncertain what to say, where to start. What to ask when I knew next to nothing of the situation, save that I had somehow unknowingly erred.
I jerked my head in the direction of Engroth. "Does he ever sleep?"
"Occasionally." Halforth's answer was dry. I took a deep breath, let it out slowly. I disliked asking these things of another, when I should question Engroth directly, but something told me he did not wish to speak to me.
"Is there aught I have done amiss, that he hates me so? Or is it simply that I was not raised by the Rangers, as he was?" Halforth was silent awhile, and I feared that I had somehow offended him as well. "Forgive me, perhaps I should not have asked-"
"He does not hate you." Halforth's voice was soft, and he did not look at me. "And as for being raised by the Rangers, he was not. His family were all slain when he was very young, and he was raised among the Dunlendings."
My eyebrows went up. He did not elaborate, and I said nothing for a while, considering this. "Halbarad . . ." I paused. "Halbarad said he hates the Elves. Is that why . . .?" I trailed off.
His eyes glinted in the darkness, but the rest of his face was in shadow. "That is not for me to speak of."
Engroth has his own feud with the Elves that I am not old enough to remember, and none of the older warriors will tell me what is the reason. Hirion's words came back to me, and I turned away with a soft hiss of frustration. Something personal, by the way Halforth was acting. But whatever it was, it made Engroth unwilling to come within fifty feet of me unless forced to, and if I was to one day command these men I could not afford to alienate those who would be my senior lieutenants, particularly if I did not understand the reason why. In such a company as this, we all depended on one another, that much was obvious by now to me.
"Was there some feud between Engroth and my father?" I tried again, praying Halforth would understand, and not dismiss me for my temerity and tell me it was none of my business.
He turned to me sharply, and though I could not see clearly I sensed surprise in his manner. He did not say anything, and I resisted the urge to apologize, to back off and trouble him no more. Finally he shook his head. "No," he said, so softly I could barely hear. "No, there was never any feud between them." He looked away, his shoulders rigid.
I had obviously disturbed him, though I was unsure why. I reached out a hand, touched his shoulder tentatively. "Forgive me . . ."
"There is nothing to forgive," Halforth said, his voice steady once more. "Your presence brings back memories for him, of events he would rather forget. This is no fault of yours, for indeed you could not have acted other than you have done. You must have patience, that is all. Engroth knows his duty." I could barely hear his soft sigh, but I saw his eyes close briefly. "Go and get some sleep, my lord. You will need it."
I stood, not sure what to say, if anything. So I bid him good night, and wrapped myself tighter in my cloak to take what sleep I would be allowed.
As I had expected, we were roused well before dawn. It had snowed again in the night, though not much. I shook the snow out of my cloak, pulling the now damp wool around me in a vain attempt to stay warm. Halforth and another of the older Rangers were rousing the others, while Engroth stood where he had sat last night, watching the preparations with what I guessed must be a baleful glare, though I could not make out his face in the darkness. I wondered if he had slept at all.
Pulling a few dry, crumbled biscuits out of my pack, I headed over to where Beregir and Hirion were arm-wrestling. Shaking my head doubtfully at their antics, I called across the camp. "Shouldn't you two be-"
I stopped short, as my foot hit a rock covered by snow, and slid out from under me. Swiping the snow out of my hair, I sat up slowly, wincing as I realized I had hit my shin rather hard on that rock, hoping that in the darkness, no one had noticed Isildur's Heir falling flat on his face.
It was not a very remarkable rock, though I suspected I would have a rather remarkable bruise soon. But as I was about to rise, my eyes were caught by a strange sort of markings.
On the dark gray of the stone I perceived darker lines, in a pattern that was unfamiliar to me. Some where Elvish letters I recognized, but their arrangement formed no words I knew, and there were other characters I had never seen before.
Booted feet crunched on the snow near me, and I looked up to see a tall figure above me, though I could not make out his features. "Do you know what this means?"
The Ranger stiffened, but after a moment he dropped to his knees beside me. It was Engroth, his face half hidden in shadow. He did not even glance at me, only peered at the stone.
Whatever it was, it obviously meant something to him, for his features were knit in concentration. Some sort of Ranger code? He turned, looking past me toward the south, in the direction of the Greenway from Tharbad to Sarn Ford. I got the impression he was calculating rapidly in his head.
Then he looked at me. His face was still, and in the dim light looked like a stone statue, older than Arnor and weathered by the elements. But the look in his eyes reminded me of nothing so much as the pressure drop before a storm.
"Halforth!" He looked back at the markings on the stone, but otherwise he did not move. At the tone of his voice all the Rangers leapt to their feet, standing frozen, watching. Halforth's footsteps coming toward us sounded loud in the ensuing silence.
It was still dark, but even so I could see Halforth's face grow pale as he read examined the markings. He and Engroth exchanged a look. I was about to ask what it said, when Engroth rose and addressed the silent Rangers. "We will make all speed due south. Now!"
And with no further words he turned his back to the dim, tall shape of Amon Sûl to the north, striding down the hill southward. Wordless, we followed.
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