Of Stewards and Rangers
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Captain of Gondor, A: 1. The Wild Hunt
It was a thing that every ranger in Ithilien remembered. Seven days and seven nights in the wilds: alone save for the other cub, a stranger on whom your very life depended, and who, in turn entrusted his own to you. Those seven days saw the forging of friendships, the tempering of boys into men, and sometimes, the making of life-long enemies.
The Wild Hunt, the cubs had called it, for as long as there had been rangers in Ithilien. It was a time that some spoke of with fondness; others, with a shake of the head, for the passing of years did not dim the memories of lost brothers and friends or of those who failed the test and so left Ithilien in disgrace. But each ranger remembered in his own way the seventh night of the Hunt, for it signalled the end of his cub-days and the beginning of his new life as one of the Brotherhood.
On this day, the very first morn of the Hunt, six cubs were gathered before their Captain in the fastness of Henneth Annûn. They were all young, lithe and eager-eyed young men; very straight they stood, their arms brightly burnished, not a hair out of place.
The boy Mablung, who stood at the far end of the line, listened as intently as the others. He had a quiet voice, their Captain. The cubs strained to hear it above the waterfall's ceaseless roar, for they knew well that he, with a mane like Fëanor's own, and a temper to match, would not care to repeat himself. Mablung's heart was hammering as though all the fiends of Angband were beating at it. Pray the Valar that it would not show. He was the youngest of the lot, for he not seen his eighteenth summer; yet, he was already accounted the finest bowman in his troop, and was inordinately proud of it.
Had it only been six months since he had come to Ithilien to learn a ranger's craft? Surely he had always been in Anborn's troop, and his other life - his old life in Minas Tirith was nothing more than a distant dream? Mablung shivered. What if he should fail? Yet Anborn had judged him ready - no, he would not - could not fail, for Anborn was always right.
The Captain's words, with the soft lilt of Anorien in them, drifted in and out of hearing. He called out the names of each cub in turn, and the one who would be his companion during the Hunt, and the marching orders for each pair were given out. Last of all, the Captain's gaze lighted on Mablung and the boy next to him.
"Arvegil, Mablung, you are to make your way to Amon Ethir, west of the Nindalf Marshes. Go to the eastern window of the ruined watchtower at the first light of dawn, and tell me what you see. Look sharp, for I shall send the Hunters after you at moonrise tomorrow. You have seven days and seven nights to return to Henneth Annûn, but remember that should you fail in your quest or if the Hunters take you, there will be no place here for you among the Brotherhood. Do you understand me?"
Rising from his low seat, the Captain smiled. In the half-dark of the hollow hill, Mablung caught a green glint of laughter in his eye. The 'Old Man,' the lads called him - a fitting name - for the first grey streaks had already appeared in his red fox's pelt. "Very well then. There is nothing more, save to say that may the Valar speed you all. You will need it, for I shall be among the Hunters."
There was a moment of stunned silence.
"Well, what are you waiting for? There is not a moment to lose!"
So off they hurried, confused and not a little uneasy, down the slippery black rocks of the water-fall, and past the Forbidden Pool into the waiting woods. There, the cubs parted; and Mablung found himself quite suddenly alone with Arvegil.
"Pray the Valar send us a kind pair of Hunters," said Arvegil squinting in the sun. "Oh, send us anyone at all, but the Captain."
"Aye to that," Mablung replied fervently, drawing on his mask. And together, they turned northwards to the task that awaited them at Amon Ethir.
I have invented the Wild Hunt as a rite of passage - or a test if you like - that each cub must pass before he might call himself a fully fledged ranger. I have not come across any hint at such a test in Tolkien's works, but it is reasonable to assume that the Ithilien rangers might have had in place some sort of quality control measures - after all, Ithilien was a very dangerous posting, and an incompetent ranger would only be a burden to his fellows.
I have called the trainee rangers 'cubs' - again this is a liberty I have taken and there is nothing in canon that supports this.
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