6. Chapter 6
There was little conversation now. We were moving too swiftly, and the mood of the column was one of palpable tension and no little fear. Besides Engroth and Halforth and myself, none of the Rangers had seen whatever was written on the stone, but whatever fell mood had fallen on those two seemed to be affecting them all. We had kept to this pace for nearly an hour now with no slowing, and no change in direction. We were still heading due south, with our backs to our previous destination, straight across the open white plain. At first I had thought perhaps we were going around some obstacle, but it seemed clear now that our destination was no longer Amon Sûl. And knowing what I knew of how fast orcs can move at need, I feared what might cause Engroth to risk such a delay as this detour would cause.
"I know not, but I fear it cannot be good!" Hirion responded, without looking back at me. "The Rangers often leave signs for one another, to indicate their passage, their destination, or to warn of dangers on the road. What the signs you found said I cannot know, for I did not see them. But someone has passed that way not long ago, someone who knows our secret signs. Perhaps they were a small party, moving in a direction that would take them too close to the raiders, in which case we go to intercept them before they run afoul of the orcs. Or perhaps they warned of some danger between the downs and Amon Sûl that is worse than that behind us, and we turn aside to flee from it. More than that I cannot say!"
He said no more, and I turned my efforts toward keeping the pace of the men in front of me. The sun was rising over the mountains to the east, bleeding red light across the sky. Far to the south, the horizon was obscured by a wrack of dark clouds, while over our heads now the sky was clear. Such gave me the sense that we ran from light into darkness, closer with every stride, every foot of ground that passed beneath our hastening feet.
One develops a rhythm, in running such as this. When you start out the soles of your feet hurt each time they strike the earth. You stumble over uneven ground, and silently curse the snow that gives way beneath you with each step. Cold air burns your lungs, and you struggle to draw breath enough to go on. Sore and wrenched muscles protest painfully at the movement, and you are certain that you cannot go on much longer.
But there is a point at which it becomes automatic, where your breathing finds a rhythm and your feet move in time with those others near you. Your mind slows down, aware only of the beat of your footsteps, unconsciously keeping the rhythm steady. When I would run with Elladan and Elrohir in the vales of Imladris, I would pick out objects to mark my progress, focusing my attention first on a tree some hundred feet ahead, then a rock further on when I passed the tree. Here there were no landmarks, only the vast flat white that spread out unmarred before us like an endless frigid desert, with nothing save the sun and the mountains to tell us even which direction we went.
And yet we ran. On, toward we knew not what, held to the path by eight words of Engroth's, and his tall form at our head, leading us. No landmarks, no other sign of human life, only each other, and the knowledge of enemies pursuing.
There is a unity among these men, of a depth I am just beginning to sense. With no conscious effort we all run nearly perfectly in step, none falling behind, none faltering. I was more than a little surprised to find myself holding to the pace still after so long a time, running in concert with the others, as though I had long been a part of this band. No words were spoken, and none of us knew completely where we headed or to what end, but under the tension there was a purpose, a driving force that held the Rangers together. It was not a thing one could see, or touch, but it was emphatically there. Even I could feel it, and by my proximity to them be swept up in it, bound to all of them in some way I could not explain.
We halted only once that day, when the sun had risen high overhead, casting a pale, cold light across the snow. It happened suddenly-Engroth raised a hand, shouted one word I could not distinguish, and the column fell out, dispersed, slowing to a halt and fanning out to catch our breath.
Strange it is how exhaustion waits till one is standing still, before one feels it most. I wanted nothing more than to fling myself full length upon the ground, but I did not doubt we would be moving soon, and I knew from experience that such would only make my legs more stiff when we started running again.
And now might be my only chance to ask Halforth whither we ran, and why.
The other men walked slowly in circles, breathing hard, or stood in one place, leaning upon their comrades. Engroth, as usual, showed no fatigue, but paced back and forth in front of us, as though eager to be off again, impatient with our human weakness. But this was no time to ponder the enigma that was our commander, for I knew he would not let us rest for long.
"Halforth," I breathed, coming up behind the other man and touching his shoulder lightly. It was a moment before he turned, and his face told me instantly that whatever the message said, it told of something gone seriously wrong.
His face was tense, covered in a thin sheen of sweat, and in his eyes there was the shadow of some great fear barely controlled. He reached out, one hand grasping my arm.
"What has happened?"
He drew a long breath, and his fingers tightened hard around my wrist. "We know not yet, though I fear it is something terrible." He glanced over at Engroth, who had stopped pacing and was watching the others. "The Rangers leave such signs in the Wild, when they travel, for others of their kin to read. Those who passed the South Downs and left the signs you found were bound straight south, nearly two weeks ago."
I looked up, staring toward the wrack of clouds in the south. "Two weeks ago, if Halbarad told me aright, the orcs would just have reached Tharbad," I said. "These warriors might not have been moving as quickly as we move now, but they should have been across the Greenway before the orcs passed. They should be in no danger."
Halforth shook his head. "You misunderstand me, my lord," he said softly. "I do not speak of warriors. The party who passed that way were perhaps fifty women and children." He looked down at the snow, and his voice was hoarse. "They know something of travel in the Wild," he said. "But they do not move near so fast." Dark green eyes met mine. "One of them was my wife."
We stared at each other. I could see in my mind once again the smoke rising black from ruined farmsteads in Bree-land. Some instinct prompted me to reach for my sword, fingers clenching hard around the hilt.
Engroth's voice reached us then, a sharp command, and the column was moving again.
It was nearly midnight when we stopped again. Clouds had once again covered the sky, and with no stars to guide us, we had to wait until the sun rose enough for us to see the mountains.
Engroth took the watch that night, and all of us lay down where we stood. Still I could not sleep.
My eyes were drawn to Halforth, lying still wrapped in his cloak, his slow breathing telling me that even he was asleep. It was a measure of the man's experience in the Wild, and a kind of discipline I could not begin to imagine, that in spite of fear for his family he could close his eyes and be asleep in seconds. I knew even as he did that none of us could keep up such a pace long without rest, and that if we exhausted ourselves on the journey we could aid these women and children but little if any survived. But I had not much of his discipline and none of his experience, and though I knew I should rest I could not quiet my mind enough to sleep.
It was Caran's face that I could not forget, lying on the wet snow and staring at the starless, cloudy sky. Grave and lined, his eyes dark with the hard wisdom of many years of war.
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.
So he had told me once, and I had nodded politely, and filed the facts away for future contemplation, another aspect of Ranger life that I had known nothing of before then. Now I wished I had questioned him further. Did the women of the Rangers learn to use the sword, then, to protect their children? For indeed no one else would, it seemed, if they did not. I knew my mother had a sword, hanging above the mantle in our house in Imladris, but I had never seen her use it, nor heard her speak of it. Always I had assumed it was her father's.
Death is not always visible, but he is always near.
I tried to imagine a group of fifty women and children traveling without any armed escort so great a distance through the Wild of Eriador, and found myself fervently hoping that these women were more proficient with weapons than any I had known among the Elves. Although how any group of women, burdened by young children, could hope to take on the force of orcs that had nearly overrun us was beyond my imagining.
Every part of my body ached with fatigue, but my eyes remained wide open, and I could not begin to try to sleep. I wanted to move on, to reach the Greenway and find out if our fears were justified, to end this unbearable tension and uncertainty that gripped each of us. But at the same time I feared to discover what answer waited for us.
It was a few hours after dawn when we found them. We saw the trees first, and fixed on them as a landmark and a possible campsite. One of the older men was the first to make out the black, charred pole that had once supported a tent. Minutes later we perceived a black shape moving erratically toward us.
We stopped, falling out in a rough half-circle, bows ready. It soon became clear, however, that whatever approached was being driven by random gusts of wind, and under no power of its own. It had once been a piece of a tent. Stiff deerhide, once a soft brown, was now black and crumbling away at its ripped and burned edges.
None of us wanted to touch it, but at last Engroth lifted it gently. At the touch of his hands, half of it seemed to crack away and flutter to the ground, sending black specks drifting down to light on the unmarked snow.
Not one word was spoken. There was no smoke rising from the direction of that copse of trees, so whatever had happened here had ended long ago. Too late we had come to warn or aid, and now we had not even time to spare to bury the bodies, if any were here.
Engroth let the cloth fall. Still with no word, he walked out in front of us, slowly at first, then striding swiftly toward the pines and the terrible, lonely tent-pole.
The women had camped just off the Greenway, in front of a small copse of pines. Just behind, the branches swayed gently in the cold breeze, heavy with snow. The ground beneath the boughs was clear of white, under a soft carpet of needles.
In front of the trees, an inch of snow glazed over the horror that lay beneath.
The lone pole swayed in the wind, creaking. We walked slowly forward, hardly breathing as we saw irregular shapes hidden beneath the snow. Some were heartbreakingly small. I shivered, sinking slowly to my knees, brushing the snow gently away from one dead face.
The snow was still powdery, and came away with little effort. My breath caught at what lay beneath, and my other hand touched the hard ground, keeping me from falling over. She emerged as if from under a sea of white. I was wearing gloves or I might have felt how cold the skin was. The face was tinged with yellow, but there was no other color in it at all, save for the line of blue that was her lips. Below her chin blood congealed, frozen, a splash of startling color against the deathly pallor of the corpse's features. Black hair, streaked with gray, spread out loose behind the head. Ice crystals clung to milky eyes, wide open, staring. I knew the faces of these women would haunt my dreams.
Around me I was aware of other Rangers searching, searching for faces they knew, perhaps. Halforth knelt once beside me, peered into the face I had uncovered, then rose quickly. Of all the others, only Engroth stood silently, watching. I did not turn to look at him, but I could see him out of the corner of my eye, and part of me was grateful for his solid, commanding presence, that did not break down even in the face of the ultimate horror. We still had someone to look to.
Not all the dead were Dúnedain. Some of us uncovered corpses of orcs, more than one. These women had given a good account of themselves, it was obvious. But it had not been enough.
I rose, turning away from the campsite and stumbling toward the trees. I had seen enough. There was nothing for us to do here. I remembered the smoke rising along the Road as I had traveled to the Sarn. Had I passed this settlement by, unaware? Somewhere deep inside I knew one man could have done nothing against so large a company, but I was not thinking of that now. The snow thinned as I reached the trees, leaning against a massive pine, pounding my fist against the trunk. A branch dipped, soft needles brushing my face, tickling gently. I leaned my forehead against the rough bark, closing my eyes.
I heard footsteps near me. Looking up, I watched as Halforth and another of the older Rangers walked slowly past. Halforth's eyes caught mine a moment.
"Is she . . .?"
He shook his head. "She is not here."
I frowned. We had searched only a small area so far, but was it possible there were survivors?
And what would we do if there were? We ourselves were no match for the company that pursued us too closely to permit us to safely go out of our way. Even if we turned aside to look for survivors, we might well lead the orcs to them, instead of drawing them away.
Something on the ground caught my eye, and I dropped to my knees again, lifting a piece of what looked like jade, in the shape of an arrowhead, strung on a cord of leather.
He knelt beside me, snatching the object from me and running a finger reverently over it. "Where did you find this?" His voice was hoarse.
I pointed to the ground.
"This was my wife's," he said. "And I do not believe it would have been let drop by accident."
"Some kind of sign?" I ventured.
"Aye, but meaning what?" The other man came to join us. "Halforth, there are tracks here."
The other's head shot up. The three of us bent over the soft pine needles, where no snow had fallen to obscure a trail. The signs were faint, but they were there. Heading due south, disappearing into the snow some hundred meters away where the trees stopped.
"It was in this direction the arrowhead was pointed," I told them. Halforth looked at me.
"A signal, most likely, and one it is lucky the orcs did not see," he said. He turned to the other Ranger. "Rohar, how many would you say passed this way?"
"Twenty, maybe thirty," he said. "At least half were children."
The two looked soberly at the earth. I turned to look over my shoulder at Engroth, who was standing in the same place he had since we arrived. I might have been deceived by distance, but from where I was his expression looked not fierce, but rather lost, and hopeless, as a man who knows not where to turn. I remembered what Halforth had told me of our commander's childhood, and shivered.
"The orcs will track us to this place," I said, distracting Halforth and Rohar from contemplation of the trail. "When they do, what are the chances they will notice this trail? And will they follow ours, or that of the women and children?"
"They will notice it, of that there can be no doubt," Rohar said grimly. "They will most likely stop here for a time to make certain they did not miss anything when they despoiled the corpses when they were last here. But the trail of the survivors vanishes beyond these trees."
"Orcs do not track as we do," Halforth reminded him. "They follow scent, not footprints. The snow will hinder them but little. And they will follow the weaker prey, I do not doubt."
"What can we do?" I asked, seeing in my mind the ragged group of some twenty women and children struggling through the snow as swiftly as they could. Not swiftly enough to escape the orcs.
"We can stay here and meet them again in combat, and seek to delay them that the women may have more time to get away. But we are too few, and all would perish, and we could buy little time. The women do not even know they are pursued, and they cannot move swiftly with children." Halforth's voice was strained. "We can hope that the orcs will not notice the trail, and continue toward Imladris. Or we can follow the women and hope we reach them before the orcs do, and try to bring them with us to Imladris. There they would be safe, if we can only reach the vale."
"What are our chances of making it that far?" I asked, not at all sure I wanted to hear the answer.
"We know not how close behind us they are, but I would say they are slim," Rohar told me. "They were fair, for a company of Rangers in straight course from Sarn to Bruinen. With two detours, one to Amon Sûl and one to get here . . . and then with women and children slowing us down . . ."
"We cannot leave them!"
"We cannot," Halforth agreed with me. "Still you should know we have little chance of doing what we set out to do. An ill fate, that thou shouldst meet thy father's doom so soon."
I stared at him, inexplicably touched that he would show such concern for me, when his wife was in danger. But I understood somehow that whatever bound these men to each other-whatever had bound them to my father-now bound them to me, and there was no way I could reject that unity, whether I deserved it or no.
Halforth turned, walking toward Engroth, holding the jade pendant. We followed, trying not to look at the corpses. Only their faces were visible now, pale smudges against dead white, seeming to watch us.
Engroth did not look up when we approached.
"Captain," Rohar said.
It was a long while before he looked at us. He said nothing.
"We have discovered a trail in the pines. And this." Halforth held up the pendant. "There are survivors, somewhere south."
Engroth looked at him blankly. The emptiness in his eyes frightened me. Halforth touched his arm.
Engroth stepped away, walking slowly toward the trees. He stopped some hundred paces from the nearest tree, and stood silently. Halforth, Rohar and I looked at each other.
There was a loud thunk! that sounded then, echoing in the tomb-like silence. All the Rangers jumped to their feet. I was surprised to find my sword in my hand, not knowing how it got there. At first I thought an arrow had struck someone, or a tree, but all were on their feet, and the sound had been too loud for an arrow.
Wheeling, we saw Engroth turn and stumble, falling to his knees in the snow. I looked around frantically for enemies, seeing no one and nothing but our own and the dead. Halforth and several others ran to Engroth.
A loud cracking made us all freeze. One of the pines, maybe twelve inches in diameter, was swaying from more than the wind. Near the ground, just above the base, the blade of a sword stuck quivering, laying lengthwise in a gaping wound that had sheared through half the trunk. My mouth hung open, and I am sure I was not the only one. No one moved as the trunk cracked, swaying, fibers of wood splitting and rending with agonizing slowness.
There was a loud tearing, then a split second of silence that seemed to hover, unending. Then a crash, as the ground beneath our feet vibrated at the shock, the young tree falling full length upon the snow not far from us with a great rustling of needle-laden branches. The sword fell softly to the earth, the hilt sticking in the snow, blade propped against the jagged tree-stump.
Engroth was uninjured, as far as any of us could tell. He knelt with his head bowed, unmoving. He did not respond when Halforth spoke to him, nor even to the others shaking his shoulder. The scabbard at his side was empty.