3. Shadow Men
Bindbale Wood, North Farthing,
September 18th, 3018 of the Third Age,
Baramor tore a piece of jerked deer meat, offering it to Mathros. They sat within a dark grotto of trees breakingfasting in typical Ranger fashion. High above the thick covering of leaves the sun rose as they eat the tough meat, bits of hard cheese, and apples. Taking a pull from his waterskin, Mathros continued the story he had been telling.
"Like I said, I had been tracking this hill troll for the better part of the afternoon as it headed for a standing stone on the North Moors. Do you know the one?" Baramor nodded, gnawing on the jerky. "Well, a thunderstorm was brewing in the west and the weather was getting worse. Even so, this troll was intent upon something it was smelling. So I stayed undercover about a furlong behind, just following it, curious at what had got it so excited. But when I got to the clearing, I heard voices. So the troll quickly wedged itself into the thicket as I spurred Rokko around the opposite side to get a better view. I nearly fell off with surprise when I see four Hobbit lads sitting around the stone, chanting, Skinner, Skinner."
"Well that's what the locals call you," added Baramor.
"I know," said Mathros. "Well, I started chuckling to my self when the troll suddenly let's go a growl, licking its lips. So I kick Rokko and she leaps into the clearing, which stopped the troll even as it coiled to jump. I shouted at the Hobbits and then shot the creature. Hit it dead in the eye. I watched the hobbits run back to the valley, funniest thing I've seen in a long time, a long time indeed."
"What did they think they were doing?" said Baramor, laughing.
"I figure they were trying to conjuring me up."
"Well they did, didn't they? I guess it worked."
"I guess it did." And both laughed.
After they'd finished eating and before Baramor headed back to Oatbarton they checked the Omentielvo Tree to see if there was any new word from the other Rangers. Not far from where they had passed the night grew an old oak tree. Twisted and gnarled, it spread out its thick timbers, governing the landscape like a king. It had a large hollow in its mid-section. Within this niche the Rangers kept a metal strong box affixed to a chain. Dozens of trees around the Shire were used like this to pass messages to the Dúnedain within their territories.
Mathros withdrew the box and after tripping the secret latch found nothing new. He'd just replaced the box when Baramor gave a bird whistle. Both quickly melted into the shadows, vanishing from sight.
* * *
Ohwen led his horse forward as quietly and cautiously as possible. This wood was new to him and though he'd had excellent directions, it took him a long time to find the Omentielvo Tree. The boy looped his horse's reigns around a branch, reaching up into the tree fishing around for the message box.
Suddenly the brittle bark of the oak tree exploded just above his head, Ohwen staggering back. An arrow stood vibrating from the spot. Instantly he drew his short sword, quickly forcing his horse around as a shield. He saw nothing however and the wood was dead quiet.
"Greetings," began a deep voice directly behind him. "I always recommend using your horse as a shield." Ohwen spun finding a tall, darkly blonde Ranger standing behind him. "Goodness knows I have a horse shot out from under me once a week. I never allow myself to get attached to beasts. I go through them far too often. No, they are fine shields," the Ranger said. "I'm Mathros and that over there is the Baramor."
"Were you looking for us lad?" asked the Baramor strolling into view, his bow held casually in hand.
"Indeed, m'lords," said Ohwen.
"What is your name and to which Ranger are you Warded?" said Mathros.
"My name is Ohwen and I am warded to Marcil son of Drugeon."
"A good man and a fine Ranger," said Mathros. "You are fortunate to have such an experienced Warder. Learn your lessons well, Marcil will always teach the proper tactic. How long have you been in your warding?"
"You have something important for us," said Baramor, interrupting.
"I do. It is very urgent." Reaching into a leather satchel strapped around his neck Ohwen removed an envelope.
Baramor took it and after breaking the featureless seal read the note, his brows tensing. Without comment he handed it to Mathros.
"This is odd," said Mathros. "Tomorrow at sundown. We'd best be off. Ohwen, do you know any more about this Ranger moot?"
"No sir. I was sent out in the early hours, not told what the message was."
"Well done then," said Mathros clapping the young Ward upon the shoulder.
As the two Rangers moved to their horses Baramor added, "Sorry about the arrow, it was toward your training. Always good to work on your woodcraft," he said, smiling at the boy.
* * *
Mathros upon his dappled grey mare and Baramor astride his dun gelding were gone from the Bindbale Wood within minutes. They trotted eastward across a trackless stretch of rolling grassland toward the villages of Brokenborings and Scary. In their haste they bypassed the Ranger creed against traveling so openly in the Shire, but the tone of the message had been urgent. Coming to a stretch of road that forked north toward Dwaling, they headed east at a full gallop, shooting down the dusty trail.
Iron shod hooves thundered, the Rangers bent over the mounts urging speed. The sun now stood directly above and the road was free of traffic. But those few Hobbits who were out laboring in the shadowless heat saw a rare sight in the Shire as two cloaked riders tore down the road, filling the air with dust. The inns that night in Brokenboring and Scary were alive with tales of the swift passing.
The Rangers quickly traveled the seventeen odd miles of road, soon coming to a place where the road bent south toward Budge Ford. Leaving the road they continued east, once more finding pathless grounds.
"I figure we're about ten miles from the river," added Mathros. "Let's take lunch in the saddle, I want to hurry on so that we can swim the river and still have time to dry before the sun sets."
* * *
The two Rangers at last came to the Brandywine river, finding a bend that was shaded by trees upon either bank. Mathros was amused by the fact that many of the hobbits believed the Brandywine was impassible, save for the bridges and ferries. This belief certainly lent them an impregnable feeling, but for the Rangers that was a comical notion. The Brandywine was a smallish sized, slow moving river.
After bundling their gear on top of their saddles they moved the horses to the rivers edge and found another Ranger, Gilondomir, who was also on his way to the moot. Together the three swam along side the horses across the river, holding on to their saddlebows. Once the Rangers had climbed the far bank they moved off into the cover of the trees and quickly built a small fire. If the Dúnedain were cautious about their presence in the Shire they were adamant about a limited use of open campfires. Mathros had become adept at making a flameless ember bank that would glow low and smokeless. This lent some heat, but could quickly be stoked if need be (and was very handy for lighting pipes). They generally refereed to this as a Ranger Fire.
"It is an easy ride from here," said Baramor, removing a small glowing stick from the bank, touching it to the pipe clenched between his teeth.
"If we leave at first light we should arrive at sundown," agreed Mathros, drawing smoothly from his short, stubby traveling pipe. "Just in time."
Several quiet minutes passed as the night sounds grew and a sickle moon peeked down through the leafy overhang. The Rangers sat with backs against a tree trunk, as was the Dúnedain custom while passing a night in the field.
"Never heard where you two were born?" began Gilondomir, stretching his long legs.
"My father built a place for my mother deep in the Hollin Ridge," said Mathros, blowing a thin stream of smoke into the air above him. "Baramor grew up a little further north."
"A lonely land, that," replied Gilondomir.
"It was. Another Ranger Anaranil had a place for his wife several miles down river, but their sons were older."
"I grew up in southern Rhudaur, in the foothills," said Gilondomir. "Never met my father, he was killed by Wargs when I was just born. I knew that there were others out there, somewhere scattered around the foothills of the Misty Mountains; but I never saw anyone. I couldn't wait to get warded."
"Do you think the Dúnedain will ever arise from the shadows?" said Baramor thoughtfully.
"A lot would have to change." Gilondomir said, scratching his stubbly chin.
They sat in silence for a time until Mathros continued, "I remember during our father's time Chieftain Arathorn seemed hopeful. He felt that the time of the Re-forging was drawing close. My father said he felt the same."
"Not much has changed though," added Baramor. "Maybe this gathering will shed some light. Halbarad's message seemed urgent. I can't remember the last time we were summoned together. I wonder if Lord Aragorn will attend?"
"I wouldn't imagine," said Gilondomir. "He is usually very far afield and I have not heard of him in the Northlands for a long time."
They soon fell into the restful half-sleep of the Dúnedain and the night passed quickly and quietly.
* * *
Mathros could see the Ward standing within the deeper shadows under the trees. Flashing Baramor and Gilondomir the hand sign for follow me he moved silently toward the boy. Approaching the clearing that had been set-aside for the Ranger moot, the Rangers moved like shadows. Within the gloom of the failing sun they neared the young lad.
"Is the meeting here?" began Mathros loudly.
The Ward jumped with surprise. "Indeed, my Lords, just through there." He pointed through the trees.
"My thanks." Mathros smiled as he passed.
"Mine too," added Baramor, patting the Ward's shoulder as the three walked by.
The clearing at first appeared to be empty but as their eyes adjusted they began to see dozens of shadowy forms moving around the area. They had just found nearby stumps to sit on when the voice of Halbarad suddenly broke upon the clearing.
"Brothers," he began, "my thanks to each who has ridden so hard to arrive on time. Though many of you have traveled long and far to get here, this moot shall not be lengthy. We have grave news to hear and grave deeds to accomplish." Halbarad crossed the open ground, pacing near Mathros and Baramor. "It is my honor to call forth our Chieftain, who has only recently arrived back in the Eriador, Lord Aragorn."
"Well, this is something," whispered Mathros.
A tall figure, cloaked and hooded, suddenly appeared from the line of trees. Even in the dim light his dark head and broad shoulders stood high above the rest of the assembled Rangers.
"It is with grievous news that I address you, brothers." His long legs slightly spread; he seemed a mountainous silhouette against the shining stars. "The Nine have crossed the Isen."
A murmur swirled throughout the host.
"Indeed I've just learned this. You may have noted that the Ranger of the south; of Dunland, Hollin, Enedwaith, and Minhiriath are not present. They've been told to slip into the shadows and watch. It is only you, the Shire Guard, who have been summoned. As I said, the Nine have crossed the Isen and are even now creeping straight for the Shire. And though it grieves the larger part of me, my intent is to let them come and not hinder them over much."
Aragorn stood quietly, listening to the muttering swirling around the clearing. "We will meet them with only a token force, not revealing our strength of numbers. They're searching for an heirloom that the Dark Lord greatly desires. My hope is that once they learn that this thing has passed beyond the bounds of the Shire they will leave. We will under no circumstances, reveal our strength to them. This above all else, is the key. This has been decided by the White Counsel."
" Lord Aragorn," said Halbarad, pleading. "This is the greatest foe we have seen in the northlands since Angmar fell. How is it that we are to withdraw and let this enemy ride hither and thither, unchecked?"
"You must all understand, that Gandalf has always been exceedingly plain in his arguments. Our greatest ally is the Dark Lord's own greed, fear, and above all else… uncertainty. We can never relinquish that advantage. Once it is gone, it will never be recovered. He does not expect the Dúnedain to be a significant threat, this is one reason he remains aloof to the North. Also he knows not where this most prized heirloom is. That, above all else, is our surest hope. Imagine what would occur if he were to learn that not only are the Dúnedain riding again in Eraidor, but also that we have grown in numbers and protecting the very thing he craves." Aragorn strode into the center of the clearing, turning in a full circle continued.
"His greatest hatred has always been for the North. It held his primary focus until he destroyed Arnor, and in his mind, crushed it beyond repair. We have succeeded these many centuries because he thinks the North a barren wasteland with no meaningful resource left to plunder. If he were to learn that the Grey Company is protecting his heirloom, within days thousands of the enemy would poor from the high passes of the Misty Mountains, and within a fortnight tens of thousands would stream north through the heart of Gondor. And if he should come into possession of the heirloom, well, then we have utterly nothing left. I assure you he is itching for this to be so, but because of his uncertainty he hesitates; only holding back his crushing hammer because of uncertainty. It is true that the Nazgûl are abroad, but they are moving in stealth and slipping from place to place. They don't yet seek open war. If we reveal ourselves now, then that uncertainty is lost. His eye will come streaking here. Then, ...well then only ruin."
Suddenly drawing his broken sword. "If I were free to follow my heart, I would take this broken steel and cleave in two the crown that sits upon the Witch-King's brow. Do you think I want for a second longer to have your wives and children, our families, forced to live their lives within dark places and holes? For our loved ones to continue to suffer while we strive to guard a shrinking population that despises us? Oh dear brothers believe me our time will come. But it is not now. We must stay in secret a while longer and we must remain patient, or in our haste destroy the very thing we bleed to protect."
A sorrowful silence gripped the clearing and was not broken until Halbarad rose to his feet, crossing to stand before the Chieftain. "I see that it must be so," he said. "Though it is a hard thing to ask of us. But if this is the counsel of our Chieftain, then we will abide by it."
"It is not only my counsel, but that of Gandalf as well. He has long been in the Shire, laboring and preparing for these things. It would be a grievous blow, if we were to ruin his efforts with our impatience. Halbarad will arrange for some to go south to the Sarn Ford and others to head for Andrath, for we don't know where they will arrive. If you meet the Nazgûl, defend yourselves; but not make such a stand as to loose a single Ranger. Then retreat to the South Downs drawing them that way if you can. Once there, you'll join forces and wait for further orders." Aragorn raised his voice slightly. "This heirloom is no longer here, it has passed beyond the Shire. Tonight I ride to Bree and see if Gandalf has left any word for me at the Pony. With any luck he may even be there. I ask this of you brothers, endure for a little while longer. One day we will ride in glory and honor–our day will come." He turned and left the clearing.
It was several minutes before anyone else moved.
* * *
Mathros could hear the shallow water gurgling over the stones as the Brandywine spread out wide at the Sarn Fords. It had been two days since the Ranger moot and he was among the Rangers that had been sent south to the ford. The soft glow of the full moon frosted the rolling hills, a cool northerly wind hissed through the thick grass. Mathros could not see the other Rangers, but knew they were a spread out in a loose line along the hilly ridge.
As the night lengthened a growing sense of dread crept into Mathros and he fought to keep his focus upon the open slope before him. A chill filled both his body and mind. Suddenly a strange wail pierced the air, answered by several more cries a short distance away. Mathros' gazed out across the flat river valley. Black horses without riders raced around the grasslands; screaming defiantly. Glancing behind Mathros saw the line of Rangers were all up staring out at the bizarre scene.
With a mingling of fear and anger Mathros suddenly spat hard upon the ground, drawing his sword. From the side he saw others do the same up and down the line. The dark horses continued to dash too and fro upon the fields, dancing and kicking as though stung by bees.
Suddenly rushing, black tattered wraiths stormed the ridge flying at the Rangers. Mathros dropped to a crouch, swinging his blade into the midst of the moving shadow, striking nothing. As the shade passed a sudden cold shocked the Ranger like a lightening bolt and dropping his weapon he shrank to the ground. Hot blood abruptly dripped down his cheek as deep, slicing cuts opened upon his bare arms. Time became hazy and as Mathros groped around the grass searching for his sword the hilly ridge became a turbulent route of screaming horses, wailing wraiths, and bewildered Rangers.
The clean, bluff tone of a Ranger horn sounded abruptly, helping to clear his mind. Gripping the leather wrapped handle of his sword the Ranger climbed to his feet stumbling toward the blast. Twice more Mathros was thrown to his knees as a passing shadow flew by him, slicing and cutting. A hand suddenly reached down, hauling the Ranger to his feet.
"It's time to withdraw," said Halbarad, dripping with blood and sweat. "Mount up, we ride east."
"Maladan won't be coming," shouted Marcil, riding up. "He did not survive the attack."
"Tether his horse and sling the body across the saddle, we must hurry." Halbarad shouted, vaulting onto his own horse. "Make haste, we want them to pursue us."
Climbing onto his horse, Mathros quickly followed.
* * *
"No," Mathros screamed, suddenly sitting up, coming full awake. "Not the lady." Turning he saw that Baramor, Marcil, and Gilondomir sitting in a loose circle staring at him. "She wore a blue broach of flowers and butterfly wings, and they took her and ..." He trailed off to nothing, lowering his gaze.
A weak sun shown through a thin veil of white clouds, lending only a dull light and no warmth. It had been eleven days since Sarn Ford and they'd patrolled this forgotten, desolate region since then.
"Dreams again," said Gilondomir. "They come to us all in this forsaken place. "It's as if the dead cry out for us to remember them."
"This is the land of our ancestors," said Mathros. "The House of Cardolan. Yet it gives me no comfort to be here. How much longer must we tarry?"
Marcil answered, "Each night the Nazgûl ride the slopes between here and the Greenway."
"How is it that the Witch-King can fling nightmares at us from afar? Has our enemy grown that strong?" Gilondomir rubbed his eyes, shaking his head.
Mathros pressed the palms of his hands to his face. "I think the reason he can steal both rest and vigor is that we sit in the land that our blood once ruled."
"And he destroyed them," said Gilondomir.
Mathros shook his head. "He knows this region well, remembering with great detail his victory over the three kingdoms of Arnor. From that dark and hateful memory he's able to place the massacre and treachery within our mind. It's as if he's recalling the cruel events, filling the air with their memory." They sat in silence as a high-pitched wail seemed to answer that idea from a distance, mocking them.
It was with a feeling of resignation and not victory that the four Rangers received news from Halbarad that the Nine had moved on.
"The Nazgûl have left," declared Halbarad. "They have moved east and though I do not know whither they went, we are to return to our watches."
Halbarad left them and wordlessly Mathros, Baramor, Gilondomir, and Marcil packed their horses, heading back toward Bree. They rode in silence for many hours until suddenly Mathros pulled his horse to a stop, standing in his stirrups gazing northeast.
"What is it?" asked Baramor. "What do you see?"
"There," said Mathros, pointing. "See the light in the East. It flashes and fades. It's like lightening leaping up from the hills."
"It's coming from Amon Sûl," added Marcil.
"It's a battle and once again we're not there," said Mathros, lamenting. "Will our time ever come?"
"Shadow men," whispered Gilondomir.
"We should go," said Mathros. "Even now, we should fly to the fight and take our steel to battle. Ride with flashing banners for all to see. To show the world that the North is not dead and that Arnor's blood is true."
His words hung, shaking in the cold night air. But a wind suddenly blew from the East and Mathros' words were blown away, dying among the brittle grass.
"We need to keep our heads high," said Gilondomir. "We will remain faithful. I believe our time will come, and we will be ready."
"Indeed," said Baramor. "We persevere when others would quit. We fight on, even without hope. We endure."
"Well said. That is where we will set our minds–on the future fight; when we can forsake the shadows," said Mathros, smiling at the other Rangers.
So they rode on, with their broad backs now somewhat straighter, though still covered by old weather-worn cloaks. They returned to their secret places where they could continue the fight, striking at the enemy from the shadows.
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.