4. Chapter 4
"We are preparing to break camp," the young man who had awakened me said. I nodded, accepting the mug of hot tea he pressed into my hands, and reaching for my bow and pack.
"You are the one who brought Halbarad in," said another voice. Straightening, I saw another man of about the same age.
"Aye," I answered. The two, standing side by side, might have been brothers. A few years older than I, they were both tall and lean, black hair tied back and gray eyes that regarded me with curiosity.
"And is it true--" the first Ranger began. I looked at him, puzzled. "Halbarad says you are Arathorn's son."
"I am," I replied. "Then he is awake? How does he fare?"
"Much better, now that he has someplace warm to rest, and some hot food and drink," the second Ranger assured me. "For that we are in your debt. He has been a friend of ours since we were children."
The first one bowed. "Allow us to introduce ourselves, lord, and welcome you to our humble estate, here on the scenic banks of Baranduin! I am Beregir, son of Baranhad, and my companion is called Hirion, son of Haldrin. We are your humble servants!"
Hirion bowed likewise. "We cannot offer you a bed, nor indeed much for breakfast but cram, and I daresay you've had your fill of that already." He folded his arms. "It is our policy, normally, to torment the new youngsters whenever we can--"
"Make them pull our watches--"
"Steal their pipeweed--"
"Tie their bootlaces in knots--"
"Not to mention frightening them out of their wits with tales of all the horrid monsters we haven't encountered--but they don't know that yet." He looked to Beregir for confirmation, and the other nodded, adopting a severe pose. "But since you are the King and all that . . ." Hirion sighed deeply, looking very disappointed.
"And we do love Halbarad, even if we do torment him most of all--"
"And since you just came from Fornost--"
"And we all know what Engroth is like to newcomers--"
"Particularly newcomers that come from Rivendell and dress like Elves--"
Beregir gave a shudder of mock horror. "We've come to the decision we really ought to leave you alone."
"Much as it pains us to pass up such an opportunity."
"We haven't had any fresh blood since Halbarad joined!"
"We just wanted you to realize how lucky you are, to get off this easy from us."
"We have our reputations to think of, you know."
"Wouldn't want anyone to think we'd gone soft."
They exchanged horrified looks, before turning to me, in twin stern attitudes, arms folded. At first somewhat bewildered by the rapid-fire exchange between the two, I finally began to laugh, relieved that at least someone here did not seem to look at me and see only impossible expectations that must be met.
They each draped an arm about my shoulders, steering me toward the other side of the fire, where one man still lay sleeping, wrapped in warm blankets.
"Like we said before," Hirion continued, adopting a lecturing tone, and I could not help but smile despite apprehension for what the day might bring, "we do love Halbarad."
"He is like the annoying younger brother we never had!" Beregir said.
"I heard that," a faint voice came from deep within the pile of blankets. Quickly I dropped to my knees beside him.
"How are you feeling this morn?" I asked him. He looked better than I remembered. His face still looked thin, and there were shadows still under his eyes, but there was color in his face, and his eyes regarding me were bright and alert.
"My lord," he greeted me. I put a hand on his shoulder. "We made it?"
I nodded. "Aye, we did. Rest easy now." His eyes shifted as Beregir and Hirion knelt beside me, then returned to my face. "I owe you my life, my lord."
In his face there was the calm of utter exhaustion, but I thought I saw relief there, too, and a gratitude that embarrassed me. I squeezed his shoulder. "I thought I told you not to call me lord," I reminded him softly.
"Aye," he whispered. His eyes closed, then opened again. "I see you've met these two--rogues," he commented. I smiled at the offended looks that passed between Beregir and Hirion. "Watch out--for them." A smile flickered on his face, and Hirion cuffed him gently on the shoulder.
"Like all annoying younger brothers," he told me, "this lad insists he wants to come with us and fight, when he knows perfectly well he is in no condition to do anything of the sort." Halbarad started to protest at this, but Beregir continued.
"We were hoping you, as King, son of Arathorn and future chieftain, heir of Isildur and keeper of the Sword That Was Broken, and--did I leave any titles out?" This was addressed to Hirion, who shook his head. "We were hoping that you could order him to be a good boy and rest. We thought rank might convince him where common sense would not."
I turned to Halbarad. "And how do you propose to fight, when your arm is broken?" I inquired.
"It is only my left arm!" he protested. "It is not my sword arm."
"I risked delay and discovery by the orcs to bring you here," I told him. "And I risked Engroth's wrath, which is far worse. So I am not about to let you go off and get yourself killed when you have not yet recovered, after I went to so much trouble for you."
He blinked, and I saw the familiar defensive look come into his eyes. "I do not doubt your courage, nor your loyalty," I said softly, realizing that though to Engroth I might be merely an untried boy, to this man younger than myself I was something of an authority figure, as well as savior. "You have endured much, and you have earned your rest. Sleep now, and recover your strength! We shall have need of you soon."
For a long moment he only stared at me. Finally, though, he nodded. I smiled, patting his shoulder gently, noting with a pang the trust that shone in the boy's dark eyes. Beregir tucked the blankets more securely round him, and Hirion whispered something before they rose. I could feel his eyes on me as we moved around the fire to where the warriors were gathering.
Caran greeted me as we joined him. "My lord, fair morning."
"Fair morning, Captain."
"We are nearly ready to depart," he informed me. "We shall have to leave Halbarad here, for he is too weak to travel. I have spoken to the Master of Buckland, who has agreed to shelter him in our absence." I nodded, relieved and curious. I had never met one of the halflings before, though they were supposed to live in Bree as well as the Shire. "We shall follow Engroth's orders." From the look he gave me, it was clear he expected me to know what Engroth's orders had been.
"Engroth did not inform me as to what his orders were," I said.
Caran looked surprised for a moment, then strangely troubled. "I see. Perhaps not surprising. We have been ordered to proceed east a few miles, then wait for Engroth's signal. Then we shall attack in from of the orcs, while Engroth and the Fornost guard will attack from the side. There are many more of them than Engroth anticipated, but our strategy remains the same. We are but ten at Sarn Ford, and Engroth has twenty and five, but if we attack them from two directions at once, they may think we are more, and flee."
"And if they do not flee?" I asked, relieved that at last someone was prepared to explain something, instead of letting me blunder about in ignorance. "Engroth takes many risks. He made these plans knowing nothing of the numbers or even the nature of the enemy."
"Engroth has always taken risks," Caran said thoughtfully. "He was known as one of our most daring commanders. As was your father." He looked at me. "We shall have to think swiftly, and find some other plan, if they do not flee. If we fail to turn them aside here, all of the Shire lies unprotected. The Took and Brandybuck clans have defended their borders against invasion before, but not in memory of any living. And none of the hobbits are Rangers. Gildor's folk in Woody End might aid them, and I do not doubt the Elves of Mithlond and our kindred would stop them eventually. But by then many more lives would have been lost, and not just our own. We must turn them aside here."
"Aye," I agreed, settling my bow into a more comfortable position on my back, infinitely grateful that the burden of planning a method to turn back the raiding orcs did not lie on my shoulders. Yet.
Caran was looking at me again, and his eyes were grave. "Tell me, my lord--how long had you been at Fornost, before you were sent to us?" His voice was reflective, but I sensed some purpose in his query, as he watched the other warriors preparing to leave.
"A few weeks," I answered. "Before that I lived in the house of Lord Elrond, in Rivendell." I kept my voice carefully neutral, recalling how at this hour I would have been preparing to breakfast with my mother before going to Elrond for lessons. I forced away thoughts of my home, taking in the pine trees, the campfire, the Rangers, the river. The mission. The orcs.
"I know not how much experience you had of combat before you joined us," he said, picking up his pack and slinging it onto his back. "But to be raised by immortals gives you a different way of seeing all things. Death, life, and combat among them." He began to walk with a measured stride around the camp, checking the perimeter, watching the preparations.
"I have spoken to Halbarad," he continued, in what seemed to me an abrupt change of subject. "He told me how you brought him with you many miles, and how you cared for him."
I tensed, feeling a measure of the old doubt return. Surely, I thought, I was about to be chastised for my carelessness, for risking the mission. There was little I could say to defend myself, though I would have done the same again.
"He is a brave lad, and a good fighter, though young," Caran continued. "I have not known him long, but I know his father well. Halforth is my kinsman and my friend. I am glad Halbarad is alive and recovering." His voice was serious but not unkind. "For one new to our ways and new to the Wild, it is no small feat to bring a wounded man so far so quickly, and it speaks well of your resourcefulness, as well as your courage and loyalty, that you managed to accomplish both missions." He looked thoughtful. "I was raised by the Rangers, as was he. It is a life vastly different than yours was. As a child, a Ranger lives in hidden villages, in the Wild. These settlements move often, for security's sake. A child has only his mother to protect him, for his father is away at war, protecting the wives and children of others. It is not an easy childhood, and many of us have known grief, fear, and want from an early age. Death is not always visible, but he is always near."
Now and again he would pause, to acknowledge words of greeting from the other warriors, before he continued the circuit of the perimeter of the camp. "Do not think that I condemn your actions, for saving a comrade's life! For indeed I know not what decision I would have made in your place. It is not rebuke I give you, but a warning." He stopped and looked me in the eye. "It is not an easy choice that was asked of you, for one so young. For one raised by immortals it is even harder. But I say to you now, Aragorn Arathorn's son: a day will come when you must leave a comrade to die, when there will not be time or means to save him. One day you will have to sacrifice some so that others may live, or so that a mission may not fail. I was hardly older than you when first I learned this. I have left dear friends when they could have been saved, and slain by my own hand wounded men under my command, so that they would not fall into the enemy's hands. I fear it will be harder for you than for others, for you were not raised in our ways. Still you must be prepared to learn them, and learn them swiftly! For the Wild is a harsh teacher, and war harsher."
I stared at him, feeling something cold settle in the pit of my stomach. There was nothing to say, for I could hear the truth in his words, though they chilled my heart to hear. More than ever I wished for Rivendell, for deadly dull books and Elrond to make my decisions for me. Raised by immortals . . .
"I understand, Captain," I said after a moment, and my voice was steady.
"Do you?" he asked, very softly. He looked at me long, and I forced myself to meet his eyes, not to look away. "You will. One day, I fear, you will." He nodded sharply, as though satisfied, then turned and walked away.
Not long after that, Caran called us together in a circle about the campfire, explaining what Engroth's plan was and what our part would be. There were no fancy speeches, nor questions or grumbling from the men. Minutes later two Rangers were pouring dirt on the remains of the campfire, and a party of halflings had come with a litter to bear Halbarad to safety in Buckland.
There were few trees to hide us from view, so we proceeded straight up the Road. It had begun to snow again, and this time it was sticking, clinging to stiff blades of grass, a soft white coverlet spreading out over the gray countryside. Tiny, lacy flakes caught in our hair and dusted our cloaks, melting as they lit on our faces. Beregir and Hirion had taken up positions to either side of me, and every now and again they would glance at one another, with twin expressions that hovered ever just at the verge of laughter. Some sort of private joke, I supposed, that did not require words. The ways of the Rangers are strange, I reflected, and the ways of these two are stranger than most. I should have to ask Halbarad about them, whenever I saw him next.
They did not speak, however, and as we trudged on in silence my thoughts began to wander.
Yuletide in Imladris is like nothing most mortals have ever seen. No painter could wish for a more peaceful vista than the House of Elrond Halfelven, nestled between high cliffs, its gabled roofs frosted with powdery snow. Bare branches coated with ice sparkling in the morning sun, a carpet of perfect white covering the lawn.
Nowhere else is there a sight like the sun's last red light catching the cascade of a frozen waterfall, sending glittering rays sparkling along the cliff's face, or the glow of lanterns hung from trees, lighting the path to the great house at nightfall.
The Elves look to the West at Yuletide, when the sun sets. Elladan and Elrohir and I had a special tradition for this night, and we would hike hours through the snowy woods at evening, up the steep paths out of the valley. Standing at the edge of the dell, we looked down at Elrond's hidden refuge, at the source of the frozen waterfall, spilling its crystal splendor from beneath our feet.
No scene in the Misty Mountains, nor indeed in all Middle-Earth, is more beautiful, unless Arwen Undomiel be there. Looking down into the valley at sunset, Rivendell is a fair glowing jewel surrounded by a sea of mist. Beyond the mountains, we could see the farmlands of Eriador stretched out white before us, black rivers and gray hills, and the sun setting red in the far West from which there is no returning.
We would stand there watching in silence, watchful, reverent. Then, once the last light of the sun had faded, we would build a fire atop the cliff and roast mushrooms, and talk until the moon had risen and the stars shone down bright. Then together we would walk back to the great house and join the rest of Elrond's household in the Hall of Fire, and sing and listen and drink hot spiced cider and miruvor until dawn.
Some part of me reflected bitterly it was well that I would not be home this Yuletide, for I feared my brothers would not include me in our old ritual this time even if I were there, now they knew my feelings for their sister. I did not wish to see further proof that my family had rejected me, nor did I wish them to see how they had hurt me.
Caran raised a hand and we came to a halt, fanning out, half of us on one side of the Road and half on the other. Jerked back to reality, I looked up, my eyes meeting Hirion's where he stood across from me, but his face was expressionless now. We were passing now through a wooded area, and when they stood by the black trunks of leafless trees, the gray-clad Rangers seemed to melt into invisibility. Caran knelt in the middle of the Road, lying on his side, pressing one ear to the ground. He did not move for a long moment, and my hand moved to the hilt of my sword. Around me, others did the same, or stood still as statues. After what seemed an eternity, our commander sprang to his feet.
"They are close," he said quietly. "We will proceed no further, for we will soon be in the open, and we will find no better cover than these trees here before we meet them."
I looked around me, noting the slender, bare trees all about. Too few, and too far apart for my liking, but they would have to do. They might hide us enough to give us a few valuable seconds of surprise, but they were not thick enough to force the party of orcs to stay in a narrow column on the Road. I unslung my bow, wrapping one hand around the top, letting it rest upright against my leg. Trees or no trees, we were essentially in the open here. In my only other encounter with such creatures, they had been coming at us through a narrow mountain pass, with sheer cliffs on either side. It had been an ambush then, perfectly picked by Elladan and Elrohir, to catch them as they came one by one out of the pass. An open field, scattered trees or no scattered trees, is no place to plot an ambush, unless you are planning on dropping out of the sky.
"Have you ever fought orcs before?" Beregir's voice was a whisper at my side.
I nodded, keeping my face still. "Aye, I have, once."
He looked skeptical. "Have you ever fought orcs with Rangers?"
He leaned his own bow against a tree, where it was ready to hand. "Would you like some advice?"
"I would be grateful."
I was not afraid. No, of course not. I had done this before, and done it well, and been praised by Elrond and his sons.
Of course, there had been far fewer of them and far more of us, and I had had Elven archers beside me. But there was no time to think about that now.
"Aim low. The new lads always aim too high, and we can ill afford to waste our arrows, with the size of this company." I nodded without looking at him, scanning the Road ahead. There was nothing to be seen but silent snow. "And stay low as you can. Orcs tend to aim high, as well."
"That much I knew already," I assured him. The snow seemed to be falling heavier now. Well, that would make us harder to see, at least.
There was a low laugh from beside me, and Beregir swatted me on the shoulder. "And don't stay in the same place too long. These trees aren't big enough to shield you, once they figure out where your arrows are coming from."
"Aye," I responded, drawing an arrow from my quiver and testing the point with one finger.
"One more thing," he said. "When we close with them, swords out, yell. As loud as you can. Make as much noise as possible." I looked at him. "Trust me. It will disorient them, make them think we are more than we are. And it helps you to concentrate."
Helps you to concentrate? There was one Elrohir hadn't told me. "What do we yell?"
He shrugged. "It doesn't have to be a word. `Númenor' works for some, or `Elendil'. Halforth told me once that Engroth used to sing. Not sure I believe that."
I raised incredulous eyebrows. I was certain, beyond any doubt, that the Rangers would only laugh if I started singing in the middle of a battle. As for Engroth singing . . . Beregir only grinned briefly, then turned back to watching east.
I could not tell which of the dark shapes on the other side of the Road was Caran. The stand of trees had gone very silent of a sudden, and I wondered where Engroth and his company could be. They were to have attacked in concert with us, but if they came from the North they would have to approach us from across the open snowfields. Perhaps they intended to wait until we had already engaged the orcs, and the enemy was distracted?
"Trust me, my lord," Beregir said softly, and his smile seemed suddenly without humor, though not without understanding. "You cannot possibly fight as poorly in this skirmish as you think you will."
I turned, eyebrows raised. "And how would you know how badly I fear I will fight this day?" I asked. My attempt at a light, bantering tone felt forced.
He responded with a snort. "I don't. But I remember my first battles with the Rangers. `Tis not something one forgets soon, or ever." He looked across the Road at Hirion, then turned to stare east. His face was serious, intent, a concentration too deep for any distractions, even fear.
I was terrified.
The thought that I might die never once crossed my mind. Beregir had guessed closer to my true fears than I liked to admit. This was not a short excursion into the mountains to hunt orcs. Here the orcs were hunting us, and we had barely thirty and five men with which to turn them back. With so few, the actions of every man counted, and I felt keenly my own lack of experience in the wilderness. I knew nothing of these men's ways of fighting, their strategies, and that lack of knowledge could prove fatal not only to me, but to all of us, and to the peaceful farmers and the halflings to the west. I was the weakest point in this wall of men, and I knew it too well.
At times such as these the seconds seem to slow, and one perceives all around in the most excruciating detail, the rough texture of the bark of trees, the way the snow lights on one's gloves and slowly melts, the outside edges fading to water first, then the center. The smell of nervous sweat, and the reek of woodsmoke that lingered in all our clothes. The pattern the snowflakes made, streaming down thickly. The silence that hung, oppressive, over all things.
My head jerked up at a shrill note from across the Road. Some kind of bird-call, though I doubted any bird sang here. Beregir, too, lifted his head, and I gripped my bow harder, squinting into the snow. There was no sound, and all waited, straining into the void of silence that wrapped stiflingly close about us.
The response was faint, but so tense was I, listening so hard, that it seemed loud as the first, a different cadence, but the same whistling quality. I did not need to be told that Engroth was nearby.
"Echad hûr." Caran's voice was level, calm, and it took me a few moments to register that he had spoken in Elvish. "Dartha an ha."
I lifted my bow, adjusting my quiver so it was within easy reach. I wondered what signal Caran would give for us to attack, thinking that I knew none of the signals the Rangers used for such things. I took a deep breath, held it, let it out slowly, a wisp of fog in the chill air. I would just watch Beregir, and shoot when he did.
We could hear them now. A faint, muffled sound, the overlapping tread of many feet in different rhythms, no marching in step for these. Here and there a clink of metal, barely audible, then growing louder and more frequent, weapons and armor, perhaps metal helmets. And voices, hoarse voices, at first a meaningless cacophony of sound, resolving into something that might once have been a tune, raucous singing in a doggerel I did not recognize.
I saw them before I realized what I was seeing. Through a screen of white, I could see the gray of the sky, and the fields beyond this little grove. Slowly the gray darkened to black, a black mass that seemed to move, as the white flakes drifted down in front of it. The hoarse singing continued, as with a start I made out the shape, sticking out above the rest of the blackness, of a spiked helmet of a make I had seen before, far away from here.
I turned to Beregir, and he had already nocked an arrow, and stood waiting. I set an arrow to my bow, drawing the string back. All around me Rangers were waiting, ready, still like stone. There was a sensation like falling in the pit of my stomach, and I breathed deeply, willing my heart to slow to some semblance of normal speed. You cannot possibly fight as poorly in this skirmish as you think you will.
Breathe. In, count three . . . one . . . two . . . three. Out. They are coming closer, swifter than I anticipated. They will be upon us in minutes. They do not know we are here.
Calm. Control. Pick a target, aim low. I focused on one shape, near the right side of the column, training my eyes on one orc. Forcing my mind to concentrate on details, the way his helmet covered his face, the gap between the top of his chestplate and the bottom of the headgear.
It was almost like archery practice. Focus on your target, concentrate, calm your mind. Precision. Clear your mind of all distraction. But I knew that after the first volley any resemblance to archery practice would be lost in chaos. My fingers tightened around the arrow, my arm straining to hold the bowstring taut, ready.
Focus. So had Elladan told me, nearly a year ago. But Elladan and Elrohir were not here now. I was not a boy fighting to prove himself a man, not anymore. Now I was a man fighting to prove himself worthy to lead a nation. And I feared I was far from equal to the task.
I could make out other individual orcs now, the black shapeless mass assuming form, no longer one darkness but many orcs . . . too many. Looking neither right nor left, yellow eyes showing in faces covered by metal helmets, wispy, straggly hair and pointed ears, a grotesque mockery of Elven features.
Do not look at them. Look at your target.
They were almost to the trees. I wished I had a hand free to check and make sure my sword was in easy reach. No time for that, not now. I imagined I heard Elrohir's voice at my shoulder.
"Take a deep breath. Release it slowly, slowly . . . do not take your eyes from the target! Breathe out. Now, hold your breath when you let the arrow fly!"
"Si!" A staccato exclamation, shattering the tension like glass. My fingers opened of their own accord, and there was a twang at my ear. Before my mind realized what had happened, I saw a black-feathered shaft sprout from my target's neck, and my arm had reached back and nocked another arrow to the bow. There was an explosion of sound, shouts, chaotic motion. Black shapes lying on the ground. Pick another. Looking right at me, huge yellow eye makes a perfect target. Breathe in, out. Loose. Only one yellow eye now, and another orc topples over.
Stay low. I drop to my knees, noticing I already have another arrow ready to fire, wonder how that happened. Reflexes are better than I thought. No shortage of orcs to shoot at. Pick one, loose. Three for three. Didn't know I could shoot so well. Flash of movement beside me, Beregir moving west, behind another tree. I move quickly, following. Don't stay in the same place too long. These trees aren't big enough to shield you, once they figure out where your arrows are coming from.
A loud thunk! near me catches my attention, and there is an arrow protruding from the bark of the tree in front of me, cracks running up and down the wood where it has hit. It looks thick . . . and painful. I duck a bit lower, pick another target, fire. They are beginning to regroup now, fanning out toward the trees. There are a lot of them . . . too many. They are confused now, but once they realize how few we are . . .
My hands move automatically. I am no longer counting. Find a patch of skin not covered by armor, draw, nock, aim, loose. Don't wait to see if it hit. I am hardly aware of the other gray-clad forms moving in the trees around me. There is only I, and the orcs. And they are moving out, searching for me.
And they are falling in the rear, now! The back rank suddenly crumples, and there is chaos once more, orcs who were moving purposefully into the woods now turning, looking for a new enemy. And a voice I knew well, bellowing in Elvish, a voice I had feared, and that the orcs would fear, too, if they had any sense.
"Bad, si! Rinc!"
Engroth was attacking.
Never had I been so glad to hear his voice. But I could not stop long enough to rejoice. Very foolish of the orcs, to turn their backs to me. They had not long to regret their foolishness. But I would soon run out of arrows, at this rate.
A blow to my shoulder, and I was sprawled on the ground, spitting out snow. The thunk of an arrow in wood sounded in the same instant, and rolling over I saw Beregir's sword flash, and an orc's head fall. The head rolled to lie facing me, dead yellow eyes staring into mine, black blood staining the snow. I sprang to my feet, drawing my sword.
"Meigol, soll!" Caran's voice rose above the cries, amazing that he could shout loud enough to make himself heard over such a din. And suddenly I could see the other Rangers of the Sarn Ford guard, a pitifully small band, rushing out to bar the Road west. Before I could think better of it I ran out to join them, leaving behind the limited shelter of the trees.
"Yaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!" No word, no inspirational cry leaving my lips at that attack, only as much noise as possible, as Beregir said. A confused jumble of images are all that remain in my memory of that battle. The sneering face of an orc inches from my own, so close I could smell his foul breath, see his uneven teeth bared in a snarl. The sickening crunch of metal against bone as my sword clove his neck. Somehow Beregir and Hirion were beside me, their faces transformed, contorted with a rage that made them nearly unrecognizable. Screams blended into one long, continuous ringing in my ears. For every one that fell at my feet, another rose to take his place. Their faces blur in my mind. When I think on it after, they all wear the faces of the first whose head fell beside me as I lay on the snowy ground.
I heard some cries of "Númenor!" and "Elendil!" Mixed with what I guessed must be orcish curses. Snarls and screams, and metal on metal. Someone cried "A Elbereth! Gilthoniel!" Was it me? I cannot tell. But the orc in front of me starts back at the words, before my sword finds the space between metal plates, driving through his armpit. Black blood sprays hot over my face, stinging my eyes, and I dash one arm across my face, blinking furiously. Blind for precious seconds, this is not good. Something heavy aiming for my head, swing up, parry. My arms vibrate with the shock of the contact.
I could see Engroth now, towering above the shorter orcs, moving too fast for me to follow his swordstrokes. There was a man they feared! And with reason. Corpses lay about him, piling about his feet. He did not shout, as the others did. Nor did he sing, whatever Beregir or Halforth might say. He was silent. He was implacable.
There was confusion in the center of the band, orcs uncertain which way to turn, enemies before them and behind them. My arms had a rhythm now, years of training with the Elves taking over, moves I had drilled and drilled, coming to me now naturally as breathing, leaving no room in my thoughts for doubt or fear. There were fewer orcs now between me and Engroth, and more behind. I was moving forward, I realized suddenly, cutting a path through the armored mass.
He had a dented helmet, the one who tripped me. That image stands out, among the blur. A dented helmet, a spike off-center and leaning, was the last thing I saw before I fell, my leg twisting under me. The enemy closed around me, the stink of metal and alien sweat, suffocating. Panic stabbed through me, scrabbling against the snow, my sword swinging upward blindly. Must keep your feet in a battle . . . get back on your feet, get back ON YOUR FEET!
Ranger boots in front of my face, a clash of metal just overhead, a strong hand around my upper arm, hauling me roughly up, effortless. Expressionless black eyes staring into mine, out of a fierce face framed by a lion's mane of gray-streaked, blood-soaked black hair. Engroth. Eyes swept over me, checking for injuries, and once my feet were on the ground again he released me, spinning around, hair sticky with blood striking my face.
He wasn't going anywhere, standing legs apart, setting his back against mine. We stood back to back, in the center of the storm, swirling eddies of battle foaming around us, breaking against us like waves against a rock. Engroth was a rock, a foundation, a solid anchor in the midst of chaos and darkness. I had no small skill with a sword, and with him at my back I was no longer afraid, of death or failure. I was aware of a burning fatigue in my arms, lifting again and again, swinging a sword that seemed to grow heavier and heavier, but the movements were instinct now. My leg throbbed, a wrenching ache, and I wondered how badly I had injured it.
Farther from us, black shapes milled uncertainly, or charged against gray-clad forms that seemed to flicker in and out of the trees.
A louder call, a raucous horn, and of a sudden the orc that was stabbing at me took a step back, turning to run toward the woods to the south of the Road. I did not pursue, standing behind Engroth, raising my sword in preparation for the next attacker who never came. In front of me, the orcs were all moving in the same direction again, this time across the Road, to the south, streaming away in retreat. I took a deep breath, sucking air into starved lungs, feeling the pain of fatigue stronger now that there was nothing to strike at. Looking this way and that, searching for Caran, wondering why Engroth did not order pursuit.
"Al aphad!" The commander's rough baritone carried over the noise of the retreat, and the Rangers stood fast, stretched loosely across the Road, barring the western passage. "Dartha, thala." My arms were trembling, and I let the point of my sword sink slowly down, to rest on the snow. The orcs were no longer heading west. They were not turning back east, either, but their progress had been halted.
I leaned on my sword, feeling the point sink an inch or two into the frozen ground, breathing hard as the Rangers came toward us, watching the orcs. Engroth stepped away from me, coming around to face me. I straightened, steeling myself to meet his dark gaze. He stared at me for a long moment, and something stirred deep in those eyes that I could not identify. I had an impression of a great confused torrent of emotion, replaced in an instant by an emptiness of desolation, before the fierce, blank mask snapped into place once more. He shook himself like a great lion, turning away, moving toward the others with no sign of weariness or pain.
Echad hûr--make ready
Dartha an ha--wait for it
Bad, si! Rinc!--Go, now! Move!
Meigol, soll--swords, close
Al aphad--do not follow
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.