Tales of the North
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An excess of weather: 6. Silent nights
November 30–December 4, 2911
"We stay here today to forage," Halladan said. On an impulse he added, "Gather extra firewood as well. Tomorrow we'll start the journey back to Sarn Ford." Had there been more of them, he would have sent a party to follow the wolves and try to find out what the situation was in Buckland. As it was, any doubts he might have had before were gone; they must return to Sarn Ford. To split the patrol in twos was too risky, and the Captain had to know about the wolves and the river freezing over.
Later in the morning, Halladan and Vëantur slowly made their way towards the river. Digging where the snow was loose, they had some luck in collecting sorrel and dandelion leaves, and Halladan found a few rose hips that the birds had missed, but their pickings were lean, and they moved only slowly.
"There may be some old bulrushes by the river," Halladan said, and laughed at Vëantur's grimace. "It's food," he added, "Even if it isn't very nice, and it's still better than tree bark."
By the end of the afternoon, towards dusk, the wind had turned to the northwest, the clouds were thick and grey, and slow, thick flakes were starting to fall. Suddenly Vëantur, who had been slightly ahead, stopped and raised his hand. Tracks, he gestured, and Halladan looked at the ground.
Going deep into the snow were deer tracks. The light was still good, and the wind was in their favour. Halladan and Vëantur exchanged a glance and nodded simultaneously.
This is no weather for archery, Halladan thought as he reluctantly changed his bulky fur-lined mittens for thin archer's gloves, and took his bow to hand. Even so, they set off in pursuit of the deer, Halladan with his bow and Vëantur with the short spear he favoured.
Suddenly, Halladan heard wolves howling, and not as far away as he would have preferred. Normally wolves shouldn't risk attacking two Men, but these were far outside their usual territory, and probably hungry enough that Halladan didn't want to take the chance.
Vëantur spoke, "Close to the river, I think."
But which side? Halladan wondered. Break off the pursuit, he gestured to Vëantur, who nodded in reluctant agreement. It was getting darker, they had no torches, and even if they avoided the wolves, the deer was now on its guard.
Not long after, as they started on their way back to the camp, Halladan saw a ghostly white shape move among the trees, no more than twenty yards away. Both Rangers stopped abruptly. As Vëantur clutched his spear tighter, Halladan flexed his fingers a few times in the hope of warming them and quickly raised his bow. He would only have one shot. It was still snowing, the light was fading fast, and the wolf's white fur made it even harder to see against the snowy terrain.
As soon as he released his arrow, Halladan knew it would do no more than wound the animal, but Vëantur, spear in hand, rushed forward almost immediately to finish it off. Halladan followed at a slightly slower pace, keeping an eye out in case there were more wolves nearby.
"I'd have preferred venison, but wolf will do," Vëantur said as soon as Halladan came up, and handed him back his arrow. "If you start a fire for some light, I'll dress our catch," he added.
Halladan had soon coaxed a flame from his tinderbox. Once the fire was burning well, Vëantur set to work while Halladan remained vigilant; if there was one wolf on this side of the river, there might be more. Though Vëantur worked quickly, in the cold evening it seemed to take forever until he declared he was done. Halladan quickly put on his mittens, not bothering to take off the thin archer's gloves first.
As they headed back to the camp, Vëantur carried their catch and Halladan had a makeshift torch in his hand.
"What took you so long?" Orleg started at their return, but as soon as he saw the wolf Vëantur carried he grinned widely. "I see… and I trust you didn't lead the rest of this fellow's pack to our camp?"
"Unlikely," Vëantur replied with an equally wide grin, as he let the carcass fall to the ground. "I'll just finish skinning and butchering him and then you can make us some wolf stew."
That night, as Halladan took his turn standing guard, the snow still coming down steadily, he was straining to hear any sound that might betray where the wolves were. Behind him, the other three men slept huddled together near the fire. Halladan pulled his cloak closer about him, and softly stamped his feet on the frozen ground, trying to stay warm. The night was cold and clear and silent. Too silent, as all nights were in this weather. Normally, there would be all the small noises of the forest – the wind rustling through tree branches, small animals scurrying about, the hooting of a hunting owl, a fox or a wild cat on the prowl. Now, most animals had the sense to hole up and stay warm.
Halladan was glad when his shift ended, and he slept as soon as he hit the ground. His sleep was filled with howling wolf packs prowling around their camp, the glow of their eyes the only thing that could be seen in the light of the campfire. Neither Orleg nor Vëantur heard anything untoward on their respective shifts, and Halladan quickly put the dream behind him as he woke up to over a foot of fresh snow under a leaden sky.
"There will be more snow," Orleg said.
"Then we'd best get underway quickly," Halladan replied, "It's forty miles to Sarn Ford, and I want to be there in a week."
Orleg scowled, but started on making breakfast, while Hador only shivered and huddled deeper into his cloak. Vëantur was busy cleaning the wolf skin. While they ate it started to snow again, and Halladan realised the wind was now coming from the north-east. It was also strengthening and before long they could barely see ten yards outside their camp.
"Orleg!" Halladan called. "How long do you think this will last?"
The other Ranger looked at the sky for some time, and when he spoke, his expression was grim. "If it doesn't stop within the next half hour or so, it could be days."
"Then we'll wait and if it doesn't stop soon, we'll prepare for staying here," Halladan said. Orleg's weather sense was reliable enough that he didn't expect that they'd be moving that day. With the wolf meat and the previous day's foraging, they were not in so much of a hurry that they should attempt to go on in a blizzard.
The snow didn't lessen in the next half hour, or the next several hours, and the Rangers spent the morning building what shelter they might using piles of snow, rocks, tree branches and the like.
"But it isn't so bad that we can't go on," Hador said, looking puzzled.
"Just wait," Vëantur said. "If Orleg says it'll get worse, you'll do well to heed him."
Hador cast a doubtful look at the sky, but went back to work without further question.
"It's not much, but it'll have to do," Halladan finally said as they stood back looking at the construction that he hoped would protect them from the worst of the storm.
"We'd best get inside," Vëantur said, and both Orleg and Halladan nodded in agreement.
"Whose turn at guard is it?" Hador asked when they were all huddled together inside the …hut, Halladan supposed they should call it – at least it had walls and some sort of roof, and most importantly a fire pit that was shielded from the wind.
"Why, are you volunteering?" Halladan asked. "Nothing will move in this storm. And Vëantur," he went on, addressing the older Ranger; "You're not going to work on that skin in here, are you?"
"You expect me to do it outside?" Vëantur retorted. "Besides, half of it is yours."
"Let him," Orleg said. "Even if there's no way to properly cure it before we get back to Sarn. At least one of us will have something useful to do while we wait out the storm."
Vëantur only smiled as Halladan sighed and gave in. Soon he was happily engaged cleaning the wolf skin even more thoroughly than he had done before.
It was a stroke of luck that they had used the previous day to forage, Halladan thought. Firewood they would have had anyway, but the wolf's meat and the other food might end up as the difference between life and death.
The day passed slowly, the snow continuing to fall, and the wind still strengthening. The Rangers were quiet, each lost in his own thoughts. Occasionally, one of them would go outside to relieve himself and bring back wood for the fire. Halladan spent his time calculating again and again how much food they would need for the various routes they could take, although he was certain he dozed off a few times as well. Eventually it grew dark and Halladan fell into a shivering, fitful sleep, only to be woken up several times by a sudden gust of wind and even a thunderclap or two. After a time he could not determine it grew light again, though neither snow nor wind lessened; outside, it was impossible to see much more than an arm's length ahead; and the snow was deep enough that Halladan worried how they would walk in it. They could perhaps make snowshoes, but that would slow them down. Halladan sighed.
The sound drew a questioning look from Orleg, and Halladan replied, "I was trying to plan our route back to Sarn Ford."
"And getting nowhere by the sound of it," Orleg said with a wry smile. "Don't overdo the worrying – we'll make it or we won't, and that's all you can be certain of."
"I suppose you're right," Halladan muttered. He tried to force his thoughts along more pleasant lines, but even the thought of Bereth only made him wonder how bad the weather was in Caras Dirnen.
"Will it ever stop?" Hador suddenly asked. "Do you hear the wind howling?"
"Be glad it's just the wind," Orleg said. "Those wolves are still out there."
"Thank you for reminding us," Vëantur said, "I'm certain I'd have forgotten otherwise."
Halladan woke abruptly in the middle of the night. It felt even colder than it had before, but that wasn't why he had woken up. It was silent.
See, the wind does stop, he thought and went back to sleep.
"At least three feet of new snow," Halladan said the next morning. Now for it, he knew. They might not have enough food, and they might not make it back, but to wait wouldn't improve their situation.
"Well?" Orleg said to him softly, then added, after a quick look to see where the other two were, "I'm still worried about our food. Even with the wolf meat, we still do not have enough to make it back; we're eating double just to keep warm."
Halladan sighed. "Even if we stay longer to forage, it won't improve our situation."
Orleg met his gaze. "I know, but I thought you should know before we set out what the situation is."
"I appreciate the warning," Halladan replied, then, noticing Hador's worried look at their whispered exchange, he spoke so the other two could also hear, "We break up the camp after breakfast, and make snowshoes."
The going was as bad as Halladan feared, but awkward as the improvised snowshoes were, at least the Rangers could move without wading through the snow.
Perhaps it was that he noticed it more after the storm, but the snow-muted silence of the forest stood out even more for Halladan. Only the soft sounds that even a patrol of Rangers makes broke the silence; a muttered curse as one of them sank into the snow deeper than expected, the creak of a leather strap or the rustle of a pack being adjusted.
"At least the clouds are thin enough that we can see the sun," Vëantur said that afternoon. "It's the only way we know we're heading in the right direction."
"It doesn't tell us how slow we are," Orleg softly said to Halladan. "We have food for four days at most at full rations and more, just to stay warm."
"We go to half rations," Halladan announced that night. Orleg and Vëantur nodded in acceptance, but Hador spoke in protest.
"Half rations? I'm hungry already; we'll..."
"Starve?" Orleg interrupted him. "We can survive half-rations for a few days, even in this cold. It won't be pleasant, but it's better than having nothing at the end."
"But..." Hador started again.
"Enough," Halladan said. "We're a week from Sarn Ford. Half rations give us a chance."
They'd been on half-rations for two days now. Halladan shivered as he pulled his cloak around him. Vëantur noticed and reached over to put some more wood on their fire. Both men inched closer and leant forward as if to catch every last bit of warmth.
What is taking them so long? Halladan wondered. Orleg and Hador had gone to forage and try to find one of the small streams that ran towards the Brandywine, so they had some idea of their location. It was already going dark, and he was starting to become concerned. But to go out blindly in the dark would only endanger all of them, and if he...
Halladan's thoughts were interrupted by the sound of someone crashing through the undergrowth, and both he and Vëantur jumped up as Hador came stumbling into the clearing where they had made their camp.
"Come quick! Orleg has fallen, and he isn't moving!"
"Stop! Both of you!" Halladan shouted when Vëantur was about to run off in the direction Hador had come from. "Hador, what happened exactly, and how is Orleg wounded?"
Hador's wide-eyed look of sheer panic slowly gave way to a slightly calmer expression, and after a few deep breaths he was able to answer.
"We found the river. Where the terrain turns rough. There's a ridge running along the bank; it's about man high…"
"I don't know exactly," Hador became distressed again. "Orleg slipped on an icy patch or something like that. I was looking out for wolves, so I didn't see. But he fell and I think he hit his head on a rock."
Within a few minutes Halladan, carrying some of the healers' supplies from his pack, was following Hador. It was not as dark as it would have been without the snow, but they still had to be careful of treacherous footing and overhead branches half-seen by the light of the single torch Hador carried.
Halladan tried not to let his thoughts run away with him. Hopefully, Orleg had only been dazed, and Hador had overreacted – if not, he'd deal with what he would find. Either way, he should have a word with Hador later on about panicking and running off..
Hador abruptly slowed down. "We're nearly there," he said, though he sounded not entirely sure. "If we… wait, yes; through there… Careful, the ridge is right here."
Halladan looked around quickly; except for the drop off the ridge, there seemed to be no danger. He carefully followed Hador down a tricky descent to the riverbank.
Orleg was no more than a dark shape on the ground as they approached, and Halladan impatiently gestured at Hador to hold the torch and give him some light as he knelt beside the stricken man. Halladan wouldn't call himself a proper healer, but he could clean and stitch wounds and set broken bones; not that Orleg had much of a choice in the matter. Orleg lay face down, his head turned slightly to the side. In the flickering torchlight, Halladan couldn't make out whether he was breathing, so he reached to check for a heartbeat at the other's neck.
Nothing. Slowly, carefully, he turned Orleg over.
Hador gasped in shock as he saw the left side of Orleg's head, and his torch dipped dangerously close to Halladan's face.
"Steady," Halladan snapped. "Put the torch in the ground if you can't stand the sight of blood. I want to see what I'm doing."
"He still lives?" Hador asked. "I mean, is he alive?"
Halladan shook his head. "No."
"Then why do you need the light?"
"To clean him up a bit, because even if we can't give him a proper grave in this frozen ground, that's the least I can do," Halladan said. "Now get out of my light."
The boy will need to toughen up if he wants to be a Ranger… By the light of the torch, Halladan took a closer look at the wound. Orleg had certainly been unlucky, landing right on the edge of a rock. A stupid fall… He looked up at the ridge, trying to work out how Orleg had fallen, but outside the small circle of torchlight it was too dark to make out much detail. Halladan would have a look in the morning and see if he could work out what had happened.
More pressing was that with the wolves around, they couldn't leave a body in the open. Perhaps they should try to build a cairn. His mind made up, he called out to Hador who had built a small fire and now was sitting next to it, shivering.
"Hador, can you find our camp again?" At the young man's nod, Halladan added "Good. Go back to Vëantur and tell him we're moving the camp here."
"Yes, sir, but why?" Hador asked.
"Because we will build a cairn for Orleg in the morning, and we cannot leave him lying here unguarded with the wolves out there, lad."
With Hador off to fetch Vëantur, the silent darkness felt ever more oppressive, and Halladan edged closer to the fire. Before long, though Hador was back, with Vëantur and their packs.
Vëantur offered to take the night's first guard duty from him, and Halladan gladly accepted the offer. His weariness didn't allow him to sleep easily, though, and he lay awake for a long time, pondering Orleg's words – "we'll make it or we won't" – which had taken on a prophetic overtone, along with the shocked realisation that they had enough food now to reach the end of the patrol on full rations.
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