Unfinished plots, still a happy reader
Playlist Navigation Bar
Exile: 8. Chapter 8
The sound of an arrow hitting dead wood is one few ever forget, having once heard it. Particularly when it hits inches from your head.
A solid thunk! was all the warning we got. I reacted an instant slower than the others, hearing the rasp of metal on leather, then out of nowhere a dark shape came hurtling at me, knocking me back against a tree, a whisper of cold steel at my throat.
I blinked, deciding that perhaps reaching for my sword was not the wisest move under the circumstances.
Expecting yellow eyes and filed teeth, I was surprised to see a pair of fierce dark brown eyes staring at me. Straight black hair framing a face half hidden by scarves, but unmistakably human.
“Declare yourselves!” my captor called, in a rough alto that carried a note of command. “We have you surrounded.”
I squinted again, not moving, still quite conscious of the blade pressed against my throat. Other shapes appeared from the trees, too far for me to see them clearly in the darkness, but we were indeed surrounded, and they were all armed.
For a long, tense moment, no one moved. Then Halforth spoke, his voice a hoarse whisper.
And the knife was gone, as she stepped back, turning sharply to stare. For an instant, so brief I thought perhaps I had imagined it, I saw her shoulders slump and some of the tension drain out of her. The next moment Halforth let his sword fall and seized her in his arms.
The stillness was broken then, with a child’s shrill cry, and I turned just in time to see a little girl, who couldn’t have been more than three years old, hurling herself at Hirion, as more smaller figures jumped out of the bushes at the side of the path, young voices chattering excitedly.
We had found our survivors.
I let out a long breath of relief, leaning my head back against the tree, fighting the temptation to sit down and rest for just a little while.
The race, I knew, was just beginning.
We could hardly see one another’s faces in the moonlight, and for several minutes men, women, and children blundered about in the dark, calling out the names of their loved ones. I stood apart, silent, watching with a lump in my throat as families were reunited on that lonely forest track. Halforth and his wife didn’t move, just stood together, arms wrapped around each other, shutting out the world. Hirion held his daughter in one arm, while a flaxen-haired woman about my age sobbed quietly against his shoulder.
Of the company, less than half found family among the survivors. Some of the Rangers undoubtedly had left their wives and children in different settlements, and many husbands and fathers were away with other companies. There were grave tidings given this night, of warriors slain at Tharbad, and more than one among us who learned his wife or his child had already fallen to the orcs.
And there were the orphaned children, going from one warrior to the next, peering up hopefully at our faces, looking for their fathers. Many of them, I thought with a sick flash of understanding, had watched their mothers cut down by orcs. I shivered. They were all so young. Not one seemed to be older than twelve.
“We cannot tarry here.” I overheard Halforth’s whisper as he drew his wife away from the rest, toward me. Another woman followed them, sheathing a sword as she came to stand with us. “We turned the raiders aside east of Sarn Ford, but they pursue us now.”
“Where is Engroth?” the second woman asked, looking around. Her long hair glinted silver in the moonlight, and there were creases at the corners of her eyes, but she held herself even as the warriors did. “Who is in command of this company?”
“Engroth is here, Dunwyn,” Halforth said quietly, glancing to my left, and I realized with a start that our former captain stood only a few feet from me, leaning against a tree and staring into the darkness. If he heard a word they said, he made no sign. “But we are commanded by Aragorn, son of Arathorn.”
Dunwyn turned sharply, noticing me for the first time. She glanced swiftly from me to Engroth and back, her eyes widening a little. “Aye,” she whispered, reaching out and touching my shoulder briefly. “You have the look of your mother, my lord.”
I blinked, unsure how to respond. Many, in the last few weeks, had remarked how much I resembled my father, but until now none had mentioned my mother. I tried to imagine her with a blanket roll and a sword under her winter cloak, standing on this forest track with these women of the Dúnedain, and failed.
Valerin gave me one glance and turned back to Halforth, speaking softly. “What of Halbarad? Last word we had, he was at Tharbad—“
“He is safe and well, far west of here,” he said, clasping both her hands in his. “He was at Tharbad, and he fought bravely.” He said nothing else, but his face was grave, and she searched his eyes long as if she suspected he had not told her everything.
“How far is it to the Ford?” I asked.
Halforth looked up after a moment. “Four days, perhaps five,” he said. “We must make haste.”
“What of Lord Elrond?” Beregir appeared at my shoulder. I hadn’t heard him approach. “If we can alert him, perhaps the Elves will send aid.”
“The chances are slim any of us could make it to Amon Sûl before we reach Bruinen,” Halforth told him. “It would be five days’ journey from here.”
“We are not far from Archet, my lord,” Beregir said, turning to me. I looked at Halforth, but his expression was unreadable. “We can get horses there, and rejoin the company in a day and a half if we ride hard.”
Halforth looked at Valerin, then at me. “My lord,” was all he said. In other words, it was my command, and my decision.
I had never seen Elrond flood Bruinen, but I had heard stories of it. Long had I believed he could do anything, and it would comfort me greatly to know he knew our peril and was ready to aid us. But I did not know the country between here and Amon Sûl, and the thought of ordering any man into unknown danger was not a pleasant one.
The women were moving at the edges of the path, speaking softly, herding the little ones close together so that none would stray into the forest. Those of the men who had family here had finished their greetings and now stood awaiting orders, after so short a space to rest. I drew a deep breath, letting it out slowly as I looked at Beregir.
Since I had met them, he and Hirion had been friends, advisors, helping me to understand the ways of the Rangers, and always ready with a joke to distract me from feeling too lost. It was a new feeling, to see him standing awaiting my order—a feeling I was liking less and less, as I grew accustomed to it.
“You and I will go?” I knew not what assistance I could offer, one instead of two against whatever lay between us and the Weather Hills, but something in me would not order him to do what I would not do myself.
He nodded, and only then did it occur to me that my uncertain, questioning tone was not that of a commander. I looked then at Halforth, but he made no objection aloud, merely watched me. This time it was an order, not a question. “You will command the company in my place, until I return.”
“Aye, my lord,” he said. “Valar guard your path, and return to us as swiftly as you may.” He clasped my arm briefly, then touched a hand to his heart in what I’d come to recognize as a Ranger salute. And as Beregir and I turned northward off the path, I thought I saw Engroth turn, watching after us. Or perhaps I only imagined it . . .
The sky had cleared partway by now, and we set our course straight north, jogging steadily through ankle-deep snow. Beregir did not speak as we stumbled along, making for the faint glow in the distance that was the town of Archet. Perhaps, like me, he was struggling to keep his eyes open. I could not think clearly enough to calculate how long we’d been awake now. I prayed that was the reason, and that whatever friendship might have grown between us had not been made too different, or awkward, when I assumed command.
Hoping to keep myself awake, I tried to strike up a conversation with what little breath I had left over. “Do all the women of the Dúnedain learn to use the sword?”
Beregir gave me a sharp look, as though surprised at my ignorance. “Only those who are raised by our people, my lord,” he replied. His voice was rough from weariness, but his stride did not falter. “Valerin and Dunwyn, and your own mother, could easily best me in a contest of arms, when I was but a few years younger.” I tried to picture my mother and Beregir crossing swords, and failed. “But not all of us marry within our own people. Hirion’s wife was born in Bree, and many others with that company also come from towns or farms in this country.”
I absorbed this in silence. A month ago I would have been quite taken aback at the idea of training women to fight. The events of the past few days, however, had graphically demonstrated the grim necessity of this, among many other Ranger ways that once were incomprehensible to me.
He didn’t say anything else, and after a few moments I asked, “Are there men in Archet, then, who will lend us horses?”
“I very much doubt it,” he said. The look he gave me was somewhere between surprise and amusement. “You have much to learn yet, my lord.”
“I wish you would speak plain,” I said. “Do we mean to steal horses, then?”
“You don’t have to say it thus,” he protested, and I had a strange feeling he was trying not to laugh.
I supposed I should be relieved he didn’t expect me to know everything because I was my father’s son. Still, I was not amused. “I thought the duty of the Rangers was to protect the people of Arnor, not to raid their towns like common horse thieves.”
“A lovely thought, my lord,” he said, and while his voice was light I sensed a bitter irony behind the words. “Perhaps if we were the knights of Gondor, living in cities with walls of stone—on a border with the finest horse breeders in Middle Earth—we could buy fine horses for all of us.” His eyes were serious. “But then, if we were the knights of Gondor, we would have money, for we would collect taxes from those who live on the land we protect. The people of Arnor give us nothing, save foul names and a less than savory reputation.”
The bitterness in his voice surprised me. “I meant no offense,” I said quietly.
“You have given none,” he said, after a moment. “But as I said—you have much to learn.”
I could think of nothing to say to that, so we went on in silence awhile, pristine snow crunching under our boots.
“If the orcs catch us,” he continued after a while, “do you think they will go back to their caves in the mountains? If we do not stop them at Imladris, they will take or kill all the horses in Archet, and the people as well, before they burn the village to the ground.
“I know not what the Elves told you of our people,” he said. “But to be a Ranger is to live a life of difficult compromises.” For a minute, in the faint predawn light, he looked a lot like Halforth. “To make the best of bad choices. The story of our people, since the fall of Arthedain, has always been one of having not quite enough to do far too much.”
It occurred to me to wonder how old he was. He looked hardly older than I, but then twenty years among the Elves had given me little skill in judging the ages of Men. Regardless of his youth, I knew, he had most likely fought his first battle when I was still learning how to aim a bow. Necessity, I was learning, is a swift teacher.
When he spoke again, he sounded very tired. “If we live, we will do what we can to return whatever we take tonight. Though it will make little difference to the people of Archet. They will never know for what purpose we took their horses, nor from what fate we saved them.”
It was almost dawn when we reached Archet. We stayed off the road, slipping into the city between two houses and moving quietly along the streets. There was a reddish glow off to the east, and we knew we didn’t have much time.
We found suitable horses in an inn yard, tied to a post. It was a fairly simple matter to unlatch the gate and slash the ropes. Mine was a rather scruffy-looking bay, and after a hard nudge produced no lump of sugar he went back to ignoring me until I vaulted lightly onto his back.
He gave a loud whinny at this, and I cast Beregir an alarmed glance, but he only mounted the other horse, bareback even as the Elves ride, and trotted down the still-sleeping street toward the edge of town. I set my heels to the bay’s flanks and followed, images flashing through my mind as the yard gate swung shut behind us. Aragorn son of Arathorn, heir to the throne of Arnor, locked up by the local magistrate and tried as a common horse thief. I could see it now—Halforth and Hirion would come, hearing the word from their Ranger spies, Halforth looking disapproving as he explained to the locals that I was a nice young man, really, and long-lost nobility at that, and we really had needed the horses. And Hirion would stand just behind him making faces at me, tut-tutting quietly in a way that said he’d never let me hear the end of this.
But, of course, if we were caught Halforth would never hear of it. We turned the corner, the inn no longer in sight, and held to a steady canter as we neared the last houses and the open downs. In all probability, the orcs would catch them and they would all be slain, like those women at the camp by the Greenway. I swallowed hard, tightening my legs against the horse’s flanks as he shied away from a barking dog at the side of the road. There would be time to think of them later—now I had none to spare from our errand.
It felt strange to be riding again, after days of running on foot. I could feel the muscles in my legs growing stiff, and knew I would be in pain come nightfall. Right now all I felt was cold, and aching exhaustion in every part of my body. It was an effort just to sit straight on the back of the horse.
Beregir looked back at me, slowing his horse a little so mine could catch up. “My lord, are you all right?”
In the growing light he looked haggard, his face pale and smudged with dirt, snowflakes caught in his dark hair. I wasn’t sure I wanted to know what I looked like. “Aye,” I answered softly, stifling a yawn.
“We shall have to stop at some point, and rest the horses,” he said, patting his mount’s neck absently. “There will be some little time for us to sleep, ere we return.”
I only nodded at this, pulling my heavy cloak tighter around me. “Don’t worry about me,” I said finally, my lips numb and wooden in the cold. “I do not think I could sleep now, anyway, even if we stopped.”
He gave me a long look, concern giving way to understanding. “I know,” he said quietly. “But sleep will come, in spite of all that you feel now. Even a Ranger cannot stay awake forever.” Of a sudden he looked much older, graver, and he reached out to grip my arm briefly.
We met no resistance on our way north, save from the freezing wind tearing down off the Weather Hills. Even the snow had stopped falling, and once we left the town we left the road and cut straight across the downs at a gallop. It was nearly sundown when we came to the foot of Amon Sûl,
The Tower of the Winds, it was called once. I could well believe it, hearing how the frigid gusts moaned through the cracks in the broken stonework. We tied the horses near the foot of the hill, climbing the slope on foot, tripping over rocks hidden beneath the snow. A ring of stone, the old foundation, crowned the top of the hill. I could see nothing nearby with which we could start a fire.
Beregir, however, had been here before and knew what to look for. In a little hollow just below the crest of the hill, he brushed snow away to reveal a layer of wooden planks.
Beneath these, in a cleverly-hidden cave hollowed into the side of the hill, were stacks of logs, each coated in pitch and perfectly dry, together with smaller branches and a few bales of straw. These we lifted, a few at a time, carrying armloads of fuel up the hill and laying them in a pile at the stone circle.
By the time we’d brought it all out, the fierce ache in my arms had ceased, numbed by the cold and the wind, and the sun had almost set. My legs felt like wood, and my vision had narrowed to exclude everything not directly in front of me.
Beregir was kneeling at the edge of the stone circle with flint and tinder, and after a few minutes a glow illuminated his face, as sparks caught in the straw. He stood back, watching as the flames spread quickly, licking at the black pitch and throwing more sparks into the air. For a long moment we stood there, too exhausted even to walk a short distance to find a flat place to sleep.
The fire had spread to fill the stone circle now, crackling hungrily, a sound I hadn’t heard in far too long. The last few nights the company had lit no fire, even when we had had time to sleep, and to hear the noise of the blaze brought memories of Imladris again for the first time in more than a day. If I closed my eyes, I could almost pretend I’d just come from a day of exploring and snowball fights with Elladan and Elrohir, sitting in the Hall of Fire and sipping hot cider and miruvor with my mother and Elrond.
The wind shifted then, and I opened my eyes, taking a deep breath of hot air that smelled of smoke. I could feel the warmth against my face, my cheeks tingling at the return of sensation. Beregir placed a hand on my shoulder.
“Come,” he said. “We should go upwind.” And so we stumbled around to the other side of the circle, sitting down a ways away from the fire and leaning against a slab of cracked stone.
I could see his face quite clearly in the firelight, even though the sun had sunk behind the Blue Mountains far to the west. “Will they see it in Imladris?”
He nodded once. “Aye,” he whispered. “We have some time yet, and the horses cannot keep such a pace as we have ridden them, without rest. Nor can we. Sleep now, and I will watch.”
By the positions of the stars, it was some three hours before he woke me.
To my surprise, I was able to fall asleep barely a second after my eyes closed. Even in sleep, though, I found little peace. I remember little of what I dreamed that night, but some images lingered in my mind long after I woke—kneeling in the snow at the ruined campsite, the pale faces of those women wavering before my sight, until I was not looking at strangers, their faces changing to those of Arwen and my mother, white and cold and lifeless.
When Beregir shook me awake, I felt hardly rested, but the air was definitely warmer. I turned around to see the top of the hill alive with flames, reaching high with no sign of abating, a thick column of black smoke rising into the air, bent away from us by the wind. The crackling was louder now, and I could smell the burning pitch.
“Lord Elrond knows we are coming,” he whispered. I only nodded, and he said no more, leaning his head back against the rock and closing his eyes. I turned around, watching the smoke blowing away to the east, staring at the heart of the blaze and struggling to focus my mind. Three hours he had let me sleep, and in three more it would be after midnight.
I got up, stretching stiffly, wincing as strained and aching muscles made their presence felt, where before I had been too numb from cold to feel any pain. Walking around to the other side of the hill, I made my way back to cave where the logs were stored, adding more fuel to the fire before sitting down next to Beregir to keep watch. His face looked relaxed and strangely vulnerable, his eyes closed, firelight flickering across his bruised face. I leaned back and reached into my pack, pulling out my pipe and lighting it. The smell of pipeweed was inexplicably comforting, and I breathed in, blowing smoke at the sky. I wondered if Elrond thought of me when he saw the beacon, if he worried about me. I wondered if my mother knew yet. Would Arwen think of me, and wonder if I was all right?
I looked up, at the Evening Star twinkling above the horizon, through a haze of smoke, and tried to picture her face in my mind, glowing, radiant, alive. But somehow all I could see was the vision from my dreams, white skin against white snow, her clear gray eyes cloudy in death.
By the time we left, we’d both gotten comfortably warm. It was hard, all the same, sitting awake and idle for three hours, thinking of the others of our company struggling onward on foot southeast of us. I wondered if they could see the light of our beacon from where they were, and if they looked on it as a sign of hope.
It was an hour after midnight when I woke Beregir. The beacon fire was not as bright now as it had been, and the haze of smoke now obscured all but the brightest stars in the sky. We threw snow over the flames, our eyes stinging from the smoke, until there was only smoldering ash. Then we filled our water skins at a small spring by the side of the hill, gulped a few mouthfuls of cram, and mounted our horses to head back to the others.
The pleasant warmth of the hilltop was soon gone, and our clothes were damp from lying on melted snow. We rode hard, as swiftly as the horses would carry us, the wind in our faces cold and merciless. There was no way to be sure how far the company had traveled, in the time we were gone, so we set our course southeast until we came across the others, or their trail. The horses had been pushed nearly to the limit yesterday, and we both knew they wouldn’t be able to keep to the same pace today, but still we pressed them as hard as they would go.
It was drawing toward evening when we crossed the trail of the company. It was at least half a day old, and there were no orc-tracks in sight. The tracks led into a forest, along a narrow path that twisted through the trees. There were only pine trees here, thick needle-laden branches blocking the last of the sun’s light, and brushing against us as we pushed our horses onward. No snow had reached the ground under these trees, and the carpet of dead needles muffled the sound of hooves.
It was dark by the time we caught up with them, and we halted immediately when we heard Halforth’s shouted challenge.
“’Tis only us—we have returned!” I called back, swinging down from the horse and clasping his arm.
“Praise the Valar!” Looking around, I could see the company had stopped to rest for a while. All but Halforth and Engroth had been sleeping until we arrived, and now we were known to be friendly the rest of them were quickly returning to their blankets to catch what sleep they would be allowed.
Halforth, it seemed, was on watch this hour. What dark thoughts passed through Engroth’s mind none knew, but he looked once at me as we approached, then turned away.
Beregir tied up the horses, then wasted no time in finding a spot to lie down. I turned to Halforth. “How fares the company?”
“All who were with us when you left us live yet,” he said simply, “and we have made good time, as good as can be expected.” I nodded, stifling a yawn. “Tomorrow we will move swifter, and the little ones can take turns riding the horses.” He turned half away from me, watching the sleeping figures lying in a rough circle behind him. “Sleep while you may, my lord. We can ill afford to stay here much longer.”
I intended to take his advice, giving my horse a pat and moving stiffly toward a clear patch of snow at the edge of the camp, when another voice spoke behind me.
I froze, turning slowly round, suddenly fully awake. I could see little of Engroth’s face, only his eyes glittering in the darkness. “Captain,” I said, nodding once respectfully.
“That title is yours now,” he said curtly. I frowned, forcing myself to look into his eyes, still feeling like an untried youngster before him even now. His face might have been carved in granite, for all the expression he showed, but for the first time in days he seemed to see me, to focus on me. For a long moment he did not speak, and I felt a chill run through me, that had nothing to do with the wind.
“We will not reach the Ford, at this pace,” he said bluntly. I drew a sharp breath, let it out slowly, wishing I could see what his thoughts were. “We will not reach the Last Bridge, even, unless the orcs can be delayed.”
His voice was rough, but what emotion lay beneath his words I could not tell. “And how would you suggest we delay them?”
“Let me take half our company.” In the faint light from the north, his expression had not changed, but of a sudden I thought he looked different, almost fey. “We cannot hold them long, but perhaps it will be long enough.”
“No.” The answer was automatic, before I even had time to think. Something flickered deep in his eyes, and I stared at him. I knew, without being told, that any men I ordered to stay behind and hold the orcs would never see the safety of Imladris. I would be ordering them to die.
I shivered, remembering Caran’s words again. Would that he were here now, to make such choices as this!
One day you will have to sacrifice some so that others may live, or so that a mission may not fail.
“We are Rangers, my lord,” he said, and his voice was hollow. “We are all of us prepared to die, and we are not afraid.”
I fear it will be harder for you than for others, for you were not raised in our ways.
I shook my head. Not now. Not this way. It was one thing to contemplate leaving one man who was already sorely wounded, to save ten times that number. But this . . . I could not do it. It was not in me, even to consider it. I could not choose half the men from among the company, who would live and who would die. Whose husband, and whose father . . . I could not do this, and look into the faces of their wives and children. “No,” I said again, softer this time. “We stay together, stand or fall together.”
We are all of us prepared to die . . . His words reminded me suddenly of Halbarad. I could almost see the younger man’s face again, fear and pride and fierce determination reflected in his wide eyes. But Halbarad’s eyes could never hold the look of total despair that flashed across Engroth’s face then. It was only there for an instant, but it was long enough.
And I knew he, at least, did not fear death. Here was one, I could see, who welcomed it, who would rush with open arms to his own destruction. What lay behind the hidden torment in his eyes I knew not, but whatever shadow lay upon him made life itself a burden he no longer wished to bear. And of a sudden I was ashamed, for all the times I had wished to be free of this duty, to be elsewhere, to have my destiny be other than what it was. Whatever this man had seen and done in his lifetime, he was driven by demons the like of which I had never known.
Perhaps he would have done it, had he retained command of the company. If Caran’s words were anything to go by, such necessities were only too common in war in the Wild. Doubtless Engroth had made such decisions before, seen men die by his orders so that others might live.
But I could not. I do not know what gave me hope that we could make it, that we could all make it. I do not know what made me believe such a sacrifice would not be necessary, or if I merely convinced myself that because I wished it, it would be so. But I turned away from him then, unable to gaze longer into the eyes of a man I knew was already half dead.
I knew I should sleep. We would move swiftly in only a few hours, and I could not afford to waste time I could spend resting. But Halforth was standing alone on watch, and I might never have another chance to speak to him alone. And there were things I had to ask him.
If I was to command the Dúnedain of the North, I would have to rely heavily on the experience of those men who had fought long before I was born, those men who knew the land and the people and the strategies of the Rangers. If he had taken command of the Dúnedain after my father’s death, Engroth must have been among the greatest of the warriors of that generation. I would sorely need his counsel in the years ahead . . . assuming we survived to reach Imladris.
But I knew nothing of his state of mind, only that he wished for nothing save his own death. And he would not come within fifty feet of me, save to ask me to send him on a mission he would not survive. As fiercely as he (and all the other older Rangers) guarded his secrets, I could not even attempt to enlist his support without knowing what had driven him to this pass.
And Halforth might be the only one who would tell me.
Playlist Navigation Bar